When they located Tony and Esther at East Shore Café, they were in for another surprise. Ambrose and Penny were also there. In fact, the four were happily engaged in some sort of conversation.
“To think that we tore half of the town up looking for you,” Ehlo scolded them when they were within hearing range.
The other four halted their conversation at that time and turned to them.
“Hey, guys,” Ambrose greeted them with a bright smile on his face. “Long time, no see.”
“The biggest news just hit and you four are sitting out here in broad daylight like that?”
Tony shrugged then, his smile carefree. “Ever heard of hiding in plain sight?”
Wallace shook his head at Ehlo’s comment and pulled some chairs up then. They weren’t exactly edging their way into the other four’s table. It was more like stationing their seats at an angle, so they were able to converse better.
“I thought you guys were going to talk to Bryant,” Tony said, noticing that all of the parties who were sent out for this mission were all present but no Bryant or any sign of a possible resolution.
Ehlo scoffed, gripping on the armrest of his chair. “Don’t mention him right now or I’m so going to lose it.”
“What’s going on?” Ambrose asked, finally noticing the traces of intensity on some of their faces.
“Not something you should be worry about,” Andy said suddenly, finally stepping forward and standing behind Wallace’s chair.
Tony shook his head as Ambrose turned to him for an explanation. “Kind of personal.”
Ambrose nodded. “All right then.”
“Anyway,” Tony said, gesturing to the crowd sort of forming in front of him. “Why are you all here for?”
“You didn’t answer your phone, man,” Ehlo said. “You know what phones are for, right?”
“I use it for the camera function,” Ambrose chimed in then, his smile showing hints of teasing.
“Funny,” Ehlo said, his voice and expression not reflected of said “fun.”
Tony was checking his phone at that point. He soon looked up. “Sorry, I silenced it because of the meeting.”
“You mean we just barged into a meeting?” Ehlo asked, gesturing toward the other four.
Ambrose shook his head. “It’s okay. We were leaving soon anyway.”
“We can leave and meet up with Tony later,” Jacky offered, getting up from his seat at that time.
Ambrose raised a hand up to stop Jacky. “No, don’t. I actually need to talk to some of you too. This saves me a trip.”
“When he say ‘some’, he just means Ehlo and Wallace,” Tony clarified.
“Then the rest of us will leave,” Eddie said.
“Why are you acting all formal in front of me now?” Ambrose asked, eyeing them cautiously. “What’s going on here?”
Ehlo shook his head then, not even taking a slight glance at the group behind him. “Kids, they have never seen celebs close up before.”
“Hey!” Derek protested.
“New?” Ambrose asked, scanning the group and finally noticing he hadn’t met some of them yet.
“So new,” Ehlo admitted, like he was ashamed of them.
“We’re right here too, you know,” Eddie said then, feeling offended.
Ambrose exchanged an amused look with Tony before actually addressing both Eddie and Derek and introduced himself. He didn’t have to introduce Penny to them since they’d already met her before.
“So, now that’s out of the way,” Ambrose said, looking between Ehlo and Wallace. “How about that talk?”
“What talk?” Ehlo asked, looking at Tony for answers. “You have to tell us what’s going on first. Like why are you all so chummy with each other? Didn’t you just lose to him?”
Tony shook his head and flashed on his disbelief smile at that time. “This is why you can’t run a business, Ehlo. Or maybe even be in this industry.”
“Hey, explain, no insults.”
Tony shrugged. “Fair enough.” He paused and tapped on the table a bit before continuing. “It’s all business, come on. Ever heard of that phrase, ‘There’s no such things as forever enemies?’”
“Besides, it’s a civilized competition,” Ambrose said. “You know why Ricky Chang got it wrong?”
The others turned to look at Ambrose then, waiting for him to continue.
“Because he bluffed.”
Andy wrinkled his face. “What?”
Ambrose smiled. “He was bluffing. He didn’t know if anyone wanted that company after what happened. Most people knew Unex was dead weight by the time news broke regarding how they were involved in the embezzlement fiasco. The Zhaos sent the newspapers anonymous tips to hype up the bidding war. The news cycle had been staled since the shift with Unex’s bankruptcy declaration. All those paparazzi tabs got were Alyssa’s visit to the Zhao mansion, nothing of importance. They were barely scrapping by. That was until they got tossed those so-called anonymous tips. The thing with gambling is, you’re not a sure winner. Everyone who mattered in the industry knew too well Unex was just a shell at best. The only reason anyone was engaged in the bidding war was for the fame. That was why there were only five proposals submitted when the official bidding war began.”
“I could listen to him talk forever, man,” Eddie whispered to Andy all of a sudden. “He sounds so articulate. Like I’m reading a newspaper myself, except not those gossip magazines.”
Ehlo turned to look at Eddie then—as well as some of them. “Stick to your daytime job, whispering is not your strongest skills.”
Ambrose smiled and looked at Eddie. “I’ll take that as a compliment then.”
Penny tugged on Ambrose’s shoulder at that time, knowing her husband was up to no good again. He turned slightly and smiled at her. It was a routine some of them saw in the past before.
“So, why did you want this company then?” Wallace asked, gesturing in the general direction. “There’s a high chance you’ll win with five proposals versus how many those newspapers want you to believe.”
“Yes, it’s dead weight, after all,” Ehlo agreed.
“It’s called an investment,” Ambrose replied.
Wallace nodded. “I could accept that.”
“I can’t,” Ehlo contradicted Wallace.
The others turned to him.
Ehlo tossed his hands up in the air dramatically. “Lucie’s Dormitory, seriously?”
Ambrose and Penny exchanged a look then. Penny made a gesture, indicating that he should explain.
“It’s a side company that we started five years ago when Penny was pregnant,” Ambrose said. “It’s supposed to be for Lucie for when she grows up.” He paused to shrug. “But I guess it somehow blew up over the years, so we thought we would take it a little further, see where it goes.”
“Then what’s your main company called then?” Ehlo asked.
Wallace hit Ehlo’s shoulder then.
Ehlo wrinkled his face and turned to Wallace. “What?”
“Rude, Huang,” Wallace replied. “I don’t know why I should be explaining everything to you.”
