We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

Things We Left Behind: Chapter 18


Ruins of the Past

Sloane

I dragged the recycling bin up the short stretch of concrete, around Lucian’s Range Rover, and plunked it down in front of his garage door. It was a dark, damp Saturday evening.

It had been one of those days where one thing went wrong followed by everything else spiraling out of control. The computers in the library had crashed for over an hour, my shipment of paperbacks for the Valentine’s Day author signing arrived missing their covers, and I’d squeezed in a fourth blind date in hopes that BeardedByron223 would turn out to be better than my last three matches.

He was not. BeardedByron was neither bearded nor a fan of Lord Byron. He’d shown up late and drunk, and in the middle of me telling him it wasn’t going to work out, he took a phone call from his current girlfriend and told her he was at the gym.

He was so not better than the last three that I had plans to curl up tonight by the fire with the sperm bank’s website. If I couldn’t find a date with future husband potential, maybe I’d have better luck with a child.

To add to my already bad mood, I’d spent the past few days ruminating about Lucian. Lucian having dinner with my mom. Lucian texting me from bed. Lucian generously giving his employee a brand-­new SUV. Lucian almost kissing me in his office. Lucian working with the FBI to take down one of the most dangerous criminals in the Mid-­Atlantic region area. Lucian naked, crooking his finger at me.

That last one hit me in the shower yesterday after I spied his Range Rover in the driveway. Then again right before bed…and when I woke up…

I liked it better when I only occasionally remembered that the man existed.

We were on a never-­ending roller coaster of insults, sexual awareness, bitterness, and flirtation. And it was time to put an end to it. I wanted to get off this ride so I could focus my energy on what I actually wanted…which was not Lucian Rollins.

I marched up the walkway to his front door, finger poised to jab his doorbell, when the door swung open.

“What?” Lucian demanded.

He was missing a jacket, tie, and shoes but was still dressed in tailored trousers and an Oxford with his sleeves rolled to the elbows. His socks were a fancy plaid pattern. He looked like he’d just strolled off the pages of Rich Guy Weekend magazine.

He also looked annoyed, tired, and obnoxiously sexy. A woman who didn’t know what a pain in the ass he was would have been tempted to shoo him back inside with promises of hot, homemade soup and a night of forgetting his troubles.

But Lucian Rollins didn’t deserve homemade soup.

“I’m sure you’re used to having your butler drag your trash bins back inside in the city, but around here, we do it ourselves,” I announced.

“Why would I need a butler when I have an overbearing neighbor who can’t seem to remember to put on a fucking coat?” he shot back.

“I don’t think you should be working with the FBI,” I snapped, going with the first item on my mental list of problems that I had with him. Well, the first problem that didn’t involve my inconvenient physical attraction to him.

With an eye roll, he reached out, fisted his hand in the front of my sweatshirt, and pulled me inside.

“Excuse me! Didn’t anyone ever tell you kidnapping women on your doorstep is rude?”

“Didn’t anyone tell you screaming shrewishly about private business in public places is dangerous?”

I stuffed my hands into the pocket of my hoodie. “I’ll give you the shrewish part, but I did not scream.”

“How generous of you.”

“I stand by my statement,” I said, looking around.

The TV in the living room was on to some kind of financial news report. There was an empty bowl and an open laptop on the ottoman. Flames danced cozily in the fireplace. Yet the room still managed to feel somber, lonely even. Gray walls, gray couch, scratchy-­looking ivory pillows. It felt soulless. Except for the music.

I frowned. “Is that Shania Twain?”

Swearing under his breath, Lucian hit a button on his phone and the music stopped. “We’re not discussing the FBI, Anthony Hugo, or my personal business. So unless there’s another topic you’d care to yell at me about, you can show yourself out.”

I blew out a breath. “Thank you for the referral to the attorney,” I said. “I had a call with her yesterday and sent her everything I had on Mary Louise.”

“So you came to yell at me and thank me?” he asked, sounding slightly less irritated.

I shrugged. “I’m a complicated woman.”

“Noted. Now, if you’re done shrewing, I’d like to enjoy my house without you in it.”

