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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 4


Ambushes and Angels

Lucian

It’s showtime,” Nash said, stifling a yawn as another gun battle raged on screen.

My gaze flicked to the laptop on the ottoman. Sloane’s front door was open, and five bundled-­up adults appeared to be tiptoeing down the porch steps.

The smallest of the shadowy figures drew my attention. Just as she always did.

“My wife insists they’re getting ready for bed,” Knox said, holding up his phone.

“Your wife and my fiancée are beautiful liars,” Nash said, getting up to stretch.

The dogs perked up on the couch, sensing the activity around them.

“It’s eleven o’clock at night during a snowstorm. How much trouble could they get into?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t put it past them to hack into a nuclear reactor,” Knox muttered, heading for the foyer.

Nash followed. “Never a dull moment,” he said fondly.

I watched them stagger and stomp their way toward my place. I sighed and rubbed my hands over my thighs. Waylon peered at me from under one long, floppy ear, begging me with sad brown eyes to stay on the couch so he wouldn’t be forced to go outside.

“Sorry, Waylon,” I told the dog and headed after the Morgans.

“You joining us in the lady wrangling?” Nash asked as he pulled on his boots.

“You’re outnumbered,” I pointed out. “My gear is in the mudroom. I’ll meet you out there.”

“Hang on,” Knox said. He was peering through the sidelight window. “They’re behind my truck. I can’t tell what they’re doing.”

“Smells like an ambush to me,” Nash said, shrugging into his coat.

There was a grumble, a thump, and then a smaller thump from the living room. Both dogs appeared. Waylon looked pissed off about his interrupted nap. Piper looked thrilled to be included in the manly conference.

“An ambush?” I repeated.

“I may have hidden on the porch roof during the last snowstorm, rolled an arsenal of snowballs, and then destroyed Naomi and Way when they came home from the mall,” Knox said.

Love turned men into idiots.

Knox’s phone lit up in his hand. He rolled his eyes and turned the screen to us.

Naomi: We just saw a bear outside! It ran toward Lucian’s house! Do you see it?

“Definitely an ambush,” Nash said, yanking his Knockemout PD knit hat over his head.

“Can’t believe Jer is out there with them. He’s supposed to be my friend.” Knox heaved a heroic sigh. “Guess I should probably face the firing squad alone.”

“I can’t stand by and watch that happen,” Nash insisted, slapping his brother on the shoulder. “I don’t wanna spend the next week listening to you bitch about your stupid frostbitten face.”

I, on the other hand, had no problem watching Knox be force-­fed snow by three vengeful women…and Stef and Jeremiah. But I was at least going to do it with a front row seat.

“We can use the door on the side of the garage,” I offered.

Knox brightened. “We’ll flank ’em. That’ll teach ’em!”

We trooped into the mudroom with the dogs on our heels, and I armored up.

In the garage, Knox glanced down at my gloves and snorted. “I can’t believe you’re going into a snowball fight with fucking designer driving gloves.”

I peeled one off and slapped him across the face with it. The sting was most likely absorbed entirely by his thick beard. “Don’t make me challenge you to a duel. I have a better arm than you do,” I warned him.

“As much as I enjoy watching anyone slap my brother in the face, if we don’t get out there soon, they’re just going to try to steal your truck and do doughnuts in the street,” Nash said, gesturing toward the door.

“Right. Here’s the plan,” Knox said. “We head out, take a minute to build an arsenal, then we attack.”

“Sounds good to me,” Nash agreed, a little too amicably.

I was immediately suspicious. The Morgan brothers’ love and loyalty ran deep, but they still behaved like prepubescent pains in the ass on a sugar high when left to their own devices.

Knox gestured for us to be quiet and opened the side door. When he peered outside, Nash turned to me and made a slashing motion across his throat. Then he mimed making a snowball and hitting his brother in the head with it.

I gave him the double thumbs-­up.

“Do you see anything?” Nash whispered to Knox.

“It’s dark and it’s fucking snowing. All I see is a bunch of white shit,” Knox snarled back.

“Look harder,” Nash advised before reaching into his pocket, whipping out his phone, and texting someone. Presumably his fiancée. Smirking, he pocketed it again. “Let’s move,” he said.

“I’m on point,” Knox insisted.

“Then get your ass out the door so we can at least start packing snow, dumbass,” his brother said, pushing him out the door.

