When Wen Jinkai strolled past the Li Family's tent, a rough voice snarled, "You're going to ruin her."
Li Chenyang crossed his arms and stormed towards Wen Jinkai, his hand twitching to grab the Commander by his collar, but he didn't dare to. He could lose a hand. That was how unpredictable the man was.
"I will make her prosperous," Wen Jinkai replied, turning to the man he once called friend.
"When she becomes my wife, she will desire for nothing."
"She will be the wealthiest woman in the entire nation."
Li Chenyang grounded his teeth. He knew he could not dispute it. Wen Jinkai was not the type of man who told lies. He was too honorable for that. "How is that even possible when you won't inherit the title of a Duke?"
"Does she want to be married to a Duke?" Wen Jinkai thoughtfully said, pondering the idea of exchanging his military title for a proper one. Would that make her happy?
"Jinkai, please." Li Chenyang heavily sighed, "Not her. Anyone but her."
Wen Jinkai's eyes darkened. "Why?" he snarled, the air around them dipping at an alarming speed.
Li Chenyang tried to form a proper sentence, but he could not. He didn't know why he didn't want to give Xueyue away. She was just so precious to him that he couldn't fathom the idea of her being in harm's way.
Wen Jinkai was a Commander with more enemies than a person could possibly count. She would not be safe with him. "She's not suitable for your life choices. She needs to be properly cared for, sheltered, and loved."
"As long as she marries me, she will want nothing. I will take care of her every want and need–"
"Will you be able to love her? To hold her in your arms and reassure her that your heart beats only for her? That it even beats at fucking all?!"
For once, Wen Jinkai did not know how to respond. He breathed in deeply through his nose and prayed for patience. Because he needed a whole lot of it right now. "Love is overrated. I will make up for that with more jewels she could ever dream, servants that wait on her every whim–"
"Xueyue does not care for that. You should know. She walks in silk like they're rags. Wealth and power mean nothing to her."
"With what I give her, she will not need love."
"Then you can't have her. Absolutely not."
Wen Jinkai took a dangerous step towards Li Chenyang. He growled, "And who's going to stop me?"
"Do not hide her from me. I'll kidnap her if I have to–"
"You will do no such thing," a firm voice spoke up as both pairs of eyes snapped towards it.
Xueyue stood proudly at the entrance of the tent, a displeased expression on her face. "I will not enter a loveless marriage. You can kidnap me and bang your chest all you want, but I will never, ever allow you into my heart."
Her eyes searched his face, searching for something beyond his rage. He was furious with her words. "If you can't love me, then don't marry me."
Wen Jinkai could do nothing but stare at her in disbelief. Her eyes flashed, warning him of her sincerity. She was dead serious and there was nothing he could do to change her mind. She could be kidnapped and locked away in his home, but he would only capture the shell of her. He wanted more than that. He wanted her heart, her soul, and everything there was to have.
Why was he so infatuated with her? What made her so damn different from every woman he has ever come across? Was it her dimpled-smile or those unwavering eyes of hers? No. It was beyond appearances. He just couldn't pinpoint the exact reason why, but something told him he already knew the answer two years ago.
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Xueyue was taken back when his frigid eyes softened, almost painfully. She had expected him to unleash his wrath on her and declare she was going to become his regardless of what she said.
"Very well," he muttered and just like that, he was gone.
Xueyue's eyes widened as needles spread through her chest. He left? Just like that…? With only two simple words, he was able to shake her core and foundation. Angrily, she glowered at the ground. He gave up so quickly that it made her wonder if she was too much of a challenge. If she was going to continue being this stubborn, who would marry her?
She didn't give a damn if her stubbornness will earn her no suitors. She'd rather be prideful and hold on to her dignity than let it slip out of her fingers just to wear a diamond collar in the form of a wedding ring.
She had sliced off her sparrow wings once. She will not do it again.
Li Chenyang approached her in an attempt to comfort her but was stunned when she voluntarily raised her head, a fiercely determined glint in her eyes. She set back her shoulders and relaxed her body.
"Let's head inside, Chen-ge."
"Alright." Li Chenyang smiled whilst placing a guiding hand behind her shoulders, but he felt a pair of eyes watching them. When his head whirled in the direction, he was displeased upon realizing it was coming from the Imperial Family. The Fourth Prince to be exact.
He had finally waved one pest away, only for another to emerge from the ground. Tch, bring it on. Xueyue must've shared the same thought, for she said, "I will never allow a ring to be a collar." She cast a disgusted stare up the grand staircase, directed towards the man who never tore his gaze from her.
- - - - -
"Xueyue, if you'd like, we can head home now. The martial arts and sword fighting tournament isn't until tomorrow. It's been a long day for you, sweet girl," Duchess Li Qixing said, her eyes worriedly landed upon the young woman.
"That's alright. I'd prefer to stay and watch." Xueyue smiled just as the drums went off in the distance. The signal of another tournament.
"That must be the signal for the painting tournament," Duke Li Shenyang pointed out whilst casting a side glance towards her.
Was she truly alright? He tried searching for any signs of distress on her face, perhaps concealed behind a mask of content. There was none. She was absolutely fine. It was as if she hadn't just rejected one out of the five most eligible bachelors in the nation.
"Painting?" she repeated, her eyes shining with excitement. "I'd love to watch."
"Are you sure? You don't have to push yourself, darling." Duchess Li Qixing's brows knitted together as her hands warmly clasped over Xueyue's.
She tilted her head, finally realizing the child's hairstyle had changed. "Oh my, your hair. Shall I fix it for you?"
"Oh. I almost forgot," she paused. Her hairpin. He didn't give it back to her. She had lost two hairpins in the span of one day.
A maidservant approached, ready to tidy up Xueyue's appearance but the Duchess intervened.
"Here, let me help you," Duchess Li Qixing happily said, realizing it was her first time styling Xueyue's hair. She took out a hairpin from her complex hairstyle and in an instant, was able to skillfully twist the young woman's hair back into a bun.
"There you go, darling." Duchess Li Qixing smiled at her masterpiece. "Would you like a mirror?"
"No, I trust you." Xueyue softly smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. "I'm sure it's better than my previous style."
Duchess Li Qixing's smile deepened as she pulled Xueyue closer to her and fondly pinched the girl's cheeks. "As women, we must never lower our head for a man that can't lower their pride."
Xueyue's lips parted before a full smile brightened her face. "Of course."
Duchess Li Qixing grinned and gently embraced Xueyue, "Always know your worth, darling." Her eyes glistened, "And remember, sweet child, 'no' is always an acceptable answer. Don't ever let anyone take that right from you."
"I understand… Mother." Xueyue shyly said the last part, her word striking a chord within the Duchess who sniffled and tightly hugged her.
"Oh, darling, I've always considered you as my daughter. Ever since the first time I laid my eyes on you."
The Duke silently watched them from afar, not once making a noise. Deep down, though he would never admit it, he too, saw Xueyue as a daughter. She had successfully woven into their heart and found a comfortable place to stay.
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