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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 3

ONE DAY AT A TIME (GRANT)

Fuck, I should’ve told her.

I slouch at my desk at the dilapidated little Redhaven PD precinct office, staring at the paperwork on the Cora Lafayette case. My pen taps restlessly against the half-filled report.

I just need to wrap up my notes. Once we get the coroner’s report, we can file this away. Should only take five minutes or so.

Instead, I can’t stop thinking about it.

I should’ve told her.

I should’ve told Ophelia that her younger sister is engaged to Aleksander goddamned Arrendell.

I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I could hardly get a fucking word out at all, not after seeing her for the first time in—damn, how many years has it been?

Too many after she went tearing out of Redhaven the second she was college ready, heading to nursing school out of state and never looking back.

Ten years.

I remember a girl—slim and lithe and headstrong—with a dancer’s delicate build and a bulldog’s determination.

Butterfly.

That’s who she was back then, barely old enough to drink and an adorable pain in the ass with an attitude bigger than her frame.

The Ophelia who came back is a stranger and all woman.

And that woman doesn’t need me dumping more trouble on her doorstep than she’s ready to handle, especially with her ma’s cancer relapsing. That’s probably why Ros didn’t want to fess up and tell her yet.

I should just trust her to know her sister.

She’ll know the right place and time.

What matters is that it’s not my place.

Doubt I could’ve spilled the truth without doing more damage, anyway. Hell, I almost didn’t recognize Ophelia when I saw her, changed by time and the sorcery of growing up.

Somehow, those girlish features got refined into sophisticated elegance, but the glacial perfection of her face just can’t be cold when her mouth is crooked and red and sweet.

Yeah, fuck me for staring at her mouth.

She’s got this way of quirking her head to one side and biting her cheek like she’s always about to laugh. The cold October breeze turned her honey-blonde hair from a tumble into a cloud, flaring around her in streaming wisps. They glowed like gold where the sun caught them, the entire mass caught up inside the collar of my coat.

Then there are those wide green eyes, gone angled and soft and wiser with age, yet still so innocent.

Still so familiar it kicks me in the face when I know the sharp mind behind that pointed gaze.

She’s so much more than a distant memory when she’s here again.

And I can’t believe she’s still got my heart tied up with nothing more than a glance.

Hell, if Ethan were around, he’d sock me in the mouth and tell me to keep my eyes and my dirty paws off his little sister.

He’d probably be right.

I’m pretty sure she hates me anyway.

She has every right.

After the way we parted, I’d hate my miserable, bitter, antisocial ass, too.


Ten Years Ago

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

For such a skinny string bean of a girl, Ophelia’s always been as perceptive as a mirror.

Sometimes I want to ask her how she always knows.

Only, I think she’d smack me clean across the face if I did.

We’re sitting out back on her ma’s porch. It’s gotten to be a habit in the time since Ethan disappeared without a trace.

Almost ten damn years now.

I couldn’t do much, not back when he first vanished.

I was only twenty then, still in college and working to get on the Redhaven PD. After that, I was just a rookie. As I’ve worked my way up to a proper badge, I’ve kept up the same habit, year after year.

I have to look in on the Sandersons.

On Angela, on little Ros, on Ophelia, just to see how they’re coping.

I have to make sure they’re okay.

Ethan would’ve wanted it that way.

I think he’d like me watching over them, even if he would’ve given me endless shit over it and laughed his dumb head off.

He also would’ve known I’d never stop looking for him, no matter how many years slip by without answers.

I just don’t know how to tell Ophelia we finally have a clue and a new mess of questions, so I sink down in my patio chair and pop my beer tab.

She eyes me, sighs, and picks up her iced tea.

“You’re just going to sit there and grump all evening, aren’t you?”

My eyebrows go up. “Just drinking my beer, Butterfly. Shut it.”

She laughs.

“You throw that on for the bug or because you actually like the songs?” I nod at her chest and the shirt she’s wearing.

“The new album rocks! The symbol’s just a fun bonus,” she says.

Goddamn, does that outfit suit her. She’s wearing an oversized t-shirt tonight with a print of Milah Holly’s latest album cover on it. It’s a purple butterfly smeared across a black background like a soul taking flight—if it wasn’t just crushed and smeared by some clumsy asshole’s hand.

Me, I don’t get Holly’s music, but almost every girl under thirty does when the singer belts out ballads about broken hearts and pure love and good girls pushed into being bad by some uniquely awful fuckboy.

