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The Broken Protector: Chapter 10

RED FLAGS (LUCAS)

Shit.

I think I might be in the running for biggest creep on the face of the planet.

Here’s Delilah, fresh off dealing with a stalker asshole ex who may have followed her to Redhaven.

And here I am, following her around like another obsessive weirdo who’s too fucked in the head to quit.

I can tell myself I’m not a threat to her.

That it’s for her own protection, when there’s just some deep-seated instinct that says she’s in danger, and besides—it’s a small town. I’m a cop, so I’m gonna patrol and I’m gonna run across her.

That doesn’t change the fact that she’s probably sick of catching me out of the corner of her eye every time she turns around.

This isn’t Celeste again, I tell myself.

It’s not another dark-haired, starry-eyed, pretty young woman getting pulled into the Arrendells’ orbit, seduced by their wealth and flashy bullshit. She’s not falling under Montero Arrendells’ black magic spell.

I have good reason to worry. As he’s gotten older, Montero’s had to be more subtle.

More cautious.

He lets others do more of his dirty work.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was a saint with how squeaky clean he’s been the last ten years or so.

That doesn’t mean he ain’t doing shit.

Just means he’s gotten sneakier, better at keeping the blood off his hands, throwing up a dozen proxies who’ll take the fall for him if there’s ever a little slip.

It fits right in with his pattern, considering how many people believe Ethan Sanderson had something to do with my sister’s disappearance. Ethan was just a local boy who was in love with Celeste, and once Captain Faircross’ best friend.

I know the rumors.

I still hear ’em being whispered around town, every time I walk past and people think I don’t hear them mention ‘that poor Graves girl.’

And I know they’re dead wrong.

Old Ethan wouldn’t whack a mosquito, wherever he’s gone.

I kick the heel of my boot against the leg of the captain’s desk as I flip through a folder. Technically, it isn’t a case file, even though I store it among the files when I’m not using it.

It’s just a mess of old newspaper clippings.

Mostly stuff from the tabloids and a few old internet rumors printed out, shit you can’t really trust. Though sometimes the best way to hide the most outlandish truth is to put it out there and let people laugh it off as sordid rumors from the lunatic fringe. Whatever feeds people’s hunger for scandal and intrigue.

There’s sure as hell plenty of scandal swirling around the Arrendells, going back years.

All old, though. Montero’s era and before.

In the age of social media, they’ve been scrubbed squeaky clean and polished by reputation managers till they’re damn near sporting halos.

But there’s still the old stuff, if you know where to dig.

Ugly rumors about sleeping with other people’s wives.

Husbands. Politicians. Celebrities. The works.

For small-town kingpins, they get around like hummingbirds. There are whole albums stuffed with photos of them dining with billionaire oil sheikhs, former presidents, corporate titans, wealthy global arms dealers.

No one ever seems to know what they’re doing there, of course, besides rubbing elbows and having a little fun gliding around yet another party. Charity might be the cover story, but there’s always something darker behind the scenes.

Those parties are never just parties.

How damned deep does their influence really run in certain circles?

What kind of power do they have to make a real scandal disappear?

1992. A male movie star found floating dead in his own swimming pool after an all-night party at his Hollywood mansion. The list of drunken attendees was a who’s who of the nineties—and Montero was a guest of honor.

Lucia, his wife, was totally absent. The implication in the headline was that before the actor was found accidentally drowned, he and Montero were fighting over a certain dark-eyed, dark-haired Latina music star.

1995. A younger Montero brooding in the background of a drug bust that put several dozen young stars in jail. Sure, they got out on bail in a day, and house arrest was the worst of their rich-people punishment, but Montero wasn’t even hauled in for questioning.

Did I mention the bust was at that damn house up the hill?

It just keeps coming, year by year, sin by sin.

More accidents.

More overdoses.

More unfortunate slip and falls and accidental gun discharges and drownings and unexplained disappearances, always with one thing in common.

Somehow, there was always Montero and a dark-haired woman involved. Most of the time she was just a passing interest, hanging on his arm instead of his wife.

But sometimes, she was the one who disappeared.

