Author’s Note: Early this morning I got an emergency call into work this afternoon. A part of me regretted being available for that that because working the day after the legal holiday and the weekend was rather brutal. I felt overwhelmed all day long, and it didn’t help that I felt sick, too.
We won’t talk about the mistakes I made at work.
That just explains why there’s not very much here today. I still feel brain dead.
“We’ve been tracking a few shell companies that we believe are front for some… drug cartels,” Morton said, getting everyone’s attention back on him and making the room tense for a different reason. “I’m not going to go into specifics there because it’s an on-going investigation and we don’t want that getting out—we don’t really want them knowing that we’ve figured out the shell companies—but we did see that Cunningham had several ‘consultations’ that these shell companies had paid for, and that’s when we got suspicious.”
Nolan nodded, grateful for the man’s attempt to get the conversation away from Shaelynn’s latest outburst. He didn’t want to start that argument again. “Could be them trying to make the businesses look legitimate. Cunningham’s firm has been around a lot longer than mine—his father started it, and it used to be a decent place before he retired and let his sleaze of a son take over—so it has a reputation and fair share of the market. He does have good people working for him, even if he’s an idiot. Then again, it could be a bit of money laundering. Cunningham gets his ridiculous fee, turns around and spends it like any spoiled rich guy, but it goes back into a ‘legitimate’ business they own.”
“That could be it,” Morton agreed, combing his fingers through his wife’s hair. “I like the idea, personally, but I don’t think most of the people in my unit would.”
“He’s glad you agree with him, though, because that’s what he pegged Cunningham for from the beginning,” Kaplan said, reaching up to stop her husband’s hand. Nolan couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous of all those small gestures. Shaelynn didn’t want to see that as love, but Nolan did, and he knew how rare that was. “I agreed with him, but I’m missing persons and his wife, so I don’t count.”
Shaelynn snorted. “Could be worse. They could have said you didn’t count because you were a woman.”
Kaplan’s jaw tightened. “Things like that have happened before, though in general, the bureau’s not that bad when it comes to how female agents are treated. There are… bad apples, though.”
“And we’re not discussing that,” Morton said, kissing her neck. “One problem with the money laundering theory is that Cunningham would have to be aware of what he was doing to launder the money.”
“Not necessarily,” Shaelynn said, giving her skirt a glance. Nolan had asked her to change it hours ago, but she’d refused to leave the office before he got the video of Creamsicle and knew his apartment had been compromised. “Depending on who he consulted for—a certain woman that Nolan’s had dealings with comes to mind—they could suggest certain purchases or restaurants. Think about the woman he thinks he’s dating. She’d be in an ideal position to manipulate his spending without him realizing it. He took a case from me without even looking at the file. He spent most of the time looking at my legs.”
“And you complain when I compare you to Betty Grable.”
“Shut up, Nolan.”
Kaplan and Morton exchanged looks. Nolan pretended he didn’t see it. He leaned back, rubbing his neck. “Shaelynn would be in an ideal position to help you with your case, but she will hit me and say she’s not going anywhere near it in a second. I’m not suggesting she change her mind about that, but I do think that she’s got a point about how Cunningham could be being manipulated.”
“If I wasn’t as busy as I already am, I’d do it for you, much as I suck at undercover work,” Kaplan told Morton, and he stared at her for a moment before shaking his head.
“No. I don’t think that’s ever going to be an option, Geneva. Sometimes I take it wrong when one of my brothers compliments you. I’m not okay with you taking an assignment where the main point is to get you to use the feminine charms that I love so much on someone else. Not to mention that neither of our kids would forgive us if they found out about that—I don’t care if it was just for an assignment. We can ask another female agent.”
“Or I could do it,” Nora said. Everyone looked at her. She shrugged. “Cunningham has hit on me multiple times without ever remembering that Nolan is my brother. I’m not just a glorified secretary for my brother—I screen the cases, too. I’m good at knowing what will interest Nolan and what won’t and what I can pass on to him just to annoy him. I am also a woman who knows how to spend money. I do it very well.”
Nolan grimaced. “She’s right about that, at least—Nora’s the one that buys everything. She knows it’s value and can talk people into things they’d never buy if they were shopping on their own.”
She smiled. “The true test would be if I didn’t end up hurting Cunningham before it was over.”
“Only there is no way that you would go undercover as Cunningham’s latest bimbo when your brother’s life has been threatened and he might be behind it,” Shaelynn said, fixing Nora with a dark glare. “None of us really believe that he is, but we can’t just eliminate him because we think he’s a sleaze.”
“Maybe I’d be doing both—eliminating him from the threat to Nolan and getting him nailed for his role as a cartel patsy.”
Nolan held up a hand. “Can we take a step back here and pretend you two aren’t trying to carry on that old rivalry you’ve had since we were kids? We’re trying to work through all the angles to help all of us with our respective problems. Morton and Kaplan have cases to work and we have this threat someone’s made—”
“All of which could tie to you,” Shaelynn said. She shook her head. “Maybe Nora does need to get Cunningham to slip up. Or I do because I do have that ‘in’ already. We have to eliminate him and the possibility that the cartel is interested in Nolan for any reason. They might have ordered this whole takeover. On the other hand, the connection is thin, and it might be nothing.”
Nolan shook his head. “I’m starting to think that I should just let myself get shot again. This is getting ridiculous.”
“You are not getting shot again.” Shaelynn would put him in bubble wrap if she could—well, probably a bulletproof vest and full body armor—but he was not going to let himself be sidelined and smothered. “That is not an option.”
“They did like to make bombs, too, in the cult.”
Shaelynn glared at him. “And we learned hand-to-hand combat, but you don’t need to go provoking me like you did Ambrose.”
