I sat in my SUV in the back corner of the parking lot at Shorty’s trying to work out if what I was about to do was the best option. What if I’d misjudged, and Bobby and Cal hadn’t made the same conclusion as I had when I saw the positive match from the facial recognition search Cal had left running on his computer. I’m sure he saw it, he returned to his cubicle after the prank was over and I’d made sure to leave it on the screen.
From the way he and Bobby had been bantering with her in the break room, I’d like to believe they both knew, but there was no way to know for sure I asked them, which I hadn’t had a chance to do, being busy with the tech team at the community centre all afternoon as we marked out where the cameras and key pads would go. The electrician was coming early next week to update the wiring and would be laying the cables for the security systems we would then install when he was done.
But that was beside the point.
At the moment, I had two options. Option number one: wait until Cal got back to Rangeman later tonight and subtly work out if he knew before revealing that I did as well. Or, waltz into Shorty’s and join their table uninvited, make hints all night and see which one of them realises first. The second option was bound to be more entertaining , and it meant that I wouldn’t be sitting on my hands for hours waiting for Cal to return. Playing with them was far better than doing nothing.
Just as I made the decision to get out of the car and saunter inside, a familiar blue sedan pulled into a space near the entrance. I watched as Bobby’s wife slid from behind the wheel and made her way inside. There was absolutely no way Bobby would have invited Ashley along to meet just any old co-worker, even if they were female, which meant they were definitely in the know.
I’d give them a few minutes to get through the introductions – if Steph hadn’t already met the medic’s wife – and start to relax before I rained on their parade.
Ashley was turned half way around in her seat when I pushed through the doors, probably eyeing off the specials board by the register. It took her only a second to glance in my direction and second more to recognise me, grin and wave me over.
Alerted by the sudden movement of the woman next to her, Steph turned abruptly, searching the crowd with fast, inefficient sweeps. She didn’t have on the glasses that had been practically glued to her face every time I’d seen her in the office, obscuring her features just slightly, and her eyes appeared red rimmed, like she’d been crying. I would have wondered what that was about, but Cal called out to me at that moment and her eyes suddenly locked on me, widening in what might have been horror, before she spun back around and whispered frantically to Bobby while fixing her hair and returning those blasted glasses to her nose.
I couldn’t help the grin that spread across my face, seeing her reaction. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that they knew who she really was.
This was going to be fun.
“Don’t we usually wait until Friday before taking the new guy out to celebrate them surviving their first week at Rangeman?” I asked, pulling a chair up to the end of their booth and settling in.
“We thought we’d ease her into it with just a couple of us,” Bobby responded effortlessly. “Get her used to the venue and atmosphere first, given the unusual circumstances. You have to admit, the dynamic is quite different once we’re away from the office.”
“Hey,” Steph – or should I say Kit? – said sharply. “First Hank calls me a guy and now you call me unusual?” Is that really how you welcome people to your company?”
My grin grew wider as I recognised the patented Stephanie Plum tenacity shining through and wondered how I’d missed it at work. Probably she tried hard to suppress her usual knee jerk reactions in the building, knowing that too much of her usual self would give her away. And maybe it was more pronounced now because she was still working to shove herself back into her Kit Danger persona. It may have been a little mean to wait until she was just starting to wind down before thrusting my presence upon her, but she had returned under a false identity, so it was as much her fault as it was mine.
“My apologies,” I said, trying – and likely failing – to tone down my grin in order to appear more sincere. “I’m still getting used to having a female in our ranks again.”
“Again...” Steph repeated quietly, biting her lower lip like she used to when she was trying to figure something out, I could tell she was putting it on, though. Steph could be a great actress when she put her mind to it – see all the distractions she’d successfully pulled off as exhibit A – but if you knew what to look for you could almost guarantee if she was lying or not.
“That’s right,” she said, a little now, appearing to have come to a realisation. “That other woman you mentioned this morning. You were going to tell me about her. What was her name again?”
“Stephanie Plum?” Ashley suggested questioningly, knowing full and well that we’d only ever hired one woman. And that really was ever, because as far as I was concerned, Kit Danger did not count as another woman. “I haven’t heard you guys talk about her in years. Not since...” She glanced at Steph, then back to Bobby, Cal and I, pretending to be unsure. At the very least this exercise of deception was giving us all a chance to practice our acting skills.
I turned a bemused look on Ash. “What are you doing here anyway?” I asked her, providing the out she’d been looking for to avoid the topic of Stephanie Plum.
“Date night,” she informed me with a sigh and a slight eye roll. “Bobby’s getting a bit lax, if you ask me. Since when is dinner with his work buddies considered a date?”
