Lucius straightened his coat and smiled. “Lesson of the day, Dylan. Don’t fuck with us or our property.”

“She’s not property.” Dylan coughed and rolled to his back.

The chatter started again, the momentary blood sport at an end.

“She’s mine, you little shit. That’s all you need to know.”

“Ignore him. Come on.” I helped Dylan into a sitting position. “Are you okay?” I felt along his ribs and he winced. They could have been broken for all I knew. “Can you walk?”

“I-I think so.”

Lucius stepped over Dylan’s legs to stand at my side and peered down at me. “Come on, Stella.”

I glared at him, acid in my gaze. “No! Back off, Lucius.”

I hitched my hand under Dylan’s arm to try and help him to his feet, but a searing pain along my scalp had me crying out. Lucius wrenched me from the floor by my hair and brought my face to his.

“You will do as I say, Stella. Every—fucking—time.” His eyes flashed and his voice was thick with malice.

I spat in his face, anger flowing up through me like lava. “Fuck you.”

“Enough,” Vinemont growled, and wrapped his arm around my waist, pulling me away from Lucius. I dug my fingers into him and tried to pry his hand loose. His mouth was at my ear. “Stop making a scene. Stop making us have to hurt you.”

I stilled against his chest, but scowled at Lucius. He drew out his kerchief and popped it before wiping his face. He smiled as he did it, as if enjoying some private joke.

Everything had turned into a fight. More blood, more pain—I was awash in the cruelest of emotions, and in a few days, things would only get worse.

Dylan struggled to his feet, his breath coming in quick pants. I wanted to go to him, but I didn’t. Vinemont’s strong arms had me rooted to the spot.

Cal and Marguerite emerged from amongst the fronds and fountains, laughing politely. Dylan smoothed his jacket and shot Lucius a dark look before turning to his mother.

“How was it?” he asked.

“The orchid? Glorious,” Marguerite simpered. “Makes me think of having the greenhouse at the Acres rebuilt.”

Cal gave a slight bow and handed Marguerite off to Dylan, who smiled despite what must have been an aching pain in his ribs on both sides.

“What did I miss?” Cal asked.

Given his narrowed gaze and even haughtier demeanor, I surmised Cal never missed much of anything.

“Just some rough and tumble antics. You know how it is when boys get together.” Vinemont’s smooth words covered the jagged scrapes and bruises of only moments before.

“I do. But we want to treat our new guests with utmost respect at all times. We are so pleased to have them here in our midst.” Cal’s chiding tone was buried in an over-friendly smile as he patted Dylan on the back.

“Of course. Glad to be here.” Dylan fell into his easy manners, learned through a life of the best schools, fancy dinners, debutante balls, and the like. He wasn’t rocking the boat in front of Cal. Maybe he was smarter than I’d given him credit for in the past.

When he shook Cal’s hand, I realized that some of what Cal had said was true. Dylan was one of them. He was born and bred to fall right in step with these people. Doubt crept into my mind. Marguerite must have made a sizeable investment to get into this party. Dylan would be risking his family fortune and his future if he tried to take my side in anything having to do with the Acquisition.

“Well, it’s been fun, but Stella here will turn into a peasant—I mean pumpkin—if we don’t get her back home soon.” Lucius patted Dylan on the back far too hard, and Dylan gritted his teeth at the second assault.

Vinemont stayed at my back the entire time, his clean scent enveloping me, and his heart beating against me. His arm was still at my waist, a sturdy band of bone and muscle that kept me locked tight to his body. I got the feeling that if Cal asked for me to sit with him now, Vinemont would tell him to go to hell.

Once Lucius was done with Dylan, he stalked over to me. I kicked my chin up and met his stare. I was trapped between the two Vinemont men, the one at my back an enigma, the one in front an open book of deceit.

“Take my arm and walk out of here, Stella.” Lucius’ voice was a low, dangerous purr.

“Do it.” Vinemont’s voice in my ear. He shifted and pulled his arm away, his fingers trailing along my stomach and making my skin tingle as he went. I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to believe that maybe something was different, that maybe he felt the same connection I couldn’t escape. But he’d turned me over to Lucius.

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