“I knew you wouldn’t bring a date!” Su Ling’s mother firmly pushed her outside the banquet room of Yen Ching’s into a hallway filled with the scent of ginger and soy sauce. The elaborately carved paneling in her father’s favorite restaurant darkened her mother’s face into a forbidding scowl.
“I did bring a date,” Su Ling teased, trying to fight the suffocating ambiance. “Me, myself, and I.” She lowered her voice in mock seriousness. “It was a little rocky at first, because, between you and me, myself was getting a little uppity. But I got her under control after a swift kick.”
Her mother’s lips puckered into a tight ball of dark red lipstick. “This is why you do not have a husband. Your sense of humor is too confusing. Me and myself,” she muttered as she shook her head. “Such nonsense.”
Su Ling pressed her own lips together, unable to give voice to her frustration. She knew better than to speak to her family with anything but total seriousness and respect, but sometimes her irreverent side just got the better of her. Especially lately, when she felt a strange dissatisfaction with her boring accountant’s life.
But tonight was her father’s birthday party, and she needed to be respectful. So she lowered her gaze and spoke softly. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring a date, but Ba Ba knows I’m single. He won’t be shocked when his youngest daughter doesn’t show up with a man.” If anything, she thought with a grimace, her father would be stunned if she had brought someone. He’d thought her a marital lost cause when she turned twenty-five—three years ago.
Ma Ma threw up her hands, the gesture barely making it to Su Ling’s shoulders. “Ai-yah, Su Ling. It is not for your father but his mother.”
Her grandmother? “But she’s in Hong Kong—”
“China, yes. What will she think of your father and me when her grandchildren have no men?” She didn’t wait for Su Ling to respond, but rushed on without pause. “Never mind, never mind,” she said as she pushed her daughter backward in the cramped hallway. “I knew you wouldn’t bring anyone.” Then she dropped her voice to a mysterious whisper. “I had another dream.”
Su Ling did her best to hold back her groan. The last thing she needed was another of her mother’s dream-inspired matches.
“Listen to me, Su Ling! You must find a dragon. That is the man for you.”
“A dragon?” Su Ling bit her tongue. She shouldn’t have said anything, shouldn’t have encouraged her mother’s latest delusion, but the question had just slipped out.
“Yes, yes,” continued Ma Ma. “He must be born in a dragon year.” Then she leaned forward, an excited gleam in her eye. “I have found him for you, Su Ling. He’s waiting in the lobby. Your father’s birthday dinner is the perfect time for everyone to meet him.”
Su Ling stared at her mother with stunned horror. Ma Ma couldn’t possibly expect Su Ling to meet another potential husband while her entire family sat around and watched? “I can’t meet him now!” she whispered urgently. “Not in front of everyone.” If it were up to her she wouldn’t meet him at all, but then, she’d grown accustomed to doing things just to please her family.
“Do not be rude!” Ma Ma snapped. “Everyone wants to see him. I told them you have been dating for months.” Then she lightened her tone to an irritating wheedle. “He is a professional. Very smart. An accountant like you. For taxes.”
Su Ling rolled her eyes. She knew accountants. She was an accountant. And not one, Chinese or otherwise, had ever been a fun date. The heel of her dark pumps caught in the Chinese restaurant’s faded carpet as Ma Ma pushed her toward the lobby. “Please don’t make me—” she began, but her mother interrupted.
“He’s waiting. Third chair from the right.” Then, with a last shove, her mother slipped away back into the banquet room, where all the relatives waited to inspect Su Ling’s newest mystery man.
Su Ling just stood there, her anger rising by slow degrees. She’d allowed this to happen, she told herself. She’d been polite to her mother’s endless stream of eligible bachelors, and thereby tacitly encouraged her to further excesses. Su Ling moved around a potted plant to look at her mother’s dragon choice, involuntarily wincing when she saw him. Another baby-faced Asian man in a boring suit and tie, obviously polite by the way he sat perfectly still in his chair, his hands folded primly in front of him. In short, an uptight mama’s boy even though he was probably in his thirties.
