“Tank! Stop!” I gasped out,
writhing around on the Mats in an attempt to escape his grasp. He’d warned me
that the session was likely to be somewhat unpleasant for me, but I’d just
assumed he meant I may accidentally get hurt because of how big he is compared
to me. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined self defence training with
Tank to be anything like this. His fingertips delved into my ribs once again,
propelling me into a renewed bout of giggles. “I can’t – breathe!” I
Tanks didn’t seem to care all that much about my breathing habits as he swung one knee over my thighs so that he was straddling my prone form. “You’re not even trying to get away,” he informed me, a serious expression on his face. “What if I was holding a knife?”
I managed to roll my eyes at him before he wiggled his fingers once more, sending me into fits of laughter. “I think – an assailant 0 would have lead – with the knife,” I panted, gripping one of his hands with both of my own to try and prise it away from my body. He was too strong though. The moment I lifted it even a quarter inch, his other hand would make a jab, causing me to lose leverage.
“This isn’t fair!” I wailed between guffaws.
“No one ever said life was fair,” he countered. And the next thing I knew he’d whipped a knife out of thin air and was slicing it through the air toward my abdomen. Time seemed to slow as the blade caught the light and flashed in my eye. Suddenly, I was under serious threat. The unfortunate truth of the matter, though, was that while his tickling had had me trying to get away, the presence of a real weapon had flash-frozen me. It was like I’d been dipped in dry ice. If I moved, I’d shatter. The moment and that knife would plunge into my stomach. Surely Tank wouldn’t allow it to go that far.
I didn’t have time to contemplate my fate any further, as in the next second, Tank’s weight was lifted abruptly from my body in a blur of motion. I lay very still, waiting for the effects of my fear-stupor to wear off as I listened to the scuffle nearby. Heavy breathing. Flesh meeting hardened flesh. The clatter of something skittering across the floor as it was flung away from the matted area. When it finally died down, I pushed myself up onto my elbows, trying to work out what had just happened.
Tank lay flat on his back six feet away with a stunned expression on his face as he looked up at my saviour. Hal’s shoulders heaved up and down, his fists clenched as he stared down at his superior officer. I couldn’t see his face from my position on the floor behind him, but I didn’t really need too. Anger was rolling off him in waves. If I wasn’t careful, I’d drown in it.
“what the hell were you thinking? Hal demanded in a voice I’d never thought could have come from his mouth. It was harsh! “You don’t spring weapons on an opponent in the ring. Especially not a newbie!”
“Relax,” Tank said, rubbing his stomach lightly as he sat up. “It’s a fake. I’d never hurt Kit.”
“A fake?” Hal asked, echoing my thoughts in a much milder tone.
“Retractable rubber blade,” Tank said, making no move to either stand up or retrieve the fake knife, probably wary of Hal’s current state. No one liked being beaten, especially not twice in the space of five minutes. By a man we all thought was opposed to violence.
While the men engaged in a stare down, I hefted myself onto my hands and knees and, as silently as possible, crawled to the knife to inspect it. In the brief moment between it’s appearance in my line of vision and Tank being thrown off me, I’d been convinced it was real. Sure enough, though, when I reached it on the hard floor of the gym, it was moderately flexible, entirely blunt, and when pushed, would disappear back into the handle.
“That’s a dirty trick,” I announced, stabbing the blade into the centre of my palm with fascination. “Do you realise how scared I was?”
Tank and Hal were both staring at me now, their expressions worlds apart. Hal looked like he was trying to contain an internal battle between his anger, concern and something else I couldn’t quite place. His eyes were flashing all sorts of emotions like he was arguing with himself – and losing. Tank, on the other hand, had his eyebrows drawn and his mouth skewed to the side, like he was calculating a complex math problem in his head.
It was Tank who finally spoke. “I was testing your instincts,” he said softly. “They’re not what they should be.”
“Sorry for being out of practice with being held at knife point,” I said, slathering on the sarcasm. “It hasn’t happened in at least six years.”
“You weren’t ever threatened in Mexico?” Hal asked, his expression war having calmed all the way down to his blank stare. Not necessarily a good sign, all things considered.
“Not directly,” I shrugged, climbing to my feet. My intention had been to cross the small distance between us and offer to explain myself after work, but by the time I was upright Hal was already half way across the gym on his way to the door. I enchanged a look with Tank. “Was it something I said?”
“Must be?” he agreed, holding his hand out for assistance getting up. Not sure how he thought that was going to work out, he was at least twice as heavy as I was. “You’ve got to learn how to use what you’ve got to your advantage.”
I gave him an incredulous look. “You mean my feminine wiles?” Surely he knew I had no problem seducing men for the right cause. How many distractions jobs had we worked over the years?
“No,” he said, dropping his hand. “I mean, just because you’re small and not strong physically, doesn’t mean you can’t throw what little weight you do have around.”
“Is that your way of saying shake what your mama gave ya?”
Tank rolled his eyes. “Stop making jokes. Self defence is serious.”
“Says the man who was attempting to tickle me to death.”
Rather than comment further he merely stuck his hand out again. I took it and allowed him to coach me through using what little body weight I possessed to lever him off the floor. After that, rather than resume escape tactics, he began teaching me the proper way to throw a punch and the mest way you use my size to my advantage.
