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The Broken Protector: Chapter 24

RED WITH GUILT (LUCAS)

There’s almost nothing more humiliating than getting towed to shore in a rowboat by your friends with a rope looped between a little borrowed speedboat and your pitiful goddamned chariot.

Nah.

What makes it even more humiliating is the crowd, drawn by the ambulance lights after the kids I flagged down called 911 and told Mallory there was some idiot cop stranded in a boat and bleeding to death.

Now it feels like half the town has come out to rubberneck while Grant, Henri, and Micah force me to sit still in the back of the ambulance. One of our local EMTs checks my head wound and pumps me full of some shit to keep my brain from swelling.

At least I’m out of the townsfolk’s sight inside the ambulance, but it’s not helping how I feel right now.

I clutch the space blanket the EMT threw around my shoulders and glare at my team—and Chief Bowden, hovering just past the ambulance doors.

“I’m fucking telling you,” I snarl. “Culver Jacobin smacked me with a shovel. He’s the psycho shit who’s been stalking Delilah.”

Chief Bowden snorts.

“Culver Jacobin? You think he got the wits for that?” he says, gesturing toward the teenagers clustered on the edge of the crowd and gabbing away. “Do those kids have beer? Shouldn’t we—”

“Fuck the beer,” I spit through my teeth. “They saved my ass, Chief. Let ’em have a can or two of their daddy’s lager. Listen to me, where are the Jacobins now? We have to find Culver. We have to find Delilah before—”

“Aw, you don’t have to worry about her,” Bowden says. “Janelle got her all prettied up and sent up to the big house for that party tonight. She’s safe. That place is a fortress. Nobody’s gonna get to her there.”

Like hell.

That’s called walking right into the lion’s den.

“Graves, listen,” Grant cuts in. “You’re in no condition to—”

“I’m fine, Cap. I will be fucking fine.” I bat the EMT away as she tries to slap a cold compress over my eye. “Quit worrying about me. We’ve got to do the raid, Captain, and we’ve got to do it tonight—but we might need to adjust the plan first.”

“Go on,” Grant says skeptically.

“We find Delilah first,” I growl. “Then we split up. Considering Emma Santos’ body was found at Delilah’s house, that’s a possible kill site if this is a fetishistic, ritual thing. One of us takes the house; one of us takes the main Jacobin farm; one of us goes up to the Arrendell house and checks for her there—and one of us finds the still. Keep the Raleigh crew on standby and call them in for backup, wherever we find her.” I stare hard at Chief Bowden, who’s suddenly avoiding my eyes. “By the way, that’ll go a hell of a lot faster if somebody opens his trap and stops pretending he doesn’t know where it is.

Chief Bowden gives me a sour look. “I knew where it was. That was two weeks ago, and they don’t tell me when they move. I just get real good at tracking them down. I haven’t found ’em since. You can point fingers all you damn well want, Graves, but I got nothing and I’m not holding a thing back.”

“Goddammit, Chief, you—”

I’m half a breath away from launching myself right at his frog-like throat—but Henri jabs a hand against my chest. That Cajun offers me a reassuring smile, though there’s worry building in his eyes like a summer storm.

“I got a better idea, mon ami,” he says. “You told us Culver took your phone, right?”

I nod—then wince, and this time I let the EMT press the cold pack to my throbbing skull. “Yeah. He might still have it on him if he didn’t chuck it in the lake. I don’t know.”

“Then it won’t be hard to find him at all.” Henri grins and holds up his own phone. “’Cause I got you and the whole squad on GPS.”


Yep.

Right now, I’m thinking I owe that Louisiana boy a year’s worth of beer.

I hadn’t thought much of it months ago, when Henri suggested we install a new app that lets us share our location with approved contacts via GPS, voluntarily allowing nonstop tracking.

It made it a hell of a lot faster to find our crew when responding to emergencies.

Now, that little trick might just help save Delilah.

