Dragon Moon

Dragon Moon, Book One

Nulli Para Ora

 

Chapter 1

“Now boarding Flight 257 nonstop to Beijing.”

The announcement blared over the loudspeaker and was also displayed on the digital signs in the passenger waiting area. Those who planned to board gathered their carry-on items and started the process of queuing for the long flight.

Angelique Meadows eyed her e-tickets one more time as she took a mental inventory in preparation for the flight. Her mind buzzed with thoughts of the importance of this trip, and her inner voice would not give her a moment’s peace. You’re about to live out your dream! Pride bloomed inside her, and when her turn came, she displayed her ticket stub to the attendant while she gazed at the plane outside the window.

As soon as the small slip of paper was scanned, she hurried down the Jetway to take her seat in business class. At thirty, Angelique was already on the fast track. As the executive vice president of Marketing and Development for Gladstone, Inc., her reputation grew at a steady pace, on a course that continued to propel her to legendary status in business circles. This was an important trip, not just for her, but for her company.

While she checked the overhead compartment for bag space, she recalled the months of research, the long nights, the analyses and charts, and all the details that led up to the final meeting with the board and CEO to broach the topic of a merger between two subsidiaries. Her work was exemplary; her pitch, flawless; her delivery, superb. It took little time for those in the room to agree to the benefits of her plan.

“Let me get that for you.” The familiar, friendly voice of her coworker, David Johnson, broke into her walk down memory lane. As he grabbed the handle of her carry-on bag, she watched his movements with interest while he stowed her bag in the overhead bin.

David was the senior vice president of finance at Gladstone. At thirty-two, he was one of the youngest vice presidents in the history of the company, having assumed the position four years prior. David inspired the best from his coworkers and they were aware he’d accept no less. Determination was his middle name, and he never gave up until he got what he wanted.

When his eyes met hers, she softened her expression and flashed a warm smile before she settled into her seat. “Thanks, David.” She could only hope her inappropriate thoughts were absent in her expression, and she pretended to be interested in the other passengers as they boarded and took their seats.

*

Seated in his chair, David watched Angelique as she lost herself in her thoughts. An appreciative smile curved his lips. Mere inches away was the 5’8” cinnamon-skinned ball of fire who he’d worked with for the last three and a half years. From the moment she’d arrived at Gladstone, his life had been a whirlwind. Angelique rose through the ranks like a rocket, known for her efficiency, effectiveness, creativity, determination, and trustworthiness. They’d worked on many projects together, and one always made the other look good. As those memories came forward, David found it impossible to hold back the large grin that threatened to take over his face.

A nervous flutter settled in his chest as he continued to peer at her out of the corner of his eye. If she could have read his mind, he imagined she might blush in that moment, and he hoped his gaze didn’t match his lustful thoughts.

When he noticed her eyes move in his direction, he looked away and feigned interest in the magazine selection in the pocket on the seat back in front. The idea of getting caught staring sent heat rushing up the back of his neck, and he covered it with his hand, massaging the area as if it was stiff.

After takeoff and long minutes of reading an uninteresting article in the airline magazine, David glanced over to find Angelique’s brows furrowed. She seemed to stare off into space in a deep daydream, motionless.

I know that look. Instead of leaving her to her thoughts, he elected to engage her in their usual banter. “Stop mulling it over; we’ve been over this a thousand times!” His words were a gentle admonishment to the workaholic next to him and an opportunity to clear his mind.

The smile that spread across her lips spread his own into a small grin. When she closed her eyes, he waited, knowing she wouldn’t allow his words to go unanswered.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” Angelique’s voice was a mixture of anticipation and contentment as she pressed the button that allowed her chair to recline.

David didn’t miss a beat, and moved in close to whisper in her ear, “Don’t want your prepared mind burning out on the flight over, genius.”

David laughed out loud when Angelique sucked her teeth before she looked him up and down. Her attempts to keep a serious face only exacerbated the situation, and before long, he found himself in a struggle to keep his composure. He loved to take digs at her when no one was looking; it spurred their competitive spirit and their camaraderie. Even with a lightened mood, David’s eyes all but burned as he took in Angelique’s semi-reclined form.

Despite the fact she joined in the laughter, her narrowed eyes and her almost devious grin told him she had a trick up her sleeve. “What’s that look?” David regarded her with a raised eyebrow as he studied her expression.

“What look, David? Are you always so paranoid?” She spoke with a smile and tone that were a little too innocent, raising a red flag.

“You’re up to something. Spill it!”

When her brown eyes met his gray ones, Angelique leveled him with a gaze full of challenge. Her devilish grin hadn’t diminished, and her voice took on a teasing tone. “Where’s the fun in that?”

He had to reel himself in at the wicked smile she gave him, and his mind almost ran away with thoughts of the two of them together. There was something in the playful look in her eyes as he stared into them, and as the moments passed, he could only hope his mind’s eye wasn’t blinded by wishful thinking.

There she was, close enough for him to whisper in her ear and smell the faint scent of coconut and hibiscus in the tiny spirals and coils of her curly hair. She smells edible! The gradual increase in his lecherous thoughts forced him to shift with slight discomfort in his seat. Each stolen glance added to his torment, and he soon found himself on the lookout for distractions. It’s gonna be a long flight.

* * * *

“Do you have all the documents?” Cheng, the patriarch of the Yuen clan, entered the office of his eldest son with a smile on his face.

“Of course, baba, I have them.” Gao answered with care and made sure to maintain a respectful tone. “We both know how important this deal is to our family; I won’t forget anything.”

With a small bow of his head, Gao hid the slight tension in his jaw that developed in response to being questioned about something so obvious. He pushed those negative thoughts aside before he regarded his father in confusion. “Baba, why are we speaking in English?”

“Our guests are from America; we need to practice our English as much as possible. Remember, most Americans speak only one language.”

Gao could feel the scowl on his face as he pulled his eyebrows down and narrowed his eyes. “This is China, baba; they should at least try to learn something in our language. If we were to go their country, they would not expect us to speak only Chinese. The nerve of these Americans and their expectations!”

“I understand your feelings, Gao, but the world is changing. Things are not as they used to be so long ago. You must try to adapt.”

Gao let out a sigh of annoyance as he listened to his father’s words, and he rubbed the space between his eyebrows with the two middle fingers of his left hand in an attempt to dissipate his frustration.

“Give the Americans a chance. They are brokering an important deal for us and they may even surprise you.” Cheng offered him a look of understanding before he took his seat.

“I highly doubt it.” All the Americans Gao had ever met thought they were so clever, so much better than him and his family. He only entertained the idea of a partnership because of the deal on the table. A deal that was, to his surprise, balanced and positioned to make both companies a sizeable sum of money.

Gao had studied the parameters for weeks. He expected to find hidden loopholes and possible negatives, but there were none. This would be the first time in his encounters with American businessmen that he was given a presentation not based on an unfair distribution of power. Will they honor this deal, or will they make changes at the last minute?

The sound of his father’s voice was a welcome distraction and granted him a momentary reprieve from his mild paranoia. “Who did you send to retrieve our guests from the airport?” Cheng held his son’s gaze with interest and crossed his ankle over his knee.

“I sent Jin. He offered since he knew one of our guests would be female.” Gao couldn’t help his reaction, and rolled his eyes behind closed lids at the thought of his younger brother.

“Jin? You sent Jin when there would be a woman present? You don’t even know these people and you’re already planning their torture!”

Gao watched as a deep laugh started in his father’s chest before it moved upward, causing his shoulders to shake. He soon joined in, and tried to imagine Jin’s greeting. If Jin doesn’t make them regret this trip, nothing will.

* * * *

David woke to the sensation of being tapped on the shoulder. The offending flight attendant’s voice, filled with artificial cheer, grated on his nerves as she spouted drivel about fastened seat belts and tray tables in the upright and locked position.

“We’ll be landing soon, sir. Shall I wake your friend?”

Angelique’s sleeping face tempered his irritation, and he responded through a smile of his own. “No, I’ll wake her, thank you.”

This is probably the most sleep she’s had in weeks. I’ll give her a few more minutes. He was careful not to disturb her when he closed her tray table. His attempt to fasten her seat belt was a bit more precarious, but he secured the device without rousing her.

When she remained still, the urge to keep a vigil by her side as her guardian of sleep was strong. Poor thing. Much too quick for his liking, the flight attendant returned, and she droned on in the same abraded tone, this time with a slight hint of warning.

“Sir, please return your seat to the upright position as we are preparing to land. Will you wake your friend so she can sit her seat upright as well?”

