The day had gone by in a whirlwind of questions, gossip, hurried whispers behind Hyn Ae back, and terrifying glares from more people than she could count. If In Su had been looking for the biggest splash possible to set his plans into motion he couldn’t have chosen a more perfect opportunity. Every employee in that building now knew that President Lee and Song Hyun Ae were dating. With such a simple action he got everything he wanted. She’d stayed at the office late, mostly because she couldn’t bear to face Father Jin Sang or Sister Claire. Her mother had left several messages, both voicemail and texts, praising her for a job well done. Which only served to make her feel even angrier. When she finally left it was with such a heavy heart that she wasn’t sure that she could even manage to make it home.
Somehow she did make it back to the orphanage, the only person awake was Eun Mi. After a hurried meal the two hid away in their closet sized room. Hyun Ae curled under one of Sister Claire’s handmade quilts while her dearest friend read through the file which described in detail the dates she was supposed to have had with President Lee. “Namsung Tower? Skiing? Jeju Island? Shanghai? Midnight strolls along the Han River? And he expects people to believe that he has enough of a heart to pull off all this romantic bullshit?” Slamming the file closed she tossed it aside. From under the blanket Hyun Ae managed a muffled grunt, which was all she could manage through her exhaustion. Flopping down on the bed Eun Mi reached down and rested a hand on the lump that was her sister. “What are you going to tell Father and Sister?”
That was a billion won question. Shifting so that she could peek out she hesitated a moment. “I don’t want them to know that he threatened this place. They’re already going to be upset over the fact I agreed to marry that monster.” Eun Mi nodded, “I… I think I’ll just tell them that it was the easy way out. I’m so tired of fighting, that’s all I do these days. Its only two years and… and by agreeing I’ll have access to some serious money, and I know I can do some good with that at least.” Sighing she rolled onto her stomach and hid under the cover again, “do you think they’ll believe me?”
“Nope, not at all, but they won’t push you either.” It wasn’t what Hyun Ae wanted to hear, but it was exactly how they would behave. “I think for now that’s a good plan. Just memorize that stupid date list and play along. I mean… all that money… it would be nice to finally see Father and Sister Claire not stress for a little while. And the kids are all too big for all their clothes…. well yeah there’s a lot we need. You really will be doing good with his money. That’s a positive thing at least.” Squeezing her sister’s shoulder she shifted in her bed, turned out the lights, and pulled up the covers. “For now you need to sleep, tomorrow isn’t going to be any easier.”
Another muffled grunt was all Eun Mi got in response. It took Hyun Ae another hour before she could actually sleep, her mind wouldn’t stop running at a million kilometers per hour. Finally she fell into a fitful slumber, tormented by dreams of a metal room echoing with a shrill creaking sound which frightened her.
At breakfast Hyun Ae explained to Father Jin Sang and Sister Claire what she’d decided to do. They didn’t ask any questions, knowing how the world worked. After the outrageous display by Bong Cha, their charge had only one recourse left.
Sister Claire squeezed Hyun Ae’s hand, shocked by the coldness and the minute trembling. “Trust that God has a plan for you, my child, and that you will one day find happiness. And remember, we will be here if you need us.” Hyun Ae choked back a sob and nodded.
Any hope of keeping her head down and hurrying through her work day evaporated the second she stepped into the building. The security guard made a comment about how pleased he was President Lee had found such a nice girl. The elevator was abuzz with whispered conversation about her even though she was standing right there. The legal department all seemed to have business at or around her desk, all eyes glued to her every move. It was enough to make her want to scream. When Mr. Park arrived just before lunchtime she nearly bit his head off when he informed her that she would be late for her lunch date with her parents and President Lee. She immediately regretted her outburst and apologized profusely as the two left the building.
Mr. Park opened the door to a black car and assisted her in. Once inside, she turned to look at the interior, and jumped when she realized President Lee was right beside her. “Did you read the file?” The man didn’t even spare her a glance, as he was reading through a report about Royal Lee Export’s overseas venture in England.
Blushing at her reaction she turned to look out the window, willing herself to mimic his cool and indifferent demeanor. “Yes. Though it lacked imagination, it covered all the basics for a new couple.”
