Sorry for the delay! Some things about this chapter were driving me crazy…but I think I’m finally okay with it….I think. Gah, sorry if it sucks! Anyway, as stated previously, chapter 7 and this one used to be the same chapter, but I split it up due to its length and the time I had available to upload these. Regardless of my qualms though, I hope you enjoy!
“It was a brutal attack, Miss Winters….”
“I know. Self-defense. Is that all you have to say?”
I hung my head. I knew I had gone too far. “He tried-….he tried to rape me,” I told the judge quietly, my blood running cold at the words. It didn’t matter how many times I’d told the story so far. It never got easier. No matter how many times I said the words, they still made my insides churn and my skin turn clammy.
“I know that, too. That’s why the court has officially declared you free of all charges.” I looked up, surprised. Even though there was no shadow of a doubt that my actions were purely in self-defense, there was also no debating that I had hurt him…badly. The thought made my stomach twist again, but this time, with guilt. I hated him, yes, but had he really deserved this? Two cracked ribs, a twisted ankle, and a black and blued face to match? My thoughts were abruptly cut off though by the judges’ next words.
“You are, however, required to go to one month of counseling for victims of violent crimes.”
“Yes, your Honor,” I responded, my eyes downcast. I had figured as much. After a case like this, I was sure they’d worry about my mental stability. Perhaps they’d even worried that it had gone from self-defense, to rage. I mean, they’d realized afterward that I just had a background in Martial Arts, but they still probably wanted to cover their asses. …well that, and I truly was fucked up right now.
“Court adjourned then.” The hearing hadn’t taken long. It was a pretty straightforward case. Kind of. “And Miss Winters?”
“Hmm?” I asked weakly, turning back around.
“It wasn’t your fault. …he attacked you.” I nodded, thrown off by the judge’s sudden sympathy. He stood up then and left the bench, leaving me just standing there amidst whispers and the soft shuffle of papers. It was all like a nightmare…only worse.
Because this, all of this, was a dismal reality.
“Chandler wants to see his Auntie,” Catherine announced happily, holding her tiny baby out to me. I snapped out of my thoughts as I heard Chandler’s babbling inches away from my face, hesitating for just for a moment before I took him into my arms. It had been a month since the trial. Trey was incarcerated after healing enough to be released from the hospital, found guilty of both attempted rape and stalking. He had apparently been tracking me…following records, asking people about me, watching me. The thought made me want to vomit, and I had on several occasions. I just couldn’t get those images out of my head…being thrown against the trunk of that tree…fearing for my life…Trey lying on the ground, bruised and bloodied….
I took a deep breath to steady myself, holding Chandler closer.
I had just finished with counseling. Although I knew I was nowhere near healed, I’d stopped going. I figured they had helped as much as they could and now it was my turn to do the rest. Besides, they couldn’t force me to go longer than a month. In that time, my handsome little nephew had been born—lovely little Chandler. I looked down at him and couldn’t help but smile at least a little.
“He really is perfect,” I remarked, admiring the baby in my arms. Catherine beamed, happy to see me smiling.
“Isn’t he? I just wish he’d sleep through the night,” she said with a laugh.
“Me too, trust me,” I joined in.
Life had been weird since…that day. I’d stayed at home, at first too traumatized to even speak, but counseling did help me with that. I felt almost like myself again…but as if something were missing.
I was well aware of what I missed though. I’d missed traveling…the spirit of adventure…but I couldn’t get myself to go. Whereas once I had thought of my trips as my safe recluse, now that privacy and safety felt violated. Even though I knew Trey was in jail now, I couldn’t help but wonder where he might have hidden as I traveled to my favorite places and who he might have talked to for information. It all made me feel incredibly sick, and for awhile I couldn’t stand the thought of traveling again.
Partly because of this, Farouk and I had broken up. It wasn’t because of anything else bad per se—we just never talked and it soon became obvious that this long distance relationship wasn’t going to work. He was seeing someone else now…a fact which made me feel even more awkward and uneasy about going to Egypt, at least for a little while.
There was France too, but I didn’t exactly have happy memories there, so I couldn’t bring myself to break my traveling lull there either. Besides…after the nightmare let up a little and the uneasiness abated some, I knew where I really wanted to go.
…back to China. I had missed it so much. Jiang had called a couple times, but I never answered. The only reason I knew it was him was because I recognized the area code. I guess he stopped trying eventually.
