Her gaze dropped to his mouth, her lips closing around the red fruit. Then, with a soft sigh, she picked up two neat leatherbound folders with leather ties from the coffee table and handed one to him.
“Neat,” said Baekhyun, amazed that his tongue worked when it felt as if it was tied in knots.
“Stationery addiction.” She waved a ‘hurry up’ hand, practically bouncing in her seat as she waited for him to pull out whatever was inside. “I know it’s a little more than we agreed to but I’m a er for a new project. There’s nothing like it—blank paper, freshly sharpened pencils. Anything’s possible.”
“Before real life gets in the way?”
She shrugged, as if she was still convinced one day things could really work out as she hoped they might. An opportunist was Haerim. With Pollyana tendencies. Baekhyun made a note to remember that.
He opened his folder to find his emailed questions, only she’d expanded them to include a slew of small details, rich details—the kind of details and funny stories people tended to discover about one another on the first few dates. And his were all filled in.
“You researched me,” he said, his eyes widening as he read on. School subjects, overseas trips, friends past and present, sports he’d invested in, prizes won, legs broken and a full list of companies he’d invested in, complete with links to interviews he’d given to financial magazines and websites.
“Don’t get too excited. I do this for a living, remember. I just found what was out there.”
“I’m not sure excited is quite the right word.” He looked up to find her nibbling at her lower lip.
“I’ve overstepped the mark, haven’t I? Argh! Jimin calls it my Puppy Syndrome.”
She held out her paws and panted and Baekhyun’s blood rushed south with such speed he had to grip the couch.
“But I just like being helpful. Here, give it back. We can start over. Pretend it never existed.”
Was she kidding? She’d just saved him hours. In Baekhyun’s world that made her akin to the perfect woman.
He pulled his dossier out of reach and looked down at hers, gripped in her hot little hands. He found himself…not excited, exactly, but intrigued as to what was contained therein. “Swap.”
She blinked, her lashes jerking against her cheeks, then did as she was told.
Baekhyun opened the first page, speed-reading past schooling—state run. Tertiary education—scholarships. Work—applied mathematics with government agencies, before she’d moved on to build her own business—research with a bent towards the statistical.
He slowed when he hit her favourite books, movies, TV shows, as a tumbler of odd and wonderful nuances meshed together to form a picture of not just a set of sultry eyes and kissable lips but a woman. The Princess Bride nestled alongside Aliens, The Breakfast Club and Catch-22, Haruki Murakami and Khaled Hosseini butted up against Nora Roberts and Jane Austen. And a litany of real-life adventures flew before his eyes.
Compared with him, she’d lived more lifetimes.
“You’ve really flown all the way to Australia and eaten live witchetty grubs? And—“ he glanced down, “—you were an extra in some movies?”
A smile hooked the corner of her lips, soft pink and warm. “All of the above. And just so you know, they taste better warm. Like nuts. Witchetty grubs, I mean,” she corrected.
Laughing, Baekhyun said, “Who knew statistics could be so much fun?”
That just lit her up—eyes bright, smile wide, cheeks pink, she glowed like a touch-lamp on level one. He wondered what it would take to light her up all the way.
Clearing his throat, he closed the folder.
Just in time for her to add, “My dad was a maths professor, so we lived in university housing, holidayed on campus. He never left his rooms if he could help it, while I’d sneak out and find people to talk to about things other than chaos theory. To ask about dinosaurs and rainbows and France. Being a university, there were always people happy to oblige. I found there is always potential to learn something new. You only have to ask. So I never say no to possibility.”
That earned him a sassy grin. One he felt right deep down inside.
“What was your father like?” she asked. “Was he a lot like you?”
“A good deal.” Worked a lot, took responsibilities seriously, eyes that laughed easily.
“How did he and your mother meet?” Her chin rested on her knee, her eyes the picture of innocence. But she’d forgotten, he had three sisters. Her nugget about her own father suddenly made perfect sense. She wanted to get inside his head. He almost felt sorry for her that she was going to waste her time trying.
