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The Broken Protector: Chapter 4

RED WITH ENVY (LUCAS)

Gotta say, Delilah Clarendon’s one peculiar girl.

Living with ghosts?

Then again, aren’t we all?

I slouch down in the driver’s seat of my patrol car, parked in my usual spot on the corner of the square. I’m keeping an eye on things over the top of my book.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah today.

I’m not picky about genre as long as the writing’s good.

Only, I’m struggling to slip into the fine Alaskan drama and it’s got nothing to do with the writing.

On the surface, today looks like any other.

Lazy afternoon light spilling through town, people strolling around running errands. The town square’s the beating heart of Redhaven.

It’s not unusual to see half the folks who live here passing through—and if a mild-mannered police officer wants to keep an eye on things, it’s the best place to perch.

What I’m watching is The Rookery.

Delilah hasn’t come out today, not while I’ve been on shift.

I don’t know why that bothers me, besides the general concern for how she’s holding up.

She’s not a suspect.

A nagging voice in the back of my head wonders if she should be.

If I let a pretty face and her damsel-in-distress defensive vibe cloud my common sense.

It’d be pretty damn clever.

Skip town, run away from the Big Apple before she gets pegged for murder. Bring the body with her. Strip the ID and dump the girl’s corpse in the house before calling it in and claiming she found Jane Doe there.

And here I fell for it because I just wasn’t seeing her as conniving enough.

Not when all I see is another woman caught in an impossible predicament, proud and stubborn and refusing to see it.

My first thought wasn’t suspicion.

Maybe I can save this one.

That’s what I thought instead.

Fuck.

Delilah’s nothing like Celeste, and she made it crystal clear she doesn’t need any saving. I’d almost think she was too calm at the crime scene.

Except I know she wasn’t, deep down.

All those little telltale markers of fear and sharp words that made me wish I could hold her trembling fingers and banish the stark fear in her eyes.

Besides, I’d like to think I’ve been at this long enough to be a mighty good judge of character.

That girl’s guarded.

Not guilty.

She’s also currently emerging from the sliding double doors of our local hardware store, which explains why I never saw her leave The Rookery. From the fat bags she’s hauling, she’s been up and running errands since before my patrol shift even started.

Damn.

Also, she’s got company.

Double damn.

Ulysses Arrendell hovers like a hawk as he helps grab several bulging bags from her hands with a warm smile. Together, they make their way to the Kia parked across the square at The Rookery.

She’s smiling back, too.

Laughing, shaking her head like he’s the harmless town ham and not a walking scandal waiting to happen.

Is that a hint of jealousy?

Fuck, yes.

I also don’t care that it shouldn’t be searing my blood.

I’m eyeballing the pretty boy weirdo fit to break my face.

Don’t like that.

Don’t like that shit one bit.

It’s not my place, I know. She’s the new girl and she’s gonna meet people, make friends. If it were anyone else except this fresh-faced vampire fuck boy—

Fuck!

The growl I’m holding in scrapes my throat.

So does the urge to dart out of the patrol car and zoom over for a little talk.

No abusing the badge for personal reasons, of course.

But is it really personal?

Or is it my cop instinct screaming danger at the top of its lungs?

Even if I’m the only crazy asshole who thinks so.

If I shared my thoughts about the Arrendells with anyone else, they’d send me straight to a shrink, or maybe put me on leave.

I come two seconds away from giving in.

Two damn seconds from making up a half-cocked reason to walk over there and grunt hello, even if it’s just to tell Delilah what she already knows: I have no new intel on the case, and I probably won’t for a while.

Even if I really want to remind pretty boy I’m there.

Luckily, my phone saves me from making a bad decision, vibrating violently on the dash. A quick glance at the caller ID says it’s the coroner’s office.

Well, shit.

Maybe I’ll have some new info after all.

It probably says a lot that they’re calling me and not Chief Bowden.

I snag my phone and swipe it. “Lieutenant Graves.”