….I missed him. I missed him so much it was like a constant ache in my chest, driving me fucking insane. I could usually ignore it, but every now and then, on an especially bad day, I would break down into tears. There was no other way around it. I was in love with a married man. I could admit that now…but it obviously didn’t make things any easier. The more desperate I felt to see him and talk to him, the guiltier I felt. The last thing I wanted to do was break up a marriage, but I least just wanted to talk to him, even if it was just once more.
I’d told my sister about it. Hell, I’d even told my parents about it. My mom looked unhappy about it, urging me not to do anything. Catherine agreed, albeit a little more hesitantly. My dad was quiet though, thinking. “Does he love you back?” he’d asked, much to Mom’s annoyance. “I don’t know,” I’d admitted quietly. “Then you need to find out.” Mom and Dad argued about that for a moment, but eventually she agreed too, sighing. A random flashback had come to my mind, about when my parents had nearly broken up. I wondered if their disagreement had had something to do with that. “Look, if she’d never confronted me about it, she wouldn’t have been able to move on,” Dad had insisted. I thought back to the Nanny I had, way back when. She’d left right around that time. If it was…what I thought it might have been…if…I glanced at my dad…and then to my mom. Well, if my situation turned out like theirs…the odds were against me.
But maybe, just maybe, Dad was right.
I needed to at least find out.
And so it was not even a week later that I found myself on that airplane to Shang Simla, my heart beating hard. I had never felt so anxious in my life.
In fact, when I touched down, I couldn’t even will myself to go to base camp, heading straight to the market. My heart pounded like the drums of war as I hurriedly rushed toward the General Goods store. I was going to see his face. I was going to hear his voice. God, I had missed him, so, so much.
“Guess who!?” I cried happily as soon as I jumped into the store, an as of late uncharacteristically huge grin on my face.
But the smile quickly slid off my face as I saw not Jiang behind the counter, but an old familiar face. Shen. That dick that had ordered me to get that treasure for him way back when.
“Was I expecting you?” he asked, looking smug.
“Oh…no,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I was expecting…I mean. ….where’s Jiang?” I finally asked, desperate. “Jiang Lu?”
“He no longer works here,” Shen answered, looking at me curiously. “What do you want with him?”
“He’s a friend,” I answered hastily. I paused then, thinking for a moment. “Do you, do you know where he works now?”
“Okay…um…do you know where I might find him?”
“Nosy, aren’t you?” he asked with a frown. “Well, I don’t know. Are you going to buy anything?”
“Then get out!”
Well, Shen hadn’t changed at all, I thought to myself as I left the store, but that was the least of my concerns.
I had just travelled thousands of miles to talk to Jiang…and now I had no idea where he was. Maybe this is a sign, I worried. Maybe I was never meant to talk to him. Feeling more depressed than ever, I finally trudged my way to base camp, bad memories and feelings overtaking me once more.
Maybe it was a mistake to come here.
A stupid, stupid, mistake.
To drive myself out of my funk, I explored China some more, going into tombs I’d never ventured into yet, finding new treasures, enjoying the sites. It was almost like old times…except that when I lay alone in my tent, hundreds of feet underneath the ground, instead of feeling awe and excitement, I felt a dull, hollow feeling in my chest, for I was completely alone. And instead of waking up to the exhilarating anticipation of new discoveries to be made, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, gasping as I tried to wipe away tears and the scenes of a nightmare that was actually reality.
It was when I was visiting the Terracotta army that it happened. The moment I laid eyes on the man I loved more than I could even explain. I nearly cried when I saw him, wanting to jump on him and smother him with kisses…but he was still married, and on top of that, he was with his children. I watched in silence, my soul vibrating. He had two kids, as he had told me. A little boy and a little girl around the same age. I couldn’t tell if one was older or not, or if they were twins. They seemed upset and Jiang was talking to them comfortingly in Chinese. It made my heart ache. I wanted him more than ever.
Despite this though, I shifted sideways to hide behind a statue. Unfortunately, the crunch of the stone beneath my feet gave me away and the little boy looked right up at me. He quickly wiped his tears away, looking embarrassed that a stranger had seen him. Puzzled, Jiang looked up as well…and his gaze locked on mine. I was frozen in place, half-hidden behind the statue, my heart pounding. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t…I was afraid it’d come out as a cry instead.
“Tamara?” he asked, his voice sounding awed as his eyes opened wide. “It’s been so long.”
“Yeah, it’s me,” I finally managed, willing myself not to cry. It was harder than I thought. I swallowed and stepped out from behind the statue, walking a little closer, but then halted. His kids were looking at me with identical questioning faces, looking from their father to me. “It’s…it’s good to see you.”
