AtoZ Challenge · Macy and Hunter · Vanished

Macy #AtoZChallenge

I feel a tug on my hand and I look down into the face of my five year old niece Lana. Her big brown eyes blink at me and she holds up her other arm, indicating she wants me to lift her up. Her tiny frame weighs next to nothing as I heft her up against my side. She rests her head against my shoulder, playing with my tie. She’s probably never seen me in a tie before. I don’t make a habit of wearing them.

But they seem required attire at the funeral of your older brother.

I still can’t believe he’s gone. He and his wife both, suddenly. Permanently. Leaving behind two little kids who don’t even understand what is happening.

Her little brother Eason is next to us, sitting on my mother’s lap. He’s got his own tie on, in a pint-sized suit my mother had purchased two days ago. My parents are functioning but grief etches their faces, their normally cheerful smiles and welcoming personalities dulled with the weight of it. I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t know what to say to Lana and Eason, or my sister Brandi.

For years my family and I feared for Brandi’s life. She’s two years cancer free now, but she was the one we all braced ourselves to lose. Never accepted, never that. But she was the one we worried about, focused on. And now, out of nowhere a car accident steals my brother.

The priest closes his sermon, everyone bows their heads in silence.

The next voice to break the silence is Hunter, announcing the family has invited everyone back to her cafe for refreshments. Although I suspect it won’t be long before people migrate from her bakery and the food, two blocks down to my family’s bar and the alcohol. We are half Irish after all.

I haven’t seen Hunter all week. Not since I showed up unannounced on her doorstep, still numb with the news.

Lana snuffles against my neck. “Tutu is sad,” she says softly, referring to my mother.

I rub her back and agree, “Tutu is sad.”

“Mommy and Daddy are in heaven now?”

I have to clear my throat before I can respond. “Yes, pretty girl.”

Mourners come up to my parents, offering condolences, before turning to me and my sister. People are slowly dispersing from the grave site. I know many of them will be waiting for us at the cafe, my parents are well loved in our Chicago neighborhood. I’ve moved to a different part of the city, but am still a frequent face in the neighborhood. And now that I’m on television on a regular basis I’m almost as popular as my folks.

Lucas, Jax, Logan, my Vanished family all approach and take turns hugging me, squeezing my shoulder in sympathy. They hardly knew my brother. He’d left Chicago before I’d met any of them. Their support reminds me how lucky I am.

Finally it’s just the family left. We say our goodbyes. More goodbyes. Constant goodbyes. Ones none of us are prepared for. My mother starts crying and Brandi scoops Eason out of her arms, allowing my father to hold her, his own eyes watery.

When we reach the cafe, Hunter has closed for the day in order to accommodate the crowd of people, the air seems less oppressive. Women have switched into more comfortable shoes, men have loosened their ties, ditched their suit jackets.

There’s forced laughter, people trying to remember funny stories from the past. Children are allowed to run and play and sneak the tiny cakes Hunter and her assistant have made.

Slowly, I make my way through the crowd finally finding myself across one of the buffet tables from Hunter.

“Hey.” I’m awkward, which is, frankly, unheard of for me.

“Hi, Mace.” She smiles, briefly meeting my eyes before returning them to the food she’s plating. “How are you handling everything?”

I open my mouth to respond, but nothing comes out. I don’t know what to say to her. Before my silence becomes painfully obvious, Logan interrupts.

“Here he is!” she says cheerfully, bouncing Eason on her hip. “This little guy was looking for his ‘Unkie’ Macy.”

I ignore my stab of disappointment at the interruption and lift him out of her arms. “What’s up buddy?”

“Jus.”

“Jus?” I’m still learning to decipher his three year old language.

“Jus,” he says again.

Hunter looks up, I think recognizing my confusion, and turns her smile to my nephew. “Do you want some juice?”

Eason nods.

“Do you like apple juice?”

He nods again.

“I’ve got some juice boxes in the back,” she tells me and disappears into her kitchen.

“Son, your mom and I need to talk to you.”

“Sure, Da.” I glance at Logan and she nods, grabbing Eason back until Hunter can return with his juice. “Thanks.”

“I’ve got him. Best date I’ve had in ages,” Logan grins at me.

My parents have settled into a table in the back corner and I kiss my mom on the cheek before taking an empty chair.

They look at each other soberly before my mom nods, some unspoken communication happening between them. They turn their attention back to me and my dad hands me an envelope.

“The last time your brother and Christy came home they talked to us about their wishes if something were to happen to them.” His voice cracks on the last and my mom grips his hand, giving him strength. “They asked us to give you this letter.”

Confused I look between my folks and the envelope on the table in front of me. “Is this their will?” Is this how wills work? I don’t even know.

“It’s about Lana and Eason,” my mom says gently, placing her other hand over mine.

I don’t know if it’s grief or exhaustion that’s making me slow, but I still can’t quite grasp what’s going on.

“They chose you, Macy. They wanted you to raise Lana and Eason.”

“They gave custody to you.”

Want more of Macy and Hunter? Click here, here, and here. Enjoy!

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Lucas #AtoZChallenge

Damn it.

I crumple the drawing I just finished in my fist and toss it into the basket at my feet. I’m working on a pinup style tattoo for a regular client which should be a relatively easy and fun assignment. Unfortunately all I can think about is Ash. Which means the sketch I just did looked disturbingly like a certain doctor I know.

Like hell I’m tattooing her face on some other guy’s bicep. Even if I’m the only one who would probably ever know.

I’m man enough to admit she’s got me totally twisted up. Two weeks now we’ve been dancing around each other and I can’t figure her out. That kiss we’d shared, brief as it was, was one of the hottest experiences of my life. I’ll also admit that memory has been the jumping off point to some seriously sexy fantasies. More times than is probably healthy.

Jax is coming home tomorrow. And while I’m relieved my best friend is healed enough to leave the hospital it’s like a glaring countdown clock is now hovering above my head. Because when he gets discharged, I’ll have no reason to see Ash again, let alone every day.

Movement in the corner of my eye catches my attention and I look up, expecting to see Logan entering my space. She’s the only other one working right now and usually alerts me to any clients before sending them back. But I’m wrong. It’s not Logan.
Instead, it’s like I’ve conjured my beautiful tormentor, because Ash is the one poised in the doorway.

