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The Broken Protector: Chapter 15


It’s not fair.

It’s so not fair for Lucas Graves to be this effing cute.

It’s probably no surprise that date one led to date two.

We kind of already got the wild monkey sex out of the way—and now I guess we’re realizing that we can actually stand being around each other without going to war.

Since he did dinner for our first date, he left date two in my hands. But since I don’t know much about Redhaven yet, I’m not exactly bursting with brilliant ideas.

I do, however, have a great view of the lake from my house. Including a little boat launch and its hand-painted wooden sign with rental prices for the tourists.

Considering it’s offseason, getting a reservation is as easy as a quick phone call.

Which is how we end up here.

Floating on the center of a lake as smooth as glass.

Still Lake earns its name honestly.

The rowboat gently bobs in the slow, almost invisible current. The sun beats down on us, warm and soothed by the cool breeze skimming over the water.

Lucas sits across from me, completely soaked, his hair plastered into his eyes and his dark heather-blue t-shirt clinging to him like a second skin.

It’s almost obscene how it outlines every carnal delight of his body, accenting every muscle that strained over me in hard, flexing thrusts just last night.

I’d be turned on just looking at him, if only I wasn’t trying not to laugh until I snort.

With his mouth set in a grim line, Lucas lifts both hands and pulls his wet hair aside like he’s pulling back curtains.

“Glad you find this so entertaining,” he grumbles.

That’s it.

I lose it again.

I go down in a laughing fit, clapping my hands over my mouth, but all that does is make it come out in little spurts while I laugh until my stomach hurts.

“I’m sorry!” I mumble around my fingers. “But I told you not to stand up.”

“Yeah, yeah. Boat’s too big for me; you’re too small to counterbalance. You’d think I’d remember how to handle a fucking tiny skiff like this after being a sailor.” He snorts in disgust, but his eyes glitter warmly. “Laugh it up, New York. I really did think the picnic basket was about to go over the side.”

I bite back another giggle, clearing my throat and trying to plaster on a straight face. “It probably would have, if you hadn’t decided to take its place. You saved our lunch. My very own Herc.”

“You wanna get wet too?” he growls and lunges toward me, rocking the boat.

I squeal, holding my hands up.

“No, no, no, you’ll tip us over!”

He mock-pounces.

I tumble back against the edge of the boat, gripping the sides.

The water slaps and splashes as it sways frantically, but Lucas catches both edges, stopping himself mid-lunge and grinning at me far too wickedly for a man who just dumped himself in the lake a minute ago.

“Gotcha,” he practically purrs.

I widen my eyes—then sit up and scramble for the picnic basket.

I dig around inside until I find one of the crumpled-up napkins and lob it right at his dripping wet face.

The napkin hits him square between the eyes, and he bursts out laughing, sinking back onto the opposite seat as the boat slowly begins to calm.

“Guess I deserved that.”

“Only a little,” I grumble, but I’m still grinning.

I can’t help myself.

Shaking my head, I lean forward to dig around until I find the blankets I folded under our lunch just in case Lucas wasn’t keen on boating and would rather picnic on the shore.

I wouldn’t have minded. We had a lovely slow morning hike here, taking in the late summer air, the birds, the shimmering green leaves.

But this is nice, too.

Just us in our own little world in the center of the lake. Too far from the houses on the shore to be anything but a speck, half the perimeter ringed by thick walls of trees.

Ever since I’ve moved here, I’ve felt watched.

That’s why it’s nice to feel safe and alone out here with Lucas.

I shake the two blankets into my lap, then bend my finger at him.

“Come here. Carefully this time.”

Lucas quirks a thick black brow at me before he moves across the boat, stretching his body out and laying his head down in my lap.

I smile down at him as I brush his wet hair back, gently scrubbing it with a corner of the blanket before dabbing at his cheeks.

“You could stay like this,” I say.

“Thought you promised me dessert,” he says, lacing his hands together over his stomach.

