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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 35


You Love Me, You Idiot

Sloane

What goes better with intermittent crying jags? Grilled chicken salads or cheesesteaks?” my mother asked, holding up two takeout menus.

It was Monday, and my mom and I had taken the day off to go through some of Dad’s things. We were in my parents’ bedroom, working our way through his collection of books, deciding what to keep, what to donate, and what to sell.

“Tears make cheesesteaks too soggy. What about grilled cheese?”

“Perfect! There’s a gourmet grilled cheese place right around the corner. I’ll order,” Mom said.

Frankly, I wasn’t hungry. A statement I rarely got to make since it usually only signified the onset of a stomach bug. But this was no stomach bug. This was shame. After my run-­in with Lucian—­and his cock—­at Honky Tonk Friday night, I’d been feeling furious with myself and more than a little guilty.

I’d been on a date with another man—­a perfect one on paper—­yet I still couldn’t keep my hands to myself. I’d been a willing participant in the hallway second base ambush. Then I’d forced Lucian’s friends to police him, when I was just as much at fault. And judging from their bruised and bleeding faces when Knox and Nash returned to the bar, there had been a lot of policing.

I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

Mom returned and gracefully sank back to the floor.

“This sucks,” I said as tears escaped my burning eyes. “I miss Dad.”

“I know you do, honey. I do too. So much.”

“Damn it!” I wailed. “I thought I’d be done crying by now.”

“Ah, to be so stupidly naïve,” Mom teased, cupping my damp face in her hand. “Let’s get a few more piles done before the food arrives.”

We both took a moment to blow our noses and compose ourselves.

“How about this one?” I asked, holding up a thick tome on Virginia tax law.

“Donate. Oh! Do you remember this one?” She held up a worn law book. “Your father used to quiz Maeve on the legal precedents in family law when she told him she wanted to be a lawyer at ten.”

The memory floated over me like a soft blanket. Dad and Maeve cozied up in the breakfast nook with legal pads and law books while Mom helped me with my homework at the kitchen island.

Dad had been so proud and excited that his oldest daughter wanted to follow in his steps. Teenage Maeve was fierce and determined to be the best.

“Definitely a keeper. Put it in the Maeve box.”

“So I need to ask you something that’s probably going to upset you,” Mom announced, dropping the book in the box.

“Is this what it feels like to be a parent?” I joked.

“Lucian,” she said.

I went still. “What about him?” She couldn’t know about our brief, ill-­advised fling. Could she? She would have said something. Unless she was saying something now.

Mom pushed a tall stack of alumni magazines into the recycle pile with her feet. “I know you two don’t really talk, but I was wondering if you’d heard anything about him lately. He canceled our dinner two weeks in a row and hasn’t been returning my calls since. It’s highly unlike him, and I’m worried.”

It appeared as though Lucian had dumped two out of three Walton women. “You two sure seem to spend a lot of time together,” I ventured.

“Don’t get all snooty about it. Your father and I adore Lucian. He’s been part of our lives since he snuck into your room that first time. It was our greatest disappointment that you two didn’t fall in love and make a bunch of beautiful grandbabies for us.”

My mother was joking, but given my current life goals and Lucian’s recent occupation of my vagina, it felt like a personal attack.

“You’re more likely to end up with Michael B. Jordan as a son-­in-­law than Lucian Rollins,” I said dryly.

“Cute and talented. I wouldn’t be upset having to stare at that gorgeous face every Thanksgiving,” Mom teased. “So you haven’t heard anything? I’m worried. It’s not like him to ghost me, as the young people say. He’s done a lot for your father and me, especially since we moved down here, and I miss him.”

I wanted to quiz her on all the ways the emotionally stunted stallion had supported my parents, but I heard the sadness in her tone and felt like an ass. A guilty ass. If my nonbreakup with Lucian had cost my mother her relationship with him, that meant now she was missing two men instead of receiving all the support she deserved. And I was going to let Lucian know that was unacceptable at the first possible moment.

“I’m sure he’s just busy,” I fibbed. “I bet he’ll be calling you up for lunch next week.” I would rain hellfire down on him to make sure of it.

“I hope so,” Mom said. She dumped the remaining law books on the carpet and sprayed down the bookshelf with a thick layer of lemon Pledge. “Enough about me. How’s the husband hunt going?”

