Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/5261330.

Rating:
Mature
Archive Warning:
No Archive Warnings Apply
Category:
F/M
Fandom:
Bates Motel (2013)
Relationship:
Norma Bates/Alex Romero
Character:
Alex Romero, Norma Bates
Additional Tags:
Love, Sex, Mystery, Drama, Crime, Angst, Hurt/Comfort, Jealousy
Stats:
Published: 2015-11-22 Updated: 2016-03-06 Chapters: 6/? Words: 21651

Reasons

by

Summary

When a land developer arrives in White Pine Bay with promises of advertising and opportunity in exchange for Norma Bates' support and influence with the townspeople, she and Sheriff Alex Romero will find their relationship, their morals--and their safety--tested in ways they never expected. [Takes places shortly after 3x10. This is a collaboration with my wonderful and talented friend Batesfan-Normero (on ff.net). Rated M for sexual content.]

Chapter 1


 

A/N: Chapter One written by the beautifully talented Batesfan-Normero!


Norma was leaning against the front desk in the office reflecting on how scared she was. Thinking Norman had left for good. Thankfully just as fast as he had left he came back. She didn't know what made him change his mind but she was just so happy to have him back. She didn't mention Pine-view again and wasn't planning on it for a little bit. He had been acting like nothing had happened so she was happy to do so as well. There's so many things going on and she was having a hard time dealing with it all. She is spending all her time in the office trying to keep her mind off of everything. It hasn't been working very well as there isn't much to do around the motel. They didn't have many people staying there so there was just a few things here and there that kept her busy. Her mind kept drifting to the fact that at any moment in time there could be police on her property to arrest her and Norman for the murder of her husband Sam. She tried for so long to keep it a secret but in a moment of weakness shared that information with James Finnigan, a man that Norma wishes she never ever met.

It was to late to take it back, Bob Paris knew and was going to use it against her. Norma realized that she had been leaning against the desk for a while shifted her weight and turned her head to the clock. It was nearing 8:30pm, she had been so absorbed in her thoughts didn't even realize that she could have closed up the office a hour ago. She walked over to the door flipping the sign over on to the closed side when she peered out the window at the dark motel porch. It was just two nights ago that she stood on that a dark porch only lit up by the orange street lights, having the first honest conversation with Alex Romero. A man that Norma never thought would ever be the one that would break down her thick walls of self-preservation. The moment she met Sheriff Romero, all she did was try to hide the truth from him.

In the beginning she thought it would be easy but over time it just seems to become harder and harder. Now he knows the truth about Norman and her and yet for some reason she wasn't as scared of that as she thought she should be. Maybe the fact that he came to say that he wishes that he could protect her or maybe it was something else. All she knew is that she was doomed. She thought briefly about leaving town but figure that would be any good. It wasn't bob that she would just be hiding from it would be the police and that wasn't something that she wanted to do. Spend the rest of her and Normans hiding. Knowing her luck they won't get very far anyways. With a big sigh Norma turned the lights and shut the door behind her and locked up, She then headed for the house for the night.


Alex sat in his leather chair in the dark with his drink of scotch in his hand. Wondering to himself how he got to this point. He just killed a childhood friend and ruin a DEA assignment in order to protect a kooky woman whom he some how fell in love with. He become the man that he spent his whole life hating, his father. He knew it and even Bob pointed it out to him before he shot him to death. What was he going to do? it was too late to go back now. He knew what he wanted to do but just couldn't bring himself to do it. He wanted to drive straight over to the Bates Motel to tell Norma that she didn't have to worry about Bob Paris anymore. That she was safe, that he was able to protect her. But he couldn't do that! He couldn't tell Norma that he killed in order to protect her. No way! He didn't want there relationship to change because she felt that she owed him or had to make sure he wouldn't tell her secrets. He wanted his love to be mutual. Her knowing what he did for her would always have him questioning her motives.

At this point he was pretty confident that she doesn't feel the same way. As he has tried to kiss her nearly 3 times and every time she has avoided it. Even in the hotel room after she picked him up at the bar. It seemed like they were getting closer and then she basically ran away. No matter how many times or grand gestures he makes Norma doesn't seem to feel the same way. For the sake of his career and for trying not to let his guard down anymore than Norma had already torn down. Alex decided it would be best that he return to his old ways and try to forget Norma Bates. It was time to put his guard back up!

It was a gorgeous morning as Norma headed down to open the office for the day. When she reached the office the paper boy was there switching out yesterdays paper for todays.

"Oh can I grab one of those before you close that" she asked the young man.

"Yup, here you go mrs. bates!" the young paper boy said as he handed her the White Pine Bay chronicle newspaper. He then turned to leave. Norma folded the paper and opened the office door. She did her usual office routine, opening the blinds, turning on the computer and then sitting on the stool at the front desk. Since she had so much time on her hands in the mornings waiting for the few guests that she had to leave she would read up on the events of the day. She grab the paper that she placed on the edge of the desk to bring closer to her. When she unfolded it she was struck with the sight of a big picture of Bob Paris. 

The headline "On the Run: Wanted by DEA" Norma eyes widened as she went on to read the whole story. Paris is missing and wanted by the DEA for multiple charges including 1st degree murder, fraud and extortion among a long list of other charges. Paris is the only one of the several others involved in the criminal offence to have escaped the DEA raid. Norma didn't know what to think of the news that she was reading. She couldn't believe her luck! The only one that could use the knowledge of her past against her to lessen his sentence is the very one they weren't able to arrest. It still scares her to death that he's out there but she couldn't help but feel relieved, for the time being Bob Paris wasn't thinking about going after her. At least she would be the last of his worries right now. She could feel a little bit of weight lifted off her shoulders knowing that her and Norman were safe for now.

The front door to the office opened, Norma lifted her head to see one of her guest there ready to check out.

"Morning!" norma said to the older gentlemen as he approached the desk.

"Morning! What a beautiful day it is, isn't it?" he asked.

Norma for the first time in days felt ok, "it really is!" she responded with a smile. The man checked out and left the office a few moments later.  Norma continued to smile and looked out the window admiring the gorgeous day. It was then her thoughts turn to Alex, just as he popped in her mind her smile faded. "why didn't he tell her?" she wondered to her self. 

The news in this town is always a few days behind. He could of came by and told her himself. Come to think about it, she hadn't seen him since that other night. Was he mad at her for  everything that has happened? She should be the one that's mad about it! She wasn't though, not anymore anyways. She was just worried about Norman.

Norma called up to the house for Norman. "hi honey! I was wondering if you were up to working in the office today? I have a errands to run in town and Emma isn't able to work for awhile." Norman had been better lately but he has been spending more time in the basement. She was happy for him to be keeping out of trouble so she didn't bother him much but she needed him to take over the Motel duties.

"I'll be down shortly." he said. 


 

Norma thought her best chance of getting Alex to talk to her was by going to the Station. She was always good at getting his attention there. Last time calling him a third grade girl seemed to work. She was hoping that she won't have to resort to such actions this time. Though she isn't sure where they stand. He knows the truth now but seemed like he was genuinely upset that he couldn't protect her. But he is also still the sheriff!

When she arrived at the station she saw his SUV there, for some reason she always remembered which one was his. As she walked into the station front door she was passed by five men in DEA issued bullet proof vest. She turned her head to watch them walk out it was then, when she heard Alex's voice. She turned around the corner to find Alex in his usual Sheriff's uniform plus a black bullet proof vest. He stood in the long narrow hallway talking with a middle age woman who was wearing a DEA vest and badge. She must be the DEA agent in charge. It sounded like they were talking about a raid that they were about to do. Norma stopped in her tracks looking at Alex. He looked tough but very handsome at the same time. He always did but this was the first time she had seen him in his vest and looking like he was about to be a bad ass cop. 

Out of the corner of his eye Alex caught Norma standing at the beginning of the hallway. He stopped dead in the middle of his sentence with Agent Babbit. She turned to see what made the sheriff seem so uneasy.  She spotted the beautiful blonde making eye contact with him.

"I'll ahh.....I'll wait for you outside sheriff." agent Babbit said as she turned and walked past Norma. He just looked at her briefly as a way of acknowledging what she said then he turn his gaze back to Norma. 

He could feel his jaw tighten as he was flooded with all the emotions of everything that has happened over the past few days. He didn't want to walk to her, he didn't want to see her there. He was still mad that she didn't tell him the truth after everything she lied to him, until of course he forced her to tell him what happen. She had this affect on him, he hated it! Maybe if she showed him signs that she felt a quarter of what he felt then it wouldn't be so bad. The only thing that she shown him was a little vulnerability the other night on the Motel porch but right after she walked away. 

After standing there just staring at each other Alex clenched his fist and walked closer to her. Norma stood still watching him come within arms reach of him.

"You shouldn't be here!' he said almost at a whisper level.

She looked directly in his eyes surprised that she could feel the distance between them even though they were only a few inches from each other. "Why didn't you tell me Bob left town?"

"Because Norma, It's not my job to keep you informed!" he snapped. He wasn't surprised that was what brought her to see him. Though it did feel like another dagger to the heart.

"Oh really?! Cause you seem to make everything else your job!" she snapped back as she watched Alex's eyes squint a little bit. She knew how ever mad he was at her she was just making it worse.

"Look I get it! You're mad but I need to know if Norman is safe! If....if I'm safe." For a brief moment he just wanted her to know what he did for her! How he protected her and that because of him she was safe. But he promised himself that he wasn't going to tell her, at least not this way. 


Just as he was about to respond to her a man approached them from behind Norma. "Sheriff! Agent Babbit says we're ready to roll!"

Alex broke eye contact with norma to look at the man. "okay!" He turned to back to Norma. "You're safe!" he whispered  angrily then stepped a little closer to Norma as he was about to leave. "Don't ever come in here again!" he said as he left her standing in the long hallway by herself. 


 

Norma sat in her car in the motel drive way at the end of the day. She wanted to feel relieved that Bob Paris wasn't going to cause any more problems for her for the moment. She just couldn't fully be happy about it because of how Alex was acting towards her. He knows the truth and she wondered if she should be worried about that. They've become close over the past few months and even closer over the time that she had turned to him for help. Was that friendship ruined now that he knew the truth. She definitely felt a distance there, almost similar to when they first met. 

It had been weeks since news broke that Bob was out of their lives. Things seemed like they were going good. Norman was having less black-outs and was back to enjoying working at the motel again. He spent sometime in Portland with Dylan visiting Emma in the Hospital. She is  expected to be released from hospital soon so that was great news. Norma was even starting to feel optimistic about things again. The only thing that really seemed different in her life is the absence of Alex. She had seen or heard from him since he left her standing alone in the police station hallway. She's been hearing around town that the DEA had left town so work would have settled down for him. Normally she would have seen him a couple times by now by it seemed like he was avoiding her. 

Now that everything had settled down she could feel herself missing him. That was something she never really paid attention to as she had so many other problems to deal with.  She's caught herself a few times thinking about the day in the motel room, and how she enjoyed having him over for dinner. Every time she got in the car she thought about that nice gesture he made, getting it back for her. The moments that make her heart flutter every time she thinks about them, the fight in his house. She plays that in her head over and over. She never had someone get to her in such a way. He broke down her walls and caused her to be vulnerable and honest. She's never been that way with anyone other than Norman. Norma didn't know what was going on with Alex or her what these feelings for him are but she did know that she missed him. 

"Mother!" Norman said to Norma as she was changing the bed sheets in one of the rooms after a guest had check out. Norma was in a daze with her deep thoughts about Alex when she heard Norman's Voice. "Mother!" he said again.

"Wwwwhhaaaatttt!" she said back to him.

"We're out of receipt paper and since you refuse to let me drive anywhere you're going to have to get some."

"Okay! I'll go after I finish this room." she said ignoring his comment about the driving. 


 

It was another cold but sunny day in White Pine Bay, Alex felt the need to get out of the office. Sitting at his desk didn't help keep his mind off Norma. He decided spending the afternoon giving out tickets would help keep his thoughts from going over that last month. He really didn't have much else to do now that the DEA had left and the town had become quieter. He stood at the window of a 2004 ford escape. An older gentleman was caught doing 58 in 35 so that was worthy over pulling him over. Alex had just finished handing the man is information back and giving him a ticket when he noticed Norma's car approaching. She must have spotted the flashing lights on his SUV as he watched her slow down. He turned toward the pulled over car to pretend he didn't see her. 

Norma slowed down to see if she could spot if it was Alex, she didn't know what she'd do if it was him. She past the pulled over Escape and spotted Alex. Norma watched him in her rear view mirror, as he was getting smaller from the distance between them. She had only driven a few seconds past him when every fibre of her being made her turn around. Alex thought he was in the clear he couldn't see Norma's car anymore so he let the guy drive off. 

