SOUL 11 – 15

Chapter 11

. . . Misery? – DAY 6

All Good Things . . .

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

It had been three weeks since the beginning of this cruise.

Three weeks since Pace had entered his life.

Three weeks of trying to get closer.

Three weeks of sheer hell.

It had taken three weeks to realize that he might not get this woman. That she could easily reject him. That he might lose . . . his last chance at happiness.

His arms were wrapped around a gorgeous woman. An eager woman.

She personified sex.

She rubbed her body against his, reaching up to seductively wrap her arms around his neck.

Vanness allowed it, giving her the chance to entice him.

He waited.

Nothing.

He felt nothing.

No excitement.

No interest.

No lust.

Nothing.

Pace had made him impotent. In knowing her, he had lost all interest in any other woman.

And she didn’t even know it. She didn’t even care.

They had just left another big port, and were now on the final leg of the trip. And it didn’t seem long enough.

Not long enough to fall in love with someone.

Not long enough to have someone fall in love with you.

Not long enough to figure out how to say goodbye.

This ball was being held to commemorate three weeks out at sea.

. . . . . . . . .

He didn’t see what there was to celebrate.

Pace still wasn’t talking to him. It had been four days since his visit to her sickroom. He had given her the space she needed. But it seemed that Pace would never feel comfortable talking to him.

His eyes wandered across the ballroom.

There she was, dancing with another man. Her arms lying on another’s man’s shoulders. Her body resting against his, as they slow danced.

She was wearing a slinky, champagne colored dress. Her hair was swept up, leaving her delicate shoulders bare.

What made him so obsessively interested?

Why couldn’t he give up when she so obviously didn’t want to be interested?

Was it because . . .

Was it because she reminded him of her?

He closed his eyes, wanting to block out the truth.

Pace was beautiful, just like her. But that wasn’t all there was to her.

She was graceful. She was intelligent. She was creative, as evidenced by her bunny books. She was complex.

And she wasn’t in awe of his wealth. She wasn’t seduced by his reputation. She wasn’t entranced by his looks. She wasn’t easily impressed. Period.

She had traded him in for Edward.

That still stung a little.

She was a good friend. She was nice to those less fortunate than her, i.e. Edward. She couldn’t stand cruelty to animals, especially little bunny rabbits.

She had quirky tastes. She didn’t like to dress up. She hated people yelling at her. And she forgave easily.

And . . . he was falling in love with her.

But . . . she was also a bit confused. She was also a bit hesitant. And he had to fight against his desire to act and conquer, to give her the space she desperately needed.

His eyes darkened when he saw her nodding quietly to her companion’s whispered comment.

They left the ballroom.

“Hey!” a woman’s voice called out.

Vanness looked down, and then turned to the voice.

His eyes widened at the distance between him and his dance partner.

His feet had unconsciously followed Pace’s progress from the ballroom. He didn’t want to be here, when she was out there . . . with another man.

“I have to go,” Vanness stated, and then turned to go.

“What about our dance?!! What the hell! Everyone said that you would sleep with anything in a skirt, and you’re turning me down??!” she yelled out incredulously.

Vanness turned back to glare at her.

She was abruptly silenced by the look.

“Not anymore,” he asserted, turning to go.

He raced out of the ballroom, his eyes frantically searching for the couple.

He heard a soft sound.

Turning, he saw her.

He sighed in relief.

. . . . . .

She was alone.

She stood against the railing, her hands gripping the metal rail.

She was shivering in the cold, night air.

Her eyes were gazing out into the distance.

Vanness quietly came up behind her, and shrugging off his coat, placed it around her shoulders.

“I told you I wasn’t interested,” she cried angrily, turning to glare at him.

“But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying,” he responded.

Her eyes widened in shock.

She turned away, flushing.

“I didn’t mean you,” she finally said. “That idiot that brought me out here suggested we . . . forget it. It was a disgusting suggestion, and he was a revolting creature. I can’t believe I came out here with that jerk.”

“So, does that mean that you are interested in me?” he asked, moving to stand next to her.

She was silent.

“I haven’t seen the sea for a long time,” she finally said, breaking the silence, “not since. . .”

“Since?” he asked.

“Since my parents died, so long ago,” she said quietly. “It’s so beautiful.”

“What is?”

“The sea. But it’s also seductive and deadly. It took my parents away from me for long stretches of time, and then it took them away forever.”

“I’m sorry,” he softly offered, his hand coming to rest on her shoulder.

“Don’t be, it wasn’t—,” she became quiet and then turned to leave.

“Don’t go,” he began urgently.

“I have to. I can’t be around you. I can’t be with you, Vanness. I have too much baggage, and unfortunately you’ve become linked with that baggage. I can’t let it go. But if I let you go, maybe then . . .” she trailed off.

“Don’t,” he entreated, his hands coming up to cradle her face. “Don’t let me go. I don’t want you to. You’ve begun to take up a lot of space in my head, and you’ve begun to sneak into my heart. It doesn’t stem from revenge or shallow seduction. This isn’t an automatic reaction when I see a beautiful woman in front of me. The more I see you, the more you mean to me.”

“Don’t . . . don’t say that,” she cried, turning away.

“No,” he muttered, refusing to let her go.

He leaned down.

Her eyes widened.

He was going to kiss her!

She knew it, but she didn’t move. She wanted this. The choice had been taken away, and she didn’t have it in her to fight anymore.

