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"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.
But it wouldn't hurt to ask, would it? She'd come all this way and bartered her freedom in hope of finding the last bit of family she had left in the world. She needed to start somewhere.
"Pardon me." She turned toward a young man wearing white leggings and a turban who smiled at her. "I'm looking for news of a crewman from the barque Dauntless. His ship came to Singapore three years ago. Do you remember it?"
The man's smile broadened further and he answered in a language she didn't understand.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what that means." Bethan shook her head and gave an exaggerated shrug. "I didn't even understand English very well until the past year. And I don't suppose you know any Welsh."
Another voice spoke up, heavily accented but in English. "Say again who you look for, lady?"
Bethan turned eagerly towards the speaker, a man with dark, almond-shaped eyes, who wore a large, round straw hat. "I'd be grateful for any help you could give me. His name is Hugh Conway. He'd be taller than you." She raised her hand to indicate her brother's height, then pulled back her bonnet and pointed to her head. "His hair is almost the colour of mine."
She could do better than try to describe him with gestures and words the man might not understand. Reaching back to her nape, Bethan unfastened the silver locket that was her most precious possession. Then she opened it to show the miniature portrait inside. "He looks like this. At least he did the last time I saw him."
The tiny painting wasn't of Hugh himself, but it was the nearest likeness she had.
A flicker of interest kindled in the man's eyes as he stared at the locket. Did he recognise the handsome young face? If Europeans were as scarce in Singapore as they appeared to be, those few must stand out, easily noticed. Perhaps easily remembered.
"Have you seen him?" she asked. "Please, I'm very anxious to get word of him."
The man nodded slowly. "Maybe I saw this one. Not sure."
Bethan's heart leapt. Even in her most hopeful dreams, she'd never imagined getting a lead on her missing brother so soon. "He was in Singapore three years ago. I got a letter posted from here. Do you know what happened to him or his ship?"
The man's high forehead furrowed as if trying hard to remember where and when he'd seen that face. "I look closer?"
"Yes, of course." Bethan pushed the locket into his hands. "I wish I had a bigger picture to show you."
A small crowd had gathered around them as they talked. Suddenly someone tapped Bethan on the shoulder from behind. Did another person recognise Hugh from a distant glimpse of the miniature? Or did they recall his name?
She spun around only to find a bank of expressionless faces staring back at her.
"Did one of you have something to tell me?" she asked. "Have you seen Hugh Conway? Do you remember his ship?"
None of them replied except with sheepish grins.
"Think it's great fun hoaxing a stranger, do you?" Bethan snapped. "I see some things are the same wherever you go."
With an indignant huff, she turned back to her informant. By now he'd had plenty of time to study the likeness. But when she looked around, all she glimpsed of the fellow was the back of his faded blue tunic disappearing into the crowd.
"Come back!" she cried, tearing after him. "Thief! He has my locket. Someone please stop him!"
But no one on the quay seemed willing to help her. Quite the opposite, in fact. Men who moved aside to let the thief escape quickly stepped back into Bethan's path, hinder ing her pursuit.
"Wilson! Ralph!" she called, though she knew her travelling companions must be far out of earshot by now. She didn't dare stop to look around for them or she might lose sight of the man who'd stolen her locket.
"Please," she cried, "you can have the necklace! Just leave me the picture!"
Catching sight of the bridge out of the corner of her eye, she hoped the thief might run that way and perhaps overtake her friends. Instead he darted down a crowded street in the other direction with Bethan in breathless pursuit. After five months aboard ship, she was not used to running, especially in such oppressive heat. Sheer desperation pushed her forwards.
The thief dodged into a side street. Bethan reached it just in time to glimpse him entering the mouth of an alley. By the time she staggered to the spot where she'd seen him disappear, she was gasping for air while a hot flush smarted in her cheeks. No doubt he would have slipped away, leaving her with no idea which way he'd gone.
But, no. When she peered into the alley, there he was, strolling towards her as brazen as could bethe same clothes, dark eyes and shaved head.
Planting herself in front of him, she signalled him to stop. "I want my picture back. Come now, it can't be worth anything to you."
