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The Broken Protector: Chapter 1

LADY IN RED (DELILAH)

No one ever totally captures the stillness of a desolate highway leading far, far away from the only city you know.

Oh, they might try.

They’ll tell you about the streaming cars slowing to a trickle, and then to crawling ants scattered few and far between.

They’ll tell you about the wide-open sky, the way the yellow dotted line on the road runs together into a single liquid stream.

They’ll tell you about the forests, the grass, the countless fences drifting by.

And they’ll always mention the silence. Nothing but your tires grinding on tarry asphalt and the occasional bump when you veer too close to the shoulder.

What they won’t tell you, though?

What it feels like to be alone for the first time in your life.

What the stillness is when you can’t hear anyone else.

No slamming doors.

No whistles from the street below.

No phones blaring down the narrow halls of an apartment building full of disjointed lives crammed together, each one insulated in its own little bubble of humming refrigerators and televisions and notifications.

There’s just nothing.

Nothing but quiet stretching on for so long, so deep, that you start to hear your own pulse.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever known.

Somehow, it feels like a shower, rinsing off the dirt of big-city life and making me ready to step into a whole new chapter of me.

I’m not sure if that’s what’s waiting in North Carolina.

I couldn’t even tell you what really made me take a job in a tiny town I’ve never heard of, close enough to Raleigh to get decent internet but too far to make a day drive to the beach worth the commute.

When I responded to the postage-stamp-sized ad in my neighborhood circular for a K-4 teacher, I wasn’t actually expecting to get the job.

I have the degrees, but not much experience beyond a few supervised part-time and substitute teaching gigs in inner-city schools.

Something like this—a full-time position with room and board covered—would be a pipe dream back in New York.

Sure, I worked my ass off.

Perfect grades. Awards. Extracurriculars. Internships.

So maybe I was the most qualified candidate willing to move to a town that’s barely a dot on the map and probably doesn’t have a single Uber.

But maybe, just maybe, no one else could stand the thought of living in this much stillness.

Me? I could ride like this forever.

Just me and my ratty old Kia Sportage with everything I own piled in the back, cruising into an endless red sunset.

It’s barely late afternoon, the light brassy and thick, by the time Google Maps chirps and tells me to take the next exit.

There’s not a single building around. No gas stations, no rest stops, just low, sloping hills and walls of pines and poplars turning the off-ramp highways into corridors.

Not a single car in front of me or behind me for miles.

I might as well be the last woman on Earth.

My GPS leads me on through a spiderweb of old backwoods highways and spangled shadows.

As I crest the top of a hill, the robotic voice on my phone announces, “Now arriving in Redhaven, North Carolina.”

Then I look down at the view below.

Wow.

I actually feel like I’ve arrived.

Redhaven is a triple dose of that peaceful stillness I’ve felt ever since I crossed the New York state line.

The green slopes cup the town in their palm, nestled like this little secret in the forest.

Colonial architecture, rustic buildings centered around a paved town square pinned in place by a bronze statue of a man on a horse with his sword held high.

Streets ribboning out from the town center, narrowing as they curl into residential areas with the kind of cozy, deceptively simple homes people will pay a fortune to retire in.

On the far edge of town, there’s even a glimmering green lake with little piers on one side and thick shadowed woods on the other.

It’s warm and welcoming.

Everything except the one bright place that shines like a cathedral, dominating the forest around it with golden reflections spinning off its coppery roof.

It’s less a house on a hill and more like some fairy-tale castle, all towering baroque architecture and weathered stone spires. Completely out of place in this sweet little place of wooden shutters and shingled roofs and open porches.

I tense up just looking at it.

A strange undercurrent warms the muggy late August heat until the air turns stifling.

The house crouches there like this grand gargoyle, standing watch over the town, reflecting the daylight from massive windows.

It almost feels like it’s accusing me.

Why are you here? What are you running from?

I swallow thickly.

I don’t know.

Maybe nothing.

Maybe just from me.

…or maybe from the creepy ex-boyfriend who thought I couldn’t see him parked outside my apartment building, watching my every move for weeks on end.

Yeah.

That, I’m thrilled to get away from.

I have the worst taste in men.

