Try as she did to protect me, I always knew the truth.
My mother was a concubine. I was a bastard child.
Ella woke up disoriented. She rolled over and blinked out the window. Sunlight streamed through it, and she saw the lush green plants and ornate bridges outside—Chandler’s room had a private view of the garden. She had almost, for a moment, felt like she was back in his bed in the little house in LA. She stretched and nestled into the down mattress. His bed here was infinitely more comfortable. She looked around and noticed the clock on the wall—it was three in the afternoon. She still had a throbbing headache and hoped this jetlag wouldn’t last long.
The bedside table had orange juice, crackers, and a note on it:
Be back for dinner. I love you.
She wandered out of the bedroom and found a door to the outside. The air was humid, but a light breeze made the heat just tolerable. Ever since she’d gotten pregnant, she’d been hot all the time. She followed a walkway that branched off toward a gazebo, looking for some shade. She sighed and sat on a carved bench, taking in the trees and flowers that she didn’t recognize. The colors here all seemed brighter than back home, the flowers bigger, the trees fuller.
To her surprise, she noticed a couple of doves resting on the bench opposite her in the gazebo. She watched them coo at each other. They didn’t seem to mind her presence. She smiled. This place was so… charming.
“Doves are human in nature, you know.”
An unexpected voice invaded the gazebo. She turned around and saw Mr. Butler standing straight in his tailored suit.
“Impeccable posture you have there,” she said, flipping her hair and smirking at him.
He didn’t respond, just looked at her with squinted, black eyes. Well, he certainly knew how to make a person feel welcome. She suddenly felt uncomfortable in her little silk shorts and Chandler’s t-shirt. And maybe she should have put on a bra. But in her defense, she hadn’t expected anyone to creep up on her like this.
“Doves know their purpose on earth,” Mr. Butler said, shifting his gaze to the birds. He was silent for a moment. Then: “So what is your purpose here, Miss Ella?”
She instantly understood. He didn’t want her here.
“Where is everyone?” she asked, ignoring the question.
“Mr. Chandler and I accompanied your friends to their apartment.”
“I need to get back. Is Chandler back?”
His expression did not change but he took a moment before he responded. His eyes didn’t reveal anything. So different from Chandler.
“Yes, he is. Follow me, Miss Ella.”
Chandler was waiting for them in the living room, almost as if he expected Mr. Butler to bring her to him.
“You look rested.”
He pulled her into a hug and fixed his eyes on her. That loving, tender expression…. He always knew when to use it. But she couldn’t shake this uncomfortable feeling. Chandler was practically raised by Mr. Butler, wasn’t he?
Did they have more in common than she knew?
“I loved the garden,” she responded as Chandler stroked her hair.
“It’s all yours now, baby. And our little seed.”
Ella poked Chandler in the stomach and whispered, “Stop it.”
“No worries. Mr. Butler doesn’t know anything.”
He was grinning. Ella looked over at Mr. Butler, who stood in the distance with that unreadable, unfocused expression, staring out the window. She didn’t think he was the kind of person whose bad side she wanted to see.
Life had been relaxed and still since they arrived two weeks ago. Too relaxed, really. Ella couldn’t complain too much—her morning sickness had magically disappeared, and she and Chandler had been waited on and pampered since they got here. She felt like they lived in a resort more than a house.
The two of them took walks around the garden, where there seemed to be something different to see around every corner. They watched TV in their spacious bedroom. They drove around and Chandler showed her his childhood home.
But Ella still felt so isolated, and she hadn’t seen Maya and Landon in weeks. Chandler seemed to sense it.
“Pack your bags and put on a pretty dress,” Chandler said one morning. “We’re visiting Landon and Maya and spending the weekend in the city.”
“Really?” Ella jumped out of bed and started packing without even a kiss good morning.
She may have over-packed, but Ella wanted to be ready for anything—the shopping, the dancing, late nights…. She was dying for some fun. That was what had attracted her to Shanghai in the first place, anyway. They made a deal, after all; one year in Shanghai. Of course, she wanted to enjoy it thoroughly, not just be waited on the whole time.
In the kitchen, Chandler announced their plans to Mr. Butler, who stood as always at the entrance to the room, supervising the help.
“I’ll be driving myself today,” Chandler said, nodding his thanks to the man who poured his tea.
“Master Wang,” Mr. Butler said with a small, ironic smile that did not reach his eyes. “The city has changed so much in the time you’ve been gone. You aren’t familiar with the roads anymore.”
