hi, guys...i'm trying my hand at writing fan fic inspired by our
hope you'll like it.
It’s 5 minutes till eight, but Nicole have not come out from his
father’s study. Her personal maid, has been knocking at her door for 3 minutes
already coercing her to come out.
Turning away from the door, she kicked the throw pillow she had thrown across the room earlier. If it was almost eight, why wasn’t her father at the study door instead of her maid? His father just came from a business trip that afternoon and hadn’t yet taken to see if his daughter was still alive.
Tonight – the night of Nicole’s engagement party – was supposed to be special. Her father would have noticed her, she told herself. He should have been paying attention to her. “If only he would take a couple of minutes to look, you’d see that your daughter is totally gorgeous tonight.” Nicole grumbled to herself, turning around to pull one book from his father’s table then threw it across the room.
She remembered the huge basket of flower that has been sent earlier by Kenneth. Dismissing his gesture, she knew very well that Kenneth has his secretaries to take care of those things.
“Nicole?” the maid’s voice is growing nervous. “Mr. Kenneth has arrived. He and your father are waiting for you.”
“Really?” Nicole’s smile was skeptical. “Are they waiting for me, or are they discussing Papa’s business trip?”
When her maid did not respond, Nicole gave a short laugh. Of course, they’re discussing business….what else did they have to discuss? Certainly not me. She told herself.
She glanced up as his father walked in through the side door of the study. He calmly stooped to retrieve the books and throw pillow from the floor.
“What are you doing?” he asked Nicole.
“I’m having one of my tantrums,” she said. Staring at her gown, then turned around so that her father could see how beautiful she is. “How does my gown look?”
His father pulled her out of the chair. “That’s a lovely gown and you’re beautiful.” He guided her toward the door. “The guests are coming, let’s go and greet them.” He continued.
“Do I really have to do this Papa?”
“Yes, you do….Kenneth is a good man.”
“Yes, he really is.” Nicole admitted.
Nicole suddenly stopped. “Papa, how was your trip? Did it go well?”
“Come on, Nicole. You would not want to talk business tonight. Tonight is a night for celebration.” He answered.
When Papa? When are we going to talk instead of polite conversation? Nicole silently asked herself.
Nicole Jin – Chae Rim
Kenneth Yin – JDG
Warren – You Zhen
Erica – Yun Mi
Mr. Jin – Nicole’s father
“At last….my fiancée.” The deep, husky voice of Kenneth pulled
Nicole’s thought away from her father. Kenneth Yin, tall, dark and elegant in
his black suit, leaned casually against the wall near the front door, watching
them as they approach the hall. As always, Nicole’s heart did a flip-flop at
the sight and sound of him.
Kenneth held out his hand to her. “So beautiful, you take my breath away.” He leaned closer as he kissed her cheek.
“You think so? Do I really look beautiful?” Nicole tilted her head to meet his eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” Kenneth frowned. “Surely, you don’t have doubts about that?”
“Of course not.” She answered ruefully. “I just want to hear you say it again.”
He laughed, pulling her closer. The doorbell rang, and suddenly, wave of guests was upon them.
Within the next hour, the house was overflowing with who’s who of the society. The vulnerable and insecure woman who had locked herself in the study had completely disappeared. In her place was a beautiful, skilled and sophisticated hostess who glowed with vigor.
Everyone in the room envied her – being the only heir to the vast fortune of the Jin’s empire - she’s not only a sight to behold ……she’s got the world at her fingertips because of her wit and charm. And now…..she’s getting engaged to the most sought-after bachelor of Seoul – Mr. Kenneth Yin. Her so-called “friends” are gnawing their teeth with envy.
Kenneth Yin’s family belongs to the old rich. Their social standing and political clout makes their family a force to reckon with. The Yin’s are respected in social and financial circles not only locally but also nationally. After the death of Kenneth’s father, the board unanimously agreed that he take over his father as President of the various businesses that his father left behind. Kenneth, who is only 33 years old did not disappoint the board. He was given the moniker “the man with the golden touch”. Matching to his credentials is his good looks – his features were well defined, sculptured with planes and angles, the skin bronzed and smooth, his height….6 ft. and a smile that would melt even your mother’s heart.
Yes, Nicole decided with a tiny smile of satisfaction, Kenneth is really the catch of the decade. He’s really a perfect match for her.
“Why are you hiding here my dearest cousin?” Nicole’s cousin – Warren – asked her lazily over a champagne glass when he noticed her in the balcony. “Shouldn’t you be out there mingling with the rabid sycophants?”
She frowned as she watched a familiar figure slide close to Kenneth, her slender body casually but sexily brushing against his. “I thought you were going to watch Erica?” Nicole ignored Warren’s question.
“I am watching her – I’m watching her seduce Kenneth.”
“Well, do something.”
“What shall I do? Drag her away by the hair or should I murder her?” Warren said insolently.
“I don’t care how you do it. Just get her away from Kenneth.” Nicole is becoming irritated. “Get rid of her.” She added with a wicked gleam.
“Why are you worrying?” Warren took a delicate sip of his champagne. “He’s all yours now.”
“Someone ought to tell her that. Look at her, doesn’t she know why she’s here tonight?”
“She knows. In fact, she’s been giving you her dagger look each time you turn your back. If only looks could kill.” Warren’s voice held a touch of malice.
“Get rid of her, Warren.” Nicole told him for the 2nd time.
“Why do you assume that it’s my job to take care of Erica?”
“Because you’re in love with her.” She said nonchalantly. “You should make a move or else…..” her voice trailed off as Erica once again caught her eye.
Across the room, Erica leaned against Kenneth and continued with what looked like an intimate conversation. As Nicole watched her fiance’s face, her lips tightened slightly. Nicole could not find objection to Kenneth’s face on Erica’s attention.
Suddenly, the room seemed close and airless. “Warren,” she said slowly, her voice rough. “I’m tired. I think I need some fresh air. If anyone misses me, tell them I’ve gone to the powder room to freshen up or something.”
Moving quickly into the darkness, Nicole didn’t have to consider her destination; her footsteps were automatic as she followed the narrow flagstone leading her to her secret place whenever she’s upset or when she wants to be alone. She entered the rose arch which is anchored by lady’s mantle, white viola, variegated ivy, penstemon, rue and compost piles. This place serves as her sanctuary, a sunken garden full of trees and bushes. In spring, flowers w/ different texture and color add to the charm of this place. The Jin’s mansion has been there for generations even before her parents got married. She lived here all her life. This is the place she is most familiar with. She thought of all the times she played here as a child….before her mother’s death. Life was simple then…..her parents gave her the idea that the world is centered around her. But when her mother suddenly died of cancer when she was ten, her world collapsed. “The Garden” (as she calls it) became the witness of her anger and grief, listened to her turmoil and confusion of a child entering her teens.
Nicole is aware of what others thought of her…..they thought her to be beautiful but spoiled young woman leading a fairy-tale kind of life. Her picture is often seen plastered in society pages of newspapers. But it’s only “The Garden” who knew the real Nicole.
Nicole sat on one of the wooden bench near the pond and looked out over the lawns and gardens.
Nicole sighed, thinking to herself….”what’s wrong with me? What am I getting into?” She wished her mother is here to guide her….to help her take the most important step she would make in her entire life.
Nicole knows Kenneth is the Mr. Perfect of her life. But she feels that something is lacking. She knows that he is holding something back from her, as if he is hiding something from her. They never talked about important things…..like their individual hopes, fears, and dreams. And they never talked once about “LOVE” – the most important ingredient in a relationship. She wasn’t sure how Kenneth felt about her, she’s not even sure how she felt about him either. She’s got a crush on him since she was thirteen…..but surely that would not be solely the basis for them to get married? Does she really love him?
Nicole knows it’s stupid to have doubts now. Not when they’re now officially engaged. Her friends would kill to be in her position.
Suddenly, she heard voices drifting through the dark garden. Nicole grimaced, she wasn’t ready to see anyone yet. She needs to regain her composure…to get back to her carefree personality. They should not see her in this state.
As the voice grew nearer, she recognized their voice. Kenneth and his friend Allan had
entered the sunken garden. Raising her head slightly, she saw them pause near the rose arch. They both lit cigars, illuminating Kenneth’s dark features.
“Are you really ready to get chained Kenneth?” Allan asked. “I know that you two would eventually get married, but not this soon. You’ve shocked all of us with this engagement. No one thought that Nicole Jin would settle down so soon. She was having so much fun.” He continued.
“What else can she do?” Kenneth asked. “Her reign as sweetheart of society won’t last forever….it’s the least she can do rather than jetting around the world until she becomes jaded.”
“I guess you’re right. What else can she do? Could you imagine her at a job?” Allan laughed.
“She wouldn’t last five minutes at a real job. She only knows how to be rich and beautiful. Nicole is like a delicate piece, she’s warm and beautiful but she’s not for the real world. That’s why his father is protecting her. Her beauty is vibrant and warm, but under that there’s a fragile quality to her nature.” Kenneth continued. “She’s like a jewelry that needs to be protected.”
“You mean that she’ll make a dazzling accessory. Somehow, you don’t sound like a man in love.” Allan said with a laugh. When Kenneth did not answer and the silence became awkward, he added, “Sorry, Kenneth. It’s none of my business.”
Kenneth put his cigar away, then he turned toward the house. “Let’s go back.” he said as he walked away.
Nicole didn’t move. She sat perfectly still as their voices faded into the night. She stared blankly into the darkness.
as I promised, here is the last part of Chapter 1. I don't know
when my next chapter will be posted....please bear with me.
Happy Weekend to All!
The overheard words swarmed in Nicole’s mind, echoing over and
over again. Was that how Kenneth saw her? Did she have no more worth to him
other than for public display?
Allan was right, Kenneth didn’t sound like a man in love. As Nicole tried to accept the fact, pain intruded into every inch of her body, making it difficult for her to think. Earlier, she was wondering if she love Kenneth. Now she knew. She’s in love with him. Kenneth has the power to hurt her deeply…..that realization made her want to cry and escape. She felt dampness in her cheek. She realized that she was crying.
Don’t let it hurt you Nicole, she told herself. Don’t give in to hurt. Concentrate on something else.
Ever since her mother’s death, Nicole had not allowed pain to reach her. She threw tantrums especially when she feels that her father is neglecting her, but she had not allowed tears. She always try to look at the bright side of things, one moment she’s grumpy….another moment, she’s cheerful. It was always like that until now. Tears were foreign to Nicole. But she was crying now. She pushed the pain aside and latch on to another emotion…anger.
How dare Kenneth made that kind of judgement?
“Papa will kill you Kenneth when he finds out that you made me cry.” She thought vengefully. “He will destroy your reputation and will –“ she cut off the words abruptly.
Of course her father wouldn’t do anything to Kenneth because no one would know. No one would ever know. Where’s her pride? She couldn’t bear the thought of anyone knowing how she had been humiliated. But in the back of her mind, she knew that no one would understand. Even her father would secretly agree with Kenneth’s opinion of her. That’s a fact that she has to face. And she loves Kenneth too much to destroy him…..that’s the painful truth.
The sound of laughter from the terrace brought her back to the present. How long had she been in the garden? She knew she had to go back, but how was she going to face Kenneth without falling to pieces in front of him and everybody else?
Nicole decided to do what she usually did….to pretend. You’ve been doing it for years Nicole, you can do it again, she told herself.
Raising her chin, she made her way to the back of the house and entered through the kitchen, keeping her head down as she walked through the knot of busy caterers she hired.
She went straight to her bedroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She groaned at what she saw….her eyes were red-rimmed and streaks of mascara were on her cheeks. She applied cold compress to her eyes. She must regain her composure quickly before they notice that she’s been gone for a long time. She would show Kenneth how wrong he is. She would show them all. She would prove to him that she’s not just a dazzling accessory to be displayed when needed.
Minutes later, she went down. But her steps faltered when she saw Kenneth at the foot of the stairs waiting for her. Drawing a deep breath, she bounced down the remaining steps then smiled at him.
“Feeling bored?” Nicole cheerfully asked. “I saw you talking to Mr. Kang a while ago. He looked like he’s asking you for a free advice. What do you charge him for saving his business, his daughter?” she added, her eyes sparkling more than ever.
“Who, Judith?” Kenneth chuckled. His voice dry, but his eyes were strangely watchful as he examined her face. “Where have you been?”
Why was he staring? She wondered. Could he sense what she has been through? Is she that transparent? She should have known how keen and observant Kenneth is.
“Officially, I’ve been to the powder room,” she said. “But the truth is, I had to get away from the noise. It all sounded so…..so dreadfully happy.”
“Dreadfully?” he asked. His hands came up to rest on her waist in what could have been a casually affectionate gesture.
Why did she say “dreadful”? Kenneth is too sharp; he picked up each tinge, hasty word.
Please, God, she thought desperately. Don’t let him feel me tremble. Just please let me keep my dignity. It’s the only thing I have.
She looked frantically into the ballroom beyond him for a means of escape. “Oh, there’s Judith,” she said frowning. “She’s in charge of the luncheon meeting next week, I’d better go talk to her or else she’ll mope.”
She tiptoed to slide a kiss on Kenneth’s jaw. For a moment, she felt his hands pressure increase painfully on her waist then she was free, making her way through the crowd.
For the next hour, Nicole shined. She left the clusters of guests dazed by her wit and charm. There wasn’t a person who wasn’t affected by her. They all admired, envied, and adored her.
Look Kenneth, she thought with satisfaction. I’ve dazzled them all. Everyone thinks I’m wonderful. But why don’t you? She asked silently.
As she glanced up, she saw Warren beside her.
Her face flushed, she remarked. “I’m a hit as usual”.
“As usual,” Warren readily agreed. “What’s wrong, Nicole?” His voice serious.
“What could be wrong?” she laughed. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“There’s something different about you. This mood was not with you earlier. What happened?”
“I’m just excited. After all, it’s my engagement party.”
“It’s not that. There’s something desperate about you tonight.”
Nicole avoided his cousin’s eyes. “Isn’t it wonderful Warren? I’m going to marry the catch of the decade. Everyone is envious of me.”
“Nicole, look at me.” Warren said worriedly. “I know something’s wrong…..talk to me.”
“Do you remember the last tantrum I threw?” she said slowly.
“No, the one before that.”
“I didn’t witness that. But your maid said that it took a week for the dust to settle.”
“Then back off, Warren. If you don’t want me to top that one, then don’t ask questions.”
she said softly then walked away from him.
When Nicole saw Kenneth, apparently oblivious to her, standing across the room talking with her father she walked towards a group of men.
Sliding her arm through one of Allan’s, she said, “Why are you men standing here with your backs to the party? Are you trying to drive every woman in this room crazy?”
They all laughed. They were all looking at her devilish smile.
“No,” Allan answered. We’re waiting for you to notice us. What took you so long?”
One of her father’s associates remarked, “You’re beautiful tonight.” He didn’t try to hide the flirtatious glimmer in his eyes. “You won’t mind if I suggest that you forget Kenneth and come with me for a really wild weekend”.
“Of course, I don’t mind.” She said flirtatiously, batting her eyelashes with exaggeration. “After all, what are friends for?”
“But I do mind even if Nicole doesn’t.” Kenneth said from directly behind her, slidding his arm around her waist. “I think it’s time to dance with my fiancé.”
The group booed noisily, but Nicole merely smiled at them and gave a helpless shrug. “Sorry, my wicked fiancé has discovered us.”
Allan, glaring at Kenneth mockingly, said. “Are you letting him get away with this Nicole? He’s stealing the most stunning woman in the room away from us.”
“No, I won’t.” she said as Kenneth guided her to the dance floor. “It’s one of his best qualities. See you all later.”
As they danced in silence, Nicole stared determinedly over his shoulder. There was a tension between them that hadn’t been there before tonight. She didn’t like it. Nicole’s life was supposed to be fun. This wasn’t fun at all. This was pure torture.
She could feel his heart beating and his warm breath as they danced. She closed her eyes, the scent of him invaded her nostrils, making her head spin. Her breath became hot and uneven as though she had a fever.
Nicole was thankful that he didn’t try to maintain a conversation. If he had, she would have been unable to hide her vulnerable, raw emotions and the fact that being simply near him shattered her.
When the music ended, she glanced up. The taut silence continued as their eyes met and held. She murmured an unintelligible excuse then moved away from him. She really must escape from him before she breaks down.
The party ended at about three in the morning. Her father and their overnight guests had already gone to bed. Only Nicole, Kenneth and Warren were left in the entry hall.
Warren kissed her cheek then shook Kenneth’s hand then said, “Good night, both of you. See you in the morning.” Warren walked toward the stairs.
“Good night, Warren,” Nicole said. Her stomach tightening as she turned to Kenneth. “I think he drunk too much.”
“You’re right. But let’s not talk about him.” Without taking his gaze from her lips, he said softly, “What are you going do while I’m in Los Angeles?”
“Save the world,” Nicole said. “And if there’s time left, maybe I’ll paint my toenails.”
He gave a husky laugh then suddenly he grasped her waist and pulled her against him. Nicole raised her face for the obligatory goodnight kiss. It began like all his others, gentle and sweet. Then suddenly, she heard an impatient murmur from his throat, his passion getting into him. The entire universe seemed to expand from the kiss, and she felt as though her very existence depended on the heat in his hungry lips. Nicole was trying to control her emotions, but she didn’t understand herself. Things were happening before she could take them in, leaving her no time to consider what her reaction should be. She only knew that she had been swept into incredible heat. It brought frantic sensations to her whole body. It was almost painful and frightening in its poignancy, but then there was only pleasure. She would have wanted to remain impassive but her body is not willing.
As abruptly as it began, the wildness in him soon disappeared. He spent the next few minutes gentling her (just imagine the cellphone incident folks when Senior came to rescue Sunmi), bringing her down to earth.
“Think about me while I’m gone,” he whispered hoarsely against her ear.
Unable to speak, she simply nodded. How could he think that he can forget him after that kiss? She would be lucky if she remembered how to find her bedroom.
“Bye for now Nicole…..get lots of rest. I’ll see you when I’m back.” Kenneth murmured, then kissed her in the cheek once more.
Closing the door, she leaned back against it weakly. It simply wasn’t fair that he could have this effect on her without loving her.
“I’ll show you Kenneth. Somehow, I would make you understand and see me who I really am.” Nicole vowed to herself as she pulled herself up out of self-pity.
****to be continued…..
The moment Nicole awakened the next day, she was in a black mood.
The events of the night before had left her with a lingering sense of loss and
sorrow. Though she knew that there was little hope, she had finally
acknowledged to herself that she was in love with Kenneth. But there was no
point thinking about it.
The maids were bewildered to see a dozen long-stemmed roses scattered on the carpeted floor outside Nicole’s bedroom.
“What happened?” the older maid asked warily.
“I don’t know, I only gave her the flowers Mr. Yin sent, then all of a sudden, she threw them.” The younger maid, Lina, answered.
Warren strolled to Nicole’s bedroom and saw what happened. “Cousin dear, there are innocents caught in your line of fire.”
The two maids heaved a sigh of relief when Nicole’s angry screeches came to an abrupt halt. She peeked into the hall, her hair tangled and still wearing her silk pajamas.
“I didn’t hit anyone, did I?” Nicole said in genuine concern.
“I think one of the flowers hit Lina Ms. Nicole. But don’t worry, it didn’t hurt her.” The older maid replied as they began to gather up the scattered flowers.
“Oh, Lina,” Nicole said contritely as she dropped to her knees beside the two maids. She helped them pick up the flowers. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”
“No, ma’am.” Lina said with a shy smile. “Besides, I was warned before I took the job that-“ she broke off when the older woman poked her in the ribs. “That is, you’re high-spirited but a sweet person.”
Nicole laughed, the sound brightening the hallway. “What she told you is that I’m impossible but the pay is good.”
“No such thing ma’am.” The older woman said. “I told her you were too caring & too sensitive.”
“If she’s caring & sensitive, why are we all in our knees picking up the remains of her latest outburst?” Warren said dryly.
“Warren, if you plan to criticize me, just go home. You’ve already been here for six months. Do you intend to spend the rest of your life here?” Nicole glanced at him as she crawled to retrieve several roses.
“Oh, but you can’t kick me out. Uncle invited me to stay.” He said.
“But surely he didn’t invite you to stay permanently? Besides, if he knows that you’re being hateful to me, he’ll throw you out.” Nicole retorted.
