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The Broken Protector: Chapter 8

RED SKY AT MORNING (LUCAS)

I don’t think Miss Delilah’s a morning person.

When I show up at her house bright and early the next day, holding my tools, she’s still in her pajamas when she answers the door.

If you can call that outfit pajamas.

Gym shorts saved from being panties by half an inch of flimsy fabric skimming her upper thighs, the curve of her hips threatening to break through, too many glimpses of the lower creases of her ass.

Plus, an oversized tank top that’s only saved from completely falling off her by those generous hips, offering glimpses of smooth curves, dusky skin, a black sports bra.

Her hair’s a damn mess, too, falling all over her in this black fountain.

My cock instantly hijacks the rest of me.

Of course, she’s unfazed with all the skin she’s flashing as she blinks at me sleepily, yawning and dragging her hair back from her face.

“Lucas? What time is it?”

“Seven a.m. Rise and shine.”

I pry my gaze away from her shoulder.

Something about the way that tempting hint of black bra strap against her skin fucks with me hardcore.

I get like that with pretty women, I guess.

Just like any other guy, I home in like a hungry dog on long legs, curves, lush breasts, kissable lips. She’s sure as hell got every last one of those assets in spades.

I also wind up noticing the little things.

The curve of her shoulder.

The teasing dip of her collarbone and the way her lips flutter when she wets them.

The tender hollow on the underside of her wrist, so sensitive to ruthless kisses.

Fuck me blind.

It’s those little things that make me trip on a woman damn hard.

Blame it on being a cop. Being trained to notice all the finer points, even when I try not to.

Even when I’ve got zero business getting stuck on Delilah Clarendon and falling down a bottomless abyss of pure lust.

“Want me to come back later?” I force my gaze over her shoulder.

“It’s fine. I should’ve set my alarm anyway. Normally, I wake up with the sunrise, but usually I’m not this worn out.” In my peripheral vision, she lets out another lengthy yawn.

The way she stretches up on her toes with her arms over her head cuts me in two.

Little Miss Everything leaving Little Miss Nothing to a man’s imagination.

Then she turns away, the lash of her hair beckoning me.

“I’ll put on some coffee. How do you like it?”

Darlin’, you’re fucking it.

“Black,” I grunt out, following her inside and hooking the door with my ankle to pull it shut behind me.

We left the living room a war zone of piled boxes and overflowing laundry baskets yesterday—but to say it’s a disaster now is an understatement.

God. Damn.

Just boxes splayed open for days like they exploded, their contents bursting out all over the place.

Clothes. Appliances. Books.

I think there’s a laptop buried in there somewhere, but it’s hard to tell surrounded by a nest of USB cables and other cords.

Old DVDs. Guess she’s not much for streaming.

A PS5 game system.

I stop, blinking at that one.

“You play?” I ask.

She’s disappeared into the kitchen and now she leans back out, following my line of sight and laughing.

“The kids in my last teaching residency got me pretty hooked.” Her voice goes a little distant as she ducks into the kitchen again. “You can put your stuff down, by the way. What is all that?”

“Toolbox.” I set the big busted-up fishing tackle box I use for my tools down at my feet. I keep the smaller box from the hardware store tucked under my arm, shifting it to my hands. “Figured I’d take care of that ratty step while I’m here, and then put in an alarm for you.”

Her head pops around the kitchen doorframe again like a little meerkat—in and out, only this time she’s holding a can of coffee grounds in one hand. The lid is already popped off and the aroma wafts toward me.

“You don’t have to do all that.”

I answer with a shrug, making myself look away again.

Because goddamn, the way her neck curves into her shoulder is murder.

“Felt like I had to do something to make it up to you after bickering so much with Ollie. Needs to be done anyway, right?”

“I, yes, but…” She trails off.

Pink stains her skin, darkening her cheeks. She gives me a look that’s almost consternation, and I try like hell not to smile.

There’s her little thing with accepting help again.

“Thanks,” she manages.

Then she vanishes right back into the kitchen again.

“To answer your other question,” I call after her, smiling under my breath, “I’ve got no idea what a teaching residency is. Always thought residencies were for doctors.”

