I sat in the break room the
following Friday, sharing some stories of my experiences in Mexico with Zero,
Hank and Hal over salad sandwiches. The last week had been a surreal mix of
fitting in like the old days as word of my true identity spread through the
original Merry Men like wildfire, fending off probing, confused questions from
the newer men about my supposed relationship with Tank and how I could have
evoked such reactions from the other terse superiors, and being constantly
denied access to Ranger. It seemed like every time I got within ten feet of the
man something would come up and one of the other of us would be swiftly dragged
away to deal with whatever problem had arisen so suddenly.
There was no doubt in my mind that Tank was responsible for the intervention, since he was still so eager to extend the deception he’d started as long as possible. My question was, why? What was in it for Tank? Surely the pleasure of pulling the wool over his best friend’s eyes isn’t worth the turmoils it’s inflicting on my life and my state of mind. Of course, I hadn’t told Tank the whole story from the beginning, with Morelli and the miscarriage and all, but you’d think he’d be happy that I was finally ready to move on and pull on my big girl panties.
My annoyance at him had gotten so bad that, at home, I didn’t even bother staying in the same room as him long enough to exchange pleasantries. My Catholic guilt was flaring up, aggravated by the fact that I wasn’t showing how grateful I was that he’d opened his home to me, but I’d had a life time of practice squashing it down and compromising with it. Keeping up appearances that we were dating in the office was compromise enough for me, and the small part of myself that still identified as Catholic, despite not having been to church in about ten years, would have to put up with it.
I’d just taken a rather generous bite of my sandwich when Lester bounded into the room and leaped onto the empty table nearby, beckoning everyone’s attention his way with a grin and a wave. He was up to something, I could tell.
“You may not be aware,” he began the moment silence had spread through the room. “That today is a rather special day.”
A murmur ran through the crowd as the men consulted one another and calendar apps on their phones to figure out what Lester was on about. I didn’t bother. I wasn’t in the know enough to have the right kind of information. I just sat there, chewing my sandwich and listening to Hank and Hal argue over which of Lester’s made up holiday’s he’d declared today, waiting for Lester to bring the room back to order. It took longer than I would have thought.
Finally, Lester held up his hand for quiet again. “Every year we acknowledge this day as the day we lost our most valued member six years ago: Stephanie Plum. The woman he’d all allowed into our head and into our hearts disappeared without a trace in the short time it took to change surveillance shifts in her parking lot. To this day we do not know exactly how or why it happened, but Stephanie Plum was taken away from us without warning. Months of searching revealed no clue as to her whereabouts or what fate she may have met that night. She was never found and, as such, presumed dead. We honour her each year by sharing company and memories, the way we hope she would want us to.”
My heart thudded loudly in my chest, threatening to burst through at any moment. I glanced around through blurry, tear filled eyes to see if the men closest to me had noticed the change in my rhythm, given how loud it was. They were all nodding and murmuring sentiments, though, and took no notice of me. Tank hadn’t told me about this tradition. Hell, no one had told me about the tradition. I was vaguely aware of how close the anniversary of my leaving was, but I never thought it would affect the men like this. Working to steady my heart and my breathing so as not to give myself away to the men who had no idea I was the girl they missed so much, I focused on Lester as the room calmed again.
“However!” Lester continued, pausing in the relative silence to allow his gaze to flutter around the sombre faces in the room before snagging on me for a fraction of a second more. It wasn’t much by normal standards, but in Rangeman land that fraction of a second felt like a five minute stare down. My throat constricted, instinctively dreading whatever he had left to say. The first part had been hard enough to bear; anything else may well break me. “This year, for the first time, we have cause to celebrate.”
More murmurs throughout the room, quickly cut of my Lester raising both hands. I took the opportunity to avert my gaze to the table top between my hands.
“I know some of our more seasoned employees won’t be too happy with the overlap of these two events, but I’m sure Stephanie wouldn’t mind sharing it. After all, she’s the most selfless human being I’ve ever had the pleasure of becoming friends with.” Another pause, thus one felt like he was challenging the crowd to say anything against him. “So tonight, I’d like to invite you all to Shorty’s to celebrate Kit Danger’s birthday.”
My head snapped up at his words, lock my shocked, wide eyed gaze on his mischievous one. I tried to picture the basic personal information Tank and his sister had put together for me, but my memory was not detailed enough to focus on the date of birth they’d listed.
