Chapter 1 ~ Ever After

EverAfter_FINAL3_RGB72Red paint dripped from Olivia Bennett’s fingers. She tightened her grip on the metal canister in her right hand and gave it a solid shake. Beneath her feet, the ladder wobbled. With a startled squeak, she sent a burst of spray paint onto her boots.

“Sorry, Liv,” Terence called from below.

“Watch it, will you?” She pressed her palm against the cool, corrugated metal of the factory wall and took a deep breath. Then she lifted her right hand and pressed the valve on the spray paint canister, forming a brilliantly red “S” on the side of the building.

“Almost done,” Kristi said.

Easy for her to say, standing safely on the ground next to Terence. At the top of the ladder, Olivia fought to keep her balance as the remnants of several margaritas sloshed in her stomach. Hell of a way to end her twenty-ninth birthday.

The beam of Kristi’s flashlight cast Olivia’s shadow in stark silhouette over her red-painted message. She leaned right to spray another “S” but couldn’t reach. She’d have to come down and move the ladder to continue, but a muffled sound captured her attention.

Mew.

The sound was soft yet keening. A kitten? Some other baby animal? She craned her head, peering into the darkness. “Did you guys hear that?”

“Hear what?” Terence asked, his tone wary.

“It sounded like a kitten.”

Kristi panned the flashlight around them, plunging Olivia into darkness. She leaned a hip against the side of the building to steady herself.

“I don’t see anything,” Kristi said.

“Okay, put that light back on me so I can get down.”

The flashlight’s beam once more illuminated her, and Olivia scrambled quickly to solid ground. “I heard some kind of little animal crying while I was up there, so keep an eye out.”

“Will do.” Terence moved the ladder over so that she could reach the next section of wall to be painted and held it steady as she climbed back up.

Six letters to go, and they were out of here. Terence would drive them to his place for a post-graffiti celebration. Olivia was in no condition to drive herself anywhere tonight. Adrenaline mixed with trepidation as she stood at the top of the ladder yet again. The margarita buzz had faded enough to know she was doing a crazy, stupid thing that wasn’t going to do a damn thing to help the chickens who arrived here daily, their only hope that death would be quick and merciful.

Based on what the undercover cameras had captured, that hope was slim.

She ground her teeth, her fingers clenched around the spray can. It was inhumane the way those birds were treated. Actually, it was inhumane the way most factory-farmed animals were treated, but this was happening right here in her little hometown of Dogwood, North Carolina.

Mew.

A flash of white fur caught her eye, disappearing into the bushes behind the factory. If it was a kitten, it was tiny. Was its mother nearby? There weren’t any houses for miles around. Dammit. Now she was going to have to go on a kitten hunt before she went home. She couldn’t leave it out here to fend for itself.

“Hurry up, Liv,” Kristi called from below her.

Olivia raised the canister and let loose another blast of red paint. She’d just started “I” when the sound of an approaching vehicle reached her. Her finger slipped, and a fresh coat of paint soaked her hands.

Kristi and Terence must have heard it too, because the flashlight shut off, leaving her at the top of the ladder in pitch darkness, afraid to move. Headlights slashed through the night from Garrett Road, some two hundred feet to her left. They slowed, then tires crunched over gravel as the car turned into the factory parking lot.

Christ on a cracker.

“Get the hell down, Liv. We’ve got to get out of here!” Terence whispered.

A swirl of blue lights turned the night into a kaleidoscope of oh, s***. She pressed against the side of the building, stymied by paint-slickened fingers as she fumbled for the top of the ladder.

She was so not getting arrested on her birthday.

Except that she so was. A spotlight shone from the cruiser, illuminating her in a blaze of light so bright she could do nothing but press a hand over her eyes and count how many ways spray-painting Halverson Foods’s chicken-processing plant had been a bad idea.

The ladder shifted beneath her, and she groped for the top rung. The combination of the spinning blue lights with the piercing glare of the spotlight was seriously disorienting.

“Hands where I can see them,” a male voice boomed.

She shoved her hands into the air, managing to smack herself in the face with the can of spray paint in the process. It fell to the ground with a muffled thump. Oh, this sucked.

“Come down from the ladder, nice and slow, and keep those hands up,” the cop instructed. He sounded nice-ish. Maybe he’d go easy on her. Maybe…

Awkwardly, she fumbled with her right foot for the next rung of the ladder. It swayed dangerously to the side. “Terence!” she hissed, her fingernails scoring metal as she tried to steady herself.

Silence. She looked down, but the spotlight’s glare blinded her, preventing her from seeing past her own paint-spattered boots. “Terence? Kristi?”

She managed to get her foot settled onto the rung and took a step down. No answer came from her friends. What the hell?

She lifted her left foot to take the next step, and the ladder just dropped out from beneath her. One second it was there, the next she was plummeting through space.

