Abbotts · Ethan and Ilyssa

Teagan

“I’m sorry I dragged you in to this. But I’m really glad you came with me.”

“I’ll always be by your side. Especially when you’re in trouble. That’s when you need me.”

Ilyssa smiles sadly. She lifts her hand, holding out her pinky finger. I do the same linking our pinkies together, a promise we’ve made to each other hundreds of times starting when we were six years old.

She lays down on the hotel bed, clearly exhausted. I don’t think she’s had a good night sleep since her mom died two months ago. As she closes her eyes I notice again the discoloration along her cheek and my blood heats. I’ve known, I’ve always known, that things were bad for Ilyssa at home. Her step father is a drunk and the fact he beat her mom is a poorly kept secret.

But two nights ago was the first time she’s shown up on my doorstep with her own bruises visible.

Bruises and plans to run away to New Orleans.

Which is where we are now.

It wasn’t a very well thought out plan. And I obviously wasn’t going to let my best friend do this alone in her state. I mean, in any state, but especially not in the state she was in forty-eight hours ago. I wasn’t able to convince her this New Orleans plan was crazy so I did the next best thing. I ran away with her.

Knowing full well my family would come after us.

Often over the years having three older brothers has annoyed the hell out of me. They had no problem getting over their own rivalries to gang up on me. I’ve never had a slumber party without some obnoxious prank being played. And forget about dating. The only people they delighted in torturing more than me was any boys that may be in my vicinity.

So yeah, I’ve screamed at all my brothers over the years. This is one of the rare times I appreciate their over-involvement in my life. The fact Ilyssa is at the center of this will only add to their urgency. We’ve been virtually inseparable the last fifteen years, and my house was always available for her to escape her own home life. My family adopted her into the fold years ago.

And I’m pretty sure one of my brothers is in love with her.

We don’t talk about that though. No way I’m getting in the middle of that.

I’ve made no attempt to ‘cover our trail’. Ilyssa’s initial plan was to find one of her old professors and mentors who moved here last year and see if she could help get her a job and a place to stay. I used my credit card to buy our plane tickets and I convinced her we should get a hotel room before springing ourselves on her old professor.

A hotel owned by my uncle.

Frankly, Ilyssa is still too shaken up and wild eyed to question any of my decisions. She’s just relieved to have someone taking the reigns. All she cares about right now is putting distance between her and her step father. As long as that seems to be happening, she doesn’t care about the details.

Ultimately, if she decides to stay in New Orleans I’ll support her. But I’m banking on the assumption that once she calms down, she’ll realize she doesn’t have to blow up her entire life to be safe from Ron. Ilyssa and I have big plans and only one semester left of college before we can start to put them in action. I’m pretty confident my parents will be more than happy to help her find a safe place to stay until graduation.

I can tell from the sound of her breathing, she’s finally fallen asleep. I write her a quick note so she doesn’t panic if I’m not back when she wakes up and take the elevator down to the hotel lobby.

I leave a couple messages and some instructions with the concierge and then I grab a seat at the bar adjacent to the lobby.

And I wait.

I’ve just started my second Brandy Milk Punch when my oldest brother Zane barrels through the door followed closely by our cousin and his best friend Alex. I pop up from my seat and intercept them before they get to the front desk.

“Zane!”

He turns abruptly at the sound of my voice and crosses over to me, grabbing me in a quick hug. Alex does the same, scooping me up as soon as Zane releases me.

“You okay?”

I nod.

“Ilyssa okay?”

“Not really. She’s asleep upstairs.”

A grim expression settled across my brother’s face. “Is she okay?” he asks again, eyes boring in to mine.

“She will be.”

He nods, clearly wanting more information but settling for that for the time being.

Alex grins at me, attempting to break the tension. “At least when you bolt you do it in fashion, cuz. I love NOLA.”

I grin back at him and lead them back to my table. After the guys order their own drinks Zane turns his attention back to me.

“What’s really going on squirt? Are you just trying to help Ilyssa or are you serious about quitting school?”

“And if I’m serious about quitting?”

He shrugs taking a sip of his beer. “The family dinner table might be a little tense for a while, but hell, I don’t live there anymore. We’d get through it.”

Leaning over I give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “That’s why you’re my favorite brother.”

He snorts.

Eyes wide, I ask, “You think I’d lie?”

“I think your definition of favorite changes with your mood.”

I laugh. “I suppose. I love you all. But don’t tell the other two.”

“Of course not. Although I’m not really looking forward to telling them you’re dropping out with one semester left and moving to New Orleans. The love thing might soften the blow.”

I laugh again. “You won’t have to tell them anything. I have no intention of dropping out. It would interfere with my plans, you know that.”

“So what was this little impromptu road trip across state lines about?”

I bite my lip. “Alyssa was hysterical, terrified. After Ron attacked her…. For some reason she latched on to the idea that this was the only safe place she could go. I couldn’t let her go alone, not in that condition. Besides, it’s her last semester too. She just needs some time to calm down and I think she’ll want to come home.”

“And then what?”

“You know as well as I do Mom and Dad will let her stay with us until classes start again. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they help her pay for her own housing for the last semester. They won’t let her go back to that asshole. We’re her real family anyway.”

Zane looked at me silently until I felt myself start to fidget under his steady gaze. “What?”

He shrugged. “You’re pretty cool.”

I slug him in the shoulder.

“I got you guys a room on the same floor.” I slide them the key card. “Ilyssa is going to be mortified that you’re here so no asking questions and no pushing on going home until she’s ready. Clear?” I eye them both until they nod their agreement. Then I grin. “Ready for Bourbon Street?”

Alex rubs his hands together in glee. “NOLA, baby! I know just where to start. Hurricanes!”

Now just to convince Ilyssa she’s safe.

See where Ilyssa is years later.

Curious about Zane? Six years later, here’s his story.

Abbotts · Quinn and Nathan · Sloane and Josh

Quinn

Great. Nathan Erickson is in my apartment. Awesome.

I’m in my kitchen, sipping a cup of tea as the one man I never wanted to see again combs through my apartment making notes on the best way to ‘secure’ my space.

Part of me still believes this is an over reaction, but the Senator insisted and while I know he manipulated me, threatening to call my sister and interrupting her anniversary trip, I didn’t see him backing down.
And it’s not like I could explain why I didn’t want Nathan Erickson in charge of my safety. Not to the Senator.

I watch from the kitchen as Nathan moves through my space, analyzing windows, checking sight lines, potential security holes.

He straightens and finds me before saying. “You have a good security system.”

I shrug. “Old habits.” I haven’t always had the safest living situation.

“How is your sister?” he asks.

“She’s good.” I tell him about the trip she’s currently on. He knows her husband from the FBI and suddenly I’m uncomfortable with the personal direction the conversation has gone.

Trying to distance myself again I turn the conversation back to business. “So, what’s the verdict? Am I safe in my own home?”

“We’ll have to keep the drapes closed at all times. Living in the city allows too many lines of sight from surrounding buildings even on the fourth floor. I’m installing a camera at the main entrance so you can see as well as hear anyone who buzzes for entry. And I’m putting surveillance teams in some of the surrounding buildings.

“We’re also looking in to renting one of the open apartments on this floor and have a team placed there.”

I’m stunned. This is a much larger operation than I had expected. I’d been kind of assuming Nathan and his partner were going to be the extent of it.

