Author’s Note: I have to admit, I do find myself wanting to put Alik instead of Nolan when I’m working on this. Not because Nolan and Alik are alike, they’re not, but Alik emerged as a very compelling character in the collaboration, and he has been occupying most of my thoughts of late. I have written a lot about him and thought out a lot of things that I haven’t written down.
It’s interesting. I’m over 40,000 words into this thing, so it is not like I am neglecting it or anything, but sometimes it seems like all I think about is the other story, especially when I go to type Nolan and type Alik first.
Sorry, Nolan. I promise I am going to get your story written and I do know you’re not Alik. I love you both. 🙂
I’m not entirely sure I love the flashback, though.
Somewhere in the middle of their third night as a “married” couple, Nolan realized the mistake he’d made. Shaelynn had curled toward him in her sleep, and he knew if she woke, she’d deny it and blame it on him, but he couldn’t help thinking about just how well she fit there, how he liked the light as it caught the right parts of her hair, bringing out highlights that showed her fire and resolve, and the worst one of all: how beautiful she was when she was sleeping.
He’d thought he had good reasons for asking Boath for her, and he’d thought they were solid, logical ones. He knew they were a good team. They always won when they worked together—and if they didn’t, they were always too busy fighting each other to win. They saw each other as the biggest asset or obstacle to whatever the objective was, and they were right about that. He knew that she could have turned him in years ago, when he admitted he didn’t like guns or want to use one, but she hadn’t. That meant he could trust her. It meant he could ask her to work with him on his crazy stupid plan to get Nora out of here. He needed help, and he didn’t have long. She was thirteen now, but they’d married Shaelynn off at sixteen, and he’d heard some of the girls went at younger ages than her. She’d been worried about it since she was fourteen, so why shouldn’t Nora be terrified?
He had to do something.
They would. He knew he needed Shaelynn’s help, and she was almost stuck giving him it, only he thought he knew that she wanted out as bad as he did. Her father disgusted her, and Ambrose scared her—not that Shaelynn admitted to fear, but Nolan knew she didn’t want to end up that sicko’s wife.
So asking for her spared her that. It made the whole idea of escape that much more possible, and he knew he could trust her. All valid logical reasons for why he should have asked for her.
The very illogical reason that he was in love with her and had been for a while now hadn’t hit him until now.
He didn’t know what it was, when exactly it had happened. Shaelynn had always been easier to get along with than most of the others in their training group, and she had that whole thing where he could trust her, but he’d sworn he wasn’t interested in any of the girls here, just in getting out of here alive before Nora was married off. He hadn’t wanted anything else. He didn’t want to want anything else. He wasn’t twisted like Ambrose or Coman or Boath or any of the other men. He wasn’t here for the women and the violence.
Nolan wasn’t supposed to be in love with Shaelynn. That screwed up everything. True, he’d wanted to love the woman he married—in some far off distant future when he was out of here and things were almost normal, not here. He had always considered marriage a someday thing, when he was well older and when his sister wasn’t in jeopardy. He’d try for that life when this was all past him.
Boath telling him he had to get married screwed that up, but him picking Shaelynn had made it that much worse.
She hadn’t chosen this. She didn’t want to be married. She still pulled away from him when he touched her, and they’d only started sharing the bed because someone always seemed to come by late at night, and neither of them would have been surprised if they were being spied on. She was supposed to multiply the house or something, even though Nolan had said what they were really about was making it so there was more than one fighter in the house like all the others—most of the other “heads” had sons, and Nolan didn’t.
He didn’t want kids. The idea of bringing a child into this mess was revolting. He wouldn’t do that, and he knew Shaelynn wouldn’t, either. Ambrose wouldn’t have been shy about demanding what he thought was his right as her husband, but he wasn’t her husband. Nolan was.
He gagged on that one. He loved her—he did. Still, he didn’t want to be married to her, not like this. Not when it was something that had been forced on them—on her more than him. He didn’t know that she’d ever forgive him for asking for her, and he didn’t think he’d forgive himself.
She deserved a husband who loved her, but in that same someday that he’d put his own thoughts of marriage in. She wanted it down the road when she was free of this place—and she’d made it clear she didn’t want anyone from this place to be that man.
Even if he told her he loved her, it wouldn’t be enough. It would still be this place. She’d say he felt it because he was expected to, because he’d talked himself into it to make this situation almost acceptable. She didn’t believe in love, after all. Her father had taken love and twisted it into something unrecognizable, trying to say he loved all his wives and all his children and all his congregation, but he didn’t love anyone but himself.
