SOUL 21 – End

Chapter 21

Sleeping Beauty

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

Vanness silently walked into the room. He was lucky that the steward had believed his worry about Pace and had opened her suite door for him.

“You can leave now,” he whispered to the figure standing behind him. “She seems only to be sleeping.”

“Are you sure sir?” the man asked diffidently.

“I’m sure. Thank you,” he murmured, quickly closing the door.

She lay there, sleeping. Her face was clear of all worries. She looked so beautiful, young, almost as if she was the same Pei Ci from before. Not the features, of course. But the curve of her cheek . . . when she was awake, the innocent joy on her face. It was the same innocence that the girl from so long ago had worn.

The one who had wholeheartedly wanted to be loyal to her fiancé. The one who had blushed at a chaste kiss on the cheek.

His hands involuntarily reached out to touch one sun-kissed cheek.

She had been so shy at his birthday party, but also eager to spend time with him. To meet his friends. To be known as his fiancé.

His hands clenched, and he pulled away.

If only his mother hadn’t ruined everything.

And the last time . . . the last time they had met . . . she had looked so virginal. So funny. That had been the most innocent, sweet moment of his life. He hadn’t thought about it for such a long time. He had buried everything beneath the bitterness . . . every moment they had spent together. Especially that one.

His thumb brushed lightly against her open lips. She sighed softly, and puckered her lips.

“Pei Ci . . .,” he murmured without a thought, and froze as she moved slightly. He relaxed when she went back to a deeper sleep.

After the end of their engagement, he spent three years telling himself that he hated her. That’s why the pain had hit him all the harder when he found out about her accident . . . her death. He had spent so long lying to himself, the truth blindsided him. He didn’t believe it at first; he wanted to believe that her grandfather was lying to him. And he had searched for her in all the hospitals in Taiwan. It was as if she had disappeared.

He had never thought to look anywhere else.

Her death had killed something inside of him. He wasn’t the same afterwards. Only when he met Pace had he realized his feelings had been frozen for so many years. Only then had he been able to live again . . . only then was he able to freely breathe. That something . . . maybe his heart . . . had come back to life.

And she was the reason.

“Vanness,” she murmured, turning to face him.

He looked at her. She was still sleeping.

. . . and perhaps . . . dreaming of him.

He smiled.

“You jerk!” she murmured, frowning.

“I hate you.”

He moved closer.

“I hate you.”

He leaned down.

“I ha—”

And stopped the words coming from her mouth.

Her lips were so soft.

And finally . . . finally, he was once again kissing his Pei Ci.

She began to respond sleepily.

He silently urged her to open her mouth, and she listened.

“Vanness?” she murmured, pushing him away finally.

She opened her eyes.

For a moment, before she fully awakened, there was pleasure in her eyes. And joy. And finally there was love. Her eyes widened, and then it was all masked by anger.

He pulled away.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded angrily, pushing herself up and away from him.

“Pei Ci,” he began.

“Don’t!” she burst out. “Don’t call me that.”

“But you’re Pei Ci. The girl I was engaged to. The girl I had begun to love. You’re that Pei Ci. You’re my Pei Ci.”

“I’m not Pei Ci anymore, and I’m definitely not the Pei Ci you supposedly loved. Pei Ci died that day. The day you got engaged.”

“Don’t say that,” he gritted out. “Just don’t.”

“Vanness, what do you want?” she said warily, getting up from the bed. She moved across the room.

“Give me a chance to explain,” he responded. “Give me one chance. Don’t you want to know why our engagement ended? The real reason?”

“It ended because you decided that I was an embarrassment,” she replied.

“No, that’s not it,” he argued. “You never embarrassed me. Never. It was my mother who decided that you weren’t suited to be a part of the Wu family.”

“So, you’re blaming your mother now, huh?” she burst out. “Why can’t you just accept the blame? It was your fault our engagement ended!”

“You’re right, it was my fault. It was entirely my fault,” he finally admitted.

“Now that you know that, why don’t you leave,” she instructed.

“It was my fault that I didn’t believe in you. My fault that I lied. My fault that I didn’t confront you. That I didn’t ask you why you were marrying another man. It’s my fault that I believed my eyes,” he continued, ignoring her interruption.

“What are you talking about?” she shouted. “YOU were the one who had another girlfriend. YOU were the one who got engaged to another woman on the day that WE were supposed to marry. YOU betrayed me.”

“Pace, don’t you see?” he said grimly, reaching out to grab her shoulders. “We were both betrayed. My mother decided to end our engagement. It didn’t matter what we felt. She told me you were engaged to another, and I believed her. Why? Because I saw you with him. I heard you saying you loved him. And it was confirmed by someone who lived in your house, and saw everything. My mother probably told you that I wanted out of the engagement. And when you came to see me . . . I made sure that I didn’t look pathetic. I made sure that you would see how happy I was.”