And maybe . . . maybe she could forget the past. Maybe it wouldn’t be that hard.

Maybe . . .

His lips brushed softly against hers.

He moved back.

She moaned in protest, pouting at the lost contact.

He smiled, and leaned down again . . .

Maybe . . .

Someone pointedly cleared her throat.

Both were ripped from the warm moment they had fallen into.

Pace looked up at Vanness, to find him staring at the person that had interrupted their moment.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, seeing the shock in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

He was silent.

“Do you know her?”

He nodded.

“Who is she?” she asked.

“Vivian. Vivian Hsu,” he replied.

Her eyes widened in recognition.

He turned to look at her. And took a deep breath.

. . . . . . .

“My fiancé,” he admitted.

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

Chapter 12

Unending Misery – DAY 7

Betrayals and Endings

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

Vanness hissed in pain as she placed the ice against his quickly blackening eye.

She gently caressed his face, before moving across the room to seat herself on his bed.

“So, I guess she didn’t take that too calmly,” she finally said.

“Would you?” he asked angrily.

“If I caught my fiancé making out with another woman . . . I think I would react the same way she did. Even if you aren’t HER fiancé and I was the one to catch you both, I understand her reaction. You didn’t tell her, did you?” Vivian asked.

There was complete silence between them.

“Why are you here?” he finally demanded, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. He didn’t want to think about Pace and the pain he had seen in her eyes. That was right before she had punched him. But even so, he could see that she had been hurting.

And he was the one that had hurt her.

No one else but him.

And she felt betrayed.

He knew she did.

He wished with all his heart that he hadn’t hidden the truth from her . . .he wished that he had told her. He wished that Vivian had never appeared . . . but all the wishing in the world wouldn’t move back time. He could never erase the pain he had inflicted on Pace.

He could only hope that she would forgive him.

Vivian smiled softly, staring at his beautiful face.

He was unhappy.

“Do you love her?” she suddenly asked.

His eyes sprang open.

“Do you love her? I need to know,” she admitted.

“Why?”

“It might take away some of my guilt,” she confessed.

His eyes widened.

“Vanness, do you love her?” she repeated.

“Yes,” he declared after a brief silence. It felt wrong admitting this first to someone other than Pace, but he owed Vivian the truth.

“Then, I can let you go without any guilt,” Vivian exclaimed, sighing in relief.

“What do you mean?” he demanded in shock.

“Vanness, I’ve met someone. I . . . love him and I want to marry him as soon as possible. So . . . I came here to break our engagement,” she finally said.

“Vivian—,” he began.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she interrupted. “We’ve been engaged for so long, but I haven’t forgotten the reason we’re engaged. We got engaged at our parents’ insistence, but we never really had the intention to marry each other, did we?” she asked.

“No we didn’t.”

“Then why argue? I know that you remained engaged to me because you were worried about me and who my parents would engage me to next if you broke our engagement. You continued the engagement . . . you put your life on hold to protect me. Don’t think that I don’t realize that,” she said.

“It wasn’t too much of a sacrifice,” he admitted. “I hadn’t met the person that I wanted to marry.”

“I understand that you had to keep the reasons of our engagement secret from everybody to continue protecting me, but you don’t have to do that anymore. You can tell Pace the truth. In fact, you have to tell her the truth, and be careful with your words,” Vivian cautioned seriously. “I saw the pain in her eyes, Vanness. If you’re not careful with your explanations, then this little slip might destroy any chance at a relationship that you may have with Pace.”

“But what about you?” Vanness asked. “I need more details before I can stop feeling responsible for you.”

“Thank you for being such a caring friend,” she murmured, coming over to sit next to him on the couch. She kissed his cheek softly.

“I know that we were friends when we first got engaged. You even had some half-baked notion of marrying me because you thought I loved you, but you backed off the instance you realized I didn’t. You saw what a romantic I was and that I wanted . . . no NEEDED to marry someone I loved. And you gave me that chance at the expense of living your own life. The man I’ve met has all your good qualities . . . but he makes my heart beat in a way that you never did. He makes me feel in a way that you never did. The way you never felt for me.”

She looked away, staring off into space.

“We’re planning on eloping before my parents have a chance to stop us. He’s powerful enough in his own right, but I don’t want to deal with the hassle. We’ll present my parents with a fait accompli, and after the marriage has been consummated they will have no choice but to accept it. He’s a wonderful man, and I know that he’ll take care of me in every way possible. Physically. Emotionally. In every way.”

“But—,” Vanness began.

“You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” she gently interrupted, reassuring him. “I’m not the scared little person I used to be. And even if there is a little bit of that girl left inside me, Jay will be there to protect me.”

“I’m happy for you, Vivian,” he murmured. He hugged her close. “I wish you all the happiness in the world. And what makes this doubly sweet is that I won’t have to feel guilty about hiding this from Pace.”

“I have to go,” Vivian said, getting up.

“What?” he asked in surprise.

“I’ve arranged for transport off this ship in approximately 15 minutes. I can’t stay away from him any longer,” she shyly admitted. “Good luck, Vanness.”

“No. Thank you, Vivan,” he murmured as she walked out the door.

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

Vanness sat in the dining hall the next evening, eating with the three other couples and a silent Pace. He had spent the entire day trying to speak with Pace, but she had walked away every time and he had finally given up.

