Young-do and Ha-sun walked straight ahead, ignoring everyone who was gawking at them. Including, Eun-sang noted, herself and Tan. More accurately, Young-do never spared them a glance; Ha-sun wore a far more inviting expression, and when Eun-sang met her gaze, Ha-sun actually nodded.
It was just the faint dip of her head, but it was an unmistakable greeting. Eun-sang was too surprised to do anything other than continue staring, and then Young-do and Ha-sun were past them completely.
Eun-sang turned back to Tan; his eyes were wide. “Do you think Bo-na knows he’s here?”
“Shit.” Eun-sang set down her champagne flute and got to her feet. Tan looked ready to scramble after her, but she stopped him. “Stay here in case she comes by. I’ll try to find her.”
Tan grimaced but nodded. Eun-sang limited herself to a brisk walk as she hunted through the crowd for Bo-na. She caught a glimpse of Hyo-shin in conversation with a middle-aged man, passed a rookie idol group looking awkward and uncertain at their table, and dodged a pair of actresses excitedly catching up with one another.
She finally spotted Bo-na and Chan-young in a secluded alcove, though it quickly became obvious that they weren’t having fun: Bo-na was furious, and Chan-young’s normally even-keeled demeanor was cracking. Eun-sang hurried over just in time to hear Bo-na say, “He isn’t supposed to be here!”
There were only a handful of times Eun-sang had ever heard Bo-na so angry, and she suddenly feared they were going to have an awful repeat of their third year of high school. Only instead of in front of the seniors at the Jeguk cafeteria, this was in front of all the major players of the entertainment industry at the annual gala Bo-na’s family’s company threw.
“Ryu Ha-sun invited Young-do,” Eun-sang broke in.
Bo-na swiveled to look at Eun-sang. “I guessed that when I saw her holding his arm. But why? He knows he’s not welcome! I don’t want him here, or anywhere near my Chan-young, ever!”
Eun-sang hesitated for a moment, debating the merits of keeping Young-do’s confidence versus the very real chance Bo-na might summon security and have Young-do thrown out. Young-do and Ha-sun were probably already on the internet. This had to be the public event he was supposed to escort Ha-sun to. And Bo-na could keep a secret if it was important.
She stepped in close and lowered her voice so no one else outside their alcove could overhear. “Ha-sun offered him an engagement. Young-do accepted.”
“Oh my god.” Bo-na covered her mouth. “Oh my god, you’re serious. You’re actually serious!”
Chan-young looked as if he had swallowed something wrong. “How did you find out?”
“That doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that Bo-na knows why Young-do is here.”
Bo-na blinked in surprise, and then she dropped her hand. Her shock drained away, only to be replaced by her scowl—but at least it looked more sullen than explosive. “I can’t kick him out then. Not if he’s going to be Pyo Sook-ja’s grandson-in-law.” She muttered something uncomplimentary about one of Mega Entertainment’s major shareholders and crossed her arms, but at least she didn’t look as if she was about to storm after Young-do anymore.
Chan-young’s shoulders relaxed, and he held out his hand, letting Bo-na choose whether or not to take it. “I’ll stay by your side all night,” he promised. “We’ll get through this together.”
Bo-na didn’t look entirely happy, but she uncrossed her arms and, instead of taking Chan-young’s hand, stepped next to him and hooked their arms together so she could be even closer to him. “I’m going to ignore him the whole time.”
Bo-na was true to her word and ignored Young-do’s existence with a heroic determination that Eun-sang couldn’t help but admire. It was especially impressive considering Young-do and Ha-sun weren’t seated that far from them and were directly in Bo-na’s line of sight. She spent most of the dinner turned slightly to face Chan-young to compensate. Tan was also good at keeping Bo-na’s attention on their table during the dinner by telling her about all of the new places in Hong Kong she ought to take Chan-young during the next school break.
Hyo-shin had noticed Young-do’s presence when he came back from socializing, but he said nothing of it. If Eun-sang hadn’t caught the occasional dark look Hyo-shin threw in Young-do’s direction, she would have thought him over the confrontations at the Ministry of Justice event and the ambush at his breakfast with Rachel.
