The moment he entered the terminal, he felt the crushing truth of his situation. I am home. And I’m getting married. To her.
He sighed and started dragging his suitcase behind him. A frown seemed to have been permanently etched on his handsome face since the day he received that phone call from his mother. Your father is very ill and he wants you to come home as soon as possible, his mother had said. She did not say more, but he knew what the rest of the message was all about. Come home and assume your role as head of this family.
He did not hate his parents, nor did he have any plans of shirking his duties and responsibilities as heir to his father’s powerful and extensive business dynasty. If not for that damning pre-requisite that came with it - marriage! You would think that they were still living in medieval times with the way they arranged that union with the Almendrezes’ only child.
It’s been fifteen years since he’d last seen that headstrong and very exasperating daughter of his father’s best friend and business partner, Ramon Almendrez.
She was eight or nine, he, turning fourteen. He knew their parents organized that summer outing so the two of them could spend time together, get to know each other better. They had already decided to turn them into a couple even then. And at fourteen, that did not sit well with him. He had his own plans. He liked other girls. And he wanted to choose his own life partner.
Besides, she was just too ‘boyish’ for his taste. He never saw her playing with dolls or doing ‘girly’ things. She was always running around with his younger brothers, playing soccer, climbing up trees, swimming in the river, riding ponies and even playing with trading cards. Plus, she kept on challenging him in every activity that they were thrown in together. He couldn’t understand why she was so determined in beating him at everything! She even audaciously questioned everything he said.
But what really unnerved him was her ability to deceive the unwary. For Louisa Almendrez had the face of an angel and the temperament of an imp. She could get away with anything with a fluttering of her thick lashes and a double dose of her sweet, dimpled smile.
Though if he were to be honest, he’d actually liked her the first time he saw her. Or the way she looked, at least. He adored the way her hair curled to frame her fair, oval face, how her cute, little nose twitched just a little when she was planning on mischief.
And her eyes! He loved looking at her eyes. They seemed to glow from within every time she smiled, making her hazel eyes appear so light they’re the color of molten gold. He liked the way she carried herself. Even at such a young age, she already exuded confidence and strength. He’d also seen proof of her quick, sharp mind. All in all, she was not really that bad.
He could’ve tried to overlook her minor faults and focused more on her good points. But what had really set his mind against her was that she was chosen for him. The fact that he was not even consulted on this major aspect of his life grated against his pride. She was their choice, not his. He did not choose her. And so from then on, Louisa Almendrez, in spite of all her redeeming qualities, was placed on the ‘other’ side, the enemy’s side and he tried as best as he could to avoid being with her.
When the Almendrezes became too involved and busy with their import-export business in Cebu the instances of their meeting were greatly minimized, which was just fine with him. Things got even better when his father agreed to send him to England to finish his studies. It gave him the freedom and distance that he needed.
Still, the arranged marriage between them remained in force, a virtual Damocles’ sword hanging threateningly above him. This was the twenty-first century, after all, where men and women were free to follow their hearts, where marriages were no longer dictated by their elders, but decided upon by two people in love.
He winced as he thought, Am I such a die-hard romantic? Or is this my pride speaking?
And so, as Gabriel Fernando Montoya y Gomez stepped out of the airport to wave to Juarez, their elderly driver whom, he was sure, his mother had instructed to bring him straight home, he promised himself that the Montoya-Almendrez wedding would remain an old man’s dream.
He refused to be a pawn in this game of hearts.
And he would do everything to put a stop to this madness.
Or at least he won’t be silent. Never a meek lamb being led to slaughter! He never approved of this betrothal and he would make damn sure that everyone knew it.
“Louisa! Louisa! Wake up and open the door, your Papa wants to speak with you.”
Louisa reluctantly opened her eyes and dragged herself from bed. She knew that her Yaya Seling would not stop banging on her bedroom door until she let her in.
