Author’s Note: So today I thought I had a good handle on where to go. Nolan’s argument with Nora led into Shaelynn’s return, and then they were eating lunch.
Well, the lunch scene got weird, the scene afterward had them arguing, and then I got almost stuck. Okay, I got stuck. So I wrote a flashback that I’d told myself I wasn’t going to write because I’d told myself scenes from their childhood were forbidden as it was a very messed up one, and even though that moment’s not all that messed up, it’s kind of cute, I didn’t want to write it.
Now I’m stuck again. I’m ahead of the recommended schedule with Nano, but I’m going to need something to get unstuck soon, or I’ll be in trouble.
“And we’ll wrap this up next week,” Nolan said, opening the door to the office a moment before Shaelynn was about to reach for it. She stepped back, letting his clients pass, trying to tell herself she didn’t care what he’d been discussing with them. Whatever he did when he consulted was his business, not hers. She wasn’t a part of the firm—she wasn’t going to be, either, all teasing aside.
He looked her over and laughed, getting his clients to look back, but he gave them a reassuring smile and wave before drawing her inside the office by the arm. “You know, I know you know how to dress like you belong here—as a client or an employee—and yet I think you’re doing this on purpose just to see my reaction.”
She glanced at her jeans and back at him. “If I was going to do that, I’d have an I’m with Stupid shirt to wear every time I was in your office.”
“I’ll buy you one.”
“I think you’re doing enough for her already,” Nora said, glaring out at them from her doorway, and Shaelynn frowned. She knew her relationship with Nora was not the greatest—they’d agreed to tolerate each other back when she’d been “married” to Nolan because they had to get along—and they would never be friends—their interests were too different, and their personalities didn’t mesh well, but she hadn’t thought the whole key prank would upset the other woman that much. She used to mess with Nolan all the time with things like that when they were younger, before, during, and after their “marriage.”
“Nora thinks I should charge rent,” Nolan said, though the glare he sent his sister’s way counteracted the easy tone of his joke. He held out a hand. “My keys?”
He nodded. “I noticed. Not comfortable with it, but it happens. I suppose I haven’t been myself since I got shot. I didn’t realize how far that went. Thought I had. Haven’t. I don’t know, though, is it really bad to lose all that tension and paranoia I used to live with? I spent my childhood worrying about Mom—her drugs, her drug dealer, her ‘clients’—and then I got to worry about Ambrose trying to kill me with each training session, Boath throwing Mom out or deciding Nora was old enough to be a bride, had to live with the fear that I couldn’t fake my ‘faith’ enough to survive, and then I got to worry about all it meant to be the head of one of the ‘houses’—oh, and they married me off so I had to remember that my actions affected you, too—”
“And you were only a kid. You didn’t deserve that,” Nora said. Her eyes went to Shaelynn, and she stiffened—was it time to get accused of being a part of her father’s sickness? To be judged for his sins?
“We were never children,” she said, quiet but not pulling back that punch. She didn’t care how much she upset Nora now. That had always been Nolan’s fear, not hers. Shaelynn should probably admit it—half the reason she didn’t get along with Nora was that Nolan had protected her from all of it. She was still able to be a child, to carry some innocence out of there, and her brother had traded his for it in more ways than Nora seemed to realize. He’d been turned into a soldier and a patriarch and they’d wanted him to be a father all before he turned eighteen, not that their mother was any better in making her son the most responsible one in their house at—what, six? Yeah, Shaelynn was pretty sure it was six—making him the one that had to find a way to feed them, to keep the house clean, to keep her alive, and to stop the creeps she let in their house from doing anything to either him or his sister. No, Nolan’s childhood had died before his mother ever met her father.
“What are you talking about?” Nolan asked and then snorted. “I’m still a child.”
His words managed to make them all laugh, and the tension of the moment passed. He lifted up his keys with a grin, tossing them in the air, and catching them with one of his smug grins. “Got it back.”
She nodded. He was more like himself now, yes, and not just because he’d managed to get his keys out of her pocket without her noticing. Times like this, she wanted to forget all of the parts of the past that were warped almost beyond belief and just be… them. She had no desire to try and raise a sunken ship, but she sometimes thought she wanted all the things that her childhood had denied her and that he almost stood for—family and friends and all that came with having those things.
She was raised a soldier. What did she need stupid things like hugs for, anyway? She wasn’t about to give him one now.
“I think it’s lunch time.”
“I know you think with your stomach,” she told him, “but don’t you think it’s still a bit early for lunch? It was only nine when I left to go to the hotel.”
“Yes, but you took the time to shower and change and move your things across town, and I had two meetings, a shower, and a fight with Nora in the meantime. It’s lunch time,” he said. “Though I think if I went to my usual lunch hangout, they’d kick you right out the door with a laugh. Not a jeans joint, that one.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever happened to yours? The suit thing—it doesn’t work for you.”