“It’s…going. I had a first date with Kurt Michaels Friday night.” I did not add that I’d all but jerked off Lucian in the hallway during said date. My mother didn’t need to know she’d raised a trollop.

Mom abandoned her dusting. “And?” she prompted.

“And he’s nice. He’s smart. Cute. Obviously great with kids. He’s looking to settle down. And unlike everyone else I’ve dated, he isn’t married, lying, or running from the law.”

She raised a motherly eyebrow. “But?”

“How do you know there’s a but?” I demanded.

“Mother’s intuition. Just like I knew you were planning to sneak out to Sherry Salama’s sweet sixteen when you were grounded.”

I sighed. “On paper, he’s perfect. Hell, in person, he’s perfect. But there’s no…”

Engulfing flames of desire? All-­consuming need to tear his pants off? Off-­the-­charts chemical reaction?

“Spark?” Mom supplied.

Spark seemed too tame in comparison to what I’d experienced with Lucian.

I shrugged. “Maybe I just want too much. Maybe I can’t have it all in a partner. I mean, who gets to have a husband who changes diapers, respects your work, and performs like a romance novel hero between the sheets?”

Mom threw her arm over my shoulder. “You’d be surprised.”

“If you’re going to use this as a segue to tell me about your sex life with Dad, I will send you the bill for therapy.”

“I’ll get my checkbook.”

I groaned and slumped against her. “Why does it have to be such a pain-­in-­the-­ass process?”

“Nothing worthwhile is easy. Finding a partner isn’t about ticking all the boxes. No one is perfect, not even you, Sloaney Baloney. Falling in love is about discovering someone who makes you better than you are alone and vice versa.”

I plucked at the carpet. “What if they hurt you?”

“People make mistakes. A lot of them. You get to decide which ones are forgivable.”

“What kind of mistakes did Dad make?”

“He was always late. He brought his work home with him. When he was working on a case that was particularly important to him, he was in his head and not present with us. He had terrible taste in fashion. He was always sneaking junk food into the grocery cart.”

I chuckled.

“But the good always outweighed the bad. Your father and I had a very robust sex life, you know,” Mom added with a wicked gleam.

“Mom!”

She collapsed on the floor laughing. “Ah, that never gets old.”

“You drive me to drink,” I said, joining her on the carpet and staring up at the ceiling.

“I’m just returning the favor.”

“Mom? I don’t know if I ever really told you, but thank you for being such a great mom. You and Dad never once made me feel like I couldn’t…”

Mom sat up and grabbed a tissue from the box between us and held it to her eyes. “Sloane, I appreciate your heartfelt sentiments, but if you want me to stop crying anytime soon, you’d better insult me in the next ten seconds.”

“Your pot roast is dry, and I think your obsession with teeth is creepy.”

We were still half crying, half laughing when the doorbell rang.

Mom got to her feet. “I’ll get the food.” I heard her blowing her nose noisily through the condo.

I hefted the million-­pound box of gardening books and lugged it over to the writing desk. I slid it onto the surface and accidentally sent a stack of paperwork flying.

“Crap,” I muttered. I knelt on the floor and began collecting papers, creating a sloppy pile of death certificate copies, greeting cards, and medical bills.

“Floor picnic or should we eat at the table like civilized people?” Mom called.

“Floor,” I yelled back, spotting one last paper that landed between the wall and the leg of the desk. I crawled over and retrieved it.

A name caught my eye as I transferred it to the top of the stack.

Frowning, I skimmed the document.

Lichtfield Laboratories.

Paid in full.

Lucian Rollins.

I felt an icy rush of shock sweep through me.

Mom stuck her head in the door. “Do you want more wine, a sparkling water, or should we switch to Bloody Marys since I forgot to order tomato soup?”

“What’s this?” I asked, holding up the statement.

She glanced at it, and I saw the flash of guilt followed by an involuntary softening. “That’s what I wasn’t supposed to tell you about.”


“What the hell is wrong with you?” I demanded, bursting into Lucian’s office waving the statement like I was leading a marching band.

Behind his desk, he looked at me with that cool, flat mask, but there was heat in his eyes. And bruises on his face. He looked like some heart-­throbby heroic boxer who’d lost a title fight.

