Falling in deeper, p.20
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       Falling in Deeper, p.20
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  Taylor? She would have died as an infant.”

  Jack didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Lily didn’t have a baby sister, did she?”

  “No.”

  “Fuck, man. I’m so sorry for her. As a parent, I can only imagine what that poor girl must have gone through.”

  “She’s . . . an amazing fighter. But everything that happened damn near ruined her. I’m determined to give that woman some happiness.” And babies. They would get married and raise children and live happily ever after, damn it. “But the baby died as the child of an indigent single mother. At best, she got a pauper’s burial, most likely courtesy of Los Angeles County. For Lily’s sake, I’d like to give Regina Rose something more.”

  “Yeah. I’ll get right on it.”

  “I know that’s not your usual thing. You’d rather knock heads together than scan the Internet, but I’ve got a lot going on here, so thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. While I’m doing that, you want to know how you can help? We can’t find Canton, so you need to stop tiptoeing around Lily and ask,” Jack insisted. “Point-blank find out what she knows about this guy.”

  Stone gripped the phone tight. He’d rather hunt down the violent shit stain without involving Lily. “Whatever information she has about the man and his running buddies or habits is seven years old.”

  “But it’s still knowledge we don’t have. It may be helpful. It’s certainly better than nothing.”

  The idea of shoving more upset and upheaval on her right now bugged the hell out of Stone. “Damn it . . .”

  “I know. I get it. Sometimes, protecting your woman from the bad guys lurking outside her door is much easier than shielding her from what’s hurting her on the inside.”

  Stone couldn’t have summed up his concerns any better.

  They rang off, and he mulled over Jack’s suggestion. The guy was probably right. Tracking down the enemy would be so much easier with insider information. And as much as he wanted to protect Lily from more emotional pain, he had to prioritize her safety first. Fuck.

  Determined to see if he could find Canton first, Stone grabbed her computer. He would have preferred his own. He had it all set up just the way he wanted with software and tools that hers lacked. Her hard shell of a pink case with the matching keyboard overlay certainly didn’t say “badass.” But he found a beautiful irony in using Lily’s computer to try to bring down her tormentor.

  Unfortunately, nothing he tried panned out. The guy hadn’t used his credit cards in almost a week. He hadn’t flown on a commercial airline or rented a car. He hadn’t even used an ATM. No hit on his license plate. His phone had been upgraded to a software version that made it virtually impossible to access without the password. Anyone that paranoid would have taken steps to ensure that if someone tried to change his password, he’d receive not just an e-mail but a text, too. Stone didn’t want to tip his hand and send Canton scampering into hiding, so that was a dead end.

  He discerned Canton’s cell phone carrier and tried to ping a database of towers but only received back a signal that told him the device was turned off and hadn’t been active in days. More than likely he was using burner phones. No fucking way to trace those.

  With a curse, he sighed and tried another tactic. Canton had social media accounts, but they all made him look like a family man and a hometown hero who’d avoided street gangs as a kid and put himself through college. Since graduating and opening his first dry cleaner’s, he’d been using his business for good in their lower-class neighborhood and taking his own profits and time to open teen centers and after-school care for children whose parents had to work long, hard hours to make ends meet. He’d received awards at the community and state level for standing against violence and drugs.

  Stone shook his head. This guy sounded like a fucking saint. He’d fooled pretty much everyone around him. Canton was wily and knew how to hire the right people to spin some good PR. He’d especially stepped up his game in the past twelve months, probably about the time he had decided to make a run at the state’s top office.

  Stone closed out the open windows on those dead ends and tried police reports next. He made a mental note to let the LAPD know later that they really needed to upgrade their cybersecurity. First, he prowled through their e-mail servers and available incident reports. The police had been called out to Canton’s home and business multiple times, and he’d always managed to spin everything to make himself appear like the victim of unsavory elements in the neighborhood who wanted crime to flourish. Reports from more than five years back appeared to be archived elsewhere, which made Stone curse. But he did manage to collect a list of Canton’s known associates. Unfortunately, running them up didn’t prove to be any more useful. Just a bunch of garbage, none of which Stone believed.

  There had to be some avenue or clue he was missing. Resolving that he wouldn’t give up, he made another cup of coffee and combed through all the details again. Still, he came up empty-handed. As much as he hated it, answers probably lingered in some long-forgotten corner of Lily’s head. Like Jack had said, he had to persuade her to dredge them up and give them over—then pick up the pieces if she fell apart.

  * * *

  THAT night, Lily said almost nothing. She’d withdrawn into herself, and Stone suspected she was still thinking about whether or not she would testify. A part of him wanted to sit her down and make her see that might be her only option if she wanted a future. Another part of him understood she had to come to this decision on her own—no matter how much waiting and gritting his teeth he had to do.

  Until then, he had to figure out what she knew about Canton. He hated to add to her mental burden, but they were running out of options.

  He pushed his empty plate away and turned to her. “I need to ask you some questions.”

  Lily straightened in her chair. He could almost see her gathering her defenses, raising her walls. “About what?”

