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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 19

ONE MORE TIME (GRANT)

I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen Ophelia Sanderson this exhausted and drained to the bone.

No, actually, I can.

The last time her mother went through this, and Ophelia was right there with her, every step of the way.

She was much younger then.

And she almost feels like that younger version of herself now when she’s unconscious in my arms, so weightless it’s like she’s barely there.

Like her very essence bled out with her grief.

She refused to leave the medical center, even after the staff settled her mother and drifted away. Hours in a chair at her mother’s bedside, holding Angela’s fragile hand.

When Ophelia finally passed out, I carried her to my car and took her home.

She doesn’t even stir as I settle her in my bed and pull her shoes off before tucking her in, adjusting the pillows under her tangled gold hair.

Flaky lines of tears linger on her cheeks in glistening tracks I gently brush away, lingering on the hollows under her eyes.

“Wish there was something I could do for your ma, Butterfly,” I whisper. “Anything. I’d do any goddamned thing to bring her back for you, safe and sound.”

Ophelia’s only answer is a sigh, turning subtly toward me in her sleep.

I sigh, too.

I can’t work miracles. There’s nothing I can truly do for Angela when she’s waging a lonely war.

On the other hand, I can do something for Ophelia. For Ros.

That means getting to the bottom of this shit show with Mason Law.

My resolve hardens into granite.

I dig around in my pocket till I find the little notepad I use to write down case notes and scrawl out a quick note just in case Ophelia wakes up and worries where I am. I leave it on the nightstand.

Gone up to the big house to follow up on a few leads. Be back soon.

Don’t you worry about dinner tonight. I’m cooking. My folks got Nell and I’ll grab her when the timing’s right, too.

Just rest, Butterfly.

-G

I almost signed it Love, but fuck.

I don’t think that’s a discussion either of us can handle right now.

It’s hard to talk about feelings when you’re stretched over a hungry abyss, and even if we weren’t, it’s no easy conversation.

Hell, we’re both still acting like this is a silly damn childhood crush reborn in our adult lives.

With the way she’s feeling, I don’t want to dump the L-word on her when that’s just more emotional pressure.

Still, it’s hard to pull away from her.

I linger just a little while longer, brushing her hair back from her temples before I drag myself away and head out to scare up some answers.

I’m prepared to storm a bullshit factory and take no prisoners when I drive up to the Arrendell mansion and go stomping out of my vehicle.

I refuse to hand my keys over to the valet waiting to take them, curling my lip.

“Sir,” the valet says, his nose pointed up above the exact same uniform as Mason Law, “I’m afraid you can’t just leave your car—”

“I’m afraid I damn well can,” I snap off, brushing past him and pocketing my keys.

The man’s eyes bulge.

What’s he gonna do, call the police?

“I won’t be ten minutes,” I say. “You’ve got room to fit an eighteen-wheeler past my car. Deal with it.”

Offended, sputtering pleas trail me as I mount the steps without looking back.

Here we are, poised at the gates of hell.

The huge, gleaming double doors open before I can reach for the knob or knock. Another uniformed man looks down his nose at me.

“Whom should I say is calling?” he asks.

Like these fucking people don’t see me at least once a month with all the odd shit that goes down around here. Not to mention the occasional summons from the exalted First and Second Selectman to stand in for Chief Bowden in budget discussions, wherever he’s fucked off to.

I fold my arms.

“And whom are you calling for?” the man asks again.

“His or Her Highness, who else? Can’t say I give a shit which, though both would be better,” I growl. “And you know damn well it’s Captain Faircross, Peter.”

“Ah, yes. You’ll have to excuse me if the uniforms start to blend together sometimes,” he lies. I only remember his name because I heard Lucia yelling at him during another visit. “Please come wait in the receiving room.”

I follow him inside, keeping a standoffish distance between us as we cross the red carpeting through halls with towering walls and glowing golden sconces.

After thinking for a few moments, I step closer, leaning over his shoulder and lowering my voice.

“Mason Law,” I say. “You worked with him, yeah? Just like you worked with Cora Lafayette?”

Peter’s shoulders go stiff.

