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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 40


A Face Full of Chardonnay

Sloane

Thank you for your time,” I said and disconnected the call with the sandpaper-­voiced insurance adjuster lady. “Which is absolutely worthless, you paper-­pushing pain in my ass. As if I’d burn down my own library.”

Naomi grinned at me from behind my dad’s desk. We were in the study, which had become library command central. It had been two days since the fire, and I was deep in the weeds of bureaucratic red tape.

“Apparently the insurance company isn’t comfortable paying out until they can be sure I wasn’t the one who started the fire,” I complained loud enough to be heard over the squealing drills outside.

Naomi flashed me a pitying look while efficiently finishing an email on her laptop. “I happen to have an in with the chief of police. I’m sure we can get Nash to convince the insurance company you had nothing to do with the fire,” she said.

I hopped up from the chair and marched to the window overlooking the front porch. Besides the team of security experts on ladders, it looked like a going out of business sale at a bookstore. The fire department had gone through the building and brought every book that looked rescuable to the only place I could think of: my house.

Now I had a few thousand books airing out in the spring breeze on the wraparound porch.

Thanks to backup servers, our collection of ebooks and audiobooks was still available for patrons to download. But as a community library, we were so much more than just the books we provided.

People depended on us. We were part of daily life in Knockemout. I wasn’t about to let a little arson change that.

The drilling started again, and I glared at the team installing the James Bond–­level security system outside. My six-­foot-­four shadow, Lucian, had deemed my Wi-­Fi cameras “inadequate” and stubbornly insisted on upgrading the technology. I still wasn’t sure how I’d lost that argument. I also wasn’t sure how the man was still here. Or how he’d gotten a closet organizer named Miguel past me.

Jamal poked his head in the doorway, waving his phone. “Good news. The GoFundMe to replace the children’s books just hit $30,000.”

“Seriously?” I asked, momentarily forgetting my frustration. That was good news.

“In more good news, the synagogue and Unitarian church volunteered to join forces and cover all the June free breakfasts for the kids. They’re willing to cover July as well if we’re not open by then,” Naomi said chipperly.

“I love this town,” Jamal sang as he headed back to his workstation in my dining room.

The thump and scrape of chairs came from above.

“Are they still up there?” Naomi asked.

“Yes,” I said grimly. “They” were Lucian and several of his employees. The man hadn’t left my side since he’d climbed through my bedroom window the night of the fire. He also hadn’t dropped the charade of being committed to a relationship with me. My patience was wearing thin.

The doorbell rang, and I ignored Lucian’s distant “I’ll get it.”

I opened my front door to find Lucian’s driver holding several dry-­cleaning bags in each hand. “Morning, Ms. Sloane. Where can I put these?” Hank asked.

“If you were your employer, I’d be happy to tell you where you can put them, Hank. But I’m not mad at you.”

“You can put them upstairs in the last bedroom to the right,” Lucian said, appearing behind me. I turned to glare at him. He looked the way he always did, unfairly gorgeous. He was keeping things casual around here, sticking to tailored trousers and well-­fitting button-­downs rather than an entire suit. Meanwhile I was still wearing my cat pajamas.

“I don’t have room for you in my bedroom,” I insisted, crossing my arms as Hank marched across the threshold.

“That’s why I hired Miguel. Ah, here come the groceries,” Lucian observed as yet another vehicle pulled into my driveway.

“Groceries?”

“I invited your family to dinner tonight. We’re cooking.”

“Have you lost your damn mind?” I demanded.

“On the contrary, I finally came to my senses,” he said before kissing me on the top of the head.

“Maybe I’m losing mine,” I muttered to myself as he met the grocery delivery guy on the walkway.

“Or maybe he’s just showing you how he really feels for the first time,” Naomi said, joining me in the doorway. “By the way, he invited Knox and Waylay and me for dinner next week.”


“I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I am not lying to my family and telling them we’re in a relationship,” I said as I violently massaged the kale. We were in the kitchen working around Meow Meow, who decided the island was the perfect place to sprawl out for a nap. Candles were lit, music was playing, and whatever we were making smelled good enough to make my stomach growl.

Lucian drowned out the rest of my concerns by turning on the blender and smoldering at me until I closed my mouth.

“I’m not playing any games, Pix,” he said, abandoning the blender to open a bottle of wine.

