Authors: Helen Hoang
“You’ve gotten better quickly,” a familiar voice said in English.
Esme whipped around and saw Miss Q sitting at her regular table, absently munching on eggrolls wrapped in lettuce as she marked up more homework.
She almost responded in Vietnamese, but she didn’t. Esme wasn’t trying to marry Miss Q. She might as well practice on her.
“Thank you,” she said.
Without looking up from her papers, Miss Q said, “I thought I’d see you in my class last week.”
“I do not need class.” Some people had to make do without.
Miss Q shook her head and continued marking the paper, her red pen scribbling quickly. “You would do better with class.”
Esme bit her lip in frustration. She knew she’d do better with class. She loved school and loved teachers and loved to raise her hand all the time. School had always been something she excelled at. Until she’d quit early and disappointed everyone.
“I need to save money,” she said. “For family.”
Miss Q looked up, gave Esme an impatient look, and dug a flyer out of her bag. “It’s not expensive. Here, look.” As Esme pored over the prices, which
surprisingly affordable, Miss Q continued, “The difficult part for people is finding the time. Do you have the time?”
“No, I need . . .” Her voice dried up before she could say she needed to spend time with Khải. The truth was he didn’t
to spend time with her. He’d made that very clear.
A section of the flyer listed the classes offered at the school, and one of them stuck right out:
. A strange buzzing sensation spread through her veins. She tapped on the class listing. “Can I do this one?”
Miss Q put her red pen down and read the indicated words with a growing smile. “You want to be an accountant? I think you’d make a great accountant.”
Esme frowned at that, not believing it for a second. In fact, the suggestion made her almost
. Holding up the flyer, she asked, “I can keep this?”
“Sure, I brought it for you,” Miss Q said.
“Thank you.” Esme folded it neatly in half, tucked it into her apron’s pocket, and got back to work.
The small table shook as she wiped it down, and she had to ease off before all the condiments fell to the ground. Miss Q made it sound like Esme could actually be an accountant one day, when she knew there was no way. It wasn’t kind to put dreams like that in someone’s head.
The best Esme could hope for was “almost an accountant.” But luckily for her, that might be enough to win her Khải.
n the two weeks that followed, Esme put Khai’s house back to rights and began taking the bus home. He assumed she’d taken on the night shift at his mom’s. He should have been happy to have his evenings to himself again—his house didn’t smell of fish-sauce fumes from her cooking and food doctoring anymore— but dinner wasn’t the same without her odd chatter and cheeriness. If he was being honest, his evenings now sucked. The house felt empty, and even without her Viet pop blaring, he couldn’t focus on his work or the TV. He checked the time a lot as he waited for her to walk through the door.
She still shared a bed with him, but she kept her back to him and balanced on the very edge, as far away from him as possible. Sometimes, he worried she’d fall off. Other times, he
she’d fall off. So he’d have an excuse to tell her to come closer.
Tonight, it was nearly 10:30
., and she still hadn’t come home. She was usually back by this time, and his stomach churned. He considered calling or texting her, but those were cell phone functions he loathed.
Regardless, by the time 10:45
. rolled around, he couldn’t handle it anymore. He went into his contacts and scrolled down to the phone number for Esme T. His thumb was hovering over the call button when his phone vibrated with an incoming call.
From Esme T.
He accepted the call right away and brought the phone to his ear. “Hi.”
“Oh hi, it’s me. Esme. But you know that, ha? It says that on your phone,” she said with a laugh.
He shook his head. Why was she talking so fast? “Yes, I know it’s you.”
“Sorry if I woke you up. I’m not on a date.” She laughed and cleared her throat. “I just called to tell you I’ll be late. Okay, bye-bye.”
Then she hung up.
That was it? No explanation, no nothing? And why did she mention dating? He’d never imagined her with another man, but he sure as hell was now. The thought irritated the shit out of him.
Gritting his teeth, he called her back. The phone rang and rang and rang. Seriously? She’d just spoken to him. How come she’ d—
“Hello?” she said over the background noise. Lots of people spoke at the same time, and was that a baby crying?
“Where are you?”
“I’ll call you back. They just said my name.”
