AILYS 21 – 25

Chapter 21

Sleeping Beauty. . .?

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

“Ximen, you’re back,” his mother’s voice floated down the stairs, when Ximen entered the hallway from the parlor. He quickly rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Mom, you’re back,” Ximen said, looking up at the woman who had given birth to him. She’d nurtured him and protected him from all the realities of his father’s conduct until he’d been old enough to go out on his own and realize that all her attempts could no longer hide the pain his father’s conduct caused her. It was then he’d realized the pain he was capable of giving a woman, a woman like his mother, someone he revered and worshipped.

It was then he’d grasped the power a man could hold over a woman . . . the power to hurt . . . to control, and he’d promised himself that he’d never willingly take that power.

But in running away from Xiao You, a woman that reminded him of everything good, he’d only hurt her more. In denying his emotions, he’d hurt her continuously. It was her bravery that had ultimately brought them together. But even admitting that love hadn’t brought happiness. The man he had the misfortune of calling father had tainted … poisoned that union, as well. And now he was gone.

“How was Paris?” he asked softly, leaning in to give her a peck on the cheek. “Did you get the designs you wanted?”

She nodded, and took a seat next to him. “The boutique will be opening next week, and everything’s ready. I just need a manager, and everything will be taken care of.”

……………………

‘Do you have something to tell me?” she asked after a delicate pause.

Ximen’s eyes whipped around to stare at her in surprise.

“How did you—,” he began hesitantly.

“The mixture of confused joy and frustration in your eyes speaks for itself, honey. I take it you’ve discovered something? You’ve found … her?”

She remembered the day her son had come to her, almost panicked after losing Xiao You. When she realized that Ximen had been in a relationship with the caterer they had hired for the party, she’d slapped him for the first and last time. Her heart had ached at the pain he’d brought that innocent woman by flirting with others in front of her. His behavior had shamed her. “You remind me of your father right now,” she’d uttered the fatal words. “You have the same knack for hurting and humiliating a woman you profess to love as him.”

His silence had condemned him.

“I wanted to wait,” he admitted, reaching over to press a button. “I found Xiao You. But dad had to get in there and ruin everything again. And now I’m further away than ever from building any kind of amicable relationship with her.” His eyes finally revealed the bleakness and hopelessness he’d begun to feel upon rediscovering Xiao You.

“What happened?” The concern was immediately apparent. Knowing her husband, she knew that the coming revelations couldn’t be good.

He quickly recounted what had happened and everything that Xiao You had thrown at him. “When I discovered I loved her, could love her without hurting her, he took her away. And I took his word that she loved her family more,” he concluded on a sigh. “When I stopped caring about anything and everything, he brought her back. I should hate him for his actions, but I find myself being almost thankful because he brought her back to me. If he hadn’t interfered in the first place, I wouldn’t have lost her, but if he hadn’t interfered the second time, I’d never have gotten her back. What I did in the time she was gone … how I acted, she could never have forgiven me. I can’t forgive myself now that I know the truth. And when she came back and gave me another chance … when she said she loved me as I held her in my arms … I never believed it. I held that love in my arms,” he murmured, staring down at his hands. “He took away my belief in it. I’ll hate him forever for that,” he concluded.

Laying his head on her lap, he finally allowed himself to relax.

“Why did you talk to her like that? Especially last night. She’d returned willingly, and no matter what excuse she gave, she could’ve gone anywhere. But she returned to the one place you’d been together, and even then…” She sighed, smoothing her hand through his hair. “You knew better than to take anything your father said at face value. All he cared about was the Ximen empire.” She sighed and continued to massage his temples, trying to get him to relax.

“I don’t know. I don’t. I thought I knew . . . enough. I just wanted to protect myself.”

She sighed softly, trying to understand her son’s reasons. “In protecting yourself, you hurt her, didn’t you? And you probably never thought that possible, right? Ximen?”

“I never thought about her emotions too closely,” he admitted. He allowed himself to relax. He could finally feel the peace begin to seep into his soul. Being around her, having her understand him when Xiao You couldn’t made him believe that anything was possible. Even a happily ever after.

“Master Ximen,” a maid enquired softly, walking into the room with her small bundle.

His mother quickly stood up, pushing his head off her lap. “Is that my grandchild?” She hurried over to the maid, her arms reaching out for the small bundle.

She sighed with pleasure, when she felt her grandchild’s weight settle into her arms. “I’ve been waiting for this day for so long. I can’t believe that I finally have you in my arms. Ximen?”

“Her name is Shen Shen,” Ximen said, sitting back on the sofa. He’d already bonded with the little tyke, who was surprisingly trusting of strangers. She’d fallen asleep after they’d reached home, but he wanted to wait for his mother before taking her back to Xiao You. “Xiao You was sleeping and I wanted her to meet you.”

“She’s the cutest little thing in the world … she reminds me of you,” she said, staring down at the little face peeking at her from a hole in the blanket. She smiled involuntarily as big, brown eyes blinked open to innocently stare at her. A small, rosebud mouth opened wide on a yawn and then flickered into the most beautiful smile she’d ever seen. “She’s adorable.”

“She’s mine,” Ximen uttered in satisfaction. “Mine and Xiao You’s. And no matter the place we’re at now, she was conceived in love. I know that now. And mom, you don’t know how happy that makes me.”

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

She awoke slowly, stretching on the bed, and then lay back with a sigh. A slow smile appeared on her face when she thought about Shen Shen and her antics yesterday, but it was quick to fade away. That hadn’t been yesterday. Yesterday, she’d met Ximen. He’d come back into her life. Everything was the same … the same disbelief. The same heartbreak. She wasn’t ready for this.

She turned her head at a soft sound from the right. Ximen was there, sitting in the chair beside her bed.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, sitting up abruptly, remembering at the last minute she didn’t have a stitch of clothing on underneath the sheet. Pulling at the sheet, she wrapped it securely around herself and stared at him with a mute glare. She tried to appear unconcerned that the only thing protecting her body from his gaze was a thin sheet.

“I was waitng for you to wake up,” Ximen said, clearing his throat desperately, his gaze riveted by the outline of her female form. “I wanted to see you. Talk to you.”

“I thought we’d said all we needed to last night,” she coolly replied. “You understood my position and I understood yours. Nothing else needed to be said, correct?”

“We didn’t say enough. Why did you leave?”

“Because I can’t breathe when I’m around you. You tend to suck up all the air in a room. Take all the energy out of a person.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s always been like that. I can’t think. I needed to get away.” Her eyes rolled at her own weakness. Staring at her hands, she turned to look at him. “Is that enough of a reason for you?”

“Shouldn’t you be setting your personal feelings aside for now?” he asked softly, getting up to move across the room. “Wasn’t Shen Shen important enough of a reason for you to stay? If not back then, then what about now? Doesn’t she deserve her own home? She doesn’t need to be raised here in another’s home.”

“You have no say over how I raise my daughter. Anyways this is just a stopgap. We’ll be moving into our own home soon enough. I do have the money,” she reminded him, settling back against the pillows. “I can make the decisions now.”

“She’s my daughter too.” He turned to glare at her, moving back to the side of the bed.

“No, she’s not! She’s … not. She’s mine. Only mine,” Xiao You argued back, her voice fading away. “Mine.” It came back strong. For a moment she was distracted, her eyes clouding with emotions he couldn’t begin to identify before they disappeared, only to be replaced by cool clarity.

“You’re lying!” His voice burst out in the silent room. “Why would you deny our relationship? I am Shen Shen’s father. Don’t take that away from her just because of my mistakes.” He grabbed at her, his fingers grasping at her bare shoulders. They both froze at the contact.

“Don’t touch me!” she yelped, her voice husky with the shock. “You don’t have the right. I can’t bear for you to touch me.”

