Always the Last to Know

Chapter 27

I spent a couple of hours sitting with Eloise, chatting after she’d finished her dinner, and she said a few things that really struck a chord with me. I’d explained how Lester had been toward me to begin with and how things had stayed the same when he realised I was me, detailing that it was the kind of reaction I’d expected from all the guys but having been readily accepted by Bobby, Cal and Hank prior to Lester’s recognition, I’d been completely unprepared for it.

Eloise nodded her understanding, simply allowing me to talk out all my issues before giving any opinions.

“Do you want to know what I would do?” she asked, retrieving a bottle of wine from the fridge and setting it on the table with two glasses.

I nodded eagerly, happy for any kind of womanly advice at this point. Tank and the other Merry Men could be great, but their offers to punch Lester’s skull in, or rip him a new asshole were simply not helpful. I needed help figuring out how to repair everything I’d blown to smithereens, and I was pretty sure violence was not the answer.

“Talk to him,” she said. When I stared dumbly at her, she handed me a glass of wine and took a long sip from her own, pulling her legs up to sit cross legged on the kitchen chair. “Talk to him,” she repeated. “Tell him your worried. Explain the details of why you left. Help him to see your side of things, and let him explain his own. Have a conversation. Allow him to ask questions and do your best to answer them. Be as forthcoming as possible.”

I nodded again, admitting that what she’d said made sense. Currently, Lester and I were each trapped in our own little bubbles of pain with next to no understanding of how the other’s bubble felt. What we needed to do was step outside of them and talk about how the bubbles are affecting our lives. We needed to be honest with each other and hope that it helped mend broken friendship.

As I took a gulp of wine, I resolved to call Lester first thing in the morning and ask – I wanted to demand, but felt it was a bit counterproductive to force him into anything at this point... not that I could force him to anything – for him to come to Tank’s house so we could get some stuff out in the open. Eloise took that opportunity to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind.

“So the reason you left is Ranger-related, right?” she asked, leaning her forearms on the table to stare directly into my face, probably analysing every little muscle as it twitched into all sorts of expressions.

“Yes,” I admitted on a sigh, knowing she’d figure she was right if I said nothing.

“What did he do?”

“It’s more of a what we did, I guess,” I admitted before delving into the entire tale. I told her everything, the same way I had spilled it that first time with Sera in Mexico, except with less crying and sobbing. What was it about virtual strangers that I could tell them my story, but the thought of telling my friends made me physically ill?

After making her promise on the life of her sons (because that sort of thing sounds reasonable when you’ve had three glasses of wine) not to tell Hal why I left, I made my way carefully home, aware that I was a little past tipsy, and crawled into bed.

Sunday morning I awoke refreshed and determined. I had a mission; a purpose. For the first time since returning to Trenton, I truly felt like Stephanie Plum. She was a little different to the one I’d left behind when I went to Mexico, having experienced a little more of the world since then, but the main features were there. Pigheadedness, independence, strong will. So much better than the wishy-washy Kit-Steph I’d been hovering between. Being two people made both halves lack a certain mettle. I felt like I’d been sitting on a fence for three weeks and last night’s frank discussion with Eloise had finally set me straight.

I showered quickly and dressed in jeans and a stretchy top, forgoing the excess makeup and fake spectacles that I’d been hiding behind since returning. Today Kit Danger didn’t exist. Or, if she did exist, she was locked in the cupboard upstairs.

Bounding down the stairs, I found Tank at the kitchen table reading the paper, his bald head reflecting the light shining from the ceiling. He looked up when I entered, a curious look on his face.

“Hey, Big Guy,” I greeted, making a beeline for the coffee pot sitting on the bench and pouring myself a mug. I may be a new me, but I’d still been drinking last night and needed to soak up the last remaining effects of it before I did anything too drastic today.

“Who are you and what have you done with the woman who’s been staying in my house,” Tank demanded, mockingly.

“This,” I informed him, gesturing to myself, “is Stephanie Plum 3.0. I’m taking back control of my life.”

“You’re going to talk to Ranger?” he asked, an almost hopeful expression creeping into his eyes.

I gave him an indulgent smile. “Close, but no cigar,” I said, dropping bread into the toaster. “I’m going to sort things out with Lester.

“Good on you,” he encouraged.

“I’m glad you approve,” I told him. “Because I have a favour to ask.”

“Anything,” he said solemnly, folding his paper and setting it aside.

Leaning down a little against the cupboards under the bench, I grimaced as I suddenly realised how daunting the task I’d set for myself was. “Do it for me?” I whimpered.

“No can do,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest and regarding me with an air of concern. “I’m not enabling your insecurities. Bring back the woman who entered the room just now.”

I allowed myself to slide down the cupboards to sit on the floor with my knees up near my ears. “If you won’t do it for me,” I said, swallowing down my misgivings. “Could you maybe...”

He smiled gently over at me. “You want to do it here and you want me to make myself scarce?” he guessed.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” I said, as my toast popped explosively from the toaster, causing me to jump and hit my head on the edge of the counter.

Tank earned my glare as he laughed at my misfortune, but quickly crossed the room to help me up, saying, “Let me know when you want me out and I’ll be gone.”

*o*

I felt bad for kicking Tank out of his own house, but he assured me it was the least he could do to make up for the situation he’d forced me into. It helped to ease some of my worry on that front, but also added to my thoughts that maybe this whole situation was taking a toll on Tank’s mental state as well. Did he feel remorse for instigating this deception? And then there was all my concern for the upcoming confrontation with Lester. I needed to give him some answers, and hopefully get some in return, so that we could move on to at least being amiable. I didn’t know how much more of the hate fuelled stares I could take.

My thoughts began to drift as I sat at the kitchen table waiting for Lester to turn up, and I found myself six years in the past.

As far as weeks went in my life as Stephanie Plum, Bombshell Bounty Hunter, this had to have been one of – if not, the – worst. On top of the usual setbacks I faced in capturing skips, such as their perverse habits, and my propensity for finding, and rolling in, any available garbage, I’d also had to contend with anonymous death threats being left on my door and a sniper. And to top it all off – as if that wasn’t enough – I was feeling like absolute crap. If it weren’t for the fact that my rent was due, I probably would have stayed home in bed.

Lucky for me, though, Ranger had assigned babysitting detail while we tried to get to the bottom of the death threat situation. Today, I had Lester riding shotgun in my little POS Honda Civic, because he liked the anonymity of riding around town in a non-fleet vehicle from time to time. I, on the other hand, was longing for the comfortable seats and air conditioning of the black SUV we’d left in my parking lot this morning. There was only so much wind-whipping a girl could endure when on the verge of vomiting.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?” Lester asked with concern as I white knuckled the steering wheel. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” I told him through clenched teeth. We both knew it was a lie, but at least being in control of the car gave me something to focus on that wasn’t the rolling going on in my gut. I felt sure that if I was to stop concentrating for more than a minute my breakfast would make a reappearance.

“You’ll stop the car before you hurl, right?” he pressed, casting worried glances my way. “Not that I don’t think you’re talented enough to vomit and drive at the same time, I’m just concerned about your car. And also visibility. Because really, if you spew, it’ll hit the windshield and then how are you going to see? And then there’s the splash back. I love you and all, but I don’t need to be covered in your -.”

“Lester,” I gritted out as the waves of nausea intensified at his descriptions.

“Yeah?” he said immediately, hands reaching toward me. “Do you need me to take the wheel so you can lean out the window and throw up?”

“Just stop talking,” I pleaded.

“Right, sorry.”

We made it through the morning without incident. I managed to keep my food down and Lester managed to get the skips into the back seat without anyone being indecently exposed or covered in any gross or slimy substances. My nausea had toned down to a barely noticeable level by lunch time, just like it had the past few days, and I suppose if I’d been paying it any mind, I might have figured that it was morning sickness, but everything was always so much more obvious in retrospect.

We were on our way to pick up one of the skips Connie had handed me that morning, hoping we could just convince him to come to the station without fuss so I could go home and worry about the rest another day. With the body receipts from this morning, this capture would give me enough to pay the rent and maybe even do some grocery shipping – not that I’d felt up to eating lately.

I pulled to the curb two doors down from the house we were targeting and started up the sidewalk towards it, Lester trailing behind me. I’d just turned up the garden path, heading for the front porch, when I suddenly found myself tackled to the ground, Lester’s full weight spread on top of me.

“Get behind that hedge and stay there,” he instructed, rolling off me and jumping to his feet. I vaguely noted that his gun was drawn and he whipped his phone out as he jogged across the street before the pressure that had been bubbling in my stomach all day finally burst upward and outward, causing me to coat the latest skip’s lawn with the contents of my stomach.

Gingerly skirting around the steaming puddle, I made my way on hands and knees to the hedge as fast as my trembling arms and legs would take me. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew better than to question the Merry Men in cases of such emergency. Ten minutes passed before Lester came to retrieve me from the hedge, at which point, I decided, to hell with the skip, I needed to go home and shower.

Three days later, I was just allowing my head to fall gently to the cool tiles beside the toilet bowl when there was a knock at the door. I was very much inclined ignore it, but then it came again, along with a familiar voice. Lester. I groaned. With Ranger and Tank out of town for the weekend, Lester had been put in charge of making sure I was still alive. Apparently, that came in the form of interrupting my tile time by forcing me to come to the door.

The knock came again as I crawled to the edge of the bathtub to pull myself up. And again when I’d submerged my face in a sink full of cold water. I was shuffling through the kitchen, diligently ignoring the half eaten toast taunting me from the place where I’d abandoned it half an hour ago, when his voice sounded louder and more insistent than before.

“Bomber? Steph? I’m giving you three seconds to answer before I pick the lock.”

“I’m coming,” I croaked, cringing at my own voice, even as I puzzled over the fact that he hadn’t just picked the lock t begin with. It would have saved me the effort of getting up, and him the worry of standing in the hall. Then again, I didn’t particularly want Lester to find me sprawled on the floor. Probably, he would have called Bobby without even checking that I was breathing first. Best not to freak out the Merry Men, especially since it would no doubt make its way back to Ranger within the hour and he’d drop everything to make sure I was alright. Which I was. Or at least I would be if the churning in my stomach would hold off.

I opened the door to find Lester standing poised with the usual peace offering of a white pastry bag filled with my favourite donuts. My guts clenched threateningly as I contemplated the items within that bag and had to grip the door jamb to keep myself from immediately dashing back to the bathroom.

“Wow,” Lester breathed, lowering the bag. “You should really check the expiry date on you food before you eat it.” I attempted an eye roll, but found my head hurt too much to allow the proper rotation. He chuckled. “You know not to eat the stuff with the mould on, right?” he asked.

Ordinarily, I probably would have laughed it off, taken the donuts and turned back to the kitchen, assuming he’d lock up and follow. But today, the mere thought of anything even vaguely gross or food related set off the volcano that was my digestive tract these days and I made a mad dash for the bathroom, Lester’s apologies trailing after me as I went.

At that moment I was pulled from my memories by the doorbell. That would be Lester. At least this time around I wasn’t feeling like death warmed over, nor was I settling down for a nap on the bathroom floor. But he’d taken such good care of me on both of those occasions, and we’d been so horrible to each other since I’d returned that I wondered if we could ever go back to the way things were. The doorbell rang, and I was made aware of the fact that while I’d acknowledged his presence, I had not yet gotten off my backside to let him in. Call it whatever you like, but there was a certain amount of self preservation in delaying answering the door. I was actually in a decent mood today and I just knew that any conversation with Lester was going to bring that down a few notches at least.

I heaved myself to my feet and started toward the entrance hall just as Lester’s voice rang out. “Steph you’ve got three seconds to open this door before I pick the lock!”



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