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.”

Two Scenes, No End, but More Nano

Author’s Note: So this morning I was a bit uncertain about what I’d written to follow Nolan’s scene last night. Nolan’s scene actually went over well with a couple readers, so that’s… good. The bad? Trying to get the next scene done seems to be almost as difficult as getting through the last one.

What is with this stretch of the story? Why must it be so uncooperative?

Well, I suppose I can’t complain too much. I got two scenes done today, and I wasn’t expecting that.

The Missing

“You can call it stalking if you promise to get some kind of federal or local support out here immediately,” Shaelynn said, looking at Nolan’s rental and tried not to let the emotions running through her get the better of her. She didn’t panic. That wasn’t what she did. She was raised a soldier, maybe even an assassin, and if not that, she was supposed to be someone who could accept being nothing more than a baby maker. That kind of person… She didn’t panic.

Only Nolan wasn’t anywhere near the rental.

While a part of her wanted to be able to gloat somehow about the fact that she’d been right, about the fact that Nolan was still in danger and that her reason for staying was exactly what she’d said it was, she was in no state to do that.

“Someone staged a car accident and took Nolan. He lost me on one of his turns—I knew he’d spotted me so I hung back a bit, but if I hadn’t—it was still fast. He’s gone, and so’s the other car.”

“Damn,” Kaplan muttered. “I’ll start coordinating with the locals, but you need—”

“I need to find him. If this was Monroe—”

“She’s still in custody. She didn’t get bail after her Interpol records came back. There’s an extradition mess going on now that I want no part of,” Kaplan said. “And Raleigh is speaking to Cunningham as we speak. Just stay with the car. We’ll get what forensics we can from it and pair that up with the traffic cameras from the area—”

“And Nolan will be dead by then.”

Kaplan didn’t say anything for a moment. “That is a possibility, but you didn’t see the accident, so you don’t know what kind of car took him. You don’t know who might have done this or why. Your best leads are useless. Stay put. We’ll be there soon.”

Shaelynn lowered the phone, looking back at Nolan’s car. She hadn’t been that far behind him, but that gap was enough for the guy to move in and take him—she was assuming it was a man, since that made sense with the speed of the attack. With Nolan’s door open like that—he’d gotten out to look at the damage, and as soon as he did, he’d either been hit or drugged by the other driver and then dragged to the other car.

Damn it, he had said he was bad at big picture stuff, but he should have known better than to let his guard down like that. He should have listened to her. He should have known that he was still in danger. He shouldn’t have let himself be in this situation.

She was just as angry with herself. She should have been here. That was why she’d stayed, after all. She had wanted to prevent this. She was supposed to be stopping this for good and all, supposed to be keeping him safe, and yet she’d lost him.

Her eyes went to the front of the car, to the bits of broken tail light in the road. Wait. To be able to set this accident up, they had to have been following Nolan, too. He’d been almost home when he’d changed directions, and her best guess was that he’d been about to stop at the store when he changed his mind about that as well. She wasn’t sure if he’d spotted her—he almost drove like he had—but she assumed he had since he’d missed the other car that had been following him.

Still, if there was another car, she should have seen it. She just needed to remember what it was. She took out her keys, running back to her own car. Kaplan and the feds could do the forensic thing. She wasn’t going to wait around—she had to be doing something. She had nothing to contribute to the legal side of things, and she didn’t know that what she was considering doing would make any difference, but she’d feel more like she was being useful if she was on the move.

She opened her own door, climbing inside as she ran through the cars that she’d seen while she trailed Nolan. She’d figure it was something smaller, not too noticeable, probably a sedan with tinted window, at least for the rear windows.

She’d seen one of those, a dark colored one that looked like it belonged to some sort of businessman. That would work for what they’d done to Nolan while keeping a relatively low profile. They wouldn’t have wanted something that drew too much attention to itself, but they’d need a way to keep people from knowing that the person in the back seat was the victim of a crime.

She dug out her phone, pushing the button to call Kaplan back as she pulled away from the rental. “You can have your forensics verify it, but I’m thinking you’re looking for a dark sedan. Possibly a town car. Something with tinted back windows.”

“That makes sense, I suppose, but what leads you to that conclusion? I thought you didn’t see the car or him being abducted.”

“I didn’t see that part. I saw a car when I was following Nolan that fits. I think it’s missing a tail light, now, too.”

“Why do I get the feeling that you are about to do something that you shouldn’t?”

“I’m not going to sit around when Nolan is missing. I’ve told you all I know, and if I happen to see a car with dark windows missing a tail light, I’ll give you another call.”


“I am going to find Nolan. Or at least I will do as much as I can to find Nolan. You already knew that, though.” Shaelynn almost ended the call, but then she stopped. “I didn’t look to see if Nolan’s phone was in his car. You might be able to trace that.”

“If we get a fix on him, I am not giving you his location.”

Shaelynn nodded. She understood that. She didn’t care. She didn’t think that was going to be the answer. She didn’t know that she’d find that car, either, but she knew that she wasn’t going to stop looking, not yet.

Nolan’s head ached as he opened his eyes, trying to identify where he was, though the darkness seemed to want to make that impossible. Without light, he couldn’t be certain of anything except that it was somewhat… damp. He didn’t want to make too many assumptions about where he was, but damp suggested underground somewhere. Basement? He’d go with basement rather than cellar because he should feel more dirt if he was in a cellar—well, that wasn’t a guarantee, but the cellars he was used to always had dirt floors, not concrete.

He was almost certain this was concrete. He didn’t want to think about what else it might be, even though he knew that identifying everything that he could around him meant that he would be closer to finding a way out of wherever he was.

That assumed, of course, that he could move, and his head objected to that idea with a throbbing reminder of how stupid he’d been earlier. He should not have turned his back on the other driver. Remembering the possibility of road rage alone should have kept him more cautious, but he’d been distracted by the car he’d thought was following him—and maybe it was, maybe it meant that he was being set up for that accident in the first place—and he hadn’t thought about the other driver being a threat.