But Hyo-shin wasn’t holding up as well as he had during the Ministry of Justice event. Then he had kept up the witty commentary and the pleasantries far more easily, but half the time when she glanced his way during the speeches or the performances, he looked—
He looked like he had when they went to his apartment and helped him pack. Exhausted. Lost. Unfocused. Like the sinews that held him together were snapping one by one. Eun-sang reminded herself that he had just come off the last grueling days on set and that it was only natural for him to look awful, but Tan’s warning about the height of the building Chan-young lived in wormed its way into the back of her brain and refused to be quiet.
Once, during a particularly boring speech, she caught Chan-young looking at her. His gaze was focused and assessing, and when Eun-sang frowned at him, Chan-young shook his head slightly. It was a clear later, and Eun-sang wrinkled her nose at him but let the moment go.
For her part, Eun-sang only looked in Young-do’s direction while everyone was applauding. She never saw him look at her, and as much as she didn’t want it to affect her, it was a relief he didn’t seem to care that she was here. The theater he was staging with Ha-sun was far more important than anything he could possibly say to her. With the pictures of Young-do and Ha-sun arriving together undoubtedly spreading through the internet, the last thing either of them needed was Eun-sang getting close enough to him for them to be caught in the same frame. The repudiated love triangle scandal was dying, and she didn’t want it to flare up again.
(She wondered if Young-do’s decision was due to their conversation truly shaking him up or the blackmailer that had appeared in his life. She hoped it was the right choice for him, regardless.
Six years of his life for the chance to keep Zeus Hotel out of his father’s hands. It wasn’t a choice she would make.)
After the dessert and the final speech, the attendees drifted slowly home or headed out to continue the party elsewhere. Tan got whisked away by Won to talk to someone Eun-sang didn’t know, Bo-na made the rounds to put in some face time with varying Mega Entertainment shareholders, Chan-young went with her, and Hyo-shin stepped away to talk to a woman he claimed was an assistant PD.
Eun-sang finished off her champagne and debated calling a taxi to take her home instead of waiting for Bo-na to summon the driver she had arranged. The strapless bra was digging into her skin painfully, and she wanted it—and the beautiful but not warm enough dress—off. She needed to get home before midnight, if possible, if only so her mother wouldn’t stay up too late waiting for her. Eun-sang wanted to collapse and sleep for as many hours as she could after—
She turned to see who was addressing her, and she struggled to keep the surprise off her face when she recognized Ryu Ha-sun. Ha-sun was gorgeous in her red dress, and this close Eun-sang noticed that her lipstick was a perfect match for the fabric. At the last moment, Eun-sang remembered to put on the confident mask she had learned for the Kim brothers. She didn’t like this game at all, but she still remembered how to play it. “Ryu Ha-sun. It’s been ages.”
Ha-sun’s smile widened a little. Eun-sang wasn’t certain if that was a good sign. “Do you mind if I have a seat?”
“Of course not.”
Ha-sun elegantly dropped into what had been Chan-young’s seat. She let out a long sigh and then actually slipped off her designer heels as easily as if she were at her home. “Choi Young-do is far too tall. I had to buy new shoes when he agreed to accompany me, so of course these aren’t broken in.” She frowned thoughtfully down at her bare feet, and Eun-sang could see the reddened patches of skin on her heels and toes. “No blisters yet.”
Eun-sang remembered plenty of designer shoes that showed up at her home at the last moment and the times she had worn them until blisters formed and broke and bled. She also wasn’t sure what to do with the implication that Ha-sun hadn’t been certain that Young-do would come with her. Eun-sang refused to jump into a topic that wasn’t explicitly offered. “Put bandaids on your heels as soon as you can. I found that works when my shoes aren’t broken in yet.”
“Thank you for the suggestion,” Ha-sun said. It sounded sincere.
Eun-sang wished she hadn’t already finished off her champagne. Drinking it would have bought her some time to collect her thoughts and figure out a way to politely excuse herself from the table. She had had her fill of “the other woman” talks with Yoo Rachel in high school, and she didn’t want to deal with that from Ha-sun this evening. Or ever.