That was when she saw the other one. Just now, his ordering take-out food in a whiskey voice sent shivers down her spine. She couldn’t see him completely, but her gaze snagged on the bright Chinese dragon embroidered across his black leather jacket. A closer look revealed shaggy hair and a gold dagger dangling from his very Caucasian ear. Normally she wouldn’t give this man a second glance, but her intemperate mood still simmered, spawning an evil thought. After all, Ma Ma had said her husband-to-be would be a dragon.
She must have made a sound, a soft whisper of mischief or simple admiration, because this dragon man turned and looked directly at her, one dark slash of an eyebrow raised in surprise. She looked away, pretending to inspect the menu displayed nearby, but out of the corner of her eye she watched a smile curve his lips as he leaned back against the counter. If she hadn’t been surreptitiously watching him, she never would have known how slowly and leisurely he inspected her body from the top of her high bun down her trim navy suit to her legs as they extended beneath her short skirt. Nor would her skin have tingled with a sensual awareness she’d never experienced before.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Ma Ma’s dragon man released a soft sigh, obviously bored, but too polite to be irritated. Or even move. Geez, the man looked like a hypnotized statue. Su Ling couldn’t imagine the leather-clad hunk waiting on anything or anyone.
What would it be like, she wondered, just for a few hours, to be on the hunk’s arm instead of another soft-spoken, weak-gestured man? And wouldn’t that just show Ma Ma the ridiculousness of finding a man by a dragon symbol?
Feeling more daring than ever before, Su Ling made her choice. She abruptly spun around, approaching her leather hunk with an uncharacteristically seductive smile. “Excuse me. I need a loud and obnoxious date right now. You get a free meal, fifty bucks cash, and all the relatives you can insult. Interested?” He pulled back, obviously surprised. Then, before he could respond, she fished a fifty-dollar bill out of her purse. She stared at it, stunned by the exorbitant amount and her own rash promise, but one glance at her other date option steeled her spine. She flashed the bill before the leather-clad hunk before tucking it into her jacket pocket. “Deal?”
His smile came slowly, all the more devastating because he took his time. “Always interested.” He slowly straightened. God, was he really that tall? “What’s your name?”
“Su Ling. And you’ve got to make this look good.”
He grinned. “No problem, Sue. Anything else?”
“Yeah,” she commented, her mind working furiously. “You’re a lawyer. No, a judge. No, wait. An undercover FBI agent investigating a banking scam. That’s why you’re pretending to be an accountant.”
“You don’t do this very often, do you?”
She shot him a startled glance. “You got any better ideas?”
He shook his head. “Nope. A fed is great.”
As he canceled his dinner order, Su Ling quickly scribbled a note to Ma Ma’s dragon, apologizing in the nicest way possible while sending him on his way. She didn’t doubt he would disappear easily. Ma Ma’s dates never did anything uncomfortable or impolite, even if it meant they’d just wasted an evening. After giving the note to a waitress to deliver, she turned back to her definitely uncomfortable, impolite revenge date.
“Your name is Dragon, and you were born in 1976.”
“Sorry. January ‘seventy-seven.”
“Suddenly you’re interested in the truth?” Then she glanced at him, seeing his fluid gait as they moved down the hallway. Physically he appeared a very powerful man. A tremor of fear slithered down her spine. Just who was she bringing in to meet her parents? “Uh, look,” she began, “maybe this isn’t such a good idea…”
“Don’t chicken out now, princess. Revenge is at hand.” Then he paused, obviously reading the concern on her face. “Relax. I’m an old hand at pissing off parents.”
But second and third thoughts had begun to assail her. Just outside the party room Su Ling paused, facing off with the monster she’d just created. “Exactly why are you doing this?”
He shrugged, using his white smile to devastating effect. “Fifty bucks buys a lot of Happy Meals.” Then, before she could respond, he pushed through the door.
Su Ling had to go up on her toes to peer over his broad shoulder. At first, all she could see was a large ink brush shrimp painting turning beady eyes her way from over her father’s head. Then her dragon moved aside, and she was startled to see their large round table half empty. Right next to her parents, Auntie Wen and Uncle Sammy were greedily eating all the hors d’oeuvres. But the chairs for Su Ling’s sister and young niece were conspicuously empty. And that was the last she noticed of the decor as a deafening silence filled the room.