Looking gorgeous, as usual. Her hair is down around her shoulders like that first night. At the hospital she always wears it pulled back in various styles. She’s wearing a simple white sun dress with an uneven hem, giving teasing glimpses of bare leg between her knees and ankles. Tiny straps show off her shoulders and peaks of cleavage.

The cave man in me is howling. It’s like she’s waving a red flag in front of a caged bull. And yet, she obviously has no idea how sexy she is.

“What are you doing here?” My voice is harsher than I intended, my thoughts annoyingly raw. And now I’m turned on.

The sparkle in her eyes dims a bit at my tone and she glances behind her towards the exit. I half expect her to bolt but instead she squares her shoulders and steps farther into the room. Having her get closer to me may not be the best idea right now.

“Ash, what are you doing here?”

This time my bearing does give her pause.

Her momentary courage crumbles. “Sorry. This is probably a bad time. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

She starts to back away. Shit. I’m being such an asshole. It’s not her fault I want her more than she wants me. Or that I freaked her out when I lost my temper at Ethan. She saved Jax’s life and has been nothing but good to me, confusing maybe but kind.
I sigh roughly and shake myself out of my dark mood.

“Wait.” I reach out, gently tugging on her hand to stop her backward retreat. “I’m sorry. You’re not interrupting anything. I’m just sketching while I wait for my next appointment.”

She’s stopped moving, which was my goal. Seemingly mesmerized by my hand holding hers. Which is when I realize not only haven’t I released her but I’ve moved closer and my thumb is now tracing soft circles against her wrist. Her breath hitches in her chest, causing her breasts to jiggle. She’s killing me.

“What are you doing here?” I ask again, this time much softer, smoother.

She tears her eyes away from our entangled fingers and finally looks up at me. I watch her throat flex as she swallows. She licks her lips nervously.

“I – ah – I just -” she takes a deep breath, it takes every ounce of discipline I have to keep my eyes on hers and not sneak another peek at her boobs. “I didn’t want this morning to be the last time I saw you.”

My inner cave man is now beating his chest in victory. I want to throw her over my shoulder, find the nearest bed, and show her how much I appreciate those words.

But what I do is take our entwined hands and move them to her lower back, using them to pull her snugly against me. My other hand raises to her shoulder and caresses down the length of her arm. Her shiver reassures me she’s equally affected.

“Yeah?” I whisper.

She nods, her chocolate eyes dilated with arousal.

Keeping my impulses tightly leashed, I press a soft kiss to her lips. Exploring. Asking. Wanting.

Over and over again I brush my lips across hers, deliberately never taking it farther. She makes a small sound in the back of her throat and lifts to her tip toes, trying to deepen the kiss. Her free hand fists my t-shirt as she strains against me.

I lift my head up, out of her reach and wait until her eyes slowly blink open.

“I’m really glad to hear that, Ash.”

She smiles softly and arches one eyebrow. “Yeah?” she repeats back to me.

Chuckling, I confess, “Hated that idea.”

We just stare at each other for a minute, silly grins on our faces.

“God, you’re beautiful.”

Her smile widens and she tugs that hand still gripping my shirt playfully, pulling my lips back to hers.

This time I increase the pressure and use my tongue to tease her lips apart so I can deepen our kiss. She responds immediately tangling her tongue with mine. I groan into the caress.

This woman. She goes right to my head.

Recently I’ve started doing my drawings in one of the empty stations we have in back, the ones waiting for our expansion plans to take place, and I am thankful for the extra bit of privacy this affords us. Because unless she pulls back there is no way I’m stopping.

Want more of Lucas and Ash? Here is their first meeting.

Learn more of Lucas’s history with his family here.

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge

Kyle #AtoZChallenge

Sharp pain shoots through my foot and I instinctively cry out before I can stifle it.

“Oh, shit. My bad. I’m so sorry.”

I hear a deep baritone voice apologizing, but my eyes are squeezed shut as I balance on one foot, trying to will the pain away in the other. I focus on taking a deep breath in through my nose and feel my heartbeat, calming myself. I sense a presence next to me, the man who had apologized for crushing my foot. He’s close but hasn’t tried to grab me or steady me, which I appreciate.

Although this guy has no way of knowing that.

I’ve been jumpy ever since the funeral and seeing him again.

It’s like I’ve regressed. I cringe when people touch me unexpectedly. Even little things like bumping in to me in the subway or if my hand accidentally touches the barista when he hands me my morning chai. Opening that door again, letting those memories back in, it’s messing with my head and I can’t get a handle on it. I’ve done such a good job for so long pushing that whole chapter way down deep but now it’s back with a vengeance, right under my skin just waiting for the slightest sensation to send me reeling.

I’d already been on edge today, ending up at a massive party for my friend’s family and not the small, intimate, family barbecue I had imagined. The last thing I need is to freak out and cause a scene here.

I hate feeling like this. So on edge and jittery. The sting of my injured foot is almost a welcome distraction.

I gingerly set my foot back on the grass and open my eyes, exhaling slowly.

“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so. It’ll shake off.” I limp a bit as I feel it out. Now that the pain is fading I’m feeling embarrassed and hope no one else has noticed. I finally glance at the man still hovering at my side.

Oh wow. He’s handsome. Really handsome. Gorgeous, even. Short dark blond hair, a little spiky and a close cropped beard frame his face. He’s got a great face, a sharp jaw line, straight nose and piercing gray-green eyes. Immediately I want to take his photograph.

Not in a creepy way. I’m a photographer.

“Do you need some ice or anything? Here let me help you find a place to sit.” He straightens, his height allowing him to glance across the yard and the crowd.

“No really. I’m fine,” I try to assure him. I just want to forget this embarrassing interaction and blend back into the edges of the crowd.

He turns back to me, studying my foot critically. At this point it’s just a gentle throb and I’m confident there isn’t any permanent damage. Seemingly satisfied, he sighs in relief and rakes a hand through his dark blond hair.

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

I force a small laugh and tell him, “As long as you promise, then you’re forgiven.”

“At least let me grab you another drink.” He bends down to pick up the plastic cup I dropped when we collided. “What were you drinking?”

“Really, it’s fine-”

“Please.”

He makes a face, as if he’d be wounded if I didn’t let him do this and I relent. Why not? He seems genuinely concerned. And I can get more wine without entering the throng of people.

