Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge · Lucas and Ash · Vanished

Lucas #AtoZChallenge

Damn it.

I crumple the drawing I just finished in my fist and toss it into the basket at my feet. I’m working on a pinup style tattoo for a regular client which should be a relatively easy and fun assignment. Unfortunately all I can think about is Ash. Which means the sketch I just did looked disturbingly like a certain doctor I know.

Like hell I’m tattooing her face on some other guy’s bicep. Even if I’m the only one who would probably ever know.

I’m man enough to admit she’s got me totally twisted up. Two weeks now we’ve been dancing around each other and I can’t figure her out. That kiss we’d shared, brief as it was, was one of the hottest experiences of my life. I’ll also admit that memory has been the jumping off point to some seriously sexy fantasies. More times than is probably healthy.

Jax is coming home tomorrow. And while I’m relieved my best friend is healed enough to leave the hospital it’s like a glaring countdown clock is now hovering above my head. Because when he gets discharged, I’ll have no reason to see Ash again, let alone every day.

Movement in the corner of my eye catches my attention and I look up, expecting to see Logan entering my space. She’s the only other one working right now and usually alerts me to any clients before sending them back. But I’m wrong. It’s not Logan.
Instead, it’s like I’ve conjured my beautiful tormentor, because Ash is the one poised in the doorway.

Looking gorgeous, as usual. Her hair is down around her shoulders like that first night. At the hospital she always wears it pulled back in various styles. She’s wearing a simple white sun dress with an uneven hem, giving teasing glimpses of bare leg between her knees and ankles. Tiny straps show off her shoulders and peaks of cleavage.

The cave man in me is howling. It’s like she’s waving a red flag in front of a caged bull. And yet, she obviously has no idea how sexy she is.

“What are you doing here?” My voice is harsher than I intended, my thoughts annoyingly raw. And now I’m turned on.

The sparkle in her eyes dims a bit at my tone and she glances behind her towards the exit. I half expect her to bolt but instead she squares her shoulders and steps farther into the room. Having her get closer to me may not be the best idea right now.

“Ash, what are you doing here?”

This time my bearing does give her pause.

Her momentary courage crumbles. “Sorry. This is probably a bad time. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

She starts to back away. Shit. I’m being such an asshole. It’s not her fault I want her more than she wants me. Or that I freaked her out when I lost my temper at Ethan. She saved Jax’s life and has been nothing but good to me, confusing maybe but kind.
I sigh roughly and shake myself out of my dark mood.

“Wait.” I reach out, gently tugging on her hand to stop her backward retreat. “I’m sorry. You’re not interrupting anything. I’m just sketching while I wait for my next appointment.”

She’s stopped moving, which was my goal. Seemingly mesmerized by my hand holding hers. Which is when I realize not only haven’t I released her but I’ve moved closer and my thumb is now tracing soft circles against her wrist. Her breath hitches in her chest, causing her breasts to jiggle. She’s killing me.

“What are you doing here?” I ask again, this time much softer, smoother.

She tears her eyes away from our entangled fingers and finally looks up at me. I watch her throat flex as she swallows. She licks her lips nervously.

“I – ah – I just -” she takes a deep breath, it takes every ounce of discipline I have to keep my eyes on hers and not sneak another peek at her boobs. “I didn’t want this morning to be the last time I saw you.”

My inner cave man is now beating his chest in victory. I want to throw her over my shoulder, find the nearest bed, and show her how much I appreciate those words.

But what I do is take our entwined hands and move them to her lower back, using them to pull her snugly against me. My other hand raises to her shoulder and caresses down the length of her arm. Her shiver reassures me she’s equally affected.

“Yeah?” I whisper.

She nods, her chocolate eyes dilated with arousal.

Keeping my impulses tightly leashed, I press a soft kiss to her lips. Exploring. Asking. Wanting.

Over and over again I brush my lips across hers, deliberately never taking it farther. She makes a small sound in the back of her throat and lifts to her tip toes, trying to deepen the kiss. Her free hand fists my t-shirt as she strains against me.

I lift my head up, out of her reach and wait until her eyes slowly blink open.

“I’m really glad to hear that, Ash.”

She smiles softly and arches one eyebrow. “Yeah?” she repeats back to me.

Chuckling, I confess, “Hated that idea.”

We just stare at each other for a minute, silly grins on our faces.

“God, you’re beautiful.”

Her smile widens and she tugs that hand still gripping my shirt playfully, pulling my lips back to hers.

This time I increase the pressure and use my tongue to tease her lips apart so I can deepen our kiss. She responds immediately tangling her tongue with mine. I groan into the caress.

This woman. She goes right to my head.

Recently I’ve started doing my drawings in one of the empty stations we have in back, the ones waiting for our expansion plans to take place, and I am thankful for the extra bit of privacy this affords us. Because unless she pulls back there is no way I’m stopping.

Want more of Lucas and Ash? Here is their first meeting.

Learn more of Lucas’s history with his family here.

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge

Kyle #AtoZChallenge

Sharp pain shoots through my foot and I instinctively cry out before I can stifle it.

“Oh, shit. My bad. I’m so sorry.”

I hear a deep baritone voice apologizing, but my eyes are squeezed shut as I balance on one foot, trying to will the pain away in the other. I focus on taking a deep breath in through my nose and feel my heartbeat, calming myself. I sense a presence next to me, the man who had apologized for crushing my foot. He’s close but hasn’t tried to grab me or steady me, which I appreciate.

Although this guy has no way of knowing that.

I’ve been jumpy ever since the funeral and seeing him again.

It’s like I’ve regressed. I cringe when people touch me unexpectedly. Even little things like bumping in to me in the subway or if my hand accidentally touches the barista when he hands me my morning chai. Opening that door again, letting those memories back in, it’s messing with my head and I can’t get a handle on it. I’ve done such a good job for so long pushing that whole chapter way down deep but now it’s back with a vengeance, right under my skin just waiting for the slightest sensation to send me reeling.

