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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 17

Too Close for Comfort


Duncan Hugo looked significantly the worse for wear since I’d last seen him being led in handcuffs to a police cruiser. The hair he’d died an earthy brown was showing a full inch of natural red root. He’d lost some weight, and the hunch of his shoulders hinted that his time behind bars had relieved him of some of his arrogance. The dark circles under his eyes almost made up for the fact that this was my second prison visit in two days.

This prison was in better shape than yesterday’s, I noted. It wasn’t winning any design awards, but the furniture wasn’t disintegrating, the paint wasn’t lead-­based, and there was a faint scent of industrial cleaner throughout the facility. It still made my skin crawl, my tie feel too tight against my throat.

I focused on Nolan, who leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets.

He hadn’t managed to run my business into the ground yesterday, so when he’d insisted on joining me for this little field trip, I hadn’t said no.

I faced Duncan across the table in the interview room the FBI had arranged.

It could have been me, I thought as I studied him. If it weren’t for the Waltons, I could easily have been the one on the opposite side of the table.

Duncan hadn’t had a Simon or a Karen or a Sloane. He’d had a father like mine. That was why I was here.

“I said I wanted to talk to the feds, not some stuck-­up dick in a suit,” Duncan said, slumping in his chair like a six-­year-­old on the verge of a temper tantrum. His baggy orange jumpsuit accentuated the red in his hair and scraggly beard.

“I’m an ex-­fed. Does that count?” Nolan asked.

“Didn’t I shoot you?” Duncan asked.

“You missed, shithead. Your pal Dilton got lucky.”

Duncan grunted. “Don’t know which was worse. His aim or his personality.”

I cleared my throat. “Do you know who I am?” I asked Duncan.

His mouth pinched, but he nodded. “Yeah, I know who the fuck you are.”

“Then you can probably piece it together from there. You’ve already talked to the feds on several occasions. Yet you remain essentially useless.”

“So they send Lucian Rollins in here to do what? Break my fucking kneecaps?” He picked up one of the loose cigarettes on the table and lit a match.

Watching Duncan’s thin lips wrap around the filter was enough to make me consider skipping today’s cigarette.

“I’m here to dig into the space between your ears to see if there’s anything useful squirreled away.”

“What the hell else do you assholes want? I gave you drop locations. I gave you names. It’s not my fault if you’re not doing shit about it.”

“The information you provided was street-­level. Any gutter rat would know it. It’s almost like you’re holding out or your father didn’t trust you.”

Duncan pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. A tic appeared in his jaw. “What the fuck does it matter? I’m stuck in this shithole for a fuck ton of years.”

“Felix Metzer,” I said.

“Already told that FBI bitch that’s who I bought the list off of.”

“Did she mention that his body was fished out of the Potomac yesterday? The two slugs in his brain indicate it wasn’t a boating accident.”

He held up his palms. “Hey, man. Don’t look at me. My ass was in here.”

From his position against the wall, Nolan rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Someone was cleaning up their mess. I’m curious who that would be,” I said.

“Felix was into shit with every fucking one. What makes you think him gettin’ whacked had anything to do with me?”

“He was last seen the day before you were arrested for trying to kill my friends.”

“Look, man. It was nothing personal.”

“You weren’t even man enough to pull the trigger the first time around.”

Duncan scoffed. “It’s called delegating. Bosses don’t do the dirty work.”

“They do if they want to earn that title.” I’d done my share of dirty work as I climbed the ladder of success. I’d earned the respect and the fear.

He crossed his arms over his chest. “This chat has been real nice and all, but I’m over it.”

“What else do you have to do? Go back and stare at four walls?”

“Better than listening to this bullshit.”

“If you had two brain cells in that dumbass head of yours, you’d be all ears,” Nolan warned him.

“Your father doesn’t see you as a threat,” I said to Duncan. “Maybe you should make him reconsider that. Remind him who you are and that you’re still dangerous to him.”

Duncan shoved a hand through his hair. “Look, man, I tried. I lost. He won. That’s the way it always goes.”

