AILYS 16 – 20

Chapter 16

How Could I . . . ?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She saw love in his eyes.

She knew, without a doubt, that love was in his eyes.

But she had serious doubts about whether that love was for her.

She’d never seen it before in his eyes, why did she see it now?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Staring deeper, she realized that right now, at this moment, she didn’t even exist in Ximen’s world.

Following his gaze she realized why love was finally there; those eyes weren’t trained on her. That love wasn’t felt for her. His gaze had immediately zeroed in on Shen Shen, his daughter. The daughter he hadn’t seen; the daughter she had thought he hadn’t even known existed.

She hadn’t decided if she would even tell him that Shen Shen was his, let him think what he will. But if she did, she’d also wondered how she could convince this man that Shen Shen was his daughter. Seeing the love in his eyes, she knew that he had no doubts. She only wondered how he had found out.

He began to move, his movements silent, making his way toward the bed. She quickly moved out of his way, and watched helplessly as he sat down beside Shen Shen.

His gentle movements evidenced his reluctance in disturbing her sleep. His eyes remained glued on the tiny figure. His hands shook as they reached out to hover over her face, wanting to touch, but so afraid. So nervous. He quickly pulled back. His hands clenched, and he took a deep breath. Reaching out with a finger, he gently smoothed over the curve of a chubby cheek.

Xiao You, standing over the two, could stare only helplessly as Ximen got acquainted with this tiny, precious life. She wanted to shout at him, to tell him to not touch HER daughter. To remind him that she was in the room, too. To ask him why he didn’t love her, when he could love the fruit of her body so much. But the words wouldn’t come. Her feet wouldn’t move her closer.

Gathering his courage, he held the palm of his hand against that curve, cupping the cheek fully. Shen Shen moved, whimpering at the contact. Both Ximen and Xiao You froze, worried that her sleep had been disturbed. She quickly settled back into sleep, with only one difference. Her cheek instinctively nestled deeper into his palm.

She didn’t want to disturb him. She didn’t want to cut his time short with Shen Shen, but they needed to talk. Xiao You turned on the baby monitor, and motioned for Ximen to follow her. Before his lips could open in protest, she quickly put her fingers on her lips, nodding toward Shen Shen. Ximen reluctantly took his hand away, and the two left together. With a final glance at Shen Shen, Ximen slowly closed the door behind him.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There had been only silence between the two in the past ten minutes. Ximen refused to talk, and Xiao You didn’t know what to say. Where to start?

“Would you like something to drink?”

“Vodka,” came the short reply.

“You have everything well-stocked here,” she commented, handing him the drink.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Ximen?” she prompted. “I hope I didn’t put anyone out by coming here.”

His eyes narrowed. Taking a swallow of his drink, he finally looked at her directly.

“Are you asking if you’re being here compromised my recreational activities?” he asked coldly.

“Well, I did live here when I was your mistress,” she reminded him. “It’s a convenient location. Why wouldn’t you have moved the next one in when I left?” she asked.

“Mistress?” he murmured softly. . . “No, no one’s been living here. Since, I thought that I would find you soon after you left, I kept the apartment habitable. It’s been like this since you left.”

She nodded her acknowledgment.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Would I be wrong in doing that? Would I be wrong in moving on with my life after you left? I have my needs,” he asserted. “I wasn’t going to keep myself a celibate, just because you let your hormones hold sway and ran off like a coward. I wasn’t going to put my life on hold, not for you.”

“I never doubted that you have your needs. I’m sure it didn’t take you too long to find a replacement,” she claimed confidently. “After all, you’re Ximen Zhong Er Lang. The Ximen empire’s heir, because your loser brother left when he couldn’t handle your family,” she retorted, her eyes darkening at the mention of other women. Why did she care? “You are the man that every woman wants to have a week with,” Xiao You continued. “But I do think now, that it’s better to have the week than the two years we had. After all, they don’t get to see the rot beneath the charming façade you show the world.”

His lips tightened, betraying his anger.

“Why are you back here?” he asked hoarsely, as if controlling strong emotions. “Do you really think that you can pick up where we left off?”

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “I am definitely NOT back here to pick up where we left off. Never again. You know, Ximen, my biggest dream in the world was to have a relationship with you. When that dream came true, I was in seventh heaven. But the reality just didn’t match up. Being in a relationship with you is like watching a train accident happen in slow motion. You can see that it’ll happen, even before the train leaves the platform. You can see the consequences of that train accident, BUT even then, you still get on that train. You sit down, because you think that everything will be all right. That maybe, the fates will change that destiny. Maybe you’ll arrive at the destination with nary a scratch. But you really can’t change what’s going to happen. And you can’t change the train’s makeup . . . the train’s course.”

“What the hell are you blabbing about trains for?” he barked out.

She rolled her eyes, shaking her head all the while.

“I’m trying to say,” she explained slowly, “that our relationship was like a train wreck about to happen. You . . . are . . . like . . . a train with . . . problems. And as long as you can’t get yourself fixed, every relationship that you’ll have will end up like this.”

“Not every woman I’d date would be a coward like you. She’d have the courage to tell me that she’s having my child. If not for herself, than for the child. You couldn’t even do that.”

“My child was better away from you.”

“Then why are you here now?” he asked. “Isn’t it because you think that it’s better for my daughter, who’s name I don’t even know, and you that you’re here now?”

“Like I said, you could never have brought me back,” she said. “I’m here for San Chai.”

“San Chai?”

“She needed to come back. She was punishing Dao Ming Si for letting her down so badly. She was punishing him for sleeping with another woman, for leaving her for two years, and then expecting to come back and start their relationship once more. It was time for her to return. But she couldn’t leave me alone. And promising to keep contact wasn’t enough for her. She needed to see me every other day. This woman is my best friend, and she’s supported me through the last two years. I came back for her.”

“Then why aren’t you with her?” he asked.

“She needed privacy for her reunion with him,” Xiao You explained, turning away from him. “She needed to explain herself, and she needed to listen to him. They could never do that if another person had been in the house.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

“What’s my daughter’s name?”

“Shen Shen,” Xiao You quietly replied.

“I need to know,” he murmured, expecting her to understand. He hadn’t had a chance to be in that delivery room. He hadn’t had a chance to see his daughter being born. While he’d missed out on the first two years of his daughter’s life, that omission hurt the most.

“She had a twin,” Xiao You softly confessed. “A boy. He was born stillborn,” her voice went lower and lower, tinged with grief. “When I heard those words, when I heard the silence where I should my child’s shriek, I almost let go. When I was drooping with weariness, tired from giving birth to him, I let go, and started blacking out. San Chai was shouting encouragement to me. But I couldn’t listen anymore. I couldn’t react. And then my body began to push once more. And that’s when they realized that I was giving birth to twins. Shen Shen came out next, and for her, I pulled back. I needed to hold her in my arms. I needed to hold my baby boy in my arms, and tell him goodbye. It was touch and go for a moment. But . . . I got to hold them both,” she finished softly.

He came up behind her, and turned her around. She looked up at him, the tears shimmering in her brown eyes.

He shook her roughly, his anger evident. Her eyes widened.

“Why did you leave?!” he shouted at her. “If you had been here, if you had my money, you could’ve taken care of yourself. And this would never have needed to happen!”

