The plan was excellent and, as far as Lennox Scanlon was concerned, foolproof. It had taken meticulous planning and execution, but with her brother's help, she's succeeded in implementing it in record time.

The lock on the basement door was new and sturdy, and so was the door, thanks to the water-leakage-induced remodeling. The basement window was locked, and, just to be on the safe side, glued shut.

She and Ryder have thought of everything. Well, Ryder has also thought of food and its delivery, but she was confident once the trap was sprung, it wouldn't take long for everything to be resolved. And if it took longer than expected, she's stocked the basement with water, the 'good medicine', you know, that 18-dollar one, crackers, canned goods, and candy.

She didn't tell her brother that, of course, she didn't want him to know she wasn't as confident as she pretended to be.

But the plan would work. It had to. Because they couldn't live...in this limbo anymore. Lennox could no longer stand seeing that sad, almost lost, look in her aunt's eyes, the dark circles under them, the clothes hanging loosely off the once curvaceous figure...And she couldn't understand how Joe failed to see it, how Joe failed to say anything about it.

It's all started one month, three weeks, two days and seven hours ago—not that either Lennox or Ryder counted—when their calm, normal, quasi-family life imploded. Aunt Mel and Joe had dived head-first into one of their arguments, which quickly turned out not to be one of the 'usual' ones. It hadn't been like the previous ones, those 'you-irritate-me-but-I-still-like-you-this-is-weird-I-need-some-air' types. They all knew Mel and Joe didn't really mean all those things they said.

The argument from one month, three weeks, two days and seven hours ago, the argument both Lennox and Ryder had dubbed 'the Last Argument', had been different. Lennox had feared Aunt Mel would fire Joe on the spot and Ryder had feared Joe would quit on the spot, so they had both quickly reacted to keep things from escalating.

Aunt Mel and Joe didn't speak to each other. Not anymore. They hadn't even seen each other since that night, not that Lennox knew about it. Aunt Mel got up at dawn to go to the office and didn't return until it was dark. She didn't eat with them, both Lennox and Ryder barely saw her, she didn't smile anymore, she didn't laugh anymore, gone were the bright colors of her dresses and she lost so much weight it was scary. Whenever Lennox saw her aunt, she looked more like a ghost than her bubbly, sometimes schizy, fun and loving aunt.

And Joe didn't even notice!

Or if he did, he didn't seem to care. He didn't seem to care about anything anymore.

The Last Argument had started because of his latest girlfriend, one of those he wasn't ashamed of, taking up too much of his time. As it happened when his Russian crush Elena had come to visit (and almost stayed), Joe had forgotten about his primary duties. Dust had been everywhere, the sink filled with dirty dishes, the ingredients for the meals had been nicely stacked on the counter but missing the main ingredient—Joe...

But unlike Elena who had actually been pretty nice, the catalyst for the Last Argument—Lennox had already forgotten her name—had been a bimbo with a huge superiority complex and a brain the size of a peanut. She had been mean to Aunt Mel, to Lennox and Ryder when Joe wasn't near.

And that fateful evening one month, three weeks, two days and seven hours ago her aunt had had it. Aunt Mel had been calm and composed as she started her speech, she had remained calm and composed after the peanut-brained bimbo had left. And then Joe started on his jealousy-theory.

It was his life, he could do whatever he pleased, it was just a job, Mel should butt out of his business, it was toxic and unhealthy...They weren't a family.

And Lennox had realized it. Okay, she'd suspected it sooner, but that night had been proof. Her aunt was in love with Joe. And it hurt her seeing him with other women. And it hurt her even more hearing him say that they weren't a family.

It not only hurt Aunt Mel, it hurt Lennox as well. And Ryder. Because they both kind of thought of Joe as their uncle. Their substitute dad, like Aunt Mel was their substitute mom.

And hearing him deny it, watching him and listening to him spewing all that crap, instead of apologizing to and consoling Aunt Mel.

Men!

He's changed since that fiasco with the wedding. Lennox had noticed, Ryder had noticed, and Aunt Mel had noticed it as well. No one was willing to say it, though. And the behavior had escalated. He came home with a different woman every week, each worse than her predecessor, literally parading them in front of the 'family', with that smug expression on his face.

At first Lennox had thought he was trying to get a reaction out of her aunt, get her to admit something—was it possible he knew what Aunt Mel felt about him? But that theory had gone up in smoke with the latest bimbo who had lasted more than just a week. And it all culminated that evening with the Last Argument.

Aunt Mel was about to fire him, Lennox had seen it on her face, and it wasn't so much fear of starvation that had driven her in throwing herself at her aunt to cry like a little baby—it hadn't all been an act—and demand all her attention. It had been fear of yet another broken family.

The same fear must have driven Ryder when he'd dragged Joe into his room above the garage. The bimbo was history from that day on and there haven't been any other women around. At least none that Lennox or Ryder had seen.

But their limbo-dwelling had started.

And Lennox had had it. It was past time her aunt and Joe had a conversation. An honest one. And if it ended in Joe getting sacked or quitting. So be it. She'd miss him terribly, but she'd rather visit him at his new place—more or less like a shared custody between parents—than have him in the house and watching her aunt wilt in front of her eyes.

This was what wasn't healthy. This was what was toxic.

And Lennox, with Ryder's help, was about to put a stop to it.

Starting right now at this ungodly Saturday morning hour with her aunt sneaking down the stairs in the front, mumbling curses under her breath and Joe puttering around the kitchen in the back.

Lennox, sitting on the sofa, turned on the light and greeted, "'Morning, Aunt Mel," with a cheeriness she didn't really feel.

Mel let out a faint shriek, almost dropping her high-heeled shoes. "Lennox, hi."

At the sight of the fake little smile curling Mel's lips, Lennox became even more determined to see this through. "Are you looking for something, Aunt Mel?" she asked innocently as she saw her aunt's eyes scanning the living room as she darted down the stairs.

"Oh, nothing, just my briefcase."

"I think I saw it in the basement," Lennox offered helpfully.

A puzzled frown crossed Mel's face. "Basement? What is my briefcase doing in the basement?"

Lennox shrugged. "No idea."

"Okay, it doesn't really matter."

Trying to tune out the sounds coming from the kitchen, Mel turned on her still-bare heel and went in search of her lost briefcase.

Before her aunt even reached the basement door, Lennox pressed the call button on her cellphone.

.

"Joe." Ryder dashed down the back stairs. "I need a favor."

"Sure."

"Um, I have this project for school."

"Project?" Joe lifted his head, his hand never ceasing in its circling motion as he stirred the pancake batter. "You never told me about any projects."

"You haven't exactly been paying attention," Ryder mumbled before he could stop himself. Way to go in making Joe angry. His sister will have his hide.

Joe didn't bother with the smart comeback. The kid was right. He hasn't been there for either him or his sister lately. And it was entirely his fault. Yes, it wasn't Mel's fault, it was his. He could admit it. Even if only to himself. He'd eat a whole box of donuts without going running afterwards before saying anything to Mel. Not that he could, even if he wanted to. She was never there anymore.

And, again, it was all his fault. He should not have said all those nasty things to her. He hadn't meant them, he hadn't meant any of it. He'd just wanted Mel to...He'd just wanted to see her reaction to it all. To the women, to his words. But it had all blown in his face.

None of the women meant anything. He sure hadn't slept with any of them. It felt like betrayal. They'd been just a means to an end. To the end of discerning whether there was something more to what Mel felt for him. Something deeper.

There had been something in her voice, in her eyes, when she'd helped him get into Elena's room that day. There had been more of it in her eyes when they talked in her office before the ceremony. A hint of something she'd tried to hide ever since. And it was that hiding that was killing him.

He needed to know. Yes, he could've simply asked her, but the Longo pride wouldn't let him. She should be the one to spill the beans and he'd thought of a perfect plan to get her to do that.

Only the plan hadn't been that perfect. It had sucked, actually. It had backfired so spectacularly books should be written and movies made about it. All because he was too chicken-shit to simply ask. To put his heart on the line.

Idiot!

And now he had no idea how to fix it. How to fix them. He could apologize, of course, but to do that the woman should be at least present.

"Anyway," Ryder started again, wishing his acting talent was a bit larger. "I have this project I've been working on in the basement and now I have to take it to school and it's too heavy for me to lift it alone."

Joe put away the bowl of batter, wiped his hands on his pants, and slapped Ryder on the back. "You could've told me that yesterday, but it doesn't matter. Come on, let's haul this...whatever it is out of the basement."

Ryder frowned when Lennox was nowhere to be seen in the living room. Did the plan fail? Then he felt his cellphone vibrate and knew they were still on track. He slowed his pace, letting Joe precede him.

.

Joe was six stairs down when he heard Mel's voice, "Lennox, are you sure you saw it down here?"

Mel turned. "Lennox?"

Joe's heart skipped a beat at the sight of her. She was so pale, the dullness of her eyes accentuated by the dark bags under them, her hair has lost its usual shine and was pulled back in a simple ponytail—he's never seen her with a ponytail before! She was so thin, the clothes hanging off her tiny frame. What the hell?

"What the hell?" he repeated out loud when the basement door slammed shut behind him and he heard the key turn resolutely in the lock.

He rushed back up the six stairs, turned the doorknob. Nothing. He turned it again, pushed against the door. Still nothing.

A whisper of a sound made him too down, where a sheet of paper slid through the crack between the door and the floor. He picked it up, read it and shook his head, feeling the gleeful smile spread across his lips. The moment of reckoning had come. The kids made sure of it.

His features impassive once again, he turned to Mel and waved the paper.

"We've been taken hostage."