The moment that she entered the tall building which housed the Royal Lee Exports offices, Hyun Ae felt very tense and a knot formed in her stomach. Mr. Park was waiting for her in the lobby of the posh building. Thus far, Mr. Park had treated her with respect and been nothing but tender in his actions. Hyun Ae could have been fond of him in another life. But she couldn’t help it – seeing Mr. Park made her immediately think about President Lee, and the moment she thought of that man her heart beat wildly in fear. Of course she should have expected that President Lee would demand an answer immediately, but logically knowing something and experiencing it were two very different things. Obediently she followed Mr. Park, knowing that delaying the inevitable would only make it worse.
The stark office gave her the chills, and the man seated behind the imposing desk did nothing to help. Mr. Park closed the door behind her, and she hesitated before straightening her shoulders and walking toward the desk. She absently wished that she had spent more time on her clothing, but there was nothing she could do about her simple brown dress and oversized pink cardigan.
In contrast, In Su wore a finely tailored suit that clung perfectly to his frame. While he was not known for patience, he did his best to wait silently while she made her way to him. When Hyun Ae finally settled in the uncomfortable seat opposite him, In Su smirked and pushed the contract toward her.
“Just sign on the line,” he said. So sure she had made the right choice.
Hyun Ae swallowed and cleared her throat, threading her fingers to hide how badly she was trembling.
“No… my… my answer is no,” she stammered. Though she had envisioned herself as strong and confident, Hyun Ae could not even look him in the eyes.
“What?” He shook his head in disbelief. “You’re mistaken. Just sign on the line.” There was no earthly way that this woman could say no. She had nothing else going for her. Why would she say no? What possible reason could be holding her back? With a steadying breath, he resumed his cold expression. Taking the pen from his inner suit pocket, he set it atop the contract. “Sign and we will make our first official appearance.”
On unstable legs, Hyun Ae bowed low in apology, “I’m sorry,” she said in a near whisper.
A deep crease formed between his brows. Shock was slowly settling into him. “Did you just… turn me down?” This had never happened to him before. In Su had no idea how to react. Growling, he slammed his hand down on the desk. “No one declines an offer so generously made!” His shout echoed through the austere office.
Blanching in fear, Hyun Ae gasped and took a step backward before turning hastily. She practically ran from the office. Using the fact that he was seated in a desk chair, without his crutches or wheelchair, to her advantage. Once the door closed she took off in a sprint past a curious Mr. Park. She didn’t stop running until she was a few blocks away from the building itself. Knowing she was going to be fired anyway Hyun Ae didn’t see any reason to stop by her desk.
She did not want to go where her adoptive parents lived, and the idea of being alone in her studio apartment held no allure, so Hyun Ae decided to return to the orphanage. Sister Claire would welcome the help, and she wanted to check on Eun Mi. When she arrived it was to find her sister hobbling about the small house and cleaning. Hyun Ae banished her Unnie to the couch and took over. The two talked and laughed, mostly over silly things that sisters giggle about. Neither of them wanted to discuss the events of the day. They needed to pretend that everything was perfectly alright.
With nowhere else to go and nothing to do, Hyun Ae stayed at the orphanage that night. She slept upon a pad on the floor, just as she had done when she and Eun Mi were young girls. Though she was sad to lose the job she had worked so hard to achieve – the carefully built life that had come to a crashing halt – Hyun Ae was content. Living with Father Jin Sang, Sister Claire, Eun Mi, and the children had been the happiest time in her life. Tomorrow she would pack her things and end her lease with the landlady.
“Where is she!?”
The shrill voice cut through the entire house. Luckily it was mid-morning, otherwise that screech would have awoken everyone instantly. Father Jin Sand came hurrying in from the garden with Sister Claire, afraid something was terribly wrong. Hyun Ae, on the other hand, cringed upstairs. Eun Mi squeezed her hand encouragingly; they knew exactly who it was.
“Ah, Sim Bong Cha, how can we help you today?” Father Jin Sang had always hoped he would grow to like Hyun Ae’s adoptive parents, but he could never overcome his initial distaste for the pair; a sin for which he often asked forgiveness.
