Tang Dynasty #2.5
Tang Dynasty China, 759 A.D.
Yao Ru Jiang, known as River, has woven many romantic dreams of honorable swordsman Wei Chen from her brother’s stories. Their meeting should have been a happy event; instead, Chen arrives to tell River he is duty bound to kill her brother for rebelling against the warlord they both serve.
River would do anything to distract the handsome, conflicted warrior from his mission—even take him as a lover….
Note: The Lady’s Scandalous Night takes place in parallel with The Dragon and the Pearl and links to a subplot within the longer novel.
Release date: September 1, 2011
Length: Approx. 47 pages
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Read an Excerpt
This excerpt has not yet been copyedited and may contain differences from the final release
The shop was exactly as Chen had imagined it. The cabinets were fashioned from dark, polished cherry wood. The counter kept meticulously clean. He stepped up to it and a shadow moved in the back room. A shape through the beaded curtain.
The Yao family sold paper. They had a mill and purchased logs transported down the Great River from forests west of there. All these things Chen knew from so many stories, told over so many days. More details than he remembered of his very own family, which he’d left behind to serve in Governor Li’s army when he was little more than a boy. Chen was no longer a common soldier, of rank too insignificant to mention. He was a trained swordsman and a trusted bodyguard who would die to protect his master.
As Yao Ru Shan had been. Once.
The curtain at the back of the shop parted. A middle-aged man appeared and greeted Chen with proper deference, but it was the figure still beyond the curtain that held Chen’s attention. The young woman sat at her desk with a brush in hand. He only had one glance before the strands fell back in place. The wooden beads tapped together in muted harmony.
He had already memorized the curve of neck and the perfect angle of her wrist as she bent over her writing. From across the room, filtered through the beaded barrier, there was nothing more to see but form and shape. But the shape of her was enough to capture his thoughts.
The clerk bowed behind the counter. “Honored sir, what can we do for you?”
“I am looking for Master Yao Hui-Rong.”
At that, the woman stood. Chen watched her shadow approach from the corner of his eye. Before the clerk could answer, the curtain parted once again.
“Yao Hui-Rong is my father.”
And now she became more than an elegant silhouette. More than a name he had repeated to himself in the dark.
Chen greeted her, palm to fist, head bowed. In the moment before he lowered his eyes, he’d already taken in more than was polite. She resembled her brother and she didn’t. Her features were strong, but tempered. Her hair was coiled tight and fixed with ebony pins. Her mouth was small and curved, the only part of her that could be considered soft. Ru Shan called her River.
When Chen straightened, River wasn’t looking at him. Instead her gaze had fixed onto the sword at his side.
“I apologize. My father is ill.” Her voice sounded strained. She must have noted it, because when she spoke again it was forcibly clearer. “If you have any news…”
This was harder than he thought it would be. “It is of the utmost importance I speak to him directly.”
She looked to the clerk and then back to him. Her robe was blue, nearly black, like the fading twilight. The collar of it closed high around her throat. It was unnecessarily austere, he found himself thinking.
“Then I can take you to him. If you can watch the shop, Liao?” She turned uncertainly to the clerk, who nodded.
River came around the counter to stand deliberately apart from him. “My manners are nowhere to be found. Your name?”
“Wei Chen. I served with your brother in the military governor’s first battalion.”
“I’m Yao Ru Jiang,” she murmured.
Jiang. River. He’d always thought it sounded pretty. “An honor,” he replied.
He waited for her to recognize his name, but she averted her eyes as she started past. Perhaps it was too much to hope. Too needful. The clerk Liao bowed once, as an afterthought, and then followed them with his eyes as Chen followed River out into the street.
“Our house is outside of town,” she explained.
He knew that as well. Ru Shan had told him of this town, the mill, and of his younger sister. Chen had devoured every word and used the images to fill in empty moments and empty spaces within. He’d never thought that he would have to use this knowledge to hunt down his comrade, the brother of his heart.
“My horse is at the stable,” he offered.
“Our home is not far.” Her eyes grew wide before she turned away, blushing. “I’d..I’d prefer to walk.”
Was it the prospect of riding with him that made her so nervous? Etiquette demanded that he do something quickly to ease her mind and set their interaction back on steady ground. He wanted to do this properly, or as proper as could be expected.
“The lady is right, it would be a shame to waste this sunshine.”
