Sakura had brought some old clothes with her, so that Syaoran would suspect her prosperity. Now as she dressed for her new job, she was glad. She stepped into a neat denim skirt that matched her white cotton long-sleeved blouse. She put on soft-soled white tennis shoes and discards her Chanel purse for a black vinyl one. Then she put her hair in a neat ponytail at the top back of her head and stepped out the house to catch a bus for work.
Hong Kong was gorgeous first thing in the morning when you are located near the Hong Kong Park. This spacious part of the city was a world away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. She missed her son, Mr. Trung and even Hotaka, but the change had already revived her fighting spirit and made her feel less depressed. The incredible pressures she faced daily in her work had been getting to her lately.
Sakura stepped off the bus in front of the restaurant. It was a prosperous one, very large and attached to a hotel. She noticed through the window that all the waitresses wore spotless white uniforms. It had been a long time since she had felt nervous around people, but here, she was without the secure cocoon of her wealth to cushion or protect her, and she was ill at ease. She found the cashier and asked for the manager.
"Mrs. Dichouri is just through there," the woman said pleasantly. "Is she expecting you?"
"I think so."
Sakura knocked on the door and walked in, surprised to find the woman almost twenty years older than she was. Perhaps she'd been harboring the subconscious thought that Mrs. Dichouri might be on of Syaoran's old lovers, but she had to revise that opinion now.
"I'm . . . Kinomoto Sakura," she said hesitantly. The name sounded strange. She was so used to being called Kobayashi Karumera.
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Dichouri said, smiling as she stood up behind her huge polished wood desk. She was a tall woman, her red hair mingling with silver above a broad, happy face. "I'm Dichouri. I'm glad to meet you. Syaoran said you'd just lost your aunt and needed work. Luckily for us, we've got an opening. Have you any experience at waitressing?"
"Well, a little," Sakura replied. "I used to work at the Eagle's Nest a few years ago."
"I remember. I thought I recognized you." Her gray eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I'm sorry about your aunt. She was a sweet woman."
"I'll miss her," Sakura said softly. "She was the only real relative I had in the world left."
Mrs. Dichouri's perceptive gaze swept over Sakura, leaving no detail untouched. She nodded. "It's hard work, but the tips are good, and I'm not a slavedriver. You can start now. You'll get off at six, but you'll have to work some evenings. That's unavoidable in this business."
"I don't mind that," Sakura said easily. "I don't need my evenings free."
Mrs. Dichouri's eyebrows arched. "At your age? For heaven's sake, aren't you married?"
"No." Sakura didn't say it rudely, but there was something in her manner that made the other woman visibly uncomfortable.
"Off men, then?" Mrs. Dichouri smiled and didn't pursue it, going on to detail Sakura's duties and her salary, along with information about uniforms and territory.
Sakura was busy giving herself a lecture on keeping to the part she was playing. It wouldn't do to assume Kobayashi Karumera's persona every time someone pried too deeply. She forced a smile and listened with every indication of interest while at the back of her head she wondered how long it was going to be before Li Syaoran made his next appearance.
Late that afternoon, Syaoran walked into the gardens at the huge Li estate. His eyes lingered halfheartedly on the lawn. He remembered playing on that porch as a child, with his mother nearby, watching him. She had always been far too possessive and protective of her only son, a condition that, in later years, had caused friction between them. In fact, their relationship had fallen apart with the departure of Kinomoto Sakura. Syaoran had changed as well in visible and not so visible ways.
He hung his coat on the antique rack in the hallway and wandered absently into the elegant living room, gathering the usual impressions of pastel brocades and thick oriental carpets and the priceless Asian antiques his mother loved.
She was sitting on her wing chair, just getting off the phone. Her dark eyes lifted and she smiled at him a little too brightly. "You're home early, aren't you?" she asked.
"I finished early." He poured himself a stiff whiskey and sank into his own armchair. "I'll be out for dinner. The Matikus are hosting a business discussion on some new mineral leases."
"Business, business," she muttered. "There's more to life than making money. Syaoran, you really should marry. I've introduced you to two very nice young women, debutantes and if not them, Mei-Ling sure would love a little attention . . ."
"I won't marry," he said with a cold smile. He lifted his whiskey in a mock toast. "Not to Mei-Ling or anyone. I took the cure, in case you've forgotten."
His mother went pasty white and dropped her eyes to her thin, nervous hands, "That. . . was a long time ago."
"It was yesterday." He threw down the rest of the whiskey and got to refill his glass. Remembering was painful. "She's back in town, did you know?"
There was a funereal stillness in the room. "She?"
The word came out sounding as if his mother had choked on it. He turned. "Kinomoto Sakura. I gave her a job at the restaurant."
Li Yelan had lived with her terrible secret, and her guilt, for so long that she'd forgotten anyone else shared it. But Sakura did. Ironically, the very information she'd used to get Sakura out of the city could now be turned against her with even more devastating results. The ensuing scandal could ruin her by destroying the failing relationship with her son. She panicked.