“Imagination is for ignorant people who try and prove they are just as admirable as intelligent persons. It is a useless waste of time.” The response sent ice coursing through her veins, this man wasn’t human. Closing her eyes she did her best to be well behaved. “No witty retort? I am disappointed.” Closing the report he set it on the seat between them. “No matter. As I am certain Mr. Park informed you, we are meeting your parents. We will assure them that we have reconciled and you have apologized for your reckless behavior. You will smile, you will enjoy yourself, and you will be affectionate with your parents. If you fail to do any of this then I will reduce the donation to your precious orphanage. Understood?” For the first time since she entered the car he glanced in her direction.
With her mouth agape she stared at him in complete disgust and outrage. Her mind was spinning faster than she could keep up with and she only barely kept herself in check. In Su reached over, pressed his index finger beneath her chin and closed her mouth, “You look even more unattractive like that.” With that he picked up his phone and made a call. Blistering with anger she huffed and sputtered something unintelligible, but he was no longer paying her any mind as he conducted some piece of business that she didn’t quite hear. All she could do was turn away, cross her arms, and glower out her window, helpless to do more.
The restaurant was expensive, she could tell that before they even stepped foot through the front door. Immediately she was self-conscious of her inappropriate attire, of an oversized sweater with slacks. Under his instructions she linked her arm with his. Thankfully the sweater had long sleeves today and she couldn’t feel the cold metal of the crutch cuff. However, the crutches gave him an odd sort of gait which only served to remind her that he was a monster not a man. From the corner of his mouth he hissed, “smile.” It startled her and she visibly jumped, and he gave her a withering look. Swallowing past the lump in her throat she did her best to smile, certain she looked more afraid than happy.
Her parents put on a show, by the end of the meal every patron and staff member knew that their daughter was dating President Lee. Hyun Ae did her best to smile and banter with her parents as if she actually liked them. Though it was hard not to watch In Su. He was a completely different person. President Lee laughed, touched her often giving the impression they were very close, he told stories of their dates as if he’d actually lived them, and generally made it seem like he was head over heels in love. It frightened her how instantly he could become someone else. But her parents lapped it up, and so did everyone else in the place. No one would remember her at all, and certainly no one would notice that she could only grimace and flinch at every brush of his fingers.
The lunch seemed to stretch on for years, and when it was finally done and they parted ways she felt overwhelmed and tired. It was a silent drive back to the office, and once there President Lee left first without a backward glance.
At the end of the day she trudged back to her tiny apartment. There wasn’t much there, but she still had the responsibility to close this part of her life.
Except, the door open unresistingly to her hand, and she pushed it open to find a silent empty room. What happened to her belongings? Rushing to the landlady’s apartment, she pounded on the door until the matronly woman opened up, looking harried and sour.
“Are you here for your deposit? Your movers were here this afternoon and cleared out everything. I ought to keep your deposit, since you didn’t give me any notice.”
Hye Ae could only stare in dismay. Did President Lee do this?
“Good evening, Mrs. Kwon. I believe I have some business to conclude with you.” Hye Ae spun around to find Mr. Park standing next to the black sedan. He nodded to her, and held out her hand. “Your keys, miss.” Numbed, she placed those symbols of her independence in his hand, and watched them transfer into the wrinkled palm of her landlady. Ex-landlady, her mind thought chaotically. Mr. Park handed an envelope to the woman, nodded again, and took Hye Ae’s arm, to guide her expertly back into the vehicle.
She settled back into the plush leather, convinced that it was all a dream. On the seat next to her was her old battered purple suitcase. Mr. Park cleared his throat from the front passenger seat.
“We took the liberty of collecting a few necessities for you. Your new apartment will be ready tomorrow afternoon, and President Lee has given you permission to stay at Holy Family tonight.”
Hye Ae nodded tightly, not daring to speak. That man callously cut her off from one place where she could be herself. What will he do to the orphanage if she didn’t comply?
The car pulled smoothly to the cracked curb in front of the orphanage and stopped. Mr Park helped her out, then handed her the suitcase. He gave her a brief nod, and got back into the car. She watched the car drive away with a terrible sense of foreboding before pushing open the gates.
She took her first deep breath in ages once inside. She settled onto the same swing which had been her haven for thinking for many years. Everything was moving so fast she didn’t feel like she had time to breath. Closing her eyes she let out a huge sigh. “You know I hate when you’re sad Noona.”
The voice startled her so badly she fell right out of the swing. Suddenly she found herself lifted off the ground and set to rights by a very strong pair of arms. Looking up it took her a moment to realize who it was standing before her. “Myung Ki?” With a wink and a nod he acknowledged her question. “Monkey! When did you get here? Its been what… five years? Omo it’s so good to see you!” Practically launching herself at him Hyun Ae hugged him fiercely. He happily returned the gesture.
