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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 2


Keep the Coat and Leave Me Alone

Lucian

By the time I pulled into the driveway of the house I hated, fat flakes had been falling for nearly an hour. I exhaled slowly and slumped against the heated leather of my Range Rover’s driver’s seat. Shania Twain crooned softly from the speakers. The windshield wipers groaned across the glass swiping away the snow.

It looked as though I’d be spending the night here, I told myself, as if that hadn’t been the plan all along.

As if I didn’t have an overnight bag on the back seat.

As if I didn’t have this cloying need to stay close. Just in case.

I punched the button on the remote for the garage and watched the door silently rise before me in the headlights. The services and meal had eaten up the remaining daylight hours. Friends and loved ones had lingered over Simon’s favorite dishes and drinks, reminiscing while I’d avoided Sloane. I didn’t trust myself to keep her at the necessary distance when she was wounded like this, so I’d relied on physical distance.

I dismissed all thoughts of the blond pixie from my mind and focused on other more important, less annoying things. Tonight, Karen Walton and a few of her local friends were safely ensconced in suites at a spa just outside DC where they would enjoy a day of pampering tomorrow.

It was the least I could do for the neighbors who had given me everything.

The caller ID on my dashboard screen lit up.

Special Agent Idler.

“Yes?” I answered, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“I thought you’d be interested to know that no one has seen or heard from Felix Metzer since September,” she said without preamble. The FBI agent had even less enthusiasm than I did for wasting time with unnecessary small talk.

“That’s inconvenient.” Inconvenient and not entirely unexpected.

“Let’s skip to the part where you assure me you had nothing to do with his disappearance,” she said pointedly.

“I’d think my cooperation in this investigation should at least buy me the benefit of the doubt.”

“We both know you have the means to disappear just about anyone who annoys you.”

I glanced again at the fanciful house next door. There were exceptions.

I heard the snick of a lighter and an indrawn breath and wished I hadn’t already smoked my only cigarette of the day. I blamed Sloane. My self-­control wavered around her.

“Look, I know you probably didn’t dismember Metzer and feed him to your school of highly trained piranhas or whatever the hell aquatic life you rich guys invest in. I’m just pissed. Our useless crime boss son gave us the name, we did the legwork, but it’s yet another lead that didn’t pan out.”

The longer my team worked with Idler’s, the less annoying I found her. I admired her single-­minded quest for justice, even though I preferred vengeance.

“Maybe he went underground,” I suggested.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about it,” Idler said. “Someone is cleaning up their mess. I’m gonna be pissed if this keeps me from personally slamming a cell door in Anthony Hugo’s face. The only two people alive who can corroborate that Anthony commissioned a list of people for his minions to assassinate are his idiot criminal son and his idiot criminal son’s ex-­girlfriend. Neither is going to win any points in front of a jury.”

“I’ll get more,” I assured her. I wasn’t about to let a man like Anthony Hugo walk away unscathed from hurting the people I loved.

“Until Metzer or his body show up, we’re looking at another dead end.”

“My team is working on untangling Hugo’s financials. We’ll find what you need,” I promised. Hugo was good, but I was better and more tenacious.

“You’re awfully calm for a civilian who could become part of the mess that needs cleaning,” she pointed out.

“If Hugo comes for me, he won’t find an easy target,” I promised grimly.

“Yeah, well, don’t do anything stupid. At least not before you get me something I can use to nail the bastard with.”

My team had already gotten her several small somethings. But the FBI wanted an airtight case with charges that ensured life in prison. I would see to it they had it.

“I’ll do my best. As long as you don’t contemplate making any deals that impact those I care about.” My gaze flicked next door again. The house was still dark.

“Hugo is the big fish. There will be no deals,” Idler promised.


I let myself into the mudroom, the perfect organizational space for the family that didn’t live here. The furniture, the finishes, even the layout of the house had changed. But even new paint, carpet, and cabinetry weren’t enough to vanquish the memories.

I still hated it here.