“Lucas?” The friendly voice of Dr. Nicholas Morales comes over the line. We don’t work with him much, small place like this with no active murder cases, but he’s always professional and a little chatty when we cross paths. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything? We’ve got her.” I sit up sharply in my seat as he finishes. “We’ve got a positive ID and we’ve figured out the cause of death.”


Emma Santos.

Hours later, I still can’t get that name out of my head.

Emma Santos of Los Angeles, California. Only twenty-two.

Hell of an age to die.

I’m off street patrol and back at the office, closing out my day by once again stealing my captain’s desk—this time to work on my case reports. Her name is right there on the top of the page, prints of my crime scene photos clipped on top. Got the autopsy report from Morales via email, too, along with a few photos.

Preliminary toxicology results confirmed.

Drug overdose. Cocaine.

Enough blow in her system to drop a bison. It just stopped her heart cold, right there on Delilah’s shiny new floor.

I gnaw the tip of my pen, staring down at the pages.

Damn, this doesn’t feel right.

On the surface, it makes perfect sense. It’s an easy story.

The younger Arrendell brat throws another private charity gala, bringing in outsiders from God only knows where. Then this girl shows up with her junk or gets it from a coked-up stranger, goes a little too hard, gets herself way too high, and stumbles down the hill to Delilah’s house, barges in, collapses and dies when the drugs hit her heart.

I can even picture the path she’d have taken. The mansion looms over where the streets blend into the forest on that side of town, and there are a few spots that make for good hiking trails.

Wouldn’t be hard to navigate even if it was a dark, steep, strange place.

But what the hell was she doing here from LA?

Oh, and she was wearing heels.

If that’s our story, then technically it’d be a suicide by overdose, accidental or not.

The problem is, it’s too easy.

Plus, there’s the fact that Delilah said she saw somebody running away the minute she pulled up to the house. Maybe someone who knew that body was in there and wanted to cover it up.

Hell, maybe somebody who put that body there in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since she told me about glimpsing someone on the property, and that instinct drags me to a theory that just keeps getting stronger.

Technically, Emma Santos’ case should be cut and dry.

Nothing left to do but track down her next of kin, notify them, and officially declare this an accidental death by OD.

Only, the dead girl’s heels are stuck in my brain like pointed daggers.

Stumbling down from that big old house through the woods wouldn’t have been easy in those shoes—not without breaking an ankle first—especially in a drug haze.

Yeah, fuck it.

I’ll leave the case open a little while longer.

Do a little digging of my own.

Keep things quiet for now.

I type a note in the digital case file and leave a matching sticky note on top of the printout in the folder.

Unsolved. Investigating potential theories, suspects. Maintain confidentiality and wait to notify next of kin.

I’ll have to get the captain or Chief Bowden to sign off on that, but I doubt that’ll be a problem.

My hunches rarely miss the mark and they know it.

I should be getting home now, though. Maybe swing by The Rookery to check on Miss New York. Something tells me to keep a closer eye on her.

That clingy ex of hers could be a problem in more ways than one, even if he’s not connected to Emma’s murder.

Plus, I don’t like the fact that Ulysses Arrendell won’t stop orbiting her. I need to question him about Emma, too, even if that’s like talking to the wall.

If she was one of his dates, sugar baby, evening fling, that’s important. Especially if he knows which one of his guests could’ve supplied her with cocaine.

With the way the Arrendell brothers jet around in high society with models and actresses, it’s plausible. Doesn’t make him culpable.

I’m sure he’ll wiggle out of any drug charges by claiming it was all her. That they were just having a nice little how-do-you-do when she broke out the hard drugs.

Still.

It’ll paint a clearer picture of what the hell happened.

Maybe it’ll even help me get over this urge to pick him up and chuck him as far away from Delilah Clarendon as possible.

Something ain’t right about that man.

Hell, the whole family.

Trouble is, big money helps them be discreet and bribe their way into hearts and minds, throwing around fat donations everywhere and aligning themselves with just the right causes so the world lines up to kiss their rich asses.

The most you hear are rumors and gossip and conspiracies that make them out to be the spiritual heirs to the Marquis de Sade. Thrilling dungeons, orgies, mock human sacrifices, that kind of thing.

