Falling in deeper, p.8
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       Falling in Deeper, p.8
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         Part #11 of Wicked Lovers series by Shayla Black

  “Are you sure you’re not a stalker?”

  “I’m just a man who’s worried about you. When you first blew me off, I didn’t know if you were still in love with Axel. Then I just wondered what the hell you were up to.”

  “Why are you helping me? Really. You barely know me.”

  “Well, ever since your car exploded, Jack Cole and I are on the same page. I’m going to guess Thorpe is, too, especially since he asked me to be your protector even before then. Text him and let him know I’ve got you and that you’re okay. Let me see before you send it.”

  Lily looked as if she wanted to object but finally sighed and tapped on the keys. With a hint of rebellion, she practically whipped her phone in his face to show him that she was, in fact, texting Thorpe the message Stone had requested.

  He nodded. “Send it.”

  She pressed her finger to the screen. “Done.”

  Then she blinked back at him. Her lack of expression bothered him. She looked as if she’d crawled into some protective shell where no one could reach her and decided to stay. She also looked exhausted. The dark circles under her eyes didn’t give him any doubt that she’d been losing sleep. He would fix that ASAP.

  “Good,” he praised. “Now put your phone on airplane mode so it can’t be tracked, just in case this bad guy has a bead on you.”

  Lily bit her lip. “I’d feel better if Thorpe could find us.”

  Stone wished he knew how to reassure her with just a word or a touch, but she didn’t trust him enough for that—yet. “Jack will know. But the fewer people who can locate you electronically, the safer you’ll be.” He gripped the wheel, the glare of the afternoon sun glinting in the rearview mirror.

  She clutched the phone in her small hands, her black nail polish nearly blending with the device itself. “What if I need to talk to someone?”

  “I’ve got my phone.” He patted his pocket.

  Finally she complied. He breathed a sigh of relief.

  “Now what?” she asked.

  “Trust me.”

  But she wouldn’t until he had earned it.

  If she would testify, Canton would probably go away for a long time. She could resume her life, even be Lily Taylor again. But without that option, taking down a gubernatorial candidate wouldn’t be a simple feat. And making her disappear from his radar forever . . . This guy had reach and pull, so it wouldn’t be easy.

  “So let’s take this from the top. Who is this guy and what does he want?”

  She merely sent him a sidelong glance, shoved her earbuds back in, and cranked up the music.

  Stone gritted his teeth. Patience. He wanted to press on and get the answers to his thousand questions about her past, but her day had been harrowing and overwhelming. She hadn’t eaten, hadn’t slept, hadn’t had a moment’s peace. Once he took care of those needs . . . Then he’d rip those buds out of her ears and start peeling away the layers of her secrets until she gave him everything he wanted.

  * * *

  THE late afternoon was hot and harsh as Stone pulled up in front of a small dock area. “We’re almost there.”

  Lily looked around and saw only a rickety vessel floating at the end of the little pier. “We have to take a boat?”

  “It’s a skiff. The house is meant to be safe, not necessarily convenient.”

  Around her, the swamp felt alive. Cicadas sung as cypress trees reached for the sky, their branches weighed down by Spanish moss. A fungus-like growth clung to the top of the sludgy brown water. She didn’t even want to know what reptiles and other creepy things crawled under the surface. A beady pair of eyes skimming the opposite side of the shoreline suggested gator or whatever else lived out here.

  “I don’t know about this.”

  Stone lugged her suitcase, duffel, and box all at once, and she tried not to notice how his arms, shoulders, and chest bulged, rippling with every move. “You’ll be a lot safer at the cabin than if you stay here. Cottonmouths live in these parts. I think they’re nocturnal creatures.” He shrugged. “I know they’re venomous. But it’s your call.”

  “You’re backing me into a corner.”

  “I’m trying to save your life,” he said as he dumped most of her luggage into the skiff and climbed in.

  She grabbed her tote and slammed the car door, tiptoeing carefully to the shore to avoid anything that might bite and kill her. “I’ve never been to a swamp.”

  “Hopefully, neither has the guy chasing you.” He reached up to grab her duffel, then piled it on top of her other pieces before holding out a hand to help her in.

  Once she’d settled into the narrow seat opposite him, he pulled the key fob out of his pocket and hit a button. She heard an electronic beep and the truck’s lights flashed, signaling that the vehicle was locked. Lily had a sinking feeling that might be the last modern convenience she saw for a while. God, she was in way over her head. Heck, she’d never even been camping. She certainly didn’t understand anything about where she was, only that pretty much everything around her could kill her before Canton even came close.

  Beside the boat, movement caught her peripheral vision. The water sloshed. Something moved just under the surface, not five feet from her. She held in a scream.

