Back at the hotel, he dragged his feet to the couch and as he felt the soft leather give way under his weight, Tae Soo immersed into a dark and heavy cloud of doubt and confusion. He made many decisions over the last ten years, some were hard, some were easy, but there were a few that were impossible. Those last ones used to haunt him in his dreams. And he thought they stopped tormenting him already. But here they were, his choices, all of them, not just the latter, lined up in front of him in an orderly queue, waiting patiently their turn. One by one, faceless they appeared without any judgment or emotion, mocking him by their indifference. Each presented an alternative "what if" possibility, leading to a completely different outcome, and he had to watch, like in a motion picture, his life on the screen and wonder whether he could have had more happiness and love, if he were wiser, braver and just simply luckier.
The essence that surrounded him was slippery and sucked him in, keeping his arms and legs in invisible restraints, while his eyes peered, defying his will to turn away. "Stop it," he screamed, waking up from the endless nightmare at last.
"Mi Amor," he whispered frightened, looking for her embrace and her lips that could kiss the terror away. Tae Soo could not find his salvation in the dark room and he began to cry with repressed sorrow of many years.
His loneliness was terrible. More terrible than ever.
He checked his watch, it was around 9 pm and he probably was missing his last chance to see her face.
What was he to lose besides another ten years of wondering? Even if she screamed at him, slapped him, ignored him, or simply carried on a polite conversation, at least he would feel her warmth, even if it was not offered to him. He would see her smile and hear her laughter again, and if he got lucky, catch a bit of the rapid Spanish he used to be so amazed at.
Maybe, she was not as angry at him as surprised, he hoped. Maybe, she remembered their time fondly and would welcome a session of reminiscence. There were other hopeful maybes and after cleaning himself up and fixing his hair to perfection, Tae Soo rushed to ruffle through his limited supply of outfits. Giselle always liked him in white. He had a pair of white pants. That was easy. He hesitated about a shirt.
In 30 minutes, Angie was at his door and the only thing that stopped her from gasping was her strong sense of professionalism: Lee Tae Soo greeted her barefoot, only wearing pants and a wristwatch.
"Yoon Ah-shi, I need your help. I rested and will be going for drinks. What should I wear?" He inquired innocently, as if not realizing that his suave body was something to stare at and salivate over for any woman in her right mind and with a healthy libido.
Obviously he was either gay, clueless, or plainly did not think her to be a woman. Either way, she was shocked and quickly had to collect her thoughts, while Tae Soo, whistling something and apparently in a much better mood than before, led her toward his bedroom.
"Angie, or do you prefer, Yoon Ah-shi?"
"Angie is fine."
"This is all I have." He demonstrated his undersized travel wardrobe: a few sets of suits, about five shirts, jeans, a few t-shirts and... "My white pants. She likes me in white," he grinned like a boy, surprising her with a very unguarded display of emotions.
"Well, somebody used to like me wearing white. So I think I look good in it."
"You look good in anything," she mumbled.
"I do, don't I?" He chuckled, not affected by the compliment. His looks were what he was famous for. It did not hurt to capitalize on everything he's got, especially tonight.
"Mr. Lee, are you trying to impress somebody, a woman?"
"Well, if hypothetically, there was a woman at a place where we are going, what do you think would look particularly sexy on me?"
"Nothing," mumbled Angie again, unable to pick clothes to cover his very nicely defined masculine torso. Damn, the man looked good. He had one of those Korean physiques, both slim and shapely, very elegant and not bulky. She recalled never paying interest to him like that before, maybe, because usually his eyes held the attention of the viewer, more than any other part of his body that with close inspection deserved to be recognized on its own merits.
Tae Soo in frustration recognized the glint of awe he unfortunately had come across in too many women before. Looking at him like he was something delicious to have after dinner was the last thing he needed from his assistant. He impatiently hurried her out of her gaping haze. "Angie, we don't have much time. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. What kind of things they wear for drinks in LA?"
"I think this shirt would go well with white. And wear light colored shoes. Do you have fashion sneakers?"
"No, not my style."
"Well, then we'll go with those leather loafers."
"Is no socks OK?"
She scoffed. "I don't think that is important."
"Just... let's call it a look of summer."
"A look of summer suits me very well for this occasion."
"Lena, you have to come out to Malibu with me. I almost did not come because of him, but he is not here; the dinner was great, and I want to get drunk. Can I stay with you tonight? I miss you." Giselle was glued to her phone, which presented the only safe outlet to her with a lifeline to her best friend and the only person whom she fully trusted to tell about her shocking encounter.
"Him? Who him? There is only one HIM who could make you want to get drunk." The person on the other end was fast to figure out Giselle's predicament and rightfully perturbed.
"Yep. Him, HIM." She chuckled darkly and then sniffled, containing a sob. "He was there, Lena. I did not even get a look at him and now he is gone. Please, I need you to convince me that it was a ghost and that I will be fine. Because I HAVE TO BE."
"Calm down, calm down, take a deep breath. I'll get you. Where are you right now?"
"Not sure, but we are heading to this place in Malibu for drinks. It is supposed to be intimate and beautiful. I miss him so much. His voice and his smile. And the way his hair smells."
"Stop it! Pull yourself together. You made him up, he is not in Los Angeles. And even if he is, I will get rid of him for you." She sounded convincing, at least for the time being.
"Thank you," Giselle blew her nose loudly and hung up.
The newly published author met her girlfriend at the door and after introducing Lena to the two producers, she excused herself to the bar, where she strategically chose a seat, observing the entrance. A part of her hoped that the Korean heartthrob would come, since both men mentioned he might, but another part of her wished for him to vanish like a materialized mirage of her disturbed subconscious desires.
When Tae Soo showed up in the flesh, her insides froze and her heart ceased its rhythmic thumping. She counted a few seconds when there was no heartbeat and wondered in bewilderment how it was possible that she was still breathing and had brain function.
"Is it him?" Her friend mercilessly elbowed her, bringing her back to life.
Instead of answering, Giselle dunked her head into the large margarita glass; her nose practically grinding the salted rim and her hair taupeing over and spilling onto the table to insure that she was safely and completely isolated from another possible sighting.
Lena nodded knowingly, "Ahh." There was no explanation needed. Her hand wondered around the table in search of her drink, when she realized that Giselle stole it.
This was much worse than Lena expected. "Honestly, I'm having difficulty in keeping my jaw above the table. I think I might need an adjustment later. You told me he was handsome, but that was an understatement. I think it is inappropriate for a man to be that beautiful."
A slurping sound from underneath the hair cone confirmed her comment.
"You can't let him see you all freaking out. What do you want to do?"
"Don't know," whimpered Giselle, trying to catch a glimpse of Tae Soo through a narrow gap between the curtains of her hair.
"Do you want to act cool or be friendly?"
"Cool, Antarctica iceberg cool. I want him to feel sorry he ever tried to speak with me."
"So you are going for sarcastic and distant?"
"Aha." Empty glass was moved toward the center of the table and Giselle finally lifted her face, licking her lips and swallowing the last sweet drops of the drink.
"Then you should freshen up first. Let's go to the ladies' room."
"Where is his girlfriend?"
"Young, skinny, Korean."
"If you are referring to that... she is talking to Shklovsky."
"Slut!" Muttered Giselle, and swirling on her bar stool lifted her bag high to her face and grabbing her friend, moved toward the sign which announced "restrooms".
The narrow passage turned and then twisted, finally opening up to the outside, where a group of young women congregated. "We are not waiting," one of them explained. Giselle and Lena pushed through the young crowd and entered a small, but nicely decorated modern bathroom.
"Finally. Now tell me everything," commanded Lena.
"There is not much to tell. You know everything. Today was the first time in ten years."
"It must have been shocking," comforted her friend, "and hard... are you happy? Sad? Do you still have feelings for him?"
"I don't know. Don't know anything!" Giselle dipped her fingers deeply into the mess of her thick hair, shaking her head in anguish. "It's as if these ten years did not exist, you know. I'm afraid to see his eyes. I just can't..." She stopped talking, her eyes widening at the reflection in the mirror.
"Ms. Rodriquez," called Angie excitedly, waving at her from behind. "It's the lady from the signing. How funny to run into her here," she reported to someone over the phone and hung up. She rushed to shake the hands with the female author, as the woman coldly greeted her.
Lena knitted her brows and knowing her friend's expression well, controlled herself from blurting out, "F***". The infamous girlfriend. Oh, this would be a long night, even longer if Giselle continued drinking.
"Excuse me," she intercepted Angie. "And you are?"
"Angie Song. It is such a coincidence. I met Ms. Rodriguez earlier today also in the restroom. The world is so small. Maybe, it's fate." She giggled, continuing to chirp in the same friendly and quite excited tone addressing Giselle, "Do you remember me from the store? How unexpected! I did not tell you, I liked the excerpt you read. I want to buy your book, it got me interested."
"Oh, yes. Thank you. And enjoy it," squeezed out a semi-pleasant smile Giselle.
"I have to go and check on what is going on. He looks sharp, but he turned out to be so helpless without me. I even had to help him pick out clothes for tonight. Like a kid. Haha," and she ran out, leaving the two friends stare at each other quite troubled.
"What was that?"
"I think she just told us she dressed Tae Soo for tonight."
"And that he is helpless without her."
"Could she be more annoyingly disgusting? Slut," repeated Giselle. "Definitely."
"Absolutely," agreed Lena, although the young woman was anything, but slutty, she was rather polished and sophisticated.
"I can't believe he is like that!" Fumed Giselle. "I mean, what self respecting man has women pick his clothes? I mean, do you know of anybody?"
