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The Sweetest Obsession: Chapter 8

ONE BIG SLIP (OPHELIA)

There are times when I feel like Grant Faircross can sear me open with a single glance and see all my hidden secrets.

Which is why I can’t believe how dense he is sometimes.

And how completely oblivious he can be to the way he just delivered an earthquake, left me reeling by rushing to my side the second he thought I was in danger.

That closed-off, rude, blunt boy has grown into a man with an iron heart.

But there’s something different about him, too.

There are times when the walls crack for the briefest second and his emotions show freely.

It almost makes me think he cares.

That there’s something more than just the unwavering obligation to protect me because I’m his best friend’s little sister.

God.

Doesn’t he realize how many feelings he’s kicking up?

Like the fact that I’ve always hated how it felt like Grant just saw me as extended family, like his own little sister, a complete nonentity, not really a girl—or now, a woman.

But the way those dark-mocha eyes ran over me as he looked at my bruises, the way he touched me…

That was not the caring, distant caress of a big brother.

In that moment, Grant freaking Faircross made me feel every inch a woman and then some.

Also, it only took half an hour to pack my things, considering I’d just unpacked them and I hadn’t brought much with me to Redhaven.

Grant waited patiently downstairs, though I heard him thumping around a bit in the bathroom to put the first aid kit away. The déjà vu hit like a freight train.

It’s just weird.

Almost like years haven’t been lost in time, tossing us back to those easier days when we’d spent our evenings together.

And if it wasn’t for the gaping chasm left by Ethan missing, I’d smile.

The drive to Grant’s cottage is short enough. I mean, technically every drive through Redhaven is pretty short.

I curl up silently in the passenger seat, basking in the warmth coming from the heating vents. Grant stays silent and brooding.

I try not to let him catch those little glances I throw him from the corner of my eye, desperate to read his mind.

What’s he thinking now?

Does he sense the same tension in the air?

He’s certainly turning over something in that big head of his. His brows always stitch together a stark line when he’s deep in thought like gathering thunderheads.

And now that he’s sporting this full, thick beard, it just adds another layer when his beard twitches, grinding his jaw like he can chew on those ideas until he gets to the truth.

I’m sneaky as I glance at him, but I get the feeling he knows I’m watching.

Do you know how long I’ve been watching you, though?

Do you know how much I wanted to know you before everything turned so crappy?

Sigh.

I’m not supposed to do this again.

I know I’m not.

I’m not supposed to be having warm, fuzzy feelings for Grant like I’m a kid with a crush all over again. Especially not after he’s knocked around my heart like a tiger with a ping-pong ball.

But he’s always been the compass, hasn’t he?

The lodestone that draws me back.

No matter how much older and wiser and more immune to impulsive emotions I’d like to think I am, I’m still helpless to resist his magnetism.

When I was young and stupid, I used to think we were made for each other.

That I was the only one who could understand him because I was the only one besides Ethan who ever really tried.

Then I grew up and found out that broody men like Grant don’t want to be understood.

They’re content to be these enigmas put on the Earth to drive women like me insane.

Honestly, they’re a little like self-absorbed children who don’t quite realize relationships are a two-way street—even friendships—and it’s not all about finding people who are just sidekicks along for the ride with a moody, intense, mute main character.

Yeah.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my post-Redhaven love life hasn’t been stellar. When I think about the men I’ve dated ever since I left, my stomach twists with a truth I hate.

I’ve always been trying to find another Grant.

Someone who’s snarly and blunt and kind of a dick.

But actions speak louder than words.

Grant’s actions have always hinted that under his grouchy surface there’s a kind, thoughtful man who puts others first.

Not a completely selfish asshole with a hard-on for his own dark, tormented image.

Why else would he be dragging me off to his house and asking me to help with Nell when he’s made it clear he just wants to look after me?

Poor guy.

He thought I couldn’t say no to helping with the kiddo and he’s totally right.

Even if it wounds my pride a bit to be lured in so obviously, I can’t deny it.

I think this could be good for me, though.

I’ve been looking for a happy distraction from Mom, from Ros, from Redhaven and its sinister crap.

Plus, little Nell is a perfectly adorable diversion to help keep me from fixating on a thousand heart-wrenching worries over Mom.

She’s also waiting for us when Grant pulls into the driveway of his cottage. His parents are there, too, their car parked by the curb while they take turns pushing Nell in the wood-and-rope swing hanging from the large oak tree that casts its shade over Grant’s neatly tended front yard.

The grass looks like it’s a quarter inch longer than the Redhaven HOA allows and it makes me smile.

Knowing him, he probably left it like that on purpose to spite the Mrs. Appleberrys around town. I even catch a glimpse of clover and late season blooms that must’ve been nice for the bees and other bugs back in the summer.

As we get out of his patrol car and I grab my things, his parents glance up with grateful smiles.

It’s odd to see them aged ten years when it feels like it’s just overnight.

Until this moment, I imagined them with a few less wrinkles.

Margaret Faircross’ hair not quite so silvery and Jensen Faircross’ back straighter and less stooped than it is now. He’s still a big man despite advancing age taking the edge off his muscle mass.

Grant raises a hand to his parents.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “Had a dispatch call. Intruder at Ophelia’s house.”

Mrs. Faircross’ gaze flicks to me, eyes rounding with concern. “Oh, Ophelia—are you all right?”

Next thing I know, she’s coming at me full steam.

I don’t even get a chance to grab my bag from the car before Mrs. Faircross has me wrapped up in the warmest hug.

It almost hurts to hug her back because it feels like coming home.