He should have. He should have seen this coming.

Shaelynn had said it wasn’t over, but he wanted it to be, and even if he hadn’t, he’d been so caught up in trying to get over her that he hadn’t even thought about the fact that the person who’d threatened him could still be out there—or that maybe someone different wanted him dead.

He groaned, shifting so that his position stopped hurting his back like it had been.

“You’re awake, aren’t you? I can hear you moving around.”

He lifted his head up, frowning. He needed to see who had spoken. The voice sounded a bit familiar, and he knew he should know who it belonged to, but somehow he didn’t. Maybe that was his headache. Maybe that was the fact that he’d been kidnapped. He’d ignored Shaelynn’s warning, and now he was going to pay for it.

At least it wasn’t Monroe’s voice he heard. He didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t think he would consider it a great thing, either. Monroe hated him, had set him up to die, but he didn’t know what was behind this. He didn’t know why he was here or what might happen now. If this was about the cult…

He refused to think about that. He wasn’t going to let the cult rule his life. He hadn’t then, and he wouldn’t now. He wasn’t that afraid of them—the worst of them were either imprisoned or dead—and even if the woman was one of Boath’s wives that had succumbed to what she’d been through—couldn’t be, she sounded too young for that—he’d put that slight high pitch around sixteen or seventeen, though he’d never thought Shaelynn’s voice had that kind of squeal to it.

Then again, most girls weren’t like Shaelynn was at seventeen.

He tried not to curse himself for bringing up the subject of Shaelynn again, hating how she was still always on his mind. He was supposed to be getting over her, even if he was now kidnapped and likely to die. He could die over her, couldn’t he?

Yeah, he didn’t think that was going to happen.

He cleared his throat. He should have responded to the girl before now, but he’d blame his distraction on his apparent concussion. “Where are we?”

She laughed. “I don’t know. If I knew that, I think I’d already have gotten out of here and found someway home. Well, not home—I’m never going back there again—but I’d be free and gone if I knew where I was.”

“She’s all talk,” another voice—another girl—said. “She doesn’t know east from west, and she’d never get home even if we could get out of here.”

Nolan rubbed his forehead. He couldn’t hardly think with the fog in his head, with the pain, but he could only come up with one explanation for that. The missing girls. Kaplan’s case. He was with them—they were alive, which was good—but he didn’t understand. He didn’t have any real connection to them. He’d been saying that all along. None of this made sense.

“Why are we here?”

“Because someone opened her big mouth,” the second voice said, annoyed with the first from what he could tell. “She just had to go getting her father all worked up about his indiscretions, and here we all are. Well, she’s not an indiscretion, but she’s indiscreet, so it’s almost the same thing.”

Nolan had missed something here. “Okay, so we’re all here because you know something about your father’s past that you shouldn’t? Am I getting this right? I think I have a concussion—no, I know I have a concussion—but still, that makes no sense. I took one look at his file and knew that he was too much of a philanderer to get elected, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about what he did before that I could prove or that I’d take to anyone or that could be used against him or—”

“You are the proof,” the first girl interrupted. “You’re his son.”

So Close Yet So Far from an End in Nano…

Author’s Note: So I really hate this particular stretch of a story. It’s that place that should be easy if you know where you’re going with it, which sometimes I do and the end is clear and almost written from the beginning. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes something happens somewhere in the middle the end I thought I have is not the end I’m facing at all. Other times I don’t even know where my end is, I just started writing and ended up… somewhere.

This is kind the last kind of story. I didn’t know much about it when I started, and I suppose I still don’t, this close to the end.

I wrote one scene today and then started one after it. I got three paragraphs in and jumped to a conversation I know needs to happen if there is to be an ending, and yet that scene wouldn’t finish itself, either. I felt like the conversation went in circles.

So, in the end, I have only this scene to show for today, and I’m not all that happy with it. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have an ending tomorrow.

Another Opinion

“Are you going to threaten to arrest me, too?” Shaelynn asked, shaking her head as she shut her car door. She was starting to think that she was being stalked. The feds might mean well, but she wasn’t thrilled to see Kaplan, not after it took all the restraint she had not to do anything to the woman’s husband for all that love talk.

Kaplan forced a tired smile. “Why would I want to arrest you?”

“Stalking, which everyone knows the laws against that are useless and pathetic. So… Unless Nolan called up with a restraining order—and that’s unlikely—you really don’t have any legal reason to be harassing me. I’m not violating any laws.” Not yet, Shaelynn added silently. “I have a permit for my gun, and this is a public place. I can be here same as everyone else.”

The agent nodded. “I know. I’m not here about the gun or your current location. I don’t have a restraining order—and I don’t think, even if you two had a fight, that Sheppard would do that. He loves you too much for that.”

“You almost make it sound like some messed up case of domestic abuse, one where the one being abused is so convinced that they are in love and that it’s worth all that their abuser does and that he will idiotically come crawling back begging me to stay,” Shaelynn muttered, annoyed.

“No.” Kaplan shook her head. “I know what it’s like to be overly optimistic about the person I’m married to—you don’t want to know the hell that my second husband put me through—but I don’t think that’s what this is at all. He loves you, yes, but he’s not pushing you, and if Raleigh’s right and he asked you to go—then he’s not operating with blinders. He’s not trying to make this something that it isn’t. He’s trying to move on. It’s what you’re doing that’s interesting.”

“Nolan wants to believe it’s over. All of you want to believe it’s over, but I’m not convinced that it is. I don’t think that one woman was behind all of this. I didn’t like her from what I read in that file, but I don’t know that I can accept that she’s organized and connected enough to do all this.” Shaelynn folded her arms over her chest. “I’d go if I thought it was done, but since no one else seems to be willing to keep looking, I’m going to keep watching. I will not let Nolan die.”

