Once more they were walking. It was like entering a fashion show; each couple was doing their best to outdo everyone else in the room. In Su bowed his head formally to a few people, and, while they returned the gesture, fake smiles and over exaggerated greetings were at every turn. During the first few introductions she remained silent to observe In Su and his financial peers. Each one of them made it a point to exchange sugary pleasantries speaking completely in honorifics. But she could sense the truth: beneath all the finery and greetings was an undercurrent of despiteful deceit and greed that made her stomach turn over.
Hyun Ae took a few moments to watch In Su himself and saw the exact same façade in place. Moreover, he was comfortable with it. How could anyone survive like that and stay normal?
“Fine wisdom and insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.” She murmured, and In Su cut a surprised look at her.
“Confucius, my dear?”
“It seems appropriate, President Lee.” That released a snort of amusement from him even while his eyes scanned the glittering crowd, looking for someone or something.
There was a wide inner courtyard in which all the guests were gathered. Waiters in crisp uniforms moved silently amongst the crowd with trays of delicate finger foods and flutes of champagne. Laughter, conversation, and music mingled throughout the wide space. On the surface it appeared to be a happy occasion, but Hyun Ae was discovering than this was little more than a fancy business negotiation, from subtle animosity to outright conversation.
It took her nearly a half hour before she felt like she could follow the flow of conversation occurring around her. The other guests gave her a mixture of looks that reminded her of the office staff: shock, glares, laughter. For all their money, these people were no different than anyone else. Suddenly she found herself the target of a question. An older gentleman who had just arrived to the small cluster which surrounded In Su and herself smiled awaiting her response. A few seconds lapsed while she tried to sort out what he’d said. Without looking at the man beside her, she knew she had to play her role perfectly.
A quick breath to steady herself and she responded. He’d made some observation about the current status for Soju in the international market, and she had already crammed in some study of the Royal Lee Export on top of her legal knowledge. Royal Lee Exports was a leading exporter of Soju, and so she had numbers to back up her opinions.
“Soju exports to the United States increased more than fifteen percent in 2013, thanks to the popularity of Hallyu, and it shows no sign of stopping. According to KALIA, South Korea shipped over 130 Billion won of soju outbound. I think even Lotte had some growth, although not nearly as much as Royal Lee Exports. There are plenty of opportunities for our country to expand throughout the world, whether it is in durable goods or culture.”
A few seconds later she found herself in a lively debate. Forgetting for a moment that she practically belonged to President Lee, Hyun Ae started enjoying herself.
This turn of events had been unexpected. For the first time since they’d entered In Su gave her his full attention. He had fully expected her to remain silent, a decoration and nothing more. Regardless of her excessive intellect, he’d not expected much out of her. Yet here she was totally enchanting his peers of the business. A flutter of admiration blossomed for the pale woman next to him. The more involved she became in the discussion the more beautiful she became. There was color to her cheeks, a sparkle of enjoyment and intelligence in her eye, and a sweet laugh that was quite contagious.
The voice of the host came over the speakers, and knocked In Su out of his musings. He was irritated to find that, in the heat of the debate, she’d released his arm, using her hands to punctuate her point. When the group’s attention shifted with the entry of a new person, In Su grabbed her arm and tugged her out of the circle. For her part she became docile immediately, bowing her head and standing quietly by his side.
Completely helpless in front of his unpredictable behavior, she didn’t want to push it, especially when this ridiculous farce still had to be played out. There was no telling if he would take this irrational anger out on her or her precious orphanage.
The gathered guests began to move towards the ballroom for the charity auction. Hyun Ae felt the pressure of the stares as the two of them made their way inside, his arrhythmic gait in stark contrast to her own smooth glide.
In Su took the moment to murmur, “Very nice job, my dear, you managed to charm the president of the Korean New Services.” She gave him a startled look, and he nodded, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face so fast, she wasn’t sure she saw it.
The ballroom was awash in pristine tablecloths and opulent flower arrangements. There was one familiar face at their table; the older man from the soju discussion. He gave her a quick nod before assisting a woman to the chair beside him.
In Su’s grip was almost painful as he handed her into a chair, and Hye Ae felt a frisson of fear. However, when In Su sat beside her, his mask of affection and caring was in place. Leaning his arm across the back of her chair he kept his body close and put a smile on his perfectly sculpted face.
While waiters flitted about and served drinks and placed small platters of finger foods at each table in anticipation of the event. A woman about her age was sitting across from then, dressed in a revealing fuchsia dress, commented Hye Ae on her gown. In Su deflected the conversation with a quick joke, saving Hye Ae from responding. Every time his fingers brushed her bare arm or he caressed the back of her neck it took every ounce of her will not to cringe. Just like at the restaurant it was impossible to tell that he was just acting.
The older gentleman introduced himself as Chung Hae Sung and launched into a conversation regarding the most recent elections. Hyun Ae was happy to join in the discourse. In Su sat back for a moment and watched, annoyed yet impressed again with her understanding of the business proposal, current events, and her general business savvy.
