SOUL 01 – 05

Chapter 1

My Life

It was quiet in the room, except for the gentle tapping of the fingers on the keyboard.

Although the curtains were pulled back, and sunlight poured in, an impression of darkness remained. It was stifling. And yet, it had become a part of her.

Pace quietly sat in her studio, her eyes trained on the scene outside. It was a bright, sunny morning. A breeze gently moved the flowers in the garden. Bees buzzed nearby, birds hummed, and there was laughter coming from the three figures moving up the pathway to the house.

They all evidenced life . . . happiness . . . the joy of living.

But all was silent inside the big house. It was quiet all around her. There was no joy in this house. And she knew that. After all, she had lived for the past 26 years of her life.

Her eyes moved from the window to her surroundings. This was her study. Her haven, and it had been so since her parents had died. She had taken it over and tried to make it her own.

Yet . . . somehow, it had never become her own. And instead of changing the mansion, she had changed herself so that she could fit into the opulent, dark and oppressive surroundings.

They would have taken her over completely. That is . . . if she hadn’t had her grandfather. And them. Her friends.

She sat there. After having placed the last period on the last sentence of the last page, her fingers badly needed this rest.

She smiled in quiet satisfaction. She was finally done. Her hands came up to take off her glasses, and her fingers combed through her hair.

She was finally done with her book, and there was nothing compared to the satisfaction that gave her. She slowly stretched, working out the kinks that had formed from her remaining bent over the computer screen for so long.

Her face lit up. She could just imagine how happy her readers would be. She had written for a long time, but her lifestyle hadn’t allowed her to do anything with that writing beyond keeping it as a hobby. When she had published her first book, the response had been astounding. Her audience had loved her books, and pretty soon she had had a contract to write six more books.

For the first time in her life she had been satisfied with the work she was putting out. And she knew that a big part of that was the response she was getting from her audience.

The children. They loved her stories about the clumsy bunny rabbit. The one that no one liked, and no one wanted to be. But the kids loved the little character, and she had gotten a chance to teach these children the importance of what was on the inside, rather than judging only on appearances.

The fun of writing, and the opportunity to teach life lessons made this much more fulfilling than her previous life’s work.

And for the first time she felt happy. For the first time in a very, very long time, she was finally happy. And nothing would ever take that away. Nothing. And no one.

There was a knock on the door, pulling her out of her reverie.

“Madam, your friends are here to see you,” the servant’s voice could be heard speaking.

“I’ll be right there,” she said, and joyfully got up to go greet them.

Pace moved out of the study and toward the sitting room. She had wanted to see them for a long time, but because of deadlines she had not had the opportunity. Finally they would have the chance to catch up about their busy lives.

She walked out into the sitting room, and heard loud popping noises. Her hands came up to cover her furiously beating heart.

She looked around in confusion. There were streamers and decorations everywhere. In the center of the room, on the coffee table, someone had placed a cake and presents.

Her eyes widened in surprise.

Three voices simultaneously began to sing out loud.

“Happy birthday to you . . .”

Pace looked around. That was right. It was her birthday.

She had forgotten.

She thought back over the past years. Her grandfather had always celebrated with her. He would wake her up with presents and cake ready by her bedside.

He had always insisted that they open the presents as soon as possible. He had been a kid in that regard. Although most of the gifts had come from him, he had gotten satisfaction out of seeing the joy in her face from all of his thoughtfulness.

But that hadn’t happened this year. Grandfather was gone, and she was left all alone in the world. Her brain had subconsciously chosen to forget this day. It would have hurt too much remembering how he was no longer with her.

But she hadn’t been completely alone. She had her friends. And they had remembered.

“Happy 26th birthday, Pace,” they exclaimed, running over to give her hugs.

Pace quietly hugged them back, and allowed herself to be tugged into the room.

Her eyes moved over these friends of hers. They had been together for a long time. She had met them in college, which seemed so long ago.

She remembered how she had been hurting at the time. She had wanted to crawl into a hole and hide, but her grandfather and these new friends had refused to let her.

They had pulled her out of her shell, and had forced her to live. And they were the ones who had encouraged her to go on with her writing. And she had needed that encouragement after grandpa had died.

Barbie Xu. She was tiny bundle of energy. But she was the most loyal friend that you could ever hope to find in the world. She was known as the Xu heiress to the rest of the world, but in their circle of friends, she was the crazy one. She had graduated at the same time as Pace, and had worked from the bottom up in her parent’s company to become the vice president. She was next in line to be the CEO, but had no plans to give up total freedom yet.

Winnie Qian. She was the genius doctor of the group. Although, she also came from a rich family, her compassionate nature induced her to choose a profession that would allow her to help others. She was serious, quiet, wise, and warm. More than anything, she was the one that they could go to for comfort and understanding.

And finally, Rainie Yang. She was also another petite part of the group. But unlike Barbie, she was quieter and incredibly sweet. She had chosen to become an ordinary teacher, despite all the wealth her family had placed at her fingertips. She loved children, and hoped one day to marry and have lots of them. Her ambition in life was to marry and become the best wife, mother, and teacher, all in one. Her sweet nature made her the natural conscience of the group. She would never allow Barbie’s crazy schemes to hurt anyone.

These were her friends and they made her life sane.

How did she fit in with them?

