Authors: Joely Sue Burkhart
By Joely Sue Burkhart
Bred for him…and for his bed.
Golden-eyed Jin has spent her life preparing to be the Emperor’s consort. She knows her destiny is to serve the Emperor by indulging the dark desire that he has buried deep inside his heart—the desire to give pain.
Only she can take the pain he yearns to give, and transform it into the most unimaginable pleasure. But to enjoy all the Emperor can give her, she must survive assassination attempts from those who would keep them apart.
Seducing the Emperor is risky…but it’s the only way to fulfill her destiny.
I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.
But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.
So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.
We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected]. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.
Executive Editor, Carina Press
For my beloved sister.
Thank you to my tireless beta readers: Sherri Meyer, Stephanie Christine, Shannon Collins and Nicole Renick.
Thank you, Jenna Reynolds, for always meeting me dark and early.
Especially, thank you to my editor Alissa Davis for helping this story shine as brightly as Jin’s eyes.
When the Emperor called, one went with all haste despite watery knees and trembling stomach, especially when ordered to his personal chambers. I felt these things and more—a forbidden longing for what could not be.
Although he’d dressed in informal black silks instead of imperial gold, one would never forget that he was the Emperor. Luxury surrounded him. He reclined on red cushions beside a low table laden with a variety of fruits, cakes and his favorite sweet wine. A fountain tinkled in the corner, watering a green stand of bamboo. Thousands of attendants lived to see to his every whim. They lowered the gauzy curtains and backed away, enclosing us in a dreamy tent of pretended privacy.
Most of all, though, his dark eyes declared him Emperor, whether heavy-lidded with banked sensuality or sharp with purpose. He commanded without saying a single word. Even his smallest gesture weighed with heavy authority.
My life in the palace had only begun, and already I wearied of the constant watchful gazes and whispers. The Emperor could do as he willed and none would dare object, but a woman’s actions must be discussed and dissected for days. They said I must have cursed him with my strange eyes, for why else would the Son of Heaven deign to summon me—and not one of his own consorts—each week?
That his increasingly volatile temper had improved dramatically since I’d come to the palace only added fuel to the fire. No one would believe that all we did was talk, least of all, me.
I lived my entire week simply to see him again, blissfully alone, just he and I. If I worked to enliven our conversation, he might laugh, and I would find the will to breathe another week.
As always when I saw him, the heavy constriction in my chest made it difficult for my heart to beat. Age had been kind to him. His long, sleek hair was still as dark as ink except for the silvered, neatly trimmed beard at his chin. Lines about his eyes and mouth told of the massive weight of his responsibilities.
I yearned to rub those lines of weariness from his face. He already had two grown sons, as well as his Empress and consorts. My heart insisted he was alone.
No one could possibly know him like me.
I had been
for him. From the age of eight, I had received instruction in how best to please the Emperor by someone who’d once known him as a close friend. From my teacher’s descriptions and stories, the Emperor’s image had risen in my mind each night when I closed my eyes.
But it was not to his bed that I had been called.
He smiled and my heart leapt into a frantic dance. “Come, sit, Daughter.”
As I bowed and then knelt beside him, I knew my eyes must be bright with emotion. My eyes—an unusual golden amber—had first been a curse. Light, strange eyes made me Other. People feared me. Children had thrown rocks at me until I learned to stay home.
All that changed when a former general came riding through our town and visited my father. He saw my eyes and knew the gods must have marked me for the Imperial Family. My curse became a great gift, a life of education and training far from the home I had known. I was still secluded, but I had the promise of the Emperor and the intrigue at court to fill my thoughts. I wove complex plans from the very beginning, pondering my choices and calculating the potential consequences.
I’d come to the palace to win the Emperor’s heart and give him a baby prince with golden eyes. Yet all my careful plans had crumbled to dust. I had set my eyes on the Emperor, and instead, he’d chosen to gift me to his oldest son.
“Your Majesty is too kind.”
He made a slight gesture with his right hand as though he pushed my gratitude aside. “You bring sunshine into the life of an old man, Daughter. My son has not been upset by my requests for your companionship, has he? If so, I shall speak to him.”
I ducked my head, as touched by his informal manner as his offer to intervene with my husband. No imperial distance chilled his speech when we were alone. I couldn’t help but wonder if he talked to his Empress as comfortably when he took her to his bed. “No one would dare feel upset at any of your requests, Your Majesty, let alone one so insignificant.”
