Alexa had only been home for half an hour and already everything was all wrong.
She was tired from her flight and wanted to lie down in her childhood bedroom, to sleep in the bed that still smelled sweetly of cinnamon gum, her favorite from adolescence. Instead, her stepmother was pestering her with anxious questions. How was her work going? Did she have many close friends where she lived? Wouldn’t it be possible for her to do the same work here?
The last question was at least a decade old and Alexa gave the same answer she always had. Yes, she could move back to her hometown. But no, she didn’t want to.
Childhood was a nice place to visit but Alexa had no intention of living there again.
But the question was different. More half-hearted. Her stepmother Val’s gaze kept drifting to the doorway, as if she were checking for an invisible newcomer.
“Who are you expecting?” Alexa finally asked, sipping tea from Val’s grandmother’s priceless china set. “And why are you so damned nervous about it?”
Val jumped at least an inch off the sofa, violently clattering her tea cup in its saucer. Alexa flinched. She’d grown up being repeatedly told how valuable the china set was and to see it abused just emphasized how strange everything was that day.
“Oh, it’s just Nikky.” Val laughed loudly. “That boy will be the death of my peace of mind.”
‘That boy’ was Val’s twenty-five-year-old son and Alexa’s half-brother. He was also the source of constant grief in Val’s life, which was part of the reason Alexa detested him. But that was only part of the reason.
Alexa wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. Why is he coming? Doesn’t he know that I’m here?”
Val shot to her feet, walking swiftly over to the sideboard so Alexa couldn’t see her face. “Oh, darling, can’t you get along with each other? It breaks my heart to see you drift apart. Sometimes I think you don’t even try to like Nikky.”
“I don’t like Nik.”
“You did once,” Val said, turning back to face her, a small crystal glass now between her fingers. This was the way Alexa knew her, with her favorite tipple always in hand. The tea drinking must be a new ritual, one that didn’t match well with the balmy California weather.
“I’m thirteen years older than he is,” Alexa pointed out. “We didn’t get along because we had nothing in common. Actually, I can’t think of a brother and sister who have less in common, even if we are just half-siblings.”
Val’s expressive face twisted. “Maybe it’s because—”
“Are we really doing this?”
Nik was standing at the door behind his mother, so it was only Alexa who saw the effort the older woman made to smooth out her features before she turned around.
The pure joy in Val’s voice when she greeted her son always brought a lump to Alexa’s throat. Her own mother had died when she’d been a toddler, and it had been a decade before her father had met and married Valentina. As a stepmother, Val was warm and caring, but the passionate love she showed her son was very different in degree.
Val went over to hug him. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
He looked—as usual, Alexa noted critically—as though he’d just rolled out of bed. His fair hair was tousled and the jeans and T-shirt he wore were incredibly casual and none too clean, yet he gave off enough energy for five men. She could feel it pouring off him, even from across the room.
Nik used only one arm to return the hug. The other hand was occupied with a partially eaten apple. He was constantly eating—to the point where Alexa could barely picture him without some sort of food in hand—yet she conceded that he must need the calories because his tall, lean frame never seemed to gain any extra weight. Val was the same way, though she was built like an elegant greyhound rather than a Siberian husky, but Alexa had to vigilantly watch what she ate.
Nik grinned at Alexa over his mother’s shoulder. “I take it you needed the reinforcements, Mom. What’s Lexy been doing to you now?”
There it was in a nutshell, the reason she hated Nik. His casual assumption that the tension in the room he’d walked into was her fault, rather than part of Val’s inexplicable mood, his unnecessary levity—did the man take anything seriously?—and the fact that that all of his glaring personality flaws had always worked in his favor.
Of course, Alexa now had a more personal reason to detest her half-brother, as if she needed one. She struggled to stay silent. She really did. Nik stared, an interested and amused witness to her internal battle.
“I’m not doing anything!” Alexa burst out. “I just got here. Val was just harping again on the same old things.”
Nik chewed the last of his apple, eating the core and all, which she considered a revolting habit.
“About you and me?”
The linkage was too intimate but she nodded anyway, feeling foolish for defending herself and annoyed that she had once more found the need to do so.
What was it about her younger half-brother? They simply needed to occupy the same city for her to be all anxious and prickly. Part of the reason she’d moved to Chicago years ago was to escape him, yet she was left feeling that her decision had given him more power than he deserved.
Nik walked over and sat down on the couch right next to her—too close. She had to cling to the arm to avoid tumbling into him. His expression stayed mild as she glared at him. His densely blue eyes usually carried a twinkle, even if it was buried deep inside, as it was now. Why did it often seem as though he was laughing at her? And what, exactly, was the joke?
“Shared blood is an accident of fate,” Alexa said stiffly. “It doesn’t mean that there actually exists a ‘you and me’.”
Val perched on a chair, her thin hand holding the fragile crystal glass as if it were an extension of her arm.
“Oh, Alexa. Must you be so hard-hearted?”
“Me?” Alexa protested, her hand automatically moving to tap her chest. “I’m hard-hearted? What about him?”
A hundred memories rose to the surface of her mind. All the times he’d been the center of attention while she—older and more reserved—had faded into the background. It never helped that he always seemed to want nothing better than to follow along in her wake like a silly puppy. Then, when they got older, how he never introduced her properly, just saying her name, as if they were no relation at all. Or calling her his stepsister, as if the blood tie disappeared at his command. Those small gestures never stopped hurting, not until she forced herself to ignore them.
