Home sweet home, Bae Sung Hyun thought as he walked through the Incheon airport gates.
"Welcome, sir," the chauffeur, a short and probably not even over 25-year old man, croaked and dropped the sign with RH hotels written on it. His hat fell on the floor too when he bowed.
Sung Hyun only had to remove his sunglasses to cut off the flow of apologies from his chauffeur. "Name?"
"Oh Dong Gu, sir," he stuttered.
"Are you new to the job?"
"I started a month ago, sir."
"And who assigned you to be my chauffeur?"
"Director Hwang Hong Min."
The expression of guilt on Dong Gu's face was brief but real as he glanced down. Sung Hyun put back on his sunglasses. "Let's go," he said as he stepped aside to let him push his cart.
The one-hour ride to the hotel was enough for Sung Hyun to check one more time the latest declining profit reports of RH Hotels and for Oh Dong Gu to tell him about his big plan to buy back the bar his grandfather, he called Mrs. Oh (Sung Hyun decided not to ask further clarification), had to sell to pay for his cancer treatment ten years ago.
"I have it all planned. Three years from now, I can have enough money to make a loan and then..."
Sitting on the backseat, Sung Hyun look from his tablet. "Are you confident you can manage it and not lose it again?"
"Well... I'm attending this night course management and I have a friend who can help me out. She's so smart."
"As long as you can trust her..."
"See, Ha Na and I grew up together. We're like best friends. I can trust her."
"What about you? Are you trustworthy?"
The stuttered answer sounded more like a yes than a no, but no word were exchanged until they reached the downtown hotel.
"We're here, sir," Dong Gu said, looking back.
Sung Hyun sighed and lightly knocked on his window. Dong Gu quickly apologized and went out to open the door.
With a wave of his hand, Sung Hyun kept the luggage handler on put as he turned to Dong Gu who was unloading the truck. "Here's my offer. I will personally train you for the next few weeks. I'll make sure you get your evenings free so you can attend your classes. In exchange, I want you to be my eyes and my ears."
Dong Gu looked down. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking me, sir."
"Do you know why I'm here?" Sung Hyun asked and went on when Dong Gu remained silent. "Do you know what happens when hotels are closed down?"
"Employees lose their job."
"Employees lose their job, indeed. I'm here to prevent this from happening. If you're not going to help me, don't get in my way at least. Do I make myself clear?"
It seemed like time had stopped. If the quick tour of the hotel he hadn't been enough evidence, the suite booked for Sung Hyun was exactly the same as when he left fourteen years ago. It was no surprise they were losing clients while their rivals kept upgrading.
"I know, son. I know," his father quietly agreed as he motioned him to pour him a glass of water. The machines he was hooked on beeped at a steady pace. "That's why I asked you to come back. At this point, you're the only one I can trust."
"And no one else?"
His father sighed and took a sip of water. "Now that everybody knows I'm at the hospital because I had a stroke, Hwang has the board on his side and he will do everything to take the hotels from you."
"You mean from you." After putting the glass back on the night stand, Sung Hyun carefully sat on the bed. His heart beat a bit faster when his father took his hand, a sign of affection that Sung Hyun could only remember from his childhood. "Father—"
"Even when I completely recover, I won't be able to work like before. I will hold a meeting in four weeks to announce my retirement and recommend you to take over. I know why you left and I let you go although I didn't agree with your choice, but don't let me down on this one. I need you."
It was time to step up. It would have been better in other circumstances, but Sung Hyun wouldn't back down. That was the promise he made to himself as he lightly squeezed his father's hand.
It would be a tough fight, one that Sung Hyun knew he wouldn't be able to win alone no matter which strategy he could come up with. Many questions ran through his head as he checked the list of employees the next morning. He needed just one person to give him answers. Among the unfamiliar names, one stood out.
Sunwoo In Young.
Sung Hyun scrolled back up and clicked. Her résumé was displayed on the screen but his eyes were set on her picture. Zoom in. With her hair tied in a perfect bun and her composed expression, she looked exactly the same as the manager who had scolded him on the first day of his internship fourteen years ago. One week into his training and he had figured out three things: Sunwoo In Young never admitted she was wrong, never refused free food, never complained about work. Every evening, she made him stay at the office, kick off his shoes and sit without doing anything for ten minutes. When her cell phone alarm rang, she thanked him for his hard work and sent him off, reminding him to be ready to work again the next day. Of course, it was only when they were just co-workers. They spent their evenings together in a different way once they had become lovers.
Sung Hyun sighed as he tossed his tablet on the sofa. Leaning back, he closed his eyes as if to stay away from the memories he had blocked when he left Korea. Still, In Young was the only one he could trust. Or at least he wanted to. That's why he was knocking at her office door at 8:10 pm sharp. There was no answer, so he opened the door slightly and was welcomed by a quiet snoring sound.
Her chair reclined, In Young was sleeping at her desk. Her alarm phone startled them both as he was debating leaving her alone. Yawning loudly, she turned it off and raised her arms above her head to stretch when she met his gaze. Surprise or shock? Sung Hyun didn't know how to interpret the way she didn't move until he was at her desk. She stood up at once and gave him a 90° bow.
"And that just became even more awkward," he commented.
"I'm sorry, sir."
She glanced up and lowered her head, giving Sung Hyun the occasion to openly stare at her. Her tailored uniform underlined a curvier body than he remembered. Her face was also a bit rounder. She might have been 45 but was as beautiful as the 30-something woman of his memories.
"I'm sorry, sir, but my shift ended and I have to go home. If you need help with something, you should—"
"Do you need a ride? I can give you a ride... Except that I don't have my own car yet," he remembered.
In Young slightly smiled. "It's okay." She grabbed her purse hanging on her coat rack. "Well, have a nice evening, sir."
"Can I walk you to your car?"
"... I don't think we should be seen together."
"Sir, you don't want anything or anyone to ruin your reputation. Especially now."
Her cold tone was enough to convince him that tonight wasn't the right time to talk to her... nor any time they ran into each other the following week. One evening, he no longer could help it and went back to her office as she was getting ready to leave.
"How does us being seen together can hurt my reputation?" he asked, leaning against the closed door.
"Do you really think people forgot that fling we had fourteen years ago?"
Fling. Maybe that what she was to him. Her rebound guy before going back to her cheater of a boyfriend who happened to be her first love too. She knew how Sung Hyun felt about her back then and it wasn't like her to treat his feelings so lightly.
"So what if they didn't?"
"If you want to take over, you need the board's trust and you won't have it if there are rumors that you sleep with your employees," she said, using the highest way of speech.
"Manager Sunwoo, sir," she corrected him once again as she stood in front of him.
"Are you mad at me?"
"I wouldn't dare, sir. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go home."
He knew her well enough to figure out the anger behind her even and polite professional tone. Sung Hyun stepped aside and she left without looking back.
In Young's words haunted Sung Hyun everywhere he went for the next two weeks as he visited the ten hotels they had in Korea to have a clear picture of their state. Behind each smile and each compliment he received, there was no way to figure out who was on his side... Pyeongchang had been his last stop. Now it was time to organize all the data and come up with a marketing plan the board wouldn't refuse.
"Do you have a class tonight?" Sung Hyun asked as he loosened his tie and relaxed against the backseat of his car.
