AtoZ Challenge · Sloane and Josh

Sloane #AtoZChallenge

I am trying desperately to ignore the fact that Josh Garrison is standing only twenty feet away, looking sexier than any man has a right to in a tuxedo, and staring right at me. Focus, Sloane. Focus on your job.

I smile seamlessly at the guests, calmly assign tasks to the staff and volunteers, and always, always, know exactly where the photographers are located.

This is actually the easy part, if I’ve done my job well. Once an event has started I should just have to manage schedules, give gentle nudges and keep an eye out for potential problems – hopefully anticipating them early enough they never actually happen. Or at least happen without anyone else noticing.

I’m really good at anticipating behavior. Especially behavior that could become a problem. I honed that skill early in life and survival skills are rarely forgotten.

Except when Josh Garrison is standing twenty feet away. Wearing a tux. Watching me.

Asshole.

Except he’s not. He’s smart and handsome and good. He’s like Captain America or someone equally difficult to hate. Impossible to ignore. Despite my practice at trying. It’s annoying.

Usually I am quite successful at avoiding him. Chicago is a big city. It’s easy to avoid people, especially when you know where those people work and live. But I know there are two nights every year when that won’t be possible. As much as I love the work I do with The Bridge, organizing their fundraisers, it has also become incredibly stressful. Because I know he will be here. On these nights I know I will have to interact with him.

Interacting with Josh is dangerous. I have spent years perfecting my camouflage. Years deciding what the outside world should see when they look at me. He’s the only one that doesn’t seem to accept my disguise. He studies me with equal parts interest and confusion. Like he can’t figure me out and I’m both annoyed he sees through me and terrified he’ll discover all my secrets.

So avoidance. This is the solution I’ve come up with. And it works for me.

Except two nights a year.

I smile serenely, accepting Margaret’s praise. She is the Executive Director of The Bridge, the organization benefiting from tonight’s event, and has become a dear friend over the years. We’re just about to investigate the silent auction and make some bids of our own when I hear someone call her name and stiffen, recognizing the voice immediately.

Suddenly he’s right there, crowding me with his sheer presence, charming Margaret with his smile.

She’s beaming under his attention, even 70 year old widows no match for his teasing and compliments.

Then he turns his attention to me. “Great job on the event tonight, as usual.”

Forcing a smile, I plan my escape. “Thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I have to check in with Brice.” Brice is my assistant, I’m sure there’s some reason I need to talk to him. “Margaret, I’ll speak with you shortly.” I nod at them both, proud of my composure as I turn to leave.

Margaret waves her fingers, dismissing me and turns her full attention to the man in front of her. “I just heard about your transfer, such wonderful news.”

I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, unnamed and unexamined feelings forcing the air from my lungs. Without considering my actions I turn back to the pair.

“You’re transferring?” I hear myself demand.

His brown eyes move across my face a small smirk twisting his mouth. He pauses for just a heartbeat before responding. “Just into a different department. I’ll still be in Chicago, don’t worry.”

I feel my cheeks heat, embarrassed both my unguarded reaction and the fact that he seems fully aware of it. He grins watching how flustered I’ve become. I take a deep breath determined to get myself together.

“I see. Congratulations.”

Seemingly oblivious to the tension in our little circle, Margaret weighs in again. “I just could not be happier. Ever since the Blackwell Ring arrest, I thought you would be a perfect addition to the Civil Rights team. You-”

“The Civil Rights team?” I blurt out. No. No, no, no. This just keeps getting worse and worse.

Josh is studying me carefully and I curse my inability to control my responses when he is around. He sees too much and I hate it.

“I’ll be focused primarily on human trafficking cases,” he responds slowly.

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

“Wonderful,” I agree and get the hell away from those clever brown eyes. Crossing the room, I slip into the kitchen and allow myself a moment. I lean back, my head resting against the wall behind me and close my eyes.

FBI Agent Josh Garrison is going to be focused on sex crimes and human trafficking. And likely even more involved with The Bridge, especially if Margaret has her way. Despite my best efforts, that man has a way of seeing right through me. My avoidance strategy has worked to keep my secrets intact but frequent exposure? He would discover things best left alone.

And I can’t let that happen.

I pull out my phone and quickly send a text. I think we have a problem. When are you back?

Almost immediately I get a response. Monday. I’ll meet you at your place.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I close my eyes again and calm my racing heart. Monday. Less than forty-eight hours and Ethan, the only other person in the world who knows all my secrets, will be home. Together we can figure out how to navigate this new potential land-mine.

I owe Ethan my life.

We would have been fine if Ethan and I had never met. I know that. I had a decent place to live. I had a decent job. We’d stayed off the grid. Hidden. We’d been making things work and we would have been fine, but meeting Ethan had changed our entire lives.

He made sure I went to college. He helped me launch my own event organizing business, both financially and then by referring his incredibly wealthy friends. Because of Ethan, I’d been able to stay in Chicago, lead an almost normal life.

He’d helped me try to fight my demons. When that failed, he had trusted my judgment and helped me hide from them. We would figure this out too.

Feeling reassured, I return to the ballroom. My eyes immediately fall on Josh’s form across the room. I force myself to look away.

Forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours and I’ll have a plan. Once I have a plan, I’ll be fine.

I just need a plan.

See the story from Josh’s perspective.

And meet a young Sloane here.

AtoZ Challenge · Sloane and Josh

Garrison, Josh #AtoZChallenge

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

The woman on the other side hates me.

I think.

Pretty sure.

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

And there she is.

Sloane Reed.

“Garrison.” Her flat tone is not encouraging.

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

“What are you doing here?”

My dimple did not work on this one.

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

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

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

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

“Why?” she demands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How sad for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is so beautiful.

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

This is bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We first meet Josh here.

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 · Quinn and Nathan · Sloane and Josh

Quinn

Great. Nathan Erickson is in my apartment. Awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

“How is your sister?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s so close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.


“Is she expecting you?”

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

“Everything okay?”

“Not completely.”

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

“Sadly, yes.”

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

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

“Tell me?” He offers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome.

See this from Nathan’s perspective here.

Abbotts · Ethan and Ilyssa · Sloane and Josh

Piper

Are you freaking kidding me??!!

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

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

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

“Piper, my hands are tied.”

“That’s crap, Greg and you know it.”

“He asked for Kevin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grin. “I’ll be ready.”

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

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

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

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

That’s the signal we’ve agreed upon.

Now I wait.

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

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

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

I wait.

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

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

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

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

“Piper.”

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

“Still awake at this hour?”

Holy shit.

No freaking way.

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

At. All.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By publishing this article.”

“Among other things.”

“What does that mean?”

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

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

“Not could be. Is.”

“You’re trying to scare me.”

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

I mull over his proposition.

“You like me?”

He nods once.

“You trust me?’

“I do.”

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

Piper also appears briefly in Xander.

Abbotts · Quinn and Nathan · Sloane and Josh

Nathan

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

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

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

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

Prepare myself.

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

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

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

“I’m taking the bar exam in a week.”

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

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

I should not have taken this assignment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sassy. I fight my impulse to laugh.

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

I nod. “I’ll be right outside.”

I return to my position in the hallway.

I should not have taken this assignment.

What was I thinking?

Fuck, she looks good.

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

I never should have taken this assignment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It should be glorious.

I shut the door firmly and scan our surroundings.

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

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

Abbotts · Sloane and Josh

FBI Agent Josh Garrison

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

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

“She’ll say no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead I decide to have a little fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see. Congratulations.”

Seemingly oblivious to the tension in our little circle, Margaret weighs in again. “I just could not be happier. Ever since the Blackwell Ring arrest, I thought you would be a perfect addition to the Civil Rights team. You-”

“The Civil Rights team?” Sloane interjects.

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

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

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

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

And finally she makes a hasty exit.

What the hell was that about?

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

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

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

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

It’s irritating.

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

“Of course. I would love too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grimace. If she only knew.

Meet a much younger Sloane here.

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 me.

“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.