MOA 31 – 35

Chapter 31

Outmaneuvered

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

Ella hummed a lullaby softly to the little baby in her arms, rocking him gently against her warm body. She cuddled him close, placing a soft kiss on his downy head. His small hand had curled loosely where it rested against her breast, his fingers seeming to clutch at her even in his sleep.

Resting her back against the chair, she let the rocking chair do its job, rocking them while they rested. Her finger came up to trace the curve of a soft, downy cheek. How could she have ever thought that she could let him go?

He was hers. He was a part of her body. She’d given birth to him.

How could she have ever thought that she could live … breathe without him? Even for a moment? Those days in the hospital seemed like a nightmare now. Everything was hazy. Every negative emotion had disappeared.

She loved her son. Her arms had become used to his weight in her arms. She sustained him. She couldn’t sleep at night without getting up a few times just to look at his angelic face.

No one and nothing … not even her hatred of his father could move her to reject him again.

A figure appeared at the door.

“He’s asleep?” a voice asked in a whisper.

“Shhh,” Ella cautioned with a quick finger to her lips, nodding her head. She got up, putting her baby in the crib before moving toward the figure in the doorway. Ella quietly moved into the living room and sat down next to the baby monitor, so she could hear everything from the other room.

Settling down, she stared at her best friend. She hadn’t seen her for the last months of her pregnancy and she found that she’d missed out on so much. Her eyes fell on the rings on Selina’s finger. In her absence Selina and Calvin had gone off and gotten married. She still remembered her surprise when she’d caught Calvin coming out of Selina’s bedroom early one morning. She’d been about to berate him for taking advantage of her naïve friend when Selina had quickly come out and explained the situation. It seemed that Selina and Calvin had kept in touch after Selina’s visits to the states, and when he’d returned with Ella, it had given their relationship a chance to flourish. And it had blossomed in a way that neither had envisioned. Even Ella could now see how much in love the two were. There was a new knowledge in Selina’s eyes and a new softness in Calvin’s eyes.

They had hid their relationship from Ella, not wanting to burden her with too much. But now that she knew … Ella had quickly ordered Calvin to move in. But when she offered to move out, Calvin and Selina had absolutely refused to let her go.

“Did you talk to Chun today?” Selina asked hesitantly, playing with her wedding band. She knew that it was a painful subject, but this situation needed to be resolved. Remaining in limbo was only hurting two of her best friends.

Ella’s mood darkened, as it always did when someone mentioned his name.

She abruptly shook her head. “Why would I need to talk to him? I’ve told my lawyer to take care of the formalities. We should be getting divorced soon. That’s what both of us want.”

“He called me today,” Selina quickly said. “He wanted me to tell you something. He said he’s tried talking to you and you refuse to listen.”

“I don’t think he’d have anything to say that I’d want to listen to,” Ella said stubbornly.

“He’s going to fight the divorce, Ella. He’s going to make it as complicated as he can,” Selina cried out. “He said …”

“What did he say?” Ella asked softly. She felt a coldness creeping up inside of her, chilling her to the bone. “What did he say?” she demanded when Selina hesitated.

“He said that he’d get custody of his son … he’d fight you for custody of Blake if you don’t agree to talk to him at least.”

Ella froze in terror. Take Blake from her? Her son … her only reason for living?

“Just talk to him, Ella!” Selina pleaded passionately. “He’s not a bad man. I don’t know the history. I don’t know why nothing seems to work out between you two. I don’t know …,” her voice trailed off … she looked lost, trying to feel her way in a situation she knew was riddled with quicksand. “B-but he’s not a bad man. I know Chun. He was our friend! He was our best friend. He’s not bad! What went wrong between you two? I had such hopes for both of you,” she sniffled softly, trying to hold back tears.

Ella stared at her, surprised at the sudden burst of emotion.

“You loved him, Ella! Don’t you remember? At his wedding to Hebe, you said that you couldn’t cry anymore because of all the emotions being too much. Then why can’t you give him another chance … is it because of the suicide attempt? Does he … not know?”

“Selina …,” Ella’s voice trailed off. What could she tell her best friend? How could she tell her what a fool she’d been? The more she’d thought about her conversation with Chun, the angrier she’d gotten until she’d wanted nothing to do with him. She’d sworn to herself that she’d have nothing more to do with him. How could she explain that decision to people who knew nothing about the situation? How could she reveal her own mistakes … her own pain?

It would be like stripping herself naked in front of the world and she wasn’t ready for that.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Selina said, correctly reading the fear in Ella’s eyes. “It’s enough that I have you back in my life now. But if there’s something about your past that’s stopping you from moving forward, then you owe it to yourself to overcome that. If not for yourself … then do it for Blake. Just see him once. He said that if you gave him a fair hearing then he won’t fight the divorce,” Selina urged. “Do this to make it easier on yourself.”

“I’ll think about it,” Ella finally said, looking away.

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

“I’m here to see Wu Chun,” Ella said to the hovering secretary.

“You are?”

“Ella. Ella Chen.”

The secretary’s eyes widened in surprise. This was the harridan? This was the evil bitch all the employees in the company were talking back. This tiny, fragile looking woman? Hesitating only briefly, she picked up the phone and called in, interrupting the important meeting going on inside.

“Krissy, I told you not to interrupt me,” Chun barked into the intercom.

“Mrs. Wu is here to see you, sir,” Krissy quickly interceded. There was a short pause and then the door to Chun’s office opened and Chun walked out. He quickly ushered out the gentlemen in the office and then motioned for Ella to precede him.

Ella entered. She nervously looked around, before moving over to sit down on the couch. He came over and sat down beside her. She flinched, cursing herself at the betraying movement and then moved over a couple of inches to escape his proximity.

“I’m glad you came to see me,” Chun said.

“It wasn’t by choice.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Your threats worked, Chun,” Ella said. “Don’t act so surprised now.”

“Threats?” He looked genuinely confused.

“You told Selina you’d fight the divorce and for custody of Blake if I didn’t listen to you. Well, I’m giving you a chance. Tell me something I want to hear.”

“Ella,” he said after a pause, deciding to ignore her accusations. His hands reached out for hers. She tried to jerk them away, but he quickly fought the movement, and her hands remained in his … fluttering like birds trying to escape their cage. “Ella, I think we can make this work. Everything that’s happened until now … everything that’s caused you to believe that you want this divorce has all been caused by a huge misunderstanding. I feel that if we can just untangle this mess, we can work at this marriage. There’s something here. Something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Something I’m sure that you can feel again if you just open yourself up to the possibility.”

“I don’t think it was a misunderstanding at all,” Ella argued, finally succeeding in pulling her hands away. “Me attempting to take my life and almost succeeding,” she paused for effect, “Wasn’t a mere misunderstanding,” she spat out. Standing up, she moved away from him.

He recoiled at her words and then took a deep breath. “I’m not trying to minimize the pain you went through and what it caused you to do, but Ella, you have to move on.”

“Chun, I just found out that the baby I thought I had killed … the thought that I had let you down and participated in an act that would make you hate me forever … I just found out that all of that was for nothing. I could have lost my life because of what happened and I didn’t even do anything wrong. It’s taken me years to realize this, but I finally do.”

“What do you realize?”

“Hebe was a bitch for what she put me through!” Ella yelled, turning to look at him with tears in her eyes. “I don’t care what she was going through at the time. I’ve made excuses for her. You’ve made excuses for her in the past month. But she had no right … no right to pull me into her personal hell!! And then when everything was resolved she just left. I was her sister … the truth couldn’t have been hidden from her. She must have had some sort of inkling of where I was and she abandoned me!”

“And you … you were supposed to be my best friend. Didn’t you ever wonder where I was? Didn’t you ever wonder where I’d disappeared to? Why did you punish me for Hebe’s faults?”

“A … a person becomes selfish in their grief. They don’t think about the people they’re hurting. Only their pain counts. Only their hurt is serious. The world recedes until it’s only you and your pain. You’d do anything to assuage that ache. That IS all that matters … I’m sorry for being selfish.”

“That wasn’t just being selfish,” Ella uttered with a derisive snort. “That was you being utterly insensitive to anyone else around you. But I guess a man who could forget his own daughter wouldn’t remember a mere friend. Your apology means next to nothing.”

Chun remained silent. What could he say that would melt the ice in her heart? How could he make her forget her bitterness?

“But you know if I tried that rationale … I still couldn’t understand why you took Angela with you to Italy. You remembered her friendship,” she growled. She turned away, wincing … wanting to hide. She hadn’t meant to say that. She hadn’t meant to reveal her jealousy. But a part of her wanted to know. Why Angela?

“You weren’t a friend anymore, Ella,” he finally replied. “You’d moved away from me as soon as Hebe came into our lives.”

“That’s because …”

“Because you loved me,” Chun completed for her. “But I didn’t know that. All I knew was that the girl I’d always considered my friend stopped being available. She always had something better to do. So, I made do. I made Hebe my friend. And Angela, after I rescued her. When I lost Hebe, Angela was the only support I could turn to. You’d moved too far away for me to even find you in the darkness I had fallen into. I couldn’t see you anywhere, Ella. I couldn’t see how I could ask you for help.”

Ella quickly wiped away her tears and turned to glare at him. “This is all useless. I don’t see why we have to rake up the past now. We moved apart. So far apart that you didn’t even care enough to see if that girl lying in the hospital room was me. The girl who had the same name as me … who was one door down from Hebe … who you hadn’t seen in Hebe’s room when you knew I would have been there if at all possible … you didn’t care. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“We can’t leave it at that.”

“Why not?”

“For one thing … we’re married,” Chun said softly, moving forward.

