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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 10

ONE STOLEN KISS (OPHELIA)

I don’t know if I can handle a fight right now.

Which is why I’m standing outside of Nobody’s Bees-Ness with my hands stuffed in my pockets, huffing cold air and very seriously pondering turning around and just walking off until I find somewhere to buy a decent coat.

A little comfort shopping.

A little escape.

A little doing anything I can not to create a rift in a family that’s lost so much. I’m so afraid we’re going to face that kind of loss again far too soon.

God.

The thought of fighting with Ros while our mom is dying absolutely guts me. I never once thought we’d be facing this apart.

But I don’t think confronting my sister over avoiding me is going to go very well, either.

Who knows, maybe I’m being pessimistic.

There’s still a chance it’ll be fine.

And if it isn’t?

Well, then I’ll just save that comfort shopping trip for later and take out my feelings with a little impulse spending.

Okay.

I suck in a deep breath for courage and push the door to the shop open.

The familiar jingle of the bell rips me back in time.

Ever since I was a little girl, this shop was a magical place.

The shelves are dark mahogany wood and mirror glass, with more mirrors paneled along the walls. Everywhere you turn, it’s glinting reflections and the soft amber light from paper lanterns dangling throughout the store.

True to the name, this place is like stepping into a beehive.

It even smells like warm honey in here, eternally shrouded in the thick scent of fresh beeswax.

Faint ambient music pipes through the store, floating over shelves lined with my mother’s handmade honey and beeswax products.

The little signs are still lovingly written in her handwriting like she only put them up yesterday.

It’s all here: lip gloss, soaps, shampoos, lotions, ointments, candles, little honey candies, fresh dripping honeycombs, bottled honey, and royal jelly supplements. Several more shelves hold tiers of gift baskets bulging with sweet delights.

There’s a beekeeper on the edge of town who sells his products almost exclusively to this shop, giving Mom the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Whether it’s cooking up new scented blends of beeswax fragrance melt cubes or creating milk and honey blends for soothing lip scrubs, she’s always got something new in the works.

The close, dimly lit space always seems like it demands whispers.

Almost like it’s some kind of secret library of warm, cozy things meant to be taken in with reverence for all the delicate objects crafted with such care.

That feeling of familiar wonder goes cold as I draw up short just inside the door, letting it swing shut behind me.

The noise is jarring.

So is seeing someone besides Mom standing behind the counter and realizing that strange woman behind the glossy glass display case is my sister.

She doesn’t look like the Rosalind I remember at all.

My baby sister was always a shy, bookish thing, sweet and romantic with a bit of a dorky introverted side.

When we’d take day trips to the beach, she was always the girl who wouldn’t even take off her t-shirt to go swimming, wearing it over her bathing suit instead.

That’s always been Ros. Once Mom and I realized she was comfortable that way, we just let her be herself.

Now, I do a double take.

What the…?

She’s wearing a see-through light coral cardigan over—not much of anything.

There’s a single button fastened between her breasts while the rest hangs open over her bare stomach. Underneath, she has a magenta push-up bra in lace with wired cups that lift her breasts into the kind of straining, full mounds that make me think that underwire’s got to be cutting so deep. I cringe in sympathy.

Her jeans are pure street princess, low and tight and ripped, showing the little creases of flesh along the bottom curve of her stomach that dip down toward her crotch. There’s even a hint of the tiny ladybug tattoo stamped just over the curve of her hip bone.

Ladybug.

Our mother was always about bees and Ros loved ladybugs.

Me, I have a small blue butterfly tattoo on my ankle, just as small as that little red dot on Ros’ hip. The ink is just as weathered since we’d gotten them together that day, holding hands and trying not to flinch as the needles marked our flesh, giggling in that goofy way only sisters can when something crazy goes down.

And she normally wears her blonde hair in a sensible bun while she’s working, but now it’s blown out, falling down her shoulders and chest, framing a face I struggle to recognize.

She’s made up with sultry fuck-me red lipstick, glossy vixen red nails, and a solid smoky eyeshadow, though I don’t think all of the darkness around her eyes is makeup.

Some of it seems almost sunken. Bruised.

These hollows match the dips in her too-thin cheeks.

Yikes.

Now, I see why Grant thought something was up.

It’s not the new look. Not at all.

If Ros just decided on a whim that she wanted a punky makeover to come out of her shell as a flirty, sexy girl, that wouldn’t be a red flag of the apocalypse.

No, it’s the way her pupils jitter as she looks up from wiping down the counter and her gaze lands on me.

It’s the haunted nervousness in her eyes.

The way her fingers look almost like claws as they grasp the paper towel.

Plus, the syrupy falseness in her smile as she brightens, watching me with a mix of delight and wariness.

“Ophelia!” she cries like she’s just completely forgotten I was in town.