Dong Gu looked at him in the rear view mirror. "I don't."
"How long until we get back to Seoul?"
"About two hours."
"Make it three," Sung Hyun said and closed his eyes.
When he woke up, it was past 9. The car was parked in a remote area by the Han River and Dong Gu was nowhere in sight. Sung Hyun started pacing up and down, his calls to Dong Gu going straight to voicemail.
"Sorry, sir. There was a bit of a line," Dong Gu said as he tried catching up his breath and handed a plastic bag to Sung Hyun.
Three rolls of kimbap and a beer later, Sung Hyun let out a sigh of satisfaction as he was sitting in the backseat, the door open. Sitting on the driver seat, Dong Gu was finishing his own dinner but only drank water.
"I suppose I should thank you," Sung Hyun said, taking out his wallet from his jacket lying behind him.
"No, no. It was my treat," Dong Gu protested.
"I know how much the drivers earn. I don't want you to waste your money."
"Sir, it's perfectly fine. If you're feeling better, it's not wasted money." Dong Gu cleared his throat and glanced down. "That kind of came out wrong. I just... You looked like you needed a break."
"... Thank you."
Dong Gu grinned. "I'm almost done and I'll take you back to the hotel."
"Take your time," Sung Hyun said.
The summer breeze of the night was refreshing. Taking in the city lights that seemed to float above the dark water, he even allowed himself to do some breathing exercises. In moments like this, when his responsibilities and his unfulfilled desires didn't matter, the illusion of having control over his life was real.
"I didn't say a thing to Director Hwang," Dong Gu said, standing by his side. "I'd be lying if I said he didn't offer me first the same deal you offered me, but I hadn't accepted it."
"And the reason you're telling me this now is..."
"Ha Na said I should come clean about it even if I don't help you."
Sung Hyun nodded. "So that is your answer. You won't help me."
"Look, I know nothing about all the shady stuff that is going on, but I'm not stupid enough to think that being involved wouldn't get me in trouble. One way or another."
"However, from what I've seen... You're a good boss. And you do care about your employees... I hope you will succeed in whatever that is that you're planning to do."
Sung Hyun smiled. "Thank you for your honesty."
During the weekend, Sung Hyun locked himself in his suite to work. Although he hadn't made any specific requests, room service was delivered at regular hours. It turned out that the menu was composed of his favorite dishes which was the perfect excuse to take a break. On Sunday night, though, inspiration left him. It wasn't just about pointing out problems, it was about coming up with solutions and new ideas.
The hotel was quiet at 2AM. The dining hall was already closed, so Sung Hyun helped himself a glass of scotch he brought to the piano. It needed a bit of tuning, but the sound was still clear enough to pull him away from negative thoughts. Someone clapped, startling him out of his daze.
"That was amazing," a teenage girl said, walking up to him. "You're no Lee Sun Jae, but you're good."
"And who are you?"
"Someone who should probably not be here," she replied with a sheepish smile. "Well, goodbye."
And she ran out before Sung Hyun could even stand up. The fact she left the door open was the evidence that she wasn't a ghost. Still, he decided to call it a night. Still, the perspective of having only one week left until the board meeting had him waking up at sunrise. Unable to go back to sleep, he ate a few cereal bars and went to the gym. Working out his frustration didn't help him to get new ideas.
The elevator doors opened and he found himself face to face with a teary-eyed boy. He could have been 7 or 8.
"Hello?" Sung Hyun greeted him, stepping inside. He pressed the button to his floor and looked at the boy again. "Where are you going?"
"I... My mom said not to talk to strangers."
"She's absolutely right." The doors closed. "Does your mom know you walking around the hotel all by yourself?"
"No," he admitted, looking down.
Sung Hyun managed not to smile until they reached his floor. "Well, have a nice day."
"Sir!" the boy called him out and stepped out of the elevator at the last second. "I got lost. I don't know how to go back to my room."
"I see... We should go back to the front desk and check which room your parents booked."
The boy seemed to go through an intense internal debate before he went on. "My mom is working here and if her boss finds out she brought her kids to work, she might get fired."
Sung Hyun frowned. "What's your mom's name?" He offered him what he hoped to be a reassuring smile. "I work here too. I'll take you back to her."
"You promise you won't say anything to her boss?"
"She's manager Sunwoo In Young."
"I know where her office is," Sung Hyun said, his voice slightly shaking. He cleared his throat. "Shall we go?"
The boy's wary expression turned into relief once they stood in front of the office door with her name on it. "Wait," he said, grabbing Sung Hyun's hand before he could knock. "She's going to be so mad at me. Can't you just go?"
"Maybe if I'm here she won't scold you too much?" The boy pouted. "Okay. Well, if she's not here, come to the elevators and we'll go find her."
"Okay." He waited for Sung Hyun to be down the hall before knocking on the door. In Young opened it and the boy walked inside.
Of course, she must have had kids and she had probably gotten married too, even if she didn't wear a wedding ring. Sung Hyun could have checked the "family situation" category in her file. The confirmation that she had built a happy life without him wasn't something he had prepared himself for, though. The In Young she was today was someone he didn't know at all. This thought was too unsettling for him to focus on work after taking a shower.
Room service for breakfast came as he was checking his emails on his tablet. He opened the door while reading over the one announcing the meeting his father had told him about. "Put everything on the coffee table," he said already walking back.
"Yes, sir." It wasn't until In Young was done that she met his gaze. "I... Thank you for my son. He told me what happened this morning," she added before he could lie.
"How did you know it was me?"
"He described you as tall and handsome and no one but you would use the gym, especially this early."
Sung Hyun returned her smile. "Well, I wanted to make sure he was okay, but he said you'd scold him if you saw us together."
"This boy can't lie to save his life. He had spilled everything 30 seconds after greeting me."
Sung Hyun didn't know what else to say, so he sat down on the sofa and checked his breakfast. "That looks really good. I should thank the chef for always coming up with everything I like."
"Someone might have given him pointers," she lightly said and gave him a sheepish smile. "One can't think with an empty stomach."
"... I'm surprised you remember—"
"That's what happens when you do this job. Clients appreciate details like this."
"Right..." Sung Hyun picked up his spoon which should have been the signal for her to leave, but she didn't move. "Anything else?"
"It was my first time bringing my kids to work. Manager Seo had an emergency last night and no one else was available to do this shift. I usually drop the kids at their dad's, but he's filming a movie in Japan right now, so..." She caught up her breath. "What I'm trying to say is that I know it was unprofessional of me and it won't happen again."
"Where did you hide them?"
Her face reddened as she kept looking down. "I made them sleep in an empty room on the first floor. They weren't supposed to leave it until I come and get them in the morning."
"Has this ever happened to any other employee? I'm not asking you to be a snitch," he said into her silence. "It's a genuine question."
"It might have happened a couple of times."
"Does Director Hwang know about this?"
"Are you crazy?" She had dropped the honorifics. Her boldness made her stutter. "I mean, of course he doesn't know, sir."
"And it will stay that way."
"Thank you, sir." She smiled and bowed to him before heading out.
Sung Hyun sipped on his coffee, the morning events already replaying in his mind. Did she mean that Sung Soo and she didn't live together even when he wasn't overseas for work? He wondered and checked her file. His heart was beating a little bit faster when he clicked on the current family situation category.
