Authors: Helen Hoang
Cô Nga pressed her hands closer together, and he took another step. “
, put your arm around her.”
He released a harassed breath and wrapped an arm around Esme’s shoulders, pulling her close. Esme knew it was wrong— he’d been forced to do it— but she liked him holding her this way, here, among all these people. It made them look like a couple and helped her feel less like she was trespassing.
Someone in the middle of the room called for Cô Nga, and she patted Esme on the cheek. “You kids have fun tonight, ha? Let me know if you need anything.”
As soon as his mom left, Khải dropped his arm from Esme’s shoulders, and they followed the crowd to a second ballroom even more golden than the first. Huge bouquets with golden ornaments hovered over the tables on top of tall golden vases. Even the champagne glasses were rimmed with gold.
Esme, Khải, and his sister sat at a round table for ten next to several of his girl cousins. Introductions were made and hands shaken. Ang
. They complained that their brother, Michael, would be absent tonight because his fiancée didn’t like big parties, and he was “whipped.” At first glance, Esme recognized they were mixed just like she was— something about them resonated with her as familiar— but instead of feeling like she belonged, she felt even more out of place. They possessed an American polish Esme lacked. They also had pretty hands. Esme sat on her hands to hide them. Wouldn’t it be nice if Khải had ugly hands, too? If that was so, they were an ideal couple. When she snuck a peek at his hands, however, she found them wrapped around a book. He was reading. At a wedding.
And wearing black-rimmed reading glasses.
The glasses made him look smarter and more intense, absolutely irresistible. Had they been in his pocket? And where had that book come from? Was it about something sexy like accounting or math?
She angled her head to see the cover. She couldn’t make out the title, but she was pretty sure she saw a spaceship and a green-skinned creature with horns. There was no way that was work related. He was ignoring everyone, including her, at this expensive wedding. So he could read a novel about alien demon things.
Her confusion must have been written all over her face, because Khải’s sister sent Esme an apologetic glance.
“He always does something like this at weddings,” Vy said. “He hates them, but my mom makes him come. He’d prefer to go to a tax seminar.”
Like magic, he looked up from his book. “What about tax seminars?”
Vy laughed and rested her chin in her hands. “You two should talk about taxes. You’re both accountants, after all. It’s a match made in heaven.”
Esme manipulated her lips into a smile. “Tell me about your work.”
He shut his book with his finger inside to keep the page, looking breathtakingly smart-gorgeous with those glasses. “I’m still working on the transfer pricing project. Are you familiar with that kind of work?”
She nodded enthusiastically even though she had no idea what he was talking about. “Of course.” No doubt about it, she was going to be an outhouse catfish in her next life. She’d have to look up
“I’m having trouble automating the process for making sure transactions between subsidiaries are at arm’s length. It’s challenging because no two subsidiaries are the same. There are always individual factors to consider,” he said.
“The length of an arm? That’s a strange saying. And so lonely.”
she’d made him laugh
— and the sound was deep and rich and beautiful. She wanted to hear him laugh more. A lot more. “That’s funny. They’re companies, not people.”
“Companies have people.”
“Companies don’t have feelings.”
“If companies have people, and people have feelings, then companies have feelings.”
“Pretty sure transfer pricing has nothing to do with feelings,” Vy said as she sent her a skeptical look, and Esme’s face heated with embarrassment.
But Khải surprised her by saying, “I like your reasoning, though. I can’t argue with the transitive property.” Then he grinned, and she realized it was the first real smile she’d seen on him. The corners of his eyes wrinkled, and dimples formed on either side of his face. Too man-beautiful. His gaze was direct and went on far too long, but she didn’t mind. For this moment in time, he belonged to her. Well, he belonged to Esme in Accounting. Real Esme wasn’t smart.
“There is no tax deduction for bribery in Việt Nam,” she added, remembering he’d been interested in this their first day together. This was another thing she’d looked up, but once she’d understood, she’d gotten angry at the entire concept. “I hate bribery.”
