There was no better feeling than winning. Letting himself feel any other emotion, bad or good, was a luxury Young Do couldn't afford if he wanted to keep the family business alive. He wouldn't be like his father. He would honor the name Choi.
The three-month negotiations to acquire a resort in Jeju Island had been a marathon, especially with the RH Hotel making a bigger offer at the last minute. In the end, Young Do had managed to find the extra funds and win the deal.
The night was just starting. Taking in the view of Seoul displayed behind the large window of his office, Young Do treated himself with a glass of wine before going back to work. All by himself. And this was how it was meant to be. When the name Myung Soo flashed across the screen of his cell phone, he cancelled the call. Twice.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you're ignoring my calls," Myung Soo said, walking in after a light knock on the door.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you're ignoring the fact that I'm ignoring your calls."
Myung Soo flashed him a bright smile as he helped himself a glass of wine from the bottle left on the desk. "What are we celebrating?"
"I signed an important deal this afternoon. You?"
"Everything is ready for my first exhibit. I was on my way home and I just wanted to be sure you'd be here tomorrow night, you know..." Myung Soo stood by his side. "Considering how you've been ignoring my calls for the past two hours and all. You're still coming, right?"
"I even got my schedule clear tomorrow afternoon."
"I am so touched," he commented with a dramatic sigh. "Can't say that about everybody."
"Your parents still won't come?"
"I sent them an invitation. We'll see if they're ready to see how much of a failure their son is," Myung Soo added as a toast that didn't hide the hint of sadness in his voice. Turning away from the crown and future his father had prepared for him had been the most difficult decision of his life... Even Young Do hadn't dared to stray away from the path set for him. That was the reason he had let Myung Soo stay at one of his hotels for a year nearly for free when his father cut his allowance once they came back from their military service. There wasn't much else Myung Soo would have let Young Do help him out with. His life, his struggle, he had reminded Young Do as they celebrated with chicken wings and beer the first studio Myung Soo managed to rent with his savings. This shabby space 5 years ago had put him on his way to become known as a photographer even on the international scene.
"Do you want me to say you're the best to cheer you up? Because I won't," Young Do stated.
"If being a photographer was the only problem..." Myung Soo quietly sighed, his dark expression turning back into his usual smile a few second later. "But thanks for saying it. Anyway, do you have a date for tomorrow night?"
Young Do took a sip of wine. "Do I need one?"
"But your last girlfriend was like... three months ago?"
"Again. Do I need a date?"
"So you're officially single?"
Young Do glanced at him. "Since when have you been so interested in my love life?"
"I've always been interested in your love life. And let's just say that I might know som—"
"Don't," Young Do warned him and let out an annoyed grunt at Myung Soo's pout. "Stop trying to be cute."
"So as I was saying, there's this girl that I know. She's a model. She's 22 and she's just adorable."
"So what makes you think I'd be interested?"
"Well, that's your style, right? Cute, innocent, pure. Like Cha Eun..." Myung Soo cleared his throat.
"You can say her name, you know? I don't care anymore."
"Yeah... Well, all I'm saying is she will be there tomorrow night and you will be there tomorrow night and we—"
"And we'll all be there tomorrow night," Young Do cut him off, only half-mocking Myung Soo's tone. "I'm not that desperate to ask you to hook me up."
"But you're not asking. I'm just being a good friend who knows what his best friend needs even when he refuses to acknowledge them."
"I take care of my needs, trust me."
Their eyes met. Myung Soo's concerned expression turned into a smirk. "I'm talking about needs in a scenery other than a hotel room." Young Do rolled his eyes as Myung Soo half-embraced him with one arm around his shoulders. "See, you don't even try to shut me down for talking to you like this."
"I am shutting you down. You're just not listening."
"That girl is totally your type, though. I'll just introduce to her and the rest is up to you. No pressure."
"Doesn't sound like it."
Myung Soo flashed him a smile, leaving his glass on the desk on his way out. Young Do sighed and turned away from his reflection on the window. As one of the most eligible bachelors of the country, he had women chasing him every time he went to a social event. Not that he didn't enjoy the attention, but the whining and the clinging that came along sometimes only just a few days after meeting them was what he didn't want to deal with.
Sitting at his desk, Young Do opened the first file he needed to review for tomorrow.
Judging from how champagne flowed and the presence of many celebrities and reporters, the exhibit was a success. Myung Soo had been socializing while Young Do tried to keep a low profile and waited the appropriate time to get out of his best friend duty.
"I never thought he'd actually manage to go this far," a female voice said behind him.
This condescending tone was one Young Do thought he had forgotten after not hearing it in 10 years. Yet, here she was. Rachel Yoo. The girl who could have become his stepsister, the brat who was his ally in breaking up Kim Tan and Cha Eun Sang and now... The perfect sweet-looking young woman in her black gown with her hair in a high ponytail to expose the diamond earrings and necklace she wore. There was no ring at her finger, though.