“I don’t think that’s a word. And I’m not leaving until you hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this a lot—­”

He smirked. “You’ve been thinking about me? Shouldn’t you be too busy finding Mr. Right to give me a passing thought?”

I glared at him. “I’ve got a big brain, Lucifer. There’s room for lots of stuff up there.”

“Have you found him?” he asked.

I didn’t quite suppress the shudder that rolled up my spine as my recent dating shenanigans tap-­danced onto center stage in my mind.

“Not yet,” I said with forced positivity. “I didn’t come to talk about my dating life.”

“Then why did you come?” he pressed, looking vaguely amused.

“To yell at you about the trash bins. Weren’t you listening?”

“You’ve been on how many dates and still haven’t found a suitable candidate?” he asked.

My eyes narrowed. “Listen, Rollins, this isn’t hiring an employee to fetch you coffee and smoothies made from the blood of puppies. Finding your life partner should be…” Disheartening? Physically painful? Excruciatingly depressing? “Challenging,” I said out loud.

He crossed his arms and leaned against the cased opening to the living room. “Elaborate.”

“I’m not discussing my dating life with you.”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m sure them not calling you back is a them thing and not a you thing.”

“It’s not them ghosting me! Well, except for that one guy. But that was more literal ghosting. Do you even know what ghosting is?”

“I work with a twenty-­two-­year-­old who insists on talking all the time about things I don’t care about. Not only do I know what ghosting is, I could name all the Kardashians if pressed.”

“Is she okay? Holly, I mean.”

“She’s fine,” he said curtly.

“I was thinking about it. Have you considered that the men who chased her—­”

“Back to the ghosting,” he insisted.

I shook my head. “Nope.”

Those cool gray eyes went shrewd. “I’ll give you an entire Stucky’s soft pretzel if you tell me.”

I scoffed. “You can’t just bribe me with food.”

That was a lie. Stucky’s pretzels were the size of my face and irresistibly flaky.

“It’s cinnamon and sugar…with caramel sauce,” he added.

Dammit. My favorite. I glared at him. He stared back. The staring contest lasted until my stomach growled like a damn traitor. I’d missed lunch during the computer fiasco and hadn’t gotten around to dinner yet.

“Fine,” I conceded. “But I’m only telling you because you’ll hear about it anyway in our weird little incestuous group of big mouths.”

Stef, Naomi, and Lina had already been thoroughly entertained by the story.

“I’m all ears,” Lucian said.

“Uh-­uh. First I wanna see the pretzel.”

A hint of amusement played across his lips. I wondered how he kept his beard trimmed so neatly. Did he have a special razor, or did he have a beard guy who came to his house every other day?

“Come on then,” he said, heading in the direction of the kitchen, his socked feet making no noise as he walked.

I had a feeling I was going to regret this, but at least I’d get a pretzel out of it.

Just like the living room, the kitchen and dining area were ruthlessly clean. As if the rooms had just been sanitized or were only staged to make it look as if someone lived there. I wondered what the inside of his refrigerator looked like. Would I find expired jars of mustard like in everyone else’s kitchen, or would there be more ruthless sterility? Did vegetables dare rot in Lucian’s crisper drawer?

He flipped the lid on a pink bakery box and angled it my way.

My mouth watered.

There was only one pretzel.

“Even though you’re you and I’m me, I can’t take your last pretzel. Why do you even have this? Don’t you subsist on a diet of egg whites and unicorn hoof?” The man took discipline to a whole new, annoying level.

“I’m willing to part with it in exchange for the story of the man who ghosted Sloane Walton.”

“You make it sound like a children’s book.”

“You’re stalling,” he said, getting a plate out of the cabinet.

I really wanted that pretzel. “Fine. But let’s split the pretzel. I hope to be getting naked for a stranger soon, and I need to be in decent, non-­baked-­good shape.”

Wordlessly, he produced a second plate, then cut the doughy goodness into two equal halves.

I salivated as he put both plates in the microwave.

“Talk.”

“Okay, fine.” I planted myself on one of the stools he had parked under the peninsula. “So I match with this guy named Gary. According to his profile, he’s a pediatric nurse who enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with his nieces and nephews.”

