Li Xueyue pressed her lips together, unable to look him in the eyes after such a daring confession. "How am I supposed to respond to that?" she grumbled, burying her burning face against his shoulder, her hand resting upon his body. She could feel the low rumble of his chest under her fingertips when he chuckled and hugged her tighter.
"Have I finally left you speechless, Sunshine?" Yu Zhen remarked, leaning his face on top of her head, relishing in her sweet scent. He wanted this moment to last for a little while longer.
"No," she mumbled against his shoulder.
"Doesn't seem like it."
Li Xueyue knew he smirked before she even saw it. She quietly hummed in response, his shoulders too comforting for her to resist.
"Let's take you home now."
"Have you settled your business?" Li Xueyue asked, referring to when he stepped out of the pavilion to handle something.
Yu Zhen's grip on her tightened. "Yes," he answered in a rough voice, not wanting to reveal any more than his simplistic answer.
When they left the gardens, his men instantly surrounded them, keeping a mindful watch of their sides. Their steps were unknowingly in sync, not that anyone could see them. Upon reaching the grand entrance of the Imperial Palace, they patiently waited for a couple of minutes before Li Xueyue's carriage was finally pulled to the entrance.
"Will I see you again?" Yu Zhen asked, guiding her up the steps of the large carriage. She firmly grasped his hand for support, one leg up the steps. She paused and looked at him.
"This feels like deja vu," Li Xueyue remarked, laughing at the time he said her ribbons were caught on his ring just because she was ignoring him. She had sworn they would never cross paths, but here she was, praying they would meet again.
"Does it?" Yu Zhen remarked, reaching for one of her ribbons, tugging at it. She swatted at him, but he simply grasped her hand, holding it close to him. When he abruptly kissed her fingers, her eyes widened and stared into his eyes. His eyes twinkled with unsaid mischief, a devious little smile on his face.
"Then, I hope we've changed our minds and you'll pray to see me again." Yu Zhen chortled, enjoying the blush that tainted her face. He didn't think pink would ever be his favorite color, but seeing it on her skin, he decided it was.
"As if." Li Xueyue rolled her eyes, heading up the final steps of the carriage with Yu Zhen still holding her hand. He firmly squeezed it, the only reassurance she ever needed.
"Aren't you going to tell me goodbye?" He arched a brow.
"Goodbyes are too depressing," Li Xueyue murmured. "See you again is a lot better."
A large smile spread on his face, his dreary face brightening at her optimistic words. "Finally, you're behaving like a ray of sunshine."
Li Xueyue snorted. "I've always been like this."
"Really, now?" Yu Zhen's tone evidently implied he didn't believe in her, and neither did she believe in herself.
Li Xueyue knew she was too untrusting of people, unwilling to be kind beyond the expected politeness. As a people pleaser, she found it difficult to say no, or reject someone. The guilt that weighed on her shoulder, her quivering heart that was terrified of disappointment, everything altered her personality in ways she wished she could change but couldn't.
"Of course," she said, slipping into the carriage seat.
Li Xueyue found it interesting that it was finally her turn to peer down at him, and even then, he was intimidating and tall. There was something different in the air every time he was with her as if nothing was ever worthy of him, but when he looked at her, it felt too surreal, as if every little interaction between them was worth a thousand words.
"Whatever makes you happy, Sunshine."
"Even if it's deceiving yourself," he added on, his smile widening when she threw him a scathing glare, ever the feisty thing she was.
"If lies make you happy, then so be it." Li Xueyue shrugged to which he rolled his eyes.
"You make it sound like we're a pair of dishonest swindlers." Yu Zhen shook his head, amused by the image that flashed through his mind.
"Perhaps we are." Li Xueyue laughed and closed the door before he could respond.
Yu Zhen raised a brow at her words. With their different personas, each reserved for different people, he figured she was right about that. In the end, he could only hope the facade they showed each other was their true selves. At least, Yu Zhen would like to believe that he was something beyond aloof, cruel, and cunning smiles.
He gave her carriage door a pat, indicating to the coachmen that they could begin driving. He stood by the Palace entrance, watching the carriage ride off to the distance until it became a tiny speck that disappeared into nothingness.
When she was out of sight, Yu Zhen's smile disappeared. He had a letter to send back to Hanjian. Wordlessly, he headed back into the Palace and towards his private corridors.
- - - - -
Once Li Xueyue got home, she tried to search for the Duchess, hoping to check in on her, but she was nowhere to be found. Since Duchess Wang Qixing's head maidservant wasn't home as well, Li Xueyue concluded they must've left after her.
Humming to herself, Li Xueyue strolled to her room, deciding it was best to begin formulating a plan since the time was ripe. With each passing day, the Bai Family's tarnished reputation was slowly restored to its former glory. The more time she wasted idling about, the less time she'll have to plan.
After what felt like an hour or so, she had finally decided on something. "Of course, how could I forget?" she muttered to herself. "No wonder Zheng Tianyi was in the Capital that day."
Li Xueyue picked up the parchment where her plans were written in remarkable detail, down to each timing. "With merchants come wealthy men from foreign lands."
She rolled up the parchment, walked towards her locked vanity, and slipped the key off of her neck. "I suppose the Zhengs' plan was to convince foreign investors to invest in their family business."
Li Xueyue slipped the parchment into her drawer, where two inconspicuous containers were found.
From what she recalled, the Bai Family's business involved heavily in the trading ports of Hechen. Her lips curled into a cunning little smile. First, she would have to find out more about the Bai Family and which big fish they intend to reel in.
Li Xueyue decided she would consult Li Chenyang about her plan since he would be able to access the financial department and retrieve useful information from there. Each year, aristocrats were supposed to report their source of income to prevent any shady business from going on. If she could get her hands on the Bai Family's financial records...
She closed the vanity, twisted the key, locked the drawer. "Hook, line, and sink 'em."
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