The man scowled at her as if she was the one who'd done him wrong. He muttered an answer in his language.
"You could speak English well enough a few minutes ago!" cried Bethan. "Or did you forget it all while you were making away with my property?"
The man's scowl turned into an outright sneer as he pushed past her.
"Oh, no, you don't." She caught his sleeve and hung on. "I'm not about to chase you through the streets again in this heat. Just give me back my picture!"
Tugging his sleeve roughly out of her grasp, the man unleashed a flood of words Bethan could not understand. But she recognised violent anger when she heard it, no matter what the language. This was the man who'd stolen her locket, wasn't it? Were his cheekbones perhaps a little higher? His face a trifle thinner?
"II beg your pardon if I mistook you for someone else." She pointed down the alley. "Another man ran that way. He had something he stole from me. Did you see which way he went?"
The man she'd accosted heaped more abuse upon her. Suddenly Bethan realised he was not alone. She was surrounded by a score of men all dressed the same, all glaring at her in a way that sent a shiver down her spine.
Was she in danger of disappearing in this lawless, foreign outpost the way her brother had? And if she did, would anyone care enough to come looking for her?
"The mace and nutmegs sell for seventy-five Spanish dollars a picul," Simon Grimshaw informed the Swedish captain from whom he'd just bought a cargo of iron. "You won't get them cheaper from any of the other merchants in town. The situation in Java has driven prices up for everyone."
The craggy Swede scowled. "Maybe I take my iron to Batavia and trade direct with the Dutch for their spices."
"Be my guest," Simon bluffed. He'd hate to lose that cargo of Swedish iron. "Pay the outrageous tariffs they charge in Batavia. You'll have less money in your pocket at the end of your voyage. That is, if you're lucky and the pirates don't get you between here and Sumatra. Perhaps I could come down a dollar or two on the mace, but not the nutmegs. My partner is due back from England soon and he'll have my hide if he catches me giving our goods away at such prices."
Part of him eagerly awaited Hadrian Northmore's return. It would be a relief to have someone else shoulder half the workload. Since both his partners had gone back to EnglandHadrian for a brief visit and Ford to staySimon had taken on the responsibility of three men.
In spite of that, he was reluctant to surrender control of the company to his senior partner. Hadrian was an ambitious, astute man of business, but he had a reckless streak of which Simon had never approved. He preferred the steady, cautious course and seldom acted on impulse. The few times he had, he'd later regretted it.
Might he regret asking his partner to fetch back a young Englishwoman to be his mistress? While the Swedish captain considered his terms, Simon mulled over that question.
When the south-west monsoons had signalled the arrival of ships from the West, he'd begun to have second thoughts about his plan. It would be good to have a safe outlet for the desires he had not entirely managed to stifle with long hours of work. But what kind of woman would willingly journey halfway around the world to serve as a hired bedmate? Only one with an unsavoury past, he feared. How could he risk taking a woman like that into his home?
The Swedish captain gave a deep rasping cough that jolted Simon out of his troubled thoughts. "What is it you English say'a bird in the hand '?"
"' is better than all your birds in the hands of pirates.' That's what we say here in Singapore." Simon extended his hand to seal their bargain.
Few things gave him as much pleasure as making an advantageous deal. Unlike affairs of the heart, he knew where he stood in a clear-cut matter of business. That was the sort of relationship he'd had in mind when he asked Hadrian to find him a mistressa straightforward exchange of things they wanted from one another, without dangerous sentiment to complicate matters. Now he wondered if such a thing would be possible.
As he and the captain shook hands, one of Simon's Malay workers appeared, leading four European lads who looked quite distressed. "Master, these boys say they came from England to work for you."
"This is the first I've heard of it." Simon eyed the four suspiciously. "Captain Svenson, if you'll excuse me, I must see to this. Ibrahim, send some boats to begin un loading the iron."
As Ibrahim and the captain headed away, Simon rounded on the boys, who were growing more agitated by the minute. "What is all this about? I didn't hire any of you."
"Please, sir," said a sturdy, handsome lad who looked to be their leader, "Mr Northmore sent us. He said there'd be work for us with his company."