The car ride felt stiff, both of them tense. In Su’s mind was awhirl with emotions and thoughts, most of which were as unfamiliar as the sensation of Hyun Ae in his arms. Even now as they sat as far apart in the car as possible he could faintly smell jasmine and clearly remember how she fit against him with her forehead pressed against his own. It was difficult to restrain himself from moving closer, as he felt a sudden longing to breathe the scent at its source.
Glancing sideways at her In Su felt a pang of regret for snapping at her. Then immediately looked away. It was getting harder to remember the reason why she was by his side as his emotions warred with his cold logic.
On the opposite side Hyun Ae looked at the evening cityscape as Mr. Park drove them through the busy streets. Holding the wrap which she had grabbed along with her clutch tightly in her hands. All excitement for the symphony had effectively been squashed. Even so, she could hardly forget the way he comforted her after his episode. It had been such a strange moment. He always appeared so virile, strong, and stubborn, despite the crutches that were ever present on his frame. But in that instant his unstable health became abundantly clear, and for the first time Hyun Ae was afraid for him. She wanted to verify that he was alright, but knew that he would only get angry, or worse, become cold again. So she remained quiet, watching the buildings of Seocho-Gu pass by.
A few minutes before they arrived at the Seoul Arts Center Concert Hall he grumbled under his breath in a voice more gravelly than usual, “Turn around.”
Hyun Ae jumped slightly at the demand and looked at him, as if she were determining if he meant her harm. It bothered In Su that she seemed afraid to approach, though he quickly brushed aside that feeling. Finally she unbuckled herself and turned to fully face the window.
From his inner pocket he removed and opened a slender black box. Opening the box he revealed the delicate jade necklace from the charity event. Almost involuntarily, his eyes roamed her back, bared almost to the waist by the gowns halter top, and took a deep breath. He unbuckled his seatbelt and closed the distance between them. A quick intake of breath was the only indication Hyun Ae was aware of the change in his position. Resisting the urge to breathe in that intoxicating scent of flowers, In Su fumbled open the clasp and placed it around her slender neck.
Hyun Ae jerked slightly when she felt the coolness of the metal. Her lips parted as she turned her neck to look into his dark eyes. In Su lost himself in that open gaze. The jasmine scent was stronger now with her so close, her lips plump and pink drawing his gaze. It was hard to ignore how alluring she was in that instance.
“It is yours anyway, you might as well wear it.” Afraid to say any more, he leaned forward and wrapped the necklace around her, his fingers feeling big and clumsy against the soft nape of her neck as he did his best to latch it. Frustrated that he appeared so inept at such a simple task.
Hyun Ae turned back towards the window, but never saw the tableau outside. His fingers lingered, warm against her skin and she felt little shivers of delight at the slight skin-ship. Her hand stroked the intricate jade flowers, her heart beating quickly in her breast. “Thank you.” The words were a whisper. For a few seconds she felt connected to him, it was blissful.
In Su dropped his hands and moved back to his seat, his fingers already curled to resist the urge to touch her again. He felt a strange ache in his body, as if he were somehow bereft that he no longer had a reason to be near this woman. The now familiar twinge of his heart made him frown and look away.
Unwilling to push for more she cautiously smiled at him from her seat, trying to understand why he avoided her gaze to stare determinedly out the window. Sighing, she feared that she would never quite understand this man which would soon be her husband. For the first time that thought wasn’t as detestable as it had once been.
Their sedan smoothly pulled into the line of vehicles waiting to discharge their passengers. Nothing had been spoken out loud since he placed the necklace on her, and the silence was almost deafening.
The wide expanse of walkways, lined with well-tended greenery and flowers, was a moving sea of sparkling gowns and bright colors. Once they stopped at the front entrance, Hyun Ae looked up at the Heukrip-shaped Seoul Arts Center Concert Hall as it loomed over the crowd. There were multiple flights of steps past the gates; would her fiance be able to negotiate them?
With his strange breathing attack still fresh in her mind, she chewed her bottom lip for a moment before speaking. “Is there a closer entrance?” Continuing in a near whisper, “there are a lot of steps.” She sent a worried look at the rearview mirror to reach the assistant’s gaze.
The response to her right was immediate and sharp, “No. This will suffice.” Opening her mouth to protest Hyun Ae met In Su’s glare and thought better of it.
Knowing that his young master would decline the closer entrance Mr. Park silently helped him from the car. He then moved to the other side to assist the young woman while In Su adjusted his crutches. Hyun Ae slipped the wrap around her shoulders to ward off the fall evening chill.