“I believe that,” Kaplan told her. She let out a breath. “All the same, you tempt me to arrest you anyway. I don’t know that I’ve seen a worse case of stubborn in my life, and I married Morton, so that’s saying something.”

Shaelynn rolled her eyes. “You can’t arrest someone just for being stubborn.”

“Maybe not, but I should.”

“You and your husband both seem determined to see paranoia as love, which seems like a bad sign where your marriage is concerned. I’m not in love with Nolan. He is and was the only friend I had, but I never loved him. Not when we were kids, not when I was ‘married’ to him, and not now. It’s not about love. It’s about making sure that he stays alive.”

“And the logic of that works… how, exactly? How is it that you don’t care about him and yet it matters if he lives or dies?” Kaplan asked. “You’re willing to do whatever it takes to defend him, aren’t you? You’re ready to take a bullet or use one. You might have to kill. You might end up getting killed. You don’t make that kind of a choice if the person involved doesn’t matter to you. The cost has to mean something—you’re not a sociopath. You know right and wrong. You know legal and illegal. You may have grown up in a place that tried to warp all that, but if you think you walked out of there so battle-scarred that you don’t care about anyone, you’re wrong. You’re not close to anyone else because you don’t want to be close, but Nolan—he’s under your skin and in your blood and no matter how many times you wanted to break those ties, they’re still there. You wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. The fact is—he’s the only thing in your life that matters that much to you. You haven’t rushed back to work or your home—and you can say it’s a threat all you want, but if it mattered so little to you, you’d have left. You’d have trusted us to do our jobs and accepted that it was over. There’s still a very good chance that it is, and you’re just telling yourself that it isn’t because you want an excuse to stay when he told you to go.”

Shaelynn let out a breath. “I think it would have been a hell of a lot easier to lie and say I loved him back then to do this. A lot less annoying as well.”

“The fact that you’re not willing to lie about it says a lot, too. You could have used that as a way of sticking around, but you wouldn’t. You care too much to do that.”

“Do you and your husband have some incurable need to matchmake? Is that what this is?”

Kaplan laughed. “You wouldn’t have said that about either of us not that long ago. We’d both sworn off dating and everything else after our second marriages. We got burned. It happens. It made us both overcautious, though he overcame that before I did. It’s not about the matchmaking. Raleigh is still investigating Cunningham, and you crossed his path in the middle of that. I’m still trying to find two missing girls, though my time for that is running out. You could be caught in the crossfire in either case, and neither of us wants that.”

“Nolan isn’t involved in either case—maybe with Cunningham because he wants to take over the firm, but not in the other one. The connection was thin to begin with, and it’s thinner now. I’m not in the middle of anything except what you keep trying to put me in.” Shaelynn fixed the other woman with a hard glare. “I am not in love with him. My father—well, maybe he didn’t give me to Nolan like I thought, but all the same, that was not a marriage. It was never about love. My father didn’t know what that was.”

“So you think you don’t?” Kaplan didn’t wait for an answer. “Your father doesn’t know what love is. I agree with that. You don’t think you do, but it was obvious from the beginning that you had Sheppard’s. He knows what love is, and he would still give that to you. If you’re not willing to take it… Well, you won’t convince me you’re making the right decision, and you won’t convince me that you’re not afraid—I’ve been there; I know how that is—but I still have a job to do.”

“You don’t seem to be doing it.”

Kaplan smiled, though it was a bit thin. “Be careful. What you’re doing is in a bit of a gray area at best, so watch yourself.”

Nano’s Still Not Done…

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

Continuing On

“This could be considered stalking, you know.”

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

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

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

“And the bad news she got?”

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

“Only two kids are dead?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morton frowned. “What do you mean?”

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

“You don’t want to be in love?”

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

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

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

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

“I am not stalking Nolan.”

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

“You don’t even know me.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged. “Define sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A long lunch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he said. “Lunch, then.”

Today Nano Hits Fifty Thousand

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

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

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

Plenty of Strange Aftermath

“I think I want to be angry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It has only been a day.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nolan was pathetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

She just did.

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

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

“Our past.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Nora cursed. “Damn it, Nolan—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I feel very empty right now.”

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

“Getting shot didn’t hurt this much.”

“That was just physical. This goes deeper.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did you get so smart?”

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


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

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

She didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it. What if this wasn’t over?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You just said you would.”

“I lied?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re obsessed.”

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

“Are you going to watch me if I do?”

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

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

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

“You are obsessed.”

“And you still stink. Go.”

Nearly Complete Nano

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

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

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

Suspects and Misdirects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He just asked for his lawyer.”

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

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

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

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

Kaplan laughed.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your reputation will be ruined.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when is that any of your business?”

“I told you why this morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or the feds.”

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

“I am not alone.”

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


“Are you kidding me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nolan wanted to work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morton laughed.

Some Action in Nano

Author’s Note: So it took me most of the day, but I did accomplish something on this story today. I was starting to worry about it, thinking I wasn’t going to add anything even after what seemed like a decent start when I was waiting for my ride, but somehow it almost came together.

At least… as much as any of my scenes with action ever come together…

Unfortunately, I think I have to leave it there and get some sleep since I’ve gotten nowhere since I finished.

The Dangers of Dining Out

“I’m never going out to another meal with you.”

Shaelynn would have glared at him if she could take her eyes off the gun in front of them, but she wasn’t an idiot. She had to watch and wait. Both of them knew how to disarm gunmen—that was part of Ambrose’s training, one of his favorite drills—and they could do it if given the opportunity. They had to wait and watch for the right moment.

No, she did. Nolan was the target. He was the one this idiot was focused on, and he was going to have to hold his attention while Shaelynn intervened. All of it had a sick sense of déjà vu to it—she’d done all this before, in training or in their escape, and all with Nolan at her side as her “partner.”

