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The Broken Protector: Chapter 6

RED HERRINGS (LUCAS)

There’s proud. Independent. Guarded.

Then there’s damn fool stubborn as a mule in a carrot field.

I know too well Delilah’s the first three, and now she’s leaving less doubt about the fourth one, too.

I’m outside The Rookery, keeping my feet planted just outside the evidence markers in the grass surrounding the footprints we could make out.

They trace a path around the back of the building toward the lake.

It’s not the footprints I’m glaring at, though.

It’s that ugly honking X painted on the wall, glaring blood-red in the morning sun.

“So you say the paint was wet when you saw it last night? Fresh?” I ask, trying my damnedest to keep my voice neutral as I snap another photo and tuck my phone away. “And less than sixty seconds after you saw a stranger under your window?”

A few feet away on the walk, Delilah leans against a standing roller suitcase, tapping her keys restlessly against one tanned, lush thigh in a pair of ragged denim cutoff shorts.

She’s avoiding the grass religiously, like she doesn’t want to tamper with evidence. I’m grateful for that.

Little less grateful for a few other things, and it’s taking every ounce of restraint I have to keep my temper in check.

Especially when Delilah just shrugs and gives me a one-word answer.

“Yes.”

This is going mighty fucking well.

“And you didn’t think to call me last night?” I demand. “Call anyone? What if the asshole who did this hurt you?”

I can’t keep the worry in my chest from clawing its way out.

“Well, I guess then I wouldn’t be here to call you at all,” she shoots back, her indigo-blue eyes snapping and her mouth set in that obstinate line that tells me I’m in for a fight.

“Goddammit, Delilah,” I huff out. “I don’t get what the hell you were thinking. Leaving it like this, not only did you scare Miss Janelle half to death when she woke up and found it, but—”

“Boys, I’m fine!” Janelle calls from where she’s hovering behind Delilah. “Just a bit startled is all.”

I sigh. “Now the scene’s gone cold. There’s probably accidental evidence tampering from groundskeepers, wild animals… hell, maybe the guy who did this shit himself. I don’t know which of these footprints are from him, or which ones are from Waylon when he showed up to mow the lawn this morning. Why didn’t you call me?”

She actually looks sheepish for a second, hunched into her bare shoulders. The slitted eyes of her dragon tattoo seem to glare at me.

She mumbles something I can’t hear.

“Sorry, didn’t catch that,” I clip, leaning in. “And woman, you make one wisecrack about small towns closing up shop at nine p.m. and I will take you over my goddamned knee.”

That gets her attention.

She shoots me a hot-eyed glare.

“Try it and you’ll limp away with a nub for fun,” she hisses. “I’m not discussing my kinks with you, Officer Horse Cock.”

My brows go up.

If it were any other situation, I’d thank her for guessing half right about my size.

But Miss Janelle’s here and her face is burning hot. She clutches her hands as she sputters “E-excuse me!”

“Sorry!” We both belt it out at the same time.

I look down.

Delilah clears her throat, still scowling at me. “I just didn’t want to bother anyone, okay? No point in starting a mad panic.”

“New York, we’re the cops. It’s our job to get bothered by things like this. Fuck’s sake, I spend most days sitting on my ass and doing ride-alongs for teenagers. You could at least give me something important.”

“Oh, my bad. Didn’t realize I was cutting into your productivity metrics—or your ego.” Grumbling, Delilah wraps her arms around herself in that guarded way she has, jerking her face to the side in a flare of wispy hair.

She’s looking at that big red X instead of me now.

There’s a nervous fury vibrating off her. I wonder how much is just masking her fear.

“Look,” she says more slowly. “I get it. I know it was a dumb move and I was being ridiculous. I wasn’t thinking. But if this is my problem, why can’t it stay that way, Lucas? It shouldn’t be anyone else’s.”

I eye her. “How is it your problem, specifically?”

She stays silent, her teeth clamped together so hard I hear them click.

Fuck it, I can’t help myself.

Crossing the lawn, I give the evidence markers a wide berth and catch her chin lightly.

Her skin feels so soft it’s almost startling, like velvet under my fingertips.

Nothing like her hardened exterior.

I coax her to look at me, nudging her chin up.

Her breath catches and her eyes flick over my face.

For a heady moment, her scowl fades behind pure surprise. Her pink lips part in ways that make me forget all about the damn crime scene.

“Hey,” I whisper, fighting the urge to run my thumb over her lower lip. I’ve already lost control once with my outburst and I’ve got to rein myself in. “Talk to me, Delilah. What’s going on? Because right now, we’ve just got possible trespassing, a little petty vandalism. Likely just some kids fucking with the new teacher in town. Or you think it’s something more?”

She swallows, darts her tongue over her lips, leaves them gleaming—but she doesn’t pull away from me this time.