Only it comes out strange, thick and slurred, like her tongue is swollen and a little numb.

I’m definitely a little numb as she comes flitting around the counter, moving with this wild energy that can’t be Ros, and pulls me into her arms.

She buries her face against my shoulder, hugging me so tight it hurts.

“It’s awesome to see you,” she says. “We missed you so much…”

“So much that you haven’t come home for an hour since I’ve been in town?” I ask, unable to help the sharpness in my tone.

Ros pulls back with a pout. “Not fair. I’ve been busy as hell keeping the lights on here.”

“So busy you can’t even come home to sleep?

With an offended gasp, Ros fully lets go, stepping back defensively.

“Hi, Ophelia. Welcome home, Ophelia. It’s good to see you too, Ophelia. I missed you, Ophie.” She clucks her tongue. “God. And here I thought maybe we could start there instead of you bitching me out.” She scowls. “You’ve been gone for ten years. You don’t get to show up and start acting like the big sister out of nowhere.”

Brutal.

A beeswax candle to the eye would’ve hurt less.

Guilt knifes through me, but it’s not enough to dampen my rising temper.

“Look, Ros… I’m not trying to be the big sister and chew you out. I’m not here to assert authority or whatever you’re thinking. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on with you. Our mom is sick. This might be the last time we get to spend with her, and—when was the last time you even went to see her?

She looks away, her eyes going dark with irritation.

“Ros, don’t lie to me. The staff said I was the only visitor all week.”

Whirling around, Ros glares, her green eyes glassy and glazed with hurt.

“Don’t you lecture me! You think I want to see her like that? You think I’m not hurting? Jesus, Ophelia. I can’t look at her like that when that’s… that’s not Mom in that bed.” She pauses, chewing her lip before she continues. “That’s a memory. A memory I don’t want after she’s gone. You think she’d want us to remember her like that? No. No, I’m doing the next best thing. I’m protecting her legacy. I’m taking care of the shop because she wouldn’t want it closing down just because she’s too sick to work. What do you know about any of that?”

My lips thin. I stare at her, trying to soften the blow.

“I know about Aleksander,” I say point-blank. “Is he one of your distractions, too? Does shacking up with one of the nastiest playboys in town make it easier—all so you don’t have to think about Mom?”

Ros’ eyes bug out and she sucks in a harsh breath.

“How’d you—” She groans. “Grant. Oh my God, that snake.”

“He only told me because he’s worried. Just like I am,” I retort. “Honestly, I don’t blame him one bit. Ros, what kind of lifestyle does Aleksander Arrendell want you to share? Look at you…”

“At what?” She props her hands on her hips, throwing a snapping look at me. “What’re you saying? That I look like a whore? Just because I’m enjoying myself for once and finding something to be happy about?”

“You look sick,” I point out softly. “You don’t look well. That’s what I was going to say.”

I try stepping closer.

Seriously, I can’t stand this, fighting with my sister when all I want to do is hug her and help her. I need to know what’s really behind that foggy look in her eyes. Then maybe I can pull her back from the brink before it’s too late.

Good thing there are no customers, or else we’d be the talk of the town for the next two weeks.

The Sanderson sisters bickering in broad daylight while their mother lies dying in her hospital bed.

Ha.

But before I can reach her, the door behind the counter to the back stock room pops open.

Oh, good, here comes the man of the hour, oozing out like a stack of slime.

Aleksander Arrendell.

Tall, lithe, his longish hair spilling down and framing a face so angelic it could only be part demon.

The man does not look human.

More like Lucifer’s nephew embodied in the flesh. A fallen angel who decided to make tortured Redhaven his personal playground.

He’s wearing a pair of designer jeans and an oversized linen blouse that probably costs more than my nursing degree. The blouse is half-buttoned and the wide lapels pulled back like he’s trying to flaunt the lipstick imprinted on his collar.

On his throat.

On his lips, still a little smeared around his wide, carnivorous mouth.

He’s showing off today—way too deliberately—almost like he’s marking his territory. He wants to be sure I know damn well what he and Ros were up to before I showed up.

“Did I hear my name? My ears were burning,” he growls in that mockingly cultured accent, swaggering around the counter to join us.

The possessive arm he slips around Ros’ waist makes me gag.

And he pulls her in close, stamping a possessive kiss on her shoulder.

“I hope you ladies aren’t bickering over little old me. There’s nothing more important than family, you know, and I’d hate to come between loving sisters.”

Prick.

His words are devoid of guilt. The words sound false, smarmy, sardonic.

The man drips grease from his pores.

I so don’t get what Ros sees in him.

Unless she’s just bewitched by the wealth and glamour, the usual Arrendell black magic.

I also wonder what the hell he sees in Ros. She’s from another world where money doesn’t grow on trees. No wealth, no connections, no way to help him be richer and more powerful.

