Wanted:Mail-Order Mistress(9)

By: Deborah Hale

Besides, he was clearly disappointed in her. No doubt he’d wanted a meek, mousy wife who would never question him about anything and always behave with perfect propriety. What would he think if he suspected she’d come to Singapore in search of a mutineer? He might toss her back on the streets, among those angry people whose language and ways were a dangerous mystery to her.

Bethan was still so shaken by what had happened that she did not dare speak to the driver, a brown-skinned man who wore a white turban. It felt rude to ignore him, but she feared he might take offence at her innocent overture. To cover her confusion, she stared around her as if spellbound…which was not far from the truth.

The gig moved quickly through a tight-packed, bustling area of shops and warehouses along the banks of the river. Then it passed through a large open square with only a few large white buildings around the edge and lines of tents off in one corner. A hill topped by a cluster of low buildings and a tall flagstaff towered behind it. After crossing the square, the gig headed down a wide road lined with large properties, each occupied by a big white house nestled in spacious grounds.

“My word!” Bethan’s eyes widened as they drove through a gate and stopped in front of a sprawling villa with spotless white walls and a vast red roof. A deep, pillared veranda wrapped around the whole house.

She’d known Simon Grimshaw was a successful merchant, but only now did she realise how great a fortune he must have. Why had such a man been obliged to send all the way to England for a wife? And why on earth had Mr Northmore thought an inexperienced Welsh nursemaid would be a fitting mistress for this grand house?

Her driver turned Bethan over to the care of an Asian servant woman, whose high-necked tunic and baggy trousers looked three times too large for her tiny frame. With the most perfect courtesy and no hint of surprise at her master’s unexpected guest, she introduced herself as Ah-Ming, the housekeeper. She wasted no time seeing to Bethan’s comfort, offering all manner of food and drink. When those failed to tempt the guest, Ah-Ming made another offer of hospitality that Bethan could not refuse—a bath.

After her long voyage it felt blissful to bathe and wash her hair. The luxurious soak relaxed Bethan, restoring a measure of her usual hopeful spirits. By the time she finished, her trunk had arrived and she was able to change into clean clothes.

With her hair combed out and left hanging long to dry, she thanked Ah-Ming and accepted her offer of tea. While the housekeeper went to fetch it, she wandered into the spacious sitting room.

In some ways it looked like the house where she’d worked back in Newcastle. But the ceiling was much higher and the walls were not papered but clean, stark white. There were many more windows, too, all tall and narrow, with rolled-up blinds made of thin wooden slats instead of curtains. And there was no sign of an imposing mantelpiece the likes of which dominated most rooms back home. The whole place had an air of light and openness that appealed to her free spirit.

A warm breeze blew in through the windows, carrying the fresh tang of the sea mingled with aromas of tropical flowers and spices. After the bustle of the harbour, Simon Grimshaw’s house was a haven of tranquillity. The only sounds Bethan could hear were the familiar, calming rhythm of the sea and a shrill clicking sound she’d never heard before.

Then she picked up another sound, faint but growing louder as it drew nearer—a pair of high-pitched voices talking back and forth in hushed tones, speaking a language Bethan could not understand.

A moment later, another Asian woman appeared. She wore the same sort of loose tunic and trousers as Ah-Ming, but she looked older and even tinier. She was accompanied by a little European girl. The child wore a white muslin frock with a pale green sash. Her dark hair was plaited in two long braids, tied with green ribbons to match her sash. She had delicate features and enormous brown eyes that fixed on Bethan with a look of uneasy curiosity.

“Pardon me.” The child made a graceful curtsy, then began to back away. “I didn’t know we had company.”

She spoke with a charming accent, a bit like the French governess at the house in Newcastle where Bethan had worked.

“Please don’t go on my account.” Bethan dropped to one knee and smiled warmly. “Shall we introduce ourselves? My name is Bethan Conway. I’ve come from England. Do you live here?”

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