“You’re being all secretive again. Come on, what is it this time?” She huffs impatiently, sips more tea, and thunks the glass down on the little table between us. In the evening shadows, her eyes are green fireflies, as bright as the little glowing bugs dancing across the grass and trees of her blue-shaded backyard. “Did you find something new? With Ethan, I mean?”

Fuck, what’s that saying about good deeds going unpunished?

I wonder if this girl’s psychic as I shrug.

Truth be told, I’m a little embarrassed.

How could I not be, trying like hell to figure out where Ethan went for three damn years now and turning up with a big fat nothing?

If he ran off with Celeste Graves, if he got into a fight with her and—no.

I can’t think that shit.

That’s what half the town believes these days.

That he had something going on or he was so obsessed he lost his shit and disappeared them both.

Nah, I knew Ethan. He couldn’t have pulled a hair on her head when he was mooning over her half his life and he just wasn’t that type of guy.

A murderer? Even in some fit of fucked up passion or jealousy?

Not on my life.

For me, there are only two options.

One, he fessed up his feelings and she echoed them right back. They took off somewhere together to be happy without telling another living soul.

Or they didn’t make it anywhere alive—and if we ever find Ethan, it won’t be a happy ending at all.

It’s just gonna be whatever’s left of him. Hell, maybe Celeste Graves too.

Still, it shouldn’t have taken this long to find the note.

I’m not sure I want to tell Ophelia about it. Not till I understand why he hid it where he did, almost like he didn’t want it to be found.

“Hey.” Ophelia swings her legs. Her feet don’t even touch the ground. She’s always been a short thing and I guess that’s not changing. “I’ll tell you a secret if you tell me yours.”

“Seriously?” I side-eye her hard. “We’re a little old for ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’”

“Don’t be gross, Grant.” She flushes hotly.

“Mm-hmm.” I take a sip of my beer. “What’ve you got to tell me?”

“Nope. You first.”

I shake my head slowly, looking away from her across the yard. Past the porch overhang, the sky is clear and deep blue, the stars just freckles in the night. “Your news good news or shitty?”

“Yep. Good.”

“Then you go first. Let’s hear something good for a change.”

I’m already waiting for it when it comes—a slender fist thumping me in the arm. “You’re just trying to avoid telling me. Promise if I tell you, you’ll tell me.”

I sigh heavily. “You are a goddamned brat.”

“Asshole.”

“Punk.”

“Dick.”

“You kiss your ma with that mouth?” I growl.

As I say it, I can’t help glancing at her.

Yeah.

I’m thinking she’s gonna be glaring at me like usual, but no.

She’s got the weirdest look on her face tonight. Her skin’s all soft and pink again, like the summer heat crawled up inside her when it disappeared with the sunset.

That mouth I know she kisses her ma with is plump and red, her lips parted, and when she catches me staring she looks away stiffly.

Hell, I do too when I know how messed up that is.

She’s Ethan’s kid sister. The ultimate forbidden fruit.

I damned sure shouldn’t be eyeing her mouth or any part of her at all when I’m pushing thirty and I’m only here ’cause her missing brother was—still is—my best friend.

“I kiss my mom and anyone else I want,” she says haughtily. “Jeez. I hope there are nicer guys than you down in Florida.”

“Florida?” I frown. “What the hell’s there?”

“University of Miami,” she says triumphantly, flashing me a look. “I got a full-ride scholarship for my nursing degree. The letter came a few days ago.”

My chest goes cold.

I stare at her in disbelief.

It’s like my brain shrinks inside my skull as my world gets smaller and darker.

“Philia, you’re—you’re leaving Redhaven?”

“Um, yeah.” Thinning her lips, Ophelia glares at me. “You could try being happy for me, you know.”

“Congratulations,” I bite off. “Why the fuck you leaving? NC State ain’t good enough for you?”

“Why does it matter?” she flings back. “Christ, Grant, can’t you just… like, be nice about something for once?”

“You know damn well what I’m saying, Butterfly,” I snarl. “You and me, we’re the only ones still looking for him. Even your ma gave up and had that fancy headstone put up. And now you’re leaving? Fuck, you’re up and quitting just like that?”

I almost regret my words as she winces.

Almost.

Because that twisting dagger lodged in my chest can’t soften my words.

“I can’t live my whole life around Ethan!” she flares. She lights up when she’s mad, glowing like lightning, just vibrating from the inside out. “Do you think he’d want that, Grant? Do you think he’d really want me to put my whole life on hold to keep chasing him?”

