Author’s Note: So, I know what this story is about now. It’s about Nolan being threatened by something from one of his cases. Definitely a mystery/suspense type. I had been feeling things were getting a bit too much into their past, and as unpleasant as it is, it’s their past, their connection, and they wouldn’t be them without it. I just… would prefer to stay out of the details myself.
And I probably crossed a few lines already, unfortunately.
The description of their mom is Snerky’s fault. My word count has to be minus those few gems she gave me, though she wasn’t talking about the mom.
“First you tell me that you’re not coming, and then you come and get my brother drunk?”
Nolan grunted. “It takes more than a couple shots to put me down. Somewhere in me is good Irish stock, right? Well, none of us know that for sure, but that was what Mom thought when she gave us the cute almost matching names.”
“If I’d been named Nola, I would have killed myself by now,” Nora muttered, taking hold of his arm and trying to drag him into the office. Shaelynn stood back, wondering if he would let his affection as her brother dictate his response or if he had no intention of letting her fuss over him. Were this a few years back, she’d bet on the second option, but she’d seen him do too much of the first to rule it out.
“Could be worse. She could have named you after herself.”
Nora shuddered. “Oh, don’t say that. That name is like… big-haired, bedazzled-to-death, bed-hopping, white trash.”
“Close enough. She was an addict who sold herself to pay for her addiction until she met Shaelynn’s father.”
“Subject change. Now.”
Nolan nodded. “Did you know that Shaelynn knows science now? She got all smart while she was gone. Not sure how because she works in one of those soul-sucking cubicles, but she did.”
She glared at him. “Don’t make me pretend you’re a zombie. I’d enjoy it too much.”
He shrugged, walking back into the front of the office he shared with his sister, stopping in front of the table in their shared domain. “Why is it, I have to ask, that it’s always about the past? Nora thinks I’m having trouble adjusting to life after being shot, but she doesn’t assume it’s about being shot. It’s about the past, so she calls in someone from the past. You know, I am a successful businessman. I built this company up from nothing—and it was nothing, just me and Nora and that cop that threw a twenty my way when I was able to tell him how he should go about his case, so why is it that anything and everything is all about that place, that time?”
Shaelynn kept her expression as neutral as her voice. “Our past is what makes us.”
“And the future is what we make ourselves?” Nolan grimaced. “That sounds like some of the crap he used to spout at us.”
“I would never repeat anything that came from his mouth.”
Nolan sat down on the table, getting a wince out of his sister. That had to have been expensive, that chunk of wood, though why that mattered at all was beyond Shaelynn. She hadn’t thought any of them cared about money, but then Nora wasn’t much like her brother. She would have gone for comfort in things, in the price of her surroundings, as empty as they were.
He knew that there was no comfort anywhere.
“You don’t really think they’d come after me now, do you? They are all still locked up, aren’t they?”
“As far as I know,” Shaelynn said. He knew what she meant—she’d checked this morning before the flight, like she did every morning, to make sure that she hadn’t missed the notification that one of them had been paroled. She had the scheduled ends of their sentences marked in calenders and day-planners and on any electronic device she carried. She wasn’t going to be caught unprepared. None of them would be dropping in on her unannounced. She couldn’t trust them—and more than half of them were family.
“That’s what I figured.”
“You don’t check? You’re the most visible target, aren’t you?”
“And I make a good one, obviously,” he said, gesturing to his chest. She rolled her eyes and Nora glared at him. She really was scared of losing him, and Shaelynn should summon some kind of pity for that, but she had none. “The fuss about all that died off years ago, probably with the last of the trials. I’m pretty sure everyone forgot my fifteen minutes of fame. I sure did.”
“You wanted to. There are plenty that might be simmering up some grudges.”
“Same for you.”
“Not quite. Some still won’t touch me because I have that blood.” She’d rather not have it, most of the time, but she didn’t kid herself, either—being her father’s daughter had saved her from worse. “All right. Give me the stuff you’ve worked on in the past two years.”
