Chapter 1 : Do You Know?
A whirring sound.
“Testing. One. Two. Three. Testing.”
A throat clearing. A soft sigh. A gentle creaking.
“Remember the first day we met? I was ten-years-old and sitting in the corner of the ballroom. I was the classic ugly duckling surrounded by a sea of swans. I didn’t belong. I knew it. My mother was scolding me for getting my dress dirty. My hair was escaping its prison of ribbons. I had a scratch on my arm and streak of dirt on my cheek.
You weren’t much older. Your mom pushed you over to talk to me. I know you didn’t want to talk to some little girl with cooties, but you were too polite to let on with words. I knew though. Do you know how I knew? That’s because no one ever wanted to talk to me. People were always telling me I was boring. I tried to be nice. I told you to go away. I tried to set you free. But you ignored the demand and sat down next to me. You started talking to me about the game you were playing on your gameboy. And then you forced me to play with you. I lost. You laughed. I pouted. And then you gave me a piece of candy. Do you know I still have the wrapper?”
A near-silent movement in a chair. A shifting.
“All throughout our childhood we were thrown together. I guess it was just our luck that there were no other kids in our parents’ group of friends or business associates. I got used to you. Before long … I started to look forward to seeing you. Parties that had previously been purgatory became heaven.
Do you know that as pathetic as it sounds, I began to consider you a friend long before you considered me anything more than the pest you had to put up with at those parties? I know, I know. I bugged you a lot. But you made everything tolerable. When I was that small 10-year-old … as I went through awkward puberty and slipped into early womanhood. All through those awkward stages you were there … always happy … always shining … always handsome. And you talked to me like I was an individual … someone with her own thoughts … own ambitions and dreams. Up until then I had only ever been an extension of my parents. People only talked to me or pushed their children at me because they wanted favors from my parents. But not you. I loved that about you.”
A beat of silence. A moment of hesitation. A soft sigh and then a sound of determination.
“Do you know the exact moment I fell in love with you? I don’t. I don’t know when I fell in love with you. When did my heart start beating in anticipation? When did I stop wanting to play with you but rather want to do more intimate things? When did I start … wanting to breathe in your scent … touch your warmth … soak in your personality? When did I start wanting something more? I guess what I really want to know is … when did I grow up?
I told myself it was useless. I tried to talk myself out of it. I knew it was hopeless. I knew that I was dreaming big dreams. I used to talk to myself for hours before meeting you. I would tell my heart to stop beating so hard. I would tell my breath to remain calm. I told my cheeks to stop blushing. I told my body not to betray me, lest you know the truth. But my body ignored me. I was the classic girl with a crush. And you … you were oblivious.
I would say that was a good thing, but for the reason. You didn’t see my crush because you didn’t see me as a woman. I was a buddy. I was a friend. I was one of the guys. I was never … I was never a woman for you. You were never more blind to anything than the fact that I truly was a woman with a woman’s needs. Not to be too coarse, I had the breasts … I had the other parts … but you never saw that part of me. Why, damn it?”
A soft hiccup. A gasp. A swallow.
“I don’t know why I’m crying over that now. I thought I had accepted it a long time ago. But it’s this damn heart. It just won’t listen.
When our parents arranged our engagement … of course for business reasons … when they did that, it was the happiest day of my life. We would be married. We would be together. We would be linked forever. You might not have loved me, but I knew … I knew that you didn’t love anyone else. I knew that you wouldn’t stray once you married … you would remain faithful. You would be steadfast and keep your vows. You would be a good father. A good husband.
And I … I would have the right to stand by your side. I would have the right to hold your hand. I would have the right to hold you at night and make love with you. I would have your children. I would support you and you would turn to me when you needed someone. You would ask me for advice. You would talk to me. You would value me. That was enough for me. Do you know that it really was enough?”