“But your body isn’t saying that.” His voice almost purred in satisfaction, pulling her close. He ignored her struggles. The sheet dipped unnoticed, revealing her to his interested gaze. His eyes noticed the way her body leaned into his unconsciously. The trembling. The slight softening. The tips of her breasts had tightened, as they rubbed against his chest before she abruptly pulled away to cover herself once more.

His gaze challenged her to deny the look in her eyes; the one behind the supposed loathing that revealed something more. Something else.

She wanted him. No matter what her lips said, her body spoke a different tale. That could be a beginning.

“No? My body has never been able to say no to you, even when my heart’s wanted me to get out and run as far away as I could. But is that all YOU want? The body? I can tell you it’s not enough. I had your body for two years. It was never enough. Do you want to be in that position?”

“It will be enough for now,” he murmured, his lips coming into brush against hers. Her lips opened as she exhaled sharply, and for a moment they shared a breath. “Stop it!” her voice was harsh in the silent room. Her hands gripped at the sheet, pulling it taut.

“Until I can make you fall in love with me again,” he said confidently, unperturbed by her violent reaction. “Until we can make this work for Shen Shen. Your body will be enough.”

“What about your love? Where does that come into it?”

“I…”

“You can’t even say it, can you?” Xiao You asked. She giggled softly. “Well, that’s how it’s always been. I guess I can’t expect more. Not from you.”

“Do you know the crazy thing about love? I’d always loved you,” she admitted softly. “Until one day, my love just died. I lost too much in loving you.”

He turned away in rejection, not wanting to hear the words.

“The love didn’t fade away over time. It wasn’t destroyed by your infidelity or your flirtations.”

He heard a soft rustling behind him.

“It wasn’t even destroyed by what I saw as your betrayals.”

He turned around, ready to argue over that. His eyes widened when they saw Xiao You standing before him. A goddess in all her naked glory. Her hands were held out to her sides, the view unobstructed. His gaze traced the liquid lines of her body, his hands craved to touch her softness. Unconsciously, he took a step forward.

“My love for you just died one day. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know why. It’s gone now. All gone.”

She said the words softly, innocently; as if unaware of the impact they were having on the listener. Her eyes were wide as they stared at him. There were no emotions there. The words she delivered next: the final blow.

“You can never win it back.”

Her hands ran through her hair, posing under his gaze. Her final words were the taunt that pushed him beyond all reason.

“But you can still have this, if you want.”

Chapter 22

Trusting Him

The darkened room was silent and filled with tension. The two figures stood frozen next to the bed. Sunlight came in through the gauzy curtains but failed to lighten the atmosphere.

His gaze swept over her body. His hands wanted to hold. To caress. To have. She was a goddess and he wanted to worship at her feet. He’d only realized how addicted he’d become to her taste … to Xiao You … when she’d disappeared from his life. His hands tingled as he imagined how she would feel under his hands … under him. Around him. Sheathing him inside herself. His body demanded release after two years of celibacy. He needed this sweet release.

But no …

For two years they had been in a relationship, but one that had been built on a foundation of lies and deceit. He had deceived her about his feelings, and she’d … suffered. Did he want to start that kind of relationship with her once more?

Stepping close, he leaned in for a kiss that he couldn’t deny himself. His lips wanted one taste. They deserved one taste of the paradise he knew that could be his … but only if he got it right this time. Now wasn’t the time to fuck it all up with sex.

Pulling the sheet from the bed, he quickly wrapped it around her body. Her eyes opened in surprise, and leapt up to meet his gaze questioningly.

“No,” he whispered, stepping away. He couldn’t handle any more temptation. “I can’t, Xiao You. Sex is not something this relationship needs right now. Trust me.”

Her eyes widened and then a sheen of distrust quickly surfaced. Her suspicion shown out at him clearly and he knew that she wouldn’t believe the words easily. Words were easily said and half the time they meant nothing. They were easy to doubt and easy to forget. He’d done … felt the same thing. He knew that he would have to act and show her his sincerity.

She stepped away and turned her back on him.

“Listen to me,” he demanded.

“I’m not willing to listen anymore,” she whispered back. She walked away, stepping up to one of the countless windows in the bedroom. Her hands secured the sheet around her body, and then her hands came out to move aside the curtain. He winced as the direct sunlight burned into his eyes.

“Xiao You,” he protested, and moved toward her still figure. She stared outside at the children playing on the lawn.

“Don’t ignore me.”

“I’m not ignoring you,” she replied calmly. “I just don’t think there’s any hope for us,” she finally explained. “I don’t know what you want. I don’t want to know. I just want … to move on. And forget that we were ever together.”

“We—,” he began to protest.

“Can’t. I know. There’s Shen Shen. She’ll always keep us connected, but you can’t expect more than that. I can’t give more than that. Just know that we’ll always be connected through her, but that’s it. That’s all it can be.”

He walked up quietly behind her. His hands grabbing her from behind to almost roughly turn her around were an unwelcome surprise. “Why can’t there be any more?” He stared into her eyes, trying to understand the anger … the utter rejection he was facing. Why? What had happened to ‘kill’ her love for him? Why had she changed so much in two years? She’d put up with so much more, but then she’d left without giving him a chance to even react to the news that he was going to be a father. She’d never given him the chance to accept his own child; she’d believed that he’d reject Shen Shen and she’d run away. Why was she blaming him for something he’d never done?

“I used to love your long hair,” he whispered, his hands running through the short tresses, even shorter than when he’d first known her. “The scent. The feel. How it wrapped around my arms when I was inside of you. It trapped me and connected me to you.”

“I know,” she admitted. “That’s why I cut it.” There was a short electric silence. He didn’t know how to break it and she refused to break it. His eyes bored into hers.

Impatiently, she tried to turn away from his gaze … to escape the searching glance.

“Look at me!” he demanded, placing a hand under her chin to force her eyes up to meet his. “Look at me.” His voice was quieter this time. “I see so many ghosts in your eyes,” he whispered, gazing deeper into the eyes that she’d kept hidden so carefully from him since she’d been back. “Ghosts of our past … of your past separate from mine. I see the hurt I’ve inflicted on you and the pain you’ve suffered throughout our separation. I see none of the happiness. I see every shadow.”

“So what?” she demanded bitterly. “What do you want me to do? Hide the fact that I haven’t had a moment’s happiness since you’ve entered my life?”

“I want,” he began after a moment of silence, “I want to erase each and every one of those ghosts. I want to replace each hurtful memory with a happy one. I want to fill your life with so much joy that you’ll forget that you were ever unhappy with me … because of me. I need to make you forget the past. I need to make you forget how I hurt you … I need you to forget what my father did to taint our relationship.”

She struggled at those final words, almost escaping his hands, but his hold strengthened. Framing her face, he used his body to crowd hers against the window and moved closer. He leaned against her, trapping her there against the glass.

“More than anything, I know that you need to forget the past. Because right now, you haven’t forgotten. It’s still eating at you inside. You’ve changed Xiao You and it’s not because you’ve moved on or forgotten. You’re still living in the shadows of the past … it’s still hurting you; you’ve just gotten good at ignoring the pain. You live with it every day of your life. And it’s my duty now … I owe it to you and myself to take that pain away.”

She stared quietly up into his eyes, her body taut with the strain of keeping herself from relaxing against his. Infinitesimally, as she heard his words, she allowed herself to relax. “How? How are you going to do that?”

“We’re going to start over.”

She quickly shook her head in rejection.

He nodded in reply. His voice was confident. Implacable … unshakeable in its belief. His fingers speared through her hair and his thumb came to rub gently against her lips silencing any protest. “As far as I see it, we’ve had it backwards. I’ve always had it backwards. I’ve never courted a girl. I’ve never expressed my love through gestures. I’ve never expressed my love. Period. I’ve never dated you. We started with a sexual relationship and that screwed everything up.”

