"Are you still mad at me?"

I hated how meek my voice sounded as I approached Paris, her slitted eyes dropping to mine.

"What do you think?" She snapped, bending down and harshly tossing a rag in the hamper behind her.

"Don't start with that attitude on me," I rebutted. "I'm asking nicely."

"Since when has that ever happened?" Paris grumbled.

"Since now," I replied, bending down to meet her eyes. "Paris, answer me honestly. Are you still mad at me?"

"Does my face not answer you?" Paris asked. "Because, yes, yes, I am, Varsha. You yelled at me in front of my younger brother! How do you think that looks?"

"You're lucky it wasn't on the street," I said.

"It doesn't matter," Paris growled. "I'm still upset. I didn't even get time to prepare myself for the day. Do you know how hideous I looked?"

From his place on the couch, Martin opened his mouth to reply to her comment, but shut it just as quickly, averting his eyes to the homework pages he had laid in front of himself.

I sighed. "As long as you got your clothes on and your homework done, I could care less about what else you forgot."

"Right, because you don't care."

"She does care, Paris," Martin now spoke up, his sky-blue eyes hard on his sister's stiff frame. "She's given up so many opportunities to help us and try to give us the best life possible."

"Like what?" Paris asked. "What has she given up so much that we still live in this broken, shitty house? Hm?"

"A good University, for one," I said. "I could have given you to the orphanage. I could have let them carry you both to a foster home. I could have kissed you both goodbye and gotten a better job. But I chose to stay with you. I wanted to do what..." I paused, biting my lip.

"What?" Paris snapped.

Martin looked between Paris and me, catching the hesitation in my eyes. He cleared his throat.

"Whatever she wanted to do, she's doing the best she can. What are you doing to repay her?"

"I don't have to repay her," Paris said. "She's my sister. She's obliged to do these things for me."

Martin scoffed. "No, she isn't. Were you not listening? She could have dumped us in the foster homes years ago. We both owe her a lot for that and quite frankly, you've been ding nothing to help at all."

"I'm cleaning now, aren't I?"

"Only because Varsha told you to. You wouldn't have given two shits about cleaning the house had she not told you anything."

"Yeah? Well—!"

"Alright!" I raised my voice over their squabbling whining. "Martin, thank you. Yes, Paris, I did give up a lot to give you and Martin the life I wanted, but you didn't know that. Now you do. So please just do the work. It's not a lot, and I have other things to worry about right now."

Paris's scowl receded slightly, her lips pressing together and turning a pale shade of white. "Sure," she mumbled, looking away. "But, can I ask something else? Unrelated to our past?"

"What is it?"

"Why exactly are we cleaning up if Doctor Romanoff is only coming into the living room?" She asked. "I mean, what motive would he have to go into my room?"

I shrugged. "Not sure. But it's a good gesture to clean up the entire house before someone comes. You never know what can happen. Besides, it'll get more cleaning done than when I intended to do it on Sunday."

"And so we do it for you," Paris grumbled.

Martin looked up from the laundry he had started to do. "Well, we do live in the same house. We have to help someway, if we aren't working."

I grinned. "Why, thank you, Martin."

"Anytime."

"Tagteamers," Paris said, but now, she was smiling. "I guess I can help properly, now. My date with Daniel can wait."

"Daniel?" She was already onto another boy? I looked at Martin, but based on the scrunch of his eyebrows and the pull of his lip, I guessed that Paris hadn't even told him about her new boyfriend.

"Since when did you get a new boyfriend?" Martin asked.

"He's not my boyfriend," Paris said. "We're just going out on a date. Maybe he will be, but I decided that you were right, Varsha."

"I was?"

"Yeah. Brandon and Sophia really do look happy. Who am I to interfere with their relationship," she said, avoiding my eyes. "Daniel asked me out yesterday, so I decided to give him a chance."

"Finally," Martin sighed under his breath. Paris stuck her tongue out at him, and for the first time in what felt like a long time, I let out a short laugh at their antics.

"Good to see you maturing, Paris," I said. "What's Daniel like?"

"He's a bit nerdy," Paris explained. "But he's really sweet. He's smart, kind, and lonely, I guess. He doesn't talk to anyone except Brandon. I felt sorry for him at first, but when we were assigned a project together, I learned more about him."

"That's good. At least now you have another friend," I said. "And who knows, maybe you and Daniel will become something in the next few years?"

A blush bloomed on Paris' cheeks, and Martin chuckled.

"What about you, Varsha?" He asked.

I looked up at him. "What about me?"

