Author’s Note: Today I woke with a sore neck, which kind of threw off my day. I didn’t get started on writing right away, and when I did, it was a side funny scene/flashback that might have no place in the collaboration. I tried to do a meaningful back story piece after that, but I didn’t like it, so I cut it. Then I wrote a couple more pieces, and trying to get two taciturn types talking about meaningful things… Yeah. That was interesting.
So then it was rather late when I tried to shift gears from one story to the other and pick up where I’d left off. It didn’t really happen, not at first.
I just started writing to write something, and I ended up with a piece that wanted to kill the whole story. Then it was pointed out to me what needed to be done, and I decided backtracking was in order. So I went back. Midway through backtracking, about ten fifty or so tonight, I realized: I know what it’s all about. I know who’s after Nolan and why.
And that was a relief, I have to say.
He wasn’t dead.
Not yet, anyway. He was still struggling to understand why this was all coming up now—it would have made more sense if he’d been dealing with all this before he got shot, maybe even right after, when he’d been at his most vulnerable—physically speaking, that was, there were lots of times when he’d been emotionally vulnerable, where he’d been kicked when he was down—but now? Other than the possibility of a takeover, things were stable. The firm was doing well, they had plenty of satisfied clients, and he’d recovered from his wounds. They’d taken a vacation and enjoyed themselves without any adverse effects, and it didn’t make sense that someone would target him now.
He’d gone through his records again while Shaelynn was contemplating killing him for the Grable comparison, not finding any notification from any penal system that someone he should be worried about had been released. None of the cult members who’d been arrested had managed to get out yet—it would seem they remained true believers and seemed like threats to the community because at least a couple of them had qualified for parole—not in Nolan’s opinion but in the court’s—yet they hadn’t gotten it.
Nora wouldn’t have kept something like that from him—she was already worried before this threat showed up, and if she’d seen release paperwork, she’d have gone into a full panic. No, it hadn’t been something either of them had overlooked.
“We can contact whoever we need to and make sure that they’re all still in there,” Shaelynn said, leaning over his shoulder. He tried not to flinch. He didn’t like being watched, and her father had an extremely creepy way of walking up behind everyone like that. He’d never pointed out that she did the same thing because he hadn’t wanted to hurt her, but he should have—she would have stopped doing it long before this.
“Going to have to, though if the cops are that intent on investigating what happened to my car, they’ll do the same,” he said. He let out a breath. “I don’t know. Maybe I should have gone into law enforcement. I’d have more resources of my own.”
“You seem to do all right most times.”
“Most times, it isn’t a matter of life or death—and it’s never about me,” he said, and she put her hand on his shoulder. He reached up to squeeze it. “I don’t know that I was ever good at that whole compartmentalization thing that people in those fields do. I can’t always shut it out, can’t keep focused on the task at hand. The mission. Whatever it is. I can’t do this with my own life being threatened. It should be easier than this. I never thought I cared about it that much.”
“Don’t ever say that in front of your sister.”
Nolan shrugged. He didn’t say a lot of things in front of Nora. Shaelynn knew him better than that, better than his sister or anyone else in the world. Some might say she had the right to, given what they’d gone through, but it wasn’t just that—he was comfortable enough with her to slip over and over again into old patterns—to where he felt like he could tell her anything.
“You do compartmentalize more than you realize,” she told him. “That way you shed skins—personalities—one minute high priced consultant the next a rebel waiting for a cause then over to a stand up comic—you have acts that deal with the moment, and maybe they’re not compartments for the big picture, but they work.”
He grimaced. “I don’t think I like that assessment.”
“That’s because you’re working without any of those pretenses at the moment. You’re vulnerable without one, and you hate that, but you can get through this without one.”
“I think we’ve said enough about this subject,” Nolan said, running a hand over his face. “What else can be done before morning or someone calls us back?”
“I was considering taking a visit to the source—the man who is trying for the takeover—but that’s something that I’ll do in the morning. Did Nora say she’d figured out the lawyer she wants to use against the magazine?”
“I told her we’re not suing.”
Shaelynn rolled her eyes. “I know you’re not. That would just fuel the fire you didn’t want burning in the first place. That’s not what I meant. I figure the threat of the suit is all you need. Your lawyer rattles the magazine’s cages, and we see what scurries out. There are libel laws for a reason.”
“They didn’t actually say anything bad about me or the firm. Nora was right—they didn’t say much about me at all. Just that one paragraph near the middle of the article,” Nolan said. He’d just about memorized it by now.
