Author's note: I really do apologise for this long silence. I'm sure you all have thought that I have given up on this story. I almost would have but for the fact that: (i) I promised that I would finish it; and (ii) my dear readers who have asked me to continue writing and who have been so patient and undemanding in their requests. I dedictate this chapter to you all - you know who you are!

I will keep this brief and btw your comments for chapt 18 are answered on my profile page!

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Recap of story to date:

Tsukushi's parents died in a car accident and she was left to bring up her younger brother who was diagnosed with kidney problems. She subsequently bumped into Rui (a gigolo) and Tsukasa (a rich CEO). She developed certain feelings for the former but was initially unaware of his profession. On the other hand, Tsukasa was attracted to the feisty Tsukushi and hired her as his personal assistant after taking over the firm which she was working in. Unfortunately, Tsukushi's brother, Susumu was diagnosed to be terminally ill with a failing kidney, and required an expensive kidney transplant. Because of financial difficulties, Tsukushi was forced to moonlight as a dancer in a club. Part of her unofficial duties include entertaining VIPs.

Upon discovering Tsukushi's part-time job, Rui reacted with empathy, whilst Tsukasa became extremely jealous. As events unfolded, the truth about Rui's profession came to light and his tragic past is revealed to Tsukushi. The revelation only served to strengthen their relationship. As time passed, Rui's façade cracked and he expressed his "more than brotherly feelings" for Tsukushi, but nonetheless told her that they could never be together.

On the other hand, a series of events led Tsukasa to misunderstand the nature of Tsukushi's role in entertaining the clients, and she was subjected to his fits of jealously. At the same time, Tsukasa was pressured to continue a loveless marriage with Shigeru in order to support the merger of their parents' businesses. He was about to give up on Tsukushi when he ran into Tsukushi being propositioned by a "prospective client". Disillusioned with what he thought Tsukushi actually was (or had become), he rescued her but asked her to be his mistress. Equally disillusioned with Tsukasa and faced with the harsh reality that she was incapable of saving her beloved brother through her own efforts, she finally submitted.

After consummating their relationship, Tsukasa was stunned to realise the extent that he had maligned her and hired a private investigator who revealed the truth. He subsequently strugged with his own guilt and regret, knowing that Tsukushi was unlikely to forgive his his transgressions. Nonetheless, he tried to make amends in true Tsukasa fashion which only made things worse. Having to cope with everything happening to him including work, personal relationships and the media, he loses control again one drunken night.

Last chapter: Tsukushi is devasted to discover from the media that Tsukasa is apparently a married man and very much "in love" with his wife. Unaware that the media had revealed the 'truth' before he could provide his own version, Tsukasa continues to work towards gaining Tsukushi's forgiveness. However, Tsukushi instead asks for her freedom because she did not want to hurt his wife. They had a row and Tsukasa ended up injuring his hand. Tsukushi is slightly moved when she sees the efforts that Tsukasa has made. In the meantime, when Rui tried to visit Tsukushi at "The Den", he was informed that she had resigned ... ...

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"Ark speaking."

"Akira, it's me."

There was a pause and then, "what's up?" The surprise in his voice was unable to mask the underlying concern.

"I need a favour."

Akira listened quietly, but his eyes widened momentarily in surprise, "are you certain?" Then, "okay, I'll try my best. But my advice for you is … …" "Alright, I'm glad you know."

After he hung up, he stared at the phone in silence for a few seconds. Then Akira shook his head in resignation, heaved a sigh, and reached for the phone again.

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Tsukasa looked up from the contract that he had been staring at for the last ten minutes, when the door to his office was thrown open unceremoniously with a boisterous, "heeey, Tsukasa!"

His new secretary was sounding rather stressed as she attempted to stop the intruder from entering, "… … says he is not seeing anyone. I must insist … …" However, the impossible man simply gave her an impudent wink and then shut the door in her face. Tsukasa sighed in resignation and rubbed his eyes with a weary hand, feeling an impending headache as an overly cheerful Soujirou flounced over to his desk.

"What's up with that anti-social attitude? And what kind of a friend are you? You didn't even tell me that you were married to that lovely young lady … …" He raised his eyebrows at Tsukasa suggestively.

"Shut the fk up," Tsukasa growled out as he rubbed his now throbbing temples. "Didn't know you are such a gossipy old woman."

