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“Congrats, Sister,” said Gu Beicheng, giving An Xiaoning goosebumps all over.

“Thanks, Brother,” said An Xiaoning, returning the formality. “What’s the matter? Just shoot. Don’t just stare at me like that, it’s so strange,” she snarled while crossing her leg to massage her sole.

Entering through the door, Gu Beicheng stood in front of her and said, “Since Grandpa, Father, and Mother had given you a big wedding gift, as your Brother, I ought to give you a little something too.” He handed her a bangle and continued, “This one’s for you.”

An Xiaoning took a look at the bangle and realized it was made of jade. Thinking that he must have bought it with his money, she asked, “Where’d you buy this jade bangle? It seems to be of superior quality.”

Casting a glance at her, he answered, “You can’t get it anywhere else on the market. Keep it properly. Better yet, wear it on your wrist.”

“Thanks. Just one more thing, is there something you want in return?” she asked. She’d taken a liking to the bangle.

“You’re overthinking. It’s really just a gift from me, your brother,” he assured her before striding out of the room.

An Xiaoning put the bangle on and felt strangely at ease all of a sudden. What a spiritual bangle , she thought, absolutely adoring it.

An Xiaoning’s mother entered the room right after Gu Beicheng left. Elated, she chirped excitedly, “Show me the diamond ring Son-in-law had given you! It must be worth millions.”

“When did you arrive?” asked An Xiaoning.

“This morning. Tell me truthfully daughter, how much betrothal money did they pay?”

“I didn’t ask for any. So don’t bother asking.”

“No betrothal money? Why didn’t you ask for any, silly daughter? I’ll ask your Mother-in-law for it later. Your Father and I want the money, even if you don’t.”

“You can forget about it. If you dare to breathe a single word about it, you’ll never see me again. I mean it. Don’t embarrass me,” warned An Xiaoning.

“Your Father and I have lived a poor life of rags in the village. Now that you’re enjoying life as a rich man’s wife, you ought to understand our plight.”

“If I didn’t get married to him, you and Father would’ve beaten me to death. Save it, I know clearly what you two are thinking. Finish your meal and leave.”

“Great, you’re chasing your parents away now, aren’t you, Xiaoning? If it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be alive today.”

An Xiaoning was overwhelmed with exhaustion and simply did not have the energy to continue arguing with her mother.

“Your younger brother had dropped out of school and wishes to open a shop in the city. Being aware that you’re now married to an extremely wealthy family, he had asked me to borrow some money from you to aid him in his venture. It’s your brother’s turn to get married in a few years, and since he’s interested in starting a small business of his own, you should provide him with some help to improve his life a little. You’re not going to leave him in a lurch, right, Xiaoning?” pleaded Mrs. An.

“How much is he going to need?”

“Calculating the costs, he would need 1.2 million yuan for a two-storey unit with a shopfront, 200 thousand yuan for the furnishing, another 200 thousand for production costs, 20 to 30 thousand for simple furniture. That would add up to a total of…”

“1.6 million or so. It’s his first business venture and he’s already spending so much. Can’t he just rent a place?” An Xiaoning interjected before her mother could even finish.

“It would cost at least a few hundreds of thousands for a year’s rental. Your brother thinks it would be wiser to just buy a place of his own. After all, it would belong entirely to him in a few decades.”

“I don’t have that much to lend him,” said An Xiaoning bluntly.

“Xiaoning, are you trying to lie to your mother’s face? I’ve seen it all today, from the red envelopes[red envelope: a monetary gift given during special occasions, like weddings, in Chinese societies] to the big gifts given by your many Godparents. All of those must be worth at least a few millions of yuan. What’s wrong with lending a hand to your own brother?”

An Xiaoning’s mind was in great turmoil. While she was not a heartless person who does not value kinship, she too could not help but remember the times when her parents had cursed and humiliated her.

“I need to get some rest.”

“Fine. It’s not worth raising and calling you my daughter,” said Mrs. An bitterly as she turned to leave.

An Xiaoning stared at the ceiling and heaved a sigh of frustration.

——

Having waited until dinnertime to pop the question, the old Mrs. Gu asked, “Xiaoning, what’s your relationship with the Gu Family?”

“Grandma, the old Mr. Gu was the love of my Master’s life. He probably just acknowledged me as his god-granddaughter because I am closely related to my Master, nothing more.”

“You’ve agreed too quickly on this matter. The Gu Family have always been stringent about their family historic record and lineage. Why would he agree to include you so easily? I suspect that they have a greater hidden agenda, and you would be their head start,” warned the old Mrs. Gu sternly.

“Grandma, you’re overcomplicating things. It’s not that serious,” said An Xiaoning, almost sneering.

“Perhaps I am. Since it had been set in stone, I shall not pursue the matter further. Before I forget, your mother had asked your Mother-in-law for the betrothal money, claiming to have needed it to tide over a financial difficulty back home. Were you aware of this?”

“How much did she ask for?” asked An Xiaoning, her face stiffening.

“Two million yuan.”

“And did you give it to her?”

“Yes.”

An Xiaoning rose to her feet frantically and said, “I’m going to ask for it back.”

“Xiaoning, you don’t have to…”

“Grandma, she doesn’t deserve the money,” An Xiaoning answered before zooming out of the door.

She instructed the driver to take her to the village.

For the entire journey, An Xiaoning was filled with anxiety. It was not the hefty sum that bothered her, but rather the fact that she had felt that her parents did not deserve to take the money at all. This was because An Xiaoning’s mother-in-law had already given her a lot of expensive clothing and jewellery, not to mention a red envelope that contained a large sum of money. How could she still have the cheek to accept the two million yuan as betrothal money? Her mother had seriously disgraced her.

An Xiaoning instructed the driver to wait at the village entrance while she hurried home alone.

The door was half-open. An Xiaoning took a stride and entered the house, only to find that the courtyard was unlit. The door of the central room was left slightly ajar, and sounds of the TV and people chatting could be heard from within.

She moved quickly, still making sure not to make a sound as she moved with feather-light steps. She felt a chill down her spine when she heard their conversation.

“That wretched lass! If only you saw the way she behaved today, not wanting to acknowledge us at all. If it weren’t for us back then, she would’ve frozen to death along the roadside. It was right for me to take this money today. I didn’t expect the Jin Family to be so generous, though. They gave me so much money without much hesitation. They are far wealthier than the Shi Family. Seems like we won’t have to worry for the rest of our lives.”

“Mother, shall we look for a house facing the street in the city tomorrow?” asked An Xiaonan eagerly.

“Do you really think we’re getting you one?” Mrs. An said bluntly. “It was just an excuse I gave your sister. I’m not going to let you waste it. I know you too well, you spend without thinking twice. If you really want to start a business, I’ll invest a little and save the rest for your Dad and I. But you are to rent a house, not buy one,” she continued.

“I’ll tell sister what you just said,” threatened An Xiaonan.

“There’s no use telling her. Ah, it’s a blessing that she married a rich man again, after leaving the mountains. Otherwise, how else would we get so much money? They’re truly our cash cow.”

“If I hadn’t insisted on taking her in back then, we wouldn’t be so lucky today!” explained Mr. An.

“Yes, yes, all the credit goes to you.”

With all her might, An Xiaoning flung the door open, shocking the three of them inside. They stared at her wide-eyed, their jaws open.