“Don’t come any closer. I don’t know what I’ll do if you come any closer,” Ella said, putting up a hand. Moving away from him, she returned to her seat on the couch. “You abandoned me first, Chun,” she said softly. “When Hebe came, you left me for her.” She put up one finger. “When Hebe left, you went off with Angela.” She put up a second finger. “When we got engaged, you went off with countless other women.” She put up a third finger. “You left me on our wedding night.” A fourth finger. “Do you notice a pattern emerging? How can I trust you never to do that again?”

“Because now I know that you’ve always loved me. That’ll keep me next to you,” Chun argued.

“Out of pity? I don’t want your pity,” she fired back.

“It’s not pity. It’s a foundation. I have feelings for you. I …”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Ella said, sick of this. He had just confirmed her deepest fears. He wasn’t insisting on a second chance out of love but out of duty. She could never accept that. She got up to leave.

“Hear me, Ella Chen,” Chun stated calmly.

She paused at the door.

“I want my chance. And I’ll do anything to get it.”

“What can you do to me?”

“I’ll demand full custody of my son. I’ll fight the divorce.”

Ella shrugged. “No court will give you custody of a newborn child.”

“But I will get joint custody,” Chun reminded her. “And as Blake grows older, longer and longer visitation until he’s living with me half time.”

……………………

“Now, tell me. How often and how long can you live without your son?”

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

“Now go back to sleep,” Ella crooned to Blake, settling him back in his crib. “Like a good little baby.” Blake snorted softly and then settled in for another nap. She stared at his face and tried to imagine waking up some mornings and not being able to see him. Her heart clenched in rejection. How could she stay apart from him? What if Chun fought dirty? What if he told the judge about her history … her suicide attempt?

What then?

……………………

She ran a hand through her hair, putting those fears away for now. She needed to think about this. He wasn’t going to scare her into staying married to him. This was too important.

Ella glanced at the clock and groaned. It was too early to be out of bed, especially for her, but it was too late in the morning to try going back to sleep. Blake was usually very good about sleeping until late morning, but today he’d awakened her at 6:00 a.m., wailing for his breakfast. She shrugged her shoulders. There was no help for it now.

There was soft laughter coming from the kitchen. Selina’s giggles and Calvin’s chuckles came out of the room, and then a short pause. Ella rubbed the sleep from her eyes and walked into the kitchen, and froze at the intimate moment she’d interrupted. Selina and Calvin quickly moved apart, blushing fire red.

“You’re up early today,” Selina said with a bright smile, her face still flushed.

“Yeah, uh, Blake woke up early for his feed, so I thought I’d join you two for breakfast. But that’s okay, I’ll eat later.”

“Don’t be silly, Ella. We never bothered you with breakfast because we know you’re not a morning person. Sit down,” Calvin ordered authoritatively. “Selina’s making pancakes.”

Ella nodded doubtfully and sat down. She stared at the two during the breakfast. She saw the quick glances and smiles the two threw each other when they thought she wasn’t looking. Inwardly she flinched, slowly coming to realize the position she’d put these two in. Not only had she interrupted them during what was their honeymoon, but she hadn’t even had the grace to notice what she was doing. And the sad thing was that neither one of them would say anything. They loved her too much.

Her hands clenched around her cup. She thought back over the past month. And even before that. The countless times she’d thoughtlessly called Calvin, demanding he come up to the cabin to keep her company. Had any of those times been when he was with Selina? Had he had to leave his girlfriend … then fiancé … and then newlywed bride to come take care of his mentally unstable sister?

Ella’s eyes widened in horrified realization, and she quickly looked down, hoping that neither noticed her reaction. She’d called Calvin to come up and watch a chick flick with her on his wedding night because she was feeling lonely.

He came. Without complaint. Without whining. She remembered teasing him about his swollen lips and the redness on his cheek, wondering if it was lipstick he’d wiped away. She’d asked if she’d interrupted a heavy make-out session. He’d quickly denied it.

But counting back now … Ella froze, shaken by what she’d discovered. She’d taken away their wedding night and the next two because she’d then gotten sick! It was a wonder that the two didn’t resent her for the care she had required in the past few months.

‘A person becomes selfish in their grief. They don’t think about the people their hurting. Only their pain counts. Only their hurt is serious. The world recedes until it’s only you and your pain. You’d do anything to assuage that ache. That IS all that matters …’

Chun’s words whispered through her mind. She’d thrown his apology back in his face. But now …

She stared at Calvin getting up to put his dishes in the sink. He bent down to place a kiss on Selina’s lips, pause and then move away without making contact. Calvin had never been much for public displays of affection. Selina got up to help him on with his coat.

She was still doing it. She never left them alone in the evening because she had nowhere to go. The two were too nice to go out on the town alone and they always spent any days off with her. Breakfast was their only alone time, and she’d even taken that away from them. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“Ella, what is it?” Calvin asked in a worried tone, his attention completely shifting over from Selina and onto her in a few seconds. He walked away from his wife, leaving Selina with the coat raised in the air. He moved over to his tearful sister. Selina quickly followed, the worry evident in her eyes.

Ella closed her eyes, knowing they wouldn’t let her go unless they knew that she was taken care of. They would never believe that she could take care of herself and Blake.

“I-I’ve decided to try with him,” Ella forced out, hating the words.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve decided to try with Chun,” Ella repeated, clenching her hands. “I’ll be moving in with him. We’ve decided to give it a go for a couple of months. If it doesn’t work out … he won’t fight me about the divorce or full custody of Blake.”

Calvin was silent for a moment and then he took her hands in his. “Are you sure?” he asked gently.

……………………

“Ella?” He nudged her.

She swallowed.

“I’m sure.”

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

“You’re finally here,” Chun murmured with satisfaction. “This is where you belong, Ella. In this house. With our family.”

Ella stared at him quietly and then moved away from him, looking around the room. Ella froze when she saw the picture on the dressing table. Granted it was face down, but when she moved over to lift it up her suspicions were confirmed. It was a photo of Hebe.

“You did about as well as I expected,” she finally said softly.

“Huh?”

“This is very insensitive of you Chun.”

“How so?”

“Chun, you brought me to the place where you and Hebe lived as husband and wife. You brought me and set me down in the exact same position that she was in. God! It’s the same bedroom that you two used. I’m not a possession. I have feelings! I don’t have to accept where you put me.”

Chun stared at her, and then looked around. It was true that Hebe had been here before, but this was the master bedroom. He’d had every single thing in this room replaced. He cringed when he saw the photo of Hebe. Granted the movers might have missed a thing or two. But this was his ancestral home. This was the house he’d grown up in. This house carried memories of Cassandra from birth. This house carried his father’s memories. Did Ella expect them to sell this mansion, forgetting all the history there was? It wasn’t only about Hebe. This house had been here before Hebe. And would be here after all of them were long gone.

“What do you want from me? Why can’t we make new memories here and drive out the old ones?” he ground out in frustration. “I don’t understand.”

……………………

Ella turned to stare at their reflection in the mirror above the dressing table. There she was, looking drab and a bit overweight. There was Chun, handsome as ever. And between them … shining radiantly … was the image of Hebe … looking as beautiful as she had on their wedding day. Why couldn’t he understand that this is what she would see every day of her married life?

“That’s just the problem,” she replied softly. “You never did.”

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

 

Chapter 32

Hint of a Smile

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

“Mommy, get up! Mommy, time to get up. Daddy says it’s time to eat. We’ve been waiting for you.” A child’s voice. Who?

Ella turned over grumpily. Her bleary gaze landed on the alarm clock and widened in surprise. 10:00 A.M. Blake never let her sleep this late. He always needed a nappy change at 9:00 A.M. Why hadn’t his cries awakened her this morning?

She turned to look at the source of the voice.

“Cassie?” She cleared her throat and then tried again. “What are you doing here? Isn’t today a school day?”

“Daddy says today is a holiday!” the little girl said with a giggle, snuggling close to Ella’s sleep warm body.

Ella’s arms automatically went around her, wrapping her close. The truth was she’d missed the little girl. She hadn’t wanted to push the little girl out of her life when she’d started this little feud with Chun, but what else could she have done? Cassandra was Chun’s daughter and her connection to Ella was weak at best … she was only a step-aunt and a stepmother.

“Holiday?” Ella asked sleepily, placing a kiss on the excited girl’s cheek.

“Because you came back to us today!” Cassie explained. “I missed you … mommy.” She looked up hesitantly and then looked down again.

“What’s wrong?” Ella asked, concerned.

“Daddy said I could ask you if it would be okay to call you mommy,” Cassie said in a rush. “But I forgot. It just slipped out.” Her tiny fingers traced a circle on Ella’s T-shirt. “Auntie Ella?”

“Hmm?” Ella asked, staring down at the trembling fingers.

“Can I call you mommy?”

“What about your real mommy?” Ella asked quietly.

“I haven’t seen real mommy for a long time,” Cassie said in a rush. “I-I want … everyone at school has a mommy and a daddy … I thought that when daddy got married … but then you left.” She babbled on in the way that children did. Her sentences were disconnected, her thoughts scattered, but Ella could hear the fear of rejection in those words. She remembered being in that exact same place so many times in her life. “But now you’re back and daddy said I could ask. Auntie Ella, will you be my mommy?”

Ella hugged her niece close and then smiled. “I’ll be your mommy from now on, Cassandra,” she promised. No matter what happened, she would always be her mother.

Getting up, she picked up Cassie and the two made their way to the bathroom for their morning wash. Cassie told her about daddy changing Blake’s diaper and throwing away ten diapers before he got it right. Cassie giggled hysterically while she told Ella about how Blake had peed on Chun during one of those naked times. Cassie also told Ella about the new bad word she’d learned when that happened.