Nolan blinked. “I didn’t realize I was asking for an audit. I’m not, incidentally. I don’t have any interest in showing you my files. I don’t need your version of ‘constructive criticism.’”
She held back the smile. “This isn’t about criticism. You say you’re not sleeping. If it’s not the past keeping you up, if this sense of hypervigilance isn’t coming from being shot, then you are looking at something you’ve been aware of recently giving you those ‘heebie jeebies.’ You know you have good instincts, and you adapt well—that’s why you were able to turn the stuff we learned into ways to help corporations or businesses instead of armies or psychopaths. I want to see your files. I want to see what’s setting you off that you haven’t become quite conscious of yet.”
“And if nothing’s there and I’m just crazy?”
“I know you’re crazy. That wasn’t the question.”
“And what is?”
Her brain ran through dozens of answers, from ones that made no sense to ones she should give because they were true, easily dismissed because he already knew the answers, and then into ones she refused to acknowledge. She leveled her gaze at him. “I suppose it’s about knowing just what kind of crazy you are.”
His lips curved into a smile. “Oh, trust me—it’s always been your kind. That’s why we got along.”
“You shouldn’t have given her the files.”
Nolan glanced toward his sister, eying her carefully as he tried to decide how to handle her this time. She didn’t look like she was about to explode with anger, no threat of tantrum, not yet—this was Nora’s rational face, the one she presented to their clients, passing herself off as a responsible businesswoman. She was going to start with logical arguments, which meant that he should counter in kind, but he did not much feel like it.
She really should have learned by now not to piss him off. “You’re the one that called Shaelynn in. What did you think you were calling her in for? A chat? If you say anything that suggests, even once, that it was about her ‘fixing’ me with sex—”
“Leaving aside that as your sister I have absolutely no interest in your sex life, even if I was the sort that wanted to ‘fix’ you by finding you someone to date, it wouldn’t be Shaelynn. I don’t like her, and I don’t like remembering the past she brings with her. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to saddle any woman with you. You have more issues than Time magazine.”
“Thanks for that. Get out of my office.”
“Out,” he repeated, letting his voice get colder as he did. He had never appreciated his sister interfering in his life, and he’d become even less tolerant of it after he got shot. He’d call it overprotective if that was even close to what it was. She was the younger one, and he’d protected her for years—perhaps this should have been revenge, but that was not it, either—and her interest was not protection, not unless she wanted to protect the money and the firm.
He didn’t have many illusions left, not after what he’d been through growing up, and none of those illusions applied to his sister. Nora’s experiences had turned her into someone who thought that money and things could patch the holes in her, cover them up and make them pretty again—no mistake, his sister was pretty, always had been, that was part of her problem—and she saw him as her means of continuing the lifestyle she preferred. She didn’t have to clutter it up with other people, ones she would never trust, and she’d been warped by their mother’s actions in a different way from him—she had decided she couldn’t be bought for less than a price that was too high for anyone to afford, at least so far. He’d just decided that he wasn’t going to get involved with anyone. Ever.
“The answer isn’t in the files.”
“You don’t know that.” He didn’t know it, either. He didn’t feel all that different, at least not that he could tell, but then he had started to be accustomed to his roles—the consultant, the businessman, the brother, dozens of others—that he just slipped into one and let it handle whatever was needed until it couldn’t. “You’re not afraid of what Shaelynn will find, are you? Have you been doing things you shouldn’t behind my back? Are we talking tax fraud? Embezzlement? Murder?”
Nora shook her head, body stiff, nose tilting in the air as she made the most dignified response that she could. “No. I would never jeopardize this company in any way. Besides, even with you getting shot, I know I’d never get away with trying to hide something from you. I hate that about you.”
He shrugged. He sometimes wished he didn’t notice things, but he did, he’d learned to, and he’d had to. Should have made a difference when he got shot but it hadn’t. He’d blame it on the chaos, but he knew he was just sloppy. He’d let his guard down, and it had cost him. “It’s what I do. Most of the time, at least. Sometimes I end up with worms instead of recommendations.”