He had hoped that she would give him a chance to speak this evening, but she had rebuffed his overtures all throughout dinner.

He watched as she drank another glass of wine, her face turned away from his side of the table.

The girls had tried speaking with Pace all day, trying to convince her to give him a chance to explain, but Pace had demanded they stop or she would leave the cruise ship at the next port.

They had stopped.

As he sat staring at her as she pointedly ignored him, he began to grow angry. It didn’t help that he himself had spent the night drinking.

He couldn’t understand it.

It was as if he had been living a bad dream for so many years . . . and it was HER presence that had really awakened him from the decadent existence he had drifted into. She was bringing back the man he used to be, and he realized that he enjoyed meeting that old Vanness again. He had missed the old him. And now she was just taking it all away.

She was leaving his life.

And he could feel that he was . . . losing himself again.

“Please excuse me, guys. I think I’m done with dinner,” Pace suddenly said, breaking the awkward silence.

His eyes widened when she suddenly left the table to meet the man she had been with at the dance the day before. The man that had made the lewd proposition.

They quietly walked out of the dining room.

“Excuse me,” he coldly said, getting up to follow the couple.

He followed her outside, and saw the jerk take her into his embrace. He lowered his head to kiss her waiting lips.

Without a second thought, he walked over and grabbed the man before his lips could touch HIS woman.

They both turned, startled.

He punched the guy.

“Vanness!” Pace shouted angrily.

“Get out of here,” he grimly ordered the man clutching his eye in pain.

“What do you think you’re doing,” she demanded angrily, turning to look at him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted back. “We are together. You and me. There is no room for a third party in our relationship. Don’t look at anyone else. Don’t talk to anyone else,” he ordered. “Definitely don’t kiss anyone else. I don’t like it.”

“What right do you have to say that to me? With what face? You’re engaged,” she shouted, poking his chest.

“I can explain that,” he insisted.

“I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear any explanations! Why can’t you leave me alone?” Pace demanded.

“I can’t,” he unwillingly murmured.

“Why not? Why do you care?” she asked in resignation.

“I don’t know . . . maybe we knew each other in a past life, because that is the only way I can explain the connection that I instantly felt to you.”

“Go try that line on someone else, it won’t charm me into following your orders,” she muttered, turning away.

“It’s not a line,” he threw out.

“Don’t tell me that I can’t see other guys . . . You don’t like it?” she finally asked.

She turned away, and then looked back at him with blank eyes.

“Why should I care?”

She walked away, abandoning him.

His hands clenched in frustration. For the first time in his life he actually cared about someone. . . first? No, it wasn’t the first . . . but . . . it was definitely the last. He knew it.

But she wouldn’t give him a chance to explain.

This unforgiving attitude was in complete opposition to the person he thought Pace was.

He couldn’t understand it.

He squared his shoulders in determination.

He wouldn’t stand for this.

He wanted her.

And he knew that he would get her.

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

Pace ran into her room, and slammed and locked the door shut.

Leaning back against it, she closed her eyes, trying to calm the frantic beat of her heart.

And she couldn’t help but remember.

“He might have been my fianc頩n the eyes of the world, but we were never really engaged in our hearts.

He was a friend, and our parents had contracted a marriage between us.

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

So. we pretended to be engaged so that I could have the chance to find someone that I loved and could marry.

I’ve released him from a promise he made so long ago. He would never have asked to be released . . . he is too honorable.

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

But he does love you. I can see it. He kept my secret to protect me, and now I’m telling you to help him.

Please give him a chance.”

Vivian’s voice drifted through her mind.

She had come to see her before leaving, and Pace had believed her.

But . . . Vivian had also brought back a load of bad memories. Just when she had thought she could forget the past . . . and be with him . . . her past had walked up and slapped her in the face.

She couldn’t forgive Vanness.

He had hurt her too much. When she had realized who Vivian was . . . when she had remembered, the rush of pain had been crippling. It was intense. And it was frightening. She hadn’t realized how much sway she had let him have over her heart again.

Just because she was a different Pace now, didn’t mean that a very big part of her wasn’t that old Pace . . . Pei Ci.

He had rejected that Pei Ci.

The irony was that he didn’t even remember it.

That it hadn’t mattered to him at all.

She hadn’t mattered at all.

He had forgotten her.

She was forgotten.

And how sincere and long-lasting could his love be for someone he had so easily forgotten?

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

Chapter 13

Revelations

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

Pace sat quietly in her room, staring blankly off into space. It had been three days since she had seen Vanness. Three days since she had seen him with his fianc鬠and three days since she had seen into the past that had made her heart shudder.

She had cut Vanness out of her life.

She had believed that it would be easy.

How much could someone become a part of your life in just three weeks, and two meetings previously to that?

But it hadn’t been easy. It was only when she had resolutely tried to forget about him . . . to erase his existence from her mind . . . only then did she realize how much thoughts of him had colored her mind for the past three weeks.

He had become a fixture in her mind, and she hadn’t even known it.

“Stop it, Pace. Enough is enough. You knew that Vanness and permanence didn’t go hand in hand, yet you still let yourself fall for him. Stop it,” she muttered, hitting her forehead in frustration.

She did not need this.

She jumped as the door burst open, revealing the angry faces of her three best friends.

“Oh no,” she muttered. “Here we go again.”

