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The Broken Protector: Chapter 20

RED STRING OF FATE (LUCAS)

Somewhere along the way, I went and got myself good and addicted to Delilah Clarendon.

Not seeing her for days, not being able to make it right, eats a hole in me like an acid spill.

I feel her absence like I’m fucking fiending, this gnawing sensation in my veins, making me desperate for her.

And I just know if we sit down and talk, put our tempers aside, let ourselves calm the fuck down and put our feelings on the table, we can sort everything out.

That’s the way this works.

There’s no such thing as a relationship where people don’t fight—little tiffs, disagreements over the direction of the toilet roll, a shitty comment causing hurt, stress building up until someone explodes.

For two normal people, it’s impossible to fit your rough edges together without a little friction now and then.

What makes shit work is being willing to sand those rough edges down and work together to get past the grit.

You have to talk it out and remember why you still love each other.

That’s what I want with Delilah. With our tempers, there’s no way we’d never fight again, even if we made up tomorrow.

But I want my tomorrow.

I want a chance to hash it out after we’ve both cooled down and realized how ridiculous we’re being, only to laugh and kiss each other and forget about it till one of us brings our spikes out again.

Trouble is, I can’t get to tomorrow when I’m stuck worrying about today.

About this whole damn week.

The planned raid on the Jacobins that the captain signed off on is looming. Both their farm and—if we can find it—wherever they’ve set up their still.

All we’ve got is circumstantial evidence. No real grounds for arrests that won’t get laughed out of court in ten minutes.

Still, I want on that property and I’ll turn over every fucking stone and hay bale and five hundred pound hog if I have to.

If it means finding evidence that one of those redneck zombie assholes killed Delilah’s ex to scare her to death.

As much as it kills me to say it, this is more important than going to Delilah and ripping out my heart right now.

This is about keeping her safe.

Every day I throw myself into planning with my team, and the small squad sent in from Raleigh, I remember that.

We’re poring over a hastily drawn-up map of the hills around town, marking the best spots for a vantage point, plotting timing, entry and exit points.

If we’re being honest, we have no fucking clue how many of them are up there.

The Jacobins are their own clan and they’re secretive as hell. Some of the people out there are probably not even related by blood—at least, I hope, since they seem to marry among themselves.

They might as well be a whole separate village on Redhaven’s periphery.

We’re heading into uncharted waters, and I’m going to have to trust Grant, Henri, and Micah.

If we function like a team, we just might pull this off.

The problem is finding that fucking still.

If we’re chasing actionable evidence, it’s going to be there.

I know damn well Chief Bowden has some idea where it might be. That’s part of his whole thing with kindly looking the other way when a little bootleg whiskey isn’t something worth calling in a SWAT team or causing a big ruckus.

Of course, he’s out sick from work now.

Like he ever does anything, but the second we started talking about the raid, he staggered out like he had the fucking vapors.

The heat, he said. Getting too old for this late summer swelter.

Uh-huh.

Maybe I’m too suspicious, but that sure as hell doesn’t hold water with me.

I don’t have time to think about it, though.

Two more days.

Two more days till we go in hot, tactical gear and all.

I’m nervous as hell—and after Grant caught me at his desk again, going over the map for the fiftieth time, he kicked me out to do a coffee run for everyone.

That’s how much of a pain in the ass I’m being.

I’ve been demoted to coffee boy.

Then again, I guess a little fresh air won’t hurt, so I head out, squinting against the midmorning sun.

It’s Saturday—I think?

I feel like goddamned Gollum coming out of a dark cave, shrinking away from the blinding sun.

Just living feels real weird right now when I’ve been up in my own head for days with this case, and when I’m not working it, I’m working myself in circles over Delilah.

Days.

Days without a word, though I’ve seen her now and then around town. Her car passes by the station on her way to and from school. I’ve also seen her when she’s on her lunch break in the café with Nora.

Or with Ulysses fucking Arrendell.

Yeah, don’t like that, and I can’t help but wonder.

Does she feel so unsafe in this town, with me, that she’d turn to him for security?

I don’t want to believe it.

Especially when every time I see them together, Delilah looks as stiff as a board.