Single. Nothing about being married or divorced. Just single.
In Young had taken her Tuesday off too, so Sung Hyun waited Wednesday morning to put his plan into motion. From the first floor, he could see her talking with her colleague at the front desk. As she walked away, he texted her.
This is Vice Ceo Bae Sung Hyun. I need to talk to you. When are you available? (It's my private number)
She stilled in the middle of the lobby as she checked her cell phone but put it back in her jacket pocket.
Are you ignoring your Vice CEO?
Another employee walked up to her and they talked for a moment.
I am working, sir.
How about having lunch with me?
So when? It's important!
Now. Meet me by the tennis court.
Sung Hyun followed her at a safe distance, noting that she checked her hair and her uniform any chance she got to.
"I've always liked this place. Reminds me of the picnics we used to have," Sung Hyun said as he sat down next to her on the bench. "You're not scared people might see us?"
"If they see us together like this, they'd know you have nothing to hide."
"You really sound like you're at war."
"And you act like someone who isn't."
"So you're on my side?"
In Young shook her head. "I can't believe you're even asking me this," she quietly said, dropping the honorifics. Sung Hyun placed his hand over hers. She only let him for five seconds. "So what did you want to tell me?" she asked, switching back to her professional tone and scouting away.
"It's more like a favor. I'd like to talk to you about the few ideas I have for the hotels. I'd like to hear your input."
"Because I can trust you."
She hesitated. "You can come at my house tonight. The kids are going to bed at 10 at the latest. So let's say 10:30?"
"... So you're really living on your own with them."
"Yes and I will not answer to personal questions. We will keep this professional."
"What makes you think I was hoping for something else?"
Sung Hyun fought the urge to caress her cheek just like he used to whenever she blushed because she was embarrassed.
"Anyway, you have my address in my file. I'll see you tonight," she said as a goodbye.
Friendship was the only thing In Young wanted to give him back then. As he sat in the cab, Sung Hyun wondered if he had finally reached the point that he was willing to accept it. Truth be told, their short conversations had triggered more his curiosity than any sense of attraction he was afraid to feel.
"Sir, we've been here for five minutes. Do you want me to drive around one more time?" the driver asked him.
"No. I'm ready. Thank you." Sung Hyun paid him, took a deep breath and made his way to the small gate. The house had nothing fancy, blended in with the rest of the quiet middle-class neighborhood. It didn't have the bright and welcoming atmosphere of her old house, the one she used to share with Sung Soo, he reminded himself.
As he was about to ring the bell, In Young came out, even running a little.
"Didn't you get my text? I told you I had left the gate open. Hurry up!" She grabbed his hand and didn't let go until they were inside. "I don't think anyone saw you," she said as she peaked behind one of the living room window curtain.
"So we can't be seen together at the hotel. We can't be seen together either at your house. Is there somewhere in Seoul we can meet freely?" he asked, half-amused.
In Young glared at him. "I don't want my kids to hear at school that their mom is bringing men home."
"I understand," he said, still standing in the entrance.
"You can use the slippers by the door. Sung Soo is shorter than you, but your foot size is the same," she said, still looking by the window.
Sung Hyun made no comment as he removed his shoes and walked in with just his socks on. "Where do you want to sit?"
"Here is fine," she replied, finally turning her attention back to him. "Did you have a dinner? Don't get any idea. I'm just being a good host."
"And you're really doing a great job at it," he teased her. "Am I allowed to sit?"
"Yes." Her expression said the opposite, though.
"Are you sure this is okay for me to be here?" he asked, standing back up.
"Yes," she assured him, making him sit down again. "I made us some coffee."
"Coffee would be nice."
As his laptop and tablet were turning on, Sung Hyun walked around the living room. There were several pictures of In Young with her two kids, but only one with Sung Soo with them. The girl seemed familiar, though.
"Is this your daughter?" Sung Hyun held up a framed picture as she came back with two mugs.
"Min Ah, yes. She's 12. And you already know Jae Min. He's 8."
"You have a lovely family."
"Thank you." She held his gaze only for a second before she sat down on the sofa and invited him to do the same. "So let's hear your ideas."
"I've been thinking that we might need to switch our target a little bit. We could turn the hotel in Hongdae and the hotel in Seodaemun into some sort of college dorms."
"You mean like a guest house or a goshiwon?"
"More like an upgraded version of a guest house because we would provide the quality service and the comfort of a hotel for a reasonable price. This would probably be much appreciated by foreign students too."
"I like that idea. Tell me more."
Previsions, estimated cost, potential benefits, Sung Hyun explained her in details his vision, noting her remarks as her concierge experience helped her to point out the logistics needs.
"Now for the main hotel, I was thinking about upgrading the services. Maybe turning half of the first floor into a kids' center for our clients and our employees. It would run 24/7."
"Really? Even on weekends?"
"It's something I had already implemented in our Singapore branch. Parents who want to go out at night, employees working a night shift, just about anyone can leave us their kids. I don't get why it hasn't be done here already."
"Director Hwang was against it. He said it was too much responsibility and women just had to stay at home if they had no one to take care of their kids."
"Some of the board members think the same way. It's going to be hard to convince them."
"You can do it." She smiled at him but didn't let him touch her hand this time. "So what else can you tell me about this kids' center?"
With his eyes on the screen, Sung Hyun went back into a lengthy explanation that went into deaf ears as a quiet snore cut him off. It was past two in the morning and more than time to go. If he managed to put quietly everything back into his laptop bag, she was awake when he came back from the kitchen where he had called a cab.
"I'm sorry for falling asleep," she said in a sleepy voice.
"It's okay. You can go to bed. My cab should be here in ten minutes anyway."
"I'll wait," she insisted after a loud yawn.
So they sat in silence, exchanging a little smile every now and then.
"How have you been all this time?" he finally asked the most neutral personal question he could come up with. "Happy?"
"Most of the time, yes," she agreed after a brief hesitation. "What about you? Have you been happy?"
"Most of the time, yes."
In Young chuckled and shook her head. "I didn't think it would be so hard to see you again."
"What do you mean?"
She went to the window. "Your cab is here."
"So, I'll see you around," he said as she walked him to the door. Now that he had climbed down the entrance step, they were at eye level. "Thanks for tonight."
"Just make sure you get back what's yours."
She was talking about the hotels and nothing else Sung Hyun reminded himself on his way out.
The sun was shining, birds were singing. Today could only be a good day, Sung Hyun decided after he received a text from In Young wishing him good luck for the meeting. Rehearsing his presentation as he smoothed out his shirt, he walked by the mail left on the entrance table. A small envelope caught his attention. He put it back down as soon as he read the word "wedding". He already knew who it was from and it was definitely not the time to let himself be distracted. Checking his reflection one last time, he nodded to himself. Today would be a good day no matter what.
The enthusiasm his father managed to hide behind appreciative smiles was nothing compared to the ones shown by some of the board members. It made it easier to figure out Director Hwang's pawns too.
Standing by a white board where the last card of his PPT was still displayed, Sung Hyun had answered to every objection so far. The nods of approval came from the majority now.
