Huiann arrives in America expecting to be wed to a wealthy businessman. She no sooner disembarks from the ship than she realizes Xie is not looking for a bride: Huiann is worth more to him as a high-end prostitute. Though her fate is better than that of other Chinese women forced into the sex trade, she has no intention of waiting for Xie to sell her virginity to the highest bidder. At the first opportunity, she escapes and disappears into the city.
When a beautiful woman takes refuge in his store, Alan's life changes forever. He's spent the last five years trying to forget the horrors of war, and had almost given up hope of finding love. He hires Huiann as his housekeeper, and though they can only communicate through signs and sketches, they quickly form a bond that transcends the need for words.
But Xie is determined to recover his property, and love may not be enough to protect Huiann from his vengeance.
San Francisco, 1870
Huiann grabbed the latch of the door and opened it. She leaped through, her slippered feet landing on hard-paved road. Hiking her skirt up, she ran, with Liu Dai’s shouts sounding behind her. She zigzagged through the crowd of pedestrians, dodging around stalled vehicles and making an erratic path as a rabbit would when fleeing a predator. Surprise and speed were all she had in her favor. Liu Dai hadn’t expected any resistance. But both he and the driver would be on her heels in seconds and she could hardly blend into this crowd of foreigners, especially wearing a white dress that shone like a beacon.
She darted back across the road between a tall coach and a low wagon filled with barrels. The horse harnessed to the wagon whickered and its warm breath blew against her hair as she scooted beneath its nose. Huiann risked a glance over her shoulder. Neither Liu Dai nor the driver were in sight and Madam Teng would have stayed in the carriage. But Huiann heard her pursuers shouting from somewhere behind her. The only Chinese in a crowd of Yankees, their voices were easy to detect.
Ahead, the bins of bright fruits and vegetables in front of the grocer’s caught her attention. She would be safer indoors. Maybe she could even barter her gown for less conspicuous clothing. But even as she opened the door and slipped inside she realized she could also be trapped here. Why would a foreigner help her? She had no money to offer as a bribe. If Liu Dai pursued her in here, he would tell the owner he was searching for a runaway bride and the man would likely turn her over.
Huiann paused, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. The place carried items from food to household goods to tools. The walls were packed with merchandise on shelves or hooks, and more shelving units and bins covered the floor. Huiann smelled leather, pickle brine, starch, tobacco and coffee as she moved toward the back of the room.
A Yankee stood behind a glass-fronted counter in which were displayed small items like candy, pen knives, ribbons and watch fobs. He was tall with big features, a wide mouth and a nose that dominated his face. His strange eyes were bright blue like the sky. She could’ve sworn his eyes widened in recognition as if he knew her.
She pressed her palms together and bowed her head, fearful of addressing him and knowing he wouldn’t understand her. “Please, sir, will you help me? A man is chasing me. I need to hide here for a time until he is gone.”
He frowned and came out from behind the counter. Huiann stepped back. He was so big and strong-looking. What if he grabbed her and…and did what? Could there be a worse fate than what Xie had already planned for her?
She lifted her face, daring to meet the man’s eyes. His frown appeared concerned rather than angry. His held out his hand to her slowly, as though she were a bird he was coaxing to land there. Her hand seemed to rise of its own accord, reaching out to him.
At that moment, the door opened with a jangle of the bell that hung above it.
Huiann glanced over her shoulder, caught one glimpse of Liu Dai, dove around the tall Westerner and ducked behind the counter, where she couldn’t be seen from the front of the store. Her racing heart sped even faster as she squatted on the floor, ready to leap up and run again if he betrayed her.
She listened to Liu Dai speak in English to the man. The shopkeeper answered briefly. Her arms wrapped around her knees and she dug her fingers into her forearms, silently praying to Lord Buddha, all her ancestors and especially Grandmother Mei. You led me here. I trust your guidance. Continue to protect me.
Liu Dai said a few more words before his footsteps headed toward the door. The bell rang as he left the store and the door closed behind him. There was a moment of silence before the American’s boots tapped across the wide wooden boards, the floor creaking beneath his weight. He came around the edge of the counter.
Huiann looked up, so high up, to meet his gaze. He was a giant, frightening in his sheer size, but a small smile curved his lips as he offered his hand to her for the second time. He spoke in that strange, flat language but she could tell he asked a question from the lift of his eyebrows.
Huiann took her arms from around her legs and reached up to him. His big hand engulfed hers and she felt the strength in it as he pulled her to her feet. Even standing upright she had to tip her head back to see his face.
She remembered a childhood story of a giant who terrorized a village. The people feared him and offered sacrifices to appease him. But in the end of the story it turned out that the giant wasn’t the one who’d been ruining their crops or stealing their cattle and children. In the end, he saved the village from a bandit tribe, sacrificing his life for the people. So a giant could be a hero.
Huiann’s hand grew warm in the storekeeper’s grip. She curved her lips to match his—her first smile since she’d reached Xie Fuhua’s house.