He glanced down at his suit, lifting up his tie. “You don’t think I look good? I paid a lot of money for this suit. It was not off-the-rack, and it was not on sale, but I was told I looked good.”
“By a salesgirl with a cute smile who wanted a quick commission.”
“Actually, the salesgirl was a salesman,” he corrected. Then he grinned. “My last girlfriend liked it a lot. Made me wonder if she had some kind of condition that made her drool like that…”
Shaelynn rolled her eyes. “No woman would drool over you.”
“That,” he said, getting into her personal space and making her tense, old muscle memories fighting to surface and react, ready to make him pay for the implied threat, “is what you say. I’ll have you know that there are plenty of women that find me very attractive.”
“Then why are you still single?”
“Oh, that,” he stepped back and shrugged. “The cats didn’t like them.”
Nolan knew something was wrong about two bites into his lunch. He’d ordered his usual, his favorite, and it was just as good as always, so it wasn’t the food. He set down his food, took a drink of his water, and frowned. Something was off—not the lights, they seemed to be about the usual for this place, though he wasn’t quite sure about that since he’d never memorized the lighting scheme or the ambiance. He just knew it was comfortable, and he’d been trying to untrain himself from obsessive surveillance of his surroundings. He hadn’t needed to learn every detail of the places he went—he wanted to be able to have things to notice when he visited somewhere for the second or third time, he wanted to be surprised by things instead of worrying about the possible outcomes of every possible contingency.
He was just a man. He hadn’t been able to be a child, but he was going to enjoy himself at least a little. Comics, cats, cartoons—he was going to have as much of those as he wanted, and he was also going to enjoy dining out without looking for threats.
He saw Shaelynn do it when they went for drinks. She’d done it today, too, and found nothing, so why was he feeling that annoying sensation of being watched now? He was fine. No one was after him. This whole stupid thing was about the takeover, wasn’t it?
“You didn’t see Kaplan or that jerk Shaw, did you?”
Shaelynn frowned, her fingers going toward her knife. “Why do you think that they’d be here? You assuming she lied to you about the case?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t think so. I didn’t get that impression from her, but you know I’ve been a little off my game lately. Still… I don’t remember you being bothered by what she told you, and even if I’m not at my best, you seem to be doing fine. What five paintings are on the wall behind you?”
“A sunset, a winter snow, a waterfall, a mountain, a lake, and I hate you,” she said, glaring at him. “I don’t like that game any more than you do. Why did you have me do that?”
“I saw you surveying the room when we walked in. Proves you’re still sharp, doesn’t it?” He shrugged. She set her jaw, still angry. “You didn’t think Kaplan was lying. I think we both agree she wasn’t, so…”
“Something feels wrong,” he admitted. He looked at the paintings, knowing the décor wasn’t the issue. Even if it had been in poor taste—and it wasn’t; he liked comfortable places—that had never bothered him enough to set off that feeling. He’d grown up in a crappy tenement until they were locked away in that cult compound, and he’d put up with some terrible surroundings in both places, even a few of the rooms he’d had after they were free were bad, so he could endure them if he had to.
The restaurant was a favorite. He came here often. He wouldn’t do that if anything about it bothered him, so why was he being such an idiot about this? It wasn’t the restaurant, which he’d known when he asked if Shaelynn had seen Kaplan.
He closed his eyes, letting out a breath. “Do you see anyone that sets off your warning bells?”
“Other than you?”
“Funny,” he muttered, looking over at her. “Not really appropriate at the moment, though.”
She nodded. “I know. Still, don’t you think if someone was setting off my ‘spider sense’ that I would have said something by now? I would have asked you, but I think if someone is setting off your sense, then it’s someone I have no reason to see as a threat—only you do.”
He grimaced. “That’s not helpful. I’m the one that’s running on no sleep and possible excess paranoia, not you.”
“You did sleep last night, and if this is a threat to you, then you know better what it is. If someone’s watching you—and I’d say it has to be a someone and not a something because you wouldn’t have wanted to eat here otherwise—you’d be better at recognizing them than me.”
“Unless it was someone from the past. You knew all of them better than I did.”
“I thought we all agreed that it wasn’t anyone from the past. It’s not about the cult. Not everything is, and this is one of those things that isn’t. I don’t want to be told that it is. That is—it’s not all that our lives were.”
“And yet we say that so much it feels false, doesn’t it?”
He pursed his lips. “Maybe what our lives are really about is—No, that can’t be it. Let’s just assume that our lives are about cats. You see—that’s the secret truth, we’re all here to serve the cats when they take over the world. We only think we’re in charge.”
