When Xueyue was just a few steps away from her tent, she was forced to halt again. Her eyes were trained on the collar of a broad chest. His well-fitted clothes did nothing to conceal the contours of his rippled muscles when he crossed his arms.
"I apologize. I wasn't able to intervene in time."
"I'm not a damsel in distress. I don't need saving." Xueyue raised a brow and added, "Besides, Commander, it's not like you've sworn to protect me."
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Commander Wen Jinkai's eyes widened a small fraction at her daring words. He had expected her to be shaken up from her encounter with the Fourth Prince, but to his surprise, she was fine and dandy. Not a single hair was out of place, except for the absence of a hairpin.
"Indeed, but it's a gentleman's duty to help–"
"I didn't need help, but I appreciate the thought." Xueyue smiled. "I can handle myself perfectly well, Commander."
Wen Jinkai's frigid eyes softened at her words. "I have no doubt of your capabilities."
"Then why did you try to intervene?" The words slipped out of her mouth before she could help herself. She stiffened, her eyes widening. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that–"
"It's alright," he instantly said.
Xueyue tried to ignore how smooth, but deep and masculine his voice was. It was gruff, but not in a bad way.
"You're a very capable woman, Xueyue," he said. "But there's nothing wrong in relying on someone once in a while. Being too independent will only tire you out."
"In this world, we can only rely on ourselves."
"You don't mean that," Wen Jinkai softly answered, taking a step towards her. He expected her to react timidly by taking a hesitant step backward like what he had witnessed during the archery competition. Instead, she raised her chin defiantly, stood her ground and crossed her arms.
"You're too close to me, Commander."
"Am I now?" He resisted the urge to smile at her slight frown. Her brows were crinkled, forming creases between them. "You've been hurt before," he whispered, his eyes trailing over her defensive stance.
It was barely visible, but he could see it in her tense shoulders and tightening fingers. "Not everyone is out to hurt you," he murmured, taking another step forward.
"One more step and I'll stomp on your foot."
"I'd prefer you stomp on it during dances, or perhaps," he closed the distance between them, standing dangerously close. "You can step on them to reach me."
"Are you always this friendly with women?" Xueyue narrowed her eyes. She desperately wanted to take a step back and create some distance between them, but she didn't want to lose this challenge.
By now, there were secretive glances their way. Of course, there were no direct stares. There were, however, many people watching them from the corner of their eyes.
"Why do you ask?"
"Is it?" he murmured, reaching out to tuck strands of loose hair behind her ears. Her entire body stiffened at his gentle touch. She hadn't expected his large form to be capable of gentleness. She could feel her heart skip a beat when his fingers grazed the back of her ears. It was a soft touch that disappeared as fast as it came.
Xueyue didn't have enough time to recover from his actions when his body suddenly grew taut. His nonchalant stance straightened as he softly pushed her behind him.
"Wang Longhe," his deadly voice was enough to immediately freeze the Fourth Prince in his footsteps. The air around them suddenly became suffocating.
Xueyue didn't get a chance to peer back when she felt his firm squeeze on her upper arm.
"Go," he quietly whispered.
"I don't need your help," she mumbled, attempting to turn around, but his vice grip was too strong for her to even move.
"You don't need it, but I'll give it anyway."
"Because I care."
Xueyue didn't get to respond before she was lightly shoved again. She raised her head and her irked expression morphed into an awkward smile.
"Chen-ge." She greeted before her eyes trailed to Li Wenmin. "Wen-ge."
The twins did not look pleased to her. She couldn't tell if they were more angered by her or the two brooding men before her.
Li Wenmin tore his eyes away from Wen Jinkai's shoulder to the rebellious young lady in front of him. "Let's head back to the tent, Xueyue."
Xueyue gulped. No more Xiao Yue. He was truly angered.
"Okay…" she trailed off, sneaking a final glance at the Commander before Li Chenyang stepped right behind her.
"There's nothing to look at," Li Chenyang scoffed before beckoning her to start following Li Wenmin.
"You'll hurt your eyes by looking at foul things," Li Wenmin curtly added on as he guided Xueyue into her tent.
She wasn't sure if he was referring to the Prince or the Commander. Surely, it was neither. Both men were handsome in their own, respectable manner.
"Are you mad at me?" she suddenly asked, which caused all three of them to stop walking.
Yes, they were mad, but not at her. They were more frustrated with themselves for not intervening in time. The only reason they didn't rush out of the tent before was because their mother kept on holding them back.
"We'll discuss this in the tent," Li Chenyang said just as they reached the thick and heavy curtains.
Instantly, a guard pulled it aside and they stepped through, only to be met with a fuming Duchess.
Xueyue prepared herself for a lecture, but was surprised when Duchess Li Qixing stomped towards the twins.
"You," she hissed, grabbing Li Wenmin's ears and then Li Chenyang's, "and you!" she scowled, "How could you intervene?"
"No, don't 'Mother' me Wenmin!" she huffed. "How could you ruin Xueyue's chances of finding a good suitor?"
"She doesn't need a good suitor! She needs to be a spinster." Li Wenmin pouted.
"A spinster?!" Duchess Li Qixing shrilled, further twisting his ear. He yelped in pain as he attempted to wiggle out of her clutches.
"Is that the face of a spinster?" she asked, pointing towards Xueyue's bewildered expression.
"Yes," Li Chenyang instantly replied, "I think–ow ow…" he groaned in annoyance when his mother began twisting his ears.
"I don't care what you boys think. You just ruined her chances to be with the Commander!"
"Doesn't seem like it," a new voice spoke up as every pair of eyes turned towards it.
Duke Li Shenyang had taken a glance out of the tent before heading inside.
"What do you mean?" Duchess Li Qixing asked. She turned to her husband with an intrigued expression.
"Wait and find out," he heartily said. Everyone watched as he lazily approached a chair, sat down, and gestured for a servant to pour him tea.