Nano’s Still Not Done…

Author’s Note: So it was hard to get myself back into this one after work today. I was braindead to begin with, and it was almost four hours later before my mind seemed to work again—how well it is working being entirely debatable—but I do need to find an ending for this story, for the characters if not for me.

Continuing On

“This could be considered stalking, you know.”

Shaelynn looked over at Morton, folding her arms over her chest. She had to keep herself from reaching for her gun. She’d be in more trouble if he knew she had it—permit or no permit—but part of it was his fault anyway—he’d snuck up on her, and she’d almost gone right for the reaction that Ambrose had trained into her years ago. She still struggled with that. As much as she’d wanted to leave that life behind her, she was still a paranoid, gun-carrying woman whose reflexes were deadly—and she was even a bit proud of it.

“I take it Kaplan told you I didn’t think that it was over.”

He nodded, leaning against her rental. “She did—well, she muttered something about it before she dozed off in the middle of… dinner. Lack of sleep caught up to her last night.”

“And the bad news she got?”

“Not as bad as she thought it would be, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. They found a couple of Jane Does they thought were the girls she was searching for. They weren’t, which means hers might still be alive.”

“Only two kids are dead?”

Morton shook his head. “Not dead. Just… in bad shape. Real bad shape. One’s strung out and the other’s in critical condition. And my wife is probably going to work her off-hours trying to figure out who they are. I admire her for it. I’m tempted to do it myself. One of us has to be a parent, though, and Carolina is a handful on the best of days, so… do I be the hero to someone else or to my daughter? She usually wins. Does that make me a bad person?”

“You are asking the wrong person,” Shaelynn told him. “I don’t know anything about kids. I don’t want to know anything about kids.”

“Right. The cult. You grew up expecting to be nothing more than a baby factory, right?”

“That or an assassin, considering what Ambrose taught me,” she agreed. She let her head rest against the car. “You here to arrest me, Morton, or are you really going to claim that you wanted adult conversation again?”

He laughed. “No, I’m not here just to talk. It’s not like Geneva turned to me and said, ‘Raleigh, go rescue Sheppard from herself.’ She mentioned that you didn’t think it was over, but she was mostly asleep at the time, and I have to admit, when she’s in my arms, so am I. It’s a good feeling having her there, one I did not have with either of my ex-wives.”

“You were married more than once? Why would you do that to yourself?”

Morton looked at her. “You really don’t think it’s worth it, do you? I admit, after my second marriage, I thought I was done. It was ugly, almost uglier than my first. Thing is, though, I love Geneva. I always believed in love, and I suppose I gave mine away too easily to women that didn’t deserve it, but when you have it—even when you just think you do—your life is the better for it. There’s this other piece of you that they help you find. They make you better. You’re a lot less selfish when you’re in love—you care about the other person more than yourself or your needs. Sometimes you’re willing to die for them.”
Shaelynn looked at him. “That what you were like with all your wives?”

“I’m not sure. With Geneva, definitely. With the others… It’s debatable. I think things get colored by the way things ended, and they did end badly. Still, for all that Regina did to me—I got Carolina out of that, and I don’t regret her. She might be a hellion, but she’s mine. I love her more than anything.”

“How easy is it to convince yourself that you’re in love when you’re not?”

Morton frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You were married three times at least, and you say you loved them all, but if it was love, it would have lasted. How easy was it for you to convince yourself you loved them? Is it easy to convince yourself that you’re not?”

“You don’t want to be in love?”

“I’m not in love,” Shaelynn snapped. Morton looked at her. She almost reached for her gun. “Stop looking at me like that. I never said I was talking about me. I don’t believe in love. Nolan’s the idiot who thinks he’s in love.”

Morton shook his head. “A bit of advice—most men aren’t going to admit to that kind of thing, so if one of us says it, you need to step back and consider that a victory in of itself. You’re smart enough to know when a man’s lying about that and when he isn’t, so don’t try and pretend that you’re annoyed because he thinks he’s in love. He is in love, and that’s what makes you mad.”

She glared at him. “Nolan is not in love with me. That whole situation was so messed up that he thinks he is, but he’s not.”

“Speaking as a guy and as an agent trained to observe people—he is. If it was about the situation when you were kids, he would have been over it by now. And if it wasn’t love, you wouldn’t be stalking him right now.”

“I am not stalking Nolan.”

Morton shrugged. “Fine. Tell yourself you’re only here because you’re worried about him, that it’s just because this might not be over. Eventually you’ll have to look deeper and look at why you’re worried. That was quite the sucker punch for me. I didn’t think that Geneva had gotten in that deep until I realized just what I was willing to do for her and why. You’re still watching over him. You’d have stepped in between that kid with the gun and him. Those kinds of things aren’t what you do when you don’t care.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Maybe not, but if this isn’t love, I am going to have to arrest you for stalking.”


“You trailed off in the middle of saying goodbye to the Hendersons.”

Nolan grimaced. “That was unprofessional of me. I will have to apologize to them—oh, wait, that was their last visit. I guess we’ll see how offended they are when they send the check, huh?”

Nora shook her head. “That’s not a good measure of how badly that went. I swear, that was more like a full on fugue. I was tempted to shove a phone at you—at least then you would have had a good reason for zoning out. You didn’t. You’d started one of your jokes and just stopped and fortunately I was able to use my phone to call the office one and distract everyone, but that was weird.”

“No weirder than the original PTSD from being shot,” Nolan said. He rubbed his head. “I don’t know—I had one of those moments where I was thinking about one thing, remembered another, and somewhere in the middle of it, I got sidetracked by thinking about something completely different. And before you say it—that was not about Shaelynn. Hard to believe, but there I was, discussing the kids with the Hendersons, I started thinking about Boots—apparently I was able to make that connection because of the whole kids and Morton’s kid getting Boots, but then I was back with that girl Kaplan’s looking for, and she was saying I was just like her father…”

Nora sighed. “You’re still not sleeping, are you?”

He shrugged. “Define sleep.”

She rolled her eyes. “I suppose I am just glad that you don’t smell. That was bad, and I was starting to think I would have to do what you wanted with the damned water balloons to even start that process.”

He laughed. “Only because you made such a big deal out of it. I wouldn’t have cared if you didn’t care so much. Consider that the duty of the big brother.”

“You can skip that from now on. Come on. We should pick something new for you to work on. You weren’t supposed to go through all of those that fast.” She started toward the door and stopped. “I know you’re really determined to go forward with this, that you’re going to get over her, and I am behind that one hundred percent. I want you to have your life, I want you to get over her, and I want you to stay over her. No thinking you’re better but you’re not. I want the cycle ended just as much if not more than you do. The only thing I don’t want is to see you do nothing but work. That’s not taking back your life. It’s not learning to live without her. It’s hiding. You don’t get to hide. You will not hide. We are Sheppards. We don’t hide.”

Nolan was torn between being frustrated and wanting to hug her. He did love his sister, and a part of him agreed with her, but another part of him was well past annoyed. He didn’t need more lectures. He was trying. He didn’t expect to bounce back the instant he told Shaelynn to go. He knew that it was going to be a long road. He hadn’t stopped trying. He wasn’t going to stop, either. He just also knew that he wasn’t going to be fixed overnight.

“I’m not hiding. I’m working. There is a difference. I’ve had… hot streaks like this before. Sometimes things are easy to understand, the big picture is obvious, the steps to correct it or keep it running smoothly, that’s all there and something I can write up in a few minutes. I know that it’s not always like that, and so do you. I may have worked on a few more than I would have if I hadn’t just had my heart broken, but I’m not hiding.”

She nodded. “I’ll accept that, just… don’t start.”

“I won’t,” he said, rising. “I think that if you really want to be sure that I’m not hiding or working too much, we could take a long lunch today.”

“A long lunch.”

He had to laugh when she said that. Her expression hadn’t changed, but her voice had been dipped in acid with a side of disbelief, and it was so… Nora. He walked over and gave her the hug he’d held back before. “You are so funny when you don’t try to be.”

“And I hate you when I try to love you.”

“That’s not true.” He shrugged. “I don’t know—it’s not like I have a lot of other things in my life. I can either work or eat—oh, I know. Let’s go down to the animal shelter and get me another cat. That’s what we should do with the afternoon. That’s moving on, right?”

She considered that. “It is, but it isn’t. I am a bit concerned by you getting another cat. I’m not sure if you’d be… rebounding or not, and you didn’t end up losing Creamsicle like we thought that you would. You don’t need to go replacing Boots.”

“Can’t replace Boots. He was special. I mean, he is special. I know there’s still a possibility that he won’t be able to stay with the Mortons, so I shouldn’t go cluttering up my apartment with more cats. I’m not going to hold my breath about that, either.”

“If you go looking at the shelter, you will want to bring one of them home. Either you go in there intending to bring one of them home, or you don’t go at all.”

“Okay,” he said. “Lunch, then.”

Today Nano Hits Fifty Thousand

Author’s Note: So I decided today that there was just no real good reason why I couldn’t hit the 50,000. The morning started me out at 47,127, and really, given my ability to write fast, I couldn’t come up with a good excuse not to finish, even though I have to deal with the brick wall and find some measure of an ending.

I did have a few things come to me as I got my coffee, not that I could get to them right away, and when I did sit down to write, I made sure to start back in order, not after the brick wall as I’d percolated a bit.

The story’s not quite done yet, but I do have 50,000 words. I wrote past the brick wall. I’m not 100% sure about it, but I do know I’m done for the night.

Plenty of Strange Aftermath

“I think I want to be angry.”

Shaelynn looked over at Nora. “If you’re going to lecture, you can stop now. I don’t want to hear it. You’re the one that asked me to come. There was a real threat, but it’s supposedly been dealt with. We don’t have to fight.”

“Meaning you’re going to go and there’s not a lot of point in starting an argument,” Nora muttered, shaking her head. She folded her arms over her chest and tapped her foot against the tile of the office. “I would still do it if I thought it was worth bothering with, but I can’t get through to you. Never could, never will. Maybe someone else will, but I’m not going to hold my breath.”

Shaelynn shrugged. She didn’t care what Nora thought of her. She never had. Even when she was Nolan’s “wife,” getting along with his sister had never been high on her list of priorities. He’d managed to shelter Nora from enough to where Shaelynn was incapable of relating to her. The cult had damaged both her and Nolan, but Nora managed to come out almost unscathed. She could be infuriating in that almost innocence of hers.

Not, of course, that Shaelynn would call her innocent now.

“I meant that I think I’m angry he’s able to just go right back to work like none of this ever happened,” Nora said. She let out a breath, watching her brother with worry in her eyes. “I could say he’s just burying it—he is, and that’s what he does, but I don’t like watching it happen. I don’t like him trying to pretend that it was nothing. He was threatened.”

“It was pretty clumsy this time. Not like when he got shot.”

Nora glared at her. “You going to tell me I should be fine with this because it wasn’t much of a threat? Because Harrison was just a misguided kid? That misguided kid was still convinced—even if only for a millisecond—that he was going to kill my brother. He was willing to be talked into that. Plus, there was someone willing to set him up to be killed.”

Shaelynn nodded. She wasn’t trying to deny that, no matter what Nora believed. “I don’t like it, either. I’m not any happier about his way of pretending that none of this happened than you are. It pisses me off. I don’t want him to think it’s just… done. It’s going to affect him eventually. He just doesn’t want to see it because he’s never been willing to be weak in front of you.”

“Or you.”

“No.” Shaelynn had seen Nolan weak plenty of times in their training. That was why they’d fallen in together before they were forced into marriage. She knew he wasn’t a killer, and that was a weakness in Ambrose’s world. He had done his best to force all of that out of his troops. Nolan hadn’t been able to accept that, and she’d seen him struggle with it many times. “He shared his worries with me when we planned that escape. He held his snuggly toy and talked about how scared he was that we weren’t going to make that in time to save you from becoming my father’s wife.”

Nora shuddered. “I was terrified of turning fourteen. I felt so sure he was going to insist on it then. I don’t know why he didn’t.”

Shaelynn couldn’t answer that. Some of her father’s other wives had been that young when he’d taken them in off the streets—she was pretty sure her mother was one of them. “The point is that we’re out. We don’t have to go back there, and we don’t have to let it rule us like it did when we were there.”

“Now you sound like him. That’s what he says to justify crap like this, putting it all behind him.”

“There’s a difference between making real changes and pretending that it doesn’t exist. He has put a lot of the cult behind him—not enough of it, I don’t think, but he’d say the same thing about me—and he has a lot to work on still, but he did actually manage that. He did rebuild a lot after he got out of there. He has this firm, he has money, and he had a home. He did all of that instead of turning to drugs like your mother. He didn’t give in and let what Ambrose taught him dictate what he did. He didn’t do it by law enforcement or the army or any of the ways one might expect him to work after that kind of training. Yet he still uses it in some ways. That’s moving past things. This? This is still him hiding.”

Nora sighed. “He doesn’t have thirteen years worth of time to stop hiding with this.”

“It has only been a day.”

The other woman looked at her. “You still don’t get it. If he can’t pull out of this before you leave, he might not do it at all.”

“That’s an exaggeration, and you don’t give Nolan enough credit. He is capable of handling this—he probably just needs some time alone to process what he’s been through. He needs to sort out how he feels about it without you or me telling him what we think he should feel.”

“He won’t take it when you go and break him.”


“He still cares about you. I don’t know why because I’ve never been sure that you cared about him at all, but he does. You have no idea how much you hurt him when you left the first time or how much you set him back when you left after he got shot.” Nora shook her head. “I should never have asked you to come back, but since you seem to be the one that breaks him, I guess I thought you could fix him for once. I was wrong. You won’t. You just don’t care enough.”

Shaelynn glared at her back as she walked away. Nora was wrong. Nolan was not broken, and he didn’t need her to fix him. Even if he did, she wasn’t the type that fixed. She’d been trained to destroy, and she was good at it. Nolan didn’t need her. No one did.

“Another day’s work done,” Nolan said, taking off his suit jacket and dumping it on the floor. Shaelynn gave it a look, but he didn’t figure she’d complain like Nora did—she hated his suits, after all. “I’d say something about a paycheck, but I don’t get paid by the hour.”

“You’d overcharge if you did,” she said, sitting down on the side of his desk. “You shouldn’t even be working now.”

“Another lecture?” He snorted. “Harrison identified Monroe. They’ve both been arrested. This whole thing is over now, and I don’t need a lecture. I don’t need that look, either.”

She shrugged. “You can’t avoid the look like you can what happened. That’s not going to work. You can try and do the whole ostrich thing, but sooner or later, you’ll see it. You’ll know you were just denying it, and that denial doesn’t solve anything. Your life was threatened, Nolan. That doesn’t just go away no matter how much you want it to.”

He laughed. “Oh, I was actually thinking it just shows how little I know of women. I had no idea she’d take it that far. All clichés aside, all my experience with Nora and with you, and it still blindsided me completely that she was any part of this threat. I figured it was over and done when I gave the police that tip. I really don’t understand women.”