Did we all have this wound from our fathers? Was it necessary for every son to challenge his father to become a man? Was there always a winner and a loser, or was there a different rite of passage, a different path to respect?

“There’s still time to change that,” I told him.

“He didn’t fucking tell me shit, okay? He thought I was a fuckup. A loser.” Duncan tapped the ash off his cigarette into the ashtray.

“So you wanted to show him that you were more,” I prompted.

“Yeah, and I fucked that up too.”

The woe-­is-­me, defeated criminal routine set my teeth on edge. “You realize if you don’t give the feds something to work with, they’ll transfer you out of this place to a federal facility. The kind where you’re in a cell twenty-­three hours a day.”

I caught the nervous shift of his eyes. “They say where?” he asked, trying and failing to sound disinterested.

“I heard Lucrum. That’s maximum security. It makes this place look like a day care center. I saw its sister facility, Fraus. It wasn’t pretty.”

The feet of Duncan’s chair hit the floor. “I can’t go there.”

“You won’t have a choice,” I pointed out.

“I can’t go to Lucrum. I won’t last a fucking day.”

“You should have thought of that before you tried to kill a law enforcement officer, kidnapped a civilian, and then turned out to be an absolute waste of time for the FBI.”

“You don’t understand. He’s got guys on the inside there. No enemy of Anthony Fucking Hugo survives a week in that hellhole,” he insisted.

I leaned forward. “Then give me something I can use. Tell me what you know about Felix. Why did your father commission the list from him?”

Duncan swiped a hand over his sweaty upper lip. “Felix is like a squirrel, you know? Always scurrying around, picking up little nuggets here and there. Storing them away for winter…or a payday. He is…fuck. He was a likable guy for a dirt bag. A real charmer. He was like Kevin Bacon on the streets. Everyone either knew him or knew a guy who knew him. If you needed intel, he could usually dig it up.”

“Who did he work with? Who were his friends?” I asked.

“Like I said, everyone knew him. Everyone liked him.”

“Then who was he closest to? Maybe someone outside the game?” Nolan prompted.

Duncan tipped his head to the ceiling. “I don’t fucking know. Maybe his girl?”

“He had a woman?” I asked. Nolan and I shared a glance. This was news.

“One he paid for, if that counts. I saw him once having lunch with her. Real high-­class. Way too good for him.”

“What was her name?” I asked.

He took a drag and blew out a cloud of smoke that swirled lazily between us. “Maureen Fitzgerald.”

I sat back in my seat.

Duncan’s smirk was back. “Huh. Maybe you’re a client too? Isn’t that a small, incestuous world?”

“Prisons give me the heebie-­jeebies,” Nolan announced when we hit the parking lot, the barbed wire and block walls behind us. “Every time I walk in, I’m worried they aren’t gonna let me walk out.”

I grunted and continued toward my car.

“Was it my imagination in there, or did that ginger asshole insinuate that you were acquainted with Maureen Fitzgerald, DC’s highest caliber madam?” Nolan wondered.

I yanked open the door of my Jaguar and grabbed my phone.

“It wasn’t your imagination, and I am acquainted with Maureen,” I said, thumbs flying across the screen.

Me: We need to talk. Call me.

“Huh. Didn’t think a guy like you would have to buy a date. Makes me feel pretty damn good about myself.”

The phone vibrated in my hand. But it wasn’t Maureen. It was Special Agent Idler.

I swore under my breath, ignored the call, and slid behind the wheel. I never should have allowed Nolan to tag along. I needed to think, to plot. I didn’t want the feds talking to Maureen before I did.

“Get in,” I ordered.

“Hey, listen, you’re the boss. You don’t have to tell me anything as long as you keep paying me,” Nolan said as he climbed into the passenger seat.

I waited until both doors were closed. “Maureen is a friend. She feeds me information on some of her more depraved client requests. I use that information as I see fit.”

“And you don’t want to give the feds a reason to look directly at her,” Nolan guessed, securing his seat belt.

I nodded and started the engine.

“Seems kinda odd. Maureen Fitzgerald associating with a Felix Metzer type?” he mused. “I’ve seen her in person a few times. Gorgeous lady. Classy. Rich.”

