Stephen Chu banged his fist heavily against the apartment door. The force of his blows wasn’t out of anger but exhaustion. After almost two days of travel from Hong Kong, he was dropping with fatigue. He’d already passed through three Herculean trials. Impatiencean endless wait for the first flight out of Hong Kong. Povertyexpensive in-flight phone calls to rescue his father’s business legacy. And then Bureaucracythat God-awful line at Customs. He would not now be stopped by a locked door. He wouldn’t. He banged again.
“He’s not there,” said a female voice behind him.
Stephen spun around, his fist tensing around his garment bag handle. It was unwieldy, but could still be used to buy time in a fight. Then he blinked, his brain catching up to reality. The voice had been female and friendly. And coming from deeper down the hall.
A blonde waif emerged from the shadows. She looked about sixteen years old, but from the backpack on her shoulder, she was probably a college student. She was staring at him with that wide-eyed awe that plagued his social life.
He relaxed his grip on the bag and resorted to his second line of defense: charm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. You say Mr. Gao isn’t at home?”
She dropped her backpack on the ground and slid to the floor. “He’s late. Pull up a chair. We can wait together.”
He blinked and looked up and down the hall. There wasn’t a chair in sight.
She snorted. “It was a joke. Sit on the garment bag if the floor’s too gross.” Then she watched him, humor dancing in her blue eyes as she waited for his decision.
He looked at the floor. In truth, it was cleanabout a two star hotel quality. He’d stayed in much worse. But he very much feared that if he sat, he’d never stand up again. “Actually, I’m not looking for Mr. Gao, but Miss Tracy Williams. Do you know where she might be?”
“She’s with Nathan, of course.”
The waif smiled, and in that instant Nathan noticed two things. First, she was older than he’d first thought. There was a maturity in her eyes that came out when the rest of her dimpled in humor. It didn’t make sense, but when her face smiled, her eyes remained remote. It was a sadness in her, he thought, one that only came from experience. And second, he saw that she was very beautiful. How had he missed that before?
Meanwhile, the girl continued to chat about Nathan and Tracy. “They’re still in that ecstatically engaged stage where they’re inseparable.”
“Yes, I know they’re friends. That’s why I’m here” His mind lurched. Fatigue was making it too damn slow. “Did you say engaged?”
“Yup. Tracy and Nathan are going to be married. Apparently it happened right in the middle of a drug bust or something. I heard about it from 2B who heard it from…” Her voice trailed away. “But you don’t really care about that, do you? So why do you want Tracy?”
“She is… She was to be…” He swallowed, unsettled not by the information but because he couldn’t think. “Jet lag,” he groused. “Engaged? To Nathan? But why?”
The waif released another unladylike snort. “Because they’re in love? That is the usual reason.”
He heard bitterness in her voice and he silently echoed it. His parents had been in “love” once too, or so he was told. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t even pretty, or it hadn’t been during his very lonely childhood. He wondered if that were the cause of the darkness in this girl’s eyes. She really was extraordinarily beautiful. Her eyes were so large and a crystalline blue. Like the sky over Mongolia, except with the shadow of…what?
He blinked, abruptly realizing he had lost himself in staring at the girl’s eyes. What was he doing here? Oh yes. Tracy. Tigress training. “She’s with Nathan?” he murmured out loud. “But we were to be partners. Why would she choose him?”
The girl stared at him, and he realized that she had lost all the awe in her gaze. “Once again, I say, love. They love each other.”
He shook his head, unable to process the most basic of information. He had to repeat it out loud just to push it through his foggy brain. “Tracy chose Nathan. Not me.”
The girl arched a brow at him. “Full of ourselves, much?”
Stephen frowned, not understanding her slang. “As my partner, we would have attained the heights of Tantric ecstasy together. Nathan is not a dragon master. He can’t give her what I can.”
She stared at him, her head tilted to one side. “Maybe he could give her something else. Like love.”
He just shook his head. If Tracy had chosen the Earthly path with Nathan then it would do no good to argue. Fools would be fools no matter what riches were offered. And yet, he was here. He could at least talk to her, maybe try to change her mind. “She did not seem stupid,” he murmured.
“Wow, you are really not helping herself here.”
He frowned, his jet-lagged mind struggling to follow her strange words. “I have always done my ancestors great honor. I am named after my great grandfather who was a pig farmer. Every day I light incense to honor his legacy.”
She waved a hand at his rumpled designer suit and expensive Italian loafers. “Pig farming must do really well in China.”
