|Tang Dynasty #2***Library Journal Best Romance of 2011***
Former Emperor’s consort Ling Suyin is renowned for her beauty; the ultimate seductress. Now she lives quietly alone–until the most ruthless warlord in the region comes and steals her away….Li Tao lives life by the sword, and is trapped in the treacherous, lethal world of politics. The alluring Ling Suyin is at the center of the web. He must uncover her mystery without falling under her spell–yet her innocence calls out to him. How cruel if she, of all women, can entrance the man behind the legend….Read more –>Linked stories:
Release date: October 1, 2011
Length: 304 pages
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Library Journal–starred review
“Beautifully written, deliciously sensual, and rich with Tang Dynasty historical and political detail, this exquisitely crafted, danger-filled, and intriguing story redeems the ruthless villain from Lin’s Butterfly Swords (a remarkable feat in itself), pairs him with a smart, resourceful heroine, and lets them play cat and mouse for much of the book before joining forces for a well-deserved romantic ending. Exceptional.”
Romance Reviews-Library Journal
All About Romance
“An excellent novel, well above much of what is available on the market today. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a lush, romantic read.”
B Review by Maggie Boyd
Romantic Times Book Reviews
“Drawing on a lushly depicted, exotic backdrop, Lin creates an intriguing romance between well-drawn characters whose secrets lure readers deep into the story. Lin has found a marvelous niche to delve into fascinating cultural elements and sensuality.”
Read An Excerpt
Note: The following is an excerpt of The Dragon and the Pearl, a sequel to Jeannie Lin’s debut novel, Butterfly Swords. It may contain spoilers if you haven’t read Butterfly Swords. This copy has not been through final copyedits and may contain minor differences from the final copy.
Tang Dynasty China, 759 A.D.
Lady Ling Suyin waited in the parlor at the edge of the Snake hour, her house rendered silent except for the buzz of dragonflies outside. The tea before her had long gone cold. The last servant had brought it that morning before fleeing.
The boldest of them had begged her to join them, but the warlord who was coming for her would burn every village along the river to find her. She wouldn’t add to her growing collection of debt. Another stone on the scale.
She straightened at the crunch of boots over the leaves at the front of the house. They were steady and deliberate. Her heart pounded harder with each impending step. He’d come alone. Her breath caught as the imposing figure appeared in the doorway, every bit the demon they spoke of in the imperial court. Black robe, dark hair cut short, an impassive expression that revealed nothing to her. That meant she had nothing over him.
“Ling Guifei.” His voice rang deep as he greeted her by title.
“I am no one’s precious consort any longer, Governor Li.”
Suyin remained seated and let the military governor approach. If she stood, her legs might fail her. The prominence of his features added to her fear. This was a face that could never be overlooked. All sun-darkened skin and sharp angles. A scar cut below his left eye, ruining his stark symmetry. That was new.
The first and only time she had seen Li Tao, he’d stood before the imperial court as a young man being commended for his valor. The restless energy that once radiated from him was constrained behind a wall of discipline. Time had honed him to razor sharpness. Time had not left her untouched either.
“This humble servant is here to offer himself as the lady’s escort.”
All the civility in the world could not take the edge off him.
Her stomach fluttered in warning, but she breathed through it. She propped an elbow onto the table and made her tone as light as possible. All the while, her heart pounded so hard she could barely hear her words.
“A thousand apologies, my lord, but I have no plans for travel.”
“This place is no longer safe for you.”
As if she could be safe with him. There was nowhere safe for her any longer, no allies left to protect her. Would the late Emperor’s enforcer come for her after so many years? She had thought her secrets long buried.
Suyin dug her nails into the edge of the table as he stepped closer. She had been left alone to fend for herself before, but she had been young and defenseless. An accomplished courtesan should be able to command her fear. She should be able to command the man in front of her.
Li Tao halted two strides from her, and she spied the silhouette of a weapon inside the drape of his sleeve. An assassin’s blade. She lifted the cup and took a sip to cover her shock. Cold, bitter tea slid over her tongue. Experience allowed her to keep from trembling, but she had no control over the way her heart raced or how her palms grew damp as he loomed over her.
She managed to keep her hand steady as she set the cup down. Her next words came out in the melodic, careless tone she had perfected. “Since my lord has come so far for this task, we should not waste any more time. Shall I gather my belongings?”
“There is nothing the lady needs.”
The warlord addressed her as if she were his superior. It wasn’t much, but there had to be some way to use it. She caught the trailing edge of her shawl and draped it over her shoulders. She stood straight and paused before gliding past him.
He made no move toward her, but he was watching. All men did.
She stepped through the empty house, listening to his purposeful stride on the floorboards behind her. He was too close. By the time she emerged outside, her fingers were numb from being clenched so tight.
A palanquin awaited her by the side of the single dusty road leading from her manor. A regiment of soldiers outfitted in black and red assembled around the litter. The military governors, the jiedushi commanded their own regional forces independent of the Emperor’s army. No one challenged them within their own domains, but this stretch of the forest was clearly under imperial jurisdiction. This was an affront the Emperor would not overlook.
