Uncategorized

Dylan

“They won’t talk to you.”

I look around, trying to pinpoint the voice offering that insight.

I spot her in the window. A tiny face with giant eyes and bouncy dark pigtails. She has a stuffed elephant clutched tightly in her arms.

“They don’t like cops,” she says solemnly.

I look down at myself, confirming what I know. I’m not wearing my police uniform. I’m not on duty and despite what this little sprite seems to think, I am aware that the street kids and working girls I’m trying to talk too aren’t big on cops.

“They can tell,” she informs me. “You’re a cop.”

Well, fuck

If this kid, not more than seven or eight, has me pegged than she’s likely right and none of the others around here are going to talk to me.

I rub a hand over my head in frustration, scowling at the short length. Academy cut. I can’t wait to let it grow out again.

Sighing in resignation I turn and face the little girl in the window. “Any suggestions?” I can’t believe I’m asking advice from a kid.

I hear a voice calling from farther inside the apartment. My new friend turns back and screeches, “I’m here! I’m talking to the police officer.”

Well. Anyone who hadn’t already ID’d me now definitely has. Who knew such a small body could produce such a loud sound?

A young woman, hardly more than a girl herself, comes racing forward and pulls the little girl out of the window frame. She eyes me up and down suspiciously.

I nod and smile, trying to appear non threatening. Normally, my height makes this tricky but she’s half a floor up in her apartment so looking slightly down on me. “Evenin’” I offer lamely.

Still stiff with tension she asks, “Can I help you?”

My little friend pokes her head around the woman and inform her, “He’s trying to talk to people.”

She smiles tightly down at the kid. “Why don’t you go read Mr. Elephant his bed time story? I’ll be up in a second.”

“It’s not Mr. Elephant’s bed time yet! The little hand is only on the seven.”

“Tonight it is,” she says firmly. “Go. I’ll be there in a minute.”

I hear the slap of small feet hitting the bare floor inside. The young woman watches her go before turning her attention back to me.

“I haven’t seen you in the neighborhood before.”

I shake my head. “I’m looking for someone.”

She hesitates, hanging back a bit while she considers me. Something she sees causes her to step forward and slide the screen up so she can duck her head outside. “Got a picture? Who is it?”

I pull Cheri’s picture out of my jacket pocket and hand it over to her. “Friend of the family. She’s been missing a couple months now.” I watch her carefully, but she remains expressionless.

“Months? That’s a long time to be missing.”

I know what she’s saying. Missing this long usually means dead.

But I promised her family I wouldn’t give up until we knew. One way or the other.

She hands the picture back, eying me thoughtfully. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment just continues to study me. Something, some instinct tells me to stand still and stay quiet. Don’t spook this one.

“What are you going to do if you find her?”

I tuck Cheri’s picture back into my pocket. “Hopefully bring her home. Back to her family.”

“Don’t think she’d like that plan.”

My heart thumps wildly. No way.

“Have you seen her?” I hardly dare to ask.

“I’ve seen her,” she confirms.

“Where? How long ago?”

“You have a card or anything?”

I don’t. I find a scrap a paper in my pocket and scribble my name and number on it.

Taking it, she starts to lower the screen back into place. “I’ll let her know you’re looking for her, if I see her again.”

“Wait!”

She doesn’t, moving to lower the window itself.

Stand still. Stay quiet. Don’t spook this one. I force myself to follow my instincts and not press for more information. I know where to find her.

“What’s your name?” I ask instead.

She pauses with the window half way closed and studies me again with those assessing eyes.

“Sloane.”

And then she closes the window, pulling the drapes for good measure.

Uncategorized

Connor

“You’re back.”

I grin agreeing to the obvious. “I’m back. I brought a friend with me.” I turn and pull my little sister forward for introductions. “Logan, this is Skylar. Skye, meet Logan.”

Skylar is predictably star struck. I swear, the fact that I’m a professional baseball player – and a damn good one – means absolutely nothing to her. People buy jerseys with my name on the back. My team went to the World Series last season. I was just re-signed to a massive contract here in Chicago. None of that impresses this fourteen year old. But when she found out I was coming to Vanished for a tattoo, that I’d already been here twice and met the Vanished staff, well, she hasn’t left me alone since. Hounding me with a million different questions, most of which I couldn’t answer to her teenage frustration. So I invited her to come along.

And I’ll admit, I’m more than a little relieved she seems more excited to meet Logan than any of the guys in the shop.

“Wait. You met them? Like, all of them? Lucas, Jax, Macy, LOGAN? You met Logan?!”

I nod, laughing at her enthusiasm. “Yes, I met them. Lucas did this tattoo.” I twist my wrist so she can see the design on the inside of my forearm. She looks at it with new respect.

“Oh my god. I love that show! Are they cool in person? They seem cool, not assholes. They’re not assholes are they?”

I assure her they are not assholes, are in fact a very cool, chilled out crew.

“What about Logan? Did you talk to Logan? She is such a freaking bad ass. I love Logan. One time these guys came in totally drunk trying to get tattoos and she shut them down so hard it was hilarious!”

That seems very on brand for Logan. I nod along as Skye continues to gush.

“And I love her hair. I tried to convince Mom to let me get streaks like hers but she said not until I was sixteen. And only if I keep my grades up.”

Skye rolls her eyes at what she undoubtedly sees as our mother’s ridiculous and unfair limitations.

“So?”

I realize I must have missed something because Skye has taken a breath and is looking at me expectantly. “So?” I ask, confused.

She sighs dramatically. “What are they like?”

Instead of answering that question, I invited her to tag along to my next appointment.

And here we are.

“Hi, Skylar. Welcome to Vanished.”

It’s the first time I’ve seen Logan genuinely smile in person and I’m stuck momentarily stupid. My sister isn’t the only one more excited to see Logan than any of the others in the shop. Unfortunately, Logan wasn’t as excited to meet me as she seems to be meeting my sister. I was more like the drunks she ‘shut down so hard’.

