Deciding to change the topic, Li Xueyue asked, "Where did Yu Zhen go?"
"Oh, that's a good question. I lost track of him," Li Chenyang said, looking around in confusion. "Maybe he went home on his own?"
Li Xueyue examined their surroundings and noticed the majority of the guests had already left. Only a few lingered behind to have a final word with Marquis Ning who stood by the door and Ning Huabing who was bidding everyone goodbye. The large garden was quite empty, and Yu Zhen was nowhere in sight.
Li Xueyue wasn't sure if she wanted him to see her in this state. "He came with us, do you think he'd have a carriage to take him to wherever he's staying?" She didn't mean to sound so worried about him, but it just came out like that.
Li Chenyang laughed a bit and pinched her cheek.
"Try to not show you're so worried about a man. They'll like you more if you do," he teased her while placing a hand on her upper back to guide her towards the front entrance.
"I don't care about him," Li Xueyue mumbled, playing with the ribbons on her waist belt before dropping it. Memories of his shameless tugs on her ribbons resurfaced in her mind.
"I hope not." Li Chenyang softly smiled down at her. "You did well today."
"Did I?" Li Xueyue hummed, "It wasn't too dramatic?"
"Only a teeny tiny bit, but it's one of your first times. Practice makes perfect," he told her.
"Minister Li and Princess Li Xueyue! Thank you for gracing us with your presence tonight," Marquis Ning Guahe cheerily spoke. He was intelligent enough to know which family to prioritize and bootlick over the rest which could be delayed.
Li Chenyang merely nodded. "I appreciate the invitation."
"It was a lovely celebration banquet. I've never seen one as fun and interesting as this one," Li Xueyue said, even though it was her first time coming to a celebration like this.
Despite being sixteen years old when she was left for dead by the Bai Family, not once had they allowed her to participate in Bai Tianai's birthday parties.
From her room, she could always smell the amazing scent of food and hear the festive music and the happy chatter of the people. The noises always taunted her, reminding her of the fact that she wasn't even worthy enough to set foot in the party that was just a few feet away.
The Duke and Duchess always preferred things to be private, thus, for the past two years, Xueyue's birthdays were celebrated just among the five of them with large feasts of her favorite food and dessert.
She never complained. To her, family was all that mattered. She liked the intimate setting of her birthday celebrations because she got to spend much-needed family time with people who actually love and care for her.
"I'm so glad you enjoyed it!" Marquis Ning Guahe exclaimed with a bright smile. "I hope you visit our manor often. My daughter would love your company."
"That's right," Ning Huabing warmly said with a tiny smile. Instantly, it captured the attention of a few lingering men. But they instantly looked away, remembering the rumors they heard from one of her friends.
Li Chenyang curiously examined her and returned his attention back to Marquis Ning Guahe. Where was the Marquess?
It was as if Marquis Ning Guahe read Li Chenyang's mind as he added on, "I wish my wife was here to celebrate with us. She's cities away and couldn't make it back in time."
Ning Huabing glanced at her hands, suddenly glum. She had missed her mother dearly in the two months that passed. The Marquess was visiting her sick and ailing mother in a region that's cities far away. Despite having so many friends over, it was always lonely at home.
Li Chenyang nodded in understanding. "I'm sure Marquess Ning misses her daughter dearly."
Ning Huabing's eyes widened. Was he trying to comfort her?
Marquis Ning Guahe gratefully nodded in appreciation. He knew his daughter was growing lonelier by the day. It was hard for her to be away from her mother, especially when she always told her mother all of her secrets.
Li Xueyue grabbed Ning Huabing's hands and gave her a reassuring pat. She said nothing, but sometimes, words weren't needed.
Ning Huabing swallowed, raising her head to meet the genuine expression on Li Xueyue's face. She was empathizing with her. No one had ever empathized with her except her mother. It was always pity or sympathy. Not even Bai Tianai had offered any comforting words tonight, even though she knew how much Ning Huabing loved her mother.
"Thank you," Ning Huabing quietly whispered, to which Li Xueyue responded with a smile.
"It will be okay. She'll be home in no time."
Ning Huabing nodded while squeezing Li Xueyue's hand.
Finally, the Li carriage arrived. The Nings bid farewell one last time, wishing for them to get home safe and sound.
Li Chenyang stood by the carriage door, ready to help Li Xueyue in. She glanced back one last time, almost as if she was waiting for someone. Then she headed into the carriage with his help.
Once inside, a servant closed the door, and the carriage began heading toward the Li Manor on the other side of the city.
"Do you want to know what I realized?" Li Xueyue asked Li Chenyang who was busy looking out the window, making sure they weren't being followed.
"What did you realize?" Li Chenyang sounded intrigued and amused by her question.
Li Xueyue rested the side of her head on the carriage walls. "You don't seem upset by Yu Zhen's presence in my life."
Li Chenyang hesitated to respond. He had to think slowly over his answers so it didn't give too much away. "I never thought I'd be protective of a younger sister."
"Neither did I think you'd be that type."
"Wen Jinkai has a history with…" Li Chenyang paused, almost revealing something he shouldn't. "He has a bad history with someone I used to know. He couldn't treat her well enough."
"What do you mean?"
Li Chenyang swallowed. He wished the image of her pain-stricken face didn't flash in his mind.
"He's a great man, but a horrible suitor," he said.
Li Xueyue nodded. "Wen-ge said something similar."
"Did he?" Li Chenyang's voice was suddenly abnormal, almost as if he was alarmed. "What did he say?"
"Not much." Li Xueyue shrugged. "He respects Wen Jinkai as a soldier and man, but as a lover, not so much."
"Yes." Li Chenyang slowly shook his head. "Wen Jinkai would make a horrible lover."
Li Chenyang clenched his hands, not because he was mad at Xueyue, but because he was mad at himself for failing to protect both of his sisters.
"Don't worry about it," he curtly said.
Li Xueyue felt like there was more to the topic than he was leading on. Seeing his reaction, she decided to drop it. Besides, she didn't want to think about Wen Jinkai any longer. The less she thought about him, the better. She didn't need a man like him in her life, regardless of how handsome and mysterious he was.
"Are you sure you don't want to tell me what happened?" Li Chenyang asked, watching as her expression morphed in the shadows. It went from anger to reluctance and then to disappointment.
Li Xueyue stared out the window, marveling at the full moon—a great sign for a birthday.
She weighed the options at hand and softly sighed. Fiddling with her little fingers, she could only nibble on her bottom lip. She didn't want to create any more unnecessary conflicts.
"Let me think about it, okay?"
Li Chenyang became even more worried. Was it so bad that she had to prepare herself to tell him about what happened? Suddenly, he became as white as the pale moon.
"Did someone touch you? As in, did they compromise you?" he kept his voice quiet, even though they were the only people in the carriage and no one else could hear them.
"Did someone force their advances on you?!" Li Chenyang harshly asked, his eyes widening. Had he been too late again? Was history repeating itself?!
"Xueyue, you have to tell me, I'll kill that man with my bare hands and—"
"No! Nothing like that ever happened."
Li Chenyang cursed under his breath. "I should've never let you wander off alone. Because it was a heavily guarded birthday and two Commanders were tagging along, I didn't see the need to bring any guards."
"It's okay, nothing like that happened." Li Xueyue winced. "Let's just drop this conversation, for now, okay?"
Li Chenyang heavily sighed. "Fine, but you better not be protecting him."
Li Xueyue nodded. She wasn't protecting Wen Jinkai, she was protecting Li Chenyang. She didn't want to hurt him and his friendship with Wen Jinkai.
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