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The Broken Protector: Chapter 3

RED LIGHT (DELILAH)

She’s coming.

I’m back at the blue house, the interior lit red, the girl rising up off the floor like she’s being lifted by strings, her hair unbound and streaming, her limbs hanging limply, her face hidden.

She’s still dead, but I can feel her glaring at me like it’s my fault.

Like I’m the one who killed her.

Knowing it’s a dream doesn’t ease my sick fright as I stumble back.

As she twitches.

As that nightmare dress flares around her like a blood-drenched rose.

With an unholy scream, she throws herself at me, her dead fingers reaching for my throat.

I snap awake just as those cold, clammy hands find my neck.

When I open my eyes, I realize the hand around my neck is my own.

God.

I’m panting myself hoarse. My heart feels like a panicked hummingbird, and I’m staring at the ceiling of the suite while my hand grips my throat like I can force my racing pulse back down.

Oh, crap.

Closing my eyes, I slump back into the sweat-soaked sheets, moving my hand down over my chest, trying to get a grip on reality again.

Nightmares shouldn’t surprise me after what happened yesterday afternoon.

The house.

The body.

That girl.

I just didn’t want to show the cops how much the whole thing shook me.

Especially when the older one—the police chief—barely seemed to care, smiling that dopey grin of his like I just called him to deal with kids playing a prank.

Then there’s the other guy.

Lieutenant Joker Limpdick.

hate smarmy assholes like him.

Too big for his own good.

Too aware how handsome he is with his cocky, one-sided smile broadcasting his ego to everybody else.

His face cut perfectly, all chiseled masculine planes.

His green eyes look like spring, starkness against a suntanned brow and a sweep of night-black hair.

He has this slow, calm way of speaking that’s not quite a Southern drawl. More like he’s taking his sweet time tasting every word in a deep, gravel-tumbling voice.

A voice that keeps calling me Miss New York.

Holy hell.

He’s lucky all I did was flip him off.

You can’t ever show weakness in front of a man like him.

Right now, though, I’m anything but strong.

I’m alone.

I hug my knees to my chest, pressing my palm against my mouth and stifling a whimper.

That poor, poor girl.

Who is she?

Did someone slaughter her, and then leave her there for me to find the moment I rolled into town?

Jesus.

Why?

Common sense says not to stick around and find out.

Usually when you find a dead body, you should get the hell out of Dodge before you wind up being the next victim or The Last Girl in a horror movie—if you’re lucky.

But where would I even go?

Back to the career black hole of New York?

Crawling home in failure with nothing to show for it?

No job, no prospects, and there’s no way in hell any school would hire someone like me without the right connections. Especially not for this kind of pay and the lower cost of living.

Oh, plus there’s Roger.

Before I closed out my lease and turned in my keys, he hadn’t done anything the police considered serious enough to bring him in.

Parking his car at the end of my street, watching me come and go.

Always ‘coincidentally’ being in the same shops I was at the same time.

Slipping up and liking a few of my Facebook posts when he was supposed to be blocked, and the idiot didn’t have enough sense to give his burner account a name I wouldn’t recognize.

Nothing criminal.

There’s no law against being on public streets or pinging your ex on social media under creepy anonymous accounts. Nothing the police could bust him on.

All too typical.

A tale as old as time.

They can never act until it’s too late and the worst has already happened.

But would Roger escalate? Would he even dream of going this far?

To the point of killing some random girl just to scare me back home?

I shake my head so violently my hair whips my shoulders.

No way.

I don’t want to believe it.

Roger was always more passive-aggressive, the boyish dependent type.

That’s partly what ended us.

He wanted to be codependent, cutting out our other friendships until we only had each other, always in contact. It got to the point where I couldn’t even study because if we weren’t together, he just had to be on the phone with me.

He always swore we could sit there in silence, only to erupt at his dumb games on the TV when I was trying to concentrate.

Sleeping on the phone on the nights he didn’t stay over, too. When I started having neck pain from the headset, he just told me to get a better pillow.

At first it was weird, but flattering.

That little thrill of being the sole focus of someone’s crazy obsession.

Of course, it got really old, really fast.

Then it got controlling.

After that, a little stalking would be right in character.

But murder?

That’s hard to buy, even for a man who angrily rejected therapy and desperately needs it.

Which means I’m walking into someone else’s problems and possibly making them mine.

Or maybe Officer Horsedick was right.

Maybe the girl truly died of natural causes.

She was young and pretty, but young people can have heart conditions, high blood pressure, who knows. Then there’s drinking and overdoses.

That doesn’t make her death any less sad.

But it does make it a bit easier to look at this as wretched bad luck, and not me making a massively bad decision to stay here.

Don’t cry, don’t cry.

But my nose is stinging as I lift my head.

My worn reflection in the vanity mirror across the cozy bedroom of the two-room suite gazes back at me.

I look like hell. No surprise.

Lines under my eyes, red around the edges, nose pink.

Looks like concealer’s going to be my best friend today.

Especially since I need to get off my butt and get dressed for a meeting with my employers—something that feels more like a real job interview than the brief call and paperwork that led me out here.

I can’t let them think one brutal shock will chase me out of town.

Six a.m., the clock says.

Perfect.

I always wake up with the sunrise, no alarm, even when I want to sleep in.

