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.
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-”
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 can finally sleep.
Click here to meet Logan and Connor.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Oh god. What did I do?
My head is pounding and I cringe squeezing my eyes tight against the light.
Reluctantly, I blink open and realize I am not where I am supposed to be. I don’t recognize the bed I’m in or the industrial style loft it’s located in. I sit up in a rush but have to grab my head when the sudden movement clashes through it painfully.
And it all comes back in a rush.
Daniel. Alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Vanished. Jax.
This is so embarrassing.
I am not a drinker. I hardly ever drink. And I haven’t gotten drunk in years. Not since college.
And now, last night.
And Lucas’s best friend witnessed the whole thing.
I bury my face in my hands and shake my head in denial.
I’m still in my dress from yesterday. My mouth is dry and stale. I can only imagine the state of my hair. But somehow I have to gather what’s left of my dignity and get out of here.
And I should probably thank Jax for taking care of me last night. I’m sure it was not on his To Do list.
Gingerly, I move to the edge of the bed, testing the sturdiness of my stomach. I notice a glass of water and some aspirin on the nightstand and I swallow them down gratefully. Then chug the entire glass of water. I am so dehydrated.
Well done, Riley. Way to handle your life like a champ.
Now that I’ve managed to get to my feet I take in a bit more of my surroundings.
The loft is huge, largely unfinished. The concrete floor is polished, exposed brick make up three of the four walls broken up by huge nearly floor to ceiling windows. He’s divided the ‘bedroom’ from the rest of the space with a large screen. Peaking around I see a cluster of couches in the center with a TV and gaming console. The far side is separated by another large screen hiding whatever is behind it.
One of the couches has a pile of blankets, indicating that is where Jax spent the night, but he’s nowhere to be found. I can’t decide if I’m relieved or disappointed he’s not here.
I can never really decide what it is with Jax. Uncertainty shrouds every interaction I have with him.
Except, apparently, when I’m totally intoxicated.
I didn’t even notice the sound of the shower until it turned off. The sudden silence is startling. A moment later Jax emerges from the only door in the loft wearing a pair of jeans and nothing else. His hair is still wet, finger-combed back from his face.
I swallow. He’s wearing jeans and nothing else.
To keep myself from staring at all the muscles and tattoos on display I force myself to step forward.
“Morning.” My voice is hoarse. I feel my cheeks heat.
He tosses me a look over his shoulder. “Hey! Teach! You’re up. Want some coffee?” To the left is the kitchen, appliances lined along the wall with a large island and stools defining the ‘room’.
“Coffee sounds good.” I awkwardly slide on to a stool, trying not to stare at his back as he starts the coffee brewing. “Sorry about last night. I don’t usually-”
He chuckles. “You think I don’t know that isn’t your usual MO?”
Silently, I drop my eyes to the island in front of me.
Jax turns so he’s facing me, crossing his arms and leaning his hip against the counter. “You don’t need to apologize, Riley. It’s not everyday you walk in on your fiancé cheating. You’re allowed to act a little crazy.”
“Still, I disrupted your whole night.”
He grins at me, causing my stomach to flip. I push a hand against my abdomen pretending this is also a reaction to my drinking. “I didn’t have any plans. We had fun, right?”
I nod reluctantly. What I remember, we did have fun. We played pool and danced to the juke box and chatted with friendly strangers.
“Macy must think-”
“Macy doesn’t think anything. Other than you needed a night out. He’s not like that. He’s not going to judge you for something we’ve all done.”
I smile ruefully. “I liked his family’s bar.”
Jax nods and turns back to pour the coffee. “Yeah, it’s a good spot. It’s great for when we’re looking for a place to just chill, you know?”
He sets a mug in front of me.
Gratefully, I take a fortifying sip.
I hear him take a deep breath and then he asks, “So what are you going to do? About the cheating asshole?”
Tears sting my eyes and I blink rapidly to fight them off.
What am I going to do?
Instead of answering I look around suddenly. “Do you know what I did with my phone?”
He walks over to the couches and grabs my purse off the center table. “I shut it off last night. It kept beeping,” he explains, handing it over.
Smiling my thanks, I grab my phone out of my bag and turn it back on. I cringe when I realize it’s nearly 11am. But I have a vague memory of us not retuning to the loft until nearly four last night. This morning. Whatever.
Sure enough, I have dozens of missed calls and unopened texts from Daniel.
I can explain.
Please talk to me.
I’m sorry you saw that.
Riles, I’m getting worried.
Don’t do anything stupid.
Where are you?
And then Please talk to me again.
I shoot him a text, letting him know I’m alive but not ready to talk and turn my phone back off. I force the images of him in bed with someone else from my mind. I wish I could erase them entirely but I know that won’t ever happen.