“Oomph,” came a masculine grunt, as she slammed into someone’s chest and big, strong arms closed around her.

“Terence?” Her voice was a squeak, because Terence was nowhere near this strong, and he didn’t smell as good either. This man smelled faintly of cinnamon, his arms solid as steel behind her thighs, and based on the hard bulge stabbing into her kidney, he was also armed.

Oh, crap. Crap. Crap!

“Sorry,” he answered her question, setting her roughly on the ground. “Not Terence.”

“Oh.” She staggered, still blinded by the spotlight aimed at her. Disoriented, she turned her back and blinked at her shadow on the factory’s gray wall. Terence and Kristi had deserted her. Bastards.

“Keep those hands where I can see them,” Invisible Cop said.

With a sigh, she placed them on the wall before her. Her hands glistened blood-red in the harsh light. She had been caught red-handed. Dammit. She’d always hated being a cliché.

* * * *

Deputy Pete Sampson reached for his cuffs. When he’d taken the call about a trespasser on Halverson Foods’s property, he surely hadn’t expected to find a teenage girl on a ladder, covered from head to foot in red spray paint. “You want to tell me what you’re doing out here tonight?”

She kept her back to him. “It’s fairly obvious, right?”

He looked up. The side of the building dripped with big, red letters. It was obvious all right, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she tried to talk her way out of it anyway.

“Chicken ass?” he read. What the hell was that even supposed to mean? Kids these days. He shook his head in annoyance.

She made a choking sound, squinting up at her handiwork. “I wasn’t finished.”

“Do tell.”

“It was supposed to say Chicken Assassins.”

“Ah. Well I suppose you know this is private property.”

She nodded, her shoulders slumping.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Olivia Bennett.”

“I have some bad news, Olivia. You are under arrest for trespassing and vandalism. You have the right to remain silent.” Pete snapped cuffs around her slender wrists as he read her her rights. He could spare her a pat-down because there was no way in hell she had anything concealed beneath that purple tank top or the fitted jeans that hugged her willowy frame.

“It’s my birthday,” she mumbled.

“Sorry, kid. The law makes no exception for birthdays.”

“Kid?” She turned to face him, and he saw he’d been wrong about one thing. She was no teenager pulling a back-to-school prank. This woman was mid-twenties, easily, and far too beautiful to be doing what he’d just caught her doing. Her long, blond hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, and she stared at him from wounded brown eyes.

He shrugged. “Seemed a pretty juvenile thing to do.”

Chicken Assassins. In retrospect, he realized he was dealing with an animal rights activist instead of a teenaged troublemaker.

“Do you have any idea what happens to the birds in there?” she asked, her eyes bright with emotion.

“They get slaughtered.” He took her elbow and guided her toward his cruiser. Her breath smelled of alcohol. “You drive out here?”

She glanced over at the red Prius parked behind the building. “Um—”

“You’re drunk.”

“I wouldn’t say drunk, exactly.” She ducked her head as he tucked her into the back of the cruiser.

“Let’s find out, shall we?” He took his portable breathalyzer out of the car and crouched beside her.

Her eyes widened. “Let’s not. I know my rights, deputy.”

Pete stood. Great. A drunk troublemaker who knew the law. He had zero tolerance for people who drove under the influence. He’d seen firsthand the damage they inflicted on society, the lives and families torn apart.

Zach Hill had been left without a father.

Pete’s gut soured. “Fine. You’ll take it back at the station. Where are your keys?”

Her brows creased, and she glanced at the empty seat beside her. “I must have dropped them.”

She was lying. But why? He closed the cruiser door and walked back to the building, shining his flashlight over the gravel lot. No sign of car keys. He walked to the Prius and tried the door. Locked. No keys visible inside.

She’d been looking for someone when she fell off the ladder. Maybe she’d had an accomplice. He returned to the cruiser and opened the back door. “Who’s Terence?”

“A friend.” She studied her shoes.

“Was he out here with you tonight?”

She shook her head. “No, sir. Just me.”

But he’d seen the flicker of truth in her eyes. She’d had an accomplice all right, probably a boyfriend, since she was protecting him. “That’s unfortunate, you being out here alone and intoxicated. Judge might be inclined to think you drove drunk.”

“I didn’t—” She pressed her lips together and looked away.

Well fine, if that was the way she wanted to play it. He buckled her in and slid behind the wheel. Fifteen minutes later, he marched her into the Dogwood County Detention Center. Olivia kept her chin up while she was fingerprinted and photographed. She blew a .078 on the breathalyzer, which meant she had almost certainly been over the limit if she had driven herself out to that factory earlier tonight.

Pete wanted to know more about this Terence she was covering for. But for now, he was ready to let her sit and think over her foolish behavior for a little while.

