Disclaimer: Candy Candy and all characters belong to Kyoko Mizuki, images to Yumiko Igarashi and anime to Toei Animation.

Note: I'd like to give my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have taken the time to write reviews to me either here on fanfiction or on my blog! Some of you have written to me in private to encourage me as well, so thank you! I appreciate all your feedback (long and short ones included) very much, which certainly motivate me to keep writing.

As I have mentioned before, this chapter was originally part of the previous chapter. Rather than giving you another cliffhanger, I have decided to split it up so that I can write a little more for this update. I hope you will like it. If you spot anything wrong, please don't hesitate to let me know. Thank you in advance!

Enjoy the rest of your summer or winter, wherever you are!

-Ms Puddle

Chapter 33: Pendant

Although Terry had left, for a long moment, neither Albert nor Candy moved, keeping their distance while staring at each other with thoughts in their heads. Albert didn't want to scare Candy away again because the last thing he wanted was another chasing game. Little did he know that Candy's mind was still reeling from what had just occurred. Terry had bid her goodbye, but Albert had returned. With so many feelings mixed together, she didn't quite hear their conversation earlier, but she found solace to see that the men had seemed to be in good terms.

Meanwhile, Albert figured one of them had to make a first move, so he started taking a cautious step toward her, calling her, "Candy..." But the content of her departing letter flashed across his mind, and a bleak thought that followed made him hesitate. Who am I to her now? Although she has turned down Terry, who said she would take me back? Yes she might have murmured my name in her dreams, but I could have been mistaken...

His voice jolted her from her reverie, bringing her mind back to the present. His hesitation nearly snapped her heart in two. After all, she had been the one who had hurt his feelings by deserting him. Although she still wanted an explanation why he had brought Terry to her, she shoveled her doubts to the back of her mind for now and sprinted toward him. Noting that his countenance was lustrous with hope in an instant, she increased her pace, putting all her focus on him. Hence, she neglected to notice the uneven pavement, and she stumbled on her way. On the other hand, as soon as she had started dashing toward him, he bounded forward as well, his long legs carrying him across the distance between them in a few steps. Therefore, he could grab her upper arms just in time to save her from skinning her knees. When their gaze met, they saw love and longing in each other's eyes. Immediately, waves of relief washed over Albert, and at that very moment, their heavy breathing was the only sound in the world to him, like all the ambient noise from people talking around them was gone. Then he heard her, "I'm so sor-"

She couldn't finish her apology however. She was completely caught off guard when he clutched her in a fierce hug that lifted her to her toes and nearly crushed the air out of her lungs. His right hand cradled the back of her head, pressing her face against his broad shoulder. His left arm wrapped around her petite frame so tightly as though he wanted to leave finger impressions on her back. He could hear the authentic sorrow in her voice, and that was more than enough to him.

For a second, she couldn't help but wonder, am I dreaming? This is too wonderful to be real… What was taking place was in fact very similar to one of her latest dreams of reuniting with him. She recalled how she had woken up in the middle of the night right after that dream, feeling utterly disoriented. She had even got off her bed, looking for him through the darkness. Only when she had tripped near the end of her bed had the reality come back to her like a blow. Feeling absolutely devastated, she had clambered back into her bed and curled into a ball, crying into her pillow for a long time afterwards. Luckily, Molly had had a night shift, so Candy wouldn't have to explain her grief to anyone.

Right now, he held her so close that she could feel his heart thumping against her chest and his warm breath fanning the crook of her neck. Being securely embraced in his acceptance and enveloped by his familiar comforting smell, the worries that had assailed her earlier about him getting over her had vanished in no time. How many times had she secretly wished that he would show up out of nowhere? Her wish was granted at long last, and more importantly, he still loved her. Thus, she determined to savor this sweet embrace to the fullest extent; she buried her face into his shoulder with a happy sigh, gathering him in her arms and holding him with all her might as if she couldn't bear to let him go.

She felt whole again being back in his sheltering arms, and that deep hollow in her heart was brimmed with affection and glee. At the same time, her heart was as light as a leaf dancing on the wind. The sense of satisfaction was simply beyond description. The closest analogy she could think of was that she was on the brink of thirsting to death, but she could finally reach a spring of fresh water. The next thing she knew tears of joy were streaming down her cheeks.

