Tank helped me up off the floor, we took our meal to the living room and
endeavoured to ignore my freak out and the fact that Lester loved me but could
never act on the feelings because of the restrictions imposed on him by his
cousin. How did I feel about that? I didn’t know. At the moment I was more
inclined to immerse myself in the crappy reruns on TV while enjoying the
company of the big guy and his fluffy white cat. It was comfortable, and for
just this moment I could pretend that all was right with the world; that I was
I wrapped myself in the throw rug I found under an end table and let Geraldine curl up on my lap as Tank stacked the dishes on the coffee table next to his socked feet.
“Something’s been bothering me,” I said, taking advantage of the ad break as Tank settled back into the sofa. He tucked his hands behind his head, leaning back into a stretch, but made no indication that he thought I should keep it to myself. “A couple of things actually,” I continued. “One more pressing than the other.”
“What’s the least pressing thing on your mind?” Tank asked on a yawn.
“The cats,” I stated. “Why cats?”
Tank glanced over at me before cutting his eyes to the fluff ball on my lap. “I only have Geraldine,” he pointed out, clearly not understanding my question.
“Yes, but you had several before I left,” I reminded him. “It always struck me as odd. You don’t exactly strike me as a cat person.”
“You want the story of my cats?” he clarified.
With a slight nod, he turned the volume down on the television to a more appropriate level for talking over. “After my first big overseas mission, I had trouble readjusting to life outside of a war zone,” he explained, his large hands folding his lap. “After weeks, maybe months of near misses, my shrink-.”
“You have a shrink?” I asked, surprised.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “A guy sees as much as I have, you think he can handle all the mental trauma alone? Yes, I have a shrink with a high clearance that I can talk to about anything. Anyway, nothing was working. I was still on edge, so my shrink suggested I get myself a cat.”
His brow tweaked again and he looked amused. “I’d tell you if you stopped interrupting,” he informed me. A moment of silence followed his words while he made sure I was going to keep my mouth shut. “Better. The act of caring for another being, my shrink informed me, of having a being reliant on my actions, would force me to control my impulses. So I got a kitten. Six weeks old, could fit in the palm of my hand. I called him Theo.
“The first few days were hard,” he explained. “I didn’t want to box him up and treat him like a prisoner, so he had full run of the apartment I was living in at the time. He would knock something over in the middle of the night, having me creep through the apartment with gun drawn. Or he’d climb up on my bed and try to curl up next to me on the pillow. In at that first week alone Theo was almost shot half a dozen times, not to mention the near misses when I just stopped myself from smacking him up against a wall in a knee jerk reaction to being touched. But I stopped myself. Every time, I managed to not hurt the little guy was a small triumph. If I could take care of this tiny kitten and not hurt it, surely I could, in time, make a grocery run without assuming someone was going to attack me at the end of every aisle.”
Geraldine, sensing the same discomfort from her owner that I did, slunk her way of my lap and onto Tank, planting her front paws on his chest in order to rub her face against his. Tank returned the affection by scratching around her ears and at the base of her tail. It was clear these two had a special bond, which made me wonder about the previous cats. I was sure Theo was not one of the cats Tank had had before I’d run away to Mexico, and Geraldine certainly wasn’t. What happened to them?
As if he could read my mind – it had to be mind reading, I was sure I’d gotten past the thought blurting while in Mexico – he explained. “When I was called in for another mission of indeterminate length, I didn’t think it was right to send Theo to a pet hotel and wait in limbo, wondering if I’d ever return for him, so I took him to a shelter, explained my situation and they agreed to make sure he found a good home.”
That was very sweet and made a lot of sense, but it didn’t explain how he’d ended up with multiple cats. “How did you-“ I started to ask, but he beat me to it.
“When I got back from my next mission, I returned to the shelter. I figured they’d helped Theo out when I needed it, so maybe they could help me out too. Taking care of Theo had worked so well to curb my combat instincts that I decided to do the same thing this time around. The lady at the shelter showed me around, let me interact with some of the cats. This one cage held five cats together. They didn’t like to be separated, the lady told me, and they got along with hardly anyone. But they grew attached to me. So I ended up taking them home with me.”
“And then you had to give them up when you went on your next mission?” I asked.
“Kinda,” Tank smiled over at me before reaching over to grab a photo frame off the side table on his end of the couch. He handed it to me, explaining, “My niece and nephew were begging for a pet.” I examined the photo, an obviously candid shot taken at a house I didn’t recognise of people I had to assume were Tank’s family. On the lawn knelt to kids. Their ages, I estimated, were around the seven or eight mark and they were grinning excitedly at the cats they each held. In a box on the grass in front of them sat three more cats, patiently waiting for their turn to be hugged. In the background a woman – Tanks sister, I assumed – stood on the top step of the porch with her harms crossed over her chest and a glare aimed straight at the camera. “Marie wasn’t overly impressed, but she calmed down when I offered to pay fifty percent of their upkeep and all their vet bills.”
I shook my head, both amused and disbelieving. “You dumped five cats on your sister without warning?” I asked incredulously.
“She loves them just as much as I do,” he defended.
“I’m sure she does now,” I agreed.
“That’s the thing about having things sprung on you,” Tank said, petting Geraldine in long, soothing strokes as she settled into a curled ball on his chest. “Sometimes they’re the best thing that ever happens to you. They may flip your life upside down for a time, but in time you adapt and thing get back to normal. It’s a different kind of normal, but it’s still manageable.”
I rolled my eyes, leaning my head against the back of the sofa as I realised what he was doing. “You’re trying to get me to tell you why I left,” I accused. “You think by spinning this explanation out you can lower my defences and I’ll just spill, right?”
“It was worth a shot,” he admitted, mimicking my position. “I take it that’s a no?”
“I’m not ready to share,” I told him. “I will tell you, I just need to ... I just think I should talk it over with... I mean if he’ll even listen... And he kinda has to realise it me first...” I was rambling in half sentences, I realised, unaware of my surroundings as always. It came as a shock when Tank laid his hand lightly on my thigh.
“It’s okay,” he assured me, once I’d calmed my breathing from the four foot leap I’d made. “Take your time. I understand.”
At ten o’clock Thursday morning, I took my gym clothes into the unisex bathroom near the gun range after my session with Cal. Tank had informed me that Lester flat out refused to work with me anymore, but when I checked my schedule that morning, it still said I had a training session. I didn’t know if he or Tank had found a replacement, or if it just hadn’t been taken off, but I was going down anyway. Kit Danger was committed to proveing that she was worthy of being included in the company. And Stephanie Plum needed to endure the pain of physical torture as part of her redemption.
So I jogged for half an hour on the treadmill and then sidled up to a guy working weights for some helpful hints in that department. By the end of the hour I was sure my limbs were going to drop off, but no one had approached me to take control of my training, such as it was, so I ran through the shower and returned to work.
Friday morning, my training session was still on the books, so I did the same thing. I made my way down to the gym where there were only a couple of men scattered around the equipment. Just like yesterday, none of them were Lester. I was determined not to be discouraged, though, so I jumped straight onto a treadmill and started my usual jog. After ten minutes I still wasn’t completely out of breath – was the training working? – so I bumped up the speed until I was running flat out. My sides were hurting and I was starting to lose my rhythme when Lester appeared before me, pressing the button to slow my speed until I was merely walking. And panting.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” he asked, meeting my gaze for the first time since he stormed out of this very gym two days ago. His face was blank and I could almost believe he didn’t really care what the answer was.
“Just testing the limits,” I told him, hitting STOP and hopping off the machine before anyone got any bright ideas about starting it up again. “Tank said you didn’t want to work with me anymore.”
“I don’t,” he said flatly, handing me a sweat towel and a bottle of cold water. “Ranger is forcing me.”
“Ranger?” I asked – gasped really. He was lording over Lester’s life again? How did Lester put up with this stuff? All I could do was stare at the man in front of me, shocked that he would allow his cousin to call the shots, especially with how the last time had turned out. What would have happened if Ranger hadn’t shot Lester down after that first meeting? Would Lester have pursued me? Would I have found love for him? Could we have made it work?
Lester didn’t hold the same no-relationships policy as Ranger had as far as I was aware. Maybe if he’d been allowed to date me we could have made it work. We could have gotten our shit together. I wouldn’t have been stuck between two guys who wanted me for completely different, unattainable reasons. Maybe, if I’d been with Lester I would have made an effort to get training for my job. I wouldn’t have been such a screw up. I would have gotten control of my life... and ultimately, I wouldn’t have ended up in Mexico grieving a loss nobody else knew about.
“Cool you jets,” Lester said, obviously misinterpreting my tone and facials as panic that he’d revealed my secret. “Tank told me not to say anything, so I didn’t. Ranger is just emphatic that we all make the effort to accept you, Kit.”