She was the same age, and at 25 had embarked on a new career. She came from the same social sphere, but unlike them, she lacked all the social graces that they had. She never felt comfortable around people, and she never liked dressing up like them. They had tried to convince her that she was beautiful and that she needed to dress it up so that the world could see.

That was one thing she had refused to do. And they had finally agreed.

“Pace, wake up will you,” Barbie demanded, snapping her fingers in front of her face.

“Sorry, what were you guys talking about?” Pace asked, snapping out of it.

“Here are your gifts. Open them up,” Barbie ordered.

Pace took the three gifts.

The first box held sun block.

The second held sunglasses.

And the third . . . a teeny, tiny black bikini.

“What . . .” she finally asked doubtfully.

“We’re going on a cruise, and we’ll get to meet the mysterious F4 finally,” Barbie shouted. She held up four pieces of paper.

Pace took them, looking at the tickets.

F4, Inc. Cruiselines.

Good for one passenger.

. . . . .

“A month long cruise? I don’t think that’s my idea of fun. Come on, being stuck on a boat with the same group of people for a month,” Pace pointed out.

“Pace, we’re going. You can’t argue about it. You have any idea how much these tickets cost?” Barbie demanded.

“I don’t care. And who wants to meet F… whatever it was that you said,” Pace stubbornly replied.

“$20,000 per ticket,” Barbie continued, ignoring the interruption. “That’s a lot, you know?”

“Then why didn’t you think about it before buying the tickets,” Pace demanded. “And what makes this cruise so special anyway. Will be living in golden suites, huh?”

“Actually this is the launch of F4’s new cruise line. The F4 conglomerate will finally reveal itself. That makes it a “special cruise”. But it is a special cruise for another, more important reason. The proceeds of the cruise will be going to various charities in Taiwan,” Winnie quietly said. “We want to have fun, but we thought that this way we would be helping others as well.”

“But I can’t do it! Come on! Imagine me in a bikini and wearing sunglasses. I don’t even like wearing shorts. I would feel so out of place. I don’t think I can do it, guys,” Pace said pleadingly.

They didn’t know what they were asking her. Her home was dark and oppressive, but it was also her safe haven. She would feel lost if she left it. It brought her comfort in a strange way. And they knew how uncomfortable she felt around others, especially guys. And half the cruise group would be male.

“Pace, please,” Rainie said, “Do you have any idea how excited Barbie was about this. She wants to get you out of this dark place. She’s been really worried about you. Especially over the past year, and we’ll be there. We’ll help you with any problem you have. You need this. You’ve been here all alone for the past year. And, I know that partly it is our fault. We’ve been so busy with our careers, but you need to get out of here. Have you looked at yourself?”

“What do you mean?” Pace mumbled.

“You don’t care about your clothes,” Winnie continued, “But they’re hanging off of you right now. You’ve lost so much weight, and there are bags under you eyes. This isn’t good for your health.”

“But you know how busy I’ve been with the books,” Pace argued.

“But you’re hurting yourself. I know that you’re happy for the first time in a long time ago, but you’re not taking care of yourself properly. You don’t eat, and you don’t sleep,” Barbie said worriedly.

“Pace,” Barbie said, walking over to sit next to Pace, “We’re really worried about you. Just come with us for this trip, and I promise you we won’t bother you after this. Well, not unless you need it. And I promise you that we’ll have fun. We’ll be traveling all over. And who knows, you can send that little bunny on a trip in the next book.”

Pace looked at the earnest expression on Barbie’s face. And then looked over at Rainie and Winnie. They were all worried.

Her eyes looked down at her hands, and for the first time noticed how sharply the bones in her wrists stood out. She hadn’t even noticed that she was losing weight. And her arms were so pale. Maybe she did need this.

“Okay, fine. I’ll go,” Pace finally said. “But you guys better make this a fun time for me, alright,” Pace warned.

“We promise,” they chorused, and laughing they all converged on her to give her a big hug.

Sitting in the warmth of their arms, Pace realized how much she had missed this. She missed her grandfather’s hugs, and she had missed her friends. But they would finally have some fun together.

But for some reason . . . she felt as if . . . there would be something different about this trip. She felt a feeling of expectation rising that she had not felt for such a long time.

It made her feel excited.

It made her feel scared.

But whatever would happen, she was ready to face it head on.

Nothing could hurt her. Not when she had her friends.

Nothing.

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

Chapter 2

The Freakin’ Adventure Begins

I hope you all like the chapter. And I’d like to thank Suga Cool for the wonderful poster. Enjoy.

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

“Thank you,” Pace quietly said to the taxi driver, who had smilingly dropped her suitcases off at the restaurant near the dock for her. She handed over a healthy tip, and sat down to wait for her friends to arrive.

Her hands held her newest book. It had been released this morning.

Her thoughts wandered back to her birthday party three months ago. Her friends had gotten their way, and for the past few months she had been trying to convince herself that this was right. That she would have fun, and nothing would get in the way of that.

Her eyes closed as she fought her anxiety. She didn’t need to feel so nervous, her friends would be there. And she was ready to enjoy herself.

Enjoy herself? She quietly snorted.

Yeah, right. As long as she didn’t make too big a fool of herself, she would be happy. This really wouldn’t be fun, but she had comforted herself with the thought that the ticket would help charity.