He went back to his vehicle, opened the door and hopped into the drivers seat. He turned off the sirens and was putting the paper work away, getting ready to watch for more speeders. When he heard the sounds of wheels on gravel he looked up in his rearview mirror where he spotted Norma parking her car behind his. "oh great!" he thought to himself.

As Norma placed the car in park and got out walking straight to Alex sitting in his SUV, she started to feel a tight knot in her stomach.  Alex remained in the car, he thought it would be easier to drive away if he needed to, plus he felt like he couldn't move. She had such a powerful effect on him, he wasn't sure what was about to happen he just kept thinking what ever she is about to say to him isn't going to be good. He was preparing himself for the worse as she approached him. Norma stopped about an arms length away from the window of the police cruiser. Luckily for Norma the window was already rolled down from earlier. She looked at him sitting there staring at her. He looked mad but its always hard to tell with him, he has never been one to show a lot of emotion.

"So.....this is how it's going to be?" she said abruptly after just standing along side the car making strong eye contact with him.

"How what's going to be Norma?" he asked.

"You've been avoiding me! Ever since you discovered the truth." She said as he could tell she was mad.

"I'm not avoiding you! Did you ever think that just maybe......i have other stuff to deal with than just your problems?" They looked at each other for a few seconds not saying anything.  Norma was getting a vibe from him but wasn't quite sure what it was.

"Look! A lot has happened over the past month and I just want to know if we're ok! I didn't expect to but i've come to really value your friendship Alex."

Alex was caught off guard at her words. They seemed genuine and heartfelt. He wanted to push away, say something that would protect him from falling deeper in love with her. But it seemed like all he could think to say was "Yeah, we're fine Norma." Not sure if she believed him.

Norma gave a little smile as she spoke "still friends?"

When ever Alex sees Norma smiled it weaken his knees. It had been a while since she smiled at him.

He gave a half smile while answering "still friends!" Her smile got even bigger as the two of them looked at each other. Neither of them knowing what to say but they could feel the air between them get lighter as they we're mending fences. Norma suede a little side to side as she has done numerous times when she gets nervous.

"So....the stuff I said about Norman, that stays between us right?" she asked. 

Alex stared at her for a moment. He could feel his blood bubbling. Did she really just ask that? He wondered to himself. He couldn't believe that after everything he's done she still doesn't trust him. Her coming up to him today was just another way she was using him to ensure her and Norman's safety. God could this woman really only ever want to use him for her benefit?

After a few seconds of just staring at Norma, Alex spoke. "Really, Norma! You're really asking me that?"

Norma watched Alex's demeanour change the second she asked it. "well I don't know what you're thinking. And you know things about us...." She stopped talking as she was worried to say anymore as she noticed the look in Alex's eyes. Though he was very hard to read she could tell that she was making him mad. 

Alex broke eye contact with norma turning his head to the Police scanner when the dispatcher voice came on the radio. "Code 14 on baker street. All available units are requested."

Alex looked back at Norma as he reached for the radio to respond. "Copy that, on my way!" he said into radio. Alex didn't know what to say to Norma other then, "I've got to go Norma!" he placed the cruiser in drive while turning on the sirens.

Before Norma knew it she was standing on the side of the road watching him drive off. She had this sinking feeling in her stomach. She didn't know before what Alex was going to do with the information that he had on them but she felt like she made things much worse between them. She didn't get Alex! What made him so mad and why couldn't he just tell her that everything was ok. She felt more vulnerable then ever. 

Chapter 2

Despite the morning rain and the constant tension between her and Alex, Norma found herself in a surprisingly pleasant mood. Oregon air had a way of soothing her anxieties, at least in the spare moments she found herself alone and far from the demands of children and guests and obstinate sheriffs, and today was no exception.

Six a.m., no obligations immediately in sight, and though she hadn’t slept well the night previously, it was a smug, private luxury to sit behind her desk in the office, sip hot coffee—loaded down with too much sugar and cream, more of a dessert than a beverage—and watch the dawn begin to clear the mist pressing in against the windows.

For the first time in months, perhaps even years, Norma found solitude. Though still a rarity, a quiet stretch of hours with nothing to do was becoming surprisingly prevalent in her life. Uncommon enough to be sweet in its novelty, she nevertheless felt a growing concern in the back of her mind.

Norman, increasingly preoccupied with his taxidermy, spent more and more time in the basement, no matter how often she yelled at him to do something productive like read a book or turn down an unused room. Dylan spent the majority of his days at the hospital with Emma, who was slowly but surely recovering from a lung transplant--Norma made it a point to send flowers and books and candy, certain it must’ve been dreadfully boring to be locked in a room so far from her father and friends and belongings. And, of course, the guests were dwindling by the day, courtesy that damned bypass and a town economy that, while no one had explicitly said anything to her, she was certain was rapidly taking a nosedive.

No friends in town, if she were truly honest. And now Alex could barely look at her, let alone come by for a visit.

Yes, what initially seemed like a pleasant break from the chaos of her normal life suddenly began to feel oppressive. Stillness had long been her nightmare; it was the hushed, gentle, unexpected moments when the monsters under the bed or in one’s head slipped in and raised Hell, that she’d learned early on. But her children and the motel and the bizarre happenings of what should’ve been a peaceful small town had kept her endlessly (almost happily, despite the danger and the drama and the fear) busy.

And now, she realized with an encroaching sense of dread, everything was … serene.

She loathed it.


Alex rolled onto his side with a groan, blindly feeling for his alarm clock. Didn’t know why he had the damned thing in the first place; it only ever disturbed the precious few hours of peace he managed each day.

Peace, of course, may have been too generous a word. Peace could not inhabit a world in which Norma Bates existed, and she was an ever-present feature in his dreams. He’d tried to push her from his mind, day after day, but the harder he tried the more she appeared. A cruel joke, one that drove him to increasingly large amounts of bourbon in the hours before he crashed into a heavy, borderline-drunk sleep. That woman would drive him to alcoholism, he was sure of it.

She was a distraction, that much was certain. Not like he didn’t have enough bullshit to deal with: the town and its various elected officials had made it more than clear they found his recent performance as sheriff unsatisfactory. Elections coming up, and though he had initially dismissed Bob’s claims that he’d soon be replaced, Alex now understood that to be an issue warranting concern.

Even worse, his deputies knew it. Either through town gossip or just scenting it on the wind; a guilty hush so frequently fell over the station whenever he walked in that he loathed turning up each morning. Work had been his sole source of comfort for so many years the sudden turn around threw him, wounded him, left him clawing for some source of stability in a world that was, perhaps for the first time, beginning to crumble around him.

Thus, bourbon. Bourbon had yet to fail him.

Much as he wished he could’ve spent a few more hours in bed, eventually he managed to get his feet on the floor and get moving. Hit the shower first. Dressed, brushed his teeth, made coffee. Didn’t mind the bitterness as a contrast to the toothpaste; he’d always preferred a good French Roast to mint, anyway.

He dutifully ignored the faint but still sweet scent of plumeria when he shrugged on his jacket. A lingering trace of Norma Bates that had clung to the leather no matter how many days passed. It had occurred to him, briefly, to take the damn thing in and have it cleaned. Erase her scent just like he hoped to erase her image from his thoughts. But he could never quite bring himself to do it.

It was just perfume, anyway. Meant nothing. It’d fade eventually.

Everything faded eventually.

By the time he pulled into his parking spot he’d thought of her nearly twenty separate times. And twenty separate times he’d pushed her out. Played stupid mental games with himself, reciting sports teams he didn’t care about and city council members he didn’t like, a desperate attempt at distraction.

Hell, he even tried to redirect his attention to his last girlfriend. Sure, they hadn’t spoken in nearly eight years, but at least they’d parted on good terms. Just a general parting of ways; she’d hugged him, and he’d kissed her forehead and wished her well. Young, beautiful, clever Diana. She’d been a joy and a light and a Hell of a lot less trouble than Norma.

But, no, even that hadn’t been enough.

He turned the engine off and sat in his SUV, silent and glowering for a long moment. An imitation of an internal struggle, he thought. He couldn’t even pretend it was real—he known from the first he’d already lost.

He pulled out his phone, flipped it open, and began scrolling through old texts.

Where are you?

I need your help with something, please call me.

Why aren’t you answering?

Dylan’s gone and Norman’s upset and I’m so scared. Call me.

I wish you’d talk to me.

Jesus, Alex, what is this? The silent treatment?

I just want to ask you something.

Please just answer me.

He’d never answered. Couldn’t bring himself to. But then he couldn’t bring himself to delete them, either. Instead, he read them. Over and over. Every single day. Until the words, so simple and plain, were burned into his brain, formed into something of a siren song, pulling him back to her no matter how much he struggled to claw free.

With a sigh, he snapped his phone shut, climbed out of his SUV, and walked towards the station.

It was going to be a long goddamned day.


 

Busywork proved a Godsend. Norma had never been so happy to spend a few hours planting row after row of tulips. Sure, they’d probably die in the cold, and then she’d have to replant them in the spring, but it was something to do with her hands, and the colorful flowers added a certain cheer the Bates Motel hadn’t felt in some time.

And then there had been a baseboard to repaint, and a door key to replace, and suddenly her dreaded solitude became a productive day full of asinine errands she normally avoided at all costs but now embraced with open arms.

It was nearly three in the afternoon when she became aware of a car pulling into her driveway, and for one brief, stupid moment her heart sped up, the idea of seeing Alex appear for an impromptu visit too tempting to push away. But the car was unfamiliar—most definitely not the Sheriff’s SUV—and she chided herself for expecting anything else. He couldn’t even be bothered to answer her texts these days.

She pushed herself up from the floor—she’d been busy fussing with a cracked electrical socket when she’d heard tires hit gravel—and quickly smoothed down her hair, smeared the barest traces of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand.

By the time the man walked into the office and shut the door behind him, she was the picture of calm and loveliness behind her desk, contentedly tapping at her keyboard as if she had an endless string of reservations and tasks to attend to.

“Good afternoon,” she chirped, flashing what she hoped was her most charming smile. The man wore a crisp, tailored suit. Expensive watch. And while she hadn’t caught a good look, she was fairly certain he drove a BMW. A new BMW.

Each guest was a blessing. Well-to-do guests unaware of the high-end extended-stay rentals downtown were doubly so.

“Afternoon,” the man said. Tall. Warm brown eyes. A smile that showed no trace of annoyance or disdain when he looked at her. Norma liked him immediately.

“May I help you?”

“You absolutely may,” he said. He stepped up to the counter, placed a credit card—platinum Visa, no less—on the counter in front of her. “I’d like a room, please.” A brief pause, and then, as if a second thought, “Actually, I’d like several rooms.”

“Several?” Norma, startled, glanced up. “Are you expecting company?”

“Indeed I am. Seven should be enough.”

“—Seven…?” Norma, to her credit, made damn sure her eyes didn’t widen. Kept her smile in check—friendly, polite, but calm. No need to telegraph her joy, and therefore her desperation.

Seven rooms was a gift from God. But her guests certainly didn’t need to know that.

“And how long will you be staying?” she asked.

“Oh, a few months,” the man said. The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled, and his teeth were a bit too even, a bit too white. Flawed in their perfection, she thought. There was a certain charm to it. But then, there was a more definite charm to a stranger showing up, out of nowhere, to request an extended stay for seven guests.

“Well, I’ll need—”

“An initial payment,” he finished for her. “Yes, of course. Two months in advance suitable?”

More than suitable; it would keep her and Norman afloat and lush with a sense of comfort they hadn’t felt in months. She’d have to remember to bake a cake later.
Or, Hell, she’d buy one. Let someone else do the baking.

“Your name?” There was a giddiness in her voice, she knew, but couldn’t bring herself to chase it away. And, anyway, the man seemed to like it; he smiled broadly whenever she spoke.

“Jonathan Cotterill.”

“Mm.”

“My colleagues will arrive within the next few weeks, but I’d like to have the rooms on stand-by, if that’s alright.”

“Of course! Absolutely.” She entered his information into the system, handed him a key, and offered him the biggest, toothiest smile she could muster; this man, though he’d never know and it she’d certainly never tell him, had just saved her business. For the next few months, anyway.

It had been an ever-present worry she’d yet to share with Norman, or even Dylan. They’d noticed the lack of reservations, of course, but she’d never been comfortable discussing financial matters with them. Didn’t want them to worry. And, anyway, though she didn’t subscribe to any hokey theory about the law of attraction, she did cling to the idea that success followed success: nobody wanted to stay in a failing motel. She couldn’t very well telegraph her fears or her troubles to the town and expect new guests to show up.
Better they think the motel—and its proprietress—were doing just fine.

