MOA 21 – 25

Chapter 21

Fragile

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

~*~*~*~
6:00 A.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

Chun walked into the mansion, glancing into the living room as he walked past. His gaze landed on the wedding presents stacked in the corner, awaiting their return. He hadn’t planned on a honeymoon, seeing nothing to celebrate about a marriage where the bride could only pity the groom.

The anger began to well up in his stomach once more. His mind went back to the morning he’d stood outside the door of Ella’s apartment hearing her deride him to her friends. His skin flushed remembering the … pain, yes the pain that had welled up in his heart when he’d heard her words. When he’d eavesdropped on her rejection.

~*~*~*~
“What happened last night … it was a mistake. It was meaningless. And it didn’t go too far, so you don’t have to worry. I stopped it.”
~*~*~*~

Her words still resounded inside of his aching head. Her voice was strong with conviction. She’d denied their union, as if it was something shameful. He admitted that it was something that had happened in the heat of the moment … a drunken moment at that, but it had meant something.

At least it had to him.

~*~*~*~
“You’re right, I did love him … But I don’t love him anymore.”
~*~*~*~

Love?

When had she ever loved him?

How come he’d never known?

She’d always treated him like an older brother. He had to admit there’d been the summer, right before he’d met Hebe, when he’d actually begun to ‘see’ Ella, but she’d ignored everything. Whenever he’d invited her to a movie, she’d invite Selina and Jiro along. Whenever he’d invite her to dinner, she’d insist on the most public or rowdiest of restaurants … nothing too romantic for his Ella. She’d thank him for all the daisies he gave her, but never the way any other girl would. Not with a kiss on the cheek or a hug. Ella would thump him on the arm or give him a slap on the back.

And then Hebe had come along. She caught his eye and then his heart. And the rest was history.

And now that surprising love was dead? It made him angry that he’d never known it existed. It made him wonder about lost opportunities. He’d never regret his marriage to Hebe, for the simple reason that it had given him Cassandra, but it forced him to think about what would’ve happened if Ella had said something … if she’d confessed.

His lips tightened, as he sank down on the sofa in the silent living room. Leaning back he closed his aching eyes. His forehead creased as another memory came to the front of his mind.

~*~*~*~
“Ella, we know you pitied the two of them and felt at fault for what Hebe had done to them, but it wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t blame myself … I do pity Chun and I can’t stand to see what he had become when we came back. And even though I didn’t love him, I was willing to ‘seduce’ him away from that lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean I would ever have gone as far as sacrificing my virginity.”
~*~*~*~

His hands clenched at his sides. Pity? That’s why she’d renewed their friendship? That’s why she’d befriended him and Cassandra? Had he fallen so far that she’d felt it her duty to come and save him? Out of what she felt she owed him for the past? That’s all their new relationship had meant to her?

Ella had disappeared after the end of his marriage. By the time he’d come back from Italy, she’d gone to America. He’d tried asking Auntie Chen for her number and address a few times, but she’d always put him off. And he had to admit that he hadn’t tried as hard as he should have. He’d been too busy putting his life back together after Hebe’s betrayal and the fallout from the end of their marriage and other stuff.

And in a flash, two years had gone by. She’d never written. Never called. And admittedly that had hurt, but he’d had to respect her decision to cut him from her life. When she’d come back, he was happy. He’d taken the excuse that he needed to protect her and run with it, using it as his reason to stay close to her.

But it had never been the real reason.

He’d loved their closeness, and he’d been happy … no, ecstatic, to have her back. And she’d only seen him as a pitiful creature who’d needed her to set him on the right path.

He wondered morosely if she’d planned on disappearing from his life … pulling away once he was ‘fixed’? The anger still burned inside of him.

She’d dared to pity him?

Her friendliness was faked?

Their night together was meaningless?

~*~*~*~
“Chun isn’t worth the cost of my virginity … After all, how could I love a man that I pity? I can’t respect him for what he’s become. One-night stands. A drunk. Closed off emotionally. Someone who hurts his daughter continuously. And if I can’t respect a man … I know I could never love him.”
~*~*~*~

Never love him?

Never love a man she couldn’t respect?

A drunk?

Closed off emotionally?

Those words had pierced through him like bullets. Her words harshly lighting up all the flaws in the relationship he’d believed they were building between them. He’d turned away from the open door, walking away, only to be followed by the voices in that apartment.

Her words had taken away any hope that she could love him. She’d taken away any hope that they could have any kind of relationship. And then she’d had the nerve to come to him and tell him she was pregnant?

He was good enough to be the father of her child … to marry her for the sake of that child. But he wasn’t good enough to be her husband … he wasn’t good enough to be her lover … to be her mate? She couldn’t respect him, but she trusted him to do the right thing.

Even then, to his surprise, he’d realized that he couldn’t walk away. So, he’d used the rage still bubbling up inside of him to hurt her.

She’d lied to him. Like Hebe.

The shopping trip? That had meant nothing more to her except for a coldly calculated move to push him together with Cassandra. That’s all it had been.

She’d pretended. Like Hebe.

Their day spent together at his office? When she’d actually seemed interested in his life’s work? The one thing that Hebe had never been interested in. Ella had pretended for the sake of her plan.

She’d betrayed him. Like Hebe.

The amusement park and that ride home? Ella sleeping on his shoulder. It had meant nothing to her. Nothing. The feelings of warmth that had been aroused within him would have meant nothing to her.

She’d hurt him. Like … no … she’d hurt him way more than Hebe. That pain had surprised him … and then angered him even more.

She hadn’t thought about what would happen if he fell in love with her. She’d never wondered how he would feel if he realized that his love for her could only be answered with her pity.

What right did this creature … with her gamine face … her innocent smile … her sparkling eyes … her childlike joy … her petite frame … what right did this creature have to hold his heart harder and more completely than the woman he once thought held his soul?

What right did she have to reject him?

……………………

Like Hebe.

The fury that had erupted in him had been the direct result of realizing his love … his need … his renewed desire for this woman at the exact moment he’d realized that she felt nothing … could never feel anything for him.

And that had directly resulted in his behavior in the last month … behavior coldly calculated to hurt her as he’d been hurting. Those women had meant nothing. How could they when he’d only had her in his heart? But he’d known they meant something to her.

He stared unseeingly at the presents once more. A reminder of the show they’d put on yesterday for all of society to see. She couldn’t even smile at the thought of marrying him. She’d looked as if she was going to cry. She couldn’t even bother to pretend. Not anymore.

His jaw tightened.

That failure to pretend had pushed him into enacting the ruse last night. Tipping the bellboy behind Ella’s oblivious back had been child’s play.

Getting the call and pretending that it was Angela had been even easier.

The only spanner in the works had been the mention of Arron … but even that hadn’t thrown him for long. Spending the night in his car, driving around aimlessly, had probably ended up hurting him more than Ella.

He stared tiredly up the stairs. She was probably in her room right now … the room he’d allocated for her next to his. She hadn’t been in the hotel suite when he’d returned. He hadn’t expected her to be. He grimaced. His Ella had too much pride for that.

……………………

When would he stop hurting? When would this burning inside of him go away? He rubbed at his chest, trying to massage the pain away.

It had taken him a year to forgive and forget Hebe.

He was afraid that he would never get over this disappointment with Ella.

And never was a long, long time.

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

~*~*~*~
8:00 A.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

“Daddy!”

“Cassandra, what are you doing up? It’s Saturday, shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I missed you and Auntie Ella. I wanted to see if you’d come home,” she said with a pout, settling in next to him. Reaching out, she pulled his arm over her shoulder, snuggling close. This was something she’d never have done before Ella’s return.

“I sneaked into your room and saw that you weren’t there,” her little voice imparted shrilly, “and then I went into Auntie Ella’s room and she wasn’t there … so I thought you hadn’t come home. But then I looked downstairs and saw a head so I wanted to see if it was your head. So I came down. But you’re sitting here all alone.”

There was a beat of silence.

Chun had stiffened as Cassie’s words penetrated his brain.

“Where’s Auntie Ella, daddy? Why didn’t you bring her home with you? Did you lose her daddy?”

“No … I didn’t lose her,” he retorted coolly, hiding the worry growing in his heart. If she wasn’t here … in their new home … then where was she?

“Where you going, daddy?”

“To find your Aunt,” he murmured distractedly.

“So, you really did lose her? It’s okay, daddy. Just look for her in the last place you saw her and she’ll probably be there waiting for you. All my dollies do that for me!” her voice piped up behind him, following him out the door.

~*~*~*~
11:00 A.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

“Selina, just tell me if you’ve seen her!” Chun barked at her in exasperation. “I’ve looked in the hotel. I’ve looked everywhere. I’ve asked around. No one knows … no one remembers her leaving the room or calling a taxi. Or anything.”

“I can’t believe you lost my best friend on your one-day honeymoon!” Selina shouted at him, red in the face. “How could you do that? You were supposed to look after her. You were supposed to take care of her. She is pregnant with your child! She’s vulnerable!”

“Vulnerable?” Chun snorted. “Don’t give me that. She can take care of herself.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Selina landed a blow on him, her exasperation overflowing. “She’s pregnant. She trusted you! She married you yesterday! What the hell did you do that she ran away?!”

