"What is it? What, what, what?" Eun-chan tried to see through her blindfold, but the cloth was too dense to let any light through.
"Just a little bit longer, we're almost there," Han-gyeol said indulgently beside her. He had picked her up early that morning and blindfolded her as soon as she got into the car, promising a surprise. She was dying of curiosity.
In a few minutes, she felt the car come to a halt. Han-gyeol opened the door for her and led her out by one hand. She stumbled after him, hearing the tinkling of a bell as he ushered her through another door and then gently pushed her forward from behind.
"Okay, stop there." He sounded maddeningly smug.
"May I take the blindfold off now?"
"No, let me," and she felt the pressure of his hands at the back of her head, undoing the knot.
Eun-chan blinked as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden light and looked around. She was standing in an empty café, with the same sort of sleek modern decor as Coffee Prince, but all in a style of its own: the tables and chairs with ornate curlicue legs, the tall French windows letting in the golden late summer light, the soft rose-pink wallpaper, the neat ivory trim -
"Oh!" she shouted and ran towards the bar, which was a wide expanse of pink granite, complete with the latest model of espresso machine and all her favorite coffee-making equipment in sparkling glass and steel.
"Do you like it?" Han-gyeol said, grinning wide. She looked up and nodded fervently, running reverent fingers over the surface of the counter, mouth slightly agape as she took in the grinder, the rows of steaming pitchers hung neatly above, the ceramic drippers, the tall swan-neck kettle, and the stacks of hand-painted porcelain cups and mugs.
"I like it. I like it very much." She grinned back at him. "Why all the pink though?"
"Well, the name is Coffee Princess. I figured it would look romantic. A little Victorian."
Eun-chan wrinkled her nose but didn't stop gazing avidly at all the coffee-making equipment. "I want to try it out right now? May I?"
"Go ahead, squirt. The coffee beans should be in the back." He settled himself on a bar stool and gave her an expectant look.
She brewed him a simple cup of drip coffee, carefully holding the swan-neck kettle at just the right height to let the hot water soak into the coffee grinds. The coffee smelled luxurious, a hint of chocolate and rose in its dark, rich aroma. She watched Han-gyeol's face as he took a sip and closed his eyes briefly in unconscious pleasure. There was nothing that quite matched the feeling of watching someone drink her coffee.
"We still need to finish decorating. Yu-ju promised to donate some of her artwork. Want to go with me to the gallery tomorrow to pick out the pictures?"
"Sure. What else needs to be done?"
He handed over a folder stuffed with documents and plans. "Not much. The most urgent issue is the staff. We already have a barista, of course, but we still need two more servers and a cook."
She set her elbows down on the counter of the bar. Soon to be her bar. "I think I may just know where to find them."
"Eun-chan, Eun-sae! Come eat your dinner!"
They ran out simultaneously and flopped down at the table. "I'm so hungry," Eun-chan said, picking up her spoon and waiting impatiently for her mother to sit down.
Eomma placed a steaming pot of jjigae at the center of the table and motioned for them to start eating. Looking at Eun-chan take a huge gulp of rice, she clucked her tongue and said, "Look at you, eating like a boy! I thought you had grown up a bit in Italy but you haven't changed at all!"
Eun-chan just shrugged and dipped her spoon to take some of the jjigae. "Mmm," she said blissfully. "I missed Korean food so much!"
"What are your in-laws going to think, you eating with big mouthfuls like that? I can see all the food in your mouth. A woman should take smaller bites. And what's with your clothes? You brought back such nice clothes from Italy, and you're wearing that?"
Eun-chan looked down at herself. She was wearing her favorite old shirt, oversized and worn, and tattered jeans. If her hair hadn't grown, she probably would be able to pass for a boy again. "What's wrong with wearing comfortable clothes at home?"
"Can you believe this girl is getting married in six months?" Eun-sae sniped, her nose wrinkled in disapproval. "Eonni, if you're not going to wear your clothes, let me have them. I really like that yellow top, the one with the ruffles."
Eun-chan glared at her. "You can borrow it, but no stealing!"
"So mean!" Eun-sae grumbled and settled down to eating her food.
"Oh yeah, Eun-sae, I have something for you." Eun-chan took out a piece of paper and stuck it to her younger sister's forehead. "Here, fill this out."
"Ai, stop that!" Eun-sae snatched the paper away. "What is it?" She looked at the header. "Job application for Coffee Princess café?"
