Late morning was cool with a bit of wind, usual weather for in Japan as autumn took place. Lovely fall leaves in gold, cranberry red, pumpkin orange and warm brown. Even the rain that poured down seemed to be lovely due to the light overcast sky that filtered the sun. Yet in a luxurious and warm house, underneath a sturdy roof, the image was not enough to ease to the tension of a young woman that looked on through the window.
Sakura stood by the window watching the rain beat down on Tokyo, while her companion watched her with a pair of worried eyes. Her face shown the strain of business and she had lost weight on her curvaceous figure again. At twenty-four, she should have had nights out like her old friends, dating men spontaneously; a carefree outlook on life. Instead she had a burden of pressure twice the size most women ever dreamt of carry and achieving.
Kobayashi Kinomoto Sakura was vice president of Kobayashi International's huge domestic enterprises, much more than a shadowy figurehead who avoided publicity like the plague. She had a shrewd mind and a natural aptitude for high finance which her late husband had carefully, relentlessly and devotedly nurtured during their marriage. When he died, she had stepped into his shoes with such capability that the board directors reversed their decision to ask her to step down. Now, two and a half years into her term of office, company profits were up and her plans for expansion into new minerals and gas reserves and strategic metals were well under way.
That explained the set of Sakura's thin shoulders. A company based in Hong Kong, China was fighting them tooth and nail over mineral rights they currently owned. But the Li Corporation wasn't just a mere formidable rival or China's powerful and wealthiest family in competition. It was headed by the one man Sakura had reason to hate; a shadow out of her past whose specter had haunted her through all the empty years since she'd left Hong Kong.
Only Kobayashi Hotaka knew the whole truth. He and his late brother, Takao, had been very close. Sakura had come to Takao a shy, frightened teenager. At first Takao, to whom business was a primary concern, had fought against the marriage. He relented, but he'd been faintly cool since Takao's death.
Hotaka was now president of Kobayashi International, but also something of a rival. Sakura had often wondered if he resented position in the company. He knew his own limitations, and her brilliance and competence had impressed harder heads than his. But he watched her carefully, especially when she drew on her nervous energy to take on too many projects. And this fight with Li Corporation was already taking its toll on her. She was still getting over the aftereffects of a rough bout with pneumonia that had come on the heels of a kidnapping attempt on her five-year-old son, Hikaru. If it hadn't been for the inscrutable Mr. Trung, her bodyguard, God only knew what might have happened.
Sakura was brooding over her forthcoming trip to China. She felt she had to make a brief visit to Hong Kong, home and base of Li Corporation and Sakura's home of eight years. The sudden death of her eighty-year-old great aunt who had lived there had left Sakura with the house and a few belongings of Aunt Soyaki's to dispose of. Sakura was really her only surviving relative, except for a few distant cousins who still lived out West.
"You arranged the funeral over the phone-couldn't you do that with the property, too? Hotaka asked softly.
Sakura hesitated, and then shook her head. "No, I can't. I've got to go back and face it. Face them," she amended. "Besides, it would be a God-given opportunity to scout out the opposition, wouldn't it? They don't I'm Kobayashi Takao's widow. I was Takao's best-kept secret. I've avoided cameras and worn wigs and dark glasses ever since I took over."
"That was to protect Hikaru," he reminded her. "You're worth millions, and this last kidnapping attempt almost succeeded. A low public profile is invaluable. If you aren't recognized, you and Hikaru are safer."
"Yes, but Takao didn't do it for that reason. He did it to keep Li Syaoran from finding out who I was, and where I was, in case he ever came looking for me." She closed her eyes, trying to blot out the memory of the fear she'd felt after her flight from China. Pregnant, accused of both sleeping with another man and being his accomplice in a theft, she'd been driven from the house by Syaoran's mother's harsh voice while Syaoran looked on in cold agreement. Sakura didn't know if the charges had ever been dropped, but Syaoran had believed she was guilty. That was the most painful memory.