“I love your show,” my sister confides and Logan thanks her graciously. I stand back as my sister peppers her with questions and watch Logan answer them with patience and humor. At one point her amused gaze lifts to mine and something shifts between us. She stiffens slightly, her smile faltering before she tears her attention away from me and back to my sister.

I’ve never been jealous of my fourteen year old sibling before.

“Hey, Con. Sorry, have you been waiting long?”

Lucas wanders out front from the back room and greets me with a casual handshake.

“Hey, man. Good to see you. Came a little early for….” I nod at my sister a few feet away.

“Ah.” Luke chuckles knowingly. “Sister, right? I think you mentioned her last time.”

“She’s far more impressed with you all than she’s ever been with me,” I admit.

He laughs loud enough to catch Skye’s attention. She stares at him with wide eyes, her mouth forming a literal O.

Maybe she’s equally excited to meet Logan as she is the guys here. Damn.

I’d be more worried if I didn’t know Lucas and his crew are all decent guys. Despite their overnight stardom they’ve had very few ‘scandals’ attached to them and most of those have been bullshit and minor. I’d be more concerned with her hanging out with certain members of my team than I am with this crew.

Lucas smooths over the potentially awkward interaction, introducing himself to Skylar and ushering us back to his station. He explains what he’s doing as he’s doing it, giving my sister an easy way to ask him questions until she soon relaxes and is talking and joking around more naturally. Forty-five minutes into my appointment Logan pokes her head in and invites Skylar to check out some of the designs she’s working on. My sister jumps up eagerly and follows her.

“She’s sweet,” Lucas says, grinning as he focuses on his work and my newest tattoo.

“She’s a pain in the ass,” I counter, “but I kinda like her.”

He laughs and then it’s just the hum of the tattoo machine as he works.

“What’s Logan’s story?” I can’t resist asking.

He glances up at me quickly before returning his focus to my bicep. “Her story is her story to tell.”

That’s not very helpful.

I don’t see my sister again until we’re done. Luke covers my new ink with some clear cellophane and slaps me on the back before sending me upfront to settle up.

Skye and Logan are sitting close together, heads bent over a sketch book. When she spots me, Logan crosses over to the front desk and the register.

“All set?”

“Yep. For now.”

I pull out a couple twenty dollar bills and hold them out to Skye. “Why don’t you go next door and grab us a couple slices to go?” She starts to protest but I raise my eyebrows pointedly and with a grumble she grabs the money, heading for the door.

“Thanks, Logan! It was great to meet you!” she calls over her shoulder.

“Come back anytime!” Logan yells back.

The door jingles as it closes behind her. “She will, you know. You may regret that offer.”

Logan shakes her head, pressing buttons on the computer. “Nah. She’s a good kid.”

I hand over my credit card and she rings me up. After all the formalities are taken care of I summon my courage.

“Would you… want to grab a drink some time? Get together away from here?” I smile crookedly. I’ve been told I’ve got a great smile, although I’m not at all confident it will work on Logan.

She meets my gaze briefly before pretending to be absorbed straightening the papers on the counter. Nope. Smile didn’t work. “Sorry. Can’t date the customers.”

Wait. Seriously?

“Seriously?” I voice my thought aloud.

“Seriously.” She confirms.

“What if I don’t get any more tattoos here?”

She rolls her eyes before looking at me. “Because I want to be the one to tell Lucas the reason one of the most recognizable men in the city is no longer a customer is because I wanted a free beer? No, thank you.”

I study her intently, problem solving. There’s something about this woman I find fascinating. I’m not willing to give up so easily.

“Then I guess I’ll schedule another appointment.”

She relaxes imperceptibly. But I catch it.

“Luke’s booked a couple months out, but I’ll see if he can fit you in. He tries to accommodate regulars.”

“Oh that’s okay. I want to book with you.”

And she stiffens right back up.

But I get my appointment.

Uncategorized

Blake

“Who is that?”

At my question my best friend cranes her neck around, not at all subtle. But then neither am I, so who cares?

“The guy that just walked in? That’s Dylan.”

That’s Dylan? The cop that’s in love with you?”

Predictably, she rolls her eyes at me. “He’s not in love with me. We’re friends.” She emphasizes the word as if I’m not clear on the definition.

Sloane has no idea how fabulous she is. In fact, she is constantly trying to stay out of the limelight, hiding on the edges. It’s probably one of the reasons our friendship started and then survived through college. I wasn’t very good at sharing the spotlight back then. I wanted it all on me.

I like to think I’ve grown up a little. But I’m also an actress so obviously I’m still very comfortable, and desiring, of people’s attention.

But I did organize this surprise party tonight for her. Not me. If anyone in my life deserves some appreciation it’s Sloane. And it’s her birthday. So the perfect time to drag her out to center stage. I kept it small though, only a few close friends. And had it here at her favorite out-of-the-way dive bar. Choices I knew she’d like.

I watch as Dylan scans the room, his eyes finally landing on Sloane and I. He smiles and makes a beeline right to us. Well, to her. He doesn’t really know me.

Yet.

Damn. He’s handsome. Sloane’s been holding out on me.

He’s casually dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket. His dark hair cut short but with a little curl, it doesn’t look like he spends much time taming it. And his smile.

Damn.

Dylan zeroes in on Sloane, giving her a big hug and gentle kiss on the cheek. “Happy Birthday.”

She murmurs her thanks and he turns his hazel eyes to me.

“You must be Blake. Thanks for inviting me. Sorry I couldn’t get here before the ‘surprise’.” He extends his hand in greeting.

Strong. I note the warmth and strength in his grip as I meet those hazel eyes. And he’s tall. As a 5’8” girl who likes her heels, I appreciate tall. My most recent ex was the same height as me and he was clearly annoyed when I wore my favorite shoes.

