MOA 11 – 15

Chapter 11

Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?

She cursed softly as the sunlight hit her eyelids. She’d forgotten to close the curtains last night. She absolutely hated it when that happened. The sun just came out unnaturally early and stole her sleep away. Pulling the blanket over her head, she tried to go back to sleep. But it was no use.

Stupid sun. Stupid her for forgetting this important nightly ritual. Selina was evil for giving her this bedroom. She must’ve known the windows faced the wrong way.

Oh God. Her head was pounding. Her hand came up to pull at her hair, hoping the stimulus would distract her from the pounding in her head, but to no avail. The pain was here to stay.

What had she been doing last night? God, she couldn’t remember. All she knew was that it must’ve involved alcohol.

Stretching, she began the gradual process of waking up. Opening up her senses, she allowed her numb mind to become aware of her surroundings.

She immediately felt that something wasn’t right. Her head wasn’t on her normal, cotton-covered pillow. Using her hands, she tried to understand the signals that her fingers sent back to her brain. Silk. And the pillow was wearing a tie.

……………………

A tie?

It was moving. Breathing. She felt the firmness of the pillow. She could hear the heartbeat. And she could smell the delectable scent. For a crazy moment she wondered if the taste would be as good as the smell emanating from whoever this was.

Hopefully he was male. She didn’t want to be fantasizing about a female bedmate. That craving would only push her further away from her life’s desire. Otherwise known as Chun. But the firmness bespoke male pecs, not a female bosom. Phew.

Ok, her brain was frantically signaling that she was in fact sleeping on a male chest. But who’s? Why didn’t she remember anything from last night?! Everything was a blank. How much had she to drink? Calvin had warned her not to drink after her strong reaction to alcohol that last time.

“You’re finally awake?” An amused voice asked from above her head. She froze. “Don’t play possum, Ella. I know you’re awake. The fact that you’ve been feeling my chest and sniffing away like one of our canine pals was a dead giveaway. Come on now, get up.”

For a moment she wondered if she could ignore the order. Her stupid ears were still ringing, and she still couldn’t be sure who … How was she supposed to face this stranger? She’d spent the night with a stranger. She’d betrayed Chun!

“Umm, Calvin,” she hopefully guessed, “When did you get so buff?”

The chest quivered with laughter.

Hmm. Wrong.

“Arron, I’m sorry for jumping into bed with you again,” she tried to apologize.

More silence.

Wrong again. It wasn’t Arron. Besides, he wasn’t this muscled. Where would the kid get the muscles when he never bothered to exercise?

“Joe? Jerry? Mike? Jay?” Each wild guess was met with silent laughter. God this was a total nightmare. The only way it could get worse was if this chest happened to be Chun’s. Not only would he see her as a lush but with all the men she’d just named … God wouldn’t be that cruel. Right?

……………………

“Chun?”

“So, you finally remembered my name?” His voice was amused, as he gently pushed her off and sat up in bed.

Her eyes widened. God could be that cruel.

Jumping up, she stared at the man sitting in … Selina’s bed with her. Chun. Here with her. And she’d drank last night.

What had she done?

What had she said?

How did she look? Not good, if his surprise start was anything to go by.

“Aaaahhhhhh.” The scream was unintentional and apparently painful to human ears. Her mind couldn’t grasp the horror of the situation.

Her hand came up to cover her mouth, and her eyes nearly crossed when she smelled the fumes coming from her big mouth.

Oh God!

Jumping up, she ran to the bathroom. Leaping inside, she slammed the door, locking it behind her.

Her wild eyes stared into the mirror, taking in her appearance. This was the reason she had promised herself she’d never drink again. The memory loss was only a secondary reason. She flinched as she met her raccoon eyes; her mascara had run. Her eyes swept over her mussed hair. Her lipstick looked like a two-year old had put it on. And there was actual drool.

Oh my God, right now there was a puddle of her drool left on Chun’s chest.

She began to moan with embarrassment. How would she ever face him?

There were three sharp knocks on the door.

“Ella, are you okay?” The door muffled Chun’s voice. “You’ve been in there for quite a while and I can hear you groaning. Are you … okay?”

“Just tell me. Did I do anything last night that I need to be embarrassed about?” she shouted through the wood.

“No.” The reply came after a short pause.

“You paused! Why did you pause?” she asked, her heart beginning to pound furiously.

“No!” he quickly denied. “There was no pause. You did NOTHING last night that you have to be embarrassed about,” he confidently asserted.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Are you ready to come out?” he asked gently.

“NO!! Now go away!”

“Shouldn’t we talk about this?” Chun asked.

“Why? There’s nothing to talk about,” Ella replied stubbornly. “You said I did nothing last night.”

“Yes, but … we did wake up in the same be—.”

“Later! We’ll talk about why you took advantage of my drunken state later.”

“I took advantage … hey! It wasn’t my fault!”

“I was drunk. That’s my excuse. What was your excuse?”

……………………

“Chun?”

“We’ll talk about this later.”

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

Chun stepped out of the bedroom, rubbing his neck in embarrassment. Ella had been drunk and that was her excuse. But what excuse could he give her? You overpowered me? You’re amazingly strong for a woman? Your words shocked me? What words? He’d just told her nothing had happened last night.

He froze when his gaze landed on the trio sitting at the diningroom table. Selina. Calvin. Arron. They fell silent as their eyes landed on him. He gulped. It looked like he’d have to explain a lot sooner than he’d realized. What excuse could he give them?

“I uh need to go to work. I’ll see you all later.” He made a desperate bid for escape.

“Uh uh,” Selina said, pointing to an empty chair. “Not until we know what you were doing in my room.”

“Your room? I thought that was Ella’s room,” Chun mumbled, reluctantly sitting down.

“That’s not important. Why were you in a room with Ella?” Arron stared daggers at the male. “She invited you to dinner. Did you take advantage of her and seduce her?”

“What?! No! And she never invited me to dinner! I came in when I saw her door was open when I came home last night.”

“Of course she invited you,” Calvin argued. “I told Arron to call you, and he did.”

“Wait, no I didn’t,” Arron said, turning to look at Calvin. “That was Selina’s job.”

“What?! No. Ella was supposed to call him herself. She was the one inviting him over.”

……………………

“Ella told me to call him,” Calvin admitted. “Hmm.”

“Well, that’s not the problem. You’re here. It’s the fact that you never left that’s the problem now,” Arron growled. “What were you doing in the room with her?”

“That’s just it!” Chun tried to explain. “Nothing happened. By the time I dropped in she was drunk. She was tripping over the candles. I couldn’t just leave her like that. I put out all the fire hazards, and put her to bed. And then she just … latched onto me and wouldn’t let go. Ella’s surprisingly strong for a woman.” He winced as the pathetic excuse left his lips.

“You expect us to believe that?” Selina practically sputtered in indignation.

“No, I can see that happening,” Calvin said, nodding agreeably. “Ella is strong. I remember one time …”

“Yep, she’s held me down countless times, and that was before the accident happened,” Arron interrupted knowledgably.

“And … and she told me she loved me.” For some reason this sentence was even harder to state. He wouldn’t have revealed it, but he needed an explanation. When had Ella fallen in love with him?

“Oh, she does that all the time,” Calvin assured him. His nonchalant attitude made the truth even more unbelievable. “We’ve told her not to drink, but she gets drunk and then starts crying and throwing around love confessions. She usually latches onto the first guy she can grab.”

Chun’s eyes widened. He didn’t know why … but he was a bit disappointed. But really, what would he have done if Ella really loved him? He wasn’t ready for that kind of a commitment again. At least not right now. He had a hard enough time keeping his current relationships going.

“Remember Joe? And Jerry? And Mike? And Jay?” Arron reminisced about the past guys Ella had assaulted with her crying jags and love confessions. “They never showed their faces again.”

“She caught us too, at the same time,” Calvin admitted. “She forgets by the next morning. Not that she drinks a lot and it is more of an allergic reaction,” Calvin said quickly, “but when it happens, the love confession comes out. And, as Arron said, the guys always freak and run.”

Chun nodded in understanding. He could see a guy freaking out. It had taken him a while to calm down last night as well. And Ella hanging onto him like a limpet hadn’t helped. He’d tried to loosen her grip once he’d calmed, but she’d been stuck too tightly.

……………………

“But you stayed the whole night?” Arron noted that with interest. He leaned forward eagerly, wanting to hear the reason. Maybe there WAS hope for Ella and Chun.

“She really … wouldn’t let go,” Chun tried to explain. “And she was crying in her sleep after she confessed. How could I just leave her like that? She seemed like she was in pain. As if the confession hadn’t made her feel good but had instead horribly hurt her in some way.”

“That didn’t stop the other guys from leaving.”

There was silence between the four. The others were waiting for an explanation.

“She’s Ella; I couldn’t just leave her alone like that. She needed someone to be with her. And I was the only one there.”

