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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 6

Breakfast Ambush


Thank you, Lou,” I mumbled with the hair tie in my teeth.

Lou Witt, Naomi’s dad, held the diner door for me as my hands were full trying to tame my hair into the semblance of a knot on top of my head.

“Looking a little frazzled this morning,” noted his wife, Amanda, the new part-­time counselor for the school district.

I glanced down at my oversize sweatshirt with its fresh coffee stains. Stains achieved after dumping half a mug down my front when Mom had texted to remind me I was meeting her for breakfast.

My leggings had a hole in one knee, and I’d forgotten to change out of my slippers.


“One of those days,” I said, securing my bun.

Actually, it was more like weeks.

“That’s to be expected, sweetie,” Amanda assured me with a sympathetic arm squeeze. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”

“I won’t,” I promised before waving the Witts off and heading inside. I spotted my mother in one of the back booths and hurried toward her. “Sorry I’m late. Naomi called. She and Eric finally found the missing garter snake from the petting zoo Wednesday night. He was in the window wrapped around a pothos plant—­”

I came to a screeching halt and stared open-­mouthed at the man sitting opposite her.

Mom smiled up at me as if she weren’t sharing a table with my mortal enemy. “I asked Lucian to join us since he was still in town.”

Lucian didn’t look very happy about this turn of events either, but to be fair, the man rarely looked anything other than aggressively constipated.

“Sit,” Mom said, gesturing toward Lucian’s side of the booth.

“You know what? I forgot I have an appointment with someone about something—­”

“Sloane, sit your rear end down now.”

She’d deployed the mom voice. Unfortunately, being a grown adult hadn’t come with an instant immunity to that tone.

Lucian reluctantly scooted in. Great. Now I had to play along too or look like the bigger, more immature asshole. I sat gingerly with one butt cheek on the vinyl, one foot in the aisle in case I needed to make a fast escape.

Mom interlaced her fingers on the table and looked at us expectantly. She looked tired and sad, which made me feel like a petulant child. I settled more comfortably in the booth and picked up a menu.

“So what’s with the breakfast meeting?” I asked.

“I’m heading back to Washington today,” she announced. “I said my goodbyes to your sister and Chloe this morning. Now it’s your turn.”

I put down the menu and ignored the way the right side of my body seemed to be absorbing Lucian’s body heat. “Mom, there’s no rush. If you want some peace and quiet, you know you can stay with me.” She’d split her time in Knockemout between my place and my sister’s while we’d planned the services. I’d enjoyed having her as a roommate. It made the house seem less empty. Plus she bought really good snacks.

She shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but it’s time for me to get back. Your father left me a very explicit list of things I need to take care of.”

“Let me help.” I was suddenly desperate to keep her in town. I didn’t want her dealing with everything on her own. I also didn’t want to be abandoned.

“What kinds of things need taken care of?” Lucian asked.

I spared him a glance. Not that it was any of his business, but I was interested in the answer too.

“Well, for one thing, he wanted his clothes donated to a nonprofit that gives homeless men work wardrobes to make it easier for them to interview for jobs. I’m also supposed to gather and deliver all his case files to Lee V. Coops at Ellery and Hodges for any future appeals.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Lucian offered, pulling his phone out of his pocket and opening his texts. “I’ll have one of my employees pick up the files at your place and courier them over to the new firm.”

Why the hell was Lucian “I Own Half the World” Rollins volunteering to help my mother with errands? And why was my mother acting like this wasn’t the first time he’d played helpful?

I forced a smile through clenched teeth. “I’ll look around Dad’s study at home to make sure he doesn’t have any old files stashed there.”

“Perfect. You can give whatever you find to Lucian.”

I glanced at him and found him already looking at me. Together, we turned back to my mom. “What’s going on, Karen?” he asked at the same time as I said, “What’s going on, Mom?”

“Simon loved you both. When the cancer came back, he started thinking a lot about what was important for a good life. And the kind of grudge you both seem to be carrying isn’t healthy.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. The idea I’d done anything in Dad’s last months to make him unhappy was like fresh lemon juice being squirted onto the raw edges of my grief.

