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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 46


Books Save Lives

Sloane

Stop jiggling your leg,” Jeremiah ordered Lina, who looked as if she were about to bolt from his salon chair.

It was the perfect spring afternoon, and we were at Whiskey Clipper, Knockemout’s hip barber shop/salon, getting glammed for Lina and Nash’s wedding rehearsal that evening. The cool barber shop/salon was hopping on a Friday afternoon. Knox’s basset hound, Waylon, flattened himself on the floor with a chew bone while Knox was giving Vernon Quigg’s lustrous mustache a trim. Naomi was oohing and aahing over the sleek updo stylist Anastasia was assembling.

Knox’s business manager and Jeremiah’s sister, Fi, was huddled behind the front desk’s computer with Waylay as the twelve-­year-­old walked her through the new scheduling software.

Stef and I were on the leather couch under the front window, watching the chaos. My hair was done in a high, flirty ponytail that I gleefully knew my fiancé, Lucian Freaking Rollins, would wrap around his fist before the night was over.

The bride glared in the mirror at Jeremiah as he ruffled her short dark hair this way and that. “I’m not jiggling. You’re jiggling.”

“It’s kind of fun watching the calm, collected Lina tiptoe into a meltdown,” I mused.

Stef took a pensive sip of his whiskey and continued to frown.

“I’m not having a meltdown,” Lina said, taking obvious offense.

“Yeah, you are,” everyone in the shop except for Stef chorused.

“All of you can bite me,” she grumbled, crossing her arms under the cape.

“Are you okay?” I asked Stef. He was staring at Jeremiah and looking downright miserable.

“I’m great.” He got up, looking anything but great, and refilled his whiskey from one of the decanters on the shelf.

“Psst!”

I looked up.

Waylay nodded in Stef’s direction. “What’s his problem?” she mouthed.

I shrugged and made a face.

Jeremiah spun Lina’s chair around to face him. “Listen up, you fierce, beautiful badass. I don’t think you’re nervous about getting married. I think you’re nervous about the wedding.”

“Is there a difference?” Lina asked dryly.

“I’ve seen you with Nash. You’re excited about being married. About starting your lives together. Don’t let wedding day jitters make you doubt that.”

Lina opened her mouth, then shut it again. “Huh,” she said.

Naomi tiptoed her chair around to face the bride. “He’s right. Not everyone is excited about being a bride, the center of attention all day. But I know you. And I know you’re thrilled to be a wife.”

Lina’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh, thank God. I thought there was something wrong with me.”

“No, but there’s something wrong with me,” Stef said, knocking back the fresh whiskey and slamming the glass down.

Fi took the lollipop out of her mouth. “Uh, what’s happening here?”

Waylon dropped his chew bone and tip-­tapped over to Stef’s feet.

Stef marched over to Jeremiah. “Your apartment is gross,” he announced.

I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing.

“It really is,” Fi agreed. “Who disassembles a motorcycle in their living room?”

“Okay,” Jeremiah said cautiously.

“It’s gross, and there isn’t enough closet space. But I think we should move in together,” Stef blurted out.

“Oh, shit,” Fi whispered, grabbing Waylay in a headlock hug.

“I know we haven’t talked about the future, and I know that it’s probably stupid crazy of me to move here, but you’re here,” he said, looking at Jeremiah. He turned to Naomi. “And you’re here. You’re all here. I have family here, and the more I think about it, the crazier it would be to stay away.”

Jeremiah tipped his head down and studied the toes of his boots.

Lina and I shared a wide-­eyed look.

“Guess you won’t be selling your half of the business after all,” Knox said to his partner.

All heads whipped back to Jeremiah, who was grinning now. “Guess not.”

“You were going to sell?” Stef repeated. “Why in the hell would you do that? You love this place.”

“I love you more.” Jeremiah said it simply, without fuss.

The words had tears prickling at the backs of my eyes.

“This is why communication is fucking important,” Knox said, crossing his muscly arms.

“Seriously?” Lina said with a smirk. “You of all people.”