“It’s okay,” Ambrose interfered. “I don’t like to talk about business much when I’m among friends. It would make sense if you don’t know which company out there is mine.” He paused to exchange a look with Tony before turning back to them. “I have 50% of my investment in Sunrise.”
That was when the others gasped, even Jacky. He had been playing it cool, like nothing phased him anymore after all these years mingling with the so-called high-class society. Yet he was honestly taken aback.
“Whoa, seriously?” Ehlo managed to get out after about two minutes later. “How did that happen?”
Ambrose shrugged and looked at Tony.
Tony smiled, understanding too well of Ehlo’s curious expression. “It’s okay, you can tell them.”
Ambrose turned to them again. “Nine years ago.”
Ehlo raised an eyebrow. “A little more detail wouldn’t kill you.”
Ambrose smiled at Ehlo’s impatience. “We were sitting around at Vincent and Alyssa’s wedding reception and…”
“What? Nine years ago? You gotta be kidding me, right? And we didn’t even know?”
“Hey, it’s business, you know,” Tony said.
“He doesn’t have to tell you everything, you know,” Wallace jumped in. “Who are you, Huang? His parents?”
The others laughed at that comment.
“I don’t even tell my mom everything, actually,” Tony said after they settled down again.
“Color me shock,” Ehlo said, sounding like he wasn’t convinced.
“Anyway,” Ambrose said. “We were waiting for our food to arrive, so we started to discuss some business stuff. I said I was bored and need a new project to follow. Tony joked that maybe I should jump ship and invest with his company instead of whatever company that I was dealing with at that time. So…”
“It all started because you were hungry?” Ehlo pointed at the two before turning to the others. “See? This is why you shouldn’t make any decision while hungry. Hunger does a number on you.”
“Are you saying my company’s not successful?” Tony asked, his voice challenging.
Ehlo wasn’t threatened. He shrugged. “Hey, I benefit from your company greatly, but I’m starting to question your judgment with these random deals you get yourself into.”
“Most business deals happen during mealtime anyway,” Ambrose pointed out. “What difference does it make if we were to get all dressed up and go to some fancy restaurant? It would just be a change of venue, not the plan. It’s all the same ideology.”
“This is why he’s successful,” Tony said, pointing at Ambrose. “He’s very direct and precise in what he does.”
“So, it doesn’t matter who wins in this…” Ehlo stopped and gestured in the general direction. “…bidding war, you’re both going to benefit anyway, right?” He turned to Tony then. “Why did you act like you were so busy all these months? That was way before you had a wedding to prepare with Yan too.”
Tony smiled. “At first, I didn’t know how bad it was with Unex either. But after I did more research, I realized it was dead weight and the people behind the rumors just wanted to crank up the hype with all those vague articles that was dressed up in fancy words.”
Ehlo gestured his hand. “And?”
“I was already in; I can’t just back out or the papers would be writing how Sunrise couldn’t handle the pressure. I was still thinking of a way to finesse my way out of it without actually winning. It wasn’t until I learned that Ambrose had entered the war that I got an out.”
“So, you tossed the poor man to the wolves?”
“Nice choice of words, Huang,” Wallace said, his smile mischievous.
“Not poor,” Ambrose corrected the record, pointing at himself. “Far from it.”
“Now you sound arrogant like Tony,” Ehlo said.
“Hey,” Tony protested. “You want to do this right here? Right now?”
“Guys, you’re getting way off topic,” Esther interfered. “I think we should discuss about how relevant Ehlo and Wallace are in this new phase.”
Tony pointed at Ehlo, like he was silently telling Ehlo that they were going to finish that disagreement. He turned to the others again. “I called Ambrose up the morning the article mentioned about his interest in the bidding war to confirm if it was true. He and I talked for a while and we decided that both of us would stay in but I would lower my bid to the point that if he didn’t get it, whoever the third person was would get it. That was the minimum number of bids we thought could come in. Even if he ended up winning, it wouldn’t affect Lucie’s company too much. They were able to turn around if they successfully restructure Unex. That’s where Wallace comes in. That was why I asked you and Ehlo to help me.”
“You were asking for Ambrose,” Wallace said, finally understanding.
Tony nodded. “Yes.”
“So, what do you say, guys?” Ambrose asked, looking between Ehlo and Wallace.
“No way,” Ehlo answered without a second thought.
“How can you be so sure?” Wallace asked, turning to Ehlo.
“Unex needs to be gut from the foundation, but that’s your territory, what the hell does he need me for?”
“You know Unex is an actual company, right? It’s not just an idea.”
“I actually need you to redesign for Lucie’s Dormitory,” Ambrose said. “I saw what you did with North Star’s project. I liked the designs. I think you would fit with our ideology and where the company’s going.”
Penny nodded then, agreeing with Ambrose’s words.
Ehlo still looked like he didn’t believe them. “If you liked my work, you would have contacted me directly, not go through Tony. There are other better designers out there, if you’re looking for those. I’m not a charity case.”
Ehlo got up at that time as did Wallace.
“Seriously, Huang?” Wallace asked, grabbing onto Ehlo’s arm.
“Would it make you feel better if I submit a proposal to you now?” Ambrose asked, his composure intact, not affected by Ehlo’s theatric attempts.
Ehlo brushed Wallace’s hand off him and turned to face Ambrose once again. “Now you want to be professional?”
Ambrose smiled. “It’s never too late to try anything.”
“Okay, fine, say I even entertain your idea of me working for you…”
Wallace wrinkled his face. “No, it’s not.”
“You’re not helping, Huo!”
“I didn’t intend to help.”
“Guys,” Tony interfered, wondering why he was even here in the first place. Then he remembered that they were the ones interrupting his meeting with Ambrose, not other way around. “Ehlo, come on, hear him out first.”
Ehlo sighed out. “Fine, if I’m to work with you, what makes you think I can trust you? You know there are so many stories about you out there that I don’t know what to make of it.”
“You know you can just ask me, right?” Ambrose returned, still not losing his composure at all.
“Okay then, I’m asking you now.”
Ambrose gestured his hand toward Ehlo. “Please.”
“If 50% of your investment is with Tony, then where are the rest of it?”
Ambrose smiled. “I have 30% in Feng Sheng (豐盛).”
The others exchanged another shocked look among themselves.