She looked down at the book in her hands, and her fingers ran over her newest work. Her eyes read the words, and she reveled in the idea that another one of her works was out in the world for others to read.

She was content with her life. And while it may be a bit unhealthy, it made her happy.

As she moved to turn the page a thong landed between the open pages.

“What the—,” she exclaimed in shock. In anger. In disgust.

She looked up to find a woman glaring at her from another table.

She quietly watched as the woman walked over to snatch the thong back, which was now wedged between the pages of her closed book.

“Don’t be grabbing my thong,” the lady’s screechy voice burst out. “Are you that desperate for sexy underwear?”

Pace looked at her incredulously.

“Honey, you need to practice your aim,” a smooth, rich voice spoke from behind Pace’s back.

The hair on Pace’s neck prickled. The man leaned over her shoulder, and gently opened the book to get the thong out. His breath feathered over Pace’s bare skin and across her ear. She shivered at the sensation.

There was incredible heat at her back. Her body felt the urge to nestle into the heat.

She fought this alien temptation.

There was a strange ache down low in her stomach, and her body had tightened at the sound of the sexy voice. She was unable to believe that her body was reacting like this just to the sound of a voice.

She was suddenly very grateful for her bulky clothes.

“Van, honey,” the woman whined.

“Sorry about that,” he said near her ear.

Pace just grunted in response.

There was a pause, as if he was waiting for some further response from her.

She refused to turn around, and she refused to say anything.

They left.

Pace folded her arms, and tried to calm down. Her heart was beating furiously, and she was trembling. She didn’t know why.

“Pace, you’re here,” Barbie’s voice called out.

Pace looked up. Her friends were finally here. She quickly got up to go join them.

She didn’t know why she was hurrying. She just knew that she had to get away from the table. His presence was too strong there.

As they went on board, Pace’s eyes widened at what they saw.

It was gorgeous.

The ship was decorated in an understated, elegant manner, and the sea breeze felt wonderful.

For a moment she relaxed.

“I am telling you that I am not being partnered with this loser,” came a familiar, high-pitched, screechy voice.

“Hey,” a man’s voice began.

“You shut up. You should be so lucky,” came the bitchy reply.

Pace quickly followed her friends into another waiting area to sign in.

And that was when she found out something her friends had hid from her.

Another special thing about this oh-so-wonderful cruise.

They would be partnered with a male passenger of the cruise, and would spend the next month in excruciating harmony.

She could just kill her friends now.

Her eyes shot daggers at her quiet friends. They wouldn’t look into her eyes.

Winnie was partnered with Vic Chou, whom she knew from their social circle.

“He is a lawyer. I’ve heard how bad lawyers can be. I don’t think I’m too thrilled at the pairing,” Winnie said quietly.

Barbie was partnered with Jerry Yan.

“Oooh, this will be fun.. You guys know that we’re business rivals. I can’t wait for all the arguments we will be having. I have to tell him how stupid his business theories are, right?” she gleefully asked, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

And Rainie was partnered with Ken Zhu.

“He is the successor to his family’s billion dollar business. I don’t know how much that means, but I have heard of him. I’ve also heard about his womanizing. There’s no hope there in finding a lasting future with him,” she quietly said. Her sweet nature hid a will of iron. And she wouldn’t waste her time with men who weren’t ready to commit.

And Pace . . . Pace was partnered with Vanness Wu.

“No! No! I can’t do this. I can’t. Don’t make me,” Pace burst out.

Her friends looked at her in shock. Pace was the quietest of them all, and this outburst was really surprising them.

“Why, what’s wrong, Pace?” Winnie asked.

“I can’t do this. He’s a notorious womanizer. A playboy. Do you have any idea how hard it will be for the next month if I’m stuck with him. You know how uncomfortable I am around men, and a man like that . . . I’m leaving,” she finally said.

“No. No. No. You can’t leave. We’ll trade,” the girls offered.

In the end they flipped a coin. And Rainie and Pace traded their respective partners.

The girls looked at Pace when she was told that she would partner with Ken. There was no outburst, no response. Knowing how much of playboy he was, they were surprised and suspicious. Something was going on. Something they needed to find out soon.

. . . . . . . . . . .

“I told you! He is not my style. He’s total nerd. Look at him. Do something about this, or I’ll complain to Vanness Wu. He’s my boyfriend, did you know that?” Pace heard the bitchy voice once again.

They all turned to see the woman and an uncomfortable looking man.

He was skinny, and had on clothes a size to big for his body. He had big glasses on, and his hair was standing on end. And he looked like he was about to cry.

Pace’s eyes widened. She had the perfect idea.

“Excuse me,” she walked over to talk to the poor employee listening to the barrage of abuse.

“Yes, madam?” he turned to ask.

“I have the perfect solution,” Pace said.

Winnie, Barbie, and Rainie looked at each other in consternation. The guy standing in front of them might be a great guy, but he was too much of a nerd. Pace would never fall for him. And they wanted her to have a little bit of romance on the cruise.

“Pace, I don’t think . .” Barbie began.

“Be quiet. You think I haven’t figured it out? You guys want me to enjoy more than just the cruise. But at least this way, I’ll be sure to enjoy the cruise,” Pace said.

“I’ve been assigned Vanness Wu,” Pace said, turning to the employee. “I want to trade him for . . . I’m sorry, what’s your name?” she asked the poor guy.

