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171 The 18th Birthday 1

 Gu Nianzhi stopped in her tracks. She turned, a radiant smile plastered on her face. "Yes, Professor He? Is there something else?"

He Zhichu was still seated on the sofa, his head propped upon a hand. He looked at her, quiet and still.

Gu Nianzhi did not say anything. She waited patiently for him to speak.

The enormous living room was quiet. The white curtains hung like frozen waterfalls from the massive French windows.

A grandfather's clock stood in one corner of the room. It appeared to be an antique, but the pendulum was still swinging. Every once in a while, a quiet clack sounded from it, which only served to emphasize the silent stillness of the room.

The maid and the housekeeper had vanished.

The two remaining occupants of the room regarded each other silently. They could have been separated by an entire continent.

He Zhichu pressed his lips together and looked away. He said nonchalantly: "I promised you I'd give you a present for your 18th birthday. You have three choices for your birthday celebration: the ballroom at the Capitol Building, the White House Rose Garden, or a cruise in Caribbean international waters. Think about it, and tell me what you've chosen tomorrow. There isn't much time, I have to start making the preparations."

Gu Nianzhi smiled. Her eyes flickered uncertainly. "You're too kind, Professor He. That promise was just a joke, don't take it seriously. It makes no sense for you to throw a birthday party for me. I'll just share a cake with family and friends, and blow out a candle. That's all I need, really."

Her 18th birthday was important to her, but what was more important was who she spent it with.

She did not even need a cake and candles if Huo Shaoheng could come over to America and celebrate her birthday with her. All she wanted was for him to stand before her and wish her "Happy Birthday"-that would be the perfect 18th birthday for her, her coming-of-age ceremony.

He Zhichu saw Gu Nianzhi's thoughts had drifted elsewhere. He clenched his fists; blue veins appeared on the backs of his hands, as striking on his fair skin as the cracked ice pattern on the finest porcelain.

"You can think of it as a joke, but I, for one, never go back on my word." He Zhichu stood up. "You don't have to decline my offer just to be polite. Don't think too much about it-I've always thrown birthday parties for all my students. If you don't believe me, ask around."

Gu Nianzhi snapped out of her reverie. She thought about it carefully.

She had once heard from a graduate student that the professors in grad school celebrated their students' birthdays, but most of the time the "celebrations" had consisted only of dinner at a restaurant and a karaoke session. She had never heard of a birthday party as extravagant as the ones He Zhichu had just proposed.

On the other hand, she had to keep in mind that He Zhichu was leagues above all the other professors.

"Whatever you choose, I'll need some time to make the necessary preparations. You should make a decision soon." He Zhichu turned and walked over to the spiral staircase, leaving Gu Nianzhi with a view of his slender, lonely back.

Gu Nianzhi bit her lip. She knew that she had angered He Zhichu.

She thought about it again, and concluded that with his immense wealth, the three choices he had presented her were probably just as ordinary as choosing between a movie, a restaurant dinner, or a karaoke session to him.

"...The cruise ship in Caribbean international waters-would that be a lot of trouble for you?" Gu Nianzhi asked sheepishly.

She had a very specific reason for choosing that.

If her birthday party was held in the Capitol Building or the White House Rose Garden, it was extremely unlikely that Huo Shaoheng would be able to attend.

Even if it was possible for him to overcome all difficulties and attend, Gu Nianzhi could not bear to expose him to danger.

She was aware that Huo Shaoheng's position in the military meant that he was wanted by a large number of hostile forces. The US CIA may have been watching him...

He Zhichu stopped in the middle of ascending the stairs. He stood with a hand on the railing, one of his long legs a step above the other. He said without turning around: "Okay. The Caribbean cruise ship it is, then."

His mood had improved.

He had secretly wished for Gu Nianzhi to pick the cruise ship over the other options.

A cruise ship sailing in international waters meant that he would be able to pull out all the stops with her birthday celebration.