"I believe our Vice CEO is a visionary," Pawn number 1 said with a sweet smile. "However, while I find all these projects ambitious, they require money and time that we don't have. Director Hwang is currently negotiating the acquisition of a resort in Jeju Island. As you're very well aware, this will be a big investment for RH Hotels."
"Zeus Hotels are also bidding, so this resort project is still a project," Sung Hyun replied. "What I'm presenting today is a project that doesn't depend on our competitors. I'm not saying we should do everything at once. The priority should be the "hotel dorms" since summer break just started and foreign students will start flying in by the end of August. Everything can be organized by the end of July which is one month from now."
"Who will take responsibility if it fails?" Director Hwang asked.
The room echoed with quiet gasps of shock. This was an open declaration of war and Sung Hyun would have now to place his Vice Ceo and potential CEO status on the line. Despite his father's alarmed gaze from the other end of the table, he couldn't back out.
"I will," his father cut him off. All eyes were on him. "This was supposed to be our last topic of discussion today, but we might as well talk about it now. As you probably already know, my health hasn't been at its best for the past few months. That's why my son accepted to come back. He made tremendous work for our branch in Singapore and Japan. I trust him to do the same with the main group."
"So you're saying that we should still follow him even if his project fails and he's proven to be unfit for this position?" Director Hwang calmly objected.
"I'm saying this project will determine if it's time for me to retire."
"As expected, this is our CEO's wisdom", Director Hwang agreed with a small bow.
How did it go?
Do you want to talk?
Fine. I'm going home.
Sitting by the tennis court, Sung Hyun ignored his vibrating cell phone as he stared the wedding invitation, a reminded of the life he could have had.
"I had a feeling you'd be here," In Young said as she sat on the bench. "What are you doing? Except ignoring my texts."
Sung Hyun didn't have it in him to smile. "I'm just thinking."
"You should at least take tonight off to celebrate."
"That your project got voted? That you defeated Director Hwang?"
"I should, right?" He sighed as he looked back at the sky. "Except I have no one to celebrate with."
"Your kids, I know. Just like the rest of my friends. You all have families to go home to."
In Young grabbed his wrist as he walked past her. "What happened?" She lightly shook his arm when he didn't answer. "What's wrong?"
"My ex-fiancée is getting married." He briefly held up the envelope. "See?"
"I didn't know you were engaged," she said after a short silence.
"About three years ago."
The two of them were never that kind of friends. Probably because they didn't get the opportunity to as they went from being sunbae-hoobae, to being boss-employee while being lovers. And now they were just boss-employee. Sung Hyun sighed again. "It's a long story. You should go home. See you tomorrow."
"I'm here if you want to talk."
He pretended he didn't hear her as he walked away.
After spending the week working on the project and distracting himself from thinking about his life, Sung Hyun decided to take a break on Friday night. However, his three best college friends cancelled one by one as he was getting ready to go out. That's why he called room service to get some liquor, but In Young was the one to make the delivery this time.
"Isn't your shift over?" Sung Hyun asked, letting her in.
"It is. I was in the kitchens when you called for..." She put down three bottles of soju and a plate of snacks on the coffee table. "Are you planning to get drunk tonight?"
"I am." He sighed as he sat down on the sofa. "I'm not asking you to join me since you're going home."
Still, In Young sat down and only stared at him until he had downed his first glass of soju. "Is it about the dorms hotel or is it about your ex fiancée?"
"Why do you care?"
"Because you can't drink."
"So?" Another shot.
"Just because she found love with another man doesn't mean you won't find love with another woman."
"Don't..." he warned her with a glare that left her silent long enough for him to drink two other shots. "Should I ask you to leave?"
"You're really going on a self-pity party."
"And you're not welcomed."
Sung Hyun toasted to the door she slammed on her way out.
Sung Hyun's eyes snapped open. He sat up straight but held his head at once as the hangover effects started kicking in.
"I knew I'd find you like this," In Young sighed. "You have 30 minutes to take a shower."
"Or what?" he groaned.
"Trust me, you don't want to know," she said with a stern voice but stuck her tongue at him. "Just get ready."
Sung Hyun did as he was told and In Young found him having breakfast while watching the news on TV.
"I thought you weren't working this weekend," he commented as he flipped through the channels.
"I'm not. That's why I'm not wearing my uniform."
Sung Hyun eyed her up and down. Her summer dress reminded him of the one she wore on their 4th official date. The memory was still vivid in his mind. Too vivid. "So what do you want?" he asked when he met her gaze.
"I have plans for you for today."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"Just come with me and you'll see," she said with a mysterious grin. "Come on. For all the times, you did it to me. Just trust me, okay?"
The car ride was short as they stopped at a coffee shop which was empty so early on a sunny Saturday morning.
"So do you want to talk now?" In Young asked as on their way out with the coffees he carried.
"About where you're going to take me now since we didn't even sit?"
"You're not upset just because your ex is getting married. There's something else."
Sung Hyun sighed as he stilled. "What makes you think I'd like to tell you about it?" He winced when she pushed his head. "Do you remember who I am?"
"Right now, you're an idiot who can't appreciate the helping hand I'm offering."
"Maybe because I don't want it."
"Doesn't mean I'll stop offering."
"With the same hand you use to hit me?"
Pouting, she lightly pushed him on the shoulder this time. "Until you stop being stubborn about talking to me... I'll wait. Now walk."
The poke she gave him in the ribs startled him on their way back to the car. "I don't know how I feel about you bossing me around."
"You know you like it."
She stuck her tongue at him but slapped his hand away when he pinched her cheek just like he used to. "You know you like it," he repeated.
Her cell phone rang as they got back into her. In Young gave him an apologetic smile and turned away as she answered.
"How are you? No, I don't know where your math textbook is... I told you to pack your bags the evening before, didn't I?.. No, I can't look for it right now." She lowered her voice even more. "Because I'm not home. I'll check tonight. Bye." Putting her phone back into her purse, In Young cleared her throat. "Sorry about that. Minah just never knows where she puts her stuff. She definitely gets this from her dad."
"So your kids are spending the weekend with their father?"
"Yes, he's back in Korea for a few weeks..." She glanced at him and shook her head. "Go ahead. Ask me."
"It's pointless of me to ask if you won't reply."
"How about I tell you what's been going on with me and you tell me what's been going on with you."
"You've been pretty hostile to me since I came back. Why the change of heart suddenly?"
"That's because..." She pretended to think, but her smile was only half-teasing. "You know, after all these years... With no contact at all."
"Because you didn't want to."
"Because I didn't want to lead you on." In Young relaxed against her seat and looked at him. "You're the one who kept saying you're a sensitive guy."
"You still broke my heart."
Her smile was replaced by a frown. "... Are we really having this conversation again?"
Her honesty when she had finally made her choice between Sung Soo and him had sealed their breakup. Yet, it was her patience until he was ready to let go that had helped him deal with the situation. And he had moved on. "Thanks for the coffee. Take me back to the hotel now," he said, putting on his seatbelt.
"No." She took a long sip of her coffee and put it back in the cup holder. "Even if you don't want to talk to me, you will relax today."
It wasn't until they found themselves on the highway that Sung Hyun let his curiosity get the best of him.
"We're going to Gangneung."
Sung Hyun turned down the music. "Where did you say we're going?"
"Gangneung." It was a two-hour drive at least. It made no sense to go all the way there. "Don't act like an old man," In Young said, dismissing his objection. And she turned back up the music.