She flinched. “I don’t understand why you have to keep calling your scars that, but save it for Shaelynn. She thinks it’s funny—her humor is as messed up as yours—but I don’t. I never have. It’s not a joke. You almost died.”
“I didn’t even lose consciousness until I got to the hospital. I’m fine.”
She let out a breath. “Will you let Shaelynn help you?”
“I don’t need it, not even with the job we took today, but if she wants to work it, I won’t tell her not to. Maybe she’ll finally ditch the cubicle. She’d be good at this. I don’t see why she thinks it’s so close to what we were forced into in the past—there are no guns, no knives, no weapons at all except maybe someone’s sarcasm.”
“Your sarcasm can be as bad as a weapon. She knows that better than anyone besides me.”
He smiled. She did. “Go home. I’ll lock up tonight.”
“You mean you’ll stay up all night working. Again.”
“It gets the paycheck to you sooner.”
She glared at him. “I am not just about the money. One of these days, you’ll realize that.”
“Daughter of the Fortunate One. It’s good to hear from you.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said, tempted to hang up even though she knew that her father’s lawyer was the only one that would twist her name that way. Shaelynn grimaced. She knew what her name was supposed to mean, and she should have changed that name, too, when she moved on, but she had never been able to adjust to being called anything else. The last name had been easy—she hadn’t wanted the other one in the first place—but she’d been Shaelynn from birth. Her few memories of her mother used that name, and she remembered those times fondly, unlike most of her childhood. She wanted to hold onto what little good there had been.
She wouldn’t admit it, but she had to figure that was why she had never fully cut ties with Nolan or Nora. They were the rest of those good times, as twisted as that was.
“I just wanted to make sure—”
“Your inheritance is still yours. They keep trying to get at the money, but it’s safe and secure—”
“I don’t want any of his money,” Shaelynn said, her stomach twisting up again. She should, she supposed, find some way of getting the weasel to tell her where the money was hidden so she could turn it over to the police or some charity—anything but in the weasel’s hands—but she hadn’t been willing to make herself ask, even for a good cause. “I just want to know if anyone’s been asking you about Nolan.”
Cyril drew in a sharp breath. “Now, you know that name is—well, it’s not exactly forbidden, but it’s not one you should go throwing out willy-nilly. Now, there’s some—and they don’t speak for all of us, but you know they’re out there—that want him to pay for his betrayal. There are others—your father included—that believe one day he will return to the fold.”
She shuddered, hating herself for reacting like she had. She didn’t want to be weak. She was not weak. She also knew Nolan. He’d never been a part of that “fold,” and he never would be. “I just want to know if anyone has been asking around, if they’ve been trying to find him.”
“You watch your connection to him. That’s dangerous.”
She found herself gritting her teeth, wanting to scream. That chauvinistic jerk. All of them were either chauvinists or misogynists, never once thinking that she’d had any part in what Nolan had done when he left, when he got Nora and the others out. Idiots, the whole lot of them. “Tell me if you’ve heard anything. Now.”
“No. Your father said he tried to contact him a few years back, tried to reconcile, but no one knows where he is these days. No one except you, maybe.”
Nolan wouldn’t be that hard to find if they wanted to, but she’d figured on them going to Cyril, to the mouthpiece, before they tried anything. She thought she could accept that answer for now. She’d go forward like none of them were the reason Nolan’s instincts were going haywire. None of them were after him.
“That’s all I needed,” she said, hanging up before Cyril could say anything else. Her eyes went to the stack of files on the dresser. If she started in on them, she’d be up all night, but she didn’t know how she could do anything else. The sooner she reassured herself that he would be fine, the sooner she could go home. She shouldn’t have let herself get drawn in, but she hadn’t expected it to be any more than Nora’s paranoia.
She rose, crossing over to the stack and taking one off the top. She frowned. Since when did Nolan put his talents to use for a cosmetics company? That didn’t sound anything like his area of expertise, but then—she should be glad that he wasn’t using his expertise.
