Read The Debutante's Ruse Online

Authors: Linda Skye

The Debutante's Ruse

Isabella Lei Hennessey is the Governor’s daughter, a marriageable debutante…and the most notorious thief of Hong Kong. She has good reason to resort to robbery, though her activities would cause untold scandal if they were ever exposed. A chance encounter with a handsome stranger saves Isabella from discovery…except this notorious rake doesn’t like to play by the rules! A tantalizing game of cat and mouse ensues until Isabella decides she would quite like to be caught…

Author’s Note

When I was five years old, I spent a night in Hong Kong with
relatives on the way to the Philippines. I might have been young, but I still
remember the towering skyscrapers, the bustling crowds, the overwhelming
humidity, and the tantalising smells wafting my way from food stalls. Ever since
then, I have been intrigued by the interaction between the East and the West,
the struggle between modernity and tradition, and the clash of cultures. This
novella is a product of this ongoing interest.

After the Qing Dynasty of China lost the First Opium War in
1841, Hong Kong became a Crown Colony of the British Empire (and remained as
such until 1997). Because Hong Kong’s harbour was an ideal trading base, the
island quickly attracted many European and Chinese businessmen. But due to
colonial attitudes of racial segregation, British merchants mainly occupied the
eastern area of Hong Kong (including the elite region of Victoria Peak), while
the Chinese were restricted to the western portion (which included Wan Chai and
its notorious red light district).

While Isabella Lei Hennessey and Lord Henry James are
fictional characters, the world in which they lived was real. Their struggle to
see each other past the prejudice and popular attitudes of the time run parallel
to the conflicts we still face today in most—if not all—societies. Just as our
hero and heroine find love despite their differences, I hope that we too c
an all look past colour and creed to find joy and
friendship.

Linda Skye

The Debutante’s Ruse

Linda Skye

Chapter One

Isabella Lei Hennessey was tensely coiled, keenly alert and very,
very
uncomfortable.

She waited with bated breath as she crouched beneath the sill of a large window. Though it was nearly sundown, sunlight still lingered on the walls and in the narrow streets, so she carefully hid herself in the shadows cast by tall ornamental shrubbery. She was clad in black—a skintight outfit made of elastic silk that hugged her every curve and allowed her a maximum range of motion without making the slightest sound. If she were seen, she would scandalize all of Victorian Hong Kong—although she suspected that if anyone knew her reason
for donning the sensually cut garment, she’d have much more than a simple scandal to deal with.

But, as practical as her immodest clothing was, it did nothing to ease the cramp developing in her leg.

Of course they’re late,
she griped inwardly,
on today of all days!

And then, finally, she heard the telltale shuffle of feet that marked the arrival of hired porters carrying sedan chairs. She sank deeper into her hiding spot and watched as the Wilkinson family emerged from their expensive bungalow. Mrs. Wilkinson was a slight, bird-like woman, but Mr. Wilkinson was as round as a man could possibly get. Bemused, Isabella watched the sedan chair sag and creak as he clumsily clambered on, causing the Chinese porters to shift uncomfortably under the unexpected weight.

“Oh, but this simply will not do!”

Isabella slanted her eyes toward the young Miss Wilkinson, whose face was quickly puckering in sour anger. The unattractive twist to her pouting lips was a sharp contrast to the elegant finery of her beautiful evening gown.
She’s probably aiming to snag a
newly-arrived, rich young bachelor today
, Isabella thought
.

“What ever is the matter, dear?” Mrs. Wilkinson asked, already comfortably settled into the palanquin with her husband.

With gloved fists perched on her hips, Miss Wilkinson was all but throwing a childish tantrum. She pointed to the sedan chair.

“These stupid coolies have brought up a bamboo chair,” she declared, stamping a booted foot, “A
bamboo
chair. I can’t be seen arriving in this! Where is the black lacquer chair we normally use?” She paused to cover her breast with her hands. “What if
he
sees me in this?”


He
, dear?” Her mother looked heavenward. “Oh never mind,” she said sharply, “Just get in the chair, and let’s be off. We’re already late for the governor’s summer ball.”

With a huff and a sulk, Miss Wilkinson climbed into the chair and crossed her arms. And finally—
oh, finally
—the porters were carrying them up the narrow, winding paths to the Mountain Lodge at the summit of Victoria Peak. Isabella breathed a sigh of relief, and then pivoted to inspect the window above her. With a deft flick of her wrist, she produced a short, sharp knife. Carefully sliding the blade in between the wooden window frame and its stone casing, she began to whittle away at the rotting wood. It was a minor miracle in her favor that the Wilkinsons did not know to keep up with the effects of tropical humidity on Victorian houses. Within minutes, she had carved out just enough to begin levering it open. With the barest of creaks, the window turned on its hinges and swung open. Quick and silent as a shadow, Isabella slipped into the house.

