Digital ebook available September 1, 2012 from Harlequin.com, Amazon, Barnes & Noble & wherever ebooks are sold.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!An Illicit Temptation is the novella sequel to My Fair Concubine and takes place immediately after the end of the novel.
Tang Dynasty China, 824 A.D.
Pretending to be a princess wasn't any hardship. Dao hadn't grown up in a palace, dressed in silk and jewels. She didn't miss her cot in the Chang family's servant quarters. Now there were no more clothes to mend, floors to sweep, chamber pots to empty. The only thing required of her was that she recline inside a gilded palanquin while the wedding procession made its way through the steppe toward the Khitan central capital. She even had an army of her own attendants to wait on her. No hardship at all…another day of it and she would go mad.
Dao stabbed her needle through the eye of crane she was embroidering. The afternoon was lazy and warm as the palanquin rolled over the wild grass of the northern plains, lulling her to sleep with the rhythm. It seemed that was all she did on this journey: embroider or nap.
With a snap of her wrist, she pulled the curtain aside. A square of sunlight opened up revealing the endless green of the steppe and cloudless sky beyond. Khitan tribesmen on horseback surrounded the procession to serve as her escort. She was in an exotic land and she was squandering the experience in meager glances through this tiny window.
She searched among the riders. "Kwan-Li!"
Kwan-Li was tasked with bringing her to Khitan to be married to the khagan, the chieftain over all chieftains of this land of nomadic deel of the nomadic tribes. The khagan was without a wife so the two empires had negotiated for a peace marriage.
He was astride a horse at the head of the procession and absorbed in conversation with one of the tribesmen. Despite his responsibilities, she didn't have to repeat herself before he broke away to ride up alongside the window. Princesses gave commands and others obeyed. Dao still felt a foolish little thrill whenever it happened.
Kwan-Li was tall and looked more like an imperial soldier than a statesman. He wore the traditional deel, the heavy folded tunic favored by the nomads, except for his was fashioned from a vibrant blue brocade. A broad yellow sash wrapped around his waist, highlighting a lean, masculine frame. His features were strong, almost harsh, with a distinctiveness that she couldn't quite place.
"Princess An-Ming," he acknowledged, his expression stern.
The court had also seen fit to bestow an imperial name upon her. It meant Bright Peace and she quite liked it. The name sounded very princesslike to her ears unlike her own name, which simply meant Peach. She was so very tired of being plain.
"I want to ride," she said.
He blinked once. "Now?"
His eyes had the sharpness of an eagle's with gold flecks within them that caught the sun.
"Yes, now," she said simply, pleasantly.
The procession continued to move along. He kept pace with her as he took in the caravan of wagons transporting gifts from the imperial court as well as an army of attendants to take care of her every need.
"It's nearly time for us to stop and rest, isn't it?" she asked.
She could see from the uncompromising line of his jaw that it wasn't.
"The princess might find it more suitable to practice at the end of the day when the sun is low," Kwan-Li suggested coolly. This is what a refusal sounded like from the very proper diplomat.
"I'm not afraid of a little sunlight. Have a horse ready for me when we next stop for rest."
Dao let the curtain fall back in place, ending the discussion. When she stepped out of the palanquin an hour later, the Khitans were tending to the horses while her attendants erected canopies set on bamboo poles to shield the party from the sun while they had their tea and refreshments.
A tent was erected for her privacy. Moon, her personal attendant, helped Dao change out of the light silk hanfu into the sturdier deel. The tunic was long, reaching almost to her ankles, and was lined with fox fur at the collar. Dao tried not to fidget as she watched Moon secure the clasps. Not two months ago, Dao had been in the girl's place, dressing and tending to her own mistress.
Pearl had been more than her mistress. They shared the same father, though the two of them had never acknowledged that they were related by blood. Pearl's mother was First Wife while Dao's mother was a household servant who was never even a concubine. Pearl had been chosen by the imperial court to go to Khitan, but when she ran away with her lover, Dao had taken her place.
Marriage to a chieftain was a better future than she had ever hoped for. It didn't matter that her husband was much older than her or that she had to leave her home behind. These were small sacrifices. She was very fortunate, she had to remember that.
When Dao emerged from the tent, the caravan was in the process of repacking. Kwan-Li oversaw everything with quiet efficiency. He had the respect of the nomads and spoke their language with impressive fluency. She could see why he objected to the small delay she had caused. There was nothing simple about managing all the wagons and trunks and people.
Ruan, the eldest of the Khitans, was waiting with her horse, saddled and ready as she had commanded.
"Old Wolf," she greeted.
"Dragoness," he returned cheerfully.
Ruan had been given the nickname due to a wolf attack that had left ragged scars across the right side of his face. He was old, grizzled and surprisingly good-natured, making frequent use of what remained of his smile. As one of the few tribesmen who spoke Han, he'd quickly become her favorite.
It was Kwan-Li, however, who came to help her onto the saddle. She braced her foot into his hands and had to grab onto his shoulders as she wobbled. The sudden press of his body against hers startled her. He was made of hard, unyielding muscle. As he lifted her, their eyes met briefly and her face flushed with heat. Princesses shouldn't get embarrassed so easily, should they? His expression was serious, his movements brusque. After a few moments of struggle and indignity, she was able to seat herself. Kwan-Li lifted himself onto his horse with a natural grace that she envied.
"Stay beside me," he instructed.
Dao held her back straight and tried to relax into position, determined to show him she wasn't entirely incompetent. It was said the children of Khitan could sit on horseback before they could walk. If she was to live among them, she had to be able to do something even the youngest among them found to be second nature.