"We need two female servers, and it's not like you have a better job prospect."
"I'm managing Yeop's career!"
"That's not a real job," Eomma interjected. "I think it's a good idea, Eun-chan. Get this lazy one out of the house for once."
"Look, just think about it. Give it to one of your friends if you want. Actually, we need two, so if you can think of anyone pretty - "
"You're so impossible, Go Eun-chan!" Eun-sae sniffed but she kept the application.
Eun-chan poked her head into the kitchen. "Hyeong? Where's Da-yeong ssi?"
Seon-gi didn't look up and continued mixing his batter. "How should I know?"
"She's your apprentice, isn't she? Never mind, I should probably ask you first."
"Ask away." He carefully poured the batter into the waffle iron and shut it neatly. Not a drip of batter, Eun-chan noticed, shaking her head in admiration. Seon-gi took out a bin of strawberries from the fridge and began slicing them neatly into quarters.
"Is it all right if I steal Hyeong's apprentice away? To Coffee Princess, I mean."
Seon-gi paused, his knife in the air. "What?"
"Well, we need a cook, and Da-yeong ssi has trained under you so she must be good - "
"Still has a lot to learn," he said tersely and returned to slicing the fruit.
Eun-chan sighed. "Then maybe we should look for someone else."
"Don't get me wrong," Seon-gi said abruptly. "She's qualified for the job. Anyway, you should ask her directly. She's standing right behind you."
"Eh?" Eun-chan turned and saw Da-yeong waiting patiently with a large box of bananas in her arms. "Oh, I'm sorry to get in your way! Do you want a hand with that?"
"It's not a problem, Seonbae," Da-yeong said with a smile and a quick bow over the box. She marched into the kitchen and set the box down. "Er...were you talking about me, Seonbae?"
"Ah, just call me Eun-chan. You can lower your speech too. We're the same age after all."
"Oh, but you're definitely my senior here. All the seonbae-deul have a lot of stories about you," Da-yeong replied with a smile.
Eun-chan scratched her head and looked a little sheepish. "Well, uh, may I ask a question, Da-yeong ssi?"
The other girl nodded, her expression curious.
"I was wondering if you'd be interested in becoming the cook at Coffee Princess. Since Seon-gi hyeong here has taught you his recipes and all." She held out a job application form.
"Really?" Da-yeong looked startled as she accepted the form.
"Well, please think about it! We would really like you to take the job. You're already part of the Coffee Prince family, after all."
Da-yeong turned to Seon-gi, who was still slicing his way through a small mountain of strawberries, his expression as unreadable as ever. "Senpai," she said in Japanese, "watashi no junbi dekimashita ka?"
"Un," he said sounding somewhat reluctant. "Da-yon kun wa dekiru yo."
A surprised, pleased smile spread across her face. She bowed, saying "Arigatou gozaimashita!" and bowed again.
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "You still have a lot to learn though."
"I know! I'll try to learn as much as possible before I leave."
He shook his head but didn't say anything, reaching instead to turn the waffle iron over.
Eun-chan said slyly, "Hyeong looks a little sad! I bet he'll miss you when you're gone, Da-yeong ssi."
"Who will be missing anyone?" Seon-gi protested as he slid all the sliced strawberries into a bowl.
"I'll miss you, Seonbae! Please come and visit when you can."
"Wah, she's so straightforward," Eun-chan said admiringly.
Seon-gi snorted. "Guess I'll have to get used to having no one to speak to in Japanese again." He looked up at Eun-chan. "Take care of my apprentice. And you two shouldn't forget to visit us too."
Coffee Princess opened on a September morning, with a crisp breeze in the air. The leaves were still green, but Eun-chan still wrapped a light scarf around her neck as she prepared to head out.
Her mother came out of her room with a frazzled expression on her face and two dresses in her arms. "Which one should I wear to the opening? The black one looks more formal, right? But it looks too dark and heavy."
"It doesn't matter. Our Eomma looks beautiful in anything," Eun-chan said, smiling.
"Don't tease me. You said your in-laws will probably be there, and I want to make a good impression for your sake. What will they think of you if your mother is dressed like a frump?"
"Eomma, it's impossible for you to look like a frump. Is Ajeossi coming with you?"
"Yes, we'll be there around noon." Her mother held out the dresses with a critical eye. "I think I'll go with the purple one after all."