With all the stealth and grace of a cat, she padded across the dimly lit room to the door, where she paused to listen. The house servants were chatting in the kitchens, obviously relaxed since their masters had left for the evening. Wary of creaky floorboards, Isabella eased into the hall, crept up the stairs and tiptoed into Miss Wilkinson’s rooms.

She saw what she was after immediately.

The rich, golden silk robe had been slung casually over the back of a chair, its hand-embroidered edges trailing on the tatty carpet. Isabella greeted it as an old friend, and gathered the silk into her arms. The luxurious cloth was heavy and thick with an unmistakable luster; it had obviously been the garment of an ancient emperor. As she let the silk slide over her skin, Isabella imagined that it was the caress of a lover—for surely a lover’s hands would feel as splendidly smooth.

And then, with the slightest whisper of silk, Isabella—the most notorious thief of Hong Kong—slipped away, vanishing into the shadows.

Chapter Two

The summer ball was already in full swing when Isabella reached the grounds of Mountain Lodge, the British Governor of Hong Kong’s summer residence. Light from the ballroom spilled from tall sash windows, casting rectangles of light onto manicured lawns. Isabella picked her way up the hill, darting from shadow to shadow, until she reached the edge of the manor house. Pressed up against the stone outer wall, she tugged carefully at the silky gauze that concealed the lower half of her face, gently checking that the knots were tight. It simply would not do to be caught so close to the end of her mission.

Choosing the dark window of a guest room she knew to be unoccupied, she slipped into the great house silently. She carefully adjusted the precious bundle at her side and crept stealthily toward the corridor. But when she pushed the heavy oak door open, sudden and unexpected light from the corridor spilled across her face, and her eyes squinted immediately in response. Silently cursing her luck, she slid out of the guest room and into the guest-wing hallway, quietly padding toward the family wing. Just as she was about the turn the corner, the sound of voices reached her ears. They were yet far off, but she still crouched and tensed, straining to hear.

“They say the Lord Henry James is a wild and unapologetic womanizer.” It was a deep bass voice, easily recognized as the voice of the governor.

“Yes, that is the rumor,” his son, Arthur, answered with a chuckle, “But his father, the good duke, has threatened to disinherit him if he catches word of one more scandal. In fact, I have it on good authority that Lord James has been tasked to find a suitably marriageable debutante while here in Hong Kong.”

“And you think he would be interested in our family?” The governor asked doubtfully.

“Why not? We’re of decent lineage, and securing ties with us would give the duke a foothold in the East.” Arthur rejoined, “And let’s not forget; my sister is an uncommon beauty.”

“A profitable match for both parties, no doubt,” the governor agreed. “Shall we see if the young Lord James can be roused from his sleep to join our ball?”

Their voices grew louder as their footfalls approached, and Isabella could hesitate no longer. Heart hammering at the grave possibility of being discovered, she took off at a run in the opposite direction, going deeper into the guest wing of the manor. Her feet slid on the plush carpet as she rounded another corner—and into the chest of a man. Isabella staggered backward, thoughts of the men behind her completely forgotten as she took in the unexpected sight of the man in front of her.

He stared at her in open shock, his moist lips parted in surprise and his fingers still lingering on the lower buttons of his open shirt. Dark hair mussed and breathing heavy, he seemed to have just finished some strenuous—and perhaps, lewd—activity. Involuntarily, Isabella’s eyes dropped from his strong jaw to the bared plane of his chest, where his taut muscles were chiselled in sharp relief. Frozen, the two stared at each other until the startling creak of a floorboard forced them back to the present.

Hemmed in on both sides, Isabella felt her chest tighten in panic. And when her unsuspecting pursuers showed no sign of slowing their approach, she decided to make a mad dash past the stranger. Before she could even tense to spring forward, she felt strong fingers wrap around her upper arm. A firm tug pulled her off balance and she tumbled to the side, quickly finding herself ensconced in the heavy damask curtains adorning a window—and encircled tightly by the stranger’s strong arms. Isabella furtively glanced up into the stranger’s face and met slate-gray eyes which clearly communicated his intentions. To further impress the warning upon her, he leaned in and lightly placed two fingers against her lips. She nodded slightly, bowed her head and fought to quell her slight trembling at being so suddenly pressed to a man.

Isabella had never been so near a man in her life, and she felt her cheeks burn at the proximity. With every short breath that she took, she inhaled the scent of his sweat and cedar musk. She could feel every line of his hard body against her own: thigh against thigh and chest to chest. She could even feel the pounding of his heart under her open palms.

Isabella stilled. The men were about to pass, and the stranger’s shoulders still moved with heavy panting from his prior exertions, rustling the curtains with every exhale. Moving with painful slowness so as not to disturb the fabric concealing them, Isabella reached up to cup his cheek in one hand to draw his attention downward. His eyes widened fractionally as she pressed her bosom against his chest, her small fingers splayed across his collar bone. And then, she took one deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her green eyes, bright even in the dim light, begged him to understand as her breathing grew soft, still and silent. He followed her lead, mimicking her rhythm and following the rise and fall of her breast with his own.