Baekhyun said, “If it’s not in the dossier let’s consider it extraneous to the project.”
Thwarted, she twisted .
“So,” he said. “Tell me something about me.”
“You’re testing me?” she said, sitting straighter.
“If you can’t pull it off what food are you to me?”
“Fine,” she said, crossing her legs on the couch, eyes burning bright with challenge. “Bring it on.”
“Blue.” She looked around his white, silver and pale blue office and said, “But you’d have to be colour blind to miss that. Pick up your game, Byun. You’re dealing with a pro.” She crossed her arms beneath her small s, pressing them up and creating swells above the neckline of her top.
“Pets?” he said, his eyes lifting to stick to hers.
She snorted out a laugh. “I’d bet my life savings that you’re not home enough to keep a cactus alive, much less a goldfish.”
Considering he’d wire transferred those life savings into her bank account only a couple days before, he knew that wasn’t much. But she was right. “You?”
“You don’t like dogs?”
“I like them just fine. So long as someone else in is charge of feeding, washing, walking, cleaning up after them. What kind of dog? Please tell me it’s not the kind that fits in a handbag.”
“Ha! He’s an Airedale named Shakespeare. He belonged to an ex who thought he was going to be the next Charles Dickens. Turned out he was more opportunist than writer—he left Shakespeare behind as payment for the TV and stereo he took in his place.”
“Ever get them back?”
She shrugged as if it didn’t matter. But he was a master of body language, knowing when to attack a deal and when to take a breath, and by the hunch of Haerim’s small shoulders it mattered.
“Charming,” said Baekhyun, his tone belying his sudden desire to find out the guy’s name and hang him from a balcony till he coughed up the goods.
“I came out with the better end of the deal.”
“Sheds like nobody’s business, has a wonky ear, will take a man down for an Oreo. But he’s never gonna steal my TV.”
Finding it hard to reconcile the woman before him being involved with the kind of man who could do that kind of thing, he moved on. “Family?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re a middle child—older sister, younger twin sisters.”
“A psychologist’s dream.”
“I’m an only child, remember, so get in line.”
He laughed and settled back in his corner of the couch. She settled back in hers. Game on, her smile said as she spoke. “Your mother is still about. Your father died when you were thirteen. A day before your thirteenth birthday, in fact.”
Baekhyun’s throat closed over at that last part—a small fact he usually left out, as if it was one intimacy too far. But he’d brought up the subject of family. He’d asked for it. She opened up as if to say more, but he quelled her with a look. Then she brought her knees to her chest and snuggled in against the cushions as if she belonged there.
“Women?” Baekhyun asked, even while he wondered instead about this woman, about the kind of men she normally dated. No doubt men with hipster glasses and rugged outfits swarmed around her in droves. Unless she preferred her men clean-cut in suits.
“Your tastes definitely runs towards Korean,” she said, curling a lock of her hair around a finger. “mostly. Though there have been some Chinese and the occasional Japanese.”
“I’m an equal opportunity date.”
A flicker of a smile, then, “No serious girlfriend that I could find.” That got him a pair of raised eyebrows, meaning fill in the blanks, please.
Instead he went with, “Until now.”
When her brows furrowed, her sweet mouth turning down, he nodded towards her and saw the moment she got his meaning. Pink rose up the soft column of her neck.
“Though we haven’t really touched on that as yet. Are we that serious?” he asked, watching as the pink moved north to land in her cheeks. His palms warmed, as if he could feel the heavy heat of her blood from there. “Or just messing about?”
“A little serious,” she said, but only after her lips. “Or what would be the point?”
Once his eyes had landed on there they stayed. And this time, as the memory of how she’d tasted. How she’d opened up to him and kissed him with such an easy release came back to him, it did so with a great hot thud. “There’s something to be said for messing about.”
“Baekhyun,” she said. Her lips opened as she said his name. He really couldn’t take his eyes of it.<