“Don’t look at me like you expect me to explain us. I don’t know why that one went psycho any more than you do. I never met her. I just didn’t like her—and not because I was jealous. You wanted it to be that, but I’m not jealous of you. I never was. We weren’t like that.”

He tried not to flinch at her words. He didn’t want to think about the disaster that their marriage had ended up becoming. “I’m not going to say anything about going out to dinner—that’s just a bad idea around you—but I think I’ll pick something up on the way home and eat in.”

She frowned. “On the way home? You’re actually thinking of going back to your apartment?”

Nolan shrugged. “We didn’t have a lot of safe places when I was a kid. I got used to going back to where I didn’t feel secure. In the cult, nothing was secure, nothing was safe. We didn’t have much sense of privacy. I may have had thirteen years outside of there, but that doesn’t mean that having my space violated is as hard for me to take as it might be had I grown up somewhere else. I have to see if it bothers me as much as everyone thinks it should. To be honest, I think it’ll be harder to face that place without Boots than it would be to acknowledge what happened to my closet. I can wash that off easily. I don’t know if I can deal with the emptiness, but I have to try.”

“You’ll still have three other cats. Nora hasn’t found a new place yet. She can’t take Hazelnut back until she does.”

He nodded. That helped, but not enough. Boots had been a favorite—they all were—and he was also family. Losing him hurt. A lot. Hell, he might be pushing this idea of Nora and Morton’s brother just so he had more of a reason to stay in touch and to be able to see his cat.

Nolan was pathetic.

He’d accepted that years ago, though. The cats had never managed to fill the hole that Shaelynn had created when she left—nothing did. Nothing could—she was all he wanted, and he couldn’t make something else fit a place she’d carved out without even knowing what she was doing.

“Right,” he said, reaching for his keys. “I’m going home. I’m going to pick up the cats and some food, and that’s my plan for the night. As you said, Nora’s keeping the suite. You can stay with her—just promise me you’ll stick to your own areas and not kill each other overnight.”

“I’m not staying with Nora,” Shaelynn said, shaking her head. “We’ve had too many arguments lately to be in the same space again. Not surprising—we haven’t changed—but I also don’t feel like spending my last night here fighting with her, either.”

Nolan willed himself not to react to that. Shaelynn had called it her last night, and he knew she meant it. She might already have made arrangements for her flight home. She was leaving. He’d known she would, but that still sucker punched him anyway. Damn it, why couldn’t he learn not to hope when it came to her?

“Well, as I said, I’m not eating out, so I guess you get to order in back in your own hotel room.”

She looked at him. “And here I thought you had already offered me your other bedroom.”

That was such a bad idea. He would do better with the clean break. He had to let them both take it, as much as he wanted whatever time with her that he could scrounge. “I lied.”

She snorted. “There is no way you can manage three cats and a dinner on your own.”

“Two—Hazelnut’s staying with Nora until she decides where she’s living.”

“You still can’t do it. Not with Patchwork and Creamsicle.” Shaelynn shrugged. “I get the ball of fluff. You can handle Ms. Skittish. I might even take care of the food for you.”

He let her walk away without saying anything. His apartment would feel very empty in the morning, with her and Creamsicle gone as well as Boots and Hazelnut, and he didn’t know how to prepare himself for that.
He almost wished he had been shot again. That pain would be easier to deal with.


Nolan watched Shaelynn across the couch, trying to tell himself to stop. He should be sleeping, but he couldn’t, again, and he didn’t know if he blamed it on the break-in, the lack of two cats, the way dinner seemed to disagree with him, or the fact that she was going to be gone in the morning. She had Creamsicle in her lap again, and he knew how much she liked that kitten—how much that kitten liked her—and he knew in the morning the orange fuzz would be missing as well.

He’d had his heart ripped out before, and he could come back from it, but he was getting real sick of bothering. Maybe that was why he didn’t care as much as both Nora and Shaelynn thought he should have when he was being threatened. He didn’t see the point in it. He wasn’t suicidal, not exactly, but it was hard to look at the way things were going and want to continue on. He didn’t have a lot to look forward to. A hostile takeover, an empty apartment, one cat, and the kind of pain that only Shaelynn could cause.

She didn’t even mean to, either. She didn’t understand love, and she didn’t understand that she’d always had his. She’d never accepted it from him, never wanted it, so it wasn’t like she set out to hurt him. She hadn’t.

She just did.

He hesitated again, not sure how he could begin to tell her any of that or even if he wanted to, but something had to change, didn’t it? Thirteen years was too damn long. “Do you ever think about what it would be like to be different?”

She didn’t look up from petting Creamsicle. “Different as in having special abilities like in your comic books or different as in having some kind of genetic thing? Are we talking skin colors or personalities or—”

“Our past.”

She let out a breath. “I suppose we all think about what it would be like if that had been different. Sometimes I wonder what I’d be if I hadn’t been trained to be a soldier. I think you’d be a teacher. You have that personality and you’re a good guy. It fits.”

Nolan shook his head. He didn’t want to get frustrated, but he was starting to think that she misunderstood him on purpose, and that would piss him off if he let himself believe that. “I don’t care what I’d have as a career, Shaelynn. That’s never been what interested me when I considered alternate possibilities.”

“You want to know what your life would be like if your mother was still alive?”

He reached over to put his hands on her arms. He couldn’t avoid it any longer, though he knew that there was still a part of him that wanted to run away from it. This was going to hurt, and he knew it. “You’re determined to not to see it or acknowledge it, but you know what I mean. I’m talking about us. I’m talking about our marriage. About if it was real, if we hadn’t been forced into it but had let our friendship mature into what it was starting to be just before it ended—”

“Don’t do this, Nolan,” Shaelynn said, pulling away from him and getting to her feet, spilling the kitten onto the couch. “We weren’t ever meant to be married. It was just my father’s stupid—”

“Your father didn’t want me to marry you. He offered me Chelsea.” That made her hesitate, and Nolan used the opportunity to get to his feet.

“Chelsea? She was his third wife and almost forty. Why would he offer you her?”

“Supposedly an older woman was just what I needed, but I think he was more tired of her than anything else.” Nolan caught Shaelynn’s arm again, trying to hold her while he still had it in him to tell her the truth. “I asked for you. I practically begged him to let me have you. Not because I had some demented idea of us having the life he wanted from us, but because I thought he was going to give you to Ambrose and I couldn’t stand that idea because I didn’t want you getting hurt and I knew what it would be like if Ambrose got you. I also knew that you were willing to cover up my failings, you’d never turned me in, and another wife would have… and because I couldn’t see anyone else as my wife. I think I fell for you back in training, back before that speed drill where I got you to smile and laugh at me. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I did love you back then, and I had hoped that we’d find a way to work past what your father did in marrying us. You’d taken my name and we were supposed to be partners, and then… then the lawyers said we weren’t married and you left.”

She grimaced. “It—I didn’t—I needed time.”

“I tried to tell myself that, but the more time I gave you, the more it seemed like you’d made your decision. You didn’t want me. I tried to let you go. It was never my intention to force you into staying with me, not even when I asked your father for you. I just—I was desperate. I didn’t want Chelsea. I didn’t want Ambrose to get you.”

Shaelynn sighed. “I know that, but I don’t—I’ve never been able to sort out what it felt like to be married off to you like I was from what I felt for you. We had a partnership, we had to depend on each other, and we were able to make that work, but it wasn’t love. It was… warped.”

He didn’t believe that. If he’d just warped how he’d felt back then, he’d be over it by now, damn it, and he wasn’t. He’d never managed that, and he kept hoping that if he did give her time, she’d see past her father’s part in it and see what they really were. He reached up and put his hands on her face. She didn’t stop him, didn’t pull away, though she had to know what he was going to try, his last desperate bid to keep her.

He kissed her, trying to put everything he had already said and needed to say again, all the things he hadn’t managed to say, everything he felt and knew and needed, tried to make sure that was all there in addition to the desperation and attraction. He didn’t want to let her go. He was breaking apart, but he hadn’t felt this whole in thirteen years. She was the other half of him. She always had been.

She stepped back, slipping out of his hold. Her tongue skimmed over her lip, and he could see a thousand things going through her mind and her eyes as she tried to accept what he’d done. “Nolan…”

“Don’t. Don’t just pull away again because you think that’s all you can do,” he told her, drawing her back to him. “I’ve said everything I can—it’s all out there now. I love you. There isn’t much else to say, not when that has always been between us.”

She closed her eyes. “Stop it. You don’t—”

“Don’t mean it? Don’t want you? Don’t know what love is? No, I do. I mean it, I want you, and I do know what love is,” he insisted. He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore. I keep thinking there will be a way where we can do this, where we can get past this, but there isn’t, is there?”


He let go of her, turning away. He needed a moment. “I want you to leave. I want you to go back home and change your number and not give it to me or to Nora.”


“I still love you,” he said, choking on it. He forced himself to swallow, and then he looked back at her. “That won’t change. I can’t be just friends with you. I can’t have you in my life at all. I haven’t gotten over you in thirteen years because there’s still this stupid part of me that hopes, and it’s not going to go away. If you don’t want me, then… I have to find a way to sever the ties. I can’t do this. Not again.”

She winced. “You… I don’t—you are the only friend I have ever had. I don’t want to lose that.”

He flinched. He didn’t want to take that from her, and he didn’t want to lose her, but he couldn’t continue like this. Nora was right—a part of him broke when Shaelynn left, and he knew he’d never be whole without her, but he wasn’t whole with her, not like this. “I know. You’re the only friend I have as well, but it’s not—I love you. It’s past friendship and past reason and past hope, so the only thing I can think of is to say that we both have to move on. No more friendship, no more… anything.”

She turned away. “I don’t—a part of me is almost willing to lie and say I love you because I don’t want to lose what we have, but I can’t do that. Not to me. Not to you.”

“Please go.” He didn’t know how he’d managed to say it because a part of him was almost pathetic enough to accept that lie, desperate to keep her however he could, but he wouldn’t let himself do that. Not again. He had to break the cycle.

She nodded, reaching for her coat and keys, pausing like she might say something else, but he walked back into his own bedroom. He focused on the window, not wanting to watch her gather her things, unable to watch her leave. This hurt too much.


“I told you going back home was a bad idea. You didn’t sleep at all last night, did you?”

Nolan didn’t look away from his window. Nora must have let herself in this morning, and he didn’t know how late he was in getting to the office. He didn’t care. He wasn’t going to be able to work today. Maybe tomorrow, but definitely not today. He couldn’t think right now. “Shaelynn’s gone.”

Nora cursed. “Damn it, Nolan—”

“I told her to go. I told her everything, and when that didn’t change anything, I told her to go,” he said, his words sounding empty, with a weird hollow echo against the glass. If he’d had any alcohol in the apartment, he’d have drunk it all, hoping for something to dull the pain or help him sleep, but the place was dry, and he was unfortunately very sober.

Nora came up, standing beside him. She stopped, kicking off her heels, and then wrapped her arms around him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked her to come.”

“It wasn’t that. It was past time I really had it out with her, and it wasn’t like I didn’t know exactly how it was going to end. I did. I just couldn’t seem to stop hoping. You would think that all optimism would have been traumatized or beaten out of me years ago, but when it came to her, I still managed to hold onto it. I suppose I wanted to believe that since she had my heart, she’d find some way of accepting that and making us both whole again.”

Nora rubbed his back, trying to soothe him. “I never thought she had a heart to give you. They forced that out of her years before we got there. Loving her got you through that horror, but that doesn’t mean that she ever loved you back.”

He forced himself to nod, acknowledging Nora’s words, as much as he hated them. “I’m not going in to work today.”

“You idiot. Do you honestly think I’d ask you to do that?”

“I don’t know what to think, Nora. I—I didn’t think I was capable of asking her to go, of making her go. I never thought I’d sever the ties or end the cycle. I almost didn’t. I would have let her stay, I wanted her to, but I didn’t let myself give into that. Not this time. I couldn’t.”

“It’s good that you didn’t,” Nora told him. “I know this hurts, but I think you were right to do it. I know you were right to do it. You had to break this cycle, and it’s for the best for both of you. Letting her keep hurting her—whether she meant to or not—was not an option.”

“I feel very empty right now.”

Nora nodded. “You’re grieving. You did lose something—someone—and she meant a lot to you. That is going to leave a mark no matter how much you tried to prepare for it or how much you wanted it to be different. It still stings. It still aches. As much as I wish it wouldn’t, it’s going to for a while.”

“Getting shot didn’t hurt this much.”

“That was just physical. This goes deeper.”

He closed his eyes. “What am I going to do? I thought I was moving forward, but now that I look at things, really look at them, most of my life was still on hold waiting for her to come back, waiting for her to realize that she did love me. I have the firm. I have my work. That’s about all I do have.”

“You have me, too,” Nora said. She reached up to touch his cheek. “We’re going to get you through this. Not a patch fix like all those other times she left. This time will be more than that. You are going to get over her. Maybe you won’t ever love anyone like you did her, but you’ll find a way to love again. You will survive this.”

“I was thinking about it—Cunningham’s secretary, she liked me. Maybe I should start there. I could get some information about the takeover or even the possible racketeering thing if there’s no real chemistry there.” Nolan shook his head. “I sound terrible, don’t I? I can’t really be suggesting using that girl, can I?”

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say how soon you should try dating after something like this—someone else has your heart, so no matter what, you are using the person you date first, trying to get past that point. You’d be using Cunningham’s secretary for a lot more than that, though, and that’s too far. Unless, of course, she gives you every indication she’s using you, too. Then we get into gray areas that I don’t want to think about.”

Nolan sighed. “I don’t know that I will ever want or love anyone else. Shaelynn’s in so deep that I don’t know how I’ll ever—”

“You don’t have to fix it today. You can take the time to think this through and process it, can allow yourself to feel what you have to feel. When you’re done with that, then you start making more decisions. Right now, you just concentrate on letting this take its natural course.”

“When did you get so smart?”

“I always was. You’ve just been too busy thinking of me as the little sister who needed protection to see it.”


Shaelynn cleaned her gun for the third time in a row, trying too hard to let the old ritual soothe her. It wasn’t working one damn bit, and she didn’t know why. It shouldn’t be that hard to accept Nolan’s decision. He was right—she had no place in his life when she didn’t care for him the way that he did her, and all of Nora’s anger made a lot more sense now. She was just doing what Nolan had done all along—protecting. That had been her way of trying to protect her brother the way he’d protected her, only she wasn’t half as good at it as Nolan was.

Shoving the magazine back in the gun, Shaelynn shook her head. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She was supposed to be on a flight home right now, but she hadn’t gotten on it. She didn’t know why. She wasn’t going to turn around and run back to Nolan and say she loved him.

She didn’t.

She wasn’t going to lie, and she wasn’t going to hurt him again. She accepted this as what it had to be. They couldn’t be friends. They never should have been. What had happened to them in the cult had warped everything, but if not for that, they would never have met, never have been friends, and never had that farce of a marriage. All of that added up to Nolan getting confused about what they were and how he felt, but she was clear on it—she didn’t love him.