It wasn’t just odd. It was completely implausible.

My phone vibrated again, and I fantasized about tossing it out the window and backing over it but managed to refrain.

A glance at the screen told me it wasn’t Idler.

Karen: Tonight we will be dining on the finest frozen pizza and a reasonably okay-­ish bottle of wine.

Fuck. I’d nearly forgotten.

“Big plans tonight?” Nolan asked.

“What?” I looked up, intending to glare him into silence.

He nodded at the screen in the dashboard where Karen’s text was on display. Damn Bluetooth.

Another call from Idler appeared on the screen.

“You look like you’re about to rip the wheel out of the steering column,” Nolan observed mildly.

I gave him another cold glare.

“Okay, fine. You don’t look like it, but that’s the vibe you’re putting off. I’m observant as fuck. Don’t hate me.”

“I’m fine,” I insisted stiffly.

“Here’s what I’m thinking. You try to get a hold of your ‘business associate’ Maureen and keep your dinner plans. My bride is working late tonight prepping with her team for some big meeting tomorrow morning. Why don’t you let me handle updating Idler?”

I opened my mouth to give him a litany of reasons why that wouldn’t be happening, but he pressed on.

“I’ll keep the madam out of it for now and stick to the sweet little shell company your team of hackers untangled fifteen minutes ago.”

“What shell company?” I demanded. “And for legal reasons, you can’t call them hackers.”

“The one digital security specialist Prairie texted me about.”

“Why didn’t she contact me directly?”

“Because you’re a scary motherfucker, man. No one actually likes talking to you. You make small talk feel like a root canal without anesthesia.”

“I do not,” I argued, feeling surly.

“Karen is Sloane’s mom, isn’t she?” he asked.


“There are certain jobs you’re uniquely suited for. Looking a politician in the eyes while you destroy his career. Forking over a few million when the situation calls for it. Calling the woman who runs the highest-­priced call girl ring in the metro area. And visiting your friend while she’s mourning her husband. I’ve got the rest of it covered.”

I blew out a breath. “You aren’t completely worthless as an employee.”

“Thanks, boss. Those gold stars you’re handing out get me right here,” he said, thumping his chest.

My phone rang again. This time it was Petula. “What?” I snapped after hitting the Answer button on the console.

Nolan looked at me pointedly. I rolled my eyes.

“Hello, Petula. What can I do for you?” I said with exaggerated politeness.

“Are you all right, sir? Are you under duress? I can have a security team to your location in minutes.”

“I’m fine,” I said dryly.

“Don’t worry, Petula. I won’t let anything happen to the boss man,” Nolan announced.

“I’m delighted to hear that,” she said dryly. “However, we have a problem.”

“What is it?” I demanded, my mind still focused on Duncan, Felix, and now Maureen.

“When Holly went out to pick up lunch, she was chased by two men in a black Chevy Tahoe.”

I accelerated out of the parking lot.

“Is she all right?” Nolan asked.

His hand closed covertly over the door handle as the car fishtailed onto the road.

“She’s fine. A little shaken up. But her car wasn’t so lucky,” Petula reported. “She got a partial license plate.”

“Run it,” I said curtly. “We’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Black Tahoe sittin’ all by her lonesome,” Nolan reported. He handed me his binoculars.

I frowned. “Where did you get those?”

“Never leave home without binoculars, a pocket knife, and snacks,” he said sagely. “Want some beef jerky?”

“What I want is payback,” I muttered, peering through the binoculars and spotting the SUV in the parking lot of the luxury condo building.

The vehicle was registered to one of Hugo’s corporations. According to the mortgage on the three-­bedroom Alexandria condo, it was owned by one of Hugo’s enforcers.

“Did you tell security to—­”

“Deliver the company Escalade to Holly’s place?” Nolan said. “Yeah. Lina and Petula are going along to make sure the kid isn’t still freaked out. Hell of an upgrade over a twelve-­year-­old sedan with primer-­gray trunk.”

I handed the binoculars back to him and said nothing.

It was the least I could do.