No one paid them any attention in the bustle. They shared a quick glance and she garnered strength from Mr. Park’s silent support. A moment later her fiancé was by her side as Mr. Park bowed his head to the pair and drove their vehicle away, leaving them amongst the crowd.
Without thought she slipped her arm through his, no longer aware of the feeling of the metal cuff. Hyun Ae’s gaze was on the crowd around them, missing the satisfied smirk that pulled at his mouth. It was natural now for them to walk arm in arm and that thought pleased him much more than it should have. It was amazing how Hyun Ae managed to adapt to his gait in such an effortless way, as if they were perfectly matched. Now that she stood so close In Su could clearly smell that alluring jasmine scent. Shaking his head he focused on the real task, because this line of thinking was dangerous.
Soon enough they were at the large glass doors, passing through with several other finely dressed couples. Just holding his arm helped to ease away the tension they’d been feeling after he placed the necklace around her neck. This skinship had become so commonplace it was comfortable, as had these moments of shared silence. Almost she could believe that this wasn’t all a lie. With a wry smile she shook away the notion, she was a pawn and nothing more. It would do her well to remember that at all times.
The first flight of stairs loomed in front of them. Instantly concerned she shifted her grip on his arm and held his elbow with her other hand. Smaller and not as strong, Hyun Ae was still determined to help him. Instantaneously his arm stiffened and he growled, “You will attract attention.” Moving closer she made an attempt to protest. “I. Am. Fine.” Taking a determined step towards the stairs In Su pulled her along with him.
Unprepared for the sudden forward momentum she gasped and nearly stumbled. Nerves flared and she was hyper-aware of her graceless response and the hawk like gazes focused on the pair. Anxiously looking around, struggling with her embarrassment, she noted the crowd was much larger here before the steps. Only barely having recovered her equilibrium she managed not to drag them both down as he started up the stairs. Hyun Ae recognized several political figures, celebrities, and other influential persons mingled amongst the theater goers. As if she were not nervous enough she toyed with the material of her dress and refocused on her feet, afraid she might trip and fall.
At the top of the stairs, upon the wide landing In Su felt her trembling by his side and knew she was nervous. When the flow of the crowd paused he drew to a stop as well. Without thinking In Su released his hold on the crutch handle and took hold of her hand. Hyun Ae’s reaction was immediate, her eyes flicked up to meet his gaze.
In Su mentally admonished himself for his actions, but he didn’t retract his hand. She marveled at the strength of his warm grasp and could not look away from his eyes. In an attempt to rationalize his actions he determined that seeing her afraid was unacceptable to their ruse of a happy couple. Bending his head towards her, that charming smile found its way to his lips. “Remember your part and play it well.” The words were meant to be harsh, he had truly intended to reprimand her for her terrible acting. However, his tone was warm and soft while his thumb made slow circles on her silken skin.
It was a strange juxtaposition, she felt that he had meant to order her but the look in his gaze was gentle and caused her heart to flutter. Despite knowing how dangerous it was to believe these moments she couldn’t help herself, she felt soothed and more in control over her nerves. In Su found the sensation of her skin beneath his thumb intoxicating and repeated the circles several times all the while staring down into her bottle green eyes. As the moments stretched into minutes he was enamored with watching her cheeks turn a lovely shade of pink which darkened with each consecutive circle.
The movement of the crowd broke the magic, their moment fluttered away and he dropped her hand quickly. Hyun Ae pressed her hand to her cheek and followed him as he began walking again. The mass of symphony goers strolled slowly around the bend in the path, walking past the structure of the opera house. It was a slow pace meant to show off designer clothing and status. At this moment hidden on the other side of the crowd was a photographer who was snapping pictures of In Su and Hyun Ae. He had hired the man to help prove the loving couple was very much romantically involved. She was unaware of it all and only focused on staying close while the elite of Seoul mingled around her.
As the second flight of stairs came into view the crowd slowed even more, taking their time ascending the steps. Instinctively she shifted to take more of his weight, In Su knew they were being photographed and this time accepted her closeness in hopes of a good picture. Despite the obvious shaking in his legs he ignored his infirmity and through sheer willpower made it to the top of the stairs and was only slightly out of breath. Glad that he allowed her to help she smiled up at him tentatively, still flustered from the moment they’d shared at the crest of the first landing.
From a few feet away In Su’s hired photographer caught his eyes and shook his head. It was obvious that the pictures were not going to be acceptable as proof of their intimacy. Glancing down to the woman clinging to his arm he frowned for a moment before formulating a plan of action.