“Edward. Edward Ou,” he mumbled.

“I’d like to trade Vanness Wu for Edward Ou. Would that be alright?” she asked.

The woman looked at her in shock, and the employee was equally surprised. No one would think that someone would prefer an Edward Ou over a Vanness Wu.

“Do it,” the woman finally ordered, getting over her shock. “Put down Michelle Saram for Vanness Wu, and this woman for this nerd, alright?”

Nodding her head in satisfaction, she walked off without a backwards glance. And without a thank you.

“Pace,” Barbie began.

“Edward,” Pace said, walking over to the quiet guy, “Let’s go get something to drink. You probably want to get the bad taste of that woman out of your mouth, right? We’ll have a drink, and you can tell me something about yourself.”

Pace walked off with the quiet, and grateful, guy.

Her friends were left staring after her in frustration.

. . . . . . . . . . .

“How are we going to explain this to the guys?” Barbie finally said, breaking the silence.

“Things don’t always go as you plan,” Winnie said.

“It’ll all work out,” Rainie said optimistically.

The others nodded their heads doubtfully.

They should’ve thought this out more carefully.

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

Chapter 3

Three Secret Conversations

“Honey! Honey! Look over here, it’s me!” the annoying voice blared across the dining hall, attracting many annoyed glances in the process. The one they were aimed at took no notice as she made her way across to “honey” with a little-girl giggle.

“Honey” sat at the bar, his eyes centered on a couple at the other end. Hearing the screech, he turned around to look at the approaching woman.

“I did it. I’m so smart!” the woman screeched.

“What are you talking about Michelle?” Vanness Wu finally got out. His voice was laced with irritation. Lord knew he hadn’t known how grating her voice and giggle could get after a while. If he had, he would never have invited her on the cruise.

Thankfully he wouldn’t have to spend so much time with her. There would be many group activities where hopefully it would be a cinch to disappear for a while in the crowd.

“I got us partnered up together,” Michelle said smugly.

“Partnered up?” Vanness asked in confusion.

“Yes. Why didn’t you tell me that you guys were doing this special promotion thing? F4 unveiled and a couple cruise, where do you all come up with these ideas? I almost got paired off with some nerd, but I saw a little nerdette who would fit him perfectly, so I paired them off together,” Michelle boasted.

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

“What do you mean ‘Couple cruise’?” he finally asked.

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

Winnie and Vic quietly stood next to each other, somewhat uneasy but somewhat relieved. There was complete silence. It had been silent for the past few moments.

“So . . . are we all alone now?” Winnie finally asked.

Vic looked around, they were alone in this corner of the sundeck. He nodded.

Winnie turned around. Taking a final glance around, she moved closer to him. Vic’s eyes widened.

Winnie placed her arms around his neck, and gently pulled him down for a kiss.

“So, how’s my big, bad lawyer,” she asked teasingly.

“Has Doctor Qian missed me?” he asked.

“You were gone for a long time,” she reminded him, snuggling close.

“Honey, it takes time to set up a foundation. Especially in a third world country like I was in. But it does pay off. The charity foundation will now ensure that these people get the help they so desperately need without being worried about the bureaucracy stealing money meant for them,” he gently reminded her.

“You’re right. But next time, promise me you will take me with you. They also need doctors. While you’re doing this, I can help them health wise, alright?” she asked.

“I promise,” he replied with a gentle smile.

Vic Zhou and Winnie Qian had met three years, when they had begun working on the same charity. The attraction had been immediate.

At first Winnie had been quite wary of Vic because he was a lawyer. But she had soon looked past all the stereotypes to find the warm, compassionate individual he was underneath. They had begun dating soon after, and although they had kept this a secret from most people, they were now engaged.

All the secrecy had been necessary to ensure their privacy wouldn’t be invaded every time they went out. The fact that they were from rich families would have started rumors of possible mergers, and would have taken away all hope of developing a romance in a natural setting.

“It was a wonderful idea you had,” Winnie finally said, breaking the silence.

“Partnering up was a great idea. Not only do we get to spend a lot of time together without gaining a lot of attention, but it would have been a perfect way to get Vanness and Pace together,” Winnie mused.

“Would have been?” Vic asked, startled.

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

“Pace made a big deal when she found that she was going to partnered up with him. She said that she would leave the ship if she were forced to spend the next four weeks with him. To calm her down we offered to switch with her,” Barbie said.

Barbie and Jerry sat on the sundeck, on the other side of the ship.

The wind was gently blowing, and Barbie gladly breathed in the ocean breeze. The sun had begun to set, and the sky was filled with beautiful colors. The gentle splash of the waves against the hull was somehow soothing.

“You offered to trade? What the hell is that? What if we had been separated, and I had been forced to spend the next four weeks with another woman. Would you have liked that?” Jerry grumbled, intensely relieved at the near miss.

“I trust you,” she said, smiling into his eyes.

Jerry opened his mouth to respond and then closed it. There was nothing else to say.

The two had met a year ago, when Barbie had created a proposal that had won the Xu Corporation a very important bid. In the process she had stomped the competition. In that case it had been the Yan Corporation.

They had been introduced at the party held to celebrate their victory, and sparks had flown immediately. She had been buzzed enough that she had told him point by point what he had done wrong on his own proposal.