“Stop picking on Warren, Nicole.” Her father appeared suddenly from the end of the hall. He passed through them calmly then continued toward the stair without pausing.
Nicole glared at her father’s back. “So much for the loyal patriarch.” She muttered under her breath as she walked back into her bedroom.
When she heard the door to her bedroom close softly, she found Warren studying her face.
“What’s up?” He asked with a questioning look. “Lina said you blew your top when she brought you Kenneth’s roses.”
“Warren, I need to find a place of my own.” Nicole said.
“What’s that got to do with Kenneth? Did you two fight? Was that the reason why you blew your top? What happened?” Warren asked aloud.
“Sshhhhhh….keep your voice down. Someone might hear you.” Nicole hissed.
Nicole closed her eyes. “Last night – while I was in the garden to get some fresh air, Kenneth and Allan came out for a smoke. I overheard them talking about our engagement and about me. Kenneth thinks I’m marrying him because I have no choice. He said I don’t know how to do anything except be rich and beautiful.” Nicole swallowed. “Kenneth implied that he doesn’t love me Warren.” Nicole started to cry.
Warren was silent for a long time then exhaled slowly, “Did you really expect love?” he said gently. “Most of the people I know marry because it’s beneficial to do so, they look for someone who will raise their social and financial position. You fell in love with Kenneth and me with Erica. Even though, Erica doesn’t love me. I am still willing to marry her. I’ll be willing to accept her terms.”
“How can you accept those terms, Warren?” Nicole agitatedly asked. “It’s all so calculated?”
“I’ve known from the very start how to play the game, dear cousin. I thought you did, too. Kenneth is attracted to you, that cannot be denied. Isn’t that enough?” Warren shrugged.
“No,” she said hoarsely. “I want more – a whole lot more.”
“You’ve got to help me Warren. You always do. You’ve got a soft spot that you can’t hide – not from me.” She smiled coaxingly.
“Sure, what are cousins for?” Warren said smilingly. “What is it you want me to do? I could make a few phone calls and Kenneth will just disappear from planet earth.”
She laughed then punched him fondly in the shoulder (she had been punching Warren for as long as she could remember). “Nothing quite so drastic, fool.” She assured him. “I’ve really got to show him, I’ve got to make him see me.”
She decided that feeling sorry for herself would not accomplish anything. “I’ve got to have a place of my own.” She said firmly. “But I’ve got to pay it for myself. I can’t ask Papa to give me money. The thing is, Warren, how does one go about getting a job?”
“You know that you can get a job easily…just drop you father’s name.”
“I can’t do that, it would defeat my purpose. I don’t want a courtesy position. I have to have a real, tough job.” Nicole shifted in frustration. “I have to prove that Kenneth is wrong, Warren. I have to make him change his mind about me.”
Nicole saw pity in Warren’s eyes and that terrified her.
“But what can you do?” Suddenly, Warren thought of something. “Why didn’t I think of it before? The newspaper.” Warren snapped his fingers.
“But I don’t know anything about the newspaper business,” she said in doubt. “But being a reporter might not be a bad idea.”
“Not a reporter, idiot. I mean, we could look in the classified ads for a job.” He said.
“You’re a genius, Warren. I know I could count on you.” Nicole reached for the intercom and asked Lina to bring up the newspaper.
An hour later, pages of newspaper were spread across Nicole’s bed. Dropping the last page, she raised her gaze slowly to Warren. “I’m doomed. Aren’t there any jobs for inexperienced people?”
“I’m afraid not. You went to college. Did you not take up Culinary Arts?” Warren frowned.
She nodded. “But I didn’t take it seriously unlike my classmates who had their careers planned since kindergarten. I thought I was preparing to be a good hostess. I can keep the conversation going at any dinner party though. Who would ever think that I would ever need to make a living?”
“I guess you would have to find a job that has something to do with food then.”
“Ok. You go ahead, choose one for me.” Nicole replied.
“It’s not that easy. You have to fill-up an application form. You just can’t go in there and tell them that you’ll take the job. Expensive restaurants is out of the question, someone might recognize you aside from the fact that they require somebody who has an experience.You can’t also apply to those fast food chains because they’re too crowded and noisy. You might get culture shock and might not have the energy they require As a first timer, I guess we have to find a small restaurant that is desperately in need of help.”
“Whatever. I need to find a job right away before Kenneth returns from his business trip. He’ll be returning in two weeks time. I definitely must have a job by then.”
Warren met Nicole’s gaze squarely. “Nicole, what are you trying to accomplish by doing this? Is it to get Kenneth to notice you just like what you’ve done to Uncle when you want him to pay attention to you?”
“Of course, it is.” Smiling to hide her feelings.
“Then, what’s next? Are you going to break your engagement?” Warren curiously asked.
“I’m not that stupid Warren. I’ll wait till I found out that I can do something before telling him to shove the convenient marriage.” She said quietly.
Warren heaved a sigh of relief, they both know that Erica is just around the corner waiting for a chance at Kenneth. “But what if you can’t make it?”
“I don’t want to think about that yet. I’ll cross the bridge when I get there.” her eyes and voice were devoid of emotion. Suddenly, the idea sounded even more lonely than being alone.
Two days later, Nicole was getting ready for her first job interview. Just as she was contemplating on what to wear, her mobile phone rang. It was Kenneth, calling her from Los Angeles.
When she heard his voice over the phone, Nicole panicked. Afraid that Kenneth might have discovered what she was planning. It had not taken long for her to realize that it was merely a duty call.
“Hi! How’s LA?” she asked cheerfully. “Are you rubbing elbows with the Hollywood stars?”
He laughed softly. “My taxi took a detour down Beverly Hills, had dinner with someone who looked like Arnold Schwarzenneger who is now the governor of California. Does it count?”
“Close enough,” she said generously.
He paused for a moment, then said quietly. “Do you miss me?”
“Every second of every minute of every hour.” Her voice was carelessly bright, making it sound like an exaggeration. “Are you accomplishing what you have set out to do? Did you find a new location for your new hotel?”
“I didn’t call you to bore you to death,” he said, dismissing her question. “Tell me what you’ve been busy with for the past three days. Did you buy anything new from your latest shopping spree?”
Kenneth’s remark hurt her. His opinion of her was crystal clear. Even though she had known for days what he thought of her, she couldn’t keep from hurting. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about her plan to get a job and to move out from her father’s house, but suddenly thought the better of it. The humiliation that she had felt when she was in the garden would be nothing compared to what she would feel if Kenneth found out she had tried and failed.
As soon as she had said goodbye to him, Nicole concentrated on her plan. His call making her determined as ever.
She decided to wear jeans and cotton sweater to make a good impression. She didn’t want her clothes to separate her from other applicants.
Against Warren’s advise, she decided to try her luck at one of the pizza take-out counters located downtown. “No harm in trying…..” keeping her fingers crossed as she entered her first target.
She saw a woman standing behind the counter. She smiled at her direction. “Hello. I’m Nicole Jin. I’ve come to inquire about the position you have placed in your ads last Sunday.”
The woman stared at her, considering her for a long moment. Then she turned and entered through a door that she supposed would be the kitchen. Seconds later, she returned, accompanied by a tall & slender Italian man.
“Miss Jin? Here’s is the application form.” Indicating the paper he was holding. But I’d like to ask a few questions first before you fill that up so that we can save time.
“Ok.” She said, smiling at him.
“Miss Jin, the nature of our business is mostly for take-out. It’s a small operation only so we need someone we can rely on, someone with experience.” He waved a hand toward the counter. “Have you used this kind of cash register?”
She shook her head regretfully. “No…I haven’t actually used one.”
“A similar kind maybe?”
“No, but –
“How about taking telephone orders, have you done it before?”
“Well, no,” she admitted reluctantly. “However, I could learn if ----
He and the woman suddenly turned away from her and walked back into the kitchen shaking their heads in disbelief and talking in Italian language that she cannot understand.
“Wait,” Nicole said, following them. But the door swung closed in her face.
On the way out, Nicole is trying to overcome her astonishment. She had never experienced open rejection in her entire life. All her life, because of her father’s money and position, she had succeeded at anything she had tried. All she had to do was to extend her hand and her wish was granted. But now, in this unknown restaurant that she had never known existed, she had been openly rejected. She felt insecure. Maybe Kenneth was right. Maybe she really wasn’t cut for the real world.
But Nicole refused to give up. Her pride reasserted. Her next stop was at a small café also located downtown.
After fifteen minutes, she came out of the café with a happy face. She couldn’t believe that after her second try, she would be accepted. She would begin immediately the next day. The owners had been desperate that she had been hired immediately. Of course, she told them a few lies, but that didn’t matter. After all, she would learn as she worked (and she really is a good hostess, surely that would be the same as waiting on table). She is now the new waitress of Arirang Café.
Tomorrow, she would begin a new life. Watch me Kenneth, Nicole told him silently. You’re going to eat your words.
Meawhile, in L.A., Kenneth is in deep thought. After his phone conversation with Nicole, he sensed that something is wrong. “What’s wrong with her? Did I do something wrong? I must return as soon as possible.” He muttered to himself worriedly.
****END OF CHAPTER 2
Kenneth was used to be trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic in National Highway but right now, he didn’t need the frustration of heavy traffic. Although he had managed to get away from L.A. two days earlier than he had planned, it was not without measurable damage to his nerves. He had to push and prod others to keep up with his pace. When he finished his business, his flight had been delayed for an hour. Then to top it all off, a minor accident on the Airport Freeway had backed up traffic for miles.
Kenneth silently cursed the traffic enforcers. He hates being inconvenienced by the incompetence of others. He knew that he could have handled the situation more efficiently.
Kenneth laughed at his own arrogance. He’s trying to rule the world when he can’t even keep his personal life straight.
Ever since the night of his engagement party, Kenneth had struggled with an uneasy anxiety, a worry that nagged him like a sore tooth. He had sensed something in Nicole that night, some change that he couldn’t identify. It ate him away, always lingering on his mind, interrupting business and free time aimlessly.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, glancing at the clock on his car. He didn’t want to sit in an endless line of traffic. He wanted to be with Nicole; he wanted to look into her deep hazel eyes and find the reason for her uneasiness.
Minutes later, traffic moved, allowing him to turn off the highway. As he entered the Jin’s property, Kenneth moved into Nicole’s world. The Jin’s mansion is located away from the city. He couldn’t help comparing the Mansion with Nicole, like her, it was carefully kept away from the brutality and tension of the real world.
Kenneth’s stomach tightened, they always did when he thought of her. In 6 months time, they would be married. Nicole was the kind of wife society expected him to have. She was good at planning business dinners and organizing parties. She had the grace and finesse required to represent Kenneth at charity and political functions that he was unable or unwilling to attend.
If he made a list of the reasons he wanted to marry Nicole, all those things would be on it. But well above them would be the fact that Kenneth wanted Nicole so badly it was an ever-present ache in his body and in his mind.
He had wanted her for years. It was a habit now, as much as a part of him as his fingers or his arms. But as long as he lived, he would never be able to forget the shock he had felt the first time he realized that he was physically attracted to her.
She had been eighteen and home from boarding school for the summer. On that particular day, he and Nicole’s father had been in the middle of a business discussion when she had burst into the study like a breeze, full of energy and cheerfulness. Kenneth had leaned back with a smile, watching as she tried to charm her father into taking her to a private lake owned by friends……
“Please, Papa”, she begged. “Please, please, please. Dearest, kindest, most handsome father in the world. Say you’ll take me. Please, please –“
“Wait, wait, wait.” Mr. Jin said laughing. “I can’t go anywhere. I’m waiting for an important call.”
“More important than me – your only daughter? I swear I’ll go crazy if I have to stay here another second. All of my friends are going…..please Papa, have pity on your daughter. You’ve got to simply take me to the Chan’s place.”
“Why don’t you just swim in our pool?” he said uncompromisingly.
“The pool!” her voice was a pitch higher. “That’s no fun at all. There’s no adventure in the pool. At the Chan’s lake, there are row boats and a little wooden island in the middle where we will go fishing!”
“Darling, you just have to visit the Chan’s lake some other time. I’m busy.” Mr. Jin left the room.
Knowing that she’s losing a battle, Nicole turned to Kenneth. “Kenneth, you’re a reasonable person.” Her hazel eyes were coaxing as they approached him. “Will you please explain to Papa it is absolutely necessary for me that I go to the lake today?”
Kenneth laughed. She was a spoiled brat, but he couldn’t help being drawn to her liveliness and the innocent flirtation in her eyes.
“I’m afraid you have to plead your own case”, he said. “But since Uncle and I have finished our business, I could take you there myself.”
She squealed in delight and threw her slender arms around his neck, kissing him noisily on the cheek. “You’re sweetheart, Kenneth. I swear I’ll love you for the rest of my life.” She swung away from him and ran toward the door. “Give me two minutes to change, the I’ll be ready to go.”
And that was when it happened. A sudden surge of desire shook him, stunning him with its depth and intensity. He had no right to feel this way, he told himself frantically. It had to stop. He had to regain control of his body and his thoughts. After all, he is barely eight years older than Nicole and for God’s sake, it’s only an innocent kiss.
Breathing deeply, he tried to conjure up an image of her father. He had almost succeeded when he felt her arms slide around her neck from behind. And although he really tried, there was no way he could keep from being affected by her; there was no way he could stop his heart from beating wildly in his chest.
An hour later, they were driving to the Chan’s lake. The instant they arrived, Nicole flew out of the car, running toward the lake never slowing down making Kenneth feel ancient than twenty-six.
For the rest of the day, Kenneth made sure there were several yards between them at all times. By conjuring up more strength than he had known he possessed, he somehow managed to treat her as he always had in the past, as though he were an older brother.
But never again after that day had Kenneth felt like an older brother to Nicole. It had taken him months to get over the shock of what he had felt, months before he could look at Nicole’s father’s eyes without feeling guilty. Kenneth was not the kind of man who repaid a friend’s kindness by lusting after his daughter. Nicole had been little more than a child at the time. A sensuous, intelligent teenager, but still his associate’s daughter.
Since that day so many years ago, it had always been Nicole for Kenneth. Always Nicole in his thoughts. Always Nicole in his dreams.
And now Nicole was no longer a child, he told himself. She’s now a beautiful, sensual adult (although she’s not aware of it, and that’s what he like about her – her seemingly unaffected manner). She was his fiancée, soon to be his wife. And very soon all the years of waiting would be at an end.
As he pulled his car to a stop, he sat for a moment. His dark brow was creased with thought as he stared at the house and wished one more time he could understand what had caused the wall that had suddenly grown between them. Although it had begun at the night of the party, Nicole’s voice had seemed even more strained when he talked to her on the phone from L.A.
Flexing his tired muscles, he stepped from his car. He would find out tonight what Nicole was hiding from him. It was way past time that the two of them had a serious talk about their future.
****to be continued
Lina showed Kenneth in the sitting room, his eyes went immediately to the life-size portrait of Nicole hanging above the small fireplace near the stairway. Kenneth had never liked the portrait. There is no question that the artist is good but it is obvious that he had been in love with Nicole making it too perfect. As they say, you can only paint a good picture when you’re in love with your subject. That thought always makes Kenneth jealous of the artist.
Pulling his gaze away from the painting, Kenneth noticed Warren sprawled lazily in an armchair reading a magazine. At the same instance, Warren also noticed him. Kenneth observed that Nicole’s cousin seems wary, as if taken aback by his presence. Then after a visible effort, the characteristic lazy cynicism returned to his expression.
Kenneth wondered, his eyes narrowing. What is he up to now?
“Hey, Kenneth,” Warren said. “I thought you were in L.A.”
“Just got back.”
“So I see.” Warren stood up and walked to the bar to pour himself a drink. “What will you have?”
“Scotch on the rocks will do.” Kenneth murmured, never taking his eyes off the younger man.
“Good choice. Uncle’s wine collection is the best! That’s why I intend to live here as long as possible while I’m still welcome.” Warren winked at Kenneth as he handed him his glass.
Kenneth laughed against his will. He finds Warren amusing. But still he can’t help feeling restless. He was scared. He didn’t like this feeling. It’s an emotion that he can’t control.
Hiding his frustration, Kenneth asked. “Where’s Nicole? Is she still in her room? What’s taking her so long?”
Glancing down, Warren began to play with his glass, avoiding Kenneth’s eyes in the process. He began chattering about why women often takes so long to dress up - completely ignoring Kenneth’s question.
“Warren,” Kenneth said, interrupting the monologue, “when will Nicole be down?”
Just then, the door opened and Mr. Jin walked in. Kenneth kept his gaze on Warren. The relief in Warren’s gaze was unmistakable.
“Kenneth,” Mr. Jin said as he came into the room and extended his hand to his future son-in-law. “I’m so glad to have you back, son. Sit down and tell me how the trip went.”
“It went well as expected,” Kenneth said, glancing at his watch. “Where’s Nicole?”
“Didn’t Warren tell you?” Mr Jin glanced at his nephew. “Nicole is out of town. Her friend Cielo called her with some kind of emergency. According to Nicole, it’s very important that she flew to Japan because it’s a matter of life and death. But knowing Cielo, she probably got a problem with her lovelife or something. Anyway, Nicole flew to Japan to help her out.”
Kenneth was silent for a moment. “I see,” he said slowly. “Did she say how long she would be away?” When Mr. Jin shook his head, Kenneth said, “Warren?”
Warren choked on his drink and glanced up to find both men staring at him expectantly. He met Kenneth’s gaze, then looked away quickly and cleared his throat. “She didn’t say a word to me. She’ll probably call and let us know. You know Nicole.” His laugh strained.
“Apparently, I don’t,” Kenneth said softly, too softly for the words to reach Mr. Jin. But, judging by Warren’s pained expression, he heard.
During dinner, Kenneth filled Mr. Jin on the details of his trip to L.A. But he kept his gaze on Warren, which seemed to make the younger man nervous. Warren kept dropping things.
After dinner, Mr. Jin excused himself as Lina told him that an overseas call from a business associate waiting for him. “I’ll take the call in the study and get back to you as soon as I can.”
“There’s no hurry,” Kenneth said, smiling as he glanced at Warren.
As soon as Mr. Jin disappeared, Warren yawned. “I’m so tired,” his voice so hearty while flexing his neck. “I think I’d better get to bed immediately.” He turned toward the stairs.
Kenneth stepped in front of him. “You’re not going anywhere, Warren. Not until we’ve had our little talk.”
Warren attempted to pass by stepping to the side. Laughing weakly, “Sorry, but I have no business sense Kenneth. I’m afraid I can’t contribute.
“Warren.” Kenneth’s voice was soft and threatening.
“Really, Kenneth. I’m just so tired, I need to rest.” Warren moved backward as he spoke, bumping into the door to the sitting room. Kenneth opened the door for him.
Warren swallowed nervously as he watched closed the door behind them.
“Now, tell me what’s going on.” Kenneth said pleasantly.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I think you do. Sit down, Warren.”
Kenneth watched him fidget in the chair for a while, then said. “A month ago, I ran into Cielo’s father. He was getting ready for a trip. To London. He was taking the family with him. He said it would be good for Cielo and her brother to learn English and about other cultures.” Kenneth moved closer to Warren. “They were going to be gone for one year. One year, Warren.”
Warren swallowed audibly, then slowly shook his head in admiration. “Isn’t that just Nicole? How many people would go all the way to London just to help a friend?”
“I don’t think so Warren,” Kenneth said slowly. “You know what I think Warren? I think something is going on. And I think you’re going to tell me about it…..now.”
Fifteen minutes later, a visibly exhausted Warren made his grateful exit from the sitting room. As the door closed gently behind Nicole’s cousin, Kenneth turned on to the portrait.
For a long time, he stared at the painting in silence, then a strange smile twisted his lips. “You silly little fool,” he whispered huskily.
******to be continued
As it turned out, Nicole was made to report for work one week
after her interview. The waitress she was going to replace extended her stay
and as part of the cost-cutting measures her new employer is having, he decided
that Nicole starts her job when the other one leaves (that way, he only has to
pay for one person).
Mr. Lim, her new employer, is busy orienting Nicole since it’s her first day of work. Presently, he opened a door. “This is the utility cupboard.”
Nicole stood beside him in a wide hallway off the dining room and looked inside the door he had opened. “It’s a nice cupboard,” she said pleasantly, trying to keep panic out of her voice. “Roomy….lots of shelves. Yes, that’s a cupboard to be proud of.”