By the time I made it to my gun range session that afternoon at four o’clock, I was so rattled by Hal’s behaviour on top of everything else, that any progress we’d made over the last few weeks went completely out the window. It was like I was shooting blind, only occasionally hitting the paper target. Needless to say, my reckless shooting did not go unnoticed by my tutor, who forcibly removed the gun from my hand and shoved me into one of the seats lining the back wall where I’d dumped my coat and handbag on arrival.
“What’s going on with you?” Cal demanded, taking the seat beside me and turning so that we were facing each other.
“I have a lot on my mind,” I shrugged, fiddling with my ear guards in my lap and avoiding eye contact.
After a short pause that I’m pretty sure was Cal waiting for me to explain further, he asked, “How is today any different to every other day since you arrived?”
I sighed when I caught a glimpse of worried expression out of the corner of my eye. Was he afraid that I’d make another run for it? I felt certain that if I attempted such a thing now I wouldn’t make it any further than the on-ramp to the highway. They were probably monitoring my every move to make sure I didn’t disappear again. Not that I could ever achieve such a clean break again. Not without the help I’d received the first time. I bit down on those memories though, refusing to upset myself any more at the moment and risk crying and freaking Cal out even more.
“I got called into Ranger’s office this morning,” I informed him, despite the fact that I was sure he already knew. The nod I received confirmed that fact. Probably, he and the rest of the guys that knew what the hap was had been watching and listening on a live feed in Tank’s office.
“How’d it go?” he prompted, curiosity clear in his tone. Of course, he may have seen what went on, but he didn’t know my thoughts on the matter.
I rolled my eyes at him. “Oh, swimmingly,” I assured him sarcastically, putting on a fake British accent. “We had tea and he invited me to his manor for luncheon on Sunday.” Letting my expression fall, then, I deadpanned, “How do you think it went?”
“He didn’t recognise you?”
“Didn’t appear to,” I agreed.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem is a lot of things,” I assured him. “Not just Ranger’s inability to truly look at me despite all the staring he did during our meeting.”
“Tell Uncle Cal all about it.”
“I think of you more like a big brother than and uncle,” I informed him. I thought of all the guys here like big brothers. They were certainly protective enough to be the brothers I never had.
Cal grinned, and I thought I’d made him happy by saying that I thought of him as part of my – very extensive – family, but his next words proved that he was more amused than touched by my generosity. “You’re older than me.”
“Shut up!” I exclaimed. No way was he younger than me. I assumed most of the guys were older. They all seemed to have such control over their lives that I felt came from extra years or months. Apparently it came from being awesome instead.
“It’s true,” he assured me. “I’m a year younger than you.”
“Now you’re just being mean.”
“You’re avoiding the subject,” Cal countered.
I nodded. “Yes, I am.”
I blew out a breath, wanting to simply keep it to myself rather than share everything that’s wrong in my life – which was a lot – but I knew that if I did that it would just make the Merry Men watch my every move closer. I had to let them in on my thoughts of they would never trust me not to run away again. And it was all my fault. If I hadn’t drunk so much that night I’d be able to recall if I did or did not sleep with Joe and there wouldn’t be all this tension now. Perhaps if I could have been 100% sure that the baby I lost was Ranger’s I might have told him about it. There was no doubt in my mind that he would have done everything in his power to help me get through it. Even if there was a smidgeon of doubt that it was his. And that was yet another thought that had driven me to do what I did. After everything I did, I didn’t deserve his unconditional love. I knew I would never be able to accept it.
Eventually, I asked Cal, “Does Hal hate me?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Every time I walked past him or looked at him today he was frowning or glaring at me,” I explained. “Lester was doing the same thing until I had a full-disclosure chat with him. Well, it was almost the same. Lester would actually confront me. Hal just clenches his fists and walks away.”
“So do the same with Hal,” Cal suggested nonchalantly, but I knew he was wondering why I was capable of full disclosure with the one member of staff who had appeared to hat me with a fiery passion deep within his soul, and not the men who had opened their arms to me in welcome the moment they recognised me.
“It’s not that simple,” I said, and it sounded lame even to my own ears.
“Nothing’s ever simply with you, is it?” he asked, attempting to lighten the mood.
“Doesn’t appear so,” I agreed. “I would love to tell all of you the whole tale, but there are some important details that haven’t made it onto the table for consideration yet. Lester’s looking into it and as soon as I find out I will probably tell you all.”
“Probably?” Trust a Merry Man to pick up on the one word that cast uncertainty on my entire statement.
“It’s still an upsetting event, even if the missing pieces do turn up in my favour,” I said. “It’s hard for me to even think about.”
“I’ll talk to Hal tonight and see what his deal is,” Cal promised. I nodded my appreciation and stood to leave, but he grabbed my hand. When I looked back down at him, he said, “Whatever you’re hiding isn’t as bad as you think. And nothing you can tell us will ever make us think any less of you.”
It used to take a lot to get me choked up, which is why I thought working with men was perfect. I was just like them. Didn’t want to talk about my feelings. Didn’t cry at the drop of a hat. These days, though, I had trouble making it though an entire day without bursting into tears and the men I’d thought too afraid to ask a girl her feelings were all at once demanding to know mine. The more I started to settled back in the more I realised that I don’t fit as well as I used to. Too much had changed for me to be able to simply slip back into my old life, and the men didn’t appear to want to let me simply slip back into old routines. Which is exactly why I hadn’t decided to come home sooner.