sense of dread settled in the pit of my stomach the moment I entered the
parking garage Tuesday morning. I sat stock still in the front seat of my white
rental car, feeling like Miss Clavel from Madeline as my entire being screamed
at me that something was not right. Suddenly, I was convinced that I absolutely
did not want to get out of my vehicle. It felt like, if I opened the car door,
all hell would break loose. Hell hounds would be released, demons would start
hacking people apart and possessing people. Like a B Grade horror film.
Digging out my cell phone, I scrolled down the contact list. I was looking for Tank's number, but paused when I came across Mal's name. He was the resident expert in all things supernatural and paranormal, even if the rest of the men wouldn't acknowledge the database he had inside his head. If the gates of hell had really broken open and the car was the only thing saving me from being drawn into the middle of a battle between good and evil, perhaps it would better to call Mal. He could come join me in the car and we could evaluate the situation and strategize our next move. Driving away, perhaps?
With a shake of my head, I continued scrolling until Tank's name appeared on the screen and hit call. He answered on the first ring.
"What's going on?" I asked abruptly, gripping the phone so hard I feared I would crush it before Tank got a reply out.
"Where are you?" Tank asked, rather than answer my question. I suppose it's difficult to give accurate information when you're not entirely sure what the person is talking about.
"I'm in the parking garage," I told him. "What's going on?"
"Nothing's going on," he said, but the tone he used made me think that even he didn't believe himself. A sigh a moment later confirmed the fact and he muttered,
"There's been an... altercation."
This information did nothing to ease the tension that had been steadily gripping my shoulders, nor the knots being tied in my stomach. Worst case scenarios began flitting through my head, one after another. Someone had been seriously injured... Someone had died... Someone had managed to infiltrate Rangeman and I'd just driven into a hostage situation... Ranger had figured out who I really was and was waiting for me to arrive so he could confront me... As tragic as the first three had seemed, it was the last that had my heart rate speeding up and my breaths coming in short gasps.
"What happened?" I asked in a voice so small I could barely hear it over the pounding in my ears.
"Take a deep breath and calm down," Tank instructed calmly, having either sensed of heard my distress. "Everything is okay. Lester's just a bit battered is all. He handled the situation remarkably well for a man that hated your guts just two days ago."
"Just tell me what happened!" I exclaimed, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of my hand for emphasis. "And he didn't hate my guts, he was just angry and disappointed."
"I've got to go," Tank said. "My nine o'clock is waiting. Get Cal to explain during your range session."
I growled out a few choice words - that Tank didn't hear because he'd already hung up - and dropped the phone back into my bag. A quick make up check in the rear view mirror assured me that my Kit Danger façade was in place, but I reached into the glove compartment and retrieved my trusty tube of mascara for an extra boost of courage. I'd been so good about not using it over the past three weeks, but I was not going to leave this car without an extra layer of protection between me and whatever the hell was going on up there.
Finally, I pronounced myself ready, and exited the vehicle, making my way to the stairwell and up to the fourth floor. Ordinarily I would have taken the elevator, but this morning it was pertinent that I avoid interaction with anyone as much as possible until Cal could give me the low down on what exactly had taken place. I had my head down, hurrying across the control room to my cubicle, when that all too familiar tingle raised the hairs on the back of my neck a second before I heard my - fake - name called out by the one person I was avoiding above all else.
I halted immediately, taking a millisecond to remind myself that Kit Danger had only had a handful of superficial interactions with her boss since she interviewed for the job. "Yes, sir?" I said nervously, spinning on the heel of my shiny, black combat book to face him.
He stood just before the short hallway that lead to his and Tank's offices, his arms crossed loosely over his chest, showing just enough authority to make him both sexy and a little bit frightening. "I'd like a word in my office."
His phrasing freaked me out. Ranger never spoke like that. Not to me, not to the guys, not even to Ella, though admittedly, my observations of Ranger and Ella's interaction were fairly limited. It sounded like he was making a request, but that couldn't be right. Ranger didn't request anything; not even a glass of water at a restaurant. Ranger commanded and demanded. He was the authority in all things.
I glanced nervously to my cubicle - I'd almost made it - then the elevator and finally back to Ranger, gulping down the lump in my throat. As I opened my mouth - to say what, I wasn't sure - Ranger spoke again.