Ugh. Why did I stay so long? I knew he was no good. I just wasn’t motivated to find anything better. Or confident there was anything better. It was boring but easy.

Until it wasn’t.

Boring OR easy.

Stupid bastard.

Pulling myself away from those memories I focus on the man in front of me.

“Glad you could make it.” I smile flirtatiously, out of habit, and then try to reign it back in. Despite her denials, I’m still not totally clear on Sloane and Dylan’s status and I am not in the business of creeping on someone else’s territory. Especially my best friend.

Dylan asks if either of us need anything from the bar before wandering off to order.

I pull Sloane aside. “Seriously, there isn’t anything going on there? He’s gorgeous. What are you waiting for?”

“Ew. No. Dylan is like a brother.”

“So, you won’t mind if I….? I mean, I’m fresh out of a relationship and am more than happy to be his ‘if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with’ situation.”

Sloane laughs at my ridiculousness. “No, honestly don’t let me stop you. But I should warn you he’s not your usual type.” She looks at me meaningfully.

“You mean…?”

She nods, gravely.

Glancing at the man in question, I watch him at the bar. “He’s the ‘R’ word?”

“And the ‘M’ word,” she intones with mock seriousness.

“No!” I turn back to her, eyes wide.

“It’s true. He’s a Relationship guy. And he’s Monogamous.”

Hmmm. She’s not wrong. I don’t tend to go for relationship guys. I’m not really looking for anything serious. I like having someone I can call but who isn’t really going to take up much of my time or energy. I want fun. And truthfully, I’m not the girl guys who want a serious relationship tend to gravitate too. I am fun.

He carries our drinks over, handing them off before going back to grab his own.

I’ll make an exception.

I’m too intrigued. And maybe a little bit into the challenge he presents.

A few hours later, we’re all tipsy enough to make this small dive bar our own personal dance party. There’s about a dozen of us enjoying the juke box, singing and dancing and drinking. Dylan and I have gravitated to the edge of the group, dancing and flirting. I’m an excellent flirt. And practiced enough to recognize that look in his eyes as the night progresses.

Someone, I’m guessing not from our group, selects a slow song on the juke box. Possibly an attempt to settle us down. Instead I take advantage to slide into Dylan’s arms and continue our flirting up close.

He grins down at me, his large hands resting on my hips as we move against each other to the music. Over his shoulder I spot Sloane talking to a man I don’t recognize. They also seem to be hitting it off, thrilling me. My girl deserves some fun! I try to divide my attention between the man in front of me and my best friend, making sure she’s okay and doesn’t need a BFF rescue. But she seems good. Better than good.

The stranger leans down and murmurs something in Sloane’s ear, she laughs up at him eyes shining. Then I see him turn to a man behind him talking to one of our old college roommates. That guy I know, I just hadn’t seen him arrive. But if Sloane’s stranger knows Erik he’s a good guy. Sloane and her stranger head to the bar, his hand resting on her lower back.

Relaxing I turn my attention fully back to Dylan.

“Looks like Sloane has picked her birthday present.” I nod to the couple in question.

Dylan glances over to them and smiles, then turns right back to me. He pulls me closer, but almost immediately I feel him stiffen. And not in a good way.

I’ve lost him.

He’s now focused entirely on Sloane and the man she’s with a grim expression on his face.

“I’ll be right back,” he mumbles but I doubt that’s true. I watch in confusion as he says a few words to the man with Sloane and then walks away, Sloane following him.

He’s talking, that same dark and concerned expression on his face. Sloane pales slightly and then abruptly pulls him outside with her.

They don’t come back.

Uncategorized

Ash

Today is going to be great.

Or at least not awful.

I will strive for not awful.

Quite the pep talk, Ash. Aim high.

Honestly though not awful would in fact be awesome. Lucas and I are spending the afternoon at his uncle’s annual July 4th barbecue. On paper it sounds like a delightful way to spend this gorgeous summer day but Lucas and his family have a pretty tumultuous relationship. I can count on one hand the number of interactions that haven’t ended in someone losing their temper and storming off.

Usually Lucas.

But they’ve all agreed to try to move forward, letting go of past hurts.

I’d like to see him make peace with his family but I’m also ready to pull him out of there myself if any of them do anything to hurt him.

Lucas is not excited about this barbecue. He’s going under protest – mostly protesting with himself. And I understand it. His family has a lot of damage to undo. But I honestly think they are trying.

And they did help him save my life. So I feel a little obligated.

His cousin Riley did an aggressive recruitment push for weeks before he finally, grudgingly agreed to attend. She at least has convinced him she has no ulterior motives. I can tell he’s starting to like her. And I’ve noticed Lucas isn’t the only Vanished member that finds it hard to say no to her earnest persistence.

Entering Vanished, I spot Logan behind the counter, her blond tresses with electric blue streaks piled high in a haphazard bun. She lifts her chin in a silent greeting.

I smile, no longer unnerved by her aloof exterior. She likes me. Logan doesn’t like many people, but I have managed to win her trust.

“He ready?”

Logan grimaces, not quite meeting my eyes. “He’s with a client.”

Immediately suspicious, I ask, “I thought he wasn’t on the schedule?”

Suddenly she’s very absorbed in the notebook in front of her. “He took a walk-in.”

“What? Logan!” She knows as well as I do that Lucas does not take walk-ins. He is booked solid for months out.

She shrugs helplessly, when I know she’s anything but. “What do you want from me? He’s the boss!”

“Call him on an obvious stalling technique?” I suggest. Logan is not intimated by any of the men she works with, not even The Boss, Lucas. She calls them on their shit without fear and I’ve been around long enough to see it happen on a regular basis.

“It’s just a consult. It shouldn’t be long.”

Sighing heavily, I pull out my phone to send him a text message.

