Maid for the Billionaire
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He placed the card in his shirt pocket looking more relieved than he likely wanted her to see. The men beside him nodded and Abby knew that she'd gained their respect in that moment. She wasn't here to endanger them or give them trouble. Her goal had been to harmlessly have a little fun.
Still, she couldn’t help wondering what they would have done if she’d actually named an off limits destination. Something told her that these men were not always so congenial. They were humoring her because Dominic had instructed them to and like so many other people in Dominic’s world, they did his bidding without question.
Knowing that, the paddleboat excursion seemed almost cruel. Abby remembered how confident they’d all been that they’d whip her at Poker and she bit her lip to hide her mischievous grin. Nothing wrong with a little payback.
"I'm going to go change. I think the rental place is open until five," she announced gleefully and was rewarded with a round of dramatic groans.
The walls of the hotel must have been thinner than what they were used to because Abby could hear the men as they cleared the table. One of them said, "I can't believe you told her what people are saying about Dominic."
The other, older guard said, "I can't believe you said you wished you'd met her first. If that got back to Dominic you could kiss your company goodbye. Was the joke really worth it?"
"Who said I was kidding?" Scott asked.
"Don't do anything stupid, Scott," one of them warned.
"I didn't say I'd act on it. I just voiced what the two of you are too afraid to say out loud. That is one incredible woman."
Abby pressed her back up against the door, knowing she should stop listening, but unable to. She sought more than compliments. These unguarded moments could provide her with some insight to what this trip was really about.
"Do you think it's true that he met her this week?"
"Walton has had me following Dominic since he received news about his father. It's true,” Scott said and Abby smothered an involuntary gasp with both of her hands.
"Did Dominic know that you were already on his tail before he asked you to come with him?" It gave Abby no comfort to hear her surprise echoed in the voice of the other guard.
"I'm pretty confident that he had no idea," Scott said with confidence.
"Are you still reporting to Jake?" one of them asked him.
There was a long pause before Scott reluctantly answered, "Yes."
"Oh, man, he'll kill us if he finds out."
The sound of feet shuffling was followed by what could have been the slam of a body against a wall. Abby’s hands shook against her mouth, but she could not force herself away from the rest of the conversation.
"He's not going to find out." Scott’s easy manner slid away, revealing the cold voice of a man who didn’t make idle threats.
"I don’t want to be buried in some Chinese rice field,” the man said in defense.
"Will you shut up?" Scott threatened, but in a lower voice as if just remembering Abby’s presence in the other room. "There is no one who could tell. You two have as much to lose as I do. Jake won't go up against Dominic. There is no one who would tell him. So stop worrying."
Abby stepped away from the door, suddenly a lot less sure of what she was going to do that day.
Stopping on the highest part of the Seventeen Arch Bridge, Abby leaned between two white lion statues and looked across the peaceful Kunming Lake at the ornate Long Corridor that wound along the shoreline. The sheltered passageway had led her most of the way from the Summer Garden’s East entrance to the Marble Boat where she’d taken the Dragon Ferry to the small island behind her. The weight of her thoughts had dimmed the pleasure of walking beneath the thousands of ancient paintings. She’d stopped at each of the season pavilions along the way, but even their beauty had failed to hold her interest.
Lucky arch number nine. I could use some of your luck today. A masculine and powerful number in China; nine symbolized both fortune and safety on a bridge that some said looked like a magical rainbow from a distance.
As Dominic had instructed, Scott and his men had retreated a slight distance when she’d claimed a headache, but their presence was a constant reminder of how vulnerable she really was. Did they suspect that she had heard them? If so, how far would they go to stop her from revealing their secret?
She had to tell Dominic – and soon, but she had no idea how he would respond to the news. Because I barely know him. Her stomach flipped uncomfortably at that thought.
What kind of business was he involved in? For all she knew, it was illegal and Jake was collecting evidence he could use in his own plea bargain when the Feds came for them.
Criminals didn’t discuss their plans with government officials. Did they?
They do if the officials are also involved in the deal.
When one of the guards had said that Dominic would kill them -- had he meant figuratively, through their careers, or actually help them go into the light kind of kill? Did she really want to find out while she was in a foreign country with no money, no passport, and no friends to help her get away if the situation turned ugly?
She should have followed her instincts and gotten off the plane in New York. She could be back in her old life right now.
Half alive is better than dead.
Abby shuddered and rested her hand lightly on the neck of one of the lions. I wouldn’t mind a little of your protection today.
Whether the answer came to her from the ancient guardian or from a revival of her own inner fortitude, the result was the same. She resolved to trust Dominic and tell him everything she knew as soon as he returned to the hotel. Fear is not going to rule my life anymore.