“Not that there was much to screw up.”

“My point is that you fell in love with god knows what you saw in me. Out of gratitude? Because I was different from the type of guys you’d met up till then? I don’t know. But it was fast and deep. And then I fell in love with you … I still don’t know when it happened, but I knew that I would have to tell you even if it was after just one week together. Not a week that we spent getting to know each other, but spent in each other’s arms. I hoped that it would be enough but you rejected me.”

“Don’t forget it was for $50 million.”

“And then you came back. And by then I knew why you’d left me. I knew why you’d come back. Money. And I was ready to distrust every word that would come out of this sweet, delectable mouth,” he whispered against her lips. Pulling back, he allowed his fingers to trace the hollow of her cheekbones, before feathering across her eyelids to trail down to wrap around her throat. “Sshhh.”

“You distrusted even my love,” she whispered with some difficulty.

“Even your love.” His voice was emotionless when he agreed with her. “We’ve never had a chance to build a relationship where trust was the foundation. We’ve never had a chance to build something so strong that it could withstand another’s manipulation, have we? My father ruined it all.”

“He wasn’t alone in ruining our relationship. Don’t forget your inability to control yourself.” Her eyes gleamed maliciously at him, brushing his hands away impatiently.

“The first time,” he whispered to her, “was because you’d left me. I didn’t care anymore. It was just my luck that nothing happened.” Her eyes widened at that confession.

“I took unhealthy risks because you couldn’t … wouldn’t be mine.”

“So, it’s my fault?”

“I’m explaining my behavior. Not blaming you. You were gone. I knew that you took money. Did you really expect my fidelity?”

Her lips opened and then, after a pause, tightened into a silent, disapproving line.

“After you came back, I flirted with women, but I never … NEVER slept with any of them. You were all I needed. But once again … we don’t have the kind of relationship where I would expect you to take my word for it. And there’s no way I can prove it. I want to build a relationship now where you will believe everything I tell you. You’ve been gone for two years … I haven’t been with another woman because this time I did owe you my fidelity and I knew it. But there’s still no proof. Know that it’s my goal now to create a relationship of trust between us so that you will believe every word that I’ve said here today.”

“Doubtful. Very doubtful.”

“Right now, I’m not asking you to believe anything. I just want you to know two truths. One, my father’s dead. So, he can never interfere in our relationship again. Two, I love you. That means I’ll never give you up. I’ll never give up.”

“Don’t expect too much, Ximen. Not even with those words.”

“There not just words. They’re the truth. And I won’t expect anything that I can’t earn,” he earnestly replied. “You’ve always had to work in our relationship. Now it’s my turn. My twisted views on love started us off on the wrong foot. So, give me the chance to set us right.”

“I won’t stop you if you want to work hard for something that might never happen. I won’t promise anything,” she finally said, moving away. Her hands struggled with the sheet, trying to keep it wrapped around her.

He stepped back, letting her go. Turning around, he quickly moved toward the door.

“Where are you going?” she asked in surprise.

“To take a cold shower.”

Surprised laughter burst from her lips. Her hand came up to cover her lips in surprise. She couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed so freely. Her fingers moved against her lips. Ximen’s lips against her own. She’d never thought she’d feel that sensation again. She couldn’t say she’d minded it much.

“Oh, I left a gift for you by the bed.”

For a moment she stood there, fighting her curiosity. What could it be? Why did she care? In the end, she couldn’t control herself. Walking over, she stared down at the small offering. In the five years since she’d known Ximen, he’d never gifted her with these.

A dozen of them. Her favorite type. Her favorite color. The simplest gift. Flowers. Orange roses.

……………………

She had to admit a very, very, very small part of her was touched.

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

Chapter 23

All About the Money

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

“Ximen, it’s the first day of summer,” her voice called out sweetly. “Let’s go on a picnic today. Just you and me. I have the food made and packed. Just show up at—”

“I can’t.”

……………………

“Ximen, San Chai’s throwing a party to celebrate my first triumph as a dessert caterer. You know how hard it was for me to get this contract. But everyone appreciated my efforts; I’m being flooded with orders now. Everyone will be there … You’ll be there, right?”

“I’m busy.”

……………………

“Ximen … could we just spend some time together alone tonight? … It feels like we haven’t had time together for so long. I feel like we’re drifting apart.”

“My mother has set up a blind date for me tonight. I need to be there to avoid suspicions. You understand, right?”

……………………

“Ximen Shao Ye, there’s a call from Miss Yang. Would you like me to put her through? She said it’s extremely urgent.”

“Tell her I’ll call her later.”

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

Missed picnics. Missed dates. Ignoring her pleas for some of his attention. They all amounted to regrets. So many regrets. Every mistake … every selfish act was coming back to haunt him. Every time he’d pulled back, knowing that he was getting in too deep had only been a move calculated to protect him and hurt her. Every time he’d flirted outrageously had been to show her that she wasn’t important enough to introduce to the world as his own.

Of course there had been no blind dates. How could he contemplate even spending a platonic evening with a woman when he was with Xiao You? But she hadn’t known that. All she had ever seen in the two years they’d been together was that he never had and never made time for her.

And when she’d demanded respect and his love? When she’d demanded that he stop treating her like his dirty little secret? He’d ignored the courage and the deeper emotions driving her at that moment and he’d gambled it all and bluffed like he’d never bluffed before. He’d walked away and hoped like hell that she wouldn’t let him. After weeks of agonizing silence, she’d finally called. Xiao You never found out how close she had come to being the victor in that fight. Being away from her had been agony, and he couldn’t count the number of times he’d picked up his keys, ready to go and confront her. But his distrust had held him back. What if he gave her everything she wanted … what if he gave her the place she wanted in his life … and she ended up leaving him again? How could he handle that? His need to retain control had been a fight for his own survival.

It hadn’t mattered than that he’d trampled over her pride … her self-esteem … her needs to remain protected.

And that final missed call. He’d always wondered what would have happened if he’d taken it. Based on the timing, she’d called him right after her appointment with the doctor. She’d called him right after finding out that she was pregnant. And he’d never called her back. If he had, she’d have warned him that she was coming over. That would have given him enough time to hustle that clingy woman out of his office. If Xiao You had never caught him in what she believed was a moment of infidelity, would they have remained together? Would she have admitted the pregnancy? And would he have had the brains to react in the way she needed?

He cursed his father once more for driving this wedge between him and Xiao You. If his father were alive today … but ‘what ifs’ wouldn’t help now. Nor would sitting around and thinking about the past. It was another day and another chance to woo Xiao You. She’d have to give in some time.

After all, she’d kept the flowers.

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

“Ximen’s here,” San Chai murmured, running a hand over Xiao You’s downbent head.

“So, tell him I’m unavailable.” The reply was stated in monotone, as if Xiao You cared not one whit about the news. But the pulse at the base of her neck betrayed her fast-beating heartbeat. The news had startled her out of the state of ennui she’d fallen into since he’d left for his business trip a week ago. She hadn’t realized how much she’d miss him.

She’d been away from the guy for two whole years, but after seeing him constantly for a week she’d slipped back into old patterns; of craving his presence, of wanting to be with him.

She’d missed him, even if seeing him consisted of his presentation of yet another bouquet of roses and a request for a date. She’d refused each and every invitation but a part of her hadn’t wanted to waste the flowers. And that was the only reason her room was filled with fresh, fading and dead roses.

It had been easy to live without him for two years. Not at first, but she’d learned, and soon he’d become the bad habit she wanted to forget. Why was it that she couldn’t resist seeing him now?

