Christmas Eve, 1812
The fire cast a warm, yet gloomy glow in the study. Caine sat alone in front of the fireplace, a glass of whiskey in his hand. He gazed upon the fire, yet didn’t see it. He took another sip, letting the alcohol warm him all over. Is this my third glass? Or forth? He felt like an ass, abruptly leaving his childhood friend Deeana’s Christmas party without a word. A few years ago, she had happily married a baron. Since then, she took great pride in hosting a yearly Christmas party for their family and closest friends. Everything had been pleasant until he had overheard a conversation between Sejong, Deeana’s husband, and one of their friends, Axel. He plans to ask Eun-Young to marry him tonight and there’s nothing I can do. We had our chance and she didn’t want me, Caine thought.
Still, his heart hurt at the notion that she would be spending the rest of her life with someone else. He downed his glass of whiskey and, soon after, fell asleep.
“Wake up, Caine!”
A delicate hand shook him awake. He groaned, hungover. His head hurt, his mouth was dry and he felt a little dizzy.
“What are you doing here Dee?” he asked the young woman. “Look, I’m sorry I left the party early, but I just couldn’t stay anymore.”
He frowned as he became aware of their surroundings. They were in his childhood room, at his parents’ manor. Dee extended her hand to him, smiling.
“Come, we have a lot to see and so little time.”
Caine hesitated. What is going on? He hadn’t been in this room for many years. He knew his parents had repurposed it to accommodate her mother's many hobbies. Yet, the room looked like it did when he was a child, filled with his old books and toys.
“Caine! Come and meet your new governess!” his mother called.
To his surprise, an 8-year-old version of himself ran outside the room. Dee grabbed his hand and laughed.
“Your mother is calling you, we should go,” she said. “Beside, do you remember what day this is?”
“What day? Dee, what are you showing me? New governess?” he asked Dee, who just pulled him toward the manor’s main hall. He suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “This is the day I met Eun, isn’t it?”
Dee winked at him, “I knew there was intelligence in that brain of yours. This is indeed the day you met your new governess and her daughter for the first time. Come, we don’t want to miss this. Don’t worry, they cannot see nor hear us.”
They reached the main hall and Caine saw his past self get flustered as he greeted the little girl who was hiding behind her mother skirt.
“Are you an angel? You’re pretty like one,” 8-year-old Caine said to 6-year-old Eun-Young.
Everyone started laughing. Caine groaned as he saw his younger self getting red in the face and little Eun-Young smiling shyly at him. This was the moment he fell in love with her. The moment he told himself he would do anything to keep her smiling like an angel.
“You were so cute and romantic when you were a child!” Dee said, bumping his shoulder. “What happened to you?”
“Ha, ha, ha, very funny. Keep laughing at me. You might fool everyone with your sweet girl personality, but I know the real you,” Caine said, without any real heat.
She pulled him toward the kitchen. Everything around them became blurry as they reached the threshold.
“Do you remember how we used to play together?” she asked him, wistfully. “We were inseparable. You and Eun even more so.”
Once they reached the kitchen, Caine recognized an older Eun-Young. She was now 17 years old. When he had outgrew the need for a governess, her mother had kept them employed, Eun-Young as a maid and her mother as cook. He and Eun-Young had grown closer, exchanging love notes and secretly meeting whenever they could. She must have heard a noise, because she turned around and smiled brightly at him.
“Caine,” she whispered, breathlessly.
His heart twisted in chest and he involuntarily lifted his hand, wanting to caress her cheek. A cold wind passed through him as his 19-year-old self entered the kitchen and embraced Eun-Young.
“You shouldn’t be here! What if someone catches us? What would your parents say?” Eun-Young said, without pushing him away.
She always welcomed me, he thought, his heart full of love for Eun-Young. He did not want to think about how it all ended. He kept watching them, young and in love. Young Caine kissed Eun-Young and whispered in her ear, making her blush. He felt a touch on his arm.
“Please Dee, let us stay a while longer. I…” he stopped, emotions choking him. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
“It’s the day you finally became one, isn’t it?” Deeana said. She smirked as he stared at her, speechless. “Who do you think is her confidante?”
