"If someone had warned me about the humidity in Hong Kong, I would have thought twice before extending my assignment through the summer." With impatient flicks of her wrist, Anne Hunter fanned herself with the evening's program. Under ordinary circumstances she enjoyed covering the Governor-General's parties. They were a glamorous contrast to the austere business of financial and political news. Tonight, though, her attendance was more of a last-ditch effort to bring her search to a successful end.
"Speaking of steamy subjects, look over your shoulder at that gorgeous guy in the white suit." The woman who spoke, Madge Rogers, was also a reporter for the United News Agency. Her stare was aimed past Anne toward a group of men engaged in a heated conversation.
Cool and poised in a red crocheted dress, Anne's appearance belied her complaint about the weather. She turned her sleekly coiffed blond head in the direction Madge faced, and her gray eyes were immediately drawn to the striking Eurasian man around whom the group was clustered.
"You're right, Madge," she agreed. "He does look interesting, but I have other things on my mind right now." A determined line spoiled the sensuous curve of Anne's mouth, and her silvery gaze scanned the crowded reception room. "Are you positive that you don't know someone who could introduce me to Edward Payton?" If she didn't make a connection soon she could kiss that lucrative free-lance opportunity good-bye.
"No, for the thousandth time, I don't have that much luck," Madge grumbled. "And if I did, I'd interview the guy myself."
"Okay." Anne sighed. "Thanks anyway." Madge's acerbic comment hadn't registered. She skirted the desks and metal folding chairs that penned in the press pool, too preoccupied to notice the admiring glances tracking her exit.
Anne was tall and willowy, and the fullness of her breasts defied her model's figure. The porcelain poise of her features, though fascinating, lacked camera perfection--the nose perhaps a shade too long; the lips possibly a mite too generous. But it was the widely-set gray eyes, capable of shifting from pewter to platinum in a volcanic instant, that captured her intrinsic spirit and deep sensitivity.
"Excuse me, please." Anne squeezed between a canapé-laden table and the broad back of a diamond-bedecked matron whose plump fingers clutched a gooey cheese hors d'oeuvre.
Anne's delicate presence camouflaged a steel trap mind that had won the praise of her colleagues. Although she had been a foreign correspondent for only four years, she had earned a great deal of respect for her crisp writing style and her ability to grasp the facts and report them accurately.
"Hunter! Over here." The chief of UNA's Hong Kong Bureau waved to her from the edge of a tight-knit circle of dignitaries. Dick Tabor's career dated from the 38th Parallel in Korea. He was considered an authority on Far Eastern affairs, and his weekly editorial was syndicated in three hundred newspapers worldwide.
"What's up, Dick?" Anne smiled warmly as she joined her boss. She respected his shrewd instinct for hard-hitting news. More important, she liked the fact that his thirty-odd-year exposure to man-made tragedy and natural disaster hadn't hardboiled the humanity out of him.
"Where are you headed this early?" he asked.
"Back to the office." The pages of Anne's notepad were blank, but the story she would wire to New York was already taking form. "I thought I'd go ahead and file a preliminary report on the reception. If anything earthshaking develops later I can pick up the details in the newsroom."
"Well, if you'll stick around a while longer, you may get a break on Edward Payton." His blue eyes twinkled with secret knowledge. "Of course, you do understand that if you get too tied up in freelancing I'll have to reassign you to the Hak So Wan beat."
Hak So Wan was their standing joke. Nothing newsworthy ever happened there.
"Don't think you're intimidating me with that Cheshire cat grin." Anne's annoyance was as much a jest as her boss's threat. "I'm not some poor public official you can cut to shreds in your scathing editorials."
"Touché." Dick pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of the gaudy plaid jacket that was a sore thumb amid the expensive suits and ties. "Seriously, there's a rumor that Payton might make one of his rare public appearances tonight."
"In that case, wild dogs couldn't chase me away from here." Her gray eyes sparkled with anticipation. Dick understood because his own career had zoomed after several exclusives like this.
"Is your research done?" He squinted at her through a haze of smoke.
Anne nodded. "I could probably tell you what he had for breakfast, but I wouldn't recognize the man if he stared me in the face." She thought for a moment, then voiced her frustration. "Do you realize there's not a single file photo of Edward Payton in all of Hong Kong? I've been through our drawers, as well as the ones at A.P. and U.P.I. Nobody knows what he looks like!"
