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The Broken Protector: Chapter 17

RED AS A BEET (DELILAH)

There are few things more mortifying than being driven home like a kid from soccer practice by the man you just dumped, still sore from him fucking the life out of you, with your mouth still bruised and tender from his kiss.

Before Lucas turns down my street, I stop him, sitting stiff as a board in the passenger seat. “Just let me out here.”

He eases his truck to a halt at the corner, a block from my house.

God, this sucks.

I won’t look at him, but I can feel his gaze crushing me like it weighs a thousand pounds. “Delilah, it’s only—”

“I’m fine right here.”

Yes, I’m holding back tears.

I’m so not fine.

I don’t want him to see me cry.

So I fumble for the door handle and tear it open, practically falling out onto the sidewalk.

“Delilah!” he growls after me.

“I’m fine,” I snap back, stalking away. “Go home, Lucas.”

I half expect him to follow me, giant overprotective idiot that he is.

But there’s only the rumble of his idling engine, growing quieter with every step I take. Louder then softer as he does a probably illegal U-turn at the corner.

His headlights sweep over me one more time, spilling down the darkened street before dimming.

Then he’s gone.

Leaving me standing there on the sidewalk, digging my fingers into my sides as I hug myself until it hurts. Like maybe I can hold myself together by sheer force until I can get inside, lock the doors, and ugly cry myself to sleep.

Alone.

My grief threatens to spill over even now as I speed up the sidewalk to my gate.

You never expect something so good to derail this abruptly any more than you climb behind the wheel expecting to have a semi plow into you.

Where did it all go so wrong, so fast?

Except I know.

For Lucas, Emma’s death is still an open case. He’ll never let it go the same way he never let Celeste go.

I know he’s still investigating. I get that.

It makes sense that he wouldn’t tell the family in case they said anything that could tip off Emma’s murderer—if there is a murderer at all.

I still don’t know why I got so spitting mad.

But actually I do, and it’s only partly about Emma.

It’s Lucas being so close-mouthed with me, even after everything we shared.

Especially after everything.

I started to feel like I was getting to know him, opening up, trusting him, and this tiny, vulnerable part of me that’s somehow survived a lifetime of cynicism and hard knocks was hoping when it shouldn’t.

Hoping he’d meet me halfway.

But now I know he’s happy to keep me at arm’s length, forever reaching, always naïve and stupid enough to think he’s within my grasp.

Screw that.

So much for thinking I’d killed my idealism.

Hardened big-city girl my ass.

Yeah. I should’ve taken a lesson from Roger and stopped bothering with men.

Sniffling and still choking on the knot in my throat, I unlatch my gate and shuffle up my pathway.

No, really. I’m not stomping or dragging my feet at all.

If only the kids could see me now.

I’m way more sulky and sad and petulant than a third grader throwing a tantrum.

I know I’m overreacting.

I’m just taking this too hard.

All because I wanted a fresh start. I wanted this to be as amazing as it felt, instead of human and complex and messy and doomed from the start.

As I draw closer to the porch with a heavy sigh, the motion sensor lights Lucas installed snap on, flooding the porch with illumination.

The glare highlights what I couldn’t see in the dark.

My heart sputters to a dead stop and I freeze midstep.

Another red X.

This time, it’s splashed across my front door in vivid warning. Thou shall not enter.

My pulse thunders in my ears until it’s deafening. Talk about amping up my panic.

I still try to climb the steps, willing myself not to trip like the dumb lead in every bad horror movie.

It’s fresh, I think.

Paint this time—probably—at least I can smell the acidic undertone of spray paint. But there’s something else, too.

Thick. Metallic. Meaty.

Not more blood?

For the love of God…

There’s something else, too. A small shoebox on the front mat, spattered in stray red droplets.

Amana Ray shoes, the brand name reads. Some oddly calm part of my brain draws a connection.

Roger was obsessed with Amana Ray. He freaking refused to wear anything else whenever he trained for 5Ks and 10Ks and charity runs.

Numbly, I pick up the box.

It’s not that heavy, but it’s not light either.

There’s something sliding around inside with a loose, shuffling sound, and many smaller things striking the sides of the box.

I find out what those smaller things are when I lift the lid with shaking hands.

Photographs.

What looks like over a hundred in their stiff little white square frames. My own face stares up at me from all of them.

“Jesus!” I whisper-scream.

My lungs won’t work.

I go stumbling backward, heart lodged in my throat, on the verge of blacking out.

Brute shock stabs through me. Everything tingles like an electric current.

The box slips from my grasp and plummets to the porch, scattering the photos everywhere. As it lands with a heavy thump! more of them erupt, spilling all over my front mat.

“Idiot,” I mutter to myself.

With a sigh, I drop to my knees, pawing through the mess, picking one up, staring at it, throwing it aside, grasping for another, slowly choking on my own fear.

This can’t be happening.

Oh, but it is.

One photo after the next shows my life in gloriously boring detail.

There I am, curled up on the sofa reviewing lesson plans, the light from the TV reflecting on my face, the entire scene so glassy through my living room window.

Me, just past the half-closed curtains of my bedroom window, sleeping and unaware and vulnerable.

Me again, standing at the head of my class, taken from just far enough away that I can tell the photographer was somewhere in the school courtyard—probably hiding in the trees the children like to play around. They caught me with one hand pointing at a map of New England while I was helping my young readers sound out state names.

Getting into my car just outside the school, caught mid-motion as I toss my purse on the seat and slip behind the wheel.

At the convenience store, picking out wine and a case of beer to bring over to Lucas’ for that first date dinner.

A glimpse of my naked profile from that night as I stripped down to shower, shivering at the thought of seeing him again.

That one hits the hardest, turning me into a hyperventilating wreck, sucking on my own chest in awful rhythm.

The photograph goes jittery in my vision with the force of my trembling fingers.

Roger. It had to be!

He was there, watching me in my most intimate moments, and now the wonder and happiness is so—

Tainted.

feel tainted.

A wet splatter hits the photograph. For a second, I think it’s the tears overflowing my eyes—fuck this entire night—until it hits me.

It’s red.

A thick, ugly drop of red, staining the picture, obscuring my naked breasts as I turn away from the camera.

Then another falls, striking the scattered photographs on the mat like a rusted rain.

Another and another and another, a sickening splatter of unholy blood falling down from—from—oh God!

I don’t want to look up.

But I can’t stop myself.

Something terrible and invisible cranes my head, cranking it back like I’m a puppet. I can’t stop how it pulls my strings even as my heart, my shivering hurting body scream no, no, no!

I blink away the tears blurring my vision as I stare at the eaves of the porch overhang.

Right on time for the biggest shock of my life.

Roger Strunk’s corpse has been laced up against the underside of the overhang, his entire body gutted and hollowed out like a butchered pig.

His bulging blank eyes stare down at me with the same ugly accusation as the emptiness in Emma’s dead stare.

You.

I’m dead and it should have been you.

The horror hits me in the head like a concussion, jarring my whole body.

I only have one second to struggle, to process this, to fail so miserably before the world starts reeling.

A scream tries to claw up my throat, but never makes it out.

Everything is distant and muffled and so far away.

That invisible puppetmaster of my own blinding emotion wheels me to the side, jerking me back into the night.

Before I understand anything, I pass out dead on my porch.


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