She should have been gratified. She would have been if she were still flush with her rebellious spirit. Unfortunately mortification dominated right now. Her father, as honored guest, sat directly opposite the doorway, his dark eyebrows raised, his jaw clenched as he pulled his head back in horror. Ma Ma and Auntie Wen were even worse, their mouths opening and closing like those of beached fish. But the absolute worst came from not-so-bright Uncle Sammy. He looked up, then snorted with amusement. “Is that Su Ling’s date?” He giggled. “No wonder your sister hasn’t got many grandchildren!”
But before Su Ling could sink into a perfectly timed faint, Dragon stepped forward to Uncle Sammy, his hand outstretched in a bold Texas howdy. “Why, yes,” he bellowed in a voice that echoed off the dark paneling. Gone were the whiskey tones from the other room. Instead he used the thickest, corniest Texas accent Su Ling had ever heard. “Yee-haw, I am the little lady’s date,” he continued. “But I’m guessing you’re not the birthday boy. That must be you, sir.” He stepped toward her father, grabbing the smaller man’s hand in his and pumping it up and down like a piston. “Why, your little gal’s been talking up a storm about how much she admires y’all.” He expanded his grin to the room at large. “All y’all.”
The silence echoed in Su Ling’s head, broken only when her mother leaped up from her chair, grabbed her daughter, and said in a hiss, “Who is he?”
Su Ling blinked, widening her eyes with exaggerated innocence. “He’s my dragon.” She pointed to the elaborate design on her hunk’s jacket. But before she could say anything he stripped it off, revealing the dark stain of a tattooed dragon coiling down his bulging bicep before disappearing beneath his muscle T. Ma Ma nearly choked in horror while Su Ling felt her knees weaken. She never would have credited it, but right then that sinuous Chinese symbol was the sexiest thing she’d ever seen. And all the while her dragon continued to grin and joke like the worst of the B-movie cowboys.
Ma Ma recovered first, hissing another, “Not him!” before disappearing into the hallway, presumably to find the ditched dragon. Su Ling was thankful she knew Ma Ma’s wimp had left moments before she and her dragon had entered the party. Then she had no more time to worry, as her dragon snaked his hand around her waist, tugging her close.
“Well, little darlin’,” he drawled as he gestured to the specialty food ordered a week in advance. “This here don’t look much like meat ‘n’ potatoes to me.” Then he chucked her under the chin as he waggled his eyebrows at her. “But then you, sweet pea, are meat enough for any man.”
She felt his hand begin to slide lower, and her face heated, knowing every eye in the room was trained on her rear. She intended to push him away, but as she looked into his rich amber eyes, she felt a shock of warmth course through her. She had no words for what happened, though her mind desperately scrambled to catalog the sensation. She tossed out thrill of defiance, sexual excitement, even simple novelty as all true and yet none accurate enough. Somewhere inside she knew he wouldn’t hurt her, that his act remained for display purposes, and that, in truth, she felt safe with him. No logic could explain the knowledge, and yet she felt it.
And when his eyes widened in surprise, she recognized an echoing intrigue flame within him.
She had no control over what happened next. Instead of pushing him away, she felt her head lifting, moving toward his lips as if of their own accord. Somewhere in the background her mind registered her father pushing angrily up from his chair, her mother’s appalled gasp, even the rush of the door as someone pushed it open, but 98 percent of her body and mind remained fixated on her dragon’s full and sensuous mouth.
“Mr. Kurtz? What are you doing here?”
Su Ling felt Dragon’s body freeze, the sudden chill translating easily through her clothing. With obvious horror, Dragon turned his head to the latest party attendees: Su Ling’s sister, Mei Lu, and her daughter, Amanda. “Mandy?” Dragon asked in a choked voice. “This is your family?”
“Yeah,” the girl answered as she neatly settled into the chair next to him. “I thought that looked like your motorcycle outside.”
Nobody gasped. Su Ling doubted anyone had drawn breath, including herself. Well, nobody except for Uncle Sammy who had started giggling again while Ma Ma’s face turned a not-so-festive bright red. Then her father spoke, horror dripping from every syllable. “You’re my granddaughter’s teacher?”
“And volleyball coach,” continued Amanda as she reached out and began serving herself a bowl of egg-drop soup. “He’s awesome.”
