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The Broken Protector: Chapter 13

RED MEAT, DEAD MEAT (DELILAH)

Idon’t remember falling asleep.

Lucas left me that worn out.

By the time I came down from my high in a boneless mess, I barely had enough sense to snuggle up to him and pass out.

But God do I remember how he felt.

All wrapped around this big protective beast until he formed a wall between me and a world that’s just getting scarier.

His warmth stays with me, the memory of his powerful arms cradling me while he sprawled out with ease, sheltering me.

Sheltering us both.

It was like an unspoken message.

Like he was telling me, hush and sleep easy, Miss Lilah. Long as I’m around, nothing’s gonna get you.

Every last fiber of my soul believed him.

There’s just one drawback to having a bear of a cop as your personal protector.

When I wake up in the pale pink-gold light of dawn still draped over him, the late summer swelter just about smothers me in a sweaty layer doubled by his body heat.

I shove lightly at the massive sleeping lump in my bed.

He doesn’t even twitch, just snorts and holds me even tighter.

If the heat wasn’t killing me, I’d laugh.

I might as well be a squirming kitten shoving at a bulldog.

After a few more lame attempts to jostle him awake, I reach up and pat his face, loving the sharp scratch of his morning stubble against my fingers.

“Rise and shine, dude. Wake up. Lucas.” Snickering, I smack his face harder. “You’re going to give me heatstroke.”

A drowsy groan rumbles out of him, and though he never opens his eyes, a slurred, half-asleep mumble comes out.

“Then how’re you talking…”

“Magic. Now let go, big boy. I’m sweating half to death.”

His grip finally relaxes and he cracks one green eye open.

“Do I have to?” he whispers. “You feel damn good.”

Oh, God.

That shouldn’t melt me so much.

But I can’t pretend he doesn’t feel amazing, too.

I wouldn’t have been able to stay here last night without him, much less sleep through the night. With Lucas still curled around me, the danger feels more abstract, less real.

I soften, curling my hands against his chest.

“At least let me get the covers off. I’m about to pass out.”

“Mmph.” Lucas shifts his weight.

My breath catches as his lips graze my throat, finding my pulse. He traces the tender marks where he bit me last night—until suddenly he blows a raspberry against my neck.

“Hey!” I burst out laughing, squirming and shoving him again. “You overgrown baby!

“Don’t think a baby could do the shit I did to you last night,” he teases, loosening his grip on me and shoving the covers back, letting air rush over us, the taste of morning on every breath.

It’s a crazy thing.

The minute I’m free, I want his suffocating warmth back. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the cooling wetness misting my skin.

We’re both naked now, shimmying out of our clothes after our first round.

We settle against each other, enjoying the morning stillness and a few happy birds chirping outside.

I lay my head on his shoulder, cheek on his chest, just listening to his heartbeat drumming away.

It’s so steady, this calming thing that makes me think of all the times we’ve been quiet together, how easy and simple and peaceful it was.

Lucas Graves makes me feel at ease even in the total chaos.

He soothes my jagged edges and blunts my thorns.

Even when I’m ready to take his head off, there’s just something about him that makes it easier to breathe.

God.

I think I’m even starting to like him.

I don’t just mean the sex.

Him him, the man behind the badge and grumping snark.

…honestly, maybe even more than like.

There’s a sweetness fluttering inside me when I feel how he holds me, turning me to soft, warm putty inside.

But I hardly know anything about him.

His parents died when he was young and his poor sister was next. Then he eventually became a cop.

He’s a kind, caring, loyal man who lives out the whole serve and protect oath cops take.

I think he can fix almost anything, from the broken glass in a picture frame to busted steps to wiring up an alarm system.

And he’s lost so much—possibly due to the Arrendells—and he carries that heartbreak with so much dignity and strength in a town just full of people who’d never guess what their benefactors are really capable of and probably wouldn’t believe him if he spoke up.

I get it.

I really do.

Even if Ulysses is overly attentive and weird, even if I’ve heard the rumors about what really goes on at their glam parties where half the guys are snorting coke off supermodels’ asses, even if I’ve seen the Twitter exchanges wondering if they’re somewhere between Armie Hammer’s nightmare family and Epstein island on the creep-o-meter…

All I’ve seen for myself since I moved here is what they claim to be. Rich folks free with their influence and money, seemingly for the good of Redhaven. Eccentric, yes, but welcoming and kind. That’s the face they show the world, and the only world they’ve shown me.

So why do I want to believe Lucas so badly?

Easy.

Because I can’t fathom why he’d lie.

And I can’t imagine that so much raw hurt spilling out of him could ever be delusion and nothing else.

That’s the thing.

When people tell big lies, they’re either crazy or doing it for some selfish benefit. They wouldn’t tell lies that could mean ridicule or exile.

Sometimes when people tell you things that are hard to believe, knowing they’ll get serious backlash for it, they’re telling the truth. Or at least telling you what they truly believe, damn the consequences.

If nothing else, Lucas believes what he’s told me—sincerely and honestly, with absolute faith. He’s not lying to me.