  Stone shook his head as he plucked out his phone and used the flashlight feature, illuminating the bottom of the boat.

  “What are you doing?” she asked.

  “Making sure nothing crawled into the skiff before we leave the shore.”

  Though she wondered if he said that merely to yank her chain, Lily was still tempted to crawl onto his lap and beg him to protect her from anything that had more legs or teeth than she did.

  “We’re clear,” he murmured, killing the light and pocketing the phone again.

  He grabbed the oars and started to row.

  “The boat doesn’t have a motor?” That horrified her.

  “Skiff, and no. The water is too shallow and the chemical runoff from the engine isn’t good for the ecosystem, according to Jack. It’s not a long ride. Hang tight. I’ll keep you safe.”

  Lily believed that. For whatever reason, he’d decided to save her from Canton. He’d kept her from exploding in her car. Now he seemed determined to drag her out to the middle of nowhere until . . . what? She had no intention of coughing up her past so that he could learn all her secrets. She wouldn’t give anyone that sort of power over her. Nor would she put anyone in that much danger.

  The boat ride seemed like the longest five minutes of her life. She waited for a giant reptile to snatch her from the boat and chomp her into a watery grave like a scene out of a horror movie. She shrieked as something heavy bumped the side of the boat but it swam on. Egrets and herons swooped around as orange, gold, and bright pink rays slanted through the clouds, dazzling with the dying daylight. Something else she couldn’t identify called into the coming evening as the wind blew hot, humid air over her skin. The mosquito population out here had to way outnumber humans.

  Finally, they nudged up against another dock. Stone stood and lifted her things onto the adjacent pier with seemingly little effort. That crap had weighed a ton to her.

  He hoisted himself out, every muscle in his back, shoulders, and arms bulging once again until he stood on top. Then he reached a hand out to her.

  She blinked up at him. “You’re just going to lift me up?”

  “You got a better idea?”

  Lily looked around. Short of trying to take a giant step over the slimy, life-infested waters and potentially falling, she didn’t. Grimacing, she held out her hand.

  With a chuckle, he pulled her up, then tied the boat off and turned around. “We’re right over there.”

  She followed suit and saw what appeared to be a small brown cabin with a wraparound porch blending in with its surroundings. It wasn’t remarkable. She wasn’t even sure it was stable. But anything had to be better than hanging out where some creature might decide that she’d make a good dinner.

  “Lead t
he way,” she said finally.

  Stone picked up her suitcase and duffel. She retrieved her tote and reached for the box.

  “I’ve got it,” he told her, lifting it between big, capable-looking hands.

  Why couldn’t she stop looking at Stone? Why did she want him this much? Lily already knew that no matter how sexy she found him, she wouldn’t enjoy actual sex with the man. She never did, even with someone like Axel, whom she trusted.

  At the front door, he shined the light from his phone on a keypad. The shack might appear on the rickety side, but that electronic entry and the cameras tucked under the eaves overhead said otherwise. Once he’d punched in the code, he opened the door and ushered her in, carting her stuff.

  Lily groped around the wall for a switch. When she flipped it up, nothing happened. “No power.”

  “Jack keeps a few of the breakers off when he’s not using the place. Let me go flip them.”

  Stone disappeared out the front door again, leaving her in the shadowed room. With the last of the daylight slanting through the windows, she saw an old blue couch, a beige chair, and a coffee table that had seen better days. Dark hardwood floors felt solid beneath her feet. The space opened to a serviceable kitchen. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it wasn’t any worse than the childhood home she’d shared with her mother and brother. Bonus, she would bet they didn’t see gun violence and gang activity here.

  A moment later, bright lights illuminated the cozy little place. She tended to like loud, eclectic decor, but this place had a kitschy, homey vibe. The refrigerator and kitchen table looked like something out of the fifties, and the living room furniture wasn’t much newer, but she’d bet everything here was well used and well loved.

  Stone stepped back inside a moment later and locked the door behind him. “Have a seat at the kitchen table. I’ll put our stuff away and have a look around. Then we’ll figure out something that resembles dinner.”

  Lily kind of wanted to argue because she didn’t want him to get the impression that she’d simply comply with whatever he wanted her to. But the truth was, despite her nap earlier, she was still beat. This day had worn her out. And if she was being totally honest, something about the edge of command in his voice incited a zip of excitement down her spine.

  He didn’t wait to see if she complied, just picked up her crap and headed down the hall. As Lily watched him retreat, she held in a sigh. She almost never noticed a man beyond his eyes, his hands, and his behavior. But she took one look at Stone’s ass and thought she might swallow her tongue.

  God, she had to get her head together. No doubt he would have a million questions for her once he came back. She’d been trying to decide how to effectively skirt the truth or if she should simply feed him a bunch of lies. She still hadn’t reached any conclusion, and now she had only moments to decide.

