Fyodor joined them last, and he, too, appeared startled when he saw that the only vacant seat left was next to Vassi, which was usually Seri’s place. A possible reason behind the odd arrangement occurred to him, and as the limousine started to move, Fyodor demanded of his youngest son, “Have you two fought again?”

Vassi scowled and she answered quickly, “No, Papa.” She deliberately squashed the guilt of accidentally putting Vassi in the hot seat, telling herself that the end justified the means. And right now, the most imperative thing was to not accidentally spill the beans about her current strategy at work.

Seeing Fyodor’s frown, she added, “I just miss Sergei and Misha.”

Vassi’s scowl became blacker. “You miss them but not me?”

Sergei and Misha grinned.

Fyodor reached forward to pat Seri’s hand. “I’m glad to hear that. I was worried for a moment, thinking that Vassi’s done something wrong again.” Vassi sputtered in protest, but Fyodor acted like he didn’t hear a thing, continuing, “You must tell me if Vassi’s done something, da? I do not want you leaving home again.”

Seri’s conscience was stinging painfully. “I promise, Papa. And I’m really not mad at Vassi.” She just didn’t want him to know the truth, Seri thought. And the truth was—-

Her cheeks heated up.

Derr’ mo.

Her hands flew to her face, but it was too late.

Vassi growled, “Your cheeks are flushed again.”

When Seri suddenly found herself the object of everyone’s gazes, she stammered, “I’m…umm…”

Misha felt her forehead. “She doesn’t have a temperature.”

“Is it PMS?” Sergei asked in concern.

The color in her cheeks deepened. “Sergei!”

“Do you have a stomach bug?” Fyodor asked worriedly.

“No, it’s none of those.” Mother of Russia, save me, and stop my cheeks from blushing. Clearing her throat, she croaked out, “I’ve just been, umm, practicing my vocal chords. I’m trying to reach a really high note, so you know how it is, when you, umm, overexert yourself.”

“What do you need high notes for?” Vassi asked skeptically. “I haven’t heard any openings for animated musicals.”

Argh. Why did Vassi know so much about her industry anyway? “I…umm…” Seri noticed the limousine slowing down, and realizing that they were near their destination, she exclaimed, “Oh, look, we’re here.”

Everyone was properly distracted, and Seri quietly breathed a sigh of relief. She was safe…for now.

The town’s prettiest hotel was ablaze with lights, its façade decked with festive Christmas décor. A red carpet had been rolled out to welcome invited guests for the charity ball, and judging by the number of guests and the paparazzi surrounding them, this year’s turnout seemed to have more star power than its predecessor.

Fyodor squeezed Seri’s hand. “You sure you’re up for tonight, baby?”

She quickly pasted a smile on her lips. “I’m looking forward to the party, Papa.” And normally that wouldn’t be a lie.

Formal parties were her favorite because it allowed her to see the boys all dressed up. But this event was Seri’s sole exception, mainly because it was also that one time of the year when Seri and the boys were guaranteed to meet Fyodor’s ex-wife.

Which wasn’t so bad, Seri thought, if only Tanya would at least bother to hide the fact that she hated Seri’s guts.

Chapter Nine

The arrival of Seri and the boys were greeted with much fanfare, with reporters clamoring to have their questions heard while photographers jostled against each other for the chance to get the best possible shot of California’s most famous family. And to locals, the Russians and their beloved princess were like gods, with everyone well aware that it was all thanks to the Grachyov billions that their town had been steadily on the rise while neighboring areas had struggled to survive.

Everyone in the party was happy to see them – or at least everyone except for Tanya Darby, a beautiful dark-haired socialite in her early forties. She was also Fyodor’s former wife and mother to his three sons.

Tanya took a long sip of her wine, burning with envy and resentment as she stared at them over the rim of her glass. She should be there with them, dammit. She had every damn right to bask in the spotlight because if not for her, would Fyodor be blessed with three sons? But because of one stupid mistake—-

She emptied her glass in one last gulp and angrily waved for the waiter to supply her with another.

Beside her, Mason asked anxiously, “What’s wrong?”

She quickly summoned a smile, saying, “Nothing, darling.” Even though Mason was ten years younger as well as being attractive and head over heels for her, he was also the most boring man she had ever fucked. If not for him being the sole heir to the Henry fortune, Tanya wouldn’t have even given him the time of day.

In front of them, security finally managed to clear the red carpet for the Grachyovs, and Tanya saw her chance to enjoy her own fifteen minutes of fame. “Could you excuse me, darling? I just want to say hi to my sons.”

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