Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Sunday Snippet · Vanished

Sunday Snippet

Luke’s fist glimpse of Ash.

But Lucas couldn’t have told you what any of the others looked like because all he saw was her. She was tall and slender with soft curves covered in dark jeans and a black backless top. Her dark hair was long, falling midway down her back in soft shiny waves. Her skin was flawless, pale and smooth and begging to be stroked. The door jingled, indicating another customer walking in and she turned, a wide smile lighting her features and he swallowed wanting to be the one to put that smile on her face for the rest of his life.

What the fuck is wrong with me? He shook his head, attempting to clear it, but her dark brown eyes lingered. God those were gorgeous eyes.

Abbotts

Zane

“Zane!”

I grin, immediately recognizing my little sister’s voice. I glance up as she races down the stairs and into my waiting hug. “Hey, Little T. How you been?”

She laughs at the ridiculous nickname and squeezes me tight before stepping back. “It’s so good to see you! Is it true, what Erik said? Are you back to stay?”

“It’s true,” I confirm. “At least for now. I have some business to take care of.” I’ve been out of the country, mostly traveling, for almost six years. It’s weird being back – like I have one foot in two different worlds. I’m not sure where I’ll end up settling but I think this is where I need to be to get my idea off the ground and make it a reality. Even if it means swallowing my pride and asking my father for help. Which is why I’m here.

“Yay! I’m so excited.” My sister’s enthusiasm helps calm my nerves about being home. I’m not sure I’ll get the same welcome from the rest of the family. I’ll soak it up while I can.

“Where is everybody?” I ask, stashing my backpack in the entry closet. Yes, my backpack. I literally came right from the airport. Luckily I had an overnight layover in Miami so I was able to shower at the hotel before my flight this morning. I would have felt at a distinct disadvantage talking to my father with nearly thirty hours of travel grime and rumpled clothes.

“Dad’s in his office.” I roll my eyes at this pronouncement. What’s new? “Mom and Ethan and Riley are out back with the event planner getting everything ready. Ilyssa should be down any minute. And Erik is picking a friend up so won’t be here until the barbecue starts. Is that enough of an update or would you like me to report in on the cousins as well?”

I grab her in a mock head lock and ruffle her hair. “That’s enough T.”

She laughs and struggles out of my hold. She’ll never really know how much her easy acceptance is making this so much less painful and awkward for me.

“I just wasn’t expecting it to be so quiet in here.”

“It won’t be in two hours when the festivities begin. You remember how crazy packed and fun these things are. I can’t believe it the Fourth already!”

It’s an annual tradition in the Abbott’s to hold a massive family BBQ/picnic/hootenanny over the Fourth of July. The longer my father has been in public office the larger the guest list has gotten. We still hold the barbecue in the back yard of our Chicago home, but now with the help of a professional party planner and catering staff. It’s no longer just my mom and aunt bringing side dishes while my dad and his brother grill. But tomorrow all my siblings and cousins will head to Michigan and my uncles lake house for a long weekend of just family.

And I guess, this year, I’ll be going too.

“When do you start work?” I ask.

My not-so-little-anymore sister has just finished a graduate program at the University of Chicago. She’s had plans to take over the family company for as long as I can remember. The very life I ran like hell from.

“Uncle Eddie thought I deserved a summer off.” Our uncle runs the family company but as it was started by my grandfather, we’ve all reaped the benefits. Teagan has spent every summer and school break working in various departments and roles, wanting to know as much as possible about the ‘family business’. Unlike me, the lazy oldest son who left to backpack for a summer sabbatical and never came back.

I tried. I went to the office every day. I wore the right suits and shook the right hands and stared at the briefs and spreadsheets and finance reports.

And I fucking hated it. I bailed the summer before my 30th birthday. It was just supposed to be eight weeks. Take some time to travel and chill out before getting back to business. But other than some sporadic holiday visits I haven’t been back since.

Unaware of my thoughts Teagan continues her explanation. “So I’ll start after our Labor Day picnic.”