Smiling at my thoughts, I answer his question. “Some of the Chardonnay.”

“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” He rushes away, a soft whiff of his cologne lingering briefly.

I glance at my phone to check the time. Erik disappeared ten minutes ago, his sister pulling him away for some family related task. When he’d invited me to his family’s annual barbecue I hadn’t realized the scale they celebrated on. I wasn’t expecting the size of this crowd. I guess it makes sense, his father is a Senator. Going all out on the Fourth of July is probably part of the job description. A couple months ago it wouldn’t have been so bad. But a couple of months ago I was still blissfully ignoring the fact that he still existed. Now I’m constantly afraid I’ll run into him again.

I try to spot Erik in the sea of people but have no luck and in no time at all the handsome stranger with giant feet is back, my chardonnay in one hand and a beer in his other.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Zane, by the way,” he says, shaking my hand. His hands are also large but he seems to be very conscious and careful with his size around me now.

His name triggers some memory buried in my mind, past conversations with Erik.

“Zane…Abbott?” I study him more carefully, looking for any resemblance.

His face falls as he nods, losing the easy smiled he’d had since returning with our drinks.

“Erik’s brother?” I ask, delighted.

“You know Erik?” He’s smiling again.

“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.”

A mock serious expression falls across his face. “I’m sorry he did that to you.”

“Did what?” I half smile, unsure what he’s getting at.

“Insisted you come here.”

I laugh and admit, “I wasn’t really expecting all this.” I take in the elaborate celebration before us.

“Is that why you’re hanging out on the edges?” he asks.

“Guilty. What’s your excuse?”

“That’s where the interesting people lurk.”

My cheeks heat with awareness.

Before I can respond Erik finally reappears. I breath a sigh of relief at his comforting presence.

“Hey! Zane!” Erik pulls his brother into a quick bear hug. “You met Kyle! Great.”

“Yeah, we ran into each other,” Zane meets my eyes, a small smile at his inside joke.

“She’s new to Chicago so we have to show her around.”

Zane makes a face I can’t quite interpret. “I’m not sure how good of a tour guide I’ll be considering how little I’ve been here the last few years.”

“Good point. Guess it’s on me, Kyle.”

I laugh, assuring him I’m fine with that.

Although I can’t ignore the small stab of disappointment Zane won’t be introducing me to my new city.

Read the first part of Kyle’s story here and Zane’s return here.

AtoZ Challenge · Jax and Riley · Vanished

Jax #AtoZChallenge

What the hell is she doing here?

And why does she keep showing up unannounced at my door?

Granted last time, I was lying in a hospital bed. And this is where I work. So not exactly my private space or anything. But still. This can’t mean anything good.

I glance at Macy, still holding open the door Riley had just busted through and who seems just as confused as I am.

Understandably confused. One, because we’re closed, just locking up. And two, because Riley is an Abbott and they aren’t exactly on the guest list.

“Uh. Hi, Riley.”

“Jax.” She’s unsteady on her feet but lifts her little chin as if lecturing in one of her classrooms. “I would like to speak with Lucas.”

I stare at her dumbly, just blinking as I try to figure out what is happening.

When I don’t respond Macy informs her Luke isn’t here. She spins at the sound of his voice and falls into him. Macy is chuckling as he reaches out to steady her and I shoot him a look. He clears his throat, trying to disguise his amusement.

Riley is demanding we go hunt down Lucas so she can talk to him.

That is so not happening.

I hear Mace mutter something about Riley being feisty and I am quick to deny it. “Not usually.” Something is obviously wrong and not just the fact that she’s clearly drunk off her ass.

I cross the room to her side and lead her to the couch. “Mace, can you grab some water for her?” I toss over my shoulder.

“On it.”

Riley is glancing around the room, taking in all the artwork. She’s never been here before. Never visited our tattoo shop Vanished. Lucas isn’t exactly a fan of his family. Although I think Riley is starting to chip away some of his walls. I’d like to see him give them a chance. At least give her a chance. But I’d never tell him that. Not my place. My place is behind him, supporting him, having his back.

That’s the way it’s always been.

I crouch down in front of her. Despite her drunken determination when she stormed in, now she looks uncertain and avoids my eyes.

“Haven’t seen you for a while,” I offer, giving her a half smile. It’s been about three months actually. I haven’t seen her since I got out of the hospital. She visited pretty regularly when I was there, carefully avoiding Luke after one marginally brutal interaction. But she would come by and keep me company and smuggle me my favorite foods.

She finally looks directly at me, her eyes red and blurry. Shit. She’s been crying.

“You look good,” she whispers. “Better.”

“Good as new.”

Macy reappears with a bottle of water that he hands over and then leaves us alone again. My leg is starting to cramp so I move to sit next to her on the couch. Making sure to keep a respectable distance. Luke may not like his family but she’s still my best friend’s cousin.

Even if she is cute.

I don’t normally do cute. Or sweet. And Riley, with her retro style dresses and giant gray eyes and genuine smile and enormous purse with KitKats, is both. She’s a teacher. At a Chicago public school. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about her character I don’t know what will.

And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about those gray eyes over the last few months.

But she’s also an Abbott. So I keep my distance. Literally and figuratively.

Or at least I had been. But I’m not an asshole. I’m not going to turn her out on the street when she’s drunk and obviously upset.

“So,” I say, settling back into the leather couch. “What’s new with you?”
Sniffling, she stares at her shoes.

“I finished work early tonight. One of my after school meetings was canceled so I thought I would bring Daniel some dinner. Surprise him. But when I got there… he was… he-”

I glance at the rock on her finger.

“Wasn’t alone?” I finish gently.

She shakes her head, silently starting to cry again.

Dammit.

Now what am I supposed to do?

“Want me to have Mace go over and scare the shit out of him?” Macy is the largest of all of us, built like a warrior. Luckily he usually has a smile on his face or he’d be one scary dude. Now, he’s just scary when he wants to be which isn’t very often. But I imagine would terrify her skinny tax attorney fiance. Or ex-fiance. Cheating fiance.

Thankfully, this causes her to laugh, sniffling through her tears. She takes a sip of the water. Suddenly she jumps to her feet, swiping at her cheeks and the tears under her eyes. “Let’s go dancing!”

My eyes widen in surprise. “You want to go dancing?”

“Yes! Let’s go? Where should we go?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Teach.”

She crosses her arms and glares at me. “And why not?”

I open my mouth to explain, or at least try to explain without pointing out she’s drunk, but before I can her face falls. “Oh. Because of Lucas.”

Surprisingly, I hadn’t been thinking of him. Luke is suspicious of Riley, thinks she’s often acting as an emissary for his cousin Ethan and his uncle but she’s growing on him. And he would definitely want her taken care of in this situation.

“That’s not why,” I tell her. “But if you go out to a club with me and Macy there’s a good chance some paparazzi is going to find us and take your picture. I can’t imagine the school board would be excited about that.”

“Oh.”

She looks so disappointed I can’t help but feel like I let her down somehow. I should just make sure she gets home okay. But I also suspect that’s one of the last places she wants to go right now. And showing up at her uncle’s house will lead to questions, I’m sure.

I shove a hand through my hair in frustration. I know what I’m about to do and I know it’s a bad idea.

I keep my distance from Riley. That’s what I do. What I should do.

Instead I find myself saying, “You want to go somewhere for a drink? I’ve got an idea.”

The kick in my chest at her smile is further evidence I’m making a mistake.

Too late now.

See this interaction from Macy’s perspective here.

And if you’re curious about Jax and Riley’s first meeting you can find that here and here.

AtoZ Challenge

Ian #AtoZChallenge

“We the jury find the defendant…Not Guilty.”

I hear the various reactions behind me. Cries of stifled joy from those who believe these twelve strangers got it right. Clicks of cameras going off rapid fire as the press capture this moment. Gasps of disbelief and outrage from those, like me, who know this man is guilty.

But as my boss frequently reminds me, knowing it and proving it are not the same thing.

I remain stone-faced, showing no emotion as the judge and foreperson wrap up the formalities of the court before the judge finally ends the proceedings. Her gavel slams down, releasing a killer back into the community.

Because I failed. I failed to prove my case and convince the jury no one other than this man, Phillip Mann, had killed his girlfriend ten months ago.

Grimly I gather up my files and briefcase. As I stand and turn my eyes fall on him. Phillip Mann. He’s watching me with a smirk on his face, gloating in his eyes. He knows he beat me. I swallow my own rage, barely keeping my composure. I’m supposed to be sitting on the scales of justice, operating in facts and evidence, losing my shit in front of all these people shatters that belief and trust.

I’ll do that later, when I’m alone.

Ignoring the monster being congratulated fifteen feet away from me I instead turn to Carrie’s parents. Her mother’s presence has been strongly felt during the case, proud and grief stricken sitting in the gallery every day of testimony. Her father silent and stoic but red eyes reflecting his pain.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t do more. I’m sorry for your loss.” They give me jerky nods, her father finally cracking in public, a rough sob bursting out of him. They leave, arms wrapped around each other, sniffling.

I meet the eyes of Detective Melrose, standing at the back of the courtroom. He knows we blew this one. This is on both of us. He raises his chin, acknowledging our shared defeat.

Next to me, my assistant Dean seems to be taking the loss even harder than I am. His dark eyes are troubled, a gray pallor over his mahogany cheeks. The inexperienced DA made a critical error, costing us valuable evidence on a legal technicality. It happens. But it doesn’t ease the vicious blow of guilt when you are the one responsible. I place a hand on his shoulder, squeezing in some attempt at reassurance.

“Take the rest of the day. We’ll meet in the office in the morning.” He nods, acknowledging my instructions.

Outside the courthouse, I make a brief statement to the press. I say nothing of substance. There’s nothing to say. This is the system. Do I wish we had successfully gotten justice for Carrie? Of course. I am as convinced today as I was two months ago, when we began this trial that Phillip killed her, that he belongs in prison. But there is no point in saying that to the cameras. There is nothing I can do now for Carrie or her family. The media isn’t that interested in my boring platitudes, they rush passed me to Phillip Mann and his legal team as they exit to the front steps.

I walk away without looking back. I don’t want to hear what they have to say.

The only thing keeping me together is the knowledge that it’s not over. I won’t let it be. Not yet.

Hours later I’m at my favorite dive bar, deep in my thoughts a bourbon in front of me.

I look up from my glass and see Dylan Melrose sliding onto the stool next to me. He signals the bartender and orders a pint of beer.

“What did you find out?”

“You were right,” he says. “Carrie isn’t the only one.”

My hand squeezes into a fist, channeling my rush of emotions – rage, relief, determination.

“Then we get him for those.”

Dylan nods at me, the same determination on his face.

“We’ll get him.”

We first meet Ian last year in Xander’s story.

Want more of Dylan? Click here and here.

AtoZ Challenge · Macy and Hunter · Vanished

Hunter #AtoZChallenge

Lighting flashes across the sky, illuminating the clouds outside my window. Seconds later the crash of thunder vibrates through the room. I love a good thunderstorm. And it’s newly spring in Chicago so this is the first one in months, the first of the season. I smile watching the streaks of light scatter through the sky. The sound of the rain is soothing as it pelts against my windows, falling in tiny rivers down the glass.

My storm gazing is interrupted by the sound of water bubbling in my electric kettle. It hisses lightly before clicking off. I pour the hot water into my waiting mug and tea strainer. Grabbing my mug, I move into the living room and settle into my favorite chair, perfectly positioned to continue watching the storm rage while reading. I can hear my sister Vaughn’s voice mocking me, teasing me that I’m acting like an old lady. But this is exactly what I want to do with my Saturday night. At least this Saturday night. I grab my giant cable knit blanket and get all cozy, tucking myself into my chair with a happy sigh.

I’m not sure how much time passes, roughly four chapters worth, when I hear a tapping that isn’t related to the thunder outside. Straining to listen, I’m still startled when I hear the knocking again.

I contemplate ignoring it, but someone wants to talk to me badly enough to be out in this weather, so I put down my book and patter over to my front door. I peek out the window to see who it is at my door.

Macy.

Confused and excited, there’s no denying that fluttery drop in my stomach, I flip the lock and open the door.

“Macy. Hey.” I’m sure my questions echo in my greeting. He’s never shown up at my place before. Usually we just flirtatiously chat at his dad’s bar or, more recently, my bakery and cafe.

He grins, his eyes crinkling adorably. “Hey. Busy?”

I glance down at my gray yoga pants and bare feet laughing, “Not really, no. Just enjoying the storm.”

Stepping aside, I usher him in. Immediately my little house is filled with Macy, his massive presence. Mace is a big guy both physically and in sheer personality. I’m tall, nearly 5’10” but even I feel almost tiny next to him. And if his height wasn’t enough, he’s also built like a sexy muscular tank, covered in tattoos. With a mass of dark hair, he typically wears pulled back in a causal man-bun and twinkling dark eyes.

I’m not lying. Or exaggerating. They twinkle. He’s like a dark, tan Santa Claus with six-pack abs.

He crosses the threshold, dripping water on the floor.

“You’re soaked! How long have you been out there?”

I rush down the hallway before he can answer and grab a towel out of the bathroom closet.

“I guess I’ve been walking for a while,” he admits, taking the towel I offer and drying his face and neck.

I frown in concern. “Everything okay?”

He takes a finger and gently massages the tension V between my eyebrows. He shrugs but doesn’t really answer.

“What are you up to?”

I decide to let him deflect the question for now. But I’m coming back to it.

“Just reading.”

“Anything good?”

This is so surreal I can’t help the little laugh that escapes. “Yeah actually.”

He nods, then asks, “Got a book for me?”

My head tilts to the side as I study him, not even hiding my confusion. “Macy. You can’t really want to sit and read a book with me in soaking wet clothes.”

He shrugs. “I kinda do actually. Is that okay?”

Something is definitely going on. But if he needs a friend right now, I guess I can be that.

“You have to get out of those wet clothes.”

He’s wrapped the towel around his neck now, holding the ends. He grins at me. “You could at least buy me dinner before trying to get me naked.”

I laugh. “Seriously. I doubt I have anything that will fit you but I’ll check. Why don’t you use the bathroom to get undressed and dry off. I can throw your clothes in the dryer.”

He grabs my wrist as I turn to attempt to find something for him to wear. My breath catches as I turn back to meet his gaze.

“Thanks, Hunter.”

“No problem.”

I can’t actually concentrate on my book with Macy sitting a few feet away, somehow managing to look both ridiculous and delicious in a pair of my old sweatpants. They are far too small, fitting more like tights as they stretch across his muscled thighs.

I thought he’d balk when I handed them through the bathroom door but in typical Macy fashion he’d just laughed and tried them on. I’d found an old mystery novel for him to read and so now he sat on my couch, also drinking a mug of tea, silently reading in pants that didn’t fit and no shirt.

How was I supposed to concentrate on anything other than that?

I’m not.

Eventually I slam my book shut, a little more forcefully than I intended. Macy looks up at me and grins.

“I’m hungry,” I lie. “How about some cookies?” I’m still trying to figure out what is going on, why he’s here. I’ve found desserts are a great way to loosen people’s tongues.

His eyes widen comically. “You got some of those spicy chocolate ones?”

I grin as I stand up. Based on his purchasing habits at the bakery, I know those are his favorites. “I do.”

He vaults to his feet, eagerly following me into the kitchen.

I warm up some cookies and we stand at the kitchen island, relishing the gooey chocolate cookies with a hint of cayenne. He’s reaching for his third one when he finally admits why he’s here.

“My brother died,” he says softly.

“Oh, Mace. I’m so sorry.” I go to him, wrapping my arms around his waist, trying to offer some comfort.

I barely remember Macy’s older brother. Unlike Macy and his sister, his brother left Chicago right out of high school. I know he comes home to visit, bringing his wife and kids on all the holidays but I’ve rarely seen him. But their family is close, this must be a massive blow to all of them.

His arms come around me, returning my embrace, his chin resting against my temple.

“There was a car accident,” his voice cracks.

I tighten my arms around him, my hands smoothing over the muscles of his back. I’m not sure how long we stand there holding each other, the pounding rain muffling any other external sounds.

Eventually I step back and meet his eyes. My breath catches at the intensity in his gaze as it moves across my face.

And suddenly, before I even realize it’s happening, we’re kissing.

Macy kisses me. And maybe I shouldn’t, but I kiss back.

We first meet Macy and Hunter here and here.

AtoZ Challenge · Sloane and Josh

Garrison, Josh #AtoZChallenge

I take a deep breath, attempting to calm my nerves. I shouldn’t be this nervous. But I’ve never knocked on this door before and frankly, this isn’t the way I imagined it happening.

The woman on the other side hates me.

I think.

Pretty sure.

Bracing myself, I rap my knuckles against the door. I hear someone moving inside the condo, a shuffling of feet, a shadow appears under the door as they peek through the peep hole and release the locks. The door swings open.

And there she is.

Sloane Reed.

“Garrison.” Her flat tone is not encouraging.

“Evening.” Suspecting it is futile, I still attempt my most charming smile. I work my dimple to my fullest advantage.

“What are you doing here?”

My dimple did not work on this one.

I’m always a little taken by surprise at how hostile she is toward me. The first night we met, three years ago, she had seemed just as curious and aware of me as I was of her. I still don’t know what had changed on her end.

Giving up my attempt to charm her, one of many failed attempts over the last three years, I confess the reason for my surprise visit.

“I’m looking for Ethan. Erik thought you might know where he was.”

She looks up at me, her face inscrutable, and I’m an expert on reading expressions. Literally. It’s my job. I study micro expressions and interrogation techniques for the FBI. Part of Sloane’s fascination for me is the fact that for whatever reason she is incredibly hard to read.

“Why?” she demands.

“Why do I want to see him or why did Erik think you would know where he is?”

“Why do you want to see him? I know the other.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache coming on. “Nothing that concerns you. Do you know where he is? I’m in kind of a hurry.”

Sloane hesitates, I see a brief flash of indecision in her eyes before she pulls the veil back down.

“Can’t you just tap in to one of your spy satellites and find him?”

I smirk at her dig. “That’s the CIA,” I inform her.

“How sad for you.”

I can’t help but laugh. Her lips twitch as she fights her own grin.

“He’s here,” she admits reluctantly. She glances over her shoulder into her home. “He’s in the shower.” She hesitates another heartbeat, then moves aside so I can enter. “He should be out in a second. I’ll tell him you’re here.”

I follow her into the living room, taking in the details of her space. It feels like Sloane. It’s colorful but tasteful, obsessively organized, allowing only small glimpses into her personality. I hear lowered voices down the hall she’d disappeared but I can’t make out any of the words. Without thinking about it I pick up a framed photo of Sloane and her little sister.

