Abbotts · Ethan and Ilyssa · Sloane and Josh

Ethan

FRIDAY:

How do I know her?

The conversations flowing around the table receded to indistinct murmurs as I studied the young woman across the room. She was so familiar yet I couldn’t place her. I was usually pretty good with faces but somehow she remained elusive in my memories. I’m not even sure I’d actually met her before yet she was so recognizable to me.

Who are you?

She’s wearing the uniform of the catering service my family utilizes for all these fund raising events. But she’s never worked one of them before I’m sure. This isn’t how I know her – she seems almost out of place here, at least in my memories. The memories I can’t seem to access.

Across the room she finishes delivering a tray of drinks to one of her tables. I watch as she smiles briefly and nods at one of the women seated in her section. She hesitates as she starts to turn away scanning the room until her eyes meet mine.

Her face shows no sign of recognition which immediately raises my suspicion. Everyone in this room knows who I am. My name was on the invitation right under the $2500 per plate minimum donation to get in the door. Her utter lack of reaction either means she’s new in town or well practiced at hiding her emotions.

If she’s new in town, how do I recognizer her?

If she’s pretending not to know me, why?

She turns away smoothly, following other staff through the doors to the kitchen.

Where did you come from?

I gesture subtly to the nearest server, bringing them to me. “That woman over there, what’s her name?”

“The brunette?” He cranes his neck for a better look. “That’s Sloane something. I’m sorry I’m pretty new. I’m not sure what her last name is.”

Nodding with a small smile of appreciation I dismiss him.

Sloane.

SATURDAY:

Her apartment building is in a poor but fairly safe neighborhood. It hadn’t taken me long to find her once I had a name. Money and influence tended to keep my wait times short. I was able to get her last name from the owner of the catering company. My family is one of her best and wealthiest clients so while she hesitated, ultimately she gave me the information I needed. I could have gotten it on my own but ever since I was sixteen, I try not to hack into the lives of my friends.

I should have brought Erik with me. My twin is better with people. I’m a genius with a computer, but I’m not great with people. I tend to come off arrogant and cold. Erik is just as arrogant but for some reason he wears it better.

I’m stalling. I don’t know what I want to happen on the other side of this door.

I knock. No point in putting this off.

I hear steps approaching on the other side and the rattle of the chain lock after a moments hesitation.

The door opens and there she is. Sloane Reed. She’s beautiful, no doubt about that. She has wavy light brown hair falling midway down her back, slender, average height, fair skin. Her features are what caught my attention at the fundraiser the other night. She’s younger than me – I’d guess around twenty. She has soft green eyes under brows a shade darker than her hair, a narrow nose just a tad too long to be ‘perfect’ and a wide generous smile.

She’s not smiling right now.

I think I’ve seen her face before.

“Can I help you?” she asks. It’s more of a demand actually. She doesn’t seem happy about me showing up at her front door.

“Sloane, I’m Ethan Abbott.” I hold my hand out as I introduce myself. She hesitates long enough I think she’s going to leave me awkwardly hanging but finally accepts the greeting.

“Can I help you with something?” There is still no look of recognition on her face. My curiosity is piqued.

“I’d like to ask you a few questions. Can I come in?”

“Are you a cop?”

I grin at that. “No. Definitely not a cop.” No one has ever accused me of that before.

She looks me up and down. “You can’t come in.”

I try to hide my surprise. It’s been a long time since someone has denied me anything. I’m too stunned to even be annoyed about it. For a brief moment it occurs to me how boring that’s made my life that last few years.

I’ve seen her face before. Who are you?

“Do you know me?” I ask her. I’m usually a more savvy negotiator but I’m honestly so confused by my reaction to her I don’t bother with any strategy.

Her expression remains impassive. “You’re Ethan Abbott.”

I laugh, I can’t help it. Clearly she’s an excellent negotiator – only giving me back the information I know she has since I gave it to her myself a few minutes ago.

