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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 5

ONE BIG MESS (GRANT)

It’s like I’m fucking cursed.

I swear I’m spending more time at my job thinking about Ophelia than I am actually working lately.

That woman frustrates me so goddamned much.

Mainly because she won’t get the hell out of my head while I’m pretending to focus on writing up what must be the twentieth vandalism report of this tourist season.

Damn punk-ass kids.

If rich people are going to bring their brats around this town to act out and shoplift, we’d all be better off if they’d teach them some manners first.

Honestly, we’ve gotta do something about it, because it gets worse every passing year and half the town’s income relies on the tourist bucks.

All we need is a bad reputation for petty crime. Then all the city birds who migrate here with the seasons will stop flocking to get their fix of artisan furniture and home-brew beers and hand-tapped maple syrup, too scared off by rumors to spend their time and money.

Too bad every time I try to work out a plan of action so I can make things work with such a small crew, my brain won’t cooperate.

It snaps right back to that look on Ophelia’s face.

That narrowing of her eyes that says she could see right through my bullshit.

Fuck.

How does she always know? Even after all these years avoiding each other?

Annoying as hell.

And why’s she always gotta go snooping around up inside my damn head?

Only, I owe her one for bringing Nelly-girl home safe, don’t I?

I had no idea she’d been building herself a nest in the Sandersons’ storage shed. Maybe I should build her a proper tree house when the weather warms up, give her a place of her own that lets her run away without actually leaving my property in the middle of the night.

I get that sometimes she needs to be alone.

I’m definitely not the best at playing Dad. So yeah, it’s okay if she just wants to kick me in the teeth and have a little privacy sometimes.

I just need to know my little girl’s safe—preferably without hating my guts.

I’m man enough to admit it.

My heart would bust like safety glass if something happened to her.

No, she ain’t mine, not by birth.

But by life, by tragedy, by fate, she sure as hell is.

Behind all the bluster and iron-fisted rules I make her live by, I just want the best for her.

“Would you look at that,” a voice drawls from behind me, ripping me from my thoughts. “Feels like I’m having a flashback. Last time I saw that look on your face, you were sulking over a girl.” Lucas goddamned Graves smirks as I spin my chair around to face him. “In fact, I think you were sulking over the same girl, if memory serves.”

“Fuck your memory, man.” I scowl at him.

That doesn’t wipe the smirk off his face or out of his cat-green eyes. He just folds his arms over his broad chest as if to say, Sorry, Cap, you don’t intimidate me.

That’s the problem with small towns.

Everyone knows everyone and they get way too used to all their shit.

“I’m not sulking, Lieutenant,” I growl. “I’m working out whether to fire every last one of you. We’ve got forty percent more crime reports compared to last year, and eighteen percent fewer arrests. Tell me why?”

From his desk across the room, Micah Ainsley pipes up with a cunning smile. The man glows like a Renaissance sculpture, tall and muscular, his albino skin bone-white. “We have sixty percent more tourists than we did last year, too, Captain.”

Henri Fontenot glances up from reading on his phone, leaning against the wall near Mallory’s dispatch desk. “You mean it was quieter than this last year? Huh. How did y’all not fall asleep?”

“Shut it, city boy,” Lucas throws back. “It’s busy for us.”

“N’awlins ain’t the city, mon ami. It’s just the country grown wild.”

“I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” I mutter. “Is the peanut gallery done with its bullshit and ready to give me some real answers or what?”

I get an immediate round of cheeky salutes.

Mallory the dispatcher even twirls around in her chair without stopping her rapid-fire typing and throws one at me, too, then blows me a kiss.

Insubordinate brats.

All of them.

I’ve barely been captain of the Redhaven PD long enough to win a crumb of respect and I’m already about to have a stress aneurysm because I’m surrounded by professional jokers.

But I grind my (in)subordinates into line and get down to brass tacks.

Everyone sobers up as we settle down and discuss patrol schedules, throwing around a few theories for what we can really do about the petty crime wave. We talk about pulling together rosters of shop owners, trusted folks we can talk to about setting up more CCTV cameras here and there to catch any funny business.

The cameras are cheap as hell these days and pretty sophisticated. I know a few good systems endorsed by Enguard, the premier West Coast security firm. Home Shepherd has also been making a lot of fancy military grade drones repurposed for civilian safety, but I’m not sure their tech is in our budget yet.

After listening to Micah nerd out over the drones for ten solid minutes, we’re signing off and divvying up duties, with only Henri clocking out when he’s scheduled to be on call overnight while the rest of us pull day shifts around town.

Lucas and I are the last guys out.

As he stops by his desk to snag a fresh ticket pad I lean over and stop him, lightly thumping my fingers against his arm.

“Hey. You got a minute?”

