Miss Perfect and Her Brothers (Part I&II)

Part II: Chapter 39

Martina Guerra was a pretty and surprisingly homely girl. Not at all the kind of one I would have expected to catch Dylan's eye. My brothers didn't bring their girls home, but I knew more or less the taste of at least their youngest three. After all, I'd gone to school with them and seen who hung out next to them sometimes.

The object of Dylan's first love turned out to be quite different from my vision. I am mentioning it, because I had a chance to meet this girl at the end of my stay in Canary Islands. It was then that the first arrangements for my return were made, which assumed that I would greet the New Year in the company of my father and return home alone shortly afterwards. My brothers, on the other hand, were getting ready to leave the island before New Year's Eve. Each of them already had some plans for that day. Some entertaining, some professional. It was easy to guess which of them had which.

I didn't have any, because I knew that sneaking out to a party where probably my whole class was going was simply impossible in my situation. Convincing Vincent to let me go was also out of the question. I could, of course, whine to him about that a bit, but it wouldn't work and I knew it very, very well.

And since I grew up without a father all my life, devoting at least one New Year's Eve to him didn't seem like a big deal to me.

The less than a week that separates the holidays from the New Year was spent in the most family-oriented way possible. Dad was happy because for the first time in his life he was able to get all his children together under one roof. Grandma was happy, too, which could occasionally be seen through the always surrounding, invisible, dense fog made of her perpetual sulks. I was happy, too, and only occasionally did I had to stop myself from pulling all the hair out of my head together with the roots.

Since Dylan's blackmail, I was torn. On the one hand, I was afraid that the matter would come to light at the least opportune moment, and on the other, I was afraid to admit it myself. Especially given that awful video. If Dylan was telling the truth and dad and Vince really do have that much of a privacy fervor, it certainly wouldn't be appreciated.

I tried to find it. This video. I hesitated for a long time because I didn't know if incognito mode would be enough to cover my tracks, but I had no choice but to finally take a chance. I looked for it and didn't find it, anywhere. I wasn't even sure if I'd checked the website of the right bar, so I scoured a few of the ones whose locations on the map more or less should have matched and which, in pictures, were similar to the establishment from my vague memories.

When I finally got frustrated, gave up, and decided to just forget about the stupid incident, there was Dylan again with his annoying way of being. He was constantly picking on me about something and I clashed with him quite often, though I tried to be careful with that as I remembered those dumb dirts. I still haven't worked out how to act to fall on all fours.

As I've mentioned before, I like to go to the beach sometimes and that day I felt like it too. I wanted to talk to someone from the outside, probably Leo, because Mona's speaker was malfunctioning and she hasn't been able to have a longer conversation since her phone fell into the pot with the chocolate mixture while she was baking a cake for Christmas.

Well, anyway, I didn't even call Leo, because as soon as I stepped outside, I ran into Dylan, who happened to be pushing past with Tony in front of the house. He straightened up and called out after me, but I ignored him, and it wasn't long before I felt his fingers on my shoulder.

"Hey, I asked, where are you going?" he repeated, and I turned around to give him an annoyed look, because it was pointless to try to pull away.

"To the beach."


I rolled my eyes.

"With Sonny." I waved my hand behind me, knowing full well that he must surely be out there somewhere. I was getting better at ignoring him. And I used to think I'd never get used to a bodyguard.

Dylan glanced over my head, then back at me. He looked like he was considering something, and whatever it was, I didn't feel like standing around waiting for him to draw some twisted conclusion of his own.

"Let me go," I demanded, jerking my hand away and showing him that I wanted to finally leave.

"Wait," he muttered, but he obeyed and took his hand away. "I'm going to the beach. Soon. Much better than this one here. I offered Tony to join me, but he doesn't want to move his lazy ass. So the honor of accompanying me now falls to you. Cool, right?"
"No, thanks."

"Wait, wait, wait. It's really pretty. That beach over there. The water is clear. Don't you want to see a new place?"

"And go there with only you? Not really," I folded my arms across my chest. I was still mad at him.

He smiled maliciously.

"Come on, I'm not going to eat you."

And well, I agreed. Yes, I know, I'm a textbook example of a younger sister who, because of her soft nature, lets her brothers take advantage of her at every turn. Because Dylan obviously had a vested interest in taking me to a beautiful, secluded beach, where he had many magical memories.

I have to admit that I was greeted there by one of the most gorgeous views I have ever had the pleasure of absorbing with my own eyes. We drove Benny's truck and stopped at an already nice and deserted beach, but that was not our destination. It was a cove, where we could only get to by wading first through prickly bushes, with my brother paving the way, and then squeezing between sizable rocks. I would never have pushed my way through those labyrinths had it not been for my guide, who every now and then told me to stop groaning and promised that I would not regret it.
Rarely would such words pass my lips, but this time I could say them without pain. Dylan was right. The small beach looked like it had been hollowed out of a massive rock. There was no sand here, as it consisted of dark pebbles. Dylan had prepared himself, however, and he had with him (in addition to usual towels) also carrimats. The blue water shimmered in the sun, and the waves rolled exceptionally gently across the ocean today. We were protected by high walls all around us, and the best part of it all was that in such a secluded place, no other living souls besides us ended up here.

"Not bad, huh?" Dylan asked, smiling mockingly at the sight of my lowered jaw. He then moved closer to the water to spread out the mats as close to it as possible and I followed him, only when I heard a shuffle behind my back, which meant that Sonny was wordlessly still following us.

We surprisingly had a nice long few moments, sitting in this very quaint place and talking a bit about completely loose, unrelated topics. He really was fine taking a break from being an idiot. Also, the weather was fantastic and I couldn't believe it was still December! I was sitting in a plain t-shirt and shorts and even though I had a sweatshirt with me I didn't think to put it on. Not to mention Dylan, who quickly got rid of even his t-shirt.
Of course, he couldn't be himself if he didn't come up with something stupid soon.

"What are you doing?" I asked, after a while shifting my gaze from the horizon of the ocean to my brother when he suddenly perked up, while just a few seconds ago he was sitting next to me on his carrimat.

"See that island over there?" he pointed to a small cluster of pale rocks emerging from the water quite a distance away. "I will swim there."

I squinted, because I swear the sun was shining like it was summer today. I guess that's why Dylan felt like going for a swim.

"But it's far away."

But he had already shed all his other unnecessary layers and stood there in his black boxers, muscular as ever. He brushed the dark hair out of his eyes and began to stretch his shoulders.

"It only seems so," he replied.

I looked there again, not very convinced.

"No, Dylan, stay here."

"Relax, little girl."

"Don't get in the water or I'll follow you," I threatened, looking at it with increasing apprehension. It was unusually calm today, but I knew that could be treacherous in the oceans.
"Don't you dare," Dylan protested lazily. "You stay on the shore. Play with some pebbles or something."

I picked myself up as he started walking towards the shore.

"I'm not kidding, I'll come in after you," I said and he turned around and pointed behind my back.

"Just try it, Sonny will see and drag you back to shore."