“Pace Wu, we need to talk!” Barbie ordered, coming over to sit next to Pace.

“Why have you been avoiding us?” Winnie asked quietly, coming to sit on Pace’s other side.

“We only have your best interests at heart,” Rainie said, sitting across from her. “Pace we care for you. And . . . seeing you like this . . . locked up in this stateroom to avoid a man that could be THE ONE . . . it hurts us to see you reject your happiness like this.”

“How would you know he’s the one for me?” Pace muttered, clenching her hands. “You know his reputation. He’s a womanizer. Vanness can’t be depended on to be faithful to any one woman. The first time I met him, his lady love was flirting with him by throwing her skimpy thong at him. In a restaurant,” she argued.

“Pace, you didn’t know that it was him when we got on the ship. You were against him from the beginning, from the moment you heard his name. And that just puzzles us. We see the connection between you two. When you’re in a room together . . . even a blind person could see the chemistry between you two,” Winnie pointed out helplessly. “You can’t punish him for his past, can you? That was before he met you. You’re together now, and you can ask him if he could be faithful to you. Why would you reject him out of hand?”

Pace remained quiet, refusing to answer. She didn’t have anything to say.

“Pace?” Barbie finally spoke. “Did you . . . did something happen in the past? Something that affected how you see men now? Or . . . did you know Vanness?” she finally asked.

Pace’s hands clenched. They wouldn’t stop. They just wouldn’t stop. She wondered what had happened to her friends. Was it the curse of all newly coupled people? That they couldn’t be happy without having all their friends be happily coupled with another, as well? She finally decided to speak.

“Yes, I knew him a long time ago. We haven’t seen each other for a very long time. And some painful things happened that I can’t forget.”

“Pace! Are you giving up on your present and future happiness just because of a past that is long gone? How can you do that?” Barbie asked incredulously. “I don’t pretend to understand what you went through in the past, but I implore you to move past it now. Whatever happened, sacrificing your present happiness is not worth it.”

“Give him a chance now,” Rainie urged. “He loves you. We can all see that. If you give him a chance, he’ll never let you down. Look out how he took you to the bunny island and took care of you when you were sick. He has deep feelings for you, and I can’t see how giving him a chance now could hurt you. He’s incapable of hurting you.”

“You know, they’re doing all of this for charity. And the proceeds will go to a worthy cause. Vanness is also very active in this kind of work. His favorite charity is the Alliance for Children’s and Women’s Rights, although he won’t go into why that is,” Winnie continued, extolling more of Vanness’ virtues.

Pace looked at Barbie, waiting for the next salvo.

“Umm, Vanness and I haven’t really had the chance to talk,” Barbie admitted. “All I know is that he likes you, and that he asked Winnie and Rainie all about your interests, and that he can’t take his eyes off of you when you’re in the room. He’s trapped, Pace. You’re the only one who can’t see how much he likes you. He’ll be good for you.

The past should stay in the past. Whatever history you two might have . . . that’s not important at the moment. He can change, according to the other three. Apparently he wasn’t like this before either, but he changed because of something that happened,” Barbie continued.

Pace looked up in surprise.

“He doesn’t have anyone else right now. And he is single-mindedly interested in you. If you want, you can attract his attention, and deepen this relationship. I don’t know why you’re stalling,” Rainie muttered in frustration.

“What’s holding you back?” Winnie asked in confusion.

Pace was silence. She didn’t want to speak about the past, because if she did, then she would relive it, as well.

The girls sighed at Pace’s continued silence.

They couldn’t understand why she continued to close them out. They were her friends, and they wanted, no, needed to help her. They didn’t want her to be alone in this, and they certainly didn’t want her to make the biggest mistake of her life.

Barbie quietly signaled for Winnie and Rainie to go.

It seemed that Pace wasn’t ready to talk, and they didn’t want to force the issue.

Pace looked up. They were leaving, and she suddenly realized she didn’t want to be the only one who knew about the past.

She wanted to let it all out. She needed to let it all out.

She took a deep breath.

. . . . . . .

“We were engaged,” she blurted into the silence.

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

 

 

Chapter 14

Our First Time

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

“I remember when I was young, my grandpa used to tell me stories about princesses living in castles. They had everything they wanted. Their every wish was granted. Every desire fulfilled. They were precious to their parents. Loved by their subjects. And they had no worries . . . no worries. Maybe that is how most princesses are . . . but my life was never like that.

You know I come from a prominent family. My parents are the 7th generation Wus, and never for a moment did they forget how rich . . . how important . . . they were. Their position in society and business was their life. Nothing was more important than that.

Not even me.

I only had my grandfather and the assorted servants that my parents hired, and fired every few months if their every whim was not met. I learned early on not to get close to anyone besides my grandfather. Everyone else left.

My parents did not love me. I think they needed an heir, and decided to have me just for that purpose. I was taught by the best from the beginning. I was taught etiquette for all situations. I was taught how to dance. How to play the piano. I was taught how to be the best damn society wife that I could be.

Also . . . I was taught business. I was taught different languages. I was taught how to be the best businesswoman that I could be.

I just never learned how to be myself.

Never for a moment did I think that my life wasn’t normal. I never questioned why I had to spend hours on homework and my studies. I never questioned why I never had any friends. I never questioned why I couldn’t go outside. I was extremely sheltered.”