Another Abbott tradition. Teagan and my brothers have never seemed to be bothered by the money we were born in to. Bothered probably isn’t the right word. I liked the money fine but it never felt like the suits I wore fit quite right. I was always a bit more restless. I wanted something of my own. Something my family didn’t touch. To prove I could make a life, design it the way I wanted, not what has been handed to me. Even if it looked a lot different from the one that my family built.

I cringe inwardly. So much for that. Here I am, years later, hoping to benefit from everything they’ve built.

But this is bigger than me. And I’m not going to let my pride stop me from making this a reality as soon as possible. I’ll take all the help I can get.

Even if it is coming from my dad.

Curious about Zane’s father? Meet Senator Theodore Abbott aka Uncle Theo here.

Abbotts · Sloane and Josh

Yesmina

“Go,” he gasps. “Go.”

“Don’t die. Please don’t die,” I whispered, choking on adrenaline and fear.

But he is dying and we both know it.

And I have to keep moving. More will be coming.

Drawing one more shuddering breath, I attempt to calm myself as I stand. I cross the room and enter the security code for the wall safe my protector had installed. I empty everything in to my go-bag and turn back to the body of my protector. Trainer. Savior.

A broken sob escapes before I can choke it back.

What am I going to do? How can I do this without you?

I push down all the fear and grief and focus on the plan. He had drilled this plan in to me for years. I hoped I would never need it but he made sure I knew what to do.

A survival plan in case he was killed.

I hesitate standing next to him but force myself to find his gun and add that to my bag.

Then I go to the bathroom to wash the blood off my hands and tears off my face. I strip. My shoulder throbs. There’s a cut on my side but it’s not too deep. I’m going through the motions, bandaging my wounds quickly and efficiently as I’ve been taught.

I know I don’t have much time. I stuff all my clothes in a garbage bag and dress again with clothes from my bag. Jeans, a black tank top, a gray hoodie and sneakers. Nothing memorable.

I pick up both bags and move to the hall closet. Crouching before the open door, I remove a hidden panel in the back wall.

My little sister’s wide terrified eyes blink at me from the hidden crawl space.

“I hid. Just like we practiced.” Her voice is scratchy with fear. I squelch my own tears, knowing she needs me to be strong right now.

So I nod, trying to smile reassuringly. I try to pretend this was just another practice drill. “You did so good,” I tell her.

She crawls out of her hiding spot and into my arms. I squeeze her tight for a brief moment, then set her down.

“Time to go now. I have your bag.”

“What about Andre?”

“He can’t come with us this time, sweetie. This time it’s just us.”

I see her bite her lip nervously but she doesn’t ask anymore questions.

“Up,” I instruct, lifting her back into my arms once I get the bags situated. “Close your eyes until we get outside. Promise?”

“Promise,” she whispers her pledge, squeezing her eyes shut tight.

I take us through the apartment avoiding Andre and the bodies of the men who attacked us, doing my best to shield her from total knowledge of what happened here. She already knows far more than a six year old should.

They’d only sent three which tells me he wasn’t sure it was us, was just following a tip. If he’d known for certain I was here he would have sent a dozen men at least, not willing to let me get away again.

I know too much.

But when they don’t report in, he’ll know. And I can’t rule out there’s at least one other still outside in a vehicle.

Andre’s plan was a good one. We have provisions in place. My sister and I should be able to disappear again, if we move quickly.

We take the stairs to the basement so we can leave through the emergency exit in the back. Andre had taught me ages ago how to dismantle the alarm. We take a bus to nowhere, just watching to see if anyone else is following. Renee is quiet as she sits beside me holding my hand tightly. She learned long ago how to be silent and take up no space and she reverts to this state when she’s afraid. As her sister, it hurts my heart that she can’t cry and yell and act out like a normal six year old. But in this moment, this is what I need for her to do.

To be invisible and let me work.

Let me protect us both. As Andre prepared me to do.

After an hour switching between bus routes I am satisfied we’re not being followed and hail a cab, giving him the name of a hotel on the outskirts of the city.

I don’t want the hotel. But if someone ever does find him and ask him about the two young girls in his cab this is all he’ll know.