She hadn’t been able to convince herself to leave, though.

She’d said it with Harrison, and she had almost thought Monroe explained it, but now Shaelynn didn’t believe that. She’d promised him that she’d see him past the hostile takeover attempt, that she’d help him fight it off, but he wouldn’t want that now, and she wasn’t going to try and talk him into it. She would just stay to finish it, but aside from continuing her talks with Cunningham, she didn’t know that there was anything that she could do without Nolan allowing her access again, and she wouldn’t ask for that.

So she could consider herself free of that promise, free to do whatever she wanted, and while she wasn’t going to say she wanted to go home and resume her life where she’d left off, she also wasn’t sure that it was that promise keeping her here.

Something felt wrong. She knew it could just be that Nolan had chosen to sever ties, and she knew that how she felt about his decision was a factor in all of this—she hated the idea of never contacting him again, of not seeing him again, of not being around to make sure he didn’t get another death threat since that was still possible with the cult now aware of where he lived and worked, with this hostile takeover hanging over him, and with the fact that his encounter with that woman had turned deadly without any warning.

Damn it. What if this wasn’t over?

Just because they’d caught Monroe and Harrison didn’t mean all of it had ended. Kaplan’s case wasn’t closed—the girls were still missing. Morton hadn’t finished his case, either. Cunningham was still out there. If the takeover was the reason why Nolan’s face was on the cover of that magazine, then he was still at risk.

She set the gun down and went to the window, looking out at the city. Could she be making excuses? Was that what she was doing? Nolan told her to go, but he was her only friend, and she did admit that she didn’t want to lose that. Maybe she was letting herself warp her own paranoia into a reason to stay.
Then again—when Kaplan and Morton came to tell them about Monroe, they’d said that Harrison had taken credit for the car, but not for the break-in. The implication was that Monroe was behind the break-in, but was she?

Shaelynn dug out her phone and called the number she’d used before.


“I see your stepdaughter didn’t switch phones on you today,” Shaelynn said, almost amused in spite of herself.

“No, she didn’t. The cat means a lot to her, and she’s determined to get another—she’s on her best behavior now. It’s not going to work, but it’s nice to have her trying, I have to say.” Kaplan laughed. “What can I help you with?”

“Did Monroe or Harrison take credit for the break-in?”

“In Sheppard’s apartment? No. Neither of them did. I figured that Monroe was going to keep silent until her trial unless she takes a deal, but I’m getting the feeling that you don’t agree with that.”

“I don’t know. I just get the sense that something is wrong. I don’t think this is done. I know your case isn’t, your husband’s isn’t, but I also don’t think Nolan is out of danger.”

Kaplan let out a breath. “He might not be. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to rule it out. Monroe didn’t confess. Harrison flat out told us he didn’t go in the apartment. He did admit to the car, and to confronting you in the parking lot, but not to the break-in. Still, as long as you’re with him, I think he’ll be fine—Oh, damn. I hate that look. I think that’s bad news. I have to go.”

Shaelynn lowered the phone. She supposed that settled it. She was staying.



Nolan looked up at his sister, taking the cup that she offered him. He still felt rather pathetic, not quite able to pull himself together the way he thought he should be able to—he was supposed to be getting over this, getting better. This was meant to help. He had to stop hoping for something that was never going to happen and move on with his life.

“Can I ask you something? When does zombie Nolan think he’s going to shower? I’m not asking you to go back to work yet, but I know I draw the line at you being as unwashed and unkempt as you are. You need to look like you’re still among the living. I swear you were more alive after you got shot, and that is unacceptable. She doesn’t get to do this to you.”

Nolan shook his head. “Shaelynn isn’t doing this. My own stupidity and my broken heart is doing this to me. I am the one making a mess of my life, thank you very much. I don’t know how to fix it yet, but I’ll get there.”

“I know where you’re starting—with a shower. You’ll feel better after you’re clean.”

He looked at Nora and nodded, taking a sip of his coffee first. He knew he had to pull himself together more than this, and he wasn’t sure it was all that bad, but he had lost track of time since Shaelynn left. He didn’t think he wanted to know—he’d start counting the hours, and that didn’t help anyone. He had to find that path and start going forward. Nora was right about the shower, though. It did seem like a good enough place to start.

“I will shower after I finish this,” he told her. “I think that I do need to work, though. I need a puzzle to figure out that’s not my life. I need the comfort of the familiar—which is work—and I need to have something to be the damned carrot. Dating’s not it, won’t ever be it, so I guess I’ll just have to abuse the fact that I am a workaholic and go from there.”

She nodded. “I figured you might think so. I’ve got a few things for you to look over, but I still think that you have to shower first. You don’t have to put on the suit, you can work from here, and you can take your time with them, but showering is mandatory. You stink.”

He smiled. He was tempted to dig his heels in and refuse to shower at all, but he knew he needed one even if the opportunity to tease Nora almost made him feel human again. “No shower.”

“You just said you would.”

“I lied?”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re just doing this because I insisted on it. Stop being so stubborn. We don’t have to argue over everything. I don’t want to argue over your shower, that’s for sure.”

He grinned, setting down the coffee and reaching for her, pulling her into his arms as she squealed. He shifted her right up against him, trying to make sure she got all of his smelly glory all over her. “Is that so? You really don’t want to argue about my shower?”

“Nolan! This is disgusting! Let go of me.”

“Nah, why would I do that? I haven’t had you at my mercy like this since we were kids. Why should I give that up? This is fun.”

She shook her head. “You are insane. I don’t know why you think this is funny. I’m not at all sure that you haven’t completely cracked now, but then again… It is good to see you smile.”

He nodded. “Yeah, and it’s good to smile. I like smiling. I was a bit afraid I might not feel like smiling again. Still, I don’t know that it means that I’m not crazy. I’m pretty sure crazy still applies no matter what the circumstances.”

“It does,” she said, smiling and patting his cheek. “Let me up and go shower.”

“Let’s have a water balloon fight instead.”

“No. That’s ridiculous, and you will never convince me that it is a good alternative to showering. It’s not going to get you clean, and that is kind of important right now,” she said, managing to shift herself out of his hold. She straightened her clothes and looked down at him. “I know this playful side of you is a good sign, but you need to shower all the same.”

“You’re obsessed.”

“Yes, well, I don’t know how you can ignore how much that stinks, but you do, so go.”

“Are you going to watch me if I do?”

“Ew. No. Why would I do that? I only ever checked on you in the shower when you were injured and might pass out or when I thought you might hurt yourself in the shower, but that was through the door, remember? I’m not that kind of twisted.”

“You’re so much fun to tease,” he told her, standing up. “I think you’re right—this is a good sign. I’m laughing again. That’s a huge step. I’m going to be fine. I mean, when she first left, it took me a good month to get a smile back, and this is definitely an improvement.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, smiling at him. “You are already well on your way to getting through this. Once you shower, you’ll be that much closer.”

“You are obsessed.”

“And you still stink. Go.”

Nearly Complete Nano

Author’s Note: So all the time I worked on this today, I kept seeing my word count and thinking, “hmm. I could finish the 50,000 words today. It wouldn’t take that much more.”

It’s eleven o’clock, and I just don’t think I have it in me, though. Where the marathon no-sleep sessions from 2012 were (I actually completed my 50,000+ and the story in eleven days,) this year is not like that, and I’m glad because that was a painful experience last time.

Anyway… I have part of it worked out. Pretty soon, I get to share the nice brick wall I wrote because I’ll finally have hit it. Ugh.

Suspects and Misdirects

“How many times do I have to tell you—he threatened me with the gun. It just happens that I knew how to take it away from him,” Nolan said, frustrated. He didn’t understand why they couldn’t accept what he was telling them. They had to know that Shaelynn was saying the same thing—and that meant that they should know what had happened by now. She’d pointed out that they’d look like the bad guys, but he hadn’t thought the cops would be this stubborn in believing it. They had to know that his car had been vandalized and his apartment broken into, right? Why was he being treated like the criminal?

He hadn’t done anything wrong. He hadn’t wanted to knock the kid unconscious, but he also didn’t want to let him run. He wanted this whole nonsense done and over with, and the only way to get that to happen was to make sure that kid got arrested. Then it would all be settled.

He didn’t know why that guy had been so intent on killing him, and that should bother him a lot more, but he didn’t think that part had hit yet—it was too busy being obscured by the way he was being treated right now. He was not the one who’d showed up and held people at gunpoint. He was—he hated this thought—the victim here.

“Witnesses saw you with your arm around Mr. Harrison’s neck. No one saw him threaten you.”

“Shaelynn did. She was standing right next to me—and trust me, Shaelynn would not lie for me. That’s not the way she works.” Nolan reached into his pocket, rummaging around and trying to find the card the lieutenant had given him the other day. He didn’t remember the man’s name, just the bad suit, but this was ludicrous. “My apartment was broken into yesterday. That kid probably did it. If he did, he would be the one who spray painted ‘traitor’ on my car the day before, too. I am not the one with a problem here—he is. I don’t know what I did that pissed him off, but the guy said he was there to kill me. He must not know me very well because if he’d read much of anything about me, he’d know that I grew up in a cult where I was trained as a soldier. He didn’t scare me, but I didn’t want him shooting anyone, either. Once I had him distracted, I moved in to disable him. So did Shaelynn. She took the gun. I was trying to keep him in place until the cops got there. I didn’t really think that those cops would be dumb enough to think that I was the one trying to mug or kill anyone. What do I look like to you, anyway?”

The man across from him said nothing. Nolan would have preferred to get a dark look or even some sarcasm out of this guy, but he was doing an impression of a stone—he did not seem willing to listen to anything Nolan had to say.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, but I want my lawyer,” Nolan said, shaking his head. “I don’t believe how ridiculous this is getting. I was the one being threatened. I didn’t hurt him—I could have, but I didn’t. Just go call my lawyer if you’re going to be this idiotic about it.”

“We’re waiting for confirmation on the break-in and the vandalism.”

Nolan leaned back in his chair. “Do you think I am a complete moron, then? Your department cannot be that big. I did not even transfer precincts when I chose to stay in a hotel instead of my apartment. The restaurant was not that far away, either. You haven’t even asked anyone about those other cases. You’re trying to make the most of the fact that I was talking without a lawyer. Guess what? That ends right now.”

The other man grunted. Nolan folded his arms over his chest. They were going to have to get that idiot with the law degree down here to deal with this, as much as Nolan hated lawyers. He also refused to be railroaded into some bogus charge. He had acted in his own defense, and they’d have to stretch it pretty far to say he’d done anything to that kid.

Unless they were thinking he was setting the kid up, but why the hell would he do that? He didn’t know Harrison. He had no idea why the guy would try and kill him, and he wouldn’t bother arranging the damage to his car or his apartment to get that guy. Harrison was, all things considered, pathetic. He had gone up against Nolan like some teenage boy trying to challenge a gang leader—someone with more bravery than brains.

True, Nolan wasn’t a gang leader, but he was also not the pushover target that Harrison had been expecting.

The door opened, and Nolan was pulled out of that train of thought when he saw the woman who’d opened it. He would have expected someone else, someone with more expensive clothes or more of a chip on her shoulder, but this one was just as welcome. “Kaplan. Good to see you again.”

She nodded to him before focusing in on the lump in the chair across from him. “Sheppard’s mine. So’s Harrison. If you want to make an issue out of it, have your superior call mine, but they’re both persons of interest in my case, and that means he’s coming with me.”

“He just asked for his lawyer.”

She turned back to Nolan. “You need a lawyer?”

“Only because that waste of space over there thought I was the bad guy. I don’t know why Harrison went after me, I don’t even know him, but he pointed a gun at me, not the other way around. Considering what Ambrose taught me to do to people who did that, the kid got off easy.”

She nodded. “That’s what I told him. Come on. Raleigh wants to fill you in on a few things before you head back to the hotel.”

“Those things include his brother’s number for my sister?”

Kaplan laughed.


Shaelynn had to admit that she didn’t have a lot of respect for law enforcement in general, but this latest go round with them made her even less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. If these people were all Nolan had standing between him and the threat to his life, he’d already be dead. She didn’t think the police had done anything useful in the time since his car was vandalized, and she’d wanted to be wrong about them treating Nolan like the criminal, but judging from what she’d experienced before Kaplan and Morton showed up, the cops were ready to pin the whole thing on him instead of the idiot that had threatened them.

She didn’t want to believe it, but then again, she’d grown up in a cult, and she’d seen enough to believe just about anything.

“Geneva should have him in a second. Simpson will deal with transferring Harrison over to our facility, though I don’t know how long we’ll end up keeping him.”

Shaelynn looked over at Morton with a frown. “You’d just cut him loose like that? What about the threats? That is the guy that wants Nolan dead, isn’t he?”

“I think someone wants everyone to think he is, but I’m not convinced. Neither is Geneva. Thing is, Harrison was probably put up to the whole thing. Someone let him think that Sheppard was something he wasn’t and the kid took it too far trying to make it right.”

She shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does if you figure that Harrison was probably one of the missing girls’ boyfriend or wanted to be,” Nolan said as he joined them. “Since I’m about the only ‘suspect’ that Kaplan has had, it would make sense for him to come after me to try and get his girlfriend back.”

Shaelynn grimaced. “That kid really is an idiot. I thought it was just the stress of the situation getting to him.”

“Just because someone might have told him I betrayed the cult does not mean they told him that the cult trained its own soldiers,” Nolan reminded her. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. It makes a certain bit of sense, but it’s rather frustrating all the same.”

“You could have died for no good reason at all. You didn’t have anything to do with those girls going missing.”

“No, I didn’t, but I think that if this story hits the news—”

“Your reputation will be ruined.”

He laughed. “I don’t think so. I was going to say that if the girls did run away, then Harrsion’s actions might get their attention. They could come forward now to end that investigation and its collateral damage. That would be worth a bit of awkward publicity, at least to my mind.”

Kaplan nodded. “It would be worth a lot more than awkward publicity to me if those girls are alive and unharmed. That is… priceless, and it doesn’t happen enough in my job.”

Morton put his hands on her shoulders. “I couldn’t do what she does. I don’t have the stomach for those kind of losses.”

“You’re stronger than you think, Morton,” Kaplan said, smiling up at him as she covered his hand with hers. Nolan would have something to say about how in love they were again, and Shaelynn knew that she did not want to hear it. She chose to change the subject.

“You’d have to be with that daughter,” Shaelynn said, getting him to laugh.

Nolan looked at her. “Couldn’t be that much worse than you.”

Shaelynn glared back. She did want to hit him, but she didn’t think it would do any good. He didn’t seem to understand why she hit him—or maybe he just didn’t care. She didn’t want to bother with something that wasn’t going to make any kind of difference.

“This doesn’t mean that it’s over. If Harrison is the girl’s boyfriend or wannabe boyfriend, he doesn’t have a reason to threaten Nolan beyond the loose connection that Kaplan made, and we all agree that it was shaky at best. That kid didn’t have the sophistication to break into Nolan’s apartment and leave no trace other than that drawing on the wall.” Shaelynn shook her head. “This is far from done.”