Su Ling stared at Dragon, trying to reconcile the man still wrapped around her waist with her niece and middle school. All the teachers she remembered had been prim women with conservative clothing and comfortable shoes. Not one had ever come close to a twenty-something bulked-out, leather-clad, tattooed revenge date with the most hypnotizing amber eyes. “You’re a teacher?”
“Social studies,” answered Amanda before Dragon could draw breath. “Cool earring. He normally just wears a diamond stud at school.”
Suddenly Dragon—a.k.a. Mr. Kurtz, man who shaped young minds—became a flurry of speed. In one deft movement he sprang away from Su Ling, quickly removed his earring, and grabbed his jacket. Meanwhile he continued to babble, all traces of his fake Texas accent gone, and in its place reigned the flat tones of a Chicago suburb. “Not a real diamond,” he stammered. “Cubic zirconium. I couldn’t afford a diamond on a teacher’s salary.” He stumbled slightly as he headed toward the door. “Well, happy birthday, sir. Many happy returns, and all that. Um, gotta go. Lots to do. Christmas break is over tomorrow, you know.”
He was out the door before Su Ling could shake off her shock. Then, without conscious intent, she scrambled after him. “Wait a minute!” she cried as he headed for the front door. She caught him outside, snapping his leather jacket against the chill January wind.
He looked up, his eyes heating even as he gave her a self-conscious shrug. “I didn’t realize you were Mandy’s aunt.”
“You’re a middle school teacher?” she repeated for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Disappointed?” he challenged. “We can’t all be FBI agents.”
She didn’t know how to answer. Was she disappointed? She’d grabbed a biker bad boy only to find she’d netted a schoolteacher. Except he didn’t look so mundane standing beside his motorcycle, his dark hair ruffled by the wind, an intense gleam heating his eyes.
Then he lifted his chin, indicating the restaurant’s window, where Ma Ma and Auntie Wen were pressed goggle-eyed against the glass. “We’ve got an audience.”
“They let you wear an earring in school?”
He stepped away from his bike, approaching her with slow, steady steps. There wasn’t anything menacing in his movements, merely a focused intensity, but Su Ling shied backward nonetheless. His mesmerizing power remained in full force even as her mind still grappled with the thought of him as a teacher.
“What, teachers aren’t wild enough for you?” he challenged, his voice low and throaty.
“Uh…” Su Ling didn’t know what to say. He’d voiced her thoughts exactly. Except he seemed plenty wild and thoroughly exciting. She couldn’t deny the thrill she felt when her back hit the wall and he continued his advance.
“I didn’t get the free dinner you promised,” he said as he flattened his hands on either side of her head. Then he leaned in slowly, inexorably pressing his thighs, then his pelvis, then his entire massive chest against her, leaving their faces less than a whispered breath of steam apart. “But maybe this will do.”
He lowered his lips to hers, and Su Ling felt the blood rush through her body, pulsing too fast. His kiss took control of her, swept into her mouth, and possessed her, taking her, challenging her until she began to fight back—or rather give back, dueling with his tongue as she arched rhythmically against him She felt his breath catch, but she didn’t relent. And neither did he as one of his hands slid down her shoulder, wrapping around her waist to lift her off the wall, jerking her flush against his hard body. Her hands were busy as well, sliding across his butter-soft jacket until she tangled her fingers in his hair. Luxurious curls flowed over her hands as he broke their kiss to begin tonguing across her face and neck in the most erotic patterns imaginable.
Then she felt it—his hand, sliding up her thin blouse, heating her already flushed skin to flash point as his fingers rose firmly, strongly, inevitably to her breast. She ached for him to touch her, to hold her there. She even released a moan of longing as his fingertips met the underside of her bra, beginning the lift, the caress, the seduction she craved.
But before he made it to her peak, before she could do more than close her eyes, he twisted around, deftly plucking something out of her inside jacket pocket before stepping away. When she opened her eyes, he was pocketing her fifty dollars before donning his helmet and roaring away.
* * *
Mitch Kurtz stomped through the school hallway, neatly avoiding the flow of students as nearly three hundred teens scrambled to grab their things before the buses came. Normally the excited chatter about holidays and homework calmed him. Early mornings were filled with preparation for the coming day, but the end of school held the satisfaction of a job well done, a child educated for one more day.