With one hand, he brusquely indicated a wide shelf at the top. “And this is where we keep the floor cleaner and polish, the dust cleaner and dust cloths. The brooms and mops hang on this rack.”
“That’s a good system,” she said slowly, then tilted her head, her expression showing just a touch of caution. “Mr. Lim, um, who exactly will be using the floor cleaner, glass cleaner, etcetera?”
He looked over his shoulder in surprise. “You will.”
“I will? Oh, but –“
“Look, we got a small place here. I cant’s afford a regular person to clean. We all pitch in, but the dining room will be your responsibility. I thought I told you all this when I hired you.”
Nicole swallowed heavily. He probably had. She had been so excited about getting the job, she hadn’t listened to half of what he had said. And since the last few days had been spent in finding an inexpensive apartment, she hadn’t had time to think about the interview.
“You got some problem with cleaning?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“No, of course not. I simply adore cleaning. I do it all the time.” She glanced at him with wide, innocent eyes. “What’s next?”
He pushed open a door at the far end of the hall. “This is the kitchen, my brother is the cook.”
Choi didn’t look like her employer’s brother. In fact, Choi didn’t look like a cook. Mr. Lim was short and stout, the exact opposite of Choi who is bone thin and very tall. Choi nodded at Nicole, then continued stirring something in a huge pot.
“And that’s Ben. He’s the dishwasher.” Mr. Lim indicated a teenage boy who was slouched over a deep metal sink. “Since Choi and I are both Lims, please call me Bert to avoid confusion.”
He moved to an area filled with shiny stainless steel cabinets and counters. “Choi and Ben clean the kitchen, so you don’t have to worry about it. Like I told you, your shift is eleven till two, then five to ten. You get a three-hour break between lunch and dinner. My wife comes in to help with the dinner crowd, but you’ll be on your own at lunchtime.” He bent down and opened one of the lower cabinets. “You get two uniforms. Keep them clean.” He shoved two brown uniforms and assorted aprons and caps in her hands.
“But I never wear brown. Navy or turquoise would be a lot better.” Nicole smiled patiently as she shook her head and returned the clothes to him.
Pushing the stack of clothes back to her, “We got brown. You go change now in the ladies C.R. And you better go now if you’re going to wrap the silverware by opening time.” He turned and walked out from the kitchen.
Nicole stared at his retreating back in astonishment. Silverware wrapped? Wrapped in what? She stood for a moment, staring at the brown uniform, then glanced up and found Choi and Ben watching her. Choi immediately went back to his cooking, but Ben smiled.
Returning his smile, Nicole moved closer to the sinks. “Ben, Bert seems busy, so maybe you could answer a couple of questions for me.”
He blushed. “Sure.”
“In my last waitressing job, we had our own unique way of um, wrapping the silverware. It would explain a lot if you could explain exactly how it’s done here.”
“You just take a paper napkin and wrap it around a spoon and a fork and a knife.”
“I see.” She said, nodding wisely. “Yes, that is a little different. Then what do I do with them?”
“Put them on the tables in front of each chair.”
“How….quaint. Thank you Ben.” She gave him her most dazzling smile, which made him blush more furiously, then made her way to the ladies room to change.
The uniform didn’t look as bad as she had feared. In fact, with the white apron over it, it wasn’t bad at all. It was like going to a costume party.”
An hour later, Bert came out of his office, unlocked the front door then turned the sign in the window around. He glanced at the table she had prepared and nodded with what Nicole was beginning to think was typical grimness.
Almost immediately, a man walked in and sat down at one of the tables. When Bert pushed a pad and a pen into her hands, Nicole looked down at them. “I’ll have to write very small to get the order on this little page,” she said.
“Nicole.” The frustration in Bert’s voice made her look up. He jerked his head toward the customer. “That man needs help,” he hissed.
Nicole moved toward the customer. After carefully written the man’s order on the little pad, she walked into the kitchen and immediately went to the back where Ben was bent over the sink, up to his elbows in soap suds.
“Ben.” She said sweetly. “I wonder how you place order here. The last place I worked had a special system in placing order, it might be different here.” She gave a careless laugh.
Ben showed her where they place the orders. “Just stick it here in one of these clips. Choi will fill the order and call you when it’s ready.”
“How clever,” she said. “That’s much better than the way we did it at – “
“Nicole,” Ben said, “you don’t have to pretend that you’ve done this thing before. Me and Choi won’t bite you.”
“Thanks, Ben.” She sighed with relief as she also glanced at Choi. “Both of you.”
Surprisingly, Nicole survived lunch. During her break, she changed clothes and went to the park to stroll for a while, biding her time, enjoying her temporary freedom before she goes back to the café in time for dinner.
At six that evening, Bert unlocked the front door and turned the sign, then started to walk toward the counter. His face turned red as he stared at the tables. The silverwares are not wrapped as she had instructed Nicole and the napkins are stuffed in the glasses.
It turned out that Nicole arranged it differently. “Don’t you like it?” she asked.
Before he could say what he so obviously wanted to say, three women walked in and sat at one the tables. Grabbing her pad, Nicole followed them. It was better to leave Bert for a little while, she decided. She had a strong suspicion that he was going to scream at her if she stayed and argue with him.
Minutes later she clipped the ladies’ order to the wheel. She was suggesting something to Choi about his cooking when suddenly Bert called her.
She swung around to see Bert standing in the doorway. His face had changed color again. “Uh-oh,” she said warily. “I think maybe I’d better get to work.”
Following Bert back into the dining room, she stopped abruptly, her eyes growing wide in astonishment. Almost every table in the dining room was occupied. Oh, Lord, she thought in awe, where had they all come from? Drawing in a bracing breath, Nicole mustered her courage and stepped into the room joining Bert’s wife.
Later, as she passed the counter on her way to the kitchen, Bert reached out and grabbed her arm.
“What have I done this time? Nicole thought.
“Look what you’ve done?” Bert waved a slip of paper in her face angrily. “You’ve added it all wrong.”
Nicole took the paper from him and scanned it. “Oops, sorry….I left the one off. Just a tiny mistake.” She said grinningly making Bert more furious.
“You consider that a tiny mistake? There’s a big difference between 800 and one thousand eight hundred. You cost me one thousand won and I’ll deduct if from your paycheck – which will only be for one day because you’re fired!”
Bert’s wife, Jane, who overheard their conversation butted in. “Now, Bert….calm down.” She said as she fanned the red face of her husband with a menu.
“No, Jane….it’s not just about this mistake. Have you seen how she arranged the tables?”
“I like it.” His wife said. “It makes the place look nice and cozy.”
Nicole took advantage of the situation. She moved closer to Jane and said charmingly, “Thanks, Jane…..I knew you’d like it. I just wanted to add a little class to the place.”
“Class?” Bert said in an incredulous, exasperated voice. “Class doesn’t pay the bills. Your class is going to chase away all our customers….and God knows, we need every customer we can get at this point.”
Jane smiled apologetically to Nicole much to Bert’s annoyance. “We’ll talk about it later. We’ve got more customers. If you’ll take table seven, I’ll get two.”
Table seven, Nicole thought, trying to picture the floor plan Bert had shown earlier. She turned and began walking toward the lone customer, ready to take another order.
At that moment, the man sitting at table seven glanced up. It was Kenneth.
Nicole had wanted Kenneth to notice her, but having him turn up on
her first day of work wasn’t quite what she had envisioned. For a dizzying
moment, she simply stood motionless and stared into his cow eyes.
She had wanted to run. She wanted to hide. She wanted to do something painful and permanent damage to Warren.
But unfortunately she couldn’t do any of those things at the moment. Taking a deep breath, she approached the table with an enthusiasm she didn’t feel.
The nearer she got, the more she felt his presence. How could she have forgotten what it was like to be close to him? How could she have forgotten the way he had kissed her after their engagement party? Since that night, she had somehow managed to push that particular memory away. But no longer. Her body wouldn’t let her.
You can’t let this happen, she told herself. Fight it. Pull yourself together.
“Kenneth, what a wonderful surprise. What are you doing here?” she said cheerfully.
An unreadable expression (was it amusement or anger?) – lit his eyes. “I think the question is,” he said slowly, “what are you doing here?”
In the past, Nicole had discovered that when one was caught off-guard, there was only one way to handle the situation. She had learned to stand tall, hold her head high, look straight into the eyes of that person – in this case, an irate fiancé – and lie like hell.
“Didn’t I tell you? I’ve decided to do a research. Yes, that’s it. I’m doing a study on how a waitress live”. She lost her hesitancy as her story developed, smiling at him confidently.
A little of the confidence drained away under his dark, unwavering gaze. After a moment, he said, “Don’t you think you should have mentioned your new career to your father?”
She laughed uncomfortably. “You know Papa. He’d have made a big deal out of it.” She glanced over her shoulder and met Bert’s angry stare, then turned back to Kenneth. “I’m glad you stopped by to see me, but I really do have to get back to work.”
“Aren’t you going to take my order?” His voice stopped her before she could take a step away from the table.
Her hazel eyes widened in surprise. “You want to eat? Here?”
“Why not? If you can work here, I guess I can eat here.” He picked up the menu. “What do you recommend?”
She sighed. “Don’t order the chili. I don’t know what Choi puts in it. The beef stew is good and also the bird’s nest soup.
“I’ll have the beef stew and a glass of iced tea.”
His voice was brisk and detached, as though she were actually a waitress, she thought in annoyance.
As she walked toward the kitchen, trying to sort things out, her mind shifted into overdrive. She had actually managed to pull her plan together. It was really working. Now Kenneth was here, throwing her body and mind into confusion, making her lose sight of her carefully laid plans. Everything had been obscured by a memory – memory of the incredibly sweet insanity his touch had brought to her.
Why was he here? She wondered worriedly. It didn’t take a genius to realize that he hadn’t believe her story about doing a research. So why hadn’t he pressed her for the real reason? Was it because Warren had already spilled his guts? But if Warren had confessed all, why hadn’t Kenneth said so? Why wasn’t he on his knees, begging her forgiveness for the bad things he had said to Allan?
The thought made her choke back laughter. Kenneth Yin on his knees? Never. That would be the day.
It was a problem she would have to work out later, when she didn’t have a roomful of hungry people needing her attention. After placing Kenneth’s order, she picked up a tray and carried it through to the dining room.
Standing in the shadows that darkened the street, Kenneth leaned against his car and stared through the windows of the café. He was watching Nicole. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and untidy wisps of tendrils brushed her cheeks and forehead. She looked cute. She really was a cheeky brat, sassy, and impulsive. But then, she was also fascinating, adorable, and the sexiest, most innocently alluring female he had ever met.
Urgent feelings were stirring inside him. Watching her work had more effect on him. Desire took hold of him, desire deep enough to withstand a year of cold showers.
Drawing in a harsh, shaky breath, he tightened his muscles in an effort to regain control. Nicole is in a café working, not some woman in his bedroom. Fantisizing at her like an adolescent had only made it worse. He had to put a stop to it.
Suddenly, as he stared through the window, Kenneth realized what she was doing. She was mopping. Nicole Jin was mopping a floor!
His thoughts became twisted and tangled, leaving him unsure of just exactly how he felt. He wanted to laugh out loud the way he had laughed whenever Nicole did something outrageous and funny.
He was also angry. For God’s sake, she wasn’t supposed to be mopping floors. This was not the kind of life he had planned for her.
But beneath the amusement and anger, there was another awkward emotion. The fear that had been creeping up on him since the night of their engagement party came surging to the fore now. The instant Kenneth recognized it, he shoved it away. He didn’t want to think about the fear. He couldn’t allow it to keep him from thinking objectively. There was too much at stake.
When the lights in the café began to go off, Kenneth walked to the back of the diner.
Nicole saw him as soon as she stepped out the back door. Somehow she had known he would be waiting for her. Kenneth hadn’t regained his reputation in business by giving up. And although she had known he would be there, she wasn’t prepared for the confrontation. Her feet hurt. Her back hurt. She could swear that even her hair hurt. Gosh, her whole body hurt.
Glancing at him tiredly, she said, “Hi.”
Taking her by surprise, he reached out and pulled her into his arms, pressing his mouth to hers in a hard, urgent kiss.
Before Nicole could react, the kiss was over. With startling abruptness, he moved several inches away from her, leaving her swaying slightly as she tried to cope with the unexpected sensations. She felt out of breath, as though she had run a mile.
When her breathing returned to normal, she guardedly raised her gaze to his. “What was that for?” she whispered, hearing the uncertainty in her voice.
“The world has gone a little crazy,” he said, sounding strangely hoarse. “I was simply trying to get back to the basics, back to reality.”
“Did it work?”
He gave a rough laugh. “Oh, yes….maybe too well.” Straightening his back, he met her eyes. “Nicole, we need to talk.” Although his voice was soft, the underlying determination was obvious.
Nicole shivered. Apparently, there was going to be a confrontation whether she was prepared for it or not. “Why don’t you follow me back to my place?” she suggested.
“I have an apartment.” She couldn’t keep a hint of pride in her voice. “It’s not much, but I wanted a place of my own, a place I could pay for with the salary I make here.”
He started to say something, then evidently changed his mind. Nodding, he walked away from her.
Minutes later, when he parked his car behind hers in a wide driveway, Nicole looked up at the apartment, which was built over a wooden garage. Suddenly, she felt wary of showing him her new home. She had been pleased with it, but now she would have to see it through his eyes.
Her place – her new home – was little more than one large room. Her bathroom at the mansion is even larger than her apartment.
As she stood beside Kenneth, watching him while he surveyed the room, she swallowed nervously. “As soon as I get may first paycheck, I’m going to paint and buy new curtains.” When he didn’t respond, she gave a nervous laugh. “You should have seen it before I cleaned. At least I know that any dirt from now on will be my dirt.” On the surface, she might appear calm, even amused, but inside, she was panicking.
“This is crazy,” he muttered, meeting her eyes. “You shouldn’t be living in a place like this. I won’t allow it. I understand what you’re trying to do….at least I think I do. Warren said you didn’t want to go from being Uncle’s daughter to my wife until you’ve seen what real life is like. He said you wouldn’t feel like a real person until you’d been on your own for a while. That it was something you had to do for yourself.”
Nicole was surprised. “Is that what he said?”
“Well, you’ve done it,” he said ignoring her question. “You got a job on your own. You’ve work like a horse. You’ve been at the beck and call of people who aren’t fit to polish your shoes. You’ve mopped floors, for God’s sake. Now come back to where you belong.”
It was tempting. The idea of going home to silk pajamas, a soft, well-sprung bed and pillows; the thought of having Lila bring her a cup of coffee in bed or a glass of lemonade by the pool…..but….
Suddenly, Nicole blinked rapidly. She had heard people having brilliant flashes of self-revelation, but it had never happened to her…..until now. She needed time to think. She needed to explore the insight that had come, so strongly and clearly, out of the blue.
“I need a shower,” she said, her voice distracted as she moved toward the bathroom. “Why don’t you sit down, Kenneth. It won’t take me long.”
Closing the door behind her, she leaned against the wall. Warren was right. She wouldn’t feel real until she knew she could make it on her own. That was exactly what she wanted. She wanted to feel real. She wanted to see what life was like without her father’s name – or Kenneth’s – to smooth the way for her.
She hadn’t been trying to prove something to Kenneth; she had been trying to prove something to herself. She suddenly realized that her opinion of herself had been worse than anything she had overheard in the garden.
Something inside Nicole was slowly beginning to unfold, something delicate in its newness. She didn’t know yet what it was, but she knew that if she gave up now, she would never know.
Today, for the first time since before her mother’s death, Nicole had felt good about herself. She had felt like she was walking forward in life rather than simply being pulled along. She couldn’t give that up yet. Not until she had a chance to explore what it meant.
Besides, she told herself as she stepped into the shower, she couldn’t just walk out on her job. Arirang café needed her, and there were things she wanted to accomplish there.
This world she had found was like a gem; on the outside it was rough and plain, but on the inside there could possibly be something wonderful if one only took the time to look for it. Suddenly, Nicole knew she had to take time to look.
Stepping from the shower, she dried off and retrieved a blue terry-cloth robe from the hook on the door, her expression reflective as she shrugged into it.
Everything was changing again. Even her feelings for Kenneth was changing. She didn’t want him to be a god she could worship. She wanted him to be real, live man. A man who needed her as much as she needed him. A man who would respect her as much as she respected him. She wanted to be his partner…..his loving partner.
When she returned, Kenneth was seated in the chair. HE didn’t say a word; he simply watched her in silence as she sat at the end of the couch, curling her feet beneath her.
“I feel much better now,” she smilingly said.
He stared at her for a moment, then frowned.
“You have no eyelashes,” he said in a distracted voice.
Nicole chuckled. Now that she made a decision, she felt more at ease with him than she ever had. “I have eyelashes. What I don’t have is a mascara. You’ve never seen me without a make-up, but this is the real me. Don’t you like it?”
“I like it,” he said huskily, then shook his head. “But that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
He looked away from her face. “I don’t know. I thought I did, but now I’m not sure.” He paused, glancing down at his hands. “I can understand why you wanted to be someone in your own right. What I can’t understand is why – “Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? We’ve known each other a long time, Nicole. In the past, you’ve never been shy about confiding in me. Why now – just when we’ve decided to spend the rest of our lives together – did you decide you couldn’t trust me with the truth?”
For a moment, she stared a him, the she sighed. “I don’t know what to say. I guess I was afraid you would try to stop me. You and Papa are both so strong. I don’t think either of you realizes how overpowering that strength can be sometimes.” She shook her head restlessly. “I should have told you. I shouldn’t have been such a coward. But you see, it’s only now – now that I’m on my own – that I’m beginning to see a little of my own strength.”
There was nothing in his face. Nothing at all. She had no way of knowing his reaction to her revelations.
Smiling slightly, she said, “Couldn’t you just forget about me for a couple of months? Pretend I really am away with Cielo in Japan.”
“Cielo’s in London.”
“Oh.” So that was how he discovered her deception. “I should have checked on that.”
“Make a note of it so that you’ll remember next time you want to deceive everyone,” he said without inflection, then he drew a rough breath. “The Charity Ball is in two days. Or did you forget it as well?”
She had. The Charity Ball was one of her pet projects, but it would have to go off without her this year. She shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry. I have to work that night.”
For a few moments, he stared at her in silence, his face set stubbornly. She should have known he wouldn’t meekly accept her explanation. Kenneth was used to being in charge, she told herself as she rub the ache in her shoulder.
“You look tired,” he said, and the gentleness in his voice took her by surprise. Turning her around, he began to massage her shoulders. “You worked hard today. Sit still for a minute so I can work out some knots.”
“You don’t have to….”
Her objection faded away as his fingers began moving across her back and shoulders. They felt so good. Sinking down on the couch, she moaned quietly as his magic fingers began to ease the soreness away. She closed her eyes for a moment, but when she felt his hands leave her shoulder, she opened them again to find the room filled with shadows. The only light came from the small lamp over the stove.
“I’ll bet your feet hurt too. We’ll soon fix that.”
He rearranged her limp body so that she was lying on her stomach. Taking one of her feet in his hand, he gently dug his thumb into the sole, stroking and massaging as though he would push the soreness and tension away.
“It’s wonderful.” Nicole’s words were a breathy sigh of pleasure. “If you ever give up on tycooning, have I got a job for you.”
He laughed softly and switched his attention to her other foot. After a few moments, he said, “I guess I’ll probably stick with tycooning for a while.” He eased the robe up and began gently kneading the taut muscle. In her relaxed state, it seemed a natural progression. He was simply following the soreness.
“You have a good muscle tone.” Was his voice huskier than it had been a moment ago?
“Tennis,” she said lazily. “And swimming….oh, that feels good,” she said as he found a particularly sensitive spot.
“Why haven’t we ever played tennis together?” Kenneth’s voice was barely audible as he began to work on the smooth muscles of her thighs.
“I…I don’t know.”
Nicole had forgotten her sore muscles. She forgot how tired she was. Because Kenneth’s touch was no longer therapeutic, and it was no longer relaxing. Suddenly, she felt his lips on hers. They kissed passionately as if making up for the days they’ve been apart. His body suddenly covered hers in the small couch.
She couldn’t stand it. It was too much pleasure….too much. She slid her hands to unbutton the top buttons of Kenneth’s shirt.
“Yes,” he said, his voice rough. “This is what you need, Nicole. This is what we were born for. Can’t you see?” He framed her face with his hands, looking into her stunned, hazel eyes. “Can’t you?”