I voice my concerns. “Is all this really necessary? That sounds like an incredibly large team for a third year law student with an overzealous stalker.”

“Quinn. We have a team of eight, prepared to provide 24 hour protection. The Senator insisted but I agree with his and Ethan’s assessment. You know you’re more than a typical law student. It’s possible whoever sent the threats and photos isn’t aware of your history but we have to assume they are until we know it for a fact.”

I sink into my couch, setting my mug of tea on the coffee table. “This is crazy.” I stare blindly at my feet, rubbing my hands over my jean clad knees.

Nathan crouches in front of me. “I know it seems overwhelming right now. I’ll do my best to make sure you can live as close to normal as possible. But you’re going to do it safely.”

I can feel the heat radiating off him, he’s so close.

He’s so close.

I bit my bottom lip, hating that some small part of me still craves his touch, his comfort.

The tension is abruptly shattered when the sound of someone trying to open my apartment door propels Nathan into action. He grabs my upper arm and roughly pulls me to my feet, shoving me behind him.

The door knob rattles again but does no good. I always lock my door when I get home, it’s habit.

“Get in your bedroom,” Nathan orders, pulling his gun as he moves to the door. He pulls his cell alerting someone on the other end about the potential danger. I hurry to do as I’m told, my heart pounding.

I close the door to my bedroom, leaning my ear against the wood trying to hear what’s happening.

I’m too far away to understand what’s being said but two distinct voices drift across the space. Suddenly realizing who was on the other side of the door I curse and bolt out of my hiding space.

Shit.


“Is she expecting you?”

“Stop it, Nathan,” I snap, mortified by this confrontation and the fact that I haven’t thought about my boyfriend in hours. I force the front door open wide, allowing Jeff to see me standing next to Nathan.

“Jeff. Hi!” I’m a little out of breath and give him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek to try and cover the awkwardness.

“Hi. You forgot,” he guessed, his voice sounding slightly chiding.

“Guilty,” I admit. “What are you doing here?”

“We were going to try the new Indian place in Logan Square.”

Oh shit.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s been a crazy day.” I move inside, staring pointedly at Nathan to do the same. Jeff follows me into the living room, Nathan standing between us and the door.

“Everything okay?”

“Not completely.”

“Have anything to do with the suit lurking in your hallway?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“Come here,” he opens his arms, offering me a reassuring hug and I step into his arms a warm sense of contentment washing over me. Jeff and I have been seeing each other for nearly a year. He’s cute and smart and sweet and reliable. He make me feel valued and comfortable. He’s a really good man.

And I’m an awful person letting past feelings distract me from those facts.

“Tell me?” He offers.

I give him a brief recap of my conversation with the Senator, explaining Nathan was essentially my bodyguard for the foreseeable future. I don’t explain he comes with a small army.

“How much danger do they think you’re in? Is there a reason to think this guy will become violent?” We’ve moved to the couch at this point. Nathan is still standing in my hallway, positioned with his back to the wall able to see both the front door and where Jeff and I are sitting. He’s not watching us though, instead staring straight ahead at my wall.

But apparently he’s listening because he speaks again for the first time at Daniel’s questions. “Senator Abbott feels it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

“Do you want to just stay in tonight? We can have something delivered.”

That’s sweet. And accommodating. I’m lucky to have him.

Great. So, now I have Jeff and Nathan both in my apartment.

Awesome.

See this from Nathan’s perspective here.

Abbotts · Ethan and Ilyssa · Sloane and Josh

Piper

Are you freaking kidding me??!!

I glance up from the text I just received and I shove my phone in the pocket of my bag angrily. Snatching my bag I climb out of my car, slamming the door behind me and storm into my office at the Chicago Reporter.

The object of my rage is in the middle of the press room. He sees me coming and starts crossing to his office at the edge of the room. “Greg!” I call out. He keeps moving.

“That was my interview! I worked my ass off for that interview. I followed him on the campaign trail for months! And you gave it to Kevin? Seriously?” I chase my editor into his office and slam the door behind me.

“Piper, my hands are tied.”

“That’s crap, Greg and you know it.”

“He asked for Kevin.”

My temper crumples, his words knocking me physically back a step. “Wh-what?”

“The Senator asked for Kevin. There was nothing I could do.”

I fall into the chair across from him. “I don’t understand.”

He sighs rubbing his forehead. “You did a great job covering the campaign, Piper. Seriously. Sometimes these guys are just fickle or old-school. Who knows? But the paper wants the interview, so we gave him what he wanted. I’m sorry you got screwed over in the process.”

I swallow before continuing, my voice calmer. “Honestly, I’m really confused. I thought I developed some really good connections among his team.”

Greg shakes his head but doesn’t say anything else. What is there to say?

“You got anything else for me?” Eventually he breaks the silence between us.

“I have something I’m working on, but need more time.”

“This have something to do with the anonymous letter you want me to publish?”

I nod. “I’m still fact checking that but it seems legit. I think we should run it.”

“Shady. And dangerous printing something we don’t know the author of. Or their motivations.”

I open my mouth, ready to argue the point but Greg holds up his hand stopping me. “Be ready to make your case in 48 hours. If you convince me the risk is worth it and verify the facts presented I’ll take it upstairs and discuss it with our lawyers.”

I grin. “I’ll be ready.”

“Okay. Now get out of here. Leave the door open.”

I scurry back to my desk and pull out my laptop. The rejection from the Senator’s team still stings but I’ve got work to do. The past two months I’ve been slowly building trust with an anonymous confidential informant. An informant that claims to have information about a massive human trafficking ring with links to Chicago but the story is much larger. International. He or she is incredibly skittish but so far the information they’ve provided me seems to be accurate. A week ago I was sent a supposedly first hand account of a woman who had escaped. Her story is terrifying and heartbreaking and enraging. I’ve been trying to convince Greg to publish it without her identity but he’s hesitant to do so, for good reasons. I have no idea who I’m communicating with and while they claim their primary objective is to expose the people enabling these crimes and get justice, it’s hard to trust someone I’ve never met.

But I really believe this is a story that needs to be told.

I open my twitter account. My source is inconsistent with their communication and early on we established this as a way for me to signal I needed to talk. I tweet something benign and meaningless, including the hashtag #stillawake.

That’s the signal we’ve agreed upon.

Now I wait.

I enter the bar just as last call is announced. I’m jumpy, my adrenaline pulsing. My informant contacted me with a time and location. We’ve never met in person despite my numerous requests. This feels monumental and as a result my skin is humming. I order a beer, just to help me blend in, not because I intend to drink it then move to the booths in the back room as directed.

I sit with my back to the wall so I can watch the door and scan the room in front of me. I’ve actually been to this bar before, but not for years. One of my old apartments is two blocks from here. It’s a weeknight and late so there isn’t much of a crowd. A few couples sprinkled in booths throughout the space. Three twenty-something guys playing pool. Another table with a group of half a dozen guys and a couple women in baseball caps and Blackhawk’s jerseys.

I put my cell phone on the table, double checking I haven’t received any alert canceling our meeting. Nothing.

I wait.

One of the hockey fans stands up and heads down the hallway to my left, I know from my previous visits that is where the restrooms are located. A couple of the other hockey fans leave. One of the couples has progressed from close talking to making out. The juke box plays on. Loudly.