Lucas flutters his lashes. “Well, Cap, if you’re about to ask me to the Pumpkin Formal? I can make time for you.”

I eyeball him hard.

“I liked you better when you didn’t talk so much, funny man.”

“What can I say? New wife, new baby coming means I’m a changed man.” He grins and sits on the edge of his desk, running a hand through his thick crop of black hair. “Seriously, though, what’s up?”

I clear my throat, struggling to get the words out.

Lucas looks so damn happy now. I don’t begrudge him for it.

I know there are plenty of old pains that still hurt him, even if he doesn’t show it much these days. Closure or not, he’ll always carry a little guilt over not being able to save Celeste.

Too familiar.

Our demons are too much alike.

We both lost someone dear to us the same night. I’m happy as hell he got a few answers.

And it’s like he knows even before I say, “I can’t stop thinking about the Santos case and everything it turned up about—you know.”

“Celeste.” He sobers. His sister’s name comes out like an old prayer he hasn’t uttered in months. “Yeah. It’s bringing up memories with Ethan, ain’t it?”

I nod slowly. “I’m wondering if we’ve got grounds to legally rip the seal off that case, instead of just asking questions?”

“You mean you want to pursue an active investigation?”

“Don’t know yet.” I sigh. “Hell, it’ll probably take years for Raleigh forensics and the Feds to finish sifting through the recovered remains and writing their reports. They might get a DNA match on Ethan eventually, or they might not… Guess I just feel like maybe we should be looking around on our end. We’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions, but what we learned after the Arrendell bust could shed some new light on it.”

Lucas cocks his head from side to side thoughtfully. “You’re the captain, Captain. It’s your call and I’ve got your back. But I think you need to ask yourself something, Grant.”

“Yeah?”

“Who are you really doing this for? Yourself—or her?”

I narrow my eyes.

Fuck, he’s got me there.


That question’s still on my mind as Lucas and I part ways and I drop into my patrol car to start my route.

We tend to split the town three ways with one of us taking the inner shops and streets and another one taking the residential areas. Another officer—usually Micah—plays park ranger out in the wilderness, keeping an eye on the tourists and the hillfolk alike.

Micah likes the woods more than any New York City boy should. I think because it’s a good chance to bring his old German Shepherd out with him.

The man’s also got an uncanny knack for just disappearing and catching people off guard, which is always a little weird when he’s as pale as a ghost and you’d think he’d stand out like a sore thumb against the dark trees.

We’ve all got our talents, I guess.

Mine’s brooding until it hurts, and that’s what I do while I park my car on the edge of the central town plaza with a good view of the shops.

Figure I’ll watch the patterns going on tonight, see if I can pick up on anything hinting at trouble. Probably dumb kids doing all the shoplifting, and kids are never as good as they think at hiding when they’re up to some shit.

I never was.

Neither was Ophelia.

Hell, when we were kids, she was usually the one who accidentally ratted us out when the three of us got up to some shenanigans.

It wasn’t that she was trying to snitch.

She just got flustered and spilled the beans when her ma or my parents gave us a good grilling. Usually, it was worse when it was my folks. Growing up without a dad, Ophelia never learned the resistance it took to face down not one, but two parents with a straight face, and—

Fuck, there I go thinking about her again.

She’s living inside my damn head rent free.

Maybe she always has, I don’t know.

I just know I don’t have the answers I need.

Ethan’s disappearance has haunted me my entire adult life.

Growing up an only child, it meant a hell of a lot to have someone my own age who felt like family; like the brother I never had. Then one day he was gone, leaving behind a soul-sucking void.

As much as I hated losing him, what hit me the hardest was how rough it was for Ophelia when he just up and vanished.

Also, how little I could do about it.

If I’m being honest, I was on the fence about staying a cop early on. Didn’t seem like there was much to it in a Podunk town like this where the real heinous crimes go unsolved.

It’s still a minor miracle we took down one Arrendell prick and got closure on a few cases.

Back then, I was only half sold on police work, still thinking about getting into metal fabrication, something like that—and then that night happened.

Celeste Graves and Ethan Sanderson gone.

I realized fast if I ever wanted answers, I’d have to stay a cop and keep looking into their disappearances, if only to find some closure.

Not just for me, but for that gorgeous bewitching woman with her wild green eyes that could turn so sad in an instant, like she’s remembering everything she’ll never have again.

Then she ran off.

Because my dumbass pushed her away.

Because I had to bark my hurt at her instead of learning to keep a leash on my anger like a grown-ass man.

Growling, I roll up my sleeve to scratch my arm, lingering on the black butterfly tangled in barbed wire that traces my bicep.

Go ahead and guess what inspired that.

Pain has a way of bringing fresh ink to a man’s skin like misery loves company. Some secrets are so loud they just won’t shut up every time he looks in a mirror.