His fingers settled under my chin, and my skin wanted to leap off my bones and dance for joy, despite the solemn censure in his eyes as he lifted my gaze to his. He said nothing. He didn’t have to vocalize his order to tell him the truth, no matter how ugly and painful.
“The Crown Prince has a vagrant heart, Your Majesty. As the poem says, he already seeks a new love like a new piece of jade.” My voice sounded brittle but I managed to speak without bitterness. My status in the palace depended upon how well I pleased my husband. The fact that he’d already replaced me with some eager slut from the laundry—not even a consort from a respected family—brought me lower than the poorest peasant. If I had not brought my old nurse with me into the palace, I would not have had a single servant to assist me. “He shall not miss me.”
He made a low, gruff sound of dismay that made my eyes burn with shame.
“Any lack is mine, Your Majesty.” I fell forward on my face, unable to bear his disappointment. “Please forgive this consort for failing to be a good wife to your honored son.”
He lifted me up and brought me to his embrace. Rich spice filled my lungs, and I cried harder, unable to bear the pain of all I had been denied. It had been foolish to set my eyes upon the Emperor. He had many women and no need of another, especially one so young as I. My wishes and my heart were nothing.
He tried so hard to always be patient and understanding, the benevolent and all-knowing Son of Heaven, yet he never forgot the wars that consolidated his power as a young warlord. His consorts sang his praises, declaring him a gentle and considerate lover, and though he showered them with trinkets and indulged them like children, I never saw any great passion in his eyes for any of them.
Surely I wasn’t the only one to take note of the hard gleam in his eyes and the occasional slant of cruelty on his mouth despite his best efforts to rein that darkness in. At heart, he was a conqueror. A secret part of him yearned to pillage and run his woman down on horseback instead of bribing his enemies with titles and wooing his ladies with jewels and silks.
I saw that shadowed promise of violence in his gaze and burned to loose that tightly chained beast.
His lips pressed against my temple. “I thought it best to make you first wife of the next Emperor instead of last wife to the old.”
“I would rather be bondservant than wife, Your Majesty, if only I could be yours.”
He set me gently aside, which was an answer itself. Yet I found courage in the way his jaw flexed, the stiffness with which he poured two cups of wine and how rapidly he drained his cup. My teacher had instructed me most carefully about how to approach the Emperor with my secret knowledge. The time must be ripe with promise, for a whisper at the wrong moment might draw his wrath and earn my death sentence.
With the faint dampness of his lips burning like a brand on my temple, I decided the time had come at last. “Did I mention the name of my mentor, Your Majesty? Surely I have, for he taught me everything I know about court life.”
Pretending interest in the plate of fruit at his elbow, he grunted in response. For me to speak uninvited and so boldly told him I had a deliberate message to impart, regardless of how seemingly harmless my conversation might be.
“My teacher rode through my little village, saw my eyes and declared he must take me beneath his wing and train me to serve the Imperial Family. Do you recall General Wan, Your Majesty?”
The Emperor’s eyes and nostrils flared. “Yes, though I have not seen him in nearly twenty years.”
“You both served on the frontier.” I smiled, remembering the many stories the general had told me about his best friend or greatest enemy, depending on his mood. Through him, I knew the Emperor as the wild, hot-tempered warrior he had been long before the crown weighted his regal head. “You were a warrior with unmatched prowess, and so he trained me in both sword and bow until I would not shame him in your presence.”
He slammed the cup down on the table. “What else did General Wan deign to teach you?”
I met his gaze to show that his temper did not intimidate me. “He taught me how to stay alive with hundreds of other women scheming to see me poisoned or dishonored. I know the bloodlines of every major ruling family from every province. Every single battle that you fought prior to taking the throne, as well as the fewer battles since, is etched upon my memory.”
I paused, making sure his attention was locked on me. Then I dropped my gaze to my hands clasped in my lap. “He also taught me how a woman can relieve her lover’s most deeply rooted seeds of tension by enduring pain.”
I didn’t dare breathe as I waited for his reaction. Finally he whispered so low I leaned forward slightly to catch every harshly uttered word.