In retaliation, he had used her pointers to win the next two bids.

Whenever the chanced upon each other fights would break out.

But in the process of one of those fights, they had kissed. Barbie still didn’t know how it had happened. The kiss had awakened them to other possible reasons for their fights besides competition or hatred. They had decreased the fighting and talked more.

In those conversations they had learned how much they had in common. They both liked to be in control. They both liked power. And both liked to use their intelligence to create proposals that others would be hard pressed to turn down.

They had then each made an irresistible proposal to the other. They were now dating, but had decided to keep the information from their friends. That is until a few months ago.

“What happened?” Jerry finally asked, clearing his throat.

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

“We don’t know. She made a big deal about Vanness being a total womanizer. She reminded us how hard it is for her to be around normal men, and to be around a playboy would kill her,” Rainie explained, sitting next to Ken on the bed.

Ken leaned over for a kiss, and Rainie’s eyes automatically closed.

She quickly pushed him away.

“Don’t do that. Whenever you get near me, my stupid eyes automatically close. How can I keep them open when my body’s preparing itself to be kissed by you?” Rainie asked in frustration.

Ken said nothing, leaning forward to plant a kiss on her pouting lips.

Ken and Rainie sat in her cabin. They had decided to meet there for the most privacy. Unlike the other couples, they had more to hide.

The two had met four months ago, when Winnie and Barbie had brought their boyfriends and Ken along to find a way to get Vanness and Pace together.

It had taken Ken and Rainie a while to realize that they had been a target of their friends’ matchmaking plans as well, but by that time they had been too far gone to back off.

Ken had pursued Rainie relentlessly, fighting against all her prejudices. He had truly shown her that he was willing to change, and had made the grandest gesture of all.

Two weeks ago they had secretly gotten married, and Rainie was now Mrs. Rainie Zhu. But she had to hide that fact, so that they could successfully get their friends together.

“So,” Rainie mumbled, finally pulling away from Ken’s drugging kisses, “We flipped for it, and I had to trade you for Vanness.”

“What?!!” he asked, pushing her away abruptly.

“Yeah, I was going to have to give you to Pace,” Rainie finally confessed.

“You were going to trade your husband in for a womanizer?” he asked in anger.

“Vanness is your friend,” Rainie protested.

“That’s why I know how bad he is. He could’ve . . . how could you even think of doing this!” he exclaimed angrily.

“I had no choice. Pace was ready to walk off the ship. At least this way she would’ve been on the ship and we could’ve gotten them together somehow. She didn’t make a big deal about being paired with you, although you’re as big a womanizer as him,” Rainie explained.

“Ex-womanizer,” he corrected.

“Right, ex-womanizer. Sorry,” she agreed.

Ken was quiet. It did make sense. Kind of.

“But she traded him for some guy named Edward Ou,” Rainie said mournfully.

“Edward Ou? Edward Ou?” Ken began to laugh, falling back on the bed.

“What is it?” Rainie asked in confusion.

“I know that guy. She traded Vanness for Eddie? That would kill Vann if he found out,” he said, smiling.

“What should we do?” Rainie said, lying back in his arms.

Ken stared at the ceiling. They wanted to get their friends together. And he knew how Vanness could be. A gleam appeared in his eyes.

“I have an idea . . .,” he began.

“What is it?” she asked excitedly.

Ken leaned over her, and stared deep into her beautiful eyes.

“Later.”

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

“So, Edward, what are you doing on this cruise?” Pace asked the now very drunk Edward.

As soon as they had reached the bar, the poor guy had started downing drinks in rapid succession. No manner of cajoling and threats would make him stop from deliberately getting drunk.

When Pace had warned him about the possible consequence he had only mumbled something about forgetting his embarrassment and never wanting to see that Mich-Mich-bitch again. Pace hadn’t had the heart to stop him anymore.

“I . . . I am the CEO of Bunny, Inc.,” he finally mumbled blearily, clearly missing the point of Pace’s question.

“Bunny, Inc.? Really? What do you guys do?” Pace asked in excitement, thinking of all the possibilities.

“We grow and sell rabbits as food to restaurants,” Edward finally said.

“What?!!!! You’re joking right? Tell me you’re joking!” Pace finally got out. That definitely had not been a possibility in her mind. Her throat had closed up at the thought of those poor bunnies being slaughtered for food.

“What? Joking? Wait, no, we don’t sell them as food. We make stuffed rabbits and sell them to resta—no children’s toy stores. Yeah, we’re in the toy business, but we specialize only in bunnies,” Edward finally clarified.

“Why bunnies?” Pace asked in interest.

“I killed a bunny once. Ran him over. I felt so guilty. The ghost of the poor bunny haunted me, so I dedicated my life to engendering bunny love in the world by making cute stuffed bunnies,” Edward slurred out.

Pace looked at him in confusion.

Saying that, he gently slipped into slumber.

“Edward? Edward? Eddie. Wake up, will you?” Pace began to shake his shoulder.

The guy was unconscious.

Pace turned around looking for help to get him back to his cabin.

“Can I help?” a rich, smooth voice spoke at her back.

Pace froze. It was the same voice. Why here? Why now? She wasn’t slow. She had figured it out.

Thong guy had been Vanness Wu.

She really didn’t want to see him.