I wait. Impatiently. I am so impatient. This could be huge. The next few minutes could be career-defining.

The hockey fan comes back from the bathroom but instead of rejoining his remaining friends, he veers abruptly and slides into the booth across from me.

“I’m waiting for someone,” I tell him, annoyed by the prospect of fending off a drunken pick up attempt.

“Piper.”

I’m startled he knows my name and study him closer. The bar is dark and his cap is pulled low, casting his face in even more shadow but it takes me only a second to recognize him.

“Still awake at this hour?”

Holy shit.

No freaking way.

I cannot reconcile the context in which I know this man with the situation that brings me to this bar. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

At. All.

“You’re… ARY?” That’s the only identifier my source has ever used, signing off just as ‘ARY’.

“No. I’ve been enlisted as an intermediary.”

I have no idea what to say. Words are my life – I don’t think this has ever happened to me before.

He digs in to his jacket pocket and pulls out a flash drive. He pushes it across the table until it hits my fingertips. I wrap my fingers around it. “Special delivery.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand anything that is happening right now.”

His mouth quirks. “I know it doesn’t make sense now. Someday, we’ll be able to explain more. We’re hoping you can help with that.”

“By publishing this article.”

“Among other things.”

“What does that mean?”

“They’ll be more stories, Piper. Stories some people won’t want told.”

“You’re trying to warn me this could be dangerous.”

“Not could be. Is.”

“You’re trying to scare me.”

He shakes his head, “I’m not. I like you, Piper. We’ve been waiting a long time for the right person. I think you could be it. I’ll do my best to protect you. But I want you to be fully aware of what could happen. I can’t tell you everything. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Our mutual friend is terrified, she’s been fighting this war for a long time by herself. She’s doesn’t trust easily and she’s not ready yet. But I know you needed something, something so you knew you could trust the information she’s given you. So, here I am.”

I mull over his proposition.

“You like me?”

He nods once.

“You trust me?’

“I do.”

I lean forward and narrow my eyes. “Then why did you have me pulled from the Senator’s interview?”

Piper also appears briefly in Xander.

Abbotts · Quinn and Nathan · Sloane and Josh

Nathan

I hear my boss, for lack of a better word, approach the door I’m standing outside of, waiting.

His voice is muffled but I clearly hear him threaten the woman in the room with him. “Don’t fight me on this Quinn, or I will call Sloan myself and get her and Garrison back here. She’ll make you see reason even if I can’t.”

I wince not at all surprised she’s not on board with his plan. Even though I expected her attitude, it’s not going to make my life any easier. And this before she even knows all of it.

He opens the door to his study and then returns to the front of the room and his chair behind his desk. She’s still facing the other way and hasn’t noticed me yet. I’m glad I have a minute to drink her in before she’s aware of me.

Prepare myself.

I should feel guilty she won’t have that same opportunity but I don’t. I want to see her unguarded reaction. It’s been years since I’ve seen her in person and even though I haven’t seen her face, just being in the same room with her has my body tense. I school my features to hide my reaction.

“That was low,” Quinn mumbles, referring to his threat about calling her sister.

“But effective,” he responds. Senator Abbott can be frustratingly smug at times.

“I’m taking the bar exam in a week.”

“The team leader,” that’s me, “Is aware of your schedule. He won’t interfere,” the Senator promises.

Inwardly I cringe. That’s going to be fun to deal with.

I should not have taken this assignment.

I watch as she takes a deep breath, drawing up straighter. She’s resigned to the fact Senator Abbott is going to get his way. “Okay, fine. Let’s meet the bodyguard.”

Smirking the Senator starts scribbling on a pad of paper in front of him. Without looking up from his notes he tells her, “He’s right behind you. And I’m giving you a few emergency numbers. Memorize them. Just in case.”

I watch as Quinn stands and turns to face me. Her unique gray-green eyes widen and she freezes. I chase a dozen different emotions across her face before she shuts down.

“Nathan.” Her voice is hoarse and she clears her throat delicately. Everything about Quinn is deceptively delicate. “Agent Erickson,” she says with more force.

“Ms. Reed,” I nod, keeping my face blank. “It’s just Erickson now.” I only lasted two years with the FBI.

She tilts her head. “You remember. I thought you must have forgotten when I didn’t make your Christmas card list.”

Sassy. I fight my impulse to laugh.

“Could you give the Senator and I a minute please? I’ll be right out.”

I nod. “I’ll be right outside.”

I return to my position in the hallway.

I should not have taken this assignment.

What was I thinking?

Fuck, she looks good.

Her dark hair is longer now, the thick waves falling midway down her back. The black pants she wore showed off her hips and ass, curvier now than all those years ago. Curves that made my palms itch.

I never should have taken this assignment.

But how could I not? It was Quinn. She was in danger. Again. I promised her ten years ago I would never let anyone hurt her. And I meant it.

“And don’t give Erickson a hard time about doing his job!” I hear the Senator yell.

“No promises!” Quinn responds right before she bursts out of the office, her usual barely leashed energy only slightly dampened by this current situation. She hesitates briefly in front of me and then quickly pulls herself together before demanding. “So, how does this work? Twenty-four hour protection? When I actually know you’re protecting me and I’m supposed to attempt to live a normal life, I mean?”

Ten years ago I’d been undercover. And although I hadn’t let any harm come to her I had hurt her despite my promise. I know that. I’ve regretted that every day since. I made a lot of mistakes, both personally and professionally where she was concerned. Maybe that’s part of the reason I did accept this assignment instead of handing it out.

Maybe part of me wanted a chance to do things better this time around. For both of us.

“First, let’s go to your condo. I”ll check security and make any necessary adjustments. Then we can discuss guidelines and your schedule.”

Her deep inhale causes her breasts to briefly thrust against the cotton of her white tank top and I stop breathing willing my body not to respond. It’s over in a heartbeat but my reaction to her leaves me shaken.

I really, really, should not have taken this assignment.

“Alright then. Let’s go. Do we drive separately? Together?

“I’ll drive. One of the security detail assigned to the Senator will return your car later this afternoon.”

She nods and hands me her car keys. I lead her to my car, handing off her keys and address to one of my teammates with instructions along the way.

I open the passenger side door waiting for her to climb in.

“I’m perfectly capable of opening my own doors.”

I grunt, non-committal. I’ll explain our procedures back at her place. I’d prefer we save any potential arguments until we’re well away from the Senator. Because despite her ultimately conceding to the Senator’s plan I suspect she’ll have plenty to say about it to me.

It should be glorious.

I shut the door firmly and scan our surroundings.

And I guess I’ve just begun my new assignment.

See what happens when they get to Quinn’s apartment here.

Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Lucas

The bell above the door jingles, signaling someone entering the shop. I look up from the sketches I’m working on and size up the man walking towards me.

He’s not our typical clientele. I know tattoos are pretty mainstream at this point and I know better than most never to judge someone by basic appearances but this guy is totally out of place here. Twisted Ink is in a rough middle class neighborhood in Chicago. We don’t usually get business types in fancy suits popping in over their lunch break. Christ, this guy looks like he got his shoes shined this morning.