“Judge Gonzalez will hear your case first thing in the morning,” he told her, as he led her down the hall to the holding pen. Lucky for her, she was the department’s only visitor tonight. “You got someone to come bail you out?”

“What?” She eyed the cell with its steel bench, toilet, and sink, her eyes wide and horrified.

“You’ve been arrested, Miss Bennett. Now you need to call someone to bail you out.”

“Um, right now? It’s like one o’clock in the morning.”

He shrugged, fighting a smile at the incredulous look on her face. “You break the law in the middle of the night, you either rouse someone from bed to bail you out or you bunk with us.”

She gripped his wrist as he propelled her inside the holding cell. “Wait! Okay, yes. I need to make a phone call.”

“All right.” He took her by the elbow and steered her down the hall to the phone.

“Could you?” She held out her cuffed hands. “Please?”

“Fine.” He uncuffed her and sat on the bench against the wall while she made her call.

She stood there, looking forlorn and vulnerable for several long seconds, then shook her head and picked up the phone. He’d expected her to dial the boyfriend she’d been looking for earlier, but instead she called someone named Merry.

“It’s Olivia. I’m sorry to bother you this late, but I didn’t know who else to call.”

Pete tossed an arm over the back of the bench and watched her. Olivia kept her back to him, her shoulders hunched. Her friend apparently hadn’t picked up, as she left a message and ended the call.

“No luck?” he asked.

She kept her back turned. “Can I try someone else?”

“Go ahead.” He watched as she dialed another number. She spoke in hushed tones, then hung up and rested her forehead against the wall.

He stood. “All right then.”

She turned those wounded eyes on him again as he led her back down the hall to the holding cell.

He slammed the cell door behind her with a solid clang for effect. “Make yourself comfortable. We’ll let you know if anyone shows up to bail you out.”

And with a chuckle at her expression, he left her there.

* * * *

What a jerk.

Olivia adjusted her head against the metal bench. He might be handsome as hell, but Deputy Sampson had looked downright gleeful when he’d locked her up, and that was just rude. Now she’d spent the night in jail, and oh, how it had sucked. Thank goodness she’d sweet-talked the young guy behind the desk into letting her use the ladies’ room down the hall, because that toilet…

She eyed it with disgust. God help her if Deputy Hot Stuff were to come back and catch her with her pants down. No way. She’d sooner wet her pants. Almost.

“Ugh,” she groaned out loud. Her head throbbed, and her back ached. Spray-painting the Halverson Foods chicken-processing plant was officially her worst idea ever. And assuming she got her ass bailed out of here before lunchtime, she was scheduled to work the afternoon shift at the Main Street Café.

Yep, she had learned her lesson. Big time. No more breaking the law. She just needed to get out of here and find a way to put this whole thing behind her.

“Mornin’ sunshine,” came a low, male voice.

She squinted up at Deputy Hot Stuff himself and…ah, Jesus, her head.

“Sleep well?” he asked, as the cell door clanged open.

“Just peachy.” She sat up and rubbed her eyes.

He set two aspirin and a paper cup filled with water beside her.

“Oh, my God, thank you. I take back all the awful things I thought about you last night.” She swallowed the aspirin and gulped the water greedily.

“Awful things, huh?” He didn’t look like he’d been home—or slept—since last night either. His cheeks had darkened with stubble, and his eyes were weary.

“All forgotten.” She leaned her head against the wall and looked at him. It hurt to focus her eyes, but no, her perception hadn’t been altered by the margaritas. Deputy Sampson was one fine-looking officer of the law.

He stood tall and strong with olive skin, brown hair cut short and neat, and eyes as dark as coal. If he hadn’t been the one to throw her in jail, she’d have definitely tried to get his number—or rather, get him to ask for hers.

He stepped back and motioned her to follow. She stifled another groan as she stood. Every bone and muscle in her body ached. And her head felt like someone was in there with an ice pick chiseling away at the backs of her eyes.

She gazed longingly at the ladies’ room as he guided her down the hall, and he stopped with a sigh.

“Go on. Five minutes to freshen up. Don’t make me wait.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, and darted inside. She made quick use of the facilities, then splashed cold water on her face and rinsed out her mouth. It wasn’t much, but she felt slightly rejuvenated when she rejoined him in the hall.

He led her next door to the courthouse but stopped her outside the courtroom. He turned those ebony eyes on hers. “Let’s get one thing clear before we go in there. I can’t charge you with DUI since I didn’t catch you behind the wheel, but unless you want to tell me who was out there with you last night, I’m left to assume you drove yourself. You ever have to walk up to someone’s front door and tell them their loved one is dead? Killed by a drunk driver?”

Jesus Christ. “No.”

“If I ever catch you driving under the influence, I will throw the book at you. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.”

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