  “Canton. His habits. His associates. Where he might run and who might help him. We’re not having a lot of luck. What do you remember about him?”

  “Besides him being a terrible, violent sociopath?” She sighed as she pondered. “I don’t know.”

  Stone hated feeling as if he were plowing through her psyche with a screwdriver. “You said Erin was gang-raped. Who was with Canton that day?”

  “Um . . . a guy he referred to as Killer Mo. Another he called Reaper or just Reap. The last guy answered to Mafia. I didn’t get real names, so I don’t know if that’s even helpful.”

  It was more information than they’d had. Stone jumped up from the table and retrieved her laptop, tapping on the keys and accessing the Internet in seconds.

  “Hey, how did you get into my computer?” She frowned. “Oh, yeah. You’re a hacker.”

  Slanting her a glance that suggested she get serious, Stone scoffed. “Baby, I can do that in a blink.” He dug around a bit more for the identities of Killer Mo, Reaper, and Mafia. He narrowed his search, adding places, dates, details he knew. He came back with a trio of suspects and pictures. Then he turned the screen around to Lily. “They look anything like these guys?”

  Color leached out of her face. She turned the same shade as a slab of cold marble. “That’s them.”

  Stone squeezed her hand before he turned the computer screen back in his direction. “I’m doing this to give Jack and the other guys some information. I’m not dredging up the past to upset you.”

  “I know.” Lily nodded, trying to hold it together. “I can still see their faces. Killer Mo and Mafia held Erin down while . . .” She fell silent, shaking her head and holding up a hand as if she couldn’t say more.

  “It’s okay. You’ve given me some information to work with.” Stone performed a slightly different search, waited for results, hacked back into the LAPD, trolled through its database, then ultimately scrolled through some county and state records. Finally, he found what he needed.

  “Killer Mo died at the ripe age of
twenty in a drug-related shoot-out about six months after you left LA. Mafia was twenty-two when he went down for twenty-five to life after the rape-murders of a pair of sisters, fourteen and twelve, who lived down the street. Reaper got caught dealing just before he turned eighteen. He was put on probation and his parents moved him to Iowa. Apparently he’s been ‘born again’ since then and is now a youth minister at a local church.”

  Lily absorbed that information with a thoughtful nod. “So . . . none of those thugs run around with Canton anymore?”

  “No. From what I can tell, he’s distanced himself from everyone who’s got a record so he can look like an upstanding citizen with a slightly checkered past who’s risen above, blah, blah, blah. He’s married now with three fancy cars, two kids, and a partridge in a pear tree.” Her face wasn’t giving away much, and he was dying to know if she was all right. “I’ll send all this information to Jack so he and some of the others can track the surviving dudes down. Do you feel better, knowing they won’t come back for you?”

  She shrugged. “They only helped destroy Erin. They didn’t plan or instigate. Canton is still out there.”

  “Yeah.” Stone rubbed at the back of his neck. “Since he’s dropped off the grid, we have to find him. Can you think of anything else that would help us? Habits? Places he liked? People he’d reach out to?”

  “One of the things that disturbed me most after Erin’s murder was Canton’s dogs. He had these two puppies, and he took them with him everywhere. He was always walking them. I remember Erin screaming and fighting . . . and the dogs scratching at the door of the warehouse to get in. As soon as Erin lay bleeding out and dead, Canton opened the door and the puppies loped in. He bent and petted them, smiling as they licked his face, as if he was the best guy in the world and the dead girl in the corner meant nothing. He probably still has those dogs.”

  As she talked, Stone sent a text with the information to Jack, who wrote back quickly that they would query the campgrounds and state parks again looking for a guy with a pair of mutts.

  “He also had this habit . . . According to Corey, who used to deal for him, when Canton was nervous or excited, he’d suck on a Tootsie Pop. He liked the grape.” She shrugged. “He was sucking on one when he entered the warehouse that day.”

  Lily closed her eyes as if she didn’t want to remember more. She clenched her fists, fighting to hold it together.

  Stone threw his arm around her. “It’s a lot to remember, I know. Everything you can recall is helpful. I’m here if you need someone to lean on.”

  She clutched him. “Thanks.”

  When she broke away, Stone texted the rest of the information she’d given him to Jack. It might not be a lot but every bit helped.

  “Oh,” she added. “He has a son by a former girlfriend. Matt, Mike, Mark—something with an ‘M’. The kid’s mom went by the name Sherra. The boy would probably be about eight now. But back in the day, Canton was a devoted daddy. Went out of his way to buy him cool stuff and give him the best of everything. Maybe he still sees the kid?”

  “That’s great, baby. We’ll definitely use that information to try to track down this asswipe. If you think of anything else—”

  “I’ll let you know.” She stood. “I think I’d like a few minutes on the patio alone. I’m sure the mosquitoes will eat me up but I’m starting to find the swamp surprisingly peaceful. It’s definitely quiet. I can think out here. And no one will find me.”