Pace turned to look at her friends, and saw the questions in their eyes. They didn’t understand how the little girl that Pace was telling them about could ever have become the person standing in front of them.

Pace nodded, and came to sit down next to the small group. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, as if the next part would be harder to tell than what had been told before.

“I didn’t look like this, you know,” she murmured, staring each of her friends in the eyes. “I didn’t look like this back then. Because I was hidden from the world, it took me a while to figure out that I was plain. That my glasses made me look geeky. How could I know? The only one who saw me, was my grandfather. And I was beautiful in his eyes.

One day I found out what my parents had planned for me. I was 12, and I was brought into my father’s study. I had been caught sneaking off the grounds, and he was going to scold me. I knew it. As I stood there, trembling from the fear, I knew that this would not be a pleasant experience.

I stood there as he coldly informed me that they had spent money and time on educating me to be the perfect lady. The perfect wife. The perfect helpmate for her businessman husband, and they didn’t want me to ruin that by going out and letting the world learn the truth.

“What truth?” I had asked in surprise.

“My dear girl,” he had murmured, “you’re ugly. We all know it. We have all accepted the fact that you will never be the beautiful child that we hoped for, and you should face that reality too.”

“B-but,” I had pathetically mumbled, tears welling up in my eyes.

“Of course,” Pace said, turning to look at her sympathetic friends, “he didn’t notice. They never did.”

“My mother came up behind me, and turned me around.

She said, “Pace, we have betrothed you to the heir of the Wu family. If there is a marriage between the two of you, and a merger between the companies, not only will the Wu business continue on after your father is gone, but it will continue on with our name. If you marry the Wu heir, we will be the most powerful families in Taiwan.”

I had looked at my mother in shock. And her eyes had told me that she spoke the truth.

“My darling,” she continued softly but with determination, “if the Wus see you before the actual engagement party . . . no matter how intelligent and poised and innocent you are . . . they might very well end the engagement. That is why we have kept you hidden away all these years. The media has begun to take an interest in earnest now that you are becoming a young woman. Everyone wants to see the Wu heiress, and we are doing this for your own good.”

“Pace, stop,” Barbie murmured, coming up to put her arm around her waist. Rainie came up and wiped the tears from Pace’s cheeks.

“I’m sorry we ever asked,” Winnie murmured, coming up. “Pace, please, you don’t have to tell us this. We’re sorry for intruding into something that isn’t our business. You don’t have to hurt yourself by dredging up all these memories.”

“No,” Pace protested. “I want to do this. I need to do this. I’ve never actually talked to anyone about this, and you are all people that I can trust. Just let me get this all out,” she murmured.

They silently nodded, pulling at her to sit down again.

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

He climbed over the wall, sitting precariously on the wall as he struggled to see something. . . anything on the vast grounds. He didn’t have much hope, but he would know that he had tried.

That he had tried to meet the girl that his parents had picked for him years ago.

That he had tried to see the girl that they hadn’t even seen for years. He wanted to see her so badly, just so that he could go back and throw whatever he found in their faces.

That he had tried to see the girl that he would marry someday. Yes, he had accepted it, but there was still some hope. Hope that something would save him from his fate.

His parents always scolded him whenever he did any mischief, telling him that there was a perfect little girl out there. A girl who excelled at her studies. Knew more languages than he did. A girl who knew more about business, and how to socialize than he ever would if he didn’t study seriously. They always threw her in his face.

He would try, and hopefully succeed. He would show them. He wanted to make his own choices. He wanted to choose the woman that he would spend the rest of his life with.

He had always thought of her. She would be intelligent and know all the social graces. But she would be more than that. She would kind. And gentle. She would be compassionate for others. Her life would be more than an endless spree of shopping and parties. She would be something more than his mother.

She would be . . . she would be his soulmate. While it embarrassed him to admit, explaining why he had never told this to his parents, he wanted to have the chance to look and find his soulmate. He wanted to marry only the one that would love him and only him.

Of course, he would make himself the perfect match for her, as well. He would try his hardest. But only if he had the chance to choose.

And he was sick and tired of his parents always taunting him with her. Tired of being a failure. Tired of being compared to some perfect, little goddess.

“They don’t even know what they’re talking about,” he muttered bitterly. “They’ve never even seen her, and I’m supposed to take what they say at face value?”

He was startled to hear girlish laughter floating through the air to reach his ears.

His eyes searched.

And he saw a small figure running to a big tree, laughing with joy.

Her laughter made him want to smile. It made him want to forget his bitterness and embrace life, the way she was doing right now.

He froze, a thought running through his mind.

That couldn’t be . . . she couldn’t be her, could it?

She climbed with lithe grace up the tree, going higher and higher, until she was resting on a branch high on the ground. She took out a book, reached for an apple, and began to munch on it while she read the book in her hands.

He stared at her, wondering. He had never imagined the perfect little goddess to be climbing trees on these vast grounds.

“Miss Pei Ci. Miss Pei Ci, where are you?” a voice called out.

She froze in the tree.

“Miss Pei Ci, your parents are looking for you. Please come out. They insist that you go with them to the opera tonight. Miss Pei Ci!”

He watched as a maid came into view, looking about in frustration.

The girl quietly pulled up her legs, and tried to become as small as she could.

“Miss Pei Ci,” the maid shouted in anger. “Sniveling brat. No wonder her parents don’t love her,” she ground out, turning in another direction to continue the search.

