Always the Last to Know

Chapter 14

I was sprawled on the sofa catching up on my life as Kit Danger with Geraldine perched primly on my chest. Every now and then, when my hand slowed in its petting motion, she would butt her head against the papers to get my attention. I’d never really pictured myself as a cat person, but Geraldine just seemed to get me. I could totally understand why Tank loved her so much.

Speaking of Tank, the large man was taking longer than I would have thought necessary for a man with no hair to shower. I hoped he hadn’t drowned.

Figuring that Tank was a grown man who surely knew not to inhale the water, I shrugged off my worries and returned my concentration to trying to memories my life in case, by some stroke of bad luck, someone decided to ask for my life’s story. A page later, I was trying to decide if it was worth the effort of getting up to investigate the kitchen for signs of sugar, knowing that the chances were slim, when the doorbell rang. Followed immediately by a heavy, insistent pounding. And then the door bell again, four times in quick succession. Whoever it was was desperate to get in.

Moving Geraldine to the couch cushion, I crept quietly to the front doo and peaked through the peep hole. There, on the small porch, stood Robert Brown looking as wild as I’d ever seen him. What could have him in such a state?

I waited a moment until the banging started up again before carefully hurrying up the stairs. I couldn’t believe that Tank could have not heard that. Just as I reached the landing for the second floor, Bobby started yelling.

“Come on, Tank!” he called through the door. “I know you’re home, I checked with control on the way over. Let me in already!”

Lucky for me and my anxiety levels, Tank chose that moment to emerge not from the bathroom, but from his home office. “I can never get a moment’s peace,” he grumbled under his breath, slamming the door shut. “Not even in my own damn house.”

“It’s bobby,” I told him quietly, despite the fact that he’d probably already figured that out.

“Go to your room,” he instructed. “Don’t come out until I say.”

“You sound like my mom,” I accused, crossing my arms over my chest.

“He’s gonna start picking the lock soon,” Tank said pointedly.

I sighed, but started toward the room I’d been staying in. “Fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be in my room, making no noise and pretending I don’t exist.”

“Excellent idea. Just don’t let any house elves trick you into coming downstairs and revealing your presence,” Tank warned as he huffed down the stairs. Louder, he yelled, “Lay off already! I’m coming!”

As Tank reached the bottom of the stairs, I ducked into my room, crouching down just inside the doorway and pulling the door closed until it was an inch or so ajar. My patented Stephanie Plum curiosity wouldn’t allow me to close it all the way or move away for fear that I would miss something. I couldn’t risk cutting of my view of even my ability to listen in. I almost felt like I would die if I didn’t know what was going on.

“What took you so long?” Bobby demanded, pushing past Tank and into the entrance hall. Tank, I noticed, didn’t bother to make excuses for himself, not that Bobby allowed him the chance. His mouth was moving again in the next second. “What do you know about this Kit Danger woman we just hired?” he asked in the same urgent tone.

I gulped audibly. Probably the men heard it downstairs. That and the rapid beating of my heard against the inside of my rib cage.

“She’s a perfectly competent, experienced woman,” Tank replied vaguely.

“What else,” Bobby insisted, pacing back and forth in the small space.

“She speaks fluent Spanish,” Tank shrugged. It was obvious he had no idea what Bobby was after, or if he did, he wasn’t prepared to give it up without a fight.

“That’s it?”

Tank simply crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow at the smaller man. “What’s this about?” he asked flatly. And there was no doubt in my mind that was a command for Bobby to spill.

“Kit came to the infirmary today,” Bobby began, still pacing back and forth. “She sprained her wrist during a self defence lesson with Lester. As I was examining the wrist I noticed this thin, almost invisible scar on her forearm.

Don’t panic, Stephanie, I told myself as my breathing picked up. Lots of people have scars. Hell, there’s probably at least a hundred other people in the world that have a scar in the exact same place on their forearm... Maybe... I glanced down at the offending mark, recalling that Kit Danger had apparently received the wound that had caused it from a sharp edge on a dumpster while empting the trash one evening at a previous job, though I couldn’t remember what job that was. How Tank knew about all my scars was a mystery to me, but he had a story for all of them.

“A lot of people have scars, Bobby,” Tank said, drawing my attention back to the conversation. “Try naming someone you know that doesn’t.”

“But I know this scar,” Bobby insisted, his movements getting jerkier. “I’ve seen it before.”

Tank shrugged for the second time in the one conversation. “Maybe you’ve seen a scar like Kit’s,” he offered.

Bobby shook his head so hard I worried he might dislodge something. “This exact scar,” he said adamantly. “I know it, because I stitched the wound closed.” Tank, again, said nothing, just stared at his friend like he’d suggested that the sky might be neon green right now. “I’m serious, Tank,” Bobby urged, finally coming to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. “I think Kit Danger is really Stephanie Plum.”

A gasp left my throat before I could stop it and I immediately clasped a hand over my mouth, hoping they hadn’t heard me. Tank had told me to stay out of sight until he said, and you can be damn sure I was going to. Even with Bobby’s revelation, I had no way of knowing if Tank was going to agree with him or somehow convince him that he was delirious and send him on his way. You never could tell with Tank.

“Do you have any proof?” Tank asked. There might have been some caution in his tone, then again I could be going insane. I knew this deceitful plan wouldn’t last long.

“Just some circumstantial evidence,” Bobby replied. His shoulder drooped a little, but I could still here the determination in his voice. “Same height. Same basic build. Same scar. Both have curly hair.”

“Steph’s hair was brown,” Tank pointed out.

“She could have dyed it,” Bobby countered.

“How do you explain Kit’s eyes being grey?” Tank challenged.

“Coloured contacts,” Bobby practically yelled. “Why are you being so difficult about this?”

“Just making sure you’ve truly thought his through before you go accusing a person of being someone they may or may not be. I figure you should have your reasons in the front of your mind so you can explain when you’re asked.

Bobby threw his hands in the air, clearly frustrated. “Tell me she doesn’t remind you of Steph,” he said.

Tank smiled. “You right, she does remind me of Steph,” he agreed, looking down as Geraldine, finally fed up with being along and ignored in the living room , entered the hallway and began winding around Tank’s feet. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean she is Steph,” he said, watching was his cat gave up on him and moved to Bobby instead, repeating the action. Bobby, too, ignored her and Geraldine started up the stairs. To me. She knew I was up here and since the men failed to show her the affection she craved she had moved on to the next person.

Bobby pivoted slowly on the spot, watching the cat as she went and although I had closed the door to a mere sliver, I could clearly see the confusion on his face. “She doesn’t usually give up that easily,” he said.

“Maybe she’s finally learning that she can’t have attention every second of the day,” Tank suggested mildly.

“No.” Bobby shook his head. “For her to learn that, you would have to be trying to teach her that. And you don’t have the spine to refuse her. Geraldine doesn’t give up until she has the attention she wants.”

Tank had no reply to that, and I found myself holding my breath, hoping against hope that Geraldine wouldn’t come straight to my door. I didn’t have to hold it long, though, because once she’d reached the landing she was at the door in a flash, butting her head against it and meowing quite insistently.

Well this was fun while it lasted, I thought to myself.

“Who do you have up there?” Bobby demanded, taking two steps up the stairs toward me.

Surely the gig was up. All Tank had to do was say the word and I’d be up and out of this room, more than happy to end this and have everyone know who I really was. It wouldn’t even be that hard for Bobby to confirm that I was me, because I’d taken my contacts out half an hour after arriving home.

“It’s none of your business,” Tank said defiantly. “This is my house.”

“It’s Steph, isn’t it?” Bobby accused. “You instigated this thing.”

With a light sigh, Tank called up to me, “You may as well come out now.”

I stood from my crouched position, but made no move to leave the room or open the door. Dressed in sweat pants and a tank top with not a swipe of mascara in sight was no exactly how I’d pictured officially revealing myself to the Merry Men for the first time. They’d seen me in far worse condition, but I still felt the urge to quickly change and put on some light make up. I wanted Bobby to be proud of the woman I’d turned into. I wanted him see a competent and confident person, not the Bombshell Bounty Hunter he used to know. I’d changed a lot and something in my brain said that if I was dressed like the old me I’d be perceived as the old me. There was probably some truth to it, too, what with that dress for success saying. Appearance is everything.

“Steph?” Bobby called tentatively. There was an almost breathy quality to his voice, like he was afraid of what might happen when the door opened and I stepped out.

Geraldine meowed again, pawing at the door and I swallowed hard. There was no time to make myself look any better. It was now or never. Before I could psych myself out again, I pushed the door open and stepped out into the soft light of the hallway, biting my bottom lip nervously. My entire friendship with Bobby was balanced on this moment. If he hated me for leaving and then coming back but not coming back as me than I’d probably have to leave again. No amount of Tank’s reassurances could get me to continue with this or reveal myself to the entire company if Bobby had an adverse reaction to my being me.

“Stephanie Plum, as I live and breathe,” he said reverently, a grin splitting his features. “I’d recognise those baby blues anywhere.”

A breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding left my lungs on an audible whoosh as relief washed through me. The next thing I knew I was halfway down the stairs, staring directly into Bobby’s eyes as he stood on the step below me. We were about the same height like this, which made it easier for me to throw my arms around his neck. I’d never been a hugger, it just wasn’t how we showed emotion in my family, but unfortunately I didn’t have the requisite skills or time required to show emotion in the way of my family. Food. If I was my mother right now, I’d be baking. But I wasn’t. I was me. So I was hugging the crap out of this man.

While I was distracted, clinging to him for dear life, he wrapped his own arms around my back, holding tight and lifting my off the step to carry me down the stairs. It wasn’t until he’d hauled me into the kitchen, set me on the counter and gently prised my hands off him that I realised I was crying.

I opened my eyes to a view that seriously needed to have the focus adjusted.

“What’s with the water works?” Tank asked, standing behind Bobby’s right shoulder. “You didn’t give me that kind of reaction when I found you in Mexico.”

“She likes me better,” Bobby said, using the pad of his thumb to wipe the tears from cheeks. It did nothing to clear my vision, though, so I used the hem of my top to dry my face before pulling my legs up to sit Indian style on the bench. I was attempting to hide my hands in the gap left by my legs when Bobby suddenly grabbed both of them in his own and waited for me to meet his gaze. “I missed you so much,” he informed me solemnly, still smiling though his eyes were rather sombre. “The infirmary has been a lot less fun without your visits.”

“Don’t expect me to be picking up where we left off,” I warned him, struggling to get words past the lump that had developed in my throat. “I’m not working the criminal side of Rangeman anymore. I’m hoping to keep myself intact.”

An amused glint sparkled in his eyes before he replied, “Says the woman who managed to injure herself on her second day back.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” I exclaimed. “I told Lester I had no self defence experience.”

“A lie,” Tank pointed out, now leaning against the island in the middle of the kitchen.

“A truth,” I countered. “I’ve never had formal self defence training.”

Bobby squeezed my good hand lightly, silently reminding me that he was there. “I’m curious,” he said softly. “Why pretend to be someone else if you’re so happy that you can greet me properly?”

I looked to Tank briefly, but couldn’t hold his gaze long enough to decipher the expression he was displaying there, so I decided to stare down at my hands where they joined with Bobby’s resting on my knees. “It’s complicated,” I finally said.

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