And if I’m being completely honest with myself, beneath the pain and betrayal and confusion I’m also the tiniest bit… relieved.
I don’t want to marry Daniel. And now, it seems pretty obvious he doesn’t really want to marry me.
So I have no idea what I’m going to do. But I know what I’m not going to do.
I’m not going to get married.
I just don’t think there is anything better than Chicago in the summer.
Sighing happily, I reach out my toes and gently push off the grassy ground to set my hammock softly rocking. It is a perfect summer weekend, 70 degrees, sunny, little humidity. I managed to sneak in a yoga class in the park this morning and now I’m just lounging in my tiny backyard, sipping some white wine, reading a book, and taking full advantage of my most recent purchase – this hammock.
I love a good hammock.
It’s a shockingly recent discovery – this love. I did not realize what I’ve been missing all these years.
Although, I have also been ignoring my weekends in favor of work the last few years.
So today has been lovely.
Chicago winters are long and brutal. I love living in a city that experiences all four seasons – I tried LA for a while but it wasn’t for me – but I do wish winter would relinquish it’s hold a little earlier than it does each year. Spring hardly exists – March and April sometimes show us glimpses of what we’re missing. Teasing us with reminders of how great the summer will be. But then two days later winter dumps another 8 inches of snow and gray on the city. When summer finally arrives the whole city blooms, everyone is just a little calmer, a little nicer, a tiny bit giddy finally feeling the sun and warm breeze on their bare skin after months smothered in layers.
This is that weekend. The weekend when we can finally be confident winter is officially gone.
And I am loving every minute of it.
I hear the roar of pipes coming from the main intersection and idly try to identify the make of motorcycle. But quickly I realize there are too many, these bikes traveling in a pack. It took me years to be able to hear a motorcycle without dread squeezing my throat. Years of deliberate slow breathing and reminding myself that part of my life was over. Years of telling myself I was safe, ties severed. Years before I could hear those familiar growls and have it mean nothing, to let it just be background noise.
The pack grows closer, the engines rumbling the air around them, pushing it through the neighborhood.
Some shimmer of intuition or self preservation tells me to pay attention this time. This time, I suspect those bikes are for me.
I swing, not quite gracefully, out of my hammock and back to my feet. I pull a t-shirt on over my bikini top and hurry into my back door. Once, inside I quickly grab a pair of linen beach pants to cover up as well. If I’m right, I don’t want to be caught less than fully dressed.
Then I walk straight through my little house to my front porch. I keep my wine. A little extra courage.
Six gleaming bikes turn onto my side street and roll up to the sidewalk right in front of me.
Two of the men back in until their rear wheels rest against the curb, lowering their kickstands and dismounting. I grip my wine a little tighter, wishing I had brought the entire bottle.
The first man is older, he takes off his helmet and hands it to one of the others still straddling a bike and runs his fingers through his short gray hair. He glances at me, the sun reflecting off his mirrored sunglasses. I see a smirk underneath his bushy beard and a shudder of distaste rushes through me.
I only recognize two of the others. One of them stays on his bike, relaxed and leaning against his handle bars. I refuse to look at him directly. I’m just relieved he seems to be keeping his distance. The other also dismounts, tossing his helmet to his friend, his brother, then laughing when he fumbles it a bit before gaining control. He’s younger than the other, only three years older than me. And he’s handsome, my heart wrenches a bit seeing him after all these years. They all wear matching cuts. I can’t see it right now but I know the backs are all emblazoned with a fierce logo and the words Guards of Hell, meant to intimidate and declaring they are a unit and not to be messed with.
I am well aware of that fact.
And I am definitely intimidated just trying desperately not to show it.
They approach me, the two who dismounted and stand at the bottom of the four steps that lead to my porch. This gives me a few inches over them but it’s still not enough to put me at ease.
I didn’t think I’d see either of them ever again. And though that was a painful decision ultimately I was fine with that. It’s been years now and I only have one regret.
My eyes slide to the younger one. Seeing him is rubbing that regret raw, wounding me.
I turn back to the older man. He’s the one I have to be worried about. Turning up here he must want something from me and I know how… dangerous… denying him can be.
Now seems like a good time to drink some wine. So I do. I’m not going to be the first one to speak.
He’s older, obviously, but still just as hard and I hate that I can’t see his expression under those reflective sunglasses. I suspect he’s eying me up and taking stock of the changes.
I won’t fidget.
“Piper,” he says gruffly.
I won’t respond.
Finally he turns to the side and silently nods at the other man who is watching him expectantly.
The younger man grins at me, relieving my tension and I respond a wide grin splitting my face. He hoots loudly with laughter and rushes up the steps at the same time I throw myself into his outstretched arms.
