From Gap to End… Nano Complete

Author’s Note: I have, I think, very good news. The scene I started yesterday lead to more scenes, and I have, I believe, bridged the gap.

That means… The story is done.

Yes, done.

Wrapping it All Up

“Tell me you’re kidding,” Shaelynn said, staring at Kaplan, starting to wonder if that idiotic kid had managed to shoot her because everything after that had a bit of a surreal feel to it, and the truth was that she could convince herself that none of it had been real, that she was all in a delusional fever—Nolan had said he loved he loved her, both Kaplan and Morton had tried to tell her she loved him, and then Nolan had been kidnapped. No, it would be easier to believe that none of that had happened.

“I’m not. Nolan mentioned the possibility of Bavelier having other children, and we all agreed with it, but while we expected the second missing girl to be his daughter, none of us would have guessed that Nolan was his son.”

“How did you even have his DNA to test it against?”

“That little incident with the cops that didn’t believe him about Harrison,” Morton explained. “Someone was trying to convince Harrison to sue regardless of him being in the wrong—some kind of bogus excess force charge, so they had all of Harrison’s clothes from that day analyzed, and there was enough of an exchange when Sheppard held him that they could use.”

Shaelynn nodded. She supposed that made a twisted sort of sense. “Fine, but that doesn’t explain why anyone thought to check it against Bavelier’s.”

“It came up when we had a couple of Jane Does to identify. They were tested against Bavelier’s, and it flagged when it came up related to someone in another crime, so they looked at it and called me to suggest that Nolan had another reason for being involved in this whole mess.”

“Those idiots actually thought Nolan would hurt his half-sisters? Do they not realize that Nora’s only a half-sister and he is beyond devoted to her?” Shaelynn demanded. “Nolan would never hurt anyone. Well, not unless he had no other choice and was defending himself or someone else. He knows how to hurt people, but he doesn’t want to.”

“Agreed. As soon as I saw the results and the conclusion the techs wanted me to jump to, I almost laughed. Only it wasn’t funny,” Kaplan said. She let out a breath. “What I wanted to know, about half a second later, was if Bavelier had any idea that Sheppard was his son when he hired him.”

Shaelynn grimaced. “You’re thinking premeditation. That Bavelier hired Nolan with a bogus claim of going into politics so that he could see if his son knew who the hell he was.”

“I’m not so sure the politics thing was bogus,” Morton disagreed. “I think he did want that, and if he did, then he had to know that his son would be a major obstacle. Nolan’s history is public, or at least it would be easily accessible. If anyone could connect Bavelier to his mother—”

“And that was not hard, actually,” Kaplan said. “If Sheppard had dug deeper, he might have found they went to the same school, and while there aren’t photos of them as a couple in the yearbook, with more digging, we could probably find plenty of people who knew they were involved. Running down that connection wouldn’t be hard, and an investigative reporter who wanted dirt or a campaign manager working against Bavelier would have found it—even by implication it’s bad enough. The idea that he could have gotten his girlfriend strung out, pregnant, and left her and his son to the life they had—prostitution and later a cult… That would have destroyed any attempt at getting any kind of power.”

Shaelynn thought about her own father and bit back a couple of responses to that. “I don’t see why anyone would be stupid enough to go into politics after having done crap like that. The secrets always come out.”

“It’s about the power,” Morton said. He shrugged. “I think they start feeling invincible long before they get to office, and if they know the right kind of people… Well, there are crooked cops and other people that can help this sort of crap disappear. I knew an agent who had retired before we realized he was crooked. Bavelier probably thought that he could keep getting away with what he’d already done, and if he needed to get rid of anyone else along the way, he’d be able to escape being connected to that as well.”

Shaelynn turned to Kaplan. “You think he kidnapped all of his children?”

The agent nodded. “What better way to run a successful political campaign than the sympathy vote when he loses his daughter in a very tragic way?”

“That’s sick.”

“So’s Bavelier, by all indications,” Morton said. “After we had him as a suspect, a few avenues came together for us, and we learned that his Lincoln recently got a new tail light.”

Shaelynn figured they could have started with that and told her all this later. She wasn’t sure she cared about the whys. She just wanted to know that Nolan was alive, that they could find him and get him back. “Do we know where Nolan is?”

