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The Broken Protector: Chapter 7

RED HANDED (DELILAH)

I haven’t seen this much testosterone bristling in one place in ages—and I used to walk past construction sites every day, full of men who didn’t get the message that in the twenty-first century, we don’t catcall girls on the street and make obscene gestures with our—erm, jackhammers.

Not anymore.

When I agreed to let Lucas help, I forgot all about Ulysses wanting to help me move in, too.

I guess it’s his way of apologizing for failing to protect me from my move-in horror.

Honestly, I feel like I’m being smothered in kindness lately. Everyone wants to help me, coddle me, treat me like a delicate little flower who’ll crumple at the slightest breeze.

But I’m not a delicate flower at all.

I’m not wilting.

I also don’t want to turn down any hospitality since I’m grateful for the sentiment behind it. I just don’t like wallowing when I can pick myself up and get things done.

But getting things done would sure go a lot faster if Lucas and Ulysses would stop taking potshots at each other. Especially since right now they’re currently locked in a staring contest for the ages over my flatscreen TV.

It’s the one expensive thing I own, considering it’s almost sixty inches—no size queen jokes, thank you very much.

Instead of cardboard boxes salvaged from the corner bodega in my old neighborhood, the TV is inside a huge reinforced wooden shipping crate with enough room for plenty of padding inside, adding to its weight.

It’s not a one-man job.

They’re trying to make it one anyway.

Ulysses shucked out of his nice, expensive-looking suit coat and rolled up the sleeves of his silk dress shirt. It’s already ruined, I think, little bits of threads torn and tatty from catching on things.

I’d feel worse about it if he wasn’t currently gripping one end of the TV crate and glaring at Lucas down the length of it.

“You can let go now, Officer,” he grits out past a smile that’s all teeth, his eyes jade daggers. “I’ve got this.”

“The hell you do,” Lucas snarls back with the exact same smile.

Oh my God.

He’s holding the other end, standing on the sidewalk outside the fence with his back to the house, his whole wall of a body a roadblock. I think it stops Ulysses from using the TV crate like a bulldozer and just shoving the whole tangled mess of men and crate inside.

Lucas also stripped out of his uniform shirt earlier. Underneath, there’s nothing but a paper-thin white undershirt that’s gone almost completely see-through with sweat, matted to his skin over packed muscle—the kind that can’t possibly be real.

But apparently, here I am, seeing my first real eight-pack out in the wild in the most awkward dick-measuring contest ever.

“You know,” Ulysses grinds out, “just because I’m rich doesn’t mean I’m weak.”

“Did I say that?” Lucas snaps. His chiseled forearms flex as he shifts the crate. “You fishing for compliments, Ollie? I hear narcissists do that. Need me to tell you your arms are pretty jacked?”

“Call me Ollie again and I’ll—oh, never mind.” Ulysses stops just short of threatening a policeman.

Holy hell.

I slip past with two boxes labeled Kitchen stacked in my arms.

They’re not heavy, but they are tall. I can barely see to navigate and these two dolts are in the way.

“If you guys are done flirting,” I snap, “you could both just carry the damn thing inside. It’s too heavy for one person. Even if that person is a huge meathead determined to swing his dick everywhere.”

Ulysses blinks at me before I’m past them, ducking into the house.

“…was that for him or for me?” he calls mournfully.

I almost smile even though they’re irritating the hell out of me.

Really, when he tries to stop sounding so posh and sophisticated, he’s just kind of a hot mess and a little dorky.

Friend,” Lucas says, “I’m pretty sure she meant both of us. You gonna move or what?”

Rolling my eyes, I drop my boxes on the kitchen counter, then lean against the sill of the little dining nook window I’ve left open to let the place air out.

“I mean that if either of you lunks drop my TV, I have zero shame about making you buy me a new one,” I say, watching them through the screen. “It took me a year of tips to buy that thing. So stop being assholes with the one nice thing I own.”

Ulysses cocks his head at Lucas. “Together on three?”

“Yeah,” Lucas agrees. I think he might almost be close to smiling—if only his pride and whatever weird grudge he has with Ulysses would let him.

They finally manhandle the TV through the gate and up the walk.

I race out to catch the gate and hold it open for them.

As they pass by, I hear Ulysses whispering, “She’s rather sweet when she’s threatening us, isn’t she?”

