As if on cue, the knee pain comes, and more scotch vanishes from my glass. I’ve just wrapped up a ten-day hunting trip with some skinny-jean-wearing assholes from Portland, who drove me to drink more than my bum knee does. I tolerated their cloying cigar smoke, not to mention their juvenile questions about how Eskimo pussy stood up against the “garden variety.” Their shoddy attempts at hunter safety were another matter, and after three days, I’d been ready to ditch them like the Donner party and let Mother Nature sort it out. Somehow, I mustered up the discipline not to smother them all in their sleep, and they left grinning behind their handlebar mustaches and already planning another trip back to the last frontier.
I shake my head with a soul-rattling sigh. Suppressing the urge to shoot people who were a danger to themselves and everyone around them is taxing, but better than a nine to five in some factory. I earn a hefty paycheck keeping idiots alive so they can brag to their fellow craft-beer-guzzling hipsters how they’ve “conquered” Alaska. Lucky for them, I’m compensated very, very well.
My phone rings, and the interruption pisses me off. I need time off like other people need sleep. I haven’t broken a barstool over anyone’s head lately and I’d kind of like to keep it that way.
After every hunt, I religiously schedule myself seven days of blissful solitude. Just me, a fridge full of beer, and my nightly date with Pornhub. Resolute about preserving my downtime, I let the call go to voicemail.
My ringtone starts up again, and I roll my eyes. Glutton for punishment that I am, I look at the screen.
An unfamiliar area code. A number I don’t recognize.
An inexplicable chill runs through me, and I try to shake it off, but my gut tells me to answer, and my gut is never wrong.
I swipe the screen hurriedly, ready to chew someone’s ass.
“Who is this and how did you get this number?”
A pause follows, and I hear her inhale. The intake of air against her vocal cords gives her identity away, and I go numb as I realize who’s on the other end of the line.
“Connor?” My name from Lilah’s lips wakes my slumbering temper, along with my dormant libido. Ages have passed since I heard her smoky voice, but I’d recognize it anywhere. My heart lurches and my knuckles crack as my hand clenches into a painful fist.
Delilah Fucking Campbell.
Fucking isn’t actually her middle name, but it should be.
“Hello?” She sounds nervous, which is as rare as the birth of a white buffalo. Lilah’s the cockiest person I’ve ever met, and after my time in Special Ops, that’s saying something. My pulse thunders in my ears when I remember the way she strutted into every room like she owned the place. I realize I’m on my feet and pacing, and I blush. A simple greeting from her has me at the ready. Just like the old malamute resting beside my chair, I’m a well-trained dog responding obediently to her dinner bell.
Delilah had been my first friend. My first kiss. My first time. Vivid flashbacks of that particular night cause cracks in my icy reserve. Lilah’s the only girl I’ve ever loved, and our disastrous breakup whipped my ass ten times worse than my piece of shit father ever had.
I hear Lilah release a frustrated breath through the tiny speaker in my phone, and I swear I can taste her as if we’ve just kissed. My temples throb in time with my pounding heart. “Connor? Are you there?”
“I’m listening.” I fight to sound cool and detached. She has a lot of nerve calling me, but then she’s always had balls of steel.
“It’s Lilah.” Her unnecessary introduction makes me twice as furious.
“No shit.” I’m tempted to hang up on her then and there. So much for keeping my cool. I hear her sigh, and flashes of her inundate me. The candy she always snuck into the movies, and how it tasted on her tongue as we made out in the back row. The way the guys in school gathered to watch her stretch at cross-country practice like frat boys at a strip club. How they thought she was playing hard to get, when she was just balls to the wall, so good at the things she deemed worth doing that she didn’t get how average people could live with their mediocrity.
All this comes rushing back with stinging clarity. Once upon a time, Delilah was my everything. We used to be inseparable, a package deal…Lie and me against the world. I knew her better than I knew myself back then. Or at least I thought I did.
“I need your help.” This isn’t a request, and her audacity makes me laugh. After all the blood shed between us, she thinks she can just appear out of the blue and I’ll do her bidding. If she’s going to rip open this scab, I’m going to make it hurt.
“With what? That pretty boy you married needs another trophy?”
Score one for me.
I lean back in my chair and wait for her to tell me to kiss her ass.
The silence on the other end makes me wonder if she hung up. I pull the phone from my ear to look at the screen when she speaks again.
“I’m not calling to talk about Josh.”
“Why the fuck are you calling me?” I snarl into the phone, sitting forward so suddenly that Runt flinches in surprise.
“You haven’t heard…” Lilah’s desperation is palpable and it brings a smile to my lips.
“Spit it out, Delilah. It’s late and I have shit to do.” Her name tastes sweet and the thought makes me want to punch myself in the face.
“I would if you’d shut up for five seconds!” Her confrontational tone causes a familiar stirring below the belt. Ignoring my dick, I take a pull from my glass to stall as I decide on a reply.
She sniffles, and my stomach plummets. I’ve been so caught up in my rage that I’d missed the grief woven in her voice. She sounds shaken, un-Lilah-like. “It’s Mom. She’s…missing.”
I choke on the liquid I’m swallowing and cough to clear it. Lilah’s mom, LuAnn, is my godmother, though Lu doesn’t put much stock in God. She and my mom had been lifelong friends. They used to put Lilah and me in the bathtub together as babies, that’s how far back this incestuous shit of ours goes. LuAnn is a living reminder of my mom, who passed three years ago, and she’s also the only Campbell who’ll still have anything to do with me.
“Wait. What? What happened?” Sympathy leaks out before I can contain it. To say that I’m conflicted is putting it mildly. I don’t want to be kind to Lilah. The idea is so distasteful it makes my stomach churn. I want her to suffer, like she’s made me suffer. I want her to ache. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I can still feel my hand around her throat.