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The Broken Protector: Chapter 5

RUBY RED (DELILAH)

You know what’s annoying?

I should be thinking about my first day of classroom prep the minute I wake up.

But my brain is stuck on Lucas flipping Graves.

I’m still stuck on last night, everything he told me about Emma Santos and being wary of strangers. Plus, everything I told him about me.

After we finished talking, we just sat there together, drinking our beers in this comfortable silence that only weirded me out because it felt too easy.

It should’ve been uncomfortable, and it wasn’t.

It was like that peaceful stillness I only experienced for the first time in my life a few days ago—only this time, I wasn’t alone.

Who knew the most annoying man alive could make me feel safe?

Who knew we could just talk, enjoy a few drinks, and just be?

When he finished his beer, he got up and left. One nod, a wave of one large hand, a lingering glance from feral green eyes that hid whatever he was really thinking.

Then he was gone into the night.

Nope.

Not thinking about this today—or him.

I’ve got the keys to the school and a whole free day, so I’m going to scope out my classroom, tidy up a bit, and do a little shopping before the real work begins.

So I shower off, dress light and casual, and head out, stopping by the mini-mart first for a few cleaning supplies.

Good thing I saved my summer tips from part-time shifts at Mom’s diner. You have no idea how many school supplies wind up coming out of teachers’ pockets.

It’s a short trip to the tree-shaded school. From the scattering of cars in the faculty lot, I guess a few other staff had the same idea.

I tie my hair up in a loose bun and head up the walk to unlock the main entrance.

When I get there, the door won’t budge.

Ugh.

I fit my key into the lock and twist hard, but the latch doesn’t slide a millimeter.

The whole thing feels jammed.

Frowning, I try it again.

Again.

God, what now?

Am I made of bad luck or is Redhaven just the Twilight Zone where nothing is ever predictable?

I wonder if Ulysses gave me the wrong key. Was there some mix-up when they copied it? Am I doing something wrong or—

“Here.”

A familiar voice growls over my shoulder—gruff, deep, drawling with that hint of sweet molasses—just as a looming shadow falls over me.

There’s no helping how my heart thumps as I turn, backing against the door.

It’s just nerves.

Everything in this town makes me jumpier than a grasshopper.

Totally nothing special about the sight of Lucas Graves standing over me, powerful and sleek in his uniform, this giant prowling beast with jade eyes and a rare hint of a lazy smile.

His gaze feels almost friendly and teasing, falling to the keys in my hand.

I just notice I’m clutching them defensively, their sharp edges bristling between my knuckles.

“Mind if I take those?” he asks, holding out his hand. “The door sticks. You gotta work it, jiggle it just right. Let me show you.”

My brain goes to horrible, innuendo-filled places.

I eye him before I reluctantly hand over the keys. “…what are you even doing here?”

What I really mean is, how did he conveniently happen to be right here, right when I needed him when I was trying so hard not to think about him?

“Before you even ask, no, I’m not following you.”

He flashes me a look that makes my face burn. It’s like he can read my mind.

He certainly stole a lifetime of dirty thoughts yesterday during that mortifying minute when my little toy was out in the open.

I’m still amazed I didn’t shrivel up and die.

And I’m more stunned he had the restraint and the courtesy not to go full raging jackass. The man saved his reputation and saved me from a little cell. I would’ve punched this cop without hesitation if he took his chance to humiliate me.

But he didn’t.

And that has me feeling more pleasantly uncertain about Lucas Graves than ever.

With a stifled grumble, I step aside so he can reach the door.

He fits the key to the lock too perfectly—and before he turns it, he grips the knob, lifting it sharply. He pulls it in with a little tug that makes the door rattle in the frame.

I watch the muscles in his forearm flex, straining all the way up to the cuffed sleeve of his sharply tailored navy-blue uniform shirt.

The door swings open a second later like it obeys his touch.

He releases the handle, then drops the keys into my outstretched palm.

“Way to show me up.” I try to sound playful so he doesn’t catch the admiration bristling behind my annoyed tone.

“It’s what I do, Miss New York. Just pull it in, lift, and you’re good to go,” he says. “And to answer your question, Captain Faircross sent me out here to talk to the principal. Somebody’s gotta handle crossing guard duty and school security for the coming year. We try to plan assignments around patrol shifts.”

A little pang strums my heart.

So, he wasn’t here for me.

Why isn’t that a bigger relief?

I curl the keys against my palm and narrow my eyes. “School security even here? I didn’t see any metal detectors.”

Shame.