Still, he did not turn to look at her. He continued up the stairs unhurriedly, leaving Gu Nianzhi standing all alone downstairs.

Gu Nianzhi sighed and turned to leave the mansion. She went to the garage, found the chauffeur, and asked him to send her home.

The chauffeur turned out to be a talkative fellow. He chattered nonstop, and told Gu Nianzhi many interesting stories about He Zhichu and his students.

It turned out that He Zhichu had been telling the truth: he celebrated the birthdays of all his graduate students every year, and the parties had all been lavish, extravagant affairs.

In the past three years, he had flown his students to Las Vegas for a day trip, booked the entire Universal Studios in Florida, and even led his students on a hunting expedition in Africa.

The three choices he had offered Gu Nianzhi sounded tame in comparison.

Gu Nianzhi breathed a sigh of relief. She chided herself for being ignorant.

He Zhichu lived in an entirely different world. She was just a girl from an ordinary family-she could not even begin to imagine what the wealthy elites did with their money.

Once she was back in her apartment, Gu Nianzhi told Zhao Liangze about the party for her 18th birthday. "...Professor He gave me three choices for the party venue: the Capitol Building, the White House, or a cruise in Caribbean international waters. I picked the Caribbean cruise-it'll make it easier for Uncle Huo to attend, right?"

Zhao Liangze laughed. "International waters would be a lot easier to get to, compared to the Capitol Building and the White House, yes. I'll tell them. Big Xiong will be attending too, by the way."

"Awesome!" Gu Nianzhi was overjoyed. Her eyes disappeared into crescents. Her thick, dark lashes fluttered on her fair, rosy cheeks, like two bewitching butterflies.

Zhao Liangze averted his gaze. "I'll let them know."


"Sir, Professor He will be celebrating Nianzhi's 18th birthday on a cruise ship, in Caribbean international waters." Zhao Liangze skipped the video call, and sent the message via text.

Huo Shaoheng saw the message. A small smile flickered across his lips, but it was gone in a blink of an eye.

"Big Xiong, your work just got easier." Huo Shaoheng called Yin Shixiong on his phone. "Nianzhi's 18th birthday party will be held in international waters."

Yin Shixiong was just as delighted to hear the news. "International waters? Hahahaha, fantastic, we won't have to worry about a thing once we're out there, hahaha..."


Mei Xiawen heard about Gu Nianzhi's birthday celebration one week before the party.

"...A cruise ship in Caribbean international waters? Seriously?" He stared at the digital invitation Gu Nianzhi had sent him, unable to believe his eyes. "That's a lot of money-who's being so generous to her?"

Jiang Honcha was leaning against his back, her arms around his neck. She saw the digital invitation on his computer screen, and was just as surprised. "Isn't that little girlfriend of yours supposed to be an orphan girl? Is her guardian rich enough to throw her a birthday party on a Caribbean cruise ship?"

"Her guardian's just some white-collar worker. Why would he have that much money?" Mei Xiawen shook his head distractedly. An unpleasant thought occurred to him, and his expression darkened.

Jiang Hongcha paused. The same thought had occurred to her. An odd smile spread across her face as she whispered in Mei Xiawen's ear: "See, it doesn't matter if a woman comes from a poor, unfortunate background-as long as she's pretty, and smart enough, no door will ever be locked to her. This is why you should never underestimate a woman."

"What are you implying?" Mei Xiawen pushed Jiang Hongcha away. "Nianzhi isn't like that."

He refused to believe that Gu Nianzhi had betrayed him, just like Jiang Hongcha.

"I didn't say that, did I?" Jiang Hongcha returned to the sofa, and sat with her slender legs crossed. She put her chin in a hand and said: "Still, a penniless orphan is suddenly rich enough to have her 18th birthday bash on a Caribbean cruise ship. She must have found a sugar daddy. What else could it be?"