Still grumbling, I handed him two glasses. “You can’t just pretend your way into a relationship.”

“You’re the one who’s pretending,” he said, setting a glass of wine in front of the bowl of kale. “By the way, the instructions say massage, not murder.”

“I’m pretending it’s your face.”

“You’ll get used to the idea sooner or later,” he said confidently.

I abandoned the kale. “That’s it. Give me your cigarette. I know you didn’t smoke yet today, so hand it over.”

He looked up from the shredded chicken he was plating. “I quit.”

“You quit?” I repeated.

“You don’t date smokers,” he reminded me.

“You quit your one and only dirty habit for me?”

He slid the plate of chicken across the island next to the lump of cat. She raised her head and sniffed skeptically.

“Why should you find that so hard to believe?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Stop trying to bribe my cat into liking you. She’s not going to fall for your pandering. And stop trying to convince me you’ve had some change of heart. Just days ago, you were dating anything that moved.”

The cat flopped back down, pretending like she had no interest in the juicy chicken.

“They were decoys,” he said.

“Decoys?” I parroted.

“If Anthony Hugo wanted to come after something that mattered to me, I wasn’t going to take any chances that that something would be you.”

I snorted even though I was secretly pleased with his answer. “You could have put them in danger.”

“Not if I only saw them once. If it was clear there was no attachment.”

Lucian Rollins was in my kitchen, cooking dinner for my family and willingly answering questions. This was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up no matter how pissed I was at him.

“So why did you end things with me then?” I asked, taking what I hoped was a casual sip of wine.

He looked away.

“Aha! See?” I slapped the counter triumphantly. “I can’t be in a relationship with someone who refuses to be honest with me.”

Lucian rounded the corner and boxed me in. “You are in a relationship with me whether you like it or not. And if you want my honesty, it’s going to require some patience on your part.”

“What are you talking about?” I said as he leaned into me. My hands automatically went to his chest. Everything about him felt so solid, so good, so right. Except I knew better than to trust that feeling.

“You’re asking questions that involve answers I’ve never put into words before. I don’t know how to explain to you why I am the way I am or why I’m trying to change that now. Yet. But I will find a way.”

“Do you maybe have a timeline on that?” His mouth was hovering just above mine. I hadn’t kissed him in so long. My entire body wanted to be reminded of what his lips felt like against mine. My entire body except for my brain, which was sending me SOS signals.

“I’ll let you know after my next therapy appointment,” he said huskily.

“I can’t tell if you’re joking,” I whispered.

The doorbell rang, jolting me out of my stupor. Lucian grinned down at me and kissed the tip of my nose. “I’ll get it.”

I sagged against the counter and watched him leave. Meow Meow did the same. The second he disappeared from the room, she hefted her fluffy bulk onto her feet and gobbled up the bribery chicken like it was laced with catnip.

“Traitor.”


“Thank you again for joining us,” Lucian said, topping off my mother’s glass of wine.

I’d cleared off the dining room table and massaged some kale, but Lucian Freaking Rollins had arranged blossoms off my cherry tree, cued up music, lit candles, and made an epically delicious meal for my family.

Mom looked like she was happy enough to shoot rainbows out of her eyes and her butt. Maeve looked properly suspicious. Meanwhile, Chloe sipped her chocolate milk and stared at Lucian like she was trying to figure out how to weasel a new wardrobe out of the man.

“It’s our pleasure. And I have to say it’s really nice to see the two of you together,” Mom said sunnily from the opposite side of the table. I didn’t know if it was a conscious or subconscious decision, but we’d left Dad’s place at the head of the table empty.

“We’re not together. He just won’t take the hint and get out of my house,” I said.

“And it does a mother’s heart good to know that you’re keeping my daughter safe,” Mom continued, ignoring me.

“With Sloane being an obvious target, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to show whoever’s watching that she’s protected.” Lucian’s eyes slid to me. “By me,” he added firmly.

Maeve kicked me under the table.

“Ouch!” I reached down and rubbed my shin.

“Is everything all right?” Lucian asked.

My sister looked at me pointedly.

“Yeah. Fine. The cat just stabbed me in the leg,” I lied.

Meow Meow chose that moment to wander into the dining room from the kitchen.

“So, Mr. Lucian, you look like you have good taste. Where do you think a tween could get some reasonably priced cashmere?” Chloe asked.