Hyun Ae startled as he pressed his cheek to her hair. After her initial shock she found herself leaning in closer to him, feeling the hardness of his chest and the heat of his body through the thin material of her dress. For a tender moment they stood in their own world for the second time that evening. In Su meant only to whisper in her ear, but being this close wrapped her presence around him like a warm blanket. Finally pulling himself out of the spell he whispered, feeling her shiver as his breath teased her sensitive ear. “I believe her concept for the evening was peacock and glitter.”
Disoriented by his closeness not to mention his words Hyun Ae finally followed his line of sight. There stood a large woman wearing an atrocious green dress that looked to have been dipped in gaudy, sparkling gemstones. The woman was animatedly chatting to her smaller and obviously bored date, her feathered headpiece bobbing with every word. Unable to help it a giggle bubbled forth from her. Turning her head towards his chest to try and mute her laughter. In Su chuckled, a vibration against her cheek, and she was certain that she’d never heard a better sound. She felt his arm snake around her waist as he leaned in a bit more and said, “If we get closer do you think she’ll sound like a squawking bird?”
Another swell of laughter slipped from her and she dared to look up into his eyes, which sparkled with mirth. “What has gotten into you?” Hyun Ae liked this man when he was playful and mischievous. She knew it was just a part of his façade yet she couldn’t help but enjoy it. She’d keep these memories to help her through the times when his true nature returned. They continued to share mirth while he loosened his hold and motioned for her to continue as the crowd began to move again.
The third and final set of stairs passed quickly, though she could feel him strain. Oblivious to his ulterior motives Hyun Ae felt closer to him than she ever had. The last three steps he even allowed her to support him. In Su knew that he had pushed too far, but he was too stubborn to admit defeat. Regardless if their relationship was a sham created to outsmart his father and the family elders, there was no way he could appear weak in front of her. The thought of her seeing him as less of a man because his body’s failings upset him. The pain had returned in his chest and he was short of breath. Even if the photographer had not been close at hand it would have been a necessity to lean on her in order to reach to the final landing.
Hyun Ae bit her lip while her eyes darted around. The large fount which sprayed water in a fan shape sat a short distance in front of them. Colored lights flickered beneath the water to create a rainbow display that was actually quite beautiful. Scattered around the area were small bistro tables and benches which the theater goers could use while waiting for the doors to open. It was her first time here and she did feel awe at the landscaping and décor, however, she was glad for that now. Hugging his arm she turned a sweet smile upon him, “it is so pretty here.”
In Su glanced down at her and felt a different sort of tug at his heart, backlit by the fountain and subtle lighting of the area she was even more beautiful. “Would you like to sit and watch the water?” Subconsciously he knew that she was giving him a reason to sit and rest, but he ignored it, unable to admit that he was tired and in pain.
“Can we?” True excitement tinged her words and he chuckled nodding his head. Together they made their way to a solitary table. Like a gentleman he waited for her to take her seat before settling into his own. A moment of silence settled over them, only broken by the tinkling of the fountain beside them. Hyun Ae’s eyes wandered the serene view, the people, and the symphony house enchanted by it all. The cream colored wrap had fallen down to reveal her shoulders. In Su could only watch her. Reaching across the small table he took her hand in his own. Looking back to him she felt her breath catch in her throat. The way he looked at her was nothing short of loving. The butterflies in her stomach were tainted by the pain in her heart as she knew it wasn’t real. Many more nights like this and she was in danger of forgetting it was fake… her heart was in serious danger.
Throwing caution and logic to the wind she settled her other hand atop his, marveling at how warm he was and how his skin was soft yet textured, so different from her own. In Sun looked down as she timidly explored his hand with her own. The pain and exhaustion had subsided since they had sat down, but he felt that twinge in his heart once more. It was unfamiliar and painful, so different from the pain he’d known all his life. After a moment she rested her hand atop his and he looked up, their eyes met and Hyun Ae felt the rest of the world just float away. Unconsciously they leaned towards one another.
Their moment was broken by a squawking laughter. They both are startled and glance to the right where the woman in the gaudy green dress and feathered headpiece is standing. A second later their eyes meet and laughter fills the space between them. “I told you she would sound like a bird.” Hyun Ae shook her head, still laughing softly. “Let us hope she is seated far from us, I would hate to have to listen to that through the entire performance.”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I’d hate to miss Lavinia Meijer’s performance. I love her, she’s so talented. I’ve never seen her in person before, I can’t wait. The harp has always been something I’ve wanted to learn.” The excitement coming from her was palpable and it made In Su smile.
