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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 41

The Butter Knife Defense


Why am I finding this folded up under a tote of Christmas decorations in the second spare room?” Sloane demanded, bursting into the umbrella-­wallpapered guest room I’d commandeered as my office, waving her ex’s sweatshirt like it was a flag.

I turned away from the command center of screens my IT team had set up for me and gave her my full attention. “Because I was smart enough not to actually throw it out,” I said mildly.

It had been five days of us sharing a house, a bed, like an actual couple, and Sloane was showing no signs of cracking. The only reason she let me sleep in bed with her was because she was so exhausted at the end of each day that she fell asleep midargument.

Those long nights were both the sweetest reward and a newfound torture since she’d made it clear that sex was off the table. But I’d gone most of my life without knowing what her body felt like under mine. I could tough it out until I changed her mind.

Sooner or later, she had to acknowledge that those feelings she’d had for me hadn’t just vanished into thin air.

Unfortunately, that day was not today. She’d thrown a toasted bagel half at my head in the kitchen this morning.

It didn’t matter. I had infinite patience. I would simply wait her out until she accepted the fact that we were together.

“You don’t get to have a problem with me keeping an ex-­boyfriend’s sweatshirt, Lucifer,” Sloane said, stomping into the room. She was barefoot and wearing holey jeans and a tight long-­sleeve T-­shirt the color of raspberries. All that blond hair was piled on her head in a messy knot. She’d gone with the purple-­framed glasses today and a bold red lipstick. Every morning, I couldn’t wait to see what lipstick she chose. The bolder the color, the feistier her attitude.

I fucking loved being this close to her. At the same time, I hated the sliver of distance she managed to wedge between us. I wanted it all. I wanted all of her, and I wasn’t going to back down until she found me worthy enough to have her.

“I don’t like the idea of my girlfriend, the woman I’m going to marry and have a family with, cuddling up in an old boyfriend’s disgusting sweat rag and reminiscing about the good old days.”

“You don’t want to marry anyone, and you’ve made it abundantly clear with a vasectomy that you don’t want kids. So why don’t you save us both a lot of time and get out of my house!”

She ended on a shrill screech that had Meow Meow abandoning the heated cat bed I’d installed in the window.

“And another thing,” Sloane said, pointing at the retreating feline. “Stop making friends with my cat!”

“I take it your meeting with the board didn’t go well,” I guessed.

She’d spent an hour and a half locked in the dining room with the entire library board for an emergency planning session.

Sloane flounced over to the periwinkle wingback chair next to my desk and sat, hugging a throw pillow to her chest. “They actually voted not to open a temporary location and focus on getting the building back in usable shape. Can you believe that?”

“I don’t think you want me to answer that,” I said diplomatically.

“I can’t just sit around doing nothing for three to four months.”

“Fine. Pack a bag.”

“Uh. Excuse me?”

I stood and began loading accessories into a sleek leather bag. “I have business in the District. I’m not leaving you alone here. So you’re coming with me.”

She took a deep breath and prepared to launch another argument. “I can’t just pick up and leave—­”

“Your board voted. They’re not going to let you proceed with anything right now, and I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of staring at the same wallpapered walls. We’ll go to DC. I’ll set you up with a workspace in my office. You come up with the services that are a priority, and then we’ll figure out how to continue offering them in the interim. Then when we come back, you can present the solutions to the board.”

Those green eyes behind the lenses of her glasses blinked once in surprise. “You’d do that for me?”

I crossed to her and put my hands on the arms of the chair. “I’d do anything for you.”

Those green eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Oh, please,” she muttered.

“Especially if it stops you from whining,” I added, dropping a lightning-­quick kiss on the tip of her nose.

The corners of those red lips curved up.

“We’re going out for dinner,” I announced as we entered my condo after a long afternoon. “Can you be ready in an hour?”

Sloane had spent most of the day complaining, first about her workstation being in my office, then about me refusing to let her out of my sight in a city where “probably no one” wanted to murder her. But I’d held firm. Until my investigators or Nash’s found the person responsible, I wasn’t leaving her side.

After an unnecessarily loud coffee catch-­up with Lina, Petula, and Holly in my office while I’d stupidly attempted to take care of actual business, she’d finally settled in and gotten to work creating a priority list of services the library could continue to offer even without a physical location. We’d managed to work surprisingly well together in the shared space. Her energy was infectious, and I found myself tackling my own to-­do list with more enthusiasm than usual.

“It better be some place with a drive-­thru, because I only packed jeans and sweats,” she said, toeing off her sneakers and stripping her shirt off to reveal a sexy lace camisole that was working valiantly to contain her impressive breasts.

“What are you doing?” I demanded as my mouth went dry. The need to touch her was driving me mad.

