Haerim worked her way through the maze of Baekhyun’s home, up three stairs, turn right, down seven, split levels and closed doors, thinking how hard the guy made it to get into his home, much less his life.
Finally she was out in the wide open living area, all blonde wood trim and gunmetal-grey paint. The ceiling was all vicious angles and the place smelled of chopped wood and leather and a spice she couldn’t name. No warm-blooded human being would ever choose to live there. And yet Baekhyun did.
She saw him in the kitchen, tasting something he was cooking on the stove. It stopped her short. He cooked? How had she not known he cooked? And it smelled…amazing.
But she was not deterred by the fact that the man could cook…
When Haerim threw her bag—containing the legal pad and dossiers for incontrovertible proof should she need it—on the slab of rock that constituted his kitchen bench, Baekhyun looked up.
He stood taller, wiping a towel across his mouth. “Why, thank you.”
“That Cho Kyuhyun dumped Jimin, you know.”
“I didn’t, in fact.”
“Yet you don’t seem shocked. Why? Jimin rocks. He was lucky to know her, much less…the rest!”
“She does. He was. But you have to admit that they were an unlikely couple.”
Unlikely? At that she began to pace.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked, tilting his chin at a bottle of red wine. “Can I take your hat? Scarf? Jacket?”
She glanced down at her outfit and blinked. From the floppy felt hat to the floaty beige dress, the dressy caramel jacket, ancient multi-coloured scarf and the knee length battered boots that she only ever wore around the garden, she looked like the result of a market stall explosion. Whipping off the layers and tossing them at a bar stool, she wondered what she’d been thinking. Oh, that’s right…
“On the subject of men …”
She pulled the card from her bag and tossed it to him, hoping to see him fumble and unable to catch it. Damn man snapped it out of the air easy as you please.
“Why?” she asked, and that one word was filled with more emotion than she’d thought any one word could be. Because his response would give her the answer she’d wanted more than any other in her entire life.
And like a whip across the face she got it. Closure. Of course. Right in the moment she realised she was in love with the guy he was plotting his extrication. The end. Finito.
It was Donghwan all over again. Only this time he wasn’t making off with her TV while she was out working. He was taking her heart, in broad daylight, right in front of her face.
Knees buckling, she sat on a wooden barstool. Hard.
Baekhyun moved around the bench and slowly slid to the stool beside hers, his knees close enough that she could feel his latent heat.
“Why?” she said, needing more, needing every last skerrick of data to understand fully.
“You’re better than him. Better than any man who needs a restraining order to keep him away from you, better than every damn bozo you pass on the street. I thought you needed to look at that lowlife in the eye to see that. To know you’re better off without a TV, without a fridge, without a coffee maker if it means not being with a man like him.”
Her eyes flickered to his to find his dark brown eyes serious. No charm, no pretence, just Baekhyun. And even while everything inside her felt as if it was unravelling her love for him was like a constant warm hum.
“Then you didn’t find him to get your money back.”
His raised eyebrows reminded her he’d met the guy.
“Or in the hopes I’d want to get back together with him?”
This time Baekhyun looked as if he’d been slapped. Better at her at the disassembling thing, he pulled himself together far quicker, his jaw hardly clenching as he said, “Why? Are you?”
“Good God, no!”
He breathed out long and slow, and his voice was a little raw when he said, “You don’t let me get away with anything, and yet you let him get away with what he did. So I wondered if maybe it was because he…he meant more.”
“No,” she said. The warm hum was getting louder, fuelled by a new and faint hope that maybe, just maybe, Baekhyun actually cared. “He didn’t. He doesn’t.”
Only fair he had all the data too, Haerim looked at the hands twisting in her lap. “Donghwan wrote me a note, you know.”
“Back then. That was why I didn’t chase him down and kick his . I didn’t want to have to face that…hatred ever again.”
“What did it say?” Baekhyun asked, his voice now less raw, as if had Donghwan walked through the door he’d not have got another foot without having his manhood kicked up into his neck.
It helped. It really did. Especially as she made herself remember the words she’d tried so hard to forget. “He called me emasculating. Controlling. He said that I only ever pretended to care.”
“He was right. In a way. I never loved him, and yet I let him move into my home. I do that. I try too hard to be what I think people need me to be. Because what I am has never been enough.”
“Haerim,” Baekhyun said again, his eyes fierce as hey roved every inch of her face, “Donghwan’s an . A petty, sad, small-minded toad. He tried his damnedest to take something away from you—something he knew he’d never have—your fierce spirit. But he failed. Fool only made you shine stronger still.”
She wanted to believe him. She wanted it more that she’d wanted anything in her whole life. To believe not just the words but the sentiment, the tenacity, the possibility…But if the men in her life had taught her anything it was that potential was a pipedream.
Take a man as he is, or don’t take him at all.
“You think I shine?”
“I know you shine.”
“You couldn’t have just said so?”
No, his expression said, he couldn’t. Almost as if he knew she’d read too much into it.
But, hand to his heart, Baekhyun said, “I’m sorry to the tips of my very everything that I forced you to have to see him again.”
twisted and she couldn’t drag her eyes from the hand across his heart. “Do you plan on tracking down all the men who’ve wounded me?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
She laughed despite herself. “I keep telling you I don’t need you to take care of me.”
“And yet once in a while it would be nice if you just shut up and let me.” His brows knitted together. Then, “Odd.”
Not odd, she thought. Sweet. Darling. But the fact that he couldn’t see it, didn’t understand what it might mean, scared her silly.
“It’s not your job to make up for their shortfalls,” she said.
“Not yours either.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
“I am right. Always.”
She coughed out a laugh, her eyes landing on her bag with t