A rising actress named Carla Oneida, 1996. A party on a yacht in Boston Harbor. Over two hundred people on the boat, yet somehow, no one was around when she and Montero went strolling on the deck. She slipped and fell overboard. Her body was never recovered.

A singer named Marjorie Denton in 2001—supposedly vanished hiking, but she’d never been known for hiking trips. She was known for getting her way with rich men to pay for her every need, and her latest sugar daddy? Take a good guess.

So many more.

And even though his name comes up again and again as someone connected to the dead and missing women, the man was never implicated.

Never accused.

Only by yours truly, and maybe the one person I might be able to get on my side—Captain Grant—if he’d man up and stop running away from his past.

My sister didn’t just walk off and leave me at seventeen, all alone, our parents dead.

Celeste never would.

Not even if Ethan Sanderson tried to run off with her and elope under new names.

Not even if Montero promised her a billion dollars if she’d just up and run.

Celeste didn’t leave me.

She was taken.

First by the world he seduced her into, lavishing her with expensive gifts and attention, making her feel special.

Then by whatever the hell he did to her next.

I almost don’t want to know.

But I need to.

I need to know my sister’s fate.

Just like I need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, when I don’t trust for a second that Montero Arrendell ever stopped his debauched ways.

He’s just adapted with age and the times.

A trio of handsome, charming young sons makes for perfect bait.

Think of the Arrendell brothers as talent scouts, luring his prey to him.

That’s why I don’t like the way Ulysses has been eyeing Delilah lately one damn bit.

Another dark-haired, beautiful young woman with stars in her eyes.

For all her Big Apple worldliness, there’s an innocence there that would make her the perfect prize for a warped fuck like Montero.

I won’t let that happen.

I also can’t concentrate with a trio of jackasses talking over my head, not that it’s ever stopped them before.

“Do you guys mind?” I snap.

“I do,” Captain Grant Faircross says, stroking his thick, silver-peppered brown beard. He’s a bear of a man, taking up so much space in our tiny dispatch area. “Remind me again why we’re not telling this girl’s parents she’s dead? She was only twenty-two. Barely out of the damn nest. If that were my daughter, I’d be hysterical. She’s been missing for God knows how long, and we’re just sitting on it?”

“You, hysterical?” Micah says dryly. “Very funny.”

Next to Grant, Junior Sergeant Micah Ainsley is a ghost—pale blond-white hair, white skin, you’d almost expect his eyes to be white too, but they’re kind of an icy blue-grey. He’s stronger than he looks, too. I’ve seen him push a stalled truck up a hill, but that’s just what Micah does.

Always doing too much, pushing too far, and right now he’s trying to push Captain Grant’s buttons as he says, “Think that GED failed you, Captain. I don’t think you know what hysterical means.”

“I know what ‘beat your albino ass’ means,” Grant mutters.

“Hey.” Henri Fontenot’s lazy Cajun drawl cuts in. He glances between us, pushing the not-regulation mess of his long brown hair out of his eyes as he gives us one of the broody looks that doe-eyed Louisiana boy’s known for. “Not one of us is givin’ Lucas a chance to get a word in edgewise.”

“See? You know you guys suck when the new guy has to play the peacemaker,” I point out, dropping the stack of newspaper clippings I’ve been holding on top of the ever-growing pile in the folder. “Look, guys, call it a hunch. There’s more to this than an overdose. I want to be able to tell her family the truth—the real truth—and if there’s justice to be had, I want it settled before they have to deal with something so painful.”

“What you mean,” Grant growls, “is you don’t want her family publicizing this and fucking up your solo investigation.”

“You know me too well.” I lean back in the chair till it creaks and Grant gives me a dirty look.

I spread my hands innocently.

Hell, if anyone broke the springs on this thing, it’s him. His desk, after all, and he’s a human moose when I’m just big.

“Look,” I continue. “If there was foul play involved, right now, the person who did it—whether it was an accident or intentional, planned or a crime of passion—is probably feeling pretty damn smug. Thinking he got away with it. So they’re gonna get careless. But if the family makes it known it was a murder, especially if the murderer’s keeping tabs, they’ll work even harder to cover their tracks. Go to ground. Then we’ll never find them.”