She smiled. “You know what I’ve always liked about you? Your ability to make jokes in situations like this. I don’t know why—it wasn’t like it should have been a good thing, but we’d be thinking we couldn’t get up after Ambrose’s latest ‘exercise,’ and then all of a sudden you’d roll over, groan, and say something like, ‘I think the stars I saw were really aliens that abducted the cuckoo birds from last time.’ Completely ridiculous, but you made us all laugh anyway, and we managed to get up and go on.”
“I never said anything like that. Where do you get your delusions?”
He winced. “Sorry. That question was in poor taste. I just—that’s weird. I don’t think I feel it anymore. Either I freaked out for nothing—”
“Or they’re gone.”
“I’m still trying to figure out what happened back there.”
Shaelynn gave him a look. “You don’t think maybe you have a stalker?”
“A stalker? Why would anyone stalk me?”
“Maybe it’s one of those women that drool over you,” she offered, getting another look from him. She shrugged. “You were the one that insisted they existed. If they exist, then why wouldn’t one of them think to stalk you? Maybe she didn’t want to accept the cats’ decision about her marriageability. Maybe she figures she can get rid of the cats and convince you that you’re the love of her life.”
“Impossible. I know the love of my life.”
Shaelynn stiffened, looking over at him. “You do?”
He nodded. “Of course. She’s kind of thin, very graceful—very athletic, actually. She can jump high, always manages to roll with the punches, can be temperamental but also very sweet. She’s beautiful, has the most keen eyes I’ve ever seen. She is playful and funny. I love her nose. It’s adorable.”
Shaelynn shook her head. “First I thought you were talking about me, and I would have had to smack you. Then I thought it was Nora. Now I am thinking you’re making all that up.”
“No. She exists. You even met her, but you weren’t paying attention, though.”
“Patchwork? You’re talking about your cat?”
“You have a problem with her being the love of my life?”
“Other than the fact that you’re insane?” Shaelynn didn’t know if she should smack him or laugh. Nolan was a funny man—she did like the way he managed to find something to joke about regardless of the horrible circumstances around them—but he could infuriate her with that same humor because she sometimes thought it was as much a lie as any of her father’s. Nolan hid the pain well. He always had. Either he was deadpan or he was joking. He didn’t have a lot of mid-ground, and when he slipped, it was that much more of a shock. She hadn’t figured on him falling apart at lunch. She didn’t like it, either. He should have been stable—they’d identified the likely cause of his uneasiness, she’d agreed to stay and help until they’d fought off the takeover, and they almost had a plan. He shouldn’t have faltered like that. It wasn’t him. “Are you sure that you haven’t been dealing with a lot of PTSD?”
He frowned. “Why is it I have to be off my rocker to enjoy the company of my cats?”
“Careful how you phrase that. If you combine that sentiment with you saying that Patchwork is the love of your life—”
“That’s sick and wrong.”
“You said it, not me.”
He glared at her. “I didn’t say it the way you interpreted it. You’re the one that twisted it. I just mean that… Well, I’m not planning on marrying again. I have a good life, and I have my cats, and that’s enough. I’m content.”
“Contentment isn’t happiness.”
He stepped into her, invading her space again. “And are you happy, Shaelynn? Does that cubicle of yours give you a sense of fulfillment? Is your empty apartment warm and cozy at night? Are you happy with what you’ve chosen or will you ever admit that all you’ve done since you got free of your father is run or hide? You’re not living. You’re existing, and barely that. Tell me about the other friends you have besides me and Nora. Tell me about the men in your life. Tell me about your hobbies. What do you do in your spare time?”
“Nolan, stop it. You’re being—”
“Right. I’m being right. And that infuriates you because you have nothing. You’re still letting him win, damn it. You’re so afraid of doing what he said you would that you do nothing at all. You push papers in an office you hate with people you don’t know or don’t like, and the few people you ever gave a damn about have to get shot to hear from you. Oh, yeah, you have a great life.”
“Snapping at me because you don’t want to admit you’re suffering from PTSD doesn’t help anything.”
His shook his head. “It’s not because of the PTSD. I don’t remember denying that I had it to some degree. I’m angry because you turned your back on me thirteen years ago. Nora said you’d do it again, and I don’t want to believe that, but I don’t want to be a fool, either.”
She folded her arms over her chest. “I did not turn my back on you. I needed time to sort out how I felt after my father’s trial, and you just told me yesterday that you understood that.”
“Understood, maybe. Accepted? No. I’m not that good of a person. I didn’t just say, ‘oh, that’s fine. I understand she needs time, and she can have as much as she needs and it doesn’t matter that she didn’t even so much as leave a note.’ I was hurt, I was angry—no, I was pissed—and I even hated you for a while.” He looked away from her. “I know you didn’t want to marry me, and ours wasn’t really a marriage, but I did think we were friends. I thought I deserved better from you than that.”