“Clearly he’s an asshole,” Lucian teased.

I ignored the jab and continued. “He sounds normal in his messages, so I agree to dinner. After the last fiasco that you had a front row seat to, Nash and Lina decided to go along as backup. They got a table near us, and small talk commences. He seems nice enough, but when I ask him about his job, he doesn’t seem to know anything about hospitals or nursing or children. He keeps asking me stuff like ‘How much money does a librarian make?’ and what kind of car I have and do I have any retirement savings.”

Lucian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

The microwave dinged. He opened it, releasing the smell of cinnamony deliciousness.

“I’m definitely suspicious by this point, so I give Nash and Lina the sign, and they come running up and tell me my uncle Horace just fell off a ladder, and they whisk me away.”

He put one of the plates in front of me and dug two forks out of the utensil drawer.

I wasted no time yanking the lid off the caramel sauce and dipping my first bite in it. “Anyway, we’re on our way home, and Gary calls. I, of course, let it go to voicemail. Oh my God, this is divine,” I moaned as the flavors melted in my mouth.

Lucian took a smaller, more dignified bite of his half. “What did Gary have to say?”

I pulled out my phone. “Listen for yourself.”

I scrolled through my voicemails and pushed Play.

“Hey, Sloane. This is Gary. I just wanted to check in and see how your uncle is—­Oh my God! Ahhh!” His voice was replaced with the sound of a revving engine, squealing tires, and finally a spectacular crash. Then the sound of static filled the kitchen.

Lucian shook his head. “You can’t be serious.”

“Go on. I know you’re dying to say it,” I said, gesturing with my fork.

“He’s scamming you.”

I held up a finger and pushed Play on the next message.

“Hey, uh, this is Vick Verkman, a friend of Gary’s. I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gary was in a terrible accident last night. He’s in a coma, and the hospital is threatening to unplug him unless someone pays his hospital bills. He keeps whispering your name.”

Lucian put down his fork. “Vick Verkman’s voice sounds a lot like Gary.”

“Oh, just wait,” I said, playing the next message.

“Sloane? This is Mercedes, Gary’s mom. I’m sorry to tell you that Gary passed away last night from injuries sustained in a car accident he had while worrying about you and your uncle. The funeral home is threatening to keep his body unless we pay them—­”

I stopped the message and took another bite of soft pretzel.

Lucian rolled his eyes. “Tell me you didn’t send him money.”

I grinned. “I texted his ‘mom’ back and asked her where I could send the check. She suggested I write it out to Gary Jessup and mail it to his home address so his ‘estate could handle it.’”

“He gave you his real name and address after he faked his own death?”

“Yep. It made it easy to report him to the app and track down his employment so I could send a funeral arrangement of flowers with my condolences to him there.”

“Where does he work?” Lucian asked, picking up his fork again.

I swirled warm pretzel through the caramel puddle on the plate. “For one of those skeezy debt collection places. You know the kind. They buy medical or mortgage debt for pennies on the dollar and then try to collect on it by harassing people. I think it was called Morganstern Credit Corporation.”

Lucian said nothing as he took another bite. He was eating standing up, leaning against the sink, the counter between us.

“What? No ‘You’re so undesirable men fake their own deaths to get away from you’ jokes?” I asked.

“Too many punch lines. I froze,” he said. “Why are you subjecting yourself to this?”

“To spending time with you?” I asked, coyly batting my eyelashes.

“I know you’re only here for the baked goods.”

I savored my last bite and refrained from licking the drizzle of gooey goodness from the plate. “I want a family. It’s time.”

I got up and rounded the peninsula. Silently, Lucian slid to the side, allowing me access to the sink. I washed the plate and fork, then left them to dry.

“You’re serious about all this, aren’t you?”

He sounded baffled, and I glanced up at him. There wasn’t enough space between us, which created an odd, barefoot intimacy.

“I’d think you of all people would understand. Haven’t you ever made up your mind about something you wanted and then gone out and got it? Or in your case, coughed up a few million and bought yourself whatever it was you wanted.”

