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The Broken Protector: Chapter 9

RED SKY AT NIGHT (DELILAH)

I think I may have busted a rib.

Because yesterday I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

After Lucas left, I finished unpacking a few more boxes before calling it quits for the day and headed out to run some errands, picking up odds and ends I needed for furniture and wall mountings.

When I heard sirens as soon as I stepped out of the hardware store, for half a second, I was worried. It sounded like multiple cop cars, and I wondered if the noise was announcing another body found.

But I shouldn’t have worried.

Two seconds later, two patrol cars went ripping down the street, packed to the brim with—

Hogs?

Yep.

The ginormous pigs in the back seat raised total hell, squealing louder than the sirens, throwing themselves around like they were trying to have a stampede in the cramped space.

I didn’t recognize the two men in the front seat of the first car, one white-blond-haired and pale, the other a gruff-looking older man with a forbidding—and very irritated—scowl.

But I definitely caught Lucas behind the wheel of the other vehicle.

His car almost tilted while he fought to keep it steady, his strong hands fused to the steering wheel behind his stone-faced expression.

The pig behind him nosing at the back of his head didn’t faze him one bit, rooting around like it was hunting for truffles in his thick black hair.

Another giant hog practically plopped its butt on the head of the other guy in the passenger seat, twisting its curly tail into his long brown hair.

I just stared in stunned silence, watching as Lucas sped through traffic.

A second later, I almost hit the ground.

Laughing so hard I had to set my bag down and touch the sidewalk, clutching my sides, howling so loud I’m sure I risked a few bystanders wondering if the new teacher’s all right upstairs.

No, she’s not.

Not when Lucas flipping Graves is such a magnificent dork.

He’s a dangerously cute one, too.

God, I need to get him out of my head.

Once I got myself together, I headed back home.

At least I didn’t attract much of an audience.

I guess the ‘pink problem’ is so common hardly anyone else in this little town bats an eye at pigs losing their shit in squad cars. I hope they understand why a newcomer might think it’s the funniest thing in ages.

I was still grinning by the time I went to bed.

Sleep came so much easier with that alarm armed and protecting me. That extra little bit of security feels nice.

It almost makes me feel like Lucas is still here, watching over me, even when he’s not.

I wish I was still laughing this morning, but real life isn’t so funny.

Especially not when I’m calculating what’s left in my bank account and how much I’ve spent of the moving stipend the town paid me, and how much more I can stretch from now until I get my first official paycheck.

It’s just enough for one more big shopping trip.

Later that evening, I’ve got an overflowing cartload of school supplies.

Nora shops along next to me as we prowl the aisle of Redhaven’s lonely superstore that looks entirely out of place, faring no better than me.

I’ve loaded up on coloring books and water-soluble markers—no angry parents over ruined clothes here—and crayons and puzzles and activity books. She’s stocking up on raw materials like poster board and glue. She loves to make these big colorful boards to help keep her rambunctious preteens occupied.

“You know what still gets me after all these years?” she says, wrestling her cart for a few seconds just to keep it moving on one loose, squeaky wheel. “Every year the town council holds a big donation drive for school expenses. I know for a fact the Arrendells toss in five figures, plus a few other families around here with money to burn.” She snorts and tosses a pack of multicolored star stickers into her cart, pauses, then narrows her eyes and sweeps the entire rack of stickers into her cart. “So, how is it every year I spend all my money on this stuff? Where does it all go?

“Athletics?” I venture.

I’ve seen a ton of schools spend their budgets on the local football team as a matter of town pride and donors with deep pockets who only care about one thing.

Nora gives me a wry look. “We have one lacrosse team that isn’t even technically part of the school. There are no sports to spend it on in Redhaven. Everything else, the kids get mixed in with other schools from the county.”

“I don’t know then.” That is weird. “The grounds look pretty well maintained, I guess? The buildings, too. Maintenance adds up. Are your textbooks new?”

“Fairly. They’re usually about a year or two out of date, but that’s another thing.” She’s got a sharp tongue, but she loves to talk. She jabs a finger at some invisible person she’s accusing. “There’s a new edition every year now! Textbooks used to be good for about a decade, and now every year we’ve got updates on old things that were wrong, updates on new things… Updates, updates, everywhere, and not a drop to think! How do we even try to keep up?”

“If only we could stop time,” I tease, laughing as I drop a few containers of finger paint into my cart. I might try making slime in class since the younger kids love a little tactile play—but the idea of cleaning up that much slime filled with dirt and crumbs is already making me cringe. “No, seriously. The world just changes at light speed now. Blame the interwebs, I guess.”