Kwan-Li guided her toward the center of the line and rode beside her as the caravan started moving once again in its endless trek across the planes. Dao had grown up in the city where distance was measured by wards and divided by gates. Out here there were no walls, no streets, and the grassland seemed to go on forever. An expanse of blue sky hovered over them and a cool breeze swirled around her. There was something meditative about the rhythm of the horse beneath her and the feeling of being suspended between heaven and earth. No boundaries existed.
"You're displeased," she said when Kwan-Li remained silent and brooding. Yes, brooding was what it was, the way he stared into the distance and purposefully avoided even looking at her, though they rode side by side.
"Of course not, Princess," he said.
"What's the loss of one hour in a month-long journey?"
"Indeed." A terse pause followed. "Princess."
She wouldn't go so far as to call him rude. He was the court's appointed official and treated her with deference, yet he had always been distant toward her. Almost cold in nature. Perhaps he hadn't wanted this appointment. It was common knowledge in the imperial city that Khitan was a wild, uncivilized land.
"I can demand you explain yourself," she said lightly, only teasing in part. He was one of the few people who would speak openly to her on the journey. He seemed to be in a particularly bad mood when all she wanted to do was enjoy the touch of the breeze on her face.
Kwan-Li met her gaze. A flicker of defiance lit in his eyes. It lent something daring and exciting to him and her heartbeat quickened. She looked away, searching for something to lighten the air between them.
"Such barbarian customs they have here," she murmured, watching one of the nomads place his fur cap over his head.
"Barbarian?" Kwan-Li echoed stiffly.
"It seems odd to shave the top of your head like a monk, but then leave the sides so long," she mused.
"It is to open themselves to the grace of the sun," he explained.
Alarm crept into her voice. "Will I have to do the same?"
"The princess has nothing to worry about. The women do not follow the same practice."
He nudged his horse forward and she did the same, keeping stride beside him as he had instructed. As a ranking official from the imperial court, Kwan-Li was the only one who felt he could speak to her without averting his eyes and agreeing to her every word. She found herself missing the comfort of conversation.
"You seem to have studied their customs very thoroughly," she said.
He regarded her with an odd expression. "I am from Khitan."
Her eyes widened. "But you don't look-"
"Like an unwashed barbarian?" He allowed a slow smile to reveal itself.
"I didn't say unwashed," she protested.
In the capital, they spoke of the barbarians of the northern steppe to be a roughened, warlike people. The Khitans that rode along with them certainly had the hard-eyed look of survival amidst the unforgiving elements. Yet Kwan-Li's bearing had the mark of education and culture.
"But you speak our language so fluently," she said fascinated. "You even look Han."
"You are mistaken, Princess."
She traced over the shape and line of his face with unabashed curiosity. Kwan-Li grew his hair long and had it pulled back into a topknot as they did in the empire. His skin also lacked the dark, sun-drenched quality of the nomads. Perhaps there was a slight difference in the shape of his eyes, a broadness of his nose and chin that she had overlooked before.
"How unexpected! I would have never known."
He was taken aback by her reaction. "I assumed the princess would have been told-" He stopped himself, his eyes narrowing as he considered her.
Dao's pulse jumped. "I have no knowledge of the day-to-day dealings of the outer court," she said quickly. "We princesses are kept so sheltered away in the palace."
She attempted a smile. He frowned, but seemed to accept her answer. Or rather he rode on in silence. Dao realized she was gripping the reins too tight when her horse tossed his head, flicking his ears in agitation. She relaxed her hold and concentrated on the trail in front of her.
She had to be careful what she said around Kwan-Li. He was intelligent and likely well-versed in court etiquette and politics while she knew none of the things a princess should know. It was fine for him to think of her as a vacant and innocent as long as he was convinced she was a princess.
When she dared to glance at him again, he was looking over the caravan, ever watchful. She had assumed that he was a diplomat, appointed by the court to accompany her. This new information made her even more curious about him.
"Your name sounds Han," she remarked.
He turned and regarded her as if surprised she was speaking again. "Kwan-Li is the name I was given by the imperial court. A courtesy name."
She refused to be intimidated by his cold demeanor. She was the princess here after all. "How long were you in Changan?"
"You came to the capital to study?"
"I came to be educated." There was a pause. "And for diplomatic reasons."
All sorts of foreigners lived within the walls of Changan. The public markets were full of stalls set up by merchants from neighboring lands, but this was the first she'd known of a barbarian-of a foreigner-who was taken into the imperial court.
"I remained in the capital to ensure peace between our two lands," he said in response to her questioning look.
"Much like an alliance bride then," she suggested.
He paused to think. "Perhaps a very similar arrangement…"
She grinned. "But in your case, you weren't bound into marriage."
He blinked at her, taken aback, looking flustered. "No...I was not."
In that confusion, his expression lost its sternness, his eyes their coldness, and his speech relinquished that distinctive formality that she now knew was due in part to his having come from a foreign land. Without that wall in place, his entire demeanor changed.
"No woman would have you, barbarian that you are," she teased.
His mouth curved upward slightly, with a crookedness to the smile, which sent a small flutter to her belly. He suddenly appeared approachable. More than approachable. For all its hardness, his face wasn't an unpleasant one to look at. A slow rise of heat invaded her cheeks and she had to look away.
Dao prided herself on being practical. She had lived a life of servitude and constant toil. Cunning was more important than charm. She fought to keep her observations impassive as she gazed at Kwan-Li in profile: the hard shape of his jaw, the arch of his cheekbones, the curve of his mouth that took on an unexpected sensuality when he smiled.
Wayward dreams of romance would lead only to ruin. She had known that truth since birth. So Dao had no such romantic thoughts now as she rode beside Kwan-Li. Instead she tried very hard to forget that in a few weeks she would be wed to a stranger.
Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2012 by Jeannie Lin
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