“I heard about your shopping trips,” Rachel said when she saw Selene enter the plane. “I am so mad that I wasn’t in town. I want in for next year.”
Selene grinned, her eyes scanning the inside of the plane before she answered. “We hadn’t discussed doing it next year,” she informed her.
“Oh, no, we ARE doing it next year,” Gail announced. “Everyone had so much fun, I’ve been told to tell you when you are ready next year, you’ve got volunteers.”
“I am in,” Rachel sung. “I am not missing out. I vote we do it every year.”
Selene laughed and sat with the other two women. “It was a lot of fun. You know, if we’re going to do this, we may want to get in touch with the charity and warn them. I mean, more families could get help.”
“See, you little witch – why didn’t you call me,” Angie hollered at Selene once she entered the plain. “I could have helped,” she said as she sat down, taking the last seat in their cluster. “I heard all about it from Agatha!”
Selene and Rachel laughed at her, while Gail pat her arm.
“Apparently we are going to do it next year, too.”
“Then I am so in,” Angie told them with certainty. “I think that was an awesome thing you guys did. Did you know it was on the news?”
The women continued talking while the men gathered in another grouping of seats. They were listening to the women at first, but then fell into their own discussion.
“What’s all the shopping talk about,” Paul asked.
“The girls went to the mall and saw one of those trees – you know, with people’s Christmas lists – and cleared three of them out to help them all out,” Tom explained. “They were even mentioned on the news.”
Paul’s brows shot up, then he looked at Nick, who nodded in confirmation.
“The media doesn’t know who they are, though. Sounds like this will be an annual thing, too,” Nick added with amusement.
“Somehow,” Paul started, “I am not at all surprised. That gal’s got heart.”
“Mmmm,” Tom agreed. “She does. It’s amazing how resilient some people are. It’s like their hearts are just too big and strong for the world’s evils.”
“That’s rather poetic,” Paul mused, “but the girl’s definitely tough. So they are going to shop for the poor every year from here on, huh?” He chuckled and looked at Nick. “Are you footing the bill?”
“Some of it,” Nick answered with a grin. “I guess she got several of the ladies from the social circuit to help out, too.”
“They were efficient,” Tom explained. “A couple people with money and a bunch of people to just carry everything. Gail filled me in. I heard some of the mall workers were involved, too, once they learned what was going on.”
“So how does the press not know who they are?”
“They probably just don’t know who organized the group. They had 30 or so people end up showing up to help, so…,” Nick offered as an explanation. “Though, I’m not sure how long it will be until they figure it out.”
“I bet See won’t want to admit it even them,” Tom chortled. “I’ve noticed she shies away from praise and compliments.”
Nick nodded. “We are working on that, but I think some of it is just the way she is; humble and modest.”
Two people dressed as crew came in from the rear part of the plane and began to close up the plane and prepare things for take-off. Paul raised his brow at the sight of the strangers.
“You hired attendants?”
“No, those are two agents posing as Selene and myself. They’ll be getting off in Boston to take care of something related to the case,” Nick told Paul.
“Ah. Well, that explains why the woman isn’t any bigger than Selene,” Paul replied with a chuckle. “I was thinking for a second that Selene had multiplied. I might need more coffee, though,” he admitted before he stood and walked to the little kitchenette area to get him a cup.
Nick laughed, shaking his head as he watched Paul walk off. “You’re getting old!”
“You’re older than I am,” Paul retorted with a smirk.
A few hours later, they were in Boston, dropping off Paul and Angie, as well as the two agents. Gail, to sell it even more, leaned out and waved at the female agent.
The agent returned the wave, playing it off. Selene and Nick remained hidden while they were on the ground so they could not be seen through the windows of the plane. Once they were back in the air, everyone relaxed.
“Do you think it worked?”
Nick shrugged before he looked at Gail. “I don’t know. We should hear something later today, if all goes according to plan.”
“Let’s hope it does,” Tom stated. “Though, I was thinking maybe Gail and I should stay with you two at the cabin. I think it would be safer, and I believe we would both feel better to know that everything is fine.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Nick responded before looking over to see Selene nodding. “I suspect someone’s going to want to decorate tomorrow.”
Selene smirked. “It’s already taken care of.” At Nick’s questioning look, Selene explained. “You can hire people to do that kind of thing.”
“When did you do that,” Nick asked.
“The first part of the month.”
Nick chuckled and shook his head. “Sneaky.”
Selene wiggled her brows. “Only when it’s fun.”
“Ok, so what are we going to do this week,” Gail asked, looking between everyone in turn. “Snowmobiles? Skiing? Looking at the Christmas lights?”
“I vote all the above,” Selene stated. “And we must make snowmen. I’ve never done that before and I want to try it.”
“You’ve never built a snowman,” the other three nearly all chimed in at once.
Selene shook her head.
