Li-Na walked quickly out of the kitchen. She did not run, but fury boiled in her blood. She clenched her fists wishing she had a paintbrush to paint out her feelings in dark slashes and hard whip-like strokes.
She was not naïve. She understood that most people lied or manipulated to get what they wanted. But why go to such an elaborate ruse, just to get her paintings? And why would Mrs. Dove-Lyon—her friend Bessie!—betray her like that?
“Wait! Wait! Miss Lina!”
His words were like loud roars. She remembered the tiger snores from last night and realized that the beast was awake now. His footfalls were heavy behind her. She knew better than to outrun a predator, so she stood her ground, turning slowly to face Lord Daniel.
“Do you beat me now?” she asked, her voice flat. “Do I work on the account books? Or do I make my way back to London?”
He reared back, the shock on his face looking like the beginnings of a growl. “Of course not! Why would you think that?”
She should be grateful for that, but she was still too angry. She could not entwine her fingers together. She feared she’d break them. She held her fists against her belly and faced the tiger with as much calm as she could.
“Why would you do this? Why would you go to such lengths to pursue me?”
He sighed. “Because your art is that good. Because it is beautiful, and you deserve to be compensated for it.” He lifted his open hands as if he were waiting for her to gift him with something. “I have helped many artists become wealthy. They are able to feed themselves and their families while doing work they love.” His hands dropped to his sides. “I could do that for you. Give me a few paintings and see if I can do what I promise. What will it cost you?”
He did not understand. He didn’t see that already her heart was beating triple time and her hands were sweating where they were wrapped together. But at least she didn’t’ become breathless. She retained enough rationality to respond with reason.
“Where am I to put this money?”
“Where would I put this money? In a bag in my bedroom to tempt thieves?”
“You put it in a bank. I can explain the process to you if it would help.”
“And will they honor that this money is mine? A Chinese woman with no protection?”
“Of course. Those are the rules.”
She stared at him, wondering if he was pretending to be stupid or if he truly didn’t know. A moment later, he flushed, showing that he did understand the problem.
“You will need a man to open the account for you. Someone you trust. But then the money will be held for you.”
“You mean him. I will not be able to get the money by myself.”
He grimaced, showing his teeth. “That is why it must be a man you trust.”
She let the silence hang. He leaned against the wall as he studied her.
“I could set up the account for you. I would give you full access and instruct the bank to respect your requests, but you do not trust me, so that is no inducement.”
“Are you so powerful that you could force them to honor your statement? Or would they forget again and again until you have to intervene?” She had heard Mrs. Dove-Lyon fume about just this problem, and that lady was a widow in control of a lucrative gambling den.
“That is a cynical thought.”
She didn’t respond. She didn’t have to.
“But not a false one, I gather.” His expression turned grumpy. “If I could find a way for you to control your money, then would you paint something for me?”
“One tiger does not rule the jungle.”
He snorted, a low sound that was as much grunt as laugh. “I am the tiger in this scenario?”
She certainly wasn’t.
“Well, this tiger has done business in many countries and with many banks.” He lifted his chin. “I will see this handled, Miss Lina, to your satisfaction.” He straightened off the wall as he looked at her. “But I get the impression that it wouldn’t matter, would it? It’s not about the money.”
He was a perceptive tiger.
“Can you explain to me why you will not consider selling your paintings?”
Because the very thought made her entire body itch. “They are mine, Lord Daniels.”
“Yes, of course they are. Why won’t you let me sell them?”
“Because they are mine.”
He frowned at her. He didn’t do anything more, and she was watching for every minute shift in his body in preparation for an attack. Nothing happened except his frown.
“You will not explain?”
She forced herself to find the words. “My paintings are my thoughts, my feelings—”
“Yes, of course. That’s why—”
“Listen!” She waited a moment while he pressed his lips together. “I was six years old when I began work as playmate and servant to the first daughter of the local Mandarin. My days and nights were given to that child until we were both grown. When her brother began to see me in a new way, his father sold me to a ship captain headed to England.” She did not tell him that in was her painting that revealed the love between her and the boy. Her first and only love turned into disaster. “Mrs. Dove-Lyon won me in a dice game and now I work for her.” She looked into the tiger man’s eyes and pleaded with him. “My paintings are not work, and they are not a thing to be sold like chattel. They are my feelings and heart stroked onto a page as a way of releasing them. To sell such a thing would be to sell anger or happiness. It is not possible.”
“It is possible. Indeed, I do it every day.”
She shook her head.
“Well,” he finally said, “I hope I can change your mind. Meanwhile, let me know if you need anything while working on the ledgers.”
She straightened, completely thrown. “I thought that was a ruse.”
He shrugged. “It was a convenience. I want you to study the ledgers and report to me if you find any errors.”
“Do you think there are any?”
“I don’t know. The steward is an ass, but that doesn’t mean he’s a cheat. And since I would like you to remain here while we get to know one another, I have hired you to do that task. Are you willing?”
“It is what Mrs. Dove-Lyon told me to do.”
He nodded. “Very good. I had intended for you to stay at the manor home, but as I said before, it’s under repair. You’ll need to work here. Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes.” Indeed, she had managed with a great deal less than what was provided in his cluttered office.
“Tell me or Mrs. Hocking if something comes up.”
She straightened then as she had been taught when she was a child. She stood still with her head bowed and hands clasped before her until she was dismissed.
He sighed as he stared at her. “I don’t beat people, Miss Lina. I’m a fair employer and an excellent art dealer. It is my hope that you come to believe in my good intentions and trust that I will do you no harm.”
She said nothing. She didn’t even look up. But in her mind’s eye she saw a fierce tiger watching her while in repose. He was not poised to strike, but only a fool would believe him harmless.
“I have seen your paintings, Miss Lina. I watched you create something bold and fierce. I can hardly reconcile that with what I see before me now. Will you please raise your head and look me in the eye?”
She did so because he commanded it. She lifted her chin, but kept her gaze lowered because to look a tiger in the eye was to challenge him.
“Meet my gaze, please. It makes it easier to see my sincerity.”
He was toying with her—cat to mouse—but she was not powerless. She looked up and met his eyes. What she discovered was that a tiger’s gaze was something more powerful than a normal man’s. Once she met Lord Daniel’s gaze, she stood utterly transfixed.
Her time in the Lyon’s Den had subjected her to all manner of men as they paid their debts or cashed in their chips. Privileged whiners who acted like spoiled dogs. Angry oxen who bullied but were dull witted. Sly monkeys who chittered and thieved. And occasionally, the bored dragons who gambled for sport and went away richer.
This was the first she’d locked eyes with a tiger. She expected to see darkness there and the absolute awareness that he could destroy her at his whim. Instead, she saw his green gold iris and a calm regard. Like a cat lazily stretched in a beam of sunlight. His demeanor was relaxed, and yet his power was undeniable. It was in his size and the muscles that adorned his body. But it was also in the flat awareness of himself as an apex predator. He did not need to preen. He did not beg. And he certainly did not need to bow to a woman. Indeed, he was forcing her to an awareness of her smallness before his greatness. He could order even the disposition of her eyes, and she could not naysay him.
“I am your employer, yes?” he asked.
She answered without thought. “Yes.”
“And if I ordered you to draw a painting for me?”
“I would make black dots on a piece of paper and hand it to you.”
He nodded as if he expected as much. “Black dots?” he said, humor curving his lips. “That is what you would paint for me?”
Like his eyes. Black dots surrounded by striations of grey and white. She would not use color. She could not compete with what nature had given him. But having been caught by them, that is what she would paint.
He sighed without sound. She knew it because his chest expanded as if with a deep breath, and then it deflated without once changing the pull of his eyes.
“Miss Lina—” he began, but she was angry at being trapped by his eyes. Angry that she had lost herself from something so smalls as a pair of eyes. So she spoke without thought, the correction blurting out like a mouse squeaking out defiance.
“Li-Na. My name is Li-Na. Two words” She narrowed her eyes. “You show ignorance every time you say it wrong.”
His brows arched. “Lina is not your surname?”
“It is not.”
“Then what is your proper name?”
She swallowed down a bitter retort. Instead, she spoke with brutal honesty though the words scraped her throat. “I have none.”
His head tilted in confusion. “I don’t understand. I thought everyone—even the Chinese—used surnames.”
“I might have had one as a child, but when I was given to the Zhong family, it was taken from me. I was simply Li-Na to them.”
“What do you mean, when you were given to them?”
How to explain something she barely remembered. “My parents brought me to the Zhong family head, the local mandarin. What you would call the local lord. I became servant to their young daughter.”
“Were you paid for this job?”
“I was fed and dressed. If there was payment, it went to my parents.” Her body softened slightly in memory. “They were happy years. The Zhong first daughter was kind.”
He held up his hand. “I don’t need to hear more. You were treated as a slave, and now you think you are one here. You are not. You can speak your mind, you can walk in the sun, you can spend your coin however you wish.”
“You mean, I can paint for you.”
“Yes! But not for me. For you. Whatever you want.”
He watched her closely, clearly hoping to see her change her mind. He wanted her to say, yes, sir, I will happily give my heart away! She clenched her jaw in denial. The tiger man might eat her, but he would not take her soul. And so she remained as impassive as a blank slate while in her mind, she drew dark slashes of restraints around him and an impenetrable wall between them. It was enough to hold her still while he waited as a great cat would.
In the end, he nodded.
“I understand. You are free to do whatever you want.”
“Do I check the account books?”
“Yes. But only until Mrs. Hocking comes. That was the arrangement I made with Mrs. Dove-Lyon. Afterwards you may walk the moors, dance in the sun, sing to the trees.”
And when she put brush to paper, he would lie in wait, stalking her and her art until he could take it for himself. Was she to give up everything in this life?
Not this. Her paintings were her own. She would walk in the sun, she would see this strange land, but she would not paint.
With that decision made, she curtsied to him. “I will start on the ledgers now.”
He nodded and waved her away. She begin her work. She felt calmer once the abacas settled in her hand. The familiar sound of her calculations helped her relax. But not even the steady march of numbers could erase his two eyes from her thoughts.
Honey green tiger eyes that stalked her soul.