Authors: Helen Hoang
He sat upright and swiped the hair from his face. “Are you okay? What—”
She crawled across the bed and straight onto his lap. Her arms wrapped around his neck, and she trembled as she held on to him tightly. Breaths quick and ragged, she pressed her wet face to his neck.
He held himself as stiff as a mannequin. What the hell did he do? He had a crying woman latched on to him like an octopus. He couldn’t help recalling that the blue-ringed octopus was one of the most venomous animals in existence.
Don’t upset the octopus.
After clearing his throat, he asked, “What’s wrong? What happened?”
She hugged him harder, like she was trying to crawl straight inside of him. He was so used to keeping people away he hardly knew what to do with someone so close. Fortunately, this kind of firm touch was acceptable— he liked proprioception and deep pressure. But hot moisture drenched his bare skin, disturbing him. Tears, not deadly neurotoxin, he reminded himself.
“They took her from me,” she said against his chest. He didn’t know why he assumed it was a
. Pronouns weren’t gendered in Vietnamese, so she could very well be talking about a
. There wasn’t a good reason why he should dislike Esme crying about a man. Her trembling worsened as a sob tore from her throat.
“Who took who?”
“Her father and his wife.”
Okay, that didn’t make any sense. He was ninety-nine point nine percent positive she’d had a bad dream. It had been a long time since he’d had any nightmares— while inconvenient, sexual fantasies didn’t qualify as nightmares— but back then, only one thing had made him feel better. He closed his arms around her and hugged her.
An uneven sigh warmed his chest, and she sagged against him with a murmur. Almost instantly, her trembling faded. An unusual kind of satisfaction spread through him, better than perfect increments of time or whole dollar amounts at the gas station.
He’d taken her sadness away. He usually did the exact opposite to people.
For long minutes, he continued hugging her, reasoning she needed time for the calm to stick. But maybe he liked holding her, too. There, in the near darkness of his room, it was okay to admit to himself she felt good and smelled good, like his soap but feminine, soft, no fish sauce. He enjoyed the weight of her body on his. She was better than three heavy blankets. He might have rested his cheek against her forehead.
Her breathing evened out, and her sniffles grew further and further apart until they stopped altogether. She shifted on his lap slightly, and he realized he was aroused, wildly and embarrassingly aroused. Shit. If she wiggled any more, she’d notice for sure.
“Are you done?” he asked.
She pulled away and scooted off his lap, thankfully missing his raging erection, and he rubbed his chest where her tears had dried.
A long silence followed. She started to talk several times but held back. Finally, she whispered, “Can I sleep here tonight? At home, I sleep with Má and Ngoại and ... I won’t touch you, I promise. Unless you want ...” Her eyes glittered mysteriously as she gazed at him.
Unless he wanted what? Wait, did she mean
? No, he didn’t want sex. Actually, he did. His body was enthusiastic about the idea. But mind over penis and all that. Sex was tangled with romantic relationships in his mind, and because he wasn’t suited for relationships, it only made sense to avoid the sex. Besides, touching was complicated for him. Hugs were mostly okay, but anything else was likely to be a problem. It was bad enough he had to give his haircutter instructions for how to manage. He didn’t want to do that with a woman before the act.
He looked at the empty half of his large bed. The blankets were completely undisturbed, pristine. And he liked them that way. He always felt a certain accomplishment when he woke up in the morning and didn’t have to make the other side of the bed.
Rubbing at her elbow, she edged away from him. In a small voice, she said, “Sorry, I’ll go—”
He pulled the blankets down. “You can sleep here, I guess.”
Dammit, what was he doing? He didn’t want her sharing his bed. But she looked like she was going to start crying again. She wasn’t supposed to be sad. Esme was always happy, always smiling.
She covered her mouth. “Really?”
He swiped the hair away from his forehead. This was a horrible idea. He could already tell. “I might snore.”
“My grandma snores like a motorcycle. It doesn’t bother me,” she said with a big grin.
There it was. Her smile. It was important somehow. Muscles relaxed that he hadn’t been aware of tensing.
She crawled under the covers and plopped her head down on the pillow, lying on her side so she faced him. He stretched out on his back and stared up at the ceiling. They were a good arm’s length apart, but his heart threatened to go into cardiac arrest anyway.
This was weird. He’d done sleepovers with girl cousins. This was nothing like that. He wasn’t attracted to his girl cousins. His girl cousins didn’t cut down trees with meat cleavers, wear his boxers, or want to marry him. His girl cousins didn’t run to him when they had nightmares.
“Thank you, Anh Khải,” she said.
He pulled the blankets up to his neck. “You’re welcome. Try to get some sleep. My cousin Sara’s wedding is tomorrow.” His brow creased when he realized he’d never mentioned it to her. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, but I do.
you want to?”
“Your mom told me about it. I want to go.” Her voice vibrated with excitement, and he almost sighed. At least one of them was going to have a good time.
“Okay, then. Good night, Esme.”
“Sleep well, Anh Khải.”
For several moments, he was aware of her watching him. He could almost feel the happiness rays beaming off her and bouncing against the side of his face, but it wasn’t long before she fell asleep. She didn’t snore, and she didn’t take up much space. But her mere presence sent him into a state of alarm.
There was a woman in his bed, his life was completely out of order, and there was a wedding tomorrow.
That night, he didn’t sleep at all.
he following evening, as Esme and Khải waited for the ceremony to start in the hotel’s gold-encrusted ballroom, the last thing she expected him to say was, “This wedding is missing something.”
She took in the tall floral arrangements, crystal chandeliers, and French palace ambience and shook her head. “Missing what?”
“I thought you’d know.”
“I can’t figure it out.” He cleared his throat and pulled at his collar like his tie was too tight.
