"What? Your father?"
Zhou Qin could hear the surprise in Li Yundong's tone. She turned her head slightly and gave him a grim nod. This was a bad sign. Her father showing up at the university just one day after the incident yesterday? This couldn't be a coincidence.
Zhou Qin observed her father from the last row, taking in his grey Mao suit and his commanding presence. He stood a few feet away from the lectern, letting his gaze roam across the lecture hall as he studied every student present. Was he looking for her?
Her thoughts were interrupted by Vice-chancellor Ke, who had taken his spot on the lectern and was now addressing the students.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is our honor to welcome our extinguished guest, the Deputy Governor of our province, Mr. Zhou Keqiang! Let us all stand and welcome our extinguished guests with a round of applause!"
Students rose from their seats as the lecture hall filled with the sound of applause. Zhou Qin didn't stand up. Zhou Keqiang had lost her respect and affection a long time ago.
The clapping subsided and the students sat back down. That was when she noticed that her father's eyes were on her. Zhou Qin met her father's stare with cold intensity. Why are you here, father?
Then, Zhou Qin noticed her father's frown. At first, she thought he was frowning at her. But when she looked closer, she realized that her father wasn't even looking at her now; he was staring at Li Yundong, who was sitting beside her. The lightbulbs in Zhou Qin's head lit up at the same time her hackles rose. He Shao...
That idiotic scoundrel must have told her father something.
Was that it? Was her father here to bully or threaten Li Yundong? Zhou Qin bit the inside of her cheeks. Over my dead body!
"Hey... What's the matter?"
She turned at the sound of Li Yundong's voice. Li Yundong was giving her a look of concern.
Zhou Qin forced out a smile. "Oh, it's nothing."
Li Yundong raised his brow, clearly not buying any of it. "Yeah? I bet your textbook would disagree."
What? She glanced down and realized that she had crumpled an open page of her textbook.
"You alright?" Li Yundong asked again.
Zhou Qin unclenched her hand and smoothed out the page. "Yeah. I'm fine," she said lamely. Or at least I will be once I sort out this mess.
Her father was already moving towards the lectern, no doubt ready to recite some hackneyed speech that somebody else had written for him.
"Not a big fan of your old man, I take it?"
Li Yundong was now smiling at her wryly. Instead of answering, Zhou Qin redirected her gaze towards the lectern. Can you love a father who sees his only daughter as a mere tool to gain political advantage? Who values status and power more than their own daughter's happiness?
Another round of applause signaled the end of her father's speech. Zhou Qin didn't hear a single thing her father said. The clapping lasted until her father and his entourage left the lecture hall. On the bright side, nobody—other than Li Yundong and Su Chan—seemed to know that Deputy Governor Zhou was actually her father, though she figured it wouldn't be long until somebody made the connection. Either way, she had to put an end to her father's nonsense before things came to that.
"Qinqin! Over here!"
Zhou Qin stopped outside the lecture hall and turned to her right. A young man dressed in a suit was waving at her at the end of the corridor.
Zhou Qin walked over. "Secretary Liu," she said, trying her hardest to sound polite. "Where is my father?"
"He's waiting for you in the car."
Zhou Qin nodded. "Lead the way."
Let's get this over with.
Secretary Liu led her out of the academic building and straight towards the campus gates. Past the gates, she saw an Audi A6 parked beside the curb. Pieces of broken glass crunched under her feet as she traversed the curb towards the Audi. The tire marks on the ground were still there, reminding her of yesterday's extraordinary events. Not that she needed any extra reminder. Ever since Li Yundong's episode inside the men's room weeks ago, Zhou Qin had long since come to the conclusion that both Su Chan and Li Yundong were extraordinary individuals.
Zhou Qin slid into the Audi's backseat. For a moment, neither she nor her father spoke. Zhou Qin didn't even know how to begin. She was still so mad at the fact that her father had come running just because He Shao had whined a little.
It was only minutes later when Zhou Qin fired the first salvo. "Well, well, well. How nice of the great Deputy Governor Zhou Keqiang to grace Tiannan University with his presence." Zhou Qin snorted. "I'm surprised they didn't bring out the red carpet."
"Qinqin..." Zhou Keqiang sighed. "I'm your father, not your enemy. What's with the attitude?"
A father? Zhou Qin snorted. You stopped being my father the moment you traded my happiness for power! Zhou Qin crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Why are you here?" she snapped. "What, did He Shao go home crying to his father after I told him off and humiliated him in public?"
Anger flared inside Zhou Qin.
He Shao. That repulsive, off-putting, obnoxious, depraved, and vile man. Man? No. He wasn't even a man; he was a barbaric creature without a single ounce of virtue in him. A loveless marriage with a decent man Zhou Qin could live with. But this? This stupid arranged marriage with He Shao would utterly ruin her chances of happiness and perhaps even her whole life. How on earth was she supposed to spend the rest of her life with that shallow and despicable creature who spent more time in the casino and brothel than anywhere else?