“GPS…” Ella muttered over her oatmeal, but Chandler didn’t seem to hear her and Mr. Butler talked right over her.
“It may be easier to have the driver take you. You and Miss Ella can enjoy the city without the stress of navigating it.”
“Ah.” Chandler raised his tea cup to Mr. Butler. “As always, you’re so thoughtful. Good idea.”
Ella raised an eyebrow at him, but he just smiled back. She glanced at Mr. Butler, who was leaving the room, supposedly to tell the driver. Whatever. He didn’t care about them getting lost. He reminded her of boyfriends she’d had in the past—the ones that didn’t last long—careful, controlling, always in the name of her “best interest.” She knew his game.
He was keeping an eye on them.
When they checked into their room at the Ritz downtown, Ella stretched her entire body out in front of the oversized window. She almost did a little jig, she felt so relieved. And the view was incredible. Chandler pointed out the Pearl Tower and the Pudong River, promising they would see it all close up. The city night lights were blinking like stage lights. She felt happy and alive—finally.
“You’re back, Ella,” Chandler said, laughing as she flipped her hair around and sighed deeply.
“I feel free as a bird,” she said, swirling around the room. She stopped and looked at him guiltily. “I mean don’t get me wrong, I like your house. It was just a little… different.”
“Stuffy,” Chandler offered. “Formal. Suffocating. I know, Ella, that’s why I left it.”
She danced over to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and dipped backward with a big sigh.
“Let’s never go back, then,” she breathed happily.
“Okay,” he said simply, and drew her into a kiss.
His kiss felt different. Or rather, it felt like it had back in America. She found herself remembering their trip to Paris, their time at the ballet, all the DG parties, all the times they had played and laughed and been completely wrapped up in nothing but each other. That was who she loved. Not Mr. Butler’s little protégé, not the future leader of some great enterprise. Just Chandler. Her silly, naïve, overly attentive Chandler who would open the car door for her and turn around and poke fun of the way she put her feet out the window on hot days.
She loved him. And as they stood there in front of the blinking Shanghai lights, his kisses became so deep and overwhelming that she had to show him just how much.
“We don’t have anywhere to be, do we?” she murmured between kisses, cupping his chin in her hands.
He pulled her in tight.
Ella opened her eyes blearily and looked around. Why was she awake?
Her dreams had been strange. She had been wandering through mazes of Chinese hedges and flowers, and she couldn’t find her way out. She finally found a pair of hedge trimmers and cut a hole in one. She pulled herself through the hole and found two giant doves on the other side.
The doves looked at her with black eyes and became two huge Mr. Butlers. They started trying to squish her with their shiny leather shoes.
She noticed Chandler’s phone ringing in the other room. She poked his chest and he groaned and rolled over. She blew lightly on his neck.
“Morning, lazy bones,” she whispered. “You’ve got a very important call.”
He opened his eyes a tad and gave her a small smile.
“Voicemail will get it.” He threw a heavy arm around her and she cuddled into him.
“Screening your calls? What if it was me?”
“It never would be. Think I’d let you sleep alone?”
She sighed and relaxed her head on his chest, drawing circles on his skin. The phone went off again. She tapped his arm.
“They’ll never give up. Twenty bucks it’s Mr. Butler.”
Chandler sighed and went to grab the phone. He opened it exaggeratedly, grinning at her.
“Where have you guys been? We thought you got lost in your own city.”
“Oh hey, sorry Landon. We got a little distracted when we checked in last night….”
“Stop right there. I’m good. Got it. So are you coming over?”
“Yeah, sure. How about around”—
He raised his eyebrows at Ella, who whispered, “Noon. I look gross!”
When Chandler hung up Ella was already heading to the shower.
“This city makes me feel dirty,” she said.
“It’s one of the cleanest cities in the world.”
“Well I still have been sneezing black snot since yesterday.”
Chandler paused and chuckled. “That is incredibly sexy.”
She laughed and grabbed a towel. “So it was Landon?”
“I think you owe me twenty bucks,” he said.
She grinned and grabbed a towel, taking his hand and leading him to the shower with a tender kiss.
“I’ll do you one better.”
Nanjing Road was vibrant and busy, with tourists snapping photos and huge, colorful buildings everywhere. It was like Times Square with a Chinese flair. But even with the crowds milling around them, it was nothing like it had been on the subway.
Ella realized she never truly understood the meaning of a “sea of people” until today. In the subway station, she had to grasp Chandler’s hand like a vice so she didn’t get swept away by the people pressing in and all around them.
