Skin to Skin
Published by Kensington on June 26, 2007
Rand and Anna’s chance encounter at a luxurious Indonesian hotel was intended to be a one-night stand, a temporary escape from the haunting memories of their respective pasts. However, their physical intimacy quickly gives way to a profound emotional connection, as they peel back the layers of their souls in the sultry tropical atmosphere. As their desire for each other intensifies, they both yearn for a deeper and more lasting relationship beyond their initial encounter.
“Great things do come in small packages!… China Doll is a tantalizing tale set in the humidity of Indonesia. I could feel the sweat of the two characters and could envision their complete abandon with each other. As I read the last word, I just sat and thought about this book. How one author could make something so real that I felt the touches, I smelled the scents and have my heart pounding in tune with the characters. Steamy and sultry romance at its best, China Doll is a perfect addition to any bookshelf.”
— Talia Ricci, Joyfully Reviewed
“A sizzling romance anthology…SKIN ON SKIN is hot fun in the summertime.”
— Harriet Klausner, 5 stars
Rand felt like a different man. A wild one, untamed, seething with feelings, with needs, with a gut-clenching want…for a woman’s softness. Something to burrow into, bury himself in, press his face against. It had been so long, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like. The sultry hotness of Medan, Indonesia was like an invisible hand of heat that wrapped around him, melting away the ice that had encased him for five long years so that he felt the tingling, burning pain of renewed sensation. Now the need, the want, the wild desire churned within, rising, rising, threatening to flood him like a powerful wave.
Men sensed it and stayed away. Women sensed it, too, and flocked to him, drawn like moths to the tantalizing allure of danger. Nor did it hurt that he was a “wealthy Westerner.” Perspective was a funny thing. Here, any Westerner was considered wealthy compared to the vast indigent population, even in an affluent port city like Medan on the western Indonesian island of Sumatra. But sweet though the local women were, he’d never paid for a woman before and didn’t wish to start now. Nor for the men, who, after seeing the lack of feminine success, ventured Rand’s way to try their luck. They weren’t the only ones who wondered about him. There were Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and other Americans in the Hotel Danau Toba’s dark disco lounge, some who’d come for leisure, others for business, and others like him, coming or going from Aceh’s tsunami relief effort. The white women giggled, whispered and wondered but didn’t approach him. Nor did he approach them, though for a brief moment he thought of doing so. It was like standing precariously on a cup’s rim, watching the writhing bodies sway seductively to the pounding music on the dance floor, vibrant with life, energy, and passion as his control slowly unraveled and thinned, but still held by a tenacious wisp of thread. He was still in control—too bad—balanced on that narrow edge. And he didn’t want any of these women. He tossed back the rest of his drink, about to rise, when she came in.
She looked like a fine porcelain doll, a China doll. She wore a vibrant red sarong and her long black hair fell in a midnight wash down to her hips. Her almond eyes, glowing black and uncertain, would have given her away had not the white purity of her skin proclaimed her a foreigner as loudly as if she had screamed it. Like moths drawn to a brilliant flame, the Indonesian men approached her. Rand watched them intently. Only two kinds of people came here. Those already with companions or lovers. And those looking for one.
She’d come alone.
The pulse, the beat, the loudness of the music was what hit Dr. Anna Huang first. Then the darkness, the dimness of light, the swaying bodies rocking to the deep throbbing beat like supplicants worshipping before the altar of Baal.
Within seconds, she was swarmed like a queen bee spraying pheromone into the air. Two men, three men, four, suddenly surrounded her, their faces handsome, sharp. One androgynously pretty, another dark as burnished teak, the two others a more lighter brown like bleached driftwood washed ashore. Hands touched her, reached for her. Anna had wanted a man, had come here looking for one, but, sweet Jesus, this was ridiculous.
They pushed her, pressed her back out the door she’d just entered. Or maybe she’d backed out. The deafening music muffled with the closing of the door, and her voice rang out in the silence. “No! Don’t touch me.”
Anna heard now what they were saying. Money. Amounts varying from 50,000 rupiah, five U.S. dollars, to 250,000 rupiah, twenty-five dollars, spewing forth like a bidding war from their eager mouths.
Maybe it was being in Indonesia, surrounded by Asian male faces, some frighteningly handsome. Maybe it was the bargaining she heard in their voices, the lust she saw in their eyes, their greedy, grasping, reaching hands, the overpowering mix of musk and cologne. Maybe it was the fact that for the first time in twenty years, she was willing to take a man once more into her body, on this night far away from home, from New York. All of it triggered memories, brought back that face—a chilling, handsome face that had died but refused to stay buried. The face of a striking Asian man whose exotic beauty cloaked a lying, poisonous tongue. My rich American whore, the apparition purred.
Heart pounding, sight nearly blinded, she shoved away the touching hands grasping at her. “No! I said no!” Panic sharpened her voice, but to no avail. Their eagerness did not subdue. Neither their jostling for her, against her. She looked wildly around for help but there was no one else in the empty hotel corridor.
A flash of disco lights. A blast of music bursting loud for a second and then fading away as the door opened and closed. Someone else exited the lounge, drawing no one’s attention until he spoke—a rapid smooth pattering in Bahasa, the national Indonesian language. He spat it out with gunshot sharpness, and the men surrounding Anna slithered away, back into the club, shooting resentful glares at the man who had sent them on their way. Escaping waves of loud music beat against her as the doors opened and closed with their leaving. And then it was silent. Just them. Anna and the man who had rescued her.
Tallness—and roughness—were what struck her first. Uncivilized. With sun-bleached sandy hair falling loose and wild down to his shoulders, scraggly bearded and mustached, he looked like what the pretty Asian men should have chased away, instead of the other way around. An American, she thought, then corrected herself. A Westerner, at least. Here, in the jeweled archipelago of Indonesia, Australians and Aucklanders were more common because they were much closer. But whatever he was, he had come to her aid and Anna was grateful.
“Thank you,” she said.
He stared down at her. Only then did she notice his eyes. They were the only lovely thing about him, an odd swirling hazel with flashes of rainforest green scattered among flecks of brown.
“What . . . what did you say to them?” Anna asked, because he remained silent and she was curious.
“That you were mine.” The words and flatness of the deep baritone—he was an American—raised her hackles, turning gratitude swiftly into attack.
“I’m not yours!” Anna hissed. “Not yours, or theirs. I’m not a whore. I’m not for sale.”
His hazel green eyes crinkled slightly as he smiled, a hidden movement betrayed by the shifting of his unruly beard as his lips curved beneath the bushy growth. “You’re mistaken,” he said. “They weren’t trying to buy you. They were soliciting themselves.”
Her anger faded away under the unexpected shock of his words. “You mean…those men were—”
Anna flushed wildly. Somehow it was even more embarrassing than when she had thought it the other way around.
“But why would they approach me?” she asked, bewildered. “There were other Asian women in there, some of them Chinese like me. They weren’t being propositioned.”
“They knew you were a Westerner.”
“How?” she asked with disbelief. “You, obviously, look like one. I don’t.” In fact, with her long black hair and sarong, she’d thought she’d blended in with the other natives. Just one of the other tens of thousands of Asian women here.
“Your skin gave you away. No native is that white. They knew you were a Westerner at first glance. And Western women are known to be rich, aggressive, and promiscuous,” he said dryly, his beard shifting again as he smiled.
Anna’s eyes narrowed up at him, then relaxed when she realized he was deliberately baiting her. Not with the truth, but with what was perceived to be the truth here. “I’ve been in Indonesia for three weeks now and haven’t been bothered like this before.”
“You must have been in the company of Indonesian women.”
Though it was more of a statement than a question, she nodded.
“They are the best deterrents to unwanted male attention here.”
It was that one word, unwanted, that plucked a string of guilt in Anna. Actually, tonight’s attention had not been unwanted. She had, in fact, sought attention, deliberately dressed for it. She just hadn’t expected this much, or this kind.
“A word of advice. If you wish to go back in there, go in the company of another woman. Not alone or you will find yourself stampeded once more.” One last look and he was turning away, heading down the corridor, away from the closed doors and the faint pulsing music behind it.
“Wait…” Despite the roughness of his appearance, he had been kind. A gentleman. And he was the total opposite in all physical ways from the nightmare of her first and only lover so long ago. “You were…you were also in the lounge,” Anna made herself say, heat reddening her cheeks.
Rand turned back to her reluctantly. It had been hard enough to make himself leave her the first time. She was a mix of both innocence and worldliness, of wanting and not wanting. He was conflicted enough himself without having to deal with another’s uncertainty. “Yes,” he said, “I was also in the lounge.”
“Were you also approached?” she asked, and the public hallway suddenly seemed less public, more intimate, with the asking of that question, with only the two of them, a man and a woman, locked in this pocket of carpeted silence.
“Women first,” he said, “and then men.” Again that slight crinkling about the eyes.
She smiled briefly in return. Then let it fade away. “Did you not want any of them?” she asked in a low, hoarse voice.
“No.” Just that one clipped word.
Anna bit her lower lip, heart pounding. “What do you want?” she dared asked him.
For a couple of loud heartbeats, she didn’t think he would answer her. But finally he did. “I want to touch, taste, and smell a woman,” he said slowly. “To sink into her willing softness. And not have to pay her for her pleasure or mine.”