He frowned. She didn’t understand what he was saying. “My family no longer raises pigs. We package, ship, and export it. I meant only that I honor his legacy.” As he spoke, his vision blurred into gray. He blinked rapidly and within moments normal sight returned, but he was still startled by it. He was too young to be this tired.
Meanwhile, the blonde girl released a roll of laughter that filled the air. It was light and musical, and it felt like a fresh breeze in the gloomy hallway. “I’m sure Great Granddad is filled with pride.”
He stared at her, his mind struggling to keep up. There had been power in the girl’s laugh. Yin power that had shivered through his spine and into his groin. Who was this girl? “I need to speak with Nathan. My cell phone doesn’t work in the United States.”
“Are you that big dragon teacher who was supposed to partner Tracy?”
He nodded. Tracy and he had been matched on all levels of body, personality, and expertise. Together, they would spend many days and nights in pursuit of a mystical experience. It would begin with physical stimulation, but it would lead to so much more. They were just about to begin their practice when she suddenly disappeared. He had chased her all the way from Hong Kong to here, the University of Illinois. “I am Stephen Chu, lead dragon at the Tigress Temple.”
“Your great grandfather’s name was Stephen?” Her lips quirked at the edges, and he noticed for the first time how nicely formed her mouth was. He was so lost in admiration of the curve and color of her lips that he nearly missed her next words. “Your Chinese grandfather?”
She looked at him. He looked back. His English was excellent, but when he was this tired, he tended to lag a couple sentences behind. “What? No. His name was Xin Tian. Stephen is my English name.”
“Okey-dokey. Welcome to the US, Mr. Stephen Chu. My name is Zoe Lewis, and I’m one of Nathan’s students.” She smiled, dimpling prettily at him. “And since Tracy is off the potential partner list, are you interested in anyone else?”
He swallowed, his mind rolling through the possibilities. Zoe obviously had intriguing potential, but nothing was ever simple in the pursuit of heaven. Neophytes always wanted to partner with him because he was the handsome, rich guy. They weren’t interested in advancing their spirit or attaining Heaven. They just wanted inside his wallet. He might risk it with this woman, but then there was the other problem: temple politics. He couldn’t just pick a girl because she was here. It wasn’t the way things were done in the Tigress Temple.
“Are you all right?”
He blinked, stunned to realize he’d been staring at her again. And given her expression, he hadn’t looked like he was lost in her beauty. “I need to talk to Nathan.”
“He’ll be here in a minute. I’m waiting for him too, but my guess is he’s out of the teacher business. I can’t imagine an engaged man doing some of the things he talked about. At least not with other students.”
She pushed to her feet, and even this tired he could see that her body had potential. She had high breasts and well-formed legs beneath her faded jeans, though she seemed a bit too muscular for a proper willow waist. With better clothing, she could compare very well to other tigresses. Better yet, she appeared much more adult now that she wasn’t sitting cross legged on the floor. He’d put her age in her mid-twenties.
“So are you here to take on students?” she pressed. “If so, we could figure out a lesson schedule now.”
He shook her head. Clearly she didn’t understand the temple structure. “I am a dragon master. I do not take students.”
She frowned. “But you were going to take on Tracy, and she started after me.”
“The Tigress Mother assigned us to be partners.”
She tilted her head and her wispy blonde hair slid from her shoulder to fall like yellow silk across her shoulder. If was a simple gesture, obviously not meant as a seduction, and yet he found the sight mesmerizing.
“So how does one get assigned a partner?” she pressed.
“It is a complicated process,” he said, irritated with himself for being tempted. He had precious little time. His business was falling down around his ears. The world economic crisis had hit the pork industry too, which meant the core of his corporation was on shaky ground. He’d slept less than two hours in two days, and his right-hand man was hoarse from screaming through the phone at him. He might consider taking Zoe as a partner. She was certainly interesting enough, but that would take time and delicate handling to make the change. But first he had to be sure things were finished with Tracy. “Did you hear her say it? That she wishes to be married to Nathan?”
“No, I didn’t,” the girl returned, her voice growing curt. Obviously he’d hurt her feelings, but he didn’t have the brainpower to smooth things over. “I got it from the lady in 2B,” she continued. “So you’re here to beg Tracy to pick you. Good luck with that.” Her tone made it obvious that he hadn’t a prayer.
He sighed, his gaze drawn back to her despite his intention. “She is deeply in love?” he pressed. Love was the biggest pitfall for a tigress. And for most women, now that he thought about it. Why did normally sane women fall for such an obvious illusion?