“Nothing! I did nothing,” he said furiously. “Just because your friend can’t control her hormones and gets bruised over every imagined slight doesn’t mean that I’m at fault. Now, tell me where she is.”

“I don’t know.”

“Selina, I’m warning you …,” he began.

She turned away with a humph.

“I can’t believe that I married Ella,” he muttered. “What the hell was I thinking? She’s Hebe’s sister. Nothing good could come out of this union. I knew it from the beginning.”

“Hebe! Hebe! Hebe! Will you shut up about Hebe!” Selina shouted, turning to glare at him with narrowed eyes. “Why the hell are you still whining about her? Why the hell can’t you move on?”

“Because she betrayed me! You may not understand how hurtful a betrayal can be … but people have to work through something like that.”

“I don’t understand betrayals? I don’t understand betrayals!” Selina launched herself at him, only to stop at the last minute. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back and walked over to the sofa, sitting down. He could actually see her silently counting to ten.

“Who do you think got hurt when Hebe and Jiro together?” Selina asked quietly.

“I … I don’t see what you’re trying to say.”

“Who?” Selina barked out.

“Me, her husband.”

“And?”

“Cassandra. Her daughter.”

“Anyone else?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever thought about me?”

“You?” Chun’s incredulous gaze flew up to meet Selina’s accusing eyes.

“Come on, Chun. Stop being so egocentric. You weren’t the only one who was hurt in that betrayal. There were other people involved. That bastard fell in love with your dear sainted wife while he was taking my virginity!” She was shouting once more.

“Selina, I …,” his voice trailed off. Unsure of what to say next.

“He dated me while loving her. He broke my heart because he found that the reality of being with me wasn’t enough next to the dream of being with her. And even if he did break up with me before he got together with her … when the truth came out about them … it brought back everything. Everything. I was back to feeling like shit. I had to live through my agony all over again. That betrayal wasn’t just about you! Stop whining about it like a little baby. And Ella is nothing … NOTHING like Hebe. Don’t you ever compare the two!”

……………………

“How do you think I have lived the past two years knowing that those two are out there enjoying their married life without any repercussions, while blithely leaving all of us behind to suffer? How do you think I feel knowing every day that she has what I dreamt about for so many years? Don’t talk to me about betrayal.”

“Selina, just tell me where Ella is,” Chun said wearily.

“I don’t know.”

He began to walk away.

“Chun.”

He turned to look at her.

“Ask yourself who else could’ve been hurt by that betrayal? Ask yourself were there any other victims? That might give you some answers.”

~*~*~*~
1:00 P.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

“Arron, open the door!” Chun banged on the door, knowing that he’d heard noises. He couldn’t understand why Arron wasn’t answering. “Arron, it’s about Ella. Let me in.”

There was a beat of silence and then the apartment door slowly creaked open.

There was Arron, red in the face, his clothes wrinkled. Chun looked at him in confusion. Arron was usually dressed impeccably. Stepping into the room he understood the reason, finding Angela there, complete with red face and tousled hair.

Arching his eyebrow silently, he decided to ignore whatever it was that he had interrupted. It was none of his business anyways.

“I wanted to know if you’d seen Ella,” he said abruptly.

“What do you mean?” Arron asked sharply.

“I had to run an errand last night, and, when I returned to our hotel room, she was gone. I need to know if you have any idea of where she could have gone.”

“What kind of errand would you have to run on your wedding night?” Arron asked skeptically.

Chun was silent, staring at the two mulishly.

“Oh, Chun, you didn’t ruin everything, did you?” Angela asked with a sigh. “You know you love her, so why would you go out of your way to ruin this for yourself?”

“I didn’t ruin anything,” Chun said grimly. “There was nothing to ruin.”

“You two got married yesterday,” Arron retorted. “Far be it for me to be naïve about this, but doesn’t a marriage usually mean a beginning? You two had a new beginning yesterday … a new start … so no matter what problems existed between you two … it was a new beginning. You ruined it didn’t you. You ruined your new start. And now she’s run away from you.”

“I didn’t ruin anything,” Chun growled. “There is nothing to ruin when there’s no love.”

“There is love! She loves you!” Angela growled angrily. “Why do you deny it?”

“She doesn’t love me! I know! I know she doesn’t love me. She couldn’t even say it,” Chun shouted back.

“She couldn’t say it?” Arron looked at him. “Have you said that you love her? Have you told her?”

“I never said I loved her,” Chun quickly denied.

“You don’t have to say it,” Angela retorted. “We can all see that you’re in love with her. We can all see it … why can’t you?”

“I just need to know if Ella called you.”

“No. She didn’t call me,” Arron replied.

Chun turned away, faced once more with disappointment.

“Why do you make it so hard for her?” Arron’s voice called out from behind him. “Why does she only find pain when she’s with you?”

Chun stood there, frozen.

“Why can’t you make it easier for her?”

“Because loving and being loved is hard,” Chun finally replied.

“Only for you, Chun. Only for you.”

~*~*~*~
3:00 P.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

“Don’t you have something to ask me?” Calvin asked, sitting down across from him.

Chun looked up and then returned to staring out the window.

“Don’t you want to know if Ella called me or came to see me?” he taunted softly.

Chun turned to stare at him.

“Are you jealous of her relationship with me? Are you jealous of her closeness to me?” Calvin’s voice was silky, belying the harsh words being spoken.

“Are you jealous of the fact that she might have come to me on your wedding night?”

Chun growled low in his throat before launching himself at Calvin, landing a blow on Calvin’s sneering face.

“How dare you come in here and say that to me?” Chun shouted, his hands reaching out to grab Calvin’s collar.

“It’s the truth isn’t it, Chun? You knew I was the best bet, but you haven’t even come to beg me for knowledge of your missing wife. You’d rather keep your pride than lower yourself to ask me for Ella’s whereabouts.”

“Yes,” Chun hissed at him. “But even if I did, would you tell me?”

“No.”

Chun’s eyes narrowed.

“Being around you is poisonous for Ella. I thought you’d changed … circumstances had changed enough so that you wouldn’t hurt Ella, but that’s not true is it? You still care more about yourself than her, and that can only hurt her. I’d recommend that she stay away from you until you can learn to put someone else first in your life.”

“Who are you to decide whether my wife returns to me?” Chun’s eyes had widened at Calvin’s words. “Who are you to her … except for maybe a discarded boyfriend?” Chun matched Calvin sneer for sneer.

“Boyfriend?” Calvin snorted, and pulled Chun’s hands from his collar. “You know nothing, do you?”

“I know that she never wanted you that way,” Chun taunted him. “I know that she was untouched until I came back into her life. I know that she was waiting for me. Does that make YOU jealous?”

Calvin’s lip curled in disgust. “How can you be so small-minded? Do you even know who I am to Ella? Do you know what I am to her?”

Chun shrugged and turned away. “All I know is that I am her husband. And that ensures that you could only ever be second from now on. Now, leave. I don’t want to see you here when I come back,” Chun said over his shoulder as he left the room.

“You might be her husband, but I’ll always be first.”

Chun continued to walk away, ignoring his words.

“Because I’m family.”

Chun stopped in surprise.

“You might be her husband, Chun …”

Chun looked at him quizzically.

“But I’m her older brother.”

……………………

“Surprising, isn’t it?”

“What is?” Chun asked grudgingly.

“That you never bothered to find out.”

~*~*~*~
8:00 P.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

Chun stared at the clock, frantic now. He’d been searching for her all day and he’d even had his corporation’s private investigators looking for her. They’d found no trace of her. He was going crazy wondering where she was.

Where had she run off to?

Hearing footsteps behind him, he got the biggest surprise of the day.

“Auntie Chen, what are you doing here?” Chun looked at the woman. He wondered why she was here. She hadn’t even bothered to come see Ella since she’d been back in Taiwan. The first they’d heard anything from her was when the news of the wedding had reached her. She’d come in to ensure that the wedding fit her standard … the woman was very aware of her status in society.

And it wasn’t too surprising. He knew that she’d never really cared about Ella because Ella had never fit her idea of the ‘perfect daughter’. He knew how shallow she was. And that shallowness had only ever hurt Ella.

“I heard through the grapevine that you’re looking for Ella,” Auntie Chen remarked, taking a seat.

Chun’s eyes widened.

“How could you lose my daughter, Chun?”

“I didn’t lose her, Auntie. She’s just decided to take a break from me for a while. Calvin knows where she is.”

“Of course he would,” Auntie Chen said bitterly. “That boy has kept me away from my daughter for the past two years, saying that she wasn’t well enough to come back. He insisted on no visits, saying that Ella would only be hurt if she saw us at this vulnerable stage. What kind of vulnerable stage lasts two years? Hiding her whereabouts from me,” she grumbled to herself.

“What do you mean?” Chun asked in surprise. “What vulnerable stage?”

Auntie Chen looked at him in surprise, startled out of her absorption with the collar of her jacket. She began to brush imaginary lint from the sleeves of her chic new stole.

“Chun, my dear, haven’t you ever wondered about Ella’s mangy little wristguards?”

“No.” He stared at the woman sitting before him, seemingly more interested in her appearance than the conversation she was having with her son-in-law about her missing daughter and his missing bride.

“I guess it’s fine for you to know the truth now that you’re part of the family.”

“What truth?”

“Hebe didn’t try to commit suicide,” she said with a cool laugh, staring at him now, her attention focused fully on him. “The media got it all wrong, as it tends to half the time. It was a mistake.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“It’s true that Hebe was a bit out of it that night, but she never planned on committing suicide. That was just an accident. And everyone in the house and then the world thought that the Tien heiress had tried to kill herself and didn’t succeed. But it did work to her advantage. It got you to forgive her. It got the world to forgive her for her infidelity. And quashed all those other ugly rumors.”

“What rumors?”

“Never mind that now,” Auntie Chen said, fussing with her hair. “I sometimes wonder if she planned it all that way? She got to marry Jiro with no censure from any corner. Oh well, all the more luck to her.”

“What are you trying to say about Ella, Auntie?” Chun was beyond exasperated now.

“Chun, why do you think that Ella went so far away?”

……………………

“Why do you think she broke off all contact with everybody?”

……………………

“I have to admit you never were good for her, Chun. But you’re a billionaire, so your marriage to my daughter makes me happy.”

“Never good for her? What do you mean?”

……………………

“Chun, I can’t believe you haven’t realized the truth; especially when it’s so closely related to you. She wears those wristguards for a reason. Even when she’s sleeping. They hide something she doesn’t want the world to see. She doesn’t just wear them because some Kobe Shobe signed them.”

……………………

“Chun, two years ago … Ella was the one who tried to commit suicide.”

……………………

“And for a while there, we all thought she’d succeeded.”

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

~*~*~*~
5:00 A.M. – Day After the Wedding
~*~*~*~

“I waited all night. He never came back. When the light of day dawned … that’s when I decided …”

“Decided what?” his voice asked.

“To leave him no matter what. My child had legitimacy now and that was the entire purpose of this marriage. I can’t ever be happy with him. He blames me for something that I know is true … I can’t deny it.”

………………

“I asked him not to go … that we could work it out … but he went to her. It’s over. Being with Chun is constantly hurting me now. It’s pushing me back to the place I was and that scares me.”

“What place?” Calvin asked gently.

“The place I was two years ago … when his marriage ended … when all that happened. It’s not a place I want to return.”

“Is that why you came to me on your wedding night?”

……………………

Ella smiled and turned to look at the figure sitting behind her on the bed. Her eyes reflected the pain she’d tried so hard to hide from everybody.

“I guess I needed my brother … and my psychiatrist to give me a boost.”

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

Chapter 22

The Consequences of Her Actions

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

~*~*~*~
“If you took those wristguards off, you’d see the scars she’s so desperately hiding from the world … from you. Those scars are her biggest shame.”
~*~*~*~

Chun blankly stared out the window, the words running through his mind. He still couldn’t understand. He still couldn’t …

Ella? His Ella had tried to commit suicide.

He shuddered softly, the movement almost imperceptible to the naked eye. But to someone who knew him, the tremor showed how much he had been affected. The revelation had shaken his iron control.

She’d taken a razor blade and …And there he stopped. He couldn’t bear to think any further.

While the media circus had gone on and on about Hebe and her suicidal attempt … labeling it a belated manifestation of her remorse … Ella had been lying in a coma.

He shook his head in disbelief. He’d visited that hospital. He’d gone there to see Hebe and to forgive her for everything she’d done, believing himself to be at fault. He’d made it easy for her to get her divorce so that she could be with the man she loved, the man she’d betrayed him for … the man he’d once called his best friend. His hands clenched. He’d felt sorry for Hebe. She’d looked so fragile in that bed, and he hadn’t even known that even then she was hiding the truth about Ella’s condition. She was hiding such an important secret.

~*~*~*~
“The loss of blood was so severe that if the discovery had come any later, Ella would have quietly slipped away. Even then the doctors didn’t hold much hope for her. She was in a coma for two weeks, and when she woke up I decided she’d be better off with a change of environment. So, I sent her to her father.”
~*~*~*~

Why?

……………………

Why?

He put up his hand, bracing it against his chest. Slipping it higher, he loosened his tie. He couldn’t breathe. Sitting back in his chair, he once again rubbed a hand against his chest. It hurt. His heart ached.

Ella had tried to commit suicide.

Thoughts flashed through his mind. Memories of a long forgotten past. A past he’d tried to completely wipe out, wanting to forget everything he’d associated with Hebe. Even if that meant forgetting everything about Ella.

Hebe had betrayed him.

And he’d betrayed Ella and their friendship.

He remembered that first meeting. The daisies. And her tears. A smile formed in his lips, remembering how vulnerable she had looked that day. How much younger than her 16 years. It seemed that living in this world hurt her. She’d been so fragile. She always did wear her heart on her sleeve … easily bruised by anyone’s unkind words. No one had appreciated her.

Apparently not even him.

When had he stopped coddling her … when had he stopped caring?

No … he’d never stopped caring … but he had stopped looking out for her. He’d left her to her own devices, focusing all of his interest on Hebe when she entered their lives.

Ella. He’d taken care of her for years but when Hebe came … he’d abandoned her without a second thought.

He’d stopped worrying about her.

He’d stopped celebrating her birthdays.

He’d stopped being with her on her grandmother’s death anniversary.

He’d stopped talking to her.

He’d stopped listening.

……………………

Why had it been so easy to walk away?

……………………

Because she’d pushed him away. Leaning back in his chair, he thought back to the months after Hebe had come into their lives. That’s when it had started. She’d started ignoring his calls … avoiding him … ‘forgetting’ to meet him. She was always busy. She’d made it easy.

And he’d been in love. He’d been absorbed in Hebe. And then his marriage. His business. Cassandra.

And before he knew it, Ella hadn’t been so important anymore. Ella had become part of his childhood. He couldn’t fit her into his adult life and she didn’t want to fit in.

And when Hebe left … she’d become part of a past that needed to be forgotten or at least viewed only from a distance.

But something had happened … What? Something had pushed her to suicide. What could’ve been so horrible that it would’ve broken Ella? Ella was fragile … but he’d always believed that she was a slender reed that bent with the wind. That flexibility ensured that she wouldn’t break.

What had broken her? His hands clenched.

Why had no one told him? While he was in Italy, drowning in self-pity, Ella had been fighting for her life. She lived and recovered but he hadn’t been there for her. He raked his fingers through his hair in frustration, a feeling of bitterness stealing into his soul. He hadn’t been there. Everyone had hidden the truth, even when he was a few doors away from her in the same hospital.

Why had they hidden the truth from him?

Ella had to go all the way to America … to a brother she had never seen to get the understanding and the help she needed to recover. That thought ate away at him more than anything. His hands clenched once more.

The door softly opened, pulling him out of his reverie.

Turning his head he saw Cassandra’s brown eyes peeping at him from the door. Pulling his lips up, he tried to smile. It was good enough for her. Running over, she jumped into his lap.

He jokingly grunted under her slight weight, and then wrapped his arms around her, trying to get comfort from her warmth.

“Daddy?”

“What is it, Cassie?” he asked softly, laying his cheek against her head.

“When is Auntie Ella coming home? Grandma said you would both be going on a honeymoon for days and days but you came back. What is she doing on a honeymoon all alone?”

He shrugged, lost for an answer.

“I miss her. When will Auntie Ella come back?”

……………………

“I don’t know, baby,” he murmured softly. “I don’t know.”

He watched as Cassie played with his fingers, humming to herself softly. Kissing her forehead, his heart clenched at how tiny she was. How fragile. His heart clenched with a need to protect her so she would never get hurt. Never be so broken … so alone that she’d take the step that Ella had tried to take. He wanted to wrap her in cotton and make sure that nothing hurt her … ever. But he knew he couldn’t do that. Life was beyond his control.

‘Ella, come back,’ he whispered softly in his mind. ‘Please come back. I need to know.’

His hand clenched into a fist.

‘I need to know why.’

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

ALMOST THREE YEARS AGO …

“Hebe!” Ella shouted angrily, her eyes wild with pain. “Hebe get down here! How could you do this?”

“Ella, why are you shouting like a banshee?” Her mother’s scandalized tones rang out in the foyer. “Hebe is upstairs, resting. She doesn’t need you disturbing her sleep. Apparently she had some sort of fight with Chun. The boy will come around and apologize eventually, but for now Hebe is taking it to heart. Let her rest.”

“Apologize? He won’t apologize!” Ella shouted furiously, making her way to Hebe’s room.

“And why not?” her mother burst out. “The husband always apologizes. Preferably with diamond jewelry.”

“Not if his wife is cheating on him!” Ella shot back at her mother, before slipping into Hebe’s room and slamming the door shut behind her.

Ella turned and froze at the sight that greeted her. Hebe. Her eyes swollen from tears. The grief evident in her face. Ella shook off the instinct to comfort, and marched toward the bed.

“How could you?! How could you do this to Chun? To Selina? How could you?” she cried out, shaking the slight girl with all her might. Her fingers were biting into Hebe’s shoulders. “You took vows. There is such a thing as loyalty … as honor. How could you forget all of that … all of your morals … your principles … and for what? A sordid affair? How could you?”

Hebe stared into space, unmoving. Dazed.

“Hebe! Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!” Ella ground out angrily. The tears began to fall from her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to hold them back. She couldn’t help but remember the expression on Chun’s face … the pain of utter betrayal. Her heart still ached at his rejection when she’d tried to reach out to him.