The fact that Yaya Seling was calling her by her given name instead of her nickname told Louisa that the older woman was in one of her ‘dark’ moods again. She would not be taking any nonsense today. She knew Louisa preferred to be called Louie and she’d always indulged her, except when she’s unduly stressed or angry at her. Louisa loved her dearly, but she could be a real pain in the neck at times. She also keeps on forgetting that her ward is no longer a child. But, Louisa could not fault her for that, so to keep the peace, she would often go out of her way just to please the older woman.
When she opened the door to let the tyrant in, Louisa gave her a mechanical smile before going back immediately to bed. She dove under her fluffy comforter and snuggled deeper its warm cocoon, determined to catch a few more winks.
“Come on, lazy head! Get up! Your Papa has been waiting for you to come down for breakfast for over an hour now! He said he had to speak with you as soon as you’re awake. So get up now!” Yaya Seling admonished while dragging the comforter away. Then, she took the wet towel on the bedside table and started rubbing it on Louisa’s face.
“Yaya Seling! Stop it! I hate it when you do that! I’m no longer a six-year old, you know”, pushing away the hand that was ministering to her. “Okay, okay! I’m getting up! I’ll go to the bathroom first, okay?”
Louisa jumped out of bed, half-walking and half-crawling to the bathroom. She splashed cold water on her face, removing the sleep from her eyes. After feeling the effects of her ablutions she proceeded to attend to her other bodily functions.
“What’s this all about, anyway? Didn’t you know that I had just got to bed? I was up half the night with that proposal that Papa asked me to look over so he should know that I would not be up this early. What time is it, by the way?” she quipped from behind the bathroom door which she purposely left ajar.
“It’s 8:00am and I have no idea what it’s all about. All I know is that your Papa had also been up half the night in his study. I saw the light in his study way past midnight when I went to the kitchen to get a drink. And he looks a bit haggard this morning. So it’s safe to say that he had very little sleep himself.” Yaya Seling answered while straightening Louisa’s bed.
Louisa came out with a puzzled look on her face. “Does he seem okay?”
“Well, he doesn’t look sick, if that’s what you’re asking. Just a little ragged and frayed around the edges.”
“Hmm...Well, I guess I better get down there and ask him myself. I’ll just take a nap this afternoon as I know I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep now, anyway.”
It’s a quirk she’s had since childhood. She’s never able go back to sleep after having fully awakened, no matter how little sleep she had the previous night or how sleepy she was before she woke up. It would take a few hours before her lack of sleep would manifest itself, in which case she would have to go straight to bed or end up with a throbbing headache. But now that her curiosity had been tweaked, she knew that she would not be getting any sleep even if she did not have that quirk.
Her father rarely, if ever, demanded her presence during breakfast, since she often beat him to it. Louisa had always been an early riser and her father knew that she never overslept. On the rare instances that she went missing on the breakfast table her father would always ignore it and pass it off without comment knowing that she would have a good reason for it.
So, she found it rather odd that her father ordered her Yaya Seling to wake her up so she could join him for breakfast. And she was sure that her Papa had forced Yaya Seling to wake her up because, tyrant or not, she was very protective of her ward, often letting her get away with almost anything, including sleeping in late. Her father was very indulgent of her, too, and he wouldn’t wake her up it wasn’t important. Whatever the reason, she just hoped it wasn’t that serious or life-threatening.
Then she remembered the time when his father surprised her with her very own mare on her thirteenth birthday. He also woke her up way before breakfast, before sunrise even. He couldn’t wait for her to wake up, too excited to see her reaction.
Maybe he has a surprise for me that couldn’t wait, she thought happily.
With that in mind, she quickly donned her usual attire - a loose white shirt with sleeves turned up at the elbows, soft chino pants and her Hush Puppies. Bundling up her long tresses into a loose ponytail, she dabbed a little powder on her face and a quick spray of her favorite cologne. Satisfied with what she saw on her oversized bathroom mirror, Louisa left her room and sauntered down the staircase with a light heart.