He would be polite, but he was more than a little frustrated. “Sure.” When the Wicked Flight Attendant of the East retreated, he took Angelique’s hand and rubbed the back of it in slow circles. When she didn’t move, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Hey Sleeping Beauty, time to wake up.” When she continued her peaceful slumber, he frowned as he weighed the option of sitting her chair up and leaning her head onto his shoulder.

If she’s still asleep when that flight attendant comes back, she’ll probably threaten to hang me with the seat belt until I wake her. With great reluctance, he lifted her hand in his and pulled her forward. He didn’t want to startle her, so he kept his voice low and his movements gentle. “Angelique, wake up, sweetie; we’re about to land.”

When she murmured, he leaned in to hear her voice over the sound of the plane’s engines. “Five more minutes.”

It pained him to see her so tired, but her request for more sleep caused him to release a quiet chuckle. “Angelique, we’re landing in China. Wake up!” After he gave her a gentle shake, her eyes popped open in surprise.

“China? We’re here?” She rubbed her eyes before looking out the window. With her attention elsewhere, he used the opportunity to drink her in one more time.

“Yes, we’re here. Now sit your chair up before that demon-possessed stewardess tries to throw me off the plane!” His recall of the woman’s persistence caused him to shake his head as Angelique all but snapped upright at the mention of arriving at their destination.

“Oh, okay!”

He followed the path of her eyes as she looked down to find her seat belt fastened, and he almost laughed out loud when she sat with perfect posture, her hands folded in her lap like a good girl. She’s asking for it!

Her body language was meant to provoke a response, but his thoughts were elsewhere. “You were sleeping pretty hard. It took me a while to wake you.” He turned to face her before he asked his next question. He had his own idea of the answer, but he wanted to hear her response all the same. “Have you been getting enough rest?”

“No, not really.” Her chest and shoulders rose and fell when she took a deep breath and released it as a sigh. Her expression seemed to be a mixture of guilt and resignation as she continued, and he wanted to comfort her. “I’ve been so busy getting ready for this trip; I’ve basically been living in the office.” While she answered, she continued to stare out the window. “We really are here!”

He noticed her change in body language as she gripped the arms of the chair and continued her love affair with the world outside the plane. He could almost see the enthusiasm radiate from her body as she all but pressed her face against the Plexiglas.

He’d never seen this level of excitement from her, and he was soon filled with an elation he wasn’t prepared for. “Take a breath, speedy! Yes, we’re here, yes, we’re landing…” He placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him before he spoke again. “And yes, you’ll be wonderful. So relax and breathe.”

*

Angelique sat still for several moments with her eyes on David’s. In no time at all, her lips curved into a smile, and she spoke in an effort to end the silence. “Thank you, David. This is a big moment, and I wouldn’t be here without your help. I’m glad to have you with me.”

When his eyebrows lifted, she wasn’t sure how to interpret his expression. Maybe I said too much. The infusion of heat that crept into her face almost forced her to turn away, but she fought the urge and held his gaze. Lucky for her, the doubt she felt was erased by the next words from his lips.

“I’m always here for you, sweetie. You know you can count on me for anything.”

For a time, she was spellbound by his declaration and the sincerity in his eyes. She had to give herself a mental pinch to snap out of the trance she was in, or risk looking like a weirdo. Could he have chosen to say anything more perfect? As her smile widened, she took his hand. What was intended to be a gentle hold turned into a grip when she lurched forward as the plane touched down. His warm palm as he provided a counterforce to keep her stable made her feel safe, and when the time came to exit the plane, she found herself looking for a reason to continue the contact.

He maintained his hold as he stood, and helped her to her feet. When he released her, he grabbed their bags from the overhead bin before he stepped aside so she could walk in front of him. His hand on her upper back was welcome, but she elected to play it cool, and walked along with casual steps. Don’t get carried away; he’s just being polite.

*

David led the way to the baggage claim area of the terminal, and gathered their luggage before they headed out to look for the car that was sent for them. When he pulled Angelique’s wheeled suitcase, he noticed something unexpected. “You pack light.”

She walked close to him, gripping the strap of her carry-on. “I only pack what I need. Dragging my entire closet around isn’t my idea of a good time.”

“You could have brought it; I’d be the one carrying it, remember? Oh well, I guess it’s lucky for me you decided against that.” He gave her a playful wink, and they snaked their way through the crowd.

To his surprise, she slipped into a British accent and teased him with a small curtsy and nod. “I am forever in your debt, kind sir.” Her words were punctuated with a light chuckle as she continued to follow his lead.

Even though he rolled his eyes, he was unsuccessful in his effort to hold back his laughter, and soon joined in with his witty companion. “Nice one, milady.” When he focused forward, he spotted the driver holding a sign that read GLADSTONE, INC. “There. That’s us.” After pointing out their target, he reached to take her carry-on.

“David, you’re not a pack mule. Let me at least carry something.” He watched in amusement as she pulled the bag in a protective hold against her side while she focused on the encroachment of his hand.

“Not happening, milady.” After a deflection of her halfhearted swat, he took hold of the strap and slung the bag over his shoulder in triumph. “Not on my watch, sweetie.”

* * * *

Yuen Jin pulled into the airport parking lot and rushed to find a space. After he exited the vehicle, he held his sign under his arm as he checked his reflection in the window of the SUV. He wanted to make sure he looked his usual best, and after he fussed over his hair and clothes for several minutes, he moved toward the terminal.

When he scanned the arrivals portion of the overhead board, he checked to see if Flight 257 would land on time. Twenty minutes. That’s enough time for me to say hello to a few pretties. His thoughts of potential bed partners initiated a low rumble in his chest, and with it, his more primal nature emerged. Let the hunt begin!

When he spotted a potential date, he strolled with casual steps to her kiosk and leaned on his elbow while he chatted her up. “How is it that it’s so dim here at your station?” After he took in her surprised expression, he changed his posture to something more playful, and rested his head in the hand of his propped arm. As he spoke, he undressed the young woman with his eyes. He made no effort to hide his approval, and raised his brows before he flashed his best smile of appreciation.

He watched redness creep into her cheeks, and when she lifted a demure hand in an attempt to cover her smile, he made his move. A shift in weight freed his arm, and he caught her delicate extremity in his. When he lowered her hand, her coy smile was revealed, and he reveled in his victory. “There, now the sun is shining.”

It took no time at all for him to give the young woman a chronic case of the giggles. She moved her fingers as fast as she could, and slid her phone number across the counter on a slip of paper. Another victorious smirk took over his lips before he glanced at the time. They should be here! After he pocketed her number, he hurried to take a spot where he could be seen, and held up his sign while he scanned the crowd. “I hope I didn’t miss her!”

It was easy to spot the tall man who walked head and shoulders above the crowd. When the man looked in his direction, he offered a nod of acknowledgment. “He’s not the one I’m really looking for.” He kept up his search until his gaze fell on one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, walking next to the towering American. “Very nice! She’s definitely worth the drive!”

Jin allowed his eyes to feast as he gave her the once-over, pleased by her height, along with her curvy figure. Delectable, full lips sported a wide smile, and wanton images caused him to grin. “This is going to be fun!” As he took in her brown skin, even complexion, and thick, dark hair, he was hooked.

After he completed his mental appraisal, he prepared himself to deliver one of his best lines when the taller man extended his hand before placing it on her lower back to lead her through the crowd. The way the American looked at her when their eyes met spoke volumes. Why are the good ones always taken? Jin sighed in annoyance at the scene in front of him, and lowered his sign, the only outward symbol of his disappointment. The only reason I came here was to have first crack at a new face!

The tall man introduced himself and the woman next to him, and Jin poured on his unique brand of charm. “A pleasure to meet you, lovely; my name is Yuen Jin, but you can call me Jin.” It was tradition for the family name to be given first in China, but Jin wanted to make sure the beauty before him understood she was allowed to be very familiar.

Jin took Angelique’s hand in his own and kissed the back of it. Her skin is so soft, and she smells divine! He maintained contact with his lips for several seconds while he kept his eyes on hers. A hint of red flushed her cheeks before she pulled her hand from his. She’s shy! I’ll enjoy bringing her out of that shell. “Please, come with me.”

It was rare for Jin to encounter a beauty like Angelique’s in his country, but in his opinion, she would be considered beautiful by any standard. He held no prejudices when it came to women, and he indulged his addiction as often as possible. He wondered about the potential fun he could have with the vixen by his side, and he glanced back and forth between his charges. I wonder if they really are together, or are they just friends? I bet I could drop him off somewhere and take her for a private tour of my part of China.

