Authors: Helen Hoang
“It’s nice. Thank you, Anh Khải.” She’d never slept on anything as nice as a couch in her life. She’d never
a couch. But she didn’t mention any of that. She was sophisticated Esme in Accounting now. Esme in Accounting probably had a nice apartment with two or three couches and had never slept on a straw mat over a packed-dirt floor.
The lonely country girl inside of her looked at the big empty couch and felt homesick all over again. She wanted the straw mat, the dirt floor, the single-room house, and the sleeping bodies of her little girl, grandma, and mom. She was exhausted, but she didn’t know how she was going to sleep by herself.
“The phone on the desk is for you.” He pointed at the desk before turning to leave.
“Wait a little, for
?” She hurried to the desk and lowered a hand toward the shiny silver phone but curled her fingers into a fist before she made contact. It would be a shame to smudge the fancy phone with her fingertips.
“My mom said you needed a new SIM card, but a new phone is easier. If you don’t like it, I can probably exchange it for the larger model.”
But that would cost even more. “It’s
,” she said.
He stuffed a hand in his pocket. “Yeah.” He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Can you return it?”
He frowned as he tilted his head to the side. “I don’t think so. You really don’t like it?”
She wrung her hands together. “No, I
“Then it’s not a problem. Just use it.”
A wave of anxious heat washed over her face, but she made herself say, “I’ll pay you back as soon as I’m working.” She hoped she’d make enough to pay for it. Back home, she’d have to save for the better part of a year to pay for something this nice.
“You don’t have to.”
She lifted her chin. “I do.” It was important he knew she wasn’t marrying him for his money. This had never been about money to her. If anything, she liked that he
have as much money as his neighbors. They were a better match that way. She didn’t need a rich man. She just needed someone who was hers. And Jade’s.
He merely shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’m going to heat up dinner. Come out when you’re hungry.”
Her shoulders sagged. He didn’t understand she wanted to earn things herself. “I’m going to call home first, okay?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
As soon as he left the room, she carefully shut the door, unplugged the white charging cable from the phone, and sat on the couch, staring at her unbelievably fancy
phone. She hadn’t expected this at all. It was the best gift he could have gotten her, the absolute best. And he didn’t even like her.
He was strange and tactless and very possibly an assassin, but when she looked at his actions, all she saw was kindness. Cô Nga had been right. Khải
good stuff. Very, very good stuff.
She’d memorized how to dial internationally from the United States before she left and dialed her mom’s cell phone number. Her mom picked up on the first ring. “Hi, Má.”
“Already, already, tell me everything.”
“First, how is Ngọc Anh? Can I talk to her?”
“She’s fine, excited to have a dad soon. Talk to me a little. How are things? Do you like him?” her mom asked.
“Yes, I like him.”
sounded on the line. “That’s good. What about his house? Is it nice?”
“I like it,” Esme said. “The room I’m staying in has pretty paper on the wall. If Ngọc Anh saw it, she’d like it. There’s a couch for me.”
“You’re not sleeping with him?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, Má, I’m not sleeping with him. Do you remember? He doesn’t want a wife.”
“That doesn’t mean he wants to sleep alone.”
“I just got off the plane,” she reminded her mom. She needed time to work her seductive powers on him. If she even had such powers anymore. Working as much as she did, she didn’t have the time to date. Or the desire. Just the memory of her mom’s and grandma’s faces when they’d found out about her pregnancy was enough to make any man look uninteresting.
“Oh, that’s right, long flight,” her mom said. After a quiet moment, her mom continued. “Can you unscrew one of the legs off the couch and say it broke?”
“Why would I do that?”
“So you can sleep with him, daughter of mine.”
Esme pulled the phone away and stared at it. Who was this woman she was talking to? The voice sounded like her mom’s, but not the words. “I can’t do that. It’s
“Fine, forget I said it,” her mom grumbled. “Here, talk to your girl.”
The little voice made Esme’s heart melt even as it broke her. She should be there, not here on the other side of the world chasing a man.
“Hi, my girl. I miss you too much. What have you been doing since I’ve been gone?”
“I caught a big fish in the pond yesterday. Great-Grandma killed it by slamming it against a tree, and after that, we ate it for dinner. My fish was
Esme covered her eyes with a hand.
Killed it by slamming it against a tree ...
Esme in Accounting would be appalled by this conversation. Not only would she not have a five-year-old daughter out of wedlock, but her daughter wouldn’t be catching her own dinner. There certainly wouldn’t be any killing by slamming anything against a tree.
But at least her girl was happy. It was sinful to take a life, even a fish life, but Esme would gladly sacrifice an entire school of trout to distract Jade from missing her momma too much. She put her feet up and rested her heavy head against the couch’s armrest as Jade rambled on about fish, worms, and crickets. When her eyelids drifted shut, she could almost sense the Việt Nam sun on her skin, almost feel her baby in her arms. She fell asleep with a smile on her lips.
omething wet landed on Khai’s face. And again. Like raindrops. Except he was in bed. Was the ceiling leaking? Was his house going to cave in on him?
He opened his eyes and almost shouted.
Esme stood next to his bed, dripping wet in nothing but a towel.
“I think I broke your shower. Water is all over.” She bunched the towel closer to her chest.
He sat upright, rubbed a hand over his face, and prepared to get out of bed. “Lemme get it. It’s probably just the setting—
He yanked the covers back over his crotch. He was sporting some mega-monster morning wood. She didn’t need to see this. The way he was pitching a tent in his boxers was grotesque, and she’d probably mistake it as a reaction to
. When it wasn’t.
