“Qing jie, could you help these people please?” Joanne hollered over the crowd of people lining up in front of the counter.

“Okay,” Elizabeth yelled back, making her way toward the front of the shop again.

“Next,” Joanne called out, turning her attention back on the crowd.

“Will we get out of here in time to do anything?” An urgent voice asked.

“If everyone’s cooperative and being considerate to one another, then we could finish this within half an hour,” Joanne answered, eyeing the group of people shoving each other out of the way.

“Quit it,” A guy in the crowd yelled out to the group behind him.

“Kenny!” Joanne called out upon seeing Kenny walking by.

“I’ll be right over!” Kenny returned. “Need to get some baskets for this person.”

Joanne continued to hand out orders and checked off her list as the crowd simmered down again, trying to behave themselves.

“I’m right on time, right?” A guy asked, walking up to Joanne.

She was about to scold whoever it was for aggravating her at the moment but realized that it was only Calvin. “Hey! You’re here!”

Calvin didn’t waste any time to talk but dove right into helping Joanne distributing the orders to customers. The line moved a lot faster after that, causing both customers to be happy and Joanne less irritated.

“Ah…this is worth it after all,” A guy commented after picking up his order.

Calvin smiled, taking the money from him.

“Remember to call me next time when you come up with new creations, Qiao Qiao!” The guy hollered before leaving.

Joanne only had time to yell back a word of greeting before diving in to sort through the rest of the list.

“Jie, go rest,” Kenny said at last, appearing by Joanne’s side. “I’ll take over.”

“No need,” Joanne said, turning to her brother briefly. “There are more than enough spaces here. Between the three of us, we can finish this before lunchtime.”

Kenny nodded and took his place next to Calvin at the counter to help the rest of their customers also. The crowd disappeared at top speed after that with the three of them working diligently—with the occasional absence of one or another at times because other customers needed them to tend to other tasks around the shop. Joanne was the only one who was stationed there the whole time.

“This is it for now,” Kenny said, letting out a sigh at last. “The afternoon crowd will be here after lunch.”

Calvin did a quick stretching routine and let out a yawn. “I’ve never witnessed such a crowd around here before. I guess you guys did it.”

“Not quite,” Joanne contradicted him. “Imagine how we need you to help as well but those people across the street probably did it in two shakes.”

“The item is what matters, Qiao,” Calvin reminded her.

Joanne nodded. “But still…”

“Forget it, jie,” Kenny jumped in. “We should find something to eat before the next group comes.”

Joanne nodded, agreeing with her brother.

Calvin followed Kenny to the break room while Joanne lingered behind, looking at her watch. Noticing that she was not following them, they turned around to look at her.

“What?” Joanne asked upon seeing their glares.

“Let’s go,” Kenny urged.

“I’m waiting for James ge,” Joanne said. “You two go first.”

“Oh…”

Joanne nodded.

Calvin and Kenny continued on their way while Joanne took a seat again since she had not been sitting that comfortably the whole morning. Just as she was about to call James to check on him, her cell phone rang.

“Hello,” Joanne said into the phone.

“It’s me, Gino.”

“Yeah?”

“How’s it going at your place? Need help?”

“Nah…we’re fine.”

“Oh. You sound tired.”

“What about your place then?”

“It’s good. We managed to finalize the legalities already.”

“That’s great to hear.”

“James ge?” Kenny whispered to Joanne at that time, walking toward her with a plate of foods in his hands.

Joanne shook her head, mouthing to him the answer. Kenny nodded and stayed silent.

“I guess we’ll be looking forward to your opening day, huh?” Joanne said into the phone again.

“It’ll be a while but worth it,” Gino said.

“Great to know.”

Kenny slid the plate of food toward Joanne at that time, signaling that it was for her. She gave him an appreciative smile before picking up the fork from it.

“It seemed quiet now,” Gino said after a brief pause.

“We’re taking an early lunch break,” Joanne said. “Since it has been so busy today.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure you don’t want any help?”

“Of course, I’m sure. We have the whole Tseng clan here and not to mention our backup team.”

“Backup team? I guess I’m not included, huh?”

“Nah, it’s not about that. You just got back here and have things to take care of. We can’t just grab you over here and take advantage of you.”

“I thought we’re friends.”

“We still are. That’s why I’m not taking advantage of the situation.”

As they continued the conversation, Joanne could hear the chime at the door. She turned to see James walking in. She sent him a smile and a quick wave. She turned around to the table behind her and took out a special bracelet James had told her to create. She inspected it quickly to make sure it was still good and handed it to James. James quickly handed her some money, but she signaled to Kenny for help. After that, she sat back on the stool and resumed her conversation.

“You don’t look all sunshine today, James ge,” Kenny noted, taking the money from James. “It’s Valentine’s Day. It’s supposed to be good, especially for someone like you.”

“Plan failed,” James confessed, taking the changes from Kenny.

“What happened?” Kenny asked, turning his full attention to James after shutting the cash register.

“Some of Cait’s friends returned yesterday to visit her so she went out with them instead,” James explained.

“What?! It’s Valentine’s Day!”