“But then I got that misplaced message. Why did I pick up the phone that day? Why did I have to hear her words? Why did I have to hear her grief? Her tears? Why did I have to hear her breaking heart? Why did I have to hear … and know … and realize that our relationship might be enough for me … but it wasn’t fair to you or to that woman? Do you know how hard I fought that knowledge? I told myself that the world isn’t fair. That we don’t all get what we want. That we all have to compromise, but only one truth kept pushing at my consciousness until I finally had to accept it.
I … I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to have everything you ever wanted in the world. I wanted you to have the perfect love. I wanted you to have the perfect life. I wanted you to be eager when you went home every night because you were going home to the woman you loved. You were going home to your children with her. I wanted you to … have more than just enough.
I also knew you were too honorable to break the engagement. You had given your word and you would never break it, even if it meant breaking your own heart. So, I did it for you.”
A soft laugh. A chuckle over an amusing memory. A hiccup.
“Do you know my knees were literally shaking when I walked into the office that day? When we were talking I had to constantly tell myself to calm down. I had to find the right words, otherwise you would let honor rule the day. I told you I wasn’t happy. I told you I wanted us to marry for love. I told you that if we presented a united front to our parents, we could gracefully back out of the engagement without destroying the merger. I told you that we could work together and nothing would change. After all, there were no … emotions involved. You finally agreed.
And it worked out. Our parents agreed. The engagement ended. The merger went through. It was business as usual. A month later I got the invitation.”
A crinkle of paper. A tearing sound.
“This invitation. I don’t know why I keep the pieces lying around me. It’s not like I need a reminder. You’re getting married. Quietly. A few close friends. Blah blah blah. You want me to be there. And I’ll be there. Quietly supporting you and now that’ll have to be enough.
I hate you for that. Why couldn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you … No … no that’s not fair. I have no right to ask that. You can’t love made to order. The heart loves where it will.
It wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t a surprise. But it was something that I had been dreading. It was a slap in the face. It was the murder of my dreams. You can’t easily forgive a murderer. It takes time.
So, tomorrow … tomorrow I’ll see you get married. I’ll raise my glass in a toast. I’ll bring a present. And then I’ll leave early. And life will move on. But, God, I’ll love you forever, you bastard.”
A tapping of fingers. An opened drawer, quickly shut. Footsteps.
“I wonder though … I still wonder … what was that look I saw in your eyes that day? When I told you that I wasn’t happy? What was that flash of anger? When I told you that I wanted to marry for love and that there were no emotions involved … what was that look in your eyes? Sometimes I still ask myself …
Yes, what is it?”
“Madam, your assistant is here.”
“Oh, thank you for letting me know. Butler Yan?”
“Could you take this recorder? I was trying it out for the company’s use, but I don’t think it’s satisfactory. Destroy the tape and leave the recorder in my room.”
“Thank you. Now, Assistant Gu, I want to go ove—.”
Chapter 2 : May I?
Ella looked at the hand extended in front of her face. Her eyes followed the long, slim fingers, up the tuxedo-clad arm, across the shoulder and right into Chun’s smiling face. She blinked in surprise and her lips formed a silent “O”. Lightly she tapped her heart, reminding it to beat normally.
Nodding quickly, she got up and moved forward, tripping over the strap of her purse. Chun quickly caught her in his arms. His scent engulfed her, swamping her senses. His warmth … his scent … her forehead resting against his cheek … she was drowning in him. For a millisecond, she allowed the embrace, reveling in it.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, quickly untangling herself from him and her feet from the purse. Chun smiled once more, and took the forgotten pastry from her fingers and put it down on the plate. Gently capturing her hand, he pulled her out onto the dance floor.
“I thought this was supposed to be a small intimate wedding,” she murmured breathlessly looking at the 50 or so couples sharing the ballroom with them.
Chun smiled. “It just kind of grew out of our control,” he replied sheepishly. “So many people wanted to see us get married.”