“Did she really tell you about that night?” he couldn't help but ask.
“You don’t think I’ll break her trust, do you?” she replied, laughing. “But don’t worry, you did a good job.”
Caine gasped in outrage, but soon he was smiling like a lovestruck idiot. He protested when Deeana turned around to leave the kitchen. He wanted to stay in this memory forever, the happiest he ever was. He dreaded what Deeana would show him next. The mansion blurred again and he frowned as they found themselves in his mother’s study.
Eun-Young was standing in front of his mother’s desk, all stiff and staring at the floor. His mother looked every inch the lady of the manor she was. Caine knew she was furious for some reason. He had been on the receiving end of her anger too many times to count.
“What’s this, Dee? Why is Mother angry at Eun?” he asked.
“Shh, you need to see this” she replied, putting her finger on her lips.
“Do you know why you’re here, Eun-Young?” his mother asked, her lips pursed, her arms crossed and her fists clenched.
“I… No, Ma’am,” Eun-Young said.
“Really? Did you not think that you fooling around with my son wouldn’t come to my ears?” his mother said. She didn’t wait for Eun-Young to reply. “I honestly don’t care who he copulates with, but I will not let his infatuation with you ruin his future.”
Caine felt a surge of anger toward his mother as Eun-Young cowered in fear. He stepped forward, only to be stopped by Deeana who shook her head.
“Did you know he’s to marry soon?” his mother said viciously. Eun-Young looked up, in shock. “He’s only playing with you, little girl. You’re not the only one he’s fooling around with.”
“No, I don’t believe it. I know he loves me,” Eun-Young replied quietly, dropping her head down.
Caine’s mother slammed her fist on her desk, making them all jump.
“I do not care if he does or not! He will marry the daughter of the Duke of Dorset! He will fulfill his familial duties! Do you want him to bring shame to his family? Do you want to ruin his chance at happiness and prosperity?” His mother pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Out of regard for your mother, I will give you until the end of the week to find yourself another employer and to cut your ties with him. Please leave my sight.”
Caine was seething with rage. What had he just witnessed? He certainly was never engaged to the daughter of the Duke of Dorset. Yes, his parents had strongly hinted they wanted him to propose to her, but he never agreed to it. The only one he ever wanted to propose to had been Eun-Young. He suddenly realized a few things.
“Dee, is this why Eun moved in your household that day?” he asked.
Dee nodded silently, wanting him to connect all the dots by himself. She took his arms and they walked out of the study. The world blurred and they found themselves in Deeana’s family gardens. In the middle of the gardens stood a big wooden pavilion. Even if they were some distance from it, Caine knew the pavilion was occupied. There was only one reason for Deeana to bring him here.
“I beg you, don’t make me relive this moment,” he pleaded.
“You need to see it to the end,” she said, looking at him with pity in her eyes. “Please know that I do not wish to hurt you, but tonight, you’ll have one chance to change it all. The future isn’t set in stone.”
“What do you mean? What will I be able to change?”
Deeana didn’t answer. He was about to say he would have changed everything already if he could, but he knew it wasn’t true. He looked at his younger self in the pavilion and thought he could have acted differently. During the next few years, he could have gone to Eun-Young. But his feelings and his pride had been wounded and had let her go. He stopped dead in his tracks as he saw himself go down on one knee in front of Eun-Young, a ring box in his hand.
“I can’t, Dee. I can’t watch my heart break a second time,” he said. “Not only was I rejected, but she made sure to tell me she didn’t love me.”
“You don’t get it, do you? This isn’t just about you! Look at HER!” ” Dee said, getting angry. “What did we just see? Think, for once in your life!”
Caine was shocked into silence by Deeana’s outburst. He did as she told him and looked at Eun-Young. Really look at her. She didn’t meet his eyes as she declined his proposal.
“You are so sweet, Caine,” Eun-Young said, patronizingly. “I seeked employment in Dee’s household because I fear you’ve become too attached to me. We both know we were just kids fooling around. There was never any future for us.”