A vision took shape inside Jin’s head. His invented scenario began at the airport with the woman on his right and ended at his place, sans clothing. He mapped out the steps that would make his fantasy a reality as he led the travelers to his parked vehicle. First things first. After the luggage was stored in the back of the SUV, they were off to the hotel.

When he attempted to catch a glimpse of Angelique in the rearview mirror, he found her eyes on his, and he waited anxiously to hear the words from her enticing mouth.

“Jin, what do you do at Yuen Huang Fu?”

“Depends on the day, lovely.” He did his best to create the look of innocence with his face, but the thoughts in his head were salacious. I’m willing to do anything you want me to.

*

David shifted in aggravation on the seat of the SUV when he saw the look of lust that Jin all but devoured Angelique with. It irritated him, but he masked it. As much as he appreciated her beauty, he understood people would take notice. He knew better than to behave like a Neanderthal every time a man looked her way, but he was more than willing to step in if someone crossed a line.

“How much further?” His tone was normal, but he couldn’t stop bouncing his knee as they rode along. He wanted to get to the hotel, and he was more than ready to get Angelique away from Jin. Every time he saw him eye her reflection, the harder it was to remain pleasant. It was a surprise when he looked into the mirror and saw Jin’s eyes on his with raised eyebrows.

“Long flight, yes?”

“Yes, I want to have some time to relax a bit. We both need a break.” As he spoke the last phrase, he looked over to Angelique. He wasn’t surprised to find her attention fixed on the world outside the window, oblivious to all else. A bit of the tension—exacerbated by his disdain for Jin—melted away as he looked at the side of her face, and his shoulders relaxed as he released a slow, quiet breath. A nudge to her arm got her attention, and he whispered into her ear while he noted the expression of wonder on her face. “We’ll set aside some time to take a tour.”

“I would love that!” Her face brightened with excitement, and nothing could dull her smile as she returned her concentration to the scenery as they rode by.

David felt a euphoria as Angelique engaged in something other than work for a change. The relief that accompanied his smile erased his irritation, and he allowed himself to stare out of the tinted glass as well. When he watched the reflection of Angelique’s face in the window, it was hard not to smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this happy before.

A smooth and uneventful ride brought them to the hotel, and Jin parked in front. With quick movements, he raced to the back of the vehicle to retrieve their luggage.

David met him at the back of the SUV, and offered a grin that was meant to mask the gradual enmity he’d developed for this man. “No worries, buddy; I’ve got them.” He placed himself between the luggage and Jin, and watched as he stepped back to give him room. Much to his dismay, Jin turned his attention to Angelique. He’s shameless. As he lifted their bags, he overheard Jin’s complimentary words as he helped her from the vehicle. When he noticed Jin’s level of enthusiasm as he tried to take her hand, he slammed the rear door of the SUV and closed the distance between them. I’m really not liking this guy.

*

Angelique craned her neck to take in the entire facade of the hotel. As her gaze traveled over the building, she almost missed Jin’s voice as he spoke close to her ear.

“Welcome to China, lovely.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, almost breathless, and her attention never left the large, ornate structure in front of her. “This is amazing! I can’t believe I’m really here!”

“Perhaps I’ll give you a small tour after you unpack. I can show you many things in my country.”

It wasn’t Jin’s words that caused her to turn to him in confusion. There was something about the way he spoke, the emphasis he placed on certain words, and the sensual tone of his voice. He certainly comes on strong. Her observations caused her to take a serious look at him for the first time. A small smile spread her lips as she took a mental inventory of his appearance, and he seemed to stand a little straighter for her scrutiny.

Jin was tall, at over six feet, with a slim but athletic build. His hair was cut into a trendy style that hung just below his ears, with spiky sections on top. She couldn’t deny his handsome features as her gaze moved down his forehead to his groomed eyebrows, medium nose, full lips, and tapered chin. He didn’t have any facial hair, and his outfit was fashionable; each piece complemented the others in a perfect presentation. It was obvious he took pride in his appearance, and he could be a model. He probably has women falling at his feet. Might explain that attitude.

She soon found herself pulled from her thoughts when David appeared next to her and took her by the arm. She didn’t miss Jin’s slight frown as she placed her hand in the crook of her coworker’s elbow.

Secure by his side, she returned her attention to her surroundings. This place is unbelievable! While the little voice inside her oohed and ahhed, David led her through the front entrance.

“Earth to Angelique.” His voice held a playful tone, and he lifted his arm to get her attention.

His slight movement brought her back to reality, and she laughed at herself before she gave his arm a pinch. “Look at this place! Can you believe all this?” She gestured toward the sitting areas with her free hand before she turned in a circle on the spot, in complete awe of everything.

The lobby was opulent, filled with flowers, large vases, works of art, and colorful decorations. The scent of full blossoms and incense hung in the air, and it gave the large space a more personal feel. The displays of culture and heritage were more than she could have ever imagined, and she longed to explore every square inch.

There were rich colors all around, with finishes that made the space appear to be more of a palace than a hotel. She fought the urge to be a complete tourist, and resisted her need to take pictures of every single detail. Try to act natural, girl!

She was so enthralled she released David’s arm and barely noticed his departure as she meandered. Jin’s voice murmured in the background about leaving his contact information with David, but she just nodded and made her way to the nearest piece of pottery inside a glass case.

Moving from one display of art to another, she drank in the examples of Chinese culture and history. There was no particular order to her observations; she moved to a new piece whenever something stood out to her or if a particular color caught her eye. A flash of red in her periphery led her to a vase not far from the check-in area. Jin made his way out of the lobby, and he gave her a wink and a small wave. She offered a small smile, and walked over to read the inscription attached to the case she wanted to check out. David’s voice cut into her observation, and she turned to face him. The drop in pitch from his normal tone signaled a problem, and she abandoned the piece to investigate.

“What do you mean you don’t have a reservation for David Johnson? Check it again, please.” It was clear he was influenced by his temper. Even from twenty feet away, the flexion in the muscles of his jaw and the slight flare of his nostrils were clear. She moved to the counter and stood next to him in the hope she might be of some assistance.

The attendant offered her best explanation in a cheerful tone. “I am very sorry, sir, but it appears someone made a mistake, and with the festival, we are completely booked.”

“David, did they give away our rooms?” When redness crept up his neck and made its way to his ears, she created a series of scenarios in her head so she’d be able to intervene if needed.

“No, just mine.” David pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and index finger before he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Angelique eyed him for a few moments before she turned to the woman behind the counter. “You should have a reservation for Angelique Meadows. May I have the keys to my room?” She slid her passport across the slick, stone surface of the counter, and waited while the woman tapped on the keyboard.

It took a few seconds, but the woman passed the room key to her and bowed her head.

“May I have two keys?”

The attendant seemed confused by her request, and she wrinkled her eyebrows for a moment before she smoothed her features. “Yes, of course.” After she placed the room code onto another key card, she gave the second plastic key to her.

“Thank you. I would also like a sizeable discount for this mistake.” Angelique offered a warm smile, but in that moment, she was a woman who would accept no less than what she asked for.

“I will speak to my manager, but I am certain it will not be a problem.” After offering another bow, the attendant softened her features into an expression of apology.

Angelique placed her hand on David’s wrist and squeezed in an effort to alleviate some of his tension. “Come on, worrywart, let’s get to this room.” She felt resistance when she took her first step, so she tugged on his arm.

“Angelique… This is unbelievable!”

“Come on, looks like we’re bunking together. There’s no way I’d let you go to another hotel after that long flight.” After she stole another glance at the objets d’art as she passed by, she led her ticked-off coworker toward the elevators. “Let’s at least see the room, and if it’s unacceptable, we’ll both go to another hotel. Deal?” She gave him a large grin as she again pulled on his arm, and his jaw relaxed. He walked next to her with a normal stride.

He wasn’t used to things not going the way he planned, and she wanted to smooth the situation over as quickly as possible so he would be clear-headed for their meeting. Come on, David, we can deal with this. But she also cared about him and didn’t like to see him upset.

“Angelique…”

Before he could say another word, she cut in, still in her role as ambassador of good will. “I don’t want to hear it, David Johnson. Now let’s go!” When he shook his head, she continued on, and felt a moment of triumph when a small smirk appeared on his lips. Much better; that’s the way I like you.

* * * *

As soon as she crossed the threshold of the room, Angelique gasped in disbelief. The suite was gorgeous, spacious, and furnished with classic pieces with modern patterns. She stood still and took it all in with David behind her.

