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The moment Orion Lee saw the woman, his heart stilled. It really did. His lungs seized, his breath caught and his pulse stuttered in its tracks. The world seemed to slow and fade all around him until she was all he could see. The distance between them narrowed until it felt like she was standing right in front of his table instead of at the entrance of the food-court.
He couldn’t explain what drew him to her because there was nothing outstanding about her. Frankly, her two friends were more likely to draw attention than she was. They were tall, dark-skinned and quite curvy. The woman paled in comparison; she was short and slender. Next to them, she should’ve faded.
And yet she didn’t.
Her almond-shaped eyes and facial features marked her as Asian, like him, but even that shouldn’t have been enough to pull him. He’d been around – and with – enough Asian women yet none of them had held his attention as this one did. He couldn’t even blame it on her clothes. Her t-shirt, jeans and sneakers combo was innocuous enough that she should’ve disappeared into the crowd.
And yet she didn’t.
Maybe it was the way she smiled up at her friends as they made their way past several of the eateries surrounding the food-court. Or was it how her eyes lit up as she pointed to one of the restaurants? It could have been the subtle way she pushed her hair behind her ears as she threw her head back to laugh at something one of her friends said. Or was it the ring in her laughter as it echoed through the court and straight into his heart? He had no idea.
Either way, he was well and truly caught.
His gaze followed her as she and her friends made their way to the Persian restaurant to place their orders. A moment later, the three headed towards one of the open tables in the court… and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the table right in front of Orion. Just as they reached their table, the woman finally saw him.
For a moment – just a moment – he saw that flicker in her eyes. That flicker that tells a man that a woman he’s attracted to is aware of him too. That flicker that tells a man that he has her attention. But before he could revel in that flicker, her friends yanked her attention away from him.
“Vina, come on,” her tallest friend wheedled. “I’ll let you have some of my chicken fillet if you let me have some of your lamb.”
Vina? Was that her name? Vina. Orion silently tested the name on his tongue.
Vina. Short and sweet, just like her.
“I don’t want your chicken fillet, April,” Vina said as she settled in her seat. Fortunately, she took the seat right across from him – the perfect vantage point for a direct view of her smile. She continued, “If I did, I would’ve ordered it. Why didn’t you just order lamb if you wanted it?”
“Because I wanted both.” April pouted. “But if I’d ordered both, people would’ve assumed I was a glutton.”
“You are a glutton,” Vina teased with a laugh. When her eyes wandered away from her friend and towards him, Orion instinctively lowered his gaze to the sandwich he was supposed to be eating. However, he wasn’t quick enough because the next thing Vina said was, “Snow, could we trade seats?”
“Why?” the other friend a.k.a. Snow asked.
“I don’t like people staring at me.” Vina gave Orion a pointed look. “Plus, I want to watch the door.”
“Why?” Snow asked. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“Yes… no.” Vina stood up. “Just change seats with me.”
Disappointment rocketed through Orion when Snow stood up to trade seats, albeit with a lot of grumbles. Now all he had was Vina’s back. He sighed. This is what happened when you stared too hard. Maybe he should apologize – and ask for her number while he was at it. Though he wasn’t really interested in anything serious right now, he’d never been one to let opportunity slip him by. Given his attraction to her, Vina was definitely someone he wanted to know better.
Just then April and Snow decided that they needed to visit the restrooms. Vina stayed behind to wait for their food, giving Orion the perfect opportunity to finally make his move. He pushed his seat back – even started to stand up. But just then, Vina’s phone rang and she picked up.
“Eomma,” she greeted her mother in Korean. “Is something wrong?”
As if she wasn’t attractive enough, she had to be Korean like him. Even better, she could actually speak their language fluently unlike many young Korean-Americans. Orion’s mouth crooked in an unconscious smile.
“I’m at the mall with April,” Vina continued in Korean. After a short pause to let her mother speak, she huffed impatiently. “Yes, I remember. I’ll get to the date on time. Don’t worry.”
Date? Orion frowned. Was she going on some kind of date?
“Yes, I’ll wear the dress you packed for me.” Irritation pulsed in Vina’s voice as she continued, “Yes, I know… No, no, don’t put her on the ph- Eomma.” She paused suddenly and sucked in a deep breath. When she next spoke, her voice was sugary sweet. “Halmeoni, you don’t need to worry. I won’t mess up the date.”
Ah! She was talking to her grandmother now.
There was a long pause as Vina listened to whatever her grandmother was saying, “Yes…. Yes… I got it… Okay.” She sighed. “Yes, I know how hard you worked to get me a date with another doctor. I’ll try very hard to catch this one.”
What? Orion stiffened as his gaze flew to the back of Vina’s head.
“Are you sure he’s worth as much as you were told?” she continued. “Not all doctors are rich you know.” She paused to listen to her grandmother then nodded. “Ah! That’s good. Wouldn’t want to end up with a poor man, would we?”
Her words were like a needle pricking a balloon. Orion deflated and any attraction he felt for her disappeared like bubbles in water. So she was that kind of woman. What a pity. Thank God, she’d received that call before he’d made his move, otherwise he would’ve been the poor guy being evaluated for his net worth.
“Fine.” Vina continued, “I’ll try to be as feminine as po-”
Her grandmother must’ve cut her off with a scolding because she sighed then asked, “What do I tell him if he asks how old I am?” She paused to listen to her grandmother. “Fine. I won’t say a word about it. Don’t worry. I can do a good job. I can act cute and girly and humor him, especially when marriage is on the line.”
“Hmph!” Orion snorted. The snort was supposed to be under his breath but it ended up being so loud that Vina turned her head. When her eyes met his, he expected embarrassment to shadow it. Instead, annoyance darkened them – as if she was irritated that he was eavesdropping.
Fine, eavesdropping was ill-mannered, but she was worse than him. Here she was prepping to con some poor schmuck – no, some rich schmuck, and didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed about it.
Orion glared at Vina. He hated people like her – people who judged others by their wallet or what they could gain from them. She returned his glare with a hard one of her own that said it all. Mind your own damn business.
Wow! Talk about bold.
