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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 15


Prison Lot Strip Tease

Lucian

I started my day at 5:00 a.m. I’d worked out, had breakfast, handled three conference calls—­two from the car—­fired three people, and closed an eight-­figure deal. All before noon.

I had two in-­house meetings that couldn’t be rescheduled, so I did the thing I really didn’t want to do and offloaded them onto Nolan with strict instructions not to fuck anything up.

All so I could beat her here.

Sloane’s little “I’ll do some research” might have fooled everyone else, but not me.

Sergeant Grave Hopper was only too happy to agree to fire off a text when he saw the underhanded little librarian pulling out of the parking lot on her way to a mysterious Wednesday afternoon “meeting.”

“Here she is,” Hank, my driver, announced when the Jeep roared into the parking lot of the Fraus Correctional Center.

“I’ll call you back, Nolan,” I said and disconnected.

Sloane had her music loud and sunglasses on. Not a care in the world. Thinking she could just ride to someone’s rescue without bothering to think of her own safety first. I wasn’t going to stand for that again.

She was frantically digging through her gigantic I’d Rather Be Reading tote on the passenger seat when I approached her Jeep window. I peered in and caught a glimpse of her phone screen in her lap. It was an internet search for “what not to bring to prison visiting hours.”

With an eye roll, I rapped on her window.

Startled, Sloane jolted, and the contents of her bag exploded everywhere.

On an aggrieved sigh, I opened her door. She stared up at me, her jaw slack, her sunglasses askew.

I waited.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, finally regaining the power of speech.

“Waiting for you.”

“How—­Why—­”

“That innocent little librarian routine might work on your friends, but it doesn’t work on me.”

She scoffed and started shoveling female paraphernalia back into her bag. “I don’t have an innocent little librarian routine.”

“Did you tell Naomi and Lina that you were coming?”

“No. But—­”

“Did you tell Nash or Knox?”

She stopped shoveling. Her chin jutted out.

“No,” she said.

“You went behind everyone’s backs because you decided you knew better than everyone else. Not the best way to begin your partnership.”

Judging from her expression, she knew I was right and wasn’t happy about it.

“Are you going to lecture me to death or leave me alone so I can continue to fuck everything up?” She tried to angrily exit the vehicle only to be held back by her seat belt.

I reached across her and released it. “Neither. Let’s go.”

“No freaking way, Lucifer. I’m not letting you go in there. You’ll scare this poor woman out of her wits with your disapproving death glare.”

“You’re not going in there without me,” I said succinctly.

“Yes, I am,” she spat. She turned away from me and tried to wrestle her bag across the seat.

“Leave it. You can’t take it in with you,” I said as I pulled out my phone.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Calling Naomi.” My thumb hovered over the Call button.

“Damn it!”

“Did you just stomp your foot?” I asked. Sloane’s comfort with expressing anger had always intrigued me. But I guess one was free to express their anger when one could control it.

“I was picturing your foot under mine,” she shot back.

“Either I go in there with you, or you turn around and drive home. Those are your only two choices.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and glared up at me. Her gaze slid to the prison entrance. Her lips pursed.

“You wouldn’t make it,” I advised.

She dropped her arms and fisted her hands at her sides. “Fine. You can come in. But you can’t glare or growl or roll your eyes. And definitely no speaking.”

“May I breathe?”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” she said.

“We’re supposed to be in the midst of a truce,” I pointed out.

“What truce involves you ambushing me in the parking lot of a women’s correctional facility?”

She had a very small, practically insignificant point. “If I had called you to discuss this, would you have even answered?” I already knew the answer.

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“Then let’s deal with the situation at hand. I’m going in there with you. End of story,” I snapped.

“Gee, maybe try to turn down the charm there, Master of the Universe. You might dazzle this woman into a faint.”

I shut the door of her Jeep and gestured toward the front of the prison. “Let’s go.”