That wins me a gently amused look. “You sound older than me, Delilah. Complaining about the internet? Woof.”

Hey.” I bump her with my shoulder. “I’m only twenty-four.”

“But is it like cats?” she asks innocently. “You know, a New York twenty-four is like a Redhaven fifty? So world-wise from the streets, right?”

“Oh, don’t you start too. I’m from New York, not Mars.” I laugh harshly. “Lucas keeps calling me Miss New York.”

“And you’re calling Lieutenant Graves by his first name. Scandalous,” she retorts.

Oh, crap.

I nearly squeak.

I hadn’t meant to let that slip, but then again, I hadn’t realized I’d slipped into calling him Lucas, either, just as easily as he calls me New York and now Miss Lilah.

“I-I mean,” I stammer. “He, um, helped me move. Lucas and Ulysses. Wouldn’t it be rude to keep calling him Lieutenant Graves?”

Nora purses her lips in a soft, appreciative whistle. “Both of them? Hot damn, girl.”

“It’snotlikethat!” I rush out, horrified. My voice carries over the aisles. I cough into my arm and drop my volume. “Oh my God, they just helped me move, Nora. They were only being nice.”

“Sure they were, sweetie.” Her voice is solemn, her mouth set in a grave line while her eyes are laughing up a storm. “Suuure they were.”

Feeling so hot I must be beet red up to my hairline, I shove her lightly again, making her giggle as she sways to the side. It turns into a playful pushing contest as we maneuver our way to the checkout and then pile our things into our cars before tailgating each other out of the giant lot. We head back to the more intimately packed shopping district, where we can park and just walk to the shops for the smaller things we need.

Or in my case, one big enchilada.

Last on my list is a decent bed and a mattress.

One night on an air mattress is more than enough, and a bed was the one thing I couldn’t just buy flat-packed and smushed into the back of my Kia.

There must be like a dozen furniture stores in town—more than any town this size could possibly need—but Nora says they mostly export to other markets, or sometimes build stock for tourist season, when people come in droves just to shop.

She’s very proud when she says North Carolina’s the furniture capital of the world, you know. Apparently, the good craftsfolk of Redhaven are just as much a part of the town’s history as stout beer, minutemen statues, moonshining hillfolk, rampaging pigs, hot cops, and fabulously rich weirdos.

It’s all getting expensive.

I’m starting to think I might end up living the air mattress life for a little bit longer—but when something grabs my attention, it’s not a bed.

It’s a gorgeous desk in shiny cherrywood, the color so deep and rich it’s like a horse’s hide. The craftsmanship is so beautiful it looks like it belongs in an ancient library full of literary wonders.

I stop dead in my tracks, resting my fingertips over the window.

I can see that desk in my classroom.

Me, standing behind it, smiling at my kids. That desk sets the tone of the entire room, turning it warm, welcoming, somewhere everybody loves to be. Such a pretty place to grade papers, too.

“Gorgeous, ain’t it?” Nora says with a touch of pride, stopping next to me. “This is why luxury furniture brands buy from Redhaven. You can’t beat anything from A Touch of Grey.”

I glance up at the store’s name on the little sign above.

“It’s so cool it’s almost ridiculous,” I whisper, beyond awestruck. “No piece of furniture should have its own aura.”

I want it.

And I can’t possibly afford it.

The price tag says the desk is $3,800.

Almost more than I even earn in a month, pre-tax.

It’s not the disappointment that makes my stomach sink, though. I’m used to window-shopping, seeing something I love and knowing I can never have it before moving on with fond regret.

It’s the sudden feeling of eyes on me.

Not the usual quick, curious glances of someone realizing I’m the new girl in town.

This feels too heavy.

Too familiar.

Almost the way I used to feel when I’d stagger home to my apartment dog-tired and just know that Roger was around, watching me, hidden and inescapable.

I don’t want to turn around.

That red X sprayed on the wall bleeds into my mind.

…what if Roger’s waiting there, just waiting for me to look?

What if he’s standing on the sidewalk, staring at me with his saccharine smile, just watching with that eerie obsession I didn’t recognize until it was almost too late?

No.

He wouldn’t dare be so open.

Would he?

I don’t know if I’m scared or pissed, but I swear to God Almighty I’m going to kick him square in the nuts if I catch him creeping on me again. I swallow hard, balling up my nerves like I’m winding them up for a pitch, then make myself turn around sharply, pivoting on my heel like a soldier doing an about-face.