“At last, that deed I buried years ago has come home to roost.” He laughed, an agonized sound that tore my heart. “Surely Wan has told you the story of my greatest victory and my deepest shame. After losing hundreds of men, I found that I had won the battle but feared I would lose the war. Wan and I retired to an inn to develop our next strategies, but I could not think beyond the deaths, those senseless, bloody deaths in my name. In my effort to ease my disquiet, I nearly foundered my favorite horse and fought five or six bouts of hand-to-hand combat with my best warriors, and yet I still…seethed.
“When I returned to our rooms, Wan proposed I take out my rage on a woman. I’ll never forget my shock when he held out a leather strap. I don’t know how or where he’d found her, but she willingly gripped the center post and waited for me to begin. At first, I scoffed. No mere woman would ease this bloodthirsty frustration. And then, to my deepest shame, I hurt her. I enjoyed hurting her, and then I slaked my lust on her more vigorously than with any woman I’ve bedded since.”
Shoulders heavy, he sat with his hands braced on his knees, his face dark. “I won the war, and to repay my friend I sent him far away to the most dangerous and forbidden reaches of the empire so that his face would not remind me of what I had done.”
I dared to lay my hand upon his. “He told me that you heaped great riches upon the woman and her family, enabling her to marry well and live a rich and full life. She had no regrets.” My fingers tightened as I willed him to look at me. Hope made my heart pound like a thousand galloping horses. “
would have no regrets.”
He averted his face but did not pull free of my hand. “You do not know what you offer,
. I treasure your precious face too much to risk harming you.”
He was trying to remind himself that I belonged to his son, but I didn’t care. He’d given me—he could take me back. After all, he was the Emperor. He could do anything that he wished. Any woman in the empire belonged to him if he chose to claim her.
This was the moment for which I had trained my entire life. I had endured beatings from a mild switching to a caning while learning how to turn those agonies into the most exquisite pleasure. No man had ever touched me intimately until my marriage, but I had learned how to give myself pleasure during and after the beatings so that my mind and body would marry pain to pleasure, pleasure to pain. The natural inclination to accept pain and find it sweet had always hidden within me. Now I could not imagine ever finding pleasure in a man’s arms unless my skin stung from his blows first.
Did the general see that secret need shadowed all along in my eyes? Perhaps I
I closed my eyes for a moment, gathering my courage. When the Emperor had given me to his son, I had feared my dream and love would die a lonely death. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for, but I had to proceed carefully. If I merely stripped off my robe and begged him to take me this very moment, he would likely order me dragged from the palace immediately.
Remind him of the power he shall wield when he possesses me. Seduce him back to giving pain…and finding pleasure in that brutality.
“Please forgive my impudence, Your Majesty. I should be punished.”
He made a short, dismissive gesture with his free hand but allowed me to keep my fingers upon his. “Not at all.”
“I caused you to remember something painful from your past that you didn’t wish to recall. You should punish me severely, Your Majesty.”
He sighed heavily without answering, but his fingers twitched beneath mine.
As if he longs to lift that hand against me.
My muscles tightened with anticipation, daring me to prod a bit further. “Once General Wan ordered me to polish every bit of weaponry in the armory with my own garments before I could eat or sleep. His household awoke the next morning and there I sat, half naked, while I wiped his armor with my dirty gown. Since I’d taken all night to finish my punishment, he spanked me with a wooden practice sword. Shall I fetch a similar item for your use, Your Majesty?”
Pulling his hand free from my clinging fingers, the Emperor rose and headed for the doorway. Silent but ever attendant eunuchs lifted the curtain at his approach.
My heart plummeted. I had pushed too hard. He commanded every soul between heaven and earth. What had possessed me to think I could persuade him to do that which must repel him so badly that he turned his back upon me? My throat ached, my eyes hot and dry. I’d offended his sense of honor, that warrior pride which insisted he protect those weaker than himself, especially his family.
I jerked my head up and met his gaze. Hope swelled in my chest until I couldn’t breathe.
My name—he said my name.
“I seem to recollect that you dislike embroidery.”
Confused, I barely managed to nod in acknowledgement. I might have made some slight derogatory comment about the ridiculous amounts of embroidery Her Majesty insisted upon for even her most informal gowns.
“For your punishment, you must embroider a robe for me. Show me your best work, and if it’s acceptable, I’ll wear it at the next festival.”