We crossed the asphalt side by side, heading toward the monstrous monument of security. Earth-­brown sandstone and concrete formed the towering facility walls beyond the double barbed wire fences.

Women in beige jumpsuits huddled in groups in the dismal yard. The asphalt inside the fences was crumbling, dead weeds poking up through the cracks.

Sloane stopped suddenly on the sidewalk. “Why are you here?” she asked again.

“You already asked me that,” I reminded her.

She shook her head, sending that thick, blond ponytail swinging. “Fine. It’s Wednesday. Why aren’t you ruling the corporate world? And you can’t stand me, so what does it matter to you if I screw up this partnership with my friends? I’d think you’d be happy to watch me crash and burn.”

“If you manage to make a mess of things, there’s a chance you could be essentially setting your friends’ money on fire. More importantly, there’s a woman behind those walls who might suffer because of it.”

She closed her eyes and took a breath. “You’ve buried and forgotten so many things, I just assumed you were over that as well.”

She was wrong. I’d buried and forgotten nothing. Instead, I’d used it all as fuel.

“There are some things we never get over. Some things we hide from the light,” I said, patting my pocket only to remember I’d left my cigarette in the car.

Sloane lifted her gaze to the heavy gray clouds and wrinkled her nose. Her stud was a pale pink today. “I take it you used your creepy spy network to dig into Mary Louise’s case,” she guessed.

“I may have glanced at some files.”

My team had done a fast, deep dive, and I’d managed to pore over their findings between everything else I’d had to do today. By all accounts, Mary Louise Upshaw was a model prisoner who used her time inside to earn two degrees and start a creative writing program for her fellow inmates. My own legal counsel had reviewed her sentence and found it “absolute bullshit.” Which meant the justice-­seeking Sloane was probably about to have her heart shattered.

“So you think we might have a case,” she pressed.

“I think a lot rides on what she has to say,” I hedged.


The visitation room was more depressing than I’d anticipated. There were two rows of scarred folding tables sandwiched between cracked and faded vinyl chairs. The industrial tile floor was stained and peeling. Some of the ceiling tiles were missing between flickering fluorescent lights. There was something that looked suspiciously like mold climbing the walls under the glass block windows.

Sloane was clicking her pen and gnawing on her lower lip, her eyes wide behind her glasses. With a sigh, I gripped the back of her chair and pulled it and her into my side.

She stopped clicking her pen and frowned up at me. She’d always had that little line between her eyebrows that deepened when she was deep in thought…or pissed off at me. I wanted to run my finger over it.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I told her.

“I’m not afraid.”

I looked down pointedly at the denim-­clad leg that was jiggling a mere inch from my own.

“Fine. I’m not afraid, I’m nervous. Okay?”

“What do you have to be nervous about? You get to walk out of here.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious. But what if she’s wonderful? What if she really is in here based on some gross injustice? What if she’s lost all these years of her life to an unfair sentence?”

“Then you’ll help her.”

She went back to chewing on her lower lip for a few moments and then shifted to face me. Her knee was pressing into my thigh. Those green eyes were earnest. “What if her sentence was unfairly harsh but she’s a terrible person?”

I felt myself softening toward her. Just like her father, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of strangers. But Sloane didn’t have Simon’s unlimited capacity for forgiveness. Neither did I.

“Then we’ll talk afterward and figure out the best way forward. There’s no point wasting any mental energy on a scenario that hasn’t played out yet.”

She frowned. “You strike me as the kind of man who goes into every situation having considered every possible scenario.”

My lips quirked. “It’s a luxury of someone who has no human feelings.”

“Lucian, I’m serious.”

“As am I. You approach this conversation your way, and I’ll approach it mine. We’ll discuss it later. For now, all you need to do is ask questions and listen.”

“I just… I don’t want to give her false hope.”

“You won’t,” I assured her.

It was a lie. One look at Sloane’s earnest face, those eager eyes, and Mary Louise Upshaw was going to feel what I had felt at seventeen. Hope.

