The last fifty-three hours of my life had dragged on at half the speed of snail. Each second ticking by at an agonisingly slow pace while my thoughts were preoccupied, worrying about the family I hadn’t been separated from for any real length of time in three years. I missed them more deeply than I would have imagined was possible, constantly squashing the urge to pull up the home security feed on my tablet just to assure myself that they were okay. Eloise knew how to take care herself and the boys. They would be fine. And, of course, I’d asked Cal to check in on them regularly over the course of the weekend. I just had to trust that nothing would go wrong on his watch.
The problem was Saturday. More specifically, Kit Danger.
The basic background we’d all been emailed when she first started was clear that she had six years experience working with children and had actually started out working with kids that didn’t even speak the same language she did. If she could pull off that day after day, I had to believe that Richie and Julian would be okay with her for a few hours. But I’d been having some pretty hinky feelings about her over the past few days.
It had all started when she’d offered to babysit for me. I’d only known her a little over two weeks, hadn’t really spoken to her on anything unrelated to work except the couple of times she’d asked about the kids. The fact that she seemed so curious about them set off little alarm bells in my head, but I agreed to discuss the matter of babysitting with Eloise anyway. I didn’t want Kit to think I was flat out refusing her generous offer.
Then there was the hug. The moment she wrapped her arms around my shoulders a sense of déjà vu swept over me, catching me off guard. I frowned at her as she pulled back, trying to work out if the déjà vu was because of her as a person or just her hug. All I could think of was that the last time a woman other than Eloise of someone related to me hugged me, it was Stephanie Plum. I pushed those thoughts aside though, knowing that the heavy feeling in my chest was caused by the fact that I would never get the chance to thank her for almost getting me killed the day I met the woman who eventually became my wife. If it hadn’t been for the near fatal bullet wounds I’d received while helping Stephanie out, I would have never had a reason to step foot into the private clinic, dripping blood over the immaculate grey tiles of the reception area.
“We need to talk about the babysitter,” Eloise said, pulling me from my thoughts as I stepped over the threshold of my out front door. She was stood in the doorway to the kitchen, her face bathed in shadow as the light spilled forth from behind her into the dark hallway. Not seeing her expression put me on edge immediately. All my concerns over Kit Danger doubled and redoubled as I contemplated everything that could have happened while the boys were in her care.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her – who was I to question Ranger’s judgement after all these years – but what if Julian was stung by a bee and Kit was slow to react? There was only a small window of time before he went into anaphylactic shock...
“What about her?” I asked, tension seizing my every muscle so that I couldn’t even find the self control to finish entering the house. “Was there a problem?” I urged. “You said everything was fine when we spoke Sunday morning.”
“Everything is fine,” she said reassuringly, taking my hand and leading me two short steps away from the door so she could close and lock it and reset the alarm. With her task done, she eased my duffle bag out of my grip and placed it under the side table before taking me into the kitchen and forcing me down into a chair at the table. “Better than fine,” she added, taking the seat beside me and covering one of my large hands with both of her small ones. “In fact, it’s almost impossible to get Richie to stop talking about her. He’s convinced that she’s the best babysitter he’s ever had.”
“Then what?” I demanded, giving her a look that begged for her to just explain what this was about already. She knew that I wouldn’t be able to relax until I knew for certain that everyone and everything related to my family was okay. Drawing this out was pure torture to me, but still she did it.
“You remember how we met?” she enquired, giving me the random urge to shake her. Of course I remembered how we met. For one, I’d been thinking about it only minutes ago. And for another, it was one of the most frightening afternoons of my life.
“I thought you said this was to do with Kit.”
“Just answer the question,” she prompted, lightly pinching the fleshy tips of my fingers.
“Of course I remember,” I said confidently. “You were stunning.”
She chuckled like she always did when I made such proclamations about our first meeting, and gave her standard reply: “You were delirious from blood loss.”
She was right, of course. Having recently been shot multiple times in the line of duty, and with not enough hands to put pressure on all the wounds, I’d been seeing glowing halos around certain people by the time Stephanie Plum had rushed me into the clinic where Eloise worked. Leaning heavily on the Bombshell Bounty Hunter for support, I’d grinned sloppily at the receptionist who’d raced toward us and asked, “Did it hurt?”
Both Steph and Eloise had stared at me aghast, probably thinking I’d lost my mind on the short drive over. “What?” they’d asked in unison.
“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” I repeated, attempting a wink.
“He’s bleeding a lot,” Steph had mentioned almost apologetically. “Bobby said to bring him here instead of wait for the ambulance.” Apparently Bobby had an eidetic memory when it came to the locations of medical facilities, and when Steph had called to report the injuries he’d told her to get me into the SUV and drive the two blocks to the nearest clinic.
