I was training, studying while taking care of my little brother.
Father told me that it is my responsibility as the eldest to watch over and guide my younger brother.
He would carry on the family’s tradition and legacy. He would be brighter, smarter than myself.
Father told me I was lucky. I was the one chosen to protect and serve, so everyone could prosper and live in peace.
Ella looked at herself in the mirror as she finished her lip gloss. She looked a little tired, but no worse for wear. She smiled at herself—it was a practiced smile, one she used to get what she wanted. She would use it today to hide the fact that she hadn’t been able to sleep well for nearly a week. Since she whacked that Chinese guy at the party.
She was worried, for starters. Their coffee date had ended abruptly when he had started saying strange things and she had been certain he had a concussion after all. They were sitting outside the Café when he’d started pointing out the birds on the street and telling her Chinese stories about doves and other lives. It had only gotten worse when he had stood up and announced that he was a millionaire and owned half of Shanghai. She had helped him home and laid him down on the couch. Drifting in and out of sleep, she had held his hand and stroked his forehead next to the bandage, feeling for a fever. Luckily he didn’t seem to have one, so once he fell asleep she snuck out, hoping she wouldn’t be hearing from his lawyer the next day.
But she hadn’t heard anything at all. And every day that she didn’t, her dreams got more unsettling. They were full of these Chinese doves, and jade necklaces that got brighter as the affection between two people got stronger, and unlucky numbers and lucky ones—she couldn’t keep it all straight anyway, and why was it plaguing her dreams so much?
Maybe he had lost her number. She glanced at the coffee shop napkin on her dresser, where he had scribbled his phone number. She considered giving him a call, but when she pulled out her phone she realized she was almost late for English. She rushed out of the house, pulling on her cardigan as she did.
She didn’t need to wonder about him long. He was leaning against the tree outside.
“Miss Ella, remember me? Chandler Wang.”
Ella jumped. She wasn’t sure if she should stop or keep walking. She couldn’t help but notice the Band-Aid on his forehead, and she felt the heat on her face. She looked away, embarrassed, and lowered her head. She considered pretending not to have seen him.
“Miss Ella,” he kept trying to get her attention. This guy had no clue about body language, did he?
“Oh… hey. Chandler, right?” Ella had no choice but to face her demon. “You doing okay? You still have that bandage.”
She was careful with what she said. She was afraid he might be here to ask for some kind compensation or something.
“Miss, I’m doing fine,” he said enthusiastically.
“I… I have class in fifteen minutes.”
“Of course, Miss Ella. Let me walk you to class.”
“Ahh… well…. Sure.” She felt obligated.
They walked quietly. Ella kept expecting him to bring up the accident, but he didn’t. He walked beside her, occasionally smiling, looking around at the flowers on the trees. Her mind was reeling. This guy was going to sue her, surely. Or blackmail her. Or maybe he had already put her under some kind of Chinese voodoo spell, that would explain the dreams…. They got to the classroom and she started to go in, but he put a hand lightly on her shoulder. Before he could say anything, she blurted out at him.
“Look, Chandler, I’m really sorry about the accident. We can settle this without any trouble. I can take responsibility, I’ll pay whatever medical bills”—
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He waved his hands in front of himself. “Miss Ella. My apologies.” He had this funny British accent, like James Bond or something. “I just wanted to ask if you’d like to have dinner with me this Friday.”
Ella’s breath left her like a balloon being popped. “That’s all you want? Sure, of course. It’s the least I could do.”
“What time can I pick you up Miss?”
“You can call me Ella. Just Ella. Seven would be good.”
“I’ll pick you up then.”
He finished his sentence as she walked into class. She heard him murmur a goodbye behind her as she closed the door. Sure, maybe she was being rude, but this didn’t feel like a real date anyway. More like avoiding a lawsuit.