Despite her singing – out of tune – at the top of her lungs, Sung Hyun still ended up falling asleep during one of her rare breaks. When he woke up, the car was parked in a parking lot by the ocean. It took him a few seconds to notice In Young staring at him.
"You should have wake me up," he said after a yawn. In Young just smiled and they got out of the car. "So what do we do now?"
Maybe it was because of the seafood restaurant owner who kept saying he was good-looking and gave them extra food, maybe it was because of the cheap wine, but Sung Hyun found himself smiling as In Young shared anecdotes about some clients.
"You should have seen his face when Manager Seo just stepped to the side and the man fell into the pool," she said, laughing. "I kind of felt bad for him, but he was so rude, though."
"Yeah... Do you remember that Japanese man who slapped you when you just had saved his wife's life?"
"I think he hoped for her to die and that's why he was mad at me."
"Still, I wish I could have punched him... He had no right to treat you that way."
"No one deserves to be treated that way." In Young cleared her throat and glanced down. "So that was a lot of talk about me."
"It was, but we both know how much you enjoy talking about yourself."
"I do not!" she protested with fake outrage but gave him a resigned smile since he didn't catch her line. "So how about we go to Gyeongpo Beach?"
"Lead the way."
In Young did have prepared everything from sunscreen and hats to beach mats and beach umbrellas. The scent of pine trees mixed with the sea air was a nice change from Seoul. There were a few tourists and families enjoying some quality time.
"Yes?" In Young said without looking up from the novel she was reading, lying on her belly.
"I apologize for being rude to you last night."
"And I accept your apology, but that doesn't let you off the hook." She lightly pulled down her sunglasses for him to see her eyes. "You need to talk."
That was what doctors suggested him three years ago, but he had refused. The official reason was because he didn't have time to waste in a weekly therapy session. The unofficial reason was because he didn't want to admit a weakness he couldn't win against.
"When I was in college, none of my friends thought about getting married. It was just something they knew they were supposed to do and they were expected to do," Sung Hyun began, his gaze fixed on the ocean. In Young sat up. "But I wanted to get married. I wanted to start a family. Might be the reason why I still expected you to accept my proposal and kept sending you this open ticket for Singapore for five years."
"I figured you had found someone when you stopped renewing the plane ticket," she quietly said.
"It was pathetic of me, right?"
"It wasn't." She lightly squeezed his forearm as if to convince him or encouraging to keep talking.
"That's what In Jae said too."
In Young let go off him and started playing with the sand. "Do you want to talk about her?"
"There's not much to say. She's a Korean teacher. She had moved to Singapore because of a bad break-up too and taught Korean over there. We were on the same page...And she was ready to settle down. We had been dating for like... 4 years? So I proposed to her..."
"And then, it just didn't work out, so we broke up. She came back to Korea and now she's getting married. The end," Sung Hyun said with what he hoped to be a genuine smile. "I'm going to take a walk," he went on, cutting her off.
In Young let him go without a word. Just like she remained silent when he came back half-an-hour later, his head clear of the bad memories. "I like this place," he stated, sitting back on his beach chair. "Do you come here often?"
"Actually..." she cleared her throat and sat up, putting her book aside. "This is when Sung Soo and I had our honeymoon. It was just some kind of a getaway weekend because his career was really taking off, so he didn't have time for more. He just kept working and working...We didn't even have a wedding ceremony. We just went to city hall to register our marriage and had dinner with our families."
"So that's why you divorced?"
"Because we didn't have a wedding?" she tried to joke. Sung Hyun didn't return her smile, though. "Well, I guess you can say we weren't on the same page anymore. Honestly, I speak to him more now than when we were married. And he's a great father, so... all in all, I guess my situation isn't that bad."
"I wanted a big wedding, but In Jae wanted to keep it low-key. You're supposed to only get married once, so you should make it big, right?"
"That's exactly what I told him! Well..." She gave him a sheepish smile. "Considering that we divorced, it was probably a good thing not to make a big deal out of it."
"I would have invited every Korean person to our wedding." It was too late to take the words back. "I mean, I'm talking about In Jae and me. Not you and me."
"Of course, I knew that," In Young replied after a short hesitation.
Yet, as she kept playing with her phone, none of them was able to break the awkward silence that followed... Although it shouldn't be awkward as they were just two friends catching up on the past ten years. "So, how long your daughter has been playing the piano?" he asked, noticing her kids picture as her phone wallpaper.
In Young touched her phone screen again. "About five years. Her teacher says she could actually become a professional pianist."
"You don't sound very happy."
"Well, she'd have to go study abroad for a few years and even with a scholarship..." She quietly sighed. "It's her dream. I know it, but she never talks about it because she knows how much it would cost me."
"What about her dad?"
In Young hesitated but smiled. "There's still some time before it happens, anyway. I'm sure we'll figure it out. We always do."
The "we" sounded intimate, as if their family was still intact and the love between them was still the same. Maybe it was. Somehow. Sung Hyun had no direct experience to understand how that "we" was still possible after everything Sung Soo must have put her through.
"You sure you don't want to lie down?" she asked as he stifled a yawn. "You won't get a lot of sleep until the hotel dorms project is over."
"You're really going to boss me around all day?"
"It's kind of fun," she said with a matter-of-fact tone, preparing a beach mat for him. Maybe this was the motherly instinct people talked about, this way they took care of others even when not asked to because they just knew what to do or what to say to make one feel better. And it was nice, Sung Hyun admitted to himself as he rolled onto his side. In Young was sitting, already back to her book, but her presence was enough to put him at ease as he drifted to sleep
They didn't fight over which restaurant they'd have dinner at. They didn't fight over who'd pay the bill – Sung Hyun did. They didn't fight either when he offered to be the one driving them back to Seoul. And they even sang together when songs from the early 2000's were on the radio. However, as they got closer to her home, the atmosphere turned quieter.
"Thanks for today," Sung Hyun said as they unloaded the truck in the garage.
"It's better than getting drunk on your own, right?"
"If I recall, you were quite a good drinker back in the day," he teased her.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied with an innocent smile.
"Sure..." He stood in front of her when they finished putting away the beach equipment. "I mean it. Thank you."
"That's what friends are here for."
"Right. Friends. I'm glad we're able to be... friends now."
In Young looked straight into his eyes. "Me too."
Being friends with In Young was the assurance of getting a good morning text every day, an encouraging smile whenever they ran into each other. It was almost as if they were back to flirting like they used to. Almost. When they had a ramyeon lunch "date" in his suite, all she talked about was her kids. And when he called her at night because he wanted to her voice before going to bed, all she still talked about was her kids.
"I'm boring, right?" In Young stated. She let out a sigh of contentment as she looked up at the stars. They were sitting in the swinging sofa in her backyard, enjoying a cup of tea. She had insisted he stopped by for a home-made dinner she was sure he hadn't had in a while. "I had promised myself I wouldn't be one of these moms, you know? The ones who brag constantly about their kids... It's weird, you know I feel like I spend my time complaining because they don't listen, but when they're not here, I miss them like crazy."
"I think it's cute."
"It's horrible. This need of wanting them to be always happy and feeling sometimes that you fail no matter what... It's like the worst feeling in the world."