“You and …” Ella looked at him questioningly. It wasn’t as if that she was being snobbish about it, but as far as she knew Chun’s bride was a nobody to Taiwan’s upper society, so why would all of its members want to witness their reunion?
“You got me,” Chun said with a shrug.
There was a moment of silence. Ella immersed herself in the enjoyment of being in Chun’s arms. Her body begged silently to be allowed to melt into his arms … to crush herself in his embrace … to rest her head on his manly shoulder … to be allowed to freely breathe in his scent. ‘Stop it,’ she scolded herself mentally. Her heart bled at the harsh reminder that this was the closest she could ever get to him now. ‘Is this my future?’ she wondered. ‘To look forward to these moments, where I can dance in his arms guilt-free? He is someone else’s husband now. Why is it so hard to accept?’ She could only hope that it would get easier with time.
“I still don’t know what happened,” Ella said, breaking the silence, as they continued to twirl around the room. “I could swear the invitation said that your wedding was at 9:00 A.M. I still don’t know how I missed the ceremony,” she confessed, looking up into his warm, brown eyes.
Chun smiled and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t worry about it. It seems that a majority of the cards had a misprint on them. That’s what happens when you try to do things in a hurry. At least we got the small intimate wedding, it’s just the reception that’s a bit over the top,” he replied.
He suddenly dipped her over his arm. Ella gasped, grabbing him close. Her breath came in strong gasps against his cheek as she clutched him in fear.
“Relax,” he assured her with a chuckle. Twirling her out, he then brought her twirling back into his arms. “I have you. You won’t fall.”
Ella looked at him and flashed him a sunny smile.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he finally said. “I’ve never seen you dressed up.”
Ella blushed self-consciously, looking down at her red dress. “My best friend was getting married,” she finally said, pushing past the sudden lump in her throat. “I had to make the effort. Not only because I’m happy that you found the love of your life, but also because I’m the ex-fiancé. They’ll all be looking at me, too. I wanted to be bold. I wanted to make a statement.”
“I think you succeeded,” he whispered in her ear.
Ella chuckled breathlessly, flinching a bit at the sensation of his breath against her ear. She slightly pulled away, wanting to create a distance between them. A distance that would reflect their actual status in each other’s lives. She could only ever be the best friend.
Never the bride.
Never the wife.
Never the mother of his children.
Never his companion or his helpmeet or his anything intimate.
She closed her eyes, trying to fight the tears that were welling up. She so did not need this right now. Her fingers clutched at his shoulder, as the turbulent emotions inside of her came too close to the surface. She needed to rein them back in or they would push her to say something that she could only end up regretting.
“Ella?” His voice was soft. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she quickly said. Her voice shook a little. She quickly cleared her throat. “Nothing. I think something got into my eye,” she said, trying to excuse her odd behavior and any tears that had lost the battle.
There was a moment of silence.
“Do you remember this song?” he suddenly asked.
Ella tilted her head, listening. “No.”
“You don’t remember? It was playing the first time we danced,” he said.
“How can you remember that?!” Ella demanded incredulously. “You were only 12 at the time to my 10.”
“Mom has told me the story so many times,” Chun relayed, “that I can almost remember it,” he finished. “You were sitting there, pouting and I came over to cheer up the cute girl.”
“You were cute,” he insisted with a laugh. “You had these chubby cheeks that I wanted to pinch. There was a streak of dirt on one. I always wondered what you had been doing in a ballroom that you got dirty. And when you smiled, you had these dimples I wanted to poke. I remember sharing candy with you. And then this song came on. We were in the hallway at the time. Since no one was there, I consented to dance with you. And we pretty much fell over each others feet. Mom apparently witnessed the whole thing.”
Ella blushed and looked away from his teasing gaze.
“You’re a much better dancer now,” he said softly, tilting her chin up to meet her gaze. “So light and graceful in my arms. Almost as if …”
“Almost as if?” she queried with a confused glance.
“Nothing,” he replied. “You’re blushing,” he remarked suddenly.
“I know,” she muttered with a pout.
“Is it too hot?” he asked in concern. “Do you want me to get the temperature down a bit? I know that you get warm easily.”
She shook her head in negation. “That’ll bother the other guests,” she protested.
“That doesn’t matter,” he asserted.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. This was one of the reasons she had loved him so much. He had always noticed the littlest things. He had always looked out for her comfort. Put her first, before anyone else. This was why she still adored him.
“Are you sure?” he asked, trailing a finger down her cheek.
“She’s beautiful,” Ella commented finally, breaking the silence that had fallen.
“She is, isn’t she?” Chun murmured. “She’s perfect.”
Ella tried to swallow. The pang of fiery pain that had stabbed through her when she heard him agree had caught her by surprise. ‘Why am I surprised? He married her. He loves her. Of course he’ll think that she’s perfect.’
“She has the beauty, the education, the sophistication, and every other thing that will make her my perfect mate. She will be my companion. She will support me. She will be the mother of my children. And when I come home at night …,” he said softly, “when I come home at night, she’ll be waiting for me. And you know what?”
“What?” Ella mouthed the word, because she couldn’t actually force sound out past the lump in her throat.
“I will be glad to go home every night because she’ll be waiting for me.”
Ella flinched. Those words. Swaying, she abruptly tried to pull away. His hold on her tightened.
“Let me go,” she begged suddenly, her voice breaking on the plea.
He silently danced her through the glass doors and out onto the veranda. Moving her into the shadows, he finally let her loose.
Ella stepped away, getting out of his reach. Turning, she made to flee. His words stopped her.
“What’s wrong, Ella?”
“Are you sure?” Chun asked quietly. “Where are you going?”
“Are you sure? Because it seems to me that you’re running away.”
Ella spun around to look at him.
“Running away again,’ he finished, his tone coolly soft.
“I don’t understand you tonight,” Ella finally said, her gaze confused. “What’s wrong with you? You’re acting really strange. I’m not running away. It’s just … don’t you think your guests will find it a bit strange that we’re out here while the party is in there?”
“I don’t care what they think. I only care what one person thinks, but apparently …”
“Apparently what?” Ella stared at him. There was only silence. “Chun?” she said, demanding an answer. He remained silent. Finally, frustrated, she turned to go.
There was a soft click. A whirring sound.
“Testing. One. Two. Three. Testing. Remember the first day we met? I was ten-years-old…”
Ella whirled around to stare at him in horror.
Chapter 3 : Why?
“What? Why …why do you have that?” Ella cringed as she thought about the words she had spoken into that tape recorder … about the secrets she had revealed. Secrets that she hadn’t meant to reveal to anyone … secrets that she’d promised herself she would take to her grave. And now … he knew. Chun … the last person in the world she had wanted to know the truth and he was the one that had found out.
“Why do I have this?” he finally growled. “Aren’t there more important things that we need to discuss?”
Ella flinched at his tone. He was furious.
“Why are you so angry?” she asked in a bewildered tone, finally breaking the cold silence that had fallen between them.
“You don’t know?” he asked softly, moving toward her, almost stalking her. She slowly backed away, holding her hands out to him.
The words on the tape continued to play softly in the background, forgotten by both.
He grabbed her, halting her retreat. His hands bit into her shoulders as he drew her closer to him. Her head tilted back, as she met his gaze defiantly.
“I don’t know why you’re angry,” she insisted. She trembled as his hands began to move up and down her bare arms, as if caressing her skin. Goosebumps covered her skin. She attempted to move away, but his hold kept her in close proximity. “I set you free. You’re with the woman you love. You have no right to be angry.”
“The woman I love? You …,” he began.
“But, God, I’ll love you forever, you bastard.” Her voice was clear in the dark night. They froze as the words cut through the thick tension between them. She flinched, as if struck. Tears welled up in her eyes. For the first time her gaze turned away from his. This had been the knowledge she had been fighting in the past few minutes. She didn’t know how she could face him. He had heard everything. He knew now that she loved him.