  After she let herself out, Stone cleaned up their simple dinner of hamburger steaks and potatoes, totally secure that she wasn’t going anywhere. She knew the gators and the outside world were too dangerous for her to flee.

  Ten minutes later when Lily slipped back in, gnawing her lip, she looked a million miles away. No, she looked as if she were still in that warehouse, reliving the horror of Erin’s death. He wished like hell he could calm and divert her mind. He’d tried to give her an ear . . . If she truly trusted him and wanted him as more than a protector, wouldn’t she be telling him her thoughts, her fears? Hell, right now she wasn’t even looking at him.

  As he rinsed off the last of the dishes and set them on the rack to dry, he watched her as she paced the room, arms crossed protectively over her body. When she stared at a spot on the far wall and frowned, hugging herself tighter, Stone had seen enough. Even if Lily couldn’t—or didn’t want to—share her feelings with him, she was too far up in her head, burying her past and worrying about the future.

  Talking to the woman only went so far. Time to try something new. Stone suspected he knew how to fix her while working on their trust.

  He turned off the faucet and dried his hands, then snagged her when she crossed the room again. “Get ready.”

  She blinked, her dark eyes finally focusing on him. “For what?”

  “We’re going to the playroom. You have five minutes. Come naked.”

  As he turned away to make preparations, she grabbed hold of his arm. “Stone . . . I’m not in a good place tonight.”

  “You’re not. We’ll fix that.”

  “I can’t focus on sex now.”

  If she imagined for one minute that he couldn’t redirect her gloomy thoughts into something more pleasurable, she was sorely underestimating him. “Who said anything about sex?”

  She flushed a pretty rosy shade. “Well, if you want me naked in a room designed for sex—”

  “A playroom isn’t always about sex.” He sent her a chiding glance. “After working at Dominion, you know that.”

  With a nod, she conceded the point. “True. But you—”

  “Have no idea what I’m thinking, baby.” He slanted a commanding gaze her way. “Do you?”

  “I assumed it was sex,” she murmured, dropping her gaze. “Sorry.”

  And there was her pretty, submissive side.

  Stone couldn’t call her wrong precisely. He did want sex. With her, he always wanted it. But he was capable of thinking about more . . . mostly.

  “Have I given you any reason not to trust me?”

  “No,” she admitted, her voice approaching a whisper.

  He crooked a finger under her chin and lifted her gaze. “I’m not bringing this up to make you feel guilty. I want to talk about what you’re thinking and feeling. I want you to open up. You don’t have to do anything about Canton tonight. You also don’t have to do anything about him without help. So don’t think about him now. Five minutes.”

  With that reminder, he left and headed to the playroom, scooping up some items he might need along the way. At the moment, he wanted to thank Jack and Logan for his last three months of BDSM training because he had ideas running through his head that he couldn’t wait to test.

  Stone took a few minutes to prepare the room. As he finished, he glanced at the time on his phone. Lily’s five minutes were up.

  Before he could haul out to hunt her down, she appeared in the portal, looking uncertain and sexy as hell. She hadn’t heeded him exactly, but she’d added more kittenish black liner to her eyes, refreshed her siren lipstick, then donned a pair of white thigh-high stockings with lacy bands and a pair of chunky red heels. She wasn’t wearing a single stitch anywhere else on her body.

  Oh, holy shit. He’d never seen a woman look hotter in his life.

  “You’re on time,” Stone forced himself to praise. And even though he didn’t want to chide her, he couldn’t let her choice to rebel pass. “But you didn’t follow instructions. I said naked.”

  She opened her mouth to argue, closed it. Then frowned. “You don’t like it?”

  “I do but that isn’t the point. You disobeyed, and that comes with consequences.” He narrowed his eyes at her, a litany of all the possible reasons she might have disregarded his instructions flipping through his head. “Did you hope to distract me so we wouldn’t talk about your past or the fact that you’ve been letting it stand in the way of your future? Would you rather give me your pussy than your truth?”

  Lily’s face flamed with
a guilty flush. “I’ve told you pretty much everything.”

  Stone turned those words over in his head. “Except what you’re thinking right now.”

  “I’m trying not to think about anything but you.”

  “But I know there’s more rolling through your head.” He quirked a brow at her, daring her to deny it. She didn’t. “Either kneel here and face me or leave the room. If you choose the latter, I’ll know you’re not ready to trust me. If you stay, I’ll want to test that you’re serious, and I won’t make it easy.”

  “Why?” She looked torn, confused.

  “I’ve done everything I know to prove that I’m here for you in every way, yet you keep me on the outside looking in. I need to know if you’re with me.”

  Lily’s expression crumpled. She stood frozen for a tense moment before she crossed the room and lowered herself to the mat and knelt. “I only put on the stockings to please you. I never meant to make you feel as if I don’t want to be here or don’t want to be with you. I’m just so used to thinking through my problems alone. I’ve never been that great at sharing how I feel and . . . Yes, I know I’m not the only person here. I’m sorry if I’ve been selfish.”

 
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