He tilted his head to the side. “That’s surprising to me. In a lot of countries, that’s just a part of business.”
“And what about people who can’t pay bribes? No business for them.” That was how the rich stayed rich, and the poor stayed poor unless they cheated, stole, got amazingly lucky, or ... married.
“You’re right.” Khải looked at her in a new way then, and it made her warm all over. That was respect. For Esme in Accounting or the person beneath the lies?
She searched her mind for more things she might say to make him keep looking at her this way, but he worked at his collar again like it was choking him, took a gulp of ice water, and cleared his throat, distracted now. “There is something missing at this wedding.”
She pointed to the empty chair next to her. “This person is missing.”
“That’s Quan’s seat. He told me he can’t make it. That’s not it.” But he stared at the empty chair for a good minute, saying nothing. Something was wrong. She could tell by the way he repeatedly flipped through the pages of his book with his thumb on the corner.
Fliiip. Fliiip. Fliiip.
She’d never seen him fidget like this.
What could possibly be missing from this perfect wedding?
Waitstaff served salad followed by an entree consisting of a hunk of bloody meat and a lobster’s tail. Where was the delicious lobster head and all the chewy legs? She was stabbing the lobster meat with her fork and prying the shell off with her spoon— people acted like they’d die if they touched the food with their fingers— when the bride, groom, and entire wedding party approached their table. Everyone stood up to toast the new couple, and Khải pressed a champagne flute into her hands.
Vy and all the cousins held their glasses up. “Congratulations, Derrick and Sara.”
They drank champagne and
ed when the couple kissed. As the sweet bubbles fizzed on Esme’s tongue, she peered at Khải over the rim of her glass. He’d exchanged his champagne flute for his book and was flipping the pages again.
Fliiip. Fliiip. Fliiip.
Did he still think something was missing?
Sara, the bride, separated from her husband and approached Khải. She’d changed into a red wedding
with gold embroidered dragons and phoenixes, but Esme missed the white wedding gown with its billowing skirts. If she ever married, she’d wear her wedding gown the whole time, even for dancing. Forget tradition.
“Thanks for coming. I know you don’t like weddings,” Sara said.
Khải continued flipping the pages of his book. “No problem.”
Sara smiled wryly. “I remember how when we went to weddings when we were little, you and Andy used to hide in the bathroom during the dancing and play video games.”
His fingers froze on the book, and he went unnaturally still. “That’s what it is. It’s Andy.”
Sara drew in a quick breath. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been wondering all night what’s wrong with this wedding,” Khải said. “It’s Andy. He should be here.”
After a second of suspended belief, his cousin’s face collapsed, and fat teardrops tracked down her face, ruining her carefully applied makeup. “Why would you— What can I— How can I—”
She covered her mouth and fled the room. The groom looked at Khải for the longest moment like there were things he wanted to say, but in the end, he raced after his wife without a word. All the people from their table stared at each other, stunned speechless.
“Find me when you’re ready to leave.” Khải tapped his book against his thigh once and turned to leave.
Esme stepped toward him. “I’ll go with—”
“No, stay, dance, have fun. I’ll be out there.” He waved toward the exit, swiped the hair out of his eyes, and left.
Standing woodenly, she watched as he wove between the round tables and exited the ballroom. When the door swayed shut behind him, she sank into her seat, which was now between two empty chairs.
What had just happened? Why was he leaving? Who was Andy? Was he Sara’s ex-boyfriend, someone Khải preferred over the groom? She wanted to ask the others at the table, but they spoke among themselves in quiet tones, avoiding her questioning looks.
How did he expect her to enjoy the wedding alone? Was she supposed to dance with some random man? Maybe that middle-aged guy at the next table with three beers, a red leather jacket, and shoulder-length curls? She pressed a hand to her forehead. She didn’t want to dance with Asian Michael Jackson. She only wanted to dance with Khải.