Louisa found her father in the Solarium, a portion in the middle of the house which had a set of rather high-tech windows above it. They could be opened or closed depending on the weather. It was her mother’s favorite spot since it brought the outdoors indoors, as she always said.
The bonsai palm trees and ferns that surrounded it gave it a soothing ambience. The small breakfast table made of driftwood, varnished in a dark-brown, glossy tint, that dominated this space would have looked intimidating and out of place if not for the intricately-carved legs that held it up – expertly carved dark wood that were made to look like thick vines sprouting up from out of the ground. The black, wrought-iron chairs with cushioned seats in bright, tropical colors that accompanied it lent a contemporary touch to this otherwise old-world setting. She designed the set when she was twelve and her father had it made according to her specifications, commenting that she had a natural talent for designing. This set made him venture into furniture production later on.
As she approached her father, she saw that he was sipping his brewed coffee, an unlit tobacco loosely held in his left hand. He had quit smoking a long time ago, right after her mother died, but he still kept a stock of those foul-smelling things around. She also knew that it was only when he was troubled or brooding over something that he would be caught holding one and the fact that he was doing it right now somehow started to deflate her hope that his ‘surprise’ was a happy one. Her quick, light steps turned into cautious, heavy ones. But she could not back away now because she knew that her father had already felt her presence.
“Good Morning, Papa. I see you beat me to the breakfast table this time,” she said, trying to keep her tone light.
“Good Morning to you, too, my pet,” her father replied, his soft voice belying the tension he was feeling.
“So, what’s up?” Louisa said while taking her usual seat across her father.
Ramon remained quiet and continued sipping his coffee, purposely avoiding her eyes. He’s stalling, she thought. Not a good sign.
Louisa tried to keep the meeting light by ignoring his father’s brooding mood and focused on the appetizing breakfast spread before her. The aroma of the freshly brewed coffee, freshly-baked bread, scrambled eggs and sausages reminded her of her meager fare last night. Reviewing proposals and contracts always had a way of ruining her appetite, so her dinner consisted mostly of biscuits and a mug of weak tea. This morning, it was filled with the fragrant coffee. She skipped the cream and added two teaspoons of sugar to it. Then she piled her plate with sweet-smelling bread, scrambled eggs and sausages. The home baked bread was just perfect, crusty on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside.
The food distracted her enough to forget that she was summoned for breakfast. And since she really was hungry, she ate without inhibition and with her usual gusto. The last of her bread was finished in one bite right after being dunked in coffee. As she gulped down the remainder of her coffee, she couldn’t help but feel the intensity of her father’s stare. Thinking that it was her barbaric display that had concerned her Papa, she quickly picked up her linen napkin and delicately dabbed at the corners of her mouth.
“There! See? I still have manners, okay? No need to look so horrified, Papa,” she said, grinning at her father.
Such light banter, on any other day, would’ve brought a funny rejoinder from her father, but this time the elder Almendrez only continued to stare at her, with nary a grin to lift his downturned lips. The hairs on her neck literally stood up as a dreadful realization slowly came to mind.
Oh, God, please. Don’t be ill, Papa, she silently prayed.
Losing one parent was painful enough, and she sure wasn’t ready to let go of the only family she had left. Her fear must have been reflected on her face because her father suddenly snapped out of his brooding. He straightened up and cleared his throat noisily while slowly putting the unlit tobacco inside its casing beside his coffee cup. His slow, deliberate movement was enough to push her into a state of anxiety. Her father was not a delicate man. His actions were often quick and forceful. He rarely moved slowly or hesitantly. That he was doing just that warned her that he was about to drop a bomb in her lap.
“Louisa, I have some bad news about Tio Fernando,” her father’s voice was so soft she hardly heard him. “He had a stroke and is now in a coma.”