I’d been prepared for Hugo’s escalation, but I’d been anticipating him escalating things with me, not an employee on a salad run. He’d sent a message, made an example. I’d overestimated his sense of fair play, and one of my people paid the price. It wouldn’t happen again.

“Stay here,” I ordered and opened the van door.

I’d borrowed a cargo van from the security team. It was my turn to send a message.

“Sorry, boss. No can do,” Nolan slipped out the passenger door. He pulled a black wool cap out of his coat pocket and yanked it down over his head.

“I’m about to break half a dozen laws,” I warned before rounding the back of the vehicle.

“And here I thought you’d have minions for that,” Nolan said, opening the cargo doors.

I grabbed the sledgehammer. “Sometimes it’s better to get your own hands dirty. And by that I mean my hands, not yours.”

He picked up the six-­foot coil of material off the van floor. “Can’t let you have all the fun. Besides, if we get caught, your scary lawyers will have me out before my ass touches a holding cell bench.”

I was oddly touched.

I gave an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Let’s go play with fire.” I didn’t wait for an answer and headed into the shadows.

“Never got to have fun like this in my last job,” Nolan whispered gleefully behind me.

“You’re late,” Karen announced, opening the door with feigned motherly disappointment.

I leaned down and pressed a kiss to her cheek. I was late and exhausted, but vengeance had dulled the rage. Now I was almost cheerful. It had been a while since I’d gotten my hands dirty.

“I’m sorry. There was a situation that I needed to deal with,” I explained, slipping off my coat.

“Hmm, you’re late, you smell like gasoline and smoke, and your coat is torn,” she noted as I hung it on the rack inside the door.

“All reasons why I could use a large glass of this mediocre wine you promised.”

The explosion had happened a little earlier than anticipated. Nolan’s giddy “Holy fucking shit!” still rang in my ears.

Knox would have been proud. Nash would have been furious. As for me, I was starting to appreciate Nolan as more than a minion.

“Follow me, my dear,” Karen said, leading the way toward the kitchen.

The condo was nothing like the family home in Knockemout. I’d chosen it for proximity to the hospital, not personality. But in the two years that they’d lived here, Karen had managed to convert the off-­white-­walled, blank slate into a comfortable home.

The large, framed photo of Simon, Sloane, and me the day Sloane got her driver’s license caught my attention as it always did. Though this time, it delivered a punch to the gut in addition to the twinge of regret I usually felt.

Simon wasn’t waiting for me in the kitchen like he had been for so many years of my life. I didn’t know how Karen managed to stay here surrounded by memories of a life she’d never get back.

She was barefoot and casually dressed in a pair of leggings and an oversize sweater. Her hair was held back from her face with a wide, paisley-­patterned headband.

I liked that there was no formality among the Waltons. The women I dated—­however briefly—­were never seen without a full face of makeup, their hair perfectly coiffed, and their wardrobes ready to be whisked away to the symphony, Paris, or a black-­tie fundraiser.

“You sit. I’ll pour,” Karen insisted when we entered the small but efficient kitchen. She’d painted the walls a sunny yellow and swapped out the sedate white quartz countertops for terra-­cotta tiles topped with cobalt-­blue accessories.

I pulled out an upholstered stool in tangerine corduroy and reached for the appetizer plate. There was always a can of my favorite smoked almonds in Karen Walton’s pantry. She stocked them alongside Maeve’s favorite cereal and Sloane’s root beer as if I too were one of the family.

“How is it being back?” I asked.

She slid a wineglass in my direction and picked up her own. “Terrible. Okay. Haunting. Comforting. A never-­ending misery. A relief. You know, the usual.”

“We could have rescheduled,” I said.

Karen managed a small, pitying smile as she moved to the oven. “Sweetie, when will you learn that sometimes being alone is the last thing you need?”


She snorted and opened the oven door, filling the room with the scent of store-­bought pizza.

I got off my stool and rounded the island to nudge her out of the way.

“You get the salad, I’ll cut the slices. You always cut them crooked,” I teased. She also never remembered to wash the cheese off the pizza cutter, which resulted in a congealed mess that required serious muscle.

