The desk was old, an antique; the scroll work was that of a master. Atop the desk were spread several folders. Within each were the dossiers of five eligible bachelorettes, one of whom he would be required to pick.
In Su growled something inappropriate under his breath.
This had been going on for a month now, ever since his twenty-fifth birthday. Angered at the turn of events, he pushed away from the desk and rolled through the expansive study in the east wing. Having no energy for dossiers today, he decided the office was a better place to spend his time. Mr. Park followed silently, quietly calling for the car. After having worked as In Su’s personal assistant for the last ten years, he knew his charge very well.
It was the perfect place to take out his anger and frustrations – each meeting provided him with a new opportunity to unleash his temper. Which just reinforced the terrible reputation he had acquired over the years.
It was well after usual business hours when In Su left his office. He’d managed to find some peace in the silence and paperwork. However, several calls from his father served to darken his mood again, which was compounded by an ever increasing sound from the suite of offices down the hall. Mr. Park had already gone to retrieve the car, but In Su couldn’t leave without discovering who or what had disturbed his evening. The potential new target was also alluring – he needed to relieve some of his anger before facing his father at home.
Swiftly coming around the corner, he slammed into a person who promptly ended up in his lap with a squeal which left his ears ringing. In the split second that followed their eyes met and he was taken aback by the vibrant shade of green he found himself gazing into.
Hyun Ae felt a strong pair of arms encircle her waist as she landed firmly on a very solid body. A second later all the color drained from her face as she recognized who it was that had caught her. After the initial shock wore off In Su growled and practically tossed the young woman onto the floor.
“How dare you touch me?” he demanded. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you own the place? What are you doing, traipsing about making enough noise to wake the dead,” he shouted, while she attempted to untangle herself from a sweater which was several sizes too large.
Usually an even tempered woman, especially at the workplace, Hyun Ae surprised herself as words tumbled from her lips before she could stop them. “You’re the one who nearly took out my kneecaps!” With a huff she spun on her heels and walked back towards the suite of offices she had just vacated.
To say that In Su was shocked would have been an understatement; no one spoke to him like that.
“Ya!” He pursued her into the office and yelled again, “Ya! I didn’t give you permission to walk away!” Blocking the door with his chair, he folded his arms menacingly over his chest.
Hyun Ae was now in a predicament: She’d been screaming a few seconds before because she’d seen a spider on her desk. Which had prompted her escape from the office, which had put her in the perfect position to collide with President Lee. That very same President who was glowering at her from the doorway.
Pretending she wasn’t intimidated took every ounce of her willpower. Tossing her thick blonde braid over her shoulder she straightened her shoulders and gave him a withering look. “I’m fairly certain I don’t need your permission to leave.” With that she turned back to her desk and ignored the way her heart hammered in her chest. There was a spider here somewhere, but with the arrival of the President the spider seemed the lesser of two evils.
“Ya! Who do you think you are to talk to me like that?” With angered strokes he rolled himself into the office and toward her desk. Sweeping her nameplate off, he turned it to see her name, “Song Hyun Ae. You should pack up your desk now and save us the trouble.”
Grabbing her coat, she slung her bag over her shoulder and lifted her chin, “Do it yourself.” And with more bravado and haughtiness than she’d ever really felt, Hyun Ae walked away. Tomorrow she was fairly certain that she’d be fired, but it felt good in the moment and now there was no way to take it back.
In Su was so utterly at a loss he just watched her go, her name tag held tightly in his hand.
As Hyun Ae stepped inside the next day, she felt a shocking jolt when her badge worked on the elevator – she’d convinced herself that it would not function. Then again, she felt that jolting shock when her desk looked the same as it had when she’d left the day before, everything in its place except the name tag. Anxious, nervous, and a little terrified, she attempted to focus on her work and not on the growing ball of dread inside her stomach. There was no way he’d just let it go… right? He’d do something about her insubordination… right?
All morning she felt like she was going to die. The suspense was killing her. Just when she was about to allow herself to sigh with relief, Mr. Park showed up at her desk:
“Miss Song, the President would like a word.”
With that wonderfully simple statement the entire office went silent and all eyes were on her. Flushing with an equal amount of terror and embarrassment, she bowed, stood, and followed Mr. Park. The second she left the room, her co-workers exploded into loud whispers which only caused her to blush even more.
Awkwardly following Mr. Park, she was certain everyone she passed was watching. There was only one reason Mr. Park would suddenly appear to escort an employee to the President’s office. Hyun Ae knew what was coming, knew she’d brought it on herself, but couldn’t help silently praying that the President would let her keep her job. If she lost it, her mother would punish her severely and she’d have no excuse to avoid the blind dates her parents set up for her on a bi-weekly basis.
