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The Broken Protector: Chapter 11

RED HOT (DELILAH)

My life has been one big ball of confusion ever since I set foot in this weird little town.

But there’s nothing on Earth more bewildering than Lucas effing Graves pulling me into the hard slab of his body, tilting my chin, and crushing his mouth down on mine like the rest of his life depends on kissing me breathless.

Oh. My. God.

Two seconds ago, I was one sharp word away from straight-up slugging him in the face, even if he has an iron jaw that would break my fist.

Now, I’m so—

I don’t even know.

I can’t think.

I can’t wonder.

I can’t count the myriad ways my new life in Redhaven explodes in the delicious sting of his teeth.

He won’t let me do anything but feel.

And what I feel most is Lucas in all his bossy, infuriating glory.

His lips scorch me from the inside out until I’m ash from my fingers to the tips of my toes.

I just clutch at his arms, hanging off him in midair, pressing so, so hard to him as my mouth goes magnetic against my will.

I’m supposed to hate this man.

But why does he kiss like that?

Resistance? Ha.

It’s so pathetically futile my body betrays me in a moan.

His lips are so hot, so firm, and God—Lucas may talk slow, but he moves like lightning, all swift sizzle and a hint of growling thunder.

All man, claiming and teasing and making me shiver so deeply as his stubble rubs my mouth, my skin, all of me raw.

His kiss caresses with a dominating promise that leaves me boneless.

Boneless, tingling, and fighting back.

When he bites me, his teeth dipping firmly into my bottom lip, I give back as good as I get.

And it makes him groan like the beast he is.

His hold on me shifts until his hands slide down to the small of my back, burning hot and dragging me in, jerking me hard against the hard, honed machine of his body.

Then he delves into me.

His tongue plunges into my mouth.

I’m blinded from the heat, arching with a loud gasp, feeling like he’s just thrust his devious tongue between my thighs.

It’s beyond sinful.

And my knees clamp together like they can keep that feeling inside me—but it won’t hold when it’s just as disobedient as the rest of me.

Liquid fire races through me and electrifies every inch of my skin.

Napalm fills my veins.

Every inch of my skin feels incandescent, awakened by this man who messes me up in all the myriad ways.

My knees go so weak the longer we kiss.

I cling to him as his growl vibrates through me.

God, I can’t even stand without him supporting me.

My fingers claw his arms and those broad hands keep me pinned so close.

The rock-hard muscle under his uniform makes a lie of the neat, crisp shirt. The promise of the brute behind the stern gentleman.

Rough sensations come in ruthless waves like the ocean tide slapping the shore.

And those punishing waves are all Lucas Graves.

“New York, fuck,” he grinds out when he breaks away for breath.

I moan a reply, already too worn for words.

Too awestruck.

How coarse his fingers are, scraping through my thin shirt.

His heat—God, his heat—it soaks me until I melt against him, my breasts tingling against his chest, peaking my nipples.

The hardness between his thighs, pushing against me with a needy insistence, dragging against my stomach and my hips.

I want it.

I want him.

And I’m utterly shameless when I move, twining my tongue with his when he kisses me more greedily than ever.

I push my fingers against his shirt and skim down his chest.

I’m rewarded with the taste of more hot desire growling up his throat, filling me with fire in every kiss.

We’re rampant.

Unthinking.

Explosive.

There’s no flipping stopping now, not before I find the waist of his slacks, his belt. My fingers work clumsily on the buckle.

More thunder booms up his throat as the backs of my knuckles brush his cock through the material.

He grinds into my fingers, showing me the power in his hips.

“Delilah,” he rasps against my mouth, fierce and animalistic and needy.

Yes,” I whisper, dragging his belt buckle open.

I don’t know what the hell is happening right now, this imminent chaos.

I just know this feeling, right here, is the one thing I didn’t know I’ve been looking for.

Every kiss feels so certain when everything else in my life is a total vacuum.

Lucas stills for just a moment.

He breaks that last slick kiss, his mouth red and wet, his eyes lit with hunger as he stares down at me.

That flinty green in his eyes is blazing, so intense, so captivating against the stark blackness of his hair framing his face.

One look flays me open and I finally understand exactly how he makes me feel.

Naked.

With one sharp glance, he strips me down before he’s even taken any of my clothes off—and I know that’s coming.

He bends, brushing his lips over mine, more questioning than before.

Last chance. Last fucking chance to turn back, Delilah, I feel him asking.

He’s giving me a choice and it’s like he doesn’t know I’ve already decided.