“Maeve, can you help me get more…uh…kale in the kitchen?” I said.

My sister vaulted out of her chair and grabbed her wineglass. I took the cue and my wineglass and followed her into the kitchen.

“So you two are just playing house now?” Maeve said, whirling around to face me.

With a sharp shush, I dragged her through the kitchen and into the family room. “I’m not playing anything. He won’t leave!”

“Yeah, okay,” she scoffed.

“Have you ever tried to make Lucian Rollins do something he didn’t want to do?”

“No, but I know you’re probably the only person on the planet who could,” she shot back.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you two have been something to each other since the beginning of time. And if you really wanted him gone, he’d be gone. So maybe you’re thinking he deserves a second chance.”

“He already had one of those,” I reminded her.

“Fine. A last chance.”

I cocked my head. “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”

“What? I’m not saying I think you should give him another chance. I’m just suggesting that the two of you bonded over a traumatic incident and now appear to be living together.”

I held up my palms in defense. “Listen, I’m too busy to even consider getting into a relationship with him. Hell, I’m too busy to kick him out properly.”

“Believe me, I get it. But maybe at a certain point, you start wondering if being busy is keeping you from having a real life,” Maeve said.

“Okay, now I’m actually worried about you,” I decided. After the attacker cornered me in my Jeep and Mary Louise told me to stop pursuing an appeal, my intentions to confront my sister about her secret relationship and ensuing breakup with Kurt Michaels had fallen to the back burner.

Once again, I’d let circumstances distract me from what was a top priority: family.

“Lucian told me he’d have a family with me.” I timed the announcement poorly and ended up with a face full of chardonnay.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” Maeve said, gasping and choking.

She handed me a box of tissues from the end table, and I mopped up the spit wine. “I basically had the same reaction, only slightly less damp,” I assured her.

Chloe’s high-­pitched giggles carried to us from the dining room along with the low baritone roll of Lucian’s laughter.

Maeve took another hit of wine. “Shit. Well, hold on to something, because I’m going to give you some very not me-­like advice.”

Theatrically, I gripped a floor lamp.

“At least hear him out,” she instructed. “If a guy is offering you everything you’ve dreamed of, maybe you owe it to yourself to find out if he’s serious.”

“You really miss him, don’t you?” I asked.

“Who?”

“The guy you were secretly seeing but broke up with because you were too busy to let yourself fall in love.”

“Little sisters are so annoying,” Maeve complained. Another round of laughter echoed out of the dining room. “Mom and Chloe sure seem to like him.”

“Yeah, well, they haven’t been subjected to his whims yet. Tonight he’s charming Lucian. Tomorrow he could morph into sulky, solitary Lucian again.”

The doorbell cut off any further conversation.

“I’ll get it,” I yelled even as I heard the scrape of a chair from the dining room.

Lucian and I got to the front door at the same time. “I told you I don’t want you answering the door,” he growled.

“And I told you that I’m the one who lives here,” I shot back.

We wrestled for the handle and managed to open the door, revealing a determined-­looking Kurt Michaels holding a huge bouquet of lilies.

“Uh-­oh,” I said.

“Sloane is busy. With me. And for future reference, she’s allergic to lilies,” Lucian said.

“He’s not here for me, Lucifer,” I said, stopping him from slamming the door in Kurt’s face.

“I’m going big,” Kurt said, nodding at me.

“Good luck,” I whispered. “She’s in the dining room.”

He squared his shoulders and walked past us into the house.

“What the hell is going on?” Lucian demanded.

I sneezed twice. “He’s in love with my sister.”

“Then why in the hell was he dating you?”

I shrugged and sniffled as I closed the front door. “Love makes people do stupid things.” I sneezed again, then blew my nose in the chardonnay tissues.

“You’re damn right it does,” he muttered.

“Shh!” I hissed.

“Mr. Michaels, what are you doing here? Is it because I got four talking warnings during the math test today? I told you I like to verbalize the numbers,” Chloe said.

“Mom, please excuse me. I need to deal with something,” Maeve announced. Seconds later, she appeared in the hallway, dragging Kurt and the flowers.

I opened the front door and grinned. “Why don’t you two talk on the porch? And remember, hear him out. If a guy is offering you everything you’ve dreamed of, maybe you owe it to yourself to find out if he’s serious.”

“Bite me, Sloane,” my sister snarled.


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