I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight more beautiful than all three Sanderson women together, happy, and whole.
Ros looks a hell of a lot more like herself after a stint in rehab.
Angela might as well have come back from the grave. There’s a second life infusing her with a radiance that seems too big for her rail-thin body.
My woman shines when she looks at me, her eyes overflowing with pure love.
Every morning, waking up next to her, I still have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.
How the hell did this become my life?
I still don’t know.
The way she fits right in like a missing puzzle piece to complete my soul seems too natural.
Without any warning, I’ve got a whole family.
It’s almost too easy looking after Nelly-girl together, making our house, doing damn near everything together.
It shouldn’t be this easy after the tragedy and scars and absence.
But I guess that’s the thing about old wounds.
Once you stop picking at them, they start healing awfully fast.
And healed is what I am.
I’m a new man, greeting each morning with a smile because I get to love Ophelia Sanderson like she never left.
Can’t say I care if it feels too easy sometimes.
Maybe love is worth fighting for, but true love ought to come natural. Being with someone who just fits you so well that not even ten years apart can change how you mesh together.
That’s not to say the last few weeks have been a cakewalk.
Ophelia’s still been beating herself up over everything.
For not knowing enough, for not protecting her little sister, for not pulling some magic rabbit out of her hat that would bring her mother back to life.
Even if she doesn’t say it out loud, a man can tell.
Only this time, instead of pushing me away and crawling up in her head, she let me stay.
Let me hold her on those cold creeping winter nights when her soul got too heavy to bear.
Let me kiss her tears away.
Let me see those little moments of shaky hope as the calls came in from the specialists every day, confirming steady progress by inches for her whole family till she knew they would be out of the woods.
Then that beautiful, grateful personality came out in full joy.
The same joy she’s showered me with over and over again.
Sometimes with her words.
And sometimes, it’s just the way we get tangled in the sheets, fusing our bodies together like we were always meant for each other. So wrapped up in ourselves that sometimes we forget to sleep.
There are a few mornings I dragged myself in to work completely worn out and haggard. Sleepless because I couldn’t get enough of her.
Got plenty of shit for it, too, when every last one of the guys knows exactly why I’ve got bags under my eyes.
The only one I haven’t threatened to punch yet is Lucas—mostly ’cause he went through the same bullshit when he finally captured his hellcat of a wife.
Goddamn, I can’t wait to devour Ophelia again tonight.
But now isn’t the time.
Now, I’ve got to reach down in my gut and find the right words for this news.
Grabbing the one free chair in the room, I drag it over to where they’re all clustered like birds, nesting around Angela’s bed, the girls perched on the edge and all of them clinging to each other.
I’ve never been cut out for this.
A hundred years as a cop wouldn’t make this any easier.
Never been much good with words, either, but somehow for Ophelia, I learned to speak my mind without snarling them. To be honest rather than sliding into harshness.
Unfortunately, with the shit that needs saying today, this can’t be gentle.
Yet it’s Philia’s encouraging gaze that makes me dig deep, find my voice, and speak.
Because she needs this.
They all do when they’ve been waiting far too long.
“I know what happened to Ethan,” I begin slowly. “The whole story of the night he disappeared. I knew he never would’ve left us willingly. I know those bones belong to him—forensics confirmed it this morning. And now I know without a doubt that he had nothing to do with what happened to Celeste Graves. That he tried to save her. That he’s innocent. It won’t bring him back, no, but it lets us have our memories without any nagging questions. Without more wishing or guessing or doubts.”
I’m expecting the tears.
What I’m not expecting is that it makes me panic anyway, freezing up as all three Sanderson women look at each other—then burst into rolling grief, grabbing each other, burying their feelings in a big group hug.
They’re not saying anything, no, so I don’t know if it’s relief or horror or if I did this right, if I fucked this up—
“Come here, boy,” Angela almost snaps, but there’s warmth in her voice. Deep, heartfelt emotion, and she holds her arm out. “You’re part of this family, too. Come let me hug you.”
Gratitude tinged with sadness.
Oh, thank God.
I’m slow to move, but then Ophelia peeks past her mother’s shoulder and gives me a shy, sweet smile, offering her curled fingers as well.
I can’t resist.
So I stand, stepping closer to the bed.
Soon, I’ve got my arms full of all three women, crying on me and hugging like it’s the end of the world. In a way, they’re not wrong.
Good thing I’m a human tree, I guess.
I ain’t gonna cry myself.
But it still feels like years of heartbreak bleeding out of me.
It’s finally over.
And there’s nothing better than being part of this tight-knit family knot, wrapped up with these girls and able to grieve for real.
Finally, finally, able to let go.
It takes a good while for them to let go—and when I fall back into my chair, Ophelia disentangles herself from her mother and sister to join me.
I’m a little self-conscious about her sitting in my lap in front of her ma when I’ve got every mind to ask permission for certain things and Angela’s looking at me like she knows, but like hell I’m gonna push Ophelia away.
She settles on my thigh, this small thing nestled against my chest with her arms around my neck, looking up at me with sweet expectation.
“Tell us,” she murmurs. “Since we’re ripping all the Band-Aids off today, tell us everything.”
I take a deep breath and nod.
“I’ve just been talking to Law. He’s lucid again and this time he managed to stay up longer than a few minutes. When I told him our suspicions and said I had forensics working on those bones, I think he knew it was up. He spilled everything.” I search their hopeful eyes. “Turns out, when the Arrendells lured Celeste Graves up to the big house for Ulysses’ sick games, Ethan went after her. He tried to stop her murder. Only, Aleksander was a part of that, too. He thought enabling his little brother was funny—a fucking riot—” I can’t hide the growling disgust in my voice. “Sorry. Anyway, he went after Ethan when he knew he was coming. Made Mason Law drive him, chased Ethan off, wound up driving his motorcycle off the road. He…”
My voice breaks.
It’s hard as hell to say this, especially when I can feel Ophelia trembling. She hides her face against my chest as I fold my arms tighter around her, holding her.
“He died in the crash,” I grind out. Both Angela and Ros watch me with wide eyes, frozen and listening. “Aleksander buried him there and made Law dispose of the motorcycle debris and other evidence. Law kept his head down after that, stayed quiet all these years because he was terrified they’d kill him next—until Cora Lafayette found out about Aleksander’s relationship with Ros. She went and confided in Law about the letters. They swapped stories about a lot of Arrendell dirt. Then her murder happened—”
“Murder? Cora’s dead?” Angela’s face crumples. She curls her hand against her chest.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. She didn’t make it easy for them. If it wasn’t for Cora, we’d have never learned all this. Because she didn’t kill herself. Mason and Cora were close and one day Aleksander overheard her telling him about the letters. He took matters into his own hands. He hung her.”
The women gasp.
My heart wrenches with fury, realizing what a fucked up story this is.
Aleksander Arrendell’s savagery only hit its limit because he’s dead.
“Mason, he couldn’t take it anymore,” I continue. “He lashed out, stole the letters, and hid them. He was going to try to warn y’all, using them as evidence, but shit kept going sideways. He wasn’t in the best place mentally. First, we thought he was a stalker, and then it turns out Aleksander poisoned him before he left their property. Some sort of slow acting agent that wasn’t dosed right. That’s why it took so long to catch up with him and take him down. Mason was trying to atone, I think. Trying to soothe a guilty conscience, for not doing anything when Ethan died. In his own way, I guess he succeeded, saving you girls.”
“Oh my God. God, I never…” Angela shakes her head, struggling to continue. “I never fathomed the evil in that house. I never thought—well, it doesn’t matter now.” She gathers a weeping Ros close. “All that matters is you girls are safe now.”
But Ros is stiff and she lets out a choked, “Oh my God. Holy crap.” Her throat works. “I… I almost married the man who killed my brother.” She goes pale and claps a hand over her mouth. “I’m gonna throw up.”
Angela loosens her grip.
“Bathroom, dear,” she says gently.
There’s a frozen hell moment.
With a nauseated sound, Ros bolts into the suite’s bathroom and slams the door.
Ophelia turns her head from watching, and when she speaks, her voice is subdued. “…will she be okay?”
Angela glances at the bathroom, her eyes troubled. “She will. She’s stronger than you know, dear. Of course, we’ll be there to help her through it.”
“We will,” Ophelia agrees—then squeezes me tight, burying her face in my shoulder. “Thank you. Thank you for telling us, Grant, without leaving out the ugly parts. Honestly, we needed it. We needed the truth, warts and all.”
“Philia, no. If there was any other way, I’d have traded years off my life. I’m sorry this truth has to hurt like hell. It’s got me torn up just as bad as you ladies,” I say roughly, grabbing her hand.
She squeezes me so tight, I hardly notice the warm, soulful smile her ma beams our way.
“Thank you for never giving up. Without you, we never would’ve found out what happened to him. And that freak, Aleksander, I don’t even want to think about what he’d have gotten away with if you hadn’t stepped in, if you hadn’t—” she chokes off, shaking her head severely.
“Ethan was my brother too, Ophelia. Not by blood, but family all the same. Now we can finally give him the rest he deserves.” I’m fucking breaking as I say those words, but it’s the sun in this room holding me together.
This small woman with the same calm, easy smile as my best friend.
I think that’s the one thing all the Sandersons share, that smile, no matter what else makes up the other half of their DNA.
And even if I won’t say it right now, finding out the full grisly picture took something heavy off my heart, banishing a darkness in my soul.
The truth will set you free.
That’s not just a Bible verse anymore. It’s something everybody in this room has lived and breathed.
Only question now is what the hell we do with that freedom.
I haven’t figured it all out, not yet, but I’ve got a few ideas.
Inhaling slowly, I brush her hair back and kiss the top of her head.
“I had to know. Same as you. Now, we’ve got our answers, and Aleksander Arrendell will never hurt anybody again,” I whisper.
It goes quiet then.
Just the sound of running water in the bathroom, the faint beep of Angela’s monitor, and the soft sounds of Ophelia breathing softly as she settles in my arms.
I let her stay with me while she processes the shock.
Over her head, I catch Angela’s eye.
Her mother studies me for a long moment, something sad yet warm in her gaze, before her mouth curls and she gives me a subtle nod.
That’s when my breath stalls and it hits me.
She sees me.
She knows how much her daughter means to me.
She looks at me like I’ve always been family, and not in the creepy fucking Arrendell way.
And she’s telling me it’s all right to make that a reality.
That if I want to catch Ophelia while she’s spinning, if I want to keep her and never let her go, I don’t need to dillydally with the usual slow-burn shit.
I already have the blessing of the woman Ophelia loves most.
I just have to man the fuck up and gather my courage.
I have to find the right words one more time to tear my heart open and ask one simple question.
It’s a quiet farewell when we exit the medical center together, leaving Angela and Ros to talk and comfort each other.
We walk silently, hand in hand, until we part ways at the station.
I still need to file a proper report with Mason Law’s confession while the details are fresh in my mind.
“I’ll be home soon,” I promise, cupping her cheek and kissing her in the street, her cold-reddened nose brushing mine.
Her kiss comes slow and delicately wanting, all gentleness and parted lips that beckon me inside like she needs me to fill her. I oblige, sinking into her with my eyes closed until there’s nothing but her darkness, her heat, the curl of her breath against my cheeks.
It’s so hard to pull back it hurts, but I do, smiling faintly.
“It’s just a few blocks,” she teases, her cheeks flushed with more than just the cold. “But I will.”
She turns and walks away, wrapped up in one of my flannels and still shivering.
That silly woman has two sweaters on, still too distracted by life to buy a proper coat.
I stand and watch her till I can’t see her anymore, then glance at the door of the police station. An instinct pricks at my skin.
You know what?
The police report can wait.
I won’t forget anything when all the sordid details are carved in my brain.
Right now, I’ve got something more important to take care of.
And the woman I almost let get away waiting for me at home, asking for a fresh start to a life we can finally build, without this horrible black hole of grief in the way.
She’s made me more than a one-trick pony, obsessed with procedure and haunted by clawing after answers I finally have.
How could I not want to return the favor?
We’ve always been in this together.