“You thought you’d be able to just slip under the radar?” Lester asked with a chuckle, deliberately misinterpreting my expression. “It’s not every day you turn the big four-oh. Let us celebrate with you.”
My jaw dropped and I felt a burning sensation behind my eyes like I usually got before I burst into tears. With my real birthday still months away, and all the twists and turns I’d had to deal with lately, I’d managed to drive the gut wrenching dread of turning forty entirely from my mind. Now though, it was all I could think about. Forty. God, I was old. I looked down at my clothes – standard Rangeman black cargoes and stretchy v-neck t-shirt – at least I hadn’t taken to wearing legging as regular pants and cutting coupons from the mail...
A strangled noise escaped my throat as I tried to avoid everyone’s stares by keeping my eyes on the sandwich I could no longer see myself finishing.
“Hey now,” Hank said, clapping me on the shoulder. “There’s no shame in being forty. I turned forty-one three months ago, and look at me. You think I care about my age? Hell, no. Age is just a number. Half the time I still feel like I’m twenty.”
“Me too!” Lester agrees, joining the conversation now that he’d made it back to solid ground. “Although that might be for a different reason... and I’m still only thirty-nine...”
“Why would you do this to me?” I seethed, grabbing the front of his shirt in a sudden rare show of aggression.
He grinned like he hadn’t a care in the world. “You need to get out and blow off some steam, Kitten,” he informed me, slowly peeling away my fingers. “Besides, it is Ms Danger’s birthday today.”
The last week had been the most hectic and frustrating of my life (and I’d survived basic training with Lester Santos getting our whole group into trouble every other day). Between ensuring that everything was prepared and running smoothly for the official opening of the community centre early next week, running interference for Steph and Ranger so they didn’t blow their first real conversation in six years by blurting potentially damaging truths in the middle of the communications floor, as well as the complicated freeze out Stephanie was treating me to, I was sure I would be medically unfit for duty by Saturday due to the mental trauma. I was beginning to understand why Morelli always had a bottle of Pepto close at hand. Dealing with Ranger and Steph with this kind of tension was almost debilitating.
And to make matters worse, we’d had to keep up appearances of our fake office romance, so that the newer men wouldn’t become suspicious.
I was just about ready to snap when she entered the control room after lunch and came straight over to where I sat covering the monitors for Bobby while he tended to a medical issue downstairs. She ghosted her hands over my shoulders before slipping them down my chest, leaning in so far that her breasts pressed into my back. I leaned my head back to her shoulder, turning ever so slightly so that my lips just grazed the outer shell of her ear as I spoke. “You’re driving me insane with your mood swings,” I whispered, letting my frustration tinge my tone.
“I thought I should let you know that Lester is throwing birthday drinks for me tonight,” she informed me straightening enough to lean her forearms on my shoulders.
“It’s not your birthday,” I said, confused, my gaze trained on the screens.
“Yes, it is,” she replied coolly, holding her phone in front of my face. It took me a moment to realise what it was – a screen shot of Kit Danger’s employee profile. It was, indeed, her birthday.
“Damn,” Aaron breathed beside us. “You forgot your woman’s birthday? Man, you’re in deep shit.”
I glared at the man, instantly shutting him up before returning my attention to Steph and the monitors. I opened my mouth to make some kind of apology or excuse – I hadn’t yet decided – when Steph stood abruptly, removing her hands from my body. “Shorty’s seven PM,” she said briskly, patting my shoulders. “You’re driving.”
The tension in Steph’s body racked up a notch the moment Ranger stepped through the door, and I can’t say I blamed her. The last six weeks had been a roller coaster ride for all of us. First, I had to make sure that the men didn’t kill her as they discovered who she was – a harder task than I had anticipated since a couple of them went completely off the deep end when they figured it out – and keeping up the double deception I’d been dumped into. Continually lying to Steph about how much Ranger knew has been almost as hard as assuring Ranger that Steph was actually making progress.
The first two weeks after the job interview were the hardest. Steph expected Ranger to call her out at any moment. She spent hours agonising over the why’s and how’s of not only her own decisions but everyone else’s as well. And on the other side of the fence, Ranger was demanding constant updates. I don’t know how long he’d known about Steph’s location before the perfect mission came up to officially ‘discover’ where she was, but the wait had made him impatient. At one point I’d stooped so low as to give a detailed description of what she’d been eating, just so I had information to give him. It seemed like anything I had to tell him was never enough. He was like an addict and I was his dealer. His drug of choice: Stephanie Plum.