“You saved Tang Feng’s company from tanking?” Ehlo asked, still in disbelief.
“Morgan’s good at what does,” Ambrose said, not answering the question directly. “But he has some confidence issues. I had some of my people helped him while the transition took place. After all, who could blame him? Tang Feng passed away so sudden. I thought I sent him a little farewell gift.”
“Wait, Tang Feng used to be the owner of Feng Sheng?” Eddie jumped in.
“Yes,” Ambrose answered, seeing Eddie and Derek’s confused expressions. He was still looking at Ehlo and Wallace though. “So, what do you say?”
Ehlo and Wallace exchanged another look. They were still processing the last piece of information.
“What about the last 20% though?” Ehlo asked, suddenly remembering about the math.
“Fifteen percent is in Lucie’s company. The rest are in the house. We all have to eat and sleep, right?”
“Before you know it, he’s going to ask to see Ambrose’s family tree book,” Andy muttered.
The others actually laughed at that comment, except for Ehlo.
“I’m thinking it over,” Ehlo said after the others settled down again.
Ambrose understood too well of Ehlo’s uncertain look, so he didn’t push it. He turned his attention to Wallace.
“I’m in, but I can’t talk to you about details right now,” Wallace said, looking at his watch out of habit. “Call me on Monday or something.”
Ambrose reached into his pockets at that time and pulled out a business card. He even took out a pen to write something on the back. Then he handed it to Wallace. “Call Maggie for an appointment.”
Wallace nodded and took the business card from Ambrose.
Ehlo raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
Ambrose didn’t look amused. His composure said that he was all business now. “The boundaries between personal business should be established right from the start. If there are no paper trails, there are no accountability for anything. Knowing how to protect all parties involved and actually enforcing the rules are what makes the business effective and efficient.”
“I understand,” Wallace said, though the response was meant for Ehlo.
“Anyway,” Ambrose, getting from his spot at last. “Penny and I have to go now. I’ll see you guys around, huh?”
Penny had also gotten up from her seat and waved to the others. “See you later?”
“You bet,” Tony responded.
Esther just waved and smiled. It was like she was sharing a secret with Penny.
“Now that’s taken care of,” Tony said after the other two were far away already. “How about the other meeting?”
“Total failure,” Ehlo said. “I really want to go back there and strangle him now.”
“Did he say anything when you guys asked?” Esther asked, looking from one to the other.
“Huh, you know what he said?”
“If she knew, she wouldn’t be asking you,” Andy jumped in.
Ehlo gave Andy a nasty look before turning to Esther again. “He said Wallace told him to do it.”
Esther wrinkled her face, looking at Wallace for clarifications. “What?”
“He gave us the same story Qiao told us about some promise his mom made with her best friend,” Wallace said. “He even said that he’s going to leave town soon.”
“The hell he is,” Ehlo echoed his threat from earlier. Then he realized something. “Wait, where did you leave Qiao?”
“She’s at Alyssa’s with Yvonne and the others,” Esther replied. “We had to go to this meeting, so we told them we’ll come back later.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”
“Wait,” Eddie said.
The others turned to him.
“Should we have some sort of discussion here first?” He gestured his hand. “I mean without Qiao. If we talk about it there, it could trigger her more.”
Ehlo pointed at Eddie then. “Good point. You’re off the hook.”
“Thank you?” Eddie said, wondering who died and made Ehlo the all mighty ruler who decided what they could do or say.
“I’ll go get some food,” Esther said. “I can call the others and tell them we’re ordering out so they wouldn’t suspect something’s wrong.”
“Why?” Ehlo asked. “I mean you could say the meeting with Ambrose and Penny ran over.”
Esther shook her head. “Penny’s heading to Alyssa after this. Ambrose’s dropping her off there.”
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Then why didn’t he wait for us?”
“He knows we can’t discuss some things with him here,” Tony said.
“It’s called taking a hint, Huang,” Wallace said. “You know, something you lack.”
Ehlo turned to Wallace with a murderous look then. “Oh, shut up, Huo.”
Wallace smiled, not offended at all. “Sure, Huang.”
After saying that, he followed Tony and Esther inside.
“Hey, where are you going?” Ehlo asked, confused.
“You know you told him to shut up, right?” Eddie reminded Ehlo.
Ehlo ignored Eddie and was still looking at Wallace’s back as the door shut. “What in the world are they up to now?”
“Maybe Esther needed another person to carry food?” Eddie asked, shrugging.
“No one asked you, kid,” Ehlo snapped, looking at Eddie again.
Eddie shrugged again before walking toward the path that led to the double doors.
“Hey, where are you going now?”
“Helping Yan,” Eddie said.
“I’m beginning to think you’re taking it out on people just because you can’t get to Bryant,” Derek said as Ehlo sat down at his chair again.
“Beginning to think?” Andy asked. “Where have you been? That’s what he’s been doing since we got here. Poor Ambrose didn’t see it coming.”
“He’s rich,” Ehlo said. “He said it himself.”
Andy shook his heads then, sitting at a nearby chair as well. They stayed silent while waiting for the others to return with food and drinks.
“Hey,” Derek said about five minutes later.
They were still waiting and some of them had actually taken their phones out to pass time with browsing on the apps.
“What?” Andy asked, knowing Ehlo wasn’t going to entertain Derek.
“Don’t you think Ambrose reminds you of someone?”
That was when all eyes turned on Derek, no longer looking at their phones. Even Jacky was looking at him.
“What?” Derek asked, feeling the pressure.
“You tell me,” Ehlo said. “You brought it up.”
“What made you say so?” Jacky asked, trying to rescue Derek from Ehlo’s glare.
Derek had a hesitant look on his face. “I’ve been watching the clips Ehlo forwarded to Bryant.” He paused because Ehlo’s glare had become sharper. Jacky had to gesture for him to continue. “Bryant was actually watching ‘em, but I was just there. Anyway, I mean…”
“Get to the point already!” Ehlo yelled out. “For the love of…” He clutched his head, bracing himself for however long it took for Derek to say it. “I’m begging you, please speed it up.”
“I…” Derek hesitated again.
“Just say it,” Jacky urged. He was feeling as impatient. “We won’t get mad.”