“Dad was disappointed in me?” I asked, my voice husky.

Mom reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Of course not, sweetheart. He was so proud of you. Both of you for everything you’ve accomplished, everything you’ve built, how generously you’ve given. But life is unbearably short. This animosity you two are hanging on to is a waste of that precious time.”

“Okay. I’m sorry and no offense, but what does Lucian have to do with our family?”

Mom and Lucian shared a long look until he subtly shook his head.

“That right there,” I said, pointing at his face. “What the hell is with the secret head shake?”

“Lucian has done more for this family than he’ll ever let me say,” Mom said finally.

“For instance?” The words came out high-­pitched and panicked.

“Lucian,” my mom prompted him.


She rolled her eyes at him, then looked at me. “For one thing, he sent me and my friends to the spa after the funeral.”

“Karen,” Lucian said, exasperated.

Mom took his hand with her free one, connecting us through her. “Lucian, honey, at some point, you’re going to have to stop denying—­”

“What can I get y’all today?” Bean Taylor, in suspenders and an apron smeared with breakfast foods, appeared, his grease-­stained notebook at the ready. The man was an angel on the grill but one of the clumsiest servers on the planet.

“Hey, Bean. Good to see you,” Mom said, releasing our hands.

What did Lucian have to stop denying?

What secrets did he and my mom share?

We Waltons were an open book. We knew everything about each other. Well, almost everything.

“Listen, I need to hit the road,” Mom said, grabbing her purse and throwing cash on the table. “But it would make me very happy if you two would stay and have breakfast. And I hate to pull the guilt card, but I’m hanging on to anything that makes me happy with both hands right now.” Her eyes went glassy with tears.

I rose with her and wrapped my arms around her. Maybe if I held on tight enough, she wouldn’t go.

“I’ll give y’all another minute,” Bean said, backing away from the emotional display.

“Mom. Don’t go.” My voice broke, and she squeezed me tighter.

“I have to. It’s good for me to be productive and start thinking about what’s next. I think it’ll be good for you too. You need to get back to work,” she whispered. “Besides, I’m only a phone call away.”

I sniffled. “A phone call and some of the worst traffic in the country.”

“I’m worth the traffic.”

I let out a choked laugh. “Yeah. I guess you are.”

“I love you, Sloane,” Mom whispered. “Be happy. Do good. Don’t let this derail you for too long. Dad wouldn’t want that.”

“Okay,” I whispered as a tear escaped, streaking down the curve of my nose.

Mom released me, gave my arms a squeeze, then turned to Lucian, who was sliding out of the booth. He stood, dwarfing us both, smoothing a hand down his probably monogrammed button-­down.

“I love you,” I heard Mom tell him. His reply was too soft for me to catch, but I noticed how he hugged her to him with closed fists, his knuckles going white.

“Stay. Eat,” she insisted again when he’d released her.

He nodded.

“Bye, Mom,” I croaked. She wiggled her fingers at me, eyes still glistening, and headed for the door. I stood there watching her leave, feeling like Anne of Green Gables before she met Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.


Lucian’s gruff command was accompanied by a broad hand at my back, guiding me back to the booth. I slid onto the bench my mother had vacated and stared unseeingly at the menu in front of me.

“She’s going to be all right, Sloane.” That raspy rumble caressed my name with irritation and something else.

“Of course she will,” I said stiffly.

“So will you.”

I couldn’t snark back at him. All my focus was on willing the tears to be reabsorbed into my face. I would not be weak in front of him. Again.

“You don’t have to stay,” I said, looking everywhere but his face.

“After that guilt trip, I’d have breakfast with Rasputin.”

Even through my blurred vision, I could see him shaking his head vehemently.

“What don’t you want me to know?” I demanded. “Were you blackmailing my parents? Did you trick them into a cult or multi-­level marketing scheme?”

“Those are the only options you can come up with?” he asked.

“Psst! Is it safe to come back and take your orders?” Bean asked, tiptoeing back to the table.

“Sure, Bean.” I managed a weak smile for him. It wouldn’t do me any good to have rumors circulating about the town librarian’s public meltdown. I had a reputation to uphold. I was downright terrifying when the situation called for it. It kept my library and my life here in Knockemout running smoothly.