A petite Chinese woman stepped out of a crowd of tourists and stood next to Abby. In thickly accented English, she said, "Excuse me, Miss Dartley?"
Before she even had time to turn fully, Abby sensed her bodyguards closing ranks around her. "Yes," Abby said, amazed that someone here would know her and wondered if it was someone from the hotel staff. Did she have a message from Dominic?
"Zhang Yajun would like to meet you for tea at your hotel lounge," the woman said with a slight bow of her head.
Abby sought advice from the only person she had to rely on. "Scott?"
He assessed and dismissed the risk. "She is one of the most influential women in China. She made her money in real estate and food essences, I believe. I don't think there is any harm in meeting her in a public place.”
“I don’t--” Abby started to disagree, then stopped herself. If this trip was really the jumpstart to the next phase of her life, then it was high time she started embracing opportunities as they came. How often did one get the chance to meet one of the most influential women in China? "Do I have time to change?" Abby asked the woman.
"She waits for you as we speak," the woman said apologetically. "She requests just a few minutes of your time."
Tea sounded pretty harmless. People who were going to kidnap you or threaten your life probably didn't offer you such a soothing beverage, did they? Should she call Dominic and tell him where she was going? By now he could be meeting with the Minister of Commerce, how insane would she sound interrupting that to ask if she should meet with a woman who was probably just curious about Dominic's choice of companionship?
"Lead the way," Abby said patting the white lion one last time.
The hotel tea lounge was busy, but Zhang Yajun would have stood out in any crowd. Her confidence outshone the simplicity of her loosely restrained black shoulder length hair and the starkness of her white pin striped shirt. She sat at a corner table appearing completely undisturbed by the obvious interest of the patrons around her.
She stood as Abby crossed the lounge. Her stare was direct; a blatant assessment which bordered on rude. She was the opposite of every meek Asian Hollywood stereotype. Her greeting was a nod rather than a bow. She waved for Abby to join her at the small table. Abby sat and accepted the tea the woman poured for her.
"I am glad you could join me," Zhang said in perfect, although somewhat stilted English. Her accent hinted at education in Europe, rather than the US.
"The invitation was an honor," Abby said honestly. Who wouldn't want to meet a woman who achieved money and power in a country still mostly dominated by men?
"You are a surprise to many, Abigail Dartley," Zhang said ambiguously.
"In what way?" Abby asked.
Zhang looked around the room, her eyes resting briefly on each of Abby’s four security guards. "Dominic is not known to mix business with pleasure. Is it true that you have only just met him?"
"Why is how long I have or haven't been seeing Dominic important?" Abby countered. Please don't let her say it determines the amount of the ransom. Please.
Instead, the woman asked, "Do you know why he is here?"
The truth will set you free. "Not really, no."
Zhang laced her fingers together, choosing her words with care. "Dominic has gathered some hefty investors and petitioned the Chinese Minister of Commerce to open the technological market to Corisi Enterprises. Once that contract is signed, the internet across China will be revolutionized. Some say there will be a computer in every home, even before there is a washer."
"Don't you already have the internet? I've seen computers at the hotel and in the tourist office." Despite the age of the buildings, the hotel had been outfitted with every modern gadget associated with luxury and convenience.
"We do, but not to the scale that Dominic proposes. He has designed a software and a network that could handle the amount of traffic our country would produce if it were to collectively get online."
"Sounds like it would benefit both sides,” Abby said, more than a little relieved to discover the nature of Dominic’s current project.
Zhang’s expression revealed a hint of impatience. "Yes, but computers are not my greatest concern and I hold the ear of the Minister. There are others who have the same ability as Dominic and are more likely to do what needs to be done. I had been against the Minister signing the deal with Dominic until I heard of you."
"Me?" Abby asked, once again feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. How could she possibly play a role in a major international deal? "I think you've been misled as far as my importance to Dominic. I don't hold any influence over how he does his business. In fact, until you explained it to me, I had no idea what his business here was in the first place."
The declaration didn’t deter Zhang. "When a man who does not speak, utters his first word, everyone listens."
Abby shook her head and shrugged a shoulder to indicate her confusion.
Zhang didn’t look like a woman who normally bothered to clarify herself, nor did she appear to enjoy doing so now. "When a ruthless, power hungry man chooses a school teacher and goes so far as to take her under his protection as if she were the rarest of treasures, everyone watches."
"What do you want from me?" Abby asked, cutting through the verbosity she would reflect on later.
Slight admiration widened Zhang’s eyes before she quickly schooled her expression. "It would be best if I showed you, but not today. Dominic has already left the commercial district and is headed back here. I'll come for you tomorrow."