No Roger after all.

But I don’t know who it is.

There are two strangers, actually.

They’re standing on the other side of the road, under a thin maple tree in a sidewalk planter, the leaves starting to yellow. Even though there’s not enough foliage on the spindly branches to cast a real shadow, the pair seem to stand in their own plot of darkness.

Two tall, gaunt men wearing worn, but clean clothing that looks long out of date, thick homespun shirts and jeans with work boots.

The older man wears a wide-brimmed hat, shadowing his face and flinty eyes. There’s not much of him to see past a bearish beard in black and iron-grey that cascades down his chest, obscuring most of his face except for that creepy stare.

And his eyes are locked on me in grim fascination.

The other man is younger, clean-shaven, his black hair short and a bit messy, but he’s got a vacant look to him. Like he’s checked out of his own body and it’s still stuck on autopilot with this empty, eerie smile.

His eyes are so black, just like the older man’s.

I shiver, wrapping my arms around myself like they can hide me from the weight of those combined stares. “Um, Nora? Who the hell are they?”

“Hm?” Nora glances away from the display window. “Oh, them? That’s Ephraim Jacobin and his son, Culver. You don’t see them in town much. Surprised they’re here today.”

“O-oh,” I say. “Are those the hillfolk Lucas told me about?”

“Yep.” She leans in closer to me, dropping her voice. “They’re not as creepy as they look, I promise. Just don’t go traipsing around in the woods at night on their turf. Then they might snap you right up and sacrifice you to the elder owl gods or something.”

I snap my head up, staring at her.

That was a joke, right?

“They might—what?” My chest pulls roughly.

She doubles over, her laughter bouncing off the walls.

“Oh my God, your face, I’m—I’m sorry, D. I wasn’t serious.” Nora smiles apologetically and pushes me gently. “Lighten up, lady. Figured you were too city smart to fall for that. No, they’re harmless. They’re just hillbillies in the proper sense who don’t like townsfolk too much and keep to themselves. The rest is all silly legends and ghost stories. Our own little Roanoke mysteries, I guess.”

“Rude,” I say, wrinkling my nose.

But she’s right.

If I wasn’t already so jittery from everything else, I’d have seen right through that in an instant.

“So, you wanna tell me why they’re staring like they’ve never seen a real live woman before?”

“Because,” a voice interrupts from behind me, “you’re new in town, and it takes a while to warm up to strangers.”

Another weird inkling hits just then, urging me to look back.

This time, when I turn around, I know what I’ll find.

Ulysses Arrendell, looking like he just stepped off the cover of a men’s fashion magazine, fabulously stylish as ever. His burgundy sleeves are rolled up to his elbows and buttoned in place, his hands in the pockets of pants that look like some weird hybrid between jeans and designer dress slacks in dark grey.

Nora immediately brightens.

She’s married with kids, but the second she sees Ulysses, her cheeks flush. “Ulysses, hi! Speaking of devils we don’t usually see in town…”

“Too flattering,” he answers mildly, his emerald eyes glittering with humor. “Come now, I’m just making sure our darling new schoolteacher is settling in well.”

Suddenly his gaze snaps to me and I can’t look away.

Oof.

He’s so intense under that layer of superficial playboy charm, and I wonder why.

“Are you, Miss Clarendon?” he rasps.

“Am I what?” I ask dumbly, which gets me a lazy, warm smile.

“Settling in. Or are we overwhelming you with our small-town affections?”

“Only a little,” I joke, trying not to flush, but I don’t have much control over my capillaries.

I can’t help being embarrassed that things just aren’t clicking for me right now.

There’s too much going on at once and it’s throwing me off-kilter.

“But I’m settling in fine, thank you,” I say.

“Just out shopping then?” He glances at the store window we’ve all stopped in front of. “That’s a lovely piece. Planning to buy it for your classroom or for home?”

“Neither! Unless, um, you’re planning to give me a giant raise before I even start,” I say wryly.

He grins. “I’m afraid that’s not on the books yet, but perhaps we could discuss it over coffee.”

“Oh, I—no, Ulysses, I couldn’t possibly ask that. Plus, I’m out with Nora and—”

“And Nora needs to go home and pull her sons out of the mud pit they started in the backyard this morning,” Nora replies warmly. “So we won’t be out much longer. She’s all yours, Ulysses.”

I flash her a dirty look.

She just grins, knowing I’m outmaneuvered again.

