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Stephen Chu banged his fist heavily against the apartment door. 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 be stopped now by a locked door. He wouldn't. He banged again.
"He's not there," said a voice behind him.
Stephen spun around, his fist tensing around the handle of his garment bag. The bag 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 farther down the hall.
A blond waif emerged from the shadows, a backpack on her shoulders. She looked about sixteen years old and was staring at him with that wide-eyed awe that was more nuisance than flattery.
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 for you." 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 Stephen noticed two things. First, she was older than he'd thought. There was a seriousness in her eyes even though the rest of her face dimpled with humor. It didn't make sense, but when she smiled, her eyes remained sad, the kind of sadness that came only 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 newly engaged stage where they're inseparable."
"Yes, they are good 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. The cops were after someone else on a different floor. There was some shooting, but everyone is fine. 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 by an inability to 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 loveor a lack of itwas the cause of the sadness in this woman's face. 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 control of his thoughts and was staring at her. 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. "I told youthey 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. "Pretty full of yourself, aren't you?"
Stephen frowned, not understanding her slang. "With Tracy 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 can give her something else. Like love."
Stephen just shook his head. If Tracy had chosen the earthly path with Nathan then it would do no good to argue. Many tigresses made the mistake of falling in love. 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 yourself 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 farmers 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 pork. I meant only that I honor his legacy." As he spoke, his vision blurred 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 blond woman 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 she? "I need to speak with Nathan. My cell phone doesn't work in the United States."
"So you're that big dragon teacher who was supposed to partner Tracy? But since she's with Nathan now, you must be free."
He nodded. Tracy and he had been matched on all levelsbody, 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 had been just about to begin their practice. When she suddenly left the temple in Hong Kong to follow Nathan back here to the University of Illinois, Stephen had followed, of course. Tracy was too talented a tigress to release without a fight. "I am Stephen Chu, lead dragon at the Tigress Temple."
"Your great-grandfather's name was Stephen?" The girl's 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 U.S., Mr. Stephen Chu. My name is Zoe Lewis, and I'm one of Nathan's students." She smiled at him. "And since Tracy is off the 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. That 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 as though 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 teaching business. I can't imagine an engaged man doing some of the things he talked about. At least not with anyone but Tracy."
She pushed to her feet, and even this tired he could see that her body qualified her as a partner. She had high breasts and well-formed legs beneath her faded jeans, though she seemed a bit too muscular to have 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 guess she was in her mid-twenties.
"So are you here to take on students?" she asked. "If so, we could figure out a lesson schedule now."
He shook his 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 blond hair fell like yellow silk across her shoulder. It 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 his corporation was on shaky ground. He'd slept less than two hours in two days, and his right-hand man, Shen Jiao Kai, was hoarse from screaming through the phone at him. Stephen might consider taking Zoe as a partner. She was certainly interesting enough, but it would require time and delicate handling to make the change. And 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." Zoe's voice was growing curt. He'd hurt her feelings, but he didn't have the brain power 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 didn't have a prayer.
He sighed, his gaze drawn back to her despite his intention. "She is deeply in love?" he asked. 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. "But I'm sure she'd leave the love of a lifetime to run screaming for 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 judgment, and yet she obviously took it as one. She squared her shoulders and glared venomously 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.
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 silence 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 beauty snoring like he was crashed out on silk sheets.
Her heart softened a little 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 mundane, but their intimacy was almost painful to watch. She 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, turned out to be an idiot who lost all their money. Her dreams of happily ever after vaporized, and children Her heart twisted painfully in her chest. Children just weren't in the cards for her. She'd ditched Marty the Moron, gone back to school, and very soon would graduate to begin a new life with her own dreams completely free of stupid men.
There'd just been one glitch. Her housemate Janet had given her a gift of 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 on a level she couldn't begin to explain. And then, damn it, her teacher fell in love with Tracy and had stopped teaching.