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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 38


Stupid Pills

Lucian

As the helicopter banked to the east over Knockemout, the sight of emergency vehicle lights slashing through the dark churned an anger I wasn’t sure I could control.

Sloane had been alone inside when the fire started. And I’d been miles away on a conference call with the West Coast.

While she blindly crawled down the stairs through smoke and flame, I’d been handling a minor PR crisis for a California state representative. A minor crisis that I could have easily handed over to someone else.

While Sloane was helped from the building by a cop and the firefighter who took her to her senior prom, while she was looked over by a paramedic who happened to be a member of the library’s book club, I had been pulling strings and smoothing ruffled feathers for virtual strangers.

“Preparing for landing, sir.” The pilot’s voice sounded flat and distant in my headset.

I had the door open and was climbing out by the time the skids kissed the ground at the private airfield just east of Knockemout. In less than a minute, I was behind the wheel of the waiting SUV and speeding toward town. I turned off my mind and focused on the road, the familiar scenery as it flashed by.

I didn’t let myself think about Sloane. Alone. Unprotected. I didn’t let myself consider the fact that I’d left her that way, believing she’d be safer.

The echo of Knox’s voice rang in my ear. “Nice of you to finally pick up, asshole. The fuckin’ library’s on fire, and Sloane was inside.”

It felt like an eternity before the flashing lights filled the windshield as I drove into the heart of Knockemout.

I got out and strode into chaos. The smell of acrid smoke burned my throat as I pushed through the gathered crowd. The two-­story redbrick building still stood. The gold lettering that read The Knox Morgan Municipal Building was tarnished but still there. The front doors were propped open. Windows on the library side were broken, allowing black, billowing smoke to escape, tainting the night air.

I grabbed the closest first responder I could find, a tall, grizzled woman with soot streaking her gear and an axe slung over her shoulder. “Chief Morgan,” I snapped.

“Over there.” She pointed toward the police station parking lot where a tent was set up and a dozen first responders clumped.

No one tried to stop me as I made my way over. It was one of the many privileges of being Lucian Fucking Rollins. Most rules didn’t apply to me because there wasn’t anyone willing to stand up and enforce them.

“Nash,” my voice cracked like a whip over everything.

My friend looked up from his conference with Sergeant Grave Hopper, who was covered head to toe in soot, the fire chief, and Mayor Hilly Swanson. Nash looked grim, and I felt that anger inside me expand exponentially.

He excused himself from the others and put a hand to my chest. “She’s okay.”

I closed my eyes and let that permeate the panic.

“Where is she?” I rasped.

“I had Bannerjee drive her home about ten minutes ago.”

I wanted to go to her. I needed to see her. To see for myself that she was okay. But first I needed answers.

“You let her go home by herself? What the fuck is wrong with you? Why isn’t Knox with her? Where are Naomi and Lina?”

“It’s almost two in the fucking morning on a school night. Sloane sent them all home about an hour ago. Bannerjee checked the house, including all doors and windows, before she left.”

“What the hell happened here?”

Nash’s face pokered up. “We don’t know yet. Fire department seems to think it originated on the first floor. Sloane was upstairs in her office, working late. She was the only one on this side of the building. The alarms and the sprinkler system didn’t go off like they were supposed to, but she smelled the smoke, opened her door, and immediately called 911. Grave evacuated our side and went running into the library like an untrained idiot. He found Sloane on the stairs, and they were making their way out when the fire department showed.”

I wanted the names of every person who installed the alarm and sprinkler system because I was going to systematically ruin their lives. Then I was going to buy Grave a penthouse in whatever vacation town he wanted.

“How bad is the damage?” I asked. I’d rebuild it brick by brick for her. Whatever she wanted. She couldn’t stop me.

“We’ll know more in the morning. The structure seems stable, but…” Nash swiped a hand over his face. “Those books went up like fucking kindling.”

I absorbed it like a gut punch. Sloane would be devastated.

“I’m going to her,” I announced.

He shook his head. “Man, that’s not the smartest idea. She’s not going to want to see you. Not after the bullshit you pulled.”

“I’ll unpull it.”

“You’re either overestimating your charm or underestimating her stubbornness. Either way, you’re probably the last person she wants to see tonight. ”

He didn’t understand. No one did. When things turned to ruins, Sloane and I were there for each other. Always. It was time we both remembered that. Because I wasn’t walking away. Not this time. Not ever again.

“She’s not going to have a choice. She’ll listen to reason.”

Nash stared at me like I’d just invited him to a poker game with Bigfoot and the late Sammy Davis Jr. “Did you take stupid pills this morning?”

I glared at him. “I’m going to fix this.”

“Listen, Luce. I get that you have complicated feelings for Sloane. But I love that girl like a little sister. Always have. Knox too. If you fuck with her, if you upset her more than she already is, I’m not gonna be gentle with you. And we both know Knox won’t want to be left out of the ass kicking.”

I squared off with Nash and looked him dead in the eyes. “If you or Knox or anyone else in this fucking town tries to keep me away from Sloane, I will destroy you.”

His mouth curved up in the corner. “Looking forward to it, brother. Good luck.”


“Open the goddamn door, Sloane,” I bellowed, hammering my fist against her front door.

She hadn’t responded to any of my calls and texts since I’d kicked her out of my house, certainly none of the dozens since I’d shown up on her doorstep. But she had made the deadly mistake of turning the porch light out on me five minutes ago.

The first floor was dark. And I guessed she was either sitting in the dark enjoying my temper tantrum, or she’d gone upstairs to ignore me.

“I’m not going anywhere, so you might as well let me in,” I called.

The curtain in the front window closest to me twitched, and I lunged for the glass only to find the cat watching me dispassionately like she was some kind of guardian gargoyle. Could cats smirk? Because that was exactly what this tubby tabby appeared to be doing at my expense.

“You’re name is Meow Meow. You have no room to judge,” I told the cat through the glass.

The fur ball ignored me and focused her attention on the paw she was cleaning.

I gave up on the knocking and sought a new plan of attack.

The key.

I remembered Simon and Karen used to keep their spare key under the red planter they filled with ferns every spring and evergreen boughs every winter. Eagerly, I tipped it back and felt around the floorboards under it. Nothing.

Damn it. I guess some things did change. I moved the entire planter a foot to the right, then looked under Sloane’s whimsical welcome mat. I scoured every inch of the porch around the front door, then expanded my methodical search, pausing every minute or two to text her.

Me: I’m not leaving. Let me in.

Me: Are you okay?

Me: If you don’t at least respond, then I’m going to have to call Nash and have him do a welfare check.

Sloane: I’m fine.

Relief immediately gave way to suspicion. No insults. No accusations about shouldn’t I be drinking the blood of unicorns and leaving her alone. No hurling my past actions in my face.

The panic was back.

I checked the underside of the entire length of the railing. No key. When I got inside, I was going to bully her into giving me a spare key. Then I was going to have my security team install a state-­of-­the-­art system to keep her safe. I paced to the end of the house where the porch wrapped around the side. The flashlight from my phone panned over the thick, flaky bark of the tree trunk.

For the first time in weeks, I grinned.

I vaulted over the railing and landed in the flower bed between a budding rhododendron and an azalea. I shoved my phone in my pocket, then wrapped my hands around the trunk. With one confident hop, I sacrificed my leather Brioni loafers against the rough tree bark.

The trick with climbing a cherry tree was to keep all the force pressing in a downward motion so the bark didn’t peel away from the tree. I shuffle hopped my way up the trunk until I reached the first branch. The first cherry blossoms had already started to bloom, filling my head with their familiar scent. It fueled me, fed me, and I climbed faster.

I chose an aggressive trek, and when I reached my foot for a higher branch, I heard the telltale rip of fabric. The rip was followed immediately by a flow of fresh air over my balls. The tree was a few decades older than the first time I’d climbed it, and I was out of practice, but I managed to land on the porch roof with only a few more scrapes and tears.

Sloane’s bedside lamp was on, I noted as I scrambled up the gentle incline over the shingles to the window.

My heart stopped.

Her light was on, but she wasn’t in bed. Sloane. My Sloane was sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees as she rocked back and forth. Tears washed clean trails as they cut through the soot on her beautiful face. Her clothing was dirty. Even her hair had lost its brilliant shine. Her ponytail drooped with the heavy weight of smoke residue.