Regardless, arguing with her father was an exercise in futility. She knew that because she had already tried. A hundred times, perhaps more. But every time she did, her father's answer was always the same: "People can change, Qinqin. Which man doesn't have such indulgences? He'll slowly change after you get married. You'll see."
Her father was a fool. He was too blinded by power to see that being associated with He Shao would only damage the Zhou family's reputation in the long run. Sooner or later, He Shao would do something scandalous, and the Zhou family would be dragged down by it.
"You're just like your mother, Qinqin. Just like your mother."
A surge of anger coursed through Zhou Qin's veins. How dare he? How dare he mention mom...
"Oh? So you still remember what mother was like? What a surprise," Zhou Qin said, the acid rolling off her tongue. "She's been dead for ten years. I thought you have forgotten all about her already!"
"Don't use that tone with me, child!"
Zhou Qin snorted. Anyone else would've at least flinched at her father's outburst. But Zhou Qin had long since passed the point of caring. "Oh? What kind of tone shall I use then? The servile kind? The same kind your subordinates use with you?" Zhou Qin chuckled humorlessly. "I suppose you'd want that. Having people fawning over you, crawling at your feet, feeding your delusions of grandeur and sense of superiority. Isn't that what you live for, father?"
"What, don't tell me you want me to speak to you like a daughter does?"
"Of course I do. You're my—"
"You have no right!" Zhou Qin seethed. "No right!"
Zhou Keqiang stared at Zhou Qin, too stunned to say anything.
Zhou Qin took a deep breath. "You don't get to demand me to act like a daughter. Not when you yourself don't even treat me like one."
"What are you even talking about?"
"Did you come to my birthday party, father? Did you?" Zhou Qin sneered. "No you didn't. It was your only daughter's birthday party, yet you didn't even show."
"I came home that night!"
"Oh, yeah you did. How loving of you to clear a slot in your busy schedule to come home for your daughter's birthday, in the middle of the night when the party was long over." Zhou Qin snorted. "Tell me, Deputy Governor Zhou. How many meetings did you have to reschedule just to come here today, hmm? Five? Ten? You're a busy man after all."
Her father didn't answer, so Zhou Qin kept going. "And yet here you are. You cleared your busy schedule and came running here like a lapdog just because He Shao whined a little. You'd do that for He Shao, an outsider, but not your daughter?"
Tears stung Zhou Qin's eyes.
Zhou Qin turned away to face the window. Don't cry, damn it. Don't cry. You don't care about that man. You don't.
Silence permeated the car until Zhou Qin heard the flicking sound of a lighter. Zhou Qin tamped down the urge to tell Zhou Keqiang not to smoke, hating herself that she still cared.
"Get out if you want to smoke," Zhou Qin said. "Or maybe I'll just go."
Zhou Keqiang tossed the lighter away. "What has gotten into you these days, Qinqin? Why are you acting like this?"
Zhou Qin turned around. "Me? Oh, I assure you I'm not the problem. The problem lies with you! Your obsession with power has made you blind to everything else!"
"What is it that you want!"
You know what I want, father. You know. You've just chosen to ignore it. You've ignored it for years.
"I want my own life," Zhou Qin said coldly, "not the life of a puppet."
Silence fell in the car. Zhou Keqiang had a pensive look on his face. Seconds later, Zhou Keqiang laughed. "It's because of that Li Yundong, isn't it?"
Zhou Qin frowned. "This has nothing to do with him. Don't you dare drag him into this!"
Zhou Keqiang shook his head and sighed. "I thought you were smarter than this, Qinqin. A woman of your status should always seek to secure your position. Otherwise you'll be destroyed! You know that!"
Zhou Qin chuckled. "Really? Scare tactics? Is that the best you've got?" Zhou Qin glared at her father. "I'm going to say this one last time. I will not marry He Shao. I'd rather die than marry that brute."
Zhou Qin reached for the door.
"Aren't you forgetting something, young lady? You're a Zhou! You're my daughter! Everything you have came from me! Which means you have a duty to this family! To me!"
Zhou Qin stilled her hand and turned in her seat to regard her father coldly. "Is that a threat, Deputy Governor Zhou? That you'll take everything away from me if I stop playing the role as your little pawn?"
"Watch what you're saying..." Zhou Keqiang growled.
"Or else what? You're going to disown me?" Zhou Qin laughed derisively. "Go ahead then! Disown me! Take everything away! Believe or not, I can do without your name and all the luxury associated with it! At least I get to live a life of a human being, not a puppet!"
Zhou Qin reached for the door again.
"Wait..." Zhou Keqiang's voice made her stop. She didn't like that tone; it sounded too smug.
"I want you to listen to something before you go."