“Missed you, baby sister.”
We first met Piper last year – you can read that here.
Dropping to my knees, I crawl into the shrubs, ignoring the branches poking and scratching my skin. The ground is cold and damp, I feel it seeping through my jeans. My breathing is harsh, loud in the night but not as loud as my terrified heartbeat echoing through the darkness.
What is happening? I don’t understand what is happening. Why is this happening?
A sob breaks out and I slam a muddy hand over my mouth, stifling any noise.
I don’t know what is happening but I know I can’t let him find me.
I try to catch my breath as quietly as possible, straining to hear any footsteps coming towards me. I’m not used to the woods, it’s full of sounds I don’t recognize. Every noise keeps my pulse racing, fearful of discovery.
I hear him calling my name, not close but still out there. Still hunting me. He pretends he’s sorry. Then he screams in outrage when I don’t materialize. His voice moves farther away and when I can barely hear the weight of it, I scramble from my hiding place and I run.
I don’t know how long I run. How many times I trip and fall on my unsteady feet and uneven ground. The number of times I have to wipe the tears from my eyes to see what’s in front of me.
I don’t know how long I run, but eventually I see the sky lightening at the edges. Soon after I see a house in the distance. I hide again, now that it’s light, I hide and watch and wait to see if he reappears. If he’s managed to follow me. To find me after all.
I don’t know how long I hide before I feel safe enough to emerge. I may nod off but I’ve lost all perception of time and my awareness is cloudy. But eventually I feel comfortable enough to crawl out from this hiding spot as well. No one has approached the house. There are two cars in the driveway, no other neighbors within sight.
I walk stiffly to the side door, my eyes sweeping the landscape, studying the line of the forest, trying to see if he’s there on the edges. But I don’t see anyone. I knock limply on the screen door and shortly an elderly woman with curly gray hair and round cheeks appears in the glass. She disappears briefly and I hear the lock turning before the door swings open.
“Oh my word…” the woman’s eyes widen as she takes me in. She’s still in her robe, just starting her day. I try to imagine what she sees when she looks at me, a fifteen year old girl covered in mud and blood, shivering in her doorway, sticks and leaves in my hair. “Bill! Bill, call 911. Come in here, honey.” She waves me into her warm and bright kitchen. My steps are jerky, feeling disconnected from my body and surroundings. She pulls out a chair and wraps a blanket around my shoulders. I hear her husband mumbling into the phone.
I am just staring at the top of the kitchen table. I can feel my mind shutting down. I don’t want to think about anything. I don’t want to remember the last several hours. I don’t want to explain what happened. I don’t want to be here. I want to be in my own bed, waking to discover none of this is real.
That the images of my mom’s and my little sister’s lifeless bodies were just a nightmare.
A mug of tea is placed into the space on the table I’m staring at in a daze. Instinctively I place my hands around it, welcoming the sting of heat against my palms.
“He killed them,” I whisper.
Suddenly I can’t hold back the sobs any longer. My whole body shakes, I’m gasping and unable to catch my breath once again. The pain in my chest is unbearable, my heart squeezing in grief.
“My dad. My dad killed everyone.”
They’re still there.
Of course they’re still there. Wishful thinking.
Peeking out the window I take in once again the couple on my porch. I don’t recognize either of them and I suspect the worse.
Well, Detectives more likely.
I take a deep, steadying breath and open the door.
The woman palms her badge, identifying herself. “I’m Detective Rusch. This is Detective Paulsen. We’d like to ask you some questions. Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, I guess. What about?”
“Can we come in? It would be more comfortable.”
I hesitate briefly, excuses running through my mind, but ultimately step aside and open the door letting them enter. I watch them scan my humble living room, IKEA furniture and hand me downs. Student loan debt is real my friends. And Med school isn’t cheap.
I gesture to the couch and then take one of the arm chairs for myself. The woman, Rusch, takes a seat across from me but her partner remains standing just behind her and the couch.
She smiles attempting to put me at ease. It doesn’t work.
“Can you tell me what this is about?”
Ignoring me, Detective Paulsen asks his own question. “Nice area. You live here long?”
“About two years,” I answer.
“No, I have a roommate.”
“Are they home?”
“Not right now, no. What is going on? Is something wrong with Brynn?” I know full well my roommate Brynn is fine. Home visiting her folks over spring break. But if they aren’t going to get to the point I’ll play dumb.
“No, no.” Detective Rusch interjects again, voice soothing. Her head tilts to the side as she studies me. “Ms. Hendricks, have you seen or spoken to Orion Quaid recently?”
“Ryan? Is he in some kind of trouble?” Please tell me what is going on, I beg silently. I know not to say it out loud.