The middle window was open a few inches. It always had been. So I did what I’d always done. I pushed it up and let myself in.

I could only imagine the picture I made, slinging one leg over the sill onto the cushion of the window seat. But Sloane didn’t laugh. Or yell. Or tell me to go fuck myself and leave her alone.

She looked directly at me, then covered her face with her hands and cried harder.

“Fuck,” I muttered, clambering into the room and racing to her side. “Sloane. Baby.” My hands searched her arms and torso for injuries. Because only the worst injuries could break her like this. The worst injuries and the worst heartbreaks.

Finding nothing, I shifted her into my arms. Panic was a living breathing thing in my chest when she didn’t fight me. She should be telling me what an asshole I was. She should be throwing me out. Not collapsing against me.

I picked her up and held her cradled against my chest, and when she didn’t start throwing punches and insults, I marched us to the head of her bed. I dragged the covers back, kicked off my ruined shoes, and sat against the pile of pillows, still holding her.

Silent sobs racked her body, forming wounds in my cold, black heart. A bottomless well of tears soaked my shirt as I held her tighter to me and let one hand stroke down her ponytail. Over and over again. She smelled like the kind of smoke that destroyed dreams, and I could hardly bear it.

Yet even though it carved me up to see her pain, I realized what a gift this was. To be here when she broke. To pick up the pieces and help her put them back together again.

I didn’t tell her it would be okay. I didn’t beg her to stop crying. I just held on tight as my pathetic, cowardly heart broke.

I thought I’d been doing the right thing by keeping her at a distance. She was supposed to have been safer that way. But by leaving her alone, I’d left her vulnerable to a danger I hadn’t anticipated. I wanted to protect her from me, from the dark shadow that was my past, from the danger that was my present. But I’d left her open and vulnerable to something else. Something that had almost stolen her from me.

If my distance couldn’t protect her, my proximity would. From now on, I would be Sloane’s shadow.


The tears stopped sometime later. They were replaced by full-­body shivers. She still hadn’t spoken a word to me. And I was eager to do whatever I could before she regained her voice and tried to kick me out. Without a warning, I gathered her up and carried her into the bathroom.

“What are you doing?” Her usually husky voice was a painful rasp.

“You’re shivering,” I said, leaning down to turn on the water to the tub. It was a deep, jetted tub built into a tile surround under a stained glass window.

“N-­no, I’m n-­not,” she whispered through chattering teeth.

It took two tries before I could put her down. Terrified that she’d run, I didn’t take my eyes off her as I closed the tub drain. She had candles on the tile surrounding the tub. I pulled the lighter out of my pocket and lit them. Still not trusting her to stay, I closed my hand gently around her wrist and pulled her with me as I gathered fluffy, sage-­green towels and stacked them next to the tub. She came with me willingly as I pulled her toward the shower where I collected her shampoo, conditioner, and soap.

I arranged the haul and adjusted the water temperature, all with my grip still firm on her.

When I finally turned to face her, she was staring blankly at the water as it poured forth. Tears had carved paths through the filth marring her lovely face. There was no light, no fight in those beautiful green eyes. No emerald flames warning me of my imminent verbal evisceration.

“We need to take off your clothes, Pixie.”

She gave no sign of having heard me, so I saw to it myself. I reached out and dragged the ruined sweater over her head. I sucked in a vicious breath when I saw the bruises already forming on her arms and ribs. Still she made no move to stop me or help. So I continued.

There was a tender vulnerability in the way she let me undress her like she was a doll. As the tub filled, I took my time, peeling away the layers and discarding them until she stood there shaking and naked. Dirt and soot streaked her face, hands, and hair. Bruises painted her ivory skin as if her body was a canvas.

Fury burned inside me. I wouldn’t rest until I knew who was responsible for those bruises and made them pay.

Her beauty was so exquisitely fragile I couldn’t catch my breath.

I’d almost lost her. Really lost her. Not pushed her away, but lost her. I could have already seen her for the last time and not known it. That thought sunk in on a razor-­edged moment of clarity.

