His gaze raked her from head to toe.

“But when you start losing weight, that’s fucking foul.” His tone became savage. “So you win, Seri. Whatever it is I’ve done, I’m sorry. Now will you please fucking forgive me and put us both out of our misery?”

But Seri could only look at him, her lips trembling hard at the effort it took not to cry.

If only…

Mother of Russia, if only it was that easy.

“Dammit, leech.” Impatience and frustration underlined Vassi’s tone. “Just come here and do what you need.”

Do…what…she…need?

When she still didn’t move, Vassi cursed under his breath. “Seri.” He looked at her. And then he opened his arms, muttering, “I’ll even spoil you like those two idiots if that’s what you want so just—-”

She threw herself in her brother’s embrace.

Vassi’s arms closed around her like steel bands, and the worst thing about it was that they were chains that she didn’t ever want to be free of.

“I’m sorry,” Vassi muttered harshly against her hair. “Whatever I did or say, I’m sorry, okay?”

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer.

Because the truth was, she was the one who had to say sorry.

And she was.

She was sorry that she had come to realize that she was in love with her stepbrother.

Chapter Three

Three years ago

It was another school day, but her sophomore year had turned out to be vastly different from the last, for many reasons.

Firstly, Sergei and Misha were no longer able to be with her everyday in school. Fyodor had laid down the law last summer, forcing Misha to accept his high school diploma and attend university while Sergei had been coerced into having his internship with Fyodor’s own business.

And so it would be just Vassi and her starting today, Seri thought nervously, which was not good at all.

“I read an article about the importance of learning outside school,” Misha remarked casually over breakfast. “Do you agree with that, little dove?”

In the act of taking another spoonful of her cereal, Seri lowered her spoon and answered readily, “Yup.”

“Thought so.” Misha nodded in satisfaction. “Which is why I think you should skip school for today and accompany me to university—-”

“Stop being selfish, Misha,” Sergei snapped.

Misha rolled his eyes, retorting, “And I suppose last night’s suggestion to Seri about a home study program and volunteering to be her tutor is an act of selflessness on your part?”

Color flushed the high-boned cheeks of the oldest Grachyov brother.

“The two of you spoil her too much,” Vassi drawled from the doorway.

Seri sat up straight at the unexpected sight.

When had he come home? Wasn’t he supposed to be still filming some kind of action blockbuster in Peru?

Vassi claimed his seat beside her, and when she didn’t look at him, he peeked at her face. “No welcome hug, leech?”

Right.

Hug.

He wanted a hug.

She said feebly, “My, umm, arms are injured?”

Misha frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Let me see—-”

Afraid that her other brother would realize she was lying, she said quickly, “But I think it’s starting to feel better now. I was probably just, umm, tired from playing tennis yesterday.”

“But you don’t have tennis in school,” Sergei pointed out, bemused.

“In my room,” she clarified. “Using Wii.” And to prevent more questions, she got up from her seat and hugged Vassi.

He kissed her cheek.

She wished she could close her eyes and savor the feel of his lips on her skin.

She wished, but she knew she couldn’t and so Seri forced herself to pull away and return to her seat.

Vassi turned to his brothers. “Getting back to the way you have been ruining our sister with excessive doting—-”

“Easy for you to say,” Fyodor remarked mildly. “You’re the only one among your brothers to still have a valid reason to be with our kroshka everyday.” He grimaced right after, as if suddenly realizing that he was also part of the unlucky equation.

Seri couldn’t help smiling. “Papa.”

“Say, Seri, I need to fly out to Argentina later tonight. What if I talk to your teachers and—-”

“Papa.” This time, it was the three Grachyov brothers who spoke sternly.

Fyodor sighed. “I will miss you, kroshka.”

“I’ll miss you, too, Papa.”

Vassi shook his head. “That’s all very sweet, but we must not let ourselves be diverted.” He pulled out his phone, and his gaze focused on Seri as he drawled, “Guess what Professor Alexeyev emailed me.”

Derr’ mo.

She coughed. “I can, umm, explain—-”

“Explain then. Explain how you managed to fail a quiz that the professor had given the class a week to review for. A week that also happened to coincide with the workshop recently held by Hikaru Utada.” He raised a brow.

Seri opened her mouth to explain but closed it when she realized Vassi would easily see through her. Another idea came to Seri, and she opened her mouth again, but a moment later she ditched the excuse, knowing that Vassi would also see it for the lie it was.


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