He’d been able to talk his way out of anything before. She had to trust that he was going to do that now. She had the option of going for her gun or taking the one in front of them, and she had to pick the right one that didn’t get either of them shot. If she hadn’t been in the middle of arguing with Nolan when they left the restaurant, this wouldn’t even be an issue. She’d already have her gun, and that guy would be on the ground.

She’d lost focus, but then Nolan had a bad habit of doing that to her, too. The whole thing went back to her argument with Nora, which still pissed her off. Nolan had left it alone for the first part of the meal, but once he was done with his pancakes, he’d apparently considered it fair game when it wasn’t.

Nora was the one overreacting this time. She wasn’t giving her brother enough credit. Nolan had never needed Shaelynn, not half as much as he claimed or pretended. He had done fine on his own before their “marriage,” and he’d done just as well after she left thirteen years ago. Nolan was fine. He only needed her now because someone wanted him dead.

“You don’t want to do this.”

The man with the gun snorted. “You don’t get it, do you, Sheppard? A guy standing in front of you with a gun—he wants to use it. He wants to kill you.”

Nolan laughed. “Actually, considering the way I was raised and the amount of times a man had a gun pointed at me—no. Ambrose might have considered it a few times when he had one pointed at me, but there were at least two dozen times when it happened that the person across from me had no interest or desire to kill me. I’m sorry. The gun thing doesn’t scare me as much as you might think.”

Shaelynn was tempted to smack him. Of all the ways to handle this, he had to pick the worst one. Provoking the guy wasn’t an answer. He had to know that baiting the guy into proving he meant that crap was the wrong way to go. Talking him down might have worked, but not like that.

“It’s a good thing you never became a hostage negotiator.”

“Hey, I negotiated just fine when my sister, my wife, and I were the hostages,” he said, and she glared at him.

“You’re both idiots,” the man snapped. “I have a gun. I am going to shoot you.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nolan said, shaking his head. “Thing is, if you were going to do it, you’d have done it before. You’d also have the safety off.”

The other man frowned, looking down at his gun. He was still staring at it when both of them moved. Shaelynn had the gun out of his hand and in hers about the same time as Nolan had his arm wrapped around the other man’s neck.

“I don’t think this kid had any idea what he was getting into,” she said, and Nolan nodded, maintaining his grip as the guy squirmed in his hold. “And we were not hostages.”

“You don’t think so?” Nolan asked, looking a bit torn—he didn’t seem to know if he was willing to put enough pressure on the guy’s neck to get him unconscious or not. “It wasn’t like we were in that cult by choice, and there was some negotiating and fancy talking and side-stepping going on in addition to all that soldier crap and attempted brainwashing. I had to learn how to work around them, and you don’t get to be ‘head’ of the house by lacking social skills. I had to negotiate my place as well as work for it.”

Shaelynn shrugged. She didn’t want to think about that. What Nolan had done was survive, and that was all that really mattered. He’d kept his principles in spite of everything, and she had always appreciated that about him, but that was where it ended.

“You have your phone?” She looked over at the doors, sure they were going to draw a crowd soon enough, and as it was, they looked like the criminals—other than maybe the kid’s clothes. “I think we’d better call that lieutenant or maybe our fed friends.”

“In my pocket, but I’m betting if I let go, he runs,” Nolan said. “Where’s yours?”

“Back at the hotel.” She caught his frown and shrugged. “Only people who would bother calling were right there with me, so why would I need it? I actually hate those things.”

“I’m not surprised, but it is kind of inconvenient at the moment.”

“Oh, just knock him out already. We’ll deal with the fallout from that when the cops come,” she told him, and he looked at her. She shrugged. “Right now, you’re going to look like the mugger. If you would rather explain that to the police or anyone who passes by, feel free. Did you forget that your face is all over a magazine cover and people will probably recognize you on sight?”

Nolan’s eyes darkened. He tightened his grip until the kid sagged, then eased him down to the ground with a shudder. “I hate that I know how to do that.”

Shaelynn didn’t say anything. She’d been ready to shoot if she had to, and she didn’t know that she would have felt any kind of remorse about it. That was the difference between the two of them—it always had been.

Plenty of Mistakes in Nano

Author’s Note: I have to admit, I do find myself wanting to put Alik instead of Nolan when I’m working on this. Not because Nolan and Alik are alike, they’re not, but Alik emerged as a very compelling character in the collaboration, and he has been occupying most of my thoughts of late. I have written a lot about him and thought out a lot of things that I haven’t written down.

It’s interesting. I’m over 40,000 words into this thing, so it is not like I am neglecting it or anything, but sometimes it seems like all I think about is the other story, especially when I go to type Nolan and type Alik first.

Sorry, Nolan. I promise I am going to get your story written and I do know you’re not Alik. I love you both. 🙂

I’m not entirely sure I love the flashback, though.

Mistakes, Theories, and Fights

Somewhere in the middle of their third night as a “married” couple, Nolan realized the mistake he’d made. Shaelynn had curled toward him in her sleep, and he knew if she woke, she’d deny it and blame it on him, but he couldn’t help thinking about just how well she fit there, how he liked the light as it caught the right parts of her hair, bringing out highlights that showed her fire and resolve, and the worst one of all: how beautiful she was when she was sleeping.

He’d thought he had good reasons for asking Boath for her, and he’d thought they were solid, logical ones. He knew they were a good team. They always won when they worked together—and if they didn’t, they were always too busy fighting each other to win. They saw each other as the biggest asset or obstacle to whatever the objective was, and they were right about that. He knew that she could have turned him in years ago, when he admitted he didn’t like guns or want to use one, but she hadn’t. That meant he could trust her. It meant he could ask her to work with him on his crazy stupid plan to get Nora out of here. He needed help, and he didn’t have long. She was thirteen now, but they’d married Shaelynn off at sixteen, and he’d heard some of the girls went at younger ages than her. She’d been worried about it since she was fourteen, so why shouldn’t Nora be terrified?

He had to do something.

He would.

