Maid for the Billionaire
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“I was born in this area,” Zhang said curtly and turned away from the window, away from her memories. “Wen Chan is one I have brought you to meet. She went to just enough university to learn how to start a small business. The money she makes from her store feeds her entire family and allowed her to leave her abusive husband. In the past, poverty would have kept her with him with no choices.”
The mountain road widened and smoothed the closer they came to a small town that seemed to appear out of nowhere. No more than twenty buildings made up the cluster of dwellings Zhang had called a town. In the center of it stood a small outdoor food market and an unassuming storefront with a hand-painted sign that Abby guessed was Wen’s family name. Men and women gathered to talk near the store.
A woman in a plain cotton brown blouse and pants stood in the doorway of the store watching the limo park. Zhang instructed her driver and men to wait with the vehicles. Abby followed her out onto the hard dirt of the road.
The shopkeeper ushered them into her small shop and spoke to Zhang quickly in Mandarin. Her affection for her famous guest spoke of a familiarity that surprised Abby. The store was neat and clean, but little more than a few rows of shelves of food and basic necessities.
Abby bowed her head slightly in greeting. The woman greeted her in Mandarin. Abby answered her in the common language of China. “Nin hao.”
Zhang spun to look at her from across the aisle of the small market. She switched over to Mandarin herself and asked, "You speak Mandarin?"
Abby gave a humble shrug and answered in that language. "A little."
"Why?" Zhang asked.
"I teach English to students from many countries. I like to study languages." Abby was what she called street proficient in seven languages. Her mastery was not university level, but she could understand and utilize many simple phrases and this talent often allowed her to assist non-English speaking families when translators were unavailable. It had been one such grateful family who had welcomed her into their home and given her basic lessons in the language they called simplified Chinese.
The shop keeper said, "You are very good."
Zhang said, "Your mastery of the tones is impressive."
Abby had received the same compliment from some of the parents of her Chinese students. Her vocabulary was limited, but she did have a good ear for what she called the music of languages. The challenge in learning Mandarin had been that the same word could mean several things if it the speaker changed which part of the word they stressed. Luckily her self-appointed tutors had been patient. "I speak only a little," Abby said, "but thank you."
At Zhang’s prompting, Wen Chan slowly spoke of how the education she’d received had freed her and allowed her to build this life for herself and her family. She looked at Zhang several times during the sad, but inspirational story and Abby suspected that she wanted to thank Zhang for her involvement. Abby wasn’t able to translate every word of the story, but she understood enough to be able to ask clarifying questions.
Zhang grudgingly admitted, "You're not what I expected from an American woman."
Abby switched back to English when she could not find the correct words to express her thoughts. "I think we both learned today that stereotypes are often wrong. I bet many Americans aren’t aware of the cultural changes that are sweeping your country."
Zhang translated for the shop woman then added in English, "Now that you have seen our need. Will you help us?"
With the pressure of both women looking at her, Abby squirmed. "What are you asking me to do?"
Zhang spoke in rapid Mandarin to the shopkeeper, promising to return soon. Abby followed her lead and used what little she knew to thank the woman for the tour. Without answering Abby’s question, Zhang led the way back to the limo, much to the obvious relief of Scott and his men.
Zhang waited until the vehicles had pulled back onto the mountain road before she said, "Although women have broken through many social barriers in the city, funding for educating women in the rural communities is still rare. I am determined to change that."
"I thought your universities were free?” Abby asked in surprise.
“Free is still too expensive for those who must work to survive. Primary education has been mandated for all, but families still withdraw their daughters when it is legal to do so. Even rural families who wish for more for their daughters, cannot afford to send them away to school. Someone must pay for them to eat, for a place for them to live. Yes, free can still be very expensive.”
Abby thought of the shop keeper she’d just met with a deeper understanding of her achievements. “Are you talking about a scholarship fund? You want me to ask Dominic to make a contribution to one?"
"It has to be more sweeping than that." Zhang said. "To make a real impact it would have to be National, set up by the government, and with maintainable funding. Dominic is in a rare position of asking our government to do just that. He could add this to his negotiations. It is within his power to touch the lives of many women who would otherwise continue to struggle in poverty."
"Why don't you talk to him, Zhang? He would listen to you." Abby said.
"I've tried," Zhang said in disgust. "Dominic has never cared about the people in any country he has dealt with. He came here for the money and power, not to facilitate a social change. But you -- you have his ear. He might listen to you as he has listened to no one before."