He watched as her face turned white, and tears began to streak down her cheeks.

His hands clenched, unexpected anger welling up inside him at the cruel words.

Pei Ci stared down at her hands, a sad expression come over her face. She finally sighed, and shrugged her shoulders.

Her gaze wandered to the ground and she froze, her face turning white once more. But now it was frozen with fear. She was barely breathing.

Something was seriously wrong.

Without a second thought he moved forward to help . . .

And fell off the wall.

Shaking his head at his stupidity, he got up, brushing himself off.

She hadn’t reacted at all to the thud he had made. She didn’t look over.

“What is it?” he ran over.

“I wanted to climb up,” she said.

“And?”

“I didn’t realize how high it was,” she whispered.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m afraid of heights,” she said.

“Then why—?” he began in astonishment.

“I wanted to fight my fears,” she broke in.

“Ever heard of taking baby steps?”

“I’m no longer a baby. And this really is the best,” she explained. “I’ve been practicing for the past few months. No one knows, and no one will find out. That way no one would ever find me when I don’t want to be found.”

He nodded in understanding, now realizing why the maid hadn’t even bothered to look up.

“Well, just turn around and start climbing down.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.”

“How the hell would you know?” she shouted in fear.

“Because . . . you look like that kind of girl?” he finally said.

“Are you making a joke about my looks?” she asked suspiciously.

“What?!” he asked in surprise. “I would never.” He looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. Her personality . . . she herself had distracted him so much that he hadn’t even had the chance to notice how plain she really was.

“Why not?” she asked insistently.

“Why not what?” he asked confusedly.

“Why would you never make fun of me? Everyone else does, behind my back,” she softly continued.

“I won’t,” he promised. “I would never say anything about your looks,” he softly whispered. “You have beautiful eyes,” his eyes widened as the words came out of his mouth.

His hands sprang up to cover his mouth.

She stared at him, eyes wide open.

She giggled.

“You have a beautiful smile,” he mumbled from behind his hands.

Her hands came up to cover her mouth as she giggled again.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, his cheeks red.

“Okay then, let me come up there,” he said, finally shaking his head to clear it of all the crazy thoughts.

“No, don’t. You’ll shake the tree. I’ll fall,” she cried.

“You won’t. I promise. I’ll catch you if you do,” he said confidently.

“You promise?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“Then let me try this by myself. You just stand there. Remember, you promised to catch me if I fall,” she warned him.

She began to climb down.

His heart clenched when he heard her quiet whimpers.

As he wondered why she would go through this, why she would torture herself like this, she slipped. And his moment of distraction ended up causing her pain.

As he raced to position himself, she tumbled from the sky, and while landing on him partly, partly landed in the wrong way.

Her breath caught.

He gently pulled her into a sitting position.

She stared up at him. Her face was pale. Tears swam in her eyes. Her hands clenched at his shoulders, as she bit her lip to keep herself from crying out.

His eyes traced her features. He remembered when he had broken his leg at the age of 13. He couldn’t help but cry and whine about the pain, and yet this fragile girl showed no reaction beyond the silent tears in her eyes.

“You said you would catch me. You lied,” she said softly, looking down at her leg.

He moved to help her.

“No. I’ll call someone to come get me. I should not depend on you. I’m engaged, and my fiancé would be mad,” she explained, pulling out her cell phone.

“Really?” he asked laughingly.

“Don’t laugh. He’ll beat you up if you laugh at me.”

“What’s your name?” he asked, wanting her to introduce herself.

“Pei Ci. Wu Pei Ci,” she answered, looking at him suspiciously once more.

“Well, Pei Ci, you’ve sprained your ankle. I’m sure he won’t mind if I carry you back to safety,” he said, pulling her up and into his arms.

He carried her quietly back to the mansion.

“What’s your fiance’s name?” he asked.

“Vanness Wu,” she finally admitted, blushing. “We have been engaged for a long time,” she confided. “He’s very nice looking.”

“Is he?” Vanness asked in surprise.

“Yes. And he’s very nice and gentle. When we get married, he’ll take me and my grandpa away from here.”

“Why grandpa, as well?”

“I could never leave him alone here. He would never abandon me, and I would never abandon him,” she explained.

“Have you ever seen him?” he asked.

“My grandpa showed me a picture of his. He was 10 years old. He was kind of chubby, but in a cute way. I just wanted to pinch his little fat cheeks,” she said with a giggle.

He blushed in response.

“But looks aren’t everything, and who am I to complain,” she continued. “Plus, he had this wonderful smile. He was so happy in that picture, and I think that we could be happy together, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered softly, smiling down at her bent head.

“Grandpa said that he was really nice to me when they came to visit a long time ago, you know, when my parents signed the agreement for our engagement. He was only four years old, but he stayed with me the whole time he was here. That makes him really nice, right?” she asked, looking up at him.

“Yes, I guess,” he murmured.

They reached the house, and all the servants panicked at seeing the Shao Jie injured and with a strange man. They calmed down, once he explained who he was. He made sure to do it away from Pei Ci’s ears.

He ordered them to call a doctor, and, turning, went up to her.

“I’ll say goodbye,” he said from the doorway. She was lying on her bed, looking lost. Her face had traces of tears. It seemed that she had finally cried out her pain.

“Will I ever see you again?” she asked plaintively.

