Chapter 9 – Cat & Mouse

The game of “Hide & Seek” between Joanne and Bryant carried on throughout the following week. As for the others, they were waiting for Jacky to make a move. Wallace had called off the stalking mission already and had of course passed the words on to Tony. Yet it wasn’t like Tony was that active in their side mission, because he was quite occupied with the recent land redevelopment project that was handed to him not long ago. His busy schedule also meant he wasn’t seen going to places with Esther anymore. Yet both Kris and Eddie weren’t making their moves either. They were also busy at work, especially Eddie who was swamped with the current clients. He had two big projects on hand and didn’t have time to stick around and be on the in with the rest of the gang anymore. That also meant Janine and Esther were as swamped at work. On the other hand, the others were back to planning for the wedding or helping with the planning.

Before the week wrapped up and allowed them sometime to breathe though, something else happened. In fact, several things happened on that Thursday. It started with Esther’s meeting with Tony for lunch. At least he said it was lunch. Indeed, he had bought her lunch ahead of time and had allowed her to eat in the car while he was driving to the location. Esther guessed it was because he had to go to another location for work related matters so she didn’t mind. She only ate in silence as he drove. Once in a while, she would also offer him some food yet he had shaken his head. She pondered what was bothering him–though she didn’t want to distract him any further. Halfway there, Esther stopped eating and put the rest away, making sure to clean up so there were no crumbs scattered around her spot.

“What’s going on here?” Esther finally asked when Tony had turned toward the road that led into the countryside.

“You’ll know when we get there,” Tony replied.

Esther didn’t know what the big surprise was yet she stayed silent, looking at the scenery passing by. The weather had turned for the worst this past week so they were both wearing their matching coats at the moment. They both didn’t realize it. At least not until Esther got bored with the monotone of the scenery and turned her attention to brushing a dust particle off her coat. Tony caught her eyes when he realized she was staring as he slowed down and turned into another passage in the wood. A quick glimpse told him what it was about. But he didn’t express his opinions regarding it. Esther finally turned away and stared out the window again, trying to focus on the scenery as the car turned into another path. This time, Tony didn’t speed up. He parked at a spot by a gate. Esther found it strange that there should be a house in such a place. Although it wasn’t like it was a desert place since she saw that it was a residential area, considering how they had passed by several since the turn yet it wasn’t tied to Tony’s latest projects so her confusion had risen.

“I want your opinion on this house,” Tony said as he opened the car door for Esther.

In her puzzlement, Esther didn’t exit the car so Tony had the chance to circle around and help her. Esther had no choice but to get out and take another glimpse.

“I haven’t been here for a while so it’s a bit untidy outside,” Tony explained as he led Esther inside. He had opened the gate and locked it again after they passed by. “What do you think?”

He allowed Esther to take the view in before moving toward the main entrance. They entered and Tony once again locked the door. This time, he stopped at the foyer while Esther explored. It took Esther about fifteen minutes to explore the whole house. She would have taken more time yet she knew they were prompt for time. At least she was prompt for time.

“Well?” Tony asked when Esther met up with him by the foyer again.

He hadn’t followed her around the house yet the expression on her face hadn’t changed since she entered. It was a mixture of surprise and bewilderment.

“You don’t like it?” Tony prompted, still looking at Esther.

“I…” Esther managed, swallowing back a lump in her throat.

“Yan…” Tony called out, stepping toward her and reaching out to wipe her tears away with his hands. “Don’t cry.”

Esther attempted to brush his hands away, not being able to answer. She sniffled several times before regaining herself again. “How could you…?”

Tony smiled, a light smile–not one of his teasing smirks. “I wanted to.”

Esther sniffled again, her mind still in turmoil.

“You don’t have to say anything now,” Tony said, finally removing his hands and stepping away to give her some space. “Just think it over.”

Esther was still staring at Tony as he handed her some tissues.

“I was so busy these past days so I have to push this back,” Tony continued in a soothing voice. “But I know it’s time. That’s why I chose today.”

Esther nodded.

*****

Later that afternoon, Esther had another meeting. It was after work. The person who wanted to talk to her this time was Kris. Eddie and Janine had been puzzled when Kris showed up–and not Joanne or Andy. Yet it wasn’t their place to say anything, considering how it was Esther’s business and it was after work.

“Hey,” Esther greeted Kris casually, her smile friendly–like always.

“Hey,” Kris returned, reaching out to grab some files from her hands.

