I wish to start at the beginning. I was, quite simply, not meant to exist.
I was the product of what some may call love, others lust. I believe both were certainly to blame.
My mother was given the honor, or the curse, of living on the compound of a great and powerful family, of sharing a bed with the master when occasion permitted.
I was his first born son.
Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
The sign was huge, with the same thing inscribed in several different languages. Ella, Landon, and Maya followed Chandler like kindergartners anxious to keep up with their teacher. He grinned. To them, it must be suffocating to be pushed along toward immigration, not an inch of personal space around them. He took both of Ella’s hands and pulled her close to him. She gave him a grateful smile.
To him, this was home. He looked around and took in the smells, the feeling in the air. Summer in Shanghai was humid and hot, and the air seemed to hang thickly on his skin.
Well, it had been home. Home to what felt like a different person now. He had the strange feeling of being split into two people suddenly, and he didn’t know anymore which one he was. He embraced Ella, not wanting to lose the feeling of freedom he had kept with him the last four years in America.
“Welcome to Shanghai,” he said, kissing her.
She grinned, but her smile quickly left as she looked around. People were stepping away from them, looking embarrassed.
“Chandler, I don’t think people like what we’re doing,” she said.
He sighed, not willing to let American Chandler slip away. “They’re not used to seeing a beautiful blonde being kissed by a Chinese man in public.”
She shrugged, smiling awkwardly. Chandler realized the immigration officer was waving at him to come forward. He held fast to her hand and stepped toward the plastic window that separated them from the world on the other side.
“Mr. Wang, this line is for citizens of China,” the officer said in Chinese. His eyes shone with curiosity and he nodded toward Ella.
“Officer, she is my fiancé. We’re home to have our wedding. She will be a citizen of China soon.”
The officer took another look at Ella but this time with a smile and a nod.
“What was that all about? What did he say?” Ella asked as they stepped through.
“Just… welcoming us to China.”
Chandler and Ella held hands and waited for Maya and Landon to make it through customs. He smiled sideways at her. Some things could wait.
“Mr. Chandler, welcome home.”
Mr. Butler took their luggage and led the four of them out to the car.
“A limo? A little ostentatious, don’t you think?” Landon punched Chandler on the arm and climbed in. The first thing he did, of course, was pull out the champagne.
“The sky looks the same here,” Maya said, gazing out of the sunroof. She had been quiet since they walked off the plane. “But… the smell in the air is weird.”
Chandler grinned. “That’s adventure, Maya. It’s on the horizon and waiting.”
Landon looked as excited as Maya did nervous. He wrapped an arm heavily around Maya’s shoulders and handed her a glass of champagne.
“To the future!” he held out a glass.
Chandler poured himself a glass. Ella quietly took a bottle of water, looking around.
“To the best of times!” Chandler added.
Maya shrugged and allowed herself a smile. “To not getting diphtheria?”
“Remind me to never travel with you again, ever,” Landon said, winking at her.
“To life!” Chandler was feeling drunk already, intoxicated by the bizarre feeling of dreaming while awake, of being a new self in an old world. He didn’t know what to expect here, but he grasped Ella’s hand tightly and decided he didn’t care.
“To us,” Ella said softly, looking up at him.
“To us!” they all repeated and downed their champagne.
Chandler had offered Landon and Maya an adventure they couldn’t refuse. Landon was to be an intern at Wang Enterprises for a year with Maya teaching English at the international school. Maya loved the idea of being an expat in an unfamiliar place but with people she knew. Chandler loved the idea even more because the same familiarity he had come to love in America would still be with him and all around him, even in Shanghai. His life felt like a dream, one he could hold onto forever, it seemed.
Shanghai’s skyscrapers began to swallow them as the car took them away from the airport. The sky was only a small stream above them, floating between columns of buildings. Maya relaxed as the ride continued and started pointing out how incredible everything seemed to be. She nearly lost it when they passed the Ikea superstore.
But Ella…. No words. She had not said a word since their toast.
“Are you doing alright?” Chandler murmured under Landon and Maya’s excited talking.
She swallowed and gave him a heartfelt, reassuring smile. But still she didn’t say anything. Just crossed her arms over her stomach, leaned over a bit, and rested her head on his shoulder.
Of course. The flight had been thirteen-some hours long, and she was pregnant. Come to think of it, she looked more tired—and more sick—than he remembered seeing her. But no one knew—not even Landon and Maya.
“Get some rest, Ella,” he offered, scooting over so she could lie on his lap. “We’ve got over an hour before we get to the house.”
She leaned back, pulled her legs up, and quickly fell asleep.
The girl. This was the girl Mr. Chandler was so… taken with.
Mr. Butler sat upright in the front seat, raging with quiet alarm, his eyes fixed on Ella in the rear-view mirror. His insides boiled, but he dared not show his anger. He knew his place, he knew what not to do.
Apparently Chandler was not so sensitive to the expectations placed on him.
Mr. Butler had had a crystal clear picture of what would happen when Chandler returned from his dalliance with American coed life. He would take over the business, expand the empire, and marry a proper Chinese girl, an educated and stable-minded one that had been chosen for him years ago. What would Mr. Butler say to the Chengs? The two companies had already all-but merged. Grace Cheng had spent the last four years becoming a worldly, cultured, educated woman in Britain. She couldn’t know….
But no. The Cheng family would understand. Marriage, indeed, was not between two people but between two properly matched families. And this American girl could never take Grace’s place as Chandler’s wife. Ella would be a mistress, nothing more. The agreement between the Wangs and the Chengs would stand.
He would make sure of it.