Sometimes it’s annoying. This time, I’m grateful.

What would have happened in my dream if that girl finished pressing down on my throat?

My meeting’s not until nine o’clock sharp, so I’ve got time to take a long shower and breathe in the steam. It helps calm the jitters.

I take my sweet time getting dressed, putting on my camouflage to face the day.

It’s not that I’m pretending to be someone I’m not.

I just know the assumptions some parents might make about girls in tight jeans with visible tattoos in remote little towns.

I’m definitely not giving anyone reasons to reject me before I have a chance to prove I can be a good teacher to their kids.

Believe me, I want to be a good teacher.

I want to be the reason these kids smile, just like how so many of my teachers stepped up for me when my childhood wasn’t great.

And no, that’s not something I like to dwell on.

So I blow-dry my hair, do my makeup until I look just a little too doe-eyed and innocent, and then throw on a comfy pair of black fitted pants, a white sleeveless silk blouse, and a loose slate-blue knit cardigan. Thick enough to conceal my tattoo but not so thick I’ll sweat half to death in the late August heat.

Perfect.

With one last nod in the mirror for good luck, I grab my purse and head downstairs.

Janelle intercepts me as I step into the lobby, pulling me into a warm hug before I can say anything besides “Oof!”

I should’ve expected this.

She did it last night, too, after her police chief hubby turned me over and explained the situation. All hugs and apologies, like she was somehow responsible for the gruesome discovery in that house.

I pat her back a little stiffly, waiting for her to let me go.

“Good morning to you, too,” I manage around a near mouthful of her shoulder.

“Oh, good morning, hon.” She pulls back, gripping my shoulders, her worried eyes searching my face. “Are you all right? No bad dreams?”

I smile faintly. “Tiny nightmare. Probably to be expected, but I promise you I’m fine.”

The look she gives me, I can’t quite figure out what it is.

Either she doesn’t believe me… or she pities me terribly.

“They really do raise them tougher in the city, don’t they?” She smiles. Before I can ask what she means by that, she squeezes my upper arms. “Come on. I just finished putting out breakfast. Complimentary with the stay.”

“Oh, I’m not—”

I start to say I’m not hungry.

I never get the chance.

Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a hardback chair with a lake view and a steaming cup of coffee. There’s a plate piled high with eggs, scones, and sausage in front of me.

Janelle Bowden is a whirlwind. The summer tourists must love her.

I don’t know what to think, honestly, but it’s comforting.

A little bit of forced normalcy after yesterday’s—well, everything.

Murmuring my thanks, it gets easier to smile like I mean it as I tuck in.

Breakfast is divine.

Good enough that I’ve cleaned my plate without realizing it. Maybe Janelle knew what I needed more than I did because I hadn’t recognized just how shaky I felt until the sensation starts to settle down with a full belly.

My hands are less trembly, the unease in the pit of my stomach a smidge faded.

I know. I know it’s normal to feel this way right now.

I’m just not very good at forgiving myself.

But I feel less like a nervous wreck and more like I’m about to split my zipper as I thank Janelle one more time and head out to my car with a little note in her loopy handwriting, telling me how to get to the town hall.

It’s easy enough to find, this big white building with a red roof and a steeple like a church, shingles gleaming in the morning sun.

To hell with it.

It’s a gorgeous morning, and I need to walk off the ten pounds I just ate.

It’s strange how the town smells like wildflowers. All I see are neatly maintained streets and a few sidewalk hedges.

Where is that scent coming from?

It’s almost like rose water, and it’s strongest at the center of the plaza, where that bronze statue of the guy on horseback stabs up at the sky.

I stop and stare at the monument. The marble base alone stands taller than I do.

It’s a pretty dramatic pose, the horse rearing up, the rider’s cape flaring out. A handsome sculpture of a man with bony cheekbones and a fierce face. His garb makes me think of revolutionary era minutemen.

There’s a plaque at the base with a name.

Frederick Arrendell, 1750-1833. Honorable Founder.

I trace my fingertips over the engraving, then slowly circle the statue with my nostrils tingling.

On the other side, I find fresh roses resting against the base on the cobblestones. Their crispness says they couldn’t have been here for more than a few hours.

They’re a soft sunset-pink with green leaves and thorny stems. They’re woven together, not really a wreath, more just a giant sheaf stretching from one side of the marble to the other.

Weird.

Maybe this is one of those towns, though.

Long, deep history going back to the colonial days with a reverence for its founders that can only be found in these old communities where half the family names were established before North Carolina was even a state.

No wonder Lucia Arrendell spoke to me like she was royalty deigning to address a mere mortal.

I linger for another minute—I’m early, anyway—before pushing away and letting my wandering steps take me to the town hall.

Under the shade of the little overhang above the door, I knock briefly, then push the door open, tentatively peeking inside.

The entryway is lushly carpeted, decorated heavily with marble columns and floral arrangements and flagpoles draped with the American flag, the North Carolina state flag, and a red thing with a circular symbol I don’t recognize. Paintings of more men in colonial style line the walls, including a few with the same fearsome face as the statue.

There’s no one behind the broad wood reception desk, but at the far end of the room, standing before a heavy set of oak double doors, I spot three people who look less like small-town royalty and more like they just stepped off the runway in the NYC fashion scene.

