Delilah Clarendon loves me.
Days later, I still can’t get over it.
And those are busy damn days as we wrap this thing up and bring some peace and normalcy back to Redhaven.
Days of pouring over the reports Grant wrote, making sure the information’s accurate right down to the last dotted i.
Days of writing up my own reports, reopening my sister’s case file, creating brand-new evidence files linking the murders of Celeste Graves and Emma Santos to Ulysses Arrendell and Culver Jacobin. Plus, several other missing persons over the past twenty years.
They’re all poor dark-haired girls with sad eyes whose disappearances bear investigating when those Xs on that bracelet say there’s at least six more trophies on Ulysses’ hellish kill list.
Fuck, we haven’t made any headway on the Ethan Sanderson case, either.
There’s a new energy to Captain Faircross these days, a new focus I haven’t seen now that he has a lead on his best friend. I hope like hell that sooner or later, he can get a little closure, too.
We can guess what really happened, even if Ethan’s body hasn’t turned up yet. I’d bet my bottom dollar the poor boy got mixed up in some dirty business with Ulysses Arrendell.
Of course, the interviews are a disappointing dead end.
The Arrendells are all horrified and disgusted by their son, but everyone from Montero to the brothers swears they had no inkling that their precious Ulysses was a serial killer.
They work their press people to the bone, sending out appropriate public condemnations and sincerest apologies to the media.
I’m thinking it’ll hurt their business in the circles they move in.
Still not enough.
I don’t believe a word of what they say either, but there’s no fucking evidence to poach the rest of the family, hiding behind the best A-list lawyers and PR people big money buys.
I swear they’re coaching Ephraim Jacobin to stay out of hot water, too. The old man swore the same ‘I know nothing’ line about his son, Culver, insisting he only came in guns blazing because he thought trespassers were attacking his property.
Fuck everything about that.
As young as Culver is, someone else had to be behind the people-eating pigs before he took up the gruesome business. A kid couldn’t wrangle a herd of monster hogs all by himself.
The only thing that keeps me sane and probably prevents a heart attack from rage is one hard fact I can cling to.
Both Ulysses Arrendell and Culver Jacobin are rotting away in a Raleigh prison, awaiting arraignment and then trial.
Culver even flipped and spilled his guts in interrogation—feeding the girls to the pigs, helping Ulysses with his sick games, engraving that bracelet that was passed from one victim to the next, carving open Roger Strunk’s body after Ulysses killed him with a drug overdose they snuck him at a bar—and then pinning it all on Ulysses.
Culver swears he’ll cough up descriptions of more girls in exchange for a lighter sentence.
What the fuck ever.
Even though we might never recover Celeste’s body, I’ll have a headstone put up for her in the town cemetery. I think she’d like that.
Recognition that she lived and died in Redhaven. A marker that there are people who still remember her. Still love her, and always will.
After all this time, she deserves a proper burial, even if it can’t include her remains.
Maybe I deserve a day off, too, but I’ve still got a mountain of evidence to scrape through so when the state goes in to prosecute, they’ll have an ironclad case for seeking maximum sentences.
Murder and attempted murder for sure.
Then there’s the matter of the cocaine brick we found when we tore apart Culver’s little workshop, but he got real silent about that. Especially when we asked where Ulysses got the cocaine he loaded into Emma to hide the traces of what really killed her from toxicology.
Old Ephraim Jacobin just shook his head and muttered something about corrupting city influences.
I don’t believe that, either.
I don’t let things go easy. Not when they matter.
I’ve been patient this long. I can wait. Whatever’s still waiting out there with Montero and the rest?
We’ll find it.
Of course, Ulysses denied everything. It’s his word against Culver’s in court, but we’ve got our evidence.
The photographs we recovered from Ulysses’ room. A few pieces of jewelry that can be tied to Emma and the other missing women. Tons of testimony from Delilah.
It’ll go through and he’s cooked.
It has to go through.
Once Ulysses Arrendell falls, then I’ll knock that entire fucked up family off their pedestals one by one.
Yes, it’ll take time.
Every journey starts with a single step, and if the man who killed my sister is bound for jail, that’s a damned good first step.
Someone nurtured Ulysses into what he is.
Someone enabled him.
I’d almost pity him, if he was already ‘initiated’ into murder at age twelve. He never stood a chance at being normal.
Then again, pity’s for people who don’t have a body count.
For Ulysses, there’s only hard contempt and horror.
Plus the grim satisfaction that he’s going to rot behind bars.
Emma Santos keeps helping us from beyond the grave, too. The new evidence got the county coroner to re-open her case and do a deeper toxicology run.