Except today. Today, the Backstreet Boys’ latest hairstyle had easily eclipsed Napoleon. Not because the kids were any more difficult than usual, but because Mitch had made one of the most exciting men in history sound like a farm report. Even he’d yawned.
And why? Because last night he’d been propositioned by an exotic Asian temptress, a pinup fantasy who offered him the opportunity—just for one night—to pretend to be someone else. Normally he would have laughed off the chance as too bizarre, but just then, straight from another holiday-in-hell with his repressed family, the opportunity to play a mysterious fed had been too good to resist. Naturally, just as his parents had always predicted, his impulsive nature led him straight into trouble. He’d acted like a jerk in front of a student and her family.
That alone would be bad enough, but then he’d gone and kissed Miss Asian Seductress. Not a simple peck on the cheek, but an eating-her-whole, can’t-get-enough, how-low-can-one-man-go kiss in full view of her family. Then he’d gone on kissing her and doing all sorts of depraved things with her. Not in fact, but all night long as his imagination tormented him.
He still didn’t know why he’d done it, much less taken her money. But he knew without a doubt that he’d do it again.
Right now, in fact. In the middle of school even, because for whatever reason, she obsessed him. Everything from her repressed-accountant suit to her subtle ginger-spice scent intrigued him. What woman dressed like a corporate robot but kissed like a wildcat? And why would a woman—one from a very solid and upright family—suddenly want to horrify them with a biker-fed pretend date? The puzzle intrigued him so much that he’d lost an entire school day to the distraction of unwanted fantasies.
Talk about teen flashback. Here he was, back in school, desperately trying to haul his mind off some girl. Maybe his father was right: He’d never outgrown his adolescence.
Then Mitch rounded a corner, heading for the sanctuary of his classroom, only to come face-to-face with his imagination. There she stood—or rather crouched—over her niece, a lost look on her face. Mitch didn’t want to interfere. Lord, the last thing he needed was a higher profile with Mandy’s family, but a second glance revealed the girl in tears.
Mitch stifled a groan. He had ample experience with teen drama—real or imagined—and in this case he probably understood more than Mandy’s beleaguered aunt. So, after a stern mental warning to keep his libido firmly in check, Mitch cleared his throat and sauntered forward.
“Are you all right, Mandy?”
The poor girl looked up, stammering in her haste to swallow her tears. “M-Mr. Kurtz!”
He gave Mandy a gentle smile, while beside him he felt more than saw her aunt’s lithe body tighten with anxiety. Down, libido, down! He forced himself to concentrate on Mandy, settling onto his haunches to look her in the eye.
“One bad grade—even an F—isn’t grounds for tears,” he began. “Though I am concerned—” He didn’t get any farther as, beside them, the seductress exhaled in loud relief.
“Is that what this is about? Lord, Amanda, you scared me half to death.”
“No.” Mandy hiccupped, her voice a low moan. “It’s not that. I mean, it is, but…” Her voice slipped away as tears continued to stream down her face.
Mitch tried again, keeping his voice gentle. “I want to help, kiddo, but you gotta talk.”
The girl looked up, her eyes tragic. “They’ll take me off the team.”
Mitch almost laughed, but he’d been teaching teens too long to make that mistake. Still, he couldn’t resist smiling. “You’re a long way from academic probation. You can still play volleyball.”
Beside him, however, instead of sharing his relief, his mysterious Sue blew out a soft sigh. “Oh, Amanda, I’m so sorry.” Then she opened her arms as Mandy dove into them, the girl’s tears darkening Sue’s silk blouse to almost black.
Meanwhile Mitch stood up, confusion warring with distraction as he noticed that Mandy’s distress had pulled her aunt’s top two buttons open. Once again he mentally kicked his libido back into a corner as he quipped, “Honest Injun, she’s still okay to play.”
Then Sue lifted her dark Asian eyes, meeting his with obvious trepidation, but her voice remained level. “Chinese family, Dra…er, Mr. Kurtz.” He watched as her olive skin flushed in embarrassment. “If Amanda can’t keep up with her studies, then her sports activities go first.”
He frowned. “First? Before what?”
“Culture!” Mandy practically spat out the word. “Piano and violin.”