She'd been carrying Syaoran's son, and she'd loved him so desperately. But Syaoran had used her. He's proposed to her, but she'd learned later that it had only been to keep her happy in their relationship. Love you? He'd drawled in his deep voice. Sex was pleasant, but what would he want with a gangly, shy teenager in any other respect? He'd said that in front of his vicious mother, and something in Sakura had died of shame.
She remembered running, blinded by tears, her only thought to get away. Great Aunt Soyaki had brought her a bus ticket, and she'd left town. Left under a shadow, in disgrace, with the memory of Li Yelan's mocking smile following her . . .
"Why not give up the takeover bid?" Hotaka suggested hesitantly. "There are other companies with mineral holdings."
"Not in southeastern China," she replied, her soft emerald eyes fixing on him calmly. "And Li Corporation has leases we can't break. They've made it impossible for us to get any mineral leases in the area." She turned and smiled, her soft oval face and creamy complexion framed by an elegant sweep of honey brown hair. She had the look of royalty, and the graceful carriage. That confidence was a legacy from Kobayashi Takao who'd given her far more than control of his business empire by the time he died. He'd hired tutors for her, to teach her etiquette and the art of hostessing, to educate her in business and finance. She'd been an eager and willing pupil, and she had a mind like a sponge.
"He'll fight hard," the thin grey haired man said stubbornly.
She smiled, because Hotaka looked so much like Takao when he set his lips that way. He was ten years Takao's junior and ten years Sakura's senior. He was a very good businessman, even if he wasn't her best friend in the world. But Hotaka was conservative while Sakura was aggressive. More than once they'd locked horns over company policy. The domestic operation was her domain, her baby and Hotaka wasn't going to tell her how to run it. Her steady level gaze told him all of that.
"Let him fight, Hotaka," she replied. "It will give him something to do while I'm taking over his company."
"You need rest," he said with a sigh. "You have been ill and Hiraku is a big handful."
"The flu is inevitable with a child in kindergarten," she reminded him. "I didn't expect it to go into pneumonia. Besides, with my expansion plans, the takeover bid is very essential. I have to give it priority, regardless of how much time or energy it takes. I can ferret out a lot of information while I'm deciding what to do with Great-Aunt Soyaki's house."
"There shouldn't be a problem. She left a will. Even if she hadn't, Takao took care of it by paying for it."
"No one in Hong Kong knows that," she said. She turned from the window, arms folded over her high, firm breasts as she nibbled her lower lip thoughtfully. "I wrote to her, and she came here to see several times. But I haven't been back there since-" She caught herself. "Not since I was eighteen," she amended.
But he knew. "It's been six years. Almost seven," he added gently. "Time is a great healer."
Her eyes darkened. "It is? Do you think six years or sixty would be enough to forget what the Lis did to me?" She turned toward him. "Revenge is unworthy of an intelligent person. Takao drilled that into me, but I can't help what I feel. They accused me of a crime I never committed, sent me out of Hong Kong in disgrace and pregnant." She closed her eyes as shivers went through her body. "I almost lost the baby. If it hadn't been for Takao . . ."
"He was crazy about Hiraku, and about you." Hotaka grinned. "I've never seen a man so happy. It was a shame about the accident. Three years out of a lifetime isn't long for a man to find and loses everything he values."
"Takao was so good to me," she agreed, smiling at the bittersweet memory that crossed her mind. "I know that everyone thought that I married him because he was wealthy. He was almost twenty years older than me. But the truth was that he didn't tell me how rich he was until he convinced me to marry him." She chuckled slightly. "I nearly bolted out of the door when he told me how much he was worth." She gestured around the elegant room with priceless antiques and expensive furniture. "All of this scared me."
"I always wondered why he didn't tell you until after the wedding," Hotaka mused. His whole life was spent making money and living for the corporation. He didn't know that he even wanted a family until you came along."
"He got a ready-made one. I wanted so much to give him a child . . ." She sighed and turned away. Thinking about it wouldn't do her any good. "I have to go to Hong Kong and I will go." She walked over and sat on the chaise near Hotaka. "Do you mind checking on Hiraku and Mr. Trung every day or two? I am a little nervous about the both of them, after that kidnapping attempt."
"Perhaps it's best to take Mr. Trung with you." He suggested. "You didn't live in a very good neighborhood after all."
"Mr. Trung is worth is weight in gold, and he'll take very good care of Hiraku. You don't have to check often if he disturbs you. And besides," she added after a glance at his unconvinced expression. "Hiraku loves him."
"Hiraku isn't old enough to realize how dangerous he is. Sakura, I know that he is worth his weight in gold, but you do know that he's also a wanted man . . . ?"
"Was a wanted man from Vietnam during the war. He was released of those charges. That was then and now he is a former law enforcement officer; one of the best."
"All right, fine. I'll try to keep watch but he better keep that animal of his away from me."
"Tiny lives in an aquarium," she said defensively. "And she's a very tame animal."
"She is an overgrown iguana," he muttered.
"Iguanas are vegetarians and she is not that big. Yet. And may I ask why you never put up a fuss about Lulu?"
"Lulu may be a monkey but at least she doesn't eat dogs like a certain old five foot iguana once did."
"Dano didn't eat dogs, Hotaka. You dog ran away."
"Can't he just put the thing up when I am over? I don't mind the monkey . . . much."
"Don't worry, I'll ask him. It's only for a few weeks, until I see to Great-Aunt Soyaki's property and organize a way to get those mineral leases away from the Lis. I'll have to do some scouting first," she added. "I want to see how the Lis are placed these days." Her lovely face darkened. "I want to see how he's placed."
"Be careful, he probably knows who you are by now."
"Fat chance, he does. I made a point of finding out. Takao was very protective of me, especially at first, so he never told anyone about me. Karumera was his nickname for me and he always referred that name to me. So there's very little chance that Syaoran Li would make a connection between me and Kobayashi International. He only knew me as Kinomoto Sakura. If I leave without flashing diamonds or any other expensive items, he won't know who I am. And more importantly," she added coldly, "his mother won't know."
"I've never thought of Syaoran Li as a mama's boy," he stated, with an amused chuckle.
"He isn't. But Mama is a prime mover, a secretive manipulator. I was eighteen and no match for her cunning mind. She got ten rid of me so easily, but now it's my turn to manipulate. I want Li Corporation and I'm going to get it."
Hotaka looked at his sister-in-law, thinking about the mess she was going to create for herself. He thought about warning her but didn't knowing that it'll fall on deaf ears.
Yes, she'd known Syaoran as a man, as a lover even. But she had no idea about the business head that sat on those broad shoulders, and if she went on to pursue the takeover bid, she was going to find herself in over her own head. Many others had tried to take on Li, to their cost. He was an accomplished and formidable for, among the most ruthless of businessmen.
He and Takao had butted heads several times. Li probably didn't have a clue why Kobayashi hated him so, or deliberately tried to foil deals for him. It had been a great big shock when Takao was invited to sit on the Li Corporation board of directors. Li had engineered that move so that he could keep an eye on Kobayashi's business deals, but Takao worked it to his advantage as well. Hotaka, naturally, attended the meetings, and Sakura's name was never mentioned once.
"Just be careful that your surprise doesn't backfire," he cautioned. "Don't underestimate him. Takao never did."
"Oh, I won't." She stretched lazily. "What's on the agenda for this afternoon? I have some shopping to do." She gestured to her designer suit. "Little Sakura could never have afforded anything like this. I don't want anyone to think that I have prospered."
" 'O what a tangled wed we weave, when we first practice to deceive,'" Hotaka quoted dryly.
"'And hell has no fury that of a woman scorned,'" Sakura shot back. "Don't worry, Hotaka. I am fully aware of what I'm getting into and how to handle it."
He shrugged. "I hope so."