Every last one of his abs is outlined like he’s just naked and painted blue.

“Dessert’s finger food. So if you hold still…”

“What? You’re saying you’ll feed me?” A slow smile grows on his lips.

“Don’t get used to it. I’m not playing harem girl, feeding the Emperor grapes every day.”

He wrinkles his nose. “I don’t even like grapes.”

“It’s a metaphor. But how do you feel about strawberries?” Bending over him, I rummage around in the basket again. “Voil—ah!

That yelp?

It comes out because while I bent over him, Lucas nipped the underside of one of my breasts.

I yank back, blushing furiously, the little basket of strawberries and sealed tin of chocolate dip clutched against my chest.


He grins up at me unrepentantly. “Thought you were offering me a strawberry. Whoops.”

“Why are you such a giant dick?”

“Mainly?” His grin widens. “’Cause you like this big dick so damn much.”

I huff. “Don’t get too cocky, mister, or no strawberries for you.”

I don’t know how it’s possible for his grin to get any wider, and it looks good on his perma-grump face.

His lazy, half-lidded eyes gleam with an amusement that stops my heart.

“You want to talk metaphors? You want to know what strawberries are a metaphor for in some of the older books I read? ’Cause I think I just got a mouthful.”


I’m going to spontaneously combust and it’s all his fault.

“I’m going to murder you.” I stare at him flatly.

“That’s a Class One felony in North Carolina,” he teases. “Threatening an officer of the law. Minimum sentence, not being allowed to leave my bedroom for at least a week.”

Psssh! They’ll never catch me if you happen to accidentally choke on a strawberry here.” I smile sweetly as I pry the lid off the chocolate sauce, dipping a fresh red strawberry in before I hold it to his lips. “Feeling lucky today?”

Smirking, Lucas runs his tongue over his lips—then slowly sinks his teeth into the strawberry.

Seriously. I’ve never seen anyone make biting down on fruit look so sexual. But the way his teeth part the red skin one little bit at a time, exposing the soft flesh inside, his lips moving against the slick red exterior…

I think I’m going to choke to death instead.

I just stare at him, forgetting how to breathe, how to blink.

My breaths shorten and my entire body feels way too hot.

The spot where he nipped me through my loose, translucent tank top and light lace bra throbs.

Actually, all of me throbs, from the tips of my toes to the ends of my fingers to the tips of my, uh—strawberries.

“Hate you,” I whisper as he nibbles his way up to the stem clutched between my fingers.

“Liar,” he teases, flicking his tongue out to lick the last of the strawberry juice, catching my fingertips. “You want to try to choke me again or what? Got a few other ideas for what you can put in my mouth.”

Before I can curse him, he reaches up and plucks the stem away from me, tossing it over the side. He eases the strawberries and the tin of sauce away from my unresisting fingers. Lid on the chocolate sauce, food disappearing back into the basket, and then, I feel him.

First, it’s his hand against the back of my neck.

His strong, hot fingers weaving through my hair, bunching it up in loops against my neck, pulling me in.

I should tell him no.

Even if we’re far from the shore, we’re here in the open beneath the bright-blue blazing sky.

I’m so powerless against him.

Powerless against that lazy, arrogant smile.

Against the confidence and desire building in his eyes.

Against Lucas pushing his steaming body against mine and capturing my mouth in a kiss that never ends.

He teases and bites me the same way he treated the strawberry, taking me over a little bit at a time until I feel like something so hot, so sweet and perfect he has to possess.

I’m burning so hot I feel like I could evaporate the entire lake in this rough giant’s hands.

And I belong to him completely as he pushes me down to the bottom of the boat.

The blankets tumble in a mess around us as his body covers mine.

“Lucas!” I can’t help gasping his name, tugging at his clothes, forgetting that we’re in a flimsy boat when all it takes is a touch for me to need him desperately.

And God, does he touch me.

His fingers slide under my tank top, caressing my skin like he’s branding me into his brain through tactile contact.

I dig my fingers into his hair, biting his mouth as he teases my nipples.