“You know you’ve got stains all over your shirt?” Bean pointed at my sweatshirt with his nub of a pencil.

“I had a run-­in with a coffeepot this morning. I’ll have the usual with a hot chocolate.” I deserved a comfort beverage.

“Extra marsh, extra whip?” Bean clarified.

“You know it.”

“And for you, Mr. Rollins?”

I snorted internally. This was Knockemout, for Pete’s sake, and Bean was barely a year younger than me. But it was “Mr. Rollins this and Mr. Rollins that.”

“Egg white omelet with spinach and vegetables,” Lucian ordered.

Ugh. Even his breakfast order annoyed me. And the way the man couldn’t be bothered to say please or thank you made me want to hit him in the face with the napkin dispenser. I narrowed my eyes at him.

Lucian blew out a breath through his nostrils. “Please,” he added before collecting our menus and handing them over.

“Sure thing,” Bean said.

“Thanks, Bean,” I said before he scurried back to the kitchen. Once he was gone, I returned to glaring at Lucian. “Would it kill you to be polite every once in a while? Or do those suits leach the humanity out of you?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t order the glitter pancakes off the children’s menu to go with your mug of granulated sugar.”

“Have you ever even had the diner’s hot chocolate?” I asked. “Oh, wait. I forgot. You’re violently allergic to fun and happiness. When are you flitting back to your depressing vampire lair of seriousness?”

“As soon as I make it through this breakfast with you.”

Another server appeared to top off Lucian’s black coffee and deliver my hot chocolate. It was a work of art. The thick-­handled mug was topped with a veritable tower of whipped cream. Mini marshmallows dotted the white swirl, and Bean had topped the entire thing off with a generous dusting of pink, glittery sprinkles.

I felt a tickle in my throat, another prickle behind my eyes. I was not going to cry over a cup of hot chocolate, no matter how obvious it was that it had been made with love.

That was why I loved this damn town so much. Why I never wanted to live anywhere else. We were all intimately involved in one another’s lives. Step outside your front door, and if you looked past the leather and exhaust fumes, the luxury SUVs and designer equestrian wardrobes, you’d witness a dozen small acts of kindness every day.

“You’re ridiculous,” Lucian said as I pulled the mug to me with both hands.

“You’re jealous.”

“You can’t even drink that. You’ll end up wearing it.”

I scoffed and reached for a straw. “You’re such an amateur.” With precision, I inserted the straw from the top to ensure the proper cream to chocolate ratio. “Here,” I said, sliding the mug toward him.

He looked at me as if I’d just suggested he stir his coffee with his penis.

“What do you expect me to do with that?”

“I expect you to taste it, make a face, and then tell me how revolting you think it is, even though deep down, you’ll like it so much you’ll start plotting how to order one without me noticing.”


“Because you sent my mom to the spa with her friends when she needed to be reminded that she could grieve and laugh. Because you stayed here to suffer through a breakfast neither one of us wanted just to make her happy. So take your one sip, because that’s all I’m willing to share, and then we can go back to ignoring each other.”

To my surprise, Lucian took the mug. He raised it to eye level and examined it as if he were a scientist and the hot chocolate was some yet-­to-­be-­discovered member of the spider family.

I tried not to focus on the way his lips closed over the tip of the straw. The way his throat worked over his single swallow. But I did notice the fact that his grimace came half a second too late. “Revolting,” he said, sliding the mug back to me. “Happy now?”


He picked up his coffee but didn’t drink. Because maybe under his fifty-­million-­dollar suit jacket and his rich guy beard, he was just a little human after all.

I should have opened a new straw. Should have made a show of avoiding putting my mouth anywhere near where his had been. But I didn’t. Instead, I plucked it out of the drink, reinserted it on the opposite side of the mug, and closed my lips over the spot his had occupied mere moments ago.

Warm, sugary goodness hit my tongue with just the slightest hint of crunch from the sprinkles.

I wrapped my hands around the mug and closed my eyes to prolong this tiny pocket of perfection.

When I opened them again, I found Lucian’s eyes on me, his expression…complicated.

“What?” I asked, releasing the straw.