Ella smiled without conscious thought.

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

“Good morning,” Ella said guardedly, sitting down across from Chun at the breakfast table. Ella’s gaze was caught for a moment, struck by Chun. His hair was still in that hairstyle that she’d always loved, a bit too long in the front. Just enough to make her want to run her fingers through it. It was slicked back now, to match his dress shirt, tie and formal pants. But she knew it was there, begging to be touched. He was as handsome as ever in the morning light and looking at him made her stomach clench. ‘Remember the bad stuff,’ she quietly ordered herself. Looking good was not enough to make a marriage work. It was enough to break a marriage; Ella frowned as she remembered the women that had been all over him in the days leading up to their marriage.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wu,” Ella said, turning to Chun’s mom.

“Oh, don’t be so formal, Ella,” Auntie Wu said. “Just because we haven’t seen each other in so long doesn’t mean we’ve become strangers. Call me Auntie Wu, or even mom, like Hebe used to …” her voice trailed off when she realized the faux pas she had just committed. There was a moment of silence.

“I think I’ll just call you Auntie Wu for now,” Ella said with a forced smile. “I’m surprised to see you here. Mom said you’d be going on a cruise with her.”

“Oh, your mother changes her mind like the wind. She decided to go to Las Vegas instead, so I thought I’d just stay at home. And anyways I couldn’t leave you alone with the new baby, could I? I remember how hard it was to have a newborn baby in the house with Chun and Cassandra. I don’t want to abandon you now.”

Ella nodded thoughtfully, and then returned to her breakfast. She was glad that Auntie Wu had decided to stay. At least there would be a buffer between her and Chun. Although Chun thought she’d come back because she wanted to give them a second chance, she knew that she was mostly here to put Calvin and Selina’s minds at ease. A part of her rejected having anything to do with Chun, and that part was really happy that Auntie Wu had stayed. That meant there would be no intimate conversations. No intimate dinners. It would just be a bunch of people living together long enough to make Chun realize that this was all hopeless.

“What is with this traditional breakfast this morning, Chun?” Auntie Wu’s voice broke across her thoughts.

Ella looked up surprised.

“You’ve always insisted on eggs, toast and jam. But today …” She shook her head. “I don’t understand you sometimes. Since when did you become so traditional? Is it because you’re a family man now?”

Ella looked at the dishes in front of her. Turning to look at Chun, she caught the hint of a blush fading from his cheeks. Had he done this for her? She looked at the table once more. Every dish on the table was her favorite dish. Nothing had been left out. She stared at him once more. He’d remembered this from so long ago. She didn’t even remember the last time they’d eaten breakfast together, and it shocked her that he’d made the effort. It shocked her that he’d remembered.

Putting her head down, she made her way through breakfast. She was still hesitant to speak to him. Their conversation last night had not ended on a happy note.

~*~*~*~

“I can’t stay here,” she’d adamantly asserted, her eyes revealing all her insecurities if he only cared to look. But he hadn’t been able to see.

“We can’t just move because of your emotions! I can’t uproot my mother and my daughter because of your feelings!” he’d argued in frustration, trying to make her understand.

“Why can’t we stay at the apartment?” she’d asked desperately. “You’ve lived there for the last two years because the memories of Hebe were too much. Why move back now? Why not stay there for a couple more months.”

“This is my family home, Ella,” he’d said with a sigh. “I want … need our family to live here. This will be a fresh start. That apartment was never a home; it was just a company apartment. The two years that Cassie, mom and I spent there were two years in limbo. I made their lives hell. I made my own life hell. The ghosts of my past are there. I don’t want to face them while I’m making a new life with you. I don’t want you to face that everyday. I want to start fresh again. Look carefully, I’ve changed everything in here.”

Ella held up Hebe’s picture. “Not everything has been removed.”

“Ella, don’t make this an issue,” he pleaded with her, pulling the photo away from her.

“If you can’t understand why I’m asking you for this, then I don’t see how we can begin again. I’ll always feel like she’s here, between us.”

“Is that your final answer?”

“Yes.”

~*~*~*~

He’d walked away. She’d slept in the room next to the nursery. And Chun … she had no idea where he’d gone. Were her fears reasonable? Or was she just being stubborn because it was one more way to keep him at a distance? Wasn’t there any way she could see this from his point of view?

She sighed and shook her head. There was nothing she could do. Every time she thought about it, she remembered Chun and Hebe walking into that room after their wedding. She saw Hebe closing the door with that happy smile on her face. She saw Chun in the background with love on his face. That bedroom symbolized the love Chun had felt for Hebe … it would always be a reminder that Chun had loved Hebe first.

“Let’s go to the beach,” Chun suggested suddenly. Ella looked up in surprise. “We haven’t been there for a long time.”

“Kind of sudden, isn’t it?” Ella said skeptically. “Don’t you have work today?”

“Didn’t Cassie tell you?”

“What?”

“Today’s a holiday. To celebrate your moving in,” Chun said with an attempt at a smile.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Auntie Wu said, to the background noise of Cassandra’s excited cries. Ella looked at the smiles on Cassandra’s face and the hopeful smile on Auntie Wu’s face. She sighed in defeat and then murmured her assent. It seemed that Chun’s mother knew nothing had been resolved between the two of them.

How could she tell Auntie Wu any different when she didn’t even know herself whether her heart could give her son another chance?

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

The sun was out and there was a lazy breeze playing through their hair as they carried all their paraphernalia nearer to the water. Setting up an umbrella, Chun quickly settled Auntie Wu and Blake under it, protecting them from the sun.

Ella sat down on the next blanket over with a book. Chun’s smile disappeared when he saw the distance she’d placed between herself and him. He’d thought … hoped that it would be a bit different today. He’d hoped that after a night’s sleep, Ella would be ready to really try. Why else had she come to him? Last week she’d absolutely refused to listen to him, and no one had been more surprised than him when she’d called yesterday, wanting to move in.

He’d said yes immediately, but now he was beginning to wonder whether her move had been motivated by a desire to give them a chance or by other reasons.

“Let’s go swim,” Chun said, moving over when he caught her peeking at him. She quickly looked down and shook her head in denial. A flush had appeared on her cheeks. He wondered what she was thinking about now.

Chun motioned at Cassie with his head and was glad when she caught on. “Mommy, let’s swim.”

“I’m going to sunbathe for a while, honey,” Ella said with a smile. “Why don’t you go with daddy?”

Cassie sat down with a pout and then leaned against Ella with an aggrieved sigh.

“What is it?” Ella asked.

“Daddy swims like a monkey,” Cassie retorted.

“What?” There was a hint of incredulity in Ella’s tone.

“Yeah, last time we were at Auntie Selina’s house for a pool party. And everyone was there in their swimwear. But daddy wouldn’t swim. Everyone was teasing daddy about swimming. Daddy wouldn’t get into the water and then he started pouting. He even told some of his friends to ‘shut up’,” Cassie whispered secretively. “And then Auntie Selina told me daddy swum like a monkey when I asked her why everyone was making fun of daddy. Uncle Ken, Vic, Jerry and Vanness wouldn’t leave him alone.”

Ella glanced at Chun, and then back at Cassie. “Well, I’m sure they were just teasing. Your daddy was a great athlete back in high school and college. All the guys just wanted to be like him.”

Cassie shook her head and then giggled.

“Is there something more you’re not telling me?” Ella asked, tickling the little girl. The little girl began to giggle helplessly, wriggling and trying to get away.

“Ah, Cassie, let’s go for a swim,” Chun interjected hurriedly, not liking the turn the conversation had taken. “We can just paddle in the shallows. Even I can do that. Come on.”

Cassandra got up and danced out of reach.

“I jumped in the pool and yelled at daddy to come swim with me, but I forgot …” Cassie yelled out from a distance.

“Forgot what?” Ella asked, interested.

“That I don’t know how to swim either,” Cassie admitted. “Daddy jumped in to save me. But when I opened my eyes …”

“When you opened your eyes?” Ella prompted.

“Uncle Ken was bending over me. He was making sure I was okay.”

“And where was daddy?”

“He was next to me.”

“So, daddy saved you too, right?”

“No,” Cassie said with a big smile. “He was lying down next to me. Auntie Selina had to save him. She was shouting at him for making her get wet when it had taken her hours to get the perfect pool party hairdo. She was also telling him that ‘monkeys shouldn’t try to swim!’ Auntie Ella?”

“Hmm?” Ella asked absentmindedly, a smile playing across her lips as she imagined the scene.

“I want to learn how to swim, but I’m afraid to ask daddy.” Cassie confided in a whisper, coming in close to make the confession.

“Why?”

“Because I’m afraid he might want to teach me. I don’t want to swim like a monkey!” she suddenly wailed in imagined mortification.

Ella burst out laughing, her eyes beginning to sparkle for the first time in a long time. Tears appeared in her eyes from the laughter. Her arms came up to wrap themselves around her stomach. She stared up at Chun, her face filled with joy, wanting to share the joke with him.

He froze.

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

She laughed. And for a moment I saw my Ella again. I saw a hint … a small hint … but a hint nonetheless of a light at the end of the dark tunnel I’d found myself in.

……………………

Ella was my best friend. When I met her, she was so fragile. She was heartbroken over her grandmother’s passing, and no one seemed to understand that. She just needed a friend. And before I knew it, I became that friend.

She leaned on me. She called me when she needed to cry … to vent … or just to talk. She turned to me for advice. She turned to me for support. She turned to me for everything. And I realized that I liked being in that role. I like being the constant thing in her life. I liked being the one she knew she could always turn to.