As for whether it’s true…

I hate that I’m leaning toward yes.

It sucks when the Arrendells have been nothing but kind to me.

But there’s being eccentric.

Then there’s the kind of scary weirdness that sets off my senses until my skin crawls.

Suddenly I remember Ulysses standing between me and his father. Montero looking at me with cold, possessive eyes, and Ulysses blocking me with his body like he was quietly signaling to his father.

No.

Not this one, old man.

You can’t have her.

Even with Lucas’ body heat, I suppress the chill sweeping up my spine.

Something’s not right with that family.

I don’t think it’s just my infatuation with Lucas talking, either.

I nuzzle his shoulder, skimming my fingers down his arm, following the thick, hard shape of his biceps.

His muscles are so sharply defined, all harsh angles softened by veins like rivers branching over his flesh.

He lets out a lazy growl, the only sound between us save for our breath and the chattering birds outside.

His lips press into my hair, his arms tightening around me again.

“Lilah, fuck. What are we doing?” he growls. “Just a few days ago, I could’ve sworn you hated me.”

“A few days ago, I could’ve sworn I hated you, too.” I smile. “I don’t know, Lucas. I don’t know what this is. But you make me feel good, and that’s no easy accomplishment.”

He smiles.

“I want you feeling safe with me constantly, woman,” he answers softly. “I want you knowing I’ll never let anything happen to you. I know a damn hell of a lot has been stalking you around ever since you got here, but I swear—I swear I’ll get to the bottom of this, Lilah. No one’s threatening you again.”

“Lucas.” I touch his cheek, grazing his dark stubble that tickles me so deliciously. “You don’t have to make that your responsibility.”

Honestly, I don’t want to be just his responsibility.

I don’t want him to be here in my bed purely because he feels like he has to guard me, to stop what happened to Celeste Graves from happening to me.

But I don’t know how to say that when the words knot up inside me.

I hate that it’s so hard for me to admit something vulnerable, to squeeze emotion past my pride.

There must be something on my face, in my voice, though.

Lucas pulls back, looking down at me with his green eyes set like shining emerald.

“It’s not responsibility to protect someone you care about,” he rumbles. “It’s what any man would do.”

“Oh?” I raise both brows with an amused sound, failing to hide the red flush that goes through me. “So you don’t think a woman would, too? Let me tell you something, Lucas Graves.” I press a fingertip lightly against his chest. “I’d gladly bash someone over the head with a frying pan if they were trying to hurt you. Possibly a coffeepot. A blender. Whatever appliances hurt most, really.”

“Yeah?” With a husky chuckle, he captures my hand and kisses my fingertips. “So you’re saying you care about me enough to crack some heads?”

Hey now. Don’t get carried awa—”

My alarm clock cuts me off, flashing 6:00 a.m. from the nightstand with a shrill beeping.

My heart turns over sharply—not with surprise, but with the stark realization of what day it is.

Oh, no.

I start pushing at Lucas again, this time in earnest.

“Oh crap, crap,” I gasp, wriggling out of his arms. “I gotta go! It’s the first day of school and I can’t be late.”

Lucas sprawls there lazily—and for a heady second I can’t help but soak in his animal charm.

There’s too much grace to call him bulky, those broad shoulders tapering down to narrow hips and long, well-toned legs.

Still sleepy, his spring-colored eyes glow beneath thick, decisive, arrogant brows, just as cocky as the curve of his full mouth.

There’s just something about the way he looks with his black hair still tangled from sleep, wild and loose instead of neatly combed like it is while he’s on duty.

Sweet Jesus.

A terrible part of me wants to crawl right back into bed with him. But the rest of me buzzes with adrenaline until I feel like a hummingbird.

I can’t wait to meet my kids.

After drinking in one more look while he watches me with heated eyes like he knows what I’m thinking, I tumble out of bed.

“I need to get ready,” I call back as I sprint for the bathroom, nearly tripping over his tangled jeans on the other side of the bed. “If you want coffee, you’ve got to make it yourself, sorry!”

“Better get a move on, teacher,” he calls after me.

I laugh before I duck into the bathroom and crank the shower on.

I scrub myself down in a whirlwind.

By the time I walk back into the bedroom wrapped in a towel, his clothes are gone and so is he.

The smell of brewing coffee and eggs frying floats back from the kitchen.

I stuff myself into a pair of nice black pants, demure but cute brown boots, a lace-edged white camisole with a high neckline, and a close-fitting pale-blue cardigan. I finish with a quick dusting of makeup.

When I’m done, I follow the smell of coffee into the kitchen—only to find Lucas standing barefoot in front of the stove, his shirt draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.

My breath sticks in my throat.

His jeans nearly fall off the stark angles of his hips, making me think of handles. Something to grab him by and cling to and not let go.

I’m distracted from watching how the rising sun from the kitchen window plays over his bare chest by the sudden realization that he’s raided my fridge and pantry.

There are cheesy scrambled eggs, sizzling bacon, grated potatoes forming crispy hash browns, and the smell of toast. It’s only taken me twenty minutes to get ready.

Damn, he’s good.