“It’s okay,” Esther said. “I got it.”

“Actually, I have to go to the airport later,” Kris confessed after they were in the car already. “So I thought I drop by and talk to you before I go.”

Esther had on her surprised expression. “Oh? What’s going on? Are you going back to your hometown? Do the others know?”

Kris shook his head. “It’s a big project for me. I have to travel overseas.”

“Oh, congrats!”

It indeed was big news for Kris, considering how his past modeling projects had been local or small scale. This time, it had great potential and could expand his career even more.

“Thanks,” Kris said.

Then they stayed silent as Kris pulled out and entered traffic. He had borrowed Andy’s car since he never had his own car, even after all these years living around the area. Esther didn’t know why Andy and Joanne weren’t around yet she didn’t ask. She stayed silent and waited.

“Here we are,” Kris said at last when they were at a café outside of town.

“So, are the others inside waiting for us?” Esther asked as they exited the car.

“No,” Kris responded, leading the way yet he didn’t enter the café but walked toward the area leading to the ocean side.

Esther was confused. Although she and Kris had known each other around the same time as the others but she had never been alone with him before. So of course she was puzzled about this particular situation. However, she didn’t want to appear all hostile either so she followed him. It wasn’t until they reached a somewhat secluded spot that Kris stopped. He reached his hands out to hold the railing, studying the horizon before turning to Esther. His left hand was still holding the railing at that moment.

“The others are right,” Kris began. “I should tell you before it’s too late.”

It was then that Esther tensed up. “What’s going on here?”

“Um…” Kris hesitated. “I don’t know any other way to put it. It’s just that I…”

“What?” Esther urged, feeling her unease rising.

Kris let go of the railing altogether and focused on Esther after letting out another sigh. “I liked you in high school.”

Esther knew that. Even if she didn’t know it before, Andy had broadcasted that live to the others years back when she and Tony were still dating. It wasn’t news to her yet she couldn’t help but tensed up even more.

“I thought it was in the past already,” Kris continued, licking his lips in nervousness. “But when we met again, I realized I still have feelings for you.”

“Kris, I’m not…”

Kris shook his head. “You don’t have to answer me now. Think it over. I’ll be back in two weeks.”

It was then that Andy and Joanne came up to them. Achel wasn’t around because she was with Angela and Ehlo at the moment. They would meet up at some shop in half an hour.

“I’ll be going now,” Kris said, addressing Joanne and Andy as well. “I’ll see you all in two weeks.”

“Bring back gifts,” Andy teased.

Kris waved and actually headed toward the opposite direction from which they came from. They witnessed as Kris’ agent got out of the car and helped Kris haul the luggage into the trunk. It was also then that Esther realized Kris had been carrying a luggage along as they were walking toward the area. The three of them watched the car disappeared into traffic before Esther turned to the other two.

“You two knew and didn’t tell me?”

“Hey, come on now,” Andy said, his voice defensive. “I can’t rob a guy the chance to confess.”

“I already promised before I realized what I got myself into,” Joanne mumbled as Esther’s eyes swept across her. She let out a sigh and placed a hand around Esther’s shoulder. “We’re in the same boat, huh?”

Yes, Joanne had already told them that Bryant had confessed to her. Aside from Esther and Andy, only Achel and Sophia know about it. They didn’t want to turn Bryant’s sincerity into some side joke. Regardless of how Joanne decided, she didn’t want to broadcast that out. It was already driving her crazy.

“If it wasn’t because I didn’t want to affect his moods, I would have told him no straight out,” Esther said as they were making their way back to Andy’s car.

“You serious?” Andy asked, giving Esther a sideways glance.

Esther nodded. Unlike how torn and emotional she was earlier when she realized what Tony had done, Esther had on her determined expression. Andy sighed out, not knowing what to say. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets as they walked the rest of the way to his car. And as they were driving back to town, they talked about various matters, but never touching on sensitive subjects that would get them down again. That also meant Esther didn’t tell them about her meeting with Tony either.

*****

Still later that afternoon, Wallace was seen walking around alone. He was actually making his way to Uncle Ben’s shop. A smile spread across his face as soon as he recognized a familiar person sitting at a corner table eating away.

It was one of those rare times Wallace wasn’t with Yvonne nowadays. Yvonne was actually with Sophia and Novia at the moment. Novia was showing Sophia various signs at her shop and Yvonne decided to stay behind to talk to them. So Wallace decided to take a walk on his own. He promised to meet up with them later.