The marriage was becoming more believable as the conversation went on. The introduction of Hyun Ae was more of a success than he had dreamed; her business acumen would make her even more acceptable to the Board of Directors as well as the business community at large. The gossip and news out of this event would further his relationship with his business partners as well. He smiled and briefly rubbed her shoulder.
Hyun Ae froze for a moment at the feel of his thumb against her skin above the neckline. Thankfully, no one else at the table notice her lapse in the conversation. In Su felt each shiver, and barely concealed feeling of disgust from his touch. The fact that he repelled her so vehemently gave him a strange pang of disappointment. A feeling he did not approve of at all.
Thankfully, once the auction event actually began conversation died down and the guests focused on the proceedings. Items had been donated by the same group of chaebols now bidding on them. The money would be donated to a fund for disadvantaged children, and Hyun Ae hoped her family at the orphanage could benefit as well.
Throughout it all In Su kept his arm around her, resting on the back of her chair. Every so often he leaned in as if he was whispering something in her ear, and she did her best to appear happy with his attentions.
A particularly pretty necklace was up on the block. The platinum chain had been crafted to resemble a flowering vine, with a small trio of carved pink jade flowers, each with a tiny yellow diamond in the center. Hyun Ae could not help but gasp at the simple elegance and beauty of the piece.
“Do you like it? It would match the color of your eyes.” His question surprised her, and Hyun Ae could feel her skin heat up as she blushed. Silently she had to remind herself that this was the alternate personality of In Su. But it was hard not to believe in that false sincerity. Swallowing she nodded, “It’s really pretty.”
That was all the prompting he needed. When the auctioneer had concluded the bidding, he announced, “President Lee In Su, for 1.325 million won.”
Hyun Ae stared at him, wide eyed and her mouth agape as he stood and bowed to the applause. Gently he closed her mouth with his finger, but flashed a quick warning. Clenching her teeth she pasted on a smile for the members of the table now clapping.
“Well, Ms Song, it seems you have won the heart of President Lee,” the older gentleman said, beaming.
“Thank you, President Chung.” She said quietly. Hyun Ae felt sickened. This man didn’t care for the children that money would help. He only cared that it would show he was buying the woman he loved a pretty trinket. There were sighs from the woman seated around them and a glare from the woman in the bright pink dress. If they only knew the disgusting truth…
Expensive champagne flowed like water, and for the first time in her life, she drank, to numb the pain and the terror in her heart. It was the only way she could keep smiling and pretending that she was happy. She lost count of the number of times her flute was refilled.
Near the end of the auction the MC called for everyone’s attention. “Next we have a very special introduction. Please give a round of applause to Lee In Su, President of Royal Lee Exports.” Amid a polite round of applause In Su stood, secured his crutches and made his asymmetric walk to the dais and the microphone.
“Thank you all for allowing me to borrow a little time from this evening’s event. Today is a very special day for me, and I am blessed to have so many to share it with.” There was a hurried round of whispers. Hyun Ae’s heart dropped into her stomach and she broke out in a cold sweat. She knew what was coming, but there was nothing she could do to stop it.
“For months I have kept a secret from everyone, and I would like now to beg forgiveness for it.” Bowing his head in apology before continuing, he smiled that heart melting smile. Slowly he made his way back to the table where Hyun Ae was seated, frozen.
“Several months ago I met an amazing person. I never imagined that a single person could change my life so drastically, but she’s managed to do it, and make me a better person as well. Even though I have never actively sought love, I now cannot imagine my life without her.”
Then he was there, standing before her, and her stomach roiled, trying to appear surprised as she looked up him. But inside… inside she had never been as miserable as she was right now. In Su was saying all the right words, he was smiling the way she had always wanted someone to smile at her, he was perfect… except it was all a lie. An ugly and hurtful lie. Tears sprang to her eyes as her heart broke into several jagged pieces.
Slowly, with a bit of trouble, he knelt down before her. The MC brought over a small black velvet box and rested it in In Su’s waiting hand. Looking at her imploringly, love written all over his face, he asked, “Song Hyun Ae, will you marry me?”
She was numb to the babble of voices as tears wet her cheeks. She tried to answer past the lump in her throat, seeing his eyes grow cold at the delay even as he continued smiling. Sniffling, she managed a nod and a tiny “yes”.
The room exploded in laughter and real applause, as everyone believed this contrived fantasy. In Su climbed back to his feet, and, setting the microphone down, he opened the box to display a large and ostentatious white gold and diamond ring. He slid it on her finger and then, with an almost triumphant smile, he yanked her in for a kiss.
Hyun Ae wasn’t prepared, and could barely contain a shudder when she felt those cool, almost lifeless lips touch hers. The room erupted in catcalls and applause, but the deafening sound barely registered. Ashamed and feeling as if she’d just committed the worst crime she ducked her head as he tucked her against his side and acknowledged the accolades.
From across the room a regal figure stared at the couple, watching the celebration but apart from it, his dark eyes staring intently at the smiling man and his shy, blushing companion.
Finally the auctioneer was in control of the microphone again, and the bidding continued.
The attention of the crowd gradually returned to the items still awaiting the auction. In Su grinned, accepting congratulations from individuals who drifted past their table. Hyun Ae kept herself as small as possible to avoid interacting with anyone. The last hour flew by while she continued to drink, desperate to wash the taste and sensation of this night away.