Tio Fernando had been her father’s bestfriend since childhood, so she knew how painful this was for him. Instinctively, she reached out for her father’s hand. But feeling the gesture inadequate, Louisa got to her feet and gave him a tight hug. She kissed the top of his head, still thick with his wavy, auburn hair, which was so like her own.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Papa. I’m sure he’ll be alright, though.”
She thought it sounded too cliché but she couldn’t help saying it. She should have offered more encouragement but the small lump that was forcing its way to her throat made it hard to speak. She also loved her godfather.
Ramon looked up at her and smiled, his dark, brown eyes misting with unshed tears. Louisa saw the pain in his eyes but she also saw something behind his grief, a desperation that was almost akin to panic.
“What’s wrong, Papa?”
“I think you need to sit down, my dear. There is something you need to know.” He kissed her hands and motioned her back to her chair.
Hesitantly, she went back to her seat. The lump seemed to have settled on her windpipe and she started to feel nauseated. This can’t be good.
“You are aware that it was your Tio Fernando who helped us get back on our feet after that disastrous contract with the Belgians, right? “
How could she forget? She was still quite young when it happened but she knew about the ‘Belgian Tragedy’. It was what had drastically changed their lives. Her parents were still in the import-export business during the time and they were able to secure a multi-million dollar contract with a reputable Belgian company. The deal was that the Belgian company would import coconut and banana products from the Philippines and they would export their crystals and precious stones here for a period of five years. The prospects were good so her father invested heavily in it. In fact, almost everything they had was infused into the capital needed for the said venture. Unfortunately, the deal turned sour.
The President and CEO of the company, who was the only one in direct communication with her father, had a fatal accident. As it turned out, he had not yet secured the final approval of the board regarding this deal. When the contract was reviewed, the Board cited several flaws and refused to honor it offhand. It took months to renegotiate the contract, but in the end, the Belgian company refused to go ahead with the venture. The products, 80% of which had already been shipped, were returned to the Philippines. Since most of them were perishable, very little was left to be salvaged. Their budding import-export business fell into ruin.
When Don Fernando Montoya learned of what had happened to her father’s business, he did not hesitate to offer his assistance. He provided the capital needed to start a new business. Soon enough, they were able to put up ‘The Furniture Shop’, a company which designed and manufactured world-class furniture, a very non-perishable product. Or at least, that’s how she remembered it.
“Si, Papa. I remember.” Louisa, though confused, nodded. She couldn’t understand why her father was bringing this up now. Neither could she see its relevance to Tio Fernando’s medical condition. But she held her tongue and waited for her father to elaborate.
“That year, we almost lost everything. I was forced to sell our house and other properties in Cebu. We also had to mortgage the house in Manila just to pay off all our suppliers and contractors. That Belgian deal was a mistake, yes, but my biggest mistake was putting almost everything we had on that one business venture,” he said, his eyes watching his daughter’s reaction cautiously, waiting for the questions to burst forth.
When she didn’t say anything he took a deep breath and proceeded to reveal the secret that he had been harboring since the day ‘The Furniture Shop’ was concocted.
“I was so afraid of going back into business. I did not want the sole responsibility of running a company anymore. I feared a repeat of the Belgian Tragedy and I could not afford to make such a big blunder again. So, when Fernando approached me and offered to lend us money to start over, I refused. I couldn’t take such a big risk again. I asked him if he could just sign me on as an employee. He wouldn’t. He said he had too much respect for me to demote me to such a position. He offered me an alternative instead.”
He paused to sip at his coffee, now cold. But he barely noticed it. It was just reflex. He was still unsure how to broach the subject with his daughter. He feared that he had raised her too leniently, too loosely, that she had grown headstrong and independent. So unlike the ladies of his time who were used to doing what they were told, completely subservient to their parents’ will. But Louisa was different. She was smart, strong-willed and very capable of handling herself. Probably because of the freedom he had granted her since she lost her mother to cancer. Had Consuelo not died, he wouldn’t have indulged Louisa so much. But then, he also knew of Louisa’s soft heart and fierce loyalty to her family, so he held on to that small hope that she would understand why he had to do what he did.