To remember that as much as I blame Redhaven and its weirdness and dark secrets for so many awful things, I have people here who are family. It doesn’t matter if they’re not blood at all.

And Jensen, he makes me feel like the safest woman in the world with just a glance.

“Don’t tell me they hurt you?” Jensen pats my shoulder.

I smile at him and shake my head.

I’m half expecting to walk inside to steaming bowls of chili and cornbread, his usual hearty go-to back when he’d feed three kids who dragged themselves in from tromping around the woods all day.

All the best things in life happened with spicy soup and warm bread and friendly conversation around the table.

I think it hit so deep because I never knew my own father. To this day, I don’t have any good guesses who he could be.

Mom was always so tight-lipped about it, yet she must have loved him enough to have two children with him.

I only ever knew that our dad wasn’t the same as Ethan’s, a kind, sickly man who passed away from leukemia before Ros and I were born.

But Jensen Faircross always treated me like I was his own daughter, bridging the awkward father gap until I never even felt the absence.

Next thing I know, he’s hugging me as his wife steps aside. I’m caught up in a tangle of Faircrosses while Grant scoops up a laughing Nell.

I let the elder Faircrosses fuss over me a bit, hugging them back and saying a few words about my mother, before I pull back with a smile, gripping Margaret’s arms.

“I promise I’m okay,” I say. “It wasn’t a big deal. Just some confused old guy who rattled me a bit. I’m going to stay with Grant for a bit until he sorts out who it was and if they need help—or an assault charge, I guess. Don’t worry.”

Margaret pats my cheek, clucking her tongue with soft sympathy. “Such a shame to have you coming home like this! I’ve missed you dearly, Ophelia. You’re practically all your mother ever talks about over tea, you know. She’s so proud of you.”

I know.

And I can’t help the lump rising in my throat.

“Maybe I’ll get lucky and she can wake up and tell me herself,” I whisper.

Margaret’s eyes mist over for a sweet, sentimental second.

Jensen nods warmly again, silent yet completely understanding. It’s easy to see where some of Grant’s overprotective grizzly vibe comes from.

Then Margaret lets me go, dusting her hands together.

“Well then,” she says. “I’ll leave you to get settled in.” She turns a sharp eye on Grant. “I hope your guest room is livable, young man. You live too much like a bachelor.”

Grant clears his throat gruffly as he lifts Nell up on his shoulders. “Bachelor or not, I keep my house clean. I’m not going to have her staying in a damned pigsty, Ma. Jesus.”

“You watch that mouth,” she retorts. “And don’t forget Miss Ophelia is your guest. Not your housekeeper. Don’t expect her to go picking up after you, either.”

“I can clean up for my damned self!” he splutters, cheeks going red above his beard as he scowls at his mother.

“It’s cool. I’m really just staying over to help with Nell,” I interrupt, if only to give Grant a little mercy. “I heard you guys have been wearing yourself thin. If you both want to run off for a romantic getaway down the coast or something…” I smile teasingly. “Now’s a good time.”

“Oh, no, we’re too old for romance.” Margaret laughs. “You two, on the other hand…”

Oh, God.

Oh my God, oh my God.

I forgot this woman is a shameless matchmaker.

The fact that Grant is thirty-nine and still single can’t help much.

Also, I’m about to spontaneously combust on the spot.

Honestly, I think I want to be an ash pile just so I don’t have to stand here, trying not to die of sheer mortification.

When I was a kid, I always thought Margaret knew about my crush on Grant. She’d invite me over for odd things, especially after I turned eighteen. Always trying to get me and Grant hanging out alone, secretly hoping her son would make a move, I guess.

He never did.

I was just Butterfly back then.

Now, I know better.

I’ve accepted I’ll always just be Butterfly to him, that last annoying piece of Ethan he still can’t let go of.

Even living under the same roof, I’d bet my bottom dollar Grant won’t make a move at all.

Even so, I’m tongue-tied.

Frozen while Grant stands there blankly, stone-faced and silent, focusing on prying Nell’s fingers out of his hair like he didn’t hear a thing.

It’s his father who rescues me. Jensen smiles indulgently and shakes his head, slipping an arm around his wife’s waist.

“Don’t put the kids on the spot, love,” he says. “Come to think of it, we could use a little getaway. Maybe drive out to the coast, that little B&B you love so much—the one with the beach that always has a ton of shells?”

“Yes,” Grant growls. “Go. Get out. Y’all are on my last nerve.”

Margaret thins her lips. “Son, if you think you’re too big for a spanking, you’ll find out very fast that your mother can still take you over her knee.”

“I think I’d kill to see that!” I mutter dryly, smiling myself back into composure—right before a fresh shiver hits me. “Oof, that wind… I’d better get inside before I catch cold. I’ve been in Florida too long. Didn’t come ready for October in North Carolina.”

“Grant,” Margaret says sharply.

“What, Ma?” Grant groans, rolling his eyes, which makes Nell giggle as she bends over him to meet his gaze.

“Either give Ophelia one of your nice coats or you take her shopping for one immediately,” she orders. “Don’t let her buy a cheap one, either. I won’t have her out here freezing in this house.”

“Thanks, but I can shop for my own—”

Margaret charges on like she doesn’t even hear me. “Promise me, Grant.”

The big lunk looks at the ground and sweeps his foot over it.

“Yeah, yeah, I promise. Now, will you quit harassing us and go plan your trip?”

Mrs. Faircross laughs.

“I’m your mother. It’s my job to harass you.”

I stifle a laugh behind my hand, whispering, “Some things never change.”

Grant shoots me a dirty look.