She stared at his strong face, features suddenly harsh, then slowly the world began to come back into focus. Moistening her lips, she glanced away from the intensity in his eyes.
She didn’t know what he was asking of her. She didn’t know anything. She couldn’t think when he was so near.
Drawing slowly away from him, she began to straighten her robe, feeling his gaze on her like a caress. It would be easy to lose herself in the sensual world he was offering, but suddenly she knew that if she surrendered to him now, she would be lost.
“You’re an extraordinary man, Kenneth,” she whispered. “I’ve always known that. Everyone knows that. You’re an intense and dominant man who has to be in control of things. You make things happen. But right now, maybe I don’t need extraordinary. This is a new experience for me, a grand surprise. It would be too easy to lean on you . I’ve done too much leaning in my life. For a little while, I think I need to stand on my own.”
As the minutes ticked by, the silence in the room grew unbearable. Finally, steeling herself, she turned to observe him. As she watched, a smile that was almost sad twisted his lips. “I underestimated you, Nicole. But don’t make the same mistake with me. It’s not over yet.”
Then he turned and walked to the door.
When it closed behind him, Nicole began to shake in reaction. Dropping to the couch, she rocked back and forth, fighting the aching need he had built inside her.
What had he meant? she wondered. He had acted as though he knew there was more to this than she had told him. But what could he know? He couldn’t possibly have guessed that Nicole was trying to break the emotional hold her life had on her. He couldn’t know that in the process, she hoped to find the key to herself. He couldn’t know that she wanted to become strong enough to meet him as equal.
It’s not over yet, he had said.
Suddenly, Nicole shivered. She would need all the strength she could get, because she had the strange idea that he now wanted more from her than marriage. He wanted her soul.
~end of Chapter 4~
On her 5th day at the café, Nicole met a group of poor girls whose
age ranges from 9 to 14 playing in an alley behind the café. What started as a
casual conversation with them had become a routine they all look forward.
Everyday, during her free time, she would meet them and they would all gather
around her. For Nicole, getting together with these girls had become a daily
event. Nicole would teach them proper hygiene, show them how to paint their
nails, and other girl stuff one could ever think of.
Presently, Nicole had just finished painting the finger nails of one of the girls. “Okay, all done,” she said. “See how pretty they look now that you’ve stopped biting them?” She met the eyes of each girl in turn. “This is a very important lesson. It doesn’t matter where you’re going. If your hair is clean and shiny and your nails are well-scrubbed and trimmed, you always look good. And when you look good, you can handle anything.”
Nicole laughed as the girls scrambled to her. Each one of them suddenly wanted their nails done. “I only have ten minutes left. One of the girls have to take over when I go back to work.” She beckoned the oldest and tallest girl of the group and showed her how she does it. “Tomorrow, if you all will bring brushes, rubber bands, head bands – that sort of thing – we’ll work on your hair.”
As she watched them leave, Nicole closed her eyes briefly. They were such terrific kids, she thought, but they desperately needed encouragement. Nicole found that this deficiency, the lack of self-esteem, was one of the worst part of being poor. Money shouldn’t be that important, but being without it seemed to knock the stuffing out of people. Because Nicole had always had money, she had never rated it highly. In fact, if she thought of it at all, it was only because others use it as some kind of measure.
But during the past few weeks, Nicole had come to understand that being without money didn’t just mean being without furs or trips abroad. It means being without food, clothes, and a roof over your head.
She had come to this place to prove something to Kenneth and to herself. And she had found the other world she was looking for. It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always comfortable, but it was always real. Her girls stood up to the challenge of that reality every single day. And they survived.
She was so proud of them that it overwhelmed her sometimes. And in some ways she felt a sense of responsibility toward them. That was a new experience for Nicole. She had never been responsible for anyone – not even herself. Although the idea was a little frightening, it also made her feel more solid. It made her feel more complete.
Glancing again at her watch, she winced at the time and turned to leave……..and almost tripped over Kenneth.
She caught her breath sharply, staring at him in surprise. She hadn’t seen him in two weeks, not since he had visited her apartment, but the memory of the scene on the couch was as strong as if it had happened the night before. It never failed to bring a trembling weakness to her knees and a flood of color into her face, as it did now.
He nodded toward the end of the alley where the girls had disappeared. “Friends of yours?” he asked.
In a barely evident movement, she straightened her back. “As a matter of fact, they are.” She smiled slightly.
He studied her face. “You’re not ready to give it up yet?” When her chin came up higher, he said, “No, I guess not. I stayed away because I thought that after a couple of days you’d get tired of playing and go home. When you didn’t, I begin to think you might be serious about this. That maybe it’s not just a whim.”
“Did you? How decent of you. You could have asked me and saved yourself all that tiresome thinking.” She pouted.
He smiled. “Do I detect a touch of hostility? Good. That’s one of the things I’ve thought about in the last two weeks. “You’ve been very careful never to show any emotion, either positive or negative, around me. After a while, that kind of thing tends to make a person feel invisible.”
“You felt invisible,” she said in an indignantly. “You had absolutely no right to feel that way. I’m the one who was nothing more than a toy. I’m the one –“
“Hold it,” he interrupted, laughing as he shook his head. “I didn’t come here to argue with you. I came to ask when you get a day off.”
“Why do you want to know?” she asked guardedly.
He shook his head with regret. “So young and yet so suspicious. I thought you might like to go to a concert with me one night this week.” He paused. “Even waitresses enjoy music.”
“But they don’t usually get to a chance to sit up front,” she said dryly. “No, I don’t think so. Thank you very much for asking me, but I haven’t a thing to wear in a concert.”
He was silent for a moment, then his gaze dropped to her hand. “Where is your ring?” he asked sharply.
“It’s in a drawer at home.” Nicole rubbed her hand against her hip feeling her ring finger throb suddenly.
“At home – as in the Jin Mansion?”
“No, at home in my apartment, in my drawer, under my underwear.”
After a moment he said, “Are you breaking our engagement, Nicole?”
His tone was conversational, as though they were discussing nothing more important than the weather, but suddenly Nicole was frightened. Was she breaking their engagement? She felt her heart jump and said, “No – no, it’s just that it didn’t look right. I don’t want to break our engagement; I simply need to be on my own for a while.” She frowned, rubbing her temple. “I guess what I’m really afraid of is falling back into old patterns, old thoughts. That’s why I’ve got to keep away from my old world until…”
She shook her head. Her smile held confusion and a touch of wistfulness. “I don’t know. At least something has begun…..something inside me, and I’ve got to see it through. That’s why I can’t go to the concert with you. You’re too much part of what I’m trying to get away from.”
“I see.” He said slowly. After a moment, he simply turned and walked away.
Nicole stood without moving as she watched Kenneth leave. There was a strange, choking tightness in her chest and throat. When she felt tears sting her eyes, she shook her head and blinked them away furiously.
Whether Kenneth had intended it or not, this had been a test. A challenge to try her strength. Well, she survived his test, she told herself wryly. But her victory didn’t bring the satisfaction it should have. She was suddenly afraid the if she pushed him too far, he wouldn’t be there when she accomplished what she had set out to do. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing him, but neither could she give up her new life. Not when she had come so far.
Kenneth sat at his desk, losing the battle to keep his mind on the report in front of him. It had only been two days since his confrontation with Nicole but it seemed more like two years. He was not good at waiting, especially when something as important as his future was at stake. He knew, however, that if his plan was going to work, everything had to be just exactly right.
When the telephone on his desk buzzed, he picked it up immediately. “Yes?”
“Oswald is on line one, Mr. Yin,” his secretary said.
“Put him through, Mary,” he said, leaning back on the chair. Now, he thought, now maybe he could get this thing under way.
Although Oswald had worked for Kenneth for 5 years, the older man had no official position. He was everything from cook to valet to bodyguard. Most of the time he simply kept Kenneth’s house running smoothly, but recently, Oswald has taken on a new role.
“What do you have Oswald”? Kenneth asked as soon as he came on line.
“She left her apartment a few minutes ago, but she didn’t go to work.” Oswald’s bland voice didn’t give a clue to what he was thinking; he merely stated facts.
“Kenneth frowned. “Where did she go?”
“To a laundromat near her place.”
One eyebrow quirked in surprise, then he said, “Thanks, Oswald. I’ll take over from here.”
Swinging the high-back leather chair around, Kenneth stared at Nicole’s picture on his desk. It was more like her than the portrait in the Jin Mansion but not much. The animation was missing, as was the mischievous sparkle in her hazel eyes. In a photograph, Nicole was a beautiful woman; in life, she was so lovely and vital that everything around her seemed dull and lifeless in comparison.
He moved restlessly. In such a short time, their relationship changed dramatically. In the past, whenever he thought of her, he had felt desire and an overall sense of discontent. Now, although the desire was stronger than ever, the discontent was replaced by an intermittent frustration, occasional anger, and an excitement that constantly kept him high on Nicole-induced adrenaline.
Kenneth had no problem getting Nicole to accept his proposal of marriage. But everything was different now. Now that she had let him see the fires that burned deep within her, he was no longer willing to settle for a comfortable, convenient relationship. He wanted more. He wanted, much, much more.
“Be prepared, Nicole.” He whispered, a slow smile curving his lips. “It’s not over yet – not by a long shot.”
~end of Chapter 5~
HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND EVERYONE! GOD BLESS!
Nicole stood outside the Laundromat with a basket of dirty laundry
under her arm. Now what? She wondered, biting her lip.
She had been washing her uniforms and underwears by hand, but she had run out of towels and sheets, and there was no way she could wash denim jeans in the kitchen sink.
She wondered why she had always taken washing clothes for granted. In the past she had simply left them on a chair – or the floor, she remembered uncomfortably – and they would disappear. The next time she saw them, they would be clean and hanging in the closet or folded in a drawer. If she had ever taken the time to follow her clothes on their trip to cleanliness, maybe she would have at least a vague idea of what to do now.
Glancing around, she looked for someone to watch and imitate. Her attention switched to a plump, motherly woman on the other side of the room. Walking casually closer, Amy watched as the woman adjusted the temperature, loaded the clothes, put coins into a slot, then twisted a dial. When water began to run into the machine, the woman measured soap and poured it in.
It looks simple enough, Nicole thought, approaching an empty machine warily. Taking a deep breath, she reached out to adjust the temperature.
Two hours later, Nicole stood next to a large table and observed the same woman as she retrieved towels from a dryer and folded them. “Yes, but what about the sheets?” Nicole asked.
The woman looked startled. “Are you talking to me?”
Nodding, Nicole smiled an apology. “I’ve been watching to see how you did everything. The towels are easy enough, but how on earth do you fold the sheets?” She waved a hand toward the pile of colorful sheets on the table.
The woman laughed. “You must be a newlywed. My daughter had the same problem when she first got married. Mothers shouldn’t do much for their children – it makes them helpless. My daughter must have called me ten times during the first year of her marriage.”
“A newlywed? Okay,” Nicole said agreeably. That explanation would work as well as anything.
Leaning forward, the woman took one of the sheets from Nicole’s pile. “Here’s how you do it when you don’t have help. You take this corner… see? Then you –“ she broke off and frowned as she stared at something behind Nicole. “There’s a man over there who’s staring at you with a funny look in his eyes. You should be wearing your ring, honey. Some men don’t need any encouragement.”
Nicole laughed. “Oh, I’m not a newlywed. I just –“
When she felt a hand on her shoulder, Nicole swung around sharply….and found Kenneth standing directly behind her.
But it was a different Kenneth. Kenneth Yin – the catch of the decade, society’s darling – wore tight, faded jeans and a soft, navy T-Shirt that molded to his hard body like a second skin.
As she stared in stunned silence, he smiled. “Hello,” he said softly.
The woman beside Nicole frowned in disapproval. “Young man,” the older woman said sternly. “I know what you’re doing. I watch TV, too. I know those people say that the best place to meet women is at a Laundromat, but really –
Nicole choked on startled laughter.
“Believe me, ma’am,” Kenneth said, keeping his gaze firmly on Nicole, “this is not one of my usual hang-outs and I’m not here ‘to meet women.’ I’m venturing into the real world to meet a real woman. This woman.”
“You idiot,” Nicole said. Her eyes sparkled in amusement as she glanced at the woman beside her. “It’s all right. I know him.” Returning her attention to his clothes, she added, “At least, I thought I did. What are you doing here?”
“I told you. I came to find a real woman….and to take her on a picnic.” He ran his gaze slowly down her body. “You look like you could fill the bill just fine.”
“A picnic?” Nicole was finding Kenneth’s new appearance difficult to resist. After a moment, she gave up trying. “Why not? Give me a few minutes to finish folding the sheets.”
Within minutes, her laundry was folded neatly in the basket once again. He picked up the basket and began carrying it toward the door. “I’ll follow you home, the we can go in my car,” he said, eyeing her as she walked beside him. “That is - if you want to?”
The question made her pause. She wasn’t used to Kenneth’s asking her what she wanted. He had always assumed that he knew best. “Yes …… yes, that’s fine.” She said, feeling a little breathless.
Thirty minutes later, she sat beside him in his car and gave him discreet, puzzled glances as he drove. Was it his clothes that made her suddenly feel so relaxed around him? Somehow, she didn’t think so. Beneath his casual attire, he was still the same man. She was almost sure he had her followed – how else would he have known where to find her? – but the idea didn’t make her angry. It simply made her curious.
Do you think I’m finally growing up, Mama? She thought, hiding a smile.
~end of Chapter 6~
Kenneth watched the excitement building in Nicole’s eyes as they
walked toward the entrance of the zoo. At that moment, he forgot he was
humoring her. He forgot that this was the first step of his plan. He simply
wanted to be a part of the breathtaking joy he saw in her face.
Nicole grasped his arm, pulled him toward the cage that held the brightly colored birds. She looked up at him, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “Who do these flamingos remind you of?”
He stared down at her for a moment, trying to keep his mind on her question instead of his sudden need to kiss her silly. Shaking his head, he gave her a puzzled smile. “I give. Who?”
“Mr. Khan,” she said, then burst out laughing at his expression.
“Mr. Khan, the philanthropist?” He struggled to keep his features stern. “One of the most respected men in Seoul?”
“The same.” Her tone was blunt and unrepentant. “He has little legs and always wears pink shirts. Look – don’t tell me you can’t see the resemblance.”
He took her arm. “What I see is that we had better move on before you force me to slander a friend.”
“A friend who has silly little legs,” she amended, laughing softly as he pulled her away from the flamingos.
When they paused to observe the monkeys, her lips lifted in a strange smile as she stared straight ahead at the cage. “Did it hurt?” she asked casually.
“Did what hurt?”
She leaned her hip against the fence and met his puzzled gaze. “Stepping out of the button-down-collar image into this.” She waved a hand at his casual clothes.
“I have never in my life been a button-down-collar man,” he denied, frowning.
She shook her head. “Oh, maybe not on the outside, but –“
She broke off as movement from one of the monkeys caught her eye. It shook its head exactly as she had seconds before. Intrigued, she brought one hand up slowly and smoother her hair. Immediately, the monkey lifted one paw to smooth the top of its head. When Nicole rubbed her nose, the monkey rubbed its nose.
“Now you do something,” she told Kenneth. “Go on, scratch your stomach.”
There was a long moment of silence, the he said, “If you think I’m going to scratch my stomach in front of dozens of strangers, you’re crazy.”
“Oh-ho,” she said, raising one brow.
“What is that? ‘Oh-ho’?” He stared at her in frustration. “Oh-ho what?”
“Oh-ho, it’s just as I thought. It’s all an act. Underneath that so-casual exterior, you are still Mr. Button-down-collar.”
For a moment, Kenneth merely frowned down at her, then suddenly he swung around to face the cage and began to rub his stomach. “There,” he said vehemently. “Now are you satisfied?”
Nicole couldn’t answer; she was laughing too hard. It wasn’t only the sight of Kenneth rubbing his stomach in public that amused her, it was also the small creature behind the bars who was rubbing his belly at exactly the same pace.
“I hope you’re happy,” Kenneth said as he dragged her away from the crowd in front of the monkey cage. “You’ve made me look like a perfect fool.”
“Yes, you were perfect, weren’t you?” she said, still chuckling. “If you’re going to be a fool, isn’t it nice that you can be a perfect one?”
“Oh….you really are something.” He grumbled then gave a reluctant laugh. “I think it’s time for lunch. I’ll get our drinks; you reserve a tree.”
Nicole chose a huge tree by the lake where only few people are strolling by.
By the time he returned with paper cups filled with soft drinks, Nicole had positioned herself beneath a tree.
Kenneth lowered himself beside her, placing the drinks on an exposed root, then opened the knapsack. “And now, fair lady, are you ready for our feast?”
“Feast? What did you bring?”
He stared into the knapsack for a moment then met her gaze. “What do you want? Bologna sandwich or salami sandwich?”
She laughed as she positioned herself to sit. “I’ll have the salami.”
“I wanted the salami.”
“Too bad, you asked me and I’m your guest – c’mon give it to me.” She took the sandwich. Because she knew that Kenneth also wanted the salami, they ended up sharing both sandwiches.
The meal was delicious and their conversation lively. After eating, they stared at the beautiful lake in silence. Each one of them in deep thought.
“Did you bring chips?”
He pulled two cans out of the bag and tossed one to her.
“Our favorite! She exclaimed. “Know what? I was surprised that you eat this thing and I had wanted to ask you before. I never thought that you’d be the type of person who eats shoe string potatoes.”
“What do you think I lived on in college?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said, frowning as she remembered that he had not always been the successful man he was now. “I’m sorry, Kenneth. I wasn’t thinking. It must be rough on you.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know what you mean.” He smiled. “Actually, those years hold a lot of good memories. I worked hard sometimes and sometimes I did without things I consider necessities now – like hot food. But it felt good to be working toward a goal.”
She studied his face. If he felt that way, why didn’t he understand what she was trying to do? She wondered, frowning. Was she different because she was Nicole Jin?
Shaking away the twinge of disappointment, she said, “I barely remember you back then, back before my mother –“ She broke off abruptly and took a sip of her soft drink as stared off into the trees.
“You still miss her, don’t you?”
His voice, so incredibly gentle, brought a quick sting of tears to Nicole’s eyes. “I think about her all the time. And when I’m alone, I even talk to her.” She shook her head. “That sounds foolish.”
“No….no, it doesn’t sound foolish at all.” He leaned back against the tree’s wide trunk. “I used to talk to my father, too. But when I talked to my father, I cursed him.”
“Why were you angry at him? Was it because…..”she couldn’t bring herself to say the words, but Kenneth didn’t have the same problem.
“Because he killed himself?” he said, his tone conversational. “That’s part of it. But it was only later that I realized that the anger was directed at myself as at him.”
“Why should you be angry with yourself? You just started working in your company when he did it.”
“Yes. But he should have confided in me. He must have been very lonely. If you remember, at the time my parents were still married." He glanced at Nicole and she nodded. “I didn’t know that their divorce affected him so much. Before the divorce, things at home were tense. My dad kept picking at my mom, and they screamed at each other all the time. It was especially bad at night." He shook his head, then rubbed the space between his eyebrows as if he had a headache. "They should've split up decades ago."
Nicole remembered how badly Kenneth had wanted a close, loving family, and how his parents were too wrapped up in themselves to bother with their only child. She'd never liked them, but this… "I didn't know," she said. "Why didn't you say something?"
His mouth twisted. "Too ashamed. " He blew out a heavy breath. “My father had taken the divorce badly that he started killing himself by becoming sick. He refused to be confined to the hospital. Wallowing himself in self-pity. Later, I was always hounded by the fear that somehow he knew that I was ashamed of him. That I was embarrassed by his eccentricities.” He shook his head as though trying to shake away the sadness.
“No.” Her voice was sharp with concern. “Of course he didn’t know. For heaven’s sake, don’t feel guilty about the way you felt. In those last years, he was too ill to know anything. Kenneth, don’t give me that look. My father used to talk about yours all the time. He really cared about him. They’re really the best of friends. I think, Papa probably felt the same guilt you have, but it’s wrong for either of you to feel that way. In those last years, your father was too busy running from his own demons to realize how you felt. And even if he had known, don’t you think he would have understood? He loved you and knew that you were at the age when conforming was completely important. He would have known that no matter what you felt about his illness and their divorce, you never stopped loving him.”
For a long time, Kenneth stared wordlessly at the sky, then slowly lowered his gaze to her face.