“Well,” she said, the morning’s ups-and-downs eclipsed by pure relief, “I hope you enjoy your stay here. If you have any questions or special requests, please let me know.”

“I do have one request, actually.”

“Oh?”

“Might I be gifted with your name?”

With a start, she realized she’d failed to introduce herself. Terribly rude; she would’ve chided herself in different circumstances. But she’d been so excited to see a guest, not to mention one that brought six others with him, paid in advance, and had no intention of leaving for at least two months.

A charming guest, too. Too charming: he smile too even, his eyes too warm. Tall, and sure, he carried himself with a certain elegance. He dressed well and openly flirted while not badgering her with pointless small talk, and when she’d leaned over the desk to hand him his key, she’d noticed that he smelled like cedar and soap and a vaguely floral shampoo that, somehow, made the cedar all the more appealing.

Not at all like Alex.

Alex was smaller, compact but more powerful. Whenever she hugged him he smelled like firewood and leather and fresh clean skin and maybe the occasional trace of bourbon—something expensive and vanilla-sweet, though she’d never been much of a drinker and it was hard to really identify it—and he certainly didn’t bother with expensive suits or fine watches. He forever looked annoyed when she chattered at him; always so eager to snap at her when she pushed his buttons.

No, this man was a far, far cry from Alex, and, oddly, she found herself simultaneously missing the sheriff and yet growing increasingly curious about this new stranger.

“Norma Bates,” she said. And when she offered her hand for a shake, he had the beautiful audacity to lean down and brush a polite kiss against the tops of her knuckles.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Norma Bates.”

“You too.” She crinkled up her nose when she smiled, both pleased and embarrassed, May I ask what you’re doing in town?”

“I’m a land developer.” He shrugged out of his jacket as he spoke, draping it over the crook of one arm, and Norma couldn’t help but notice the width of his shoulders. Not as muscular as Alex, no, Jonathan lacked his solidity. But he cut a graceful figure, nonetheless. “Looking into purchasing some local properties, break ground, bring some new business into this charming town of yours.”

“New business?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. A retail complex. Some boutiques, restaurants, a movie theater. That sort of thing.” He laughed. A deep, easy sound, something she imagined would wipe clean any trace of discomfort from any room he entered. “Dreadfully boring to hear about, I realize, but hopefully in a year’s time it’ll bring a bit of joy to the folks here.”

“Nothing instills joy like shopping,” Norma said with a small smile. “I’m sure the town will be thrilled to have you here. We could use some new attractions.”

“Perhaps,” Jonathan said. For the first time he looked distracted, glanced off to the side, lost a beat in thought. But he recovered quickly enough, the smile Norma was quickly growing to enjoy sliding across his face once again. “You know, as a developer, I always appreciate the support of local businesses. Quite a win-win in the right circumstances; we thrive on good word-of-mouth in the early stages of production, and once established, we can offer excellent free advertising.”

“Support? What would that involve, exactly?”

Jonathan held her eyes just a moment too long; not unfriendly, but not flirtatious, either. Something Norma couldn’t immediately put her finger on, and though it made her uncomfortable she didn’t break contact.

“Would it be too forward to ask if we might discuss it over dinner?” he asked, finally.

The day certainly hadn’t turned out the way she’d expected. And, at this point, Norma had long given up attempting to hide her glee or her smile or the thrill that a new face—let alone a tall, charming, attractive one—could bring.

“Not too forward at all,” she said.


 

Alex sat, silent and glowering once again, in his SUV. This time parked across the road from the Bates Motel.

He didn’t reread his texts.

He didn’t even try to chase Norma from his thoughts.

No, he was too busy fighting back the bile rising in his throat. The painful burn spreading through his chest, dipping down to twist into a painful knot in the depths of his gut.

Norma stood in the parking lot talking to a man he’d never seen before. Smiled at him like he was the sun and the moon and her goddamned savior.

The man laughed at something she said, moved in a step towards her. Placed his hand on the small of her back.

She put her hand on his arm. Didn’t shy away from his touch.

Alex started the engine. Gripped the wheel so tight his knuckles ached. Pulled out onto the road.

He’d take the jacket to be cleaned tomorrow.

Chapter 3

Ilardi was the sort of expensive, high-gloss restaurant Norma frequently fantasized about but never actually believed she'd experience. A three month waiting list just to get a reservation, unless you fancied waiting around outside for hours in the hopes someone would forget their date, and once you were in the bill set you back so much you were better off putting a down payment on a new car.

Only seemed natural that Jonathan, though he'd been in town a mere two days, would secure them a table and waltz her through the front door like he owned the place. She hadn't asked how he'd managed it; struck her as a rude, albeit tempting (very, very tempting, in fact) question.

He'd shown up at her door precisely at 6:30, tiger lilies in hand, made of charm and a broad smile, suit perfectly tailored. No doubt some designer she'd never heard of, but would later wish she had. He'd opened the car door for her, driven safely but a bit too quickly to the restaurant, preemptively tipped the valet, and pulled her chair out at the table.

"You look beautiful," he said, once seated across from her. He'd not deprived her of compliments on the way over, either. In fact, they hadn't particularly conversed so much as she listened to him wax poetic about her beauty, a speech that lasted nigh twenty minutes and was, at times, a bit over the top. Not that she cared. No matter how elaborate or rapid-fire his praise, it sounded warm, and genuine, like there was no one else he'd rather spend an evening with.

A nice change of pace, if she were honest. Dylan was too busy with Emma these days; Norman was too busy being Norman; and Alex? Well, she tried not to think about Alex. Not too much, anyway. Better to enjoy the company you have, she'd decided, not the company you miss.

"Jon, this place is gorgeous," she said, flipping through the menu. "But you didn't have to go to all this trouble!"

"Oh, no. No trouble at all. The owner's an old friend."

"Oh?" Norma glanced up, brows knit in confusion. "You've been here before?"

"Born and raised." He smiled, a lazy drawing of his lips over his teeth. Bashful, almost, like he found his lack of forthcoming shameful. "It's not something I talk about much. Not close with the family and all that. You know how it goes."

"Mm, I do, yes. But do they still live here? I might know them, maybe we could—"

"Dead." He said it so quickly, so sharply, that Norma startled. But then he smiled again, and offered an apologetic shrug. "It happened a long time ago. Difficult for me to talk about. Even if we weren't all that close."

"Death's hard that way. When my mother died," she began, softly, "I was fine for days. Didn't cry, didn't care, didn't even think about it. It was just 'oh, mother's dead. I wonder what I should make for dinner?' And then I went right back to my day, like nothing mattered."

"Until suddenly it did?" he ventured.

Norma nodded. "I guess I didn't expect it. One second I was fine, and the next I was sitting at the kitchen table and there wasn't enough amaretto in the world."

"For me it was bourbon."

"Oh," she said, a trace of a laugh in her voice, "you have that in common with—" But she trailed off, instead, didn't bother to finish her sentence. No point in bringing him up. Not here, not today. Not with a gorgeous man paying for what would no doubt prove to be her hideously expensive dinner. One who didn't act bored or repulsed by talk of the dead, or sadness.

Not exactly dinner conversation, was it? And they'd only sat down moments ago. Yet he didn't seem to mind, and his ease with her and his ownership of the space around him—as if he owned the very air they both breathed, and as she was currently apart of his world, she owned it, too—helped her relax, give into the flow of it.

"This is the first time in a long time that I haven't felt … nervous, I guess," she said, and shrugged. "I know that sounds odd; we just met, of course, and we're here to talk about business. But it's been a long time since I've been able to go out and have dinner with someone. Just two adults talking."

"Motherhood's a demanding job, I hear."

It wasn't exactly that, of course. Norma was, above and beyond all else, a mother. But motherhood bespoke something else, something sweeter. This dance with Norman and Bob Paris and the tension with Alex … whatever this was, it was something all together different. A special brand of Hell, maybe, and one she'd hope would come to a swift end.

The waiter saved her from having to respond, arriving to take their respective orders, and fetching a bottle of wine. Jon, a fount of knowledge on all things out of her price range, tasted it and deemed it worthy of the table.

By the time they finished their meals—conversation ranging from basic pleasantries (no, Jon said, he'd never been married. Never had kids, either, though now and again he regretted it. No pets to speak of, but he liked plants, and sometimes he wished he had a dog to come home to) to the slightly ribald ("And that's why I can't go back to Canada," Norma said. "So much for a road trip, right?") to the somber ("It's hard being an orphan," he told her, and she'd nodded, understanding all too well. "I just turned forty-six, and it's not any easier.")—they were both three glasses of wine in, and prepared to begin working on the fourth.

Jon was the first to reach for the second bottle. "We haven't even gotten down to business!" he said, but there was no trace of annoyance. Just a warm laugh, and a smile—Norma liked the way the skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the sort of open expression that had, or so it seemed to her, nothing to hide—as he reached for her glass and topped her off.

"Pff, who cares? We have all night." Her words were just slightly slurred, and normally she would've felt self-conscious. She seldom drank, especially not in public. But he was just as tipsy and relaxed and joyful as she. And so none of it mattered, she realized. This was ease. This was the simplicity of two people enjoying one another's company. No tension, no screaming matches, no irritatingly beautiful, sullen, guarded men harassing her to tell the truth or reveal her secrets or give up the precious hold on her son.

Jon was nothing like Alex, she'd known that from the first moment she'd met him. His manner, his smile, his voice, even his smell set him apart, made him a unique entity in her world.

But Alex was so inherently singular, so utterly his own man, that it was impossible to properly compare the two, though she tried.

Alex Romero was only ever capable of being Alex Romero. Incomparable, irreplaceable, impossible, annoying as Hell, with an irritating way of barging into her thoughts.

"So," Norma said, determined to shun any and all nagging thoughts of the damned Sheriff, "tell me what you brought me here to tell me."

Perhaps it was best to cut to the chase. Business always made for such a useful distraction.


Alex Romero was tired of pizza. And lo mein. And shitty coffee and cheap beer and expensive bourbon, the latter of which he found astonishing. Bourbon had been a friend and ally for more years than he could count. But lately it tasted like gasoline, and regret. Unsavory, and irritating. Best to leave it behind for a few days, he thought.

Normally he didn't much care for wandering into town at a reasonable hour. Eight p.m. and downtown was awash with light and laughter and children and happy couples, restaurants and bars churning up business left, right, and center. It should've made him happy, really. It used to. He thrived when the town thrived. That was why he'd wanted to become a cop as a kid: to do some good. To bring some prosperity to the people of White Pine Bay. Not the old-blood, wealthy families, but the people. People like him, and his mother, who struggled and fought and just wanted a slice of peace in their little corner of the world.

Not so long ago people greeted him with respect, even fear. But the tides had changed. Bob warned him of it, though initially he'd ignored it. Difficult to do so now, when individuals he passed either openly glared or avoided eye contact. Many simply did their best to avoid acknowledging him, discomfort evident on their faces.

It wasn't entirely unpleasant, if he were honest. He used to loathe the crush of people, too many faces asking too many questions. Made it difficult to get anything done, or even just catch a breather. Some part of him, no matter how painful this particular isolation felt, enjoyed the freedom to simply dress down and exist as Alex Romero. Not a sheriff; not a cop; just Alex.

Fuck them, he thought, with a touch more bitterness than he was prepared to expect. Fuck everything. He'd wander down to the diner, or maybe that new bistro that popped up. Snag a strong shot of espresso and a decent meal. Eat until satiety and exhaustion got the better of him, and then drive home, fall into the coma-like sleep he'd been enjoying recently. A nice change of pace to his usual insomnia.

But it was her laugh that caught his attention, and subsequently derailed all his plans. The high, trilling, delighted laugh he'd secretly loved. The sound of it never failed to move him; he wished he were funnier. Lighter, maybe, more easy going. All so he could hear it more. He never made Norma laugh, not really, and he mourned it. Not that he'd ever admit it.

"Alex?" She'd caught sight of him too, though only when he'd stopped in front of her, too stunned to really move, trying to piece together exactly what he was seeing.

"Evening, Norma."

Norma look startled, and then something resembling pleased. At least until a man came up to her—the same one from the motel, Alex realized—and slid an arm around her waist while holding the other hand out for a polite introduction.

"Good evening! Jonathan Cotterill. And you are…?" he said, and Alex didn't fail to catch the alarm rapidly swallowing Norma's features.