“I promise,” he murmured, leaning down to kiss her cheek.

She gasped, and her hand came up to cradle her cheek.

“Don’t do that! My fiancé would be jealous,” she exclaimed.

“Are you saving all your kisses for him?”

“Yep, so stop,” she ordered, pouting.

He smiled, tweaking her nose, before he turned and left.

“I heard Vanness Wu visited you today,” Grandpa said, entering the room.

“Vanness?!” she gasped.

“Your fiancé,” her Grandpa said.

“What? When? Did he see me with that guy?” she cried.

“What guy? I only heard about the guy that carried you in. Was there some other guy?” he asked in confusion.

“What? No? That was him. Oh . . . . my . . . . God.” Pei Ci wailed in the silent room.

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

Chapter 15

Second Meeting

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

“When I met Vanness for the first time, I had had two years to get used to the idea. I wasn’t strong enough to fight my parents, so I had resigned myself to that reality,” Pace continued.

The girls sighed in sympathy, hating the pain their friend had gone through.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Pace said, turning to look at them. “My grandfather had told me so many sweet stories about Vanness, and had given me his picture, that I had fallen a bit in love with him. I accepted it, and then began to dream impossible dreams.

And then I met him for the first time. I was dressed in my oldest clothes, and told him how my fiancé wouldn’t like me being kissed. I told him that all my kisses were reserved for . . . him. I could only cringe in embarrassment when I realized who he actually was. But Grandpa comforted me. When I told him everything that had happened, he told me that Vanness would only see me as brave and cute. Not an embarrassment.

For the first time in my life I was happy and I thought that nothing could ruin that happiness.”

“Then what happened,” Barbie demanded. “What happened that things are the way they are today?”

“What made him the womanizer he is, and the woman you are,” Rainie asked.

“Well, if this was a story and it had ended at that point, then we wouldn’t be here today,” Pace admitted. “But the story continued, and I’m afraid that it didn’t have a happy ending.”

“I met him again, three years later. And the meeting was not at all like I had planned.”

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

Pei Ci blinked, looking at her computer screen. She blinked again. It was still there.

A message from Vanness Wu, her fiancé.

Her eyes blinked once more, as she tried to digest what he had written.

Dear Pei Ci,

I’m sorry for the long silence, but my parents found out that I had visited you that day. They threatened to end our engagement if I didn’t promise to never try to contact you. I had to keep my promises; you wouldn’t want a man that couldn’t keep his word, right? Yesterday was the last day of that promise.

I am having my 21st birthday party, and it’ll be big enough to satisfy my pretentious parents’ aspirations to be one of the biggest families here. I have purposefully chosen a place that is close enough that you could attend if you wished to.

Please, do me the honor of attending my 21st birthday party.

Yours truly,

Vanness Wu.

Her lips tightened in determination. No matter what her parents said she would go. She wanted to see Vanness, and she wanted him to see her.

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

Pace turned to look at her friends.

“You know me. Once I decided that I would go, nothing would stop me. I confided in grandpa, and he was fully supportive. Perhaps . . . he was too supportive,” she finished wryly.

“What do you mean?” Winnie asked in surprise.

“He was so proud that the Wu heir had liked me, just like he had promised for years, that he insisted that he would plan everything. And he did plan it all. He picked my dress.”

“No!” Rainie said in shock, her hands going to cover her mouth.

“Oh, Pace, no. And knowing you, you probably honored his wishes, right?” Winnie asked.

“What do you mean?” Barbie asked in irritation.

“You guys understand,” Pace said, nodding her head. “It was the ugliest thing I had seen, and I had been taught enough about fashion to know that I would clash with everything in that party. But I couldn’t hurt him, not when he was so proud and happy for me.”

“And, so you went to the party dressed like that?” Barbie asked.

“I had to,” Pace defended herself.

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

Pace looked down at her dress, and cringed. Seeing her wear the dress had brought tears to her grandpa’s eyes. She couldn’t hurt him by refusing to wear it.

She didn’t want to go in there. She didn’t. But Vanness had asked her, and she didn’t want to disappoint him.

She walked to the door. If she didn’t walk in now, she would never get to the party.

. . . . . .

It had been harder than she had thought to get through those doors. It hadn’t even been the lack of courage. The stupid doorman wouldn’t believe that she was actually invited to the party. She had to show her ID, which he had then carefully checked against his list.

Her eyes watered, as she caught the eyes of everyone falling on her. There were jeers. She could see some people talking behind their hands about her. Others were outright laughing at her dress.

Her hands clenched.

She wouldn’t let these nobodies scare her away. Vanness had invited her.

“Pei Ci,” she heard a voice shout out.

She turned to look.

“Vanness,” she murmured shyly. “Happy birthday,” she said, handing him the gift.

“Thank you,” he said, leaning down to kiss her on the cheek. “And don’t say that I can’t kiss you,” he said teasingly.

Pei Ci ducked her head in embarrassment, her face getting red.

“Hey, don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “I thought it was really sweet that you would think that way although we’d never met. I though that it was cute.”

She quietly nodded.

“Let’s dance,” he said suddenly, reaching out to take her hand.

“But Vanness—,” she protested, not wanting to be the center of the crowd.

“Please don’t say no,” he said quickly. “I want to hold you in my arms.”

She was surprised. But that wouldn’t stop her from going willingly into Vanness’ arms.