“So, all you feel for her is pity?” Calvin asked in disappointment. “That she was all alone when she needed someone, and you felt you had to comfort her? You pitied her lack of friends. But you know you could’ve called any one of us. Don’t forget that she’s spent the last two years with us. She has Selina, too. We were all here. It didn’t have to be you.” His voice was challenging as he pointed out that reality.

Another awkward silence. Chun tried to find the right words to explain his decision last night.

“You don’t understand the relationship between us,” he began quietly.

“I assure you I do,” Calvin said with a cool smile.

“And I’m sure you don’t. At least, not completely. Ella was always someone that needed to be protected. As long as I was around her, I would do the protecting. It just became a habit. It’s not pity. I know that for sure. I know she has friends who can do that much better than I can. But protecting Ella is what I did. If she needed to be comforted or shielded, she came to me. It’s what I’ll always do.”

“You’re right about a few things,” Calvin replied. “Ella WAS someone who needed to be protected. And protecting her was something you DID. Not anymore.”

……………………

“So, if all you can be is her protector, then I’m afraid she doesn’t need you anymore. Last night was an aberration … You have to re-think who you can be in her life NOW. Otherwise, you’ll have no place in her life.”

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

That was the first night I’d ever spent with a man. (Calvin and Arron didn’t count.) I didn’t remember it, nothing happened, and I didn’t get to enjoy it. I’d like to say the experience scared me straight, and I never touched another drop of alcohol. But I’d be lying.

I got drunk and slept the night through in Chun’s arms. And I was supposed to regret drinking? Of course not. Alcohol lead to many more interesting experiences later on.

It didn’t do too much damage to our newly re-formed relationship. Chun was convinced that whatever I said was a result of my alcohol-induced haze. It was a good thing I named the guys we used to play basketball with and the others used the same names for inspiration.

That’s all I needed then. He wasn’t ready to hear a confession of love out of me. He didn’t see me as a woman. But I wasn’t worried. I had faith that he would fall in love with me one day.

I just had no idea how far away that day would be. Two more drunken incidents and whole lotta other stuff had to happen before I got some semblance of a happily ever after with Wu Chun.

Chapter 12

For Her Good

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

“So, how many guys have you slept with?” The question came out of the blue, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen between the two.

Ella sputtered, the wine she had just drunk going down the wrong pipe. As she began to choke, he quickly came over to pat her on the back. Although, it could be better classified as hitting rather than patting per se. The man didn’t know his own strength.

Getting away, she finally caught her breath enough to glare at him balefully. He went back to his seat.

Ella stared at the man sitting across from her. They were at Chun’s house, sitting in his living room, and sadly this was as far as she’d gotten. She’d met him outside his apartment when he’d come home from work. She’d been loitering around in the hallway, hoping to catch him, as usual. Ella had spent the last week hiding from him after the INCIDENT, but it was time that she remembered the purpose of this whole thing and stop being such a chicken. Cassie needed her help. After exchanging pleasantries, she’d asked him if they could talk, and he, taking the hint, had invited her inside. She’d initially talked about Cassie, but it hadn’t taken her long to turn the topic toward the elephant in the room. Their night together. Ella had hoped explaining about the alcohol and her reaction to it would soothe him back into a state of complacency. But apparently it hadn’t been enough.

“What?” he asked innocently. There was a distinct twinkle in his eyes. He sat there, in his black business suit, looking sexier than hell, and he wanted to know how many men she’d slept with? She hadn’t wanted him to think she made a habit of this! His question revealed what he thought of the entire situation.

“Thanks to you I’ll be black and blue tomorrow,” she complained, rubbing at her aching back. She hoped that would throw him off his line inquiry.

“Sorry, I thought your life was more important,” he teased her.

Ella’s eyebrow rose at the tone. This was the first time she was seeing traces of the Chun he used to be. The tone, coupled with the twinkle, and his half-smile reminded her of the first time they’d met. He still looked like that 20 year-old, even if he was getting close to 30. Her fingers ached to run through his stylized hair, wanting to muss him up. It was all a welcome surprise. Even if she did have to suffer for it.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he prompted. “You said it was a mistake. That you hadn’t meant to tell me that you loved me and all, it just happened under the influence of the alcohol. You also said it was because you have a bad reaction to the alcohol. But you named a great many guys when we were in that bed together. I was just wondering.”

“Well, just wonder away,” she sniped back at him. “None of your business. And anyways we didn’t sleep together.”

“Your snores would say otherwise,” he said with a laugh. “They could wake the dead.”

“None of the other men complained,” she argued.

“Exactly. How many men were there before me?” he repeated his earlier question.

There was a moment of silence. She turned to stare at him, catching his intense gaze focused on her before she made herself turn away. What should she do? Should she tell him the truth? That after all these years she was still a virgin? Should she tell him that she could never sleep with a man she didn’t love and since he was the only man she had ever loved … that was not a discussion she needed to have. It was better to just throw him off the scent.

“Just Calvin,” she quickly admitted, hoping that he’d stop the questions.

He stiffened in his chair. It was almost imperceptible, but she caught it and wondered at his reaction.

“How many times?” he shot back at her.

“I don’t know…,” she began in an uncertain tone.

“Then guess.” The order was unmistakable. His eyes were serious when she met them once more.

“Three to four times,” she offered hesitantly. “Although one time I awoke to find both Calvin and Arron in my bed, and neither one of them said anything about snoring!” she said triumphantly, trying to put the conversation back on an innocent track. “See, I don’t snore. That was probably your own snoring keeping you up at night.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Chun’s face hardened into an expression of full-blown anger.

“Ella…,” he began.

“Yes?” She wondered frantically if he realized that last sentence had made no sense? Was she turning back into a ditz? The others had told her that men didn’t like that.

“I don’t think that you should spend too much time with Calvin and Arron,” he finally said, running a hand through his hair. “They’re not right for you. In fact, I think they’re taking advantage of you. Please stay away from them.” His eyes entreated for her to understand. When was it normal for a young woman to wake up with two guys? And Ella was treating it as if it was no big deal.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” she said in a brief tone. She was trying to understand why he’d say that. So what if she’d slept with Calvin, even if Chun was giving it the usual sexual connotations. That still didn’t make it any of his business. “They’re my friends, Chun! You’re not my guardian, so don’t worry about my decisions.”

“I’m your friend. And I don’t want to see you living like this. You woke up in a bed with two guys, and you don’t see anything wrong with that?”

She was stubbornly silent. Why would she need to explain anything to Chun? It’s not like his life was so exemplary. And suddenly, he was deciding to comment on her life and her choices? This was the guy who ignored his own daughter and had one-night stands. This was the guy who’d turned his back on her first. And he wanted her to dump the only two friends she had left in the world after Selina. While she knew that she loved Chun, she wasn’t sure that she really liked him right now. She felt the anger beginning to rise within her.

“Ella?”

“That’s very hypocritical of you,” she finally commented, striving for a calm she didn’t feel.

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t even consider me a friend when Hebe left you. You ignored my calls for a full month, and didn’t come to see me off when I went to America. But now suddenly we’re friends again? You’ve left me far behind, Chun. Whatever we once had disappeared long ago. If it wasn’t for me, we wouldn’t even have this much left. You married, had a kid, your marriage then ended, and now you’re enjoying the single life as far as I can see. You’ve moved on. You have to see that I’ve moved on too. I’m not that old Ella. I make my own choices, and no one, not even a man I used to consider a close friend, will dictate what I can and cannot do. Understand?” Her voice was calm. That very tone brought home her level of sincerity to Chun. She really meant what she said.

“Ella…,” his voice trailed off. What could he say? He was hurt, angry. She thought he’d abandoned her? Of course he had gotten busy. So what if he didn’t have as much time? That didn’t erase their friendship. He had a wife and then a kid at home. He had to run a business. He couldn’t always be there for her. But that didn’t mean he had abandoned her … Had he begun to think that her problems were nothing compared to his concerns? Is that why he’d begun to ignore her calls? And in the end, hadn’t he associated her with Hebe and tried to ignore her too? It was true that he’d cut her off.

……………………

“Goodbye, Chun. Call me when you start thinking straight.”

“Ella…,” he began once more. But how could he defend himself?

“You know, if you have so much time on your hands, why not pay attention to your daughter? Cassie is starved for your attention. And not the kind I saw that day in my apartment. It makes me suspect that you don’t see her as your daughter but as an extension of Hebe … Why don’t you work on that relationship instead? At least there’s something there worth salvaging.”

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

“Ella, I need to talk to you.”

Ella started when she heard the voice behind her. She hadn’t seen him for a week, and suddenly he was there. She’d been trying to avoid him, and had stopped waiting around for him. She hoped he’d gotten the hint at how angry she was at him. Was he here to apologize?