She handed over the utensil. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

We both froze. I’d heard the phrase a few hundred thousand times in the Walton kitchen, mostly from Simon when he and Karen shared meal prep duties.

I didn’t know where to look. The glimpse of raw grief as it flitted across her face was like a knife to my heart. I wasn’t equipped to deal with emotions like that. I handled problems, presented solutions. I didn’t navigate personal loss with someone, no matter how much I loved them.

Karen was more a mother to me than my own. And Simon had been the kind of father I wished I’d deserved.

She cleared her throat and pasted a cheerful look on her pretty face. “How about we just pretend everything is normal for a while?” she suggested.

“Fine. But don’t think that I’ll let you win at rummy just because you’re a widow now,” I warned.

Karen’s laugh was nothing like Sloane’s. It was a loud, joyous guffaw that made my chest feel warm and bright. Sloane’s was a throaty chuckle that went straight to my gut.

I could picture her across the table, smiling at me as if we weren’t poison to each other.

A sharp burning sensation against my thumb yanked me back to the present moment.

I adjusted my grip on the potholder.

I’d managed to set fire to a vehicle without burning myself, but give me a frozen pizza and time to think about a certain blond librarian and my guard crumbled.

I forcibly blocked the vexatious vixen from my mind and focused on the Walton woman before me.

It was late by the time I got home and showered the arson off me. I collapsed on my king-­size bed and blew out a long breath.

The lamp on my nightstand cast a quiet glow on my copy of The Midnight Library. I wondered if she was reading right now. Or if maybe, just maybe she was lying in her bed thinking of me.

I doubted it. Every time I saw Sloane, she looked both surprised and disappointed to realize I still existed.

I shouldn’t be the only one losing sleep. I picked up my phone. It took me a minute to settle on the right approach. I scrolled through my contacts, found the one I was looking for, and sent it off.

When the message wasn’t immediately read, I threw the phone onto the bedspread next to me and covered my face with my hands.

I was an idiot. A weak, undisciplined idiot. Just because we’d managed to share a civil lunch together didn’t mean…

The phone vibrated against the plush bedspread.

I dove for it.

Sloane: What did you just send me?

Me: The contact information for an attorney who specializes in appeals. She’s expecting your call tomorrow. You’re welcome.

I saw three dots appear, then disappear. I stared at the screen, willing them to reappear. Thirty seconds later, they did.

Sloane: Thanks.

It took that much effort for her to type one word to me?

What was I even doing? I could have had an assistant send her the information. Hell, I could have had an assistant give the information to Lina, who actually worked in my office. I didn’t need to be texting Sloane at—­I swiveled to glare at the clock. It was almost midnight.

Disgusted with myself, I tossed my phone on the nightstand and stacked my hands under my head.

The phone vibrated again.

I pulled a neck muscle pouncing on it.

Sloane: Lina told me what happened to Holly today. Is she okay?

Rubbing my neck, I debated waiting to respond, then decided I was too tired to play games.

Me: Everyone is fine.

Sloane: Are you okay?

Was I? I didn’t feel okay. I felt like things were unspooling, slipping from my fingers. I’d made a career of foreseeing every contingency, every play. Yet I’d missed this one. What else was I missing? And why was I slipping now?

Me: I’m fine.

Sloane: My phone has this cool bullshit detector app, and that “sorry, wrong answer” buzzer noise just went off. It scared the cat.

Me: I’m fine. Just tired.

Sloane: You do know it’s not your job to protect everyone from everything, don’t you?

But it was my job to protect my people from my actions and the consequences of those actions.

Me: I saw your mother tonight.

No dots appeared. I’d pushed too far. Or she’d fallen asleep.

I was just dumping my phone on the nightstand again when it rang.


“You really need to work on your phone etiquette.” Sloane’s voice was husky in my ear. It made me think of those fleeting perfect moments from before. Falling asleep next to her on a pile of pillows in a nice bedroom in a safe house. I hated that my body so viscerally remembered those times. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s holding up,” I said, wincing at the pain in my neck as I adjusted the pillows behind me the way teenage Sloane had.