“Let him in,” Xiao You said with a sigh. “I doubt he’ll go away anyways, and I don’t want you fighting him for me. You have enough to worry about San Chai.”

“It doesn’t matter how busy you think I am. If you don’t want him here, I’ll keep him out,” San Chai offered.

“No, it’s okay. It’ll be all right. I can stand seeing him. And we should talk, right? About Shen Shen and everything.”

“About Shen Shen, of course,” San Chai nodded knowingly. She smiled in delight. “He’ll be right in.”

Xiao You picked up a magazine, and began to flip through it. She needed something to distract her in his presence. Not only would it keep her eyes off him, but she could also feign disinterest in whatever the almighty Ximen had to say.

“What did you bring me today?” Xiao You asked, seeing him standing in the doorway. Her words were all the invitation he needed.

“Chocolate.” His eyes ate her up. It had been a long and busy week and a moment hadn’t gone by when he hadn’t thought about her and wondered how she was doing. “Your favorite. Dark peanut M&Ms.”

“Thanks,” she said quietly, surprised that he’d even remembered. He’d never bothered to remember the little things when they were together. But then again, he’d never even bothered to remember the big stuff like anniversaries and celebrations. It was surprising what he remembered two years later. And maybe just a little suspicious.

“You know it always surprised me.”

“What did?”

“You were the dessert expert. You made magical creations in the kitchen, but when it came down to your own sweet addiction, you chose cheap, easily accessible M&Ms. Nothing special. Nothing extraordinary.”

“Well, I can’t explain that to you. I liked what I liked. Even when it made no sense.” The words were without inflection … without any emotion. He tried to parse the succinct phrases, wondering if there was a hidden meaning that he was missing. “Anyways, how was your trip?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Fine. But I don’t want to talk about that. It was just one last trip I had to take before I take my break.”

“Break?” Ximen had never taken a vacation when they’d been together. He’d never seen anything as being more important than business. According to him, the entire Ximen Group of companies would be destroyed if he took a day off.

“Yes. Assistant Xu and the others can take care of the business for a while. I’ve gotten some good Vice Presidents in the various branches now, so I don’t have to be there everyday. I want to spend time with you and Shen Shen.” He settled back into the sofa, relaxing for the first time in a week.

“Shen Shen, of course. That’s what pulled you away from business.” Of course. His daughter. Not her, but Shen Shen. She hadn’t been ‘important’ enough. Not then and not now. Her fingers tightened in a knot. Why was she jealous of her own daughter? Why did she care that Ximen had finally found his more important reason?

Ximen didn’t notice Xiao You’s inner turmoil. His thoughts were on the next item on his list. “We still haven’t told Shen Shen the news. You know, that I’m her father. I took her to introduce her to mother, but I didn’t tell her anything. I wasn’t sure how you’d want to handle it.” His voice was hesitant as he broached the subject. He didn’t want to pressure Xiao You, but he wanted to take his rightful place in his daughter’s life. He wanted to treat Shen Shen as his own, and he wanted Shen Shen to be free to call him father.

“Oh that, I already did that.” Her voice was matter of fact, and the mentioning of the subject off-hand. It was as if she considered it to be of little importance.

“Without me?” He fairly yelped out the words. Clearing his throat, he turned to glare at her fully. “How could you do that without me being here?” He was beginning to get irritated.

“You weren’t here and it needed to be said.” Her voice was defensive. “The question came up about Shen Shen’s daddy when she saw her Wei Yi ge with his daddy. She wouldn’t let up. She wanted to know if Dao Ming Si was her daddy. Did you really want her to go around for five whole days calling Dao Ming Si daddy? Just imagine the paparazzi snapping pictures of your daughter with Dao Ming Si and labeling her his daughter. I had to tell her.”

“I guess I can see that. But I still wish that I’d been there.” His voice was forlorn as he tried to deal with that missed opportunity. How had Shen Shen reacted? Was she happy? Was she sad that Dao Ming Si wasn’t her daddy? Had she asked why he wasn’t there? He wanted to ask the questions, but the words wouldn’t get past his lips. He tried clearing his throat.

She turned to look at him questioningly.

“Nothing,” he quickly said, turning away. “So, you want to try the chocolate?” Anything to break the awkward silence between them.

“Later.” Her eyes hadn’t strayed to the chocolates since she’d put them down.

“Daddy!” Shen Shen’s excited voice called out from the doorway.

Ximen turned just in time to see a small figure launch itself at him. After a quick hug, she pulled away to pout at him.

“Daddy gone.” She fairly glared at him, her arms crossed.

“Daddy had to go away for a while, but now I’m back.” Leaning forward, he grabbed her for another fierce hug before pulling back to plant a kiss on her forehead. “How’s my Shen Shen?”

“Away? Now back? Pwesent? Daddy bring pwesent?” She began to jump up and down in excitement, clapping her hands at the thought.

Ximen looked questioningly at Xiao You.

“Dao Ming Si went away for a day trip, and he brought back presents for everybody,” came the dry reply. “Heaven help you if you didn’t bring her a present. You’d be running a very poor second to Dao Ming Si.”

“Present? Yeah, I have a present,” Ximen fairly shouted. Why the hell was he so nervous? Okay, so this was the first time that he was meeting his daughter as her daddy, and first impressions counted for everything, but it seemed that she’d already accepted him. So why was he so afraid? He quickly pulled out a box.

“It’s a doll,” he whispered in an aside to Xiao You. “Does she like dolls? Tell me she likes dolls. She’ll like it, right?”

Xiao You shrugged her shoulders in disinterest. “Either she will or she won’t.”

Ximen’s hands clenched, wanting to strangle her. Why was she being so indifferent? Couldn’t she see that it was important for Shen Shen to like the present?

“Ooooohhhh,” Shen Shen murmured appreciatively after he’d helped her pull the doll out of its packaging. She hugged the doll excitedly. And then leaped up to hug him in turn. After a loud smack on the cheek, she raced out the door.

“Where are you going, honey?” Xiao You called out.

“To show pwesent to everybody!” she shouted back, before leaving the two alone once more. Ximen sighed in relief. At least he hadn’t failed his first test. Hopefully every other test would be just as easy as this one. Although he had a feeling that not everything could be fixed with a doll.

……………………

“Xiao You,” he began hesitantly.

“Hmm?” She continued to flip through the magazine in her lap.

“Let’s … let’s go on a picnic. I have the food packed in a hamper. It’ll be just you and me and Shen Shen. We need some family time together, without everyone else. Shen Shen needs to feel that we’re a family unit. She can’t do that if she gets confused with Dao Ming Si, San Chai and Wei Yi always being around.”

She turned to stare at him in mute shock. The magazine fell from her hands.

“Are you sure you have time for such frivolous pursuits?” she asked sarcastically. “I mean you never did in the past.”

“I thought we were going to put the past behind us.”

“You thought wrong. It’s not that easily forgotten, Ximen,” she murmured, picking up the magazine once more.

Ximen’s lips tightened and he roughly pulled the magazine away.

She slanted her eyes at him questioningly. “Yes?”

“Can you give me five minutes of your time?” he asked with gritted teeth.

Settling back, she turned her full attention to him. She was getting tired of the magazine anyways.

“We need to do these kinds of activities. Shen Shen has to see us as a normal family,” he passionately argued. “If we don’t, it’ll screw up her concept of what family is.”

“She’s less than two,” Xiao You protested incredulously.

“But ever since she’s become conscious of her surroundings, she’s known you and San Chai and that’s it. She needs to perform activities with her father, me, and her mother, you. Believe me, children are impressionable, even at this age. I always wondered why my mommy and daddy didn’t talk at the dining room table. I always thought it was normal to have another woman at our table almost every night my father was home. It skewed my perception of what a normal family was. It was only when I began interacting with others did I come to realize what family life was supposed to be like. I don’t want that for my daughter. I want us to be a normal family. I NEED for her to see me as a normal father. I can’t do that if you put up obstacles at every turn.”