"Well, Myung Soo can be perseverant when he wants to," he commented and put down his empty glass of champagne on the tray of a waiter walking by. "And I thought you were in New York."
"I came back three months ago."
"And you didn't let your almost-step-brother know? I'm hurt."
"As if you actually cared..."
She raised her eyebrows in a challenging way. This was usually his cue to find the smart ass comment that would get her to scoff and walk away. At least back when he knew everything about her and what to say to trigger this reaction. How could she have been here for three months without him knowing anything at all?
"You're staring," she commented.
Young Do didn't get a chance to speak as Myung Soo greeted them and introduced his friend as "Sera, the girl I was telling you about". She was cute, indeed. Not enough to make Young Do forget he was in the middle of a conversation, or about to start a conversation that Rachel ended by excusing herself. Before Young Do could say anything, Myung Soo was gone too.
"Just so you know, I'm hoping that Myung Soo-oppa will shoot my portfolio for free," Sera declared with a gracious smile.
Young Do took another look at her. Cute but fierce apparently. "And just how far you'd be willing to go for Myung Soo-oppa?"
"What do you think?"
Young Do could have been interested, but tonight wasn't one of these times. "Have a nice evening."
And he walked away. After another tour of the gallery, Rachel was still nowhere in sight. Myung Soo was busy answering reporters' questions. When he made eye contact with Sera who started walking up to him, Young Do took it as his cue to leave. On his way out, he texted Myung Soo he was going home when he spotted Rachel waiting on the sidewalk. Alone. She turned around as he asked a valet to bring his car.
"Don't tell me you're not ready to party all night," she said.
"I could tell you the same thing."
"I'm actually heading back to the office. Myung Soo said he'd never talk to me again if I didn't come tonight, so..."
"His blackmailing is childish..."
"And yet, we actually follow through. What did he threaten you with?"
Sera was more a reason than a threat that it was probably better to keep unsaid. "So the office, uh? You're working for your mom?"
Something was different about Rachel, but Young Do couldn't define what it was as he nodded back at her before she got into the backseat of the sedan that had pulled over and left.
Myung Soo had been conveniently M.I.A, unavailable for any scolding about Sera or question about Rachel. Bona and Chan Young were his only high school classmates he had stayed in touch with, but Young Do couldn't come up with a reason to ask them without looking suspicious...Although he wasn't sure what would be so wrong about it. Rachel was back and no one had told him. So when his assistant announced her as his 10 AM appointment two days later, his curiosity even tripled.
As soon as his assistant informed him that Rachel was here, Young Do stood up and ran his fingers through his hair, straightened the collar of his shirt, then decided to sit back down. Holding a pen while reading a file or looking at his computer screen, which pose would make him look more professional? Rachel didn't seem to have this problem as she walked in with her hair still in a high ponytail and a black and white straight dress.
Young Do dismissed his assistant with a vague hand gesture and leaned back in his chair as his eyes traveled back up from her legs to her face as she sat in front of him. "So what brings you here?"
"Business, obviously," she replied, taking out a tablet from her handbag. "My mother's company is looking for a new promotional strategy. We thought about opening hotel in-stores in order to be closer to potential rich clients."
Young Do looked through her tablet a couple of seconds. "And so you thought my hotels would be a good way to start?"
"Well, to be honest, you were not my first choice, but with your hotels here and your network in Asia, you were not so low on the list either."
"Rule number 1. If you want to win a deal, flattering is the way to go."
"Like I said, you were not my first choice."
Young Do met her eyes. "And yet you're here. Did mommy force you to?"
"She's the boss. Anyway, now that you refused, I can go and plead my case for the one I wanted. Thank you for your time."
"I didn't say no."
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because it might actually make me earn money?"
She rolled her eyes. There she was. The teenage girl he remembered who wasn't the cool and composed woman he had met at the gallery.
"I just bought a resort in Jeju and there might be room for a store like yours."
"Are you doing this just to piss me off?"
Young Do smiled. "Don't make it all about you."
"This isn't high school anymore, you know?"
"So you have no reason to make my life miserable."
"When did I ever?"
"Do you really want the answer?"
"Who stopped other girls from bullying you during our senior year of high school?"
"And who gave them a reason to bully me by lying and saying we were dating?"
"I had to find a way to get rid of her. I can't believe you're still mad at me."
"Can we stay on topic here?"
Rachel's attitude had always been endearing at some extent, but it was reaching open hostility now. Young Do tossed the tablet on the desk. "My hotels are doing quite well. Your mom's company, not so much from what I've been hearing lately. And it must be even worse if she's willing to get a partnership with me. But, hey, that's your call, not mine."
Rachel looked away. Young Do didn't know either what to make of this deal, but yes, it was still fun to push her buttons... Although her sigh of resignation came out faster than he thought
"I think my mom was hoping to start with your hotels in Seoul first."
"If everything goes according to my plans, this resort in Jeju will be the place to be in six months."
"Can you send me some pictures or blueprints so my mom can have a clear vision of what we can do?"