I want the storage facility half a mile away. That’s where I’ll find additional supplies and a car that Andre insured was untraceable.

And three hours after we were ambushed and Andre killed, my sister and I are driving away, leaving Philadelphia. Heading to Chicago.

I don’t know if Andre would agree with my choice of city. But I feel it’s where I need to be.

I hope I’m not wrong.

Renee is sleeping in the back seat, a stuffed elephant clutched to her chest.

I review everything Andre has taught me. Focusing on his instructions helps me keep the terror at bay. I prepare myself for what I will need to become in this next phase of my life.

Smart. Aware. Disciplined. Patient.

A warrior.

Abbotts

Xander

“Piper.” I tilt my head when she looks up, indicating I’d like to talk to her outside.

She jumps up eagerly. She’s been on the campaign beat for the last two months and has proven to be smart, professional, and tenacious. The Senator likes her. He’s sent me to offer her a sit down. One on one time with the Senator two weeks before his presumptive re-election is quite a win for any reporter.

I lead her just outside the doors. We’re currently in Springfield at a town hall for the Senator and local citizens. I know she won’t want to miss much even though it’s starting to wrap up. But I also knew this was the best time to catch her.

“Xander. What’s up?”

“Senator Abbott would like to meet with you.”

She grins. “Wonderful. I’m in.”

I laugh. “I figured. Can you meet him at the Chicago campaign office tomorrow morning 8am?”

“I’ll be there. Thanks, Xander.”

I nod. “You’ve earned it.”

Still grinning, she slips back inside the auditorium.

Before I can follow her in my cell buzzes. I curse when I see the name on the screen.

This is so not what I need to deal with right now.

Ian Robertson.

Shit.

That name never brings anything good into my life.

I take a deep breath and push ‘accept’, greeting him by name.

“Xander.” His voice sounds terse, never a good sign. “Are you somewhere you can talk for a few minutes?”

Can I talk? There’s a couple thousand citizens and two dozen reporters on the other side of the door I’m standing beside.

But it’s not like people don’t know about my history. One google search and it’s all there, laid out for public consumption. In all it’s ugly glory.

“I’ve got probably three minutes,” I offer. Better to know what’s going on sooner rather than later.

“Greyson’s lawyer has petitioned for a hearing. It’s scheduled for next week.”

“On what grounds?”

“They claim his treatment has been effective. They’re asking for him to receive early release.”

“What?” Early release? I’ll say four years in to a twenty year sentence is ‘early’. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. We’re having our own experts interview him. You should be getting a call from the Department of Corrections but as a courtesy I thought I should alert you.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“Xander – one other thing. Your mother is on the list to make a statement of support.”

“WHAT?”

Shock and fury war within me.

“Surprised me too.”

I hear cheers from beyond the door. I suspect the Senator is wrapping up. Soon I’ll be surrounded by hundreds of eager, listening ears.

Shit.

“Ian, level with me. What are the odds he wins?”

“I’m going to do my best. If I had my way he’d be in a high security prison, not a mental hospital. After he meets with our psychiatrist I’ll have a better sense of the situation. Can you come in sometime next week? Would you be available to speak on the motion?”

Two weeks. Two weeks from now is Election Day.

Fury is winning as the shock begins to fade.

Greyson somehow always manages to fuck up my life, manipulating everyone around him to his advantage. Even from hundreds of miles away and in an institution for the criminally insane.

My fucking brother.

Want more of Piper? click here.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Senator, click here.

Abbotts · Walker and Jasmine

Walker

I grab a bottle of bourbon and give myself a healthy pour.

I’m such an asshole.

I stare out the window blindly, annoyed at the sunshine. I want the weather to match my mood. It’s far more beautiful outside than I deserve.

This is an awful idea. I can’t seriously be contemplating living this lie. I’ll never get away with it. Eventually she’ll hate me. Again.

Hate me still.

I rub my temple almost welcoming the headache coming on.

It’s an awful idea. Truly depraved but the alternative is also unthinkable. At least to me and my selfish impulses.

My best friend Derek enters my home office.

“You look like hell.”

I grimace. I’m sure that’s true.

“She’s home?”