"Of course not!" emphatically agreed Lena. Her husband, for example and a lot of other perfectly normal men she knew. It was not a sign of disability to ask the opinion of your partner about what to wear. But that was not something Giselle needed to hear tonight.
The car stopped in line for valet and Tae Soo's ear caught fast Spanish. He had to exert slight effort to understand that the two attendants were complaining about some young girls who were drunk and wanted to drive, so the boss had to be called to deal with the situation. He realized he missed listening to Spanish, although theirs was different from the one spoken in Puerto Rico.
"Tae Soo-shi, we are here," announced Angie, apparently believing that he never paid attention to his surroundings, always daydreaming in a car.
"The king of chemistry" has not been that nervous since forever. He felt like a youngster going on a date. Although it was not a date and Giselle was not expecting him, making it even a more nerve wrecking situation. He hesitated for a moment before getting out of the car.
"How do I look?" he asked without looking at Angie, as if talking to himself.
"Good. And why is that so important?"
"Because it is an important evening. I need to make good first impression."
"On Mr. Shklovsky?"
Tae Soo did not respond. The door was opened by a young Latino man and the actor casually responded with "Gracias". The Korean conversed with the valet attendant with a friendly smile in easy flowing Spanish before patting his shoulder. Tae Soo's tongue enjoyed the crackling sensation of the language, and the actor congratulated himself on not forgetting what was important: it was the language of the land where he found love, the language of the woman who changed his world, the language of unobstructed passion.
His apparent Spanish abilities did not go undetected. Angie noted his short conversation and smirked. The man apparently had some secret skills.
"How do you know Spanish?" She inquired.
"Just a little. A long time ago, I learned a few simple phrases."
"You are good with languages."
"Not at all. I just had motivation and a good teacher."
The waiter showed them to a table outside, next to a bar counter. Tae Soo could not contain dissatisfaction when Giselle was not there, instead two men were having a conversation, fresh drinks delivered as he arrived. He shook hands with Gangitano, apologizing again for his inability to join him for dinner.
"I'm glad you made it. I want to introduce you to my friend." Producer casually grabbed Tae Soo's forearm.
"Giselle," interrupted the small hairy man next to him. The other two men turned in the direction he was speaking. "Hm, I don't know where she disappeared to. She was first having drinks with her friend at the bar."
Tae Soo's face fell. He suddenly felt silly and childish in his hopes to reconnect with her. Obviously, she saw him come in and disappeared. This was the second time she clearly demonstrated how much she cared to see him again. He should get a clue and not embarrass himself any further. He quickly refocused and pleasantly smiled, shaking Shklovsky's hand. "Nice to meet you."
Giselle squinted against the dazzling brightness to meet her. She stopped, pulling dark glasses out of her purse, as if responding to the blinding afternoon sun... yet the only light shone was from the pale moon and candles flickering on the tables.
"Don't be an idiot," gritted through her teeth Lena, stopping her friend from making a fool of herself.
"I am sorry, but I have to leave," explained the author, while her friend's eyes widened and brows went up. Did not she just say she wanted to act all cool? Running away NOW?
"Are you crazy?"
Giselle was not faking it. She stared at Tae Soo and all she could see was sunshine. There was no logical or scientific explanation as to why her eyes would perceive light when there was none. But her mind did not really care to comply with reality. Sound of the waves crashing against the shore, salty breeze and Tae Soo – when these three were put together, her world became bright and shiny like during the height of noon and whether he smiled or not, she felt the radiance of his smile illuminate all the surroundings.
"Here she is," jumped from the chair Shklovsky, excitedly. "This is..." he paused, waiting for the introduction from Gangitano.
"Mr. Lee Tae Soo, my lead star for the new project. He just arrived today from Korea. I was hoping he could join us for dinner, but jet lag is a bitch." The producer laughed hoarsely.
Uneasy smile spread on Tae Soo's face and he blushed. "Hello, pleased to meet you," he addressed Giselle, bowing his head particularly low, making sure not to cross eyes with her. She also turned away, looking away insecure, her head lowered.
"He is joining us for cocktails," explained Shklovsky. "Giselle, you might find it interesting that he is Korean, just like the hero of your book, I'm sure you both will have a lot to talk about."
She nodded, holding onto her friend's arm for moral support.
Angie appeared from a side, as usual unexpectedly. "Tae Soo-shi, what is your favorite drink? I would like to know," she chimed in helpfully, making Giselle cringe inside. Tae Soo-shi, she mocked the girl under the breath.
"Just anything that's good here," he remarked, not even giving his assistant a look of consideration. He turned toward the waiter, feeling with his back Giselle's intent stare. He could not leave now - it would be really rude. He can't blow off his producer and he had to make small talk with Shklovsky. But he cared very little about that at the moment, he needed to find an excuse to disappear and leave her in peace. He could tell she was pained and he was the cause.
Giselle and Lena sat down at the table, while he appeared unsure which place to take. Gangitano pulled out a chair next to Giselle and with his loud voice insisted, "Meet a fellow Korean expert. Giselle, I'm giving you permission to interview a real Korean star."