"I can only imagine," he quietly agreed.
"You'll see when you get kids one day..."
"I don't think I will."
The words were out before he knew it, but In Young missed the other meaning as she just laughed him off. "You're only like 39, 40? That's definitely not too old nowadays."
"Problem is to find the mother, right?" he replied, forcing himself to smile.
"Well, yeah, but that shouldn't be a problem for you."
"It's not that easy."
In Young nodded and took a sip of her tea. "Maybe we're the ones who make it complicated. Always going for what we can't have... Or maybe we shouldn't have," she added as if she were more talking to herself than to him.
"So... are you... dating someone?" Sung Hyun asked with what he hoped to be a nonchalant tone.
In Young had a little laugh. "Who would want to date an ajumma like me?"
Her t-shirt and sweatpants when she opened the door earlier had caught him off guard since it was a side of her she had never let him see before. "Not all ajummas are as beautiful as you," he commented as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Always the sweet talker," she replied with a light slap on his thigh. "I'm focusing on raising my kids right now. I don't need all the trouble coming with dating."
"Are you sure you're not using them as an excuse?"
"Maybe..." She stirred her tea. "I dedicated more than 15 years of my life to a relationship with a man that didn't turn out to be "the one". I deserve some "me" time, don't you think?"
"As long as you're happy."
They smiled to each other, toasting to that with their mugs and fell into a companionable silence.
Although the works for the dorms hotel project were following the schedule, Director Hwang kept trying to move forward with buying the resort in Jeju. Sung Hyun read over one more time his weekly report and sent it out to the board members.
"I heard Choi Young Do is looking for investors to secure this resort, so he'll probably win the bid anyway," his father reassured him as they played their usual Friday night pool game in his home study.
"It's not the problem here. I can't keep having Director Hwang trying to sabotage everything I want to accomplish."
"Fire him, then."
"Father..." Sung Hyun growled.
"What? We both know we can't fire him, so either you find a way to deal with him, either you..." He adjusted his shot and pocketed the last ball of his group. "Find a way to deal with him."
"Thank you, Father. That really helps me."
His father's laugh turned into a cough he suppressed by drinking some water. "I'm fine," he said as Sung Hyun was offering they stopped to play. "I'm winning, so let's proceed, will you?" Sung Hyun sighed but focused his attention back to the table. "So, I've been wondering..."
"Yes?" Sung Hyun asked, glancing up.
"You've been back for about two months now. And Madame Kang has been asking about you."
"She's been telling me about—"
"She's a 35-year-old widow. Her husband died in a car accident a couple of years ago. And her father is a bank owner, by the way."
Sung Hyun missed his shot. "Father, I'm not thinking about marriage."
"For now. But you will have to eventually, so we might as well as start looking at potential candidates now."
"I don't want to get married."
"You need an heir."
Sung Hyun's knuckles turned white as he squeezed his cue. "And we both know that I can't have kids."
"She already has a 15-year-old son, I think. All you have to do is to adopt him and the problem is solved. Sung Hyun!" Sung Hyun stilled at the door but didn't turn around to face him. "No one will get suspicious if the two of you don't have a kid together."
"Have a nice evening, Father", he replied and left the study.
Choi Myung Hee was the perfect wife-to-be indeed. Yet, after their first date a week after his discussion with his father, Sung Hyun found himself back in his suite, fighting the urge to call In Young. However, he couldn't come up with one good reason to disturb her at midnight, so he just went to bed with his doutbs and unanswered questions.
"Looks like everything's ready for the opening," In Young said once they finished the tour of the dorms hotel that Saturday afternoon. Her kids were at their grandparents' for the weekend.
"Yeah, the ads campaign is starting getting attention. We're already booked at half capacity until December."
"That's great," she said with a grin and linked arms with him. "I'm very happy for you."
"There's only one tiny problem, though." They were back on first floor and he led her down the hallway. "I have everything ready. From the cleaning team to the kitchen team, the security team..."
"However, I won't be able to supervise the whole thing. Maybe for the first month, but I definitely need a manager to handle the day-to-day business." In Young let go of him as they stood in front of an office door. "I need someone I can trust, someone I know who will work for our interest and not against it."
"Do you mean what you think I mean?"
"Well..." Sung Hyun gently took her hand and led her inside. He had made sure the office was exactly like the one she had at the main hotel. "I'm thinking, a general manager and three assistant managers might be enough for now. One for the day shift, one for the night shift. And maybe one for the weekend."
"You're asking me to run all of this by myself?"
"You're scared?" It was supposed to be teasing, but her smile didn't hide her worried expression. "I wouldn't ask you if I wasn't sure you'd do a great job."
"Oh so if you hadn't offered me the job, it would mean that you doubt my skills," she slightly pouted but slapped his hand before he could pinch her cheek. "I'm serious."
"Me too! Look, I'm not sure what we're arguing about right now. You're the first person I'm asking because I do want you to take the job, but it's your decision. I won't force you into anything."
In Young thought it over as she walked around the office. "I need to think about it," she declared as she stood in front of him again.
"I understand... However, the opening is on Friday, so I'd need an answer by Tuesday at the latest." She glared at him. "I was pretty sure you'd say yes right away, so I didn't check any other potential manager... which is what I will be doing starting from Monday. Just in case."
In Young didn't say a word until they were back at her house. "Are you mad at me?" Sung Hyun asked once he turned off the engine.
"For offering me a great job without knowing anything about my life outside of the hotel?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise," he admitted. "And I do know about your life outside of the hotel. At least some of it. And I believe this job would be easier to work around your kids' schedule."
"... I have a few questions, though. Do you want to come in so we can discuss about it?"
Somehow, Sung Hyun felt that he was the one being interviewed as he sat on the sofa and In Young noted down all his answers about her work hours, her pay and her management style.
"Sounds like a fair deal," she commented, reading over her notepad.
"I told you." Sung Hyun went to the piano. "And it's closer to your home too," he added, leafing through the pages of the repertory before putting it back down. "Did I mention the pay was better?"
"Three times... Which is starting to make me wonder if I'm being favored just because..."
"Just because you're more than qualified for the job and I'm actually sorry I can't give you more. At least for now. Is this a telescope?" he asked, pointing out to a pile of pieces scattered on the floor by a window.
"It's supposed to be. I bought it for Jae Min for his birthday and I was trying to put it together before they come back tomorrow night... It didn't really work out well."
In Young rolled her eyes. "It's not because I'm a woman that I can't do this stuff."
"And I never said that. I just asked if you wanted my help."
"That would be nice of you," she reluctantly agreed.
The instructions indicated the telescope could be put together in 30 minutes, but In Young's confused indications for the first ten minutes had Sung Hyun ask her to leave him alone. Once he was done, he found her skulking while making dinner. She had changed into what seemed to be her home outfit: t-shirt and sweatpants.
"I think I did a pretty good job," he declared as he poured himself a glass of water. Cutting vegetables, she ignored him. "You're welcome," he said, stealing a piece of cucumber.
"Don't do that!" she warned him, although she let him take another piece. "Do you want to stay for dinner... unless you have another date?"
"How did you—"
"You were the number 1 discussion all week among the employees."
"So much for trying to keep a low profile..."
"Why would you? People will talk since you're so handsome and rich."