“Fuck off. I’ve evolved and shit,” Knox said.

Vernon pulled the hot towel off of his eyes. “What the hell is goin’ on here? This mustache ain’t gonna shape itself.”

Naomi beamed at her husband. Waylay rolled her eyes.

“Hang on,” Stef said, waving his hands. “I had a lot of whiskey in a very short period of time. Are you saying you’re okay with us moving in together even if I make you move out of your apartment that smells like diesel fumes?”

Jeremiah began to approach slowly. “I’m saying let’s buy a house or a farm or an estate or whatever you want.”

Stef was nodding and swallowing. “Yeah. Okay. That sounds…fine.”

Jeremiah took Stef’s hands. “I’m saying let’s be a family…with our families.”

“Oh my God,” I breathed and pulled out my phone to record the moment.

“What are you saying, Jer?” Stef demanded.

“I’m saying, let’s move in. Let’s get married. Let’s do the whole damn thing. I’ve been waiting a long damn time for you. Let’s get started already.”

Naomi brought her hands to her cheeks.

“Don’t you dare start cryin’, Daze,” Knox ordered gruffly. He abandoned Vernon and crossed to his wife.

“Oh brother. Now they’re gonna make out,” Waylay predicted, returning her focus to the software update with an exaggerated eye roll. “I’m chargin’ extra for this.”

“Yes,” Stef said, sounding dazed. “Yes, to all those things.”

Naomi let out a loud sniffle. Knox swore.

Fi bolted out of her chair, and her lollipop went flying. “My baby brother is getting married and moving out of that poor excuse for an apartment!”

Waylon sauntered over and slurped up the discarded candy.

“Drop it, Way,” Knox barked.

“He means you,” Waylay said to the dog without looking away from the monitor.

“Bust out the champagne,” Vernon decreed, offering up aftershave-­scented high fives.

I got in line to offer my congratulations. “We’re all going to raise our families together,” Naomi said with a trembling voice.

“Do not make me cry, Witty. I’m a puffy crier, and I have to look stunning tonight,” Lina groused.

Family. Just a few short months ago, I’d realized it was what I wanted more than anything. Now, thanks to Lucian and these women, there would be new life in my home. More parties. More holidays. More love. More laughter.

I felt the pang. My dad would have loved this. He would have been over the moon, planning engagement parties, writing funny toasts, practicing our father-­daughter dance. I missed him so much it hurt to breathe.

I love you, Dad, I said silently. Thank you for everything.

As if reading my mind, Naomi squeezed my wrist. The one a monster had broken all those years ago. That monster’s son had managed to put his own broken pieces together again and heal my broken heart in the process.

“We’re getting married,” Stef yelled, holding up Jeremiah’s hand.

We converged on the happy couple. Even Knox and Waylay got in on the hugging.


My phone rang as I drove home with great hair and a full heart.

“You are not going to believe what happened today, big guy,” I announced when I answered the call.

“As it turns out, I have news for you too,” Lucian’s buttery smooth voice said through the Jeep speakers. “You go first.”

“Stef asked Jeremiah to move in with him, and Jeremiah asked him to marry him!”

“That escalated quickly,” he quipped.

“I can’t wait for their wedding. Queer weddings are the best,” I said happily as I turned onto my street. “Now, tell me your news. Is it good or bad?”

“It’s very good news. I just got out of a briefing with Special Agent Idler. It appears that Hugo’s shell corporation was bribing officials to assign prisoners to his private prisons. They’ve only just begun quietly digging, and it looks as though several judges, district attorneys, even some local law enforcement were also on the receiving end of some highly illegal kickbacks. The higher the sentence, the bigger the kickback.”

“Wow,” I said.

“The preliminary list includes the Not So Honorable Judge Dirk Atkins.”

“As in the Dirk Atkins who refused to reconsider Mary Louise’s sentence?”

“One and the same,” Lucian said smugly. “Idler promised me she’d personally look into Mary Louise’s case. There’s a very good chance that an investigation will result in many of his sentences being overturned.”