The one who catches my attention first is the woman.

She’s tall, rail-thin, wearing a couture black gown with a plunging neckline and a lazy drape to the silk fabric. Her shoulders and arms are bare and her fingers are cloaked in black gloves, delicately holding an unlit cigarette.

She carries herself with a hips-forward slouch and a quiet sensuality that’s faded gracefully with age.

She’s got cheekbones like razors. A mouth like a curving fruit. Eyes as grey as deep mist, her elegant features framed in a white-streaked bob of platinum-blonde hair.

I’d guess she’s a very well-aging mid-sixties, along with the man at her side.

He has a sort of 1930s charm, right down to his three-piece suit and pocket watch on a gold chain.

He makes me think of Clark Gable with his black hair swept back and silver touches at the temples, his thin mustache and a certain arrogant twist to his brows. His eyes are jade-green.

For a split second, I can’t help but think of Lucas Graves.

Their eyes are almost the same shade, this translucent green that’s almost glassy.

Yet Lucas’ eyes are so warm they remind me of spring.

This man’s eyes are unreadable, a foggy glass I can’t quite see through.

I’m guessing the other man with the same eyes is probably their son. Maybe early thirties, impeccably dressed in a stylish Italian suit. He has her blond hair, his green eyes, and the face of a fallen angel.

Yep.

I think I’ve just found the Arrendells.

They lean in close, murmuring to each other. Just a soft buzz of voices in airy accents—but as the door creaks, they go quiet, lifting their heads simultaneously.

Three sets of sharp eyes fall on me.

I freeze in my tracks.

There’s something about them.

This crackling presence that electrifies the whole room.

The most intense one is the son. He studies me with a widening, unblinking interest that makes me feel like he’s forgotten how to see anything else.

Jeez.

If I’d stayed in NYC, I’d probably have avoided eye contact at my own wedding.

Being gawked at like this makes me feel naked.

I glance away quickly, finding a spot just over his shoulder to look at instead of meeting those intense eyes again.

The woman breaks the stillness and her slim face relaxes with a small, thoughtful smile.

“Ah, the lady of the hour,” she lilts in an accent that’s more New Hampshire than North Carolina. She lifts her unlit cigarette to her lips like she’s taking a coy little drag. “Miss Clarendon, is it not?”

“I… yes.” I take a deep breath, scrub my hands against my thighs, and straighten up. No need for me to be so nervous just because I’m not used to dealing with rich people who are also like my boss’ boss. Donning my most professional smile, I step closer, offering a hand. “You must be Lucia Arrendell.”

“And my worse half, Montero.” She lays her hand in mine like a feather, just barely touching, before turning her head languidly to her son. “My youngest and least responsible son, Ulysses.”

Both Montero and Ulysses chuckle.

“Welcome, Miss Clarendon.” Montero reaches for my hand, grasping it firmly.

His eyes dip over me, assessing me like he’s looking to buy a horse before he looks away just as fast, dropping my hand like he’s lost interest.

“I do hope you’ll find our town more welcoming after yesterday’s distressing encounter,” he rumbles.

Distressing?

That’s what you call it?

God, rich people are weird and overly polite.

That goes double when Ulysses steps up and takes my hand in both of his before I have a chance to respond.

“Delilah.” He practically breathes my name. “I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

What?

I blink. My fingers curl helplessly in his. His fingers are hard, his touch vaguely cool.

“…you have?”

“Entirely. I owe you an apology after what happened yesterday.”

Ulysses bows over my hand—and I realize almost too late that he means to kiss my knuckles.

Oh my God.

Maybe he’s just being gentlemanly and cultured in a way a dumpster rat like me can’t comprehend, but I jerk my hand free before he can, tucking it against my inner elbow as I hug my arms to myself.

I forget how to breathe.

Way to make it awkward, Lilah.

Ulysses studies me, his gaze too curious before he straightens like it didn’t happen and offers me a disarming smile.

“You see,” he says, “it was my responsibility to prep the house for your arrival. I left it in the hands of a good cleaning crew, but I should have made a point of checking in personally. I could’ve spared you the horror. Have the police identified the girl yet?”

“No,” I say flatly, shaking my head.

I wasn’t expecting him to just bring it up like that.

For an instant, all I can see is the red of Lucia’s brightly colored mouth. It’s almost the same red as the dead girl’s dress.

My breath rattles as I inhale. “But it’s not your fault.”

That makes me wonder, though.

That cleaning crew, should I tell Lucas?

Maybe if he finds out who they were, they can tell him something that might lead to more clues.

But Ulysses is talking again, relaxed and laughing. “You’re too kind, and apparently, you’re a resilient young thing. But come.” His gaze sharpens as he gestures toward the double doors. “We shouldn’t keep the council waiting.”

…the council?

I’m meeting the whole town council?

Oh, hell.

There’s no time to protest or make excuses.

The Arrendells are like peacocks, closing in around me. They usher me into a wood-paneled conference room.

A good half dozen people are already seated at a U-shaped table, dressed much more plainly, older men and women who already look bored and ready to be done with this.

I feel like I’ve stepped into a Tim Burton film.

The Arrendells are just surreal, their colors more vivid than reality, cast against the drab backdrop of everyday life.

After meeting them, the rest of it’s pretty boring.

Names pass over my head I’ll probably remember after hearing them a few more times.