He glances up at me lazily and lets his eyes drift over me with a growing smile as he shuts the burners off and starts piling the eggs on two of my new blue ceramic plates.

“Look at you,” he drawls. “Think I’m gonna start calling you Miss Rockwell, not Miss New York. You’re straight out of a pretty painting.”

“I could also start kicking you out.” I smile sweetly.

“You wouldn’t dare, darlin’. I made you one hell of a breakfast,” he says with mock-innocence.

He’s quick to arrange both plates, flipping bacon and hash browns next to the eggs, plucking out the toast the second it pops up and slathering the slices in strawberry jam.

For a second, it’s familiar. I know those movements.

Someone who’s done diner work.

That’s where I learned to cook, too, and how to put together plates in under thirty seconds.

He’s just as quick to balance the plates with one arm, two mugs of coffee in the fingers of his other hand, bringing them to the table.

“You look like the type who’d run out the door without breakfast on her first day.” The look he gives me is less teasing and more affectionate. “Eat, Miss Lilah. You need food to handle all those munchkins.”

I don’t quite know what to do with myself as I settle down at my little kitchen table. He arranges forks and knives on napkins for both of us while I watch, way too amused.

“Thank you,” I say a bit hesitantly, picking up a fork. “Diner job, huh?”

“What?” He gives me a puzzled look as he sits in the chair opposite me. He apparently eats like a heathen, shirtless and barefoot, but I can’t say I mind the view.

“The way you were slinging those plates. It reminds me of when I worked at my mom’s diner. I guess I was just wondering if you’ve done that, too.”

“Oh.” With a low chuckle, he scoops up a bite of eggs. “Nah, but galley work on a Navy ship isn’t much different. The new recruits get to be everyone’s waiters.”

“So you did join the Navy.” I scoop up my own eggs, taking a tentative taste—and I can’t help purring my appreciation.

He made these with butter. They’re melt-in-your-mouth good.

Lucas goes quiet, though, pushing his eggs and bacon around his plate with his fork, looking down at them.

“Yeah. I did. Celeste didn’t want it, but with her gone, it was the best way to find my footing. Got my GED and a special dispensation to enlist before I was eighteen. Easier than making me a ward of the state.”

“Yeah,” I say softly. “If I could’ve avoided that… I would have.”

It’s a strange thing to have in common.

We both lost the people who mattered most before we were eighteen, and someone else got to decide what to do with us.

I’m glad for him, in a way.

He had a chance to choose his own destiny before someone snatched it away from him like they did with Mom and me.

But he’s quiet, his eyes downcast.

I’m not sure what to say, so I just set my fork down and reach across the table, curling my fingers lightly against his wrist.

He glances up at me, his eyes guarded, offering a smile that doesn’t mirror that sad green gaze.

“I didn’t stay real long,” he says. “Just a few tours. Saw some interesting places. Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, Oman, Djibouti. But y’know, as messed up as this place is sometimes…” He looks away from me, holding a piece of toast to his lips, his gaze fixed distantly out the window. “I just couldn’t stay away from home. It’s like Celeste kept calling me back to Redhaven.”

“You still need to know what happened,” I say firmly. “And you can’t turn your back on this place until you have your answers.”

“Somethin’ like that.” Another faint smile flicks across his lips before he looks back at me. “Anyway.” He jerks his chin toward my shoulder. “Don’t think I don’t see you hiding that tattoo.”

It’s not hard to tell he’s changing the subject.

Fine.

I let it go with a smile, squeezing his wrist before I pick up my fork again.

“I don’t want to have to explain it to any upset parents,” I say dryly. “Even if the whole point of getting it was, uh, to upset some parents.”

Lucas arches a brow—but there’s a warmth in his eyes, like he appreciates me accepting the change. He takes a bite of his toast, swallows, and says, “Any parents in particular, or you mean all of ’em?”

“My foster parents. Well, one set in particular, before they sent me back. I was seventeen.” I clear my throat. Now it’s my turn to rearrange my plate, shoving food around with my fork and ducking my head, my cheeks flaring hot. “That foster mother hated me. The way I talked, my temper… and maybe I had a sharp tongue. Maybe I did a few other things, too. She called me a vicious little dragon. I saved up my allowance for weeks and found a tattoo artist who didn’t check IDs and got it just to spite her.”

Lucas barks out laughter. Just like that the tension bleeds out of him, leaving him easy and relaxed again. His eyes glitter.

“I’m curious about those other things.”

“Oh, the usual.” I try to keep a straight face. “Turning in homework late, staying out too late, a little shoplifting once or twice—don’t worry, I felt so bad I gave the stuff back right away. Before I even got caught. Just the usual troubled teenager crap you shouldn’t talk about with the hot cop you just had wild sex with all night.”

His proud grin drips with filthy thoughts brimming in his eyes.

“No worries. I’ll cuff you for your misdemeanors later, after you’re done with the kids. For now, eat your breakfast, New York.”

“You,” I say, pointing my fork at him and very firmly ignoring how my stomach quivers at that subtle promise, “need to stop filling my head with terrible thoughts.”