In Su sat behind a crisp modern desk, made of glass and stainless steel. The office itself was sparsely decorated, and the only color was the President’s blood red tie. Everything else was either white, black, or silver. Hyun Ae had never set foot here and the starkness of the room was an imposing sight.
In Su dismissed Mr. Park with an imperial wave of his hand. Hyun Ae was left standing nervously in the doorway.
“Sit.” His voice was deep and seemed to reverberate through the room. Licking her suddenly dry lips, Hyun Ae lifted her head and squared her shoulders. The least she could do was meet her fate with her head held high; hopefully he wouldn’t notice how much she was trembling.
When she settled into the stiff and uncomfortable chair across from In Su, he handed her a folder. “I have a proposition,” he said.
That caught her completely off guard. Her head snapped up and she met his gaze for the first time since entering the room. With a shaking hand, she took the folder from him and slowly opened it. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back in the ornate chair and watched her very closely. Attempting to read was harder than it should have been. Hyun Ae could hardly believe he hadn’t just fired her on the spot. However, as she perused the information her heart tumbled down into her shoes.
“You have to be joking!” When she met his gaze again, his perfect face gave nothing away. The only emotion he emitted was a snarky smirk and a glint in his dark eyes. Surely she was in a very bad nightmare; there was no way the contract in her hands was meant to be seriously considered.
Scoffing he shook his head, “I do not joke, especially about a lucrative business arrangement.” So far it was progressing as he had predicted – that same fire and strong presence of mind he’d witnessed last night were on display. At least she had not disappointed him yet.
Clearing her throat, Hyun Ae closed the folder and put it back on the desk with a loud thud. “No way,” she declared. “Just fire me and get it over with.” Her heart was beating so hard, she was fairly certain he could hear it.
“I suggest you read it again.” With a devilish smile, In Su pushed the contract back towards her. “The fine print in the back.” Of course, he could just tell her what it stated, but this was a great deal more fun.
Glaring at him, she snatched the contract once more and flipped it open. When she focused on the words, her heart beat faster. Trying to swallow, she closed her eyes and leaned back in the uncomfortable chair. “I don’t understand.”
A barking laugh shocked her into opening her eyes. He gave her a condescending look. “And here I thought you were quite intelligent. At least that is what it says in your employee file. Of course you could have lied when filling out the number next to your IQ.” Before she could fire off a quip he raised his hand and continued, “Though I suppose you are just taken off guard by my kindness and generosity. I can see how that would put you in a state of shock. Allow me to explain.” Leaning back comfortably he crossed his arms over his chest and smiled coldly at her.
“The contract states we will marry in one month’s time. In the interim we will appear at functions, go to dinner, and be seen so as to support the idea that we have secretly been courting. We will remain married for two years, in which time you will quit the legal department and I will train you to become the Vice President, as if it were my father’s wish for my wife.
“During our marriage we will maintain separate apartments in the same building to maintain the illusion of a happily married couple. Once the allotted time has been completed we will divorce amicably. I will reclaim full control of Royal Lee Exports and you will leave with a sizeable sum of money and a very desirable skill set. It is a generous and mutually beneficial arrangement.” Exceptionally pleased with himself, In Su waited for her praise and a quick agreement to the terms.
Hyun Ae was indeed in a state of shock. He had just calmly reiterated everything she’d just read as if it were something one said to another human being every day. Gripping the folder too tightly, she took a slow steadying breath. “And… if I say no?”
That response was unexpected and caused him to raise a brow. “As you have no doubt already seen in the contract, I will sue you for assault, terminate your employment and blacklist you from future employment as a lawyer with any company of note in Seoul.”
Once more, he uttered those words as if he were discussing the weather. It took every ounce of her willpower not to throttle him then and there. Blinking angrily, she bit her tongue and focused on not crying.
In Su mistook her silence. “It is a big decision,” he said. “You may respond in twenty-four hours.” With that he hit the call button on his desk phone, “Mr. Park, Miss Song is ready to leave for the day.”
Shocked, Hyun Ae stared at him, unable to conjure up a single thing to say. He only smiled at her smugly. A moment later, Mr. Park entered the room with her jacket, purse, and brief case. With a kind hand, he ushered her out of the office and sent her home for the day.
Still in a total state of shock when she arrived at the orphanage, Hyun Ae didn’t quite remember making the choice to go there. However, it was her true home. The studio apartment she rented was just a place to store her things, while the elaborate house her parents lived in would never be a home to her.
The children must still be in school since the playground was empty. That suited her just fine. Taking up residence on one of the swings, she sat there and tried to get her rampaging thoughts in order.