"Awww, I'm so hurt! Anyway, I figured you'd be hiding in your office like a grouchy bear. Let's go for lunch." His rapid change in subjects was making Tsukasa's head spin.

"No."

"Come on!"

"Look, I said no," Tsukasa raised one eyebrow at his friend's strange behaviour. Soujirou appeared to be about to break into a pout at any moment. "What's up with you? You are acting so … …" He caught himself in time before he almost slipped and mentioned the word "gay". That thought was associated with extremely unpleasant flashbacks of certain activities that his friend had been indulging in when he last saw him. Tsukasa quickly shook his head to get rid of the mental pictures.

"Sorry?" He realised that he had missed a chunk of Soujirou's monologue.

"Just get your lazy butt off that chair!" Soujirou's rolled his eyes, "if I have to suffer through the opening ceremony of yet another new line of Taikato's restaurants, you are going to be tortured along with me."

"But that's what you get paid for … …" Tsukasa protested.

"Is he not one of our biggest clients?"

"Yes, but … …"

"Did you not promise him that you would be around when he opens his new restaurant chain?"

"Yes, but … …"

"There you have it!" In spite of his resistance, Tsukasa found himself sitting next to his manipulative friend as they were being driven to the function which he had no intention of attending. With a heavy sigh, Tsukasa leant back and closed his eyes. At least this confirmed his belief in Soujirou's power of persuasion which made the latter an excellent PR director and worth his weight to the company in gold.

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Feeling tired of moping around at home and failing to find any solution for her predicament, Tsukushi decided to pick Susumu up from his school. She was rather surprised at the lack of resistance shown by the gardener/chauffeur when she insisted on going with him. However, knowing that her brother would be teased by his classmates if they knew that his sister was bringing him home, she remained in the car.

Her reward was a large smile from Susumu when he got into the car, before he started the usual protests of being too old to be "babied" by his elder sister. He promptly received a smack on his head for his pains. However, Susumu was secretly rather relieved that his sister seemed to be more herself, instead of the preoccupied stranger who had taken her place during the past few days.

"Are you currently on holidays, sis?" Susumu asked when they were having lunch. She was grateful for the spoonful of pasta in her mouth which gave her the few extra seconds required to formulate a reasonable reply.

"Yes, I took a few days off so that we can settle in here. Why, sick of my company so soon, brat?"

"Don't call me brat," was his automatic reply. "How can we afford to stay here, Kushi?" His worry was reflected in his voice.

Tsukushi swallowed the pasta together with the lump in her throat before replying, "you know I'm going out with Tsukasa right?" He nodded. "Well, he owns this place. The original tenant was going away for a few months and wanted someone to housesit. So, Tsukasa thought of us immediately." She held her breath, but her brother accepted her explanation immediately.

"That's great! I love the pool and the video games … …" His wide grin faded at the stern expression on his sister's face. "I'll only play after I finish my homework, ok? Please?" She soon relented.

"Alright, however, it's now time for your afternoon nap. Make sure you finish your homework when you wake up," she gave him a playful swat on his behind that made him scramble upstairs to his new room, grumbling about annoying, dictatorial elder sisters along the way. Tsukushi brushed aside the maid's objections and quickly cleaned up the place, before heading out to the garden for some fresh air.

Sitting under a huge tree of an unknown species, Tsukushi was soon lost in her troubled thoughts about her brother's illness, her job and their future. However, somehow a bad-tempered, arrogant and darkly handsome brute, who had unfeelingly torn her away from her old life, kept coming to mind. Lost in her contemplations, Tsukushi failed to notice the second shadow that had crept up and was superimposed on the shadow of the tree.

"Tsukushi." She reacted like a startled deer when a voice suddenly interrupted her reverie, leaping to her feet and spinning around to face the intruder who appeared to be equally taken aback by her violent reaction.

"Rui," the words were formed on Tsukushi's suddenly pale lips. He quickly stepped forward and slid a supporting arm around her waist to steady her, and gently steered her to a nearby bench.

After the initial shock and subsequent dizziness had faded, Tsukushi found herself looking down at her hands that were tightly clutched in her lap, unable to muster up sufficient courage to meet Rui's understanding gaze.

"How did you find me?" Tsukushi asked tonelessly as she continued to stare at her hands.

"You mentioned the name of your brother's school. I was waiting there and followed your car back."

"How did you manage to get in?"