She scanned their surroundings again, but nothing obvious stuck out. Of course, she had no idea what to expect at an American wedding. She barely knew Vietnamese weddings, since she’d personally skipped that part of the baby-making process. It said a lot about them that he could think this wedding was missing something when it was as close to perfect as she could imagine.
A flutist started playing, and a little flower girl with pigtails tossed rose petals as she walked down the aisle between row after row of men in suits and women in
and cocktail dresses. The bride wore a filmy gown that looked like it was made of clouds. She took her father’s arm and walked to the wedding altar, where the groom waited, watching her like she was everything.
Esme’s throat knotted, and though she tried to ignore it, her wanting grew so big her chest ached. She didn’t need live music or a place this nice or a gown this beautiful, but the rest ...
As the ceremony went on, she found herself watching Khải more often than the bride and groom. He concentrated on the couple’s vows with his usual intensity, and she wanted to reach up and trace the strong lines of his profile, anything to feel closer to him. They were side by side, but they felt so far apart.
Was he going to be hers someday? He’d held her last night, and she’d enjoyed her first good night of sleep since she’d come here. No nightmares about her baby’s playboy daddy and heiress wife taking Jade or the accompanying guilt that she’d been selfish in keeping her child. She told herself repeatedly that she hadn’t done it just for herself. She’d mostly done it for Jade. Because her love for her child was strong enough to make a difference. That love had brought her here, hadn’t it?
Maybe another kind of love could grow between her and Khải. If he opened up to her. She felt like she was on the verge of reaching him, so very close. Maybe it would happen tonight. Maybe when they danced.
The couple kissed, and the crowd broke into applause. Everyone stood up as Sara and her new husband strode past, huge grins on their faces. Cameras flashed, phone screens glowed, and bubbles floated in the air. An announcer said it was time to move to the banquet room for the reception, and Esme gathered her courage and hooked her hand around Khải’s arm. His body tensed as he looked down at her fingers on his coat sleeve. She held her breath, horribly conscious of how unpretty her hand looked on him. Those short nails and inelegant fingers. Her mom had nice hands and often lamented that Esme hadn’t inherited them. She said Esme had truck-driver hands.
Silly comments flitted through her mind, things she could say to possibly make him crack a smile, but she didn’t say them. She was too anxious to be funny. In the end, he didn’t relax, but he didn’t brush her off, either. That was good. Right?
“Well, isn’t this cute?” asked a feminine voice in a dry tone.
A pretty woman with straight bangs, natural-toned lipstick, and a severe black cocktail dress approached them, and Khải broke away to hug her.
“Hi, baby brother.”
The woman brushed away invisible lint from the shoulders of his suit and inspected him like a momma cat did her kittens. “You need a haircut.”
“It’s fine.” But Khải swiped the hair away from his face anyway.
It was on the tip of Esme’s tongue to offer to cut his hair, but she swallowed her words. These weren’t the kind of people who cut their own hair. Judging by this place and their designer clothes, they probably went to fancy salons where they gave you tea and a neck massage.
Vy’s lips thinned. “It’s getting messy. Unless you’re growing it out. That could work for you.”
“I’ll take care of it,” he said.
She fingered the lapel of his suit coat. “Is this the one I picked out for you?”
“That’s probably why I like it so much.” Appeased, the woman finally looked away from Khải and focused on Esme. “So here she is.”
Esme smiled tentatively, unsure of what to expect. “Hi, Chị Vy.”
Vy shook her hand and returned her smile just as tentatively. “You’re Mỹ.” Her eyes swept over Esme’s tiny green dress and mostly naked limbs, and her expression went carefully blank.
Esme tried to pull on the hem of her skirt without people noticing. She should have worn something else, something Grandma-approved that didn’t have cheap sequins and glitter, but she hadn’t known it wasn’t acceptable until she’d seen all the conservative dresses here. “I changed it to Esme when I came here.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Vy said in slow, awkward Vietnamese, which suggested she didn’t speak it often but had switched over for Esme’s sake.
“It’s from my dau—
favorite Disney movie,” she said quickly, and then she bit her lip. Now that she’d explained that out loud, it didn’t sound like a very classy way to pick a name. She needed to be classy, like Vy, like Khải, like all these people. “I am an accountant. Back in Việt Nam.”
A genuine smile stretched over Vy’s mouth as she looked at her brother. “I didn’t know that. How perfect.” She squeezed Khải’s arm like he’d run into great luck.
Esme’s lying heart twisted and beat faster. The heavens needed to strike her down right now because she was a horrible person. At least she had a rough idea of what accounting was now. She’d been sneak reading his textbooks since she was supposed to be an expert, but more often than not, she ended up lost inside dictionaries instead.
“Here, here, here, here. Precious Girl is here,” a familiar voice said.
As Cô Nga wrapped her in a tight hug, Esme’s stomach tied itself in a big knot. Had Khải’s mom heard Esme lying? Was the woman ashamed of her now? Sky, earth, demons, and gods, why was she such a big liar? She wasn’t this person.
, Cô Nga,” Esme said.
Cô Nga took in Esme’s green dress and smiled in approval, not caring that it was prostitutey. “You’re too beautiful. Did you like the ceremony? Are you having fun, Precious Girl?”
“Yes, it was beautiful as a dream, and—”
“You’re calling her that now?” Vy interrupted. “You know you have a daughter, right?”
Cô Nga pulled away from Esme and rubbed Vy’s arm. She meant it to be comforting, but that was also how she shredded carrots at the restaurant. “You’re my precious girl, too.”
A tight grimace of a smile stretched over Vy’s mouth.
“Eh? What’s this?” Cô Nga waved both hands at the space in between Esme and Khải. “Why are you two so far apart? This doesn’t look like an engaged couple.”
Khải rolled his eyes and took a step toward Esme. “Better?”