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Trouble walked in around midnight. She was swaying on her feet from too much champagne and had a man on each arm, though neither seemed to interest her much. Phin was leaning against the wall, nursing a glass of brandy and the beginning of a headache. He watched as her eyes skimmed the crowd. The line of red paper lanterns strung across the threshold shed a bloody light over her white-blond hair. When she spotted him, she smiled.
Loose ends, he thought blackly. A man could hang himself with them.
He handed off the brandy to a passing servant, a Chinese girl with a face as round as the moon. She balanced the tray high on her fingertips as she moved toward the exit, and he found his eyes following the glass, envying the way it coasted over the heads of the guests. A neat escape. Christ, he wanted out of Hong Kong. Every society luminary was in attendance tonight, save the governor and the American consul. As soon as he'd noted their absence, he'd known the arrest was imminent. His job here was done, no reason to linger. But Ridland had forbidden him to sail until tomorrow evening. The man was out to prove something to him. What matters is the results, Granville. Take some pride in your work; you've a goddamned talent.
Pride, Phin mused. He wondered if a dog took pride in heeling to its master. The chain at his throat was tight enough that he saw no need to learn to like it; it would tighten or loosen at Ridland's direction, whether or not he saw fit to lick the man's hand. And if results were all that mattered, he should be gone by now. There would be other agents hereabouts, as ignorant of his identity as he was of theirs, tasked to handle the aftermath. It was not his business to watch the consequences unfold.
He glanced across the room. Miss Masters was coming straight toward him, maneuvering boldly between couples who twirled like puppets to the musicians' bidding. His brief flirtation with her had turned into a grave mistake. In the end, he hadn't required her. Limit complications that was his policy. Alas, he had started to realize that, in this case, his policy was the problem. Miss Masters was not accustomed to being abandoned by erstwhile suitors, and the novelty seemed to intrigue her.
As he watched, her advance overwhelmed her companions. First one, then the other, was knocked away by collisions with waltzing pairs. She seemed to take no notice. That obliviousness had probably served her well, till now. With Gerard Collins for a stepfather, she would not benefit from too much insight. The things she might learn would trouble her beauty sleep.
But the featherbrain was about to awaken into a strange new world. Once Collins was in custody, her admirers would scatter like rats from a stripped corpse. Her mother would probably try to leap out a window. Both women would learn, very quickly, what it felt like to have one's choices torn away. He saw no good outcome for them; the mother's family did not speak to her, and neither woman had a marketable skill. Their beauty would sell, of course, but it would not survive a few rough handlings.
The thoughts darkened Phin's mood beyond repair. A veal calf in yoke, worrying for two lambs led to slaughter: it made for little more than a very bad joke. The women were not his concern, and flogging himself for what he could not prevent would profit neither them nor him. He turned and walked out.
Laughter and squeals swarmed the front hall. He shouldered without caution through careless elbows and dark-suited shoulders, making for a darkened corridor where lamps flickered dimly in windows left open to the humid breeze. Hong Kong was glossy and green, fragrant with flowers after the evening storm; the whole damned city smelled like a debutante.
She had followed him? Phin turned. She paused a few feet away, beneath an archway of red and black tiles; how she'd moved so quickly in that gown, he had no idea. It was tight and narrow, deeply bustled at the back, a sky blue silk that was probably meant to match her eyes. A mistake, in his opinion. Her eyes were such an unlikely hue that they really needed no complement. Paired with the silk, they took on a brilliance that seemed almost outré.
He could see why Hong Kong society disagreed on the question of her beauty. Her coloring did border on the freakish. "Good evening," he said to her.
"Mr. Monroe," she repeated, stepping forward. Her voice was breathless and distinctly triumphant, as if his name were the answer to a puzzle that had vexed her for some time. A drop of sweat curled down the delicate line of her collarbone; its progress riveted him. He had no idea why his body had the bad taste to be fascinated by hers. She looked breakable, and he was not a small man. "How does the evening treat you?" she asked. "Surely you don't mean to retire so soon?"
He mustered a smile. "It treats me very well," he said. "And, no, I was only going to fetch something from my rooms." He paused, giving her an opportunity to excuse herself. Of course, she did not take it. "And you, Miss Masters? You looked to be enjoying yourself."
