We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 2

ONE BAD MEMORY (OPHELIA)

I swear, I have the world’s worst luck with rental cars.

The last time I had a car give out on me, I was driving through the Pacific Northwest on a scenic road trip during a short sabbatical.

I’d rented this nice Lexus convertible so I could enjoy the show with the top down, but all I’d gotten was a face full of smoke when the radiator blew right outside of a cozy little place called Heart’s Edge, Montana.

At the time, I felt lucky to hitch a ride into town with a friendly ranch girl named Libby, who dropped me off at the mechanic’s with a little teasing about how it happens so much they’re starting to think it’s aliens.

This time, though, I don’t think aliens have anything to do with it.

It’s just good old-fashioned Redhaven bad luck.

And my luck is definitely running out as the Corolla I rented sputters and gasps just as I’m cresting the final hill before the familiar drop down into the valley cupping the town.

It’s strange coming home this way.

I haven’t seen this town in ages—and if it wasn’t for life happening, I’d be happy to never see it again.

But fate keeps driving me back here one nasty blow at a time.

First, the job loss. The recession slammed Florida pretty hard and the Miami hospice center where I worked ’regretfully’ served me a pink slip when budget cuts knifed through the staff.

My sister Rosalind was acting weird as hell on the phone, too.

Spacey, out of it, distant, evasive.

In our last video call, her eyes were bloodshot and sunken in like she’d been crying hard. But when I asked, she just giggled, avoided looking at me, and swore up and down she was fine.

No, I don’t think she’s fine.

And after losing our brother, Ethan, seeing Ros struggle is too much.

It scares me to the bone.

Old memories of Ethan keep surfacing, too, dredged up by the national news coverage of the Emma Santos murder case, plus the Arrendell tie to the deaths of so many girls, including hometown cold case Celeste Graves.

Then there’s my mother.

Even as I fight the car to the shoulder and slam the brakes on before gravity takes hold and pulls me into an uncontrolled skid downhill, my eyes sting.

My mother is dying.

Again.

And I don’t know if I can survive it a second time.

For her sake, I have to.

I jam the parking brake on and scramble out, shivering in the early October chill.

Yeah, I’ve been a Florida girl for too long. The autumn cold creeping over North Carolina leaves me feeling as naked in my thin sweater as the leafless branches of the dense poplar and pine trees around Redhaven.

I pop the hood and look inside.

I’m no mechanic—not even TikTok car-savvy—but at least I can tell nothing popped loose this time. There’s nothing obvious, nothing smoking, sparking, or broken.

Crud.

Well, at least this time I know it’s not the radiator hose.

Frowning, I brace my hands on my hips and look down the hill into town.

Redhaven looks as picturesque as ever in its silence.

It’s the kind of perfect Stepford village in every horror movie where eventually you find out that underneath the gorgeous colonial homes and peaceful forests and pristine glassy lake, there’s a horrible secret waiting to swallow up the unsuspecting.

A witch buried under a massive tree with blood-red roots.

Townsfolk who turn into cannibals by night.

Cults and rituals and evil sacrifices in the woods.

Or maybe it’s just one weird family with a million rumors and their fingers in everything and too much money for their own good.

I eye the majestic dark house up on the peak of the opposite hill, then swing my attention down to the town square with its majestic statue of the town’s founder.

Another Arrendell, go figure.

It should only be a quarter-mile hike downhill into town, and at this time of morning Mort’s Garage should be open and empty except for old Mort himself. I can already see him falling asleep over his corncob pipe, about to tip his chair back with his bad habit of rocking it in his sleep.

But as I pop the trunk to see if I can dig up something warmer to keep my teeth from chattering on the walk, I’m caught by flashing lights from below.

A white van with red and blue lights darts away from Redhaven’s narrow cobbled streets and bolts onto the highway up the hill, followed by two cop cars. As the van zips closer, I can just make out the logo on the side.

Raleigh County Coroner.

Oh, no.

Here we go again.

My soul compresses into a lump of black dread.

I clutch a fist against my chest and breathe roughly.