Whispering for more, more, more as he shoves my thighs apart and pushes between them.

I can already feel him through his jeans, thrusting against me like he wants to ruin me so good.

The man loves to tease.

And he doesn’t stop until I’m helpless and rocking under him, grinding against his cock with a hunger that makes me forget everything but Lucas.

My desperation tilts the boat violently for just a second.

I get a glimpse of my own lust-crazed reflection in the ripples over the side.

Heart flipping, I wrap my arms and legs around him, shrieking. “Oh my God—

“Steady, steady.” His voice is rich with repressed laughter. Lucas goes still on top of me, looking down with a warm, gentle smile. “Maybe we slow down. If you can, darlin’.”

My eyes narrow.

“Or maybe we should save this for when we’re back on dry land,” I reply breathlessly, but of course, I don’t really want to.

Not when this feels too right.

Not when I’m ignited.

Not when I can’t stand to wait another second.

It’s like he knows it, too. He leans down, brushing his nose to mine, then his lips.

“You sure?” he whispers. “Your little pussy tells me something else, Miss Lilah. Don’t think that’s the lake getting me wet as hell.”

I bite my lip, flushing.

My skirt’s up around my hips and I want to tell him he’s wrong, that he’s just dealing with soaked denim. But I’d be lying through my teeth when all it takes is one more hard nudge of his cock and I’m sucking sharp breaths, trembling, ready to take every inch of Lucas Graves.

“I could be convinced,” I whisper.

He gives me another heart-stopping smile.

“Then I’d better do some good convincing.”

I barely get a second to catch my breath before he sets about convincing me a little too well.

Suddenly that slow, deliberate way Lucas talks feels different.

It’s the same as the slow, relentless way he takes me.

Stroking me like I’m something precious, fucking me intently, kissing me all over until I’m the one who’s got to rein myself in as he makes me arch, makes me thrash, engraves his kiss all over me.

I know the feeling of his lips everywhere—from my shoulders to my breasts to my stomach.

From my inner thighs to the throbbing pearl between my legs.

He tastes me, invades me with his tongue, and makes me come again and again with domineering lashes that claim me in ways I didn’t know I could be owned.

Holy, holy shit.

When he pins me down to lick me harder, growling against my pussy, seizing my clit between his teeth, there’s nothing left but Lucas and his heat and the sound of my own barely muffled scream.

I’m so close as he slows down wickedly, teasing me until I squirm.

My voice flies over the quiet lake, soaring into the clear blue sky.

When my ears start working again, the water slaps and sighs against the side of the boat in echoing rhythm.

I swear, it’s like the entire world syncs up to me as Lucas takes me higher, higher.

Oh, God, higher.

I think I can touch the sun.

“Fucking come for me,” he whispers.

I stare down blankly, trembling as I see the feral look in his eyes, and obey.

I’m coming again.

His broad shoulders part my thighs until they quiver.

Until I’m a prisoner for every last sugar-lash of his tongue, and soon, every stroke of his slow, punishing cock.

Until I don’t think my nerves can take any more of his magic.

Until he proves I can.

He’s a force of nature, a summer storm made flesh, grunting like a bull as he rocks the boat.

There’s as much choice as a leaf gets before the wind rips it off a tree.

I can only surrender and be swept away as Lucas crashes through me again and again, pillaging me from the inside out, leaving me absolutely spent.

I don’t know how I come one more time, but I do when he thrusts so deep.

His body flexes and he releases with a vicious, “Fuck!”

Yes, yes!

I hold on so tight I can’t feel my fingers, both of us one exploding pulse, feeling him fill me as his cock swells and heaves again and again.

We’ll worry about how we forgot the condom later. For now—

Holy hell.

Holy hell, I’m more content than I’ve been with a man in a very long time.

No, more than ever.

Possibly happier than I’ll ever be again.

When he’s done torturing me with heaven, we curl up in the boat to rest and enjoy the lazy afternoon.