“Where is Quinn?” I ask as she reappears, returning the frame to it’s place.

“She’s a counselor at her summer camp this year. She’ll be in the Boundary Waters until the middle of August.” Her chilly reception thaws a bit as she speaks about her younger sibling.

Conversation exhausted, we stand awkwardly across the room from each other.

She is so beautiful.

I take full advantage of this rare opportunity to study her up close. I sense I’m making her uncomfortable, although she’s doing her best to hide the fact. I have slowly discovered that her ability to guard her reactions diminishes the longer she’s in my presence. This rare ability only adds to her appeal for me. I have to work to figure out what she’s thinking, which is scarce in my life. I’ve obviously caught her relaxing at home, maybe even getting ready for bed. She’s wearing a pair of snug black yoga pants and an over-sized white t-shirt. Her wavy blond hair is in a loose braid, wisps falling around her face. And her feet are bare with dark polish on the toes. She has cute feet.

This is bad.

When I start to notice little details of a woman’s anatomy like cute feet, well…. My gaze travels back up to meet her eyes. She blushes under my scrutiny, turning away abruptly and pouring herself a glass of wine. She doesn’t bother to offer me any.

Perversely, I’m kind of glad I can see any reaction. Three years ago, the night we met, she had been attracted to me too, I was sure of it. Before she started to hide herself from me, I saw the interest in her eyes.

Mercifully, Ethan enters the room, his hair still wet and shirt still unbuttoned. He pauses to kiss Sloane’s cheek on his way to the bar she had set up in the corner. “Garrison. You’re lucky you caught me, I’m leaving again in the morning.” Glass in hand ,he finally turns to acknowledge me. “I get the impression you’re here in an official capacity?”

When I talked to Erik earlier, trying to track down Ethan, he’d seemed confident that Sloane and Ethan weren’t a couple but seeing how comfortable he is in her space I wonder. It bothers me more than I care to admit.

“I am. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”

Sloane crosses her arms stubbornly. “My place, Garrison. I’m not going anywhere.”

“It’s fine with me if she stays.” Ethan leans his hip against the bar, crossing his legs at the ankle. Utterly at ease. At least on the surface. I see the tension he’s trying to disguise. “What’s up?”

I study Ethan carefully. Despite the fact I consider his twin brother a good friend, Ethan has always rubbed me the wrong way.

He’s a master at deception, I even suspect he’s had training beyond what a partner in a security firm normally would. I sense he knows far more about the FBI and intelligence community than he lets on. And he always seems to be testing me somehow, like I’m in a perpetual audition for some unknown assignment.

It doesn’t help he’s showering in Sloane Reed’s bathroom.

I’ve never had reason to look into my suspicions. They just exist. I wonder if this will be what triggers an end to our unspoken and unstable truce.

We first meet Josh here.

AtoZ Challenge

Flynn #AtoZChallenge

“Hey, Hansen!”

I look up from my desk and mind-numbing reports to find fellow Special Agent Khouri with a wicked grin on her face.

“What’s up?” I am immediately suspicious of that expression.

“Garrison has a walk-in. Says she’ll only talk to him.” She grins again, enjoying assigning me this likely fools errand.

“He’s not here.”

“I realize that, but she says she has information about an open case.”

“Which case?”

“Won’t say. She’ll only talk to Garrison.”

“Am I supposed to pretend to be him?” I ask frustrated.

Khouri shrugs. “Maybe she’ll talk to his partner. If she won’t you’ll have to get him in here.”

Sighing heavily, I push myself back from my desk and stand. I was right to be suspicious of her enjoyment at my expense. These walk-ins are usually a waste of time, but our section leader insists we are ‘available to the community’. It’s some plan to rebuild trust between the FBI and the people. I hope I can get this crazy woman to talk to me because there is no way in hell I’m calling Garrison on the first vacation he’s taken, other than getting shot, in years. I’d like him to be able to enjoy it. And I’d like not to be reamed out by my director if I ignore her random tip.

“She’s in interview room three.” She grins one last time and scampers away.

“You’re cruel, Khouri. I won’t forget it!” I yell after her.

And head to interview room three.

I pause mid-way down the hallway, studying the tipster before she realizes I’m there. She is slowly pacing the length of the room, periodically she’ll disappear from my view and then reappear facing the opposite direction. She’s tiny. Tiny frame, delicate features, disturbingly baggy clothing. She’s got a faded baseball cap pulled low over her eyes and covering what I’m assuming is very short dark hair based on the few wisps poking out of the back along her nape.

She doesn’t seem agitated enough to be unstable. Right now anyway. But that doesn’t mean she’s not going to be an utter waste of my time.

My jaw clenches as I move the rest of the way down the hall and rap twice on the door before entering.

My abrupt entrance startles her and she jumps, facing the doorway. Her lips open, gasping softly and her wide eyes fly to mine.

Striking amber colored eyes. Practically golden, contrasting against her fair skin and slashing black eyebrows.

I smile, trying to be disarming. “Hi, I’m Agent Hansen.” I extend my hand in greeting.

She grasps it firmly but immediately tells me, “I’m waiting for Agent Garrison.”

“I heard.” I take a seat at the table, encouraging her to do the same. She doesn’t.

I look up at her from my chair. Sitting is another part of my strategy to make her comfortable. I’ve got over six inches on her and I don’t want her to feel intimidated. That will likely cause her to clam up and insist on Garrison. It doesn’t surprise me she’s asked for him by name. He’s the Chicago Bureau’s favorite public face, frequently used as a spokesperson at press conferences. I don’t begrudge him his media fame. I like being a bit more anonymous. But his notoriety does come in handy at times.

Just not when I have to humor walk-ins. Even ones with beautiful amber eyes.

“I’m Josh’s partner,” I inform her. “I was hoping I could help you.”

She tucks her lips in, chewing on them thoughtfully.

I flip through my notebook, finding a blank page. “What’s your name?”

Instead of answering she asks a question of her own.

“How long have you been partners?”

Leaning back in my chair, I study her carefully. “Six years.”

Gingerly she moves closer and sits across the table from me. I exhale in relief at this sign she’s willing to work with me. Maybe Garrison will get his vacation.

“Did you work with him on the Alarie case?”