“This is amazing.” David’s height allowed him to see over her head, and after he placed their luggage on the floor, he moved into the area and made a beeline for the sofa. When he lifted one of the cushions, he released a long sigh before he turned back toward the door.

“What’s wrong?” After the difficulty with his room, Angelique didn’t want to see him upset again. She took a few steps farther into the space and studied the sofa in an attempt to find what might have set him off. “Is it broken or something?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” He gestured to the piece of furniture in question with a hooked thumb before he moved past her to bring their bags farther into the living room area. “This is a sofa bed; it’s where I’ll be sleeping.”

“David, don’t worry about it. We’ll take turns; I don’t mind the sofa bed. Really, it’s not a problem.”

“Absolutely not. You will sleep in the bed and I’m more than happy to have the sofa, milady.”

“But…” She was ready to plead her case. She was disabused of that notion as he held up his hand as a silent symbol of case closed. After she threw up her arms in mock indignation, he removed the cushions before extending the bed.

When he moved away from the sofa, she shadowed him as he took her bags into the bedroom. “Thanks. I’m going to put my things away and take a shower. How about ordering some room service?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. I’ll follow your example when you’re done.” He plopped onto the sofa bed with a sigh before he kicked off his shoes.

“Hey, David?” As she stood in the doorway, she waited to make eye contact before speaking.

“Hmm?” He was in the midst of unpacking his laptop, and he toyed with the converter that would allow him to plug in the machine.

“I don’t think the closet out there will be large enough for your clothes. You can use mine too, and the dresser in here. You can put your things away while I’m in the shower.” With the offer made, she headed for the bathroom.

“Thanks, sweetie.”

“You’re welcome.”

*

David rolled his shoulders a few times as he listened to Angelique move around inside the bathroom. When he thought back to her initial invitation in the lobby to follow her to her room, he was too upset to process her words. As he made himself comfortable in the living room area, excitement welled inside him, and he whistled while he unpacked his things. It will be a lot easier to talk to her now.

As he took in the layout, he searched for places to store his things. Angelique had offered him the use of the dresser in her room, but he felt it would be inappropriate to store his undergarments in there.

Soon enough, the sound of the shower beat out its rhythm against the floor, and it created an uneven symphony in the background while he sorted his clothing. When his chore was complete, he relaxed onto the sofa bed and reached for his laptop once again. After he connected to the Internet, he pulled up more information on the hotel before he scanned the room service menu. Do they have anything she’d like?

Angelique wasn’t picky, but she was a vegetarian. He remembered the day he learned that detail during one of her late nights at the office when he brought her a burger. He felt so embarrassed, but she made him feel like it was the most considerate gesture in the world.

A quick search through the offerings revealed meals he thought they’d both enjoy. As he clicked on the pictures, he marveled at the Chinese characters above the English translations. “It would take me the rest of my life to learn these.” After the order was placed, he was surprised and pleased by the onscreen message that indicated the estimated time of arrival of their meal, and he raised an eyebrow in approval. “Efficient, I like that.”

With the order placed, he pulled up the bookmarked address for Huang Yuen Fu, the company they would be meeting with the next day. After about fifteen minutes, the shower was shut off, and he could hear Angelique moving around inside the bedroom.

His heart beat faster as he pictured her walking around wearing only a towel, and he found himself desperate for a mental image that would chase away the one in the front of his mind. Calm down. Jesus!

“Is it one of those tiny showers?” The question was the best distraction he could come up with in that moment, and he closed his eyes, both annoyed by and grateful for the wall that separated them.

“No. Actually, it’s pretty big; come see.”

“I will in a minute.” He could almost feel his pulse quicken even more, and he found it just about impossible to force his brain to process thoughts that didn’t involve Angelique half naked. She’s trying to kill me! After a few slow inhalations through his nostrils, he counted to fifty in his head and strained to find a way to keep his blood from moving to a certain area of his anatomy. After a few minutes, he tensely crossed the room and knocked on the light wood door. “Safe to come in?”

“All clear.”

The sound of laughter in her voice calmed him, and he relaxed before he peeked his head into the room. She was seated on the side of the bed with her laptop next to her. She was dressed in shorts and a tank top, with a towel wrapped around her head. How does she manage to look amazing no matter what?

When she saw him in the doorway, she hopped off the bed and made her way over. She grabbed his arm without hesitation and led him to the bathroom. Much to his relief, she didn’t notice his inspection of her appearance. “Check it out!” Her excitement was back, and it created a gleam in her eyes he had come to appreciate.

The moment David entered the bathroom he couldn’t help dropping his jaw at what he saw. The space was large and smelled of the light floral scent of her soap. Before he could analyze the space further, she removed the towel from her hair and placed it on the rack behind the door.

“The floor is heated! You can adjust it over there.” She pointed with glee at a dial near his right arm. Her excitement seemed to all but overwhelm her, and she appeared to be on the verge of jumping up and down in place.

Her excitement was contagious, but he was more amazed at the transformation she had undergone with her hair down. A large mass of tiny spiral curls took over her head. The loose style created a softer, more relaxed look than he was used to, and for a time, he was mesmerized. She’s beautiful like this. The spirals framed her head like a curly lion’s mane and added another level of uniqueness to the multifaceted woman he’d known for the last few years.

It was hard to fight the urge to run his fingers through her hair, so he forced himself to look at the shower in an effort to purge the thoughts that demanded he pull her close.

The overall theme of the space seemed to be a spa environment, and the glass walls and slate tile floor created a more open feel. He noticed the toiletries Angelique had set up over the sink. No makeup, no curling irons or blow dryer, none of the usual things he saw in women’s bathrooms. No wonder her bags were so light.

His attention returned to her when he felt her hand on his arm, and she pulled him farther into the bathroom to show him the area with the closet, towels, toilet, and bidet.

“This is amazing, David.” The timbre of her voice approached a squeal, but she didn’t seem to care. Her smile, her excitement, and all she was feeling was palpable in the energy she exuded. As she turned to face him, she looked him in the eye as she spoke her next words. “I really am glad you’re here with me.”

When she stepped closer and wrapped her arms around his waist, his body stiffened before his arms found their way around her, and he crossed them behind her upper back. He held her for several moments before he pulled back to look at her face. He wanted to speak the words he’d rehearsed in his mind countless times, but he held his tongue when she inhaled in preparation to continue.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you, and I appreciate all that you’ve done to make this happen. We’ve had some late nights, early mornings, and long weekends prepping for this deal and you never complained.” After a brief squeeze, she continued with her eyes locked on his.

“You’re my right hand and I’m so lucky to have you. I know I never have to watch my back because you’ll always have it.” The sincerity in her voice and the way her eyes searched his destroyed any resistance he had, and he caressed her cheek before he spoke.

“Angelique…” Nervousness ruled him and forced him to swallow in an unconscious effort to give him time to organize his thoughts. As he stared into the eyes of the brown-skinned beauty in front of him, he did his best to focus. It was difficult, but he managed to battle the tiny voice of doubt within. It’s now or never.

“From the moment I met you, I knew you would change everything for me. I’m so glad you trusted me enough to allow me into your world. There’s no place I would rather be, right now, than right here, with you.” He felt a lightness after he spoke, and he leaned forward and brought his lips to hers. The kiss was the punctuation to his avowal, a gesture that encapsulated the fantasy he had visualized more often than he cared to admit.

*

Angelique was caught off guard by David’s words, but when his lips touched hers, she was swept away. She pulled him close as a reflex, and returned his kiss with passionate appreciation. It took a force of will she didn’t know she possessed to pull away, and the effort sent a tremor through her muscles. “David…” She was breathless as she looked him in the eye. His touch was passionate, not reflexive, saying many things without uttering a single syllable. Her thoughts raised the inevitable question, and she wouldn’t wait another second to speak the words. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to, but you were so caught up with work and then this deal. I didn’t want you to mistake my intentions. I wanted to wait for the right moment, when I had your full attention. I’m completely crazy about you. I have been for a very long time.”

She felt like she was in a dream. She stared deep into his gray eyes, and inhaled through her lips as an emotional weight lifted from her body. “I’ll admit, I hoped you felt this way, but I never pursued it.” The silence between them was uncomfortable, and she dropped her head forward in her embarrassment. “I didn’t know if I was your type. I wasn’t sure you’d like someone like me.”

The feeling of his hand as he lifted her chin was welcome, and as they locked eyes once again, she could see a number of emotions in his furrowed brows and the way he shook his head.

“Sweetie, any man would be lucky to have a chance with you. I’d never overlook the opportunity to be with someone as intelligent, driven, talented, and beautiful as you are based on your race.”