He saw himself recoil as if she had slapped him.
“Don’t ever come near me again, you vile woman,” his younger self replied as he got up and left without looking back.
Eun-Young closed her eyes and lifted her hand to cover her mouth as she started laughing hysterically. Even though his heart bled, he kept watching her. He frowned as he noticed her hand was badly shaking and a tear rolled down her cheek. Eun-Young collapsed on the floor, laughter turning into cries. His first reflex was to run to her, but then he remembered that he wasn’t really there. He had just left her.
“It’s all my mother’s doing isn’t it?” he sadly asked Deeana. Tears pooled in his eyes. “She tried to turn us against each other, but Eun believed in me. I just didn’t believe in her. My pride didn’t let me look back, even if my heart was screaming to do so.”
“You’ve seen all you needed to see. Let us go.”
Eun-Young, still crying on the ground, blurred as Deeana took his arm again.
Caine wiped the tears from his eyes. He was back in his study, sitting in front of the fire. Deeana was nowhere to be seen. He guessed she had been some kind of apparition. She was probably at her Christmas party with everyone else. Including Axel, who was probably proposing to Eun-Young at that very moment. Caine didn’t know if what he saw was real or not. Knowing his mother and how she had pushed him in the arms of the daughter of the Duke of Dorset, he was inclined to believe it was true. Sadly for her, he had refused to meet the girl. Or any other after Eun-Young. He had wallowed in his sorrow, swearing to never trust and love anyone ever again.
“I truly fucked up. Eun deserves to be with someone who won’t hurt her like I did.”
“How right you are,” a masculine voice said, startling Caine.
Sitting next to him, a glass of whiskey in his hand, was Axel.
“Have you come to gloat about being engaged to Eun?” Caine asked him, unable to keep the venom from his voice.
“It would serve you right if I did. You’re a sad, cold-hearted man. She deserves the world and the moon on a silver platter, not someone who doesn’t trust nor believe in her,” Axel replied, calmly.
“Like you know her so well,” Caine said, annoyed at Axel’s know-it-all tone.
“It’s true I didn’t have the chance to grow up with her, but I know the woman she became. Can you say the same?”
Caine stayed silent, knowing Axel was right. He knew she had left Deeana’s household a few years ago to run a little inn in town. He had expressed his concerns to Deeana, but she had said the owner was a good and reputable man. A friend of her husband, she had said. He frowned, turning to take a good look at Axel.
“What is it you do exactly?” Caine asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Axel chuckled. “I’m sure you have guessed by now. I buy lands and businesses, then I hire people to manage them for me. I met Eun-Young during Sejong and Deeana’s wedding preparations a few years back. I think it was love at first sight for me.”
Caine stood up and filled his empty glass. If he was to listen to Axel, he needed more alcohol.
“So I guess if you aren’t married to her, Eun doesn’t feel the same?” Caine asked viciously.
The last thing he wanted was to sit and listen to Axel and Eun-Young’s love story. Axel took a sip of whiskey, unperturbed.
“You can retract those fangs of yours. I’m here to tell you of Eun-Young’s life. If you aren’t interested, we can always stare at the fire until my time is up,” Axel said. He continued before Caine could talk. “I know she doesn’t love me. For some unfathomable reason, she’s still in love with you.”
A weight suddenly lifted from Caine’s chest. She still loves me? Even after everything that happened between us? He dropped in his chair, having a lot to process. She only did what his mother told her to do and he, like an idiot, had accepted her lies. He turned to look at Axel.
“Please tell me of her life.”
“Like I was saying,” Axel started, rolling his eyes. “I saw her and fell in love. I let her know I wanted to officially court her, but she turned me down. She said she couldn’t accept my advances with a clear conscience. Her heart belonged to someone else. I told her I would respect her wishes, but I wanted us to be friends and get to know each other.”
Axel stopped to stare at the fire, deep in his memories. Caine couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He knew how it felt to be rejected by Eun-Young.
“So why propose to her tonight?” Caine asked.