It made no financial sense to hang on to this godforsaken place, this reminder of a past better forgotten. Yet here I was. Once again spending the night as if I could somehow weaken the hold it had on me if I just spent enough time here.

It was smarter all around to sell the place and be done with it.

It was why I’d come back last summer. But one look at those green eyes—­not a soft, mossy green. No, Sloane Walton’s eyes blazed with emerald flames. One look and my best-­laid plans disintegrated.

But it was time. Time to free myself from the house, the memories. From the weakness those years symbolized. I’d risen above. I’d made something of myself. And even if I was still a monster under the trappings of wealth and power, I had done some good. Wasn’t that enough?

I would never be good enough. Not with this blood in my veins, on my hands.

I’d made the decision to move on in the thick heat of last August. The summer swelter had made me think I’d gotten over the painful hope of spring. Yet here I was, six months later, and the ties that had anchored me to this place felt even more restricting. I blamed Sloane for why I counted down the days until spring.

Until the trees bloomed.

I hated to think the reason for my life in DC was tied to something so pathetically fragile. That I was something so pathetically fragile. Yet every spring when those fragrant pink blooms exploded into being, my chest loosened. My breath relaxed. And my oldest enemy stirred.

Hope. Some of us didn’t get the luxury of hope. Some of us weren’t worthy of it.

Soon, I promised myself. Once I knew the Waltons were taken care of, I’d sever ties with this place. I’d give myself one last spring here and then I’d never come back.

I flipped on the lights in the kitchen, a clean space of grays and whites, and stared at the stainless steel silhouette of the refrigerator.

I wasn’t hungry. The thought of food made me feel vaguely nauseated. I wanted another cigarette. A drink. But I was nothing if not disciplined. I made choices that made me stronger, smarter. I prioritized the long game over short-­term fixes. Which meant ignoring my baser instincts.

I opened the freezer and grabbed a container at random. I pried off the lid of some chicken dijonnaise and threw it in the microwave to defrost. As the timer counted down, I bowed my head and let the tight leash I’d kept on my grief loosen.

I wanted to fight. To rage. To destroy.

A good man had been taken. Another one, an evil one, had escaped without suffering his full punishment. And I could do nothing about either. With all the wealth and favors I’d amassed, I was once again powerless.

My hands fisted on the counter until my knuckles went white and a memory surfaced.

“Place is looking better,” Simon had told me when he wandered in through the open garage door.

I’d been covered in sweat and dust, sledgehammering my way through drywall and ghosts.

“Is it?” my twentysomething self asked. It looked like an explosion had hit the kitchen.

“Sometimes in order to build things back up, you gotta tear them down to the studs. Want some help?”

Just like that, the man who’d saved my life picked up a hammer and helped me raze the ugliest parts of my past.

The doorbell rang, and my head came up. The anger retreated dutifully back into its box. I debated ignoring whoever it was. But the bell rang several more times in rapid succession.

Irritated, I yanked open the door, and my heart stuttered. It always did when I saw her unexpectedly. Part of me, some small, weak splinter buried down deep, saw her and wanted to draw nearer. Like she was a campfire beckoning with a promise of warmth and goodness in the dark night.

But I knew better. Sloane didn’t offer warmth. She promised third-­degree burns.

She was still wearing the black dress and glittery belt she’d worn to the funeral, but instead of the heels that brought her higher on my chest, she had donned snow boots. And my coat.

She pushed past me carrying a paper bag.

“What are you doing?” I demanded as she ventured down the hall. “You’re supposed to be at your sister’s.”

“Keeping tabs on me, Lucifer? I didn’t feel like company tonight,” she called over her shoulder.

“Then what are you doing here?” I asked, following her toward the back of the house. I hated her here. It made my skin crawl, my stomach churn. But some sick, stupid part of me craved her proximity.

“You don’t count as company,” she said, tossing my coat on the counter. I wondered if it smelled like her or if, by wearing it, she now smelled like me.

