I’d heard her sobs, stood outside her door and listened to the aftermath of what I’d done. She would never let me in again; not in her bed, and definitely not in her heart. It was better for her this way. I had to destroy her or watch my brother do it. Wanting her, feeling her entwined in my very soul, had nothing to do with the Acquisition. And it couldn’t. I wouldn’t let it interfere.

I tucked a glass under my arm and swung Lucius’ door open. His room was dark, his curtains drawn so that only a slice of the growing daylight showed through.

“What?” An orange circle flamed in the dark and then faded.

“Mom would kill you if she knew you were smoking in the house.” Wisps of smoke circled in the air across the room, folding back in on themselves before spreading into nothing.

“Good thing she doesn’t know, then. What do you want?”

“We need to talk.” I closed the door behind me before settling at the foot of his bed and holding out the second drink.

“Your good bourbon?” He took the glass and stubbed out his cigarette. “Did shit just get real, or what?”

“It got real a while ago. As soon as I was chosen for the Acquisition this year.”

“You finally going to tell me the rules?” He sat up higher against his pillow and sipped his drink.

“Yes.” I sighed and drained my glass, wishing the alcohol would kill the stings that ricocheted inside and out of me.

“About fucking time. Shit. Hit me. I’m ready, drama queen.”

“There are only seven.” Seven rules to see you through. Seven rules to live by. Seven rules to make it hurt. Seven rules to kill by. Mom’s voice when I’d told her we were chosen this year echoed in my mind. I’d known for quite some time that the mother from my earliest memories was gone. But I didn’t know how far gone until I’d heard her scratchy song, sung with glee.

“Seven rules? I’m all ears.” He leaned forward, the strip of daylight cutting across his face.

“Let’s start with the first, and most important rule.” I wondered if a weight would lift after I’d told him, if I’d suddenly be lighter or freer. I doubted it.

“What’s that?” He polished off his drink.

I met his eyes, knowing I was about to knock the wind out of him worse than I ever could with my fists. It would kill him just as sure as it was killing me, but it couldn’t be helped. Not anymore.

Chapter Twelve

Stella

The morning came, and with it, still no Renee. Then another dawn, and another. I hadn’t seen Vinemont or Lucius in the days since the party. Farns apologized profusely, but gave me no information about what had become of Renee. Laura took over Renee’s duties in my room. She was tight-lipped, far more than she had ever been before.

It was as if the house had just shut down around me, shunning me and making me the outsider I was. No information, no interaction. Just me, sitting here, and waiting until the Christmas trial. Four days away and still no sign of my friend. The only person I spoke to other than Farns and Laura was Teddy.

“Want to go for a ride today?”

I glanced out the window behind him as we ate breakfast. “Is it going to rain? Or storm? Or hail? Or lightning?”

He grinned and checked his phone. “Nope, only sunny and cold. It’ll be fun. I’ll save you from any danger, promise.”

“Aren’t you the valiant one?” I smiled and took a bite of French toast. Cinnamon and sugar played on my tongue to the point I wanted to moan.

“At your service, my lady,” Teddy said. “I’ve been meaning to go out for a ride. Get some air and just cruise, especially since Sin and Lucius aren’t around to tell me no.”

“Where are they? Do you know?” I’d already tried to get some Renee information out of him to no avail. Might as well take my chances and see if he’d spill about his brothers.

“There was more trouble in Cuba. Lucius flew down a couple days ago.” He finished his orange juice. “I don’t know where Sin got off to. He was here yesterday on a conference call with Lucius and some investors, but then he was gone again. Maybe back in town? I’m not sure. He keeps tabs on me, not the other way around.” He shrugged, his broad shoulders pulling at the buttons on his plaid flannel shirt.

“Will Lucius be back by Friday?” That was when the trial was supposed to start. If Lucius wasn’t back, did that mean I wouldn’t have to go? I didn’t dare to hope, not for a second.

“I don’t know. What happens Friday?” He leaned back and set his napkin on the table before patting his stomach like it was full. Even under the shirt I could tell he was all lean muscle, just like his brothers.

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