“I am.” I try another approach. “Are you from Chicago?”

She shakes her head. “I’ve only been here a couple years.”

“Where did you live before that?”

“All over. I moved around a lot growing up.”

“What brought you to Chicago?”

“What do you care? What is this about?”

“I was at the event you worked last night. You seemed familiar.”

She rolls her eyes. “Seriously? The have we met before line? You don’t seem like the type of guy who needs to stalk waitresses to get a date. Unless you’re some serial killer or something.”

“Not a serial killer.”

“Don’t you think that’s what a serial killer would say?” she demands.

I burst out laughing again. I like this girl. She’s fun. “I’m just curious. Not a killer.”

“Well, sorry, but I’m not that interesting. Just a waitress. And I’ve never met you before now when you’re creepily showing up at my apartment. I’m also not interested in a date, so… bye.”

She closes the door and I hear the lock turn. I stand there for another beat totally dumbfounded.

Did she seriously just shut the door in my face? Erik would be laughing his ass off.

MONDAY:

“Evelyn from Elegant Events is on the line for you, Mr. Abbott.”

I jam my finger on the speaker button. “Evelyn. To what do I owe the pleasure?” I ask still partially focused on the computer screen in front of my.

“Sloane came and quit today. Out of the blue. I find it an odd coincidence this happens just days after you come asking about her.”

I lean back in my chair. What the hell?

My silence only encourages Evelyn to continue berating me. “I told you not to cause her any trouble. She’s one of my most reliable staff, has been working with me for almost two years now. What did you say to her?”

“That was just a misunderstanding,” I assure her, mind spinning. “I thought she was someone else.”

She scolds me a few more minutes before I assure her I’ll fix it and hang up. I convince her to give me Sloane’s cell before she goes.

I try her number from my own cell and immediately get the tell tale tones of a disconnected line.

I feel my body start to vibrate with energy. I knew she was pretending not to recognize me. But I still have no idea why. Or why she would then immediately quit her job and cancel her phone. I’ve got to talk to her again. And this time I’m not leaving without answers.

She’s gone.

Her apartment is empty. The landlord said she left in the middle of the night, left a note apologizing for the short notice with two months rent, in cash, for his trouble. No number or forwarding address.

How a waitress has two months of rent laying around is only one of a million questions I want to ask her.

Back at my condo I set up my second secure server, excitement coursing through me. I may not hack my friends anymore but Sloane isn’t protected by that label.

I start with the basics. Work records, arrest records, school, birth certificate, parents basic info, credit report. I find shockingly little information, most of which is from the last three years. I do manage to get a lead on where she might have gone.

My phone buzzes on the desk next to me, breaking my concentration. I look down and see my little sister’s name on the screen.

And it slams in to me.

Why Sloane looks familiar. How I know her. Who she must be.

I silence my phone, ignoring the call. I feel a small pang of guilt knowing it’s been too long since I’ve talked to my sister but I can’t right now. I’m still reeling from my revelation.

Could this be possible?

I grab the potential addresses I’ve found. A leasing agency just started a credit check for Sloane but they manage three different buildings. I could wait until the morning and call them, assuming again that my name or money would get me the answer I want but I don’t think I can wait that long. I grab my keys and my cell.

The first building was still under renovation, no new tenants there. I’m standing across the street from the second address on my list. Nerves are starting to mix with my adrenaline. Once again I’m not sure what I’m going to say when I confront her. What if she has no idea? What if I’m totally insane?

No, I argue. I’m not insane. I don’t understand how everything fits together yet but I have enough unanswered questions to form a picture. I know more from my lack of information than most – it’s almost like the negative space is starting to create an image.

I smirk. Ilyssa would be proud of that reference.

Someone is approaching the building across the street and I jog over hoping I can catch the door after he enters. This neighborhood isn’t quite as nice and the last one and lurking on the sidewalk for an extended period of time feels unwise.

There’s only one mailbox without a name. I’m guessing if she’s here, that’s the apartment. 3B. I hit the stairs.