“Oh, we are building some snowmen, then,” Tom said, rubbing his hands together. “You up for it Nick?”
“If my pet wants to build snowmen, then we will build us some snowmen.”
The rest of the short trip was uneventful as they discussed what they wanted to do while up in Maine, what they wanted to eat when they arrived, and so on. They also worked out how to get all the gifts to the cabin from the plane. Including their luggage, they would need a fair bit of room. Nick contacted their guys at the hangar to explain what they would need upon arrival. A short while later, they touched down.
Rachel headed off to her family, while the men loaded the gifts into two large SUVs, plus their luggage – barely managing to make it all fit.
“What all did you two buy,” Nick protested as they began to unload it all at the cabin.
“If we told you, it would ruin the surprise,” Selene answered with a grin before heading off with an armload of her own.
“Thank you for doing all the wrapping, by the way,” Gail said as she walked up behind Selene.
“Wait… you wrapped everyone’s gifts,” Nick asked with surprise.
Selene bobbed her head. “Except mine. I learned from the videos, then I wanted to experiment a bit,” she explained.
“Well, thank you for that,” Tom answered. “From what I saw, they look really nice.”
Selene beamed at him. “Thank you. I had fun.”
“Yes, there was tape, ribbons, and scraps of wrapping paper everywhere,” Nick teased. “I thought she was going to get lost in there.”
Selene scoffed. “I was very neat. Everything had it’s own pile!”
“Yes, and the scrap pile was almost taller than you,” he goaded, winking at Tom to let him know what was up.
“I am not that small!”
Tom chimed in then. “Are you sure? I keep waiting for the wind to blow you away.”
“I’d save you,” Gail huffed. “Masters are mean!”
Selene laughed as the group entered the house. Inside, it was nice and warm, fires lit, and covered in happy Christmas decorations.
Tom whistled low. “Wow, this is nice.”
Selene looked around a moment before she started toward the tree. “They did do a nice job. I picked out the decorations and gave her an idea of the look I wanted. It was fun.”
“How did you do all that,” Gail asked.
“Skype,” she said before she began arranging her load under the fresh pine tree. “She took some pictures and did some live approval once she’d started getting the idea together.”
“Well, you finally figured out how to shop,” Nick teased as he put his load under the tree.
“Maybe a little,” she answered, grinning and pinching her fingers close together.
“About time,” Nick mused.
Selene immediately began rearranging the piles under the tree, putting the biggest packages on the bottom and in the back. With a shake of his head, he headed back outside to collect the next load of things. Tom followed Nick, but Gail stayed to help Selene. Half an hour later, all the gifts were carefully situated, their luggage had been moved to their rooms, and they were unpacking the last of their belongings.
Over the next few days, the group explored trails, skied slopes and across the property. While not interfering with their activities, the security team was ever watchful, going everywhere they went. While Selene was their focus, no one got out of their sight. Ahmed was often personally near Selene, backing off only when Nick was close. It was a balancing act – having fun without losing too much privacy, yet making sure everyone was safe. As far as the FBI agents that were supposed to be observing – they hadn’t heard a peep.
Christmas Day was amazing.. After their pancake breakfast, they opened gifts. This year, Selene and Gail passed out the gifts – partly because Selene was excited for everyone to see what she’d found for them. She was so excited, Nick even had to open his gifts before she would settle down to open her own. Gail got new clothes, shoes, and jewelry; Tom got a variety of things from a heavy leather coat to cologne; Nick received a similar leather coat, heavy leather boots for riding a motorcycle, some toiletries, and one of those customized executive pens from her. There were a number of other gifts or brought from other friends that were opened after those and things went over well all the way around.
The ribbons and bows were added to the decorations around the living room by the girls, while the men cleaned up the piles of wrapping paper. Afterward everyone settled in to watch the parade on TV before they decided on a nap before they went outside to play around like children in the snow. After warming up and some private time between the couples before they gathered to prepare dinner. They made enough to include the security team, and called them in to eat it while it was still hot.
Three days after Christmas, they received the phone call. Over 30 raids had been done in 9 countries, with the help of nearly 50 law enforcement agencies. Nearly 200 arrests had been made, thousands of files were confiscated, including customer lists and accounting records. The biggest news of all: 217 enslaved people, 192 of those were children, the youngest of which was only 9 years old. The rest were 19-22 year old women that it was suspected had been trafficked since childhood and could still pass as minors. The US Marshall had been arrested as well, as had several connected with him, including someone in the Justice Department. They expected there to be more arrests after questioning and after reviewing all the evidence. They guessed it would be hundreds of individuals in addition to those already caught. All in all, it had gone incredibly well and Holloway seemed elated.