I followed them into the white night. Six inches of snow blanketed the ground, but it didn’t quite muffle the giggles that were coming from the front of the house.

Waylon and Piper trotted outside. The basset hound put his nose to the ground and immediately snowplowed a path to the fence that divided my property from Sloane’s. He lifted his leg, nearly peeing on the curious Piper, as she followed.

Knox knelt in the snow and began frantically forming snowballs. “Just make as many as you can carry,” he hissed at us.

Nash followed suit.

I, however, went to war, thinking bigger than a pathetic handful of snowballs. I stepped back into the garage and grabbed a yellow plastic bucket off the shelf. Outside, I dragged it across the ground, filling it in one sweep.

“Waylon, c’mere,” Knox ordered.

The dog had a full muzzle of snow and a crazy look in his eyes.

Knox held the hound’s jowls between his hands. “Go get Mommy.”

Waylon sneezed, and we heard the giggles abruptly cut off. “Bless you,” came Jeremiah’s deep baritone in a stage whisper.

“I didn’t sneeze,” Naomi responded. “But thank you anyway.”

“Guys, shut up or they’re going to hear us,” Lina hissed even louder.

“Go, Waylon,” Knox whispered, pushing his dog toward the front of the house. “Find Mommy.”

Nash looked down at Piper, who was standing on the toes of his boots, looking like she was hoping to get scooped up and saved from the indignity of snow. “You heard your uncle. Go find Mommy.”

The two dogs tore through the snow and cut around the front of the house, barking ecstatically.

“Let’s go,” Knox said grimly.

“We’ll see you on the other side,” I promised.

Knox rounded the corner of the house and earned a full-­frontal pelting of snowballs before he could throw his first round.

There was a torrent of hysterical laughter as Nash eagerly unloaded his arsenal on Knox’s back, paying special attention to his head and ass.

I strolled up to Knox, held the bucket over his head, and dumped it.

Naomi was staged in the bed of Knox’s truck, several dozen snowballs piled at her feet. Jeremiah was documenting the moment on his phone while Stef stood next to him holding the largest margarita I’d ever seen in the other. Sloane and Lina were lying tangled in the snow laughing, both dogs frantically licking their faces.

There was something earthy, elemental about Sloane’s husky laugh. She didn’t laugh like that around me. Not anymore.

Naomi let out a peal of laughter. “You look like the abominable snowman,” she called to her husband. It was a fair assessment. Knox’s beard was completely coated in snow.

Knox unfroze, raised his arms, and growled.

His wife shrieked and tried to make a break for it, but Knox vaulted into the back of the truck and wrapped her in a snowy embrace. He rubbed his face against her bare neck, making her scream louder.

“That’s definitely a framer,” Jeremiah claimed as he snapped away.

Nash tugged the still laughing Lina to her feet. “You smell like tequila and bad decisions,” he said.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a noisy kiss on the mouth. “And you smell like we should have sex.”

Sloane, on the ground, mimed a fit of vomiting.

I tossed the bucket aside and held out a hand to her.

She eyed it for a beat too long, so I reached down and hauled her to her feet.

Her mitten-­clad hands gripped my forearms as she regained her balance. She was still laughing. Her lovely face was the picture of joy. Up close, I zeroed in on the darker smudge of forest green around the iris of her left eye.

“Not down my shirt,” Naomi screeched from the back of the truck.

“These shenanigans better not ruin my boots,” Stef complained, looking at his feet.

Sloane was grinning, her emerald-­green eyes clear and bright.

“You’re not drunk,” I observed.

“None of us are. It’s the snow. It turns us into fourth graders. Case in point,” she said and waved both magenta mittens at me. “When’s the last time you did something as undignified as playing in the snow?”

“You can take the man out of Knockemout, but you can’t take Knockemout out of the man,” I quipped.

She frowned. “Wait. I forgot. I’m mad at you again.”

“With us, I think that’s always safe to assume,” I said dryly.

She bent at the waist and picked up the scruffy Piper, who was going to need a new sweater since this one was covered in clumps of snow. “I’m extra mad because you ratted me out to Naomi when all I wanted was a quiet evening at home by myself.”

“As you can see, I too am suffering the consequences of my actions,” I said, gesturing in the direction of Knox and Nash.