"How're things on planet Romanoff?" He snickered. "Or should I say, Nikolai?"

Now it was my turn to blush. "H-How...what are you talking about?"

Paris rolled her eyes, bending beside Martin to help him fold the underwear. "Don't play dumb, sis. We can all hear you talking in your sleep. Nikolai this, Nikolai that. What were you doing with him?"

Under both of their inquisitive gazes, I suddenly felt small in comparison to my younger siblings.

"Nothing," I denied. "We're only colleagues."

"Yeah, right. Colleagues who call each other by their first names," Martin said.

"To be fair, he calls me 'Ms. Myrah.' He won't let me call him anything but his first name when we're alone."

Judging by the way Paris was smirking at me, I deduced that I should have omitted the "alone" bit. Well, too late to go back now.

"Alone, huh?" She repeated. "And just what do you do alone with your 'colleague'?"

I groaned. "Guys, I slipped. I didn't mean for it to come out the way it did. We're just...friends, then."

Yep, just friends who flirt and get flustered around each other, I criticized myself. Just friends who get pinned up to a wall and almost kiss. Definitely just friends.

Paris and Martin both looked at me, and I knew that they weren't convinced.

"Varsha, you know that we love you, right?" Martin asked.

I raised my eyebrow. "Yes?"

"So, why won't you tell us?" Paris complained. "It's obvious you like Doctor Romanoff, Varsha. You talk about him in your sleep, for God's sake!"

"Really, you do," Martin added before I could counter. "You talk about his, and I quote, 'pale skin, blood-red eyes, strong arms, and captivating lips'. Admit it, sis. You're in love!"

"No, I most certainly am not," I denied, although deep down, I knew I was lying to myself. Maybe it wasn't love I felt with Nikolai, but there was something there. Something I didn't ever feel with any man Paris set me up with, or any man Martin introduced me to.

With Nikolai, it was like nothing mattered around us. With him, his eyes holding mine, it was like I could just let go of all my worries and relax. Like for once, I could stop wearing this fake, happy smile and be myself. Let all of my emotions escape the cage in my heart and finally find the peace I craved.

In the silence that I used to drown myself in my thoughts of Nikolai, Paris cleared her throat, bringing me back to the stinging reality of life.

"It may not be easy for you to say it yet, sis, but trust me. I know a girl in love when I see one," she said. "And who knows, maybe a few years from now, you and Nikolai will be something."

She smiled at me, a small, but sweet, genuine smile, something that was difficult to bring from her lips usually. It faded when Martin began to speak to her, but it was something that I knew I'd cherish, along with all the other memories I had made with my brother and sister. They didn't know it, but everything we had ever done together, every party, every Christmas, every family occasion, I kept it.

They were all I had left.

"Doctor Romanoff is cute, though," Paris decided, meeting my eyes through the pile of clothes that separated us. "He's Russian, right?"

"Or Romanian," Martin added. "He looks like a mix."

"I'm not sure," I said. "I think he's Russian. I've definitely heard him speak Russian before. Then again, anyone can learn to speak any language. This is America, after all."

"True," Paris agreed. "But if I wasn't going on a date with Daniel, then I would definitely go for Doctor Romanoff."

"Gross!" Martin exclaimed. "Paris, he's like, thirty! You're eighteen!"

"So?"

"He's closer to Varsha's age than he is yours, sis. Hate to break it to you, but that relationship would never work out," he explained.

Paris scowled, and I let out a half-hearted laugh. "Gee, thanks for telling me I'm old, Martin."

"You aren't. You're just closer in age to Doctor Romanoff than Paris is," Martin corrected. He rose from his bottom, bringing a basket of laundry with him as he did so. "I think you've got something that intrigues him, if you're on a first-name basis."

"I agree with Martin. Everyone in Bloodhill knows how secretive and cordial Doctor Romanoff is. If he agreed to tell you, a girl he hardly talks to, his first name, then he either sees something, or he wants something."

Paris's voice took a deeper, softer tone, and when I looked up at her, she was smirking, her eyes narrowed. I stared at her for a couple of seconds, her words sinking into my skin. Once they did, though, my cheeks burned, a fire roaring in my stomach at the insinuation of her words.

"N-No way. I don't believe that he would..." I gulped.

Paris shrugged. "I've met guys like that before, sis. Only Doctor Romanoff knows what goes on inside his mind. And seeing you, a young, beautiful, single girl, he may have just found someone he'd been silently craving. Someone apart from widows or single moms."