James shrugged. “It can’t be helped.”

“Hey, Gino,” Joanne said into the phone at about the same time as James’ answer to Kenny. “I’ll get back to you later, okay? Duty called.”

“Okay,” Gino agreed. “Later then.”

“All right.” Joanne snapped her phone shut and extended her hand out to stop James from leaving. “James ge, what’s going on really?”

James let out a sigh and turned to Kenny. Joanne understood so she gestured for Kenny to leave first.

“So…?” Joanne prompted after Kenny was out of sight.

“Cait and I have been having problems recently,” James admitted. “I just thought that it would be good to mend things today, but…”

“Is it our fault?” Joanne asked, feeling guilty.

James shook his head. “I know you guys don’t get along with her but that’s not it. It’s probably because we haven’t seen each other much lately so she’s less tolerant toward how she’s being treated by the rest of us.”

Joanne gestured toward the flower bracelet in James’ hand. “Do you still want it then?”

James smiled. “It’s all right. I’ll take it to support our favorite Qiao, right?”

Joanne returned the smile, knowing that James was reminding her about Mr. Chu’s threat when they were gathered together for dinner last time. She also felt a bit amused that Jacky thought James might be proposing to Caitlin on Valentine’s Day. He was wrong big time. However, she knew that she should try to comfort James, no matter how much the rest of them were against Caitlin being with James.

“Maybe we should start a party of our own for the rest of us who are abandoned for the day, huh?” Joanne joked.

James managed a smile, knowing Joanne was trying to cheer him up. “Maybe. My restaurant?”

“We’ll see.”

James’ expression suddenly turned serious again. “You’re okay with Jacky not being around today?”

“It’s just a holiday, James ge.” Joanne paused and sent him a victory smile. “And a day for us to reap.”

James smiled—an amused smile this time. “I guess Miss Tseng always finds a way to joke about everything.”

Joanne flashed out her proud smile. “You bet.”

“All right. I guess I’ll be going. Get back to you later about the gathering?”

Joanne nodded, watching James walk away—his footsteps heavy from worry.

*****

James drove back to his restaurant with much heaviness. He searched his mind for another plan that could mend his relationship with Caitlin and would also not clash with her schedule. He knew that his most advantageous opportunity had passed so he couldn’t dwell on it. He needed to work on the next scenario. As he parked and stepped out of the car, he could see one of the managers walking up to him. He knew that he had to tend to things again. At least, he would be too occupied to worry about his empty schedule for the day.

The matters actually distracted him for a good amount of time since when he stepped back out to find his car, he could see that it was 2 P.M. He looked at the two festival tickets in the compartment below the radio and wondered what he would do with it. If Jacky was here, he would’ve given it to Jacky so Jacky could spend the time with Joanne. But Jacky was not, so… He let out a sigh again and decided to go anyway, knowing that he shouldn’t let it go to waste. Maybe he could call someone out to watch it with him.

When he arrived at the entrance, he realized that there was already a long line waiting for their tickets to be punched. He did a quick scan before debating whether to go in early or not. It was when he decided to walk around first, he heard someone calling him. He turned around to see a smiling Kristy.

“Hey,” James greeted her, surprised that they would bump into each other at that time of the day.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” Kristy said.

James wrinkled his face in confusion.

“Didn’t know you’re interested in these stuffs,” Kristy clarified.

“Oh.”

“So…luck ran out?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t worry. I was not able to get any tickets either.”

“You were trying to get tickets?”

Kristy let out a nervous smile. “I was going to go help Qiao at the shop but she told me that they got it under control and that I should go enjoy my time off. So, I thought I should try my luck. But…”

“That’s no big deal then.”

Kristy had on a confused look this time.

James fished out the tickets from his pockets and handed it to Kristy. “Here. You can have both since my plans changed.”

“Oh?”

James nodded. “Yeah.”

“But what will I do with two tickets?”

“Go with your date, of course.”

Kristy’s smile turned back to the same nervousness as before—when she had to confess to James of her silliness. “Are you into the teasing business too?”

“What do you mean?”

“We all know I’m not attached.”

James could see that he had crossed into the forbidden territory, so he wanted to make up for his foolishness. He gestured his hand toward the tickets. “Want to go together then? I mean we wouldn’t want it to go to waste, right?”

Kristy wrinkled her face. “You sure?”

James nodded, meaning it. “Come on. We’re friends.”

Kristy smiled, knowing that James was sincere.

*****

“Phew,” Joanne uttered after the last customers dispersed.

“Are you going to calculate the numbers tonight?” Kenny asked, eyeing Joanne cautiously as she was gathering up all the papers on the counter.

“Probably after dinner.”

“I’m so tired I could go home and sleep without doing anything else,” Calvin confessed, resting nearby.

“Thanks so much for helping,” Joanne said to Calvin.

“It’s my pleasure,” Calvin returned, smiling. “At least, you guys trust me, right?”

“Want to join us for dinner then?” Kenny asked.

“Don’t you guys want to go home and rest? I mean you wouldn’t want to invite guests over after a long day at work.”