I thought maybe spending an entire evening in her presence at the poker night would quench his thirst for her. Tie him over for a day or two. Maybe he could obsess over every second of the evening, rather than pestering me for what she was up to when half the time I had no clue. She’d been spending increasing amounts of time with Lester, keeping the details of what they were up to to herself. Even so, my plan probably would have worked, if it weren’t for my greatest blunder.
In an ill-fated attempt to continue the guise of Ranger being in the dark, I’d eluded to the fact that Steph and I – or rather, Kit and I – were dating. And then ended up making out with her in front of him at the end of the night. And called her Babe. In retrospect, considering my decisions that night, I was lucky to be alive and not in traction. The other guys knew it was just to see how Ranger would react, and one some level, deep, deep down I’m sure Ranger did too. The problem was, Ranger didn’t joke about matters concerning Stephanie Plum.
Now I was stuck in the impossible position of having to continue the act of dating my best friend’s true love, not so that Ranger didn’t become suspicious as Steph assumed, but so that she herself didn’t find out that Ranger knew. And why was I keeping Steph in the dark on this? Because if she knew that everything I’d put her through was partly Ranger’s idea in the first place, she’d probably kill me. And that was saying something.
Ranger decided it was time to bring her back, but didn’t think she would respond well to being dragged from the life she’d created for herself back to the one she was obviously unhappy with six years ago. We both knew how much Steph hated giving up control of her life, so we were aware of the pros and cons of this plan, I just never realised it would affect me this much. It was simple enough in theory. Make it seem like Steph is choosing her own path, but steer her toward the one that leads back to Ranger. Yep, pretending to date her totally comes under that heading....
Steph moved her chair closer to mine as Ranger sat down on her other side, bringing with her a thick cloud of tension that crawled up my spine. I shifted the arm I had draped across the back of the chair – just another show – and glanced down at the woman. “You alright, Kit?” I asked, being sure to use her false name in order to remind myself and her of who she was supposed to be at that moment in time.
Her eyes were wide like saucers as she stared up at me for a long moment, her mouth agape but no sound coming out, until finally a strangle squeak escaped her throat. Movement across the table drew her attention and the next thing I knew, drinks and shots were being distributed all around the table on Lester and Hal’s orders. We slammed back the shots and I got back to the conversation – argument, really – I’d been having with Cal regarding which sport was the best, feeling the alcohol loosen the knots that had begun to tangle themselves throughout my body when she shifted her chair.
Three shots later, I looked down and noticed the number of empties in front of Steph. Too many. Steph couldn’t hold her liquor on a good day, let alone during a stressful situation after apparently years of relative sobriety. If she was still able to stand right then, I would be surprised.
“You might want to slow down,” I warned, cringing as my own intoxication level shone through in the slurring of my speech. “At this rate I’ll have to carry you up the stairs when we get home. And I’m not sure I can get up them myself right now.”
She leaned in close so that her face was inches from mine. “Am I doing this?” she asked in a loud whisper, almost knocking over the offending glasses as she gestured to them.
Slowly and carefully, I inspected each glass on the table and its position in relation to the men seated near them. It appeared that each person had three shot glasses and anywhere from one to twelve beer glasses in their vicinity. And then there was Stephanie’s area, with double the number of shots as everyone else, along with a hefty number of empty glasses for a woman her size. My gaze slid just past Steph to the area in front of Ranger. He was drinking soda water, refilling the same glass from a pitcher on the table. No shot glasses. No beer glasses. It made sense. Ranger didn’t drink anymore.
I didn’t put any more thought into the matter as the latest round of shots were delivered around the table. I lost myself in the festivities once more and the next thing I knew there were just five us left. Lester and Steph, had their heads together at the other end of the table, obviously hatching some evil plan if the occasional maniacal laughter was anything to go by. Ranger, two seats away, chatting idly with Bobby. And me.
I took the opportunity to grab one last round.
My legs were unsteady as I made my way over to the bar. I felt like I’d spent six months on a ship in the ocean and was now struggling to walk on steady land for the first time. I wondered briefly how I would manage to get the liquid filled jug back to the table, and before I knew what was happening I was in the men’s room, standing before a urinal as I zipped up my cargos. I glanced around in confusion, unsure of when I decided to take a leak, or how I got here, and then shrugged it off, heading back into the bar area.
This time, I managed to retrieve the pitcher of beer and – somehow – transport it back to the table without spilling a drop. When I arrived, Bobby had disappeared and Lester and Steph had descended upon Ranger. They appeared to be goading him.