Zoe was silent for a long time, her eyes flat and a little pitying as she scanned him from head to toe. He abruptly became aware of every wrinkle in his suit, every smudge on his shoes. “Yeah,” she drawled, “it’d take the love of a lifetime to run screaming from you.” He couldn’t miss the disdain in her tone.
“And you,” he snapped back, “you are not a helpful person.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. He could see he had scored a hit, and he was not quite sure why. He merely meant that she was not being helpful to him. It was not a character judgement, and yet she obviously took it as one. She squared her shoulders and glared venom at him. “Well, sucks to be me then. I guess I’ll just have to study in silence.” She grabbed her textbook and slammed it open on her lap.
He frowned, trying to figure out how to make amends. He did not casually hurt other people. “I am sorry,” he said. “It must be my English”
“Your English is just fine, Mr. Chu. And Ësilence’ means you have to be quiet, too.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but shut it again at her glare. He was too exhausted to smooth over the situation now. Maybe it was for the best. He didn’t have time to take on a partner now. He would go back to Hong Kong as soon as he verified Tracy’s plans. So he folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the wall with a huff. Ten minutes later, his eyes drifted shut.
# # #
Zoe looked up when the arrogant man started snoring. She’d never seen anyone sleep standing up before, but there he wasall wrinkled suit and sculpted beautysnoring like he was crashed out on silk sheets.
Her heart softened a little bit toward him. He really did look wiped. As long as he didn’t talk, she could pretend he wasn’t an asshole. He certainly was nice to look at: rugged face, high cheekbones, and straight black hair that was supposed to be slicked back. Right now it slipped forward across his forehead in stylish disarray. His shoulders were broad without being bulky, his hips lean, and in his dark suitblack pants, gray shirt, black tiehe looked like a movie star bad boy.
Zoe sighed. Why did all the cute ones end up being jerks?
Her thoughts were cut off at the sounds of footsteps on the stairs. Pushing to her feet, she made it to the stairway railing and looked down. Three floors below, Nathan and Tracy were wrapped arm in arm, their heads tucked close together. Nathan chuckled softly, and Zoe felt her chest tighten in envy. They were probably talking about grocery shopping or something, but their intimacy was almost painful to watch. Zoe didn’t know whether to pity them the disillusion to come or fervently pray for their happily-ever-after. Someone somewhere ought to get real love.
She had once believed in true love. She had gotten married and was happily looking forward to her picket fence and two or three kids. But her husband Marty ended up being an idiot who lost all their money, her happily-ever-after was a disaster, and children… Her heart twisted painfully in her chest. Children just weren’t in the cards for her. So she ditched the Marty the Moron, went back to school, and very soon she would graduate to begin her own happily-ever-after completely free of stupid men.
But then, her housemate Janet had given her a gift of Ta
Tantric classes with Nathan Gao. Zoe hadn’t expected anything Earth-shattering, but there was something in the practice that appealed to her. It grounded her in her body and released all her sexual hang-ups. It worked for her on a level she couldn’t begin to explain. And then, damn it, her teacher fell in love with Tracy.
Rather than dwell on her back luck, Zoe gathered her things and met the lovers halfway down the stairs. Action was her new motto, and in this case, an easy bulwark against loneliness.
“Hey lovebirds,” she called, smiling when they hastily broke apart. “You got a visitor upstairs. Stephen Chu.”
Both Nathan and Tracy gaspedand wasn’t that just too cutebut apparently for entirely different reasons.
“Zoe!” Nathan cried. “I completely forgot our lesson.”
“Stephen!” Tracy grimaced. “What’s he doing here?”
“Not a problem,” Zoe answered Nathan. “I got some homework done. And near as I can tell,” she added to Tracy, “he’s here to seduce you.” Thankfully, there wasn’t a trace of envy in her voice. But really, why did Tracy get two guys desperate to have her?
“Oh crap,” Tracy moaned. “I told him I wasn’t interested.”
Zoe shrugged. “He doesn’t seem like a guy who understands the word Ëno.’ Probably doesn’t hear it that often.”
Meanwhile, Nathan was switching into teacher mode. “Did you read the book I gave you? I’m afraid it’ll be hard for me to partner with you for the more advanced”
“Don’t worry,” Zoe interrupted. “I read. I learned. And I understand that engaged men really shouldn’t be Ëpolishing the mirror’ with someone other than their fiancees.”
A male voice cut through from above them. “Polishing the mirror is done between two female partners.”