“They are,” she calls back, mixed with the sounds of running water and something clattering around. “But that’s what they call it for teachers now, too. You’re basically an assistant shadowing real teachers to find your footing, then you graduate to teaching unsupervised.”

“So how’d that land you a fancy gaming system?”

“One of the kids in my last residency—her Dad worked for Sony. It’s all she ever talked about and her parents generously donated a system to the school. When his daughter found out I wasn’t planning to stay in New York forever, she cried and said maybe I’d stay if he gave me a PS5.” Her laughter spills out of the kitchen, fond with memories. Not her usual cynical bursts of quiet laughter. “He gave it to me and said, ‘I know a bribe won’t work and you’ll go where you want to anyway. But it makes her happy to give you something, so please take it. For her.’ So I did. Mostly because I knew it would make Roger mad. He accused me of sleeping with the guy. I threw one of the controllers at his head.” She snickers. “I’ve barely played it for more than a few hours, honestly. I like games, but I just haven’t had the time.”

“Maybe you’ll find some now, New York. Smaller classes, less work outside school hours.”

I scan the room, and this time the detail that jumps out isn’t connected to Delilah’s little firecracker body.

It’s the area just inside the entryway, on a direct path to the hall leading into the back.

One spot in the living room without a single thing piled on it or spilling over it.

Could just be she left that spot clear so she could make her way through the house while unpacking.

I wish it was just that.

It hits like a sledgehammer when it sinks in.

That’s the spot where we found Emma Santos.

“Hey, Delilah?” I swallow, shifting my mind to another topic.

“Yeah?”

“If they wanted you to stay in New York, why did you come out here?”

She’s quiet for a minute. There’s nothing but a gently growling coffeepot percolating and that ever-stronger coffee smell.

Then she leans around the doorframe, folding her arms over her chest, graceful as she props her shoulder against the wood.

She nibbles at her lower lip, wearing a thoughtful frown.

“I won’t lie,” she says softly. “Some of it was money. Full room and board covered, plus a good salary? That’s hard to pass up. I’ve never had that much security in my life. But the rest of it, well…” Her eyes darken. She looks past me toward the front windows, her gaze pensive. “I guess I was afraid of being used up before I had a chance to find myself and settle into what I really love about teaching. The schools in New York—they’re brutal. Just one impossible situation after the next. All those poor kids and teachers trying so hard to make something out of what they’re given, but you can’t really make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear when the whole system’s designed to fail.” There’s guilt in her eyes as they finally shift to me, stars swimming in midnight-blue, making constellations of emotion. “Call it cowardly, maybe. But I’ve seen too many fresh-faced, hopeful teachers wind up broken and disconnected. Then they’re just tossed aside once they’re drained.”

“Damn,” I whisper.

“Yeah. I didn’t want that to be me. I wanted to go somewhere where I could actually do something for the kids. Maybe one day when I’m more experienced—when I’m stronger—I’ll go back. Then I’ll know how to make things better. Or if I don’t, at least I can use what I’ve learned to fight for something better for kids everywhere.”

So, this is what’s under all those cactus thorns.

A soulful young woman who cares so damn much she’ll prick and bleed on someone else’s pain.

All because she worries about what she can’t do.

All because she doesn’t realize her own strength.

“Wouldn’t call that cowardly at all,” I say gruffly. “I think that’s a smart move, mapping out a way you can do the best for the folks you care about.”

“Sure. For people who don’t even know who I am…”

“That’s what makes it smart, Miss Delilah. You care enough to plan your future around kids you won’t meet for years.”

Her startled eyes fix on me. That blush returns, and I think I’m starting to enjoy finding different reasons to coax it out of her.

She glances at the slim cardboard box in my hands, changing the subject. I expected as much.

“Hey, is that…?”

“Come see for yourself.” With a smile, I hold it out to her.

She moves so delicately, shifting her weight as she goes. It gives her steps a dancer’s grace as she walks around that empty spot on the floor.

My brows pull down.

Even as she reaches for the box, I ask, “You doing that on purpose?”

“Doing what?” She freezes, looking at me oddly, and our fingertips almost touch against the cardboard.

