“Mu Er.” Her colleague Xiao Zhang talked to her secretively. “Do you need money?”
Ning Ning’s poverty is a semi-public secret, she admitted honestly as she washed the dishes. “I always need money.”
Xiao Zhang looked at their surroundings then continued to talk to Ning Ning in a secretive manner, “I have an opportunity for you to make big bucks.”
Ning Ning, “Is it illegal?”
Xiao Zhang, “Of course not.”
“Why are you making it sound like some underground dealing if it’s not illegal? Just spit it out.” Ning Ning said.
“It’s like this…” It seemed that it was something that was very difficult to say, Xiao Zhang hesitated for a moment before telling her, “There is a big boss whose family is pressuring him to get married, but he does not want to get married at the moment, so he wants to hire a girl to act as his girlfriend temporarily…”
Eh, isn’t this renting a girlfriend for the new year? Who would have thought that these things would exist in this time period, that is pretty trendy.
“This is an opportunity to make big money, but this doesn’t seem to concern me.” Ning Ning thought about it and said, “He can’t bring two girlfriends home for the new year.”
“It’s not certain that he would pick me, what if he picks you?” Xiao Zhang tugged at Ning Ning while she whined, “The one who gets picked has to buy dinner for the other.”
Ning Ning, “You could do away with the dinner, you could just give me the money that you would have used for the dinner instead.”
Xiao Zhang, “…Oh.”
The two of them went to an office building after work.
This boss made the entire process (seemed) like hiring an employee, he even had closed door interviews. Ning Ning sat on the stool outside the room and quietly waited after Xiao Zhang entered. She felt that something was off, but she could not specifically point out what it was.
There were sounds of footstep approaching her, a man had walked over and sat beside her.
“Have I seen you somewhere before?” Pei Xuan smiled as he looked at her.
Ning Ning took a glance at him before lowering her head again.
“I remember now, we met at the hospital.” Pei Xuan stated suddenly. “Is your mother doing well?”
Ning Ning shook her head gently.
“I have a patient at home too.” Pei Xuan sighed again. “They had a traffic accident and became a vegetable at a young age, what about you?”
“…My mom too.” Ning Ning answered softly, “A cupboard fell on her head and she became a vegetable.”
“It must cost an arm and a leg to treat her.” Pei Xuan stared at her hands, “What do you do?”
“…I work at a hotel.” Ning Ning curled her fingers up. The weather was getting colder, the dirty dishes were piling up, causing her to have cuts and frostbites on her hands.
“You look young, you’re still in high school right?” Pei Xuan said with pity, “It must be difficult to be working at your age, do you not have reliable friends or relatives?”
“…No.” Ning Ning answered with extreme vigilance. Although Pei Xuan seemed to be casually conversing with her, he was actually trying to dig out some information from her.
Every move this person made and every word this person said had a motive attached to them. She did not believe that he would waste time on a random passerby. What was going on? What did he want from her?
At this time, the door flung open, Xiao Zhang walked out with a face full of delight. She ran over and pulled Ning Ning’s hand, “Let’s go, I’ll treat you to dinner.”
“You passed the interview?” Ning Ning looked up and asked.
“Yup.” A man’s voice rang out from behind Xiao Zhang.“Don’t hurry off to dinner first, follow me to the bank on the other side of the street, I will give you a down payment.”
Ning Ning’s vision shifted onto the other person’s face.
He was a big muscular man with a crew cut. He wore a gold chain on his neck and a gold watch on his wrist, looking like a nouveau riche.
Ning Ning’s eyelids twitched, she had seen this person before.
It was at the hospital. When the elevator door opened, there were a few men standing behind an empty wheelchair, one of them was Pei Xuan, another was this man.
The crew-cut man led a few people to the bank across the street. He withdrew two hundred and eighty eight dollars for Xiao Zhang. Just as Xiao Zhang was happily counting the money, Pei Xuan crept up beside Ning Ning’s ear and said, “How about…I hire you?”
“Hmm?” Ning Ning turned and looked at him.
“I need a person too.” Pei Xuan smiled at Ning Ning with his eyes closed. “Help me act as someone.”
“…Girlfriend?” Ning Ning asked on the surface, she had already prepared ten odd reasons to reject him. What a joke! A person like him does not need a girlfriend, all he needed was a bait for tickets!
He actually shook his head unexpectedly and said, “No.”
“What is it?” Ning Ning asked.
Just as Pei Xuan was about to say something, Xiao Zhang ran over and shouted excitedly, “Ning Ning, I have the money! Go go go, I will treat you to a good meal!”
Ning Ning was pulled away by Xiao Zhang. She turned back repeatedly as she walked away, thinking that Pei Xuan would go after her, but he did not. He stood his ground with a smile on his face, not saying a word until Ning Ning and Xiao Zhang’s figure disappeared behind the door. The crew-cut man walked to his side and asked doubtfully, “Can’t we just directly give her the money? Why did we hire her colleague?”