“Selina?”

“What?” Ella asked in confusion, angrily brushing the tears away. She glared at Hebe.

“When did I betray Selina? Why should I think about Selina?”

“You took away the only man that Selina’s ever loved! You don’t think that’s betrayal?”

“I betrayed my husband,” Hebe said softly, biting her lip. Tears began to flow from her eyes, raining down her cheeks. “I betrayed my daughter … for Jiro … another man,” Hebe said bitterly. “You think Selina was high up there on my priorities? I didn’t even think of her.”

Hebe began to sob loudly, her shoulders shaking. Ella stared at her quietly. After a minute, Hebe regained control. Taking a deep breath, she rubbed harshly at her cheeks.

“What do I do? He hates me … he won’t take me back. He won’t even talk to me.”

“You want to go back to him?” Ella asked uncertainly. “To Chun?” she clarified.

“No, but … Jiro won’t want me now either,” Hebe continued forlornly.

“That idiot’s obviously been in love with you for years,” Ella pointed out reluctantly. “The world could end tomorrow and he could be dying, but he would still want you. Only you. No matter how much it would hurt everyone else … no matter how much it would hurt Selina, his childhood sweetheart.”

“It’ll be a media circus,” Hebe continued, as if she hadn’t heard anything that Ella had said. “They’ll all revile me for hurting Taiwan’s golden boy. They’ll call me a slut … an adulteress … I’ll have nowhere to hide. What’ll I do? Who can I turn to? Neither one of them wants me. I can’t live with Chun. I can’t. I don’t love him. And if only he knew it … was willing to admit it … he doesn’t love me. He doesn’t. … no matter how much he might want to believe it. I might be his ideal … he might put me on a pedestal and worship me … but he’s never treated me like a real woman. And if you can’t treat your love like a real person with feet of clay … than that’s not love.

……………………

“Jiro did that. I was a real woman to him. He roughhoused with me. He didn’t treat me like porcelain. He saw me at my ugliest and laughed; he wasn’t put off by it. I could be dirty … rumpled … sweaty and he’d still kiss me with desire. I didn’t need to be perfect with him.” Her hands began to tremble. “My god, what do I do?”

……………………

“What do I do?” She repeated forlornly. Her voice sounded lost. “I can’t go back … I don’t want to go back. But now … it seems that I can’t move forward either. I’m caught in this place … and I hate it. I hate it. I think I’m going to go crazy. If I don’t …”

“What is it, Hebe?” Ella was beginning to be very afraid at the desolation in Hebe’s eyes. It went way beyond what Ella had expected … in fact Ella had expected defiance.

She took a deep breath.

“Ella, I’m pregnant.”

“Chun’s going to be a father again?”

“No.”

There was a short pause. Ella crinkled her brow, trying to understand what Hebe was saying. “I don’t understand,” she finally said quietly.

“Ella, I can’t have this baby.” There was fierce desperation in her voice now. She gripped at Ella’s hands, trying to get her to understand. The tears began to flow once more. Ella looked deeply into Hebe’s eyes and saw the self-loathing there.

“You mean …”

“I can’t have this baby,” she repeated softly. “I’m going to abort it.”

“Hebe …” There was shock. There was revulsion. She pushed away from Hebe. She had never been so angry … so near to doing violence to another person.

“And Ella, you’re going to help me.”

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

Chapter 23

Blessed Silence

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

“Ella, you look beautiful today,” he whispered into her ear. His hand came up to tweak a curl at the nape of her neck, and then he smiled and leaned forward to playfully drop a kiss on her hair.

“Chun,” she protested in embarrassment, blushing to the roots of her hair. “What about the movie?” she asked desperately, trying to change the subject. “You said you wanted to see the one that came out last week. And now we’re sitting out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’d rather just lie here and enjoy the sun,” he said softly, lying back in the grass. She turned to lean over him. The breeze played softly through the grass, and the sun’s rays were gentle on the two in the field of daisies. He stared back at the girl gazing down at him.

Flowers were around her, surrounding her, making her one of them. The flower wreathe around her head, making a crown for her golden brown hair looked as if it belonged there. She was a princess. The flowers that tenderly encircled her neck and were wrapped around her arms as bracelets only extenuated her beauty. And emphasized her defenselessness.

She looked so fragile. So vulnerable. For a moment he just wanted to cradle her in his arms for the rest of his life, wanting to take care of her forever. Ella was too vulnerable for this world and he wanted to protect her from the world’s harsh realities.

There was a moment of silence … a moment of awareness between them. Staring at him, she moved closer, moved her head down, closer to his. Her eyes stared at his lips, wanting to touch their warmth with her own. He stared back at her quietly and then he smiled encouragingly.

“Chun,” she whispered softly.

“Chun! Ella! Where are you guys?” Selina’s voice rang out, breaking the silence … breaking the mood … ending the moment.

Ella woke up with a start, her gaze flying to the dark corners of the room as she tried to get rid of the sunny images in her mind. Flowers? Those flowers … she still had them in her diary. Looking at the clock, she saw that it was almost dawn. She could never go back to sleep now. Getting up, she moved to her bookshelf and pulled out the diary. There they were, pressed between the entries of when she had first met him.

Her heart clenched. She remembered that day clearly. That almost kiss that she’d hidden deep in her heart and then chosen to forget. There was no entry of that day; she’d ripped it out when Hebe came. Had there ever been a chance for them? Was she the one who had blinded herself to that reality?

A tear fell onto the pages of the open diary. Reaching up, she felt the wetness on her cheeks. Tears? She hadn’t cried since she found out that Chun and Hebe were engaged. She’d spent the entire night crying when she’d found out about that engagement, and then, for some reason, the tears had stopped. It was as if she couldn’t cry anymore. But now … now it was as if the tears wouldn’t stop. Her eyes hurt from this over-activity.

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

“I can’t have this baby,” Hebe repeated softly. “I’m going to abort it.”

“Hebe …” There was shock. There was revulsion. She pushed away from Hebe. She had never been so angry … so near to doing violence to another person.

“And Ella, you’re going to help me.”

……………………

“You want to kill your baby?” The words seemed stuck in her throat. “How can you even say … think that? That’s barbaric!”

Hebe turned away, her lips trembling. “This baby is a symbol of a relationship that no longer exists. It’s a reminder of a relationship that can no longer exist. I do not … cannot love this baby. I don’t want it. Chun doesn’t want it.”

“You’re wrong. Chun would never reject his child! Chun’s not like that. You might have disappointed him, but he would never hurt an innocent being just because of your betrayal.”

“How do you know? How do you know, Ella?” Hebe shouted at her. “Are you saying that you know Chun better than me?”

“I …”

“He hates me. He hates our family. He hates my blood. He thinks I’m tainted. Everything about me is tainted … even my baby.”

“But …”

“He didn’t even take Cassie with him to Italy,” Hebe pointed out. “She’s barely two years old and he left her with his mother because he couldn’t bear to see her.”

Ella couldn’t argue with that.

“Help me,” Hebe said.

“I can’t.” Ella’s voice trembled with suppressed emotion. “Abortion goes against everything that is in me. Killing an innocent child for no reason at all goes against my morals … my principles … it goes against everything in me that makes me who I am … that makes me a woman. I could never justify assisting someone in murdering their own child like that.”

“I see. Then if I go to a back alley abortionist … some quack doctor and something happens to me, you know that it’ll be your fault. You’ll feel guilty for the rest of your life.” The words were coolly manipulative, the speaker knowing the effect they would have on the listener.

Ella’s hands clenched at the threat.

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

“Wu residence,” a voice spoke over the phone.

“I—I’d like to speak to Chun,” Ella replied, stumbling over the words.

“I’m afraid that Mr. Wu is not in residence.”

“Look, I know that he’s there. I got this number from him. Let me talk to him,” Ella demanded in desperation.

“I’m sorry, madam. I’m afraid that you were given the wrong information. The master is not here.”

“Then please! Take a message for me. I can understand that he might not want to talk to just anybody. Just take my message.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you miss,” the voice was noticeably cooler now. “Please do not call here again or I will be forced to report you for harassment.”

“Please! Please, don’t hang up. Please.” Ella began to cry as she heard the familiar dial tone. She had lost count of the number of times she’d tried contacting Chun but to no avail. He wouldn’t answer the phone and the servants were steadfast in their assertions of his absence.

‘He wasn’t there?’

Of course he was there. His mother had said that he was at the villa.

She needed to talk to him. Why couldn’t anyone understand that? The situation was getting desperate.

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

“Hebe! Where are you going?!” Ella’s voice rang out.

“Ella, I … I have to get out. I feel so trapped here.” Hebe stared at the silent girl standing behind her. “I can’t stand to sit here, thinking about this. I can’t. You won’t help me, so leave me alone. I’ve been abandoned by everyone else. Why the hell are you sticking around?”

“Hebe … you’re my sister. I may not like the choices you’re making, but you’re still my sister and I have to make sure you’re okay.”

“Why? What do you owe me? My own father kicked me out. You saw how angry he was that I betrayed his precious son-in-law. He can’t understand that marriage isn’t just about practicalities … he can’t understand that I was suffocating in that marriage or that Chun wasn’t the one for me. He can’t stand the taint I brought to his precious Tien name. And he’s my father. I’m stuck here in this crummy apartment because he kicked me out. Your mother isn’t talking to me to please my father. And yet, you still stick around. Why?”