I’m trembling with the unexpected softness, the slow, careful way he traces the corner of my mouth.

When he turns wild, the whole world spins with one quick movement.

Before I can blink, I’m slammed against that brand-new desk like we mean to defile it.

Only for a second before he flips me around, bends me over it, pressing me down with my breasts against the cool cherrywood and my ass thrust up and waiting.

His hands are so deliciously cruel now.

I shudder.

“Peach fucking perfect,” he whispers. I don’t know what he means until his hands move lower.

His bestial strength drags my jeans down, baring my thighs, my ass in my little lace panties.

My ears bristle when I hear him inhale with furious approval. He inhales deeply like he’s caught my scent, a lion set to devour.

Oh, God.

His hand splays between my shoulder blades, and—oh fuck, I feel it coming like he’s radiating static force. But I’m still not ready for the exact moment when his fingers trace my panties, sliding lace against my skin, teasing my opening.

I’m so dead.

My already soaked skin becomes so slick, so sensitive.

With a soft moan, I’m squirming, trying to push back toward him.

I’m already begging, dragging my body against the desk like this. The cool wood teases me through my clothes and Lucas only makes it worse.

He strokes me slowly, hypnotically, with a slow insistence, each time working the fabric of my panties deeper against my flesh, into my folds, making me pulse and clench.

I couldn’t hold it in for a billion dollars.

I cry out, terribly aware that we’re still at school, and the door is hanging open.

This is absolutely not how I imagined starting this job.

Anyone could walk by right now and I don’t care.

Because when his thumb brushes my clit, desire erupts in a wild burst, a monster that grabs me by the throat and won’t let go.

“Lucas,” I hiss out, clawing the desk.

But I can’t get free, not before he’s good and done with me.

Not when he plays me like a fiddle, the pad of his thumb toying with my clit until it’s swollen, throbbing, starving.

I’m so wet for him it’s killing me, spilling down my inner thighs, making a mess of myself for this man I hardly know and yet who seems to know my body like he’s already memorized it from a map.

I throw my head back and whimper, squirming with shame.

“Lucas, we have to—”

“Hush, Miss Lilah. Just breathe,” he whispers.

I obey.

It isn’t even a choice.

His hands move quickly, pelting me with rough pleasure.

His fingers work faster, pushing me to soaring pleasure in a few blinding seconds.

The relentless assault on my senses melts my worries into a mess of hot gasps and countless firm kisses on the back of my neck.

Every flick, every tease hits like an earthquake, tremors building and building until I’m biting the back of my hand for dear life.

His breathing grows more ragged, and mine becomes a mess of moans.

“Holy hell, don’t stop. Don’t stop, Lucas, I’m—”

The way his rhythm quickens on my clit tells me he knows.

He knows I’m right on the edge, and he’s about to throw me over.

When the tidal wave hits, it brings me down with a thousand tiny convulsions.

One fierce eruption of pleasure.

I come so hard I see stars and they’re all bright green.

It breaks me, and his fingers slow, pressing lightly against my panties while I ride his hand through the storm.

When the wave passes, I slump down on the desk in a panting mess—only to flinch as he touches me again.

It’s not that I don’t want him now.

I just don’t expect his touch so soon.

He’s barely said a word since we collided, but there’s a wordless language of Lucas Graves telling me how it is.

His low rumble whispers appreciation for the way I gasp, the way I shudder, the way I completely surrender.

His fingertips brush me so gently, sparking my nerves all over again.

A single fingertip hooks the fabric of my panties and sweeps them aside. Cool air kisses my wet flesh and I arch against his hand with a low whimper.

“Hotter than July, woman. Tell me you needed that, Lilah. Do not bullshit me.”

I don’t dare.

I just release a satisfied whimper and collapse against the desk into a pile of sex-wrecked jelly.

Then he lets me go.

I don’t have the strength to get up, to even look back at him. Not when that orgasm obliterated me and still somehow left me wanting more.

And I realize he’s about to bring it—that’s why he let me go—when I hear a familiar crinkling sound. A condom wrapper ripping open.

Okay, now I have to look, have to watch him.

I twist to glance over my shoulder.

I need to see it.

Just like I need to see the feral glint in his eyes.

I need to see the heat darkening his face, relaxing into slack pleasure as he frees his thick cock from his slacks, from the boxers underneath, and smooths his hand over its full length as he slides the condom on.

Anaconda.

That’s the only word that comes to mind.

His cock is a battering ram, pulsing with hunger and so thick I wonder if I could even close my fingers around it.