"Oh, thank you very much! I was enjoying myself. Happy as a clam at high water. But as I was telling my English friends..." She glanced over her shoulder, as if only now realizing that she'd left them behind in the ballroom. Turning to face him again, she somehow managed to trip. The little hop she made in recovery brought her stumbling into his chest.
He caught her by the forearms. She smelled like a distillery, and as her eyes widened, they caught him like a fist in the gut. Such an odd shade. He would not argue with her beauty, but he preferred a woman to look like one. With her white-blond hair and huge eyes and petite figure, Miss Masters more closely resembled a porcelain doll. Alas, she could not behave like one. Dolls were mute; she chattered incessantly. He knew a way to silence that mouth.
Christ. The girl made his brain misfire. He set her away from him more forcefully than the instance required. "Have a care," he said.
She arched a silvery brow. "A care for what?"
For falling on men in darkened hallways. For placing your hopes in a stranger. "For your balance. Stumble in front of company, and people might decide you're intoxicated."
"Oh, dear." Her lashes batted. "Is that not allowed?"
He sighed. Even had circumstances not conspired against her, she would have managed to ruin herself eventually. Her little society world was perfumed and creamy, but it had its rules, and she grew increasingly rash in breaking them. "I don't think there's a law against it, no." His mouth had gone dry; he paused to clear his throat. Good God, this headache was ill timed. Her glance flickered up, and he realized he was rubbing his temple. Come to think of it, this headache had something in common with her: they both grew more irksome by the moment. What had he been saying? Ah, yes. "But you wouldn't want others to think you intemperate by nature."
The officiousness of his tone belatedly struck him. She had a knack for inciting such asinine behavior. She was artless in the way of children or puppies; watching her, one found oneself braced for an accident. Puppies got stepped on; children fell from windowsills; Miss Masters was dancing at the edge of a cliff, and no one, not her wan, withdrawn mother or even her tyrannical bastard of a stepfather, cared to leash her.
She was protesting. "But that is so unfair, Mr. Monroe! I drink nothing but champagne, which is very respectable indeed. And if I've had a bit too much why, then it's only to anesthetize my boredom with the company!"
He laughed despite himself. Occasionally, he came near to being convinced that she was having everyone on with this empty-headed routine. Certainly, from another woman, the remark would have served a masterful setdown to his pomposity.
But no, she smiled along with him, sunny and vacant, ignorant of her success as a wit. "Unless you propose to entertain me?" As her eyes dropped to his mouth, his laughter died. She had better watch out. "Oh," she said softly, "Mr. Monroe you have such lovely lips."
And then she launched herself at him.
At first, he was too surprised to resist. She was forward, yes, but he hadn't expected a seduction. Not that this was seduction, precisely she grabbed his hair and pulled down his head with all the subtlety of a crank. Her lips banged into his so forcefully that he anticipated the taste of blood. He pulled back in simple self-preservation, and she followed him, her breasts pressing hot and soft into his chest. The small, breathless noise that burst from her lips bypassed his brain and went straight to his balls.
No. He was not going to kiss her back. She was a reckless, harebrained child, and if he dreamed of her, it was only from boredom.
She opened her mouth and he felt the wetness of her tongue. He took her by the elbows, intending to push her away, but her skin, so astonishingly soft, scattered his intentions. He stroked his thumb down her arm, just to make sure that he wasn't mistaken, that it really was as smooth as his midnight thoughts had suggested. She moaned encouragement. God save him, but no doll had ever made such a noise. And she was twenty, not a girl.
To hell with it. His mouth opened on hers. She tasted of champagne and strawberries. Her small body, so sweetly curved, pressed against his. The top of his head seemed to lift off. Sweet, so much sweeter than he had expected; she was sinuous as a flame, writhing against him. Her hands pressed into his shoulders, persuading him to step back against the wall. She needed a lesson in subtlety; she needed to be taught some truths about the world, quickly, before the morrow came. He would be glad to teach them. It would be a favor to her
What the hell am I doing?
He thrust her away, breathing hard. She stumbled backward, and his idiotic hands reached out to catch her; he balled them into fists and made himself wait. She caught her balance against the opposite wall. Her breasts rose and fell rapidly; her eyes were wide. "Dance with me, Mr. Monroe?"
Good God. He ran a hand over his face, up into his hair. She had no sense whatsoever. That, or rejection was simply unfathomable to her. He sought for some remark that would recall her to propriety, assuming she even knew the meaning of the word. But his body mocked him and his brain felt like sludge. He settled for, "I beg your pardon?"
"My friends from England were complaining of how poorly Americans dance." She reached up to finger the diamond teardrop dangling from her ear. She had recovered herself now; her manner was perfectly casual, as if she hadn't just given him a taste of her tongue. "I simply cannot agree. I dance very well, and I feel sure you do, too. Shan't we prove it? For America, sir!"
Perhaps he was wrong to underestimate her. Certainly, to his continued astonishment, he was a damned fool to overestimate himself. "I don't think that would be wise."
She frowned. "Why not? Because I kissed you?"
He glanced down the hallway. "Precisely, Miss Masters." At this rate, someone was going to catch them together. That was the last thing he needed. Maybe a bit of plain speaking would serve where manners had not. "Unless you have a burning desire to be fucked against a wall."
The image those words conjured made his own voice hoarsen, but the language did not seem to register with her. "Well, I would never wish to do such a thing in a ballroom," she said, and took his arm.
He should have used a more genteel word; it was clear that she hadn't taken his meaning. Or maybe she'd taken it all too well, for her grip was strong, as though the last shred of maidenly decorum had abandoned her. Either way, she was a force of chaos, and her insanity was contagious; he was letting her tow him down the corridor toward the ballroom. He felt thoroughly light-headed.
A dance, then. Simple enough. He could keep his hands to himself for one dance, even if he had to bite off his tongue to distract himself. It wasn't as if he actually had anything to fetch from his rooms. And God knew, if he tried to act on the pretense, she'd probably follow him into his bed.
The music came spilling out to greet them, much louder than before. Aggressively loud, in fact. He found himself flinching from the clamor as she drew him inside. The current set was concluding. She said something, but he could not make it out. Why was he humoring her? His head ached. She was needless temptation, pretty flesh wrapped around a brain filled with air; there was nothing in her for him but a whole lot of trouble.
The dancers were parting ways. The next set was soon to begin. She turned to him expectantly. When he did not immediately extend his hand, she reached for it. He realized something was wrong when he couldn't feel her fingers.
He drew a breath, and the floor rocked beneath his feet.
He staggered backward, dimly registering a collision. A cry. The world disassembled, then swam back together. Miss Masters was mouthing something. It felt like twin screws were being forced into his temples. God in heaven. Was this some new variation on malaria?
The girl's face grew very large. Leaning toward him, that was all. He struggled to focus. Her visage faded in and out. God, he was cold. "Are you all right?" That was what she was asking.
As darkness washed over him again, he realized that malaria did not strike so suddenly. The image of the brandy flashed through his mind, the glass gliding away from him, its contents sloshing. Half full. Only half. "No," he managed. He was not all right. He'd been poisoned.
He fell forward, straight into Mina's arms. His chin slammed into her nose, pain, good Lord, she actually saw stars, and then his chin was settling onto her shoulder. It took a moment, through the shock, to work out what was happening: she'd caught him beneath the arms, quite by accident. He was too tall and too heavy; his knees were buckling. He was going to pull them both to the ground.
She leapt away. He plummeted, face-first. His head bounced against the floor with an awful crack that promised blood. She stared down at him. A few feet away, someone screamed. Silken trains hissed across the floor, ladies whirling to gawk. For three weeks, she had been waiting for Phineas Monroe to fall at her feet. But he had proved to be unnaturally graceful, immune to gravity and flirtation both. Naturally, when he finally succumbed, he did it in the most vexing fashion imaginable. For all his charms, he was, after all, a man.
Dimly, she registered the faltering of the orchestra. That was fine with her. Their Beethoven had sounded a bit tart; only the cellist really deserved a hearing, his bow flowing down the strings like honey off a spoon. She sank to her knees as people began to crowd in around her. "Drunk," someone guessed, but Monroe had seemed sober enough to her, although he was out cold now; a pat to the face could not rouse him.