“So, still hiding out, Miss Zeng?” Wallace asked as he settled down at a table.

Yes, the person Wallace saw upon arriving was Joanne. She had separated from the group after they arrived at the shop to meet up with Angela and Ehlo, claiming she forgot to do something. Yet she just didn’t feel like contributing to the grand picture at the moment.

“What?” Joanne asked innocently, chomping down her bowl of noodles.

“Come on now,” Wallace said, placing a hand around Joanne’s shoulder. “We all know what’s going on.”

“What?” Joanne asked, having stopped eating already and was staring at Wallace. She was feeling unease, like wondering if Wallace meant what she thought he meant.

“In case you’re wondering, no, Bryant didn’t spread it around,” Wallace answered Joanne’s unasked question. “But the way you two are behaving recently, it’s hard not to notice.”

“Am I that obvious?” Joanne asked, repeating a question she once asked at that same spot–but to a totally different party.

“No,” Wallace replied. “But we live with Bryant, remember?”

Joanne returned to eating as Wallace withdrew his hand from her shoulder and ordered.

“Seriously though,” Wallace continued after Uncle Ben left to tend to his order already. “Give that Bryant a chance.”

Joanne stopped eating again and turned to Wallace. “Why? I mean it’s cruel to lead him on. It’s better this way, telling him off and waiting for him to move on.”

“You think that I don’t care for Tang Feng?” Wallace asked back. He had detected that trace of betrayal on Joanne’s face, even if she didn’t say it out loud.

“No,” Joanne said, her expression no longer upset. In fact, she realized she’d gone overboard. She remembered how Wallace had been since Tang Feng passed away. If it wasn’t for Wallace, the whole funeral wouldn’t had been so organized and respectful. “I’m sorry.”

Wallace shook his head. “I know. It’s hard. But sometimes, you just have to step forward.”

“I still can’t,” Joanne admitted, knowing she shouldn’t lie to Wallace. He’d been there way before she’d known Jacky or the others.

“Then just let it be,” Wallace said, sighing out. “Don’t force yourself into anything.”

“But that contradicts what you just said. You just told me to give Bryant a chance.”

“Perhaps I’m wrong to say something like that.”

Uncle Ben finally returned with Wallace’s order so they quieted down again. After Wallace thanked him and he walked away again that they continued their conversation.

“Do you still like Cyndi?” Joanne asked, looking at Wallace intently.

Wallace wasn’t sure where that had come from. Yet he stopped eating and stared at Joanne. “Why you asked that?”

Joanne shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s like everything’s moving too fast and then you’re over Cyndi. Now you’re getting married to Yvonne. I’m not saying we all have to be with someone forever. But it’s like…”

“I’m on a rebound mission, right?” Wallace finished her thoughts.

“I know I have no right to judge you.”

Wallace shook his head. “I know you’re not judging me. You’re just confused like the majority of our friends. Even if you all support me and have gotten along with Yvonne since we started dating.” He paused to take a sip of the soup before continuing. “But I can tell you one thing, I’m not on a rebound surge. I’m serious about Yvonne.”

Joanne nodded. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

Wallace shook his head again. “I know it’s hard to believe because in a way, Yvonne and Angela are very similar and I hate being controlled like how Angela had done it to me in the past. It was the sole reason why we broke up. But with Yvonne, it’s different. I just can’t explain it, but I know I love her.”

Then Joanne understood. It was not just because of Wallace’s sincerity, but the way his smile had spread when he said the last part. Joanne understood because she knew she also once felt those unexplainable feelings. It was also then that she understood what Bryant was trying to tell her. Love can’t be explained, no matter how hard you tried.

*****

At sunset, Wallace made it home again. He indeed met up with Yvonne and the others for more shop browsing and wedding arrangements. Yet he also brought Joanne along. The others were indeed relief that Joanne seemed happier than before. They didn’t realize it was because of Wallace. Yet Wallace didn’t blab it on or brag like how he often would do when he was in constant battle with Ehlo. He focused on the details of the arrangements while Sophia walked along with Joanne. It wasn’t until they decided to call it quits for the day that he returned home with Joanne and Sophia. That also meant Novia had taken Yvonne home. Wallace had told Yvonne he needed to take care of some things so she understood. As for Sophia, she had been staying at Alyssa’s place these past few days with Joanne. When she heard about Joanne finally wanting to go back to the guys’ place, she just had to tag along. It wasn’t because she was nosy either, but she was just worried for Joanne.