Took a little work to convince Grant I could handle the mission after a blow to the head—but once he realized he’d have to throw me into the drunk tank and hide the key to stop me, he reluctantly gave his blessing.

He’s off to the big house while Micah checks Delilah’s place, and Henri’s on his way out to the main farm.

Which leaves me, creeping silently through the woods with the GPS on Mallory’s borrowed phone leading me to the coordinates where my phone last pinged a cell tower. It’s still active, too, meaning it wasn’t ever at the bottom of the lake.

North of town.

High in the hills.

Fuck, I’m so high on whatever the medics gave me I can’t even feel the pain in my skull.

My sight’s almost too clear as it catches a little starlight, too bright.

All the fine details grab my attention as I prowl through the darkness, my ears prickling for any signs I might’ve been spotted or heard.

There!

My heart drums harder as I catch a glimpse of light through the dense trees.

I drop down low, holding my breath as I inch closer, careful not to even let a twig snap under my feet.

Slowly, slowly, I stay hunkered down behind some low brush to take in the situation.

It’s the still, all right.

A bunch of big metal tanks as large as small swimming pools, covered with tarps, but more than that, too.

They’ve got sheds. The kind you can take apart in minutes and flat-pack into the back of a truck.

There’s also a hastily erected pen full of—pigs?

Yeah, I’m fucking confused till I remember a lot of brewers use manure to make moonshine. Something about the microbes helping cultivate the yeast.

So I guess they keep a segment of their pig stock at the still, whatever it takes to have a ready supply of fresh shit.

If they really need some more, there’s plenty flowing down on the rest of us from the house up on the hill.

But what really gets me is the car parked on the narrow beaten path through the trees opposite me, a path that says this site has been used many times before.

I know that car.

And I know what it means as I watch Ulysses Arrendell pull the door open to the only lit shed and step inside.

All this time, we’ve been spinning in circles because we’ve been looking for one guilty fuck.

Not two, working in tandem to throw us off the trail.

I can barely hold still, vibrating with pure rage, waiting till Ulysses moves inside so he won’t spot me.

Then I dive toward the shed, keeping to the shadows and holding my breath, praying with everything in me that I’ll still find her alive.

When I flatten myself against one side of the screened-in window and peer around the edge, listening to the voices floating through the mesh, my heart sinks.

Sure enough, there she is.

They’ve strung my girl up from a hook, surrounded by carcasses. Her feet dangle over the floor and a red dress sheaths her frame.

Culver hangs back like the gangly freak he is, watching with a mindless grin while Ulysses paces in front of her.

He’s holding a massive cleaver in one hand.

I feel fucking sick as I watch him smack the blunt side of it against his palm again and again, smiling coldly enough to flash freeze hell.

“You must understand, Delilah,” he purrs. “I do this out of love.”

Rather than shrinking away from him in fear, Delilah’s all spitfire, her blue eyes spinning wild and snapping as she snarls, “You don’t love me. You’re sick.

“But I do!” he insists, reaching up to stroke the edge of the blade down her cheek.

She tenses, jerking away.

The only thing that stops me from charging in like a bull is knowing he’ll open her up right in front of me before I make it two steps.

Volcanic fury boils inside me as he continues, “The moment you sent in your application, I had to have you. Such pretty photos all over your social media. It’s like you were inviting me, with those eyes full of such delicious anger.” He smirks. “I knew the first time I saw you that you were waiting for me. This delicacy, begging to ripen, to grow rich and full with my love so that when you burst, you’ll be the sweetest I’ve ever tasted on the very first bite.”

Delilah’s eyes widen with horror. “You—you can’t kill me. You can’t. People will come. They’ll look for me…”

“People will believe the note found in your house,” Ulysses says smugly. “You simply couldn’t take the stress of Redhaven anymore, and you ran away. A tale as old as time. You were afraid of someone stalking you, so you decided to disappear, start a new life somewhere else, where you don’t want anyone to find you. It’s almost too easy. Your idiot ex gave me the perfect alibi. Perfect chaos.” He practically pouts, inhaling sharply like he’s getting hard and high off her fear. “I would’ve liked to let you ripen a little longer, though. But you had to go and be nosy, didn’t you?” He shakes his head slowly. “Really, Delilah. Calling that Santos woman from the school phone? Don’t you know we pay the bills and see all call records?”