“Please, let me help,” the voice continued.

“No thanks,” she mumbled.

The voice ignored her refusal and pulled her away from the bar.

Looking up she faced Vanness Wu for the first time in a long . . . long time.

It HAD been a long time.

He had changed.

He had become the handsome, confident man that his appearance had only hinted at back then. He was taller, bigger, and more attractive.

She surely had changed. She knew that, because there was no recognition in his eyes.

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

There was no recognition.

But her heart began to beat furiously. Began to beat for a man who had so clearly forgotten her. Her eyes traced his features, and her hands ached to run themselves over his face and through his hair.

“That’s her,” Michelle suddenly said, breaking the two out of their trance, “That’s the woman who was supposed to be your partner. She traded you in for Edward Ou.”

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

Chapter 4

The Chase Begins

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

It was instinctive.

That urge to run. To get away from him. From the memories.

The pain hadn’t lessened with time.

Standing in front of him. A foot away . . . close enough to touch.

Seeing him after so many years.

Breathing in his scent, and feeling it enter her body.

It only increased the hurt in her heart. She was shocked to learn that it had only faded with time, but had never truly gone away.

And he had awakened it once more.

She jerked to the left, intent only on escape.

He countered, stepping to his right.

Her eyes came up to meet his in surprise. His held an expression of bewilderment. It was as if he did not know why he was doing what he was.

She stepped quickly to the right, thinking that he wouldn’t react . . . that he had finally come to his senses.

He countered her moves once more, moving to his left. Blocking her path. Keeping her there.

She closed her eyes in frustration. It seemed that he hadn’t changed. If someone wanted to escape, to be alone, he had to stop them and ask why.

“Look, your mother!” she suddenly shouted, pointing to a spot behind him. It was an old trick, coming back to her through the mists of time. Something else she hadn’t forgotten.

He turned around in surprise. She took the opportunity to run.

He could call her a coward. Or a weird stranger. But she knew that she couldn’t handle this right now. Not without allies. Not without her friends. They would protect her from him.

As she ran through the corridors, she only thought of returning to her room. To her sanctuary. He wouldn’t dare intrude there.

. . . . . . . .

Hours later, Pace sat at her dressing table. She had finished dressing for the cruise’s first ball, and she thought that she had outdone herself.

This was for her. And for poor Edward. So what if they were nerds? They could still look good.

When she had found out her friends had replaced her clothes with all new, fashionable clothes, she hadn’t even thought about being angry. She was only grateful. She would need this armor to fight off the power HE seemed to have over her still.

There was a knock on the door.

She slowly went to open the door. Edward had called a couple of hours ago to ask her what room she was in. Upon asking why, she had learned that she was expected to attend the ball with her partner.

She opened the door.

Her eyes widened in shock.

It seemed that he WOULD dare intrude. Even here.

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

Vanness watched the strange girl run away.

Yes, he had turned around when she had pointed. The movement had been instinctive. He had never been able to stop himself from doing that. It had been a source of much amusement to his friends and one girl.

But she had played the same trick. And he had fallen again.

He turned to look at the seething Michelle.

“Just what do you think you were doing?” she asked in a shrill voice. “You’re my partner, don’t forget that. You’re mine for this cruise.”

“I never liked possessive women,” he coolly answered.

He looked at her with contempt in his eyes. When had he ever given her the idea that she could think of him in this way. He had never made this out to be anything more than another casual affair. He turned away.

“But you brought me with you on this trip,” Michelle whined, “I’m supposed to have you for the next month. Why else would anyone go on a cruise? I get seasick, and yet I came on this cruise for you. It’s a good thing I took those seasickness pills. Oh, I think . . . I feel . . .”

“What pills?” Vanness asked, hoping they weren’t the ones he’d accidentally flushed down the toilet and replaced with harmless breath mints.

“Michelle? . . . What is it?” Vanness finally asked, when the silence continued behind him.

There was no reply.

Turning around he saw that she was no longer there. His eyes moved across the room, trying to see where she had gone. It was only when he heard the moan at his feet did he realize that she was still there. Only now she was at his feet.

The foolish woman had chosen that moment to faint. Her face had taken on a green hue. It was then he realized that she was probably seasick.

She would most likely be glad that she had fainted and hadn’t thrown up.

He was glad that she hadn’t thrown up.

At least . . . not yet.

He looked at the unconscious people in front of him. He sighed in exasperation. Motioning a waiter over, he ordered them to be carried to the infirmary.

As he followed them to the infirmary, he stared at Edward Ou. This was the guy that woman had replaced him with. Was there something about him? Something that he didn’t see?

This was guy who loved bunnies and made them for a living. This was the guy who had no fashion sense. This guy was so uncomfortable in sophisticated society that he had hyperventilated once when he had to give a speech in front of those same people. He had nothing going for him.

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

But she had chosen him.

. . . . . . . . .

He had to know why.

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

“So, how’s the loser?” Ken asked, coming up to Vanness as he leaned against the wall outside the infirmary.

“What?” Vanness asked in surprise.

“I heard about how Pace Wu rejected you man. So, how does it feel knowing that you were passed over for Edward Ou?” Ken began to laugh.

“Wait, what did you say . . . Pei . . . you said Pace?” Vanness asked.

“Yes. Keep up man, or are you getting senile in your old age?” his friend asked.