Pushing past the Father, Bong Cha strode into the common room of the aging house.
“Son Hyun Ae!” she called. “I know you’re here!”
Hyun Ae emerged from the stairwell, head held high, hands clenched before her.
“Why are you here?” she asked. Though her heart was pounding hard, she would not let her mother see how nervous she was. Everything with her mom was a battle of wills, and so far she’d lost more battles than she cared to remember. This would be Hyun Ae’s day to triumph over her mother.
“Ungrateful, horrible, demon child!” Bong Cha stormed towards her, and in an instant grabbed her hair in a fierce grip. Unable to withstand the pain from those claws, Hyun Ae was all but dragged towards the worn front doors, the orphanage no longer a haven. Father Jin Sang couldn’t recover from his shock soon enough to help and Hyun Ae was so taken aback that all she could manage was a shriek, somehow remaining steady enough to stumble in the direction her mom was headed.
Before she knew it, they were standing outside. Hyun Ae was released but she fell to her knees in the process. Father Jin Sang stood by the doors, and watched with a horrified expression.
Bong Cha snarled at her daughter through clenched teeth. “How could you?” she spat. “Did you think about your father and me at all?” This is what we raised you for and you threw everything away!” The sharp crack of skin on skin rang out when she slapped the younger woman.
Tears sprang to Hyun Ae’s eyes and her face hurt instantly. Father Jin Sang stepped towards her, but Hyun Ae shook her head. She couldn’t stomach the idea of her mom doing anything to him. Holding her cheek, Hyun Ae got to her feet. She summoned every ounce of her confidence and stared her mother in the eyes. “What are you talking about?”
A coughing sort of laugh slipped from her mom. “You stupid girl!” she snapped. “Lee In Su! I’m talking about the president of Royal Lee Exports!” Stomping her foot and clenching her hands at her sides, Bong Cha looked as though she might explode on the spot.
Hyun Ae stared at the woman in from of her. A moment of strained silence increased the tension, but her mind could not catch up with what her mom had just said. “How… how did you hear that?”
“I cannot believe I raised such a stupid child!” Bong Cha scolded. “He came to our home! Imagine my surprise and horror when he said that you’d turned down his proposal! You tramp! Leading him on for months in a secret relationship and when he wants to make it official you leave him! You’re nothing more than a common street girl!” Bong Cha was out of breath, her ire stealing the very air from her lungs.
The strength gone from her legs, Hyun Ae sank to the stone of the walkway and hung her head. This was not something she’d anticipated; the worst possibility she’d envisioned was being fired and blacklisted. But this was so much worse. He had painted himself a victim to her devilish ways to the two people who would take his side without batting an eye.
The feeling of helplessness was like drowning, and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to fight it. How many times had she forged a path of her own, only to have her mother swoop in. Every defeat, every glimpse of freedom, every tantalizing moment of independence took a little bit of her willpower away from her each time her mother destroyed her dreams and drew her back into the fold. Yet again she was the victim to her mother’s desires, her own life laid out as sacrifice so her parents could achieve their goals. The more she thought about the life she was losing the less depressed she felt. As the anger rose in her breast the image of In Su laughing at his own cleverness added fuel to the fire. Until the helplessness was consumed by her resentment at being treated as a belonging instead of a person. In a matter of seconds she was standing once more, “That arrogant… arrogant… scoundrel!”
Surprised by her daughter’s sudden change in mood, Bong Cha lost a little of her bravado. Not that it stopped her from continuing her tirade. “You’re coming home, getting cleaned up, and then marching straight back to President Lee’s office to beg his forgiveness. Though it doesn’t matter, your father and I have already signed the marriage contract.”
With another flash of anger, Hyun Ae glared at her mom. “You did what? How? I’m not obligated to concede to your orders anymore. I’m an adult and outside of your legal purview!” Fear was tainting her angry resolve and turning her blood to ice – this situation was getting worse by the moment.
Bong Cha cackled, “But if the media discovers that you went against a contract that was agreed upon by all parties, you’ll be forced to agree, or be painted as the worst sort of woman. Which will ruin your career. Your father and I don’t want to go as far as that. If you’ll just go and apologize, everything will be fine.” With a self-satisfied and superior expression, she opened her purse and took out the keys to her car, “Now get in the car.”