I know what you are doing. And because I’m not unsympathetic to his nerves, I add a gif with a cartoon girl hugging a massive blue monster.

Get out here. Followed by the kissy face emoji.

Hopefully that will make him laugh. And move his ass.

I’m rewarded a few minutes later when I hear his voice saying good-bye to his consult. A man comes from the back and heads towards Logan at the front desk. I’m momentarily distracted by my cell buzzing, indicating a text message.

I think this earns me more than a few hugs and kisses.

I grin at his response and send one of my own. Not until you actually go through with it.

Slipping my cell into my back pocket, my attention wanders to Lucas’s newest client. The guy lucky enough to walk in at the right time and score a tattoo with one of the nation’s top artists. I hear him and Logan scheduling a time for him to come back and get his ink. Recognition filters through me. Even though I can only see his back it doesn’t take long for me to place him.

“Zane?”

He turns, spots me in the lobby, and grins widely.

“Hey! Doctor Ash!”

He looks the same, shaggy honey blond hair, stunning greenish hazel eyes, blindingly white teeth. He’s even wearing the same beat up flip flops and cargo shorts, although they are more out of place here in the heart of Chicago than when I last saw him in the desert in northern Nigeria. His beard is more closely cropped along his jaw but that’s really the only change I see.

I return his enthusiastic hug, so confused at his appearance here I feel a little dizzy.

“What are you doing here? When did you get here? I haven’t seen you-” I ask when he sets me back on my feet.

“Since Katsina,” he offers, “I know. What, two years ago?”

“Almost three.” I laugh and shake my head. “This is so crazy.”

“What’s crazy?”

I turn, hearing Lucas approach behind me.

As usual the sight of him makes my stomach flip. He’s so gorgeous and the affection in his eyes when he looks at me still makes me melt even after all these months together. I am so in love with this man.

Even when he drags his feet and makes me late.

I give him a quick kiss and re-introduce him to his client. “Lucas, Zane and I knew each other when I was working abroad. He worked with an NGO that delivered supplies to the camp I was based in.”

“No way.” He smiles at Zane. “Small world.”

Zane seems surprisingly sober as he watches us. “Small world,” he repeats. “How long have you two been together? I didn’t realize you’d been back in the states that long.”

I feel Lucas stiffen beside me and I slip my hand into his. “A while now,” I answer vaguely. Zane’s reaction is confusing. We’d never been more than friendly, kind-of co-workers. Discovering I’m dating someone else years later shouldn’t have any kind of effect on him, let alone this serious questioning.

I’m wracking my brain, thinking through our past interactions.

Oh no.

“You’re from Chicago originally?” I ask softly even though I know the answer. Know it but still can’t quite believe it.

“I am.” Zane’s expression is grim.

Oh shit. Oh my god. He can’t be.

“Ash? Babe, you okay?”

Lucas’s voice snaps me out of my growing panic. I realize I’m squeezing his hand way too tightly. Loosening my grip, I meet his concerned eyes.

Oh god. What do I say? I glance between the two men uneasily.

“She’s remembering.”

Zane sounds resigned. My gaze finally settles on Zane and narrows.

Did he know?

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge

Zane #AtoZChallenge

I hate this part.

The fake smiles and obligatory laughs and handshakes supposedly promising something. How many of these people actually believe in my father? Believe in what he says he stands for? How many of them are just here for potential future favors?

But this is why I’m here, I remind myself. This is why I came home. These are the people I need. Or at least some of these people will be the people I need. Some of them, hidden in this mob, are sincere people who are actually open to making a difference. People open to using their money in ways that will help others and not just make more money for themselves.

Somewhere at this party are the people I need. I just have to find them.

So I smile at everyone. I suffer the jokes of my ‘return to the fold’. I remind everyone that my father has another son. One who left years ago and is now back. His first son.

His disappointment.

In the few hours I’ve been back, it’s obvious that my brother Ethan has become our father the Senator’s, right hand. Even if my little sister’s messages over the years hadn’t hinted at this dynamic, it would be impossible to miss. They speak quietly on the edges and then move through the guests, communicating wordlessly across the lawn. It’s well choreographed, subtle. But I remember the drill. I remember when he thought I would be the one following in his footsteps. In some ways those lessons help me now.

I grab a beer from one of the coolers strategically placed around our property and migrate to the fringe of the crowd. Our family’s July Fourth barbecue has grown in size and scale the years I’ve been abroad. Some of the faces I remember. Old friends and supporters of my family, my father. Others are new, joining his circle as his influence has grown. My siblings and cousins are also all here, the only people I am truly happy to see again. But we also know today isn’t for the family to reconnect. We’ll do that after the donors have all gone home.

Our neighbors, the Nichols’, approach and welcome me home, asking questions about my travels and my future plans giving me the perfect opportunity to tell them about my idea. Joan seems particularly intrigued, even suggesting some of her friends to speak with. We set up a time to meet later this week.

Yes. This is why I’m here. I’m riding high on this first success and not paying attention to the bodies milling around me. Entering our appointment into my cell calendar I walk right into a petite brunette, crushing her foot under my much larger one and causing her to drop her drink.

“Oh, shit. My bad. I’m so sorry,” I rush to apologize.

I shove my phone into my back pocket and look up to assess the damage.

Oh, shit. Words leave my head as I stare at her, stunned. She’s hopping on one foot, eyes closed in a slight grimace. One hand is resting over her heart, the other slightly outstretched as if protecting her personal space as she catches her breath.

She’s not ridiculously gorgeous or stunning but I find I still can’t form a full sentence. This woman, whoever she is, has wavy chestnut hair hanging just below her shoulders, a smattering of freckles across her lightly tanned skin, and when she finally blinks up at me, brilliant whiskey colored eyes. She’s beautifully ordinary. Or ordinarily beautiful. Whatever it is, I find I don’t want to look away.