“Just being polite, Lilah.”

“Lilah. Delilah. Say it. One or the other.”

“Lilah. Miss Delilah.” He smirks. “There. I said ’em both. You just didn’t tell me not to say anything else.”

“You—”

Fighting back my laughter—and failing—I snag the folded paper towel under my cutlery, ball it up, and throw it in his face.

It bounces off his head and he gives me a deadpan look.

“That does it,” he snarls.

Next thing I know, he launches out of his chair with a playful growl and comes diving at me.

Shrieking, I fly out of my chair, darting for the kitchen door—but he catches me around the waist, swinging me around, leaving me laughing wildly as I kick my feet.

How did life get this weird?

Here I am, first day on the job and surrounded by creepy threats.

There’s dried blood splashed on my house. Either from my psycho ex or one of the effing Arrendells or one of their freaky minions.

A girl died in this house, not ten feet from where I’m squirming in Lucas’ arms.

Yet somehow, I’m happy.

Happier than I’ve been since the day I first met Mitsi Clarendon and she pulled me into her arms and burst into tears of joy only a mother denied can have.

Maybe Emma Santos has a hand in this, wanting me to be happy because her life was cut short.

“Let go!” I hiss.

“Brat.” Mock-snarling, Lucas playfully pulls my hair, then sets me down next to my chair, nuzzling at my ear. “Eat your breakfast, I said.” The way he slaps my butt makes me squeak. “Finish your food or you’re gonna be late, brat.”

So I do, giving him an irritable look before I plop back down in my chair. “You’re lucky you’re such a good cook.”

“Y’know,” he says, sliding lithely back into his chair and diving back into his hash browns, “you better go easy on the backhanded compliments. I’m starting to figure out your game, and if you’re not careful, I might start thinking you like me.”

“Really?” I snort. “Then you’re not as good a cop as I thought you were, if that’s the conclusion.”

“See?” That just wins me another sexy smirk. “You went and did it again. Nice knowing you have such faith in my skills.”

“Lucas Graves. There’s an entire roll of paper towels not three feet away from me, and as far as I’m concerned that counts as artillery.”

“Cease fire. I surrender.” He sets his fork down and holds up both hands.

I just laugh, shaking my head, and finish the food while it’s still warm.

He’s right about the clock ticking.

There’s just enough time to eat if I want to make it in time to get settled before the kids roll in. I shovel it in, barely remembering my manners, even if he’s eating just as ravenously next to me.

No surprise, the man has an appetite to match his lion build.

I’m starting to wonder if he meant to eat all of this himself and only shared it with me when he realized he’d co-opted my kitchen.

It makes me smile.

And I’m still smiling like a lovestruck fool as I load everything into the sink to soak, then snag my messenger bag and dart for the door.

“You on duty today?” I ask, stopping on the porch and looking back at him.

Lucas hovers in the doorway, his arms stretched lazily over his head to grip the frame, drawing the stark lines of his chest into sleek relief. There’s raw power in every muscle that flexes with his breath.

“Not till afternoon.” He gives me a lopsided grin. “I drew crossing guard duty this month. Swear it was random. We drew straws and I came up short. I ain’t stalking you.”

“Sure you aren’t. Also…” I bite my lip. “You know the alarm code, right? When you leave, just set it and the door lock engages after thirty seconds.”

“I know how it works. I put it in, remember?” he teases. “I’ll also clean up and get those motion sensor lights put in today, then close everything up nice and safe for you.”

I flush. “Lucas, you don’t have to—”

He silences me by catching my chin.

And I’m breathless as he tilts my face up for a kiss, capturing my lips in this slow, soft movement that makes me remember the feverish way he kissed me last night.

That warmth rocks through me as he plies my lips in lazy caresses I feel all the way down to the tips of my toes.

When he draws back, I’m dazed, still looking up at him.

“I want to,” he whispers. “Have a good first day of class, Miss Clarendon.”

“Y-yeah. Okay. Sure.”

I’m walking on sunshine as I head to my car.

I’m amused that this is the first time I can actually see out of my rearview mirror since I moved here, without a gazillion boxes piled in the back.

But as I fit my keys in the ignition, I stop, glancing back at Lucas. He’s still watching me from the doorway with one hand up in a wave.

I also can’t help noticing the yellow crime scene tape peeking around the side of the house.

What am I doing?

Everything’s such a mess.

Whatever’s really going on with those Xs, my feelings, my everything.

Still, right now, I just want to bask in the moment.

I want to be happy.

I’m off to my very first day as a real teacher.

Not a teaching assistant, not a sub.

A bona fide honest-to-God teacher, with my very own classroom.

With one last look at Lucas and a fluttering wave, I smile and head off to work.


The world just glows brighter as I drive through town.

I feel like I’m in my own freaky Disney movie, everything hyper-saturated with color and twittering with birdsongs.

Only to have it all go grey the instant I turn onto the wider road leading to the town square.

There they are.

Standing on the corner like grim reapers.

Tall thin lampposts of men—Ephraim and Culver Jacobin—both of them smiling the same empty grins.