Meanwhile, her strong reaction to his hug had stirred his heart and soul immeasurably, and he couldn't stop moisture from forming in his eyes. There was an element of unreality to him, especially after all this time of trying to reach her and dealing with his own problems and Terry. Yet he soon felt his shirt near his shoulder getting wet, and he could feel her body shaking slightly from sobbing too, so he rubbed her back in slow motion, attempting to console her. For what felt like a long time, neither seemed to care about propriety; they stood with their bodies pressed together and arms tangled around each other. However, as much as he wanted time to freeze so that he could continue to hold her like that, he should get down to business and handle the unresolved issues between them before he boarded the train, so he reluctantly loosened his grip and pulled away.

But to her, his action was quite unexpected, so she lost her balance and gasped like a drowning child who got pulled into the ocean by a big wave. He instantly responded by holding her shoulders to steady her until she found her footing. Once she had collected herself, she looked up at him with a simper, and he remarked yearningly, "Oh God! I miss you and your smile, Candy."

The nostalgia in his eyes implied that his mind had been meandering through his precious memories with her, so she apologized again in a husky voice, "Sorry for-"

"Hush..." He put a finger to her lips to stop her and shook his head, regarding her with a tender yet penetrating gaze. "George and Herbert have told me everything."

"Still-" she seemed unyielding, but she abruptly held her tongue because he started brushing his fingers down the side of her face, lovingly wiping away her tears. He couldn't possibly know how much she missed the feeling of his touch! Without second thought, she covered that hand of his and returned a smile that was even more charming. Then he took her other hand and beseeched, "Candy, if you're sorry… then... do not depart from me ever again."

He paused briefly to look her straight in the eyes. It was impossible not to notice the melancholic look in his blue ones. Then he resumed his heartfelt plea that he had rehearsed several times, "I need you to complete me. I can't care less about what others think of me. I just know that without you in my life, I feel myself withering each day, consumed by loneliness and emptiness."

Albert wasn't really reproaching her, but he had no clue how closely his description mirrored Candy's experience over the last few weeks; she had felt herself wilting as well. With tremendous regret, she let go of his hand and averted her eyes, unsure how to respond. In the middle of articulating her thoughts, she found the very notion of severing herself from him again intolerable if not frightening. At this instant, what she had experienced earlier resurfaced in her mind. Her assumption that Albert had left her for good had horrified her. She had realized that Albert meant the world to her. So now, even the imagination of losing him vexed her terribly.

However, she still had a nagging dread about the obvious social gap between them. To most people, especially Great Aunt Elroy and the Leagans, Candy was but a woman of lowly birth. She was probably innocent, but not ignorant. Wealthy men in high society having mistresses was a well known phenomenon. So was that what Albert wanted? If so, was that the kind of life she would accept? Yet, if she said no to him now, did it mean that they would not see each other again?

While she remained pensively silent, he got nervous and scrutinized her face for signs of denial. "What's the matter, Candy? Are you thinking of separat-?"

"No!" she hastily reacted by shaking her head before he could finish his question. "Albert, don't get me wrong. It's just that..."

She faltered as she didn't want to be blunt. On the other hand, he had a hunch of what was bothering her, so he pulled her back into his arms and asserted, "Candy, let me go straight to the point. I will definitely deal with my aunt, and I won't let her harm you again."

She wasn't surprised at all that he had seen through her. Deep in her heart, she genuinely wanted to believe him. She really disliked going back to those days when she must admit to herself every morning that she had to carry on her life without the man who had occupied her heart. However, she wondered if what he had claimed was something easier said than done. Thus, she craned her neck to look at him with mixed feelings.

He nodded at her again, a reassuring smile pulling the corners of his lips, but her somber expression made him apprehensive nonetheless. Knowing that he couldn't wait forever, he uttered wistfully, "I wish I could spend the whole day with you, Candy, but I actually have a train to catch."

She took in a sharp breath, covering her mouth in total shock and disbelief. "What? You're leaving already?"

His smile turned rueful, and he nodded with a sigh of resignation. "I will explain if time permits. But anyway, since your friend Molly is substituting for you, is it possible that you go to the train station with me?"

She opened her eyes wider in astonishment and screeched, "Oh my God! I have completely lost track of time!"