Vina’s eyes swept away from Orion and she stood up. “Grandma, seriously, don’t worry,” she said into the phone as she walked away. “I can do this…”
Orion didn’t hear the rest of the conversation as she was now too far away. But what he’d heard was enough. Whoa! He sucked in a deep breath. That was a close call.
* * * * *
“AND DON’T TELL him that you’re the Executive Chef at Tellers,” Vina’s grandmother, Doo-shim, advised over the phone. “Men don’t like women who are too successful.”
Vina rolled her eyes. “So what am I supposed to tell him if he asks what I do for a living?”
“Tell him…” Doo-shim paused as if thinking. “Tell him you’re just part-timing there. Yes. Tell him you’re helping out there and learning how to cook so you can be a better wife and mother.”
Immediate laughter bubbled inside Vina. It took everything in her to suppress it and keep her tone serious as she nodded. “Okay, I’ll do that.”
“Good.” Doo-shim warned, “Don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t,” Vina agreed. “Can I-”
Before she could even complete the sentence and ask to speak to her mother, her grandmother ended the call. Vina shook her head as she stared at her phone.
Anyone eavesdropping on their conversation would’ve thought that the older lady was joking with her advice – but she wasn’t. She really believed all the crap she’d been saying. To Doo-shim, men were a cross between kings and ATMs. Wives were created to worship them – but only if the man had money to their name. If he was a pauper, then he was as good as an old shoe – only worth being thrown away.
These days, Vina didn’t bother challenging her grandmother’s flawed relationship philosophy because, frankly, she didn’t have the time or energy. Furthermore, her grandmother was set in her ways. At seventy-four, Doo-shim had already made up her mind about how the world worked and nothing Vina said was going to convince her otherwise.
“Hey,” April cut into Vina’s thoughts.
Vina looked up to find her friends staring down at her. “You two were gone for a long time.”
“There was a long line.” April settled in the seat opposite Vina.
“Why did you change tables?” Snow asked as she took her own seat.
“Had to get away from that creep!” Vina gestured with her chin towards the guy who’d been eavesdropping on her phone call.
“Creep?” Snow glanced at the man. Her eyebrows arched. “More like hottie.”
“Hottie?” Vina snuck another glance at the man.
His skin was too flawless for her to accurately tell his age but if she had to come up with a number it would be thirty, maybe younger. He had dark, medium-length, ruffled hair that left her itching to run her fingers through it, heavy eyebrows and dark soulful eyes that seemed to pierce whatever he set them on. Even seated it was obvious that the man was tall. His long khaki-clad legs stretched beneath the table while his broad shoulders stretched his plaid shirt.
Tall, fit and handsome.
“I suppose some would say he was hot,” Vina grudgingly agreed. “But you can be hot and a creep.”
April laughed. “What did he do? Ask for your number?”
“I wish,” Vina said. Before she could explain further, a server brought their food over. But even as Vina ate and conversed with her friends, she couldn’t help sneaking glances at the man.
Though he was attractive, he wasn’t her type. Too pretty. Too cocky. When she’d first seen him, she’d noticed how good-looking he was but that wasn’t what had drawn her gaze to him. He’d looked familiar, really familiar, like she knew him from somewhere. But that sense of familiarity had quickly disappeared when she’d noticed how unabashedly he was staring at her. It was as if he was silently saying, “I think you’re hot, I want to sleep with you and I don’t care if you know.”
For a moment, his brazen stare had shaken her. But it was just for a moment because she wasn’t an idiot. One look at him was enough for her to figure out that he was a dangerous man. The kind of man who couldn’t be controlled, the kind who could make a woman lose all common sense and inhibition.
Vina didn’t do men like him. She liked to be the one in control of any relationship she was in. That way she could end it when she wanted without the man kicking up a fuss.
“We need to hurry,” Vina told her friends as they dug into their food. “My date’s in about two hours and I still need to dress up.”
“Who are you going as this time?” April said as she reached across the table with her fork to pick a piece of lamb from Vina’s plate.
“I’m thinking rocker chick gone wild,” Vina said. “I haven’t done that in some time.”
Snow chuckled and shook her head. “I don’t understand why you do this. You could just ask your grandma to stop forcing you to go on these dates.”
“I wish it was that easy.” Vina sighed. “But it’s not. My grandma isn’t the type to quit just because I say I don’t want to be set up. Besides that, if I act up, she and my dad will take it out on my mom and make her life hell.”
Her words were enough to make the mood at the table plummet, and April winced. “That sucks.”
Most women dreamed of getting married, and their families dreamed of watching them walk them down the aisle. Vina wasn’t one of those women – and marriage wasn’t in her life-plan. Unfortunately, her family was like most families. They wanted her to get married.
In her twenties, she’d managed to skate by on the excuse that she was still young. But now that she was thirty, the youth excuse wasn’t cutting it anymore. In the last two years or so, her family had decided that they were going to get her to the altar even if it meant dragging her there, kicking and screaming.
Some would say that she was old enough to say ‘no’ and tell them to get their noses out of her business. But that was because they didn’t know her situation. Her choices in life didn’t just affect her, they affected her mother, Na-ri, as well. Whatever Vina did, Na-ri always ended up paying the price. Vina could be heartless – but not when it came to Na-ri.
Still, as complicated as her life was, Vina hated being pitied because of it. She forced a smile to her lips as she faced her friends. “Besides, I kind of enjoy the dress-up. It makes me feel like an actress.”
“I see.” Snow nodded. But the look in her eyes said she wasn’t fooled by Vina’s fake enthusiasm.
“You could just go as yourself,” April suggested. “Maybe you’ll meet a nice man.”
“And do what with him?”
April shrugged. “Marry him.”
“No thanks.” Vina gave a fake shiver. She’d seen first-hand how messed up that whole institution was and she had no intention of ending up one of its victims. Her plan was to dillydally until the day her family finally gave up on her. Eager to change the subject, she said, “Are you done with your food? We still need to check out the furniture place.”
“I’m done.” April pushed her plate away.