Most days, he woke up like this, and it wasn’t like he was nursing an out-of-control porn addiction or something. It was just a natural biological response to morning levels of testosterone. One that he could’ve done without. His mornings would be so much more efficient if he didn’t have to jack off in the shower every day.
When he caught her looking at his naked chest and abs, however, he stopped thinking about efficiency and inconvenient hormone levels. She bit her bottom lip, and he swore he felt her teeth on his own lip. His stomach muscles tightened, and his senses sharpened. She was pretty even without makeup, wholesome, more
. The water drops on her smooth skin stood out in perfect clarity, calling to him. Something told him they would taste better than regular water. He hadn’t thought it was possible, but he hardened even further.
Doing his best to shield his boner from hell, he got up from bed and limp-scuffled into the bathroom— the only renovated room in his house. Then he stood in front of the shower and watched in awe as the lights flashed rainbow colors and water spurted from the nozzles concealed in the ceiling and along the sides. How had she done that? He hadn’t known there was a car-wash mode.
“Is the shower broken? I’ll pay to fix it,” Esme said.
“No, I think you just hit the wrong buttons.” A lot of them. Maybe all of them at once. Or perhaps it was like in a video game where you had to hit the buttons in a certain order. She’d accidentally found the secret combination they didn’t disclose in the manual.
There was nothing else for it. He had to go in.
He took a breath and marched in there in his boxers. Warm water soaked him from all directions, drenching his hair and massaging his muscles. It would have been nice if it weren’t for the flashing lights, his now-wet underwear, and his audience. When he reached the control panel, he hit the power button. The lights stopped cycling color, and the deluge cut off. Residual water trickled from the nozzles and hit the floor with intimate drips.
He slicked his hair back and said, “Come here, and I’ll show you how to turn it on.”
Ducking her head and hugging her towel to her chest, she came to stand next to him.
“You hit the power button first, here. This turns it off, too. And I usually use rain mode, which is here. Just two buttons. Like this, see?” He pressed the buttons, and water washed down on them in a gentle downpour. “Got it?”
She nodded. “You fixed it?”
“It wasn’t broken.”
Her shoulders sagged as she released a relieved breath and smiled at him. When the water ran into her eyes, she swiped a hand over her face, but it was no use. They were standing in the shower with the water on. Each second, her towel got more soaked. She should remove it.
But then she’d be naked. With him. Surrounded by water and steam and misted stone walls.
That odd state of heightened awareness returned, stronger this time. The roar of the pouring water grew louder, and he felt each water drop dissolving against his skin like a tiny kiss. Images of him peeling the wet towel off her flashed in his mind, but her body remained fuzzy from her chest down to her thighs. He didn’t know how to envision her there. But he wanted to. No, he didn’t. Yes, he did. No, he really didn’t. He didn’t need that imagery rambling around his perverted head.
“We’re smart, huh?” she said with a grin. “We’re cleaning clothes, towels, and bodies at the same time. It saves water.”
“I’m not sure we’re getting any cleaner.”
She ducked her head and wiped the water from her eyes. “I’m just joking around.”
“Are you ever serious?” he asked.
She lifted an elegant shoulder and aimed a helpless sort of smile at him. “I only want you to be yourself with me.”
“I am.” Wasn’t he? He certainly wasn’t pretending to be someone else, but if he looked at things objectively, that was what the people around him usually wanted— for him to act differently, more appropriate, more intuitive, more considerate, less eccentric, less ... himself. Did she really not mind him as he was?
Her smile widened, and all he could do was stare. Strange, incomprehensible, beautiful woman. She said the funniest things and smiled
all the time
. His fingers itched to touch that smile, and he stepped away out of self-preservation.
“I’ll leave you to shower. Feel free to use the other towel over there.”
He fled. The next thing he knew, he stood in his closet, dripping water onto the carpet as he stared blankly at the black clothes hanging on the racks. His heart crashed like he’d had five cans of Red Bull, and his cock did obscene things to the front of his wet boxers.
It took conscious effort to recall what day it was and the corresponding schedule, but then frustration pumped through his body. She’d thrown everything off with her shower fiasco. He couldn’t even brush his teeth with her in there. Not without getting an eyeful, which, honestly speaking, he’d probably enjoy far too— He banged his forehead against the wall in his closet. Damn it all, he had to stop this.
Determined to get the rest of the day right, he pulled on his workout clothes, tied the laces of his indoor cross-training shoes, grabbed a spare toothbrush and toothpaste from the linen closet, and went to the kitchen to brush his teeth over the sink, inhale a protein bar, and drink a cup of water. It was Sunday morning, and that meant upper-body-workout time. If he strayed from his exercise routine, he started to lose weight really fast, and he disliked that. It reminded him too much of when he was younger and clumsy and extremely awkward. He might still be awkward on occasion, but not clumsy. He’d trained it out of his muscles with hours upon hours of practice.
Like always, he padded into his living room and took his spot at the proper machine. As he did overhead presses at 125 pounds, he was aware of Esme walking into the kitchen, helping herself to the fruit smorgasbord his mom had provided, and getting herself a glass of water, which she forgot on the counter, but he stayed focused and efficiently worked through five sets of five repetitions.
By the time he finished with his bicep curls, he’d lost track of Esme’s whereabouts, but that was fine. She was an adult. She didn’t need to be supervised. He started his pull-up repetitions, always five sets of ten.
One, two, three ...
He used to hate pull-ups, but now that he’d gotten good at them, he liked them. He had the timing of his breathing and the pulling of his arms perfectly synchronized.