“Mmm I saw her perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.” The way Hyun Ae’s eyes lit up at that caused him to smile, again… he hadn’t smiled this consistently for years.
Leaning in closer her eyes sparkled she sighed, “that must have been magical! I guess you’ve traveled a lot. New York is one of the places I’d like to visit someday.”
The crowd around them began to move in earnest and In Su pulled his gaze from hers. That moment gave him some clarity, he was enjoying her company much more than was healthy. Returning to the ruse, he made sure he remembered why they were there. “Perhaps we’ll go one day.” Pulling his hand from hers, “we should head inside now.” The short rest had done him good, however, he’d pushed too hard at the gym.
Hyun Ae stood and moved to his side. Silently ready to assist as he adjusted his crutches. Without fighting he accepted her help, and he told himself again it was all for the pictures and the perception of a happy couple. Along with the crowd they walked towards the main entrances. The landscape had soft hidden lights leading up to the main archway, Hyun Ae was lost in the beauty of this space. As they passed inside she practically bounced, her excitement spilling out into physical action. Despite himself, and his promise moments ago he found her excitement extremely adorable and smiled as he looked down at her.
In Su held a private box at the concert hall, but in order to maximize public scrutiny, he’d had Mr. Park purchase proper balcony tickets and the best seats in the house. It only took a few moments for programs to be in their hands as the ushers led them to discrete elevators. Around them chittered and murmured the upper crust of Seoul society. A few whispered behind their hands as they stared at the couple waiting their turn. In Su used the moment to tuck a stray hair behind his escort’s ear. Hyun Ae gave a tiny jerk and looked at him, her eyes wide. He smiled at her, and, for once, it felt easy and natural. After a moment, the line started moving, the murmurs around them even louder in the wake of his action.
Hyun Ae didn’t know where to look first as the efficient ushers bowed them to their box to the right of the stage. The deep, rich reds of the boxes and gold balconies gave an ancient grace to the interior. Sounds carried from the stage as the dark curtain moved as if in a tiny breeze, indicating that preparations were underway for tonight’s performance.
“They did a wonderful job renovating after the fire ten years ago,” Hyun Ae said, still distracted by the splendor around her.
In Su was surprised she even knew about the history of the building. “Isn’t this your first time here?” he asked.
She nodded, still watching the sea of color below her as patrons were slowly finding their seats. “But I have always wanted to come here, so I read about it at school.” They sat down at the edge of the railing. In Su removed the braces and set them beside the chair, grateful to finally relax and give his hurting body well-needed rest.
Even when the curtain lifted In Su couldn’t drag his eyes from her, she practically glowed. As the first song of the Romantic Rachmaninoff performance began he slipped his hand into hers. Without thinking she curled her fingers around his and squeezed, her happiness at being here more potent than anything else.
In Su couldn’t look away from his beautiful woman. She was completely unaware of his presence next to him, a situation that he found both disconcerting and fascinating. Because of his status, because of his physical issues, he was more used to stares, more often than not filled with pity. He tentatively squeezed her hand back to gauge her response. She turned back to him, and for a moment he was lost in those green depths. When she returned her eyes back to the stage, he felt a stab of disappointment. But the ability to watch her, unguarded and absorbed in the music, more than compensated. He became mesmerized by the delicate throbbing of her pulse at the base of her slender neck.
Hyun Ae could barely breathe as the slender woman below positioned herself behind her harp and began the opening strains of Saint-Saen’s Piano Concerto No 2. To hear the melancholy of the first movement segue through to the elaborate tarantella, was like opening a door to the child within her. When the piano made it’s appearance, it seemed to do little more than illuminate the skillful fingers deftly plucking the strings. As the final notes of the third movement hung on the air, she stood up. A tug on her arm brought her back to her surroundings, and she realized that she had unknowingly gripped her fiancee’s hand throughout that first piece.
Immediately dropping her hand and froze in place with her eyes downward, afraid to see his expression. But then she felt a gentle touch against her palm. She opened her eyes to see him with a half-smile.
“Are you going to stand up for the rest of the performance, my dear?” With a gentle tug, she sat back down, this time a little closer to this enigmatic man.
Hyun Ae’s reaction to Debussy’s Sinfonie was so openly delightful. She squirmed in her seat, her hands clasped together as if to stop her from clapping as the artists flawlessly traversed the dialogue between the two pianos. At the end, she clapped louder than the nearby patrons. In Su hid his grin behind his hand as he coughed.
The symphony was old hat for him, he’d been attending since a very young age. But this evening he lived it through her eyes, and found himself breathless with the depth of emotions she experienced. Almost without thought, he inched closer to her seat and tentatively draped his arm behind her chair.