This time, they found the same stuff in her veins that was in Delilah’s, once her tox screenings came back the other night.
A nasty little benzo that’s normally used as an antidepressant. One hefty dose in the neck knocks a person out.
The cocaine was added to Emma’s bloodstream immediately after death to cover Ulysses’ tracks, when that second look at toxicology showed the real cause of death was a benzo overdose.
Ulysses has a pattern. The coke perfectly concealed the other crap in Emma’s posthumous blood tests. Further forensic investigation into the substance found at the still confirmed human DNA was also in the bone chips recovered from the digested material.
Now we’ve got the county DA authorizing us to reach out of our jurisdiction and subpoena footage from venues where Ulysses and Emma were seen together in Los Angeles.
That fucker is going down.
I’ll finally get some peace.
And if I’m lucky, a nice long stretch of quiet with the amazing woman who helped me find it.
I stretch my arms out, leaning back in the desk chair, glancing around the back office of the station.
I’m the only cop on duty right now, except for Mallory on dispatch. She’s on her phone passing time, whipping through another dirty little interactive story.
I smile and glance at my folders and case reports.
That shit can wait for tomorrow.
I’m still recovering from a traumatic brain injury after all, even if I only stayed in bed for one day.
What really kept me there was Delilah.
I hope she’s still there when I get home.
She’s been staying with me, ordered on bed rest and to watch for negative side effects of the drug. She’s been recovering fine so far, this restless bundle of energy, pouting at me every morning about missing her class.
I bet the kids miss her, too.
I’ve just about made up my mind to call it a day when the desk phone rings with a Raleigh area code. I roll my head, cracking my neck before I pick up.
“Officer Graves, how can I help you?”
“Officer Graves? This is Officer Karl Everett, Raleigh PD. Do you have a minute? It’s important.”
I sit forward.
Tell me those fuckers didn’t get out on bail.
Tell me the Arrendells didn’t find a way to pay their way out of the prison system entirely.
“What happened?” I growl.
“It’s the suspects you turned over to us last week,” Everett says hesitantly. “Ulysses Arrendell and Culver Jacobin. They’re both—well, they’re both dead.”
I rock back in my chair, too stunned to think.
“Suicide, I’m afraid. Both of them,” Everett confesses reluctantly. “Apparently, Arrendell hanged himself with his bedsheets in his cell. As for Jacobin, it almost looks like an accident, but we think he did it deliberately. He wadded up a bunch of paper napkins from the cafeteria, shoved them down his throat, and choked.”
What the fucking fuck?
I’m so lost for words my vision blurs.
I don’t even know how to feel. I sit there so numb I can’t feel my legs.
They didn’t kill themselves.
I know those fucks wouldn’t.
Ulysses is too much of a narcissist chickenshit, and Culver, he was desperately hoping that throwing Ollie under the bus would grant him some immunity and lighter sentencing.
This stinks like a cover-up.
The Arrendells, tying up all their loose ends, murdering their own son and his minion before—
What do they have to hide that they were afraid would come falling out in court?
“Officer Graves?” Everett cuts in. “You there?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I drag my hand over my face. “Any video surveillance?”
“That’s the thing. There was a power outage for a few hours. No footage at all.” He sighs. “If you think it’s fishy, so do I. I’ve had our technical specialists check everything three times. If there was any tampering, we’ve got no proof. Not one damn bit.”
My gut churns.
My worst suspicions are confirmed.
I chew on the news until I feel sick before I say, “Well, thanks for letting me know. I’ll inform my captain. You should call it in to the DA since this will need to go on the case record.”
“Will do,” Everett says. “Thank you.”
We hang up, and I just sit there a while longer, fused to the chair with my fingers laced together, processing as much as my brain physically can.
How the hell do you even start to hash this out?
I should be livid.
Furious that they managed to evade justice.
Only, I know they didn’t take themselves out.
Someone else did.
The whole thing bleeds shades of Jeffrey Epstein, and considering all the powerful dickheads the Arrendells rub shoulders with, I wonder if they took them out the same way.
It’s so fucking ironic an acid laugh rolls out of me.
What they stole from others has now been taken from them.
Before those bastards died, they knew how it felt to stare death in the face and know someone else was pulling the strings, giving them no choice.
It’s a twisted kind of poetry.
The man who killed my sister suffering the same fate.
Is that justice enough for me?
I shake my head.
No, not forever.
For today, it’ll have to do.
When I get home, Delilah’s waiting for me, curled up on the sofa in one of my shirts.