Fun couldn't stop here. "How about seeing things for yourself? I'm flying over there on Thursday to finalize the changes before the renovation work starts."
"And when are you coming back?"
"On Saturday afternoon. Needless to say, I'll cover all your expenses during your stay."
"Okay then," she replied carefully but almost too easily as she put away her tablet. "Are you sure you won't regret this?"
"What about you?"
The only reason Young Do gave up on the comfort of his hotel suite was to escape Seoul's oppressing atmosphere. His villa had been his sanctuary for the past five years and only two other people had actually access to it: his housekeeper and Myung Soo. His father would have probably found this house too small for people like them. It actually felt too big for Young Do when he silently moved from one room to another on Sundays, having nowhere to go, no friends to see during the year Myung Soo spent in New York. That might have been the reason he didn't turn down Myung Soo who had brought him a puppy before he left for Paris last year.
"Light blue or grey?" Young Do asked to the Rottweiler sitting at the threshold of the walk-in closet. "Or maybe green?" The dog left. "Thank you for your help," he sighed.
Packing his suitcase for his three-day trip shouldn't have taken him more than 10 minutes. Yet, here he was, one hour later still trying to figure out what to wear. His cell phone rang. Leaving it on a shelf on speaker mode, Young Do kept walking around the dressing room as he greeted Myung Soo with a "so now you call me back, uh?".
"I've been busy with work. You know how it is. So what's up?"
"I'm going to Jeju tomorrow. Can you watch Killer for me?"
"I can watch Suga."
"You need to let go of that ridiculous name for my dog."
"Is it my fault if your dog is as sweet as his owner?" Myung Soo laughed at his own joke. "Sera is pretty pissed off by the way."
"She thought you'd do her portfolio for free if she slept with me..."
"That's one way to put it and I wanted you to know that I had no idea this was what she had told you. I'm not that desperate to get you a girl."
"So you're calling to apologize?"
"For setting you up with her, not for the fact of setting you up. I still think you need to find someone."
"I'm not having this conversation again. Is Rachel getting married?" By the time Myung Soo was done coughing after spitting whatever he was drinking, Young Do went on. "Why didn't you tell me she was back in Korea?"
"Two months ago. I texted you and asked you what you would do if Rachel was back and you said you didn't care because you were about to board a plane to go to Singapore. And you turned off your phone."
Young Do stilled. It might have happened, although he had no recollection of it. He shook his head and took out a blue long-sleeved t-shirt. "So why is she here? Is she getting married or something?"
"How would I know?"
"Really? That's all you have to say?"
"We just ran into each other at a furniture store and I've been trying to meet with her so we could catch up, but she's always busy with work. Like someone else I know...."
"That still doesn't answer my question," Young Do retorted as he picked out a few pair of slacks and one pair of jeans.
"Well... I might have heard that a marriage with the heir of some shoes luxury brand is in talks."
Trust Myung Soo to be up to date with all the gossips in their social circle. "So you—"
"Why do you care, though?"
"No particular reason. I was just wondering...," Young Do said casually as he put the pile of clothes in his suitcase. "We were almost brother and sister after all."
"And you hated every second of it. Those were the good old days," Myung Soo sighed. "We're old."
"Thanks for cheering me up."
"Always." Young Do sat down on his bed and scratched the dog's head resting on his thigh. "So about Killer, you can come and stay for the weekend or you can take him home with you."
"First option. Do you want me to take you to the airport, though?"
"It's okay. I'm leaving early anyway, so one of the hotel chauffeurs will drive me." And that would prevent Myung Soo from running into Rachel too. After final recommendations about Killer that Myung Soo would probably not listen to, they hung up. The easy way to have an answer to all the questions he had would be to ask Rachel. Still, as he closed his suitcase an hour later, Young Do didn't know if he'd get the courage to ask them.
This was strictly business. Every topic of discussion Young Do had prepared to catch up on the past ten years turned out to be useless. Rachel had only greeted him at the airport before giving all her attention to the two other men he had also invited on this flash trip.
"I'm Pierre Laroche. Nice to meet you," the architect introduced himself with a seductive smile. "This is my third project for Young Do, but it's the first time he brings company with him," he added, but to no avail as Rachel just gave him a polite smile.
And this was the first time Young Do didn't see a woman fall for Pierre's blue eyes and French accent within a minute. "Rachel is not just company. She's a potential investor."
"A beautiful investor," Pierre insisted.
Rachel thanked him with a nod and looked at the other man, so Young Do went on with the introduction. "This is Kim Joon, the interior designer."
She didn't let her guard down either for Joon who only looked up from his phone long enough to greet her.
"Can you try to be nice?" Young Do asked when she sat by his side in the plane.
"I can, but I'm not saying that I will."
They were interrupted by a stewardess making sure they didn't need anything before the plane took off.
"Just be professional," he quietly but sternly said when the stewardess walked away.
Without sparing him a glance, she put on her headphones and started watching a video on her tablet, leaving no choice to Young Do but review files during their flight.
The resort overlooked the ocean. It was actually the main reason for Young Do fighting so hard to buy it. Judging from the way Rachel wandered off to the window wall as they checked in at the front desk, the breathtaking view was an asset. Given a couple of months and the place will be crowded with clients. As the hotel would officially close in three days, the staff had been limited to the minimum to make the last arrangements in this last week. On their way to the elevators, they walked passed the reception room being decorated.
"Is it the last event you were telling me about? The one before the closing to get the works started?" Young Do asked the manager.
"Indeed. It's a wedding anniversary."
Rachel had glanced back at the reception room door at the word wedding but remained silent. Once they reached the floor booked for them, they agreed to meet down in the lobby half-an-hour later to get a tour before lunch.
The suite's sitting and dining areas were in a Western style whereas the master bedroom was in a traditional Korean style. Young Do was already making mental notes about changes as he sat in an armchair by the window wall. Checking his emails occupied him until it was time to go back to the lobby. As he stepped out of the elevator, he spotted Rachel taking a peak into the reception hall.
"Taking notes for your future wedding?"
The whisper in her ear and the hand he had put on her shoulder might have been the reason for the shiver running through her body, but her voice was as composed as ever. "Maybe," she said without even glancing back.
"CEO Choi?" the manager interrupted them. "This is Mr. Park, the client celebrating his wedding anniversary tonight."
Standing as tall as 5'6' at the most, Mr. Park must have been in his late 60's, but the gracious smile lightening up his wrinkled face made him look younger.
"I wanted to thank you and your wonderful staff for everything you put together for us," Mr. Park said with a light bow that Young Do mirrored at once.
"It is our pleasure, Mr. Park," Young Do added and shook the hand the old man held out. "We hope everything we'll be at your convenience."
"I'm sure. My wife and I actually got married in Los Angeles when we were young. We came back to Korea for our retirement two years ago and this will be exactly the wedding she had always wanted... Feel free to come." He looked at Rachel. "Both of you, of course."
Rachel just smiled but didn't clarify the implication behind the invitation. Young Do didn't either as he just thanked Mr. Park who walked into the room with the manager. With the architect and the interior designer joining them, it was time to get to work.
The tour took three hours. Most of the renovation would be for luxury condos Young Do wanted to build and upgrade the spa center. Rachel had only talked when her mother's boutique was brought up. However, she made a few suggestions that Pierre and Joon approved which seemed enough to make up for their first encounter. This was the first comment Pierre had made as soon as Rachel had left after their late lunch. Joon also excused himself and went on with his own business since their next meeting was planned only for tomorrow morning. The silence in the dining hall was only interrupted by the shouts ad ruffles from the reception room.
"So tell me. Is your Ice Princess really that cold or she's just playing hard to get?" Pierre asked before taking a sip of his coffee.
"I like challenges. Do you mind if..."
Young Do looked up from his tablet. "If what?"
Pierre smirked. "Oh, so she's off-limits."
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing that you don't want to talk about. I got it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go make plans for tonight since my boss gave us the rest of the day off," Pierre said with a big smile
"Tomorrow's meeting is at 10."
"And I won't be late. You on the other hand, better have some fun while we're here."
Young Do sighed at Pierre's retreating back. He didn't get to dwell on the suggestion because his assistant called him with bad news he had to back to his room for and hear every detail for a conference call.
RH Hotels wouldn't back down easily. Young Do expected it, but spreading false rumors online, saying he bribed the local government to let the resort create great damage to Jeju environment, was a low blow. Two hours were necessary to plan the counter-attack and make sure his PR team would keep everything under control.
Young Do closed his laptop but left it on the table in the sitting area and went to lie down. Debating calling the desk for headache painkillers, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the silence. This weekend was definitely not the calm escapade he realized now that he needed.
There were a few knocks on the door. He groaned but didn't give into the temptation to ignore whoever it was.
"What do you want?" he asked, his tone a bit colder than what he had meant to. Rachel didn't seem to notice, though.
"I forgot to pack my phone charger. Can I use yours?"
No was obviously not an answer as she brushed past him to step inside.
"Don't touch anything," he said as he closed the door. The warning was more to annoy her than because he thought she'd actually invade his personal space. Sure enough, she was still standing by the door when he came back from the bedroom with his charger. "You can keep it. I have my laptop cable to charge my phone."
"Thanks..." She fumbled a few more seconds with her phone. "Are you okay? I just read a couple of articles online about the resort," she explained into his silence. "Have you heard?"
It took Young Do a few seconds to acknowledge what seemed to be concern. "Yeah... Actually I just finished with my team. My statement must be online now."
Young Do could have teased her about her sudden interest. Maybe he should have. This would have made things normal between them. And she might have been expected him to as she looked at him.
Saved by the cell phone. It was actually just a couple of selfies Myung Soo had taken with Killer, so Young Do just sent a "thumbs up" emoji on his way back to the door. Rachel was gone.