“Are you blaming me?” she cried out. “They said that nothing else could’ve been done.”

“They were comforting a grieving mother,” he shouted back at her. “You got to hold him. You were there. And you chose to keep me out. Your arms held him and might ache to hold him once more, but I NEVER got that chance because you decided it that way. I don’t even know what my son looked like!”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Why is it so hard for you to be human?” she cried out. “Mere mortals have feelings. They make mistakes. And they run away when they’re hurt. I loved you! I loved you so much, and you would never acknowledge our relationship. Why was I your dirty little secret? It’s not my fault! It was your fault for never letting me feel secure.”

“You weren’t my dirty little secret. I protected you from the public’s censor! I showed you how much I cared in every way possible. It’s never enough for women like you. You wanted my soul. How could I believe you wanted our relationship, when—,” he cut himself off.

“What? What were you going to say?” she asked.

“Nothing. It was nothing,” he said. “It was all for your protection. You couldn’t have stood being in the limelight. And you decided to leave. Your hands packed that suitcase. Your feet carried you out that door. And your voice never called out to me.”

“I never needed to be protected!” she shouted back. “It never felt like protection. While you were out romancing every woman, I was at home, without ever having been on a real date. You had the nerve to kiss another woman in front of me. That wasn’t your affection. More than anything, it felt like punishment. You were punishing me weren’t you?”

“No,” he quickly denied.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“. . . You were punishing me for something. No one could treat the person they’re with like dirt . . . not unless . . . not unless they hold them in utter contempt. Was my love for you that disgusting?” she asked suddenly, turning to glare at him. “Was it disgusting because I wasn’t good enough for you?”

“It was never like that Xiao You.”

“Tell me! You’re hiding something. I can see it in your face. Maybe that can explain our whole relationship from when I came back,” she said hopelessly. They needed something, something to bring them together again. How could they live together, when all she could do was despise him? When he thought that she had killed their son. How could they raise Shen Shen together, if all they could do was remember the past?

. . . . . . . . . . . .

“I’ve always valued your love,” he finally admitted, “even if I didn’t believe that it existed. Would a woman in love leave the man she loves? For any reason?” he demanded, turning to look at her.

“Ximen . . . I,” her voice trailed off.

“You left me!” he shouted back at her. “You left me when I begged you to stay. When I told you I needed you, you left me. I got down on my knees and begged. But it wasn’t enough, was it?”

~*~*FLASHBACK~*~*

“You don’t have to leave,” he offered quietly.

“Stay here,” he insisted. “I don’t want this to end. I want to be able to touch you whenever I need to. I want to see your smiling face whenever I get the urge. Don’t leave Xiao You,” he said, taking a deep breath.

“I . . . have to,” she finally said, turning away from the temptation he presented.

“What if I tell you that I love you?” he asked softly.

“Don’t,” she begged tearfully. “Don’t use that emotion to make me feel guilty for leaving. I need to leave.”

His arms enclosed her body, bringing her closer. He quietly breathed in her scent, as he ordered his body to calm down. He’d gotten so used to that scent. He’d gotten used to holding her body in his arms. He’d gotten used to sleeping with her. She’d slept in his arms every night, snuggling close. He knew that, if he had the chance, he would spend every night with her, just treasuring her presence in his life and in his bed.

“Stay with me. Love me. Marry me,” he asked, kneeling at her feet.

Her hand gently smoothed over his head.

“I love you, Ximen,” she said harshly. “But I have to go. I made a promise.”

Without another word, she went around his kneeling form, and left the apartment.

His eyes closed, when he heard the door slam behind her. He sat there for . . . 20 minutes . . . two hours, who knew? All he knew was that the sun had disappeared by the time he realized that she wasn’t coming back. By the time he got up. By the time he closed his heart.

His father had been right. She’d acted exactly his father had predicted.

~*~End of FLASHBACK~*~

“What have you done to yourself?” he asked, placing a hand on her cheek. Her cheeks were hollow, her eyes strained. Her lips were chewed raw. Her skin was dull, and her hair was . . . she’d cut it all off. The tresses he’d loved to wrap around his wrist when he came inside of her. She’d cut off the hair he’d buried his face in. “You’ve lost so much weight.”

She jerked her head back, out of his reach.

“Tell me. Tell me what you’re hiding,” she ordered.

“You’re not going to like it,” he warned.

“I need to know.”

“I know, Xiao You. I know why you left me that first time,” he admitted heavily. “I know what promise you’d made. I know why my love didn’t stop you.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked in confusion.

“I know . . . I know that you took money from my father to get out of my life. I know that he bribed you to get away, because he’d seen me buying an engagement ring. And HE thought that you weren’t good enough for a Ximen heir.”

Her mouth dropped open.

“I know that you took that money and ran.”

“Ximen—,” she began desperately.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“And I know . . .

That the only reason you came back was because he wanted you back in my life.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“So, you tell me,” he said.

“How could I ever love a woman like you?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter 17

Devil’s Bargain

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“I know . . . I know that you took money from my father to get out of my life. I know that he bribed you to get away, because he’d seen me buying an engagement ring. And HE thought that you weren’t good enough for a Ximen heir.”

Her mouth dropped open.

“I know that you took that money and ran.”

“Ximen—,” she began desperately.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“And I know . . .

That the only reason you came back was because he wanted you back in my life.

……………………

“So, you tell me,” he said.

“How could I ever love a woman like you?”

……………………

“Ximen … you’re mistaken,” she argued, shocked at the accusations he was throwing her way. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Is this what your dad told you?” she asked abruptly.

“I saw the proof with my own eyes,” he shouted at her, angry at her refusal to admit her actions.

“Proof that you’re father provided?” she asked coolly. “I would think that you would know better than to trust a man like that. While you’ve said nothing about your family to me, I did read the newspapers. We all know that your father is a promiscuous man who can’t keep his pants zipped.”

“Xiao You!” he shouted angrily. He couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. She’d changed. The old Xiao You would never have spoken this way. She’d never have looked this way. There was coldness in her eyes that he’d never seen before. He was seeing the harshness he would never have thought Xiao You capable of exhibiting.

“Come now, Ximen,” Xiao You replied calmly, “am I supposed to hide what I know about your father just because he’s your father? You might be ashamed because of who he is, but that’s no reason to close your eyes to what he is.”

“I don’t know why you’re denying the truth. I saw the cashed check with my own eyes. I saw the signature on the contract you signed with my father,” he argued strenuously. He knew the truth. He knew that Xiao You had let herself be bribed by his father. He knew that she’d returned not because she loved him, but because his father had let her return. And she had the nerve to deny it? Did she think that he was stupid?

Turning away abruptly, she sat down on the chaise. She sank into the silky upholstery with a sigh.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Why have you changed so much?” he asked abruptly, changing the subject for the moment.

“How have I changed?” she asked in surprise.

“You were never like this before,” he replied. “You were soft. You were innocent. You … glowed. Now all I can see is your bitterness. You’re cold. There’s this darkness around you.”

“Did you think that I would stay that way? Did you think that despite all the crap you threw my way, I’d come back and jump happily into your arms?” she asked bitterly. “I was with you for two years and apparently that wasn’t enough to prove my love for you. And two years without you slowly erased that emotion. The only reason I was soft and innocent and glowing around you,” she spat out, “was because I thought myself in love with you. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and that was the ONLY reason I was hurt every time you acted like a bastard.”