I didn't really feel like stripping down to my underwear (especially in front of my bodyguard), or getting into cold water, or even struggling with anyone.

"You're bored and having stupid ideas" I sighed, staring after him, and he, without turning around again, waved his hand at me. He entered the water ferociously, as if its temperature was no different from that of the air. Suddenly he folded his arms in the shape of an arrow and disappeared in the middle of the incoming wave.

Having the Monets as brothers, I lived in constant fear not only for my own life, but also for theirs. Especially since these youngest, eternally bored extreme experience seekers, had the craziest ideas. Fortunately, I was not privy to most of them, because I would have gone grey before I turned eighteen, but there were times like this, when I had to clench my teeth and pray to the heavens that my stupid brother would not drown, for example.
I sighed and sat down on a carrimat covered with a bath towel. The only downside to the pebbles was that the beach was losing its comfort. I pulled my knees up to my chin and hugged them with my arms, still squinting and not taking my eyes off Dylan's figure, which time and time again emerged from the water and became more and more distant.

I considered taking a picture of him and then telling dad that Dylan had left me on the shore and swam far out into the ocean on his own, but that wasn't enough to get him into trouble. Dad liked to swim himself, especially very early in the morning when everyone was still asleep, and he would certainly understand Dylan. And I was, after all, left with Sonny.

Well, after a while I decided to take this picture anyway. Just in case. And what the hell.

I was just tucking my phone into a fabric bag with pink and green flowers when I heard a rustling sound piercing clearly through the soft, steady hum of the waves. I lifted my head to glance back behind Dylan. He was already very, very far away. I knew, I knew, that getting to this island wasn't such a hop, skip and a jump after all.
I turned my head, expecting that maybe it was Sonny, who for some reason decided to walk behind my back. Surprised, I jumped up when I saw a girl coming towards me.

She stopped a few meters away, but she was looking at me. From the expression on her face she seemed neutral, but there was an intensity shining in her black eyes that I didn't like very much. That's not how one looks at strangers.

The girl was young, though older than me. She was wearing light-colored jeans and a white T-shirt, the shoulder strap of which fell over her shoulder, and her thick black hair was braided into a high ponytail, from which a few stubborn strands came free.

"Uhm... hello?" I asked, unsure whether she wanted something from me. I looked around, not very discreetly, for Sonny, just in case. Just a moment ago I was commenting on how deserted this place was.

"Hi," she replied firmly and clearly with a strong Spanish accent that gave her voice a lovely sweetness, even despite the not-so-friendly tone.
I glanced behind Dylan once more, and when I returned my gaze to her, she was also looking in that direction.

"Do you need any help?" I asked, trying to hide the first signs of nervousness.

The stranger's black irises slammed back into me. She remained silent, her chest waving with far more agitation than the ocean spread out before the two of us. Just as my brain began to get the first notifications of the panic gripping me, she suddenly closed her eyelids and took a deep breath, calming her visibly stressed body. Out of the corner of my eye, I also noticed that her small hands were clenched into fists.

She was short, not really, but definitely shorter than me. And curvier. To call her a bone person would be an exaggeration, but she certainly boasted nice, feminine breasts. She also had wide hips and, judging by her slightly outlined muscles on her arms, she liked to exercise.

I watched her while she took about two more breaths, all the while with her eyes closed. Only when she was ready did she open them, and then she looked much more composed.
She whispered something to herself that I didn't understand.

"I'm sorry, but I can't hear. And I don't speak much Spanish," I announced to her, turning my head slightly, eager to hear her out now that she had mostly gotten over this unexplained anger.

She sighed and combed her fingers through her thick ponytail, glancing at the ocean again for a moment.

"I'm sorry. I'm bothering you, and yet you don't even know me," The girl smiled crookedly, a smile that had nothing to do with joy.

"You're not bothering me," I lied, trying to sound friendly. "Are you looking for someone? Something? Maybe I can help..." I offered cautiously. I knew I should be careful with such offers.

"I don't think so," she cut off sourly, then she put her arms around herself as if she had become cold, although the weather was fine. After a while she added in a slightly changed tone, softer: "You're here with him, aren't you?"

I frowned.

"With whom?"

I was smitten again by the look in those eyes.
"Well, with Dylan."

Oh, so the girl knows Dylan, well great.

"I've seen you two," she added.

"Oh, right," I confirmed, "I'm here with him."

The girl snorted grimly.

"What a cabrón," The girl almost spit, so I assumed it must have been some kind of Spanish insult. "Hanging around here with some sluts."

I raised an eyebrow.

"Excuse me?"

The girl pointed to a stretch of beach behind me with her finger and her eyes flashed with anger again.

"This is my place!" she called out to me, and with the same finger she immediately pointed at herself. "I was the one who showed it to him. Nobody walks here, the tourists don't know how. They don't know that you have to go through the rocks. They don't get here. I showed Dylan this beach a long time ago," she continued and clenched her hands into fists again. "And he's bringing his girls here now!"

I opened my mouth in surprise. I didn't expect that.

"Are you Martina?" I asked and although I could not be one hundred percent sure, my intuition told me so. It all makes sense, she's Spanish, from the area, knows Dylan...
She looked at me for a moment with her eyes as big and black as the coffee Vincent usually drinks.

"What did he tell you about me?"

I turned my torso towards her, because up to now I had only been wringing my neck, which was already starting to hurt. I also raised my hands in a defensive gesture, trying to subdue her heated temper.

"Nothing, I swear. I just heard that your dog had once bitten him, is that true?" I asked softly.

Martina looked at me distrustfully and silently, her chest rippling restlessly. Finally, however, the girl nodded.


"Well then, that's all I know about you."

She sighed in response and put her hands on her head as if she was slowly losing it.

"And I'm no slut," I added, somewhat offended.

Martina lowered her hands and looked at me with tortured look in her eyes.

"You're not, I got candied away. I mean carried away, for God's sake!" she shouted, then took another deep breath, and I began to wonder if she was all right. "It's my English, I don't use it often enough," she explained, and I nodded understandingly.
"You speak very well," I praised her.

She looked at me and the little sceptical smile she gave me was the most sincere I had ever seen in her.

"Sorry, you're no slut. I shouldn't say that, I don't know you. I'm mad at Dylan, that's why. But it's not your fault," Martina waved her hand like she was trying to get away from something.

"What did Dylan do to you?" I asked, checking to make sure the idiot hadn't really drowned himself. I didn't see him for a while, but then I noticed him when he was very close to the island.

Martina bent down and sat on bent legs not far from me. She was also looking after him.

"It's nothing," she muttered, "I just thought this place meant more to him than that." She looked at me. "No hard feelings. I showed it to him in secret and there are a lot of memories here. I didn't think he would bring his new girlfriend here just like that. I don't mean he doesn't care about you, but I thought the past was important to him too, you know, at least a little bit..."
"Whoa, whoa whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa..." I started, well before she finished. She raised an eyebrow at my reaction, but I continued: "Me, Dylan's girlfriend? Me, Dylan's girlfriend?" I croaked. "Gross. Ew. Gross." I felt like spitting. "Dylan is disgusting! He's so big and... and he's got a nasty personality. He's so mean..." I flicked my tongue in disgust. "And he's ugly. Disgusting. Bleh."

I even cringed. Martina looked at me as if I had grown two heads. She was totally not expecting this reaction, that's for sure. She wanted to say something, but I guess she couldn't form a word and just stared at me, waiting maybe for some explanation. Eventually I shrugged it off and explained what was really going on.

"Besides, he's my brother."

She stared and stared, until suddenly her face began to harden. She swallowed her saliva, pressed her lips together and lifted her chin, and the expression in her eyes became unpleasant again.
"You're lying," she said, and I raised my eyebrows.

"I am not lying."

"You're lying," she repeated and squinted her eyelids. "I've known the Monets a long time. They're all boys, Dylan doesn't have a sister."

I paused for a moment.

"It's a... long story," I sighed finally. "But the thing is, he's not my boyfriend. He never was and he never will be. I assure you."

Martina stared at me for a moment, then looked out at the ocean. This time she shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and gave a stifled cry.

"He's coming back," she squealed and jumped to her feet. I glanced in that direction. Indeed, my brother was already swimming back. He was still far away, but we had missed the moment he came ashore. I wonder if he saw from a distance that I had company.

"Well he's coming back, finally," I muttered and looked back at Martina, when out of the corner of my eye I only saw her ponytail jump up from the sudden spurt. "Hey, where are you going? Martina!"
"I'm not going to talk to him," she hurriedly said.

"Wait! Martina! Well, you already came here, come on, don't run away!" I shouted after her, but she didn't even turn around but almost ran towards the passage in the rocks.

I raised myself to a kneeling position and pebbles were now sticking into my knees. But there was no point in getting up, running after her, or even shouting any more. The girl ran away like a frightened mouse and there was nothing I could do about it. I sighed and sat back down, contemplating this brief, unexpected encounter until Dylan was so close, the shore, that he could calmly touch bottom already. He emerged from the ocean, mercilessly splashing the water sideways. He was still calming his breathing as he got closer to me, well he wouldn't be himself if he didn't just then shake himself out, splashing me quite generously.

I sighed in exasperation then, but I kept watching his actions and how he reached for the towel to wipe away the drops of water glistening on his skin. Even for a guy like Dylan, the round he made for himself cost him quite an effort, and his lips had managed to turn a little blue.
"Have you met Martina?" He asked suddenly out of nowhere, without looking at me and rubbing his hair with a towel.

Well, I wondered if he had seen her, but he must have, judging by how quickly he came back.

"Nice. She seems," I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

Dylan snickered, throwing the already wet towel on the ground.

"Oh yeah, I could already see her waving her arms from a distance."

"Because she thought I was your girlfriend," I explained, not at all holding back my gag reflex, at which Dylan threw me an amused smile.

"Well I'm sorry, little girl, but I'm unattainable for you," he laughed and patted me carelessly on the forehead, hair and a piece of temple.

"As I said, disgusting," I muttered to myself, and added louder: "She called me a slut."

"Really?" Dylan laughed and shook his head, then muttered to himself: "Interesting."

"I would appreciate it if you didn't try to make your girlfriends jealous with me. For future reference, let them know I'm your sister. To save me from misunderstandings."
Dylan sat down next to me and rubbed his chin, visibly pleased with himself. 

"Okay, okay, sorry about Martina," he said, "I knew I could meet her here. Especially on such a nice day. She showed me this place, she hangs out here herself almost all the time when she's at home. Here or there..." Dylan raised his head and pointed high at the rock that formed the cove. "Sometimes she goes there to look at the ocean from above. I was expecting her here today. And I wasn't wrong. That's why I went for a swim. I suspected that if I disappeared, she'd come out of hiding. I also warned Sonny."

I hid my face in my hands for a moment. Because what kind of scheming is that?

"Couldn't you have just texted her?"

"She didn't write back," he rolled his eyes. "She's a complicated girl. But whatever, little Hailie. The important thing is that now I have proof."

"Proof of what?"

Dyla winked at me.

"She still cares."

I shook my head with the intention of not getting involved in the games going on between Dylan and his partners. I had my own worries and really had no interest in his relationships. At most, I could sympathize with his possible girlfriends, because a love relationship with someone like my mean brother had to be a real roller-coaster ride.
We sat on that beach for a bit longer, because it was really nice there. Dylan went in the water one more time, but this time he didn't get far away, and Martina didn't show up again. Towards the end I even took a short nap, which my brother quickly roused me from, whining that it was time for lunch and that it was time to go back.

We ate outside at this big table on the porch. As soon as Dylan and I stopped in front of the house, everyone greeted us, already taking their seats in readiness and you couldn't tell they were waiting for us because everyone was already chewing on something. I, pleased, squeezed into the chair between dad and Will, while Dylan nudged Shane to move a little to the side.

The table was mostly steaks tonight. Benny bragged that it was meat specially ordered from a friendly butcher. There was also the traditional salad with vinegar and mushroom dressing, as well as breaded onion rings. Benny offered Dylan a small can of beer, which was drunk by everyone here. He pulled it out of the portable cooler that stood next to his chair. I asked for iced tea. At the beginning of my stay here, Blanche and her partner had offered me alcohol just like everyone else, but over time they had learned not to do that. Dylan, however, couldn't help but remind me out loud that I wasn't allowed alcohol. He really didn't need to do that. He just upset me with it.
At the table, as is typical at a table, there was the usual chatter. Blanche ate very quickly and went to bed because she wasn't feeling well today. Benny stayed with us, but as always, he didn't say much. And when my father asked me about my trip this morning, I unabashedly told him how it was.

"Dylan is using me for some kind of hookup," I complained.

"Oh, using little sister for that?" Shane got interested and turned to his brother before he cut another piece of meat: "Is it working?

I sighed in exasperation.

"Martina got jealous and came out of hiding to yell a little, so I'd say it worked perfectly," Dylan shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of beer.

"You guys are hopeless," I declared.

"Dylan, why don't you hit yourself in the head?"

"Nothing happened to her."

"No, but I don't want you to use me," I muttered.

"All right, relax."

"And she called me a slut!" I kept going. The fact that Dylan was so dismissive of the story made me want to keep going.

"Who? Martina?" Dad raised his eyebrows and looked reproachfully at my nasty brother again, as if he was entirely responsible for this.
"Stop being annoying," Dylan said to me, glaring at me with eyes that grew narrower by the moment because of my implacability.

"You're annoying," I snarled.

"Dylan, no one has the right to insult your sister, even if it's your girlfriend, whom you yourself are senselessly provoking, is that clear?" Dad even threatened him with his finger in all seriousness.

"I know that. And she's not my girlfriend," he rolled his eyes, then glanced at me: "And I apologized to you for her."

I shrugged my shoulders and concentrated on putting an extra plate of onion rings for myself. There was also a sauce to go with them, an aioli. Delicious. I felt anger at Dylan and joy at the sight of such food at the same time, and I was familiar enough with my still irregular periods that it was then that I began to suspect the imminent arrival of one. Otherwise, why would I feel this unexplained grumpiness inside me? Unless it was just Dylan who was making me feel that way automatically.

Everyone was silent for a moment. Tony was reaching for another steak, Shane was salting his, Vincent was putting down his beer with a knife in his right hand, and Will was offering me salad because he'd just put a bit of it on his own plate and now was holding the bowl in the air, pointing at it with his head. Dylan ruminated thoughtfully, staring in one place, his head dizzy with thick, intense thoughts swirling around, which became clear when he finally broke the silence.
"I think I'm going to stay here for New Year's Eve. I'll come home after the new year, with Hailie."

I closed my eyelids, and a quiet but mournful groan immediately escaped my lips, which immediately drew the attention of my mean brother.

"Hush, little girl."

"You want to spend New Year's Eve here?" Shane quipped. "Isn't it awfully boring?"

I raised an eyebrow, because I was supposed to welcome the new year in the Canary Islands myself, but I don't think he got what I meant. Tony, on the other hand, caught the faux-pas his twin was committing, because without taking his eyes off his plate, a short, mischievous chuckle erupted from his throat.

"It's better to spend it here than at a common, boozy party you'll be recovering from for a week," Will pointed out to him, shaking his head.

"And since when did Dylan think that?"

"Since he heard that Martina was staying home for the rest of the holidays," Vincent replied, rolling his eyes at his younger brother's desperation.
"I thought you didn't run after her like that anymore," Shane chuckled, throwing a greased tissue twisted in a ball at Dylan.

"I'm not running after anyone, back off."

"Of course he's running after her," Will mocked, "Old love never dies." 

"If Dylan is staying here for New Year's Eve, I'm coming home tomorrow with you guys," I decided, glancing at my favorite brother. Yes, I was clearly out of sorts and the thought that Martina might reject Dylan and then he'd be spending New Year's Eve at my side, making me miserable, didn't exactly thrill me.

My father's expression indicated that he really wanted me to spend these last few days with him on the islands, as we had planned.

"As you wish," Vincent began, shrugging his shoulders, "but don't be disappointed, because for your safety you will spend it at home."

"I suggest for safety you lock me in the basement," I growled in exasperation.

"I'll consider it," Vincent replied, looking me straight in the eye with a warning glint in his.
"Dad..." I groaned pleadingly and took advantage of the fact that he was sitting next to me to grab his arm. He gently released it from my grasp and put his arm around me, pressing my petite figure against his side, still holding the fork in his free hand. I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of his face before I nuzzled my cheek against his chest, and through that I noticed him throw his eldest son a meaningful look, admonishing him a little with it.

Apparently, just as most of my brothers annoyed me, I also annoyed them at times, and I could infer that from Dylan's expression.

"Come on, don't make a wet-sock of yourself, little girl."

"No, it's you, Dylan, who needs to get a grip on yourself," Will immediately pointed out, bravely standing up for me. "Not everyone is as thick-skinned as you."

Our mean brother snorted contemptuously.

"She;s not as innocent as you think."

I pressed my cheek against my father's sweatshirt even harder. I wondered if he felt it.

"What is it?" Will asked sharply, obviously annoyed by Dylan's mouthing off. "What could she have done that was so bad, tell me?"
I bit my lip. He didn't even suspect me.

Dylan snorted and shook his head as if in disbelief.

"No, you're right. It's not a big deal. She's a little angel. Right, Hailie?" He winked at me.

Tony seemed even more interested in the rest of his steak than before, Shane started looking through his knife as if trying to locate a smudge on it, and Will and Vincent were the only ones who didn't quite know what was going on and were apparently trying with their last strength not to jump to any hasty conclusions.

Dylan would probably leave the subject now, pulling it out of his sleeve in the future at the least convenient time for me and I knew it well, so I decided to bravely not give him that satisfaction. I absolutely had no desire to admit any guilt, especially now that Will was here with us, who had given me such boundless credit, but I had already learned that in this family everything comes to light sooner or later and the sooner it does, the better.

So I tightened my fingers on my father's sweatshirt, drawing his attention to me, and muttered quietly:
"He knows about this outing of mine with the twins."

I heard and felt my father's chest rise as he took a deeper breath.

"Who let on?" He growled loudly and I could only guess that he was staring at the twins with a murderous look.

"Tony," Shane muttered at once.

Hm, I see brotherly solidarity is doing well.

"What is it about?" Will asked and tightened his fingers on the cutlery he was holding, which was the first sign of tension. To make matters worse, Vince also, with relative calm written on his face, stopped focusing on his food.

I imagined all this happening later. In a few weeks, maybe a month. How Dylan rats me out in front of our oldest brother, and I'm alone with him, and then he looks at me with those ice-crusted irises of his. How he berates me when I'm alone, when I usually can't defend myself much....

"I was at the bar with Shane and Tony," I muttered, glancing shyly at Will on one hand and hugging dad even tighter on the other.

My favorite brother's lips parted in surprise and his eyebrows went up. Tony didn't take another bite, but instead clicked his tongue loudly and tilted his head back as if he had just lost at that videogame of his. Dylan looked at me without saying a word, probably frantically wondering how best to steer the upcoming conversation so I wouldn't get out of my troubles too easily.
"At the bar?" Vincent repeated, seemingly calm, but I felt my insides tingle. Then he looked at the twins in disbelief. "Did you take her to the bar?"

"I let them," dad interjected.

Vince and Will together looked at him as if he had spoken in the elf language.

"You let them take Hailie to the bar?" my favorite brother repeated. The other one rubbed his eyes, as if they were pinching him, as happens, for example, from cutting onions. A clear sign of being upset with our parent's decision.

"I allowed it, yes, and that's it, end of story," dad cut off.

How great it must be to have enough authority with my brothers to be able to end a discussion with them with one growl.

Well, unless someone, like Dylan, adds something else.

"She got wasted."

"Not true," I protested quickly, before anyone could even gasp in response. Wasted sounds too serious. I was just a bit tipsy.

I was watching my sneakers with interest, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the brothers.

"And... And what, did you really agree to this?" Will asked, and the disbelief in his head shone through as clearly as the sun through the clouds on a Canarian beach.
"I only allowed them to go out. And maybe to have a sip of wine. Those guys didn't watch her and it turned out the way it did, there's no need to analysie things," Cam said reluctantly.

"Excuse me, what do you mean they didn't watch her?" Vincent asked and his cold voice only confirmed that it was better not to raise my head. "Doesn't our dear sister have a mind of her own?"

"Good question," muttered Tony, barely audible.

"Good question," said Dylan louder.

"All right, all right, she already knows she did wrong. There's no reason to go back on it."

I was glad that dad was standing firmly behind me, even though I feared that my mean brother wouldn't let go and I was right.

"Well of course, what happend just happened and we should forget about it," he waved his hand with a dastardly smile. "I'm sure Hailie managed to remove that video from the internet, right?"

What I would give to have big wings growing on my back now, wings on which I could fly away. I felt my father's arm around me stiffen.
"What video?"

"Oh, right," Dylan sighed and smacked his forehead, playing the damn actor. "I was the one who went to the bar owner two days ago to have a chat with him about what he was promoting his shitty bar with."

Oh, and I didn't know that. I glanced at my brother surprised.

"What the hell are you talking about?" dad hissed. I continued to snuggle up to him, though I was getting less and less comfort from this closeness.

Dylan pulled out his phone and I closed my eyelids. Well, this is about to start.

"You're mean, you know that?" I growled at him venomously.

"Here you have your little innocent Hailie," he said. He played the stupid video on his phone and put it on the table, right in the middle, so everyone involved could see it. Dad and Will leaned in that direction, and Vince, who was sitting closest to the source, only squinted. The twins, on the other hand, were not at all curious about what Dylan's phone was displaying, so surely they must have seen the material before.
I didn't feel like watching it myself, because even though I was only shown it once, that was really enough for me.

Luckily, it was a very short clip, and I'll say it again: if someone didn't know it was me, they probably wouldn't even recognize me. That's what I thought, but the rest probably had a different opinion about it.

If it was possible, my dad's arm stiffened even more and I felt as if a stone sculpture was now embracing me. When I timidly glanced up at his face, he didn't seem pleased. No, that's an understatement, he looked like he was a bomb and a sapper all in one, like he was trying with all his might not to explode.

To make matters worse, I soon noticed that Vincent was staring at him and that together they were making eye contact with such a solid connection, as if they were just having a wordless discussion. Or they were deciding whether it was enough to put a padlock on my bedroom door, or whether it would be better to add bars on the windows as well, just in case.
I desperately sought Will's gaze, praying for his support, but he too didn't seem impressed by my little performance and made sure to clearly communicate it to me with at least a strained expression on his face.

Finally, dad stirred, as if someone had suddenly disenchanted him with a magic wand.

"Where was it shared?" He asked and suddenly took on the mask of a professional.

"Facebook, Instagram and the bar's website,' Dylan replied, and slipped his phone neatly back into his pocket.

"Did a lot of people share it? Downloaded it?"

"No, a few shares and two downloads, no crazy numbers."

"Ehe, and it's already been deleted?"

"Yeah," Dylan nodded. "First I wanted to handle the situation politely, as always. I texted with their lady responsible of their social media, but she ignored me. So then I visited the owner."

"What, alone?" dad growled.

"With the boys," Dylan pointed at Shane and Tony with a shake of his head. "But there was no brawl."

"Good," dad muttered quietly, nodding his head as if to himself, then he raised it again and squinted, pointing his finger at Dylan. "For future reference, remember that you don't do these things yourself. You come to me or Vincent. Me or Vincent, get it?"
"It's just some random guy who runs a bar, no need to make a fuss," Dylan rolled his eyes.

"I'll make you fuss if you want. I'm telling you that what you do in the next time?" Dad's voice got dangerously low and I began to regret being so close to him. "Come to me or Vincent. Or Will. Not some fucking lawlessness. Understood?"

Dylan nodded, looking somewhere to the side, clearly unhappy with the scolding he was receiving from our parent.

"The same goes for you," Cam continued, this time taking his two youngest sons under fire. "What is wrong with you? Why didn't you tell me about the video? Are you covering your asses at the expense of your sister's image? Is that what you're doing?"

"No," Tony burbled, and although he hadn't finished eating yet, he reached for a pack of cigarettes that was lying on the windowsill next to him.

"We didn't know about the video before. Dylan was the one who found it," Shane added.

"You guys didn't fucking know anything," dad bellowed. "Were you even there with her? Because in the video, she's dancing on the bar by herself. And what did you do at that time? Did you go for a walk or what the fuck! Didn't I make it clear when I told you not to let her out of your sight?"
"Well, we were there with her..." Shane calmly raised his eyes to the sky, as if he was above talking to someone who was so uptight about him. "She just slipped away from us for a moment...."

I heard an ironic snort just above my ear.

"Shane, think about what you're saying to me, huh? Think about it, I advise you well," Dad put his other hand (the one that did not embrace me at the moment) on my shoulder, putting down the fork with a clatter. "You are twice her size. And you're telling me that you couldn't keep an eye on her? Don't make a fool of yourself, huh?"

"Yeah, well, she's small..." Shane pointed at me for everyone to take another look at me, as if they hadn't seen my figure before. "That's why it's easier for her to disappear into the crowd."

Dad turned towards Vincent, who was listening to the discussion in silence.

"Do you hear? From now on, every time Hailie goes out with Shane or Tony, Sonny has to be with them. No matter what happens. Because as you can see, they can't protect her properly on their own."
The twins were silent, and our oldest brother nodded one by one, then spoke up, in his usual emotionally washed out voice.

"I would like to know..." he began and tilted his head slightly, his gaze landing on the last person in the company who had the will and courage to bear it.  "How did Hailie even end up in such a state?"

There was a silence, and only after a moment did I realize that it was time for me to speak.

"Well... it's not my fault," I grunted, searching in my head for sensible arguments. During conversations with my legal guardian, those usually all left me in agreement.

"Not yours?" Vince raised his eyebrows, then furrowed them. "Did someone force alcohol down your throat?"

"No," I sighed "but it was unintentional."

"She was walking, tripped, fell on a bottle of vodka and it happened. What's not to understand?" Dylan sneered.

"No?" I snarled at him because it had been a long time since he had annoyed me as much as he did today. "I wasn't drinking any vodka. Shane ordered some sangria for me, but instead of a glass they brought a whole jug and... it just sort of happened."
"It's still an idiotic excuse," Vincent said. "Leaving aside the fact, which I find absurd, that you were given permission to drink, you disobeyed and consumed more alcohol than you should have. You could have acted maturely or childishly. You chose the second option, as happens to you quite often."

"There's no denying it," Tony chuckled under his breath, and he was unlucky enough for me to hear him.

"Oh, but I wasn't that bad, was I, Tony? Otherwise my tongue would have been all tangled up and I wouldn't have been able to protect you from the police," I sneered and barely consciously I clenched my fingers on dad's sweatshirt. I was still close to his side, but for the sake of self-defense I could no longer hug him.

Then I got a hostile look from the youngest of my older brothers.

"Sorry?" Will interjected and looked at him, as I think everyone else did as well.

"What is she talking about?" dad wheezed, and if he had managed to calm down even a little over the last minute, his blood pressure must have jumped again now.
Shane rubbed his forehead like a wise man tormented by life and even Vincent looked like he had had enough.

"Well, some jerk started to pick on her, so he got it," Tony explained.

Of course, dad asked more questions, so that my brother ended up describing the situation in details. Cam was upset that someone had managed to get close enough to me to grab my arm at all, and to talk to me long enough to say something inappropriate, but in no way did he seem half as concerned about his son almost getting arrested as I expected him to be.