Kaplan nodded. “We think so.”


“Should have killed you when she first told me about you,” Bavelier said, and Nolan would have told him he agreed if he could talk. He hadn’t expected the old man to have as much fight in him as he did. The guy was supposed to be a simple businessman. He was not supposed to have the kind of training that could rival Ambrose’s—or maybe that was just because Nolan was concussed and out of practice—he’d like to think so, but at the same time, he didn’t want it to be because he was injured and out of shape. He needed it to be training—only if it was training, if Bavelier was in good shape, then Nolan was in trouble because he couldn’t fight like this.

He couldn’t quite breathe like this.

He regretted telling his half-sisters to run when the door opened and he caught Bavelier. He could have used some help, even if they weren’t trained. He needed them.

Maybe they’d get all the way out of wherever this was. Maybe they’d find the door to the outside world. Maybe they’d get that kind of help. He could hope for that, couldn’t he?

Except, he didn’t know that he’d survive that long. He was having a lot of trouble breathing at the moment, and that was going to be an issue.

“Should have killed her the moment she threatened to tell everyone, but no, I thought I’d let her live. I thought she’d be so strung out that she’d never tell anyone or be believed even if she did, and it worked for a long time. A long, long time.”

Nolan managed to shift his knee, jamming it up into the older man’s stomach, loosening his grip for a moment. Able to breathe again, he sucked in air and rolled over, getting himself free from underneath his so-called father. He sat, taking a moment to continue drawing in air, needing to gather his air and his strength to fight again.

“Why leave it up to the drugs?” Nolan asked, rubbing his sore throat. If he could get Bavelier talking, that might buy him some time, and if the girls were free, if they’d gotten out, then he could delay until they got help. That might be enough. “Why not pay her? Or pay for an abortion?”

“My money wasn’t mine yet, and even if it was, my parents would have stopped the abortion or the payments. They weren’t the sort to allow that,” Bavelier muttered, annoyed. “Not that she would have agreed. Bitch. She didn’t want one. Neither of them did. They’d just keep asking for more. The last one did. Had to make sure she stopped.”

Nolan grimaced. He did not want to hear this, yet he needed to keep the conversation going. “Did you kill her. or did you get someone else to do it?”

“There’s one that has a stake in seeing that no one else can come forward to claim my fortune when I’m gone.”

“Another son? And you got him to kill for you?” Nolan felt sick. What kind of family did he really have? What kind of monster was in their blood?

He heard Shaelynn’s voice in his head, repeating their old arguments about how she wasn’t poisoned by her father and his blood. If he believed that when he said it to her, then it had to be true of him, too.

“There was at least one useful child in there.”

Nolan glared at him. He didn’t care what the bastard thought of him, but he wasn’t about to agree that some random killer was the only child Bavelier had fathered that meant anything. “I suppose your legitimate daughter doesn’t count because she’s a girl?”

“Exactly. You could have been a good son, but you weren’t. You ruined everything,” Bavelier said, and Nolan knew their chat was over. He tried to move, but he wasn’t fast enough. His father caught him, slamming his head back as he cut off his air again.

Thanks to the renewed pain in his head, his ears seemed to be ringing, and he wasn’t sure if it was a hallucination, but he thought maybe there were shouts. Maybe voices. His sisters come back? He didn’t know. He was still trying to figure it out when he heard a shot.

Bavelier fell away. Nolan sucked in air, staring at his father’s body for a long time as he tried to understand what had just happened. He wasn’t sure any of it was real, but then he looked up, and he knew he was hallucinating because he didn’t know how Shaelynn could be here.

“You idiot,” she muttered as she touched his face. She looked worried. Why would she be worried? “I told you it wasn’t over so why didn’t you listen to me?”

He had a dozen reasons that he could give her, but he didn’t use them. He shrugged. “I suppose now it is over and I can die because you’re here?”

“No. You don’t get to die. Not on my watch.”

He nodded. It figured she’d make him live, hallucination or not. “Okay, but I get to pass out, right? You have to let me… because I don’t think I can stop myself.”

She wrapped her arms around him, and he wanted to make a comment about snuggly toys, but he passed out first.