The door to 3B is partially open when I get to the third floor. That’s disappointing. It must still be vacant. I’m distracted by my thoughts as I wander inside. I pause when I spot two boxes sitting in the middle of the room.

Suddenly the world is spinning and I’m struggling to get air into my lungs around the dull pain throbbing through my torso. I blink, disoriented and still unable to breath normally. Somehow, I’m on my back, staring up at the ceiling. I see the gun right before I focus on Sloane holding it.

Guess I found her.

Want more of Sloane? This takes place a few years later. And meet her best friend Blake.

And find out a little about Ethan’s twin Erik here.

Abbotts · Dylan and Blake · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Dylan

This is going to be a cluster fuck I can tell already.

Lucas is practically vibrating with tension waiting for the light to change so we can cross the street. His eyes are scanning the windows of the coffee shop on the other side, I’m sure trying to spot Ash. She stopped answering her cell twenty minutes ago and if she’s not in this cafe I’m going to have 200 lbs of tattooed male rage to try to diffuse.

I eye my … friend… warily. I guess we’re friends. I have a lot of respect for Luke and the bastard is pretty funny when he wants to be but there’s a mountain of unspoken suspicion between us which makes it challenging to form much of a friendship. He calls me when there’s trouble because he trusts me to handle it, blur rules for the right reasons, keep my mouth shut when necessary and not throw him attitude based on his past unlike a lot of guys in the department.

There’s less of the attitude since he’s become a local celebrity but we go back to long before his Top Ink win.

And I’ve got my own reasons for wanting to keep close.

Of course this situation could complicate everything.

Finally the light changes and forces traffic to stop so we can cross and enter the coffee shop. Lucas pulls the door open so aggressively I think he may pull it off the hinges and explodes through the entryway. I see him visibly relax as he crosses the room and grabs a pretty brunette, pulling her against him. She’s clearly confused by his behavior and I know she has no idea why we’re here.

Yet. Damn. I hang back, waiting for Luke to take the lead.

“The battery died. I tried to tell you it was going to but you hung up too fast. My work cell was on.”

Lucas gives a rough chuckle. “I guess I need to get that number, huh?”

The smile she gives him makes me feel like I’m intruding.

Finally, Luke pulls away and introduces us. “Ash this is Dylan Melrose.” I give her a practiced smile, one designed to inspire confidence but not overly friendly. I come in to people’s lives when bad things are happening to them. They need to like me but also know I’m not happy to be there. I’m there because I have a job to do and they can trust me to get it done.

I shake her hand and answer the first question in her eyes. “Ash. I’m a Detective with the Chicago PD.”

She frowns looking between me and Lucas. “What – what’s going on?”

I nod to one of the back tables. “Let’s sit.”

Ash glances again at Lucas. He grabs her hand and moves to the table I indicated. He guides her in first so she’s in the corner seat then takes the chair next to her, pulling her in close. I sit across the table my back against the wall.

“Lucas, you’re really freaking me out. What is going on? Are you okay?”

I note that her first concern is for him.

He exhales heavily. “I got some threatening text messages today.”

“Threatening how?” She rests her hand on his forearm, squeezing gently. “Are you okay?” She asks softly.

“They weren’t threatening me, Ash. They threatened you.”

“Me? I don’t understand.”

“Show her,” I urge, when he seems to hesitate. He scowls at me but does as I suggest.

She scrolls through quickly, face paling. “That’s from my lunch break today. I ran to the farmers market. And that’s as I was leaving the hospital.”

“I don’t understand,” she repeats.

“This happens sometimes. I mean, I’ve gotten weird fan mail, threats before. Not much but some. But this is different. This is someone who was able to get my personal cell. And knows about you.”

I lean forward. “It might be nothing. Just some crazy fan and this is the end of it. But I think we should take it seriously until we know for sure. That’s why Luke called me.”

She nods. “Right. Of course.”