“How can you know all that?” he asked in quiet amazement.
“Hey, I’m not just another pretty face. Besides, I guess I felt a lot of those things when Mama died. You know, things like – if I had been a better person, maybe she wouldn’t have died. And I didn’t have anyone with whom I could share my feelings, either. Papa was there physically, but he didn’t see me. You know what I mean? He was fighting so hard to overcome the pain of losing her, he wasn’t really there for me.” Nicole gave him an impudent grin. “I guess the first time I felt the full weight of that was at the funeral.”
Nicole can still recall the day of the funeral. The sun was shining brightly as if nothing had happened. It’s just another ordinary day. She had stood beside the open grave, begging her father silently not to leave her too. And she remembered that someone was holding her hand….
“It was you!” she said in surprise. “You were at Mama’s funeral. I had forgotten. Why did I forget?” she frowned.
“Maybe it hurt too much to remember.”
Nicole didn’t take in his quiet words. “I felt so alone….as though I lost both of them. Then later, you took me out to lunch.” She laughed softly. “Now I remember – you refused to let me spend the afternoon alone.”
She gazed up at the top of the trees as the memories continued to flood into her mind. That day, Kenneth had treated her not as a child but as an individual. He hadn’t given her pity. It had been something entirely different. It had been a bracing kindness, a rough kind of caring that hadn’t allowed her to feel sorry for herself. Nostalgia struck, and for one long moment she was back there, her heart warm and full.
“Life’s tough, but it’s worth living. Always remember that. If you want the good that life holds, you have to endure the bad. Just grit your teeth Nicole, and endure it.” He had told her on that day.
Nicole glanced up at him now, and it was as though she had never seen him before. Knowledge – an eye-opener of some kind – hovered at the back of her mind, then skipped away before she could grasp it. It was the first time that they really talked.
“The meal was delicious. Thank you, Kenneth.” Nicole said quietly, she couldn’t help but stifle a yawn. “Oh, I’m so tired…..I didn’t realize that until now.” She stretched out and stared at the blue sky.
Kenneth stretched out himself, offering his arm. “You look tired. Why don’t you take a nap?”
“Can I? You won’t mind at all? “
Kenneth just smiled and kissed her forehead, enjoying Nicole’s sweet scent. He closed his eyes.
After an hour, Nicole woke up and was startled to see Kenneth’s face near hers. He’s staring at her. Oh, what that look did to her. Her breath caught and time seemed to stop. Unnerved and upset by her pounding heart.
“Nicole”, Kenneth whispered, and the soft, husky voice sent shivers running through her. “You want to know about my dreams? Shall I tell you Nicole? Do you want to hear about a grown man’s wide-awake dreams, dreams when the nights get too long and too lonely and too hot? You’re always there, Nicole. Within arm’s reach. In my dreams, I’ve seen it all. Every beautiful inch of you.”
She didn’t move. She couldn’t. She wished she could escape. But she could only stare into the dark intensity of his eyes and follow him into the dream. When her breath quickened, he seemed to come closer, even though logically, she knew neither of them had moved. In reality they were in a park under a bright blue sky. But reality had nothing to do with the dream. Reality wasn’t as real as the dream.
“Kenneth,” she gasped. “You can’t – we can’t –
“We’re not,” he said his voice soothing. “We’re having a picnic. We’re lying on the grass talking. Nothing is going to happen here.”
She knew that what he was saying was the truth. They were simply talking. People were passing them without noticing out of ordinary.
Her fear must have shown on her face, for Kenneth scrubbed his hand through his hair.
“You don't trust me." Disappointment flitted across his face before he set his jaw.
"Guess you need convincing." His eyelids lowered a fraction, making him look dangerously sexy. "I want a kiss."
The sensual warmth in his voice skittered over her skin, making her yearn for him. But giving in would be a huge mistake. "I don't see how kissing you will make me trust you," she said.
"You'll have to take that on faith." His heated gaze dropped to her mouth. "One kiss."
"Ok. Just one," she echoed. Of their own volition her lips parted, and every nerve in her body tensed with expectation.
She almost cried out when she recognized the incredible, overpowering intensity of the kiss, an honesty that brought pleasure and pain at the same time. The urgency of the dream had disappeared. The kiss demanded nothing of her. It simply gave joy and wonder and truth – basic things that had always been missing before. For the first time, Kenneth’s touch felt real.
When he drew away slightly, Nicole stared helplessly into his dark eyes. This day – his casual clothes, her childhood memories, and the kiss – had made her fall more deeply in love with him than ever. It suddenly frightened her just how much she loved him.
Glancing away, Nicole felt a strange emptiness, and odd sense of loss. Maybe because she couldn’t share what she was feeling with him. She couldn’t let him see that, even if he was never able to return her love, she was totally and completely his. And she always would be.
Meanwhile, realization struck Kenneth like a bolt of lightning. Kenneth was unable to keep from smiling, he was on top of the world, he felt fantastic! It wasn't lust, it was desire that was pure, honest, and real. It was the wanting beyond measure of this woman, not just physically but with a need to mesh with her emotionally, as well. It was rare, wonderful, awesome. He was honest-to-goodness in love! Suddenly, his joy turned to apprehension. He’d never been so confused. He can’t rush her into something she didn’t want now that she had taken a decisive step toward her independence. She’s now becoming a mature woman who is capable of making her own decisions. He doesn’t want her to lose all the ground that she gained. He just love her too much to do that. I love you, Nicole Jin, and I intend to tell you that just as soon as I think you're ready to hear it. I just hope that you too feel the same way. But what if she doesn’t feel the same? What then?
~end of Chapter 7~
She woke slowly, drifting for several minutes between sleeping
& waking as her brain struggled to make sense of the information her senses
were accumulating. The smell of honeysuckle and the sound of birdsong coming in
through the open window, the feel of cotton sheets on her skin. She opened her
eyes and saw sunlight on yellow painted walls and the single word
"home" formed in her mind. She smiled – feeling lazy and contented.
Suddenly, she heard a knock on the front door. When she opened the door, she stared at the man in her doorstep. After a moment, she shifted her gaze to a plant outside. “It’s very strange, but for a moment I could have sworn I saw the ghost of my late cousin Warren. It would be just like him to continue annoying the respectable members of the Jin family from beyond the grave.”
“Nicole, dear, listen –“
“Did you hear something?” she asked the plant. “It was a small squeaking voice – the kind no good rats make. What’s that? You’ve changed your mind and think it might be actually Warren’s ghost. You could be right. For the last three weeks I’ve been phoning him – I didn’t know he was dead, you see – and I’ve been leaving a word that he was to get in touch with me.” She sighed heavily. “Do you suppose – could it be that he’s managed to cross through the Eternal Heavens in order to return my calls?”
“Ok,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I get the message. I’m a worm.”
“You’re worse than that,” she said sweetly as she stood aside to let him in. “You are the slime that a worm leaves on the sidewalk. It’s not that I blame you for spilling your guts like the coward that you are – I know how intimidating Kenneth can be. But why couldn’t you have warned me? Or at least faced me with an explanation and an apology? I almost had a heart attack when I saw him in the café.”
“I thought it would be smarter to let you cool down a little before I saw you. Anyway, I didn’t say anything about what you overheard in the garden.” He glanced slowly around the room, then slumped down to he couch. “Good Lord, Nicole. Are you actually living here?”
She moved to sit beside him. “It’s mine, Warren. I clean it and I pay for it.” She hugged him enthusiastically. “I’m so glad to see you. Even if you are a slime.”
He examined her face. “You look different – and I’m not talking about those disgusting jeans.”
“I am different. Look.” She held out her hands, palms up. “Calluses.” When he gave an exaggerated shudder, she grinned. “It’s good, Warren. The whole thing is good. I wish I could tell you – I wish I could share it with you, but that’s something I’ve found out. No one can give it to you. You have to find it for yourself.”
She laughed at his puzzled expression. “I know. I’m not making any sense, but crazy things have been happening since the last time I saw you. I set out to prove something to Kenneth. And punish him. And show him how wrong he was about me. But nothing happened the way I thought it would.”
She shook her head. “I’m not doing this for Kenneth anymore. I’m doing it for me. Every day, I learn something new. About life…..about myself. Some of the things are good and some are not so good. I’m still just me, but now I think maybe that’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” he said, frowning. “You’re a Jin for heaven’s sake.”
“Jin’s my name, not who I am,” she said, smiling slightly. “It seems like all my life I’ve been moving sidewalk, sliding through life without really experiencing it. I felt a vague uneasiness, just a little dissatisfaction, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to find out. Now I know.”
She gripped both his hands tightly. “Warren, I sweat now. Not glow. Not perspire. I actually sweat.”
“Congratulations,” he said sardonically. “If I had known I would have brought champagne to celebrate.”
She laughed. “It’s not my major accomplishment, but I’m proud of it. I wish I could make you understand. I always knew that painful realities existed in this world, but –“ She broke off and shook her head. “I was never cruel or uncaring. I simply didn’t think I was brave enough or strong enough to help.”
“And now you’re going to cure the world’s ills?
“No,” she said hesitantly. “I haven’t worked this part out yet. It bothers me that the kids in this neighborhood have to deal with poverty and abuse, and all I can do is give them a few laughs and tell them which color of nail polish to wear. The enormity of the real problems overwhelms me at times….. but at least I’ve taken the first step. The first step was simply for me to never forget that problems exist and not let my conscience be appeased by organizing a charity ball. Someday, maybe I’ll know where my place in the world is. Someday, maybe I’ll know how I can make a real difference in the lives of the kids like my girls.”
“Your girls? No, don’t tell me. I don’t think I want to know.” He paused. “If you want to trade the luxury that you’ve been accustomed to, that’s your business, but how do you propose to work Kenneth into this crusade?”
The tight, almost angry note in his voice caused her to stare at him. “I’m making you uncomfortable,” she said, feeling sad and more than a little frightened. She and Warren had always been close. He understood her, sometimes better than she understood herself. But now it was apparent that he thought she was fighting windmills.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said sharply.
Her smile was shaky. “How am I supposed to look? I don’t want to lose you.”
“Lose me? Don’t be silly. I’m not going anywhere – not as long as Uncle continues to keep me in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed.” His hands tightened on hers. “I admit that I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but what that doesn’t matter. I can still be glad for you. The fact is,” he said, his voice slightly rueful, “I guess I envy you a little. Not enough to change my lifestyle, of course.”
“Of course,” she echoed, laughing in relief.
“Now,” he said briskly. “What about Kenneth?”
She frowned. “I love Kenneth….now more than ever. It’s a deeper, more solid feeling. But our relationship is still all wrong. I can’t reach him.”
Nicole had seen Kenneth often in the last few days. He had taken her to concerts in the park and art exhibits at the museum, always careful to keep the dates casual. After that night in her apartment, he had never again let her see the sensual side of his nature. Their relationship had seemed open and honest, but instinctively, she knew that she was seeing a character he had purposely built.
“He’s still hiding from me,” she said softly. “Isn’t it ironic? I’ve found the real me, but I can’t find the real Kenneth.” Shaking her head, she forced the worry away. “When are you going to come to the café? I want you to see where I work.”
“Although you make it sound wonderful – with the sweat and all – I really don’t feel I deserve such a treat.”
When she punched him in the shoulder, the last bit of restraint between them disappeared.
“Knock, knock,” Kenneth said as he walked through the door Nicole had left open. “Hello, Warren.” He smiled, then his voice softened. “Hello, Nicole.”
“My God!” Warren said, his voice filled with disgust as he stared at Kenneth’s clothes. “You’re wearing jeans, too. Is it catching?”
Kenneth didn’t take his gaze from Nicole as he shrugged. “Who knows? I wouldn’t take any chances, Warren. If I were you, I’d leave right now before the Denim Syndrome gets you,”
“Very funny,” Warren said. “What are you doing here in the middle of the day?”
“I came to see if your cousin wants to go to a ball game tomorrow night.”
“At the park?” Nicole asked. When Kenneth nodded, she shook her head. “I would have loved it, but I have to work –“
“A ball game?” Warren muttered. “I’ve stepped into the twilight zone.”
“ – tomorrow night,” Nicole finished with regret. “Bert needs me. We’ve booked a party.” Her hazel eyes gleamed with pride. “Our first party.”
In the month that Nicole had been working at the café, there had been a slow but steady increase in business. As a result, Bert had to hire another waitress, a twenty-year old named Cely. Cely and Nicole now worked the lunch shift, and it took all three of them – Nicole, Cely, and Bert’s wife – to take care of the dinner crowd.
Some of the credit for the café’s new popularity had to go to Kenneth. He came by for lunch almost everyday, sometimes alone, sometimes with a business associate. As a result, the diner was now being patronized by a very interesting mixture of people.
Kenneth sat down beside her, unsubtly pushing Warren over. “Why don’t you change days with one of the other waitresses?”
“I can’t. It’s going to be an important night for the café.” She laughed softly. “And since the whole thing was my idea, I’d better be there to make sure it works. My whole career as a waitress will be on the line tomorrow night.”
“This is not going to work.” Bert pushed restless fingers through his already tousled hair. “We’re going to fall flat on our faces and it’s all your fault.”
“Yes, Bert.” Nicole’s voice was distracted as she stood in the doorway to the back of dining room.
In the normally unused room, several square tables had been pushed together to form an open-ended rectangle. At intervals along the pristine white tablecloths, Nicole had placed shallow dishes of daffodils and long green iris leaves from Jane’s garden.
“Doesn’t it look wonderful?” Nicole said in satisfaction as she stood in the door to the back room.
“Terrific.” Bert’s expression was typically glum. “Why did I let you and Jane talk me into this? We can’t handle this kind of thing.” He snorted in disgust. “You and your fancy ideas. This place was better the way it was.”
Nicole hid a smile. She was used to his complaints. Bert was a pessimist from day one. He was always sure something would go wrong. It was as though he was afraid that the gods was listening and would send disaster the minute he showed a hint of pride or satisfaction.
“Well?” Bert said militantly, breaking into her thoughts. “Are you going to stand around daydreaming, or are we going to get this disaster under way?”
“It’s going to be fine,” she said, patting his arm. “Choi has all the food under control. I’ve seen the menu and it’s terrific. Everyone is going to have a wonderful time, and after tonight there will be thirty people raving about us to their friends.” She sighed in contentment. “Arirang Café will soon be the place to eat in this part of town.”
“The place in this part of town,” he mimicked sarcastically. “Where in the hell are Jane and Cely? Is this some kind of conspiracy to bankrupt me? It’s all a plan to –“
When the phone rang, he broke off and picked up the receiver, barking, “Arirang Café.” He listened intently and after a moment his florid face paled. “We’re on our way,” he said tightly.
Hanging up the phone, he yelled for Choi as he stripped off his apron. Choi walked into the dining room, moving slowly.
“It’s Mama,” Bert said urgently. “Jane called and said she collapsed. They’re at the hospital.”
As the two men moved quickly out the front door, Bert called back to Nicole. “Lock up the place as soon as these customers leave. Call Cely, then you and Ben go home….and cancel that damn party.”
“Bert,” she said, her voice stunned. “Bert, wait. You can’t –“
But already the door was closing behind him. Turning away in confusion, Nicole found that the three customers – it was still too early for the dinner crowd – were staring at her in curiosity. Bracing herself, she summoned up a confident smile and moved casually toward the kitchen door. Before she reached it, Ben walked out.
“Ben,” she whispered, grabbing his arm, “something terrible’s happened. Bert and
Choi’s mother is in the hospital. Bert told us to lock up and go home.”
“That’s too bad,” Ben said, shaking his head. “Ben can’t afford to lose the money this party was going to bring in. The café was just beginning to show a profit. This’ll set them back for sure.”
She nodded. “Not to mention the bad reputation we’ll get when we cancel the banquet.” She bit her lower lip, her expression thoughtful. “Ben, how far along with the food preparation was Choi?”
“Let’s see. Everything else is ready except for the dessert. Why?”
“I could handle the dessert,” she murmured to herself, then met the boy’s gaze. “Ben, I think we can do this. You, Cely, and I. AS soon as these people leave, we’ll close down the café. We still have an hour to prepare before the party arrives – we can do it.” Her eyes began to sparkle with excitement. “What do you say?”
“I don’t know Nicole,” he said hesitantly. “If you don’t get the food done in time –“
“Please Ben,” she said, her voice coaxing. “I’m depending on you. If you help, I know we can do it.”
He blushed, then sucked in a deep breath. “Okay, let’s do it.”
She threw her arms around his shoulders and hugged him. “You’re wonderful. Now as soon as Cely –“ Breaking off, she frowned and glanced at her watch again. “She’s late. She should have been here thirty minutes ago. I’ll give her a call. You go watch the foods.”
At each occupied table, she left the bill and removed the empty plates to give them a hint, chatting cheerfully so that no one would be offended. As she turned away from the last table with her hands full of dirty dishes, the front door opened and Erika Han walked into the café.
Following behind her was what looked like the entire membership of the country club – Nicole’s friends.
Erika smiled. “Was I lying?” she said smugly to the group with her. “Hello, Nicole. We’ve come to see your new hobby. What’s the matter, dear? Did your Dad go bankrupt?” With arched brow, she ran her gaze over Nicole, malicious amusement gleaming in her eyes. “You know, dear, I believe that uniform suits your personality better than any of the things you bought in L.A.”
As Erika spoke, some members of the group began to look slightly uncomfortable. Others watched with amusement, barely bothering to hide their smiles.
Nicole felt as though a piece of her brain had been dislocated. Erika and the people with her should have represented reality. They should have made Nicole feel awkward and ashamed of her new world. These were the people she had known all her life. Bus as stood looking at them, she knew they weren’t reality. She wasn’t one of them anymore, and was no longer part of the games they played. It was a strange feeling. She felt somehow lighter.
Thoughtfully, she glanced from face to face, wondering how such an enormous change could have happed in such a short time. Then, as her gaze shifted again, Nicole felt her heart jerk in her chest. Kenneth stood just inside the door, watching Nicole closely.
Was he responsible for Erika’s presence? She wondered, fighting a moment of confused pain. He knew how important tonight was to her. Was this another of his attempts to persuade her to go back to the Mansion? She met his eyes, searching them, but she could find nothing there to give her the answers.
Nicole’s friends began to throw jovial, eager questions at her, but Nicole’s thoughts had already switched back to her job. She walked to the cash register to take care of the customers standing at the counter. As though nothing unusual had happened, Nicole rang up their bills, gave them their change, and smiled as she told them to come back soon.
Leaning against the counter, she smiled at the group by the door. “Can I get you all something? How about you, Erika? I’ll bet you would love our chili. It’s –“
She broke of as her father and Mr. Han walked into the café.
“Oh, thanks,” Nicole whispered, closing her eyes briefly. “My day is now complete.”
Her father’s face was unnaturally pale. He looked confused and embarrassed…..and very, very angry. “I didn’t believe it,” he said hoarsely. “when Erika told me where you were, I called her a vindictive fool.”
“She is,” Nicole, shrugging helplessly. “But even vindictive fools sometimes get their facts straight.”
“You’re supposed to be in London. I just don’t understand.” He frowned suddenly, staring at her. “Take off that silly uniform and come home. Do you hear me Nicole? I want you to –“
“Nicole,” Ben interrupted urgently. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Cely,” Nicole said, remembering that she still hadn’t call the girl. When her father began to bark orders at her, she shook her head in dismissal and said, “Oh, not now, Papa.”
Hearing her pleading voice just now, it was enough to stop her father from harassing her while she made her call.
Two minutes later she turned slowly to face Ben, her eyes blank with shock. “She quit, Ben. She wasn’t even going to call to tell us. She just suddenly decided she didn’t want to work here anymore.”
“Oh, no,” Ben breathed. “That’s it. We’re dead. You might as well call and cancel the party.”
The group with Erika had moved away and were sitting at tables, whispering. But Nicole couldn’t think about them now. The disappointment she felt was not only because her plans hadn’t worked out; she had grown to like Bert and Jane and even Choi. They didn’t deserve another setback.
When she felt a firm hand on her shoulder, Nicole glanced up slowly. Kenneth’s sharp eyes examined every inch of her face as though he were searching for something. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
She shrugged, her smile crooked. “The best-laid plans and all that. I should have known…”
Her voice faded away as the front door opened and Warren walked into the café. Suddenly her eyes gleamed. “Maybe we’re not dead yet.” Moving forward to meet her cousin, she grabbed his arm and began to drag him toward the kitchen.