“The doctor. I’ll talk later. I have to—”
His chest squeezed tight, knocking the breath out of him. “Which doctor? Where? Why?”
“The clinic by the Asian grocery store, but I’m okay. I just hurt— I have to go. Bye.” For the second time that night, she hung up on him.
She’d hurt what? Herself? Someone else? He hurried out the door and jumped into his car.
sme hugged her arms tight to her chest as a woman made soothing sounds for her wailing baby girl and walked back and forth across the waiting room. The baby’s face was red and teary from several minutes of hard crying, and it made Esme’s arms ache to hold her own girl. Jade had never gotten so sick, thankfully, but Esme had. She remembered when the fever and pain had been at their worst, she’d told Jade to keep her distance so she didn’t get sick, too, and Jade had broken down into tears.
“Don’t cry,” Esme had said.
“I’m not crying because I’m scared I’ll get sick,” her girl had replied. “I’m crying because I love you.”
Esme’s longing for her girl grew unbearable, and she would have offered to bounce this stranger’s baby if her ankle weren’t swollen to two times its regular size and propped between a pillow and an ice pack.
When Khải marched through the waiting room door, her whole body went stiff. Seeing a ghost would have made more sense to her. What was he doing here? Why had he come? When he crossed the room and crouched in front of her, scowling at her ankle, she had no idea what to think. Was he going to yell at her?
“What happened?” he asked. “The doctor saw you already? What did they say?”
“I twisted it on the stairs. The doctor thinks it’s sprained. He’s waiting for the X-ray.”
He lifted the ice pack away from her swollen ankle, and his frown deepened. “Can you move your foot?” When she wiggled it, he said, “Up and down? Side to side?”
A door cracked open, and a nurse called out, “Esmeralda Tran.”
Esme stood and prepared to limp to the exam room just like she had earlier, but before her injured foot could touch the ground, the earth spun. She found herself cradled in Khải’s arms like a heroine in a movie, and her muscles tensed.
“You don’t need to carry me. I can walk. I’m heavy.”
He rolled his eyes and followed the nurse through the halls. “You’re not heavy. You’re a tiny human.”
“I’m not ‘tiny.’ ” But she couldn’t put much outrage into the words. His hold on her was secure, and he wasn’t breathing heavily. He made her feel safe. And small. She loved it. Back home, her mom and grandma always asked her to get things down from the top shelf or carry the heavy packages because she was so much bigger than they were.
Khải didn’t think she was too big.
“You can put her there.” The nurse indicated the paper-covered exam bed. On his way out of the room, the nurse said, “Great boyfriend you’ve got. The doctor will be in shortly.”
The nurse was gone before either of them could correct him, and once Khải set her down, she fixed her attention on the picture of bones and muscles on the wall. “Thank you for ...” She waved at her ankle, which he’d carefully positioned on the exam bed.
He shrugged and sat down in a chair against the wall. “You shouldn’t walk on it for a while.”
“It’s not bad.” Now. It had hurt something awful earlier, though. She’d thought it was broken, and she’d panicked. She’d clearly failed with Khải. If she couldn’t work, would Cô Nga send her back to Việt Nam early? She couldn’t go home yet. She still needed to look for her dad. Rubbing her arm uncomfortably, she asked, “Why did you come?”
He gave her a funny look. “You’re hurt.”
Things collapsed inside her heart, and she turned her face away from him and stared down at her hands in her lap. He’d come ... to be with her?
What a foreign concept.
Growing up, she’d been expected to take care of herself. Her mom and grandma were always busy working, and if she was hurt or sick, it was best to grit her teeth and deal with it on her own. That was even more the case now that she had Jade. When he fussed with the ice pack and repositioned it against her ankle, she felt more cared for than she ever had.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“I hope so.”
A knock sounded on the door, and the doctor strode in— the same one from before. He was extremely good-looking, with dark features, above-average height, and an Indian name she couldn’t pronounce. Navneet Something. He held a black X-ray film in his hands.
“Good news, Esmeralda. No fracture. If you keep it compressed, elevated, and iced, it should be better in a couple weeks.”
