Young-do helped Ha-sun into her car and shut the door once she had pulled the skirt of her dress out of the way. He circled around to the other side, where the driver held the other door open for him, and slid inside. The tinted windows brought a measure of relief from the camera flashes, and Young-do barely waited to loosen his tie until after the driver pulled away from the curb.
Ha-sun kicked her shoes off again and retrieved her phone from the narrow seat between them. As she unlocked her phone, she told the driver, “Just take us home. I’ll have Se-young cancel our reservations.”
Under normal circumstances, Young-do might have thanked her for canceling their after-party plans, but that was before he caught her sitting next to Eun-sang. It took some effort to curb the anger—and worry—he was feeling, but he couldn’t completely mask his tension. “What were you talking about with Eun-sang?”
Ha-sun kept typing on her phone and didn’t look at him. “I didn’t have time to say much of anything. I mentioned I had some stories that might interest her.”
Young-do scoffed at that, and Ha-sun actually looked up at him. Her expression was surprisingly mild, and if it weren’t for her assessing gaze, he would have thought it blank. “So the love triangle scandal is true?”
“It isn’t true.” The denial came too quickly to be natural, but Young-do wasn’t about to let Ha-sun pry into his feelings. Those weren’t relevant to their partnership.
Partnership. He was already regretting this decision, but in the end, the unknown blackmailer had forced his hand. Ha-sun was his hedge against the negative public backlash that would undoubtedly follow if those videos ever made it into the press. He needed to cement control of the shareholders and board members before his father could, and Ha-sun was the most expedient path to a fighting chance.
He still didn’t like it. He wasn’t sure if he would have liked turning her down any better.
“You like her, then.” Whatever she saw in his expression made her smile faintly. “Should I befriend her for you? That way you can be near her ‘coincidentally’ without giving the press reason to speculate. After all, why would I be friends with her if I suspected she might have other intentions toward my boyfriend?”
Boyfriend sounded as awkward as it felt. Young-do gave up and yanked his tie all the way off. “We’re just friends. I liked her in high school—” and still do “—but that’s as far as it went. We reconnected when she found out my father was eligible for early release.”
“That’s a shame. Cha Eun-sang is beautiful. I wouldn’t have minded having her around.”
She actually sounded disappointed. Young-do wasn’t sure what to do with that confession, so he ignored it and moved on to what he cared about most. “Leave her out of whatever you’re plotting.”
Ha-sun’s smile disappeared. “So you’re the only one who can use her, then?”
“I didn’t—” Young-do couldn’t bring himself to finish that denial, not when his selfish request for Eun-sang to get him out of the hotel contributed to the love triangle story breaking in the first place. But his mistakes didn’t mean he would blunt his words for Ha-sun. “Eun-sang doesn’t like getting caught up in chaebol games.”
“It’s a good thing that I’m not playing a game.”
Her words actually carried a bite in them. It was enough of a surprise that Young-do didn’t have an immediate response.
Ha-sun let out a short breath, and when she spoke again, the sharpness had vanished. “Cha Eun-sang agreed to hear me out and gave you permission to pass on her phone number to me. I have an opportunity for her, and if she won’t take it, then I will find someone else. It really is that simple, Choi Young-do.”
We didn’t talk much, but she never treated me like I was beneath her, either when she thought I was new money or when she knew I was poor.
Eun-sang’s vaguely positive assessment of Ha-sun was far from an endorsement, but Eun-sang had granted Ha-sun permission to get her number. She had also wished him and Ha-sun good luck. The words had stung then—still stung, if he were honest with himself—and Young-do suddenly wasn’t certain if his hurt had helped to fuel his distrust toward Ha-sun’s motivations.
Ha-sun had no reason to fend off any women he liked. She had flat out said she didn’t care about any of his girlfriends.
It struck Young-do then that he was trying to shield Eun-sang from Ha-sun just like he had tried to shield his mother from the news of his father’s impending release from prison. Instead of trusting either of them to decide what was best for themselves, he was interfering.
The last thing he wanted in his burgeoning friendship with Eun-sang was to sabotage it like he had sabotaged his mother’s trust in him.
Young-do pulled his cell phone out of the inner pocket of his suit coat. It only took a few seconds to forward Eun-sang’s phone number.
Ha-sun smiled when the text popped up on her phone. “Thank you for trusting me.”
“It isn’t you I trust.” Perhaps the honesty was ill-advised, but Young-do didn’t want to foster any misunderstandings between them on this point. “Eun-sang had no problem telling me off in high school. I trust her to turn you down if she doesn’t like the opportunity you’re offering.”
Young-do ignored the increased crowd of reporters that had gathered outside his mother’s house. Based on the change in questions they were shouting as he made his way through them and past the safety of the gate, the news of him and Ha-sun attending the Mega Entertainment event was already splashed across the internet. It was almost a relief that they weren’t asking him about his father anymore, though these new questions were their own flavor of irritating since he had no answer for them.
When did they first meet? When had they started dating? What did he like about her?
School, probably. Tonight. The five percent of Zeus Hotel stock her grandmother had control of.