The stage lights dimmed again until only the piano a lone cellist remained. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, the final piece of the performance, was one Hyun Ae was familiar with. She clutched it to her chest as the two instruments spun the notes together into a plaintive sigh. She suddenly felt heartsick for all the whirlwind changes in her life that had cast her life adrift. The only thing she had that felt solid and real was this enigmatic man beside her. Tears threatened to overflow.
As the music slipped into the final pensive phrasing, Hyun Ae became aware of a warm soothing touch on her back. It was In Su’s hand, gently rubbing circles between her shoulder blades. Her spine slowly relaxed, as a tension she wasn’t even aware of released. She shuddered, and felt the hand move from her back to her shoulder. With the tiniest pressure, she leaned into her fiance and rested her head on his shoulder.
In Su felt that odd pain in his chest ease a little. She seemed so tiny and fragile tucked under his arm. It was hard to remember those stormy eyes and flashes of spirit during their discussions. He had forgotten that she was still young, younger than him not only in years but in life experience as well. He raised his hand and stroked the smooth fragrant silk of her hair. She sighed, and snuggled closer.
For both of them, the performance was over too soon. As the house lights went up and the crowd began to stir and move, Hyun Ae discovered she was almost in In Su’s lap, and sat up, blinking the last of the music’s stardust from her eyes.
In Su let her sit up without comment, contemplating his own warring opinions of the slight woman beside him. Now that the music was done and the lights were on he was able to think more clearly and he quickly realized that he was getting too emotional. This was a dangerous idea; he would no longer pick events based on her likes. Added to his confusion, In Su’s body was trembling, the stiffness in his back and legs giving way to pins and needles as he experimentally moved them. The pain made him doubly grumpy.
Gruffly he pulled his hand from hers, “Stop your daydreaming.” Standing he just barely stopped himself from groaning in pain. Gritting his teeth he fitted his crutches and began to move. Hyun Ae was thrust back into the real world, feeling a bit hurt at his sudden angry countenance. Hurrying to catch up to him she was painfully aware of his limp and even though he’d treated her badly a moment ago she was worried. She had no idea what had caused his body to be so weak today, but whatever it was had hurt him deeply.
By the time they had arrived at the car he’d snapped at her and made snide comments several times. Mr. Park frowned and In Su snarled at him too. Hyun Ae looked hurt and bewildered. With a glance Mr. Park did his best to soothe her frayed nerves, but with the master waiting there was only time for a quick smile. Thankfully the rest of the car ride was silent. Hyun Ae was such a bundle of nerves, she wasn’t sure she could endure another pointedly cruel remark without snapping.
At the apartment he denied assistance from either Hyun Ae or Mr. Park. Despite his demand for independence, In Su barely managed to get into the elevator. As he limped into the house, he grumbled under his breath slamming the door behind him once he reached his private rooms.
Hyun Ae was in little better spirits. Sighing, trying to justify his actions and her own feelings for him she retired to her room. Carefully putting the dress, shoes, and jade necklace away, she crawled into her bed and hid under her covers.
Hours after Hyun Ae had fallen asleep In Su was awake, the ache in his heart and the pain in his legs not allowing him to sleep. Finally he went to the library and poured himself a drink. He carried the decanter to a nearby side table and settled into a wing-backed chair with a grunt. After a glass and a half the brandy worked to ease his tension, and he dozed off . Perhaps an hour later he woke with a start, and found that his crutches had slid off the chair and landed on the floor, out of his reach.
His body had stiffened again while he sat in the chair, and now everything hurt worse than before. Angrily growling under his breath he levered himself up and reached for the crutches. His pained body couldn’t do it. His arms, already shaking with the effort, suddenly gave out.
He crashed to the floor, his body thudding against the side table, knocking it over. The delicate items shattered in a loud tinkling crash.
The sound shook Hyun Ae from her fretful sleep, gasping. She shot out of bed and rushed out of the room, knowing in her heart that something bad had happened to In Su. There in library among a mess of glass and dark liquid seeping into his gray sweatpants, white t-shirt, and the extremely expensive rug. Rushing to his side, ignoring the way the brandy soaked into the silken nightgown she wore, she pulled him into a sitting position. “In Su!”
He smacked her hands away, “I’m fine, get yourself back to your room and stay out of my business!” The words were more a snarl.