"Keep digging," Dick encouraged as he accepted a drink from a waiter. "You're bound to run across a photo sooner or later."
"Well, there sure is something odd about him," Anne pressed. "After all, seventy percent of the world's precious stones pass through his hands before they're marketed. How and why does an expert like that avoid publicity?"
Dick shrugged matter-of-factly. "So he keeps a low profile. Sounds like a reporter's dream."
"Nightmare would be a better word." She nibbled on the full thrust of her lower lip. "His secretary has canceled three appointments at the last minute. People clam up--like they're afraid--whenever I mention that I want to meet him." A suspicious light silvered her eyes. "It doesn't make sense. But I'm going to get to the bottom of Edward Payton's self-imposed exile if it's--"
"Pardon me. Did I hear you mention Edward Payton?" A masculine voice with a trace of a British accent interrupted Anne.
"Yes. Do you know him?" She whirled and recognized the man who spoke as the one Madge had pointed out earlier.
"We happen to be very close friends. He asked me to extend his regrets to the Governor-General this evening."
An immediate, exquisite awareness of the tall, exotic stranger eased the disappointment that Payton had eluded her once again. Anne stared into ebony eyes that channeled a potent, erotic energy shot through with daring. Almond skin stretched taut over high cheekbones into thick black hair, and his sandalwood scent held faint, enticing promises. Except for the sharply defined European nose and the tailored, white silk suit, he might have been a barbarian warlord from an ancient dynasty.
"May I ask what prompts your interest in Mr. Payton?" His question startled her out of her trance-like inventory.
"I'd like to interview him for an article I'm doing for World Trends Magazine." Anne felt a flush of heat rise in her cheeks. Emotional reactions were dangerous in this business. She still carried scars from the one time she'd allowed her heart to interfere--and once was more than enough.
"World Trends Magazine--an impressive publication." There was a hint of sarcasm in his observation that rankled her.
"Two Pulitzer nominations last year," she asserted briskly.
"Mr. Payton will be equally impressed, I'm sure. Especially when he learns they have assigned a Lotus beauty to write the story." He was deliberately provoking her, she was certain of it.
"I appreciate your kind remarks, but we both know that beauty has nothing to do with ability." Anne answered his challenge by tipping her chin, revealing the graceful curve of her neck "My credentials were earned in some of the hottest spots in the world, and I assure you that bullets don't discriminate on the basis of physical attributes."
She was proud of her reputation for discipline under fire. "Anne Hunter, UNA, Hong Kong." She extended her hand.
"Kai Shanpei." An ironic smile slashed his mouth. He ignored her hand.
"When will you be seeing Mr. Payton again?" Anne had pursued this break for weeks and Mr. Shanpei was her first real glimmer of hope.
"It so happens that we are having brunch tomorrow to discuss some jewels that I want to purchase." Black onyx eyes swept over her, and the crinkles at the corners said he was pleased with what he saw. "I am certainly willing to mention that you wish to talk with him."
"He knows I want to see him, Mr. Shanpei." A trembling weakness attacked her knees, but Anne was determined not to be put off again. "Perhaps I could go with you tomorrow and you could introduce us," she persisted. "A mutual acquaintance sort of thing."
"I'm afraid that would be impossible." His rebuff was tempered with that often infuriating Chinese trademark--a polite smile that successfully masked whatever he might be thinking.
"Well, would it be too great an imposition to ask that you give him my card?" Her voice was calm as she pulled one out of her purse. She was struggling to conquer the profoundly disturbing reactions that warred with her journalistic instincts.
"Thank you." It wasn't a promise, but at least he pocketed the card.
"He can reach me at the office any morning after eight." Anne hoped her disappointment wasn't too plainly imprinted on her face. She turned, convinced that Mr. Shanpei had no intention of helping her.
"Have you had dinner yet?"
His question caught her off guard. "Hors d'oeuvres and champagne," she admitted, wrinkling her nose at the reminder. She'd rushed to her apartment from the office, showered and changed, then dashed back across town to cover the reception.
"Could I persuade you to dine with me this evening?"
His invitation, though softy spoken, was threaded with that same note of challenge she had detected earlier. Those darkly inscrutable eyes--why did she suddenly feel like she knew this man?