Not that she would complain. She was glad to get away from the driver and Mr. Butler’s ever-watching eyes. He reminded her of a spy from an old black and white movie. Always dressed in that black suit, smoking, looking like he had nothing but secrets.
Chandler led her a few blocks down to where Landon and Maya were staying. She was overwhelmed by the shops, the people, and the business all around her. And the languages! She must have heard ten different languages passing by them.
Maya and Landon lived on the 30th floor of their building. The elevator ride to the top felt like an eternity.
“I didn’t even know there were buildings with this many floors,” Ella grumbled, shifting her weight.
Her ankles were sore from the walking and she was only getting more swollen all the time. When they were greeted at the door she went straight for the couch before even looking around. Maya raised an eyebrow and sat next to her.
“Good to see you, too,” she said.
Ella looked around and came to her senses. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, we’ve just been walking around and”—
“This place is insane, I know. I need an Ibuprofen to step out the door.”
Ella gestured toward the window. “But that view… wow. And I like what you guys have done with the place—it looks like people actually live here.”
Landon laughed. “We love it here. We felt right at home as soon as we moved in. And we have Chandler to thank for that.”
“No, not me. Mr. Butler did everything, but I’m glad you like the place.” He looked around. “Don’t know why we can’t do something like this at home.”
Ella grunted. “Because Mr. Butler would have a seizure if everything wasn’t perfectly polished and brand name.”
Chandler shot her a strange look. Was it… disapproving?
“So Landon, how’s work?” Chandler changed the subject. “And how’s teaching, Maya?”
“I love it!” Maya jumped in without hesitation. “My students are from all over the world. Literally, all over the world! It’s incredible. International school is the best.” She paused. “Well, Landon?”
He smiled sheepishly. “Work is…. overwhelming. But good. You don’t have just companies, though, Chandler, you’ve got an empire. Thank God I don’t have to write my debriefing in Chinese. You would fire me.”
He sat down on the loveseat and put his feet up on the coffee table.
“Ella, what have you been doing?” Maya asked.
“Oh…” Ella paused. “Nothing, really. I mean really. Lying around. I wish I had something to do.”
“Oh, honey. That’s why we’re here—to change up the pace. Let me take you to do all the touristy things. Hang out, just like back home. You need it.”
Ella sighed. “No kidding.”
They spent the day going up and down Nanjing Road, shopping, getting dumplings, and having dinner on the river cruise down the Bund. The next day they saw the Oriental Pearl Tower and shopped at a district called Xintiandi, and they even went to the French Concession, a little area that used to be a French colony and where everything was wrought iron and concrete.
In the restroom at the restaurant by the French Concession, Maya surprised Ella with a question. She said it nonchalantly, like she was asking the time of day or the weather report.
“Are you pregnant, Ella?”
Ella was reapplying her lip gloss in the mirror. She stopped and stared at herself.
She could see Maya in the mirror smiling slyly.
“I think you heard me.”
“Why would you think….”
“You are, aren’t you!”
Ella was quiet for a moment. She could see her face turning pink in the mirror.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Almost three months now. How did you know?”
“Oh, Ella. You hardly touch any food, you don’t want wine, and you sit down to rest when we’re having fun. And lying around for two weeks? Not like you. You love all that stuff. Food, wine, shopping, having fun….”
“Now you know, Maya. We haven’t told anyone.”
“Well, start with me and Landon!” Maya was already leaving the restroom and talking over her shoulder excitedly.
“Landon, guess what!” She exclaimed when they reached the table. “You’re going to be an uncle.”
“Wait, what? Is my sister”—
Chandler almost choked on his wine.
“You’re adorable,” Maya said, running her fingers through her hair. “It’s Ella! She’s almost three months along!”
Landon looked shocked, then confused, and finally annoyed. He crossed his arms and looked at Chandler.
“When did you plan on telling us?”
Chandler smiled innocently, his eyebrows high on his forehead. “Now!”
“Well, that was… an unexpected announcement.”
“Maya figured it out pretty quick,” Ella said, smiling at her.
“Oh by the way, congratulations and all that,” said Maya, clinking her glass with Ella.
“What are you guys gonna name it?” asked Landon.
They paused and looked at each other. They hadn’t even discussed it. In fact, they hadn’t discussed… anything. A dreadful feeling started to rise from the pit of Ella’s stomach. Morning sickness… or maybe impending doom. They didn’t know anything about being parents. They didn’t even know what they were going to do, much less what they were going to do about a baby.
“We’ll… figure it out,” she said.
Chandler put an arm around her and kissed her forehead. His warmth around her made her feel a little calmer. She breathed in his scent and tried to relax.
