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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 39


Who Has the Head Wound

Lucian

I woke to a warm, vibrating weight on my chest. It felt comforting. Until the weight shifted and something sharp prodded me in the face.

I opened my eyes and found yellow ones glaring back. The cat apparently had an opinion about me sharing Sloane’s bed. The woman in question was sleeping soundly, her back glued to my side, her head resting in the crook of my arm.

The moment felt so fucking right. Like earning my first million. Only this was terrifyingly better. Money could be made and lost. It could be replaced. Sloane couldn’t.

I savored the moment…until it was ruined by another stab of claws. Silently, I glared at the stupidly named feline. She returned the look, tail flicking against my bare chest. Then, with a glance in Sloane’s direction, she opened her mouth and released a feral-­sounding yowl.

“Shut. Up,” I hissed at the cat.

Sloane grumbled in her sleep and shifted against me.

I saw the gleam in the cat’s eyes, the shift of her weight, and caught her just before she pounced on Sloane’s sleeping form.

“Absolutely not, you demon fur ball from hell.”

I dumped the cat on the floor and carefully slid my arm out from under my exhausted librarian. Meow Meow must have felt I was taking too long rearranging the pillows behind Sloane because I received another puncture wound. This one to the calf.

“Christ, cat. I’ll feed you. Just give me a minute to find clothes.”

I was naked, and yesterday’s suit was not an option. Between the tree climbing and cradling the soot-­streaked Sloane, my suit had met its maker.

With the cat obstinately threading her way between my feet, I poked through Sloane’s closet until I discovered a pair of pale pink sweatpants that would have to do. I dragged them over my thighs, seams straining, then unearthed the sweatshirt she’d offered me when I’d chased her home.

The ex-­boyfriend sweatshirt. I was going to take it with me and conveniently lose it in a trash bin.

“Fuck,” I muttered, looking at my reflection in the full-­length mirror.

The pants barely covered the top of my ass crack in the back. In the front, the thin, tight fabric did everything it could to accentuate the outline of my cock.

“Meow,” the cat said, sounding smugly amused.

“Let’s never speak of this again.”

Together, we quietly headed downstairs where the cat went into full meltdown mode, yowling at me like she was a spoiled heiress and I was an incompetent waiter.

“I want to make Sloane breakfast, not you.”

Meow Meow was unimpressed and narrowed her yellow eyes at me.

“Fine. I’ll feed you. Then you’ll stay out of my way, and I’ll stay out of yours. Deal?”

I took the slow blink as a binding contract and went in search of cat food. I poured a medium-­sized mound of dry food into the cat face-­shaped dish on the floor and then headed to the coffee maker.

Coffee started, I was ten minutes into a recipe for pancakes and texting Petula a list of necessities that I was going to need here since I’d be staying for the foreseeable future when the doorbell rang.

Cursing, I pulled the pan off the burner and made the quietest, fastest run possible to the front door. I nearly took a header into the door when the cat appeared out of nowhere and cut in front of me at full gallop.

“You furry little fucker,” I snarled as I threw open the door.

Nash and Lina stood on the doorstep, gawking.

“If you woke her up, I’ll be kicking your ass,” I warned Nash.

“Uhhh.” Lina’s mouth was open, her eyes wide and riveted to an area below my belt.

Nash covered his fiancée’s eyes and choked out a laugh. “What the fuck are you wearing?”

“The only thing that fucking fit.”

“No, you’re not,” Lina said, her voice tinged with hysteria.

“Wardrobe opinions aside, what the hell are you doing here?” I demanded.

Nash pokered up immediately. “It’s about the fire.”

Ice formed in my gut. “You know the cause?”

“Can we talk about this inside?” he hedged.

“Fine. But if either of you wakes her, you’re fired and you’re getting your ass kicked,” I said, pointing first at Lina and then at Nash.

“Fair enough,” Nash agreed.

They followed me inside and into the kitchen.

“It’s just as bad from the back,” Lina whispered.

I tried to hitch the pants higher but only succeeded in nearly spraining my balls.

She gave a strangled laugh.

“Jesus, man. Have some dignity,” Nash said, throwing a dish towel at me.

“I have clothes being sent,” I said testily. “Tell me about the fire.”

“Wait a second. Why are you answering Sloane’s door dressed like that?” Lina demanded, recovering from the hilarity.

“I spent the night.”

She shot Nash a long, meaningful look. He rolled his eyes.

“Man, how many times are you going to fuck this up?” he asked me. “Didn’t we beat some sense into you last time?”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Apparently not. Talk.”

“I’ll be honest. I need to talk to Sloane. You can be here if she says it’s all right, but I’m not talking directly to you about this.”

“It was arson, wasn’t it?” I demanded. The thought had kept me up through the entire night. It was the only thing that made sense.

“Arson?” We all turned to see Sloane standing at the foot of the back stairs. She was wearing knee socks and an oversize long-­sleeve shirt that I wished I had seen when I was raiding her wardrobe. Her hair was exploding out of a knot on the top of her head. The bruise on her forehead was more vicious-­looking today. She looked so fragile and so beautiful I forgot how to breathe.

“Hey there, Sloaney,” Nash said gently. “How ya feelin’ today?”

“Sore. You said arson,” she repeated.

“That was Mr. Fashionista here,” he said, hooking his thumb at me. “But yeah. Investigators found evidence that someone set the fire in the back of the first floor near the kids’ section.”

Sloane’s face remained impassive as she crossed the kitchen and walked directly to the coffee maker. “Do you guys want coffee? I want coffee.”

Lina, Nash, and I exchanged a look. “Sure, honey. I’ll take some coffee,” Lina said and headed in her direction.

With the women occupied with coffee, I punched Nash in the arm and then shoved him into the dining room. “What. The. Fuck?” I demanded.

“What what the fuck?” he asked, rubbing his bicep.

“She almost died last night. You think you could break the news a little more gently, asshole?”

His eyebrows winged up. “You’re the asshole who said ‘arson,’ not me.”

“Who did this? I want names.”

“We don’t have any suspects at this time,” Nash said snootily.

“Bull fucking shit.”

“I do.”

I turned and found Sloane standing in the doorway holding a mug of coffee. Lina was behind her.

“Who?” I demanded.

She shook her head, making the bun on her head wobble precariously. “Uh-­uh. First, tell me how extensive the damage is and how long it’ll be before we can open again.”

I bared my teeth and Nash elbowed me. “Humor her,” he hissed under his breath.

“Why don’t we talk over those pancakes Lucian was making when we interrupted him?” Lina suggested.

I sucked in an irritable breath. “Fine,” I growled.

“Maybe don’t clench so many ass muscles, Lucy. You might owe Sloane a new pair of pants,” Nash said, slapping me on the back.

She blinked, then her eyes widened behind her glasses as if she noticed what I was wearing for the first time. “Those are my pants.”

“I’m not sure you’re going to want them back. He’s commando underneath,” Lina warned cheerily as we all trooped toward the kitchen.

I snagged Sloane’s hand and pulled her around to face me. She was staring at my crotch, so I nudged her chin up. “How do you feel?”

“Tired. Sore. And very, very mad.”

Mad was good. Mad was better than shattered.

“I’ll find whoever did this and make them pay,” I vowed.

“Not if I find them first,” she said.

She didn’t get it. Not yet. But she would understand soon. I would make sure of it. I reached out and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She looked vulnerable yet so fierce. A pixie ready to do battle.

I leaned down, intending to brush my mouth to hers, but she pulled back. “Why didn’t you go next door to change?” she asked.

“Because I’m not leaving you.”

Not now, not ever again.

She rolled those green eyes at me. “You’re so weird. And don’t think for one second just because we took a bath and you made me pancakes that we’re back on, bucko.”

“Bucko?” I repeated, trying hard not to smile. Sloane Walton was back, and she was ready to kick some ass.

“Oh, no, big guy. You better get that idea out of your thick head real fast. We’re as done as done can be. Last night meant nothing.”

“You’re wrong, Pix. It meant everything. And I’m going to prove it.”

She glared up at me. “Go away.”

“Do you all want us to eat these pancakes by ourselves while you fight, or can we talk like adults?” Nash asked, gesturing with a spatula.

“Let’s talk fast. I have to get to the library. See what can be salvaged and start the conversation with the insurance company,” Sloane said when we were all settled in at the dining room table with plates of pancakes.

The cat perched at the foot of the table, regally cleaning her ass.

“Now, Sloane, it’s an active crime scene. I can’t have you Nancy Drewing your way around. Especially not before we have the okay from the structural engineers,” Nash insisted.

Her jaw tightened.

“You said you know who did it,” I said, drawing her attention. “Let’s start there.”