“Overturned?” I squeaked. “As in get out of jail overturned?”

“It will take some time, but I’ll do what I can to speed things along. We should have her out before Allen’s graduation,” Lucian continued.

My response was a choked sob.

“Sloane.” Lucian’s voice was an affectionate rasp over my name.

“I’m so happy,” I whispered through tears.

“Yes, I can tell,” he said dryly.

“God, I love you.”

“Get ready to really mean it, because I arranged for you and Fran to call Mary Louise to tell her the good news in five minutes.”

“Geez Louise, Lucian,” I said, whipping into my driveway. “I’m running out of room on the blow-­jobs-­when-­the-­doctor-­clears-­you tally sheet.”

“I’m confident you’ll make room,” he said. “Now go call Mary Louise.”


“I appreciate the call, but like I said before, I’m not going to change my mind about this. I’m not going to endanger my son by telling my story,” Mary Louise announced as soon as the greetings were exchanged.

“Why don’t you share the news?” Fran said to me from the screen of my laptop. She was wearing a canary-­yellow knit blazer with sparkly threads.

I was all but bouncing out of my chair. “Mary Louise, you don’t have to tell your story, and we don’t have to appeal. But you’re still going to go home soon.”

Her face froze and then her eyes started to go wide. “I’m sorry. I think there’s something wrong with our connection. It sounded like you said…”

“It’s true,” Fran verified. “The judge has been implicated in some hinky dealings, and once the investigation is underway, they’re going to be taking a hard look at his cases. Starting with yours.”

“The judge and everyone else connected is going down. Not only won’t you have to do anything about it, you also won’t have to worry about retaliation anymore,” I promised her, knowing Lucian would help me keep that promise.

Mary Louise brought her hands to her face, covering her eyes. “I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”

“Believe it,” Fran advised with a rare smile. “Now here’s what I think we can expect…”

As the lawyer walked Mary Louise through the next steps, I absentmindedly paged through Mary Louise’s case file. All those years lost. All that time stolen. It could have easily been Lucian all those years ago.

All because greedy men wanted to line their pockets. I hoped they’d pay. Every last one of them. Lucian and I would make sure that they did, even as we figured out this new normal and began to build a life together.

And Mary Louise would get her life back.

Tears clouded my vision again. I blinked them back and stared down at the papers on the desk. A familiar name on the page caught my eye, and I frowned. It was a copy of Mary Louise’s arrest record. Arresting Officer: Chief Wylie Ogden.

My heart stuttered in my chest.

Lucian had mentioned local law enforcement had been on Hugo’s prison scheme payroll. Was Wylie one of them? He sure as hell hadn’t played by the book when he was chief of police, letting his friends off the hook and cracking down on citizens he didn’t feel any loyalty toward.

Another thought struck me like a brick to the face. He’d been friends with Tate Dilton, who had been up to his eyeballs in involvement with the Hugo crime family. What if Wylie had been the one to make the introduction?

My heartbeat was echoing in my skull. I needed to call Lucian. And Nash.

“We’ll be in touch as soon as we know more, but we wanted you to know that your days in that place are officially numbered,” Fran was saying, drawing my attention back to my laptop.

Mary Louise’s shoulders shook as she cried silently. She dropped her hands suddenly. “My baby. Does Allen know?”

I shook off my stupor and pasted a smile on my face. “Not yet. We thought he’d like to hear the news from you—­”

The video feed and everything else in the house cut off abruptly.

“Damn it,” I muttered. Power outages never happened at convenient times.

I snatched up the arrest report and was just scrolling for Lucian’s number on my phone when the doorbell rang.

I raced to the front door, hoping it was Nash on official wedding business, and yanked it open.

But it wasn’t Nash. No, standing with dirty boots on my new welcome mat was Wylie Ogden. He was holding a box of books. A red toothpick dangled from his lower lip.

Fuckity fuck fuck.

Relax, I told myself. He doesn’t know I know. Hell, I don’t know if I know.