Esme’s body loosened with relief. “Great. Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” The doctor flashed a white-toothed grin at her as he took a business card from his pocket and handed it to her. “It’s not serious enough to need another checkup, but if you want to meet after hours sometime, I’d be happy to take another look.”
Esme accepted the business card and flipped it around to see another phone number scrawled across the back. When her gaze jumped back to his face, he winked at her.
Khải stood up then, and the doctor’s eyes widened as he took in Khải’s height, dark clothes, and that intense air that made her think of assassins and bodyguards.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t notice you here,” the doctor said.
“What do you mean by ‘after hours’?” Khải asked in his serious way.
The doctor swallowed. “It means ... whatever she wants it to mean.” He backed toward the door. “That’s it for this visit. I’ll send in the nurse to wrap the ankle.” With one last tight smile, he left.
Khải scowled at the door as it swung shut and picked up a roll of cloth the doctor had left behind. “I can do it. I know how.”
Then he shocked her by lifting her leg and winding the cloth around and around her ankle and the arch of her foot. His grip was firm, but he never hurt her. His warm fingers were gentle against the icy skin of her calf, her heel, and the ball of her foot, sending goose bumps up her leg.
When she caught her breath, he looked up at her. “Is it too tight?”
She was too distracted to speak. He was touching her ugly foot, and he wasn’t jerking away or wiping his palms on his pants. Instead, he held her like she was precious. It was a heady sensation having his beautiful mind focused entirely on her, even if it was only her ankle.
Belatedly, she answered, “No, not too tight.”
He returned his attention to her ankle, and the edges of the business card pressed into Esme’s skin as she tightened her fingers. She wanted to touch his face, the brooding lines of his profile, his forehead, his jaw, the sharp bridge of his nose, his oh-so-kissable lips ...
“That should do it,” he said, and when he pulled his hands away, she saw he’d wrapped her ankle neatly and secured the end with a metal clasp. “If you start to lose feeling in your toes, let me know, and I’ll loosen it.”
“Okay, thank you, Anh.”
“Ready to go?”
She nodded and dropped her legs over the edge of the bed, intending to stand, but again, he gathered her up in his arms and carried her out of the room.
“I can walk,” she whispered.
“It’s better if you don’t. I don’t mind carrying you.”
After that, she didn’t protest. She didn’t mind him carrying her, either. No one had held her like this since she was a child. As they traveled through the clinic, however, she fisted her hands and kept her arms tense. She couldn’t forget how he’d responded each time she’d touched him in the past. She didn’t want to ruin this. Or surprise him into dropping her.
After setting her down briefly at the front desk to pay for her visit— she didn’t know how much it cost because he handed his credit card to the receptionist before she could show Esme the bill— she was carried outside and buckled into his car. Sleepily, she watched the lights flicker by as he drove back to his house.
He broke the silence by asking, “What stairs were you on when you fell? There aren’t any by my mom’s restaurant.”
At his question, adrenaline spiked, and cold sweat misted her skin. “The stairs across the street.”
Please don’t ask more.
“The ones at the adult school?”
She tried to sink into her seat and traced her fingertips along the handrail on her door. “I like your car. What kind is it?”
“It’s a Porsche 911 Turbo S.”
“ Por-sha,” she repeated. “That’s a pretty-sounding name.”
He shrugged and said, “I guess so.”
Her muscles relaxed. She’d succeeded in distracting him.
But when he parked in front of his house, he didn’t get out of the car right away. “What were you doing at the adult school?”
She squirmed in her seat and shifted her legs. Her clothes grew damp under her arms, and her hair stuck to her neck. All of her efforts were for nothing if he found out about them.
Before he could complete the question, she opened the door and climbed out. She’d limped a quarter of the way up the driveway when the car beeped and he came up behind her.
“You really shouldn’t be walking on it yet,” he said. “Let me carry you in.”
She didn’t need it. Her ankle was already much better. But she nodded anyway.
He gave her his keys and picked her up like she was a “tiny human.” After she unlocked the front door for him, he carried her inside, and she reveled in his closeness. If she leaned forward a bit, she could kiss him. That would probably startle him, though.