“How would you feel if someone who is inferior to you in every way were to suddenly get rich?” Pei Xuan answered him with a smile, “Would you feel perturbed?”
A few days later, the news of Xiao Zhang’s unexpected windfall spread in the hotel.
Ning Ning was not the one who spread the news, Xiao Zhang was the one who could not help but brag about it.
After all, not many people liked to keep their good fortunes to themselves, Xiao Zhang was also someone who was not subtle. She told almost everyone, “I expected it to be difficult, but in the end, I just had to accompany the boss and talk to his mother for two hours. Just two hours, I was paid eight hundred dollars. His mother even gave me a bracelet, isn’t it pretty? I wanted to return it, but the boss waved his hand and said there was no need, hehe…”
“The boss is really blind.” There were people who envied Xiao Zhang, were jealous of her and hated her. They told Ning Ning privately, “I heard that you went with her for the interview, why didn’t the boss pick you? You are way prettier than her.”
“Maybe the boss likes her type.” Ning Ning answered with a smile.
“Really? She’s uncouth and loudmouthed like a country bumpkin, the boss prefers her type?” The fat female cook scanned her surroundings before lowering her voice and said to Ning Ning, “You see the way I am now? I was the prettiest girl in my village twenty years ago, can you introduce the boss to me? If he was willing to pick Xiao Zhang, maybe he would pick me.”
Money moved human heart. The most important thing was that this money came easily, it seemed like all you had to do was to put in a little time and effort to be able to get a huge reward. Thus, beside the fat female cook, there were a few other female colleagues who approached Ning Ning and alluded to wanting her to introduce them to the boss and getting to know him.
When it came down to it, they were all just perturbed.
Ning Ning saw through that and had a trace of doubt, “Is all this…a show for me?”
If she was the real Mu Er—who dropped out of high school without any experience, who was also hailed the prettiest girl in class last month—a month later she was washing dishes at a hotel till her skin tore, perhaps she would really be envious, jealous and hate Xiao Zhang like the people around her and become perturbed.
Then, perhaps she would want to go back and try her luck with the other party.
But the other party was Pei Xuan.
Thus, Ning Ning only wanted to pretend to not know what was going on.
But this world did not give her a chance to pretend she didn’t know anything.
The next day was a Friday, she went to school to attend the parent-teacher meeting. After the meeting, the homeroom teacher requested her to stay to have a private conversation.
“What?” Ning Ning said with surprise, “Mu Gua has not been coming to school recently? He… he leaves home at six in the morning everyday.”
“But he has not been coming to school.” The homeroom teacher said worryingly, “Did he make any friends on the outside recently? You should watch over him carefully, don’t let him walk down the wrong path. This child has really good results. If he were to continue to study properly, he would definitely be able to get admitted to Tsinghua University.”
“…I will talk to him.” Ning Ning said in a low voice.
Next was a family trial which was at daggers drawn.
“Tell me!” Ning Ning blocked the door angrily, not letting Mu Gua who was outside the door enter. “Where have you been going to recently?”
It was dark outside of the door as it was already eight at night, the little fatty…you could not call him a little fatty anymore. Mu Gua who had turned into a slightly overweight person without anyone’s notice was standing at the door. He casually pushed Ning Ning aside and forced himself through the door. He sat in front of the makeshift dinner table made of newspaper, picking up the unfinished bowl of rice Ning Ning had left on it then devoured it ferociously.
“Tell me!” Ning Ning walked over with huge strides.
Mu Gua ignored her as he ate with his back to her.
“…Did you look for a job behind my back?” Ning Ning frowned.
Mu Gua continued devouring the rice.
“Who said you can work?” Ning Ning’s voice increased in pitch, “What are you working as?”
Mu Gua dropped the bowl and chopsticks on the newspaper with a clang, turning around and shouting at her, “You said one of us has to give up on our dreams, why can’t that person be me?!”
What he said had extinguished her wrathful heart. Ning Ning stared at him in shock.
He opened his school bag, took out a bottle of hand lotion then shoved it at her. He looked down at the back of hands that were frozen and torn, saying in a muffled voice, “An actress’s hands should not look like this, you have to take care of yourself.”
Upon finishing the sentence, he turned back and continued eating. Once done, he quickly ran into the kitchen to wash the dishes, then frantically washed his face and feet before crawling into his blanket and said, “I’m going ahead to sleep, I have to go to work tomorrow…I, I will earn a lot of money so that your hands won’t get damaged due to frostbites.”
He seemed to be really exhausted, he started snoring not long after he lied down.
Ning Ning held the hand lotion as she stood by the bed, staring at Mu Gua for a very long time.
The next afternoon, Ning Ning was working at the hotel.
She brought a plate of squirrel fish1 into a private room, a familiar voice rang out beside her as she placed the plate on the table.