The world was crashing down around her, which served to fuel both the anger and fear in her chest. Hyun Ae had always walked a fine line between obedient daughter and living her life on her own terms. Though she had never really gotten free of her mother’s tenacious grip. It had never been easy, but thus far she had managed to have a few moments of happiness. But in one thunderous move, President Lee and her parents had taken all of that away. Lee In Su was the corporate world’s most eligible bachelor, his every move was documented by the media, and the tabloids were rife with every manner of story about him. Despite his despicable personality and disability, he was sought after by every mother of a single daughter through the entire country. If her parents told even one reporter of the contract or her refusal of it, she’d be painted as a trollop. President Lee wouldn’t even have to blacklist her; the media would do it for him. No law firm or company would hire a lawyer with such a scandal attached to her.
Hyun Ae took action as Eun Mi limped outside to join the gape-mouthed Father Jin Sang and Sister Claire. Without allowing herself to think, she snatched the keys out of her mother’s hand ran for the foreign car which had put her parents even further into debt. The next thing she knew, she was parked in front of Royal Lee Exports building. If she hesitated now she’d lose her nerve, so she stalked inside.
There was a harsh, sharp rap at the door which surprised In Su. No one knocked on his door. Mr. Park always informed him of arrivals beforehand. Before he could formulate a response, the door swung open to bounce off the wall. It left a mark in the perfect paint. Song Hyun Ae stood there, hands resting on her hips, every inch quivering with anger.
“How dare you!” she yelled. As she stomped into the office Mr. Park discretely closed the door. In Su sat in his ornate chair, relaxed, and at ease with a smirk upon his lips. Hyun Ae walked all the way around the modern monstrosity of a desk to stand next to him. Turning his chair so he had to face her, she poked him hard in the chest. “You’re worse than scum! How dare you approach my parents!”
No one touched him. Not ever, especially not without his permission. The jarring feel of her finger thrusting into his chest left him shocked. Looking up into her face, he took a moment to compose himself. Pushing her hand aside as though it were something distasteful, he smiled wider. She grimaced when he pushed her hand away, but refrained from poking him again.
“How was I supposed to know that you were not there?” he asked. “I did attempt to meet with you at your apartment; however, there was no response. If you had gone home like a rational person we could have avoided this. Though, all things considered I feel that this has worked out in my favor. Your parents have blessed this marriage. From what I can tell it will serve as a vessel with which they can save themselves from embarrassment over a few unpaid bills.” His smiled turned up at the corners – he was very satisfied with himself.
Instead of poking him again, which was what she wanted to do, she settled for crossing her arms over her chest. It angered her even more that he was seated there calmly and completely at his ease. The more he spoke, the angrier she got.
“Who told you to go looking for me?” she demanded, and rolled her eyes. “I gave you my answer. All you had to do was fire me and do whatever it was you were going to do to ruin me. Why was that so hard? Could you not even accomplish that much?” It then hit her he’d spoken of her parent’s habit to spend more than they could ever hope to pay off. Blanching she cleared her throat and frowned, “What gives you the right to look into my family’s financial situation?”
A low chuckle arose from him, “Your first mistake was to assume you knew the rules of this game. Your second mistake was to believe that I would abide by those rules. Your third mistake was to naively think I would not look into the family of the woman I will be marrying. I have a complete history on your parents, your family’s finances, and everything in the system about you, both before and after your adoption.”
Reaching into the drawer on his right, he retrieved a fairly thick file and laid it on the desktop. “For your records.” It was clearly labeled, ‘Song Hyun Ae and Relations’. “I suppose I should have guessed that you would have gone to the orphanage. It seems to take up a great deal of your time outside of the office.”
It terrified her even more than he knew so much about her life, her family, and especially about the orphanage. Of course she should have thought of this, been ready for it, but she could hardly be prepared for the natural disaster that was President Lee.
“We are not going to get married,” she declared. “Just stop all this now. Leave my parents out of it. Whatever you thought was going to happen, isn’t.” Hyun Ae poked him hard in the chest once more. “Leave me alone!”