“Back to the missing girls,” Nolan said. “We have wasted a lot of time and not discussed them at all. I went back through what I remembered of talking to the one, but I don’t remember her giving me any kind of verbal cues toward where she might be. She was angry, she hated her father and she hated me for ‘working’ for him. I still can’t get the exact phrase back—something about ‘another suit doing the work of the suit who’d never had a hard day in his life.’ I remember asking her if she considered growing up with an addict who joined a cult and then being forced to be a child soldier until escaping from that cult was something hard or not, and she just glared at me. That was it. I wish I had more, but she was not willing to talk to me.”
“They were Dad’s type, though,” Shaelynn said, closing her eyes and wrapping her arms around herself. “They kind of look like my mother did when he found her. She was some teenage runaway, I guess. She thought she’d found something great, but she didn’t make it past her third child.”
“If they were looking to frame the cult for the girls’ kidnapping, that would help,” Nolan said. He shook his head. “I still think that connection’s too thin. I don’t know that I can buy that they’d do all this to me even if they were trying to obscure why those girls went missing.”
Morton shifted in his seat. “It might be more convincing if the cult was not threatening you but making you the new head of it. You are the ‘charismatic young rebel’ that overthrew the cult and became a successful businessman. You’re the one that might have wanted all that for yourself and decided to create it, but not by taking his—by building your own.”
“Nolan never drank that Kool-Aid. He has no interest in being a monster like my father.”
“I can’t even manage to have one wife,” Nolan agreed, and she glared at him again. He ignored it. “I admit, I might seem like the type to frame for that, but they’re labeling me a traitor and pointing out where I’m supposed to spend eternity. That doesn’t fit.”
Kaplan nodded. “I agree, but if someone did think they could use that cult to hide what they’ve done to those girls, they’d have to give us a reason to think the cult was active again. Harassing you is the obvious choice for that.”
“I still think—”
The door banged in the frame, and Nolan frowned as Nora crossed to answer it.
“Look! We finally caught him. Isn’t he cute, Dad?” the girl asked. She nudged the boy beside her, and he nodded.
“Mom, can we have a cat?”
Nora looked over at Nolan. He shook his head, not willing to accept that he was losing another cat. That just… couldn’t happen.
Shaelynn walked up behind him, not sure if it was worth lecturing him on being in front of the window. She knew that he was taking this a lot harder than he wanted to let on, but the cat was a part of his family, and he had let him go. He’d lost something else important when he had very little left to lose. She knew he’d been through plenty today, and now was not the time for him to say goodbye to Boots, but they’d all known the moment those kids came back in with him that they were going home with him.
The parents had been about as dismayed by this outcome as Nolan was, but they’d both caved in the faces of those children, and Nolan had as well.
“I said he was family,” Nolan whispered. “How do I give away family?”
“You didn’t give him away,” Shaelynn said, touching his back. “You let him go to a place that was better for him because he needed it and the kids needed him. It’s not like you got rid of him. You helped him go to somewhere he can be happier. You let him go, but that’s what you have to do sometimes with the things you care about.”
“Don’t say that,” Nolan snapped, pulling away from her. “Not you. Not to me. Not ever.”
She winced. She supposed that would bring up all that stuff from the past—he had let her go, and she’d only known learned how much he’d hated doing it. They’d still been friends. She’d known he was upset, but not the degree of that upset.
“You’re all too willing to let Nora go,” Shaelynn began, and he frowned at her. “You want her to pair up with some guy you’ve never met and—”
“I want Nora to fill her life with love. With people. I want her to care about the ones she loves, not love the things she has. That can’t replace what we never had growing up, and it never will. I don’t know Morton, no, but I heard that tone in Kaplan’s voice, and I saw him with her tonight—if his brother is like him, then he’s what Nora needs. I don’t know that it would really work—the idea is crazy as hell—but I still want her to find someone, and not someone at the firm because they’re not what she needs. She needs someone real—someone who doesn’t care about possessions, and a man in the army doesn’t care about that one bit. Sometimes all he has is one bag or the gear on his back. Nora has forgotten what matters. She needs someone to remind her of that, and it’s not me. I can’t get through to her anymore.”
Shaelynn would have offered to help if it would have done any good, but she knew she’d just anger Nora if she tried to give her advice, and she didn’t buy into Nolan’s idea of love being the answer anyway.
She crossed to the window and pulled the curtains shut, making the room darker. Nora might still be in the bath in the other part of the suite, or she could already have taken the other bed. Shaelynn didn’t figure the other woman would have any trouble sleeping—she never seemed to when they were kids. She’d never known if that was ignorance of their situation or just stubbornness—no one denied Nora what she wanted for long—but she’d always found it annoying that the girl could sleep through anything.
Her brother had terrible nightmares about things he’d never do—or things he wouldn’t tell either of them about; Shaelynn figured the days with their mother the addict were worse than he usually said—but Nora could sleep without a hint of disturbance. Shaelynn had never had that herself. From the moment she’d started training, she’d been afraid of Ambrose, and that fear just got worse the more convinced she became that she would be forced to be his wife.
“Come on,” she said, holding out her hand to Nolan. “Time for bed.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to argue the whole couch bed gentlemanly honor thing with you. I can’t sleep, so you get the bed. I’ll sit up and read or something, so I get the couch.”
“No, you get the snuggly toy.”
He swallowed. “Shaelynn, don’t do this to me. Please.”
She frowned, pushing him toward the bed. “You may not want to sleep, it may still scare you, but after a day like today, you need it more than ever. So what you’re going to do now is get in bed and get some rest.”
He shook his head. “I think this is a very bad idea. I can’t get all dependent on you again.”
“You lost a cat—yes, you can go visit him sometime, but you still don’t have him with you right now—so you get the snuggly toy. End of discussion.”