There’s a long silence.

I give my boys time to think.

I’ve been working with Grant for a good long while now, and Micah for a few solid years. Henri’s the new guy, just hired on under a year ago, but he’s a decent type and he blends in well.

We’re all long thinkers and slow talkers. Maybe a hazard of being cops.

But after a while, Grant nods, scruffing his beard a bit.

“I’ll give you a week, maybe two tops. Any longer than that and the trail’s cold anyway. At that point, it’s just cruel to the family.”

I let out the breath I’ve been holding in.

I figured it’d go my way, especially since Grant, of all the people here, knows what happened with my sister, and what I suspect.

I’m not the only one who’s lost someone to mystery disappearances when his best friend Ethan has been missing forever.

Ethan Sanderson disappeared the same night Celeste did. Rumor is they ran off together, or he killed her and fled town, but I don’t believe it—and neither does Grant, even if he won’t admit it.

He’s always had questions, suspicions, shit we don’t talk about but we both know in our bones. That’s why he’s usually softer on me than anyone else when I start talking crazy.

And this could’ve been the one time he went against me.

He does give me the stink eye, though, his blue eyes stern. He’s only like a year or two older than me, but he acts like my damn father.

“Just don’t go starting any shit you can’t finish, Graves,” he rumbles.

I know what that means.

Don’t go fucking with the Arrendells unless you’ve got hard proof.

Good advice. I may or may not have had Lucia Arrendell demanding my head on a silver platter once, during my first rookie year when I got a little overzealous trying to go after Montero.

Since then, I’ve learned to be careful.

That doesn’t mean I’ve let it go.

Just that I’ve learned to play the long game.

I smirk as I snap off a salute. “I will finish all my shits, Captain. Rest assured.”

“You and that fuckin’ mouth,” Grant groans.

“Got one just like everybody else here, Cap.”

“…you trying to get fired today?” He shakes his head slowly, then glances toward the chief’s closed office door. Not that Bowden’s likely in there; who the hell knows where he takes off to these days. Gone with a pile of nail clippings left on his desk sometimes. Grant glances back at us. “What about the new teacher? We sure we’re all okay letting her move back into a possible murder scene?”

“Nothing there,” Micah says. “Henri and I gave it a triple-check, and Lucas looked again. The only evidence was that girl’s body, plus a little crushed grass that could’ve been from Miss Clarendon herself. No point in taping it off forever. We took our photos and it’s too late now anyway. She’s already in.”

“The house isn’t the problem,” I grumble.

“Yeah?” Henri looks up with a cutting glance. “So you’re saying the teacher is. Miss Clarendon, was it?” He whistles. “Girl’s got some legs on her, mon ami.

I glower at him. “The fuck you doing, looking at her legs, Frenchie?”

That gets me a shit-eating grin. “Gettin’ you riled up, for starters. You been spendin’ a lot of time out there, my friend.”

“She’s new in town. Fresh meat. I’m just being neighborly, helping her get settled in. Just helping her,” I emphasize, jabbing a finger at all three of them.

Micah’s mouth is a mess, clearly trying not to smirk.

Henri’s still giving me that grin.

Grant just eyeballs me skeptically.

“Can we move the fuck on?” I flare. “Don’t we got anything better to worry about?”

At least they take the hint.

Henri sighs. “We got six calls the last few days about the Jacobins. Been moving distilleries again, I think, and people are complaining about all the clanking and grinding in the hills.”

“By the time we go looking for their still, it’s always too late. Damn thing disappears like a ghost,” Grant points out. “And triangulating by sound doesn’t help much with the way noise carries over the trees.”

“They’ll settle down eventually. People will forget they exist again in a day or two,” I say. “I mean, unless you want to arrest them over some rotgut whiskey.”

Grant shrugs. “We’d just be chasing our tails while they laugh from the shadows. They move on to exporting cocaine, then we’ll worry about a sting. But right now, we’ve got other things to worry about.”

“Like what?” Micah asks.

“Like working out the shifts for crossing guard duty,” Grant snarls.

We all groan.

Life as a small-town cop sure is wild.