And then she met Selina and Jiro. Selina and Ella became best friends. And because both were girls, their conversations encompassed a world that entirely excluded me. I know that Ella didn’t intend to do it on purpose, but suddenly I was kicked out of a portion of her life. And then Hebe came. She pulled away even more. At the time I thought it was because she now had a sister, but now I realize that it was something different that had pushed her away.

At that point when I realized that I wanted … no … needed to be something more for Ella, to be a greater part of her life … that’s when she realized she no longer needed me. I wanted to ask her how I was supposed to suddenly forget her. I never had the courage to do that.

It felt like she’d decided she could live her life without me … and had just never told me. At least, that’s what I thought.

The only mistake I made was in letting her pull away.

The only mistake I made was in respecting her decision.

The only mistake I made …

The only mistake I made was in not asking, “Why?”

…………………………

Where did it all go so wrong?

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

Chapter 33

Love Has to Exist

It was a sunny day. The weather was just perfect. The past few days had been cold and windy, but today the sun had decided to come out and warm the whole earth. It was as if nothing was impossible for her. She had wished for a sunny day and it was here. For her special day.

She looked gorgeous, standing there in her white wedding dress. It left her shoulders bare, providing the perfect setting for the diamond pendant he had gifted her with before the wedding. The veil was like fairy dust on her elaborate hairdo, and covered the upper half of her face, providing a little mystery.

The breeze played gently with the ribbons in her hair, but did no permanent damage. Even nature dared not mar the perfection of the mortal goddess it had created.

The orchestra began to play the wedding march and she began to walk down the aisle. The smell of flowers surrounded her, becoming a part of her essence. The man standing at the end of the aisle could only stare in awe at the woman he had convinced to be a part of his life. His eyes were filled with her and only her. No one else dared intrude in this moment. The priest was a mere annoyance, someone he barely paid attention to … only enough to be able to say the right words at the right time.

And then came the moment that he was allowed to touch her. An all too brief kiss on her luscious lips and then their first dance as husband and wife. The band began to play their song, and he gladly took her into his arms. Finally, she was his. No one else could ever intrude.

Ella stared at the couple in front of her. The prince and his princess being joined in holy matrimony. Could it be any more perfect?

“What am I doing here?” Ella murmured to herself, seeing the couple dancing lovingly in front of her. They were so close that she could reach out and touch if she wanted to. Not that she did.

Hebe looked up and stared right into her eyes. Ella stepped back from the shock of their eyes meeting.

“It’s to remind yourself,” Hebe replied.

“I don’t understand.”

“This whole thing … this whole wallowing in the past … about a wedding and a relationship that’s long over … long dead … is just to remind yourself …”

“Remind myself of what?”

“That he was mine first. That he’ll always love me. That you’ll only ever be second in his eyes and a pathetic second at that,” Hebe uttered ruthlessly.

Ella stared at her quietly, trying to comprehend. Well, of course that was true. Then why was she hurting herself with these images? Chun had loved Hebe first. He had put her first. They’d gotten married and had the perfect wedding … the perfect life. Ella’s hands clenched into fists as she tried to fight the tide of depression that she was beginning to drown in. She didn’t want to feel this way, but being around Chun … seeing him so happy and besotted … broke her heart. It made her feel awful.

“But Ella …” Hebe’s voice called out softly as Ella began to turn away.

Ella looked back. Hebe continued to dance with Chun, her hand cradling his head to her delicate, white shoulder.

“Tell me truthfully,” Hebe urged her softly.

“What?”

“How much of what you believe is reality and how much of it is your insecurity?”

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

Ella woke up with a start, her heart racing. Her fingers trembled as she ran them through her flying hair. She did not need this, she thought with a groan, sinking back into bed. She did not need reminders of how great it used to be between those two. It only led to worse memories. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and then willed the thoughts away.

It was all in the past.

There was nothing she could do about the past. Now it was about the present and the future. And if she didn’t convince Chun that they had no future together, he would ruin any chance she had at a happy future alone with her son.

Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she looked at the clock. It was time to get up. Blake needed his feed and Cassandra needed to get to school.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wu,” Sally said, putting Blake into her arms when Ella walked into the nursery.

“Sally, how many times have I told you to call me Ella?” Ella asked with a smile, admonishing the children’s nanny.

“Sorry, Ms. Ella, none of my other employers … I’ll try to remember,” Sally promised with a sunny smile. “I’ll wake up Miss Cassandra and she’ll be ready for you in 15 minutes.”

Ella nodded absentmindedly, and began to feed her son his breakfast. Running a finger down his soft cheek, she wondered how she could make Chun realize the truth that she didn’t belong here. She wasn’t Mrs. Wu material. Nor did she want to be. That position was better left to women like Hebe, women who had been trained for this kind of life. She raked her brain for ways to show him what he was so obviously missing, but the dreams from the night before had totally destroyed her concentration and she couldn’t focus on anything.

“Good morning, little brother,” Cassandra shouted gleefully, running into the room. Leaning in to smack a kiss on his cheek, she then leaned in to kiss Ella a good morning. “Shhh, sweetie,” Ella cautioned her. “He’s almost fallen asleep again.” Cassandra nodded, and then patiently waited until Ella placed him back in his crib and then allowed herself to be taken out of the room.

“When will Blake do more than sleep, eat and poop?” Cassandra asked, tugging at Ella’s hand to get her attention as they walked to her room. “I want to play with him and share my toys. But if I give him any toys he just tries to eat them. And then daddy takes them away saying it’s not safe.”

“Not for a while, honey,” Ella replied, putting Cassie’s hair up just the way she liked it. “He’s too young to understand that you play with toys. And the little bits and pieces could really hurt him. Keep your toys away from him for now.” Hand in hand the two walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Cassie sat down to her bowl of cereal, while Ella quickly got a cup of coffee before sitting down across from Chun.

He looked up suddenly, catching her staring at him. She quickly looked away. There was a brief moment of awkward silence before he resumed eating, his eyes glued to her face. She stared down, blushing, wishing that he would stop.

“Chun was telling me about a gallery opening that he’s been invited to,” Auntie Wu began hesitantly.

Ella looked up in question. They hadn’t been anywhere since their wedding. No one knew about the state of affairs between the two, but that hadn’t stopped the tabloids from speculating and creating rumors in high society about the reclusive couple.

“It’s one of your old classmates,” Auntie Wu continued. “She’s been painting for a while, and she decided to open up her own gallery to display her work and of other new artists.”

Ella looked at Chun.

“It’s Rainie,” he said shortly. “Her husband Ken is one of my friends and business partners. So, I got invited. She penned a special note wanting you to be there, too.”

Ella looked down, not knowing what to say. She remembered her high school days. Besides Selina, Rainie was the only one who had made school bearable for her.

“What with Blake and everything, the two of you haven’t had a chance to be alone,” Auntie Wu continued. “If you want, I can take care of Cassie and Blake and give you both the chance to go out.”

“We wouldn’t want to impose,” Ella quickly said.

“Impose? I’m offering, Ella,” Auntie Wu gently corrected her. “I won’t hide my motives. This way you’ll be out alone … it might give the two of you a chance to reconnect.”

Ella stared down at her coffee and then looked up at Chun. She quietly got up from the table. “I’ll think about it,” she lied to Auntie Wu with a straight face. No way did she intend on being alone with Chun.

She walked into the hallway and heard the footsteps following behind her. She turned around to meet Chun’s eyes.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’d like you to go to the opening with me. I’d like to introduce you to my friends and you can also meet your old friends. Selina and Calvin also plan on being there.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere with you, Chun,” Ella admitted after a pause. “It won’t be comfortable.”

……………………

“How do you know?”

She looked up, startled at his question.

“How do you know what’ll it be like? Ella, our relationship has consisted of a long friendship. Which you decided to give up.”

‘Give up?’ she questioned in her mind. ‘What did he mean by that?’

“A romance that you nipped in the bud before it even started.”

‘Romance? Where was I when this romance was starting?!’ Ella wondered frantically.

“A series of occasions where you tried to save me from myself,” he growled, moving towards her.

She backed up, her eyes widening in surprise. ‘He found out?’

“A one-night stand that occurred only because you felt sorry for me,” he gritted out between clenched teeth. “And then told your friends about the morning after. Going on and on for hours about how pathetic I was and needed to be saved because I, as the weak male, couldn’t save myself.”

“That wasn’t how it was …” she began frantically.

He grabbed her hands and she was silenced by the contact. He prevented her from moving back any further. Bringing up his hands, he then cradled her face, rubbing his thumbs over her cheekbones.

“And then it pretty much concluded with me trying to humiliate you and you running off for months. So tell me …”

She stared at him in question.

“How do you know how it’ll be? Ella, we got pregnant. We had a son. We’re married. You’re in my home … taking care of my daughter and our son. We’re a family now. But …”

“But?”

“We’ve never been out on a date,” he said, his eyes entreating her. “Why can’t we go to the opening? In fact, why can’t we go to dinner first, and make a full night of it? Why aren’t we trying harder? Why?”

She blinked, as if pulling herself out of a dream. And then quickly pulled her face away. His hands returned to clutch at hers.

“We need this chance. I want a complete chance. Ella, please.” His hands desperately clutched at hers, wanting to communicate the depth of his sincerity. His shoulders slumped as he saw the stubborn look on her face. Why had he even bothered? What made him thi—

“Fine. I’ll go.” It was as if the words were being dragged out of her against her will. “But just one date. That’s it. One chance.”

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

“You look lovely tonight,” he murmured, handing her the daisies.

