Sleep danced on the edges of my consciousness, just out of reach.
Sighing heavily, I gave in, opening them with a muted groan to stare into the dark.
The silence was so keen tonight it almost felt heavy. Like a physical weight on my chest, like pressure all around me. It had a presence all its own in the cabin. More than presence, though, I recognized it for what it was behind the mask it wore.
Absence of hope, absence of desire, the absence of him.
My lips twisted as the pain came, but I’d grown used to it now; That hollow ache in my chest every time I thought of him.
It didn’t knock the breath out of me anymore at least. I hated it those first few weeks, chastising myself for having ever felt anything for him at all.
Now, I welcomed it. The leftover pain of his absence was the only reminder I had that I’d ever really lived.
Stories like yours deserve a better ending.
Since that night of confession with Tessa I’d gone to his house three times.
He wouldn’t see me.
The doors were always locked, and no one came no matter how hard I banged on the solid wooden panes. No matter how loudly I shouted. Even though I knew he was in there. I could sense him, feel his eyes on me from the windows even if I couldn’t see him.
On the third night, I tried to force my way into Delirium and when they refused me, I’d thrown a brick through the front window next to the door, right into the foyer. Shocked at my own penchant for violence. At the hurt that propelled it.
His men did open the door then, but only to drag me back to my car and stuff me inside, ordering me to leave.
It hurt and I fucking hated him for it.
Hated him for being as stubborn as a goddamned mule and just as immovable. For making me into a husk of myself. For ruining me inside and out.
I rolled onto my side, staring at the wall until my eyes adjusted.
Another sleepless night. I wouldn’t care much if the exhaustion didn’t affect my work. You could still damage a dead body if you weren’t careful and I’d almost botched the filler on two corpses this past week.
I bet he slept like a baby.
My eyes caught on the stack of books on the nightstand. I hadn’t cracked a single spine since they showed up on my doorstep. A stack of six, tied together with a satin red ribbon. There was no card but I knew where they came from. Who ordered them.
Why even bring them? Why not throw them out? Burn them? Drop them in the goddamned ocean?
I certainly wouldn’t be reading them.
Yes, little lamb, I’ll order your filthy books.
I shuddered, my stomach clenching tight.
They’d make the hours pass, but I knew they’d also just remind me of him. In the same way certain scents did now. Certain sounds. A certain type of music.
I reached out, shoving the books from the nightstand to the floor before groping under my pillow for my phone. My eyes burned at the brightness of the screen but I endured it until they adjusted.
What was social media good for if not endless hours of distraction?
Eventually, my vision started to blur. It faded out and then snapped back into focus. My eyelids drooped. My hand’s grip around my phone loosened until finally, I was sucked under.
As I slept, there was a distant tapping. It was sharp enough to pierce my drowsy reckoning, but I ignored it, stuffing my face into my pillow.
It came again, three hard, succinct bangs.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
My eyes opened, registering everything at once.
It was still dark. Late. Middle of the night. And there was knocking.
I sat up, the cloud of sleep dispelled in an instant as I looked around my cabin, kicking my blankets off.
My feet hit the cold floor and I sucked in a breath through my teeth, reaching for my robe.
My brow furrowed as I threw open my bedroom door and footsteps slowed on their path to the front door.
But… Ruarc wouldn’t knock.
He didn’t ask for things, he took them, again and again.
Every time he’d been inside my cabin it was without my opening the door to let him in.
“Hello?” I called tentatively, swallowing hard when no reply came.
Licking my dry lips, I pulled the robe tighter around myself, rushing to the kitchen for a knife from the block before going back to the door.
Steeling myself, I adjusted my grip on the chef’s knife, flicked on the porch light, and flung the door open.
The porch light brightened one side of his face, leaving the other largely in shadow. My breath caught in my chest, holding there, making my lungs burn. I exhaled slowly.
“I thought you were never going to open up,” he said, a small smirk pulling the side of his lips. And then, I saw the blood.
He took a small step forward, unsteady, swaying on his feet. He held onto the railing around the porch to balance himself.
“What happened?” I asked, setting the knife down on the small key table by the door as I stepped out, my heart in my throat.
He grunted as he turned to me, his eyes bright against the river of darkened blood marring the other side of his face.
I gasped, searching the lawn behind him and the driveway for danger before grabbing him by the arm to drag him inside.
“Who did this to you?”
He laughed, the movement reopening the long slash in his cheekbone as I directed him to sit on the couch.
With the full lights on, the damage was even worse than what I’d seen. The white shirt he wore was splattered with dried blood. But worst of all were his hands. They were soaked in it. Every wrinkle and crevasse filled with red.
“You should see the other guy,” he said lightly.
I put a hand to his forehead, checking for fever but finding his skin cool to the touch. With a grip on his chin, I forced his head back, tilting it so I could examine the wound on his face.
The gash looked uncomfortably new. Whatever happened, it happened tonight. Hours ago if not less.
It was unusually intimate being allowed to see him in this way. I knew what he did and what that meant, but I never saw it in front of my eyes. He kept that part from me. Until now.
I went to the bathroom to find some Neosporin. My reflection, spooked and wide-eyed, looked back at me from the mirror.
In spite of the fear and uncertainty, I felt keenly alive.
I’d missed this. Wanted to grab hold with both hands and refuse to let go.
Ruarc was still there on the couch, sitting obediently where I left him when I came back out. It was a good start.
“What did you do?” I asked, kneeling in front of him.
His dark eyes roamed my face, appreciating me from the new angle with a tight jaw and heat behind his stare.
He didn’t say anything, instead reaching for my arm and pulling me from the floor. He guided my thighs over his lap with blood stained fingers before settling them at my waist, holding me there in a straddle over him.
My breath caught at the feel of him, hard beneath me. Solid. Real.
When I looked into his eyes, I didn’t see the ghost looking back at me. I saw flesh and blood. Not a monster. A man.
His grip on my waist tightened and my body responded, arching into him as my arms threaded around his neck. Ruarc pressed a rough palm to the middle of my back, clutching me close as our mouths collided.
He kissed me. Hard. Stealing all the breath from my lungs as he wrapped his muscled arms around me and squeezed tight. He groaned against my mouth, and a delicious ache spread through my belly, awakening a desire that’d been dormant since our last encounter.
“Emily,” he whispered against my mouth, breaking the spell.
I pulled back, our lips breaking apart but our bodies still fastened by the tight grip of his arms.
He tried to press the back of my neck, tried to bring me back to him but I remained at a distance, fighting his insistent touch.
“I am not your whore,” I said, leveling the full meaning on him. Needing him to see how much I meant it.
I craved him more than I’d ever craved anything else, but I wouldn’t be that for him. I couldn’t.
I wanted it all. Or I would have nothing.
His lips pressed into a thin line, but he released my waist, lifting a hand to gently brush the hair back from my face, tucking it behind my ear before running his fingers down the line of my jaw, dragging a shuddering breath from my lips.
“Oh little lamb,” he said, a light in his eyes now. “You never were.”
“I was just too ignorant to see it. To much the fucking coward to reach out and take it.”
My face fell. “You’re not making sense. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, Emily Snow, that I love you.”
A sob grew in my chest, halted by my complete inability to breathe as tears stung my eyes.
“You hurt me, Ruarc. You just fucking left. You just…” The sob finally came out and I choked it down, sniffing, trying to regain control.
He nodded, pursing his lips.
“I know.” He cupped my face between his palms and I swallowed as a tear escaped and he rubbed it away with his thumb. “All I’m asking is that you let me try to make it up to you.”
“I don’t know if you can.”
He licked his lips. “Well I’ve got our whole lives to try.”
“Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
A shuddering sigh shook my lungs as I dropped my head, feeling weightless and anchored all at once.
I wiped my nose on my sleeve and moved to crawl from his lap. “I need to clean and stitch that cut in your cheek before it gets infected.”
He pulled me back, inclining his head to the door. “Before we do that, there’s something I was hoping you’d help me with.”
I followed his gaze to the door.
“Nixon’s in the trunk.”
I stiffened in his grasp.
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, nodding. “His corpse is.”
Soft lines were drawn at the corners of his eyes, making his gaze unbelievably vulnerable. Reflexively, I wrapped my arms around him, tight. He seemed like the last person in the world who would need to be held, who needed comfort or reassurance, much less from me, but he didn’t stop me, pressing his face into the crook of my neck.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I need you to get rid of it,” he said, voice muffled. I let go of him, my hands on his shoulders as I looked into his face.
I felt there was more he wasn’t saying and I bit my lip, waiting for him to continue.
“Nixon, and whoever else comes next. I want it to be you, not your father.”
I struggled to close my dropped jaw, reading between the lines.
He wasn’t just asking me to take over for my old man, this was him asking me if I could do this. Really do this. If I could accept that being tied to him meant also being tied to the syndicate. To crime. To sin.
My father handled cremations. He always had, but there were times when I needed to assist. Or times when he was too ill to do it himself. I knew how. It wasn’t difficult.
It wasn’t an open flame or anything, it was a very high-tech incinerator. The bodies were placed in simple wooden coffins and the conveyor system slid them into the flame. When it was finished, we collected the ash. That was it.
But could I feed a body, a soul, into the flames knowing that somewhere out there, someone would be missing them?’
I considered Ruarc’s request, my gaze meeting his hard patient stare.
A monster who killed other monsters.
I nodded gravely. “Only the guilty,” I said, drawing my line in the sand. “I won’t be responsible for vanishing innocents. I can’t.”
He nodded back. “Okay.”
“What about my dad?”
His arms were loose around me, settled comfortably on my hips while mine were on his shoulders. Our embrace almost comically laid back for what we were discussing.
“What about him?”
I stared at him, waiting, willing him to elaborate until he finally sighed.
“Your father betrayed my trust, Emily. I can’t work with him.”
My jaw clenched.
“As a favor to you, I won’t harm him. He can go on performing autopsies and whatever else he does until he kicks the bucket.”
This time when I climbed out of his lap, he let me.
He eyed my outstretched hand before taking it, wincing as he used it to help him stand.
After the rain earlier, the air felt light and refreshing as we exited the cabin, a balm to my frazzled nerves.
“Where is he?”
“In the back of the Lincoln, parked near the road.”
I nodded, renewed by a sense of purpose, a morbid thought passing through my mind.
“Drive ’round to the service entrance. We’ll use the lift to bring him down. I’ll go fire up the old beast.”
Ruarc scoffed before walking away into the dark, down the narrower path to the main road, while I veered to the right, traipsing through wet grass in my bare feet.
I was glad it was Nixon; the first corpse I’d feed to the flames.
I remembered the rough way he’d nearly dislocated my arm. The cruel things he’d said. The fact that he’d tried to hurt Ruarc only compounded the interest of my hate for the man.
It would be easy to watch him burn.
I might even enjoy it.
I got to the building first, punching the code into the rear door to enter. I paused as I pulled it open, the familiar sensation that I was being watched washing over me.
Instinctively, I turned my head to the right, squinting past the security lights to Dad’s house in the distance.
No lights, no activity. Ruarc came straight to me, but there was a chance my dad was watching. That he might see me.
I laughed at the ridiculousness of it.
Never enter the mortuary after midnight.
I didn’t think I’d ever break that rule again and yet here I was, willingly tying myself to the midnight hour and to everything that came with it.
Smirking, I wedged the wooden door stop in the base of the door and went down to the basement, flicking on the lights in the cremation chamber.
The controls were simple and even though I hadn’t had cause to use the cremator in a while, I managed to get it going within a couple minutes.
I heard the elevator’s hum out in the hall and grabbed the clean trolley from the hall to meet him. The doors opened and Ruarc stepped through with a lifeless Nixon over his left shoulder.
His steps were slow, panting as he brushed past me into the hall.
“Put him down on this,” I said, pushing the trolley toward him. He heaved the body, dropping Nixon on the slab with a clatter.
I stilled, taking in the full extent of the damage.
He’d clearly lost a lot of blood. His shirt was soaked in it and I saw rips in the shoulder and chest where he’d been punctured with a knife. His eyes were half open and his skin chalk white.
“You used a knife?” I asked.
“It was personal,” he replied, like that explained everything.
Spotting the watch around his wrist, I lifted his arm so I could take it off. It wasn’t going to burn in the incinerator. I took his rings, too, fighting to pry them from stiffening fingers.
I held the jewelry in my palm, checking his pockets for anything else before I was satisfied. The gold and silver pieces in my palm looked expensive. I held them out to Ruarc.
“Do you want to keep these? The incinerator won’t destroy them, I’ll just have to pick them out of the ashes afterwards.”
His cool, hazel eyes looked at the items for a long moment. I started to retract my hand thinking he didn’t want them, but he reached over, plucking the watch from my grasp.
He held it between his hands, rubbing the crusted blood from the surface with the pad of his thumb.
Okay then. I discarded the rings on a tray. We’d have to come up with something else to get rid of those. I wondered what my dad usually did with them.
“Anything else the incinerator won’t destroy?” Ruarc asked, clearing his throat.
“Metal fillings, artificial joints, screws, plates. Those things won’t burn, but everything else will.”
Ruarc’s eyes were downcast, flitting between Nixon’s body and the watch in his hands.
I’d seen the look before. Granted, not on the face of someone staring down at the man they’d just murdered, but… what did I know?
“Do you want a second alone with him?”
His eyes came up sharply.
“There will be more,” he said ominously before I could begin to wheel Nixon away.
“What do you mean?”
He inclined his head to Nixon’s broken body. “Like him. There will be those who try to succeed where he failed before I have time to put it all back together.”
My stomach turned, but I pushed my shoulders back, taking a steadying breath.
“I’ll do it,” I replied. “If someone tries to hurt you and you hurt them first, I’ll make sure there’s no evidence it ever happened.”
The ghost of a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth and for some reason it made me feel defiant. He had no right to look so damn smug.
“But, we have to talk money.”
His eyes darkened, but that smirk remained.
“I don’t need a disposal fee or whatever arrangement you had with my father. I just want to know that if I do this for you–”
“For us,” he corrected and damnit if I didn’t get a mad case of butterflies.
I cleared my throat.
“If I do this for us, I need to know that this place, my family’s mortuary, will be safe. It’s the only thing I have left of hers. My mother. And I mean, it’s a win, win. You make sure it’s financially able to remain open, and you can use it for your needs.”
“Is that all?” he asked, cheeky now. Maybe I should’ve asked for more.
He reached out his hand over Nixon’s corpse and I clasped it in mine, sealing our bargain. When I tried to pull away, his grip tightened, hauling me in close over Nixon to steal a kiss from my mouth.
Euphoric lightness fluttered through me. Ruarc was no hero. He was broken, jagged, and damaged but I didn’t need him to be perfect. I didn’t need a storybook romance. Not that kind of storybook, anyway. Kissing a man in the cold room of my family mortuary while the incinerator heated up to cremate his long-time friend was far from the happily ever after I imagined. But this wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning.
“Is the oven preheated?” Ruarc asked, a dark brow lifted as he pulled away.
I cringed, but laughter filled my throat. “Please don’t call it that.”