"Your session with Cal has already been rescheduled for after lunch," he informed me. "Stow your things and come to my office." With that he turned and was out of sight, obviously assuming I would fololw his orders. And I would, of course. It felt strange to do as he told without question of protest, but I had to keep reminding myself that Kit Danger didn't have the same history with Ranger that Stephanie Plum did.
Great. Now, not only did I have an apparently split personality, but I was referring to both me's in third person. What a field day a psychiatrist would have with me.
Wasting no time, I dashed the last few feet to my cubicle, dumped my bag on the desk – there was no point in filing it away, no one here would dare even touch a woman's purse without permission – double checked in the reflection on the compute screen that every bit of my flimsy disguise was in place, and made my way, at a purposeful pace, to Ranger's office. Tank's door was ajar when I passed it and I couldn't help but slow down to peek inside. This was all his fault. If he'd just delayed whatever appointment he had long enough to give me even a few details about what was going on, I might not be so freaked out right now. I'd gone into plenty of situations blind in the past and always come out on the bottom then. I had no doubt that this meeting with Ranger would go the same way.
I knocked three times on the most intimidating door in the history of doors, holding my breath and hoping that he'd suddenly gotten a call about a high bond skip sighting that he couldn't ignore and had had to dash away in the time it took me to drop my bag.
No such luck.
No sooner had I dropped my hand to my side than a soft but commanding voice called out, "Enter." There was no turning back now.
As quietly as possible, I pushed the heavy door open and stepped inside. I wasn't sure why I was going for stealth at this late stage – perhaps if I made no sound he wouldn't realise I was there and I'd be able to slip away just as quietly? With a pang of surprise, I realised that this was the very same tactic I'd employed every time I'd been called to the principal's office in elementary school. Were Mr. Hansely and Ranger really in the same league? Absolutely not. Ranger was far scarier. For a start, while Mr. Hansely could have given me detention of community service for any wrong doings, what Ranger was capable of inflicting upon me had me literally quaking in my boots.
"Take a seat, Kit," he said quietly, almost warmly, though probably I was imagining the warmth in his voice. Wishful thinking.
I crossed the room that all of a sudden felt miles wide, and perched on the edge of the same chair I'd taken during my job interview. Like that day just over three weeks ago, the scene felt surreal and I expected Ranger to look up from the file he was perusing at any moment to inform me that the charade had gone on long enough. It didn't happen though. Seconds ticked by into a full minute and started edging toward two before he finally raised his eyes from the pages and locked on mine.
"How have things been going, Kit?" he asked.
Confused and surprised, I found myself blinking rapidly in an attempt to come to terms with the topic of conversation he'd introduced. I'd been expecting a lot of things – accusations, a swift severance, perhaps a heated embrace if my best case scenario played out – but pleasantries? It was so unlike Ranger.
"Fine," I blurted.
"Fine?" he repeated my single word reply as a question.
"Good," I amended hurriedly, twisting my hands in my lap.
"Which is it? Fine or good?"
I suppressed a grimace, taking a moment before replying, "Good."
"Are you sure?"
Somehow, I got the feeling that even if I had been confident in my answer, the tone of his voice and the expression on his face would have made me doubt myself. I tried to ignore the seeping insecurities though. "Everyone here is very accepting," I explained, feeling the need to justify my assessment of my current situation.
"Everyone?" he asked.
"The men are more than willing to take a little extra time to explain some aspects of the business if I ask," I pointed out. "And the team you have me working with is slowly getting the hang of balancing security and safety, with comfort and accessibility."
"The reason I ask, Kit, is that there was an incident late last night between two senior members of staff. Do you happen to know anything about it?"
My head was reeling. On the one hand, Ranger's use of formal language and full sentences was freaking me out. I kept telling myself it was because I – Kit – was the only female employee ever to be hired apart from my-Steph-self. And while he had been cryptic and elusive and a whole bunch of turn-my-brain-to-mush adjectives with Steph-me, it was only because he had been romantically involved with me – in one form or another. Kit-me, though, was a complete stranger.
Three weeks may seem like enough time for an employer to at least become vaguely familiar with his newest staff member, but when you consider that every single interaction I'd had with the man since arriving in Trenton could fit inside an hour, I guess it's not that surprising that he still addressed her – me? – in that way. And besides, I'd never witnessed Ranger speaking to a stranger who deserved even a little respect of consideration before this Kit Danger debacle. How was I to know if his current behaviour was normal or not? Even before Mexico, when we'd been dating and he'd begun opening up a little more, everything I knew for certain about the man could fit on one double sided A4 page.
