“Let me go!”
He didn’t stop her from hitting him, but Vassi’s voice was unequivocal as he gave her his reply. “No.”
She beat him harder with her fists. “I hate you!”
Vassi didn’t answer.
He remained silent, his beautiful face expressionless, and it was this stillness that tore through her anger, destroying it like it was but a flimsy farce and revealing the hurtful truth underneath.
And that was…even though she had seen him with Shelby, had heard him with Shelby, it didn’t change a thing.
Her head lowered as her tired, battered heart exposed the undeniable truth.
She still loved him.
Over her head, she heard Vassi speak. “You’re coming home with me, solnishka moya.”
Bitterness crept into her heart, and she shook her head.
Her head shot up. “S-she is?”
“I told her I was leaving unexpectedly for work so it would be better if she spends Christmas with her family.”
Oh. Shelby was gone, but they hadn’t broken up.
Vassi’s eyes bored through her. “It was a lie, though.”
“I couldn’t exactly tell her the truth, could I?”
Seri paled. The truth? What did Vassi mean by the truth? Had he realized that—-
Before she could even think of whether or not she was ready to ask about the truth, Vassi had leaned forward and she found herself holding her breath at suddenly having his face right next to her.
He captured a lock of her hair. “And that’s the fact that my jealous little leech—-”
She started to protest.
“Turns out to be as crazy as her two oldest brothers,” he continued.
“Sergei and Misha are not—-”
“Because she turns out to have the biggest brother complex,” he finished in a mocking drawl.
So that was his truth.
He thought she had a brother complex the way Sergei and Misha had a sister complex over her. He still did not know that she was in love with him.
And…that was a good thing.
She heard herself say, “This means, you’re choosing me…over Shelby, right?”
Instead of answering, Vassi tugged on her hair, a silent demand for her to look up.
She didn’t want to, but when he tugged on her hair again, she couldn’t stop herself from following his order.
Vassi was her beloved stepbrother, after all, and all her life she had always…
She had always wanted to do the things that pleased him.
She had always wanted to be his favorite.
She had always…loved him.
So she looked up, and as their eyes met, Vassi said simply, “I will always choose you over all other women.”
Her heart started to soar-—
– only to crash at the reminder that while Vassi had promised to choose her over all the other girls, it was only because he still and would always see her…as his sister.
It was a few days before Christmas, and the boys in her family were leaving together for a shopping trip. The annual tradition had started the first Christmas following Marianna’s passing. Because all four had been desperate to make Seri smile, and they had all known her well enough to figure out what she would want most from Santa, Fyodor and the three Grachyov brothers had ended up buying her the exact same gift: a pendant that had an intricately and accurately engraved drawing of her mother.
Thankfully, the pendants came in various shapes, reflecting the boys’ varying interests. Fyodor’s was in the shape of a house; Sergei’s was a treasure chest, Misha’s a potion bottle, while Vassi’s was in the shape of a book.
Since then, though, the boys had agreed to shop together for her Christmas gift while at the same time placing Seri on temporary house arrest. To make sure you don’t guess what we’re giving you, Fyodor and the boys had explained.
The setup used to exasperate Seri to no end, but now she couldn’t be more thankful for it.
Since returning home, the most incredible idea had occurred to Seri, one she was equally terrified and excited to test. But before that happened, she needed to get rid of all the boys in the house first, and today gave her the perfect opportunity to be alone.
Seri walked them to the front door, saying cheerfully, “Have fun shopping, but please don’t overspend.” Lately, the boys had been too competitive, trying to outdo each other with who was able to get her the most expensive and creative Christmas gift.
Fyodor pressed a kiss on her forehead, but his voice was stern when he asked, “You will be here when we come back, won’t you?”
“Oh, Papa.” She hugged him quickly. “Sorry for making you worry.” She pulled away and pointed to Vassi. “I was just mad at him.”
Sergei and Misha turned to their youngest brother with grim expressions.
“What the—-how many times do I have to apologize for that?” Vassi demanded in exasperation. “I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry for bringing an outsider to spend Christmas with us. Happy now?”
Music to her ears, Seri thought, and she said sweetly, “I’ll hold you to that.”