A failed engagement has left Charlotte Freely an object of scandal. Her chances of finding a suitable husband are slim, but on a silk-buying trip, Charlotte meets a Chinese man who is far from bending to Western whims. Song Chao Ming, a descendant of an ancient imperial line, is used to being obeyed - and Charlotte finds herself helpless to resist such a masterful man.
But Charlotte’s brother has plans for her future. When she runs away to join Chao Ming, she gives up her Western life to belong to him - but both have a lot to learn about submission and control. Chao Ming gives Charlotte a Chinese name, Tianfu, but this isn’t enough to make her a Chinese woman.
Is lust enough to overcome two distinct cultural ideals, or will only the understanding of love allow the Son of Heaven to keep his precious Tianfu?
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Charlotte quickly bent her head to examine the box. She could not forget the way he’d looked at her with such hunger, such… dominance. Her hands trembled. The lid slipped back and landed on the table with a clatter before she could catch it. She blushed, embarrassed by her clumsiness. She gave Chao Ming an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have touched.”
He inclined his head, and his smile was enigmatic. “If it pleases you to look, then you must obey your instincts.”
She smiled in nervous response. It seemed an odd thing to say, ‘obey your instincts,’ but now she was truly curious about this box hidden away in the corner. She stepped closer to the table and peered inside. She caught the faint scent of camphor-wood mixed with the familiar notes of the incense. The smell grew stronger as she lifted out the first item from the top of the box, a swathe of black silk that seemed to be permeated with the heady scent.
Charlotte set the silk to one side without even considering what it could be used for, and then she gasped as she saw what it had hidden beneath its folds. Her hands dipped into the box, removing each item one by one—velvet pouches containing pearls, either singly or strung in a row. Smooth, shaped pieces of ivory with carved heads that puzzled her as to their purpose. Strips of supple black leather, lengths of red silken rope…
Her breath was short, her chest tight. She felt as if she were in a dream as she handled each object with reverence, touching and stroking before she placed them down on top of the cushion of black silk. She bit back a moan as she brought out a carved jade dildo, gasping at the chill and weight of the stone. She put it down, too embarrassed to look at it, and grabbed hastily at the next item, a book bound within fine painted boards. This at least looked safe, and she opened the cover. Her eyes widened, and she shut it again quickly.
“Do you see anything that pleases you, Miss Freely?”
Charlotte jumped, startled, when she realised Chao Ming stood beside her. She struggled for something to say. Her first instinct was to cover the items on the table from his gaze, even though she knew full well that he knew what they were.
“Tell me what you see,” he said softly.
“I—I…” Flustered, she looked at the book still held in her hands. She knew he could see what it was for himself. Why did he have to ask her to describe it? Perhaps he was trying to humiliate her. Yes, that was it. Charlotte made an effort and looked down at the book, forcing her voice into a dispassionate tone.
“I believe this is a pillow book,” she began.
Chao Ming came a step closer. “Yes. Go on.”
The rice paper between the wooden boards was almost as fine and smooth as the silk of the imperial robes. “It must be very old,” she said, stalling for time.
“Tang dynasty,” he affirmed. “Every bride during that time would be given a pillow book on her wedding night.”
“A most…practical gift.”
She could hear his amusement. “Open it. Tell me what you see there.”
Charlotte obeyed him, carefully opening the book at random. Her stomach lurched and her face flamed as she saw the illustration. It was beautifully painted, the figures elegant and graceful, the detail exquisite and graphic.
It showed a naked woman lying supine upon a bed, cushions heaped beneath her hips and her head hanging from the mattress so that her hair spilled down in a swirl of black. Her eyes were shut tight, her mouth open wide in a silent cry of pleasure. Her breasts thrust up, the nipples dark and pointed, responding to the masterful touch of her lover. He lay between her spread thighs, his body forcing her legs wide apart. One hand crushed her left breast, perhaps almost bruising the soft flesh. The other hand explored between her thighs. His head was lowered, his tongue licking hungrily at her exposed sex.
Charlotte felt weak with shame and arousal. She wished she could dab at her face with her handkerchief. Her face was hot and damp with pinpricks of perspiration. She took a deep breath and quickly, she tried to turn the page to something more innocuous.
“Stop,” Chao Ming said. “Go back to that picture.”
Her hands shaking, she did as she was told. She tried to not look at the image, but concentrated instead on the Chinese characters alongside it.
“Why did you turn the page?” he asked. “Does this picture offend you?”
Charlotte forced herself to speak. “It’s… naughty.”
“I don’t understand you, Miss Freely.” Chao Ming sounded severe. “Tell me again. I want to know why you turned away from it.”
“Because it’s wicked and shameful,” she said in a desperate whisper. “Don’t make me look at it, please, Chao Ming!”
“But Miss Freely, you should face the things that cause you shame. Otherwise, how will you overcome them?”
She hoped his question had been rhetorical. She did not think she could find a sensible answer for him.
“Look at the picture, Charlotte.”
She moaned in protest, turning her head. She felt incredibly aroused. She wanted him to force her to look at the dirty, shameful picture. Her body trembled at the idea that he would make her describe what she could see. With a jolt of pure twisted desire, Charlotte realised he was giving her orders and that she was obeying him. The desire knifed further into her as she realised she wanted more of his orders. She wanted to obey him.
She waited, unbearably tense. The book trembled in her hands. The picture blurred before her vision.
“Does it excite you?” Chao Ming asked softly.
She hung her head, shivering, and admitted, “Yes.”
He reached down and gently shut the pages of the pillow book, turning it in her hands and closing her fingers around the covers.
Charlotte stood rigid, too afraid to sway back into his arms and yet half-hoping he would take her into his embrace.
Instead he pressed the book to her. “Please accept this as a gift.”
“But…it must be worth…” she began in protest.
“Please.” Chao Ming turned away and began to replace the items in the box.
Charlotte realised she’d offended him by mentioning value. She clutched the book so tightly that she felt the corners of the wooden boards dig into her palms. “Thank you.”
He folded the black silk on top of the other objects, and then placed the lid back on the box. He turned and gave her a half-bow. “You are welcome. I hope it brings you much pleasure.”
“Pleasure should be shared,” she said before she could stop herself, and then she put her hand to her mouth, horrified at her loose tongue.
Chao Ming smiled again. “Your choice, may I remind you, Miss Freely. It is purely your decision that keeps us apart.”
“I’ve told you why!” she cried, and hated the note of petulance she heard in her voice. “It’s impossible.”
He came closer, put his hands on her shoulders, and drew her towards him. “Nothing is impossible, Charlotte.”