The ladies spent the next hour window-shopping for nursery furniture. Though April had only recently discovered that she was pregnant, she was already in new-mother mode. Vina and Snow found it hilarious but they humored her anyway. To be honest, Vina didn’t mind being dragged along on April’s baby-trips. This was likely the only chance she’d ever get to do this kind of thing.
About an hour and a half later, the three women were ready to leave the mall. Since Snow had come in her own car, she headed out first. Vina and April followed soon after. Vina backed her Mazda out of its parking space and drove out of the mall’s underground parking.
She was just about to get to the gates when April suddenly gasped. “Oh-oh-oh.”
“What? What? What?” Vina glanced at her friend only to find her staring out the windshield in wide-eyed surprise.
“Vina, look.” April pointed towards the sidewalk.
The moment Vina saw what her friend was staring at, shock spiraled through her. She blinked, then blinked again. Her mouth fell open. Was that… was that a man walking down the street, naked as the day he was born, in broad daylight?
Yes! Yes it was.
The man strolled down the sidewalk, dangling bits and all, looking like he had no care in the world. The shocked stares that followed him didn’t seem to have any effect on the wide grin that split his broad face. Vina was shocked enough that she even forgot that she was at the wheel.
And then the inevitable happened.
Crash! The violent bang of her car against the bumper of the vehicle in front of her was almost deafening enough to drown out April’s sudden scream. Vina’s torso and head lurched forward with the force of the hit. Her eyes closed tightly, she let out a sharp breath and clung to the steering wheel.
Though the crash wasn’t bad, it was enough to make Vina’s heart jerk in shock. That shock was swiftly followed by concern, and she whirled to face April. April, who had her eyes shut tight, was holding onto her stomach as if to make sure the baby was okay.
Immediate alarm streaked through Vina and she reached to rub her friend’s arm. “April, are you okay?”
April pulled in a long breath then nodded. “I am.”
“Are you sure?” Vina asked, panic dripping from her every word. If her careless driving had caused harm to April’s baby, she’d never forgive herself.
This time April opened her eyes. “I’m sure.”
It still wasn’t enough to ease Vina’s concern. Frowning, she suggested, “We should go to the hospital and get you checked. You never know-”
“Vina. Stop.” Her friend cut her off with a chuckle. “The baby and I are okay. Seriously. It was just a minor bump.”
“Still, maybe we should-” Vina’s words were cut off by a sudden rapping on the window on her side of her car.
She turned her head only to come face to face with a familiar face. It was the man from the food-court, the eavesdropper. However, his handsome features were now marred by a frown and glare. He angrily rapped on the window again, and Vina rolled it down.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mr. Eavesdropper started in on her the moment her window was down. “Didn’t you see me in front of you?”
“Sorry. Sorry.” Vina snatched a glance at the car she’d just bumped into. It was a sleek, red Honda SUV that looked brand new apart from the large dent that now marred its rear bumper. Wincing, she turned back to Mr. Eavesdropper. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking-”
“Are you blind or just a horrible driver?” Mr. Eavesdropper cut her off mid-sentence.
“Neither,” Vina retorted. Did he really need to be that rude over a dented bumper? Despite the irritation slowly rising within her, she kept her voice even as she started, “I was just-”
“We’re not even driving that fast. How the hell did you manage to hit me?” He scowled at her. “They just give driving licenses to anyone these days, don’t they? I-”
“Excuse me?” Vina cut him off. She angrily pushed her door open. Mr. Eavesdropper quickly took a step back to keep from being hit by the swinging door. Once she was out of the car, Vina pressed her fist to her hip as she glared at the man. “Fine, I hit your bumper, but there’s no reason to insult me.”
“I didn’t insult you.”
“You just called me blind and a horrible driver.”
“No. I asked you if you were blind or just a horrible driver?” the guy retorted smartly.
“It’s the same thing,” Vina countered in a heated tone.
“Not where I come from.” Mr. Eavesdropper jabbed towards his car. “What are you going to do about this?”
Vina and Mr. Eavesdropper had now gained a small audience, and the cars behind Vina’s were now hooting for them to move. The smart thing would’ve been for her to end this quickly, offer to repair his car and move on. But this guy was so annoying that she didn’t feel like giving in so easily and she found herself saying, “I’m going to do nothing.”
“Absolutely nothing.” She glowered at the man. “It’s not my fault that you were driving so slow.”
“What?” Mr. Eavesdropper blinked then blinked again. “Are you trying to pretend that this is my fault?”
“I’m not trying anything. Just saying the truth,” Vina returned promptly. “You were driving too slow and braked quickly before I could stop my car.”
The disbelief that flooded the man’s face was funny enough that Vina’s mouth twitched in an instinctive smile. He looked absolutely floored by her assertions and for a moment just stared at her in wide-eyed shock.
And then he guffawed – but there was no humor in the harsh sound. “This is ridiculous.”
Vina arched her eyebrows. “Is it?”
“I can’t believe this is happening.” He ran his hand through his hair, ruffling the silky strands, as he laughed again.
“Look what you did.” She pointed to the damaged front bumper of her own car. Struggling to keep her expression grave, she suggested, “Give me your insurance information. Someone will need to pay for this.”
“Are you joking?” All humor was gone from the man’s expression. His dark eyes were stormy with anger and his mouth was drawn in a straight thin line. He was mad. He was mad as hell.
Unmoved by his anger, Vina offered him a cold, disdainful look. “Do I look like I’m joking?”
Someone hooted, someone shouted at them to move but neither Vina nor Mr. Eavesdropper turned away from the stare-match that they were both intent on winning.
Mr. Eavesdropper glowered at Vina. “Are you seriously trying to make me pay for your crappy driving?”
“The only crappy behavior going on here is the way you’re trying to dodge your responsibilities.” Vina held out her hand and wiggled her fingers. “Hurry up and give me your insurance information.”
“Wha-” The man paused and drew in a deep breath as if trying to calm himself. When his eyes met Vina’s, they sparkled with restrained anger. “So you’re not just a gold-digger, you’re a scammer too?”
“What?” Vina blinked at him. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me,” Mr. Eavesdropper retorted then abruptly spun on his heels. “Forget it. I don’t need your money anyway.”