“Whatever,” Lucas mocks. “Guess it brings out the beautiful spark of violence in her eyes.”

Hey!” I point at them as I duck around and head back to the car. “Stick to sniping at each other. Start aiming it at me and I’ll bite you both.”

“Threesomes ain’t my thing, New York,” Lucas says distractedly as he backs his way up the porch steps.

I freeze midstep, already dead.

“I figured as much, but I hoped you’d surprise me, Graves.” Ulysses honestly sounds baffled. “Are you really so dull in the sheets?”

If Lucas’ eyes could shoot death rays, Ulysses’ head would be vaporized.

“Keep in mind that I’m in a position to use this thing to shove you flat on your ass, Ollie,” Lucas snarls.

“Only if you remember I’m in a position to have you fired and run out of town, Graves,” Ulysses answers just as pleasantly, right before they both vanish into the house.

Jeez. Too harsh.

My whole body tenses.

There’s a deadly silence, this brief moment of levity evaporating like a scarce raindrop in the desert.

Then I hear Lucas grind out, “I’m well aware.”

Ulysses doesn’t answer.

He just smiles strangely.

It’s the last I see of them before the shadows of the living room swallow them up and they hang a left out of sight inside the house.

I just keep staring.

I can’t.

I can’t even process a flipping thing that just happened.

Lucas and threesomes and Ulysses’ vicious threats and—

Somebody save me.

Now.

Especially when there was no third wheel in my imagination.

Just a single hard, flexing body drenched with sweat, eclipsing me completely.

Warm spring-green eyes so hot with passion, a rough voice dragging out low, sugar-sweet groans and filthy promises—

Yikes.

I think I’m having a hot flash.

Can you start menopause at twenty-four?

Nope.

Nah.

Nada.

Nyet.

I go through a global litany of ways to say hell no as I throw myself back into work—and into pointedly ignoring whatever’s going on with those two big idiots while they keep sniping at each other.

It’s the most Southern passive-aggressive nice-nasty fight I’ve ever seen.

I don’t even know what they’re fighting about, only that they don’t like each other, and the sizzle in every glance between them makes me think I’m about to witness a new murder.

As I head outside for another box—we’re working practically in a relay at this point, always one at the car, one in the house, one somewhere in between—I stop in the entryway from the dining nook to the living room.

There’s no blood on the floor now.

No chalked outline of a body.

No yellow crime tape.

Nothing to show Emma Santos ever died here, rudely upending my new life.

But I can feel her anyway, like she left an impression where the air feels colder every time I walk by.

Just my imagination, I’m sure. It still makes me hustle along faster.

I step back outside and grab another box. The back of the Kia’s almost empty now, and as much as they’re annoying me, I appreciate the fact that they’ve cut my unpacking time down to a third and saved me a horribly sore back.

It’s not my back I need to worry about, though.

It’s how well these old creaky porch boards hold up after hours of two large men and one small woman tramping up and down them with heavy boxes.

When I’m halfway up the wooden steps, something tilts under my feet—the board wobbling loose—and next thing I know I’m pitched backward.

Everything flips upside down, including my stomach.

I’m vaguely aware of the box flying out of my hands and blurs of motion on both sides of me in colors that resemble Lucas and Ulysses.

The rest of me is focused on gravity.

Because gravity means bonking my head on the paving stone on the walkway right behind me.

Some part of my lizard brain tries to save me. Windmilling arms, stumbling legs, grasping at empty air to regain my balance, but it’s far too late.

I’m falling, falling, and—

Strong arms materialize under me, snatching me away from doom.

They wrap me up, pulling me firmly away from the ground.

Gasping, heart thundering, adrenaline becoming a fever, I stare up into sharp green eyes.

Lucas?

No.

Ulysses.

I’m clutched against his chest as he bends over me, holding on with one arm around my waist and another behind my shoulders, lifting me off the ground. His green eyes are oddly intense, drilling into me in a way I can’t help but notice when shock strips away my defenses.

My stomach flips over with confusion.

Especially when I realize he’s still smiling.

It’s the same charming, easy smile he always has, but I don’t get why he’s smiling like that right now.

With a shaky sound, I press my hands to his chest, pushing lightly and hoping he’ll get the message. “Thanks! Sorry, one of the steps is loose, I guess…”

“No, I owe you an apology, Miss Clarendon. Seems I’ve made another oversight, and now I have a few stern words for the handyman,” he says lightly as he turns me loose.

I shake off the dizziness once I’m on my feet again.

As he lets me go, I realize I’m practically boxed in between him and Lucas.

And Lucas has turned into this ginormous shadow falling over both of us, looking down at me with his eyes stark and darkened with—

What? Worry?

Something else?

“Hey,” he says. “You okay? You didn’t hit anything, did you? Sprain your leg?”

“No. I just scared the crap out of myself for half a second, but I’m fine.” Well, besides feeling like I’m trapped between the two wild men, and part of me wants to hide behind Lucas to escape the strangeness. The rest of me wants to run away from them both. I clear my throat. “Clumsy feet. That’s me.”

Lucas just looks at me for a long second, his brows furrowed.

It feels like he can tell what I’m not saying, just like that evening at The Rookery where we sat with our beers. That heavy silence was welcoming.

Especially when he pulls back, giving me breathing space, and circles around me to crouch down next to the box I dropped.

Thankfully, it landed flat on its bottom. The impact split the corners vertically, busting them out while still leaving the top flap closed, bits and pieces of my belongings popping out through the seams.

“Doesn’t look like anything in here got too banged up,” he says, prying delicately at something protruding from one split. “Damn. Looks like the glass in this frame busted out, though.”

I don’t keep many photo frames, not really.

Just this one.

So I know exactly what he’s talking about before I even see it.

My heart tumbles like it wants to make up for my missed date with the concrete. I pull away from Ulysses and dash to the box, dropping to my knees next to Lucas—and groan when I see what’s cradled in his hands.

A rectangular pewter picture frame in a floral design. It’s handmade, every thread-fine detail created with such loving care that the frame itself is a masterpiece.

But it’s not the most precious thing.

It’s the photo inside, an old Polaroid of my mom when she was about my age, trimmed to fit the oval opening in the picture frame. We look so much alike it could almost be an old photo of me, except I never had kids of my own—and there’s a tiny baby in my mother’s arms, swaddled up and sleeping peacefully with a wild thatch of black hair puffed out everywhere.

Me.

That’s the only photo that exists of my mother with me before I was eighteen.

The glass covering it has shattered out, leaving several shards threatening to scratch the photo’s delicate thin film.

I reach for the frame, then stop.

There’s an irrational fear inside me, a terror that I might damage it more somehow.

Lucas cradles the frame protectively, like he knows how important it is to me.

It must be etched on my face. Brilliant green eyes search mine, slowly dropping to the photo.

“That your mama?” he asks softly.

“I… Yes. And me.” I swallow. Why do I suddenly want to cry? So much has happened in just a few short days, but it’s a broken freaking picture frame that breaks me? “She… she gave it to me. I’ll have to replace it, though. The picture’s the important thing.”

“Nah,” Lucas says. “You can just replace the glass and keep the frame. I might know a thing or two about that.” He offers me an easy smile, warm and reassuring, that makes his eyes crease at the corners. “Let me take care of it, Miss Delilah.”

What. Is. Happening?

There’s a touch of warmth slipping through me and spreading. “Lucas, why would you—”

“Because it needs to be done, New York, and I can. You need a better reason?” Lucas answers without hesitation, but there’s a certain steeliness in his voice that makes it feel like something else.

I start to say something—until Ulysses clears his throat behind us.

Oof.

I jump, instinctively clutching at my arms.

I almost forgot he was there.

“Since that’s taken care of,” he says sharply, “shall we finish this move before the evening sun burns us to a crisp?”

Welp. Captain Poshness is back.

Lucas and I trade amused, almost conspiratorial glances and stand. He’s still holding my photo frame like it means as much to him as it does to me.

“He’s right. C’mon,” I say, tossing my head toward the house. “I’ll find something to wrap that up, and then I’ll get you guys something cold to drink.”

“Delightful,” Ulysses clips.

I shoot him an odd look.

What’s he so annoyed about?

God, I swear, men are just weird sometimes.

Alien creatures from Mars.

But there’s nothing alien about Lucas’ grin as he follows me up the porch, both of us skipping conspicuously over the one loose step that tried to dump me on my butt.

“Got any more of that beer?” he asks hopefully.


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