She gave him the most cold shoulder she could possibly produce in the heat of Los Angeles summer night. She turned to Lena and demonstratively started a conversation that excluded him, leaving Tae Soo breathing anxiously in the seat next to her. While Giselle granted him the look of her back, he did not even dare to stare in her direction.
Tae Soo's side burned. The side next to Giselle felt 20 degrees hotter, as if his body was split in half. Not to mention that her efforts to ignore him, were more than subtle. He felt coldly shunned. Despite the convenient seating arrangement, there was no opening for him to even speak, if she was not willing to acknowledge his existence. The poor man wanted to strike a simple, casual conversation, something about her book. However, he did not have a chance against the chatterbox Angie. "Yoon Ah-shi!" He glared at her.
"Ahh. Sorry. But Tae Soo-shi, this is really amazing." She nudged him, while he tensed. "Tae Soo-shi, is not it fascinating: Ms. Rodriquez here wrote about Korea as if she is a native. You must have done a lot of research." The curious and impossible to get rid of assistant leaned forward from across the table, addressing both the actor and the author.
Giselle tried to bite Yoon Ah with her eyes, but Angie was not getting a hint and continued on and on about how intriguing their meeting was and how not many people outside of Korean culture are able to point out the intricacies of the social and societal burdens that fall onto those in the limelight.
Maybe, this fluttering butterfly's distraction was exactly what Giselle needed to pull her wits together and steel herself. She was mortified to have already flimsy resilience melt under the glow his eyes and smile were to cast over her. She did not want to look at him, but at the same time, she had to. The key word for today was indifference. She had to be polite and indifferent. She could not give any hint of the burning fire that scorched her from inside: a mixture of desire, gentle longing and passionate anger, the anger was unfortunately not the strongest of these emotions and a pounding thought kept assaulting her mind, "I can't trust him. I can't trust him. I can't trust him." He left once, he would leave again.
There were times when she childishly hoped to have stayed friends with him, keeping in touch over e-mail or social media, or maybe, chatting on the phone once in a while. She dreamt of the time, when they both had families and busy lives and they would inform each other about their successes. But of course, such ideas were discarded quickly in favor of reality – out of sight out of mind – it had to become her daily mantra and with the gentle care of one powerful doctor, The Time, Tae Soo would eventually become a memory, as faint as the fog over the sea in the mornings, always there, but never really to stay.
Her heart clenched gnawing, and under the table she tightly grabbed Lena's hand and turned toward the actor. At the moment, his head was lowered and he was studying his empty plate. The black shine of his hair and the faint scent of him were familiar and soothing. Despite her best judgment, Giselle smiled, tenderness awakening within her and then turned to Lena and whispered, "I need more time, I need to clear my head. I will go for a walk." And when her friend reached for the purse, Giselle added, "Alone, if you don't mind."
"Can I go down to the beach?" Tae Soo heard her ask the waiter.
"Yes. It will be very pleasant by the ocean. We have exclusive access."
She was leaving even before exchanging a couple of words with him. There was a fleeting moment when their eyes met. She could not hold under his stare and slightly stumbled, pressing on the table to steady self, and the distance he felt from her made him turn away.
Tae Soo watched her till Giselle disappeared on the stairs leading to the beach. He was tired of hiding sadness under the mask of pleasantries in front of all these strangers. Not thinking much, he simply followed and was about to descend the staircase, when his brain caught up to his heart. Why was he going after her if she was leaving him so undoubtedly? Actions speak louder than words and in this case, the only thing she offered him was her actions.
He stopped at the railing to be instead satisfied with looking at her from the distance. Tae Soo was not playing any games with himself. Giselle was still very much alive in his heart, and the fact that she did not seem to wish to even allow him to speak with her painted a depressing version of the next hour or so. Going back to his hotel suite to spend a sleepless night of regrets was even more daunting, and thinking about a long week, which he initially thought would not give him enough time for LA, now appeared too long for his taste. He scrambled to plan how he could speed up the negotiations. Possibly, Angie might be of help. She was a talker, but she knew her job and cared about him as a client.
Tae Soo was caught up in his thoughts, his gaze disappearing into the horizon where the ocean's flat surface suggested the end to all the turbulence, calm and subdued; its soothing vast expanse was sending forth slow waves, which rustled to induce some semblance of serenity for the actor's tired heart. Leaning on the railing, he stood tall, his hair being played with by a naughty wind, and salty moisture caressed his skin, leaving his lips to remember the taste of Giselle's lips – salty, warm and moist – during those endless days by the beach.
Giselle's ocean-side stroll did not produce the desired outcome. In fact, more feelings got stirred up, more sweet memories came to tantalize her already waning confidence to be cold toward him.