"Alex Romero." He offered a terse nod, and shook the man's hand, though only out of the barest respect for civility. Already he didn't like him; reminded him of Bob and that breed of so-called gentlemen. Suit expensive, nigh overly tailored. Teeth too even, too white. And a forehead that didn't move: too much botox.

Yes, Alex thought, he absolutely fucking hated him.

"Pleasure to meet you," Jon said.

"Doubtful," Alex replied.

"Alex!" Norma, annoyed and nervous and glancing back and forth between them, nevertheless had the wherewithal to snap at him. Her hand was on his arm before he could protest, and she turned to Jonathan, muttered a quick "I'm so sorry, this will just be a moment," and proceeded to drag Alex down the sidewalk and into the alley behind the restaurant.

"Norma," Alex snapped, jerking his arm from her hand. "The Hell do you think you're doing?" He'd been patient enough to let her pull him over here, but there were limits.

"What the Hell are you doing?"

"Just making conversation. Thought that was obvious."

"Conversation? Are you kidding? You didn't need to be so rude."

"Pretty sure he can take it, Norma." He nodded to Jon, who was otherwise engaged with a phone call. "Looks like he's already moved on. I doubt he'll cry himself to sleep tonight."

"God, do you have to be such an ass?"

Alex, exhausted and hungry and not hugely fond of the idea of playing third wheel to Norma and her new boyfriend, rolled his eyes. "As a matter of fact, yes. Now, if you'll excuse me—"

"You've been ignoring my calls like a churlish child, and now you're just going to walk away?"

"Pretty sure your date's waiting for you, Norma."

"He's not my date." She said it so swiftly, so firmly, that for one brief, stupid moment he felt his heart rate kick up a notch, the first glimmer of hope beginning to settle in his chest. Didn't like acknowledging his jealousy.

He especially didn't like having to face the fact that seeing her with another man had driven him crazy for two days. He'd taken his jacket to be cleaned, eager to fade the scent of her perfume, but backed out at the last minute. Just couldn't bring himself to do it. And he still reread her frantic, annoyed texts every spare moment that he had. And the image of her touching Jon's arm in the Bates Motel parking lot still haunted him every time he closed his eyes.

Finding them together like this? And with her dressed like that? Hair pulled up, lips scarlet, little satin heels and a black dress and a plunging neckline? Too much. Too goddamned much.

It physically hurt to see them together; hurt all the more that Jon, apparently, could make her laugh. And Alex didn't want to give into it, didn't want to say anything, or hold even the tiniest glimmer of hope in all of this chaotic racket, but she'd said he wasn't a date and he just couldn't bring himself to ignore it:

"He's not your date?" he asked, softly. More softly that he would've liked; felt like it gave too much away.

"No," Norma said, shaking head head. "Not my date."

Alex had been about to reach for her, gently, tentatively, to put a hand on her arm and let his eyes soften and ask 'Then why are we doing this? Why don't we get a drink? Talk things over,' but before he could she followed up with "I mean, not exactly my date," and it was over. Whatever softness or warmth or hope that had been brewing snuffed out, replaced by that old familiar jealousy and a cold hand squeezing something low and painful in his gut.

"You should get back to him, Norma," he said. Pleased with the evenness of his voice, and the way his hands stayed steady at his sides.

"Wait, Alex, I just—"

"Goodnight, Norma."

Fuck everything, he thought.

Fuck everyone.


"What was that all about?" Jon asked. At her side not seconds after Alex left her standing, annoyed and dumbfounded, on the sidewalk. She'd watched him walk back the way he came, hands in his pockets, posture rigid. And though she kept hoping he'd glance back, look at her, give her something to work with, he never did.

"Oh, you know," she said, finally. Voice sounded sad to her own ears, and she tried to perk up for Jon's sake. "That's just how he is."

"Friend of yours?"

"Yes. Well…" a pause as she thought, bit her lip. "Sort of."

"Ah, one of those situations. Been there a few times myself."

"He's the sheriff," she said, and shrugged. "It's a hard job, and he never really relaxes, you know?"

"Sheriff?" Jon asked, and Norma was startled by just how interested he suddenly seemed. "And you know him well?"

"Not well, exactly." Norma glanced up, only to find him staring intently down the road after Alex. "I mean, not in any intimate capacity." Truth be told, she wasn't entirely sure that was a lie; the more she thought she knew the sheriff, the more she saw the glaring, gaping distance between them.

"Mm, perhaps you can introduce me again later. When he's in a better mood. Would be useful to get him on our side."

"Oh, no," she said, a bit too quickly. "Alex isn't like that. I don't think he cares much for politics—"

"You'd be surprised what people care about for the right price." Then, as an afterthought, "Well, I should take you home, hm? You must be eager to get back to your son."

"I am, yes, but are you sure you should be driving?"

"I'm fine to drive. And the sheriff's off duty; I think we'll be alright."


He'd forgotten dinner. And the goddamned espresso. So it was back to the bourbon, which still didn't taste any better, but at least it served a decent purpose: washing the image of Norma—and the sound of her sweet, delighted little laugh—out of his head.

He was sprawled on his couch, half-drunk and exhausted, still dressed (though he'd kicked his boots off somewhere along the line) when his phone rang.

"Romero."

"Sir? This is Deputy Lin."

"Go ahead."

"We've just pulled a body, and a car, out from the bay."

"And?"

"And," Deputy Lin said, an obvious sigh in her voice, "I think you should come in and take a look at this."

"Report whatever you find, leave it on my desk. I'll deal with it when I come in tomorrow."

"But sir—"

"Tomorrow, Lin."

Lin was easy to hang up on.

If only Norma were that easy to ignore.

He took another long swallow of bourbon; felt the alcohol burn his throat and his veins, slow his heart, begin lulling him towards sleep; pushed himself up and wandered towards his bedroom. It was cold, and dark, the bed too big, and too empty. All the walls bare. Lacking something essential, something alive. Something feminine, and soft, made of childlike glee and finely-carved beauty. Something to balance out his edges and his hardness and his stoicism, the roughness of his hands and how seldom he laughed.

Something he'd never have.

Chapter 4

Exhaustion evident courtesy the shadows beneath his eyes, Alex sat at his desk, forehead resting on his palm, and tried to ignore the cacophony emanating from the hallways and rooms beyond.

He'd walked in expecting a stack of paperwork and a tidy, useful report on the body they'd retrieved the night previous. Maybe settle down with some of the station's camel-piss coffee, pop a couple of aspirin to dull his headache, call out for some breakfast. The local diner didn't deliver, exactly, but Marvin, the ex-con who worked the grill from Mondays to Saturdays, made a mean omelet and owed Alex a couple of favors. Would be happy enough to take a break and drive over, surely, especially since Romero let that pesky, probation-obliterating concealed weapons charge slide.

Instead, he'd been greeted with an army of wide-eyed and over-eager deputies shouting their various requests and snippets of information at him before he'd even had time to shrug off his jacket. Reports, photos of the body, and a name nigh lost somewhere in the fray: "Bradley Martin."

"They pulled her out of the trunk of an old car," Deputy Lin said. She'd barged into his office without preamble or apology, throwing down a file as thick as the dictionary sitting on his shelf. "But we'd found her suicide note months ago, sir."

"And?"

"And it's unlikely this was a suicide."

"Obviously. You have anything else?"

"Anything else? Sir, I've just told you that this is most likely a—"

"Homicide, yes. I understand, Deputy." Finger and thumb drilling into his temple in something of a half-assed attempt to ease the tension, he managed to hold back a frustrated sigh. Hell, he even managed to keep his voice at an even, albeit clipped, tone. "Aside from recovering the corpse, do you have any leads? Evidence? New information that does not boil down to 'Bradley Martin was murdered?'"

"No. No, sir. Not as of yet."

"Have you opened a homicide investigation?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then do your job, Deputy, and don't barge into my office until you have something concrete."

Lin stared at him for a long moment, silent. Pouting, in point of fact, though he only knew that because she'd worked with him long enough that he could read the microscopic changes in her expression.

She'd never much cared for him, and to be fair, that was his fault. She'd come aboard his crew young and eager and desperate to impress her new boss, and he'd done nothing but shoot her down and chide her and shoo her out of his office for the past two years. But her ambition was frequently a liability, and he'd never been fond of people who felt entitled to his time or his space without a respectful request.

But she was still staring at him, unmoving, and after a minute or so of this he broke, his hand falling from his forehead to the flat of his desk with a loud crack, and he gestured roughly towards the door. "Out, Deputy. Do your damned job, and don't open my door until you have something worth my time."

So, this was to be his morning: no coffee (the damn machine broke; maintenance had yet to fix it), no aspirin (bottle in his desk empty; he'd forgotten to replace it weeks earlier), a headache he couldn't shake, and a girl he'd thought had met a tragic but simple (and lawful) end had been murdered.

Assisted suicide presented another possibility, of course, though given the Martin family's connections with certain undercurrents in the town, it was equally unlikely. Which meant that someone had known her well enough to be aware of problems she'd been having in her personal life. Probably the time she spent at the hospital. Staged a suicide, dumped a body and car where they assumed it'd never be found; and if not for the change in tide and current (he'd overheard some of the local fishermen complain about it earlier in the week when he'd gone out to fetch the paper and an espresso), they'd be correct.

Something kept nagging at the edge of his thoughts; an idea or memory, not fully formed, trying to nudge its way to the forefront. Something that, as it became clearer and clearer, he realized he didn't want to face. Not today, anyway. Maybe not at all.

But like so many things in Alex Romero's world, all roads led to Norma Bates.


 Flowers when she'd arrived at the motel office. Two dozen roses, a mix of pink and white and red, tied with a blue bow and sitting on the office's welcome mat. Anyone could've stolen them, she thought, but judging by their vibrancy (and the bone-dry petals, despite the pouring rain beyond the awning), they'd been recently placed.

Gingerly, she set them on the counter beside her computer, and flipped open the little tag attached to the vase.

Here's to a lovely evening, a promising business venture,

and the most beautiful face I've seen,

Jon.

The smile hit before she realized it. Rarer and rarer these days, but Jon had a way of bringing them to the surface. Sure, she'd only known him a short time. And, yes, perhaps that 'short time' could be defined as 'two days.' But in those two days he'd been made of flattery and charming smiles, expensive dinners and beautiful flowers.

And, perhaps most importantly, a plan to urge customers into her hotel. A plan that, if successful, rendered the bypass pointless in her world; a toothless paper tiger.

Despite the multiple glasses of wine and flirtatious banter, they'd managed to spend a solid two hours hashing over plans and details; Jon had a way about him, something that instilled confidence. And, he'd assured her, he'd done this sort of thing many times before. "A viable business opportunity," he'd called it. "Mutually beneficial. And not just for us, Norma, but White Pine Bay itself. A way to reinvigorate this little town. Usher in a new, thriving economy."

He'd wanted to tell her more on the drive home. But then—

But then Alex. Dark, stoic, angry Alex. Barely an entity in her life one moment, and then a sudden brooding presence the next; standing on a sidewalk, staring at her and John, his face unreadable.

Or maybe not unreadable. Maybe, in his way, he wore his heart on his sleeve. For her. Because she had seen it, hadn't she? The subtle shift in expression, something that almost resembled surprise or hurt or jealousy or …

Jealousy.

The word froze in her mind the moment it came to her attention, and she frowned, brows knitting together in a mixture of confusion and doubt. He'd been unhappy, certainly. There'd been enough tension between them to last a lifetime. But he'd never particularly struck her as the jealous sor—

Tires on gravel interrupted her train of thought, and she dashed to the window, pulling the blinds aside just enough to peer out. Still early, the only movement in her driveway a dusty sheriff's department SUV rolling to a stop, and then the broad expansive of familiar shoulders.

"Jesus. Crap. Not today, I just—" she mumbled to herself, annoyed. Not that she wasn't pleased to see him. She almost always was; and today was no different, really. The chance to make up for the night previous, get him to lighten up a bit, bridge the gap that had been slowly growing between them. But not when Jon had just left flowers and she hadn't even had her first cup of coffee.

She managed to dash behind the desk and adjust her skirt—important to affect an air of nonchalance, considering he was forever accusing her of being a busybody; she couldn't very well have him know she'd been watching his arrival from the window, could she?—and beam a wide smile at him when he opened the door.

Surprise evident on his face. Surprised that she greeted him so warmly, or, maybe, he'd been expecting (or hoping) to see Norman or Dylan instead of her.

"Morning, Norma."

"Hi, Alex. Kind of early for a visit, isn't it?" Not yet eight in the morning and yet here he was, already showered and shaved, in uniform, face set hard, like he's slept a thousand years and woke up to chaos or simply never slept at all. "Can I get you some coffee?" She gestured to the stand next to him. "I just made it."