Anna swallowed. “I’m a woman.” Her voice dropped down to the barest of whispers. “I would not make you pay for your pleasure.”
He walked to her. Rough calloused fingertips lifted her chin. But it was a soft touch, a gentle touch. “What about for your pleasure?”
Anna just shook her head, breathing in his clean masculine scent. Natural, unadorned.
His hazel eyes stared down at her, pierced her. “What do you want, little one?”
She couldn’t argue with the endearment, not when he stood a head taller than her. What did she want? To emerge from the cocoon where she’d nestled the last two decades of her life. To live again, to risk again. To not be afraid.
“I want a man’s gentleness…and to know what gives him pleasure.”
A sharp intake of breath. The withdrawal of his touch. “And if I said I would try to be gentle?”
There was kindness in those odd swirling eyes. Dear God, please let this be all right. Please let this not be a mistake. “I would say that it would be enough.”
He held out his hand to her. “Then come.”
Hesitantly, with a visible tremor, she reached out, took his hand, and felt his larger palm engulf her smaller one.
Silence beat the air as the hotel elevator swiftly lifted them up. Her hand was so small in his. The top of her head came only to his shoulder. Rand wondered what the hell he was doing.
Gentleness. She wanted gentleness. Rand wasn’t completely sure he could give her that. It had been so long and he wanted so much. He closed his eyes. God grant him the strength. “Are you a virgin?”
She started, gave a short laugh. “No…but it’s been a long time.”
She looked so young, and he wondered for a moment if she was a graduate student. There were plenty of them out here. He wondered how long it had been for her but didn’t ask outright. Didn’t tell her it had been a long time for him, too. That would only lead to uncomfortable questions for them both. Too intimate. An odd thought, really, when they were about to join their bodies as one.
“Were you raped?”
Ah, the questions this man asked. The impressions he had. “No. Just…betrayed.”
The elevator dinged as they reached the twelfth floor. The corridor was both familiar and foreign to Anna. And the alienness of it was due entirely to the tall man, the stranger who walked beside her, her hand swallowed in his.
Who am I? What am I doing? What stranger is inhabiting my body? About to give that body away to a rough-looking man with kind eyes and a gentle touch that I just met.
Too soon, they stopped before a door. Only their harsh breaths moved the air. His, deep. Hers, light and fast. Frightened. Determined.
“You can still change your mind,” he said quietly.
She looked up at him, and the ghost of her past floated for a moment before her eyes, overlaying the bearded face, imposing the handsome, laughing face of a deceiver in his place—shining black hair, knowing black eyes. Foolishness, despair, humiliation threatened to swamp Anna again, as it always did. Her fingernails cut crescent grooves deep into her palms and the sharp, stinging pain helped push that ghostly face back. Steely determination firmed within her. She was a different woman now. And he was dead, though he haunted her still because she allowed it. But no more…no more. It was time, more than time, to lay the ghost to rest. To finally face that which she most feared—intimacy with a man. Her greatest failure. Her greatest misjudgment.
She shook her head, chased away the vision with raw will, and saw once again, clearly, the rough face of the man before her, the American.
“No. I want this.” And she did. She’d been a perfectionist all her life, used to excelling, to having things be perfect. It took the harsh reality of stunning failure to realize that things didn’t always have to be perfect. Sometimes it was enough to just have things not be too bad. People learned, grew, changed. And, dear God, she wanted to change. It was as if time had suspended her, held her forever unchanged at the age of nineteen. Not only emotionally but physically. Twenty-one years had passed. Or rather, passed her by. It was her birthday today. She was forty-one years old and her hair was still black, without a touch of white. The lines of time had barely touched her face so that she looked almost half her age. Her head knew it came from genetics—from her mother before her, and passed down to her daughter, Lily, all of them looking far younger than they were. But part of Anna could not help but feel as if time had been held in abeyance when she had bowed out from life, so that she was frozen forever as that foolish young girl of nineteen.
All she’d know since that one great mistake was safety. No more risks. And what was life—living—but risking?
The hotel key swiped down, a green light blinked, and the door yawned open—an uncertain future.
“Are you sure?” the man asked again like a devil tempting her to be a coward once more. Run. Hide. Hide away.
And she wanted to, so badly that it was almost like a physical pull. That instinctive desire to flee was what finally sparked Anna’s temper, flared hot and firm her determination to see this through—to lay that devilish ghost to rest once and for all. You’re dead. Dead, you bastard. Nothing but ashes now. Leave me alone!
Squaring her shoulders like a soldier about to enter battle, her gaze firm and unwavering, she said, “Yes. Yes, I’m sure. I want this.” Whatever it might bring.
“Then come inside and take what you want.”