Sloane opened a cabinet, then closed it and opened the next. She rose on tiptoe. The hem of her dress inched higher on her thighs, and I realized she’d also removed her tights. I wondered for one brief, moronic second if she’d taken off anything else before I forced myself to drag my attention away from her skin.

I didn’t know exactly when it had happened. When the kid next door had turned into the woman I couldn’t evict from my brain.

Sloane found a plate and dumped the contents of the greasy brown bag onto it with a flourish.

“There. We’re even,” she announced. The tiny fake diamond stud in her nose twinkled. If she were mine, it would have been a real stone.

“What is this?”

“Dinner. You made your little point with your breakfast burrito. So here’s post-­funeral dinner. I don’t owe you anything.”

There were no “thank yous” or “you’re welcomes” between us. We wouldn’t have meant them. What did exist was a compulsion to balance the scales, to never be in debt to the other.

I glanced down at the plate. “What is it?”

“Seriously? How rich do you have to get to not recognize a burger and fries? I didn’t know what you liked, so I got what I like,” she said, snatching a fry off the plate and polishing it off in two neat bites.

She looked tired and wired at the same time.

“How’s Karen?” I asked.

“Mom is holding up. She’s spending the night with a few friends at a spa. They’re having facials tonight and the works tomorrow. It sounds like a safe space to let her feel sad and…” Sloane closed her eyes for a moment.

It was more words and fewer insults than I was used to from her.

“Relieved?” I guessed.

Those green eyes fluttered open and bored into me. “Maybe.”

“He was suffering. It’s natural to be glad that part of it is over.”

She hopped up on the counter, planting herself next to my fast-­food dinner. “Still seems wrong,” she said.

I reached around her and snagged a French fry from the plate. It was just an excuse to get closer to her. To test myself.

“Why are you here, Sloane?”

Even as I conspired to get closer, I was still pushing her away. The dynamic was taxing on a good day. On a day like today, it was fucking exhausting.

She took another fry and pointed it at me. “Because I want to know why my mom greeted you like you were a long-­lost Walton today. What does she think she owes you? What were you talking about?”

I wasn’t about to begin that conversation. If Sloane had any hint of what I’d done, she’d never leave me in peace again. “Look, it’s late. I’m tired. You should go.”

“It’s 5:30 in the evening, you grumpy pain in the ass.”

“I don’t want you here.” The truth snapped out of me in a desperate rush.

She sat up straighter on the counter but made no move to leave. She’d always been too comfortable with my temper. That was part of the problem. Either she overestimated her invincibility or she underestimated what raged beneath my surface. I wasn’t going to let her stick around long enough to find out which.

She cocked her head, sending that long swing of blond hair over her shoulder. She’d changed up the tone, going from a faded raspberry to a silvery shimmer at the tips. “You know what I kept thinking about today during the services?”

She as well as her mother and sister had spoken in front of the crowd, eloquently, emotionally. But it was the single tear that slid down Sloane’s cheek, the ones she dashed away with my handkerchief, that had sliced me open and left me raw.

“A dozen new ways to piss me off, starting with invading my privacy?”

“How happy Dad would have been if we’d ever pretended to get along.”

It was my turn to close my eyes. She landed the strike with expert precision. Guilt was a sharp weapon.

Simon would have loved nothing more than to see his daughter and his “project” at least friendly toward each other again.

“I guess there’s no reason to start now,” she continued. Her eyes were locked on mine. There was nothing friendly in her gaze. Only a pain and grief that mirrored my own. But we weren’t going to mourn together.

“I guess not,” I agreed.

She heaved a sigh, then hopped off the counter. “Cool. I’ll show myself out.”

“Take the coat,” I said, holding it out to her. “It’s cold.”

She shook her head. “If I take it, I’d have to bring it back, and I’d rather not come back here.” Her gaze flicked around the space, and I knew she too had ghosts here.

“Take the fucking coat, Sloane.” My voice was hoarse. I pushed it into her arms, not giving her the choice.