"Yeah. Yeah, thanks. That'd be great," he said. But he was wary, she could tell. Watching her like he was waiting for some unpleasant reveal, or a mood swing, or a coffee pot thrown at his head. No doubt concerned about their encounter the night previous. And that was something she wanted to bury as quickly as possible; the day looked too promising to muddy with that nonsense.

"Look," she began, but then drifted off a moment, poured him a fresh cup. "You take sugar or cream?"

"Cream."

"Got it."

"But you knew that."

She did, in point of fact, know that. But given that he was never prone to offering more conversation than absolutely necessary, she liked finding ways to make him talk. Open up a bit, even if it was only gruff, single-word answers about how he took his coffee.

"So, anyway, about last night." She handed him the cup, now loaded down with cream, and pretended to ignore the pained grimace she saw slip across his features, there and gone in a flash. "I don't want you to worry about it."

"What?"

"You know, if you felt bad or anything? There's just no need. You were having an off night, that's all. Happens to everybody. I just didn't want you to think I was—"

"I'm not worried about anything, Norma."

"Okay, well, you were pretty rude to Jon and I."

"Was I? I don't recall."

"And one would think that warrants an apology."

"I'm not here to apologize. For anything."

"God, you can be such a sanctimonious—" Bastard. Prat. Dick. Douche? Douche didn't really roll off her tongue with the flair of eloquence and poetry she'd been hoping for, but it still struck her as a viable option. She'd save it for later. Better to just let that train of thought drop and stare at him, mouth pinched in annoyance, and roll her eyes. "Then why are you here?"

"Need to talk to Norman." That steady look. That cop look. The one she hated; hands on his hips, shoulders squared, face unreadable and impenetrable. The one that heralded the arrival of Sheriff Romero, Big Daddy of White Pine Bay.

She hated dealing with Sheriff Romero. Much preferred Alex.

But she would've taken either, so long as neither wanted to speak to her son.

"No."

"I'm sorry?"

"No, you may not speak to Norman."

"Norma, I'm here as a cop. I need to speak to him about a case."

"Is he under arrest?"

"No, he's not."

"You got a warrant?"

"I just want to ask him some questions."

She didn't say anything. Let her question hang, unanswered, in the air.

"Christ," he said, finally, after a long stretch of silence. "No, Norma, I don't have a warrant."

"Then I guess you're out of luck, Sheriff."

"He's eighteen. I don't need your permission to talk to him. You do understand that, don't you?"


 

Norma kept a list of priorities in her head. It was, to be fair, a reasonably small list:

     1. Protect Norman.

     2. Take care of Dylan.

     3. Keep her ass as far out of anyone's line of fire as humanly possible.

And, sure, there were other elements farther down the line. The Nice-to-Haves, like blackberry pancakes in the morning and a good vintage dress with a skirt that swished around her knees when she walked, and little beige leather pumps and a bigger bed and some strange, beautiful, nebulous concept known as happiness.

But they were the fringe elements, the dreams tucked in between the days, the tiny moments of joy in between all the nightmares and blood. And the damned stuffed owls.

"Fine. He's eighteen, I can't stop you from talking to him. But you can't just walk into my house without permission. Not without a warrant. And you don't have either." And, she thought, fighting back a smug smile and a relieved sigh, Norman seldom left the basement. Which meant her list of priorities remained precisely where she needed them to be, no matter how many irritating sheriffs decided to show up at her door.

"Alright, Norma. Okay." Alex frowned; shrugged; set his coffee down on the table; sat in the chair across from her desk. But then that frown morphed back to his even, placid—but somehow exceptionally aggravating—cop mask. The I'm-not-really-smiling-but-I-also-sort-of-am smile. The I-know-something-you-don't smile.

That stupid, frustrating, maddening smile-that-was-not, his mouth set in a flat line, corners never quirked up, yet his eyes lit up with telltale arrogance and something bordering on amusement and his unending fondness for stalemates.

"I'll just wait here," he said, relaxing into the chair with a stretch. "Until he comes out."

"You can't just wait here forever."

"Sure I can."

"You've got work to do."

"Deputies can handle it. They don't need a nanny, Norma."

"Norman doesn't really leave the house. I mean, it could be ages. Days."

"Mm."

He sat, unmoving. Just watching. And though she stared as long and as hard as she could, trying to filter in all her annoyance and anger and every rude, uncharitable thought she'd ever had about him into that stare, he remained still and unperturbed until she broke, slapping her hand down on the desk and shaking her head.

"I hate you, Alex Romero. I just hate you." It sounded childish and churlish and inauthentic to her own ears.


 

And that just made her hate him all the more.

Alex couldn't recall a time he'd had cause to enter Norma's basement. In fact, he doubted he ever had. And suddenly he was rather grateful for that; taxidermy, which he'd never much thought about and had no interest in doing so ever again, was not kind on the olfactory senses.

"It keeps Norman busy," Norma said, a gentle warning as to what he'd find once they walked down the stairs together.

She'd eventually relented to his questioning Norman, though he had no doubt that was more a matter of not wanting him lurking around her motel office all day than any respect for his job or his authority. She'd spent the entire walk to the house glaring at him, and only softened in the kitchen, seemingly concerned about what he'd think of Norman's hobby.

"Do you like ravens, Sheriff?"

"Never really thought about it, to be honest. You working on one now?"

"No. I found a hawk the other day. It's the first opportunity I've had to work on a large bird of prey."

"What about the owls?" Norma asked.

"Oh, they're lovely, but they're not like a hawk. Hawks have a certain …"

"…Majesty?" Norma suggested.

"Maliciousness," Norman said.

Norma laughed. High-pitched, high-strung; nervous in a way Alex couldn't recall seeing her in sometime. Not since those early days, when he'd been at her door and her side, assaulting her with a barrage of questions about her involvement with Keith Summers.

"Anyway," Norman continued, seemingly obvious to the tension between his mother and the sheriff, "I finished a raven the other day. I thought you might like to see it, Sheriff. You struck me as the type of man who'd like intelligent, curious birds."

Norma laughed again; Alex ignored both her and what struck him as an intentional provocation from Norman.

"Maybe later. Right now I need to ask you some questions."

"Oh? About what?"

"Bradley Martin." He felt, rather than saw, Norma startle beside him. So alarmed, it seemed, that he could feel her nervousness like a physical slap; she practically vibrated where she stood. "I understand you two were friends."

"Yes, she was a lovely girl. It's so sad about what happened." Norman turned his back on his project, and began untying his apron, removing his gloves; respectful, curious, honoring both the dead and the authority in front of him.

Polite kid, Alex thought. He'd always been polite. Probably just as polite when he killed his father.

"Kids these days," Norma said, still high-pitched, thrumming with her visible nervousness and casting glances from Alex to Norman and back again, though the former made no attempt to make eye contact. "Self-destructive, you know? I read the other day that suicide rates are climbing like never before."

"But she had reason to be upset," Norman said, voice gentle. Almost protective, as if he'd wanted to defend Bradley from his mother's rambling. "She had to deal with so much."

"You're referring to her father?" Alex asked.

"Yes. She took his death so hard. And then, well, that time she spent in the hospital … I don't think it really helped her."

"Mm." Alex nodded. Reached into his pocket and withdrew a notepad, flipped it open; keenly aware that Norma watched him, tried to peer over his shoulder to see what was written. He ignored her. "Norman, do you know of any enemies Bradley might've had?"

"Enemies?" Norma asked, incredulous. "How many enemies could a sixteen year old girl acquire?"

"I'm asking Norman."

"But that's—"

"Everyone loved Bradley," Norman said. "She was very popular. Sometimes that upsets people, I guess. But she was nice to everyone. I can't imagine anyone wanting to hurt her."

"So you remember if she was seeing anyone around the time of her death?"

"Um, I don't think so. I mean, she dated a couple of football players, I think, but nothing serious. I don't remember her mentioning any serious boyfriends."

"And you're absolutely certain she never mentioned anyone who might've wanted to hurt her?"

"Yes, Sheriff, I'm sure."

"What about her father? She ever talk about him? His business?"

"I don't think so."

"Alex, what is this about?" Norma asked. She nudged him with her elbow; the nervousness gone, replaced by a frown and calm curiosity. "She killed herself. Did you guys find a note or something?"

"We found a note, yes."

"Then what's the problem?"

"We located her body," Alex said. He offered no details. Not how or when she was found; not that it implied homicide instead of suicide; not that this meant another long, open investigation, and once again the Bates family maintained intimate connections with the deceased.

But Norman didn't look concerned. In fact, he smiled. A soft, gentle sort of smile; reverence, or sympathy, Alex thought. The sort of smile one found in hospitals and at funerals.

"That's good. Her mother, I mean, finally having a body to bury. Maybe that will help her grieve. Move on when the time is right."

Alex said nothing. Pocketed his notebook, thought he'd never bothered to make any notes. In fact, nothing had been written on the page, which only made Norma's desperate attempt to get a look all the more amusing. He glanced over to Norma, then up at Norman, and finally, slowly, let his eyes wander around the basement. Every corner and crack in the floor and dusty object on a table. Every feather and beak and claw and chemicals he couldn't identify but could very definitely smell.

He looked at the ceiling and his shoes and his own image reflected in a mirror he'd only noticed moments ago. He watched Norman, utterly still, utterly calm, and the absolute contrast of his mother, who shifted uncomfortably in the silence and moved her weight from foot to foot and hummed quietly, under her breath, like she wanted to say something or sing or scream or do anything just so long as it wasn't so horrifically quiet.

"Okay," Alex said abruptly, and though Norman didn't so much as flinch he felt Norma startle violently next to him. "I may have some more questions for you later, Norman. Would you be willing to answer them?"

"Alex, I don't think that's a good idea right now."

"No, Mother, it's fine," Norman said. "Of course, Sheriff. I'd be happy to help in any way that I can. Come by whenever you need to, I'm always here."


 

"You didn't have to be so harsh with him."

"That wasn't harsh. I just asked him a few questions."

Just after nine when they walked across the driveway, shoes crunching in the gravel, and Norma was determined to walk Alex straight to his SUV to ensure that he got in and left without harassing her son or her guests or doing whatever other obnoxious things sheriffs did when they were being an absolute pain her ass.

"I just don't get it," she said, finally. They'd arrived at his SUV and she watched him turn, lean back against the driver's side door. "Bradley Martin killed herself. You found a note, and now you found a body." Never mind that both Norman and Dylan had told her quite recently that Bradley Martin was, supposedly, alive and well. No need to bring that into the conversation, not now. It'd been bad enough wondering what the Hell he wanted to question Norman about; keeping her mouth shut with Bradley Martin entered the conversation had been agony. "What's the big deal? People die; bodies are found."

"They pulled her out of a trunk, Norma."

"So?"

"So, it's unlikely she rolled a car into the bay, locked herself in a truck and then killed herself."

"But that doesn't mean—"

"It means it's a homicide. And that means that suicide note is evidence, and everything we thought we knew was wrong. It means there's an investigation. And that means questions."

"But you don't have any leads or clues or anything?" she asked. She tried her damnedest not to sound overly hopeful, or nervous. Tried to keep her hands from fluttering at her side, fought the urge to glance back to the house, ensure Norman was in the basement and not creeping around on the stares or tying one of his dead birds to a string and trying to make it fly like a kite.

Not that he'd done that before, of course. But knowing her luck that wasn't far off.

"Not so far. But the ME is working on cause and time of death. We'll know more then."

"And then?"

"And then I do my job, Norma."

"Good morning, Sheriff!" A voice—a confident, booming, male voice—startled them both out of conversation and sent both pairs of eyes towards the motel walkway.

Jon, already in a pressed navy suit, leather briefcase in hand, stalked towards them with a smile. Hand outstretched to Alex, who looked … well, pained, she thought. Annoyed. Uncomfortable. Possibly like he wanted to hit something. Or someone.

"Morning," Alex said. He shook Jon's hand, and Norma felt herself relax a bit. Jon could prove a useful distraction from this messy Bradley Martin business, and thus far neither man seemed overly inclined to repeat last night.

At least not until:

"Norma, you look gorgeous, my darling," Jon said. Handshake over; he'd dropped Alex's hand within a few seconds of the greeting, turned to Norma, embraced her. A little too familiar, a bit too warm, and over Jon's shoulder she watched Alex stiffen, his shoulders drawn back, jaw clenched. "And you're wearing that lovely blush-pink lipstick I love. Dare I believe that was for my sake?"

He'd mentioned it over dinner. How beautiful he'd found her subtle, feminine makeup. The way she curled her hair. A-line skirts. And she had, in fact, painted herself to his taste that morning, eager to see him as the day went on, never expecting the flowers or the Sheriff's arrival or this awkward encounter.

