Following Ranger and Tank into
the other room, I discovered that the dining room table had been converted to a
poker table, and all the main guys were gathered around it with drink and
snacks chatting animatedly. Such a stark difference to the sedate
communications I usually witnessed at work.
Lester was the first to look up. “Kitten!” he exclaimed. “Come sit by me. I save you a spot.”
I waited for Ranger to take his seat in one of the four empty chairs left – hoping and praying that he would not choose the one directly next to the seat Lester had indicated – before moving to take my allocated position. Tank immediately sat down on my other side and I surveyed the men at the table. Lester, Cal, Bobby, Hector, Hank, Tank and Ranger were all seated, but there was on chair left empty. I was just figuring out who it belonged to when Hal entered the room.
“Hey, where do you keep your bottle opener?” he asked.
“Gotten so soft you need a bottle opener?” Cal teased, grinning over the rim of his scotch glass.
“Isn’t there one on your multi tool key ring?” Hank added with a snicker.
I had no idea what was so funny about that, but since no one was offering helpful advice, I found myself speaking up. “It’s in the third drawer down beside the sink,” I informed him over the manly chuckles filling the room, and it was only when my words were met with dead silence that I realised what I’d done. Glancing quickly around at the wide eyes expression – and Ranger’s still blank one – I averted my gaze to the table top. Maybe if I willed it hard enough I would just disappear. Vanish right before their shocked faces. This is not how I pictured it coming out, I thought.
“Not how you pictured what coming out?” Ranger asked, no hint of emotion of any kind in his voice, just idle curiosity.
I snapped my head up to stare at him. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “Uh...” I uhhed. “I’m...”
Before I got any further, Tank grabbed my hand, which was resting on the table in full view of everyone at the table. This action did two things simultaneous. First, it silenced my attempts at explaining myself. And second, it redirected everyone’s attention. Tank opened his mouth to say something, but never got the chance.
“You’re kidding me!” Hank exclaimed.
“You guys are dating?” Bobby questioned, sounding incredulous.
I glanced to Tank again, who seemed to be giving me a just go with it look. Who was I to disobey direct, yet silent, orders?
“Dude!” Lester shouted suddenly, startling me. “I called dibs! Everyone heard me call dibs!”
“Was this before or after you decided to hate on me?” I asked him, at once amused and curious. Calling dibs on a woman was a very Lester thing to do, so it made perfect sense that he would do such a thing, but I wondered if, when he first spied me on the monitors the day of my interview, he had, indeed announced his intentions, until he realised that I was the female candidate for the community outreach job. If his story was correct, he’d done a similar thing after working just one job with the real me, that time being shut down by his own cousin.
“Before,” he admitted, looking just a smidge sheepish. “And then again after.”
“How long have you been together?” Ranger asked. Was that suspicion in his tone?
If this was how the guys wanted to play, I guess I’d have to play along. I didn’t even miss a beat to reply, confidently, “Six weeks.”
Unfortunately, Tank was just as quick with his own reply, and our answers didn’t match. “Six months.”
We stared at each other for a moment and I almost felt like we were maybe achieving that silent communication thing all the guys could do.
“Our late night conversations on Skype before we officially met don’t count,” I informed him.
“They may not count to you,” he replied quietly,” But they do to me.”
“Oh snap!” Lester said, just before a loud crash in the hall had us all on our feet looking for the threat.
Cal poked his head out into the hall for a second before disappearing hastily from sight. In the hush that followed we heard a car starting up and then Cal returned with a furrowed brow. “Hal’s gone,” he announced. “and he owes you a new end table,” he added to Tank.
And oddly, that was all that was said before everyone sat back down and Tank started explaining the house rules and dealing. If this had been a group of women, we never would have gotten down to starting the game. We’d have been side tracked completely by gossiping about what had just happened and trying to work out why. I guess that was what made these men so efficient, they were able to put problems like that aside and focus on the task at hand, even if the task at hand was gambling on cards.
The game seemed to go on forever compared to the last time I’d played. But them, I’d been in college and we were betting with quickly dwindling candy. Eventually, Bobby announced that his wife had given him an oh-one-hundred curfew and Cal, Hector and Hank agreed that it was time for them to get back to Rangeman, since they had early shives in the morning. That left Lester, Tank, Ranger and I sitting around the table, speculating over if it was worth playing another hand.
“I should probably go too,” Lester said with a wide yawn.
I glanced to Ranger for a millisecond, wondering if he would come to the same conclusion and save me the trouble of pretending to live elsewhere. No such luck. He was pouring himself another drink.
“I’ll walk out with you,” I said, standing from the table.
“You’re leaving?” Tank asked, continuing to play the boyfriend act he’d had going on all night.
“It’s late and I have work tomorrow,” I told him pointedly as he dragged me to him with a hand wrapped around my hips. “And so do you, so don’t stay up too late.” What I really meant, was try to get rid of Ranger quickly so I can come home and go to bed.
“Alright, Babe,” he granted, sending a jolt through my stomach. No one but Ranger had ever called me Babe. I took yet another glance at Ranger to see if he’d noticed, but barely had time to lock eyes on his still blank face before Tank had pulled me into his lap and planted his lips on mine.
My first instinct was to pull away – and maybe slap him in the face – but with one of his hands on my hip and the other on my shoulder, escape attempts were futile. The vague thought that I should perhaps be taught how to get out of this kind of hold before the more complex and life threatening ones Lester and Tank had been working on with me crossed my mind, but as Tank’s thumbs began rubbing soothing circles, I relaced into the moment, reminding myself that it was just for show. It didn’t mean anything.