I feed him more strawberries and he reads to me from a fantasy novel he brought along.

I’m thrilled that he’s resting so easy, so calm, after turning my bones to jelly.

This man really is too much.

While he reads to me, I run my fingers across his brow, watching the intent concentration in his forest-green eyes.

I’m not really processing the words about knights and dragons.

Not when I’m so focused on him.

There’s something about Lucas that’s inherently good, kind, and I almost feel like—

No. Don’t go there.

My reverie breaks as he stops, tilting his head, looking at me upside down. “Hey. What’re you staring at me for?”

“No reason.” I duck my head, tucking my hair behind my ear.

“Bull. You only say ‘no reason’ when you’re trying to pretend you don’t like me, Miss Lilah.”

Scowling, I poke his nose. “Maybe I don’t like you.”

“After that? You serious?” He catches my hand and draws it in to kiss the center of my palm. “If you coming fireworks wasn’t liking me, then I can’t wait to see what it looks like when you finally do, gorgeous. You’re falling hard as hell and I wish you’d just admit it.”

I gasp.

My heart stalls.

My mouth goes dry.

I can barely fumble a response. “You… you think I’m going to fall in love with you that easy? C’mon.”

“Not easy, no. Nothing worth having is ever easy.” His lips trace back and forth over my palm, ticklish and sweet. “So don’t be easy on me, Miss Lilah. Make it fucking hard. You’re worth a heaping lot of hell and then some.”

No words.

I can’t even identify this wild feeling throbbing through me, lighting me up from the inside more breathlessly than the fizz and pop of champagne.

So I just smile, curling my fingers around his and drawing his hand in to kiss his thick, coarse knuckles.

“Stop flattering me and finish the chapter,” I tease softly. “I want to know what happens.”

“Do you even know what happened? Swore you zoned out there.”

“…a little,” I admit. “I—”

I can’t name the thing that cuts me off, that makes me stop cold.

It’s a feeling, this heavy sensation I’ve had of being watched that’s haunted me so many times since I came to Redhaven. It’s like a thick blanket thrown over me, blurring my vision, coating my skin with this awful feeling and turning the colors of everything around us wrong.

I jerk my head up, holding my breath, heart thudding as I search the shore.

Lucas goes tense in my lap.

“Lilah, what’s wrong?”

I swallow hard, feeling naked in my thin clothing. I reach for the blanket, drawing it around me tightly.

“Sorry. I just felt like someone was watching all of a sudden.” I stare at the tree line along the far edge of the lake, much too close to my house. “Somewhere over there.”

Lucas sits up and turns, his expression hardening as he follows my gaze.

Of course, there’s nothing there.

I can’t see anything.

He shakes his head. “Probably one of the damn Jacobins coming out to fish.”

“…that doesn’t make me feel any better,” I whisper. “I know, I shouldn’t overreact, but Culver was just weird.”

“What, you’ve never licked a little blood off your wall?” Lucas says dryly. “Think that merits being a little freaked.” His arm wraps around me then, pulling me into the shelter of his body. “How about we head on in? Getting a little sticky out anyway, and the mosquitos’ll be showing up in force soon.”

“Sure,” I whisper.

Honestly, I hate that I feel like my paranoia just put a damper on this lovely afternoon. But if Lucas is disappointed, he doesn’t show it.

He just holds me tighter, giving me an easy, reassuring nod that tells me it’s okay.

I’m learning he has a body language all his own, unspoken gestures and long looks that say so much more than words.

And every last one of those things is full of kindness.

So are his hands when they settle me against the seat on the opposite side of the boat. Then he takes up the oars and starts rowing us back to shore.

My eyes are glued to him the whole time.

His body flexes powerfully as we glide across the water, looking over his shoulder and aiming for the rental dock once we’re in range.

The muscles in his neck strain, hard and hypnotically rhythmic.

“Tell you what,” he says, just a hint of breath in his voice from the tiring work. “If you don’t feel okay going home, you stay over at my place tonight.”