Those weren’t answers that would win him favor with the public. He and Ha-sun had scheduled dinner at one of his favorite restaurants for the next evening in order to get the details of their “love story” straightened out. It wouldn’t fool any of the board members or major stockholders, but it would signal to them who was backing him in the inevitable fight against his father. If enough of the public bought it, maybe the tabloids would drop the love triangle story for good. If they were very lucky, the Zeus Hotel stock price would rise when markets opened on Monday.
The front porch light was on, which meant his mother had waited up for him. It eased his worry a little. Even if Kyung-ran hadn’t been happy with his decision to accept Ha-sun’s proposal in the end, she had promised she would support him on whatever path he chose.
He had barely gotten his shoes off before his mother arrived at the entranceway, wearing her nightgown, robe, and a mildly concerned expression. “Welcome home. How did it go?”
“As well as could be expected.” Young-do gave her as reassuring a smile as he could muster. She didn’t look very convinced by it. “Did I make the main page?”
Young-do took off his suit coat and followed her into the living room. He sat down next to her on the couch, and she picked up her tablet from the coffee table. Kyung-ran pulled up one of the gossip sites he had asked her to watch during the event.
There was a large picture of him and Ha-sun walking up the steps of the building, right on the main page. It was weird to see himself like this, even though pictures of him in the press were nothing new since he began shepherding Zeus Hotel.
Ha-sun wasn’t the woman he had ever fantasized would be holding his arm like that.
Young-do skimmed through the article, though it was barely long enough to be called that. The comments section was far more interesting. Tucked between the typical reactions about how surprised people were, how good (or how terrible) they looked together, were items of more substance, like one commenter who suggested that he and Ha-sun must have decided to make such a daring appearance to quell the earlier love triangle rumor with Eun-sang.
(The subsequent digs against Eun-sang—several mentions of her being easy or a gold-digger or needing to be more careful of her image, coupled with a particular phrase that got under his skin: such a plain, foxlike woman could never compete with Ryu Ha-sun—both irritated and amused him. None of them had any idea why Eun-sang was so compelling, and they would all swallow their tongues if they knew it was more likely for Ha-sun to fall for Eun-sang than for Eun-sang to fall for him.
He still hoped that Eun-sang wouldn’t see any of those comments. She didn’t deserve to get caught up in any more of this mess or get hurt because of netizens who had nothing better to do than be spiteful online.)
Kyung-ran showed him some other speculative articles other gossip sites had posted, but she didn’t talk very much. She just let him read everything for himself until he got tired of it and set the tablet back on the coffee table.
“Have you heard from Vice President Kwon?”
Young-do shook his head. “No, but I don’t expect we’ll hear from him until tomorrow.” It was already nearing midnight, and it was unlikely for anything to happen tonight. The board members who hadn’t pledged to Young-do were likely spending the night mulling over what his appearance with Ha-sun meant for their futures. They needed time to redo their own calculations, and he could afford to give them the night. Ha-sun had promised to let him know who tried to contact her or her grandmother and what they said.
He had played his hand, and now it was their turn to respond.
“How are you feeling?”
Young-do didn’t answer his mother right away. It would have been easy to give her an answer that neither of them believed, but he had agreed to let her try to be the kind of mother he could depend on.
He needed someone he could trust with his uncertainty. Not that he didn’t trust Rachel—far from it—or even Myung-soo or Eun-sang, but Rachel had little patience for his vulnerability when he had a clear path to take, and Myung-soo and Eun-sang offered plenty of sympathy but little in the way of actual help.
Kyung-ran had promised that she wouldn’t leave him behind again. He wouldn’t face his father alone this time. He could make the choice to trust her with his doubts and fears, especially since she hadn’t run away after seeing the blackmail videos.
“Unsettled.” It was too bloodless of an answer, so he elaborated. “I’m not sure if I made the right choice with Ryu Ha-sun, but I’m past the point where I can change my mind.”
That would be an absolute disaster. If he and Ha-sun amounted to nothing after such a public display, it would look to everyone as if Pyo Sook-ja had withdrawn her support, and that would completely ruin his chances of ousting his father.
Young-do wondered if Ha-sun was having second thoughts about making him this offer in the first place. He hadn’t conducted himself too badly, aside from their not-quite fight over Eun-sang in the car.
A fight over Eun-sang.
He wished, not for the first time, that he could shake off the ghosts of high school. Terrorizing Eun-sang hadn’t done either of them any good in the end, and it was beyond time that he stopped acting like the wound he had made in his own heart was still bleeding. Eun-sang believed he could do that, or else she wouldn’t have agreed to try to be friends with him.
No. They were friends now; she had confirmed as much when he went to talk to her about her refusal of his father’s settlement money. His lingering romantic feelings for her were his own problem, one that he wasn’t going to allow to get in the way of their new friendship.
When his mother trailed off, Young-do took her hand and gave it a gentle, protective squeeze. “I’m going to need your help in the morning to decide what our next steps are. I still owe you for that home-cooked meal. Would you go out to breakfast with me?”
Kyung-ran’s expression softened. “What time should we leave?”