Li Tao followed her like a gathering storm to the sedan, and the urge to flee nearly overwhelmed her. If she ran, it would only remind him that he was a hunter, a warrior, a killer. As it was, some part of him thought he was a gentleman.
“Where are we going?”
That was all he’d grant her. With a heaviness in her chest, she looked back. The August Emperor had built this home for her before his death. The manor itself meant nothing to her. Her gaze drifted to the river beyond, a rolling canvas on which the sunlight danced. She breathed deep to take in the scent of the river, of the surrounding moss and earth. This was what she would miss.
It had been too much to wish that she could be hidden away and forgotten. Perhaps she had always known someone would come for her. Debts had to be repaid in this life or the next.
She stopped before the palanquin and turned to find herself face to face with the most ruthless of the jiedushi. He was a tower of lean strength and corded muscle up close. And he was still assessing her with that penetrating gaze.
She wouldn’t cower before him. The rulers of the empire devoured the weak. She waited until he came forward to pull the curtain aside with a sweep of his arm. The tiniest of concessions.
“Tell me, Governor.” She ran a fingertip across her own cheek. “How did you get that scar?”
His eyes narrowed. “A woman,” he said after a pause.
Her lips teased into a smile. “Fascinating.”
His hand tightened on the curtain, the material clenched between his fingers. At once his pupils darkened, his breathing grew deep. The signs were there and she could read them like lines of poetry. How else was a woman to protect herself in the world of men? Li Tao, for all of his supposed cunning, was just another man.
“You do not disappoint,” he said in a low voice.
He dropped into the familiar form of address. The spark in his eyes showed the first hint of any heat beneath the cold exterior.
For a dark moment, she was caught in the call of his gaze. They were close, nearly touching. She had provoked him on purpose, but regretted it as an alarming awareness unfurled itself within her, prickling just beneath her skin. The regiment of soldiers surrounding them faded. There was only one man here she had any fear of.
“And here I had thought the game was over for me,” she murmured.
He didn’t respond. Her shoulder brushed against his sleeve as she slipped inside the wooden transport. His black eyes remained on her as the curtain fell back across the opening.
* * *
The journey came to Suyin in fragments snatched through the window. She caught glimpses of thick vines growing over the trees, the reflection of sunlight off of distant water. Li Tao rode at the front and his soldiers kept her surrounded at every moment. This must be Li Tao’s infamous first battalion. They called themselves the Rising Guard and held the reputation of being the fiercest warriors in the empire.
The dense shade and the babble of her river gave way to a dirt road grooved with wheel tracks. They were going south, farther away from the seat of imperial power. She no longer had a place in the new Emperor’s court, but she clung to illusion that the center of the empire was a safe and civilized place. What lay beyond was lawless and unpredictable. That was why they had needed the jiedushi.
On the fourth day, they passed an armed barricade. Grim-faced soldiers patrolled the line and she ducked away from the window.
It was true. The regional armies were assembling. She had isolated herself from the capital city of Changan to escape from the unrest, but news still drifted to her over the last year through her servants. They made weekly trips to the city markets while she remained shut away in her manor.
There was only one reason for a barricade in the interior of the empire. There was in-fighting among the military governors. They had been gaining in power for years and continued to seize control in the uncertainty of Emperor Shen’s rule. Perhaps she should have gone into hiding with the servants after all.
With a shudder, she pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders. She was dressed in the same clothes she had worn when they had come for her, the only possessions Li Tao had allowed her to bring.
She hated this part. The going away. The earth element in her longed to remain grounded in one place. Travel never held good tidings. Abrupt change brought back memories of being uprooted and taken some place far and unknown. It always seemed to come to that, and she knew from experience there was never a way to return.
The survival instinct returned to her, wrapping around her like second skin. She sharpened her senses and became aware of everything around her. Li Tao prepared for war with swords and soldiers. She had her own weapons.
Over the next days, the open road faded beneath the shadow of a mountain and the soil became dark and rich. They traveled into a verdant forest of bamboo. The stalks rose high overhead. They called it the bamboo sea, not for any vast stretch of water, but for the rhythmic sway of the bamboo and the rustle of the spear-tipped leaves in the breeze. The green canopy engulfed them on all sides. When she blinked away from the window, a red haze remained over her eyes, veiling the world in an unnatural glow.
Suyin peered out the window of the sedan to search for Li Tao. He rode tall in the saddle, back straight. His dark robe stood out against the forest green. Naturally, he became her main focal point. He had all the power and she had none.
He’d barely spoken to her except for the scant conversation they’d exchanged by the river. Why would he go beyond his barricades to take her captive? Her influence had died with the August Emperor. She was merely a relic now, faded and wrung free of any usefulness.