She closed her eyes, let out a breath. “I needed to be sure that the reason I was around you was because I wanted to be—not because of my father’s orders or vows that weren’t legal. We accepted what we were when we there because we had to. Because neither of us could have gone against my father and won. Direct confrontation with him was suicide. He wouldn’t have killed us—he’d let Ambrose do that—but he would have made sure it happened. He didn’t tolerate nonbelievers. We were forced into a partnership, and if we hadn’t been, things would have been different.”
“Why did you come back? Why did what Nora said to you matter at all?”
“Just because I don’t want to live near you doesn’t mean that you don’t matter to me.”
He started to walk away from her, and she had that feeling that if this were some kind of movie like the ones he used to try and tell her about when they were training, he’d have been shot the moment that he walked away.
She hurried after him, telling herself she was the one being paranoid now.
“Nolan, wake up.”
“Hmm… No. Comfortable here, and I’m not going to school today. There’s no point in school, you know. Mom went to school, and now she’s just an addict. She can’t even count her hits right—and her drug dealer rips her off. No, sleeping is better,” he said, tightening his grip on Shaelynn. “Wait. When did I get a—that’s not a stuffed animal.”
“No, it’s not.”
He winced as he sat back. “Sorry, Shaelynn. I didn’t realize—I didn’t know I’d—I know we were supposed to try sharing the bed since they expect us to, but I didn’t realize I’d hog it or crowd you like that. Nora was too young to tell me, and Mom wouldn’t have noticed.”
Shaelynn nodded, not really wanting to think about what it was like in his arms. Her mother used to hug her years ago, but that was all gone, and she didn’t want any hugs from her father. He disgusted her. All of the men here did. The only one she kind of liked was Nolan.
She was lucky. She’d been afraid they were going to marry her off to Ambrose, and she’d be his third wife—his third dead wife—and that was a prospect too horrible to dwell on. She just wished she hadn’t had to get married at all.
“I had dreams about strawberries. Must have been because I was close enough to smell your shampoo,” he said, smiling at her. “Thanks for that. I’m glad I didn’t have that one again.”
“Me, too,” she told him, thinking about the way he’d come out of it screaming, waking her, making her think they were being attacked. He was just struggling, though. Nolan had a heart, a rare thing in this place, and he paid for that. He cared, and that was dangerous.
It was kind of nice, too. He was good to her, made sure she had what she wanted as much as he could, and he hadn’t taken advantage of this whole thing like she knew someone else would have.
“You are a very good pillow.”
She frowned at him. He hadn’t been using her as a pillow. He was next to her, holding her, maybe even squeezing her, not sleeping on her. “Pillow?”
He shrugged. “I figured you’d hit me if I said snuggly toy.”
She stared at him, not sure if she was going to laugh or do as he suggested and hit him. “Snuggly toy? What is a snuggly toy?”
“Nora used to have one when she was young. It was ugly—I think they meant it to look like a stuffed bunny, but it didn’t look much like a rabbit, more like a sock of vomit or something, but Nora loved that thing. She’d carry it around with her everywhere and snuggle with it. It made her feel safe and secure, and she couldn’t sleep without it.”
“You think I look like an ugly vomit sock?”
“No,” he said, brushing back a bit of her hair. “I won’t say you’re pretty because you’d hit me for that, but you’re not a sock. You’re the rabbit in all its soft and wonderful glory.”
He moved closer to her, drawing her into his arms. She stiffened, but she didn’t pull away because they were supposed to do stuff like this, to be comfortable with each other, and if they weren’t—Ambrose might get her after all. “What you really are is safe and secure. Thank you for letting me skip that nightmare for once.”
“You’re welcome, but I see to my own safety,” she said, pushing away from him. “And my own security. You don’t have to do that.”
He grimaced. “I kind of do with this whole weird head of the house thing, but I meant that you made me safe and secure. I wouldn’t suggest that I did that for you.”
She found herself smiling. Nolan was such a sweetheart, really, and he did not belong here. “Well, then you’re welcome for that, too.”
He smiled back. “Are you really ready to get up now? We are supposed to be able to sleep in on the weekend, and I think I’d like to try that for once.”
She wasn’t in any hurry to get up, and it wasn’t too bright in here to where she couldn’t go back to sleep. She probably wouldn’t, but she could stay here for a bit longer. “I could try it, too.”
He coaxed her back into his arms. “Night, Shaelynn.”
“It’s not night, and you don’t have to hold me now.”
“Sure I do. What’s a wife for if not to be a snuggly toy?”
She couldn’t say why, but she laughed.