“Give us time,” Kaplan said. “We haven’t had our talk with Harrison yet. If someone did set him up to go after Nolan, we will get that name from him. In the meantime, unless you want to take over watching the hellion that is my stepdaughter, there’s nothing for you to do. Go back to the hotel, make whatever arrangements you might need—for the press, any lawsuits you might want, or start looking for a new apartment—and we’ll call you as soon as we have more information.”

Shaelynn grimaced. She didn’t like the idea of waiting. She also wasn’t sure that she believed that Harrison was the end of this—just because he might have been put up to it didn’t mean that it ended with him. He might give them a name, but that didn’t mean much. Not to her.

Nolan’s trouble sleeping had started before he went on his trip. He had been feeling like something was off for far longer than those girls had been missing. Even if Harrison was put up to it, if he was behind the vandalism and the break-in, that didn’t explain what had brought her here in the first place. She wasn’t satisfied. This wasn’t done.

“I want my gun back,” she said, looking pointedly at the feds. “I don’t think Nolan is safe, and I do have a permit for it.”

Morton nodded. “That should just be a matter of paperwork.”

“I wish you’d lose it, personally,” Nolan said, and she looked over at him. He shrugged. “What? It’s not like you don’t know how I feel about guns.”


“So you’re telling me you almost got shot again?”

“There was almost no risk of that happening, Nora,” Nolan said, sitting down on the suite’s couch and closing his eyes. The day had been long enough already. He shouldn’t be this tired, but he was. He had just wanted pancakes. He did not know why having pancakes was a crime, but his choice of breakfast could have cost him his life. That was just wonderful.

Not, of course, that he wanted to discuss that with Nora. He didn’t know that the kid would have been able to pull that trigger, and he was going to assume that Harrison couldn’t, at least for Nora’s sake. She didn’t need to know that it was at all close to anything—and it mostly wasn’t.

“The kid did have the safety on, and between me and Nolan, he was disarmed within seconds. He wasn’t at all frightening. He was pathetic.” Shaelynn shook her head, disgusted.

“That doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t change that you almost got shot. Again. Nolan, when are you going to get it through your head that your life actually matters? That a threat is not a little thing?” Nora folded her arms over her chest and started pacing. “Why are you doing this? Are you suicidal? Do you have to push your limits to feel alive because nothing makes you feel that way after having been shot?”

“Have you been reading a bunch of psychology books?” Nolan demanded. “I am not suicidal. Just because I don’t think this is the threat that you two seem to think it is does not mean that I am looking to get myself killed. I didn’t go out to breakfast thinking I’d get confronted with a gun right afterward. All I wanted was some pancakes—and for you two to get some distance because I knew you were fighting about me. Shouldn’t we all be glad it’s almost over instead of fighting again?”

“It’s not over,” Shaelynn said. “Harrison is a patsy at best. I don’t think he was capable of breaking into your apartment. Maybe he could have vandalized the car. Maybe. He doesn’t have the skill to do what that person did to your apartment. Doesn’t have the control to make sure there’s no forensics. He came up to us in a parking lot in broad daylight with a gun he had no experience with. He was not ready or able to use that thing. He was not behind all this.”

Nora cursed. “You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re going from cults to conspiracies? Who is supposed to be behind this guy, then? Are we talking Cunningham? Please tell me we’re not chasing some kind of phantom now.”

“Kaplan and Morton were going to see who put Harrison up to it, and I think I trust them to get it out of him,” Nolan said. He let out a breath. “I think both of you want to take my inability to sleep too far. Maybe that had nothing to do with any of this. If Harrison was dating one of those girls, then it’s just him trying to find them. He was, in a delusional way, trying to be a hero. He isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that it was really about killing me.”

“And then what? After we know who is behind this, they arrest him and we go back to our lives?”

“Why are you saying that like it’s a bad thing?”

Nora’s eyes went to Shaelynn. “How long are you planning on staying, then?”

“Since when is that any of your business?”

“I told you why this morning.”

Nolan held up a hand. “Not again. You are not going to start on that. You’ve already had this discussion once today, and rehashing it—not necessary. Not at all. We need to start looking into things like new apartments and maybe a new office—new security system—something. I should have something to work on now that I’ve finished the Allens’ consultation. Where is it?”

“Nowhere. You are not working,” Shaelynn told him, and he glared at her.

“I’ll find it. I’m sure it’s in my stuff somewhere,” Nora said, turning to leave. Shaelynn glared at her back, shaking her head.

“Nora and I don’t agree on much, but I do agree with one thing she said—you can’t go around pretending this is nothing. You can’t just go back to work like you weren’t attacked this morning. This is ridiculous, Nolan.”

He looked at her. “Shaelynn, you know as well as I do that there isn’t a lot we can do until we find out who put Harrison up to that and why. We need to know exactly what he did. If he’s not the one who broke in and not the one who vandalized the car, that changes things, but I already told you how I wanted to handle this, and you keep ignoring me. I want to work. I want to take care of the things I can control.”

“How did you miss what happened with the cops this afternoon? They were ready to arrest you instead of Harrison. You can’t expect them to end this thing.”

“I didn’t say I expected the cops to end it.”

“Or the feds.”

He shrugged. “I like Kaplan and Morton. I think they can handle their part. I’m not worried about them or their respective cases. They can do that. I don’t have to. Sometimes it is okay to let other people do things. It doesn’t always have to be you, Shaelynn. You’re used to doing it all yourself, and you think you have to, but you don’t. You don’t have to be alone.”

“I am not alone.”

He found himself gritting his teeth against her obvious lie, and he rose, deciding to find his sister and his file before he said something he would regret.


“Are you kidding me?”

Kaplan shook her head. “No. It was, apparently, Ms. ‘Monroe’ who decided to tip the scales in Harrison’s mind toward you being the one behind his girlfriend’s disappearance. She told him a carefully censored version of your past within the cult—including your marriage to Ms. Sheppard—and got him to think that you were not the ‘traitor’ in the sense that the cult does, but he did vandalize your car and leave that message on it.”

Shaelynn folded her arms over her chest, studying the agent as she did. She was tempted to look over at Nolan—she’d been right about that woman, and it had nothing to do with jealousy. That femme fatale had set Nolan up to get killed. She was just what Shaelynn had thought she was.

Nolan shook his head. “I don’t understand. Why would she want me dead? That doesn’t make sense. Are you sure that’s the same woman? What if that was someone Cunningham was using or the girl’s mother?”

“We’re sure,” Morton told him. “Harrison thought she was very attractive and took a picture of her on his phone that he was able to share with us. We traced her back to the tip you gave the local authorities when she concocted that story about a stolen family legacy.”

Nolan frowned. “I don’t understand. I know I did turn her in, but I didn’t think she could trace that. I didn’t even think it would make much of an impact to the police. It was an old cold case, after all, and she was only interested in it because she thought she could steal from the original thief.”

“She must not have been as dumb as she looked,” Shaelynn said, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, Nolan, if there was any hint of the cops looking at her she’d peg that for you right away. She would have figured out that what you gave her was a misdirect. Once she did that, she’d either suspect you of going for it yourself—and we all know that’s unlikely—or she’d think that you proved true to your boy scout image and turned her in.”

“I was never a boy scout.” Nolan said. “Pretty sure they don’t give out badges in drinking the Kool-Aid.”

She ignored that one. He was just pissed because he’d tried to tell her that woman was nothing, tried to make it out like Shaelynn was just jealous when she’d never been jealous of him once in her life. They weren’t like that, not even when they were “married.”

“The important thing is that we know who put Harrison up to it, and we also know why,” Morton said, reaching for Kaplan’s hand. “It’s a bit anticlimactic after the whole semi-stalker thing, but I think you should take that as a blessing and run with it because the opposite isn’t pleasant.”

Kaplan shuddered, and Morton wrapped his arms around her, speaking softly in her ear, and she nodded to all of his words. She was starting to think that Kaplan had been stalked before, and that made her a bit uncomfortable. Even Nolan was doing his best to pretend they weren’t in that intimate conference.

Nora’s return to the room interrupted them, and whatever moment they were having was gone, a relief for Shaelynn, at least, since she’d wanted that to end. She knew Kaplan had a right to comfort—she just didn’t want to be watching it happen. She wasn’t that sort of person. Affection between other people had always seemed out of place and given her the sense of being a voyeur. She did not want to be that, nor did she like feeling that awkward.

“I didn’t realize I’d taken so long.” She set down her bag and looked at them. “I missed the revelation of who is behind all this nonsense, didn’t I?”

Shaelynn shrugged. She still wasn’t sure Nora cared as much as she claimed she did. “You thought it was important to get that file.”

“Nolan wanted to work.”

“Not again,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t have the patience to play peacemaker between the two of you today. Just leave it alone. The important thing is that, yes, Kaplan and Morton got a name from Harrison.”

“Nolan’s just mad because it was Monroe, and I wanted to go after her but he kept saying I was just jealous.”

Nora frowned. “Monroe? She did all that? That doesn’t seem… her style. I’d have figured more on her coming in and trying to seduce Nolan again, not set him up like that.”

“She might have noticed that he wasn’t the type to give into seduction,” Kaplan said, and Shaelynn wasn’t the only one frowning at her, though surprisingly her husband did not. “Seduction should have fooled him the first time, right? He should have bought into her lies and given her exactly what she wanted when she consulted him in the first place.”

That was true enough, Shaelynn supposed. Nolan fidgeted, uncomfortable with all the attention he was now getting.

He shook his head. “All right, fine. It was Monroe. She set this all up. We have no proof that she was in Nora’s place or the office, so we can resume using the office in the morning, and Nora could probably go home tonight. I still have to decide if I’m willing to go back to my place now. There was a break-in there and a nasty message, and I just don’t know how I feel about trying to make it home again.”

“Might be more difficult considering my daughter has your cat now,” Morton said, letting out a breath. “She loves him, unfortunately.”

Shaelynn fixed him with a hard look. “Unfortunately?”

“It’s not like I dislike the cat or that he’s being mistreated. He’s not. Carolina just thinks she needs more cats now. That is—it’s not far for her and Tim to share Boots. They need more than him.”

“Not any more of my cats, thank you very much—and not a word from you, Nora. I don’t care if Patchwork is skittish. She’s mine.”

“I am not trying to get rid of all your cats,” Nora said, stopping to pick up Hazelnut as he circled her feet. She started petting him, not looking at her brother. “I’d told you before that Boots wasn’t meant to be an indoor cat. I think it’s better for him to have a yard, much as it pains you. You could just have gotten him a yard, though. I would have been satisfied with that.”

“What the hell do I need a house for? I’m not going to be there to maintain a yard and all the rest of what comes with a being a homeowner. And what would I need all that space for?”

“I don’t know, big brother. Maybe a family?”

Nolan shook his head. “I tried being married once. It didn’t work. It’s not going to happen again.”

Nora let out a breath. Shaelynn just shrugged. If Nolan decided not to marry again, that was his business, no one else’s, and she didn’t see why he’d want to. The first time had been a mistake, so screwed up as to turn anyone off from the idea of marriage at all.

Morton cleared his throat. “I think we’d better get going. I have to go back to the joys of parenthood while Geneva gets the greater joy of paperwork, so…”

“Yeah,” Nolan agreed. “We have a few logistics to work out, but we owe you. Thanks. I do still want that number, though.”

Morton laughed.

Plenty of Mistakes in Nano

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.

Mistakes, Theories, and Fights

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.

He would.

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.

“A while.”

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.”

More Discussion and One Inevitable Loss in Nano

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.

Discussions, Wins, and Losses

“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.”

Old Characters Make Another Appearance in Nano

Author’s Note: So… I don’t know if this is a plot, but I did manage to get more, and Raleigh got to make an appearance this time around (well, so did Kaplan) and I liked that a lot more than I should have.

I was told to get to the important stuff.

I had to ask what that was…

Once More with Guests of Honor

“Sheppard? Anything missing?”

“Would you please go away?” Nolan muttered, grumbling to himself as he tried to crawl under the bed. Shaelynn had Boots in her arms and Creamsicle on her shoulder, and Nora seemed to have reclaimed Hazelnut, but Patchwork refused to come out with everyone in the apartment, and Nolan would not be satisfied until he was able to see for himself that she hadn’t been hurt. “I want to find my cat and then I’ll give you an inventory.”

“I can help with that,” Nora said, not letting go of Hazelnut. “Nolan has three paintings in the front room. None of them masterpieces. Their combined value is less than that of his television, which I believe was still sitting there. Table is nice, but inexpensive, since he figured he’d break the glass one that went with the living room set—vase is not even a cheap knock off—Nolan picked it up at some department store—the flowers, of course, are fake. The cabinet there is an antique, but Nolan repainted it and ruined its value…”

Shaelynn moved further into the bedroom, not wanting to hear all of Nora’s commentary on the stuff that her brother owned—she didn’t figure that the cops wanted it, either, but it was their job to listen, not hers.

“People really spook her this much?”

“She’s not the most outgoing cat, but this is worse than usual,” Nolan said, cursing as Patchwork hissed. Shaelynn figured he’d gotten scratched, but he managed to crawl back out with her in his arms, hissing and fighting the whole time. “I think she’s all right, but this is not going to be easy on her. She doesn’t like disruptions to her routine.”

“Sounds kind of high maintenance to me. Not quite what I’d figured for you when you said she was the love of your life.”

He snorted. “If I wanted a simple woman, I would never have married you.”

Shaelynn glared at him, but he ignored her as he tried to get Patchwork calm, talking to her in quiet tones but avoiding baby-talk as he rocked her, pacing the room. He stopped in front of his closet and frowned. “Um, lieutenant?”

From the way the other man rushed in, he was all too glad to have an excuse to leave Nora’s inventory. He stopped, frowning at Nolan. “I see you got the cat. You are allowed to take them, if that was your question.”

“No,” Nolan said, nodding toward the closet. “I locked that this morning. Shaelynn was threatening to destroy my suits, so I figured I’d slow her down an extra half-second with that. Someone has definitely been in there.”

The lieutenant turned to her. “And was that you?”

She shook her head. “I took this one from his office—haven’t been back here to deal with his closet yet. I was busy with other things. I even have an alibi if you want it.”


Nolan shifted Patchwork in his arms. “I have a feeling that I won’t like what’s in my closet now.”

“They would have had to clear the room when they looked for the intruder,” Shaelynn reminded him. “No bogeyman’s waiting in there for you, and they should have seen anything the guy left behind.”

Nolan pushed the door open. With his shirts and jackets stored on individual hangers, the bottom of the closet was clear other than the one space with the shoe caddy, and it was clear no one was there. He forced the clothes apart, creating a gap that revealed a crude drawing of a circle with several smaller ones inside it.

“That mean anything to you?”

“I’d assume it refers to the ninth circle,” Nolan said, getting a frown from the other man. “Dante. The Inferno. Required reading once. It’s the area of hell reserved for betrayers and mutineers. And me, I suppose.”