He said everything I needed to hear! It was her turn to move forward, and she did, and kissed him with a mixture of fire and gratitude. All the feelings that had been held in spilled out in a deluge of satisfaction at no longer being hidden.

Elation and desire battled for dominance, and a light mewl escaped from her lips. David’s tender and hungry movements carried her away, and she surrendered, and deepened the kiss while she held him just a bit tighter.

As he held her against his body, the kiss became more urgent, and she soon found herself guided as he moved her backward with slow steps. He eased her contact into the nearby wall with an outstretched hand to steady her, while his opposite hand traveled upward to hold the side of her head. The heat from his body teased her skin through her tank top, and he seemed to press as much of himself against her as he could.

He released a small moan into her mouth before he lifted her from the floor. He wrapped her left leg around his waist before she followed with her right. She could tell they were on the move, but in that moment, she’d go anywhere as long as he kept kissing her.

Angelique held on with her arms around David’s neck. She held on tighter when it felt as if they were horizontal, but when the plush surface of the mattress seemed to rise up to greet her back, she knew they were back in the bedroom. Even though he carried her into the room and placed her onto her back with a reverence that made her weak, his lips never left hers. The feel of his body over hers emboldened her, and she ran her fingers through his short, dark hair before she placed a hand on the back of his head to hold him in place.

When he broke the kiss to place his lips on her neck, she tilted her head to give him more access, almost light-headed as her blood raced through her veins. Small kisses, nibbles, and flicks of his tongue found her back arched while she held on tight, and waves of sensations coursed through her body.

The rise and fall of his chest against hers drove her own need to higher peaks, and his ragged breaths matched her own. All of the memories of the past three and a half years flooded her mind. The late nights when he would stay to help her, the way he never really wanted to leave before her, the dozens of hours they worked together, the numerous projects they worked on as a team, the way he treated her, the difficulty she had at hiding her feelings. She relied on him, needed him, and cared about him, and as she held on, he enveloped her with a passion that threatened to crash over her like a tidal wave.

“David!” His name left her lips between her gasps for breath. His every touch ignited fires within her, and she tingled all over. Each caress fed the growing flame, and her body reacted in preparation for his inevitable entry. This is everything I wanted it to be!

*

The freedom to show what had been concealed for far too long overwhelmed David. His lips were occupied, so he used his touches to express what he felt. His hands roamed with slow movements over her body and caressed everything in their path with appreciation. The twitches and aches of his manhood drove him to distraction, and when he pressed himself close to her, shivers of pleasure rippled through his muscles as he touched and kissed the object of his obsession.

His lips brushed over her jaw, trailing kisses down her neck before he moved toward her chest. A tease of her collarbone was rewarded with a moan, and he all but rejoiced in the sound of her sharp intakes of air. The high he felt in that moment was greater than any he’d ever known, and like an addict, he sought more. He kissed a path across her chest before he placed his mouth onto the fabric of her tank top, where he covered her nipple through the cloth.

Her vocalizations urged him on, and he slowly slid the garment higher in an effort to gain full access to her chest. The anticipation of worshiping the cinnamon skin of her breasts made his mouth water, and his movements became jerky as he struggled to take his time. Each action became an exercise in restraint as he fought the voice inside his head that screamed for him to finally take her.

After he clenched his jaw several times, he did his best to calm himself. His hands weren’t idle, and he moved them slowly along the curves of her waist and up to her ribs before a brief stop near her shoulder blades, and back down again. When he released his jaw muscles, he lowered his head and flicked his tongue in small circles around the darker skin of her areola. As her nipple rose higher in response to his touch, he moved his efforts up a notch and swirled his tongue before he closed his lips around it to apply light suction.

To his extreme delight, her response was immediate, and when she tightened her grip on his hair, he kept up his assault, while he made slow progress with his hand to the waistband of her shorts. When the hold on his hair lessened, he lifted his gaze to see if her expression would guide him. Am I doing something wrong? Is this too fast for her?

She appeared to focus on something else before moving her head from side to side in response to the change in force of his suction. Her mewls told him all he needed to know, and he nearly smiled into her skin at his small victory.

With her attention fixed, he slid his fingers into her shorts and pulled at the stretchy cotton fabric. The thin barrier was the only thing between them, and he wanted to expose even more of her to his eyes. When her body stiffened, he searched her face again. This time, her head was raised off the mattress.

“Do you hear something?”

He paused his movements, albeit with reluctance, and lifted his head. A series of small taps seemed to come from far away, and he squinted as he tried to place the source of the sound.

“Room service!” a quiet female voice called out from the hall in a cheery tone that did nothing to make up for the disturbance.

“Son of a b—” He was about to launch into a tirade born out of pure frustration when she interrupted.

“Don’t swear, David!” She laughed as she pulled her top back down, and she pressed her hand into his chest as she tried to sit up. “I’ll get it.”

“No, no, no, no, no! You stay here, sweetie; I’ll get it.” He rose from the bed as fast as he could and placed a kiss on the soft, dewy skin of her forehead before he ran into the front room.

Another set of taps were applied to the door, along with another announcement of her presence. “Room service!” The woman repeated herself in the same pleasant tone, and David wondered where the Do Not Disturb sign was.

“Coming! At least I thought I would be. He rushed to answer the persistent visitor while making an effort to stop the curses on the tip of his tongue. When he opened the door in irritation, he recognized the attendant from the counter in the lobby as she entered with a rolling meal cart.

“Compliments of the hotel; we do apologize for the inconvenience. Anything you order will be taken care of for the duration of your stay.”

When he saw her looking past him and into the room, he reacted in the hope he could hurry the walking interruption along. “Thank you.” With an extended index finger, he pointed to the area where he wanted her to leave the cart, and tried his best not to look angry.

“Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?”

He was already en route to the door, and he held it open as he spoke. “No, nothing, thanks.” As soon as she was gone, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“What did you order for me?” Angelique’s voice held a hint of shakiness as she strolled into the living room and stood over the serving cart. She lifted the lid on one of the plates and stared with appreciation at the meal in front of her.

Her face was still flushed from their foreplay, and it was hard for him to think about food while she stood there looking so irresistible. “Tofu and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice, steamed.” With the question answered, he rushed to her side and placed his arm around her waist. When he sat on the arm of the upholstered chair behind them, he pulled her down onto his lap. The increased flush of her cheeks brought a smirk of pride to his lips as he placed a soft kiss on the side of her arm.

“That looks really good.” She inhaled the aromas that wafted up from her plate, and closed her eyes. “Mmm, smells good too.”

He was about to pull her down into the chair and pick up where they left off when a very loud growl rose from her stomach. The sound was unexpected, and he could feel both eyebrows lift in response. “Hungry?” He released a light chuckle, and he gave her a brief squeeze when he saw her wide-eyed expression.

“Oh wow, excuse me!” There was more than a little embarrassment in her face, and she covered her belly with one hand as if she planned to muffle any other noises.

“Let’s eat.” When she joined in his laughter, he lifted her from his lap and seated her in the chair before taking his own seat.

During their meal, they talked about the points they wanted to make in the meeting the next morning. David played devil’s advocate for Angelique’s responses and vice versa. When they were sure they’d covered every eventuality, Angelique checked to make sure there were several backups of their presentation while he showered.

* * * *

The silence when David turned off the shower was ended by the ring of Angelique’s cell phone. On her feet in an instant, she raced into the bedroom to answer it, and gave her salutation as she walked back into the living room area. “Angelique Meadows.”

“Angelique. How was the flight?”

The sound of her boss’ voice shifted her mood, and her tone became a little more serious. “You’ll have to ask David. I think I slept the majority of the time.” A light laugh escaped her lips when she said his name, and she sank into the chair, ready to hear any reports or provide any updates so she could get back to more time alone with him.

“It’s all that midnight oil you burn. Someone’s due for a vacation.” Steven’s voice was cheery, but his last words held a hint of admonishment.

“Steven, you wouldn’t dare. How else would you make David’s quarterly projections?” Despite the light mood, she made sure to sound unapologetic, and she waited for him to continue with a large smile on her face. He knows better than to force me to take time off. Doesn’t he?

“I’m pretty sure I can get some folks moving so we make the numbers. You don’t have to be responsible for every single digit, you know.”

The sound of keystrokes resonated through the receiver, and for a brief moment, she wondered if he was about to send an e-mail to the people in question. “Uh-huh.”

“I’m glad you two arrived safely, but we’re going to have to have a talk about how you’ve practically lived here for the past eighteen months. The two of you are keeping insane hours. The security guards have been complaining you’re trying to take their jobs!” By the end of his sentence, Steven was laughing into the phone, and the sound brought a brief smile to her own lips.