Cold and stiff, she finally stood up and headed inside. She found Sister Claire in the common room, singing softly while knitting a sweater. When she looked up, her kind eyes crinkled with a smile, “Hyun Ae! What a pleasant surprise.” Standing up she quickly hugged the younger woman.
It was just what Hyun Ae needed, and she rested for a moment in the warm and loving embrace. They spent the afternoon making dinner and talking about nonsensical things, and for a little while she could pretend the morning’s meeting hadn’t happened.
When the door opened just before the children would arrive, Hyun Ae rushed over to give Eun Mi a hug, but she pulled up short.
“What happened?” Usually happy, exuberant, and full of laughter, Eun Mi looked downtrodden and was obviously limping. The two young women had grown here together – they were only a year apart in age, but as close as twins. “Sister Claire!” Eun Mi collapsed just inside the doorway as Sister Claire rushed over. A moment of chaos and panic ensued as the two women attempted to help their wounded friend to a couch while calling the doctor.
The doctor and the seven children who currently made the orphanage their home all arrived at once. Hyun Ae and Sister Claire wrangled the rowdy bunch while the doctor carried Eun Mi upstairs to her closet-sized room. The children were up in arms over their sister being hurt, and the boys were planning revenge on whoever had done the despicable deed. A long while later, the doctor emerged from the crooked stairwell and went to talk quietly with Sister Claire. Hyun Ae immediately ran upstairs to see her dearest friend and sister, all thoughts of her traumatizing meeting completely replaced with worry.
Kneeling on the floor in the cramped room, she took her sister’s hand, “Unnie, what happened?” she asked. Though Hyun Ae could make a guess, she prayed that she was wrong.
Eun Mi had been abandoned the year before Hyun Ae arrived at the orphanage. Her parents had borrowed a small fortune from a loan shark and failed to pay it back. So they had left the country to escape the debt, but left their daughter behind. That very same loan shark had discovered Eun Mi’s whereabouts last year and had been threatening to collect the money from her.
With tears in her eyes Eun Mi attempted a smile, “Its not as bad as it looks, just bumps and bruises and a twisted ankle.” In that moment, the two girls exchanged a glance that spoke volumes. Nodding, Hyun Ae understood that the worst had happened, but also that Eun Mi didn’t have the heart to talk about it. With a tired smile, she gripped her friend’s hand. “you’re here early, shouldn’t you be at work?”
In a rush all the memories of her meeting with President Lee came back. She closed her eyes while attempting to calm her suddenly quickening heart. Then, in a torrent of words, Hyun Ae told her sister everything that had happened at work the night before, the meeting with President Lee, the contract, and the repercussions if she didn’t accept the contract. When she was done, it was a relief to have told someone, but she was exhausted.
The two of them were silent in the aftermath of her story. Hyun Ae tried to remain calm while Eun Mi did her best to digest what she’d just heard. “Omo… what are you going to do?”
Pouting, Hyun Ae sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t marry him. He’s a narcissistic, arrogant, and cold hearted man. Even if it is only for two years.” From downstairs they could hear the kids laughing. Supper had finished and Sister Claire was trying to get them organized to complete their homework.
“But, he’s going to ruin you.” Eun Mi squeezed her sister’s hand and watched her with concern. Hyun Ae had worked very hard to become a lawyer – her parents had made it difficult. They didn’t approve of her going to school and following her dream. They wanted her to focus on being the perfect wife. To them, no rich man would want a wife who was smarter than they were. Now President Lee was going to take all of Hyun Ae’s hard work away from her if she refused.
Biting her lower lip, she sighed and made a valiant attempt at a smile. “Then I’ll just come back here. I can sleep on the floor, right here. Since the church closed, Father Jin Sang is always saying you need more help around here, especially since Sister Claire’s sight is starting to get worse.” Even though she would mourn the life which she’d worked to create, Hyun Ae knew that she could be happy living here with the children and Eun Mi.
“We’d love to have you home again, but… what would you tell Sister Claire and Father Jin Sang?” If she said no to President Lee, it was a certainty that Hyun Ae’s adoptive parents would disown her.
From the doorway a gentle voice interrupted their discussion, “The truth works best, I always say.” The young women turned to see Father Jin Sang in the doorway, smiling lovingly at them.
“Come down, both of you,” he said. “The children are in the dining room working on homework. Sister Claire has your supper waiting. It seems we all need to have a good talk.” Bowing their agreement the two followed their father figure through the small hallway and down to the kitchen.
By the time the children were in bed and the four adults had talked through the decision she was faced with, it was nearly midnight. Hyun Ae fell asleep on the floor beside Eun Mi. For the first time since the night before she felt relieved and at peace. She would reject his offer and accept whatever President Lee threw at her. And no matter what, her true family would be at her side.