“You’re looking at me like it’s not nothing.”

“I’m looking at you and counting down the seconds until this meal is over.”

And just like that, we were back on an even keel. “Bite me, Lucifer.”

He pulled out his phone and ignored me while I scanned the breakfast crowd.

The diner was hopping as usual midmorning. The patrons were mostly retirees with a few horse farm folks and, of course, the usual biker crew mixed in for good measure. Knockemout was a unique melting pot of old equestrian money, freedom-­seeking outlaws, and burnt-­out, middle-­aged Beltway bandits.

I felt the weight of Lucian’s gaze on me and pointedly refused to meet it.

“You don’t have to do this, you know. I’m sure you have better things to do,” I said finally.

“I do. But I’m not going to be the one to disappoint your mother today,” my surly table mate said.

My glare should have incinerated him. “Does it take more or less energy to be an asshole every second of the day? Because I can’t figure out if it’s your natural setting or if you have to put actual effort into it.”

“Does it matter?”

“We used to get along.” I don’t know why I said it. We had a tacit agreement never to discuss that time in our lives.

His gaze slid to my right wrist peeking out of my sleeve.

I wanted to hide my hand in my lap but stubbornly kept it in plain sight on the table.

“We didn’t know any better then,” he said, his voice hoarse.

“You’re infuriating.”

“You’re irritating,” he shot back.

I gripped my straw like it was a weapon capable of stabbing.

“Careful, Pixie. We have an audience.”

The nickname had me flinching.

I managed to tear my gaze away from his stupidly beautiful face and glanced around us. There were more than a few sets of eyes glued to our table. I couldn’t blame them. It was part of town lore that Lucian and I couldn’t tolerate each other. Seeing us “enjoying” a meal alone together had probably already ignited the gossip chain. Any one of those people would have no qualms about reporting back to my mother.

I carefully returned the straw to its whipped cream home base. “Look. Since you’re too stubborn to leave and you’re not inclined to tell me why you and my mother are besties, let’s find some topic of conversation that we can both agree on to get through this interminable breakfast. How do you feel about…the weather?”

“The weather?” he repeated.

“Yes. Can we agree that there appears to be weather outside?”

“Yes, Sloane. We can agree that there is weather.”

His tone was so condescending I wanted to take the ketchup squeeze bottle from the stainless-­steel carrier and empty it all over him.

“Your turn,” I said.

“Fine. I’m sure we can agree that you dress like a deranged teenager.”

“Better than a moody undertaker,” I shot back.

His lips quirked, and then his expression smoothed into its baseline of irritated boredom.

The bell on the diner door jingled, and Wylie Ogden lumbered in.

Conversations cut off as gazes swung away from us to Wylie.

Lucian didn’t move a muscle, but I still felt a chill descend on the table.

I hadn’t seen much of the former police chief since the incident when Tate Dilton, an ex-­cop gone rogue, teamed up with Duncan Hugo, the mobster’s son, to shoot Nash Morgan. Wylie, whose long reign as chief of police was marked with good ol’ boy cronyism, had been friends with the disgraced officer but redeemed himself when he shot and killed Dilton. My opinion of Wylie had risen several points after that. I’d even almost smiled at him the one time I’d seen him in the grocery store.

The former police chief’s gaze landed on our table. He froze, except for the toothpick in the corner of his mouth, which moved up and down, then he made an abrupt about-­face to find a seat at the opposite end of the diner counter.

Lucian’s cool gaze remained glued to the man.

I felt something. Something that seemed suspiciously like guilt, which made me defensive.

“You know, if you had told me everything, I wouldn’t have—­”

“Don’t,” he interrupted as if he were telling a toddler to stop trying to put their finger in an electrical outlet.

“I’m just saying—­”

“Leave it alone, Sloane.”

That was what we did. We left things alone. The only acknowledgment of our shared past was the bitter aftertaste that colored every interaction.

Neither one of us was going to forgive or forget. We would just continue pretending it didn’t still eat away at us.

“Here’s your breakfast,” Bean said loudly. He slid steaming plates onto the table with forced cheer and then oh so casually slid both butter knives into his apron pocket.


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