“Hi, Wylie,” I said, sounding suspicious as hell. “What can I do for you?”

“Picked these up at an estate sale and thought you might want them for the library. Shame about the fire.”

The fire that he could have easily set. The fire. The note. The rats on my porch. Oh God. Something tickled my nose. Was it…

“Your toothpick smells like cinnamon,” I said in a strangled voice.

“Family habit,” he said. “My dad always had cinnamon toothpicks on him when I was growing up. I wanted to be just like him from the time I could walk.”

I wasn’t sure what a normal person would say in response to that. So I just gave him my best fake smile. “Well, thank you for your generosity. I’ll be happy to take those books off your hands,” I said, reaching for the box.

“It’s a heavy one, and I’m a gentleman. I insist.”

Short of shoving him out the door and slamming it in his face, I didn’t know what my next move should be. If I did that, he’d know that I knew.

“You can set them down just here on the floor. I’ll get to them after Nash’s wedding. In fact, he should be here any minute to pick me up,” I lied brightly.

“She knows.”

The husky southern drawl behind me had the blood draining out of my face.

I spun around on my stockinged feet only to find Judge Atkins standing in the hallway, wielding a gun with what appeared to be a silencer screwed to the barrel.

“Uh, that’s not a gavel,” I joked stupidly.

“Shut the door, Ogden,” Atkins ordered.

Wylie set the books down, then obediently closed and locked the front door. “Don’t get your robes in a knot,” Wylie complained. He was nervous, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his eyes darting around. It made me even more nervous.

“She knows enough to be scared half to death of you knockin’ on her door, now doesn’t she?” the judge said, wiggling the gun in my direction.

I glanced around me, trying to come up with a plan of action. If I ran, I guessed the judge would have no qualms about shooting me in the back. If I tried to fight him like the rabid weasel he was, well, I’d end up with the holes in my front, and I really liked this dress. I didn’t have shoes on, so traction and kicking were problems.

I needed to at least stash the arrest report somewhere that Lucian would find it. He’d put two and two together.

My gaze snagged on one of the nearly hidden security cameras Lucian had installed in the living room. But the light wasn’t on. They’d cut the power and the Wi-­Fi, I realized with a sinking sensation in my gut.

I dropped the arrest report and slowly put my hands on my head to show them I was no threat. “What’s the plan here, guys? It’s a small town. Odds are someone saw you on my porch or climbing my fence.”

“I was just donating books,” Wylie reminded me, producing a gun of his own from the waistband of his old-­man pants. Great. Now two gun-­wielding bad guys were making a Sloane sandwich. “And you were fine when I left.”

I was going to throw up. Everywhere.

“And I’m not here. I’m with my wife enjoying a romantic anniversary dinner,” Atkins said with a mean smile. “And any evidence will be burned up in the fire.”

The man intended to shoot me and set fire to my house. I almost felt sorry for him because Lucian wouldn’t stop until he’d destroyed everything Atkins held sacred.

“Look, I don’t know why you think you have to do this. Is it really necessary? I mean, so you took some kickbacks from a prison and set fire to a public library. It’s not like you murdered someone.”

“I’m not letting some little blond destroy my legacy over a few dollars,” the judge announced. “I’ve made my life’s work putting criminals behind bars.”

Yeah, the asshole was a goddamn hero.

“You should have listened to the warnings,” Wylie said sadly. “It shouldn’t have come to this.”

I debated sharing the news that the FBI would be closing in on both of them, then rejected it. They wanted me dead to protect themselves. Having absolutely nothing left to lose probably wouldn’t make them any more amenable to letting me stay alive.

“Where are we doing this?” Wylie asked.

“Do I look like I give a good goddamn where we kill the girl?” Atkins demanded.

“How about the front yard?” I suggested weakly.

“We’ll take her in the back of the house,” Wylie decided and waved his gun at me. But there was something in his stare. Something pointed. His gaze slid to the library cart just inside the living room doorway, then back to me. It was stacked high with several thick thriller novels.