“It’s too late to be making up these lies. Our engagement ended so long ago . . . I can’t even see the path back to you. It’s been covered by years of pain and bitterness.”

“Your grandfather told me you died,” he said abruptly.

“What?! Now I know I shouldn’t believe you. How could you say that about grandpa? He loved me.”

“And don’t you think maybe that love caused him to take drastic measures in protecting you?” he argued.

. . . . . . . .

“Pei Ci?” he murmured, moving close.

She stared back at him quietly.

“Pei Ci, I love you,” he murmured, moving even closer.

. . . . . . . . .

“Give me another chance. Give us another chance. It could be so glorious.”

His hand moved up toward her cheek.

. . . . . . . . . .

Her hand slapped his away.

She stepped away.

“Don’t touch me.”

. . . . . . . . .

He gazed into her eyes.

All he could see was anger.

There was no love.

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

Chapter 22

Ruby Teardrops

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

“My mother lied . . .”

“Vanness!”

“Your grandfather lied . . .”

“Stop it!” she shouted.

“I want to be with you.”

“Please,” she begged, covering her ears.

“I never stopped loving you.”

“I don’t want to hear anymore,” she quietly murmured.

His words rang through her mind, despite all attempts to forget them.

“Pace . . .,” he began, reaching out to her.

“Don’t touch me. Just . . . stop. Even if I did believe you . . . even if . . . can’t you see? It’s too late for us. There’s been too much pain. Too much . . . everything.”

“But . . . ,” he began.

“Pei-Pace. Can’t YOU see? You’ve always been mine. Why else would there have been such a connection between us after only a few meetings. Then and now. Why would we be so attracted to each other? Why would it be so easy to fall in love?”

She turned away.

“You don’t remember the last time we met, do you?”

“When I saw you kissing that slut?” she asked angrily.

Despite all the anger between them, despite the feeling of hopelessness that had begun to prevail, he couldn’t help but smile at the jealousy in her tone.

“Before that,” he said.

. . . . . . . . . . .

“Your birthday party?” she asked curiously.

“After that.”

“ . . . . No.”

“Why not? You were so happy that day,” he said gently.

“I don’t kn . . . you’re lying again, aren’t you?” she said.

“I took you to the lake on your estate. All the flowers, the night breeze, my gift to you. You don’t remember?”

She violently shook her head. Her hand came up to clutch the necklace around her neck.

“Wh—You still have that?” he asked, gazing at it. “I haven’t seen it, so I thought you might have thrown it away.”

“What?” she asked, backing away.

His hand reached out and touched her necklace.

“This,” he murmured. “I gave this to you then.”

“Why?”

“Uh . . . it was an early birthday present. Your birthday was only two weeks later,” he stammered.

He smiled, and then leaned down, intending to kiss her.

”Wh—What are you doing?” she demanded. She backed away, her hand closing around the necklace. “I don’t remember that. I don’t. Why would I, when it never happened? There was no reason I could forget. None. Besides, grandpa said he got me this when I found it after the accident,” she declared.

“Pace . . .”

“Look, just leave me alone,” she said. “Your mother, my grandfather, that day . . . it’s all a lie. If you had loved me, how could you have given up so easily?”

“But I thought you had a fi—,” he began.

“You don’t have any proof,” she finally said.

He could say nothing to that. Her grandfather was gone, and his mother would never tell her the truth. He had given up without giving her the chance to explain. She had at least tried talking to him. And he had even ruined that chance.

“I’ll leave for now,” he finally said quietly, “but this isn’t over. I want a chance.”

She turned away, and heard the door shut behind her.

He was gone.

. . . . . . . . . .

And she entered a world full of dreams.

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

“Huh? Is anyone there?” Pei Ci asked, sitting up in bed.

Something had awoken her. And there it was again. The sound of something hitting the window. It was pebbles.

“Psst, Pei Ci, wake up!” a voice demanded from underneath her open window.

“Who is it?” she whispered, staring myopically out the window.

“Down here!” he responded.

She squinted into the darkness down there.

“Who is it?” she called down sleepily.

“Your prince charming,” he said.

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

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

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

“What the . . . your fiancé,” he said.

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

“Vanness?” she finally queried.

“Yes. Now get down here,” he ordered.

“Why?”

“I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to TALK to you.”

“Talk. Is that a code word for something naughty? I’m only seventeen.”

“You wish,” he replied dryly.

There was a gasp.

“Now, get down here.”

“Let me get dressed,” she muttered.

“Come down as you are,” he ordered. “I can’t wait here all night. It already took you half an hour to get up.”

“But—,” she began.

“Pei Ci! Now!”