“Somebody’s gotta. If it ain’t us, then fucking who?

Dammit, I can’t stop how my voice rises.

My hand crushes the beer can till it dents inward with a loud screech and I drop it on the patio table. “Look, just ’cause he said not to look for him doesn’t fucking mean we shouldn’t.”

Ophelia starts to snap at me—then stops cold, drawing up short, staring with her eyes big and shining like marbles.

The color drains from her face until she’s as white as a sheet against the golden halo of her hair. “…what do you mean he said not to look for him?”

Fuck.

Me and my big mouth.

Sighing, I sink back into the chair like I’m trying to bury myself in it. The furniture creaks under me, and I close my eyes, steeling myself before I reach into my uniform blazer’s pocket and fish out a folded slip of tattered paper to pass over.

She takes it with shaking fingers.

Confusion knits her brow as she unfolds it and stares down at the handwriting scrawled across the paper, slowly reading it out loud.

“I knew you’d find me here. Don’t look for me, Grant. If you’ve found this, I’m already gone. There’s something I need to do, consequences be damned.” Her breath sucks in sharply and she presses her knuckles to her mouth. “This… this is Ethan’s handwriting, where did you…?”

“Stuffed inside that old copy of Where the Wild Things Are. Same one I used to read to y’all when we were kids,” I admit reluctantly. “He must’ve left it there ’cause he knew I’d take a while to look, and by then he’d be long gone if something went bad. I dug the book out since I was gonna give it to my aunt and uncle since they’re trying to have a baby and all. Figured they could read it to their kid—and that shit just fell right out.”

She works her lips, swallowing loudly. Her eyes glisten.

“So he… he really did leave us?”

“I don’t know. Don’t think so. That’s Ethan’s handwriting, all right, but—” I shake my head slowly. “Something feels off about this, Philia. I can’t believe he would’ve done that, ghosting us without a word. You know it, too. You fucking know. If he was fixing to run off with the girl of his dreams, he’d have let us know where to find him.”

“Wh-what are you saying?”

“There’s some kind of message there, I don’t—fuck, I don’t fucking know, okay? I know I sound batshit insane.”

“You sound like an asshole—as usual—but not crazy. Not at all.” Her voice is so weak, her head bowed. In the dark I can’t make out her face, but her thick voice tells me that she’s struggling not to cry. “Why’d you even show me this? Why’d you show me if you don’t know what it means?”

That dagger in my chest sinks deeper.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know fucking anything!” she throws back, and when she lifts her head, it’s not that she’s trying not to cry—it’s that she was hiding the tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Ophelia,” I try, but the words won’t come.

She glares at me for a breathless second—then chucks the letter right at me.

The air catches the cursed paper and sends it fluttering down on the table between us, this damning thing. “So you just… you’re going to throw that at me and bring up all these old memories for what? So I won’t leave? So I’ll keep chasing Ethan’s ghost instead of having a life?”

I almost rock back.

A shotgun burst to the heart wouldn’t have the same punch.

“No, damn you!” I shoot back, and dammit, I’m trying not to yell but she just pulls it out of me. “Don’t. Just don’t fucking give up on him, okay? That’s what I’m asking, all I ever asked.”

“If you think just because I want to go to college, I’m giving up on my brother…” Ophelia stands. Her slender frame thrums with energy, with anger, shivering so hard that loose shirt shakes against her body, her eyes lit furious. “You don’t know me at all, Grant. I’m going. I’m going, and you can’t stop me.”

“Never tried,” I snarl, rising to my feet. “Go on. Fucking go to Florida. Leave your family.” Leave me, I don’t say, still tasting those bitter words. “You’re gonna run, Ophelia? That’s your answer? You’re gonna run away from Ethan?” I grind my teeth. “Then get out. Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back.”

I don’t mean it.

I don’t fucking mean it at all, but there’s this sudden scalding panic in my chest at the idea of never seeing Ophelia Sanderson again.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m having this crazy déjà vu over the thought of her disappearing just like her brother or if I’m actually wanting her to—

No.

I can’t think about that shit.

I already planted my foot in my mouth so far it’s blown out my ass.

Ophelia’s eyes widen.

There’s an instant hurt, where I know those tears aren’t just for Ethan, but because I just stabbed her so brutally.

Then it closes over behind anger, her mouth setting with stubborn determination.

