“Then why did he send you that kind of message?” he demanded savagely.

Seri flinched as she finally came to understand where Vassi was coming from. “You read his text.” She wasn’t angry about it. If their positions were reversed, she would have probably done the same. Stepping towards him, she pleaded, “Let me explain—-”

He stepped back from her, and the outright rejection made Seri’s stomach turn upside down.

Vassi said bleakly, “I don’t fucking know what to believe anymore.”

“T-then I’ll tell you,” she burst out. Staring straight into his eyes, wanting him to see that she meant every word, she said, “Believe me.” And without waiting for him to speak, she told him everything in a rush, about Max being there when she needed someone, about Max wanting to be more than a friend, about her being unable to return his feelings.

She gave him every little detail, leaving nothing out, even if what she had to say would hurt.

“I wanted to fall in love with him, Vassi.”

Vassi inhaled sharply.

“I w-won’t lie about that. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Because I—-”

Vassi shook his head. “Don’t say it.”

Seri found herself gripping the marble top of the balcony’s railing, feeling like she was about to fall any moment.

“I need time—-”

“Why?” It was her turn to interrupt him, and she only did so because she just didn’t want to start hurting again.

Because he was so damn jealous, even though he knew he had no right.

Because in spite of all the women he had fucked, his heart had always been hers, and he had never even thought it was possible to love someone else.

But most of all…

Because he knew, just by looking in her eyes, which were hurt and yet still filled with so much for love for him—-

He needed time to earn the right to love her again.

Vassi stepped forward. “Say it now.”

She didn’t even pretend not to know what he was asking her, only choking out, “I love you.”

“And I love you.” He smiled at her, and Seri started to cry. His smile told her he did love her, but it told her something else, and it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“I love you, Seri. So damn much. When I think about what you sacrificed for me—-” He inhaled sharply. “I will never love anyone else, and that’s why—-”

“Please don’t say it.”

“That’s why I realized I don’t deserve you just yet.”

Seri clutched his shirt. “Don’t I get a say on this?” She looked up at him, saying desperately, “You deserve me. I should be the judge of that. So please—-”

He kissed her forehead. “I love you.” He took hold of her hand and forced her fingers to unclasp.

She watched him go.

Things were supposed to be okay now. The words repeated endlessly in her mind. He had told her he loved her. He had told her he understood what she had done. So why did it feel like he was going to leave her?

Chapter Twelve

A sense of nostalgia swept over Sergei Grachyov as he walked past the familiar sights of the public playground. There was the slide where he and his brothers had taught Seri to conquer her fear of heights, and there was the sandbox that they had used to teach Seri to build a military fortress with its own moat and missile launchers.

There were the trees that they had taught her to climb, and as Sergei reached the end of the playground, he saw the swing where they had spent lazy afternoons together. Despite their age differences, they had been all so alike – competitive, ambitious, and driven.

Kids were supposed to think of kiddie things. They were not, he thought wryly, supposed to think of being the world’s most successful entrepreneur, the world’s greatest doctor, the world’s most accomplished voice actress, or the world’s most recognized celebrity.

Even though they had all been young, they had known most other kids wouldn’t have understood them, which was why the four of them had only a few friends, and they had come to prefer hanging out with each other.

It was also why Seri’s disappearance from their family had left such a huge rift.

For a moment, he remained where he was, watching his little sister from a distance. He had every place that held memories for her watched, knowing that sooner or later Seri would come to visit them. Although he had known from the start she had been living in Maximilian Rockford’s place, Sergei had also known she would only refuse to see him, and he wasn’t one to waste time knocking his head against a brick wall.

When Seri continued to rock herself on the swing, her head still down, Sergei knew it was time to interfere. He walked towards her, saying simply, “Seri.”

Seri stiffened at the familiar sound of Sergei’s voice.

Without looking up, she muttered ungraciously, “What are you doing here?” It took everything in her not to throw herself in his arms. Sergei had always been dependable, had always been the one she run crying to when she had problems.

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