“It’s a rather large estate with dozens of staff, Captain,” he says coldly. “We all have our assigned areas. It’s quite possible for us to go our entire term of employment here without meeting everyone.”

“Uh-huh.”

Like I believe that crap for one second.

I expect him to show me to the same posh velvet-adorned receiving room where I’m left to twiddle my thumbs every time I have to come up here. Whenever it’s not about taking me right to the site of a dead body.

Instead, he takes me a little deeper into the manor.

He raps lightly on a heavy mahogany door, listens, and then—when there’s not a single sound—pushes the door open on an opulently decorated office.

“Mr. Arrendell isn’t in residence today,” Peter says icily, which makes me wonder just where Montero is. “However, the Lady of the house will be in to see you as soon as she’s available. Please have a seat and wait.”

The try not to dirty up the place is clear in his acrid tone, and in the snobby look he rakes over me, from my uniform down to my boots.

Whatever.

They’re still a bit muddy from tromping around in a clearing splattered with blood and bleach-white bones when I haven’t had time to clean them.

But there’s something else there, too.

A sort of nervous fear.

As he walks away stiffly, he glances back, his eyes rolling like a spooked horse.

There’s something in that look that almost seems to say, Save me.

You know the saying, if walls could talk?

What would these servants say if they felt free to run their mouths without catching a pink slip or worse?

I step into the office—so much red fucking upholstery everywhere, what is with these people and their red, it looks like a seventies porno shoot—and hunker down in a chair that really ain’t made for someone my size.

The polished wooden legs creak a little in warning.

I’m itching to do a little digging, but if Lucia walks in and catches me rooting around in her files, I’m not gonna leave with my head intact.

No surprise, the office has the same glamorous gothic vibe as the rest of the place.

I still can’t help looking around, taking in what I can.

An oil painting of a younger Lucia and Montero with their four sons as kids, including the supposedly disgraced and exiled Vaughn. Even in that painting, he’s standing a little apart from the others, like there’s something walling him off from the rest of them. Kid’s got an overly serious face, and the painter captured something troubled in his eyes for sure.

The others are different.

Feels like looking at human masks painted over the oily, hissing faces of snakes.

Everything else is priceless vases, odd little old statues from Egypt or Greece, awards for charitable contributions and philanthropic acts.

A framed doctorate on the wall.

Never knew Lucia Arrendell had a PhD in psychology, but it makes me a little more wary of what I’m dealing with and that fluttering façade she likes to put on.

I’m just glancing at her desk and realizing the brochure sticking out of her bristling planner is for a wedding florist when I get a face full of liar. The door opens behind me and the Lady of the manor comes gliding inside like her feet never touch the ground.

She’s stuck in a bygone era, her shimmery pearl-colored dress swaying around her calves. Its fringe lashes with dancing steps that belong to a younger woman.

She’s lean as a rake and her mouth is a violent red, painted and stark and smiling below eyes that don’t reflect any warmth at all.

Like I said.

Human mask. Serpent underneath.

The conspiracy nuts would go wild with this family, certain they’ve found their lizard people.

She offers both hands like a little coquette, fluttering her lashes.

“Captain Faircross! I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. I trust you haven’t been languishing too long?”

Damn.

Just because my ma raised a gentleman, I stand and take off my hat—Ethan’s hat—and hold it to my chest as I take one of her hands.

I’m not playing courtier, though, and instead of kissing ass, I just give it a firm shake.

“Wasn’t here long, no,” I say. “Hope not to stick around, either.”

“So this is a business call then.” She rounds her broad wooden desk and settles behind it in her high-backed chair, tossing back her icy, white-streaked blonde bob.

“It’s always business, ma’am. No reason to be up here otherwise.” No point in holding back today. I settle back in my chair, slouching down and folding my hands over my stomach, studying her. Think I’ll take a roundabout approach first. I nod toward the planner. “You putting together a wedding?”

“Why, yes. Trying to, but the bride is being rather difficult.” She gives an exaggerated roll of her eyes, sighing deeply. “Of course, she wants to wait until her mother’s out of the hospital, the poor thing. Now, I don’t want to be uncharitable, but…”

She stops cold.