Out of the blue, sounds of laughter drifted to their ears. Only then they found that the area had been extraordinarily quiet until now, and they realized that they had spectators. About a dozen of people were watching them. Candy gasped and quickly untangled herself from Albert's arms, but in a split second Albert decided to take advantage of the current situation. He knelt down on one knee in front of her, and as he had expected, people started cheering for him, so he raised his voice exaggeratingly, "My dearest Candice White, I promise to love you and take care of you, for better, for worse, for richer-"

Candy could scarcely believe this was happening. She was profusely flushed, her face and ears burning from embarrassment, so she hunched forward and grasped his hands, pleading with all honesty, "Please, Albert, I beg you, get up immediately!"

A man then hollered, "Just say yes!"

A great commotion ensued, and Candy gestured with her eyes for Albert to get away from this place. Yet with his expression turning even more solemn, he conjured her to hear him by giving her hands a squeeze, "Candy, come back to me and let me protect you. I still want to marry you, and don't forget that we have promised each other to share the pain and sorrows in life."

Although it was very noisy now, she could still hear his words clearly. Emotions overcame her then, and she collapsed and broke down in tears. Yes, he had mentioned in his letter to her that his proposal had remained sound, but she had never expected the powerful Sir William would actually propose to her again, even before all these strangers.

However, too much had transpired today, which had messed with her head and muddled her brain. Hence, she required some time to register the events and talk to Albert alone without the prying eyes. Just then, her stomach rumbled, which was a good excuse she could use. "Albert, please, I'm starving now... Let's just end this and discuss somewhere else in private, please?"

It looked like something just struck Albert hard. Despite feeling disheartened and perplexed, he soon reckoned that Candy might have felt imposed. He should have given her more time to consider, and it was plausible that she did not appreciate this kind of extreme behavior. At least she hadn't turned him down yet and even suggested that they should talk again, so he held onto his hope. He clasped her fingers with his, nodding with an understanding look and pulling himself up to his full height. She let him hold her hand while keeping her head low, avoiding eye contact with anybody. However, what Albert did next was thoroughly unanticipated. He made a small theatrical bow like a performer, and they responded with a round of applause. While they supposed the nurse had agreed to the young man's proposal, he exclaimed, "I won't give up! So goodbye, everyone!"

Albert then turned to Candy, giving her hand a tug. She understood his signal and left the cheering crowd with him. Moments later, when they were far enough, he asked her again if she could go to the train station with him.

"So when's your train leaving, Albert?"

She then suggested him wait for her by the main entrance; she should change out of her uniform first before she could go out with him.

=o=o=o=

"What's up? Are you certain that you have located her this time?" With a wry smile, Neil jeered at his private investigator, who had just climbed into the passenger's side of Neil's car, which was parked one block away from his family villa in the remote area.

The man's face broke into a broad grin as he closed the door. "Absolutely, or else I wouldn't have contacted you at all, Mr. Leagan."

Then the man retrieved an envelope from his suit pocket, passing it to the young man. "Here, Mr. Leagan, you can check it yourself if this is the one you wanted."

The man then tidied his short hair with his fingers, wearing a confident smile. Neil swiftly opened the envelope and slid the content out. It was a photograph of Candy dressed in a nurse uniform. Though she looked like a lost fawn and wasn't smiling at all, Neil found her forlorn look even more endearing. "Wonderful! Looks like you have indeed pinpointed the right person this time!"

As a matter of fact, soon after Neil's failed attempt to take Candy away by force that rainy night, he had returned to her apartment again and resumed his stalking business. Yet after a few days of not seeing her at all, neither her apartment building nor that dilapidated clinic in the park, he had begun to wonder if she had moved. His suspicion had been confirmed by the landlady of the House of Magnolia, who had refused to disclose anything else other than that Candy had indeed vacated her apartment. Then Neil had discovered that chef boyfriend of hers had also quit his job at the restaurant. Have they eloped for real this time?

Unwilling to give up yet, Neil had hired a private investigator to help. He had been the same guy who had lured Candy to follow him, lying to her that Terry had arrived at Chicago and waiting for her. Unfortunately, Neil had been utterly clueless of where the young couple could have possibly gone. Hence, the investigator had searched the hospitals, clinics and even restaurants in both Chicago and its outskirts but to no avail. The man had come back with photographs of several young women having some resemblance to the blond nurse, but none had been Candy.

As a result, Neil had been extremely frustrated and ordered the man to check Pony's Home. Days later, this man had called him up, claiming that he had found her finally.

"So which hospital is she working now?" asked Neil, still staring at her picture in his hand.

"Mary Jane Nursing School, Mr. Leagan," answered the man with a complacent smirk on his face.