“I’m friendly and lovable,” Nik said. “The only person who’s never loved me is you.”
“What is there to love?” Alexa muttered, the memories filling her ears with a terrible insistent buzzing. She got to her feet. “Excuse me, but—”
“Darling, stay,” said Val, instantly concerned. “Please.”
Alexa stayed poised on her feet, uncertain.
“If you hate me so much,” Nik said, “you’ll want to stay and hear what she has to say.”
“Please,” Val said again.
“All right.” Alexa sat back down, careful this time to leave as much space as possible between herself and Nik. “I’m listening.”
Nik closed in the gap between them, settling his arm along the back of the couch. He wasn’t touching her, so she couldn’t complain without sounding like a disgruntled child, but the weight of his arm was worse than a physical shackle.
Why did she hate him so much? With an effort, Alexa forced her attention back to her stepmother.
Val was telling the same old story—her favorite—about how she and Alexa’s father first met. She’d told it about a thousand times in Alexa’s hearing and probably a couple of thousand more at dinner parties and the like. It was as if she was anxious to explain how a well-to-do widower ended up married to a much younger immigrant from newly born and tumultuous Russia.
Alexa already knew why. She loved Val and all, but marrying a man twenty years older then quickly getting pregnant with his child was a path to wealth and security, nothing less. Val had had a hard time in the former Soviet Republic so Alexa didn’t blame her. It helped that her father had so obviously been happy with his second wife, right up until his death.
A hand appeared before her face, snapping its fingers several times to gain her attention.
“I’m listening,” Alexa said instantly.
“No, you’re not,” said Nik. “Not that I can blame you. I’ve heard this story enough times to recite it like the Pledge of Allegiance. Get to the point, Mom.”
Val’s speech sputtered to a halt. Then she sighed. “I thought I could… But this is so difficult. You tell her, Nikolai.”
Nik narrowed his eyes at his parent. “You said I shouldn’t.”
“Well, I cannot.”
The resulting stony silence stretched Alexa’s nerves to their limit. Some holiday this was turning out to be. Everyone had gone nuts.
Alexa could sense Nik turning to face her, but she refused to meet him halfway. If he wanted to tell her whatever it was, he would have to do it on her terms.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Why not?” he asked, his voice velvety. He moved the hand ranged behind her a scant inch so that the thumb rubbed against the sensitive curve of her nape. “It fits you. Sexy Lexy.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, blurring the vision she had of her stepmother staring transfixed at the two of them. He was mocking her again, just like he always did. Paying her compliments that were so far from the truth that they were clearly sarcastic. He seemed to get a perverse pleasure from it.
“I hate you,” she whispered, blinking hard against the tears. She’d promised herself long ago that she would never let him see how much he got under her skin but she suspected he knew all the same.
“And I’m crazy about you,” Nik said, the words as caressing—and unsettling—as his fingers. “You always give such good reactions. Always.”
The hard emphasis on the last word made her turn her head to watch him, warily, as one would a tiger in the jungle. Suddenly it was there in the air between them, that night two years ago, when everything went to hell on a one-way ticket.
“You’re disgusting,” Alexa told him.
He smiled faintly. “So you keep saying.”
When had she…? Oh, that night. Of course she’d called him disgusting. What else did you call a man who tried to make out with his sister?
She’d slapped him. Hard. She thought she would remember that slap forever—the feel of his cheek beneath her palm, the redness in his face afterward. But no, all she remembered now was the taste of his mouth, smoky and sweet, all at once.
Oh no, she was just as awful as he was.
“He’s not your brother, Alexa.”
The words burst from her stepmother, putting an effective end to Alexa’s pained thoughts.
Her reaction was slow, very slow. Nik’s hand was still possessively cupping the back of her neck. She couldn’t think straight with him so close.
“Of course Nik’s not my brother,” she finally said, a little shakily. “He’s my half-brother.”
It was strange that Val would emphasize the point now, when she’d spent Nik’s entire life trying to convince Alexa that she should be closer to her little brother.
An odd smile curved the older woman’s mouth. “You hated him on sight. Right at the hospital you took one look at him and asked us to send him back. You wanted him to be a girl.”
Anything further from the sweet little doll-like sister she’d wanted, Alexa could not imagine. Nik was too much of everything—too tall, too forceful, too energetic. But, most of all, he was too male. He sucked up all the oxygen around him, leaving none for anyone else.
Nik startled her by speaking quietly, almost into her ear. “Aren’t you glad now that I was a boy?”
“No.” She tried to lean away from him. Tried to push away the memory of how much closer he’d once been, how overwhelmingly masculine he’d felt pressed up against her. “Shut up.”
He did lean back a bit, shooting a glance at his mother. “See the abuse I put up with?”
Val shook her head. “I tried to get you two to bond, but you were never interested, Alexa. Sometimes I thought it was because you sensed the truth.”
“The truth?” Alexa repeated this tantalizing phrase. “What truth?”
“Tell her,” Nik urged. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
Another fact dawned on Alexa. “Nik knows? How can Nik know and I don’t? He’s a kid.”
The hand at her neck tightened. Restrained as the movement was, it very effectively conveyed the massive strength of him.
“I’m twenty-five,” said ‘the kid’. “All grown up—or don’t you remember?”
Alexa flinched away from the threat inherent in that taunting question. Was he going to tell?