I can’t hide the anger in my face.

I can’t help bristling and struggle to hold it in, scratching the back of my neck like it’s just a late season mosquito that’s got me annoyed.

A whole damn legion of them has nothing on the bloodsucker right in front of me.

Fuck, I don’t like this woman talking about it like Angela Sanderson’s death is a foregone conclusion.

“I’m sorry, Captain. Family business. Don’t you know our Rosalind’s a stubborn girl? I suppose that’s why Aleksander was so smitten…” She smiles demurely, flicking her hand through the air. “Wait for this, wait for that. She’s driving my boy quite mad—and wanting to save herself for marriage, can you believe that? Honestly, I thought was old-fashioned.”

What the—

It takes a second for that to click, and when it does, I go a little green.

I really don’t need to know that about Ros, even if it’s a small pleasant surprise when I figured Aleksander already had his dirty paws all over her.

I also don’t want to know why Lucia knows that.

What kind of son talks about his sex life with his mother?

“So Aleksander’s in a hurry to tie the knot, huh?” I ask coldly.

“Oh, you know how boys are when they get to a certain age.” She gives me a sly look, like she’s counting me in with that. “Eventually they get tired of catting around, and then it’s all about wanting to build a family and having a little woman to come home to. Honestly, I’m glad he’s gotten his wild oats out of his system. I was starting to worry about him, jetting around the world with all these vapid models. Such a bad influence.”

“Uh-huh.” I nod slowly. “Is this wedding drama the reason you lied to me about Mason Law?”

There’s a telltale moment.

A certain stiffness.

A cruel blackness that falls over her aristocratic face, turning it into a caricature of frozen fury. It’s so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss it.

I even wonder if I imagine it when she just blinks at me after that half-second pause, the perfect picture of cultured confusion.

“I’m sorry, who?” she asks, but there’s a little too much of a delay.

“I ain’t here for it, Lucia,” I say tiredly. “Cut the bullshit. You put on that big show—you and Montero both, trotting out the staff for us, pretending like you never heard of this man. Turns out, he’s one of your goddamned valets. Now he’s in the hospital, fighting for his life after ingesting an unknown poison. So, yeah, I think you might wanna stop playing cute with me right the fuck now, because if you think I won’t put a Selectman in cuffs for obstructing an investigation, you got me real fuckin’ wrong, lady.”

Lucia pinches her lips, folding her hands primly atop her planner.

“That’s hardly necessary—and neither is your language,” she clips, suddenly all business. “You’ll have to pardon me for trying to protect the man’s dignity. I had no idea what condition he was in.”

“You wanna explain what you mean about protecting his dignity?”

“Mason Law was fired,” Lucia informs me crisply. “Some time ago. He continued living in his servants’ quarters up until recently. We gave him a good deal of time to remove his possessions and find a new residence and employment elsewhere, considering he had nowhere else to go. However, we told the whole truth and nothing but when we said he didn’t work for us, Captain Faircross. It’s sad, really. He was a loyal, hardworking employee for many years. I chose not to humiliate him by spreading his disgrace around so callously.”

“Yeah, that’s your reason.” I arch a brow. “Why’d you fire him then?”

“Oh, he simply wasn’t able to keep up with the rigors of the job in his advancing age,” she replies, almost before I finish asking the question. A little too eager. “Frankly, I believe he may have been suffering from a touch of dementia, possibly substance abuse. He started behaving erratically, sometimes turning hostile with the other staff. He was only a few years away from retiring with a pension. It was a shame to let him go, really.” She clucks her tongue. Dutiful sympathy. “I never thought being fired would push him over the edge, though, the poor man. Suicide? God. If only he’d taken our advice and gotten professional help.”

There’s that psych degree at work, making her a magnificent storyteller.

I just stare at her for several long seconds before I say, “I never said it was a suicide.”

She freezes, but her eyes betray nothing.

“Well, yes, but what else could it be?” she asks, almost impatiently. “You tell me he’s been poisoned—there’s no one who would hurt a dear old man. And with how he was behaving, it seems entirely in character.”