They would. He knew he needed Shaelynn’s help, and she was almost stuck giving him it, only he thought he knew that she wanted out as bad as he did. Her father disgusted her, and Ambrose scared her—not that Shaelynn admitted to fear, but Nolan knew she didn’t want to end up that sicko’s wife.

So asking for her spared her that. It made the whole idea of escape that much more possible, and he knew he could trust her. All valid logical reasons for why he should have asked for her.

The very illogical reason that he was in love with her and had been for a while now hadn’t hit him until now.

He didn’t know what it was, when exactly it had happened. Shaelynn had always been easier to get along with than most of the others in their training group, and she had that whole thing where he could trust her, but he’d sworn he wasn’t interested in any of the girls here, just in getting out of here alive before Nora was married off. He hadn’t wanted anything else. He didn’t want to want anything else. He wasn’t twisted like Ambrose or Coman or Boath or any of the other men. He wasn’t here for the women and the violence.

Nolan wasn’t supposed to be in love with Shaelynn. That screwed up everything. True, he’d wanted to love the woman he married—in some far off distant future when he was out of here and things were almost normal, not here. He had always considered marriage a someday thing, when he was well older and when his sister wasn’t in jeopardy. He’d try for that life when this was all past him.

Boath telling him he had to get married screwed that up, but him picking Shaelynn had made it that much worse.

She hadn’t chosen this. She didn’t want to be married. She still pulled away from him when he touched her, and they’d only started sharing the bed because someone always seemed to come by late at night, and neither of them would have been surprised if they were being spied on. She was supposed to multiply the house or something, even though Nolan had said what they were really about was making it so there was more than one fighter in the house like all the others—most of the other “heads” had sons, and Nolan didn’t.

He didn’t want kids. The idea of bringing a child into this mess was revolting. He wouldn’t do that, and he knew Shaelynn wouldn’t, either. Ambrose wouldn’t have been shy about demanding what he thought was his right as her husband, but he wasn’t her husband. Nolan was.

He gagged on that one. He loved her—he did. Still, he didn’t want to be married to her, not like this. Not when it was something that had been forced on them—on her more than him. He didn’t know that she’d ever forgive him for asking for her, and he didn’t think he’d forgive himself.

She deserved a husband who loved her, but in that same someday that he’d put his own thoughts of marriage in. She wanted it down the road when she was free of this place—and she’d made it clear she didn’t want anyone from this place to be that man.

Even if he told her he loved her, it wouldn’t be enough. It would still be this place. She’d say he felt it because he was expected to, because he’d talked himself into it to make this situation almost acceptable. She didn’t believe in love, after all. Her father had taken love and twisted it into something unrecognizable, trying to say he loved all his wives and all his children and all his congregation, but he didn’t love anyone but himself.

If they got out of here, Nolan would have to let her go, and that thought hurt. He didn’t know how he could accept losing her. Nora was his sister, he’d do anything for her, but Shaelynn… She had his heart, and she’d break it in ways his mother never managed to do if she left him.

Maybe he could make her see what love was when they were out of here. Maybe he could give her a reason to stay and try to learn it with him. He had to find a way to try, even if he was a lousy planner. He could think of something.

He pulled her a bit closer, leaning over to kiss her temple before drawing back and whispering, “I love you.”

Shaelynn’s eyes didn’t open, but she pushed away from him and muttered, “Tell whoever’s in our room to go away. I just want to sleep.”

“It’s just us,” he told her, loosening his grip on her so that she’d fall back asleep. She was always tense when she knew he was holding her.

“Then you don’t have to lie.”


“Shut up and go to sleep, Nolan.”


“You don’t sleep much anymore, do you?”

Nolan shrugged. His coffee tasted like crap—so much for the brand name gourmet they gave out with the room, it was still lousy from a drip machine. He was going to have to get them moved to a place with a kitchenette where he could make his own coffee over the stove again. That, and he needed a place where he felt somewhat safe again—a safe that had nothing to do with Shaelynn’s presence or that of his dwindling number of cats.

“I’m not kidding—how long have you been awake, Nolan?”

More than half the night, he thought, since his mind had gone to memories and those one stung, so he’d tried to distract himself, but he couldn’t help noticing her and how it felt to hold her again. He had forced himself out of bed, knowing that he couldn’t keep doing this. She’d leave as soon as this threat was gone, and he was not going to let himself be destroyed when she left. Not again.

“A while.”

Shaelynn shook her head, sitting down across from him. “You need to sleep. Not sleeping is going to get you killed. You can’t afford the distraction.”

He shrugged. She could say that, but that didn’t mean that he could sleep just because he she said he needed to. “I am working. Not distracted.”

She leaned over and picked up the file. “This isn’t related to the threat on your life.”

“I don’t need to work that. That’s what you’re going to work. What Nora will obsess over. I don’t need to be working myself up over something I won’t have the emotional distance to figure out anyway. I can’t think about how I’m going to stop someone from killing me. That’s not a realistic expectation. Ask me questions, and I’ll answer them, but I am not the one that’s going to figure the answers out from the inside. I’m too close to it. I never was good at the big picture stuff. That was your department.”

Shaelynn shook her head. “I think you are taking that too far.”

“Maybe, but I would rather be working my job. Giving in and letting whoever it is keep me from working—unacceptable. He violated my home, he destroyed my car, and I’d even want to blame losing a cat on him. He doesn’t get anything else from me. I am going to do what I need to do to make sure I don’t lose anything else. That means my firm. I am going to honor my commitments, finish the work that I have taken on, and after I have made sure that is handled, then I will hit my head against the brick wall that is this threat.”

“You have that backward. End the threat, then do your job.”

“What am I supposed to do? I have plenty of enemies. I don’t go out intending to make them, but I’m not always going to tell people what they want to hear. I will turn people over to the authorities if I know they are involved in anything illegal or even unethical. I’m not a cop, but I know right and wrong. I do what I need to in order to satisfy my own conscience. At the same time, most of that stuff that I do or have done seems tame. It doesn’t feel like something that should be costing my life. I don’t know why anyone would feel that it was worth that. At least—not besides what I did to the cult.”

“Something is. If not the cult, there has to be a reason, and you’re the one that’s going to know that. You can’t avoid thinking about it—you have to think about it.”

He sipped from his coffee. “Oh, I know. It’s my father.”

She kicked him. “You don’t even know who your father is. Sheppard is just the name your mother gave you—it’s not necessarily his.”

Nolan laughed. That was kind of the point. He’d said it because it was just as likely—and unlikely—as anything else he could have said right then. “I know it isn’t. I happen to like it and prefer it, which is why I went back to it as soon as we were free. Still, it is possible. My father might have a reason to want me dead. Assuming he knows I exist, I could be living, breathing proof of his indiscretion. Some men might want that silenced—we discussed that for those missing girls.”

“I really don’t want to think about it being that obscure. How are we supposed to find your father if he’s the one that wants you dead? We don’t have a federal database full of DNA to compare yours to, and even if we did, there’s no guarantee he’d be in it.”

“I know. We could try asking our friends the feds, but I doubt they’d go checking that on the random idea that my father could be doing this. Technically, nothing has happened to me yet. They can get whoever this is for vandalism and breaking and entering. That’s it.”

Shaelynn looked at him. “That better be what it stays. They don’t get to get close to you.”

“I doubt they really intend to.”

“This is a real threat. Someone could be planning on killing you.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they intend to get all that close to me.”

“Sometimes,” she said, shaking her head as she rose, “I really hate you.”


“The whole point of a suite was so that there was plenty of space and none of us had to share it.”
Shaelynn stopped in the middle of pouring herself a coffee and looked over at Nora. Was that supposed to be for her? Nolan had gone into the other room to call his client, but that was the tone that Nora used on him when she was annoyed and about to lecture.


“You know what I mean, Shaelynn. This isn’t the cult. You don’t have to share my brother’s room.” Nora’s look went dark. “Or his bed.”

Shaelynn tightened her grip on her cup. She was tempted to throw it at Nora—that or strangle her. “It is not like that. I’m not sleeping with your brother—not like you just implied.”

“Whether you’re having sex with him or not doesn’t change the fact that you slept in his bed last night. And probably the last two nights. Damn it, do you have any idea what you do to him?” Nora folded her arms over her chest, shaking her head. “You really don’t get it, do you? I don’t know how you can do that, be so damned blind, but let me clarify it for you: you’re screwing with his head and his heart, and you need to stop. Now. I asked you here to help him, not destroy him.”

“What the hell do you think I’m doing?” Shaelynn demanded. She didn’t know what Nora was thinking—she’d asked her here to fix Nolan, and while that wasn’t possible, that didn’t mean that Shaelynn hadn’t been working. She was in a lot further than what she’d expected to be when she got on that plane. He wasn’t supposed to need her. She should be back home already. “I’m here to help him. I’ve been helping him. I have gone through his cases, I’ve met with sleazes that might be trying for more than a hostile takeover, I made the call that Nolan didn’t want to make, and I have been carrying my gun. The only reason that I have been in his bedroom is because he isn’t sleeping, and he always slept better when I was there as his damn snuggly toy.”

“Which you are for a day or two, and then you leave. He has to find a way to cope with his upsets that has nothing to do with you because you never stick around. You aren’t the solution. You’re not even a stopgap. You just make things worse.”

Shaelynn clenched her fists. “I am not making anything worse. You’re the one that suggested giving away his cat. Why don’t you look at your actions for a change? You have him thinking you have an adding machine instead of a heart. That the only thing that matters to you is money—that the only reason you’re worried about him dying is because you’re afraid of losing that money.”

“That is not true, and he knows it. He should know it. He is my brother, not my meal ticket. He matters more to me than anything. He’s all I have, all I’ve ever had, and he’s always been there for me. I would be lost without him, and don’t you think for one minute I don’t know that. I do.”

“You don’t act like it. He doesn’t believe that.”

Nora flinched, but she pursed her lips and hissed out a breath. “Whatever my faults, I’m not the one that jerks the rug out from under him every time I leave. You can’t keep doing that to him.”


“Nolan is in—”

“Nolan is hungry and wants real coffee,” he interrupted, coming back into the room. “The Allens are now fully satisfied customers. Feel free to bill them later, Nora. I want to find a place to stay with a real kitchen, so that’s on the docket for today—possibly after breakfast. In the meantime, you two get to call a truce and be civil through our meal because neither of you get to ruin my pancakes.”

“I’m not eating with her,” Nora said. “I’m not going to play nice, and I’m not going to pretend that I am okay with any of this because I am not. I’ve told both of you how I feel about this, and I know you won’t listen—sure, think of me as the same spoiled brat as always, but I’m not wrong. She’s got no business messing with the way you feel, and you need to stop giving her the chance to do it.”

She turned and left the room, and Shaelynn shook her head. Nora was being childish, as usual, and if she wanted her opinions heard, she was going to have to stop acting like that spoiled brat.
Nolan put a hand to his head. “I suppose I should go to breakfast by myself—”

“Absolutely not. You don’t get to go anywhere alone until this guy has been found, caught, and maimed,” Shaelynn said. She didn’t know how he’d ever thought that idea was going to fly with her. No way. She was not letting anything happen to him—she’d already told him that.

“You going to follow me into the bathroom and blow my nose for me, too?”

“No.” Shaelynn grimaced. “Well, I might be tempted to make sure no one goes after you in the bathroom. It would be a shame if you died there, of all places.”

He smiled, but it wasn’t much of one. “Let’s just go get some pancakes and let Nora cool off a bit. I bet you could use that, too.”

Shaelynn nodded. “I don’t enjoy being accused or being lectured.”

“I hate when people talk about me behind my back,” he said, reaching for the door handle and opening it. She wasn’t sure if that was directed at her, but that conversation wasn’t really about him.

“It wasn’t about you.”

“Yes, it was. That’s the only thing the two of you have in common.”

More Discussion and One Inevitable Loss in Nano

Author’s Note: Early this morning I got an emergency call into work this afternoon. A part of me regretted being available for that that because working the day after the legal holiday and the weekend was rather brutal. I felt overwhelmed all day long, and it didn’t help that I felt sick, too.

We won’t talk about the mistakes I made at work.

That just explains why there’s not very much here today. I still feel brain dead.

Discussions, Wins, and Losses

“We’ve been tracking a few shell companies that we believe are front for some… drug cartels,” Morton said, getting everyone’s attention back on him and making the room tense for a different reason. “I’m not going to go into specifics there because it’s an on-going investigation and we don’t want that getting out—we don’t really want them knowing that we’ve figured out the shell companies—but we did see that Cunningham had several ‘consultations’ that these shell companies had paid for, and that’s when we got suspicious.”

Nolan nodded, grateful for the man’s attempt to get the conversation away from Shaelynn’s latest outburst. He didn’t want to start that argument again. “Could be them trying to make the businesses look legitimate. Cunningham’s firm has been around a lot longer than mine—his father started it, and it used to be a decent place before he retired and let his sleaze of a son take over—so it has a reputation and fair share of the market. He does have good people working for him, even if he’s an idiot. Then again, it could be a bit of money laundering. Cunningham gets his ridiculous fee, turns around and spends it like any spoiled rich guy, but it goes back into a ‘legitimate’ business they own.”

“That could be it,” Morton agreed, combing his fingers through his wife’s hair. “I like the idea, personally, but I don’t think most of the people in my unit would.”

“He’s glad you agree with him, though, because that’s what he pegged Cunningham for from the beginning,” Kaplan said, reaching up to stop her husband’s hand. Nolan couldn’t help feeling a bit jealous of all those small gestures. Shaelynn didn’t want to see that as love, but Nolan did, and he knew how rare that was. “I agreed with him, but I’m missing persons and his wife, so I don’t count.”

Shaelynn snorted. “Could be worse. They could have said you didn’t count because you were a woman.”

Kaplan’s jaw tightened. “Things like that have happened before, though in general, the bureau’s not that bad when it comes to how female agents are treated. There are… bad apples, though.”

“And we’re not discussing that,” Morton said, kissing her neck. “One problem with the money laundering theory is that Cunningham would have to be aware of what he was doing to launder the money.”

“Not necessarily,” Shaelynn said, giving her skirt a glance. Nolan had asked her to change it hours ago, but she’d refused to leave the office before he got the video of Creamsicle and knew his apartment had been compromised. “Depending on who he consulted for—a certain woman that Nolan’s had dealings with comes to mind—they could suggest certain purchases or restaurants. Think about the woman he thinks he’s dating. She’d be in an ideal position to manipulate his spending without him realizing it. He took a case from me without even looking at the file. He spent most of the time looking at my legs.”

“And you complain when I compare you to Betty Grable.”

“Shut up, Nolan.”

Kaplan and Morton exchanged looks. Nolan pretended he didn’t see it. He leaned back, rubbing his neck. “Shaelynn would be in an ideal position to help you with your case, but she will hit me and say she’s not going anywhere near it in a second. I’m not suggesting she change her mind about that, but I do think that she’s got a point about how Cunningham could be being manipulated.”

“If I wasn’t as busy as I already am, I’d do it for you, much as I suck at undercover work,” Kaplan told Morton, and he stared at her for a moment before shaking his head.

“No. I don’t think that’s ever going to be an option, Geneva. Sometimes I take it wrong when one of my brothers compliments you. I’m not okay with you taking an assignment where the main point is to get you to use the feminine charms that I love so much on someone else. Not to mention that neither of our kids would forgive us if they found out about that—I don’t care if it was just for an assignment. We can ask another female agent.”

“Or I could do it,” Nora said. Everyone looked at her. She shrugged. “Cunningham has hit on me multiple times without ever remembering that Nolan is my brother. I’m not just a glorified secretary for my brother—I screen the cases, too. I’m good at knowing what will interest Nolan and what won’t and what I can pass on to him just to annoy him. I am also a woman who knows how to spend money. I do it very well.”

Nolan grimaced. “She’s right about that, at least—Nora’s the one that buys everything. She knows it’s value and can talk people into things they’d never buy if they were shopping on their own.”

She smiled. “The true test would be if I didn’t end up hurting Cunningham before it was over.”

“Only there is no way that you would go undercover as Cunningham’s latest bimbo when your brother’s life has been threatened and he might be behind it,” Shaelynn said, fixing Nora with a dark glare. “None of us really believe that he is, but we can’t just eliminate him because we think he’s a sleaze.”

“Maybe I’d be doing both—eliminating him from the threat to Nolan and getting him nailed for his role as a cartel patsy.”

Nolan held up a hand. “Can we take a step back here and pretend you two aren’t trying to carry on that old rivalry you’ve had since we were kids? We’re trying to work through all the angles to help all of us with our respective problems. Morton and Kaplan have cases to work and we have this threat someone’s made—”

“All of which could tie to you,” Shaelynn said. She shook her head. “Maybe Nora does need to get Cunningham to slip up. Or I do because I do have that ‘in’ already. We have to eliminate him and the possibility that the cartel is interested in Nolan for any reason. They might have ordered this whole takeover. On the other hand, the connection is thin, and it might be nothing.”

Nolan shook his head. “I’m starting to think that I should just let myself get shot again. This is getting ridiculous.”

“You are not getting shot again.” Shaelynn would put him in bubble wrap if she could—well, probably a bulletproof vest and full body armor—but he was not going to let himself be sidelined and smothered. “That is not an option.”

“They did like to make bombs, too, in the cult.”

Shaelynn glared at him. “And we learned hand-to-hand combat, but you don’t need to go provoking me like you did Ambrose.”

“Back to the missing girls,” Nolan said. “We have wasted a lot of time and not discussed them at all. I went back through what I remembered of talking to the one, but I don’t remember her giving me any kind of verbal cues toward where she might be. She was angry, she hated her father and she hated me for ‘working’ for him. I still can’t get the exact phrase back—something about ‘another suit doing the work of the suit who’d never had a hard day in his life.’ I remember asking her if she considered growing up with an addict who joined a cult and then being forced to be a child soldier until escaping from that cult was something hard or not, and she just glared at me. That was it. I wish I had more, but she was not willing to talk to me.”

“They were Dad’s type, though,” Shaelynn said, closing her eyes and wrapping her arms around herself. “They kind of look like my mother did when he found her. She was some teenage runaway, I guess. She thought she’d found something great, but she didn’t make it past her third child.”

“If they were looking to frame the cult for the girls’ kidnapping, that would help,” Nolan said. He shook his head. “I still think that connection’s too thin. I don’t know that I can buy that they’d do all this to me even if they were trying to obscure why those girls went missing.”

Morton shifted in his seat. “It might be more convincing if the cult was not threatening you but making you the new head of it. You are the ‘charismatic young rebel’ that overthrew the cult and became a successful businessman. You’re the one that might have wanted all that for yourself and decided to create it, but not by taking his—by building your own.”

“Nolan never drank that Kool-Aid. He has no interest in being a monster like my father.”

“I can’t even manage to have one wife,” Nolan agreed, and she glared at him again. He ignored it. “I admit, I might seem like the type to frame for that, but they’re labeling me a traitor and pointing out where I’m supposed to spend eternity. That doesn’t fit.”

Kaplan nodded. “I agree, but if someone did think they could use that cult to hide what they’ve done to those girls, they’d have to give us a reason to think the cult was active again. Harassing you is the obvious choice for that.”

“I still think—”

The door banged in the frame, and Nolan frowned as Nora crossed to answer it.

“Look! We finally caught him. Isn’t he cute, Dad?” the girl asked. She nudged the boy beside her, and he nodded.

“Mom, can we have a cat?”

Nora looked over at Nolan. He shook his head, not willing to accept that he was losing another cat. That just… couldn’t happen.



Shaelynn walked up behind him, not sure if it was worth lecturing him on being in front of the window. She knew that he was taking this a lot harder than he wanted to let on, but the cat was a part of his family, and he had let him go. He’d lost something else important when he had very little left to lose. She knew he’d been through plenty today, and now was not the time for him to say goodbye to Boots, but they’d all known the moment those kids came back in with him that they were going home with him.

The parents had been about as dismayed by this outcome as Nolan was, but they’d both caved in the faces of those children, and Nolan had as well.

“I said he was family,” Nolan whispered. “How do I give away family?”

“You didn’t give him away,” Shaelynn said, touching his back. “You let him go to a place that was better for him because he needed it and the kids needed him. It’s not like you got rid of him. You helped him go to somewhere he can be happier. You let him go, but that’s what you have to do sometimes with the things you care about.”

“Don’t say that,” Nolan snapped, pulling away from her. “Not you. Not to me. Not ever.”

She winced. She supposed that would bring up all that stuff from the past—he had let her go, and she’d only known learned how much he’d hated doing it. They’d still been friends. She’d known he was upset, but not the degree of that upset.

“You’re all too willing to let Nora go,” Shaelynn began, and he frowned at her. “You want her to pair up with some guy you’ve never met and—”

“I want Nora to fill her life with love. With people. I want her to care about the ones she loves, not love the things she has. That can’t replace what we never had growing up, and it never will. I don’t know Morton, no, but I heard that tone in Kaplan’s voice, and I saw him with her tonight—if his brother is like him, then he’s what Nora needs. I don’t know that it would really work—the idea is crazy as hell—but I still want her to find someone, and not someone at the firm because they’re not what she needs. She needs someone real—someone who doesn’t care about possessions, and a man in the army doesn’t care about that one bit. Sometimes all he has is one bag or the gear on his back. Nora has forgotten what matters. She needs someone to remind her of that, and it’s not me. I can’t get through to her anymore.”

Shaelynn would have offered to help if it would have done any good, but she knew she’d just anger Nora if she tried to give her advice, and she didn’t buy into Nolan’s idea of love being the answer anyway.

She crossed to the window and pulled the curtains shut, making the room darker. Nora might still be in the bath in the other part of the suite, or she could already have taken the other bed. Shaelynn didn’t figure the other woman would have any trouble sleeping—she never seemed to when they were kids. She’d never known if that was ignorance of their situation or just stubbornness—no one denied Nora what she wanted for long—but she’d always found it annoying that the girl could sleep through anything.

Her brother had terrible nightmares about things he’d never do—or things he wouldn’t tell either of them about; Shaelynn figured the days with their mother the addict were worse than he usually said—but Nora could sleep without a hint of disturbance. Shaelynn had never had that herself. From the moment she’d started training, she’d been afraid of Ambrose, and that fear just got worse the more convinced she became that she would be forced to be his wife.

“Come on,” she said, holding out her hand to Nolan. “Time for bed.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to argue the whole couch bed gentlemanly honor thing with you. I can’t sleep, so you get the bed. I’ll sit up and read or something, so I get the couch.”

“No, you get the snuggly toy.”

He swallowed. “Shaelynn, don’t do this to me. Please.”

She frowned, pushing him toward the bed. “You may not want to sleep, it may still scare you, but after a day like today, you need it more than ever. So what you’re going to do now is get in bed and get some rest.”

He shook his head. “I think this is a very bad idea. I can’t get all dependent on you again.”
“You lost a cat—yes, you can go visit him sometime, but you still don’t have him with you right now—so you get the snuggly toy. End of discussion.”