I’d already been on edge today, ending up at a massive party for my friend’s family and not the small, intimate, family barbecue I had imagined. The last thing I need is to freak out and cause a scene here.

I hate feeling like this. So on edge and jittery. The sting of my injured foot is almost a welcome distraction.

I gingerly set my foot back on the grass and open my eyes, exhaling slowly.

“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so. It’ll shake off.” I limp a bit as I feel it out. Now that the pain is fading I’m feeling embarrassed and hope no one else has noticed. I finally glance at the man still hovering at my side.

Oh wow. He’s handsome. Really handsome. Gorgeous, even. Short dark blond hair, a little spiky and a close cropped beard frame his face. He’s got a great face, a sharp jaw line, straight nose and piercing gray-green eyes. Immediately I want to take his photograph.

Not in a creepy way. I’m a photographer.

“Do you need some ice or anything? Here let me help you find a place to sit.” He straightens, his height allowing him to glance across the yard and the crowd.

“No really. I’m fine,” I try to assure him. I just want to forget this embarrassing interaction and blend back into the edges of the crowd.

He turns back to me, studying my foot critically. At this point it’s just a gentle throb and I’m confident there isn’t any permanent damage. Seemingly satisfied, he sighs in relief and rakes a hand through his dark blond hair.

“Sorry. I promise to pay more attention from now on.”

I force a small laugh and tell him, “As long as you promise, then you’re forgiven.”

“At least let me grab you another drink.” He bends down to pick up the plastic cup I dropped when we collided. “What were you drinking?”

“Really, it’s fine-”


He makes a face, as if he’d be wounded if I didn’t let him do this and I relent. Why not? He seems genuinely concerned. And I can get more wine without entering the throng of people.

Smiling at my thoughts, I answer his question. “Some of the Chardonnay.”

“Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” He rushes away, a soft whiff of his cologne lingering briefly.

I glance at my phone to check the time. Erik disappeared ten minutes ago, his sister pulling him away for some family related task. When he’d invited me to his family’s annual barbecue I hadn’t realized the scale they celebrated on. I wasn’t expecting the size of this crowd. I guess it makes sense, his father is a Senator. Going all out on the Fourth of July is probably part of the job description. A couple months ago it wouldn’t have been so bad. But a couple of months ago I was still blissfully ignoring the fact that he still existed. Now I’m constantly afraid I’ll run into him again.

I try to spot Erik in the sea of people but have no luck and in no time at all the handsome stranger with giant feet is back, my chardonnay in one hand and a beer in his other.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Zane, by the way,” he says, shaking my hand. His hands are also large but he seems to be very conscious and careful with his size around me now.

His name triggers some memory buried in my mind, past conversations with Erik.

“Zane…Abbott?” I study him more carefully, looking for any resemblance.

His face falls as he nods, losing the easy smiled he’d had since returning with our drinks.

“Erik’s brother?” I ask, delighted.

“You know Erik?” He’s smiling again.

“We went to college together in California. I moved to Chicago a few months ago so he insisted I come to the annual family barbecue.”

A mock serious expression falls across his face. “I’m sorry he did that to you.”

“Did what?” I half smile, unsure what he’s getting at.

“Insisted you come here.”

I laugh and admit, “I wasn’t really expecting all this.” I take in the elaborate celebration before us.

“Is that why you’re hanging out on the edges?” he asks.

“Guilty. What’s your excuse?”

“That’s where the interesting people lurk.”

My cheeks heat with awareness.

Before I can respond Erik finally reappears. I breath a sigh of relief at his comforting presence.

“Hey! Zane!” Erik pulls his brother into a quick bear hug. “You met Kyle! Great.”

“Yeah, we ran into each other,” Zane meets my eyes, a small smile at his inside joke.

“She’s new to Chicago so we have to show her around.”

Zane makes a face I can’t quite interpret. “I’m not sure how good of a tour guide I’ll be considering how little I’ve been here the last few years.”

“Good point. Guess it’s on me, Kyle.”

I laugh, assuring him I’m fine with that.

Although I can’t ignore the small stab of disappointment Zane won’t be introducing me to my new city.

Read the first part of Kyle’s story here and Zane’s return here.

AtoZ Challenge · Jax and Riley · Vanished

Jax #AtoZChallenge

What the hell is she doing here?

And why does she keep showing up unannounced at my door?

Granted last time, I was lying in a hospital bed. And this is where I work. So not exactly my private space or anything. But still. This can’t mean anything good.

I glance at Macy, still holding open the door Riley had just busted through and who seems just as confused as I am.

Understandably confused. One, because we’re closed, just locking up. And two, because Riley is an Abbott and they aren’t exactly on the guest list.

“Uh. Hi, Riley.”

“Jax.” She’s unsteady on her feet but lifts her little chin as if lecturing in one of her classrooms. “I would like to speak with Lucas.”

I stare at her dumbly, just blinking as I try to figure out what is happening.

When I don’t respond Macy informs her Luke isn’t here. She spins at the sound of his voice and falls into him. Macy is chuckling as he reaches out to steady her and I shoot him a look. He clears his throat, trying to disguise his amusement.

Riley is demanding we go hunt down Lucas so she can talk to him.

That is so not happening.

I hear Mace mutter something about Riley being feisty and I am quick to deny it. “Not usually.” Something is obviously wrong and not just the fact that she’s clearly drunk off her ass.

I cross the room to her side and lead her to the couch. “Mace, can you grab some water for her?” I toss over my shoulder.

“On it.”

Riley is glancing around the room, taking in all the artwork. She’s never been here before. Never visited our tattoo shop Vanished. Lucas isn’t exactly a fan of his family. Although I think Riley is starting to chip away some of his walls. I’d like to see him give them a chance. At least give her a chance. But I’d never tell him that. Not my place. My place is behind him, supporting him, having his back.

