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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 7

ONE STEP FORWARD (GRANT)

You want to see the shittiest parking job in the world?

Tell a man the girl he’s been fixated on since high school was just assaulted in her own fucking home, then watch him nearly plow his car across her front lawn trying to get to her.

I bolt out of the car and take the front steps of her house two at a time.

Butterfly, fuck.

Just hold on.

I barely refrain from punching a hole through her door.

Mallory said there was some weirdo doing just that, so I restrain myself and knock, raising my voice to call out.

“Ophelia? It’s Grant. Open up! There’s no one out here.”

There’s a long moment, a faint sound of footsteps shuffling from inside. Then the door cracks open.

She gives me a mutinous look, her green eyes crackling.

“Are you saying I imagined it? You—”

“Fuck no. God, woman, put your claws away for five minutes. I was telling you it’s safe to open up.”

That’s when it registers.

The way she’s so flustered, skin red like she’s just been in a scrap.

The bruises on her arms.

Fresh, reddish-purple, and still forming in the shape of someone’s grubby goddamned fingers. The points where those fingers dug in the darkest.

I’ve seen it plenty of times on domestic calls.

Instant rage storms through me and the world recedes into a humming white haze.

“Motherfucker,” I clip, reaching for her. “Who did this? Who hurt you?”

Ophelia’s eyes widen.

She stares at me, then glances away, twisting to look down at her upper arms.

“Oh, I hardly noticed. Honestly, it looks worse than it really is…”

Bull.

I don’t know a damn thing yet except for the fact that the man who grabbed her is dead.

I’m not thinking when I drop down on one knee in front of her right there on the porch while she stands in the doorway.

“Grant? What are you doing?

“Let me look. I need to see the damage,” I growl, brushing my fingers lightly over the soft skin of her forearm. The light shines behind her head, turning her honey hair into a gold halo.

“S-sure,” she relents, letting me do my thing.

As worked up and furious as I am, touching Ophelia is a special kind of torture.

I keep it careful, keep it light, gently grasping her forearm and turning it so I can get a good look at the bruises.

“He grabbed you pretty hard, but he didn’t break the skin. He hurt you anywhere else?”

“My neck feels a little sore,” she answers, rubbing the back of it. There’s something odd in her voice. “He shook me pretty rough, too. Snapped my head around a bit.”

Okay, shit.

Now, he’s a dead man and dismembered.

“He’ll be lucky I don’t hang him from the town square statue by his ballsack when I find him,” I growl, standing and giving her a gentle nudge. “Let’s have a look around and you can tell me what happened.”

She gives me another weird look and takes a hesitant step backward into the house.

I follow, taking a quick glance around.

All my police instincts fire, quick and assessing, searching for details she might’ve missed in the initial panic.

The old house hasn’t changed much from what I remember, all lush oversized furniture that doesn’t quite match, clearly chosen more for its marshmallow comfort than for showroom style.

“You guys still keep the first aid kit in the bathroom?” I ask.

“…y-yeah.”

Fuck me, I’ve never seen her so shaken. I can’t help touching her shoulder.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re gonna be fine, Ophelia. He’s not hurting you again. It’s okay now.”

“Is it?” she echoes faintly, her pretty green eyes round marbles as she stares at me.

“The hell wouldn’t it be?”

“Um, you’re actually talking, for one. I think the world’s about to end.”

I blink.

That’s when I realize she’s teasing me.

Before I know what’s happening, I grin. If she’s still joking, she’ll be one hundred percent fine.

“Brat,” I spit, lightly flicking my fingers against the center of her forehead. “Sit down and I’ll get you the kit.”

She flashes me a smirk and drops herself onto the couch, giving me a glimpse of full hips and jeans that cup her ass like they’re trying to make love to it.

I pull myself away and head down the hall to the first-floor bathroom, trying not to let that vision stick.

Sure enough, there’s a box in the little cabinet above the toilet, an old steel fishing tackle box that belonged to Angela Sanderson’s husband before he died not too long after Ethan was born.