For a second, we were connected by cashmere.

“Are you here for me?” she asked suddenly.

“What?”

“You heard me. Are you here for me?”

“I came to pay my respects. Your father was a good man, and your mother has always been nothing but kind to me.”

“Why did you come back this summer?”

“Because my oldest friends were behaving like children.”

“And I didn’t factor into those decisions?” she pressed.

“You never do.”

She nodded briskly. There was no hint of emotion on her lovely face. “Good.” She took the coat from me and slid her arms through the too-­long sleeves. “When are you going to sell this place?” she asked, fluffing that silvery blond hair out of the collar.

“Spring,” I said.

“Good,” she said again. “It’ll be nice having decent neighbors for a change,” she said.

Then Sloane Walton walked out of my house without looking back.


I ate the cold burger and fries instead of the chicken, then washed the plate and returned it to the cabinet. The counters and floors were next as I wiped away any trace my unwanted visitor may have left behind.

I was tired. That hadn’t been a lie. I wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower and go to bed with a book. But I wouldn’t sleep. Not until she did. Besides, there was work to be done. I headed upstairs to my old bedroom, a space I now used primarily as an office.

I sat down at the desk under the large bay window that overlooked the backyard and offered a view of Sloane’s. My phone signaled a text.

Karen: We’re having a wonderful time. Just what the soul needed today. Thank you again for being so thoughtful and generous! P.S. My friend has a daughter she wants you to meet.

She included a winking smiley face and a selfie of her and her friends in matching robes, all with green goop on their faces. Their eyes were red and swollen, but the smiles looked genuine. Some people could withstand the worst without it damaging their souls. The Waltons were those people. I, on the other hand, had been born damaged.

Me: You’re welcome. No daughters.

I scrolled through the rest of my text messages until I found the thread I was looking for.

Simon: If I could have chosen a son in this lifetime, it would have been you. Take care of my girls.

It was the last text I’d ever receive from the man I’d admired. The man who had so foolishly believed I could be saved. I dropped the phone, my fingers flexing, and once again I wished I’d saved the day’s cigarette for now. Instead, I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, willing away the burn I felt there.

I tamped it down, picked up the phone again, and scrolled through my contacts. She shouldn’t be alone, I rationalized.

Me: Sloane isn’t at her sister’s. She’s home alone.

Naomi: Thanks for the heads-­up. I had a feeling she was going to try to wrangle some sneaky alone time. Lina and I will handle it.

Duty performed, I booted up my laptop and opened the first of eight reports that required my attention. I’d barely made it through the financials on the first when my phone vibrated on the desk. This time, it was a call.

Emry Sadik.

Deciding to wallow in my misery instead of discussing it, I let it go to voicemail.

A text arrived moments later.

Emry: I’ll just keep calling. You might as well save us both the time and answer.

I had barely finished rolling my eyes when the next call came through.

“Yes?” I answered dryly.

“Oh good. You’re not completely spiraling into self-­destruction.” Dr. Emry Sadik was a psychologist, elite performance coach, and—­worst of all—­an accidental friend. The man knew most of my deepest, darkest secrets. I’d given up trying to disabuse him of the belief that I was worth saving.

“Did you call for a specific reason or just to annoy me?” I asked.

I heard the unmistakable crack and clink of his predinner pistachios shells as they hit the bowl. I could picture him at the table in his study, a basketball game on mute, the day’s crossword in front of him. Emry was a man who believed in routine and efficiency…and being there for his friends even when they didn’t want him.

“How did it go today?”

“Fine. Depressing. Sad.”

Crack. Clink.

“How are you feeling?”

“Infuriated,” I answered. “A man like that could be doing more good. He should have had more time. His family still needs him.” I still needed him.

“Nothing rocks our foundations like an unexpected death,” Emry empathized. He would know. His wife had passed away after a car accident four years ago. “If the world was a fair and just place, would your father have had more time?”

Crack. Clink.

