Ken had hardly seen Ana this past week and he was inexplicably eager to see her. His schedule had been packed; he was in the process of shooting a new television series and had been on location in Shizuoka. They finished shooting night scenes this week, so he had slept in most days and had only managed a hurried phone conversation with her in the middle of the week.
He noticed that he grew grumpier each day that he wasn’t able to talk to her. He couldn’t seem to explain why, but the sound of her voice at the other end of the line seemed to relax him after a hard day’s work. He enjoyed their nonsensical conversations and sporadic verbal sparring. Unlike other girls, Ana didn’t cower when he frowned or raised his voice. She raised hers in turn. If she disagreed with him, she argued until he admitted his mistake. She never seemed to be in awe of him. He even secretly liked how she teased him about being too full of himself. He also liked how comfortable she was with silence; unlike other girls, she didn’t feel the need to fill in bouts of silence with idle chatter. This, thought Ken, made their conversations all the more meaningful.
Lately, Ken had taken to calling her or sending her messages on her keitai each day just to say hello. Ana was a good listener and he found that it was relaxing to talk to her about his work—the dramas he was currently shooting and the projects he was thinking of taking on. It was refreshing to speak to someone who wasn’t in the industry. She was alternately shocked, fascinated, and amused by his stories about the eccentricities and antics of some of his colleagues.
He had hoped to see her when he gotten back to Tokyo this morning, but his assistant Takashi informed him that he was due to appear in a couple of shows. Late this afternoon, Ken had almost been at the end of his tether when Takashi informed him that the taping for the evening was cancelled due to his co-star being sick. Takashi had been surprised at the sudden grin that broke through Ken’s frown when he delivered the news. He had bounded up, grabbed his car keys, and headed out the door.
Ken didn’t bother to explain away the swift burst of happiness he felt. He walked down the corridor leading to the parking lot with a wide grin on his face. As he slid into his car, his bad mood had almost completely dissipated. He started the car and headed to Ana’s office with the intention of surprising her.
Although they had initially agreed to meet only a few times a week, Ken often went out of his way to see his pseudo-girlfriend. In the past few weeks, he had acquired the habit of dropping by to take Ana out to lunch or dinner. He even gamely signed autographs or chatted with the staff at the institute when he was there. Yoshi had jokingly quipped one night that since Ken was at university so often, he might as well try for a degree.
There was a noticeable smile on his face as he bounded up the stairs to Ana’s office. He hoped that she was in. He had tried calling her, but there had been something wrong with the connection. He smiled when he found her bag and coat in her office; it meant that she was still somewhere in the institute.
His gaze lingered on the array of items that littered her desk and the credenza behind it. A few weeks ago, Ken found a go-around for Ana’s aversion to receiving gifts from him. He saved the network giveaways he normally blew off and gave them to her instead. On her desk, a stuffed animal from Fuji Terebi sat beside a mug from Suntory that held an array of colorful pens from TBS, NHK, and other local television networks. On the credenza, a vase held the flowers Ken received from his last commercial taping a week ago.
Ken looked around and approached a couple of interns a couple of cubicles down. They eagerly told him that they saw Dr. Madrigal go into the cafeteria earlier. After getting directions and thanking them, Ken headed downstairs towards the cafeteria. He decided to join her since she was already eating. He smiled as he thought of how surprised she’d be to see him.
When he finally located the cafeteria, he stood in the doorway and silently scanned the clinical surroundings for a glimpse of Ana. He smiled when he finally spotted her curly head at one of the tables. He started towards her, but suddenly stopped when he realized whom it was she was talking to. Ana was smiling and leaning forward in her seat as she listened intently to what Sato was saying. Sato then clasped her hand in his and she stared up at him in surprise.
Ken stared at them for a moment before he abruptly turned away and went back up the stairs. Ignoring the guard’s greeting of “otsukaresama,” he headed to the parking lot and got into his car. As he sat there, he realized that he was seething with an emotion he could not recognize. He felt numb. He felt aggravated. He wanted to howl in despair. The image of Sato holding on to Ana’s hand seemed to be imprinted on his brain. It hurt. Somehow, seeing Ana with Sato had hurt.
Nande?! Ochitsuke! Get a grip, Ken thought as he mentally shook himself. He looked around, as if seeing his surroundings for the first time. What the hell was he doing here? This was stupid. It was Friday night and he was Ken Nakamura. He was one of Japan’s biggest movie stars. Ken Nakamura didn’t sit contemplating his fate in lonely parking lots; the night was young and he had places to go. He wouldn’t waste his time on people who were preoccupied with other things. There were tons of people who were clamoring to be by his side. He picked up his keitai and called his friend Yoshi. After ascertaining where Yoshi was, he started the car and headed to join him.