If they got out of here, Nolan would have to let her go, and that thought hurt. He didn’t know how he could accept losing her. Nora was his sister, he’d do anything for her, but Shaelynn… She had his heart, and she’d break it in ways his mother never managed to do if she left him.
Maybe he could make her see what love was when they were out of here. Maybe he could give her a reason to stay and try to learn it with him. He had to find a way to try, even if he was a lousy planner. He could think of something.
He pulled her a bit closer, leaning over to kiss her temple before drawing back and whispering, “I love you.”
Shaelynn’s eyes didn’t open, but she pushed away from him and muttered, “Tell whoever’s in our room to go away. I just want to sleep.”
“It’s just us,” he told her, loosening his grip on her so that she’d fall back asleep. She was always tense when she knew he was holding her.
“Then you don’t have to lie.”
“Shut up and go to sleep, Nolan.”
“You don’t sleep much anymore, do you?”
Nolan shrugged. His coffee tasted like crap—so much for the brand name gourmet they gave out with the room, it was still lousy from a drip machine. He was going to have to get them moved to a place with a kitchenette where he could make his own coffee over the stove again. That, and he needed a place where he felt somewhat safe again—a safe that had nothing to do with Shaelynn’s presence or that of his dwindling number of cats.
“I’m not kidding—how long have you been awake, Nolan?”
More than half the night, he thought, since his mind had gone to memories and those one stung, so he’d tried to distract himself, but he couldn’t help noticing her and how it felt to hold her again. He had forced himself out of bed, knowing that he couldn’t keep doing this. She’d leave as soon as this threat was gone, and he was not going to let himself be destroyed when she left. Not again.
Shaelynn shook her head, sitting down across from him. “You need to sleep. Not sleeping is going to get you killed. You can’t afford the distraction.”
He shrugged. She could say that, but that didn’t mean that he could sleep just because he she said he needed to. “I am working. Not distracted.”
She leaned over and picked up the file. “This isn’t related to the threat on your life.”
“I don’t need to work that. That’s what you’re going to work. What Nora will obsess over. I don’t need to be working myself up over something I won’t have the emotional distance to figure out anyway. I can’t think about how I’m going to stop someone from killing me. That’s not a realistic expectation. Ask me questions, and I’ll answer them, but I am not the one that’s going to figure the answers out from the inside. I’m too close to it. I never was good at the big picture stuff. That was your department.”
Shaelynn shook her head. “I think you are taking that too far.”
“Maybe, but I would rather be working my job. Giving in and letting whoever it is keep me from working—unacceptable. He violated my home, he destroyed my car, and I’d even want to blame losing a cat on him. He doesn’t get anything else from me. I am going to do what I need to do to make sure I don’t lose anything else. That means my firm. I am going to honor my commitments, finish the work that I have taken on, and after I have made sure that is handled, then I will hit my head against the brick wall that is this threat.”
“You have that backward. End the threat, then do your job.”
“What am I supposed to do? I have plenty of enemies. I don’t go out intending to make them, but I’m not always going to tell people what they want to hear. I will turn people over to the authorities if I know they are involved in anything illegal or even unethical. I’m not a cop, but I know right and wrong. I do what I need to in order to satisfy my own conscience. At the same time, most of that stuff that I do or have done seems tame. It doesn’t feel like something that should be costing my life. I don’t know why anyone would feel that it was worth that. At least—not besides what I did to the cult.”
“Something is. If not the cult, there has to be a reason, and you’re the one that’s going to know that. You can’t avoid thinking about it—you have to think about it.”
He sipped from his coffee. “Oh, I know. It’s my father.”
She kicked him. “You don’t even know who your father is. Sheppard is just the name your mother gave you—it’s not necessarily his.”
Nolan laughed. That was kind of the point. He’d said it because it was just as likely—and unlikely—as anything else he could have said right then. “I know it isn’t. I happen to like it and prefer it, which is why I went back to it as soon as we were free. Still, it is possible. My father might have a reason to want me dead. Assuming he knows I exist, I could be living, breathing proof of his indiscretion. Some men might want that silenced—we discussed that for those missing girls.”
“I really don’t want to think about it being that obscure. How are we supposed to find your father if he’s the one that wants you dead? We don’t have a federal database full of DNA to compare yours to, and even if we did, there’s no guarantee he’d be in it.”
“I know. We could try asking our friends the feds, but I doubt they’d go checking that on the random idea that my father could be doing this. Technically, nothing has happened to me yet. They can get whoever this is for vandalism and breaking and entering. That’s it.”
Shaelynn looked at him. “That better be what it stays. They don’t get to get close to you.”
“I doubt they really intend to.”
“This is a real threat. Someone could be planning on killing you.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they intend to get all that close to me.”