“Sure it does.” I lean forward, propping my elbows on my knees, watching her intently. “So that’s your story? You fired him and it drove him to suicide by poison, and now you’ve got no earthly idea why he’s been running around town acting all weird and scaring people?”

“Scaring people?”

I nod. “Just a few encounters. Always startling and unpleasant.”

“How terrible. My, I’d have to say it’s the dementia,” she says glibly. “I do hope now that he’s in the right custody, he can get the help he needs.”

Dementia.

Right.

Guess that’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

I also don’t think I’m gonna get anything else out of her tonight, though.

Not without telling her things that might get her and Montero and possibly that sleazy fucking son of theirs sniffing around.

Trouble is, they hold too much weight around here.

If they tried to get in at the medical center no one would stop them, not even after overhearing what me and Ophelia said to him about the Arrendells.

So when Lucia asks, “Is there anything else I can help you with, Captain Faircross?” in an expectant tone, I shrug.

“Not right now.” I heft myself up from the chair. “I’ll be in touch, though.”

“Come now, Captain,” she says, and dimples at me with girlish innocence, so out of place in her razor of a face. “I hope that won’t be necessary, will it?”

I storm off without answering.


Yeah, I really don’t know how I’m gonna tell Ophelia I haven’t gotten much of anything.

Though it’s kind of implied.

TV likes to show you these genius cops who crack hard cases from sunrise to sundown, wrapping things up quick and easy. That’s not how it is.

Real police work is slow and plodding, chasing every tiny detail, one long waiting game that might not have a payoff at the end.

Sometimes you gotta be the ticker in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, beating away under the floorboards until just by knowing you’re there, waiting, your suspect cracks and does the hard sleuthing work for you.

Still, I wish I had something to tell her when I get home and drag through the door.

Something besides waiting around while forensics tests those bones, seeing if we can get a match on DNA or dental records to ID the victim.

Especially when I find Ophelia curled up on the couch and crying her eyes out.

Every thought of Mason Law, Cora Lafayette, and the scummy Arrendell clan goes flying out of my head.

I barely remember to close the door as I cross the floor quickly, dropping to my knees in front of the sofa and reaching for her hands.

“Philia?” I breathe. “Butterfly, what’s wrong?”

“No—no, I—”

She shakes her head quickly.

Fuck, it nearly wrenches my heart to bits when she pulls her hands away, rejecting my touch.

It almost breaks me, but I let her.

I ain’t gonna force her through that much hurt.

Sometimes all a man can do is know when to give his woman space.

Craning my head, I try to catch her wide, wet eyes again.

“Ophelia, talk to me. What happened? Did they call about Angela?”

“No, but they could!” she bursts out. “That’s… that’s the problem, you see.”

She’s got this pleading look.

Like she expects me to have an answer when I don’t even know the question.

“Babe, hey. Hey, whatever’s upsetting you, we can talk through it, okay?” I reach out tentatively, holding her chin up with my fingers. “Can you slow down and start over? Rewind a little and clue me in. I’m right the fuck here. I’m always listening.”

Sniffling, Ophelia doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, looking away from me and rubbing her red, raw nose.

When she finally speaks, it’s through trembling lips. “I just—I can’t do this, Grant.”

I know what she means before she explains it.

I know the feeling when a sledgehammer crashes into your heart, but I still have to ask.

“This?” I bite off.

Us!” she flares miserably. There’s a lashing anger in her voice, but it seems like it’s more for herself than for me. “I’m… I’m just all over the place. Everything hurts. I’m up and down all the time, falling for you and learning to love Nell while my mom’s dying and we don’t know what’s up with the Law guy and… and I don’t even know what’s going on with Ros. But I’m scared for her. I’m so scared, and I just can’t take all these feelings ripping me around. Grant, I…”

She can’t finish.

Not when she meets my eyes.

I hate that she can see I’ve been flayed the fuck open.

This girl, she’s breaking my goddamned heart.

Same way she did the night she decided to leave, only I was the fool who broke us then.