“We’re not sure. When was the last time you spoke to him?
I pretend to consider the question, as if I don’t know exactly when we last spoke. As if I don’t remember every conversation I’ve ever had with Ryan.
“Probably about three months ago. He kind of pops in and out.”
“So you haven’t seen him in the last 72 hours?”
“No, sorry.” I shake my head, shrugging.
“Is that unusual?”
“No, like I said, he kind of pops in and out. Usually when he needs something.” I grimace. “What is this about? Is he okay?”
Paulsen responds, not even trying to be friendly like his partner, “He’s a person of interest in a suspected homicide.”
I don’t have to fake my shock at this information.
Homicide? Oh, Ryan. What have you gotten yourself in to?
“That’s crazy. Ryan wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
The Detectives exchange a look. “We just need to talk to him,” Rusch assures me. She continues the questioning, “He’s been missing for several days now. How do you two know each other again?”
“He was my brother’s best friend. I’ve known him since I was a kid.”
“Some of the others we’ve talked to implied you were more than that. That you may have been romantically involved.”
I feel my face heat. “We’ve… dated.” I don’t know how to explain our relationship to others when I don’t always understand what we are to each other myself. But I know I don’t want to explain it to complete strangers, and definitely not two police detectives that seem to think Ryan is connected to a murder. “It’s never gotten that serious. He moves around a lot.”
“Because of his work?”
“Has he ever mentioned any of his racing associates?”
I hesitate, trying to decide how much to tell them.
Detective Rusch seems to sense I’m holding back and leans forward, her expression earnest. “Please, Ms. Hendrix. If you know anything, you should tell us.”
I shrug. “He’s mentioned a lot of people over the years. He’s met a ton of people.”
“Any he’s ever mentioned any problems with?”
“Nothing serious. The usual rivalries and egos. I never got the impression it was anything more than that. Ryan isn’t the type to hold grudges. He goes with the flow.”
“It’s interesting you say that,” the male detective interrupts again. He glances at his notebook. “Wasn’t he arrested once for assault?”
I cringe. “We were just kids when that happened. He’s grown up a lot since then.”
“And five years ago? There was a complaint filed about an incident at a bar downtown.”
“Those charges were dropped.”
“You were there? At both these… incidents?”
He stares at me. Trying to intimidate me.
I stare back. I do my residency at a Chicago hospital Emergency Room, asshole. You aren’t that intimidating. And I grew up with two older brothers. I perfected the art of the silent treatment.
Detective Rusch breaks the silent game of chicken. “He seems very… protective of you.”
I nod shortly, still staring down her partner.
“Are there others he would… protect… the way he protects you?”
“He’s protective of all the people in his life.”
The name hits me hard. It always has. Perfect Olivia Peters.
Ignoring the pit in my stomach, I try to answer as neutrally as possible. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“They’re romantically linked as well, isn’t that right?”
Oh, this dude is an asshole.
“They have been. Yes. I don’t know if they are right now or not.”
“Are the two of you, right now?”
“Are we sleeping together?”
“Yes. Are you? Right now?”
“No. Right now, I’m here talking to the two of you. And I told you, I haven’t seen him for three months.”
I stand preparing to kick them out, but Detective Rusch, clearly trying to salvage the interview asks me quickly, “Do you know a woman named Carrie Reynolds?”
“We were told she was his most recent girlfriend.”
“I wouldn’t know.” The pit that formed at Olivia’s name gets bigger with this information. I glance at both of them. “Look, I don’t understand how our sexual histories are going to help you find him or solve a homicide. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
I walk towards the door, ready to end this.
Detective Rusch follows, but Paulsen doesn’t move from his spot by the couch. Looking around again he asks, “Would he come to you for help if he was in trouble?”
I inhale slowly, willing the pit in my stomach to ease. “Is he in trouble?” My voice sounds small.
“Yes, Ms. Hendrix. He definitely is.”
“I don’t know. It would depend, I guess, on what kind of trouble.”
“If he came to you, would you help him?”
My eyes narrow, glaring at this ass. “I guess that would depend on if he had Carrie Reynolds with him or not,” I say sarcastically and open the door. I’m done with this bullshit.
Finally he takes the hint, crosses my living room and walks out the door. Detective Rusch hands me her card. “If he does contact you, please let us know.”
I shut the door behind her, staring at her information and trying to process everything I’ve just learned.
Ryan, what did you do?
I wait a few minutes, watching them get back in their car and drive away. Then pocketing her card I go upstairs to my bedroom.
He’s leaning against the wall, carefully peeking through the drapes.
“They circled the block and parked down the street.”
I sit on my bed and watch him carefully. “Well, since you can’t go anywhere I guess you have time to tell me what the hell is going on, Ryan?”