“Sorry, sir,” Petula huffed, screeching to a halt in the doorway behind me. “She’s faster than I thought.”

“It’s fine,” Lucian said, making it sound like it was anything but fine.

“Kick his ass,” Petula said to me under her breath and disappeared.

“You may go, Nallana,” Lucian told the woman in the chair across from him.

Her hands were tucked in the pocket of a Nine Inch Nails sweatshirt. She looked amused. “But I wanna stay and watch the show,” she said.

“Go away,” Lucian said, eyes still on me.

On a sigh, she hopped out of the chair, shot me a wink, and left.

I slapped the paper down on his desk. Then just to be a jerk, I dragged my fingertips across the spotless glass top. “Explain.”

“I owe you zero explanations. You need to leave.”

“Not until you explain this,” I said, drilling my finger into the paper.

He glanced down at it, then reached into his desk drawer and did something I didn’t expect. The son of a bitch put on a sexy pair of reading glasses.

It was like the universe was mocking me. The hot guy who rocked my world between the sheets and wore reading glasses was the one man I didn’t want.

“This looks like an invoice that’s been satisfied,” he said as though I was the dumbest human on the planet. “Now if you don’t mind, I don’t want you here.”

“I know that, you insufferable oaf. It’s a medical invoice for an experimental cancer treatment not covered by health insurance. Why is your name on it?”

“My name is on a lot of things,” he said. He took off his readers, then fed the paper through the shredder at his feet. “If that’s all, I’ll have security escort you out.”

There was a tension in him, a nervousness that I’d never seen before.

“I’m not leaving without answers. The faster you give them to me, the sooner I’ll be gone.”

He snatched up his desk phone and dialed. “Ms. Walton will be requiring an escort back to her mother’s place in five minutes.”

I crossed my arms and glared at him as he listened to whoever was on the other end of the phone call.

“Yes. Have her vehicle swept and post a guard.” He hung up abruptly and leveled me with an icy look. “Ask your questions, and then you need to go.”

I was hanging on by sheer will. I closed my eyes and took a calming breath. “Lucian, why is your name on an astronomically expensive cancer treatment for my father? A treatment I was told was a clinical trial? A treatment that gave him six more weeks with us.” My voice broke pathetically.

The tension between us ratcheted up to unbearable heights. We stared each other down even as my eyes dampened.

“Don’t do this, Sloane,” he said quietly. “Please.”

“For once in your life, just tell me,” I begged.

“You should discuss this with your mother.”

“She told me to talk to you.”

He was silent for a long beat. “He wanted one more Christmas with you.”

I took a step back and hid my face behind my hands.

“You’re not going to cry, are you?” he demanded gruffly.

“I’m having a lot of feelings right now, and I’m not sure which one is going to win out,” I said from behind my hands.

“You’re angry with me,” he surmised.

“I’m not angry that you spent seven figures giving me a few more weeks with my father, assface. I’m beyond grateful for that, and I have no idea how to handle it. But why would you do something like this without telling me? Why hide this?”

“Perhaps you should try taking deep breaths? Outside. Far away from my office.”

“What else?” I demanded.

“I’m not following you,” he said, gaze darting toward the door.

I closed the distance between us, gripped his damn tie, and looked him in the eye. “I’m giving you this one, last opportunity to be honest with me. What else have you paid for or donated or created for my benefit without ever telling me while still treating me like I’d ruined your life?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I inhaled sharply. “So Yoshino Holdings, the Stella Partnership, and the Bing Group aren’t ringing any bells?”

His face hardened.

“I’m in the middle of a very busy day—­”

I gave his tie a yank. “I don’t care if you’re in the middle of your own lifesaving appendectomy, Lucifer. We are having this conversation.”

His silence was stony, and it damned him.

“The Yoshino Holdings Foundation funded a $100,000 grant that allowed the library to upgrade our computer system and start the tablet and laptop lending programs. The Stella Partnership awarded the library a $75,000 grant to extend our community program offerings including creating a position for Naomi. And the Bing Group funded a generous donation to cover the rest of the building costs of the Knox Morgan Municipal Building, which coincidentally houses my library.”

“If you’re finished—­”

“Lucian, all those organizations are named after cherry tree varieties. And all of them are owned by you.” It was all coming together into one unimaginable picture in my head.