“Come on, Ranger,” I heard Lester urge as he held up a full beer glass in one hand and shot of tequila in the other. “One drink.” He waved each glass under the boss’s nose, the only reaction being a single raised eyebrow. Lester was treading on shaky ground.”It’s not fair to the rest of us if you leave this restaurant sober as a bird and able to remember every horrible, embarrassing thing we’ve done.”
Steph swayed a bit in her seat, following the path of the drinks before leaning over and pulling the beer to her lips. “Mmmm,” she moaned, licking foam from her upper lip. “Cool and refreshing.” Next she picked up Ranger’s half full glass of soda water and pulled the most ridiculous face I’d ever seen. I almost dropped the pitcher for laughing.
“What are you up to, Kit?” I asked, setting down the pitcher and plopping into my seat. Frankly, I was surprised at my ability to remember her cover name. “Isn’t that the boss’s soda water?”
“Mmhmm,” she murmured, nodding her head probably a little too vigorously. “I’ve confiscated it. If he’s thirsty he’ll have to take beer or a shot.”
I slipped the glass from her hand and set it as far away from our group as possible while without getting up. “He’s sneaky,” I explained, lifting Steph up and depositing her on the edge of the table as I slid into her seat. “Better to move it far out of reach or he could take a sip without any of us noticing.”
Now closer to the drinks on the table, she picked up her own half empty glass and dipped her finger into the liquid before drawing it into her mouth, sucking gently.
“Oh, Kitten,” Lester enthused, and I had to second his sentiments as the room in my pants suddenly disappeared.
She dipped her finger again, this time extending it in Ranger’s direction. Offering it up. I would have taken it up in an instant, but it wasn’t for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that we were supposed to be pretending to be a couple, but the part of my brain that was still aware of how annoying it was to keep up the charade shut it down pretty quickly.
“Do you really want to do that, Kit?” Ranger asked, his voice lower than I’d ever heard it. Bedroom voice, it had to be.
A growl erupted from Stephanie, snapping my attention back to her lips. Man, was I getting turned on by this display. How was Ranger managing to keep his cool? She had my full attention as she swiped the hand across his lips in an agitated manner before sticking it back in her own mouth to clean it.
“You know I haven’t slept with anyone since the last time we were together?” she announced bitterly, dropping her hands to the edge of the table and leaning forward.
My jaw dropped open of it’s own accord. That, I had not been expecting. How could a human being go six years without sex? Hell, I was struggling to get to the end of the night without pulling some random chick out to the back alley. I cut my eyes to Ranger, trying to gauge how he was taking the news, just in time to see his lips twitch up at the corners. He was amused. As was Lester, though he was a little louder about it, barking out harsh guffaws.
“Kit Danger, I do believe you are drunk,” Ranger informed her with the kind of articulation the rest of us could only dream of this late in the evening.
Steph’s eyelids drooped to half mast as she leaned forward, her mouth open at the most sensual angle I’d ever seen. Images of her lips wrapped around things they never should be wrapped around flashed through my head and I knew, in that moment, that I had to put a stop to this pussy footing once and for all. “For shit’s sake, Ranger,” I exclaimed. “She’s Stephanie Plum. Can’t you see that?”
There. Now it was all out in the open. Ranger didn’t have to reveal that he knew all along. I didn’t have to reveal that I knew he knew. And Steph could stop making me feel things I shouldn’t.
A long moment of complete and utter silence passed through the restaurant. Every face in the joint was turned toward us. Maybe I’d made my announcement a little loud... As I returned my attention to the man I’d called friend for most of my life just in time to see that one eyebrow rise half way up his forehead again.
“Is that so?” he asked, a hint of menace in his voice. I knew it was directed at me. He would never use that kind of tone on Stephanie, not even after she ran away from him all those years ago. He was disappointed that she didn’t come to him for help, yes, but he wasn’t angry.
“Y-yes,” Steph stammered, appearing unsure of herself for a moment before straightening her shoulders and crossing her arms defiantly over her chest. “Yes. I am Stephanie Plum, and you are the most unobservant man I’ve ever met.”
“Prove it,” Ranger challenged.
I wasn’t sure if he meant for Steph to prove who she was or prove that he was unobservant, but the next thing I knew their lips were locked and I had to excuse myself from the table because of the noises they were making. There’s only so much a man can take before he embarrasses himself and I’d just about reached my limit.