She raced down the steps, and opened the front door.

He was waiting right outside.

. . . . . . . . .

Hahahahahahahah.

“Stop it,” she said, blushing as he continued to stare at her kiddie pajamas. They had feet.

“I’m going back inside,” she said sullenly, as the laughter continued.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped, “but you’re just so cute.” He reached out and grabbed her hand.

“Vanness, where are we going?” she demanded, as he pulled her out the door. “I’m not dressed for anywhere,” she protested, as he walked down the northern path in the garden.

“Relax, we’re not going far.”

It was a short walk. They stopped near the lake, and he pulled her down onto the wet grass.

As they sat by the lake, he pulled something out of his pocket.

“I have an early birthday present for you,” he said softly. “And an expression of my . . .,” he trailed off.

“Vanness, you shouldn’t have,” she protested, as her hands eagerly reached out to grab the gift.

“Pei Ci,” he murmured softly, as she stared at the box.

She looked up at him.

“I . . . love you,” he finally said.

She gasped, her hand coming up to cover her mouth.

“Vanness,” she said softly. “We’ve only met twice, and one of those times I embarrassed you,” she said mournfully. “We haven’t known each other long enough to call it love.”

“No, you didn’t embarrass me. And the first time I met you . . . it made me want to be a person worthy of you. The first time I met you, there were feelings between us. But it was only the second time that I could actually put a name to them. It wasn’t just being attracted to you or just liking you . . it was love. It could only be love. And it will only grow stronger.”

Tears began to trail down her cheeks.

“See, now why did I think you would do that,” he smilingly said. Reaching out, he took the box away from her, and pulled out a necklace. A platinum chain with a ruby teardrop.

“We have yet to celebrate any birthdays together,” he murmured, reaching out to put it around her neck. “But this will be the first of many,” he promised.

“Vanness,” she said softly, “I hope so, too.”

His hands came up to cradle her face. He leaned down towards her smiling face.

His lips ached to touch hers. And . . . she gasped. He pulled back.

“Look, your mother!” she cried out frantically.

He quickly turned to see.

There was no one in the darkness.

And he heard her laughter behind him.

He turned around to see her quickly running away.

“What the hell, Pei Ci! Come back here,” he shouted to her.

“No! You aren’t stealing any more kisses from me, Vanness Wu,” she shouted back, sticking her tongue out at him.

He began to run.

“You’re only getting them once we get married,” she called back breathlessly.

Her laughter rang out into the night, and was carried by the wind back to him.

She raced through the front door, and up to her bedroom window.

He was waiting down there.

“Are you really going to make me wait for a kiss?” he called out softly.

“Tonight? Yes. My eighteenth birthday? Probably not,” she finally said.

“Come and find out.”

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

Chapter 23

 

Letter From the Grave

 

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

 

She had left the ship. She had sneaked off at one of the port calls, and flew back. She left everything behind. But she hadn’t gone home. She had stayed in hiding, trying to decide what to do next. And then had realized there was only one person she could get answers from.

 

She went to find the answers she needed to move on.

 

She hesitated, and then quickly knocked before she could change her mind.

 

“How may I he—ah, Pace, what can I do for you today?” he asked.

 

“Please, call me Pei Ci. I wanted to know . . . whether grandpa said anything to you about . . .I don’t even know why I’m asking you this,” her voice trailed off.

 

“About what?” he asked.

 

“You have been the Wu attorney for so many years. And even after we sold off everything, you were still our attorney,” she finally said. “Grandpa even considered you his friend. You were the only one he really trusted,” she explained. “He wanted to protect me too much to ever tell me the whole truth anything important.”

 

“That’s how much he loved you,” he agreed.

 

“Did he . . . did he really tell everyone that I had died in the accident ? I mean, I know he wanted us to get away from here, and to never return to that house. You know. That’s why I could only return to the house after grandpa passed away. I was away for so long, but the house hadn’t changed at all. And Uncle Kai, the estate manager was so surprised to see me . . . but he was absolutely shocked. And Auntie Jai, our housekeeper, she was actually crying when she saw me. I explained it away as them thinking I would never return, and that they were so happy to see me. But that wasn’t it, was it?”

 

“I—yes,” he finally admitted. “Your grandpa did tell the media that you had died, and he told no one else the truth.”

 

“That’s why I was wondering if he ever said anything about my ‘death’ to you. Why he wanted everyone to think that I was gone?”

 

“. . . Pei Ci, you don’t know how bad it was after your accident. Your parents’ death . . . and then your accident . . . somehow the rumor got out that you had tried to kill yourself.”

 

“WHAT?”