She reluctantly nodded, and followed him into his apartment. He wanted to talk, and he wouldn’t begin until she was sitting exactly where he wanted her to sit. His next words brought her crashing down to earth once more.

“Now, how long ago were you with Calvin?”

“What is this obsession you have with Calvin?” she fired back, immediately on the defensive. “I told you he’s none of your business. My relationship with him is none of your business. Why do you keep on harping on this?”

“Ella … he has another woman. He’s really in love with her. They were making a date to talk about something important the last time I went to see him.”

“Why did you go to see him? Were you going to scare him off?”

“That’s not the issue,” he argued. “Can’t you see what the issue is? He has another WOMAN.” He enunciated the word, wanting her to understand.

“I’m happy for him,” she said with a shrug.

“I was happy for him before I knew about you two but now … Can’t you see he’s cheating on you?”

“I’ll take him any way he can be a part of my life.” Ella’s resolve was strong. If he was going to try to act like her father, she’d be the rebellious daughter. He had no right to dictate, and yet, here he was warning her off her best friend. He had no right. And the thought that he felt that he had that right made her blood boil. Her bottom lip jutted out into a pout. How dare he say that to her?

“When did you get to be so stubborn?” he asked with a sigh. “I’m trying to understand. I only want the best for you.”

“Stop trying.”

“Why do you have such low self-esteem?” he fairly growled in frustration. “You deserve better.”

“You’re right, I do deserve better, but I never did have much pride,” Ella said matter-of-factly. “If I have to take another woman’s left-overs, I’ll do that too.”

Chun was shocked. His lips tightened with even more determination.

‘Ella will not waste her life away chasing a man in love with another woman. She will find someone worthy of her. She will be with someone who can give her his entire heart; not someone who is wrapped up in the memories of another woman.’

He whispered the words inside his heart. He had found a new goal in life. Even if he hadn’t been able to save his marriage and make Hebe happy, he would ensure Ella’s happiness. He owed that to her. She was confused now, but eventually she’d realize that she couldn’t be happy with anything less than a man’s whole heart. And it might be too late by then. He would protect her until she could think straight. And maybe … in healing her, he could heal himself.

Never for a moment did he wonder why this was so important to him.

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

“You’re right,” he murmured softly behind her, “It’s your life. I have no business trying to dictate how you live it.” It was Saturday night, and he’d caught her going out for an evening with Calvin and Arron. Thankfully, he’d decided to approach her before their arrival.

“Good, I’m glad you realize that,” she mumbled, without turning around. Her hands shook as she tried to fit the key into the lock, trying to lock the door.

“Can I come in?”

“I don’t think…”

“Please.”

“Fine, but I don’t think there’s anything more to say, do you?”

“There’s so much more left to say,” he replied, sitting down in her living room for the first time in weeks. “Ella, look at me.”

She turned to stare at him fully. His tie was loose around his neck. His hair mussed, as if it hadn’t been combed for days. There were shadows under his eyes.

“I haven’t been able to sleep with worry over you,” he confessed. “But finally I realized that you were right. It wasn’t my place to worry.”

“I … don’t know why you thought that you had to butt in. Chun, I can take care of myself. I can make my own choices. And if I screw up, then I can lay the blame where it belongs; squarely on my own shoulders. I don’t need to be saved anymore.”

“I know you can take care of yourself … What are you doing tonight?” he asked nonchalantly.

“I’m hanging out with Calvin and Arron.”

“No!”

“What?! What now? Was that all just hooey, saying that you understood my choice?” she asked irritably. “Were you just putting me on, Chun?”

“I … I need you tonight?” he quickly offered as an explanation.

“For what?” Chun needed her tonight? That thought was intriguing. But she quickly shook her head. Of course he didn’t intend for it to sound the way it had come out.

……………………….

“Cassie,” he offered wildly. Why did he need her for Cassie. His mind frantically searched for reasons. “You’re right. I do associate her with Hebe, and that has affected how I treat her. More often than not, I take out all my frustrations on her. And only recently have I begun to realize how screwed up my relationship is with her. I need your help to fix it. Please, Ella. I don’t want to lose my only daughter.”

Ella steeled her heart against the entreaty in his gaze, and turned to go. “I promised Calvin.”

“Please, Ella, I need your help. I don’t know if I can be a good father. Help me.” His hand came out to grab hers as she moved past him. His fingers wrapped around hers, and for a moment she froze at the contact. Yes, she wanted to punish him for his high-handedness. But he was Chun. And one touch brought home the reality of the power he had over her. She’d forgotten over the past few weeks what the real purpose of all this was. She needed to help Chun. She needed to help Cassie.

“Fine.”

His lips blossomed into a secret smile when he saw her moving toward the telephone. He listened quietly as she cancelled her plans, concealing the triumph he felt inside. He knew now how he could manipulate her into staying away from Calvin and his bad influence. All she needed was a little time to gain perspective. She’d eventually start seeing things with a clear head. He just needed to keep them separated until she did.

And as an added bonus … Ella’s presence would also help his relationship with Cassie.

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

So, that’s what happened.

I started out this whole thing with the thought of helping Chun.

Chun started out his little charade with the thought of helping me.

We were both helping Cassie. Be it directly (on my part) or indirectly (on Chun’s part). Our intentions were good.

I don’t know how it all blew up in my face.

……………………

They do say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Chapter 13

Chun – 3, Calvin – 1

Chun sat at his desk, staring down at his schedule for the next few weeks. Sitting back, he sighed in satisfaction. If everything went according to plan, Ella would quickly get over her dependence on Calvin and Arron. Especially Calvin. His lips tightened as he thought about the other guy. He’d considered him pretty decent until Ella had revealed their relationship. Now, all he knew was that Calvin was not a good influence on his not so innocent Ella, and it was Chun’s duty to protect her from any further morally bankrupt activities. Sitting back, he brought up Ella’s face in his memory. She was the same vulnerable Ella. He wondered why everyone insisted that she was stronger. Stronger? No, she still needed protection. She still needed him.

~*~*~*~
Day 1
~*~*~*~

Chun stared at the figures in the car. They’d spent the whole day at the amusement park, and were now getting ready for the drive home. After the last minute bathroom breaks, he surveyed with satisfaction as the two women in his life settled into the car and almost passed out from exhaustion.

His plan had succeeded. Well, he’d succeeded in keeping Ella from seeing Calvin. He’d failed in preventing the talking.

Cassie had been ecstatic when Chun had suggested an outing with her auntie Ella. More than anything, she was happy to be going out with her father.

“This can’t really be your first outing together?” Ella had asked incredulously. It had been a while before Chun had shamefacedly admitted there had been no father-daughter trips, not since Hebe had left their lives. He’d tried to defend himself by citing work and bad memories.

“But she’s your child. She’s a child. How could you punish her for that?” Ella had argued passionately.

And for a moment, Chun had seen a clear picture of the way things actually were between his daughter and himself. It had left him vaguely unsettled. He didn’t want to lose Cassie. But Ella had been their buffer, covering up any awkward moments with her childlike enthusiasm. She’d lead them around the park, wanting to explore everything.

Ella smiled sleepily at Chun as he got into the driver’s seat. She had to admit she liked him a little more after today. He’d spent the whole day with Cassie without getting upset. He hadn’t been impatient … he hadn’t been short with his child … and he hadn’t belittled Cassie’s attempts at conversing with him. He’d been the perfect father. He’d listened.

Ella was happy to realize that the real Chun was down there somewhere. He’d just spent so long wallowing in his own private, miserable world, he’d forgotten there was a whole other world of people out here that needed him to be the real him. She knew that if he could just forget Hebe, he would return to his old self.

She stared down at her cell as it began to ring. Chun had taken it away from her at the beginning of the day, citing the excuse that he wanted no interruptions on their day out. But he’d returned it after he’d caught her at a payphone that fifth time. She’d tried to explain, but how could she tell Chun that she’d needed Calvin’s, Arron’s, and Selina’s advice for what she pathetically classified as their first date?

She couldn’t. Sighing, she turned it off, not wanting to disturb Cassie’s slumber.

Today had been good, she thought, stifling a yawn. It had been a good day. Chun was happy. And Cassie was happy. If only … if only this really was a date, she quietly wished to herself, slipping off into a gradual sleep. As her head came to rest against his shoulder, she wished that she had the confidence to do this when she was awake.

Chun jumped slightly when he felt the weight land against his arm. Glancing down, he saw Ella’s head resting loosely against him.

Hebe used to do this when they first started going out. It had felt good than. It was as if Hebe belonged there and that place belonged to Hebe. Reaching out, he brushed the bangs that had fallen over Ella’s face, leaving him an unobstructed view of her face.

Oddly enough, despite the rush of memories it brought, Ella’s weight felt more comforting … better.

~*~*~*~
Day 2
~*~*~*~

“Ok, show me the outfits,” he ordered the two figures peeking out from behind the dressing room curtains.