I nod. “She’s resting upstairs.”

He stands beside me in front of the bar cart and pours himself a drink. He clinks our glasses together. “Thank God she’s okay, man.”

I stay silent. There’s a million things I want to confess, to unload, but my thoughts are a jumbled mess. It’s my fault. All of it.

It’s my fault.

Derek moves to sit in one of the leather wing chairs behind me. “What did the doctor say?”

“She’s lucky. Fairly minor injuries overall. But they don’t know if her memory will return.”

“She doesn’t remember anything?”

I turn to face him. “No. Nothing. Me. Us. She didn’t even remember her own name.”

“That’s some crazy soap opera shit, bro.”

I chuckle. Derek is one of the few people capable of making me laugh. “Seriously. It’s all a bit surreal.”

I hear her coming. My wife.

She pauses just inside the door.

God she’s beautiful. From the first moment I saw her I’ve been obsessed.

It’s been a real problem.

I don’t know how to handle the emotions she stirs in me, but I know I’ve been doing a piss-poor job at it so far.

Her wide golden eyes are hesitant and vulnerable as she looks between Derek and I.

“Sorry, I didn’t know you had company.”

“Company? Jazzy, I’m insulted. I’m practically family,” Derek immediately reverts to their affectionate and teasing relationship.

She blushes, clearly uncertain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

I move to her side and place a hand lightly against the small of her back, attempting to reassure her. I feel her shiver under my fingers.

“Ignore him. He’s incapable of taking anything seriously.” I glare at Derek, warning him without words. “This is Derek. Unfortunately, you’ll probably see him around a lot.”

Derek grins at her, not looking at all contrite. “I’ve been hanging around Walker’s place since we were just kids in diapers.” He stands and gives her a quick hug. “Glad you’re okay, sweetheart.”

“My best friend,” I explain. “I apologize in advance.”

Jasmine laughs, her body relaxing next to mine. “So, we’ve probably met before then?”

“Many times,” Derek confirms. “I was the best man at the wedding after all.”

“You were?”

I interrupt before this goes too far down a direction I’m not prepared to deal with. “Did you need something, Jasmine?”

“I was wondering if you were going to be free this weekend…if you wanted to explore the city. Go back to places that mean something to me, maybe it will help….”

I smile gently, trying to hide my dread at this idea. “Of course.”

She exhales in relief, her smile widening and turns more confidently back to Derek. “You’re staying for dinner, I’m assuming?”

“See? You remember me just right.”

She laughs again, kisses me quickly on the cheek and excuses herself.

I watch her leave the room, absently touching the skin she just kissed, already wondering how I’ll get through an entire day in her company.

“Soooooo. I take it the divorce is on hold?” Derek’s words are like a slap to my face.

Stubbornly I just glare at him. I feel sick.

Undaunted, other men cower under this look, Derek just raises his eyebrows and waits patiently for my response.

She doesn’t remember she wants one,” I admit, silently cursing myself.

“And you’re not going to remind her.” It’s not a question.

I groan. Restless I begin pacing the room, prowling. Can I really do this to her?

But can I let her go either?

“I’m sure I should. I”m sure that’s what Seth would do.” I spit the name with venom.

“Who the fuck cares what that guy would do? She’s your wife.”

Distracted, I pause again staring sightlessly out the window. I throw back my remaining bourbon and admit, “She’s pregnant.”

I almost delight in the shock on his face as he stares back at me. It’s rare the Derek is at a loss for words or some smart ass comment.

“Should I offer congratulations?” he finally asks.

“No,” I tell him, pain ripping through my gut. I pour myself another drink. “You should save those for the father.”

Derek curses. I feel like someone is squeezing my throat, slowly suffocating me.

“I take it she doesn’t remember that either?”

“She knows she’s pregnant. They told us at the hospital after her accident. She just assumes I’m the father.”

“But you know you’re not?”

“I’m not.”

“How far along is she?”

“The doctor said six weeks.”

“And you two… you haven’t…?”

“Been sleeping together?” I finish his thought. “No. Not for months.”