“This is what actual humans do when they come home from work.”

I picked up the shirt she’d discarded and folded it. “They strip naked in their foyer?”

“They put on comfy clothes,” she instructed, eyeing my suit with what felt like judgment.

“I’m perfectly comfortable as I am. Besides, it would be a waste of time to change now when I’d just have to change back into a suit for dinner.”

She shook her head, which sent her hair dancing over her shoulder. “Sad. Just plain sad.”

I watched her disappear into the kitchen, wondering what was happening to my face. When I realized it was a smile, I shook it off, loosened my tie, and turned my attention to the mail on the foyer table.

Sloane reappeared, looking suspicious. “Why is there root beer and junk food in here?” She was holding a bottle of soda in one hand and an already open bag of potato chips in the other.

“I just told you we’re going to dinner, and you make yourself a snack?”

She crunched into a chip with enthusiasm. “Dinner’s a whole hour away. And what if the restaurant’s busy or we don’t order an appetizer? That’s serious hangry territory. I’m doing you a favor.”

She was insufferably adorable. Fucking beautiful. And excruciatingly untouchable. My nerves were fraying at an alarming rate now that I had her to myself.

The doorbell rang, and I sprang for it.

“Are you expecting someone?” Sloane asked warily.

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

She muttered something that sounded like “It better not be the astrophysicist.”

I was still smiling stupidly when I opened the door.

Grace, my head of security, strolled inside, pulling a dress rack behind her. “These just arrived. For the record, I’m a fan of the red,” she said.

Sloane looked at me and frowned. “I take it there’s no drive-­thru?”

“No drive-­thru. But my mother will be there.”

Her eyes widened. “Interesting. Grace, you have impeccable taste. Got any shoes on this magic rack of fashion?”

“If the food here is too snooty, you’re definitely taking me for a burger afterward,” Sloane said as I towed her through the restaurant. It was one of those fine dining venues with muted neutrals and small, artfully arranged portions of gourmet specialties.

More than a few sets of eyes followed us to our table, though I was certain the attention was equally divided between my scowling visage and Sloane, who looked like a breathtaking, curvy goddess in the red dress.

I didn’t like parading her out in public when there was still a threat at large, but it was the most efficient way to spread the word. Sloane Walton was under my protection.

To ensure her safety, I had a security team on-­site and a second car parked in the alley. I was taking no chances.

I spied my mother already seated at the table, looking cool and lovely in an ivory cocktail dress.

“Mother,” I said when we arrived. I leaned down to kiss the cheek she offered. “You remember Sloane.”

“Hello, Mrs. Rollins,” Sloane said, offering up her best we-­don’t-­have-­to-­acknowledge-­the-­past smile.

For just a second, I caught a flicker of something on my mother’s face. Dismay? Shame? Embarrassment? But it disappeared just as quickly.

“How lovely to see you again,” she said, offering Sloane a careful smile.

I didn’t get the feeling she meant it. I couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t often she was invited to dinner with the woman who’d personally witnessed her violent attack and landed her husband in jail.

“Please, call me Kayla,” Mom said, recovering her social graces.

I pulled Sloane’s chair out for her and scanned the restaurant as she sat. It was the usual crowd of new and old money, each trying to subtly outdo the other. I suddenly wished we had gone for fast food.

“Sloane and I are seeing each other,” I said, taking my seat.

Mom’s eyes widened. Sloane choked on her water. Loudly.

“It’s serious,” I continued matter-­of-­factly as I patted Sloane on the back.

“Actually—­” Sloane began, but my less-­than-­gentle grip on her shoulder gave her second thoughts.

“How wonderful,” Mom said, quickly recovering. “Lucian’s never brought a girlfriend to meet me before. And it seems I have a surprise of my own.” She nodded toward a man headed in our direction.

He moved like a shark in a too-­shiny suit. There was a predatory gleam in his eyes as he sized up each table he passed. He carried extra weight around the middle, and his gray hair was distinguished but thinning. A pinkie ring adorned his left hand. I didn’t have to see it up close to know tasteful diamonds spelled out the initials AH.

Anthony Hugo sat down next to my mother with a look of triumph.

“We finally meet in person,” he said to me as he took my mother’s hand with a sense of ownership.

My hands balled into fists under the table.

“Lucian, this is my date, Anthony,” Mom announced breathily.

“Oh, shit,” Sloane murmured. She snatched up her butter knife.

My hand clamped down on her thigh.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Mr. Hugo,” I said.

Anthony Hugo, crime boss and bad dresser, was sitting across from me with his arm around my mother.

“Not as much as I’ve heard about you,” he said, showing too many teeth.