Eloise had had no idea who Bobby was at the time, but wasted no time calling for a doctor. I don’t remember much after that, except that the angel I’d just met was taking care of me and making sure I had everything I needed.
I was too shy to say anything as forward as my cliché pick up line by the time I’d recovered enough to leave, but Ranger was so impressed by the quality of care and their ability to not ask probing questions that he’d struck up a deal with the owner-manager of the clinic. Rangeman would provide around the clock surveillance and security for a discounted price and in return, the clinic would take priority care of all Rangeman employees. Naturally, they agreed. No one turns down an offer like that from Ranger. So did he will it, so mote it be, and all that jazz.
With the amount of bad luck I’d carrred around back then – possibly due to a curse a witch doctor had put on me while I was on a mission, but that was a story for another time – I’d ended up at the clinic twice as much as anyone else. Bobby had even cracked a joke or two about me supposedly eing too eager to spend time there. I would never admit it, but I did get a certain thrill about two minutes after an injury, knowing that I’d get to see the receptionist angel again.
“Do you remember the woman who brought you in that day?”
“Stephanie Plum?” I asked, still confused as to how this could have anything to do with my new work colleague and the babysitting favour she’d done two days ago. “How could I not? Eloise, just tell me what this has to do with Kit.”
“Everything,” she said wistfully, a gently smile curving her lips as she gazed up at me through her bangs. “It has everything to do with Kit Danger, because they are the same person.
I thought, for a moment, that she might have been trying to pull a practical joke on me, but as the second ticked by, approaching a full minute, doubts slowly started to settle. Her face didn’t split into the easy, teasing grin I loved so much. She just stared at me expectantly.
“Hal?” she prompted after what felt like hours had passed. “Did you hear me?”
“My ears say I did, but my brain is protesting,” I mumbled, still not comprehending the purpose of her statement. If she wasn’t joking... Could she possibly be telling the truth? “I don’t understand.”
“What’s so hard about it?” my wife questioned, absently fiddling with my wedding band, turning it around and around my finger. “Kit Danger is Stephanie Plum.”
“How do you figure?” I hated doubting the woman I loved, but I needed cold hard facts. The subject of Stephanie Plum was not one I took lightly.
“Well, I recognised her the moment I saw her in full light,” she explained patiently, using the same tone she used on Richie when explaining about the pet goldfish we’d had that died. “And I called her bluff. Then we had a nice long chat about why she left – which I’m not allowed to tell you, by the way, because it was painful for her and she doesn’t want you all gazing on her with pity and disgust – and she agreed to let me tell you about her being her. If you have any questions, feel free to ask Tank.”
I did just that, immediately whipping out my phone and dialing the second in command. Two minutes later I had confirmation that Kit was indeed Steph, and a warning to keep the knowledge under wraps for the time being. Tank assured me that he would give a full briefing on the situation first thing in the morning, but as I slid my phone back into my pocket, I knew I had something I needed to take care of right away.
I stood abruptly from the table, dropped a kiss on Eloise’s lips as she parted them to ask where I was going, and announced, “I just remembered I was supposed to check in at the office when I got back.”
“But it’s late,” she protested, standing to follow me as I began striding from the room. “Surely it can wait until morning.”
“I wish it could,” I informed her, pausing with my back to her as I shut off the alarm and unlocked the door. “Don’t wait up.”
With that, I was out the door, across the front lawn and inside the SUV parked in the driveway. My thoughts were focused entirely on the way Lester had been treating Kit Danger. I’d been outraged by his behaviour before, threatening him and urging her to tell Ranger about it, but now I was furious. So you had a failed relationship, doesn’t mean you can take all your issues out on innocent women. How dare he abuse Stephanie Plum like that?
I had to confront him. I had to teach him a lesson. I had to work out some of my anger before I next saw the woman I owed my life to, or I wouldn’t be able to control myself.
I arrived at Rangeman in record time, though I don’t know whether it was the fact that there was no traffic on the roads at this hour of the night, or that I was speeding that got me there so fast. Probably a combination of both. Almost before I’d registered exiting my vehicle, I found myself pounding on the door of Lester’s apartment, demanding he show his face.
He flung the door open barely ten seconds in, but not before other heads had started popping out into the corridor. He looked utterly dishevelled in lime green boxers and white socks. His usually perfectly spiked hair fluffed out in all directions from his head and there were crease marks on his face from where it had recently rested on a pillow. A small sense of satisfaction seeped down my chest as I realised I’d woken him.
“Mats. Now,” I gritted out when he stared at me in bleary eyed confusion. I didn’t wait for him to reply, or even acknowledge my demand, just turned on my heels and made my way back to the stairwell.
“Better call Bobby and have him on standby,” I heard Lester say as the door swung shut behind me.