“Hey! You… What… You…” Vina called after him as he started towards his car. She followed him but before she could reach him, he was already in his car. She rapped her knuckles on the window. “You… Hey… Open up.”
Mr. Eavesdropper didn’t even turn his head. He started the car, and seconds later it moved. Vina quickly stepped back to keep from getting hit. And then just like that he was gone, leaving her heated and aching for him to explain himself.
Gold-digger? Scammer? Vina huffed as she strode back to her own car. The nerve of that man. That was libel… or was it slander? Urgh!
It took several deep calming breaths for her to finally be able to explain to a curious April what had happened. “Can you believe it? He called me a scammer.”
“Well… you did try to claim that he was the one at fault,” April pointed out.
“Whose side are you on?” Vina glared at her friend.
“Sorry.” April immediately lifted her hand in mock surrender as a smile danced on her lips. “You were right and he was wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
Vina’s eyes narrowed as she stared at her friend. “Now you’re just humoring me.”
April laughed. “Of course.”
“Fine, it was my fault but the only reason I turned it on him is because he was insulting me,” Vina explained. With a sneer, she added, “It’s true what they say. God never gives you everything. After giving that guy a nice face, he decided to balance it out with a crappy personality.”
Even after dropping April off at her apartment, Vina was still steaming. The fact that he’d insulted her pricked, but what really bothered her was the fact that he’d walked away without giving her a chance to insult him back. How dare he have the last word. Talk about rude!
Well, at least she’d gotten off without having to pay for damaging his bumper.
‘Let’s forget that nosy bastard,’ she soothed herself as she entered the hotel where she was supposed to have her blind date. She had better things to do with her time, like preparing for this date. She took her phone out of her purse and called her doctor-date.
“I’m already in the restaurant,” her date pleasantly announced. “Are you close by?”
“Yes.” A hint of seductive smokiness in her voice, Vina asked, “What are you wearing?”
“A navy suit. You’ll see me as soon as you walk in.” He asked, “What are you wearing?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you.” Vina ended the call without answering his question. Why ruin the surprise?
Instead of heading to the hotel’s restaurant, she made a detour into the restroom. In there, she got out of her grey t-shirt, light-wash jeans and sneakers, then put on a black belly-shirt with the word ‘bitch’ emblazoned boldly across the bust, leather pants and thigh-high boots. Then she started on her makeup. First the eyes; she lined her eyelashes with a black pencil that left her looking like a hangover raccoon. To worsen the effect, she dabbed silver eye-shadow over her eyelid. Next was her mouth; from her purse, she extracted a tube of blood-red lipstick.
Wait. She paused with the lipstick just inches from her lips. What if Mr. Eavesdropper had taken note of her plates and reported her to the cops? He looked like just the type to do something like that. Would she be arrested? Her heart seized at the thought but then her common sense reassured, she wasn’t the one who’d run away. If anyone asked, she’d just say that he’d zoomed off before she could offer to pay him. Bonus; maybe they’d arrest him for running off.
Grinning, she applied her lipstick. Vina smacked her lips and stared at her image in the mirror. God, she looked awful. Score. She picked her purse from the counter and extracted a pack of cigarettes from within it. Holding a cigarette between her fingers, just inches from her mouth, she studied herself in the mirror. The additional prop made her look absolutely wild.
Too much? She thought about it then shook her head. In this game there was no such thing as too much. She shook her long hair out of its customary ponytail and ruffled it so that it left her looking like something the cat had just dragged in from the club.
Then she exited the restroom.
Gaping stares and whispers followed her as she made her way towards the restaurant. The moment she entered the spacious restaurant, she saw her date. And he saw her. Shock filled his eyes, and then distaste. His upper lip lifted in an automatic sneer as he sat back in his seat and folded his arms over his chest. Vina could’ve sworn that she could even hear his thoughts.
What is wrong with that woman? Thank God I don’t know her. Hopefully, my date will be much classier than her.
Still walking, she stared straight at him and smiled. He immediately averted his eyes. He was probably thinking that if he ignored her, she’d just keep walking. Struggling to hide her instinctive smile, Vina stopped at his table. The doctor’s gaze flew up to meet hers and panic flared in his bespectacled eyes.
“Dr. Kang?” she asked.
He frowned. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Vina.” When he didn’t react to the name, she explained, “Your date.”
The horror that immediately clouded his face made every minute she’d spent dressing up in the bathroom completely worth it. He sat up and pushed back his seat as if afraid that he might catch something from her if he was too close. Disbelief etched in his every word, he asked, “You’re Alvina?”
“Yes.” Smiling, she held out the hand holding the cigarette. “Hi.”
* * * * *
LATER THE SAME evening, Orion dropped by his mother’s house after work. The moment he stepped into the living room, he found his younger brother, Julian, lounging in front of the TV, playing a video game. Like Orion, Julian was dark-haired and tall. However, he still carried the coltish, long-limbed look prevalent among teens even though he was already twenty-two.
“Hey,” Julian greeted without turning away from the television.
“Don’t hey me.” Orion came up behind the couch and slapped the back of his brother’s head.
“Ow!” Julian clutched the back of his head and gave his brother an annoyed look. “What did you do that for?”
“You didn’t come to work today.”
“Oh! Sorry.” Julian rubbed the back of his head. “Had to deal with a little side project.” He gave Orion a meaningful look as he added, “You know, the kind that puts money in my pocket.”
“Don’t give me that look,” Orion countered. “You’re the one who said you wanted to work at our place even if it meant not getting paid.”
“I didn’t think you were serious about not paying me. Speaking of payment-” Julian turned on the couch to fully face Orion. “Hyeong, my friends are going on a trip to L.A. and we’re supposed to contribute eight hundred dollars.”
“I’m not your bank account.”
“Hyeong,” Julian wheedled.
“Ask your mother for money.” Orion’s gaze swept across the room. “Where is she anyway?”
“The kitchen,” Julian said. When Orion started towards the kitchen, the younger man called out, “What about the money? I’ll pay you back.”