“Fine,” she bites off, cutting and cold. “I will. If I don’t come back, I won’t have to deal with angry pricks like you. Get lost, Grant. I don’t want to see you again.”

Just like that.

Believe me, I know it’s what I deserve.

Her ripping my beating heart out with a few savage words, sentencing me to the same fate that has me so piss scared.

But before I can say anything, she whirls around and she’s gone, slamming through the back door of her house into the golden glow of her kitchen.

Just a last whipping slash of her baggy butterfly shirt before I can’t see her anymore and I’m alone.

I stand there like the colossal idiot I am for the longest time.

The night hums with crickets and frogs, a whole world indifferent to my suffering and my stupidity.

I know I need to leave.

This isn’t my house anymore, even if it’s been a second home since I was a kid.

Even if those memories I cherish double as a torture chamber now.

Late nights watching movies in the Sandersons’ living room, me and Ethan sitting cross-legged on the floor with our faces nearly pressed to the TV. We were glued to some bad monster movie or clutching our controllers tight as we tried to shoot every zombie.

Ophelia would sneak down way past her bedtime and curl up on the sofa, hugging her blanket with the red butterflies to her chest, glued to us like a little burr.

Tumbling around the backyard. Chasing each other through the woods bordering the property, telling ghost stories, daring each other to do stupid kid shit.

Back then, the three of us were inseparable.

The world made sense.

When Ethan disappeared, the glue holding us together came apart along with reality, leaving this chaos that has my dumb ass spinning in circles.

The screen door squeals behind me and I turn. “Ophelia—”

But it’s not her.

Angela Sanderson steps out on the back porch, her movements slow and graceful.

She’s the spitting image of an older Ophelia, grace and beauty refined into something more reserved and dignified and weathered.

Instead of Ophelia’s shining green eyes, her mother’s eyes are a soft, compassionate brown. She still wears a scarf over her tumbles of blonde hair, even after all these years. Used to be, she’d wear it to cover how her hair was falling out from the chemo while she fought off cancer, but now it’s like it’s part of Angela’s whole look, a trademark modest thing.

Just as familiar as her gentle smile as she looks up at me, sighing. “Fighting again, are you? You two are like oil and water lately, sad to say.”

“Guess so, ma’am.” I grumble, trailing into a groan.

Smile lingering, Angela stops at my side, folding her slender hands in front of her and looking out into the night. The faint moonlight glows against her pale skin while those night sounds drone on.

“Do you know what your problem is? Both of you.”

“We’re both too mouthy for our own good, ma’am?”

“Sometimes,” she admits with a touch of humor. She glances at me sidelong, knowing. “The real problem is neither of you ever say what you really mean to each other.”

“I…” I cough.

Oh, shit. Am I that transparent?

Clearing my throat, I look away too quickly, staring up at the night sky.

“Yeah. I guess that’s an issue. Too late now, though. She’s made up her mind and she’s goin’ away.”

“Away is never really away, boy. She’ll come back. Spring break, Christmas, my girl wouldn’t let me miss her that much.” Angela pats my arm. “You’ll get your chance to mend fences. But Grant?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you,” Angela says warmly, her eyes glimmering. “For never giving up on my son.”

It catches me so off guard I don’t know what to say, so I nod respectfully as my throat closes off. “Of course, ma’am. Ethan wouldn’t give up on me.”

Angela only smiles, squeezing my arm before she turns to go inside, leaving me alone.

I don’t stay much longer.

This isn’t my house—and it hasn’t been a place where I truly belonged for a long damn time.

So I turn to walk around the side of the house and let myself into my patrol car.

As I pull away, there’s a light on the top floor window.

For just a second, I see her.

A slender figure against the curtain that catches me and holds my heart captive.

I drink her in for the longest ten seconds of my life before I force myself to look away, back my car out of the drive, and head home with my vision red and blurred.


Present

That night was the last time I saw her.

Until today.

The worst part is, Angela was wrong. Ophelia avoided Redhaven like a root canal ever since the day she left.

Instead, she’d flown her mother and Ros down to Florida for vacations and holidays together. Ophelia’s always been contrary like that, but I never thought she’d take my words so damn literally.

Then again, maybe I’m just overthinking it too hard today.

She’s got a hundred heart-wrenching reasons to stay the fuck away from this town without the way I ran my mouth doing more damage.

Too many bad memories.

Too much spiritual rot in this town, really.

Some folks can taste it in the air. They wisen up and realize they don’t want to stay and wait around for Redhaven to swallow them whole.

“Hey, Cap?”