“I’m sorry. Are you okay?” My hands hover near her without touching as I try to figure out how to help her.

She winces slightly as she sets her injured foot down and tests her weight. “Yeah, I think so. It’ll shake off.”

“Do you need some ice or anything? Here let me help you find a place to sit.” I straighten to my full height, trying to spot an empty chair.

“No really. I’m fine.”

I glance down and study her tiny sandaled foot. It’s a little pink where I stepped on it but doesn’t seem swollen or anything. And she seems to be standing fine now. Exhaling in relief, I shove a hand through my hair and grimace.

“Sorry. I promise to pay more attention from now on.”

She laughs lightly, but still seems shaken. “As long as you promise, then you’re forgiven.”

“At least let me grab you another drink.” I bend down to pick up the plastic cup she had dropped when I collided with her.

“What were you drinking?”

“Really, it’s fine-”

“Please.”

Her eyes study my face and it looks like she’s about to argue but something changes her mind. Instead she smiles softly and shrugs before saying, “Some of the Chardonnay.”

“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

The party planner and catering staff are doing a great job, because despite the crowd there aren’t any lines or waiting at any of the bars or food stations so I’m back, drink in hand in only a few minutes.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.” Her tone suggests she’s humoring me.

“I’m Zane, by the way,” I introduce myself, extending my hand to shake. Her hand is soft as it fits into mine.

“Zane… Abbott?” she asks, eyes assessing me.

I stiffen, for the first time noticing the camera bag slung over her shoulder. Shit. Is she a reporter? Or worse, a member of my fathers’ PR team? I nod reluctantly, releasing her hand, already making an excuse to leave.

“Erik’s brother?”

Erik’s brother. Not the Senator’s son.

Relieved, I relax again. “You know Erik?”

She smiles, her face lighting up and I realize suddenly I was wrong. She is stunning. Once again, I can’t take my eyes off her.
“We went to college together in California. I moved to Chicago a few months ago so he insisted I come to the annual family barbecue.”

“I’m sorry he did that to you.”

Her head tilts to the side, a confused frown on her face. “Did what?”

“Insisted you come here.”

Chuckling she admits, “I wasn’t really expecting,” she gestures to the extravagance around us, “all this.”

“Is that why you’re hanging out on the edges?” I find I want to tease her, want to keep her smiling.

“Guilty. What’s your excuse?”

“That’s where the interesting people lurk.”

Her response is cut off when my brother Erik appears at her side. She visibly relaxes and it’s only then I realize she had been guarded when it was just the two of us. She’d seemed so friendly and at ease but the contrast is real.

“Hey! Zane!” Erik pulls me into a quick hug, slapping me on the back. He hadn’t arrived until after the festivities had begun, so this is the first I’ve seen him since I’ve gotten home. “You met Kyle! Great.”

Kyle. Even her name is unique. In an ordinary way.

Erik is a professor at Northwestern University and he starts entertaining us with stories of clueless undergrads. I watch Kyle as she watches him, eyes sparkling, an easy smile on her face.

Figures the first woman I’ve been remotely interested in for ages would be dating my brother.

See this first meeting from Kyle’s perspective.

And learn more about Zane’s return home here.

AtoZ Challenge

Wren #AtoZChallenge

God, I am so tired.

I adjust the shoulder strap of my canvass knapsack across my body. Everything I still own is in this bag and while it’s not much, it still gets pretty heavy after hours of lugging it around. But I’ve finally reached my destination so hopefully I’ll have some relief soon.

Relief from all sort of troubles, my aching shoulder the least of them if I’m being honest.

Sunrise is still hours away and February in Chicago is not exactly balmy. I know she’ll be asleep but I’m hoping she is still a creature of habit. If not, I’m going to have a long, cold, miserable wait.

I’m kind of surprised how easy it was to get her address, considering she’s borderline famous now. The thought of Logan as famous still makes me swell with pride. That girl always refused to be ignored. I’m glad she’s found a place her “disrespect for authority” was appreciated.

I hope she doesn’t hate me. For what I did.

For what I’m doing.

I hesitate on the sidewalk, carefully glancing up and down the street. Not much happening at 4:30 in the morning. Thankfully.

Reassured no one is around, watching, witnessing, I hitch my bag high again and slip around to the back.

I shiver against the cold, praying I’ll find what I’m looking for. As expected there is a collection of pots scattered around the back door. I can almost picture the various plants and brilliant explosion of colored petals they house in the spring and summer. At least that hasn’t changed. Carefully, I start lifting them, searching for a spare key. I’ve gone through two thirds of the containers when I start to get nervous. What if it’s not here? Tears spring to my eyes as I experience a moment of weakness.

I’m so tired.

It has to be here.

There. My numb fingers close around the silver key in relief. There it is. It’s here.

Staggering to my feet I inhale deeply, welcoming the jolt I get from the freezing air as it hits my system. Almost there. And then

I can sleep.

Quickly I unlock the back door and slip inside, the warm air stinging my cheeks. Silently, I close and lock it behind me. I hear a high beep and see the low green glow of an alarm system on the wall.

Shit.

Shit. I wasn’t expecting an alarm system.

I drop my bag and rush to the control panel.

Pushing down the rising panic, I force myself to think. Once, I knew this girl better than anyone. I knew all her secrets. I knew what she hated and what she loved. I knew what she wanted. I knew her better than she knew herself, just as she knew me. If there is anyone in the world whose alarm code I am capable of guessing, it should be hers. We were closer than sisters. We were sisters. Sisters by choice.

The beeps are getting louder and closer together. Taking a deep breath I punch it in 595272*

With a final beep the system accepts my offer and silence descends. I sag in relief, no longer capable of fighting the exhaustion.

Stripping off my coat I stagger to the couch and collapse.

Sleep. I just need a little sleep.