“Do you feel up for answering some questions for me?”

She nods again. Lucas leans back in his chair, clearly giving me the lead. He rests one arm along the back of her chair.

“Did you notice anyone out of the ordinary today around the time these were taken?”

She shakes her head. “No. It was a perfectly normal day.”

“How many people know about your relationship with Luke?”

“Not many. Hospital staff know I was on Jax’s case while he was there but only my roommates know we’ve seen each other outside of the hospital. And the staff at Vanished.”

“Any idea who could be doing this? Has anyone been giving you a hard time?”

“No. No one.”

“Any ex-boyfriends?”

“No.” She sounds frustrated. “I was in Africa for almost three years. I’ve only been back about two months and haven’t dated anyone. I mean. Until, Lucas. I mean, not that we’re dating exactly. We’ve just been hanging out. But there hasn’t been anyone else dating or hanging out,” Ash rushes to explain.

I hear Luke grunt and he folds his arms across his chest staring at her. “We’re not ‘just hanging out’. Words aren’t going to scare me, Ash.” He looks at me. “We’re together. She’s my girlfriend.”

I nod. And there it is. I really hope this is just some over zealous stalker fan.

I continue with my questions. “No one who might want to rekindle something from before you left?”

She shakes her head, “No. There wasn’t anyone serious enough they’d still be pining after me three years later.”

Luke’s expression changes briefly but he remains silent.

“What about at the hospital? Could there be anyone who resents your position? Someone denied a promotion because you got the job or thinks they deserve the spot more than you?”

Shrugging, she informs me, “Maybe, but I doubt it. The position only exists because of a grant the hospital got based on the work I was doing in Africa. If it wasn’t me doing it, the position probably wouldn’t exist at all.”

“Okay.” I nod and pull one of my cards out of my pocket for her. “Here is all my contact information. Put it in your phone and memorize it. I’ll want you to come in to the station in the next few days to make a formal report. In the meantime, safety in numbers okay? Don’t go anywhere alone. I’ll see about tracing the texts. If you see anything or think of anything else call me. Even if it seems silly. I’m here to help.”

Ash nods. “Thank you.”

I make contact with Lucas and subtly incline my head.

“You be okay here for a second, babe? I’m going to walk Dylan out.”

“Yeah, of course.”

We step outside into the cooling night air. “You think you’ll get anything from the texts?”

Deciding to level with him I shake my head, “Doubt it. Anyone savvy enough to pull this off is going to know enough to use a burner. We’ll try, but…” I leave it hanging with a shrug.

“Right.”

“Want to tell me what’s bugging you?”

“Besides my girlfriend being stalked?”

“Besides that.”

He takes a deep breath and looks away. I wait patiently while he decides what he wants to tell me.

“There’s a guy at the hospital. Dr. William Parker. I don’t know why she didn’t mention him. I’m pretty sure they used to date.”

When I don’t respond he continues. “We haven’t really gotten to the ‘tell me about your exes’ phase but I overheard a couple conversations. I don’t know how serious it was. But they still work together and he didn’t seem pleased when he walked in on us kissing once.”

“I’ll look in to it,” I promise.

“Thanks, man.” Lucas clasps my left hand, pulling me in slightly to pat me on the back with his right. “I appreciate it.”

“I’ll keep you posted.”

He thanks me again and goes back inside to Ash.

Fucking hell.

I watch them through the window briefly before heading back to my car. It’s pretty obvious to me they’ve gotten deep fast. Lucas falling in love is… an unforeseen complication. I like her though and I’m pretty good at reading people. She could be good for him if these texts are just a small flicker and not the beginning of the raging assault I’m supposed to be preventing.

Although if it’s love and this isn’t the threat we’ve been waiting for then Ash will just be around when it does eventually come. Another person to keep safe.

My source is sure he’ll come back eventually. I’m not as convinced but I let her take the lead. I curse under my breath. It’s not like I had enough to deal with when Lucas decided to become famous and change his last name.

I slam my car door shut and pull out my cell.

Ethan and Sloane are going to be fucking livid.

There’s more on Lucas and Ash’s story available here, here, and here.

Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Riley and Jax · Vanished

Cousin Riley

I pause outside the door asking myself for the 100th time if I should be doing this.

I haven’t exactly been invited. But you don’t have to be invited to visit someone in the hospital right? Isn’t this the kind of situation you should go and offer support without an invitation? Because it’s the right thing to do?

Probably that’s more true if you actually know the patient.

“Miss Riley? Everything okay?”

I glance at the security guard next to me. He’s under strict orders not to let anyone in but my uncle owns the company so he’s making an exception. My last name often comes with benefits.

“No, I’m fine, Peter. Thank you.” I take a deep breath and finally open the door.

The blond man inside is propped up in the hospital bed but obviously asleep. His head is slumped to the side and his breathing is slow and even, a little heavy.

Well, this is a bit anti climatic. I’ve been giving myself pep talks for hours, the least he could do was witness my courage.

Or stupidity. Jury’s still out.

As I contemplate my next move, he inhales deeply and raises his head. He blinks a few times, his eyes settling on me. His trademark smirky grin slowly appears and I just barely stop myself from laughing. Only Jax would seriously think about flirting with a strange woman who entered his hospital room unannounced and uninvited while recovering from a bullet wound and a head injury.

His eyes widen and the smile slips and I know he’s just realized who I am.

We don’t know each other. But we know of each other.

“You’re… Riley. Right?”

I nod racking my brain for what to say. Apparently I’ve spent all my mental abilities just talking myself in to getting here, I have no idea what to do now.

“I’m Jax. Nice to meet you.”

I laugh out loud before I can stop myself. Obviously, I know who he is. “You too,” I manage, still laughing.

His grin flashes for a second. Then he eyes me up both curious and skeptical.

“You want to sit?” He nods to one of the chairs by his bed.

I shake myself loose from my nerves and move away from the door. “I – ah – I brought you some contraband.” I glance over my shoulder, my rule-following heart ridiculously nervous one of the hospital staff is going to walk in and catch me. Not that I’d get in any trouble – my family donated the wing Jax is currently being treated in. But still. I usually follow rules. I’m a middle school teacher after all.

“Oh yeah? Bribe or peace offering?”

I hide my involuntary flinch by digging through my giant purse to carefully remove my… bribe.

“I think it held up okay.” I hand over the white paper bag and Jax’s eyes light up recognizing the logo.

“You brought me Duk’s?” He reaches for the hot dog but then grimaces with pain and falls back against his pillows. “Shit.”

“Are you okay? Should I call anyone?” I rush to his side, putting the bag on the hospital tray.

Breathing heavily he shakes his head. “No. I’m fine. Just need a minute.”

Silently, I take him in. Considering everything he’s been through the last week he seems to be recovering well. But he’s paler than usual, scruffier than usual, and has far too many machines attached to him to be comfortable. I busy myself unwrapping the Chicago style hot dog I smuggled in and give him a minute to compose himself. I don’t know Jax but he strikes me as the type of person who doesn’t like others to see him showing weakness.

Even someone he doesn’t like or respect. Like me.

I’m assuming he doesn’t like me based on Lucas’s general opinion of my entire family.

But, I remind myself, that’s why I’m here. Because Lucas is wrong about my family but he’s especially wrong about me. He and I have a lot more in common than he realizes, I’m convinced. And if he just gave us a chance, gave me a chance…

“Thanks,” Jax says simply when I finish and take the seat he had offered.

He picks it up with the hand that doesn’t have an IV attached and takes a giant bite, humming with pleasure. I snicker.

“This is exactly what I needed. How did you guess?” he asks around his second mouthful.

I laugh surprisingly relaxed around Lucas’s best friend. He seems more curious than hostile which was my biggest fear. Curiosity I can handle. I’m happy to answer questions if the answers get back to my estranged cousin.

