Wanted:Mail-Order MistressBy: Deborah Hale
“So this is it, then?” Brushing a stray auburn curl out of her eyes, Bethan Conway leaned forward in the boat that was ferrying her and her travelling companions into the harbour. “Not a very big town, is it?”
While part of her was thrilled to reach her destination after five months aboard ship, another part wanted to plead with the man at the tiller to turn the boat around and head back out to sea!
“This place would fit into Newcastle’s pocket, right enough.” Bethan’s young friend Ralph gazed around at the mix of buildings that lined both banks of the river. Some were made of timber with huge, shaggy thatched roofs while others had white-plastered walls topped with orderly rows of neat red tiles. “Hasn’t been around long, though, has it? I heard Mr Northmore say there was nowt much here at all when him and his partners landed six year ago.”
“I wouldn’t care if it was nothing but jungle,” croaked Wilson Hall. “As long as I can get solid dry ground under my feet again, I’ll be happy.”
Poor Wilson! Bethan recalled how seasick he and the other three lads from Durham had been at the start of their voyage. They’d envied her ability to keep her food down even in the roughest weather, but they’d been grateful, too. If she hadn’t tended them so capably when they retched and moaned in their hammocks, some might not have recovered.
For the past several days they had talked of little else but how happy they’d be to reach their destination and start work at the Vindicara Trading Company for Mr Simon Grimshaw. Every time she heard that name, a bilious wave had roiled through Bethan like a belated attack of seasickness. While the lads had been hired from the coalmines of northern England to work for Mr Grimshaw, she’d been recruited to marry him.
If she hadn’t been so desperate to reach these distant shores, she never would have pledged her life to a stranger. But she’d been anxious to get there soon, while there was still a faint hope someone might recall what had become of her brother or his ship. At the time, her marriage had seemed too far in the future to be quite real. The closer it came, the more it worried her.
As the boat eased up to the jetty, Bethan inhaled a deep draught of warm air that mingled the tang of the sea with an exotic whiff of coffee and spices. She had made her bargain. Now she must honour it by doing her best to be a good wife to Mr Grimshaw. She only prayed her new husband would not be too old, ugly or ill tempered.
The mooring lines were barely secured when the Durham lads swarmed ashore. Only Wilson had the manners to turn and offer Bethan a hand to disembark, while the others asked anyone within earshot the way to the Vindicara warehouse.
There was no shortage of people on the quay to question. There were a great many men with bare chests the colour of mahogany wood, who wore white turbans and bright-hued skirts wrapped around their legs. Other men, with lighter skin and slanted eyes, carried sacks slung from poles draped over their shoulders. They wore baggy trousers and black-sashed tunics. The front parts of their heads were shaved bald while the jet-black hair further back was braided in long tight plaits. Tall bearded men, wearing white turbans and long robes, looked as if they’d just stepped out of a Bible story. The only thing all these strange people had in common was trouble understanding the broad north-country English of Bethan’s companions.
After a good deal of shouting, waving and pointing, Ralph turned to her. “I think they’re trying to tell us Mr Grimshaw’s warehouse is on the other side of the river.”
“There’s a bridge.” Wilson pointed up the sweeping curve of the quay to a spot where the river narrowed and a slender wooden span connected the two sides of the harbour. “We can walk around.”
The rest agreed and they set off at once. Though Bethan forced one foot in front of the other, her shoes felt strangely heavy. It did not take long for her to fall behind her companions.
The men working on the quay turned to stare at her as she passed. Could it be because they noticed her resemblance to a young man they remembered? Reason told her it wasn’t likely. Their curious interest was probably on account of her skin colour, or because she was a woman.