Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(6)

By: Deborah Hale

Her bold words did a better job of loosening his grasp than her squirming had.

Leaning towards her, he muttered, “Save your protests and come with me, now, while there’s a chance we might get away in one piece! If you give me any more backtalk, I swear I’ll leave you to your fate.”

The insistent pressure of his hand and the urgency of his tone convinced Bethan to abandon her defensive position against the wall. She sensed he was a man of strong will, whom others crossed at their peril.

From the moment she’d first glimpsed him striding towards her, she’d had eyes for no one else. Now, as her forbidding rescuer marched her down the street, Bethan suddenly realised he’d brought Ralph and the other lads with him. Whatever happened, she did not want her young companions to suffer for her folly. If that meant she had to obey the stern orders of this overbearing man, she would. But she didn’t have to like it.

As they moved down the side street and out on to the main road, he continued to berate her in that other language, now and then slipping in a few words of English. “Keep a steady pace. If we look like we’re on the run, some of them may pounce. Keep your eyes downcast. Pretend you’re ashamed of yourself, as you should be.”

“I’ve got no call to be ashamed,” Bethan protested, but she did bend her head as if burdened by the weight of his reproaches. “One of those men stole something from me. I went after him to try to get it back.”

“I don’t care if he stole every penny you own.” The man pitched his reply for her ears alone. “You should have stayed with your friends and not gone chasing into Chinatown. You could have lost a good deal more than whatever that thief took. And you still might, so stop arguing and keep walking.”

He switched easily back into the other language, scolding her more fiercely than ever. Was it only a show he was putting on for the benefit of the angry crowd? A grudging flicker of admiration stirred inside her for the man’s cleverness. If he’d rushed to her rescue brandishing a weapon, he might have made the situation worse.

As if to signal that he did not mean the insults he was heaping upon her, the man rubbed the pad of his thumb against the sensitive flesh of her inner arm. It felt almost like an encouraging caress. That trifling sensation made Bethan’s knees grow weak. She almost stumbled, but her escort tightened his hold again to keep her from falling.

At the end of the road, the bridge beckoned with a promise of greater safety on the other side. If nothing else, its narrow width would prevent them being followed by the crowd that had dogged them this far with dark scowls and darker mutterings.

Her rescuer seemed to sense Bethan’s thoughts. “We aren’t out of danger yet. If we’re attacked, run across the bridge and keep going until you reach the sepoy lines. Tell the soldiers they’re needed here.”

“What about you?” Bethan whispered back. “And the lads?”

“We’ll slow down anyone who tries to go after you.”

Slow them down, how? Bethan wondered, more anxious for their safety than hers.

Fortunately her rescuer’s feigned bluster continued to divert the crowd and no attack came. When they reached the bridge, he called out something to the people behind them. No one followed as their small party crossed over the river.

“What did you say to them?” asked Bethan. “It seemed to do the trick.”

“So it did, thank God.” The man exhaled a sigh of relief. “I offered the entire community an apology for your disgraceful behaviour and assured them you would be severely dealt with.”

“Apology?” Bethan sputtered. “Punished? For being robbed and threatened? What sort of mad place is this?”

“Not mad—just different. These people have different ways than ours. We may not understand or approve, but if we hope to live among them in peace, we must try to respect local custom. We transgress upon them at our peril.”

What did he mean? Bethan hated to look a fool by asking. Since leaving Wales she’d worked hard to learn English, but this man used some words she didn’t yet know.

“Besides,” he continued, “I have no real intention of punishing you further for your folly. I trust you’ve learned your lesson.”

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