Their nightly walks by the water used to be the highlight of her days: The heat of the day had subsided, but air was still filled with remnants of warmth and sand cooled the soles of the feet pleasantly. One night Tae Soo braved to ask her for a swim and they kissed, kind of accidently, but not really. She clammed and pulled away and he looked dejected for a few days until he returned to his usual easy going and cheerful self. She chuckled at how awkwardly they danced around each other, both so young and so innocent about time and love...
She had been looking at him for a while. The actor wore a light blue shirt with white pants, which were tailored to perfection to hug his slim hips and waist, falling flawlessly along his long legs, ending at light colored leather loafers, showing off bare ankles.
Giselle had to giggle. Still not wearing socks? Or is it for show?
Tae Soo turned at the familiar sound. Calmly and pensive he focused on her face, rendering her motionless. And she began drowning, like she predicted. Forced to take in the image before her, Giselle submitted herself to the moment.
His features have matured. The cheerful childish spark in his eyes was substituted by that hidden melancholy which no longer was overshadowed by the youthful hopefulness. There was more depth to his almond eyes, still the color of deliciously melting chocolate, highlighted by barely noticeable wrinkles at the corners. His hair as meticulously done as ever, every small hair in its place, his long bangs arranged in a complex, yet easy to the eye layout.
He did not mean to be so audacious, but he could not tear his eyes off her. Her hair blown by the wind, messy tangles flying in all directions, but she did not seem to care. Her lips bore the touch of gloss and mascara elongated her lashes dripping mysterious shadows.
He could not tell if she also put some blush on, but with or without makeup, she was pretty. If anything, makeup only reminded him about the passage of time, the years they spent apart when Giselle grew more comfortable with her femininity, but became more aware of the unavoidable changes every woman notices on her face as she marks off birthdays. He wanted to remind her how beautiful and perfect she was just the way he had always remembered her and just the way he knew she would continue to be in his eyes for years to come.
He mentally collected all the lines and angles of her face to form an achingly familiar picture: the small chin dimple of stubbornness and cute little perk at the end of her nose, the thin line of her pensive lips and fullness of her cheeks, the strong points of her sculpted dark brows and of course her eyes – dark brown, perfect balance of depth and lightness, strength and vulnerability and tonight with one more addition – wonder. She had wonder in her eyes as she met his. Tae Soo had to shift his gaze, otherwise his lips were about to find the softness of her skin, covering her face with kisses.
For the first time tonight, Tae Soo noted not only her face, but also the rest of her body. His Giselle grew up nicely. Her curves were as voluptuous as before; she put on some weight, but it fit her somehow, accentuating her womanly proportions. Her chest was larger than he remembered and her hips a bit wider. Unlike her daily repertoire of jeans and t-shirts that he was used to back in Puerto Rico, she wore a summery dress, exposing her legs with sassy and fashionable platform shoes. Her nail polish was deep red, contrasting beautifully with the olive skin. A light shawl was casually wrapped around her shoulders, the kind that was popular nowadays to add as an accent. His slightly awkward Giselle has bloomed into a mature and confident woman.
"Hello, Giselle," he finally said softly. "It's been a long time."
"It has," she responded in liking.
"Have you been well?"
"Yes, and you?"
Silence fell like an impassable barrier between them. Tae Soo nervously tugged on the lock that stubbornly hit the very ends of his long black lashes; he gazed with uncertainty into his now empty glass, he had forgotten to leave behind at the table.
"You look pretty in this dress," he uttered before he could slap himself mentally.
"Thank you." The compliment was received well, but still sternly. Giselle slowly returned to her senses, her plan revived and in motion. "We don't have to be friendly or meet again. Of course, such coincidences could happen... So don't feel burdened."
"I'm not. I was..." He halted midsentence.
"Good." Giselle approached the railing next to him, although it was not easy, she had to play this game till the end. Why? She was not sure herself at this point. She was pulled to him and the only defense she could master was simple indifference that would keep him at distance long enough for her to deal with her feelings.
"So your dream to be in a Hollywood movie coming true?" She asked with as much neutrality as she could possibly deliver.
He felt as if a bucket of ice cold water was just dumped over his head. Giselle's warm brown eyes were never prickly till now.
"I guess," he smiled shyly.
"We better go back, I don't want to be rude."
They both started and turning bumped into each other, heat wave hitting both of them and making her step back, while Tae Soo waited, still recovering from such closeness. "You go first," he prompted. She nodded silently. He was behind her and with each step she could almost feel his breath, or so she imagined.
"Are you also a writer?" Inquired curious Song Yoon Ah, excited to find a willing partner in Lena after both of them were abandoned by their company.
"No, simply a professional."
"Ah," the girl nodded respectfully. "So you can tell what's wrong with me?"
Lena sighed. She pretty much always got this response. It was tiring, but came as a side effect of her job.
"I'm not a psychic and I don't read minds. Also, I'm not on the clock, so don't worry, I won't psychoanalyze you."
"But it sounds like fun. Can you tell if I have problems?"