As I drive past, their heads turn slowly, tracking me, flash-freezing the warm, sunny morning.

My fingers go numb on the steering wheel.

I can’t help thinking Roger’s not the only one in town with a skinny, tall build—and a horrible talent for not being seen until he’s good and ready.

I don’t stop watching the Jacobins in my mirror until I turn into the roundabout and they vanish from my sight.

I don’t breathe until they’re gone.

I’m sure they never stop watching me until they can’t.


I won’t let any weirdo scarecrow-men ruin my whole day.

Also, I thought I was prepared for how rambunctious my students would be.

I was very wrong.

I’m the only main teacher for K-4, aside from arts, PE, and elective teachers who only get them for an hour or two at a time. They’re with me almost all day, thirty-three total between all the age groups.

I’ve never managed a blended class like this before.

It’s a challenge to keep them all engaged, entertained, and actually learning. I only let certain grades out for an hour at a time to attend their rotating electives.

I’m basically doing the work of five teachers, even if my class is pretty small for spanning kindergarten through fourth grade.

Go figure.

I’m lucky the older students are eager to pitch in.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that I can make this work by covering each subject one at a time, and asking the older kids to help the younger ones.

The strategy lets them sharpen their own social skills by assisting, letting them feel helpful. I’m actually pretty proud of the strategy.

One especially bright, precocious nine-year-old keeps me on my toes, though.

Nell Faircross.

She’s in fourth grade, but well ahead of her peers, this restless little butterfly. The younger kids can barely keep up with her, and she’s my little helper all day.

I find out fast that she’s also a little gossip.

Every time I forget a name in the sea of new faces, she whispers in my ear, That’s Billy Compton or She’s Sarah with an H, remember the blonde one is Sara without an H but also with a little giggle of Billy pinches girls’ skirts and tries to peek or Mary steals pencils, watch out or she’ll take yours too.

I appreciate the little warnings.

But I also feel like I should keep an eye on Nell.

She forces me to cover a loud laugh more than once, but that kind of behavior could quickly turn from helpful to malicious gossip. I don’t want people picking on her for helping the teacher or ratting them out.

Trust me.

Snitches get stitches applies on the playground more than the streets.

Hell, especially on the playground.

By lunch, they’ve worn me out. I get five minutes to stuff my face with Nora.

Of course, she teases me about looking like an exhausted soldier in the trenches before I’m back at it with the kids.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m enjoying myself like mad, but the burnout hits hardcore.

I’m relieved that a little recess and full bellies seem to dampen their energy, too.

By afternoon, I’ve put the little ones down for their nap. The older kids are quiet and content with reading time, diving into classics by Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis.

Then Nell wants a story about an hour later.

I smile at her and ask, “What kind of story?”

She perks up, her brown hair bouncing around her face.

“Can you tell us a story about the people who live in the hills, Miss Clarendon?” she whispers, drawing it out dramatically. Her eyes widen. “Y’know, the ones in the scary house with the windows like eyes. The ones who eat people. My uncle says if you go too deep in the woods, they’ll chop you right up and put you in their stew pot.”

Gasps rise around the room, hushed and excited.

Many of the students stir restlessly.

“Nell, your uncle shouldn’t tell you stories like that,” I say. “And you’re going to wake the little ones. Be good now. Hearsay isn’t always the truth. I’m sure the hillfolk are perfectly nice people—” I stop. Yes, perfectly nice people, with their terrifying habit of standing by the side of the road and glaring at me like they really do want me for stew meat. But I can’t let my own goofy bias infect my kids.

“They just live a little differently than we do,” I tell her, choosing my words slowly.

Nell pouts, folding her chubby little arms. “But why would Uncle Grant tell me that if it’s not true?”

“Because,” I tease gently, “you’re a fearless little adventurer. I bet if he didn’t tell you fun stories to keep you from going out looking for the hillfolk, you’d wander all over the place to find out what it’s like for yourself. If you got lost in the woods, you’d wind up in a really scary situation. Your Uncle Grant would worry himself sick. So, I think you’d better listen to him and not mess around in the forest, but don’t pay any attention to silly stories about the hillfolk. He’s just teasing you.”

I hope.

After everything I’ve seen in this town, I honestly wouldn’t write off living in a bad remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

Nell lets out a long, dramatic sigh.

“Oo-kaaaaay,” she drags out.

“I appreciate that, Nell.” I smile. Even if I had to chide her, I prefer teaching through positive reinforcement, and I don’t want to embarrass her. “Now, does anyone want to hear any other stories? What else do you know about the history of Redhaven?”

A few kids chime in, talking about how they have a dad or a grandfather in Sons of the American Revolution because their sixth generation grandfather did something or other in the Revolutionary War.

Then Sarah With an H raises her little hand. “Can you tell us a story about living in New York, ma’am? That’s where you’re from, right? My mama told me.”

I’m not surprised their parents have been talking, wondering what kind of person I am and how I’ll be with their kids.

I just smile wider. “Sure! Buckle in, guys, because I’m going to tell you all about the Cinderella of New York City.”