“Fernando and Aurora never had any daughters, but not by choice. After Gabriel, they longed to have a daughter. They had three boys one after the other precisely because they were hoping for one. It was only when Aurora was diagnosed with a heart condition that they stopped trying altogether. The knack for having sons and no daughters must have ran in the family because neither Aurora’s nor Fernando’s brothers had any daughters either. You were actually the closest that they had in having a daughter. And so, you must have noticed how they doted on you so much when you were little. Fernando often said that you were the daughter they never had.”
If Ramon had hoped to clarify the situation with his statement, he would be sorely disappointed since Louisa felt even more confused now. The lump in her throat was fast growing to alarming proportions and she feared that she would soon choke to death if her father continued on like this. What was her father trying to tell her? That the Montoyas had adopted her or that they are proposing to adopt her in exchange for the Furniture Shop? But that would be crazy, wouldn’t it? Tia Aurora knew how much she loved her father and she would not want to separate the two of them. Besides, she wasn’t a commodity that could be traded off for a piece of business, no matter how lucrative that is. And the Montoyas did not need their business either since they owned half the country already! There had to be more to it than her father was telling her.
“Papa, I don’t understand. What are you trying to tell me, really?”
Ramon sighed. He knew that he was bungling this. He thought he had more time to prepare her for this inevitable event but with Fernando’s health waning fast, he had to get this over with, posthaste. He might as well just blurt out the truth. He took a deep breath and plunged head-on into dangerous waters.
“The Furniture Shop is not really ours. Yes, we manage it, we have full control of its operation but we’re just caretakers of that company. It actually belongs to Fernando’s eldest son, Gabriel. When I accepted Fernando’s proposal then, it seemed like a really good idea. I never thought that your mother wouldn’t be here to guide you and instruct you on the intricacies of our contract with the Montoyas. We were going to tell you about it, when you were old enough, of course. But, alas, she had to leave before we had the chance. And I must admit that my grief over your mother’s death was more than enough for me to handle that I did not know how to tell you about the contract. Believe me, though, that we had both your and Gabriel’s best interests at heart when we signed that contract.”
He looked at Louisa to see if she was finally getting what he was trying to say but the furrowed brow and pursed lips that greeted his perusal convinced him that she was more confused now than ever.
Closing his eyes, he took another deep breath and continued.
“Fernando and I agreed that since I did not want to manage my own business anymore, that I feared the complete freedom that sole proprietorship granted me, he would then be my business partner. And so, later on, when the Shop had taken off, before it became the huge success that it is today, he also took me into his other business ventures, as a partner. But the Furniture Shop was our baby, it had a special place in our hearts since it brought our two families together, permanently,” he paused and sipped his coffee again.
Louisa slightly shook her head, getting more impatient and befuddled by the minute. Crossing her arms on the table, she leaned slightly towards her father and asked the one question that her father had been dreading.
“What was the contract about, Papa?”
“Quit stalling, Papa. What was the contract that you made with Don Fernando? Are you telling me that we are now going to turn-over everything to his son, Gabriel? After all these years? You know that the Shop is my heart and soul, Papa!” she said, the frustration and fear of losing the Shop making her voice sound harsher than she intended.
“I know, dear. But we are not going to turn it over to Gabriel. You will not lose it because the Shop legally belongs to Gabriel and his future wife.” Ramon said carefully, hoping that his daughter would get his meaning.
An awkward silence followed; the lull before the storm. Then, Ramon saw how confusion, shock and finally understanding were briefly displayed, one after the other, on Louisa’s face. Then just as quickly they all collided and merged, giving birth to something stronger, something more violent – rage!
“Please don’t tell me that I have to marry that arrogant, self-important, narcissistic ass just to gain control of the company that I had nurtured all these years? It wouldn’t be in its current position in the world market now if it weren’t for me, Papa. You know how I’ve bled and sacrificed for that company,” she exploded, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, fire and brimstone raining down from heaven.