The woman smirked, "An obvious one – an overly inquisitive mind, a lot of energy, ambitious drive and... how am I doing so far?"
"Great." Smiled the young assistant.
"Then you probably also enjoy learning about people."
"Yes. That's one of the perks. I get to work with some pretty interesting and cool characters in the industry. Of course, I have to adapt and adjust, but it's a good challenge."
"So, what is that you do?"
"I'm a personal assistant."
"Oh... And how did you and Mr. Lee meet? You make a beautiful couple."
"A couple?" Angie blushed uncontrollably. Flattery was her weak point and Lena noted her reaction right away.
"He is my boss, not my boyfriend." Almost with a wistful sigh clarified Angie. "I have a boyfriend. He gets jealous because I spend my time with attractive actors, some of them are male."
"So Tae Soo is your boss? How long have you worked together?" That Giselle! Jumping to conclusions!
Lena smiled in relief. It was a fact - she had this uncanny ability to crack almost anybody, even the most tight-lipped person and bring them out of their shell, engage in a conversation and open them up. She could do that easily with a specimen like Angie.
For Giselle's sake and a bit to satisfy her own curiosity, she proceeded. "So, tell me about your boss. You seem to have a good rapport with him."
A fish easily caught in the net, the girl quickly spilled the beans, including how her boss's mood fluctuated and changed for the worst after the book signing, how he appeared to know Spanish, how he made remarks about a mysterious woman who liked him in white and was apparently looking to meet somebody, that's why he tried to dress up just so... Lena's brow lifted and she made "Mm" sound, nodding and prompting her informant, easily leading her down the path she wanted. An idea formed in her mind. And Angie would be a perfect and hopefully a willing accomplice.
They returned to the table, where Lena and Angie were engaged in a lively chat. The two producers came over as well and the six of them ordered another round of drinks.
Giselle continued to look at him with coldness and almost scorn. After getting over her first lovelorn reaction, she forced herself to bury these feelings and think of the ten years she endured without him. She was independent, successful and popular with men, if she were to decide and find one. She had no reason to quiver at his sight and buckle at the knees because he was near. She was not a young idealistic girl any more.
The evening idled in conversation. There were a few instances, when his hand touched her accidentally and every time they both jerked as if scalded, but otherwise, nobody could sense any strange air between the actor and the author.
Giselle maintained a polite, but distant attitude and Tae Soo stayed more or less withdrawn, only to speak when he absolutely had to.
At the end, everybody exchanged polite goodbyes and Angie hugged Lena, making Giselle scoff and roll her eyes. Her reaction did not escape Tae Soo and he snickered, maybe, for the first time tonight, which bothered her so much for some reason, she lost her composure. She felt like snapping at the actor in front of everybody. She had no right to be jealous of Angie, but she was. She got to go home with Tae Soo tonight and for that – both her and Tae Soo deserved to be buried at the bottom of the ocean and promptly! "I will be right back, Lena, do you mind getting the car?" she gritted, glancing angrily at Tae Soo, who immediately bit his lip, hurt one more time by how she regarded him.
Giselle stormed toward the bathroom, but instead stopped at the edge of the terrace and let out a grunt of frustration. She stared at the blank nothingness in front of her, only the rumblings of the ocean indicating that it was near. It was truly dark and very late. She closed her eyes, trying to calm her nerves.
She replayed the never-ending torment of the night in her head. At first, it was very difficult to maintain the disguise of indifference, but after she was able to look at Tae Soo and not burst into tears, she realized it was doable. So she continued practicing. And he took it all like a champ. He did not flinch, he did not fight back, he took it with dignity, all the while keeping his sadness to himself. But she, of course, could feel it and it began to make her feel guilty. Jealousy was an excuse to cover up that guilt that was only more poignant because even if he was not around, his genuine eyes seemed to follow her. Frustrated with being unable to avoid his influence, she turned away from the useless ocean, which failed to give her absolution. "It's difficult," she whispered faintly.
As soon as she had left, Tae Soo also excused himself. He followed her and stopped just out of her view.
He had enough pain for tonight. He got as much as he could out of this brief and purposefully disheartening contact. Giselle's warmth and smiles he missed still remained a distant memory. He should have stuck to the past, with the present so upsetting that he wished they would not have spoken at all. How would he erase her chilly eyes from his mind? Or the words of polite indifference, which she carefully calculated to wound him with precision? Giselle was not a mean person, but tonight next to him she became unkind.
Yet, he could not bring himself to leave. She was delicate, easily broken when it came to her pride being injured, and this unusual cruelty coming from her must have been concealing smarting injury he could only guess was inflicted by his sudden appearance. Before he vanished for good, he had to make sure she was all right. He prepared to take another jab in the heart, which he was sure she was intending to take till he was completely obliterated.
Giselle seemed oblivious to his presence; he neared her right when she spoke, obviously unaware of the audience, but loud enough for him to hear. Whether it was intentional or not, he heard her very clearly.