“Lovely flowers,” she said with disinterest and handed them to the hovering maid. “Make sure that you keep an eye on the children,” she instructed Sally. “I know that Auntie Wu said she’d take care of them, but she’s getting older. I don’t want the children to be too much of a burden. We’ll be back soon, since Blake will need his nighttime feed. Let’s go,” she said to Chun before walking out the door without waiting for his response. She climbed into the car, refusing to wait for him to open the door.

“No driver?” she asked.

“I just wanted it to be us tonight,” Chun revealed.

Ella looked at him and then quickly looked away. She couldn’t have made her disinterest clearer.

As they drove to the restaurant, Chun desperately tried to think of topics of conversation that would interest her. But nothing came to mind. He had to say something, he urged himself. The silence was turning awkward. Not that she would notice.

They’d driven quietly for half an hour when there was a sudden change in the rhythmic movement of the car. Ella looked at him enquiringly, and he glanced at her before he pulled over onto the side of the street.

They both got out to inspect the damage. “Are you kidding me?” Ella growled. “Did you plan this?”

Chun looked down incredulously at the flat tire before him.

“If you had ever gone out on a date with me, Ella,” he said between clenched teeth, angered by her unjust accusation, “you would never think that I would do this as a gimmick on a date.”

“Well, get the spare,” she ordered.

Chun walked angrily to the trunk of the car.

How dare she accuse him of doing this? How clichéd was it for a guy to pull this act when he wanted extra time with his girl? He wanted this night to be perfect. Not something they spent arguing on the side of a deserted street about. Opening the trunk he stared in disbelief at the empty space in front of his eyes. His shoulders slumped. How the hell was he going to explain this to Ella?

No spare. She was going to think him the biggest manipulator or the biggest idiot on this side of the hemisphere.

He wasn’t sure which way he wanted her to go.

He pulled out his cell phone, hoping to make a call to his roadside assistance service before returning to her.

“God, you have to be kidding me. Don’t play with me. I finally got her to go out on a date,” he whispered frantically, punching at random buttons. “If she thinks that I’m doing this on purpose so I can make the moves on her in private, it will kill my chances with her. Don’t do this, please.” There was no response.

And no signal. No roadside assistance. He was screwed.

“Uh … my spare seems to be missing,” Chun said, walking back to Ella. She stared at him disbelievingly. And then walked to the trunk to verify his words. She turned to look at him.

“Then call your service,” she urged him.

“No signal,” he said dolefully.

She pulled out her cell phone and then angrily shoved it back into her purse.

“I saw a gas station a few minutes back,” he finally said when he could no longer handle the glares she was sending his way. “It’s probably a couple of miles. Why don’t you wait here …”

“What? So that some rapist can get me?” she griped at him. “Let’s go.”

They began the walk back to the gas station.

‘Why are you playing with me like this, God?’ Chun silently raged, as he walked beside her. ‘I finally got my chance, and I had everything arranged perfectly. Perfect. You ruined it.’

This time there was a response.

His eyes widened as he saw the lightening and heard the thunder.

“Fu—,” Ella muttered angrily, quickening her pace.

They walked the last mile to the gas station in pouring rain. Ella shivered as they entered the air-conditioned building. “I’d offer you my jacket,” Chun said with a hopeful smile.

Ella turned to him hopefully, looking at him fully for the first time that evening.

“But I kind of left it in the car,” he concluded, his gaze sliding away from hers. Chun quickly moved away from the murderous look she sent him, and then made his way to the cashier. After talking for a few minutes, he handed over a few bills and came back to Ella.

“I’ve arranged for a tow truck,” he relayed to her upon his return. “While the truck goes out, why don’t you get something warm to eat?”

Ella grabbed some instant tea and noodles and began to gobble them down, trying to get warm. Her dress was soaked through and her hair was matted to her head. Nothing remained of the glamour she had worked so hard to achieve at the beginning of the evening. As she drank the tea, she realized the air had become warmer in the food mart.

Then why was she still shivering?

“Here’s a T-shirt and shorts,” Chun said from behind her. “The cashier says you can put it on in the back. He had a change of clothes,” he explained when she looked at them.

“What about you?”

“I got a T-shirt, too.”

Ella quickly got changed, but her body continued to tremble. She walked out, hoping that Chun wouldn’t notice. She didn’t know why she couldn’t control her body. Sitting back down, she sipped at her tea.

Ugh. It was cold. Staring at the liquid, she wondered if she had the energy to make herself another cup. Deciding to do just that, she froze as she felt hands rubbing warmth into her arms.

She looked up and froze at the image she saw in the food mart window. Chun’s hands traveling up and down her arms, forcing the blood to move more quickly, spreading warmth. She wanted to protest but she could only silently moan at the warmth. His hands pulled her back into his chest and then he wrapped his warm, incredibly toasty arms around her body, cradling her to him. She struggled briefly, but then settled back against him.

Her eyes stared at their image. Her head tucked under his chin. His body curled protectively around hers. His warmth soaking into her. His hips were cradling her curves. She could feel his body reacting.

She had two options. She could pull away. Reject him. Her body rejected that option. It threatened her with dire consequences if she moved away from the source of the heat.

She only had one other option. Turning around, she wrapped her arms around him, plastering her body to his, wanting his warmth to completely engulf her.

She sighed in relief as her body settled against him, her soft, feminine curves melting into his chiseled male strength. For the first time in years … years … it felt like she was finally … truly … home.

~*~*~*~

Chun watched Ella walk into her bedroom. They’d decided to come straight home after the car had been towed back to the station. After putting the children to bed, Chun had walked Ella to her bedroom door, fulfilling his final duty for the night. They hadn’t spoken since the tow truck driver’s arrival had interrupted their embrace.

“Ella,” he said desperately as she began to close the room door in his face.

She looked up at him enquiringly.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” he uttered in an apologetic tone. “You have to understand …”

“Don’t worry about it, Chun,” Ella said, putting up a hand as if to cradle his cheek. She froze and then pulled it back. “It was … fun,” she said with a small smile. “Better than a lot of other evenings I’ve had to live through. In fact, I wouldn’t mind …”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“Never mind,” she said quickly and slammed the door shut.

Chun half-smiled at her words, relief coursing through his body.

Turning, he met his mother’s curious gaze. He stepped back in surprise. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

She pulled him away from Ella’s door and into his room.

“How was it?”

“Everything went wrong. The car’s tire went flat when we were on a deserted road. The spare was missing. No signal. We had to walk miles in the rain. We spent the evening in a food mart,” he growled in frustration. “I swear some malevolent entity was out to get me. It was as if everything was planned to go wrong at just the right moment so we would have to spend the entire evening like that. And that malevolent entity has either watched too many dramas or read too many harlequin novels.”

“But you spent the evening alone with Ella?” his mother asked.

“Yes.”

“Chun?”

“Yes, mother?”

……………………

“You’re welcome, dear.”

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

You know, it’s been a long time since my first date with Hebe. It was right after we met. In fact … she asked me out. I was hesitant at first, but then I relented … Anyways, it’s been a long, long time, but I remember every single detail of that first dinner.

Everything was perfect. I know, because I planned my heart out for that first date. Even though I wasn’t sure … but once I agreed, I wholeheartedly threw myself into planning that date. I realize now that it was because I was ready to fall in love, but I didn’t know it then.

I knew that for this relationship to work … for there to be a happily ever after … that first step we took together had to be perfect.

The candlelight was romantic. I surveyed people on the right number of candles required to CREATE that romantic atmosphere.

I had dozens of her favorite flowers brought in to decorate the restaurant.

I had the perfect first date gift ready. A cute little teddy bear for her.

Her favorite dishes for dinner. Her favorite wine.

Everything was damn perfect. And we had a perfect evening.

……………………

And she took it all as her due. I’d never worked that hard for a woman in my life and everything I’d done had been done before. Every plan I’d made was unoriginal and unsurprising. But even so … that perfect evening set us on the path that led to our wedding.

……………………

But with Ella …

I realized … it’s not about everything going right. Thank god it isn’t, because everything that could’ve gone wrong that night … did. Nothing went as planned.

It’s when everything goes horribly wrong … and you realize … even then that you’d want to spend that same horrible evening with that person rather than have the perfect evening with anyone else in the world … it’s then that you have to be pretty stupid not to grasp …

That between you and her …

A little bit of love has to exist.

……………………

Right?

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

Chapter 34

Everyone Gets Scared

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

“La la la,” she hummed happily, getting out of bed. Swaying gently at first, she twirled in a circle and then threw her hands out in the air. “La la la.” This time she was much quieter, realizing that it was the middle of the night. Glancing behind her, she saw that one bedside lamp was lit but all else was in darkness. She brushed a hand through her hair. How long had she slept?

She shrugged. It really didn’t matter. Her hands came up to pull the straps of her nightgown down and she lowered her arms, letting the silky garment fall away from her body. That was better. Closing her eyes, she sighed in relief. It was so warm under that pile of blankets. But now … the air … against her naked skin … felt so good. She smiled once more. Walking over to the window, she pulled aside the curtains. The moon was out. She stared at it through the branches of the trees, and then opened the window, wanting to feel the cool night air against her skin.

“La la la.” What were the words of the song? She scratched her head in frustration. She couldn’t remember and the melody was making her go crazy. But even that worry slipped away. Putting her forehead against the window, she enjoyed the coolness of the glass against her overheated skin. It was bliss.

There was a shocked gasp from behind her. Turning, she met Chun’s wide eyes. The rest of his face was hidden in the shadows. She couldn’t see the expression on it clearly. His fingers trembled, shaking the utensils on the tray in his hands. Striding to the bedside table, he set the tray down and grabbed up a sheet. Walking over, he wrapped it tightly around her nude body, shielding her from his gaze.

“What’s the matter, Chun?” Ella murmured questioningly, her body moving against him suggestively. “Don’t like what you see? It’s okay if you want to touch. I wouldn’t mind a little touching myself.”