Pleasant greetings all around.

I’m shown to a chair, and there’s talk about the education budget, holidays, and zoning.

All things I have no say in but end up listening to intently anyway.

The council members make proposals, and every time Lucia and Montero have the final say, yeas and nays gliding off their tongues.

Meanwhile, Ulysses never takes his eyes off me.

I don’t even know how to feel about it.

It doesn’t quite feel like flirting, but it’s definitely intense.

Every time I glance up and catch those jade eyes on me from across the room, my heart skips.

I’m so ready for this day to be over.

After a few more yeas and nays, the meeting adjourns.

Thank God.

As I stand, a few more people give their welcomes and make small talk before I’m free.

The sunlight feels heavenly as I burst outside and take a deep, shaky breath of fresh air.

Only to stiffen when a warm voice purrs at my back.

“Are you all right, Miss Clarendon?”

I whip around to find Ulysses standing in the doorway behind me. He’s so tall and he’s got this odd way of standing out yet also blending into the background.

Also, he’s still freaking watching me.

But there’s concern in his eyes and his brows are drawn together.

I clear my throat, forcing another smile.

“I’m fine!” I insist. “I just didn’t sleep well last night. I’m sure you can imagine… Oh, and I’m sorry if I made a rough impression today.”

“Not at all. I expected you to be more upset, honestly, considering the whole—” He stops and waves a hand. “—the whole situation.”

I can’t help a tired bark of laughter. “That’s one way to put it.”

“I try not to be insensitive.” With an almost conspiratorial smile, he steps into the sun, the brilliance reflecting off his pale hair and casting his eyes in shadow. He offers me his arm. “Let me make up for the shock yesterday—and for meeting my parents. They’re a bit much. I’ll show you around the schoolhouse.”

For a moment, I balk.

But there’s nothing in his smile besides friendly reassurance.

Okay, okay.

I’m being paranoid and jumpy.

This is a good time to calm down and stop making a big deal out of everything.

So I slip my hand into Ulysses’ arm and nod. “Thank you. Though I’m guessing in a town this size, there’s not that much to show.”

“You’d be right, but at least we can say we have amazing scenery for a walk.” He leans toward me with a chuckle and tosses his head toward the plaza. “Right this way.”

Ulysses leads me down the sidewalk of one of the broad paved streets, trees dotting the walk and the morning filled with crisp smells of late summer. Although now and then I hear car engines, lawn mowers, children playing, the sounds of shop doors opening and closing, laughter…

It’s still so quiet.

Silent in a way that makes the day feel peaceful and slow beneath the cloudless blue shell of sky.

Ulysses points out the town as we walk, all the little shops selling everything from locally bottled wine to a pub he swears has the best cheese fondue east of the Rockies.

A little convenience store that closes at ten p.m.—so not that convenient.

The grocery store, the secondhand shop, the barber’s.

Every store is a quaint thing that looks like it was plucked out of a doll village and sized up to make Redhaven.

He seems proud of his town. I guess that’s a good sign.

There’s a warmth to the way he speaks as he tells me about how the cheese shop on the corner has been owned by the same family for six generations.

I feel a little bad about being so on edge earlier.

Especially since he’s stopped staring at me, and it’s easier to relax.

The road ends at the school, opening up on a broad, grassy lawn shaded by pine and oak trees. The building is long and low with rows upon rows of windows against brick, topped with a mossy green roof and a playground off to the side.

A sign announces REDHAVEN on a bronze plaque. I blink as we stop outside the fence.

“This is the elementary school?”

“This is the school. Period.” With an amused sound, Ulysses swings the gate open for me. “From kindergarten through high school, we grow up in these hallowed halls.”

I eye him, half smiling. “You went to school here, huh?”

“Nah, my mother shipped me off to boarding school as soon as she could get rid of me. I spent most of my years abroad in Switzerland and Italy.” He lifts his brows with a self-mocking little sniff. “You can’t expect wealthy parents to actually raise their children, Miss Clarendon.”

“Heaven forbid.” I throw my hands up with a relieved laugh.

He’s not as stiff as he seemed at first.

The air’s easier between us as he gives me the tour.

Every school I ever visited in New York easily dwarfs this place.

There aren’t many classrooms because there’s not many classes.

I’ll be teaching rotating kindergarten through fourth grade, scheduling my times around periods with teachers who handle things like PE, art, and electives that aren’t under my umbrella.

The backbone of the school’s C-shape is the 5-8 wing, and as Ulysses guides me through tiled halls, we’re ambushed by a curvy woman with a messy ponytail of strawberry-blonde hair.

I barely glimpse her through the window in the door while she’s settled at a table in yoga pants, cutting out bits of poster board. The instant she sees us, she’s out the door, pulling me away from Ulysses with both hands.

“You’re Delilah, right?” Bright, chirpy, excitable, her brown eyes lit. She’s got a slight drawl that’s not quite country and not quite East Coast, giving her voice a pleasant burr. “I’m Nora. Nora Greenweather. I can tell you I’ve been looking forward to you for the longest time!”

I practically squeak, taken aback.

“Me?”