Although, we are starting to get some folks sniffing around as rumors leak I’ve made the list of contestants for next season of Top Ink. Most come to check out my designs, see if the rumors are true (I can neither confirm nor deny for another month) and if they can get time on my chair before I’m on TV and my schedule gets tighter and my fees higher. At least that’s what I hope happens. Assuming I do well in the competition.

This chance could change everything for me. The prize money, the name recognition, I could finally start my own shop, take Jax and Macy with me. Do it the way we want. The way Jax and I have always talked about.

But this guys still isn’t the type we usually see. I’ll be shocked if he’s here for some ink.

“Can I help you?”

“Lucas Gray?”

A referral? Maybe I’m wrong. I can think of no other reason this guy would be looking for me.

I stand, stretching to my full height. An asshole tactic? Maybe. Honestly, this guy is no physical threat to me but I am well aware that isn’t the only way to wound someone. I take the advantages I have. “Yeah? I’m Luke.”

When he doesn’t say anything else I fill the silence. “You looking for a tattoo?”

That seems to shake him loose and he holds out his hand introducing himself. “I’m Ethan Abbott.”

Curious, I shake his hand still waiting for an explanation.

“I have some personal business to discuss with you. Is there somewhere we could speak privately?”

What the hell is this guys deal?

Another thought occurs to me. “Are you from the network?”

The confusion on his face gives me my answer before he responds. “No. I’m just – I’m here on personal business.”

What kind of business could this guy possibly have with me? Let alone anything he needed privacy for.

“Hey Mace?” I yell back without taking my eyes off the stranger in front of me.

“Yo!”

“Can you cover the front for a few minutes?”

A moment later Macy appears from the break room. I’m a big guy but Mace is a hulk. I give the suit credit. He looks at us warily but doesn’t back down. Mace looks between us and cocks his head, silently asking me if I need back up. We don’t have the history Jax and I do, but I trust him to have my back when things go to shit. He’s loyal and he never feels the need to prove anything to anyone. It’s a level of chill I have yet to achieve.

I have a fuck ton to prove to literally everyone.

“I’ll be back in a bit. You good?”

“My next appointment is at 2. I’m good until then.” He nods at me.

That gives the suit just over 30 minutes to explain his ‘personal business’. “I’ll be back by then. Thanks man.”

I head to the back room, one of the few with an actual door for privacy and not just a curtain, assuming the suit will follow.

It only takes twenty minutes. Twenty minutes to give me answers that explain absolutely nothing. He tells me his family has been looking for me. He tells me they’re my family too. He tells me a lot of things I can’t hear right now. He hands me a fat envelope and tells me he’ll be in touch. Twenty minutes after he enters he leaves.

My head is swimming and everything feels muffled and far away. My chest tightens until I feel like roaring is the only way to relieve the building tension. So I do, hardly recognizing the sound escaping. I need to hit something. I’d like to hit my cousin Ethan but he’s gone leaving me with unanswered fury and countless questions. I throw open the door exploding through the shop. I stop cold seeing Jax reclining back on one of the battered couches for waiting clients, casually watching videos on his phone.

“What are you doing here? You’re not on the schedule.”

“Mace texted.”

I shoot him a look. Unapologetic he just shrugs, “Didn’t look good, brother.”

This tiny show of support soothes my beast just a little. My throat tightens with emotion and I clear it aggressively away. I don’t like how I feel right now. Like I’m on the verge of losing control. I’ll admit the anger inside me is terrifying and knowing these two are here to help me deal with it but also keep me from destroying with it is the security I need right now.

Jax slowly unfolds from the couch tucking his cell in his back pocket. “Want to head up to the Attic?”

I exhale roughly. That’s exactly what I want to do. My shoulders already feel less tense. I nod.

The Attic is what we call the third floor of the building housing the tattoo shop. It’s mostly used for storage and has a ton of crap from previous tenants but we’ve set up a make shift gym in the corner with free weights and a punching bag. That punching bag is going to help me process the information overload I’ve just received.

I strip off my shirt and wrap my hands while Jax pulls up one of the camping chairs we have stashed up there. He listens while I repeat everything I’ve just been told between jabs. I have no idea how long I work out my aggression, longer than the story I have to tell, and by the time I’m done I’m drenched in sweat and my arms are humming in exhausted protest. Jax throws me a bottle of water and kicks another chair so it skids across the floor towards me. Gratefully I fall in to it and gulp the water down.

“These Abbott’s are kind of a big deal, man. Did this Ethan guy mention that?”

“What do you mean?”

Jax glances at his phone again and informs me about my family. “Well, they’re fucking loaded for one. Like inherited money for generations. And one of them – it looks like Ethan’s dad, is a Congressman running for Senate next fall.” He shows me the articles he’s found while I’ve been exercising.

“No. He mentioned something about an estate and possible trust but I couldn’t process what the fuck he was talking about.”

“They think his sister, the politician guy, is your mother?”

I shrug. After all these years finding out who my parents were had stopped being a possibility in my mind. Even with someone right in front of me telling me he might have answers I was still having trouble rewiring my brain.

“I couldn’t find much about her online.”

“He said she ran away when she got pregnant.”

Jax nods. “You said he left you with some papers?”

“Yeah. They’re still downstairs.”

Jax is silent, letting me work things out in my head for a minute.

“What do you want to do?”

It’s different with Jax. He knows who his parents were, knows they were pieces of shit that had no business making a kid. Our foster homes were pretty ugly at times but he knew home would just be a different kind of hell. I had nothing. No information. No ties. No context. Only questions and constant uncertainty.

“You want to take the DNA test?”

Do I?

Ethan seemed to think it was a formality. They were sure he told me. Used ‘every resource at their disposal’ to find me.

“I don’t know man. It feels pretty fucking convenient.”

“What do you mean?”

“That he comes walking through the door now after all this time. Right before his dad starts campaigning for office and I’m about to be on national television?”

“You think they were sitting on it?”

I shrug. I have no idea what I’m thinking.

The DNA comes back a match. I’m an Abbott. Biologically anyway.

I feel that same wave of rage I experienced the first day Ethan dropped all this on me as I read the terms of my trust.

It’s contingent on me withdrawing from Top Ink. There’s a lot of legal words all strung together that I basically interpret as I can do whatever I want with the money as long as I don’t appear on television this year or any other. I look at the dollar amount, literally counting the zeros to clarify what I’m seeing. It’s far more than I’d make winning Top Ink a dozen times.

But I have a fuck ton to prove to literally everyone. And now, especially one person.

Uncle Theo. You dick.

I’ll take your name. Let you explain to all your country club friends and political donors who I am and what your family did to your too-young pregnant sister thirty years ago.

But I’m not signing anything. Keep your bribe you fucking asshole.

I rip up the papers and open a beer.

I need a drink.

And when I win Top Ink we’ll let the skeletons come tumbling out.

I’m an Abbott.

Meet Lucas after his Top Ink win here.

Curious about Uncle Theo?

Abbotts

Kyle

I know this is a totally weird thing to say at a funeral, but I’m having a really lovely time.

The only other funerals I’ve been to were for my grandparents back when I was a kid and I remember them being sad and awkward and uncomfortable and basically awful.

But today has been such an amazing celebration, bringing together dozens and dozens of people I haven’t seen in years in addition to all the others I don’t know except to share this appreciation for being lucky enough to know this woman. I’m not saying it hasn’t been sad. I’ve cried several times – during the service, here at the reception – but the overwhelming emotion in this room is gratitude. Gratitude for this community. Gratitude for the wonderful memories. Gratitude for everything she’s taught us.