Sloane buried her face in Piper’s wet, wiry fur. “For some ridiculous reason, Naomi felt the tattler shouldn’t be alone tonight either. My suffering is almost worth knowing that you have to entertain your pals instead of figuring out how to drive up the cost of blood pressure medicines or whatever it is you do to entertain yourself.”

“I entertain myself by binge-­watching Ted Lasso and cheering for Rupert the villain.”

Sloane tried and failed to smother her laugh. “Damn it.”

It was a headier thrill than anything I could recall in recent history. That was pathetic.

“Hold up. Are those two actually smiling at each other?” Lina demanded.

“My God. It’s a snowstorm miracle,” Stef said, making the sign of the cross as Jeremiah slung an arm around his waist.

“I better call into the station and see if some kind of asteroid is about to hit us,” Nash joked.

“I don’t like this,” Knox said, giving me the evil, snowy eye.

“I love it,” Naomi insisted, hooking her arm through his.

“Har har. You guys are hilarious,” Sloane said, taking a deliberate step back. She turned her back on me and took that warm feeling with her.


Knox and Nash insisted on spending the night after the girls had commandeered the dogs and taken them next door for the night.

It was midnight. Knox was passed out on the twin bed in the bedroom staged for a boy while Nash slept on the pullout couch in my office.

Anyone would have thought from the long, impassioned goodbyes they shared with Naomi and Lina that they were going off to war.

What was it about love that turned men into simpering idiots?

I considered myself lucky that it was at least one thing I didn’t have to worry about.

I turned my attention back to the financial records in front of me. The digital fundraising platform would make an interesting addition to my “evil corporate empire.” I saved my notes to the cloud and fired off an email to my assistant to add a meeting with the platform partners to my calendar.

I took off my glasses and rubbed my bleary eyes with both hands.

I wanted to go to bed. To fall, exhausted, into a dreamless sleep. But I couldn’t. Not yet. Not with Sloane’s bedroom lights still on, glowing warm and gold like a beacon as the snow continued to fall.

It was a habit worse than smoking in my opinion, not going to bed until Sloane’s lights went dark. It was a compulsion that did me no favors, considering the woman was a bookworm who read past midnight most nights. I glanced down at my copy of The Midnight Library near my elbow and wondered if that was something else I’d give up once I finally sold this place.

I was pathetic, secretly sharing a bedtime as if timing my lights-­out with hers somehow ensured that she was safe. The sooner I sold this house and cut ties, the sooner we’d both be free.

The floodlight in Sloane’s backyard lit up the winter wonderland, and I was on full alert as I leaned forward to peer out the window.

There she was.

She’d changed into yet another pair of pajamas and topped them with a dark, bulky coat and bright red snow boots. I watched as she trudged purposefully out into the yard, willing her to stop before she was lost to me behind the hemlock and clump of arborvitaes.

I rose from my chair and held my breath. She paused, still in view, and I relaxed.

Sloane tilted her head to the sky and spread her arms wide. Then she pitched backward, falling flat on her back. My muscles coiled reflexively, ready to run downstairs and out the door until I realized she was moving. Her arms and legs were working in a sweeping motion. In and out. In and out.

I watched mesmerized as Sloane Walton made a snow angel.

I pressed my palm to the cool glass.

Take care of my girls. I heard Simon’s words as clearly as if he’d spoken them aloud.

It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know the effect his daughter had on me. How dangerous she was to me. How fatal I could be to her.

She was sitting up now, head tipped back. I wondered if she was thinking of Simon too. If that was yet another tie that unfairly bound us together. In a moment of weakness, I brought my hand to the window and traced her figure with my fingers on the glass.

I saw it before she did, the distant orange streak of light in the sky. A shooting star.

Sloane brought a hand to her face, then sat there in stillness.

She moved suddenly, done with her own stillness. I watched captivated as she carefully worked her way to her feet before jumping clear of her snowy creation.

Hands on hips, she stared down at it and nodded. Then she looked up. Not at the sky, this time, but directly at me.

My desk light was off. There was no way she could see me in the window, I told myself as I pulled my hand away from the glass. Still, I stood in the shadows and watched her stare up at my window.

After an agonizing minute, she looked away and slowly made her way back to the house.

It wasn’t until she’d disappeared from view and the lights in her bedroom finally went out that I realized something.

She’d been wearing my coat.


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