“I know, dear. And that’s the reason why I gave you a free hand on the Shop. Because I knew that it would eventually be completely yours. It was the only company we have that was not transferred to my name after Fernando insisted that I was already more than capable of handling them myself. And, as you are well aware, it was the only one not included in the merger we had with the Montoya Group of Companies last year,” Ramon answered calmly, refusing to be drawn into the maelstrom of Louisa’s wrath.
“What? I did not know that! I thought that you just negotiated with them to grant us full control of the Shop.”
“Did I not tell you? Oh, well, now you know,” her father answered sheepishly, mentally beating himself for forgetting that he’d forgotten to tell her about that one. “Fernando did not want it to be part of the merger because he said it was not rightfully his or mine. By all intents and purposes, it belongs to you and Gabriel.”
“It does not belong to me, Papa! You just said that it belongs to Gabriel and his ‘future’ wife. So it would belong to whoever he would condescend to marry. And I’m sure that I’m not even on that overbearing oaf’s list of ‘suitable wives’!”
“Really, dear! Did you think that we would leave that bit to chance and not do anything to prevent Gabriel from finding his own wife? The contract was quite specific. It stipulated that the only way Gabriel would have his hands on the Shop was if the wife would be a girl named Maria Anna Louisa Almendrez y Cortez. His father even went a bit further and added another stipulation to his inheritance.”
“And what stipulation is that?” She had an idea, but she didn’t like it.
“That he would have to marry this Señorita Almendrez before he turned thirty in order to get his full inheritance, including control of the Montoya Group of Companies. Otherwise, he would just be given a yearly allowance and a minor company in their empire to play with.”Ramon said, smiling inside.
Fernando was not that heartless. Gabriel would never be ‘disinherited’ even if he chose to renege on the betrothal. But Fernando wanted the marriage between their children to happen and he was shrewd enough to make that provision in Gabriel’s inheritance believable in order to push him in the right direction.
“What!? If this is a joke, Papa, it’s not funny,” she said, silently hoping that her father would suddenly burst out laughing and admit that he was indeed joking. But when her father remained straight faced and solemn, Louisa felt her heart slowly shriveling up to the size of a walnut.
“Why did it have to be Gabriel? Of all people? He barely noticed my existence. And the few times that he deigned to take note of me he made it clear that I was nothing more than a nuisance. And that was when we were still kids. But with this new development? Boy, I bet he’s consigning me to the devil just now! Not that I haven’t done it to him myself, mind you. And you expect us to get married? To each other? Bah! Thanks to you, Papa and your match-making compadre, that would be like asking the moon to kiss the sun! Un-BE-Lie-Va-Ble!!!”
Ramon was taken aback by the venom in his daughter’s voice. One of the reasons why he had agreed to the betrothal was because he thought Louisa had a big crush on Gabriel ever since she was a child and as such would not really be too loath in being joined with him in marriage. Sure, she would rant and rave at being forced into an arranged marriage, seeing it as too archaic. But he had been sure that her infatuation would be rekindled and would even be delighted in marrying her childhood crush. So, Ramon was at a loss when he saw her obvious abhorrence for Gabriel.
Still trying to decipher his daughter’s reaction, Ramon failed to catch the next words that Louisa managed to mutter under her breath as she hastily got up on her feet and stormed out of the room in a dark rage. He was pretty sure that there were a lot of very unladylike expletives included among them. Ramon shook his head as he watched her angrily stomp towards the direction of the front door. She would be going straight to the stables to get her mount and ride down her fury. But he knew that after all the fireworks were spent, her sense of duty and honor would come to the fore. She would come around and accept her fate. Just as Gabriel, who Fernando said had gone ballistic himself when told about the betrothal, would also come around.
Fernando was right, Ramon thought, smiling slightly, remembering how his own daughter had reacted to the news of her betrothal. The two will be a perfect fit for each other.
They just need to see the truth of it for themselves.