Gratitude for the the time we had, even if it was cut cruelly short.

It’s actually been really inspiring seeing the impact one person can have on so many lives. To be so loved and respected and… enjoyed by so many. Inspiring and humbling.

Professor Edwards had touched so many lives, leaving us with so many lessons. I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to have a fraction of the impact on the world.

A familiar face catches my eye. I’d seen him across the room a couple times now but had yet to make it through the crowd of people to say hi. He’d been at the bar last night too, where folks had congregated as they first got to the city. He’d arrived late with another man I distantly knew but recalled was a friend of his from back in college. His eyes had passed right over me and I admit I’d felt a pang of disappointment he didn’t seem to recognize me. I’d been a couple years behind him at school but we’d gotten along well, I thought. I’d had a tiny crush on him although he’d had a girlfriend so nothing had ever happened between us. A couple times I thought maybe he was flirting with me but always brushed it off. Anyway, I thought of him fondly and affectionately. We connected on social media a few years back but other than a random comment here or there we’d had no interaction since I graduated. His comments always made me smile though, he seemed the same smart and funny I remembered.

He was more slick than he used to be. Shorter hair, clean shaven, fancy suit. Although the suit may just be in deference to the funeral and festivities today. I’m not usually wearing a dress and heels on a Tuesday afternoon.

I guess that’s where he’ll stay though, a fond memory. I shouldn’t be surprised it meant more to me than to him. I was the one with the crush back then. He’d been getting ready to graduate and move on. I take a sip of my wine and turn my attention back to chatting with my good friend and old roommate Chloe.

An hour later I’m heading back to the bar for another glass of wine. I’m moving one direction but still talking to Chloe over my shoulder and walk directly into a solid body in front of me. I’m smooth like that. I look up in to the familiar face of Erik Abbott. Him but different than the man I saw earlier.

This is more the man/boy I remember. Scruffy beard, shaggy hair, no tie. Still in a suit but with sneakers. A vague memory surfaces, clarifying my confusion. Shit, that’s right. Erik has a twin brother. I’d only met him once and just in passing. They’d gone to separate colleges – Erik with me at USC and his brother, Ethan I think, had gone to MIT on the other side of the country.

The minute he sees me a wide grin splits his face and his arms go wide. “Kyle Bennett! How the hell are you?”

Warmth spreads through me, a little giggle escaping as my inner freshman asserts herself. This was more the greeting I’d been hoping for. I step in to his hug. “Hi, Stranger. It’s good to see you.”

“You too! Are you still here in L.A.?”

“No actually, I moved to Chicago a couple years ago.”

“No shit. You know that’s where I’m from right?”

I’d forgotten that actually.

“Where are you at?”

“I’m in Lincoln Park.”

He nods. “Cubs fan?”

I wrinkle my nose. “Minnesota girl remember? I’m a Twins fan.”

He hums, feigning a serious expression. “We’ll work on that. At least you haven’t turned to the White Sox.”

“No chance of that,” I laugh.

We chat a bit longer and I marvel at how easy and comfortable I am. Maybe it’s the wine we’ve been drinking all afternoon but I remember it’s always been like this between us. In college I was fairly awkward around guys, too inexperienced and under confident. But Erik was always so funny and enthusiastic.

Totally adorable.

Others would probably describe Erik as handsome, hot, sexy even, but I’d never really thought of him that way. He’d been too goofy. It’s probably why he was my first college crush. I’d always felt safe with him.

Chloe appears at my side handing me a glass of wine. I blush realizing I had totally forgotten I was supposed to be getting her a drink when I ran into Erik.

She laughs at me. “No worries.”

“Thank you. Erik, you remember my old roommate Chloe?”

“Of course. Good to see you.”

“You too.” They exchange some pleasantries, commenting on the service, sharing memories of Professor Edwards. I tune out a bit, starting to tire from the long emotionally charged day. My gaze wanders across the room until it lands on another man. He’s turned mostly away from me, barely in profile, but I recognize him.

Oh god. What is he doing here? Why is he here?

Suddenly I’m freezing, my arms feel tingly and somehow removed from my body. Stupid, I yell at myself. Stupid it didn’t occur to you he might be here. I’m not prepared to see him.

Oh my god. He can’t see me. I can literally feel myself shrinking, trying to take up as little space as possible. He can’t see me. I have to get out of here.

Decision made, I realize with a start that Chloe has a firm grip on my arm and is calling my name. I’m not sure if this is the first time she’s tried to get my attention or not. Based on the look of concern on Erik’s face I’m going to guess not the first time.

“Kyle? Are you okay?”

“Too much wine.” I smile weakly. “I should get back to the hotel.”

They walk me out, clearly concerned by my sudden change in behavior. I’m obviously agitated and I doubt they bought my feeble excuse but both are too polite to question me outright. I’m furious that he still has this effect on me. That I’m running away, not even strong enough to say proper goodbyes to all my friends inside.

“You guys don’t have to wait with me. My Uber will be here in a couple minutes.” I wave my cell phone around emphasizing my point. I’m acting ridiculous.

Erik grabs my phone. Before I can ask what he’s doing I see him punching in what I’m assuming is his cell. “Text me when you get back to the hotel okay? So we know you’re okay.”

I nod relieved to see my ride approaching so I don’t have to say anything else. I give them both a quick hug and hop in the car. Once I’ve confirmed my destination with the driver I start shaking uncontrollably.

I was not prepared to see him. I should have been better prepared.

Meet Erik’s twin Ethan here.

Abbotts · Jax and Riley · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Jax

I think it’s the pain in my head that wakes me. Or maybe my chest. My leg still isn’t feeling great either.

I subconsciously remember enough not to stretch or move much, instead I just take a slow steady breath and blink my eyes open.

I fucking hate hospitals. Especially when I’m the patient.

A flash of red hair and a mint green dress catches my eye and I turn my gaze toward the door to my hospital room with a grin, ready to flirt with the new nurse on duty.

What the hell is she doing here?

By the way her smile trembles I suspect I’m not hiding my surprise very well.

Distantly, I recognize I should be angry or annoyed or hostile, but frankly I don’t have enough energy to be any of those things. Or maybe it’s the drugs I’m pumped full of right now. I just feel mellow. And maybe a little curious.

“You’re… Riley. Right?”

If I’m remembering correctly, a fairly big if at the moment, she’s a teacher. And an outsider in her own right, an orphan like us, although she was taken in and raised by Luke’s family. She had a good, cushy home.

Not the hell Luke and I were raised in.

She nods. I got her name right.

She’s clearly nervous and that combined with my natural inclination to flirt my way through awkward situations eliminates any remaining desire I have to give her a hard time.

Well, really I flirt my way through all situations. Now that I can. It works. And I’m too exhausted to fight Luke’s battles right now. Besides, she’s cute in a wholesome 50s housewife kind of way. Not my type. But she seems harmless enough.

“I’m Jax. Nice to meet you,” I offer when she remains silently shifting from foot to foot just inside the door.

She let’s out a burst of laughter she seems surprised by. “You too.”

I smirk, still mostly curious why she’s here. And a little suspicious I know why.