"I, uh, I—"

"She's a charmer this one, isn't she?" Jon asked, directing his question to Alex though never averting his gaze from Norma.

Alex didn't reply.

"Listen, my beautiful darling, I have a meeting in a matter of minutes. In fact, I'm already late. Terribly bad form, I must say. But how about dinner again this evening? Anywhere you'd like. Pizza or a six-course tasting menu; the lady commands, I serve."

"I've got work to do," Alex interrupted. Abrupt; harsh; cold. Distant.

"No, Alex, wait, just let me—"

"No, Norma, I've gotten what I needed here. You two have a good night."

"Been a pleasure, Sheriff," Jon said.

And before Norma could think, or respond, or parse out any of what had happened in the past hour: Bradley Martin was alive not so long ago, even though everyone believed she was dead, and now she was dead, and Alex believed that connected her to Norman, and now Jon was asking her out again and Alex was—

Alex was climbing into his SUV, making it clear he had no desire to speak to either further, and by the time he started his SUV and began to pull out of the driveway, she could see anger warring with hurt on his face, and for the millionth time since she'd packed up her son and moved to this little town, her life was both a string of frustrations and absolutely unfathomable nonsense.

"Sometimes," she said, watching Alex drive off and wishing—though she couldn't immediately voice that fact—that he'd turn around and come back and let her talk to him, one on one, away from Norman and Jon and the investigation, and just try to clear the air and repair whatever bridge they kept tearing down, "I really hate this town."

Chapter 5

Alex Romero couldn't stop thinking about all that he was not.

He'd never been the sort of man who could waltz into a restaurant and demand the best table. He only wore a suit when he absolutely had to: court appointments, glad-handing during the elections, the occasional formal dinner. And he'd never had a talent for humor. Didn't come naturally.

"Serious as the day you were born," his father once said. "You didn't cry when the doctor pulled you out of your mother, you know that? They thought there was something wrong with you. But you were fine. Just too damned stubborn to cry."

A trait that had carried into adulthood; stubborn, and serious. Smiles were rare. Jokes non-existent.

Recently, he'd found himself wishing he were funnier. Lighter, maybe. Like the men that Norma drew into her circle. She'd been laughing the other night when they crossed paths; Jon, overdressed and too ready with a smile, must've said something she'd found particularly charming. And he remembered the way she smiled at George all those months back, when he'd been questioning Norman and they'd walked into the station hallway to find her with his arms around him. She'd beamed at him whenever she turned towards him, and Alex had felt—for perhaps the first time since he'd known her—the cold stab of jealousy. Just a flicker in those early days, but present nonetheless.

Hell, even Shelby had a certain sunniness to him. He'd never broached the subject with Norma, at least not beyond the immediate details he required to cover up that bloody fiasco, but he'd been vaguely aware of it from that first morning when they stood on her porch and asked to inspect the property.

She'd smiled so widely at Shelby, hadn't she? Yet demurred away from Alex. Not that it was unusual, really. He knew he presented an intimidating front. Useful in his line of work. Essential, almost. But now and again he wished he didn't feel the need to be so … stoic. Wasn't that what Norma had called him when he sat at her kitchen table and she not-so-gently blotted up his blood?

Shelby was the comedian of the station, too. The deputies lined up whenever he'd been around, eager for water-cooler talk and a ribald joke. The laughter had a tendency to die when their boss walked into the room.

His phone rang, startling him. He'd been idling in the diner parking lot for nearly thirty minutes, brooding over the situation with Norma. A fact he was not entirely proud of. There were more important matters at hand: Bradley Martin, the alarming lack of leads in what he was now certain would prove to be a homicide, and the upcoming elections. But that woman had a way of twisting him up, distracting him.

Bad enough he could still smell her perfume on his jacket collar. Should've had it cleaned after all.

"Romero."

"It's Deputy Lin."

"Go ahead, Lin."

"M.E. just got back to us with the results from the Martin autopsy."

Alex glanced at the clock on his dash: 12:47 pm. He'd driven straight from Norma's to the diner; needed coffee and a decent meal and a couple of hours to unwind from the hurricane her presence created. But the M.E. had only been assigned the case a few hours previous. Clearly they felt it important enough to rush.

"And?"

"Couldn't pin down an exact date of death, given the rapid decomp in the water, but it was recent."

"Can we narrow that down?"

"Within the past month, sir."

"So, the suicide note we found?"

"Either she wrote it months before her death," Lin said, sounding doubtful, "and then changed her mind, or someone wanted us to think she was dead when she was very much alive."

"And cause of death?"

"Head trauma."

"Christ. We have any leads that might prove useful?" he asked.

"Nothing yet, sir. We're looking into any offenders with previous connections to her father, but so far it's just a string of low-level dealers."

"Right." Alex sighed, ran a hand over his face, and let his head fall back against the seat. Should've grabbed a double espresso to go, he thought. He'd need it today. "Narrow in on anyone associated with Jerry Martin. Bang on doors, bring them in, arrest them on petty charges if you have to. But get some goddamn answers."

No mention of Norman Bates or his known connection to Bradley. That, at least, was a flicker of loyalty to Norma. Not that the kid hadn't answered Romero's questions with anything but respect and honesty. Or something resembling honesty. But nothing was ever as quite straight forward with that family as he would've liked. And Norman did have something of a long history of suspect behavior, and an equally long list of intimate connections to the recently deceased of White Pine Bay.

"Don't call me until you have something useful," he said, and clicked his phone shut before Lin could respond.

Plumeria, he'd recently learned. The scent of the flower forever haunting his jacket was called Plumeria. His private ghost.


 

"Honey, you told Sheriff Romero the truth, didn't you?"

"What do you mean, Mother?"

The first thing Norma did, once Alex Romero had driven off and Jon stopped assaulting her—though it was a sweet sort of assault, she had to admit—with dinner plans (she'd asked for a rain check; Jon insisted it be within the next week), was dash up the stairs to her house, and then promptly back down a set of stairs to the basement.

"You hadn't heard about Bradley's death or anything, had you?"

"It's really a shame, isn't it? I thought she was a nice girl."

"But, Norman, you don't have any idea who might've hurt her?"

Only then did he turn around and face her, something resembling confusion or wariness muddled in his expression. But then a soft smile lifted one corner of his mouth, and he titled his head, as if she'd confessed her most terrible whims and desires to him and he stood, a pillar of comfort and empathy, to help her through.

"I'd never tell anyone our secrets, Mother. You don't need to worry."

"What secrets? Sweetheart," Norma said, stepping close to her son and placing a careful hand on his upper arm, "we don't really have secrets. I mean, maybe a few, but—"

"You asked me not to tell, and I won't. I promise."

"Norman, I don't know what you're talking about. Honestly, I—"

"I promise, Mother."


 

"I thought you said she was alive!"

"Who's alive? What? I don't—ow! Jesus, Norma, calm down."

Approximately 2.7 seconds after hearing Norman's ominous—yet heartbreakingly loyal—assurances of promises kept, Norma bolted back up the stairs from her basement, flew through the lower levels of her house with a precision matched only by Norman's newly stuffed hawk in its former life, and launched herself at Dylan upon spotting him just stepping out the back door, cigarette in hand.

"Bradley Martin! You told me she was alive and—hey! When did you start smoking?" She slapped him on the arm, hard, and the ensuring protest just made her narrow her eyes further. "No smoking in the house! In fact, no smoking at all."

"I'm twenty-one, Norma, I'll do whatever I want—OW," Dylan said, pulling her arm away from the sudden and constant barrage of slaps. "Jesus Christ! Okay, okay. No smoking in the house."

"Or at all," Norma said.

"Or … sometimes, maybe, not at all."

"Smoking's bad for you."

"So is child abuse."

Norma rolled her eyes and smacked his arm again, although this time gently, playfully.

"I just don't want you getting sick or hurt or doing stupid shit that'll ruin your future. God knows we have enough of that in this family to last a lifetime."

"Right, okay. Got it. But what about Bradley Martin?"

"Norman told me she was alive, and I thought he was hallucinating or having some sort of mental breakdown, but then I talked to you, and you said she was alive and well and you two helped her fake her death—nice plan, by the way, wish you would've run that one by me beforehand—and so I assumed that was the end of it," Norma said, each word rushed, chasing the tail of the other; a rapid-fire machine gun of a sentence, leaving her out of breath and panting before she could finish.

"Okay, yeah, she was. Alive, I mean. So?"

"So, she's not-so-alive now."

"Wait, what? How do you know?'

"Because Alex came a couple of hours ago and told me they pulled her body out of a trunk last night."

"That's horrible. Christ," he said. He snapped his unlit cigarette in half, shoved it in his pocket. Shook his head. "She was a … I mean, goddamn. She was a really sweet girl."

"Right, right," Norma said, impatient, "but, so … you don't know anything about it, do you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Her death. You didn't, maybe, know about it and just not tell anyone…?"

"The Hell are you saying, Norma?" He pushed away from her, eyes wide, until his back hit the wall. "Holy shit, you think, what, I had something to do with it?"

"No! No, no, not that. Never that. That's not what I meant at all."

"She was my friend, I wouldn't hurt her. I can't believe you'd think—"

"Not you, Dylan! I never thought it was you. I know you wouldn't … I mean, you're just not capable of … but what about … you know."

"What about what?"

"Him."

"Norman?"

"Yeah. I mean," she leaned in, lowered her voice, unsure of what he might be able to hear in the basement below, "I know he and Bradley were friends. He cared about her a lot. But you know how he is right now. He's just not well."

"Norma…"

"And I don't want to think about him like that! Norman's always been so sweet. You know that. We all do. But I thought maybe he might've told you something? And, like, you wanted to protect him, so you didn't say anything…? And maybe—"

"No," he said. Harsh, abrupt. He took her shoulders in his hands, although it was gentle; protective, like he wanted to hug her or soothe her. "No. He never said anything to me about Bradley."

"Oh, thank God," she said. Instantly relieved, she let out the long breath she'd been holding for what felt like the past five minutes, and let herself fall against Dylan's chest, pulled into a tight hug. "There's no way he had anything to do with it, right?" Voice muffled into his shoulder, she let her eyes drift shut. "I mean, he couldn't be capable of something like that. Not with her. Not with someone he cared about."

But when Dylan didn't respond, she pushed away from him and peered up into his face.

"You think so too, right?" she asked.

Silence.

"I mean, there's just no way."

Silence.

"Right?"

Finally, softly, he said, "I don't know, Mom."

"But he—"

"He's not well. None of us know what he's capable of anymore. Not really."


 

Of all the things Norma Bates wanted to be doing on a beautiful Thursday morning—just before noon, the sun out despite the previous day's rain, birds singing, and early-bloom flowers beginning to peak through the gray-green of winter grass and shrubs—calling a surly sheriff who had been at her house not three hours earlier questioning her son (before driving off in a dour-faced huff) sat right above 'die in horrific freak accident' and right below 'die of natural causes.'

A stroke would've been good relief, quite honestly. Convenient way to avoid the impending unpleasantness.

But, nevertheless, she found herself with phone in hand, dialing a number she regrettably knew by heart, and holding her breath until her heart hammered painfully in her chest and a familiar voice came on the phone.

"Romero."

"Hi. It's, uh, Norma. Um, I sort of … I sort need you to come over." Pause. Deathly silent. She couldn't even hear him breathe. "It's about Bradley Martin."

Sometimes you had to suck it up and tell just enough of the truth that the important lies, the essential lies, the ones you stored up for later, for safety and sanity and survival, sounded believable.


 

Of course it was about Bradley Martin, he thought—or, more accurately, brooded over—on the drive to Norma's. Leave it to that woman to bluff and bluster-if not directly lie to his face—one minute, and then call up and beg him to come over and listen to what she has to say the next.

"Promise me you won't get upset. Or angry. Or arrest anyone," she'd said, as if that'd have any influence on anything about to occur.

Hell, it was a miracle he still had a job at this point. All the shit he'd covered up for her; all the times he'd resisted the urge to shake some goddamned sense into her.

Should've learned to meditate, he thought. Back in college, when he was dating that Buddhist girl. She'd offered to teach him, and he'd declined. "Not my style," he'd said. "Can't see how I'll ever need it, anyway."

Brie, that was her name. Well, Brie was probably having a good laugh at his expense right about now. She'd wanted to get married but he'd bowed out; "too young," he'd told her, "we're not ready. And, anyway, I'll be a cop soon. Nobody really wants to marry a cop, do they? You'd just worry too much." And so she'd left, eyes full of tears and pretty little mouth turned down into a pout, and though he'd tried to call her up a few years later, just have a chat and see how she was doing, she'd held a grudge and refused to speak to him.