I don’t think Ulysses even notices, chattering on like the entire universe revolves around him and his every word is a gift to the little people.

It’s the third time I’ve seen them together in under a week, and always at this little coffee shop or walking around the town square.

I’m no psych profiler, but I’d bet my house that Ulysses Arrendell is a classic narcissist—and I think I’d win.

Some narcissists are just charmers with huge egos. Nothing much to worry about as long as you don’t believe the bullshit they spout off about themselves.

Malignant narcissists are the ones you’ve got to watch out for. They’ll do anything to feed their sense of superiority and control. Anything to shore up their self-image and tighten their grip.

Anything.

Which makes me wonder what he’s getting out of his Delilah fix when she’s not the kind of girl who’ll dole out endless flattery to stroke his ego.

Hell, she barely tolerates his presence with awkward smiles and glassy eyes.

I know I shouldn’t be staring that hard with knives spinning in my veins.

I’m just a jealous fucking addict.

I keep going back for more punishment, even when it’s like a stick to the eye every time she looks through me.

We always seem to notice each other before we make eye contact, like a sixth sense.

Just like I know she’s there before I even see her through the café window today.

She’s too pretty, this delicate thing you wouldn’t guess could take a man out in half a second with that wicked tongue.

Her hair’s completely loose today, cascading over her shoulders in waves, this beautiful dark cloak that makes her the regal queen she is in my eyes.

I stop across the street with my heart tangled up, this hunger throbbing away as I watch her poking her straw in and out of her drink. She’s looking at Ulysses without quite making eye contact.

All while he smiles at her like a fucking doofus with a crayon drawing his teacher just told him was a Picasso masterpiece.

I can’t hear their conversation, of course.

And I don’t need to know the words to have the flaming urge to bust in and drag her away from him.

Can’t blame Ollie for everything, though. All evidence points toward Culver Jacobin as Delilah’s stalker.

She shouldn’t be in any real danger from him, at least in theory. Especially when she knows he’s just baiting her, bringing her to his twisted fuck of an old man.

I’m not worried she’ll fall into Montero’s clutches.

I’m confident Lilah’s too smart to let that happen.

Just as long as she still believes me.

As long as she hasn’t branded me such a liar that she’s dismissed everything I ever said about Celeste.

Fuck, no.

I won’t get tied up in that again, or else I’ll talk myself out of making a real attempt to talk to her when the time is right.

Soon.

If she still won’t take my texts and calls then, I’ll show up on her doorstep. I’ll see if I can convince her to listen to me one more time, to remember what we had before that argument was something worth fighting for.

Today, I’ll be the man.

Better than the jealous little monkey hopping up and down inside me.

I’ll go with my better instincts and wait.

Grumbling, I prop my shoulder against one of the trees planted next to the sidewalk, resting in the shade, mentally working through the plan of attack again.

No one’s seen the Jacobins in town since the night we staked out their farm, but they’re up there. A little long-range surveillance on foot with binoculars confirmed that, and now and then we’ve seen their trucks on the roads moving in and out of town.

Damn odd.

I don’t have long to ponder that, though.

After a few minutes, Ulysses stands, bowing to Delilah as he says something that involves checking his phone. He beams at a limp wave of her hand, her smile so strained it might break.

I hate this shit.

If he annoys her so much, why is she with him?

That the cop in you talking, Lucas? Or your fucking inner monkey?

Not sure there’s much difference right now.

Ulysses leaves, stepping out into the sunlight. He doesn’t glance in my direction before he sets off down the street toward the town square.

Delilah lingers inside the shop. Her false, tight smile fades slowly, leaving a pensive expression as she frowns down at her drink, slowly swirling her straw without taking another sip.

The longing cuts me off at the knees.

That need, that gravity, almost pulls me across the street so I can throw my arms around her, even if it’d win me nothing more than a searing slap to the face for my trouble.

I only stop myself as she lifts her head, glancing around, and then turns to the big front window. She’s obviously checking for Ulysses.

She’s seriously not buying your shit, fella.

I smirk to myself.

With a sweep of her hair over her shoulder, Delilah gets up, shouldering her bag and tossing back the last of her drink before heading for the door. Something on her wrist glints with the movement, catching my eye with a shimmer of rose gold.