“What part of wait for us to clear the scene do you not understand?” Morton asked, folding his arms over his chest as he looked down at Shaelynn with disapproval. She thought the look might have been better coming from Kaplan, but she was still in agent mode, checking out the rest of the basement where Nolan and the others had been held.

Shaelynn shifted her hold on Nolan, trying to find a more comfortable spot. Holding him was a lot easier when she could sit in a chair or on a bed, but all she had was a concrete floor. She should just be glad that he was alive. She looked toward Kaplan. “If it were her, would you have stayed back?”

Morton shook his head. “Hell, no, but then I admit to loving her with all I’ve got.”

Kaplan looked back at him over her shoulder. “Well, you love me enough to risk disciplinary review, at least.”

He shrugged, giving her a grin that seemed to take over his face whenever he was looking at her. Someone other than Shaelynn would call that stupid happy in love. She would agree to the first part at least. “I happen to think I should be with you on every raid. I want you backed up by someone I trust. I’d prefer it if it were me, but I suppose I might settle for Simpson, DC, or Richmond.”

Kaplan glanced toward the other agents, and Shaelynn figured that the dark looks weren’t the only comments that they’d like to make, but not even Shaw said anything, letting Kaplan continue her conversation with her husband. “Your brothers aren’t agents.”

“So?” Morton asked, still grinning. “That didn’t stop you before.”

Kaplan returned the grin. “DC is good backup.”

Shaelynn shook her head. Those two had one hell of an odd sense of humor—and their flirting was unnecessary. “Someone should call Nora and tell her that Nolan is okay.”

“Why don’t you let us decide that?” A man asked, and Shaelynn looked up at a couple paramedics with a frown. He gave her a reassuring smile as he stepped closer. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind letting go, we’d like to get a look at him.”

“Sisters…” Nolan muttered, stirring in Shaelynn’s hold. He pushed at her, and she turned her fingers in his hair, trying to soothe him.

“We’ll call Nora. You just calm down,” Shaelynn told him, but Nolan shook his head. He gagged like he might puke, and she almost shoved him away before she realized what he wanted. She turned to the EMT. “The girls that came out of here, they were okay, right?”

“Yeah, they’re fine, considering,” the paramedic answered. He started looking Nolan over, and Shaelynn didn’t think he was lying, though she would have hoped he would for Nolan’s sake no matter what had happened to them. She wanted the girls to be fine—she did—but she wanted Nolan calm more right now. She was that selfish. “Dehydrated and undernourished, but we’ll get them fluids and monitor them overnight just to be sure.”

“You hear that, Nolan?” Shaelynn asked, smiling down at him. “They’re okay. You can rest now.”

He nodded, curling up against her, and she figured he’d stay out this time. She wasn’t sure if that was good or not. She should have learned more than basic first aid, and she should have kept up with it over the years.

“How bad is it?”

“He’ll be all right. He’s got a concussion, for sure and a bit of bruising, but that looks like the worst of it.” The paramedic’s words were more reassuring than his smile. “Should just mean monitoring him overnight.”

She nodded, relieved. Then she saw Bavelier and winced. “That one?”

“Dead before he hit the ground,” Morton said, looking over at Agent Shaw. “Not sure if I feel like congratulating you for that shot or pitying you. It’s hard to take a life, even if it’s in self-defense.”

“Or justified,” Kaplan added, shaking her head. Shaelynn knew there was a story there, but she didn’t feel like asking about it. She just wanted to get Nolan over this damned concussion so that they could talk. He was alive, and that was good, but it was not enough.

“Well, at least you know he can shoot,” Shaelynn said, though that fact didn’t do much to improve her opinion of Shaw. “I need to call Nora, tell her to meet us at the hospital.”

Kaplan nodded. “She’ll be notified. The only reason we didn’t call her before was that we didn’t know enough, but it’s over now. We can give her all the details and wrap it up.”

“There’s still plenty of paperwork to do,” Morton said, but his lips curved into a smile as he looked at Shaw. “Then again, since you’ll be on desk duty, I think that’s something you can do.”

Shaw grimaced, but he was at least smart enough not to argue with that.