"To cement our acquaintance, of course," he added wryly.
"I'm sorry." The stiff decline was cold in her throat even as her body temperature soared. Anne held herself rigid against the stimulating promise of his intimate eye contact. "I have a report to wire to New York, and then there's an editorial that needs researching--"
"I'll take care of that," Dick intervened. "Go on and have some fun for a change. You've been working like a madwoman for weeks."
A wary expression crept into Anne's eyes. She kept her gaze averted from that handsome Eurasian face. Although she hated admitting it, life did seem rather dull. Agency reporters were just nomads--packing their suitcases at the beck and call of their editors. At twenty-eight she had little more than a few souvenirs and her clippings to prove that she had seen the glamour capitals of the world.
Carrying brutal honesty one step further, Anne was lonesome. A permanent relationship demanded more than she was willing or able to sacrifice at this stage of her career. She turned her head to inspect the lean hollows and clean contours that aroused both curiosity and caution on her part. The sharp, steely awareness in his eyes stirred those inner fires that had lain dormant for so long.
"Dinner sounds fine." She wanted to believe it was hunger pangs that prompted her acceptance. When his warm fingers encircled her arm she took a calming breath. It wouldn't do for him to know how much his nearness disturbed her.
"Are you enjoying Hong Kong?" His question was impersonally polite. They strolled away from the Government House, with its square tower and early mission beauty, brilliant in the spotlight. The Gurkha sentry standing guard against uninvited visitors bid them good evening.
"What I've seen so far is fascinating." She matched his stride and, hopefully, his distant tone. Her skin tingled under the tapered strength of his fingers. "Unfortunately, my time is always at a premium. Except for a few shops along Macau Ferry Wharf I've been too busy to do much sight-seeing."
"We shall have to correct that." Amused authority danced across those intriguing East-West features and her heart skipped a beat.
Anne waited on the sidewalk while he dismissed his driver with a Cantonese command. The delicate scent of bauhinias and gardenias wafting from the Botanical Garden had stiff competition from the pungent ginger and spring onion aromas of the food stalls lining the streets and narrow side streets of the island.
They walked, their shoulders occasionally brushing, to the intersection of Wyndham and Queen's Road Central. Their silence was the comfortable quiet of longtime acquaintances. Because she didn't feel compelled to talk, Anne was able to enjoy, for the first time since her arrival, the sights and sounds and smells of the beautiful harbor city.
"I didn't realize the Chinese heart still beat with such strength," she commented. They passed a bazaar crowded with vendors who were busy stirring bubbling pots and watching sizzling pans. "I spend my days covering the news at City Hall or the Shanghai Bank And my evenings are usually devoted to research or meetings or getting ready to go back to work and meet another deadline." Recited like that, her life sounded like the pathetic emotional desert she suddenly realized it was.
"Hong Kong after dark has her own special brand of magnetism. Not only is she a lovely city, but she has one of the busiest free ports in the world." He grabbed her arm then, just above the elbow, holding her at the curb until a swarm of bicyclists passed. Anne's usual annoyance at such a protective male gesture was absent for tonight--and only tonight, she sternly promised herself--she was simply a woman relaxing in the company of an attractive man.
"You're not married." He didn't press for a reason but the "why" was implied.
"Divorced." She waited until they had crossed the teeming intersection before she answered.
"I'm sorry." His apology was no less sincere for its brevity.
"I'm not." The quick denial was rude and she hastened to soften her words. "We met in the Middle East. I was the gung-ho reporter on her first foreign assignment, and he was a diplomat attached to the American Embassy." She forced herself to adopt an indifferent tone. "The Casablanca atmosphere was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I suppose it was a combination of things--the danger, the tension of not knowing what would happen tomorrow. Both of us were homesick; both of us were vulnerable. But when my assignment ended, so did the marriage."
Anne's sigh was an unconscious admission of fault. A woman who usually accomplished whatever she attempted, she remained stymied at the gaping failure that divided her life into "befores" and "afters." On a rational level she had accepted that the split was inevitable, that the marriage was doomed from its shaky beginning. But the emotional blitz of divorce had drained her of everything but the desire to pursue her career to its ultimate potential. She was convinced that there was complete fulfillment in work, and her identity was buried as deep as the transoceanic cables that carried her words around the world.