He nudged me out of the way, my body heating at the innocuous contact. I put a little distance between us and hopped up on the counter while he washed his dishes, then used the towel looped over the oven handle to dry both our plates before returning them to their respective homes.

Meticulous, I noted. The man couldn’t tolerate things out of place. He probably folded his socks before sex.

“That’s very pragmatic of you,” he said.

I bristled from my perch. “I can be pragmatic.”

He glanced my way, and I felt the heat from those molten silver eyes.

“In many areas, yes,” he conceded. “But given your usual reading material, I would have expected you to prioritize romance.”

“What nonsense are you spouting now?” I demanded.

“You’ve been reading romance novels by the truckload since you were a teenager. You practically have ‘happily ever after’ tattooed on your forehead.”

I crossed my arms. Did I wish I could meet someone who would sweep me off my feet like Naomi and Lina had? Yes. Was I more than a little jealous of their over-­the-­top sex lives and grand romances? Absolutely.

“Sometimes you have to stop waiting for something to happen and start making it happen,” I said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t care,” I snapped back.

His grin was devastating and fleeting.

I examined my fingernails and feigned boredom. “Just out of curiosity, what don’t you believe?”

“You’re not going to settle for a man just because he ticks off the ‘potential father material’ box. That’s not how you’re wired.”

“Oh, and how exactly am I wired?”

He moved quickly, like a beast lunging for its prey. I found him standing between my knees, caging me in with his hands on the counter. “You’re wired to want a man who’s going to live up to every one of those heroes you read about. The ones who fight for their woman, who drag her off into dark corners because they can’t stand not touching her a moment longer. The ones who would do anything for her. That’s what you want.”

His voice was a rough rasp, an invisible caress.

Why did it feel so good, so thrilling to be this close to him?

“This is starting to feel like your office all over again,” I warned.

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t budge. He stayed where he was, almost touching me in a dozen places.

“Don’t settle,” he said. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Are you seriously giving me love life advice right now?”

“I’m merely pointing out that you could be lining yourself up for more trouble by forcing things to happen instead of letting them unfold.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You can have kids when you’re seventy-­five.”

“No. I can’t. I had a vasectomy.”

My mouth fell open. “What? When? Why?

He pushed away from me and stood in the center of the room, looking supremely uncomfortable. “You should go,” he announced.

But I was riveted. “I mean, you don’t have to tell me. Even though I just spilled my guts to you about my very personal, humiliating dating life. Don’t feel like you owe me anything.”

“I gave you a pretzel.”

“Half a pretzel,” I pointed out.

For a moment, I thought he was going to close down again, like he always did. Then he gritted out a sigh. “I was in my twenties. There was a pregnancy scare with a girl who didn’t matter. I already knew I had no intentions of ever starting a family, so I made sure it wouldn’t happen.”

“Wow. That’s a big decision to make when you’re that young,” I observed.

“I haven’t changed my mind, so you can stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you pity me.”

I snorted. “I don’t pity you, you gigantic oaf. I’m just…surprised. I guess I always just assumed you were more calculating with your decisions. That seems like a knee-­jerk reaction.”

“This conversation is annoying me. You should leave,” he announced.

“Lucian.” All the aggravation, the frustration that roiled inside me came out in those two syllables.

“What?” he asked quietly.

“Why do we keep getting on this roller coaster?” I asked.

“I always thought of it as more of a dance,” he countered.

“Roller coaster, dance, series of huge mistakes. What are we doing, Lucifer?”

He locked eyes with me, and I felt as if I was frozen to the spot.

“We’re holding on to something that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said flatly.

I absorbed the blow and sighed out a breath.

“How do we let go of something that doesn’t exist?” I asked.

“If I figure it out, I’ll let you know…in a letter…from my attorney.”

My lips quirked. That was the magic of Lucian. I could hate him, and he could still make me smile. “Did you ever want a family?” I asked.

“Once. A long time ago,” he said, his voice low.

I bit my lip and tried to avoid the barrage of memories.

“You should go, Pix.”

“You don’t have to be like them,” I told him. “You’re already better. I mean, besides your terrible personality. You’d do it better than they did.”