I shrug. “I watch the show.”

He glances at me sharply before returning his attention to the hot dog.

I sit silently while he finishes. After he sits back with a sigh of contentment, I ask how he’s feeling.

“Bored. But now you’re here so I suspect that’s going to change.”

I look away suddenly hot under his scrutiny. There’s a little bit of the hostility I expected.

“I – I was -”

“What are you doing here, Riley?” he interrupts. “Hoping to see Luke?”

“I wanted to see both of you. I heard about the shooting, obviously. I wanted to check on you, see if either of you needed anything.”

“Why?” He studies me so intensely it takes all my years of public appearances and Public Relations trainings not to fidget.

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

He frowns, considering my answer.

“Who’s the lucky guy?” he asks, nodding at my engagement ring.

I glance at my finger, thrown by the abrupt change in subject.

“Oh, uh, his name is Daniel.”

Nervously I play with the ring, still uncomfortable with the weight on my finger. Truthfully, I’m uncomfortable with the whole engagement. My doubts about Daniel have been growing steadily for almost a year now, even before the engagement. I’d been preparing to break things off when he proposed. Somehow we ended up engaged instead. I never even said yes, he’d just assumed my consent and slipped the ring on. He assumes a lot of things, I was coming to realize, and had for years. I’m not sure if it was getting worse or if I was just less inclined to go along with things. We’ve been together so long I can hardly remember a time I wasn’t his girlfriend. Now I’m his fiancee and I’m not sure I want to be. But I also can’t imagine cutting ties to one of the most important people in my life. I bite my lip, a nervous habit. I don’t know what to do.

So instead of trying to sort all that out I’m here. Willing to try anything to form a new connection with my cousin Luke. Hoping that maybe having other people in my life that care for me will make it easier to end things with Daniel.

I mean, that’s not the only reason. I want Luke to be part of the family. It would be good for him too to know that connection. I don’t know where I would be right now if Uncle Theo hadn’t taken me in when my parents died.

I could tell Jax was skeptical when I told him this is what you do for family. Luke is the only family he’s ever had and vice versa. But it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Now that we know about Luke, Jax would be accepted by extension.

Jax may be skeptical of me and my intentions but Lucas is downright hateful, shutting down any attempts we’ve made to reach out. I’m hoping I can be the one to get through to him. I know what it’s like to grow up without your parents. I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider in your own family – no matter how wonderful they are. And I know what it’s like to think people are using you with some ulterior motive.

I experience a pang of guilt knowing that’s dangerously close to what I’m doing right now. Using Jax to get to Lucas. I console myself that I do honestly care about Jax too. Or at least I want to care about him. If they would both just give us a chance.

As if reading my thoughts, Jax asks, “So. What do you want me to tell Luke?”

I sigh. “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.”

He frowns, eyes still studying me, and I wonder if he knows about my parents.

“Thanks for the dog.”

I smile, intensely pleased he liked it. If he knew how long I spent agonizing over what to bring I would be horrified.

He lays his 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?”

I laugh overjoyed by even this small entry point. “I can do that.” It registers he called me ‘Teach’ and I realize he knows what I do. That also gives me a little hope.

The door opens and Lucas stops dead spotting me in the room. His easy expression darkens. “What the hell are you doing here? How did you get in here?”

I stand ready to explain but Jax beats me to it. “I told the guard it was okay. She’s not some crazy fan.”
I shoot him a look but he’s focused on Luke.

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

I hear Jax sigh next to me. “Luke-”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go. I just wanted to see if either of you needed anything.” I grab my bag and give Jax a small smile I’m sure doesn’t hide disappointment. I stop at the door, my hand on the handle and say softly, “Ethan didn’t send me. Neither did Uncle Theo. I just -” I bite my lip again, unsure what else to say. Silently I push the handle and leave.

Well. That could have gone better.

“KitKats!” I hear Jax yell as the door closes behind me.