“What old age? I’m only 29. Same age as you. How did you know?” Vanness finally grumbled.

“Rainie told me. She’s my partner for the trip, and she told me how her friend freaked out when she heard who she’d partnered with,” Ken explained gleefully. “That’s just sad. Imagine if the everyone on board found out.”

Vanness narrowed his eyes at Ken.

“What do you mean? How could everyone on the ship find out? Only you, this Rainie, Michelle, Edward and this other chick know. Why would anyone open their mouths?” he finally asked in glacial tones.

“You don’t expect us to keep this a secret. Imagine how these people will react when they find out who you got rejected for,” Ken finally said, almost apologetically.

“But you’re my best friend,” Vanness finally protested.

“But Rainie and her friends aren’t. And they were all there. Can you imagine them keeping in such juicy gossip?” Ken asked, silently apologizing to his wife and friends for calling them gossips.

“What am I supposed to do?” Vanness whispered in horror. He could only imagine the looks of glee on those faces. All the women he’d dated. All the men he’d stomped in their business dealings. They would all get a kick out of this.

The high price of the tickets had ensured that only the elite could get on this cruise. And they weren’t known for playing nice.

“Think about it,” Ken said, giving him a look.

Vanness crinkled his brow, wondering about how he could keep the gossip quiet.

It was the “are you stupid” look on Ken’s face that made him see the solution.

“I have to go,” he said, turning to go into the infirmary.

“But—what are you going to do?” Ken yelled out behind him.

“That’s for me to know, and you to find out.”

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

He knocked on the door. Waiting for it to open.

“I’m coming,” a voice called out.

The door finally opened.

He met the astonished gaze of the woman standing in front of him.

“Hello Pace, I’m here to pick you up for the ball.”

Chapter 5

First Night Out

Vanness stared at the woman in front of him. She looked different from this afternoon. His eyes traveled over her body. She was tall, and her dress clung to her body softly, accentuating her curves.

Her skin glowed in the soft lighting. Her eyes were shadowed.

He dropped the bag he had held in his hands, and stepped forward.

He saw panic bloom in her eyes. She stepped back.

Her hands reached out to slam the door shut.

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

A few hours ago . . . .

He had roused Edward from his stupor, and had him call Pace to let her know that he would be picking her up. Before leaving the infirmary, he had ensured that the staff would keep Edward and Michelle confined until tomorrow.

He had a plan regarding tonight. From what little Ken had hinted, he would be in for a lot of embarrassment if he didn’t have this woman on his arm.

But before he went through all the hassle, he wanted some answers.

He had questions for his sneaky friends. Questions about the couples cruise and what they thought they were doing.

He’d walked into a private suite, and had sat down next to Jerry, who was already complaining.

“Do we have to do this? I mean what business is it of theirs who F4 is. Can you imagine how they’ll follow us around if we let them know this? We’ll be bombarded with phone numbers and business cards,” he grumbled.

“We’ve already advertised this, Jerry,” came Vic’s calm reply. “Those people are here to travel on our cruiseship and they paid a lot for this privilege only because we promised them F4. That money is going to a good cause.”

“Besides, it won’t be that bad—,” Ken began.

“Wait a minute. Forget all that. You were enjoying making fun of me, weren’t you, Ken? Tell me about this couples cruise that you guys have concocted and tell me why I wasn’t in on it?” Vanness demanded.

“It was so last minute,” Ken explained. “Jerry here was getting really antsy about the whole thing, and complaining how women would be constantly chasing us around. The couple thing was to throw them off our scent by showing them that we already have partners, and trading isn’t allowed. Well, it wasn’t allowed, but your date just had to break the rules.”

“Shut up,” Vanness growled.

“What did you do to her Vanness that she nearly went hysterical?” Jerry asked with keen interest.

“How did you know?” Vanness asked, glaring at Ken.

Ken quickly shook his head.

“I’m partnered with her friend, Barbie. She got a kick out of the idea of some guy being passed over for Edward Ou. Come on. Edward Ou? Over you? Come on, what did you do to her?” Jerry asked.

“I didn’t do anything. I don’t even know her. I saw her at the bar today. She ran away like a scared, little rabbit. I don’t see why I have to do anything. She fits that Ou perfectly. He loves rabbits, and she is one,” Vanness said coldly.

“That’s fine. Whatever you feel comfortable with,” Vic said. As Vanness began to nod, Vic continued, “Her friends are all gossips. They have heard about you, and they plan on telling everyone about how you got rejected even before you were seen.”

“And how do you know that?” Vanness asked in astonishment.

“Her third friend, Winnie, is paired off with me. And before you say anything, it’s not a coincidence. We’ve been dating for a while, and so have Jerry and Barbie, and Ken and Rainie. That’s why we know that they won’t keep this quiet. Even if they are not as big gossips as we’re making them out to be, they know that you must’ve done something to her. She wouldn’t have acted like this if you hadn’t. And they are Pace’s good friends, and if you hurt her, they have to make you pay.”

“Explain it to them,” Vanness pleaded. “Tell them I don’t know her. That I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“They wouldn’t believe us. You’re our friend, so of course, we would take your side. But Pace wasn’t bothered with being paired off with Ken, and he’s as big a womanizer as you—.”

“Ex-womanizer,” Ken interrupted.