Shaelynn grimaced. “When we find this guy, I am going to hurt him. My father didn’t have anything worth upholding—you were a saint compared to him—and you didn’t betray anything. You did the right thing. That’s something Boath never knew—he doesn’t know the meaning of the word right.”

“No, he just twisted it very well.”


“I can’t find a sign that they did anything to my place,” Nora said, shaking her head. She sat down on the couch in their new suite, glaring at the supposedly luxury around her. Nolan didn’t want to think about what her adding machine of a brain was calculating for the real value of anything in here. He knew it was probably helping her stay calm, though, so he didn’t stop her. “I don’t think I believe that they weren’t there, but I just don’t see where they did anything.”

“Maybe the idea is just to unsettle us by letting us wonder,” Nolan told her. That was a rather effective strategy, unfortunately. Not knowing could be a lot worse than actually knowing—as he’d just gone through with this not sleeping business.

“And maybe they don’t have any intention of hurting Nora, just you,” Shaelynn said, getting a glare from both of them. She shrugged it off. “Nora was only ever slated to be one of the wives. They never saw her as a threat. Maybe as something to reclaim, but to fear? No. You’re the one that the cult hates, Nolan. That’s not something you can deny.”

“They should hate you,” Nora said, and Shaelynn’s eyes narrowed at her. “Come on—you were only Boath’s favorite daughter. Then you marry the outcast and help him take down the whole cult? Why don’t more of them hate you?”

“Because they still think she was just a helpless woman bystander for all this who followed her husband without a choice because that was what she was supposed to do.”

Shaelynn gagged. “That is so not anything I would ever do. I chose not to turn you in, and half that damn escape plan was mine. I helped. I planned. I would have shot someone if I had to. Idiots.”

Nolan shook his head. “I just explained why they would think that you had no part in it—I keep telling you—I could never have done that on my own. I needed you. I still do.”

Shaelynn let out a breath, leaning back against her chair. She took Creamsicle down from her shoulder and held him in her hands. “Where does this leave us, then? I think the police are completely convinced that this is about the cult. Between the ‘traitor’ on the car and the explanation Nolan gave for that message in his closet, and the fact that they didn’t even bother with the safe or any of the valuables at the apartment, I’m sure the police won’t want to spend a lot of resources on the unlikely possibility that it’s nothing to do with the past.”

“Assuming our contact can find any sign of listening devices or what they might have been, there is a small possibility of tracking them back to the source, but mostly what we have is what we had before—nothing. We can keep digging into the files for stuff I’ve worked lately, and we might get more from that, but our biggest ‘lead’ was Cunningham, and we all seem to agree that he’s sleaze but not behind this, right?”

Nora ran her hand over Hazelnut’s fur, mouth thin. “I doubt he is. I don’t have the same expertise that you do, but all I got from him was the need for a few extra showers. I don’t think he actually can think with anything above his waist.”

Shaelynn laughed. “No, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.”

Nolan grimaced. He didn’t really want to think about Cunningham ogling either of the women in his life. He’d like to punch the guy, though. “We did bring the files we were arguing over with when we left. Shaelynn can have her catfight—sorry, Patchwork—with that former client of ours, and I guess I’ll look into one of the others again.”

“You still have Agent Kaplan’s number?”

He nodded. “Yes, but I don’t see the need to call her into this. We still don’t have a connection between anything we know and what she’s investigating. I’m being threatened by someone from the cult—or so all the evidence suggests. Even if someone wasn’t trying to frame the cult for this, why would they be after me when I know nothing about those missing girls?”

“Except we all jumped to the conclusion that Kaplan and Shaw were there about a cult. Shaw might have been an idiot, but he thought it was about the cult. It is possible that someone is trying to use your connection to the would be politician to obscure a kidnapping or murder by making it look like the work of the cult.”

“The cult whose leaders are all dead or in prison? That’s a dumb plan,” Nolan said. “Worse than one of mine.”

Shaelynn smiled a little at the last part, but she shook her head all the same. “Criminals aren’t always rocket scientists. Police shows have made them smarter than they would be so that they get an entertaining hour or so, but most of the time it’s not half as complicated as they show. It’s simple, and it’s almost always personal. This person could just assume that the cult angle will work even if it’s unlikely as all get out.”

“True.” Nolan reached into his pocket and dug out the card. “Anyone else want the honors?”

“Honestly,” Shaelynn muttered, annoyed. “Give it to me. I’ll make the damn call.”



Shaelynn frowned. “Morton?”

“Yes. Do you want the Raleigh or the agent to go with that?”

“Well… I think I prefer the agent, but I must have the wrong number. I was trying to reach Agent Kaplan,” Shaelynn said, pulling the phone away from her ear when she heard a curse.

“Damn. I have Geneva’s phone again. That’s the third time this week. Moonshine, I swear, if you don’t stop switching my phone with your stepmother’s, I’m going to shove socks in your mouth while you sleep.”

Shaelynn wasn’t sure she’d heard that right. “Excuse me?”

Morton coughed. “Sorry. My daughter. She thinks this is hilarious. Right now she’s rolling on the floor laughing while her stepbrother keeps giving her the ‘Carolina is nuts’ look, and I find myself in need of either my wife or one of my brothers to keep me from harming my own child.”

“Oh, come on, Dad. You know you love me.”

“You are so grounded. Go to your room, and no eavesdropping. That’s you, too, Tim,” Morton said, and Shaelynn heard him sigh. “My daughter is either going to take over the world or become the first female president. She scares me.”

Shaelynn was tempted to laugh. “I take it Kaplan is your wife?”

“Yes, and I apologize for the confusion. She’s not home right now—missing persons cases means she’s usually not home at night unless they find them—so you can try the office, but if she’s in the field and has my phone, well…”

“This might pertain to her case.”

“Still going to have to call her office. I’m not giving you my cell number. Call me paranoid, but we went through a lot and—”

“In case I don’t reach her, tell her Shaelynn Sheppard called. Someone is threatening Nolan, and while it is unlikely that it’s about those missing girls, with someone making it look like the cult is after him… it could be, if they thought they could obscure the truth behind the girls’ disappearance with the cult angle.”

“This wouldn’t be Nolan Sheppard who is facing a hostile takeover from Channing Cunningham, would it?”

“It might be. Why?”

Morton grunted. “I actually was meaning to talk to him about Cunningham for one of my cases. I’d be interested in talking this all over, but without a babysitter that can’t get manipulated by an eight year old hellion…”

Shaelynn frowned. If Cunningham was being investigated for racketeering—that seemed well above what he was capable of, though he seemed like a good puppet to her—then they had another reason why someone might be after Nolan. She figured they needed to know about that angle, too, and now rather than later. She wasn’t a babysitter—Nora would throw a fit if she was put in that position—but both of them could more than handle this supposed hellion. They’d grown up in a cult, after all.

She paused, thinking she might be the wrong choice since she actually felt like doing some target practice today. She looked down at Creamsicle. “Does this child of yours like cats?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Nolan has four.”

“I’m not sure even four cats is enough to distract my daughter from being her nosy little—I heard that, Moonshine. Guess what? You’re now grounded for a month. Tim, you’ve got two weeks, and you better start thinking about this peer pressure thing because she’s taking you right down the garden path, and you will regret it.” Morton cursed. “Oh, the hell with it. I apparently can’t handle them on my own today. Where can we meet?”

Shaelynn gave him the name of the hotel and their suite number before hanging up. She walked back into the other room. “Agent Morton’s coming to see us.”

“Morton?” Nolan asked. “Is that the replacement for Shaw, then?”

She figured that would have pleased the hell out of Kaplan, but that had to be against their agency’s regulations. “No. Kaplan’s husband.”

Nora frowned, but Nolan grinned, clapping his hands together. He hadn’t forgotten about that insane idea of pairing his sister up with one of Morton’s brothers. Shaelynn didn’t know why he’d still want to do that, but maybe he just wanted the distraction at this point.

“He’s bringing their kids.”

“Well… That could be interesting.”


Nolan beat Shaelynn to the door, ignoring her glare. He didn’t care to let her open the door for him all bodyguard-like. She was not going to take a bullet for him. He wasn’t about to let that happen. If the person threatening him was outside that door right now, they could get him because he was not going to let anyone else open it.

He glanced at the kids and then at the man with them and smiled. “Agent Morton. Come in. I’m Nolan Sheppard.”

“Figured. I saw that article.”

“Yeah, we’re considering litigation on that,” Nolan said, letting go of the door as he jumped after Boots. “Damn it. Catch him if you can.”

“I got him!” the girl cried, but he escaped and kept on running. The boy started running with her after the cat, and Nolan sincerely hoped that the stairwell had a door.

Morton glanced toward the kids, shaking his head before he shrugged. “Well, that will wear them out, I guess. That should help.”

Nolan laughed. “He’ll keep them going in circles if he can’t get down the stairs. It’ll do more than wear them out. He’s fast and likes to escape whenever he can, though I thought that was over after I got Creamsicle.”

Morton blinked. “Creamsicle?”

“That ball of fluff that Shaelynn has.”

“Ah, yes.” Morton looked at the cat, apparently passed on trying to pet it, and helped himself to the other open chair. “Geneva said she’d be here in a few minutes. She can take over then. I think I’ll play the injured card tonight and go to bed early.”

“You can’t handle a couple of kids for a few hours?” Nora asked, shaking her head. “Men. You are all such babies.”

“Says you,” Nolan told her. “I’d like to see you try recovering from being shot.”

“One word,” Shaelynn said as she set Creamsicle down. “Labor.”


“Before they get to bond over that moment,” Nolan said, turning to Morton. “Neither of them have had any children. I think your wife is the only one that gets bragging right. You and I still have the whole being shot thing.”

“Let’s not discuss that too much. The subject still upsets my daughter, a lot. I am actually here to talk to you about Cunningham.”

Nolan grimaced. “I hate him. Still—Shaelynn had to talk to him today, so you might as well start with her. She has the freshest memory, most recent contact… All that fun stuff. Me? I haven’t seen him since that conference where I told him off—No, I take that back. After he sent his ‘spy’ into my office, I went in and told him off.”

“Any fireworks?”

“Only verbal ones.” Nolan picked up Patchwork and sat down next to Shaelynn. “Cunningham and I have never gotten along. I don’t know if he assumed I told Nora not to date him, but she generally makes up her own mind about that.”

“Generally?” Nora asked. “I don’t let anyone tell me who and who not to date. It has nothing to do with my overprotective older brother. I happen to have standards. Cunningham doesn’t even get close to the minimum I require.”

“And what exactly is that?”

Nora frowned. “I thought you were married, Agent Morton.”

“I am, and very happily so this time around, but I have to admit, I’m just enjoying a chance to converse with adults for a change. My daughter thinks she’s thirty, but she’s not an adult yet, and since I had to spend the day trying to avoid the question of when Geneva and I will give them a younger sibling, I want this interview to last forever.”

Nolan laughed. “Oh, well, we can talk about plenty of things unrelated to the case or the threats. I’d prefer that myself. I like distractions.”

“He’s only spent the last three days avoiding anything that might really be what’s going on with him,” Shaelynn muttered, shaking her head. “Don’t let him.”

“I’m not going to make any promises. I’d rather Geneva was here for any of the important conversations, and I figure I have to drag myself up out of this chair to check on the kids in a minute.”

“Oh, no, let Nora do that,” Nolan said, grinning at her. “She loves kids.”

“I just hate you,” she snapped, getting to her feet and stalking toward the door. She slammed it shut behind her, and Nolan shook his head.

He turned to Morton with a bright smile. “So… You think your brother would like her?”


“They’re out there chasing a cat.”

“I know,” Morton said, taking his wife’s hand and pulling her close to his chair before giving her a tug that got her into his lap. “It’ll wear them out, and we’ll have some peace for sleeping tonight which you know you could use. You’re burning the candle at both ends right now. I’m not sure I can take you working missing persons for much longer.”

Kaplan rolled her eyes, patting his cheek. “Racketeering got you shot. If you can stay working there, then I get to keep missing persons. It’s what I’m good at, Raleigh.”

“I just miss you, that’s all,” he said, wrapping his arms around her and rocking her a bit. “I’m making us both look completely unprofessional.”

“You usually do, Morton,” she said, trying to straighten up, but she didn’t manage it before he tightened his hold.

Shaelynn shifted, uncomfortable with all these displays of affection. She didn’t know why this was setting her off—normally she could care less what people did, but Kaplan and Morton had something that made her want to get up and check her gun.

Nolan lifted Creamsicle out of her lap. “Those two really love each other, don’t they?”

She shrugged. “I suppose.”

“You going back to that whole love doesn’t exist philosophy?”

“It doesn’t, Nolan. We’ve seen plenty of proof of that,” she said, taking the kitten back from him. She looked over at Morton and Kaplan. “Would you rather discuss the racketeering angle or the kidnapping or the threat to Nolan’s life?”

“I vote for none of the above,” Nolan muttered. He put a hand to his head. “I still don’t think there’s a connection, but Shaelynn takes paranoid to a new level—might have gotten that from her father—Damn, that hurt.”

She glared at him. “You deserved that.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. That doesn’t mean you’re not very, very paranoid. The idea that someone arranged an elaborate frame of the cult to cover up a kidnapping is almost ludicrous. I don’t see it. I think it would be an excellent cover for someone who wants me personally dead, but for something distantly connected to me? No. Then we have all the fun complications of the fact that Cunningham is trying for a hostile takeover while I’m being threatened, and I just think that somewhere, someplace, I really messed up to have all this hit at once.”

“It’s probably not a coincidence,” Kaplan said. She looked at Morton, who nodded. “We’re not big fans of coincidence.”

“Some good came of it,” Morton said. “I got you.”

Shaelynn shook her head, and Nolan took Creamsicle again. She frowned, but he rose, preventing her from getting her kitten back again. She considered getting up and going after him, but she didn’t feel like moving. She just wanted this conversation finished.

Kaplan cleared her throat. “Let’s ignore coincidence for a moment. Focus on what we do have. You’re at the center of all this somehow, Sheppard. If we play connect the dots—”

“I look suspicious?” Nolan finished. He should be glad that Nora hadn’t opened the door to come back in until after he’d said it, though she might still figure it out and get angry anyway.

“Shaw did suggest it was all an elaborate way of making us think it wasn’t you,” she told him. “That would be why I’m here alone—well, not quite.”

Morton grimaced. “We should have let DC put him through that wall. It might have actually proved that there was a brain in there somewhere.”

“And cost DC his commission. No.”

“I think you should have let him,” Nora said, coming back into the room, shoes in hand. Her hair was down and her cheeks had a bit of red to them. “Nolan, that cat is doing this on purpose, and I think you’re going to have to face facts—Boots is not meant to be an indoor cat. He wants to run around.”

“Don’t say that. You’re going to move and take Hazelnut back, I already know that, and Shaelynn’s claimed Creamsicle—I can’t lose Boots, too.”

Kaplan looked at her husband. “You know Timothy will be asking for a cat next.”