“How could I …,” he began.

“Oh not that again. Did you even know me?” she questioned angrily. “Did you? I spent two years of my life with you. You asked me to marry you after only a WEEK together, so obviously you loved something about me. But you thought I was capable of those things that your father accused me of. And you believed him based on what? The proof he showed you? What did I have to do to prove my love?” she asked softly, looking at him with tears in her eyes. “I thought … that the mistake I’d made in returning to my family could be forgiven if I showed you how much I loved you. But it didn’t, did it? You could never forgive me for my desertion.”

“You left me,” he said heavily. “And knowing what I thought I knew about you, I couldn’t let myself love you again,” he whispered, sitting down across from her. “I thought that what we had meant nothing. I thought that you wanted money over me, when I could have given you so much more. I thought that your love for me didn’t bring you back, but the promise of riches from my father did. I didn’t … allow myself to trust you again. You’d already broken my heart once.”

“Heart? Are you sure it was your heart?” she asked skeptically. “Maybe it was just frustrated desire, which you now had to assuage with another hussy.”

“Just because I never … said that I loved you, that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel love,” he muttered.

“What was that? I couldn’t really hear what you said,” Xiao You said, cupping a hand around her ear. “Could you repeat that?”

“I. Loved. You.” he said slowly in a sarcastic tone. “Did you understand that or do you want me to repeat it again?” he asked sarcastically.

“Be still my heart. It’s the first time I’ve heard a confession so eloquently put,” she retorted. “Are you sure you don’t want to throw a proposal in there along with that beautiful confession?” she asked, needling him.

“Do you want your pound of flesh? How many times do you want me to repeat it so you’ll believe it?” he grumbled in frustration.

“Two years,” came the solemn reply. “Maybe if you said those words for two years, with no response from me that might assure you of my continued love, maybe then I’ll believe you.”

“Xiao You,” he said entreatingly, moving toward her.

“No, stay where you are,” she said, getting up, ready to run if he moved one step toward her. “You’re not getting out of this by touching me. Do you really want our reunion to be based on my lust for you? I might not be able to think when you touch me, but that won’t be proof of love. We need to iron this all out before you can even get within a foot of me.”

“Xiao You,” he said, sighing but sitting back down on the couch. “What do you want? I made a mistake. I trusted my father because his statements appeared to be the truth. He said you would leave. You left. He said you would come back. And you came back. What was I to think? That he was psychic? How could he know what you would do unless he had been in contact with you?”

“Do you remember that party at your parents house when I catered the desserts?” she asked suddenly, getting up from the chaise. She couldn’t face him for this next part.

“No,” he quickly replied.

“You’re lying,” she said softly, her back to him. She stared out the window, awaiting his answer. “Don’t lie to me, Ximen,” she warned when the silence continued.

“Yes,” he reluctantly admitted.

“You practically made out with that scarlet bitch in front of me,” Xiao You said sneeringly.

“But I didn’t go all the way,” he reminded her.

“You fed her the cake I had baked. You ordered me to serve it to her … you always acted like a single bachelor in public. The only thing I asked of you … the only thing I asked for in this relationship was fidelity. I would not put up with you sleeping with other women and then returning to my bed. You never spent the whole night with me, and there were countless hours before dawn when you could’ve gotten into mischief. Despite two years of uncertainty I still trusted that you kept your word to me. Two years without any kind of assurances from you of love. And yet knowing me the way you had, and then being with me for that week when I fell even more in love with you, that gave you no basis to trust me?”

“Xiao You, you’d left me,” he began slowly, “and I needed a reason. I got down on my knees, and asked you to stay with me. You seem to be forgetting that. You say you told me you loved me for two years, but what about the fact that I begged you not to go and you still left. Can you give me a reason? If you loved me, why did you leave?”

“I’m not going to give you that reason,” she calmly replied. “You could’ve asked me that in those two years we spent together. You didn’t and you’ve lost that chance. Right now, this is a test for you. YOU have to trust ME and know that whatever reason I had was a good enough reason. You have to understand that there was something more important than love at play, and you have to tell me that you forgive me for leaving you on your knees. Can you do that?” she asked, finally turning to look at him, her eyes asking him questions that he couldn’t begin to answer.

“You expect me to trust you? You had two years to tell me the truth, yet you didn’t,” he reminded her.

“I didn’t know what you were thinking about me,” she protested. “You think that if I’d known I would’ve stayed with you? I could’ve lived with you never expressing your love, but not if I didn’t even have your trust. I might have stayed with you even if you’d NEVER said the words, but not when I was bringing a child into the world. If you didn’t respect me, how could you respect me in front of my child?”

“You’re basically saying that you deprived me of my daughter for two years because I never bothered to tell you I loved you?” he asked incredulously, staring into her eyes. “Do you think that my not expressing my love justified your actions? Will our daughter thank you when she grows up? Did I deserve that?”

“Did I deserve being judged without even a chance to explain myself?” she asked grimly. “Did I deserve the punishment before you’d even gotten your facts straight?”

“If what you’re saying is the truth…,” he began hesitantly, trying to grasp that alternate reality.

“What, you’re still doubting me?” she asked sardonically. “Do you even want to go there, Ximen? Because if that is what you’re doing, there’s no hope.”

“I …”

“You don’t have a lot of time,” she said through gritted teeth. “I am tired of being blamed. Of being ignored. Of being treated like a mere mistress. I didn’t want my child growing up in that environment, and that’s the only reason I left,” she said, walking over to him.

She stood over him, forcing him to raise his head to meet her eyes.

“If you tell me that you have the same doubts now. That you have the same reasons for treating me like the dirt beneath your feet. If you tell me that nothing’s changed, I will take MY daughter out of here. Do you understand?”

“Why is it that you basically kidnapped my daughter, and I’m taking the flack?” he retorted angrily.

“Think of those two years as payback for my two years of uncertain hell,” she remarked. “Now, answer me.”

“I … believe you,” he finally whispered. “Now, more than ever, seeing your righteous anger and remembering your innocence, I can’t believe that I ever believed my father,” he said, reaching out to grab her hands.

She tried to jerk them free.

“No, please, let me do this,” he pleaded. “I never gave you a chance. I knew that you loved me but I treated that love as nothing because I didn’t trust the motivation behind it. I thought that you had betrayed me, so I punished you by never saying I loved you. I treated you like the dirt beneath my feet, you’re right, and I … deserved that your uncertainty might have caused you to run away. It was my fault,” he admitted in a choked tone. “I want to be with you. I want to be a family. I want you to give us another chance,” he murmured, placing a kiss on her hand. “The fact that I was with you regardless of my distrust should speak in my favor,” he reminded her.

“So, you trust me?” she asked, ignoring the last part.

“Yes.”

“You love me?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll forgive me for leaving you twice and keeping your daughter away from you?”

“Yes.”

“What about your son? That I took away your chance to meet him before he had to leave?”

His hands tightened around hers. His silence was telling.

“Ximen?” she asked brokenly.

“I … I need time for that,” he finally admitted. “Give me time. It’ll happen eventually.”

“But you still love me?” she asked.