Orion waved at him but didn’t answer. He chuckled when his brother’s whiny ‘hyeong’ followed him into the kitchen. He’d probably end up giving the kid the money anyway, but he didn’t want to surrender too early.
“Hey,” his mother, Yoon-ah, greeted him with a smile the moment he stepped into the kitchen. One look at Yoon-ah and it was obvious where he and his brother got their good looks from. Even at fifty-four she was quite attractive with her long, silky hair and slender, fit figure.
“Hey.” He closed the distance between them to give her a brief hug.
“I didn’t know you were coming over,” she said as she turned back to the spinach she was chopping up.
“I wasn’t going to but then I found these-” Orion dug into his pocket to come up with two yellow pieces of paper that had Korean symbols painted on them. He slapped the talismans on the counter next to his mother. She glanced at them, then at him before quickly averting her gaze. With a meaningful look, he continued, “- and I thought I should bring them back to their owner.”
“Oh, you found them?” his mother asked, her blasé expression showing no guilt whatsoever.
“Yes, I found them.” He shook his head slowly and gave her a disapproving look. “Eomma? Under my desk? Seriously?”
“I thought you wouldn’t look there.” Yoon-ah shrugged. “Who checks under their desk for bujeok? You’re a very strange child.”
“I’m strange?” Orion gave his mother a disapproving look. “You’re the one going around dropping your litter everywhere. What do you think your students would say if they found out that you believe in this kind of thing?”
“I don’t care what they think or say. It’s none of their business.” Yoon-ah scraped the now-cut spinach from the wooden board and into a plate. “Besides, if they knew how well these things work, they’d be begging me to introduce them to my shaman.”
“They don’t work.”
“Of course they do.” She eyed him. “Why do you think your business is so successful? It’s my bujeok.”
“And I suppose my hard work has nothing to do with it?” Orion took the talismans and balled them in his fist. “Please stop leaving these things at my office or I’ll report you to… to somebody.”
As usual his words went through one of Yoon-ah’s ears and out the other. Without missing a beat, she asked, “You’re staying for dinner, right?”
Surrendering, Orion leaned back against the counter. “Depends. Who’s cooking?”
“Rude boy.” She lifted her hand to smack him but he ducked away with a laugh. Glaring at him, she ordered, “Get the beef for me. It’s in the fridge.”
“Okay.” He crossed the room to open the fridge.
“Did you think about that thing?” Yoon-ah called out behind him.
“What thing?” Orion grabbed a bowl containing diced and now-marinating meat.
“The Robin thing.”
“I told you I wasn’t doing it,” he said as he brought the meat to his mother. He set the plate on the counter beside her.
“Why not?” Yoon-ah asked as she peeled off the cling-film covering the bowl.
“Why not?” Orion counted down the reasons on his fingers. “One, I don’t believe in any of that ‘marry a tiger or you’ll die’ crap. Two, I’m not interested in getting married right now. Three, she’s nineteen. I can barely stand Julian and he’s twenty-two. What am I going to do with a nineteen-year-old kid?”
“Okay, she’s a little young,” Yoon-ah admitted. “But all age-appropriate Tigers are nineteen right now.”
Orion laughed. “All the reasons I gave and that’s the only one you heard?”
“If you want I can look for a thirty-one year-old,” his mother offered helpfully. “But many of them are already taken, and if they’re not I don’t think they’d be interested in a man who’s two years younger.”
“Eomma! Please stop!” he exclaimed, frustrated by how thick she was pretending to be. “I don’t want your tigers. Nineteen, thirty-one or otherwise. This whole thing is ridiculous and you know it.”
“Don’t be so stubborn, Ri-on,” Yoon-ah cajoled, using his Korean name. Her expression somber, she grabbed his arm and squeezed. “You know how important this is for our family.”
“Important according to who? That shaman you visited?” Orion arched his eyebrows. “He’s a con-artist.”
“No, he isn’t.” Yoon-ah gave him an offended look. “Master Yoon predicted that your business would do well and it did. He even predicted that Donald Trump would win. He’s the genuine thing.”
“What about all the things he’s been wrong about?” Orion countered. “He said Julian wouldn’t get into college – and he did. He said you would be fired after you slapped that student who was hitting on you – and you weren’t. And he said that my business would go belly up in one year – I’m still hanging in there.”
“The only reason those bad things didn’t happen is because of Master Yoon and the talismans he gave us,” Yoon-ah doggedly insisted. “He helped us change our fate.”
“Ah. Of course he did.” It took everything in Orion to keep from rolling his eyes. He didn’t understand why his mother believed in these things. In all other things, she was quite the modern woman. But when it came to shamans and superstitions, one would think that she was still living in the Joseon dynasty.
“Ri-on, just do this one thing for me, eh?” She shook his arm. “You know how important you and Ri-jun are to me. I don’t want you to die early like your father and grandfather.”
“Eomma, stop listening to that charlatan,” Orion protested. “Marrying a tiger isn’t going to make me live longer than dad or grandpa.”
But his protests fell on deaf years. “You don’t even have to marry her immediately. I just want you to go and see her, and then make a decision when you’re there. Please.”
“I don’t want to,” Orion protested.
“Please. For me,” his mother wheedled. “Ri-on-a.”
“No. I won’t do it.”
“Just one date.”
“No,” he refused.
Despite his ardent protests, Tuesday afternoon found him parking his car in front of the Landa-Hotel just fifteen minutes before his date with Robin. Before getting out of the car, he called, “Hi, Robin?”
“Yes,” his date answered. “Who’s calling?”
“Orion Lee.” He explained, “I just got to the restaurant. Where are you?”
The girl gasped. “You’re there already?” There was a commotion on her end of the line as if she’d just discovered that she was supposed to be meeting someone. “I’m on my way there,” she said on a rushed breath. “Just give me ten… um… fifteen minutes.”
Orion pulled in a tired sigh. As if this whole blind-date thing wasn’t annoying enough now he’d have to deal with a date who was unable to keep time. To his date, he said, “Fine. I’ll be waiting for you in the restaurant.”