This box came out every time we banged ourselves up as kids, running through the woods like heathens and falling out of trees at least twice a week.

We’d come tumbling in from our adventures, after we dared each other to do stupid shit that risked our necks. It’s a minor miracle nobody got more than a broken ankle over the years.

You name it, we got ourselves scratched up doing it, only to come dragging back before dark so Mrs. Sanderson could patch us up like a good medic and send me home to my ma covered in Bactine and Band-Aids.

The memory makes me smile as I hold the box—and I sober as it hits me.

Time passes like one cruel son of a bitch.

It’s been decades since the last time Angela Sanderson patched me up. And now she’s on her deathbed, while I’m taking this kit out for her grown daughter with a hundred awkward feelings between us, all while her youngest is about to get hitched to a giant asshole and start an entirely new stage of her life.

Funny how everything changes and mutates yet still stays the same.

Tucking the box under my arm, I head into the living room and sink down on the sofa next to Ophelia.

She glances at the tackle box. For a moment, her expression softens as she brushes her fingers over the top.

I can tell what she’s thinking.

Most of the time, I can read her too well.

She’s one of the few people here who makes sense to me, until she doesn’t when she gets all pissed off and I have no idea what the hell I did.

But right now, it’s not hard to tell she’s sinking into those same memories.

The same memories that mean even when it’s just the two of us, we’re never alone. Not when we’re haunted by the same nagging ghosts.

“Remember the tree house?” she asks softly.

I look up.

“No ‘GURLS’ allowed,” I mutter, stressing the way we butchered the spelling. I gently brush her hand aside to flip the first aid kit open. “Except you. We made a one-time exception for the gentleman’s club.”

She laughs—and why the hell do I love that sound so much?

“Lucky me. But you said I wasn’t really a girl, right?” She pokes my arm just above my wrist. “Jackass.”

“Woman, that was almost thirty years ago. You were barely a toddler then,” I point out with a snort. “You were a baby. Not a girl.”

“And you and Ethan couldn’t spell ‘girl’ to save your stupid lives,” she retorts.

I lift my head, eyeing her skeptically—only to find her watching me with this almost challenging smile that makes it impossible for me not to smile back.

For just a moment, I stop and drink her in.

So delicate, yet so grounded and down-to-earth.

She’s completely goddamned beautiful, and while she looks like her ma, there’s also something else there entirely.

Something I can’t pin down except knowing she probably inherited it from the unknown man who fathered both her and Ros.

With her blonde hair loose and cascading down around her face, her cheeks flushed, she looks like some kind of angel who crossed over into mundane life.

Yeah, I know how fucked up that is to say.

This sweet thing who’d give me a sugar rush forever instead of the bratty little hellion who occupies my thoughts every waking moment since she showed up again.

I’m a little helpless as I linger on her mouth.

That pink, soft mouth that’d feel like pure candy wrapped around any man’s dick.

I know.

I know I shouldn’t go there.

That lucky bastard who found out? He damn sure isn’t me.

Not after I trampled her heart and still can’t spend more than an hour with her without something combusting to shit.

I swallow a growl and remind myself to cool it, jerking my gaze away so I can dig through the kit until I find a little tube of anti-inflammatory cream.

“You want to tell me what happened? Start at the beginning.” I reach for her closest arm.

“Huh?” She blinks like she’s just snapped awake, then clears her throat and looks away. “Okay. Right. Um. So, I was out bringing in the trash bins and raking a few leaves because last I remember, Mrs. Appleberry will call the HOA if they’re out past sunset. I mean, if she’s still alive—”

“She is,” I snort, smoothing the cream on her bruises. I’ll photograph them after I’m sure the numbing cream is doing its work. It won’t have a visible effect at first to count as tampering with evidence. “Called the HOA on me last week because my grass was a quarter inch high, and she doesn’t even live on my street.”