But I tear myself away from the austere house and press on, carefully working the brakes on the slope downward.

This cranky old car likes to slip a little.

The road takes me into the main plaza. I swear I can feel people watching as they stroll around leisurely, moving from shop to shop and going about their lives.

Like any sane person planning a life-altering move, I did my homework on Redhaven before I accepted the job.

There’s barely three thousand people here. That might seem like a lot, but I’m from New York City—the kind of place where you can live next door to someone and never even know their name, much less make eye contact.

Here, I’m guessing everyone not only knows your name, but your business, your last hookup, and what you had for dinner last night.

I can’t decide if I’ll love it or hate it.

But I’ve come this far, so I have to give it a fair shot.

I’ve been told to check in at this place called The Rookery, so that’s where I’m going.

As the road levels out into the cobblestoned plaza, it’s not hard to pick out. It’s the largest building bordering the town square, two stories of cream stucco with a peaked roof and dark-green shutters over double windows.

White columns ring the entire building on both stories, a green-painted ironwork railing on the second floor, turning it into a wraparound balcony. A cute wooden cutout sign dangles from a post just outside the main door.

The Rookery Bed and Breakfast, it says.

I park on the curb and get out, smoothing my tank top.

Just in case, I hitch the neckline up a little before I push the iron gate open and head up the long concrete walk bisecting the manicured lawn.

The heat feels as slow and lazy as the gnats swirling in the air. I swat at a small swarm as I step into the cooler shadows of the overhanging balcony and push through the door.

Sweet, sweet air-conditioning instantly gives me goose bumps.

And I don’t get a second to adjust to the dimmer light inside the spotless lobby before the woman behind the counter looks up at me and smiles.

“Let me guess.” She squints and points at me. “Miss Clarendon?”

I blink at her dumbly.

I’m not used to people being so direct, calling me by name with this kind of warmth.

She’s a slim woman, older, trim in her khakis and cardigan, her reddish-blonde bob neatly trimmed and starting to go grey to match the lines around her light-brown eyes.

I slowly smile and remind myself this isn’t NYC.

No ulterior motives to stress about here.

I hope.

“Delilah,” I say, offering my hand. “Am I that obvious?”

The woman laughs and shakes my hand lightly. Her palm is warm, a little hard in that way that says she’s no stranger to hard work.

“Oh, I was expecting you, hon,” she says with a touch of amusement, her eyes glittering like we’re sharing a secret. “It’s not likely you’d be anyone else right now. We’re heading into the offseason, and most of the tourist folks and pensioners are heading back upstate. We don’t get many new faces this time of year.”

I give her hand an answering squeeze, then let go and tilt my head back to look around.

I’m legit impressed.

Golden hanging light fixtures, subtle patterns on the burgundy carpeted upholstery, an upper gallery with numbered doors behind a wrought-iron railing. Very classy.

“Nice place,” I say.

“Oh, I make do,” she says. “I’m Janelle, by the way. Janelle Bowden.”

“Right.” I clear my throat, fighting not to blush. I’m already being rude, not even asking her name, falling back on that impersonal distance big cities grind into you. “Great to meet you, Miss Bowden.”

“Janelle’s just fine.” She chuckles. “And don’t look so uncomfortable! I promise we don’t bite around here.”

Maybe not.

But I can’t help noticing how her eyes flick to my shoulder and down my arm—following the lines of my tattoo so clearly, it’s like I can feel her touch.

There’s no judgment, no scorn, only curiosity, but…

Who knows.

We’re deep in the 2020s where tattoos are more common than baseball hats, but little towns do love their gossip.

Maybe as soon as I’m out the door, she’ll be on the phone, telling half the town their new kindergarten teacher has a scandalous dragon tattoo.

I flash her an uneasy smile. “Sorry. Honestly, I guess I’m a little worried about fitting in.”

“You’ll do fine, hon. Everyone gets used to Redhaven’s quirks eventually. If you stay here long enough, you become part of it.”

I don’t know what to say to that.

There’s something about her statement that makes me a tad uneasy. That stifling feeling strikes again, the same tension that hit when I saw that house on the hill.

Part of me wants to ask about it, but I don’t know where to start.

