“I’m not going to discuss this right now. I’m the eldest brother so it falls to me to take care of it. You don’t have to worry about it. Needless to say, I want you to treat her with respect, and also to respect my decisions as they pertain to her. Understand, Teddy?”

He put his fork down. “What does that mean?”

“That means you may disagree or even hate some of the things you see or hear, but she is my responsibility and these things must be done.”

“Why?”

Vinemont pinched the bridge of his nose. “Because they must.”

“Okay, but why?”

“Goddammit, Teddy!” Vinemont slammed his fist down on the table.

Teddy jumped and seemed genuinely uneasy. Had he never seen his brother act like this? I could give him a lesson or two about the real Vinemont.

Vinemont placed both palms flat on the table and took a deep breath. He seemed as if he were trying to hold himself together somehow. “Let me give you an idea of what I mean.” He turned to face me. “Stella, take off your clothes and stand on the table.”

I stopped mid-chew. “What?”

“You heard me.”

I looked at Teddy. His eyes were wide, the blood fading from his face as it did the same from mine.

“Don’t look at him, Stella. You’re not his. You’re mine. You will do as you’re told or you will be punished. Strip. Unless you’d like me to call Judge Montagnet?”

His threat spurred me into action. I stood.

Teddy did, too. “No, Sin.”

“Teddy, sit down. You need to learn how thing are done. I’ve coddled you for far too long.”

Teddy backed away from the table as I lifted the hem of my shirt, pulling it over my head with shaking hands. Tears burned behind my eyes, at the back of my throat, but I did what he said. I couldn’t risk not obeying.

“No, Sin, make her stop!” Panic filled Teddy’s plea.

“Sit. Down.” Vinemont’s jaw was tight.

Teddy obeyed. Just like I did. Just like everyone under this roof must.

I unbuttoned my pants and drew down the zipper before shimmying out of them. I took a deep breath, hatred burning in my breast for Vinemont, even though he wasn’t looking at me. He was focused on Teddy, where the real battle for control was being waged.

Now only wearing my bra and panties, I put a foot on the nearest chair to climb onto the table.

“I said all of it, Stella, or did you not hear me?” Vinemont’s cold voice was quiet.

Bastard. A sob tried to escape, but I wouldn’t let it. I reached behind my back and unclasped my bra, a single tear sliding down my face. My mind was screaming, roaring, crying. On the outside, I was placid. Only the uneven fall of tears gave me away.

I pulled my bra off and dropped it in the chair where I’d been sitting moments before. Teddy darted his gaze away. With shaking fingers, I pulled my panties down and kicked them aside.

“Look at her, Teddy.” Vinemont fixated on Teddy. “Look!”

Teddy turned his face to mine, his kind eyes now fearful.

“Up on the table. Stand there.”

I pulled a chair back and stepped into it before climbing up onto the table. The polished wood was slick and cold beneath my bare feet.

“Face me, Stella.” He still stared down Teddy, forcing the boy to watch my every move.

More tears escaped, landing on my breasts and rolling down to my stomach. I dropped my head, fixating on the table beneath me. Humiliation flowed through me like blood, or maybe more like gasoline, fueling my hatred yet explosive at the same time.

“Do you understand now, Teddy? Is it clear?”

“Y-yes.”

“Good. Now finish your breakfast.” Vinemont took another long swig from his coffee and attacked his food.

Teddy picked at what remained on his plate. “Are you just going to make her stand there?”

“I can make her do more, if you’d like.”

Teddy slammed down his fork. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“This is necessary. It’s what has to be done. Get used to it.” That was the Vinemont I knew, cold and unforgiving. Maybe he was right. Maybe the sooner Teddy realized his brother was a monster, the better.

Vinemont still hadn’t looked at me. Coward.

A whistle sounded at my back. Vinemont’s head whipped up, but he didn’t look past me. Instead, he focused on me, taking me in, taking everything from me. His expression turned from anger to something else. He stood and froze, tension rolling off him in waves.

“Lucius, glad you could join us.” Vinemont’s gaze travelled my body. His stare was possessive, desirous.

I wanted to cross my legs, cover myself somehow. I knew he wouldn’t allow it. So I stood, letting the degradation wash over me.

“So this is the Acquisition?” A man, his voice similar in tone to Vinemont’s, yet silkier.

“Yes.” Vinemont’s gaze was still on me, as if he didn’t want to give me up.

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