The house that Chandler brought them to was grand. The entrance was outrageous. His father had begun the project of building the Wang family estate for his son, but he’d never been able to see his dream realized. Mr. Butler had finished it with Chandler’s father’s vision.
The estate was in Kunshan, an area filled with canals, lakes, gardens, and all kinds of art. It was beautiful. The compound was modeled after the famed Humble Administrator’s Garden—pathways led through canals of fresh water filled with Koi and topped with lilies, bridges were carved meticulously with dragons and phoenixes, and buildings were connected in an intricate maze of water and bridges. But Mr. Butler had managed to add in some British countryside sophistication to the estate as well. One small island housed a classical hedge maze, while others were dotted with the kinds of exact, sculpted bushes and trees that had to be trimmed almost daily. The compound was truly one of a kind.
Chandler had almost forgotten how incredible the place was. And he sheepishly admitted to himself that he had not prepared his friends for this.
He had, of course, given them some briefing on his family and the general knowledge that things might require some getting used to. The Wang family had a long history of serving key official positions, from city managers to members of the emperor’s cabinet. Chandler’s great grandfather had saved the family from the Communist Revolution at the end of the Chinese Civil War by fleeing to Hong Kong, which was where the family learned more about the British lifestyle and gained an appreciation for education that had followed them ever since. And so, while much of China had to rebuild itself from the dust after the Revolution, the Wangs reemerged more powerful, more wealthy, and more savvy than ever before.
Chandler preferred not to think about his family’s past too much. The weight of thousands of ancestors’ expectations, hopes, dreams, fears—it was more than he wanted to admit he carried.
Ella, Maya, and Landon stood gawking in the middle of the entrance. They blocked the walkway that led to the main house, seeming unable to digest the view of the garden alongside it. They stood in silence, mouths open, eyes shifting.
“You know, the garden will still be here tomorrow morning. Let’s get inside.” Chandler started to herd the group forward.
“Listen, Chandler,” Landon said, tearing his eyes away from the view. “I knew you came from old money and all that, but this is like… something from a movie. I didn’t know stuff like this even existed.”
Chandler chuckled. “Stay here too long and you’ll need therapy to forget about it.”
Landon and Maya laughed, but Ella looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Her face was stony and serious.
Mr. Butler was waiting inside the house, directing the help as they set up tea and finger sandwiches on a table near a sofa.
“Okay, this is awesome,” Maya said, going straight for the couch. “Chinese on the outside and American on the inside, yeah?”
Landon followed Maya’s lead and stretched out on the couch next to her, grabbing a sandwich. “I could get used to this,” he said. “Very cool.”
Chandler took Ella’s hands and gave her a small kiss on the cheek. “Welcome to my home, Ella.”
She sighed. “I’m really exhausted. And… sick. Do you think I could have some water and maybe some toast before I head to bed?”
He could actually hear her stomach gurgling. “Dry. Please.”
He grinned. “Toast is my specialty. Coming right up.”
Chandler disappeared into the kitchen—well, one of them. This one was set up to make smaller meals and do a bit of cooking, but it was more for entertaining than it was for serious meal preparation. He rummaged through the cupboards. The bread here in China was a little different–a lot less sweet–but he was sure she wouldn’t mind.
He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Mr. Butler standing tall in the doorway. He almost went to hug the older man, but remembered that here, that kind of behavior wasn’t considered “decorum.”
“Mr. Butler,” he said. He held out a hand.
Mr. Butler regarded it, and then bowed lightly. “Mr. Chandler, I am relieved to have you home.”
“Good to be here. Missed you, old coot.”
Mr. Butler took a step back, looking assaulted. Chandler frowned. It seemed he had forgotten a lot about the way things were done here.
“Mr. Butler,” he tried to recover from the misstep. “Are rooms ready for everyone?”
“Yes, one for Mr. Landon and Ms. Maya upstairs, one for Ms. Ella”—
Chandler stopped. “Ella stays with me. She doesn’t need a room.”
“Of course she does.”
“We’ve been sharing a bed for years, Mr. Butler.”
Mr. Butler loomed over him. “And I’d thank you not to go broadcasting that fact around Shanghai like a young”—
“I thought I made this all perfectly clear before we ever arrived.”
Mr. Butler’s face was turning red. He started talking with his hands and blinking rapidly. “Consider your background, Mr. Chandler. A prince, for instance, would at least maintain a pretense of appropriate and decent living, even if he did spend his time cavorting in the companionship of paupers.”
Mr. Butler spit the word “pauper” like it was an expletive. Chandler grimaced.
“Who is the pauper in this situation?”
“I think you made that perfectly clear before you ever arrived.”
“I want to call you so many names right now.”
“You will thank me someday for saving your reputation, Mr. Chandler. For protecting our alliance with the Chengs. Remember the Chengs, Mr. Chandler? Remember Grace?”
“I don’t even know her. Haven’t seen her since we were children.”
“Contracts are contracts”—
“Maybe for you. I don’t remember signing anything. I brought Ella here to be with her. With her!”
“Chandler, come to your senses. This doesn’t look good, it isn’t proper”—
“She’s my girlfriend, isn’t she?” Mr. Butler looked like he wanted to speak but Chandler didn’t give him time to break in. “This is my house, isn’t it? I don’t care what people think outside my walls.”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t you ever call me that!”
“Mr. Chandler, I must insist”—
“ELLA STAYS IN MY ROOM!”
Chandler stormed out of the room, seething, but not before throwing the toast on a plate and grabbing some water from the fridge.
He almost placed a very choice finger in the air as he walked out, but thought better of it. He had a feeling this conversation wasn’t over.