The Plot

At eighteen, Yoko Hirano falls prey to a human trafficking organization and is forced into a lifestyle nightmares are made of. When the young Japanese girl escapes, her only focus is exacting revenge and saving other girls from the same fate by bringing down Michael Chen, the powerful mobster who destroyed her innocence. 
Four years later she meets antiques dealer Mark Chandler, the only man who ever treated her with respect. Though she is torn by her unfamiliar feelings for him, Yoko’s grand scheme doesn’t involve falling in love, and a man like Mark would never want her if he discovered her past. What she doesn’t know is that he has his own dark secrets… 
Mark never thought he could lose his head over a woman, but the haunted eyes of his beautiful new employee fill his soul with desire and tenderness. When he learns about what had happened to her, his vengeance knows no limits. Nor does his resolve to help her heal and discover love.

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Chapter One

Tonight’s john liked rough sex, but Yoko knew it would be a short ride. James had remained one of her few select clients because he had a small, almost harmless penis and very low endurance when it came to sex. So she moaned her false pleasure, knowing exactly what to do to make him finish quickly. It took no more than a couple of minutes, after which she gave him an insincere smile and praised his sexual performance. In her mind, she’d already dismissed him.
After he left, she stepped into the shower to scrub her skin and erase all trace of him. She’d convinced herself there was no reason to feel dirty because of what she did. It was just a job, one that paid the bills and paved the way to the future she wanted. But being a prostitute was no ordinary occupation. As she scoured her body, she fought to detach herself from it, her mind drifting back four years to the time it had all started.
She’d been an eager eighteen-year-old lured to the United States by the promise of well-paid work. Her family had been thrilled when their neighbor’s daughter, Otsu, had landed a job as a babysitter in New York City. When Yoko had asked her for the details, the girl had introduced her to Wu Chen, who represented an international employment agency.
Chen had told her he could find her a job in a nursing home or as a housekeeper. Not the future she dreamed of, but she agreed since getting to the States was the first step. Her mind had thrilled at the life she could have in America and the way the salary he’d offered could help her family.
Everything had seemed so perfect. Newly graduated from high school, no immediate plans in place for the future, she and Otsu had seen this opportunity as a gift from Buddha. How wrong they’d been.
After signing what they’d believed to be legal contracts and visa applications, they’d bid teary goodbyes to their parents and Japan, leaving their village for the airport in Tokyo with Chen by their side. That fateful evening was the last time they’d seen their families. Everything Chen had promised had been a lie.
When they reached New York, two American men collected the three of them from the airport. Yoko had been too fascinated by the new world, too overwhelmed by her adventure to realize something was wrong. After driving almost an hour, they reached their destination, a two-story, red brick house in a secluded area. Here the nightmare began.
“You two have been brought here to work for me,” Wu Chen stated, his smile a leer, his voice a snarl. “Unfortunately, you won’t be minding anyone’s kids or cleaning their houses. You’re going to service men.”
“I don’t understand,” Yoko said, while Otsu clang to her, trembling.
“You’re going to be whores, and you’ll do whatever the clients want.”
“No!” she cried. “You can’t make us do that.”
“That’s what you think. Let me tell you what’s going to happen if you give me any lip, try to run away, or go to the police.”
He’d taken their documents, and since neither of them spoke more than a few words of English, his threats of either rotting in jail as illegal immigrants or having their throats cut hit hard. Then he’d explained in detail how he would torture and murder their families.
They’d cried and shouted, even threatened to commit suicide, but in the end, they’d capitulated. What other choice did they have?
While Otsu had taken the drugs Chen had offered, Yoko had refused. For her, the thought that one day she would get even and escape that life was the only thing that kept her going.
A year later, she’d gotten a portion of the revenge she craved thanks to Chen himself. The bastard had cheated the drug dealer who supplied him. Furious, the man had barged into the house, cursing and swearing at Chen, yelling about how he would make him pay.