She abruptly pulled away, catching him by surprise. And she was free. She turned, intending to flee … his presence … the embarrassment … the pain.
His hand reached out and grabbed her wrist, strong in its ferocity. She cried out as the fragile bones ground together in her wrist. “You’re not going anywhere,” he harshly asserted, ignoring her silent struggles. “At least not until we talk. And we do need to talk, Ella.”
“Why? Why do we need to talk? Why can’t you pretend that you never got your hands on this tape? Why can’t you pretend that you never heard the confession? Why can’t you pretend that nothing’s changed?” Tears began to fall from her eyes. She could no longer control her emotions. Her heartbreak was out in the open now … and she was standing naked in front of the man she had wanted to hide everything from.
“Because you said that you loved me. Anything else could’ve been easily forgotten … but not this. I would never want to forget this.”
“Why not?” Ella asked desperately, seeing the distance growing between them. If he couldn’t pretend then … then she would lose him completely. She wouldn’t even have his friendship.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked hoarsely.
“What does it matter now?” she asked brokenly, turning her face away. “It’s too late. You’re married. You married the woman you love and you’re happy. What does it matter that your ex-fiancé loved you?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he repeated. “Why did you break the engagement when you loved me? I need to understand.”
“Because I didn’t want you marrying me out of pity,” she flung at him. He stepped back in surprise. “I know you, Chun. You’re too honorable for your own good. You made a commitment to me, and you would have kept your word even if it meant hurting yourself and breaking her heart,” Ella said, looking at the glowing woman in the ballroom. “Look at how happy she is. And you were happy, too. How can I regret that? This way … this way I hurt only myself. And don’t worry about me,” she said softly, “I’m used to hurting. That’s why I stepped back. Because my heart wasn’t important in this whole scenario. I wanted … no … I needed to see you get your happy ending.”
His fingers tightened around her wrist. Slowly, he pulled her toward him. His arms hesitantly came around her lithe body, and wrapped her close to him. She started at the contact. This was the first time she had been held in Chun’s arms when they weren’t dancing. She fought the urge to snuggle close.
“You loved me that much?” he finally asked, staring into her eyes. He searched her gaze, trying to understand the emotions that had urged her to sacrifice her own happiness for his.
“I wanted you to be happy,” she said, finding the strength to say the words with a smile. “And seeing you happy makes me happy. Please, believe that,” she urged him.
Leaning down, he planted a gentle kiss against her parted lips. His lips nipped at hers softly before moving down to nibble at her throat. She trembled at the sensations. Her head tilted back, her eyes closing. She moaned softly. ‘No!’ Her eyes flew open in consternation, and then she pulled away sharply.
“Don’t do that,” she cried out in a panic, beginning to struggle. “Someone might see. This is your wedding day. You’re the groom. Chun, if this is your penance … if you think you’ve let me down, don’t think that. I free you from any obligation you think you might owe me. Go … go to your bride and be happy. Don’t hurt yourself … don’t hurt her … and don’t hurt me just because you think you owe me something.”
Chun slowly pulled away. He caught her hand and slid something onto her finger. She looked down and her eyes widened as they landed on the engagement ring she had returned to him when she had ended their engagement. Her eyes looked at him in question.
“I love you and only you,” Chun confessed hoarsely. “I have been waiting … waiting … and hoping that you would return my love someday, but you never …”
“I do-don’t understand,” Ella said on a sob. “What are you saying?”
“There was no wedding today. This is a reception for the new bridal wear line our company is releasing. You were the only one that got the wedding invitation. She,” he said pointing to the bride, “is a model. It was a test, Ella,” he finally said thickly.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Ella muttered, her hands clenching into fists.