Nothing realistic enough to put any stock in.

Definitely nothing you can prove.

The tabloids come calling every year and they’ve never turned up anything but breathless whispers.

All word of mouth, threads by people acting like teenagers on Twitter—if they aren’t really teens to start with.

I think the bastards like it.

The imaginary scandals give their reputation a touch of naughty excitement that makes every single girl—and a few not so single ladies—shiver a little when they’re in town. That’s what the brothers are after more than anything. More bad boy cred.

Lord knows the Arrendells never invite any locals to those all-night soirees.

Anyway, whoever they want to fuck in their little leather dungeons is their business.

I don’t care about that.

I care about the people they hurt and sweep under the rug.

I care about the people I’ve lost because of them.

I can’t prove shit. I can’t.

I got nothing. Not even a body.

But I promise you, no matter how crazy it sounds, they fucked me over.

Once upon a time, Montero Arrendell killed my sister.

What kind of sons do you think a man like that raises?

Snarling, I force my mind off this morbid track before it can drag me down memory lane, save the last of my work, and lunge out of the chair.

On my way out, I blow Mallory a kiss that always makes her laugh and say my goodbyes. She waves me off, fixated on her phone with a dreamy look while some Korean guy in a suit gives her the flirtiest grin.

Weird game.

My thoughts are still on Delilah, though.

Wondering if she’ll chase me off like my tail is on fire, those star-filled blue eyes flashing with pure prideful spite and a flash of indigo.

It almost makes me smile.

Damn, I’m screwed up.

And who else should I see when I step out of the station but New York herself, her Kia cruising down the street with boxes piled so high in the back I’m sure she can’t see out the rearview mirror.

It’s worse than before.

Looks like a hell of a lot more than just the flimsy stack of moving boxes she showed up with.

I ought to pull her over and give her a friendly warning about that.

Instead, I slip into my cruiser and pull out after her.

There are only a few cars between us, a couple soccer moms in almost identical RAV4s—one in misty sea green, one in misty sea blue—passing by with their back seats full of kids.

I’m probably being goddamned obvious about following her, but maybe the soccer moms are blocking her view—or maybe she hasn’t caught sight of me past those boxes, despite the tanned, tattooed arm I see leaning out of the open driver’s side window as she angles her head out to squint at the side mirror like that’s going to make up for it.

That how they drive where you’re from, New York? I wonder.

Once we hit the town square, the soccer moms peel off to the left along the roundabout, while I hang a right and stop behind Delilah just as she parks in front of The Rookery. She’s already climbing out by the time I cut the brakes and open the door, pulling the back hatch of her Kia Sportage open.

And unleashing a total avalanche.

Fuck!

Yelping, she covers her head as several big boxes topple over on her. Cursing up a blue streak, I launch myself out of my car and push her aside with my shoulder, slamming my back against the wall of cardboard and catching it with my shoulders.

I get bonked in the back of the head with a sharp corner for my trouble, but luckily whatever’s in it doesn’t hurt.

Much.

Delilah stumbled to one side, her swirl of dark hair lashing around her. Now she straightens up, just blinking at me.

She looks at me first before she looks back at my patrol car, her expression red with one question.

Where the hell did you come from?

“Um,” she fumbles awkwardly. “You okay?”

“Not gonna have ‘falling box’ on my death certificate,” I say. “But if you could straighten this mess right out, please, ma’am. I’m not cut out to be Atlas.”

There’s a suspicious little twitch to her lips. Like she wants to laugh but she won’t give me the satisfaction.

She does hurry to reach around me, rebalancing the boxes, standing up on her toes to shove them back as far as she can until the weight eases off me.

This close, it’s impossible not to notice how tiny she is.

It’s easy to forget. Her bold personality takes up a lot of space, daring you to find her small and frail, but in reality she’s just a kitten—more legs than anything.

Legs and the kind of round, curving hips that could fit just right in a man’s hands.

My hard-on loves the image.

She’s almost pressed against me, wedged in tight.

Fuck, I can feel her warmth.