Should've married Brie, he thought. Granted, he only entertained the idea for a mere three seconds, but in those three seconds he couldn't stop thinking about how mellow it'd all be: their little house and dog and maybe a couple of kids, and she would've forced him to learn to meditate, and maybe he would've quit the force long before he ever made sheriff. Become a CPA or something.

At the very least, he wouldn't be standing in Norma Bates' kitchen for the second time in one day, hands on hips, watching her flutter around with some baked good that smelled delicious but was a vastly unsuitable bribe, town between wanting to raise his voice in frustration and gather her up to him and throw her down on the nearest bed, and put all of this bullshit behind them with his mouth on hers and his fingers caressing her thighs.

"So, you're telling me you knew Bradley Martin was alive."

"I wouldn't put it that way, exactly."

"Then how, exactly, would you put it?"

"Look, I thought she'd killed herself just like everyone else. But then Norman said something to me a little while ago, and I just thought he was, you know, imagining it."

"But?"

"But then Dylan told me that they—"

"Helped her fake her own death," he finished for her.

"Well, yes. Basically."

"Christ, Norma," he said. He fought to keep the hurt out of his voice. Because that's what this was, he realized. Everything that drove him utterly mad was courtesy their constant dance around one another. How, no matter how many gestures he made, crimes he covered up, or endless nights that he'd been the only one she could turn to, she still wouldn't trust him. "You didn't think this was worth telling me?"

"I wanted to this morning, Alex. I did. But you put me on the spot, and I was worried about Norman."

"No," he said, softly, shaking his head. "Not this morning. Days ago. Weeks ago. Whenever you found out."

"It's illegal, isn't it? Faking someone's death?"

"How could you stand to not tell me?"

"I have to protect my kids, Alex. Believe it or not, that comes before everything."

"I would've protected them," he said. And he didn't yell, didn't raise his voice; he was grateful for the control. Surprised by it, even, considering every ounce of him wanting to yell, shake her, make her understand and kill all the pretense and the puzzles. "I would've protected them, Norma. And you. Just like I always have. Every since—"

Shelby and Keith Summers and Abernathy and Bob Paris.

"But maybe I could've protected Bradley Martin, too. Do you understand that?" he asked. Head bent, he rubbed idly at his forehead, thumb digging into the skin. "If I'd known she was alive maybe I could've done something."

"Maybe I should've told you sooner. But that's not my fault."

"Yeah? If you had, maybe she wouldn't be laying on a slab in the morgue."

A long stretch of silence. Stalemate; staring at one another, each wrapped up in their own personal haze of guilt and hurt and anger. Until, finally, a soft, hesitant sniffle broke through, followed by the first tear. And then Norma's face crumpling up—a sweet face, a goddamned angelic face, the very face he'd killed for once and would probably do so for again—so that the tears spilled out.

"You can't possibly blame me for that girl's death," she said, voice cracking in the most heartbreaking way. He couldn't bear it.

"I don't," he said. Barely above a whisper. "Christ, I don't, I just—" She dissolved into sobs the moment he reached for her, but let him pull her into his chest, wrap his arms around her waist and her shoulders and gently stroke her hair.

Neck wet with her tears, he let her cry as long as she needed to. Both so exhausted, he thought, perhaps one of the few things they truly had in common. She always had so much on her plate; cleaning up messes and protecting her family and just trying to make it through the day.

Their jobs weren't so different, really. Maybe that's why they both circles, prodded, provoked. Simultaneously too different and too similar to ever properly exist on the same page for longer the a minute.

"I just wish you'd trust me," he whispered as he pressed his mouth to her temple. But she wouldn't stop crying, the sobs causing her entire body to heave against his chest, and though he tried to soothe her and hold her and offer assurances of safety, she couldn't calm down. "Norma, stop. Shh. It's alright. I'm sorry I said—"

"You always want more," she said, though her voice was thick with tears and he had to strain to make out the words.

"What?"

"I try to let you in sometimes, a little bit—as much as I can—and it's just never enough. You keep pushing and pushing and pushing."

"Only because I want to protect you." She was squirming in his arms, pushing at him, trying to wriggle free. And though he relaxed his grip he kissed the top of her head again, not wanting to let go; hoping she'd chose to stay where she was, relax into him again. "And I can't do that if I can't see what's coming."

"Maybe I don't have any left to give you. Maybe this is it, and you just can't accept it. You just push because that's all you know how to do."

"It's not. Christ, Norma, you think I keep coming back just to make you miserable?" She'd stopped pushing at him but hadn't eased into his embrace, either. Rather, she stood, stiff and angry, the tears slowly coming to a halt, while he held her face in his hands and kissed the blade of her cheekbone and the line of her jaw and the corner of her soft mouth, whispering to her all the while. "Norma, please, look at me." But she didn't, and so he pressed his mouth to hers—not rough or insistent but gentle, nigh pleading, more a question than a kiss. "I'm a pain in the ass, fine. I get that. But all I've ever wanted is to protect you. If you'd just let me take care of you, if you'd just trust me, then you'd see how much I love—"

"Jon never pushes me."

He froze when she said it. Mouth hovering above hers, palm against her cheek, he held his breath, unable to think or move or see straight courtesy the white-hot stab in his gut, a twisting pain that blurred his vision and, in the stillness and the silence, made his heart pound against his rib cage so goddamned hard he thought they might crack.

"Jon?"

"He's never angry or pushy or—" she pushed away from him; he let his hands fall from her face immediately, withdrew until his back hit the wall and he could stare at her, stunned or blank or angry or something else entirely, he couldn't tell which.

And for a second he thought he saw the shadow of regret slide across her face; her eyes soft as she took him in, face gentle, like an apology was brewing. Like she might take it back and tell him she was angry and lashing out and it was all a mistake.

Instead, she simply said, "He actually likes me." That struck the deepest pain. "Sometimes I can't tell if you care about me, or if you just want a clean set of answers to questions you feel entitled to ask."

It felt like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Like he couldn't breathe; like thoughts wouldn't clarify or come into focus; like it was all a horrid dream, and he'd wake up in bed, hungover and regretting that last shot of bourbon.

And then it was just the pain because he could breathe, and he could think, and this was most decidedly not a dream or a hallucination, and no amount of bourbon was going to drown the hurt.

"I should go," he said. Gently. Because he didn't have the heart for anything else, really.

Norma nodded. A soft, sad sort of nod. And there was regret, he could see that now. It was almost plain on her face: she didn't like hurting him.

But she didn't try to stop him when he turned and walked out her front door, either.

Chapter 6

In the silence that stretched five hours past Alex's departure, Norma couldn't focus. Or, perhaps, she simply couldn't settle down. Every noise struck her as a scream; every corner in her house full of sharp objects.

She was just nervous, she thought, wired and on edge. The four cups of coffee that morning probably hadn't helped. And all the sugar she'd had for breakfast (too busy to cook; she'd settled for several slices of banana cream pie) surely contributed to it. She'd have to eat better tomorrow. Throw some beef in the slow cooker, roast up a bundle of root vegetables. Re-establish balance, as her mother would've said.

Never mind the slow, spreading sense of dread that had twisted her stomach into knots from the moment she saw Alex's brake lights fade beyond her view. It'd taken root and refused to relent. A growing sense of unease. Of finality. And that was what alarmed her the most. The sense that, just maybe, she and Alex had crossed a line, and no matter what one said or did or how much time passed, there was no coming back from it.

She thought, briefly, about calling to apologize. Or offering something resembling an apology, at least. Maybe a two-line text: I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded. Call me later. Because, really, what was there to apologize for?

Alex was always so stubborn, so insistent, burrowing his way into everyone's business. And his knee-jerk retort—"I'm the sheriff, Norma,"—only held so much sway with so many people. At a certain point one had to crack. It was natural; he should've seen it coming.

What was it her mother used to say?

Beat a dog long enough, eventually it goes for your throat.

Something like that.

Alex Romero, she'd decided, had simply spent too much time beating too many proverbial dogs. If her resistance to his constant, intrusive inquiries upset him, he had no one but himself to blame.

Still, she couldn't quite shake the memory of his face when she'd said, "Jon never pushes me." Beneath the exhaustion—he'd walked through her front door resembling a man who hadn't met sleep in over a week—and his usual placid demeanor, a crack had begun to show.

Just a trace; present one moment, gone the next. Something in the line of his shoulders. Something soft in his eyes. Something wounded.

In the moment, she'd wanted to take it all back. To tell him she hadn't meant it—she was tired and stressed out and angry, and he had a way of pushing all her buttons, and couldn't he simply understand…?—but she hadn't, and by the time he turned his back, halfway to her front door, she'd realized she didn't have the heart, or, perhaps more accurately, the courage—although what, exactly, frightened her, she couldn't say—to ask him to stay.

His face haunted her. Five hours of that single, awful moment on replay. That one second when he lost his composure, his well-shaped mouth twisting into a cringe. The unconscious flinch, as if she'd struck him, caught him by surprise.

There were windowsills to dust and light fixtures to repair, a kitchen to clean and a motel to run, and two sons to wrangle and a sweet girl recovering in the hospital. In the quieter hours there were dresses to repair and buttons to sew on and ridiculous taxidermied rodents to clean, however one happened to clean taxidermied animals (she still wasn't entirely sure, and Google hadn't proved overly forthcoming with its assistance in the matter).

She'd tried, to the best of her ability, to throw herself into her chores. Busy hands, clear mind; wasn't that the idea? Desperate to forget about Alex, and Bradley Martin, and the mind-numbing shitshow that was her life in this bewildering little town, to have ten precious minutes in which she wasn't hyper-aware of every wall closing in, every bridge burnt, every hope of anything resembling normalcy slowly stripped away, piece by piece, a chunk of it torn away, or so it seemed to her, with every breath she took.

All to no avail.

There really is no respite, she thought.

At least until she wandered down to sweep the motel walkway and saw a tall man in a nice suit, with a smile that was perhaps two shades too white, pull his BMW into her driveway, climb out, and wave her over with a welcoming hand and an affectionate cant of his head.


 

On the nights he pretended to think about it, Alex could see the parallel threads of their lives.

He'd packed up and picked up and left home at seventeen, six months before his eighteenth birthday. Off to Oregon State University for four years of freedom and struggle in equal measure, because he sure as shit wasn't calling that man to see if he could score a few bucks to fill his tiny fridge or put a bit of gas in his truck.

Wound up selling that damn thing to help pay a semester's tuition his junior year, anyway. An ancient, rusty piece of shit Ford pickup he'd bought at sixteen, scraping and saving, working two jobs after school. His mother had constantly pestered his father to lend their son some money, to help out, but the old man wasn't offering and, even if he had, Alex wouldn't have taken it.

But he was out of that house, living on his own terms, and some weeks that meant coasting from dorm room to friend's couch (not that he had friends, exactly, but the great benefit of youth was collecting a large group of people you called friends when convenient and had little qualm asking a favor of when push came to shove) to a bench in the park, and every stressful, horrible, beautiful second of it felt like a gift.

Falling asleep to his own circular thoughts, no matter what avenue they traveled, came as something of a novelty after seventeen years of falling asleep to screams and shouting and shaking walls and broken glass.

After college it'd been the Marines. He hadn't made friends there, either, because friendship belonged to a different sort of person. Not that he knew what sort of person that was, exactly, only that it wasn't him. But he'd learned to handle himself. How to handle a weapon. And, most importantly, how to take a solid punch until the time came to do what needed to be done.

The tattoo on his shoulder and the dog tags brought a series of interesting encounters on free nights, when the bars were crowded and the young and beautiful were drunk and curious. In between beers he had—and enjoyed—lips pressed to his wrist and fingertips gliding along his collar, phone numbers tucked into folded napkins and lipstick prints left on business cards, and though at that age he would've been more than happy to buy any woman with a pretty smile and a sweet voice a drink, he couldn't remember the last time he'd paid for a Guinness. They were delivered to his hand freezing cold, some lonely-eyed girl at the other end of the room tipping her glass to him in silent (and, later, not-so-silent) tribute.

In those days he either woke to a five mile run and a thick-voiced drill sergeant or the sweet face of a girl whose name he couldn't remember. Either way, it was a Hell of a lot better than waking up to domestic warfare and the bruises his mother never quite adequately hid.

Twenty years later and the tattoo faded to a dull gray, but he still wore the dog tags beneath his uniform and bars still constituted his preferred stomping ground. Now, though, he liked the quieter joints. The ones tucked back behind alleys, out of the way, full of old fishermen and bored college kids.