"Forgive me, Zhang, but I think you’ve gotten misinformation as far as I am concerned. I’ve known Dominic less than a week. He’s not going to make any business decisions based on my opinion.” The words hurt as even Abby said them, but hadn’t Dominic just warned her not to read too much into their short affair?
Zhang pinned her with piercing black eyes that missed nothing. One of her eyebrows rose doubtfully. “I didn’t take you for a fool, Abigail Dartley. Don’t take me for one. Dominic doesn’t mix his women with his business. He made an exception for you. Don’t underestimate your importance to him. Perhaps he hasn’t said the words to you yet, but by bringing you here, he has already made an announcement to the world.”
Oh, how Abby wanted to believe that, but she knew the truth. “What he announced, Zhang, was that he doesn’t like to be alone when he is sad. He’s mourning the death of his father.”
Zhang clearly didn’t believe her. “Is that what you’ve been doing all week? Helping him mourn?”
Abby turned sharply toward Zhang, her tone turning cold. “That’s really none of your business, is it?”
Unperturbed, Zhang continued on smoothly, “Oh, but it is. Your relationship is very much my business. Your link to Dominic has given you, whether you want it or not, a role in the cultural revolution of China. Whatever you decide will impact the future of many.”
“So, no pressure.” Abby muttered to herself. Could this be real? How had Abby gone from struggling beneath the responsibility of raising one sibling to shouldering potential blame for the lack of adequate education for billions of women? It was almost too much for her to wrap her mind around. “What are you actually asking for? You want Dominic to negotiate for a national government scholarship for women?”
"Yes, and to fund the program by donating five percent of Coirisi Enterprises' annual profit."
Abby looked out the window. The mountain quickly disappeared behind them. Soon they’d be back on a major modern highway, heading back to the hotel. She wondered how Dominic’s talks were going that day. Tonight there could be no excuses. She would have to tell him everything and let the chips fall as they would.
Dominic was not going to be happy when he heard about Scott. There was a good chance he was going to be less than thrilled that she’d left the city with someone who might very well be a business rival. She had only Zhang’s word that what she said was true.
But if what Zhang said was true, how could she not at least mention the idea to Dominic?
Somehow, she’d have to work Zhang’s proposal into the conversation. She didn’t want to build up the woman’s hopes that she would be successful at convincing him. “All I can do is try,” Abby said out loud and turned back to meet the scrutiny of her companion. "He might not listen to me, but I will tell him about meeting you and what I learned today. Maybe I could even drive him out to meet Wen. I know how he comes across when you first meet him, but Dominic also has a caring side. He might agree to your requests when he sees all this for himself."
"You are more than I hoped you could be when I first heard of you," Zhang said.
Abby felt uncomfortable with the praise. "I’m not making any promises, Zhang. All I’m saying is that I’ll talk to him."
Zhang took a small cellphone out of her jacket pocket and read a text message. She said something beneath her breath that Abby could only guess was profanity. "My source with the Minister reports that we’re out of time. The negotiations are not going well. Stephan Andrade, an old rival of Dominic’s, has just put in a last minute counter bid for the contract. We might have been able to sway the decision with the backing of the Foundation for Women, but it looks like your man might be bankrupt before he's given a chance to prove your opinion of him correct. My source says the Minister will announce his decision today. The international media is already gathering.”
Abby's heart broke for Dominic. To have built up such an incredible company only to lose it in one business deal, it hardly seemed fair or possible. "Does Dominic really have that much to lose in this deal?"
"Dominic chose some influential investors. If the deal fails," Zhang said, "they will freeze his assets. It will be the beginning of the end for him, then."
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Abby pleaded.
Zhang seemed to think it over, then she said, "No, but there might be something you could do." She spoke to the driver in Mandarin directing him to head toward the commercial center where the Minister was. "An old proverbs says, 'There are many paths up the mountain, but the view is the same.' If my plan works, Dominic is not going to be happy with you, but the women of China will thank you and perhaps your man will forgive you when he becomes one of the most influential men in the world."
Abby’s stomach did a painful summersault. “How do I know I can trust you? How do I know any of this is true?”
Zhang studied her for a moment. “You don’t and you are right to tread carefully. A mistress does not get involved in her lover’s business, but we both know you can be more than a vacation plaything. If you love Dominic, you are going to have to stop being so afraid and start acting like the strong woman he needs – or you will both lose everything.”
“I don’t…” Abby’s voice trailed away.
She did love Dominic.
One of Zhang’s eyebrows arched in disbelief as the words Abby hadn’t realized she’d said out loud echoed through the limo.
"I need to talk to Dominic," Abby said urgently.