“Hey, where have you been these past days?” Ehlo asked as soon as he spotted Wallace with Joanne and Sophia.

“Is Bryant here?” Joanne asked back, not answering Ehlo’s question on purpose. Because he was obviously teasing her since they’d met up earlier at the shop before she excused herself.

“Yeah,” Ehlo returned, letting the other matter dropped since he could detect traces of seriousness on Joanne’s face. “He’s in the shower. Be out in a bit.”

Joanne nodded and walked to the sofa to wait for Bryant as Wallace headed for his room. Sophia had followed Ehlo back into the kitchen.

“Where’s Jacky?” Sophia asked, scanning the perimeter.

“Not home yet,” Ehlo answered, his back to Sophia. He had returned to tending to the stove.

Sophia eyed Ehlo’s movements cautiously. “Want me to take over?”

Ehlo covered a yawn as he turned to face Sophia again. “Would you please?”

Sophia smiled. “Of course. I’m not doing anything of recent anyway.”

Ehlo, like some of the others, had been swamped at work this past week so he couldn’t help caving in to the inevitable fatigue.

“Go take a nap or something. I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”

Ehlo thanked Sophia and left for his room. He didn’t have to tell Sophia what other dishes they were having for that night. He knew she would surprise them with whatever they had around. But before Ehlo could get some rest, he bumped into Bryant making his way out of the shower.

“Hey,” Ehlo said. “Qiao wants to talk to you.”

Ehlo had whispered that last bit as he pointed his thumb backward before entering his room.

“Give me a minute,” Bryant said to Joanne, waving the towel in his hand.

Joanne nodded as she was getting up from the sofa.

It was actually five minutes later that Bryant emerged from his room.

“Let’s talk outside,” Joanne said as she pointed toward the front door.

Bryant nodded and followed her out.

“So I thought it over,” Joanne said when they were by the garage.

Bryant stayed quiet, waiting for her to continue.

“I don’t know where this is going to lead us,” Joanne said. “But I’m willing to give this a try.”

Bryant’s expression was hopeful at that moment. His bright smile slowly appearing had said it all. Yet Joanne was still passive.

“It’s just that…” Joanne continued, her voice leveled, even if her hand was gesturing in nervousness. “I’m still not ready for a lot of things. So if you lose patient and want to back out, I would understand.”

Bryant smiled and took her hands into his. Yet Joanne withdrew her hands, her expression still unease.

“We’re not dating yet,” Joanne clarified. “What I mean is we’re just…getting to know each other.”

Bryant nodded. “Got it.”

That was also when Jacky’s car was within view. He honked at them, sending out a warning. They both moved out of the way so he could turn into the driveway.

“What’s going on here?” Jacky asked as soon as he stepped out of the car.

“Sophia jie and I decided to join you guys for dinner,” Joanne replied. “You got a problem with that?”

“No,” Jacky returned, smiling. In fact, he took it to another level and slid his hand around her shoulders. “Welcome back, sis.”

Joanne knew he was teasing her yet she didn’t mind. She felt like it was getting back to the old days so she allowed herself to be led back into the house as Bryant watched silently. It took him a moment before he could follow them.

*****

The next day picked up its pace with work related matters for them like the earlier part of the week. They no longer cared for Jacky’s answer anymore. At least that was what Ehlo had said last night at dinner. Yet most of them knew that it was his fatigue talking for him. Although he was able to catch up on some sleep but it still wasn’t enough. However, Jacky finally made a move. He wasn’t bringing along the circus with him. He only brought Sophia. They were heading toward an unknown location. At least it was unknown to Sophia. But she didn’t ask, she just watched as the scenery passed by them.

“I actually miss this weather,” Sophia commented as she leaned out the window to let the light breeze blow her hair back and forth.

Jacky smiled, missing her simplistic views of life.

“All right, here we are,” Jacky said, parking the car at one side of the street.

“Where are we?” Sophia asked as she got out of the car.

Jacky didn’t answer yet gestured for her to follow him. “Let me borrow your hand.”

Sophia looked puzzled but extended her left hand anyway. Jacky smiled at her cluelessness and laced her hand with his.

“Just a minute!” A voice inside the house hollered after Jacky rang the doorbell.