“Steven, honestly. We stayed to get the job done; you know how important this has been.” She made no effort to mask the sudden exasperation in her tone, and she ran her fingertips across her left eyebrow as she switched the phone to the opposite side of her head. “Don’t even think about trying to lock us out of the building; we’ll only telecommute.” With those words, the lightness returned to her mood, and she listened to Steven’s long sigh, the familiar signal the conversation was about to change from professional to personal.

“Angelique, listen, there’s a life outside the walls of the office. I just want you to take some time to live it. Everything needs balance, and right now, there’s no balance in your life. I already knew you were fantastic before this deal; you don’t have to keep trying to prove it. Before you even start, this is me talking to you as a friend, not your boss. I don’t want to see either of you burn out, so I’m expecting you to take some time off after this. Got it?”

“I’m not doing this to prove something to you; I’m doing it to prove something to me. I want to keep pushing to be the best, and this opportunity is a chance for me to stretch myself.” She could feel her own defensiveness in her explanation, so she took a deep breath before she resumed the conversation. “We can discuss the particulars of this when I get back, Steven. Thank you for your concern.” Her laughter was immediate in anticipation of the reaction he would have to her professional response.

“Fine. In case you weren’t aware, trying to win me over with formality won’t work. I’m going to call David and see if I can at least talk some sense into one of your heads.” He released an exaggerated sigh into the phone, and pretended to mumble under his breath about workers who martyr themselves for no reason.

“Take care; we’ll call you after the meeting tomorrow.”

“I’ll talk to you later, Angelique. Good luck, and think about what I said, please.”

When she ended the call, she slid her phone across the glass surface of the coffee table before she leaned back into the sofa.

Before long, David emerged from the bedroom clad in cotton pajama bottoms and nothing else as he scrubbed a towel through his black hair. “Let me guess. Steven.” With an insightful grin on his face, he moved into the room and took a seat next to her.

“Ding, ding, ding! Let’s tell him what he’s won!” To emphasize the theme that accompanied her game-show voice, she made display gestures with her arms as if she was presenting an item. “You’ve won a phone call in three, two, one…” The sound of his phone made her laugh, and the look of surprise on his face made it worse.

“Seriously? He’s calling me now?” He muttered a string of incomprehensible words as he reached for his cell phone with a groan. After a quick kiss to his cheek, she retreated to the bedroom to give him privacy.

Alone in her room, she put on her headphones and listened to a CD on her laptop while she continued to prepare for the next day. As she worked, her thoughts continued to revisit David’s lips, his touch, and his words. Well, I’m starting off with at least one good memory from this trip.

*

David’s conversation with Steven was a lot longer. They discussed a few departmental changes and other accounts he would have to review. As they talked, they exchanged e-mails of important files and other information. After the work was done, Steven gave him the same speech about time off he gave to Angelique, only David was much more open to the idea and agreed without hesitation.

“See if you can convince that stubborn, workaholic partner in crime of yours to follow suit.” He could hear the weariness in Steven’s voice and he not only understood it, there were many times he shared that same sentiment. “That woman will work herself to death if we aren’t careful.”

David laughed into the phone in a mixture of agreement and gratitude. I’m finally in a position to help her with that. “I’ll see what I can do, but you know how she is.” By the time he finished the conversation, two hours had passed. He didn’t hear any sound in the bedroom, and when he peeked inside, he found Angelique asleep with her headphones on. He moved into the room with quiet steps, and shook his head in amusement. Multitasking in your sleep now?

With deliberate movements, he lifted her laptop and placed it on the night table next to the bed. After he removed her headphones, he pulled the covers over her and did his best not to disturb her. He would do whatever he could to make sure she was comfortable, and he didn’t mind losing time with her if it meant she’d get more rest. When she stirred, his body tensed, and he watched her carefully until she moved back into a deeper slumber.

In an attempt to err on the side of caution, he held his place for a few minutes, and watched her with a smile before he moved again. “Sweet dreams.” He whispered the words with his softest voice before he turned off the light and left the room. Whatever happens with this deal, I’ll never forget this day.

He felt light on his feet, and returned to the sofa bed with the intent of doing a bit more work, only to end up fast asleep at his own laptop not long after.

* * * *

Angelique woke to the sound of her cell phone’s alarm. As she made her way to the bathroom, she felt groggy, as if she’d awakened during the middle of the night. Good old jet lag. She rubbed her eyes with a balled fist and yawned as she began her morning routine. While she brushed her teeth, she left the bathroom and opened the bedroom door to find David’s sofa bed empty. “David?”

“Hmm?” He stuck his head out of the bathroom in the main room. Like her, he too spoke around a toothbrush as he also prepared for the day.

After a quick nod, she moved back into her bathroom, and after taking care of her hygiene needs, quickly dressed in one of her favorite skirt suits. As she eyed her reflection in the mirror, she removed her silk head scarf before she untwisted, fluffed, and gathered her thick hair in preparation to place it in a low bun.

It was then that David popped his head in the door, just in time to see her preparation. “Aww, leave it. I like it out and curly.”

“Really?” She’d lamented her hair’s unpredictable and often unruly nature over the years, and the fact he liked it was both appreciated and unexpected.

“Yeah, it’s unique.” She could see from his reflection in the mirror that his gaze was on her. Before she could make a comment, the scent of his aftershave wafted into her nose, and she closed her eyes for a few brief moments as she inhaled it. The familiar aroma stood out; it was the first time she was greeted by it first thing in the morning. We’re actually a couple! She pulled her lips into her mouth and held them between her teeth. It was the only thing she could think of to do to keep herself from smiling like an idiot at the thought.

As he leaned against the doorframe, he seemed unaware of her inner struggle, and that suited her just fine. No need to make him think I’m a total nutcase!

“Do you want some breakfast? I had them bring up fruit, yogurt, and cereal.”

She wanted to stare at him in open appreciation; instead, she stole glances of his reflection in the mirror. She appreciated his tall, toned frame, and she disguised her evaluation of him in the styling of her hair.

When he moved into the room with her, she eyed him with a bit of nervous anticipation. When he turned her to face him, he wrapped his arms around her in one motion, and her heart raced.

“You’re so beautiful.”

His warm fingers as he lifted her chin sent her blood flowing through her body like liquid lightning, and she crossed her forearms behind his neck. “You aren’t so bad yourself, mister.” Her lips spoke into his, and she smiled between the playful teases of his tongue.

They stood together for long moments, and it appeared neither of them wanted to be the one to break the contact. It took little time before their movements turned more passionate, and somewhere inside her head, a tiny voice protested.

“We’re going to be late and I’m finding it difficult to care.” She pulled her mouth from his before she straightened his tie, and placed a final light kiss on his lips. “I’ll grab a piece of fruit. Let’s get this stuff down to the lobby.”

As they left the bathroom together, David let out a slight groan, and picked up his laptop case and bag before he placed fruit and yogurt into the outside compartment. After they took the elevator down to the lobby, they met up with an eager Jin, and they were on their way.

* * * *

Gao strode confidently toward the conference room to prepare for the big meeting. As he moved through the halls, he acknowledged the respectful bows of his employees with either eye contact or a slight nod of his own.

As he made his way into the room, he found his father already seated with a look of approval. “I am very proud of how you have grown the company, my son. This meeting represents an important step in securing a brighter future for everyone.”

His father was proud of all of his children, and he never held this back from them. They each felt their father’s love in all things, always supportive, compassionate, and firm.

Cheng had headed their pack for one thousand years as Alpha. Gao, as his eldest son, had taken over as Alpha two hundred years ago. The businesses they owned supported the life of the pack and utilized the talents of a few pack members outside the den.

Gao held his father’s gaze and listened to the words he offered. “You do great things for our family and for our people. Many depend on you for protection and you have never let them down.”

“Thank you, baba.” He offered another bow in appreciation of his father’s praise. Gao had a great admiration for Cheng, and he could only hope to live up to his example.

“Your mother and I are lucky to have all of you. You have brought us great joy and you bring our pack great strength.”

“I had a most patient and wise teacher, baba.” He replied with respect, and never lifted his head from the bow. Although the meeting at hand was of great importance, he was focused on another important matter. After he straightened his posture, he walked over to his chair and stood next to it, turning it several times in place.

“Speak, my son; what is it?”

He expected his father would pick up on his concern, and he didn’t hesitate to make his thoughts known. “There have been reports of another rogue. We are trying to locate it, but it’s proving difficult.” He could hear the strain in his own voice as he lifted his gaze to meet Cheng’s, and he knew how his father would react to his next words. “I have asked for a minimum of four betas to accompany you at all times when you leave the safety of the den.”