“It wasn’t my fault, Nicole. I swear.” Warren’s voice was urgent and as humble as he could manage. “Erika caught me when I’d had one too many glasses of wine. I didn’t mean to tell –“
“Never mind that. You’ve got to help us.”
“You’re not angry?” his eyes grew wary. “What do you want me to do?”
Kenneth pushed open the door and walked into the kitchen. “You’ve got a customer.”
“Damn,” Nicole said under her breath. “I forgot to turn the sign.” She shoved a pad and pencil in Warren’s hands. “Take care of it, Warren. And for heaven’s sake, turn the sign around to CLOSED. We’ve got enough trouble without customers wandering in.”
She glanced over her shoulder at Ben. “Let’s finish the dessert. If we’re going to make this work, we have to get started now.”
Her father wandered into the kitchen, looking lost and confused. “Nicole, why is Warren waiting on tables? When are you going to tell me what in hell’s going on?”
“Papa, please,” she begged. “Not now. I promise I’ll explain everything later. Right now, I just need you to stay out of the way.”
Warren walked in. “Hamburger, fries and Coke.” He yelled, then glanced at Nicole. “Now what, boss?”
She took a deep breath. “Okay…okay, just wait until I –“
Kenneth emerged from the shadows. “Never mind. He took of his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. “I’ll take care of the burger. You finish the dessert.”
“You?” she said, unable to keep the astonishment from her voice. “Kenneth, you can’t –“
“Of course I can,” he interrupted. “Uncle, if you’re going to stay here, make yourself useful. Get a hamburger patty and fries out of the freezer.” His dark eyes met
Nicole’s. “Get to work, darling. Those things won’t arrange themselves. Ben, you can fix the man’s drink.”
Nicole’s mouth dropped open, then she snapped it shut. Why was she surprised? This was the man who owns big companies; he could probably manage short-order cooking with one arm tied behind his back.
Thirty minutes later, Nicole had finished the desserts and was giving all her concentration to the other foods earlier prepared by Choi.
Erika stepped lazily into the room, one elegant hand resting gingerly on the door, “Nicole, darling,” she said, “I hate to disturb you at work, but there is a large group of people out there. If I had to guess, I would say they’re the street vendors association.”
“They’re mechanics,” Nicole said weakly as her heart jerked in her chest.
“Whatever. They said they had a room reserved for a party.”
“They’re here,” Nicole whispered, her eyes wide as she turned to Ben. “Ben, they’re here. And I haven’t finished arranging the tables.”
Mr. Jin stared at her for a moment, then turned and left the kitchen. Her father thought she would fail, Nicole told herself. Switching her gaze to Kenneth, she searched his face. Did he also think she would fail?
For a moment his expression was unreadable, then gradually it changed. Nicole couldn’t put a name to what she saw in his face, but it pulled up memories of a dream. Memories of just the two of them together.
No, she decided as she drew in a shaky breath, he wasn’t wishing failure upon her. He wasn’t thinking of the restaurant at all.
Then suddenly, he released her from the dream, and a slow smile lifted his strong lips. “Isn’t this the real life you were looking for?” he whispered so that only she could hear.
After a moment, she laughed. “Why, yes. I believe it is.” Straightening her back, she said, “Erika, tell Warren to seat them and take the drink orders.”
Erika raised her chin. “Are you ordering me? I think you must have mistaken me for a messenger.”
“Erika,” Kenneth said quietly. “Do it.”
Erika stood for a second, then whirled around and left the kitchen. Seconds later, she was back, a smug smile on her face. “At the moment, your cousin is busy at the cash register.” Her smile grew broader with patent enjoyment. “You seem to be caught in a predicament.”
Warren suddenly appeared behind her. “Shut up, Erika.” He glanced at Nicole. “I’ve taken care of it.” With that, he hauled Erika from the room.
Raising her eyebrows in surprise, Nicole glanced at Kenneth. After a moment they both burst out laughing. Then as she took in what he was doing, her laughter died away.
“You’re still cooking. Didn’t Warren put out the CLOSED sign?”
He shrugged. “I’m only the cook. No one tells me anything. And now is not the time to worry about it. “
Fifteen minutes later, Erika returned with a pad in her hand. “I have the drink orders,” she said precisely, her voice stiff.
“Why, Erika,” Nicole said, her voice faint, her lips twitching with amusement. “How extraordinarily nice of you.”
“No – it’s not nice. I’m doing this under protest. I never knew your cousin had a talent of black mail.” For a moment she looked almost intrigued. “I think I may have to take a closer look at Warren. It seems that I’ve underestimated him.”
Ben took the list and began to pour coffee, iced tea, and soft drinks. When Erika left with the tray of drinks, Nicole was right behind her with the appetizers.
As she walked through the main dining room, she saw her father and his friend sitting at a booth across from an elderly man from the neighborhood. Several of her friends waved and called to her. They were laughing and talking. And of more importance to Bert and Jane, they were all eating. So these were the orders Kenneth had been filling in the kitchen. Between the banquet and Nicole’s friends, the café would probably have a record night.
Three hours later, Nicole walked the last member of the party to the door. He was a tall, thin young man with a shy smile. “It was terrific. The best we’ve ever had,” he said awkwardly. “we all pitched in to give you this.” He held out a 200 won bill.
“Why….thank you.” She looked at the bill in her hand. Two hundred won. She had given larger tips while lunching alone, but somehow it meant more to her than the enormous allowance her father deposited in her checking account.
“Miss…I mean, Nicole?” he said, and she glanced up. “If you ever have trouble with your car, I wouldn’t charge you labor. And I do good work,” he added in embarrassed rush. “Just ask anybody around here about Jo Ramsey, and they’ll tell you I do good work.”
“Thank you, Jo. I might take you up on that.”
He blushed when she smiled at him, then paused on the doorstep. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Good night, Jo,” she called to him, then closed and locked the door.
As she turned around, she found Kenneth watching her with an expression so intense it startled her. Seconds later, he glanced away and the spell was broken, leaving her slightly weak.
Rubbing her stiff neck, she studied the table where Warren, Erika, and her father sat. They were talking and laughing together. Even Erika was laughing. As Nicole watched, Erika met Warren’s eyes. And then a strange thing happened. Erika blushed.
It was a night for miracles.
Nicole glanced at Kenneth to share the feeling and found him watching her again.
Something had changed between them, she realized. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, and at the moment she was too tired to examine it closely; she only knew that it made her feel warm and secure.
Yes, she thought, it was a night for miracles.
~END OF CHAPTER 8~
Nicole set the cup of hot chocolate on the end table, then leaned
her head back against the rough fabric of the couch and listened to the sound
of the rain hitting the roof. Except for the light over the stove, her
apartment was dark.
The two hours they had spent cleaning the café were a blur. She couldn’t even recall telling the others good night. Her car must have found on its own way to the apartment because somehow Nicole had gotten home and had managed to undress and take her shower. But that was as far as her energy and mental power would take her.
Any minute now she would make the bed and get some sleep, she told herself. Any minute now she would find the strength to collapse.
Drawing up her legs, she rested her forehead on her knees, then groaned when she heard a knock on the door. At first she thought it was her father. Although he had promised to wait until tomorrow to “settle things” with her, she knew her father’s temper from old.
She pulled the door open then widened her eyes when she saw Kenneth standing there.
“Kenneth, what –“ She broke off when lightning flared behind him in the dark sky.
Although it made a dramatic scene, it wasn’t the drama of nature that almost made her take a step backward. It was the expression on Kenneth’s face. The intensity she had seen at the café was back, but this time it didn’t make her feel warm and secure.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, frowning.
He pushed a hand through his hair. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you said goodbye to me at the café an hour ago, now you’re here again,” she explained patiently. “Because you’re standing in the rain without even noticing that it’s raining. And because you’re agitated about something. You’ve never in your life been anything less than composed – but you are very definitely in a tizzy about something now.”
“In a tizzy?” he grumbled. “That makes me sound like an old maid who jumps on a chair to get away from a mouse.”
“If we’re going to argue about my vocabulary, come in where it’s dry.” She moved back into the room. “You’re beginning to look like a wet cat.”
He came in but didn’t sit down. He paced awhile, then in an abrupt movement, he glanced over his shoulder at her. “You don’t look like you’ve been working all evening.”
“Why does that sound like an accusation?” She tilted her head to consider him. “Are you looking for a fight?”
He clenched and unclenched his fingers, then clenched them again. “I don’t know – maybe….yes, I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing.” There were red spots high on his cheeks as he took a step toward her. “My ring doesn’t belong in your drawer. It belongs on your finger ….and I’d like to see it there.”
His voice grew louder with each word. She'd never seen him this angry. Her eyes stole a darting glance at his jaw, the muscles bunched up in anger; his lips contorted into an arrogant frown, a small twitch pulsating at the corner of his mouth; his eyes, shooting sparks. Apparently he didn’t know that Nicole had never responded well to that particular tone of voice. It always brought out violent responses in her. And it always, always made her act without thinking of the consequences.
“Do you mean now?” Her voice was soft. Very, very soft.
His features tightened, adding harsh lines to his face. “Yes….NOW.”
“And that’s all you’re going to say? You’re not going to explain what this – this outburst is all about? Why are you acting like this?”
He took another step toward her. Good, she thought in satisfaction. Nicole was never cautious when she was angry. A good, old-fashioned mud-slinging match would suit her just fine.
He drew in a deep breath, then suddenly met her eyes. “You were flirting with that jerk. You were laughing and whispering to that guy’ – he spat out the word –“so that no one else could hear what you were saying. You walked him to the door!”
Nicole’s eyes widened in blank astonishment. She didn’t stop to think about what was behind his accusations. His confrontational tone was enough to make her see red.
“He wasn’t a jerk,” she said. “He was a nice man. And I treated him with ordinary courtesy – which is not flirting. If you like, I’ll show you sometime what flirting looks like so you won’t make the same mistake again.”
“And where do you get off censuring my behavior?” she interrupted. “I’ll act any way I please.”
“Not if you know what’s good for you,” he said tightly. “And your behavior could use a little censuring. Every time your eyes turn red, everyone for miles around runs for cover. But not me, not this time. We’re going to get this settled tonight.”
He moved toward her.
“Stay away from me,” she said, taking a step backward. “You’re out of your mind. If you so much as lay a finger on me, Father will have you castrated.”
“Are you kidding?” He grinned as though he were suddenly enjoying himself. “Your father will stand in open-mouthed awe of anyone who has the guts to stand up to you.”
When Nicole backed into the chair, she quickly ducked behind it then jerked her head up at the sound of his laughter. Damn him, she thought, he was laughing at her. No one laughed at Nicole Jin. Reaching behind her, she picked up a ceramic vase and held it over her head.
“You think it’s funny?” she said. “Take another step, and then we’ll see if it’s funny.”
He took another step.
“Go ahead,” he urged. He was laughing loudly now. “Throw it.”
“Oooh!” she said as she replaced the vase with frustrated violence.
“What’s the matter?”
“I paid for that vase,” she muttered, then a reluctant smile tugged at her lips. “I can’t break it.”
When he moved closer, she suddenly grabbed a pitcher. “Thank heavens for plastic,” she said as she threw it at him with all her strength.”
He didn’t even pause as it bounced off his shoulder. Nicole ran around the other side of the chair, keeping it between her and Kenneth.
“Kenneth-“ her voice wobbled. The situation was so comical, she couldn’t keep her voice or her face straight. She laughed out loud when he swung his long legs over the chair and pulled her down into his lap.
“You idiot,” she said, still laughing as she shook her head. “My personality is going down the drain - I can’t even work up a good rage anymore. And you! I wasn’t flirting with Jo. He’s a mechanic. He was offering me a discount on auto work.” She paused, studying his face. “Were you really jealous?”
He grimaced. “Are you going to make me say it out loud?”
“That would be nice.”
He chuckled. “Ok – yes, I was jealous.” His voice became husky as he buried his face in her neck.
As he ran a hand down her arms, all the feelings came back to overwhelm her. She hadn’t known she had been expecting this, waiting for this, since the night he had discovered where she worked.
She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
“When you see something beautiful, something that stirs things inside you, you assume that everyone who looks at it feels the same you do.” His voice was a rough whisper. “You see, I’ve wanted you so badly, for so long, I figured your friend Jo had to feel the same way I did.”
It was good hearing that he wanted her, but Nicole needed something else from him. Something more than his words. Something to ease the awesome ache that was building inside her.
He cleared his throat. “Yes?”
“Kenneth, maybe –“
“What?” He sounded distracted…..and urgent. “Maybe, what?”
She didn’t know how to say it. Placing her hands on both sides of his face, she brought his lips to hers. The instant her lips touched his, she couldn’t control herself anymore, her shyness gone.
Uttering a deep groan that echoed hers, he slid to the floor with her in his arms. Now she could feel the full length of his hard body against hers. But it still wasn’t enough. The ache was growing stronger, more unbearable.
There was a deep pleasure – almost awe – in his eyes as he stared at her. “Oh, God, forgive me Nicole,” he whispered. “I can only take so much, I can’t bear it anymore. If we’re going to start this, there’s no turning back anymore. Are you really ready for this?
Nicole nodded. She couldn’t look straight into his eyes.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening. After all these years. After all these lonely, cold years.”
The words made no sense to her sensation-drugged mind. But the need behind those words were clear. It was a need that matched her own. It was a need that made his movement ruthless. He began to touch her face, exploring her cheekbones, the softness of her eyelids, her tingling lips as though he wanted to accustom her to his touch. He couldn’t know that his touch seemed a part of her and made her feel whole for the first time in her life.
Kenneth lay on his side in the darkness, one arm folded under his head as he tenderly watched her sleep. At the same time, he couldn’t stop from being worried as he thought what had just happened, suddenly remembering how Nicole had cried in pain during the heat of their passion.
Sweet Jesus, let it be all right, he thought, feeling cold sweat break out on his forehead.
He had acted like an idiot, storming over to her apartment like that. In truth, it hadn’t been the mechanic that had caused his actions. The man had been just one more thing to torment him. Lately, Kenneth had been plagued by hellish nightmares, vivid, colorless scenes, each depicting the pain that would come if he lost Nicole.
Although he was used to having Nicole in his dreams, the terror was new. Since the night of their engagement party, Kenneth had been burying fear – the terrible fear that she was slipping away from him. And more and more, he was paying for his cowardice in his dreams.
He had to find a way to make this new, strong Nicole need him. He had to find a way to keep her in his life.
The fantasy of making love to Nicole had been with him for years. Now that the fantasy had become a reality, he should feel triumphant. But, even tonight, when they were physically as close as he had always wished, he still felt the wall that separated them emotionally.
In business, Kenneth was known for his ability to quickly sort out a problem and find an appropriate course of action. But now, when it involved the most important thing in his life, he felt totally useless.
Reaching out, he brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek. “Come home, Nicole,” he whispered hoarsely. “Come home to me.”
Somehow Kenneth had to make her understand. He had to make her see what was possible for them. If he couldn’t, he would be thrown back into the emptiness….and that was a thought beyond endurance.
~end of Chapter 9 ~
Nicole stepped from her car and stood for a moment looking at the
house, trying to urge her thought away from the night with Kenneth and
concentrate on the morning’s confrontation with her father.
When Kenneth had left the apartment early that morning, Nicole had been torn between pleasure and pain. She never believed that watching a man dress could be such an intimate, heartwarming experience. She loved the way he moved, the way he frowned in the mirror as he shaved. She even loved the way he straightened his tie.
The pain had come when he walked out the door of the apartment and she was forced to think objectively about what had happened between them. Making love with Kenneth was the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to her. In one night, she had walked away from her childhood. In one short night she had become the woman she had always wanted to be. But as wonderful as their lovemaking had been, something had been missing.
After making love with him, she knew she would be feeling more secure. She should feel that their relationship had been made deeper and more enduring. The incredible heights they had reached together should have bound them together – physically and emotionally.
But it hadn’t happened. She wasn’t secure; if anything, she was even more insecure than ever, because now she knew just how much she stood to lose if things didn’t work out between them. And the bonds between them were only physical. But mentally and physically, they seem to be riding on parallel planes, never touching, never merging.
She closed her eyes, she sighed. Father was waiting. Although she was stronger now, Nicole still wasn’t thrilled about his confrontation with his father. But thrilled or not, she knew she owe him the truth. Her days of deception were over. She would meet her father as an adult.
As Nicole pushed open the front door, Maria, her nanny since she was a child walked out of the sitting room and stopped abruptly. “Nicole!”
Nicole smiled and gave her and enthusiastic hug. “Hello. I was hoping to see you so I could apologize.”
“For being a spoiled brat,” her voice dry. “My only excuse is that I didn’t realize what I was doing.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Maria stared at her, suspicion and worry battling for supremacy. “What’ve you’ve been doing? Where’ve you been? Why are you talking crazy like that?”
“It’s not crazy. I simply want to apologize. I’ve always known you had trouble with your feet. And I was worried about you, but somehow I didn’t connect your feet with walking up the stairs to bring me breakfast in bed each morning. It’s no wonder you have to hire Lina as your assistant.”
Her nanny’s lips trembled slightly, then tightened. “Don’t try to tell me nothing’s wrong with you. Why are you coming in here and talking about my feet? Are you taking something? You promised me you’d never touch drugs.”
Nicole laughed. “You see what I mean? I’m trying to tell you I’m sorry for being thoughtless, and that’s so something out of character of me that you’d thought I’m taking something. I really was a bitch.”
“Now, watch your language Nicole.” Maria’s voice was stern. “And you stop saying things like that to yourself. I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I can tell you this - I didn’t have to stay here all these years. I could have taken the high offer of your fancy friends if I wanted but not one of them saw me as a real person. That’s what you did from the very first day I came here.”
Nicole grimaced. “That’s all very well, but I could have used that toward something practical. Like saving you from tiring your feet.” When her nanny protested, Nicole hugged her again, and said. “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s in the study waiting for you. I hope you stop all these nonsense and come home where you belong.” She walked away mumbling to herself about how people could say something about other people’s feet.
Nicole watched her disappear then looked around. Did she belong here? It all seemed different. But the Jin mansion was the same, so the difference must be in her.
She moved down the hall, then stopped when Warren walked out of the study. He closed the door, then leaned against it weakly. After a moment, he noticed Nicole and grimaced. “Today, Uncle could make Shrek seem like a sweet guy.”
“What happened? Did he take it out on you? Don’t tell me he threw you out.”
“No, but only the fact that I have a Jin blood saved me.” His eyes met hers in shock. “He wants me to go to work!”
“Oh my God,” she whispered in awe. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“I’ve never heard him respond so sarcastically. He said he wasn’t referring to my part-time job waiting tables. He wants me to work at the company and –“ He broke off, swallowing heavily.
“What? Tell me.”
“He says I have to start earning my keep.”
“But that’s impossible!” Shaking her head, she reached out to touch his arm in a gesture of sympathy. “He’ll change his mind, Warren. As soon as he calms down, he’ll realize that you aren’t suited for that kind of thing, and even if you were, you couldn’t earn enough money to pay even your dry-cleaning bill.”
“Gee, thanks…..your faith in me is really inspiring. You did it – why couldn’t I?” he said sarcastically.
“That’s different. I wasn’t forced to make my own way. I did it because I wanted to. Because it was important for my future.”
He was silent for a moment. “Maybe it’s important to my future, too.” His smile was reminiscent. “Last night was very……rewarding.”
“Erica?” She frowned. “But even if she decides to marry you, surely she wouldn’t expect you to work.”
“Probably not,” he agreed. “But I realized something last night. The only way a man could live with Erica is as an equal. And she’ll always have the upper hand if I’m living off her money. She doesn’t want to respect any man, but I’ll force her to….no matter what I have to do.”
She kissed him gently on the cheek. “That’s the most noble thing I’ve ever heard. The thought that you would actually get a job for Erica is so sweet.”
With a disgusted expression, he wiped the kiss off his cheek. “Sweet? How revolting. It’s not sweet; it’s practical. This is merely an inconvenient step I have to take in order to ensure my future comfort.”
She firmed her lips to hide a smile and nodded her agreement. She glanced at the study door and took a deep breath. “Shrek?”
“if your head is served for dinner tonight, I won’t be surprised.” Warren nodded. “Good luck.”
Nodding, she opened the door slowly. Her father sat behind his desk, his head bent over a stack of papers. After a moment, he glanced up, and she saw his face. The veins in his temples were bulging and even looked grimmer than her nanny had.
“You’ve gone off on some strange starts in your life,” he began, his voice deceptively quiet. “But this is the strangest. You know I’m not the kind of father who is forever bringing up all the advantages I’ve given you, all the sacrifices I’ve made for you. I don’t constantly remind you that there are millions of females in this country who could cut off their right arms to be in your position.”
Oh, no, she thought, not all those armless females again. The last time he had told her about them she wasn’t able to sit for a week.
“What on earth possessed you!”
Nicole flinched, certain that she saw the walls shake at his roar.
With both hands on the desk, he half stood, his face reddening as he shouted. “You lied! All this time I thought you were in Japan, partying with Cielo.”
As he sank back to his chair, his lips tightened. But beneath the anger, she was astonished to see what looked like pain. She had never intended to hurt him.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean for it to turn this way. I wish I had told you everything, but it’s too late to change that now. I took the line of least resistance. But even if I had told you the truth, you wouldn’t have understood.” She smiled wistfully. “You probably won’t now.”
She shifted restlessly, staring at the ceiling as she tried to gather her thoughts. “Papa, who am I?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m beginning to, but I want you to tell me. Never mind. I’ll save you the trouble. On the night of my engagement party, I realized who I was at that moment. I was your daughter who was about to become Kenneth Yin’s wife.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Think a minute. What if everyone thought of you only as Nicole Jin’s father? What if you thought of yourself only in terms of what you were to other people? What if you could find no substance in yourself? Wouldn’t it scare you?”
“You have substance,” he said gruffly.
She nodded. “I’m beginning to see that….now.”
“Wonderful,” he said, his voice sarcastic. “You’ve evidently done what you set out to do. You’ve proved that you’re an individual even without the Jin name behind you. Now it’s time for you to come home.”
“Not yet,” she said firmly. When he made an impatient sound, she added, “I’m not just being stubborn. There are still things I have to do….things I have to work out.”
There was a long silence, then her father narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on? Why is this different from your other fool tricks?” He stood up abruptly. “I don’t understand you. Since your mother – He broke off and drew in a deep breath. “Since we lost your mother, you’ve pulled stunts like this over and over. I know I’ve spoiled you, but without your mother –“ He broke off and shook his head. “I just don’t understand you.”
Nicole had heard the words hundreds of times, but this time she finally understood them. All these years, her father hadn’t been ignoring her; he simply didn’t understand her. Her mother had been his interpreter; she had been her father’s connection with his daughter.
The knowledge brought a flash of intense pain and regret for the wasted years between them. It all seemed so senseless, so terribly sad.
Pulling herself together, she took a step forward. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. I really didn’t know. I always thought I was a burden to you. I thought you didn’t like me very much.”
His head jerked up sharply. “Don’t be an idiot! You’re my daughter.”
She nodded. “I didn’t say I thought you didn’t love me. I said I thought you didn’t like me. One is almost obligatory; the other has to be earned. I didn’t know how to earn it. So I did crazy things to get your attention any way I could.”
“And this particular ‘crazy thing’?”
She smiled ruefully. “Why mess with a system that works? This was to get Kenneth notice me - at least that’s the way it started. I’ve grown up, Papa. I’ve finally grown up. All my life, I’ve been wanting you to like me; now it’s more important that I like myself.”
He studied at her face. “And you’re going to stay away until you like yourself?”
She nodded. “That’s one of the things I’m trying to accomplish. There are others.”
She smiled at him. Her father had always been sharp. “I can’t waste the rest of my life waiting for someone to like me.” She bit her lip to keep it from trembling. “I’m going to try like hell to find out what’s going on in Kenneth’s head. I have to know how he feels about me.”
“And when you find out?”
She shrugged. “I’ll know what to do when the time comes. The bad part of becoming a person you like is that your expectations rise. I can’t accept less than I’m willing to give. Either Kenneth and I belong together….or we don’t. There can be no middle ground.”
~end of Chapter 10~
Nicole sat on the steps outside her apartment, her chin on her
knees as she picked at the peeling white paint on the stairs. When she saw
Kenneth’s car pull to a stop in front of the apartment, she didn’t shift her
position. Only when he stood on the steps just below her did she glance up at
Instantly, her insides melted, and she smiled. “Hi,” she said as he sat down beside her.
“Hello.” He put his arm around her waist, and after a moment his hand began moving up and down slowly. There was nothing sexual about the caress; it was as though he needed to establish his presence.
“What’s up?” His expression seemed a little tense as he waited for her reply.
“The world is so funny,” she said softly. “So ironic. After I talked to Papa – ” she raised her head suddenly and met his gaze. “You’ll never believe what Papa did. It’s so incredible and probably my fault.” She paused dramatically. “Papa’s making Warren work at the company. He says he has to earn his keep.”
“It’s about time.” Although his expression didn’t change visibly, Kenneth’s tension seemed to fade.
“Kenneth!” she said, shocked by his callous attitude. “We’re talking about Warren. He’s not prepared for this kind of thing. It’s like taking a hothouse flower and planting it in a winter garden.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But if the flower can pull it off, it will be more stronger and more able to cope with life.” He tightened his fingers on her waist. “You’re right. It’s ironic that your going to work rebounded on Warren…………but it’s also funny as hell.”
“It’s not funny,” she said sternly. “And that’s not the irony I was talking about.”
“More irony? And all in one day,” he said, shaking his head.
She laughed, unable to take offense at his teasing. After last night, she wasn’t sure that anything he could do would offend her. “Behave and let me tell you the rest of it. After my talk with Papa –“
“How did it go?” he interrupted. “You look like you’re still in one piece.”
“Pure luck.” She glanced away from him, remembering the meeting with her father. “I think I’ve finally come to terms with Papa. And I realized that I’ve hurt him as much as he’s hurt me.” She shook her head. “I hate that. I’d rather he locked me in the attic for a couple of years than be hurt because of me.” She let out a slow breath. “We finally agreed that he would let me run my own life.” She chuckled. “Which means that he will keep a twenty-four-hour watch on me but won’t interfere until he actually sees me screwing up.”
“Now that’s ironic,” he said grinning.
“Will you let me tell my story?” she asked in exasperation. “That’s not what I was talking about, either. After I left the house, I went to the hospital to see how Bert’s mom was doing.” She smiled. “She’s much better. Apparently her blood pressure was the problem, but the doctors say they can control it with medication.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He paused expectantly. “Is this it? Is Bert’s mother the reason you’re brooding about life’s ironies?”
“In a way. Bert called his mother’s brother – to let him know that she was in the hospital. Apparently, his mother and uncle haven't talked for a long time because of a fight they once had. But Bert’s uncle had been ill too and he wants to make peace with her so that they can be a family again.”
“That’s nice….but not terribly ironic.”
“Give me time, for heaven’s sake. I haven’t gotten to the ironic part yet. It seems that Bert’s uncle is a very wealthy man. He migrated to the US twenty years ago. He wants them all - Bert and Choi and their families and her mother to live with him in New York.” She met his eyes. “Now we get to the irony. Bert and Choi are the old man’s heirs.” Her eyes came alive with laughter. “Bert and Choi are rich!”
She shook her head. “They didn’t even think twice about what they wanted to do. Without blinking, they decided to close the café and go.” She laughed helplessly. “Bert and Choi are running toward what I tried to run from.”
“Can you blame them? You’ve seen enough of what it’s like to worry about your next meal.”
“Of course I don’t blame them. I’m happy for them. It just seems like a strange coincidence. And it’s kind of disappointing, since the café’s business was beginning to boom.” She sat up straighter. “Now I’ll have to find another job.” She frowned thoughtfully. “It’ll have to be in this neighborhood; I don’t want to give up my time with the girls.”
He was silent for a moment, his eyes narrowed in concentration. “Let’s elope.” Seeing her stunned expression, he grinned. “Nicole…..your job-hunting could wait for a few days, couldn’t it?”
“I suppose so, why?”
“This would be a perfect opportunity for us to take a few days off and get away from everything. Away from your old world and your new one.” He sounded excited, almost urgent. “I think this is important, Nicole. We could go away and forget roles and prejudices – just be ourselves for a little while.” He paused. “Well, what do you think?”
She glanced down at her hands. Fate and Kenneth were making things easy for her. This was the chance she had been waiting for. It they were totally isolated, maybe she would be able to reach beneath Kenneth’s perfect image and find the man he really was. Maybe she would slip and give her a clue to what his feelings for her were.
For a brief, intense moment, she was scared. What if she discovered the hidden part of him and found no feeling for her at all? How would she survive the rest of her life without him?
Coward, she accused silently. If their relationship was going to end, it would be stupid to let it drag out. It was better for both of them to let it happen quickly. The pain of loving him was becoming more and more intense every time they were together. Insecurity was eating away at her, making her thoughts and feelings confused.
Sooner or later, something had to give.
“When would we go?” She gave him a sideways glance. “And where would we go?”
He smiled and the brilliance of it took her breath away. “I bought a nice cabin near a lake a year ago and it’s now fully renovated. It’s just two hours from Seoul. It’s not warm enough for swimming yet, but that area is beautiful in the spring. And we could go today.”
She caught his excitement as the thought of getting away, of being with Kenneth 24 hours a day. She wanted that. She needed it desperately.
Drawing in a breath, she said. “That sounds terrific. Oh wow, if we’re going to leave today, I’ve got a lot to do. I’ve got to pack and call Papa and let the girls know what’s going on and ask them to watch out for my apartment and –“
He put his fingers over he mouth. “Yes, you’ve got to do all those things. And I’ll have to talk to Oswald and phone my office, but first things first.”
He leaned close. “This,” he said as he lowered his lips to hers.
Every thought left her head as the exquisite sweetness of the kiss rushed through her. When he raised his head, all she could manage to say was, “Oh.”
“Exactly,” he whispered, his voice husky.
Nicole caught a brief glimpse of sunlight dancing on blue water
before they turned off the highway onto a dirt road.
“Are we nearly there?” She was impatient to see his place. Surely it would help her get closer to him.
“Five more minutes.”
She glanced around. “I hate to mention it, but we seem to be driving away from the lake.”
Kenneth chuckled. “The cabin’s not right on the lakefront; it sits on the side of the hill,” he said as they followed the winding road through thick woods. “But since the property goes all the way down to the water line, I can keep a boat.”
“A rowboat?” she asked, vividly recalling a day from the past.
His smile told her he was also remembering that day. “Not rowboats. A combination of fishing and ski boat, and a small sailboat.”
“I suppose I can make do with those.” As they rounded a curve, her eyes opened wide. Situated on a thrust of rocks that was nearly hidden by the trees, his house rose just above the treeline. And although she had thought he was being exaggerated when he called it a cabin, it really was. Nicole had expected something modern with landscaped grounds and lots of glass. Instead, she found a small cabin - elegant in its simplicity, which had weathered to a soft silvery gray.
“What do you think?” He turned off the ignition and looked at her. “This is the kind of place they call ‘rustic’ in real estate brochures.”
“I love it,” she said with genuine admiration as she leaned sideways to peer around toward the left side of the cabin. “Is that an outhouse?”
He chuckled. “The cabin’s not quite that rustic. That’s a storage building.”
When he had gathered their bags together, she followed him inside. One large room served as combination living-dining-kitchen area. Through double doors she could see a wooden deck and, beyond that, a spectacular view of the lake. Two other doors stood open, revealing a bedroom and small bath. Glancing around the room, she saw that there was no television or radio. And instead of a fireplace, a wood stove rested on one end of the living area. The furniture around it was upholstered in leather and a dark, tweedy fabric.
The cabin was almost plain in its simplicity. The contrast between this and his house was spectacular. This was just yet another side of his personality, she thought with a sigh.
To her right, a small bookcase held leatherbound books whose worn condition suggested they were well read. On a table beside a comfortable-looking chair, there were several mysteries and a shabby paperback copy of Shakespeare’s complete works.
Unaware that she hadn’t said a word since they walked in, she pick up the book of Shakespeare and thumbed through it. After a moment, she glanced up and caught a look in his eyes that left her breathless.
“What are you thinking about so hard?” he said, his voice soft and husky.
She gave a breathy laugh, feeling a different kind of excitement grip her. Meeting his gaze, she shook her head. “Yon Kenneth ‘has a lean and hungry look,’ she quoted softly. “’He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.’”
Removing the book from her fingers, he slipped an arm around her waist, “Dangerous?” he asked innocently.
“Yes….oh, yes.” Placing her hand on his chest, chest. Would she ever get tired of touching him? She wondered in awe. “Definitely dangerous,” she whispered.
She couldn’t take her eyes from his strong, intense face. They were the same people, but something was different. In her….in him….in the very air around them.
It really was a time out of time, she thought. The atmosphere between them sparkled and came alive like sunlight on crystal. It was clean and crisp, and brand new – invented especially for them.
“It’s a new day,” he whispered, as though he were as fascinated by the thing between them as she was. “There is no past. No future. Only the present.”
Yes, she thought. Only now. She knew that now was just fine. Now was wonderful.
****END OF CHAPTER 12
Kenneth watched a squirrel skitter away from them as they walked
through the woods, but his mind was, as usual, on the woman beside him. If he
closed his eyes, with no effort on his part, she appeared instantly on his
mind’s eye. She thought wearing plain clothes made her ordinary, but Kenneth
knew the truth. Dressed as she was in jeans and misshapen T-shirt, Nicole could
walk into a room filled with elegant women and outshine them all. No amount of
money could buy the breathtaking liveliness that shone out of her eyes or the
natural grace that was evident in her every movement.
She was here beside him, he thought. She willingly came into his arms any time he turned to her. They were really together at last.
So why did the fear hang on? Why did he feel that each second with her could be the last? He had brought her here so that he could get rid of the dread, but it seemed to be growing larger and stronger.
Say it, Nicole, he pleaded silently. Just say the word once. He desperately needed to hear her say the words that would make the fear go away.
Kenneth knew he was quickly coming to an end of his rope. Making love to her only added to the agony. He had tried to tell himself that it was enough for her to want him, but he knew he was lying to himself. And he didn’t know how much more he could take. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he would wake up in a cold sweat. And each time it happened, he swore that he would break off their relationship. Then Nicole would look up at him, and every resolve would be forgotten in the wonder of her smile.
Standing beside Kenneth, unaware of where his thoughts were, Nicole drew in a deep, exciting breath. The scent was better than the most expensive perfume, she thought in satisfaction. Spring was unfolding wildly all around them. The limbs of trees and bushes were packed with delicate green growth.
Was it really only a month ago that they had seemed dead? Only a month ago that she had wondered what it felt like to grow leaves?
No, she decided, it was more that a month. It was a lifetime ago. She couldn’t even remember what she had been like then. When she thought of those days, it was like watching the home movies of a casual, foolish acquaintance.
“I’ve been ‘transformized’.” She said in awe.
“You mean, ‘transformed’.”
”Maybe….I don’t know. I only know that something incredible has happened to me.” She turned around to face him, walking backward as she talked excitedly. “It wasn’t gradual; it was like – a few Walt Disney words and poof! I’m different.”
“Poof?” When she tripped over a root, he grasped her waist with both hands and guided her as she continued to walk backward. “How does poof feel?”
“Like a magic wand. One minute you’re a pumpkin and the next you’re a red convertible.” She tilted her head as she tried to listen to her own thoughts. “Do you think because it’s spring? Reemergence of life and all that….and do you have a clue to what I’m talking about? Because I think I’ve just confused myself totally.”
He smiled. “The words are vague, but the feeling is crystal clear….maybe because I feel it too. Part of it might be spring, and part of it might be the way my hands feel on your waist.” His fingers tightened ever so slightly. “Do you feel that?”
“Yes….yes, I do. It feels like energy….no, that’s not right,” she said in exasperation. “I can’t think of anything that’s not a cliché, and this feeling hasn’t been around long enough to become a cliché.”
He nodded. “Only for us,” he said softly. “No one could possibly have felt it before.”
As she studied his strong features, his dark eyes, she felt again what she had felt on their day at the zoo. She felt there was something she wasn’t seeing. Something vital that lingered just beyond her reach.
How could she ask him about it when she wasn’t even sure it was there? It was so vague and elusive….just a hint of something that showed up, then was gone before she could get a grip on it.
She had always known Kenneth was a sensual man, but his need to make love to her never seemed to level off. A casual movement or a quick glance from her would cause an intense reaction from him. As a result, she came to know his body better than she knew her own.
She was familiar with the scar on his knee that he had gotten from a barbed-wire fence at age ten. She knew intimately every vein on the inside of his wrists. She knew the look on his face when he wanted her, and she knew what drove him crazy when they were making love.
But she was still missing something.
As the days passed, Nicole felt she came close to recognizing the look in his eyes. But close only counted in horseshoes. As they sailed and explored and simply watched the dark clouds of a spring storm together, she watched him….and usually found him watching her.
Then one night she awoke and found the bed beside her empty. For a moment, she lay there staring at the dark ceiling. She missed him. Even in her sleep, she had missed him.
Life was really throwing some curves, she thought with a wry smile. For her, life didn’t go from 1 to 100 to 1 million. It seemed to dart ahead, then turn around and backtrack. She had left the Jin Mansion to get back at Kenneth for hurting her, for not loving her. It seemed at the time the most important thing in the world. Then, for a while, she had believed that her real reason for leaving was to discover if her life had meaning.
Now, after all this time, she had come full circle. Once again, she knew that the most important thing in the world was having Kenneth to love her. All the good deeds in the world would never fill the hole he would leave in her life if she lost him.
“Kenneth?” she whispered softly, needing him next to her.
When he didn’t answer, she slid from the bed and pulled on her robe. The second she stepped into the living room, she felt a breeze from the open glass doors. Moving nearer, she saw him standing on the deck, smoking. Even though there was a chill in the air, he wore only his pajamas.
The hard muscles of his back gleamed in the moonlight. From her side view she could see his face. He seemed tense and unhappy. There was no mask now. This was the real Kenneth, and the loneliness in his features made her shiver.
“Kenneth?” she said again.
He didn’t move to acknowledge her presence. “It’s cold out here,” he said. “You’d better get back to bed.”
“Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it now….tomorrow, maybe.”
His voice sounded strained, and she knew that she shouldn’t push, but she couldn’t help it. She needed to know what he was feeling. She needed to share it with him.
She stepped closer. “Can’t we talk about it now?”
He shrugged his shoulders, as though they hurt, as though he needed to ease some inner tension. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said quietly.
“Kenneth, please. What happened? You were fine when we went to bed a while ago.”
He swung around abruptly. “I’m just sick of it.” His voice was tight and harsh. “I wasn’t fine – I was pretending. And I’m sick to death of the charade.”
Nicole took a step backward. The words felt like a slap on her face.
He drew in a sharp breath at her defensive movement. “I told you to wait. Wait until
I’m saner, until I can be more objective.”
Nicole knew what he was asking. He wanted her to wait until the mask was back in place. She couldn’t do that.
“What charade?” she asked softly.
His laugh was a rough sound that disrupted the quiet night. “You know what I’m talking about. We keep waltzing around each other, pretending everything’s wonderful, everything’s fine. Well, nothing’s fine, and you know it.” He closed his eyes, leaning his head back wearily. “Maybe it’ll never be fine.”
She moistened her lips nervously. She wasn’t ready to hear this. She should have gone back inside when he told her to. Instead, she had forced a confrontation that had her heart pounding in fear.
“Are you trying to say – “ She paused to swallow the lump in her throat. “Are you trying to say you’re having doubts about our engagement?”
“Hell, yes, I’m having doubts,” he said tightly. “Aren’t you?”
She nodded slowly. She had wanted it out in the open. Now it was…..and she panicked. She couldn’t handle this. She had thought things were going well between them, now it seemed to be blowing up in her face.
Lord, I take it back, she thought in desperation. He doesn’t have to love me. Just – please don’t let him leave me. I’ll take whatever he has to give.
A violent shudder shook her body. No, that was wrong, she told herself. It would be a cowardly way to live. She would be cheating both of them. What she told her father still held true. Between her and Kenneth there could be no middle ground.
“ Talk to me.” Kenneth ground out. “Just once, tell me what you’re really thinking!”