This is interesting. Maybe she does have an actual tip worth my time.

“I did,” I confirm.

That was the case my partner, Josh Garrison, was shot during. We kept details close to the vest on that one, releasing very little to the media. For multiple reasons.

“I was told I could trust Garrison. That he would be a good person to talk to.”

There aren’t many that know the details of that case. This immediately narrows down the people who could have referred her to us. To Josh. But still too many possibilities to know for sure who sent her and hazard a guess why. I find myself hoping the most obvious, most likely scenario is not the right one.

“You can trust me too.”

She studies me carefully, considering. I find myself holding my breath until finally she nods.

Glancing at my notebook I ask again, “Your name.”

She shakes her head.

“I need a name.”

“Birdie.”

“Birdie?” I study her silently, confident this is a lie.

She stares back, defiant. This is all I’m going to get.

“Birdie,” I repeat and nod, accepting this. “How can we help you?”

“I saw on the news, about the two women who went missing.”

Frowning, I ask her for clarification.

“Dawn Sanchez and Heather Gold.”

I keep my face impartial. I know a little about these cases, they’ve been all over the Chicago news. But they aren’t FBI cases, they are Chicago PD. And as far as I know they aren’t connected. Maybe she is just looking for attention or notoriety. Once again I’m assuming she’s a waste of my time.

“Did you have some information about either of them?”

She swallows, her eyes dropping to her hands resting on the table between us. She’s twisting her ring around nervously.

“I think so.”

I wait patiently. But my mind is already back on the reports at my desk.

“I – I think they’re both alive.”

“Okay. What makes you think that?”

“They fit the pattern.”

If I could roll my eyes I would. Dawn Sanchez and Heather Gold have little in common. Dawn was a college student on a full scholarship and disappeared during her morning run. Heather was visiting Chicago with friends and never returned to their hotel room after a night at the bars. This one has clearly been watching too much Criminal Minds.

“Anything specific you can tell me? What pattern are you referring too?”

Her ring flips through her fingers, periodically reflecting the overhead lights.

“What he likes. How he… how he collects them.”

What the hell?

“You think I’m crazy,” she accuses.

“I’m just trying to understand,” I deny. “No one has connected these two women.”

She stands abruptly, tears spring to her eyes. “I’m not crazy. I can prove it.”

Despite everything… she doesn’t seem unstable. She doesn’t seem like the glory-seekers we sometimes see. She seems genuine. I find myself wanting to believe her even if it seems far fetched.

“I’m listening,” I say trying to reassure her.

“I can prove it,” she insists.

I nod, waiting patiently.

“Until two months ago, he had me too.”

Curious about Josh? You can meet him here.

Uncategorized

Ethan #AtoZChallenge

I think we have a problem. When are you back?

I read the text I just received. Concerning but I know the sender well enough to know if she was in immediate danger she would have been more specific. And I suspect I already know what has her rattled. I type out a quick response and we make plans to meet two days from now, Monday night, when I return to Chicago.

Setting that aside, I have other things that require my immediate attention, I slip my phone back in my pocket and return my attention to the surveillance equipment in front of me.

“Boss, no movement in two days. What are we doing here?” Kurt Erickson, this assignment’s lead, asks me, his voice whispering through my ear piece.

I understand his frustration. He’s a field operative, he’s used to taking action, providing protection. He’s not like me. Research, information gathering, intelligence, observation. Spending so much time behind computers has made me incredibly methodical and patient. I know if I wait long enough my enemies, the men and women I target, will make a mistake. They’ll break a pattern, forget to delete some footprint, miss dotting that ‘I’ and as long as I do my job I will find them.

“We run the lead, Erickson. Like always. We wait.”

Silence greets me. He may grumble when he doesn’t have things to punch but I trust him with my life. And the lives of people I love. He’s proved his skill and loyalty more than once.

It’s also becoming increasingly likely that this particular lead is bringing us nothing. We’ve been staking out this private air field outside of Las Vegas for days with nothing to show. The information I gathered seemed to indicate a 72-hour window that a pilot with connections to a man I’ve been hunting would be coming to party on the Strip and using this airfield to house his plane. Seventy-two hours that is quickly dwindling. It’s already dusk, if he doesn’t come tonight I’ll have to consider pulling back. If we stay in place much longer someone is bound to spot us.

But even the smallest possibility I could get one level closer to him would motivate me to sit in this van for weeks if necessary. He wasn’t the first monster I met but he’s the one I need to stop before I can think about having a life beyond this.

He’s a ghost. Literally.

I saw him die.

Yet, there are still sightings of him all over the globe.

Money still moves through his bank accounts.

People still die in his name. Others kill by his order.

Even she is beginning to doubt she actually killed him.

But I saw her shoot him. I saw him fall. I felt his pulse fade.

I know he’s dead.

But I don’t know who has taken his place. And I don’t know why.

And until I do, no one I love is safe.

Sleep Walker. That’s what he calls himself.

Movement on the screens in front of me catches my eye, shaking me loose from my dark thoughts.

“Car approaching from the west,” I alert the team.

“I’ve got eyes on it.” This is from Peter Novak, another member of the team. “Looks like just the driver.”

My computer beeps. “Tower just approved landing for a plane coming in.”

Erickson orders his team to stay sharp. I feel the adrenaline moving through me as I lean forward, watching the lights of the approaching plane. The car has stopped near the hanger. Although I don’t see anyone I know Kurt has moved in to position, close enough to apprehend the driver once we have confirmation on our target.

The plane comes in for a landing, skirting right over us before touching down and taxing to the far end of the strip. I watch from the van as it turns and comes back, moving back toward the hanger.

“Tail number doesn’t match.”

Dammit! I squint at the cameras but none of them have the angle or lighting I need to see if Novak is right. My refusal to trust him is an obvious indication how different this assignment is than all the others. I refuse to accept this dead end. Something must be here.

Something has to be here.

Screw it.

I grab my gun off the table and check the safety. Then I slip out of the van.

“Boss?” Erickson must see me moving on the tarmac.

“I’m getting a closer look. Wait for my signal. Stay in position. And don’t shoot me.”

The last is a joke. No one on my team shoots without knowing what they are aiming at. But better to let them know I’m now in play.