He was just about to exit his car when a cab pulled up beside him. It wasn’t the cab itself that drew Orion’s attention but rather the woman who was in its backseat. Though it had been exactly a week since he’d last seen her and there were two layers of glass between them, he recognized her immediately. How could he not?
Vina the Scammer.
Immediate annoyance bubbled inside Orion. As if his day wasn’t bad enough, now the universe was throwing that crazy woman at him again? Unconsciously, he started to slide lower down in his seat so she couldn’t see him. But when he realized what he was doing, he quickly sat up. Why the hell was he hiding? So what if she saw him? He wasn’t the crook in this equation. She should be the one hiding.
As it turned out, all his mental gymnastics were for nothing. Vina didn’t even look his way as she got out of the cab then paid her fare. Without a sideways or backwards glance, she started towards the hotel entrance.
Orion watched her as she walked away. Despite himself, he had to admit that she was one sexy lady. Even though all he had was the back view, what he saw was enough to stir him. Her long hair had been pulled up into an artful chignon that showed off her delicate neck. Gone were the jeans and sneakers. Today, she was wearing a sleeveless white dress that clung to her delicate curves, showed off her toned arms and stopped an inch or so above her knees to show off her splendid legs. The pink heels she’d paired the dress with made her look much taller and even sexier.
Orion frowned. If all crooks were as sexy as this one, it was no wonder that the world was going to hell in a hand basket. Judging by Vina’s outfit and presence at a restaurant, there was every chance she was meeting another sucker. Perhaps it was annoyance, perhaps it was curiosity… he found himself opening his door and following in her wake.
What if she was really here for a date? Should he pull the guy aside and warn him that he was swimming in a shark tank? Or did that count as sticking his nose into things that didn’t involve him?
Fine, maybe he was being nosy. However, he couldn’t just let Miss Scammer continue wreaking havoc. The best thing to do in this situation was to confront her. Yes, that was a good idea. He’d tell her that he knew what she was up to. Maybe that would even make her find her conscience or feel a little embarrassed.
Oh, who was he kidding? Petite Miss Scammer was incapable of shame. Still, if he confronted her, she might end up afraid of him spilling her secrets to her potential victim and call a halt to her scam. Yes, that was what he’d do.
Orion entered the hotel’s lobby. Vina must’ve been a speed-walker in her past life because she wasn’t in the lobby.
Orion approached the concierge. “Where did the lady go?”
“The lady in the white dress,” Orion explained. When the concierge gave him a blank look, he described, “Short, slender, pink heels, kind of pretty.”
The concierge shook his head. “Sorry, I haven’t seen her.”
“She just passed by here a few minutes ago.” Orion huffed impatiently.
“I got here just a few minutes ago too so maybe I missed her.” The concierge helpfully suggested, “Maybe she went to the restaurant?”
The man was probably right. If Vina was here for another date, then the restaurant would be her logical destination. After thanking the concierge, Orion made his way to the restaurant. A cursory glance at the sparsely populated dining room revealed that Vina wasn’t there either. Where was she? Frustration bit at Orion. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but some perverse part of him didn’t want to leave without her seeing him. Unfortunately, this was a hotel. You didn’t just start searching for someone.
He was about to leave the restaurant when he remembered that he was scheduled for a date here himself. With an annoyed huff, he settled at one of the tables. Immediately, a server rushed over to take his order. The young server was just setting Orion’s juice on the table when the restaurant suddenly went quiet and everyone turned towards the door. Even the server stilled in his actions as his eyes flew to the door.
Curious, Orion turned in his seat to see what had captivated everyone. Everyone was staring at the woman who’d just entered the dining room. Ghostly was the only word that could accurately describe her. It wasn’t just the ankle-length, shapeless, white dress she was wearing that made her look ‘otherworldly’. Her long auburn hair was a shaggy mess that fell forward almost obscuring her face from view. What little skin they could see was pale, as if caked with powder.
What the hell? Orion stared at the woman, amazed that anyone was bold enough to step out of their house looking like that.
“What the hell?” A male voice cut into the silence. For a moment Orion thought that he’d spoken aloud until he saw the suit-clad Asian man who sat at the next table, also gaping at the scary woman. The two men watched the woman start towards their side of the restaurant.
Orion snatched a glance at the man at the other table, wondering if he, like him, was praying for the woman not to come closer. The man met Orion’s gaze. Yup! He was praying too. But they were out of luck. The woman kept moving towards them. Closer, closer, closer-
Good God! Shock shot through Orion as he recognized the face behind that pale makeup. Was that Vina? He sat forward in his seat to get a better look. It couldn’t be. But the resemblance was too much. Was it her? He brushed his palm over his face then stared at her. There was no denying it. It was her.
For a moment, Orion thought that he was seeing things. He blinked then blinked again. When he opened his eyes Vina was still at the entrance of the restaurant looking as ghostly as ever. What the hell had happened to the neat hairstyle? The sexy white dress? The pink heels? Instinctively, he picked up the menu and held it in front of his face. He did not want her recognizing him when she was looking like that, lest the other diners think that they knew each other.
Please don’t come closer, he prayed. But she kept coming. Through the side of his eye he caught the flutter of her white dress right beside his table. She must have seen him. Hell! Sighing in resignation, Orion started to lower the menu. But that’s when he noticed that even though Vina was beside his table, she wasn’t facing him. Her attention was on the guy at the next table.
“Daniel, right?” Good God! Even her voice sounded spooky.
“Do – do-“ The poor man gulped as he took Vina in, spookiness and all. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Vina. Alvina Song,” She held out her hand. “Your blind date.”
“Al- Al-” Daniel looked at her hand then back up at her like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “Alvina?”
“Yes. Sorry I’m late,” she said as she pulled out a seat opposite the man. “I was accosted by a ghost on my way here and she insisted that I let her daughter know what her bank account number was.”
Even if Orion wasn’t still holding the menu in front of his face, he doubted that Vina would’ve noticed him. She was too engrossed in scaring the living daylight out of her date. And it was working. Daniel’s fear and shock were obvious in his wide-eyed gaze and pale face. Not that Orion blamed him. Even though he’d seen Vina coming into the hotel looking as normal as any woman, her transformation into ghost-whisperer was spine-chillingly realistic.