“Somehow, he never did learn enough manners. Lord knows I tried.” Margaret leans into her husband, offering me a sweet smile. “We’ll leave you be to settle in. But don’t be a stranger, darling. I’ve missed your face around here.”

It takes a few more parting hugs and admonishments at Grant before the Faircrosses actually leave.

Even though his shoulders are full with Nell, he insists on taking my bag and carrying it in, dragging my suitcase in one hand with Nell’s tiny bright-pink backpack dangling from his broad shoulder.

As we mount the steps to the front porch, I glance back at the last hint of taillights on the Faircrosses’ car.

“They haven’t slowed down a bit, have they?”

“They’re guaranteed to be goddamned terrors until they’re ninety, I’m sure,” he grumps, unlocking the door to let me in.

I just hold my smile.

Even when he’s snarling, it’s not hard to tell he complains with so much love.

Inside, Grant swings Nell down and tosses her backpack on the sofa.

“Go wash up, Nelly,” he says. “You can have a couple cookies and a juice for a snack, then I want you buckling down and hitting the books.”

“With Adventure Time?” She pouts up at him. “It always makes homework go faster…”

“Not till I’m done so I can turn it off if it gets too weird. You’re not old enough for some of the shit on that show.” He ruffles her hair. “Now scoot, kiddo.”

Nell just beams, flashing me a double-handed wave and she whispers, “Welcome home, Miss Philia!”

Oh, boy.

I want to sputter out that this isn’t home, but that little wild child’s already taking off up the stairs.

I’m just imagining that redness above Grant’s beard as he shakes his head, I’m sure.

He turns to lead me upstairs at a slower adult pace.

“C’mon. I’ll show you to the guest room up here.”

I don’t really know what to say as I follow him up, admiring this cozy little cottage house with its soft slate-blue walls and earthy wood tones everywhere.

Until now, it hasn’t really sunken in that we’ll be living together.

Not just seeing him out on patrols or bumping into him at the grocery store.

No, waking up to him every morning.

Seeing him sleep-rumpled and drowsy or relaxing at the end of a hard day.

Falling asleep at night knowing he’s just down the hall, that long, powerful body stretched out in his bed, a great beast at rest.

Wondering, when I shouldn’t, if he ever finds time to relieve his stress with other women. I’ve kept my ears perked up for any rumors, but so far, I’ve heard nothing.

And if he doesn’t date, if he doesn’t even sneak in a casual one-night stand every so often, what does he do to release that snapping tension that makes Grant so… well, Grant?

Does he just use whatever’s in his head on those long, lonely nights? Does he ever get so riled that big hand wanders lower, and what does he think about when he—

“Butterfly, you coming?” He’s looking at me intently when my head snaps up.

That shouldn’t make my heart thud so hard.

I’m standing frozen at the base of the stairs, caught in thoughts I definitely shouldn’t be having.

I mean, it’s not like Grant didn’t sleep over all the time back when he and Ethan were teenagers. But it made my heart beat like a rock ballad then, too, didn’t it?

Yes, even though my thoughts were a little more innocent.

I was only a kid when I’d wake up after midnight and creep down through the house, too curious what stupid things Ethan and his bestie got up to after dark.

I’d wind up sitting on the stairs and clutching the railings, watching them, eavesdropping on their conversations about girls and games and how they were so close to grinding their way to their first million dollars.

Sometimes, the boys would come home after sneaking beer or Jacobin moonshine at parties with the older kids and pass out early. They never saw me when I’d perch in my spot, looking down below at Grant’s huge body sprawled out in his sleeping bag on the floor of our living room.

He was big even then.

The sleeping bag was actually two bags unzipped and layered around him like a Grant sandwich because he couldn’t fit inside a normal one. Even then, he slept with one thick arm and leg flung out on the floor, his handsome face scowling in his sleep.

I still see that gorgeous, angry boy in the broad lines of Grant’s back as he moves up the stairs ahead of me.

It’s funny.

No matter how surly he seems, I’ve never seen him use that strength to hurt anyone.

Upstairs, he guides me down a narrow, blue-carpeted hallway, tapping doors as he goes.

“Things have moved around a little since the last time you were here. Nell’s room,” he says, then the next one, “My room. Bathroom across the hall.” He stops at the last door at the very end of the hall kitty-corner to his room and pushes the door open. “Your room. Laundry’s still in the basement if you need it.”

“Great, thanks.”

He swings my suitcase through the door and drops it just inside off to one side before stepping out of the way to let me in. I brush past him, trying not to be too aware of how that leaves me tingling.

I step into a sunny, neat room with a queen bed covered in homey quilts in various shades of green hexagons, from forest to soft pastel sea green. White lace curtains, a dresser, and a trunk in matching grey ash wood, cozy throw rugs scattered around.

The place is simple, neutral, clean, and cozy.

That’s Grant, all right.

Makes sense when this used to be his room when he was a kid.

It hits me that I’ll be sleeping in the same room he’s laid in every night before his parents moved out and he took over the master bedroom.

But I really shouldn’t think about that.

Behind me, he clears his throat.

“Listen, this house is old and I’m working on fixing up the insulation. Still gets drafty at night even when the furnace kicks on. There’s an electric blanket in the trunk, if you need it. If you’re still too cold with that, then I’ll buy you a new one.”

I turn back to face him.

There he is, standing awkwardly in the doorway, scrubbing the back of his neck with one hand and looking anywhere but at me.

The big moose cares so much.

I can’t help a small smile.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine with the electric blanket. Jeez, I feel like me being cold all the time is turning into a running gag,” I say. “Thanks, though. You don’t have to go to the trouble.”