The smack stung her hands and tears sprang into her eyes. In Su saw the look of hurt and betrayal in her gaze and he became even angrier. Pushing away he scooted unceremoniously to his crutches and managed to stumble to his feet. A moment later he was back in his room with the door locked. Without bothering to change he settled into the chair at his office and glared at the screens watching Hyun Ae sob into her hands. Overpowering the pain in his chest and body was a rush of guilt. It deepened as he watched her slowly collect herself and clean up the mess he’d created when he fell.
As he watched her repair the room, he paused for a moment. It almost felt like remorse for his action, and he was not used to that. Yet, he regretted a great deal right now. As his thoughts grew darker with self-recrimination, an email came through, It was the pictures taken by the photography before the symphony. The pictures he intended to leak to the tabloids. Opening up the file he looked through the pictures. The ones at the start of the evening were terrible. However, after his comment about the peacock lady they were… sweet.
His eyes jumped back to the screen when Hyun Ae gave a tiny sound of distress. She had cut herself on a shard of crystal. In Su surged from the chair, intending to go to her, but pain and weakness forced him to collapse back down into the seat. All he could do was helplessly watch her as she rinsed her hands under running water at the kitchen sink, dried them, and applied a dressing to her finger.
Once she finished cleaning and returned to her room, he turned off the monitors and leaned back in his chair. He sighed and rubbed his temples,. How was he going to fix this mess he created?
The sound of her phone vibrating on the bedside table woke her from sleep. Her eyes were gummy and raw from crying, and her finger throbbed. Fumbling for the phone she pulled it under the covers where she was hiding and peeked at the screen. It was an email from In Su. Anger flared in her breast, “he can’t just come over and talk to me? He has to email me? What an arrogant, stuck up…” Hyun Ae’s tirade died on her lips as she opened the email. Inside was at least thirty pictures of them from the symphony last night.
Each picture had a caption with it. The first was them standing on the top of the first flight of stairs, his arms around her while her head was tucked close to his chest. In Su was looking down at her hair smiling. I was an ass. She laughed and scrolled to the next picture. It was the same scene, however, her face was turned up to his and they were both laughing. The worst kind of ass. The next picture was them smiling up at one another as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. I do not know how to accept help. Each picture contained a message, each picture made her smile and giggle. I left you to clean my mess. I did not even thank you. I scolded you. I am an ass. I am sorry.
Blinking tears away she closed the phone and lay in her bed for a few moments, trying to sort through yet another wave of confusing emotions. Finally, she decided that the least she could do would be to cook breakfast. So she got out of bed, washed up, and pulled on the fluffy pink robe. Sneaking out into the shared area she walked quietly to the kitchen only to find a surprising sight. There were several pans on the stove, all with something different in them. Various items on the counters in different states of preparedness. In Su had one crutch hanging off his left arm, the other leaned against the wall. His hair was disheveled from sleep and he wore a black t-shirt and sweat pants. Her heart gave a little flutter when she saw him. She spoke before thinking, “you cook?”
In Su turned sharply at her intrusion, an apron tied around him. With a brow raised he regarded her, “where did you think your morning meals came from?” The incredulous tone of his voice was tinged with gentleness that hadn’t been there before.
Blinking she blushed and stuttered a moment. “Uh… I… I thought you had them delivered….”
For a moment she thought he was going to be angry, but then he laughed. It was such a genuine sound that it brought heat to her cheeks. She dropped her gaze, though she couldn’t help but smile too. “Mmmm you need to work on your observation skills, Hyun Ae-ie.”
The intimate pet name made her feel shy and happy. “You’re right.” He turned back to the simmering pots, and she had a chance to look at his broad back and powerful shoulders. He was such a bundle of contradictions. Walking over to where he stood she placed her hand on his shoulder, lifting up on her tiptoes and placed a soft timid kiss on his cheek. “Thank you for the pictures.”
Clearing his throat he nodded and turned towards her. That simple gesture made his heart twinge, a pain that was still a mystery to him. He looked down at her delicate hand, ring finger still encased in a plaster, and couldn’t resist picking it up. He ran his thumb across her palm, but stopped when he reached the edge of the dressing. “I’m sorry you were injured last night”, he said in a low voice, the apology taking on multiple meanings. She nodded, and reluctantly, he released her. The air felt clearer between them now, and he was grateful..
“Make yourself useful and chop.” He directed to a cutting board on the counter. With a big smile she moved there and did as he asked. For a moment Hyun Ae could pretend this was real. That this was what awaited them, happy mornings of laughter and conversation… she could almost believe that this was possible.
