So, this is how I die.
I’m still turning over the risk factors in trying to headbutt Ulysses Arrendell without impaling my throat on that knife and whether or not I can bounce hard enough to knock the chains around my wrists free, unlooping them from the hook.
I’m definitely not expecting the entire wall of the shed to start caving in.
It collapses like a car crash in a movie, but instead of a car it’s—
“Lucas?!” I gasp.
The man becomes a giant blur before I can even blink.
He tackles Ulysses like he’s going for a touchdown, hurling the creep flat on his back.
I stare, hope and shock and confusion thrashing around inside me in this tangled mess.
Ulysses hits the ground hard, grunting and swearing under Lucas’ weight.
I’ve never seen Lucas so furious.
In this moment, he’s not human, but this creature of thorns and naked outrage.
His eyes flash like green lightning as his fist plows into Ulysses’ wrist and sends the cleaver flying across the dirty floor.
I have one blurry second of sick realization—oh God, Celeste Graves’ bones are probably mulched in the dirt—before I realize Culver’s moving.
He tries to climb over Lucas as they tumble around at my feet, tearing at each other like rabid wolverines.
Ulysses is sharp and quick and agile. His thinner frame helps him dodge Lucas as his fist crashes down again and again like a sledgehammer.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” I hiss.
My arms may be bound, but my legs aren’t.
Hoisting myself up by the waist, I clench my inner core and lift my legs, snapping them around Culver’s neck, dragging him backward.
I so wish I’d done more Kegel exercises.
It’s like trying to ride a bucking bronco as Culver howls, grappling at my legs and trying to force them open with brute strength.
Crossing my ankles, I squeeze like I’m smashing a pumpkin, crushing my thighs against his neck, trying like mad to push down on his windpipe in just the right place.
But I’m glad he’s facing away from me and not getting a mouthful of—you know.
I’d never live this down.
But he’s stumbling around now, straining for air, snarling and flinging me around everywhere.
I feel like a fish writhing on a hook.
My body flops and stretches painfully, but I just keep squeezing my thighs, doing my best to hold on until he’s out cold, gritting my teeth until they hurt.
I’ve only seen this in the movies. Does it even work in real life?
When it happens, I’m not expecting it to be so sudden.
Culver lets out this weird garbled wet noise and staggers away from me like a dog trying to break its leash, stretching me almost horizontal.
The pressure on my knees threatens to break their death grip.
Then Ulysses bucks Lucas off him, sending Lucas stumbling into Culver.
His weight throws Culver back toward me.
My calves crush tighter, and I pray to every muscle I’ve developed on my daily runs that I can just knock him out before it’s too late.
But then Ulysses surges to his feet and charges at Lucas.
Shrieking like mad, I act without thinking.
I use my viselike grip on Culver to push his unsteady bulk, swinging my hips with just enough force to toss him at Ulysses.
Over two hundred pounds of gangly, oxygen-deprived hillbilly goes flying into his boss.
Their skulls knock together like coconuts, heads rocking back on their necks like Pez dispensers.
Fighting for survival isn’t supposed to turn into slapstick comedy.
I’d be laughing like crazy if it wasn’t our lives on the line.
Lucas pauses for a breathless moment, glancing at me.
“Thanks, New York,” he rattles out.
“Behind you!” I cry.
He swings around just in time to duck as a very pissed off, very bewildered Ulysses swings a wild roundhouse kick at him.
From his crouch, Lucas plows right into Ulysses’ midsection and steamrolls him across the room.
It’s marvelous to watch, this freight train of a man barreling along while Ulysses bangs his fists helplessly on Lucas’ head and shoulders.
I’ve still got Culver flopping around against me like a stranded fish, but he’s weaker now, making these harsh gagging sounds.
And if I twist just right—there!
I think I’m about to dislocate my freaking shin, but I’ve got my knee against his trachea.
The adrenaline rush gives me the strength I need as I push—only to almost lose my grip at another loud crash from across the room.
I jerk my head up, spitting a tuft of my own hair out of my mouth.
Just in time to see Lucas slam Ulysses into a worktable.
“You filthy, unworthy cur—” Ulysses grinds out.
It’s all he gets.
Because Lucas grabs him by his messy hair and smashes his head down on the metal so hard there’s a bright burst of blood from his temple.
Ulysses’ eyes roll back, blinking in disbelief.
Then he slumps down, unconscious, his body pouring limply onto the floor.
Lucas straightens, fierce and strong in his black tactical gear, legs braced, staring down at Ulysses with raw vengeance in his eyes, his chest heaving.
God, he’s too gorgeous for life.
The kind of dark knight you only see in fairy tales.
My broken beast.
My everything, even when I didn’t know I needed anything like him.
He’s also got two good working hands and I don’t.
“A little help here?” I call out, even as Culver straightens up and makes another clumsy lunge away from me.
Ow. My hips are going to be aching for a week.
“Huh?” Lucas’ head jerks up, his dazed eyes clearing.
He stares for a second before he strides across the room.
After Ulysses, it’s just cleanup.
One more powerful backhand puts Culver out like a light.
His head slips down like a jack-in-the-box slinking back into its hole.
Gasping, I let my legs drop, just dangling as exhaustion crashes over me.
Holy hell… thank God.”
“Sorry it took so long, Lilah,” Lucas says sheepishly. He reaches for me, his hands skimming up my arms toward the chains. Even as sore and exhausted and frazzled as I am with the rush of fear and adrenaline, it feels so undeniably good to have him touch me again. “Let me get you down before you—”
The sudden sound of a shotgun jacking cuts him off mid-sentence.
Multiple shotguns jacking.
We both freeze before Lucas pulls me against him, gathering me protectively against his body as he positions himself between me and a new threat we don’t have a prayer against.
About a dozen hard, grimy bearded men in overalls surround us, pouring in through the broken wall of the shed and the open door.
They’re aiming their guns right at us, all headed by that creepy scarecrow, Ephraim Jacobin.
No one says anything.
Eerie silence stretches on.
“Don’t even think about it,” Lucas warns in a feral growl, his body hard and battle-ready against mine. “This is official police business. We’ve got your boy dead to rights on attempted murder, Ephraim. Drop your guns.”
There’s a breathless moment where multiple sets of fingers hover over triggers.
Eyes narrow, sighting down the lengths of barrels, ready to end us both in a thunder of death we won’t even hear. Bullets travel faster than sound.
I’m almost too tired, too sick, too sad to be afraid.
I’ve almost died so many times tonight that if they’re going to shoot me, whatever.
Still, that silence is far more unnerving than any threats.
Until a new sound splits the night, this wailing like a hundred angry ghosts.
Loud. Shrill. Fast approaching.
Enough of them to know there’s some major cavalry riding up on the hillfolk.
There’s a frozen moment as every head in the room snaps up.
Right before the Jacobins abruptly vanish.
I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes.
One minute they’re standing there, menacing as ever.
The next, they just melt away into the shadows like grizzled ninjas.
More like cockroaches, scurrying off at the first hint of light.
Lucas slumps against me, then catches my chin in his fingers, tipping my face up to his so gently.
His lips brush mine.
I moan, whimpering the hot relief that rushes through me, the last of my energy collapsing, leaving me limper than a worn dishrag.
“Hey. Hey,” he whispers with a weary smile and a new shine in his warm, spring-green eyes. “You okay, Miss Lilah?”
“Best I’ve ever been. Who knew I just needed a fight and a bunch of guns in my face?” I joke, then jerk my arms, rattling the chains. “Now, if you could get me down from here…”
For about five seconds, I almost murdered Lucas Graves myself.
If only because that sarcastic, sweet, overprotective, dumbass man thought it was funny to make jokes about how kinky this could be before he unhitched me from the meat hook and put me down on my own two feet—only to catch me as my legs collapsed under me.
Whatever strength my survival instinct gave me disappeared.
And now, as I sit on a padded examining table at Redhaven’s tiny medical center, I realize I’ve likely still got some kind of sedative swirling in my veins.
I’m so ready to pass out.
It’s been the longest night of my life and now it’s just a blur.
Telling Lucas what happened, hearing his side, then repeating it all for Captain Faircross while he jotted down notes and asked questions that helped us piece everything together.
The nurses fussed over us the whole time and gave Lucas a well-deserved reaming when apparently he’d already taken a head wound from Culver Jacobin while he was out looking for me tonight.
See, I should’ve choked him harder.
Next time, I’ll snap his flipping neck.
At least it’s finally quiet, though.
Neither of us can go home yet when we’re waiting for the toxicology report to find out if I was injected with anything worth worrying about. As soon as they have an ambulance ready, they say they’re dragging Lucas off to Raleigh for immediate head X-rays at a larger hospital just to make sure he doesn’t have a skull fracture.
I know he doesn’t.
He’s more hardheaded than a cantaloupe.
Of course, if he hadn’t been as stubborn as a bull to come after me, I wouldn’t be alive right now.
I keep thinking that over as we sit in the exam room, waiting for the nurse to give us the all clear.
I’m definitely going to the hospital with him.
I haven’t been able to let go of him except when the nurses forced us apart for exams, and right now we lean against each other, our hands twined and resting where our thighs press together, his thumb stroking over the lower edge of the bandages on my wrist.
We’re both a total mess.
Filthy, torn-up, bandaged, bruised, and we badly need showers.
Yet somehow, I’ve never been more content in my life.
“Missed you, jerk,” I whisper. I’ve got to be honest. I’ve got to tell him how I feel, put the thorns away when I know I almost lost my chance to talk to him forever. “These days haven’t been right without you. I don’t know how everything went so wrong—”
He touches his fingers to my lips. “They went off the rails because we’re both big headed and stubborn as hell, darlin’. Convinced our way’s the only way. We blow into everything temper first. You know what that means?” He chuckles. “We’re too much alike, Lilah, and I like it that way. Means nothing will ever get boring.”
I smile until I break.
“Honestly… after tonight, after the last few weeks, I could use a little boring.” I tilt my head to his shoulder, looking up at him. “But I don’t think I could ever get bored with you.”
“So are we back together or what?” he asks with a hopeful look.
I laugh, rubbing my cheek on his shoulder.
“We weren’t really broken up before, dude. I was just waiting for you to wake up and grovel.”
“Ah, hell. I’ll remember that for next time. This a New York ritual you never told me about?”
“Don’t you start with that New York crap again.” I poke his ribs, then wince when he cringes, letting out a pained hiss. “Oops. Sorry!”
“Damn. Think maybe they need to X-ray more than my head.”
“My bad,” I mumble, snuggling in closer to his side. “You really took a beating tonight—and it’s all my fault.”
“Woman, it was worth it, and it wasn’t your fault. The real assholes responsible will be waking up in handcuffs very soon.” He rubs his stubble-darkened cheek to my hair. “Fuck, Lilah. I finally know. I finally know the truth—and I got to knock that fucker out for killing her.”
“Closure,” I murmur with a nod. “For Emma and for Celeste.”
“For me.” Lucas exhales heavily. “Thank you. I’d never have found it if you hadn’t been the most reckless dumbass girl on the planet. Still can’t say I approve, but I’m grateful as hell.”
I only smile again.
I’ll kill him for calling me a dumbass later.
He gets one free pass tonight for saving my life. I’m not a total bitch, right?
Quietly, I bring my other hand over to cover our clasped fingers, holding on so tight.
That comfortable silence is back between us again, that thing that always tells us we fit so easily. So perfectly.
And it’s all right to be together without saying a word.
I’m so close to dozing off on his broad shoulder, but I remember the nurses warned us to stay awake, considering our conditions.
It’s a challenge.
In here, there’s nothing but the faint sounds of equipment moving, people talking outside, the night wind, soft crickets outside the windows.
“Delilah?” Lucas whispers.
“Mmph?” I murmur, stirring against him to stay awake.
“Fuck, I’m just gonna say it. I love you,” he rumbles, his voice heavy with such heartfelt emotion.
My heart does the sweetest somersault as I turn my head to nuzzle his throat, feeling his pulse. It’s racing just as fast as mine.
“You do? Brave man,” I whisper back, tilting my head up to find his lips for a kiss. “I guess it’s a good thing I love you back.”