He took her side at a respectable distance. River snatched a brief sideways glance at him before casting her eyes downward. He found his palms sweating.
They continued wordlessly to the edge of town. From there, a dirt path led toward the river.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” he said, breaking the silence.
She paused for a moment, her lips pressed tight, then continued down the path.
“I knew your brother well. I consider Ru Shan—” He faltered. “I consider him a friend.”
“It is always good to meet friends.”
Her words were brittle. She knew. Even this far within the province, they would have heard reports of the unrest as well as rumors of who was instigating the rebellion. When he first learned of Ru Shan’s treachery, he hadn’t believed it. Doubt was quickly replaced by confusion, then anger. Now he didn’t know what to feel as he hunted for Ru Shan.
“He spoke often of you,” Chen continued. “Ru Shan and Ru Jiang. Mountain and river.” He fumbled for more. It was difficult to walk beside her. It was difficult to be pleasant while he held back what he’d come to tell her. “It seems very poetic.”
“Our family only makes the paper. We know nothing about the poetry written on it.”
“I’m no poet either,” he admitted.
“No, you’re a swordsman. A trained killer.”
Her directness took him aback, but she was right. He deserved this coldness from her. He was trained. An expert. A clean death was a mercy, in a way. The final mercy and the only one he could give.
* * *
She had to get the swordsman away from town. There were too many people who could have seen her brother come and go. One seemingly harmless comment could mean his death.
River knew the men of the first battalion were fiercely loyal. They had honed their skills with the sword, the knife, and the bow. They would follow an oath of honor through all the levels of hell.
Now one of those men walked beside her: sleek, silent, and predatory. Ru Shan had spoken of this man like a brother, not this hard-edged warrior beside her. They had suspected someone would come, but she hadn’t expected it to be Wei Chen. Her heart pounded and she grew faint as the blood rushed through her. She’d been wrong about him, so wrong.
“You’re tall,” Chen said.
She frowned, struggling to find a suitable response.
“You’re taller than I imagined,” he amended.
Why would he care to fill the silence with this and that?
“My brother is tall,” she replied.
Her hands were shaking. She tucked them into her sleeves to hide them, and remained focused on the path ahead as they left the town behind them. His eyes were on her. She was certain he could see her guilt and sense the heat burning beneath her skin. Some careless remark could send this hunter after her brother.
The courtyard house stood on the river across the bend from the mill. They came to a halt outside the front. River paused with her hand on the wooden gate and forced herself to look directly at him.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me,” he said, almost gently.
“I don’t believe you.”
Of all things, her lack of trust seemed to wound him. This hardened, steel-eyed soldier who faced death and dealt it in the same breath.
“You don’t know me, but I served with your brother among Governor Li Tao’s trusted bodyguards,” he explained. “Recently Ru Shan was released from the governor’s service. The circumstances were – not ideal.”
Her brother had been marched into the forest for execution. At the last moment, Governor Li had relented. Ru Shan should have just come home and then none of this would be happening. Her heart ached to think of it.
“My brother did speak of you,” she admitted.
Ru Shan had spoken Chen’s name many times to her father and to her. Chen was accomplished, highly-skilled, disciplined. Had the warlord known to send the one man her brother would refuse to fight?
“My brother told me that you saved his life when he first went to battle.” She watched his face, searching for signs of the friend her brother so admired. “Our family owes you a great debt.”
Chen’s eyes grew cold. “That was a long time ago. Any debt that exists is only between your brother and me.”
“He hasn’t come here.”
She’d spoken too hastily. The swordsman pinned her with his gaze and she struggled not to look away while heat rose up the back of her neck.
“I know,” he said after a pause.
Chen had searched through the town, as she suspected, though it seemed he hadn’t interrogated the inhabitants yet. Otherwise he might have discovered that Ru Shan had been there. Her brother was still too close, only three days ride away.
“Why do you wish to speak to my father?” she asked.
“Ru Shan and I are brothers, in spirit if not in blood. I came to pay my respects to your family, as I should have done long ago.” His tone was calm. So calm. “And then I must apologize.”
A flicker of emotion crossed his face, too fleeting for her to catch. A chill traveled down her spine. Her next breath wouldn’t come.
“His shame is my shame.” Chen squared his shoulders before her. He was taller than Ru Shan. Stronger. Colder. “I must apologize for the sorrow I will inevitably bring you when I’m forced to kill him.”
Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2011 by Jeannie Lin
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