“I’ll make it up to you next month,” Bobby responded quickly. Was that a hint of a blush I saw on his cheeks? “Back to Stephanie Plum, what were you going to explain about her to Kit?”
From the way he phrased his question, being sure to mention both Stephanie and Kit, I could tell he was making an effort to keep them separate in his head, which amused me, making my grin grew wider once more. I was probably starting to look like a goofy little puppy, excited to be getting so much attention.
“Well,” I began, resting my elbows on the table. “Kit here was easily spun around this morning and I wanted to call her delicate, but she insisted she wasn’t. So I started comparing her to Steph,” I paused and glanced around the table at their faces, seeing if they’d take my bait. I hadn’t known Kit was Steph at the time, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity to hint that she was.
Cal and Bobby schooled their features into professionally blank stares – which was almost more telling than the way they could so easily relax around the woman claiming to be Kit Danger – while Ash busied herself by folding her napkin into a crane. Steph, on the other hand, was watching me carefully with an almost guarded expression. It’s a good thing she thought I didn’t know who she really was and was maintaining her Kit status, or I might get seriously hurt from the comments I was about to make. I glanced at the guys again and found I needed to amend my thought. I was definitely going to be in a world of hurt for my comments, even if they didn’t realise that I knew who Kit really was. There was no way Cal, and especially Bobby were going to let me get away with what I had on the tip of my tongue.
“She was completely incompetent when it came to take downs,” I announced, gazing down at the pile of napkins in the middle of the table. I didn’t want it to look like I was baiting them all, even though I was.
“I thought you said she was the greatest woman to ever live?” Steph protested, reminding me of my earlier words.
I sent her the goofy grin that seemed to be constantly splitting my face. “She was,” I agreed easily. “She had a thirst for life that no one else could ever match. She was the light of many of our lives. But she couldn’t capture a skip to save her life.”
“Oh,” she uttered, casting a glance around the table to the other people with us. None of them were meeting my gaze anymore, probably afraid that if they did I would realise what they were trying to hide and go ape shit, which was a completely unfounded fear, since I wasn’t known for my temper.
“Yeah,” I continued. “Every time I saw her she was covered in some kind of grossness that belonged in the garbage. She had a knack for having rubbish thrown at her, and her skips never seemed to want to put clothes on, if you know what I mean.” I waggled my eyebrows suggestively, deliberately giving off the wrong vibe for why her skips would have had an aversion to clothes in her presence.
“Are you saying she was... sexually persuasive?” Steph asked, aghast. I was definitely getting to her. There was practically steam coming from her ears from the heat generated by her annoyance. A few more strategic comments and she might snap, and then the secret would be out.
“I’m saying she wasn’t averse to using her feminine wiles to persuade people to do as she wanted,” I responded, receiving a kick to the shins under the table. And not from who you’d think. Cal and Bobby were both glaring at me with tensed jaws and fisted hands, but it was pointed to of Ashley’s shoe that connected with my leg. I sent her a raised eyebrow, daring her to say something to defend the woman beside her.
Ash gasped, her eyes widening as they locked on mine. “You know, don’t you?” she asked loudly and excitedly.
I leaned back in my chair, crossing my arms over my chest. “Know what?”
She shook her head, narrowing her gaze in such a way that I suppose got the children in her class to follow her orders. “Don’t play dumb with me, Henry,” she insisted. “You’ve never spoken about Steph like that before. You hold her in the highest esteem, just like everyone else at Rangeman. There’s only one reason I can think of that you would suddenly want to make such comments about her.”
Steph, having recovered from her momentary shock, appeared to be on the same wave length as Ashley – as often happened when women got together – and finished her thought for her. “You were trying to get me to react to being called an incompetent slut so that I would reveal myself!” she accused, hitting the nail right on the head. “You bastard!”
I’d have been worried about her words, if it weren’t for the fact that she was grinning as goofily as I thought I had been since I arrived. Relief washed over me as I recognised that she wasn’t angry about what I’d suggested, and I found myself on my feet, dragging Ash from the booth and sliding in in her place, wrapping my arms around Steph’s waist to draw her close for the bear hug I’d been longing to give her since I realised who she really was this morning.
“I didn’t mean any of it,” I whispered by her ear, unwilling to let her go.
“I know,” she assured me, her voice thick with emotion. “But you had me worried for a bit. I thought maybe you hated me for leaving and that hatred had turned your view of my past sour.”
“I was upset that you left,” I informed her. “And when I found out that you’d returned and hadn’t let me know I was disappointed, but I could never hate you. None of us could ever hate you.”