Okay.

So I’m making up a fictionalized version of my life on the fly.

In the story, I’m a princess, stolen away from my mother by evil fairies. The evil fairies leave me with a cruel royal family who may be rich and rulers of a bigger country, but they don’t love me.

They keep trying to change me.

They make me a servant girl who just does backbreaking chores instead of the little princess I was born to be.

But one day, a prince with flashing green eyes and dark hair from another kingdom arrives. He’s a prince, but he’s also the sheriff.

I know, I know.

Don’t judge me. You work with what you’ve got when you’re not a bestselling author.

Prince Gravely recognizes me as the missing princess I’ve been searching for my whole life. He falls in love with me instantly and enlists the good fairies who work with my mom to spirit me away.

They restore my family and my crown before he proposes.

I become queen while my mother resigns to enjoy her retirement.

We all live happily ever after as beloved rulers over a small, but happy kingdom of kind, gentle people.

The end.

Yes, it’s a little far-fetched.

But I think they’re too spellbound to notice. Though Nell gives me a little smirk that says maybe, just maybe her clever little mind has put two and two together.

Hush, girl.

I might be a bit spellbound myself.

When I was a little girl, I never got many fairy tales.

I had to grow up fast, grow up hard, and learn quickly to keep my dreams and fragile feelings to myself, hidden behind sarcasm and defensive sharpness.

So it’s nice to daydream for a minute or two along with the little ones.

It’s nice to be young again with kids who are too innocent to judge you, or dismiss fairy tales as ridiculous, or do anything besides smile and sigh with satisfaction when the happy ending comes.

Before I know it, the kids are waking up, and I’ve got to wrap up for the day.

Later, when their parents come to pick them up, there are a lot of smiling new faces.

I stick around on the front walk so I can shake hands with people whose faces are becoming more familiar.

Of course, little Nell manages to embarrass me when her uncle shows up.

Grant Faircross, the police captain.

How could I forget him after the last crisis?

He gives me a somber look as he offers his hand to shake while Nell crowds behind his legs and hugs them, clinging like a happy little burr and looking up at him with adoring eyes.

“Miss Clarendon,” he says gruffly.

If an ancient oak tree could talk, it would sound like this guy, and he’s built like a tank—just a wall of bull muscle, nearly as tall as Lucas but almost twice as wide.

His eyes are grave, but kind, set above a thick brown beard shot with silver.

“Sorry I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself properly before. Call me Grant.”

I shake his hand quickly with a smile. “It’s nice to officially meet you—and don’t worry, Captain. I just appreciate you and Officer Fontenot coming out so late to help Lucas.”

“It’s what we do, ma’am.”

“Hey!” Nell pipes up pointedly, her smile just a little too wide and innocent. “Did you know Uncle Grant’s never had a girlfriend?”

Holy shit!

I sputter, fire igniting from my neck to my scalp.

Grant’s expression doesn’t change in the slightest, though his entire face goes red. What little I can see of it above the beard, anyway.

He dips his head to me with almost formal politeness. “Have a good day, ma’am.”

Then he turns around and firmly but gently marches Nell away, his shoulders stiff with embarrassment while I fight not to laugh.

He obviously dotes on that munchkin, and they’re sweet together.

My God, though.

I hope she doesn’t try playing cupid.

There’s only one hot cop in Redhaven I’m interested in.

Silly little matchmakers aside, all in all, it’s been a great first day.

I can’t wait to finish grading pop quizzes, take down some notes for tomorrow, and head home to bask in the afterglow of a job well done.


My afterglow vanishes when I get back to my house and find a pickup truck I don’t recognize parked on the curb.

It’s the most beat-up thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I drive an actual shitbox. So caked with dirt I can’t even tell if it’s supposed to be blue or grey.

What paint I can see is scratched and rusted, and there’s a huge dent in the passenger side door.

Tall wooden slats form a makeshift fence line around the truck bed. Repurposed stock pallets, I think, creating a rickety enclosure the way people who haul trash or livestock do.

Probably livestock, considering the hay scattered along the metal bottom, along with a few crates of tools and—

Bottles?

Yep.

Lots and lots of empty bottles, mostly crusted with mud.

I park a few feet behind the monstrosity. Through the back window I can just make out a shadow behind the wheel.

My heart thumps nervously.

My hands go clammy on the steering wheel.

I don’t like this when I’ve had way too many weird shadows haunting me lately.

Drawing in a deep breath for courage, I step out and warily approach the driver’s side door.

I rap on a window so greasy I can barely see inside—until I realize who I’m looking at.

My heart stops, weird prickles shooting through the tips of my fingers like arcing electricity.

Culver Jacobin.

The younger of the two creepers who stare at me every time we cross paths in town.

I’ve never spoken to them once. I only know their names thanks to Nora.

He’s slouched in the front seat, wearing a pair of muddy overalls, and—is he playing Bejeweled on his phone?

Oof.

Well, there goes the image of the scary crazy hillbilly who wouldn’t know what to do with a smartphone if it fell out of the sky and popped him on the head.