His eyes pleaded with her to give in. And just a little bit of her resistance crumpled and fell away.

……………………

“Fine,” she murmured, “We can go. When?”

“Today. Right now, everything’s packed.” His voice was eager as he set the date.

“Fine. Let me go get Shen Shen and get her ready. We’ll meet you at the door in half an hour.”

“I’ll be waiting,” he promised, watching her slight figure move out the door. His hands clenched, as his eyes followed her out the door. She was so small now. She’d always been tiny, but now she was just skin and bones. Her movements were always uncertain. He missed the confidence that used to be in her every movement. He missed the old her. Xiao You seemed so fragile that he wanted to fatten her up. Yet, he was finding that she was holding on to her grievances with a strength that almost made him lose hope.

But when she gave in, in moments like these, he found that he still had it in him to find a little bit to hope about.

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

It was a beautiful day. The first day of summer. The sun was out, and the park was almost empty. No noises to distract them. No people or reporters to intrude on their privacy. It was just them, in their small little world. There was nothing to do but enjoy the breeze, the good food, and each other’s company.

Xiao You gazed around, looking at the place that used to be her favorite park. She stared at the empty plates, and realized that it had only consisted of her favorite dishes. She had to hand it to him. He’d tried to make the effort. But she had to wonder. Was there someone in the shadows feeding him this information? Or had he remembered everything from their time together. She had trouble believing that second explanation.

It was beautiful. It was peaceful and quiet. His fingers were playing softly with a curl at the nape of her neck. Shen Shen lay next to them, sleeping. Soft baby snores provided the background music to the soft afternoon.

She wanted to fight the memories that had begun to flood her consciousness ever since they’d stepped into the park, but she couldn’t. Everything bad that had happened in their relationship. Everything that had made her go sour.

She remembered those days. Those nights she’d spent waiting for him. Those evenings they’d spent at the same locations where she’d watched him flirt with a more beautiful woman. More successful women. Richer women. Smarter women. She’d never measured up. She remembered the evenings she’d sat at home agonizing while he’d been out on his blind dates.

And most of all, she remembered his father. Every time she even contemplated getting closer to Ximen once more, she remembered that man. Taunting her. Manipulating her. Laughing at her with his business partners.

She shuddered in revulsion. She couldn’t bear it.

Turning back, she saw Ximen, leaning in to kiss her. Could she accept him once more? Could she willingly step back into that past? Her body began to shudder, and she felt the sweat trickle down between her breasts.

“No!” she protested, hurriedly getting up and moving away.

“Xiao You.”

Turning around, she bent forward. She gagged, and became violently ill. Her body moved with violent convulsions, as all the food she’d just eaten exited her body once more.

His hands came out to soothe her, running up and down her back. She wanted to hide. She wanted to be somewhere very far away. Instead, she was out in the open, and her body was betraying its weaknesses in front of the one man she couldn’t afford to show her weaknesses to.

“Xiao You, are you okay?” he asked with concern, handing her a water bottle and his handkerchief.

Using the water, she quickly wiped her lips with the handkerchief.

“Don’t, don’t do that,” Xiao You ordered. “I’m not ready, Ximen,” she complained. “Right now, you need to think about Shen Shen. Don’t try to rebuild what we had. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that old relationship. If I let you kiss me … every kiss … you’re going to make it into something more. It can’t be anything more than a sharing of lust, not until I’m ready. I’m asking you to stop trying.”

“I can’t stop trying. I want to be with you again. I want you to trust me again. I’m not saying I want our old relationship. I don’t. That relationship wasn’t good for either one of us. I’m trying to build a new relationship. And I want it now. Give us a chance.”

“Not right now, Ximen,” Xiao You said, turning away. She moved back to the blanket.

……………………

“How long do you plan on staying with San Chai?” he asked abruptly.

“I don’t know.”

“Xiao You, they’ve just reconciled. They’re learning to live as a family, and they’re planning a wedding. Don’t you think it’s a bit difficult having you in the house?”

“It’s a big house. Why? Did Dao Ming Si say something?”

“No, definitely not. San Chai would beat the crap out of him. But it’s obvious that there might be issues.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“Move back into our apartment. I’ve been living there since you left. It was the only place I felt close to you,” he confessed in a low voice. “But I’ll move back home, and let you have the apartment all to yourself.”

“Or … I could just buy an apartment. After all, I do have a $100 million, thanks to Ximen Group and your father.”

……………………

“You could do that … but … I wanted to ask you to do something.”

“What?” Her voice revealed her supreme indifference. Lying back down, she put her hands behind her head.

“In order to restart our relationship and to clean away the ‘poison’ my father infected our relationship with … we have to start with this.”

“What?”

“I want you to return the money my father forced you to take. That’s the only way, isn’t it?”

……………………

“Only way to do what?”

……………………

“It’s the only way for you to stop feeling like you sold yourself. It’s the only way for you stop hating yourself … and to stop hating me.”

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

Chapter 24

Too Much Information (TMI)

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

Xiao You sat in one of the many rooms in the Dao Ming mansion. San Chai had allotted this space as hers, and Xiao You needed it now to think about the request that Ximen had made. He’d promised to give her time to think.

‘Give back the money?’

This was the money that man had forced her to take. He’d not only threatened her family, but made her the villain of the piece by forcing her to take it. Never had she felt so helpless. And then there was the money he’d made her take to come back.

She’d occasionally wondered why he’d bothered with the farce. She’d never touched a penny of it. He had to have known that when he made that second transfer into her account, but even then the money had gone in.

Only now could she begin to understand the pure diabolical genius. Xiao You came from a lower middle class family, and when they migrated to Canada, they’d become truly poor. And his son had had the temerity to imagine he could propose to such a common being? Not during his lifetime.

The father, as often happened in such scenarios, had stepped in to get rid of the gold-digging floozy. And in forcing said floozy to take money, he believed he had a surefire method of making his own son hate the woman. But Ximen’s father had acted in haste and repented at leisure. Witnessing his son’s destructive behavior, he’d realized that Xiao You still had a hold over his son. And if nothing were done, he would eventually lose his heir. So, he’d acted once more. But once again, the money had played a part. In revealing that transfer to Ximen, he’d ensured that Ximen would never think of asking her to marry him again.

He died with the hope that Ximen would one day realize his folly and marry a woman from a ‘good’ family and have true, blue-blooded babies. That foolish man had died with that dream. And not only had Xiao You outlasted him, she’d mixed his precious son’s blood with her own common blood and produced Shen Shen. That was a victory on its own.

She’d beat Ximen’s father. But that money had been eating away at her soul. Every time she’d thought of it … every time she’d had to use it … it had made her feel like the whore he’d turned her into. She remembered that first time she’d had to access that account after running away … and how she’d become physically sick behind the bank.

It would be a relief to return the money. It was weird how Ximen had thought up that solution before her.

She’d stop feeling dirty.

She’d stop feeling that she sold herself.

And she’d finally feel like she’d have control over her life. Finally.

‘I guess he does know a little bit more about me than I thought. But it doesn’t mean anything.’ She softly reminded herself, as she picked up the phone to call him. ‘It can’t mean anything.’

“Hello?” His voice was disconcertingly quick in answering.

“Were you waiting by the phone?”

“How did you know?” the voice sounded disgruntled on the other end. And after a moment of silence, “Not to say I was JUST waiting by the phone. I was doing other stuff as well. Have you made your decision?”

“Yes. I do want to return the money. You were right. At least about that.”