His expression darkens into a smoky glare.

“It’s no trouble. You ain’t trouble, Philia.”

I blink quickly and duck my head.

Wow.

Now I’m the one being awkward and turning away as I blush.

“I, um… thanks.”

Way to go, Ophelia.

There’s a long silence before he grunts and tosses his head. “Right. I’m gonna start dinner. Come on down once you’re settled in and we’ll have a chat about Ros.”

Blech.

How could I forget?

Hearing my sister’s name rips me back to grim reality, away from this beautifully angsty fairy tale where we both try to hide confusing feelings rearing their heads.

I nod slowly.

“Yeah,” I say faintly. “Okay. Thanks again.”

Grant doesn’t say anything.

He just looks at me for a long, hard moment with a gaze I can’t decipher.

Then he’s gone, leaving me standing in that quiet sunlit room, wondering why everything keeps throbbing with uncertainty.


It doesn’t take me long to unpack for what feels like the twentieth time.

It also feels a little pointless when everything is so transitory right now.

Or maybe I just have a feeling Grant will be shipping me right back home tomorrow after one of the out-of-towners comes rushing in to apologize because their grandpa broke out of his cabin and wound up lost, running around town spooking people.

Grant will feel silly for overreacting. I’ll feel sillier for going along with it, but we’ll forget within a week, after my bruises heal.

By the time I’m back downstairs, I find Nell hunched over the coffee table. She’s kneeling on the floor and scribbling diligently at a workbook from school while some colorful cartoon bubbles across the TV with overly bright colors and loud noises and a lot of weird, um, stretching.

I stop and lean over to watch her for a moment.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask.

“Book report,” she chirps without stopping her aggressive scribbling. “It’s about how The Velveteen Rabbit is really a book of philosophy. Like how Skin Horse says you can find your real self if you suffer enough for love.”

Yikes.

That’s pretty freaking deep for an almost ten-year-old.

I arch both brows. “Now where did you learn about philosophy? Last I checked, that’s usually a subject for college.”

“Miss Lilah!” she answers brightly, her eyes going starry. “She’s the best teacher ever. She says when life gets tough, that’s when you find out what you’re really made of. A lot of ancient people thought so too and wrote long books about it. Don’t much like Aristotle, though. Aristotle sucks.

I burst out laughing at her enthusiasm.

Honestly, it was all Greek to me—pun intended—in the Great Thinkers extracurricular I took, too.

“You have an interesting teacher,” I tease wryly, tweaking one of her curls. Then I glance up as I catch a muscular shoulder passing by through the kitchen door.

“Be right back. I’ll let you focus.”

I follow that glimpse a minute later and the sudden heavenly smell of cooking meat into the kitchen.

Sure enough, Grant changed out of his uniform, slipping into a pair of battered jeans and a plain grey Redhaven PD t-shirt that strains across his chest.

I think I’m in awe.

Seeing him like this, casual and barefoot and so huge, breaks something inside me.

This powerful ache of homesickness that doesn’t make sense when I’m already here with good people.

But it’s not a place I’m missing.

It’s a time when things were simpler.

Before we were missing so many pieces of ourselves.

“Need a hand?” I ask.

Grant glances up from flipping homemade hamburgers on the stove.

“Sure,” he says. “Fries are just about ready to come out of the oven, if you wanna season ’em.”

“On it.” I scrounge up a pair of oven mitts as he steps aside so I can retrieve a tray crowded with thick wedge steak fries coated with some aromatic oil. “Spice rack?”

“Cabinet overhead.”

“Ah.”

I stretch up on my toes to reach in and dig out the salt and pepper, plus the paprika. I know how Grant eats and I know he likes his spicy.

“Only salt on a third of the pan,” he grunts. “No pepper or anything. Nell’s particular.”

I giggle.

“Only because you let her be.” I keep myself from pointing out that it’s adorable how much he indulges the little girl.

The dirty look he throws me as he pushes the sizzling burger patties around says he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

I watch him sidelong while I season the fries, trying to work up how to ask, before I decide to be direct.

“So,” I say. “You want to tell me what’s up with Ros? How long has she been this weird?”

He pauses, gathering his words.

“If you’d asked me a few days ago, I’d have said not long at all. Then again, that’s mostly ’cause I hardly ever saw her the last year or two with the murder drama and all. Guess that in itself was a little weird, considering she was always around town before. She’d always wave or stop by for a quick conversation.”

I frown and pick up one of the steak fries for a taste test.

“Where has she been going? Why can’t I get her to come home?”

“No damned clue,” he growls. “But I’m thinking it’s got an awful lot to do with Aleksander Arrendell.”

I’d bitten down on the piping hot fry—and now I choke on it, coughing and coming close to spitting it out.

“Aleksander who?” I force swallow and pound a fist against my chest.

“You heard me.” Grant watches me in stark silence, then turns the burner off, sets the spatula down, and rips a paper towel off the dispenser roll before offering it to me.

I eye him intently as he sighs.

“Look, I don’t think you’re gonna like what I’m about to tell you, Butterfly.”

“If it’s what I think you’re saying, I know I won’t like it.” I wipe my mouth roughly with the paper towel. “Thanks. But what the hell do the Arrendells have to do with Ros?”

Grant grits his teeth, looking away from me and back again.

Oh, Jesus.

It must be bad if he’s steeling himself like this. I brace myself, but I’m so not ready for the moment he says it.

“Ophelia, they’re engaged.”