New articles, the ones defending his project, were uploaded. It was too early to figure out how much damage control was done. It was also useless, so Young Do finally turned off his laptop an hour later and decided to get some fresh air.
People thought he didn't care. 9 times out 10, they were right. Young Do didn't care about anything or anyone as long as they had no impact on his life or his business. This place was already beautiful and he would turn it into heaven on Earth, Young Do promised himself as he took another tour of the empty resort until the early summer breeze was a reminder he could still catch a cold.
The preparation for the wedding anniversary were almost over. The complicity between the staff members was in the smiles and teasing Young Do got to witness before his presence was noticed. He just complimented them for their hard work and left. He had yet to have a proper introduction, so it was better for everybody if he stayed out of their way. Still, the prospect of going back to his empty room didn't have that much appeal, so he settled for the dining hall. Someone else had the idea first.
Sitting by the window wall, Rachel stared off into the ocean. Young Do was already heading over when her cell phone vibrated on the table. Whoever it was, she didn't reply and just tossed her phone back down. Young Do hesitated to make his presence known when she looked around.
It was brief, gone in a second as she put her guard back up, but he had seen it. Distress. Something was definitely wrong. And the smile she gave him didn't reach her eyes.
"Is it okay for me to be here without a staff member?"
This was the kind of details that wouldn't have stopped old Rachel to stay here if she wanted to.
"I won't tell the CEO on you." He smiled at her roll of eyes and sat across from her. "You mind?" he asked, prompting her to look away.
"It's your hotel."
Young Do leaned back, taking in the quiet atmosphere. "Technically, I'm signing the last papers the day after tomorrow."
"Is it true, though? The bribery and stuff ..."
"Why do you care?"
"My mom wants to know if there's any risk for her business in the future."
Scouting the best in the hotel business to make them work for him or paying once in a while to get a heads-up about his rivals' moves were fair game in Young Do's eyes. It did take a lot for him to manage expending this empire without using tricks so dirty that he wouldn't be able to look at himself in a mirror or would make him go to jail.
"Do you think it's true?"
"My mom thinks so..."
"And I asked if you think it's true."
"Why do you care?"
Another day, at another time, Young Do might have been up to play mind games and see who would give up first, but not right now. Rachel must have felt it.
"No, I don't think it's true," she quietly said, looking straight into his eyes.
"How can you be sure?"
"You don't want to be like your father."
Just like she didn't want to turn into her mother, Young Do finished the sentence in his head. And yet, here she was. Saying and doing everything her mother wanted her to. She stood up.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Out. I need some caffeine and the staff is busy in the reception room."
"I see... Well, sit down and give me a couple of minutes."
Young Do went behind the circular bar at the center of the room. His summers spent working in his father's hotels had given him enough latte art skills for her not to have any sneaky remark to make when he presented her a cup with a flower-shaped foam on top of her coffee. She had come to sit at the bar to watch him more closely.
"Five minutes and 47 seconds," he commented, checking his watch. "There was a time when I could do this in 3:35. Personal record of summer 11'."
"Well, that doesn't mean it's good."
"Just try it."
Rachel did as she was told. Closing her eyes, she even let out a soft moan after her first sip. When she licked her upper lip, Young Do had to look away.
"It's not bad," she said with a genuine grin that meant much more, so he thanked her with a nod.
No words were exchanged as they drank their coffees. When Young Do replied to another picture Myung Soo had sent him, he couldn't help but check the news. His name and Zeus hotels were still in the top 10 of real-time keyword search in the economy category. He managed not to check any comment. He sighed and caught Rachel staring at him.
"How have you been?" she asked. "I mean, you're a successful CEO. I know you've been on the 30-finest bachelors list in Korea for like... three years in a row now?"
"I didn't know you kept up with my whereabouts."
"My mom is trying to find me a husband off this list," she somehow lightly said for once as she mentioned her mother. "Actually, I thought you'd be off the market by now."
"Why? You're interested?"
"You wish," she replied with the same teasing tone.
"Yeah, well, I never really took some time off to study properly any offer once I graduated from college. That was like... four years ago? I'm just focusing on my business for now. What about you, though?" He took a sip of coffee and went on since she hadn't taken the opportunity to answer. "You left for London ten years ago without even saying goodbye and now you're back... Why?"
"It was time, I guess."
She didn't elaborate and Young Do couldn't bring himself to ask again because he wasn't so sure he wanted to hear the answers to both of his questions. Trot music started playing and they both looked back at the open double doors.
"Sounds like they're going to have a lot of fun tonight," Rachel said. "Can you picture yourself spending the rest of your life with the same person?"
"Sounds like you can't."
"But I'll have to."
"You know why," she said with a hint of annoyance. "Because I'm me. Just like you're you and you'll marry the daughter of some bank owner or big lawyer to protect yourself and have an heir.
"I can be a bachelor until my 50's, then get married to the daughter of some bank owner or big lawyer to have an heir."