“When our parents proposed the merger between our families and our businesses, you easily agreed. But I didn’t know if you were being a dutiful daughter or because you wanted to marry me. Just like my happiness is important to you … your happiness was important to me. The more time we spent together as a couple, the more it seemed that you only saw me as a friend. That’s why I had a friend call you and reveal our supposed relationship. I gave you an out of the relationship.”
Ella looked at him incredulously, trying to comprehend his words.
“I know you. You’re honorable. If you knew that I was in love with someone else, you would stop being the dutiful daughter and you would break the engagement. But if you loved me … I hoped …,” he cleared his throat. “I hoped that you would fight for me. And this whole thing in the past month … this wedding … it’s all fake. I kept on hoping that you would say you loved me. I kept on hoping that you would stop the ‘wedding’. I kept on hoping … I had just about given up hope when Butler Yan handed me this recorder.”
There was silence. The cool wind blew gently across their frozen figures. Ella moved forward, reached out and slapped him across the face.
“How could you do this to us?” she shouted at him, hitting at him with her fists. “Do you have any idea the position you put me in? If I was too honorable to take your love away from you … how the hell could I be so selfish as to make you choose between me and her by confessing my love?” she was blazingly angry now, thinking about the pain and anguish she’d suffered … and it had been for nothing. “Why?”
“Why what?” he asked, cradling his cheek.
“Why did I have to say I loved you first? You’re the man in this relationship. Why couldn’t you risk your heart first?” She turned to go, a red haze clouding her vision. She was so angry she couldn’t see straight. ‘Idiot. Moron. What kind of man does this to the woman he says he loves?’
“Ella,” he said from behind her. “Ella … please.”
She froze, unable to ignore him. Turning, she looked behind her. He wasn’t there.
She looked down and saw him, on his knees.
“I love you and I can only thank God that you love me, too. The love’s there, even though you’re angry at me right now.”
She could see the love in his gaze as he gently teased her. And her anger fell away. Just like that. The only thought in her mind was that he loved her. He loved her. She rolled her eyes at him.
“I know that we,” he said, emphasizing the ‘we’, “haven’t gone about this the right way, but you have to admit what we did was for the right reasons. I needed to know that you loved me and I thought that you would fight for me, but if you didn’t … then you had an escape out of the engagement. I never thought that your love would push you to release me rather than fight for me,” he said, shaking his head. “I made a mistake. I don’t even know when I fell in love with you, but all I know is that I can’t live without you,” he continued.
She sighed softly, slightly numb from all the revelations in the past few minutes.
“When you broke our engagement … you broke my heart. But even then, I convinced our parents to allow it because I thought it was just a small setback. I was confident that I could make you fall in love with me, but when you didn’t speak up through the wedding planning and as the wedding day approached, you broke my heart a little bit more day by day. When Butler Yan gave me the tape yesterday, you have no idea …,” his voice broke with emotion. “Forgive me,” he finally said.
Ella raced back to his kneeling form, and pulled him into her body. Sighing, she cuddled his head close to her stomach, and then pulled him up to hug him fiercely.
“You’re not so good with the emotional; stuff, are you?” she blurted out on a laugh. He shook his head.
“Like you’re any better,” he muttered into her neck.
The sound of a throat clearing interrupted their embrace. “It’s time,” Chun’s mom said.
“Time for what?” Ella asked.
“Our wedding,” Chun replied.
“Everything is ready. There wasn’t a lot of time, but I took care of everything. Trust me,” he said softly. She stared into his eyes. She did. She trusted him. Nodding, she turned to follow Chun’s mother.
“Ella,” he called out softly from behind her.
She turned to look at him.
“Thank you for my first love letter,” he said, pulling out the recorder. He quirked an eyebrow at her, asking her a silent question.
“The first of many,” she promised. Laughing, she turned and followed auntie up the stairs. Her heart was welling up with joy. And it was all because of the man she had left standing on the terrace.
Her dearest, dear Chun.