His fingers came up to her lips. “I wouldn’t say anything more,” he warned gently, his lips forming a reluctant smile. “I wouldn’t want you to say something you’ll regret tomorrow.”

She pouted and kissed his fingers before taking hold of his hand and pulling it away. “What’s wrong with me admitting that I want you?” she whispered in a seductive tone, her lips coming up to touch his cheek in a caress as light as a butterfly’s kiss.

Putting her arms around his neck, she pulled his head down. He had no chance to resist … no chance to react at all. Leaning up, she kissed him softly on the lips. He froze. And for a moment time stood still. Her lips moved softly against his, her warmth seeping through him. That warmth freed him. He tried to fight … to retreat, but her arms and his heart wouldn’t let him pull away just yet. Her tongue came out to caress his bottom lip, seeking entry. He refused, finally managing to tear himself away from her seductive warmth.

“Ella!” he reprimanded, stepping out of reach. “Get back in bed. You’re sick. You’ve had a 103° temperature for the past two nights. You’re finally getting better. This type of behavior might cause a relapse. Mom would get mad.”

She stared at him. At the distance between them and then let the sheet slip from around her body, knowing there was nothing he could do to prevent it from dropping.

“Ella.” His voice was harsh in the thick silence between them. She searched his face in the night’s shadows, wanting to see his expression. ‘Did he want her?’ she wondered. She couldn’t figure it out from just his voice.

“It’s hot,” she retorted petulantly.

“Even so, you can’t walk around naked.”

“Why? Is … is my body so ugly?” she forced herself to ask.

He stared at her open-mouthed. Ugly? God no. His eyes were welded to her delectable shape … he’d never known that … that … he swallowed, trying to relieve the pressure on his dry throat. She was a goddess. His eyes moved over her body … her high, thrusting breasts, with their delicate, petal soft peaks. Her silky smooth skin, glowing in the moonlight. Her long, long legs. His body ached, absolutely ached to have those legs wrapped around him. He wanted to touch her so badly that his fingers ached at the imagined sensations.

He closed his eyes, trying to chase away the images of them rolling around in that bed behind her. His body, over hers, thrusting into that part of her that was now shielded from his gaze. He wanted to taste her … love her. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t.

Tears began to stream down her cheeks. “You’ve never thought of me this way,” she complained bitterly.

“What way?” he said with difficulty. There was a soft rasp of arousal in his voice.

She cupped her breasts. “As a woman. I’ve always been asexual to you, haven’t I? The only times you could be with me were when you were drunk and were most likely thinking of someone else.”

“Times?” he asked, shaking his head in confusion. “We’ve been together only once. And I regret it to the depths of my soul that I was drunk,” he muttered to himself.

“We were almost together once.” She whispered the confession. “No one else knows about this,” she confided, stepping over the sheet. “I sneaked into your apartment, an—,” she began.

“When?” he interrupted.

“That’s not the point, Chun,” she said sharply, pouting up at him. “I sneaked into your apartment, and you almost had me.”

“Almost? Why don’t I remember this?”

“You were drunk, you idiot. Having smashed up everything there that had to do with Hebe, you lay there on your living room floor, crying your heart out. I helped you into bed. You held me … wanted me for a few heady minutes. We were so close … but then you rejected me because I disgusted you.” Her eyes filled with more tears. “You rejected me, like you’re doing right now,” she whispered forlornly.

He quietly picked up the sheet once more and wrapped it around her body. She sniffled quietly, the heartbreak apparent in that betraying noise. His hand grabbed hers and before she could blink, he placed it against his arousal. She froze in shock, her eyes dropping to where her hand was cupping his hardened manhood and then up to his face.

“This is how much I want you,” he said through gritted teeth. “This is how much my body is aching for you.” A rasp entered his voice as her hand began to move on him. “Ella.” He warned softly. “You’re ill and I … I can’t take advantage of you.”

“I want you to,” she whispered achingly. “I want to touch you. I want it like I want my next breath. Why can’t you see that? I’m not delusional. I want you inside of me, Chun. Do you have any idea how hard it is to see you every day and to not reach out and run my fingers through your hair?” she asked, putting her words into action. Her fingers gently brushed away the hair on his forehead. “Whenever you smile … I want to kiss those lips … to taste that smile. It’s so hard to stop myself from reaching out and touching your hard … muscled body,” she murmured distractedly, her fingers running over his chest. “That one night we shared gave me a taste of something … and I know it could be so much better … so much more. And I have to stop myself. I have to stop myself each and every time.”

There was a short pause.

“Why, Chun?” Her voice was forlorn.

“Why what?”

“Why did you have to ruin everything? Why did you have to hurt me again and remind me that you were capable of hurting me so much more? Why did you have to make me afraid of my feelings?”

“I didn’t mean t—,” he began desperately.

“And now … now I can only allow myself this little physical act. Don’t deny me this. I can never give you my heart again.”

“Never?” He cleared his throat, trying to get rid of the constriction that had suddenly appeared in his throat.

“How could I trust you with my heart?” The words were soft. The impact huge. “It’s too fragile. If I gave it to you … you’d only break it again. Just enjoy my body. Let me enjoy yours. Let’s have an affair within a marriage,” she said smilingly. “I want to immerse myself in your essence until I’m satiated. Let’s keep our hearts out of it. And when this … lust runs its course, let’s just say we tried and the marriage didn’t work out.”

He stared at her in shock, trying to understand the words that were slipping so freely from her lips. She would never say this if she hadn’t had a temperature.

“Chun. Please. I need to touch you,” she pleaded, her fingers coming up to trace his lips.

He groaned softly and leaned down to place a kiss on her sweet lips. One kiss turned into more … way more than he had planned. As his arms came out to cradle her slight body, finally giving in to temptation, Ella … Ella slipped into oblivion once more.

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

She groaned angrily when the sun hit her eyelids. It was pulling her back to the waking world, and the way her body ached, she did not want to be awake. Not for a long, long while. Finally giving in, she opened her eyes and glared balefully at the sun. It glared right back at her from the open window. The sounds of birds chirping and the lawnmower outside were other intrusions her body did not need. The sounds grated against her ears. She wished she could go on sleeping for just a little bit longer.

“Oh! You’re finally awake.”

Ella turned to look at Auntie Wu, questioning the relief she heard in Auntie’s voice. “Yes?”

“Ella, you’ve been sick for the past few days!” Auntie Wu exclaimed, putting down the breakfast tray. “Ever since that night you went on that date with Chun. I feel so bad about it.”

“What do you have to feel so guilty about, Auntie!” Ella exclaimed. “It was Chun’s fault that he was so badly prepared and we had to walk a mile in the rain. Auntie, don’t feel bad about it. It’s not your fault that I catch cold so easily.”

“Yes, well,” Auntie said, clearing her throat. “The morning after the date, you didn’t get up for breakfast. When I came to check up on you, you were burning with fever. The doctor said we didn’t have to move you as long as your temperature didn’t go any higher. You’ve been sleeping and slipping in and out of some sort of delusional state when you weren’t asleep for the past two days. We’ve been taking care of you, me and Chun, for the past two nights. I just sent him off to work. Mind you I didn’t want to, but …”

“Were you that tired of taking care of me, Auntie?” Ella asked, with a tired smile, reaching for some juice.

“Oh, no! Not at all! It was just that both of you were sleeping so peacefully, wrapped around each other, when I came in that I didn’t want to disturb you. I think it was the best sleep both of you had in a long while. You weren’t moving around as much, and my baby finally looked at peace. I didn’t want to disturb that,” Auntie confessed with a sniffle.

“Sleeping? Together?” Ella whispered.

“I was surprised myself, dearie,” Auntie confessed. “I can’t imagine what went on here last night. Especially when I saw …”

“Saw what?”

“Well, Chun still had his clothes on. But you, my dear …”

Ella stared at Auntie, stricken. Finally, forcing her gaze away, she looked down and saw what she had missed up till now. She was completely naked under the sheets! “What happened here last night?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, and Chun wouldn’t say,” Auntie said with a smile.

Ella blushed red, wondering frantically how far things had gone. Fragmented memories of last night began to seep through the haze, and she remembered … she remembered trying to seduce Chun. He’d held back … but she … she wouldn’t let up. When had she gotten so desperate … so aggressive?

“Auntie … I don’t know what to say,” Ella finally said nervously. “I don’t remember much about last night.”

There was a short pause, and then Auntie took a deep breath.

“Ella, do you love my son?”

“Auntie …” Ella finally murmured, not knowing how she should answer that.

“I know that things are bad between you,” Auntie finally began hesitantly. “I’d have to be blind not to see that you’re not really happy here. You’re not communicating with him. The only time the two of you communicate is when it’s about Cassie or Blake. But you don’t talk about yourself. You don’t spend time together. You aren’t comfortable together.”

“Auntie… there are things in our past that are keeping us apart.”

“You mean Chun’s behavior up to the wedding?” Auntie asked eagerly. “He explained that to me. It was because he was hurt and wanted to hurt you back. He thought that you’d only … slept with him because you felt sorry for him,” Auntie said with a blush. “He was hurt because he thought there was something more between you two.”

“Not that,” Ella said quickly. “Further back than that. Things happened long ago that have made me afraid to ever trust my heart to … anyone. Especially Chun. I don’t want my heart to break again,” Ella confessed, tears springing into her eyes.

“Does it have anything to do with … with your suicide attempt?” Auntie asked.

Ella’s eyes widened in shock. “You know about that?”

“I was there, my dear,” Auntie said gently on a sigh. “I was there and I witnessed your mother’s callous disregard of your health. I was in the ambulance with you and I was there for the first few days. But then Chun took me to Italy. When I came back … you were gone.”