"I climbed over the wall." Rui paused for a second and then asked quietly, "why didn't you look for me?"

"I couldn't … and in a way, the choice was taken out of my hands." Prompted by Rui, Tsukushi haltingly told him the gist of the story, leaving out certain events that had transpired between herself and Tsukasa. Even the abbreviated version of the tale had him balling his hands into fists by the end of it.

A sense of helpless rage consumed Rui as he looked at the bowed head before him. He cursed himself silently for his inability to prevent her destruction, for he knew only too well how the purest hearts would be crushed under the scorn which society would heap upon them, and the shame which their own conscience would smite them with.

"I wish I could have spared you this … …" the words seemed even more empty and futile when spoken aloud.

"No, I'm so grateful for what you have done for me, Rui." Embarrassment was forgotten for an instance as Tsukushi placed her hand on Rui's arm and looked at him earnestly, wanting to convince him of her sincerity. Knowing that physical contact with a man might not be welcome at this point in time, Rui restrained an urge to crush her to him and comfort her. When she recalled herself and withdrew her hand immediately, he swiftly brought up the issue of her brother.

"If you need someone at any time, please contact me." He made her promise, although they both knew that she would never take up his offer.

"Take care, Rui, and thanks so much again." Although unspoken, they both knew that Tuskasa was a very jealous and possessive man, and that they would rarely run into each other in future. Bending down, Rui brushed his lips against her forehead and left as silently and abruptly as he had arrived. The sense of loss that followed his departure and the hollow ache in Tsukushi's chest remained even after shedding tears in the privacy of her room … …

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"Come in … …" Tuskasa growled and his eyes widened in surprise when it was not his new secretary, but Tsukushi, who walked into his office. He watched her warily as she took her usual seat in front of his desk and flipped open the dictation pad.

"Ready when you are, sir." He bit back a suggestive response and decided to go along with her. Much to his consternation, she avoided looking at him the entire day and kept out of his way when possible as she went about her usual duties. Although grateful for Tsukushi's help, the new secretary was rather suspicious of her intentions. She could hardly blame the relatively incompetent chit for worrying that she might lose her position. At the end of the long day, Tsukushi was summoned to Tsukasa's office.

He greeted her with a scowl and an accusation, "what game are you playing?" For the first time that day, she met Tuskasa's narrowed eyes.

"I'm just doing my job," she said defensively. "You never mentioned anything about me having to resign."

"I thought you wouldn't want to work anymore." He lifted his hand to stop her indignant protests, "I thought you'd want to spend more time with your brother." His unexpectedly thoughtful comment took the wind out from her sails, just as she was about to launch into the many reasons why she should be doing something useful instead of languishing in the house whilst he was working.

Then her eyes narrowed suspiciously, "how did you know about my brother?"

"I have my contacts," was his enigmatic reply.

"You have no right … …" she began.

"… … to know how you are spending my money?" He cut her off. "Perhaps you are right, but I couldn't help but notice how often you visit the hospital." He lied through his teeth, "I have to protect my investment."

"You thought I was seeing someone at the hospital behind your back? You are an unfeeling bastard!"

"Technically, my parents would disagree with you," he made an effort to appear disinterested. "Your outbursts bore me, and besides, with a little pull I could get your brother admitted into the best hospitals and to operated on by the best surgeons." Realising the truth in his words, Tsukushi held back her angry tirade with some effort.

"I have already arranged with Susumu's current doctor for one of the best surgeons in US to be in charge of his case. He will receive the best treatment possible. Now you can go."

Taken aback by his rather abrupt dismissal, Tsukushi obeyed instinctively and walked to the door. However, she hesitated when her hand touched the doorknob, as she reconsidered his words. Tsukushi turned back just in time to see Tsukasa close his eyes wearily as he hunched forward and rubbed his temples. Perhaps it was gratitude for his unexpected generosity and the realisation that his bark was worse than his bite, or perhaps it was an impulse born of seeing the strangely vulnerable side of this stern and unyielding man, Tsukushi found herself walking silently back to his side.

"Thank you," before he could react to those softly whispered words, Tsukasa felt a pair of lips lightly brushing his brow. He froze for a moment and raised his head just in time to see Tsukushi's slight figure fleeing from the room. The ghost of a smile appeared on his lips and an indescribable warmth filled his heart as his fingers touched the area where her lips had briefly landed.