Her hand lingered on his jaw a bit longer than necessary. She was tempted to touch the cleft in his chin. His lashes lay against his cheeks, unusually long, all the more striking given that his face was so starkly masculine. Her attraction to him, at least, was not feigned. But she liked him better with his eyes open. They stayed on hers when she spoke, which was a novelty.
She rose and stepped back. That her concern felt genuine made her a little anxious. More and more, she was confusing her hopes for him. He did not snap at servants, and he had saved her once from a very unpleasant interlude with Bonham, but that might mean nothing; she hadn't been able to tell whether his well-timed entrance was by accident or design. And in the past week, he'd seemed increasingly aloof, distant and curt with her.
She should not allow herself to care. It was asking for trouble.
"My goodness!" A hand crept around her elbow. Jane's face was pale beneath her crown of chestnut ringlets. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"You don't look fine."
She sighed. Collins had hired Jane for Mina's sixteenth birthday. A young lady needs a traveling companion, he'd said. The friendship that had grown between them in these last four years was her most treasured possession, and also, occasionally, her greatest inconvenience. Jane never failed to see through her like a window, and she had cautioned Mina, more than once, against Monroe's charms. You don't know the man. Don't be indiscreet. "He fell onto my nose," Mina said. "It hurts."
Jane's hazel eyes narrowed. "Let me see." She took Mina by the chin, turning her face. People were crushing in around them now; elbows knocked into Mina's side, passing feet pulled at her skirts. It was rather novel, to be pushed past without a second glance. She let herself be rocked by the crowd; keeping her balance was like a game. "It looks intact," Jane decided. "A bit pink. What ails him? Is he dead?"
Mina shook her head. She had felt his breath, hot against her neck, as she clutched him. It had sent a lovely sensation down her spine perhaps that was why she hadn't reacted immediately. He kissed splendidly, even better than she'd hoped. But his vocabulary was filthy. Why had he talked to her that way? What had she done to alter his attitude? It irritated her that he had the power to make her worry over it. He was only a friend of her stepfather's.
Dr. Sullivan's son shoved past them, jostling them into each other. They turned to follow his progress. He crouched beside Monroe, his fingers reaching for the man's pulse.
"I should go find Mr. Collins," Jane murmured.
"Try the card room." After he'd terrorized Mina's mother into retiring, he'd ensconced himself at the poker table, where admirers queued to greet him like peons before a king. Every time she passed the card room's open doors, he winked at her and blew a smoke ring, as if inviting her to congratulate him for his popularity. The effort to laugh for him was scraping her throat raw.
"All right. I'll just be a moment." Jane looped her skirts over one wrist and glided away. Mina now found herself the lone spot of color in a sea of broad, dark backs. The gentlemen had closed ranks around Monroe, and the hubbub was taking on a strident tone, each man deploying his loudest, most authoritative, most positively manly voice.
"Move back "
"Loosen his tie "
"Is he breathing?"
"Collins's guest, ain't he?"
"Hot to the touch "
Mr. Bonham shouldered through the crowd. When he saw her, he gave her one of his peculiar smiles. She had never seen him smile at anyone else that way. Did he think it attractive? It looked as if he were trying to suck his lips down his throat. She could not smile back. If Mr. Monroe was seriously ill, everything would be ruined.
Dr. Sullivan's son rose, his bright red hair catching her attention. "Breathing," he announced, and the gathering sighed.
She went up on tiptoe for a better view. Ten years of her life for two more inches: this was the trade she'd offered God at thirteen, but he had ignored her completely.
Through the forest of shoulders, she saw Mr. Bonham kneel. He lifted Monroe's head by his dark brown hair and took a sniff. "Too much to drink," he drawled. "Or perhaps..." He looked up, finding her. His leering grew so tedious. "Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed by Miss Masters's beauty."
A laugh swept the crowd. Eyes turned toward her from all directions. Several gentlemen who'd been crowding her now found their discourtesy made conspicuous; they took quick steps away and a circle of space opened around her, the better for the crowd's examination. Inspected like a prize pig on fair day. She felt the urge to cross her eyes and screw up her face.