That’s the way it’s always been.

I crouch down in front of her. Despite her drunken determination when she stormed in, now she looks uncertain and avoids my eyes.

“Haven’t seen you for a while,” I offer, giving her a half smile. It’s been about three months actually. I haven’t seen her since I got out of the hospital. She visited pretty regularly when I was there, carefully avoiding Luke after one marginally brutal interaction. But she would come by and keep me company and smuggle me my favorite foods.

She finally looks directly at me, her eyes red and blurry. Shit. She’s been crying.

“You look good,” she whispers. “Better.”

“Good as new.”

Macy reappears with a bottle of water that he hands over and then leaves us alone again. My leg is starting to cramp so I move to sit next to her on the couch. Making sure to keep a respectable distance. Luke may not like his family but she’s still my best friend’s cousin.

Even if she is cute.

I don’t normally do cute. Or sweet. And Riley, with her retro style dresses and giant gray eyes and genuine smile and enormous purse with KitKats, is both. She’s a teacher. At a Chicago public school. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about her character I don’t know what will.

And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about those gray eyes over the last few months.

But she’s also an Abbott. So I keep my distance. Literally and figuratively.

Or at least I had been. But I’m not an asshole. I’m not going to turn her out on the street when she’s drunk and obviously upset.

“So,” I say, settling back into the leather couch. “What’s new with you?”
Sniffling, she stares at her shoes.

“I finished work early tonight. One of my after school meetings was canceled so I thought I would bring Daniel some dinner. Surprise him. But when I got there… he was… he-”

I glance at the rock on her finger.

“Wasn’t alone?” I finish gently.

She shakes her head, silently starting to cry again.


Now what am I supposed to do?

“Want me to have Mace go over and scare the shit out of him?” Macy is the largest of all of us, built like a warrior. Luckily he usually has a smile on his face or he’d be one scary dude. Now, he’s just scary when he wants to be which isn’t very often. But I imagine would terrify her skinny tax attorney fiance. Or ex-fiance. Cheating fiance.

Thankfully, this causes her to laugh, sniffling through her tears. She takes a sip of the water. Suddenly she jumps to her feet, swiping at her cheeks and the tears under her eyes. “Let’s go dancing!”

My eyes widen in surprise. “You want to go dancing?”

“Yes! Let’s go? Where should we go?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Teach.”

She crosses her arms and glares at me. “And why not?”

I open my mouth to explain, or at least try to explain without pointing out she’s drunk, but before I can her face falls. “Oh. Because of Lucas.”

Surprisingly, I hadn’t been thinking of him. Luke is suspicious of Riley, thinks she’s often acting as an emissary for his cousin Ethan and his uncle but she’s growing on him. And he would definitely want her taken care of in this situation.

“That’s not why,” I tell her. “But if you go out to a club with me and Macy there’s a good chance some paparazzi is going to find us and take your picture. I can’t imagine the school board would be excited about that.”


She looks so disappointed I can’t help but feel like I let her down somehow. I should just make sure she gets home okay. But I also suspect that’s one of the last places she wants to go right now. And showing up at her uncle’s house will lead to questions, I’m sure.

I shove a hand through my hair in frustration. I know what I’m about to do and I know it’s a bad idea.

I keep my distance from Riley. That’s what I do. What I should do.

Instead I find myself saying, “You want to go somewhere for a drink? I’ve got an idea.”

The kick in my chest at her smile is further evidence I’m making a mistake.

Too late now.

See this interaction from Macy’s perspective here.

And if you’re curious about Jax and Riley’s first meeting you can find that here and here.

AtoZ Challenge

Ian #AtoZChallenge

“We the jury find the defendant…Not Guilty.”

I hear the various reactions behind me. Cries of stifled joy from those who believe these twelve strangers got it right. Clicks of cameras going off rapid fire as the press capture this moment. Gasps of disbelief and outrage from those, like me, who know this man is guilty.

But as my boss frequently reminds me, knowing it and proving it are not the same thing.

I remain stone-faced, showing no emotion as the judge and foreperson wrap up the formalities of the court before the judge finally ends the proceedings. Her gavel slams down, releasing a killer back into the community.

Because I failed. I failed to prove my case and convince the jury no one other than this man, Phillip Mann, had killed his girlfriend ten months ago.

Grimly I gather up my files and briefcase. As I stand and turn my eyes fall on him. Phillip Mann. He’s watching me with a smirk on his face, gloating in his eyes. He knows he beat me. I swallow my own rage, barely keeping my composure. I’m supposed to be sitting on the scales of justice, operating in facts and evidence, losing my shit in front of all these people shatters that belief and trust.

I’ll do that later, when I’m alone.

Ignoring the monster being congratulated fifteen feet away from me I instead turn to Carrie’s parents. Her mother’s presence has been strongly felt during the case, proud and grief stricken sitting in the gallery every day of testimony. Her father silent and stoic but red eyes reflecting his pain.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t do more. I’m sorry for your loss.” They give me jerky nods, her father finally cracking in public, a rough sob bursting out of him. They leave, arms wrapped around each other, sniffling.

I meet the eyes of Detective Melrose, standing at the back of the courtroom. He knows we blew this one. This is on both of us. He raises his chin, acknowledging our shared defeat.

Next to me, my assistant Dean seems to be taking the loss even harder than I am. His dark eyes are troubled, a gray pallor over his mahogany cheeks. The inexperienced DA made a critical error, costing us valuable evidence on a legal technicality. It happens. But it doesn’t ease the vicious blow of guilt when you are the one responsible. I place a hand on his shoulder, squeezing in some attempt at reassurance.

“Take the rest of the day. We’ll meet in the office in the morning.” He nods, acknowledging my instructions.