By the time we’re done sorting rotations for the first semester of the school year, it’s time for me to head out on patrol.

Not that there’s much to patrol. Most of our crime happens during tourist seasons, first in high summer, then in mid-fall. Summer’s when the vacationers and shoppers come through.

There’s always somebody who wants to shoplift or people getting into fights with their significant others in the middle of the town square—sometimes pretty violently, too.

Then there’s the kids they bring along, little brats defacing public property.

Autumn’s when shit gets weirder.

The hikers come out to see the trails and the exploding fall foliage.

Those are the folks who get arrested for flashing ’cause they got caught fucking in the woods, and some of them do it deliberately, getting off on exhibitionism.

Then there are the folks who didn’t mean it, didn’t realize their midnight skinny-dip in Still Lake was too visible. Poor humiliated bastards.

We’ve had to break up a few altercations when people stumbled on the Jacobins, too, though mostly the hillfolk take care of themselves. They’ve been known to run people off their property with a sawed-off shotgun, meaning me or the captain have to go up to their farm and have a stern talk with them about not shooting our goddamned economic backbone.

Mostly, though, it’s the kinky shit in autumn.

It’s always the kinky shit in autumn.

Being out in the woods does strange stuff to people.

Right now, it’s just a few of our local kids trying to sneak a little shoplifting. Half of them feel so guilty they confess and return the stolen shit before they get caught. Plus, a few drunken brawlers.

Which means all I have to do is park my car and read.

Instead of a book, though, I’ve brought along my thick file on Montero Arrendell and his sons.

I wonder about Vaughn, too, something with him that doesn’t sit quite right. The way he just packed up and left, cut all ties with his family.

What drove him away?

Did he learn something about his old man, about his family, that he couldn’t stomach?

Or did he do something so monstrous that even they couldn’t stand the sight of him?

Face it.

You’re wondering if something really did drive Celeste away.

If she’s still alive out there somewhere, better off than when she was stuck with your dumbass. Living happily ever after with Ethan, both of them running away from everything that hurt them.

Part of me wishes it was true.

I’d rather find out my sister hated me—we sure as hell fought enough—and ran off. That we didn’t have the bond I thought we did. That beats knowing for sure that she’s truly dead and gone.

Celeste and I were oil and water.

We tore each other’s egos up and down all the time, but we were all each other had, and underneath all that bickering, there was always a hell of a lot of love.

I’m smiling when I think of the way Delilah and I claw at each other, snipping and snarling and pushing each other’s buttons.

Like every barb is just a little warmer, the venom in the sting a bit sweeter.

Nothing like that last fight between me and Celeste.

Nothing like that last fight at all.


Years Ago

“What the hell do you mean, you enlisted?”

Celeste glares at me, clutching my enlistment papers in her shaking fingers. I won’t lie, her posture is a little intimidating.

Normally, I don’t blink when we start shouting at each other, but tonight Celeste doesn’t look like Celeste.

She looks like someone else.

Someone fake, all dolled up in that expensive red dress that costs more than our house, wearing it just because that man gave it to her. Her hair’s tied up in this weird twist of knots, and she’s wearing stark red lipstick that makes her mouth look cruel and angry. The thick mascara and eyeliner make her eyes look less green and more white, more cold and furious.

That’s not my sister—my earthy, messy, scatterbrained sister.

That’s a doll created by Montero Arrendell.

Not a real person at all.

But the anger in her voice is very real as she snaps, “You’re only seventeen! You’re too young for the Navy, dammit.”

“Jesus, Cel, it’s preliminary.” I scowl. “Can’t go till I’m eighteen, anyway—and they want me to finish high school first. Hell, after I serve my first tour, they’ll pay for college. How the hell else we gonna pay for it?”

“I don’t know!” she flares. “Look, this—this whole stupid thing, it didn’t come with an instruction manual, Lucas. Mom and Dad didn’t leave me a step-by-step guide to raising you, but we could—we could sell the house—”

“No way. We’re not selling this place. It’s all we’ve got left of them,” I spit back. “Screw it. I’m not going to college at all if that’s what it takes!”

“You have to go.” She shakes her head sharply, her fingers tightening until the papers she’s clutching crumple. “They would’ve wanted it. But not like this. The military… Jesus Christ. You won’t even survive to take your first classes. Do you know how dangerous it is over there? We’re at war.”

“Iraq? Afghanistan? Those are brush fires, not World War Two,” I throw back in all my youthful ignorance. “I just gotta make it through a full tour or two, and half the time I’ll be polishing ship decks. It’s not that scary, Cel.”

“You don’t know that. You—”

An impatient honk from a horn outside stops her.

There’s a limo waiting, black and gleaming as a snake.

Her face transforms and it scares me.

This desperation I’ve never seen before, this hope, almost like she’s in thrall to some horrible beast she can’t resist even as it drains the life from her.

And is that fear underneath it?

It’s funny how terror and longing look the same sometimes.

Her hands go lax and my papers drop to the floor.

“I don’t have time for this. We’ll talk more when I get home,” she says hollowly. She won’t even look at me now. “You’re not enlisting, and that’s final.”

She gathers up her skirts, the bracelet on her wrist jingling and flashing.

Then she’s gone.

Right off to him again, so he can parade her around on his arm in front of all his rich friends, in front of his wife. Showing my sister off like a toy he’ll throw away tomorrow.

I fucking hate it.

I hate him.

I hate the way she is when she’s around him.

I hate everything.

Hate waking up in the morning and hate realizing my sister hasn’t come home.

Hate that no one’s seen her since yesterday.

But more than anything, I hate the fake-ass look on Montero Arrendell’s face when I go storming up to the big house and fling myself past his fancy butlers and doormen to roar in his face, to demand he give my sister back.

“Poor boy,” he says, smiling, wearing the cold eyes of a man asking What are you going to do? What can you do? “Your sister told me she was done with me long before my invitation to last night’s soiree. I’d asked her to attend in the hopes of making amends and restoring our—friendship—but when she never arrived, I assumed I’d been soundly rejected. You’re looking in the wrong place, son. Perhaps a flighty girl like her just couldn’t handle the pressure of raising a teenager all on her lonesome.”

It’s a goddamned lie and I know it.

A hurtful, hateful lie that hits my deepest fears.

I want to hurl myself at him and claw his eyes out.

I don’t even realize I’m dangerously close to doing it, his cold green eyes blurring into mist with the furious tears streaming down my face. Not until hands are on me, pulling me back.

Those butlers and doormen I dodged before are dragging me now and I’m kicking and shouting and blind with rage.

They chuck me out of the house with lots of threats about calling the cops.

When my senses come back, I’m down the hill, left in the dirt in a sobbing heap.

All I can do is make a vow.

I’ll never fucking stop.

Not till I know the truth about where my sister’s gone.


Present

All those years.

All those years, multiple tours of duty with the Navy, coming back home to Redhaven to sign on with the police, and I still haven’t found my answers.

I still haven’t found my sister.

But I know she didn’t leave me that night.

If she meant to run away, she’d have taken something. She would’ve packed her bags in advance, tucked away a few mementos and keepsakes. There would’ve been things missing from the house, things she needed, money missing from her bank account or signs of her using it somewhere else.

Instead, there’s an abyss.

Celeste ran out with nothing but that dress on her back, her little clutch purse with her phone and ID, and that ugly goddamned bracelet.

She expected to come back.

I linger on Montero’s cold face in the photo, his sleazy old-world charm, then glance up as a familiar splash of color goes cruising past where I’m parked on the edge of the town square.

Delilah’s Kia, winding around the central roundabout onto the street leading down to the school.

Maybe it’s that I’m still caught up in bad memories or maybe it’s just this pull Delilah has on me.

Or maybe I’m just a nosy bastard.

I can’t help myself today.

I start my patrol car and pull out after her.

By the time I arrive at the school, she’s already out of her car, looking trim and sleek today in a loose shirt, capri jeans, and sandals so worn they’ve got to be devilishly comfy.

She’s got a huge shoulder bag today, bulging with school supplies and massive rolls of poster board, making her clumsy as she tries to jiggle the door the way I showed her.

I slip out of my car and walk up behind her.

“Let me,” I say, nudging her aside gently and reaching for the handle.

Delilah gasps. She flinches away, looking up at me without recognition, but with a look I know too well.

That flash of fear.

What I’m not expecting is the relief on her face when it clicks that it’s me. Then she smiles, stepping back and letting me have the door and the key.

“Just like Superman,” she says. “Always showing up where you’re needed. Superman was a stalker too.” Her lips curve into a teasing grin. “He just used his superhuman hearing to do it. What’s your excuse?”

“Good timing, luck, and the fact that my patrol shifts overlap the hours you’re out and about.” I hitch the door handle up just right and push it open, holding it for her. “After you.”

“Thanks. I didn’t have any trouble with it when I came in for the faculty meeting this morning, but I wasn’t carrying half a craft store, either.”

She ducks under my arm, and as she passes, I catch a whiff of that soft floral fragrance rising off her hair.

That scent practically kisses me, reaches down deep, and strokes me rock hard.

Goddamn.

In the hall, Delilah turns, watching me with her lips quirked. “You coming, or did you just stop by to help with the door?”

I hesitate.

There’s no good reason to be here. I should be watching my beat just in case this is the one day something serious happens in town while I’m fucking off doing other things.

Too bad it sticks with me.

That flicker of fear in her eyes, and not for me.

Who are you afraid of, Lilah?

I want to ask, but I know this little cactus woman. If I prod her now, she’ll just gore me with her spines.

Yeah, I’ll stick around a little. See if she’ll volunteer a little information, or at least give me an opening to ask without getting stabbed.

Hell, and maybe I want to stay close by.

Wherever I can guard her and make her feel safer.

“I’m not doing much right now,” I say.

Her gaze flicks to my badge, my uniform, her mouth quirking, telling me she doesn’t believe me.

“Could help you with that, if you like.” I nod at her bag.

“So arts and crafts are among your many other talents?” Delilah’s brows rise, her voice mocking me gently. “You install alarm systems, you repair steps, you cut glass, you jiggle doors… is there anything you don’t do?”

That pings me for a second. It’s a familiar line from a movie, and when I remember why, I grin.

“Fly,” I grind out.

She blinks, flushing faintly.

“What? You’ve seen Ever After?”

“I’m a man of varied tastes, New York.”

Delilah laughs. “You’re definitely no Danielle.”

“And you’re damn sure no Prince Henry.” I duck into the hall, stepping closer to her. “Guess I can toss you over my shoulder to rescue you, if you’d like.”

Her eyes widen and she stares at me incredulously.

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Wanna bet?” I crouch down like I’m about to spring, prowling closer.

She takes a step back with a sharp breath, then turns with a high laugh and takes off running, her sandals pelting the tiles. “Don’t even try it, Graves!”

It’s fucking on.

I don’t think I could stop myself from chasing her if my whole life depended on it.

That fluttering black hair pulls on me like a leash, draws me like a will-o’-the-wisp, luring me deeper and deeper into her.

I take off after her, sprinting, a rough laugh slowing my stride. Or maybe I’m just letting her win because I don’t quite trust what I’ll do if I catch her.

Pull her into my arms.

Pin her against the wall.

Take that bratty strawberry mouth with my teeth and show her who’s in charge.

Find out if that little tongue tastes as sharp as it sounds.

Those thoughts make my heart pump harder, leaving me breathless after only a light jog. My chest aches by the time I round the corner and find her frozen in the doorway of her classroom, her fingers digging into the strap of her bag.

Playtime’s over.

Her tension draws me up short.

I stop behind her, frowning. “Delilah, what’s wrong?”

“I… I don’t…”

She makes a clicking sound, then gestures to the room.

I look over her head.

The classroom’s exactly what I expect: a normal classroom, kid-sized desks all lined up neatly, activity tables, bookshelves, wall displays, cubbies.

But at the front of the room, there’s somethinout of place.

The fanciest teacher’s desk I’ve ever seen.

It’s brand new and varnished with delicately carved cherrywood. I recognize it as the signature piece from A Touch of Grey, one of our best local furniture shops. It’s been in the display window for a while.

Now it’s parked at the head of Delilah’s classroom, pretty as a picture—and wrapped up in a giant satiny red bow. There’s a jewelry box sitting right in the center of it, the same shade of red, and something about that turns my blood into needles.

“Been doing a little shopping lately?” I ask lightly. I try.

“What? No! Are you crazy? I could never afford this.” Delilah shakes her head, walking deeper into the room. She drops her bag to let it lean against the desk’s smooth varnish, and she picks up the jewelry box—but instead of opening it, she sets it aside, revealing the folded bit of parchment paper underneath. “Oh. There’s a note.”

My gut sours, bile churning like lava.

I have a bad fucking feeling about this.

That feeling gets worse when she reads the note and her brows knit together.

“I don’t understand,” she whispers.

And I can’t stay silent for a second longer.

I cross the threshold, moving by her side. “Let me see.”

Without a word, she hands me the note—and it’s as bad as I expect. All handwritten in fine, scrawling script, loops of old ink shitting up the page.

Don’t think you can’t ask for things for your classroom. There’s a budget for furniture expenses, and you shouldn’t have to gaze so longingly at a treasure that’s well within your reach.

Don’t worry.

My father insisted. He said you should have anything your heart desires and he doesn’t count little things like desks as a strike.

U

U.

Ulysses goddamned Arrendell.

Worse, Montero, using his son as a pawn to deliver the bait.

Nope, I definitely don’t like this shit.

I barely stop myself from ripping the note up and crushing it into an unreadable ball in my fist.

“Ain’t that generous?” I snarl.

Delilah does a double take.

“If it’s in the school budget, I guess, but…” She stops and shakes her head, trailing her fingertips lightly over the wood. “I feel weird about this. Do they do this sort of thing for all the teachers?”

One hard look from me says hell no.

“It’s damn strange. Don’t know what to make of that wording about strikes, neither.” I drop the note on the desk. “You gonna keep it, or what?”

“I mean, do I have a choice?” She looks up at me, her dark-blue eyes glimmering with uncertainty. I wonder how often she’s ever let anyone see this side of her—the hesitation, the nerves. “If they just bought it for the school, and not for me, I suppose I can live with it.”

I hold in a litany of curses.

Woman, if you think that for a second, you’re a hell of a lot more innocent than your badass big-city exterior.

“If it makes you uncomfortable, I think it’s fair to say no,” I point out, jerking my chin at the jewelry box. “Especially since I doubt that’s for the school.”

Delilah stares down at the box like she thinks it might bite.

Me, I want to chuck it out the fucking window like I’m going for a no-hitter on the diamond. Especially when she looks pained, like the desk is a radioactive hunk of metal poisoning her.

Did something else happen? Is that what has her so on edge?

I haven’t missed that she’s been spending a lot of time with Ulysses lately. Or that he’s the one who keeps crowding into her life.

“Delilah,” I say softly. Fuck, I’m probably gonna get a cactus stabbing for this, but I have to ask. “Has Ulysses been making any moves on you?”

Just heaving up those words makes my throat raw with rage.

Her shoulders stiffen. “No, I… I don’t think so? He’s a flirt, and sometimes he comes off as a little desperate, I guess. Which is weird, considering who he is. He shouldn’t have any trouble with women. But he doesn’t get too crazy. He’s never tried to force anything. Nora told me he’s like that with everyone.”

Like hell.

But I keep my mouth shut while Delilah reluctantly picks up the box and flips it open—only to gasp. Her color goes pale.

“Um. What the hell is this?”

I lean over to see what’s in the box.

Then my vision goes almost as red as the velvet inside.

That bracelet.

I know that fucking bracelet.

It’s a bar of rose gold. Its simplicity disguises just how exquisite the craftsmanship is.

A slender chain of rose gold loops around from the bar, turning it from an ornamental piece into a bracelet.

The last time I saw that bracelet, it was on my sister’s wrist.

And it was plain. Unmarked.

Now, it’s been engraved.

Seven Xs, starting from left to right, off-center, with more room on the right, like someone made space to add more.