Henri’s voice yanks me from my thoughts. I blink, focusing on the letters that went fuzzy in front of me as I lift my head up from the report. “What?”

“No need to bite my head off, mon capitan,” he snaps off mockingly in his French Creole drawl, grinning, completely unbothered by my snarling. He sweeps his mess of shaggy brown hair away from his eyes. “Just wondering why you’re still here, that’s all. Ain’t you supposed to be picking Nell up from school?”

Fuck. I completely spaced.” I bolt to my feet, grab my jacket off the back of the chair, and realize I don’t have it—I gave it to Ophelia. “Yeah. Gotta run. Thanks, Frenchie.”

I angle past him, heading for the door. His voice drifts after me. “Y’all take care too, Captain Grump.”

I don’t bother answering that.

Don’t know why the whole crew likes rubbing it in.

Hell, I’m not that grumpy.

I just don’t waste time mincing words when point-blank says it a whole lot better.

I drop into my patrol car and roll through the winding cobblestoned streets of Redhaven at a grueling school’s-out-twenty-miles-per-hour pace.

On the way, I pass Lucas Graves on crossing guard duty. I probably earned the dirty look he gives me as I pass. Everyone hates being the one to pull that shift, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Considering he’s got a pregnant wife whose classes are currently letting out right now, though, he’d probably rather be anywhere else. Not stuck directing traffic so hordes of munchkins can walk home.

By the time I pull up to the red-roofed, C-shaped building that houses all of Redhaven’s small K-12 classes, most of the evening traffic rush has trickled out.

I’m expecting to see Nell standing on the front walk waiting for me. Probably hankering to talk my ear off about which teacher got stuck watching her with me being late—but instead I barely catch a glimpse of her disappearing into the back of a maroon Subaru SUV.

Oh, goddammit.

Am I really so fucking out of it I just forgot?

My parents are picking her up today.

That’s why my internal Nell alarm didn’t go off.

Sure enough, my ma pulls the driver’s side door open for the little girl, my father already in the passenger seat—and before I can even pull my car over, Nell’s head pops over the rear passenger side window.

Uncle Grant!” she shrieks loudly enough to crack glass.

She comes flying out of the car before anyone can stop her.

Oops.

I hit the brakes and scramble out just in time to catch the almost-ten-year-old cannonball that slams into me.

Girl’s got some legs on her and she’s not even half-grown, clearing a two-foot leap to hurtle herself right into my arms.

I let out an oof as her full weight pounds my chest.

I recover quickly, though, wrapping my arms around her, supporting her while she buries her face in my neck.

Her familiar tumble of dark-brown ringlets tickle my skin.

“Hey, Nelly-girl.” I squeeze her tight. “Sorry, I forgot Ma and Pa had you today.”

Nell pushes her hands against my chest and draws herself back to look at me with her little brown eyes glinting with excitement.

“Ice cream! We’re going for ice cream,” she proclaims. “You’re coming with us, right?”

I groan inwardly.

Nelly-girl knows what she’s doing when she says it like that. Like it’s already a foregone conclusion, and I need a Harvard law degree to convince her otherwise.

“Baby girl, you know there’s a reason I asked Ma and Pa to take you today,” I say. “I’m up to my chin in paperwork. Gotta go catch up.”

My mother leans against the bumper of the Subaru, tall and curvy, her iron-grey hair pulled into a bun.

“You had time to drive out here,” she points out, wagging a finger.

“No ganging up on me.”

“Yes ganging up on you!” Nell chirps with a pout. “You work too much, Uncle Grant. And you don’t eat enough ice cream. If you just ate more you’d smile.”

“Is that so? Didn’t know I had to maintain a minimum ice cream level to look pleasant.” I arch a skeptical brow.

My father leans his arm out the passenger window, offering me an easy grin past his thick silver beard. “You’ve already lost the argument, Son. Only question is if you’re riding with us or taking your patrol car.”

I heave out a heavy sigh, but he’s right.

When it comes to Nell, I rarely win unless it’s something deadly serious.

She’s just too damn good at getting her way.

Guess that’s what happens when you’re not just the big cousin.

Can’t put an easy label on what I am some days. More like the older brother she never had when I’m not busy being full-time dad.

“Fine, I’ll take my car,” I grind out. “That way y’all won’t have to drive me back and eat up more of my time.”

“I wanna go with Uncle Grant!” Nell proclaims, laying her head against my shoulder.

That’s that, I guess.