Janelle takes the problem out of my hands, though, dusting her hands together briskly with a no-nonsense smile. “But listen to me, chattering on. I’m sure you’ll be wanting to get settled in, won’t you?” She leans back, peering under the glossy reception counter and fishing around. “Jeez. I know I put those keys somewhere—ah, there we go.”

She comes up with a little key ring with a red plastic fob shaped like a guitar pick. She separates out one brassy-colored key.

“Front door,” she says, then the next, a silver one, “back door,” and then last, a smaller silver key, “storage shed.” She holds them out to me. “You’ll want to take a left on the next street and follow it all the way to the end, right where the tree line breaks. It’s the old Crowder house at the end of the lane. You’ve got your own yard and a lovely lake view for fall. I think you’ll enjoy.”

I have no idea what that means—the old Crowder house—but I guess it would make sense to someone from here.

I smile again as I take the keys, folding them into my palm.

“Thanks!” I tilt my head. “Do you own the house, Janelle?”

“Heaven’s no. That’s the Arrendells. You spoke to Lucia for your interview, didn’t you?”

I nod.

It was a short interview. The woman on the other end spoke with a refined accent and a certain culturedness that made me feel like a gum wrapper stuck to her shoe, even if she was perfectly pleasant and professional.

She’d asked me to send a photograph. I guess to prove I can clean up well enough to fit in a small-town classroom rather than coming all the way down to North Carolina for an interview only to have to go home.

Imagine my surprise when the hiring paperwork landed in my email the next day.

“She’s the First Selectman in this town. Her husband, Montero, is number two. They tend to order things like that around here. If you have any problems with the house, they’ll take care of it or send one of the boys out to help.”

“The boys?”

“Oh, their sons.” Janelle snickers, her fingertips pressed to her lips. “I think it’s just Ulysses in town right now. Those boys do love to keep busy, jetting all over the place. But I’m sure he’ll be happy to take care of you if his folks are busy. And if anyone gives you any trouble, you come see me ASAP.” She leans across the counter, one hand splayed against the wood. “There are perks to being married to the police chief, after all.”

Again, I’m at a loss for words.

I’ve been here five minutes and I already know more about this town than I do about my own father.

I’m not in a horror movie… right?

The overly friendly, curious townsfolk won’t turn out to be radioactive cannibals, or ninja robots that suck the life out of newborns. Sacrifices up in the hills, haunted mansions, Blair Witch dolls in the trees, etc.

Nah.

Me not knowing what to do with someone being this nice, that’s my damage.

And isn’t that part of why I came here?

There’s an excuse caught on my tongue, something angling to let me escape so I can stop being awkward, but I stop and frown. “Hey, Janelle?”

“Yes, hon?”

“Wasn’t there anyone else around to take this job?” I ask her because I couldn’t exactly ask the woman hiring me, or she might have thought I didn’t want it. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice gig. My own house, my own classroom, decent pay. I just thought it was a little funny that Mrs. Arrendell up and hired me over the phone.”

“Yes, well, about that…” Janelle lets out a long sigh. “There’s nobody local qualified. And when someone comes in from the city, well…” She frets her hands together. “They never do last too long. If it’s not the fact that we only have pizza delivery three days a week, it’s all manner of inconveniences. No public transit, touchy cell reception, y’know.” Her smile is tight. “Some folks just can’t give up city life.”

Hmmm.

I’m not sure I buy it.

But I do need this paycheck, not to mention a strong experience on my résumé that’s near impossible to come by back home.

So I’m not complaining.

If it turns out I’m one of those big-city girls who can’t adapt to small-town life?

Baby, I’ll learn.

I can at least stick it out long enough to walk away with a good reference for my next job.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I try to offer what I hope is a warm, reassuring smile. “I’m used to roughing it on my own.”

“Good. I hope so! We could do with a strong young lady around here to brighten things up. Good role model for the kids, you know.” Janelle beams. “Do call up if you need any help with anything—anything at all. I finally put our number on Google a couple weeks ago!”

“Awesome. And thank you, ma’am.” I offer my hand again. “Nice meeting you.”

She gives my hand another firm shake before letting go with a little wave. “Welcome to Redhaven, Delilah. I hope you’re here to stay.”