She didn't return his smile. "Lucky you. I only have like what? 5 years left to get married and have my first child?"
The bitterness in her own voice seemed to catch her off guard. She quickly looked down as if she was ashamed of this moment of weakness. Yet, Young Do didn't let her go as he placed his hand over her cell phone before she could pick it up and leave.
"How about going to this wedding anniversary?" he suggested. "You know... Like when we did for Won's wedding."
"You invited me because you didn't want to look pathetic in front of Eun Sang."
"And you accepted because you didn't want to look pathetic in front of Tan... They're not here tonight, are they? And I'm asking you to go with me to this wedding anniversary. Yes or no?"
"You and me?"
Young Do smiled. "Or... we could choose a new identity."
"I could be... Kwon Jiyong? Yeah, I was a BIGBANG fan and yes, I still think they'll make a comeback," he felt obliged to say as she narrowed her eyes at him. "Anyway, I'm 28 and I sell motorcycles for a living... What do you think?"
"I think this is childish."
"You could be... Kim Shin Hye? 28. An accountant who just got her first real job."
She hesitated, rolled her eyes and shook her head. "I might as well be 25."
"That just gives you another reason to call me oppa."
"... Fine. And call me Park Hyori."
"Really?" He raised his eyebrows as she clicked her tongue and pushed his hand to get her phone back. "Where you're going?"
"I have two hours to get my hair and make-up done and to buy a dress. And you better get ready too. Just because you work in a garage, it doesn't mean you can walk around embarrassing me with your outfit."
"I'll pick you up at 7:30."
Tonight was the perfect night to wear the emergency suit Young Do always packed. Yet, after a long shower, he wasn't sure how Kwon Ji Yong would afford such an expensive suit. No bowtie or necktie, he decided. He even left the top button of his white shirt open. His final dilemma was his hairstyle. He still remembered how Rachel had mocked him when he wore bangs again... Not that he was trying to impress her tonight. Still, he texted back and forth with Myung Soo for five minutes before he settled to keep his hair slicked back. When Myung Soo asked if he had a date, Young Do turned off his phone.
Although he was ready to get into character, he opted to look at some files and keep his mind from wandering to any image of Rachel getting ready. However, he lost track of time and got startled by the impatient knocks on the door.
"Now that's a good start. You're late," Rachel said, folding her arms.
Her slightly curled hair was down and when she stuck a strand behind her ear, he noticed butterfly earrings. There was nothing sophisticated about her. Yet, she was beautiful in a simple little black dress.
"I was kind of hoping Hyori would be a nice and gentle girl."
"And I was kind of hoping Jiyong would be on time."
Young Do frowned. This didn't sound like a promise of fun. "If you don't want to do this, we can still call it off."
"You're the one who wanted to do it."
"Yeah, but I didn't expect you to get bitchy without even having a drink." He won the staring contest as she sighed and turned away. "You really don't want to do it?"
"I'm going back to my room. Just come up with an excuse for being late."
This time, when she opened the door, she was all smile and graciously accepted his apology for being late and not bringing flowers.
"Can I use your phone?" he asked. Confused, she took it out from her pouch. "Thank you. Now..." He turned it off and interrupted her protest as he put it in the inside pocket of his jacket. "If anyone asks. You are Park Hyori and I'm Kwon Jiyong."
"You're really taking this seriously."
"Just for a few hours." He smiled and offered his arm. "Shall we?"
There were about a hundred guests. Except for the greetings moment in front of the couple celebrating their anniversary, Young Do and Rachel managed to blend in just fine. Everybody assumed they were a couple once again. Rachel didn't deny it when an old lady at their table complimented them, so Young Do just went with the flow, finding himself adding details to the stories she invented about them.
Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the heart-warming atmosphere, maybe it was just Park Hyori, but Rachel was chatting in a way Young Do had never seen her before. Once in a while, she lightly squeezed his forearm and her smile was meant just for him as if to say thank you before going back to her conversation with the middle-aged woman sitting next to her.
As dinner was nearing its end, the daughter of the celebrated couple made a short but sweet speech about how honored she was to celebrate this day with them. Their son also made a toast before the hip-hop dance group of their grandson performed to get the party started with the guests invited to go to the dancefloor.
Rachel looked at Young Do who shook his head. "Don't even think about it."
"You know I don't dance."
She leaned to whisper in his ear. "Kwon Jiyong would dance."
Young Do let out a groan but let her lead him to the dance floor. He wasn't the best dancer and neither was she. Yet, he found himself laughing at the funny faces she made and managed somehow to keep up with the up-tempo beat.
At some point, the music switched to some trot that got the older guests and Rachel singing to the top of their lungs. And Young Do made a mental note to ask her how she knew most of the songs as he clapped along. He didn't resist when she placed his hand on her hip with her other arm settling on his shoulder for a slower song. His ballroom dancing lessons taken middle school came in handy as they danced together. The beat was still too fast for them to be close and they both stilled as the first ballad came on.