The heavy metal door on the far end of the room opened, and a woman in a beige jumpsuit entered.

My throat felt dry and tight.

She was white with thick, wavy chestnut-­brown hair streaked with gray. Without the jumpsuit, she would have looked like anyone’s middle-­aged mom. The guard pointed to us, and a look of curiosity flitted across her features.

She headed in our direction, and I felt Sloane stop breathing.

I slid my arm around the back of her chair and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “It’s just a conversation,” I said, keeping my voice low.

I felt her relax infinitesimally.

“Hello,” Mary Louise said, pulling out the chair across from us and sitting.

“Hi.” Sloane’s voice squeaked. She cleared her throat and began again. “Mary Louise, I’m Sloane Walton, and this is my…associate Lucian Rollins. We had some questions about your case and sentence.”

“Are you reporters?” Mary Louise asked, cocking her head.

Sloane’s gaze slid to me. “No.”

There was a guard stationed across the room, looking blank-­faced and bored. It made my skin crawl.

“Lawyers?” Mary Louise looked hopeful.

Sloane shook her head. “No. Just…” She looked at me again, help written in those lovely green eyes.

I leaned forward. “Ms. Upshaw, we recently stumbled across a mention of your case. Did you ever meet with a Simon Walton? He was an attorney.”

She shook her head slowly. “No. I’ve only had public defenders. Simon was my son’s mentor. He helped Allen get into law school. He unfortunately passed away recently.”

Sloane tensed against me as if bracing for the inevitable blow of grief.

“It looked as though Simon had taken an interest in your case, specifically your sentencing,” I continued. “Can you shed any light as to why that might be?”

Mary Louise shrugged and interlaced her fingers on the table. “Maybe because it was one of the harshest sentences for possession and trafficking in the state of Virginia in the last thirty-­five years.”

Sloane cleared her throat. “You said initially that the drugs found in your car during your traffic stop weren’t yours. And then you changed your statement and pled guilty.”

Mary Louise studied us with narrowed eyes for a beat. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

“I’m Sloane Walton. Simon was my father. I think he wanted to help you, but he got sick before he could.”

Mary Louise took a breath, sympathy shining in her eyes. “Your father was a good man. He changed my son’s life, so I can only imagine what he did for you. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Sloane reached across the table with one hand. Mary Louise took it and squeezed.

And there it was. That sneaky bastard that would only lead to disappointment, devastation. Hope. It bloomed over both women’s faces, and I resigned myself to the fact that things were going to get messy…and expensive.

“I met Allen the day of my dad’s funeral,” Sloane told her. “You raised a great kid.”

Mary Louise’s face rearranged into maternal pride. “I know it. I wish I could take credit for it, but I’ve been in here since he was sixteen.”

“What happened the night you were arrested?” Sloane asked. “We’re not here to judge. We want to help if we can.”

Mary Louise shook her head. “Honey, I appreciate that, but I’ve been in here eleven years. I don’t believe in miracles anymore.”

“We’re not offering a miracle,” I clarified.

“Anything that would get me out of this place one day early would be a miracle,” she insisted.

“Then tell us what happened that night,” I said.

Under the table, Sloane’s hand found my thigh and squeezed. Hard.

“Please,” I added briskly.

Mary Louise closed her eyes and reached up to rub the back of her neck. “My son was fifteen. His father and I had just split up, and he fell in with the wrong crowd. He had plans. He was going to be the first kid in my family to go to college.”

Sloane’s knee pressed more firmly against my leg. I kept my arm where it was on the back of her chair but allowed my fingers to brush her shoulder. I felt better, less anxious in here touching her.

Mary Louise locked eyes with me. “He was a good kid. A really good kid.”

“Good kids can make stupid choices,” I said.

Sloane tensed.