Many consultants have a list of diplomas and an area of expertise. Some of them are more self-taught and less specialized. Nolan Sheppard, founder of the firm Sheppard and Sheppard, featured on the cover, has done work across a variety of fields and doesn’t boast the same amount of degrees as most of his competition. He brought with him a reputation forged in fire—as a teen, he led a group of children to escape from a cult, and that same determination and ingenuity now guides him in the corporate world.
“I think they almost insulted you by suggesting you weren’t as good because you didn’t go to school for this crap.”
Nolan snorted. “Oh, I went to a school for this crap. It’s just that most people call it a cult.”
“We’ve done everything we can for the night,” Shaelynn said, nudging Nolan and trying to get him out of his seat. He’d been in a mood since they got back, and she couldn’t fault him for it, but she also couldn’t let him start avoiding sleep again. He would have a hard time doing it with all that had happened—that feeling at lunch, the vandalism to his car, the threat, the magazine, and all the memories this was digging up for him. “Come on. You need to give this up and get some rest. You may as well let sleep take care of those last few hours before we can do the real work.”
He looked up at her. “I think I’d rather pass. I know I’m trying to get back on a sleep schedule, but I don’t feel like waking up screaming tonight—and you’d hate it if I did that to you again—so we’ll spare both of us the trouble, and I will just not bother tonight.”
“Not an option.”
He studied her for a long moment, and then his lips split into a wide, devious grin. “Does that mean I get to have the snuggly toy?”
She stared at him for a long moment. She knew he was kidding—the smirk assured of that—but she couldn’t believe he’d asked her that. They were well past those days, and he shouldn’t have brought it up again after that thing with Shaw.
Nolan shook his head. “Then forget it. There’s no way I’m going to sleep now. We know someone’s really after me. This isn’t paranoia anymore. It’s not PTSD. It’s not something in my head. It’s not me cracking under pressure or something. Someone set me up. They got my picture in a national magazine. Someone—possibly a different someone—vandalized my car. It looks like it should be something from my past—a past we both know was hell. It’s looking a lot like someone wants me dead, and how exactly do you expect me to sleep with those thoughts going around in my head?”
She didn’t know. She couldn’t really think of why he might be able to, not when she hadn’t figured she’d get any sleep, and it wasn’t her life that had been threatened. This was Nolan, though, and he was just about all she had. She was worried—but she was also determined not to let whoever it was that wanted him get anywhere near him.
Nolan was not dying. That was not going to happen.
“Why do you have four cats if not to make one of them the snuggly toy?”
“They make excellent purrboxes,” he said, and she gave him a look. That had come to him way too fast, and he was a bit too smug about it, too. “They’re soft and fluffy and cute. They purr, and that can make this place seem less empty. They’re not the same as what I used to have, though.”
She grimaced. “I’m not a ‘purrbox.’ You can’t compare me to the cats. Or to what Nora used to have when you were kids.”
“I would never do that,” Nolan said, a look in his eyes that she wanted to ignore. That one was too close to too much. “You were my best friend. My safety and my security. Nothing has ever given me that feeling since you left.”
“Ambrose would tell you that was what your gun was for.”
Nolan’s eyes darkened, but he didn’t flinch. He shrugged. “Yeah, well, I tried sleeping with a gun again for a while. It didn’t help.”
She felt her stomach twist. Nolan didn’t do that. That wasn’t who he was. He’d hated his gun. The only reason he’d slept with one nearby was because of her. “Damn it.”
“I was willing to try anything before Nora called you,” he admitted. “That wasn’t a solution, and I’m glad it wasn’t. I don’t think I want to become that person.”
She sometimes wished she wasn’t. “I still have a permit to carry concealed.”
“He damaged you more than he did me,” Nolan said, and she frowned. He laughed. “Did you honestly think I didn’t know? You didn’t carry it yesterday or today, not when the threat wasn’t obvious, but you went for it after we got back here. You’ve got it now. It’s habit. It’s comfort. I wasn’t going to take that from you.”
She closed her eyes. “Sometimes I wish I’d been more like you, able to resist all this crap.”
“I don’t think you want to be like me,” he said. “We both broke back then—don’t tell Nora I said that; I told her earlier that I didn’t break—but we did it in different ways.”
“I hate him so much, Nolan.”
“Me, too.” He wrapped his arms around her. She should shove him away, but sometimes this was nice and worth allowing herself the moment of weakness. “Can I please have the snuggly toy tonight?”
She didn’t think she’d get any sleep if she didn’t agree, and they both needed to be ready for the morning. She would have thought about enforcing shifts for sleep, but Nolan had to be rested. Someone could use that distraction against him—she had—and that was dangerous. No, she was going to get him through the night—and she’d save him tomorrow.
“Fine. You get the snuggly toy.”