Outside the courthouse, I make a brief statement to the press. I say nothing of substance. There’s nothing to say. This is the system. Do I wish we had successfully gotten justice for Carrie? Of course. I am as convinced today as I was two months ago, when we began this trial that Phillip killed her, that he belongs in prison. But there is no point in saying that to the cameras. There is nothing I can do now for Carrie or her family. The media isn’t that interested in my boring platitudes, they rush passed me to Phillip Mann and his legal team as they exit to the front steps.

I walk away without looking back. I don’t want to hear what they have to say.

The only thing keeping me together is the knowledge that it’s not over. I won’t let it be. Not yet.

Hours later I’m at my favorite dive bar, deep in my thoughts a bourbon in front of me.

I look up from my glass and see Dylan Melrose sliding onto the stool next to me. He signals the bartender and orders a pint of beer.

“What did you find out?”

“You were right,” he says. “Carrie isn’t the only one.”

My hand squeezes into a fist, channeling my rush of emotions – rage, relief, determination.

“Then we get him for those.”

Dylan nods at me, the same determination on his face.

“We’ll get him.”

We first meet Ian last year in Xander’s story.

Want more of Dylan? Click here and here.

AtoZ Challenge · Macy and Hunter · Vanished

Hunter #AtoZChallenge

Lighting flashes across the sky, illuminating the clouds outside my window. Seconds later the crash of thunder vibrates through the room. I love a good thunderstorm. And it’s newly spring in Chicago so this is the first one in months, the first of the season. I smile watching the streaks of light scatter through the sky. The sound of the rain is soothing as it pelts against my windows, falling in tiny rivers down the glass.

My storm gazing is interrupted by the sound of water bubbling in my electric kettle. It hisses lightly before clicking off. I pour the hot water into my waiting mug and tea strainer. Grabbing my mug, I move into the living room and settle into my favorite chair, perfectly positioned to continue watching the storm rage while reading. I can hear my sister Vaughn’s voice mocking me, teasing me that I’m acting like an old lady. But this is exactly what I want to do with my Saturday night. At least this Saturday night. I grab my giant cable knit blanket and get all cozy, tucking myself into my chair with a happy sigh.

I’m not sure how much time passes, roughly four chapters worth, when I hear a tapping that isn’t related to the thunder outside. Straining to listen, I’m still startled when I hear the knocking again.

I contemplate ignoring it, but someone wants to talk to me badly enough to be out in this weather, so I put down my book and patter over to my front door. I peek out the window to see who it is at my door.


Confused and excited, there’s no denying that fluttery drop in my stomach, I flip the lock and open the door.

“Macy. Hey.” I’m sure my questions echo in my greeting. He’s never shown up at my place before. Usually we just flirtatiously chat at his dad’s bar or, more recently, my bakery and cafe.

He grins, his eyes crinkling adorably. “Hey. Busy?”

I glance down at my gray yoga pants and bare feet laughing, “Not really, no. Just enjoying the storm.”

Stepping aside, I usher him in. Immediately my little house is filled with Macy, his massive presence. Mace is a big guy both physically and in sheer personality. I’m tall, nearly 5’10” but even I feel almost tiny next to him. And if his height wasn’t enough, he’s also built like a sexy muscular tank, covered in tattoos. With a mass of dark hair, he typically wears pulled back in a causal man-bun and twinkling dark eyes.

I’m not lying. Or exaggerating. They twinkle. He’s like a dark, tan Santa Claus with six-pack abs.

He crosses the threshold, dripping water on the floor.

“You’re soaked! How long have you been out there?”

I rush down the hallway before he can answer and grab a towel out of the bathroom closet.

“I guess I’ve been walking for a while,” he admits, taking the towel I offer and drying his face and neck.

I frown in concern. “Everything okay?”

He takes a finger and gently massages the tension V between my eyebrows. He shrugs but doesn’t really answer.

“What are you up to?”

I decide to let him deflect the question for now. But I’m coming back to it.

“Just reading.”

“Anything good?”

This is so surreal I can’t help the little laugh that escapes. “Yeah actually.”

He nods, then asks, “Got a book for me?”

My head tilts to the side as I study him, not even hiding my confusion. “Macy. You can’t really want to sit and read a book with me in soaking wet clothes.”

He shrugs. “I kinda do actually. Is that okay?”

Something is definitely going on. But if he needs a friend right now, I guess I can be that.

“You have to get out of those wet clothes.”

He’s wrapped the towel around his neck now, holding the ends. He grins at me. “You could at least buy me dinner before trying to get me naked.”

I laugh. “Seriously. I doubt I have anything that will fit you but I’ll check. Why don’t you use the bathroom to get undressed and dry off. I can throw your clothes in the dryer.”

He grabs my wrist as I turn to attempt to find something for him to wear. My breath catches as I turn back to meet his gaze.

“Thanks, Hunter.”

“No problem.”

I can’t actually concentrate on my book with Macy sitting a few feet away, somehow managing to look both ridiculous and delicious in a pair of my old sweatpants. They are far too small, fitting more like tights as they stretch across his muscled thighs.

I thought he’d balk when I handed them through the bathroom door but in typical Macy fashion he’d just laughed and tried them on. I’d found an old mystery novel for him to read and so now he sat on my couch, also drinking a mug of tea, silently reading in pants that didn’t fit and no shirt.

How was I supposed to concentrate on anything other than that?

I’m not.

Eventually I slam my book shut, a little more forcefully than I intended. Macy looks up at me and grins.

“I’m hungry,” I lie. “How about some cookies?” I’m still trying to figure out what is going on, why he’s here. I’ve found desserts are a great way to loosen people’s tongues.

His eyes widen comically. “You got some of those spicy chocolate ones?”

I grin as I stand up. Based on his purchasing habits at the bakery, I know those are his favorites. “I do.”

He vaults to his feet, eagerly following me into the kitchen.

I warm up some cookies and we stand at the kitchen island, relishing the gooey chocolate cookies with a hint of cayenne. He’s reaching for his third one when he finally admits why he’s here.

“My brother died,” he says softly.