Maya didn’t just move in. She took over, she owned the household. And truthfully, Landon loved the way she took charge. He’d had a pile of laundry growing at the foot of his bed and had been skipping lunches more and more, and suddenly everything was good and clear. Except for Chandler. The kid just didn’t get it—he had no concept of personal boundaries. She hadn’t even been there a week when Chandler just walked into their bedroom while she was in the middle of a shower.
“Landon, I’m taking Ella out on Friday.” Landon jumped up and rushed to close the bathroom door as Chandler just kept right on talking. “Where should I take an American girl for dinner? Something fancy? But not too fancy….”
Before Landon could say anything, Maya opened the door, dripping wet and stark naked.
“Landon, why did you close the door? You know I’m in there.”
The two men just stood there speechless. Maya finally turned her head to see Chandler standing in the middle of the room. He wasn’t even averting his eyes. Landon wanted to punch him in the face.
“Chandler,” Maya said in her firmest, most dangerously calm voice. “You need to leave now.”
She turned and walked back into the bathroom like nothing happened. Landon rushed Chandler out of his room and closed the door behind them.
“Dude, you can’t just come into my room anytime you want!”
“Landon, where should I take Ella?”
“Ask her yourself. Chandler, did you hear me? You can’t just bust in like that. My room is only for me and Maya. We need privacy.”
“Landon, I just”—
“You know what privacy is? Did they teach you that at boarding school?”
Chandler paused, looking hurt. “No,” he said abruptly. “I’ve never had a place I couldn’t go.”
Landon stopped. Chandler seemed serious.
He shook his head, exasperated. “Where did you come from?” he muttered, stepping back into his room. He started to close the door as Chandler shrugged.
“Another world, apparently.”
Maya was logging into the online classroom when she noticed the smell of smoke drifting into the room. Landon had gone to school already.
“What are you doing? What is wrong with you?” She walked into the kitchen to find the toaster practically in flames and Chandler doing nothing to help it. “You know you’re supposed to eat toast, right? Not burn the house down with it.”
“I just… I wanted to make toast for breakfast to apologize for yesterday.” Chandler looked like he was going to cry, standing there in the burned toast smog. “I had a whole plan….”
She suddenly felt guilty. Maybe she was being too hard on this guy. She figured if she were the one trying to live in China, a place where she had never been, didn’t know the customs or the culture…. Well, she could at least give Chandler a chance. A small one.
“Well, come here. Let me show you. Do you know what to do first?”
Chandler smiled sheepishly. “Get out the bread?”
“Open the windows and let out the smog you created.”
He smirked and opened the windows while she dumped out the burnt disaster and cleaned off the toaster.
“You have to adjust the temperature down to three,” she said, showing him. “Four or five if you like it a little crunchy.”
When the toast popped up, Chandler crowed. “Look! Perfect toast! I made toast!”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You sure did, Chandler,” she said slowly. “First time, huh?”
He laughed, excited. “One of many firsts.” He prepared her a plate. “Maya, here is your breakfast—two pieces of toast and marmalade.” He was all serious and proper, like the perfect English butler. She had to laugh a little.
He added orange juice and an English soft-boiled egg to the meal, then pulled out a chair for her to sit down.
“Chandler,” she sighed. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. Come sit down and join me…. We can try again.”
She was a softie for stuff like this. She vaguely wondered if Landon had let Chandler in on that little secret. Chandler sat and poured her some juice.
“I’m Maya,” she said, raising her cup. “Landon’s fiancé back from the flat land of Kansas. Studying ESL–teaching English as a second language. I’m going to change the world, one disadvantaged kid at a time.”
He toasted her. “Chandler Wang, heir of Wang Enterprises in Shanghai, China.” But Chandler didn’t stop there. “I’m expected someday to take over the family business, only the family business is more like an empire. My whole life I’ve been tutored and taught and coddled—just so I can do that someday. But I don’t even care for business. If I had it my way I’d do something more like, I don’t know. Hydraulics. Or biology. Or I’d just travel the world. Anyway, I was fourteen when my parents died on a trip to LA and so before I moved on and took over the company when I turned 18 I wanted to come see America for myself. To kind of honor their memory… and to get away. I’ve always had everything handed to me, and I guess I just wanted to see what it was like for other people in a place where nobody knows who I am and nobody will baby me. So it’s nice to meet you, Maya. I hope you can look past my upbringing and see me for just a normal, everyday Chinese millionaire.”