I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling myself closer. Tank swiped his tongue slowly over the seam of my lips, seeking permission. Just for show, I reminded myself, opening my mouth for him to plunge his tongue inside. That butterflies that had been in my stomach all night began dancing for a whole new reason as heat pooled in my lower belly. A moan crept up my throat, bursting forth without consent.
I was just starting to get lost in the sensations he was stirring inside me when I suddenly recalled who I was kissing and that it was purely for appearances. Tank didn’t seem to be letting up, though. He just kept going. Stoking fires that had been dead for a long time. Maybe he was waiting for me to end it. I tried to ask him telepathically, but since my brain had essentially turned to mush several moments ago, I’m pretty sure my attempts were ineffective. And asking him aloud was completely out of the question, what with the mouthful of tongue I currently had.
This was turning into a really long kiss, but I couldn’t just abruptly pull back, or Ranger would know.
Oh God. Delving my own tongue out in mindless curiosity, despite the direction of my thoughts, I realised that Ranger was probably watching the entire show. I started withdraw slowly, the full on pash devolving into short kisses and light nibbles until, finally, I was staring into eyes as dark as the skin surrounding them and panting heavily.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Tank informed me in a husky voice I’d never heard from him before. He was clearly fighting a grin. “Sweet dreams.”
“Always,” I managed to reply, but now that the kiss had ended and the brain fog was receding, there were a large number of concerns cropping up in my mind. What was Tank thinking? Was it as awkward for him as it was for me? Would we get shipped off to parts unknown when Ranger did eventually realised that his best friend was actually kissing his ex girlfriend? Would Ranger even care? Did he still have feelings for me after all these years? And on and on it went. Circling through like a movie reel.
Tank helped me to my feet and waited to make sure my legs would support me before letting go. I brushed my hand over the top of his bald head as I passed behind him, heading for the door, and hoped that the gesture came across as affectionate. I didn’t dare so much as peek at either Ranger or Lester, or I would lose it for sure. There was only so much a girl can handle in one night, and I think I may have reached my limit.
Lester trailed behind me as I retrieved my purse and continued out into the hall. “Hot damn, Kitten,” he uttered in a voice loud enough for the pair in the dining room to hear. “That was hot. I never thought I’d be into watching, but holy hell... that’s probably where I’m headed with all the thoughts that are prancing around in my head right now.”
“Keep it in your pants, Lester,” I quipped, trying to sound nonchalant, while in reality, I’d just made out with the best friend of the man I’d fallen in love with more than eight years ago while said man and his second cousin, who has also professed intense love-type feelings toward me, watched on. The only person in the room who hadn’t told me he loved me was the one I had locked lips with. Lester thought he was going to hell? Well, I’d be meeting him there! I’d thought the situation with Ranger and Morelli before Mexico was bad, but this? This was much, much, much worse. I needed to go to confession. I needed to fix this bizarre life I was stuck in. I wonder if self flagellation would help at all...
“Have a nice night,” Lester said merrily as we reached my rental. “Try not to go crazy.”
“I’d like to see you walk a mile in my shoes and not come away a little insane,” I retorted, sliding behind the wheel. “And on top of everything else that has happened tonight, I now need to go somewhere until Tank gives me the all clear.”
“Can I suggest not a bar?” Lester offered, leaning on the top of the car to peer in at me. “I mean, I’m not judging you or anything, but after what happened six years ago, and given the fact that we’re still trying to fix that up, I don’t think you need any more drunken amnesia to add to the mix.”
“Says the man who thought it would be a good idea to start the night off with shots.”
“Anyway,” he continued, pretending to not hear me. “It’ll give you time to clear your head before you face the man that just kissed your brains out. That’s a good thing. We don’t want you getting your base instincts confused with mushy-gooey feelings so that you end up with the completely wrong man.”
“At this point I think I should just swear off men entirely,” I told him, lowering my forehead to the steering wheel. “I’m not doing anyone any favours.”
“How well did swearing off men work out last time?”
“It’ll all sort itself out,” he said reassuringly, though I’m sure there was a hint of laughter in his voice as he closed the door for me.
I waved lethargically to him as he backed away to his own vehicle, then pulled away from the curb for some more aimless driving until Tank let me know that the coast was clear.
Half an hour later, I found myself in the Burg. The one area of Trenton I had avoided like the plague in the four weeks since I’d arrived back in town. Being that I had finally crossed that invisible barrier, I was compelled – practically dragged – to the street my parents lived in. Perhaps it was my phantom umbilical cord pulling me home.
I parked two houses down and turned off the engine and lights, settling back in my seat as I thought about how my mother would have reacted to the antics I’d gotten up to tonight. Not well, I was sure. Mom had had enough trouble handling the fact that I’d been pinballing between Morelli and Ranger for years. And she could barely contain her disappointment when she realised that I really was broken up with Morelli for good. She didn’t approve of my choice of man, just like she didn’t approve of my choice of job, or car, or apartment, or friends. She’d been very vocal about her disapproval, and I’d continued leading my life the way I wanted, not caring if it stressed her into ironing, or drinking.
But then I’d had the miscarriage and all the epiphanies that came along with it. I settled down some; started spending more time with my mother and sister. I even looked after my nieces on my own a few times, and dragged Ranger along to family dinners. Her protests grew quieter. Until one day, I realised that they’d completely stopped. That’s when I decided to trust her. I went to her with my latest dilemma. I didn’t give her any details, just told her that I was stuck in an unbearable situation and needed her help to get out of it. I let her know my plans to leave town and my need to not leave a trace. She’d been concerned that I was running from the commitment of a relationship yet again, but when I’d explained that it had nothing to do with commitment – at least, I’d been convinced at the time that it had nothing to do with commitment – she eventually agreed to help. But we both knew there was one more person required to get the job done neatly.