She jerked her head up. “I –“ She stopped and cleared her throat. “I was just thinking of how naïve I used to be. I thought I could force things to go my way. Even when I got out on my own and grew up a little, I wished for magic. I wanted someone to have a magic wand and make everything right between us.” She paused and bit her lip. “Finally I realized none of those things were going to happen, and I decided that if it wasn’t right between us – if there wasn’t total love and trust – then we shouldn’t be together at all.”
In the moonlight, she saw his face go a shade paler, “Is that what you decided?”
Wrapping her arms around her body to stop trembling, she nodded mechanically.
“But –“ The word was a harsh whisper. “Don’t you think that’s a little bit illogical?
Maybe – maybe we should be happy with what we’ve got.” There was an odd, frantic quality to his voice. “I know it’s not perfect, but it’s more than a lot of people get in marriage……don’t you think so? Nicole?”
“I don’t know, Kenneth.” Her voice was barely audible. “I just don’t know if I can live like that.”
When he shook his head and turned away to lean on the wooden rail, Nicole felt a giant hand twist inside her chest. It hurt so bad. God, it hurt so bad.
Hesitantly moving closer to him, she leaned her forehead against his shoulder. “I’m sorry, “ she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
She was sorry she couldn’t be whatever it was that he needed. She regretted to the depths of her soul she couldn’t be the woman he could love.
He put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “So am I, darling. Oh, God, so am I.”
He ran a hand over her hair in what felt like a gesture of comfort. For a long time, they held each other in the moonlight.
***END OF CHAPTER 13****
It was the night of the Jin’s annual party. A hundred or so
elegant people made pastel splashes across the back and side lawns. Caterers
and hired waiters moved discreetly through the crowd, granting wishes like
twentieth-century genies. Near the pool, a small orchestra was playing a gentle
Mozart background to the hum of voices. White linen-covered tables groaned
beneath the weight of a dazzling array of food and drink.
As the guests ate and mingled and danced, everyone – singly and in groups – said that Nicole had once again put together the perfect party. They said it to each other, because Nicole Jin was nowhere in sight.
“Nicole? Nicole, are you alright? Can I get you anything?”
Nicole smiled slightly as the muffled voice came through the locked door of her father’s study. Tilting her head to one side, she gave the questions careful consideration.
“No, Lina,” she said finally. “I’m not alright, but there’s nothing you can get for me. Thank you, anyway.”
My life is a rerun, Nicole thought, laughing shortly as she leaned her head back against the high back of the overstuffed leather chair.
Two months ago, on the night of a party, she had locked herself in her father’s study to get attention. Today, on the eve of a party, she had locked herself in her father’s study to get away from attention.
On the outside, nothing had changed. She looked every inch the polished socialite. Her hair was upswept, the soft curls that fell on her temples and neck looked accidental, but every strand had been intricately arranged; the filmy lavender dress that whispered around her shoulders and fell softly around her calves matched her shoes lying on the carpet.
The party that was progressing very well without her should have been just another annual event at the Jin Mansion, but Nicole knew that most of their guests were there to see how she was taking the broken engagement.
“My un-engagement party,” she murmured dryly.
It wasn’t the buzz of gossip that Nicole was hiding from; nor was she hiding from the subtle but prying questions. She was hiding from Kenneth.
She had had to greet him when he arrived; she had had to smile for the watching crowd and treat him as though he were simply another guest. It was all very amicable. And she hated every minute of it.
Through careful planning on her part, she had managed to avoid seeing him for the month that had passed since their return from his cabin. One month, and it felt like a lifetime.
What was a lifetime going to feel like? she wondered, shivering suddenly.
She glanced up as Warren walked in through the side door of the study. Leaning against her father’s desk, he examined her face, then met her eyes and smiled. “You okay?”
“I don’t know. How do I look?” she asked with an answering smile.
“Then I must be okay.” She sat up straighter, feeling the pull of gravity as she never had before. “What’s with your darling Erica today? She’s acting positively spooky. She’s not actively gloating….and for Erica that’s almost the same as being nice. Did you threaten her or something?”
“I didn’t have to. I’m simply keeping her mind on other things.”
“You sound conceited.” When he nodded in agreement, Nicole laughed. “We haven’t had a chance to talk lately. How’s the job going? I haven’t heard Papa chewing you out in a couple of weeks.”
“That’s only because he’s decided to do all his screaming at the office from now on,” he said. “Actually it’s not too bad. After the first couple of weeks, I discovered I have a talent for organization. It surprised Uncle – but not nearly as much as it surprised me.”
She laughed. “He will never admit it, but I think Papa’s proud of you. If you’re not careful, you may wind up inheriting the business.”
“Would you mind?”
“Don’t be silly. I don’t care about the company. I never have. I care about people.”
She paused. “Papa still doesn’t understand me. Maybe he never will, but we both know where we stand now. He makes a point of talking to me, of letting me know that he respects me as an individual. That’s all the inheritance that I want.”
Warren was silent for a moment. “Nicole, did you ever stop to wonder why you waited so long to get things out in the open with Uncle? Have you ever asked yourself why you didn’t ask him how he felt years ago?”
“I –“ She broke off as she really stopped to consider the question. Why hadn’t she?
She met Warren’s gaze. “I don’t know. I wish you wouldn’t ask questions that make me think. I’ve given up thinking for a while.”
Giving a short laugh, Warren stood up. “Are you coming back to the party?”
He moved closer and gazed down at her. “You and I have both been careful not to talk about the one thing that’s uppermost in your mind.” When her features tightened, he added, “And I won’t bring his name up now, but you know that if you stay in here, everyone out there on the terrace will think you’re hiding.”
“I am,” she admitted softly. “But not from them or their gossip.” She rose to her feet. “I think I’ll go the sunken garden for a few minutes. Don’t worry, I’ll be back before they get vicious.”
By leaving the house through the back door, Nicole avoided the crowd around the pool as she headed toward the northeast corner of the estate. She suddenly needed the comfort of the grape arbor.
The arbor was now hidden by tender, young leaves. She moved up the steps and sat on the wooden bench. The garden had changed since the last time she had sat there. It had exploded with new green growth and delicate spring flowers. It all looked so vibrantly, painfully alive….mockingly alive.
Leaning back her head, she closed her eyes. “Hey, God,” she said softly. “Here I am again….right back where I started from. Just You and me and the grape arbor.”
Kenneth nodded his head occasionally so that Allan would think he was listening, but in reality he took only one word in ten. He couldn’t think about business or gossip. He could only think of Nicole and how it had felt to see her again. How it had felt to see her, knowing that she no longer belonged to him.
Where was she? he wondered. He hadn’t seen her since they’d performed that stupid charade at the front door, acting as though they were casual acquaintances, as though there had never been anything between them.
Had there been something between them? he wondered suddenly. Then he remembered the last time they were together. It was on their last night at the cabin, the night she had broken their engagement.
The memory sent a white-hot streak of desire through his body. Oh, yes, he decided, there had definitely been something between them. And there still was. He had felt it at the door when she had taken his hand. Waves of intense feeling had passed between them the second their hands touched.
Maybe Nicole didn’t love him….but she still wanted him.
“---don’t know why everyone was so shocked that your engagement was off.”
Allan’s persistent voice pulled Kenneth’s thought back to the present. “I’m sorry….what did you say?” he asked frowning.
“I was just thinking about the night of your engagement party, when you and I talked in the garden.” He laughed. “Remember, we were talking about how Nicole couldn’t hold down a real job, then the next thing you know she’s off working as a waitress. She’s always doing something crazy like that. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when she called off the engagement. She goes off in one direction until she gets bored, then before you can blink, she’s into something completely different. I mean, just look at this thing she’s involved with in the slums. Mark my words, in a couple of weeks she’ll dump that project and open a nightclub or something.”
He paused, studying Kenneth’s face. “Say you didn’t mind about her breaking your engagement, did you?” When Kenneth made a noncommittal gesture, he added, “I didn’t think so. It would have been different if you loved her, but I knew after listening to you that night in the garden –“
“I was wrong that night,” Kenneth broke in, his voice quiet but firm. “Nicole is strong.
She’s not an accessory and she’s not fragile. But you were wrong, too. I never said I didn’t love Nicole. I loved her. I loved her for what she was then and what I knew she would become in the future.” He drew in a slow breath, then whispered, “I still love her. I guess I always will.”
Before Allan could mutter words of sympathy and understanding, Kenneth walked away. Inside the house, he slipped into Mr. Jin’s study and found the older man sitting behind his desk in the process of lighting a cigar.
Raising his hand, Mr. Jin said, “Cigar?”
“No, thanks. I just came in to get away from the noise.”
“Mozart gives me indigestion.” Mr. Jin leaned back, his eyes not quite meeting Kenneth’s. “I want to apologize for my daughter’s behavior, Kenneth. I don’t understand her….but I guess she knows her own mind.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Kenneth said, shifting in the leather chair. He didn’t want to discuss his relationship with Nicole. At least, not with him.
After a moment, Mr. Jin said, “You remind me so much of your father.” Then added, “God, I hope you don’t take that as an insult.”
“Of course not.”
“Good,” Mr. Jin said, relaxing again. “Because he was a fine man. A nervous breakdown can happen to anyone.” He met Kenneth’s gaze squarely. “You’re not worried about inheriting his….illness, are you?”
Kenneth smiled. “No, I’m not worried about that. As you said, it could have happened to anyone. It wasn’t a genetic thing.”
“After all these years, I still miss him. He was a good friend….before all the trouble.” He shook his head. “It shouldn’t have happened. And it could have been prevented, I’m sure of that. Your father’s real weakness wasn’t giving in to mental stress. His weakness was pride. He was too proud to ask for help. Too proud to let anyone know he was in trouble.” He sighed heavily. “A tragedy could have been prevented if he had only sat on his pride long enough to talk to someone – anyone.”
Pride, Kenneth thought, letting the word float around the edge of his mind. Too much pride. A tragedy could have been prevented….
Suddenly, as an idea took hold, Kenneth felt drained of all his strength. “Pride,” he whispered tightly. “Foolish, stubborn pride.” He glanced toward the older man’s puzzled face. “Where’s Nicole?”
Mr. Jin shook his head in confusion. “I haven’t seen her in over an hour. Why?”
Kenneth didn’t have time to explain. He had to find Nicole. Leaving the study, he made his own way out to the terrace. Several people stopped him, trying to ask his advice or relate an anecdote, but after asking only one question, he left them all.
No one knew.
After a few minutes, Kenneth spotted Warren standing beside Erica at a portable bar.
Quickly, Kenneth approached them.
“Have you seen Nicole?”
Warren glanced up sharply. “Why?”
“I have to talk to her. Where is she, Warren?”
The younger man shook his head. “I don’t know if I should tell you, Kenneth. She wanted to be alone for a while.”
“Warren, it’s important.” The words came out with quiet intensity. “I need to know.”
Warren glanced at Erica, who nodded slightly, then he turned back to Kenneth. “She went to the sunken garden. I guess she knew no one would be there because it’s too far away from the food and booze.” He shook his head. “It’s where she always goes when something’s bothering her.” He met Kenneth’s gaze. “I think something is bothering her now.”
Nicole’s intensity of thoughts was pulled away as she heard a noise. Glancing up, she saw Kenneth standing just below her at the bottom of the steps that led to the grape arbor.
“Hello,” she said, smiling slightly. “Are you running away from the noise too?”
“No, I was looking for you.” He climbed the steps, and sat down beside her. “I hear you’ve been busy,” he said slowly. “I’m glad you didn’t let go of your girls.”
“I couldn’t.” She glanced up at him. “You heard about the scholarship fund I set up for them?”
He nodded. “It’s a good idea.”
“Yes, it’s a good idea, but college is years away. Sometimes, it’s difficult for them to think beyond the problems of the present. So I’ve rented an old building there in the neighborhood. The girls are helping to fix it up. It will be theirs. Now they’ll have somewhere to go after school, so they won’t have to go home to an empty house. They can play games or do their homework. I’ve arranged for tutoring for the ones who need it. I’ve found a couple who will live there, so the girls will have a place to spend the night if there’s trouble at home. But I won’t turn it over completely. I go there every day for a few hours.”
“It’s a worthwhile project, one that should be very satisfying for you.”
“It’s an investment. These girls and others like them will have a better chance now. I simply want to show them that there are alternatives. I want to show them that the future holds unlimited possibilities for them.”
When silence fell between them, an unmeasurable sadness gripped her. They had run out of things to say to each other. Rocking on his heels, hands thrust into the pockets of his jeans, Kenneth seemed as nervous as she felt, which was ridiculous. They were two adults, acting like…the teenagers. They had nothing to say to each other, and the thought of sitting and talking was unsettling.
In desperation, she said the first thing that came to her mind. “Last time I was here was the night of our engagement party.” She laughed quietly. “It feels like a different life. I overheard you and Allan talking – I didn’t tell you that didn’t I? That was the beginning. I was angry and hurt. I wanted to show you that I wasn’t merely for decoration. That there was something more to me. And I had to prove it to myself, too.”
He stiffened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you overheard.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.” His voice was vehement. “I was a damn fool. And I couldn’t have been more wrong. You’re strong. You don’t need my protection.”
No, I only need your love, she thought.
“I didn’t know I was strong. I have you to thank for that. When I left Papa’s house and name, I tried to change. I tried to become someone else. But it didn’t work. I’ll always be just Nicole. But that’s okay. I found out that I like and respect Nicole. I would never have discovered that if you hadn’t said what you said that night.”
“You didn’t need to change. Just Nicole is fine.” He glanced away. “I’ve learned things too, Nicole. But I’m afraid I’m not as quick as you. I only learned the most important lesson a few minutes ago.”
He stood and walked down the steps, then turned and looked up at her. He smiled. “Princess Nicole on her throne,” he said softly. Then he shifted his gaze away from her.
Amazingly, he seemed to be uncomfortable, as though whatever he was about to say didn’t come easily. Nicole tensed, waiting for another blow.
“A few minutes ago,” Kenneth said quietly, “your father said I remind him of my father. Then he said my father was too proud. I don’t think your father put the two things together, but I damn sure did. Too proud.” He ran a hand over his face. “Well, now I’m saying to hell with pride. A month ago we agreed not to settle for less than perfect between us. I want to renege on that agreement, Nicole. I’ll take whatever you can give me. I simply need you in my life – in any capacity. Friendship, if that’s what you want.” He drew in a harsh breath. “We’ve got something, something strong, between us. I’ll take that. God, yes, I’ll take it.” He gave a short laugh. “And if it sounds like I’m begging, I am.”
She didn’t understand. What was he asking of her? Did he want to continue with their physical relationship? Did he want to have lunch with her a few times a week?
Nicole tried to ask the questions that went bombarding her mind, but the words wouldn’t come out. She tried to stand, to get closer to him, but her legs wouldn’t support her.
After a moment, without looking at her, Kenneth began to walk away.
When she saw him leaving her once again, a word finally broke free. “Kenneth!”
He stopped, but he still didn’t turn to look at her. He held his shoulder stiff, as though any movement would bring pain.
She slowly moved closer, keeping her gaze on that stiff, unyielding back. “Kenneth, Warren asked me something earlier that I should have asked myself a long time ago. He asked why I never talked to Papa. Why I never asked him how he felt about me.” She inhaled. “I finally came up with an answer. I didn’t ask him because I didn’t know if I could live with the answer. As long as the words weren’t spoken aloud, I could pretend that everything was fine between us.”
He turned to look at her, and the wariness in his face hurt her.
“I’ve been doing the same thing with you,” she whispered. “I didn’t ask you because I was afraid of the answer. But, like you said, I’m strong. So I’m asking you now, Kenneth. How do you feel about me?”
For a moment, she thought he was going to turn away again. Then he gave a short, harsh laugh. “I thought it was obvious. I was sure everyone knew. I guess I’m better at hiding my feelings than I thought.” He met her gaze squarely. “I love you. I need you. More than air, Nicole. More than life. I’ve loved you since you were eighteen years old. You’re not the kind of woman I would have ever expected to fall for. You’re maddeningly independent, restless, and at times, a pain in the neck. But that’s not important anymore. Because, Nicole Jin, I adore you. When I’m with you, I feel free, more relaxed, and at ease. You’re funny, smart, and sweet even if you won’t admit it. You make me laugh. Most likely, you’ll drive me crazy, but I’ve come to realize that I’d rather be crazy than miserable without you. I love you Nicole. And you can deny it if you want but that doesn’t change the truth.
Tears were streaming down her face, but she made no effort to wipe them away. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I didn’t know.”
Moving swiftly, he pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “Don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about. You don’t have to feel sorry for me.”
“Idiot,” she said, sniffling loudly. “I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for me. For us. You were proud and I was scared and you love me and I love you – so much, I thought I would die from it. So much wasted time.”
He kissed her, melding her flesh into his, pressing the length of her body to his, as though he couldn’t stop touching her, kissing her. As though he would never be able to get enough of her. “I missed you, Nicole. Please don’t ever talk of breaking up again. I wouldn’t know how to take it anymore.”
Nicole was crying again, and Kenneth whispered to her in soothing tones. "I love you, Nicole. Don't cry. I love you so very much."
Nicole tried to control her tears but couldn't. "I love you too, Kenneth. I have for so long." He lifted her chin, and let his fingers wander along her cheek while he gazed lovingly into her tear-moistened eyes. He cradled the back of her head in his hand, and lowered his lips to hers.
Nicole kissed Kenneth back with all of the love and tenderness. It was a magical moment and she never wanted it to end.
Kenneth's thoughts were running on the same path and he let his kiss deepen with passion as he held her tightly to him. She was his now, and he need never fear losing her again. That thought only made the moment sweeter.
Nicole found it hard to even breathe, let alone think, while Kenneth held her lips with his own, but one thought did penetrate her swiftly clouding mind: Dreams do come true, if you dare to dream them forever.
“Good grief, not again,”
The voice intruded. With one tiny piece of her brain, Nicole recognized the fact that Allan and a lady companion had entered the sunken garden. But she didn’t care. She only cared that Kenneth was holding her. Kenneth was kissing her. Kenneth loved her.
“I suppose this means it’s on again?” Allan said dryly.
Kenneth raised his lips just a fraction of an inch, but he didn’t take his eyes away from Nicole.
“It was never off,” she answered. “It’s always been …… and it always will be. Forever.”
“Forever, Nicole,” Kenneth whispered for her ears alone. It was a pledge for the rest of their lives.
They were married one month later in the middle of the sunken
garden under the bright sunshine.
Nicole wore an all-white off-the-shoulder gown. The groom wore black tie and a huge grin.
The traditional wedding march boomed from the speakers, and Kenneth turned to watch his bride walk down the flower-strewn, makeshift aisle.
The last notes faded as Nicole joined her father under the white linen canopy. Mr. Jin handed his daughter over to Kenneth, shook his hand, then turned to the minister. “I give this woman.” His strong face was full of pride as he answered the minister’s next question. “I’m her father.”
Shoulders squared, his love evident to all, Mr. Jin bent and gave her a brief hug, then stepped back to join the small throng of friends and family.
Nicole took a deep breath and peered through her veil at most handsome man in the world. The man who in a few short minutes would be her husband. Her knees trembled, her body tightened in anticipation.
“You’re so beautiful,” Kenneth said in awe-struck whisper.
“So are you,” she whispered back, her eyes shining.
“I love you,” they said at the same time, then reluctantly dragged their gazes away from each other to answer the minister’s questions and repeat their vows.
A short time later, the minister said, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Amid raucous cheering, Kenneth lifted her veil. He grinned and leaned down. “Hi, wife,” he said softly.
Her smile was sweet and shy and sexy, and in front of God and everybody he kissed his new wife with all of the love and passion she so easily inspired in him, bending her back over his arm in his fervor.
The crowd wholeheartedly approved, as Shania Twain’s rendition of “You’re Still the One” boomed out of the speakers.
When he pulled her up to an unsteady stand, she held on to her headpiece and smiled up at him. “I love you.”
“Yes, it’s incredible, isn’t it?”
"It’s perfect.” She breathed deeply, wanting this moment to last forever. But impatient for all the moments to come, she faced the group. “Ready?” she called out.
Everyone crowded forward as she turned her back.
“One, two, three!”
The bouquet landed on Warren’s lap. His hand darted out quicker than a snake, and an instant later his lap was occupied by a spluttering Erica. Amid whoops and much cheering, Warren laid one on her. When he lifted his head, a dazed Erica was clutching the bouquet.
And they dined on red velvet wedding cake, toasted each other with Dom Perignon, danced to Mozart and the Moody Blues, and balloons flew kites by the light of the moon.