Maya was quiet for a long time. She stared at Chandler, who simply nodded and awkwardly drank his juice.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Well…. Nice to meet you too, Chandler.”
After their breakfast together, Maya became a bit of a mentor to Chandler. He wanted her to teach him how to win a girl’s heart, and she was fascinated by the little stories and experiences that trickled out of him little by little. Chandler, Maya, and Landon spent two days on what to wear and something Maya called ‘American Dating 101.’ By Friday at 6:20, Chandler was suited up like the perfect English gentleman—not what Maya suggested, but he’d felt it was the proper thing to do. As he walked out the door, Maya had to give her final two cents.
“I just hope you don’t scare that girl away being too proper,” she called after him. “We are in California!”
Chandler felt great as he drove to pick Ella up. He felt optimistic about himself, life, everything. He loved America. He got to her door half an hour early, just to make sure he didn’t miss her. He watched the clock move slowly toward seven, his heart beating faster all the time. Maybe he was getting in over his head. He thought maybe he felt like those princes in fairy tales—waiting for the girl to show up, hoping against hope that his feelings were reciprocated. He waited anxiously for her to walk out of the house door.
But what should he do when she did? Should he walk toward her slowly, or should he run to her? What would a prince in a fairy tale do? Sweep her up in his arms and kiss her…. That wouldn’t work.
It was 7:30. Where was she? She had said yes, she had said to pick her up at seven. Maybe she was trying to figure out what to wear. Or maybe….
He kept watching the door like his life depended on it. Around eight, a group of girls started walking into the house. Ella was among them. He ran up to the group.
“Miss Ella,” he said awkwardly. “I’m here to pick you up for dinner.”
The end of his sentence turned up like a question. She looked at him, knitted her eyebrows, and then opened her mouth wide.
“Oh my gosh, I completely forgot! How long have you been here?”
“Oh…” Chandler tried to sound nonchalant. “A few minutes….”
The girls around Ella were whispering to each other and Chandler cocked his head at them. One of them giggled. He realized maybe Maya was right, he probably looked ridiculous to these girls. He suddenly felt uncomfortable, out of place in his tailored suit and shined shoes. Ella looked around at her friends, and Chandler thought he saw the tiniest nod from the giggler.
“I’m sorry,” Ella said. “Give me fifteen minutes to get ready.”
Back at the house, Maya had made Landon’s favorite meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Even the gravy was homemade. He felt more content than he could ever remember feeling before Maya moved in. She understood him. He smiled—she also understood his stomach.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Landon said. “The weather is perfect.”
“A night walk?’ Are you trying to get us killed? You know there are some crazy people here. I saw on the news today”—
“Come on, Maya. They exaggerate. People are actually pretty nice around here.”
Maya paused and smiled at him. “We sound like an old married couple,” she said.
“So will you go with me, baby girl?” Landon was talking with his mouth stuffed full of potatoes, grinning at her.
“You’re gross!” She threw the kitchen towel at him.
But she went with him anyway. She always did. Landon knew he could never love anyone more.
“It’s a full moon tonight, Landon,” Maya said, holding onto his arm.
They walked aimlessly until they ended up in a park, guided by the light of the moon and the occasional streetlight. The air was still and quiet. It almost felt like being back home in the Midwest again—except for the palm trees. They were quiet, just walking and holding hands. Neither of them wanted to break the silence. No words were needed. They were a unit and they could feel it.
“Maya.” Landon stopped and looked at her. She gave him a small smile. “What are we waiting for, anyway?”
She looked puzzled. “What do you”—
“Marry me, Maya. Tonight. Right here under the moon.”
