Typically, Tank had already secured the table in the back
corner of the cafe with a clear view of all entrances and exits by the time I
got there. He was looking good, dressed in civilian clothing – black jeans and
a soft grey t-shirt that advertised some motor oil company I was unfamiliar
with. I didn’t think it was possible, but the shirt hung loose from his
shoulders, giving the impression that he wasn’t as big as he seemed.
He stood and pulled out the chair on the adjacent side of the table as I approached, and I could tell he was once again scrutinising me closely. His gaze flitted briefly between my hair and my eyes before he shook his head slightly and took his seat at the same time I claimed my own.
“I’d almost managed to convince myself it wasn’t you,” he stated with no preamble. “I was almost up to believing that our encounter this morning had been a waking dream, that you were just a woman from the village who looked a lot like you.” He shook his head again. “You have no idea how glad I am that my imagination isn’t trying to run away with me.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. For a man who never spoke, this was practically rambling. “I was only a couple minutes late,” I pointed out.
“The tensest couple minutes of my life,” he informed me. “Waiting to find out if I was going insane or not.
A more forceful bark of laughter suddenly escaped my chest at his words. I couldn’t help it. “Just because I’m not a figment of your imagination doesn’t mean you’re not insane,” I assured him, pouring a glass of iced tea from the pitcher on the table.
“True,” he agreed, grinning. “So tell me why you’re here.”
“Because I made a lunch date with a random black man I caught ogling me across the street,” I teased. “He seemed to think I was some woman he used to know.”
Tank speared me with a half-hearted glare and I assumed he was mentally rolling his eyes. “Very funny, Stephanie.”
Shrugging, I took a sip of my drink and pulled the menu closer to peruse. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Tank,” I said. “There are so many factors that contribute to why I am here at this table, in this cafe, in this town.”
“Then we’ll start right at the beginning,” he suggested, peering over my shoulder to see the menu. “Why did you leave?”
The way he asked, coupled with the way we were sitting, made it seem like the topic was no big deal. He was so casual about it I could almost imagine my reply didn’t really matter. That didn’t make it any easier to talk about it, though.
“I don’t remember,” I stated flatly.
“Steph,” he said in a warning tone that would suggest if I didn’t start talking he would have to resort to less than pleasant interrogation techniques. So much for casual.
“Look,” I tried again. “It was a long time ago. Every reason I told myself I had has changed at least a dozen times since then.”
I didn’t turn my head, or even glance at Tank out of the corner of my eye, but I’m pretty sure he rolled his eyes. If our positions had been reversed I would have rolled my eyes right out of my head by now.
“What was your original reason for leaving?”
A resigned sigh fell from my lips just as the waitress appeared. We placed our orders ad as she made her way to the kitchen Tank speared me with an expectant stare.
“You won’t understand,” I told him.
“Try me,” he challenged.
Leaning right back in my chair and folding my hands on table, I met his gaze for the first time since we started this line of conversation. “I was watching Shrek,” I said, dead serious. “With my nieces.” I waited for his reaction, but he gave none. He was waiting for the rest of the story before he showed me what he thought. “And seeing how self sufficient Fiona was just got me to thinking about how utterly useless I was at my job.”
“You weren’t useless,” Tank said firmly.
“You and Ranger and all the other Rangemen were constantly having to come to my rescue,” I pointed out. “That practically screams useless.”
“If you’d let one of us partner with you like we suggested on numerous occasions -.”
“That’s beside the point,” I interrupted him. “I felt useless and nothing I told myself in that moment or even for the rest of the evening made it any easier to live with. I was sick and tired of being the damsel in distress, always needing help.”
Tank offered me an utterly dead pan expression, so exaggerated in comparison to his usual blank face that I had to bite the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. “And rather than ask for assistance in getting training that would make you better at your job, you decided running away to Mexico was you best option?”
“You must not have heard me,” I said flatly, though I still struggled to keep the smile off my face. “I said I was sick of needing help. How is asking for assistance going to make that feeling better?”
“You’d have gotten better at your job and wouldn’t need as much rescuing.”
I rolled my eyes and rested my elbows on the table on either side of my drink. “Long term, yes, that was probably a better option,” I agreed. “But I wasn’t really looking at it that way.”
“Six years, three months, two weeks and five days is pretty long term if you ask me,” Tank said matter-of-factly as our meals were placed in front of us. He busied himself with adding salt and other condiments to his roll while I did nothing but stare open mouthed at him. Finally, he glanced up, reaching over to gently push my jaw closed. “You’ll catch flies,” he said, before taking a large bite of his lunch.”