I hold in a groan.

“Fiiine,” I say. “Let me just get my bags in the car.”

“Of course,” Ulysses says, offering his arm. “Here, let me carry that for you. You too, Nora.”

It’s easier to let him than to argue at this point. He’s so persistent, and we both end up transferring half our bags to Ulysses.

Rich boy or not, the man holds his own with heavy things. I noticed it when he helped with the moving. Now he carries them like they don’t weigh a thing.

But as we turn to lead him to where we parked our cars, I can’t help glancing back where the Jacobins were standing.

They’re gone.

The sidewalk totally empty.

Nothing but an eerie memory like they were never there at all.


By the time I’m settled in at the café with Ulysses, I’m wishing I could pull the same kind of disappearing act.

He’s not bad company.

He’s handsome and overly flirty, sure, but he’s not too pushy and doesn’t keep pressing when I deflect. Mostly, he keeps asking me about work.

If the starting stipend was enough for school supplies, if I’ve started meeting any of the parents and kids yet, if I’ve had any trouble with the principal over lesson plans.

He tells me his parents, who he calls the Iron King and Iron Queen, personally review the lesson plans every year to ensure what’s being taught ‘fits the spirit of Redhaven.’ Whatever that means.

All it tells me is they’re control freaks, and I’d better get used to them having their thumbs in all my pies.

“Are they that controlling with you, too?” I ask, taking a sip of my latte frappe. “And your brothers? I heard you had brothers.”

Ulysses lifts both blond brows. He’s never looked away from me once, his piercing green stare unblinking, and now it sharpens with interest. “Have you been asking around about me, Miss Clarendon?”

“Not exactly, but you’re all anyone wants to talk about,” I retort with a smirk. “Seems like your family are pretty much the town celebrities.”

“Only because we cultivate that image very carefully. It’s easy to be famous when you’re the only game in town.” He winks. “To answer your questions, when I was home, they were very particular about bringing me up with Arrendell family values. Being shipped off to boarding school was almost a relief. Now, though, they mostly leave me to my wicked ways as long as I do my administrative duties. I’m not an elected official, of course, but…” He pauses and lets out a long-suffering sigh. “They delegate.”

“Do they?” I can’t help being amused. “I’ve heard some rumors about those wicked ways, and that your parents weren’t always such sticklers. Wild parties with supermodels? Is it true?”

He snorts. “My reputation does precede me.” His eyes darken, though, and his smile is almost sad. “I hope you don’t believe all that bullshit. I’m not so awful. With money comes the obligation to entertain other wealthy people, but I’m not the bodice-ripping playboy everyone imagines.”

He watches me giggle.

If only he knew I’m a fan of those books.

“Most of those so-called ‘parties’ are actually courting other folks for contributions to philanthropic causes. World hunger, poverty, that sort of thing. It’s rather sad, really, that one must bribe so many egos in order for them to give a damn,” he continues.

He has a point.

There’s something pensive in his eyes that seems more human than his flirting that smacks of desperation to be liked. Maybe that’s what’s behind that look.

Ulysses Arrendell has one face he shows the world—playboy son of a powerful family—but underneath it, he just wants to be liked for himself.

“I’m sorry if my teasing was a bit much.” I offer a smile. “It’s probably pretty inappropriate right now, anyway.”

Ulysses sobers. “Because of the dead girl, you mean.”

I wince and look away.

The easy air between us immediately evaporates.

“Yes,” I force out.

“I suppose the usual rumors are flying, aren’t they? Rich single man, beautiful young girl, a reputation for extravagant parties and dirty affairs. Tell me, am I a murderer now, too, Miss Clarendon?”

“No!” I say quickly, shaking my head. “She died of a drug overdose, I think. How could you have murdered her?”

He looks relieved. Almost pleased, really.

“I know I shouldn’t ask where you get your information from,” Ulysses says softly. “But it calms my heart to know you have some faith in my innocence. In me.

Whoa.

I don’t know what to say to that or to the heavy look he beams over.

So I look down, avoiding his searching green gaze, swirling my straw in the last slushy remnants of my drink.

“I should probably get going. I’m still not done unpacking, and I need to get used to waking up early. Especially since there’s a staff meeting tomorrow. I think I get to meet the PTA.”

“Don’t forget to cover that tattoo. The Stepford Army will not approve,” he warns gently. Then he stands, offering me his arm. “Let me walk you to your car. It’s late, and you never know who’s around.”

God help me, I almost say no.