No, no, please don’t let me be too late.

Please don’t let the cancer eat my mother while I was on that flight from Miami to Raleigh, please

The van whizzes past, followed by the cop cars.

My heart knots with a different feeling as I catch a glimpse of the man in the driver’s seat of the second car.

Holy hell.

I haven’t seen him in so long, I can’t be a hundred percent sure. But I think it was him.

I think that was Grant Faircross.

Just a glimpse of a broad frame, dark hair, a starkly defined brow that always made him a perma-grump, set in a brooding scowl.

No—I must be imagining things.

All these memories reaching up and making me see people I’d rather forget.

That couldn’t have been Grant.

My heart can’t take seeing him right now.

“That’s not your mother in that van,” I tell myself.

No way. It’s not logical.

I’d have gotten the call no one ever wants long before anyone loaded her up and took her away.

So as the cop cars pass, I try to refocus on practical things.

Like rummaging around in my suitcase until I come up with a long-sleeved Henley I normally use as a nightshirt and pull it on over my clothes. It’s not much, but at least it cuts the wind while my skin prickles with goose bumps.

As I zip the suitcase and slam the trunk shut, I notice the sound of an engine coming up behind me. Maybe it’ll be somebody I know and I can hitch a warm ride into town. I turn toward the growl of the approaching vehicle.

Just in time for one of the cop cars that just passed me to pull up to the curb behind me, easing to a halt and parking.

I blink.

…they turned back for me?

Well, I guess that’s their job, anyway. I’m just so used to big-city cops that I forgot about that small-town personal touch.

What I could never forget is the familiar body language of a man built like a human tank and carrying himself with the weight of a mountain.

I could never forget the way he makes my heart stop cold.

Grant flipping Faircross steps out from behind the wheel of his patrol car, unfolding himself with that slow-moving grace I never thought I’d see again.

The car bounces up by at least an inch as he stands with his weight no longer pressing down.

God.

When we were younger, Grant was an absolute wall of a boy, always taking up too much space and drawing the eye without trying.

Now he’s grown into a fortress of a man, so broad and muscled that his deep navy-blue uniform shirt looks like it had to be custom made to fit the breadth of his chest. Same goes for the black Redhaven Police Department jacket draped over his mile-wide shoulders.

There’s just one difference.

That iron-cut, arrogant jaw I remember is obscured by a wild scruff of dark-brown beard, framing the stern line of his mouth. His deep hazel eyes look like the last rays of a brassy sunset, watching me mysteriously, framed in heavy, weathered lines.

All the new edges to a familiar face that reminds me just how much time has passed.

Just how much distance stands between us now.

Somehow, my heart doesn’t care.

Just seeing him again makes me feel like the spindly, knob-kneed girl I used to be. I almost forget how easily he can be a sledgehammer to the heart.

There I was, trailing after my older brother and his best friend like a lost kitten.

Completely hypnotized by Grant’s stone-cold silence, his gruffness, his mystery.

Like half the girls in Redhaven, I thought I was going to be the magic one who could get through to him when all he saw was a skinny pipsqueak who wouldn’t go away.

I want to hate him for that, too.

But I’m not that girl anymore.

I’m a grown woman with a life and problems of my own.

I don’t need Grant Faircross to notice me.

Except as he stands there, looking at me with his thick, coarse hands resting on his hips and the wind whipping at his chocolate hair with just a hint of silver, I’m frozen.

Absolutely tongue-tied since I won’t admit to being awed.

I can’t handle this right now.

It’s too much, too soon, when everything else piling up has me feeling as fragile as blown glass. So ready to shatter in an instant if he utters one harsh word.

But he doesn’t say anything at all.

He just reaches inside the patrol car, retrieves a battered brown cowboy hat from the dash, and settles it on his head.

My breath stalls.

Ethan’s hat.

My brother used to wear that freaking thing everywhere, ever since he was a kid, never caring that it was too big for him. Then one day he just chucked it onto Grant’s head and said, If you won’t say we’re best friends, you big asshole, at least wear this dumb hat. That way I know we’re cool.