And although she’s perfectly pretty, sure, this man has been with supermodels.

I looked him up to confirm the whole sordid history and found a trail of exes who look like mythic goddesses. Never any local girls until now.

It just doesn’t add up.

A terrible uncertainty churns in my belly, so many ominous unknowns with no easy answers and too many threats.

Too many ways to lose my sister if he sucks her into his family’s black void and sweeps her away from me forever.

I bare my teeth in a smile that feels more like a cat puffing up its tail.

“Aleksander.”

“Ophelia,” he greets me with a warmth that makes my skin crawl, velvety and inviting. Borderline flirty. And right in front of my sister, oh God. “Come now, I know we were never chums growing up, but surely you can spare a little hug for your future brother-in-law?”

No effing way.

And who the hell talks like an English aristocrat in twenty-first century North Carolina?

“Don’t mind her, Sandy,” Ros squeaks in this cutesy baby voice I’ve never heard her use in my life.

Sandy?

Holy crap.

All I can do is stare like a deer in the headlights while she gives Aleksander a sultry pout, reaching up to brush her thumb over his lower lip.

“Ophie’s just being weird and stuffy. I told you she wouldn’t approve—not unless she really knows you. She’s overprotective like that. Big sisters, go figure…”

“And didn’t I say I’ll do whatever it takes to win her over?” He lifts her hand and kisses it.

Yep.

I’m about to be sick.

Though Aleksander sure as hell isn’t winning any brownie points with me right now as he presses his mouth to Ros’ thumb, then parts his lips to catch it between his teeth, flicking his tongue over the tip while she giggles.

It’s like I’m not even here.

Except I am and they just don’t care.

I can’t decide what’s worse.

But when Aleksander stops doing—ugh, that—to my sister’s thumb, he turns another oily smirk on me.

“I do mean that sincerely, Ophelia. I know my family reputation makes this seem like an odd situation—”

“Like that’s the only reason,” I spit.

“—but I do want us all to be one big happy family,” he continues, undeterred. “Frankly, I’m dead set on marrying your sister and making her mine. I only hope you’ll come to accept that. Not tonight, certainly, but in time.”

Not in a million years.

It’s funny how he says it, too.

Making her his.

But he never said one word about actually loving her.

This time, when I bare my teeth at him, it’s deliberate. “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t consider you family just yet.”

I’ve also heard enough.

So I turn my back on them—on Ros’ hurt, angry glare and the strangely knowing chuckle boiling from Aleksander’s mannequin-like throat.

As I turn to walk away from this circus, completely done with this crap, Aleksander’s voice drifts after me.

“See? It’s like we’re already family. Bickering just like siblings, Ophelia dearest!” he calls. “You just need to come to grips with that fact.”

Flipping creep.

I don’t need to come to grips with anything besides my mounting temper.

I stalk out of our shop and welcome the biting fall air that stings my cheeks until they burn.

I’m not in any mood for shopping anymore, or even to see Mom.

Honestly, I wouldn’t enjoy shopping when I’m this angry, and I don’t want to bring this bitter energy into the hospital. I might not buy into the New Agey energy healing stuff, but I can’t help thinking all this negative energy won’t do our mother any good.

So I just stand there restlessly for an agitated moment, ignoring the people strolling past with curious glances and rude whispers that always carry more than they think.

Sigh.

I’m so sick of being talked about like the town pity case.

I should just go home. Back to Grant’s place, I mean.

Except the house will be as empty as Mom’s with Nell in school and I’ll be stranded with my nerves, rattling around alone.

I shouldn’t be doing this when I start moving.

Yet somehow, my feet take me to the left, down the street, a few blocks away to the Redhaven police station.

It’s an old-timey brick building, smaller than most shops, and when I push the door open it’s easy to fit basically everything in one big room. There’s a broad wooden reception desk with an old computer sitting dormant, and beyond that the small cluster of desks where our small police force sets up to work when they’re not on patrol.

It’s still a little jarring for me to see Lucas Graves in a uniform, though it doesn’t surprise me when he was so dead set on finding justice for his sister, Celeste. He and Mallory Cross are the only ones in the office.

Mallory glances up with the same warm, genuine smile she always wears while her phone pipes something at her in—Korean? Whatever it was, it sounds flirty and dirty.

I can’t help a flash of disappointment that Grant’s not here, though.

I stand around awkwardly for a few seconds, lips parted, trying to pull an excuse for why I even came here—but there’s no need.

Lucas looks up from a few open folders in front of him. He’s settled at one of the smaller desks, his chair tilted back on two legs, feet crossed and propped up on the desk.

He gives me a shrewd, thoughtful look, then leans back and reaches over to rap on the closed office door with CHIEF BOWDEN stenciled on the frosted glass inset.

“Grant,” he calls. “Company.”