“We always work anyway,” Joanne reminded him. “Besides, James ge and I made plans earlier to get together.”

“Oh?”

“What’s with him and the old woman?” Kenny asked.

“Talking about that, don’t rub it in at dinner or else,” Joanne warned her brother.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kenny rattled out, saluting in the process.

Joanne pointed at him, her eyes as threatening. “I mean it.”

“I know, sis. Am I that inconsiderate?”

Joanne nodded. “True.”

“All right. Let’s get out of here.”

“Where did Qing jie go?”

“In the back, drinking tea.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

They ended up closing half an hour later since they had to do their usual clean up tasks. It was another half an hour before they arrived at the Tseng resident because of traffic.

“How did you guys do today?” Mr. Tseng asked upon seeing their tired faces.

“It went well,” Joanne answered tiredly.

“Most of them loved it,” Kenny replied, entering after his sister.

“It was interesting,” Calvin said politely, closing the door after himself.

“Ba, you didn’t have to cook,” Joanne said, sensing the aroma from the kitchen.

Mr. Tseng gestured toward the kitchen. “I figured since I get to rest on this busy day, it’s the least I could do.”

“You’ve been helping us these past weeks too,” Joanne reminded him.

Mr. Tseng looked around at that time, realizing something. “Where’s Qing Qing?”

“She went to the store to pick up something,” Kenny answered, dropping down at the sofa. “I think I’m going to sleep until I’m 27.”

“And pass the chance of meeting all of your idols?” Joanne teased.

Kenny propped his head on a pillow next to him. “Whatever, sis.”

“Why don’t you kids go wash up and eat?”

“Good idea,” Joanne agreed. “I’m starved.”

Although Mr. Tseng urged them to eat, they continued to wait until Elizabeth returned before setting out the food and digging in. Charlene arrived home at the same time that they set the last of the dishes on the table and joined them also—after setting down her backpack in her room.

“It looks like you spent the whole day cooking,” Elizabeth noted, her eyes browsing all the dishes on the table—knowing that each one was a favorite of one or the other of them present.

Mr. Tseng smiled. “I might as well reward you guys with such hard work, right?”

“That’s great,” Joanne said. “Maybe it will motivate us to think of a better plan for the next round.”

Mr. Tseng wrinkled his face. “More?”

“Ba, this competition is an ongoing process. We can’t stop now. We managed to draw attention because we thought of something new this season. We should keep it up while the attention is still on us.”

Mr. Tseng knew that he shouldn’t interfere with his daughter’s business mind so he just shook his head slightly and went back to eating.

“Wait a minute,” Joanne said suddenly, putting down her bowl of food.

“What happened?” Mr. Tseng asked, looking at his daughter again.

“Forgot to call James ge.”

“Oh.”

Joanne fidgeted around in her pocket to find her cell phone. She tapped on the back of it as she waited for James to answer. She suddenly wished that he would pick up soon or she would go crazy with his ringback tone. She hoped that he would change it soon since it was not one of her favorite songs—or even close to tolerable.

“Hello,” James’ voice finally answered.

“James ge, want to join us for dinner?” Joanne asked. “I know we couldn’t get back to each other earlier, but I was still busy at the shop. So…what about now? Dad’s cooking tonight.”

“Uh…I guess I’m not as lucky today to taste Uncle’s dishes. How about next time? I finally have a date.”

“Stop it,” A girl’s voice chided from James’ side of the line.

Joanne smiled upon hearing James’ teasing words, reminding her of their “abandoned status” from earlier. She had a feeling that the voice sounded familiar but maybe it was because of the obvious reason. “Caitlin’s friends finally let her off?”

“No. Actually, I just bumped into a friend earlier when I was going to this festival on the other side of town. We’re at this night market right now since we just got out of the festival. Can’t get back in time.”

“Oh…nice. It’s good to know you’re not alone.”

“Can’t talk anymore since it’s quite crowded here. So I’ll see you around?”

“Okay then. Take care and have fun. I guess I’ll have to rely on Kristy now since she doesn’t have a date either and is probably done watching some show that she was talking about earlier.”

“No need to call her. She’s with me.”

Joanne gasped, realizing why the voice sounded so familiar. “Whoa.”

“It’s not what you think, Qiao. We’re just friends hanging out since we both don’t have plans, okay? It’s just somewhat like what you and I planned but I can’t make it back in time at this point.”

“Have fun then.”

“Bye.”

Joanne hung up, letting out a smile. She felt the irony of the situation since Jacky had been trying so hard to pull James and Kristy together yet he never succeeded. And now? They were spending Valentine’s Day together because of canceled plans and a coincidence.

“He’s not coming, huh?” Kenny asked from across the table.

Joanne shook her head, still smiling. “No.”

“What happened?”

Joanne smiled at Kenny’s fast reaction to take on the hint of her smile. “Let’s just say it has been one interesting day.”

Kenny wrinkled his face. “What?”

Joanne let out a secretive smile again. “You’ll see.”

Kenny knew that he couldn’t pry it out of his sister, so he turned to the others. The others shrugged and continued to eat.

© Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Posted: Friday, April 29th, 2011

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