We split up, and soon I get the full rundown of Nell’s day as I tail my parents’ Subaru for the ten-minute drive to the little ice cream parlor near the town square.

I’m used to it by now.

Thankfully, Nell doesn’t need me to talk much, just as long as she’s sure I’m listening and paying attention. She tells me how she wants to be a professional flower girl.

Probably because she got so much gushing attention looking cute as a daisy in Lucas’ wedding. Big change from last week when she wanted to be a rocket engineer. I’m sure next week she’ll want to be an architect or a postmodern painter selling NFTs.

What can I say, the girl’s bright as hell for her age.

She yammers on about Miss Delilah and how she’s gonna be sad to move on from her class and into Miss Nora’s soon. But apparently, Miss Delilah promised she can come over and play, and when she’s old enough, maybe she can even babysit the Graves’ baby.

When she goes off about how huge Miss Delilah is now that she’s almost ready to pop, I groan and remind myself to ask Lucas if Nell actually said that to his wife’s face and to apologize if she did.

How the hell is someone related to me so talkative?

She sure as hell inherited the Faircross gene for no filter, though.

Girl never knows when to keep certain things to herself.

She hasn’t stopped talking even when we get to the ice cream parlor. She waves impatiently, leading me inside, chattering away as we meet my folks and we all put in our orders and find a table.

My parents end up with modest scoops of mint chip and rocky road. I just snag a cone with the darkest chocolate I can find.

Of course, little Nell orders herself a towering sundae so complicated the poor girl behind the counter looks frazzled trying to keep up with all the fixings.

I balance my cone in one hand as I pull out Nell’s chair so she doesn’t drop that ridiculous sundae.

“Uncle Grant.” She frowns at my cone. “That’s all you’re going to get? You’re so vanilla, Uncle Grant.”

What the hell?

She better not know what that means.

And it’s dirt-black chocolate laced with almonds, thank you.

I choke on my next breath anyway while my dad chuckles. My mother hides a titter behind her hand.

“This look like vanilla to you? Don’t you ever say that again,” I growl, brandishing my cone at her. I slump down in one of those tiny damn chairs that feels like it’s ready to turn into a pile of splinters under me. “That doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Huh?” Nell blinks at me innocently. “What does it mean then?”

“Maybe when you’re older,” I grumble.

Like hell.

I may be here raising her since her old man ain’t, but I’m sure as hell not explaining that to her. There’s enough dread with having The Talk at all when she gets older if my folks won’t pick up the slack.

Knowing Nell, she’ll be just as irreverent as ever and enjoy watching me squirm while I try to explain basic biology and safe sex and all that other crap that comes with growing up. I’m sure she’ll already know more than I do from all the books she crams into her head.

Whatever.

I should know there’s something up when she actually accepts my answer.

Nell normally never lets anything go without a little arguing, a little cajoling, a little pouting when nothing else helps get her way.

For now she just chirps “Okay” and buries her face in her sundae.

It’s almost gone before I find out the reason.

“So,” she says, licking a little whipped cream off her spoon, “I need a tent for the field trip.”

I narrow my eyes.

My ice cream’s long gone and I’m just idling, taking bites out of the waffle cone.

“What field trip?” I ask.

Nell blinks at me innocently. “The one Masie Jenkins has planned? The camping trip?”

“First I’m hearing of it.” I know what she’s doing. Acting like she’s just reminding me when she never brought it up at all.

That’s the problem with being a cop raising a kid. Half the time you just teach them how to be better mini-criminals.

I clear my throat and say, “If it’s a field trip, the school must’ve sent you home with a permission slip, huh?”

“Welll…” Nell twirls her spoon in the melted pool at the bottom of her bowl. “Um, Nana and Pop-pop said it should be okay.”

My mother holds her hands up. “Don’t look at me. I said to ask you, but you probably wouldn’t mind.”

“Uh-huh.” I eye Nell. “What are you not telling me, Nelly-girl?”

“Um, well…” She bites her lip with a tight smile. “It’s not a school field trip. Not exactly. But my whole grade is going! Camping next weekend. We’ll be right there on Still Lake, not even deep in the woods…”

“Mm,” I grunt skeptically. “And that means Masie’s parents are going to be there, right? And at least two more adults for that many kids.”

“Um…”

Oh, shit.

Here we go.

The reason she’s dancing around.

“Out with it, Nell,” I say.

She winces and lowers her eyes. “Masie’s older sister is coming. But… but she’s a really good chaperone! I promise.”