“I don’t wanna,” Ella whined.

“I don’t wanna,” Cassie said gleefully, copying Ella.

“And why not?” Chun playfully growled. “I happen to think I have wonderful taste.”

“Yeah, you would. If the rest of the world was blind!” Ella retorted, glaring down at her outfit. “Fine, I’ll show you, but I sure as heck am not buying this travesty.” As the two finally came out from the dressing room, Chun’s eyes widened in laughter.

Shocking pink skirts. Matching bows on top. Blue T-shirts to match with shocking pink swirls. And knee-high boots to match the T-shirts. It was as if the ‘80s had thrown up on them.

“This is it. This is the last one. I refuse to try on anything else you pick,” Ella declared, crossing her arms. Cassie mimicked Ella’s movements and expression. “Frills. Lace. Girly dresses. Long skirts. And when we insist on something from this century, you give us shocking pink and electric blue? I can’t believe that you dress yourself in the mornings,” Ella murmured suspiciously.

“So, now what?” Chun asked in exasperation. “You were the one that wanted to buy clothes instead of going to the museum. I had an educational day planned and you dragged me to the mall instead. And now you have the nerve to make fun of my fashion sense?” he asked with a pout.

“It’s your turn,” Ella declared, pushing him toward the dressing room. “Cassie, stay here with daddy while auntie Ella gets your daddy some shirts, okay?”

Cassie nodded with wide eyes, staring up at her daddy.

There was an awkward silence as the two watched Ella stride away.

“So … how’s school?” he asked, finally glancing down at the imp staring at him.

“Fun,” Cassie said with a sunny smile, her hand stealing into his.

“How do you like your auntie Ella?” Chun queried next.

“I love her!” Cassie exclaimed excitedly, leaning into him. “She … she talks about mommy with me. And no one else does that.”

“Mommy?”

Cassie nodded.

“Your mommy?”

Cassie nodded.

“What does she say?” Chun asked, sitting down at the news.

“That I’m pretty, just like mommy. And that I sound like her and maybe that’s why …”

“That’s why?”

“Maybe that’s why you get mad at me sometimes,” Cassie whispered in a rush. “She says I shouldn’t be sad, because I have to remember that you and mommy both love me but that you two had a fight and I might remind you of her.”

There was a moment of silence.

“I get mad at you a lot, right?” Chun whispered, reaching over to brush away the bangs hanging in her eyes.

Cassie shrugged and quickly looked away. Her lips began to quiver.

“Auntie Ella is right,” Chun said, clearing his throat. Wiping his hands on his trousers, he gently picked her up. Seating her on his lap, he cleared his throat once more, frantically trying to find the words that wouldn’t hurt this little creature’s fragile heart. “I love you very, very much. And when I get mad, it’s because I’m just a little bit mad at your mommy. Your mommy and I did fight, but I can never hate her. You know why?”

Cassie shook her head.

“Because your mommy gave me a precious, little angel of my own. She gave me you. And I will always love her a little bit, because without her, I wouldn’t have you. Don’t ever forget that I love you, munchkin. Okay?” Cassie nodded. Her tiny arms crept up to wrap tightly around his neck. Leaning down, Chun planted a swift kiss on the downbent head and then glanced up, catching Ella staring at them with tears in her eyes.

“Thank you,” he mouthed with gratitude. She nodded in understanding and turned away to give them some more time together. For the first time he was beginning to realize how close he had come to destroying the only relationship he had left in his life. And he had Ella to thank for that.

~*~*~*~
Day 3
~*~*~*~

“I can’t believe that I have to go to work today,” Chun groaned, glaring at the phone. Turning around, he caught the disappointed gazes that Cassie and Ella aimed at him. “Hey, it’s not my fault. Blame the idiot that screwed up the damned project from the other end.”

Ella gasped. “Chun! You can’t say those kinds of words in front of Cassie. She might learn from your example and then what’ll you do?”

“What words?”

“Idiot and damned, daddy,” Cassie cheekily supplied.

A smile broke out over Chun’s face before he quickly wiped it away in the face of Ella’s censor. “Sorry, I promise I won’t say them again. Cassie?”

“I promise I won’t say them again,” Cassie shouted gleefully.

“So, what will you guys do without your escort?”

“Well, it’s not a total wash. I can just ask Calvin to take us,” Ella replied with a shrug. “All we really need is a driver for today and someone with a knowledge of cars, and come on, any male will do. You go to work.”

“No!” Chun’s voice was panicky.

“What?” Ella asked, jumping at his sudden outburst. She stared at Cassie questioningly and Cassie shrugged her shoulders.

“Why don’t you girls come with me to work?”

“Huh?”

“Well, it’s father-daughter day at the corporate offices, and I wasn’t going to drag Cassie since I had the day off, but now that I have to go in, why don’t you come with me. Cassie, you can see where your daddy works!” Chun tried to make his voice excited.

Cassie caught on to the excitement quickly and began to jump up and down. “I want to see where daddy works!” she shrieked joyfully.

“Well, okay, but why should I go?” Ella asked irritably. “You’re changing my plans and I don’t like it Chun. I need to buy a car. I can’t keep on borrowing one of yours, even if you do have like 50 different cars.”

“Do that on another day,” Chun insisted. “I know more about Taiwanese dealers than Calvin. And you don’t want to buy a lemon, do you? Trust me, it’ll be better if you wait. And I could use you at work. I can’t be with Cass the entire day and you can keep her company.”

Ella reluctantly nodded. “Fine,” she said balefully, “But your next day off is mine.”

“It’s a date,” Chun promised solemnly.

Ella’s eyes widened at the words. “Promise?”

“Scout’s honor.”

……………………

Ella yawned widely, and tried to stay awake. Cassie had lost that particular battle half an hour ago. Whose brilliant idea had it been to bring them to work? Oh yeah, Chun’s.

At first Cass had been excited. They’d spent the first few hours seeing Chun at work, and Cass had whispered that she wanted to be like her daddy when she grew up.

“Why?” Ella had whispered back.

“Because he gets to sit in this chair!” Cassie said with a squeal, before ordering Ella to turn her around some more. After that game, and then a few vague instructions from Ella on what it was that Chun actually did, Cassie had drifted off to sleep. And Ella was left alone, fighting her own sleepy battle.

Hearing a sound, she finally saw that Chun had come back from his second meeting. Maybe now they would get to go home.

“Just give me half an hour,” he said, before becoming engrossed in the paperwork on his desk.

Ella watched Chun make slashes through certain documents and sign others. Every now and then he picked up the phone to bark out something to an unfortunate underling. But she also saw that he did this only when the underling was at fault. He was unfailingly courteous when ‘ordering’ others around.

Ella couldn’t help but be impressed.

He was dedicated. He could be firm. But he didn’t use his power blindly. He was courteous and polite to all those who deserved it. He had made the right decision in running this company after his father’s death, even if it wasn’t what he wanted to do at the beginning. But she could see him thriving in this environment. He belonged here now.

Sighing, she stared at him as he ran fingers through his hair, and loosened his collar and tie before getting back to work. Pulling up his sleeves, he revealed his sexy forearms. Ella sighed once more. He was so manly in this environment. It made her want to do crazy things … like touch him. Her fingers actually tingled in desire.

He was no longer the sensitive Chun that she’d initially fallen in love with. He didn’t constantly ask her how she was feeling or try to make her feel good when she felt bad. He knew that she could take care of herself now.

He wasn’t the man that had fallen in love with Hebe either. He wasn’t romantic. But he was a true man. He took charge when required, and let others take the lead when required. Ella realized that she liked this Chun the best. That thought lead to other more interesting thoughts about what she’d do with this Chun in the privacy of an office.

“Let’s go eat.” His voice ripped her from an erotic office fantasy and put her squarely back into reality. She nodded in agreement, wanting to prolong their contact. Although they’d been seeing a lot of each other, she wanted to savor every moment she could get. She didn’t know when things would … could change. Chun could forget about her in the next moment. So she needed to enjoy the now, even if their meeting always interfered with her ‘Calvin and Arron’ time.

“So, tell me about your work,” she requested, sipping her coffee, when they’d finished eating at the restaurant.

“What do you want to know?”

“I saw you working all day. I still don’t know what it is that your company does.”

“Are you really interested or are you asking because you feel that you have to?”

“I’m interested,” Ella asserted. “I mean, I didn’t just waste my car-buying day for the heck of it. Tell me why I made that sacrifice.”

Chun stared at her quietly and then began to talk. And for the first time, in a long time, he was able to talk to someone about his work. He hadn’t done that since his father had passed away. Hebe had never cared to ask, and it was only now he realized how much he’d resented that. Why hadn’t they been able to share one of the most important things in his life?

It was surprising how much he’d resented having to remain silent on this one major point.