I flush guiltily.

You can’t tell the kids to stop making assumptions if you don’t.

So I muster up a smile and knock gently again, this time a tad louder.

“Hey,” I call. “Is there something I can help you with?”

He looks up with a surprised jolt and grins, showing off a mouth full of very large, very white teeth. Apparently these hillfolk keep up with their dentistry, too.

Then he rolls down the window.

“Hey there! I was waiting for you, wasn’t sure if I had the right address,” he says with a friendly twang. His eyes crease. “Miss Clarendon, right? Three p.m. appointment?”

“Huh?” I shake my head. “I don’t think I made an appointment for anything with you, Mr. Jacobin?”

“Not with me, no.” He reaches over and thumps the toolkit in the passenger seat with one dirt-smeared hand, grins wider and—oh, crap, he’s doing it again.

Staring at me.

Not just holding eye contact, but gawking with this fixed, unblinking stare boring through me. “Cable company sent me over to wire up your internet and TV. Tried to wave at you this morning, just to let you know I’d be seeing you later, but you sped by like a bullet.”

Oh!” Now my guilt turns into shame. “I’m so sorry. I’m such an idiot. I must’ve accidentally scheduled it for my first day at work. How long have you been waiting?”

“Oh, not much more’n an hour or two. Wasn’t no problem. Thought I might have the wrong address, but it’s real hard to have the wrong address around here.” He unlatches the door and I step back, giving him room to swing it open. “Guess I don’t need to introduce myself, huh?”

Now feel like the creep.

I smile sheepishly.

“Sorry,” I say. “I’ve seen you around town, and Nora and Mr. Arrendell—Ulysses, I mean—told me your name.”

“Ain’t no worry at all, ma’am, I know how Redhaven is. It’s like that song in Cheers, y’know?” He hefts himself out, pulling his toolbox with him and pockets his phone in front of his overalls with a sad little bloop-bloop sound of the game ending. “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

I fidget awkwardly for a second, then force another smile.

“Yeah, I guess so. Um, if you still have time to do the job, I think the cable hookup is out back.”

“Sure! I’m not too busy today. Just do this stuff part-time for a little extra coin to pay for things around the farm.” Culver slams the door of the pickup shut and follows me as I head toward the gate.

But as I unlatch it and step inside, leading him around the side of the house opposite from the one with the police tape, he stops, craning his head toward the glimpses of yellow and black visible around the other side.

“Hey, what happened there?” he says.

“I don’t know, don’t—”

Before I can stop him, he’s traipsing through the grass, disappearing around the corner.

Crap.

I dash after him, dropping my messenger bag on the porch.

“Wait! I think that’s still a crime scene!” I rush out quickly. “You shouldn’t—”

Too late.

He’s crouched in front of the yellow tape, reaching right under it to touch the bloody red X on the paint. Even though it’s long dried, a few flakes still smear his fingers.

He brings them to his face, sniffs them, and then—

No.

No, no, no.

He licks them as I watch in abject horror.

“Oh my God, why would you—there could be diseases, I—”

“Nah,” he says. “Blood this dry, out this long? Anything in it’s dead. Can’t make a man sick. ’Sides. Unless this fella had swine flu, nothing in it that can jump to a human. It’s pig’s blood, ma’am.”

I swallow hard.

I feel sick, my mouth flooding with saliva.

“How… how c-can you tell?”

“Tastes a little sweeter, a little grassier. Our pigs eat sweet corn, mostly, so it changes the taste of their blood. Humans taste kinda gamier, more metallic, y’know? Since we’re meat-eaters,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.

I just stare at him, my pulse tracking every horrified second that seems to last way too long.

Culver blinks and gives me a wry smile, full of self-mocking humor.

“You can relax. I never ate no one before. When we slaughter our hogs for the meat, we collect the blood and sell it in the butcher’s shop down in the square. People use it for cooking, making sausage, all that good stuff. Sometimes if a pig seems like it might’ve been sick, we taste the blood to make sure it’s clean before we sell it. Test it, too. Hell, we practically got our own lab up at the house like big nerds.” He grins. “Now ask me how I know how human blood tastes.”

I’m about to die.

“…okay. I’ll bite. No puns.” I point at him, although now I feel a bit silly. “How do you know?”

“’Cause my younger brother’s an asshole and he punches me in the mouth enough that I know damn well what my own blood tastes like, ma’am.”

I burst into laughter.

Well, that’s a relief.

Culver laughs, too. Just a quick awkward thing, almost a giggle, high-pitched and startling enough to silence my laughter instantly.

But I hold on to my smile better than before and shake my head.

“You really shouldn’t mess with that, though. The cops are still trying to figure out who did it.”

“Seems like a real mean thing to do to a new lady in town.” He claps his hands against his thighs and stands, then hefts his toolbox again. “Why the X, though? What’s that mean?”

“Mr. Jacobin, I wish I knew.”

I lead him around to the back of the house, where a really old cable box bristling with severed wires is mounted next to my little deck, close to the baseboards of the slightly raised house. Culver scratches his head, making his dark hair twirl up.