“It was clearly either the guy who attacked me in the parking lot or the one who gave the orders to have Mary Louise roughed up,” she said, dumping the better part of a bottle of syrup on her stack of pancakes.

My knife and fork clattered onto the plate, startling the cat, who hit the floor like a bowling ball before stampeding out of the room.

“What did you say?”

“Uh-­oh. He’s using his scary voice,” Lina noted.

“It’s none of your business,” Sloane said crisply.

“I’d like to speak with you outside, Morgan,” I said to Nash, ignoring her.

My friend shook his head. “Uh-­uh. You don’t get to punch me in the face until after breakfast.”

“Then talk. Now,” I ordered.

“I was leaving a date, and some guy in a ski mask opened my car door, pinned me to the seat, and told me to leave Mary Louise alone. Does anyone else want more coffee?” Sloane asked.

“What?” I roared. This whole time, I’d assumed I was the one who’d put her in danger. But in reality, it had come from a different direction, and I could have been there to stop it. I should have been there to stop it.

“He’s gonna hulk his way right out of those pants,” Lina warned.

“Please,” Sloane scoffed. “Do us all a favor and drop the overprotective act.”

“You were attacked?” I said, looking at her.

“It was only a little attack,” she said with a shrug. “More of a warning than anything else.”

“And you didn’t tell me?” I said, pointing at Nash.

“Still no face punching until after breakfast,” he reminded me.

“Leave his face alone,” Sloane said. “I asked him not to tell you.”

“Technically, she blackmailed me into it. She said if I told you, she’d stick her nose into the investigation and make herself even more of a target,” Nash said.

“Let’s not forget that it’s none of your business,” Sloane pointed out irritably.

“You are always my business. You always have been, and you always will be. The only difference is now you know it,” I said icily.

Sloane snorted and looked at Lina. “I’m the one who gets a head wound in a burning building, and he ends up with the hallucinations.”

“We’ll discuss this later,” I assured Nash.

“Oh, I have no doubt.”

“Let’s get back to the arson,” Lina suggested with feigned cheer.

“Right. The back door was jimmied open, and the inspector found two gas cans under what used to be the pillow fort in the children’s section. Grave corroborated that the first floor smelled like gasoline when he got inside looking for you. The alarm system, sprinkler system, and phone lines had all been disabled.”

“Did he know she was inside?” I demanded.

Nash leveled me with a look. “We don’t know that yet. But her Jeep was in the parking lot.”

I would find the man responsible, and I would personally destroy him.

“We haven’t identified any persons of interest yet, but it’s early in the investigation,” he continued, cutting another bite from his plate.

The doorbell rang again.

“Stay here,” I ordered when Sloane made a move to stand.

I stalked from the dining room into the living room and yanked the door open. Knox and Naomi stood on the front porch holding a carrier of to-­go cups and a bag of bagels.

“What the fuck are you wearing, man?” Knox asked, staring at my pants.

Naomi elbowed him. “Hi. We thought Sloane might want some breakfast.”

“Might as well join the party,” I said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the dining room.

There were hugs and platitudes and more than one skeptical look thrown in my direction.

“Can we get back to the topic at hand?” I demanded.

Knox smirked. “Now who’s the sweatpants-­wearing whiner?”

“How long is it going to take to rebuild?” Sloane asked.

“Levi from Benderson Builders already stopped by this morning,” Nash explained.

“I talked to him too. Levi thinks he can get the work done in three or four months. He’s willing to start now so you don’t have to wait out the inevitable fucking around of the insurance company,” Knox said.

“You talked to him?” Nash repeated.

Knox shrugged. “Building’s got my fuckin’ name on it. I’m invested.”

“Three or four months?” Sloane looked pale. I reached out and gripped her hand in mine. Those green eyes swung in my direction. “What am I going to do?”

“Baby, we’ll figure something out,” I assured her. “We’ll find a temporary location. We’ll save what can be saved and buy new of everything that was lost.”

“Baby?” Knox muttered.

“That was a lot of wes,” Lina pointed out.

“You’re gonna be hearing a lot of both, so I’d advise you get used to it,” I warned them.

“Don’t mind Lucian. He’s suffered some kind of break with reality,” Sloane said, slathering a bagel with cream cheese.

“That’s it,” I said. I pushed my chair back and stood up. “If you’ll all excuse us for a minute, I need to have a word with Sloane.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she sniffed, cramming a bite of bagel into her mouth.

I dragged her chair backward and tossed her over my shoulder.