Derek cleared his throat quickly before starting again. “The way Tang Feng talked, Ambrose sounded exactly like him. I don’t mean their voices. I meant, the way Tang Feng talked, it was so direct and articulated, just like how we heard Ambrose spoke earlier.”
“They’re not the same,” Ehlo said, his hands back at his sides again. “Trust me on this one.”
“If you want to compare them,” Jacky spoke up once again to deescalate the situation. “Tang Feng’s in the middle of Tony and Ambrose. Ambrose rarely jokes around us, but that’s how he is, always compose. Tony has his own ways, no one could really predict his moves. Tang Feng, well, he used to be a prankster, so he knew what to expect of a prankster. The difference between him and Ambrose was that he sort of blurred the line between business and personal—as see fit. He didn’t care about boundaries as long as stuff got done.”
Ehlo was actually staring at Jacky at that point. “I didn’t pay attention to him that much.”
“Come on, he was important to Qiao, after all,” Jacky said. “How could I not pay attention?”
“Then why didn’t pay attention to this one?”
“Which was all your fault in the first place. If we had turned every single rock like we did in the past, we wouldn’t encounter this slimy, no good…”
“And we’re back,” Eddie announced then.
Ehlo turned to see Eddie and Esther walking out together, no Wallace or Tony. He checked the double doors again, trying to see if the other two were just lagging behind, but didn’t see any signs of them. “Where are those two?”
“Oh, they have to talk about some business matter,” Esther said. “Nothing big, just talks.” Esther shrugged. “Maybe Wallace wants to know what he got himself into when he agreed to work with Ambrose.”
Ehlo wasn’t convinced yet they continued to wait in silence again. That was until the other two came back. Like Eddie said, they needed to discuss the other matter before going back since they didn’t want to affect Joanne.
They arrived at Alyssa’s place to find Alyssa, Joanne, Sonia, Yvonne, Cynthia, and Penny looking at different wedding catalogues. It was a familiar scene they once saw years ago, plus or minus certain parties, that was. Still, a very familiar scene.
“Hey, you guys are back,” Yvonne said when she heard some commotions and looked up. “How did it go?”
“Me or him?” Ehlo asked, pointing at Tony while he was saying that.
Joanne tensed up then. Sonia had put down the magazine in her hand and placed a protective hand around Joanne.
“Go ahead,” Ehlo said, gesturing his hand toward Tony in a courteous way.
Tony, surprised, looked at Ehlo before speaking up. “You sure?”
Ehlo nodded. “Please.”
Tony was still unsure, but he pulled up a seat anyway.
“He’s just trying to stall,” Wallace said.
“Hey,” Ehlo said, pointing at Wallace. “I didn’t see your face helping earlier.”
Tony cleared his throat then. “Ambrose and I had a talk. It went well.”
“No conflict?” Yvonne pried, eyeing Tony suspiciously.
Tony shook his head. “Nope.”
“How could you handle the lost so lightly?” Cynthia asked, looking at Tony. “I mean it’s business, but still…”
“He’s not losing,” Ehlo said, not being able to stand it anymore. “He and Ambrose conspired to lose.”
Tony saw the others looking at him, so he gestured for them all to sit down. He quickly repeated what he and Ambrose told the others earlier. Esther and Penny chimed in at times to help with clarifying some matters.
“What does that mean now?” Yvonne asked, looking at Wallace at that time.
“That means I have a contract to negotiate,” Wallace said. “I’ll tell you the details later.”
Yvonne nodded. Then she realized something. “Hey, why are you here anyway? I thought you side with your roommate.”
Yvonne meant Derek—the only person still standing uncomfortably nearby.
“I…um…” Derek stumbled, scratching his head. “Janine kicked me out.”
Wallace grabbed onto Yvonne’s hand at that time. It was like he was afraid his wife would end up using violence on Derek. She was very capable after all. “Yvonne, you can’t really blame him for what happened.”
Yvonne crossed her arms and turned away from Wallace. “Hmp.”
Aside from Ehlo, the other person who’d been fierce toward Bryant—or the situation—was Yvonne. The others tried to keep neutral or at least try to stay calm while still figuring this one out. The problem was, Yvonne, so like Ehlo, also picked on other people who didn’t have anything to do with the situation, such as Derek. That was also the reason why the other guys didn’t want any of the girls to come along.
“What happens now though?” Penny asked. Since she wasn’t there when they tried to work some kind of consistent story out, she didn’t know any more than the rest of the female population.
Jacky looked at Joanne at that time. “Sis, we don’t know what happened yet. But Janine promised us to get an answer from him. With family, he might say more than having us there.”
Joanne nodded. Her expression seemed passive, unlike how she was breaking down the other night.
“Qiao,” Esther called out then, turning to her since they were sitting next to each other on the sofa. “If you want to take some time off, I wouldn’t mind finding a replacement.”
Joanne wrinkled her face at Esther. “You don’t want me to be part of your wedding anymore?”
Esther shook her head. “What? No, that’s not what I mean. I just thought maybe after what happened and the ways things are, you might want to see anyone or…”
Joanne scanned all the faces present in the room and stopped at Tony. He didn’t say anything, but just sent her his usual friendly smile.
“If you two still want me in the wedding, just say so and I won’t let you down,” Joanne said.
“It’s not about that,” Wallace jumped in. “You don’t have to act tough in front of us, we know.”
“Because everyone cares for me, the more I shouldn’t let anyone down just because someone decided to change their mind,” Joanne said, her voice determined. “Let’s get on with the planning, okay? We don’t have much time anymore.”
Esther smiled and nodded. “Okay, but I’m telling you, Tony’s mom could be so strict, you better be prepared.”
Joanne smiled, knowing Esther was joking.
“Great,” Ehlo muttered. “Not in the door yet she’s badmouthing the mother-in-law already.”
“Coming from you, Huang?” Wallace asked, turning to Ehlo.
The others laughed, welcoming the random banter. That was around the same time the Chang siblings came back with even more food. It was a rare scene to see nowadays since Nic was rarely around these days. They ended up eating and talking about the upcoming wedding. It was almost ready. Just some side tasks here and there. The majority of the fancy stuff had already been taken care of by Tony’s mother since she wanted it that way.
It turned out that Tony wasn’t exaggerating nor was he putting them on when he said his mother was going to invite the whole universe to the wedding. It was indeed so packed that they wondered if they were going to get run over by the crowd when they entered the venue. It was held outside and the location was lovely. Everyone had agreed when they were forced to come and help roll out some rain covers overhead like a week back. Apparently, the rain had been unpredictable since the past month. So, they had to take precautions. Although the tented area was covered for the most part, but the other beautiful views were still visible. The tented areas were only there as part of an emergency—if it would rain.
“What did I tell you?” Ehlo’s voice boomed into their ears at that time. “It’s so going to rain today.”
“Why are you jinxing others?” Angela asked, her voice was interrogative.
Angela wasn’t the only one with Ehlo at the moment. There was also Joanne, Jacky, and Sonia. As a courtesy, Joanne had led them in, but instead of showing them their place, she had stayed with them since there were others who Tony’s mother hired to help, so she didn’t need to worry too much about abandoning her station by the entrance.
“The weather’s on my side, you know,” Ehlo said, his voice still as confidence as ever.
“So, you work for the weather station now?” Tony asked, walking over to them.
He was actually with Wallace and Yvonne. Yes, Wallace and Yvonne had arrived separately since Wallace wanted to run something by Tony real quick.
“Haha, funny,” Ehlo returned.
“Your words, not mine,” Tony said, his cunning smile visible.
“I should have turned down your request to help you with putting up the rain covers.”
“You know I still had like about twenty people as backup, right?”
“Why are you arguing with our leading man?” Someone’s voice asked at that time. That person sounded like he was teasing.
They turned around then and saw Chris and Margaret walking toward them.
“Hey,” Tony greeted them. “Thanks for coming.”
“Congratulations,” Chris said, extending his hand.
“I’m surprised you made it,” Ehlo jabbed. “You didn’t care for the last gathering.”
Chris smiled, used to Ehlo’s teasing already. “How was it then?”
“Terrible, but that’s not the point. You didn’t show up.”
“It was terrible because I didn’t show up?”
Ehlo scoffed. “Your listening skills are as lacking as Huo.”
“What? Come on, Ehlo. Cut me some slacks. It’s Tony’s special day after all.” Then he realized something. “Where’s Bryant?”
Everyone—aside from Chris and Margaret—turned pale then. Seeing their reactions, Chris and Margaret exchanged a look.
“Don’t mention him around us anymore or I’ll cut ties with you,” Ehlo warned. “I can keep a promise, unlike someone.”
His eyes were actually staring at a spot behind Chris at that point so Chris turned around and saw Janine and Novia walking toward them.
“I’m sorry, Ehlo,” Janine said, her face also pale like the others. “It’s just, it’s really hard on him too. Give him some time.”
“We have nothing to talk about,” Ehlo said then. He turned to Tony at that time. “Sorry, man. I’m going to go over there, so it wouldn’t affect your guests.”
Tony nodded. “It’s okay.” He even lowered his voice when he said the next words. “Watch her. If anything, don’t hesitate to call us.”
“How about you give us a tour around here?” Jacky suggested, looking at Joanne then. “After all, you know we were last here a week ago. Who knows how different it is by now?”
“Courtesy of my mom, right?” Tony joked.
Jacky nodded. “Sorry.”
Tony clapped Jacky’s shoulder, not offended at all. He left after waving to the others.
“What’s wrong?” Chris whispered to Angela when they were following along with Joanne’s little tour.
“Tell you later,” Angela whispered back. “Just don’t mention him again today. He’s not here.”
Chris and Margaret exchanged a look again. Margaret shrugged, sending a look that said that she wouldn’t know. She’d been with him these past few months since they’d left the others.
“So, over here, Mrs. Sun told them to place a fountain in,” Joanne said when Chris and Margaret tuned in again to the so-called tour.
“To collect rainwater for future usage, right?” Ehlo quipped. “I like her style, so efficient. She can use the filter she has, so the water could be used for a lot of other things.”
Angela hit Ehlo’s shoulder then. She had caught up to him and the others. “Stop.”
Ehlo smiled, not minding her attack. Not just because it didn’t hurt, but he genuinely wanted to lighten the atmosphere again.
“If she heard you say that, she’ll probably tear her hair out,” Joanne said, smiling also—and understanding quite well what Ehlo was trying to do.
“That’s why I’m the best architect around,” Ehlo bragged. “Not only do I know how to draw, and design and all those technical steps required of my work, but I also am capable of reading minds. That’s why my clients love me.”
“Sure, Huang,” Wallace jumped in. “Keep telling yourself that.”
“What do you know, Huo?”
Wallace had on his sly smile then. “Possibly more than you think I know?”
Ehlo pointed at Wallace. “Lame comeback.”
But just as Ehlo was ready to strike again, his smile turned off. Wallace realized something was wrong. He and Yvonne turned around at the same time to see Cyndi standing behind them. She was with some guy they didn’t recognize. Chris and Margaret took that time to exchange a look again.
“Long time no see,” Wallace said, walking toward her. He stopped a safe distance from her and the other guy and extended his hand. “I’m Wallace.”
The other guy looked at Cyndi with some uncertainty before taking Wallace’s hand. They did a quick shake before Wallace turned to Cyndi again. She offered him a timid smile.
“Long time no see,” Cyndi repeated Wallace’s words from seconds ago.
“What happened five years ago…” Wallace continued, his attention on Cyndi only. “It’s in the past now. I shouldn’t have scolded you when your brother just passed away. That was wrong of me. I know it’s late, but I think this might be the only chance I could ever say it to you.”
Cyndi’s eyes had turned red now. In fact, some tears had made its appearance upon the mentioning of her brother. She sniffed and tried to wipe her tears away before speaking up. “I’m sorry too.”
Wallace nodded and extended a hand to her. She took it and shook it before their hands parted again. After that, he nodded quickly at the guy with Cyndi before turning to leave. He didn’t turn back, knowing it was done.
“You all right, man?” Ehlo asked when Wallace was closer to them again, clapping his shoulder.
Wallace nodded. “I’m good.”
“Is that her new beau?” Yvonne asked, eyeing him carefully.
Wallace shook his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“Let’s continue the tour, shall we?” Ehlo exclaimed then. “I want to know what else Auntie helped with the environment.”
Wallace smiled then, shaking his head. He turned to Yvonne, whispering, “Let him have this one.”
Yvonne hooked her hands through his left then. “You sure you’re all right?”
Wallace nodded. “Seeing her just reminds me of Tang Feng.”
Yvonne understood, tightening her grip on him. It was like she was sending her silent support.
“Do you want to go over there?” Joanne asked then, pointing toward a path that led to the south side of the venue. “It’s really crowded. But there’s a garden past there and it’s really nice.”
“Another garden?” Ehlo asked, like it was his first day there.
Joanne gave him a look. “Seriously?”
Ehlo scratched his head. “Too much?”
“What’s going on?” Chris whispered to Andy who was standing next to him at the moment. “How could things happen one after another and they just moved on with the tour like that?”
Andy, Achel, and Eddie arrived together around the time they saw Wallace walking toward Cyndi. They were worried but could only stand with the others to wait. That was why they were present now for Chris to ask questions.
“I’ll send you all emails later for the longer version,” Andy whispered to the others who had no clue. “They’re just trying to cheer each other up. Just filter it out if it’s too much for you.”
“And I thought I figured them out already.”
Eddie laughed then. “Welcome to the club.”
“Over here,” Joanne continued. “See that path that has all the flowers there?”
“The carnations?” Ehlo asked.
“I swear that bridge had some other flowers on there last week, not carnations.”
Joanne nodded again. “Correct. Someone mistakenly ordered lilies and chrysanthemums. That person got fired and the flowers got replaced.”
“What’s wrong?” Eddie asked, confused.
Everyone turned to him then.
“What?” Eddie asked, still looking confused.
“Lilies and chrysanthemums are for sickness or death,” Wallace explained.
“But those red carnations are so bright. It scares me.”
“Your fear is irrelevant to the event,” Ehlo said, waving his hand in a dismissive way. Then he turned to Joanne again. “Lucky no one put purple carnations in.”
“I’m guessing death is a recurring theme here,” Andy suggested.
Ehlo nodded. “For some places, but you know, some people like the gloom and doom theme.”
“Anyway,” Joanne said.
“What are we waiting for?”
“What?” Joanne wrinkled her face. She was getting ready to turn back like the others.
“You know how they say we’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it?” He paused to flash on a cunning smile. “Here we are.”
Chris couldn’t help but laugh at Ehlo’s literal interpretation of the phrase. “Good one.”
Joanne took another glimpse across the bridge. “You sure?”
“Lead away, tour guide,” Ehlo said, his voice playful.
“Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Let’s go!” Ehlo said cheerfully, leading the group across the bridge.
“I don’t think I’m getting on there,” Eddie said as he was lagging at a distance from them.
“What?” Ehlo asked, turning around to check on the hold up. He wrinkled his face at Eddie. “Seriously, man?”
“Red carnations.” Eddie gestured. “Sorry.”
“Okay, fine, leave then.”
Angela hit Ehlo on the shoulder then. “Ehlo.”
“We all know he wanted to run after Janine since we ran into them. It was too obvious. He’s just making an excuse.”
Eddie had on his surprised look.
Ehlo shook his head. “I’m not that oblivious to things, okay? Go ahead. It’s not like I’m the authoritative figure around here or something.”
Eddie waved. “See you guys later at the ceremony?”
Ehlo waved before turning around to face the bridge again. “All right, let’s go.”
“He’s something,” Chris whispered to Andy then.
Andy nodded. “Yeah, he’s Ehlo.”
Chris didn’t say anything after that since they were crossing the bridge now. It looked quite nice as they were at the center of the bridge, looking straight out into the middle of the water below with the sun reflecting on it. Although it was just a small body of water that was made for this venue as a set, it was quite elaborate. However, Chris had to agree with Eddie on the red carnations. It was too much.
“She should have gone with pink carnations,” Chris said as they were descending the bridge.
“What?” Ehlo asked. He was in front of the group, so he didn’t really hear what Chris was saying.
“Pink carnations. There’s this story about how it’s linked to a mother’s love. It fits her perfectly.”
“Maybe she could save it for next time.”
“I would push you off this bridge right now if I haven’t promised that I wouldn’t ruin the wedding,” Joanne said, nudging Ehlo on the shoulder.
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “What?”
“Next time?” Wallace prompted. “Really, Huang?”
Ehlo realized his mistake then. He had on a sheepish smile, bringing his hand up to scratch his head. “Sorry, sorry. My bad.”
As if satisfied with Ehlo’s apology, Joanne turned to the path connecting the bridge to continue with the tour.
“Wow, huge crowd,” Chris commented. “Even crazier than the group we saw at the entrance.”
“Yeah, they’re going to join in with these people soon,” Ehlo said. “Fun, right?”
Chris wrinkled his face. “Wait, that means the ceremony’s going to be here?”
“No, it’s in the garden,” Ehlo said, pointing past the tented area.
This was actually another area they had to put tents up. It was a rush job hence Tony recruiting them a week ago.
“You guys did this just last week?” Chris asked, pointing at the tents. “That’s impressive. The shade even matches with the rest of the theme so far.”
“Yeah, that was the hard part,” Ehlo said, sighing out. “The labor felt like heaven after Auntie finally approved the shade.”
Chris smiled, thinking that Ehlo was exaggerating again.
“He wasn’t exaggerating,” Wallace said upon seeing Chris shaking his head. “Unfortunately. The time it took to complete the task was double or even three times that according to my calculations.”
Ehlo laughed. “Maybe they should model a calculator after her.”
“Hey, careful,” Jacky said then. He just managed to steer Joanne out of someone’s way.
“Sorry,” Someone near them said.
“This is getting crazy,” Ehlo muttered.
“Told you,” Joanne said.
They stopped talking after that since they were still dodging the crowd. Chris thought they would have made it to the garden by now. But he had underestimated the crowd. Soon, they were taking turns dodging and also helping their fellow companions steering clear of whoever it was that didn’t care to look. Chris and Margaret soon lost the others. Luckily for Chris, he was tall enough to see the garden, so he helped Margaret navigate out of there as they tried to remain unharmed.
As for the others, Jacky was shielding Joanne and Sonia—in turn. Angela and Ehlo were leading them at this point. Wallace and Yvonne had somehow been lost in the crowd as well. Andy and Achel were behind Angela and Ehlo. They weren’t doing so bad. It wasn’t until they were almost out of the last tent that something happened. Someone was carrying something and didn’t watch and it had gotten loose. As Angela and Ehlo helped catch Achel and Andy—respectively, Jacky had pushed Joanne out of the way. He was about to grab Sonia and steer her out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough. Whatever item that was, it was blocking his view.
“Sonia!” Jacky yelled out, feeling like his heart was going to stop.
“Ah…” Sonia yelled out at the same time as she tried to free a piece of her dress from that object that was passing by them.
“Watch out!” Someone yelled seconds later.
Sonia looked up and saw the object was rolling along the path. She could only cover her face to wait for the inevitable at that point. It was rolling too fast. Then she felt the wind rushing in her face. A pair of hands had picked her up and was rushing away from the scene. Sonia, relieved, hung on for dear life as whoever it was took her away from the danger. She thought it was Jacky. But when that person finally put her down and made sure she was safe again, she realized it wasn’t Jacky.
“You all right?” The other person asked, offering her a warm smile.
Sonia turned to check herself again. Her dress was torn at several places. Her left hand had some scraps on it. Probably because she was trying so hard to free her dress earlier.
“Here,” The other person said then.
Sonia looked up to see the guy had taken off his jacket and had handed it to her. He looked so sincere that she took it without reconsidering. She wrapped it around herself before looking at him again. He was now handing her a handkerchief.
“It’s for your hand,” He said, his warm smile making its appearance again.
Sonia nodded, taking it from him. “Thanks.”
“You have friends who could take care of you?” He scanned the perimeter as he asked that.
Sonia nodded again. “They’re around here somewhere. We got separated after that…” She gestured her hand. “You know.”
He smiled and nodded.
“I’m Sonia,” Sonia finally said after some more starring between them.
“Jesus Christ!” Ehlo’s voice traveled to their ears then.
That was when both Sonia and this guy who was also named Chris turned to check. They saw Ehlo walking toward them with Angela not far behind. In fact, Angela was running now since she spotted Sonia.
“Sonia, you all right?” Angela asked, checking with her hands, like she was checking a child.
“I’m all right,” Sonia returned.
“You scared us half to death,” Ehlo jumped in then. To emphasize his point, he reached up to wipe some sweat off his forehead. “I think Jacky almost died too.”
That was when Sonia turned around to see Jacky rushing over to them as well—with Joanne not far behind.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough,” Jacky said when he was by her side. “I…”
Sonia shook her head. “It’s all right. My dress got caught. If not, I wouldn’t have…”
“Now we know that millionaire dollar question about whether you would save your sister first or your wife, huh?” Ehlo jumped in.
The others turned to give Ehlo a look.
“I’m not married,” Sonia said quickly, turning to look at Chris and bringing her hand up to prove that she wasn’t wearing a ring.
Chris’ warm smile made its appearance again.
“Who said you were?” Ehlo asked, wrinkling his face. He was looking in the general direction, so he wasn’t paying attention, not realizing that Sonia had tuned him out hence it wasn’t meant for him at all.
“You just implied it, Huang,” Wallace sabotaged.
Andy, Achel, Wallace, and Yvonne had arrived after the crowd parted ways and allowed them passage.
“Oh, forget you,” Ehlo said.
“Thanks for saving our Sonia,” Angela said then, looking at Chris. She was done inspecting Sonia hence turning her attention to Chris. “I’m Angela.”
Chris reached his hand out to shake Angela’s extended hand before answering. “I’m Chris.”
“What?” Ehlo exclaimed then, looking at Jacky instead of said party. “Chris?”
“What?” Chris—the one walking with Margaret—finally showed up with Margaret.
“Not you,” Ehlo snapped, turning to Chris and Margaret. “What the hell took you two so long?”
“The crowd?” Chris asked, his voice totally edging on the mocking side now. It wasn’t like Ehlo didn’t see. Then he also saw what happened too. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to help. He and Margaret were stuck too. Why was Ehlo taking it out on him?
Margaret shook her head at the two before walking over to where Sonia was. “Are you all right? We saw what happened but couldn’t get there in time.”
Sonia nodded. “Thanks to Chris here.”
Margaret saw Sonia was pointing at the opposite direction, so she had on a curious smile. She turned in that direction to see the other Chris still displaying his warm smile. He just nodded when he saw her studying him.
“Oh,” Chris—the one with Margaret—finally said. “You weren’t mad at me.”
That was when Chris approached the other Chris. And his comment was meant for Ehlo.
“Hi, I’m also Chris,” Chris said, extending his hand.
The other Chris extended his hand again and they did a shake. The other Chris still had a warm smile on. It was like he was fascinated by their group.
“Great, we have three Chris now,” Ehlo said sarcastically. “How are we going to distinguish between them?”
The other two already finished shaking hands and had stepped to one side already.
“Um, Angela’s Chris and Chen Yi’s Kris?” Wallace provided the helpful answer. He was crossing his hands at this point and had a sly smile on his face.
Yvonne had slapped Wallace’s shoulder at this point. However, that didn’t help since he was going hysterical at seeing Ehlo’s reaction. He had to lean on Yvonne for support. He was the only one daring to laugh though. Because Ehlo’s expression had said he was ready to let heads roll.
“If I wasn’t trying to be civilized, you’re already on the ground, Huo,” Ehlo threatened.
“This is…you…being civilized?” Wallace said between chokes of laughter. “You? Civilized?”
Wallace had to stop talking because he was laughing too hard.
“Oh, come on, stop messing with him,” Chris—the one with Margaret—interfered. “How about we go by last names?” He turned to the other Chris then. “Last name?”
The other Chris looked like he was unsure of their motive. Yet he spotted Sonia still staring at him. It was like she wanted to know too so he smiled again. “Wang.”
“We have to call you by last names now?” Andy asked, wrinkling his face.
“We’re going to call him CL and him CW,” Ehlo said.
“You get the final say?” Wallace said, raising an eyebrow.
“Shut up, Huo,” Ehlo snapped, pointing at Wallace.
Wallace had managed to pull himself together and was now standing straight again.
“That means Kris gets to keep his name or what?” Andy asked.
“He’s KS,” Ehlo said.
“We’re totally doing this,” Wallace said, crossing his hands again—his expression said he was not convinced. “Without anyone’s permission.”
Ehlo turned to the other Chris then. “You mind?”
The other Chris scanned the others before setting his eyes on Sonia again. He shrugged. “Call me whatever you want. I understand the confusion.”
“Thank you, CW,” Ehlo said. He extended his hand to the other Chris at last. “Welcome to the group.”
CW—previously known as the other Chris—took Ehlo’s hand with much hesitant—and confusion—still.
“There, that’s settled,” Ehlo said as he stepped back.
Angela and Sonia were actually in the center of their little circle.
“I’ll be going now,” CW said, looking at Sonia. “Take care of yourself.”
Sonia nodded, clutching onto the jacket CW gave her earlier. “Thanks again.”
CW nodded and turned to the others. He signaled to them with his thumb before heading in the opposite direction.
“That was fun,” Andy said after CW was out of earshot already, not sounding so joyous.
“Still Chris, okay?” Chris said, looking at Ehlo.
“Okay, Still Chris,” Ehlo returned.
That was when Wallace started laughing again.
“Not funny, Huo,” Ehlo said, looking at Wallace with much annoyance. Then he turned to Chris again. “You were the one who suggested going by last names, you know.”
“Only when he’s around,” Chris clarified.
“You should have said that then.”
“Hey, I like my name, okay? Why should I have to change it?”
“I’m pretty sure he likes his name too, why should he change it?”
“What do we call him then?” Andy jumped in. “Sonia’s Chris?”
That was when Ehlo and Chris stopped arguing and turned to Andy. “Oh, shut up!”
“Guys, you’re making a scene,” Joanne interfered. “How about we find a spot to sit down? I mean it’s almost time for the ceremony.”
“Probably no time to go change, huh?” Angela pondered, looking at Sonia’s torn dress.
The dress wasn’t that bad. Only ripped pieces here and there on top. The biggest piece was on the left side at the bottom. Yet with CW’s jacket, it wasn’t too bad.
“I think with Chris’ jacket, it should be all right for now,” Joanne said, inspecting the dress herself. “I mean we only sit down for the ceremony now. It shouldn’t be too bad with that many people focus on the main event. We could help Sonia to the dressing room later to change into another dress. I’m sure Mrs. Sun has lots of it. She made sure to have backup for the bridesmaids. We’ll find something that’ll fit.”
Angela nodded. “Sounds good. What do you think, Sonia?”
“I’m fine,” Sonia said.
“Your hand bleeding?” Angela asked, looking worried. She didn’t see it before because Sonia had been covering it with the handkerchief. She had thought previously that Sonia was just holding it. Now that she had a closer look, she could see that there was some dirt around Sonia’s hand.
Sonia shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“I’ll help you.”
Sonia nodded as she loosened the grip on the handkerchief. Angela brushed the dirt aside and managed to clean Sonia’s hand with a water bottle Joanne brought over before wrapping it up with the handkerchief. Before she gave it a good tie though, she spotted the initials CW on there. She smiled, feeling like it was such a coincidence when Ehlo suggested it.
After Angela was satisfied with her taking care of the scraps on Sonia’s hand, they made their way over to the ceremony area. They were actually already in the garden since CW had taken Sonia to the garden after pulling her out of harm earlier. The others only had to catch up. While Angela was helping Sonia, the others had been heading to the garden, claiming to save spots. And luckily, they did, because when they arrived, it was already so crowded. Angela and Sonia joined the others in the fifth row. Joanne had left already because she was in the ceremony and didn’t want to be late. Ehlo had saved them two seats between him and Jacky. Jacky was sitting next to Wallace and then Yvonne next to him. Andy was on Ehlo’s other side with Achel next to him. Margaret was the one sitting next to Achel and then Chris. The rest of their friends were probably spread out somewhere. Because of the commotion and much more, they didn’t bother to look anymore. They would have more time at the reception, so they weren’t worried.
They held side conversations to pass time and scanned the crowd. At one point, they caught Ehlo and Andy on their phones and made them shut it off. Sure, it was boring, but they didn’t want it to become a habit. What if the ceremony were to start and those two were still on it? Among the ones sitting there and holding conversations, only Jacky seemed to be lost in thoughts. He hadn’t spoken much since the Sonia incident happened. Sometimes, Wallace had looked over to check on him and even tried to engage in conversation with him, yet he wasn’t really as chatty as before. Although most of the focus were on Joanne, Ehlo, Wallace, and Chris’ interactions earlier when they were walking, but Jacky had been holding side conversations with the other who weren’t really participating in the main conversation. Yet now, he seemed to have fully shut down. It was like he was still beating himself up for not getting to Sonia in time.
When the ceremony finally began, the noise level in the garden died down at a miraculous rate. As if common courtesy was already ingrained in all of them. Because as soon as the wedding music commenced, the crowd coordinated with them by simmering down at around the same time. Tony looked nervous standing up there, yet his smile was really shining. The others paid extra attention when Joanne walked by. When Esther finally walked out, they could see that she was glowing. Or perhaps, they were so fascinated with the amount of preparation put into the whole ceremony that it seemed surreal. It wasn’t until Esther was already by Tony’s side that they spotted CW across the aisle from them. He had sent Sonia a warm smile. Sonia returned his smile with a small gesture toward the jacket she was still clutching closely to her side. Ehlo had sent Wallace a look around then. Although they stayed silent, their looks had said a lot. Sonia’s attention was on CW, so she didn’t notice the staring. Wallace, of course, had caught Ehlo’s look and directed his attention on Jacky.
“You all right?” Wallace whispered as he leaned slightly toward Jacky.
Jacky’s expression was a little wrinkled, but he managed a smile and nodded. He also caught Joanne’s wrinkled face as she was standing up there, waiting for the vows to be read between Tony and Esther. Jacky caught her eyes and did a slight shake of his head. He smiled at her—to which she took the hint and made sure her smile was as bright on her own face.
The rest of the ceremony went smoothly without any other side dramas unfolding.
© Saturday, August 8th, 2020
Posted: Tuesday, October 6th, 2020