So much for hoping I’d run far enough away from schools built like prisons. Metal detectors everywhere, wanding students down, mandatory drills preparing students for the worst, and everyone breathlessly praying it never happens.

Lucas gives me a long look as grave as his name. “We’re not quite there yet. If I have my way, we never will be.”

He steps inside then and waves goodbye.

Leaving me looking after him, watching the way his powerful frame moves with a certain swagger—and a certain awareness, too, I think.

Almost like he knows how to handle all two hundred pounds of muscle with poise, harnessing his power like the fine-tuned machine he is.

The hyperprotective edge in his words when he made that last comment about guarding the kids sends a shiver up my spine. I just have one question.

How big is a giant’s heart?


I am dirty, sweaty, and sore as hell.

But I’m also smiling until it hurts.

It’s been a good day.

A little meeting with the principal helps me settle in. It turns out I’d met him at the town assembly without realizing it.

Scott Archer. Late fifties, balding, friendly eyes, and a fatherly smile.

He showered me with kind words and questions as we talked about lesson plans and told me I could come to him with any problems.

He left me feeling better after my first few surreal days in Redhaven. Just a nice slice of the ordinary to remind me why I came here in the first place and that I’m actually happy to be starting my first job as a teacher, mysterious dead girl aside.

So by the time I started cleaning my space, I was basically Snow White. Whistling while I work, giving the whole neglected old classroom a good spit and polish until it shines.

Leaving the windows open brings in a pleasant late summer breeze, already tinged with that hint of autumn crispness.

By afternoon, I have help.

Nora drops in and picks up a bottle of disinfecting wipes without even being asked. Next thing I know, we’re chatting away while we scrub.

I think I’ve made my first true friend in Redhaven.

Lucas doesn’t count.

The man bothers me, presses buttons I don’t want to admit I have, and I still can’t put my finger on why.

I don’t count Ulysses either. He may be friendly enough, but I don’t call someone who signs my paycheck and owns my house a friend.

Nora, though, she’s great company. After our cleaning jam, we stroll down the street to a cute little café with outdoor seating and one of the most amazing mocha latte milkshakes I’ve ever tasted. Something they proudly advertise as made with blonde roast beans from a shop I’ve never heard of called The Nest in Heart’s Edge, Montana.

Nora leans across the table, just as disheveled as I am, her eyes glittering over the rim of her massive mug.

“You didn’t hear it from me,” she says, “but little Carly Hansen’s dad likes to get handsy with anyone in a skirt ever since his divorce. So don’t go wearing anything above knee-length for a parent-teacher conference.”

“Oh.” My eyes widen. “I’m actually surprised the dress code isn’t pure Amish for a town like this.”

“Hey, we’re not that backward. A little rustic, sure, but we keep up with the times.” She laughs. “Besides. Lucia and Montero set the dress code. I think Montero might start whining if the skirts ever got too long.”

I stare at her for a second.

“Everything I hear about them makes them sound like something out of The Great Gatsby.” I shake my head. “Is every small town a scandal magnet? We’ve got old money with good intentions and bad habits, a grabby single dad, and—did you say it was Rachel Black’s mother who’s a kleptomaniac?”

“Rachel White. Rachel Black’s mother is the one who stabbed her hubby in the foot with a fork because he was staring at the neighbor girl in a bathing suit.” Nora giggles. “What’s hilarious is that their marriage has never been stronger since.”

I burst out laughing. “God, that’s funny. Every girl needs a man who’ll wise up after you stab him.”

True story, even if I mostly mean stabbing with my tongue.

I’m not violent. I swear.

“So, you’re saying there’s no one in the picture?” Nora leans across the table with an accusing smile. “No one you even have your eye on, girlie?”

“I’ve only been here for a few days and half of them have been spent worrying about a dead girl.” I offer a dry smile. “Dating isn’t exactly at the top of my list, Nora.”

“Oh, yeah. Of course. After something so crazy, I don’t blame you for not even thinking about the gorgeous men who’ve been hanging all over you since you showed up.” With that, leaving my mouth hanging open, Nora grins wickedly and pops out of her kitschy iron chair and pats my shoulder. “But I need to go let my own gorgeous boys hang all over me, actually. My husband never burps the twins right, so I should be getting home. Let’s do this again soon.”

“Okay.” I swallow a million protests building up in my throat and force a smile. For some reason, I’m not ready to be alone. “Will you be around the school tomorrow?”

“Every day until we start. There’s always so much to do. See you there?”

“Absolutely.”

I prop my chin on my knuckles and watch her walk away. I think I could like her a lot, and she’s definitely helping me feel more at ease.

Like Redhaven could become my new normal.