He was already shaking his head. “I invest my time in what matters most. I don’t have any left over for a wife and kids. I’d only be putting them at risk.”

I straightened. “I talked to Nash about you working with the FBI—­”

“Of course you did.”

The roller coaster was inching its way up that first hill.

“You told me not to worry. You didn’t say ‘don’t talk to your friend.’”

“You haven’t changed in the least,” he snapped.

Actually, I’d gone up a cup size since I was sixteen. But that didn’t feel relevant in this conversation.

“And you’re a completely different person than you used to be,” I pointed out.

“I have work to do, and you’re annoying me,” he said.

“I talked to Nash, your friend, and he isn’t too thrilled about you becoming BFFs with the FBI.” Nash’s exact words had been something along the lines of “it gives me fucking heartburn.”

“I don’t care.” Lucian’s tone was just flippant enough it made me want to march into the living room, pick up one of the scratchy pillows, and hurl it at him.

“We both couldn’t help but wonder if it was Anthony Hugo’s men who went after Holly,” I said.

“It’s none of your business. But if it was Hugo’s men, then I just proved my point. I do things that get people close to me hurt,” he snapped, that beautiful facade cracking just enough for me to catch a glimpse beneath.

“Lucian,” I said softly.

He held up his hand. “Don’t. I’d like you to go.”

I crossed my arms. “Not until you tell me where the investigation stands. Are you in danger? Are the rest of your employees taking precautions?”

“I’m not discussing this with you,” he said and headed out of the kitchen.

I followed him into the hall. “You said the guy who sold Hugo the list turned up dead. Felix Metzer, right?”

Lucian stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “How did you know that?”

“It’s not that hard to search the news for dead bodies pulled out of the Potomac.”

“The news didn’t identify him,” he countered.

“I’m a fucking librarian. I have literal resources.”

“You’re not getting involved in this, Sloane.”

His tone was icy and hard.

“I’m not asking to be involved. All I’m asking for is answers. Is the FBI close to making an arrest? Is Hugo going to retaliate again, and if so, are Lina and Nolan targets? If the guy who sold Duncan the list is dead, does that mean it’s a dead end? Is the FBI looking into financial crimes because those carry more charges? It’s not as sexy as convicting him for murdering people, but it’s usually easier to prove—­”

“This is none of your business. I am none of your business.”

“Just convince me that you’re smarter and faster and more diabolical than some mob boss who’s managed to operate the family business for forty years without getting arrested once. Then I’ll leave you alone.”

“I don’t have to convince you of anything except getting out of my house, Sloane.”

He looked like he was edging past mad straight into fury.

“Look. Since you don’t seem to have a pack of family or friends giving you advice, you’re stuck with me. Messing with Anthony Hugo is a bad idea. He’ll retaliate. Let the FBI build their case, and stay out of it.”

I didn’t know why it was so important to me that he heard me. But it was.

“Your opinion is noted,” he said coldly.

I stood. “Why are you doing this?”

“Why?” he scoffed. “He tried to take from me.”

I planted myself in front of him. “So you’re going to spend your life doing what? Taking down every single person who ever wronged you?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

I blew out a breath and tried a different tactic. “I get that your father made you feel powerless, but—­”

“Not another word.”

He used his scary voice on me. But it only succeeded in riling me.

“You can’t spend your entire adult life righting the wrongs your father committed. He’s already behind bars—­”

“Not anymore.”

“What? He got out of prison?” My voice escalated into dog-­whistle octaves.

“No. He died.”

I blinked rapidly and brought a hand to my forehead to stop the hallway from spinning. “He died?”

“Last summer.”

Last summer?”

“You don’t need to repeat everything I say,” Lucian pointed out.

I rubbed my temples. “Why wasn’t I notified?”

His brow furrowed. “Why would you be notified?”

“Because as a victim of Ansel Fucking Rollins, I’m supposed to be alerted every time he’s moved or up for parole or fucking dead! Because I testified before the parole board every single time he was up for release to make sure that monster stayed where he belonged.” I threw my hands up in the air. “What the hell kind of justice is him just dying? Tell me it was at least horrifically painful.”