The sort of places where the bartenders didn't ask too many questions, and women weren't likely to frequent. Women had a tendency to want to know too much. Especially the badge bunnies, as Walker called them. Difficult to escape, ever-present in all the cop bars. One glimpse of a badge and they were both your best friend and the best whore you'd ever have. For the right price, of course. Only they were not the sort concerned with money but status, and power, and the chance of being a sheriff's wife.

Too much work, he thought. But then he shook his head, laughed it off. Work was never the problem. He'd never shied from work. Hell, he'd worked three jobs through college. Dug trenches in Desert Storm. Worked forty-plus hours a week as a cop.

Work was a beautiful fucking relief compared to—what, exactly?

Compared to That Man. Compared to his mother and Norma and the victims he couldn't get justice for and the murderers he put in the ground because sometimes he lacked a more satisfying option but he'd take what he could get. Compared to beautiful women who threw themselves at him, who touched his badge and his dog tags with reverence, who kissed him deeply when lust and loneliness got the better of him and he relaxed into their touch, who grew to care about him too damned much after three months, who were hurt too easily when he inevitably left.

Sometimes he tried to weave it into a useful narrative for himself: I went to college for an education, I joined the military to serve, I became a cop to protect.

But, at the end of the day, it was all the same shit.

We're runners, he thought. Norma and I. Running from everyone and everything and, most of all, each other.


"You've barely touched your affogato."

"What?" Norma, startled, trained her gaze on Jon from across the table. Blinked several times, as if just now aware of his presence.

"Your dessert. Is it not to your satisfaction? I could send the waiter back for something else, if you'd like."

"Oh, no. No, it's lovely," she said, spooning up a slightly too-large bite. She swallowed the mouthful with an appreciative hum, and her companion's delight was obvious.

"So, back to the project."

"Right. How much land did you say were you looking to buy?"

A dinner that should've taken little more than ninety minutes—and that was being generous, allowing for small talk, dessert, and coffee—had somehow spiraled into a four hour affair that at times flew by and others dragged on endlessly.

Not that the date itself wasn't enjoyable. Jon rented out an entire restaurant (something upscale and Italian, complete with a name Norma could neither pronounce nor remember in its entirety), and though it came as no surprise (this was hardly the first grand gesture he'd made in the brief time she'd known him) it took some … adjustment.

"All told? A couple hundred acres. Of course, a great deal is tallied from old commercial buildings. Most of what we're looking at has sat empty for months, sometimes years."

"Of course, I remember you mentioning that. But you also said you wanted to purchase some residential land, right?"

"Residential, yes, and farmland. Even some forest acreage."

"Isn't that protected?"

Jon smiled, certainly not for the first time that evening, and folded his napkin. Set it on the table. Waved the waiter over, ordered another bottle of wine, a cup of coffee. And only then did he turn his attention back to the conversation.

"Most of it, yes. Not the areas we're looking at."

"Mm."

"And it's all for bringing in further commerce, you understand. We're talking a series of beautiful commercial complexes. Bringing in more restaurants, bookstores, theaters, boutiques. The sort of establishments this town thrives on."

"But you're worried about public perception?"

"Ah, well, small towns tend to guard their secrets, so to speak. You know how it is. Didn't you mention you initially had trouble settling here when you took over the motel?"

She had, certainly. Though that had primarily been due to a rape, murder, and subsequent investigation and arrest. And then that unfortunate business with Zach Shelby. Not that she much felt like felling Jon in on the details of that particular adventure.

"You could say that, yeah."

"Well, right, exactly. Towns such as these seldom greet land developers with enthusiasm, you understand. They like their quaint shops and little restaurants—as well they should! But my company and I can bring in streams of revenue to this town that would otherwise be absent. And, from what I've heard—just business chatter over breakfast, nothing salacious—White Pine Bay could use a boost."

It'd taken nearly twenty minutes, but Norma finally managed to finish her dessert. Not that it hadn't been delicious. Everything had been delicious. Probably predictable, considering Norma was fairly certain the cost of their wine exceeded the motel's monthly revenue. But no matter how charming her company or delightful her meal, she'd been distracted since Alex's unpleasant departure earlier in the day.

"And you think I can help somehow?"

"In your way, yes. It always helps to have small business owners on our side when we're looking to integrate ourselves into a community."

She bit back a chuckle, shook her head. "The motel does well enough. You know, for now. But with the bypass things have slowed down. And I'm not exactly apart of White Pine Bay's elite. I don't know how much I could help you."

This certainly wasn't the first conversation they'd had about the matter. He'd wasted no time in broaching the subject on their previous dinner, and though the conversation hardly changed, the details just didn't seem to stick.

Not that didn't understand his proposal; she did. She just couldn't wrap her mind around the idea that he seemed so utterly convinced she could provide some extraordinary, valuable assistance to his work.

There were certainly more profitable businesses in town. More notable citizens. He must've had dozens of better options if all he wanted was to sway public opinion.

"I think you'll be perfect," Jon said.

"But why me? Why not someone else?"

"Oh," he said, the first trace of a blush creeping in over his cheeks. There and gone in a flash; if she'd have blinked she would've missed it. But it was difficult to miss the way he suddenly couldn't meet her eyes. A rarity; normally a bold man, at least as far as she were aware. "To be honest, Norma, I had intended to approach others with this offer."

"Oh?"

"Mm. We'd initially planned to meet with a man named Bob Paris. I don't know if you've heard of him, but—"

"Oh, I've heard of him."

"Ah, yes. Well, as he's been declared a missing person, obviously that didn't pan out."

"Didn't you have anyone else in mind, though?" she asked.

"We did. I did. Still do, should you happen to decline the offer. But I hope that you'll at least consider it."

"I've already agreed, haven't I? I mean, I know we had our fair share of wine the other night, but I'm pretty sure I said I'd do what I could. I just want to know why you chose me. Why me, when you have all those other—"

"Because you're beautiful."

A long moment of silence stretched between them. Norma, stunned in a way she couldn't recall being for quite sometime, stared at him, mouth agape. But, eventually, she managed a hesitant, "…What?"

"You," Jon said, voice dropping to a whisper, "may be the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. And while I grant you it may not be the height of professionalism, the moment I checked into your hotel I abandoned every plan and script I'd worked in my head for approaching the various 'elite' of White Pine Bay, as you like to call them, because the idea of not spending every available moment I had in your presence seemed…"

"Seemed what?"

He didn't say anything. Not right away, anyway. Merely reached his hand across the table to take hers in his, thumb ghosting over the top of her hand.

He was fair in a way Alex would never be. Light hair, light eyes, a sunny smile. At certain angles he reminded her of Dylan; of what Dylan might be in twenty-five years, in another time and place; another life. He said what he meant, so openly, so sweetly, with annoyance or anger or suspicion.

He told her she was beautiful, and though they'd shared two bottles of wine, he didn't need to be drunk to do it.

"Intolerable," he finished, squeezing her hand gently as the word left him.

For a brief moment, Norma felt as if she couldn't breathe. Felt the heat in her face and her chest, a deep blush the sucked all the air out of the room, so that she had to look away, fight a simultaneous smile and cringe because it was sweet and touching and overwhelming all at once.

Because she couldn't remember the last time she'd been pursued—professionally or personally or, in this case, both—quite so ardently.

"And so," Jon continued, "if I can find a way to secure integration into this community, while simultaneously bringing your motel revenue by way of advertisement, all the while kept company by the most stunning woman I've ever encountered … well, to be blunt, why the Hell would I ever pursue anyone else in this town?"

"That's a good question," she said, her smile easing into something comfortable, bordering on confident. And when she felt him raise her hand to his mouth, his lips tracing over the tops of her knuckles, she even managed to make eye contact.

"Yes, but I have a better one."

"What's that?"

"Would you consider staying with me tonight?"


Alex found a bar, because that's what he always did. Only this time he didn't stop at three shots—his limit before his blood alcohol rose above the legal limit and he couldn't drive himself home, let alone wander around town—but hit seven, eight, nine, ten. Lost count by eleven.

But he was a former marine, and a cop, and a Romero, for Christ's sake. He could hold his alcohol, because that's what men like him did. They drank until they drowned out the demons they couldn't exorcise, and then they drank some more. On the good days, they even managed to convince themselves that pain was option, or a luxury, or perhaps non-existent.

Good days, for Alex Romero, were the increasingly rare days bourbon helped him forget that the only goddamned thing he ever cared about just couldn't bring herself to trust him. To let him in. Which was all he ever fucking wanted.

"She has kids," he heard himself say, "and I don't mind at all. I just want to help them. Help her."

"But you're not together, right?" the woman asked.

But, wait, what woman?

Focus, Romero. You lose track after eleven shots, and this is the shit that happens.

An hour ago he was at a bar. And now—where? A room he didn't recognize, with a woman he met a mere thirty minutes ago. Something like that. Couldn't remember her name, although he wasn't entirely sure she offered it. Couldn't make out the details of her face, either. But it didn't matter.

"No," he said, "not together."

His words were slurred and he wanted to apologize; wasn't becoming of the town sheriff to act like a drunken fool. But then her hands were on his chest, pushing him backwards, and his back hit a wall or a door or, at the very least, something solid and stable, and then her mouth was on his neck and it was wrong, all of it was wrong: she smelled wrong, her hair musky and smoky from the bar and not at all like Norma's soft floral shampoo, and her lips felt rough, like they were chapped, and when he put his hands on her hips they were too narrow, not at all like hers, and—

He'd spent too many nights working late or alone in his bed, imagining over and over what Norma would feel like when he kissed her, when he ran his fingers over her thighs and up under her dress, how she'd moan for him, the expression on her face when she was finally trusting enough to understand how much he cared. How absolutely and desperately he adored her.

And he was lonely, though he loathed admitting it, would never do so aloud, and only alcohol allowed him to acknowledge it to himself in the here and now. And he was drunk, and tired, and a woman had her hand down the front of his pants and her lips on his neck and he didn't want it to, but it felt good. It felt good and warm and needed, like he was wanted, like he didn't have to go home to an empty house for the millionth night in a row.

The woman whispered something low, something he didn't quite catch but sounded like, "let me take care of you," and he groaned when she knelt in front of him though nothing much had happened yet, and his fingers tangled in her hair, and he wanted this to be enough.

It should've been enough, really. He should've let his head fall back against the wall and let the woman do what she planned to do. He should've fallen asleep in her bed afterward, and perhaps taken her out for breakfast the next morning to nurse their mutual hangover. And then he should've gone home and forgotten all about Norma Bates, and all the goddamned trouble she caused him, all the grief and hurt, and gotten on with his life. And maybe in another five years he'd meet a different woman at a bar, and it wouldn't be the same—it wouldn't be like Norma, because no one was like Norma, and though it burned like fucking hot iron to admit, he'd never loved anyone in his miserable forty-seven years on the planet like he loved her—but it would be something.

"Stop," he whispered. "Stop, please."

"What?"

"I need you to stop." He had to focus intently to make each word clear, had to fight through the drunkenness, everything a blur around him. "I'm sorry. I just can't do this."

"Honey, it's fine, don't you worry. I just want—"

"No, I'm sorry," he said again. "I can't."


 

The sun was just beginning to crest above the trees when Norma crawled out of bed and slipped back into her dress. Idly, she hoped Norman had slept through the night. Didn't like the idea of him worrying about her. God only knew what he could get himself into when in a panic.

She stepped in front of the mirror, carefully finger-combed her mussed hair into place. Scrounged around in her purse for a tube of lipstick, slicked it on.

She'd slept in her makeup, mascara a gray haze around her eyes—something of a fashionable rocker look, really, though not at all her style—and somewhere in the clothing scattered across the floor lay her purse and heels.

But it was the soft pink marks covering her neck and shoulders that caught her attention. All products of an over-eager mouth; lips that kissed sweetly, then roughly; teeth that nipped playfully; and, below her waist, no doubt a smattering of pale-blue bruises from fingers that dug into skin in the final moments.

She turned to the form sleeping behind her. Jon had yet to stir, seemed something of a sound sleeper—and though their evening together had been lovely, for he'd been an attentive and caring lover, concerned with her pleasure and attuned to her needs—something gnawed at her. Something cold, and raw, and vaguely acid.

He'd kissed her mouth and her neck and her breasts. Nipped her shoulders, whispered about how beautiful he found her. Taken her deeply, but gently. He'd held back his orgasm until she'd peaked, trembled through the comedown, clung to him. Wrapped her in his arms and held tightly as they fell asleep.

And yet something felt horrifically, tragically, gut-wrenchingly wrong.

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