"It'll be fine," Eun-chan assured her and hurried out the door. Han-gyeol was waiting for her in the car, checking his watch impatiently.
"Sorry, sorry, I woke up late!"
"You always wake up late," he teased, and they set off, at least ten miles above the speed limit. Eun-chan reached out for his hand and kissed it. Han-gyeol smiled and squeezed back.
It didn't take them long to arrive at the coffee shop. Han-gyeol presented her with the keys at the door. "You may do the honors, Madam!"
She held her breath as she turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Inside, the café waited, looking as warm and elegant as it had done a month ago when she first stepped inside. But now, there were framed pictures hanging on the walls, the glass-top tables were covered with lace, and cream muslin curtains hung at the sides of the French windows. She exhaled in satisfaction.
"Like it?" Han-gyeol, who had come in behind her, whispered in her ear. "Think of it as my wedding present to you. For your dream of becoming a barista."
She smiled and turned to hug him, burying her face in his chest. "I love you," she muttered, reaching up to clutch the lapels of his suit jacket. "I love you."
He returned the embrace, his arms reaching around her to hug her tight. She felt the pressure of his chin on the top of her head. "Love you too, you rascal."
"Oh, oh, look at the two lovebirds," shouted Ha-rim triumphantly as he entered behind them.
They separated hurriedly, and Han-gyeol leveled a glare at the interruptor, who blithely ignored him and presented Eun-chan with a gift bag with a bottle of wine. "For you, my Chan!" Ha-rim announced before looking around the café. "Wah, looks nice! Of course, it's all due to my guidance. You should have seen this place before, Eun-chan, before I came onto the consulting team! It was all the wrong image! Now it has the proper feminine touch."
Eun-chan snorted. "Those French maid uniforms were too much though."
"What do you mean? That was a brilliant idea. It would have drawn scores of customers here."
There was another chiming of the doorbell as Da-yeong and Seon-gi entered. "Er, Seonbae? Where should I go to change?"
"I'll show you," Eun-chan said and led her to the locker room in the back. They quickly changed into their uniforms - sensible cream-colored shirts with black trousers and aprons, much better than French maid dresses by far - and went to the kitchen, where Da-yeong immediately gravitated to the waffle iron.
"We set it up just like the kitchen at Coffee Prince, so it should be easy for you to settle in."
Da-yeong nodded and thanked her, immediately reaching into the cabinets to take out a large mixing bowl for the waffle batter. Eun-chan headed back out to the front, where Min-yeop had arrived with a huge plant that was as tall as he was and bore a large ribbon with "Congratulations on your opening!" in glittery letters.
"Thanks, Min-yeop," she said and directed him to place the plant in the corner.
"When's Angel coming?" he asked, looking around hopefully.
"She'll be here in an hour," she told him. "Sit down, sit down. Do you want a cup of coffee?"
Manager Hong arrived ten minutes later, looking around with his usual skeptical expression. She greeted him and showed him to the table where the rest of the Coffee Prince staff were sitting around and discussing the details of the new café.
"I think it's even better than Coffee Prince," said Ha-rim proudly.
"No place could be better than Coffee Prince," Eun-chan interrupted, setting down five cups of espresso. "But this place is doing pretty well, I think."
Manager Hong picked up his cup and took a sip. "Mmm. Well, Eun-chan, I guess that prize of yours wasn't just all hype."
His praise came as a pleasant surprise. Manager Hong was, after all, her first teacher, without whom she would never have started down this road. She bowed smartly. "Thank you, Manager."
"Eun-chan's coffee is even better than yours now," Han-gyeol teased as he sipped his own coffee.
Min-yeop frowned. "It all tastes the same to me."
Ha-rim cuffed him on the shoulder. "That's no surprise. You have no taste buds."
"It's good coffee," Seon-gi said quietly, ignoring the antics of the other two. "You've come a long way."
Eun-chan beamed at all of them and perched on Han-gyeol's knee. He immediately wrapped an arm around her waist and buried his nose in her hair.
"Ei, keep it at home, Boss!" Ha-rim rolled his eyes.
"This is my coffeeshop," Han-gyeol retorted. Eun-chan turned, and they rested their foreheads against each other. "Your coffeeshop," he added quietly, ignoring the whoops and groans of the other men.
"Ours," she whispered back and bent down to kiss him.