I giggle.

I guess that means I have an invitation for next time.

If interested, you can read Jax’s perspective here.

Abbotts · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Ash

“Gabby!”

I wince at Raquel’s high pitched squeal. Technically the party is just getting started but Raquel has been pretty aggressively pre-gaming most the afternoon. She was tipsy when she met us to check in to the hotel and I don’t think she has paused. That was four hours ago. I’m worried if she keeps going at this pace she’s not going to make it back to her room without spraining an ankle. The girl likes her stilettos.

She’s currently leaning over the front counter of Vanished on Halsted attempting to flirt with the rough giant standing behind it. He’s being gracious and engaging with her but I can tell he’s not really that in to it. I’m sure he’s gotten used to drunken bridesmaids attempting to add him to the bachelorette party favors on a fairly regular basis. At least I’m assuming that’s the case based on what I’ve learned about this place.

Shockingly this is the first time I’ve ever been in a tattoo shop. It’s almost what I expected. I mean, considering I really had no idea what to expect. They’ve rehabbed one of the old industrial warehouses in the neighborhood. The space also includes a brewery, coffee shop and a couple cute indie stores. It’s spotless with enormous windows and explosions of color everywhere. It’s a space for people far cooler than I am but I still like it. I like color. When it’s done well. And everything here is done well.

“Gabby,” Raquel doesn’t even turn as she calls out, keeping her blurry eyes and exposed cleavage firmly focused on her target. “You need to check in with the guy… Jax.” She touches his chest, covering the Vanished logo on his shirt and purrs, “Hi, Jax.”

I glance around the lobby. They’ve closed shop for the night, staying open just for our party so I quickly realize Gabby, my best friend and the guest of honor is not here. I roll my eyes slightly but can’t help my smile knowing damn well she’s slipped out to call her fiance Tim.

“I’m on it.” I step up to the counter and hold out my hand for the clipboard Jax just grabbed. He smiles at me and winks playfully. I return the grin and then laugh out loud as he inhales sharply and dodges Raquel’s wandering fingers. Jessi comes over to join her and I see a tiny flare of panic in Jax’s eyes as he’s surrounded. I focus on filling out the intake form with Gabby’s vital information relieved to have a task to occupy me for a few minutes.

I love Gabby but this whole night is not really my scene and – I’d never admit this to her – I’m feeling a little awkward and disoriented. Gabby and I have been friends forever but half of these women I hardly know and the other half I inevitably lost touch with after college graduation – first with med school and then being out of the country the last three years. Gabby was the one I’d held onto, keeping me connected and grounded.

And laughing. Gabby is goddamn hysterical.

I’ve been back in Chicago, back in the States, for only a week. I’m still crashing at Gabby’s and Tim’s apartment. The most exciting part about this Bachlorette Party for me was the hotel rooms we rented for the weekend. Two whole nights on a real bed in a room that doesn’t double as Tim’s home office. Luxury.

I might even take a bubble bath. I’m definitely ordering room service. I haven’t taken a relaxing bath in years. Or ordered room service. Neither had been available where I’ve spent the last few years. I was lucky to have a luke-warm sponge bath or cold shower on a daily basis.

Adjusting back to life in Chicago is trickier than I expected but it’s only been a few days. I do love this city and I’ve missed it. I’m excited to be back. Really I am. Besides, if everything goes to plan this won’t be permanent. A year tops.

If everything goes according to plan.

I shake my head and refocus. Tonight is about Gabby and having some fun. Or at least pretending to have fun until I can get in to that bathtub.

The bell above the door tinkles and I turn smiling at Gabby as she re-enters.

“About time! I need your help with some of these questions. And how is Tim?” I tease.

Her eyes are legit twinkling as she accepts the clipboard and pen. “Practically perfect, thank you.”

“Well no more sneaking off for calls with your groom! You’re ours for the rest of the night.” This from Gabby’s little sister Camilla.