The caravan came to an abrupt stop and the curtain was swept aside. Once again, Li Tao stood before her. He extended his hand and she had no choice but to take it, pressing her fingers briefly over his before letting go. The fleeting warmth of the touch lingered on her skin, and a disturbing awareness curled around her as she stood beside him. She knew how to identify influence and power, but had never been so recklessly drawn to it.
She redirected her attention to the mansion nestled among the towering bamboo. It was twice the size of her home and built in the same opulent style of imperial architecture. The silhouette invoked the elaborate pagodas of the palace with wooden beams and tiled rooftops. Its grand structure intruded upon the tranquil forest.
“Why am I here?”
“As I said. It was not safe for you by the river.”
Her head tilted to him in challenge. “So the governor has appointed himself as my protector?”
His only reply was a wry twist of his lips before he gestured toward the front of the mansion. The man hoarded his words like gold coins. Every action was so controlled, she wondered if he ever lost himself in anger or passion. The last thought sent a shiver down her spine.
Li Tao remained behind her as they moved past the twin lion statues that guarded the entrance. With every step, she became more aware of his dominance. His stride was confident and his authority complete. The illusion of deference he presented by allowing her to lead the way was laughable. How long would it be before he made his true demands known?
Household servants filed into the entrance hall one after another. Only seven of them, a small number for such a spacious compound. A gray-haired, round-faced woman headed the assembly. She gasped when Li Tao made the introduction.
“Ling Guifei!” The old woman bowed and bowed. The narrow bones of her shoulders protruded through the brown servant’s robe.
“Jinmei, show Lady Ling to her apartments.” Li Tao cast a dismissive glance in Suyin’s direction before turning to leave.
Insufferable. She flushed hot with anger as he disappeared down a corridor. He had treated her with the same indifference throughout the journey. She had been taken from her home under force of arms, yet he cast her aside as if she was of no importance at all. It was—it was worse than being interrogated and threatened. At least then she’d know what his plans were.
The head woman touched her arm gently. “Come with Auntie Jinmei.”
The guards marched behind them as she led Suyin through the spacious hall.
“Guifei is more beautiful than they say,” Auntie cooed, using the revered title the August Emperor had bestowed upon Suyin. “We are honored and overjoyed for this visit.”
A pleasant visit indeed. Escorted by fifty armed men.
Auntie padded along in her slippers and led Suyin past the parlor to the interior rooms. The chambers stood silent and spacious with furnishings laid out in neat angles. Everything was meticulously dusted and non-descript, as unrevealing as the master of the house.
She followed Auntie outdoors through a central courtyard with a carefully arranged garden. The gardener brushed his wiry fingers over a hedge before cutting with his shears. His eyes neither focused on his hands or the sharp blades in front of him as he worked. When he addressed the lanky youth by the fish pond, his gaze remained vacant, stopping just short of fixing on his target.
The youth caught her eye as she passed. He looked to be sixteen, grasping at the edge of manhood. A clump of damp grass hung dripping from one hand while he watched her. His left arm hung rigidly against his side, the fingers of his hand withered and gnarled like a pigeon’s claw. She tore her gaze away with sudden embarrassment.
Auntie beckoned her along. “Master Li would want Ling Guifei to have the most luxurious of accommodations. We hope the lady will be pleased.”
The image of the blind gardener and his crippled assistant lingered. In the palace, even the lowliest of servants were chosen for physical beauty to perpetuate the illusion of perfection.
In the eastern section of the house, Auntie led Suyin up a staircase. Her assigned guard stayed outside the double doors as they entered the apartments.
“Good light. Positive energy from all directions.” Auntie walked in first, opening door after door. “In the mornings Ling Guifei can watch the sun rise over the cliffs.”
The woman reminded her of the elder servants who had served in the palace for so long they nearly held rank. Their speech and manner might be subservient, but they possessed all the cunning in the world after the secrets their eyes had seen. In the palace, Suyin had learned to never underestimate the servants. She had formed alliances wherever she could.
Auntie took her through the sheer curtain onto the balcony. From there she could see the ridge of the gray cliffs in the distance. The clean, crisp air of the forest surrounded them. Gripping the wooden rail, Suyin peered at the yard below.
Li Tao had imprisoned her on the second floor. A vast gorge opened up beyond the edge of the stone tiles. The granite walls plunged sharply to disappear into oblivion. Even if she were brave enough to make the climb from the balcony, there was nowhere to run.
She had been through all of the possibilities. The warlord could be holding her hostage, which was unlikely as she no longer had any allies in the empire. His capture of her could be purely an act of defiance against imperial authority. More likely he thought she held some vital secret. There had been a time when she had many secrets at her fingertips.
Suyin called out as Auntie started to sink behind the curtain. “How long have you served the Governor?”
“Fifteen years, my lady.”
From the beginning then. Suyin leaned once more over the rail and breathed deep, catching the scent of moss and dampened earth.
From the very first time anyone had ever heard of a man named Li Tao.
Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2011 by Jeannie Lin
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