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Melissa Markham, daughter of an Englishman and a Chinese concubine, wants something her mother never had—respectability. Wealthy lumber baron, Ethan Trent, a man of erotic, dominating appetites, decides he wants the exotic woman for himself. Even though Melissa fights her attraction for Ethan, she also finds herself craving his domination. Can two headstrong people find a way to heal their ruined hearts, find love, and discover they both want to share the same thing—an unusual passion for each other?
Mei Lin had no choice but to flee Great Britain.
For the past six months, she’d been a lofty bastard’s whore; and as Charles Litton, the Earl of Windhaven’s slave, Mei Lin’d had no choice but to obey. She hated every moment as his captive. If she didn’t fully cooperate with his sadistic desires, he’d beat her.
Her loss of pride was another matter, however. For too long she had suffered this man’s abuse. Mei Lin recalled her plans to escape, vowing they would work, or she would die trying. The opportunity had finally occurred, after several months of captivity. The earl had grown overconfident, believing she’d always be obedient, and, of late, had left her unguarded. Litton controlled her body, but he would never control her mind or her heart.
All during her horrid captivity, she’d never forgotten his betrayal to her and her mother. Her mother had protected her from learning how to become a concubine; wanting more for Mei Lin. Tears ran down Mei Lin’s cheeks as she recalled the last day she saw her mother; her poor mother had told her how the earl had promised Mei Lin a better life in England. The earl had betrayed both of them.
After six months, Mei Lin had found the strength, courage, and opportunity to make her escape. She had no intentions of failing. She’d laced the bastard’s Absinthe with laudanum, praying she’d put enough in his wine glass to leave him incapacitated. Hope filled her heart when he gulped down every drop. Then later, as he slipped into unconsciousness, and once he became incapacitated, she’d rushed to her small dungeon of a room to change and gather her meager possessions, and tossing them into an old tapestry bag.
Once back in the library she stole the key to his safe out of one of his vest pockets. After opening the safe, she picked up one large, bound bundle of currency. The bastard earl owed her this much, if not more. Mei Lin jammed the money into the bag and fled the earl’s home and her bondage. Running down the road, she made a promise to herself; never again would she be a slave to any man, unless the choice was hers.
Mei Lin became very determined to make things change for the better in her life. There was no reason to return to China since there was no one there for her. Her mother had died months past, and her brother had gone to America several years ago to make a life for himself, promising to send for her and her mother once he did. They never heard from him again.
America was the only choice and there she would try and find her brother. First fury that he hadn’t sent for them tore through her, and then worry filled her heart that some misfortune had fallen upon him. Mei Lin had spent several months working as a maid to Lady Maureen Cavendish from Ireland. She’d accompanied the woman from England to her Ireland, learning how to be a lady. Mei Lin had stolen enough currency from the earl to make her way to America, but had secured the position as maid to Lady Cavendish, in order to learn proper manner of speech, dress, and style befitting a well-bred English woman. Mei Lin didn’t tarry too long in the position, for fear of being caught by the earl, who, no doubt, would be out for revenge.
Now, Mei Lin studied her reflection in the mirror of the tiny room she had rented near the docks. She’d bathed from a basin, then attired herself in a forest green silk bombazine traveling gown Lady Cavendish had helped her choose—and had purchased for her, even though Mei Lin had protested, to no avail. The Lady had assisted Mei Lin in also selecting black kid leather boots, stockings, corset, under drawers, and a cloak. Never had Mei Lin owned such beautiful clothing.
Dressed now in fashionable clothing, her transformation was complete. Her long, thick hair, swept up in the most popular style of the day, gave her face a western look. It would take some time to glance at herself and not see her mother’s eyes staring back at her. However, her father’s features interested her, features her mother had explained to her when Mei Lin first realized she did not completely resemble the woman who bore her. How she’d longed to meet the man who fathered her, but alas, it never happened, because shortly after her arrival in England Mei Lin had learned he’d died in a carriage accident.
His fair hair made hers less coarse, black–softer, and browner. His high cheekbones, unlike her mother’s round, moon face, had given Mei Lin an exotic look, one that she knew turned heads. She would take his name. No longer would she be Mei Lin Kwan, daughter of a Chinese concubine. From now on, she would be Melissa Markham, daughter of an English lord.
Mei Lin fastened the velvet ribbon around her throat, pulled on her newly purchased black silk cape and stood, ready to board the Britannica for America; ready to leave her old life behind.
* * * *
Calvin’s Saloon, Stillwater, Minnesota
Melissa Markham was nervous as she ambled down the boardwalk, ready to move on with her life.
She’d arrived in this small, but thriving town after having spent several weeks traveling across the ocean. After reaching New York City, a fascinating, but frightening place, Melissa quickly boarded a train for Minnesota. She’d secured information about her brother, and knew she had to avenge his death. Her brother’s murderer lived in this town, and Melissa meant to see him tried and hanged, or, at the very least, put behind bars. She spent her first few days in Stillwater learning from folks about her brother’s murderer, Ethan Trent, proprietor of Calvin’s Saloon, and now she was ready to confront him.
A late September sun strained against the windows of Calvin’s Saloon, forcing a weak band of light into a quiet, otherwise dimly lit room. It was early, too early for even the die-hard drinkers who often frequented the saloon before ten a.m., yet five men sat around a table focusing on their cards.