“What about—,” he began. His voice was hesitant. And she found that she liked it.

“I’m not moving in with you. You think that’ll work on me? San Chai hasn’t said anything to me at all and we’re in the Dao Ming mansion. You think that it’ll get too crowded in here? Please, I barely take up any space. And they don’t mind having me here.”

“Xiao You, I have to admit that I am being selfish when I make that suggestion, but it’s also true that you will get in their way. They’ve just reconciled. And when a couple is at that stage … a normal couple wants to express their love constantly. And there will be times when it’s not behind closed doors.”

……………………

“I don’t agree.”

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

A MONTH LATER …

The phone rang in the silent room. Ximen started and then reached over to grab the warbling instrument. “Xu, I said that I didn’t want to be disturbed. I need to get these papers ready for my meeting and I can’t afford any distractions.”

“Sir, it’s Miss Yang on the line for you. You did request that any calls be put forward to you immediately,” Xu explained quickly.

“That’s correct. Put her through,” Ximen ordered, straightening his tie. His hands froze, and then fell away as he shook his head at his own folly.

“I changed my mind.”

“About what?” His voice was as calm as he could make it. They’d met, so she could transfer over the money. While she hadn’t said anything, he had seen the relief in Xiao You’s eyes. She’d been happy to get that blood money off her hands, and he’d gladly taken it back. He hadn’t wanted it either, knowing how it had affected their relationship, but if he hadn’t taken it back it would have stayed a barrier between them. Since then, he’d seen Xiao You constantly, with Shen Shen as an easy excuse. He could safely say their relationship was a little better now. Xiao You was less caustic … less bitter … more receptive. And he wanted that to continue. He was suddenly afraid. What? What did she want to say? What had happened?

“I’ll move into the apartment. How soon can you vacate it?”

“What changed your mind?”

……………………

~*~*~*~
TMI Incident #1
~*~*~*~

Xiao You was angry. So angry. Rushing into the mansion, she made way to her private room. She couldn’t believe what Ximen had done today. The smoke was literally coming out of her ears. Couldn’t it be enough that she’d returned the money? Wasn’t that enough of a start for them? Why was he so damn needy? She scowled, running her fingers through her hair.

The strange noises coming from her private chamber stopped her in her tracks.

There was a wriggling, writhing mass of limbs on her favorite couch. She squinted her eyes. Yep, definitely, Dao Ming Si and San Chai. She hadn’t thought that Dao Ming Si would be so … active before the wedding. Although, they did have Wei Yi to show from one such probable amorous instance.

“I know we vowed to wait until our wedding night,” he murmured raggedly, “but I need something. Give me something.”

“You can go to second base,” San Chai finally conceded, getting on top. Her hands reached for the hem of her shirt.

Xiao You stared at the two for a moment, frozen. But it took a glimpse of San Chai’s uplifting shirt to unfreeze her. San Chai … naked.

That was definitely not something she wanted to see.

Moving away from the door, she hurried away. Couldn’t they have found somewhere else? That was her private room!

~*~*~*~
TMI Incident#2
~*~*~*~

“Ximen, I’ll talk to you later. Look, I trust you with Shen Shen. Take care of her, and just leave me alone for one afternoon. Yeah, I know you thought I’d spend the afternoon with you two, but I got tired of seeing all those women come up and flirt with you. I was tired of being ignored … well, okay maybe I went a bit far. Okay, so I’ll apologize. Do I have to say the whole thing? I don’t wanna. Fine, I’m sorry that I yelled out ‘FYI, this man is gay’ before leaving you at the park with Shen Shen. Sorry! Now leave me alone, I’m going to take a nap. I’m not jealous. Shut up!”

“Miss Xiao You, should I let Madam know you’re home?” Butler Liu asked, wanting to be helpful.

“No, they don’t need to know I’m back. I just want to take a nice, relaxing bath before I take a quick nap.”

And then they heard the laughter.

“Butler Liu?”

“Oh, shit,” the rattled man murmured, almost running down the hallway.

“Butler Liu?!” Xiao You’s shock was loud and understandable. What could have this unflappable man so … flapped?

One answer. A couple cavorting in a mansion they owned, thinking they were all alone and the servants had been ordered off that level.

Xiao You’s eyes widened. Oh no.

San Chai, ran into the room two seconds later. She was laughing. She looked so happy.

And she was naked.

“San Chai!”

“Xiao You!”

“Oh shit!”

“What the hell are you doing San Chai?”

“Umm.” She began to back out of the room. Looking frantically behind her, she gestured at Xiao You to turn around.

It was too late.

Dao Ming Si came running in.

Laughing.

Naked.

There was a moment of complete silence. And three things happened simultaneously.

Dao Ming Si grabbed San Chai by the waist, and placed her squarely in front of him. He was covered.

San Chai pulled her hair forward for coverage, after slapping Ah Si’s helpful hands away. She used her hands to shield down south. She was covered.

Xiao You shrieked, and attempted to run away. She slipped on the rug in the center of the hallway and broke her ankle. She was screwed. It was ironic that she ended up being the only one who was that night.

~*~*~*~
TMI Incident#3
~*~*~*~

“San Chai! The florist said she can’t do the wedding bouquet as you requested. She thought I was prank calling her, but when I explained, she refused. She said we should call a fruitist. San Chai!”

She groaned as she moved up the stairs with the crutches. That was the problem with mansions. Too many freaking stairs. See, apartments didn’t have that problem. At least, not the apartment she could be living in.

“The morons had to break their vow to wait until the wedding on that freaking afternoon? Only I could be so lucky.” The staff ignored her mutterings. They’d gotten used to them in the two weeks since she’d broken the ankle.

Moving over to the bedroom door, she pushed it open with one crutch. She wasn’t there. And then she heard a floorboard squeak. Turning back, she saw Dao Ming Si coming out of the bathroom. Adjusting his tie, he checked himself out in the mirror.

Xiao You opened her mouth to speak.

“You’re a part of F4 … no, not just a mere part … you’re the leader of F4.”

Who was he talking to?

The mirror?

No one else there.

“You’re gorgeous. You don’t have to be jealous of Lei anymore. Plus which, he’s married now. Nothing can happen. So, who cares if he’s a little bit smarter? I can do what he does. See?”

Xiao You leaned in. Her eyes widened. What was he doing?

Thumbs up? Thumbs down? What deep meaning did that have?

“Everyone envies you. In fact, I think I saw a gleam of envy in San Chai’s eyes. You can tone it down in front of her though,” he told the mirror. “Can’t afford to alienate the missus.”

“You’re handsome. Worth loving! And you can BE a good boss. Now we both know that Shan Jun Hao totally deserved that red tag, but San Chai said you can’t hand those out anymore. We’re not in college. So, tell Assistant Lee to cancel that order for Chairman Wang. Don’t worry, we’ll think of something else to get him with. Ooh, I saw him steal a post-it. No! That’s just stupid.”

Xiao You peeked in and saw Ah Si slap his forehead in disgust.

She began to shake with silent laughter. Even after all this time, Ah Si hadn’t changed.

That was a bit comforting.

“Now, time for one big shameful confession.” He sighed and squared his shoulders. “I want Xiao You to go away. Not forever! Just for a few weeks! Just until we can take care of our own problems. I know she needs San Chai, but I need some … family time.”

His shoulders slumped. “How can I be so selfish?”

……………………

“Nothing happened.” The answer was short and abrupt. “Make the arrangements and I’ll move in immediately. Throw away all the rugs in the apartment. I’ll explain later.”

“Okay.” No questions asked. Nothing to rock the boat. He was happy as long as she was cooperating. And that was fine with her.

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

SIX WEEKS LATER

It hadn’t been as bad as it might’ve been.