“But she loves her evening walks, bless her heart,” Ophelia says dryly. “But yeah, I was just bringing the bins in and then there was this guy. I don’t know where he came from. Really tall, scary-looking. Older. Grey hair. Crazy part is, he was wearing a suit. Almost looked like some kind of butler, but he was also wild. Totally rocked the mad scientist vibe. He scared the crap out of me. Thought it was some weird Halloween thing when he came barreling in looking like Lurch—until it obviously wasn’t.”

“Lurch?”

“The butler from The Addams Family?”

“Oh.”

That’s mighty interesting.

My brain snaps back to the man who was standing on the street staring at me the other day with Nell.

If there’s a connection, it’s not much relief.

If I’m right and that guy works up at the big house, I like it even less.

“What the hell did he want?” I ask, keeping my focus on my hands as I turn her arm to make sure I didn’t miss a spot before reaching to start on her other arm.

It leaves my forearm pressed against her stomach.

If it’s innocent, why does this feel so compromising?

Damn.

She’s so warm through the shirt.

This perfect heated softness making me far too aware of her closeness.

Her scent makes my nostrils flare, this muted sweet beeswax smell that’s clung to her since childhood. Probably a side effect of a life raised around her mama’s handmade beeswax products, especially when she’d pitch in a hand sometimes like every good kid with parents running a small biz.

There’s also something about that smell that’s just Ophelia Sanderson.

It guts me how much I’ve missed it.

I’m damn near intoxicated as I breathe slowly, listening to her.

“He told me I was next,” she whispers, looking around like she’s afraid this freak might come flying through the door. “That if I get any closer to ‘them,’ whoever he means, I’ll be the next to die. He really seemed upset, almost manic. I don’t know. Was he threatening me or trying to warn me?”

“Sounds awfully threatening to me,” I say coldly.

“I thought so too—at first. But after he left and I finally calmed down, now I’m not so sure.”

“Philia, he hurt you,” I snarl.

“Yeah, but I’m just not sure he meant to. He looked wild, almost scared. I don’t think he was thinking right.” Ophelia bows her head, touching her fingertips to the bruises on her arm. “I hate to say it, but I don’t think he meant any harm. Even if he scared me out of my wits…”

“Ophelia.” I barely hold myself back from snapping. “When a strange man shows up yelling death threats in your face and throwing you around, he doesn’t get the charitable interpretation.”

Her eyes fall.

“…yeah. I guess you’re right.” She presses her lips together. “But he just left, too. He banged on the door a little after I locked myself inside and I think he tried to look in the window. I thought he was about to break in but then he was just… gone.”

Gone, but most definitely not fucking forgotten.

“And if he comes back? What then?” There’s an edge in my voice.

I want to hear it from her mouth.

I want her to show me she’s still got the same stubborn common sense after all these years.

“I’ll be more careful,” she says. “I’ll check before I go outside. Every time.”

“Doesn’t mean you’ll be safe here if we don’t know what he wanted. He’ll probably be more stealthy next time,” I point out before snapping the tube of cream closed and tossing it back into the kit. “You know what, fuck this.”

“Excuse me?” Her brows go up.

“Pack your shit. You’re staying with me tonight.”

Ophelia’s head jerks up, her green eyes flashing like warning lights.

For a second, I think she’s about to pass out, and it’s got nothing to do with her run-in with Evil Jeeves.

“I’m doing what? Why would I do something so insane?”

“Because I don’t like the thought of you here all alone if that guy shows up again. Who the fuck knows when Ros will actually come home? You seen her?” I pull my phone out of my uniform and flick to the camera app. “Now hold your arms out and sit still so I can get a few photos for the report.”

A frustrated little noise spills past Ophelia’s lips, but she complies, thrusting her arms out straight so the bruises are more visible.

“Look, Grant, I’m not staying with you. I don’t need a babysitter. I think I just overreacted. For all I know, that guy’s someone’s grandpa with a bad case of dementia. Confused about where he is or something. I bet the people who love him are looking for him everywhere. Is there anybody around town missing?”