He gives me a knowing smirk that makes me want to march over and make up for every grade school spitball in my hair with a good, hard tweak to his nose.

“Glad to see you home, Miss Ophelia,” he says, his smile softening, a touch of sympathy in his catlike green eyes. “You doing all right?”

Just like that, I almost burst out crying.

It’s just this familiar face from my childhood, offering me kind recognition and a genuine welcome home. I can’t make a sound, my lips trembling.

No, I won’t cry when he just asked me a simple question.

But I’m relieved when the door to Bowden’s office swings open and Grant’s big, bearish frame slips out with more grace than any man that huge should have.

He takes one look at me, crosses the room in three long strides, and presses a heavy, hot hand to the small of my back.

“C’mon,” he says. “Come sit down with me.”

Swallowing and wiping at an escaping tear, I let him usher me toward Bowden’s office. As I pass Lucas, I offer him a watery smile.

He just snaps off a two-finger salute, his eyes glittering with quiet understanding.

I think he gets it, even though he never left this place.

By trying so hard to forget Redhaven, I forgot how many good people I left behind here, too.

I’m pushing the tears back by the time Grant leads me to one of the upholstered club chairs in Bowden’s cramped office and closes the door behind us.

Instead of reclaiming the chair behind the desk, he settles on the second club chair next to me.

The tiny space feels so cramped that his knees bump into my thigh.

I need that.

I need his presence.

I need him to fill the space around me, so nothing besides Grant can get in.

Maybe then I can push all the bad things out.

“Butterfly, what’s wrong?” he asks. Direct as always, but I’m honestly not used to him just coming out and asking me about feelings. “Did that stalker freak show up again? Did he hurt you?”

“What? No, I—” Instinctively, I brush my fingers against the bruises on my arms. They’re already turning that gross yellow-purple as they’re healing. “No, it’s silly. It doesn’t matter.” I look around, biting my lip. “So you took over Bowden’s office?”

“For now. The guys were giving me a headache about—” He breaks off, and I swear there’s a redness under his beard as he looks away. “Never mind.”

“What? No never mind!” I reach over and poke his arm. “About what?”

“About you,” he grumps, ducking his head and swiping his dark-brown hair back from his face.

My heart skips.

“Oh? What about me?” I ask innocently.

Grant glowers. “Woman, don’t think playing Miss Innocent is going to help you deflect today.”

I wince. “I’m that obvious, huh?”

“As much as I’d like to think you stopped by just to make me smile, I have a feeling that’s not all there is to it.”

Whatever I’d started to say just stops cold in my throat.

I’ve had a lifetime of sullen, withdrawn, walled-off-with-his-feelings Grant.

A whole freaking decade of avoiding what his silences mean, and everything changing the minute I break through them and it sinks in.

That’s why I have no armor when it comes to him being nakedly honest.

There’s no stopping how my face flares, burning like a fever.

“…you’re not smiling,” I stammer.

Grant stares intently for several long seconds.

Then he reaches for me with this slow, careful movement that makes me think of a giant shrugging whole mountains off his shoulders as he clasps my hands in his.

He envelops me in his warmth, his coarseness, his strength.

Like he’s showing me how he could eclipse me so easily, but he’d be protecting me with his shadow.

Then he smiles.

Slow, warm, just a flash of white teeth through his beard and a softening of his stormy hazel eyes until they look like my fondest memories.

Happier times set in dark bronze like bugs in amber.

Loyal friends and family—plus one beast of a man who never lost his faith.

God.

That quiet explosion of feeling blows my heart to pieces.

My breaths turn shallow and I’m pinned in place by this big manly smile that leaves me in stitches. It’s like witnessing a unicorn, rare and amazing.

I think I can still count on one hand how many times I’ve ever seen a real smile out of this man.

And it hurts so good that he’s smiling this way just for me.

“There. I’m smiling and you’re happy,” he rumbles matter-of-factly as his face relaxes, squeezing my hands. “Now tell me what’s wrong, Philia. I know you’re hurting.”

“Dude. You’re not supposed to read me that easy.” I swallow past the thickness in my throat.

“It’s easy because I spent every damn waking moment fixated on you,” Grant snarls. “I’d be ashamed of myself if I didn’t know you by now.”

Oh, crap.

If he keeps going, he’s going to break me for sure.

It’s like being caught in the eye of a storm, this one spot of calm while the fury of my life rages around me. I curl my fingers in his, biting my lip.

“You really wanna know? Ros and I had a big fight,” I whisper, everything tumbling out in this rush of upset. “I went to see her at the shop like I told you. I just wanted to know why she’s been avoiding me and Mom, but I almost didn’t recognize her. You were right. There’s something wrong—it totally creeped me out. She’s too jittery, her eyes are weird, and she’s starting to look hollowed out. But Aleksander was there, too. And she wouldn’t listen to a word I said. Not as long as she was hanging all over him like he hung the stars.” I shake my head angrily. “I don’t get it. I don’t get how he has this hold on her, but there’s something about it that scares me, Grant.”