The moment the door was opened, they could see a girl still trying to wrestle with her leather jacket. She was wearing mini-skirts and tank tops and a pair of white boots to match her outfit. Yet she stopped short when she saw Jacky.

“So, how has it been going, Lynn?” Jacky asked. “I was in the neighborhood with my girlfriend so I thought I swing by to say hi.”

Yes, the girl standing in front of them was Lynn. Even though Sophia had recognized the girl from various pictures the others had snapped yet she had stayed silent, wanting Jacky to handle the situation, knowing he must have planned it all out.

“Jacky, I…” Lynn stumbled, no longer fixing her jacket. “I can explain.”

“Sure you can, Lynn,” Jacky said, his sarcasm on high. It was like hearing Ehlo talk. Yet he wasn’t Ehlo’s best friend for nothing. He proceeded, not showing any trace of sincerity toward Lynn. He waved his and Sophia’s laced hands higher before saying, “This is Sophia.”

“Hi,” Sophia greeted Lynn, sending her a light smile.

“I thought you said she’s not your girlfriend,” Lynn said, staring at Jacky, no longer in fear of his wrath.

“So I lied,” Jacky returned. “But it wasn’t a big deal, right? Unlike someone. You should’ve told me it was some prank you and your friends were pulling so I could accommodate faster, you know. Too bad I have to find out this way. Next time you want to pose as a pitiful girl, make sure to lose the iPhone.”

After saying that, Jacky tugged on Sophia’s hand to go. They made their way back to Jacky’s car. It was then that Jacky finally released Sophia’s hand. They both got into the car and then Jacky drove back the way they came from. Yet he didn’t turn toward the road leading to the main part of town. Instead, he took a right.

“Lynn actually lives nearby,” Jacky explained as he parked into a spot in front of a huge mansion. “So she and her friends got bored and decided to play this game with me. I managed to get my PIs to break them down. I know what you’re saying, such a small matter and I waste more money to investigate, right? But it’s the only way to get to the bottom of this and move on, instead of playing those senseless games of guessing or spying on her. It’s not like she’s going to confess on her own.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Sophia finally said as they stepped out of the car together.

Jacky took a hold of Sophia’s right hand this time and guided her toward the path leading to a white mansion. Sophia didn’t know what else Jacky was up to yet she followed him anyway.

“Hi, Sharon,” Jacky greeted the housekeeper at the door. “Are my parents here?”

“Young Master,” Sharon greeted Jacky. “They’re in the garden.”

After saying that, Sharon stepped aside, letting Jacky and Sophia through.

“I’ll take it from here,” Jacky said.

Sophia took a quick scan of the area as Sharon returned to her duties.

“So, ready to meet the parents?” Jacky teased.

Sophia sent Jacky a chiding look. “You didn’t tell me you were taking me to meet your parents. I should’ve brought something.”

“Lucky for you, I’m prepared,” Jacky said, smiling and tugging Sophia along.

“What?” Sophia asked, still studying the layout of the house.

“You.”

Sophia yanked her hand back and gave Jacky a stern look. “Not funny.”

Jacky was still smiling. “You shouldn’t hang out with Qiao too much. You’re starting to behave like her.”

“You should stop hanging out with Ehlo so much. You’re such a tease lately.”

“That just means that you don’t know me that well,” Jacky said, reaching for Sophia’s hand again and guiding her toward the hallway that led to the garden. “If you ask the others, they could tell that I’m back to normal.”

Sophia had on her doubtful look yet didn’t want to argue with him anymore. He had already opened the backdoor leading out to the garden. She didn’t want to argue with him in front of his parents.

“Mom, Dad,” Jacky greeted his parents as soon as he opened the door. “I brought someone important to meet you.”

At that moment, Sophia quickly bowed in front of them and put on her usual bright smile. “Auntie, Uncle.”

“This is Sophia,” Jacky said after the others had gotten up from their seats and had already shook Sophia’s hand.

“Is this my daughter-in-law?” Mr. Chu asked, scanning Jacky’s face.

That was when Sophia remembered to withdraw her hand from Jacky’s. She did an apologetic bow before answering. “No, Uncle.”

Jacky didn’t disprove Sophia or his father’s words. He just smiled.

“Sit down, you two,” Mr. Chu said, gesturing toward the chairs in front of them.

They did. And ended up staying for dinner as well.

© Monday, November 17th, 2014

Posted: Saturday, December 6th, 2014

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