I shake my head firmly.

“No, and if that’s the case, we’ll find out and have him home in a day,” I say, quickly snapping several photos. “Considering the shit going on here in the last year, though, I’m not taking that risk. You wait around for a happy ending and you might not have an ending at all.”

“Huh? It’s not that risky—”

“Ophelia.” I cut her off with a growl, locking my gaze to stubborn green eyes. “Listen, the last time we had creepy assholes following the new girl around, she wound up with one girl dead in her living room and a psycho trying to feed her to the Jacobins’ pigs. With that kind of shit going on, I can’t risk it being harmless.” I stop, my jaw clenching, then force myself to add, “Especially not when it’s you.”

When I shut my yap, I notice she’d started to open her mouth. Her brows are drawn together in a furious line.

She stops and gives me another strange look I can’t interpret as she frowns.

Her lower lip thrusts out in a bratty little pout I’m not fucking staring at.

Honest to God.

“I didn’t tell you Ros hasn’t been coming home. What are you hiding, Grant? What’s going on with her?”

Ah, fuck.

I shouldn’t have let that slip.

“Later. I’ll tell you at my house.” I haul myself to my feet.

“Nope. In case you hadn’t noticed, I still haven’t agreed to anything.”

I dart her the world’s dirtiest look.

Sweet Jesus, this woman and her pride.

“Philia, listen.” Sighing, I turn back to face her. “Look at it like you’re doing me a favor. Nothing more. Between you and me, my folks haven’t had a real vacation in years. I’d like to let them get out of town before Christmas and away from any sketchy shit around here, but they’ve gotta be here to look after Nell when I’m at work, and with school, I can’t let her go with them. I know you. I bet you’re going stir-crazy, fretting nonstop when you’re not with your ma. We could use a little help around the house to give my parents a break, let ’em take some time off. So, if you’re willing, I’d really appreciate it if you stayed with me, kept yourself out of trouble, and helped me out with the munchkin. It’d kill a whole flock of birds with one stone. You won’t have to be alone, looking over your shoulder while I track down your intruder, and I won’t have to worry about Nell while my parents are gone.”

Maybe that will push past her pride and let her actually accept.

But Ophelia just blinks at me, her mouth hanging open.

“What?” I frown. “What did I say?”

“…I don’t think you’ve ever said that many words with feeling in your entire life, for one.”

I groan, smacking my palm against my face.

“I do know how to fucking talk, Butterfly.”

She laughs. “Do you? You had me fooled for a good long while.”

“All grown up and still a pain in the ass.”

“Well, you helped spoil me growing up. So yeah, you should know.” She tilts her face up, eyeing me intently. “You promise you’ll clue me in on Ros if I come?”

Honestly, I’d clue her in even if she didn’t.

It’s not hard to see how worried she is, and dammit, I never should’ve swept it under the rug in the first place even if my intentions were to save her some grief.

“Yes,” I bite off.

Ophelia sighs.

“Fiiine,” she grumbles, pushing to her feet. “But you’ll have to wait here while I pack.”

“You want me to help?”

“No.” Her face flushes bright pink as she twists past me in the narrow space between the sofa and the coffee table without another word.

That damnably Ophelia Sanderson scent flares my nostrils again as the warmth of her body touches mine and leaves me burning. She throws a look over her shoulder as she heads to the stairs with a little toss of her shimmering honey-gold hair.

“Stay here. No boys allowed,” she says.

Then she’s gone, flitting upstairs, as warm and bright as if she hasn’t just been assaulted.

Goddamn.

How does she do it?

No matter what happens, Ophelia Sanderson picks herself up and forges on, shining on like the summer sun.

Then again, she wouldn’t be the woman who thieved away a piece of my heart ages ago if she didn’t.

Whatever happens next, that’s one jagged piece I’m sure I’ll never get back.


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