“I mean, you sure seem to,” she almost whispers, her voice low and throaty. “You’re acting like we just found another body here.”

Dammit.

I hate to say she’s right.

I blew my stack like someone attacked her, tried to kill her, and my own words come flying back in my face.

Petty vandalism. A little trespassing. A prank.

No, it’s not life or death, yet here I am yelling at her like a drunken chimp.

Like I care about her safety a hell of a lot more than I would for any other citizen.

Clearing my throat, I make myself let go, and glance at the vivid red X—all the while pretending Miss Janelle isn’t watching us both after that little dustup.

“Dunno about you,” I say softly. “But that looks pretty damn threatening to me.”

“That’s the thing.” She looks at me for a few trembling seconds before she retreats—both emotionally and physically. Her face closes off as she steps back, putting distance between us. “It’s a threat to me. Which means one thing.”

“Your ex, Roger,” I finish. “You think he did it.”

“Who else?”

Sadly, I could name about six people in town off the top of my head, starting with a few punk teens known for getting in trouble with graffiti. Last fall, they even climbed all the way up to the top spire of that ugly mansion looming over the town like a dragon, jealously guarding its secrets.

The Arrendells had a complete shit fit and stopped short of pressing charges when they found out one of them was the judge’s kid.

But I don’t say that.

No point in spooking her till I’ve got something concrete.

“Can you tell me more about the person you saw?”

“No. Not really.” She shakes her head. “He knew just where to stand so he was in the shadows, barely any hint of light. I know he was tall. Thin. Really wide shoulders. He was walking kind of hunched over like he was trying to make himself smaller. Like he wanted to change his body language, his stride, so he wouldn’t be recognized. Kind of looked like a scarecrow, almost.”

“And Roger?”

“…yeah. He’s a runner. Tall guy.” Delilah bites her bottom lip. “Not that thin, but yeah, he’s got a lean build. So in the dark, if he was hunched over… Maybe. Maybe it could’ve been him.”

“Okay. I’m going to give you my personal number, not just the police line.”

“What?” Delilah’s brows pull together. “Why?”

“Because I want you to text me every single photo you have saved in your camera roll with Roger Strunk.” I smile faintly. “Unless you wiped them all out.”

“I specifically didn’t because I was trying to get the cops to take him seriously back in New York, and they wouldn’t,” she answers. There’s a flicker of a smile there again. “I won’t promise I didn’t print several out and burn them in effigy, though.”

“Ouch. Hope you don’t believe in voodoo, New York.”

“Only a little. I already go full Carrie on the guys who really upset me.” She puffs her chest out.

I chuckle.

Goddamn, she’s a little fucking cactus with curves and I’m too easily amused.

“Here. Let me see your phone.” I hold out my hand.

She shoves her hand into the pocket of that denim mess masquerading as shorts, rummaging around. The waistline slips down, baring a strip of velvety skin below the crinkled hem of her ruffled tank top.

Then it disappears again as she lifts her phone out, unlocks the screen, and passes it over to me without protest.

I punch my number into her address book, save it, and pass it back.

“For now, let’s assume your ex is in town,” I say. “And he’s possibly a person of interest with Emma Santos, though toxicology makes that a long shot.” There’s a theory building in my head, and I don’t like it one bit. “So I’m going to ask you again—please be careful. Don’t go anywhere alone after dark. Try to keep some company around during the day, too. Stay alert, and if you ever feel like you’re being watched or followed, trust your instincts. Get to safety as soon as possible and this time, you call me, Delilah. Understood?”

She locks eyes with me and nods like I’ve finally broken through to her.

“We tend to pick up on things subconsciously without realizing it all the time. Even if you think it’s silly, you hit me up.”

“Okay, okay.” Her lips quirk up. “Or what? Daddy’s going to yell at me again?”

I stare at her.

Every single word in my brain twists into a garbled mess because between talking about taking her over my knee before and now her calling me Daddy, I’m pretty sure any hint of a rational thought just rolled out of my goddamned ears and hit the ground.

Miss Janelle laughs, resting a thin hand on Delilah’s arm.

I remember when her hands used to be smooth. Now they’re starting to wrinkle, stretching thinner between the tendons with every passing year.

“Don’t mind Lucas,” Janelle says. “He’s always been like this, ever since he was a kidlet. He’s like a cherry bomb. Big old bang, then he fizzles out.”

“Hey now.” My face goes hot. I scrub a hand over the back of my neck, grunting and looking away. “Ma’am, I’m on duty. Kindly don’t file my edge off.”

“And you’re still Lucas Graves, fancy uniform or not. Same boy I’ve known since you were knee-high to a sunflower,” she answers with tart amusement. “I love you, boy, but I won’t have this girl thinking you’re some sort of big bad wolf with a badge.”