Mei Xiawen did not reply. He walked to his room, got out his phone, and called Gu Nianzhi.

It was 7 in the morning for Gu Nianzhi.

She had just walked into the Committee of Appropriations office inside Capitol Building when she heard her phone ring. She saw it was from Mei Xiawen, and happily took the call. "Xiawen? Did you get my invitation?"

"Yeah, I did." Mei Xiawen suppressed his anger as he asked lightly: "Nianzhi, what made you think of celebrating your birthday on a Caribbean cruise ship?"

"It wasn't my idea," Gu Nianzhi replied cheerfully. "It was Professor He. He's throwing the party for me, and invited everyone to celebrate with me on a Caribbean cruise ship."

So it had been a present from Professor He.

Mei Xiawen let out a sigh of relief. Another thought occurred to him, however, and his heart immediately twisted into a knot again. "Professor He? W-Why... Why's he being so nice to you? Why would he splurge so much money on you?"

Gu Nianzhi did not like Mei Xiawen's tone. "What are you implying? If you have something to say, say it. Don't beat around the bush."

She walked into her office in a cloud of anger and shut the door behind her.

Mei Xiawen tugged at his hair in frustration. "Don't play dumb. You know what I mean. Tell me, why would a professor spend so much money just to celebrate your birthday? Do you think I'm too stupid to see what's going on?!"

"Mei Xiawen! How dare you insult me and Professor He!" Gu Nianzhi was absolutely furious. She had to restrain herself from throwing her phone at a wall. "Apologize, right now! Or I will never speak to you again!"

It was an explosive reaction from Gu Nianzhi. There was even a hint of a sob in her voice.

"...Is there really nothing else behind this?" Mei Xiawen was nervous. "Nianzhi, you know that I love you. I've been waiting for you. You promised to be my girlfriend after six months-you can't go back on your word!"

Gu Nianzhi was livid, but Mei Xiawen sounded so nervous and worried she found herself unable to continue arguing with him. Besides, his concerns were not entirely unreasonable.

After all, Gu Nianzhi had also been careful to keep her distance from He Zhichu, and had only relaxed her guard when she learned that He Zhichu had always been generous with his students.

"Xiawen, Professor He isn't like us, he's in an entire class of his own. He always throws expensive birthday parties for his students. My party isn't even particularly impressive." Gu Nianzhi suppressed the anger welling within her as she patiently explained to Mei Xiawen: "He's flown his students to Las Vegas for a day trip, booked the entire Universal Studios theme park in Florida for a private party, and even led his students on a hunting trip to Africa-Professor He paid for all that."

"What?!" Mei Xiawen realized he had jumped to conclusions, and was now dying of embarrassment. He had been, as the idiom went, a frog in a well-a total ignoramus, laughably limited in his knowledge and perspective of what went on beyond his tiny bubble. Mei Xiawen had come from a wealthy, distinguished family, and was the heir to his family fortune, but Professor He was evidently a lot wealthier than he was.

"Nianzhi, I was wrong. I should have clarified with you before jumping to conclusions," Mei Xiawen apologized sincerely. "You're so lucky to have Professor He as your teacher. I don't think any of the other professors in our country actually spends that kind of money on their graduate students."

Gu Nianzhi admired this side of Mei Xiawen: he always apologized as soon as he knew he was wrong, and never prolonged an argument unnecessarily out of spite. Besides, they were currently living on different continents, and were still getting to know each other: it was all the more important to explain themselves as soon as there was a misunderstanding.

She had not agreed to be Mei Xiawen's girlfriend, not yet, but Mei Xiawen was already frantic with concern about her-was this his way of expressing his love for her?

"All right, I shouldn't have lost my temper just now." Gu Nianzhi decided to let it go. "So are you coming or not?"

"Of course I'm going! I'll be there, count on it!" Mei Xiawen rubbed his palms together. It would be a good opportunity for him to ingratiate himself with Professor He-if Professor He knew Gu Nianzhi was his girlfriend, perhaps he would be just as kind and generous with him?