I took a sip of water, not willing to correct his assumption. Mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the possibility that had Ranger not said this one thing, my entire life could have played out differently. Suddenly, I wasn’t so anxious for a face to face with Ranger. There was no telling what kind of reaction I’d have to him at the moment. I was so confused.
“So are you going to teach me how to get out of holds and stuff?” I asked timidly, not wanting to dwell on the fact that he had a world of hate for me, but was still keeping my secrets. Did that mean there was still hope for us? The very fact that he could stand in my presence without his fists clenched tightly at his sides was a promising sign as far as I was concerned.
Rather than answer, Lester turned on his heels and made his way to the edge of the mats where he kicked off his shoes and socks and stood in the centre of the blue padded area, exactly as he had two days ago. I wasted no time in following his actions, remembering to remove my fake glasses vefore stepping on. I’d just taken the frames from my face when he spoke.
“Leave them on,” he instructed tersely.
“But-,” I protested, about to remind him that he’d asked me to take them off the day before yesterday, but he cut me off.
“You’ll be fine.” He made an impatient gesture for me to join him, and I made haste across springy surface. “What’s your bester defence against an armed assailant?” he asked when I was facing him.
So, no friendly banter, then...
“My gun,” I replied, knowing it was the answer he was looking for even if it probably wasn’t the option I would go with first.
He gave me an approving nod, but the expression on his face said he didn’t believe my words. “What would you usually go for first?” he questioned, narrowing his eyes with a slight upward twitch of his lips. It was only there a millisecond, and it was gone, but I saw it. I could win his forgiveness yet. Maybe if I showed him how much I’d matured...
Mature, right, I thought. Like how you came back under a false identity? My brain had a point, but apart from that, I really was a changed person. At least, I thought I was.
“It depends on the situation,” I said. “Stapler, stun gun, hairspray.”
“Those can be useful,” he agreed. “But sometimes the gun is the best option. You’ll need to accept that. But there are situations when none of that will work. That’s when our defence training here comes in handy.”
“The same defence training that sprained my wrist almost three weeks ago?” I teased.
“I’m sorry about that,” he informed me crisply. “I don’t appreciate random women trying to slot themselves into the Stephanie Plum shaped hole left in the company.”
I tried to keep things light, hoping that maybe I could cajole Lester into his past merry state. If he could be generally happy and joking, maybe we could just sweep this whole thing under the rug. “In my own defence,” I said. “I am Stephanie Plum, so I’m pretty sure I’ll fit all the curves and corners.”
He gave me a deadened look, crossing his arms over his chest. “I suppose technically you are,” he said. “But as far as I, and the majority of this company are concerned, you are Kit Danger. And Kit Danger does not fit the hole as perfectly as she assumes she does.”
“I’m not planning on being Kit Danger forever,” I informed him, crossing my arms over my chest as well. “In fact, this wasn’t my plan at all.”
“No,” he granted. “Your plan was to stay away forever.”
“It wasn’t a conscious plan,” I said, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “I just never saw a reason to come back. I was happy doing what I was doing, and I assumed the world was a less nail biting place back here with me gone. It was a win-win, right?”
“Except not.” Lester took a step back and glanced around the gym. “I...”
“Tank told me about after we first met,” I blurted, dropping my hands to my sides. “About your feelings for me.”
“What feelings?” he asked cautiously. In case Tank had told me about some other kinds of feelings he’d had toward me, I suppose.
Suddenly, I couldn’t quite meet his eye. The contact I’d craved for three weeks from him, was nigh on impossible for me right now. I stared straight at the mat and stammered out awkwardly, “The... uh... the ones Ranger forbade?”
“Oh. Those ones.”
Sucking up all the courage I had in me, I lifted my head once more and stared straight at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know, okay?” I bit out. “This whole situation is screwing with my head. I have all these what-ifs floating through my head all the time and I just...
“Just what?” Lester demanded, sounding coarser than I’d ever heard him. “Just wish things could have been different between us? I’m glad my cousin stopped me from acting on my feeling back then,” he spat. “After seeing how messed up Ranger was after you abandoned him, I'm glad it wasn't me.”
I had no response to that. Was that really how he felt toward me? “He... I...”
Lester didn’t seem to notice my attempts at speech, just stormed right on. “So why is it you left?” The corner of his mouth pulled up in a sneer that was a gruesome twist on his features. “Did he say something else that rubbed you the wrong way? Did you finally realise that Ranger could never give you the perfect white picket fence life that you secretly crave?”