Zhou Qin lowered her hand from the door and then eyed Zhou Keqiang suspiciously. Seconds later, Zhou Keqiang tossed a phone at Zhou Qin.
Zhou Qin glanced at the screen and saw that there was an ongoing call to Secretary Liu's phone. The loudspeaker was turned on.
Seconds later, Secretary Liu's voice sounded from the speaker. "Are you Li Yundong?"
"Yes, I am. Can I help you?"
"I'm Deputy Governor Zhou's secretary. Can I speak to you in private? It won't take long."
Zhou Qin glared at Zhou Keqiang. "You're shameless!"
Zhou Keqiang sneered. "Shameless? Don't tell me you aren't the slightest bit curious regarding Li Yundong's true nature?" Zhou Keqiang smirked. "Hang up the phone if you don't want to know."
Zhou Qin stared at the phone in her hand. She didn't end the call.
Li Yundong stopped short the moment he exited the academic building. Someone was watching him. Li Yundong turned and saw a man wearing a pristine suit and a pair of gold wire glasses approaching him from his right. Moments later, the man stopped in front of Li Yundong, his leather briefcase brushing against Li Yundong's left knee. This was one of those men who came into the lecture hall with Zhou Qin's father earlier.
"Are you Li Yundong?" the man asked.
Li Yundong's eyes narrowed slightly. What does he want from me? Suddenly, Li Yundong had a bad feeling about this. "Yes, I am. Can I help you?"
"I'm Deputy Governor Zhou's secretary. Can I speak to you in private? It won't take long."
Had Zhou Qin gotten into trouble with her dad because she tried to clean up Li Yundong's mess? Or was this He Shao's doing? Only one way to find out.
"Sure," Li Yundong said, his eyes never leaving the secretary. Then, Li Yundong turned to Su Chan. "Wait here for me, okay? Don't run off on your own."
Su Chan nodded obediently.
Li Yundong turned to the secretary again. "After you, sir."
The secretary led Li Yundong to the gazebo beyond the copse of trees, which didn't surprise Li Yundong at all; it was the only place on campus without a lot of students wandering about. Li Yundong chose to stand at the edge of the gazebo's deck, leaning his hips against the baluster with his arms crossed in front of his chest. The secretary stood in the center of the deck, surveying the gazebo's architecture.
"Ah... Tiannan University do have nice facilities despite not being a popular university."
Li Yundong narrowed his eyes. Just get to the point already...
"So. I take it you're well-acquainted with Zhou Qin?"
Li Yundong nodded. "We're friends."
The secretary nodded a few times, then resumed his perusal of the gazebo. "Nice view out here, don't you think? Reminds me of my own campus life..."
"With all due respect, sir," Li Yundong said sharply. "I'd prefer it if you stop beating around the bush."
The secretary paused in his perusal and turned around. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. Young people these days... So impatient."
Li Yundong pushed himself away from the baluster. "One would think a respectable career man such as yourself would know the value of time, sir."
Li Yundong suppressed a smirk when he saw the look of surprise on the secretary's face. I bet not many people dare to speak to him this way, let alone a mere student.
The secretary cleared his throat. "Fine, then. I'll get right to the point." The secretary adjusted his glasses. "How much?"
What the hell? Li Yundong frowned. "Excuse me?"
The secretary opened his briefcase and pulled out a checkbook. "You heard me the first time. How much money for you to leave Zhou Qin?" He then took out a pen from his pocket and clicked it.
Li Yundong laughed. "Leave her? We were never together in the first place!"
Li Yundong stopped laughing and leveled a cold stare at the man. "I've already told you that we aren't together, sir. So keep your money."
The secretary smirked, then nodded a few times. "200 thousand then?"
"Enough!" Li Yundong snapped. "I have no mood for your games."
Li Yundong turned around and stormed away from the gazebo.
"Hey! Come back here, young man! Are you sure you're going to turn away free money like that?"
Li Yundong ignored his voice and kept walking.
"Fine, then. 1 million!!"
Inside the Audi A6, Zhou Qin stared at the phone, her hand trembling with trepidation. This was what her father was best at—using money to get whatever he wanted.
Zhou Qin glanced up from the phone and saw her father looking at her smugly.
"Soon you will see that this Li Yundong is just like any other man. A slave to wealth."
Zhou Qin gritted her teeth.
"You think he's special, don't you? Isn't that why you fancy him in the first place? Because you think he sees past your wealth and status?"
Her father reached over to pull the phone out of her hand. Zhou Qin let him.
"This is going to prove you wrong once and for all." Her father chuckled, then waved the phone in front of her face. "I'm going to prove to you that all men are the same. And if all men are the same, then you might as well be with someone with a strong social background."
"Fine, then. 1 million!"
Zhou Qin's breath caught in her throat. The ensuing silence seemed to stretch on forever.
"Ah... Now you're ready to talk, young man..."