“You want to sit?”

Finally she moves farther into the room accepting my offer. “I – ah – I brought you some contraband.” I smirk again as she glances over her shoulder nervously. A real rule-breaker this one.

“Oh yeah? Bribe or peace offering?”

She has a gigantic purse and it takes her a second to find what she’s looking for. Triumphantly she hands me a white paper bag. I recognize the logo immediately. I may start drooling like a trained dog.

“You brought me Duk’s?” How the hell did she know about my favorite hot dog stand?

I go to grab the bag, forgetting for a minute about the whole not moving thing and immediately feel pain radiate through my chest. I fall back to my pillows with a grimace, sucking air in through my teeth. “Shit.”

“Are you okay? Should I call anyone?” She rushes over a look of concern on her face.

“No. I’m fine. Just need a minute.”

I feel her studying me, probably trying to decide whether or not to call in a nurse. She must come to the conclusion I’ll survive because she turns away and unwraps my gift. Her bribe. We both know that’s what it is. I’m just not sure what she wants for it.

I’ll still eat it. I fucking love a good Chicago dog.

“Thanks.”

She takes one of the seats next to the bed with a small smile.

She has kind eyes.

That’s the drugs. I stomp that thought and turn my attention to my meal. I take a bite and groan with pleasure. This is the stuff.

She’s giggling at my expense and I don’t even care.

“This is exactly what I needed. How did you guess?” I ask taking another bite.

“I watch the show.”

Her answer causes me to shoot her a swift glance. I’d never really thought about any of the Abbott’s watching our show. It feels weird. Like they’re spying on us, even though tens of thousands of people tune in every week. But those people had never dealt such a brutal rejection to my best friend.

I focus on my hot dog, processing this information.

Eventually she breaks the silence by asking me how I’m feeling.

Like I’ve been shot. Like my head has been cut open. Like I’ve had multiple surgeries bringing me back from death in the last week.

But that’s not what I say. She knows that.

“Bored. But now you’re here so I suspect that’s going to change.” There’s a little bite to my words. I guess I can muster a little anger for her and her family after all.

“I – I was -”

“What are you doing here, Riley?” I interrupt. “Hoping to see Luke?” I’m not sure why that annoys me as much as it does. Of course she’s here because of Luke, not because of me.

“I wanted to see both of you,” she says softly, almost as if she heard my thoughts. “I heard about the shooting, obviously. I wanted to check on you, see if either of you needed anything.”

“Why?” Luke has rebuked every effort the Abbott’s have made the last couple years. Too little, too late. And he’s my best friend, the closest thing I have to family in this fucked up world so of course I’ve backed him up.

“Because that’s what you do for family.”

I study her. Trying to figure out what, if anything, is her angle. But she just raises her little chin and looks back at me with those wide gray eyes.

Suddenly uncomfortable under her calm scrutiny I change the subject.

“Who’s the lucky guy?” I nod at the engagement ring on her finger.

She looks down, finally breaking eye contact and starts to fidget with, what I’m sure, is an impressive rock.

“Oh, uh, his name is Daniel.”

She bites her lip and her eyes seems to shutter. I don’t have a lot of experience with engagements, weddings, happy marriages but I know women pretty well. And I have to think I wouldn’t want the woman I planned to marry to have that particular look on her face when talking about it.

And now I feel like an asshole for giving her a hard time.

“So. What do you want me to tell Luke?” I offer in an attempt to assuage my guilt.

She sighs returning her attention to me. But she seems a bit defeated now and I hate that something I said made her feel that way. Even if she is just trying to get to Luke through me.

“Nothing. Really. I just wanted to see how you were doing and hopefully cheer you up a little. I know it’s no fun to be stuck in a hospital bed.”

I try to remember the details of how she lost her parents. They died in a car accident. Was she with them at the time? The only survivor? That’s rough, especially for a kid.

“Thanks for the dog,” I offer, breaking the silence.

Her wide smile is so simple and so pure it almost knocks the breath out of me. Fuck.

I break our eye contact by closing my eyes and laying my head back against the pillows. “I like KitKats too. I don’t think that’s been on the show but next time, see if you can smuggle in some KitKats for me, will you, Teach?”

She laughs and unbelievably considering everything happening in my body right now I feel my dick twitch in response. Fuck. This is the last thing I need.

“I can do that.”

I hear the door opening once again but keep my eyes closed. I don’t think looking at her creamy skin and innocent gray eyes are going to help my current… situation.

“What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

Well. Lucas is pissed. Maybe she should have brought him a dog too.

She stands ready to bolt in the face of the six-feet-two tattooed and pissed-off male that is my best friend.

I interject to try to diffuse the situation. “I told the guard it was okay. She’s not some crazy fan,” I lie. The guard is there to protect my privacy not keep actual friends or family out.

But Luke hates his family sooooo…

“Did Ethan send you? I told him to stay the fuck away.”

“Luke-”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go. I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything.” Riley grabs her giant purse and gives me a wobbly smile. If I see tears in her eyes I’m going to punch my friend in the gut. After I’ve recovered from my injuries.

She pauses at the door and tells him, “Ethan didn’t send me. Neither did Uncle Theo. I just -” she leaves before finishing her thought.

I yell after her, “KitKats!”

Lucas is looking at me with an expression of disbelief on his face.

You didn’t have to be such an asshole to her. She brought me Duk’s.

You can see this meeting from Riley’s perspective here.

Curious about why Lucas hates his family? A little of his story is here.

Abbotts · Ethan and Ilyssa

Ilyssa

No.

Instantly I go cold, my hands shaking uncontrollably. No.

This can’t be happening.

I had been absent-mindedly going through the mail, waiting for Maxwell to give me a run down of his newest list of demands. And there it was. An envelope from Stateville Correctional Center with his shaky block letters on the front.

Blindly I reach behind me, trying to find my chair before my legs give out entirely. My peripheral vision starts to fade and I fear I’m going to hyperventilate or pass out. Maybe both.

My fingers connect with the arm of my chair finally and I fall in to it, leaning forward until my forehead is resting on my knees and focus on breathing. Just breathing.

When I slowly sit up I see Maxwell standing in front of me, his expression a mixture of concerned and annoyed.

“Ilyssa, babe, are you pregnant?”

Despite my current state I know the expression on my face is fierce and pissed based on his immediate reaction. “No, I am not pregnant you ass,” I hiss through clenched teeth. He raises his hands in surrender and grabs me a bottle of water from the mini fridge.

“Drink this.” He opens the cap and holds it out to me as an offering.

It takes me another moment to pull myself together enough to accept it.

“Better?”

I nod and take in another shuddery breath before exhaling loudly. “Better.”

“What the hell just happened?” And that’s the tender loving care I get from Maxwell. He is an ass. But a brilliant and talented ass and self aware enough he pays me incredibly well to put up with him. I gesture helplessly to the pile of mail on the desk in front of me. He reaches out and shuffles things around until he finds it.

Picking it up with two fingers, as if the envelope itself will attack. “Is this what I think it is?” he asks.

“If you think it’s a letter from my step-father who is currently in jail for assault after trying to kill me, then yes. It’s what you think it is.”

“Fuck.” He grimaces, still holding it gingerly away from him. “What do you want to do with it? Burn it?”