“Hush,” Grant soothes.

He releases one hand so he can curl his fingers against the back of my neck, coaxing me in.

Next thing I know, I’ve buried my face in his shoulder, wrapping my free arm around his neck.

I’m not crying. Not yet.

But my entire body shakes with the force of holding it in.

Grant, he just—

He lets me be.

He weathers my confusion, my sadness, while I turn into a complete wreck against him, sheltering me, his hand kneading softly against the nape of my neck until the pressure relaxes me and I melt against him.

I shouldn’t feel this content when I was a total mess ten minutes ago, but that’s the thing about Grant.

Sometimes his silence is infuriating.

But sometimes, it’s medicine, knowing he’s as unshakeable as a mountain.

He finally breaks the stillness with a thoughtful growl, though, the vibration thrumming against me.

“I didn’t want to presume,” he says. “Not with Ros. But if we both think there’s cause for concern—”

“What can we do?” I whisper. “She’s a grown woman. We can’t override her own decisions and we can’t make her stop seeing him.”

“We’re still her family.”

We. He says it so casually it warms my heart.

I smile.

“If she can see it’s coming from a place of love, maybe she’ll stop being defensive and listen. If not for her own sake or for yours, then for your ma’s. Can’t imagine Angela would want this at all,” he says.

“No. Then again, Mom would want her to be happy, even if ‘happy’ doesn’t look like what we’d expect…” I idly stroke my fingers along Grant’s throat. “I’m trying not to judge. I just… I don’t think she’s actually happy right now. Not if she was in her right mind. How could she be when she knows—she knows—” I stop, the words dying on my tongue.

“It’s more distant for her, not like how it was for us. Don’t forget that. She was so young when Ethan disappeared.”

Ever the voice of reason.

I want to hate it, but I can’t.

Suddenly, Grant shifts his hold, gathering me into his lap and pulling me across the small, awkward space between us until I’m settled on his thighs. I curl up there, tucking myself snugly against his body while he rests his chin on top of my head.

“The three of us were fucking inseparable. Ros probably felt like an outsider when she’s so much younger and Ethan’s memory isn’t as strong. Not to mention how much we all tried to shelter her from the worst of it, from our suspicions.”

“Yeah, but after all the rumors, and what happened with the Arrendells and Celeste Graves…”

“I know. That might be what’s behind it. Ros has a rebellious streak under that shy girl surface. Maybe dating Aleksander was a way to defy the rumors or face them in her own way after she got sick of all the whispers and nosy-ass glances. Then she got pulled in deeper than she could handle.”

“I could see that,” I say wryly, curling my hand in his uniform shirt. “This feels weird, you know.”

“What? My shirt?”

I smile faintly, tapping one of his glossy buttons. “Sitting in your lap like a little girl asking Santa Cop for presents.”

Grant’s snort sounds suspiciously like a repressed laugh.

“Don’t even start that Daddy mess. You used to—”

“What? Call you ‘Dad’ every time we got in a fight because you’d start snarling at me to stop following you and Ethan everywhere and getting in the way?”

“It wasn’t getting in the way,” he growls. “It was getting hurt. We were doing all kinds of dangerous shit. Dicking around the hills too close to Jacobin property, setting off contraband fireworks, drinking our weight in beer like every dumbass kid. Too dangerous for a little girl still in high school.”

“Just dangerous enough to be interesting to an adventurous, enterprising little girl,” I correct and push myself up to look at him, touching my finger to his nose. “Don’t you know the more you warned me away, the more I wanted to go?”

Another snort.

Disgruntled, surly.

See? Big old man-bear.

“You and your hero worship, wanting to be everywhere Ethan was,” he rumbles.

“Not just Ethan.” I lean in and press my nose to his, replacing my finger. “I wanted to be everywhere you were, idiot.”

“Whatever. I think you just liked poking the bear.”

I grin. “Why not when he made such funny noises?”

Grant obliges me with a funny noise right now, an overly dramatic growl, and I laugh.

Guess it’s easier to laugh like this, cradled up in him with his scent surrounding me and his arms wrapped up so tight, his thick beard scratching my cheek.

“Will you stop being annoyed with me if I kiss you?” I offer.

“Who says I was annoyed at all?” he counters, tilting his head and brushing his lips across mine in a tease that makes my blood sing. “Think I’ll take that kiss. Call it Butterfly insurance against future irritation.”

“Mm, yes, you’re so certain I’m going to annoy you again?”

Yes,” he deadpans, and I scowl, trying to force down a laugh as I shove against his chest.

“No kiss for you!”