Laughing Gabby agrees. Despite me being the Maid of Honor, the others have done most the planning for the weekend. I have only a vague sense of our agenda partly because Skype calls to Cameroon aren’t incredibly reliable but mostly because Camilla didn’t trust me not to spill the secrets to Gabby. Which – fair.

Vanished is one of the few events everyone knew about well in advance – a special request from the bride herself. A tattoo celebrating her love. Apparently the owner is a crazy talented artist and won some reality television tattoo competition a couple of years ago that he managed to parlay into his own reality show and now he’s a celebrity that puts his art on other celebrities. And bridal parties if they pay enough. Which Gabby’s family is happy to do.

According to the other girls he’s also insanely gorgeous. I have dozens of emails in my inbox right now from the others gushing about how hot all the artists here are and gossiping about what’s happening on the show that now focuses on Lucas Abbott post his Top Ink championship but I hadn’t bothered to Google any of it. I figured I’d find out eventually and since I wasn’t planning on getting a tattoo myself it didn’t seem necessary to look at their designs. Besides, there’s an insane amount of pop culture to absorb after three years and I’m still getting my time zones adjusted after my 30 hour journey home. This week I slept. Next week I’ll catch up on my celebrity gossip.

I’ll be honest, if Jax is any indication of what to expect they weren’t exaggerating. He’s rough around the edges not polished like most of the men I work with at the hospital but the man is gorgeous. And pretty adorable when he’s flirting but trying to keep a distance at the same time. Watching him walk that line with Raquel has certainly been entertaining.

Suddenly he straightens, all teasing gone as he looks at something over my shoulder.

“Luke. This is Gabby, the bride to be. Camilla, Jessi and,” he checks the papers in front of him, “Sofie are also getting tattoos.”

“Awesome.”

Luke, Lucas Abbott is The Guy. The reason we’re all here tonight. I can tell he’s already gotten the attention of all the other women in the room and I feel myself getting excited right along with them. I turn to face the voice behind me and meet the man everyone has been not-so-secretly fantasizing about over our group email chain.

Holy shit.

His dark blue gaze meets mine for a hot second before he focuses on Gabby, giving his congratulations and discussing his sketches for her design. I stand there immediately debating if I should get a tattoo after all.

Because fucking hell that man is gorgeous. No wonder he was able to pivot a reality competition win into his own reality show spin-off. I can’t imagine any straight woman in America turning off their TV set if he was on it.

“Hi. Lucas.” He holds out his hand, introducing himself. Those blue eyes are back focused on me.

Determined to play it cool and not fan girl out – considering I’ve never seen his show this seems doubly inappropriate for me to do – I clasp his hand. “Ash.”

He holds my hand a beat longer than is polite. Or is that just my wishful thinking? “Are you interested in getting a tattoo?”

“No. I’m just here for moral support.”

“Ash is going to let me hold her hand,” Gabby interjects and Lucas finally releases our handshake.

He grins at me. “Let me know if you change your mind. I’m pretty good.”

I laugh. “That’s the rumor anyway.”

His smile deepens and one eyebrow quirks. My stomach flips and I realize I am interested in this man in a way I haven’t been interested in years – maybe ever. Jax is attractive, any idiot would notice that and I’m pretty smart, but I hadn’t really cared he was attractive just acknowledged it the way I would note a patients symptoms. Factually. Impartially. Indifferently.

But my body’s reaction to Lucas is the opposite of indifferent.

“Ladies.” His voice raises as he takes in the full group. “You all want a quick tour before you get some ink?”

Cheers go up from around me and we all follow Lucas and Jax through the shop.

Two hours later I’m back in the lobby of Vanished pressed tightly against a well muscled body.

It would be a better kind of exciting if there wasn’t a gun to my head.

I hate it when people pull guns on me.

Ugh.

If interested in Gabby’s perspective you can find that here.

If you want to learn more about Lucas click here.

If you’re interested in more of Lucas and Ash’s story you can find that here.