“You kept count?” I asked, aghast. I couldn’t believe he’d just rattled off the exact amount of time since I’d left Trenton as if it were a well known sports statistic. Had he been actively searching for me this entire time? Had Ranger? Did they have a sort of countdown thing in the office? Those XX Days Without Incident signs popped into my head and I wondered if that’s the kind of thing the Merry Men would put up in the control room.
“I didn’t keep count,” Tank said. “I just plucked some random numbers from my head. But it’s definitely been at least six years.”
“Oh.” Why did I sound disappointed with his reply? Had I been hoping they were all obsessed with finding me to the point of keeping track of the days since I’d left? Ridiculous. Why would I want them to come find me – rescue me, you might say – when the whole reason I left was because I was sick of being rescued?
Biting into my roll, I chewed slowly and pensively as Tank practically devoured his own in three bites.
“So you decided to run away,” Tank prompted, licking his fingers and swiping chilli mayonnaise off his cheek a moment later.
With a shake of my head, I corrected, “I decided to take a step back from my life. Rather than being a resource vacuum, I thought I’d try giving back to the community for a change.”
“In Mexico,” Tank added dryly.
“I always wanted to learn Spanish,” I shrugged, taking a sip from my iced tea.
“We could have helped you with that too, you know,” Tank said. “We were all really disappointed when you left without a word.”
Guilt began to swirl around in my stomach, dissolve any appetite I may have had. I pushed my almost full plate away.
“When months passed and you didn’t return or even make contact, and we couldn’t locate you, Ranger told us to stop looking.” He gulped down the remnants of his glass and set it down. “We thought you were our friend, Steph,” he said with so much emotion it caused the guilt to rise up and solidify in my chest. I felt like I might suffocate from it.
A long silence stretched between us, allowing the general sounds of the cafe to the forefront. I’d almost forgotten we were surrounded by people. My focus had been solely on the fact that my past had suddenly appeared in my future and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Hell, I was struggling to keep my wants and needs on the straight path. One minute I was saying that I was sick of being rescued and the next I was hoping that they’d been looking for me all these years. It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking or things could go horribly wrong in a matter of seconds with this kind of thinking.
Before either of us could say or do anything else a ringing phone erupted close by. As I jerked up straight, Tank pulled the offending racket maker off his belt and hit receive before holding it to his ear. He listened for little more than a moment before saying, “I’ll be there in five,” and hanging up. As he returned the phone to his belt he gazed at me. “Will you come back to Trenton with me?” he asked. “There’s a chopper coming to pick up me and my team in twenty minutes. I’m sure there’ll be a spare seat.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t believe he was just swooping in and asking me to come back with him. I had a life here. I was doing good here. I couldn’t just leave that behind. “It’ll take more than twenty minutes to get back to my sleeping quarters,” I informed him. “Let alone packing and getting back.”
“Then just come with me now,” Tank suggested. “You can get someone to pack your stuff and mail it to you. Please, Steph.”
To my surprise, I found myself actually contemplating his offer. I thought I had convinced myself I was done with my old life. I didn’t want or need to go back there. I was perfectly happy here, helping the less fortunate. “I can’t go,” I said firmly, as much for my own benefit as Tank’s. “I’m just starting to connect with these kids, I’d hate to leave before knowing what their full potential is.”
“You can help people back in Trenton,” Tank tried.
“I committed to three months with them, Tank,” I said. “I can’t leave them until my session is up. They’ve lost enough already.”
A short puff of air escaped Tank’s lips, almost as if he were sighing, though I knew that couldn’t be the case; Tank didn’t sigh. He pulled a pen from his pocket and grabbed an unused napkin from the holder on the table. “Then keep in touch,” he said, scribbling something on the napkin. “I just found you after six years and I don’t want to risk losing you again. If you won’t come home, Skype me. These are my details.” He pushed the napkin across the table and stood. “Message me. If you don’t, I’ll come back and drag you home whether you’re ready to go or not.”
I stared at the scrap of paper. “I don’t have Skype,” I told him.
“Then get one,” he instructed. “If I haven’t heard from you in a fortnight I’ll be back.”
With that, he leaned down and wrapped me in his massive arms briefly before turning to leave. He’d only taken five steps before I managed to find my voice again. “Wait,” I called. He turned to gaze down at me expectantly. I saw the hope in his eyes and knew that he thought I’d changed my mind about coming home with him. “Tank, you can’t tell anyone you found me,” I said. “If anyone at Rangeman knew where I was I’d be forced to come home and I’m not ready for that. I’ll get a Skype and keep in touch, but it’s just between you and me.”
“Not even Ranger?” he asked, his brows drawing together.
“Especially not Ranger,” I confirmed.
A tense moment passed where Tank said nothing and I was afraid he wasn’t going to agree to my terms, then suddenly, he stepped forward and hugged me once more, pressing a kiss to the top of my head. “Two weeks,” he reminded me. And he was gone.