“Auntie, I can’t …,” Ella began in a panic. How could she tell anyone about something so secret? How could she tell Auntie what had brought her so low? What if she turned Auntie against Chun, too?

“I know I’m not your mother,” Auntie said. “But I do care about you, Ella. I’ve always loved you like a daughter, and cherish you as a daughter-in-law. I always hoped that you and Chun would … forget it, that’s not important now. I know that you’re precious to me and that I want you to be happy. And whatever is going on between you and my son isn’t making you happy. You’re in the middle of all of this, but I’m on the outside. Maybe you aren’t getting a clear picture of what’s going on. If you talk to someone, and I know that your mother isn’t going to provide that outlet, maybe it’ll help you see what you’ve been missing. I know that I’m biased, because I love the both of you, but I also want the best for the both of you. Talk to me in that capacity.”

Ella stared hesitantly at Auntie, trying to find the words to comfort her and then gently express a refusal to talk. But when her lips opened, the words that sprang out were something entirely different. Within 15 minutes the entire story had come out. “And … and he doesn’t love me. Not really. This attempt at a marriage is more out of pity than anything else.”

She stared at Auntie, trying to gauge her reaction. Auntie had been there … she’d known about her suicide attempt. And now … she knew why everything had happened. What would Auntie say?

“It seems to me,” Auntie began, “That you’re blaming Chun for Hebe’s mistakes. Not only that,” Auntie went on, ignoring Ella’s attempts to interrupt, “You’re still blaming yourself for Hebe’s mistakes. What I don’t understand is why aren’t you blaming Hebe? Better yet, why are you still worrying about this? Live your life and forget about Hebe. Because she sure as heck isn’t worrying about the two of you. She’s moved on with her life. And the best thing you can do is to move on with yours. It was a horrible set of circumstances, but Ella, you have to move on, for yourself. You’ve loved my son for a long time … if you give him up out of fear, you’ll only regret it.”

“Auntie,” Ella said tearfully, “Ch-Chun loved her first.”

“Would you rather be his first love or his last love?”

Ella pondered these words quietly. Would she rather walk away from being his last love just because he had a first love? Was she really punishing him partly for falling in love with Hebe? Yes, her heart was afraid to be hurt again, but was she also bitter that he chose someone else first?

“And regarding your fear that this is only out of pity … it’s not. He’s starting to love you, my dear … the way a husband should love a wife,” Auntie assured her, reaching out to grab her hand. “I see it in his eyes. I see how he looks at you. He slept the night through in your arms. That’s important because he’s always suffered from insomnia. I’ve seen him awake countless times, in the middle of night. He’d wander around for hours … trying to tire himself out. But in your arms, he was at peace. I haven’t seen him that calm since he was a baby. You gave him that.”

Ella stared at Auntie. ‘Did Chun really love her?’

“Chun is an honorable man, he’ll respect whatever boundaries you set, but he wants to get closer to you. I see the desperation in his eyes. Can’t you see it? But whenever I urge him to do something, he assures me that I have to be patient because this is important to you. He’ll wait … as long as you need. Ella, my darling, he’s the father of your child. He was and is your friend. And I see him falling in love with you day by day. Think about it.”

……………………

“Do you think you can try? For yourself? For Chun?”

Ella finally nodded.

~*~*~*~

Ella hummed softly, stirring the broth on the stove.

“Yes, hi,” she said into the receiver when the phone was picked up. “I was wondering if you could come home early tonight. No special reason. I’ll see you then. Bye.” She hung up with a smile. This was the first step to trying. The first step to a happily ever after. It was as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders.

……………………

Chun stepped into the house, the briefcase heavy in his hand. He’d spent the entire day thinking about Ella’s words. She wanted an affair … just an affair. And at the end … when she’d slaked her passion for him … she’d walk away. Could he let her go? Even if letting her go meant letting her be happy? Could he be man enough to do that?

“Daddy! You’re home,” Cassie shouted, coming up. “Mommy said you were coming home early. And you did! Mommy’s been preparing all day. When I asked her why she was cooking so much, she said she wanted to make you happy.”

Chun gave Cassie an absentminded kiss, and walked toward the kitchen. There she stood, talking to his mother. She was smiling. It was that smile he’d missed so much. That smile that the innocent Ella he’d known used to flash at him when she wanted something. It was a smile that dimmed the sun. She was so beautiful that his heart ached. She began to put dishes on the table, and he saw that she’d prepared all of his favorites.

His cellphone rang, causing the conversation in the kitchen to come to an abrupt end. The women turned around in surprise and then smiled in unison.

“Hello,” he answered. “Right. Right. Okay.” He turned to go.

“Chun?” Ella asked, “What is it?”

“I have to go.”

“Chun, are you sure that you don’t have time to eat with us before you go?” Ella called out tentatively. She moved toward him, putting her hand on his arm.

There was a moment of silence.

“I can’t. I have to go to a meeting.” His tone was abrupt. His words harsh after the expectations Auntie had created in her heart. “I won’t pretend Ella, not even for you,” he whispered. “I’ve decided I’d rather have nothing than what you’re offering right now.”

“Chun?”

……………………

“I want you out of my house as soon as possible.”

She stepped back in shock.

He stared at her expressionlessly, and then turned … walking away without a glance.

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

“What do you do when the love of your life loves you no more? When she leaves you for another man … because you just weren’t enough for her?”

I used to ask myself these questions all the time. They constantly raced through my mind. Angela was there, trying to protect me from anyone she perceived as a danger, but it wasn’t enough to distract me from the thoughts constantly plaguing me.

Hebe left me in the darkness and walked away with her new love. I have to admit I was jealous. I had entered our marriage with the intention of forever. But it was over in only a couple of years. How was I supposed to move on? So … yes … I was jealous that she was able to walk away so easily. Had our life together been so worthless … so meaningless … a blip on her radar?

But I did try to forget. I learned to protect myself. And I moved on. I did all of that.

But apparently I only lived half a live. Ella came back into my life and immediately saw that I merely existed. It was hurting not only me, but it was also hurting my daughter and my mother. She saw that I was still living in the dark, trying to find my way out of the self-pitying morass Hebe had left me in.

She was my angel. She brought me out of my self-absorbed existence and forced me to see. She taught me to live again. Our relationship did not restart on a good point. I admit that I made mistakes. I hurt her … all over again. And maybe … maybe it’s not in her to forget the pain.

When she told me she could only accept a physical relationship between us, I realized …

Our relationship …

Although it was never about pity …

And for a long time it was just friendship …

But now … now I knew without a doubt it was love. Love. I loved her. And that made me afraid. For a while there, I couldn’t breathe.

Because you see …

Hebe left. And I was lost for a long time.

If Ella ever left me …

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

 

Chapter 35

If Everyone Loved and Nobody Lied

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

“Chun! Chun! Where are you going?” Auntie Wu called out, hurrying over to the frozen Ella. “Chun! At least stay for dinner.” Her voice sounded frustrated. Worried. “What happened?” she demanded, turning to a shell-shocked Ella.

“He didn’t … he said he doesn’t want me.” Her tone was bewildered. Her voice lost. Auntie Wu winced at the tears she saw in Ella’s eyes. And then cringed as she saw the grief transform into soul deep anger.

“Ella, maybe something happened. Give him a chance to explain,” Auntie Wu begged, clutching at the young woman’s arm. She knew that if she didn’t stop Ella from doing something reckless now, her son would have lost someone truly precious. And he would never ever get another chance at happiness like he could have with Ella.

“Auntie Wu, Chun’s had enough chances. No more.” Her voice was a harsh whisper that grated against the listener’s ears. Even then, one could hear the pain pushing through in every syllable.

“But Ella …” Auntie Wu didn’t know what to say. How could she explain her son’s behavior or defend him when she herself didn’t understand why he’d done what he’d done? Why had he rejected this sweet angel once more?

“Enough is enough.” Taking the apron off, Ella balled it up and flung it onto the floor. Turning, she abruptly left the room without a backward glance.

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

“Standing in the doorway, I saw Ella in the kitchen, cooking for me. For a moment I bought into the fantasy and I was so happy. My wife … cooking for me and waiting for me to come home so that we could share the meal and discuss our day. My children sitting at the table. A family, needing only me to complete the picture. But then last night’s conversation intruded. I remembered her words. And that fantasy world came crashing down around my feet.” His hands clenched and then he took a deep breath to calm himself.

……………………

“For a while there, I couldn’t breathe. Because you see … Hebe left. And I was lost for a long time. If Ella ever left me …”

His voice trailed off. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “All Ella wants from me is an affair and then for me to let her go. How can I give her just that and then let her walk away?” He turned away from the eyes staring at him. “I don’t know what to do. All I can do is walk away first and save myself the pain,” he explained, staring out the window.

……………………

“You bastard.” The voice was contemptuous.

Chun turned around in surprise.

“You are such a coward,” Calvin growled in fury. “I told Ella, repeatedly, that you weren’t worth the pain and anguish. I prayed every night that she would forget you and move on. But she never did.” For a moment, helpless rage flitted across his face as he thought about the pain that Ella must be feeling right now.

Calvin got up and walked over to Chun. Grabbing him by the collar, he hauled back a fist and let loose with a punch. Chun stumbled and put up a hand to his throbbing cheek. Stepping back, Calvin glared at Chun, daring him silently to hit back. Calvin wanted him to hit back. Calvin wanted to beat this bastard to a bloody pulp. Chun just stared at him blankly.

“My God, aren’t you even man enough to fight back?” Calvin jeered.

“I’m not going to fight you,” Chun replied. “I need you to tell me … I need you to tell me that I did the right thing.”

