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Dom Perignon

Contemporary short romance, about 3800 words

As soon as he saw her, he knew he needed to meet her.

David stopped dead in his tracks, oblivious to the jostling of men in black evening jackets and women in shimmering gowns. The air in the crowded art gallery hung heavy and moist despite the vaulted ceiling. Mr. Nakagawa owned high percentages of other businesses besides this gallery, and when he threw a gala, no one refused an invitation. Not even the bone-numbing San Francisco rainstorm prevented his guests from attending, some driving up in limousines, some scurrying into the humid interior in dripping cloaks.

She stood in a cluster of other Asian women, her back stiff beneath her black silk sheath dress. As she listened to the gaggle of high-pitched voices, her smile looked plastic and bored. Her long hair fell loose like a waterfall of black ink, which shimmered as she turned in response to something ancient Mrs. Choi said to her.

She stood out because her poise was her beauty. The others in the chattering group wore expensive armor: expert, dramatic make-up masks in place--blood-red lips, kohl-lined almond-shaped eyes. Slender necks setting off intricate hairstyles. Elegant black outfits by Gucci or Armani or some luxurious designer. Glittering diamonds, rubies, emeralds.

As she listened to Mrs. Choi, her polite smile deepened and become genuine, glowing. She nodded and kept her eyes pinned to the round, wrinkled face, although the old bat probably rambled about her grandson or some long-ago event she attended. In Chinese fashion, Mrs. Choi reached up to clasp the hand of the younger woman, who returned the affectionate touch. David smiled, contrasting her actions with his own disrespectful impatience of his Chinese grandmother.

He regretted that impatience when she passed away, and since then, he worked hard to curb his impulsiveness. But...not this one time. He needed to meet this young woman.

He almost stepped up to introduce himself, but a sense of self-preservation prevented him. No, not while those high-society women surrounded her. They all knew him. They would note his attention and start speculative rumors.

One of the circle of women, Mrs. Choi's daughter Stephanie, remarked in a carrying nasal voice, "Did you see Jane Hong's dress? It hangs on her like a sack. Bargain basement is my guess."

David had seen the garment--a flamboyant pink that tried to hide Jane's lack of bosom and hip. His law firm represented Jane Hong's father, being sued for everything but his underwear by a vindictive ex-wife. The Hong name still allowed invitation to this exclusive affair, but their finances had toppled overnight. His eyes narrowed as they focused on Stephanie's oval face. He had never before seen this side of her. It made her beauty suddenly brassy, her voice grating, her eyes hard like ice.

Jane, the object of her gossip, stood only a few feet away, speaking with her father's business associates. Jane's smooth voice never faltered, but he saw the twitch of her shoulders, the mechanical tilt of her head.

The young woman--his young woman--turned at Stephanie's malicious cat-call and replied, "I wouldn't be so quick to judge. It's an Aimee Ang."

The exclusive designer's name drew soft gasps from rounded crimson lips. Stephanie's makeup muted the burgundy that splotched across her face.

David's eyebrows rose at the woman's audacious lie. He knew it wasn't even close. Neither was the dress bargain basement, but Jane's poor taste had previously been curbed by an over-paid fashion consultant. He saw Jane give in to temptation and glance at the group of females, her gaze flitting over his young woman without recognition.

She had defended Jane without even knowing her.

A tiny Korean girl broke the awkward silence with a gushing anecdote about her new infant. His young woman blinked and turned her head slightly. Her eyes wavered over the floor without seeing, and he thought he saw sadness in her gaze, and a hollow pain. She had withdrawn inside herself, almost like a defensive reflex.

It only lasted a moment. She blinked again and returned to the chatter around her, but the smile on her face seemed stiff.

David wondered what about babies made her so tense and upset. Did she simply not like children? It wasn't a topic to elicit such a dramatic reaction. Maybe a more painful reason--an abortion? A miscarriage? A lost child of her own? That last thought made a burst of jealousy rush through him, but he set his mouth and leaned against a wooden pillar, a picture of nonchalance.

She saw the waiter approach before any of the others. Her face suddenly set like a marble statue, and her eyes grew large and hollow in her pale face. Fixated, her intent gaze grew larger as the waiter drew near, and her mouth trembled. David's brow furrowed. The waiter seemed nondescript, soft-footed...no, it was the tray he held that captivated her. Frightened her.

The ladies reached jeweled fingers for the champagne glasses offered to them. Her absorbed gaze followed the sparkling liquid passing in front of her, watched the women's pouty lips leave red stains on the crystal flutes. At the proffered tray, she paused a long moment and wet her lips. But she clenched her jaw, then gave a cool shake of her head. Her hands at her side began to shake. Stephanie's fizzing bubbles seemed to mesmerize her, then she inhaled a sharp breath. With a gracious nod, she left her oblivious companions.

Here was his chance.

David followed her, trying to get close enough to introduce himself. He wove his way through the clusters of businessmen, wives, daughters, and a few savvy businesswomen who dotted the crowd. Cultured English, soft-spoken Japanese, lyrical Cantonese and musical Mandarin burst in his ears, then faded away as he followed the sight of her loose hair swaying down the middle of her back. She glided through the sea of dinner jackets and sequined dresses, her shoulders straight, head erect, sharp eyes trained on the sea of faces.

David bumped into elderly matrons and cool, trendy businessmen, trying to reach the elusive figure just ahead of him. Some of the businessmen opened their mouths as if to speak with him, but he only gave pleasant nods as he breezed by. Occasionally a woman reached a languid hand toward him, but he evaded each touch with a charming smile and murmured compliments.

The crowd thinned at the other end of the gallery, where the more serious art collectors congregated and argued over purity of line and nuances of color. David only knew a handful of them, who were passing acquaintances at best, so he advanced upon his elusive quarry. Just before he could reach out a hand to touch her shoulder, she spotted a friend and darted forward.

"Richard! I'm glad I found you," she called.

A tall Chinese man turned at the sound, then broke into a child-like grin as he enveloped her in a bear hug.

David jerked to a halt at the sight of the embrace. He had to force his hands to unclench. Just his luck--of course she would have a boyfriend in the wings. Or maybe several.

Richard gave her a hearty smack on the cheek. "Luce! Good to see you here."

Her eyebrows wrinkled in annoyance as she tried to frown. She poked him with a playful finger. "I hate it when you call me that."

Richard beamed a bratty smile at her before he turned to the two men at his side. "James, Don--this is my cousin Lucia Wu. Luce--James Hsieh and Don Cho."

Cousin. David felt the breath whoosh out of his lungs, and the vice squeezing his heart loosened. He casually glanced around him, but no one seemed to have noticed the thirty-two-year-old man acting like a high school freshman in the throes of infatuation. Except he had never felt this way before, even when he was a skinny, nerdy freshman.

Well, he couldn't approach her now. He'd wait for another opportunity to get her alone. He positioned his back to the room at large, another man in formal dress among many, and pretended to study a hideous black-on-black oil painting while eavesdropping shamelessly.

"Luce, Uncle Bob's breathing fire and brimstone. What'd you do now?"

She rolled her eyes. "Told him I wouldn't work for the company."

Richard chortled in glee. "Oooh, I wish I could've seen him when you told him that! Why?"

"I've started my own business." Traces of bitterness laced through her words. "Web design. That's why I needed to talk to you. You obviously don't answer phone messages." One eyebrow arched at him.

Richard gave an unrepentant grin. "That's what you do when you're so popular, missie."

"Or when women want to chew you out."

James and Don guffawed, and Richard grimaced but tweaked her chin. "Smart mouth. What do you need?"

"Got anyone who needs a web designer? Any marketing execs here? Introduce me to people," she demanded saucily.

"And what makes you think I can do that?"

"You know every Asian in the Bay Area..."

Her eyes focused past James and Don as her sentence trailed off, but David couldn't figure out who caught her rapt attention. Just waiters, and a teenaged boy by a half-naked statue with dozens of limbs.

"Excuse me a moment, gentlemen." She zeroed in on the boy. "Tatsuya."

The sullen young man flickered his eyes at her but didn't respond, didn't move.

"Where's your father?" she asked him.

"Where do you think?"

"Why'd you come?"

"He brought me."


The boy glanced up at her with burning eyes, but said nothing. She didn't sigh, but her still expression made him purse his mouth and start kicking the base of the statue.

"Careful," she warned in a dry voice. "If you kill Momotaro here, you'll owe Mr. Nakagawa your allowance."

It coaxed a snort from the boy. She glanced back at Richard, then plucked at Tatsuya's sleeve. "Come on, let me introduce you to someone."

He wrenched away from her, and his silence became heavy, rumbling.

She gave an indifferent shrug. "Suit yourself. He designed the new Av-Tek game system..."

Tatsuya's head shot up and his eyes widened from slits to silver dollars. Still retaining his coolness by not saying anything, he nonetheless hustled after her.

"Richard," she said, "this is Tatsuya Chan. His father is one of Dad's best clients. Tats--Richard Wu, James Hsieh, Don Cho. You gentlemen work with Richard at Avero, correct?" She turned slightly away from the awkward Tatsuya and seemed to send a silent plea to her cousin with intent eyes.

Richard gave her a half-smile before reaching a hand to shake Tatsuya's as if he were a business partner. "Pleasure to meet you." Then he bent his head to Lucia to murmur, "What about...?"

"I'll call you later," she replied.

Tats greeted James and Don, then Richard claimed his attention. "We have a new Av-Tek game system scheduled for launch next year..."

Lucia's figure melted into the crowd, and David shimmied around the black painting to pursue her. The woman slipped through the crowd like an eel. He'd never catch her and introduce himself if he didn't hurry. He wondered where she aimed for so purposefully, now that she had sacrificed her networking opportunity with her cousin.

He nearly collided with a waiter and a full tray of champagne, and performed a quick sidestep to avert disaster. But when he looked up, he had lost her. He meandered in the direction she had headed.

He found her standing with Alvin Chun, a wealthy widower his father referred to as a snake. And crafty as one, too--his empire stretched the length of the West Coast, with fingers in Hong Kong and Japan. His newest biotech company opened this spring in a brand-new South San Francisco building.

David slowly approached them, intending to rescue her from Alvin's unsavory company. It didn't look like she had sought Alvin out. She stood turned slightly away from the large man, as if he had caught her on her way past. He spoke earnestly to her, his beady eyes gleaming and eyebrows wagging. David couldn't hear the conversation over the din from the large, boisterous group of Taiwanese businessmen next to them.

She then turned toward Alvin, her face professional and intent as she nodded. Ah. A potential client. David stopped. He didn't want to interrupt her business transaction, so he settled into a vantage point between them and the bar, perching on the edge of a chair next to a tall bistro table. He'd keep an eye on her and wait for them to finish.

She responded to Alvin's questions, her hands graceful and expressive. Alvin's smile became more predatory, but perhaps she didn't realize--her body language remained calm and competent. She shook her head at something he said, then leaned closer to hear him repeat it over the laughter from a Taiwanese joke. Alvin's hand settled lightly against the curve of her waist.

Her entire left side jolted, but she recovered and eased away with a dispassionate movement. Her hand clenched for a quick pulse before she curled her fingers apart and relaxed her wrist, arm, shoulder. She continued with a seamless monologue, her face still flawlessly polite, almost friendly. She exuded serenity and professionalism, good manners in the face of Alvin's vulgarity.

David glowered, feeling the breath steam out of his nostrils. He felt his teeth grind together, and he dragged his jaw apart, stretching the stiff muscles. He kept his palm pressed flat against the tabletop, as if only the lack of a fist kept him from pounding it into the face of the richest man in northern California.


He turned at the dulcet tones, and his polite greeting masked his seething impatience. Right now, he didn't have time to fend off predatory Doreen Hoshiura.

"David, mother and I didn't see you at our soiree the other week. Naughty man." Doreen flashed white, white teeth and stepped into his personal space. Her filmy pastel skirts brushed his knees while her ample bosom leaned close to him. He leaped down from the bistro chair and scooted away from her.

"Doreen! My brother Roland asked where you were only a few minutes ago. He went towards the Sakamoto exhibit to look for you."

"Oh! Thank you for telling me." She turned and slithered away. He hoped his older brother would forgive him. But, he reasoned, Roland was better looking and had more experience with women. Or at least, he had more women flocking after him than after David.

Plus, David had more important things at hand.

Lucia still stood talking with Alvin, who asked a quick question. She straightened. David wondered what Alvin had asked her. She responded with a short phrase, shaking her head when his eyebrows raised and he persisted in another question. Her hand, hidden in the flare of her skirt, started to tremble. She repeated her phrase.

Alvin lumbered toward the bar. "Cranberry juice," he said. "And for me, scotch and soda."

She watched Alvin, her gaze shrewd. But then the bartender started making the scotch and soda, and her eyes widened, turning into dark pools. Her lips pressed together and she swallowed, her gaze following the bottle of scotch tilting in the air. Although she clenched her hands together, they still shook.

From the bistro table, David nearly missed Alvin's smooth movement. A flash of the man's cuff, a brief glimpse of powder. The square fingers pinched the straw and stirred.

David rose to his feet, rage building from his gut. But he glanced at Lucia and gave a start at the wild storm gathering in her eyes. Gone were the tremors in her hands, the taut longing on her face. She had seen Alvin add the powder. She looked capable of murder and not at all interested in a rescue. So instead of moving in, David leaned back into the chair, ready to spring into the fray but waiting and curious.

She flashed a brilliant smile at Alvin as he approached, but her hand darted out for the cranberry juice and knocked the glass into his silver-shot waistcoat. Her face dissolved into horror and remorse, and her hands fluttered uselessly while he cursed and tried to retain his hold on the scotch and soda.

David chuckled, watching her helpless act. Unfailing in her politeness, even to a jerk like Alvin, but dangerous all the same. He respected the fact that she might want to fight her own battles.

Lucia's gaze darted around her. She caught the eye of a tall, stunning woman in a scarlet dress that draped in elegant folds over her magnificent figure. Lucia's wordless plea made the woman deliver charming excuses to the group of men surrounding her before she sauntered toward them.

Alvin tried to balance the two glasses in one hand so he could reach into his jacket pocket for a handkerchief. The beauty reached a languid hand to lift a glass from him, and when he raised his eyes, he froze in a blank stare as she smiled. Lucia performed introductions. Alvin hastily swiped at his hand before clasping the woman's outstretched fingers and planting a chivalrous kiss to the back of her evening glove. Lucia suppressed a shudder, but the woman took it in stride.

After all, she was used to it. David chucked as Alvin fawned over her. He knew her--Adelaide Kawamoto. Eternally poised, gracious, and stylish. Fabulously wealthy, breathtakingly beautiful ... and unwaveringly faithful to her husband, shipping tycoon Keith Kawamoto.

Lucia cast a quick glance at poor Alvin. Regret flashed across her eyes, but she blinked and it was gone. David could nearly read her mind--a client lost, but she wouldn't have wanted to work for him anyway. He applauded her good sense overriding her need for work--he would have done the same, in her shoes. His own principles often made him unpopular in his law firm.

She escaped from Alvin like a rat from a sinking ship, and David bolted from his seat. He wouldn't be deterred again. He had to meet her.

But fate conspired against him. Lucia's cousin Richard had wandered to this end of the gallery, Tatsuya still at his side, and Richard saw her and motioned her over. Next to him stood a slight, older Chinese man with graying hair in a buzz cut, who bore a jubilant smile and held a newly-opened bottle of Dom Pérignon.

"Mr. Chow, what an honor to meet you," Lucia said as she shook his hand, her voice low and reverent.

She chatted with the gallery owner, her face animated and sweet--perfect to enchant an old man. David couldn't interrupt her opportunity to snag Mr. Chow as a client. He dragged himself back to the bar, but kept her in sight. He signaled the bartender.

"Richard tells me you do web design," Mr. Chow said.

"Yes, I specialize in a unique motif and color scheme for each client."

"Ah! Excellent. Here is my card--call my secretary tomorrow to arrange an appointment. I would be interested in seeing your portfolio."

She began to gape and heave. Richard gave a discreet pinch to her elbow so she could burst out, "Thank you, Mr. Chow!"

He nodded. "I hope to revamp the gallery's website and brochures with a fresher look. I will have seven new artists next month." He gave her a broad, toothy grin. "Show me your most original ideas. And then we'll see."

Richard stemmed her stammering thanks with a grip on her arm. He grinned to Mr. Chow. "Didn't I tell you I would find you new talent? I always get you what you want."

"Get me some glasses," the old man quipped. "Let's taste this champagne you brought me."

At mention of the champagne, Lucia's face paled. Watching her, David thought she would faint. Her lower lip quivered. The sparkling flutes brought by a hovering waiter seemed to dazzle her. As the liquid streamed into the glasses and foamed to the top, her mouth fell open and she breathed in quick gasps. She stared as Mr. Chow distributed the champagne to Richard, James, and Don. Tatsuya brightened when Richard, mindful of him, sent a waiter after a glass of sparkling apple cider for the teenaged boy.

Mr. Chow held a glass of champagne out to her. She stared at the bubbling drink encased in crystal, swallowed, and bit her lip.

To refuse would be the height of insult to her host.

Mr. Chow motioned with the glass. "Take, drink with me." Lucia needed him--David left the bar and headed toward her.

Her hand rose, and a spasm ripped through her fingers. Her jaw clenched and released, clenched and released. She looked like she had stopped breathing.

How ironic. An alcoholic forced to drink Dom Pérignon.

Just before she touched the narrow stem, she snatched her hand away, tightening it into a fist that she hid in the folds of her dress. "I'm sorry, Mr. Chow ..." she choked out.

Mr. Chow's brow wrinkled in confusion for a moment. Then he focused behind her and his face lit up. "David! There you are."

David moved in behind her, finally able to smell her spicy perfume, close enough to almost touch the sleek waves of her hair. She turned to face him, met his eyes, then inhaled a quick breath.

He smoothly inserted the glass he carried into her hand, while taking the champagne still outstretched in Mr. Chow's grip. She stared blankly at the glass he gave her, then lifted her gaze back up at him.

"Club soda," he answered her unspoken question.

Mr. Chow beamed. "Lucia Wu, this is my son David."

"A pleasure to finally meet you," he said, watching the surprise and fascination flit over her face. Her lips parted, and her breath came in shallow gasps. He lost himself in her eyes--long and thin, gliding to fine points at the corners, deep and dark like midnight. Those eyes locked on him as if they were the only two people in the room. The awareness between them crackled in the tense air.

"A knight," she said, a hint of dryness in her tone. "Riding to my rescue with a glass of club soda."

He laughed.

"How did you know?" she asked. "Your timing couldn't have been better."

He paused before he answered, searching her face. Rose tinted her cheeks and her eyes twinkled like faceted onyx. She gave him a warm smile; she seemed to be comfortable with him already. But her demeanor brimmed with curiosity. He could read her thoughts like a book--something about him eluded her and she meant to solve this mystery.

He gave a smile. "Somehow, I feel as if I already know you ..."

Copyright 2006 Camy Tang