Cassie sleepily listened to her daddy and auntie talk about daddy’s job. She smiled and allowed herself to drift away into slumber. And a wish was born in her heart, a wish that she could only voice in her dreams because it was too fragile for the light of day. She had wished Ella could be her teacher, but now she knew that she wanted Ella to be more than her auntie. She wanted her to be a mother … her mother. But she could never tell that to anyone … not even herself.

~*~*~*~
Day 4
~*~*~*~

Chun scowled down the table at Ella sitting between the two reprobates. Calvin sat on one side and Arron on the other of his vulnerable friend, and both acted as if they hadn’t seen her for months. Selina had decided to hold a celebratory dinner for Ella tonight to congratulate her on a successful month completed at her new job at Cassie’s school.

She’d chosen the restaurant. Unfortunately, Chun had no say over who was invited. Or the seating arrangements. While Calving and Arron got to sit next to Ella, he was forced to glare at them from across the table. It curdled his appetite.

He’d been largely successful in his plans to keep Ella away from their nefarious influences. As far as he knew, Ella hadn’t seen the two of them for a month or two beyond the most briefest of moments. But now, all his hard work was going down the drain. While there had been the initial awkward moments, the three had quickly settled into their old routine.

Witnessing the comfort level that existed between the three, he wondered for a moment what could have created that level of intimacy. Ella had only known them for a while, correct? Than why did it seem that she was closer to them than she was to him? So what if she’d slept with Calvin? She’d also slept with him and she’d confessed her love. That wouldn’t explain the intimacy.

Why were Calvin and Arron more important to her than him? Selina and Chun had known Ella way longer than those two had. Then why did he feel like the outsider? And why was it that he minded so much when Selina didn’t mind at all? He quickly dismissed the thoughts that had no answers and tried to get Ella’s attention.

“Ella, why don’t you try this dish?” Chun asked, picking something up at random. “You’ll enjoy it.”

Ella eagerly reached for it, but Calvin snatched it away.

“Ella can’t eat that. She’s allergic.”

Chun’s eyes widened in surprise. Why hadn’t he known that?

“Some wine for madam?” a waiter asked, leaning over to pour.

“No!” both Chun and Calvin cried out, but Calvin was closer. Placing his hand over Ella’s glass, he shooed the waiter away. “We don’t want you getting drunk and crawling into bed with me again,” he murmured teasingly into Ella’s ear. Ella blushed, muttered something and turned her face away.

Chun glared at the exchange. Why was he sitting all the way over here and not over there? He wanted to be the one to tease … He quickly cut off that train of thought.

“Daddy,” he felt Cassie’s hand tugging at his sleeve.

“What is it?” he murmured distractedly.

“Are you angry?”

“No, honey,” Chun reassured her, forcing himself to smile. “I’m happy for auntie Ella. Why would I be angry?”

“Because we’re sitting here, and uncle Calvin and Cinderella get to sit next to auntie Ella.” Chun stared down at the wise eyes staring back at him. A slow smile appeared on his face and he relaxed for the first time that evening. Grabbing the little hand that was patting his arm comfortingly, he brought it up to give it a quick kiss. “Just a little bit,” he admitted. “Do you know why it’s just a little bit?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m sitting next to you instead. You’re the most beautiful and precious little woman at this table. Auntie Ella is only second.”

Cassie began to giggle happily. It was surprising how little it would take to make her heart happy. It made his heart ache to realize how unthinkingly he’d hurt her out of pure ignorance. He’d vowed to himself that he wouldn’t do that anymore.

Chun’s cell rang, disturbing the atmosphere.

With a murmured ‘excuse me’, he pulled it out and turned away from the group.

“Hello? It’s okay. You didn’t disturb me.”

He nodded quickly, hearing the words coming at him like bullets.

“Just tell me, is she okay? You’re sure? Give me the address.”

Taking out a pen, he wrote the address on a napkin and nodded sharply.

“I’ll be there soon. No. Tell Shao Han I’ll be there soon.”

“Chun? Is everything okay?” Ella asked worriedly, staring at the grim expression in his eyes.

“I have to go.”

“Should I go wi…” Her voice trailed off. He’d already left. No excuses. No explanations. He was just gone. Forgetting the dinner. Forgetting his daughter. Forgetting her.

……………………

All over again.

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

Shao Han?

……………………

Who the hell was Shao Han?

I saw that look on Chun’s face again, the one where I knew that he’d forgotten about me and everyone else because of another woman. Suddenly, I was back in the past, at our first meeting with Hebe.

I eventually met her. She was delicate like Hebe. Her hairstyle reminded me of Hebe’s, she had the same wide eyes, and porcelain complexion. She was achingly beautiful like Hebe.

……………………

She was another bloody angel in Chun’s life.

Her English name was Angela, but she liked being called Shao Han. And she was vulnerable. She needed Chun’s protection. She needed Chun.

You would think that I’d decide to give up, right? But no. I decided that I wanted Chun for myself too. I’d started this whole thing with the intent of helping Cassie, but during that time Chun had become my Chun again.

No Angel—a was going to take him away from me.

I was no angel to quietly back away … that was why Chun would be MY Chun this time around.

Chapter 14

Bruises

Ella frantically searched for the package she’d pushed into her bag before leaving work. Her co-worker had gotten the exact flavoring and brand that she’d wanted and now she couldn’t find it. She groaned in frustration. She couldn’t have left it at school, right? No, she distinctly remembered putting it in the bag.

She needed to find that cake. It was Chun’s birthday, and she wanted to have everything ready before he came home from work. He hadn’t wanted a celebration because he felt that he was getting old, but she’d made a small, intimate dinner for them and their friends. Okay, she’d ordered it. But the cake was the main attraction of the evening. She couldn’t find the cake! She needed to make this perfect. She hadn’t seen Chun since he’d walked out of the party last week. And their only conversation had consisted of her inviting him to this dinner. Nothing could ruin today.

Staring at the elevator, she realized that it was broken. She’d have to climb the stairs.

Climbing up the stairs, she continued to search in her bag. If she lost the cake this party would be a total bust. She wouldn’t have a present to give Chun.

Not only was it his birthday cake, but it was also her birthday present to him. It was the cake they had shared every weekend at their favorite café before Hebe came. She hoped that it would bring back memories of happier times for him. Memories of him and her together.

“Oh fu—!” she shouted, getting her foot caught on something that sent her sprawling at the top of the stairs. Her books went flying, and she landed directly on her favorite purse. “Ow, ow, ow,” she murmured in pain, turning over to glare at the object that had tripped her.

“Oh my God! Are you okay?” a breathy voice called out from above her. “I don’t even know when I dropped that. I’m so sorry!”

Ella glared balefully at the black bra tangled around her foot. Her eyes then swung up to meet the girl standing on the next flight of stairs.

“I am so sorry!” the girl repeated, racing down to help Ella up, and then hurriedly bent to pick up the purse and her bra. “I was doing the laundry, and I guess I dropped that on my way up to the apartment. Are you okay?”

Ella did a quick check, and nodded her head. “I’m fine. But you really shouldn’t leave your underwear lying around like that. As you can see, underwear can be quiet deadly too, and it has the added disadvantage of attracting perverts.”

“I’m really sorry,” the girl repeated, bowing her head down. Her shoulders began to shake.

“Hey!” Ella said worriedly. “Are you crying? I didn’t mean to make you cry. I was just joking. I know that you didn’t do it on purpose. Hi, I’m Ella, and you are?”

“Hi,” the girl replied, wiping away her tears. “My name is Shao Shao. I live upstairs. And you?”

“I actually live on this floor,” Ella said, beginning to move. She winced as pain shot up through her leg.

“What’s wrong?”

“My ankle,” Ella moaned.

“Here, let me help you. You said you live on this floor?”

“Yeah, just this way.” Ella directed Shao Shao, and they eventually made it to her door and into the apartment. Shao Shao looked around in surprise at the decorations. “Somebody’s birthday?”

“Um, a friend’s,” Ella admitted awkwardly. Shao Shao nodded, staring at the decorations covering every available surface of the room. “Actually, he wouldn’t like this kind of stuff, but it’s more for his daughter. She hasn’t had a real birthday party since her mom left, and I want her to get a sneak peek before her birthday comes around. It’ll give her a little something extra to be excited about. All little kids need that. It’s not too much, is it?” The worry had crept into her tone.

“Oh, no! Definitely not! I think it’s great you’re doing this for your friend and his daughter. Not many women would do that.”

“I kind of want us to be more than friends,” Ella admitted shyly, sitting down on the couch with a sigh. “He just hasn’t realized it yet.”

“Well, seeing how nice and pretty you are, I’m sure he’ll fall in love with you in no time.”

“Pretty?”

“Very pretty,” the girl agreed without hesitation.

Ella blushed and turned her head away in embarrassment.