“They’re—they’re—what?” I think I’m about to commit a homicide, Aleksander Arrendell primary victim. Rage boils up inside me. I stare at him in disbelief, waiting for him to tell me he’s joking or just misspoke. “My baby sister is… is engaged to that creep? What the hell? Since when? How do you know?

“I saw them together the day you came back,” he bites off. “Up at the big house when I was responding to that suicide call. They were hanging all over each other. She showed me the ring and told me to stop worrying, said they were engaged. She begged me not to tell you.”

“Holy shit. Well, I can guess why,” I grit through my teeth, clenching my fists. “She knew what I’d say. Jesus, how could she? How—knowing what we know now, about Ulysses, when we’ve always known. We knew they had to be involved that night, and Ethan…”

I can’t carry on. The burning thud of my heart makes me incoherent.

“I know,” Grant answers bitterly. His voice is heavy and rough, but he’s still here with me, sharing the same shock, even if he’s not hissing and spitting like a wet cat. “It doesn’t feel right. Ros barely reacted to seeing that poor maid hanging there in the big house. I’ve seen ’em around a few times since and she always seems like she’s… fuck, I don’t know.” He trails off, clearing his throat.

“Like she’s what, Grant?”

“Not herself,” he replies carefully.

I frown.

“Oh, c’mon. Now is not the time to mince words.”

He rolls his thick shoulders. “She’s usually intoxicated. Drunk, I’d say, but maybe hopped up on something else.”

Sickness punches right through me.

“You think she’s on drugs?” I whisper.

It’d make sense, though.

Here I thought she was just being careless, evasive, hiding from what’s happening to our mother and pretending it’s not real so she doesn’t have to suffocate in the fear, the pain, the impending grief.

Only, I remember that man I overheard on the phone.

The weird lightness of her voice.

Now, I get it.

She’s been avoiding me because she knows I’ll know what’s up the second I lay eyes on her.

I hate that it makes a terrible kind of sense.

And I don’t realize my legs are going out from under me until I hear the scrape of a chair and feel my vision blanking out.

Grant runs over and spins the chair out just in time to catch me as I drop, still clutching a half-chewed steak fry in numb fingers.

My butt lands hard on the wooden seat.

“Sorry. I think I just hit my limit for too much crap,” I say hoarsely, staring at my knees. “I just… everything with Mom, and now Ros, marrying that man. He probably knows what happened to Ethan, he—he—”

“Breathe,” he commands.

I try, fighting for precious air that feels like napalm scorching my lungs.

“Butterfly. Look at me and breathe,” he says again.

Grant sinks to one knee in front of me, those dark eyes locking on mine, demanding that I focus on him as he gently clasps my face.

His hands smolder against my skin as I work out several hard breaths, each one coming a little easier than the last.

His eyes search mine, strong and dark and strangely reassuring.

“That’s the other reason I didn’t tell you,” he says after a minute. “You’ve got enough shit on your plate. I did want to talk to you about Ethan, though.”

I just stare.

I can’t seem to look away. Those searching luminous hazel eyes become my focal point until I stop trying to hyperventilate.

“Ethan? What about?”

“I’m reopening his case,” Grant growls. “I think there’s grounds after what happened with the Arrendells and Celeste Graves. Ethan’s case has been a missing person’s cold case for years, long past any formal resolution. With Raleigh forensics working on those remains, we might get some answers, one way or another. Hell, if we’re lucky, we might be able to retrace his steps, and hope his bones aren’t among the remains at all.”

My body stops working.

Heart. Breath. Blood. Pulse.

All of me freezes as I meet his eyes, stare at him, stare into Grant, into that quiet solemness and raging gruffness that hides a heart so true.

He never stopped.

He really never stopped looking for my brother all this time.

He still thinks there’s a chance he’s alive, even if deep down, that seems completely ludicrous. The hope was starved out of me without anyone finding a single clue.

“You… you asshole,” I strangle out. My mouth moves automatically. I don’t know what I’m saying, why I’m saying it, or why my eyes are welling up and I just can’t take anymore. “You overly loyal giant donkey. You… you…”

There’s a moment.

A crack in reality when those hard eyes soften.

All those years I spent when we were young, wishing he’d show some emotion.

Something plain and simple and honest.

Something easy, without having to turn myself into a human Grant decoder to understand his growls and loud silences.

Now, he finally gives me what I’m aching for with real concern flashing across his face, the way he leans into me, staring down like he’s afraid he’s broken me somehow.

“Ophelia, fuck,” he says softly. “I won’t see you hurt.”

No, but he will see me speechless tonight.

If I ever speak again, I’ll tell him how wonderfully dumb he’s being.

But right now, he’s just a giant blur past the tears.

Scalding, stupid, overwhelmed tears I don’t want to cry, but I just can’t take another bee sting to the heart.

I can’t take more confusion, more things to fear.

Holy hell, I don’t want to think about it anymore.

Because if I’m thinking, that means I won’t do what I’m doing right now.

I won’t be laying my fingers on Grant’s face, my fingers weaving through the thick, grey-shot bristle of his bearish brown beard.

Pulling him closer, even as his eyes widen.

I definitely won’t be kissing him.

Kissing. Him.

I don’t know what comes over me.

It’s too instant, too impulsive, too reckless.

Too impossible to be denied.

And now that I’ve started I can’t stop, and I can taste years of pent-up emotion in the salt between our lips as I crush my mouth to his and beg.

Don’t hurt me right now, Grant. I can’t stand another ounce of pain and disappointment.

Just give.

Give me the fire in that growl, the nip of your teeth, the sweet, sweet rush that makes me tingle.

