Seated within the taxi's confines, Magnolia Sterling gazed out the window at the receding architecture with her heart bearing the weight of suppressed emotions.
Her phone's ringtone interrupted her, pulling her attention back from the world outside.
"Magnolia, have you made it to the civil affairs bureau? Oh, man! The Ashenbrook family members are already here!" an anxious voice echoed through the phone.
Magnolia's gaze lost some of its brightness as she replied with a slight rigidity in her tone, "I'm on my way. I'll be there shortly."
"You better hurry up, we can't keep them waiting for too long."
"I know," she replied in a composed manner.
There was a pause on the line before the voice continued, "Magnolia, forgive me for arranging your marriage so early. If your sister were still with us..."
"Dad!" Magnolia softly called out, her brow furrowing. "Rest assured, I am capable of achieving all that my sister could have.."
When the call ended, Magnolia felt a searing pain in her heart. It was as if her soul was crushed.
Before the Sterling family's downfall, the Ashenbrook family had been close family friends to them. Magnolia had always known that her sister, Yvette Sterling, harboured affection for Cedric Ashenbrook, the younger son of the Ashenbrook family. Had her sister not passed away two years ago, she would have been the one entering into this marital alliance.
As she thought about her sister, her eyes filled with sorrow. "Yvette, I'm sorry," she whispered. Her ruby lips moved in silent tribute.
The taxi made its swift arrival at the civil affairs bureau, and after settling the fare, Magnolia alighted from the taxi.
She turned, casting her gaze upward. There, perched upon the steps, she spied a man exuding an aura of aristocracy.
This man stood tall and commanding, bathed in the golden rays of the afternoon sun. His gaze upon her was like a king looking down on his people. It had an unassailable air of authority.
In his countenance sharply chiselled, there rested a pair of dark, intense eyes. They were sharp and untouched by sentiment. His lips, somewhat aloof and devoid of warmth, were firmly pressed. At that moment, he exuded an air of icy pride and independence that pervaded their entire presence.
When Magnolia saw him, she felt as though her very breath had been trapped by an invisible force constricting her throat.
Yet, she was certain that she had never before encountered this man.
Magnolia averted her gaze and conducted a cursory survey of her surroundings, finding another individual beside the imposing figure. It was unmistakably evident that this man was not Cedric.
Her father had explicitly stated that the Ashenbrook family had arrived at the venue in advance. So, where on earth could Cedric be?
She glanced around and noticed the companion of the man hastening toward her. "Are you Miss Sterling?"
Magnolia paused momentarily before nodding her head.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Sterling. I am Hastor Moonvale, the executive assistant to Mr. Ashenbrook." Hastor articulated with utmost reverence.
A modest smile graced Magnolia's countenance. Hastor? Why not Pastor? They rhymed, after all! Wait! Did he just mention Mr. Ashenbrook?
She lifted her gaze to the man who yet basked in the sunlight's embrace and inquired, "And he is?"
"He is none other than Sigmund Ashenbrook, the CEO of Ashenbrook Corporation," Hastor intoned.
What? Sigmund Ashenbrook?
In an instant, realization dawned upon her. Sigmund, the elder brother of Cedric, had grown up in Vespera since his youth. Despite the erstwhile closeness between the Sterling and Ashenbrook families, their paths had never converged before.
Magnolia nodded and strode forward. However, with each step, a fiery blush blossomed across her cheeks as if a fire was burning through her. She couldn't fathom why Sigmund stared at her with such unwavering intensity.
It wasn't until she stood before him, locking eyes in a silent exchange, that she began to feel the first stirrings of self-consciousness.
She lowered her head shyly and delicately uttered, "Hi, you must be Cedric's elder brother!"
Sigmund's dark eyes immediately narrowed, and his pronounced brows furrowed. "What did you just call me?" His voice, redolent of a cello's haunting melody, stirred the depths of her soul.