 

“Because of your parents and your ex-fiancé’s engagement to Ms. Hsu . . . the rumor began to spread. Once it started, the reporters were camped outside, and wouldn’t leave. One of them was caught sneaking into your room to get another picture of you. Your grandfather was livid, and he was also afraid that someone might actually succeed. He didn’t want you to be hurt anymore, so he decided to do this.”

 

“Just because of rumors? They were just words, I could live with hearing them,” she said incredulously.

 

“He . . . also felt that being Wu Pei Ci had caused you so much pain. Your parents held the Wu name to be more important than anything else, even their own daughter. They betrothed you to Vanness Wu, and that hurt you the most of all. You had become such a recluse after the engagement ended. And people wouldn’t let you forget that about him. And then, because of the suicide rumor, it was even more likely that you would be made to suffer. He didn’t want you to face the gossip, the snickering, and the cutting remarks. And there was nothing keeping both of you here. That’s why, when your parents died, he thought that it might be best to take you away from it all. And you were happy weren’t you? Your grandfather was so happy when you made friends,” Mr. Ling smilingly said.

 

“But . . . Vanness? Was he there? Did he come to the hospital?” she asked.

 

“Mr. Wu? He was here everyday after he learned about your accident. Your grandfather had him thrown out everyday, but he would always return. I asked your grandfather to let him see you, but he was adamant. He said that the boy had hurt you too much. That he wouldn’t let him have another chance at you.”

 

“But . . . why?” she finally got out. And the thoughts began to race through her mind. He was telling the truth. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to find her, he gave up because of her ‘death’. Why didn’t grandpa give him another chance? If only he had all of the misunderstandings would have gone away. And they would’ve been married now, with children.

 

“Why do you want to know?”

 

“I recently met him on a cruise. He insists that grandpa told him that I was, you know, dead. I didn’t believe it . . . how could I? But then I began to wonder. And I really do want to know

 

“I believe that your grandfather would be the best one to tell you that,” he finally replied.

 

“But how?” she asked curiously.

 

“First, you have to understand, your grandfather wasn’t a hard man. And before long he was regretting that what he had told Vanness, at least. He wondered if he had taken away your second chance with Vanness; if he had taken away your only chance of happiness. He saw unhappy you had become, and how you had lost all joy in life. That’s why he pushed you to go back to school, and finish what you had started.

 

He constantly thought about whether you would forgive him if you found out what he had done. He tried so many times to tell you, but he couldn’t. But he did make me promise that if you ever asked . . . that I would give you the letter he left in my custody. All I ask is that . . . don’t be too hard on him.”

 

Her hands shook as she took the letter he was holding out. Her eyes teared up, when she saw her grandpa’s writing on the envelope.

 

She quickly said goodbye and left the office. Her heart was pounding as she raced out of the building, and reached her car. Without further ado, she ripped open the envelope and read what grandpa had written years ago.

 

 

My Dear Pei Ci,

 

If you’re reading this letter, you’ve asked about Vanness to the only person that I could trust with this letter. It’s been a year since your accident, and yet you’re still sitting lifelessly there in the yard. You’ve closed yourself off from the world, and I can almost hear the thoughts running through your mind. The loss of your parents. The life you lost at their death and because of my decision. Facing your own mortality, and the loss of your identity. Vanness’s engagement and his final break from you. You’ve disappeared inside of yourself, and I can’t find a way to bring you back.

 

A year ago I lost my daughter and her husband, and I almost lost you. The paparazzi went crazy because of rumors floating around. I tried to fight the rumors. But no one was willing to listen, and the stories became more ridiculous every day. I decided that you should disappear for a while, but that could only be a temporary solution. When I caught a photographer standing over your bed, taking pictures of your bandaged face, I exploded. Something was wrong, I could hear the machines making noises around you. And he just stood there and continued to take pictures.

 

I had him thrown out, his cameras confiscated, but before I had a chance to calm down I saw Vanness. He was demanding to be let in. I saw the reporters standing in the open door behind him, and I exploded. I acted without thinking, and told them all to go away because my granddaughter was gone. They all left, but Vanness . . . Vanness stood there like a statute. And then that lie hit home. And suddenly he was unconscious. His friends took him away before I could talk to him. And . . . I just let it be.

 

Every night I wonder if I made the right decision. But seeing the stories that still run in the newspapers that tear you apart in print everyday, I feel that I made the right one. But when I see the emptiness in your eyes and remember the pain in his, the words are ready to fall from my lips. But it’s my fear that holds me back, telling me that if I were to lose you because of this decision . . . fear of losing you . . . of you being hurt again. I see pictures of him in magazines, as well. He has a new beautiful woman on his arm every night, as he enjoys the Taipei nightlife. He’s changed. His eyes don’t laugh anymore.