Under that hard exterior, she radiates a soft heat, making my skin prickle as I watch how the dragon coiling over her shoulder stretches with each motion, the way she sinks her teeth into her lower lip in focus. It highlights that perfect round little bud where the bow of her smile meets in the middle.

And goddamn, does she smell good today.

Something fruity, sweet and light—pear, I think, and a touch of something floral. This heated scent that’s all insufferable woman.

The way it hits me nearly knocks my legs out from under me, my knees going weak just as my gut tightens.

What the fuck?

Now is not the time.

Not when she’s either a potential suspect or a potential stalker victim, or worse.

Dammit, man.

Screw your fucking head back on.

My head’s listening.

My cock sure as hell ain’t.

It’s a small relief when she steps back, giving me an odd look before murmuring, “Should be safe to let go now.”

I ease away, glad when nothing else comes tumbling down. “You trying to get all of this out, or anything specific?”

“Just a few little things. The electric hot pot, the toiletries in this bag here—” She reaches past me and snags a bloated plastic bag sporting the logo for a little locally owned bed and bath boutique that prides itself on handmade soaps and fragrances. Then she snags something else, but I don’t get to see what it is before it hits the ground.

A slender box busts open.

Out rolls a purple fucking vibrator.

I must be grinning like a lunatic.

Delilah stares in horror, her eyes wide and glassy. She’s just waiting for me to skin her alive with all the smart-assed remarks hanging on my tongue.

“Um…” she stammers, frozen in place, straining to clear her throat.

“You dropped this,” I growl, forcing back every last shitty, teasing comment I want to make.

I just sweep down, pick it up along with the box, and pass them back to her.

Don’t know how I ignore the fact that this could’ve been inside her days ago. I don’t have enough wits to look closely and figure out if it’s brand new.

Her brows almost fly right off her face.

I’m not sure who’s more surprised that I’m skipping out on giving her hell about it.

Pity.

Still, my eyes linger on the toy as she brushes her long hair back from her blushing face and shoves it back into the bag. “Um, if you wouldn’t mind getting the hot pot? I don’t want to knock anything else over trying to get at it…”

Just like that, we pretend to have a normal interaction.

I’m not daydreaming about her pressing that little bullet between her legs and coming fireworks.

She’s not flushing a dozen kinds of red, knowing that know what she fucks herself with.

I’m not mentally counting a hundred ways I could make her come so much harder.

I half expect her to rip my head off just for staying quiet—and for being tall enough to reach the top of her stack.

“Since you asked so nicely. Glad you saved the bigger armful for me.” I smirk at her slit-eyed fuck-you look. Then I catch the box with the hot pot and tuck it under my arm. “Anything else, boss lady?”

She snorts. “No. I don’t think so.”

She loops her bag over her arm and stretches up on her toes to grab the Kia’s hatch, giving me a view of her tanned stomach as her shirt lifts. All while the thin tank top pulls just a little too tight against her breasts.

Stop frigging looking.

I damn near have to grab my own head and twist around to jerk my gaze away, looking at the fence for the B&B instead while she slams the hatch shut.

“Lead the way,” I say.

“You don’t have to,” Delilah protests. “The box isn’t that heavy. I can carry it from here. I just couldn’t reach it.”

“Then how’re you going to open the door to your room?” I shrug. “Like you said. It’s not that heavy. I’ve got it.”

“There’s this thing called a floor, Officer. You can set stuff down to free your hands for things like, oh, keys,” she says in her most sarcastic tone.

“You think you’re funny? There’s something called muscle so you don’t have to waste time.”

“Whatever you say, Hercules.” She rolls her eyes and nods, smiling all the while.

I don’t like the little pang that shoots through me. Because her smile came a lot easier when Ulysses Arrendell was helping her out.

Is that why I’m all goddamned prickly with venom?

I’m nursing a crush like a damn boy who got a peek in the girl’s locker room, and now I’m getting all jealous ’cause she likes the dude who smiles at her instead of the jackass who pulls her pigtails?

Grow the hell up, man.

Blame the Emma Santos case for demolishing my head—or that purple little rocket I bet makes her a screamer.

She turns to lead me inside the gate, up the walk, and into the cool shaded interior of the B&B. We trudge upstairs to her room. There’s a second of hesitation before she unlocks the door with another guarded expression.

What does she see when she looks at me?

I’ve never met a girl who’s so hard to read.

So hard to know if she hates me constantly, likes me for a minute every two hours, or just feels completely indifferent.

At least I can tell when I’m irritating the hell out of her.

I can’t help it. I’m not good at small talk.

It’s either straight facts or I find a way to fill the silence with a dumbass joke, but I guess some folks don’t like that small-town sense of humor.

She doesn’t stop me from following her inside.

The room’s a suite, decorated cottage style with ruffles and doilies everywhere in Janelle’s homey style. The door leading into the bedroom is closed but the living and kitchen area look pretty comfortably lived in.

I set the box down on the polished wood dining table. “Looks like you’re half settled in. You staying a bit longer before moving on to the house?”

Delilah vanishes into the bathroom, disappearing with a switch of her hips and a flick of her hair.

Her voice floats back with the rustling bag.

“Just for a day or two, I guess,” she says. “Ulysses offered to get the house cleaned again for me, and he said he’ll help me move in.”

Fuck, fuck, also, fuck.

There’s no stopping the growl that boils up my throat, sharp and sudden and vibrating.

Delilah’s head pokes out from around the doorframe. She blinks at me.

“What was that?

“Nothing,” I mutter, zipping my damn mouth shut.

I do not need to be wondering why that Arrendell boy is pushing so hard to get close to Delilah.

Should be obvious, anyway.

She’s a gorgeous woman. She’s new. That makes her exciting.

Fortunately, I doubt she’s his type.

I’ve seen more than one Hollywood actress disappear inside that big damned mansion, gliding up the winding lane up the hill in their cars with blackout windows. The Arrendells rub elbows with money and fame. Women who wear dresses that cost more than Delilah will make in her life as a teacher, just to slum around for the weekend at some rich asshole’s palace.

A tough little New York brawler girl like Delilah?

Nah.

Not unless Ulysses is in it for the challenge—now there’s an ugly thought.

It just pisses me off more.

Imagining him working her over like a conquest, then tossing her aside like a piece of fucking trash when he ‘wins.’

I shouldn’t be here.

I did my duty, brought her things up, and now I’m just hovering at her kitchen table while she saunters out of the bathroom, this time minus the shopping bag.

She stops with her hands on her hips.

“So. Anything new with the case? There’s a cold beer in it for you.” Her indigo-blue eyes drift over me. “I mean, you look like a beer guy. Stout, am I right?”

I raise a brow.

“You sure you’re not a cop yourself? Good call.” Still, there’s something hiding behind her sardonic tone and her wry look. Something troubled that makes me frown. “You’re invested in this, aren’t you?”

Damn right she is, the cop in me says. She’s probing you to see if you’ve figured her out yet.

I ignore that voice.

This job teaches you to be suspicious, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. You sink into that mentality too hard and soon every interaction, every relationship, becomes us vs. them, with us or against us.

That’s how you wind up hurting people without meaning to if you can’t control it.

That’s who I never want to be.

“Wouldn’t you be, in my situation?” Delilah shrugs stiffly.

“Yeah, but it’s more than that,” I say. “C’mon, New York. Forget the beer. How ’bout I trade you an answer for an answer? You tell me why, and I’ll tell you what I can.”

Why do I feel like I’m looking in a mirror?

Her walls rise instantly, this quiet discomfort like she’s in pain at the thought of being vulnerable.

Shit.

Maybe I hide it better behind a little sarcasm, deflecting the intimate questions. I know what it’s like to fear people getting close enough to actually know you.

So why the hell does that make me want to know her more?

She turns her face away, staring at the sunny window on the far side of the room with its plush blue-upholstered window seat, the same little nook where I’ve seen her curled up before. Doesn’t seem like she’s really seeing it, though.

After a minute she says, “Back in New York, people die every day. Nameless. Unloved.” Her face is expressionless, but her voice is raw emotion. Soft, heavy, lost, and sorrowful. “It’s such a beautiful city, but there’s so much death. So much indifference. I hate it, Lucas. I hate seeing lives thrown away every day, and people shrugging it off because that’s just how it is. If I could change one thing about the world, it’s that. Give everybody someone who loves them enough to come claim their body if the worst ever happens.”

Ah, hell.

No wonder it’s hurting her so much, seeing that girl dumped on the floor with no one coming to say they knew her.

“Did you lose someone like that?” I venture.

“No. Not really.” Her mouth creases in a bitter, self-mocking smile. “I’m sure I sound dramatic, right? But I can’t help thinking that before I found my mother… She was all alone. If I hadn’t gone looking for her, then one day my mom would have died like that. Alone. Anonymous. No one to claim her. And I’d have never known her.”

I don’t understand.

“What do you mean you found her?”

Those are the magic words.

Delilah doesn’t say anything.

If I thought her expression was closed off before, it’s a fortress now, sealed tight behind a cynical quirk of her lips.

She moves quickly to the little fridge in the kitchenette. Her long hair grabs my attention, this feathery mass pouring down her back. I wonder how long she’s been growing it out.

It’s enough to distract me from realizing what she’s doing until she’s pulled out two bottles of our very own local Red House Breweries stout.

I’m almost impressed when she twists the caps off with her bare hands—no bottle opener needed—then thunks one down on the table in front of me before taking a swig from her own.

She exhales as she lowers the bottle.

“Your turn.” She points at one of the empty chairs around the table. “Sit. Drink your beer. Talk to me like a normal human being.”

Damn her.

I think if I smile right now, I might be the next Redhaven homicide case, so I hold it in.

“Yes, ma’am.”

I sit and take a pull off the bottle.

The beer’s good. Thick, dark, and foamy with a hint of cocoa sweetness.

I linger over a few sips, watching her, turning my thoughts over to figure out what I can slip her when I’ve still got so many doubts of my own about this case.

“The county coroner IDed her off dental records,” I say. “It took a while since he had to do a national search. She’s from Los Angeles. Emma Santos is the name. She’s twenty-two and an Instagram model. Toxicology found a big damn mess of cocaine in her system. Enough to kill several people. She died of an overdose. Stopped her heart cold.” I take a long pull off my beer, waiting for her reaction. “Rules out foul play, at least.”

That last fragment of suspicion quiets when she doesn’t betray a hint of relief, or any delayed reactions that say she’s schooling herself so she doesn’t betray any prior knowledge.

Mostly, she looks confused—and worried.

“…I just don’t get it. How did a model from LA end up in the backwoods of North Carolina?”

“That, Miss Delilah,” I say around another swig, “is the million-dollar question. Especially since there’s only one group of people in Redhaven known for rubbing elbows with models and actresses.”

Her brows wrinkle. “Let me guess, the Arrendells? But if she overdosed on her own, they’re not liable for any charges, are they?”

“No. I have to wonder why Ulysses didn’t mention anything, if he knew her. He’s the only one of the brothers who’s been in town recently.”

“Are you going to ask him about it?” Her lips purse.

“Him and his old man, yeah. Montero Arrendell has certain tastes.”

I don’t mention that Delilah is a pretty good match when it comes to the types of women Montero keeps around.

“Hmmm.” Her mouth twists. “So it may not have anything to do with Ulysses at all?”

There it is.

That bristling irritation, that spark of jealousy, that fear that she might be relieved that her pretty boy white knight just might be clean.

I need to get this shit under control, stat.

She’s not fucking mine.

She’s not even someone I know with more than passing interest in a nasty death case, so I’d better get my goddamned focus back now.

She doesn’t need me to rescue her.

Not from Ulysses Arrendell and not from anything else.

I’m as neutral as possible when I say, “Until I dig up more, I’d advise you to be a little wary of any strangers in town.”

Delilah blinks before she offers me her familiar sad smile again, the one that makes my heart ache for her even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. “But everyone’s a stranger to me. I’m new to Redhaven.”

“Then maybe you ought to be wary of everyone, Miss Delilah.”


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