“We always do,” he said softly.
Back at the hotel, Ella was exhausted but had thoroughly enjoyed herself.
“Can we stay in the city, Chandler?” she asked, standing in front of the window and looking out at the city. To her, Shanghai felt all at once alien and familiar, exciting and comforting.
“But… our house is in Kunshan.”
“I know that. But I feel happy in the city, like myself again. I feel so isolated at the house.”
“I suppose we can.”
Chandler wrapped his arms around Ella and gazed out at the cityscape, too.
“Look at this,” Ella said. “We’ll be happy here in the city with our little seed.”
“Our little seed, indeed.”
The next morning, they faced Mr. Butler in the hotel lobby. He had accompanied the driver to pick them up – no doubt because he anticipated exactly what Chandler was about to tell him.
“But we don’t have a place in the city for you,” Mr. Butler replied.
Chandler paused and looked at Ella. She frowned. Mr. Butler had come all the way here just to travel back with them. Even Ella thought that Chandler should have called. The silence was unbearable.
“Ella is pregnant with my child,” Chandler blurted out.
Ella gasped. “What the hell, Chandler!”
He looked at her and she saw the pink in his cheeks. He shrugged at her and cocked his head to the side. She took it as, got to tell him sometime. Mr. Butler looked solemnly at Chandler and said something in Chinese, low and quiet. She rolled her eyes.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she said. “You two girls had better be getting along when I get back.”
She frowned at Chandler and left.
“Is this the reason you brought her home?” Mr. Butler repeated, his voice dangerous.
Chandler watched Ella leave, feeling suddenly naked, vulnerable without her. Be brave. This was just Mr. Butler, after all.
“Mr. Butler, I want to stay in the same complex as Landon and Maya. Ella needs the company. Familiarity, people she knows.”
“People are already wondering why you haven’t been in the office. And now a pregnant American woman. Mr. Chandler…” Mr. Butler sighed and rubbed his forehead. “This is not how I envisioned your homecoming.”
“Please. I don’t need you to remind me of my duties. I just want to make sure Ella’s taken care of.”
“Master Wang. The family business, the Wangs’ traditions, and Mr. Cheng’s daughter have been waiting for you a long time. For you to steer the helm.”
Mr. Butler paused. Chandler felt torn. He knew what he ought to say—what Mr. Butler wanted him to say. But it just wasn’t the truth. He had no intention of following the script they’d written for him, so he might as well not set everyone up and fail them again. He will only be here for one year. He made a promise to Ella.
But Mr. Butler seemed to take Chandler’s silence for acquiescence. He pulled out a small pad of paper and started making notes.
“I will make the arrangements and make sure Miss Ella is taken care of in America.”
“And everything will go back to normal.”
“We’ll create a trust fund, no one will have to know”—
“I love her, Mr. Butler. I… I want Ella to be my wife.”
Mr. Butler squinted his eyes. They looked like black coal hooded by his thick eyebrows.
Then he surprised Chandler. He laughed—loud, like a bark. There was no humor in it.
“That is preposterous.”
“She’s having my child. I want to be with both of them. I will marry her after the baby is born and move back to LA.”
“But Master Wang…. Chandler. I fulfilled my end of the agreement and stayed away while you attended school. I expect you to fulfill yours.”
“But I told her”—
Mr. Butler laughed. “You told her,” he repeated, his black eyes glittering. “Quite legally binding, I would say.”
“Enough. Fine. Forget about LA, forget about the marriage. Just… rent the apartment and let me know when I can move in. For now, I’ll stay at the hotel.”
Chandler saw Ella coming back from the bathroom over Mr. Butler’s shoulder. He went to head her off and walk toward the elevator. He sighed and stopped short. Mr. Butler was right, at least a little. Ella gave him a questioning look. He turned to Mr. Butler, who was still sitting in his chair in the lobby. He spoke to Mr. Butler in Chinese; he was afraid to worry Ella with their conversation.
“I’m aware of who I am and the expectations on me,” he said. “Just… give me some time and space. At least until my child is born. Please.”
Mr. Butler looked at him but didn’t respond.
“I’ll figure out how to take care of this after the baby’s born,” Chandler said, giving Mr. Butler a pleading look.
Mr. Butler stood up. “I will get the apartment ready, Chandler.” And he walked toward the hotel door.
“Mr. Butler,” Chandler stopped him. “Have you ever been in love?”
“Chandler, love is a luxury. For us, love is obligation, and marriage is between two families, not two individuals. That is how I understand.”