Everyone looked up to see Nathan standing like a god at the top of the railing. From this angle, he looked tall and imposing, but Zoe remembered the wrinkles in his suit and the very human weariness on his features. “Thank you, Mr. Webster, I’ll make sure to use the phrase correctly in the future.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he just looked at her with that blank uncomprehending stare.
Meanwhile, Nathan mounted the stairs with surprising speed. “Is something wrong at home? Is there”
“No, no,” Stephen answered as he rubbed a hand over his face, further rumpling his hair. “Nothing wrong.” Then he blinked and slowly turned his focus to Tracy. He made a visible effort to pull himself together, straightening his shoulders, softening his gaze, and shifting his tones to more cultured accents. “Hello, Tracy. You left the temple too quickly for me to talk to you.”
Seduction Mode, and wow, was it potent. Liquid brown eyes, bedroom voice, and enough handsome to grace a movie marquis. No wonder the guy was arrogant. He probably had women wetting themselves just for a minute of his direct attention. Zoe wasn’t immune, and she’d already decided the guy was a jerk. Even Tracy who was desperately in love with Nathan still blushed and looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I told you I couldn’t do it.”
Stephen sighed. “So you have chosen love.” He sounded like she’d chosen baloney over pate.
Tracy raised her eyes, meeting his with clear purpose. “Yes and don’t knock it,” she said as her gaze on Nathan. “You’d be surprised what partners in love can accomplish.”
Stephen remained silent, clearly mulling over her words. In the end, he just rubbed a hand over his face in defeat. “Very well. Felicitations to you both.” Then he turned and grabbed his garment bag before heading down the stairs.
“Wait!” Nathan called. “Zoe is ready for her first partner. I don’t know how long you’re staying, but if you could manage a few session with her, I’d be grateful.”
Stephen paused halfway down the steps. He looked down at her, and Zoe damned herself for holding her breath in hope. Sure he was an arrogant jerk, but he was also damned sexy. Who wouldn’t want a fling with a Chinese aristocrat? He was dark and exotic, and she thought she caught a spark of interest in his eyes.
But then he turned away, looking back over his shoulder at Nathan. “I’m leaving on the next plane.”
Zoe’s chest tightened against the pain of his cold words, but she still managed to give voice to her anger. “You’re an ass. I don’t want you as a partner.”
He turned back to her, his gaze catching hers and holding. She lifted her chin, putting every ounce of bravado she possessed into staring him down. Let him see what he was missing! She waited. One heartbeat. Two. Three.
He shrugged, grabbed his garment bag and brushed past her. It was the ultimate dismissal, and Zoe felt her soul shrivel into nothing. She didn’t really care that one exotic man found her somehow lacking. It was that he was yet another in a long line of men who couldn’t be bothered with her. Was something wrong with her that she could only attract idiots like her ex? Her hand lifted to her chestto that spot right above her heartand she rubbed at the pain blossoming there.
“Oh God, Zoe. I’m sorry. He didn’t meant that like it seemed,” Tracy babbled.
Nathan agreed. “He can be really cold, sometimes. His crappy parents never taught him anything about being kind.”
“Save it,” Zoe said. “I don’t care.” Then she gathered what dignity she could and turned to Nathan. “I don’t think this stuff is for me right now. Thanks anyway.” Then she turned and started down the steps.
“Zoe, wait” Nathan called.
Zoe couldn’t stop. If she did, she’d shatter, and she didn’t have the strength to glue herself back together again. But Tracy wasn’t to be deterred. She ran down the stairs, catching up with Zoe on the second floor landing.
“Don’t give up,” she said. “We’ll get you a teacher.”
Zoe paused, wanting to brush off all this Tantric energy stuff as unimportant. But her initial classes had taught her something. She had felt something, and that hadn’t happened in so very long. She really did want to keep learning, but not at the expense of everything else. And then there was the other big problem. “Truthfully, I can’t afford it. My lessons were a gift from my housemate. I just don’t have the money.”
“We’ll work something out,” Tracy pressed. “This stuff is worth pursuing. Believe me, no one is more surprised than me, but Zoe…” She swallowed, and her gaze momentarily lifted up to Nathan. Love filled her expression making her entire body seem to glow. “It’s worth it, I swear. Just give us some time to find you the right partner.”
Zoe swallowed, startled by the flash of yearning in her heart. At one time, she had thought Nathan was her right partner. But then Tracy had burst into their class, and that was it for anyone else. And now? She sighed trying to dredge up some hope for herself. Did she really think she could find something real in anything that involved a man? Her heart said yes, but her mind said no. No man. No children. These were the facts of her life.
“It’s just not meant for me,” she said softly, then turned away.