Grabbing Otsu, Yoko had hurried to the basement at the first sound of the argument. They’d stayed hidden there until the house was silent. Creeping upstairs, they found a massacre. Yoko had stood over Chen’s body, wanting to spit in his face, but knowing she couldn’t. Leaving DNA evidence could damn her. As quickly as they could, she and Otsu collected their clothes and other belongings, searched the house until they found not only their IDs, false visas, and passports, but an impressive amount of money. Doing the best they could to erase all signs of their presence in what had been their prison, they took the car and left, believing they were leaving that life behind them. But it hadn’t worked out quite that way.
The water now cold, Yoko stepped out of the shower and wrapped herself in a terry robe. She stripped the bed, tossing the soiled sheets in the laundry hamper. The room clean once more, she turned off the lights and went into her bedroom, crawled into bed, and pulled out her books. In a few weeks, she’d graduate and take her CPA exams, and then, no more sweaty, overweight, frustrated men pounding into her. No more selling her body and her dignity. She had huge plans for her future. Nothing and no one could stop her.
* * * *
When she woke up, the sun was high in the sky and the phone was ringing. Bleary-eyed, Yoko grabbed the receiver.
“Hello,” she said, clearing her dry throat.
“Good morning, sunshine!” Otsu answered, her voice even more cheery than usual. “Are you sleeping?”
“Not anymore.”
“Well, it’s nearly ten. Don’t you have a seminar today?”
“I do, but not until four o’clock,” Yoko replied, unable to stop a yawn from escaping. “I could have slept until then. What’s up?”
“I’ve got fantastic news! I applied for a job at a fancy salon and they want to interview me. Isn’t that great?”
“That’s wonderful.”
While they’d chosen different academic paths, Otsu had dropped out of her courses at an arts college within a year of starting them. Unable to go on selling her body even one more day, she’d taken a job waitressing. The money wasn’t great, but she was happy and that was all that mattered. Determined to complete her business degree, Yoko had stuck with her clients. Serving sex was much more profitable than serving drinks.
Times were tough for Otsu. Last year, Yoko had lent her the money to take a hairdressing course, hoping she’d find work that paid better. She hoped her friend’s optimism would pay off.
“Don’t get too excited until you get the job,” she said with her usual pessimism.
“This job’s going to pan out. You’ll see. It pays twice as much as I make here at the restaurant. Darling,” she dragged out the word the way she’d often done for a john. “I’m willing to do almost anything to get that job.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” Yoko stretched in bed. “Since you woke me, I might as well get up and come over for coffee. See you in an hour.”
Hanging up, she padded to the shower and stood under the hot spray until her head cleared. After shimmying into a pair of jeans and a black top, she brushed her long, raven-black hair, letting it tumble loosely down her back, and applied lip balm. That was all the makeup she used during the day. It was enough she had to paint her face at night for her clients. She liked her fresh, innocent, carefree look.
She studied her face in the mirror. Despite the hard time she’d had, she didn’t look twenty-two. Her pale-yellow skin, almost creamy white under some lights, was flawless. Her nose was small and delicate, a feature specific to most Asian women. Her mouth was soft and alluring, her lips full and well-defined. They looked is if they were made for kissing.
The mouth of a whore, Chen used to say. Had he been right? Was that what he’d seen the first time they met? Was this the life she’d been born to? Under his expert tutelage, she’d honed her craft, eventually becoming what she was now—a high-class call girl with an exclusive clientele.
A geisha—that’s what women like her were called in Japan. But geishas were far more than whores. They were elegant courtesans, graceful and educated women whom men worshiped. They weren’t disrespected and degraded the way they were in this country, in this society, even by some of her wealthy clients.
No. This was not her fate. She had potential, and she knew it. Soon, she would make something of herself and never have to sell her body again.
The dark, slanted eyes in the mirror grew hard and ruthless. She hadn’t told anybody, not even Otsu, the extent of her plans. She would become an accountant, one of the best. In addition, she would continue to hone her computer skills—she was already an excellent hacker, getting better at it every day. With these two abilities, she would get the revenge she craved.
With one final glance around the apartment, she grabbed her backpack and left, locking the door behind her.
Otsu worked at a neighborhood café, frequented mostly by students or people who stopped by for coffee before or after work. During the day, it was rarely crowded.