“Anthony and I met at a charity auction recently,” Mom said, blushing like a boy-­crazy teenager. “He asked for my number, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind ever since.”

“And who might this lady in red be?” Anthony asked, turning that mean, toothy smile on Sloane.

It was Sloane’s turn to clamp her hand on my leg, and it was the only thing that kept me from vaulting out of my chair and murdering Anthony Hugo with a lobster tail in the middle of a crowded restaurant.

“None of your business,” Lucian said.

My mother giggled awkwardly. “That’s Sloane. My son’s date. It seems they’re childhood sweethearts.”

“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure yet,” Anthony said, letting his gaze linger on Sloane’s chest.

“And you never will,” she said sunnily.

My mother gave a dismayed gasp. “Lucian, your date is being horrendously rude.”

“And your date is a homicidal, drug-­dealing criminal,” I shot back.

“Come now,” Anthony said. His tone was friendly, but he had the eyes of a sociopath. “We can all still be friends. We’re practically family. I think you know my son, don’t you, Lucian?”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Mom said.

“Why don’t you and I go to the ladies’ room?” Sloane suggested, reaching for my mother.

I tightened my grip on Sloane to hold her in place. There was no way the biggest crime boss in the Washington/Baltimore areas came here alone.

“Nobody is making a fucking move,” Anthony said, dropping all vestiges of social niceties. “Not until Rollins and I have had a little talk.”

“Can I interest anyone in an appetizer?” The unlucky server chose the wrong break in conversation to return.

“I’ll tell you what. Don’t fuckin’ come back here unless you want to be pickin’ your fuckin’ teeth off the carpet,” Anthony snarled.

Mom gasped and cowered under his grip, a reaction so painfully familiar to both of us.

“There’s no need for violence,” I said, doing my best to sound bored despite the fact that Sloane and I had each other in a stranglehold beneath the table.

“Oh, but I think there is. You and your fuck buddy feds have had your fun. It’s time to put it to rest, or I’ll put everyone you care about in the ground. Starting with these two lovely ladies.”

“Fuck. You,” Sloane said, wielding the butter knife at him.

My mother’s lower lip began to tremble, and she looked as if she were trying to melt into the back of her chair.

Anthony smirked. “Little girl’s got a big mouth to go with those tits. Heard about the arson. Thought that woulda taught her to mind her own fucking business.”

I was halfway out of my chair, but Sloane was faster. She leapt to her feet and wielded the useless knife at him, drawing audible gasps from the tables nearby.

“I’m a librarian, asshole,” she said. “Everything is my fucking business. Because of you and your dysfunctional relationship with your son, I almost lost friends. So if you think for one second that I’m going to let you sit there and threaten us, then you’re an even bigger idiot than your son.”

“Thank you for your input, Sloane,” I said, removing the knife from her hand and setting it on the tablecloth. “You’ve been warned by my woman. Now you’ll listen to me. Take your hands off my mother, and get the fuck out of here. If I ever see you anywhere near me or anyone I care about, I’ll drop you where you stand.”

Anthony stood and smoothed a hand over his jacket. “You might have cash and class, but I got something you never will.”

“Questionable fashion sense?” Sloane guessed.

“Killer instinct. I know when someone’s outlived their purpose, and I ain’t never once been afraid to end their journey. You have forty-­eight hours to give me everything the feds have on me along with a few million in reparations, or I’m gonna start ending journeys,” he said menacingly.

My mother was crying silently. Sloane was vibrating with rage next to me.

“You have that same forty-­eight hours to get your affairs in order, because by the time I’m done with you, there will be no journey left to end. I will dismantle your business, your life, your family, your fucking face. And I’m going to enjoy doing it,” I said.

My mother reached for her water glass with shaking hands. Sloane, however, was looking at me like I’d just rescued a litter of puppies from a flood, shirtless.

“Dunno. From where I sit, you’re the one at this table with the most to lose,” he said with an insipid smirk.

“When you have everything to lose, you’ll do anything to keep it,” I said darkly.

Anthony snorted, then slapped the table like it was a bongo drum. “Forty-­eight hours. Can’t fuckin’ wait.” He turned to my mother. “I’ll be seein’ you soon, doll.” Then his gaze centered on Sloane. “But I think I’ll be seein’ you first.”

“Gee, that’ll be tough after I claw your eyes out,” she said with a feral smile.

Anthony pointed his fingers at me like a gun and mimed pulling the trigger.

Sloane lunged, knocking over a water glass and sending several sets of utensils to the floor.

I hauled her back into my side. “Easy, Pix.”

Together we watched Anthony Hugo slither his way out of the restaurant. With the snap of a finger, four men in suits followed him out.

