SHE HAD HIT HIM with a plate. Even as he felt the throbbing of his temple, Bo Tao could still not believe she had hit him. No woman had ever dared do that to him, and he didn't know whether to be angry or impressed. He settled for being intrigued.
He leaned against the wall, his thoughts still whirling, and prepared to watch a most interesting examination. An honorable man would leave, since he had already compromised Ji Yue enough. But he could not seem to leave her alone; she'd dominated his thoughts since she'd shoved him out of her palanquin yesterday. Was he intrigued by her audacity? Fascinated by her intelligence? Or just lustful for her sweet curves? Yes to all. Which meant that even when his intention to simply talk to her alone, he wound up with his hands on her breasts and her legs spread beneath him. She made him lose control, and that was both dangerous and wildly exciting.
He folded his arms across his chest and watched while the virgin glared daggers at him. No hysterics, no whimpering, just darkly plotted revenge. He was rather excited to imagine what she could do to hurt him. But mostly he was aroused simply smelling her scent in the air and seeing her glorious breasts once again revealed to his gaze.
"Not flat, then," said the physician as she made notes on her paper. "Good breadth of lungs and a fine skin color, if somewhat flushed." She flashed Bo Tao a harsh look. He smiled in response. Women's physician Xie Yan had been his mother's doctor and had known him since birth. She would tolerate his excesses so long as no lasting harm was done. And besides, as master of the festival, he had the right to supervise any examination, even one this intimate.
"Very well," Xie Yan snapped, her glare still trained on him though she spoke to Ji Yue. "Remove the rest."
Bo Tao's mouth was dry. Finally he would see what he had touched. In the heat of a Peking summer, no woman wore underthings below her hips, and certainly not a virgin intent on seducing an emperor. And so he watched, his cock painfully hard, as button by button her sweet bottom was revealed.
"Excellent shape," Xie Yan said.
He couldn't agree more. Her bottom was rounded and lifted. Perfect. Ji Yue stepped out of the skirt to stand naked, her back to him. He admired the sensuous sweep of her spine, the rounded curve of her behind, and the long, firm shape of her legs.
"Mole on upper left thigh."
Ji Yue twisted toward the doctor. "Is that bad?"
"No, no. Simply a mark. It might denote something significant to the fortune tellers, but I don't know what. I just have to write it down."
He wanted to kiss that mole. He wanted to roll his tongue over it and feel the shift in texture. And he wanted to let his lips travel across her thigh and up to taste her sweet cream.
"Now stand still. I need to take some measurements."
Xie Yan brought out her tape and began to measure, beginning with Ji Yue's head. Nothing was neglected from the length of her nose, the width of each breast, and the size of her hips. Ji Yue endured it all, her anger still a palpable force in the room. Her only hesitation came as her feet were measured. She flushed a dark red as the size was announced.
Interesting, Bo Tao thought. He could see nothing but natural, beautiful feet with well shaped toes and a high arch.
"On the table, if you please," instructed the physician.
Ji Yue shifted to climb up, and he knew he'd soon see all. What he focused on instead was the way her hands shook. She was not as sanguine as she appeared, and who could blame her? In a small deference to her feelings, he did not move to a better viewing position. He doubted he could walk smoothly anyway. So he remained at the top of the table, just past her left shoulder. As she lay down, he saw the slow reveal of her body before him. The length of her legs, and the rounding of her hips. He gloried in the rise and fall of her breasts, the sensuous indent at her belly, and the broad width of her womb. She would be able to carry babies well.
The doctor placed herself at Ji Yue's feet. "You must understand that I have to measure everything, do you not?"
Ji Yue nodded. Were there tears in her eyes? Bo Tao frowned. Certainly most of the girls sobbed at this point, but Ji Yue had been so stonelike throughout the examination. It startled him that she showed feeling now. But of course she would. No virgin suffered this examination calmly. Still, the sight of her moist lashes unsettled him.
"You must bend your knees and slide down the table," Xie Yan instructed.
Ji Yue took a stuttering breath. Her gaze was fixed firmly on the ceiling as she used her hands to scoot herself lower on the table. Bo Tao watched in growing confusion as she lifted her knees but kept them pressed tightly together. He did not understand his reaction. He was waiting for just this moment; for the sight of her spread thighs, her woman's hair open and glistening in the light. But this did not feel like a glorious moment. What was wrong with him? He had seen scores off sobbing virgins—on this day alone. And yet this woman's tears disturbed him.
The doctor put her hands on Ji Yue's knees. "You must open for the measurements," she said. "It is a requirement for every empress." Then she pressed firmly down and gradually spread Ji Yue's legs. The movement was stuttering, the resistance obvious, and a single tear slipped down the side of her face.
Something broke inside Bo Tao. "Enough!" he bellowed, stepping forward. He grabbed Ji Yue's clothing as he moved and quickly pushed it at her. "No more examination today."