I’m actually shaking for my longest obsession.

No surprise, the man is a human earthquake when his lips attack mine.

Or maybe it’s just the vibration, the shock and awe steaming out of him, tangled up in this sudden hunger I can feel.

Grant goes still for just a second.

The shock radiates through both of us in hot waves so intense they leave me dizzy.

I take a deep breath and wait for it, fully expecting the stab of hurt where he sternly pushes me away and reminds me I’ll always be the kid sister.

Nothing but Butterfly.

Not anyone he could ever see as romantic or sexy or remotely desirable.

…only he doesn’t.

Instead, he wraps his huge arm tight around my waist, possessively jerking me forward, almost off the chair.

My stomach leaps and twists.

Instead of tearing his mouth off mine, he goes all in.

Grant Faircross ravages me with the sudden intensity of a kiss that crashes over me like lightning splitting the night.

Heat blooms under my skin like coffee grounds searing under a hot pour.

His mouth is so firm, so delicious, his teeth taunting and his beard scraping.

The rush of his breaths makes me unhinged as he fits our lips together until they’re locked and sliding.

I’m completely captive and I love it.

I don’t want to be free.

Not when his tongue teases like he’s desperate for another sip of me.

Not when he’s taking me over, dissolving my heartache in a universe where there’s nothing but this punishing, powerful kiss.

Not when his hand splays against the small of my back, so large and thick I shiver with the sheer masculine force of it.

Holy wow.

I may have been the one who started it, but baby, he finishes.

I’m barely exaggerating when I say I almost finish halfway through it, moaning into his mouth.

My cheeks flush so hot I’m boneless.

He steals my control and breaks me down until I’m a gasping, melting mess, tugging at his beard to pull him in closer, deeper, opening my mouth in invitation.

Own me.

A terrible plea, but I’m so past caring.

When one of your deepest, darkest desires is suddenly coming true, it’s hard to process anything.

I’ve secretly dreamed about this ever since I was a little girl.

I just never knew it could burn this good.

I didn’t think it was possible to dissolve into Grant like he’s this bottomless well of heat and I’m sinking deeper, even as his tongue steals inside me and stirs me up in ways that make me forget how to breathe.

I’m hyperaware of my own body and nothing else. I feel how my toes curl like they never have, kissing anyone else.

I sense every steaming inch of his body.

How close he is, the way his chest heaves with every rasping breath, his scent, the rock-hard body as I release his beard and stroke his arms, his chest.

Every savage inch of him underneath that thin grey t-shirt. I—

Uh-ohhhh!” a little voice croons from behind us. “Uncle Grant’s gonna be in so much trou-ou-ou-ouble.”

Oh, no.

Oh, shit.

We both snap back so sharply I hurt my neck.

We stare at each other for two stunned seconds—what were we just doing?—before he stands abruptly.

And I do too, turning to face little Nell, who suddenly has the power of judge, jury, and executioner.

I. Um. I have no earthly idea how to explain what she just saw us doing.

Grant glowers at her with a thunderous scowl.

“You didn’t see that, kiddo.”

“But…” Nell blinks up at him with a stunned innocence that can only be part devil. “What about the lady, Uncle Grant? The one you were kissing? It’s her, isn’t it?”

A strangled sound tears from Grant’s throat.

“Forget the lady. Do not talk about the lady. You’ve already embarrassed me a thousand times over about the lady.”

The lady? I can’t help a little smile, even if I want to curl up and die from embarrassment right now.

“What about the lady?” I ask, clearing my throat.

“Are you her? The special lady Uncle Grant talks about,” Nell says solemnly. “The lady’s why he’s never had a girlfriend. He said he wanted to be with a real special lady but she went away, so now he’s all by himself.” She turns her wide, mischievous eyes on Grant. “Isn’t she gonna be mad that you’re kissing Miss Philia?”

“Nell, enough,” Grant clips.

Oh.

Oh my God.

I guess that answers the big unknown about his dating life.

Of course there’s a ‘special lady.’

Someone else he’s in love with.

I really do need a nice, deep hole to crawl into right about now. I wonder how the weather is at the center of the Earth?

I’m so not the lady and my head is about to spin right off.

I guess kissing me back was just a thoughtless thing, a physical reaction, an impulse.

God, I really did come back here just to get my heart shattered a second time, didn’t I?

Why can’t I just grow up and get over him?

But Nell’s still pouting, waiting for an answer.

“Jeez! I don’t get why it’s such a big bad secret. And I don’t think it’s very nice of you, Uncle Grant,” she says. “I thought you were gonna find the lady and marry her. You said I’d get to meet her. She’s gonna be so sad if she finds out you—”

Nell.” Grant claps one large hand gently over her mouth and holds his mouth to her ear. “Stop it. You’ve met the damn lady. Miss Ophelia is the lady. Now quit embarrassing me. Stop looking at me like you’re disappointed. It’s not what you think.”

…what.

My ears are melting off.

I actually am the lady?

Holy hell, I never liked roller coasters.

Every time at an amusement park, I always sat out the rides that flung you up high and dropped you down again like you were addicted to almost dying. It’s just not my thing.

So, I’m really not enjoying the emotional rocket ride the last few days—or the last few seconds, really—have tossed me through.

I’m left frozen and numb as Grant gives me an almost apologetic look before turning. He keeps a wary eye on Nell as he slowly pulls his hand away from her mouth.

Nell blinks nonchalantly like a kitten waking up. Almost like she’s used to this routine. Then she turns her brilliant little chipmunk smile on me.

“Wowee—the lady! Why didn’t you tell me you were the lady Uncle Grant’s obsessed with?” She breaks away from Grant, squirming free even as he tries to catch her again with a desperate sound.

Too late.

She’s barreling right at me and I’m too stunned to think about moving.

The lady Uncle Grant’s obsessed with.

No freaking way.

Nell’s just confused… right?

She’s only nine.

Actually, I’m confused, and blushing so hard I’m woozy.

It only gets worse as Nell throws herself against me, buries her face in my stomach, and wraps her little arms around me in a surprisingly tight, clingy hug.

“Are you gonna be my new mommy?” Her words are muffled against my shirt. “I miss having a mommy.”

Ouch.

That roller coaster just had to take one more good, hard turn and chuck me to the moon and back, I suppose.

I work my mouth for a helpless moment, blanking for words that won’t come before I rest a hand on top of her head. It’s easier to focus on her right now because I think if I look at Grant, I might dissolve into a sticky puddle.

Time to deflect.

“I think I should help you check your homework. Come tell me about The Velveteen Rabbit and ethics while we let Uncle Grant finish making dinner, hmm? How’s that sound?”

Nell looks up at me, cocking her head, considering it.

Her face slowly lights up in a smile.

“Well… okay!” she says, just like that.

I’ve never been more grateful for kids and their short attention spans.

The little girl takes my hand and marches us out, nearly dragging me from the kitchen with her pint-sized energy.

I stumble after her, but not without stealing one more wondering look at Grant. If I’m gobsmacked, the look on his face says he’s—

I don’t even know.

He’s wearing that particularly strange, impassable look I’ve never quite deciphered.

Only, now I wonder if I’ve just always misunderstood it.

Because I feel like I know that look.

That look screams want.

And it belongs to a man who’s staring at something he desperately wants and thinks he can never have.

Oh my God.

I’m imagining this, right?

I wonder if the creeper who showed up at Mom’s house actually knocked my head into something and this is all a wild hallucination.

Maybe I’ll wake up in a hospital bed in a life where kissing Grant Faircross isn’t the craziest thing possible. Because the fact that he might have feelings is.

But when our eyes lock, I feel something tighten deep inside me, swirling emotions drawn up into a sweet knot of curiosity and yearning and—

Hope.

There, I said it.

I’ve given myself over to the most dangerous emotion possible after I’ve tried to tell myself for ages I couldn’t possibly feel anything for him.

Not after he chased me out of Redhaven with a flaming word of guilt.

Turns out, I lied.

Deep in my bones, there’s a fresh hope beating faster than my own rabbiting heart, silently announcing how I’ve ached for him, and begging him to ache for me, too.


Look, I’ve been in awkward situations before.

Flubbing my words on an oral exam and saying something very, very salacious when I meant something very clinical back when I was grinding away for my nursing license.

Like doing catheter duty and not realizing an elderly man with severe hypospadias had his, um, opening more than an inch below the tip of his junk. He howled with laughter while I searched frantically, and then spent the next hour apologizing until I was blue in the face.

Or the time I didn’t realize the friendly older doctor I thought of as a father figure and mentor only asked me to accompany him to a medical awards ceremony because he wanted to get handsy in the back of his car. Yes, I actually had to knee him in the balls and run with my heels dangling from my hand and my pride just as bruised as his balls.

Somehow, it’s nowhere near as awkward as the post-kiss-that-never-should’ve-happened dinner with Grant.

We both avoid looking at each other the whole time like a single glance will turn us into a puff of ash.

The only one who seems remotely comfortable right now is Nell.

In fact, the little monster has clammed up happily.

On the surface, she’s being perfectly obedient by not egging on the mess she helped create. But it’s not hard to tell she likes watching us squirm.

The little girl stuffs her face gleefully, avoiding all attempts by Grant to awkwardly ask about her school day and my efforts to even more awkwardly ask about the “Miss Lilah” she worships so much at school by somehow always having her mouth full.

I get one comment in about how it’s not ladylike to talk while chewing—right before Nell stuffs another steak fry into her mouth.

Leaving me looking anywhere but at Grant.

I’m so messed up inside.

The way Nell made it sound, Grant’s been waiting for me all these years. But he’s the one who told me to leave…

I don’t understand.

I have so many questions, but I can’t ask them right now. Not when the air feels like a wall between us, and not with little ears listening.

So I finish choking down my food and when we’re all done eating, Nell stands and announces, “I need to wash up for bed.”

“I’ll come up, too. I’ll read you a story, if you want,” I say quickly.

Grant stands abruptly, his head bowed as he gathers up the dishes.

“You girls run on. I’ll clean up in here,” he says flatly.

Nell just smiles, sly and too knowing.

That girl is an evil scientist stuffed into a kid’s body, I swear. She’s just too much for her own good and mine.

I’m still glad she happily waves to me and leads the way upstairs, then proceeds to spend twenty minutes showing me her toothbrush, her strawberry-shaped toothbrush cap, her special bubblegum-flavored toothpaste, and the right way to wash my hands with her soap that turns into rainbow foam while you scrub your fingers together.

How charming.

I also snicker because I can already tell she’s going to drive some boy wonderfully crazy when she grows up.

I help brush out her wildly curly hair, then we head for her room, which is wall to wall with bookshelves and brightly colored things. The giant floppy blue stuffed unicorn I’ve seen before is on the lace-frilled bed.

She bounces up to settle against the pillows and holds up the stuffie.

“Here, meet Mr. Pickle,” she announces cheerfully. “Mr. Pickle, say hi to Miss Philia.”

She picks up one dirty hoof and waves it at me, switching to a different voice, high and screechy. “Hi, Miss Philia!

“Hi, Mr. Pickle,” I say carefully. “You’re pretty old for a unicorn, aren’t you?”

I’m just as old as Nelly! She continues in her Pickle voice. “I’ve been around since she was a baby! Nell’s Mommy and Daddy sent me to stay with her forever because they can’t!

Oh, crap.

My heart wrenches for that little girl.

…was Mr. Pickle the only toy salvaged from the burning house?

God, no wonder it’s so stained and worn. I can’t blame her for wanting to believe her toy will stay with her forever when her parents left so suddenly.

How do you think Grant feels?

How do you think he feels that you left him?

I shove the thought away and offer Nell a smile. “Did you want me to read you and Mr. Pickle a bedtime story?”

“Yes!” Still clinging to the unicorn, she turns and rummages around in the small shelf built into the headboard. She picks a thin square picture book with a battered cover illustrated with monsters with large yellow eyes.

Where the Wild Things Are.

She thrusts it at me gleefully.

My breath goes tight and shallow as I reach for it.

Oh, wow. It can’t be, can it?

Carefully, I open the book across my lap, flip to the last page, the inside cover.

Yep, it’s still there in the lower right corner.

O. E. G.

Each letter written in a different hand. The first is so messy it had to be traced a couple times until it actually made a proper O.

O. E. G.

Ophelia. Ethan. Grant.

My lips tremble, but I smile, tracing the letters with my fingertips.

“I remember this book,” I whisper. “Did you know I knew your Uncle Grant when he was just a boy, Nell?”

“You did?” She watched me with rapt attention.

“He was my brother’s best friend. We were always together, all three of us. The Three Musketeers.” It hurts to breathe, but the pain isn’t all bitter. “When he’d sleep over with my brother at my mom’s house, your uncle would bring this book quite a lot. Sometimes he’d read to us until we fell asleep… and if we didn’t fall asleep the first time, he’d read it again.”

Nell looks at me with something like awe.

“Dang. You really are the lady,” she whispers. I blush hotly until she asks, “Where’s your brother now? How come Uncle Grant doesn’t hang out with him anymore?”

Holy shit, the mouth of babes.

My throat closes up.

“Ethan, he had to go away,” I manage slowly. “Kind of like the way your parents had to leave, too.”

Nell’s eyes glisten, but she beams me the sweetest, bravest smile and then scoots across the bed until she can steal my arm to hug it, leaning herself against my shoulder.

“It’s okay if he’s gone,” she says. “I get it. Uncle Grant tells me all the time it’s cool to be sad. I’m only sad because I still love them, and that’s not a bad thing.”

She’s. Killing. Me.

“Your Uncle Grant is very wise—just don’t tell him I said that,” I joke, kissing the top of her head. “Also, you’re very right. It’s not bad to be sad. I still love my brother a lot.”

“Do you still love Uncle Grant, too?”

I stiffen. My next breath goes down wrong until I have to clear my throat to talk.

“I. Um. Let’s start the story so you’re not up past your bedtime.”

“…if I don’t fall asleep, will you read it to me again?” she asks hopefully.

I smile.

“Yeah, sweetie,” I say. “I absolutely will.”

I end up reading the book almost three times before Nell finally dozes off.

I have to pry her off my arm and it takes a little work to do it without waking her, but eventually she sinks down with a sleepy sigh that tugs at my heartstrings.

Sweet girl.

Even if she can be a little hellraiser.

Soon, I turn off the lights, check her night-light, and leave her there cuddled up with Mr. Pickle. I almost want to bring the book with me now and ask Grant if he remembers writing our initials.

Instead, I leave it on the nightstand and tiptoe downstairs, my heart fast and my blood thick and my thoughts whirling.

I’m hoping I can talk to Grant.

Ask him to explain, to sort everything out, because once again his gentle actions don’t match the cruel words that exiled me from Redhaven.

When I step down into the living room, he’s unconscious.

Sprawled out on the sofa with his legs stretched out in front of him, his body slouched to one side and his head pillowed on the overstuffed arm.

Sound asleep, and yeah, he still does it.

He scowls in his sleep like he’s annoyed with his dreams, grouching at them the entire time they play in his head.

The more things change, they really do stay the same.

Including what I do now.

When we were kids and he’d spread out with his arms and legs all akimbo, I’d creep off the stairs and rearrange his covers so he was tucked in warmly.

He never knew.

Now, I move through the living room and pull the knit throw off the back of the sofa to drape over him. It barely covers his enormous bulk from ribs to thigh.

With a soft laugh, I slip upstairs, rummage around in the trunk at the foot of the bed, and find a couple nice big fleece blankets.

Back downstairs, I arrange the fleeces over Grant quietly, practically making a nest around him.

He doesn’t even bat an eyelash, sleeping deep and hard.

He looks so cozy and warm. So peaceful.

And I get cold so easily.

Oh, you know I shouldn’t.

But I want to.

And maybe tonight giving in to this fierce, beating wanting won’t make things worse than they already are.

Biting my lip, chest aching, I settle into the blankets with him, pulling myself against his side.

Against his heat.

Against his silent strength that was always an unbreakable rock when I was growing up, never mind the sharp words that became too much to bear.

There are no angry words now.

Only a warm, firm body enfolding me like a shield.

And him.

Us.

I settle my head against his shoulder, draw the blankets around us, and slide into the most restful sleep I’ve had in years.

Easy when I finally feel safe.

Because as long as I’m with Grant, nothing bad will happen.

Nothing else can hurt us besides my own desperate mistakes.


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