"Difficult?" He echoed and his touch shook her to the core. It was difficult for him, too. It was a light contact between his fingers and her shoulder, so imperceptible, as if wisp of wind, but the care she felt was the same as years ago. It was the same Taecito she used to love. She turned, trembling to keep the facade on, but she felt it cracking and crumbling under his intense gaze. "Did you say difficult, Giselle?"
He appeared in front of her again, he had not left; and with great effort she managed to hide that her heart has begun to soften. "I got something in my eye, probably, sand, the wind is strong," she said apologetically and pulled a tissue out of her bag.
He searched her eyes openly for at least a miniscule hint of something familiar and warm. But they were hazed and cool, only a bit watery. Crying?
She was almost crying because of him. "It was great talking to you. I'm really, really excited about your book. Your dream came true. You are a published author. Happy for you," he said with a smile that expressed regret. "I'm going to leave first. I am jet lagged and need to rest before tomorrow."
He lifted his deep dark eyes, daring to steal a final look at her face. His mouth opened, but he could not speak, suddenly realizing that it might be the last time he ever gets to say something to her. This word, this simple and finite word that he's hated for ten years. He was forced to say to her again, the same old record stuck on the same old groove. He shut his eyelids momentarily, took a deep breath, his almond eyes fluttered open and held her in his gaze powerfully, etching her image in his memory now and forever, "Goodbye." He turned away immediately, unable to stand this torture any longer. His arms pushed away from the railing, his legs taking a step away from her...
Giselle breathed out a sigh of disappointment. It was supposed to be a sigh of relief, but it came out differently. Tae Soo recognized it immediately. He could still read her, if he paid attention. He held onto this little sign as if it was the only thing that mattered in life. He stopped and turned back. He looked up at her and slowly a smile flowered on his face, tentative at first, but then it changed into something bright and gentle, blinding her through the dark tinted shades of the evening, gleaming brighter than the hot ball of solar energy in the day sky, and warming her hurt heart without asking for permission from its owner.
"You don't have to go, Tae Soo-ya," she touched his sleeve. "I am glad to see you, also." She smiled back, the very thin residual crust of indifference quickly melted away and with that she felt a burden lift off her shoulders, a burden of carrying out this harsh and unnecessary punishment for him.
He glowed from within with hope that she sparked with these simple words, his name from her lips, the sound of affection from the time long lost, it gave him the strongest hope.
"I can stay, if you want," he responded gently.
"If you are tired, you should go home," said Giselle softly, lowering her eyes.
His smile completely disintegrated. "If you want me to," replied Tae Soo and also looked away.
Her fingers timidly reached out to him, but this natural gesture of caring was too soon and too much. She let her hand fall, deprived and unsure of its purpose. "Just get some rest for tonight, you had a long day," clarified Giselle with perceptible concern in her tone. This was the opening he needed to give his trampled by constant rejection courage a boost.
"Can I see you again?" Tae Soo looked Giselle straight in the eye, waiting for the only answer he ever cared about. And when she did not say anything, he bit his lips nervously and licked them, suddenly dry from anxiety. He was at her mercy again, like ten years ago.
"Maybe. I have another signing tomorrow."
"I will be there." He confirmed with a smile.
Giselle watched him walk away, but instead of misery, she felt hopeful anticipation. His back was now something to hold on to in her memory, the way he stopped and turned to smile at her with a shy twinkle in his eyes, like from many years ago. She loved this man. She still did. She never stopped loving him. And he never forgot about her. That's what gave her the courage to stop him. A simple leather bracelet.
"Good Bye." His arms pushed away from the railing, his legs taking a step away from her...
That's when she saw it.
A weathered, old and disheveled leather braid, tied around his wrist. The one she bought for him and the one he never took off, at least not while in Puerto Rico. She saw it peeking from underneath the long sleeve of his shirt. She could not believe her eyes, after all these years...
He surely could afford to buy some new and better looking accessories. It could have meant only one thing – he cared and he did not want to forget.
With wobbly legs, she returned to the table. She felt a bit queasy, a little drunk from his scent and his eyes and his lips and most of all from his smile and the words I'll be there.
"Lena, let's go home. I have something wonderful to tell you," she said through a huge grin, not bothering to cover up her feelings. "Where is everybody?"
"Tae Soo and Angie had left and Gangitano and Shklovsky are waiting outside. We are the last ones."
"They left together?" Only now a shadow of former doubt descended on the clear blue skies of Giselle's summerland. She completely let the girlfriend issue slip out of her mind. "Player, bastard, I hate him!" She muttered, grabbing an empty glass and wrinkling her forehead in frustration. "Where is my drink?"
"You finished them all, honey. It's enough for tonight."
"But I need a drink," whined Giselle.
"Home." Lena pulled her by the elbow and Giselle managed to grab her bag from the back of the chair and grumbling about something obediently followed her friend.