The memories had been strong at first, but they’d gotten easier to handle. She’d been able to ignore the ghosts of their past selves … she’d been able to ignore the memories of them making love in each room. Of their cuddling and laughing and enjoying their private moments together.

The hardest thing had been to accept the fact that there WERE good memories. In the two years they’d spent apart, she’d blanked out everything except for the bad parts. It was hard to admit that Ximen could be sweet and loving too.

But now, she was actively making new memories. She never questioned why Ximen was so much a part of their daily lives. Shen Shen needed him, and on some deeper level, Xiao You had accepted that she might need him too for now.

He came over every evening. He called two to three times a day. He wanted to hear everything about her and Shen Shen. No event was too small. And she’d started to share … at first it had been just about Shen Shen … but as the sharing got easier, it also became easier to share about herself. And she found that she liked it.

She liked this Ximen.

Ximen had even brought over his mother once, just to break the ice.

“Shen Shen is really small for her age,” auntie had murmured, and Xiao You had remembered getting defensive. Even if those words had been meant as merely an observation, she found she couldn’t accept criticism from the wife of the man that had ruined their lives. “But then again Ximen was small, too,” auntie had continued smilingly, completely diffusing the tension that had grown in Xiao You. “I’d like to thank you,” she’d murmured, catching hold of Xiao You’s hands.

“For what?”

“Thank you for giving me a grandchild. Thank you for allowing my son into your lives. And thank you for giving him back to us … not just once but twice. Thank you.” She’d kissed Xiao You’s hands with gratitude.

Xiao You had been speechless. The emotional tears had started than, and the two spent the evening marveling over their respective offspring in a way that only mothers could.

That had been the first milestone. But it was the second milestone that still weighed on her mind.

She missed her best friend.

She’d spent the first four weeks after her move convincing San Chai this wasn’t a wrong decision, and planning the Dao Ming wedding. Both had been adamant they wouldn’t wait any longer than they had to to formalize their union.

Xiao You had missed Hua Ze Lei and Teng Tang Jing’s wedding. She’d also missed Xiao Qiao’s wedding with Mei Zhou. Both had been fairytale weddings and somewhat recent events. Taipei society didn’t need to see another major event and no one really cared what the public needed or wanted anyways. That had earned Ah Si a smack and then quick agreement from San Chai.

The past few weeks had been hectic … chaotic … but it had all ended in a happily ever after for the couple that deserved it the most. It had been perfect. Everything was strawberry pink. Including San Chai’s wedding dress, Dao Ming Si’s tuxedo and their faces (probably attributable to some before-the-wedding action in the bridal chamber.)

The wedding party had consisted of their friends. A priest. And the children. That’s all they’d needed. And now all four were on a honeymoon to some strawberry field.

Strange that. That fascination with strawberries. It was downright creepy in fact.

Xiao You had been so happy for San Chai, until she’d caught the bouquet. While Ximen and Shen Shen had spent the evening eating the strawberries covering the wretched thing, she’d been fuming at San Chai. Especially when San Chai had been so against the idea of her moving back into this apartment.

But that bouquet had put thoughts in her head. Dangerous Ximen-loving thoughts.

He’d been constant in his attentions. He’d told her … and showed her the sincerity of his feelings.

“I haven’t touched another woman since the moment you came back into my life four years ago. I have been true to you, even if I haven’t expressed those emotions. My father started this misunderstanding between us, but I admit my fault.”

His fault. Those words had made her wonder if she could’ve tried a little harder. She’d fought back once and then she’d never fought him again. Had she given up too easily?

She’d had to admit that she’d laid the fault squarely at Ximen’s feet because he was that man’s son. She’d blamed him for not trying harder. She’d blamed him for not trusting her. She continued to punish him for having women when they weren’t even together. He’d spent weeks ‘betraying’ her, but he’d also spent two years staying true to her. That is, if she decided to believe him.

And after thinking through the same thoughts over and over for the past two weeks, there was only one question left. Could she forgive and forget?

……………………

She could forgive, but it was the forgetting she was unsure about.

But she knew only one thing.

She wanted to. Oh God, how she wanted to forget.

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

Chapter 25

Belonging

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

“Come with me to the party,” he entreated, staring at her. “When we were together, I did you a grave disservice by hiding you. It made you feel unwanted … it made you feel like my feelings for you weren’t real … but they were. Xiao You, I loved you then, and I wanted to protect you. I didn’t want you to deal with questions without answers. Or questions that I didn’t think had any answers. I didn’t want you to feel lost. But I was never embarrassed of you. I just wanted to protect you.”

“To protect me?” Xiao You asked skeptically. “You wanted to protect me? You might have protected me from some embarrassing questions, but you hurt me every single time you went with another woman. You hurt me every single time you chose another woman to be your escort … to be your partner at parties that I wasn’t invited to. You might not have intended it … but it always left me feeling that I never quite measured up to your beauties. It made me feel like I was small … nothing. You made me feel that way. And now you want me to restart that relationship with you? I don’t think …”

“Don’t say no,” he ordered. “Don’t. Listen to me. I’m not asking you to restart that old relationship. That relationship didn’t make you or me happy. I want to start a new relationship. And that’s why I said no when you offered me your body without offering me your soul. I want your soul Xiao You. But don’t be afraid. I’m willing to give you my soul in return.”

Xiao You stared at him quietly, trying to think. She was finding it harder and harder to say no. Ximen had come back into her life and he was bringing back all those feelings she’d felt before. She was remembering the emotions she’d felt when she first saw him. And it was harder to fight him when she had to fight her own feelings as well.

That first meeting at Jing’s party.

The sidewalk and her tears. His knight in shining armor routine. She remembered the black coffee and how she’d fallen just a little bit in love then.

She was beginning to remember the fake date and how his generosity had brought a whole host of emotions.

And when she’d asked for a night. He’d refused her then, but he’d been willing to hold her. She’d loved him for that. So much. So, so much. The memory of his warmth wouldn’t fade away, and she’d begun to look for it every morning when she awoke.

She remembered being so desperate to get him, and then her desperation in finding the answers he so badly needed. She was beginning to relive it all. And it scared her. Because it wasn’t just memories anymore. His presence brought back the feelings … the sensations … and it wasn’t as easy to ignore an emotion. She remembered his tears, and their warmth as they’d landed on her cheek. She remembered the salty taste of his grief.

She remembered their week together. And the good memories now outweighed the horror of finding his father at her doorstep. She remembered being held in his arms more than the threats his father had made.

And finally those two years together. He wasn’t offering her a repeat of those two years. He was offering her a whole new relationship. Could he carry through on that promise?

He’d said no to sex. Ximen had never done that before.

He’d understood she needed to get rid of that money before she did.

He’d introduced her to his mother.

They’d shared many conversations together.

He’d accepted Shen Shen wholeheartedly

The picnic. The romance that breathed in the flowers and chocolate he brought.

He’d spent more quiet evenings with her after her return than he had in the two years they’d been together before she’d left.

……………………

He’d said ‘I love you.’

He was opening up. It seemed that she was the only one stuck in the past. Her brain wanted her to move forward. Her body wanted her to move forward. But her heart was afraid. And she was tired of being a coward.

“Fine. I’ll go with you.”

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

Tugging at the choker around her neck, Xiao You stared down at the black dress draping her figure. And she had actually thought she looked sexy before she’d walked in that door.

San Chai had taken care of the dress, since the two were roughly the same size. Xiao Qiao had helped with the makeup. And Jing had given her a few quick lessons on body movement against her better judgment.

“Xiao You, you move beautifully. You have a grace that’s uniquely your own. Why are you working so hard at it?” Jing had questioned. It had been hard to admit that she hadn’t wanted to let him down. She hadn’t wanted to embarrass him. She wanted to be worthy of being the woman on his arm.