Daniel swallowed hard before stammering, “A – a g-ghost?”
“Didn’t the matchmaker tell you?” Vina leaned forward towards the guy and lowered her voice to a loud whisper. “I see dead people.”
Daniel looked like he was about to have a heart attack. His mouth opened and closed like that of a fish before he finally found his voice. “What- what?”
“I see dead people,” Vina repeated. “Speaking of, have you lost someone recently? There’s a woman standing beside you.”
“What-” Daniel jumped in his seat, his head turning this way and that way as he searched for the alleged ghost. He was so busy looking for the ghost that he didn’t even see Vina’s lips twitching in a smile.
And that’s when it hit Orion. Vina was deliberately sabotaging her date. Why? Was this man not up to her usual standards? Not rich enough?
Daniel pushed his chair back roughly. “Um… um… could you give me a minute? My phone is ringing.”
“I don’t hear it ringing,” Vina offered helpfully.
“It’s – It’s on silent.” Daniel jerked to his feet. “I- um- excuse me.”
Orion could’ve sworn that he saw smoke rise from the sole of the man’s shoes as he fled the table. Something told Orion that Daniel wasn’t coming back to this freak show of a date. Despite himself, Orion smiled. He had to give it to Vina, she was a pro at sabotage. She must’ve found the situation funny too because she chuckled as she reached for her menu.
Orion chose that moment to lower his menu. But Vina didn’t notice him. Her eyes were on the menu, perusing it. She was still engrossed in the menu when the server came. To his credit the young man didn’t even blink at her strange appearance. His voice was completely even as he asked, “What can I get you, Ma’am?”
“What’s today’s special?” Vina asked, now sounding completely normal.
The server gave her his recommendations then once she’d ordered, he pointed to the still empty seat opposite her, “What about him? Do you want to order for him or should we wait?”
“Neither.” Vina grinned up at the server. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
Once the server was gone, Orion shuffled his feet beneath the table to draw her attention to him. It must’ve worked because Vina glanced in his direction. He expected recognition, maybe annoyance, or shock, but he got… nothing. She held his glance for less than five seconds before she turned to her purse to extract her phone. Soon, that phone had her full attention.
Maybe she hadn’t seen him properly. Orion cleared his throat loudly.
Vina didn’t look up from that darn phone. Orion frowned. Did she not recognize him or was she just pretending? Despite her scammer ways, Vina intrigued him. He wanted to know more. He wanted to know why she’d sabotaged her date. He wanted to know whether the word shame was missing in her dictionary. Still, he didn’t want to be the first to approach her because that would give her the upper hand. But he also didn’t want her leaving before they talked or argued.
He cleared his throat again and again but still got nothing from her.
As if on cue, her phone rang. Without missing a beat, she picked it and answered in Korean, “Yes, I’m at the restaurant with the lawyer.”
She paused to listen to whoever was on the other end of the phone then said, “No, he’s not here right now.”
When Vina next spoke, her tone held a note of wariness. “Yes, Halmeoni, he looks just as rich as you said he was.”
Ah! She was talking to her grandmother – the Commander-In-Chief of the Gold-digger Brigade.
Orion glared at Vina, practically burning a hole into the side of her face. But his stare didn’t seem to affect her. In fact her lips twitched in a smile as she spoke to her grandmother. “Of course I’m doing everything to hook him.”
Was she talking about Daniel? Orion frowned. From what he’d gathered, she’d been doing everything not to hook him.
Vina’s voice took on a sorrowful note as she said, “But I don’t think he likes me as much. When I told him I was thirty-one, he didn’t look happy.”
Though Orion couldn’t clearly hear what was being said, the older woman’s yell was so loud, he heard it from where he was seated.
Wincing, Vina held the phone away from her ear. It was only once her grandmother was done ranting, that she put the phone back to her ear. “It just slipped out. I’m sorry.”
Even to Orion, the apology sounded fake as hell. It didn’t help matters that Vina was grinning as she added, “Of course I won’t do anything more to ruin his opinion of me. Trust me, I promise.”
The more Orion listened to the conversation, the more his annoyance faded. He’d completely misread Vina. She wasn’t a gold-digger. From what he could tell, she was in the same position as him, being forced to go on blind-dates by her family. But unlike him, she was only pretending to go with the flow. She’d figured out a genius way to thwart their efforts; make herself completely unlikeable so that potential dates were turned off on sight. He was almost tempted to take a page out of her book. Then again, he wasn’t sure he’d look quite as good in ghost-gear as she did.
His initial attraction to her came flooding back in. His lips kicked up in a smile as he watched her speak on the phone. This had to be fate’s way of giving him another chance to get her number. And this time he wasn’t leaving without it.
* * * * *
OF COURSE VINA had recognized Mr. Mannerless from the moment their eyes had met. How could she not? It wasn’t every day one met bold eavesdroppers like him. And yes, she’d pretended she didn’t know him. Why? Because she wasn’t interested in rehashing their last meeting or starting another argument.
She’d hoped that if she ignored him, he’d follow her cue and pretend that he didn’t know her either. Unfortunately, the man was dumber than he looked. The blatant eavesdropping and staring was obviously his attempt at getting her attention. Well, she refused to give him the satisfaction. Turning slightly in her seat to avoid his eyes, she listened to her grandmother.
“When he comes back tell him that your father works for the consulate,” Doo-shim advised. “That should help him get over the age matter.”
“Okay, I will,” Vina agreed obediently even though she knew full well that her date wasn’t coming back.
“Good. Good. We really have to catch this one,” Doo-shim continued. “The matchmaker says that this is one of her top-tier matches. Everyone wants him. We won’t find a good one like this again anytime soon, so make sure you catch him.”
“Don’t worry,” Vina assured her. Injecting some pep and determination in her voice, she added, “I’ll catch him.”
With that Doo-shim ended the call. Poor woman, Vina shook her head. If only she knew what I’m really up to. Did she worry that one day her parents and grandmother would realize what she was doing during her dates? Not really. They’d never believe that she was doing anything to sabotage her chances at marriage.