“You testified?” His voice was a strangled rasp. Hands reached out and closed around my biceps in a warm, firm grip. Gone was the unflappable Lucian, and in his place was a man on fire.

“Of course I did. Dad went with me every time. I was worried about going back without him this year, but I would have done it.”

“No one asked you to do that. It wasn’t your responsibility to keep him in there,” he said, still sounding as if he were about to erupt.

“How did it happen?” I asked.

He took a deep breath, let it out. “A stroke in his sleep. I’m told it was painless.” The words landed bitterly.

“Painless.” I choked out a humorless laugh. My father had spent his last weeks on earth suffering, and Ansel Rollins escaped peacefully in his sleep.

“Your father didn’t tell me you went before the parole board,” Lucian said.

“Why would he?” I asked, pulling out of his grip so I could pace. I thought better when I moved. “I can’t believe this. They should both be here.”

“Who?”

I stopped my frenetic pacing to look up at him. “Our fathers. Mine should be here because he was good and kind and smart and wonderful. He should be here playing with his granddaughter, planning a Mediterranean cruise with Mom, and helping us get Mary Louise out of prison. And that vile excuse for a human being who called himself your father should be here suffering every minute of every day for what he did to you.”

“And you,” Lucian said quietly.

I ignored him and marched into the living room. There I picked up one of the scratchy throw pillows, held it against my face, and let loose the scream that had been building in my throat.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, having the audacity to sound almost amused.

I tossed the pillow back on the couch. “I don’t know. It’s something Naomi does. I thought it would help.”

“Did it?”

“No. I am so enraged right now, you should probably leave.”

“This is my house,” he pointed out.

“Fine,” I huffed. “I’ll go break my own stuff until I feel better.” I headed for the front door.

He caught me just as my hand closed around the doorknob and planted his palm against the door, holding it shut.

“Back off, Lucian,” I hissed without turning around.

“Why are you so angry?” he asked.

I whirled around to face him. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“Sloane,” he said almost gently.

“I’m angry because he hurt you and your mother. He ruined you. And he gets to just, what? Escape it all? Peacefully?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. One hot, angry tear spilled over and carved a path down my face.

He took me by the shoulders. “Don’t you dare shed a single tear over him.”

“Don’t you dare tell me how to feel about this.”

“He didn’t ruin me,” he insisted. “I didn’t let him stop me from building this life.”

“Lucian, what life?” My voice cracked.

“I have more money and power than—­”

“You have things. You have millions of dollars and acquaintances in high places. You work every waking hour of the day. But none of that made you happy. You rescued the family name so it would never be associated with him, and that’s great, but that name ends with you. You got a vasectomy because he made you believe you were damaged.”

His beautiful face turned to stone. “Not everyone gets to be happy, Sloane.”

“See? That right there.” I shoved a finger in his face. “He ruined you. He ruined us.”

For a second, Lucian looked shell-­shocked. He looked as if I’d hit him. And then the mask slid into place again. He released me and took a step back.

But now that I’d gotten started, I couldn’t stop. I closed the distance between us and said the words I’d been choking on since I was fifteen. “He took a sweet, smart, beautiful boy and made him feel broken. And I will never forgive him for that.”

“He didn’t ruin me. I am who I am in spite of him.”

“No. You’re who you are to spite him,” I countered. “Every time you make a choice based on what he would or wouldn’t do, you’re still giving him the power. He’s still ruining you. First from prison and now from the grave.”

Lucian didn’t look happy about my astute assessment. He looked downright pissed. His jaw worked under his pristinely trimmed beard. “Think what you will. But one thing he didn’t do was ruin us. You did that on your own.”

I sucked in a breath and absorbed the punch of his words.

“I apologized for that. I was sixteen.”

“And how old are you now? Because once again, you didn’t trust me to handle my business. You couldn’t be trusted then, and you certainly can’t be trusted now.”

My head was pounding. The pretzel sat like a brick in my stomach. “You can’t forgive me for that? Well, I can’t forgive you for letting Ansel win.”

“Go the hell home, Sloane.”

“Gladly.”

I waltzed out the door and slammed it as hard as I could.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset