Dr. Inari stood, straight and tall, and thoroughly disapproving. Like his son, he had handsome features—strong jaw and deep, dark eyes. His hair had aged streaks of silver glossing through it, a sign of years of ceaseless hard work and job stress.
All in all, he was a very intimidating man, especially since he was staring at me as if I were a street prostitute.
“You girl,” he barked at me. “How old are you?”
I’m sure if he had asked me that question in a pleasant manner, I would have politely answered. But it was just his attitude, his rude demeanor, that made me react the same way as the first time I had met his son.
I looked around the room, feigning curiosity. “Is there someone in the room named You Girl? I don’t see anyone. You must have the wrong room sir. My name is Caren.”
He blinked at me, as though in shock that anyone would ever dare talk back to him. When he spoke again, he still had that gruffness in his voice, but at least his words were a little more civil. “Caren then.”
He cringed. “So young. Do you realize that my son is almost seven years older than you? He’s already established and cannot have some young girl like you who does not even know what she wants in life yet, to leech off of his money.”
It might have been the way he presumed that I was after Khit’s money. Or it might have been the fact that although he didn’t know me, he had already judged my character. But it was probably a mixture of both reasons that caused all the strings of politeness and reason in me to snap.
Before I could help myself, I started telling the man off, in the most piercing shrill I had ever managed in my life.
“For your information, Dr. Inari, I may not know exactly what I want in life at the moment, but I do know that I am not the kind of girl who would marry for money. And I want you to stop looking at me as if I were a slut because I’m not! I’ve never even had a boyfriend for the 21 years I’ve lived on Earth. Just because you’re a world-renowned surgeon does not give you the right to be condescending when you don’t even know me, you misogynistic, arrogant, chauvinistic pig!”
As soon as I had stopped my rampage, I realized in horror, that I had just called Khit’s father a chauvinistic pig. That definitely would not win me any honors.
I risked a glance at Dr. Inari to see his reaction. To my surprise, he didn’t look furious at all. In fact, I could only interpret his expression as extreme sadness. His eyes had sagged a bit, showing exhaustion. They were dark and cloudy, as if he were thinking of some unpleasant memories. And his age lines wrinkled his face, hinting at the many past years that he had poured his hurt, beaten soul into his work to forget his pain.
Now I saw him for who he truly was, not a famous doctor, nor a daunting, rude man bathed in arrogance. But a defeated man, who to this day did not know the reason why his wife had left him, did not know what he had done wrong to destroy his marriage. And even now, he still could not find a trace of where his wife might be, what she was doing, had no way of tying loose ends together to feel some sort of closure.
Immediately, I regretted my temper.
“I-I’m sorry,” I faltered. “I overdid it. I shouldn’t have called you—”
“No, you’re right,” he shocked me by saying. “I tend to be suspicious of women be-because—” He swallowed and left that sentence unfinished. Then he started again. “I did judge your character without getting to know you first. I’m sorry for doing so. It’s just that when my son is involved, I—”
Again, he couldn’t finish the sentence, but I understood.
Khit had always told me that his father had been harsh, cold, and demanding to the point of being a bit abusive. But I saw now that Dr. Inari cared more for his son than Khit realized. He had just not been able to express his love very well, and the hurt he felt by his wife’s desertion had interfered with his love, making him afraid to have an intimate relationship with anyone again.
But that did not change the fact that he loved his son and was only looking out for Khit. I could no longer blame him for being suspicious of me. He didn’t want his son to marry a girl who would end up breaking his heart, didn’t want Khit to become like himself one day.
“I promise you sir, that I don’t have any bad intentions towards Khit,” I said.
I also promise you that by this time next year, you and your wife will finally have your happily ever after ending, I vowed silently.
He returned to his normal, haughty self. “Just know that I’m watching you. If you ever break his heart, you can be sure that I’ll make you regret it.”
Then he made a move to turn around and head outside, just as Khit was opening the door.
“I brought coff—”
Khit stared at his father, and instantly, his eyes turned dark. “What are you doing in here?”
Dr. Inari, caught off guard, said nothing.
So of course, Khit assumed the worst. “What did you say to Caren?” he growled. “If you think you can just come in here and say rude things to her—”
“Stop it Khit,” I said, cutting him off. “Don’t speak that way to your father. He didn’t say anything mean to me. He just asked if my ankle was feeling better and told me ways to make myself more comfortable.”
I could tell that I’d shocked Dr. Inari, who probably had expected me to rat him out at once, but he recovered quickly. “Yes, that’s exactly what we were talking about. I told her to make sure she elevates her foot so that it will heal faster.”
“Oh,” Khit simply said, bewilderment flashing across his face. “In that case, I’m sorry for accusing you, Dad.”
“Hmmph. The next time you talk to me so disrespectfully, don’t be surprised if I whack you across your face.”
And Dr. Inari stormed out.
“And that pleasant fellow is my father,” Khit sighed. Then he looked up at me suspiciously. “Are you sure that’s all he said to you?”
“Positive. Now give me my coffee.”
He handed me the cup, then reached into his pocket. “I got a couple of energy bars too, since it’s nearing 9:00, and neither one of us has had dinner yet. Once the doctor lets you go, we’ll get something good to eat, your choice.”
I nodded and took a big bite out of the energy bar. Now that I thought about it, I was very hungry. I guessed it was because my adrenaline rush was over, and my body was back to its usual behavior of craving food.
“Do you think your dad would like to join us?” I asked.
Khit gaped at me for two full seconds before bursting out in laughter. “Nice one.”
“I’m serious.” I kind of felt sorry for Dr. Inari, and he had looked so lonely walking out by himself.
“First of all, my father’s probably already long gone. Now that there’s no way he’s getting any information about my mother, there isn’t any point for him to stay in San Diego. And second, if he went to dinner with us, we’d be shouting at each other the whole time.”
For awhile, we were silent, simply sipping our coffee. Khit pensively stared at the wall behind me, only half existing in the real world. His brow was furled, his mouth drawn in a tight, unsmiling line. He was probably thinking about his father.
I wished there was some way to mend the father-son relationship. They both just didn’t understand each other, and the source of that problem lay with Julia and the yaojing. Hopefully, once everything was resolved and Julia could return home, she would be able to build their family up again.
Maybe I should say something to Khit. I knew he was hurt by the way his father had always treated him, and he was really just seeking love and approval from his father. Maybe if I told him that his father did love him, he would believe me.
As Khit tossed his empty coffee cup into the waste bin, I decided to speak up.
“Khit, I wasn’t entirely honest about the conversation between your father and me.”
Khit’s gaze flew to my face. “I knew it! He bullied you, didn’t he?”
“He just wanted to assess what kind of person I am,” I said calmly. “He cares about you and just wanted to make sure I was sincere towards you. He doesn’t want to see you get hurt.”
Khit laughed. Cynically. “You’re so naïve Caren. My dad just doesn’t want to see me marry a girl of my choosing. He wants to choose a girl for me, someone who is obedient and can’t stand up for herself. A girl who can’t think for herself. That way he can control her and hopefully control me through her.”
“I really don’t think that’s true,” I argued on Dr. Inari’s behalf. That man had let his guard down with me for several seconds, but it was long enough for me to believe that he only wanted to see his son be happy. “Your dad just doesn’t know how to express his love for you. I believe that he’ll be content as long as you’re happy.”
“If that’s what you believe, think what you will,” Khit snapped.
I could tell that he was mad. He folded his arms across his chest and turned away from me.
I set my coffee cup and unfinished energy bar on the table next to me and tapped Khit’s shoulder.
He didn’t move. I sighed, thinking that Khit was acting like a petulant toddler.
But I could understand why he was acting this way. The relationship between Khit and his father was too sensitive, and both of them were too stubborn to see each other’s points of view. Khit was probably angry with me because he thought I had taken his father’s side instead of his.
“I’m not taking sides,” I said. “I’m just trying to evaluate how each of you might feel. It would be nice if the two of you could work your relationship out and understand each other. You can tell me your side of the story too. Complain about your father’s faults if you want.”
Still no response.
I decided not to say anything else. It was only making things worse.
But then after a minute, he muttered something.
“What?” I asked him to repeat himself.
“I said I’ve given up trying to win his approval.”
I waited for him to continue. He still had his back to me, but he sat down beside me on the exam table. “I’ve always tried to win his love by gaining his approval. Every good grade I earned, every award I achieved, I did it to see the glimmer of approval he showed. But then I would make one mistake, and he would accuse me of being just like my mother, then ground me or go into seclusion himself.
“I used to think that with time, he would see that I was my own person, that I was enough for him even if my mother had truly abandoned him. So I waited and waited. And then I grew up and realized that nothing I did would win his full approval. So I gave up and did what I wanted.”
He said nothing further but still sat away from me. And now I could feel the son’s pain just as I had felt the father’s. The little boy who had wanted affection from his father and could only achieve it by doing well in school. The father who wanted to love his son but whose heart had been hurt too deeply by his wife, of whom his son reminded him.
The relationship could never be mended overnight, as much as I wanted to help. I couldn’t do anything. Julia couldn’t do much either, even if she went back to her husband in a year and tried to patch up his broken heart. It was really between Dr. Inari and Khit. They had to find some way to resolve the issues between them.
But as I stared at Khit’s crouched back, he looked so abandoned and solitary. Although he was loved by his parents, he had not had the chance to truly experience it. He needed love, needed to see that he was loved.
Before I could help myself, I reached out to him with both of my arms to embrace him from behind. He tensed at the suddenness of my actions but soon relaxed again.
“I just want you to know that I love you,” I blurted out without thinking. “You’ll never have to win my approval to receive my love because I give it to you unconditionally.”
He turned around so fast that I almost lost my balance. Grabbing my shoulders, he looked right into my eyes. “Does that mean what I think it means? Have you finally accepted me?”
The ferocity of his burning eyes mesmerized me so that I almost couldn’t reply. But I remembered myself and managed to say, “I love you. And I no longer care about what Fate has to say about it. No matter what, I will defy Fate to be with you. From now on, I will dictate my own—”
I didn’t have the opportunity to finish my impassioned speech as his lips fastened hard upon mine.
This kiss was even more beautiful than our first.
Strength and gentleness mingled upon his warm lips, as I dissolved into a boneless heap. The slight fragrance of coffee lingered on his fiery breath, and he tasted of bittersweet chocolate from the energy bar he had just eaten. His hands traced lightly down my exposed arms, showing me that he wanted me to hold him too. I shivered as I felt goose bumps rise on my skin, wherever his hands lingered.
I did more than just wrap my arms around him. I molded myself to him, trying to get closer in any physical way possible.
He groaned, and our kiss intensified to new heights I could never have imagined without experiencing it myself. His powerful arms shifted position as his hands crept towards my waist…and lower.
I sighed, surrendering all my thoughts to the delight of feeling the warmth of his embrace encompassing my entire body. Slowly, he broke off our kiss, only for me to discover the new sensation of his hot mouth burning a path down my neck. Briefly, I realized that my gown, which was only held up by a loose drawstring, was on the verge of indecently coming down my shoulders.
I should have stopped him there. We were in a hospital room. Besides that, we still had to talk about our relationship, to make it truly official. But I couldn’t think. I wanted this moment to draw out forever.
“Oh, excuse me!” The embarrassed gasp drew us apart in an instant. A flushed face doctor was trying very hard to avert his gaze from us.
I buried my face in my hands, mortified, realizing we had been making out right in the hospital.
“I only came to make a final inspection of the patient’s snake bite,” the doctor said. “But by the looks of it, she’s fine. Just sign the paperwork at the front desk, and you can continue what you were doing. At home.”
He fled the room as quickly as his short legs could carry him.
“Newlyweds,” I heard him mutter, just before the door slammed behind him.
As reality flew back to me, I was too shy to make eye contact with Khit. I had been so uninhibited, so wild, and that had only been the second kiss of my life, the first being the one in Khit’s office. What if Khit thought I was some sort of loose skank?
He was breathing heavily, and his voice came out raspy and low. “Wow.”
That was all he said.
I finally summoned the courage to look at him. He was staring back at me, simply awe-struck.
“I can’t believe I lost control like that,” he said, sounding half-ashamed.
“It’s my fault,” I apologized. “I was the aggressor.”
He grinned and winked at me. “True. But I can’t say I didn’t like it. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again until we’re married.”
His grin faded. “That is, if we marry. I won’t force you to follow through with Eden’s orders if you don’t want to.”
Marriage. To a man I’d only known for a summer. Still, I felt we had known each other for years. “We’ll work something out,” I said. Marriage was too serious a discussion, and I didn’t feel like talking about it just now.
Then I realized something. “Wait…what did you mean by saying make sure it doesn’t happen until we’re married? Are you one of those old-fashioned guys who waits until marriage?”
He cleared his throat, his face glowing dark red. “For you, yes.”
“But why? Lots of other couples—”
“Get dressed,” Khit interrupted abruptly. “We’ll get something to eat. I’ll wait for you outside.”
His determination to change the subject made me wonder why he was being evasive. But I dismissed the matter, thinking he was just embarrassed. After all, we were still in the first stage of our relationship. There would be plenty of time to talk about taking it to the next level later.