"I'm better at slow dancing," he said as an indirect invitation.
"So am I."
Young Do wasn't sure if she was one who stepped closer or if he held her closer. And closer. Until their bodies touched. A shiver ran down his spine, the same he felt running under her skin. The room faded away, leaving them in their own world with no empire, no shady business or mask to hide who they were. Young Do exhaled and closed his eyes.
He wasn't sure how long they danced like this. It was over too soon as she stepped away at the first notes of rock echoed in the room.
"I need to rest a little," she said. Young Do didn't let go of her hand until they were back to the guest-less table.
"Kind of a shame that older people keep up more than we do," he noticed.
"They don't wear 25-inches heels."
"No one forced you to wear them."
"Do you know how tall you are?"
"I'm sorry that you're short." He dodged her playful hit but caught her hand. She placed her hand over his.
"Shall I take a picture?" the photographer said, holding up his camera.
Rachel and Young Do waited for the other to answer until she leaned against him and smiled to the middle-aged man. Young Do held her by her shoulders, pulling her closer.
"So beautiful." Click. "I'm taking one more." Click. "Very nice."
Young Do didn't recognize himself as the young man with his hair a bit tousled that smiled back at him on the screen when the photographer let them check the pictures. There was no trace of Rachel's gloomy attitude either. Would he dare saying she looked happy? However, happy wasn't the word to describe her expression as the photographer walked away. She shrugged off Young Do's arm and even crossed her hands on the table once she had pushed her chair away as if to avoid any contact.
"Is there something wrong?"
"Nothing." She didn't even look at him. "Some guests are leaving, maybe we should go too..."
Okay. This wasn't what he expected. Yet, his first reaction of protest turned into a silent nod. Maybe it was just him. Maybe she didn't feel anything as she thanked him at her door. Taking off his shoes in the entrance, Young Do tried to figure out if he had said or done something for their evening to turn short.
Knock knock. It was a bare-footed nervous-looking Rachel.
"You still have my cell phone in your pocket," she reminded him.
He gave it back to her and turned back his on too.
"I really had a great time tonight," she stated.
"It sure didn't look like it two minutes ago."
His cell phone started ringing with the influx of text messages. All sent by Myung Soo. By the time he was done scrolling down, Rachel went back to her room down the hall. The click of her door was the conclusion of their night.
Although they hadn't spent the evening together, Pierre and Joon wore sunglasses all through the meeting Young Do held only for an hour to allow them to go back and get some rest. And maybe, just maybe, to talk to Rachel alone because she had barely acknowledged him this morning.
"I'm going back to Seoul," she stated, holding Young Do's gaze only for a second. "My mom set me up for a blind date tomorrow night and she wants me to—"
"Again? Why is it always about what your mom wants? Can't you do what you want now that you're an adult?"
"I didn't remember you being so idealistic."
"And I didn't remember you being such a coward."
"You don't know me."
Young Do called his assistant. "Notify RS International that we reject their offer," he calmly said, smiling at Rachel's murderous look. "Now it's up to you to convince mommy to get the deal you wanted."
The damage control was a success. Only two interviews requests had been made so far which meant reporters didn't care about this story. During these 12 minutes and 30 seconds, he had managed not to think about Rachel.
Someone unlocked the door and slammed it. Young Do rushed to the suite entrance.
"I just spent 10 minutes on the phone with my mom yelling at me for ruining this deal," Rachel said with a neutral tone.
There were two obvious questions, but Young Do didn't know which one to ask first. He looked at the door.
"I saw the door code the first time we got here," she explained.
"Should I feel flattered that you memorized it?"
"If your ego wants to."
Hostility. Her discussion with her mother must have been worse than what Young Do had anticipated. She was probably here to retaliate. "So you're in my room because... ?"
"I cancelled my plane ticket since my mom is too angry to hear me out."
Young Do smiled. "You're welcome."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "I'm going to the movies. Do you want to come?"
"Unless you had other plans?"
"What's the catch?" She was already turning away. "Fine. Which movie?"
One thing about watching a movie was not having to hold lengthy conversations.
"Last time I stepped into a movie theater was right after I got discharged from the army," Young Do mused as they waited for their popcorn after their first movie of the afternoon.
"Which movie did you see?"
"I don't think I did, actually..." He smiled at the memory. "Turns out that the date I had canceled that day caught me with my other date. They got into a fight and I left."
Rachel glanced at him but didn't make any comment as she got the popcorn and Young Do grabbed their sodas.
"It's not my fault if they fought, right?" he insisted since her silence felt judgmental. "And it only happened once... Maybe twice. Maybe three times if you count the time when one of the girls actually had a boyfriend who showed up and tried to beat me up. I won that fight. Of course."
Rachel barely returned his smile as she held the door for him. They sat down for their second movie– a thriller movie.
"What are you thinking about?" Young Do had to ask as the lights were turned down.
"That no one never fought for me," Rachel quietly replied, looking straight ahead.