"This is some kind of grotesque," Vincent commented as he got up from the table, having previously wiped his mouth with a napkin. He stepped aside as if he didn't want to see us, but stopped nearby with his arms folded across his chest. Even without a blood pressure monitor, it was clear that the blood was bubbling in his veins.

"Yep. Drunk Hailie is a grotesque," Dylan muttered.

I was already opening my mouth to bark something back, but I fell silent, making room to show off for dad, who raised his hand vertically as if holding us back.
"Okay, okay, okay," he suddenly began, in a slightly altered voice. "Just a moment. Calm down," He fell silent, then immediately continued: "Get off her. She screwed up. She shouldn't have. It was a mistake. The kind of mistake that, no matter how you look at it, every single one of us has made in the past."

Will shook his head in apparent disapproval.

"Dad, I understand what you're trying to say, but the way you're making this thing look so unimportant is going to encourage Hailie to accidentally drink the whole jug again the next first chance she gets. This time maybe not even sangria, but something stronger."

"First you let her have a drink and then you are angry with us because the night got out of hand," Shane complained. "Try to deal with her for at least five minutes when she's drank. She's turning into a little devil, you'd get nuts."

"Be careful or I'll get nuts now and you'll regret it. Watch your mouth when you speak to me, you hear?" dad growled at once, then added more calmly: "I admitted before that it was my fault. My stupid idea. That's why I forgave you all. Including Hailie. But if you absolutely want me to stop holding back, then all right, here you go." Here he took a deeper breath. "Did any of you wonder why Hailie overdid it with the alcohol? Why the fuck did she think it would be a good idea to drink all the wine?"
I listened in suspense, wondering if my father intended to speak in my favor now. Vincent turned back toward us, ready to make his own harsh assessment of his words immediately. The rest of my brothers were also silent.

"Because the forbidden fruit tastes best, and right now this girl's entire life consists precisely of prohibitions. Imagine how refreshing it must be to break at least one of them," Cam said, and I still wasn't sure if I liked him talking about me like that in my presence and in front of the boys.

"That doesn't explain that kind of behavior..." Vincent began dismissively, but dad interrupted him by raising a finger in the air.

"It does. It doesn't excuse such behavior, yes, I agree here, but it certainly explains it."

"Somehow you weren't so understanding with us before," Dylan reproached him.

"Because I raised you from a young age. Way different than Hailie's mom raised her. That's why not everything is as obvious to her as it should be to you. Next time one of you wants to forbid her something for her own good, explain it to her, damn it, not tell her it's the way you want it because you want it that way. This girl has ears, use that. Talk to her. Not just threaten her with the finger. No wonder she rebelled at the first better opportunity."
The boys were silent, and he immediately continued, turning, to my dismay, to me.

"To be clear. This..." Here dad pointed to the spot where Dylan's phone had been lying earlier. "It was an overkill. Totally unacceptable. I don't condone these things, I don't defend them. You're supposed to protect your privacy, Hailie, because there are people out there who are professionally scouring the internet for just such material. For various purposes, really. That's why you have to be careful."

I nodded my head, which I lowered timidly, because it was the first time dad had expressed his disapproval so sharply when commenting on my actions. And that in front of everyone! But when I felt him hugging me tighter and kissing me on the top of my head, I was somewhat relieved. So he was angry, but not really, really angry.

"I'm proud of you guys, I really am. Vincent, you piss me off incredibly sometimes, but you do a really good job. And you bravely agreed to take responsibility for your little sister. I'm sorry I can't be with you to lighten the load. I'm the one who should be living with you and making the decisions that now rest on your shoulders. I know that, but life has worked out this way, not the other, and we have to deal with it. And you have each other and that's what's most important in all of this."
Dad was lovely. He could always sum things up or explain them in nice words. Or end a dispute, as was more or less the case here. We spent the last moments together, and when the boys were leaving the islands, I was already wondering when we would see each other again.

New Year's Eve passed very quietly for me. Dad ordered delicious food, we watched two movies and played an interesting board game together with Benny. Blanche went to bed before midnight, mumbling under her breath that she doesn't recognize New Year's Eve, that it's a stupid idea and that if she wants to sleep, she'll sleep and no one should care. Dylan, on the other hand, as announced, stayed with us in the Canary Islands, but wherever he was lost for the night, he returned on New Year's afternoon very happy. I tried to ask him if he was with Martina, but at first he acted mysterious and then he started being mean, so I let it go.

And finally it was time to go home. Saying goodbye to dad was a little easier than last time, and that was because we had grown closer and I knew that we would both see again soon. I was no longer embarrassed to ask for it. At the same time, it made me sad to think that a man who valued the value of family as much as Cam did, could not truly enjoy it in the place he would always call home.
I was also sad to say goodbye to Blanche, because although she scared me quite a bit at the very beginning, I had now grown accustomed to her and liked her a lot. I could have a grandmother again for a while and it was a nice feeling. She must have felt affection for me too, because she gave me a very big hug goodbye, which was very unlike her.

I took our jet back with Dylan. It was an incredible nonsense, because first our brothers took the provate plane home, and then they send it empty back here a few days later so we could take it. I thought it was very uneconomical and environmentally unfriendly, but dad insisted that he hadn't bought the plane to have it getting dusty in a hangar.

My return home was mainly associated with a thermal shock, because winter was in full swing here. And then I immediately jumped into the swirl of studying, because in the middle of the month in our school there were semester exams scheduled, in which I was also supposed to participate. Tatiana's help in preparation was irreplaceable, and I, still trapped in the Monet mansion with nothing even better to do, just focused on my books, so I felt more than ready to pass the exam with flying colours.
If admitting that I was excited about taking exams sounds lame, consider the version that I was just glad to be back in school, even if only for a little while. I was happy to see my friends again. The first step in returning to normalcy. I asked to be driven to school early that day. I had to visit the office to get some paper concerning my individual teaching and I also wanted to use the spare time to talk to Mona, who was also supposed to come early.

I immediately threw myself into her arms. How good it was to finally see her! She was recharging in her eyes, really. It seems like the last time we met was years ago. And I missed her so much! She had curled her brown hair a bit and was wearing beautiful, natural makeup. She was getting better and better at mastering this art, I had to give her credit for that.

"You're back, finally," Mona sighed, and as she looked into my eyes, she decided to hug me again.

"Have you found new friends yet?" I asked with a laugh, although, to be honest, I was really afraid of that. That Mona and I would lose the closeness we had because I was away a lot. She was an open person who made friends easily. Probably easier than I did. Plus, she started going to parties. She had already been to a pre-Christmas house party and a New Year's Eve party. I was worried that she would now endlessly reminisce about the best moments with the people she met there, and with me she would simply run out of common topics.
"Yeah, but none of them are as cool as you," she giggled.

I smiled. How good it feels to be back alive.

When we stopped embracing for the second time, I immediately looked around. There weren't many people passing around us because it was still relatively early.

"Where's Marshall?" I asked. I needed to see him too.

Mona got a little more serious.

"He had some trouble getting admitted to the exams. You know he didn't do well in math. The teacher was mean to him, everyone can see that. He was supposed to be fine, and then last night the headmistress called his parents. I don't know exactly what it was about. All I know is that he is in the office right now with his father and they are explaining the matter.