As expected, Cheng released a deep laugh at his caution. “I’m not that out of shape!”

Baba, I must take every precaution to ensure your safety; please understand.” His voice held a hint of pleading, which was uncharacteristic for the often stoic Alpha.

“Yes, yes, do what you must, my son. I may even show the betas a thing or two if we see this rogue.” Cheng snorted with laughter as his eyes shimmered in warning.

Baba, please!” Gao’s exclamation was sent through their pack bond. As Alpha, he could speak to members of his pack telepathically. This ability came in handy during many business meetings when he wanted to speak in private.

“Very well, my son; I will allow the betas to protect me should the need arise.”

“Thank you, baba.” Gao’s relief was instant, and he sat in his chair with renewed focus for the meeting. As soon he took his seat, he could hear Jin as he stepped out of the elevator down the hall with their guests. He released a long sigh, straightened himself in his chair, and prepared to meet the Americans.

His sensitive hearing could pick out his brother’s footsteps as he walked ahead of his charges. In no time, Jin reached out to him with excitement through the pack bond.

Gege, wait until you see this gorgeous creature! Before you get any ideas, she’s all mine. I saw her first!”

“Jin, do you think of nothing else?”

“You only say that because you haven’t seen her. She was created for pleasure! Wait until you see her legs, her lips, her breasts… I may have to take her in the elevator on the way back!”

“How are we even related?” The annoyance in his thoughts was easily transmitted through the bond, and he let Jin know exactly how he felt. “This is a serious meeting; a lot is at stake. Please attempt to conduct yourself accordingly. After the meeting, do as you like.” He could feel his frustration make its way to his face, as his eyes narrowed despite his best efforts. He loved all of his brothers and sisters, but Jin could only focus on one thing.

Gao spent a great deal of his life in preparation for his role as Alpha. He learned how to lead, how to ensure respect, and how to be fair. He had been groomed to run the family businesses and to provide for the needs of the pack.

While Gao was the picture of self-control and authority, Jin was the opposite and lived a life of pure indulgence. Gao knew Jin never resented his position. His younger brother reveled in the fact he would always be free to do as he wished without any thoughts or consequences. He knew Jin loved him, but he never stopped trying to get him to loosen up and have fun. “Fine, gege, just remember she’s mine. Don’t try to change your mind later.”

“Whatever you say. Just get them in here and take a seat.” Gao’s mind wandered as he thought about Jin’s endless desire. “If I can keep our company’s losses down at the same rate as your pants, our family’s entire lineage will be taken care of forever!”

“You wish you could get that lucky!”

*

David and Angelique stepped out of the elevator and followed Jin down the hall. As they approached the conference room, David slowed and took her by the hand. “This is it; this is the moment that will change our lives and our careers. Big risk…” He smiled and briefly interlaced their fingers.

“Big payoff.” Angelique didn’t feel nervous; quite the opposite in fact. She’d prepared for this for months, and they had reached the moment of truth.

As they walked together at a faster pace, they caught up with Jin as he approached the conference room door. It’s showtime!

*

“After you, lovely.” Jin gestured with one arm folded across his abdomen and held the door open for their entry with the other. All the while he watched Angelique’s hips sway as she moved. “God bless America!”

“Jin!”

“Fine, gege!”

He decided to make the introductions, and spoke with a bit of pride as he turned to his father. “This is my father, Yuen Cheng. Father, this is Angelique Meadows and David Johnson from Gladstone, Inc.”

“Welcome, and thank you for coming.” Cheng extended his arm and watched the Americans closely as he shook their hands.

“This is my oldest brother, Yuen Gao. Gao, meet Ms. Meadows and Mr. Johnson.”

Angelique and David stood in an awkward silence when Gao sat unmoving in his chair. When he remained mute, they shared a look of uncertainty before beginning their presentation.

Confused by his brother’s lack of action, Jin elected to keep things moving, and took a seat at the table next to Angelique while he stared at Gao. “What’s wrong, gege?” There was no response, it was as if his brother was frozen. He had never seen Gao like this, and he didn’t know what to make of his behavior. This can’t be good.

*

Angelique held her tongue at Gao’s apparent rudeness before she thought she saw something strange. What’s wrong with his eyes? Why does it look like they’re flickering? The bizarre play of light rendered her paralyzed for long moments as she questioned if she really saw what she thought she did. With Gao’s eyes on hers, she felt like the two of them existed outside of normal time. It felt like they each searched the other for something she couldn’t place, and words failed her in those moments. After several blinks, she was finally able to pull herself from her trance, and she turned to David in confusion. Is he seeing this?

When David gave her a small nod and a light tap on the wrist, she shook off her fascination with the silent CEO’s strange eye phenomenon, and listened as David began the presentation. In order to keep herself from being distracted again, she kept her eyes on him and waited for her cue to begin.

When her moment arrived, she stood, glanced at David from the corner of her eye, and gave him a smile. It’s time for my little surprise! After a brief recap of the multiple fronts the partnership could capitalize on, she passed out materials and set up the slide show. While she did this, she regarded Cheng and then offered a small bow of her head before speaking to him in Mandarin.

She watched with great satisfaction as Cheng’s eyebrows rose in shock, an expression mirrored in Jin’s face. When she turned her eyes to David, she surmised he was the most stunned of all as his mouth hung open, ready to form words, but never saying anything.

A quick glance back to Gao found him still rooted to the spot, but his eyes were narrowed as if he was angry. Have I offended him somehow? What’s with this guy? She didn’t want to hold up the presentation, so she moved on, and continued to speak in Chinese. Despite her confidence in the work she and David had put into the deal, Gao’s unresponsiveness bugged her, and she shifted her weight on her feet in uncertainty. Is this deal over? What am I doing wrong? Her thoughts were full of concern on the inside, but on the outside, she maintained her professional demeanor. Maybe I should have done the presentation in English. Does he think I’m patronizing him?

*

To say Cheng was impressed would have been an understatement. He asked several questions in Chinese, which Angelique answered with ease. He hadn’t planned to take over the meeting, and he reached through the pack bond in an attempt to figure out what caused his son to become so withdrawn.

To his surprise, he found Gao had closed off his thoughts, with a complete block on his feelings. “Gao? What is going on?” He had never seen him like this, and he turned concerned eyes toward his eldest child.

Baba.” At long last, Gao responded with thoughts that seemed to emerge through a haze of bewilderment. “This woman…”

“Yes, yes, she speaks our language perfectly! Can you believe it? It seems you were wrong about Americans, eh?” Now that Gao was responsive, Cheng elected to lighten the mood while he waited for him to continue to share his thoughts.

“Father, this woman is … my mate.”

Cheng masked his surprise with a cough as he sat up straight and looked at Angelique with renewed purpose. “Poised, articulate, beautiful, strong, intelligent.” With his brows lifted, he smiled at the unexpected turn of events, and he didn’t hide the pride and happiness he felt when he responded through the bond. “She’s perfect for you!”

When Jin broke into his thoughts, Cheng became more aware of his behavior. I’m probably smiling a bit too much given the circumstances.

Baba, what’s wrong with gege?” Jin’s thoughts were filled with confusion as he reached out.

“He just found his mate!” It was difficult for him to remain calm. Every instinct compelled him to celebrate, and his wolf howled inside his head in pure joy for their child.

“David?”

It took a lot of effort to restrain the laugh that wanted to break free, but Cheng kept his composure before he responded to Jin. “No, not David, Angelique!”

“Oh for… Are you kidding me? I’ve already claimed her!”

Cheng viewed Jin’s disappointment as an opportunity to impart wisdom, and he settled on a proverb he felt was appropriate. “Worldly fame and pleasure are destructive to the virtue of the mind; anxious thoughts and apprehensions are injurious to the health of the body.”

Baba, what does that have to do with him stealing my girl?”

*

As Jin leaned back into his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Gao. Gege, I told you she was mine! I told you not to change your mind later!”

“MINE!” It was Gao’s wolf that growled its thoughts into Jin’s head in response.

“But I saw her first. How about I have one night with her, and then she’s all yours?” Jin watched his brother’s eyes shimmer as he turned them in his direction. Gao pulled his lips apart, and showed several teeth in a sneer before he spoke through the bond.

“Jin, I will rip out your throat if you even think of touching her.”

After a sigh of defeat, he turned his chair from side to side, and did his best to stew in silence during the rest of the meeting. Gao’s wolf was deadly serious, and he was in no mood to fight his brother, so he turned his attention to his father to lighten his mood. “Who would have thought Gao’s mate would be an American of all things!” The small quip gave him some comfort, but it was hard not to dwell on his missed opportunity.

Cheng found that detail humorous as well, and it passed through in the mirthful quality of his thoughts. “It seems fate has quite the sense of humor.”

*

Gao sat motionless in his chair as his mind replayed the same scene on a continuous loop. Things went as expected when Jin escorted the two Americans into the conference room—that is, until he laid eyes on Angelique. Her beauty was the first thought that entered his head, and he tracked her progress as she moved around the oblong table.

When she stood between him and his father, her scent washed over him like a deluge, and his wolf howled its excitement. “Finally, our mate has come! Claim her now!” His wolf growled and paced, demanding his human half take action to fulfill their heart’s desire.

He couldn’t move. The shock of his mate’s presence, the smell of her, and the fact she was in his life was more than he could process. For a time, his muscles simply wouldn’t respond, and his brain sent a mix of signals that compelled him to perform a number of actions at once. His impulses ranged from wanting to pull her into his arms, lift her from her feet, stroke her hair, and place his nose to her neck to inhale her scent. He never thought he would find his mate. By fate or chance, she found him.

“GAO!”

His father tried to get his attention. With several deliberate blinks, Gao remembered his purpose for being inside the conference room. He tried to focus on the presentation, but all he could do was steal glances at Angelique. She was stunning, and unlike any woman he had seen before.

Her almond-shaped eyes were the most captivating deep mahogany he’d ever seen. Thick, curly, dark hair framed her face and hung just past her shoulders. Her full lips seemed to call to him like a siren. The dark blue skirt suit she wore did nothing to hide her incredibly appealing curves, nor her shapely legs.

Her scent was like a drug, and he wanted to take possession of her, to claim her right there in the conference room and mark her as his own for all to see. He fought his wolf’s nature in an attempt to find a compromise, and he did his best to explain things so he could maintain control. “She is a human, an American at that. We cannot just claim her as we wish; we must get to know her.”

Despite his pleas, his wolf was in no mood. After centuries of looking and hoping for his mate, to have her so close made his heart all but leap out of his chest, and he needed her. “She is ours; we must not wait! She must wear our mark. Only we have the right to claim her!” His wolf watched David with ferocity; the way the man looked at Angelique and the way she regarded him evoked a challenge in his eyes. “We must kill him and claim her!” Instinct influenced Gao’s lupine nature as his wolf paced with urgency. This restlessness would cause his eyes to shimmer violently, the outward symbol his wolf was affecting his behavior.

His wolf was gaining more control, and just as he thought he wouldn’t be able to contain it, his father’s thoughts pushed through. “Calm. Angelique is human. You must take it slower. Tell your wolf he will have his mate.”

He was forced to fight the internal battle throughout the presentation. After many appeals and promises, he convinced his wolf of a plan to secure their mate. Sated for the time being, his wolf backed down.

When David finished his portion of the presentation, Angelique stood and scanned the room. “Any questions?”

Cheng asked a few questions and so did Jin. Gao, however, couldn’t bring himself to move or speak. He remained conflicted on how to proceed and didn’t know what to say to the woman he was meant to spend his life with.

As Angelique answered questions, he drank her in. The sound of her voice, the way she stood, the way she formed her words, and the overall air of control and authority she displayed appealed to him on multiple levels. He wanted to take comfort in that, but when he noticed David’s gaze on her, his body tensed, filled with the urge to attack. When Angelique smiled at David, he approached the edge of his control, and he had to muster all his willpower to suppress the low growl that began in his throat. When David smiled back, his wolf nearly broke free, full of rage and ready to end the life of any male who openly desired his mate.

“CALM!” Cheng’s thoughts were sent as an order, and he could feel his father’s apprehension. He understood his caution, and the idea of disappointing his father was enough motivation to help him regain his composure. He relaxed his posture.

When the question and answer period ended, Gao remained detached. It was then that Jin spoke up. “Let’s meet tomorrow afternoon to finalize things.” As Jin rose to his feet, Gao looked on as his brother offered their guests one of his friendly smiles, ready to escort them out of the conference room.

Gao’s muscles stiffened, and he prepared to stand when he felt his father’s hand on his arm. Baba! I must go with her. She is my mate!”

“No, Gao, you must calm yourself. You need to rein in your wolf. He is too close and he could accidentally hurt someone, or even worse in the state he’s in.” He knew his father understood, but that knowledge did nothing to cool his rising anger and anxiety.

“I cannot let her leave with another man. You must understand, please!” His muscles contracted and flexed beneath his skin in preparation to shift into his wolf, as his body prepared him to run to his mate at full speed. The thought alone caused his heart to race even faster as she left the room, oblivious to his suffering.

“Gao…” Cheng’s voice was quiet as he continued to hold his arm. “You must gain control. Your wolf wants to kill that man as a challenge to your mate. You know that is not our way. Be calm, my son. Jin is with them; he knows she is your mate. Your brother will keep her safe; you know that.”

After he gave his father a slow nod, he got an idea and shared it with Cheng before sending it to Jin through their bond. “Jin, invite them to dinner at the restaurant, but offer them a tour first.” His thoughts were given as an order, and he used his Alpha ability to command in an effort to maintain some form of control over the situation.

“Will do, gege.”

* * * *

As Jin turned to face the woman who was now a part of his family and half of the leadership of the pack, he smiled, and changed his tone to sound more respectful. “Lovely, David, it’s a pretty nice day; how about a small tour?”

He watched Angelique turn to David, who offered her a large smile. The sight of this exchange made him clench his fists for a brief moment, but he didn’t change his expression.

As Angelique responded, he fought the urge to stand between David and his new sister. “Sounds good, Jin, but can we stop by the hotel first? I’d like to drop off these extra bags and change into something more comfortable.”

Jin stiffened at her request before he snapped himself out of it. “Sure, let’s head there now. By the way, we own a really nice restaurant outside of the city. Please join us for dinner tonight as our guests. I’ll bring you there and back myself. You can change again after the tour.”

David responded quickly, and Jin noticed his gaze remained on Angelique the entire time. We need to do something about him.

“That sounds good.”

“Let’s get you two to the hotel then.” Gao is going to lose it! Jin knew the more time his brother spent away from Angelique, the more agitated he would become. He could also see David was more than just a friend, and he pondered how he could keep them from being alone together. This day didn’t turn out the way I planned at all!

* * * *

The confines of a nondescript building were the perfect location to house a hidden facility. For several years, properties had been scrutinized and selected for their ability to be repurposed to serve the needs of the FGT group, and each building was referred to by its individual number. As careful as they were in their property selections, the group was equally selective in who they hired.

To be selected by the group was an honor, and extensive background checks eliminated many hopefuls. Those who made the cut were compensated well, and when they discovered the true nature of their assignments, they found belief in a new cause. “Remember, we are here to protect. We must do what is necessary to ensure safety no matter what.” Those were the words that resonated with each person when they learned the truth about the world and its secrets.

Workers were hired from a variety of backgrounds and each with the same initial mandate: “confidentiality is key.” There were severe consequences for any breach, and the terms were outlined in the contracts every employee signed, though no worker dared break his silence.

Inside one of the offices of Facility Seven, a dutiful Doug Williams sat staring at the monitor in front of him. His office was dim, and the faint glow from the computer screen and various television monitors cast light onto his lab coat and face, which gave his reflection an eerie, ghost-like appearance.

He knew why he was hired by the FGT group. He’d spent years heading up research labs for the U.S. Army. When some of the research and the distasteful methods used to obtain them came to light, he was forced to take the blame, and he did. At his court martial, his only defense was he’d do whatever was necessary to protect his country.

He would have spent years in incarceration if it wasn’t for the intervention of the FGT group. Once again, he was tasked with the lead role in research projects others would shy away from, and he performed his duties with the detachment needed in the name of protection.

So it was that he found himself inside his office in preparation to give his report. With an expressionless face, he spoke to the displayed image of his expectant leader via teleconference. “Sir, the experiment continues to produce the same reaction in the subjects.”

“Excellent. The more rogues we create, the easier it will be to convince the world of the threat.”

Williams raised an eyebrow in question, and allowed his fingers to hover over the keyboard in preparation for his next orders. “Shall we acquire additional specimens?”

“Yes, continue to round up as many as you can from the identified populations. We need to release them strategically. I’ve been looking over your notes; release subject 5Z17 now.”

“Right away, sir.” With quick keystrokes, Williams relayed the orders and sat back in his chair.