“Ma’am,” the EMT said, touching her arm. His partner had set down the board next to Nolan. “We need you to let us take him. You’ll have to move.”

“She’s riding with you,” Morton told him. “She’s his wife.”

For once, Shaelynn didn’t correct that statement.


“We’re keeping the name Sheppard,” Shaelynn said as Nolan forced his eyes open. He had to be better about getting hit over the head. That was probably impossible, but his head hurt, and he didn’t want to think about how easy it had been for all of that to happen. He knew he’d turned his back on most of his training, but he hadn’t thought that he’d be so easy to take. He shouldn’t have been. Ambrose had trained him better than that.

“What?” Nolan couldn’t remember what she’d said now. The concussion had taken away whatever that had been.

“I said—we’re keeping Sheppard. I like it, and I don’t care who your father was. You’re not taking his name. He was scum, and he doesn’t deserve that.”

Nolan nodded. He agreed. “I don’t think—I think I would rather have gone on never knowing who my father was than know it was him. I still… Are we sure it was him? I know that the girls believed it, and he even said something about it in among his ramblings, but I didn’t think—I didn’t believe it.”

“I suppose we’ll have to get you the results of the test so you can be sure, but everyone seemed pretty convinced.”

Nolan closed his eyes with a wince. “I suppose in some way, it is a twisted motive for being behind all this. He probably suspected before he came to have me ‘consult’ for him, but I don’t know for sure. It would make sense, though. He might have known thirteen years ago, but he wouldn’t have been worried until he decided to get politically ambitious. Then the whole thing could have come out—how he got his girlfriend hooked on drugs and turned her out to support their habit. How he got her pregnant and abandoned her and the baby… Yeah, that would have gone over well with his constituents.”

Shaelynn shrugged. “He was an idiot.”

“Yes, he was,” Nolan agreed. He wanted to reach for her hand, but he didn’t know that she’d let him take it. “I guess I don’t understand—why are you here?”

She frowned. “You have to ask?”

“Yes, I do, actually. I remember telling you to go. I remember thinking that you were gone. I remember going on with my life.” He looked at her. “It’s not that I’m not grateful because I am. My father was apparently just as insane as yours, and he wanted me dead, and he probably would have made that happen. I just… didn’t expect you to be there to help me.”

She lowered her head. “Nolan, you know I didn’t exactly want to leave. I left because you asked me to, because I understood why you were asking, and because you were right to ask. I couldn’t stay when you loved me and I didn’t love you. That wasn’t right. It wouldn’t have been fair.”

“Yet you’re here.”

She nodded. “I… I didn’t think the threat was over, so I stayed. I followed you. I watched over you. I didn’t love you, but I didn’t want you dead, either.”

He forced himself to swallow. This conversation was going to be as painful as their last one, wasn’t it? “Well, then, I suppose I owe you my thanks and I have to admit that you were right about the whole thing. So I can—Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You’re talking like you expect me to leave.”

“Aren’t you going to?” He didn’t know why she wouldn’t be planning on it. She’d done what she needed to, hadn’t she? She’d saved him, she’d ended the threat for good, and he was safe now. He couldn’t even have that bad of a concussion.


“Oh. I’m stuck with you until I’m out of the hospital? Is that it?”

She shook her head. “I had some unpleasant conversations while I was supposedly ‘stalking’ you. I had a lot of time to myself to think. I reached a few conclusions, and I know a few things. I just—I don’t feel comfortable walking away from you. I don’t want to. I’m not willing to lose you. I’m not just talking about your life being in danger.”

“I told you—this only works if it’s a clean break. The last thirteen years of limbo have proved that.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Shaelynn. I am going to ask you to go again. I can’t do this with you. I need you to let me get over you.”

“I’m not so sure I’m willing to do that.”

“You don’t want me.”

She studied him for a long moment. “I don’t want to want you. I’m not just talking about love. I am talking about friendship, partnership… All those things we had and shared—I don’t want to want that. I don’t like the idea of needing anyone else, and I don’t want to care about anyone. My mother was the only good part of my childhood before you, and I lost her. I had my father, and we all agree he was a monster. Caring about him or even wanting to was just… wrong. Ambrose kept trying to tell me that I should care about him—as a trainer at first, as something far more disgusting later. I had plenty of half-siblings, but the ones my age I was in competition with, so I knew I couldn’t trust them. The younger ones were okay, but I didn’t want to get close because when I showed any interest in them, my father and the others started talking about how ‘maternal’ I was. That word was… frightening in that place.”