I furrowed my eyebrows in sympathy.

"Poor Marshall. It's awful to have so much unnecessary stress right before an exam..."

Mona nodded and got my attention with the way she stubbornly avoided making eye contact with me for a long moment.

"What is it?" I asked. "Mona, are you okay?"
"Yes. Yes," she assured me quickly, throwing me a fake smile that quickly disappeared. "No."

"Is this about Marshall?"

Mona shook her head negatively.

"No, not at all. It's... it's something else."

I waited impatiently for her to tell me what was going on. My heart was pounding harder by the second. I was afraid of hearing unpleasant news.

"Well? Tell me, please, don't scare me."

"I don't want to upset you. I thought I would tell you after the exams, or later at all. But now I see that I can't even look you in the eye."

I looked at her concerned and finally looked around again. Then I grabbed her wrist and pulled her to the side, into the recess between the lockers and the wall.

"Tell me."

Mona took a deep breath and anguished, pleaded with me with a look I don't know what for.

"I kissed your brother."

I choked on air. I didn't even know that was possible, and here I was. I stood there and I thought I was going to suffocate. On top of that, my insides shrank as if an invisible hand was trying to squeeze the last juices out of them. I thought I was going to faint.
"Which one?!" I squealed, barely able to speak.

"Tony, who else?" Mona answered and stretched out her hands as if to pray. "Don't be angry with me, Hailie, please."

I shook my head and took a step back, as if my friend had pulled out a knife and had just stabbed me with it. My facial expression must have expressed more than a thousand words, because Mona really started to panic.

"Hailie, it's not like that. It happened at a party. That Christmas party. One time."

"Is that why you didn't want to call me? You said the speaker on your phone wasn't working! Meanwhile, you were just afraid to talk to me!"

"I didn't know what to tell you. Hailie, really. I didn't expect what happened myself. You know I liked Tony. I didn't know how to respond to that. I finally decided I wanted to tell you in person. And now that I saw you, I knew I couldn't wait," Mona explained, waving her hands chaotically.

I pressed my lips together and lowered my gaze. I was boiling with rage. I couldn't just analyze it, I could just feel it.
"Tell me," I demanded.

Mona nodded vigorously, apparently happy that I was giving her a chance to explain.

"So, yes, I went to this party. It took me an awfully long time to get ready. The makeup alone took me about two hours, but it came out great. Everyone loved it. I'll show you pictures later," Mona waved her hands around as if she was warning herself not to stray from the topic. "And I was excited, because it was my first party like that, but I was also stressed because I didn't know too many people there. You know, because it turned out that there were older people there too. I hanged out close to Lavinia..." Mona said and I nodded. Lavinia was quite a party girl, the one with whom acquaintance was a passport to invitations to various house parties. Since Jason's time Lavinia was very fond of both Mona and me, so we were to get more and more invitations. Of course, in my case, my name was automatically included in every guest list, but I didn't think about that yet. "So Lavinia took me straight to the kitchen to get something to drink. And there was this guy Clay. You know Clay? He's so funny. And he makes the strongest drinks. Jeez, seriously, it was a blast. I think he poured me so much vodka and just so much juice. No, it was different. Somewhere with that much vodka..." Mona tried to visually show me how much it might have been until she finally lowered her hands. "Anyway, I didn't want to drink too much. I mean I wanted to, but not that many strong drinks. My sister always told me to be careful because they're, you know, treacherous."
With my eyebrows raised and my hands on my hips, I waited for the most interesting thread.

"So I'm standing in this kitchen, and all of a sudden a bunch of guys walk in. And I recognized Tyler and the one with the blond hair. And all of a sudden, there's Tony. Oh, man, Hailie, my legs got so soft, I swear to you. And all of a sudden, I was sweating like a pig. Jesus. That was awful."

"Did Tony recognize you?" I hissed through clenched teeth.

"He didn't look at me at all at first. They started sharing alcohol there and I was standing there like a bump on the log and all I had in my head was 'Don't stare at him, don't stare, you idiot.' And the worst thing is that I was so nervous standing there that I kept drinking. I was in fact chugging this drink. And I drank it in about five minutes. Five minutes, Hailie! That's awfully quick. I wasn't done yet, and I could feel my head starting to spin."

Mona was playing with her hands, obviously preoccupied, and I was looking at her impassively, anxiously waiting for the punch line.
"And of course, it was obvious that I was staring. Finally he saw it, the blond guy, and said something out loud that I was staring like at a picture, and he poked Tony, and I thought the ground will swallow me up. Hailie, how red I was! Tony only then looked at me, but only so fleetingly, and smirked. And I ran away. I ran off to the girls, to the living room. They laughed at me, saying I must have seen a ghost. And I was getting really drunk and then I was sitting with them and someone else brought me another drink and I also drank it fast. But I didn't have much fun, because I couldn't get myself together, I was so embarrassed!

"God, Mona..." I sighed. I imagined it, and one thing I had to admit, my brothers had an exquisite knack for putting others to shame. I could sign off on that with my hands and feet.

"Also, my only entertainment at this party was drinking, because it was the only thing that made me slowly forget about what had happened. Eventually I got so drunk that I didn't know what was going on. I was in the living room, I think I fell over. I definitely tore my tights, that's what I remember. Clay was joking something to me there. It was generally funny, but somebody took me outside, for fresh air. You know, I don't think I even remember who..." Mona furrowed her brows, but quickly stopped thinking about it. "Anyway, there were a lot of people outside smoking cigarettes and..."
"And Tony was there too," I finished for her, straining those words through clenched teeth.

Mona nodded shyly.

"Yeah. He was. And, you know, he was sober in the kitchen at the time, but after, outside he was kind of drunk already. I, of course, stared at him like a fool again, but this time I felt no shame, nothing at all. And he returned my gaze. Hailie, I liked him so much, I thought I was going crazy. He had this bright sweatshirt and a jacket over it, black, and you could see a piece of that tattoo of his and those eyes of his, jesus...."

"Okay, I get it, what's next?" I urged her, curtly.

"It was cold, so all those smokers went home right away when they finished. And I stood there, because I was supposed to sober up. I didn't know what was going on anyway. And out of nowhere, suddenly Tony is standing in front of me. My heart started pounding like crazy. He said something to me."

"What was he saying?" I asked sharply.

"I don't know, he was asking if I was going inside. And I said that I wanted to be outdoors. And... I asked him to give me a cigarette."

"I don't know why, I don't smoke. But he said he didn't have one."

"I'm sure he did have."

"I don't know, but it's a good thing he didn't give me a cigarette, or I'd have gotten completely wasted. And it happened then, Hailie, I don't know, I don't remember the details, I swear. He was somehow standing close to me, and I was looking to the side, and then all of a sudden I saw his lips and smelled this perfume, I-I can't believe what perfume he has! To this day I dream about it at night. So strong and masculine... And somehow even those cigarettes didn't smell so bad to me. And, after all, I was into him, so when he was standing so perfect right in front of me, it suddenly turned out that... we started kissing."