The doctor looked up, her eyes hard. "You know this must be done. Are you afraid to see the consequences of your own debauchery?"
"I have done nothing!" he snapped. "You can see that she is moist and supple. There is good color and size." He did not know that for sure, but it didn't matter. If he said it, it would be so recorded.
"And her virginity?"
He swallowed. Even he could not forge that. If a false woman passed through to meet the emperor, it would be his head.
"Very well—check it quickly." he snapped, his anger not at the doctor, but at himself. Why did this virgin's tears upset him so? He glanced down at Ji Yue, emotion churning in his gut. "Be gentle!" he ordered.
"Now he worries about gentleness!" the physician muttered. Then her attention shifted to Ji Yue. "I have to touch you very intimately. I will go slowly, and it should not hurt. Are you ready?"
Ji Yue nodded, then firmly shut her eyes. Bo Tao knew the exact moment the doctor touched her intimate folds. Ji Yue jerked, gasping in surprise.
"You are doing very well," the doctor said.
Ji Yue released a soft murmur of distress. Unable to stay apart from her, Bo Tao moved quickly to the top of the table. He pressed his hands to her shoulders. "It is nearly done," he said. He had hoped that she would open her eyes and see that he was looking at her face, not her groin. But she kept her eyes shut tight.
Then, finally, the doctor straightened and stepped away. "Virginity intact."
Bo Tao barely heard the words. His attention was centered on Ji Yue as she rolled onto her side. There were no blankets in the room, but her clothing was there. He used it to gently cover her most private area.
"You have done your duty, physician Xie Yan," he said. "You may go now."
The doctor looked up from her notations. "You wish to be alone with her?" Shock colored her tone.
"She has nothing to fear from me," he growled. "She never did."
Silence reigned for a moment, and then he heard the doctor's "Humph." He had won. She would leave and say nothing about it to anyone. Meanwhile, he knelt down beside the table. Ji Yue's face was very pale, and her eyes were still shut tight. He brushed a lock of hair behind her cheek. "Her report will read excellence in every way," he instructed.
"Of course," the doctor answered. "She is excellent in every way. And with her fire, she will make a fine empress."
Bo Tao jolted at the thought. He had forgotten that she was destined to be Yi Zhen's wife. The emperor could not fail to see how perfect she was. And while that thought soured in his gut, the physician collected her things and left.
"She is gone now. You are safe."
Ji Yue opened her eyes, fixing him with a hard stare. She didn't speak, but Bo Tao didn't care. Her eyes told him that she was recovering. Her voice would return soon enough.
"I am sorry you had to endure that." He swallowed. He was on the verge of promising that she would never have to undergo the ordeal again, but that would be a lie. All brides would be rechecked before the wedding. Up until the final selection, virginity must be assured. So he held back his promise even as he tried to help her in other ways. "You can get dressed now, if you like. Are you hungry? I can send for some food."
She still didn't speak, and her glare hadn't softened, but she did shake her head as she pushed up from the table. He cupped her elbow, helping her to rise, but she shrugged him off. Realizing she didn't want him to touch her, he stepped back, though he felt the separation keenly.
She kept her skirt lying over her private area as she quickly tied on her undershift. He mourned the covering of her beautiful breasts, but he didn't say a word. She pulled on her blouse next, buttoning it with deft moments. Then she paused, lifting her head to fix him with a dark glare.
She needed to stand to pull on her skirt, but that would expose her again. Though it gave him a physical pain, he nodded his understanding and turned around. He would not watch her woman's glory glisten as she dressed. But oh, how his loins ached. He was undressing her again in his imagination when she finally spoke.
"Do I go now to luncheon with the dowager consort?" Her voice was thick and low, but there was strength in her tone. She would not be deterred from her task.
He shook his head as he turned around. "It has already begun, and it would not be wise to show up late."
Her lips compressed in a tight frown.
"It is better if you don't appear. She is looking for girls to reject. If she does not see you, she cannot dismiss you."
Ji Yue nodded, but still didn't look at him. Given how direct her stare had been earlier, this sudden uneasiness bothered him. "Why are you nervous?" he asked.
At that she lifted her chin and met his gaze. He could tell she had to force herself, and he trembled inside at the anxiety he saw in her eyes. "What do you want of me?" she asked. "Why have you singled me out?"
He had no answer for her. In truth, he had been wondering the same thing. Before he'd met her, the idea of seducing a virgin—much less a potential imperial concubine—held no appeal whatsoever. But this was different. Chen Ji Yue was very different indeed.
Without a way to answer her, he dodged the question. "Many girls have asked for baths after their examination," he said. "I can take you to the bathing chambers now so that you can wash in private. I must see to the removal of the girls dismissed at lunch. You will have as much privacy as can be found in the Forbidden City."
She nodded heracceptance. "That would be fine."
So he escorted her to the bathing area. He ordered fine linens for her use and special foods for her lunch. And then in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, he left her alone. For now….