Pulling free, she stepped back from him.

He quickly got on his feet, moving toward her. His arms reached out to her.

And she began to laugh softly. At first he couldn’t understand why there was laughter. Was it because she was happy? But as the laughter continued, and he saw the satisfaction in her eyes, he began to understand. There was triumph in that laughter, not joy.

“I have you wrapped around my little finger, don’t I?” she asked jeeringly. “Despite how you treated me back then, you’ve changed the impossible to the possible. You really do love me, don’t you?”

“Xiao You,” he said, a sick feeling growing inside of him.

“I left you. You can never see your son because of me. I kept your daughter from you for two years. And yet, you still ‘forgave’ me. Although, I do have my doubts about the sincerity of that forgiveness. I have you on your knees once more, don’t I? Figuratively , of course, but you’re at me feet, begging once more.”

“Xiao You, what are you saying? Why are you acting like this?” Ximen demanded, moving toward her.

“NO, don’t touch me!” she shouted, backing up in panic. “You don’t have the right to touch me. Not anymore.”

“Xiao You, calm down,” he said in a soothing tone.

“It seems that I got what I always wanted. It’s … it’s just not something that I want anymore,” she murmured, looking at him. Her arms came up to wrap around herself. “I don’t know why you’re forgiving me, but that’s your issue. You didn’t even ask if I’d forgiven you. I was angry with you for a long, long time, Ximen. I resented the fact that I had to run away during my pregnancy because of you. You accused me of causing my son’s death by running away, but what about your fault? You pushed me out the door. Do you think that I can easily forgive you for the years of rejection? Do you think it would be so easy to forget your constant attention to other women? It’s not that easy, Ximen,” she muttered. Her hands came up to rake through her hair nervously.

“Xiao You, we can work it all out,” he said confidently.

“You haven’t heard the best part,” she said, looking at him with a smile.

“What is it?”

“I lied. I was just playing with your mind.”

“About what?”

“I did take money from your father.”

……………………

“And the only reason I came back was because he asked me to return.”

……………………

“Of course, money was the added incentive,” she finished sweetly.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter 18

Too Late

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“What? Nothing to say?” she taunted, breaking the silence that had continued for an immeasurably long time. “You know, this time I am telling you the truth. What are you going to do now? You took me back and used me for two years, but never let yourself “love me” because you thought I had taken your dad’s money. You thought that I was beneath you. So, I just confirmed what you’ve always believed. What are you going to do now? After all, now I’m not just a mistress. I’m the mother of your child,” she goaded him.

She turned to stare at him from across the room.

“Nothing to say?” she murmured reflectively. “Well, you were quite good at that, so I can understand why that habit would come to the fore now. What are you thinking about Ximen? That a woman would actually take money to walk away from you?”

“Shut up,” he murmured distractedly.

“Or are you thinking about the fact that a woman would have to be bribed to come back to you?” her words slashed at him.

“Shut up!” he gritted out, glaring at her, still trying to come to grips with what she had said. Had a part of him always hoped that it was a lie? Was that why he’d never tried to confirm anything before? Because if he left those questions unasked, there was hope that his father was lying? She’d just ripped that hope away. It hurt.

“Your father is a brilliant man, isn’t he?” she mused aloud. “He got exactly what he wanted and played both of us in the process. The thing is, I was ready to move past that, but I guess he had you pegged exactly right.”

“Xiao You, if you don’t . . .,” he began, uncertain of what threat to make. Feelings were welling up inside, and not one could be clearly defined. He’d searched for her for two years, but there was never any thought given to what would happen after he found her. He’d have his child, and he’d have Xiao You. But then what?

Would they start over?

Could he let her go?

Letting go had never been an option, but the truths that she was revealing now were like a slap in the face. And he didn’t know how to deal with them.

“What are you going to do?” she asked in a sarcastic tone. “Not love me? We’ve already been over that.”

There was silence between the two. He stared at her, wanting to see the woman he’d spent the past two years looking for. But nothing of that Xiao You came out in the tone or the words. She’d completely disappeared behind a cold, bitter façade and he couldn’t find her. It was surprising how lost he felt without his Xiao You.

“I don’t know what to think,” he finally admitted. “Which one of you do I believe? My father? You? When you spoke those first words. Or do I believe you now?” His hands clenched. “Stop playing with me,” he finally murmured entreatingly. “I don’t want to ruin this for Shen Shen. And if I go off half-cocked right now it might ruin whatever we have between us, can’t you see that Xiao You?”

“I can’t lie anymore,” she said, turning way coldly. “I can’t be what you need anymore. Your dad came to me in that one week we had. He offered me $50 million to get out of your life. It surprised me. Not only that you had that much money, seeing as how I never actually grasped how rich the Ximens were. But it also surprised me that he thought I was that much of a threat. I refused. Of course. I thought that maybe this meant we had a chance. Maybe he’d seen something in you that threatened his plans for you and the perfect Ximen bride.”

Her hand rubbed a wrist absent-mindedly.

……………………

“He went away. Too easily perhaps. But I didn’t care. I hugged that hope to me for days, just secretly waiting for you to act. To do something to declare that love…that desire for me to stay beyond the week. But you didn’t say anything. And then I found out why he’d gone away so easily.”

……………………

“It seems that my parents weren’t safe in Canada either. In three days, your dad began to hurt my father’s business. And I had to give in and go away all over again. Do you think that my father could stand the trauma of this happening again? To be a pawn in another rich man’s hands? He’d already suffered this at the Dao Ming bitch’s hands, and now this. I don’t know about you rich people and your mentality. It just amazed me how easy it is to play with someone’s life…with his or her livelihood without another thought. That first time my dad left the continent. Think of what he would’ve done if he realized that this was happening a second time?” she mused aloud, coldly contemplating the thought of her father committing suicide.

“While I loved you, that week was nothing next to the lifetime of sacrifices my parents have made for me. Honestly, your feelings were nothing next to what my father would have gone through. So, I steeled my heart and I walked away. He made me take the check. I took it. And then he made me cash it. Just so he could show you the proof. At that point, I thought I rather deserved it. I was giving up the Ximen heir, so why shouldn’t I squeeze some money out of that bastard?” her voice bitter at the memory.

“You didn’t confess until my choice was made. What else could I do but reject you and walk away? But I guess a part of me always hoped that you would investigate. That you would come looking for me. I wanted you to care that much at least.”

She rubbed up and down her arms vigorously, as if trying to rub some warmth into her cold skin.

……………………

“But…nothing. And then I began to read of your exploits. I’ve always had an unhealthy obsession with you, so I kept tabs. A brunette today. A redhead tomorrow. A blonde on the weekends. There was never any rest for the wicked. And you were being quite wicked. And more and more I guess it was the shock of me leaving before you that made you propose that day? You wanted your full week with me, and then the right to walk away? Nothing more than that. What other explanation was there for you to get down on your knees one day in front of me, and be on your knees for a whole other reason, with a whole other woman the next day?”

“It was lovely how completely you ripped the blinkers from my eyes. That is who you are right Ximen? That is what you are. The man who can’t keep his pants zipped. Just like your father. And who knows how similar you two are outside of your bedroom practices? I hate that man, Ximen,” she confessed. “I hate that he used me as if I was nothing more than a tool. I hate that he used me,” she repeated grimly.