But then I look out at the last orange light fading into evening gloom.

I remember the Jacobins just staring, like they had a terrible reason to.

That hideous red X under the window of The Rookery pokes me in the brain again.

Okay, fine.

Maybe just this once.

Nodding, I drain the last of my drink and stand to throw it away before slipping my hand into his arm. “It’s not far. I appreciate it.”

“Miss Clarendon, I would escort you every night—if you’d allow me.”

My face heats.

really don’t know what to say to that.

Is he asking me on a date?

Was this a freaking date to him?

Sweet Jesus, I’m confused.

That’s definitely not a minefield I want to walk into tonight, and Ulysses shares blood with the people signing my paychecks.

I just force on a polite smile as we step out into the twilight. On the way to my car, we pass that furniture store again.

I can’t help how my steps slow, how I cast one last longing look at that gorgeous desk.

I must be pretty obvious.

Ulysses stops, looking at the display window with its soft lights bringing out the wood’s finish.

“Striking, isn’t it?” he says. “I always admire what you can make when you put in the time and dedication. I suppose that’s how my family has always felt about Redhaven.”

I let go of his arm and push my hands into my pockets, studying the desk—but also our reflections, thin and pale in the window.

Me, short and dark; him, tall and bright.

We’re two different worlds that shouldn’t be seen together.

“Is that how you see yourselves?” I ask. “Like small-town caretakers?”

“We’ve been here longer than everyone, aside from the Jacobins, maybe. I suspect we’ll outlast them by generations,” he whispers. “An Arrendell was the first artisan to cut this fine furniture from the poplar and cherrywood here, long before it started attracting some of the finest craftsmen in the world. We help import a great deal of exotic lumber now. It’s part of what we do to help the town thrive—broker those sorts of deals, handle shipping, manage the tree farms we own around town. I suppose it’s hard not to think of ourselves as caretakers, yes, when the town relies on us for damned near everything.”

I’m supposed to be impressed, I guess.

But actually, it just rings a little hollow and arrogant.

Then again, it can’t be easy when your whole identity is built on a savior complex and nothing else.

I wonder if he senses my discomfort.

Ulysses suddenly glances at me with a self-deprecating smile. “You’ll be wanting to get home soon, won’t you?”

I wince guiltily. “It’s not you, Ulysses. I promise.”

“Did I say it was?” he asks sharply.

“No, but…”

But what? I swallow thickly.

“But you’re painfully aware that you’re trying to escape me,” he finishes. This time, his smile is bitter, but it seems more directed at himself than me. “Lucky you, Miss Clarendon, living all the way out there by yourself, where no one ever bothers you.”

…okay.

So I think I’ve upset him.

That’s the only explanation for this odd mood change.

I’m not even sure how to apologize.

So I let the silence linger as we make our way back to my car. Even though he’s quiet and seems locked up in his own head, he’s still almost courtly as he opens my car door for me and bows his head, watching me from under his brows with mournful eyes.

“Good night, Miss Clarendon,” he mutters. “See you again soon.”

He really is a little boy, I think.

All that money and he’s never learned how to handle rejection well.

It confuses him, hurts him, and I think he’s stuck on that. But at least he’s not being totally ugly about it.

On the scale of don’t care to raging mantrum, this is pretty light.

I smile. Just because I’m not that interested in hooking up doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly, and I want him to know it.

“I promise,” I say. “If anything comes up with the school, I’ll call you first thing.”

“You better,” he says darkly.

Before I can react to that, another voice speaks up.

“If Ulysses cannot handle it,” the new voice says, rich with its strange old-world accent, “you can always call on me.”

If I thought of Ulysses as immature before, it’s nothing compared to the guilty flinch that makes his eyes widen as his father’s voice rolls over us.

Montero Arrendell.

We both turn simultaneously.

Montero stands just a few feet behind us, a dramatic figure under a streetlamp that makes him look like he just stepped out of an old noir film. He’s all stern shadows and reflections with his ivory skin, black hair, and neatly pressed black suit.

The only hints of color are the tints of amber from the light and those jade eyes so much like his son’s. They watch me with the same intensity that makes me feel like he can see right through me.

“Mr. Arrendell,” I greet him uncertainly.

A smile instantly softens the saber-sharp lines of his features. His eyes gentle as he tucks his hands into the pockets of his slacks.

“Miss Clarendon,” he says. “I hope I didn’t startle you. I saw you two walking, and I couldn’t help but stop and say hello.”