“Yes, but you’re the one with the no dog rule, not me.”

“Do you have a house?” Nora asked. At Kaplan’s nod, she smiled. “Good. I think you just got a cat. He’ll love that.”

“Nora! That’s my cat,” Nolan said, shaking his head. “She’s not allowed to give away my cat even if he wants to be an outdoors cat. He’s still mine.”

“Nolan,” Shaelynn said, crossing over to him. “No one is giving away your cats. Nora’s just saying that because she got stuck with the kids for a bit and they managed to get her out of her business Nora doll look so she’s annoyed with you.”

He looked down at the cat and back at her. “I am so sick of losing everything. I don’t know… Maybe it’s more that this finally really hit me that someone was in my apartment today. I haven’t had my privacy invaded like that since back in the days of no privacy at all in the cult.”

“We dealt with it then. You can do it now,” Shaelynn told him. “Think it through like we would have if this was one of Ambrose’s pass or die tests. Cunningham. When did you first meet him? When was he first an issue? What do you know about his business?”

“Met him thirteen years ago when I was still establishing the firm. He laughed at me, said I’d never make it as a consultant, and that this kind of work belonged to the grown ups.” Nolan laughed. “I told him maybe it did because a kid would still punch him in the face. He’s been asking for it ever since.”

Morton smiled. “And his business?”

“He doesn’t turn down a paycheck. He has no ethics to speak of. What I turn away, he accepts. He never looks past the surface story as long as the check is good.” Nolan shrugged. “When Shaelynn mentioned you wanted him for racketeering, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I don’t think he’s the brains, though. I think he’s just a good patsy.”

Nora snorted. “He’s a guy who thinks with the wrong head constantly and has a business. He’s the perfect patsy. All they have to do is dangle a pretty woman in front of him and he does whatever they want. He fell for Shaelynn’s act, didn’t he?”

She glared at Nora. “You say that like I am incapable of passing myself off as a simpering idiot like you, and I’m not.”

“Point of fact, he should have seen through that,” Morton said. “You don’t relax even when you seem relaxed. You’ve got the same look that both my brothers have—that awareness of all that’s around you and the readiness to jump to action. We agents have it, too, but Kaplan’s isn’t showing because she’s tired and mine needs work or I would never have gotten shot in the first place.”

Nolan nodded. “Like yesterday at the restaurant and how you memorized the room. You still do that, and I bet you could recreate a vivid picture of his office right now if I asked.”

Shaelynn’s jaw tightened, and she realized she was ready to hurt him. “Don’t.”

“I won’t,” he said, giving her back the kitten. He turned to Morton. “I’d almost be willing to let Cunningham take the firm temporarily and work for him if I could get at what he’s running behind the scenes—I’m not too bad at working things from the inside—”

“Absolutely not,” Shaelynn snapped. “You are not risking your life like that. How many times have we had this conversation? You’re not a cop, not an agent, not a hero, and you do not have to use what Ambrose taught us for anything. The whole point of escaping was to be free, damn it. Why would you put another bulls-eye on your back?”

“It would have been one way of saving the firm.”

“No. What is with you? When did you get so unreasonable?”

“And when are you going to stop overreacting to the idea of me working in tandem with law enforcement? It’s my life, isn’t it? You gave up having any say in it when you walked away thirteen years ago. You don’t get it both ways. You can’t say you’re no part of it and then expect to have a say in what happens. I offered you a partnership. You turned it down. You have no right to decide anything for Sheppard and Sheppard and none to decide things for me.”

“I am trying to keep you alive, remember?”

“And all of that was hypothetical.” He shook his head. “You overreacted.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t accept you drinking the Kool-Aid. Not now. Not ever.”

He pulled her close to him. “I didn’t. You know that. I wouldn’t. You know that, too.”

She tried not to shudder. She didn’t like being weak. She just knew that Nolan was the only good that ever came out of her childhood, and she didn’t like the idea of him being corrupted. That was the same reason she hated his suits. She didn’t want to see him become something he wasn’t.

“You say that, but I hear him, and I have a very hard time believing that.”

Nolan reached up to cup her cheek. “I can’t go to the dark side with you here to stop me. Especially since you overreact to anything that comes close to the idea.”

“Don’t make me hit you.”

Attempting to Have a Plot in Nano…

Author’s Note: So today I actually made… progress. I hesitate to call it that because as far as plot goes, with all the tension and drama that a mystery/thriller is supposed to have… they just keep having conversations and domestic moments. I like their moments, and I like their banter.

At this point, given the way that my last four solo projects have imploded, I think I’ll just roll with what I’ve got and hope for reaching the 50,000 words. I’m over halfway there, but I keep thinking I’m going to hit a wall again (I even wrote the wall already, who am I kidding?) so I’m a bit doubtful about finishing this… I suppose I’d still have enough time to throw this sucker out and start over with a new one.

Ugh. I can’t believe I said that. I feel sick.

Not Much Progress

“I think I should raid your closet and get rid of all of those suits.”

Nolan looked back at his door, frowning at Shaelynn. She was planning something he wouldn’t like—he could tell that much by her clothes—that red excuse for a business suit was designed to exploit the fact that she was a woman and men were idiots—but that did not explain why she was contemplating ruining his wardrobe.

“Nora would be angry. These are expensive designer suits.” Nolan stopped to button his cuff. “I would be angry, actually. I don’t exactly enjoy standing around getting measured for these things. I have them just the way I like them, and I don’t want to have to replace them.”

“You are not a suit. What happened to all of your t-shirts and jeans?”

“I am a suit. I wear the suit, I live the suit, and I look good in the suit,” he said, going over to lock his closet. That wouldn’t stop her—she knew how to pick locks—but it would slow her down for half a second, maybe.

She shook her head, her voice taking on a stubborn tone. “You are not a suit.”

He snorted. “Thirteen years, Shaelynn. I’m not that teenage rebel anymore, and you don’t know me anymore. We’re not that close, not like we were, and this is me now.”

“This,” she said, a dangerous frost creeping in as she gestured to his suit, “is one of your acts, and it pisses me off to see it.”

“And what do you call that outfit you’re wearing, then?” He shook his head. He had too much practice in keeping his reactions from her, and he needed it, damn it, since that skirt was too teasing and that top too tight, but he had noticed it far more than he wanted to, and he had to keep his attention on his own clothes to stop thinking about hers.



She laughed. “I am going in to see the enemy in his lair. I want to visit the man who wants to take your company over, and I do not want him to know why I was there or to remember much of anything about me except that red is not my color.”

“Are you kidding? I think you should let me call you Betty Boop after that. Though… you still have Betty Grable legs.”

Shaelynn rolled her eyes. “Enough with the references. I’m neither of those women, and you’re clearly immune to me, so it’s not worth arguing over.”

Immune. She thought he was immune to her. He didn’t know how he’d managed to pull that off, but that was one hell of an accomplishment. He reached down to pick Creamsicle off his suit jacket, not sure he could look at her right now—the temptation to prove how weak he really was to her was almost overwhelming.

“Stay away from my suits. I am not going to replace them.”

“That just gives me more reason to do it. I don’t like them, and I’d be glad to see you never wear one again.”

He set Creamsicle down and dusted off his jacket before pulling it on. “I’m starting to think you want to get me naked again.”

“You had a towel, and I saw more than I ever wanted to.”

He glared at her. He shouldn’t care. That wasn’t what they were, not even when they were married, but it still stung. She used to make jokes like that when they were kids, and he’d hated them then, too. He didn’t expect to be called the sexiest man alive—that title belonged to movie stars or other celebrities—but he did have something of an ego, and the fact that his wife had never been attracted to him was rather a blow to that ego no matter how messed up their situation had been.

“We should go. It’s getting late.”

He nodded. “We should, but since Nora hasn’t rung the bell yet, no point in rushing. Or did you forget that you didn’t get a rental and my car is impounded?”

“That’s the first thing on my to-do list—getting a car.”

“I’ll buy you a proper muscle car, just the sort of thing a girl like you dreams of—if you decide to become a partner in the firm.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want you buying me a car, and you don’t have that kind of money to throw around.”

He laughed. “Actually, I do. You have more money than I know what to do with. Nora finds uses for it, but me? I don’t need a lot. It’s a shame, really. If you’d held out a bit longer before you divorced me, you could have gotten a huge settlement.”

“I didn’t divorce you. We weren’t married,” Shaelynn said, her voice tight. “And that is not funny.”

He shrugged. “Sometimes trying to laugh about it is the only way to cope with how badly our lives got screwed up back then. Still… If you wanted to go get a car, we could pay cash for it today.”


“What, I tempted you into it?”

“No,” she said. “I need my gun. Apparently, there’s a lot more reasons someone would want you dead than I was aware of.”


“I know I don’t want to know this, but what is with the two of you this morning?”

Nolan looked at his sister, really not wanting to answer that. Shaelynn had gone to start on her to-do list, off to get a car from somewhere, and now he was alone with Nora and her nosiness. Great. This was a wonderful morning. That was the price he had to pay for getting what he wanted last night, he supposed. Shaelynn had never liked sharing the same sleeping space, and she’d hated being the snuggly toy, but it had been… good that Ambrose found them that way when he roused them for one of his obnoxious drills. Good and bad. They’d convinced everyone they had a more normal marriage, but Ambrose hadn’t liked what he saw and Nolan had gotten extra “training” sessions for it.

He closed his eyes, leaning back for a moment. “The one part that I suppose matters is that she’s very determined to keep me alive. The part that is causing us frustration is that the past is getting in the way again.”

“In what sense?”

“You really are nosy today.”

Nora rolled her eyes, coming over to sit on his desk. “I don’t want the past distracting you right now. I know how you feel about her, and I know that—whatever differences I have with her—Shaelynn will get you through this alive. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be more scars when it’s all over. Tell me you didn’t… make a pass at her or anything like that.”

“Since when have I ever made a pass at anyone?”

“I’d say never, but you used to be a flirt before you got married,” Nora told him, and he almost shoved her off his desk for calling him that, of all things. She shook her head. “You used to be a lot more playful, and you were more willing to talk to people in a way that wasn’t all… practiced and polite and designed to get the information you needed as quickly as possible so you could send yet another satisfied client on their way.”

He grimaced. “I was not a flirt. That was not flirting. I was just teasing, trying to get along with people, make myself likeable with the others so that if something happened to Mom—and it was going to, I always knew it would—that we wouldn’t get kicked out right away.”

Nora frowned. “You didn’t really want to stay there, did you?”

He let out a breath. “No, but I didn’t think they’d let you go even if they got rid of me. You were slated for his twenty-first wife before Mom died, and I knew that all along. I just tried to keep myself there long enough to stop that.”

Nora shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself. “I’m never getting married.”

Nolan shrugged. He said the same thing himself, but then he didn’t necessarily want that for either of them. He did want to believe Nora would find a way to love someone besides him, to find a way to heal that didn’t involve a bank account, and that she’d get to have the sort of things they were supposed to have and never got because their mother was an addict. She was a good person, his sister, and she deserved to know love.

“What’s on the docket for today? I should know, but after the last three days of flipping the schedule around, I lost track.”

“You’re not really planning to work like this is business as usual, are you?”

“Why not?”

“Because your life has been threatened. Because someone from our very screwed up past is trying to kill you, and that’s not—you can’t just work like this is nothing.”

Nolan let out a breath. “I can’t do much about this but wait until they make another move. If it is someone from the cult, it’s not anyone that got out recently. That means… That means a bunch of people I don’t want to think about looking at. Shaelynn’s half-brothers and sisters or one of the wives—I always thought they were just… victims. I don’t want to think of them actually wanting me dead. I don’t want to go digging all that up for them again—I know it means my life, but those wounds aren’t worth reopening.”

“Even if it means your life?”

He closed his eyes. “You’ve seen Shaelynn. She was one of the ones that came out of that almost well-adjusted, and she’s still a mess. Why go dragging that up for all of those people when it probably has nothing to do with why someone wants me dead?”

Nora reached over and grabbed his tie, yanking him forward. “You can’t keep burying your head in the sand like this. You may not want this to be about the past, but it is. It’s about someone from that hell deciding it’s finally time to get revenge against you for ending it. Some of them wanted that life, don’t forget that. Some of them would love to torture you to death for ruining that. You’re a hero to most people, but that doesn’t change what you are to the others—a traitor. We were all afraid of what they did to the ‘unbelievers.’ Why would you think that they wouldn’t do worse to a traitor?”

He tried to keep himself from reacting to that. He’d lived with that fear for years now, and he was not going to let it rule him. “I don’t think it’s about the cult. I really don’t. I think they’re using the cult as a convenient cover, but it’s not and never was about that time.”

Nora gave him a long, hard look. “Then prove it.”


Shaelynn let the secretary lead her into the room, taking the seat she was offered. She liked Nolan’s office a lot better than this one—both catered to a similar class of clients, cultivating a certain level of sophistication and expectation, the entryways and offices decorated with carefully chosen expensive pieces. They were arranged just right, like they’d been posed for a painting or photo spread. The difference was that the photos were the most life these offices ever saw, whereas Nolan and Nora somehow managed to make their office like a home—warm, inviting, somehow informal despite the décor, and she supposed the fact that Nolan half-lived there helped it seem lived in and comfortable.

This place made her skin crawl. She was reminded of the things her father used to keep in his office, and that comparison made her sick.

“Ms. Danvers?”

Shaelynn nodded. She’d taken the name from one of Nolan’s comic books, and she knew better than that, but these people apparently didn’t. They’d fallen for her story and her identification, but then Nolan and Nora had been fooled by the guy they’d sent, so maybe fair was fair. She didn’t think Nolan was incompetent. Distracted, yes, and he was still recovering from being shot, so she could understand how he might have missed it if the guy was a good actor, and it looked like he was.

“What did you want to see me about?”

Shaelynn forced a smile. She thought she had a decent carrot to dangle in front of Cunningham, and she might just enjoy this, even if she disliked the way he looked at her. She was going to use that. She moved one leg over the other, letting her skirt fall back a little to expose more of her skin, and then she leaned forward, knowing he’d get a good look at something else when she did.

“I am hoping you can help me, Mr. Cunningham. I did try and get advice already, but that silly man seemed to think I didn’t have anything valid and—”

“What man?”

“Nolan Sheppard.”

“You went to Sheppard with this and he rejected you?”

“In a rather unpleasant way,” she agreed, shaking her head. “I hope you’re more willing to be open-minded. I didn’t think I had such a terrible request, but you’d have thought that I’d asked him to commit murder or something with the way he treated me.”

Cunningham grinned. She suppressed a shudder. He did remind her far too much of her father. He was old enough to be him, and yet he was looking at her the way her father used to look at his wives, even the younger ones. She refused to let that bother her. She’d known he would before she came. She’d planned on it. She’d been expected to use that against him from the beginning.

“Sheppard is, unfortunately, somewhat prejudiced. We here at Cunningham and Associates prefer to keep our options open. We have taken good care of many cases like yours—ones that Sheppard so foolishly rejected. Tell me more about what you need.”