“Whatever,” Vic said. “But she wasn’t bothered by that, so it’s something about you. Think about it. Have you ever met her before?”

“I swear I haven’t. I’ve never seen her in my life,” Vanness said.

“That won’t help. Do something about it, or it’ll be on your head,” Jerry said.

“We’re revealing ourselves tonight at the ball. You’re a big person in these circles, even as only Vanness Wu. If you’re not there with her then everyone will know that the rumor was true. And we will all be embarrassed. F4 and everything it’s connected to will be embarrassed. This event shouldn’t be tainted in any way, understand?” Vic asked, seriously.

“But—

“Think about the people who are benefiting from this, we want them to get the attention, not your love life,” Ken interrupted.

“But what if—

“Doesn’t matter. Do whatever you have to do,” Jerry ordered.

Saying this, the three had left him sitting in the suite, banging his head against the wall.

He really hadn’t asked for this.

She would feel his pain.

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

He thrust his hand out to stop the door from shutting.

“Let go,” she demanded.

“No,” he replied.

She pushed with all her might.

He pushed against her force, and the door began to open.

She sighed, and let go of the door.

He came into the room.

“Get out,” she ordered.

“No,” he replied.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” She began to look at him in suspicion. “What did you do to Edward? Did you hurt him? Where is he?” she demanded.

“I didn’t do anything, but if you don’t go with me tonight, I might do something,” he quietly said.

“What do you mean? What could you do to him?” she asked him incredulously.

“I have that kind of power. You’ve heard about F4? I’m part of that, and I have the power to crush his little toy company,” he threatened.

“Little?” Pace asked.

“By our standards, yes. He won’t be able to make any more bunny rabbits, think about how that would hurt him,” he finally said.

“Why would you do that? Why do you care? You don’t even know me. Do you?” Pace asked in suspicion.

“No . . .,” he shook his head, hoping to clear it, “I don’t know you. I don’t. But I need you on my arm tonight.”

“Why?” she asked in frustration.

“You rejected me. What was it? You saw me and decided I wasn’t good enough?” he ground out. He had meant to be cool, calm and collected. But the idea of her dumping him, without giving him a chance to explain, of never looking back when she had run away was eating away at him.

“Does it really matter?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said into her ear, leaning in close.

She froze.

“What is it? You can’t get within two feet of a woman without wanting to seduce her?” she asked bitterly.

“Look, it’s simple,” she said, pushing him away. “You’re not the guy I need in my life. Even if it is only for a month. You’re a playboy . . . a womanizer. I would think you would’ve been happy that I paired you up with your flavor of the month. . . . or is she getting a bit too stale for you?”

“Doesn’t matter what your motivation was. I was sup—,” he broke off.

“What? What were you supposed to do? Ahhhh, you were supposed to get rid of me first. You were supposed to be the dumper, not the dumpee. I’m sorry, did I hurt your pride? Get real. Just because your ego was bruised, doesn’t mean that I have to suffer,” she lashed out.

“You’re not going to ruin even one moment of this cruise. Or another moment of my life. You’ve done enough of that,” she said. “Now get out of my way.”

“Of your life? You’re acting like I’ve wasted many moments of your life,” he said.

“Even one moment is too much to waste on you,” she explained icily.

“Fine, I’ll get out of your way. But tonight you’re mine,” he replied.

“No,” she retorted.

“Yes. And the only choice you have is to go on my arm or in my arms. Which one will you choose?” he gritted out, unreasonably angry at her continued rejection.

“And do something with yourself. You look like you’re going to a funeral. Here, I’ve brought you these clothes and accessories,” he said, turning to get the bag he had dropped. He didn’t ponder too closely on why he had dropped it in the first place.

Pace looked down at herself in mortification. Hot color flooded her cheeks.

She had tried so hard. To be fashionable. To look good enough, so that poor Edward, who had already gone through so much embarrassment, wouldn’t suffer anymore.

But it seemed that it wasn’t enough. It never was.

What did she have to do?!!

Her mouth pursed to stop the trembling.

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what this man thought of her. Not anymore.

“You want me,” she pointed out, “I don’t want you. Take it or leave it,” she finished.

Turning, she grabbed her purse, and left the room. She could hear him cursing softly behind her, and then heard the door click as he pulled it shut.

Coming out, he grabbed her arm. “Let’s go,” he gritted out.

“I’m going to get you for this,” she whispered, as they reached the ballroom, and she faced the crowd staring at them in curiosity.

He smiled at her mockingly.

“Are you willing to be in my company for that long?”

She thought about. There was complete silence between them as they walked to the stage area.

His eyes moved over her profile. She was beautiful. In a different way. In a special way, but never would he say that to her. She had courage . . . and an unreasonable hatred for him. He had to find out more.

He led her to the stage, and they were seated with her friends, who were looking at her anxiously, and his friends, who nodded their approval at him.

He helped her into her chair, and turned to take his own.

She tugged him back.

He turned to look at her enquiringly.

She motioned him to come down.

He leaned down, placing his ear near her lips.

She leaned forward and breathed gently into his ear.

His body clenched. His eyes widened.

But that was just a prelude to what she had to say next.

“No,” she whispered into his ear. “I’d rather jump off this ship than spend another moment in your wonderful company.”

Her statement slapped him back to reality.

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

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