I nod at the open space. “Only empty spot in the room, Delilah, and you’re avoiding it like a lava pit.”

There’s a shiver of her lashes. Sadness flashes across her face.

Still holding on to the box, she looks at the floor.

“Oh, I… I hadn’t even realized I was—I mean, sometimes it’s like I can feel her there. I know it sounds crazy. But I hadn’t noticed I was doing it.” Her breath hitches. “Have you found out anything new? About Emma, I mean.”

“Sorry. Nothing yet.”

Her face falls.

Damn, I don’t want to push her anymore.

There’s something fragile in her face today.

Something that could break just as easily as the glass in her pretty picture frame.

I just nudge the box into her hands gently and bend to pick up my toolbox with a half smile.

“I’ll go get started on firming up those steps,” I tell her. “Let me know if the replacement glass isn’t good enough, and I’ll have another go at it.”

She blinks up at me, then glances inside the box, smoothing her thumbs over its surface.

“Thank you,” she whispers. “I’ll bring your coffee out when it’s done.”

“Perfect.”

She’s still standing there, looking so damn lost while I duck out into the morning sunlight.

Her closest neighbors, the Greelys, are out in the driveway of their two-story brick house, herding their kids into their minivan. All four munchkins hop around in swimming trunks and goggles, holding their paddleboards and inner tubes.

When they catch sight of me, they belt out greetings.

I wave back, then crouch down to have a good look at the steps.

They’re a mess, all right.

Think I’m gonna have to replace the whole damn thing. Plenty of wet winters and baking North Carolina summers have taken their toll. Looks like a minor miracle the steps haven’t crumbled away completely.

Good thing I brought a stack of planks and a miter saw. I had a feeling this was gonna be a serious job.

By the time I finish unloading fresh pine planks from my trunk and get my saw hooked up, Delilah emerges from the house. She’s traded her short-shorts for another pair of cutoffs that barely hide an inch more of flesh.

Fuck.

I think there’s a strategic hint of black lace peeking through.

You know the worst part?

She damned well isn’t doing it to get my attention.

It might be easier for me to ignore it if she was.

Nah, she’s just being her little manic pixie self, insanely comfortable in her own skin, casual and easy and free.

I’m the uptight asshole whose balls are turning into the world’s biggest pair of flash frozen blueberries.

Why can’t I just stop noticing?

While I settle down with my measuring tape, willing my eyes not to roam, she drops down on the edge of the porch close by, swinging her legs over it.

She’s brought a matching pair of Nightmare mugs with her. One Jack Skellington, the other Sally.

She nudges the Jack mug toward me. Steam rises with the scent of good strong coffee, and my stomach growls for caffeine.

She blows on hers, pink lips pursing as she takes a sip. “Here you go. Least I can do since you fixed my frame.”

I shouldn’t feel so pleased at one little compliment.

“No trouble,” I grind out with a nod, slurping my coffee.

“Pretty sure it was, Lucas. Don’t be modest. You must be busy with everything happening,” she says. “I took a good look. You had to custom cut the glass to fit the setting, didn’t you?”

“I mean, if you want a step-by-step breakdown, yeah. Old Max gave me a few pointers. He runs the antique mall in town.” I glower at her, suddenly feeling too damn hot under my collar.

“Yeah. Okay.” Her smile is so shy, peeking out playfully over the rim of her mug. “I can still tell you put a lot of time into it, crankyface. Instead of just grabbing a cheap glass sheet and slapping it on there and calling it a day, you went the full mile. I appreciate it.”

Hiding a grin, I mark off a few more measurements, then stand back to take stock and make sure I’ve got enough wood to pull this off.

“Happy to help. Miss Lilah, you might want to scoot over a little. I’m gonna have to knock this whole staircase out and put in a new one, and I don’t want to get any splinters on those pretty legs of yours.”

Her eyes widen.

I don’t think it’s because I called her legs pretty.

She stares at me, vulnerability softening her face before she inches over a foot to the side, scooting herself with one hand while the other clutches her mug.