“I know.”

“Then there was you. He brought you and your mom and your sister in off the streets, and you started to be my main competition. Only you were different—you knew a life outside of the walls. You had a sense of right and wrong that wasn’t dictated by my father, and you had… goodness in you, I guess is the only way to describe it. You didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, but that just made it so that I had to worry about you. You were either going to get yourself killed or you’d break, and I didn’t want to see that happen.”

Nolan shrugged. “I wasn’t your responsibility.”

“I know that. I just… I was protective of you even then. I know that you don’t want to hear that, but if anything, that was what it was. I didn’t want to let the one good part of that place get corrupted.”

“I understand that, but I really don’t—”

“Kaplan and Morton both insist that my protectiveness goes deeper than that,” Shaelynn said. She let out a breath. “I told them I didn’t believe that. I don’t want to love you. That’s still the way it is.”

He jerked his head in a quick nod. “I know that. That means that you have to go. Now.”

“No. I’m staying, Nolan. I don’t know how this will end up working, but I know that I’m not going to leave again. I don’t like worrying about you from a distance, and I know you just get in trouble without me. We have to find some way of… making it work if I stay.”

He looked at her. The hell with it. He wasn’t going to go for half-measures. “Marry me, Shaelynn. For real this time. I’m not interested in anything less than everything. I told you—I can’t do it. So if you want to stay, if we want to work this out, it’ll be us working towards forever.”

“You have to have a commitment?”

“Yes.” He wasn’t all that proud of it, but he couldn’t deny it, either. “I’ve already lost you too many times to do this without it, and you already know I love you. I haven’t stopped in more than thirteen years. You know how I feel about you, and you know it won’t change. I don’t have that kind of reassurance. You just told me you don’t want to love me. How am I supposed to take that? As a declaration of love and a vow of eternity? I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I know you, and I know that you do care in spite of wanting not to care, and I would like that to be enough, but it isn’t. You’ve left me too many times for that. I’m pathetic, and I’m insecure. I’ll admit that. If I am going to stop all the work I did in trying to get over you and let you back in, I need something. I can’t let myself go back to that cycle again because if you did leave this time, you’d break me for good.”

“I never meant to break you.”

“I know that. I don’t blame you. I do understand, but I asked you to go for a reason, and that reason hasn’t changed. I can’t do this in any half-measure. You have all of me. I should be able to have all of you, or I should be trying to find someone else, someone who is willing to put as much into it as I have. I want you. I want that person to be you. I don’t want anyone else, but I also know that it’s not—it won’t work if you won’t give as much as I am. We have to go in equal or not at all.”

She nodded. “I know that. I’m not leaving, Nolan. Not again. You mean too much to me to lose, and maybe I don’t know much about love—anything about it, really—but if there was anyone that I could ever love, if I’m capable of that—it’s you. Maybe you were right and our friendship was heading for more before the whole marriage thing screwed it up, maybe we could even have made the marriage work, but I was still messed up from it. I had to take time and get distance from this to know how I felt, and I know it took longer than you’d hoped, but even if nothing else is clear—I know I won’t accept not having you in my life. And I think we may as well face that we got ruined for anyone else… It would only work with each other.”

“So you want me because we’re ruined?”

“Damn it,” she said. “Don’t make this harder than it is. I am not going to tell you I love you and always have because you know I don’t believe in it. Maybe you and I can find it together, but don’t make me lie.”

“Asking for a yes or no answer is not a lie.”

She laughed a little. “Fine, you idiot. The answer is yes.”


Nora came out of her office, frowning. She ignored the echo from her heels as she did, intent on only one thing: getting those feds out of her office. This was her firm, and they did not do this. “I thought my brother told you that we don’t consult on cases like this.”