“Oh, trust me,” Delilah trills, her eyes glittering with delight, “I don’t see any wolf. I’m not afraid of him.”

“Don’t you start, too, dammit.” I grumble. “Look, I don’t care if it’s two in the morning and I’m flat on my back from a plate of bad nachos. Call me. I’ll come.”

For a moment, Delilah falters.

She glances at me with those long, fringed lashes around her wide eyes. I wonder how young she really is when that cynical façade makes her seem wise beyond her years.

Even if she’s only twenty-something, she’s still a girl—too young for my thirty-six-year-old ass, that’s for sure. She’s also flushed, startled, and so wickedly pretty I want to hoist her up like a fresh plucked wildflower and inhale her.

Better, devour her.

My eyes are still glued to her as she looks away.

“I’ll remember that,” she says softly. “Does my house include ‘lonely places?’”

Shit.

That’s a good question.

“It’s awful isolated,” I say slowly. “Not sure I like you being halfway in the woods, though you’re still in sight of your neighbors. Make sure you lock up tight at night. Maybe put in an alarm system. It wouldn’t hurt to get a friend to come stay with you, if Miss Nora or someone else doesn’t mind.” That’s when the meaning of the suitcase propped against her hits me. “Hold up. You’re planning on moving in today?”

She pats the suitcase with one hand.

“All packed and ready to go.” With a rueful glance at that hateful X on the wall, she adds, “Sorry I’m leaving a mess in my wake. Janelle, I can give you something to have that painted over if you—”

“Absolutely not, hon,” Miss Janelle says sharply. “It’s covered in the town repair budget. This is a historical building.”

“Oh, nice!” She beams back an uneasy smile.

It’s not hard to tell Delilah doesn’t know what to do with kindness. Seems like it flusters her far more than rudeness or aggression or the shit I keep giving her. Why?

She fumbles out a “Thank you.”

I’m about to fluster her some more, though.

“How about I head out to the house with you and take a good look around? I can help you carry some of the heavier stuff inside while I’m there.” I flex my bicep for good measure until she laughs.

Then for some odd reason, she won’t look at me, her cheeks still pink and her lower lip caught between her teeth.

“If I say no, you’ll just follow me out there for my own protection, won’t you?” she throws back.

“Maybe, maybe not. Hard to be sneaky if I admit it out loud.”

“Hard to be sneaky if you walk into another latte shake, too.”

Damn her, I laugh, shaking my head and reaching for her suitcase. “C’mon. Let me get that for you.”

I’m actually surprised she listens.

We say goodbye to Janelle, and Delilah doesn’t escape without a mama bear hug that winds her. I don’t get away without getting my ear tweaked as Janelle demands a stern promise to protect “our girl.”

Gotta say something for Redhaven hospitality.

Once we decide you’re one of our pack, you’re family.

As I haul Delilah’s suitcase into her packed Kia and find a spot to wedge it in, she frowns at me.

“Lucas?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you really think Roger has anything to do with Emma’s death?” she asks. “Or do you think it’s something else?”

Something else, I think instantly, but I keep my mouth shut.

Things carry a little too far in this town.

They also carry too fast when you get loose with your lips, and I’d rather keep certain craziness to myself.

“I think,” I say, “we had two bad coincidences at once. I’d bet poor Emma overdosed at one of the Arrendells’ big parties and they’re trying to avoid having it linked to them, even if they wouldn’t be criminally liable. I think you showed up just in time to stumble into bad fucking coincidence number one, and bad coincidence number two happened to follow you here.”

“Sometimes the simplest explanation really works, huh?” She says it like she wants to believe it, but there’s obvious doubt in her question.

“Pretty much.” I slam the hatchback of the Kia down, putting my shoulder into it until it latches, before I blow out a breath and step back, dusting my hands off. “Let’s go get you moved in.”

I wait till she’s settled in the driver’s seat of her car before I climb in my own. It’s ridiculous, almost like I’m afraid someone’s going to snatch her out from under my nose in the two seconds it takes me to get behind the wheel.

“Relax, you moose,” I growl to myself.

It’s not a long drive from The Rookery to Delilah’s little cottage, but then nothing’s a long drive in Redhaven. Before long, we’re turning down that winding lane that ends at her house and the cozy embrace of trees.

I’m worried about her being ready for this. Getting over a frigging corpse on the floor sucks more out of you mentally than you’d ever imagine.

Not for long, though.

Soon, I’m far more worried about the man standing on the porch in his glossy steel-grey Armani suit. His wine-red Benz is parked right outside Delilah’s gate.

He’s leaning against one of the porch posts like he’s posing for a magazine shoot, so casual I could punch him right in his ugly little face.

Ulysses.

Fucking.

Arrendell.

What the hell’s he doing here?

And how do I get him real damned gone, real damned fast?


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