"You mustn't!" she said frantically. "Syaoran, you mustn't get yourself involved with that woman again! You can't forget what she did to you!"
His face gave away nothing. "No, Mother, I haven't forgotten. And I'm not getting involved with her. Once was enough. Her great-aunt died."
She swallowed nervously. "I didn't know."
"I'm sure there are bills to pay, loose ends to tidy up. She came from somewhere. She'll probably go back there as soon as she's got it all together."
Yelan wasn't so sure. "She'll inherit the house."
He nodded, staring into his second whiskey. He swirled the liquid carelessly. "She'll have a roof over her head. I have no idea where she's been all these years, but I know she had nothing when she left town." His face hardened and he downed the whiskey like it was water.
"That's not true," Yelan said quickly. "She had money!"
Yelan had given her a wad of bills which Sakura had promptly returned. Sakura had always refused to believe, however, that the girl hadn't kept enough of it to get out of Hong Kong. It eased her conscience to think it.
Syaoran stared at his mother over the glass, curious about her expression about the fear in her normally calm voice. "Jun gave back the money that was supposedly stolen. Had you forgotten?"
Her face went paler. "I'm sure she had some money," she faltered, lowering her eyes with raging guilt. "She must have."
Syaoran's were thoughtful and bitter. "I was never comfortable with her part in it, he said. "Jun gave us the story as if he learned it by heart, and Sakura swore to me that he'd never touched her, that they'd never been lovers."
"A girl like that would have many lovers," Yelan said, flushing.
Syaoran's eyes went dark as he remembered the way it had been with Sakura, the fever that burned between them. He could still see her trembling because she wanted him so badly. Could she have been that way with any other man? She'd been as obsessed as he had, every bit involved. He'd been too insanely jealous and angry to listen at the time his mother had accused her. It took only a couple of days after she left town for him to begin doubting her part in the so-called theft. It really had been very convenient that Jun subsequently produced all the "stolen money," and that Yelan insisted the boy not be arrested. The whole matter blew over after Sakura left Hong Kong. But she hadn't looked guilty. She'd looked. . . defeated.
He hadn't questioned that. Perhaps he should have asked questions, but he'd deeply resented his helpless attraction to Sakura at the time. It had been almost a relief to have her out of his life, to close once and for all the door to his sexual excesses, to the headlong, wanton passion she had kindled in him. There had been a brief affair or two since then, but no woman had been able to make him lose control the Sakura had. He wasn't sure he was even capable of it now. He felt dead inside. That was how Sakura looked the last time he'd seen her, standing with her head bent in the hall of his home. She'd looked as if something inside of her had died, and her accusing eyes had burned ineradicably into his mind. He could see them even now.
He turned. "It's all past history. There's nothing left to build on, even if I was tempted. She was a fling. Nothing more."
Yelan relaxed a little. "I'm glad to hear it. Really, Syaoran, a waitress with a full-blood Mongolian for a great-uncle. Not our kind of people."
Under his heavy brows, his amber eyes glittered. "Isn't that a little snobbish for descendants of a British deserter who lived among Mongolians."
Yelan actually gasped. "We don't speak of that!"
He shrugged. "Why not? Everybody has a black sheep in the family tree."
"Don't be absurd. Sheep don't climb trees." She put down her address book. "I'll tell Jiayu that you won't be in for dinner."
She walked past him, her mind whirling with fear and new complications. She didn't know what she was going to do. She couldn't have Kinomoto Sakura in Hong Kong, not now, when she was doing to best to get Syaoran married. Dragging up an old love affair was the last thing he needed. She'd have to get Sakura out of the city, and fast before she had time to play on Syaoran's sympathy or make any hints about what had happened.
The baby. . . had she kept the baby she was carrying? Yelan ground her teeth at the thought of Syaoran's child being put up for adoption. The baby would have been a Li, her blood. She hadn't allowed herself to think of that at the time. She only considered what was past for Syaoran, and she was Sakura wasn't. She'd cut that girl out of his life with surgical precision, and if Yelan could help it, she wasn't coming back into it now. But she did want to know about the child. If Sakura hadn't had an abortion, there might be a way to get the child. She'd think about that, and about how to explain it to Syaoran without involving Sakura in his life again. Having successfully coped with the menace once, she was confident of her ability to do it again.
The day passed quickly for Sakura. She gained confidence as she worked, and she liked the people she worked with. They all accepted her at face value, helping her learn the routine and covering for her when she was slow at getting orders to customers. She especially liked a raven-haired brunette, a Mongol, like Sakura's late great-uncle.
Mealtime, however, meant crowds. The food was of sufficient variety and price to attract local people as well as the out-of-towners and tourists. The visitors liked the simple but elegant fare provided – even the northerners and some of the Westerners (American tourists). That morning she'd waited on an American gentleman who was disappointed that they serve any grits for breakfast over here. She noticed that he was back for dinner, though, and giving her frankly interested looks. She fended them off politely. Men had no part of her life anymore.