And me, being the complete buffalo-brained idiot I still am, I’m dead inside.

I don’t care about my own feelings.

Snarling, I push myself up on the sofa next to her and gather her into my arms.

“Just let me, okay? As your friend. Nothing else. Stop crying and c’mere, Ophelia. Let me hold you.”

She resists for a trembling moment, then glues herself to me the same way she always does, this tiny bundle hiding against me.

“I’m sorry,” she rattles out. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…

“Don’t be.” I stroke my hands over her back slowly. It’s killing me—fuck is it killing me—knowing I could lose her just as soon as I found her again. She’s hurting, though, and I ain’t gonna make that worse. “You’re going through pure hell, Philia. That’s what’s going on. You gotta do what helps you first and last. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. D-don’t you lie to me, Grant Faircross.”

“I ain’t lying. Promise. Cross my heart and hope to die, split a camel if I lie.”

That gets a weak smile from the bundle of woman in my arms.

“I never did figure out how you and Ethan came up with that camel splitting thing…”

I snort.

“Honestly don’t remember. I think we were trying to make it about how a camel will spit in your eye, but we were kids and it got all mixed up and corrupted.” I chuckle, even though it feels like chewing broken glass, and hold her closer. “Look, I don’t care if you’re breaking up with me. I’m still your friend. I’ve always been your friend.”

And I’ve always been obsessed.

A dead man walking, wishing like hell I could be so much more.

“…the best friend I’ve ever had,” she whispers. Her hand creeps out from her knotted-up tangle and curls in my shirt. “It’s… it’s not forever, Grant. Let me get through this. Let me think. That’s all I’m asking. I need to get to the other side of this—of everythingand then I can breathe. Then, maybe I can think about us.”

My eyes burn like hot coals as I smile.

There’s a little hope still burning, but it’s honestly the last thing on my mind.

All I know is the woman I love is hurting like hell and I can ease her pain.

I can help her deal with it by accepting what she needs right now and being there for her.

“We’ll talk when you’re ready,” I promise, smoothing her hair back to try to get a glimpse of her face. “For now, we’re gonna do what we can with what we’ve got. That means figuring out what’s really going on with Ros and helping her out whatever way we can. Okay? ’Cause something sure as hell ain’t right. I went up to talk to Lucia today. She was all about Aleksander pushing for a quick wedding. Does that sound like Ros to you?”

“No way.” Ophelia shakes her head raggedly. “Not at all, she always wanted to take her time. She was such a shy girl, barely ever dated. I used to tease her about finding a man before fifty at the pace I thought she’d go. But that was the Ros I knew. Old Ros…”

“Yeah. Old Ros is still there, Philia. Lucia said she’s holding up the show because she wants your ma there. That’s Old Ros. That’s the Ros who still cares about her family, no matter what else she’s going through. For Aleksander, this must be about something else. He’s getting something out of it.” I reach over, wiping a tear off her cheek with my thumb. “So you sit tight. We’re gonna figure out what that something is and then we’re not gonna stop talking sense until Ros fucking listens, okay?”

The worry in her eyes just piles up a little higher, a few more sharp stones on an avalanche of hurt, but slowly, she nods.

“Okay. I guess that makes sense,” she says. “Anyway, if you’ll give me a little bit, I’ll grab my stuff and get out of your hair. We can talk tomorrow and—”

“And not a goddamned thing,” I growl, holding her hand too tight. This possessive streak whips through me. “Maybe Mason Law’s in the hospital, but I’ve still got a bad feeling. You’re safer here with us. The guest room’s still yours.”

Her face crumples. “But after I—”

“Woman, you’re fine. Wouldn’t dream of sending you back home, letting you out of my sight.”

Her face smooths. She knows I won’t budge on this lone condition, keeping her close.

Leaning in, I press a kiss to her forehead.

I have to remind myself that right now, if I can’t be her lover, I’ll damn sure be family. I’ll look after her the way Ethan would’ve wanted, just like an older brother would.

“Okay,” she whispers back with a shy smile.

“Go on up and get some rest. I’ll fetch Nell from my folks and then get everybody fed.”


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