“This is not gonna end well,” Knox predicted as I carried the shrieking Sloane out of the room, through the kitchen, and out the back door.

Outside on the porch, we were met with the perfect spring morning. Warm sunshine, chirping birds, and a thousand new blooms brought her backyard to life.

Spring. A new beginning. A fresh start.

Just what we both needed.

“Put me down, you gigantic assface!” Sloane shouted.

I set her on her feet, noting that she’d managed to keep hold of her bagel.

“You need to understand something,” I told her calmly. “I’m not going anywhere, and you are my business because we’re together.”

Her gasp was one of outrage. “You can’t just tell me we’re in a relationship.” Her feistiness was back in full force. I took credit for that.

“I’m merely stating a fact.”

She shook her head vehemently from side to side. “No. You’ve clearly suffered some sort of head wound and are experiencing an alternate reality.”

“Sloane, we’re together. End of story. The sooner you accept that—­”

“You expect me to be all like ‘okey-­dokey!’ when you’ve dumped me twice now?”

“I was trying to protect you. I thought Anthony Hugo connected you to me and was going to hurt you! When you showed up at my office, I was fucking terrified that he’d see you there.”

“And instead of telling me that and coming up with a solution together, you kicked me out of your house, had me escorted from your office, and then proceeded to date an army of the most beautiful and talented women in the DC area?”

“I didn’t want Hugo to be able to connect you to me. If you were just one of many, he’d leave you alone. But it was someone else who wanted to hurt you, and I’m not going to let that happen.”

She was still shaking her head. “I want kids, Lucian. Actual children. I want a big, loud, messy family.”

“Then we’ll have one.” I meant it. Anything Sloane wanted was now my job to procure.

She blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry. Did you say…” She brought a hand to her head and starting prodding the bruise on her forehead. “Maybe I did give myself a concussion. I could have sworn you said—­”

“If you want kids, we’ll start today,” I said, leaning against the porch post.

She was back to shaking her head. “You don’t understand. I want to live here. I want to raise a family here.”

“No, Pixie, you don’t understand. I could have lost you last night. I’m not going to let that happen again. Ever. If you want ten kids, we’ll have them. If you want a six-­story library full of medieval first editions, I’ll buy every book for you. If you want to raise a family here, I’ll move back and feed your asshole cat every morning. If you decide you want to throw it all away and move to a tasteful hut on a tropical beach, I’ll build the fucking hut.”

“You’ve lost your damn mind. We’re incompatible. We have nothing in common. We make each other miserable. We can’t stop insulting each other, you sweatpants-­stealing lunatic,” she added.

“We’ll work on it. I happen to know an excellent therapist.”

“That’s not how any of this works. I’m sorry you freaked out about the fire. But I’m not getting into a relationship with you again. I’ve learned my lesson on multiple occasions now.”

“Sloane, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s no discussion necessary. We are in a committed relationship. You mean something to me, and I’m not letting you go again. Not now, not ever. Everything else is just details.”

“Having a family is not just details. I want a husband and a partner, not someone who’s going to hire a fleet of nannies.”

“I don’t think that’s the correct term. And if you don’t want a fleet of nannies, I’ll hire a small infantry of nannies.”

She threw the bagel at me, and I caught it with one hand.

“Fine. No nannies. You just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it happen.”

“I want you to go away. Immediately and forever.”

“No, you don’t,” I said smugly, remembering the way she’d cuddled closer to me in bed.

Sloane let out an exasperated groan. “This is not happening,” she decided, back to shaking her head. “I’m probably in a hospital bed right now, loopy from smoke inhalation.”

I closed the distance between us and took her wrists. “If you were, I’d be next to you.”

“That sounds like a threat.”

“A threat, a promise, whichever you prefer.” I could feel the racing flutter of her pulse beneath my fingers.

“Why are you smiling? You don’t smile. You glower. You brood. You…fester!” she said.

“I’ve never once festered,” I argued.

“Oh, shut up.”

I took her gently by the shoulders. “Sloane, listen to me. There will be no more hiding. No more pretending we can’t stand each other.”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” she murmured.

“You’re mine and I’m yours. For better or worse.”

She sagged against me for a moment. “Only Lucian Fucking Rollins would think he could order a woman into a committed relationship.”

“I’m just cutting through the bullshit.”

She pushed away from me and started pacing while she resumed her yelling about all the reasons we wouldn’t work. I found it adorable. I had never felt better about a decision in my entire life.


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