Ella blushed and looked away. “Oh no! The cake.” Ella grabbed her purse and dug through the bag. She finally found the box she had been looking for. Her expression was hopeful until her gaze fell on the utterly squished shape of the box. “You think everyone will mind eating a totally crushed cake?”

“I don’t think anyone will say no to cake,” Shao Shao said comfortingly, staring down at the mess her bra had made.

“It’s bleeding,” Ella said morosely.

“Bleeding?”

“He likes strawberries, so the cake had strawberry filling. And now it’s just bleeding out. Everything’s ruined. What do I do? Maybe I should call…” She scratched her head. Calvin or Selina? Arron would be back from classes. Her lips pouted. Which one could she con into taking her? More importantly, who’d have a car available right now?

“What do you need?” Shao Shao asked, her wide eyes inquisitive.

“Well, I need someone to take me to the bakery that made this cake. It’s kind of far, and I haven’t got a car yet. I was lucky enough to get this cake because a colleague of mine lives out in that area. I’m just thinking about who I should call.”

“Does it have to be this cake?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a cake and present combined. We used to go to this bakery a lot when we were younger. And I want him to remember those days. If I can’t get this cake, I’m going to have to buy an actual present. And I’m kind of strapped for cash, too.” Ella blushed while making that admission. But what the heck? It’s not like she was going to meet the girl ever again.

“Well, I have a car.”

“Good for you.”

“No, I mean I can take you.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that!” Ella exclaimed. “It’s really far. And really, all you did was drop some underwear. I should’ve been watching where I was going.”

“I don’t mind,” the girl said, jumping up. She winced, her movement arrested.

“Are you okay?” Ella asked, concerned.

“I’m fine,” Shao Shao quickly answered, taking a deep breath. “You might have been just a little bit heavy.” Her mischievous smile revealed that she was only joking. “Well, let’s go … but wait, your ankle. And you can’t go down the stairs like that. Give me the address and I’ll bring the cake.”

“Are you sure?” Ella was staring at the girl with doubt. She really didn’t want to impose, but Arron didn’t have a car and the other two might not even be available. “Ok, I’ll take you up on it. Here’s the exact cake I need by 5 tonight and here’s the money. And could you have them write ‘Happy 30th Birthday, Chun!’ on it?”

“Chun?” Shao Shao looked up in surprise. “You know Chun?”

“You know Chun?” Ella wore an expression of surprise.

She stared at the girl standing in front of her. She was young. Maybe 22 or 23. She was small, almost like a child. She had wide, almond-shaped eyes. Her lips were pink and pouty. And she wore an expression of complete innocence. Her purity shone through. She was so sweet that it made Ella’s teeth ache. And she was so beautiful that it made her heart ache when it began to comprehend this could be.

“You’re Ella, aren’t you?” the girl said in excitement. “Chun was telling me all about you when he came to see me a few days ago. He said he was at a dinner celebrating your good fortune when I called. So you’re that Ella, huh? So, nice to meet you.” She held out a hand to shake Ella’s.

“Yes, I’m Chun’s Ella,” Ella replied, challenging the girl. Her hand shook only slightly when it came out to grasp Shao Han’s waiting hand.

Shao Shao only smiled guilelessly in reply.

“You’re … Shao Han?”

“Yep, but only Chun calls me that. He had this thing when we first met about calling me by my traditional name. Most people just call me Shao Shao or Angela, whatever is more comfortable for them.”

“Angela?”

“Yep.”

“How long have you known Chun?”

“A few years.”

“How many years?” Ella demanded.

“Um, seven years now,” Shao Shao answered, scratching her head. She pursed her lips and Ella cursed silently at how much prettier she looked when she did that. “I met him when I was 15. He caught me crying over something inconsequential, and he just comforted me. He insisted on knowing my traditional name, and he’s insisted on calling me Shao Han ever since.”

“I see.” Ella stared at her competition, and she could feel her resolve slipping away. She was seeing a girl that not only had Hebe’s qualities, but she also needed him. She was a younger, more innocent model. Chun could mold this untried clay into whatever shape he wanted. How could Ella ever compete with this young paragon?

“Although…,” the girl began shyly. She tugged at her ponytail and glanced down, refusing to meet Ella’s gaze.

“What?”

“Nothing, it’s too embarrassing.”

“No, tell me. I doubt it’s that embarrassing.”

……………………

“Chun does call me his little angel sometimes.”

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

Ella trudged into the elevator, depressed after the week she’d had.

It had been a full week since her conversation with Angela, and in the interim she’d not only found out how close the two really were, but she’d also learned that Angela was staying over at Chun’s apartment.

The two were that close. Ella could’ve accepted the one-night stands that Chun had had before she came back into his life; this was aided by the fact that she’d never actually met any of them. But now, she not only had to meet a woman he’d come home to every night for at least the past two weeks, but she could really see the chemistry there. She’d been a first hand witness when he’d brought her to the birthday party.

Ella’s shoulders slumped. How could she fight this? Cassie loved her now, but Cassie also enjoyed being with Angela. How could … no! She wasn’t going to be weak about this. She wouldn’t step back and let someone else steal Chun!

Yes, Angela was beautiful and tiny, but, Ella reminded herself, Chun had spent the past month dating her. They’d been all over the place, and no man would do that if he was in love with someone else. Especially not Chun. Chun enjoyed her company and even he could see the good influence she was having on his relationship with Cassie. He had taken Ella to work with him. And the amusement park and shopping. There had to be something there.

She wouldn’t give up.

“You’re coming with me!” a male voice shouted as the elevator doors opened. Oops, she was on the wrong floor. All these thoughts of Chun were addling her brain. Without thinking, she’d pressed the button for his floor.

“Let me go! I told you I’m not going with you!” a girl’s voice shouted back. There was a short struggle, and then the sound of a sharp slap. The elevator doors began to close as Ella heard the sound of flesh being hit … maybe someone being punched and then a low groan. It was a female voice. She was in pain.

That was Angela.

Ella’s hand shot out to stop the elevator doors from closing. Darting out, her gaze landed on Angela sitting on the hallway floor, her hands clutching her stomach. Her face was green. Ella could see a handprint on one cheek and blood trickling from her lips.

A big, burly man stood over the tiny figure, glaring down at the girl. Reaching out a hand, the man grabbed a handful of Angela’s hair, pulling her eyes up to meet his gaze.

“Did you think you could run away from me girly? You’re mine to do with as I please, and I say you have to stay at home and earn your living. You think you’re ma would’ve liked you abandoning your daddy?” The voice was jolting, its growl raising the hair on the back of Ella’s neck. There was pure malevolence in the tone. “You didn’t really think that you would escape, did you? Who’s going to take care of me if you leave? You know I ain’t got no work.”

Angela frantically kicked out at him, trying to get out of his grasp.

“Hey!” Ella yelled out, running over to pull at the man. “What do you think you’re doing? How dare you beat up someone like that?” Her frantic efforts couldn’t budge the man. He casually slapped Angela across the face once more. Grunting, Ella pulled harder. What right did this man have to hurt Angela like that?

“Stop that! Get out of here!” she ordered, kicking him in frustration. “Or I’ll call the police.”

The man swung around to glare at her and then pushed her away. Ella yelped as she flew backwards and landed against the wall. There was an explosion of stars as her head banged against the wall. She got up finally, shaking her head carefully to get rid of the wooziness. But the pain was strong.

Stumbling back over to where the man had begun to kick a prone Angela, she jumped onto his back and pulled at his hair. She succeeded in distracting him, but didn’t do much damage otherwise. The man furiously brushed her off his back and threw her against the wall once more. This time the impact was face first.

“Stay out of this little lady or you’ll be getting a whole lot of hurt. You don’t want any broken bones do ya?” His eyes were menacing. His anger palpable in the tense atmosphere.

Ella’s lips trembled. What could she do? Angela had already passed out. If she didn’t do something, he would succeed in kidnapping her, and Ella couldn’t allow that. She whimpered as she forced her body to act once more. There was pain. So much pain. She’d suffered through physical pain before, but that was nothing to the pain coursing through her entire body right now.

“What’s going on here?” Chun’s voice. Chun was here. Her body slumped back down in relief. He would take care of everything. The burly man swung around, an unconscious Angela in his arms.

She heard a beeping sound and then Chun’s voice talking to the police.

Roaring in anger, the man threw Angela down and charged at Chun.

“Chun! Watch out!” She’d meant to shout the warning. Why was her voice so weak? She wasn’t hurt that bad, was she? But he heard and turned in time to meet the brute face first.

She heard flesh hitting flesh. She heard grunts of pain. Her eyes wouldn’t stay open. She closed them, trying to find her bearings once more. A roar of fury and a loud crash. And then silence.

Silence. Who had won this round? Chun or the monster?