I snap my toolbox open and snag my hammer, but I’m still watching her.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“No, it’s not that.” She shakes her head quickly. “It’s just… no one calls me Lilah but my mom. It startled me, that’s all.”

“If it bothers you, I’ll knock it off.”

“…I hate to say it, but Miss New York was kinda growing on me.” Her lips quirk up, but there’s something haunting her eyes. She looks down into her mug. “It’s not a bad thing, really.”

I don’t know what the hell to say to that.

So for once, I don’t say anything at all.

Fine by me.

Don’t mind being quiet here in the sun, stealing sips of strong black coffee with Lilah for company while I figure out the best place to knock the old boards loose.

I’m just not expecting her to break the silence with her voice soft and thoughtful.

“You were right, Lucas,” she says. “The woman in the picture, that’s my mother. The first time I ever saw her was in that picture when I was eighteen. That’s when the state finally unsealed my foster records so I could find out who my birth mom was.” She takes a shaky breath. “Her name is Mitsi. The state, they took me away from her when I was just a baby. So young I have no memories of her at all. They said she was unfit, living in poverty, and she didn’t even know who my father was. She begged to keep me. They said no. I’m surprised they let her put that photo in my file. It’s like it was just waiting for me until I was old enough.”

I look up and stare like a damn fool.

This time, my silence isn’t because I’m lost for words.

It’s out of respect for the precious thing she’s giving me right now.

This story.

This memory.

This need to know more.

To know more about what makes the wild, beautiful heart of Delilah Clarendon tick and razz up my whole world.

Her fingers tighten around her mug. She stares into it like she can see her future in that bitter brew.

“Those state people, maybe they were just doing their jobs, I get it. But they treated my mom like a throwaway. Someone they could just cut out of my life. And for the longest time, I wondered if my father did that, too. If he just used her and threw her away. If that’s what people do, because I felt like a throwaway kid.” She stops and sighs.

I nod slowly, urging her on.

“When I was younger, I was lonely. Mad at the world. I didn’t know anything about my mother’s side of things. And then the families I was stuck with… God.” She shakes her head. “I burned right through them. They tossed me away because I was too angry. Too restless. Too extra. I wasn’t the perfect little angel right out of the box, so I wasn’t worth the time to let me get used to them. They just sent me packing, right back to the foster center more times than I can count.”

Knife, meet heart.

Fuck this.

I drop my crowbar.

The goddamned stairs can wait.

I set the hammer back in my toolbox, stand, and sit next to her on the edge of the porch. Our arms almost touch.

I can’t erase old pains, no. Can’t make that shit go away when it’s already made her hurt.

But I can be here in the present and make sure she’s not alone.

Not while she’s opening her heart like a bleeding wound.

She lifts her head, looking up at me so sweetly.

There’s a tremor in her lips, a thickness in her voice.

“Maybe that’s why Emma gets to me so much, you know?” It’s like she’s pleading with me to understand. “Because somebody just up and threw her away, whether they know it or not. Whoever gave her the drugs that night. Whoever got her hooked on them in the first place. I dunno. So I want to hold on to her memory so she’s not just totally discarded. Just like I wanted to find my mother so bad so she wouldn’t be lost forever…”

She trails off, and that’s the moment I realize two things.

One, Delilah Clarendon doesn’t believe Emma’s death was an accident any more than I do.

Two, there’s no way in hell this woman could have done it.

Not when I can practically smell the salty tears she’s fighting back.

I won’t believe it.

I won’t believe this is just a spectacular lie.

Maybe I still believe a little too much that people, deep down, are fundamentally good—most of them, anyway.

That no one with even the slightest heart could fake this much emotion. It’s coming so heavy now it pulls me closer, almost magnetic, until I can feel her warmth as her arm brushes mine.

Every hair on my body bristles.

“How?” I ask. “How’d you find her? Your ma, I mean?”