Maybe because he doesn’t want them to.

Maybe because he needs to hear them to remember who he is.

Truth be told, I stopped looking as hard for answers after she ghosted and the only butterfly I had left in my life was the one branded on my skin.

What the hell was the point if it wasn’t for her?

I’m jolted out of my thoughts like I’m thunderstruck when I glimpse blonde hair moving down the street, familiar body language, and for a moment my heart kicks like a gunshot.

Ophelia.

But no, it’s not her.

It’s her little sister, strolling arm in arm with none other than Aleksander fuckface Arrendell.

If I hadn’t known her since she was knee-high to a frog, I almost wouldn’t recognize Ros right now.

She’s always been a sweet, prim girl. A bit of a modern green flower child—cottagecore like the kids call it these days—with a certain innocence about her.

A little too sheltered, maybe. After surviving her first run with cancer, Angela Sanderson turned into a loving, good-natured helicopter mom and it showed with Ros as much as it helped her.

But right now, Rosalind’s wearing a clinging white satin dress, skintight in all the wrong ways that make me uncomfortable.

I don’t want to see Ophelia’s baby sister’s tits hanging out like that. Especially when she’s hanging all over that phony fuck.

Aleksander keeps an arm around her shoulders while he leans in close, nuzzling her neck right there in public like he’s some kind of vampire.

Christ, it’s not even Halloween yet.

There’s lipstick stains on the collar of his stylish grey suit, his mouth as red as hers. Her makeup is dark and sultry, her nails still a bright, glossy red.

I don’t want to judge.

I don’t.

Sometimes, small-town girls just find themselves and change overnight, realizing there was a big-city vixen inside them all along.

Yet it’s barely ten in the goddamned morning and I think they’re both drunk off their asses, swaying from side to side as they stumble into each other. Not a single care given for the more conservative folks steering around them with looks of baffled distaste, then second looks when it hits them who that is sloppy-drunk and probably high on Aleksander’s arm.

Damn.

If Ros really wants me to keep her relationship with Aleksander a secret from Ophelia, she needs to be more discreet.

Sooner or later, this will blow right through the gossip mill and have everybody and their dog whispering about it.

I give it a day or two before it gets back to Ophelia, and there’s a knock-down drag-out fight between the Sanderson sisters that could level the whole town.

Nagging unease eats at me.

I should say something.

Tell Ophelia the truth, warn her, give her time to process this shit before Rosalind sails in and drops an atom bomb on her. I hate that Ophelia’s got to deal with this shit sooner or later on top of her ma’s medical situation.

I care about them both, even if Ros is more like a younger kid I never knew half as well as Philia.

And I’m torn between loyalties, wanting to honor Ros’ privacy but also wanting to do what’s right for everyone’s own good.

For Ros’ own good, too, I think.

I may need to keep an eye on her before her boyfriend—no, fuck, fiancé—drags her into something real ugly she’s not ready for.

My brain hurts.

I need more time to think about what to say to Ophelia—if I say anything at all.

Maybe I just need to clear the air. It’s funny how she reads my silences like a favorite book, plucking out crap I don’t want her to see, but when we start talking we just lock horns and start doing damage.

start doing it, mostly.

I always say everything wrong.

When we were young, sometimes it felt like all Ophelia ever asked for was that I speak. And I never could, not clearly, not the way she needs.

That’s me.

That’s my dumb ass to a tongue-tied tee around her.

Even when she was little and I wasn’t that much bigger, before she turned into someone so beautiful she could twist my tongue in knots with a single glance from beneath her long lashes.

When we were kids I didn’t know how to tell her how much she and Ethan meant to me.

How they eased that loneliness an only child knows when he’s the quiet kid in a gossipy little town.

So I showed her by picking on her, pulling her pigtails, like any kind of attention was good attention—and that pattern just stuck, even as we grew up.

I pull her hair, and she sucker punches me and tells me how much of a colossal dick I am.

I’m not completely sure how long I’ve wanted to hear something else.

But what I hear now, as I watch Ros and Aleksander disappear into the Sanderson family shop, Nobody’s Bees-Ness, is my dash radio coming to life with a gritty crackle.

I’m expecting Mallory to tell me there’s been another silly incident, kids tagging the trees out in the logging areas or another punk caught shoplifting.

“Unit four-oh-two? Call came in from the Sanderson house, GPS shows you’re closest—some kind of trouble with an intruder, possible assault. What’s your ETA?”

My heart stalls.

Intruder?

Possible assault?

Ophelia.

Clammy sweat sweeps down my brow as I wrench the handset to my lips.

“Less than three minutes,” I say, twisting the key violently in the ignition. “Tell her to sit tight, Mallory. I’m on my way.”


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