Holy hell, this might hurt—but if it does, it’s the kind of pain that’s worth it.

My core burns, wanting him to stretch me, to claim me, to really make me his.

His eyes lock on mine.

“The hell you looking at, darlin’? You like what you see?”

The way I bite my lip gives away my answer.

He’s so close, heat radiating off him, burning my bare flesh.

It’s like we’re on our own private wavelength, where my body can already feel him inside me, and it pulses with the emptiness of knowing he’s not there yet.

But I think he’s waiting.

For me to say the final words that will let him off his leash.

It’s heavy, knowing a man like this will hold himself back for you when it’s got to be killing him.

Underneath his brooding and slow-talking stillness, there’s a savage, and he’s holding back until I say ravage me.

“Lucas,” I whisper, stretching my arms across the desk and curling my fingers against the edge, bracing and ready as I spread my legs as far as the snare of my jeans around my thighs will let me. “Lucas, please.”

His only answer is a rumbling hot snarl.

Then I feel it.

The head of his cock, pulsing against me, spreading me open one slow, rough push, so close to—

His hand curls against my shoulder, thick and possessive.

I brace myself, holding in a breath.

I don’t even try to force back my raw, needy cry as he slams into me in a single gliding thrust, his hips crashing against my ass as he sinks in deep.

So deep.

God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt anyone else bottom out like Lucas.

He strokes unclaimed places, filling me with this heavy warmth that drains my strength, leaving me helpless to the burning friction, the scorching thrust, the pure unrestrained power radiating off him.

Guttural delight torches the air as he growls his pleasure.

He grinds into me hard, yet his thrusts are so controlled.

Like he knows exactly what drives me crazy with every precisely timed, measured drive of thick, teasing flesh.

I feel him so deep it’s almost shameful.

Wave after wave of screaming pleasure picks me up and slams me down again as he fucks me against the desk, open and begging.

I’m not sure anymore if I’m screaming or moaning or sobbing.

Holy hell, what is this?

I didn’t know sex with this much violent emotion existed.

I’m too sensitive, I almost can’t stand it—but I’m already hooked.

And he gives me more, his hulking body arched over me, intensifying every thrust when his hips swing forward like a hammer made flesh.

His mouth pelts my shoulders with kisses, with bites, with fire.

His hand slips under me, taking my breast in his palm.

His thumb and forefinger find my nipple, teasing me with rough tugs, twisting.

The friction alone is enough to rob my voice away in broken gasps.

Every thrust only kindles me hotter like he’s setting me on fire with pure friction.

And I’m gone in the crash and flow and rhythmic scrape of the legs of the desk, tossing my head back against his shoulder as I—

Oh, shit.

There—right there, where he fits against me and touches something that ignites like dynamite.

I toss my head back against his shoulder, losing his rhythm as my body finds its own, spasming and rocking and writhing under him.

This sweet tension bolts through me so hard it locks me around him, making it worse as I imprint him on me from the inside out.

And he’s trying to move again but I won’t let him.

I can’t, not with the convulsions ripping through me, turning me into a vessel for Lucas Graves.

“Fuck, Delilah, you’re killing me,” he grinds out. “Make it fucking hurt, Lilah. This is all for you.”

It’s only when our collision peaks that I realize he’s stopped moving, staying buried deep inside me to the hilt.

He’s whispering my name now, his senses just as frayed as mine.

“Lilah, Lilah, Lilah.” It sounds husky, almost reverent, and he jerks my body closer to his every time.

Then comes the throbbing, the shudder, the swell.

A tortured groan claws its way out of him as his face screws up, his hips grinding, stirring his cock inside me as he comes.

He orgasms the same way he does everything else.

Quietly but so intensely he could split you open with one look.

There’s a part of me that wishes the condom wasn’t in the way so I could feel it as his cock heaves.

One fist tangles my hair and pulls as he empties himself, growling with every pulse, a human storm that won’t let go until we’re so spent I’m not sure either of us are still breathing.

When I’m able to think, we’re both slumped against the desk.

Of course, I’m a mess.

Weak, trembling, satisfied, and slick with sweat and God only knows what else.

Then my brain starts to work again through the fog of the best sex I’ve ever had. My jaw drops.

Oh, Christ.

What did we just do?

Fear bolts through me, almost as powerful as that orgasm to end all orgasms moments ago.

No, I’m not blaming him.

Lucas kissed me first, but I practically threw myself at him.

“Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit,” I whisper, my throat dry and my voice cracking. “Lucas, the door!

His weight slides off me as he jerks back.

He was still inside me, rooted so deep it’s jarring when he’s gone, making me feel like I’ve been hollowed out.

Lucas rests his soothing hand on the small of my back.

“Hold still,” he murmurs. “Keep breathing.”

I can’t do anything else as he pulls away, leaving me sore and aching with his absence.

So I bite the sound rising up my throat behind my teeth, holding it in as he separates before I’m scrambling upright, pulling my panties back into place, yanking my jeans up over my hips with a desperate look toward the open freaking door.

I can’t quite bring myself to look at Lucas.

Not yet.

It’s just too real.

But I hear his zipper closing and then the wet thunk of—oh no.

The condom hits the little wire wastebasket next to the desk.

I dart for it, refusing to look at it as I close up the bag with only one thing inside that definitely doesn’t belong here.

Behind me, there’s a creak, then the sound of the door latching shut.

“There. Crisis averted,” Lucas rumbles. His voice sounds like he’s blown his throat out with growling whispers, the way he made my name a mantra of pure lust. “Don’t think anyone saw. We’re the only folks here.”

“I sure hope you’re right! If anybody heard that…” I don’t finish. I just try to gulp down the rock in my throat and what’s left of my shattered dignity.

It’s too late for whispers and regrets, anyway.

I stare down at the little white bag crumpled in my fists.

What the hell was that?

What came over me?

Rutting like animals bent over this brand-new desk from the Arrendells, a classroom door open, blinds up, screaming like a banshee for anyone to hear in this supposedly empty school.

Holy hell, what’s wrong with me?

“Delilah.” His eyes glow softly, almost apologetic. “The lot was empty when I pulled up, I swear. We’re the only ones here. Even if we’re not, no one would ever guess it was you.”

“I… yeah.” I press the back of my hand to my mouth and lift my head slowly, forcing a smile past the knot in my throat. “Listen, um, can we talk about this later? I still need to tidy up and take care of some things before I lock up and leave.”

For the briefest second, hurt flashes across his face, darkening those soulful green eyes.

I know.

I know what I’m doing.

Trust me.

But I’m also avoiding, deflecting, struggling.

Honestly, I need a hot minute alone to process this.

Maybe a few hot hours.

I need to figure myself out, everything I’ve been denying about why I bristle and snarl and get so defensive around Lucas Graves.

Every reason why he was the one dominating my mind when I broke out my battery-operated boyfriend the other night.

But I can’t do that while he’s standing there, staring like a whole season of spring greenery distilled into a man, his lips parted like he wants to say something but he can’t.

I don’t blame him.

Lord knows I don’t know the words, either.

And I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if what we just did was a casual impulse we’ll pretend never happened, two consenting adults letting off a little steam, or something wilder.

If it’s something else, if it’s—

No.

I can’t say it.

I just silently beg Lucas not to press me right now, even if I hate rejecting him like this, leaving him wondering.

There’s a silence hanging around us that’s too loud, devoid of that peaceful stillness he normally brings that makes it so easy to just be around him.

His hands hang helplessly at his sides.

“You’ll call if you need anything?” Lucas nods slowly, heaving a deep breath.

There’s an implication there.

A promise.

He doesn’t just mean if my crazy ex shows up, or someone new comes creeping around my house, or my alarm goes off, or I discover something shocking about Emma Santos.

He means me.

If need anything.

If I need him.

I’m not sure what to do with that.

I hardly know anything about him except that he’s kind underneath his snarls and smart-assery. Ever since I’ve shown up here, he’s done everything humanly possible to help me feel safe and like someone in this town gives a damn.

And I know that he knows how it feels to miss someone.

But the rest is as mysterious as that look anchored in the second-guesses flashing in his eyes.

I smile unevenly. I can’t help it.

“I will,” I tell him. “I promise.”

Lucas just looks at me a minute longer.

He always seems on the verge of saying something, only to reel it back in at the last second.

He bows his head, raking a hand through his thick black hair, a slow gesture that’s weariness and confusion.

Then he pulls the door open and walks out, leaving me alone with a deafening click of the latch.

I slump back against the desk, still trembling—then jerk away from it.

I need to clean this place ASAP. I’m not leaving sloppy seconds for some poor janitor.

But I almost don’t want to touch it.

I don’t want to touch this desk after we just fucked on it.

Maybe it’s just in my head, but there’s this weird feeling like it’s the same as touching Ulysses, touching Montero…

That’s something so complicated and weird I can’t even think about it right now.