Each word represented the expectations people always had about him and he never had the impression to meet. "Is that all there is to me?" he asked, putting down his glass in the sink.
In Young glanced at him. "What do you mean?"
"Being handsome and rich. Is it all I have to attract someone?"
"You can't deny that it's a helping factor."
"So you dated me because of that."
"You know it's not the reason," she slightly stuttered as she placed the vegetables in a large bowl. "I didn't even want to do anything with you when I found out you weren't just an intern, but you were the boss' son."
"So why did you still date me?" he asked, his voice slightly raising.
"Why did you date me?"
"Because I loved you. That's why I wanted to marry you, remember?"
She faced him, her eyes reflecting an anger that didn't match her even tone. "You know you wouldn't have married me anyway."
"I proposed to you."
"Only because you knew I would turn you down. What if I had said yes?"
"I spent years proposing to you."
"But you never came back!" she shouted. "You left for Singapore and you never came back. How was I supposed to know your feelings were still the same after a while?"
"If you had just come visit me, you would have known!"
"Maybe that's why I didn't!"
"I don't get it."
She took off her apron and threw it to his face before rushing out of the kitchen and into her room. Sung Hyun stilled at the threshold as she turned over a box that was in her closet. The content fell on the floor. There were several plane tickets, pictures of them, movie receipts and other reminders of their relationship. It seemed like she had kept everything.
"What if you had ended up realizing that I wasn't good enough to marry you?" she went on, her voice still shaking. "Maybe I just wanted to stay the woman you loved in your memories."
Sung Hyun closed his eyes, letting the words sink in, revealing the missed opportunities that could have changed both of their fates. "So despite everything I did to prove my feelings to you, you just didn't want to give us a chance because you were scared?"
"I... It wouldn't have worked anyway," she replied without meeting his gaze. Still, she followed him to the entrance. "So you're just going to leave like that?"
"Why would I stay?"
Tripping over his sneakers when In Young turned him around, he had to hold onto her to keep balance as she stood on the small step allowing her to be at eye level. Sung Hyun was too confused to do anything but to hug her back as she apologized. The regrets, the resentment, the misunderstandings were unleashed as they shared a passionate kiss. They briefly paused when she helped him get rid of his polo shirt and he returned the favor for her t-shirt. As soon as he picked her up, she wrapped her legs around him. As they kept kissing, they managed to make it back to her room. Kneeling on the bed, she was breathless as she started unbuckling his jeans and he cupped her face to keep kissing her until reality kicked in.
"I don't have condoms", he said, stilling her hands.
It took her a few seconds to catch on as she blankly stared at him. "I don't either."
And it seemed the wall they had just broke down was back up even higher as she moved away from him, hiding her chest.
"Maybe I can go buy..." He didn't even finish his sentence because she shook her head.
Their moment was gone. Sung Hyun didn't know exactly what to say as she was hiding her face in his hands, sitting back to him.
"Can you leave, please?" she quietly asked moments later.
So Sung Hyun did as he was told. "This doesn't change anything about my job offer," he said, stopping at the door.
She put on another t-shirt from her closet before facing him. "I'll think about it and let you know by Monday at the latest."
Sung Hyun wanted to call her or at least text her, but truth was he also felt angrier as time went by. It had taken him years to get over her. Thinking that her choice made her happy had been his only comfort as he realized he had been miserable in vain.
On Monday night, when her shift was over, In Young came to his suite.
"I want the job," she said, sitting on the sofa as Sung Hyun took a seat in the armchair. "On one condition, though."
Leave it to her to make requirements when she was in no position to. "I'm listening."
"We pretend nothing happened on Saturday and we never talk about it."
The past was the past. There was no need to make it more than it was.
"It works for me." He gave her the contract. "I'll let you review it. Let me know if you want to change anything. And we need to start talking about the overall organization and make your schedule."
In Young nodded and stood up. "I'll bring you back the contract tomorrow."
They were already used to each other's way of thinking, so they worked fast, complementing each other's idea and without any argument. They made a good team no matter what, Sung Hyun admitted to himself as In Young left the suite after their final meeting before the opening tomorrow. Still, when the memory of their kiss popped in his mind, he texted Myung Hee to offer her to be his date the next day. Her "yes" was followed by a smiling emoji and a heart.
The ceremony itself only took 10 minutes, five for his father's speech and five for press pictures. With Myung Hee by his side, Sung Hyun socialized and answered some reporters' questions. Once in a while, he spotted In Young across the room. Despite the enthusiasm she showed, he knew her well enough to notice how she often discreetly wiped the palms of her hands and she smoothed out the front of her uniform jacket. Yet, every time she looked in his direction, he turned back his attention to Myung Hee who was making comments about how wonderful the hotel was. She said all the right things, had the right behavior in any circumstance and judging from the way people looked at them, marriage rumors would be everywhere by Monday.
"It's still a bit early. Would you like to have dinner with me?" Myung Hee asked on their way back to her home.
"I already have... other plans for tonight," he lied. "Maybe another time?"
"I assumed that your invitation today meant you were willing to give this a try."
"I am. It's just that I already have plans for tonight."
It seemed she had let it go until he parked his car in the underground parking lot of her building. "I'm sure you're a nice guy, but I'm looking for something serious." She gave him a gracious smile. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's no need to contact me again if you're only thinking about having fun."
Love had nothing to do with finding a long-life partner. It was just a bonus clause in a contract with a woman he'd be able to live with until the end. So it wasn't about Myung Hee or any other woman he could be introduced to. If his mind wasn't into it, he'd never be able to be with anyone.
Running on the treadmill, Sung Hyun tried his best to clear his mind from his discussion with his father the night before. If he wanted to build the perfect family he had ever wanted, it was time to settle down.
The timer went off. Sung Hyun stopped the machine, picked up his towel and bottle of water before leaving the hotel gym. Debating if he should gather some college friends to have dinner, he ran into In Young in front of the elevators.
"Did you want to see me?" he asked after they exchanged greetings.
"Oh, no. I just went to get a sweater in my office because I was being cold by the pool."
"I didn't think you'd spend your free time even here."
"It's Jae Min's birthday party. We're spending the afternoon here with a couple of his friends."
"Right... Order anything you want. It's on me."
"You don't have to."
"As you wish," he said and called the elevator.
"So, I'll see you on Monday."
"See you on Mon—"
"Mom?" a young voice called out, interrupting him.
Sung Hyun turned around. It was Min Ah. In Young quickly excused herself and walked up to her daughter who stared at Sung Hyun until her mother led her away. So these were In Young's parameters. Strictly professional. Not that their interaction hadn't been other than professional for the past week, but Sung Hyun had the confirmation now their friendship couldn't be saved.
A bottle or two of soju should be enough to help him forget about the situation for the time being. By the time he walked into his suite, two of his friends had already agreed to meet him tonight. A few knocks on the door interrupted his third call.
"Hello, I'm Minah, Manager Sunwoo In Young's daughter," the girl stated. As she bowed to finish her greeting, Sung Hyun quickly checked the hallway. "I don't have much time. May I come in?"
Confused, Sung Hyun stepped aside and followed her to the living room. "Have a seat," he invited with a hand gesture toward the sofa.
"That won't be necessary. I have to go back before my mom wonders where I am."