As they reached the dance floor, a soft melody began to play.

His arms reached out for her, and then he embraced her, as they slowly danced to the music.

“I’ve wanted to know you for so long,” he murmured into her ear. “I got a glimpse of your personality that day, but I’ve wanted to know so much more. If my parents hadn’t—,” he began.

She quickly put a hand to his lips.

“Let’s forget about that now,” she said, snuggling a bit closer. “Let’s just think about the here and now.”

Her eyes moved across the room, as she glanced over his shoulders. Her eyes met that of a beautiful older woman, one who was coldly staring at her.

“Who’s that?” she asked, when she could no longer remain silent.

“Who?” he looked around. “That’s my mother,” he explained.

Pace missed a step. And then another. Pretty soon, it became apparent to Vanness that the longer they stayed on the dance floor, the more flustered she would get.

He sighed in frustration.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, hunching her shoulders.

“Don’t be,” he assured her.

Pulling her away from the center of the crowd, he told her to stay put, and went to get some dinner for them.

Pei Ci turned towards the gardens, her back to the crowd. When she had seen the malevolent gaze of that woman, she hadn’t really cared. But when she realized that this woman was Vaness’ mother, it had affected her. She could no longer be comfortable dancing in Vaness’ arms.

“You’re Wu Pei Ci?” a cold voice asked from behind.

Pei Ci whirled around. It was his mother.

“I can’t believe that you came to high class party dressed like that. Have you no sense?” the woman asked coldly.

“But—,” Pei Ci began, wanting to explain. To make this woman understand.

“And you don’t even know how to dance,” the woman continued in disgust. “You don’t even know how to socialize. I saw you standing in the corner cowering from the crowd’s eyes.”

“But it’s not like that,” Pei Ci protested.

“You dare talk back to me? No wonder your parents were hiding you away from the public eye. They knew that if everyone saw you, they would realize how gauche you were. How unsophisticated. They knew that you were unworthy of our Wu name, and that’s why they ensured that we would never see you.”

“Mrs. Wu, please try to understand. This dress was chosen by my grandfather,” Pei Ci explained, pleading for understanding.

“I think you should leave,” the woman suddenly said, choosing not to hear what Pei Ci had said. “You have embarrassed us enough. You have embarrassed Vanness. Look at him, he had some notion of introducing to his friends the first moment you came through the doors, but I can see he changed his mind,” she revealed cruelly.

Pei Ci flinched as this truth was thrown in her face.

She looked toward Vanness. He glanced at her, and then looked back at his friends. They laughed at something he said.

He was . . . he was laughing at her. And she had thought he would be different.

Her eyes welling with tears, she turned to run from the party. To run from her foolish dreams.

She slammed into a waiter carrying a tray of champagne glasses.

Now, not only was her dress ugly. It was wet. And it reeked of alcohol.

She turned to run, crying with all her heart.

She slammed into something, and then everything fell with a loud crash, taking her along with it.

Her hands came up to wipe away the tears.

Only then did she realize that she had crashed into the buffet table, and had taken everything down with her.

Her ugly, wet, smelly dress was now covered with food.

She stumbled up.

No one came to help her.

No one.

She ran for the doors.

“Pei Ci! What’s wrong?” Vanness demanded, coming after her to grab her arm.

“I just made a fool of myself in there,” she cried out, tears falling fast from her eyes.

“Pei Ci, please tell me, what did my mother say to you.”

“Vanness . . .,” she didn’t know what to say.

“Please don’t believe anything she says. She’s a . . . bitch. She cares about nothing but her position, and it makes her happy to hurt people. Please don’t believe her,” he pleaded.

Who could she believe? The woman she had met today. Or the man she had been dreaming about for years?

She chose to believe him.

She wiped away her tears. She carefully reached up and kissed him on the lips, making sure to keep her dress away from his tux.

“What was that for?” he asked, with a smile.

“For being you,” she said shyly. “I’ll see you next week,” she murmured.

“Next week? What’s next week?” he asked in confusion.

“My birthday,” she murmured, “I turn 18.”

“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday,” he murmured. “I promise to never forget it again.”

“Thanks. I’ll hold you to that,” she nodded, and turned to go, when her chauffer coughed discreetly to remind her of his presence.

Her last sight of him was standing on the steps, his hands in his pockets. He looked deep into thought about something important.

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

One week later –

It was her birthday today. She turned 18, but the excitement of that was overcome by the thought that she would see Vanness today.

“Pei Ci! Come in here!” her father shouted from his study.

She walked to her father’s study, unsure of why he was so angry.

“Come here,” he ordered, pointing to a spot near him.

When she finally came to a stop, he reached out and slapped her.

“We told you to not go out. We told you to make sure that the Wus didn’t see you. You know what you are. You know what you look like, and yet you still went to Vanness Wu’s party last week?” he shouted angrily.

Pei Ci stared in shock. Her hand coming up to cradle her cheek throbbing cheek.

“What happened?” she asked in confusion.

“The engagement is off, my dear,” her mother said, coming up from behind.

Pei Ci reared back in shock.

She couldn’t think.

. . . . . . .

She couldn’t breathe.

It was too hard to take in.

Only one word came out.

“Why?” she asked brokenly.

“It’s obvious, my dear. Vanness Wu refused the engagement,” her mother stated.

“But why?” she asked again.

“Don’t you understand?

He saw you.”

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

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