“You said it yourself. We’re like an old married couple already. You’ve always been the one, before I even knew it myself, I loved you. Always. And I always will. I’m tired of not being married.”
She laughed. “Are you drunk?”
He shook his head, leaned over, and gave her a gentle kiss. “Marry me,” he whispered again.
She put her hands on his cheeks and kissed him back. “Then marry us, darling. Under the moonlight. Like the big, gushy romantic you are.”
Ella had almost told Chandler she was busy, but even she had to admit that he looked like some kind of Chinese movie star. So she’d told her roommates to call the police if she was out past ten and she’d put on her least impressive dress—a little blue sundress that she mostly wore because it was comfortable. But when Chandler opened the door for her and she stepped into the shiny black BMW with stiff leather seats, she instantly felt underdressed.
The car ride was awkward at best. Chandler had hired a driver—who does that?—and wouldn’t even tell her where they were going. He told her about his “latest” trip to Britain and how predictable it was to see Macbeth at the Globe again.
She didn’t even bother to hide her eye-rolling.
Ella didn’t know what to think when they pulled up to the restaurant. It was… quaint. Too quaint. She glanced at Chandler, who was murmuring something to the driver. Someone had taken great pains to get this place feeling like a little down-home inn somewhere in the rustic Italian countryside. There were big froofy plants and grape vines all over. She recognized a tourist trap when she saw one. This place had to be expensive. What was his game?
He ordered something expensive that she couldn’t even pronounce. Figured.
Chandler looked at her expectantly as she perused the menu. Let him wait. This guy was going to get beat at his own game. She smiled and ordered the veal scaloppini with truffles and a saffron cream sauce, the tomato-basil crostini, and the antipasto platter. And a side of gelato, for good measure.
As the waiter walked away, Chandler watched her with a studied expression. A tiny smile curled up the corners of his mouth.
“That’s a lot of food. Are you sure you can manage?”
“Oh, I’ll only eat about half of it.” She rested her chin on her hands and looked at him with her most innocent smile. “You don’t mind, do you?”
His eyes didn’t leave hers, but he didn’t say anything.
“I mean, you can afford it, right? You own most of China, don’t you? Or weren’t you going to bring that up again?”
He frowned, looking confused.
“I mean, I thought I had heard everything, but that one was new.”
“I don’t remember saying that.”
“Hmm. Must have been the liquor.”
“Or the concussion.”
Good point. She paused, fearing that this was the moment he would pull out the lawyer.
But he gave her a strange smile and said, “I wasn’t myself that night.”
There was a long silence while Chandler looked awkward and Ella watched him, waiting to see if the game was still on. He didn’t say anything for a long time, so she decided it was. She was still mad at this guy for practically blackmailing her into a date. She smiled derisively.
“So you were saying, then? Something about… I don’t know, traveling the world and being generally self-important?”
She sat back and crossed her legs, keeping the smile in place. He paused and started playing with his napkin. He looked nervous.
“Well…” he paused and seemed to be thinking of something to say. “Haven’t you traveled much?”
She laughed. “Sure. Disneyland, Yellowstone, you know. DC a couple times.”
He instantly looked excited. “What was that like?”
“DC? What, you haven’t had an audience with the president yet?”
She paused. “Okay, Mr. Wang, this is getting a little”—
“I’m serious. I’ve heard Old Faithful goes off nearly every hour. And that moose just walk around like wild dogs.”
She had to laugh. “And that’s amazing to you?”
“Yes,” he said, and there was no hint of pretension in him. He was suddenly so earnest, she felt a little sorry that she’d ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. She shook her head.
“What are you doing?”
He furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“I’m just…” she paused. She’d been on plenty of dates like this—at least she’d thought so. Plenty of arrogant morons had tried to impress her with made up stories and gaudy restaurants. But to drop the act like this… well, it was a first. “I don’t know how to react to you.”
“Be yourself,” he offered. So simple.
“Like you’re doing, you mean?”
He lowered his head and looked sheepish. “All right. I’ll make a confession.”