"It is most unfortunate that our painful memories also serve as the best reminder that we are human." He nodded a greeting to a pair of wizened Chinese gentlemen hunched over their evening game of checkers.
"In that case we must live in a world of mental masochists." Even Anne was startled by the ferocity of her words.
"Why do you say that?" He seemed genuinely puzzled by her reasoning.
"Because every other fool I know is racing around making the same mistakes over and over again." It was a harsh line of defense against the bruising possibility of another relationship. But it was the way she coped--and it was the only way she knew.
"Perhaps these 'fools' are really optimists," he suggested. A slight smile curved his lips. "It is not wrong to repeat our mistakes. It is only unforgivable if we do not learn from them."
Anne wondered what private pain seasoned his perception, but she didn't ask. She stopped to admire a sidewalk display of material. A striking young woman in a tight cheong-sam that was slit to the thigh held out a bolt of emerald silk, but Anne shook her head to indicate she was merely browsing.
"Is there anything in particular that you're hungry for?" His back was to her and he seemed to be studying the bright writing on a sign. "The Mandarins believe that food is the heaven of the ordinary people, and there is a superb variety of food in Hong Kong." The soft glow of the hanging lanterns cast a shadow of his wide shoulders, lean waist and hips that tapered into long legs.
"You choose," she whispered. The temptation to reach out and touch him was almost more than she could resist. At the same time she wanted to turn and run as far and fast as her legs would carry her. Instead, Anne remained bolted to the spot. The yearnings that she had thought were safely suppressed had a mind of their own. She shivered, helpless against the tides of desire that ravaged her carefully constructed defenses.
"Szechuan." He pivoted. As he scanned her delicate features, she saw her own needs echoed in those fathomless black eyes.
Anne nodded, too embarrassed to speak, and he escorted her into a restaurant Although the decor was minimal the crowd attested to the quality of the food. She tried to listen while he talked about the city of his birth; she made every effort to concentrate on the peppery soup, the deep fried duck and the toffee apples. But it was an exercise in futility. Caught between his body and the wall, conscious only of his silken heat and the even rise and fall of his breathing, she was drunker on feelings than she had ever been on wine.
"My driver will be waiting for us." He paid their bill from a roll of Chinese currency. Her heart pounded a crazy rhythm under her ribs as they left.
The lighted towers of the high-rise buildings crowding the bay rivaled the brightest stars that Anne had ever seen. The machine-gun blast of firecrackers exploding in celebration of some event raised a cheer from the people jamming the narrow streets. A soft summer breeze stirred her hair and caressed her cheek with gentle fingers.
Anne slid into the back seat of his ebony Mercedes. Black and white--good and evil. It flashed though her mind as she touched the snowy leather upholstery.
They rode in silence, physically separated but emotionally fused. A sense of peace nestled into the long-empty hollows of her loneliness. Anne didn't dwell on the right or the wrong of what she was doing, knowing only that her desire outstripped her shame.
When his driver stopped in front of her building she held her breath, wondering if the magical feelings burned in him as they did in her. He held the door open for her and she took his hand. The Mercedes purred away from the curb and they entered the glass-enclosed lobby.
Anne felt nervously certain that everyone in the elevator was watching them as they whisked skyward. The doors parted noiselessly and she breathed a sigh of relief when they stepped out of the metal cage. He took the key from her shaking hands and inserted it into the lock.
"After you." His look shot fire through her.
Anne had never bothered to decorate any of her apartments. They were nothing more to her than rented space--rooms where she ate and slept and worked. To arrange her personal belongings so they pleased her eye would be to stamp a temporary lodging as her home. She looked at the hard lines, the vacant corners and the bare surfaces, realizing for the first time just how punishingly empty her environment really was.
"I have some French wine that's never been opened. You can uncork it while I get the glasses." She got the slender green bottle out of the refrigerator and took it to him, along with the unusual brass opener that she had found in a little village in France. "I'll be right back." She left him standing in the living room and hurried back into the kitchen, humming as she searched in the cabinets for the goblets that she had purchased the same day she bought the wine.
"You have a wonderful view of the harbor." The opened bottle sat on the table. He had pulled the drapes in her absence and was standing near the picture window. The dreary room pulsated with his presence.