But staring at the sea of pastels around her, she knew she’d erred once more.

“Look at her, what is she supposed to be?” A catty voice whispered behind her. The piercing tone made it obvious the speaker intended to be overheard.

“She’s a wannabe goth chick,” another voice chimed in.

“Did she sneak in?”

“No, she came with Ximen.” The fourth voice was husky and all woman. Xiao You took a quick peek and winced at the sight that met her eyes. She couldn’t compete with that woman. Not ever. She didn’t have the dress. Nor the body. Nor the confidence. All of it was too familiar. That woman looked familiar. Maybe … maybe Ximen had been right in keeping her hidden from the world. This way, when their relationship ended, no one would have to be hurt. Especially not her.

Why had she decided to wear black to this party?! Why hadn’t she explained to San Chai exactly what kind of dinner this was going to be? Why hadn’t she asked Ximen before making any kind of assumptions?

She didn’t belong.

Where was Ximen? Why would he leave her alone at a party like this? She knew nobody and he knew how everyone would react, and he’d still left her unprotected amongst the vultures?

She surreptitiously tugged at her choker once more and sidled away when the photographers came to take pictures of the sea of beauties standing behind her. She didn’t need a picture to remind her of this travesty of a night.

“Wait!” a photographer’s voice called out, and a rough hand pulled at her elbow, causing her to spill her drink over the skirt of her dress.

“Hey! Let go!” she ordered, frantically dabbing at the spots. “You just ruined my dress, you numbskull.”

“Sorry.” The apology was absentminded and the tone careless. “I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions.”

“What do you want to ask me?” Xiao You asked nervously. Her gaze caught the eyes of one of the women that had been standing behind her, and a chill coursed through her body. They crinkled, as a malicious smile appeared on those ruby-red lips. This wasn’t going to be good.

“You’re Yang Xiao You, correct?”

“Ye-es,” she answered hesitantly. She straightened her slight shoulders, trying to appear confident.

“You’re the same Yang Xiao You that had a week with Ximen Zhong er Lang a few years ago, correct?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” she retorted, her arms coming up in a defensive movement.

“Is that a yes or no?”

“No comment.”

“I’ll take that to mean yes. You’re also the one he later dumped, correct? And sources tell me that you were so disappointing that he spent months with tons of different girls to satiate the appetite that you couldn’t satisfy with your body.”

Xiao You winced at that. “How dare you talk to me like that?” she whispered harshly. She tried to control the anger and pain that had begun to swell up inside of her.

“You’re also the same Yang Xiao You that he kept as his mistress for two years before he dumped you once more, correct Miss Xiao You? We need your confirmation miss, since he never did bring you out in public.”

Xiao You turned away. She didn’t need to listen to this any longer. All she had to do was tell Ximen and he would take care of this snotty reporter. She didn’t want to tattletale to her boyfriend, but she would if she had to.

“Oh, I wouldn’t run away,” the reporter’s singsonged behind her. “You wouldn’t want it to get into all the papers that Ximen Zhong er Lang couldn’t keep you satisfied and that you chose money over him? You wouldn’t want the world to know about his failure would you?” Their was a malicious gleefulness in the voice that went beyond mere reporting. She whirled around in surprise. The reporter took great pleasure in her shock and Ximen’s possible misery. “You wouldn’t want the world to know that you ran away with his child, because you didn’t want him anywhere near that child, now would you? What is wrong with Ximen, that his mistress would take money and keep his child away from him? I think the world deserves to know, don’t you?”

Xiao You stared at the reporter in shock. Where had he gotten all his facts? How would Ximen react to his dirty laundry being aired like this. Who was this source?

She couldn’t handle this. She didn’t want to be here. Her palms had begun to sweat. Her hands shook, as she ran her fingers through her hair. She didn’t belong here. Her eyes landed on the group of women once more. One particular woman … the one with the husky voice glared back. There was such hatred in those eyes. Xiao You squinted, and then her heart began to beat rapidly.

It was her. It was the woman she’d caught Ximen kissing the day she’d run away. It was her. And from the ruthless satisfaction in her eyes, Xiao You knew that she’d orchestrated this whole confrontation.

What had she done? Lain in wait until Xiao You returned? Why? Why would she go to all that trouble?

Xiao You tried to move away. Where was he?

“There you are.” Ximen’s voice boomed out from behind her. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. If Xu hadn’t spotted you, I think we might have spent the whole night missing each other. You look beautiful,” he whispered in her ear, planting a kiss on her cheek, before pulling her towards a group standing by the stage.

Xiao You glanced back. The woman and the reporter had disappeared … melting into the crowd. She needed to tell Ximen about the danger. She needed to tell him that she didn’t belong. He might not know it yet, but she was a fraud. He’d been right. She couldn’t handle this world. And maybe it was better that he didn’t introduce her to anyone.

She stumbled slightly, and then followed him. Maybe now wasn’t the time to reveal all. But her feet began to drag, when she saw the looks the group directed her way. The faces were cold. The eyes condemning. They asked her what she was doing in their midst. They asked her whether she really belonged with one of F4. They asked her if she really belonged here. Their eyes pitied her simultaneously because she already knew the answer. She was just prolonging her misery. She was prolonging Ximen’s embarrassment.

“Uncle Thomas, Aunt Roberta,” he said, nodding respectfully to the other gentlemen in the group before turning to the couple in question. “I want you to meet someone very important to me. These two are my godparents. After my mother, I’m the closest to them. They support me in everything that I do.” The love was evident in his voice. His pride of the couple unmistakeable.

“I’m afraid I can’t be bothered at the moment,” Aunt Roberta stated coldly, before turning and walking away. There was a beat of frozen silence. Xiao You saw the cold fury and disgust in those eyes before she was given the cold shoulder. The woman moved away, making her disapproval clear to all those who had witnessed the confrontation.

“Well, I don’t know what’s gotten into Roberta,” Uncle Thomas blustered, trying to break the awkward silence. “Maybe she has one of her migraines. That would explain her bitchy attitude.” He tried to laugh it off.

“I’ll… I’ll talk to her later,” Ximen said, clearing his throat. She could see the confusion in his gaze. Oh, why were men so dense? “I want you to meet—,” he began.

“Hi, my name is Xiao You.” Her voice was quick to interrupt.

“Well, hello Miss Xiao You,” Thomas said with a smile, shaking her hand.

“I’m Ximen’s mistress and the mother of his bastard child. I’m sure he’s told you all about me.”

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

“I took you to that party to prove something,” he murmured, finally breaking the silence. “Why did you do that?”

“You were right and I was wrong.” Her voice was quiet. Her spirit broken. “I can’t handle being in your world. I don’t belong. I don’t dress right. I don’t fit in. I can’t field the questions. A reporter … a reporter came up to me. He knew everything about our history.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“You shouldn’t have to take care of it. If I’d been born in that world, I would’ve known how to take care of it. But that’s just one more responsibility you’ll have to shoulder if you insist on keeping me by your side. I don’t belong there. Stop trying to fit me into a life that can’t accept me.”

“If they can’t accept you, than I don’t need them. To you, that might be the entire world out there, but my entire world is here, Xiao You. My entire world is encapsulated in one person … one body … and that’s you. My universe revolves around you. I can’t give up my sun … my center of gravity.”

“Be realistic,” she begged, turning away. “Stop being romantic. Stop thinking with your heart … with what’s in your pants. Start thinking with your brains. You can’t leave that life behind and I don’t want to live that life.”

She stepped away.

The heartbreak was clear. The pain ran too deep. That final step an infinite stretch of time and space that seemed unsurpassable.

“Xiao You, don’t …”

……………………

“Just let me go.”

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

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2 thoughts on “AILYS 21 – 25

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