Tapas, where Yoshi was currently hanging out, was a discreet watering hole in the Shinjuku district. It had opened only a couple of months before, but it had already gained a reputation for its extensive wine selection and quiet, classy atmosphere.
Ken frowned as he entered, the air was hazy with smoke and the filled with the steady beat of an electronic pulse. At the bar, he was hailed by several industry acquaintances. They wanted to know about his latest drama so he talked shop with them for a few minutes before he excused himself and went upstairs to hunt down Yoshi.
The second floor was much quieter than the lower floor. The lighting was subdued and Ken heard muffled laughter and conversation from the booths on either side of the hallway. As he passed, he caught glimpses of people through openings in the red velvet drapes that partially covered each booth, giving the space an illusion of privacy.
He found Yoshi in a booth at the back of the room. Sitting in the booth with him were three girls whom Ken recognized as the members of Saga, an all-female singing group managed by an agency affiliated with his own. Yoshi raised an arm to wave Ken over, and then he settled his arms firmly around Reiko and Nana. The two females twittered excitedly at Ken’s arrival. Ken had hardly said a word of greeting when the third girl excitedly rose to greet him.
“Ken-san, ohisashiburi!” Ai Otani said as she stood to peck Ken on the cheek.
“Why isn’t Ana with you?” Yoshi asked as Ken smiled distractedly at Ai as he slid into the booth next to her.
“She was busy,” Ken answered curtly.
“Are we meeting up with her later? Is she having dinner with Kaye and Tessa?” Yoshi persisted, earning him a ferocious frown from Ai.
“No,” Ken answered, his voice told Yoshi not to pursue the matter further. Yoshi frowned and shrugged.
Ai signaled for a waiter and after Ken had placed an order, she put her hand on his shoulder, “Aitakatta yo, I’ve been looking everywhere for you lately,” she informed him, “I knew you’d be meeting Yoshi sooner or later, and I was right.”
Ai smiled in satisfaction was she sipped her cocktail. Yatta, she thought to herself, what a great piece of luck to find Ken alone these days. She had been itching to get his hands on him even when he and Erina were still an item. Her delight at their breakup had been dampened by the appearance of the gaijin. Ai was not terribly interested in the girl, she was a foreigner—a gaijin. Moreover, she was not in the industry, so Ai considered her a commoner. Ken would definitely be better served if he got together with herself, she thought.
Ken shrugged, “I was busy with work these past few days,” he told her.
“I heard you were shooting a new drama,” Ai prompted, offering him a cigarette and a light.
“Ah, sou da ne,” Ken said after taking a puff, “I was on location in Shizuoka this week.”
“Sou desu ka? I love Shizuoka!” Ai trilled, as she continued to pump Ken for information. While she did so, she skillfully tried to drape herself over him. She leaned into him and gave him a good view of the spectacular cleavage Yoshi had been ogling half of the night.
When Ai fluttered her eyelashes at Ken, Yoshi was surprised his friend wasn’t blown away by the breeze created by her fake extensions. Yoshi almost rolled his eyes. Ai was sure laying it on thick. He stared at Ken over the smoke curling from his own cigarette. There was something wrong with this scene, he thought as he observed Ken’s reaction to Ai’s fawning. Yoshi knew his friend very well, and he knew how females like Ai had irritated the hell out of him. But instead of brushing her off, he was actually smiling back at her.
Yoshi caught Ken’s eye and raised one of his brows. Ken raised one of his in turn as Ai continued to snuggle into his side.
Ken and Ai had only been formally introduced a few weeks ago at a mixer organized by his agency. As his assistant Takashi had introduced them, he informed Ken that he and Ai were partnered to host a segment in the fundraiser concert that their agencies were supporting. It was all Ken could do to hold on to his temper as the girl had simpered up to him. He had always detested girls who came on too strong.
Today however, his ego needed soothing, and there was no better balm to his senses than having a female treat him like a god.
An image of Ana looking up into Sato’s eyes flashed before his eyes, but he resolutely blocked it. He was a fool for forgetting that theirs was nothing more than a business agreement. It wasn’t that he had let her get under his skin, he reasoned, it was just that … it was just that he had come to like Ana. She was fun to be with. She was different. She was sassy and sweet. She had become his friend.
That was it, she was his friend and he simply felt that she definitely deserved someone better than that preppy Sato.
It was nothing to get worked up about, Ken thought as he took a deep breath and strove to drive Ana and Sato out of his mind.
On the other side of the booth, Yoshi watched Ken master the conflicting emotions racing across his face. He watched as a familiar cold mask settled across his friend’s features. Something happened with Ana, Yoshi realized. He hadn’t seen that mask in place in months. A frown creased his own brow as he watched Ken smile at Ai as he turned to sip wine from the glass that she proffered.
Something was definitely wrong, Yoshi thought. He was getting to the bottom of this.
Go to Chapter 19!