She got up and left the living room to follow Martin before I could reply to her, but deep in the bit of my stomach, I'm glad she never gave me the chance. As a teenager turning into a young adult, Paris' feelings for me had become strained, I could tell. Now, hearing what she really thought of me, and the chance I had with Nikolai, it really made me feel special, even if I was distracting myself from the main topic at hand.

When Martin told me I had a chance with Nikolai, I didn't believe him. Maybe it was because he had never dated anyone, and I had never dated anyone, that I thought that he didn't know anything. With Paris, though, it was different.

Ever since she hit middle school, all Paris focused on was boys. Her grades didn't matter to her, not like when she was in elementary. Boys became more important than her education.

In a way, it was my fault. I thought it was just a teenager stage, so I let it happen. I kept her up on her grades, but I also let her go on dates and do whatever she wanted with boys. Seeing the outcome now, though, I realized how mistaken I was to let her do what she wanted. That was probably why I could never have children.

Would Nikolai care? A tiny voice in my head questioned, bringing me to a halt on my way up the steps. Would he run after you even if he found out you couldn't have kids? Surely, he'd want children of his own, wouldn't he, Varsha?

I laughed cynically to myself. "Of course, he would," I agreed, swallowing the pinch that shot down my spine. "Of course, he'd need his generation to thirve. Why would he bother with me after that? What would I be to him, anyway?"

For some reason, it bothered me that Nikolai might stop pursuing me if he ever found out about my condition. I wasn't exactly sure why it did. Nikolai was almost nothing to me, as I was most likely to him. Sure, what happened in the lounge, happened, but he could have also been high. Smoking cigarettes every day like he did could have been the cause of the wall incident.

But it also couldn't have. The voice spoke again. He could have done that because he wanted to.

"He wouldn't want to, trust me," I said, unsure as to who I was speaking to, but not minding it either. "Nobody wants a girl with baggage."

"You don't know that for sure," Martin's soft voice spoke from the hallway. He was standing by the door, carrying the now empty laundry basket. "Like Paris said earlier, nobody but Nikolai knows what's going on inside his head. Don't make assumptions about feelings you aren't sure about, sis."

At that moment, the doorbell chose to ring, saving me from answering Martin's firm response to my inner battle. I shrugged at him, sliding past his slim frame to open the door, but I could still feel his eyes on me. They burned through my shirt, making two holes in the back of my neck that sent shivers up my spine.

I wanted to look back up at the steps to see if he was still looking at me, but the chill that passed by my shoulder let me know that he was already in the living room. Whatever that was about, I would have to wait to question him.

I opened the door—

—and blue eyes met red.

For what seemed like eternity, Nikolai and I stared at each other, neither of us speaking, nor moving. I knew he had a job to do, and I had mine, but I couldn't tear my gaze away from him. It was like he had hypnotized me, captivating me and keeping me in his hold. I mean, with muscles like his, who would be able to get out of his hold?

I couldn't help but take in his appearance today. It didn't look like anything was different with him. His hair was still curly and around his ears. He still wore button-up shirts and khaki pants. He still had his ironed white lab coat, his sunglasses hanging from his left breast pocket, just like it always did.

So, what was so different?

"Good morning, Ms. Myrah," Nikolai spoke, his thick accent making his cracked morning voice sound even sexier than it should have.

I bit my lip, swallowing the burning lump in my throat. "G-Good morning, Do—" he gave me a pointed look, and I smiled, relaxing slightly. "—Nikolai. How are you?"

He smirked. "I'm doing fine, thank you, Ms. Myrah," he answered, his hot red eyes swirling around my soul.

Feeling a little confident, I cocked my hip to the side, leaning against the doorpost. "You can call me Varsha."

"Varsha...hm?" I noticed the way Nikolai took me in, as if a water-deprived man had gotten his hands on a bottle. "Rain? It suits you, do you know that?"

"Does it?" I asked. It completely slipped past me how he recognized the Sanskrit translation of my name, my mind too focused on the way his eyes drank me in. His pink tongue slid across his perfect lips, revealing his pearly white incisors.

"Varsha?" Martin's voice questioned from the living room. He and Paris came into view, and I moved aside to let Nikolai step through the door.

He looked ready to move, but then faltered, as if remembering something he had forgotten to previously tell me.

I frowned. "What is it?"

Nikolai looked behind his back, at the bare street separating my house from the grocery store. "You...have to invite me inside."

"Why?" I blurted out.

"It's...just something to protect our rights, in case something happens," Nikolai explained vaguely. I didn't question him, though. He knew what he was doing. Besides, this must've been explained in the seminar I missed.