He was persistent, she gave that. Sakura was busy warding him off once again while he ordered his evening meal when a familiar face came into view at a nearby table. Syaoran. And not only Syaoran. Li Yelan, too.
Sakura used all of her skills at diplomacy to release herself from the American gentleman and quickly turned in his order. As she did, she remembered that once she'd have switched tables with another waitress to avoid Li Yelan. Those days were over. She turned and walked to the table – one of hers – with easy pleasantness, belied only by the cold cruelty of her eyes as they met Li Yelan's for the first time in six years.
"Good evening. Would you like something to drink before you order?" she asked politely.
Yelan's dark eyes flickered. "I don't drink," she said flatly. "As you might remember, Sakura."
Sakura looked straight at her, ignoring Syaoran completely. "It might surprise you what I remember, Mrs. Li," she said quietly. "And my name is Miss Kinomoto."
The older woman laughed, too high pitched and much too mocking for pleasant amusement. "My, aren't you arrogant for a waitress?" She toyed with nervously with the utensils in the place setting. "I like to see a menu."
Sakura produced two. "I'll have a glass of white wine," Syaoran told Sakura, shifting back to gauge her reactions. His mother's hostility disturbed him. Surely he was the one with grudges.
"Coming right up," Sakura said.
As she stood at the bar waiting for the drink, she took the opportunity to study her two antagonists. Syaoran was wearing a dark suit with a conservative tie. His matching Stetson was parked on a chair at the table and his think brown hair was his messy style as usual. He didn't look as if anything would ruffle him, his lean face completely without expression, and his deep-set amber eyes staring straight ahead. But his mother was fidgeting beside him. Sakura could see her eyes dart nervously from left to right.
That body language was revealing. Sakura found it as explicit as a confession. She smiled, slowly and with cold malice, and at that moment Yelan looked at her.
Her well made up face went pasty. There was something in the expression on that girl's face, Yelan thought, something in that cold stare that made her backbone turn to jelly. This wasn't the same girl she'd sent packing. No. There was something very different about Sakura now, and it made her nauseated.
Sakura took Syaoran's drink back to the table and placed it before him. She then produced her pad and pen with perfect steady fingers, mentally thanking Takao for the poise and self-confidence he'd engendered in her.
"These aren't necessary," Syaoran said curtly, pushing the menu away. "I have a steak and salad."
"So will I," Yelan said stiffly. "Rare, please. I don't like well-done meat."
"Same here," Syaoran replied.
"Two rare steaks," Sakura murmured, letting her eyes sideways to meet Syaoran's.
"Rare, not raw," he said, uncannily reading the thought in her mind, "I don't want it to get up and moo at me."
Sakura had to fight down a smile. "Yes, sir. It won't be long."
She left them to give in the order, then served it minutes later with cool courtesy.
"She's very efficient, isn't she?" Yelan said icily as they ate. "I can remember one time when she spilled coffee all down my dress, when you took me to that horrid little café for lunch."
"You made her nervous," Syaoran said tersely. He disliked the memory. His mother had gone out of her way to make Sakura uncomfortable, sniping at her constantly.
"Apparently I don't anymore," Yelan said with faint apprehension. She cut a piece of steak very delicately and raised it to her thin lips, chewing it deliberately before she swallowed. "Maybe she's married. Did you ask?"
Syaoran glared at her. "I didn't have to. She obviously isn't."
Yelan smiled. "If you say so. Odd, though, isn't it? A pretty girl of her age, still single."
"Maybe I'm a hard act to follow," Syaoran said cuttingly, and smiled in that unpleasant way that made Yelan shift on her chair.
"Don't be crude, dear. Pass me the salt, please."
Syaoran obliged her. He finished his meal, but he hardly tasted it. Watching Sakura move around the restaurant disturbed him. She was as graceful as ever. There was a new carriage about her, a new confidence combined with a total lack of inhibition. She was nothing like the shy, loving, uncertain girl he'd taken to bed so many years ago.
But she still made him burn. His reaction to her was as potent as ever, and he was fighting it with everything in him. Regardless of his mother's inexplicably hostility toward Sakura, he knew that he couldn't let the younger woman conquer his senses again. He'd been free from her, and he wanted to stay that way. Being taken over wasn't in the cards.
Never again was he going to give in to that sweet madness.
Sakura brought the check and thanked them with a friendly smile, even adding that she hoped they had a nice evening. It was the way she said it, looking straight into Li Yelan's eyes that made it a threat instead of a farewell.
Yelan was silent all the way home. No, this wouldn't do, it really wouldn't. Presumably Sakura wasn't a woman of means, even if she did now own her great-aunt's house. A little money, a few words of warning, might be enough to remove the threat once and for all. She'd work it out.
Syaoran drove down the streets, unaware of his mother's plotting. He was trying not to think about how that neat uniform covered Sakura's assets as he fought down memories once more.