In Su caught her hand in his before she could retract it. Hyun Ae’s eyes widened and she tried to pull away. The smile on his face deepened to an almost sinister expression. With one quick twisting tug, he pulled her into his lap and wrapped her in his iron grip. Leaning forward against her back he whispered in her ear, letting his lips touch the sensitive skin there.
“I would reconsider, wife,” he breathed. Pausing, he didn’t relent as she struggled against him, “If you refuse what will happen to the orphanage? Did you know they are two months behind in their rent? Do you truly believe they will be given anymore leniency?” As the words left his mouth, all the fight went out of her and she sat limply in his arms. In Su smiled victoriously as he waited for her response.
He wielded the one card to make her completely passive. How had he figured that out so quickly? Hyun Ae could feel his lips curling into a smile against her ear, and even though she hated him with every ounce of her being right then she couldn’t help but feel a little flutter in the pit of her stomach. Which only served to make her even angrier.
“Is that a threat?” she finally managed. Her voice wavered too much, showing just how afraid she was.
Slowly letting his arms fall away and sitting back in his chair, he didn’t say anything right away. The moment she was released, she shot off of his lap and took several steps away before turning to look at him again, her green eyes dark with worry. Letting the silence and anticipation build between them. he finally spoke.
“Yes, but if you sign the marriage contract…” from the same drawer, he retrieved another contract and opened it for her to peruse. “I will donate that to the orphanage.” Cautiously she walked back to the desk, eyeing him as if she believed he would attack at any moment. Glancing down, she gasped audibly at the amount of money written on the check. It was enough to settle every account and then provide money for the next several months above and beyond what the orphanage would ever need.
Unable to formulate words, she looked back to him, meeting his dark gaze.
“Yes, “ he answered her unspoken questions with a chuckle. “All it will take is your agreement to the terms of our marriage,. Give up two years of your life, and your friends will be well cared for.”
Hyun Ae felt tears spill down onto her cheeks. Clenching her fists she glared at him, “You are a horrible person.”
With another laugh he nodded his head in agreement, but remained silent. Angrily rubbing her eyes and willing the tears to stop she stumbled back to take a seat in the uncomfortable chair across from him. In Su produced the marriage contract and a pen. His signature was already there, in bold black ink with his thumb print in red . A second later a red ink pad was produced, everything ready and awaiting her submission. There was nothing she could do. He had threatened the only people who mattered, and she knew he would follow through with his threat.
She picked up the pen and signed her name with stiff, hard stokes. Pressing her thumb print next to it, she slammed the contract closed, stood and walked towards the door, trying to stave off the numbness that was crawling over her skin.
Before she opened the door his voice filled the silence, “Be sure you arrive promptly on time for work tomorrow. Your vacation ended today.” Without turning around she knew that there was a smile on his face. Clenching her teeth, she exited the office and walked dejectedly through the building, not seeing anyone or anything on her way to her mother’s car.
Hyun Ae wasn’t able to face her family at the orphanage or her parents. So after dropping the car off with Soo Hye, her parents live in maid, she’d returned home to her small studio apartment. She couldn’t sleep, the whole night was spent watching her ceiling. In the morning she dressed, but if felt like she was watching someone else. Almost as if she’d stepped out of her body, she was numb all the way through. There was such an ominous feeling about today.
President Lee had insisted that she go to work. That did not bode well for her. As she left the apartment she absently thought that she should have taken more care with her clothing today, but couldn’t bring herself to actually care enough to change. The slacks and solid purple sweater would have to do.
The bus ride to work went by in a blank flash of time. She was standing in front of the building before she knew it. Gripping her briefcase, she couldn’t quite make herself enter. For a few moments she stood looking up at the glass edifice and felt fear gripping her heart. What had she gotten herself into? What did he have planned? What was he going to do? How was she going to tell Eun Mi? The questions didn’t stop as she stood there. When Hyun Ae couldn’t take it anymore, she pulled her shoulders back, head head high, and stalked inside.