Something hard nudges me in the stomach, pulling me back from oblivion. Blinking rapidly, I try to focus and gather my thoughts but I’m slow and sluggish. I must not have been asleep very long. I glance around, realizing it is still dark outside, confirming my suspicion I haven’t been here for any length of time. I’m poked again, this time along my thigh, and finally shake off the fog.

I’m at Logan’s. Uninvited. I came home. Assuming I still have one.

Assuming she can forgive me.

But the figure standing over me is not Logan. I have no idea who this guy is.

Oh shit.

I scramble to a sitting position, scooting back into the corner of the couch, eying him warily. He’s shirtless, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs, his dark hair an unruly mess of curls. And he’s holding a baseball bat between us, what he’d undoubtedly used to wake me up, his face inscrutable.

I watch his gaze track over me and my meager belongings.

“Not a very good thief….” His mutter seems more for him than me but I rush to reassure him.

“Sorry. I must be in the wrong place. I thought this was my friends house. Honest.”

He doesn’t react to my comment, just continues to stare me down.

“I – I – My bus got in really early so I just came here. There’s always a key in the back. You must not have changed the locks when you moved in. I’ll just grab my stuff and get out -.”

“Sit down,” he orders as I start to reach for my bag. Suddenly I’m nervous for a whole new reason. Not only am I technically breaking and entering, I am now alone with a strange man. One who likely realizes no one else knows I’m here. This is not good.

I am all too aware how easy it is for people to disappear. For all manner of reasons.

And me? I’m barely there to begin with. I’ve been disappearing myself for years.

He continues studying me carefully, but makes no moves toward me. Although he’s still holding that bat, ready for me to disobey?

Suddenly I’m pissed. The heat of anger flashes through me, burning off the last of my exhaustion. Who the fuck does he think he is? It’s an honest mistake. I didn’t hurt anything. How dare he stand there trying to intimidate me?

I jump to my feet. ”You want to back off, dude? It’s just a mistake! I’ll go.”

My outburst doesn’t faze him. “Who are you looking for?”

His question triggers my tears again and I blink them back furiously. “Doesn’t matter. She’s not here.” I turn my back so he doesn’t see my reaction and stuff my arms into my coat sleeves.

“Just wait a second.”

A light over the stairwell flicks on and I hear the creaking of floor boards. The dark haired bully shifts to his left, placing himself between me and the stairs.

“Con?” a sleepy voice floats down to us.

“Stay back for a second, babe,” he tosses over his shoulder.

The sound of footsteps on wood pauses as ‘babe’ hesitates. I see a pair of slim bare legs at the top of the landing.
Could it be?

“Logan?” I call.

The bully stiffens and brandishes the bat between us again. “Who are you?”

The bare legs fly down the stairs. And suddenly she’s there. Wearing a rumpled t-shirt that reaches mid-thigh, her hair a tumbled mess, she is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

“Logan.” The tears are back. I can’t help it. I’m so relieved. I’m so tired.

She stares at me for a moment, disbelief on her face. “Wren?” she whispers, taking me in.

The bully glances quickly at Logan before then returning his eyes to me. “Wren? Your Wren?” He sounds skeptical but lowers the bat.

Progress.

He knows about me? Not just some bar hookup then. I decide immediately he’s not good enough for her.

“Hi,” I offer lamely.

Before I can say another word, she rushes forward, arms wrapping me up. The tears I’ve been struggling with unleash as the first sob wracks my body. I hear myself apologizing over and over again.

She squeezes me tight, too tight, but I don’t complain. I need this.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Shut up, you stupid bitch. I have a room all ready for you.”

I cry harder. The words might sound harsh, but she whispers them with love and I know what she’s saying.

I’m home.

I can finally sleep.

Click here to meet Logan and Connor.

AtoZ Challenge · Macy and Hunter · Vanished

Vaughn #AtoZChallenge

I hop onto a stool and watch my sister whip together some heavenly smelling chocolate concoction. I grab a chocolate off the tray and pop it into my mouth, humming appreciatively.

“Hey! Those are for tomorrow.”

I grin at her scolding. My sister is an amazing pastry chef. She recently reopened the bakery our Grandma left her after she passed. She’s doing a great job wooing back all of the old neighborhood customers, which isn’t surprising considering she had made cookies and cakes at Grandma’s side since we were kids. Keeping the place going has always been her dream.

Tonight though we’re in her kitchen as she makes a collection of cakes, cookies and pies for an old high school friends baby shower. She had taken some small catering jobs while waiting for all the permits to reopen and this is a left over commitment from that in between time.

“So, are we going to talk about it?” I ask her.

“Talk about what?” she asks over her shoulder. She sets a timer and swings a tray into her oven. I don’t really cook. I can never follow what she’s doing when she’s in the kitchen. She moves in circles but somehow always manages to coordinate multiple projects at once, a constant elaborate time line in her head.

“The fact that you hooked up with Macy?”

It’s only because I’m watching her so carefully that I see her stiffen, a slight catch in her smooth dance. “What? What are you talking about?”

I roll my eyes. Hunter has always been a bad liar. She was never able to get away with anything when we were kids. I mean, she tried. Our parents always knew.

“Please. You think I didn’t see the tension between you two at the funeral?”

She brushes her hands on a towel and then finally turns to face me. “Really? I thought we were pretty normal.” She’s trying hard not to smile, I can tell.

“I knew it! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me! You finally realize your teenage fantasy and you don’t say anything? We are no longer sisters.”

She laughs, then shrugs. “It just happened. He came over the night he found out about his brother and Christy.”

“And…?” I can’t believe she’s being so vague. Macy is practically a legend in our neighborhood. Back in high school everyone had a crush on him and I mean everyone. Now that he’s on a reality TV show his fan club has only increased. Somehow, all this attention never went to his head. Mace is actually one of the most down to earth, nicest guys I’ve ever known. Hunter deserves a good guy. In my opinion, one I’ve made no secret of, she tends to date guys that aren’t good enough for her. Not awful. They treat her fine. But boring. With a capital B.