“I … I don’t want you to be alone at a time like this,” Ella tried to explain. “You think I can’t hear?”

“Hear what?” Hebe asked defiantly.

“You’re sick every morning; I can hear you through the thin walls. Why won’t you let me help?”

“Because you won’t help me in the way I need!” Hebe shouted back. Her hands clenched and tears began to fall from her eyes. “Why can’t you understand, Ella? It’s not just the morning sickness. I feel sick at heart. I loathe myself … I hate this baby. I know it’s innocent. I know that it has nothing to do with the problems that I’m going through, but I can’t help but associate it with everything bad in my life. This is me. I can’t be like you.” Hebe slid to the floor and began to sob, curling up into a ball. Her sobs were loud in the tiny hallway. “I can’t do this. I can’t.”

Suddenly there was only silence.

“Hebe? Hebe?” There was no response. “Hebe, answer me. Are you okay? Hebe!”

Ella ran over to the figure on the floor, desperately trying to wake her.

“Hebe! Hebe!”

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

“Wu residence,” a voice spoke over the phone.

“Let me speak to Chun,” Ella barked desperately over the phone.

“You again.” There was a sigh. “Madam, how many times must I tell you that Master Wu is not in residence? He has no plans to come to the villa. We do not know where he is.”

Ella’s hands clenched around the receiver, her head throbbing from the tension of the past few hours.

“Ella, get off the phone.” Ella flinched as she heard her mother’s sharp voice behind her. What had made her think that calling her mother was the best thing? At least Hebe was getting the best care possible. Mr. Tien had thawed enough to allow that. They would be going back to the mansion after Hebe was discharged, but Ella knew that wouldn’t solve anything.

“I need to speak to Chun, why don’t you understand?” Ella asked. “He’s my friend. He’ll talk to me. I know that you probably have standing orders to put no calls through, but I need to speak to him. This is important. If I can’t talk to him, he’ll regret it for the rest of his life.”

“I … but, madam …”

For the first time Ella heard a break … a moment of hesitation in the tone, as if the speaker was uncertain of what to do next.

“Who is it, Anthony?” A woman’s voice called out coolly in the background.

“It is a friend of Master Wu’s, madam.”

“You have your orders,” the woman sharply stated.

“But, madam, it is a friend of his.”

“You have your orders,” the woman repeated.

“No! Please! Don’t hang up. Let me talk to him!” Ella cried out desperately, already knowing that it was futile.

“I’m sorry, madam. Mr. Wu is not at the villa,” the speaker stated regretfully, before hanging up the phone.

Ella stared unseeing at the wall before her, her hands clenched once more around the receiver. The dial tone again ringing in her ears. So close. She had been so close. And then that voice.

Who had it been?

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

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since Chun had disappeared off the face of the earth. He wouldn’t talk to anybody and Hebe was getting progressively worse. Ella pushed all the worrying thoughts out of her head and forced herself to concentrate on what the doctor was saying.

“Mrs. Wu, you need to take care of yourself,” the doctor was stating. “The baby is suffering. You have high blood pressure, and that can be dangerous for both baby and mother. You aren’t eating right, and thus haven’t gained the proper amount of weight. In fact, you’ve lost weight.”

Hebe morosely nodded, staring at her hands.

“I’d like you to make sure that Mrs. Wu isn’t unnecessarily stressed, Ms. Chen,” the doctor stated, turning to look at Ella.

Ella nodded in agreement. How could she take care of a person that didn’t want to take care of herself? Hebe absolutely refused to do any of the things that Ella recommended. It was as if she had a suicidal wish. She would stay out in the cold. She would refuse to eat. And when she did eat, she ate unhealthily. She refused to rest.

Ella was at her wits end. But whenever she tried to take care of Hebe, Hebe just pushed her away. Ella didn’t know what to do anymore. Hebe’s behavior was becoming increasingly destructive by the day and Ella was afraid that Hebe would only end up hurting herself.

What could she do?

Protect the child?

Or protect Hebe?

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

“Please, please let me talk to him,” Ella murmured hopelessly into the phone. “It’s been almost a month since the incident. Are you telling me he’s such a weakling that he hasn’t come out of his little shock?” The words were harsh, revealing the bitterness that Ella had begun to feel at being placed in this situation. “I need to talk to him. If I don’t, he’ll regret this for the rest of his life.”

“Haven’t you hurt him enough?” The voice was different. New. A female voice. There was too much authority in it … too much confidence … it wasn’t another servant. It was a woman’s voice … a woman who knew she had a right to be in Chun’s life. This woman had a right to speak for Chun. “He loathes you.”

“He doesn’t loathe me, he loathes my sister! I’m not Hebe, I’m Ella,” Ella argued passionately once more. “This is important.”

“He doesn’t want anything to do with your family.” The voice was unshaken in its certainty. “He won’t talk to anyone from your family. He’s said that repeatedly. A more poisonous trio of women I’ve never encountered before,” the woman muttered to herself. “His soon to be ex-wife had the nerve to call here, making wild threats and demands. What right does she have to demand anything when she betrayed him with another man?!”

“Hebe tried calling? When?”

“Immediately after he showed up here. Why would I or anyone here on staff allow that bitch to hurt him anymore. And then your mother called to remind him of his duty. Duty? Hmph. And now you, whining about it being important that you talk to him.”

“Look, I know you think you’re protecting him,” Ella whispered desperately. “But I need to talk to him. If I don’t talk to him, I might have t—”

“Who is it, Angel?” Chun’s voice was clear in the background. It was as if he was only in the next room.

“Chun! Chun!” Ella called out, hoping that he could hear, knowing that he couldn’t.

“Chun! It’s no one. No one important. Why don’t we go for a sw—”

And then the familiar dial tone.

Ella landed on her knees beside the phone. That was it. There was no more hope. She’d found Hebe yesterday with half a bottle of sleeping pills in her hand. The desperation in her eyes had scared Ella to the point of finally agreeing to help Hebe find a clinic. Hebe had insisted Ella immediately make the appointment.

Ella’s fingers clenched. These hands had dialed the number and she’d made that appointment. And Chun’s baby would be killed tomorrow. Today had been her last chance to get through to him.

Now it was too late.

Too late.

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

“Just sign here. Here. And Here.” The voice was cool and matter of fact.

Hebe quickly complied.

Ella sat beside her, ignoring the nurses as they droned on and on about the procedure. She didn’t need to hear this. She didn’t want to hear anything. She was here to take Hebe home, and that was it.

They took Hebe away.

‘Chun,’ she murmured desperately in her mind. ‘Why couldn’t I reach you? Why couldn’t you be here? I’m not strong enough for this.’

She hunched forward, her shoulders crumpling under the weight of her guilt. She didn’t need this. Tears began to fall once more. Hebe was in there right now. The baby was being aborted. Ella clenched her hands.

Life wasn’t fair. She would’ve loved Chun as he deserved to be loved. She would’ve loved Chun’s child. She would’ve worshipped it and doted on it. No, life wasn’t fair. And now this. Why?

A child was crying. Hurting. In pain. The wailing was ringing in her ears.

“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!” she cried out, planting her hands over her ears. There was abrupt silence. Blessed relief.

She pulled her hands away. The baby was crying again. Loudly. Pitifully.

She put her hands up to her ears again, wanting to block out the noise. It didn’t stop this time. It wouldn’t stop.

“Stop it,” she murmured desperately, trying to drown out the noise. Unconsciously she began to rock back and forth, wanting to silence the noise.

There was no relief.

“Please be quiet, baby. I can’t help you,” Ella begged silently.

The wailing continued.

It took a while for Ella to realize that the noise was all in her head. There were no babies here. Babies were killed here before they could ever cry.

She was hearing the wails of Chun’s dying baby.

And she couldn’t escape it.

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

When had it become so hard to love him and be by his side?

They’d been so happy together.

……………………

And now, now she couldn’t even see him. He’d gone so far away.

It was her fault.

The pages began to blur in front of her eyes. She stiffened when she saw the tears falling on the pages of the open diary. She roughly brushed them away. She didn’t deserve to cry. She didn’t deserve the relief those tears could bring.

She got up, and began to make the preparations.

Her fault . . .

Placing the implements around the bathtub, she turned on the faucets.

. . . that he was suffering so much.

She took off her clothes, and sank into the water.

Her fingers grabbed the razor. A forefinger, gently traced the edge, and flinched at its sharpness. This would get the job done.

She took a deep breath.

The blade slashed against her wrists.
One.

Two.

Three.

Four cuts decisively made.

The pain in her heart was so deep that she hardly felt the pain from the fresh cuts.

Slipping her hands beneath the water, she watched the water turn red as her life force slowly drained out of her useless body.

It was time to rest.

She slowly leaned her head against the back of the tub. And closed her eyes.

It was time to let go.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to him, hoping he could hear her words. Somehow.

It was time to sleep.

……………………

Finally.

Silence.

Blessed relief.

Chapter 24

Time to Wake Up

 A child’s innocent laughter rang out, followed by a splash.

“Hey! I told you not to jump in the pool until I got there! What if something happened to you? What would I say to your daddy?”

“Nothing will happen to me!” came the child’s gleeful reply. “And anyways you were too slow. I told you to hurry up. You have to be fast to protect me, don’t you know that by now?”

“Well, come out now, it’s time to eat,” she instructed, gesturing toward the picnic laid out.

“Okay!” he shouted back, quickly climbing out. His love of swimming was rivaled only by his love for food. “What do we have today?”

“Your favorite,” she replied, pushing back the wet hair that had fallen into his eyes. “Mini-pizzas. Cook said she’d let you eat it since it’s your birthday.”

“I love Cook!” he shouted excitedly, jumping into her lap.

“Hey! You’re getting me all wet,” she complained good-naturedly, as the pool water began to seep into her dress. He shrugged and began to munch away at the food, too engrossed by the delights before him to worry about anything else.

“When is daddy coming home?” he asked sleepily. His head was now in her lap, as he slowly drifted off.

“Soon.” Her hands began to gently brush through his hair.

His eyes slowly began to close.

“Love you,” he mumbled sleepily.

“I love you, too,” she murmured softly, leaning down to give him a kiss on one rosy cheek.

“Too bad none of this is real. I wanted to go into the world; I was ready. It really is too bad we couldn’t meet there,” he said on a yawn. “I wanted to be there so badly.” The longing was easily detected in his tone.

“What? Why not?” Her voice was confused.

“Don’t you remember?” His eyes flew open in surprise.

She shook her head in confusion.

“You killed me.”

……………………

“I didn’t mean to. Your mother just couldn’t … she needed to … I tried to stop it. I tried.” She began to wring her hands.

“Not good enough.”

There was a moment of silence and then he smiled up at her, seeming to forgive her.

“But I’m here now. With you. I didn’t abandon you,” she argued desperately.

He got up suddenly, beginning to walk away.

“Where are you going?” she shouted after the retreating figure.

“I can’t stay,” he called back, waving a hand at her.

“What about me?”

“You have to go back. It’s time to wake up.”

“Why? There’s nothing for me back there.”

“Daddy’s waiting for you.”

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

“Don’t leave me. Everyone leaves me. Can’t you stay? Just a little longer? Please?” Tears began to flow from her eyes, seeping out from underneath her closed lids. The figure lying in the bed grimaced slightly, as emotions began to chase one after another across her face.

Confusion. Guilt. Anger. Grief.

“Miss Ella! Miss Ella, you’re awake?”

Ella’s brow wrinkled, trying to turn the garbled noises she heard into something resembling words. She was being pulled back into the world and she didn’t like it one bit.

“Doctor! Doctor, she’s awake. Miss Ella is finally awake!”

It was Lucinda’s voice. Lucinda was calling the doctor. Loudly. Ella moaned in pain. She wanted all of the noises to stop. It was too loud.

Her eyes flickered open and then quickly shut. Her eyes hurt. Everything hurt. She wanted to shut out the sun. She wanted to shut out all sensation. Her whole body hurt. It hurt so much.

Why? Why had she come back? She’d been so close. She’d felt it … death … its cold fingers wrapping around her throat and squeezing the air from her lungs. She’d felt how close she’d come to the end. But she’d been saved.

Why?

She groaned once more, trying to turn on her side. That was a mistake.

“Everything will be alright, Miss Ella. Just stay still,” Lucinda murmured. “You’ll be alright. You’ll see. The doctor should be coming soon.”

Ella finally opened her eyelids a sliver and stared at the face of her old nanny.

There was a blur of movement as figures came in and began to talk. The voices were loud, hurting her ears once more. She tried to close out the sounds, ignoring the questions being thrown her way. She just wanted to sleep some more. Slowly she felt the world fading away as she slipped back into unconsciousness. Just a little while more. She just needed to dream for a little while more.

Ella opened her eyes once more. It was later in the day. The sun had gone down and she could see the stars through the open curtains. Turning her head she saw Lucinda sitting in a chair, knitting.

“Lu—,” she had to clear her throat, it was so dry. “Lucy, what happened? What are you doing here? What am I doing here?” she finally got out. “The last thing I remembered …”

“The last thing you probably remember is bleeding your life away from the cuts you made on your beautiful skin,” Lucinda shot back tartly. Her tone was rough, but the hands that came out to smooth away Ella’s hair were gentle and caring. Tears came into Ella’s eyes at the touch. “How could you do that, Miss Ella? Do you know what kind of shock you gave your old nanny? Why didn’t you talk to me? Why didn’t you let me know that you were hurting? I would’ve done anything to stop the hurt. I would’ve done anything to make it all better.”

“This wasn’t something that even you could have made better,” she confessed, turning her face away from the censure and compassion she saw in Lucinda’s face. Both emotions made her feel guilty. “I just needed to escape!”

“Escape? And this was the only way that you could think of? What were you thinking, Miss Ella?! Things couldn’t have been that bad.”

……………………

“Miss Ella?”

“You don’t know, Lucy. You just don’t know … how long have I been here?”

“It’s been two weeks since I … since I found you in a pool of your own blood,” Lucinda replied in a choked tone. “The doctor says the blood loss was severe. We almost lost you, Miss Ella. They saved you but then you slipped into a coma. It’s been two very long weeks.”

“I see,” Ella said, lying back. “Two weeks?” The pain was fading away gradually as she adjusted to the world once more. She looked around the room. There was nothing. No flowers. No cards. Nothing. Turning, she saw one vase full of flowers near the bed. Daisies.

“Did you bring me the daisies, Lucy?”

“They always were your favorite flower, Miss Ella,” Lucinda replied. “How could I forget my baby’s favorite flower?”

“Wha—what’s happened since I … in the past two weeks?”

“Mr. Chun, that poor boy, was here when he heard about Miss Hebe.”

“Hebe?” Ella asked, startled. “What happened to Hebe?”

“The foolish girl took two or three sleeping pills and dropped the rest of the bottle, not bothering to pick them up. One of the twits that cleans the upstairs found the spilled bottle and started screaming suicide. They rushed Miss Hebe to the hospital but the doctors soon discovered that there was no suicide attempt. But by then it was too late. The news had gotten out that the soon to be ex-Mrs. Wu tried to kill herself because of her remorse.”

“I see. But Hebe’s okay?” Ella asked finally.

“She’s fine. And she’s gone.”

“Gone? Where? When?”

“Where? No one knows. Now, it’s the who that you should ask about. In fact, no one knows that she went off with that no good lover of hers. And when? Right after the divorce.”

“She went off with Jiro?”

“Yes. Master Chun came back when he heard about her suicide attempt.”

“What?” Ella was shocked. She’d thought that nothing would bring Chun back to Taiwan.

“He felt that Miss Hebe had punished herself enough for her betrayal. He forgave her and expedited their divorce, so that she could be free to go off with Jiro with his blessings. His heart is too soft.”

“I see.”

There was a pause in the conversation.

“Lucy … did he come to see me? Does he know about me?”

“No, Miss Ella. No one has come to visit you. No one knows about you. Your mother has kept your presence here a secret.”

“Why? To protect me?” Ella’s eyes widened in surprise. There was a spark of hope.

Lucinda flushed and turned her face away.

“Lucy? What aren’t you saying? What are you hiding from me?”

Lucy tightened her lips, embarrassed to say whatever she was hiding.

“Lucy, there is nothing you could say about my mother that would surprise me,” Ella said on a sigh, all hope draining away. “I accepted a long time ago that my mother was a very superficial creature. She cares only for her own comfort. Just tell me.”

“Madam was absolutely furious when she heard about you. She felt that if the news got out, it would hurt the Tien name too much. They wanted to hide Hebe’s condition but it leaked out. But at least that news helped her reputation. The public was very sympathetic to her because she’d been suitably remorseful. But you … since there was no rhyme or reason to your actions … madam feared that everyone would think badly of her and Master to have raised two crazy daughters. So, she did her best to hide your actions.”

“Where is mom?”

“I let madam know that you had come out of your coma. She will be here in two days.”

“Why two days?”

“I … Madam has been on a cruise since Miss Hebe left. To keep up appearances,” Lucinda quickly said, trying to excuse her mother’s behavior.

Ella flinched at the news. It seemed that she could still be hurt by her mother’s actions.

“So Chun doesn’t know?”

“No.”

“So he really didn’t come to visit?”

“No, miss.”

“Where is he now?”

“Back here. He’s been working. Living his life as best he can. Do you want to see him?”

……………………

“Miss Ella?”

“No. No, I don’t.” Ella turned away, staring out the window at the glowing stars. ‘There’s no point,’ she thought to herself. ‘How could I face him? He doesn’t know about the abortion. If I saw him he’d want to know why I did this.’ She stared at the bandages around her wrists. ‘What would I tell him? How would I explain? How could I ever tell him that I helped kill his baby?’

She curled in on herself, trying to drive the thoughts away.

There was one thing that gave her some comfort. At least he didn’t know she’d tried to kill herself. And if she had anything to say about it, he would never find out. If he found out … that would only lead to the revelation of more secrets … bad ones.

“Miss Ella?”

“I just want to sleep, Lucy, but the doctor said …”

“Okay, Miss Ella. You just go to sleep. Lucy will keep watch over you. She’ll wake you when it’s time to wake up and not a moment before.”

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

Ella stared out the window, wondering when Lucy would get here. Two days. Mom would be coming today. Ella’s lip curled cynically. She wondered what her dear mother would say.

The door opened. Ella turned her head, expecting to see Lucinda, but was unpleasantly surprised.

“Good morning, mother. How are you?” There was no reply. Ella really hadn’t expected anything more. Mother often let Ella know of her displeasure through her silences. But she knew that this silence wouldn’t last long.

“I cannot believe that you tried to kill yourself, Ella Chen.” The words were loud in the silent room.

Ella bowed her head.

“Thankfully, no one knows about you. I’m so disappointed in you. How could you do this to our family? To your father and me?”

“But, mom … it wasn’t about you,” she tried to explain.

“If people found out I had a crazy daughter … how could I ever live it down? At least Hebe had a reason. What compelled you to … I don’t even want to know. I don’t care. Couldn’t you have … I want you to go away for a while.”

“Wh—where will I go?” Ella cleared her throat, trying to understand. She’d never expected to be thrown out.

“To your father. In America. He can take care of you for a while.”

“But I haven’t seen him since I was four. He hasn’t visited at all since you both got divorced. I don’t even remember him … he’s a complete stranger. And I don’t even speak the language,” she vehemently argued.

“Then you’ll learn,” came the unsympathetic reply.

“What’ll I do there?”

“Fix yourself. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I don’t want to know. I just don’t want a crazy daughter.”

“I …”

“I said I don’t want to know. Don’t come back until you’re normal again. When did you become so melodramatic? It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee! Stop being such a drama queen. It’s not always about you, Ella.”

Ella’s hands clenched at the unjust remarks. Before she could form the words crowding against her lips, her mother left the room.

Ella quietly stared at the closed door, tears beginning to flow down her cheeks. She felt so weak. So impotent. She felt so alone … looking at the room around her, she saw the barrenness. This was her life. Barren.

She slumped back against the pillow, trying to comprehend a mother who thought so little of her own daughter. God, she was so weak, she savagely thought as she harshly wiped away the tears. She needed to … stop caring so much.

Staring at the bandages around her wrists, she wondered again why she hadn’t died that day.

There was nothing for her here.

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

Chapter 25

Here Not There

Here’s the next chapter. Enjoy!

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

The noise was deafening, the scene chaotic, as Ella made her way out of the gates and moved toward the luggage rack. She felt so tired after the flight, that she could hardly find the energy to keep her eyes open. Her head ached … her body ached … her mind ached. Every little bit of her wished that she could just close everything out … the sounds, the lights, the sensations … and go to sleep.

She felt a quick jerk on her arm. Turning she saw a figure running away with … she squinted … her bag. Looking down she realized what had happened. The bastard had stolen her purse! She opened her mouth to shout.

“Stop, thief!”

Ella blinked, her hand going to her throat. Was that her voice? So loud? So alive? So … masculine? Speaking English? Turning in confusion she saw a figure running past, his gaze intent on the retreating figure.

She began to run after them, trying to catch up with the two men. Quickly running out of steam, she cursed her weak body as she fell onto a bench, trying to catch her breath. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the dazed feeling. The world was darkening around her. All of this stress really wasn’t good for her. Maybe Lucy had been right. She should’ve taken more time to recover. But feeling horribly hurt by her mother’s cold-hearted rejection, she’d decided that she couldn’t stay there one more day more than the doctors required.

“Are you okay, miss?”

Ella looked up in confusion, trying to understand. Opening her book, she tried to look up the words that sounded so much like gibberish to her. She had TOLD her mother that she didn’t speak English. Learning it in school for a couple of years had not prepared her for any practical purpose.

“Okay,” she tried hesitantly, trying to guess at the correct answer. She put up her thumb, signaling everything was good.

He said something else and Ella closed her eyes in despair. She had no hope of understanding.

“Do you speak Mandarin?” she asked desperately, slipping into her native tongue when the silence had continued too long.

“In fact, I do,” came the surprising reply in the requested-for Mandarin.

Ella’s eyes widened in surprise and she quickly looked up. She met the eyes of the stranger and noticed his gaze quickly falling to her wrists before coming back to meet her eyes. She quickly pulled her sleeves down, hiding her bandages. She didn’t want to answer any questions or to meet the knowing gazes of strangers who would probably pity her or feel disgust over her weakness.

“I’m fine,” she answered shortly, remembering everything now that the shock had passed. She quickly looked away.

“Here’s your purse,” the male voice said, putting the purse down beside her. “That guy was fast but not fast enough,” the voice cockily continued. “I tackled him before he got out the doors and security took him away. He’ll think twice before he does something like this again.”

Turning she saw her purse set down between them. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I would never have caught up with him.”

“You’re welcome.” Looking up, she was surprised to see how young the male was … he was just a boy. Her eyes widened in surprise to see how angelically beautiful he was. He practically glowed.

“Are you okay?” she asked hesitantly. “You shouldn’t have risked your life like that,” she reprimanded him, secretly surprised to find that she had the energy to care even this much. “What if he’d had a weapon?”

“Nah, thieves wouldn’t do that. He might do a few months for petty theft, but if he had a weapon on him, that would most likely double or triple his sentence. He wouldn’t want to risk that.”

There was a short pause as each sought for something to say.

“My name is Ella,” she finally offered.

“Hi, my name i—,” he began, his hand outstretched.

“Arron Yan! I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I told you to meet me by the luggage carousel. I’ve been waiting there for 15 minutes and you’re here flirting?”

“Hey, Cal, listen to this. I just played the hero,” Arron began excitedly, speaking in Mandarin for her benefit.

“Don’t exaggerate.” The exasperation was apparent in the tone of the older male walking toward them. The reply was surprisingly in the same tongue.

Ella looked at him quietly and then turned away, quickly losing interest. She needed to get up and find her luggage. She couldn’t just sit here.

“No, really. A mugger snatched this lady’s purse and I ran after him and caught him before he could escape. Not only did I catch him, but I got her purse back for her. She was just thanking me when you so rudely interrupted. Like I was telling her, my name is Arron Yan,” he said, quickly turning back to her and grabbing onto her hand enthusiastically.

She blinked at this bundle of energy, fairly radiating with life, in front of her.

Keeping a hold of her hand, he pulled her up to stand next to him. Nudging her with his elbow, he nodded toward the man and said, “This is my stepbrother Calvin Chen.”

“Enough with the ‘step’ part,” Calvin said laughingly. “I told you I’m your brother. Just your brother. I don’t know why you insist on calling me your stepbrother. And how many times have I told you to be careful of your hands? What if you hurt yourself and couldn’t play the violin anymore?”

“Nothing’s going to happen to my hands,” Arron replied cheerfully. “Even God couldn’t be that cruel in depriving the world of the beautiful music I make with these gifted hands.”

“I can see we’re being very immodest tod…” His voice trailed off.

“I see you finally noticed this beauty standing next to me. This is …,” Arron began.

“Ella Chen Jia Hua,” Calvin filled in softly, his smile fading away.

Arron and Ella blinked in surprise, staring at Calvin.

“How did you know her name? Even I didn’t know more than her first name,” Arron asked excitedly.

“I have your picture,” Calvin said, pulling out a picture of Ella. “And look, it has your name on the back.”

Stepping closer, she stared at it. Looking up, she asked the question he already saw in her eyes, “Why do you have my picture?”

She looked so young in it. She’d been about 15 in that picture. Her finger hesitantly traced the smile on that happy face. It had been taken so long ago … before grandma died, before Hebe and Chun’s wedding and then divorce … before everything.

“Why do you have this?” she repeated, getting suspicious.

“Because I’m here to pick you up,” Calvin replied.

“What? I was supposed to wait for my dad,” she protested. Calvin shook his head. “Where’s my dad?” she finally asked, when she saw the understanding sympathy in his gaze.

“He had to go on one of his little archaeological digs, and once again nothing mattered except for his new find. You know how selfish he can be about this kind of stuff,” Calvin said somberly. “I’m sure that he’s given you many excuses over the years about why he never keeps any of his promises.”

Ella shrugged and looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” she said shortly. “I’ll find somewhere to stay and go back to Taiwan in a month or two. I have enough money. You don’t have to worry about me,” she said quietly, beginning to move toward the luggage carousel.

“You’re coming home with me,” Calvin instructed her, grabbing hold of her arm.

“Wait, what did you say?” Arron asked in surprise, switching to English. “I thought you’d rented her an apartment near the university so that it would be convenient for her to attend classes without the murderous commute she’d face daily from your house.”

“Look at her,” Calvin urged him, staring at the pale shadow standing before them. She looked barely alive. “We can’t leave her on her own. God knows what she’d do to herself. She needs someone. Seems like her mother can’t do the job, so I’ll … we’ll take her place. She doesn’t even know English. How will she survive?”

He frowned thinking about the conversation he’d had with his dad. Seemed like the second Mrs. Chen had lied to her ex-husband about why Ella was coming to America. Something horrible had happened back in Taiwan, and instead of taking care of her daughter, she’d shipped Ella off to another continent to avoid taking any responsibility. Some women just lacked the maternal instinct.

“Why would I do that? You’re just some stranger,” she finally said. “I don’t know you and I can’t be a burden on you.”

There was a short pause. Ella looked back and saw his gaze was focused on her wrist. The sleeve had slid up when he’d grabbed her arm. She quickly pulled away and then pulled her sleeve down. She glared at him silently, daring him to say something about the bandages.