“Oh, Mace. I’m so sorry.” I go to him, wrapping my arms around his waist, trying to offer some comfort.

I barely remember Macy’s older brother. Unlike Macy and his sister, his brother left Chicago right out of high school. I know he comes home to visit, bringing his wife and kids on all the holidays but I’ve rarely seen him. But their family is close, this must be a massive blow to all of them.

His arms come around me, returning my embrace, his chin resting against my temple.

“There was a car accident,” his voice cracks.

I tighten my arms around him, my hands smoothing over the muscles of his back. I’m not sure how long we stand there holding each other, the pounding rain muffling any other external sounds.

Eventually I step back and meet his eyes. My breath catches at the intensity in his gaze as it moves across my face.

And suddenly, before I even realize it’s happening, we’re kissing.

Macy kisses me. And maybe I shouldn’t, but I kiss back.

We first meet Macy and Hunter here and 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.

AtoZ Challenge

Flynn #AtoZChallenge

“Hey, Hansen!”

I look up from my desk and mind-numbing reports to find fellow Special Agent Khouri with a wicked grin on her face.

“What’s up?” I am immediately suspicious of that expression.

“Garrison has a walk-in. Says she’ll only talk to him.” She grins again, enjoying assigning me this likely fools errand.

“He’s not here.”

“I realize that, but she says she has information about an open case.”

“Which case?”

“Won’t say. She’ll only talk to Garrison.”

“Am I supposed to pretend to be him?” I ask frustrated.

Khouri shrugs. “Maybe she’ll talk to his partner. If she won’t you’ll have to get him in here.”

Sighing heavily, I push myself back from my desk and stand. I was right to be suspicious of her enjoyment at my expense. These walk-ins are usually a waste of time, but our section leader insists we are ‘available to the community’. It’s some plan to rebuild trust between the FBI and the people. I hope I can get this crazy woman to talk to me because there is no way in hell I’m calling Garrison on the first vacation he’s taken, other than getting shot, in years. I’d like him to be able to enjoy it. And I’d like not to be reamed out by my director if I ignore her random tip.

“She’s in interview room three.” She grins one last time and scampers away.

“You’re cruel, Khouri. I won’t forget it!” I yell after her.

And head to interview room three.

I pause mid-way down the hallway, studying the tipster before she realizes I’m there. She is slowly pacing the length of the room, periodically she’ll disappear from my view and then reappear facing the opposite direction. She’s tiny. Tiny frame, delicate features, disturbingly baggy clothing. She’s got a faded baseball cap pulled low over her eyes and covering what I’m assuming is very short dark hair based on the few wisps poking out of the back along her nape.

She doesn’t seem agitated enough to be unstable. Right now anyway. But that doesn’t mean she’s not going to be an utter waste of my time.

My jaw clenches as I move the rest of the way down the hall and rap twice on the door before entering.

My abrupt entrance startles her and she jumps, facing the doorway. Her lips open, gasping softly and her wide eyes fly to mine.

Striking amber colored eyes. Practically golden, contrasting against her fair skin and slashing black eyebrows.

I smile, trying to be disarming. “Hi, I’m Agent Hansen.” I extend my hand in greeting.

She grasps it firmly but immediately tells me, “I’m waiting for Agent Garrison.”

“I heard.” I take a seat at the table, encouraging her to do the same. She doesn’t.

I look up at her from my chair. Sitting is another part of my strategy to make her comfortable. I’ve got over six inches on her and I don’t want her to feel intimidated. That will likely cause her to clam up and insist on Garrison. It doesn’t surprise me she’s asked for him by name. He’s the Chicago Bureau’s favorite public face, frequently used as a spokesperson at press conferences. I don’t begrudge him his media fame. I like being a bit more anonymous. But his notoriety does come in handy at times.

Just not when I have to humor walk-ins. Even ones with beautiful amber eyes.

“I’m Josh’s partner,” I inform her. “I was hoping I could help you.”

She tucks her lips in, chewing on them thoughtfully.

I flip through my notebook, finding a blank page. “What’s your name?”

Instead of answering she asks a question of her own.

“How long have you been partners?”

Leaning back in my chair, I study her carefully. “Six years.”

Gingerly she moves closer and sits across the table from me. I exhale in relief at this sign she’s willing to work with me. Maybe Garrison will get his vacation.

“Did you work with him on the Alarie case?”

This is interesting. Maybe she does have an actual tip worth my time.

“I did,” I confirm.

That was the case my partner, Josh Garrison, was shot during. We kept details close to the vest on that one, releasing very little to the media. For multiple reasons.

“I was told I could trust Garrison. That he would be a good person to talk to.”

There aren’t many that know the details of that case. This immediately narrows down the people who could have referred her to us. To Josh. But still too many possibilities to know for sure who sent her and hazard a guess why. I find myself hoping the most obvious, most likely scenario is not the right one.

“You can trust me too.”

She studies me carefully, considering. I find myself holding my breath until finally she nods.

Glancing at my notebook I ask again, “Your name.”

She shakes her head.

“I need a name.”


“Birdie?” I study her silently, confident this is a lie.

She stares back, defiant. This is all I’m going to get.

“Birdie,” I repeat and nod, accepting this. “How can we help you?”

“I saw on the news, about the two women who went missing.”

Frowning, I ask her for clarification.

“Dawn Sanchez and Heather Gold.”

I keep my face impartial. I know a little about these cases, they’ve been all over the Chicago news. But they aren’t FBI cases, they are Chicago PD. And as far as I know they aren’t connected. Maybe she is just looking for attention or notoriety. Once again I’m assuming she’s a waste of my time.

“Did you have some information about either of them?”

She swallows, her eyes dropping to her hands resting on the table between us. She’s twisting her ring around nervously.

“I think so.”

I wait patiently. But my mind is already back on the reports at my desk.

“I – I think they’re both alive.”

“Okay. What makes you think that?”

“They fit the pattern.”

If I could roll my eyes I would. Dawn Sanchez and Heather Gold have little in common. Dawn was a college student on a full scholarship and disappeared during her morning run. Heather was visiting Chicago with friends and never returned to their hotel room after a night at the bars. This one has clearly been watching too much Criminal Minds.

“Anything specific you can tell me? What pattern are you referring too?”

Her ring flips through her fingers, periodically reflecting the overhead lights.

“What he likes. How he… how he collects them.”

What the hell?

“You think I’m crazy,” she accuses.

“I’m just trying to understand,” I deny. “No one has connected these two women.”

She stands abruptly, tears spring to her eyes. “I’m not crazy. I can prove it.”

Despite everything… she doesn’t seem unstable. She doesn’t seem like the glory-seekers we sometimes see. She seems genuine. I find myself wanting to believe her even if it seems far fetched.

“I’m listening,” I say trying to reassure her.

“I can prove it,” she insists.

I nod, waiting patiently.

“Until two months ago, he had me too.”

Curious about Josh? You can meet him here.

AtoZ Challenge · Dylan and Blake

Dylan #AtoZChallenge

The microwave beeps signaling my dinner is ready just as my cell phone buzzes. Damn it.

It’s late. Just after midnight. I’m starving and exhausted and only got home twenty minutes ago. I just want to eat something and go to bed.

My phone is still chiming annoyingly and vibrating across the counter.

I would ignore it but the name on the screen is my boss.

I accept the call, tucking my cell between my shoulder and my ear and grab my burrito. “Melrose.”

“Just got a call about a possible double homicide. You’re up. Dixon will meet you there.”

“No need. I’ve got it.”

“You need a partner.”

“I’m fine, Captain.”

“Stuff it. Dixon will meet you on site. Montrose Harbor.” He disconnects before I can argue.

Fuck. The last thing I need is someone watching my every move. The Captain knows I prefer to work alone but some new brass has been making waves about protocols.

And considering the number of rules I’ve broken through the years I’m at the top of their internal ‘keep an eye on this guy’ list.

So now, not only does it look like I’m getting a partner, I’m getting a new partner. Dixon was just promoted into our department a month ago. She’s green which likely means she’s going to care a lot about rules and protocols.

Juggling the burrito, I put my jacket back on between bites and walk back out the door.

As promised Detective Dixon is waiting at the Harbor at the docks entrance. She snaps to attention when she sees me approaching, reaching out her hand to shake mine and introduces herself.
“We met last month -”

I cut her off. “I remember. Catch me up. What do you know?”

“Two deceased. Male, 30s, shot execution style in the head. Woman, two shots to the chest. Shots were reported just after 11:30pm by a couple living on their yacht a few berths down.”


Dixon continues, ignoring my remark, as we walk down the dock. “Haven’t found any witnesses reporting anything unusual but officers are canvassing the Harbor for anyone else who lives on site.”

“Do we have an ID?” I pause as we reach the yacht housing our crime scene, studying the exterior.

She refers to her notes. “Boat is registered to Mr. Preston Sinclair. Driver’s License on the male vic has the same name.”

Preston Sinclair.

I glance at her sharply, suddenly feeling like I need to vomit. “Preston Sinclair? You’re sure?” I demand.

She shrugs. “I mean, as sure as we can be at this point.”

I can’t breath as I force the next question out. “The woman?”

“Unknown. We haven’t found a purse or wallet with any identification for her yet.”

I stare at the gangplank, willing myself to move forward but my feet stay anchored to the dock. I know what I’m going to find on that yacht and I want to delay that knowledge as long as possible. Memories torture me, scenes of teasing blue eyes and wavy blond hair, and softly tanned skin. How unapologetically she relished life. Her unrestrained enjoyment of dancing. Her bold laughter.

“Melrose?” Dixon is half way up the gangplank looking at me expectantly.

My jaw clenched with fear, I follow.

I move through the scene, trying to observe everything with my trained detective’s eye but I’m distracted by the dread at the edges of my mind. There was clearly a struggle. Several of the rooms have overturned furniture. The door to the master bedroom looks like it was kicked in. I recognize the uniformed police officer outside and nod a grim greeting.

“Where’s the male vic?”

He points down the hall to the front of the boat and Dixon and I move that direction.

Part of me is still hoping it’s a mistake. That Sinclair loaned his boat to a friend who wanted to impress his date. That I’m not going to know the person I find.

But I do.

His face is bloody and disfigured but it’s enough for me to be sure. I force myself to compartmentalize and crouch near the body, studying the scene carefully for several minutes. Standing, I turn and find Dixon. “It’s him,” I confirm. It’s Sinclair.”

She’s studying me almost as carefully. “You know him?”

“Yeah.” Glancing again at the body on the floor I brace myself for the next part. “Yeah. I know him. Where’s the woman?”

“Back in the bedroom.”

My feet are heavy, all the sounds around me muffled as I force myself back down the hall.

Teasing blue eyes.

Brilliant wide smile.

I might actually throw up.

I pause once more before entering, delaying the inevitable as long as possible.

At first I only see a pair of bare feet with red toe nails sticking out from behind the bed. In slow motion I move around the foot of the bed, the roar in my head canceling out any other sound. The woman was naked. The first cops on the scene had thrown a sheet over her as cover. A meaningless gesture to respect her privacy but one I appreciate.

Red toe nails.

Teasing blue eyes.

I crouch down next to her and slowly lift the sheet to reveal her face.

Black hair.

Black hair.

Glancing at her face I exhale in relief. I sway, unsteady, and catch myself just before I touch anything else.
It’s not her. I don’t know this woman.

It’s not Blake.

Thank Christ.

When I’m sure none of what I’m feeling is reflected on my face I release the sheet and stand, once again finding Dixon waiting.

“Any sign of the gun?”

She shakes her head. “We can get divers out in the morning. Maybe we’ll be lucky and he just ditched it overboard.”
I nod, approving this plan.

I instruct the CSI team to bag the victims hands. “They fought back. See if we can find any DNA under their nails.”

Dixon and I return to the dock, leaving the team to continue collecting evidence.

“Preston Sinclair was an actor. He’s in a play downtown right now. I know the director. We’ll meet with her in the morning and see what she can tell us. Hopefully she’ll recognize the woman. Let’s also get a warrant to search Sinclair’s apartment and the theatre.”

Dixon nods and we make a plan to meet up in the morning, a few short hours from now.

A few short hours to grab some sleep before getting back to work.

But when I drive away from the harbor, I don’t head home.

I go to her.

I go to Blake.

Dylan first appears in Lucas and Ash’s story, here.

Abbotts · AtoZ Challenge · Logan and Connor · Vanished

Connor #AtoZChallenge

I can’t get in to the book I’m reading. I catch myself, realizing I have no idea what has happened on the last three pages. Instead of going back, again, and re-reading them I give up and toss it on to the couch next to me. Checking the time I realize I still have forty minutes before the rest of my teammates are going to arrive.

I’ve got too much adrenaline to sit still, ready to get started. My team has decided to get tattoos, commemorating the end of our season, our Division Championship. It doesn’t help I’m on my own, early for our appointment due to travel schedules and thunderstorms. It didn’t make sense to go home when I landed so I came right to Vanished. Luckily, Lucas Abbott was here early and able to let me in, otherwise I would be sitting in my car right now watching the storm rage.

Shifting forward, I rest my elbows on my knees and grab my phone to scroll through my unanswered texts. I respond to the ones from my brother and my mom but ignore several from my ex. I wish Therese would let it go. We’ve been over for months. During the season the travel was too much for her and she found some other guy to spend her nights with. But now that I’m home and have a winning record she wants to ‘work things out’.

I don’t.

My thoughts are interrupted when I hear someone yelling “I’m here! I’m here!” the voice getting closer before the door crashes open and a rain-drenched blond blur rushes in. Slightly stunned, I watch as she crosses to the lockers on the far wall, stripping off her soaked t-shirt as she goes, revealing a navy bra.

“Uh – Don’t mind me.”

She whirls at my voice gripping her vintage band, I can’t quite make out which one, shirt to her chest. “What the hell, perv?!”

I raise my hands as if surrendering. “I’m just here waiting for my appointment. Minding my own business. You’re the one who ran in and started to get naked.”

She glares at me – and it takes all my self discipline to keep my eyes on her face and not allow them to slip to her hastily covered breasts. She’s a mess, soaked to the skin, eye make up running and smeared, hair clinging to her cheeks and neck. But she’s still gorgeous. I know from the few times I’ve watched this crew’s reality show that this is Logan, currently the only female member of the team although there are constant rumors that Lucas is looking to add new staff. So far though, it’s remained the core four.

“People usually wait out front. In the waiting area.”

I shrug. “Luke told me to wait back here until the rest of the guys arrived.”

She rolls her eyes but seems to loosen up a little with this information.

“You mind?” she raises her eyebrows at me and spins one finger in the air.

Belatedly I realize she’s telling me to turn around and I stand to face the wall, my back to her, giving her a tiny bit of privacy. I can’t seem to help the grin on my face.

“Crazy storm, huh?” I toss out, then cringe. Am I seriously talking about the weather right now? I clearly need to work on my conversation skills and less on my fielding. But to be fair, most the women I meet during the season aren’t that interested in what I have to say which is probably why I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell since Therese.

Logan doesn’t respond to my witty repartee and I shift awkwardly from foot to foot, listening to clothing rustle and things clang against the metal lockers. I’m about to make another effort to break the silence but I hear the locker slam shut and almost as quickly as she entered, Logan is rushing back out the door.

Well, that was… interesting.

I manage to wait five minutes before following after her.

I find Logan sitting on a high stool behind the front counter, her knees tucked against the edge and a notepad balanced on her thighs as she sketches away. I lean against the opposite side of the counter, arms resting on the top and try to engage her in conversation.

“What are you working on?”

“Some designs for a client,” she responds without looking up.

“I’m Connor, by the way.”

“Welcome to Vanished, Connor. Lucas should be with you in a minute.”

Apparently Logan isn’t much for small talk.

Her absorption in her work gives me a chance to study her. She’s piled her blond hair into a messy bun on top of her head, the ends still damp. Streaks of blue, her signature look intermingle with the silver blond strands. After her quick change in the break room, she is now wearing a black Vanished tank top showing off long toned arms and a pair of faded jeans with black chuck’s. She had also managed to do some repair work on her eye makeup, wiping off the streaks. She looks both punk and artsy.

Before I can think of something else to ask her, the door behind me dings as it’s pulled open and three of my teammates and friends walk in and yell hellos. I lift my chin, acknowledging them but stay with Logan.

“Hey, man. About ready?” Lucas comes out of the back and slaps me on the shoulder.

“Just about. Last couple should be here soon.”

He grins and then heads over to greet the rest of the guys.

“Friends of yours?”

She raises her eyebrows again. I’m beginning to get she does this right before she says something snarky. Surprisingly on her I’m finding I like snark.

I glance over my shoulder taking in the others joking around and giving each other a hard time. Turning back I tell her, “My teammates.”

She hums noncommittally and returns to drawing in her sketch book.

I grin. “You…really have no idea who we are do you?”

Her frustrated sigh is a sure sign I’m annoying her. And that I’m right.

She shakes her head dismissively and shrugs. “Sorry. Should I?”

I tap on the schedule on the screen in front of her. Then I click the mouse so it’s on the correct date.

She rolls her eyes at me before glancing back at the appointment list. I grin at the grimace on her face as she realizes her mistake.

“Well, that explains why Lucas was pissed I was running late,” she mutters. I watch as she presses her lips together.