As soon as he hung up, Mei Xiawen opened the door and saw Jiang Hongcha rising from the chair before his computer.

"What are you doing?" Mei Xiawen did not like other people messing with his computer.

"I was playing Minesweeper." Jiang Hongcha shrugged. "So how did it go? Did she tell you what's going on?"

"Yeah. The birthday party is a present from her professor." Mei Xiawen tossed his phone onto the computer desk. "You were being paranoid."

"Her professor?" Jiang Hongcha rolled her eyes. "Xiawen, when I was studying at Juilliard, I heard that one of my classmates slept with her professor, in exchange for good grades and a scholarship..."

"Professor He isn't like that." Mei Xiawen was confident in his understanding, this time. "For someone as wealthy as him, throwing a birthday party on a cruise ship is as normal and mundane as you going for a manicure. Is getting a manicure too expensive for you? It's the same thing, duh."

Jiang Hongcha had known Mei Xiawen for many years, but she had never received a retort from him as savage and scathing as this one.

She pulled a tight lid over her resentment, and let his remark go. She stayed with Mei Xiawen, as though nothing had happened.

Mei Xiawen had planned everything carefully, but he could not have foreseen what happened next: the next morning, just as he was about to go to the airport to catch his plane, Jiang Hongcha, who had slept with him the night before, suddenly complained of stomach pain. She was in so much pain she thrashed about on the bed...

"Hongcha? Hongcha? What's wrong?!" Mei Xiawen frantically got out his phone and called for an ambulance.

Half an hour later, Jiang Hongcha was wheeled into the operating room. It was an emergency.

Mei Xiawen sat outside the operating room, all alone. He did not dare tell anyone what had happened-the doctor had informed him that Jiang Hongcha had suffered a miscarriage...

He watched the plane he was supposed to board take off without him.

Two hours later, Jiang Hongcha was wheeled out of the operating room.

The gynaecologist looked at Mei Xiawen reproachfully as she berated him in her loud, carrying voice: "You should have had more self-control, young man, since your girlfriend was pregnant. Well, the child's gone now-what do you have to say for yourself?"

Mei Xiawen was at a loss for words.

He stayed quietly by Jiang Hongcha's bed, until she finally came to in the afternoon.

"Xiawen?" Jiang Hongcha looked at him apologetically. "I made you miss your plane. You should buy a ticket for the next flight, you can still make it to the party."

Mei Xiawen shook his head. "That won't be necessary. I'll celebrate her birthday with her next year, when she's back in the country. I'm staying with you for the next few days."

She was going to need rest and care: a miscarriage was just as taxing on the female body as actual child-birth.


A short moment later, Gu Nianzhi received a text message from Mei Xiawen saying that he had something to attend to for the next few days and could not make it to her party.

Gu Nianzhi looked at her phone; she did not feel particularly disappointed. She thought for a moment before sending a polite and understanding reply to Mei Xiawen.

Mei Xiawen was not the only one who could not attend the party; He Zhichu, too, had left Washington.

Wen Shouyi had told Gu Nianzhi that Professor He had hurried back to his hometown because of an urgent matter with his family, and may not be able to attend her birthday party. However, there was nothing to worry about: he had entrusted the preparations for the party to Wen Shouyi.

Gu Nianzhi listened to Wen Shouyi skeptically, but was forced to concede she was probably telling the truth when He Zhichu still had not returned to Washington on the night before her birthday.

Gu Nianzhi sat in her bedroom hugging her panda pillow. She propped her head with a hand as she thought about the situation: it was becoming increasingly likely that only Uncle Huo, Yin Shixiong, and Zhao Liangze would be celebrating her birthday with her, just as it had been in the previous years.

Zhao Liangze knocked on her door. He said, smiling, "Don't stay up. We'll be going to the airport first thing in the morning."