Here we meet our leading lady, Jia Choi, and her mother... what a peach. If you like what you read here, please take a look at my other chapters and buy the full story as an ebook available from most retailers (Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.) to see how the story ends.
The smell of bacon wafting upstairs from the kitchen was Jia’s sole motivation to get out of bed. She absentmindedly swapped her pajamas for running clothes before leaving her room. On her way downstairs, she tied her hair into a ponytail and her stomach let out a low, rumbling growl.
As Jia approached the kitchen, the smell of a freshly toasted bagel mixed with the bacon, and her stomach did a flip. “Good morning,” she said as she walked through the doorway, and she took a seat on a stool, resting her elbows on the quartz countertop.
“Good morning, Miss Jia,” the maid said over her shoulder. Her movements were frantic but she managed to simultaneously butter bagels, flip bacon, and scramble eggs without burning anything. “Did you sleep well?” she asked while scraping the eggs from the frying pan on to a serving platter.
The maid looked up from the eggs just long enough to see Jia nod in response. They flashed a quick smile at each other before she turned back to the bagels and bacon.
Jia’s gaze shifted to the left and she removed her arms from the counter to put her hands in her lap. “Good morning, mother,” she said, revising her previously general greeting. She swallowed her nerves, which kept her stomach from growling for another minute.
A woman in a pantsuit and a tight bun sat three chairs away from Jia on the opposite end of the kitchen island. She held a tablet in one hand and tapped the screen with the other. Silence fell in the room as the maid finished cooking the last pieces of bacon. Time ticked by as Jia waited for her mother’s response, tension between them growing by the minute.
The woman in the pantsuit glanced at her daughter over her glasses. “Fix that ponytail before you leave the house.” She turned her attention to the maid. “Naomi, I said egg whites and tomato slices. And remember I don’t take butter. And be sure you are using the gluten free bagels. We don’t want a repeat of last Tuesday’s fiasco, do we?” She turned back to the tablet without waiting for a response.
The maid’s face swelled red. “N-no, Mrs. Choi. My mistake. I’ll prepare it immediately.” Her hand shook as she opened the stainless steel refrigerator. “Miss Jia, would you like something else as well?”
Jia opened her mouth to answer.
“Jia won’t be needing breakfast until after her run.” Mrs. Choi said without looking up from her device.
The two eyed Mrs. Choi before looking at each other. Naomi’s eyebrows rose and met in the middle of her forehead and her top lip folded under the bottom in a slight frown, and in the shared silence she seemed to be asking if that was really what Jia wanted. Jia shrugged in response. Despite the rumble from her stomach, she rose from her chair.
“If you would save me some bacon and eggs, Naomi, I would appreciate it,” Jia said.
“Egg whites,” Mrs. Choi said, eyes still fixed on the tablet screen, “and no bacon. Jia, take that shirt off before you leave or you’ll get tan lines. And don’t forget to fix that ponytail, it looks horrendous.”
With a sigh, Jia left the kitchen. She lifted her shirt over her head and tossed it to the floor, leaving her sports bra and stomach exposed. The elastic pinched her finger when she pulled her ponytail loose, and she ran her fingers through her hair twice before she tied it up again. She slid her feet into running shoes and grabbed her iPod before heading out the door.
Jia was two steps off the porch and scrolling through a playlist when she ran into something. Her forehead hit a boney shoulder, and when she stumbled backwards she saw a man standing in her path. He straightened his shirt where her head hit it until any wrinkles were smoothed out. Running careful hands around his face, he smoothed his black hair until his bangs cascaded down his forehead in just the right way.
The man mouthed a short sentence before Jia paused her music and removed an earphone.
“What?” she asked.
He cleared his throat before repeating himself. “I said, ‘you must be Jia Choi’.”
“I am,” She nodded.
“I’m a fan of your work.”
Jia’s eyebrow shot up. “What work?”
“You’ve been on the cover of ‘Teen Style’ five times. And you’ve been ranked #1 top teen beauty the past three years in a row, if I’m not mistaking.”
“Oh,” Jia’s cheeks flushed, “that. Well, thank you, I guess.”
He acknowledged her comment with a nod, and neither one spoke again immediately. In the silence the man’s eyes scanned over her from head to toe, inspecting every curve of her body. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably and crossed her arms in front of her chest, covering as much of her torso as she could.