He lowered his chin at me, and I nodded once.

“Let’s go,” he said, gesturing me to walk into the living room.

I stepped into the room, the wall briefly hiding me from the judge’s view. Praying I hadn’t misread the signal, I grabbed the end of the cart and shoved it with all my might just as Atkins rounded the corner.

There was a crunch, a groan, and a muffled shot followed by three louder, rapid shots.

I patted down my torso and was exceptionally relieved to find no holes in me or my dress.

“Son of a bitch,” Atkins gurgled as he lost copious amounts of blood on my hardwood floor from wounds in his neck, chest, and torso.

“Oh my God. Oh my God,” I chanted as Wylie picked up Atkins’s gun. “What do we do now?”

“I really hate to do this to you, Sloane, but you gotta understand,” Wylie said, pointing both weapons at me.

“Seriously, Wylie? Why the fuck do you still want to shoot me?” I screeched.

“Tying up loose ends. With you and the judge gone, there’s no one left to point a finger at me. The money I got from Hugo was nothing compared to what Atkins got. A few thousand here and there. I never even cared about it. I only cared about the job.”

The job he’d abused. The job Nash had taken from him.

“So what if I made a little money on the side? A police chief’s salary ain’t nothin’ to write home about. I was proud of my work. And Nash Morgan took that away from me. I’m sure as hell not gonna let his little friend take my reputation too.”

I closed my eyes for a second as the realization sunk in. “You put Nash’s name on that list, didn’t you?”

“Didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. Metzer was makin’ a list. I helped him out. My fee was adding one more name.”

I shook my head. “So you set it all in motion.”

He shrugged. “I have a legacy to protect. It’s all I have left.”

“That’s not a legacy. That’s a pattern of bad behavior.”

“You don’t know what it takes to protect an entire town.”

“Yeah? Well, obviously neither do you. You put a seventeen-­year-­old boy in jail and let his abusive father nearly kill his mother because you were fishing buddies.”

“Say what you want because it don’t matter. Only one of us is walking out of here tonight, and it ain’t gonna be you.”

“What are you going to do? Shoot me with the judge’s gun?”

“Seems like a good plan to me.”

I heard a squeal of tires on the road out front and prayed that help was on the way.

“No one is going to believe that you just happened to come upon a district judge threatening me and shot him,” I told him.

He shot me a crooked grin. “They believed it once already.”

His words sank in slowly. “Jesus! You didn’t kill Tate because you were protecting Nash. You killed him because you were protecting yourself.”

“I waited till he pulled the trigger, thinking either he would take care of Nash for me or he was out of bullets. Son of a bitch never did learn to count his rounds. I hated to do it. He was my friend, but Tate was a loose fucking cannon. He would have run his mouth to the wrong guy eventually.”

“So you killed your own friend.”

“According to the official report, I shot a man defending an officer of the law,” he corrected.

“And what’s the official report going to say this time?”

He shrugged. “I was just returning my library books.”

He was going to do it. He was going to shoot me and ruin Nash and Lina’s rehearsal night. I grabbed a hefty hardback off the side table and hurled it at Wylie’s head. Both guns went off as I launched myself over the couch.

I landed hard, catching my jaw on the sharp edge of the console table leg. More bullets flew, this time through my couch. I rolled, gained my feet, and sprinted low through the dining room, pulling chairs down after me.

He was close, but I knew every inch of this house. I darted through the kitchen and backtracked into the hallway where I took the stairs two at a time.

The sirens were getting louder now.

“You can’t run from me,” Wylie shouted from the foot of the stairs.

“And you can’t expect me to stand still so you can shoot me!”

His boots hit the stairs.

A streak of fur passed me on the landing as I hustled for the second floor, I heard a thump and muffled swearing.

Thank God for asshole cats. Meow Meow had just bought me precious seconds.

I heaved myself up the last steps and ran face-­first into a hard, male body. I was just getting ready to kick the shit out of him when a hand clamped over my mouth and I was lifted off the floor.


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