“Junie? Like hell,” I snarl. “Nelly-girl, she’s only seventeen. Not even old enough to chaperone herself.”

“Language, Grant! Not in front of little ears,” Ma chides me gently.

“Oh, he says that all the time,” Nell pipes up. “I’m used to it.”

“Don’t you switch this around on me. You’re not getting me in trouble with my parents when you’re in trouble with me.” I frown. “Nell, you are not going on a field trip with—how many rug rats are in your grade? Eleven?”

“Ten.” She juts her lower lip out.

“Right. Ten munchkins and one seventeen-year-old in the woods alone at night. You knew damn well I’d say no when it’s a recipe for disaster, so you tried to be sneaky. Not nice.” I shake my head. “It’s not happening, and I’m gonna have to talk to the Jenkins about that plan, too.”

“Uncle Grant!” Her face crumples into pure horror. “You can’t. Everyone else is going!”

“And you’re not everyone else, last I checked. Go ahead and hate me now, but someday you’ll be glad I spared you the trouble. That trip’s just asking for trouble. Missing kids, someone drowning, breaking a leg…” Look, I hate having to upset her like an ingrown toenail, but I’m not budging. “You’re not going and that’s final, Nell. You wanna go camping, I’ll take you myself.”

“What? But I don’t want to go with you!” she flares. “You’re a buttface!”

“Nell,” my father says softly. He’s a big man—almost as big as me before age started shrinking him down—but soft-spoken and gentle as a bear cub. The man raised me with the same gentle sternness he wields now like a master. “You know you’re not allowed to talk back that way to your uncle.”

“But he is! Buttface!” She whirls on him, her sundae forgotten, tears welling in her eyes.

“Nell!” my mother admonishes. “Use your inside voice.” But then she turns a pleading look on me. “Surely, it won’t be so bad for just one weekend, darling? Can’t you find an adult for them? As long as they promise to stay out of the water and Junie checks in.”

Dammit all.

I love my folks and I’d be hopelessly screwed raising Nell without them. Although they’re part of this whole situation, we’re not exactly co-parenting here.

I don’t need them undermining decisions this big in front of Nell.

Only, it’s too late.

She’s giving me a tense, hopeful look, glancing between me and my father like she’s begging him to veto me on this.

Fortunately, Dad has the good sense to keep his mouth glued shut.

“The answer’s still no,” I say firmly. “Considering you tried to pull one over on me, you’re lucky I don’t ground you. Now finish your ice cream so we can go home. I want your homework done before dinner.”

Nell’s nose scrunches up and her mouth quivers.

For a second, I think she’s about to burst into a proper tantrum—but then she catches herself.

She’s been doing that a lot more lately. Too grown-up to cry, trying to be a big girl and act ladylike. So after a few trembling moments, she sniffs and lifts her chin.

“I’m not speaking to you,” she announces.

“Fine,” I answer, exchanging patient looks with my parents. “As long as you get your homework done, you don’t have to.”

Nell doesn’t answer.

Guess she’s serious about the silent treatment then.

What the fuck ever.

That leaves things a little quiet and strained, the adults talking about Redhaven’s latest gossip while Nell makes a very loud, spoon-clanking show of finishing her ice cream.

There’s really not much else to say.

My parents and I keep in regular contact, and it’s a small town—everyone knows what’s going on with everyone else, and when you’re not the gossipy type, there’s not much to add.

I see enough truth behind the rumors up close, the petty and ugly and explosive.

That doesn’t stop Ma from making a pointed comment about hearing a certain someone’s back in town.

My father gives me a knowing look.

Shit, I should’ve expected this.

I just grunt and ignore them, but I guess it’s proof how mad Nell really is when that doesn’t even get her to prick up her nosy little ears. The kid’s a diabolical little gossip in the making, always up in everyone’s business and connecting dots most grown-ups wish she couldn’t string together.

Half the time, I’m proud of her when she’s smart as a whip.

The other half, I wonder if she’s too old to keep quiet with a pacifier.

Some of the stuff that comes out of her mouth would make the Pope blush.

When everyone’s done, I kiss my mother’s cheek, let my father clap a friendly hand to my shoulder, then usher a sulking Nell outside to the car.

As I tuck her into the passenger seat and watch her to make sure she fastens her seat belt, something hits me.

Don’t know what to call it. An instinct, I guess, like somebody just touched the back of my neck with ice-cold fingertips.

It makes me look up just in time.