……………………

“Your one-night stands in those months alone equaled ten times the people I’d actually MET in that time. And it wasn’t even one week per lover. It wasn’t one night per lover. You had two or three a day, right? I saw enough pictures of you with your tongue down another woman’s throat. And then again, I also had it straight from the horse’s mouth. Your father took great pleasure in telling me, right before he told me what he wanted from me,” she told him. Her eyes turned to glare at him, reflecting the disgust she had felt when she’d seen those pictures…when she’d had to hear those words.

“It’s amazing how easily love can die. I was amazed myself. I was hurt. I was angry. And then I was disgusted. This man, who I’d given myself to, was out with another woman a night after I’d left. Our time together had meant nothing. Nothing. Not even one week to rest, Ximen?” she asked softly, her eyes staring at him questioningly. “Not even one week to mourn?”

She rubbed her other wrist gently. And then hugged herself, scrunching into herself.

Abruptly, she turned away, and he cringed, awaiting the next part of the tale. If she’d known this much, of course she knew the rest.

“And now this, this was my favorite part,” she said, laughing bitterly. “Imagine my surprise when the man that had kicked me out of your life came strolling back in. And what exactly did he want? Oh, not to apologize, of course not. That would be expecting too much. But he wanted to make use of me once more. Apparently, your frolicking might have lead to some serious consequences, right?” she asked calmly.

“Two of your frequent lovers/sluts turned out to have AIDs. You had to get yourself checked, but even that didn’t check your behavior. But it had been enough to scare your parents. You remember it, right? Your father came to bring me back. He didn’t want you to continue on that self-destructive path. And he wanted to use me to bring you back on the straight and narrow. Of course, what I wanted didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to go back to a man that didn’t respect me enough to wait a week before starting his old lifestyle once more. Forget about the fact that you could never love me.”

“Your father didn’t care that you would only use me. He just wanted a clean partner for his son. And at least I wasn’t lacking in that department,” she said musingly. “Could I be with a man like you? I thought I had an idea of who you were, but I didn’t,” she said with a shudder. “I asked him, why me? Why? He would never answer that. He just wanted me to be the sacrificial lamb.”

“I refused without a second thought. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to come back,” she frankly admitted. “And your father used the same threat once more. He threw another $50 million my way, and I was back with you in a heartbeat. He orchestrated the whole thing. I chose to forget the part of you that disgusted me, and become your lover once more. I only asked you for fidelity.”

……………………

“And what happened? You took me back. But you punished me for MY sins? That takes a special kind of two-facedness that I never knew could exist.

……………………

You should’ve asked Ximen.

……………………

You should’ve asked.

I might have forgiven you when I started to like you again.

I might have forgiven you when I started to love you again.

I might even have forgiven you…when we were just starting our relationship and I was left gasping at how quickly you’d accepted me back. It took me a long, long time to forgive you for being your father’s son. But I never thought that you were using me like he’d used me. To assuage your lust. But never to love. You kept that a secret,” she murmured, shaking her finger at him, like one would at a naughty boy.

“Xiao You …,” he began.

“But …,” she interrupted, turning to look at him again. Her eyes were without emotion. Her lips twisted into a sneer and she coolly ran her fingers through her hair before delivering the final blow.

“Two years were enough. I’ve paid for the $100 million I never wanted nor needed with two years of my life and my body. No more. Not ever. Now, I’m going to take my daughter and go stay with San Chai tomorrow. I’ll eventually find my own apartment. Don’t try to stop me. Thanks to your father and the money he paid me to come back, well, let’s just say I could put up a pretty good fight if you tried to take Shen Shen from me. She’s the only good thing that came out of our relationship.”

“Xiao You,” he began to protest.

“No! Don’t make me regret ever knowing you, Ximen. Right now, I can face you like this only because you’re Shen Shen’s father.” She turned, stepped into the room, and closed the door behind her.

Ximen stared at the door.

That wasn’t Xiao You.

Who was this bitter woman? He didn’t deserve her hate.

He hadn’t intended to hurt her. He’d never wanted to hurt her. He was just … protecting himself. He’d just been protecting himself ever since she’d left.

His eyes stared at the closed door. He wanted to shout. He wanted to defend himself.

His hand thumped at his heart absently.

He couldn’t find the words.

More than her appearance had changed. The darkness, the bleakness in her eyes had been a surprise. The innocence that had always shown through was gone. The smile that was so much of a part of her hadn’t appeared once. Only a bitter sneer that sat alien on a face he’d known for so long. The blush on her cheeks wasn’t from shyness but from anger.

They needed to talk. He needed to explain. But how?

Her short hair only accentuated her fragility. She could barely stand without swaying. He had seen the bones sticking through her skin. He’d seen the bags under her eyes. He’d seen the strain in her eyes.

She wasn’t up to another confrontation.

Not tonight.

But they needed to discuss this.

She wouldn’t leave.

Not until he had his say.

……………………

But first, he needed some answers from his father.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Chapter 19

Strawberry Mistake

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The golden rays of sunlight pierced through the curtains, falling on the couple entwined on the bed. The male body was curled protectively around the female, his hands holding her, even in sleep.

She stirred and her eyelashes lifted to reveal the liquid joy in her eyes. It hadn’t been a dream. She really was back in Ah Si’s life. In his bed. In his arms. And his old habit of curling around her hadn’t gone away, even if it had been four years.

……………………

Soft lips nibbling at the underside of his jaw awakened him from deep slumber. He fought it, not wanting to leave the dream.

His hands let go of various body parts, and his arms wrapped around a soft body, bringing her closer. His leg reached out to cover hers, stilling her arousing movements.

There was a soft moan of protest.

His arms tightened around her body, ignoring her struggles.

Nuzzling her ear, he inhaled her scent, dreaming that it was San Chai in his arms once more.

He didn’t want this dream to end. He didn’t just want this to be another dream, like the countless others he’d had over the years. He just wanted to sleep and be in her arms. What did reality bring but more heartache?

His lips blindly reached out and kissed … a nose. It was definitely a nose.

“You missed,” said a baleful voice in his ear.

Reaching out, he kissed … her hair.

“Move forward doofus, not back,” the voice instructed.

Ah Si’s face scrunched up in distaste. This dream woman was being too bossy. Which kind of made sense, since his dream woman was San Chai.

Reaching out once more, hoping to appease the boss, he kissed a porcelain cheek.

“What the hell? Are you a virgin or a man?” the voice growled, reaching out to grab his ears.

Ah Si’s eyes popped open in surprise. And his eyes locked with the glare coming at him from San Chai’s eyes.

She smiled softly, seeing the shock in his gaze and realized that the reality hadn’t set in for him. It still seemed a dream. But it was a wonderful dream that would never end. Not if she had anything to say about it.

“I love you,” she whispered, leaning in to plant a kiss on those utterly kissable lips. “I love you,” she whispered, nibbling at his ear. “I love you,” she repeated.

His eyes widened.

It hadn’t been a dream.

San Chai was back. And she’d come back willingly.

His arms tightened, his body trembling with the emotions coursing through him.

“Ah Si,” she said, coughing, “I can’t breathe. Let go.”