“Strikes,” Delilah whispers, touching the bracelet with trembling fingertips. “Xs.” Then she jerks her head up, staring at me. “Was that what the red X was? A strike?”

Fury knifes through me as I stagger back a step before I stiffen, straight as an arrow. “You think Ulysses left that? That he was marking you somehow, and not your ex?”

“No clue.” She shakes her head too quickly, dropping her gaze back to the box. “That sounds a little crazy. It doesn’t make sense. Ulysses isn’t a bad guy. Maybe he’s just awkward and this is a really, really bad joke. Probably trying to make me feel better about all the weird stuff happening since I came to town.”

I gawk at her.

Jesus, if that’s what she thinks this is…

“Bullshit,” I snarl. I can’t stop myself—I reach for the box, but Delilah jerks it away, twisting to guard it from me. “Damn it, Lilah. I told you those Arrendells are bad business you don’t want to get tangled up in.”

“You told me that, but I haven’t seen it,” she snaps. “Ulysses has done everything he can to help me get settled in. And he’s actually been trying to find out who killed Emma. Did you even follow up on the lead about the cleaning crew, or were you too busy following me?

I recoil, shaking my head. “What cleaning crew? What shit has he been feeding you?”

Delilah’s eyes narrow suspiciously.

“He didn’t report it? He hired a cleaning crew the day before, and they were the last ones in the house before I showed up and found Emma’s body.”

I feel like I’ve taken a bullet right between the eyes.

“Fuck no. He didn’t say one word about that, and I’m the first one he should’ve told,” I growl. “It’s a little convenient, don’t you think?”

“Lucas, what are you implying?”

That you’ve been marked, New York.

That it’s happening all over again.

That I can’t stand to see another woman fall down the murder pit of that fucked up freakshow masquerading as a family.

Next Montero will be wanting to meet you in private, and then—

Fuck!

I’ll be watching you run away from me in a red dress.

Right into the arms of a devil.

The words won’t exit my mouth, though.

They’re lodged in my throat like gnarled-up barbed wire.

I can’t tell her I’m afraid for her, that I need to protect her, but not when all the emotions bottled up inside me for years are choking me to death.

“Listen, Lilah, I’m not implying shit,” I snap. “I’m saying you shouldn’t believe a goddamned word Ulysses Arrendell ever tells you.”

She cocks her head, her eyes wide with worry.

“So, what? I should just believe you instead?” Her eyes crackle, all hot blue witchfire as she glares up at me. “Let me tell you something, Lieutenant Graves. I’ve known you exactly five minutes longer than I’ve known him, and neither of you gets to tell me what to think or who to believe. I’m a grown woman with two degrees. All you’ve told me is that you’ve got some weird grudge against them, so I should hate them because you do.” She drops the jewelry box on the desk, her fists curling up as she slams one sandaled foot to the floor. “So take your attitude and your grudges and your paranoia and your stalking and fuck right off, Lucas. Because my life has been crazy enough since I got here, since Redhaven decided it wants to drive me crazy, and you’re just making things worse.”

So fucking much for warning her.

I’m not getting through.

I’m not getting through to her and it’s my own fault. I’m too smothered in this mess of scar tissue to tell her the truth, even if it means keeping her safe.

I learned too hard, too long ago, to keep my mouth shut about things with Celeste. A man can’t undo years of getting that beat into him in one screaming instant.

Not even for this little wildfire burning me down with her get-fucked glare.

“Goddammit, Delilah, if you don’t think it means anything, that bracelet coming after that nasty fucking red X under your window—”

“Don’t. You’re starting to sound like some conspiracy crank, you know that?” she bites off. “Everything comes back to the Arrendells. Everything is their fault. Just what did they do to you, mister? What the hell did they—”

They slaughtered my sister! I want to roar, but what comes out isn’t that.

What comes out instead is impulse, torn emotion, blood boiling frustration, and—fuck.

Yes, sheer desire.

I give in to the urge to make that sharp, biting mouth of hers stop for just one minute.

That’s why I grab her.

That’s why I pull her in.

That’s why I kiss Miss New York till she turns into a stunned, whimpering icicle, and then slowly melts in my arms.


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