The Yin Sun Shin estate, a Hanok home, was a mix of modern and traditional architecture had been named after the same naval commander from the Joseon Era. It was a sprawling structure with expansive grounds and a long winding driveway. Twenty years ago, it had once been part of the Lee family conglomerate holdings, but had been given to Lee Dae Young when his position in the family had been severed. It was the only property in Korea that was under his ownership. Despite his anger at his brother for being thrown from the family and business, he felt a sense of victory here. The Yin Sun Shin estate had been his brother’s favorite property because his son had been born there.
Drawing his gaze from the garden in the center courtyard Dae Young picked up the tabloid paper which was plastered with pictures of In Su and his bride to be at the symphony the night before. It was a bold move on the younger Lee’s part, one he had not expected. But with this article he had solidified his engagement in the eyes of the public and the elders. Which meant he and In Young would need to make their next move sooner than expected. It both annoyed him and intrigued him. Since In Su had made such strides to distance himself from his father, Dae Young had not expected the younger man to succeed so well. Although he had underestimated In Su, this would be the only time.
There was a light knock on the door, “Enter.” Dae Young set the tabloid on the desk and stood, moving to the doorway leading to the inner courtyard.
In Young entered and bowed respectfully, “Abeoji, you’ve seen the pictures?” His father nodded. “I just came from the Elder’s residence. They refused to see me again; however, I was able to speak with several of the staff that remain loyal to you. It is certain that the majority of the Elders feel In Su will be their choice for inheriting the company and all Lee holdings.” It wasn’t surprising, however, he and his father had been working for the past ten years to remove the strike against them.
“As we expected.” The door swing in and a servant silently entered with a tea tray, setting it on the low table in the center of the spacious office. She bowed, ninety degrees, and left just as silently. In Young sat on the floor cousin and served tea for himself and his father. A moment later Dae Ho joined his son. “You have verified that General Manager Kim Min Ho has scheduled a meeting with Royal Lee Exports to discuss additions to the current contract?” In Young nodded. “I believe it is time to reveal who truly owns Lotus Soju Manufacturing Company.”
A deliciously devilish smile blossomed on In Young’s face, “I will make the arrangements with General Manager Kim.”
“Good. Now, do you have a candidate for my security officer?” Taking the file from his son he looked through the documents, “this is the file from Investigator Moon.”
“Yes. When he was briefing us on his findings on Song Hyun Ae I realized that I had heard her name before. During my military service I met Kang Myung Ki, who was raised at the Holy Family Orphanage, and is Song Hyun Ae’s dongsaeng. We formed a friendship during our service. I made some inquiries and he only recently returned to Korea after serving as a personal bodyguard for the Korean Ambassador to the United States. I sought him out at the orphanage, and it seems he has already formed a dislike for Lee In Su, due to his attraction to Song Hyun Ae.”
Dae Young’s laugh was sinister, “Ah, I see your plan.” Raising his tea cup in salute to his son he smiled. “What a perfect candidate. With his ties to Hyun Ae we can undermine her relationship with In Su, and possibly sow unrest within the corporation and the family..”
Proudly In Young nodded as he stood, “Kang Myung Ki will arrive in an hour for his interview with you. I will excuse myself to speak with General Manager Kim and return before his arrival.” With a wave of dismissal Dae Young grinned and headed for the door to the inner courtyard, in a much better mood than he had been only a short while ago.
The vehicle parked running outside the orphanage was the epitome of luxurious style and drove home just how well-off In Young really was. During MS he’d always assumed that his friend had been exaggerating his financial status to balance the stigma of his dual citizenship. Throughout those mandatory years, he was targeted for bullying and condescension for being not truly South Korean.
The ride itself was silent, as the uncommunicative driver drove into the countryside and finally down a long wandering driveway. The line of ancient, well-tended trees gave way to a modern gateway. The fence was three meters high, solidly built with alternating steel and red-stained wooden squares that formed a woven pattern. The all-steel gate was a similar design, the empty squares showing a tantalizing peek at the property beyond. The liveried guard nodded to the driver as the gate trundled open.
The hanok house was gorgeous and Myung Ki felt very uncomfortable as he followed the silent butler into the foyer. His suit was obviously second hand and ill fitting when compared to the staff uniforms. He wondered why In Young would offer him this job, when he clearly didn’t fit in. Shrugging, he decided to do his best during the interview.
After a discreet knock, the butler ushered him in. It was a wide space with a big desk at the rear of the room, a low table in the center, a set of leather chairs to the left and a doorway to the inner courtyard to the right.
The older man behind the desk was distinguished and had a classical handsomeness about him. In Young stood up from a nearby chair with a smile. He gave a snappy salute. “충성! It’s good to see you again Hyung”. They embraced before he guided Myung Ki to stand in front of his father. “Abeoji, let me introduce Kang Myung Ki.”