“I was working two jobs at the time. I wasn’t around as much as I should have been. I missed the signs. He’d started experimenting. Nothing too crazy. But his ‘friend’ told Allen he had a way they could make some money. Allen being Allen knew times were tough and thought this was a way he could help out the family. They took my car from the parking lot while I was working third shift to meet some dealer somewhere.”

She interlaced her fingers and rested them on the table.

“I got pulled over on the highway halfway between work and home. I had a headlight out. It turns out they decided it was safer to keep the drugs in my car. I had no idea I was driving around with almost five pounds of marijuana in my back seat. I didn’t even know what a dime bag was until I came here. I’ve learned a lot of things in here.”

There was no blame, no malice in her tone. She was simply stating facts.

“When you found out the drugs belonged to your son, that’s when you changed your plea, isn’t it?” Sloane guessed.

Mary Louise nodded. “He had a whole bright future ahead of him. I wasn’t going to let one mistake ruin all that.”

I felt a tightness in my chest. The sacrifice this woman had willingly made for her son was unfathomable. At least in my family.

“I had a public defender. The prosecutor offered me a deal. If I pled guilty, she would recommend one year with time served and the possibility of early parole. I was only supposed to do six months max. Six months and then I would be home. I’d see my baby’s high school graduation. I’d send him off to college.”

“What happened to the deal?” Sloane asked, leaning forward.

Mary Louise shrugged. “The prosecutor made the recommendation. But for whatever reason, the judge didn’t like the deal. He said drugs had been infiltrating his community for far too long and it was time to set an example for criminals like me.”

Sloane winced.

My free hand balled into a fist in my lap. I too knew what it was like to be at the mercy of a twisted justice system.

Mary Louise held up her palms. “So here I am in year eleven of a twenty-­year sentence. But I wake up every day so glad that it’s me here and not my baby.”

It was too warm in this room. My tie was too tight. I needed air.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Sloane said.

“Do you know if the drugs or bags were fingerprinted?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m sure it wasn’t. From my arrest to me changing my plea was only a few days. I doubt any evidence was processed. My second public defender recommended that we appeal. He thought we could prove I didn’t do it without implicating my son. He was digging into the case, getting ready to file a motion. Then he got a job at his mother-­in-­law’s firm and moved to New York,” she said wearily. “I’m on public defender number four now, and she’s so overworked it takes her a week to return my calls.”

“That’s really unfair. But you don’t seem bitter,” Sloane said, shooting me a nervous glance.

She was about to promise this woman the world. I removed my arm from the back of her chair and squeezed her leg under the table.

“Bitterness is a waste of energy. All I can do is make the best of this situation.”

“It looks as if you’ve kept busy,” I said, flipping open the file I’d brought with me.

Her eyebrows lifted. “Is that a dossier on me?”

“Where did you—­never mind,” Sloane said before turning back to Mary Louise. “What have you been doing since your sentence?”

“I got an associate’s degree in business and one in creative writing.”

“You founded a creative writing program for inmates,” I added.

She smiled wryly. “I did. But that was more for me than anything. I like talking about writing, and in here, I have a captive audience.”

“Your son. He’s in law school now?”

A slow, proud smile spread across her face, making her look younger, lighter. “In his last year at Georgetown. He says as soon as he graduates, he’s going to find a way to get me out.”


“We have to help her,” Sloane said as we exited the prison.

An involuntary shudder worked its way up my spine when the heavy door closed behind us. Had it not been for Sloane’s father, this could have been my fate. I turned up my coat collar and sucked in a deep breath of icy winter wind.

I could breathe again. It felt miraculous.

Sloane’s cheeks were flushed pink with excitement. “I mean, obviously it’s going to take a lot of time and energy—­”

“And money,” I added. I could give it to her. But she wouldn’t take it. Not if she knew it came from me.

“And money,” she agreed. “But we can’t let her sit behind bars. Not for protecting her son. And certainly not for another decade.”

