One of Dear Author’s Top 100 Romances of All Time, and a nominee for the Romantic Times award for Best Historical Romance Adventure! RT gives Written on Your Skin Top Pick honors: "Mesmerizing...a glorious, non-stop, action-packed, battle-of-wills romance." Jennie at Dear Author picks WOYS as one of her Top Ten of 2009, calling Phin and Mina's relationship "wildly romantic." And the Romance Junkies calls it "everything a great historical romance should be."
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 remarked 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 for him, maneuvering boldly through 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 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, and 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 could not benefit from too much insight. The things she might learn would trouble her beauty sleep.
But the featherbrain was about to awake 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 stripped away. He saw no good outcome for them; the mother’s family did not speak to her, and neither 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 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. In the process of facing 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 that 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. Trip 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 unwanted. 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 nor 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 very near to convinced that she was having everyone on with this empty-headed routine. Certainly from another woman, the remark would have served a masterful set-down 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 even 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 wanted to reach 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 on 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 the darkness washed over him again, he realized that malaria did not strike so suddenly. The image of the brandy flashed through his mind, gliding away from him, its contents sloshing. Half-full. Only half. “No,” he managed. He was not all right.
He’d been poisoned.
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Written on Your Skin had several false starts. Above, you can read the final version of the first scene of the book. Below is an early draft of the first scene, barely recognizable save for a few turns of phrase. I liked this opening, not least because it is based on an actual historical event (a terrible fire broke out in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve, 1878, and it’s believed to have started at the intersection Phin is watching in this passage). But the plot point to which this scene ostensibly led turned out to be a dead end for me -- and so I started over again. In the process, the events in Hong Kong also jumped forward two years, from 1878 to 1880.
Christmas Eve, 1878
Hong Kong smelled like a debutante. He drew a breath of the warm breeze slipping through the darkness. Jessamine and roses, tumbling over the terraces, unfurling from the balconies. It was the memory he would take away from this place. Christmas 1878 smelled of roses. As for the rest, the fire and smoke soon to come—well, some places deserved to burn. Perhaps this was one of them. He did not ask anymore. They never shared their reasons, anyway. Alas that he couldn’t cure his impulse to wonder.
“You certainly have your faults,” Michaels had told him in Calcutta. Ten days ago? Twelve. “I hope you do not think to trade on them. You are with us for the long haul, Granville.”
As if a reminder were required.
As if he had a choice in it.
The strange dizziness came over him again. It had plagued him on and off since Rangoon. He caught himself as he started to sway. The shadow of the rubber tree was dense enough, but five streets fed into this cloistered little square, and stray revelers still staggered through it, merry from Christmas revelries. He did not want to be spotted by them. He was only waiting for the echo of the church bells to fade. The eleven o’clock bells were meant to be the signal.
His mind felt sore, his thoughts ungovernable. They strayed after the echo. Sound moved upward, and if escape were his aim, so would he. A map assembled in his mind, committed to memory during his day spent walking the town. Behind him, a narrow flight of stairs cut through the terraced earth, leading to the street above: thirty seconds’ run. Across that road lay a camellia grove, where white petals dropped like snow in the moonlight. Bad for concealment, but five minutes and he would be though it to the next level, where Victoria City began, and screw-pines screened the bright-eyed mansions from the road. Oh, the wealthy slept soundly. They need not fear others’ decisions; they had the privilege of making their own. They would not notice his passage to the park by Government House, where the macaques reclined beneath the draped limbs of banyans, and cushioned their sleepy heads in beds of scarlet poinsettia. How peaceful they looked at rest. In India, in Ceylon and Siam, he had noticed that.
The fire would not spread that far, surely.
His breath was coming shorter. He took clinical note of his anxiety, observing the rapid drum of his heart, the tightening of his chest. The emotion that should have accompanied it eluded him. He did not feel afraid. He felt…careful. Finely balanced and a bit dizzy, like a man intent on ignoring the precipice a half-step behind him. He could leap forward. One day he would do so; he would leap away, and land somewhere distant, wholly free of the rotted oaths that bound him.
A chill touched his spine. Something was not right with his thoughts; they branched and split as if he were falling asleep. He took the risk of crossing his arms, wrapping them tightly to force himself still as another racking shiver took him. A few more seconds was all. He had made inquiries; the city squadron drilled weekly in preparation for such an event. They’d have the blaze under control within a quarter-hour. The aftermath is not your concern, Granville. Yes, his concern lay south, where his people waited, readied for a speedy departure. They did not understand his compulsion to watch the deed be done, but—per Michaels’ orders, no doubt—they humored it.
He forced his focus back to the little store fifty yards away. The sight hurt his eyes; his temples ached. An Englishman owned it. Cross the government and you will pay. Was the air growing colder? The shop sat quiet in the darkness, its master long since withdrawn up the mountain. The direction of the breeze conspired against its continued survival, concealing the reek of the kerosene that soaked it, washing the town instead with the scent of flowers from the mountain.
“Burn,” he whispered, and his voice seemed to come from a great distance. He recognized then that he would not be able to stand much longer.
Now the first lick of fire appeared in one window. He stepped back, convinced for one weird moment that it was waving to him. Time to go south. He was going south.
Two men emerged into the square, Portuguese or English by their dress. He paused, wresting his fuzzy mind into calculations. So, they would call out, and if they managed to extinguish the fire before it could take the building, there was nothing to do for it. One fewer worry for him.
Except the men did not seem to take note of the fire now spreading along the storefront. They were turning toward him. And in their hands, silhouetted by the light of the moon, were guns.
He reached for his own with fingers that fumbled like a grandmother’s. The butt of the pistol collided with his knuckles, and the arctic air around him flushed with a sudden tropical heat.
Do not trade on your weakness.
He lunged north for the stairs.
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Since Written on Your Skin occurs (for the most part) simultaneously with the events of Bound by Your Touch, I made use of many of the same research materials that I’d used for that novel. In addition, here’s a selected list of books I found useful for this story in particular:
Wanderings in China, by Constance Frederica Gordon Cummings (1886).
Recollections of the Old Foreign Office, by Edward Hertslet (1901).
Tourist’s Guide to Wiltshire, Its Scenery and Antiques, by Richard Nicholls Worth (1885).
In a Wiltshire Valley, by Mrs. Haughton (1879).
The Rural Life of England, by William Howitt (1888).
Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time, by Peter Hampson Ditchfield (1896).
A Handbook for Travelers in Cornwall, by John Murry (1882).
Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age, by Eric Homberger (2004).
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