On the other hand, I had no idea what the incident was about, but was very worried that it had to do with me. Could this be the end of my time here? Was Ranger about to fire me?
The air around me thickened, making it harder to breathe and I found myself hyperventilating. Panic wrapped it's vice like grip around my chest while, at the same time, my heart pounded out of control, threatening to burst through my ribcage at any moment. Black dots began appearing in my field of vision as my oxygen levels dropped. I was getting dizzy.
Breathe, Kit-Steph-person, breathe.
The last thing I wanted to do was pass out in front of Ranger. I'd been known to spill some pretty private information in the moments before I fully regained consciousness. In my current predicament, spilling information – especially to Ranger – would just make the situation that much more complicated. Being confronted by Ranger as a stranger was hard enough without the added pressure that would come from him wanting answers about things I'd inadvertently mentioned.
Brushing off the Merry Men's questions was one thing. Ranger was entirely different.
A gasp was stolen from my throat as a warm hand touched the back of my neck, applying gentle force. I resisted at first, until Ranger's soothing voice washed over me. "Head down, Kit. Slow, deep breaths. You need to calm down." I allowed him to push my head down between my knees as he continued to murmur comforting words.
The position was familiar. He'd forced me into it a few times in the past. His hand on my neck and the steady stream of Spanish I couldn't understand had always been quick to bring my heart and breathing rates back into a normal range. Except now I could understand the Spanish, and I knew instinctively that what he was saying now, to Kit, was not what he would have said to Steph-me before Mexico.
For some unknown reason, that realisation is what finally calmed me down. If Ranger could treat a virtual stranger almost the same as he'd treated his lover in the past, then chances were he wasn't going to fire me today for an incident between two of his men that I knew nothing about. Right?
"Sorry," I apologised, raising my head and sitting up. "This is so embarrassing," I added under my breath.
"What's embarrassing?" Ranger asked, sounding curious as he came around in front of me to lean against the edge of his desk.
"Uh, practically breaking down in front of my boss?" I said, though it was more of a question. MY original statement of embarrassment was me searching for something Kit-like to say. In all honesty, Ranger had seen me break down so many times that it felt almost natural to do so in front of him. Like I was safe to let my emotions get the best of me in his presence even after all these years.
"How is that embarrassing?" he questioned, staring at me inquisitively. "You're only human. Overwhelming emotions are part of the territory."
I blinked twice, stunned by this caring, understanding side of Ranger. "You don't think I'm just a weak girl?" I asked, brow furrowing in genuine confusion.
He shook his head solemnly, apparently having expended enough words for the time being.
"But why? I've been watching your men for weeks. It's like they live in this neutral gear all the time, only occasionally shifting out of it to crack a joke of a smile." I took a breath, reminding myself not to get too worked up. "I've been trying to be emotionless like them, but I just can't do it." The statement was half true. While I hadn't so much been trying to be emotionless, I had been attempting to fly under the radar. The more I kept to myself between meetings, the less the line between Kit and Steph blurred. I'd had to physically remove myself from the break room a few times when I'd overheard guys discussing a case and how they couldn't figure out how everything was connected, or how their first take down attempt had been a flop. Steph had wanted to offer her – albeit rusty – assistance in reviewing details just like old times, but Kit just didn't have the knowledge or background to be able to make such an offer without raising suspicion from those men who were not yet aware of my true identity.
"I don't need a female version of the men I already have," Ranger informed me. "I hired you for your compassion, not your ability to bottle everything up inside." He crossed his arms loosely over his chest, regarding me with an unreadable expression. There was a time when my men woul laugh and joke around the office. They all worked together so effortlessly."
"What happened?" I found myself asking, though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer.
With a barely perceptible shrug, he gazed directly into my falsely grey eyes and said quietly, "We lost our heart."
"Your what?" I asked, fingers gripping the edge of the chair as my breathing sped up again. This man was going to cause me to have a stroke before he ever got to explaining about whatever the incident last night was about and how it pertained to me.
"Our heart," he repeated. "Our cause. The soul of the company."