“Father,” Ulysses retorts. I have to try not to smile. He really looks like an awkward boy playing at being a grown-up in front of his dad. “What are you doing in town today?”

“Budget meetings with the police chief,” Montero answers. “It ran a touch long. I was just on my way up to the house for dinner, if you’d like to ride back with me. You know how much your mother fusses when you don’t get a proper meal.” Montero arches his brows, shifting his attention back to me. “Would you care to join us, Miss Clarendon? I feel so dreadful, thinking of you dining all alone in that little house.”

“Oh—no, I’ll be fine.” I shake my head quickly.

Holy hell, what is happening?

I’m so not cut out for eating with small-town royalty.

“I’m so tired I’d probably embarrass myself by passing out on my plate in front of you. But thanks for the offer!”

What else can I say?

“Another time then,” Montero says. “You are always welcome in our home.”

I’m spinning.

This weird request, however kind, just doesn’t compute in my brain.

I’m the newly hired schoolteacher. These people don’t even have young kids.

Why is he talking to me like I’m some long-lost family friend, or even his next pet project?

That’s probably all it is, though.

Rich people posturing or looking to feel good about themselves by slumming it with the poor city girl, treating her like Cinderella.

Ulysses saves me from saying anything by gesturing to my open car door. “She was just on her way home, Father.”

More weirdness.

I’d almost feel like he’s dismissing me—trying to get rid of me—if he wasn’t giving me an easy out from this awkward situation. But there’s something about how he looks at his father that makes me feel more, too.

Almost like Ulysses is guarding me.

Didn’t Nora say Montero Arrendell had a roaming eye?

I wonder if Ulysses is worried about me becoming another one of his father’s conquests.

If he’s anything like the little boys I’ve seen who know their fathers are womanizing cheaters, then he’s also trying to protect his mother’s feelings, too.

My heart aches.

Seriously, I’m not someone Lucia Arrendell ever needs to worry about.

It’s time for me to make myself scarce before the tension chokes me, anyway.

“I really do need to go,” I say hastily and smile, sliding behind the wheel of my car. “But it was nice seeing you guys. Have a good night.”

I close my car door just as Ulysses steps out of the way, backing onto the sidewalk.

There it is again—that heavy feeling of eyes everywhere, of someone watching me.

Only this time, it’s not just Ulysses and Montero standing on the curb.

It’s different. Warmer.

Just a hot prickle of awareness.

It doesn’t fully hit me until I look through my windshield at another vehicle.

Lucas’ patrol car, parked across the street.

My heart leaps up my throat.

He’s behind the wheel, his head bowed.

He’s not looking right at me, though. I just glimpse a paperback in his hands, peeking up over the steering wheel… but I get the feeling he was watching a minute ago.

There’s always a certain quiet tension to him, the way his brows draw together, overshadowing his stark, handsome face.

I can’t see his eyes in the darkness.

But I wonder how I’d feel looking into his green eyes again, without the strangeness of Ulysses and Montero. They stare at me like I’m something they want to buy in a shop window.

That’s what makes me so uncomfortable, I realize.

Ulysses looks at me the same way I was admiring that desk in the shop.

His father, the same.

In their world, everything has its price.

But Lucas, he looks at me like he sees me—and I hope he likes what he sees.

There’s a wild magnetism in my blood, this urge to climb out of my car and walk over to his. This urge to tap on his window and see how his eyes ignite when he drawls, Well, well, Miss New York.

Shame I still feel the Arrendells eyeballing me, even if Lucas isn’t.

Something tells me it would be a bad, bad idea.

So, no, I don’t give in.

I don’t have the stomach for more trouble or awkwardness tonight.

I just start the engine and pull away.

When my eyes flick to the rearview mirror a second later, I gasp.

Just like the Jacobins, the Arrendells are gone.

Is everyone a human jump scare around here?


I’m not scared.

I’m not.

I’ve been fine on my own in this house so far. Sure, the silence makes me listen harder sometimes, waiting for the snap of a footstep on a twig or the sudden creak of a porch board.

But I have the fireflies for company, this constant lovely swarm of living string lights right outside my window.

The alarm system Lucas installed definitely helps, too.

As long as it’s not going off, I know I’m really alone—or at least Roger or anyone else won’t dare get too close.

But there’s something different in the air tonight.

I curl up on my air mattress for another lonely night in the house. I’m scrolling this local secondhand store’s website, smiling at a nice-looking bed that’s in my budget. If I order tonight, I could have it by tomorrow afternoon and spare myself a week-long backache.

There’s wind out there, whistling through the trees.

It tells me where the chinks in the weathered wood are, little gusts slipping in around the windows and the eaves to tickle the fine hairs along the backs of my arms.

Why does it feel like ghostly fingers walking over my skin?

I swear, it’s even messing with my internet connection.

I’m still using my phone’s mobile hotspot for my laptop. I guess the cell tower it’s using isn’t doing so well in speeding gusts that bend the trees like sad mourners.

But it holds on long enough for me to place my furniture order, plus a few other odds and ends.

I should shut it down and sleep, but I’m too restless.

I need a distraction, something to get my mind off Redhaven’s unease and weirdness.

I can’t help glancing out the window, trying to fight down that feeling of being watched—it has to be my imagination this time—and I sneak a hand into the little organizer basket next to my air mattress that’s filling in for a nightstand.

Underneath my Kindle is a long, slender unmarked box.

These things always are.

And if it wasn’t for butterfingers the other day, Lucas Graves never would’ve seen the secret it holds.

I thumb the box open and slip the little purple vibrator bullet into my palm. A plastic-wrapped duo of AAA batteries comes tumbling out after.

Convenient.

I’m already blushing as I pop the batteries in.

It’s the mundaneness of bringing this thing to life that makes it a little embarrassing, but it’s also memories of growing up.

I never had much privacy.

My foster parents always suspected me of horrible things and would come whipping into my bedroom in the middle of the night to catch me in the middle of—I never knew what they expected me to be doing.

Drugs? Prostitution? Summoning demons?

Who knows.

But it only took one instance of Foster Mom #4 catching me with my fingers inside my panties to make sure I never did that again.

Not until my college dorm and long nights when my roommates were out.

Nights when I started feeling like it was okay to explore, the desperation of hormones on fire when I was too nervous with boys.

Even back then I was secretive.

But I need this now.

I need this after a freaky, long-ass day and what’s shaping up to be a long night haunted by a green-eyed beast stuffed in a police uniform who knows my dirty little secret.

So I slide on my back, tracing the cool kiss of the bullet down across my stomach, teasing it against my pussy.

I close my eyes and touch.

Touch.

I think about him without actively trying.

My body jolts like lightning and I hiss through my teeth, lifting my hips off the bed.

Oh—oh, it’s strong, and I’m already so hot.

Teasing myself with sizzling circles around my clit, pleasure darting up my spine until my nipples peak.

With a whimper caught in my teeth, I arch my back, rubbing my nipple with my free hand.

God, there’s a good rhythm, working up an itch between my legs I desperately need scratched.

I like to draw it out, though.

It’s so nice to sink into a fantasy that comes this easy—a hard body over me, rough hands parting my legs, commanding my flesh.

His lips and tongue roaming, turning fevered breaths into whimpers until I’m trembling all over.

I don’t feel the metal anymore.

I just feel how wet I am, how I’m trying to hold back the name on my lips, digging my teeth into my bottom lip until I taste metal.

“Lucas! God,” I whisper, holding the bullet over my clit.

I squeeze my eyes shut, gasping as I rock my hips again and again, wondering how sweet it would be to meet his rock-hard body, to feel him thrusting, to have his teeth sink into my skin.

Yes, fuck.

Mark me.

My pussy spills all over my hands, the rhythm building to an angry tempo.

I can’t help myself.

I want this and I want so much more.

And I finally give in, focusing on my clit, shocking myself so fiercely my entire body arches off the bed in a sharp, gasping jerk.

I see my whole ideal sex life flash before my eyes.

Green eyes.

Corded muscle.

Skilled, rough hands.

Muscular hips that strike hard, strike deep, and always without mercy.

Dark stubble raking my throat, whispers in my ears, louder and growling with every thrust.

“You think you can hide shit from me, New York? Come for me. Come your little pink pussy sore on my cock, Lilah.”

I’m so gone.

I come so hard my vision turns red with the violent blur of pleasure slicing through me.

There’s nothing here but him.

Nothing but Lucas and his heated expression, his flashing eyes fixed on me, sweat dripping off his hard-toned jaw.

He’s all rippling muscle as his cock claims me in rough, deep, intimate thrusts.

The vision shocks me almost as hard as my orgasm.

My body wrings itself dry and then drops me back on the mattress in a gasping mess.

Suddenly, the vibrator feels like too much.

I toss it aside before rolling my face into the pillow with a moan.