“Too damn late.” And with one firm arm around my waist, he swings me back in, refusing to let me escape.

Not that I want to.

No way.

Not when, the second he pulls me against his chest, his lips descend, slanting hard against my mouth and erasing all sense, all reason, all worry from my mind.

Holy hell.

I’ve never been kissed like this.

Every man who tried fell a mile short and a day late.

Every man who wasn’t Grant kissed like I was an object for his own selfish purpose.

Like they were checking off this laundry list inside their minds, all the things a man had to do in a specific order to be this cool sex god, until it felt mechanical and bloodless.

But Grant kisses like he’s so consumed by me he can’t do anything else.

He kisses like he wants my soul, the best and worst of me.

His lips tease mine, fitting together perfectly, delving like he already knows me inside and out.

And he does, doesn’t he?

He’s had an iron grip on my heart for so long. Every kiss is just the key that opens my body.

He leaves me trembling, pressing so hard into him, letting him take me over, tease me, shiver me down.

I gasp as his teeth flirt with my lower lip, shifting from gentle grazing to stinging pressure.

As every stroke of his tongue leaves behind raw sensations like hot embers flying across my lips.

God, he tastes wild, so much vivid passion erupting behind his stoic face.

Even his beard drags against my cheeks, and as his tongue twines with mine, something flows inside me like liquid honey.

My blood thickens with desire.

These slick, hot, panting sounds slide between our lips, turning this into something achingly forbidden.

Kiss by steaming kiss, he shatters the walls of friendship, leaving two lovers tangled up in each other, in something burning.

Something that doesn’t know what it is.

Something that shreds me like paper.

Something with its own inertia we don’t have a prayer of stopping.

Oh my God.

Oh. My. Grant.

I’m so tingly and wet it hurts, melting for him helplessly, and it’s so amazing to feel his heart banging against his chest.

His pulse ticks against his throat as I run my hands over the hot, taut lines of his neck.

He inhales roughly, a human volcano building with pure sweet madness.

Is it bad that I like making him crazy?

Knowing I can torture him—that he’s not indifferent—that I’m all he’s ever wanted…

It’s enough to get a girl drunk with reckless thoughts.

When his huge, rough hands slip under my shirt, pushing it up to drag coarse skin over the small of my back, to clutch me against him, I’m willing to do anything.

Anything right here, right now, right in this cramped office.

Until there’s a sudden rapping at the door.

We both gasp, breaking apart like we’ve touched a live current.

Just in time as Mallory pokes her head in. “Captain Faircross? We’ve got a—oh. Oh, my.”

Ohhh, crap.

I fall out of Grant’s lap, torn between a humiliated giggle and the need to hide like a roach from sheer mortification.

Breathing hard, I brush my hand across my damp lips.

Grant looks worse, I think, wearing half my lipstick smeared around his mouth.

“Hi, Mallory,” I say shyly.

She just blinks at me before shaking her head with an indulgent smile.

“Welcome home, Ophelia.” Her gaze shifts to Grant. “We’ve got a pink problem again, Captain.”

Grant groans and presses his fingers into his eyes.

I can’t decide if I’m sad or relieved to see his usual control take over.

He’s already shuttering, back to being the gruff police captain, but I want to think there’s still a certain softness to him that wasn’t there before.

Or maybe he just looks really hot in shades of red.

“Again? Aw, hell. Didn’t we have another pink run just last week?”

“Pink problem?” I ask. It sounds vaguely familiar, but I don’t remember why until—oh, right. “You mean the Jacobins are still letting their pigs escape?”

“It’s a Redhaven tradition at this point. Like the running of the bulls, only it’s a pig stampede down Main Street at least once a month,” Grant snarls. “Fuck, I just got my car cleaned out after last time, too. If they don’t fix their fucking fences, I’m going to write them up and drop five pounds of pig shit back where it belongs. Right on their porches with their hogs. Fines might get the gears in their heads turning.”

Mallory laughs wildly and taps her mouth. “Oh, but you might need a tissue before you make that ultimatum, Captain Faircross! The rest of the team’s already en route.”

Then she closes the door and we’re alone again while Grant frowns, puzzled.

“Tissue?”

“Um… Grant.” I’m almost dying, biting back my laughter when he looks so adorably confused. With a loving sigh, I fish my compact out of the pocket of my jeans and flip it open to show him his reflection in the little round mirror. “See? It’s a good color on you.”

“Goddamn!” Grant gives me a disgusted look like he blames me, leaning over Chief Bowden’s desk to snatch up a few tissues from the dispenser. Leaning in, he squints at his reflection in my mirror and starts wiping at his mouth furiously. “Shit. If I go out there like this, people are really gonna wonder what I did to get those pigs into the car.”

“Grant!” I snicker. “You’re awful.”

“You only think so ’cause you’ve convinced yourself I’ve got no sense of humor. And maybe you like kissing awful men.”