“My roommate’s fiancé thought I would scare you off. So she might have… coached me a little bit. Things are just different here, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. So I toned it down a lot. Nixed the entourage and decided on a more… modest restaurant.”
She threw her napkin on the table. “You’re a ridiculous person,” she said, anger rising. “What are you even getting out of this? I don’t get you.”
He raised his eyebrows, frowning. “I get the pleasure of your company.”
“Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”
She couldn’t take this guy anymore. She got up and grabbed her purse, murmuring an excuse about needing to use the bathroom, and made a quick exit.
Outside, she leaned against one of the big, fake granite pillars, cursing it in her mind. She played back through the last week, trying to figure out how she ended up here at this campy, fake-fancy restaurant with a guy who dressed like a millionaire and acted like an alien visiting planet earth for the first time. Or like someone who had learned his social skills from watching after-school specials.
She gasped. It suddenly occurred to her that maybe he had. He’d already told her how much he’d wanted to learn about America—that was why he came to UCLA in the first place. Maybe he thought this was what she wanted. Maybe he just plain didn’t know any better.
She sighed, hesitated, and finally decided that she might as well give him a chance. Just one.
Back at the table, Chandler was still playing with his napkin, an untouched plate in front of him. She almost laughed when she saw her own plate. It was huge—and the ice cream didn’t help.
“You really want the pleasure of my company?” she said.
He looked up and smiled. “More than anything.”
“Then pay and let’s get out of here.”
He didn’t even pause, but snapped for a waiter—like someone out of a movie—and paid the check with hardly a glance. He told the driver they’d be back later with the car, and he let her take the wheel.
“That was the first point you’ve earned all night,” she said, adjusting the mirrors.
“I’ve never had a girl ask to drive before.”
She grinned. “Then get ready for all kinds of firsts tonight, Mr. Wang.”
“Well where are we going?”
“Do you like fish?”
“I love it.”
“Ever had it dunked in butter?”
Chandler wrinkled his nose and gave her an all-too-obviously fake smile. She rolled down the windows and breathed in the scent of the ocean as they got closer. They stopped for drive-thru fish and French fries and continued on until they pulled into a small parking lot. Chandler looked at her.
She nodded and grabbed the takeout bag.
“You wanted to get to know me, right? This is my very favorite place to go to relax.”
He looked around. “Where?”
She laughed. “We’re not there yet!”
She led him down the rugged trail, through the rocks and small, grassy cliffs, until the ocean rolled out before them like rippled glass. Chandler gasped audibly, and Ella had to grin. The beach was covered in rocks and coves, and it had some of the clearest water on the west coast. The sand backed up to scarred cliffs covered in lichen.
“I love it here,” she murmured.
The wind picked up and blew her voice away from him. She didn’t know whether he’d heard her until he answered softly.
“I can see why.”
She turned to see him bending down to touch the damp ground, his palm flat against the soft surface. He buried his fingers in the sand and sighed.
“This is America,” he said quietly.
She squinted at him. “What do you mean?”
“I came here for the… untouched.” He looked up at her and shook his head, shrugging. He looked suddenly self-conscious. “I mean, the nature. We have so many beliefs—superstitions, I guess—about the natural world and all the mysteries we still don’t understand. Especially water. There’s just something about it….”
He trailed off. She imagined he was thinking something far more poetic than he was saying aloud. Well, everyone was allowed a certain amount of privacy. For one, she wasn’t going to be telling him about the dreams he’d been featured in lately.
“You’re different,” she said. It was all she could think of to say.
“So are you,” he observed.
They smiled at each other for a moment. Then he stood up and grabbed the bag out of her hands.
“So what’s this? Fish and chips?”
He opened the bag and barked a loud laugh. “You forget, ma’am that I went to school in London. I know more about fried fish than you ever will.”
“I actually didn’t know that. Kind of thought you were faking the accent.”
She leaned toward him, raised an eyebrow, and turned and skipped toward the beach, feeling her hair blow back in the salty wind. He followed her.