In a fair and just world, Ansel Rollins would have lived out his full sentence, and the day of his release, he would have suffered a painful and traumatic death. Instead, he’d managed to escape his punishment due to a stroke that had quietly ended his life in his sleep. The unfairness of it had the rage rattling that locked box inside me.

“You haven’t been my therapist for fifteen years. I don’t have to talk about him with you anymore.”

“As one of the few people on this planet who you tolerate, I’m only pointing out that two father figures dying within six months of each other is a lot for any human.”

“I believe we’ve established that I’m not human,” I reminded him.

Emry chuckled, undisturbed. “You’re more human than you think, my friend.”

I scoffed. “No need to be insulting.”

Crack. Clink.

“How did it go with Simon’s daughter?”

“Which one?” I hedged deliberately.

Emry snorted. “Don’t make me come up there in a snowstorm.”

I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t feel compelled to look toward Sloane’s house. “It was…fine.”

“You managed to be civil at the funeral?”

“I’m almost always civil,” I snapped wearily.

Emry chuckled. “What I wouldn’t give to meet the infamous Sloane Walton.”

“You’d need more than one session if you wanted to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with her,” I told him.

“I find it fascinating how she’s lodged herself so securely under your skin when you’re an expert at surgically removing annoyances from your life.”

Crack. Clink.

“How did Sadie’s piano recital go?” I asked, changing the subject to one my friend couldn’t possibly ignore: his grandchildren.

“In my humble opinion, she outperformed all the other five-­year-­olds with her stirring rendition of ‘I’m a Little Teapot.’”

“Of course she was the best,” I agreed.

“I’ll send you the video as soon as I learn how to text ten minutes of shaky footage.”

“I can’t wait,” I lied. “Have you gotten up the nerve to ask out your neighbor yet, or are you still lurking behind your curtains?”

My friend had developed a crush on the stylish divorcée across the street and, by his own account, had only managed to grunt and nod in her general direction.

“The right opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet,” he said. “I would also like to point out the irony of you encouraging me to start dating again.”

“Marriage is right for some people. People like you who can’t stop burning casseroles and need a nice woman to force you to stop dressing like a 1980s sitcom star.”

Headlights next door skimmed the fence that divided my backyard from Sloane’s. I got to my feet and went to the window on the other wall that overlooked the front of her house. It looked as though Sloane was getting company whether she wanted it or not.

Emry chuckled. “Leave my cardigans out of this. Are we still on for dinner next week? I think I’ve finally figured out an opening that will tame your infuriating knight.”

Emry and I had graduated from therapy sessions to a friendship that required dinner and chess matches every two weeks. He was good. But I was always better.

“I doubt that. But I’ll be there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

“No rest for the wicked, eh?”

None.

“Goodbye, Emry.”

“Good night, Lucian.”

I immediately pushed the conversation out of my head and had opened another report when the doorbell rang.

“Why won’t people leave me the fuck alone?” I muttered as I opened my security app and found both Morgan brothers, shoulders hunched against the cold, at my front door.

On a growl, I slammed my laptop shut.

“What?” I demanded when I opened the door a minute later.

They tromped in, stomping snow from their boots on the entryway tile. I would clean up the puddles later, I told myself. Waylon, Knox’s basset hound, marched inside, headbutted me in the knees, then trotted into the living room.

Knox held up a six-­pack of beer. Nash hefted a bottle of bourbon and a bag of chips. The furry white head of his dog, Piper, poked out above the zipper of his coat.

“Girls are next door,” Knox said as if that explained everything and headed for the kitchen. “Told you he’d still be in a suit,” he called out to his brother.

I ran a hand down my tie, noting that they’d both changed into the standard Knockemout winter uniform of jeans, thermal, and flannel.

“Figured we’d stick around to keep an eye on them to prevent another last time,” Nash said, putting Piper down on the floor and following his brother. The dog was wearing a red sweater with white snowflakes. She cast an anxious look at me and then trotted down the hall after Nash.