I seriously doubt Macy could ever be boring.

She shrugs again. “And… nothing. He’s got a lot going on right now, Vaughn. I don’t think dating is high on his priority list. It was just a night.”

I lean back with a huff. “That is seriously disappointing, Hunter.”

She laughs and one of her timers goes off.

Grabbing a tray of cupcakes from the counter she sets them in front of me. “Here. Make yourself useful.”

She hands me a couple full pastry bags and tips and tells me to start decorating. Grandma taught me some tricks too.

“Have you talked to him since the funeral?”

“Vaughn,” she says, warning in her tone.

I focus on piping various patterns on the cupcakes. “I’m just asking.”

“Don’t go playing matchmaker. Macy and I are fine. We’re friends,” she says firmly.

“Fine, fine. I’ll drop it.”

“I’m serious, Vaughn.”

“I believe you, Hunter.”

She rolls her eyes in exasperation and turns her attention back to her desserts. I continue piping. And start plotting.

No way I’m dropping it. This is so happening.

Read about Hunter and Macy’s night together here and here. And the funeral here.

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge

Teagan #AtoZChallenge

“Get fancy. We’re going out.”

My best friend sighs on the other end of the line. “I don’t really feel like it, T. I just want to put some comfy clothes on, curl up and watch a movie.”

I was prepared for this response. “Ilyssa! Riley and Daniel just broke up. She needs us right now.”

“What? What happened?”

“I don’t know. I just know the wedding is off. She told Dad earlier today. But I’m sure she’s pretty devastated. They’ve been together forever. She needs us. We’re taking her out and having a girls night.”

“All right. I get it. I’ll rally.”

“Great! I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

Success. Now to implement the second half of my plan. My cousin Riley picks up on the third ring.

“Teagan? Is everything okay?”

I feel a tiny twinge of guilt I call so infrequently it’s a cause of concern.

“Yep. Get fancy. We’re going out.” I repeat my instructions to my current target.

“What?”

Her confusion is fair. There is that twinge again. Despite the fact we grew up together my cousin and I aren’t close. I don’t know that I’ve ever called her for a spontaneous night out before. I was a child when she came to live with us after her parents died. She was sad and quiet and I didn’t know or fully understand what was happening or how to deal with it. So I mostly just left her alone. Years later, when Ilyssa’s mom died and I was older, a little less self absorbed and mature enough to at least understand how grief works I realized how much Riley could have used a friend back then. But by that time she and Daniel were already inseparable and I had Ilyssa.

I am not going to let her grieve her relationship without my support.

“We’re going out. You, me and Ilyssa. Girls Night.”

Riley is quiet, clearly puzzled. “I – I really can’t. I have so much to do.”

I was also prepared for this response. I sigh dramatically and lower my voice conspiratorially. “Look, I really shouldn’t say anything, it’s not my place but… Ilyssa could really use a night out. Her step-father has a parole hearing next week and they always bring everything back up. She needs a fun distraction.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize. Of course. What time?”

Triumphant, I smile. I refuse to feel guilty about my tiny manipulations. They are both perfectly true. Ilyssa and Riley are both going through a rough time. And neither one is going ask for anything for themselves, but they are two of the kindest people I know. They’ll drag themselves out the door for someone else.

“Ilyssa and I will pick you up in an hour.”

“Okay, see you in a bit.”

I text Ilyssa as the cab turns onto her street and she’s just hitting the sidewalk as we pull up in front of her building.

I grin at her out the window. “You look gorgeous.” She does. Ilyssa has that rare combination of fair skin, light eyes and curly jet black hair. She works at an art gallery and the artists she is constantly surrounded by have influenced her style so she always looks effortless chic. I don’t know how she does it. But I’m constantly raiding her closet and copying her outfits when we go out. Much more fun than the suits and professional gear I have to wear on a daily basis.

She slides into the backseat next to me and gives me a side hug. “How is Riley?”

I give the driver the next address before answering her question. “She sounds okay. I still don’t know what happened though.”

“I can’t believe they called off the wedding. They’ve been together since we were kids.”

“I know.”

Fifteen minutes later, Riley hops in on the other side of me and I direct the cab to our first stop, Fizz. She doesn’t say much after her quick greeting but when Ilyssa isn’t looking, Riley makes a questioning face and tilts her head. I interpret this as an inquiry into how Ilyssa is doing and shrug slightly with a small smile.

Fizz is one of my favorite bars but I don’t come here very often. It’s a special occasion kind of place, only serving champagne and champagne cocktails. It’s delightfully decadent and ridiculous and I love it. It seems the perfect place for an impromptu girls night. The hostess seats us at a high table near the front window, the lights of downtown Chicago all around us.

Ilyssa and Riley are making awkward small talk, neither one wanting to bring up ‘the thing‘ they think has brought us together tonight. I was kind of counting on that, neither of them wanting to pry. And frankly, although I suspect they could both probably use an opportunity to unburden themselves I’m not very good with intense emotions. I’m more the ‘lash out at the object of my pain’ type and when that isn’t possible I’m the ‘jump headlong into fun as a distraction’ type.

So, that is what I do. When the waitress approaches to take our order, some stroke of brilliance causes me to inform her that it is Riley’s birthday. The faux-birthday girl looks at me with a puzzled expression but doesn’t deny it. Ilyssa, more used to my antics, hardly blinks and claps excitedly. We order a round of drinks and a dessert to share.

When our order arrives, they’ve put a candle in our cheesecake and I start singing happy birthday. Several of the patrons at the nearby tables join in and soon everyone is clapping in celebration.

For a second Riley blinks, her eyes wide as she glances around us but quickly a wide smile splits her face as she laughs and blows out the candle. Because you know what’s awesome? Strangers cheering for you. And it’s great when you’re out celebrating and having fun and people cheer for you. But you know what’s even more great? When you are sad and feeling shitty and people cheer for you.