…what the sexy repressed hell was that?

Okay.

So, he’s hot.

But I’m not—I don’t really—

Stop worrying about it, I warn.

It’s not that important.

Just a dirty little fantasy about a big man who’s been around me a lot lately. It’s easy for your lusty subconscious to fill in the blanks.

That’s it.

That’s all it is.

I don’t really want to jump Lucas Graves’ bones, I lie to myself.

I open one eye, peeking out with a groan.

“Emma?” I mumble into the pillow. “You there? Got any idea why my brain did that?”

There’s no answer, of course.

Ghosts don’t run advice columns and I guess they don’t like watching me treating my body like an amusement park.

So I push it out of mind and curl up as the wind growls through the trees like a rabid animal.

Dang.

So much for relaxing.

Now I’m just a hot mess of endorphins and confusion.

Sighing, I stare up at the ceiling, my mind running circles, trying not to think of Lucas.

Yeah, good luck with that.

I’d have an easier time not thinking of a pink elephant when someone challenges me.

Eventually, with the wind still roaring, my brain pings on Emma again.

What were her last hours like?

Did she even realize she was dying before she was gone?

I keep going back to Ulysses, too.

That mood change, the weird look on his face when he thought people actually suspected him of murder.

He looked so hurt, almost like he’s faced this kind of thing before.

I don’t actually know that much about his evil reputation, do I?

But it can’t be that atrocious.

Nora laughs and teases about him being a philanthropist player. Kind of clashes with Lucas’ dire warnings that the whole family is rotten to the core. But if they’re so wealthy, they’re easy tabloid fodder.

Oh, to hell with it.

I grab my phone and pull up Google.

Searching “Ulysses Arrendell” immediately gets hits.

A few puff pieces in national travel magazines about the illustrious history of the town come up first. They rave about how the Arrendells are such grand hosts of their own tiny kingdom.

There are also several AP News hits with a dizzying list of charities and causes and contributions.

The Arrendells are seemingly responsible for curing diseases, bringing several small countries back from the brink of poverty, and revitalizing a slice of the US economy from Davenport to El Paso to Key West.

There are only a few bits here and there in the gossip rags, feasting on the juicy news of whatever hot celebrity just dumped one of the brothers, with no real reason ever given.

One starlet says Ulysses was always too busy for a real relationship. He cared about his nonprofits and NGOs more than he cared about her.

It’s a little crazy, realizing just how far their reach extends outside this little town.

I get a glimpse of the other brothers, too. They’re older than Ulysses.

All of them have the same translucent green eyes and expertly styled hair.

Weirdly, there’s not much about the eldest son, Vaughn—just a few hints at scandal and him separating from his family. He’s a dignified-looking Silicon Valley billionaire, large and imposing, not built like his trim, elegant brothers.

The next, Xavier, apparently works in overseas agriculture focused on making palm and coconut cultivation more sustainable. At a glance, he’s dashing with hollow cheekbones and haunted eyes.

Then Aleksander. I’m not surprised he works in fashion, as lithe and pretty as he is. A little more surprised he’s got a rotten reputation for hooking up with everything in a skirt, usually supermodels and—

Wait.

Didn’t Lucas say Emma Santos was an Instagram model?

But that wouldn’t line up, would it?

Unless Aleksander Arrendell snuck into Redhaven with her, then skipped town the night before I arrived, leaving her body behind. I wonder if there’s any way I can ask Ulysses without being obvious.

But do I really think his brother committed a murder? I’ve never even met the man.

That’s a hell of a leap and probably wildly wrong.

Still, I can’t get over it.

I can’t let it go when I’m haunted.

Every part of me wants answers when the drug overdose story feels too neat, too easily wrapped up. I’m obsessing over what really goes on in that big old house on the hill behind its perfect façade of fairy-tale royalty.

Especially when I remember what Lucas said about Montero Arrendell.

The patriarch and his tastes.

I shudder.

Do those tastes include murdering dark-haired young women in cold blood?

I know what it’s like, Lucas said. Feeling a bond with family you haven’t seen in years.

What did he really mean?

Sad, restless thoughts drag me deeper.

I guess it comes with the territory when you bring yourself off to a strange, handsome man who’s on your mind constantly.

Okay, Lucas.

Who haven’t you seen in years?

And is that why you hate the Arrendells so much?

Google can’t give me any answers to that.

But I wonder if this idyllic little town is just like everything else that’s too good to be true.

How big and nasty and deep is Redhaven’s dark side?


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