The feeble sunlight gleamed off a sign over the bar, announcing Ethan Trent as the new proprietor. Beneath the sign was the painting of a large breasted, full frontal nude woman reclining on a gaudy chaise. Dust motes danced in the light and the floor bore traces of the revelry from the night before—a scattering of cigarette butts, remnants of spilled liquor. Housekeeping was not high on the list of priorities, but the patrons did not seem to notice.
The door opened. No one bothered to see who it was—until the person spoke.
The soft yet haughty English-accented words brought Trent’s gaze up from his poker hand. Five feet from his table stood a woman, holding a gun trained on his heart.
“You’ve found him, ma’am. Heck of a way to introduce yourself,” Ethan added as he tossed down his cards.
“I dreaded the day I’d meet you,” she spat, “but there was no other way to gain satisfaction, you black-hearted devil!”
The woman stepped closer, and he realized the weapon was a derringer, a small gun that could do significant damage.
Ethan tried to make out her features in the gloom and caught a trace of full lips, meant for kissing. Something about her stance and those tempting lips stirred a spark of remembrance.
Laughing softly, he looked at the other men at the table then at her, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “You sure it’s me you want?”
“Yes,” she seethed, “I’m talking to you, you low life, murdering worm.”
Ethan rubbed his hand over his face and swore. Recently retired as a U. S. Marshall, Ethan had hoped to put that life behind him. Apparently, that wasn’t to be.
“Satisfaction for what?” he snapped as he struggled for patience.
“For the cold-blooded murder of my brother, you miserable swine.”
Damn, but the woman was exceptionally good at name-calling.
Ethan’s three poker cronies leapt from their chairs and stumbled out of the saloon.
“Cowards,” he growled.
The woman drew nearer; that’s when Ethan recognized her as the new woman who’d arrived in town two days ago. He made it a habit to learn the name of every person, especially pretty women, who arrived in Stillwater, and Miss Markham was no exception.
Ethan studied her now. From the moment he’d set eyes on her exiting the train upon her arrival a few days ago, he’d wondered about her. Melissa Markham wasn’t pretty in the conventional manner. She was, however, unique, and passionate, at least about her brother’s alleged murder. That kind of passion often translated to heat behind closed doors. The fact that she was exotic looking with a generous dollop of something Oriental in her blood intrigued him.
Knowing he could easily have disarmed her, he remained in his chair.
“Miss Markham, I remember the name of every man I’ve ever killed, and trust me, Markham isn’t one of them.” The names of all his victims, and their faces, remained indelibly engraved in his soul, every one of them.
“Then you’re denying it?”
The shrillness of her voice grated on him. Miss Markham, like most women, in his opinion, required a muzzle. Women were easy on the eye, but many, once they opened their mouths, held little interest for him. A vision assailed him then; Miss Markham gagged and tied to his bed, limbs splayed, petals moist and throbbing with anticipation, awaiting his suckling lips and tongue. His cock hardened at the erotic image prompting him to reach down and adjust his trousers.
“Hands on the table or so help me I’ll shoot you where you sit,” she threatened.
Freezing at her warning, anger began to simmer inside him. “Ma’am, you have me mistaken for someone else.”
“I’m not mistaken, and I’m not a fool! You are my brother’s murderer, and you’ll hang for the deed. Have you no defense?”
“Damn it, woman, I don’t need a defense for something I didn’t do.”
Miss Markham narrowed her eyes, disgust written on her features. “Of course you would deny it. I knew you would.”
She was irritating the hell out of him. “Oh? And just how did you know that?”
“Because any man who kills without provocation is scum. My brother was innocent. A poor, young—” The woman broke off, clamped her lips together and turned away, as if suppressing a sob.
Suddenly appearing to remember her purpose, she took in a quick breath and once again aimed the derringer at Ethan—his head this time.
Mustering up more patience, Ethan offered her a false smile and nodded at a chair beside him. “Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this. Have a seat. I would like to see this proof of yours. Join me in a glass of sherry. Then we can discuss this further, like two civilized adults.”
The woman didn’t budge and looked at him with no expression. “Now why would I want to socialize with the man who murdered my brother?”
Ethan stifled another curse. “I didn’t kill your brother.”
She gave him a nasty smile. “You’ve killed so many I imagine it’s difficult to recall all of them.”
“You’re the one who claims to have all the information.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. “You’ve tried and hanged me without allowing me a word of defense.”
It was true that he had killed many men during his days as a federal marshal, but that was all in the past. Now Ethan was satisfied to own this saloon and, with less satisfaction, the Trent family lumber business, which he had inherited upon his father’s death, though he hadn’t wanted it. He had wanted little to do with the man who had declared Ethan dead to him long ago, yet, ironically remembered him upon his deathbed.
Melissa said nothing, just held the gun with confidence, arms stretched out in front of her, stance wide.
“Please. Join me,” he insisted.
“No, but I will walk with you to the jailhouse where I shall present my proof to the sheriff. A story from a respectable newspaper back East labels you as my brother’s cold-blooded murderer. Get up, Trent—slowly.”
Aw, shit. Ethan would eventually meet up with her and the sheriff about this mix-up, but not now—not yet. His sense of justice blared at him to teach this young woman a lesson she’d never forget. He snapped a quick glance to the right, counting on her to follow the movement. The woman didn’t disappoint him. Ethan leapt out of his chair and threw himself toward her, scrambling across the tabletop.
Damn it if the wench didn’t pull the trigger.