 

I made the decision, and I’ll stick to it. But I’ve made a promise to myself that if you ever ask for him, I’ll do my best to get him for you. That’s my promise to you. Maybe you’ve decided to give that rascal another chance or to think about it? Truly, I never hated him, but I did hate what he had done to you. I decided to take you away from him. Not a day went by that I didn’t regret my decision, but everyday had something that also affirmed that decision. I’m no longer here with you, but if have decided to be with the only one who was ever in your heart, promise me that you’ll be strong enough to win him. Promise me that you will succeed at love.

 

Your Grandpa

 

 

She wiped the tears from her eyes. Her heart ached . . . it was as if she was listening to her grandpa all over again. Her hands clenched around the letter until her knuckles became white.

 

She took a deep breath. She pursed her lips to stop the trembling.

 

The truth had been fully revealed. She hadn’t believed when he had begged for another chance, but her own dream and her grandfather’s letter had.

 

He loved her. She only needed to confess. So, then why was she so afraid?

 

Chapter 24

30 Candles

One Month later . . .

“Happy birthday to you . . .,” the words rang out into the night. The party guests were singing with gusto, and some with great sincerity. His eyes searched the faces surrounding him, but the one he was looking for wasn’t there. She wasn’t there. These faces, of his closest friends, all smiled back at him, showing how much they cared. But it meant nothing.

Ken was here with Rainie, his arms wrapped around her waist. Jerry was standing there with Barbie, leaning over her. They began their argument once more at the end of the birthday song, thoroughly enjoying the exchange. And Vic was standing quietly with Winnie, absolutely glowing. Winnie’s third finger revealed the reason for the glow. Even the bunny man was here with his Michelle. The two had imparted the news that they’d had a quickie marriage on one of the small islands on their way back.

The one person he wanted most to be here was the only one missing.

None of the women knew where Pace was. Winnie knew that she was okay, for she had spoken with her briefly after her departure from the ship. Rainie thought that she probably needed to “work through some stuff.” Barbie promised that Pace would return soon. That was hardly any comfort, since that particular conversation had occurred a month earlier, and she had yet to return.

He’d waited weeks for her to come back into his life . . . to tell him that they could have another chance. And he was beginning to lose hope.

He excused himself from the guests and went to grab a drink. He still couldn’t believe that all of this had happened because of his mother . . . the she-witch had decided that Pei Ci was too gauche. That she could only embarrass the Wus in high society, and had quickly taken her out of the picture. She knew nothing of what Pace had been . . . of what she was know. Her small heart couldn’t appreciate Pace’s goodness.

He wandered over to stand outside on the balcony, drink cradled in his hand. There was a cool breeze stirring around him, gently playing with his hair. His eyes turned to the twinkling sky, desperately trying to find . . . a falling star . . . something that would make his wish come true. But there was nothing. He exhaled, and turned his eyes down, knowing there was no hope up there.

. . . . . . . . . .

But his wish had already been granted.

He silently watched a female figure walk toward the entrance of the club. She was dressed in a black sheath, her white skin gleaming in the darkness of the night. He saw her hesitate . . . shake her head, and stop in front of the steps. Her hands tugged the drooping straps of her dress back to her shoulders. She then tilted her head up to the sky, as if she was seeking something. Maybe courage? Her shoulders slumped, and she turned to go. His body moved forward unconsciously, wanting to stop her retreat.

His heart began to pound. He wiped his sweaty hands against the sides of his trousers.

It was her. It was Pace.

Racing inside, and down the stairs, he burst through the front door. His body slammed against another’s, a slight figure, so fragile. His hands came out to catch her as she fell, and pulled her into his arms. Her soft body settled against his. Her warmth against his.

There was a moment of silence, and she suddenly pulled away. Her eyes lifted to meet his, and he was startled at the solemnity in that gaze.

“Pace, you’re finally here,” he murmured, reaching out to touch her cheek. He needed to feel her warmth again, to reassure himself that she really was here.

“Vanness, we need to talk,” she said, pulling back from his touch.

“Where have you been?” he demanded insistently.

“I’ll tell you later. Let’s go inside,” she said, moving around him.

“No,” he said, reaching out to hold her still. “We have to talk now.”

“But . . . you’re party?”

“Let’s go into the gardens,” he said softly, sliding his hand down to grab her hand. He quietly pulled her along. They needed to do this. She’d taken so long to get here, that he couldn’t wait another moment . . . to learn what was in her heart.

“Now, where have you been?” he demanded, as they sat down on a bench.

“I’ve needed some time to think,” she responded.

“What happened? Why did you go away like that? Do you have any idea how worried everyone was? No one relaxed until Winnie got your call,” he revealed. “Why did you have to go like that?”

“Vanness, I needed time to think,” she repeated. Her hand came up to clutch at her necklace. “I remembered about this necklace,” she softly said. “It was the night you told me you loved me, right?” she turned to look at him.

. . . . . . . . . .

“Vanness? Do you still love me?”

“Pei Ci . . . Pace I’ve loved you for so long, that sometimes I can’t remember the time before that love. I loved you even when I told myself that I hated you. You were that precious to me. And that was how much your betrayal hurt me. Tore me apart. Changed me. You had become the center of my world, and then you just disappeared one day. It was as if the sun had disappeared from my sky, and it was a strange new world,” he got out, his hands coming up to cradle her face.

He leaned down to place a soft kiss on her forehead, her cheeks . . . the corner of mouth, and finally her lips. There were moments of silence and echoes of pleasure in the silent garden.

Kissing him one last time, she pulled away.

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

“What, Pei Ci? Tell me,” he softly commanded, reaching out to take her hands in his. It was as if he was giving her his strength.

“I discovered some things when I was away. Grandpa wrote me a letter, explaining why he had done what he had. He said he never hated you, but you had hurt me so much, or so he thought, that he couldn’t bear to leave me open to that kind of pain again.”

“I understand. If I had a daughter . . .,” he smiled rakishly, “when we have a daughter. We’ll be just as protective, and I’d want to kill anyone who would hurt my baby.”

She flushed, quickly turning her face away.

“I was going to come right away, to ask for your forgiveness. To tell you that I’d always loved you, and would always love you. But that was when I realized the truth . . .,” she stopped.

“Realized what?” he asked impatiently, a feeling of foreboding spearing through him.

“I’ve always believed what I felt for you was love. That I loved you. That I loved my fiancé. But when I began to think about it . . . when I really thought about it . . . without all the feelings of betrayal, of anger, of grief clouding my judgment . . . I realized that I wasn’t in love with you when I was eighteen,” she finally murmured, and glanced at him in apprehension. “I was in love with the ‘you’ that I imagined into existence. It was the dreams that I had weaved around you . . . their breaking was what hurt me so much when our engagement ended.”

He stared at her quietly, his eyes concealing all thoughts behind a cold façade.

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Vanness, I’m sorry, but that thirteen, seventeen, and eighteen year old Pei Ci wasn’t in love with you. It was the idea of you that she fell in love with. There was hope of love, and I wanted to think that that hope would’ve been enough. But in the darkest hours of the night, I finally had to admit that hope could never have been enough to keep us happy forever.”

“What?” he growled out angrily, reaching out to grab her arms. “How can you come here and say that to me? You were supposed to say you loved me,” he shouted.

“Vanness,” she began.

“I don’t care what you say. I don’t. I’m not letting you go. You’re mine Pace Wu,” he asserted, bringing her closer to him.

“Vanness,” she said softly, her hand reaching up to caress his face. “I know.”

He pulled back, his hands falling away in shock.

“I just needed for you to know that Pei Ci was too young, too naïve to realize what true love was . . . could be. Too foolish to call the emotions she felt eternal. That wasn’t love, but,” she leaned in to wrap her arms around his waist, “this is. The Vanness I’ve come to love . . . is suave, he’s charming, he’s handsome, he’s everything I would ever want or need. I believed that when I was 18.

But, now I know, he’s also competitive, he shouts when he’s frustrated, he likes to tease and torment, he’s arrogant and domineering sometimes, and he WAS a ladies man. Now I know he’s sweet. He will care for me when I’m sick, he’ll find bunny islands for me, he’ll be jealous and protective. He . . . you’re the man I see now. The real thing. Not the fantasy.

I could never have seen any of the latter if we had married back then. Every bad trait, and you do have your share, would have ruined my vision of you . . . and would have soured our marriage. Don’t you see? I can honestly say, that maybe our separation wasn’t all that bad. It allowed me to love the real you,” she confessed shyly.

“I do. I love you. And I thank you for loving me,” she finished softly, her hands clenched together, as she waited for his reply.

“No, thank you,” he replied, smiling with joy. He leaned down to give her a quick kiss.

Their lips touched, and she shivered.

“Are my kisses that good?” he asked jokingly, pulling away.

“No—yes, it’s not that. I’m cold. You see this sexy dress I wore for you. It’s really skimpy,” she austerely imparted. “And the heels are killing me,” she tacked on.

He began to chuckle, and then his laughter rang out through the night. It sounded rusty, as if he hadn’t done it in a long time.

“I haven’t laughed like this since that time before your birthday. Let’s take you inside,” he said, shrugging out of his coat and draping it around her shoulders.

“Wait,” she insisted. “There was one more thing I needed to do.” She began to frantically search through her purse.

“Ah hah! Found it,” she crowed in delight, pulling something out.

“What?” he asked, trying to get a look.

“Close your eyes,” she ordered.

“But . . .,” he began.

“Do it,” she ordered imperiously.

“Are you going to boss me around like this often?” he asked, closing his eyes.

“For the rest of our lives,” she promised. “Open your eyes,” she ordered.

“Okay,” he drawled out, opening them. “What was the big surp—,” his voice broke.

Staring back at him were two matching wedding bands. His eyes quickly returned to hers.

She stared back at him.

“Will you marry me?” she asked softly. “Will you love me for all eternity, and be with me forever?,” she leaned in to kiss him softly. “Will you be my husband, and the father of our children?” she asked, pulling back.

“I—,” he took a deep breath. “. . . yes,” he finally got out. His eyes rapidly blinked, trying to keep all the emotions welling up within him from coming out.

And in that silence, as they stared at each other lovingly, they began to hear the whispers.

“She proposed to him,” a voice said incredulously.

“Oh man, how is he ever going to live that down?” a voice hissed back in reply.

“Well, I guess we have something to torment him with now,” a third voice chimed in.

“You moron, I wanted to see him cry,” a high-pitched voice cried out. There was a smacking sound and a yelp from the first voice.

“The tears were almost falling. Did you guys see,” another voice asked. The pout could be heard in the voice, conveying its owner’s disappointment at missing out on that spectacle.

. . . . . . . . . .

“I think they know we’re here,” Winnie said, looking up at their scowling faces above them.

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

Chapter 25

Epilogue: Mi Amor

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

February 14, 2008

“I can’t believe I agreed to get married in front of hundreds of people,” she muttered softly, her hands coming up to nervously twitch her veil into the right position.

“God, I think I’m showing, too,” she murmured softly, fretting. Her hands tugged at the dress hugging her blossoming figure. “I look fat!”

“But, maybe, it’ll be fun to see everybody and have them with us on our most important day?” she whispered speculatively, trying to convince herself.

. . . .

“Why the hell do I have to do this?” she muttered, pouting at the others. “We’ve already done this before.”

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

“I look good in this tuxedo,” he thought, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

“I can’t believe she gave me a black eye,” he muttered, looking closely into the mirror.

“I’m ready,” he murmured, taking one final glance into the mirror.

“I look damn sexy in this,” he murmured, “she’s going to love me even more.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“I don’t think I want to marry in front of all those people,” Pace said, turning to the girls waiting around her. “It’ll be too hard. I know the furor over my unveiling as the Wu heiress and Vanness’s original fiancé has died down, but I can’t take being the center of such a big crowd. It’s giving me an ulcer.”

“Well, what about me?” Barbie demanded. “At least you’re not fat. I can’t believe I lost to that damned upstart, and had to do what he demanded. Well, I got him good, didn’t I? He’ll be nursing that eye for a while,” she said gleefully.

“Well, it can’t be all that bad,” Winnie said. “We’re marrying the men we love, and that should be enough to make us tolerate anything, right?” She looked at the other women.

“Winnie, stop being such a goody-two-shoes,” three voices cried.

“Well, why do I have to do this?” Rainie demanded, pouting. “We’re already married. Everyone already knows we’re married! They’re probably laughing at us behind our backs.”

The three women turned to look at her.

“Uh—did I say something wrong?” she asked in a little voice.

“This was your idea!” They shouted back at her.

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

“I wonder why they’re shouting? What do they have to be so excited about? We’re not with them. But . . . if I do say so myself, I look good in this tuxedo,” Vanness said reflectively, turning to look at the others.

“I can’t believe she gave me a black eye,” Jerry muttered, looking closely into the mirror. “It can’t be because they’re happy to marry us. You can see how angry Barbie was when I called in the favor she owed me for losing our bet.”

“Well, it can’t be helped. The public awaits, and we should just enjoy this day. I’m ready, let’s go,” Vic said, turning toward the door.

“Don’t worry about it, Jerry. When Barbie sees how sexy you look in that tux,” Ken murmured, “she’s going to love you even more.”

“Don’t say sexy!” Jerry said explosively. “If you say sexy . . . she’ll connect that with sex . . . and I’ll get another beating,” he said.

There was a burst of laughter as they heard the very real fear in his voice.

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

The Wedding March began to play, signaling the couples’ arrivals.

~*~*~*~*~*~
Vic Zhou and Winnie Qian
~*~*~*~*~*~

“I’m so nervous,” she whispered nervously. Her hands clasped his arm tightly as they walked down the aisle.

“You look so serene,” he murmured softly, leaning down to look at her.

“Talk to me,” she requested, hoping to ease the anxiety running through.

“You’re the most beautiful bride here,” he replied. “Your happiness is glowing through you. It makes me happy that I’m the one that makes you this way.”

“Oh, Vic,” she murmured happily. “I’m lucky to have you. You’re the perfect man for me. Wonderful, giving of yourself, interested in the same things that move me . . . we’ll be happy together, won’t we?”

“Tramping through third world countries, setting up foundations and building hospitals, calming down our easily excitable friends with you . . . very much so.

But . . . before all of that . . . the honeymoon.”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Jerry Yan and Barbie Hsu
~*~*~*~*~*~

“You’re not still mad at me, are you?” Jerry asked softly.

. . . . . . . .

“Barbie,” he whispered.

. . . . . . . .

“Baribe,” he called insistently.

. . . . . . . .

“Don’t be mad,” he demanded. “It’s our wedding day . . .”

. . . . . . . .

“It’s not my fault that you looked so sexy that day! I couldn’t control mysef,” he blurted out.

She stopped in her tracks.

He froze.

sexy. seXY. sEXY. SEXY. The word rang in his mind.

She continued to look down.

“Barbie . . ., you’re beautiful. You don’t look fat, you look so beautiful, that it hurts my eyes. Yet, I can’t bear to look away.”

Her shoulders began to shake.

“Barbie, please don’t cry,” he began desperately. “I’ll go down on my eyes, if it’ll make you be happy today.”

His knees began to bend. In the middle of the aisle. In front of hundreds of guests.

Her hands stopped him, and she looked up into his face.

“I’m not mad. You’re right, I did look sexy that day, and I look precious now, right?” she asked mischievously.

He began to smile, and it grew and grew, until the entire room could see the joy.

“Now, let’s go and get married,” she commanded, tugging him up the aisle.

~*~*~*~*~*~
Ken Chu and Rainie Yang
~*~*~*~*~*~

“Was he getting down on his knees,” Rainie asked, as they began their walk down the aisle.

“He probably used the word sexy,” Ken muttered to himself.

“Hmm?” Rainie asked.

“No-nothing,” Ken quickly said. “Have I told you how beautiful you look today?”

“Yes, at least a hundred times in the past five minutes,” she laughingly replied. “And you look handsome, like my knight in shining armor. I’m just so happy that we’re doing this today. The girls were all complaining, so I thought I’d chime in. But I’m happy to be doing this. With them. With you, all over again. I’m sorry if this embarrassed you, that I didn’t listen to your protests. That you had to listen to the guys complain, but . . .”

“You wanted to share our beautiful day with all of them. That first time we ran off and got married. No one was there for us. No one was there for you. I cheated you out of a real wedding. Don’t think I don’t understand. I will cherish this day always because it made you happy.”

“Oh, Ken,” she murmured happily, leaning up to give him a quick kiss.

“I have to tell you, I was only complaining because all of the other guys were. I didn’t want to seem too sappy in front of them,” he admitted, smiling rakishly.

~*~*~*~*~*~
Vanness and Pace Wu
~*~*~*~*~*~

“Did they just kiss?” Pace asked in surprise. “They’re about to get married . . . couldn’t they wait until the end of the ceremony?”

“When you have a beautiful woman next to you, sometimes you just can’t help it,” Vanness replied.

“You think Rainie is beautiful?” she growled, narrowing her eyes.

“No, I said when you have a beautiful woman next to you, you just can’t help it,” he said, leaning down to plant a kiss on her pouting lips. “You’re absolutely glowing.”

“We’re going to give this to the gossip-hungry mob, but I promise that after this, we’ll live a peaceful life,” he said. “I know how hard this is for you, but I don’t want any rumors floating around. Nothing that can hurt you.”

“Vanness, I’m not that fragile little girl anymore. I can protect myself, you don’t need to work so hard,” she murmured, as they began their walk down the aisle.

“I don’t need to protect you,” he agreed. “But I want to. So, let me do this.”

“Vanness . . .,” she began softly.

“Hmm?” he asked, gazing ahead,.

“Are you happy?”

“Very much,” he replied, turning to look at her questioningly.

“I’m about to make you happier,” she promised.

“The only way you could make me happier would be to . . .,” his voice disappeared, as the realization hit home.

“I’m pregnant,” she said gleefully.

“Woohoo!” he let out, stopping in the middle and grabbing her around the waist. He twirled her around, expressing his joy the only way he could. The guests began to murmur at this spectacle, wondering what could have set him off.

“Hey you two! Stop fooling around!” Jerry shouted from the front of the aisle.

“I want some alone time with my wife, and you’re making me wait,” Ken shouted.

“I want to get married here,” Vic shouted suddenly, startling everyone. He looked around. “What?” he asked impatiently.

Everyone quickly turned their eyes away. Now, there was a man who wanted to marry.

Vanness and Pace quickly raced down the aisle to their friends.

They reached the priest and the other waiting couples. Their happiness was doubled because they were sharing it with the most important people in their lives.

The music finished.

The guests waited expectantly.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today . . .”

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

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