“T-thank you.”

He nodded. “You should go to sleep soon.”

“I will.”

“Good night.”

“N-night.” But when Max was about to walk past her, she found herself clutching the hem of his shirt.

He stilled.

Staring fixedly at the fabric twisted between her fingers, she heard herself whisper brokenly, “Why?”

She remembered the first night she had come knocking on his door, not knowing at all if he would choose to help her.

But he had.

He had let her in, no questions asked, and the memory made her eyes start to burn. “Why are you so good to me?” When he didn’t answer, she said haltingly, “B-besides Davey, you’re the only one who knows everything. How I lied, why I lied, what I’m lying for. Y-you know the kind of person I am, so why…why are you still helping me?”

“You’re not a bad person, Seri.”

“But I’m not a good person either.” She smiled bitterly. “If I had just been less selfish, none of this would have happened.” She shook her head, whispering, “And I’m being selfish again, aren’t I? I shouldn’t even be here.” For all she knew, her being here might have even caused problems between Max and Misha. He had told her it hadn’t, but she knew Max well enough now to know that he could only be lying for her sake.

Looking up at him, she asked guiltily, “I’m just complicating your life, aren’t I?”

“Seri, it was my choice to help you, and I’m glad I did.”

“I don’t even understand why—-”

“Enough.” Max gently pried her fingers from his shirt, and she let him. She felt him move, and a moment later, his lips were brushing against her forehead in a feather-soft kiss. “The reasons don’t matter, Seri.” His voice was so very gentle. “But for both our sakes – please…please stop asking questions neither of us is ready to hear the answers to.”

Ah.

He straightened, and their gazes met. A crooked smile touched his lips. “Deal?”

She used all her strength to smile back at him. “D-deal.” As she watched him turn away, her tears started to fall, quickly, endlessly, like they had only needed to break past her defenses once—-

And then there was no stopping it.

****

Mealtimes were no longer the affairs they used to be in Vassi’s home. The sound of gaiety and banter had long disappeared, and none of them lingered around for coffee. Even the table had been replaced with a smaller one, with just room for four.

Vassi, Misha, Sergei, and Fyodor.

It was as if they had always been the only ones in their family and no one else.

Today, it was just Vassi and his father, as it had been for some time. Misha had left home a month ago, leaving only a tersely worded note about needing to spend more time at the lab. Sergei was still in Russia, and as far as Vassi knew, his oldest brother had more than his hands full running the corporation. The night Seri left, Fyodor had made his eldest son CEO pro tempo and had since spent his days locked in his study.

He looked at his father, who although still immaculately and impeccably dressed, had a haggard look about him. Dark circles underlined his eyes, and even more worryingly, Fyodor had lost a drastic amount of weight in just a short period of time.

Their family had fallen apart—-

And it was his fault, Vassi thought grimly.

“I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind about that project.” It was Fyodor who broke the heavy silence in the dining room.

In the act of taking a sip of coffee, Vassi slowly lowered the cup back to the table lest he ended up crushing it between his fingers. He said quietly, “I would if I could, but I had already signed a contract.” He stared straight ahead, not wanting to meet Fyodor’s gaze.

“Pay the damages and just get out of it then.”

He shook his head. “You taught me better than that, Papa. I will not break my word just because of—-”

Fyodor’s fist slammed on the table. “Never mention that person’s name again.”

It was a command Vassi would have objected to if it had been spoken in rage—-

But there wasn’t even an ounce of anger in his father’s voice.

Instead, Fyodor’s voice was bleak and hollow, and hearing it made Vassi suck in his breath. Guilt flayed him as he thought about how Fyodor would feel if he had learned of what happened between him and Seri.

Fyodor came to his feet. “Stay away from that person. Don’t let that person destroy what’s left of this family.”

Vassi didn’t answer.

He watched his father walk away from the table, and his fists clenched as a feeling of impotence swept through him.

Why did love have to be this destructive?

Fyodor paused at the doorway before slowly turning to face his youngest son again.

“Vassi—-”

Vassi looked up.

“She’s not what and who we thought she was. She’s a liar, a slut, and she will do anything—-” Fyodor inhaled sharply. “I’m begging you, son. If you respect me – if you love me as your father, don’t do anything that will remind me of her again.”


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