“I need an ambulance.” Chun’s no nonsense voice once more. So calm. So reassuring. She sighed in relief. Everything was okay now. He had taken care of everything.

“Are you okay? Are you badly hurt?” his words broke the silence of the hallway once more. “Wake up!” Chun’s voice, filled with worry. But who was he asking?

Ella cracked a swollen eyelid open. She could feel the pain pulsing in her face. She felt a wetness trickling down from her nose and mouth. Her body throbbed.

Her gaze found Chun kneeling next to her. His hands were gentle as they felt for injuries, before coming up to wipe away the blood. She moaned and he pulled away with a murmured apology.

“Don’t move,” he ordered. “I just have to check and see if Shao Han’s okay.”

She nodded quietly and closed her eyes once more.

Chun was here. Everything would be okay.

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

I was so pissed when I met her. I expected her to be a troll … an ogre, but she really wasn’t. As I later found out, in some ways, her life was as sad as mine. Maybe even more sad.

I wanted to think of her as a rival and treat her accordingly, but my humanity wouldn’t let me.

After that violent confrontation, I only knew two things.

Even in the nightmare situation that I was in that day, I couldn’t forget one thought. One petty little thought that ran through my mind repeatedly throughout the time it took for me to heal. I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, but it was my little victory in all of that horror.

Chun had come to me first; not Angela but me. And that’s why I didn’t give up.

And I knew that no matter what happened between Chun and I, Angela and I would end up being close friends.

……………………

Eventually, everything turned out for the best. I ended up with Chun.

And Angela … well, she became important to someone else in our little group. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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

Chapter 15

Faces

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

The figure leaned against the open doorway. A head slowly came out of the room, like a turtle leaving its shell.

A furtive glance to the left. All clear.

A furtive glance to the right. All clear.

No one was here.

The figure cackled in glee. The mission was at hand. Victory was near. No last minute busybodies would interfere.

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

A quick stop to catch a breath.

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

Another pit stop to rest. The irritating buzzing noise was growing louder.

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

Maybe getting out of that bed hadn’t been such a good idea.

Who knew that traversing a hallway would be mission impossible?

But the lips tightened in determination. She had come too far to turn back now.

Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle.

“Ella Chen Jia Hua!!!!!” A voice shrieked from down the hallway. Selina. Great. She was supposed to be at work. She’d promised to go back today.

The shuffling quickened, the figure frantic to reach its destination. No one could stop her now.

“Stop right there!!!!” a quick running of feet. “Just what do you think you’re doing out of bed?” another voice demanded angrily. Arron wasn’t far behind. What was boy wonder doing here? Wasn’t he supposed to go to school today?

Her lips tightened mutinously and her brow wrinkled in disgust. They’d lied to her! To her! Their best friend. How could they say they’d be doing one thing and yet do something else entirely?

“You have a concussion, numerous bruises and abrasions, and a strained back. You should be resting in bed,” a voice calmly stated. Calvin. Bastard. He’d said he would be busy with appointments right about now and yet here he was.

She turned to glare at them.

Selina was glaring back, her arms crossed, her tapping foot revealing her impatience. “You should be in bed. Where are you sneaking off to?”

Ella silently indicated the closed door in front of her.

“You’re too sick to do that,” Arron interjected. “The doctor said you should stay in bed for at least one more day. If you risk getting up too soon, you could faint and that could further exacerbate your injuries. You don’t want to stay here any longer than you have to, right?”

Ella reluctantly shook her head. “But since I’m so close …” It was hopeless.

She could already see the refusal in Calvin’s eyes. Placing an arm around her waist, he turned her to face her room. “You should be in bed right now. You can do this later.”

“But … why are you all here?” She positively whined. She’d had everything planned. What happened?

“Calvin and I got a bit suspicious when we talked this morning,” Selina calmly replied.

“I think we got the clue that something was going on when we realized that each thought the other would be with you. You deliberately fostered that impression, didn’t you?” Calvin asked.

Ella shrugged. “What about you, Cinderella?” The question was directed at Arron.

“Me? Well I don’t trust you anyways. I knew something fishy was going the moment you started haranguing me about missing so much school and the virtues of a good education. You might be a teacher now, but I saw you ditch enough of your graduate seminars at UCLA that I knew you were just BSing. I knew you had something cooking in that nefarious little brain of yours.”

“Pssh,” Ella said with a pout. “You guys are so suspicious. Sheesh. When have I ever given you guys cause to distrust me?”

There was only silence as the others glanced at her.

“Fine. Don’t answer that,” Ella breathed out, relaxing back in bed. “I just wanted to do this one little thing. It’s not like I’m leaving. Sheesh. And it’s not a little brain. It’s a big brain.”

“One more day,” they all ordered simultaneously.

“For us,” Selina said softly, her hand coming up to cover hers. “You can do that for us, right?”

“Fine. But tomorrow I break free.”

“If you can,” Calvin said. “If you can get there. Fine.”

“I’ll do it,” Ella promised herself. “I almost made it today.”

“You were swaying on your feet,” Arron muttered. “If Calvin hadn’t caught you, you’d probably be sprawled there.”

“Screw you.”

……………………

“Where’s Chun?”

“He’s at work,” Selina supplied. “He didn’t come to visit you?”

“Not after that brief visit yesterday.” Her lower lip trembled slightly.

“Well, he’s a busy guy.” Calvin offered quickly.

“But he sat with her for longer than he sat with me,” Ella muttered. Her hands plucked at the sheets, her cheeks flushing for stating such a petty thing.

“Ella, she has no one,” Selina finally muttered. “He might feel …”

“I know. I understand. I can see that. I just …”

They could say nothing to comfort her.

“Just sleep,” Arron said softly, leaning forward to kiss her on the forehead. “Everything will look better after you’ve had more rest.”

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

“Ella!” Angela said with a smile. Her face glowed with her emotions, the happiness quickly replaced by her concern. “What are you doing here? I heard that you were pretty badly injured.”

“I’m fine. The doctor said two days, so I can wander around a little bit now. And it’s not like you’re cross-country, just across the hallway. My god, I hate hospitals.”

“Me too,” Angela whispered softly, staring down. Ella saw the glimmer of tears that threatened to fall at any moment.

“I wanted to see you,” Ella said, coming to sit by the bed. She gave a sigh, tired out from the journey across the hallway. Those last few steps had been a killer. “Here.”

“What is it?”

“Flowers and a book,” Ella said. “It can get a little boring just lying here. I thought you might need the distraction. Guys don’t think about stuff like that.”

Angela looked at the cover, her eyes widening at the title. “‘The Life Cycle of the African Aardvark?’ I don’t think…”

“Don’t let the cover fool you,” Ella said quickly. “That’s just to fool Calvin and Arron. There’s a good romance inside. I don’t know why those two are always after me to read literature. Literature can be very boring if you read it all the time.”

“And you’re a teacher?” Angela teased.

“That’s my profession,” Ella said loftily. “This, now this is my passion.”

“It smells of flowers.”

Ella shrugged, and then finally asked, “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Angela quickly assured her with a sweet smile.

“You don’t look fine,” Ella murmured with a skeptical glance.

“Oh, this, this is nothing. I’m used to it,” Angela murmured matter-of-factly. “Whenever my dad gets into one of his drunken rages people get hurt. I’m just sorry you got caught up in this.”

“The doctor said you have a broken arm, fractured ribs and a cut on your shoulder that needed six stitches and you’re saying that’s normal?” Ella was shocked. How could a father do this to his own child? What kinds of monsters were out there in the world? “Why do you put up with it?”

“He’s my dad.” Those words were simply said. As if it was a truth that couldn’t be argued with. As if that relationship gave him the right to abuse her so badly.

“That doesn’t give him the right …” Ella began heatedly.

“Ella, please. He’s my father,” Angela repeated softly. “I promised mom that I would take care of him when she passed away. It was my fault that I let Chun take me in these past few weeks, after the last incident. If I’d been there, he wouldn’t have gotten so drunk … I could’ve stopped him and this beating wouldn’t have occurred. You wouldn’t have been hurt. Don’t you see? It’s my fault.”

“But you can’t just … you can’t just put up with the abuse!” Ella’s words were frantic. “It’s not your fault. This isn’t about you! It’s a sickness in him and he needs professional help. If this has been going on for a long time, don’t you think a day might come when he wouldn’t stop? Then what?”

“I promised mom,” the reply was implacable. “I can’t abandon him.”

“Then get him help. Don’t do this alone. You’re just risking your life.”

“Look, my dad was great until mom died. When she left us … dad just changed. And I’ve been taking care of him since I was 15 and nothing too bad has happened. And it won’t. I’ve gotten good at taking care of dad.”

“Or have you gotten good at dodging?” Ella asked softly.

“What do you know?” The words were sharp. The anger clear.

Ella stilled and saw the bitter defiance in Angela’s gaze. The same defiance she’d seen before. The same defiance that had lead to some horrific consequences.