“You’re even more beautiful in person.”
Jia searched her brain for a proper response but all that came out was a nervous laugh.
The man stuck his hand out. Jia flinched and backed away a step. When she noticed the confused look on the man’s face, her eyes fell to his extended hand.
“My name is Jun Lao, nice to meet you, Jia.”
Jia let out a sigh as her hand met his and they shook. After a brief up-down motion, he brought her hand to his mouth and his lips hovered less than an inch from her knuckles.
“Yes, Lao as in the Lao family that ruled over this island for hundreds of years. You could say I’m modern royalty.” He flashed a smile that deserved its own gleaming sound effect and kissed her hand before he let it go.
“Hasn’t it been over a hundred years since the Laos had any legitimate power over the island?” Jia asked as she wiped his saliva off her hand on the back of her shorts.
Jun’s eyes narrowed. “Technically, I suppose. Generations have passed since those vacationers arrived, bringing with them their hotels and their tourism and what not, and tossing our history to the side like it’s nothing. But the culture of our ancestors should not be forgotten so easily.”
Jia blinked at him and scrunched her lips to one side of her face. “If a group of people have been here for over a hundred years, you can’t really call them ‘vacationers’, can you?”
Jun snorted. “Your ancestors would be rolling over in their graves if they heard that sort of blasphemy coming from your lips,” he spat the words at her, “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
Jia shrugged and her stomach gurgled. “There has to be sides?” She placed the earphone back in her ear and jogged away before her stomach reminded her again that she still had not eaten breakfast.
“Of course there does,” Jun said to the open air, continuing on to Jia’s front porch and ringing the doorbell. Deep custom chimes reverberated throughout the entire house and he fixed his hair and checked his teeth in a glass pane on the door while he waited for a response.
A moment later Naomi yanked the door open. She used her foot to hold it back and leaned against it, blocking any direct view into the house. “How can I help you, sir?”
“I would like to speak with the Chois.”
“Do you have an appointment?” Naomi asked, her voice firm.
Jun let out a posh chuckle. “I don’t need an appointment- I’m Jun Lao.” He shot a glistening smile at the maid as though it confirmed his identity.
Naomi’s eyes widened and her cheeks flushed as she stepped aside and ushered him through the door. “C-certainly, Mr. Lao, my apologies.”
Jun tipped his head in a slight nod as he walked into the house but made no further acknowledgement of her comment. He waited as Naomi closed the door behind him and followed her as she led him across a formal sitting area and down a hall to a solid wood door. She knocked twice before turning the iron knob and sticking her head in the room. “Mr. Choi, Mrs. Choi, please pardon my interruption. Mr. Jun Lao is here to see you.”
At the couple’s nod of approval, Naomi held the door open and Jun walked through. Mr. and Mrs. Choi stood and smoothed their clothes upon his entry.
Jun shook each of their hands and introduced himself before he took a seat opposite the couple. “Hello, I’m Jun Lao. Jun Lao, it’s a pleasure.” A faint click came from behind him as Naomi closed the door behind her, leaving them to have a private conversation.
“So, Mr. Lao, to what can we owe the pleasure of your company today?” Mrs. Choi asked, lowering her glasses down her nose to peer at him over the top of the frames.
Jun crossed one leg over the other and folded his hands in his lap. “Well, Mrs. Choi, I would like to marry your daughter.”
Mrs. Choi’s face lifted while Mr. Choi’s face fell.
“As flattering of a request as that is, Mr. Lao, aren’t you a bit old for our daughter?” Mr. Choi asked as he shifted in his chair.
With his nose high in the air, Jun chuckled. “Not hardly, Mr. Choi. I turned twenty-five last month.”
“And what a fine age that is,” Mrs. Choi smiled.
Mr. Choi let out the breath he had been holding since he last spoke and shook his head side to side. “This is so unexpected. I didn’t know you and Jia have been dating.”
“We haven’t been,” said Jun as if it was common knowledge. “In continuing the Lao Legacy, I do not go on… dates… like commoners. Rather, we make arrangements with potential suitors.”
“And with exactly how many other suitors are you making arrangements, Mr. Lao?” asked Mr. Choi.