“Y…you too,” he responded. Jiang looked down at his kids then and spoke to them in Chinese. I had no idea what he was saying—just watched as the children looked at me again and then back to them. Their eyes were slightly puffy from crying. Finally they nodded to him respectfully and then scurried off, disappearing amongst the massive stone soldiers. “My children,” he introduced with a hesitant smile. “My daughter is Liu Lu, and my son is Wang Lu.” The daughter’s name sounded like “Lee-oo,” the son, “Wahng.” Before I could respond though, Jiang added another comment with a laugh, “They think you’re pretty.”
“And do you?” I wanted to ask, but I stayed quiet, merely smiling instead. “Well, tell them thanks,” I said, forcing a small laugh. “So what brings you here?” I asked then, trying to make casual conversation.
“I should ask you the same, but as you asked first…I’m trying to get them out of the house,” he answered with a sigh, the smile fading from his lips. “My wi-..well…Jiannan, she’s…she’s pregnant.” I watched as his face grew more drawn, looking more serious than I’d ever seen him look again. I wondered if my face suddenly looked exactly the same.
“Oh. Um…” I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t exactly seem happy about it. “Congrats…?” I said hesitantly, feeling foolish.
“We haven’t shared a bed in over a year,” Jiang said quietly, averting my gaze.
I froze, staring at Jiang in surprise. That I had not expected. “I’m…I’m so sorry,” I said. And I was. Truly. How could anyone treat him like that?
“No need,” he said now, sighing heavily. “Our marriage has been over for a long time, but we stayed together for the children. And…well, because people would look down on it. You’re not supposed to get divorced. You’re supposed to stay together until you are old…your hair white…and then you still stick together. She…she dishonored me.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, unable to think of anything else to say as I stared at Jiang, helpless.
“I dishonored her too though,” he said, and for the first time he truly looked upset. My heart sunk. All I could think was “There’s someone else.” My eyes burned. I couldn’t speak anymore. “I’ve shamed myself,” he continued in a hollow voice, staring elsewhere.
“She…she did too,” I finally managed, hating to see Jiang this way. I wanted to take him into my arms. I wanted to cry.
“My wife-…Jiannan…she saw us talking once when you were here,” Jiang continued, as if I hadn’t said a word. He paused. “She said we were watching the stars…and I looked over at you. She said…she said that I’d never looked at her that way before.” I couldn’t speak again. I was shaking. I could barely even breathe. “It’s my fault she crawled into the bed of another man,” he continued hollowly. “But it doesn’t even hurt. Not really. She was right.”
“I don’t-…I-” I started, but then my voice cracked, and tears escaped my eyes, and all I could manage was a shuddering breath.
“The first time you walked into my store, well, what was my store, I thought to myself that I had never seen a woman as beautiful as you. When you opened your mouth, I realized you were just as beautiful inside. Kind. Passionate. Alive. I’d never felt that way about anyone else.”
“What are you saying?” I whispered. I didn’t dare think—he couldn’t. There was no way.
To my surprise, Jiang laughed softly, his liquid brown eyes shining. He shook his head. “Ahh, Tamara. Why is it that you can see even the most cleverly hidden things, but you cannot see what is right in front of your eyes?”
“Jiang,” I started in a quiet, strained voice, but then could not manage to say anything else, a lump in my throat so large that it hurt. My stomach was doing somersaults; my body was trembling, my cheeks wet.
He took in a breath, running a hand roughly through his hair. It was the first sign of nerves I’d seen him show. “I just-, I need to say- well,” he stammered, before managing a small, unsure smile. “I’m…I’m in love with you, Tamara. …and I’m so sorry.”
I startled even myself as I broke down at Jiang’s words, a sob tearing from my body. I didn’t know why I was crying so hard though. Was it relief, happiness…shame? I felt like I’d done this. That I’d broken up their marriage. That I’d made him fall in love with me without even realizing it. I’d been flirting with a married man and now that I’d technically gotten what I wanted, I just felt like shit.
“Tamara…?” I heard Jiang question quietly, followed by the ghost of a touch on my arm. He quickly pulled his hand away from me though when he heard a little girl’s voice…his little girl’s voice. She asked something in Chinese, sounding concerned.
“Nothing is wrong, qiānjīn,” Jiang answered, half in English, half in Chinese.
“But then why is she crying?” Liu asked suspiciously, her English heavily accented.