He shook his head, the sneer growing even more disturbing, like he was possessed and whatever had taken hold of him was forcing his muscles to do things that they weren’t designed to do. “Don't try to deny it,” he whispered, taking two, almost menacing, steps toward me. “You can take the girl out of the burg but you can't take the burg out of the girl. So stop kidding yourself. You're not going to get the life you want from any of the guys here, especially not me or Ranger.”
“I thought we were getting past the-.“ I didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence, because Lester was at it again, building up steam.
“Your betrayal?” he scoffed. “Your deciet?” He began pacing around me, a tight, practiced circle guaranteed to make the target sweat bullets and eventually blurt what he wanted to hear. “How is a person supposed get past that much in two days? You know I spoke to the other guys, thought maybe you would have told them why you left. No such luck. There's a few reason a person would keep secrets from their friends. Shame. Pain. Uncertainty. So what was it for you?”
“All of the above,” I admitted under my breath.
Another approving nod from the man, but this one did little to set me at ease. “See, now we're getting somewhere. Now we just need to get the finer details. Let's start with uncertainty, shall we? It's probably the easiest. You were uncertain about Ranger, right? About where you stood? Whether he really loved you?” He paused on my left side, leaning in so that his face was inches from my ear. “Yeah, that sounds about right, why else would you have run back to Morelli so many times. At least you knew where you stood with him, even if it wasn't where you wanted to stand.”
At the mention of my former on-again-off-again boyfriend, my fists clenched of their own accord. I’d broken it off with him officially an entire year before I left. We were no more and we never would be. I’d don’t it for my own sanity. Not because Ranger wanted me to. Not because I felt it was the best option. Honestly, I would have liked to keep my head buried in the sand a little longer, but as I have recently figured out, denial land just makes things harder. There was no way we could have made what he had work and there was no point it pretending we could any longer.
Morelli had been out of my life only three months before Ranger started moving in once more. It was slow, respectful, and if I squinted just right, I could have said it was almost romantic... and then it all went to hell.
“ What about shame?” Lester continued, oblivious to my thoughts. “Was is it because he's not the perfect Burg man? Not someone you could be proud to take home to Mommy? Or perhaps it was because you were bouncing between two guys? And now you want add me into the mix, don’t you? Like haven’t had your fair share and then some.”
The tightness in my chest. The burning in my eyes. I was going to lose it soon if I didn’t get out of there. I tried to step back away from him as he passed in front of me again, but he was too swift, herding me back into place.
“Why else would you bring it up?” he questioned. “Yes, I had feelings for you back then, but it’s in the past. It doesn’t matter. There’s too much history and hurt between us for those long distant feelings to go anywhere now. And speaking of hurt. Pain! What could you painful reason for leaving have been?” A disgusting smile crossed his lips. “Was it your ego? Did it get hurt when Ranger didn’t immediately jump into let’s-be-together-forever-land?”
The words I’d only uttered once before fell from my lips as the tears spilled down my face. “I had a miscarriage.”
“I bet you di-,” Lester started, but his face fell as he obviously realised what I’d just whispered. “What?”
“I had,” I started again, louder, before taking a deep steadying breath, drawing in all the courage I could before saying the words for a second time. “A miscarriage.”
His blank face slammed down, but it didn’t mask the shock quick enough as he hissed in a breath.
“But you wanna know what really topped the cake?” I asked him, tears streaming down my cheeks now. I’d started, I may as well go all the way. “I didn't even know I was pregnant. My life was so messed up that I didn't even realise until it was too late.”
“Steph, I -,” Lester’s voice had lost all the heat it had held just moments before. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I-.”
“I know you didn’t know,” I told him, wiping angrily at my face. I didn’t want to be crying. “Nobody knows. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to see the pity in their eyes every time they looked at me.” I looked up from smearing the snot that had been running out of my nose onto the sleeve of my shirt to find the exactly look I’d been dreading six years ago. “Yeah, that one,” I added.
He took a moment to school his expression before opening his mouth to say something else, but I wasn’t ready to have a discussion about it.
“You can’t tell anyone,” I told him firmly. “What happens on the mats stays on the mats. If I see a single pitying look from anyone in this building, I swear to God I will -.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Lester chuckled tensely, the first hint at a joke to pass between us since I returned. “But you won’t have to. I won’t breathe a word.”