"Stop skulking," Rachel laughed as they exited the movie theater.
"Delete this picture."
"Choi Young Do, CEO of Zeus Hotel, sleeping with his mouth wide open in a movie theater. This is blackmail material. So where to next?"
Young Do knew his way around Jeju enough to take her to a bar by the beach. Riding a taxi, they even managed to watch the last minutes of sunset. The breeze carried the sound of the waves. The terrace was empty except for another couple quietly admiring the scenery too as they shared a milk-shake.
"That guy you're seeing tomorrow night. Who is he?"
She lightly shook her head. "I'm not a damsel in distress and you're not a knight with a shining armor."
"Meaning you've already helped me with my mom, but don't interfere in my life."
"I was asking a simple question. You don't want to get married, but you're surely doing anything you can to walk down the aisle before the end of the year."
"I never said I didn't want to get married."
Young Do thought it over as he contemplated the ocean. "So this is about Tan."
"Eun Sang and he got married two months ago, so now you're desperate to find a husband."
"I am not desperate."
"You left because of him and you're back because of him," he stated with a tone more accusatory than he intended.
"It's been ten years. You should move on."
"Says the guy who didn't attend the wedding because he couldn't bear seeing off his first love with his childhood ex-best friend?"
"I see Myung Soo gave you his twisted version of what happened."
"Like you actually had a business trip."
"I did! And I apologized by giving them a big gift."
The waitress broke off their staring contest as she put down their orders and other side dishes on the table.
"When I got the invitation," Rachel said, cutting her cold noodles with the pair of scissors. "I actually thought it was a joke."
"Eun Sang would never do that."
Their glasses, spoons and chopsticks rattled when Rachel put down the scissors on the table. "And you're still defending her."
Her jaw tightened. "Can we please change the subject?"
She still hurt. Having lunch with her at school, taking her out for a ride on weekends usually ended up with them bickering. Yet, whenever she put her guard down and allowed herself a little smile, it was a small step to recovery for both of them. It wasn't until he received the wedding invitation that Young Do was sure he had finally moved on. And Rachel should have moved on too.
"So how do you... does Park Hyori know so much trot songs?"
Rachel cracked a smile. "Do you want the long or the short answer?"
The waitress had recommended them a small-scale jazz concert with a local band in a bar downtown. The music didn't do much for Young Do, but the energy filling the room was sometimes overwhelming. After Myung Soo had texted him five times in less than two minutes, Young Do had replied "not now" and turned off his phone as the singer announced a ten-minute break.
"So, is this the girl from Myung Soo's exhibition?"
"The one who's been blowing up your phone since yesterday."
"Except that it's just Myung Soo who is dog-sitting and feels obliged to share everything I told him not to do with my dog but he does anyway."
She looked at him. "That's all you could come up with to avoid answering me?"
"I'm telling the truth."
"If you say so. I'm going to get another drink. Do you want something?"
It shouldn't matter that she didn't believe him. Just like it shouldn't matter to him how the bartender was all smile and how she laughed at anything he said. So Young Do turned back on his phone and didn't look up when she came back.
"Marco said that one was for the sexy man sitting at my table," she stated as she put down a beer in front of him. "So it's on the house."
"The bartender?" Young Do glanced at the bar. "What?"
"He said he loves your eyebrows and you could ask him for his number."
By the time her sentence was done, Young Do grinned and raised his beer in a silent thank you to the bartender who nodded back. "That man has good taste," he commented.
"Did you hear what I just said?"
"We just got a free beer because I'm handsome. You should thank me."
Rachel was half-amused and half-confused as she leaned back in the booth and folded her arms. "So you have no problem with that man... trying to make a move on you?"
"He's over there, I'm here. Obviously, I won't go and ask him his number, so I'll just appreciate the compliment."
"Kwon Jiyong has always loved compliments," he joked, dodging the true meaning of her statement and she didn't insist, her attention already back to the stage where the band was settling in again.
The midnight radio show helped to maintain a light atmosphere during the cab ride back to the hotel. However, Young Do and Rachel still didn't exchange a word as they slowly walked up to the entrance lobby. The few awkward smiles she flashed him during the elevator ride weren't enough to break down the invisible wall she had put up since the jazz performance. They'd be flying back to Seoul in a couple of hours and they wouldn't have any reason to see each other aside from their social circle events Young Do had tried to avoid as much as he could until now.
"You're welcome," Rachel said as they left the elevator.
"I know you want to thank me for today, but you're too proud to say it. I'm saving you the trouble."
"You should be thanking me."
"Is that your way to tell me we should do this again?"
Young Do stilled and waited for her to face him. "We do live in the same city now."
"I think Park Hyori would like to do this once in a while."
"And I wouldn't mind doing this once in a while either. With her or with you. It would be just like old times."
If it weren't for the dim lights in the hallway, he'd be sure she blushed. Still, he was the one left speechless when she gently pulls him down to wish him good night with a kiss on the cheek.