The footsteps passed them but did not fade away into the corridor. Instead they paused. Three sharp raps on a door followed.

“Lord James?” The governor called, knocking again.

The stranger’s hands tightened around her waist as the governor called out again. Isabella twisted her fingers in the material of his loosened shirt, wordlessly urging him to stay silent.

“Maybe he’s already left for the ball?” Arthur muttered.

“Most likely,” The governor replied, “Shall we meet him there?”

“I shall join you presently,” Arthur said, “Allow me to fetch my sister from her rooms. I did not see her at the beginning of the ball, and it would not do for her to miss his lordship’s eye.”

Their footfalls faded from earshot as they went back the way they came, and Isabella breathed a sigh of relief. She tried to step away, only to find the stranger’s arms as bands of steel around her, his gray eyes alight with interest. His hand went for the thin cloth covering her face, but she caught his wrist with nimble fingers. To her surprise, he did not seem perturbed at her scandalous disguise, nor by the fact that he had a possible criminal locked in his arms. Instead, his expression was only curious.
How strange
, Isabella thought as her eyes traced the outline of his attractive lips,
how intriguing.

“Who are you?” He asked, searching her gaze.

“Do not ask questions you do not wish to answer yourself,” she hissed, twisting in his grip, remembering her mission.

“Come now,” the man whispered, drawing her even closer, “Surely I am entitled to some morsel of information for hiding you from the lord of this manor?”

“Must I remind you that you were hiding as well?” Isabella murmured against his ear, letting her hands slide down his arms.

“True,” he acquiesced, “But I simply
must
know who you are.”

The stranger’s arms tightened as he spun her around, pressing her back against the cool window pane. He gently pushed his hips into hers, pinning her in place with his weight. Isabella gasped at the new sensation and pressed her palms against his bare chest. The man pressed his face into her neck and inhaled deeply, his hands skimming the shapely contours of her sides. As his fingers trailed from her ribs to her hips, Isabella lost the ability to think. A slow-burning heat began in the pit of her stomach, spreading like syrup through her limbs. When he tugged at her earlobe with his teeth, she almost forgot herself.
Almost.

“That will have to wait until another time, good sir.”

The words had barely left her mouth when she twisted from his grasp, dropped to the floor and pushed his arms away. She spun out her leg as forcefully as she could, knocking his shins. As he fumbled for balance in the heavy fabric, she slipped from the curtains and raced away, ducking into the servants’ stairwell. She took the narrow steps two at a time, only skidding to a stop when she saw a slightly off-color wall panel. She pushed, and the secret door swung inward. She crawled through the passageway as quickly as she could, emerging into a lavishly appointed boudoir just in time to see a Chinese maid wringing her hands in worry—and to hear impatient knocking at her door.

“Isabella, dear sister,” Arthur called through the ornate doors to her rooms, “Aren’t you ready yet?”

Isabella fought to school her ragged breathing. “Brother, please. One mustn’t rush a lady. Give me but a moment.”

“A moment, then.” There was a dull thud as he leaned against the closed doors. “I shall escort you to the ball. Do not make me stand here overly long, sister.”

“Miss Isabella,” the maid whispered in heavily accented English, “Your honored father and brother are not pleased by your absence at the ball.”

“And I am even less pleased with them, Jia Li,” she huffed, “They plan to sell me off through marriage.”

At her maid’s horrified expression, Isabella dropped her eyes and began to carefully unroll her precious cargo. The silk robe spilled out in a gleaming cascade of gold, and she held it up for her maid to see. Jia-Li approached slowly with upturned palms that fluttered just inches from the lustrous fabric. She sighed.

“The robe of the ancient Emperor of the Sun is as beautiful as they say,” she breathed in awe.

“And it would have been completely wasted on the likes of our dear Miss Wilkinson, don’t you think, Jia-Li?”

Isabella handed the robe to her maid, who reverently folded it and tucked it out of sight.

“What will you do with it?” Jia-Li asked as she began to pull other fabrics from drawers.

“I will go into Wan Chai tomorrow to sell it,” Isabella replied with a shrug. “Now, what have you picked for tonight’s ball?”

Jia-Li pulled a dress from its resting place in her boudoir and held it up for Isabella’s approval. The scarlet dress was made of Chinese silk, and there was a depth to the shine that could not be imitated by western fabrics. Isabella nodded approvingly; it was a bold choice, just barely conforming to the fashionable silhouette of the day while completely rejecting the traditional assortment of pastel tulle ruffles that usually adorned the sleeves and bustles of summer evening gowns.

She smiled as she shrugged off her clingy silk jumpsuit and tugged her long, black curls free. If they had all been waiting on her arrival at the party, she had better make it a spectacular sight.

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