Like I could shake off all the initial horror and freakiness and eventually call this place home.

Eventually.

That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

I linger at the café a little while longer, watching as the traffic clears out and the sunset fades into twilight.

The streetlamps switch on like fireflies around the town square. They’re electric, but made to resemble old-timey glass-globed gaslights.

I smile.

Out here, I’m surrounded by people, their quiet chatter, and the cool evening breeze. But it’s still so quiet compared to the New York bustle I’m used to.

I think I can even make out a few chirping crickets and a distant owl calling.

I’m so relaxed I almost don’t ping on something that should set every hair on my body on end—a dark shadow moving across the town square, too close to my car.

I almost missed it in the deepening night, but no.

No, there’s someone there. A tall male shape?

I jump to my feet with a snarl.

Stupid Lucas Graves.

As if him showing up at the school to rescue me from a finicky door was just a coincidence.

Like hell.

I grumble and stalk back inside the café just to cool down, before I fly out there and make a liar of myself and end up getting pretty dang violent, after all.

The last thing I need are more strange men shadowing my every move.

Yes, I get that he’s a cop.

Yes, he’s probably got good intentions.

But he also slides under my skin way too effortlessly and he’s squatting in my head, rent free.

I order another frappe shake to go, counting to one hundred under my breath until my blood pressure drops, then thank the barista and turn to leave.

Then someone pulls the door open from outside just as I’m pushing through it, and I’m yanked off my feet.

I smack right into a warm, hard chest.

Or not so warm anymore, considering I lose my grip on my shake and all sixteen ounces of sugary coffee splashes all over the stranger.

Spluttering, I shove back, swiping at my face. “Oh my God, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

My tongue locks up when I see who’s wearing my drink.

Go ahead. Guess.

He stands there with a dead expression, the front of his tight grey t-shirt soaked down to the waist of his jeans, specks of whipped cream in his glossy black hair, more froth dripping off his jaw from the tip of a chiseled nose.

Blinking slowly, he swipes his thumb over a dollop of whipped cream along his cheekbone and then licks it off.

I didn’t know a tongue could be so lazy and so obscene simultaneously.

“Thanks for the free drink, New York,” he says flatly. “Hell of a way to deliver it, though.”

And I crumple halfway to the ground in a laughing fit, clutching my aching sides.

His eyes dip down, waiting patiently until I’m over my little manic fit.

That’s when I realize I’m also soaked—and wearing a thin white babydoll tee.

Oh, boy.

It wasn’t translucent before, but now, I’m scared there’s a shadowy suggestion of my black lace bra underneath visible to everyone.

Especially the lion-man grumpily eyeballing me into the ground.

I glance down in horror.

Yep, he’s getting a freaking peepshow with my cleavage soaked. Even the color of my skin shows through.

“Son of a—”

“Better take that off,” he drawls in that same bored tone that can’t be anything but sarcasm. “Miss Janelle can help you get that stain out before it sets, if you hurry.”

“Oh, sure. Let me just rip my shirt off right here in the middle of the café!” I bite off, glaring at him. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you stalking me now?”

“Could’ve sworn I just came in for an evening coffee, but sure. I’m after you, New York. Left my Michael Myers mask in my car.”

“Why you—”

“Miss Delilah.” Lucas sighs, his expression hardening. “Fine, I’ll fess up. I’ve been watching out for you a little bit when I can. No peeping at you through windows or eyeing you every waking second. I’m just double-checking to make sure you’re safe. Also, we’re blocking the door.”

“Then move,” I snap, trying to shove past him. Good luck. It’s like pushing a brick wall. All I get is a handful of rock-hard abs slicked in wet, sticky cotton. “And stay the hell away from my car.”

Lucas steps aside with an odd look.

“Wasn’t anywhere near your car, lady. You seeing shit?”

I do a double take, refusing to let my nerves set in.

“Look. If you’re going to be honest about stalking me, don’t lie about the rest.” I flash him another middle finger salute, then sail past as quickly as I can, lifting my chin like I don’t care about the few people still in their outdoor seats staring at us.

Like I don’t already feel stripped naked, flushed from my face down.

“Go to hell, Lucas Graves.”

“Already there,” he calls after me.

I ignore him as I fold my arms over my exposed chest and try sprinting across the square without breaking into a full humiliating run. Especially when I feel Lucas’ eyes practically burning between my shoulder blades.

It’s like having your bra strap snapped by someone’s stare.

I so don’t need more drama with him right now.

Tomorrow, I’m moving back into the murder house.

It’s less than ideal and a lot crazy, but I’m determined to make it mine.

I try to focus on that so I don’t dwell on the last cryptic remark he threw at me.

Already there.

What the actual hell does that mean?

At least Lucas won’t have such an easy time keeping tabs on me in public once school starts, whatever his motivations might be.


By nightfall, I come to my senses, watching the lazy fireflies darting around outside. Their little lights always make this place feel cozier at night.

Okay, yes, maybe I was a tad harsh to Officer Horsedick.

He’s not Roger Strunk.

know he’s not Roger.

I also know my gross ex left scars that keep me easily triggered, spitting mad at other people, and I hate it.

Curled up in the window seat of my suite, I hug my steaming mug of chamomile tea to my chest and sip it slowly, watching the quiet outside now that the whole town has gone to bed.

Out there, it’s just the fuzzy glow of lamps.

I’m a little warm in the muggy evening after showering off the sticky coffee from earlier, but Lucas was right.

Miss Janelle—Janelle, dammit, I’m even starting to think like him—leaped into action the second she saw me, attacking my shirt with baking soda and her stain stick before I could say one word.

Now that’s customer service.

I need to talk to Lucas and grind out an apology, though.

I’m still not sure why he sets me off so much and makes me a little volcano of emotion.

Maybe it’s his lazy sarcasm. His slow drawl. His razor-sharp looks, powerful and handsome and too toned to ignore.

There’s also that expression he always wears, somewhere between announcing I have a severe allergy to smiling and cockiest man alive.

Deep down, I feel like he’s secretly laughing at me all the time, when I really want him to just shut up and—

No, not that.

No.

I want him to take me seriously. I know that’s hard when the first time we met I was a shaking wreck, and he’s probably labeled me as some big-city damsel in distress.

Well, if he’s Hercules, I’ll be Meg.

I’m a damsel and I’m in distress, but you’d better believe I can handle this.

God, I loved that movie growing up.

I drove my first set of foster parents nuts spinning around singing off-key songs. They bought the DVD, and they were thrilled to let it go with me when they sent me off to another foster family without a goodbye.

Defective out of the box, return to sender.

I still have that DVD somewhere in the moving boxes.

Maybe once I’m unpacked and moved in, I’ll have a little solo watch party to welcome myself home.

Even if I won’t really be alone, will I?

I’m worried I’ll always feel like Emma’s there in the house, looking over my shoulder, watching everything I do.

I hope ghosts like Disney musicals and my godawful singing. Otherwise, it’s going to be a hell of an afterlife, stuck there with me.

I should get to bed.

Once school starts, it’ll be an early to bed, early to rise situation. I won’t have the luxury of brooding out of my window like a gothic heroine until midnight.

I toss back the rest of my tea, letting it soothe my nerves—right up until they jerk like snapping violin strings.

I gasp.

There’s someone standing under my window.

They’re creepily still, carefully positioned to avoid the light from the streetlamps.

Nothing but a man-shaped shadow, his head tilted back, looking up at my window.

It’s hard to make him out when he’s standing too close to the house, partly obscured by crisscrossing shadows and light that won’t quite reach far enough.

Fucking Lucas Graves.

But it’s not, I realize coldly.

Then I discover a different kind of stillness.

The horrible insta-freeze that glazes your entire body over when your heart just stops.

That shape… it’s wrong for Lucas.

Tall, yes, but thin. Stooped.

The shoulders are narrower than his, the body language all wrong. It’s more like watching a scarecrow or a ruffled raven than a lion-man.

Who?

I don’t think.

I’m just gripped by fury and confusion and desperation.

This sick feeling like Emma won’t wait for me to move back to the house. She wants to drag me outside by the ear right now because that shadow, that wraith, has something to do with her death.

In my bare feet and pajama shorts, I bolt out of the room.

I’m almost airborne, pouncing down the stairs.

I only slow down when I hit the front door, trying not to wake Janelle or any of the other renters left here when most of the tourists have gone home.

My breath turns to lead, crushing my lungs as I pop outside, peering across the lawn.

Of course, there’s no one there.

Did I imagine it? The whole thing?

Inhaling slowly, I walk carefully across the lawn, feeling the cool grass crunching under my feet and poking between my bare toes.

The cozy cricket chirps become a muffled scream of warning all around me.

Just below my window, I stop.

Right where the grass is already crushed in the shape of a large bootprint.

Nope.

Definitely not my imagination.

Neither is the far less subtle sight I don’t expect.

My heart restarts, thrashing against my ribs as what I’m seeing sinks in.

It’s sprayed on the wall right below my room.

A giant red X, and the paint is still wet and dripping.


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