“Never,” he murmured, his arms tightening more. Pushing her onto her back, he positioned her body for his taking.

There was a gasp when he entered her unprepared body.

“I’m sorry,” he moaned into her throat. “I need…I need…I’m sorry,” he repeated, as his body began to thrust, staking his claim on her body. She was his and no one would say differently. He needed to touch her. To taste her. To be inside of her. This was reality. This was knowing that she was back. “I’m sorry,” he said brokenly as he began to lose control.

“Sshhh,” she said softly, cradling his head against her breasts, allowing him all he needed. “I’m yours,” she promised, smoothing his hair tenderly. “You never have to apologize for needing me,” she said, her throat arching back as the sensations began to swell within her. His need was arousing hers, as well. She began to meet him, thrust for thrust, her body reveling in how it could make this man lose his control.

Her legs came up to wrap around his waist, holding him even closer.

His body within her.

His lips at her breasts.

One hand knotted in her hair.

The other pulling her hands above her head.

And he drew comfort … her essence from her body.

And she willingly gave, accepting him into herself.

Inviting him to spend himself inside of her.

She was ready.

And then there was only sensation.

……………………

And satiation.

“I love you,” he whispered, moving away from her. Her inner muscles clenched in protest, and then reluctantly let go.

“It’s time to get up,” she groaned, getting up, and brushing her hair away from her face. He stared at her, her body bathed in the sunlight and silently thanked God once more for allowing this miracle to happen.

Gently tugging at his hair, he brought her head down to give her another kiss.

“We have to get up,” she insisted, pulling away reluctantly from his drugging kisses. “I don’t know about Xiao Mei, but Wei Yi gets up in a few minutes and he runs into his mommy’s room to share his plans for the day.”

“So?” Ah Si asked lazily.

“Well, you have to leave,” San Chai said, running to the bathroom when she’d pulled on his shirt, laying at the foot of the bed.

“What? Why?” Ah Si protested.

“Ah Si,” San Chai said patiently coming back out, wearing her own nightgown, “Wei Yi has never seen a man in my bed. Do you really want to be introduced to your son this way?”

Ah Si got up, and moved toward the closet. He quickly pulled out a pair of sweat pants and tugged them on.

“I really don’t see the problem,” he said, shrugging, and quickly jumped back into bed. “And anyways, this is where Xiao Mei comes to me every morning. I can’t have her confused, San Chai,” he said firmly.

She nodded in understanding, and turned to go.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Well … I’ll just go to Wei Yi,” she said, turning to look at him.

“San Chai, come back to bed,” Ah Si entreated, patting the empty space beside him. “I’m his father. I’m going to be your husband. And we love each other. Wei Yi has to start seeing us this way,” Ah Si insisted, pulling San Chai into his arms when she’d reluctantly made her way over to the bed.

“Marriage?” she asked shyly.

“Of course. As soon as I can arrange it,” he said adamantly. “I even have a ring.”

“Where?” she demanded eagerly, jumping on the bed.

Reaching over, he pulled a box out of the drawer.

……………………

“San Chai?” he asked worriedly, as her shoulders began to shake. “San Chai, why aren’t you saying anything?” he demanded, pulling her into his arms. “You don’t like it?” he asked softly. “We’ll get you a better ring,” he promised. “This is your engagement ring. I know how important that is for a woman. I promise to make it your dream come true,” he said, his arms coming out to comfort her. “San Chai?” he entreated her for a response, as the silence continued.

“I love it,” she said softly. “Can you put it on for me?” she asked, putting out her hand.

His fingers shook as he slipped the pink diamond onto her finger. The platinum band fit perfectly around her finger.

“Perfect,” she said softly, reaching up to kiss him. She began to giggle softly, her shoulders shaking once more.

“What is it?” he asked in exasperation. “You were laughing before, weren’t you?”

“You know, I had this fear that it would be a …,” her voice trailed off.

“What?” he asked quizzically.

“Remember that strawberry? I feared that my engagement ring would be a gaudy strawberry, out of some sentimental symbol of your promise to me,” she said laughingly. “I think the only good thing about you leaving me for Yesha was that I got to throw that first strawberry ring into the ocean in a fit of melodramatic emotion one night.”

Ah Si froze in the act of pulling something out of the drawer.

“What is it?” San Chai inquired, noting his arrested motion.

“Nothing,” he quickly replied, retreating back into bed.

“What?” she demanded, climbing over him to get at the bureau.

“I said nothing, stupid woman,” he shouted back in embarrassment.

“Now I know it’s something,” she said, smiling widely, straddling his waist to reach the hidden object. Her eyes widened when they landed on the second ring box in the drawer. Tears formed in her eyes.

“You …,” she began uncertainly, as she slowly opened the box. “You bought me the strawberry again?” she asked softly.

He wouldn’t look at her.

“Ah Si,” she asked, jumping lightly on his stomach.

“Ooph,” his breath expelled from his body. “I bought that for you before I came back from Spain,” he finally admitted. “I knew that I was coming back to you, and I needed something to make you understand that I was committed to you. And nothing now would get in our way.”

“You brought me a strawberry from Spain?” she said smilingly.

“I did,” he unwillingly admitted.

“Then why didn’t you give me that?” she asked.

“Because Mei Zhou saw it and said it was tacky,” Ah Si admitted after some prodding. “He said no woman would like such a ring. And if any woman said she did, then she’d be lying. I guess you were lying when you said you liked that first ring,” he pondered ruefully.

“I love you. And I love you for this,” she said happily, taking off a chain from around her neck. “I’m going to put this ring around my neck,” she said. “It’ll always be next to my heart. I just don’t want it around my finger anymore,” she confessed, giggling.

“Why you…,” Ah Si, attacking her.

Her shrieks filled the room as he began to tickle her in earnest.

“Stop it!” she shouted, helpless with laughter. “You’re going to pay,” she said breathlessly, as she lay there.

He froze suddenly.

“What is it?” she asked, shocked at all cessation of movement.

“We have company,” Ah Si said quietly, pulling away.

Turning, San Chai saw two curious faces staring at them.

“What is mommy doing with daddy, Ge?” Xiao Mei whispered to Wei Yi, her hand clenched in his.

“Mommy playing with strange man,” Wei Yi said, pointing at the two.

“Wei Yi,” San Chai said, pulling up the wriggling body and settling him into her arms. “This is your daddy,” she revealed to Wei Yi.

“Daddy?” Wei Yi asked in wonder.

“Daddy,” San Chai confirmed. “You know that Xiao Mei is your sister, right? Well, this is Xiao Mei’s daddy, and he’s your daddy too.”

“Daddy? Mine?” Wei Yi.

“Well, you’re and Xiao Mei’s,” San Chai confirmed, hugging him close in comfort. “Say hi.”

“Hi,” Wei Yi mumbled, hiding his face in San Chai’s hair.

Laughing, San Chai smoothed her hand over Wei Yi’s head.

“He’s not used to being around men,” San Chai revealed to Ah Si, as he sat there with Xiao Mei in his lap. “And the fact that not only is there a man in bed with his mommy, where Wei Yi ‘belongs’ and that man is his daddy appears to be too much for him,” she said softly.

Ah Si’s hand shook as it came out to smooth a hand over Wei Yi’s head. He smiled softly, and leaned down to kiss Xiao Mei who was staring at the three, open-mouthed. “We have a brother and a mommy,” he told her softly. She nodded eagerly.