She fell asleep in the car right away from all the alcohol and excitement of the day, both good and bad feelings flooding her unprepared body with too much of everything. Too much.
Lena drove along the twisting turns of PCH, thinking about fate. These two seemed to find their way to each other.
She remembered Giselle courageously denying how much she was heartbroken after Tae Soo had left. She'd always thought Giselle idealized him too much, gave him too much credit about his personality and his appearance. Would such a handsome and sweet man really exist and just magically appear one day in a fast food restaurant to rescue her idealistic and romantic friend from her stagnant and uneventful existence? A famous actor, a Korean idol, whose face was plastered on advertisement billboards all over Asia. Of course, that romance, even if it was not a figment of Giselle's creative imagination, could not have lasted. It was a miracle it continued for as long as it did.
So Lena was left to pick up the pieces of Giselle's broken heart... She really was not paid enough for this job and if this time it would not work out... She did not think she had the strength to deal with it twice. So there was only one option – to make sure that those two lovelorn idiots finally get it together and figure out that they are meant for each other.
"Yoon Ah-shi! Find out where and what time the book signing is for tomorrow," he ordered with the smile that somehow killed the urgency of the tone.
"For Ms. Rodriguez?"
He glared back, irritated. Questioning him? She got too comfy. Angie quickly realized her mistake and unprofessional behavior, prompted by what she thought was a more friendly interaction they had earlier at his hotel and a few drinks tonight with a friendly psychologist. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lee. I will find out for you right away, sir."
He nodded, getting in the car. The actor settled with exhale on the soft leather cushions and let his head rest. A small smile took over his lips and his whole face slackened in a peaceful expression.
Angie checked him out with curiosity. What did he do and why was he looking so content all of a sudden? Did he get to impress some lady with his carefully chosen outfit? If she was not so taken by the conversation with Lena, she might have snooped around a bit to see what he was up to. Not because she was a curious creature, which she was, but as a part of her job. She had to know everything he did, so that she could be of assistance.
"I would like to rent a car," he said without opening his eyes. "I want a convertible."
"What is my schedule for tomorrow?"
"You have a brunch with Mr. Gangitano at 11 to go over some details, then reading with the main cast in the afternoon and you have been invited by the leading actress for dinner. She wanted to get to know you."
"And when is the signing?"
He shot up, grimace of worry tore through his beautiful face and with defenseless look in his eye, he exclaimed loudly, "No!"
"Tae Soo-shi?" Angie looked spooked by his overly excited reaction.
"I can't. Cancel the reading and the dinner. I can't!" He continued with the same worried tone, louder than necessary.
"Tae Soo-shi, please. You seem upset over this. Have some water first," she urged, crinkling her brows apprehensively. She offered him bottled water, which he unceremoniously shoved away and instead neared very closely to her, eyes too intense and feverish for the topic at hand, like he was discussing a life and death situation, not his daily schedule.
"Yoon Ah-shi, listen to me carefully. I absolutely have to attend the signing. I promised. Do whatever magic you do, since I heard you have amazing skills at your job," he did not bother to soften his gaze with a smile, dead serious even about the compliment, "plead, bribe or kill if you need to, but I have to be there." He exhaled slowly, pulling back from her and then molded back into the seat.
Angie felt her heart pump like she was on a treadmill and her body tense up to the point of discomfort. What is this dramatic performance of a sudden? One minute he is cool and suave, another helpless and cute like a kid, then distant and mysterious, then friendly and casual, and now this exaggerated overreaction that honestly just freaked her out. She liked the guy, but her initial impression that he would be easy to work with was quickly changing.
"Mr. Lee, sir," she said making sure her voice was steady and calm, "I will do my best, however, I urge you to think about it. This is your first reading. It would leave a bad impression if you skipped it to go to another event, especially unrelated to your role. Forgive me for prying, but it seems personal..."
"It is. And you are prying," he barked back, not amused by her lecturing. "Miss Yoon Ah-shi, I know well about script readings and professional etiquette, I was not born yesterday," he responded in annoyed tone. "You may find my request unrealistic, which might as well be, but I assure you, this is not my normal behavior. I don't have a diva complex, if you were wondering, and I respect you and everybody who is working with me on the project." He let out a sigh and turned his face to her. He looked tired and his almond eyes were saddened. "If I can't go to that signing, it would be..." He did not finish, but his eyes trailed off, darkening with even more sadness. "If you can help, I would appreciate it."
"Sure," she replied. "Maybe, we can come up with a reason for you to leave the reading earlier, although I still suggest that you show up. And the dinner – I will just make up a good excuse for you." She smiled, returning to her perky attitude. "I will do my best for you, Mr. Lee."
"Thanks, Angie," he flashed a relieved smile. And she could not help, but forget about his earlier weirdness, his smile fixing it all immediately. What a handsome man, she thought reflectively and focused on her tablet, flicking through the pages and devising a plan for tomorrow.