“Oh, it was all right there.” She swallows a heavy breath. “In my file. Her name, last known address, phone number. All those years wondering who she was and where she went, and it was just sitting there, being kept from me because of some stupid fucking rules.” She closes her eyes, pressing her mouth to the mug, just breathing the steam. When she speaks again, she’s more composed. “She wasn’t at that address anymore, of course, but her old neighbors knew her. They talked about her like they loved her when I came knocking. Their info helped me track her down.” Her smile trembles so sweetly. “And she took one look at me and burst into tears. Hugged me harder than I’ve ever been hugged in my life. That was when I found out the truth. She never wanted to give me up… and she’d been working herself crazy all those years, hoping I’d find her so she could be there for me when I was ready.”

“Sounds like a great lady,” I say gently.

“The most amazing ever,” Delilah says fiercely. “She got back on her feet and opened her own diner after they took me away. Mom went from having nothing to owning her own restaurant, and she’d been saving every penny for years. All for me, Lucas. For me. She… she gave me my first job at that diner. The extra shifts helped me pay my way through school. All for a daughter she hadn’t seen for eighteen years. She’s the real reason I took this job, I think. All these big companies are coming into her neighborhood, buying things out, ‘upscaling,’ and I can’t stand for her to lose the diner. So I’m going to help her like she helped me and send every bit of money home I can manage. I’ll make sure she has a choice—the most comfortable retirement ever, or at least a lot of helpers to lighten the load if she never wants to give up the diner.”

Fucking hell.

I don’t think I have any hope left of not noticing Miss Delilah Clarendon every waking minute.

She’s so goddamned beautiful in this moment.

Full of so much heart that she’s nearly breaking mine, her eyes shining and fierce with love for her mother. The devotion spills through her delicate face.

I feel like I’ve taken a brick to the head and I’m seeing stars.

How the fuck does it happen?

How is it that a man only needs five damn minutes to go from she’s pretty cute and feisty to falling head over heels?

And I just landed on my face like that old porch step caught me and pitched me down on my ass.

Look the fuck away, man.

Right now.

I have to.

Or else she might look up at me and see something too naked in my eyes. Something I’m not even sure is real or just me getting caught up in her emotional storm, in this presence that can put a man under its spell so easily.

Her head starts turning toward me.

Heart thumping, I glance away, trying to be casual about it and failing miserably.

I stare up at the sky, all bright late summer blue, watching the distinctive shape of a grasshopper hawk circling the sun without really seeing it at all.

“Sounds to me,” I say, “like you let your heart decide. That can’t be a bad decision at all.”

“I hope not,” she breathes. “I really do.”

We’re quiet for a spell then.

I’m okay with that.

Gives me a minute to collect myself, and I feel like she could use it, too.

When my voice finds its way up my throat again without the slightest bit of permission, I don’t know what’s coming over me.

“I get what it’s like,” I say quietly. “Feeling a bond with family you haven’t seen in years. You feel connected to them, even when they’re long gone.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I grind out.

I can feel her waiting for me in the silence, but I can’t do it.

I can’t talk about this, even if it feels a little unfair when she just gave me so much of her, piling her feelings in my hands like glittering jewels.

“I wonder if there’s someone out there feeling Emma that way,” she whispers after a heavy moment. “Missing her, needing to know where she is.”

“If there is,” I promise, “I’ll make sure they get the closure they deserve.”

I hate like hell that I can’t keep that promise yet.

Because I feel like Emma Santos’ death has more dirt behind it.

I don’t want to call the people who love her until I can tell them the whole truth about what happened to her.

They deserve that, too.

Just as much as Delilah deserved to be loved by a family who understood her, even if it took her the first eighteen years of her life to find it.

We settle back into a cozy silence, drinking our coffee in the hot morning sun.

When our mugs are empty, I go back to work on the porch.

We’re still quiet, and it’s good.

It’s easy.

Hell, I like it.

I like how comfortable it feels while I do the teardown, while Delilah slips back into the house to wash the mugs. She comes back later with a cold glass of lemonade for me, and it’s always refilled just when the sawdust coating the back of my mouth gets to be too much.

She leaves the front door open while she works at unpacking, asking if I need anything every now and then.

I’m definitely not expecting her to feed me later, after I’m done with the steps. They’re a little out of place with the fresh yellow pine against the grey-weathered planks of the porch, but it’s sturdy enough.

I’m halfway through wiring in the new alarm system. It’s this state-of-the-art thing from Home Shepherd, this big security company out west.