Yoko entered the coffee shop, enjoying the familiar hum of the place. Despite her love and skill with modern technology, she preferred old-fashioned books and always took notes in classic notebooks. She was probably the only person in her class who actually owned and used pens.
As usual, she headed toward her preferred corner, next to one of the large glass walls, and spread her books out on the table. This was her favorite place to read or watch the world. It seemed to be forever in motion with people hurrying to and fro, paying no attention to those around them. She’d just settled herself when she saw her friend heading toward her.
While Otsu was the same age as she was, she looked older. The drugs had taken their toll, but Yoko could see her appearance improving every day. She’d cut her dark hair into a short bob. Her slanted brown eyes peeking out from under chic bangs were no longer haunted. Instead, they sparkled with humor and youth’s optimism. The red dress, paired with red heels to make her look taller, suited her.
“I’m glad you came by,” Otsu said. “Latte?”
“Yep. You look great, by the way. Can you join me?”
“Not now. As you can see, there’s a bit of a crowd. Maybe I can take a break later. Want a croissant, too?”
“Don’t I always?”
The two girls grinned at one another, then Otsu left to complete the order. Yoko took out her managerial accounting book and thumbed through it until she reached the page she needed. There was something she hadn’t understood about the necessary procedures in certain cases of tax evasion, and she wanted to reread the chapter.
After bringing her the coffee and croissant, Otsu rushed away to take another order, with a hasty “Later,” over her shoulder. Absorbed in her reading, Yoko sipped her coffee and nibbled absently at the croissant, her lips moving slightly as she read.
Goosebumps puckered her skin when she sensed someone was watching her. She lifted her head and stared right into the eyes of the man sitting two tables away. As she met his gaze, her stomach clenched.
Yoko didn’t dislike men, she despised them. In her experience, they were no better than animals, ready to do anything for their own pleasure and take their satisfaction without regard for the feelings of others. They were primitive and disgusting, brutal and selfish. Never in her life had she experienced desire for a man, nor had a man’s scrutiny made her feel flattered.
Though her heart had long turned to stone, she still remembered the first man who’d taken her. No doubt he’d paid Chen a hefty price for her virginity. He’d been old and ugly, with fetid breath. Afterward, she’d wanted to die. But that experience had been a thousand times better than the one she’d had the following day, when she’d been assaulted by a younger, much rougher man. When he was done, he’d left her bleeding and whimpering on the floor.
From that moment on, she’d hid her true feelings behind a mask of pleasure when necessary, indifference when not, but what she felt was revulsion and loathing. She knew exactly what every man wanted from her—sex.
The stranger’s dark eyes were focused on her, as though he couldn’t look away. But instead of the usual lust she expected, she saw genuine interest, as if he’d somehow looked beyond her body into her soul.
Flustered, she glanced out the window. The man’s cell phone beeped, drawing her gaze back to him, but instead of watching her, he was texting someone.
Taking advantage of his distraction, she studied him. At a guess, she’d put him in his thirties. His hair was as black as hers, matching his eyes and olive skin—probably Italian or Greek. A wisp of hair fell over his forehead as he gazed down at the phone in his hand. He needed a haircut, but the unruly style suited the edgy, masculine lines of his face. He looked elegant and rebellious at the same time. He was probably what most women considered sexy, but since that word had no meaning to her, she could only acknowledge that he was somewhat attractive—for a man.
While there was something hard and tough about his face and demeanor, subtle lines radiated from the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, giving him a quiet air of sophistication and maturity. He was well-built and muscled under the blue jeans and leather jacket he wore.
A leather jacket?
It was early May and she was already too warm in her short-sleeved top, but the man didn’t break a sweat in his black jacket. How strange was that? Beneath the jacket, she glimpsed a simple black T-shirt.
She was startled when he stopped texting and looked up. His eyes were serious until they focused on her again. Then they softened, and his firm, sensual mouth stretched into the hint of a smile.
Yoko’s heart began to pound. Forcing herself to ignore the man, she dropped her gaze to her book once more, but couldn’t concentrate. Why did this stranger keep watching her? Could he have guessed what she was, and was trying to pick her up?