"I've never even noticed." A lump formed in her throat. She had lived as a prisoner of her own limited vision far too long. Anne set the glasses on the table and joined him in front of the window. She wanted to share the precious vista, to see it through his eyes, to hear what he was thinking.
"It's beautiful," she murmured. "Like heaven and earth melting into each other." The pinpoint lights of the ferries, junks and steamers were brilliant decimal points against the black sheet of water. The alleys and streets below were gaudy ribbons tangling round and round the island.
He slipped an arm around her shoulder. His free hand found hers and their fingers entwined. Forehead touched forehead in a gentle exchange of energy. Their shadows merged as they carried the wine bottle and the goblets into her bedroom.
"Red is the color of passion." His voice was husky, and his strong fingers followed the sensitive column of her spine as he unzipped her ruby dress. He unpinned her hair and threaded his fingers through the flaxen abundance that spilled over her shoulders. Pure instinct guided her as she traced his male lips with her honey smooth ones.
"Is that what attracted you to me?" Her inhibitions were shed as quickly as her clothes. Her breath quickened while she watched him shrug out of his suit, his movements as fluid as the wine that he poured into their glasses.
"Among other things." The twin black torches of his eyes sparked the coiling demon of desire that spiraled through her body. In the nude, he was every erotic sculpture she had seen or imagined. Anne's gray eyes held a pearly luster as she studied the solid length of his flesh.
"What's a Lotus woman?" She remembered that he had called her that at the party. Anne lifted her hair, conscious of his raven gaze sweeping slowly over the alabaster perfection of her curves.
"A true Lotus woman has a waist as slender as a roll of silk." His hands spanned hers with room to spare, and his mouth deepened in a smile. Her muscles constricted in sensual suspense as his thumbs caressed the ivory smoothness of her stomach.
"She has delicate skin, perfumed like a newly burst lily." His mouth found the throbbing pulse racing in her throat. Desire consumed her yielding softness as his warm, teasing lips nipped a light trail along her neck to her earlobes.
"Her breasts are flawless." He cupped a half-full wine goblet around one, then the other. Anne gasped as the icy bath aroused the sensitive, rosy peaks, and she cried out in soft pleasure when his tongue made lazy, lapping work of the burgundy droplets.
"And her gait is as graceful as a swan's." He captured her willing hand and they walked together. His head descended and her lips answered his hungry demand, parting under his hard, probing kiss. He followed her down to the softness of the mattress, stretching his lean length beside her.
"Is there such a thing as a Lotus man?" Anne's hands wandered over the rippling cords of his muscles, the taut smoothness of his stomach. She explored with bold abandon as he had explored her, weaving a love dance of discovery over his hard nakedness. Her question was lost in a wild explosion of rapture as his mouth teased her upper lip, seducing her into silence.
This was danger--the opium that could addict her, the fire that could scald her, the torture that could destroy her. The heat spread over her in swirling patterns, kindled by the tantalizing skill of his caresses and the delicious mastery of his kisses. His need, and the slow, deliberate exploration of his mouth, incited a riot of primitive emotions that left her mindless with wanting. She held him to her heart, her porcelain limbs clasping him.
Intoxicated with passion and the pounding, drum-beat rhythm thrusting them along, Anne crossed the bridge between time and eternity, surrendering with a cry to an ecstasy she had never before known.
Stunned by sensuality, Anne felt the aftershock tremors shuddering through him. She lay in his arms, basking in the quiet afterglow of mutual satisfaction.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Anne Hunter, UNA, Hong Kong." His throaty whisper rustled the molten gold of her hair and his mouth nuzzled the sensitive spot between her neck and shoulder.
"Likewise, I'm sure, Kai Shanpei." She murmured a husky agreement against his bare flesh. Her lips curved in a contented smile as she traced an idle pattern on his chest with feather-light strokes of her fingernails.
They lay entwined, touching, kissing and talking, until the first red streaks of dawn peeked over the dragon-humped hills of Kowloon across the bay. She closed her eyes when he rose to dress, afraid that words might diminish the exhilarating wonder of their lovemaking. He bent and kissed her cheeks, his silent farewell an eloquent one.
Anne drifted to sleep, her face buried in his still-warm, fragrant pillow, her dreams as richly filled as her body.