Did Ha-sun even know that Young-do still had feelings for her? Or was Eun-sang getting ahead of herself already?
Ha-sun didn’t seem in a hurry to move the conversation forward. She let the silence stretch between them long enough that Eun-sang started getting nervous. Then she got annoyed at herself for feeling like that. Like she didn’t belong.
She did belong. Bo-na had invited her, for years now. She was a guest just like Ha-sun was. She might not own any significant percentage of Mega Entertainment stock, but she still sat at Bo-na’s table because Bo-na wanted her there, not because Bo-na was obligated to ask her to come.
“Are you the same Cha Eun-sang who works for YBS?”
Of all the things that Ha-sun could have asked, that was near the bottom of the list. Worry curled around her heart, and her thoughts raced, kickstarted by a sudden burst of adrenaline—was Ha-sun connected to the Hongs somehow? Had she missed a key part of her investigation? In her focus to convince her bosses that Young-do had nothing to do with the early release of his father, had she overlooked Ha-sun and her grandmother?
Some part of her thoughts must have shown on her face, because Ha-sun raised her hand as if to forestall any outbursts from her. “I only ask because if you are, I have some suggestions for other stories. If you think they’re newsworthy and a good fit for your program.”
That was definitely not what Eun-sang expected. No one had ever approached her with tips before—they approached Writer Nam or PD Yoon or even Writer Ji sometimes. Not her, the least senior member of the team, the one with the least amount of power to actually do something with those tips.
What did Ha-sun hope to gain by approaching her, specifically? Eun-sang doubted she was Ha-sun’s only contact in the entire broadcasting industry. Ha-sun had mentioned the program she worked on—was it the program in general that she was interested in? Or was Eun-sang merely a stepping stone to the other members of her team? How did that factor into Young-do’s claim that Ha-sun had proposed their marriage in order to gain his help in the political arena?
What would Yoo-mi do?
Eun-sang took a breath, schooled her expression, and reminded herself that Ha-sun had come to her first. Ha-sun was the one who wanted to use her. That meant Eun-sang had more leverage right now. “I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.”
Ha-sun smiled again. “Are you free this—”
Eun-sang didn’t even have to turn around to identify the speaker, but she looked anyway. Young-do towered over them both in black and red, and his gaze flickered back between Ha-sun and Eun-sang before settling again on Ha-sun.
Ha-sun peered up at him; her smile was gone. “You’re finished?”
“I am. Are you?” His eyes met Eun-sang’s again, and she wondered if she was imagining the concern in his eyes. She certainly wasn’t imagining the subtle tension in the way he stood.
“Yes, or close enough to it.” Ha-sun slipped her high heels back on and got to her feet. She moved to stand beside Young-do and placed her hand at the crook of his elbow, as if it were a habit already. Then she looked back to Eun-sang and asked, “Does Young-do have your number?”
“Yes.” Eun-sang wondered if that was something she shouldn’t have admitted to, but Ha-sun had to have heard about the love triangle scandal. She had to have seen the pictures of her helping Young-do with his getaway from the hotel. It would be weird if he didn’t have her number after all that.
“Do you mind if I get it from him?”
“That’s fine with me.”
Surprise flickered across Young-do’s face before his politely distant mask came back up. It didn’t fit as well as before, and Eun-sang was certain this time that he was worried—about her or this situation. She squashed the urge to reassure him that she could manage this without his help.
“My assistant will be in touch,” Ha-sun said. “Have a good evening, Eun-sang.”
“Thank you. And—good luck, you two.”
Ha-sun startled; Young-do’s expression went hard and blank. Eun-sang didn’t take back the words, not even when Ha-sun looked up at Young-do as if she were searching for answers in the planes of his face.
Perhaps it was a little cruel, for her to wish them luck when Eun-sang knew that Young-do still wasn’t over his feelings for her, but—but she did want them to succeed when they were both sacrificing so much of their lives in order to achieve their goals. Young-do hated his name getting dragged into the headlines, and it would definitely be there for a while with speculation running rampant at his sudden appearance at Ha-sun’s side.
She just hoped that Young-do had made the right choice.