I closed my eyelids, trying to throw out the image of my friend and brother making out together outside some guy's house.

"Mona, that's disgusting," I finally said, opening my eyes.

"I liked it," She shrugged her shoulders and quickly restated her thoughts, noticing my expression. "But I shouldn't have done it, I know, I know. I know."
"Mhm, and what happened next?"

Mona bit her lip and glanced down. Oho, I knew it couldn't be anything good.

"What was next?" I pressed on, desperate to know.

"He touched my cheek, like this oh, and offered as if... Although he actually asked, just normal you know, I mean non-committal, but not in the sense that..."

"What did he ask?!" I hissed hard, tired of this beating around the bush.

"He asked if the bedroom.. if I would like to go with him there."

I looked at my friend's perplexed face and felt a wave of huge, burning anger gather inside me.

"What did you reply?" I asked calmly, and for the first time I really felt like Vincent when he was angry, but suppressed it in order to get the information he needed from his interlocutor.

"I didn't go," Mona muttered immediately. "It crossed my mind to say yes, I won't lie. But I don't know, I was afraid... I said to him that I guess not and that I was sorry..."

"Why did you apologize to him?" I snorted not amused at all.

"I don't know. I didn't want him to be angry... I was drunk, and Tony is you know, my crush."
I cringed at that embarrassing word.

"What did he say?" I continued. I was going to listen to this story to the end.

"He looked at me like that for a minute and then he started shaking his head and so he took his hand and so he rubbed his face and then he looked at me again and said that I shouldn't come to parties like this and get drunk anyway. That it wasn't the place for me..."

I remained silent while Mona chewed her lip, staring at the floor.

"He called a cab for me and waited with me until it arrived. Well, and he took out a cigarette then, which means he actually had more.... And then he put me in the car and I don't know, that's it. My parents caught me coming back because I almost rolled down the stairs at home. I made a lot of noise. They were furious. They barely let me go to New Year's Eve."

I looked at her and felt my head pulsing with information. I was sick to my stomach. I was mad at Mona for picking my brother out of all the guys. I was mad at Tony for being older and more experienced and not being able to just ignore my friend's ill advances. Well, and he offered to her to go to the bedroom! What if she had said yes? What if she was so drunk she didn't know what she was doing?"
"Say something, Hailie," Mona asked me.

"What should I tell you? You kissed my brother. What am I supposed to say to that?" I rubbed my forehead. I really didn't know what to do.

"I know, I know, I'm sorry. I want to be fair to you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry it was Tony. But it was just a kiss. At a party. It didn't mean anything. You know, people kiss at parties all the time."

I just nodded.

"I'm not angry, Mona," I said finally. "I have to get used to it because you surprised me, but I'm not angry. Not at you."

"You know, Tony didn't behave badly either. He wasn't pushy or anything. And he even paid for the cab."

"What a gentleman," I muttered ironically under my breath, then sighed heavily.

For a while we were standing opposite each other in silence, but the corridor behind my back started to get busier and busier. More and more students appeared in school, so there was less time left before the exams started.

"I have to go. To the office," I said. "I'll see you later."
"Okay. Thanks, Hailie," Mona said and gave me a quick hug again, which I returned. "Good luck!"

I walked through the school corridor, every now and then returning smiles or waving at friends who saw me at school for the first time in about two months. I didn't talk to anyone, though, because I was in a hurry to check in at the registrar's office. I also couldn't stop thinking about Mona. I made excuses for her with all my might, and I was doing quite well. I knew what it was like to drink too much and lose your temper. When I overdid it with alcohol, the twins were with me to kill my stupid ideas as soon as they were born. Mona, on the other hand, was left to her own.

For that, making excuses for Tony didn't sit well with me. My hands involuntarily clenched into fists at the mere thought of him.

"Hailie!" someone called out to me and I was about to raise my head and wave back when I saw it was Marshall.

Marshall deserved to be approached and greeted. After all, I was pretty close with him too, and besides, he was standing outside the principal's office anyway, right where the secretary's office was nearby, which is where I was headING too.
"Hey!" I smiled broadly at the sight of him. Marshall was getting bigger and more muscular every time I saw him. "Are you okay? I heard you had some kind of problem..."

Marshall raised his eyes to the ceiling.

"Don't even mention it. I'll tell you later. Dad's already taken care of the problem." As my friend was saying this, a man of medium height, slightly balding but neatly dressed, came out of the office. He had a light beard and glasses with delicate metal frames on his nose. "Oh, that's him. Hailie, this is my dad, dad, this is Hailie, my friend."

I greeted him politely, as one would with a friend's parent, and the man immediately looked at me, extremely intently. I returned his gaze somewhat surprised. And then I was surprised even more, as Marshall's dad bowed low in front of me.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Monet," he spoke in a deep voice. "My compliments to my brother.""

I was stunned. I stared at him like an idiot, unable to even blink. He, meanwhile, said a quick goodbye to Marshall, wished him good luck and nodded at me stately, then left.
"Hello, Hailie, are you okay?" The boy swept his hand in front of my eyes.

I blinked.

"M-Marshall... what was that?"

"Well..." he started confused and scratched his head. "Well, my dad works for your brother, didn't you know?"

I gave him a look of disbelief.

"Are you kidding me? Since when? How was I supposed to know?"

"Since always, I guess... " he shrugged his shoulders and then, seeing the look on my face, added quickly: "But I didn't know it then either. Because he worked for someone who works for someone who works for the Monets. It was recently that he got a decent promotion, about a month ago. Now sometimes he even contacts Vincent directly," Marshall announced in a tone like I was about to congratulate him, and then immediately laughed under his breath: "He had a funny look on his face when I told him I was friends with you. He had never before associated that the Hailie from my stories was Vincent's sister. I thoguht you knew..."

"No," I replied dryly. "You know that my brothers don't tell me much."
"Yeah, well... Sorry, Hailie. I hope that's not a problem? I mean, for our friendship? My dad's thrilled with the promotion. He's making a lot more money now."

I nodded my head, trying to smile at Marshall's joy.

"What does he actually do?" I asked, because I thought it was an important question, given the variety of businesses my family was involved in.

"He's a lawyer."

I nodded my head again. I didn't want to kill Marshall's enthusiasm, because I understood that his dad's promotion was a change for the good in his family, although I wondered if my friend realized how much hard work his father now was about to face.

"I'll talk to you later, okay? I need to approach the office before the start," I said, deciding to focus on my business first.

"Sure. Sure. So... good luck!" Marshall winked at me and walked away slowly.

And I took a deep breath and started walking as well.

My. Brothers. Are. Everywhere.

They are like a fog that descends on everything and everyone around. Everyone is influenced by them, even my friends, and the moment I realized this, my throat tightened.
My good mood caused by returning to the world of the living was quickly ruined. Now I was a bundle of stress and nerves and it was not because of the exams.

And before I reached the office, before I pressed the door handle and went inside, I met one more person on my way.