I could have been standing inside a morgue tonight instead of Sloane’s bathroom because I was a stupid, selfish coward. I hadn’t trusted myself to protect her before. But now I had no other choice.

I nudged her chin up until those green eyes found mine, and I knew. I was never leaving her again. We’d parted ways for the last time. She just didn’t know it yet.

“Ready?” I asked her.

She said nothing, just stared emptily up at me. My chest constricted tighter. Her pain was my pain. And for the first time in my life, I realized what she must have felt at sixteen, her window open, the whispers of my own pain carried to her on the night breeze.

Fuck.

I shut off the water and guided her to sit on the tile next to the tub. When I was certain she was stable, I stripped off my own shirt and pants.

“W-­what are you doing?” she asked, each word coming out hesitantly as if she’d forgotten how to say them.

“We’re taking a bath,” I said, removing my underwear and socks and adding them to the pile of clothing I was going to throw away at my earliest convenience. I never wanted to see her ruined pink sweater again. I’d buy her a new one. A dozen new ones. I’d rebuild her library brick by brick, book by book. And I would never let her face danger alone again.

Something loosened in my chest. Something old and rusted. Like an ancient lock finally forced open. Fresh air swept inside, blowing aside the cobwebs, lighting the hearth. She’d always been mine. I was just now accepting that fact. Once something was mine, I never gave it up.

Feeling lighter than I had in years, I swung one leg followed by the other into the tub. “Come on, Pix. I’ve got you.” I hooked her under the arms and lifted her into the water. I lowered us both and stretched my legs out in front of me before settling her against my front, her back to my chest, her head tucked under my chin. Wrapping my arms around her, I leaned back.

I was taking my first-­ever bath with a woman. Not just any woman. Sloane.

That looseness in my chest warmed. I was going to have so many firsts with this woman.

We rested like that, in steam and flickering candlelight, as the water warmed us for several long minutes. When she let out a small, broken sigh, I picked up a sponge and a bottle of soap and went to work gently cleaning the soot and dirt from her skin. My beautiful broken girl didn’t help me or fight me. But she did relax against me. She did press her damp face to my neck. And for the first time in my life, I felt like the hero instead of the villain.

I was hard. It was a biological impossibility to not get hard around her, let alone when she was wet and naked against me. But what was happening between us was so much deeper than sex I barely gave my arousal a second thought.

“Here, baby,” I said, my hands moving under the water to cup her hips. I pushed her forward and bent my knees before settling her back against my shins. “Let me wash your hair.”

Sloane said nothing as I worked the tie free. Her hair tumbled down in a silky, thick curtain that hung over my thighs, the ends kissing the water.

I grabbed an empty wineglass next to the tub and filled it with water. “Lean back,” I urged, gathering her hair around my free hand and tugging gently until her head rested on my knees. “Good girl.”

I poured water over those blond tresses and refilled the glass, repeating the process until I was satisfied that her hair was thoroughly wet. Then I went to work, massaging the shampoo into her roots and down the silky lengths. I worked slowly, using my fingers to rub gentle circles against her scalp.

She let out another sigh, and her body loosened as it melted against me. I took my time soaping and rinsing, then repeating the same with her conditioner until every smudge and shadow had been washed clean.

When we were both finally clean, I picked her up out of the cooling water, bundled her in too many towels, and led her into the bedroom. “Stay here,” I ordered, nudging her onto the window seat.

“What are you doing?” she asked sleepily.

“Changing the sheets. Don’t move.”

I found fresh sheets in her closet and made another mental note to contact my organizer in the morning. I’d make room here for me and at my place for her.

I made quick work of changing the bed linens while shooting nervous glances in Sloane’s direction. She wasn’t watching me. She was staring dully down at her feet on the carpet.

As I arranged her legion of pillows in the right formation, I swore whoever was responsible for this would pay. I’d make sure of it.

When the bed was ready, I returned to Sloane and tugged her to her feet. “Time for bed,” I said.

She followed docilely, making me wish she’d put up a fight. Show me a glimpse of the real Sloane Walton.

She paused, staring at the mound of pillows I’d arranged in a U.

“You remembered,” she said softly.

“I remember every second of us.”


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