“Maeve and I call her every day, but it’s hard to tell if she’s hiding stuff from us.”

“She put the ashes on top of the refrigerator,” I told her.

Sloane let out a soft, sad laugh. “He’d like that.”

“He would,” I agreed.

She was quiet for a long beat, and I worried she was about to hang up.

“So did you go beat the crap out of whoever ran Holly off the road?” she asked.

“Now, why would I do that?”

“Because you’re you.”

“Let’s just say they won’t be running anyone off the road anytime soon,” I told her.

“Nash told me that you kicked Jonah Bluth’s ass at football practice because he was talking shit about me in high school.”

Nash had a big mouth to go along with that shiny badge.

“I have no recollection—­”


Sloane’s wrong answer buzzer almost made me smile.

“So what did you not do to these guys?”

“Nolan and I made sure they didn’t have a vehicle to run anyone off the road with and that the local police knew where to look when Holly reported the incident.”

“Look at you and Nolan becoming buddy guys. Did you go for a buddy guy beer afterward?”

I’d actually had a scotch to Nolan’s Coors Light.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I wondered what she was wearing. If she was in bed or if she was curled up on the couch, lipstick still on, book in her lap. My cock stirred.

I pressed the palm of my hand to my groin. I didn’t get spontaneous erections…unless I was near her. I was an adult in control of his baser instincts. The husky phone voice of the woman who had nearly destroyed me shouldn’t have this effect on me.

“So you cleaned up the mess, got back at the bad guy. Now what?”

“What do you mean?” I repeated.

Was it just Sloane’s voice that had me thickening with arousal? Or was this a symptom of something else? Of me losing control, my edge.

Me sending a message to Anthony Hugo wasn’t going to stop him from making more moves. I wanted him to. Because sooner or later, he’d slip up, and I’d exploit that mistake to beat him.

“I can practically hear the fury dripping off your syllables, big guy. Someone messed with one of your employees. You handled it. But how do you blow off steam when justice doesn’t take away the mad?”

I scoffed. “I don’t need to blow off steam.”

“Personally, I’m a fan of sweaty, dirty sex. It always seems to set the world right again,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You should try it sometime.”

A strangled sound tore free from my throat. My cock pulsed and I pressed my palm over it, hoping to suffocate the arousal. I wasn’t going to sit here having a conversation on the phone with a woman and jerk off. Even if that woman was Sloane.

She laughed softly. “Only messing with you, Lucifer.”

But I could picture her sprawled beneath me. Her hair fanned over a pillow like a halo. Those milky thighs locked around my hips. Her breasts half an inch from heaving out of one of those useless tops with the spaghetti straps.

“Oh, so you don’t actually enjoy sweaty, dirty sex?” I shot back.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She all but purred the words in my ear.

I didn’t know what the right move was, what tactic I should employ. Because I couldn’t have what I wanted. I didn’t want what I wanted.

“Why are you still awake?” I asked gruffly.

“Some pain in the ass wouldn’t stop texting me,” she said lightly.

I could hear the smile in her voice, could picture it in my mind. That slow, sultry curve of her lips usually reserved for anyone who wasn’t me.

This was a mistake. I was making another mistake. I couldn’t stop myself. Sloane was the bad habit I couldn’t quit.

“You should go to bed,” I said.

“Geez. Maybe you should take a class in how to talk to people without sounding like an ass.”

“I don’t have time for pillow talk with you.”

“That settles it. My next book club selection is going to be something about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Maybe then I’ll understand why you go from almost human to Lucifer between two sentences.”

It was a dance we’d been locked into for years. Every time one of us showed a side that was a little too human, the other managed to strike. Walls were rebuilt, animosity reinforced. We kept relearning the same lesson over and over again, but it never stuck. We weren’t good for each other. I wasn’t good for her. And I could never trust a woman who had so thoroughly betrayed me.

“Don’t waste your time thinking about me. I don’t waste any of mine on you,” I told her.

With her gasp ringing in my ear, I disconnected the call, switched off the light, and lay in the dark hating myself.


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