Once she took her seat at her desk she jumped at every out-of-place sound. Though when she was able to focus, Hyun Ae realized that no one was looking at her oddly and there weren’t any whispers or gossip. The incident of her being dragged away to the President’s office seemed to have blown over. Letting out a sigh of relief, she made herself concentrate on her casework. There were a few small lawsuits that she was in charge of and being able to lose herself in the details of them made her forget her fear of President Lee for a few moments.
By the time lunchtime came around, Hyun Ae was feeling nervous again. She’d heard not a peep from President Lee or Mr. Park. The anticipation of whatever was going to happen was killing her. But she thought a change of scenery might do her good, so she saved her files and locked her computer. The cafeteria was fairly full – a lot of the upper offices took lunch at the same time. With her tray from the hot kitchen, she took a seat at an out -of-the-way table and stared out the window. Seoul was laid out before her, but she couldn’t find her usual enjoyment with the view. The hard knot in the pit of her stomach would not let her relax.
“Are you not hungry? Or is the food not to your liking?” The voice sent ice spiraling through her veins, and made her drop her chopsticks with a clang onto her plate. Turning and looking up at him, she fearfully met his gaze. “You don’t look well dear, you should eat. Shall I order in something for us to share?”
Hyun Ae would have been less surprised had she suddenly been yanked out the twentieth story window and tossed into the clouds. President Lee had just used a term of endearment towards her. In public.
The entire cafeteria went silent. If a pen had dropped it would have sounded as loud as thunder. Everyone was staring – no one could quite comprehend what they were seeing. President Lee did not go to the cafeteria, he did not eat food from the kitchen, he did not mingle with his employees. Shifting both crutches to one hand he took a seat beside her, that perfect heart-melting smile firmly in place. He looked as if he did this all the time, relaxed and comfortable. Hyun Ae wanted to be anywhere but here. If she could have gotten away with it, she would have run away and never come back.
It was impossible to miss the message in his dark eyes, she’d agreed to the marriage proposal, and part of that contract was making their relationship public. What better place to start than their mutual workplace?
Clearing her throat, she managed an awkward smile and even managed to pick up her chopsticks. Hyun Ae was trembling and the metal chopsticks shook visibly in her hands. A moment later her hands were enclosed in his. The warmth of his touch permeated her cold fingers, and made her traitorous heart flutter.
“It’s alright,” he said softly. “We need to let them know at some point, might as well be now.” The rush of whispers was deafening as his words were conveyed to every pair of ears in the large room. Patting her hands he let them go, but she could still feel the strength of his grasp even as he released her. “Shall we go and get something else?” His stern look was all it took for her to nod.
In Su stood and slid his arms into the cuffs of his crutches and waited for her to stand. It took two tries, but eventually she stood next to him. At his whispered instruction, she linked her arm with his. In truth she needed the strength of his arm to walk forward, because her legs were trembling terribly. The second that the bare skin of her arm came in contact with the hard, shiny metal of the cuff around his arm, Hyun Ae cringed. It was a cold reminder that he wasn’t quite human. While the everyone looked on, they slowly made their way through the cafeteria and to the elevator. He was making pleasant small talk with every step, but Hyun Ae could only mumble responses and nod, the creaking sound from the crutches like nails on a chalkboard to her frayed nerves. The moment the elevator doors closed, he shook her arm off and leaned against the wall. “That was atrocious, no one is going to believe we are in love after that performance. I should deduct money from the donation as punishment for a job poorly done.”
“You could have warned me!” Hyun Ae snapped back, her voice a little more shrill than she had intended. Not wanting him to know that she was still trembling, she went to the other side of the small space, crossed her arms and stared straight ahead.
“Why?” he demanded. “Why should I have warned you? It was clearly stated in the contract.” As the doors opened, he stepped out and walked down the hallway, past her suite of offices to his office at the end of the hall. Not waiting, he settled down at his desk and began opening containers of the lunch he had ordered before going to retrieve her.
“You will eat lunch in here with me from now on,” In Su told her. “ In three days you and I will attend a charity event. I will propose to you there. The day before the event Mr. Park will take you to a dress fitting after work. Be sure to smile when you see your coworkers, and make it look good. We’re in love after all. Sit.” He pushed a folder to her. “I have composed a history of our dating experiences. Memorize it.” And with that, Hyun Ae lost control of her life.