Always the Last to Know

Chapter 39

I must have fallen asleep at some point, because one minute I was watching my parents dark, sleeping house, and the next I was being woken by a car zooming loudly past. I jolted upright from where I’d been slumped, and spotted a looming figure out of the corner of my eye, half obscured by the way the street light was hitting him. Suddenly recalling all the safety talks Dad had given me, and all the heinous acts I’d read about that happen to woman out alone at night, I reached for the ignition, intending on making a quick getaway. I’d expected the figure to either let me go or make a beeline for my door. Instead, though, he jumped in front of the car.

My hand stilled as the light caught his face just right for me to identify him. “Pumpkin, wait!”

There was no mistaking who this man was. He was my first true love. The only man who’d never pushed me for anything. The man who’d picked me up every time I’d fallen, even as recently as six years ago.

“Daddy?” I breathed.

“Stephanie,” he replied, though I couldn’t hear him between the closed windows and my pulse beating in my ears.

Unable to believe my eyes, I slowly wound down my window and leaned out. “Uh, hi, Daddy,” I greeted, cringing at how squeaky I sounded, like a child who’s been caught in the act of something they weren’t supposed to be doing. Gee, that took me back. “What are you doing out on the street at this hour?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Dad mentioned, stepping off the road and back onto the curb. “And a lot of other questions.”

“I know,” I sighed, pushing open the door and stepping out. “I should have called to let you know I was coming back, but things got complicated.”

Dad gave me a look that I’m pretty sure was his equivalent of a raised eyebrow. “Why am I not surprised?” he said.

I gave a shrug coming to a standstill three feet away from my father, whom I hadn’t seen in six years. Suddenly, I felt very small and very ashamed of my actions since deciding to come back. “Well are you going to hug me or not?” Dad asked, opening his arms wide.

It took no more prompting than that. I practically leapt at the warm embrace of my father. In that moment, it was like all my fears and anxieties had been washed away. For a long time, I just stood there, letting the comfort of home fill me and loosen the muscles down my spine. I’d missed this; being able to just be. Four whole weeks of constantly being on guard, watching what I said and how I acted had built up a lot of unnecessary stress in my body. I felt like a guitar string that had been tuned way too high. Pluck me once and I’d snap.

This whole endeavour had been one complication on top of the next. Between not being able to be me, having to deceive the men I’d once called friends, Ranger not recognising me, Lester making his feelings known, whatever was going on with Hal, and now Tank’s kiss, I was ready to call it quits. But at the same time, I didn’t want to sink so low as to run away again.

“Tell me what’s troubling you,” Daddy requested, leaning back just enough to peer down at my face in the darkness. He startled me by reaching up and swiping his thumb across each of my cheeks, wiping away the moisture that had been gathering there unknown. “Why would you sit in the car rather than knock on the door?”

“It’s late,” I said lamely. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Well your proximity stirred your mother’s maternal instincts anyway,” he informed me. “She sleep-walked and was waiting at the door for you.”

“That’s why you’re up?”

“That’s why I’m up. So you see, it wouldn’t have mattered one bit if you were to knock on the door at any hour.” He pushed a wayward curl out of my face and smiled softly down at me. “Now tell me your problems.”

I sighed, stepping back out of his embrace and wrapping my arms around my abdomen. “It’s a long story,” I warned him.

“When have I ever not had time for you?” he countered. And he had a point. During my childhood, I’d always thought of him as absent, either not there at all because of work, or not present in mind and interest as he hid behind the TV or the newspaper. But looking back on it, he’d always put whatever he was doing aside for me if I needed him, all I had to do was ask. The problem was, though, Mom was always telling us not to disturb our father, so I’d learned to leave him alone. Our quality time together had dwindled faster than the average father-daughter relationship probably did. Deep in my heart, though, I knew that he would help as best as he could with any problem I had. Just look at all the times he’d picked me up when my car broke down, and ensured Uncle Sandor’s Buick was in working condition for the inevitable moment when I became carless once more. Not to mention the ultimate act of love in both allowing and helping me to run away from my past. I’m sure he would have preferred I stay and fight, but unlike my mother before I had my miscarriage and started spending more time with her in an effort to fill the void in my soul, he would never force his ideals on me. If I felt I needed to do something, he would enable me to do it, even if it rubbed him the wrong way.

“Tank found me in Mexico about seven months ago,” I began, letting out a deep breath and taking a few steps so I could sit on the hood of the car. Daddy joined me, leaning next to my knee with his arms crossed and the light spilling across his profile. “He was on a mission and happened to stumble across me in town. I agreed to meet him for lunch to catch up, thinking there wasn’t any harm in that.”

“But he convinced you to come back before you were ready?” Dad guessed.

I shook my head. “Not right away. I told him I needed to stay and follow through on the commitment I’d made to the kids and the village I was working with. So we exchanged contact and kept in touch.” Dad didn’t say anything, clearly waiting for me to go on, and I realised for the first time ever, that he was a lot like Ranger. He didn’t like to expend unnecessary words making small talk. He got straight to the point, and was more than comfortable waiting in silence until you caved and started talking. The overall feel of the situation wasn’t the same as when the same thing happened with Ranger, since this was my Dad, after all, but the mechanics were very similar. Probably something they learned in the military.