Me too.

I could use somewhere to cool my heels for a while.

I walk out into the fading afternoon light and pack myself into my Kia again.

Left at the next street and down toward the woods, huh?

Ugh, small-town directions.

Still, it’s not hard to find.

I enjoy the picturesque drive down a winding street dotted with signs depicting children on bicycles and a twenty-mile-per-hour speed limit. People are just coming home from work and rolling into their two-car garages. A few scruffy fathers in shorts and loafers without socks are already on their lawns with hoses while their kids run in and out of the spray like puppies.

It’s all very Pleasantville.

A girl could get used to this.

I’ll probably be meeting a few of those puppies soon, too. Many of them look young enough to be in my classes.

I try not to be obvious about getting a peek at their faces so I can remember them later.

They’re cute kids. They look happy, and the more happy little troublemakers I see cavorting around with their parents, the more I smile.

The more I think I might’ve made the right decision.

A sigh full of relief slips out of me as the road tapers off and leads me up to the new rental.

The ‘Crowder’ house at the end of the lane.

My house.

It’s a homey cottage painted a pretty cerulean blue.

Black shutters and a row of three dormer windows set into the peaked black roof.

The door is an eye-popping red.

The well-trimmed yard looks huge, complete with brick-lined dirt beds just waiting to be flush with flowers or vegetables next spring.

No garage, but plenty of room for street parking. Plus, a squat little storage shed in the same blue shade off to one corner of the backyard.

A raw wood fence that isn’t falling down hugs everything. Through the break in the boards and the trees beyond, I can make out the shimmering lake in the distance.

Deep breath.

I wonder if I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Best of all, the house is set off the street for a little more privacy from nosy neighbors. Three steps welcome me up to an open porch.

I could see myself sitting out here on warm evenings, sipping iced tea while I grade papers.

With one more smile that might break my face, I park and get out.

The gate opens at the lightest touch, unlatched, the hinges squealing a little—I almost miss the dull thud of footsteps on grass.

Wait, what?

I freeze.

My heart thumps the same way it did in college when I’d have to walk back to my dorm after midnight alone, just barely escaping the university library at closing time.

I’m being paranoid.

know I’m being paranoid.

City girl, overly suspicious, imaginary danger lurking around every corner.

Still, I shift the keys clutched in my hand so they point out like sharp little blades through my knuckles. Then I slowly creep around the side of the house.

“Hello?” I call softly. “Hello!”

Nothing.

No one along this side of the house.

I swallow thickly and tiptoe around the back.

I’m just in time to glimpse a dark, blurry shadow vanishing around the other side of the house. It’s a hint of motion, something that looks like an arm before it’s gone like it was never there.

Was it?

Are you feeling okay?

My chest turns to lead as I decide my eyes aren’t playing tricks.

“Hey, wait!” I shout, sprinting across the backyard.

I’m racing toward the point where that flicker of motion disappeared, careening around the other side of the house.

Nope.

Nothing again.

But there’s a weird rustle in the trees beyond the fence.

Trunks of slender poplars waving.

Almost like someone hopped the fence and bolted into the woods.

I fall against the fence, panting hard as I grip the wood, staring into the trees, straining to see something.

But I can’t make out anything.

Maybe it really was a hallucination caused by my own excitement and the long drive. Or I just startled a coyote or a raccoon or something.

“Calm the hell down, girl.” Closing my eyes, I blow out a rough breath.

This is probably what Janelle was talking about.

City girls getting all spooked by nature, freaking out at every tiny sound.

I don’t want to be like them.

I shake my head sharply, annoyed with myself, and push away from the fence. I step around the front of the house again and climb the porch.

This might’ve dampened that little thrill I had at coming here, but it’s not ruined yet.

That happens exactly three seconds later.

I fit the key in the lock and the door swings open at the lightest touch, unlatched.

That last second feels like an eternity.

I stop and gaze into the house as the door opens on squares of sunlight falling through the uncurtained windows onto the glossy hardwood floors.

And a panicked scream lodges in my throat.

Shafts of gold light fall down like crosses over a twisted hand, revealing the ugly secret I’ll never get out of my head.

The body of a woman lying face down on the floor.


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