Vina was living a double-life. She had one Vina for her family, and another one for the rest of the world. Her family’s Vina was an obedient daughter who did everything she was asked to do without even a word of protest. To everyone else, she was a free spirit who lived exactly as she wanted and took no crap. Some might call her two-faced; she preferred to think of herself as a survivor.
She was just tucking her phone back into her purse when Mr. Mannerless suddenly stood. Her hopes that that meant he was leaving were dashed when he crossed the short distance between their tables and settled in the seat opposite her.
Looking as confident as could be, he smiled. “Hi.”
That smile! Vina could’ve sworn that her pulse stopped in its track. That smile was the kind of smile that made hearts beat faster. Crooked, naughty and sexy to match his good looks.
Snap out of it. She mentally shook her head before leveling a haughty look at him. “That seat is occupied.”
“No, it’s not.” He slouched back in his seat as his smile deepened. “We both know he’s not coming back.”
Vina could’ve denied the assertion but what was the point. Mr. Mannerless had watched her whole performance so he’d probably figured out her whole game. Narrowing her eyes, she said, “If this is about your car-”
“First things first; shouldn’t we introduce each other?” He stretched his hand out. “Hi Alvina Song, I’m Orion. Orion Lee.”
What kind of name was Orion? Vina stared at his outstretched hand then back at him. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m a good listener,” he answered, unblinkingly.
Vina couldn’t help herself. A reluctant laugh escaped her lips. “Is that what they’re calling eavesdroppers these days? Good listeners?”
“Maybe.” His grin widening, he repeated, “Hi Vina, I’m Orion.”
“No thanks.” She slapped the back of his outstretched hand. “Go away.”
“No.” His hand fell and he sat back in his seat. “We haven’t talked about my car.”
“I told you I’m not paying for the damage.” She gave him an unsmiling look. “It’s not my fault that you braked too fast.”
“We both know it was your fault, and the law supports me.” Orion folded his arms over his chest. “If you rear-end someone’s car, you pay up, regardless of how fast or slow they stepped on the brakes. That’s how it works.”
Vina opened her mouth to refute that statement but Orion cut in before she spoke. “And don’t even try pretending that it wasn’t you. I bet the mall’s CCTV will back me up.”
Vina’s breath caught in her throat. Oh damn! She hadn’t even thought about surveillance. Her eyes locked on Orion’s, and in the dark depths of his she saw amusement. He knew he had her. Still, she didn’t want him to know that he’d rattled her.
Feigning annoyance, she huffed, “You know what? Whatever! It’s just a little bumper damage anyway and I’m not petty enough to make it a big deal.” She unzipped her purse then took out a pen and her check-book. “I’ll be the bigger person here.”
“Will you?” Orion’s eyes danced with mirth making it obvious that he wasn’t fooled by her act.
Her pen poised over the now open check-book, she asked, “How much?”
“How much what?”
As if he didn’t know! Irritation throbbing in her voice, Vina asked, “How much for the repairs? And don’t try to stiff me; I’ve fixed a few bumpers in my life.”
He arched his eyebrows. “Oh, so this isn’t the first time you’re doing this?”
God! This man was sooo annoying. Vina had to pull in a deep calming breath before once more asking, “How much?”
“I don’t want your money.” His gaze turned serious. “Have a drink with me and we’ll call it even.”
Vina blinked. She must have heard him wrong. “Huh?”
“Have a drink with me and we’ll call it even,” he repeated. Even though he was still slouched on his seat, there was something tense about his body and his eyes; like a leopard pretending to be relaxing while covertly tracking its prey. It sent unease trickling down Vina’s spine.
Her eyes narrowed, she watched him. “Why?”
“Why not?” Orion shrugged. “I’ve already repaired the damage.”
“I could reimburse you.”
“Or you could take the cheaper route and buy me a drink at the hotel bar,” he countered.
It was a good offer – too good to be true. Vina inclined her head as she watched him with suspicion. What was his game? He didn’t seem like the charitable sort. Was this a trick? Maybe a delay tactic while he waited for the cops to come and arrest her? Or was he planning to spike her drink?
She must’ve stared at him for too long because Orion gave her an annoyed look. “Are you seriously having a hard time deciding between having a drink with me or paying for repairs to my car?”
Yes, she thought but didn’t say it aloud. After another pause, she said, “Fine, I’ll have that drink with you. Just give me time to change. I can’t walk around looking like this.”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “I’ll wait for you here.”
Vina could feel his gaze burning a hole into her back as she started towards the exit. It was only once she was out of the hallway that she finally took a relieved breath. That was close. Thank God she’d managed to get out of there without letting him in on her real plan.
Have a drink with him? Hah! She wasn’t that daft. Chuckling, she made her way to the restroom to change. It took less than fifteen minutes for her to scrub off the garish makeup and change back into her normal clothes. By the time she was done, she looked like a new woman. Smiling at her reflection in the mirror, she twirled to get a better view of herself. Pretty. It was too bad that her dates would never get to see this side of her.
You know what? Maybe a drink wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Now that she’d ditched her date and Orion, what was stopping her from popping into that nice bar downtown? Nothing at all. Perhaps she’d even meet a nice no-commitment man there, drink with him, maybe dance and eventually, go where the night took her. If her family called, she could always say she was spending the night at April’s or Snow’s place. Mm. She grinned. Sounded like a plan.
She grabbed her clutch-bag and the shopping bag that held her costume and started towards the door. Half-afraid that she might find Orion waiting for her in the hallway, she peeked outside first. When she didn’t see him, she opened the door completely. Grinning, she strolled down the hallway and to the foyer. Orion wasn’t there either. Hah! She wished she was a fly in the restaurant so she could see his expression when he realized she wasn’t coming back. With a cheerful wave to the concierge, she exited the hotel.
But her happiness was premature.
As soon as she got to the parking lot, she saw him. He was leaning back against his truck, arms crossed over his muscular chest, one long leg crossed over the other like he was waiting for someone – for her. Her heart seized as did the rest of her and her footsteps came to an abrupt halt.
Orion smiled. “Going somewhere?”
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