“A month ago, he finally convinced me that I needed to come home,” I continued.

“Why?” Daddy asked, breaking his silence. I got the feeling that this piece of information troubled him, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out if it was simply that I’d allowed someone to pressure me into something I wasn’t ready to do – again – or if it was something else.

“For his sake,” I explained. “He’d mentioned something about Rangeman giving back to the community to Ranger, who thought it was a great idea and put him in charge of it, but Tank found himself over his head. I gave him some tips, but he managed to persuade me to come back and fill the job placement they had going for community outreach consultant.”

I paused, and Daddy must have felt my hesitation, because he asked, “What was the catch?”

Slumping down to rest my elbow on my knee and my chin in my hand, I grumbled, “It’s my own fault.” Dad cast me a dubious look, which dragged a long, agonised sigh from within me. “I told him I didn’t want him to just give me a job. So he came up with a solution.” I paused again, giving myself a mental pep talk in order to continue. On the one hand, talking about it all again made me feel stupid and I didn’t want my father to view me the same way. But on the other, this was the man who’d comforted me when my mother was yelling at me for being stupid enough to jump off the roof in an attempt to fly. He’d been there for me through thick and thin. Dad didn’t judge. “He arranged for me to sit an interview under an assumed identity with a couple of guys I’d never met so that I would earn the spot fair and square.”

“But?”

“Ranger ended up taking the interview,” I said quietly. “And he didn’t recognise me in my disguise. But I got the job.”

I could have sworn he rolled his eyes as he shook his head slowly, but it could have been a trick of the light.

“Let me guess,” Dad said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’ve been pretending to be this assumed identity ever since.”

“Pretty much,” I agreed, hiding my face in my hands, waiting for his big piece of wisdom that would make me feel like an idiot. But instead, my phone started ringing in my pocket. I noted Tank’s number flashing on the screen as I pulled it out, and quickly mumbled an apology to my father before answering. “Is he gone?” I asked, sparing the hellos for once in my life.

“Just pulling away now,” he confirmed. “It’s safe to come back.”

“We have some things to discuss,” I warned him, feeling anger seep back down my spine as I recalled the reason I was out here in the middle of the night.

“I understand.” And he hung up.

Frustrated once more, I hopped off the bonnet and tossed my phone into the passenger seat with a grunt before turning back to my father. “Can part two wait til next time?” I asked wearily. “I’d love to tell you everything now, but I know I’m going to be exhausted for work tomorrow as it is.

“Call me anytime,” he assured me, giving me another quick hug. “Day or night. We can talk on the phone, or I can meet you somewhere.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” I whispered. “I owe you and Mom so much. Let her know I’m okay. Just that. I’m not ready to listen to her lectures yet.”

“All things in time,” he agreed.

I reached up on tip toes to kiss him on the cheek before sliding behind the wheel and driving away. The calm I’d found in my father’s presence slowly dissipating with every mile I travelled closer to the reason for all my troubles.

Tank was in the kitchen washing glasses when I stomped into the house. Geraldine wound through my legs with every step I took toward him and I couldn’t work out if it was because she was happy to see me or if she could sense the rage coursing through me toward her human. When I finally stood directly in front of him, my fists clenched like I was about to lash out at something or someone, she sat on my feet.

“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” I practically screamed up at the tower of a man.

“Keep it down, you’ll wake the neighbours,” Tank said quietly.

“Keep it down?” I repeated. “KEEP it DOWN? Do you REALISE how much more complicated you’ve just made my life???!!! And it wasn’t even like my life was simple to begin with! And you know what? Half the problems I have right now can be traced back to YOU!” I took a deep shuddering breath. “YOU convinced me to come back. YOU suggested this false identity. YOU encouraged me to go along with it when Ranger didn’t recognise me. And YOU kissed me in front of him to cement the lie that we’re DATING!”

“Yes, but I’m not the one that said we were dating,” he pointed out mildly, appearing unmoved by my tirade. There was a small quiver in the corner of his lip, though, that suggested he was either slightly fearful, or holding back a smile. “And there are a lot of factors that you left out of the equation. I can’t be held accountable for every single decision in this situation. You were the one who decided to run away, after all.”

I KNOW!” I yelled. “But I wasn’t ready to come back!”

Tank blinked at me three times in slow succession. “Then why did you?”

“I don’t know!” I moaned, shoulders falling and fists dropping loosely at my sides. “You said you needed my help...”

“So you came home just because I asked for your help?”

“No...”

“Then...”

“I don’t have precise answers, okay Tank?” I snapped. “If I was ready to come home I would have come home on my own, which I didn’t. I let you convince me now was a good time, but I don’t think it was.”

“How do you mean?” he asked, and I got the feeling he was trying to be helpful by making me think about it, but it had been a long, emotionally draining day, and my thoughts were all muddled in my head. Now that the adrenaline of yelling at Tank had begun to slow, I was finding it hard to think at all.

“I’m tired,” I announced. “I’m going to bed.”



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