Huh?

It can’t be.

Oh, but of course it fucking is.

My vision goes flashing red.

And even as she steps onto the sidewalk with the door chiming, I’m moving, stalking across the street like a charging tiger.

There’s nothing else in my head except for the fact that she’s wearing that shitty bracelet.

The same type of bracelet my sister wore the night she disappeared.

The mark of murder.

Every hint of reason and patience flies out the window.

My higher brain isn’t functioning when all I can see is Delilah wearing that death curse like it’s just a flippant fashion accessory.

Like it isn’t a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, damning her to the same fate Celeste suffered.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I snarl, planting myself on the sidewalk in front of her.

I throw myself into her path so fast she nearly smacks into me.

Whatever, call me a dick.

I’m done with this tiptoeing around shit.

She stumbles back a step, flashing me a hot-eyed look of irritation before it shutters and turns distant. “Last I checked, Officer Graves, I was walking down the street. Did I violate some obscure small-town ordinance, or are you back to harassing citizens again?”

“Don’t you ‘Officer Graves’ me. You know what I’m talking about, Lilah.” I can’t take the cool sarcasm in her voice when she was so open for me before, so warm, that connection between us burning hot. I also can’t stop myself from snatching her arm just above the wrist, holding it up between us till that bracelet chimes in soft accusation. “Why the fuck are you wearing his mark?”

“His mark?”

Delilah yanks her arm away.

Goddammit.

I may be mad as hell, but I’m not trying to hurt her.

She retreats out of my reach, glowering up at me with those wild blue eyes full of fire.

“You controlling, possessive, arrogant dick,” she bites off. “That’s how you think about everything, isn’t it? Who’s property, who isn’t. So now I can’t wear a flipping bracelet without being someone’s pet?” Her eyes narrow. “It’s just a piece of jewelry, Lucas. I don’t belong to anyone. Not to him. Definitely not to you. So, if you’ll excuse me, I don’t owe you a single word.”

I pull up short, staring at her in shock.

My whole heart crashes through my shoes.

Is that how she sees me?

No better than every other controlling fuckwit who ever tried to own her? Just like the crazy asshole ex who stalked her here and got himself killed?

My lips work helplessly.

We’re standing in the middle of the street and people are staring, but I don’t care.

I just meet her furious glare, searching for words.

“It’s not about that and you know it,” I growl. She’s almost winded me with shock, taking my temper with it. I guess I finally found out how many stabs it takes before a cactus makes you bleed. “You know what that bracelet means, Delilah. Don’t bullshit me. I told you what happened to my sister. If you let them keep sucking you in, you’ll be next.” I swallow. My throat hurts like it’s full of pulverized glass. “Don’t do this to me, woman. Don’t fucking make me have you as my next case. I couldn’t stand it.”

Her mouth pulls open, but she doesn’t say anything.

I scratch the back of my neck, praying for a second of inspiration that’ll make her listen.

“Look, this is coming out all mangled. I’m trying to tell you I can stand losing you because we fought. Because you hate me now. Because you think I lied. Fine. What I can’t stand is knowing I lost you ’cause I couldn’t stop them from hurting you.”

She stops short, looking at me with her eyes so dark, her expression unreadable.

I don’t see anger anymore.

There’s something I don’t understand written on her face.

Something lost, full of so much hurt, and I don’t think it’s all because of me.

“I know what I’m doing,” she struggles out. “And I don’t need you to come rushing to my rescue. I’m not the one who needs saving, Lucas. If you can’t figure out what happened to Emma Santos—I will.

What does that mean?

Before I can ask, she leaves me standing there.

I’m too fucking stunned for words, aching to reach out and stop her, chase her down, but knowing I have no right. She’ll only hate me more if I try.

Her hair lashes behind her like an angry cat’s tail, black and rhythmic, as she walks away with her head held high.

I watch her fade out of sight in a protective swarm of fireflies with a sickness churning in my gut and one question lashing through me over and over.

What the hell is Delilah Clarendon planning? And why do I get the awful feeling those fireflies won’t be enough to save her?


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