Ulysses starts to say something, but Nora shoots him an amused look. “Don’t start. Not even a chance for you to roll out one of your lines, you devil.” She leans into me, both hands grasping mine. “He’s the town flirt. Watch out for this one.” Then she squeezes my hands, grinning. “And yeah, we’ve all been waiting. Someone’s gotta take care of the little ones, and I did double duty for the second half of the last spring semester. I’m not cut out to deal with them until they’re old enough to take ‘no’ seriously. I don’t know how you stand it.”

It’s a torrent of words, open and honest and sweet.

I smile.

“I love kids,” I say. “There’s just something about watching them start to develop their own personalities, and having the privilege of shaping that.”

“Well, aren’t you a sweet thing.” She says it closer to thang. Her eyes soften. “I hope you won’t let that whole crazy business scare you off. I’m still in shock—everybody is, really—but I’d like it if you stuck around. We don’t usually get random bodies around here, I swear.”

I snort. “Word travels fast.”

“Faster than the speed of light. Them NASA scientists ever figure out how to harness the speed of a small-town rumor, we’ll be on Pluto in a year.” Nora laughs and finally lets go of my hands as she gives Ulysses a look. “You take good care of her, you hear?”

“Miss Greenweather,” Ulysses says grandly, slipping an arm around my shoulders. “I’ll gladly make sure Miss Clarendon has everything she could ever dream of.”


By the time I finish the grand tour with the high school wing, I’m ready for a little alone time.

Everyone’s been so nice. But I can only deal with people above the age of ten for so long before I need to escape and blow off some tension.

Kids make sense to me.

Kids are easy.

They’re honest about what they want and free and open with their feelings. They’re still too innocent to understand why people lie, cheat, and twist relations into such a tangled mess of hurt and misunderstandings.

For me, it’s always been adults who are hard to understand.

The town’s only gym seems like a great place to avoid other grown-ups for a while.

The nice thing about gyms is that everyone just minds their own business. The place can be packed, and I’ll still feel completely alone.

I need that right now.

I never thought I’d get so addicted, so quickly, to the charm of small-town peace and quiet.

Sweet solitude.

And I really didn’t need to worry.

I throw Ulysses a few excuses, swing by The Rookery to snag my gym bag, then cross the plaza to the single-room gym. There’s no one there except a teenage girl behind the counter.

There’s not much to the place at all. No surprise.

A row of treadmills, ellipticals, and other miscellaneous machines. There’s a mirrored wall by the weight sets, a big flatscreen TV, and two locker doors on both sides of the stair climbers for men and women. They’re all empty today as I change.

Even better.

The girl behind the counter is on her phone, twirling her hair like she’s flirting with a special someone.

But as I step up, she offers me a smile, her blonde ponytail bouncing. “Welcome to Work It! Do you have a membership card?”

She knows I don’t.

I feel like a dossier on me was passed around secretly before I even arrived in Redhaven.

“Not yet,” I say, adjusting the strap of my bag and smiling. “But I’d be interested in getting one. What kind of plans do you have?”

She opens her mouth to give me a sales spiel, but stops as the door jingles again behind me. I glance over my shoulder and get an eyeful I need like a hole in the head.

Lieutenant Lucas damn Graves comes striding in, cockier than ever.

The last time I saw him, he was in uniform—dark navy blue bordering on black, crisply stitched, streamlined to make him look sleek and powerful and intimidating.

And yes, obscenely sexual.

Even if he acted like an elephant dick, there was a professional front behind the façade of the uniform.

Now, off duty, the man looks downright bestial.

He’s a lion-man in his translucently tight white A-shirt and black track pants with their thin white racing stripes. They match the black stripes on his white tennis shoes.

He’s built like a tank. At least six and a half feet tall, solid brick shoulders, arms as thick and hard as oak branches.

I can even see his chest and a thin nest of black hair showing in dark shadow through the shirt.

God help me.

Before, he was clean-shaven, but now he’s sporting a proper five o’clock shadow.

His dark hair is messy, tossed to one side and falling into his eyes, turning them cat-green in their shadow.

One punishing arm flexes as he adjusts the heavy-looking bag over his shoulder.

Then he stops mid-stride as his gaze lands on me.

Just great.

I freeze.

My stomach flips with irritation, and damn him, his lips twitch in a subtle smirk, tossing my insides around again.

The girl behind the counter isn’t nearly so dumbstruck.

She smiles brightly, her cheeks flushed pink. “Mr. Graves! Hi.”

He nods at her, but those stark green eyes stay pinned to me.

“Afternoon, Trisha,” he rumbles.

He doesn’t even say hello.

Why can’t I decide if that pisses me off or feels like a relief?

He just dips his head, lifting two fingers in a mocking salute before turning and strutting off with a prowling stride to the men’s locker room.

I can’t stop scowling at his back, pathetically speechless.

Yeah, I’ve got to find a better way to say dick.

I’m not even sure why he riles me up so much.

Probably that juvenile Miss New York nickname and the way he always shows up without warning. Or it’s the laughably inappropriate way he got me to stop fixating on the dead girl by teasing me about sleeping on his sofa.

Or maybe it’s just that he’s so flipping tall.

I’ve been a short stack my whole life.

And I’ve had more than one person try to make me feel small, crowding me out of daring to take up space.

“…hello? Miss?”

Oh.

Trisha’s talking to me.

My face goes hot and I whip my eyes back to her, clearing my throat. “Sorry. So, about those membership plans?”

It doesn’t take long before I’m set up with a monthly trial plan. I’m almost shocked at how cheap it is when I’m used to NYC markups on everything.

I could’ve saved even more if I’d committed to a quarterly plan. But maybe I’m thinking about dead bodies, quietly wondering just what my limit is for how many I’m cool with before I panic and hightail it out of town.

Or I’m just being dramatic, and what’s actually on my mind is tree-lined lanes and how nice it would be to jog down them at sunrise, no membership required.

Sighing, I do a quick five-minute set of stretches before I claim one of the treadmills with House Hunters on TV for company.

I’ve barely started a light jog when the men’s locker room door swings open and Lucas Graves stalks back out, sans gym bag.

He takes one glance at me—a glance that lingers too long, making me nearly trip on my own feet—before he looks at the television.

Somehow, he switches the channel over to Better Call Saul before climbing on the treadmill next to mine and gliding into a steady, pounding pace.

Holy hell.

The man goes from nothing to a strong, violent run in under five seconds. Almost like a racehorse bursting out of the gate.

He runs for two solid minutes without even huffing.

This. Is. So. Bad.

My mind goes terrible places, wondering what else his body can do with gym-freak stamina like that.

“I was watching that, you know,” I mutter when I can’t stand it any longer.

He doesn’t look at me, his mile-wide chest rising and falling in deep, steady breaths.

“So change it back. You’ve got thumbs, right?” His gaze stays on his digital readouts as he shrugs.

“Um, yes. I have thumbs. Very observant.” Glaring, I manage to hold up a thumb instead of another middle finger salute. I’m being nice today.

I shake my head, ready for more of his crap, but apparently he’s holding back too.

“So change it back,” I mouth, scowling, but then slow the treadmill and step off it.

I brace my burning feet on the floor for a second before I stomp over, grab the remote on a little console table under the TV, and flick the channel back to my show.

I don’t even make it back to my machine before the sound changes, and Bob Odenkirk starts yelling at a couple cartel guys who look like they eat kittens for breakfast.

Yep.

Looks like I’m going to get arrested for assaulting a cop today.

I whip my head up, glaring at the TV, then at Lucas.

He’s got his phone out, not even missing a stride as he taps his screen. I catch a glimpse of the Roku logo.

Oh, that absolute jerk. He’s got an app synced to this TV, and he just—

Argh!

A little growl slips up my throat. Still gripping the remote, I punch the button back to House Hunters, staring at him pointedly the entire time.

He’s still got his head bowed, his face unreadable as the TV changes again.

“Oops,” he whispers. “Butterfingers.”

“Butterfingers, my ass!” I hiss back, stabbing the button again. “Dude, do you mind?”

He spreads his hands.

With his long, easy stride, the motion makes the muscles in his waist pull dangerously tight against his A-shirt that’s finally starting to darken with sweat.

“Don’t know what’s wrong with this damn thing,” he lies. “It’s busted today. Just keeps switching back on its own.”

Right as he taps his phone again, watching me with a mock-innocent look.

Right on cue, the TV flicks back to his stupid suspense show despite me mashing the button down like my life depends on it.

“You don’t know what’s wrong with it, huh?” I can’t believe I’m this annoyed and yet somehow smirking helplessly.

Idiot.

I jab the button again—really fast this time, stabbing it with my fingertip—just as he hits the button on his screen. The TV starts flickering back and forth like a psychedelic kaleidoscope of noise and color.

“Maybe your thumb’s broken,” I say. “Mine are working, last I checked.”

He glances at his hand languidly then, lifting his thumb off his phone. “Must be. Would you look at that. It should stay now.”

I snort and hit my channel again, shaking my head as I try to pick up the pace and try to have a normal workout.

I point two fingers at my eyes and then at him.

I’m watching you.

Is that thunder or is it a low rumble of laughter in his throat?

At least the channel stays as I pick up speed again.

I wonder how long it’ll take before I’m too tired to fume over his shenanigans. And here I thought the kids would be the ones pranking me.

“You always watch shows about big houses nobody on a normal salary can afford?” he asks.

“Are you always this much of a judgmental prick?” I ask. I don’t even bother keeping my voice down.

There’s no one here but us and Trisha, and Trisha’s not making any secrets about her eavesdropping.

“Only to the pretty girls,” Lucas snaps without missing a beat.

I almost trip on the machine.

I have to grasp the bars to catch myself before I go flopping off the treadmill.

“Jeez. You really are shameless.”

Lucas jogs on with a blank face, but his eyes give away everything, flashing amusement.

When he glances at me, I’m struck yet again by just how warm his eyes are compared to Ulysses.

It’s weird how two people can have similar eyes, but what’s inside them makes it night or day.

As the laughter fades from his eyes, his gaze sharpens. “Don’t worry, New York. I’m just trying to be accommodating since you seem to enjoy being pissed at me so much.”

I bare my teeth. “Don’t. Not today, Officer Dick,” I add under my breath.

“Officer Graves. Not Richard. My name’s Lucas Graves, in case you forgot.”

Holy hell.

“…you know exactly what I meant.”

“Reckon I do, but wouldn’t be polite to say it in a lady’s company.”

God.

That slow drawl of his is like molasses, sweetness and mockery melted together. And I don’t know what to do with it, especially when he’s still watching me with eyes that go right through me.