“Well,” he rolls out. “This is all gonna have to go. I’ll just put in a new box and wire everything up fresh, so you just tell me where you want your plug-ins and I’ll get you set up and put in a router for you. I can help you hook up your TV, too, if you want.”

“I can manage connecting one cable to the box, I think,” I say dryly. “But thank you.”

Yeah, I’m getting better at this.

At just being thankful with how easily everyone in this town offers to help, even when you don’t really need it—and even if the person offering a hand weirds me out.

I leave him to do his work and head inside to change out of my work clothes, making sure to close the curtains in my bedroom first.

When I settle back in the kitchen to scope out my dinner options, I can see him through the back window. My cupboard’s already a little bare and I need to head to the grocery store since I didn’t put enough thought into my first shopping trip here.

Even though I try to focus on my own business, I still find myself watching Culver.

I don’t want to rush him, but I don’t want to leave with him here, either.

And what makes me uncomfortable is that every time I glance out the window, he’s glancing in at me.

He holds eye contact too long before he grins and ducks his head back to his work.

Hillfolk don’t eat people, you chicken, I remind myself, staring at those massive Neanderthal teeth that look too capable of cracking bones to suck the marrow out.

God, I hate this.

This whole thing with the Xs, Lucas’ history with the Arrendells, it’s making me paranoid about everyone.

But I’m relieved when my phone rings, offering a little contact to break the surreal atmosphere.

I stop wandering between the living room and kitchen and dig my phone out of my messenger bag on the dining room table.

When I see Lucas’ name on the caller ID, my heart skips.

“Hey,” I say into the phone—just as Culver looks up again, his head bobbing up over the edge of the windowsill.

All I can see are his eyes. The rest of his face is hidden, but he’s watching me.

“Hey,” Lucas says. Just the sound of his voice is enough to warm me. I don’t know how I tripped into falling for this guy, but now I’m tumbling pretty hard. “You busy tonight?”

“No, not really, just trying to figure out what I can make for dinner with half a loaf of stale bread and some olives.”

“Well, you’re in luck,” Lucas drawls. “Because I was actually calling to ask you over for dinner. My place, tonight, around seven?”

My breath stops.

I can’t take it anymore.

I have to turn away from those dark eyes drilling into me. I give Culver my back, even if that still makes me feel vulnerable.

“Sure,” I whisper. “Honestly, I’m glad you called. I don’t want to be alone right now.”

“Why’s that? Lilah, is somebody there with you?”

I hesitate.

I don’t want my dumb overactive imagination to worry him. I’m sure he’ll laugh at me too for getting so freaked out by a guy who’s just a little awkward.

“I’m fine. Just hungry enough to eat a tire.”

“Then get your fine ass here as soon as you can, Miss Lilah. Food’ll be waiting.”

“I’ll be there!”

“With bells on?”

I giggle.

“A little more than that.” Even with Culver still peeking in, Lucas always makes me smile. “Talk to you later.”

He mutters my name softly in acknowledgment and hangs up.

I make myself turn, glancing out the window.

This time, Culver has his head down working, rather than staring in like the world’s most obvious Peeping Tom. I linger, not really processing much, just turning over the little things I need to do to get ready for work tomorrow so I can make time for Lucas tonight.

That’s when it hits me.

Something’s not right outside.

There’s a shadow looming around the tree line past my fence that wasn’t there before. The shape blends into the leaves and earthy bark.

A man.

A man with a familiar silhouette, sunlight gleaming off his sandy-brown hair, face hollow-eyed and sunken as he stares at my house with burning eyes.

Roger?

Holy shit, Roger!

It happens so fast.

My breath chokes off.

My chest caves in.

My fingers clench my phone like a brick, right before I drop it with a clatter.

Without thinking, I sprint through the back door out of the kitchen. The screen bounces with a wild squeal as I fling it open, heart racing, and tumble out onto the deck.

There’s no one there.

No one standing in the trees at all.

No one but me and Culver Jacobin, who jerks his head up with a yelp of surprise, dropping the wire clippers he’d been holding.

“Uh.” He stares at me, wide-eyed and flustered. “Ma’am, everything all right?”

“There was a…” I don’t finish, pointing limply at the fence instead. “I think there was a man in the trees. Did you see him?”

“No, ma’am.” Culver shakes his head slowly, then turns his head, squinting over his shoulder in the direction I’m pointing. “Ain’t seen nobody out here, and I got good eyes.” Then he peers at me. “You feeling okay?”

“Sure,” I whisper weakly, but I’m definitely not.

I’m just frozen, imagining Roger Strunk staring at me in broad daylight.

I swallow hard and back up.

“Sorry for startling you,” I say over my shoulder. “I’m fine.”

Culver’s eyes trail me as I bang the kitchen door shut and press my face into my hands, trying to calm my pulse.

It isn’t helping, and why should it?

Just one day.

One little day of peace is all I want, and I’m not going to get it.

I’m cracking now.

Totally losing it.

But maybe I need dinner with Lucas more than I thought for all the wrong reasons.

I need something when I can’t be alone.


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