By now the plane has done a 180 and is returning our direction, the on site mechanic preparing to refuel it as the engines shut off. I walk towards the hangar, knowing they’ll need to check in at the terminal, feigning ignoring the plane itself. Novak is right of course, the tail number isn’t a match.

But I still want to know who is on that plane before I give up.

Out of the corner of my eye I see the hatch open, stairs lowering and a few minutes later an average white guy descends. I pretend I’m on the phone, complaining about a late ride. He hesitates as he approaches, eying me carefully.

Trying to put him at ease, I turn my back again ‘ignoring’ him.

He takes another two steps.

Then turns abruptly and retraces his path at a sprint.

“Everyone move in! Do NOT let him get back on that plane!”

Want to know more about Ethan’s backstory? Click here.

And we find out more about Nathan here.

Peter appears briefly here.

AtoZ Challenge · Dylan and Blake

Dylan #AtoZChallenge

The microwave beeps signaling my dinner is ready just as my cell phone buzzes. Damn it.

It’s late. Just after midnight. I’m starving and exhausted and only got home twenty minutes ago. I just want to eat something and go to bed.

My phone is still chiming annoyingly and vibrating across the counter.

I would ignore it but the name on the screen is my boss.

I accept the call, tucking my cell between my shoulder and my ear and grab my burrito. “Melrose.”

“Just got a call about a possible double homicide. You’re up. Dixon will meet you there.”

“No need. I’ve got it.”

“You need a partner.”

“I’m fine, Captain.”

“Stuff it. Dixon will meet you on site. Montrose Harbor.” He disconnects before I can argue.

Fuck. The last thing I need is someone watching my every move. The Captain knows I prefer to work alone but some new brass has been making waves about protocols.

And considering the number of rules I’ve broken through the years I’m at the top of their internal ‘keep an eye on this guy’ list.

So now, not only does it look like I’m getting a partner, I’m getting a new partner. Dixon was just promoted into our department a month ago. She’s green which likely means she’s going to care a lot about rules and protocols.

Juggling the burrito, I put my jacket back on between bites and walk back out the door.

As promised Detective Dixon is waiting at the Harbor at the docks entrance. She snaps to attention when she sees me approaching, reaching out her hand to shake mine and introduces herself.
“We met last month -”

I cut her off. “I remember. Catch me up. What do you know?”

“Two deceased. Male, 30s, shot execution style in the head. Woman, two shots to the chest. Shots were reported just after 11:30pm by a couple living on their yacht a few berths down.”

“Fancy.”

Dixon continues, ignoring my remark, as we walk down the dock. “Haven’t found any witnesses reporting anything unusual but officers are canvassing the Harbor for anyone else who lives on site.”

“Do we have an ID?” I pause as we reach the yacht housing our crime scene, studying the exterior.

She refers to her notes. “Boat is registered to Mr. Preston Sinclair. Driver’s License on the male vic has the same name.”

Preston Sinclair.

I glance at her sharply, suddenly feeling like I need to vomit. “Preston Sinclair? You’re sure?” I demand.

She shrugs. “I mean, as sure as we can be at this point.”

I can’t breath as I force the next question out. “The woman?”

“Unknown. We haven’t found a purse or wallet with any identification for her yet.”

I stare at the gangplank, willing myself to move forward but my feet stay anchored to the dock. I know what I’m going to find on that yacht and I want to delay that knowledge as long as possible. Memories torture me, scenes of teasing blue eyes and wavy blond hair, and softly tanned skin. How unapologetically she relished life. Her unrestrained enjoyment of dancing. Her bold laughter.

“Melrose?” Dixon is half way up the gangplank looking at me expectantly.

My jaw clenched with fear, I follow.

I move through the scene, trying to observe everything with my trained detective’s eye but I’m distracted by the dread at the edges of my mind. There was clearly a struggle. Several of the rooms have overturned furniture. The door to the master bedroom looks like it was kicked in. I recognize the uniformed police officer outside and nod a grim greeting.

“Where’s the male vic?”

He points down the hall to the front of the boat and Dixon and I move that direction.

Part of me is still hoping it’s a mistake. That Sinclair loaned his boat to a friend who wanted to impress his date. That I’m not going to know the person I find.

But I do.

His face is bloody and disfigured but it’s enough for me to be sure. I force myself to compartmentalize and crouch near the body, studying the scene carefully for several minutes. Standing, I turn and find Dixon. “It’s him,” I confirm. It’s Sinclair.”

She’s studying me almost as carefully. “You know him?”

“Yeah.” Glancing again at the body on the floor I brace myself for the next part. “Yeah. I know him. Where’s the woman?”

“Back in the bedroom.”

My feet are heavy, all the sounds around me muffled as I force myself back down the hall.

Teasing blue eyes.

Brilliant wide smile.

I might actually throw up.

I pause once more before entering, delaying the inevitable as long as possible.

At first I only see a pair of bare feet with red toe nails sticking out from behind the bed. In slow motion I move around the foot of the bed, the roar in my head canceling out any other sound. The woman was naked. The first cops on the scene had thrown a sheet over her as cover. A meaningless gesture to respect her privacy but one I appreciate.

Red toe nails.

Teasing blue eyes.

I crouch down next to her and slowly lift the sheet to reveal her face.

Black hair.

Black hair.

Glancing at her face I exhale in relief. I sway, unsteady, and catch myself just before I touch anything else.
It’s not her. I don’t know this woman.

It’s not Blake.

Thank Christ.

When I’m sure none of what I’m feeling is reflected on my face I release the sheet and stand, once again finding Dixon waiting.

“Any sign of the gun?”

She shakes her head. “We can get divers out in the morning. Maybe we’ll be lucky and he just ditched it overboard.”
I nod, approving this plan.

I instruct the CSI team to bag the victims hands. “They fought back. See if we can find any DNA under their nails.”

Dixon and I return to the dock, leaving the team to continue collecting evidence.

“Preston Sinclair was an actor. He’s in a play downtown right now. I know the director. We’ll meet with her in the morning and see what she can tell us. Hopefully she’ll recognize the woman. Let’s also get a warrant to search Sinclair’s apartment and the theatre.”

Dixon nods and we make a plan to meet up in the morning, a few short hours from now.

A few short hours to grab some sleep before getting back to work.

But when I drive away from the harbor, I don’t head home.

I go to her.

I go to Blake.

Dylan first appears in Lucas and Ash’s story, here.