“Well, that’s the trouble,” she said, trying for her best Nora. “I don’t know what I need. I thought that Sheppard would help me, but he didn’t.”

Cunningham smiled. “Well, then, let me see what I can do for you. I assume you have all the information you took to Sheppard?”

She reached over to pick up her briefcase. She pulled it into her lap. “I guess I was very confused. Do you think I need a lawyer and not a consultant? I figured a consultant was supposed to be the sort of man who would tell me whatever I needed to know to go forward.”

She felt like an idiot, even though she knew that she was doing this on purpose. Still, she hated herself for the way she was doing it. This was why she didn’t want to work with Nolan. He did this kind of talking all the time, wore all these pretenses—no, give her something straight up to fight. She preferred that to this kind of crap.

“Would you like an immediate answer?”

“No,” she said, throwing a bit of panic into her voice. “That’s what he did. Why don’t you take all the time you need? You can call me back when you find something. I think that’s better, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said, reaching over to pat her hand. “I’ll give this all the attention it deserves. I think you might even want to think about lodging a complaint against Sheppard. I’ll help you take care of that if you like.”

She smiled. “Would you? I think that would be a good thing to do. Thanks.”

“Anything for a lovely young lady like you,” Cunningham said with a smile that made her shudder. She didn’t know how she managed to keep herself from showing it, but he didn’t seem to see it. He slipped the briefcase away from her. “Besides, Sheppard really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s got no business being a consultant. No schooling, no training—he just trades on being a so-called hero, but he has no skill and no talent.”

“He didn’t say that he was a hero.”

“Yes, well, he plays at modesty, but I assure you it’s false,” Cunningham told her. “We’ll contact you soon, I promise.”

Shaelynn forced a smile as she stood, smoothing down her skirt. “Thank you, Mr. Cunningham. I do appreciate this.”

“Of course, Ms. Danvers. We’ll get this all sorted out for you.”

She nodded, knowing that Nolan would be angry when he found out she’d re-appropriated one of his cases for this. She had no doubt that he’d already given his clients a satisfactory answer, but she needed something that would seem convincing for Cunningham just as he’d had for Nolan when he tricked him.

“Thanks so much. Call me as soon as you know what I should do.”


“Cunningham is sleaze.”

“That surprises you?”

Shaelynn shook her head, yanking off her jacket and going around behind Nolan’s desk to the closet. She opened it and took out one of his shirts, pulling it on and buttoning it over the blouse that wasn’t much of a blouse. Nolan watched her with a frown, unsure how to react to any of this. He knew that she knew her way around his office, had for years now, and he also preferred not to have her as exposed as she had been a moment ago, but then again, he didn’t. The skirt was still a tease, and now that she was in one of his shirts… Someone shoot him.

He grimaced. That was not a thought he ever wanted to have.

Shaelynn came over and sat on his desk. “What about the lawyer? Did Nora send him over?”

“Why are you asking me and not her about that?” Nolan asked, leaning back in his chair. “I don’t talk to lawyers. They make my skin crawl, have ever since I first met Cyril. I suppose it didn’t help that he was spouting all that crap about Boath becoming our legal guardian with Mom’s marriage to him and…”


Nolan rose and went over to the cupboard, opening up the bar. He typically kept it closed and told himself not to remember it was there, but he knew times when it was necessary—some consultations left a bad taste in his mouth, even if it was only for the initial part of it and he rejected taking them on, and some just plain ended badly, like life. He filled them both a glass and carried hers over to her.

“If there were legal adoption papers back then, then the reason that other lawyer said the marriage wasn’t legal doesn’t fly. They told us it wasn’t because we were underage and didn’t have the consent of our guardians—but if Boath had custody of me and you were his daughter…”

Shaelynn downed her drink in one shot. “No. You may not have thought about before, but if that were true, they wouldn’t have said that and—and we can confirm later that it wasn’t because there’s no way he had custody of you. It was never legal. I need another one of these.”

Nolan nodded. “Me, too.”

“You didn’t drink yours yet.”

He did, letting the burn be punishment for bringing that unpleasantness up. He crossed over to the decanter, bringing it back with him to her.

“You must have had that thought before.”

He shook his head. “Tried not to, just like you did. Can’t believe I brought it up.”

She took a swig right from the decanter and then held it as she looked at him. “Are you sure you don’t need the whole formal paperwork? I’m starting to think you do.”

He took the alcohol back, shaking his head. “I never said I did. I am well aware of the fact that things are over—that they were thirteen years ago. It’s just this stupid threat is mixing everything up, and Nora won’t stop arguing with me—she swears this is about the past, about someone from the cult being after me, and I don’t believe that it is.”

Shaelynn let out a breath. “I don’t want to believe that, either, and after my meeting with Cunningham, I’d like it to be him because he was a real sleaze—I’ve met sleaze before, but this guy was sleaze and he insulted you and then he didn’t have any interest in the case, just me. He was so patronizing and—he is not interested in hiring you. That is not what his takeover is about. For some reason, he is interested in destroying you. That doesn’t mean that he’s the one that wants you dead, though. I don’t think he is capable of doing anything this… organized.”

“You think this is organized?”

She pulled the decanter back out of his hands. He frowned. She took a drink before setting it down on the desk. “That magazine article was prepared at least a month ago. This means planning. A lot of it. They’ve been watching you for at least a little while—you sensed them at the restaurant and probably before then because you weren’t sleeping—but they used a very short window between when you started eating and when they disappeared from your senses to write that message on the car—unless, of course, there were two of them, one watching and the other working, which is possible. The message they left on the car was deliberate. Everyone thinks this is about the cult. People could be chasing their tails right now. Plus anyone could guess that something like that would—you have every reason to fear someone from the cult coming after you. You’ve known that for years. That fear could have debilitated someone else.”

He let out a breath. “I won’t pretend that the idea doesn’t bother me. I just have a hard time believing that’s all it is. I didn’t when I was just having trouble sleeping, and I don’t now.”

She took his hand. “I don’t want to accept that it’s just the cult, either, and since everyone is going to assume that, let the others investigate that angle. We can concentrate on the places that other people won’t think to look. That’s why I met with Cunningham. What did you today?”

“Argued with Nora, met with the people whose appointments I had to reschedule yesterday and the day before, tried to decide how I would prove that it wasn’t about the cult, paced the office for a while, and tried not to get into that bottle. You can see how well that worked, right?”

“Yeah.” She shook her head. “We need more than what we’ve got, Nolan. A lot more.”

“Oh, I have another decanter somewhere around here.”

She rolled her eyes. “I meant evidence of who is really behind this death threat and ways to keep investigating it. Cunningham was my best lead, and I feel like I came up empty.”

“We could go back to more of those files you flagged before.”

“You didn’t think it was them.”

“What else have we got?”

“Not much.” She grimaced. “Not anything. We may as well start with the files.”

He glanced at her skirt. “Not until you change.”


“I want to talk to her.”

“You are jealous.”

Shaelynn snorted. “You’re the one that brought up the marriage again and couldn’t handle me in a skirt. You’re the jealous one.”

“I’ve got nothing to be jealous about. You have no one in your life,” Nolan said, not looking up from his file, even when Nora glared death at him from the doorway. Shaelynn figured she was the cause of their tension again. Maybe Nora even had some stupid idea that all of this was her fault, that Nolan was under threat again because of her, but Nora had been the one to ask her back, and whatever this was had started before then. Shaelynn was certain of that, even if she knew little else about what was going on now.

“The lawyer said the magazine would like to do a retraction slash feature on you to make up for what they did print about you and using you on the cover without permission.”

“Absolutely not.” Nolan dropped his file onto the other seat. “I’d say we should sue them for that, but I’m not interested in that kind of ugly publicity. Did the lawyer get them to say how they thought that was okay? I dislike what they wrote about me, but who the hell does a cover with someone and doesn’t ask for permission?”

“Oh, that’s the interesting thing—they said they had it. That they contacted our office for an interview, which was declined, but a blurb was given as well as a picture. Since we have kept a tight lid on our press in the past, this didn’t raise any flags with anyone.”

Nolan shook his head. “That’s not possible. You are the press department, and you don’t give out blurbs. Or photos. Ever.”

“I said the same thing. They couldn’t possibly have gotten that from us or spoken to anyone here.”

“Unless someone used the office while you were on vacation,” Shaelynn said, and both of them looked at her. Nora’s look was pretty cold, but Nolan’s was troubled. His mind had taken that and started running, and she had to admit, she didn’t like the possibilities that she’d come up with, either.

“I would have been too… distracted to realize if anything had changed in the office by the time we got back,” Nolan admitted, rising. He started to pace a bit. “It’s not impossible that it could have happened, I guess. I didn’t get any sense of violation or that things were wrong here, but I couldn’t sleep so I wasn’t really functioning that well. It’s hard to say how much I could have missed then.”

Nora grimaced. “I thought a few papers were messed up, but I’d been arguing with Nolan before we left and just assumed that I left them out of place. Still—we have a security system here. A good one. An expensive one. It’s not all about what Nolan can do when he starts thinking in that old training of his. That system gives us alerts no matter where we are. There was no activity while we were gone.”

“Not even the mailman?”

“It’s called premium forwarding. I paid them to send our mail on to where we were staying while we were on vacation. It’s not that expensive, and we do have a business to run.”

Shaelynn frowned. “I thought they only did that if you moved.”

“No, it doesn’t have to be permanent. That’s the whole point of the service. It’s better than having the mail held.”

“Can we go back to the fact that we think someone might have broken into the office?” Nolan asked, getting both of them to look at him this time. “We don’t know what else they might have done if they were able to get in. If we’re going to get that kind of paranoid, maybe we have to take this whole thing a step forward and start thinking listening devices and cameras and who knows what the hell else. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep. Maybe that was all there and I knew it but didn’t know what I knew.”

“I think you need a moment to calm down,” Nora told him. “You’re getting worse than Ambrose.”

Nolan shuddered. Shaelynn grimaced. “As unpleasant as the thought is, we have to assume the worst and act accordingly. We should go, now, since if anyone is listening, they know we know. there’s no point in trying not to tip them off. We’ll get someone in to sweep the place, but this conversation needs to stop. Now.”

“Ah, now if I was the good soldier I was supposed to be, I’d have stopped myself from saying any of that aloud,” Nolan said, shaking his head in disgust, and Shaelynn crossed over to touch his arm. He gave her a look, and she didn’t say anything, but she figured he knew what she meant by that. She didn’t think letting people believe they weren’t aware of the listen device really worked anywhere outside of Hollywood. If the office had been bugged, whoever was on the other end had known they’d come to that conclusion as soon as they started discussing the possible break-in.

“Let’s just go,” Nora muttered, frustrated.

Nolan started to leave, but his phone buzzed, and he cursed, dragging it out. He checked the message, his skin losing some of its color. Shaelynn frowned, looking down at the screen.

“That’s Creamsicle.”

Nolan nodded. “That bastard has been—or is, right now—in my apartment.”

“We already called the police,” Nolan reminded Shaelynn as she almost clipped another car when she sped around it. He leaned over and tried to look at the speedometer, but her arm was in the way.

“Since when do you leave everything to the police, Nolan?”

He shrugged. He had, more and more, since he started working as a consultant. He was able to pick up on things that he shouldn’t, things that were illegal, but he hadn’t seen the need to go all vigilante and handle them himself, even if he could have.

“I was never a hero,” he reminded her. “I only did what I did back then for the three of us. If I was going to be a cop’s work, I would have gone for the actual badge. I didn’t.”

She nodded, but that didn’t stop her from almost swiping an expensive sports car. A horn blared, but that and Nora’s curse were just bonus points right now. Shaelynn was kind of a crazy driver to begin with—the open road and freedom had always called to her since that day they first escaped, and a part of him figured she had that thought that she could somehow drive far enough away to free herself from the past, too.

“You are going to slow down before we get close to my apartment building, right? You do realize there will be cops there, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” she snapped, and he gave her a look. She took her foot off the gas, but still turned the corner fast enough to make the tires squeal a little. She grimaced. “Stupid rental.”

“I told you I’d buy you a good one.”

“And I told you no.”

Nora reached forward and smacked him. He looked at her and shrugged. He wasn’t above bribery—but Shaelynn was. He couldn’t coax her into staying with anything material. No, he didn’t think he could get her to stay with anything he had—words, promises, money… None of that would be enough, not even in combination.

She pulled into the parking structure next to his building, right into his spot, and he said nothing as he reached for the door handle. His car was still impounded, and the fact was that none of them would be staying here tonight. They’d have to find a hotel that took cats—assuming his were still okay; he hadn’t seen the creep do anything to them on the video that he’d sent, but he wouldn’t know until he got into his apartment again.

If this guy had done anything to his cats…

He shook his head, mouth in a tight line as they walked into the building. The uniformed officer in the lobby stopped them as soon as they got in the door.

“Hold on. There was a break-in upstairs, and we need to—”

“Yeah, that was my apartment,” Nolan said, taking out his wallet and flipping it open to his id. “Is it still off limits or can I go up and see if anything’s missing?”

“Let me check,” the kid said, turning away to talk into his radio. Nolan rubbed his forehead. He hated this.

“Nora,” Shaelynn said, turning toward her. “Did you have anyone look at your apartment?”

“I don’t have any proof that it got broken into, but I’ll have it swept after the office,” she said, shaking her head and shuddering. Nolan pulled his sister close to him. For her, having her apartment broken into would be the almost the worst kind of violation. That place was safety and a lot more to her. The possessions that passed for her soul were there, and he knew she couldn’t stand having that taken from her, having those things touched by someone else—he didn’t even go there, that was how private her sanctuary was.

“We’ll get whoever did this.”

“That won’t change much,” Nora said. “If he was in your apartment, in mine—what the hell is safe anymore, Nolan?”

“Places never were,” he reminded her. “It was always people for us, and that’s what we still have. You, me, and Shaelynn.”

The two women snorted almost in tandem, neither of them liking that idea much.

The cop came back over to them. “The lieutenant said to go on up.”

“Lieutenant? Since when do I rate that for a break-in?”

“Maybe since you got a death threat yesterday?” Nora said, shaking her head before stabbing the button for the elevator.

Nolan grit his teeth as elevator doors opened. He stepped inside and pushed the button for his floor. “That was vandalism, and it only said ‘traitor,’ not ‘we’re going to kill you.’”

“If it was from someone in the cult, it was a death threat,” Shaelynn said, leaning against the wall and tapping her fingers against it as the elevator door shut behind Nora. His sister glared at her, but Shaelynn didn’t stop even when the elevator started to rise.

“I thought we agreed it wasn’t from them.”

“No, we agreed we were going to look for the less obvious possibilities,” Shaelynn said, and he glared at her himself that time.

The elevator stopped, and Nolan exited onto his floor to be confronted by another policeman, this one in a suit—a cheap suit—and he really wanted to curse. “I take it you’re the lieutenant that’s in charge of this?”

The other man nodded. “Got the call when someone noticed the connection between this break-in and the vandalism yesterday.”