I closed the door and resisted the urge to knock my head against it. I didn’t want company. And I didn’t want to be drawn into whatever drunken escapades Sloane and her friends got themselves into. “Last time” had involved Naomi and Sloane getting heroically drunk and “helping” Lina catch a bail jumper with their wits. Well, with Naomi’s wits and Sloane’s spectacular tits.

I was still furious I’d missed that.

“I have work to do,” I said.

“Then we’ll just watch a movie with explosions quietly while you run your evil empire,” Nash said cheerfully.

They helped themselves to paper towels and glasses, then wandered into the living room, more comfortable here than I had ever been.

The room was staged with a family in mind. There was a deep sectional couch and an upholstered ottoman facing a large flat-­screen TV. The white bookshelves that lined one wall had plenty of space for books, games, and photos.

There hadn’t been any family photos here when I was growing up. At least none past my midteens when everything had gone to hell.

“Your security cameras get any good angles on Sloane’s place?” Knox asked.

“I don’t know,” I hedged. “Why?”

“Wouldn’t put it past them to sneak out to build an army of snowmen in the middle of the highway,” Nash explained.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

I headed back upstairs and grabbed my laptop, but not before peering out the window into the gloomy winter night. Sloane’s bedroom lights were off. I’d spent too many nights wondering why she’d kept the room she’d grown up in instead of moving into her parents’ room. I hated how many questions I had about the woman I didn’t want to care about.

On a testy sigh, I cued up the security feed that I staunchly refused to open. The one that angled toward Sloane’s front door and driveway. It was a point of pride that I never looked at it, even when I felt homesick for a home that had never been mine.

Hearing the brotherly banter in the living room, I reluctantly changed into sweats and a T-­shirt, then shoved my feet into the sherpa-­lined house slippers Karen had given me two Christmases ago. I clomped back downstairs where I found my friends and their dogs lounging comfortably on the sectional.

“He’s human,” Nash observed when I walked in.

“Only on the outside,” I assured him.

He had taken two bullets this summer when his name had landed on that list of obstacles for Anthony Hugo’s crime syndicate in the DC area. After a few hairy months, Nash had managed to pull himself out of a downward spiral with the help of the stunning, monogamy-­averse Lina.

While he’d convinced her to let him put a ring on her finger, I was still attempting to convince her to work full-­time for me. She was smart, devious, and better at managing people than she gave herself credit for. I’d win eventually. I always did.

I dropped down on the couch and opened the laptop to the camera footage. “Here,” I said, angling it toward the brothers.

“Perfect,” Knox said.

“What are we watching?” I asked.

“Narrowed it down to Shawshank or Boondock Saints. Your choice,” Nash said.

Boondock,” I answered automatically.

Knox cued it up while Nash poured the bourbon. He distributed the glasses and held his aloft. “To Simon. The man all men should aspire to be.”

“To Simon,” I echoed, keenly aware of a fresh stab of grief.

“Think Sloane will be okay?” Nash asked.

I crossed my arms and pretended I didn’t get that nagging little rush whenever someone mentioned her name in my presence.

Knox shook his head. “It’s a tough loss. She held up today after Luce here force-­fed her a burrito.”

Nash’s eyebrows rose as he cut a look in my direction.

“Not a euphemism. It was a literal burrito,” I explained.

“Sloane would break his euphemistic burrito in half,” Knox predicted with a smirk. It disappeared quickly. “Naomi thinks she’s gonna have a rough time and try to hide it.”

“And Naomi is usually right,” Nash pointed out.

“Let me know if there’s anything she needs,” I said, automatically distancing myself from the responsibility of looking after her.

Knox smirked. “Like a burrito?”

I glared at him. “Like moral or financial support that can be provided from a distance. My burrito wants nothing to do with Sloane Walton.”

“Yeah. Keep telling your burrito that,” Nash said, picking up his phone. He winced. “Great. Lina just texted. The girls are making margaritas.”

Knox put down his bourbon. “Fuck.”


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