There’s a man across the street who makes me frown.

I don’t recognize him, and I know damn near everyone in town.

All part of my job as the highest-ranking officer below Chief Bowden. It’s also just part of living in a town with a population in the low four digits.

This guy, he’s older, maybe early sixties. Gaunt. Grey hair combed neatly, despite the wild-eyed look.

Sunken cheekbones, deeply hollowed eyes that lock on mine like he wants something.

Never seen him before in my life. Could be a tourist since we’ve got a lot of people staying up at Janelle Bowden’s B&B, The Rookery, currently at full capacity with the autumn leaves turning.

That outfit looks familiar, though.

Waistcoat.

Tailcoat.

Slacks.

White gloves.

Who the hell wears gloves this time of year in broad day—

Oh.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I saw a few of the household staff up at the big house decked out just like that guy. The Arrendells really take the whole old-world butler thing to an extreme, right down to the uniforms.

Considering I just came from checking out a suicide up there this morning, I’ve got some weird-ass feelings about one of their employees standing out here in the middle of the street in his work clothes, just staring like he’s never seen an irritated cop before.

I know I’m probably overthinking it.

The Lord and Lady of the manor who signs his checks are probably real fuckin’ jumpy after the whole thing with their psycho son.

I wouldn’t put it past them to send a minion or two to keep tabs on me so I don’t try to kick up any more shit that’ll harm their precious reputation.

I narrow my eyes at the man, flashing him a challenging look, but he doesn’t move.

His expression never changes, even when I cock my head questioningly.

All right then.

I make a mental note to do a little digging, see if I can ID him, but for now I’ve got a little girl I don’t want anywhere near anyone connected to the Arrendells and their depressing bullshit.

I settle behind the wheel of my patrol car and delay pulling out until I’m sure my parents are safely ahead of us.

The weirdo across the street doesn’t seem remotely interested in them.

When I pull out, though, and check the rearview mirror, his head cranes, following me down the street.

Nah, I don’t like this.

One more problem I sure as hell don’t need.


By the time we get home, little Nell still hasn’t relented.

I get the scorned princess act all the way through homework, dinner, and cleaning up for bed.

I’m not going to push at her.

She’ll get tired of ignoring me in a day or two. She’s a needy little kitten, thrives on attention, and I’m her favorite source. Ignoring me just hurts her, so she’ll make up her own mind when she’s good and ready to forgive.

I’m glad she doesn’t push me away when I tuck her in and smooth her wild hair back from her brow. The minimal fussing, that’s not too bad of a sign.

We’ll probably be cool by morning.

Once I’m sure she’s asleep, I settle on the sofa to finish up my case reports.

Usually, there’s not much to report on, but we’re in the thick of the last tourist season with a dead body. Between the suicide and two pairs of hikers getting into fistfights over prime camping spots and six different cases of shoplifting, I’ve got my hands full.

It’s after midnight by the time I make up my mind to turn in for the night.

Only, as I stand, stretching my back until my spine pops, a sharp sound clatters out front.

That icy weirdness of cold fingers scraping the back of my neck hits again.

I tense, instinctively taking a careful sidestep as I edge toward the door.

When I peer out the front window, there’s—nothing.

Predictable as hell.

But what else?

The motion sensor lights on the front porch aren’t on, either.

Just in case, I crack the door, always aware of my service pistol hanging in its holster from the coatrack. No bullets in there, certainly. I always take ’em out when I come home in case Nell ever gets curious. Still, I’ve got a clip in my pocket and I can have that gun locked and loaded in under five seconds.

Don’t think I’m gonna need any action tonight, though.

There’s nothing out there at all.

Not even a shadow twisting in the night.

Probably just raccoons or foxes, fucking with garbage cans on the curb for scraps.

They always get a little hyperactive when the tourists move in and there’s more trash around, more junk food thrown out. Night scavengers love a good feast.

Sighing until I relax, I close the door—but just in case, I trudge upstairs to peek in on Nell.

When I ease her door open, her bed looks flat.

Those cold fingers choke me as I bolt into the room, flipping the light on in a panic.

Sure enough.

Sheets thrown back.

Her backpack’s missing from the hook on the back of the door.

“Nell?” I call, racing out into the hall. Bathroom door’s still open, only she’s not in there, fuck fuck fuck. “Nelly-girl, where are you?”

No answer.

Nothing as my drumming heart becomes a block of black ice.

Fuck my life.

Nell’s run away.

Again.


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