Finally, they were down to just a few items. By now Hyun Ae could only manage a few laughs and simple responses. In Su stood up at the table.
“I’m afraid this evening has been overwhelming for my princess, so I will bid you all good evening.” Amidst a flurry of laughter and good wishes In Su pulled her towards the entranceway where Mr. Park waited patiently with their coats.
The mysterious man watched from the overhang as the unresisting woman was handed into the vehicle. After a short conversation, In Su made his way to a small white sports car. His assistant drove away with the woman in a black sedan. The man waited until they both drove off before making his way to his own car. As his own man opened the door to the car he pulled out his phone. A gravelly and sinister voice answered after the first ring, “In Young-ah. Did he attend?”
The car pulled away and In Young leaned back comfortably in the expensive interior. “Yes Father. The rumors were true. In Su attended the soiree with a foreigner who speaks perfect Korean.” Pausing a moment he picked up the file beside him. “In Su proposed to her. I think he knows about the requirement the elders built into the company regulations.”
His father cursed in his ear and then asked, “Who is she?”
“Her name is Song Hyun Ae. She doesn’t appear to be related to any chaebol family, so we don’t have a dossier on her. I’ve already sent the information to the investigator, though, and he’ll report to us tomorrow morning.” Another pause as he looked at the dossier of In Su in his hand. “What are we going to do, Father?”
The older man spoke with a dark determination, “I believe it’s time that the family was reunited.” He hung up and In Young put his phone away, contemplating his long lost cousin and new fiancée. A woman whose name was familiar to him, but no matter how he contemplated her there was no memory of ever having seen her before.
Hyun Ae blearily opened her eyes to a strange but opulent room. She was still wearing all of her finery from the event, including that gaudy monstrosity of a ring. Suddenly feeling sick she scrambled off the bed [and] to the bathroom to upend the contents of her stomach. Afterwards she rinsed her mouth and stumbled back out into the room, feeling better but still a bit woozy.
Leaning against the wall , she looked around the room. It was clearly an expensive hotel suite. Had In Su brought her here? She shuddered to think that he had touched her while she was passed out. More than likely, given his walking problems, Mr Park or one of the president’s assistants carried her in. Of course he wouldn’t let her go home, but why hadn’t he taken her to the apartment? Hadn’t Mr. Park said something about her moving in soon? Move in with In Su. In a rush she remembered the whole Charity event; the mingling, the touching, the proposal, and the kiss. Another wave of nausea hit that had nothing to do with being drunk, but there were only dry heaves.
Giving in to the urge to run, she fumbled her shoes on and grabbed her clutch before she left the room. The valet quickly averted his eyes from her state of dishabille but assisted her into a waiting taxi. Once inside, she flopped into the backseat. Barely containing her tears she urged the driver to get her to the orphanage and quickly.
A little while later the driver woke her from a doze; they had arrived. Fumbling with her purse she realized that she had no money with her. Tears of frustration threatened, but before she could say anything a deep voice penetrated the fog of her mind. “I’ll take care of it.” Seconds later strong arms lifted her from the back seat.
Blearily she looked up, “Monkey.” At the sight of her little brother the tears finally came in a flood. Burying her face against his shoulder she wrapped her arms around his neck. Unable to hold back any longer she sobbed as if her world had ended. Which in a sense, it had. Through her tears she wondered if she would ever feel happiness again.
Clenching his jaw Myung Ki stayed silent. He knew without asking that her fiancé had done this, had done something to make her cry. Walking over to the stone wall which surrounded the playground he cradled her like a small child, rocking back and forth. The pain in his heart was almost unbearable, but all he could do for her now was hold her.
Exhausted from the torturous evening and spent after crying her heart out, Hyun Ae fell asleep in his arms. Myung Ki spent a few moments looking at her swollen face in the moonlight. Using his handkerchief, he cleared the streaks of mascara from her face. He had disliked this Lee In Su character when he found out about the arrangement, but dislike had blossomed into hatred. Standing, careful not to disturb her, he headed towards the orphanage.
Quietly he carried her through the house, Eun Mi was already asleep so he moved as silently as possible as he entered the room they shared. He carefully laid her on the pallet. Gently he removed her jewelry. His hand shook and he had to take a few very deep breaths before he was able to remove that hideous ring as well.
Forcing himself not to toss the thing out the window, he placed everything on the small dresser that was crammed into the room. With the same loving care he removed her shoes and did his best to undo her crazy braided coif. When she was as comfortable as he could make her, he covered her up. Tracing her face with his finger he whispered, “Why couldn’t you wait for me. Don’t you remember? I promised you when I left that I’d come back for you. That I’d be a man you could love when I came back. Why didn’t you wait for me?”
Abruptly, angry he stood and left. His heavy footfalls could be heard throughout the house as he stomped away from her room, his chest on fire with the pain of heartache.
From the bed Eun Mi blinked away the tears she’d been silently crying. All hopes that Myung Ki had given up on his love for Hyun Ae were dashed. Curling under her covers she closed her eyes and tried to ignore it as her heart broke a little more.