“Apparently someone doesn’t like me.”

“I’d say a lot of someones,” the lieutenant said, and Nolan had no choice but to nod. He had enemies. He just thought most of them were still in jail.

“Did that creep do anything here? Vandalism? What about the cats? Nolan had four. If any of them are missing or dead—”

“Pretty sure we counted four, and they’re all alive.”

“That’s good. Otherwise I might have had to shoot someone,” Shaelynn said, moving past the cop and into the doorway of the apartment. The lieutenant frowned at her.

“My bodyguard,” Nolan said with a slight smile.

“Lucky man.”

“Not really.”

“Creamsicle,” Shaelynn said, kneeling down to pick him up and cradle him in her hands. He bumped his nose against her cheek, and she smiled as he started to purr. “I swear, if that bastard had done anything to you…”

Creamsicle mewed like he understood, purring louder than before.

“You’re going to lose a cat, too, when she goes this time,” Nora muttered, and Nolan glared at her, but he knew she was right. That kitten was Shaelynn’s, not his. He wouldn’t be able to keep either of them.

Short and Not Really Sweet Nano…

Author’s Note: So my word count is officially over 25,000. It took me most of the day to get writing on this again. It was my plan to only work on this today, but inspiration was hitting me in full force for the other one, and there was a bunch of sidetracking into edits, too.

So… Now I roll in with a day of only 929 words, and I’m fading fast before ten o’clock. This is not me.

I will probably wake up in the middle of the night or something, but I apparently can’t keep my eyes open.

Not Exactly the Way to Wake up Rested and Refreshed

Shaelynn’s eyes opened, and she sat up a moment later, her body reacting almost faster than her mind. She reached under the bed for her gun, swallowing and trying not to let the adrenaline that had gotten her awake rule everything. Just because she was alone after Nolan specifically requested the snuggly toy and she had spent half the night not asleep because he was using her as that snuggly toy did not mean that anything terrible had happened.

She would have woken if something went wrong. She’d been asleep next to him, and if someone had tried to do anything to him in the night, she would have heard. She would have woken if they came into the apartment—or at least if they’d come into the room.

Nolan’s cats would have reacted to a stranger, wouldn’t they? They seemed to like her, but that didn’t mean they liked everyone. A couple of them had only tolerated her because she was here with him. They didn’t come around when she was by herself.

She put her feet on the floor, wondering if the cat’s were his reason for having this place all carpeted when the office had beautiful hardwood floors. She could have blamed that on Nora’s sense of style, but the sound of people’s shoes would have driven him crazy long ago and he would have had the floors replaced by now if he really didn’t like them.

She lifted the gun in front of her, telling herself she was an over-paranoid idiot as she walked into the next room. She didn’t have to do this. Nolan was fine. He was bound to be in the kitchen making his coffee on the stove, talking to one of his cats.

She studied the front room, glaring at the empty furniture before she turned toward the kitchen. The last few steps she took a bit rushed, ready to find him and end this. She didn’t want to let her training and past get the better of her.

“Damn it.”

The kitchen was empty, not even cats waited for their owner on the counters or the floor. The stove was off, and the same dishes were in the sink as had been the day before. That feeling she’d woken up with was a hell of a lot worse now.

“I almost thought you were kidding about being my bodyguard.”

She forced herself not to whirl around when she heard Nolan’s voice. “You weren’t there when I woke up.”

“I do have things to do today. People want to kill me. I think I’m a bit concerned with trying to stop them.”

Lowering the gun, she faced him. Her prepared lecture died on her lips, and she told herself not to stare, but it was the first time that she’d seen him without a shirt since he got shot. “Those aren’t worms.”


“Your chest, Nolan. Those are not worms,” she said, gesturing to the scars with the gun before she cursed herself. Making sure the safety was on, she set it down on the table. She should dress and put it away properly, but she needed a minute. Her body was still all keyed up from finding him gone, and seeing those scars had not helped. All she could think about now was how he’d been shot, how close that one bullet must have been to his heart.

“Sure they are,” he said, crossing over to pick up the gun. “That one’s new.”

She shrugged. “One of my fellow cubicle slaves figured on proving his masculinity with a gun. He and a couple other idiots organized a contest over at the local shooting range. We women were invited to be awed, and they all thought it was funny when I said I’d only go if I got a chance to shoot. They said I could try the contest in a very patronizing way.”

“Idiots. I take it this was the prize?”

“Yes. I hate them, but they’d been talked into the right kind of gun,” she said, smiling a little. “How’d you know I won?”

Nolan gave her a look. “Please. Like you weren’t the highest ranked marksman in the cult, second only to Ambrose and only because he wouldn’t accept that he wasn’t the best.”

She reached over, taking the gun back. “Does it bother you that you came in third?”

“No. I never wanted to be good at it.”

She nodded, putting the gun out of his reach. He frowned, but then she put a finger to the scar, and he almost jumped away from her. She caught his arm and continued her exploration of the marks. She didn’t know why he’d chosen worms for them. Worms would have been softer, smoother, less jagged and dangerous. She had been told what had happened, she’d seen him while he recovered, but it hadn’t felt that real until now.

“I think the worms are going to mistake those fingers of yours for food.”

“Stop making jokes. You almost died. This mark here—”

“I am fine. All recovered and better now. I’m sure you can see that. The towel’s nice and long, but it still doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination.”

“You’re still wet,” she told him, shaking herself out of whatever mood that had been. “You should finish drying off.”

He took her hand. “It’s not as bad as it looks. The scars are ugly, but I’m fine. I’m not dead.”

“No, you’re not,” she agreed, meeting his eyes. “And that is how it is going to stay.”

Going Forward and Then Backward in Nano

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.

Back to Teasing and Snuggly Toys

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.”

When in Doubt, Toss a Reference into Nano…

Author’s Note: So I don’t talk much about my other job. I don’t really want to get fired.

That said, it had a real impact on my productivity today. I wouldn’t even care so much about the shift itself if it wasn’t for the the drain of my emotional and mental faculties.

Yet… I managed 2,039 words… Mostly because I got a bit reference silly at the end of the second scene. I’m tired and brain dead. I might have gotten a bit silly/loopy.

Nolan Gets an Unpleasant Surprise

“You still want to say this has nothing to do with our past?”

Nolan studied the ugly red-orange paint that marked his car in seven hateful letters almost seared on the side of it, the anger of the writer visible in every line. He wasn’t sure if he was staring at it to try and make the paint and word disappear or if he was trying to convince himself it said something else, or if he just needed time to accept that it was what he thought he saw.

Nora’s words would make it that. Shaelynn hadn’t said anything, not since she joined him in staring at the word. In a way, it accused her, too, but he didn’t think they’d be after her, not here. She didn’t live here, she didn’t work here, and she was only standing by him because Nora somehow managed to convince her that Nolan needed her.

He swallowed, his eyes going to Shaelynn. “You… You didn’t think it was about the past, did you?”

“Would she really have told you if she did?” Nora asked, and he glared at his sister. She shrugged, unrepentant.

Shaelynn shook her head. “Cyril told me no one was interested. I accepted that for what it was and focused my efforts elsewhere. I thought the past was a distraction, nothing more. It’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that it was about that all along, but we still don’t know that it is.”

Nora snorted, pointing over at the car. “They painted traitor on his car, Shaelynn. How can you say that has nothing to do with the past? Someone’s sentence must be up, and they’re finally free to come after him.”

“Cyril said my father gave orders not to go after Nolan. He… Boath still thinks he can bring Nolan back into the fold.”

That twisted his stomach up, making him want to vomit. That wasn’t happening, now or ever. “He’s an idiot. I was never part of the fold. I don’t really want to think about what kind of prophecy he’d tangle up to make it seem like it was all supposed to be like that, or what he might paint me as if he got his hands on me again, but he is not getting me back into that hellhole.”

“The hellhole doesn’t exist,” Shaelynn said, letting out a breath. “It was basically razed when the feds arrested everyone, remember?”

“Mr. Sheppard?”

Nolan turned toward the cop who’d spoken, forcing a smile. “Did you need anything else from us? Statements—did that. Fingerprints for elimination, maybe?”

“They want to take the car in to do some testing.”

“I didn’t know I ranked high enough to get forensics done on a bit of vandalism,” he said, frowning. That didn’t quite make sense. He could see the fingerprint comparison, maybe, but to have the paint chips analyzed or anything else—that had to be wrong, didn’t it? “Has there been a lot of vandalism in the area?”

“Or is there something worse like a bomb on the car or something?” Nora demanded. “Did they try and kill him, too?”

Nolan shook his head. “Nora, there’s no point in coming after me now. Even if one of Boath’s lieutenants got out, he’s still in there and won’t get out before he dies. They can’t rebuild his sick little empire, and trying to get me is stupid—he brought that whole thing on himself by ‘marrying’ all those underage girls and ‘dealing’ with unbelievers.”

“Still,” the cop said. “You are that Nolan Sheppard. There really could be people after you. This could be a lot worse than a word on your car.”

“Maybe, if I’d gotten other threats or if it was actually confirmed that one of them was out. I should have been notified if they were, and so at this point, we’re looking at a weird conspiracy where Ambrose or Coman isn’t dead, and yeah, that’s not something I’ll buy.”

Shaelynn almost suppressed a shudder. “That’s not possible.”

He wasn’t going to argue with that, though Nora looked like she might. He didn’t believe the feds would have lied about that, and he didn’t think either Ambrose or Coman would have ever cooperated with the authorities, which was about the only way that he could see the feds being willing to say they were dead if they were could have happened. Besides, why would the feds need more than what they had? The testimony of the women—the girls, mostly—that had been there and even the children was pretty much enough on its own. Nolan’s part in trial had been pretty small, truthfully, and he didn’t think that what he’d gone through had half as much merit as the story of even one of Boath’s wives.

“Since when am I a notable figure again?”

“That was what I came to tell you about,” Nora said. She shook her head. “They can’t quite smear campaign you, but those people who want to take your company? I’m pretty sure they’re the ones behind this article.”

Nolan took the magazine she held out to him. “How could these people do a profile on us without talking to us?”

“We’re a bit of a footnote in the actual article.”

“That doesn’t really matter when they put Nolan’s face on the damned cover,” Shaelynn said. He met her eyes, and she let out a breath. “Cyril told me no one knew where you were. Now they do. These people just made you a target.”

“You haven’t said anything since we left your car behind.”

Nolan shrugged, not lifting his eyes from his window. Shaelynn didn’t mind the window-gazing so much—she did it herself, often—but she did have an issue with him ignoring all of his cats. Even Patchwork had come out of hiding to try and comfort him, but he hadn’t seemed to notice or care that they were mewing at him or swatting his pants.

This was what would have worried her if she’d been the one needing to make the call, but Nora had seen something even before he hit this point. Of course, they had more reason for concern now. They all tried not to think about it, but there were plenty of people that wanted Nolan dead. Some of the wives had been true believers, some broke and went crazy when they were with Boath, some had Stockholm syndrome, and they weren’t happy about their husband or prophet being locked away. Then there was the army that Boath was creating and some of his children—Shaelynn’s half-brothers or sisters that were just as dangerous as the adults if not more so.

She knew it was too easy to believe that the remnants of the cult would want Nolan dead. That was why she’d called Cyril first. She hadn’t entirely ruled out that as a possibility, but she had wanted to believe this was about a hostile takeover and not something from their past. She was no more ready to confront that than he was.

“Did you like it?”


“Your car. Some people get quite attached to them, you know. They name them, treat them like children or members of the family, that sort of thing.”

“It was functional,” he said, shrugging again. “It never mattered more than that. I never found it easy to be attached to objects, you know. Growing up in the tenement, we never had a lot, and so I made do with out it. Anything that could be sold usually was, so it was better not to be attached at all. Then in the cult, you didn’t get a lot in the way of material possessions unless you were Boath or one of his favorites, and I wasn’t a good enough liar to be one of them. Nora pulls in possessions like threads, the ones she thinks will sew up the broken places in her soul, but me? I’m well-beyond those kinds of band-aids, and I can’t get myself to believe in them.”

She nodded. She’d never had much growing up, and she’d found herself sticking to that sort of sparse lifestyle years after their escape. “So Nora picked the car.”

“It went with the firm’s image. I honestly didn’t care what I drove.”

“I think you need someone else to help you pick. You could get attached to something more suited to you and not to the image the firm supposedly needs.”

His eyes met hers in the reflection of the glass. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t feel like getting attached to anything.”

“It doesn’t always get taken from you.”

“No, sometimes it leaves.”

She frowned. “This about me leaving again? How much resentment have you been bottling up over that, anyway? How long have you hated me for it?”

“Oh, too long. Thirteen years, off and on,” he said, reaching up to rub his neck. He tried to stretch and groaned when he hit some of his tense muscles. “Damn.”

“What? You didn’t want to admit that? It’s past time it’s out, isn’t it?”

He snorted. “Is this because you think that I should be confessing before my time is over? I’ve been set out as bait, offered up on a platter—probably because someone wants my company, and they’re not shy about how they get it, but maybe someone there doesn’t really want me with it, they just want me dead. It would be easy to get rid of me if the right people knew where I was. I know I’m not exactly hiding, but I didn’t go advertising it, either. Taking back the name I was born with instead of the name Boath tried to give us when he married Mom was supposed to help with that.”

“I don’t expect you to confess, and it makes me angry—the idea of anyone stringing you out there like that—” She bit that off, uncurled her fists. “You already went through enough crap in your life, and they don’t get to screw with the one thing in your life that went right.”

“Thirty years and all I’ve got is a consulting firm. It’s a wonderful thing to show for my life,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“Come on, Nolan. Most people would be envious of what you built from scratch, and it is a good firm, so much so that someone wants to take it from you by force. They’re that jealous or that scared. Take your pick. You have good in your life, you know.”

“I never thought I didn’t. I just—I really wanted the one thing in my life that went right to be something a lot different.”

She let out a breath. Sometimes she wondered about him, about what he’d be if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the life he had. All that kindness and vulnerability that he hid in acts and obscured with sarcasm or deflected with self-depreciation, the fact that he was just so fundamentally good—he should have been out there running a charity or being a teacher or something that gave back, something that didn’t keep him at a distance and never getting attached. He would have that so-called American dream. He’d have a house and kids… and a real wife.

“I need a key to your place,” she said, and he frowned at her. She met his gaze, keeping her eyes hard until he stopped looking confused. “I’m staying here, remember? You’re going to have to put up with me—and you might even have to consider me your bodyguard.”

“Can I call you Betty?”

She gave him a look. “That depends entirely on the Betty you mean.”

“If I say Boop, will you do their work for them?”


“Then I didn’t say Boop.”


“Grable! I’m saying Grable,” he said, and Shaelynn found herself frowning for a different reason. Who the hell was Betty Grable? She knew of a few Betties—well, too, Bette Davis and that Betty from the comic book, and Betty Boop, but Grable wasn’t on that list.

“What did this Betty do?”

“Well, she had nice legs… and so do you.”

“You’re still a dead man.”