“Sometimes,” she said, shaking her head as she rose, “I really hate you.”
“The whole point of a suite was so that there was plenty of space and none of us had to share it.”
Shaelynn stopped in the middle of pouring herself a coffee and looked over at Nora. Was that supposed to be for her? Nolan had gone into the other room to call his client, but that was the tone that Nora used on him when she was annoyed and about to lecture.
“You know what I mean, Shaelynn. This isn’t the cult. You don’t have to share my brother’s room.” Nora’s look went dark. “Or his bed.”
Shaelynn tightened her grip on her cup. She was tempted to throw it at Nora—that or strangle her. “It is not like that. I’m not sleeping with your brother—not like you just implied.”
“Whether you’re having sex with him or not doesn’t change the fact that you slept in his bed last night. And probably the last two nights. Damn it, do you have any idea what you do to him?” Nora folded her arms over her chest, shaking her head. “You really don’t get it, do you? I don’t know how you can do that, be so damned blind, but let me clarify it for you: you’re screwing with his head and his heart, and you need to stop. Now. I asked you here to help him, not destroy him.”
“What the hell do you think I’m doing?” Shaelynn demanded. She didn’t know what Nora was thinking—she’d asked her here to fix Nolan, and while that wasn’t possible, that didn’t mean that Shaelynn hadn’t been working. She was in a lot further than what she’d expected to be when she got on that plane. He wasn’t supposed to need her. She should be back home already. “I’m here to help him. I’ve been helping him. I have gone through his cases, I’ve met with sleazes that might be trying for more than a hostile takeover, I made the call that Nolan didn’t want to make, and I have been carrying my gun. The only reason that I have been in his bedroom is because he isn’t sleeping, and he always slept better when I was there as his damn snuggly toy.”
“Which you are for a day or two, and then you leave. He has to find a way to cope with his upsets that has nothing to do with you because you never stick around. You aren’t the solution. You’re not even a stopgap. You just make things worse.”
Shaelynn clenched her fists. “I am not making anything worse. You’re the one that suggested giving away his cat. Why don’t you look at your actions for a change? You have him thinking you have an adding machine instead of a heart. That the only thing that matters to you is money—that the only reason you’re worried about him dying is because you’re afraid of losing that money.”
“That is not true, and he knows it. He should know it. He is my brother, not my meal ticket. He matters more to me than anything. He’s all I have, all I’ve ever had, and he’s always been there for me. I would be lost without him, and don’t you think for one minute I don’t know that. I do.”
“You don’t act like it. He doesn’t believe that.”
Nora flinched, but she pursed her lips and hissed out a breath. “Whatever my faults, I’m not the one that jerks the rug out from under him every time I leave. You can’t keep doing that to him.”
“Nolan is in—”
“Nolan is hungry and wants real coffee,” he interrupted, coming back into the room. “The Allens are now fully satisfied customers. Feel free to bill them later, Nora. I want to find a place to stay with a real kitchen, so that’s on the docket for today—possibly after breakfast. In the meantime, you two get to call a truce and be civil through our meal because neither of you get to ruin my pancakes.”
“I’m not eating with her,” Nora said. “I’m not going to play nice, and I’m not going to pretend that I am okay with any of this because I am not. I’ve told both of you how I feel about this, and I know you won’t listen—sure, think of me as the same spoiled brat as always, but I’m not wrong. She’s got no business messing with the way you feel, and you need to stop giving her the chance to do it.”
She turned and left the room, and Shaelynn shook her head. Nora was being childish, as usual, and if she wanted her opinions heard, she was going to have to stop acting like that spoiled brat.
Nolan put a hand to his head. “I suppose I should go to breakfast by myself—”
“Absolutely not. You don’t get to go anywhere alone until this guy has been found, caught, and maimed,” Shaelynn said. She didn’t know how he’d ever thought that idea was going to fly with her. No way. She was not letting anything happen to him—she’d already told him that.
“You going to follow me into the bathroom and blow my nose for me, too?”
“No.” Shaelynn grimaced. “Well, I might be tempted to make sure no one goes after you in the bathroom. It would be a shame if you died there, of all places.”
He smiled, but it wasn’t much of one. “Let’s just go get some pancakes and let Nora cool off a bit. I bet you could use that, too.”
Shaelynn nodded. “I don’t enjoy being accused or being lectured.”
“I hate when people talk about me behind my back,” he said, reaching for the door handle and opening it. She wasn’t sure if that was directed at her, but that conversation wasn’t really about him.
“It wasn’t about you.”
“Yes, it was. That’s the only thing the two of you have in common.”