But at the center of so much attention, she had no choice but to smile. Mr. Bonham took this as a good sign for himself; his own smile widened, baring teeth. He was ambitious and moneyed, a self-made man; in the colonies, this was not a mark against him, and society beauties were expected to flutter in his presence. Had Mina known nothing more of him, she might have done so authentically. He was slim and elegant, with the long white fingers of an artist and hair of deepest black. A banker's talents, and the face of a poet; his sea-green eyes set the ladies to whispering such nonsense when he passed.
But she had cause to know other things about his nature. His hands ranged more freely than an octopus's arms. His lips tasted like gutter water. He had a soft heart for the street dogs that gathered outside his gates every evening, but he slapped his servants with the same smile he wore when he fed the strays. He had partnered with her stepfather in a coca plantation in Ceylon, and now he wanted to marry her to boot. She had no opinion on the former, but the latter made her light-headed with panic.
She did not allow herself to dwell on it. She was not Mama; she would not sit around weeping and wringing her hands. Action was the answer, and the man currently napping on the ground was meant to help. Mr. Monroe also wanted to do business with Collins. He was American by birth and wholly Irish by blood, an advantage that Bonham born to an English father in Singapore could not rival. Moreover, if he won Collins's favor, or was caught kissing Mina in dark hallways, she rather thought Bonham would lose interest in her. His pride would demand it.
She took advantage of all the eyes on her. "It might be typhoid. Or cholera? What do you think?"
At the mere suggestion of contagion, the gathering began to disperse. Bonham did not move, but his regard narrowed on her. Like Collins, he had a talent for recognizing the subtler forms of insubordination.
A hand closed over her arm. Collins pulled her around with the same carelessness he would use to turn a puppy by its scruff. "What happened?" he asked as his bloodshot eyes slid to the spot where Monroe's long body lay.
She thought it was rather evident what had happened, but Collins often asked questions merely for the pleasure of being answered. "He collapsed, sir," she said.
"Collapsed? Without warning?"
It was rare to hear the brogue in his voice; he must have been drinking quite heavily in the card room. Usually he sounded more American than she, whose diction had been addled by a childhood spent traveling the world and a parade of English governesses handpicked by her mother.
She spoke very carefully. "He did look a bit flushed." Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Jane approaching, two burly servants in tow. "If you like, I'll see that he's settled into his room."
Bonham rose. "Perhaps it would be wiser to take him to the infirmary in Aberdeen. Miss Masters is right, after all; he may be infectious."
Mina traded a glance with Jane, who shook her head the barest fraction. Not difficult to guess what would happen to Monroe in the hospital. Bonham did not like competition for her stepfather's favors; he would make sure one of the nurses confused her medicines.
With a light touch to Collins's arm, she said, "I would be glad to attend to him, Father."
He generally liked it when she called him that, but tonight, in the wake of his fight with her mother, he could not be pleased. He shook off her hand. "Can't understand what happened to him," he growled. "Seemed fine earlier, eh?"
"Take him to his quarters," Jane said to the servants.
"Hold," said Bonham, and gave Jane a sharp look. "With such a sudden attack, the hospital will be better for him. If he's contagious "
Mina pitched her voice louder. "Why, Mr. Bonham, I am shocked! Mr. Monroe is our guest. Surely you'll agree that it's our Christian duty to care for him."
Her strategy worked brilliantly: Collins swelled up like an affronted rooster. He swept the gathering with a fierce glare, daring anyone to challenge his hospitality. "Mina is right," he said. "My household doesn't turn away a guest in need. Bonham, if you want to be of use, fetch Dr. Sullivan."
"Of course," Bonham murmured, and sketched a shallow bow.
"He's down in Little Hong Kong," Dr. Sullivan's son said. "Called to Mrs. Harlock's childbed."
"Well, send a boy, then. And someone strike up the music." Collins turned away, finished with the matter of Monroe. So long as there was liquor available, and cards to be played, he would postpone his sympathy.
As the servants gathered up Monroe's limp body, Jane took Mina's elbow. "Mr. Bonham will not like this," she murmured. "Are you certain you wish to risk offending him?"
Mina nodded, although the question was misjudged. It was not a risk, not when there was no other choice.
Copyright © 2009 by Meredith McGuire