Chapter 5 - A Proposal
Up until this point, Hyein was terrified. She couldn’t understand why she was a target, and why his mother wouldn’t leave her alone.
“Because after today, she thinks you are my woman, Ms. Seo Hyein.”
“But that’s not true.”
“Whether or not that’s true isn’t what’s important. Who would believe you? Besides, we’ve dated in the past. She’s going to find out when she investigates our past.”
Woojin laughed softly. It was the first time she had seen him laugh since their reunion. Hyein, on the other hand, wasn’t laughing.
“So, what’s your point?”
“You’re not dating anyone right now, right? Well, there’s no way you are. You’re still struggling to make a living. Looks like you haven’t broken out of your breadwinner orphan identity yet. Should I consider this my luck?”
“Did you do a background check on me?”
“Maybe. If necessary. I have a lot to learn since someone magically disappeared from me before.”
‘Do people change over a long period?’
Hyein wasn’t familiar with this Woojin. The Woojin she remembered treated her kindly and amicably. The current Woojin, however, had a habit of invading other people’s privacy and was crude with his words. Woojin made her flustered.
Maybe this arrogant side of him was his real personality? It had to be. That’s how he was able to deceive her for so many years. She misjudged his true character.
“So, you’re saying you did a background check on me? Did you come all the way here to tell me that?”
“No, I’m here to strike a deal. That was only the beginning. I was just about to get to the point…”
Regardless of what the point was, Hyein already lost interest in his proposal. She didn’t want to listen to him anymore. Hyein thought that he was going to apologize for his mother’s behavior. She had no clue what Woojin was going to propose.
Hyein walked past him. Well, at least she tried to. Woojin’s hand snuck onto her shoulder and held onto her. Unlike his unreasonable attitude, his actions were tender, as if he was holding onto something precious. It’s been a while since Hyein experienced such physical contact, so she unconsciously screamed out loud.
“Let me go!”
“I haven’t finished talking yet.”
Trying to prevent her from escaping, he grabbed her shoulder much more firmly and stroked her arm.
At that moment, Hyein bit her lower lip upon feeling a sense of déjà vu. All the places Woojin touched felt hot. He had this habit whenever he touched her body. Woojin would hold her shoulder and gently sweep his hand downwards. It appeared he was acting instinctively out of habit.
Hyein suddenly shook his arm off and snapped, “What exactly do you want to say to me?”
“We can help each other on one thing. You need money, and I need a woman to hoodwink my mother.”
His mouth slowly opened while she was in a daze.
“Be my girlfriend.”
Woojin appeared to have gone insane.
Hyein, astonished, bit her lower lip unknowingly.
“I thought you would be busy as a director, but you must have a lot of free time,” she replied.
“I don’t think you can even imagine how much I’m sacrificing by standing in front of you at this very moment.”
“If you’re sacrificing so much, why are you saying such weird things?”
There was something Hyein couldn’t understand even more than the vanity he carried. She couldn’t understand why he asked her to be his girlfriend again. Things change within eight years. It was that long. Woojin should realize how wide the gap between them was.
“Don’t you need someone to protect you? My mother is a scary person.”
“I’ll protect myself. If I tell her that nothing is going on between us, she’ll believe me. Plus, I’m Seo Hyein. Don’t you know who I am?”
“There’s no need to react so sensitively. I said we should date again, not love each other.”
Hyein flinched at his unexpected answer. He seemed to know what her reaction meant. She was disconcerted. As his lips parted, a quiet voice slowly flowed through. His tone, which had been domineering, subtly changed into a soft one.
He tried to persuade her.
“My mother hopes that somehow, by having me marry a girl from a nice background, it’ll benefit the company. Thanks to that, she forces me into these marriage meetings. Just like she did to my brother.”
“I’m not interested in your broken family’s history.”
“But I really… hate that. It feels like I’m some sort of farm animal.”
Hyein couldn’t figure out what his point was. She thought that if he was really against it, why couldn’t he tell that to his mother.
“Then go and tell her you don’t like it.”
“Don’t you think I’ve already tried that? I’ve been saying that since I was born. ‘Mother, I want to live my own life.’ Even if I tell her a thousand times, the result is still the same.”
Hyein recalled the woman with the cold temperament. She strangely couldn’t refute him and remained silent.
“Think about it… It’s not a bad proposal. If you accept my offer, we’ll be in a relationship for some time. Later, we can break up. Ms. Seo Hyein, you’ll also be compensated for this.”
Hyein belatedly went over Woojin’s words. The two words ‘time’ and ‘compensation’ appeared in her mind. Hyein’s gaze, filled with a sense of distrust, landed directly onto Woojin.
“Are you saying that… you’ll give me money if we date casually and break up?”
“If you want, we can date for a long time and then break up.”
“That’s not the point.”
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be money. It can be anything as long as it’s something that I can get like land, a building, a job.”
Hyein now understood his proposal. While other people thought that they were lovers, he was going to use her as a shield against his mother. In return for her efforts, he was going to pay her.
Hyein wanted to dissect his brain to find out how he could make such an indecent proposal, not just to anyone else, but to her of all people. She swallowed her anger quietly.
Hyein cynically asked, “How much can you pay me?”
“Aren’t the conditions up to you to decide, Ms. Seo Hyein? That’s why people negotiate, after all. What do you think? Is this proposal a bit more palatable now?”
If she had known earlier that Shin Woojin was a rude man who could unhesitatingly suggest hashing out money and buying a relationship, she would have never fallen in love with him once upon a time. Hyein was already in pieces because of their past, but even so, her heart still hurt with that realization.
Hyein bit firmly on her lower lip and coldly criticized him, “Do you take me as a joke? Until when are you going to live while trampling on other people’s dignity?! Back then, too. Even if you didn’t do that to me…!”
He looked puzzled, but Hyein kept her mouth resolutely shut. She loathed the idea of bringing out past events and making it look like she still had any regrets remaining.
“It doesn’t matter. I decline. I want to live with dignity. Just because I have no money doesn’t mean that I have no dignity. Please take care.”
Hyein, who had been shooting icicles with her eyes at the refined man in front of her, went inside the building without looking back.
Woojin’s low voice came from behind her, “You’ll eventually accept it.”
Hyein stopped mid-step. She looked down at him from the top of the stairs.
“Were you listening to what I said earlier?”
“I’d like to turn that question to you, Ms. Seo Hyein. It appears my words went in one ear and out the other. I told you. You’re going to be in massive trouble soon. I’m saying it’ll be better for you to accept my gracious proposal now instead of crying to me later on. That way, you can at least maintain some level of dignity and pride. Isn’t it better for you to make the decision yourself than to be forced into it?”
An adult Shin Woojin was far ruder and more impudent than she had thought.
“You don’t have to worry about that. I can look after myself.”
“How many times in your life do you think you will have an opportunity to change your life around so easily? Just peel it off and take a bite. I’m telling you, you’ll be tortured to death.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“And besides, isn’t it fun? Casually using a man you’ve abandoned once and abandoning him again.”
Hyein was about to refute him but hesitated. Because no matter how out of place it was, his voice sounded a bit hurt.
“You asked me if I didn’t know who you were. Well, I do. I’m doing this precisely because I do. We already know each other, so we don’t need to take the time to understand each other. There’s no way we’ll fall in love again. We’ve broken up on bad terms. All we have to do is take from this relationship what we need. I say this is a very good deal.”
Her lips trembled. She didn’t want to hear any more of this. Even if he had politely made this offer, she was still offended. After all, he suggested that he purchase her. Hyein also didn’t want to be involved with him. Every day, Hyein’s life was filled with difficulty. There wasn’t any need to listen to him anymore.
“I’m taking back my words. Don’t take care. I hope you fall and get some bruises,” she said nonchalantly.
With all her might, Hyein shut the entrance door to the building. Woojin was left alone outside her building. His face almost instantaneously was filled with distress. As he looked up at the rough outer wall of the building, he sighed. The words he had spoken to hurt her. They felt like arrows were striking his body instead of hers. The pain wouldn’t go away.
Of course, he wasn’t surprised that his offer would sound so vain. He didn’t expect her to react so coldly. After all, she abandoned him. Woojin was bitter because he appeared to be the desperate one.
“Ha. Damn it.”
After seeing the lights on the highest floor turn on, he returned to his car. He released a bitter sigh.
* * *
In the dressing room, Hyein’s hand that was unbuttoning her uniform stopped moving. She was stiff for a while as if she had become part of a still-life painting. She finally leaned her back onto the cabinet and exhaled a sigh. Hyein hadn’t been able to concentrate on her work for the past few days because of his absurd proposition. With financial support and a romantic relationship on the table, his words terrified her.
Was he truly a calculating and cruel person?
“Just peel it off and take a bite. I’m telling you, you’ll be tortured to death.”
“Peel it off and take a bite… What am I, a caterpillar? Peel what off?”
Shin Woojin was the epitome of disrespect and arrogance. It was like he had never learned something called humility. He pretended to be gentle. In reality, he trampled on others until they were in tatters.
Hyein shook her head. She took her uniform off and placed them inside the cabinet.
At that moment, the gallery manager appeared unexpectedly. She had a difficult expression on her face as if the words she had to convey were hard to deliver. Sensing that, Hyein grasped her uniform again.