“Rest assured, Mr. Choi,” Jun waved off his concern and flashed a glistening smile, “Your daughter is the only woman I have an interest in pursuing. Her repertoire far exceeds any other.”
“When were you wanting to have the wedding?” asked Mrs. Choi, perking up in her seat.
Jun opened his mouth to respond, but Mr. Choi spoke before him. “Now, now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jia is too young to get married.”
“Nonsense, dear,” Mrs. Choi chuckled. “We were the same age as Jia when we got married.”
“That was different, we were in love,” said Mr. Choi, gripping the edge of the armrest tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
“Well, Jia has yet to express interest in anyone, and she won’t find a better fit for herself than a Lao. I think it would be best to consider this offer,” Mrs. Choi spoke slow, enunciating all her words.
A smile of satisfaction spread across Jun’s face.
“Sure, Lao is a good name- it’s the best name on the island- but a name alone can’t earn a living,” Mr. Choi shifted in his chair and cleared his throat, “What is that you do, son, besides being a Lao?”
A streak of annoyance faltered Jun’s smile, and for a short moment he lost his composure. “I am the judge down at the courthouse- the one and only. It’s a very prestigious position. Not a single case is resolved on this island without my input.”
Jun and Mr. Choi stared relentlessly at each other, and neither man noticed Mrs. Choi rise from her chair to stand behind her husband. The touch of her hands massaging his shoulders caused Mr. Choi to flinch, breaking their eye contact. Mrs. Choi leaned down, her voice just above a whisper when she spoke into his ear, “See now, dear, this man has a good job. He comes from an honorable family. Clearly he’s a gentleman or he would not be here discussing such a matter with us right now. What more do you want in a man for your daughter?”
Mr. Choi opened his mouth then bit his tongue, hesitating a moment before speaking. “I’m not opposed to you… wooing my daughter. However, I don’t want to hear a word about marriage unless she can reciprocate your feelings sincerely. Jia is my only child, and her happiness is most important to me.”
“Agreed.” Jun’s eye twitched.
“Well then, we have come to an understanding,” Mrs. Choi said, removing her hands from her husbands’ shoulders only to clap them and give them a good squeeze.
“I suppose so,” said Mr. Choi, “but-” his phone rang before he could get out one last opposition. He looked down at the screen and rose to his feet immediately. “You will have to excuse me, I need to take this.” He pointed his hand holding the phone at Jun. “Remember- there will be no wedding if Jia is not in love.” He took large strides across the floor and answered the call as he left the room.
In Mr. Choi’s absence, silence fell over Mrs. Choi and Jun. With a glance at the door to ensure their privacy, Mrs. Choi shifted seats to sit directly across from Jun. She inched forward in her chair, leaning close to him, and Jun did the same. “I know what my husband said about Jia being happy and in love before, but-”
Jun raised his eyebrows. “You disagree?”
“Not exactly. He has a point, but he doesn’t see what I see. I spend all day with my daughter- much more time than he does. I know her- better than she knows herself- and I know what she wants. And honey, you’re it.”
Jun smirked. “Go on.”
“My husband is serious about you courting her,” Mrs. Choi crossed her arms over her chest, “he won’t spend a dime on a wedding unless he’s convinced Jia is seeing hearts.”
“How long do you think this will take?” Jun asked, tapping his toe against the wooden floor.
Mrs. Choi sighed. “That’s the thing- Jia… doesn’t make decisions very well. She can’t even choose what to eat for breakfast in the morning. As far as matters of the heart are concerned, she is particularly clueless.”
Jun rolled his eyes. “How long are you asking me to wait? I will not be the only person in my family to get married over the age of twenty-five.”
Mrs. Choi waved off his comment. “I’m not expecting you to wait long- not long at all. You know this marriage is a good fit. I know this marriage is a good fit. We just have to speed up the time it will take for Jia to see it too.”
Mrs. Choi leaned in even closer to Jun, and he matched her move until their heads nearly touched. “We are throwing a party for Jia’s twentieth birthday this weekend. I’ve been debating what to have as her big surprise, and you just gave me an idea. I know just what to do so you will not only ‘woo her’ but win her heart over entirely.”
“I see,” Jun’s smile returned. “So it would be worth my time to make an appearance at the party, would it?”
“Make an appearance? You’ll be the star.”