Her eyes sparkled behind her glasses. She hadn’t been this excited in my presence since we were teenagers. It was another sting of loss.

“I guess I need to talk to Naomi, Lina, and Stef first. Then I’ll call Maeve. We’ll have to find a lawyer. A good one.”

As she babbled on, I thought about how much her energy reminded me of Simon’s. Simon had loved nothing more than a challenge when justice was at stake.

It appeared the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

The Waltons were good people. They weren’t stained with bad blood as I was.

“Your father would be…proud.” The word lodged itself in my throat, and it took effort to let it loose. It was the greatest compliment I could think to give.

Sloane stopped her bubbly, one-­sided conversation to gawk up at me.

“Thank you,” she said finally. Her eyes narrowed. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said testily.

“You don’t look fine. You look pale.”

“I always look fine,” I insisted as I guided her across the parking lot.

She glanced back at the building we’d just left. “I’m sorry. I didn’t really think about it, but I guess being in a prison even as a visitor could be triggering after—­”

“You aren’t going to need just an attorney,” I couldn’t stand the pity I heard in her voice. “You’ll need an entire legal team.”

“That sounds expensive.”

“Justice isn’t cheap, Pixie.”

Her chin jutted out. “I’ll find a way,” she said.

“I have no doubt.”

She fished her car keys out of her jacket pocket when we arrived at her Jeep.

“I happen to know a few lawyers who specialize in appeals and commutations. I’ll send you some names.” I’d used one of them to seal my own record.

She frowned and the line between her eyes returned. “Thanks.”

It sounded like a question.

“What?” I demanded.

“You liked her, didn’t you?” she prompted.

“I found her story interesting.”

Sloane threw her head back and let out a noise that was half groan and half snarl. “Can you just for once say what you’re thinking? I’m not going to take your opinion and use it against you or try to scam you out of a kajillion dollars. I just want to know what you think.”

“Why?” There were reasons I guarded my words. The same reasons I walked through life with a poker face.

She crossed her arms. “Because you’re a rich megalomaniac who plays dirty with politicians all day long. I assume you see things from a different angle than a small-­town librarian.”

“Her story—­if it’s true—­is compelling. Even if it’s not entirely true, the sentence was excessive, and she’s done nothing while serving her time to indicate she’s a dangerous criminal. With the proper team, you should be able to at least shorten her sentence significantly.”

Sloane smirked. “There. Was that so hard?”

“Excruciating.” I had a headache forming at the back of my head. I didn’t like being anywhere near prisons. Even being able to walk out didn’t help shake the memories of a broken, traumatized teen.

“She did it to protect her son when he was a stupid teenager. I mean, what parent wouldn’t do that for their stupid teenager?” She flinched the moment the words left her mouth. But she didn’t apologize. “I mean, what good parent wouldn’t do whatever it took to…”

She was making it worse, and she knew it.

“Shut up, Sloane.”

“Shutting up,” she confirmed. It lasted nearly a full five seconds before she opened her mouth again. “What would you do next if you were me?” she asked, toying with the button on her coat.

“I’d talk to the son again.”

That had her perking up.

With your partners,” I added.

“Of course with my partners,” she said haughtily.

I glanced down at my watch. I hadn’t wrapped this up in time to take the call from New York. Nolan better not have fucked it up. If he hadn’t fucked it up, the rest of my afternoon was open.

“Are you hungry? Do you want coffee?” I asked.

Her spine straightened. “Shit! What time is it?”

“Nearly three.”

She unlocked her car. “Damn it! I’m gonna be late for my date.”

“Your date,” I repeated. I hadn’t meant to; the words had just slipped out. They were accompanied by an irrational burst of irritation.

“Yeah,” she said, turning to examine her reflection in the side mirror. “You know. Meet for food. Make awkward conversations about what you wanted to be when you grew up and what your favorite appetizers are. A date.”