There was some bad news, however. They’d intercepted a communication that indicated her identity had possibly been leaked, but it had been sent to an anonymous email address that couldn’t be traced. So, they wanted them to remain on high alert until further notice. When Ahmed was informed of everything, he wanted his congratulations on the bust, especially for the number of victims rescued. Rachel, while not as informed as the others, still sent her best as well. In spite of the concerns over her safety, the successes were of the greater value.
They held a small celebration with a bottle of champagne and some impromptu dances. A few songs were played that helped keep the mood festive and were also good to dance to. All the girls joined in a dance to ’Brick House’ before they calmed down. Though, they rode the high for the rest of the day. Even later, when Paul and Angie showed up, the mood was still high.
The latecomers then did their gift exchange and a new round of gift-opening followed. Of course, one gift seemed to confuse Paul and Angie: a stroller and car seat. However, they were confused for different reasons.
“What is this -,” Paul began before Angie interrupted.
“How did you know?”
Paul turned to look at Angie with a bewildered look.
Selene shrugged. “Your face filled out a little and you were loosening your belt.”
“Wait, are we -,”
“Yes, Paul – I’m pregnant. I just found out last week. I was going to surprise everyone tonight, but, I guess...”
“I’m going to be a father,” Paul exclaimed, wide-eyed.
When Angie nodded, Paul almost fell over himself jumping out of his chair to whoop in happiness before he pulled Angie to her feet and gave her a big kiss. Of course, the rest of them were laughing, thought Nick’s amusement was somewhat forced. He had to admit he was a bit envious of their good fortune, though incredibly happy for his lifelong friend. They shared a glass of champagne, except for Angie, and congratulations all the way around.
The details of the baby shower were almost immediately worked out. Rachel would host the party and help set up the registry with Selene in charge of decorations. Gail would handle the invitations. The theme idea would focus on seashells and starfish – since both were neutral enough for a child of any sex. Selene was already envisioning the décor, enough that the others were already excited to see what she’d come up with, with whatever decorator she chose.
New Year’s Eve was more special this year, because there was so much to look forward to. Their resolutions were geared toward a better future. Among them, Selene had decided to intern with a couple of charities before she began taking classes in the fall. She was going to do some work with the human trafficking charity, as well as a charity that helped provide things like tiny houses for homeless veterans and shower stations where the homeless could bath privately.
While everyone was excited, no one was more proud than Nick. He’d watched her grow in leaps and bounds over the last year and nearly half of another. She’d come out of her shell and was exploring her potential. Even 6 months ago, she hadn’t even thought about what kind of future she wanted or what might be possible. Between his efforts to show her love and support, developing great friendships with encouraging people, and her therapy, she’d begun to evolve into the great woman she was capable of being.
Nick made sure to mention that when it was his turn to speak, adding that the great friendships they had played an essential part in it and that he couldn’t wait to see how much farther she’d come in the coming year. Selene was moved to tears, and she kissed his cheek in an attempt to show her affection and gratitude for him. To her credit, she expressed herself how much they all had come to mean to her and thanked them all.
After New Year’s, everyone but Nick and Selene had to head back. While the alone time would be nice, Selene would have rather gone back home with the group. Unfortunately, she needed to keep her head down for the time being so she couldn’t be out anywhere where the press could hound her, if they somehow got her name. That left Nick and her out in the middle of nowhere in snowy Maine for the rest of the month.
Now the real waiting would begin. Either someone would try to kill or kidnap her, or this bust was going to be the biggest news of the year. They were still keeping it under wraps – if only barely. The press was sniffing around, though, so they had a limited amount of time to get as much done as they could. Once the whole world found out, it would send other conspirators retreating in droves and covering up their tracks. The raids alone had started the ticking of the clocks, but the news would essentially kill their chances for a majority of the potential suspects to be taken into custody.
Selene and Nick kept an eye on the news, and would mostly need to stay in the cabin or on the property. Reporters could be anywhere, as could paparazzo, so they didn’t want to risk anyone figuring out where they were. Then, Selene asked about the agents that were supposed to be watching them, noting they had yet to see them.
“Wait – you haven’t seen them at all,” Holloway asked, sounding alarmed.
“No. Our security guys have seen no evidence of them, either,” Nick added.
“I’ll find out what’s going on right now,” Holloway said. “I’ll be back in touch shortly.”
The call was ended abruptly, leaving Nick and Selene to look between each other in bewilderment and concern.
“Do you think something bad happened,” Selene asked.
“I hope not. Maybe there was just a miscommunication somewhere,” Nick suggested.
Selene looked at him doubtfully, then nodded hesitantly. “Maybe. I just hope there wasn’t an accident or something. I mean, maybe we should have said something sooner.”
Nick sighed and pulled her into his arms. “I am sure if something had happened, we definitely would have heard about it.”
A few tense hours passed before they received a phone call from Holloway. “We’ve got another team heading your way right now. They have already been in touch with Ahmed.”
“What about the other team?”
“I’ll let you know.”