The moment Meiling sees Gedeon she knows he’s a leopard shifter—just as she knows she can’t trust him. Meiling doesn’t take chances, life has taught her better than that. So why does she find herself rescuing this deadly, gorgeous man, when she knows she’d be better off leaving him to die?
Gedeon is used to women throwing themselves at him, not throwing his injured body over their beautiful, deceptively strong shoulders and carrying him to safety. He might be embarrassed, if he wasn’t so aroused by the very thought of this feisty lotus blossom.
As they strike up a working relationship that suits them both, Gedeon starts to rely on Meiling for just about everything. But when her hidden nature rises to the surface, the connection that links them shifts into an all-consuming desire. And neither will escape unmarked. . . .
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Meiling Chang stared in horror at the dead bodies in the open grave, dumped as if they were so much garbage. Five women. One was her cousin, her last relative on earth. She'd been too late tracking her. By how long? By the look of her, Libby had endured far too much before her life had been ended.
Meiling crouched at the edge of the mass grave, ignoring the black swarms of flies, beetles and maggots that fed in abundance on the bodies. Ants teemed over them. Overhead, large birds circled, some already sitting in the trees, beady eyes staring at the bodies, all too ready to pick them clean. The jungle was prepared to take care of business.
She wanted to scream in outrage until her vocal cords were shredded. Inside, where no one would ever hear or know, that was exactly what she did. She remained silent and small, huddled there in the shadows where it would take extraordinary vision for anyone to see her.
Her fists clenched helplessly on her thighs. She didn't move them, even when she wanted to pound them. Feel pain. Make it real. Drive the pain deep and brand it forever in her bones the way it was in her heart and soul. She didn't dare move. She was surrounded by the enemy. There were thirty of them and one of her.
She was so silly. Stupid. Just say it. She was a misfit. She didn't belong. Not anywhere. She had heard it from birth, and this proved it. She should be in that grave, not Libby, not her beautiful cousin. Libby was a golden swan. Tall and elegant. She moved like a summer breeze. Her hair was a golden waterfall of sleek silk. She could talk to anyone and charm them instantly. How could her life end by being thrown into a pit in the middle of the jungle? It made no sense. None of this made any sense. Why hadn't Libby listened to her just one time?
Grief stabbed at her. Along with it came the deep-down need for vengeance. She burned with terrible emotion. No matter how hard she tried to push it away, grief stabbed at her like ice picks, demanding retaliation. She had one pistol. She wasn't certain the damn thing actually worked. Thirty against one. She didn't even have thirty bullets.
She couldn't just go away and leave the other women in those dirty little huts she'd discovered, not now that she knew what was happening to them. But what could she do? She waited, trying not to breathe in the smell of rotting flesh and decay until the men patrolling around the third hut went away. When they did, she eased back into the foliage. Giant green leaves resembling elephant ears covered her body. She crawled through the thick stems, wincing as the prickly stalks stuck in her skin.
The huts were a good distance from one another. The youngest girls were kept in filthy conditions in a makeshift, nearly see-through hovel that appeared to have been hastily thrown up at the last minute to shelter them. It was mostly made up of leftover boards from the other two cabins built for the young women. One held four women. They appeared to be in their early twenties. The second cabin, the one Libby had most likely occupied, held five women or girls in it. All were chained to beds and appeared to be drugged. They were anywhere from twenty to sixteen years old.
The huts were each about a mile apart, most likely so the women knew nothing about the others. They were always kept isolated, drugged and chained. There was no hope of escape from their dreadful situation. Most of them accepted their fate. A few, like Libby, fought it and eventually died or were killed by the men who had taken them. They were a ragged lot, and no one knew where they were. The moment someone came looking, either they were moved, or they were killed and buried in a mass grave no one would find. Either way, those making their money off them would never be caught or punished.
Meiling had seen it happen so many times. In her land, in her neighboring land, the power had always shifted to the corrupt males, those willing to commit violence in order to get their way. She moved to a vantage point above the first hut, where the twenty-year-old women were kept. If she could somehow manage to free them first and enlist their aid, she might have a chance to free the youngest ones in the third hut before tackling the teens.
She wiped the beads of sweat from her face. The sweat was trickling down her throat into the valley between her breasts, which was quite a feat since she was extremely slender. She wanted to laugh, but she knew that was hysteria and she refused to give in to it. The heat, the insects and losing Libby had created a kind of surreal effect she was trying to stave off.
It took her a good half hour to work up the courage to move down the slope and get close enough to the small cabin to be able to count how many of the enemy she would have to contend with. Eight. Eight men coming in and out, laughing and talking in low voices. One was angry, zipping up his trousers and complaining to another, who seemed to be in charge. That man strode into the cabin with an attitude of resignation.
The walls were thin with large cracks in them. There was a small porch. The men smoked. Two drank and passed flasks to the others. Two others she hadn't seen before came out of the jungle with dogs and stood for a few minutes smoking with the others.
Meiling was grateful for the large plants that grew right up to the hut. Her small body was easy to conceal in the foliage. Fortunately, with the men smoking and the wind blowing in the opposite direction, the dogs didn't catch her scent. She had sprayed her body with a special chemical that was supposed to keep her own scent from leaking out, but she didn't know how effective it really was.
Suddenly the sound of voices could be heard coming from the cabin. A man sounding angry. "What do I have to do, babe? He was upset, wanted his money back, and I had to give him a fucking refund. You give the best damn blow jobs in the world, and I have to give the man his money back?"
"But Vahn, this wasn't supposed to be real. We were playing out a fantasy, between the two of us." The woman's voice was low, and she sounded on the verge of tears.
"You love it, Bess, admit it. It's your fantasy come true. You love having men beg you for it. You're the best and you know it. You have them eating out of your hand. I did everything you wanted. I brought your friends here. They aren't so high and mighty and they sure as hell aren't anywhere as good at this as you are."
There was a short silence. It sounded as though he was kissing her. "They aren't very nice to me."
"Who isn't nice to you, babe? I'll beat the holy hell out of her."
"I don't want you to do that. Then she can't work and the rest of us have to work more."
"That's true. How 'bout this. You tell me who's being mean to you, and when I spot a customer who is going to be an asshole, I'll give him to her. He can treat her like shit, and she'll deserve it for the way she treats you."
"Patti," Bess said instantly. "Patti is always mean."
There was a murmur of protest among the women, but they stopped abruptly when Vahn spoke.
"I can arrange for several nasty customers."
Someone-Meiling presumed it was Patti-began to weep softly.
"Okay, babe, the next time I send you a customer, you treat him good, you hear me? I owe money and you're paying that debt off for me, just like we talked about. That was the fantasy and that was what we agreed on."
"Yes, Vahn. I will. I'm sorry. I just need you to come in and see me once in a while so I remember why I'm here. Tell me you love me."
"I do, Bess. You know I love you."
There was another long silence.
More kissing, Meiling supposed. That was perfect manipulation on Vahn's part. Bess was so certain he loved her and they would live happily ever after. There wouldn't be a happy ever after. Vahn would kill her or sell her after he was finished with her. He most likely had another woman or teen in the other cabin as well.
Having a conspirator in the cabin made things even more difficult. That meant Bess would warn Vahn and even fight for him if Meiling managed to sneak into the hut to free the women from the chains. If he had someone in the second cabin, that girl would do the same. Meiling's head was beginning to pound.
The sound of an engine approaching broke up the little party of men on the porch. The guards patrolling with the dogs hurried back into the jungle to make their rounds. The men congregating together looked at one another and immediately gathered tools and tried to appear busy. A Jeep came up the narrow dirt trail fast and abruptly halted just before ramming into the building. A man wearing light-colored jungle gear leapt out from behind the wheel. He was approaching forty, his dark hair receding slightly, but he wore it cut close to his head.
"Come on, Gedeon, hurry. I gotta show this to you. Make you understand. What I owe the Orlov family is nothing. This makes more money in a single hour than what I owe them in a month. I can pay them back. I've got the money sitting in the Jeep." He indicated the package on the seat.
The other man took the wrapped package and hefted it twice. "It's all here, Frankie? Because if I have to come back, it won't be to talk."
A shiver slid down Meiling's back. It wasn't as if the stranger had raised his voice; he hadn't. That quiet voice was a part of him. Natural. But he was the most dangerous man there. Meiling was certain of it, just from hearing his voice. He didn't tower over Frankie, although he was taller by an inch or so. His shoulders were wider. His chest thicker. He wore a suit as if it had been made for him and wouldn't dare wrinkle even in the worst of conditions. She couldn't see his face, but he had thick dark hair that was the only thing unruly about him.
"It's all there, Gedeon. But you don't want to take the money back to Victor Orlov. Let me show you the operation. I never told anyone you were coming. No one knows you're here. This could get me killed just showing you this, but I'm willing to give you part of my shares for all the times you saved my ass. I mean it."
Frankie's voice rang with sincerity and Meiling had to believe him. She noticed that Gedeon shoved the package into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"When you owe Victor Orlov money, Frankie, you have to pay him back or someone like me shows up on your doorstep to collect it. This is the third time. He isn't a patient man. I stuck my neck on the chopping block for you. Can't do it again."
"I know you did. I know you did. That's why I'm letting you in on this moneymaker. Ground floor, I swear. You take this back to him. Tell him he can come in but he brings us the product." Frankie sounded eager.
Meiling glimpsed his face. Her heart stuttered in her chest. Gedeon looked bored, but more than that, with the angles and planes of his face, the dark shadows on his jaw, he looked invincible. He walked with a fluid grace, flowing over the ground with an easy stride that made him appear to be part of nature. Her heart began to pound, and she had to concentrate on her breathing to get it under control. Did Frankie have any idea what he was dealing with?
The other men moved out of his way, showing him respect, but she doubted they really understood they'd brought a killing machine into their midst. She knew what he was. She didn't have to see him up close. She didn't have to look into his eyes to see what he was. She recognized him just by the way he moved. She didn't know what he was, what kind of title he held, but she didn't want to know. He was too dangerous to contend with. She wasn't going to get herself killed or captured.
Meiling went motionless, locking her body in a frozen stillness that made it nearly impossible for anyone to spot her. Only her eyes moved, taking in everything around her. She heard Frankie explaining to Gedeon the business, how they kidnapped women from the clubs and brought them here to the jungle, where they were trained to serve men. They were rented out while they were in training, making good money, and when they were sold at auction, they made huge amounts of money. The supplies were endless. They could get women or teens easily from anywhere, all over the country. The money was better than drugs or arms.
"Look at them," Gedeon said softly. "These are human beings. Look at the way you're treating them. They have bruises all over them. They're chained to the beds. We don't have slaves anymore, for God's sake."
Frankie shrugged. "Why not? We can have anything we want out here. No one knows. No one cares. We can do whatever we want to them. They can be replaced like that." He snapped his fingers.
Two of his men came in, pushing past Gedeon, each going to one of the women and ruthlessly catching her by the hair to drag her into a semi-sitting position. Both began to make demands and pepper the woman with slaps and a fist in various places on her body before she could accommodate them. Two more men entered the hut and eagerly claimed two other hapless women.
"I brought you at training time. We have two other cabins. The same thing is going on in those cabins right now. We're very organized. We train the sluts exactly the same. When they're ready, we sell them and bring the next ones in. We try to make that turnover as fast as possible, and the money is unbelievable."