“I think seeing Sejong and Deeana’s wedding was hard on her. I saw her look at you and I knew instantly you were the one in her heart. I still think the tears she shed that day were for you and not the bride,” Axel said, not answering the question. “Did you know she organized and coordinated the whole wedding?”
Caine nodded. He remembered Deeana talking about how Eun-Young was so hard working and efficient and wonderful, making her dream wedding come true. Every time she talked about Eun-Young it felt like a knife through his heart. He had a feeling Deeana was doing it on purpose, to get him to resolve things with Eun-Young.
“When I heard from Sejong that Eun-Young wanted to leave their household, I jumped on the occasion,” Axel continued. “I offered her to run this little inn I had just bought. I thought she would be perfect for the job and it came with living quarters. She gladly accepted. I think she didn’t want to be faced with their happiness.”
They both fell silent, the crackling fire the only noise in the room. The more Caine listened to Axel, the more he thought the man deserved Eun-Young. He provided her with a stable income and a home and was clearly still in love with her. He would make her a great husband. He would never make her cry.
“Tonight, when I ask her to marry me, I plan on giving her the inn as an engagement gift,” Axel looked at Caine and smiled sadly. “I need all the help I can get for her to accept me.”
He stood up and stretched his hand toward Caine. “Come, it’s time to go to the party.”
Caine hesitated, but he knew what he wanted didn’t matter. He clasped Axel’s arm and the room blurred once more. He first heard the music, then the laughter, as people were celebrating. He looked around and saw present day Axel dancing with Eun-Young. Both twirled around the dance floor, smiling at each other.
“I’m still gathering enough courage to ask her to follow me to the gardens so I can propose to her,” the Axel next to him said, snorting. “I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I keep repeating what I will say to her, once we’re alone. I know she likes me well enough, we work well together and she’s been warming up to me the past few years. I know it’s not a love match and I’m fine with it. I want to offer her a lifetime of companionship based on respect and friendship. Do you think she’ll accept me?”
“Say those words to me and I’ll marry you myself,” Caine said, trying to cover his pain as the couple made their way outside.
They followed the couple into the gardens. Eun-Young and present day Axel were sitting on a bench. Caine focused on Eun-Young. She looked happy and relaxed in Axel’s presence. Or maybe it was just the festive atmosphere and the few drinks she had had. She smiled when Axel took her hand in his. She used to look at me that way, Caine thought. He never imagined it would hurt this much to see her with someone else. He couldn’t bear to watch her accept Axel’s proposal, so he turned and went back inside. As soon as he stepped across the threshold, he found himself back in his study. Axel was sitting and studying him.
“I’ll always love her, but it’s too late now. I wish I could’ve done things differently to keep her by my side, but I didn’t. I only have myself to blame,” he told Axel.
“It’s never too late, Caine. Remember, the future isn’t set in stone. You can still change it,” Axel said, cryptically as he disappeared.
Caine sighed. Could he really go back to the party and stop her from getting engaged to Axel? What would he say? That he was sorry he ignored her all these years, but he knew now what his mother had done and he would spend the rest of their lives making it up to her. Would she laugh again and wave her engagement ring in his face? What did Axel mean when he said the future wasn’t set in stone? A delicate coughing noise was heard near the fireplace. Caine’s jaw dropped as he saw Eun-Young kneeling near the fire, rubbing her hands together, trying to get warm. He started to walk toward her, but stopped. Something wasn’t right. Her hair was disheveled, she was wearing old worn clothes. She looked pale and emaciated.
“Eun-Young?” he asked softly. “Are you truly here?”
“Caine…” she said in a croaking voice, her eyes lightening up a little. “I don’t know. I just remember being cold, so cold.”
“How can you be cold?” he asked her, kneeling by her side. He took her hand in his and it felt like ice. “Aren’t you at Dee’s Christmas party with Axel?”
Eun shook her head. “That was so long ago. I barely remember that night.”
“Where are you now? Do you remember?” Caine asked.
He got up, grabbed a quilt and covered her with it. He rubbed her back slowly in a soothing manner, trying to warm her up.
