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 · 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 · 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 · 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.