There’s a moment of silent dread.

My headache amps up to a droning pain. Hell of a time for those painkillers to fade.

“There’s something seriously wrong with you,” she whispers. “You’re saying you posted that job ad just to lure a potential victim? Like this whole thing has been one big mind game to fuck with me. To enjoy frightening me. Is that why you left Emma’s body at my house? To screw with me?

“Emma,” Ulysses says tightly, “was a mistake. And not mine.”

He doesn’t look at Culver, but Culver cringes back anyway.

I see it now.

The shape Delilah saw running away from the house on her first day in town.

That was Culver goddamned Jacobin, sent to dispose of Emma’s body after Ulysses killed her in Delilah’s house.

Only, he was a day late and a dollar short, and he ran off—leaving the body behind—when Delilah pulled up to the house too soon.

I’ve got to get in there.

I’ve got to put a stop to this and save my Lilah.

It’s two against one and I like those odds.

Even if I’m hopped up on enough meds that I could get run over by a tank and not feel it, and I’m not firing on all cylinders, I have to try.

There’s no time to wait for backup.

I snag Mallory’s phone anyway, punching in a quick message to the crew, hit Send, start to take stock of the interior, anything I can use for a tactical advantage.

Think, man.

Think.

But those shitty words keep coming, floating over me in waves of terrible memories.

“You’re just like your father,” Delilah spits. “You even like the same kind of girls.”

Ulysses lifts his snotty blond brows. “And what kind of girl do you think my father killed?”

“Celeste Graves, for one.” She glowers at him so fiercely I half expect her to go right for his throat with her teeth. “Your dad killed her, and now you’re taking up his tradition.”

Ulysses goes still.

His face turns into an eerie, wide-eyed mask, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks.

My heart leaps up my throat as he leans into her, halting the knife just under the tip of her nose.

“Shut up, cunt. I’ll not have someone else take credit for my work,” he breathes in an eerily empty voice. “Especially not my first.”

His first?

His fucking first?

I reel back like I’m shot, my entire body pulsing with a heart attack of shock.

My sister was his first murder and he’s outright admitting it.

Before I can even try to process that, Delilah echoes the rabbit-thoughts circling in my brain. She stares at him, the color draining from her face.

“Your f-first? How? You would’ve been like twelve—

“Don’t you know?” He leans back from her with that crazed look still growing in his eyes. “The age for my rite of passage. She was the first strawberry I ever tasted, and my beautiful Celeste was delicious.”

“Jesus. Fuck.” Delilah makes a sickly angry sound. “What is wrong with you? Why do you…”

“Delilah, Delilah,” he says, swaying the knife under her chin, “don’t you know that being rich and respected is terribly boring? A man must create his own thrills to escape so much responsibility. Luckily, I found mine early—and I wouldn’t part with them for anything.”

That’s it.

He’s a fucking dead man walking.

I never hear how Delilah responds through the raw indignation exploding up my spine.

Blood roars in my ears like a waterfall.

Ulysses Arrendell killed my sister.

Because he was bored.

“Now.” Ulysses growls again, raising the knife and aiming it at Delilah’s sternum. “Enough idle talk. I’ve worked up a terrible thirst keeping you entertained.”

Any thought of caution, of control, of common sense disappears, burned to ash in the inferno of my rage, my grief, my need to end this before the monster-fuck in front of me kills again.

Before he kills her.

I only know one thing—no cleaver can hurt more than the truth tonight.

Before I waste another second thinking about what I’m doing, I hurl myself through the flimsy aluminum wall of the shed and fling myself into Ulysses Arrendell’s teeth.


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