Myung Ki bowed respectfully, “Chairman Lee, it is an honor to meet you.” Dae Young nodded as he stood up and came around from the desk, offering his hand to Myung Ki who shook it.
“I have heard many great things, Kang Myung Ki-ssi. Though I am curious, why does my son call you ‘hyung’ when you were born in the same year?”
In Young chuckled, “Myung Ki was promoted to team leader, yet he disliked the title ‘Ilbyeong’ in the barracks when it just the squad as we were all the same age. So he bribed us all with his portions from the mess hall for a month to call him Hyung. It became a habit I suppose.” The two Lees chuckled as In Young led them to the leader chairs. A tea service was set on the low center table. They settled themselves there; Myung Ki sat ramrod straight, his back a distance from the leather upholstery.
“Why did you dislike ‘Ilbyeong’?” Dae Young asked.
Shrugging, Myung Ki looked a little sheepish, “I always felt that I had been promoted by mistake. In Young-ah was better suited for a leadership position. So when I was chosen as team leader, it felt as if it had been done to spite to In Young. We were young, I thought a lesser title would make the gap between us easier to bear.”
“Ah, did it help?” Looking between the boys he chuckled, “I would guess it did not.”
In Young shook his head, “no, just made us harass him mercilessly.”
“Once I got them to do it I couldn’t take it back.” Myung Ki shrugged and could only grin.
The three of them shared a moment of amusement, then Dae Young looked at Myung Ki with an appraising eye. “In Young-ah tells me that you have worked as a bodyguard since completing your military service?”
Nodding, Myung Ki spoke. “Yes Sir. I was the personal bodyguard for the Ambassador to the United States for three years. I coordinated his personal safety with his military attachment and secured his safety at his home, the embassy, and during his travels around the world.”
Dae Young sipped his tea. “Why did you leave such a prestigious assignment?”
“The ambassador will retire in two months and the new ambassador did not wish to retain my services. And I figured that it had been too long since I’d been home. My family has been struggling and they need me around.” Myung Ki shifted in the chair and accepted a china cup from In Young. It felt delicate and expensive in his big hands, so he carefully set it down on the table in front of him.
Taking a moment to consider the young man Dae Young smiled fatherly, “I would require a great deal of your time, would you still be able to assist your family?”
“Yes Sir.” He answered with confidence.
“In Young-ah highly recommends you, he states that you were an exemplary leader during your military service. I understand that you have worked alone for these past three years. The position I am seeking to fill is the head of security. You would oversee a force of twenty individuals that accompany myself and In Young when we leave the house; additionally they patrol the estate and augment the security forces for events we attend. After reviewing your information and my son’s opinion, I would like to offer you the job,Kang Myung Ki-ssi.” Dae Young nodded to In Young who stood and retrieved a contract from his father’s desk.
Surprised, Myung Ki sat up a little straighter. “Chairman Lee, thank you, I am honored Sir. I will work hard. Please take care of me.” Taking the contract he barely reviewed it before signing the bottom in his bold handwriting. In Young clapped him on the shoulder and grinned.
“Congratulations, Hyung. Tomorrow we’ll meet with the security team and discuss the day to day operation and our expectations for you.” In Young put the contract away and then joined them at the chairs once more.
“Kang Myung Ki-ssi, has In Young-ah explained why it was imperative we fill this position with someone we could trust?” Myung Ki shook his head. “It is important that you understand our current circumstances. Twenty-nine years ago my brother staged a coup with his wife and tore apart our family. The lies he told caused my wife, In Young-ah’s mother, to end her life. I fought him, at every step, yet he lowered himself to the most base of options and sent assassins to try and end my son’s life. They convinced the Elders to disinherit myself and my descendants giving my brother Lee Dae Ho and his son Lee In Su full control of the family business and assets. We were chased out of Korea twenty years ago and only recently returned with the permission of the family Elders. However, I fear for our lives each day we remain here. I just want to peacefully live out my remaining years in my homeland, but I’m afraid that those same people who attacked my family previously may decide to do us harm again.”
The room was heavy with silence for a moment. Myung Ki had stiffened at the name, and knew in his bones that it was the same man who had been torturing his Noona. The same man who had blackmailed her into becoming his fiancee and made her a shadow of her former happy self.
Hatred boiled inside of him, and with a serious expression he bowed his head to Dae Young, “I will protect you with my life Chairmen Lee.” Dae Young and In Young’s eyes met over Myung Ki’s bowed head as they smiled at each other. Their devious plan was coming together nicely.