But I won’t turn down a thick, hearty sandwich, either. She laughs and swipes a little dot of mayonnaise off my nose.

Damn, I could stay like this.

It’s warm and easy in a way I’ve never had before.

I never thought I’d feel this prickly around a woman I usually piss off purely by breathing.

Still don’t know what made her decide to let me in today. But it feels like I’ve been given something precious and completely unique.

That something can’t last forever, though.

And just as I’m testing the sensor wired to her bedroom window, I catch the telltale sound of my radio crackling from the dash of my patrol car.

It’s parked all the way past her fence on the opposite side of the yard, but I’m hard-wired to hear that sound from a hundred feet away. I give the window one last check to make sure it won’t stick before I jog out to my car, lifting my sweat-drenched t-shirt to swipe at my dripping face before ducking inside.

The leather seats almost burn me alive after baking in the sun all day.

Every time.

Every damn time, I forget the seats turn into griddles in the summer.

Swearing, I grab the CB radio handset and roll back out of the car, stretching the cord behind me. “Graves in, what’s going on?”

“Oh, there you are,” Mallory says. “We’ve got a pink problem again, Lucas.”

“Pink problem?” I groan, dropping my face into my hand. “Aw, hell. Can’t Henri take it today? Or Micah?”

“They’re already on the scene with Captain Faircross. It’s not a three-man job,” she replies tartly.

In the background, I hear the little ping that means Mallory just unlocked something new in her flirty game. “Do be a dear and go help them, would you?”

Snarling, I pull my phone back and check the little app that lets us track each other on GPS. Sure enough, my crew is all piled up in one location.

Damnation.

Sighing, I bring the phone to my mouth again.

“I’ll be there in twenty. Ten-four, Graves out.”

I don’t want to deal with this.

As I drop the radio back into the car, Delilah slips out of the house. Even though she’s been in the shade most of the day, she’s just as much a sweaty mess as I am, her hair clinging to her face, her shirt so soaked I can make out the stitching on that black sports bra right down to the finest detail.

Goddamn, I’m a dead man walking, and I don’t mean the humidity.

Propping herself against a porch post, she flaps the front of her shirt, fanning her belly. “Everything okay?”

“Yep, just the damn Jacobins’ pigs again. Orneriest little monsters on the planet. Those things got out on old Maurice Norton’s property again, and now Maurice is threatening to shoot them and the Jacobins too for his trouble.” I snort. “Shit happens so often we call it the pink problem.”

She laughs. “Sounds like they need better fences. Who are the Jacobins again?”

“Remember me telling you about the hillfolk?”

“I remember you being a huge sarcastic prick about the hillfolk.” Delilah grins.

“Just my default setting, darlin’.” Still, a smile escapes as I trudge back up the walk to pack up my toolbox and start picking up the debris I’ve left behind. “That’s the Jacobins. They don’t live in town proper. They’ve got this big sprawling farm that’s practically a small village on its own, way up in the hills past the woods. They’ve been there before there was a Redhaven, but they don’t truck around much with townsfolk and never have. Think they’re happier out there with their pigs and their moonshine and their endless bullshit.”

A glitter of interest darkens her eyes as she cocks her head. “Moonshine? Seriously? You’d think the police might want to do something about that.”

“Lotta woods out here, New York.” I laugh. “Not that hard to lose a person—or a whole distillery. Usually, we don’t bother the Jacobins and the Jacobins don’t bother us. It works. But right now, I gotta go wrangle their frigging hogs before they plow my guys into the ground.”

“Well then.” There’s something so tempting about the teasing curve of her lips as she stretches up on her toes and drops down again, swaying as she laces her hands behind her back. “Thanks again for today. I mean it. Now go have fun with your pigs. I bet they’re shaking in terror.”

I’d rather stay here.

That feeling punches me hard in the gut, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it.

“See? Miss Janelle told you I’m not the big bad wolf.” I raise a hand, waving as I head back to my car with my toolbox under my arm and a cardboard box I’d stolen dangling from my fingers, filled with wood scraps. “You call me if you need anything else, Miss Lilah. Anything at all.”


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