“Lucas Graves, you’re just trying to get me back to your lair,” I tease.

“Damn fucking right.” He faces me again with a grin. “I also want to take care of you—if you’ll let me.”

“Lucas,” I say softly, relishing the red streaks growing across his face, “I’m starting to think there’s nothing I wouldn’t let you do.”

“Yeah?” His eyes light up. “Careful what you tell me, darlin’. I might just do it.”

I glance away, unable to help laughing. “Yeah. You might.”

We say nothing then.

We don’t need to.

There’s just the soft sound of the oars dipping in and out of the water, mingling with our own breathing.

And that’s okay.

But as we draw in closer to shore, I scan the trees near my house.

I swear.

swear I catch a glimpse of something pale. Just a dusty light-brown blur, disappearing through the trees before I can blink, blending in invisibly as if it was never there at all.

But I’m stuck on that color.


Glimmering strands reflecting sunlight a certain way.

Too much like the color I used to see shimmering in the morning sunlight, back when Roger and I faced each other over breakfast and smiled like we thought we’d be in love forever.

Another time, another place, another life I just can’t escape.

And I don’t know what it means when it feels like we’re just playing some terrible game of cat and mouse now, where I don’t even know who’s the hunter and who’s the hunted.

I hate that I feel so shy, so nervous, coming back to Lucas’ house when I was just here last night, enjoying myself.

I was here, curled up safe in his arms, and yet…

There’s something different in the air tonight.

Something about the way he looks at me.

Something about the soft, slow silence between us as he leads me upstairs with our fingers twined, to that broad, open loft space with his massive bed.

Last night, he made me scream his name all over again.

Tonight, he doesn’t give me the chance.

Not when his lips never part from mine.

Not when he lays me down on his bed like I’m something precious and kisses me like he could never stand to let me go.

I’m lost in this haze with him and I never want to come back.

Soon, I’m not even thinking about the deeper reasons why I stayed over tonight, the danger and weirdness looming.

Tonight, nothing exists but us.

Not the Jacobins. Not the Arrendells. Not my creepy ex.

Not even the dead girl who won’t stop haunting my mind.

There’s just me and Lucas.

There’s just his touch and light and heat.

There’s just his all-consuming eyes drinking me in and big capable hands that strip me bare.

They make me gasp with the coarseness of his calluses against my skin.

God, I love those hands.

And there’s just him stealing soft cries from my lips, tasting me over and over again as he shows me everything.

What could be mine, if I’d just open up and admit I’m falling helplessly in love with this man.

If I’d admit that all the things I’ve always wanted are right here in front of me.

It feels like he could give them all to me, if I’d shut my fears up and trust him.

If I could let him inside more than my body.

If I could invite him into those deep, hollow places of my heart he already touches in some intangible way, even as he fills me.

He gathers me against him possessively, enveloping me against his chest, holding me close as he takes me so high and never, ever lets me come down.

Foly huck.

I’m gone.



I’m so dizzy I can’t breathe.


Goddammit, yes.

I’m in love.

And I’m so wrapped up in watching his body shudder and the pure, raw erotic pleasure on his face that I almost miss it when it hits me.

That sudden surge, that jolt, my body tumbling down faster than my brain as he makes me feel things I never thought possible.

He pulls me up against him, my thighs straddling his lap, my body moving over his.

His hand claps my ass, adding just the right sting to our pleasure.

I gasp again as he hits some new place inside me, striking deep, marking me from the inside out.

He consumes my senses, crashing over me like the wave he is as our pleasure rips me apart.

I come harder than ever, crying his name.

Like if I say it enough times, everything will be all right.

Like I’m chanting his name and hoping it has some power to bind him to my heart.

I’m not surprised that I sleep hard in Lucas’ arms.

There’s something about riding this emotional insanity that’s so thrilling it drains you. So I curl up against him happily and pass out, snuggled into the sweat-slicked warmth of his bulk.

He’s a human shield.