“I… I am not sure,” she said, frowning. “It’s all foggy. I can try to show you.”
Caine helped her up, keeping the quilt around her and everything blurred. A few moments later, they found themselves in a rundown cottage with barely any furniture in it. As Caine looked around, perplexed, coughing was heard coming from a room. He looked at Eun-Young, who only nodded, but didn’t move. Caine entered the room, not sure what to expect.
In the room was a small bed, a frail body in it. He recognized Eun-Young’s mother taking care of the sick person. It took him a few seconds to realize the person in bed was Eun-Young. Horrified, he watched as her body was wracked by a coughing fit. Her mother applied a cloth over her mouth and once the fit passed, the cloth was red with blood.
“My sweetest girl, you’re so brave” her mother said, wiping her tears. “Your suffering will soon end. There are so many people waiting for you in heaven, I promise you’ll never be cold or alone ever again.”
Caine stood, stunned. His brain refused to process what he was seeing. Turning around, he saw Eun-Young sadly looking at him.
“Please bring me back, I can't watch you...,” he implored Eun-Young, unable to say the word. I can’t watch you die.
A few moments later they were back in his study. Shaken by what he saw, Caine embraced Eun-Young.
“Why were you alone? Why weren’t you happily married to Axel?”
“I could never forget you,” she replied sadly.
“I never forgot you either, Eun,” Caine said, his heart breaking again. “You’ll always be my only love.”
Eun-Young lifted her head and smiled sadly as she slowly faded away.
“Remember, the future isn’t set in stone.”
“NO! Don’t go!”
The sound of his own cries jerked Caine awake. Disoriented, he looked around. He was sitting in his chair, by the fireplace, alone. Had it all been a dream? Somehow he knew what he saw had been real. He felt an urgent need to see Eun-Young. How much time had passed since he fell asleep? Was Deeana’s party over? Was he too late? Deeana, Axel and Eun-Young’s voices resonated in his mind. The future isn’t set in stone. He grabbed his coat and ran outside.
He reached Deeana’s townhouse after a few minutes. Music could be heard from the street. The party was still in full swing. Relieved, he entered and went straight to the gardens, where he knew Axel was proposing to Eun-Young at the very moment. He tried to think about what he would say once he foundthem.
To his surprise, Eun-Young was sitting alone on the bench, her gaze focused on her hands. She looked miserable, a far cry from the laughing woman he saw going into the gardens. He approached her and crouched in front of her.
“Why the long face, pretty lady?”
Eun-Young looked at him wide-eyed. She started to stand up, but Caine put his hands over her hands, forcing her to sit still.
“Please, Eun, stay with me,” Caine said.
He drank her sight. It had been so long since they had come face to face. He couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. To his relief, her hands felt warm in his. She tried to free her hands, but he didn’t let her.
“Caine, this isn’t a good time. Please let me go.”
“Never,” he said.
He stood up, pulling her against him. She resisted a little before giving in and wrapping her arms against him. He felt her sobbing against his chest. He gently caressed her hair.
“I’m so sorry. I’ve been a jerk to you these past few years. I know now that your rejection was my mother’s doing. I should have trusted you. I should have fought for you.”
“You should have,” she said in a small voice.
“I know I might be too late to ask for forgiveness, but I’m yours if you’ll have me.”
Eun-Young pulled away, confusion in her eyes.
“What are you trying to say?”
“A few years ago, I asked you to marry and you laughed, only to cry after,” Caine said. He wiped the tears from her eyes. “Now you’re crying, but if I was to ask you to marry me again, would it bring you joy this time?”
She stared at him, her confusion slowly turning into hope. Caine could see she was still unsure about what was happening, which was understandable after what had happened the first time he had proposed to her.
“Do you love me?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “Do you?”
“I never stopped loving you, Eun. I don’t care what my mother will say, please tell me you’ll be mine and we’ll spend the rest of our lives together.”
“Yes,” she said, laughing through her tears.
Caine picked her up and twirled her around, laughing with her. The future had never looked brighter.