Sloane breathed a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, my mother was slumped in her chair, one hand covering her face. Everyone in the entire restaurant was staring.

“I didn’t know we were getting dinner and a show.” The amused comment came from none other than Maureen Fitzgerald, who looked both angelic and sinful in a glittery cocktail dress the color of champagne.

“Wow. Killer dress,” Sloane said.

“Now is not the time, Maureen,” I told her.

“Oh my God. You’re Maureen Fitzgerald?” Sloane whispered.

“The one and only,” she said, winking at Sloane. “After witnessing Anthony’s little hissy fit, I thought I’d stop by your table and offer my services.”

“What services might those be?” I asked, holding Sloane by the wrist and texting my security team with the other hand.

“I might have some information that can help you with your problem.” She nodded toward the door Anthony had exited.

“Not here,” I said.

“Of course not. Tonight. Your place.”

“Be careful,” I cautioned.

“I’m a woman. I’m always careful.” Her gaze skipped my mother and landed on Sloane. Her smile warmed. “It looks as though Lucian’s tastes have significantly improved.”

“Your skin is flawless,” Sloane whispered.

I rolled my eyes. But Maureen patted one cheek with feminine pride. “Thank you. She’s a keeper, Lucian. Try not to ruin it.”

I grunted and nodded at Grace when she entered the restaurant. “Let’s go.”

Grace led us through the kitchen to a service elevator in the back. The staff didn’t even blink as we made our way past prep stations and fiery grills.

My mother sagged against the elevator wall when the doors closed.

“I don’t understand what happened,” she said, bringing her hands to her cheeks. “All I know is I was humiliated.”

“I apologize for embarrassing you by preventing you from being the pawn of a madman. Anthony Hugo is a criminal who would have no qualms about making you disappear just to get to me.”

“It’s always about you. Every man who shows any interest in me is just trying to get something out of you,” Mom whispered bitterly.

“That man is a thug. He’s had people killed for far less than what I’m doing. And you think that’s all right because he treats you like some kind of trophy?”

“Your father wanted to hide me away. He never wanted anyone to acknowledge that I existed.”

“This isn’t about the past. This is about your safety right now.”

She fluttered her delicate, birdlike hands in front of her face. “I can’t discuss this with you right now.”

“We’ll discuss this now. Do not answer his calls. Do not go anywhere with him. If you see him anywhere, leave immediately. Grace, I need you to—­”

“Beef up the security detail on your mom. Got it,” she said grimly.

“And now you’re telling me where to be and who to see. Controlling everything. What I do, where I go, what I spend. You’re just like him,” Mom whimpered.

“Right now, I don’t give a fuck, Mother.” I saw the flash of pain and the blur of movement. The crack of her hand against my face rang out.

Grace made a move, but Sloane got there first and shoved her way between us. “Excuse me, Kayla!” Fury was a fire that lit her up from the inside. She put her finger in my mother’s pale, dignified face. “You do not ever, ever lay a hand on him like that again. After everything that you two have been through, you hit your son for protecting you from a certifiable sociopath? That’s insane.”

“That’s enough, Sloane,” I said, resting a hand on her shoulder.

She was vibrating against me.

“It’s not nearly enough. You have the worst taste in men. Anthony Hugo is a walking red flag, and you invited him to dinner. Oh, and if you want to spend your money on whatever you want, then get a fucking job, lady. You only get to be a victim for so long before you have to evolve into a survivor,” Sloane continued.

“You don’t understand what it’s like,” Mom said with a tearful whisper.

“I wanted to be nice to you, to have empathy for poor, victimized Kayla. But that was two decades ago. You’ve had twenty-­plus years to grow up. Yet here you are, all those years later, still perfectly comfortable playing the victim. Still accepting your son’s checks because you’re too fragile to stand on your own two feet. He doesn’t owe you, lady. You owe him. For every time he stepped between you and the man you chose over him. For every time you made him responsible for your choices. I’m trying not to blame you for that, but you’re making it really fucking hard.”

Sloane was shouting now. My head of security was nodding in agreement.

“You are not to have any contact with Lucian until you can apologize for every shitty thing you’ve done to him,” Sloane announced.

The elevator doors opened into a parking garage. Both my cars were waiting, engines running, and half a dozen of my security team were stationed outside.

My mother gasped and hurried out of the elevator.

“Enough,” I said quietly.

But Sloane wasn’t finished. “And another thing. Go to therapy!” she called after her.

I grabbed Sloane around the waist. “Take my mother home,” I ordered Grace, nodding at the first SUV.

I half carried Sloane to the second one and deposited her in the back seat before sliding in next to her. The door slammed shut, casting us into darkness.

“Hey! You promised me din—­”

I cut off her accusation by crushing my mouth to hers.


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