heart of the Night
The book you are about to read is the draft version of Heart of The Night, meaning it has not been with a professional editor yet.
It is book #2 in The Night series.
Heart of The Night contains significant changes to the story and differs markedly from the earlier version of the book, previously called Into the Night.
§2. Easy as Breathing
The interior of the two-floor restaurant was a marvel to behold. Elegant chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, casting a soft, golden light over the intricately carved wooden screens that separated the dining area into intimate spaces. Splashes of vibrant red and gold adorned the walls, while traditional Chinese art mingled seamlessly with contemporary pieces, creating a luxurious and culturally rich atmosphere.
I couldn’t help but feel out of place. Casual, Jason had promised, yet this felt stiff. Very stiff. I was underdressed, wasn’t I? Well, at least William was, too – for once.
Why had William told me to dress casually when I asked him at the office earlier? I knew he had been here before. Fusion, he had called the restaurant, while praising the chefs’ culinary skills as he led the way through Chinatown.
But then I looked at the nearest guests and noticed that, despite the sumptuous surroundings, they mostly wore semi-formal attire. I stood a decent chance of blending into that category, but Will’s outfit was wholly casual. It brought a smile to my lips. For once, William was underdressed, and even more bizarre: it was a deliberate decision.
As William announced himself to the hostess, a voice filled with jubilation echoed throughout the stylish foyer. ‘William!’
A man, seemingly of Asian descent – possibly Chinese – sauntered toward us, his broad smile lighting up the room. Bald and roughly my height, he looked like he could be a few years older than William, his dark eyes gleaming with hard-earned experience.
I glanced at William, my heart skipping a beat as I noticed his confident poise. He was so effortlessly stunning, all the time. Even if he was only wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt, he somehow managed to elevate the simple ensemble to the status of high fashion, lending a sophistication that would be coveted by all. It was as if he were a male model strutting down the catwalk, making even the most mundane clothing look luxurious. I couldn’t believe how exquisite he made jeans and T-shirts look – on him, they appeared more dressed up than down.
I made myself stand a little taller, trying my best to look worthy of him, to not fade completely into his shadow.
‘Jian,’ William greeted the man, his tone warm and fond.
‘It’s been too long, my friend,’ Jian said, taking William’s outstretched hand and squeezing it between both of his.
William reciprocated the gesture by placing his other hand atop Jian’s. ‘Indeed, it has.’ He released Jian’s hands and gestured to the surroundings. ‘Though, Fusion looks as marvellous as ever. In fact, you’ve expanded the place since my last visit, haven’t you?’
Jian’s smile widened, showcasing his straight, bleached teeth. ‘Yes, we acquired the floor above.’
‘How wonderful. Business must be going well, I presume.’ William grinned. ‘And how’s your Xin doing? And the rest of your family?’
Jian stiffened slightly, as if the question, although perfectly polite and no doubt part of expected etiquette, reminded him of something dreadful. ‘Good, good,’ Jian said, his eyes falling on to me. ‘And who is this lovely lady?’
I flushed under his gaze as William wrapped his arm around my waist, tugging me closer to his side. ‘This is Cara Darby, my date.’
Jian’s dark eyes sparkled with approval as he put his right fist to his left palm and bowed slightly. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Darby. Welcome to Fusion.’
‘Jian’s an old friend of my family,’ William explained as Jian led us to our table, discreetly inviting Jian to elaborate on how his family had known William’s for decades. It turned out that William’s maternal grandfather – a Michelin-awarded chef – had assisted Jian’s grandfather in bringing Fusion to life, and Jian’s grandfather had subsequently gone on to earn multiple Michelin awards in his own right.
As we settled into our seats, Jian insisted on bringing a complimentary bottle of champagne to our table before presenting us with the menu. He emphasised that if we needed anything at all, we mustn’t hesitate to call for him.
‘You said to dress casually,’ I said the instant Jian was out of earshot.
William glanced up at me from the menu he had opened, a vague smile stretching his perfect mouth. ‘Our date doesn’t end here. You’ll thank me later. Besides, who cares?’
I opened the menu, shifting in my seat. ‘Not you, clearly.’
He chuckled. ‘I’m always wearing suits. I saw an opportunity to wear jeans for once.’
‘So you decided to drag me down with you?’
A huge grin spread his lips. ‘Now we’re a pair of clowns.’
‘Are you actually annoyed?’
I shook my head. ‘No, not really.’
‘Good, because you don’t look underdressed. Especially compared to me.’
I scanned him, deciding not to tell him that he could easily grace the cover of a men’s fashion magazine.
‘Did you notice how Jian stiffened when I asked him about his family?’ William asked then, his brows furrowing slightly as he held my gaze.
‘I did, actually.’
He looked away, thinking. ‘I’m wondering if he lied about things being good – because you’re here.’
I tilted my head. ‘It’s possible.’
He raised a hand to his mouth, his forefinger running across his lips. As I stared at that finger, all I could think about was how much I wanted it inside me, the sooner the better.
‘I’ll have to ask him again later,’ William said, focusing on the menu again. ‘Now. What would you like to eat?’
We settled on a shared menu consisting of ten separate dishes. As we waited for our appetisers, William said, ‘The only downside to this place’ – he reached for his glass of champagne – ‘is that they haven’t got fortune cookies.’ He took a sip.
I chuckled. ‘I wasn’t aware they should.’
He set the glass back. ‘I’ve been trying to persuade Jian to add them to the menu – at least a secret one – for years, but he refuses. Says they’re too commercial.’
I shrugged. ‘He’s got a reputation to maintain.’
‘But they’re such good fun,’ Will argued. ‘Thankfully,’ he folded his arms and leaned forward, ‘there’s a place just down the street that sells them, so I’ve already placed the order. We’ll stop by once we’re done here, and that way, we can skip the queue.’
Amusement danced on my lips. ‘Efficiency is your bible, isn’t it?’
‘Sounds about right.’ He nodded, grinning. ‘Why, are you religious?’
‘Very,’ I lied.
From his astonished expression, I could tell I had surprised him. I barely managed to keep from laughing.
‘Really? Which religion?’
‘Christianity.’ Another lie.
He scrutinised my features, looking far from convinced. ‘And what does Jamie make of that, given he’s a philosophy teacher and all? I mean, yes, there are lots of Christian philosophers. I’m just not entirely convinced that dear Mr Darby is one, and I’m even less convinced that he would raise his daughter a Christian. After all, critical thinking is at the core of philosophy. Surely he must have raised you to consider religion with an analytical eye, rather than shove it down your throat?’
I laughed. It was endearing that William remembered all these details about my father when I had only talked about him once, and many months ago at that. And, impressively, it seemed that William had accurately deduced my father’s character from that brief mention.
‘You’re right. I’m not religious at all. None of my family members are. Are you, though?’
‘Yes, of course. I’d even kiss your feet if you asked me to.’
The unexpected twist caught me off guard. As the words sank in, a rush of warmth flooded my cheeks. It was apparent he was insinuating I held a god-like status in his eyes, and by that alone, I inferred he wasn’t religious at all.
‘Foot fetish?’ My nose wrinkled. ‘We’ll have to work on that.’ I rested my cheek in my palm. ‘Not judging those who are, but I am not into that.’
Chuckling, he leaned back in his seat. ‘I’m not into it myself, but there must be a reason for its existence – the fetish, I mean.’
I shook my head.
‘Done anal?’ he asked then, his face devoid of emotion. It was tempting to grab my purse and smack him over the head with it.
‘Seriously, Will?’ I glared at him, my cheeks boiling. ‘We’re at a posh restaurant.’
He laughed. ‘You’ve definitely done it.’
Pursing my lips, I looked away from him. Yes, I had tried it, and it was in fact something I quite enjoyed when done right. Aaron and I had explored this terrain several times, and while it had been an uncomfortable sensation initially, we eventually figured out how to make it a pleasant experience. Since then, using butt plugs during sex had been one of my favourite things because the fulfilment was unlike anything else.
The thought of Aaron and all the things we had done together made my mood plummet in the span of a mere breath.
‘I have,’ I said, pouting.
William’s eyes gleamed with lust as he leaned forward. ‘Do you like it?’
My blush was constant at this point. ‘I can’t believe we’re discussing this over dinner, in public.’
‘You do,’ he said, grinning widely.
This topic and the excitement in his eyes made it impossible to hold his gaze. ‘I prefer regular sex with butt plugs over anal sex,’ I murmured embarrassedly.
‘Do you like it?’ I dared to look at him.
He shrugged. ‘I don’t really have an opinion on the matter. I’m into it if my partner is, but it’s not something I desperately need to do. Regular sex is equally pleasurable in my experience.’
‘Good to know. I don’t think I could handle you entering through the backdoor anyway.’
His eyebrows twitched. ‘Are you implying I’m bigger than—’ He stopped short upon my glare.
‘Don’t compare,’ I said harshly, defensive of Aaron. I hadn’t meant to expose the truth like that, and I regretted it profusely. While he wasn’t William, Aaron was surely adequately endowed, and I hated the idea that William might gloat about this. ‘Besides,’ I continued vehemently, ‘size only matters up to a point. After that, how you use it is much more important.’
The waiter appeared with our first round of appetisers just as William opened his mouth to speak. I breathed a small sigh of relief, even though the thought of Aaron had already spoiled my appetite. The waiter took a small step back, asking if he could describe the dish to us: large, succulent shrimp cooked in a fiery Sichuan-style sauce made with dried chilli peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. The dish, served in a small, elegant bowl with a pair of chopsticks, was topped with a sprinkle of chopped scallions and cilantro for added freshness. It looked mouth-watering.
As the waiter walked away, William tactfully steered the conversation to music. Apparently, the string instrument I heard in the background was called Guzheng.
‘Did you know I can play the guitar?’ he asked.
My eyebrows climbed higher. ‘You can?’
He went on to explain that he started taking lessons when he was eight and had subsequently become rather proficient.
As we ate, the conversation flowed as effortlessly as ever. I found myself wondering why I had felt so nervous about this date, when talking with Will was as easy as breathing. It had always been that way, so why should this evening have been any different? Though we had only known each other for a few months, I often felt like I had known him for a lifetime. His personality had always been strangely familiar, as if we had been long-time friends or even soul mates in a past life, and now we were just rediscovering one another anew.
When we finished the dessert, I ran a hand over my belly, feeling completely stuffed. ‘Are you sure about those fortune cookies? I feel like I’m about to burst.’
He emptied his glass of wine and set it back. ‘If you don’t want to eat it, I’ll do it for you, but you’ll get your fortune telling one way or another.’
Jian came over then, smiling brightly. ‘How was the food?’
‘It was delicious, as always,’ William said with a grin.
‘Yeah.’ I smiled up at Jian. ‘Will’s going to have to roll me out of here.’
Jian laughed. ‘Then we’ve succeeded at our job.’
‘I’d say so, especially judging by the number of guests,’ William remarked, his eyes ranging over the neighbouring screens as numerous voices blended with the comfortable Guzheng music playing in the background. ‘Have you considered expanding further, Jian? Perhaps open another restaurant?’
Jian’s expression turned sober, and his dark eyes flickered in my direction, as if contemplating whether to say what he wanted to. ‘To be honest, William,’ he began hesitantly, ‘there’s been some trouble at Fusion, but I don’t want to burden you with the details.’
William straightened at once. ‘How do you mean?’
‘Please. I’d hate to interrupt your date,’ Jian said and gave me an apologetic look.
‘I really don’t mind,’ I said, hoping my sincerity was palpable as I shook my head. ‘Will and I work together – we see each other almost every day. You’re not ruining anything.’
Jian took a deep breath, flicking a worried glance around, before leaning in closer to William. ‘There’s… there’s a big food conglomerate that’s been laying it on thick to enforce a takeover of Fusion. They’ve been pushing hard, and I’m afraid we might be on the ropes.’
William’s jaw clenched, his protective instincts kicking in. ‘That’s why you were all on edge when I asked about your family.’
Jian winced. ‘Yes. We’re all a bit worried, especially my father. He doesn’t want to forfeit my grandfather’s legacy.’
William nodded, looking contemplative. ‘Maybe I can help. This is my bread and butter, after all.’
Jian shook his head with a sigh. ‘We’re barely keeping our heads above water with the loans. We can’t foot the bill for lawyers.’
At this, William’s brow furrowed, as if he was offended. ‘What do you take me for? I’d do it pro bono, Jian.’
Jian’s eyes went wide in disbelief, his lips parting as if to argue, but no words came out. I found myself echoing Jian’s shock. William was offering to work for free? Had he forgotten he was already working on two rather considerable transactions at Day & Night?
Unfazed, William continued, ‘I’m guessing you haven’t breathed a word of this to my father since it’s news to me.’
Jian cleared his throat nervously. ‘As I said, we didn’t want to—’
‘Burden us,’ William cut in. ‘I get it. But would you mind if I had a word with him about it? I know he’d want to lend a hand, too.’
Jian stared at William for a moment, and it almost looked as if he was about to cry. ‘Thank you, Will. I can’t express how much this means to me and my family.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ William said, his tone serious. ‘It’s the least I can do. Granddad would have insisted on it, anyway, had he known. But he doesn’t, does he?’
Jian shook his head.
‘Well, I’d like to tell him too, if you don’t mind. He’d want to know. He and your grandfather were essentially brothers, after all.’ Were, I noted. So Jian’s grandfather was dead, I presumed. ‘And I know my grandfather cares for this place as though it were his own.’
‘I don’t mind if you tell them. But please know that we’ll understand if it becomes too much.’
William rubbed his neck. ‘Well, I can’t guarantee results, but give me a call on Sunday. Fill me in on the details, and I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Thank you, William. Thank you.’ Jian touched his chest and bowed slightly. ‘Have you paid the bill yet?’ he asked then.
William narrowed his eyes at him. ‘You’re not putting it on the house, Jian.’
‘Please, don’t. I’m here on a date.’ William jerked his head toward me. ‘I need to impress.’
I couldn’t help the smile that flickered across my lips. As if he hadn’t already impressed me by offering to help Jian out pro bono.
‘Let him pay, please,’ I said to Jian, thinking about the loans he had mentioned. And I knew full well that Will could afford this. This was barely spare change for him.
‘Yes, let me pay, Jian. I said pro bono – putting this on the house would equate payment for my services,’ William argued, his endearing crooked smile making an appearance.
Jian hesitated for a moment, then gave a reluctant nod. ‘If you insist. Thank you, both of you. It’s been a pleasure having you here tonight.’ He walked away, looking a little dazed.
‘A takeover?’ I questioned once he was out of earshot.
William faced me. ‘I had the same pause. As far as I’m aware, Fusion is privately owned, making a takeover a bit of a head-scratcher.’
‘Maybe he was being a tad loose with the term,’ I said.
‘Probably. I suspect he meant the conglomerate is pressuring them to sell or resorting to some unscrupulous tactics or the like.’ He shrugged. ‘We’ll see. Anyway, tonight is about us, so let’s roll you out of here, darling.’