She yanked the tie out of her hair and bent at the waist, shaking all that silver-­tipped blond out.

“Who is this date with?”

Sloane flipped right side up, looking less like an innocent librarian and more like a bed-­headed vixen. “Some guy named Gary? No, wait. Gary is later. This is…” She opened the door of her vehicle to grab a lipstick out of her cupholder. She uncapped it. “Massimo.” She slicked the red over her lips with an expert hand.

“Massimo?” He sounded like a man with a gold chain woven into his chest hair who wore sunglasses indoors. “You’re meeting a stranger from the internet alone?” Irritation was giving way to a simmering panic. It was hard to breathe again.

“That’s kind of how these dates work,” she said, grabbing onto my arm for balance while she toed off her sneakers. The socks with cats and books came next.

She released me to toss her discarded footwear in the back seat and produce another pair of shoes. Purple ones with stick-­thin heels. The coat came next. This she threw at me. I caught it despite the feeling of anxiety that was blooming like a fucking flower.

“Have you really never done the dating app thing?” she asked.

“Do I look like I use dating apps?”

“You look like you hire high-­priced call girls to act out your lewd fantasies.”

“And you look like…”

I lost my train of thought when she whipped her black turtleneck over her head. She was wearing a thin-­strapped, lacy camisole that dipped low over the tops of her full breasts.

“I look like what?” she prodded, sliding her arms through a hunter-­green cardigan in a chunky knit. There were no buttons, nothing to close the sweater over her fantasy-­inducing cleavage.

“What?” I repeated. My mouth was dry, and my headache was raging in full force now.

“You were about to insult me. Hit me with it, big guy, before I go meet the future Mr. Sloane Walton.”

I closed my eyes. Her nicknames for me the past several years had been limited to Lucifer and “Hey, asshole.”

“You can’t be serious with this emergency quest for a husband,” I told her.

“Spoken like a man who has all the time in the world to decide when to start a family.”

“I’m never starting a family.” I blamed the dark cleft between her breasts for my uncalculated confession.

She paused, mid-­tug on the hem of her tank. “Really?”

“That’s not the point. You can’t go meet a stranger for a date. What if he’s a predator?”

She fluffed her hair out of the neck of her cardigan. It made the generous curves of her breasts threaten to spill over the top of her shirt.

Swarthy Massimo was going to take one look at her and do or say something stupid, and then I was going to have to ruin his fucking life.

“It’s fine. People meet strangers on the internet all the time now, and hardly any of them end up murdered.”

“Sloane,” I barked.

She grinned at me. A happy, smug, full-­fledged smile. Jesus, between her breasts and the smile, Too Many Gold Chains Massimo was going to feel like he’d hit the fucking lottery.

“I’ll be fine. Geez, for someone who doesn’t want a family, you’re sure acting Dad-­like.”

“What if he doesn’t like to read?”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to keep shopping for a husband.”

“I’m fucking serious, Sloane. What precautions are you taking? Where is this date? Who knows you’ll be there?”

She gripped my coat by the lapels. “Calm the fuck down, Lucifer. It’s in Lawlerville. Lina and Naomi are tracking my phone with a locater app. I sent them screenshots of his profile and our chat. I’m texting them a picture of him when I get there and proof-­of-­life messages every thirty minutes. If things go downhill, Stef is on deck to call me with a fake emergency forty-­five minutes into the date, because I can handle pretty much anything for forty-­five minutes, right? If things go really badly, I have pepper spray and a big, fat hardback in my bag. Is that good enough, Suit Daddy?”

“That’s…reasonably thorough,” I admitted when she released me.

“Good. Now, how do I look?” She spread her arms out wide.

She looked beautiful. Fun, spunky, smart, sweet, funny. Fucking breathtaking. I hated Massimo’s fucking guts.

She rolled her eyes. “Never mind. I forgot who I was asking.”

“Suit Daddy?” Her words had finally sunk into my reeling brain.


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