Always the Last to Know

Chapter 43

The ride to Tank’s house with Hal was silent and awkward in ways that I never thought would have been possible with Hal. We hadn’t seen eye to eye when we first met, him being new to Rangeman and me being determined to lose my appointed babysitters at all costs, but as time went by we got to know each other a little better and had finally come to the conclusion that our constant struggles were fruitless. He’d explained to me one day, after thwarting one of my many attempts to ditch him, that every time I got away from him, he was not only teased by the other guys, but punished by Ranger. He never went into details of what the punishment was, but the mere mention of such an occurrence was enough for me to be willing to work out a way around that. I’d opened a dialogue about how I needed to be able to do what I needed to do without someone telling me it was too dangerous. He’d countered by saying that I needed to not ditch him at the first possible moment. Eventually, I’d agreed to include him in my plans if he agreed to not stop me. Surprisingly, once I’d let him in, we became fast friends and he even started suggesting ways to make my plans better. Ranger wasn’t entirely happy with our new truce, but knowing where I was at all times was better than panicking every time I gave Hal the slip.

Now, in the confined space of the SUV, I wondered if I could ever get that easy working relationship back. He seemed to clench his fists and grind his teeth whenever he caught sight of me in the office, and the white knuckled grip he had on the steering wheel right now did nothing to ease my mind about how he felt about me.

I spent the first few minutes of the car ride staring at Hal, trying desperately to think of something to say to ease the situation, but every time I opened my mouth, my thoughts slipped back to that moment in Hector’s lair when I realised exactly what I’d done. I hated myself for being so weak, for allowing my insecurities to stand in the way of what could have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t see how telling Hal any of that was going to help whatever bad feelings he was harbouring toward me at the moment, so I snapped my mouth shut, eventually turning away from him to stare out the window at the familiar sight of the town I grew up in. I could feel his eyes on me, though, glancing across the space at me frequently, like he thought I might throw the door open and barrel roll from the car at any moment. The only show of good faith was that he didn’t hit the child safety lock.

Finally, he pulled into the driveway and I hopped out, immediately heading for the front door, seeking the refuge of the solitude that lay on the other side of the door. As I bounded up the steps, though, I realised I’d left at my handbag in the bottom file drawer in my cubicle. And guess where my keys were. I turned, intending to head back to the SUV still waiting and request Hal drive me back so I could retrieve it – and maybe confront Ranger at the same time, but I wasn’t gonna mention that, since the guys seemed hell bent on keeping us apart at the moment – and collided with a broad, muscled chest.

Hal had followed me up the path. I’d have asked him why, but as I straightened from our collision, he held out a very familiar object – my purse. There was no point in asking how he’d gotten into the file drawer without the key; I’d seen the men pick locks more times than I can count. And even if they couldn’t pick the lock, I’m sure they’d have been able to exert enough force to prise the drawer open.

I accepted the bag without question and dig out my keys, turning my back on the man who’s barely contained anger seemed to be washing over me. I pushed through the door and was about to close it behind me, hopefully cutting off the threads of tension beginning to grip me. When I glanced up, though, I found Hal standing there, poised to step over the threshold behind me.

“What are you -,” I started to question, but fell silent when he simply grumbled and brushed me out of the way to enter. “Uh... Hal?” I called after him, quickly closing and locking the door before trailing after him down the hall to the kitchen.

By the time I caught up to him, he was pulling things out of the pantry and fridge and placing them none too gently on the counter. And here I thought he was going to sweep the house to make sure it was safe; it wouldn’t do to have me kidnapped or killed just weeks after I’d returned, after all. Turns out he just needed a sandwich... except you don’t need flour for a sandwich... unless you plan on baking the bread yourself.

“What are you doing?” I managed to get out, completely perplexed.

He threw a look over his shoulder at me, and all I could see was how drawn his features were. What I wouldn’t give to know what I’d done to cause that look. It seemed almost unnatural compared to the jovial man who’d introduced me to his kids a week ago. I was sure that his new attitude was a direct result of his wife revealing that I was me, but I never in a million years would have suspected it would have this kind of effect on him.

“Lester told me to get you to bake cookies and talk,” he said shortly, his face hiding in the pantry once more. “Obviously some kind of joke...” His muttered works floated to my ears. “Can’t even toast a sandwich without blowing up her apartment.”

I wanted to argue his assessment of my skills, but that wouldn’t help matters either. Besides, six years ago it was true. And a very big part of my problems, when it all boils down. If I had been able to cook anything at all with even an ounce of success, Ranger wouldn’t have insisted on cooking dinner for me as often as he had, adding to my leech like feelings. I wouldn’t have gotten confused and frustrated by his actions that night. Wouldn’t have gotten drunk. Morelli wouldn’t have come found me. I wouldn’t have been left with that suggestive text. Wouldn’t have had that very insistent bubble of doubt when I found out about the baby that never was... wouldn’t have run away...

I have my head a violent shake to clear it, tuning back in to Hal’s doubtful mutterings.

Actions speak louder than words.

The old saying ran through my head even as I grabbed the mixing bowl from under the bench and started measuring ingredients into it. I didn’t spare Hal a second glance – or thought – until everything was in the bowl and I’d grabbed the wooden spoon from the drawer. He stood on the other side of the island, watching my movements very carefully, probably making sure I didn’t stuff anything up. Not that he needed to worry, I’d made these cookies that many times I could probably do them in my sleep if I had an intense craving for them.

“Can you preheat the oven for me?” I asked, beginning to mix the ingredients until they form a squishy dough. He did so wordlessly, even locating a backing tray and grease proof paper to line it before returning to the island bench and setting it down beside my work space. By that time, I’d already gotten the dough ready and was ready to start rolling it into balls. Hal continued to hold his tongue as he watched my actions for a moment before delving his hands into the bowl and helping to get all the mixture divided and on the tray. It was only when the tray is in the oven that he decided to break his silence.

“I’m sorry,” he said very quietly as I stepped away from the oven.

“For what?” My tone wasn’t demanding, like I expected him to be specific about his apology. I just was honestly unsure of what he was sorry for. The way he’d been acting? The accusations he’d made about my cooking abilities? The latter I could understand, but without details as to why he would be acting out, I had no way of knowing if he should actually be apologising to me.

“I’m sorry you came back,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest and staring down at the grey linoleum of the kitchen floor.

“What?” Disbelief riddled my choked tone and I felt as if all the air had been knocked from my lungs. I had to reach out behind me and latch onto the edge of the counter top to keep upright as my knees weakened. I’d made a lot of assumptions about what was causing the attitude he had toward me, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that he didn’t want me here. As I stared at the top of his head, aghast, I began to think back over all the horrible things I’d caused to happen to him. It made sense. If I was back in the picture the chances of him getting hurt literally tripled, despite the fact that we came to our truce agreement long ago. The image of his two little boys, smiling wide as they hugged their Daddy goodbye last weekend flashed through my mind. A sudden hit of clarity. It wasn’t just him, anymore. He had a family. He’d altered his position description to ensure he was around to watch his children grow up, but my very presence jeopardised his safety. The safety of his sons.

“No, Steph. It’s not like that.”

Confused by his suddenly anxious tone, I raised my head only to realise that I’d slid down the cupboards at some point and was sat on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees. Hal was knelt down on one knee in from of me, worry creasing his brow.

“Not like what?” I manage to get out, sniffing up the snot that threatened to drip from my nose.

“I’m not... I didn’t...” He sighed. “I- I’m glad you’re back, I just...” A shrug lifts his shoulders. “I see the way you’ve been treated and I hear your stories about Mexico and watch the joy light your face as speak of how much you adored each and every person your managed to help, and I can’t help but think you would have been better off staying there.”

“Stay?” I questioned, confused. “In Mexico? Volunteering for the rest of my life?” Another shrug was all the answer I received. “It’s not the kind of life you can keep up indefinitely,” I said. “I was bound to move on eventually.”

“Were you ready to move on though?” he asks. The tone of his voice made me feel like he already knew the answer, had deduced it through my actions since stepping into the building that first day.

Rendered speechless by this man’s obvious concern for the situation, I merely shook my head, staring straight into his muddy brown eyes. “But I had to,” I whispered. “Avoiding my life was doing me no good.”

“Avoiding your life?” Hal asked. “You weren’t avoiding your life, you were forging a new path, taking your life in a different, better direction.”

Again, I shook my head. He opened his mouth to argue with me, but I held up my hand. “I need to tell you everything,” I said. And I did. Sat on the floor of Tank’s kitchen, I spilled my guts for the third time in a week. I told him everything, right down to my parents helping me leave. As I came to the end of my story, I felt somewhat lighter than I had in all the five weeks I’d been here. There was still weight on my mind, my shoulders, my heart, but the relief of getting the full story off my chest was remarkable.

“You’ve kept all this inside for six years?” he finally asked, quietly.

“I told one of my friends at the volunteer camp about it once,” I admitted, my head still on his shoulder where I’d dropped it when he wrapped his arms around me after I explained about the miscarriage. “But I never really wanted to talk about it. It made me feel weak.”

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling weak,” Hal said, pulling away to look at my face. His brows were drawn together. “That just means that you have a reason to get stronger. To get past it.”

“I wasn’t though,” I told him earnestly, wrapping my arms around my middle the same way I would in the early days when I was alone. “I never dealt with any of the things that happened. I just ran from them. It’s a miracle I’ve managed to continue functioning this long.”

“But you did,” he points out. “That sort of thing may not seem like much, but it shows how strong you truly are. How strong We’ve always known you were.”

I didn’t reply to that. Had no idea what I could possibly say in the face of such a supportive statement from the man who’d seemed so angered by my presence the last few days.

“Why did you beat up Lester?” I suddenly asked, remembering the beginning of his violence.

“Because he’d been brow beating you,” Hal said simply. “He was harassing you.”

“But we talked on Sunday and cleared the air, now he’s one of my biggest supporters.”

“I didn’t know that,” he said sheepishly, brushing some lint from his knee. “Not until after.”

“But you were still angry at him? Or me?”

He shook his head. “I wasn’t handling it very well,” he admitted. “I was hurt that you hadn’t told me directly. And, like I said, I thought you were better off away from here where you weren’t in danger. I owe my life to you. If it weren’t for your quick thinking that night I could have died. I never would have met Eloise. And I wouldn’t have her as my wife, or Richie and Julian as my sons. Don’t you see? It was because you left that I finally got together with her. I hadn’t been to the clinic in months because with you out of the picture I managed to avoid most stupid injuries –.”

“Sorry about that,” I mumbled, but he waved it away.

“We met by chance one day and mentioned missing me. We went on a date. And it just exploded from there. All the happiness I could have asked for, and it was all thanks to you.”

“Oh,” I uttered.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “So when I heard that you hadn’t run into any trouble whatsoever in Mexico, I kinda went off the deep end. I know I took out a lot of it on you, but I should have directed it at Tank more. He’s the one that brought you back, afterall.”

“Don’t be angry at Tank,” I said, wearily. “He thought he was doing the right thing. And I could have put my foot down and said no at any point in the program, but I didn’t.”

“True,” he agreed. “Can we be friend again?”

“Of course!” I exclaimed, throwing my arms around him happily. “I’d love that!”

He let me hug him for a minute or so before pulling back and staring solemnly into my eyes. “Can I have a cookie now?” he asked.

I laughed, having forgotten about the baked goods the moment Hal sat back down after retrieving them from the oven and placing them on a cooling rack earlier. “Yes,” I said. “You can have a cookie.”

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