“The right thing?” Calvin practically spat out the words. “You broke my sister’s heart all over again. And for what? Fear? The only reason I agreed to talk to you was so that you could be worthy of her love. Ella needs someone who understands her. You never understood that about her.”

Chun stared at him in confusion.

“In order to make her feel loved, you have to make her feel that you know her. The real her. The complicated her. You needed to show her that. I told you everything about her. And when you finally succeeded … when you had her … you walked away. Was it a game with you?”

“Succeeded?” Chun argued. “You call her offer of a no-strings affair success? I call it failure!” He practically shouted the words. “She expected me to let her go! She wanted me to let her go after we’d sated this … hunger. She wouldn’t even call it love. How is that success?!”

Calvin walked over to Chun and punched him in the face again, his anger rising past the point of control once more. “Why did Ella have to fall in love with you?” he muttered, moving away before Chun could retaliate. “Why don’t you get it? Maybe Ella was offering you the only option she felt comfortable with … but did you ever think about the person who was making that offer? Did you ever think that she was saying one thing but maybe meant something else … something different … something more? Maybe she was waiting for you to take the offer and run with it?”

Chun stared at him in confusion, his hand cradling his sore cheek. He was getting tired of being punched.

“Ella would never agree to just an affair. She has too much pride in her body … in herself to ever do that,” Calvin growled in frustration. “Her heart doesn’t work that way. She worships you and would never willingly leave you. That offer was supposed to reveal how much she loves you. She would only give you her body if you already had her heart. And you rejected her again?”

Calvin collapsed in a chair, his shoulders slumping with wariness and grief. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to force away his fears. “You don’t get it, Chun. She’s been hurt enough. If anyone was going to risk something in this new relationship you were trying to build with her … it was supposed to be you. I thought you understood that. If anyone was to open himself to possible pain – it was supposed to be you. It was your turn. I thought we’d gone over that when I first talked about helping you.”

Chun stared at him, his hands clenching. The realization was beginning to sink in.

“She’s been through so much,” Calvin said hoarsely, and cleared his throat. “She won’t…,” he shook his head, “She can’t ever do it again. She can’t risk her heart. She can’t say I love you first. She can’t say let’s stay married and live happily ever after. The best she could do was offer you herself, and that only when she was sick enough to leave behind her inhibitions … the best she could do was cook you dinner. And you rejected her again.”

“Calvin?” Chun’s voice was unsteady … uncertain. Questioning his confidante’s words … wanting his reassurance that he hadn’t made the worst mistake of his life.

“You’re going to regret this, Chun.”

Chun turned from him and raced to the door. ‘What had he done?’ Running down the stairs, he slipped behind the wheel of his car and drove away. His heart beat rapidly inside of his chest, and his hands shook as he took the turn towards home.

‘What had he done? Could he fix this?’ His mind frantically tried to think up the magical words that would convince Ella to stay. To listen. To open her heart once more. A cold, unpleasant feeling inside of told him he’d be too late.

What had he been thinking? Why had he let his emotions get away from him? Because he hadn’t pushed for explanations he’d lost so much. He’d let Ella walk away the first time … he’d misjudged her the second time … and he’d lost not only her, but he’d lost the chance to see her grow heavy with their child. And now … would he lose her forever? Would he lose his last chance at love?

The car protested as he abruptly through it into park when he got to his front door. Running in, he frantically began his search for Ella. He needed to find her. To stop her. To make her listen and understand. It was his turn to share his feelings and lay himself open to rejection. It was his turn.

Running up the stairs, he slowed as he approached her room. He could hear noises coming from inside. A smile of relief spread across his face. He wasn’t too late. Stepping into the room, he opened his lips … the desperate explanations ready to fall from his lips. He froze at the sight that met his eyes. “Mom?”

His mother turned to glare at him. Walking over, she mercilessly slapped him across the face.

“How could you break her heart? How could you break my daughter’s heart? She was trying. Trying, Chun! She was giving you what you wanted! Why did you have to decide at that exact moment that what she was offering … what you’d been chasing after for so long was something you no longer wanted? Why did you have to walk away when she was reaching out to you?”

Tears began to flow from her eyes. “I thought I had taught my son better than that.” She took a deep breath and wiped away the tears.

“Mom,” Chun protested, his hands clenching. His eyes begged for his mother to understand him.

She turned away. “You had no right to do that to her. No woman deserves what you did. I might be your mother, Chun, and later on I might try to understand your reasons … but right now … my heart only tells me that I’m a woman first.”

She turned and stormed out of the room, leaving him standing in the empty room. Everything of hers was gone. Her clothes. Her accessories. Her favorite picture of Cassandra and Blake. Her books. Everything.

His gaze landed on something shiny on the floor. Moving closer, he picked up the item. She hadn’t taken everything. His hands closed around the daisy brooch he’d bought for her birthday.

Why was it that he always saw the truth too late?

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

“She’s not here.”

Chun stared in surprise. “I was sure that she would be here,” he said haltingly. “She’s not at home. She left right after I did. If she didn’t come to you … then where would she go?”

Calvin just shrugged, not knowing what to say. “It’s up to you,” he finally replied. “I can’t help you with this.”

“That’s just it, Calvin!” Chun grasped desperately at his collar. “Sometimes … it feels like I never knew her. Everything that came out when she returned … every little thing with her is a big surprise. And what little I did know, I chose to forget. I made myself forget. But … how is any man supposed to know a woman who has this fetish for hiding the important things?” He spat out the words, expressing the frustration welling up inside of him. “I don’t know where she could be hiding. All I know is that I’ve lost her again.”

Calvin stared at the man in front of him. He’d hated Chun before he’d ever met him. But that was only because he’d loved Ella before he’d even gotten to know her. She was his little sister and when she’d come to him … broken … his heart had broken a little bit every time he’d seen the blankness in her eyes. For the first time in his life he’d wanted to hurt another human being … all because that person had hurt his little sister. And so … he’d hated Chun unquestioningly.

But when he met him for the first time, he’d realized that Chun was only a man. An insensitive man … an incredibly dense man … but only a man. It had been hard at first, but Calvin had let go of his illogical hatred. He’d begun to see the good in Chun and known that if the two could only fix their differences … then Chun could be capable of giving Ella the love she needed … all the love she deserved. And so he’d decided to help.

But Ella hadn’t been ready to see that Chun was only human. She’d blamed him for the past. She’d been afraid to trust him even though Chun had done nothing to betray her trust. She’d been afraid to love wholeheartedly again.

And then when she was ready … Chun had flubbed it.

Only human. With human weaknesses. But their mistakes … their inability to connect was always so costly to their hearts. Calvin shook his head. These two only ever hurt each other … even as they had begun to love again. He’d wanted to help, and he’d offered his services to Chun. And now … Ella was lost again.

“I love her.” Chun whispered the words. “I can’t live without her. It would be like trying to learn how to live without breathing. How could I have thought that I could kick her out of my life and protect my heart? I’m already connected to her … tied to her … and there’s no way this connection can be cut. Where do I find her? How do I get her?” He shot the questions at Calvin.

Calvin could only shrug his shoulders. “Normally I would say that she should be here by now. But I truly don’t know where she is.”

“What are her weaknesses? Tell me her secrets,” Chun burst out with his demand. “You were the one she opened up to about everything. You were the one that listened. Tell me everything she’s told you. Everything you’ve left unsaid. Maybe then …”

Clap. Clap. Clap.

Calvin’s and Chun’s heads jerked to the door in surprise. Their eyes widened in dawning horror when they realized who was standing there.

“Ella.” A hoarse whisper of disbelief at the incredible bad timing.

“I don’t believe this. My own brother.” Ella stood in the doorway, staring at two of the three most important males in her life. “How could you?” The question was directed at Calvin. “I trusted you,” she uttered with tears in her eyes. “You were the only one I could trust with every part of me and you betrayed me to him … for what? Why, Calvin?”

“Ella, please, let me expl—,” Calvin began desperately, hearing the panic in her voice. “You have to undres—.” Calvin felt cold fear course through his body. Ella was breaking again. And this time … this time he was the cause.

“You told him everything?” Ella asked in a forlorn voice. “Everything? Nothing he came up with … none of his gestures meant anything beyond good note-taking? The daisies. My favorite breakfast food? How I like art? My childhood friends? Did you tell him how I like to be babied when I’m sick? It was all because of you?”

The two men looked down, unsure of what to say.

She turned and walked away, her shoulders slumped. Everything was gone now. Even Calvin … the one she’d trusted before all else … even he’d abandoned her. Who could she turn to … who could she trust?

“Ella, please, don’t go,” Chun said, grabbing her arm. “I do love you. I do. Let me explain. I was afraid … last night you …”

“I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped at him. “Nothing you say could change my mind about you, Chun. You don’t deserve any more chances … you don’t deserve me.”

“But you have to understand …”

“I don’t have to understand anything,” Ella blasted back at him. “How many times am I supposed to lay myself open to the pain loving you will bring me? How many chances do you think you deserve?”

“But I love you. I know that now. I love you.”

“Chun … what’s my favorite color?”

He stared at her … stricken into silence. His mind worked desperately. What was her favorite color? Why hadn’t he thought to ask Calvin this? What color did she wear all the time? He had to answer. She stood there, patiently waiting.

“Yellow?”

She smiled and then shook her head. “How can you claim to love me when you don’t even know the most basic things about me? It seems you only love a figment of your imagination … trust me, that figment will be easy to forget … and the love will fade away.”

She slipped her hand free and turned to go.

“Ella, please. Don’t we deserve another cha—nce?” His voice broke. He swallowed.

“No.”

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