"Where does she live?" Neil sounded casual although he was dying to know if she had moved in with her boyfriend.

"In the dormitory for sure."

Neil was glad despite being reluctant to admit the man's words were almost soothing to his ears. "Very well then."

So Neil put Candy's picture aside and retrieved a thick envelope from his briefcase. "Here is your reward. I will contact you if I want your service again."

"Of course, Mr. Leagan. Have a good day!" The man put the thick envelope safely in his pocket before he opened the passenger door.

=o=o=o=

When Candy passed by the principal's office, the door of which was swung open. The stern looking principal standing near the threshold was more than surprised to see Candy here. "So you're back! Did you find your fiancé?"

The nurse was mortified, aware that she shouldn't keep referring to Albert as her fiancé. Yet, this was not the time to talk about this, so Candy simply nodded with a sheepish smile and replied, "Yes, I did, and I'm about to see him off at the train station."

"Oh!" uttered the principal, frowning in concern. "So do you need extra time-off from work?"

Candy was profoundly touched. The principal might appear stoic and reserved, but deep inside she was caring and understanding. Yet Candy didn't want to trouble other nurses unnecessarily, so she answered, "Madam, thank you for your kindness. I think I should be able to come back on time."

Madam Mary Jane had made that offer because she was amazed how finding her love had changed Candy, who looked like a totally different person now. While the blond nurse had been highly distressed before, now her face practically glowed with bliss. In short, she was obviously rejuvenated. So the principal mildly reprimanded, "OK. You'd better keep your words!"

Her chiding struck a chord with the young nurse, who acknowledged that she had not only broken her promise to Albert that she would fight for their love regardless of the cost together but also forgotten that they had promised to share everything with each other, which Albert had reminded her during his proposal. Nevertheless, Candy composed herself and gave the principal a polite nod before she headed towards the dormitory.

The principal almost couldn't believe her eyes. The nurse was skipping down the hall, not walking. Then the old lady shook her head and let out a sigh, wondering if she should find someone to back her up this late afternoon just in case. Besides, who could predict how much longer the blond nurse would continue to work in this hospital?

As soon as Candy was ready, she hurried her way back to the front entrance, but she was baffled not to find Albert there waiting for her. She panicked, what's happening? Where did he go? Did he misconstrue me somehow?

Within seconds, a voice came from her left, "Hi there!"

She froze, and a relieved smile instantly crept on her face. She knew that voice so well it could have been her own. Then he sneaked up and quietly slipped his hand into hers. Feeling the warmth of his hand, which molded perfectly with hers, she looked up and grinned at him, asking, "Where have you been?"

"See this?" he remarked with a chuckle, flashing a lunch bag in his hand. "I bought two sandwiches for us. I haven't eaten either."

Candy swiftly took that lunch bag and brought it to her nose. She sniffed, "Mmmmm... it smells good!" Her appetite had come back in full force. Albert was so glad to see that she had returned to her cheerful self, and at this point she lowered her arm and asked, "Shall we go now?"

He gave it a thought. "I still have a bit of time. Is there a bench somewhere so that we can talk?"

She nodded eagerly, her face breaking into a smile of innocent pleasure. She held his hand and led the way, sauntering down one of the gravel paths behind the hospital, past the shady trees, flowers and bushes in a well manicured garden. All the while she was smiling so hard that her face hurt. She couldn't be happier to be with him again. Only a few nurses were pushing the patients in wheelchairs, and they were scattered around the place.

When the blond couple reached a huge tree in a secluded corner, she winked at him, and he grasped her intention by winking back. Hence, they climbed to one of the top branches, and they sat down together side-by-side and enjoyed their lunch with a very nice view of the city.

Later, after Albert had done eating, he leaned his back on the trunk and took a deep breath of content as a gentle breeze caressed them softly, ruffling Candy's blond tresses. He reached out to gently comb his fingers through her curls, holding her eyes with his steadfast gaze. Then she responded by caressing his cheek, which warmed his heart. They continued relishing their time together like this until he suddenly snaked his arms around her from behind and drew her back to his chest, causing her to make an audible gasp. Then he kissed her velvety skin near her temple and whispered, his breath tickling her ear, "I can't help it... told you I missed you so much... and I'm leaving very soon."

"Albert..." she whispered back. How could she resist him? She had longed to soak up his body warmth. "I have been feeling down too... I also missed you very much."

As though she wanted to prove herself, she snuggled up to him, and at this point, he added in a sorrowful tone, "Candy, I shouldn't have acted on my impulse just now. I didn't intend to pressure you or anything, but I meant everything I said to you, and I shall see to it that you will find peace and rest in my arms." Right after this, he tightened his arms, holding her even closer to him, which made her heart thump like a loud bass drum.

Then the unforgettable moments when they had shared their vulnerable feelings with each other that late evening in Chicago Nature Park rushed back to her memory in a startling instant. Having the lake and the trees as his witnesses, Albert had proclaimed that he would always love her regardless of who he would turn out to be. In other words, he had kept his promise. No matter how mortified she had felt earlier, his candid marriage proposal in front of all those people had moved her to tears. He knew his true identity now, and yet he still wanted her to be his wife, not just girlfriend or mistress.

In fact, now that they had reunited, she felt so high-spirited that she indeed felt she could face any trouble or strife that came their way; they could give each other the strength and loving support they needed. That reminded her of her own words to him right before sharing their very first real kiss. She had told him back then, "When we have each other, we can face the unknown future."

While her mind was seemingly a thousand miles away, her face was close enough that he could feel her breath on his jaw. It made his pulse quicken, and the next thing he knew his eyes had already fixed on her rosy lips.

At this moment, she heaved a sigh. "Can we really beat the odds? I mean I am just a nobody-"

He couldn't help running his thumb over her soft lips, staring at her with passion in his eyes. She was startled and ceased talking entirely. Then he moved agonizingly slow to close their gap. While waiting in anticipation, her stomach fluttered and her pulse soared to a pace resembling panic level. However, when he got about less than an inch from her lips, he paused shortly before he kissed the corner of her mouth.

His lips were gentle and warm, but he pulled away too soon. Needless to say, she was more than disappointed. She didn't even have a chance to kiss him back. Unbeknownst to her, he had determined not to kiss her lips until she agreed to marry him.

"Nobody?" he echoed, wondering if she could hear his heartbeat roar. "Everybody is equal in God's eyes, Candy."

She bit her bottom lip and replied dejectedly, looking downward, "But you know what I mean, Albert. Not everyone thinks like you do."

He cleared his throat to catch her attention and clarified, "I love you for who you are, not because of your family or background."

She said nothing after that. While envisioning herself as the wife of the heir to the clan, she felt a little nervous and excited but most of all scared. Oblivious to her thoughts, he gently lifted her chin to make her meet his eyes. "Don't you trust me?"

"I wish I could..." she began, and she realized that he might take it the wrong way, so she corrected herself at once, "No I mean I do trust you but what about your engagement with... what's her name?"

He exhaled a long sigh of exhaustion and started telling her what he had done ever since he had recovered his memory, omitting details of his attempt to contact Miss Beatrice. He deliberately delayed talking about his betrothed because he would also have to inform Candy of the crisis he was about to face, and that could easily overwhelm Candy.

Later, when Candy heard that Herbert had offered to help, her eyes sparkled with moisture. In addition, she learned that she had totally misunderstood why Albert had shown up with Terry. "So Albert, how much did you tell Terry about yourself?"

He answered her question, but he chose not to ask her anything else about her encounter with Terry just now. Yet she volunteered to explain how she had jumped to conclusions when she had seen Terry with him. He then remarked, "I see! So you thought I was leading you back to him?"

She defended herself with a mock scowl on her face, "Because you acted so... so distant! Obviously holding yourself back and all that!"

An amused chuckle escaped his throat. Then he countered by teasing her, "What did you expect me to do, huh?"

As she stuck her tongue out in a silly manner, he leaned in a little more and bantered, "Did you expect me to kiss you senseless in front of your friend and Terry?"

She gave a hearty laugh, and he placed a peck on her face. After that, he let out a small sigh, and she swiftly gathered herself and furrowed her brows. "What's wrong?"

"Seriously, Candy, you're right. I held myself back because I wasn't even sure if you wanted to see me again. In your letter you explicitly requested me not to find you so as not to make your life even harder, remember?"

She nodded, dropping her gaze in remorse. Then he continued, "So when I saw you with Terry afterwards, I was actually afraid that he had been right... that I was only your second choice..."

In no time, she looked up to meet his beautiful blue eyes, shaking her head violently. She then opened her mouth, apparently wanted to say something, but he stopped her by putting a finger to her lips. "Tell you what, although I wanted you back badly, I had prepared myself for that outcome. All I needed was a clear confirmation from you that you had no more feelings for me..."

As his voice trailed off, he stared into a distance. Then she mumbled with a shaky voice, "Albert."

Upon hearing that, he brought his eyes back to her, and she leaned forward to kiss him on his cheek. He responded by kissing her forehead, lingeringly this time. Then he remarked, "I just want you to be happy, Candy."

With deep appreciation she expressed her gratitude, "Thank you for always putting my happiness before yours."

His lips curled up into a smile at her remark, and she commented with a soft sigh, "Terry has matured a lot I must say. I wish that he will be a successful actor again in Broadway."

"Same here. He deserves happiness too. Back then, with such a heavy burden on his shoulders, he really had no choice but to break up with you... to set you free..." he said thoughtfully. "On my way here on the train, I came to realize that fate had dealt Terry a cruel hand. Tragedy had been thrusted upon him when Susanna had been seriously injured due to the accident... as though he had suddenly lost the right to seek his own path."

Thereafter, they just sat there huddled together in amiable silence until Albert spoke up with regret evident in his voice, "I know I intentionally hid the truth from you when we met near the waterfall, misleading you to think that I was a vagabond, but believe me, I really wanted to watch over you as your friend, even after the adoption." [1]

With a forgiving nod she answered, "Yes, George said that you had been under obligation to keep your identity a secret."

Then Albert followed up and told her that he would file an official request to annul their adoptive relationship as soon as he returned to Chicago. "Talking about that..." he mumbled as he took a glance at his wristwatch. "We'd better get going now, Candy."

So he climbed down first while checking the surroundings simultaneously. They were the only ones here, so by the time she got down, he held both her hands and asked with love in his eyes, "Let me continue where I left off. Candy, will you marry me and be my wife?"

Astonishment painted on every feature of her expression. She thought he had dropped the matter, but he broached it again. As her mind teetered back and forth between her alternatives, he feigned his doubts amidst their silence, "You don't love me anymore?"

"You know I love you so much, Albert!" Her response couldn't be faster, her expression more solemn and resolute than ever.

He stared at her for a moment longer as if he was trying to piece her together. "Then why? You want me to kneel down again?"

Before she could say a word, he was already bending one of his knees, but she stopped him just in time. "There's no need!"

"So?" he asked patiently while straightening up, his eyes unwavering.

After another moment of consideration, she took a deep breath and made up her mind. Then she answered cryptically, "All I know is that I want to be in the place where I am meant to be."

Mischief gleamed in her eyes this time, and he was genuinely at a loss. "That is...?"

Without warning, she flung her arms around him, clasping her hands possessively at the nape of his neck and hollering, "I'd rather be at your side, facing all kinds of hurdles and conflicts with you, than somewhere else in my comfort zone but alone."

Her life without Albert had been nothing but misery, like she had been torn badly inside and a big chunk had been missing since then. Besides, Albert had reminded her over and over that he was willing to fight for their love, so she should brace herself and fight with him. Even Terry urged her not to shrink back, so she resolved to stand her ground and take the risks. After all, she got nothing to lose.

Caught by rapture, Albert wrapped his arms around her protectively and twirled her around, and she giggled out loud. He was laughing in her ear, and she felt an ecstatic grin burn across her face too. When he slowed down, he sealed her lips with a kiss that stole her breath. It was just as intoxicating as she remembered, and she kissed him back with abandon, an abandon that made his desires flare. It felt like ages since he had last tasted her luscious lips, so his kisses were desperate, hungry and filled with longing and passion, which sent waves of pleasures throughout her body, from her head to her toes. As his sensual mouth moved ardently against hers, she felt her body turning jelly in his strong arms, so he brought her even closer to him such that she could lean her body weight on him. Feeling his heart pounding furiously in his chest, she felt like she could drown in indescribable sensations, which were so sharp and piercing, likely due to weeks of yearning to feel his touch and hear his voice again. As they were engaged in fervent kissing, they were both so emotional that tears were flooding their eyes, but they refused to stop. For a long time they clung to each other until breathing had become a necessity. So he gave her one last graze of a kiss and broke off.

Panting heavily, he produced a velvety box from his pocket and opened it for her. To her surprise, it was an exquisite ruby pendant. "This is my gift... to you. So, may I?"

She shyly nodded, her chest heaving. She then spun around, letting him help her put on the necklace. Right after that, he gently turned her around and rested his hands on her delicate shoulders, taking in the sight of this beautiful lady before him. He still found it surreal that she had finally agreed to marry him. It had taken him a lot of convincing, but she was definitely worth the hardship. She didn't care much about his money, and she had rather sacrificed herself because she was afraid that she would only ruin him. Where else could he possibly find another woman who would love him this much?

So he spoke to her in a tender voice, "My aunt knows this pendant by heart, and I've already informed her that I will give this to my future wife. Therefore, when she sees you wearing it, she will comprehend what it means."

She nodded enthusiastically and regarded him with affection, her round emerald orbs smiling under her glamorous golden hair and her face beaming with euphoria.

"Anyway, let's go!" he said as he grabbed her hand and rushed to the front gate together in order to catch a carriage ride. They were scampering all the way as though they were little kids. Neither of them had felt so lighthearted for a long time.

During the ride, Candy asked, "Albert, have you seen Archie or Stear?"

He shook his head before telling her what had occurred the day he had delivered her letter to Stear. He had also run into Charlotte, who had suspected that she had seen Candy at the train station that day. Candy didn't hide her surprise, and she stammered, "Maybe... I don't know. I was... my mind was just too preoccupied..."

He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him, saying, "It's alright. It doesn't really matter now."

She breathed out a sigh of relief. Then he filled her in about Stear, and she rejoiced, "That's wonderful! I knew God would heal him! Actually, a few days ago, I received Archie's reply. He was very shocked why I had left Chicago. He had written it right after the surgery and sent it to Pony's Home, and Miss Pony had redirected it to me."

"By the way, what did you tell them?"

"Not very much. Just told my friends that I must leave Chicago for a while. I also asked Archie to keep me updated about Stear's conditions."

Then something dawned on her. With her eyes doubled in size, she questioned anxiously, "Albert, where's my emerald ring?"

He chuckled and stroked the tip of her nose. "I thought you'd never ask."

Then, with an enigmatic smile on his face, he held her hand to his chest, letting her feel his rhythmic heartbeat. She blushed bashfully, unable to grasp the meaning behind his behavior. When her expression contorted into one of puzzlement, he started unbuttoning the top part of his shirt. She swallowed hard, and her pulse raced, feeling all the more bewildered, so she looked at his knowing eyes and inquired, her tone confounded, "What are you doing?"

By now, a bit of his muscled chest and toned stomach were revealed, and her ears must have turned red.

"Can't you see?" he answered, clearly amused. She shifted her gaze to where his finger was pointing, and she finally spotted something shiny dangling near the groove between the bottom of his pectorals. No wonder I didn't feel it at all. It's well hidden!

This thought made her blush even harder, and at this moment he pulled out the rather long string around his neck and placed the ring on his open palm. "I have placed it near my heart all this time to keep my spirits up."

She examined the ring, her fingers turning it from side to side. Due to his body heat, the ring was warm to the touch, and it still looked as beautiful to her as the first time she had laid her eyes on it. Then he said in a nostalgic tone, "Because no matter what had happened between us, this engagement ring reminded me of our cherished moments together as lovers."

His sentimental words moved her so much that tears stung her eyes again. She had imagined countless times how he had coped with his loss the moment he had discovered that she had left her ring behind. He had all the right to be mad at her for abandoning him and breaking her promises, but so far he had not chastised her, not even a harsh word. As the carriage continued to move quickly along the street towards their destination, a lump formed in her throat at the thought of his imminent departure. She had no idea when they would see each other again after today, and her heart sank to the pit of her stomach. Just then, his soft voice cut into her thoughts, "Do you want the ring back now, Candy?"

With her loving gaze locked on his, she shook her head and reached up to touch the ruby pendant hanging around her neck. "I do want it back, but I have this for now. Please keep my ring with you as usual... until we meet again."

She then gently drop the emerald ring back to where it belonged. His heart ached at the quaver in her voice. Yet he nodded at her, looking meditative. He surmised what made her upset, but he really couldn't do much about it. Next, she went ahead to help him button his shirt. He was undoubtedly taken aback, but he let her do that for him. While he contemplated how to console her, she suddenly raised her face to him, her countenance saddened even more. "Candy," he began, but she nuzzled up to him and expressed her concern in a tremulous voice, "Albert, why don't you ask me to go back with you?"

He responded by holding her tightly, struggling for words. A moment later, he explained in a soothing tone, "I do hope that you can return with me, but knowing that you're a responsible nurse, it's very selfish of me to ask you to leave your job like that."

She remained moodily quiet, admitting that he was right. She should really learn to be more responsible and attentive at work. She then recalled how her absentmindedness had caused many troubles in the past, especially during the times when she had been caring for Mr. McGregor. Then Albert interrupted her train of thoughts. He spent a bit of time explaining to her why he was in such a rush to return to Chicago. Then he added, "I don't want to involve you in the battle with my relatives yet. There are simply too many unknowns for the time being."

Candy nodded in understanding, masking her consternation; at the same time she urged herself not to worry. Then he gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Candy, rest assured that you're the only woman I love. Nobody, not even my aunt, can force me into a marriage. I'm a grown up, and I'm supposed to be the family patriarch for Heaven's sake!"

He said that nearly vehemently, so she circled her arms around his torso and affirmed, "Of course I trust you, Albert!"

Her words were comforting, and he composed himself and suggested, "Believe it or not, I have thought about clearing your record so that you can transfer to a hospital in Chicago. Would you like that?"

She agreed by nodding emphatically. "Excellent idea!" she uttered positively, striving to conceal her inner conflict. The fact that she was going to be parted from him in less than an hour really pained her. Not to mention that his aunt was probably scheming to set him up. Moreover, what would Mr. McGee do when Albert refused to marry his granddaughter? At any rate, Candy really wanted to leave this place with Albert. Nonetheless, she offered with a strained smile on her face, "Is there anything I can help?"

He then remembered the letters. "Here are my letters to you so that you will understand me more. Please write to me too, Candy. I need your letters to survive."

His pleading tone was unmistakable, so she promised to write to him as her support to him. Then he commented, "You know what? One day after writing yet another letter to you, I went for a stroll near the hotel in New York. Then I stumbled upon a jewelry shop. The wide variety of rings on display caught my attention. I went in out of curiosity and soon ordered a custom made diamond ring for you."

She couldn't believe her ears, so she cried out incredulously, "What? You can't be serious! You shouldn't-"

But his mouth had molded over hers already, which she couldn't help responding. Unlike the previous one, this kiss between them was very tender and languid, filled with love and feelings.

When he gazed at her afterwards, her face was pink and her eyes gleamed with exhilaration. So he fondly caressed her cheek and continued his story, "I was aware that it was an impetuous decision, but its delicate design was just perfect for you. I was afraid I might not be able to find something like it again."

She observed at this moment that his wristwatch looked expensive, and she had noticed earlier that his shirt and pants were made of fine materials. She came to realize that she would need to adjust to this new Albert, who was essentially one of the richest men in the country. After some musing, she questioned, "Honestly, do you want me to quit my job?"

He dipped his head to kiss her temple. "But you love your job, don't you?"

"Yes," she murmured. She wanted to ask whether it was acceptable for her to work if she would eventually become his wife, but she swallowed her question, knowing that it wasn't the right time to discuss.

Seemingly oblivious to her thought, he appeared glad, a contented smile gracing his lips. "When things are ready, which I don't think will take too long, I will inform you which hospital you will be transferring to, and if I can't come to pick you up, George will. What do you think?"

Her countenance livened up, but soon she gave him a feign glare, "I can always go to Chicago myself, Albert."

He chortled out loud, inwardly missing her already. Then he drew her in again, pressing his warm lips against hers. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she melted into his arms, parting her lips to welcome the infinite depth of his smoldering kiss.

=o=o=o=

Author's note:

Thank you for reading. Please don't forget to tell me what you think in your language. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have been silently following this story! My stats show that you come from different places around the globe. I suppose many of you rather remain quiet, but I do hope to hear from you one day. Even a few words will do. Getting comments from readers not only encourages me, it also gives me a sense of how the chapter is received. Thank you in advance!

Finally, in case you don't know yet, I have drawn a picture based on a scene from this chapter. Please check my blog if you're interested (you can find the URL in my profile). See you there!

Footnote:

[1] In CCFS epilogue, in one of Albert's letters to Candy, Albert was sorry for keeping his identity a secret to Candy even though he had been under obligation to do so. Then he told her that "I wish I could watch over you silently. Who could ever have imagined that 'Albert' was taken care of by you so much!"