ARC IV PART III: The Million Dollar Cuppa Tea
November, Present Day
Lills had imagined the Kwok Estate as a multi-story flat, or maybe a massive townhouse at most. Surely a family of antique dealers could not afford that nice of a house, especially not in China. After all, the Aihara family, who had more money that Lills would ever see in her life, lived in a modest flat. The last thing she expected was a mansion nestled in the lush forest outside of Guangdong, only a quick car trip from the famous Dinghu Mountain. Sports cars lined the driveway, and music drifted from the packed house as people laughed and talked and danced.
Winston Kwok was waiting on the front steps, dressed in a long black coat embroidered with cranes. As Lills and the others approached him, he smiled and waved.
"Hello, Aoto, hello Rubén, and hello Miss Lillian Holbright," he said. "It's such a pleasure to finally see you all in person." He glanced over at Darcy. "And you must Miss Darcy Charlemagne. You're even cuter than I imagined."
Shoma scowled, but Darcy just laughed nervously and said a quick greeting in Mandarin. Winston raised his eyebrows in delight. "Your Mandarin is excellent!" he said, stepping closer and bending down so that he was looking her in the eyes. "Where did you learn?"
Darcy blushed and looked away. "I was required to take a year of Spanish and Chinese in school," she said. "I really don't know that much."
"If you ever want to remedy that, I'd be happy to help," Winston said, smiling sweetly. Shoma glowered at him, his scowl hidden under his surgical mask.
"Oh, Shoma, you're here too?" Winston remarked. "I almost forgot about you. How's your English? I hope you've been practicing."
"My English is fine," Shoma said, taking Darcy's hand. Winston glanced down at their interlocked fingers and raised an eyebrow. "My mistake," he said, leaning back. His charming smile was still blindingly bright, but somehow different... more comforting and less flirty. Still, Shoma gripped her hand tightly.
"I like your coat," Darcy said, hoping to relieve some of the tension. "It's a changshan, right?"
"Thank you! And yes, it is. I put it on especially for you all. Aoto told me that you and Rubén have never been to China," Winston said. "He also mentioned that it was a dream of yours to come here."
Darcy glanced over at Shoma. "I mean, one of many," she said quickly. "But I've always loved Chinese culture."
"Oh really?" Winston beamed. "Do you like dumplings?"
"Perfect. Come inside, my sisters and I made some for the party," he said.
Darcy's eyes lit up. "I make good dumplings too," Shoma muttered, but she did not hear him.
Winston turned to Lills, his eyes searching her face. "And how do you feel about rare Chinese teas, Miss Holbright? Or may I call you Lillian?"
"Lills is fine," she said. To her surprise, she found her cheeks getting hot. "And I love tea. Aoto has actually shown me-"
Winston chuckled. "You're going to defer to him on tea? No offense to Aoto, but his knowledge of tea outside of Japan is limited. And as much as Japan likes to pretend they invented tea, all tea originated in China." He clapped his hands and ignored Aoto's hurt expression. "So, dumplings and tea it is!" In one smooth motion, he linked arms with both Darcy and Lills.
"What about Zikmund?" Rubén asked.
"He'll be back soon," he replied. "He needed something from the Butterfly Corps database, which he could only access on our work computer. My father and our driver accompanied him. In the meantime, try to relax." Before any of them could object, Winston whisked Lills and Darcy away towards the party, leaving Aoto, Shoma, and Rubén chasing after them.
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