“Nobody’s called me ‘Monkey’ in years.” Chuckling he let her go and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I just flew in today. My contract ended a few days back and I figured it was about time I came home for a little while.”
Laughing she gave him a good once over, “I wouldn’t have recognized you except for that goofy grin. You’re so… so tall now.” He gave her a shy grin and shuffled his feet under her scrutiny. “Who would have thought that scrawny little boy would become such a big man!” Cuffing him affectionately on the shoulder she grinned at him. Her little brother had grown up and grown up well. No longer was he the skinny little thing that had followed her and Eun Mi around like a shadow. He was as big as a house and built like a prizefighter.
Dropping his gaze Myung Ki did his best to hide his emotions, as always disappointed that his Noona was oblivious to his feelings. He had imagined this going differently, but he did his best to hide his disappointment that she hadn’t fallen instantly in love with the man he’d become. “Guess you won’t be beating me up anymore huh?” Grinning he did what he did best, put on a smile and joked around.
“Don’t you count on it! I may be small but I’m always going to be the big sister.” Linking her arm with his she chuckled, “have you gone in yet? Do Father and Sister Claire know you’re here?” Shaking his head no she whacked him in the chest, “you terrible boy! What are you waiting for!”
He rubbed his chest in mock pain, “I was about to when I saw you walking up the lane, thought we could go in together. Though I was surprised to see you here. Looks like we’re both moving back in with the parents huh?”
Putting on her best fake smile she laughed nervously, “Oh well, yeah. Things just didn’t work out the way I expected. Come on, let’s go in.” Myung Ki picked up his large green duffle bag and her suitcase as they went inside together.
The reunion filled the orphanage with cheers and laughter, as new and old members of the Family gathered. And, for a short while, happiness was in the hearts of the current inhabitants that one of their own had returned and was successful.
Later that night when everyone else was in bed, Hyun Ae and Eun Mi carefully told Myung Ki about Noona’s impending nuptials. In spite of his hurt and anger, Myung Ki managed to congratulate her before turning the conversation to stories about his time outside. Hyun Ae felt deflated when Myung Ki seem to accept the engagement news with equanimity and support. She had hoped for a spark of…well…something.
For hours, he regaled them with stories of his life in the military and his world-wide travels post-MS as a personal body guard. Exaggerating everything and making his sisters laugh long into the night. When they finally snuck upstairs to their bedrooms it was very late. Neither Hyun Ae or Myung Ki could find sleep, regardless of the time, thinking of the impending separation once the wedding was announced
Work that morning was an interminable repeat of the previous day. When lunchtime came it was actually a relief to hide away in In Su’s office and eat in complete silence. They spoke not a word to one another, which seemed to suit them fine. That evening when she exited the building after an exhausting day of pretending Mr. Park was waiting with a car. She’d completely forgotten that she was supposed to go shopping for a dress to wear to the charity event tomorrow. The event at which he would propose to her; she shuddered but managed a wan smile for the assistant.
While the stylish car glided through traffic towards a designer boutique Hyun Ae’s thoughts whirled like a hurricane in her head. How exactly was he going to propose? It would probably be a big affair, meant to draw the most attention, since President Lee seemed to want everyone in the city to know that he was dating. There must be a reason, some driving force to get married in a month’s time. Not that he would tell her of course… but she could see no reason for his impatience.
“Miss Song.” Mr. Park’s soothing voice broke through the tempest of her thoughts. She looked up startled to see him holding the door opened for her. She was so deep in her thoughts she hadn’t realized the car was already parked on the street in front of the boutique. With care he helped her from the car.
“President Lee has already chosen three options for you, so all you need do is try them on, choose one you like and be fitted for it. The attendants will choose the appropriate shoes and accessories to complete the look.” He spoke softly as they walked towards the door, as if he were speaking to a frightened animal. In some respects she was just that, Hyun Ae was terrified of everything that was being thrust upon her.
“When is the event tomorrow?” Stepping inside as he held the door for her, Hyun Ae’s breath caught in her throat. She’d never been to a place like this, where everything from the deep pile carpet and hushed atmosphere to the couture gracing the space bespoke wealth beyond anything she knew. Why, the scarf which expertly adorned the mannequin beside her cost more than her entire wardrobe.
Mr. Park placed a gentle hand at the small of her back and directed her inside. An army of attendants greeted them and he handled it all gracefully. They were led into a small circular room with three dresses arranged artfully for her perusal. “The charity ball begins tomorrow at eight. President Lee has arranged for a hairstylist, makeup artist, and nail technician to attend you in his office once you are done with your work tomorrow. You will both dress and prepare at the office and ride together to the location.”
Nodding, overwhelmed she stood there unsure what to do next. Mr. Park looked at the employees and smiled, “Thank you, you have all worked hard. I will call if we need assistance.” With a series of sharp, practiced bows the attendants left the pair alone. “Miss Song, all you need do is pick one dress.” Nodding again she stepped up to the rack, feeling better now that they weren’t being watched by multiple sets of eyes.
The three dresses were all designer brands, made from expensive materials, and nothing that she would have ever been caught dead in. Swarovski crystals or gold fringe, each of the tiny dresses tried to out glitter the next. Chewing on her lower lip she toyed with the fabric of each, but couldn’t bring herself to try one on. Sighing she turned and looked at Mr. Park who stood the picture of patience and gentlemanly manners at the edge of the room. Even though she’d only have a few interactions with the Ahjussi Hyun Ae liked him. “They’re all hideous.” She tensed, wondering if she would be forced into one of these gaudy, ornate, and short creations In Su had picked out.
Unable to contain himself Mr. Park chuckled, “shall we see if there is something more to your liking on the floor?”
Relief flooded her immediately, making her almost lightheaded. Smiling at him like a co-conspirator, they walked out onto the main floor. After an hour of hunting and trying dresses on Hyun Ae had finally settled on a simple yet elegant knee-length dress, a deep green silk with intricate needle work and tiny bugle beads made of mother of pearl along the hem and neckline. The conservative neckline scooped slightly, framing her collarbones and just a hint of shoulder. Beaded black heels and a matching black clutch completed the outfit, which made her feel tall and sophisticated. The attendants picked out a silver and emerald necklace, earrings, and bracelet to complete the look. After a few minutes with a seamstress to fit the dress before tomorrow night, the pair finally left.
Exhausted she sat in the car and closed her eyes and Mr. Park began to drive. “I’m sorry to disturb you Miss Song.” This time there was a more serious tone in his voice.
Opening her eyes she smiled at him through the rear view mirror, “You aren’t disturbing me Ahjussi.”
Competently, he pulled over to the curb and stopped. From the front seat he retrieved a file and handed it, “There are some things you will need to know. This information cannot be shared with anyone, not even with your sister Eun Mi.” It shouldn’t have surprised her that Mr. Park knew of Eun Mi, but it did. He offered her an apologetic smile. “President Lee is unaware I am providing you with this information, but I feel it is necessary for both the President and for you. In that file you will find medical information that might save the President’s life in the future. He has a history of seizure activity, and, although his current medical treatment has kept them under control, there is always the chance that they may reoccur.”
Shocked she stared at him wide eyed for a moment before opening the file and devouring the extensive information in front of her. So the machine that was President Lee actually had a weakness. She felt a small stirring of sympathy, realizing the extent and consequences of his illness that began almost the moment he was born.
After a moment she spoke up, “Soo Bin, a boy at the orphanage also suffers from a similar type of seizure, although not as severe as this record seems to show. I’ve got some practice at least in his symptons.”
Privately he sighed, feeling much better for his charge’s welfare now that Hyun Ae knew. With her coming into the picture there would be less of a chance that In Su would suffer a seizure alone. She handed the file back to Mr. Park. “I appreciate you telling me Ahjussi. I promise I won’t breathe a word of it.”
He nodded as he smoothly merged back into traffic. The rest of the car ride slipped by in silence each of them lost in their own thoughts.
It was the day of the charity ball, and at the end of her shift, Hyun Ae found herself with Mr. Park in the President’s Office. The chair behind the ugly desk was empty, and she was grateful.
A meal had been prepared and she carefully nibbled while a bevy of woman tackled every part of her body. Her hair was coifed into an intricate swirl of braids and curls adorned with silver pins. Two nail technicians turned her fingers into black lacquer artwork adorned with green gems. There was no respite from the activity around her as she was helped into the dress, shoes, and jewelry. Finally she was placed in front of a makeup artist, who immediately complemented her creamy white skin and dusting of freckles before expertly applying concealing cream.
Unbeknownst to Hye Ae, In Su had arrived during her preparations. Dressed smartly in a tuxedo with a red tie and red handkerchief in his breast pocket, he sat casually at his desk and watched the proceedings with an air of indifference, almost as if he were observing one of his prize mares. When the makeup artist declared her to be done Hyun Ae opened her eyes and looked at the hand held mirror. She barely recognized herself under the doll-like exterior. Disgusted and fascinated at the same time with the end result she barely registered the bustle as the women packed up and left, until blessed silence again reigned.
Turning her head this way and that she looked at the effect of their hard work through the limited surface of the hand mirror. The more she looked the less she liked what she saw.
“If you keep staring in that mirror you’re going to break it, ” a now-familiar voice sneered. Letting out a yelp she dropped the mirror, but thankfully it didn’t break. “Unattractive faces should avoid mirrors at all costs. That is not a dress I provided.” The last was said in a tone that put fear in her heart. It was clear he did not approve of the change.
She clenched her fists to resist the urge to slap him soundly. Spinning around she glared at him, “How can you be so unkind?” When her eyes met those cold orbs, the anger evaporated to dread; after all, this man had the power to mete out punishment not only to her but to the people she loved. She dropped her eyes to her pretty shoes. Smoothing her hands down the clinging silk of the dress she whispered, mostly to herself, “It’s prettier than the dresses you picked.” The not so subtle growl made her close her mouth quickly and stop any other comments about her attire.
Raising a perfect brow he gave her a blank stare, “I am not unkind. Honesty is neither cruel nor kind, it is the truth you cannot dispute. Mr. Park, prepare the car.” Hye Ae looked up, startled to realize that her new friend was a silent observer to their argument, and ashamed to have him hear those cruel words. The assistant silently bowed disappeared through the office door, leaving it open for the couple.
Hooking his arms into the cuffs of his braces, he levered his body out of the chair and made his way to the door, “We’re leaving.” In Su was disgusted with himself, and with his body. He had felt a brief stirring of admiration at her flash of anger and the defiance of choosing something else to wear. The dress really did suit her better than the ones he had chosen with an eye for spectacle. This striking woman in cool green would make a better impact for his purposes than he ever dreamed.
He had not expected the ugly duck to have such a potent transformation. But she was a tool to be used for his purposes, an unappealing and distasteful tool, and there was no room for attraction in his plans.
Hyun Ae did her best to hide the sting of pain his words had caused. Before she’d managed to control her emotions he was already gone and halfway to the elevators. The ride was silent, awkward, and filled with tension, at least on her part. He was rigid and emotionless, and Hyun Ae disliked him even more for his almost robotic demeanor. She might as well not exist, but at least if he were silent then he wasn’t hurting her with his words. She strove to find any positives in the situation she was trapped in.
The car drive was little better, and she felt almost relieved when the large mansion loomed ahead of the driveway, lights shone out into the darkness. The large circular driveway was filled with expensive and imported vehicles, and she could practically smell the money oozing off of the gray river-stone façade. Mr. Park pulled up front, stepped out, opened In Su’s door, and then made his graceful way around the car to her side. The sound of the braces creaking as the man worked his way out of the car set her teeth on edge, but she did her best to put on a smile for Mr. Park. Taking the offered hand she stood, a little unsteady on the high heels. “You’ll be fine, just smile.” Mr. Park whispered quietly to her. The words made her feel better for an instant, but then from the other side of the car In Su cleared his throat loudly. Bowing her head to her friend she hurried over. Without the need for his glare, she knew that he wanted her to take his arm. So she did, but the cold feel of the metal cuff made her feel slimy and uncomfortable. Yet again his ungainly walk pushed home the knowledge that he wasn’t human.
With her gripping his arm so tightly it was even more difficult to walk. Glaring down at her In Su could feel her heart galloping, the pulse so pronounced it was a surprise she hadn’t fainted. Hyun Ae wasn’t aware of his attention, she was gazing around like a country bumpkin, looking up at the massive arch of the porte cochère . Pausing he reached over with his other hand, the crutch hanging off awkwardly, “I told you that you look even more unattractive with your mouth agape like a fish.”
Instantly she shied away from his touch, a look of disgust upon her painted face. In Su sneered and looked away. Hyun Ae felt filthy and blushed down to her toes. In a moment of embarrassment at his actions she looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the interaction. Under his icy stare she composed herself outwardly and looked straight ahead. It was time to enter the lion’s den and bring the devil with her.