Now I’m the one turning red.

“It just takes knowing you to get what you’re saying between the lines.” As he pulls back and tosses the balled-up tissue in the trash, I snap the compact closed with a smirk. “So, I have to let you go for pig duty, huh?”

“Unfortunately.” He stands and his bulk takes up so much space in the tiny office, delightfully overwhelming. It’s a miracle he doesn’t have to stoop to fit the low ceiling. Hazel eyes soften as he looks down at me. “But there’s always tonight.”

“I guess there is.” I shouldn’t be so giddy knowing I get to go home to him when the whole reason is some weirdo stalker hurling death threats. But I smile anyway, tilting my head up and pursing my lips. “Kiss me goodbye.”

“I just got your lipstick off me and you’re still this bossy?”

“I’ve hardly got any left at this point. You’re safe.”

Grant chuckles, then bends and brushes his mouth across mine.

The hurricane is gone.

This is a soft, sweet breeze full of promises. But there’s nothing chaste about the way my body lights up at the lightest touch.

I catch myself leaning into him as he straightens, drawn like he’s a human magnet and I’m all iron. Before I pull back, I clear my throat, smoothing my clothing.

He catches a lock of my hair and tweaks it. “Go shopping and get yourself a better coat. I’m taking you and Nell out tonight.”

“Where?”

“Nothing special. Just dinner and an age-appropriate movie.”

But it is special when it’s you and me—when it’s us, I think.

Of course, I keep that to myself, only smiling brighter.

“You just want to take my mind off everything.”

“Maybe I do,” he says, absolutely serious.

It’s so Grant.

So many little things, the way he tells me I’m important with such subtle gestures. Maybe dinner and a movie isn’t much to most girls, but it’s Grant Faircross wanting to spend time with me, wanting to help me forget the myriad ways life keeps going wrong.

It’s Grant showing me he cares.

For now, that’s enough to leave me quiet with a thousand feelings flopping around as he bends to kiss my cheek one more time, then tucks my hair back with one last long look before turning to go.

My knees still feel hilariously weak from that first kiss.

Oh, this is bad.

I’m in big trouble and I don’t think I care.


I wish I could hold on to that feeling.

But by the time I pick up my newly repaired rental car from Mort’s, I’m already dreading the short drive across town.

That cold feeling becomes a lump of frozen lead as I step into the medical center.

The nurses at the front desk just wave me through.

No need to check the hometown girl, I guess. It’s one of the rare times when I wish everyone in this small town didn’t know my business, just so they’d stall me for a minute or two, making me sign the visitor register or something.

Anything to delay the inevitable—seeing Mom in that bed again.

I’m already an emotional mess by the time I get to her room.

Yes, I want to be with her, to comfort her, to hope that my presence will help her fight to a miraculous recovery, knowing her girls are waiting for her—but I also can’t stand how frail she looks, like a skeleton that hasn’t remembered to stop breathing yet.

I can’t stand that she’s still not waking up.

This doesn’t feel like a restful sleep. More like the precursor to the very end.

With a deflated sigh, I sit next to her bed and clasp her thin, bony hand. With my free hand, I stroke back the wisps of blonde hair left so dry by the chemo and other drugs they’re pumping into her system to keep her alive.

“I’m not ready,” I whisper, pulling her hand against my chest. “I’m not ready to lead this family, Mom. Ros is a mess. I think she’s making a big mistake and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help her, how to help you…”

My voice cracks.

I can’t hold in the tears anymore as this chill rakes down my spine. I squeeze my mother’s hand, trying to be strong for her, trying not to shake.

Not strong enough to stop the torrent.

I cry.

Quietly. Secretly. Intensely.

Sobbing over her fingers until they’re wet, sucking in heaving breaths, barely managing to creak out words that feel like angry porcupines.

“I miss you.”

I can’t deny it any longer.

As much as I might blame Redhaven for my brother’s disappearance, I’ve missed this place, too.

Miami never totally felt like home. Just a distant place to escape to.

Home is here.

Home is with my family.

With Mom and Ros.

With Grant.

But right now, I feel so alone.

For just a breath, my heart leaps.

There’s movement. A subtle twitching against my fingers.

I sit up sharply, staring down at the hand clasped in my own. My mother’s fingers curl feebly, just barely there, but unmistakable.

“Mom?” I stare at her hopefully, my heart threatening to burst, scrubbing at the tears on my cheeks. “Mom, are you awake?”

She doesn’t move.

No sound at all.

Not even an eyelash flutter.

But her hand grips mine like a ghost.

Just enough.

It’s not just me holding her. She’s holding me.

As if it’s the only way she can tell me, I’m still here.

The rough cry that boils up my throat is raw. This time, the tears aren’t so quiet and civilized.