I still don’t understand them, or why they want to shower me with insane gifts.

But as I move, something flutters against my ankle.

The note.

It must have fallen to the floor while we were busy.

The jewelry box, too, still holding the bracelet with those weird Xs in rose gold coiled on the floor.

I bend down to pick up the box, the bracelet, and the slip of parchment paper—only to realize there’s something written on the back I hadn’t noticed before.

A phone number.

Frowning, my brows pull together.

I wonder.


I guessed it might be Ulysses’ number—his personal cell, not the extension for the town council that goes directly to his rarely occupied desk.

I wish I knew how to feel about being right. But I have questions, and only answers will put my mind at ease.

So I curl up in my brand-new bed topped with fresh sheets and give him a call.

“Miss Clarendon.” He sounds delighted when he picks up. “How are you today?”

Deliciously sore and well used, I think, but of course I don’t say that out loud.

I doubt he’d think of me as harmless Miss Clarendon then.

Funny how I’m Miss something to everyone here, even to the man who bent me over a desk and made me scream.

I needed time to myself after Lucas left. So after a good deep cleaning, I spent all day putting up maps and colorful alphabet posters and bright cartoons of historic figures designed to engage young learners.

All soothing, repetitive tasks that kept me focused on why I was really here instead of turning myself in circles over Lucas and the fact that every time I moved, I still felt him.

My mind is stuck in that moment and it doesn’t want to move on, no matter how I try to rip myself away.

And I realize I’m doing it again, lying there drifting off and thinking of that hurt, haunted look in his eyes, all the things he wouldn’t say.

“Miss Clarendon? Are you there? Is something wrong?” Ulysses asks.

“Oh!” I snap back into myself, startled and clearing my throat. I press my palm to my overheated cheek. “Sorry, it’s just been a long day. I called to thank you.”

“Ah. I take it you found my gift? Even if it was technically a gift from the town and my father.” Ulysses sounds too smug.

“Yes, I’m over the moon with it, really… but that desk is so expensive. Are you sure it’s okay and it isn’t a little too much?”

“Consider it our sincerest thank you,” he says confidently. “When the last elementary teacher quit, we were left holding the bag, you know. So a nice welcome gift to show our appreciation is nothing. We want you to feel at home, Miss Clarendon. Ideally, we’d like to keep you.”

The way he says we is a little odd, but I guess he means the town.

“Why did the last teacher quit?” I ask.

“She wasn’t cut out for Redhaven. Not a good fit for the pace here. She complained her online deliveries took more than a week to arrive,” he says dryly. “I do hope you’re more adaptable to the rigors of small-town life.”

I snort. “Usually when people say ‘rigors,’ they mean dilapidated outhouses and no hot water. I’ll manage. I don’t shop online that much anyway.”

“I hope that’s a promise,” he says cryptically.

I pause.

I don’t want to say it is.

Because there’s a lot more about this town that’s off than a few boring days and slow deliveries.

I push myself to ask, firming my voice, “I’ll think about it. But about the bracelet—”

“Did you like it?” he cuts in abruptly. “I thought rose gold might complement your olive skin.”

Holy hell.

My skin? What do I even say to that?

“Sure,” I manage, wrapping my arms up tight as I look outside and watch how the leaves shiver in the evening breeze. The soft twilight gloom turns everything a gentle blue. “I’m just kind of curious, why the Xs, after what happened at The Rookery?”

“What happened at The Rookery?” Ulysses sounds genuinely puzzled.

“You didn’t hear?”

“Believe it or not, sometimes our gossip mill has a limited altitude, lady. It occasionally loses steam without making it to the top of the hill.” He chuckles.

“Oh. Oh, right.” I chew the inside of my lower lip. “Well, when I was staying there, I saw someone outside my window. They spray-painted this huge red X just below it, then disappeared. It’s possible it’s my stalker ex from New York, but I… it almost felt like someone sending me a message. You really didn’t know?”

He inhales sharply.

“I wish like hell I had. Besides being insensitive and threatening, it’s downright tacky.” Ulysses growls with this rushed sincerity. “My deepest apologies, Miss Clarendon. I promise you I knew nothing, and I’m deeply sorry Redhaven has done its damnedest to make you feel uncomfortable. If you’d like, throw that nasty thing into a shredder and be done with it.”