My first instinct is to call Ethan but he’s made it clear he wants nothing more to do with me. Besides, we’ve caused him enough trouble over the years. I’m lucky his sister still loves me.

I can call the officer in charge of my case. The restraining order should still be in place. He’s not supposed to be writing me. He’s not supposed to know where I am, but clearly that was a ridiculous and self-delusional assurance I gave myself.

“I can’t burn it until I report it to the authorities.”

“Unfortunate. It’s…” he flails widely, “it’s messing up the whole ambiance. I mean, you can practically feel hostile vibes radiating from the thing.”

I shrug, starting to feel more in control of my body again. “That’s Ron.”

“Do you want to open it?” I can tell from his expression he’s horrified by the idea.

On this I agree with him. “No. Definitely not.”

Maybe later. Maybe with Teagan.

Although if I confide in my best friend, she’ll want to tell her brother. She’ll want to tell Ethan. She won’t of course, not if I make her promise not to. But I hate putting her in that situation.

She’s told so many lies for me.

Maxwell opens the center drawer of my desk and lays it delicately inside then uses his hip to close it again. “There. Out of sight.”

I wish. I wish it was that easy to stop the memories now or the impact they’ll have.

Ron never liked to be ignored.

I know right then I’ll tell Teagan. Because I’m not strong enough to do this alone.

Meet Teagan and find out a little more of Ilyssa’s backstory here.

Abbotts · Gabby · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Gabby

The low buzzing of the tattoo pen pauses and Lucas Abbott the owner of the shop I’m currently sitting in pushes back on his stool.

“Sorry, I have to take this,” he’s referring to the phone call he was just told he had. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Lucas apologizes again with a grimace as he steps away.

I breath out heavily, relived to have a slight reprieve. This is my first tattoo. It hurts.

“How you holding up?” Ash asks me.

“I’m good. Thanks for sitting with me.”

“Of course! It’s actually been really cool even if I didn’t have any idea about this place.”

“Lucas is nice,” I offer, studying her reaction.

Her cheeks turn a light pink and I dance a little gig inside.

She agrees, “He is.”

“You should invite him to come join us after this.”

“What? Why?”

I roll my eyes at her deliberate blindness. “You are so clueless. He can hardly take his eyes off you. If my tattoo is messed up because the tattoo artist was making googly eyes at you the whole time, I’m going to be totally pissed, bitch.”

Ash laughs.

I continue, “You deserve to have some hot stranger sex. And with a celebrity! That’s even hotter. You should totally invite him. I bet he’s a really good dirty talker. He seems like he’d be really vocal.”

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m talking about other than the fact that Lucas Abbott is insanely hot and my best friend deserve to have some fun. They’re both single, consenting adults and the way he’s been looking at her the last hour seems to indicate he’d be open to spending some time alone with her. Naked time.

“Gabriella! How could you possibly know that?” Ash laughs.

“You don’t think so?” I bluff.

I giggle as her blush deepens. “I have no idea,” she informs me.

“Invite him.”

“I’m not going to invite him to join your Bachelorette party!”

“Then I will.” I will. It’s my party after all. And watching Ash squirm will be super entertaining. She hates being the center of attention and considering the amount of attention he’s given her while still working on my tattoo I can only imagine how intense he’d be without the distraction.

“No, you won’t!”

“If you don’t I totally will. You need to get laid. And not in a boring way like you usually do.” As her oldest friend I feel I can speak to this with some authority. Ash has always dated boring men. In my experience boring men, means a boring relationship, which means boring sex. Ash is gorgeous and brilliant and kind and deserves some mind-blowing orgasms. In my opinion.

“I’ve had good sex,” she protests. “I mean, it’s not always boring.”

“Ashland Grace, I have known you since we were thirteen and for every one of your boyfriends. You have not had good sex. Lucas would definitely be gooooood sex.” I draw out the word and wiggle my eyebrows suggestively.

“I’m good, Gabby. Really.”

“Just because Will ended up being a dud doesn’t mean you’re doomed for mediocrity for the rest of your life, you know. Lucas Abbott would know what to do with a naked Ash.”

“Gabby!” she hisses, totally mortified. “Be quiet!”

“Well he would,” I grumble, backing off.

Maybe it’s true that people in love just want everyone else to pair off because now I’ve totally latched on to this idea and practically have Ash and Lucas getting engaged at my wedding next month.

Lucas returns and pulls a fresh pair of gloves on while sliding onto the stool next to me. “Okay. Sorry about that, ladies. Ready to finish this?”

“Let’s do it,” I agree.

He returns his attention to my hip. I meet Ash’s eyes over his bent head. Ask him, I mouth dramatically.

Stubbornly, she shakes her head.

Ask him, I silently repeat.

“So what else do you all have planned for the night?” Luke asks. I suspect he’s just making small talk but I narrow my eyes at Ash all the same. This would be the perfect opportunity for her to make a move.

Before she can respond, or not, Camilla pokes her head into our room. “Hey Gabs! The others are all finished so we’re going to head over to the hotel and make sure everything is ready for the evenings entertainment.” She grins at me.

“You need anything? Want any of us to wait for you?”

“No, we’re good. You guys go ahead. I don’t think we’ll be much longer. Luke?”

“Twenty minutes. Unless Ash changes her mind.”

I catch him grinning flirtatiously at Ash and barely contain my own grin.

“Perfect! That’ll give us plenty of time to set up the games.” She winks and then ducks back out.

I turn to Ash, raising my eyebrows expectantly. “Games?”

Shaking her head, Ash admits, “They didn’t trust me not to tell you.”

“So you don’t know either?” My sisters are going to delight in embarrassing me. I’m the first one to get engaged and they’ve been plotting for months. Surprisingly they’ve managed to keep the weekend’s agenda pretty hush hush, other than the specific things I requested like my tattoo at Vanished.

Luckily they also love my boyfriend, Tim so I’m not expecting anything too raunchy.

No, my fiance, I correct myself. I sigh happily glancing at the design taking shape on my hip.

“No. Although I did veto the private showing of an all male revue. You know how obsessed Jessi is with Magic Mike.”

I hear Lucas make a sound that sounds suspiciously like a snort although he stays focused on his work.

“Well. Thanks for that anyway.” The last thing I need is a stripper’s ass in my face. Or anyone’s ass for that matter. Except maybe Tim’s.

Jax enters a few minutes later, studying my tattoo over Luke’s shoulder. “Beautiful,” he smiles at me. “I think your man will love it.”

“Yeah?” I ask, grinning.

“Hell yeah. It’s hot when a woman is that sure of you, you know?”

I think I know what he means. It makes me happy that Tim is that sure of me too. That we’re in this together, no reservations.

“Macey and Logan packed up and headed home. I’m going to take the trash out back and start to lock up. You good?” he asks Lucas.

“Just finishing up. Go for it.”

Lucas rubs some gel over my finished tattoo. “What do you think?”

“It’s perfect! I love it. Thank you.” I’d sent over images of our wedding rings earlier in the week, they’re sterling silver with elaborate Celtic designs. Lucas managed to capture the designs and entwine our initials with different floral elements to soften the overall look.

He smiles at me and bandages the area. “Glad you like it.”

Luke helps me up and then turns away while I pull my jeans gently up and fasten them.

“Let me clean up a couple things and then I’ll meet you guys up front.”

We, Ash and I, head back to the lobby. I nudge her with my elbow. “Last chance. Are you sure you want to spend the rest of the night playing games and answering quizzes about what Tim and I fight about, or what was our first date, or who’s the better cook, when you could be spending some quality time with Lucas Abbott?”

She bites her lip trying to suppress a smile and I realize she’s seriously considering it.

Yes! This is awesome.

Before I can encourage this along I feel a tight grip on my arm and I stumble as I’m pulled forward. A hand covers my mouth and I stiffen trying to pull it away. I stop struggling when I feel a gun dig into my ribs. Ash’s eyes are wide as she looks beyond me and I realize whoever grabbed me isn’t alone. I see her lips moving as she holds her hands out slightly to her sides but the blood pumping through my brain is the only thing I really hear. I see a hand snatch her wrist and pull her forward out of my line of sight. This only increases my terror. The gun jabs sharply into my side as the arm over my chest tightens. Distantly I realize he’s demanding to know how many other people are still in the building.

I struggle to take a breath in through my nose and get a grip on myself.

I so wish I was playing stupid party games right now.

Read more about this from Ash’s perspective.

Abbotts · Sloane and Josh

FBI Agent Josh Garrison

“You’re staring again. Why don’t you just go ask her to dance?”

With practiced indifference I take another sip of my scotch. My first and last drink of the night. I look at the man who just threw that question between us, my partner and best friend. I contemplate ignoring him, but I know from experience Marc won’t let this go until his curiosity is appeased. Or until he annoys me to his satisfaction.

“She’ll say no.”

“Why do you think that?” I know full well the innocent expression on his face is bullshit. “Just because she’s said no every other time you’ve asked her to do anything the last three years? I mean, tonight could be the night.”

I grunt and turn my back to him, indicating my appreciation for his sense of humor. I also turn away from the incredibly tempting sight of Sloane Reed in black body-skimming cocktail dress. The dress isn’t particularly revealing – as the event planner for tonight’s black tie fundraiser she’s technically on the clock. She wasn’t exposing an obscene amount of leg or showcasing an abundance of cleavage. She was all class. But still sexy as hell.

I take a healthy sip of my drink, finishing it off. I’m fairly confident Sloane Reed could wear a shapeless sack and I would still think she was the most gorgeous woman in the room. Any room.

But Marc is right. She’s spent the last three years shooting me down at every opportunity. Except the first opportunity. The first night. I’m annoyed by my body’s reaction to the memories that filter through my brain and for a brief minute I contemplate breaking my rule and ordering another drink.

No. Technically I’m here in an official capacity. What I should do is go shake some hands, allow the events photographers to catch me with the right people and get some good publicity for the Bureau.

These bi-annual events for The Bridge have become a beautiful exercise in torture for me. Twice a year Sloane organizes amazing fundraisers for the wealthiest of Chicago’s citizens and provided them an opportunity to donate to help victims of human trafficking get back on their feet. The Bridge provides countless valuable resources – everything from counseling to job placement for survivors – and lobbies for stronger prevention laws. The Bureau office here in Chicago often trotted me out for these events. A few years ago a joint task force I was on, broke a big public case and the media decided they liked me. So now, whenever we’re looking for good press, I’m the one they put a tux on and send out for the cameras.

In general, I’m fine with this unofficial role as long as it doesn’t keep me out of the field working on cases. I like people. I’m good at reading them, figuring out their angle, what they mean not just what they say. It’s what makes me good at my job. Marc calls me a human lie detector but really I just notice little details other miss.

Which makes my inability to figure out Sloane Reed so frustrating. I get too many mixed messages from her to get a good read.

I spend an hour making small talk, shaking hands, posing for photos. Once again Sloane catches my eye, this time talking to another woman I recognize. Another man might decide to leave her alone, especially on a night she’s working. Another man might get tired of the sure rejection. Another man might return to the bar for another drink.

Instead I decide to have a little fun.

“Margaret,” I call out. I see Sloane stiffen at my voice. I pretend to ignore her reaction and turn my smile on Margaret Doyle, the Executive Director of the Bridge. Margaret is a 70 year old socialite, who lost her husband fifteen years ago and now spends his millions promoting good causes. She’s all polite manners, compliments and smiles at first glance but I recognize a master manipulator when I see one. As far as I know she only uses her powers for good though, so mostly I find her entertaining. And a little intimidating. I give her no reason to manipulate me. I’m not at all sure I’d come out the winner.

Margaret turns a bright smile on me and I give her a quick kiss on the cheek in hello. I give the expected compliments on the success of the evening before finally turning my attention to Sloane.

“Great job on the event tonight, as usual.”

“Thank you.” She smiles stiffly. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to check in with Brice,” she says referring to her assistant.

“Margaret, I’ll speak with you shortly.” She begins her escape. I’m pretty sure she’s just attempting to avoid spending time with me.

Margaret agrees dismissively before zeroing in on me. “Josh, I just heard about your transfer, such wonderful news.”

This old bird has eyes and ears everywhere. That transfer for Marc and I just came through this morning.

Before I can respond, Sloane turns back to us. “You’re transferring?”

I smirk at the hopeful note in her question. I’m sure she’s imagining me boarding a plane for D.C. No such luck, beautiful. You’re just going to have to keep dodging me. “Just into a different department. I’ll still be in Chicago, don’t worry.”

She flushes a bit at my subtle call out and I feel my grin widen.

“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?” Sloane interjects.

I pause a second before answering, studying her reaction. I swear she paled at Margaret’s announcement.

“I’ll be focused primarily on human trafficking cases.”

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

Sloane’s smile seems forced as she repeats, “Wonderful.”

And finally she makes a hasty exit.

What the hell was that about?

I watch her cross the room no closer to figuring her out.

I tune back in to Margaret chattering away, grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing waiter.

“That woman,” she’s saying, “she works like a demon for us. You know since she has taken over these events we’ve nearly double our fund-raising efforts?”

“That is impressive.” I had no doubt she was good at her job. The proof is how smoothly these nights go. I’m aware she doesn’t need to check in with her assistant, she was just looking for yet another excuse to get away from me. Ever since that night three years ago, she rarely allows us to be in the same space for long and never alone, despite my best efforts.

It’s irritating.

“There was something I wanted to speak to you about, actually. Would you be interested in serving on our Board of Advisors? I would love to have another law-enforcement perspective. The meetings are usually every other month for about three hours, so hopefully not too much of a time commitment with your schedule.”

“Of course. I would love too.”

“Excellent,” Margaret beams at me. “I’ll have Sloane send you the information first thing on Monday.”

I jolt softly with surprise, glancing quickly in the direction my tormentor had just disappeared. “Sloane? Why, Sloane?”

Margaret smiles knowingly and explains, “She’s become the unofficial secretary of the Board. Takes care of all the logistics and communication between meetings.”

I eye her speculatively. “Margaret Doyle. Are you playing matchmaker?”

A look of such manufactured innocence comes over her face I burst into laughter.

“Well dear. I know you don’t need any help in that department, a good looking fellow like yourself. But she’s a stubborn one I’ve noticed.”

I nod, still chuckling and she slips her arm through mine leading me through the crowd. She pats my arm affectionately. “I’ve noticed you noticing too.”

I grimace. If she only knew.

Meet a much younger Sloane here.