She set the file aside. She didn’t think that the answer was in the corporate restructuring they needed. If they were under protest because of animal testing or being sued because of some kind of reaction to their products, that would be different, but they just wanted someone to blame when they trimmed the fat.
Nolan was a good scapegoat. Always had been.
She flipped open the next file, almost cursing as she did. She knew it wasn’t that simple, couldn’t be, but still, this wasn’t good. Immediate refund—this is not the sort of thing we work or will ever work. He’d underlined ever three times.
She took the file with her back to the bed, sitting down. He hadn’t written anything else in his note, but she didn’t think she’d need it. She could figure out what had made him decide not to work it or herself. Still—if his instincts had told him not to work this, then why wouldn’t he have figured this for the reason he couldn’t sleep a long time ago?
She closed her eyes. She’d figure it out in the morning. The day and the drinks had caught up to her, and all she wanted now was some sleep.
“When you said it would get the paycheck to us sooner, I thought you were kidding,” Nora said, folding her arms over her chest. Nolan looked at her and shrugged. If he couldn’t sleep, he might as well be working, and she didn’t have any reason for complaint. She hadn’t lost sleep, the clients were happy—they were ecstatic with that turnaround, actually—and the check was ready to be deposited in the bank. “You already met with the Johnsons and sent them on their way?”
She shook her head. “Are you crazy? You can’t keep up this pace. You need to sleep.”
He leaned back in his chair. He was aware of his physical limits—getting shot did tend to make one well aware of his body and all its various complaints—and he’d learned how out of shape he’d become as well, but the physical therapy had helped with that. Still, it was undeniable—he was human and he needed rest. “I know. I considered taking a tranquilizer, but after all that drinking I did with Shaelynn, I figured that was a bad idea.”
“Yeah, it was. You should have—”
“I still have very good ideas. The full bath and closets? Very useful. The Johnsons were pleased. I’m sure they called to tell you how pleased they were, or you and I would not be having this conversation.”
“I’m clearing your schedule after lunch, and you’re going home.”
“No, I’m not.” He rose from the chair, walking around the desk. He knew he had another preliminary consultation in about fifteen minutes—they’d be early, they always were—and a meeting to update another client in an hour. Then he had a lunch meeting with an old client who thought of himself as a friend—he was more annoying than Nora’s pet Pekinese had been—who would want to send another “consultation” their way, and the afternoon was when he would be free of meetings and able to work. He was not going home.
“I don’t think you realize what you’re doing to yourself, and you know that if you were bad enough to make Shaelynn stay, then you need to stop and—Not literally, you idiot. I wasn’t supposed to hit your back.”
Nolan ignored his sister as he forced himself forward to the doorway. He had thought about teasing Shaelynn over traveling in business clothes yesterday, but nothing about her was very business-like today. She shouldn’t be allowed to own catsuits. That wasn’t fair. She looked like something out of a movie or maybe a comic or maybe a comic made into a movie—dangerous and showing it with every curve and toned part of her. Not the sort of thing he would have expected from her, but then again, she had been trained for the part she now looked ready to play.
“I thought you would be holed up with those files for a bit longer than this.”
“I didn’t need that long to make an assessment. Once I knew what they came here for, it was almost easy to determine which of them were worth further investigation and which weren’t. I narrowed it down to these six, and I want to discuss them with you. Now.”
Nolan shook his head. “Remember our conversation about the ship sailing? That teasing little number of yours? Not working. I’m not aroused or intimidated. I have clients coming in about ten minutes, and you’re going to have to wait. Nature’s calling. Again. Too much coffee.”
“Like I would tailor my wardrobe for you even one bit,” she said, giving him a thin smile. “Function over form—I figured you’d say something like that and I’d have to beat the answers I wanted out of you.”
“Nora, stay out of this.”
“She was only going to argue that it’s not fair because I have been up all night and I was shot so you’re going to be in better shape than me,” Nolan said. He shrugged. He hadn’t had a good workout in years, and he’d actually missed sparring with Shaelynn, as messed up as it was. Still, he hadn’t been lying about the clients. He forced a smile as they came up behind her.