“Well,” he hedged, already recognizing the problem, “music is very valua—”
“I hate them!” the girl cried. “I don’t ever want to play again!” Then, before he could respond, Mandy whipped around, her skin blotchy beneath dark eyes suddenly shining with hope. “Wait! Ma Ma’s out of town! She left this morning for some training thing, so I’m staying with Auntie Ling.” Her gesture definitely indicated his Sue. Then as Mitch sorted that out, Mandy dove into her backpack for her test paper, dragging it out to shove at her aunt.
“Just a minute,” he began, but the teen wasn’t listening. Since Mitch had graded the test, he knew exactly what it said and what Mandy was doing. Right below the bright red F, he’d stamped a message requiring a parent’s signature. It was school policy.
“You can sign,” she urged her aunt. “Then Ma Ma never has to know. Oh, please,” she begged both of them, “don’t make me quit. I love volleyball more than anything!”
Mitch groaned. Not only one siren, but an entire family! First the aunt distracted him in ways he wasn’t even allowed to think of in school, and then the niece tempted him to throw away his ethics. If any of his students deserved a break, Mandy certainly qualified. He’d never seen a more studious, more diligent, more repressed child. He also knew Mandy’s football-star Caucasian dad had long since skipped town, likely leaving quite a negative impression regarding any sport. Unfortunately the girl came alive only when on the volleyball court, and he would hate to see her give it up.
But if he allowed her to maintain her crushing schedule, he only continued the cycle of oppression.
“Your mother has to sign, Mandy,” he said, feeling remorse even as he enforced the rules. The girl turned, already opening her mouth to argue, but he held up his hand. “Do you remember what I said the first day of practice? About how sports…” He let his voice trail away, hoping she’d answer for him. It took her a long time, but eventually she mumbled her answer.
“Sports test us, teaching us about who we really are.” She looked up at him. “But I love volleyball.”
He nodded. He knew she did, and that made this all that much harder. “Do you really want to discover you’re a liar?”
She looked away, refusing to answer. That was when the other siren spoke up. “Maybe there’s another way,” Sue offered. “Couldn’t she do some extra credit? A report or something?” She looked down at her niece. “To bring up your grade before your mother returns. Then she won’t be so angry, and maybe you can stay on the team.”
Suddenly Mandy was all smiles, and both females turned hopeful eyes to him. Once again he found himself sorely tempted. “But,” he said to himself as much as to them, “pouring more work onto an already overburdened schedule is not the solution.”
“But I can handle it!” Mandy pressed. “I swear I can!”
Mitch just shook his head. “Why don’t you tell your aunt why you failed that test?” Again the girl looked down at her shoes, refusing to answer. Finally Mitch stepped in, answering for her: “She fell asleep.”
Mandy cut in, her tone mulish, “There were all those Christmas recitals and stuff. I just got too tired.”
Her aunt shrugged, the sight once again pulling Mitch’s attention where it definitely should not go. With those top two buttons open, he was hard-pressed to breathe, much less understand what the temptress said. “The holidays are nuts. Everyone gets tired.”
Mitch cleared his throat, trying to open up his restricted airway. “She fell asleep during the exam.” While Sue’s eyes widened in shock, Mitch pushed his advantage. He forced himself to look directly into Sue’s eyes, seeing her not as a seductress but as Mandy’s temporary guardian. “She’s trying to manage two instruments, volleyball, and honors classes. She has to cut back.”
Sue just shrugged. “Chen family rules, Mr. Kurtz. We all took music.”
“But I hate it,” the girl wailed.
The woman sighed, and the sound pulled at Mitch’s thoughts. If it were up to him she wouldn’t ever have a reason to sigh. He’d make sure… Then he frowned, ruthlessly refocusing his thoughts. “You need to discuss this with your mother.”
“She’s out of town,” Mandy said with a sniff.
“Any discussion begins with her grades,” said her aunt, her voice level and reasonable, yet still sparking unreasonable thoughts in his mind. “Mandy’s got to pull them up first before she can change anything.” Her tone softened, and Mitch knew he was doomed. The woman obviously wasn’t trying to be seductive, but the effect remained the same: he wanted to grant her whatever she asked. “Won’t you consider some extra credit?” she coaxed.
He bit his lip, his conscience warring with his need to grant this goddess her every wish. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he tried.
“What if I throw in that dinner I promised you? Tonight? At six?”
What could he say to that? She’d just made him an offer he couldn’t resist.