I sleep like the dead, dreamless and content.

Until I blink awake in the middle of the night with my mouth dry and cottony.

Squinting at my phone on the nightstand, I see it’s just past two o’clock.

Lucas is a snoring, motionless lump against my back.

I twist around to face him, just watching him illuminated in the moonlight. The way he turns his face into the pillow until there’s just a twitch of dark brows, the dip of his upper lip visible on one side.

My heart strums sharply.

Part of me doesn’t want to trust this.

How many times have people who told me they cared ever really meant it?

Basically just once with Mom.

But there’s a lonely, aching piece of me that wants to believe Lucas is genuine. The real deal behind his cocky smirk.

I want to think that big brutish body might be powered by an equally mammoth heart.

That he actually cares and he is what he says.

I turn over restlessly.

I shouldn’t dwell on this right now, anyway. Especially when I’m about to wake him up by choking on my own parched throat.

Gingerly, I pry myself out of his arms and slip out of bed.

The shirt he was wearing earlier is draped across the back of a chair in the corner, and I steal it for a nightshirt, shrugging it on over my naked body and shaking my hair loose from the collar before padding downstairs to the kitchen.

I fill a glass of water in the sink and drink, easing the itch in my throat.

Then I wander out into the moonlit living room, pacing around. It gives me something to do until I can head back upstairs and snuggle up with my human furnace again.

But as I pass the coffee table, something catches the corner of my eye.


The same blood-red dress I saw my first day here, spilled across my floor.


The crime scene photos, taken the day I found her body.

I nearly spray water, choking, and start to cough, gasping as I rub my throat.


What the hell?

I glance over my shoulder at the stairs, but there’s no sign of Lucas.

Biting my lips, I look back at the coffee table. The photos are on top of a stack of papers in a rumpled file folder. The case file, I’m guessing.

I know, I know.

It’s official police business and all.

I really shouldn’t.

But how can I help it when I’m drawn to this mystery—drawn to her—and I need to flipping know.

I just want to know what happened, if a beautiful girl with so much to live for truly died of an overdose and nothing else.

I find a coaster—I’m not a heathen, okay?—and set my glass down before settling on the edge of the sofa to thumb through the photos.


Deep breath.

Obviously, I’m not a forensics expert, but the closer I look, Emma looks like she was flung there. Something about the way she’s tilted just isn’t right, and it’s easier to notice in a photo rather than panicking over finding her very real body.

It just doesn’t look like she passed out on her own and dropped dead.

She’s too—I don’t know—neat?

Yeah, neat.

Shouldn’t there be froth coming out of her lips or something if she ODed? Maybe more than spit.

I don’t know.

I’m thinking too hard, and seeing her like this jolts me.

After staring another minute, I make myself put the photos down.

I start paging through the case report instead.

It doesn’t take me long to find a toxicology summary from the county coroner.

Wow, that’s a lot of cocaine in her system.

Sure, I might be grasping at straws, thinking something else happened here.

Maybe Lucas is, too.

But I wonder if the old, raw hurt of losing his sister is blinding him to the bitter truth: that a girl came to Redhaven for a party and made her own trouble, no dirty deeds required.

It would still be an awful tragedy if that’s the case, but at least it wouldn’t mean we might have another one with a killer on the loose.

“Is that it, Emma? Am I right?” I whisper. “Are you still so restless because you did this to yourself accidentally?”

Of course, there’s no answer.

Somehow, that’s the most disturbing part.

I flip through a few more pages, then stop, frowning at a footnote on one page.

Lucas’ handwriting. I’m starting to recognize his big blocky chicken scratch.

Do not contact next of kin.

Wait, what?

Another chill knifes through me—and an odd sense of betrayal, sudden and sinking down to the tips of my toes and making me feel heavier than lead.

I don’t understand.

He’d said he’d tell them… didn’t he?

He swore up and down he’d give Emma’s family closure.

But why would he lie to me about that?

And if he lied about that, what else is he holding back?


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