“Not at all?” Derek is being a persistent bastard. I’m not exactly proud of the state of my marriage. Especially when I know it’s largely my fault.

Angry now, I jam one hand through my hair. Annoyed by everything, I snap at him. “Once. Okay? Once in the last four months.”

“So you could be,” he insists.

I glare at him in disbelief.

“Well,” he shrugs feebly.

“No,” I tell him, my voice firm. “No. I’m not.” I top off Derek’s glass. No point in drinking alone. Not when there is someone to join my misery.

“Look, I know I’m probably going to sound like a bastard for even suggesting this, but…”

“But?” I prompt when he trails off.

“Maybe…maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Her not remembering. I mean, she’s safe. The baby is safe. Maybe this could be like a second chance for the two of you.”

I snort. “You think that hasn’t occurred to me? I already browbeat her best friend into keeping quiet.”

“Well then?”

“God, I’m the bastard.” I run another hand through my hair in agitation. “Can I really do this to her?”

The truth is, I want a second chance. I want a chance to fix all the mistakes I’ve made. I don’t want to live without her. I’m just not sure how to live with her, to make her happy. Or if I even deserve that after everything that’s happened.

“Do what exactly? All’s fair in love and war and all that shit,” Derek mumbles into the last of his bourbon.

I sigh, looking at him helplessly.

And which one would this be precisely?

Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Uncle Theo

I glance up from the brief I’m reading when my study door abruptly opens and one of my security team quickly enters. Immediately concerned, I stand grabbing my suit jacket and slipping it back on. This is not how Nathan Erickson normally behaves. Something is wrong.

“Senator,” he nods. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“What’s happened?”

“There’s been a shooting at Vanished, sir.”

My knees almost give out. No. No, it can’t end like this.

Vanished is the name of my nephew’s tattoo shop. My sister’s son, God rest her soul. We’d only found him a few years ago after discovering what had happened to my sister after she ran away all those years ago. Our reunion had not been what I’d hoped and the thought that I could lose him too before we’d even gotten to know each other is devastating.

“Who?” I whisper.

“Reports are still coming in. There’s police and an ambulance on the scene. I assumed you’d want to know as soon as possible.”

“You assumed correctly. Please have my car brought around.”

“Yes, sir.”

Erickson leaves to do as I asked, after he closes the door behind him I call my son Ethan.

“Hey, Pop.”

He only calls me that because he thinks I hate it. He considers it his only act of rebellion. I don’t care what he calls me in private but I continue the ruse because I think he needs an act of rebellion and this seems far safer than other action he could take. Of all my children, Ethan knows the most about my business and I his. Sometimes I regret the choices he’s had to make, worried he’s living his life too much for other people. Ethan has purpose but little joy, unlike his siblings.

“There’s been a shooting at Vanished.”

“Is Lucas okay?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

“No. Meet me at the hospital. If it is Lucas I want to be there. If it’s not, he probably won’t appreciate us showing up at his business.”

“Fair enough. What hospital?”

“I’ll text you as soon as I know.”

I exit my house and climb in to the back seat of the car waiting for me, Nathan Erickson at the wheel.

“What have you learned?”

“One critically injured en route to Memorial Hospital. Minor injuries on site. One in custody and one at large. Press is also on site.”

Damn.

“Still no word on who was shot?”

“No, sir. I’m sorry. Police scanner mentions an attempted robbery.”

“Take me to Memorial.” My wife is on the Board at Memorial so at least that will make things a little easier.

“Yes, sir.”

I spend the twenty minute drive alternating between praying Lucas is alright and regretting the decisions I’ve made where he’s concerned.

At the hospital I’m met by the Chief of Surgery and led to a private waiting room, Ethan meets me there. I’m told it wasn’t Lucas, but his staff member Jax, who was shot. That Jax’s condition is precarious but luckily there was a doctor on the scene. I ask the Chief to keep me updated and call my Communications Director to help deal with the press.

And I wait, keeping vigil to hear if Lucas’s best friend will survive the night.

He may not want my support but he has it.

If you’d like more information about Lucas and his Uncle click here.

Want to check in on Jax’s recovery? Click here.

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.