Now I’m starting to feel bad about giving her a hard time. This is her job after all. And she’s clearly had a rough morning considering her arrival.

Then she just shrugs again. “Sorry. Baseball isn’t really my thing.”

“Fair enough.” I chuckle.

She goes back to ignoring me.

I should leave her alone. Go talk shit with the guys while we wait the last few minutes. But there’s something about her that both intrigues and amuses me. She’s so prickly for no obvious reason. I want to find out why.

“So am I scheduled with you for the tattoo? I’ll have to take my shirt off so we’ll be even.”

She rolls her eyes and glances at the computer screen. “You’re with Lucas.”

“What if I want you to do it?”

“Sorry. Lucas is the boss.” Then she hops off the stool and walks away.

I laugh out loud and turn to join the guys.

AtoZ Challenge · Vanished

Bodhi #AtoZChallenge

Another wasted trip. Another lead that was nothing. Another tip that went nowhere. Another disappointment.

Another stab of hopelessness.

What am I doing?

The lights of downtown Chicago quickly approach through the windshield and I exit onto Division driving into the west side neighborhoods. I drive with muscle memory, knowing exactly where I’m headed and not paying much attention. It’s after 10pm on a Tuesday so even in Chicago traffic is minimal.

I’m late enough the shop’s lights are off, all locked up for the night. I half expected that to be the case so I make a right at the corner knowing the route she’ll take home. I catch up to her a few blocks later, spotting her white blond hair easily even in the dark.

I pull up to the curb and honk, startling the blond walking down the sidewalk. For a heartbeat she tenses, then relaxes, recognizing my car even before I lower the passenger window to call out to her.

Smiling now, she walks over and climbs into the front seat next to me.

“Hey, babe.”

She pulls the door shut and responds automatically. “Don’t call me babe.” Then leans over to give me a slow kiss hello.

“Nothing?” she asks softly, searching my eyes. I shake my head but she already knows the answer. I would have called if I’d had any luck, discovered anything helpful. Settling back into the passenger seat, her hand grips mine and squeezes.

“Have you eaten?”

She shakes her head, “I was going to grab a slice of pizza on the corner.” Logan lives two houses down from a great pizza place. It’s incredibly convenient.

“Sounds good.” I put the car back in gear and head to her place.

A few minutes later I’m turning on to her street and find a parking spot. With the car stopped, she digs through her bag searching for something.

“Here. Before I forget.”

She hands me an envelope thick with cash.

“I’m taking a new job. I should be making more money soon.”

I smile briefly. “That’s great, Lolo.” I glance at the bills she’s handed me. “You sure you want to keep doing this?”

I feel her surprise. I get it. I’ve been single minded about this quest for four years now. I’m not sure why this last trip has made everything seem so futile.

I shift enough to stuff the envelope in my pocket but make no move to get out of the car. Instead I stare blindly at the dashboard, eventually focusing on my key chain still in the ignition. I flick my finger, setting the keys swinging. The street lights glint off the copper of the elongated penny that acts as my key chain as it sways back and forth. Light dark light dark light dark.

I’ve had this stupid memento even longer than my fruitless quest. Since we were kids and used to skip school to go places like the Navy Pier. Places we wouldn’t be caught dead now.

“Are you coming?”

I continue watching the penny. Back forth back forth back forth.


Inhaling deeply I finally tear my attention away and look at her. Fierce, stubborn, exquisite Logan. I probably shouldn’t, but I know I will. Selfishly, I’ll take her comfort.

She’s the only one who gets it.

“You okay?”

“No. Not really.”

We sit in silence a few minutes and she shifts, resting her head on my shoulder. Then she voices what has me feeling so destroyed.

“Her birthday is tomorrow.”

I nod a sudden, invisible fist squeezing my lungs.

Another car drives down her street, the headlights momentarily blindingly bright. Logan pulls away and gets out of the car. I hesitate only a moment before grabbing my keys and doing the same.

We walk to the corner to grab some slices to go. I try to shake myself loose from this mood and change the subject.

“So, what’s the new gig?”

She brightens and I’m glad I made this small effort. We grab our food and she responds as we walk out the door, heading to her place.

“Have you heard of Lucas Abbott?”

I struggle with some glimmer of recognition. “Yeah, he just won that tattoo show, right?”

She nods, not quite meeting my eyes. Interesting. “He’s starting his own shop. Asked me to join his team.”

“That’s great, Lolo,” I repeat. “He’s a good guy then?”

Unlocking her door she steps inside and flips the light switch, illuminating the stairwell to her second floor apartment. I follow her inside, locking the door behind me.

Shrugging her coat off, she answers, “Seems like it. But I can take care of myself if he tries any shit.”

She can, I know that. She’s tough. She’s making a name for herself in an incredibly male dominated field and I know that isn’t always easy for her. But she’s got a thick skin and can be a cutting bitch when required. Watching her take down jerks with her sharp tongue is one of my favorite pastimes.

I’m glad she hasn’t had to survive some of the things I’ve seen the last few years though. It takes more than tough to endure the crap that exists in the world.

Shit I worry Wren is neck deep in. Drowning in. My darkest moments I fear she’s already fully submerged.

But I don’t say any of that. Instead we eat our pizza and talk about Logan’s new job and watch a movie before going to bed and pretending we’re doing more than just comforting each other.

Hours later I lie awake staring at the ceiling. I glance at Logan asleep next to me, eyes tracing the pale skin and colorful designs of her naked back. Silently I slip out of bed and back to the kitchen. I grab a shot glass from the cupboard and a bottle of fireball from my bag. I hate the stuff, but it’s a tradition Wren started when we weren’t legally allowed to drink and didn’t know what good alcohol was. So on this day every year, I buy a bottle. I fill my glass and cross to the window. It’s the middle of the night, well into the beginnings of the next day.

“Happy Birthday,” I toast the moon and down the spicy cinnamon flavored liquid.

I will find out what happened to you, little sister. I promise.