The female agent glanced at the men with her—one was her husband, but the other Nora didn’t recognize. He was not the one that had been there before, not Shaw, mercifully, because she might have had to use her stilettos for something other than being stylish if he had been—and then back at Nora. “I think someone forgot we had an appointment.”

“No, we don’t. I don’t have anything on the books, and I wouldn’t. Nolan doesn’t do law enforcement consulting. That’s not what this company is about. I told you that before. Not that I’m not grateful for all you did in helping end the threat to Nolan’s life, but that still doesn’t mean that we’re going to help on some other case. No. It’s not happening.”

Kaplan almost smiled. “He didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

Morton turned the wedding band on his hand as he gave the man next to him a sympathetic look. She thought they might be brothers—though if she was right about it, the one was older than Morton. “This is going to be awkward, isn’t it?”

“I’m still not sure why I’m here,” the brother said, frowning a bit as he did. “First you said it was a case, then you said we had to meet someone, and now I’m getting the unpleasant feeling that—what exactly is this?”

“Oh, we didn’t tell you?” Morton grinned in a way that Nora was good for no one, even if she barely knew the man. “DC, this is Nora. Nora, DC.”

Nora frowned. “I don’t know why we’re being introduced, but I think you need to—”

“Say hello to your date,” Nolan said with a grin, and she glared back at him. Oh, she was going to kill him. Slowly. Mercilessly. “Kaplan very generously offered her brother-in-law, and I passed along the name of that babysitting service—excellent woman, nothing gets by her—”

“Which is what everyone needs when dealing with my daughter,” Morton said. “So now that Geneva and I can have a date night, we’re going out. It wasn’t fair to leave you at home by yourself, DC, so… yes, we did volunteer you. Sheppard was very helpful on Geneva’s case, so we figured we’d help him with his sister’s problem—”

“Excuse me?” Nora shook her head. “I do not have a problem. I can date whoever I please, and I don’t need help finding a date, and I am not—”

“A sucker for a man in a uniform?”

“I hate you, Shaelynn.”

She smiled back, and Nora glared at her. She and Nolan deserved each other. She heard someone clear their throat, and she turned around, facing the one they called DC and trying not to wince.

“I have to admit, Raleigh finally managed to pay me back for most of what Richmond and I did to him when he was a child. Sorry about that. You should never have gotten in the crosshairs there.”

She shrugged. “I was already in them from the other side. Not sure I’ll apologize for my brother, though. I stopped doing that years ago.”

“Sure you did,” Nolan scoffed. “You’re only my business partner and secretary. You apologize for me all the time.”

She grimaced. “I hate you, too, Nolan.”

“I know. Still, if you really want me to believe that you’re not all about the money… Let’s go have dinner.”

The End

Progress of a Sort in Nano

Author’s Note: So all I can really say at this point is that I am still trying to finish this. Really, I am. It’s just… very difficult.

Progress of a Sort

Shaelynn hadn’t expected finding one car in thousands to be easy, not with only a broken tail light and tinted windows to go on. She didn’t figure she’d find anything, not when she was honest with herself, and so she hadn’t allowed for a lot of honesty while she drove around, frustrated. She would have loved to find that car sitting out in the open, leading her right to where they were keeping Nolan, but that wasn’t going to happen.

She stopped her car, shaking her head, tempted to scream or smack the wheel—anything let out some of this anger and fight against the rising sense of helplessness that was trying to catch up with her. She didn’t do helpless. That was not and never had been her. She’d had a few moments of fear, but she’d known she wasn’t helpless.

If she’d been forced into marrying Ambrose, she would have killed him, or she might have killed herself, but she wasn’t helpless. She had ways out of that nightmare.

She didn’t seem to have any out of this one. Nolan was missing, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do to find him. She could drive the whole city over and over again and never find the car that might maybe have done this. Even if she found the car, there was no guarantee that it would be sitting out in front of the building where Nolan was.

Time was speeding away from her, and she was no closer to finding Nolan than she’d been when he first disappeared. She didn’t know that she could do to change that, either. She was going to lose him, and that was something that had never been acceptable, not from the beginning, from that stupid joke that he knew better than to make and she knew better than to smile at.

Someone knocked on her window, and she jumped, cursing her own stupidity as she did. She reached over and rolled down the glass, shaking her head. “Don’t you feds have better uses of your time than tracking me down again?”