People cheer for birthdays. They don’t usually cheer for break ups. Or when you have an evil step-father. But that’s when you need the cheers. When you can’t do it for yourself.

“Don’t worry,” I whisper going in for a ‘birthday hug’, “It’ll be Ilyssa’s birthday at the next bar.”

Meet a younger Teagan here.

And click to learn more about Ilyssa and Riley.

AtoZ Challenge · Sloane and Josh

Sloane #AtoZChallenge

I am trying desperately to ignore the fact that Josh Garrison is standing only twenty feet away, looking sexier than any man has a right to in a tuxedo, and staring right at me. Focus, Sloane. Focus on your job.

I smile seamlessly at the guests, calmly assign tasks to the staff and volunteers, and always, always, know exactly where the photographers are located.

This is actually the easy part, if I’ve done my job well. Once an event has started I should just have to manage schedules, give gentle nudges and keep an eye out for potential problems – hopefully anticipating them early enough they never actually happen. Or at least happen without anyone else noticing.

I’m really good at anticipating behavior. Especially behavior that could become a problem. I honed that skill early in life and survival skills are rarely forgotten.

Except when Josh Garrison is standing twenty feet away. Wearing a tux. Watching me.

Asshole.

Except he’s not. He’s smart and handsome and good. He’s like Captain America or someone equally difficult to hate. Impossible to ignore. Despite my practice at trying. It’s annoying.

Usually I am quite successful at avoiding him. Chicago is a big city. It’s easy to avoid people, especially when you know where those people work and live. But I know there are two nights every year when that won’t be possible. As much as I love the work I do with The Bridge, organizing their fundraisers, it has also become incredibly stressful. Because I know he will be here. On these nights I know I will have to interact with him.

Interacting with Josh is dangerous. I have spent years perfecting my camouflage. Years deciding what the outside world should see when they look at me. He’s the only one that doesn’t seem to accept my disguise. He studies me with equal parts interest and confusion. Like he can’t figure me out and I’m both annoyed he sees through me and terrified he’ll discover all my secrets.

So avoidance. This is the solution I’ve come up with. And it works for me.

Except two nights a year.

I smile serenely, accepting Margaret’s praise. She is the Executive Director of The Bridge, the organization benefiting from tonight’s event, and has become a dear friend over the years. We’re just about to investigate the silent auction and make some bids of our own when I hear someone call her name and stiffen, recognizing the voice immediately.

Suddenly he’s right there, crowding me with his sheer presence, charming Margaret with his smile.

She’s beaming under his attention, even 70 year old widows no match for his teasing and compliments.

Then he turns his attention to me. “Great job on the event tonight, as usual.”

Forcing a smile, I plan my escape. “Thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I have to check in with Brice.” Brice is my assistant, I’m sure there’s some reason I need to talk to him. “Margaret, I’ll speak with you shortly.” I nod at them both, proud of my composure as I turn to leave.

Margaret waves her fingers, dismissing me and turns her full attention to the man in front of her. “I just heard about your transfer, such wonderful news.”

I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, unnamed and unexamined feelings forcing the air from my lungs. Without considering my actions I turn back to the pair.

“You’re transferring?” I hear myself demand.

His brown eyes move across my face a small smirk twisting his mouth. He pauses for just a heartbeat before responding. “Just into a different department. I’ll still be in Chicago, don’t worry.”

I feel my cheeks heat, embarrassed both my unguarded reaction and the fact that he seems fully aware of it. He grins watching how flustered I’ve become. I take a deep breath determined to get myself together.

“I see. Congratulations.”

Seemingly oblivious to the tension in our little circle, Margaret weighs in again. “I just could not be happier. Ever since the Blackwell Ring arrest, I thought you would be a perfect addition to the Civil Rights team. You-”

“The Civil Rights team?” I blurt out. No. No, no, no. This just keeps getting worse and worse.

Josh is studying me carefully and I curse my inability to control my responses when he is around. He sees too much and I hate it.

“I’ll be focused primarily on human trafficking cases,” he responds slowly.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Margaret gushed. “To have an ally like Josh bottom-lining our cases?”

“Wonderful,” I agree and get the hell away from those clever brown eyes. Crossing the room, I slip into the kitchen and allow myself a moment. I lean back, my head resting against the wall behind me and close my eyes.

FBI Agent Josh Garrison is going to be focused on sex crimes and human trafficking. And likely even more involved with The Bridge, especially if Margaret has her way. Despite my best efforts, that man has a way of seeing right through me. My avoidance strategy has worked to keep my secrets intact but frequent exposure? He would discover things best left alone.

And I can’t let that happen.

I pull out my phone and quickly send a text. I think we have a problem. When are you back?

Almost immediately I get a response. Monday. I’ll meet you at your place.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I close my eyes again and calm my racing heart. Monday. Less than forty-eight hours and Ethan, the only other person in the world who knows all my secrets, will be home. Together we can figure out how to navigate this new potential land-mine.

I owe Ethan my life.

We would have been fine if Ethan and I had never met. I know that. I had a decent place to live. I had a decent job. We’d stayed off the grid. Hidden. We’d been making things work and we would have been fine, but meeting Ethan had changed our entire lives.

He made sure I went to college. He helped me launch my own event organizing business, both financially and then by referring his incredibly wealthy friends. Because of Ethan, I’d been able to stay in Chicago, lead an almost normal life.

He’d helped me try to fight my demons. When that failed, he had trusted my judgment and helped me hide from them. We would figure this out too.

Feeling reassured, I return to the ballroom. My eyes immediately fall on Josh’s form across the room. I force myself to look away.

Forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours and I’ll have a plan. Once I have a plan, I’ll be fine.

I just need a plan.

See the story from Josh’s perspective.

And meet a young Sloane here.