Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(8)

By: Deborah Hale

“Don’t be angry with them.” She stepped between him and the boys, as if to shield them from his anger. “What happened was my fault. I was so taken with all the strange new sights that I dawdled behind the others. I’ve lived most of my life in the Welsh countryside and they come from a little mining village in Durham. None of us had any idea how dangerous a place this could be.”

Simon’s opinion of her rose, for being willing to accept responsibility and defend her companions. “Now that you have discovered how easy it is to land in trouble around here, I trust you will all tread more carefully.”

None of them answered with words. The boys hung their heads, duly chastened. But Bethan tilted her chin a little higher and fixed Simon with a direct, challenging stare. He was not convinced she’d learned her lesson.

“Let us consider the matter closed.” He forced himself to look away from her bewitching grey-green eyes. “While I arrange quarters for my new workers, Miss Conway, I will send you on to my house to get settled.”

Simon beckoned them to follow him, but when he took a step, shards of pain slashed through his leg, making him stagger and bite back a groan.

“What’s the matter?” Moving too fast for Simon to evade, Bethan grabbed his arm to steady him, as he’d done for her on the bridge. “I thought you were walking with a bit of limp. Did someone in the crowd strike you?”

He was not prepared for the warmth of her touch or the soft note of concern in her lilting voice. It had been a very long while since anyone had cared what happened to him. At the same time his pride chafed at being reminded of his slight infirmity by a beautiful young woman. Concern was too close to pity for his liking.

“It’s of no consequence, I assure you.” He pulled away from her, with some difficulty. “An old injury I forget half the time—unless I’ve had a long day on my feet or I am obliged to move quickly on short notice.”

“A battle wound?” Bright glints of silver and green sparkled in her eyes. “Were you a soldier before you became a merchant?”

She sounded intrigued, admiring. The truth was far less heroic, but Simon had no intention of revealing it to her. He’d never told anyone about his ordeal and he was not about to start with a woman who’d thrown his well-ordered world into turmoil within minutes of her arrival.

“Nothing of the kind.” Steeling himself against the pain and the tormenting memories it stirred, Simon moved forwards again, trying not to be too obvious about sparing his injured leg.

Bethan scurried along beside him. “What did happen to you, then?”

This was the first time his curt tone and stony scowl had failed to discourage intrusive questions about his past. No wonder the woman had landed in trouble the moment she’d stepped off the boat.

It alarmed Simon to find himself tempted to confide in her. With ruthless force, he quelled the mutinous urge. “I prefer not to dwell on the past. I will thank you not to raise the subject again.”

Bethan’s lush lower lip thrust out in a rebellious expression. Her changeable eyes flashed with sparks of emerald vexation and something even more dangerous to his peace of mind.

Burning curiosity.

What had happened to the man that he was so grimly determined not to speak of? Bethan fairly sizzled with curiosity as he bundled her into a two-wheeled gig driven by one his workers.

“Mahmud, fetch Miss Conway back to the house and tell Ah-Ming to make her comfortable.” Simon Grimshaw took leave of Bethan with a stiff bow. “I will see you at dinner this evening. We can talk then.”

As the gig pulled away, she wondered what they would talk about. How would they ever become acquainted if he refused to tell her about his past? It was bad enough having to wed a stranger. But how much worse would it be, married to a man who seemed resolved to remain one?

She didn’t know what to make of Simon Grimshaw. As she had freely admitted, he was nothing like what she’d expected. In many ways he was a great deal better. He could not be much above thirty and he was quite attractive in spite of his grave severity. He’d shown great courage, facing down that hostile crowd to rescue her from danger. And he’d used his wits to do it, rather than brute force. Set against all those fine qualities was his forbidding manner and secretive, solitary air.

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