Grant didn’t say a word.

He never did.

The man could never string a single sentence together in emotional-speak.

Oh, but he’d worn that dumb hat, all right.

And seeing it settled on his head now, the broad brim shadowing his eyes and the leather band still dotted with those turquoise beads I carved ages ago into the shapes of crude, tiny butterflies…

I’m gone.

I feel myself falling down, ready to cry.

I’m actually glad when Grant doesn’t say one word.

He just strides past me, his steps long and lazy with a terrible hint of swagger.

So, he still carries himself with the aura of a man who knows just how much space he takes up and how much strength he packs in the slightest movement.

There’s a breathless moment when he brushes past me.

When my lungs remember how to work, I can even smell him.

Something like woodsmoke and fresh, clean, earthy masculinity.

His scent slaps me back to that unspeakable night so long ago.

A time when I thought nothing of being buried against Grant’s chest, secretly burning and hiding against him while he held me, comforted me, kept my crumbling world from falling down.

He let me inhale him then until I couldn’t smell the salt of my own tears pouring down my cheeks.

Then he’s gone, and I’m back in the dreary present.

Wrapping my arms around myself, I fight a chill that runs deeper than any cold.

Turning, I watch as Grant prowls to the front of the car and its open hood. Even with the raised metal in the way, he’s so broad that when he bends over the Corolla’s innards, I can still see his shoulder protruding past it.

Beautiful.

Not even a Welcome home, Ophelia.

But maybe he’s never forgiven me for leaving.

You’re gonna run, Philia? That’s your answer? Fucking running away from Ethan?

Then don’t come back.

It still stings like it did the first time he killed me with those words.

I haven’t seen him since that day.

Until now.

And what a sight for sore eyes I must be, back in Redhaven with my tail tucked between my legs, as miserable and small as if I never left at all.

If he’s the least bit torn up, he doesn’t show it.

Grant fiddles with something inside the car—and his rough, sandpapery voice emerges from behind the hood. “Radiator hose popped.”

“It did not. I checked.” I instantly scowl.

“Should’ve checked harder,” he growls. “Damn thing can look like it’s still together, but once the seal breaks you’re not going anywhere, Butterfly.”

Ugh, that nickname.

The big idiot can still cut me open with a single word.

It really is like I was just here yesterday.

To him, I’m still the starry-eyed little sister who doesn’t know what she’s doing, who has to be watched like the unwanted tagalong.

If Ethan were here, he’d smack Grant on the back of the head and tell him to be nicer to the butterfly nerd.

But Ethan’s not here.

Just his ghost, making the silence between us so tense it’s suffocating.

While I’m fighting the bitterness on my tongue, Grant fiddles with something inside the Corolla. Then he straightens and slams the hood shut with a deafening boom!

The car bounces on its wheels.

“That’ll do you for a few.” He lifts his head, fixing those unreadable mocha-dark hazel eyes on me. “Long enough to get you over to Mort’s. Wouldn’t drive it any farther.”

Thanks, Dad, I start to snap.

All these years without so much as a note by pigeon, and he still thinks he’s the boss of me.

But I remind myself again that I’m a grown woman now.

Not that little girl.

Definitely not Butterfly.

And I need to leave that bratty ego in the past, along with everything else. At least he’s just helping this time instead of doing a controlled demolition on my heart.

“Thank you, Grant.” I force a smile.

There’s something so strange about the way he’s looking at me.

I guess some things never change.

I never could tell what he’s really thinking, what he’s about to say, if he bothers to say anything at all.

When I was younger and hadn’t had the hopeless romantic knocked out of me yet, his silence always seemed so mysterious, this cryptic harshness begging for a gentle touch.

Now, it’s just frustrating.

Not knowing what to say while he stays silent.

But my heart climbs up my throat as he steps closer.

The space between us vanishes.

It’s like there’s an invisible red thread stretching from me to him, and instead of growing more slack as he draws near, it just pulls tighter, winding me up in knots.

He stops in front of me, looking down at me with shadows for eyes glowing beneath the brim of his hat.

Right before he shrugs his powerful shoulders, slides out of his jacket, and—thrusts it at me?

What?

I blink at the jacket dumbly.

What’s happening doesn’t register until it does.

Oh.

Oh, crap.

He… he noticed I was shivering and underdressed.

That, too, is totally Grant.

The mute giant who won’t say a word when he’s not snarling at someone, but when something needs doing, he notices, all right.

Like jerry-rigging my car.

Like keeping me warm.

I take the jacket hesitantly with my heart coming undone.

For a frenzied second, my fingers brush his.

It’s a bitter sort of wonderful, the sizzle of his skin against mine. I wish he wasn’t wired into my blood like he’s a missing part of me, awakening dormant feelings I thought I’d stamped out forever.

Of course, there’s no reaction from him.

None.

But now I’m shivering with more than the cold as I slide his jacket around my shoulders and slip my arms into the oversized sleeves. I draw it close until I’m enveloped in his lingering body heat and that dizzying woodsmoke scent.

This jacket is so large I could nearly wrap it around me twice, the sleeves falling far past my hands and the hem dropping almost to my knees.

It’s like being wrapped up in him.

But it’s also not the same.

You don’t want that anymore, remember?

Do I?

Those are old memories trying to live in the now.

A broken, girlish crush that doesn’t belong to me anymore. But his scent lingers from the collar of the jacket.

My chest goes tight.

So tight.

And it’s nothing like the explosion of hurt that hits me as Grant says, with absolutely no warning, “I still miss him, too, Ophelia.”

Holy shit, holy shit.

I can’t breathe.

Just like that, he knocks the air out of me.

This harsh reminder that while he lost a friend, all those years ago, I lost a brother, and we’ll never get Ethan back.

It’s my turn to lose my voice. My lips part, but nothing comes out.

I stare at Grant, frozen to the spot.

His expression never changes, but I’m—dammit, I won’t cry.

Not in front of him when it hasn’t been five minutes.

I cried my tears dry years ago and put everything to rest, so I still have a smidge of pride.

Pride he lets me keep.

Because as soon as he moves around, I no longer have to look into those hazel eyes and wonder if that giant rock feels anything at all.

Those words, however heartfelt, don’t match that closed-off expression.

I just want to see it once.

I want to see some feeling on his face, to show me that Ethan ever meant anything to him at all.

No, that ever meant anything.

But he’s already walking past and I can’t see anything at all.

He’s leaving, so I don’t expect the warm, heavy hand that falls on my shoulder, burning me even through the dense layers of his jacket. This calming weight settles all the awful, squirming things zinging around inside me, pressing them down, down, down until they stop making me shake.

“Stopped in on your ma this morning,” Grant says. “She’s looking good. Can’t wait to see you again.”

“You went to see her?” I swallow, somehow finding my voice past the stunned shock.

“Just being neighborly.”

That gentle hand falls away.

I turn too quickly, heart in my throat, and watch as he walks back to his patrol car. His broad shoulders sway with the rhythm of his steps.

It’s so strange to think that after all these years, Grant’s been here with my mother.

Not me.

But I’m the one who ran away, aren’t I?

Yet, I’m so close to breaking into wretched sobs right now—this time with relief because I know for sure that coroner’s van wasn’t taking Mom away.

“Then who?” I ask faintly. “The coroner’s van, I mean.”

Grant stops at his patrol car, one big hand on the driver’s side door, the other on the roof, glancing back at me.

“Maid up at the big house.” He looks past me to the looming sharp outline of the Arrendell house. “Suicide.”

“Oh, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry for her family.”

Again, Grant says nothing.

He just looks at me for a fraught moment—then ducks into his car.

The engine starts and the patrol car backs up before U-turning onto the road.

Just like that, he’s gone, following the van with the poor dead woman out of town.

Leaving me alone on the side of the road with bad phantom memories and a heart he shouldn’t be able to break again.

I turn to stare at the elegant house on the hill, hating its mystery, while the cold seeps in and numbs my bones.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset