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.
“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.”
“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—”
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 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.”
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.”
“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.”