He scoffed. “I don’t know where you get your information, but I can assure you—­”

“I’m a librarian, you hulking pain in the ass. It’s my job to know things! What I don’t know is why you would be funding my dreams with your money when, as you so eloquently put it, you can barely stand the sight of me.”

“I don’t need to explain my tax write-­offs to you.”

“I don’t know if I want to throw your stapler through your window or at your head,” I muttered, stepping away from him and starting to pace.

“I’d prefer the window,” he said behind me.

I glanced down as I passed his desk and spotted something familiar in the still open top drawer. “Oh my God,” I said, snatching up a pair of broken glasses. My broken glasses. They’d fallen off during a Halloween skirmish in Knockemout, and I hadn’t been able to find them.

“Stay out of my things,” Lucian said, starting for me.

I held up the glasses. “If I mean nothing to you, why did you give me more time with my dad? Why did you donate so much money to my causes? And why the hell are you keeping my glasses that I lost at Book or Treat last fall in your top desk drawer?”

“Lower your voice, or security is going to carry you out of here,” he growled.

“Say the words, Lucian.”

“If you’re going to waste my time speaking in riddles, you might as well sit down and drink some damn water,” he said gruffly, heading for the crystal decanter on the conference table.

“You love me, you idiot. You’ve loved me since we were kids. You loved me even when I broke your trust. You loved me after I fixed it. You still love me.”

He stopped midstride and turned to glower at me. “You didn’t fix anything. You nearly got yourself killed. And if he had gotten out for even an hour, he would have made sure to end you. That’s what he did to things I cared about. There is no court order that would have protected you from him.”

“So you protected me by keeping our friendship a secret. And you continued to protect me by pushing me away. I was just some crazy, nosy neighbor girl.”

“He would have found a way to hurt you. He did find a way to hurt you.”

“He’s gone now, Lucian. He’s dead. What’s your excuse now?”

“I don’t know where this narrative is coming from, but you’re embarrassing yourself. I don’t love you,” he insisted.

His tone was even and chilly, his face stony. But I could see the truth, the yearning in his eyes.

“Are you sure that’s the answer you want to stick with?” I whispered.

“I don’t love you,” he insisted stubbornly.

I let out a shaky breath. “After all those years, all the things we’ve been through together, you still can’t even be honest with me.”

“I’m being honest,” he said, not quite meeting my eyes.

“You love me,” I repeated. Twin tears escaped, sliding hotly down my cheeks. “You love me, and yet you’re content to never try. That’s not sad. That’s pathetic.”

“You need to leave, Sloane,” he said sharply.

My heart felt like it had been tossed into a wood chipper. Everything hurt.

“I will.” I headed for the door and then stopped. “I’ll never be able to repay you for those last months with my father.”

“I don’t want you to repay me,” he muttered, shoving a hand through his hair. “You can’t come here again. It’s not safe.”

“Fine. But you can’t give me anything again. No more secret donations. No more keeping an eye on me. Thank you for your baffling generosity, but understand this. I can’t accept anything else from you. Ever.”

“Why?”

“Because, after all this, I think we both deserve a clean break.”

He was still a long moment as his eyes roamed my face, looking for something that he wasn’t going to find. “There was never going to be an us, Sloane. He made sure of that.”

I shook my head. “Your father is dead, Lucian. You’re the one who made sure there would never be an us.”

I headed for the door again, hoping to hold it together long enough to get out of the office. Two burly security guys were waiting for me in the hall. I paused in the doorway and turned around one last time. “I loved you. You know? When we were kids, I loved you. And I think I could have again.”

His eyes went stormy, but he stayed where he was and said absolutely nothing.

“By the way,” I continued. “Just because you’re done with me doesn’t mean you get to dump my mother too. She misses you, so pick up your goddamn phone and call her.”

“That’s not a good idea right now,” he hedged.

“Take her to lunch or dinner or whatever the hell you two do, and do it now or I will find new and creative ways to torture you for hurting her when she’s already grieving. Do not abandon my mother.”

“This a good time, boss?” Nolan said, strolling between the two guards. He looked up from the fat file in his hands. “Nope. Never mind. Very not good time. Good to see you, Blondie.”


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