I scrunch my nose at him.

“I’m not a lady, and I’m not Miss New York. I’ve always been too short for the pageant circuit, anyway.”

He snorts. “Who says that’s why I’m calling you that?” But his undertone says that’s exactly why he’s calling me that, though it fades as he sobers. “By the way, I wanted to talk to you about that. New York, I mean.”

I’ve only been half watching House Hunters with the world’s most annoying man in my ear, but now he has my full attention, my run slowing to a speed walk. “What? Did you find something out about my ex?”

For a moment, there’s just the pad of our footsteps against the treadmills, impacts alternating in rhythm.

Lucas frowns.

His hands settle on his grips like he needs support before he says what’s next.

“Not necessarily anything to do with the girl,” he says. “I did call him, though. Pretended to be a car warranty sales rep. You know, the usual scammy stuff. Makes it real easy to think up reasons to keep him talking.”

I want to laugh, imagining how he must’ve pissed Roger off, but the nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach won’t let me. “He hates that stuff. Did he hang up on you?”

“Not before cussing up a hell of a storm. He sounded pretty agitated, and not just by me hounding him.” He shakes his head. “Still, it kept him on the line long enough to try to get a trace on the call. Nothing too sophisticated—we’re not the NSA here—but we’ve got a few apps that can help pinpoint locations.” His eyes latch on and hold mine. “This time, I couldn’t. He’s wise to that stuff, I guess. Which means we don’t know where he is, and the man must have a reason for hiding his whereabouts.”

I suck in a breath and stumble so sharply I have to step off the belt.

“Wait, you… you think he’s here?” My fingers dig into the grips as I stare at him.

“Can’t say with confidence, Miss Clarendon. Could be he followed you, or could be he’s somewhere else entirely.” He taps the treadmill’s interface and his steady run eases to a light jog, then to a halt as he turns to face me. “Can you think of anyone else he’d want to hide from?”

“Maybe,” I say dubiously.

I hate the way my voice nearly breaks.

I don’t want to be afraid of a creeper like Roger.

“He was really controlling. He always wanted to know everything I was doing every waking minute, but you can guess it didn’t go both ways. He was pretty secretive about where he was whenever he wasn’t with me. Sometimes I’d catch things, though. Matchbooks and cards from casinos and clubs.”

Lucas’ jaw tightens. “So, you’re saying he might’ve had some gambling problems, then? Makes sense. Some asshole obsessed enough to control his girlfriend that way with stalker tendencies, it’d fit the profile with compulsive gambling in the mix. Maybe he got in with some bad high rollers who might want to track him down.”

I swallow hard. “So you think he’s just laying low and it has nothing to do with me? Or he’s getting out of town ahead of some mafia loan sharks or whatever and stalking me out here is a perfect excuse to leave?”

“Two good possibilities,” Lucas admits. “It’s also possible he’s just a paranoid little shit and nothing’s going on in his lonely-ass life.”

Whoa.

I’m not expecting the sudden harshness in his tone or that shine in his stare.

He almost sounds jealous. Overprotective.

And I almost don’t hate it.

“Well, okay.” I lick my dry lips. “What happens next?”

“We stay vigilant and keep watching,” he rumbles. “And you call me if anything out of the ordinary happens, New York. Don’t hesitate. If I’m not in, you can trust my guys. We’ve got a damn good team out here, even if we’re smaller than a wolf pack.”

“Delilah,” I say pointedly. “If you want me to call you, it’s Delilah.” I force a weak smile. “Not Miss Clarendon. Definitely not New York.”

“Delilah.” He purrs my name deeply like the huge cat he is with his hot, raspy tongue.

Anyway.

I look away, smoothing my hair back from my sweat-dotted brow. “So, when we’re talking out of the ordinary, do you mean things that go bump in the night or another dead body?”

“Either, or anywhere in between.”

“Got it.” I curl my hands tighter against the grips, staring at the screen on the treadmill. Suddenly running doesn’t have much appeal when my heart keeps racing just fine on its own.

I take a minute to figure out how to ask the question burning at the back of my brain. “Did you find out anything else about her?”

Lucas heaves a deep, slow sigh. “I can’t be disclosing case details, New York. You know that.”

“Please.” I’m so desperate I ignore the fact that he’s still using that stupid nickname. “I know I didn’t know her, but… I need to know.”

He considers it gravely, rubbing his knuckles against his dark-shadowed jaw, raking them over faint stubble.

“There’s not much to tell yet, honestly,” he says. “Though I’m due on shift in a couple hours, and we might have more in from the coroner’s office then. While we still don’t have a positive ID on her, initial toxicology and examination indicates an overdose.”

“Overdose? Oh, God.” I slowly exhale until I feel deflated. “So she wasn’t… she wasn’t murdered?”

“Not that we can tell. As far as the chief is concerned, your house is cleared as a crime scene. We didn’t find anything interesting on a full sweep. You can probably move in again soon—assuming you still want to. Can’t blame you if you’d rather pitch a tent on the street than spend another second in that place after all that.”

“I mean, that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m fine at The Rookery.” I shake my head. “But I still don’t get it. If there’s no foul play, then how did she end up there?”