“Maybe she is sad for us too, because Mǔqīn doesn’t love us anymore,” a little boy’s voice added, his eyes still red from crying. I looked up finally, hastily wiping my eyes of my tears. Jiang was admonishing them in rapid Chinese now, probably letting them know that their Mom still did love them.
“No! She loves the baby now, with the new man!” Liu shouted. “Why doesn’t she love us anymore?” she asked then, her eyes filling up with tears again. “I miss her.”
Jiang looked upset and stressed as he glanced over at me. “Tamara, can we-…can we talk again tonight?” he asked as his children burst into tears. “I’d…I’d like to finish this conversation. …can you meet me at…at the Scholar’s Garden late tonight? Do you know where that is?”
I nodded, feeling numb. “I’ll meet you,” I answered quietly, wishing I could say something to comfort his children.
Jiang gave me a little bow and then took his children by their hands, talking to them in rapid Chinese again as he hurried off with them.
…which left me alone among the looming stone soldiers, feeling helpless and confused, my body still trembling.
Everything was such a mess.
The rest of that evening seemed like the slowest night in the entire history of days. I ate dinner without tasting it, even though it was my favorite—egg rolls. I walked like a zombie. My head hurt. My stomach lurched.
I never imagined coming to China would be this way.
Of course, I didn’t know what I had expected either. Jiang to have dumped his wife and rode off with me into the sunset? It was so much more complicated than that. There were children involved, and the break-up was horribly messy, and everyone was so upset. There was no beautiful sunset, only pain.
That night I walked to the Scholar’s Garden in silence, my head still reeling as I stepped into its peaceful aura. Everything was quiet. The air was lightly perfumed with the smell of cherry blossoms and lotuses. There was no one else there.
…until Jiang arrived like a ghost, startling me when I suddenly noticed him beside me. I jumped.
“Sorry…I didn’t mean to scare you,” Jiang whispered quickly. I nodded, staring up at him. His face was apologetic, his eyes reflecting the moon high above. Being near him made me feel safe. No other guy ever made me fully feel that way. They always made me anxious, nervous…afraid of being hurt. But not Jiang. Never Jiang. I knew that he would never hurt me.
“Jiang?” I asked quietly, looking up at him again.
“I’m in love with you too.” Jiang opened his mouth to say something, but I pulled him toward me and kissed him…passionately. As soon as my lips touched his, it felt like my upended world clicked into place…and then faded away. There was nothing else. Nothing except Jiang and his pliable lips. Nothing except the soft moan that escaped from his throat, setting my blood on fire. Nothing except our souls, and our love, finally intertwining in one glorious, heated kiss.
When our lips finally parted, we were both gasping, my body pressed into his and his arms around my waist. His lips grazed mine. I wanted him so badly that it hurt. I wanted him to make love to me right here and right now in this garden. I wanted him to make me his. “Oh, god, Jiang,” I whispered feverishly, pressing into him harder. He let out a soft groan, muffled only by the fact that his face was now buried in the crook of my neck. The sound set my nerves ablaze.
“Qīn ài de,” he murmured, his lips brushing my jaw. “We-” he cleared his throat, trying to regain control of his senses. “We should go slow.”
“Slow?” I asked absently, still feel dazed. My heart was pounding.
“Yes,” Jiang answered, sounding a little stronger now. He pulled away slightly, but only just. I could still feel the heat of his body. How was he always so warm? “I don’t…I don’t want to mess this up.”
“We won’t! I-”
“I have a lot of things to work out,” he reminded me in a strained voice, sending me crashing back down to reality.
“Right,” I said quietly, crestfallen. I loved him so much. I wanted to show him that.
“That being said…will you move in with me, Tamara?” he asked, smiling down at me.
“How is that slow?” I asked skeptically, but my lips couldn’t help but pull up in a smile. “And what about…what about Ji-”
“It’s a new place of my own. …I needed someplace to stay while…you know. It’s small, but nice. I…I want to get to know you better. …I want you to get to know my children better,” Jiang added, his gaze intense.
My cheeks turned red as I blushed. “Okay,” I agreed. “I would love to move in with you…but Jiang?”
“What does ‘ching aiy dah’ mean?” I asked, looking up at him with a puzzled look on my face.
“You mean ‘qīn ài de’?” he asked, looking back at me.
“Yes,” I said, my cheeks flushing again.
“It means ‘darling,’ Jiang answered softly…and then claimed my lips again in a soft, sweet kiss that made the world fade away once more.
“Wǒ ài nǐ, qīn ài de.”
…“I love you, my darling.”