That sight normally drives me into a frenzy, but today my thoughts are heavy.
She knows it as soon as I hang my belt and holster up and settle down on the couch. She instantly shuts the TV off and scoots over.
“Something happened,” I grind out.
“But are you okay?” Dark indigo eyes look up at me, worried and sweet. She curls her hand against my arm.
“A lot happened.” I sigh, wrapping my arm around her shoulders and gathering her against me. “They’re fucking dead, Lilah. Both of them. Ulysses and Culver offed themselves in their cells, supposedly. Of course, I don’t believe a damn word of it.”
“What?” Her eyes widen.
“Yeah. It’s been a day.” I smile wryly. “Aside from the obvious complications, I can’t bring myself to get too choked up over it.”
She buries her face in my shoulder. “Honestly, I hope they’re getting poked in the ass with burning-hot irons by demons who look just like Emma and Celeste.”
I can’t help laughing.
She always does that.
“Very creative. The kids must love your story time.”
“I mean it,” she says fiercely, but then stops with her gaze turning thoughtful. “I guess that’s it then? No chance of them wiggling out of it now. Real closure.”
“For me,” I point out. “Not for Emma’s family.”
“Oh.” Delilah studies me curiously and brushes my cheek. “Are you ready for that?”
“It’s long past time. I can’t let her ma suffer any longer now that I’ve got some real answers for her.” I take a deep breath. “Stay here with me while I do it?”
“Sure,” she says without hesitation.
No more doubt.
No doubt at all that no matter what happens, my girl’s got my back.
I mean, hell, would your girlfriend choke a guy out with her thighs to stop him from jumping you?
The memory almost makes me smile, but it’s not quite in me right now with the somber job ahead.
I drag my brand-new phone out of my pocket—same model as my old one, creature of habit, all my information synced and loaded from the cloud. Marina Santos’ number has been saved in my contacts for weeks, just waiting for me to give her the news.
Waiting for this dark, fateful moment.
Exhaling heavily, I punch in her name, then lift my phone to my ear and wait while Delilah wraps her hand so tight in mine, leaning into me.
She’s all the silent encouragement I need.
Even so, my heart almost cracks in two as a woman answers.
“Hello?” Her voice is weary.
“Hello, Marina Santos?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name—” I stop. This is the part of the job I hate more than anything. “My name is Officer Lucas Graves. I’m with the police department in Redhaven, North Carolina. Ma’am, I’m afraid I have some news about your daughter.”
Her hitched, broken breath says she already knows before I say a word.
She’s on the verge of tears as she whispers, “No. No, no, don’t say it—”
“I’m sorry,” I force out. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Santos. I wish I didn’t have to.”
There’s no answer but the chaotic sob of a mother falling to pieces.
I close my eyes, feeling Delilah stroking my arm, holding back her own tears as we let Mrs. Santos cry for as long as she needs to.
It feels like days, but it’s only a few awful minutes where there’s nothing but her muffled grief, slowly fading into spent gasps.
“I knew. Oh, God, I knew it,” she says softly, her voice so scratchy. “I just didn’t want to face it. It’s been so long…”
“I know, ma’am. I was the same way with my sister. The men who hurt your daughter also hurt my sister, but they’re gone now. They can’t ever hurt anyone again. I’ll send over all the information.” My lungs shudder on my next breath. “We never found my sister’s body. But Emma, she’s waiting for you here, ma’am. You can bring her home and put her to rest. If you want to make arrangements, we’ll help you get that sorted, too.”
Fuck, I’ll pay the expense myself to fly her home.
My heart sags to my knees when I hear Delilah fighting back tears.
A pained whimper sounds over the phone. “These men—they killed my Emma?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s correct.”
“And you… you stopped them? For your sister. For my daughter.”
My fingers tighten on Delilah’s so damn hard, and she nuzzles into my shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am. I had to for them—and to save the life of someone I love.”
“Th-thank you,” Marina Santos strangles out. “Thank you for fighting for my baby girl.”
Goddamn, that hurts.
I can’t accept her thanks.
Not for this.
But I won’t reject her warmth, her gratitude, the only thing she can offer me.
I only ask, “Is there anything else I can do for you, ma’am?”
“Tell me?” she answers with a desperate hope. “Tell me everything that happened. Help me understand. I don’t want to wait.”
So I do.
I give her the whole ugly story, everything we know.
How Ulysses lured girls into his web.
How he got his venom into poor Emma with his glitz and charm, using her high hopes for life against her.
How he took advantage of her.
How he murdered her to satisfy his own depraved bloodlust.
How a mistake with Culver made Emma the key to ending his terror.
How we never would have stopped him without her body, without the clues she left us.
Finally, how he stalked Delilah and almost killed her.
Lilah shivers against me as I recite that part, kissing the back of my neck gratefully.
I leave nothing out.
Mrs. Santos deserves the full blackhearted truth.
When it’s over and I’ve drained it out of me like lancing some horrible abscess, she’s quiet.
Another minute passes before she says, “…twelve. My God. He started doing this when he was twelve… how could a child be so monstrous?”
I wish like hell I had an answer that made sense.
“Some folks change as they grow up,” I offer. “But other folks are born broken in ways that can turn destructive if they aren’t controlled.”
“I just wish someone cared for him more. Protected him, so he wouldn’t have… it doesn’t matter.” She trails off, and when she speaks again, her voice brightens. “Thank you, Officer Graves. Please keep protecting those you love.”
“I’ll do my very best, Mrs. Santos,” I promise, looking down at the little firecracker curled against me. “Thank you.”
I mean it with my entire heart and soul.
After we hang up, Delilah and I sit quietly together for about an hour.
Then, without a word, she takes my hand, rising off the couch and leading me toward the stairs, the upstairs loft, my bed.
She knows I don’t want to think.
She knows what I need.
She gives me the comfort of her body, the wordless promise in kisses, in caresses, in the way she arches against me as I tear off our clothes and fuck the pain away.
We’re still so battered.
We still go at it like the flesh-starved beasts we are.
Every kiss, every stroke, every taste of her throat and every twist of her hair in my fist brings us together in perfect rhythm.
It’s slow but fast.
Deep yet thin.
Sweet but so damn dirty when it ends with me clutching her little ass in my hands until my fingers ache, flinging her up and down on my cock, jerking myself off in her pussy until I erupt inside her like a volcano coming undone.
“Lilah, fuck! Fuck!”
She comes for me real sweet, ass bobbing and perfect tits swaying in my face.
Her lips peel back, crying my name till I smother them again.
Delilah Clarendon has never tasted better than she does today.
And it’s all because I know nothing will ever steal her away from me again.
She’s mine down to the soul.
So fucking mine it vibrates through me as my cock pumps with claiming strokes, filling her to overflowing.
She crashes down in my arms, both of us a mess of pure sweat and come and the sweetest relief.
I never could have imagined this kind of sex happening when we first met, claws out and teeth bared as much as our hearts.
Now, it’s a high I can’t imagine living without.
This cynical wildcat trusted me enough to let me inside her heart, let me bask in her warmth, in the dreams she holds and the sweetness she guards behind her barbed wire.
Life without my Lilah would be empty.
As I peel her up from the bed, I wish I could tell her with more than my body how much she fills my heart.
Just like the way I fill her tight, clenching flesh until I can’t.
We’re timeless together.
You never need words to say the shit that really matters.
The only thing I need to say is “Delilah” as I claim her lips with my teeth, taking us both to the pinnacle we can only reach together.
It’s sunset by the time we settle quietly into the afterglow.
With Delilah still curled in my arms, I walk my fingers lazily over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, you know,” she murmurs. “I don’t think I ever said that out loud. Sorry for not trusting you. Sorry for being so defensive. I wish I’d never shut you out.”
I smile drowsily. “I know. Thanks for saying it out loud, though. For the record, I’m sorry for being such a rhino ass, too.”
“…you’re not sorry for that. You still are an ass,” she teases, and I laugh.
“Guilty as charged.” I hold up my hand.
She playfully swats it and thumps my chest.
“Dork. Mmm, you know, though…”
“I wouldn’t mind you being my dork for a good long time.”
The feeling that spreads through me is like melting sunlight on a spring day.
“Yeah? You mean it?”
“I trust you,” Delilah says simply. Those words carry as much weight as I love you, when I know—I know how life has treated her, all those hard knocks giving her a mighty rough time with people. “It’s been a long time since I trusted anyone. Not just to be with me—but to stay.”
I get it now.
The way people abandoned her again and again, told her she was too much trouble, not worth fighting for, not worth keeping.
Hell, I’d push folks away to avoid that pain, just like her.
I catch her hand and bring it to my lips, kissing her palm. “I will stay, Lilah. As long as you’ll have me. I love you, and I need to see how far we can take this.”
“Deal. We’ll see how long I can tolerate you,” she whispers. Her eyes glitter and her lips are warm as she pushes up to kiss me. “Because if you’ll fight that hard to save me, Lucas, I hope you’ll fight that hard to love me as much as I love you.”