“Miss Mu, we meet again.”
Ning Ning turned around and looked at Pei Xuan’s smiling face, she asked even though she knew the answer, “What is it?”
“Regarding my suggestion last time,” Pei Xuan looked at her. “have you thought about it?”
Ning Ning looked at him and coldly said, “How much is the salary?”
“…Take a seat.” He was the only person in the private room. Pei Xuan smiled as he stood up and pulled a chair for her. He said in a gentlemanly manner, “I ordered this table of dishes for you, we can talk after we finish eating.”
After dinner, a driver drove them to a little villa.
Ning Ning felt some trauma as she looked at the villa in front of her. It was a western-styled white villa with a red roof. He seemed to like designs like that. His matrimonial home with Yan Qing looked the same as this one. What about the inside? Would it be filled with photo frames of a certain woman? Would each photo frame be hiding a peephole?
If not for the fact that she had informed her boss and colleagues of where she was going beforehand, telling them to call the police if she did not go home the next day, Ning Ning would not have dared to follow Pei Xuan alone.
The door opened and a maid greeted them.
The interior was extremely similar to the villa he had designed for Yan Qing, but fortunately, there were no photo frames on the walls this time.
Pei Xan told the maid to bring Ning Ning back to change her clothes. A white shirt and a big red skirt. hair tied behind her back with a red butterfly knot—she looked simple and generous, transformed from a village beauty to a rich young lady.
Pei Xuan handed her a contract after she sat down on the sofa. “Look at this.”
Ning Ning picked it up and took a look. It was an official acting contract, the working hours were from seven in the morning to seven at night. Just like Pei Xuan had promised, the salary was very lucrative, it was twenty times of what she was making now.
On the other hand, there were a lot of terms and conditions.
“Once I take this job, I cannot back out halfway?” Ning Ning looked at Pei Xuan, “I cannot tell anyone what I’m doing?”
“Of course.” Pei Xuan smiled, “Your colleagues are blabbermouths, I cannot guarantee that you are not one. I’m not like my colleague, I do not want a personal matter to be known to everyone.”
Ning Ning assented and continued to read the contract.
“I have to follow your instructions and take part in your training until you are satisfied.” Ning Ning looked at him, “What if the results are not satisfactory?”
“Read the next line.” Pei Xan said with a smile, “If I am not satisfied, I will fire you, but you will be paid for the time you have worked, I will account and pay you all the days you stay for.”
Ning Ning continued to read, there was indeed a term like that.
She suspected that it was a fraudulent contract, so she seriously and repeatedly read the contract a few times, but Pei Xuan didn’t seem to have placed any trap in this contract. Ning Ning did not know whether to be happy or sad about it, because there were two possibilities—One, he had yet set his trap up. Two, he had already set up the trap but she had not noticed it.
“How is it?” Pei Xuan asked, “Do you have any other doubts?”
“…Last question.” Ning Ning looked at him. “What role am I playing? It is not stated in the contract.”
“Patience.” Pei Xuan leaned back on the sofa, his fingers holding a stick of cigar as he leisurely said, “Originally, I had a very good actress, but she had met with an accident halfway through, that is why I am recruiting you as a substitute. But even as a substitute ,my expectations of you will still be very high…Oh, you changed your hand lotion? That brand is not bad.”
Ning Ning curled her fingers which were on her knees.
The back of her hand was lathered in an imported rose-scented hand lotion.
Those types of hand lotion were very expensive, it was not something that a kid like Mu Gua should be able to afford, what exactly was he working as? What kind of job would allow him to earn so much money immediately? Who was turning everyone around her into baits, tempting her to bite on the hook?
The doorbell suddenly rang.
“Oh, someone’s here.” Pei Xuan turned around, then turned back and smiled at her, “From now on, you have to portray your role well—the mistress.”
As he finished speaking, he put down the cigar and walked behind Ning Ning, standing respectfully like a butler.
The door opened. The maid led someone over, that person was wearing a school uniform–he had no other clothes he could wear, because his other clothes were all burnt in the fire. Although he looked a little fat, it was not very obvious. He had outstanding facial features but they were a little flat, he could be labelled as a pretty boy, but he was more of a hale and hearty pretty boy. He had a weird demeanor, he was naive and impulsive like a teenager, but also had the sense of heavy responsibility of an adult.
He looked around as he walked over—that was typical of a teenager, they would usually be curious about a new place or new things—but he was shocked once he saw Ning Ning, his eyes fixed on her.
“…Sis?” He shouted.
Ning Ning looked at him.
Mu Gua, you really are here.
1Squirrel fish is a well-known dish in Jiangsu cuisine, originally from Suzhou. It is prepared by deboning and carving a mandarin fish into an ornamental shape similar to a squirrel, and then deep-frying it in batter before dousing it in sweet and sour sauce. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squirrel_fish