“Well, it’s time to get up,” San Chai said cheerfully, getting out of bed with her little bundle. “Let’s go get ready.”

“Mommy,” Wei Yi said, pulling at San Chai’s ear. And when she bent down, he whispered something into her ear.

“What is it?” Ah Si asked, watching the exchange.

“Wei Yi said … Wei Yi said that since he’s boy, daddy should get Wei Yi ready for the day and mommy should take care of Xiao Mei. Do you agree?”

Xiao Mei nodded her head eagerly. “Mommy!” she shouted excitedly, her body arching toward San Chai.

San Chai quickly handed Wei Yi over to Ah Si, and grabbed at a wriggling Xiao Mei. As the two went off to get ready, Wei Yi stared up at his daddy. When Ah Si glanced down, Wei Yi quickly hid his face in Ah Si’s throat.

This was his son. He’d never held him in his arms. He’d never had the chance to be this close, and now that he was, he couldn’t grasp that this little miracle was finally in his arms. His arms tightened slightly, wanting to hold on desperately. He never wanted to let go. Even though this was the first time they were meeting, it only confirmed what he’d been feeling since he’d discovered he had a son. He loved him. He’d loved Wei Yi when he hadn’t known him … held him. And he loved Wei Yi now. This was his son.

The doorbell rang in the distance.

“Ah Si, get that!” San Chai shouted from the bathroom.

“Are we expecting any guests?!” he shouted back. Ah Si got out of bed, Wei Yi still in his arms. The little boy had his arms around Ah Si’s neck, as if he’d never let go.

……………………

“Xiao You?” he asked in surprise.

“Dao Ming Si,” Xiao You whispered in surprise, her arms cradling her own little bundle. “I’m … I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said, moving back a little.

“No, it’s okay, come in,” he said quickly, putting out a hand to stop her retreat.

She flinched away from his touch.

He quickly pulled his hand back. “Come in, please?” he asked, moving aside to let her in.

She came in.

Ah Si’s eyes widened at the traces of tears on her cheeks.

“Are you okay?” he asked in concern.

“I’m fine,” she replied briefly.

There was a beat of silence.

“I just had to get away from that man,” finally came the desolate confession.

“I couldn’t breathe around him.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter 20

Understanding Him

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Where is she?” he asked when the door finally opened.

“Ximen,” Ah Si began quietly, “I think you need to calm down. You could do a lot more damage than good if I let you barge in on her right now.”

“So she is here?” Ximen demanded. He ignored the voices coming from the playroom, of children playing and having fun. He ignored San Chai’s voice urging them to be quiet. Just like he’d ignored the beautiful morning and every other damn thing on his way here. Because the one voice that mattered most … the one voice that he wanted to hear was nowhere to be found. He couldn’t even hear it in this house, and this had been his last hope.

Ah Si paused to look behind him and then quickly nodded in response to Ximen’s question.

Ximen relaxed, a burden lifting from his shoulders. His shoulders slumped slightly. He’d awakened this morning, determined to talk to Xiao You, only to find her gone from the apartment. She’d taken Shen Shen and snuck out at God knew what hour just so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. Ximen had been determined to make her listen. If they didn’t talk, what hope did they have of reconciling? They had to do this for Shen Shen.

“We need to talk first,” Ah Si insisted, “Come with me. Butler Liu,” he said to the man standing by the door, “Let madam know that we’re in the Blue room.” He began to drag Ximen by the arm toward said room.

“Yes, sir,” Butler Liu replied with a bow.

“What do we need to talk about?” Ximen asked, resisting his brother’s hold. “Can’t you understand that this is between Xiao You and me? You can’t be thinking of interfering,” he mused scornfully. “You know better than to come between a man and his woman.”

“That’s just it, Ximen,” Ah Si said implacably, leading him into the room forcefully. “You don’t seem to get that the usual man/woman dynamics won’t work here. Xiao You’s state of mind and any hope of a reconciliation between you two is so fragile right now that any misstep will destroy her and whatever future you have together. If you don’t want that, you’ll listen to the one person who knows her more deeply than you do before you act.”

“Since when did you become a relationship guru?” There was amazement and the beginning of an understanding within Ximen. No one knew better than San Chai what had happened when Xiao You had run away. He needed to know everything. There could be no more secrets.

He’d begun to wonder what other things Xiao You had hidden from him when they’d talked last night. There had been so much pain … so much bitterness … he didn’t know how he could have been so blind that he hadn’t seen any of it when they’d been together for two years. Where had she hidden it all?

Or was it because he hadn’t wanted to look too closely?

Had he been afraid of what he’d be forced to face? If he finally asked her why she’d come back to him and put up with all of his demeaning behavior in the two years together what would have been her answer?

It had been exactly what he’d feared when the floodgates had opened last night. Not only had she revealed that she hadn’t wanted to come back, she’d revealed her anger at being manipulated and forced to act in ways that went against her very nature.

He’d seen her disgust.

More than that, he’d seen how repulsive she found the creature he’d become in her absence. Her eyes revealed the knowledge of the past that he had wanted to remain hidden. He had deliberately erased those months from his memory.

Where had she hidden the disgust from him? He thought he knew everything there was to know about Xiao You. And only now was he realizing how wrong he’d been.

When Xiao You had returned to him the first time, he’d been ecstatic. He’d finally admitted that to himself. It had taken him less than a week to figure out that he would never let her leave again. In his arrogance, he hadn’t realized that it wasn’t up to him. She’d made the decision to leave him, and nothing he did would keep her at his side. Not even when he’d begged. Based on what he knew at the time, she apparently hadn’t loved him like he’d loved her. And that truth had hurt.

That truth had frozen his heart.

That truth had numbed him to his pain.

That truth had made him stop living. He’d simply existed and tried to forget himself in the arms of countless of faceless women in a nightly ritual that left him more empty than fulfilled. In today’s modern and virus-filled society, when he deliberately stopped practicing “safe” sex, his decision had become suicidal.

But he hadn’t cared.

Why should he? His reason for living, the reason he hadn’t even known he’d had, had disappeared from his life. He’d never thought that love could hurt that much. And had sworn NEVER to let anyone that close again.

But no talking to had prevented him from taking Xiao You back when she returned to him. Not even the fact that this time she was returning because his father had “bribed” her once more.

He’d told himself it was only practical that he should stop living dangerously. He’d taken her that same night, determined to stake his claim. But not before getting himself checked. He might not have cared about his own life, but nothing would make him endanger hers. Not even when he believed all those lies about her.

He’d never looked at another woman since.

He’d never thought about … wanted another woman. Xiao You was all he needed. Her sweetness. Her purity. Her love for him. That’s all he’d ever needed. And he’d pretended to himself that it was love, not knowing that whenever she’d said those words of love, she’d meant them. He’d unknowingly rejected the real love his woman felt for him because he’d chosen to believe his lying father. Instead of seeing Xiao You’s actions, hearing her words, feeling her emotions, he’d trusted what he believed was proof. He’d rejected reality for a reality so easily manipulated.

Why had he never questioned his father’s claims? Had he felt he was that unworthy that a woman must be paid to be with him?