The ugly cry that’s been building up inside me for a long time rips out as I weep over that hand clasped in mine.

“Please hold on,” I croak. “Please hold on for me.”

Still no answer.

But I don’t let her go, and she doesn’t let me go until visiting hours are over.

I’m reluctant to leave when the time comes.

I’ve been glued to this chair for so long I think my butt is molded to the seat, and it hurts to unlock my limbs and stand. But everything closes early around here and I don’t want to be the reason the day shift staff can’t get home and turn things over to the meager night crew.

So I force myself away, fondly touching Mom’s cheek one last time.

“I’ll be back soon,” I murmur. “I won’t leave you alone.”

No response, of course.

But I’d like to think she hears me in there, somewhere.

I turn to let myself out with a nod for the receptionist at the front desk. She offers me a smile full of the pity I hate—and when I smile back, it feels like defiance, as if I’m saying no, not yet. She isn’t done.

It’s not time to give in.

Angela Sanderson raised two stubborn daughters because she’s a freaking rock.

She had to be, to get by on her own.

No husband, no man, not even a boyfriend.

I’ve never met the father I share with Ros. No one knows who my mom dated, saw, slept with after her first husband—Ethan’s father—died.

I shouldn’t know that, honestly.

But, well, I guess some mysteries were never meant to be solved.

A little ironic when this is a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business—and what they don’t know, they talk about.

Sometimes in earshot of little ones who don’t need to hear those rumors at all.

Mom would never tell us the truth, even when we begged for answers.

All Ros and I know is that we have the same father. Two sisters sharing the same unknown DNA.

Even if we don’t feel so close anymore.

My nose wrinkles and that bitterness works its way up my throat.

I hate that Aleksander Arrendell is taking her away from me.

A few months ago, the very idea would’ve been unthinkable.

As I walk out to my car, I turn that over.

Am I overreacting?

Do I just hate this thing with Ros and Aleksander because I’m one of those family members who feels like my sister belongs to me? Does Aleksander disgust me because of who he is or because I’d feel the same about any interloper taking my sister away?

Part of me could see it.

It’s hard not to loathe any man inserting himself in her life when it’s just been us and Mom for so long, relying on each other, close-knit and inseparable.

Only, Aleksander Arrendell isn’t ’any man.’

He’s velvet trouble and hidden heartbreak and high-strung demands. And if Ros doesn’t watch her butt, she’s going to wind up—

Oh.

A long, swift-moving shadow stops my thoughts.

There’s someone near my car.

I stop halfway across the lot, keys clutched in my hand as my heart stalls.

There’s a big old Ford SUV parked next to my rental Corolla, blocking my view, but I can just make out a tall, lean shadow through the Ford’s tinted windows, someone milling around in the space between the cars.

“Hey!” I dart forward, pelting across the parking lot. “What are you doing? Get away from my car!”

I go swinging around the bumper of the Ford, ready to tackle whoever’s messing around with my vehicle until—

You guessed it.

There’s no one there.

My heart jams in my throat as I stop cold, straining to breathe, just staring at the yellow line between the parking spots.

Nothing.

What the hell? Did I imagine it?

Is this what too much stress does?

I shove myself between the cars, staring past the narrow band of grass beyond the edge of the parking lot to the trees bordering it before I pull myself away and walk to the sidewalk, looking left and right as I go.

Still no one around aside from a few kids just getting off the bus halfway down the block.

A few other people look bored, mulching leaves in their yards with mowers or covering their gardens with tarps for the coming winter. A middle-aged woman I don’t recognize pushes a stroller, but I don’t see that tall, quick shape anywhere.

Not him.

Not the panicked oddball who grabbed me and told me I’d die.

Ugh.

However much I downplayed it for Grant and wanted to believe he’s a harmless dementia case, maybe it did get to me.

I’m actually seeing things.

I must be.

Shaking my head at myself, I sigh and head back to my car. But just to be safe, I give it a quick once-over, popping down and peering under the wheels even if I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly.

Evidence of tampering, I guess.

Anything that might be stuck to the car.

I’ve read enough thrillers to freak out about stalkers and GPS trackers. Unless they’re making them smaller than bugs now, I don’t see anything like that.

I don’t feel it either when I run my hands around the wheel wells for good measure.

There’s a dramatic moment when I unlock the driver’s side door and imagine the car blowing up the instant I pull the latch, just like in the movies.

I almost laugh. Now I’m being ridiculous.

A stalker, that’s my worst case. Not winding up on a mafia hit list.

Of course, nothing happens.

Not until the Door Open alarm starts pinging as I stand there with my breath thick, just waiting for something to go boom.

Yep.

Still being ridiculous.

There are better things to focus on.

Like the fact that right now, I have a quasi-date.

Grant is waiting for me tonight and I’m ready to let him take my mind off all the worries streaking through my brain.


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