She pushed away from the table. “I’m going to find him.”
Vy shook her head. “He might not want—”
Esme didn’t hear the rest of what his sister said. She rushed after Khải, but she searched and searched and couldn’t find him anywhere. He wasn’t in the hotel’s opulent lobby, the sitting rooms, or even the valet area out front. Was he reading in a bathroom somewhere while she was searching for him until her feet throbbed? She was about to knock on the men’s room door, but a sign on a nearby door caught her eye.
Kieu-Ly Changing Suite
. Maybe he was in there? When she found the door unlocked, she let herself in.
The space inside looked like a disaster zone, complete with flats of Coca-Cola, giant bags of chips, and shoes all over the floor. Piles of clothes took up all the sitting space on the small sofa. No Khải in sight.
She spied an open door on the far wall and picked her way through the wreckage to check what was on the other side.
And lost her breath.
The bride’s wedding gown hung from the curtain bar above a tall window. White gossamer fabric caught the soft light just right. Before Esme knew what she was doing, she was floating across the changing room and running her fingertips over the cool skirts. She doubted she would ever wear anything so nice, not even at her own wedding, if she ever got married. She’d heard people whispering that it was a Vera Wang gown and cost
ten thousand dollars
But as she stood in the empty room, it occurred to her maybe she
wear a dress like this. And she didn’t need to get married to do it. She could wear this dress. Right now. She could do it quickly, just so she knew what it was like, and then continue searching the hotel for Khải. No one had to know.
She unzipped her green dress and let it fall to her feet before she stepped out of her shoes, sighing when her sore feet flattened against the carpet. She hadn’t worn a bra under her dress, and goose bumps rippled over her naked breasts. Wearing nothing but panties, she reached for the dress’s hanger. She arched onto her tiptoes and reached as high as she could. High, higher, but her fingertips couldn’t quite grasp it.
Just as she was coiling up to make a jump for it, the door in the other room squeaked open.
Was it the bride? Was she going to change her dress
She stood still and held her breath. Measured footsteps padded around. Who was it?
There was the pop and hiss of a can of soda being opened, and the footsteps came closer.
No, no, no, no.
She couldn’t get caught in her underwear like this. Holding her arms to her breasts, she glanced about the room in a blind panic. No way out, only a closet. Without further thought, she sprinted into the closet and shut herself inside.
The door was the shuttered kind, and looking through the slats, she had a good view of the doorway.
Step, step, step, step.
The footsteps sounded heavy, male. Was it the groom? A hotel janitor? What was the most embarrassing thing that could happen? Knowing her stinky luck, she should expect that.
Khải strode into the room.
She pressed her forehead to the closet door in defeat. Of course it was him. He scanned the room and sat in an empty armchair across from the closet. After taking a sip of his Coca-Cola, he set it on the floor by his feet and continued reading the book with the spaceship and alien demon thing on the cover.
She almost groaned in frustration. She couldn’t continue hiding in the closet waiting for him to finish reading when he was reading waiting for her. She had to walk out and explain herself. How could she word things so he didn’t laugh as much?
He reached for his Coke can, but as he was lifting it to his mouth, his gaze caught on something. Following his line of sight, she saw her discarded dress and shoes. Did he recognize them?
Oh no, was he drawing certain conclusions?
There was nothing for it. She had to come out and explain herself. She pressed her palms to the closet door, preparing to push it open, but Khải jumped to his feet.
He angled his head to the side like he was listening to something.
That was when she heard it.
Stumbling footsteps in the adjoining room. They came closer. And closer. A loud thump sounded, like someone had slammed themselves against the wall. A moan.
Khải backed away from the door. He contemplated the window before his gaze locked on the closet.
Another thump on the wall. The footsteps grew louder. Another moan.
In three long strides, he crossed the room and yanked the closet door open. His jaw fell when he saw her, but there wasn’t time for surprise. He shut himself in the closet with her right as a couple stumbled through the door.