  She heard the thump of her luggage hitting the floor in a nearby room; then his footsteps resounded through the cabin, coming closer. Her stomach knotted into a tangle of nerves.

  He appeared in the opening between the kitchen and the hallway, bracing a big hand on the wall. His biceps flexed, the colored ink there snagging her gaze.

  “You hungry, baby?”

  To be contrary, she wanted to say no. But she really was famished. “Yes.”

  With a curt nod, he peeked into the fridge. “What are your kitchen skills? Mine suck.”

  “Mine are good.” She’d been feeding herself and her little brother since she turned nine and her mom had picked up another full-time job in a better part of town, which had been far away from where they could afford to live. But that was Los Angeles. “What’s in there?”

  “Besides condiments and bottled water, eggs, yogurt, a few veggies . . .” He shut the door and bent to open the freezer beneath. “Looks like we have some chicken and hamburger patties. And lots of frozen crawfish.”

  Lily shuddered. “Not much of a fish fan.”

  “By the time folks from Louisiana get done cooking crawfish and putting it into an étouffée, it doesn’t really resemble fish anymore.”

  Still, she shook her head and rose, peeking inside. “If you’ll hand me the hamburger patties, I think I have an idea.”

  He passed her the frozen meat. “Good to hear. I could eat a dozen eggs by myself and still be starving.”

  Taking a few items she needed out of the fridge, she winced. She needed to remember she wasn’t cooking for one now, and Stone could probably eat enough for three of her. “Anything here that resembles booze?”

  He narrowed his eyes. “No.”

  “You didn’t even look.”

  “I don’t need to. We’re not drinking tonight. I want you completely sober.”

  That sucked, but she should probably keep a clear head for all the questions he would surely ask her. “Give me about thirty minutes. I’ll have food ready.”

  “I’ve got nowhere to go.” He pulled out a chair. “Except wherever you are. So why don’t we start at the top? The man after you is named . . .”

  She turned on the gas stove and fished around the cabinets until she found a pan. “Homicidal Maniac. I’m not filling in that blank for you.”

  Stone clenched his jaw, obviously wishing that she’d stop stonewalling. He simply didn’t get that she was doing him a favor.

  “In order to defend you, I have to understand what I’m up against. If you don’t want to give me a name, I need to know what sort of crimes he committed. What is he capable of?”

  “Anything. Everything.” She tossed the hamburger patties into the warm pan, trying to focus on the mundane so that images of Erin’s last day on earth didn’t cripple her. “Drugs, extortion, racketeering, rape, murder. I can’t prove it, but I think he once had a ring of sex slaves he sold off to fat, rich men. He denied it, but it was amazing how many young girls disappeared from our neighborhood, seemingly without a trace. He doesn’t possess a shred of humanity.”

  “And you found that out and lived to tell the tale.”

  She didn’t know how to answer that without implicating herself so she just shrugged and listened to the meat begin to sizzle. A moment later, she poked her head in the fridge again. It was a good excuse not to meet Stone’s demanding gaze.

  “How old were you?”

  “Sixteen. And that’s the last I’m saying about it.” She grabbed what looked like arugula, a bag of thick sandwich rolls, and some shaved Parmesan. If this was Jack’s place, he knew how to eat decently.

  “Did he hurt you physically?”

  Lily hadn’t expected that question. Stone sounded on edge, like the answer could really, truly set him off. “Me? No.”

  Just everyone she’d ever cared about.

  “So you witnessed a crime.”

  She’d witnessed absolute horror.

  “I’m done talking.” She flipped the first of the burgers, more for something to occupy herself than for any real need.

  Stone didn’t say anything for a long minute. At first she was happy for the silence. Then it began to worry her. She didn’t know him well, but in her experience a silent Stone was a thinking Stone.

  Lily looked over her shoulder at him. Sure enough, he’d fixed his stare on her, his eyes full of speculation. But he didn’t say a word.

  Somehow, that made her more nervous.

  “Do you like Parmesan?” she asked inanely, then berated herself. The first tactic of a good interrogator was to leave silence for the witness to fill.

  “Sure. Tell me about your family.”

  “My dad ran out when I was little. The rest are dead.” To preclude him from asking the next, obvious question, she countered with a query of her own. “What about you?”

  “When I was arrested, the feds decided to make an example of me and my buddies so that other affluent kids would understand they weren’t above the law. Around that time, my grandmother fell and suffered some internal bleeding. She passed away. A few months later, shortly after the sentencing, my mother died of a heart attack. We n
ever reconciled. I didn’t get to attend her funeral. My father severed all ties after that. I spent a lot of time behind bars reeling from the fact that one decision cost me a
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