“I want you to meet someone,” Ella said softly after a pause.

“Who?”

“I have two friends. If you talk to them … I think that your father can get the help he needs … and you might understand a little bit about what I’m saying. Would you be willing …?”

Angela shrugged and looked down.

“I wouldn’t mind making new friends, but that’s all I can promise.” Her voice was timid. Her gaze was shy as she confided, “I don’t have many friends. Only Chun. And he tends to be bossy.”

“Don’t I know it,” Ella commiserated with a smile.

There was a pause in which both sought another subject to discuss.

“You said you’ve been taking care of your dad since you were 15 … does that have something to do with when Chun saved you?”

“Well, I was just being a little bit dramatic. But he did save my soul. One day, I was crying by my mother’s grave when he happened to come by. He was visiting a relative’s grave. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but dad was there and he was drunk. He started getting on my case about not leaving. It was snowing,” Angela explained. “I couldn’t leave mom alone in the cold, but dad wouldn’t let me stay. He kept on dragging me and shouting. That only made me cry harder. So Chun … he just intervened. Dad told him to mind his own business, but Chun asked me what I wanted to do. And when I said I wanted to stay … he somehow convinced dad let me stay and he kept me company all night.”

“I see.”

“It was just … it was so hard without mom. And I couldn’t stop crying no matter how hard I tried. So Chun began to talk. He told me about this little girl he knew … almost a woman. Her name was … Jia Hua! Jia Hua,” Angela said with a smile. “She’d lost her granny. And to remember her granny, Jia Hua planted daisies. She said that it made her feel like her granny was with her when the flowers bloomed. He suggested that I do something like that. Jia Hua had found it a great comfort and maybe I would too.”

Ella’s eyes filled with tears. Those had been simpler times, and she still missed those daisies. It was scary how far away they felt when she looked back now.

“Did you follow his suggestion?”

“I did. Right down to the daisies. But then dad trampled on them the first time they bloomed. Chun gave me his card and said I should call him if I needed him, and when I called and tearfully shouted at him for giving me the stupid idea of planting flowers that anyone could trample on he came over immediately …”

“…And helped you replant them,” Ella finished for her.

“How’d you know that?” Angela asked in surprise.

“Just a wild guess,” Ella murmured, clearing a knot in her throat.

“But the next time they bloomed, I really did feel that mom was with me. And it helped. And now … now I can’t leave dad, but I can’t leave those flowers either. I can’t leave that house, or I’d be leaving mom behind.”

“But … your mom isn’t … oh, Angela, that wasn’t the point,” Ella began with clear agitation. Was it her fault that Angela remained in such a dangerous condition?

“What do you mean?” Angela asked in confusion.

“Those daisies were to comfort you … not to imprison you or chain you. Your mom would never want that. I don’t think Chun or Jia Hua intended that. Don’t you think you’ve come to a point where you can remember your mother, feel her in your heart without needed those flowers as a crutch?”

“I don’t … I don’t know.”

“Try. Don’t let them hold you any longer.”

“I …”

“Please.”

……………………

“Angela … if I ask you something, will you answer me truthfully?”

“I’ll try,” came the soft reply.

Ella’s hands twisted in her lap as she sought the right words.

“What are your feelings toward Chun?”

“I …”

“Please, I need to know. I told you that I wanted Chun and me to be something more than friends. Do you want that with him?”

“Chun’s always taking care of me …,” Angela began.

“He’s always taken care of me, too.”

“And he protects me from my father.”

“He always protected me too, even when I didn’t need it.”

“He’s bossy.”

“Very bossy.”

“When his wife left him, he changed.”

“I’ve noticed,” Ella agreed.

“And I guess, I’ve made it my mission to take care of him now,” Angela said hesitantly.

“He can’t go on the way he has been,” Ella agreed. “He’ll hurt himself and Cassandra irreparably if he’s allowed to continue on this destructive path.”

“Exactly. I can’t abandon him, Ella.”

“Just like I wouldn’t. But does that mean you love him?” The words were frantic. Why wasn’t Angela answering the question she needed answered?

“Do you?”

“Yes.” The word was short. And had all the more meaning because of its bluntness.

“Then I guess I could call my emotions love, too. But leaving all of that aside … our emotions don’t really matter, do they? You didn’t ask the right question, Ella. The real question is whether Chun loves either one of us.”

……………………

“That is the question that really matters, isn’t it?”

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

“Ella!” It was Chun. Ella turned back with a gasp and then motioned for Chun to be quiet.

Nodding her head toward Angela, she signaled that the other girl was asleep.

“Let’s go,” Chun whispered, pulling her up. The two shuffled toward the door.

He sighed impatiently at the slow pace.

“What? I’m moving as fast as I can.” Ella pouted at him, and hurried up her shuffle.

Chun wordlessly picked her up and carried her out the doors.

Ella smiled secretly and let her head rest against his shoulder.

She sighed in delight.

Chun was so manly. Calvin had never picked her up. That weakling always complained that she was too fat. But she knew it was because he had no muscles. Anyone who saw his stringy little arms could see that.

Only Chun was this strong. This capable.

“What are you doing wandering around?” he questioned harshly, placing her back in bed.

“Well, I can see Angela’s door from here and she hasn’t had any visitors except for you,” Ella argued. She pulled up her hospital sheets, shivering slightly from the cold. “I thought that she might be lonely.”

“You have a concussion,” Chun argued, brushing her hair back. “You need to heal yourself too. Don’t wander the halls,” he ordered.

“I won’t,” she solemnly promised. “Only to visit Angela.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Not even Angela. Not alone.”

“But I need to talk to her!” Ella protested.

“About what?”

‘About you.’ Ella froze. Had she said those words out loud? But no. He was staring at her with that same mulish expression. “None of your business.”

“Then it can wait until you’ve healed. You are not to wander around alone. Promise.”

She shook her head.

“Promise.” His voice was louder.

“No.” Her voice was sharp in her refusal.

“Promise or I’ll …”

“You’ll what?” Her gaze was interested.

“Promise or I’ll … I’ll kiss you!” His voice was triumphant, as if he’d found something heinous to threaten her with.

“Since when were your kisses something bad?” she asked in confusion.

He stepped back for a moment, blindsided by her question.

“Come on Chun, do you think any woman would turn down your kisses? Even me?”

He seemed at a loss for words.

“I won’t promise,” she cheekily said and immediately puckered up her lips. Her eyes closed. And she waited for his response.

……………………

What was he doing? What devious plan was he coming up with now? Would he shout at her? Would she open her eyes to find something grotesque held up to her face? Was he laughing at her bruised face? What?

Why was there no noise?

And then …

His lips.

Against hers.

His warmth melding with hers.

Her body melting into his.

Chun’s arms coming up to wrap around her.

Enfolding her.

A beat or two of shared breaths.

A hint … just a hint of something more.

The real man behind the Chun she thought she actually knew.

Something dark. Something primal. Powerful. Predatory.

A desire so wild, so reckless and passionate that, if left free, unrestrained, it possessed power enough to shake both their worlds. The ultimate sin for those who couldn’t resist the lure. She couldn’t … couldn’t resist.

……………………

Her eyes popped open in surprise.

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

That day I began to wonder. I thought I knew Chun. He’d always been my Chun before anyone else’s, and there’d never been any doubt in my mind of who he was.

But what did I really know? Who did I really know?

How many faces did Chun have? How many personas? Which Chun was real?

The Chun that saved me? Who protected me for two years and then forgot me when Hebe came? The Chun that stopped calling me by my name because another woman demanded it? The Chun that rebuffed my attempts to comfort him after that same woman left?

The Chun that fell in love with Hebe at first sight? Who set up house with her and made a family with her? The one who neglected his wife when she was there? And then neglected his child when his wife left? The one who had one-night stands to punish Hebe … to punish himself?

The Chun that saved Shao Han. The one who called her Shao Han when she insisted that she was fine with Angela? The one who protected her from her abusive father, but let her return to that same father every time? The Chun who called Angela an angel?

There were so many contradictions that my head began to hurt. Which Chun was the real one? The one I’d known? The one that Hebe and Cassandra knew? Or the one that Angela knew? Or was the real Chun someone we’d all never met.

Was the real Chun the one I met that day in the hospital?

That question frightened me. When he kissed me … he made me forget everything. He made me ache. It was no longer a game. It was too real.

I didn’t want to lose my Chun. But if losing him meant gaining the real man, I would make any sacrifice.

……………………

And Angela … who was she? I’d seen a vulnerable woman but there were hints of steel beneath her fragility that worried me.

I met her for the first time when I came back to Taiwan. I resented her. I empathized with her. I understood her.

But I knew … that in some way … somehow … I recognized her. I don’t know from when or where, but I knew that we were connected somehow.

And it wasn’t because she reminded me of myself.

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

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