“I’m not just any stranger,” he said quietly. “I’m also your brother.”

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

Ella stared out the window, watching the buildings whiz by. They meant nothing to her. She had no idea where she was or where they were going. Frankly, she didn’t care. All she wanted to do was go to sleep. Her head hurt from the information overload.

She wondered why her mother had never mentioned this portion of her history. It seemed that her father had been married to another woman, the first Mrs. Chen and Calvin’s mother for many years before she’d gotten tired of his broken promises and divorced him. She’d eventually gone on to make a successful marriage and had never looked back. Calvin had kept in regular contact with his father, although that had been more through his own efforts than any interest on his father’s part to stay in touch.

Dad had then married mom and produced Ella. His second marriage had been even shorter than the first. Mother had dumped him when she realized that not only hadn’t she married a rich guy but she’d married a man who loved only one thing and felt no compunction in leaving his family nearly destitute while he went off to make new discoveries of old things. Since Ella hadn’t seen her father since the divorce, she’d never had the chance to find out about her brother. Calvin hadn’t known about her either, not until their father had contacted him for a favor concerning Ella. Only then had he found out that he had a sister in the world.

Apparently, dad had then tried marriage one more time. With a woman named Grace, who had a son named Arron. That marriage had lasted a few months before Grace had dumped dad and moved on to greener pastures, as well. But the divorce hadn’t broken the relationship that had grown between Calvin and Arron. Calvin considered Arron his brother, and nothing would change that.

She sat back, remembering the sympathetic but sunny smile Calvin had flashed at her while he explained the situation. He explained that the picture was something that dad had once received from Ella’s grandmother and had treasured enough to keep.

Ella highly doubted that. Most likely the old man had put it aside and forgotten about it. She wondered how long it had taken him to find it before he’d gone looking to Calvin for a favor.

Ella sighed. That smile was the first sympathetic smile she’d seen in a while, and she was surprised by how warm it had made her feel. She had quickly turned away because she couldn’t afford to feel anything. Feelings lead one to do crazy things. She’d always carry the scars of feeling too much.

“I noticed you don’t know much English,” Arron said hesitantly.

“What gave it away? The fact that I didn’t understand one word of the conversation you both just had?” she asked sarcastically.

There was a short awkward silence.

“I’ll teach you,” he said resolutely. “I’m on summer break and the least I can do is brush up on my own skills while teaching you the language. I live close by and I drive, so it won’t be a problem to swing by for a few hours every day. Believe me, you’ll thank me once classes start.”

“Classes?”

“I’m starting college in the fall,” he explained. “And Calvin signed you up for some writing seminars at the same university. Your mother said you were interested in writing.”

“She lied,” she replied shortly.

“Even so, you need to do something while you’re here,” Arron insisted. “Once I start school, you’ll be alone all day. What’ll you do then?”

“What about him?” she said, indicating Calvin with a nod in his direction.

“Oh, Calvin? Calvin’s our boy genius. He graduated from college and got a degree in medicine. He’s a full-time psychiatrist and works at the local hospital’s psychiatric ward. He’s out more often than he’s in. Don’t count on him for much company.”

Ella froze, staring down at her bandages. Had her mother known about Calvin’s profession? Ella’s face tightened in rejection. She highly doubted her mother cared enough to investigate where she was sending Ella. It was just a coincidence that Calvin was a psychiatrist. One of God’s funny little jokes.

She knew for a fact that no one could help her. Not even a genius psychiatrist.

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

The sun was streaming through the window, falling over the figure on the bed. Ella turned over and glared balefully at the sun. Another sleepless night. Another day to get through. She was so tired. She’d been in America for two months, and yet she still felt lethargic and dazed some of the time.

The months had moved swiftly past, and, despite herself, Ella had begun to learn English. One day she had surprised herself by understanding most of an American show on television. She hadn’t believed that the daily hours she spent with Arron learning the difficult language would help her so much.

But not everything was going so great. She’d caught herself sleepwalking in the house, and that had caused her to lose sleep over the possibility of what she might do next. She’d begun to suffer from insomnia, the shadows slowly growing bigger under eyes. Last night had been another wakeful night.

The few times she had fallen asleep, she’d cried over dreams that had been swiftly forgotten upon being awakened by a concerned Calvin. She knew the two of them were worried. She knew it, but she didn’t know what to say to them or how to explain. A part of her wanted to talk but mostly she wanted to forget the past and move forward. She couldn’t bear to remember.

Wearing long sleeves had become another habit, and the constant feeling of needing to tug them over her wrists another neurosis. She couldn’t help but feel that the world was staring at her wrists … not the wrists but her scars. They were her badges of shame, and she didn’t know what to do about them.

Ella blinked her tired, burning eyes and then got up. Arron wanted to start lessons extra early today, and she’d finally agreed after he’d nagged her half the day just to shut him up. Moving to the closet, she pulled out another long sleeved shirt, wishing that it wasn’t so hot in California and moved toward the bathroom. After a quick shower, she was ready to face the day.

She quietly moved toward the dining room and the breakfast she forced herself to have every morning even if her body didn’t want the nourishment. If she didn’t force herself to eat, she was afraid that she would gradually fade away. And no matter how tired and dazed she felt, Ella knew that she wasn’t ready to die. Not anymore. But the problem was that she’d forgotten how to live.

“Happy birthday!”

Ella jumped in surprise, grabbing at her rapidly beating heart and stared wide-eyed at the scene before her.

There was a birthday cake and streamers everywhere. Calvin and Arron both held noisemakers in their hands and were whirling them like crazy.

“What? My birthday?” she asked in confusion.

Both nodded in unison. “Did you forget?” Arron asked. “See, I told you she’d forgotten, Calvin.”

“How did you know?” Ella demanded, sitting down in front of the huge pile of pancakes with a candle stuck on top. She wondered if they expected her to eat all of those?

“I saw it in your passport,” Arron replied. “When I caught the mugger, all of your stuff fell out. I saw the date and just remembered.”

“A date you saw once … briefly?” she asked skeptically.

“Along with being a musical prodigy, I have picture perfect memory,” he replied unabashedly. “I told Calvin we had to celebrate. Here, open your presents.”

He pushed forward a box eagerly.

Ella couldn’t help but smile at his puppy-like enthusiasm.

It was a basketball. She looked at him with questions in her eyes.

“I saw how much you love watching it,” he explained. “I’ll teach you,” he promised eagerly. “Pretty soon, you’ll be as good as me.”

Ella quietly nodded and then thanked him.

“Here,” Calvin said, pushing forward his box. “I’m sorry we woke you up so early, but I wanted to give you my gift before I left for the conference.”

Ella unwrapped the box and stared at the wristguards inside. She slowly looked up and met his gaze.

“You’ll need them to play basketball,” he said softly.

She gazed at him quietly. Her wounded eyes slowly showed a dawning awareness of the purpose of the gift.

Wristguards. Big enough to hide. To hide everything. To hide the past. To allow her to forget.

Tears welled up without her control. She wanted to hide herself away until she could get her emotions under control once more. They did not need to witness her blubbering like a baby.

He smiled in understanding.

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

Eight Months Later …

“Is there nothing you can do, Dr. Walters?” Calvin asked desperately. “You’re the best surgeon on the west coast. I’ve told you how important Arron’s arm is … if he lost the use of his arm he couldn’t play the violin anymore. Please.”

“I’m sorry,” the doctor replied. “We tried our best, but the nerves were too badly damaged. He will never be able to regain use of that arm. I’m sorry.”

Calvin sat down heavily beside Ella. They both stared bleakly at the closed door in front of them, wondering frantically how they would tell the boy in there that he could never play the violin he loved so much when he woke up? Ella’s hands clenched, her anger almost exploding out of her. How could Arron’s mother have been so careless … so reckless? She’d cost her son the only love he’d ever allowed himself in his young life.

The emotions couldn’t be walled up anymore. She needed to say something … to express herself. She knew if she didn’t do it now, she’d explode and it would be ugly.

“Why do people hurt other people? Why does loving hurt so much? It would be better not to love … it would be better to close our hearts.”

“I don’t know,” Calvin said softly, putting his arm around her thin shoulders. She leaned against his side, her head resting against his shoulder. She finally allowed herself the solace she’d denied herself for so long. “She didn’t mean to hurt him. She was only hurting herself and Arron got in the way.”

“She never means to do anything,” Ella said quietly. “But it’s always Arron who’s getting hurt.”

“He made the choice to get in the car, Ella.”

“Poor Arron. Poor, poor Arron.”

“He has us. We’ll be there for him, Ella. Just like we’re here for you.”

……………………

“If I told you … if I told you about my past,” Ella began softly, “you wouldn’t be so quick to support me. You’d hate me.”

“I could never hate you,” Calvin said softly. “You’re my only sister. No matter what you do … no matter what you did … I would always support you without question, knowing that you had your reasons.”

……………………

“I loved him so much, but he only ever hurt me,” Ella began softly.

Calvin squeezed her shoulder in encouragement.

“I met him when I was 16 and I’ve loved him ever since. And now, I know that I can never go back to him. Because I’ve done something that he could never forgive me for.”

“What did you do?”

“I helped to kill his child.”

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

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