“Most likely scenario?” Lucas glances over his shoulder toward Trisha, who’s at least being a bit more subtle about watching us past her phone now. His voice drops as he looks back at me. “The girl was probably involved with the folks on the hill. Every so often, they throw these big lavish parties, and now and then the guests get up to a little of their own dirty recreation on the side. Wouldn’t be surprised if she got herself high and wandered down to your house, found her way in somehow, then died there.”

I blink. “The people on the hill—what hill? I don’t—oh.” When it hits me, I gasp. “That big house? You mean…”

“Yeah. The Arrendells,” Lucas answers reluctantly, working his jaw.

Holy shit!

“The people who hired me,” I rush out, eyeing him skeptically. “The people who told me during my interview they were looking for someone with family values.”

“Different families got different values.” He shakes his head, watching me almost warily. “Maybe they got mixed up with the wrong people. Who the hell knows. A few bad errors in judgment, some shit nobody meant to happen, only it happened anyway. That’s how it works sometimes.”

I frown, starting to feel dizzy.

I’m having serious trouble reconciling any drug-fueled debauchery with the buttoned-down Ulysses Arrendell I met. Sure, he was a little too nice, but mostly he was just charming—even if the way he talks is a little odd. Too formal, I guess, the kind of speech you pick up when your parents ship you to crazy expensive boarding schools overseas.

Holding my tongue, I eye Lucas.

I don’t know what to believe.

I don’t know either of these men.

I don’t know whether Lucas would lie to me for some reason, and I also don’t know whether Ulysses would put up a charming front to hide the fact that his little party got a girl killed.

Then again, if I could trust first impressions, I’d have never dated Roger Strunk.

My silence must speak volumes because Lucas shrugs his broad shoulders. “Believe me, don’t believe me, that’s your choice. I’m just giving you a theory.”

He powers up his treadmill again, settling back into that ground-eating run that tells me he’s had training somewhere besides the police academy. I doubt small-town boot camp trains his kind of stamina.

But I don’t say anything as I settle back into my own distracted jog.

The silence between us isn’t what I’d call uneasy.

I can’t block out his presence, and he’s aware of me too.

It eats at me for the next five minutes, this steady tension that somehow feels like a truce, too.

Not just because he’s killing my workout zen. But because he’s been—I don’t know, decent today.

Even if it’s just doing his job and I don’t know if I can trust him.

After a few more minutes running, pacing my steps to my thrumming heartbeat, I clear my throat and force myself to speak.

“I’m sorry for earlier.” It feels like pulling teeth. I’ve always had trouble with apologies. That’s why I have to make myself say them when it’s truly necessary. “The other day. You were checking up on me and I was kind of a fire-breathing bitch. I’m sorry.”

Now he does miss a beat, his sneakers squeaking before he recovers.

He slows and gives me a long, hard look. His perma-grumpy face softens into something handsomely understanding, almost graceful.

“Nobody’s at their best with the shit you stumbled into,” he says. “You didn’t hurt my feelings one bit. I can recognize when someone’s lashing out because they’re in shock and not completely in control versus when they’re a real asshole. Don’t worry.”

Smirking, I toss my ponytail back over my shoulder. “How do you know I’m not a real asshole?”

“I don’t.” He snorts loudly. “But if you are, New York, I reckon we might just get along.”

“You reckon you can keep calling me that and not die, too?”

“I do, Miss Delilah.” His eyes flash brighter.

Oh my God, no.

…I think we’re having a moment.

“You’re so ridiculous!” I shout. I can’t help laughing, shaking my head.

At least now it’s easier to breathe, even as I force my lungs to work.

I used to be a really crappy runner.

I’d always breathe through my mouth and wonder why I got so winded that my lungs gave up long before my body did. My mom taught me that I have to breathe through my nose, pace it, control it, and once I got that down, the rest comes easy. She learned that because she was a bad runner, too, for all the same reasons.

It’s weird having so much in common with a parent you didn’t know for most of your life.

But I guess blood runs thick and true.

Thinking about blood brings me back to a flash of scarlet, that poor girl—and my thoughts freeze in place. I stare down at the screen with my speed, my distance, my heart rate, and it’s probably no surprise that whenever I think of that poor girl, everything ticks up.

“Lucas?” His name sticks in my mouth.

“Yeah?”

“Will you…” I bite the inside of my cheek. “Will you just keep me updated if you find out who she is? I just feel like I should know her name.”

He lets out a hesitant sigh. “New York—”

“I know, I know.” I close my eyes, cursing myself.

Why am I getting so attached? Why am I prying him, asking for information I can’t have, letting this eat at me like acid?

“If the family doesn’t want her name released, legally you can’t, right? I get that. But if you can. If you can, please. I’ve decided to go back to the house soon. I could use the extra space and I don’t want one rotten memory chasing me off. Also, I’m going to be living with her ghost.” I pause, sighing before I say, “Shouldn’t I at least respect her enough to know who she was?”

I feel him looking at me, cool and assessing, but I keep my eyes on the screen, the numbers.

“Okay, Miss Delilah. I’ll do what I can,” he says finally.

“Oh. Oh, thank you!” I cannot believe I’m smiling as hard as I am at this stubborn caveman with a badge.

Of course, he says nothing.

We just run on for a little while longer, silent, together and apart, each of us moving to the rhythm of our own thoughts.


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