I took a deep breath. "Well, come in, then."

Nikolai smiled, bowing his head and stepping through the doorway. I took a quick moment to admire the prominent flex of his bulging muscles before I felt eyes on me.

Dark eyes.

I quickly looked away, but the damage had already been done. Nikolai's breathy chuckle reached my ears, spiking my heart. I hesitantly met his eyes, and he drew me closer to him. Paris and Martin were nowhere to be seen, but they were probably in the living room.

They couldn't see us.

Despite the increase of my heartrate, I planted my hands on Nikolai's broad chest, the curves of his muscles dipping under my fingertips.

"What are you—!"

"You look... exquisite," Nikolai murmured gently in my ear, his warm breath kissing down my spine.

I shivered, gripping the flaps of his lab coat. "I...um...thank you?"

He laughed gently, his lips dangerously close to my neck. Something sharp pressed against the sensitive skin around there, but Nikolai pulled away before I could figure out what.

"You're most welcome, Varsha." He said, slyly winking in my direction before padding to the living room, where Paris and Martin were waiting.

I reclined against the kitchen countertop, grasping my pounding heart. It wouldn't stop beating, no matter how hard I tried. My lips suddenly felt dry, and my fingertips burned from where I had once gripped Nikolai. His own fingers still ghosted over my hips, wandering dangerously close to the waistband of my pants.

"Shape up, Varsha," I scolded myself. "You aren't a teenager anymore. Stop acting like one and get yourself together. This isn't...it's not what you think. It's never going to happen."

I didn't know if Nikolai could hear me or not, but I didn't really care if he did. Let him hear, then maybe he wouldn't make my heart race anymore. Maybe he wouldn't make me feel the way I feel. Maybe everything would all go away. I could be back to normal. I wouldn't feel like...like...

Like I was in love.

"Varsha!"

Paris ran to me, all giddy and excited. Martin followed her, looking smug and proud of himself, as if he had just passed his college exams.

"What is it? What happened? Where's Ni—!" My voice caught in my throat when said man appeared in the living room threshold, his signature smirk plastered on his lips.

"I'm okay!" Paris grinned. "Absolutely nothing's wrong with me! I told you so, Martin!"

"I know," Martin replied languidly. "And here I thought you'd be diagnosed with ADHD."

Paris glared at him and I giggled, unaware of Nikolai's eyes on me until I looked at him. They stayed trained on the amused shaking of my body, shamelessly aware that I knew he was checking me out.

And I like it, I thought.

"Well," Nikolai cleared his throat, and both Paris and Martin scurried into the living room. "They're both in good shape and healthy. Nothing out of the ordinary with them," he said.

I nodded. "That's good. Um, thanks for checking them out—I mean, giving them a check-up."

Laughter bubbled from Nikolai's blush-colored lips, and I berated myself internally for my slip-up. "It is not a problem. I was happy to help, however..." he looked back at the living room, then at me again.

I pinched my eyebrows. "What?"

Again, he cleared his throat, color rising to his lifeless cheeks. "Um...did you hear about the carnival this weekend?"

I snorted. "Yeah. I've been bringing Paris and Martin ever since they were kids, but for some reason, they don't want to go this year." I shrugged. "They think they're old, I guess."

Nikolai smiled. "Are you going?"

"Maybe," I replied, unsure where he was going. "Amara and Omen will be with Paris and Martin the whole day. Why?"

Nikolai's large chest heaved. "Well...I was wondering...would you like to go with me?"

"To the carnival?"

"Yes, that is, only if you want to," he said, although there was a small, begging undercurrent in his voice. It made me smile.

"Are you asking me out on a date, Nikolai?" I asked teasingly.

Nikolai smiled. "Only if you want to go out with me." His cold hands enveloped mine. "Of course, you can refuse. I only thought..."

I cut him off, pressing my finger against his lips. Just like his hands, they were cold, and I faintly wondered if they could cool the burning fire on my tongue before I replied.

"I would love to go on a date with you, Nikolai," I said softly.

Nikolai's fingers wrapped around my wrist, pressing a kiss to the pounding pulse there. "Then six? By the Ferris wheel?"

What a cliche! I thought. But my favorite cliche.

I nodded. "Sure, I'll be there."

"Wonderful." Looking rather reluctant, Nikolai released my hand, nodding in farewell before the door slammed behind him. Immediately, I turned to the living room, where Paris and Martin were playing an innocent game of Monopoly.

"Okay. Who told him?"