Why had he never realized that what he felt was love?

Why?

It was too late to think on the past now. His father was beyond his reach, but Xiao You … Xiao You was here. Right here. Right now. He wouldn’t lose this chance to build a new future for them.

His fingers raked through his hair, as his mind dealt with the possible complications. He’d thought everything would be alright once he’d found her. Seen her. His lips tightened in determination.

He’d show her that he was worthy of another chance.

But how?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Ximen, you’re here,” San Chai remarked, sitting down next to Ah Si. “Good, I wanted to see you about a few things before I can allow you to see Xiao You.”

“Allow?” he questioned arrogantly.

“Allow,” she confirmed with a hint of steel, settling back into her seat. “You don’t understand how it’s been like for her. And how hard she’s had to work to have some form of a normal life without you.”

“Then tell me about her,” he ordered softly, leaning forward.

“First, you tell me why you failed to protect her? Why is it that you believed your father over Xiao You? Why did you let her down so completely?” she demanded. “It took a long time for Xiao You to reveal that to me, but when she did I didn’t wonder at your father’s actions but yours. How could you give up so easily?”

……………………

“Ximen?” she prompted.

“I got down on my knees and begged for her to stay,” he ground out, looking away. “And she rejected my proposal. She rejected me. She rejected my love. Knowing how she felt about me, knowing that she would never have given herself to me unless she loved me, there was no way for me to understand her actions. My father gave me a reason and it was the only one that made sense,” he tried to explain. “You ask me why I was so quick to believe she took money to leave me? Because it was easier to believe that than to believe she’d never loved me at all.”

“Ximen … that’s just stupid,” she commented in disgust. “Even if she had needed the money, she could’ve come to you. That way she could’ve had you and the money.”

“Would you have ever taken money from Ah Si? What makes Xiao You any less independent than you? She would never have taken my money,” he stated grimly, his hands clasped tightly. “It’s too late to even think about that now. What I believed or chose to believe is all in the past. It doesn’t matter now.”

“It does,” she insisted, leaning forward. “You know it does. Because it colored your relationship for two whole years. She was forced to come back to you, Ximen and once again your father made sure that you couldn’t see her sacrifice! That you couldn’t see her love! And you didn’t. What you said to her last night broke her heart. She might have been forced to come back … she must’ve hated the fact that she had no say over her body … but she accepted you all over again. She allowed herself to love you when you’d disappointed her so badly with your behavior, but you never saw her love. All you saw was that she’d taken money and that she’d let herself be bribed. Do you have any idea how fragile she looked today? How close to the edge she was? You’ve put her back in exactly the place she was two years ago. How could you do that?” she snapped at him angrily, almost springing at him in her anger. Ah Si put out a restraining hand and she reluctantly subsided, sitting back.

“I need to justify myself to one person,” he murmured finally, “And that person is Xiao You. There were misunderstandings on both sides. She should have told me what my father had done. She should’ve trusted me, and I would never have acted like a …

“A jackass?” San Chai supplied sarcastically. “I was appalled at your behavior. You flirted openly with other woman. You never treated Xiao You in a special way. And she caught you with another woman the day she left. You had her so insecure that she didn’t even know if you’d expect your own child. I didn’t let you stay with her just so you could treat her that badly. I guess I was at fault for not putting a stop to it sooner.”

Ximen winced as San Chai listed every one of his mistakes … his cruelties. He couldn’t even say that they’d been unintended. Too stave off his own emptiness he’d taken it out on her in petty and spiteful ways. She’d never deserved his spite.

“Is there any point in asking why?” he asked, running a hand through his hair. “I understand that you can’t comprehend my actions, but I had my reasons. And I can only explain them to Xiao You. All you need to know is that … I know I wronged her. I know that I hurt her more than anyone else could have and probably ever will. I regret it with all my heart. I intend to make it up to her, but I need to be able to see her to do that. You guarding her won’t protect her from further hurt. It will only allow the wounds within her … within both of us to fester.”

San Chai stared at him speculatively, keeping her silence.

“She needs to understand that I was hurt! Even if I’d tried to understand that first time, I couldn’t comprehend that second instance. And once again I had irrefutable proof before my eyes. My only comfort in those long, bleak months had been that she had loved me, even if it was only a little. Maybe not more than the money, but enough to cry when she was rejecting me … enough to give me her virginity … enough to give ME a week. But in being forced … in being bribed to come back, that act took away even that small comfort.”

……………………

“How would you have felt if you knew that Ah Si would never have returned to you without that enticement? How would you have felt knowing that he didn’t want to be there, but you didn’t have enough pride to send him away? Who would you hate? Him? Of course. But more than that, you’d feel disgusted with your own weakness and strike out at the person making you realize your vulnerabilities.”

Getting up, he strode to the window, turning his back on the two. He’d spent the entire night trying to understand what had made it so easy to believe his father. This was the man he’d barely begun to understand when he’d turned back into the womanizer that continued to embarrass the Ximen legacy.

That’s when he’d realized how it came down to his own insecurities. Of feeling that he was not worthy of his father’s notice. He was the guy who’d spent years emulating his own father just so he could show him that Ximen Zhong Er Lang wasn’t a wimp like his older son.

Ximen had to wonder if he hadn’t born in this environment, would he have been any different; he’d wondered who the real Ximen was. There was no answer. He didn’t know who he would have been. What he could have been. But all he knew was that if he hadn’t been a Ximen … if he hadn’t felt abandoned by his brother … his father … Xiao You … if he’d never felt so insecure, he would never have hurt Xiao You. At least not this much.

In finding Xiao You, and in reconnecting with her, he hoped to find the real Ximen.

“I need to see her,” he uttered softly, staring out the window. He leaned forward, pressing his warm forehead against the glass, allowing the coolness to soothe away his headache. “I need to,” he repeated.

“She’s sleeping,” San Chai said softly, understanding for the first time the insecurities that could run through even these wealthy, elite men who seemed to have everything going for them. She’d always seen Ah Si’s strengths, but not everyone had had the chance or the courage to discover his true self before his environment corrupted him into becoming something else altogether. “She can’t be disturbed. Why don’t you take the time to bond with Shen Shen?” she asked softly.

Turning around, he nodded, accepting that Xiao You’s health would take precedence over anything else.

“But before you go …,” San Chai quickly said, halting his movement toward the play room, “Did Xiao You tell you about your baby’s death?” she asked hesitantly. “I know I’m intruding where I don’t belong, but you have to know…,” her voice trailed off when she saw the bleakness in his gaze.

“She told me.” Three short words. Yet they hid nothing of the pain he was going through.

San Chai nodded in relief. “Then you know about everything that happened around that time … good. Then I won’t take up any of your time. This was the one thing I had to make sure you knew. I’m kind of surprised that she could … but the doctor did say … forget it. Shen Shen is playing with Wei Yi and Mei Li. Go get her.”

“I’d like to take her with me and take care of some business,” he said.

“What business?” she demanded.

“I’ll explain later,” Ah Si interjected.

San Chai reluctantly nodded.

“Just remember this,” San Chai said softly, coming up to put her hand on Ximen’s arm, “how your relationship fares depends on these next few meetings. Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t.” She saw the grim promise in his eyes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

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2 thoughts on “AILYS 16 – 20

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