“Four years of boarding school,” he called over the wind. “I am then, of course, splendidly prepared to lavish you with all the cultural fineries you could imagine.”
She turned to sneer at him and realized something that struck her like a bullet.
He was kidding.
She took off her strappy sandals and tucked her toes into the sand, making her way into the cold water until it covered her ankles. Chandler kicked off his shoes and followed, not even bothering to roll up the pants of his suit. She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said nonchalantly. “I’ve got at least a dozen more.”
“That’s starting to drive me crazy,” Ella said. “Can you just stop trying so hard?”
Chandler looked at her with wide eyes. “What?”
“You keep dropping these little hints, like you’re just begging me to ask you about your life back in China.” She crossed her arms. “Well, I’m not going to.”
He frowned. “Good,” he said. “I don’t want you to.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then… tell me about your life here. What are you studying?”
“That’s very boring.”
His looked sideways at her, that funny little smile turning up the corners of his mouth again. It was silent for a minute as they listened to the wind howling through the beach coves around them.
“You’re not very nice to me,” Chandler observed.
Ella laughed. “No, I guess I’m not, huh? I just… I’ve been through this whole thing before. I stopped trying to impress guys a long time ago. I’m pretty good at spotting the ones who just want to sleep with me, anyway.”
He turned suddenly to look at her, an appalled look on his face.
“I don’t just want to sleep with you.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said, smiling playfully and walking deeper into the water, relishing the feeling of the sandy water swirling around her calves.
“And I don’t mind it,” Chandler said.
“That you aren’t very nice to me. What I mean is… you don’t pretend that I’m funny or charming, or that you’re interested in what I say when what I say isn’t very interesting. Your laugh will sound that much sweeter when I know I’ve earned it. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
“Quoting Thomas Paine? That’s just obnoxious.”
“And you’re smart. I like that too.”
She looked at him for a moment. His eyes were dark and gleaming.
“I know,” she said solemnly. “Everybody tells me that.”
“You’re confident—though not modest.” He grinned. “Thin, though not athletic.” He tilted his head and looked at her thoughtfully. “Artistic, though not talented.”
She shot him a look. “You jerk.”
“Just returning the favor.”
She paused. “I’m a piano performance major. My first recital is at the end of this semester.” She sighed and hugged herself. “I’m scared out of my wits that I’m not good enough.” She looked at him pointedly. “Or talented enough.”
He looked taken aback. “I can’t imagine anything you might try and not succeed at. You’ve got the quality of someone who always gets what they want—and not just because it’s handed to you.”
She clicked her tongue. “How would you know?”
“Because you got me to drop the pretenses and just be myself, torpedoes be damned.”
“This is yourself?”
He grinned. “You have no idea.”
He thought for a moment. “I’m used to getting my way, too, Ella Page. But not because I’ve ever earned it, merely because it was always someone’s job to give it to me. They were too caught up in tradition, or maybe afraid of the consequences. So I grew up in a world where things magically went exactly the way I wanted them too, no matter how spoiled or undeserving I was. There was only one person in my life who would box my ears and sit me down and demand that I treat people with respect.”
Ella laughed. “No, really.”
He looked at her like her reaction surprised him. “His family has been with my family for generations. He’s like a father to me.”
“Like a father?”
“My parents have been gone for quite some time,” he said. He backed away when she tried to put her hand on his arm. “I don’t need any pity, miss. It has been a long time.”
“Again with the ‘miss,’” Ella said, the anger rising again. “Just call me Ella. And fine, I won’t feel bad for you if you don’t want me to.”
There was another silence, and she caught Chandler smiling at her again.
“I love when you do that,” he said.
She scowled at him. “What?”
“Put me in my place.”
She didn’t know what to think about this guy. He was serious. He was from another world, surely. She smiled a little; maybe they were reaching an understanding, the two of them. She looked out to the water and felt his arm brush hers.
“Well…. Get used to it.”