"So she isn't aware of this little visit? Wait. Do you know who I am?"
"RH Hotel Vice-Ceo Bae Sung Hyun, my mom's ex-boyfriend. I don't know about your current status, though." Her confidence left Sung Hyun speechless. "Are you with my mom or not?"
"We're... friends, I guess?"
"So you're not the reason she's been crying for a week?"
"I wouldn't know about that," he slightly stuttered under the accusation.
"If you aren't, then be a friend and comfort her. If you are, I will ask you to stay away from her when it's not work-related. Thank you."
Scolded by a 12-year old girl. That was a first for Sung Hyun who stared at the closed door for a moment. Pushing away any curiosity – or maybe guilt – about In Young, he went back to setting his plan for tonight.
A Sunday spent with a hangover hadn't cleared the confusion Sung Hyun was still in when he greeted In Young on Monday morning. While she was her bubbly self with the other employees and their first customers, she never made eye contact with him, even when she made her report in her office at the end of the day.
"Things are still slow, but I'm hoping we'll get more reservations by next week if our customers spread the word about us," she commented. "Do you have any new instruction?"
"Everything looks fine to me," he replied. "By the way, your daughter came to see me on Saturday."
"She did what?"
Her chair nearly fell over as she stood up. This was the first genuine reaction he had seen from her in days. "She told me that you... have been upset lately." In Young closed her eyes. "And she thought it was because of me." She hid her face in her hands. "Basically, she said to comfort you if it wasn't the case and to stay away from you if it was."
In Young heavily sighed and finally looked at him. "I'm so sorry. That was totally inappropriate of her."
"Which scenario is it, though?"
"It's neither of them," she said after a brief hesitation. "This won't happen again."
"Good because I don't need another reminder that I got rejected again." He stood up. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He was already at the door when her voice stopped him. "I can't say that I regret never going to you back then because that would mean I regret having my kids. I love them and I can't imagine my life without them." Sung Hyun faced her. "What I do regret is not asking you to stay the other day."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because you have a girlfriend now and I didn't know if... The consequences..."
"Myung Hee isn't my girlfriend and even if she were, she should be my concern, not yours." Sung Hyun took a deep breath. "Is it really that fun to make me believe that you care when you don't?"
"Is it really fun to make me believe that you don't care about how harmful being with me could be to you?"
"Back then, you were one of my father's employees. You were five years older than me and you had just broken up with the man you had been with for ten years because he had been cheating on you. Today, you're still one of my father's employees. You're still five years older than me. You're a divorced mother of two. So what?" In Young didn't answer and didn't hold his gaze either. "I don't get why what everyone may think is so important to you, but what I think doesn't matter at all."
"So if I came to you right now, you would accept me?"
"Just try and see." When it became clear she wouldn't move, he nodded her goodbye. "As you wish."
That night, lying on this bed that night, Sung Hyun reviewed the files of five candidates the matchmaker had emailed him. Now that love was out of the equation, finding a wife should be done in no time.
Although she looked tired, In Young's behavior didn't show any sign of hostility the next day. The only time Sung Hyun spoke to her was to thank her for her daily report.
"I have something for you," she said as they both stood up. She cleared her throat and took out a plastic rose from one of her desk drawers. There was an envelope attached to it. "I've been thinking... A lot. About you and me. You asked me why I dated you and here's the answer."
Her hands were slightly shaking as she handed him the envelope. There was just a post-it inside, though. "Number 1. Because you're sweet." He looked at her. "Thank you?"
"Don't. I should be the one who..." She took a deep breath and smiled. "You were right. You've never given me any reason not to trust your feelings, and even if you're doubting mine now, I will show you why I... I love you."
"With a fake rose and post-its?"
"To remind you that I love you and the reasons why I do."
"So you're saying you're going to... court me?"
"Yes... If that's okay with you," she added, her smile fading away.
This was another first. And maybe, just maybe, Sung Hyun saw an opportunity to test her as he replied "do as you wish" before heading out. She did look determined, but he could no longer afford to have his heart being stomped over one more time.
Number 2. Because you're smart.
Number 3. Because you're sincere.
Number 4. Because you're loyal.
Number 5. Because you're caring.
... Each day, In Young gave him a new rose, listing one quality. It went on for two weeks. No matter how nice it was, Sung Hyun was starting wondering what would happen once she'd run out of things to say. There was no rose on Friday night, though.
"You're giving up," Sung Hyun noted, a bit hurt that she didn't have the perseverance that he had shown to her for years. "Well, this was nice."
"I was thinking about something different for tonight. If you don't have any plan, we could have dinner together ay my place."
"What about your kids?"
"They're spending the weekend with their grandparents so... You can even spend the night if you want to."
It sounded too good to be true. Unable to sort out his contradictory feelings, Sung Hyun went for the truth. "I have a blind date tonight."
"Oh..." She didn't try to hide her disappointment. "I understand. In that case..." She took out a rose from her purse and gave it to him. "I wanted to give it to you later, but..."
"Number 20. Because you're you," he read out loud. "That was an easy one."
"Not for me, considering your background and mine... Well, you know how I feel about it... But I'm ready now."
Sung Hyun was the one unable to hold her gaze this time. "So the decision is mine?"
"I think we both wasted enough time. Mostly because of me," she quickly said before he protested. "But I understand you need to move on and I won't stand in your way."
So Sung Hyun no longer hesitated. "I texted my blind date that I wouldn't be able to make it tonight," he said, holding up his cell phone. "What do we do now?"
There were only three people Sung Hyun sought approval from before he could make his relationship with In Young official. And his father hadn't been the hardest to convince. Despite warning him about the judgmental comments they would get, his father still hugged him and wished him to be happy.
Jae Min and Minah were another story. After a dinner to make a proper introduction which the two kids welcomed with silence all through the evening, In Young set up an afternoon at a theme park the following weekend. Jae Min was too busy having fun to be moody unlike Minah. She was always respectful, politely smiled, but Sung Hyun always got the impression she was watching him. When In Young took Jae Min to the bathroom, the teenage girl attacked.
"I asked my mom why you have no kids."
Sung Hyun choked on his ice tea. In Young had promised to keep to herself the fact that he was sterile. "And what did she say?" he asked once his cough died down.
"That you never got the opportunity to, but that didn't mean you couldn't be a good stepfather."
"I don't know about being a good stepfather. I do know that I will try my best to be one." Her stare started making him feel restless. "Do you think I can do it?"
"I just want my mom to be happy."
"So do I."
"As long as you keep her happy, then we're good."
"That's your only condition?" Sung Hyun smiled when she nodded. "That's a deal then." Minah shook the hand he held out. "Thank you."
"I'll be watching you."
It was a fair warning, one Sung Hyun took seriously, although it sounded like a truce too. Even an alliance, maybe? As soon as In Young and Jae Min came back, Minah offered to take him on a merry-go-round.
This wasn't the family Sung Hyun had dreamed of. Yet, as he wrapped his arm around In Young's shoulders while Jae Min and Minah walked ahead hand in hand, it did feel like it was the start of something pretty close to it.
In case you're wondering, Bae Sung Hyun's driver was Oh Dong Gu from the drama "Queen's Classroom" (2013). The Zeus hotels mentionned are from "The Heirs" universe, which is where we'll go next.