She whirled, her training almost kicking in, but she forced herself to be calm when she saw the suits—no, what was under the suits. He frowned, giving Nora a glance, and she held up her hands. “No way. I wouldn’t have scheduled this if I’d known.”
He nodded, stepping forward, slipping easily into his best friendly businessman act. “Nolan Sheppard. I assume you’re Kaplan and Shaw, and can I just clarify that you’re carrying concealed because you’re government?”
Kaplan gave Shaw a dirty look before she nodded. “Yes. We are. I thought he told you that.”
“No.” Nora said, giving her opinion in a look before turning on her heel to sulk in her office.
Nolan gestured toward her. “My sister. Nora. She doesn’t like these kinds of surprises.”
“I don’t blame her.”
Nolan thought he could like Kaplan. He didn’t know about Shaw. No, he didn’t think he would, not given the way that the other man was ogling Shaelynn. He wouldn’t mind so much if the man wasn’t being so blatant about it—noticing was human, staring was perverted.
“You bastard,” Shaelynn hissed, grabbing Nolan’s arm. “I thought you swore you were never going to consult for this kind of thing.”
“I don’t know what they want, and I didn’t know that they were feds until now.”
“You know exactly what they want, and that is something you said you would never be involved in again after what happened and—”
“You are such a liar. I don’t know why I got on a plane for your sorry behind, but I can promise you that I’m not just going to beat the answers I want out of you—I’m going to make you pay for all those times you didn’t keep your word.”
Nolan shook his head. Shaelynn was being unreasonable, and that wasn’t like her, but then feds to her always meant the same thing. He knew it set her off, and he didn’t like it much himself. He had his reasons for refusing those kinds of consultations, as much as he hated the idea of leaving anyone in a place like the one they’d grew up in. He didn’t have that kind of compartmentalization in him. He couldn’t separate it out—it would be personal.
“This seems like a bad time,” Kaplan began, looking between the two of them. “You need a minute?”
Nolan shook his head. “No, we don’t. Shaelynn was just leaving, and I assume what you wanted to see me about is… urgent, unfortunately, so if you can—”
“You are not doing this, Nolan.”
“This is private,” Kaplan said, trying to push Shaw toward the door. “We’ll be back later.”
“Stay. I’m sure whatever we have to discuss is not going to take that long. I know of only one reason why the feds would want my opinion on anything, and I have to admit, I don’t like it any more than she does. Thing is, we Sheppards have a bit of a sensitivity toward that subject and toward feds, and that’s why my sister left the way she did.”
“You’re family?” Shaw looked between him and Shaelynn and shook his head. “Wouldn’t have thought that.”
Nolan almost laughed. Was the guy trying to hope Shaelynn was his sister? That wasn’t going to work. Not for a minute. He wouldn’t let it. “And here I thought we got along rather well, especially for a divorced couple.”
She glared death at him, almost repeating her words from yesterday. “We were never divorced.”
“We were never married.”
“There was a ceremony.”
“Performed by a self-important megalomaniac who proclaimed himself a prophet and a general and a god—damn it, we were both too young for it to be legal,” Shaelynn snapped. She balled her fists, took a breath, and pushed past Shaw, leaving the man standing there with his jaw hanging.
Nolan tried for an apologetic smile as he faced the agents. Shaw blinked like he didn’t believe what he’d just seen. Kaplan cleared her throat. “That for our benefit?”
“As a rule, I don’t touch the sort of thing you want to ask me about. Nothing to do with cults. I may have grown up in one, may have been a part of taking it down, but I don’t—can’t—consult on others. That takes me back to a place I can’t go. Same with her, though I guess she was… almost lucky.”
“The megalomaniac was her father, not her husband.” Nolan glanced toward the door. “I hate to have made you come down here for nothing, but I can’t help you. I suggest you consult your records for what you want to know of what happened back then. Excuse me.”