“I gave Kaplan the danger to yourself and others speech when your man is missing, and she agreed with diverting our attention for a moment. Would you like the rundown of what our federal resources came up with?”

She considered that. “I don’t know, Morton. Does it end in dead ends or in you being here to take me with you when you raid wherever you think Nolan is? I won’t ask for a chance to be in on that raid, but damn it, I will be there when you pull him out of wherever he is. Alive.”

Morton opened up her door. “Videos plus forensics confirmed your town car theory. More videos got us a good look at the license plate, but we weren’t exactly lucky there—the plates were stolen yesterday. Someone went into this prepared.”

“A professional? You think that maybe the cult is behind it this time? That they managed to get at some of the assets Cyril’s been hiding for years and pay for a hitman to go after Nolan?”

“I don’t know. I lean toward saying no since a pro would have noticed all the attention that he got lately and backed the hell off until it died down. A pro wants to leave no trace. This? It’s an attempt to be professional, but it’s still sloppy. The accident might not have happened on camera, and our driver might not be on it, either, but there are cleaner ways of doing a kidnapping—and the kidnapping angle bothers me as well. I don’t know that I see your former tormentors taking him like this.”

“Anything they did to Nolan would have to involve some kind of ritual that made him suffer for being a ‘traitor,’” Shaelynn reminded the agent. “They’d have to take him. There’s no way they’d just kill him. He’d have to be tortured before he died—they’d also have to give him opportunities for repentance.”

“Oh, that I agree with,” Morton said. “I just don’t think they’d be at all concerned with hiding what they were doing. They’d want to prove they had that kind of power even locked away in prison. They’d want to show themselves a part of whatever was done to him if only for the sake of keeping the faith of their believers. You let someone else do that torturing for you and you might as well be handing the reins of the organization over to them. Hello, new prophet. Let’s get ready for armageddon.”

She winced. Morton had a point there. “Yes. My father would need to have done something that said he set it in motion or approved of it. If he had… He would have contacted me. He’d either ask me to change Nolan’s mind for him, or he’d be wanting me to pledge my loyalty to him and not my ‘husband.’ He’d want an answer for the question of whether or not I was with him, and if I was against him… I’d be with Nolan. I’d have lied and exploited the situation to get close to him if my father had contacted me, but he hasn’t. Cyril hasn’t. No one has.”

“Yeah, we figured as much. So we went back to the drawing board suspect-wise,” Morton went on, gesturing for her to get out of her car. “Cunningham seemed likely for a bit as he had an airtight alibi in being interviewed by me at the time of the abduction. We turned our attention to tracking his connections to the car and to possible locations where he could be holding Sheppard, and that left us with… well, nothing. Not that ties back to him, anyway. He’s got property, yes, but other than one corporate building, it’s all residential—all meant to show off. Penthouse apartments, beach houses, secluded cabins by lakes, mansions to make celebrities jealous, that sort of thing. It’ll take longer to go through the shell companies we think are part of the racketeering aspect, but with what we know now and the fact that we can’t trace any cars or rentals to him, can’t find any likely professionals who’ve been in contact with him, can’t find that he did anything out of the ordinary for him in the past week—no, we’re reasonably sure that he’s a dead end as far as the kidnapping goes.”

“Did you go back to Monroe, then?” Shaelynn asked, getting out of the car. “Track down any connections she might have made?”

“She’d have had to have set that in motion before she got arrested. The Interpol file on her has her in a secure lockdown waiting extradition. Let’s just say your guy got off easy with her setting up Harrison instead of going for him directly. I actually think she only intended to coax him into being a convenient fall guy, but she didn’t count on how far Harrison was willing to go for the girl he loved or how badly he’d botch an attempt on Nolan before she could do that herself to pin it on him.”

Shaelynn grimaced. “I should have gone after her myself.”

“Vengeance aside, it wouldn’t have gotten you much. She’s cold, and this slip up is like a miracle for our international friends.”

“So what have we got, then? Nothing? Why am I leaving my car and walking with you if you have nothing for me?”

Morton grinned. “I never said we had nothing.”

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.”

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.

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.”