“What? No!” I say quickly—but why? Why am I reluctant to get rid of it? I glance at the nightstand, where the little red box sits with the bracelet safely tucked inside. “Sorry, I just… I hate wasting things, Ulysses. I guess it’s a hazard of growing up without much stuff. So if you really didn’t mean anything by it—”

“Hand to God, I did not. Besides taking a clumsy stab at flirting, I guess.” He pauses. “The Xs were kisses, Miss Clarendon. You know, the X in XO, kisses and hugs?”

My face flames. “O-oh.”

“See? Clumsy as hell. Now I’ve gone and made you feel like shit.” Ulysses makes a self-deprecating sound. “Forgive me. I suppose I’m the stereotypical rich eccentric. Kisses aren’t meant to be so heavy. Hell, I still kiss my own mother on the cheek.”

“How European,” I point out.

“Exactly. We brought over some odd habits generations ago, and I suppose our international upbringing only makes it stick.” With a rattling chuckle, Ulysses sighs. “You should meet my brothers one day. They and my old man tease me constantly for talking about nothing but you. My father was happy to meet with you anyway, and my brothers will be home soon. There’ll be a big reunion party of sorts, as always when the family reunites. Why don’t you stop by then? Dress code optional. No one will judge you if you aren’t dripping Vera Wang.”

I smile crookedly.

“Pretty sure they’d judge me if I showed up in a ripped tank top and jeans. I really doubt I’d fit in with that crowd. Limousines and rich people? No way.”

“You can fit in wherever you desire. Status is so artificial,” he says flippantly.

Hmm.

“Maybe,” I bite off.

Truthfully, I’ve never liked getting dolled up and going fancy places like that, squeezed into a dress that’s cutting off my circulation and with my face feeling like a plaster mask. “Let me think about it, okay? I still have a mountain of work to do before the school year starts, and I don’t know what my workload will look like then. I might end up pulling an all-nighter cutting out cardboard stars.”

“No better way to spend an evening,” he mocks gently. “I’ll text you the details just in case you can grace us with your presence.”

“Oh, no. My presence is hardly a gift. But thanks for your gift, Ulysses. The desk, I mean. It makes me feel very… official.”

“So stern, Miss Clarendon. Will you take me across the knee with your ruler, next?”

Ulysses!” I almost choke.

I was so not expecting that.

A wicked, husky laugh drifts over the phone. “No worries. I’ll be a perfect gentleman from here on out. Enjoy your evening, Miss Clarendon. Hope to hear from you soon!”

“Yeah,” I say faintly.

I’m a little surprised he’s the one to hang up first.

I’m also surprised by how fidgety I feel after that call.

Hugging my knees to my chest, I glance down at my toes and scrunch them against the coverlet.

I can’t stop frowning.

He talks to me like we’re old friends, and always with that superficial gloss of politeness.

It’s just odd, like he’s treading all over my personal space while still standing so far away.

I might still be feeling off-kilter after getting myself so messed up with Lucas. Or maybe I’m having trouble adapting to small-town hospitality.

I should be less judgy. If I could actually relax, then maybe—

A scraping noise just outside my window stops me mid-thought.

It’s faint, just a scuffing sound like a foot dragging through fresh-cut grass.

My heart compacts into a withered pea.

Only to explode up my throat in a throat-ripping scream the second I glance up.

There’s someone in my window!

The same silhouette from the night at The Rookery.

Tall, lean, hunched, shadowed, his features indistinguishable.

Sweat beads like ice all over my body. I clutch at my calves, staring at that dark, unmoving shape.

He stays where he is for several halting seconds.

He must know I can see him—he has to be looking right back at me—making sure I know he’s there, making me feel the threat.

Then he turns and walks away, heading toward the back of the house, moving in that same shuffling, slouched lope like he’s trying to mask his stride.

Trying to make sure I don’t recognize him.

Roger?

Anger surges through my fear, unlocking my limbs.

I rocket off the bed, nearly tripping over my bare feet as I tumble to the floor.

I race out of the bedroom, down the hall, toward the back door.

The muted chirp of crickets turns from a whisper to a shrill cry as I fling the back door open on my tiny deck, banging it against the wall.

Desperate, panting, I scan around, searching the darkness.

My feet move faster than my brain, tumbling me down through the grass. The blades tickle the soles of my feet as I dart around the side of the house and find—

You guessed it.

Nothing.

No one.

Not even a whisper of the trees beyond the fence this time.

I’m flipping alone.

Except for one thing that numbs me like frostbite.

A very fresh, very bright, very wet red X painted on the blue siding below my window.

And this time, I don’t think that crimson is paint at all.


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