Always the Last to Know

By Becleigh Cyborg

Drama

Chapter 46

Ranger’s POV

Same Day as the Job Interview

I was grabbing a bottle of water and a sandwich from the fridge in the break room early in the afternoon intending on eating it and being out of the office by the time Kit Danger turned up for her trial shift. I had to keep reminding myself that she was Kit and not Steph. I had a point to make with my staff and if I forgot that one detail it would be ruined. I also didn’t want to tempt myself by staying in the building. I had a few informants I needed to check in with, so that’s what I planned for the afternoon. The further away from Stephanie Plum I was, the less likely I was to blow the operation.

“Tank tells me you gave her the job,” Lester said as I closed the fridge door. He was leaning against the counter, his arms crossed over his chest, a betrayed look in his eyes. I’d thought he was getting past his attitude toward women, but apparently this latest development had dredged it all back up.

“A trial,” I corrected, placing my sandwich on the counter to open my water.

“What the hell?” he asked.

I simply raised my eyebrow at my second cousin. I’d dealt with his anger and accusations all my life. Even when we were each other’s best friends we couldn’t avoid conflict. We were too similar, that was the problem. I’d learned that the best way to deal with him was to let him say his piece before responding. He got worse if I tried to interrupt and explain things.

“You hired a woman? I thought you’d learned your lesson from Stephanie. You introduced her to the company, we accepted her. She became family. And then she disappeared, practically destroying the company in the process. These guys aren’t used to women. They’re bound to grow attached to this Danger woman. And you know that will lead to disappointment when she eventually leaves.”

“What makes you think she’d leave?” I asked, rather than address any of his concerns.

“She doesn’t fit in. She’s too proper for us. The moment she finds out about some of the history of the guys she’s gonna run. She’s not like Steph. She doesn’t have that same easy understanding nature. And one day, she’s going to realise that she’s just risking her life being associated with us and run. We’ll be left in the lurch. Again. You’re just trying to fill Steph’s gap. It’s not going to work.”

“You’re saying I’m putting too much faith in a woman I just met to bring my company back to life?” I asked, unwrapping my sandwich. I raised an eyebrow at him as I took a bite, chewing slowly. There was no doubt in my mind that he would understand what I was hinting at. He’d done exactly the same thing with Suzanne. Trying to use the woman to ease the pain and guilt he felt. Ultimately, that had ended in disaster, and his current absolute distrust of women.

“That was different,” he defended. “That was my personal life. It affected me and me alone. What you’re doing will affect the entire company. What are you going to do when everything falls to shambles again?”

“You’re assuming the men will respond to Kit the same way they did to Stephanie,” I pointed out. “But you yourself said they’re nothing alike. Do you really think the chances of them becoming attached to her are that high?”

“You’re forgetting that Kit Danger and Stephanie Plum have one vital thing in common,” he said as I took another bite of my lunch to avoid a snort of laughter. They certainly did have one vital thing in common: they were the same person. But I doubted that’s what he was about to say. “They’re both female. And females, especially the kind that are untrained in self defence as I assume Kit Danger is, are vulnerable. The men are going to latch onto that and feel the need to protect her. It doesn’t matter that she’s nothing like Steph. She’s helpless.”

I stared at him with my blank face on. He had a point there. And I think the fact that Kit is Stephanie will increase the rate at which this attachment occurs. But it didn’t change my mind about keeping her here. I couldn’t let her go. I had to do everything within my power to make sure she never ran away again. When Lester finally realised who he was talking about he’d feel the same way, but until then, I’d have to keep a careful eye on him. I couldn’t have him scaring her off with his obvious distaste for the new female employee.

The Next Day

“She’s in the infirmary,” Tank announced, slipping silently into the office. “Hurt her wrist while training with Lester.”

My fists clenched involuntarily on the pen in my hand, snapping it in half. Ink splattered over my hand and the paper I’d been making notes on. Dropping the pen shards onto the page, I screwed up the lot and tossed it, with a little extra force than I’d intended, into the waste paper basket beside my dead. The bin tipped over, spilling half its contents over the floor as I grabbed for a wad of tissues to damage control on the ink before it stained my skin. Wiping up the mess, I stood and kicked the bin out of the way. The physical act eased some of the tension in my body, but not a lot.

The concerns I’d voiced when Tank suggested Lester train Steph in self defence were coming true. Lester was letting his emotions get the best of him and taking out on her. There was no need to review the footage. I knew instinctively that any injury she’d received was a direct result of Lester’s actions. The mere fact that Tank felt the need to tell me of the incident when he knew I’d be receiving the report later today was proof that it was not an accident.

“I’ll keep a close eye on him when he’s around her,” Tank informed me. “Run interference if I have to.”

I just nodded, kicking the trash can again and imagining it was Lester’s head. I knew how much he loved Stephanie. When he realised it was her he was going to wish I had done it to his head instead of the trash can.

Four weeks later

It was late Monday evening and I was just shutting down my computer. I’d been working late to finalise a few details on one of our new cases, since I’d taken an out of office day to avoid my ever multiplying urges to drag Stephanie away and... I honestly didn’t know exactly what I’d do with her once I got her alone, but it would definitely start with a bit of truth revelations. I’d tell her I knew who she was. I’d tell her I still loved her. And we’d got from there.

I shook my head, shifting the images from the front of my mind when I heard a commotion coming from the control room.

“Holy shit!” Mal exclaimed, his voice travelling easily down the hall and through the solid wood door of my office. “Did that really just happen?”

I was in the control room before I realised I’d made the decision to move. All the men currently on duty were gathered around the monitors in the centre of the command floor, their backs tense and their mouths agape. Some were exclaiming expletives, others were shouting wordlessly, and still more seemed to be egging someone on.

I pushed my way through the crowd until I could see what had captured all their attention. It only took a moment to understand what was going on: Lester was getting his ass whooped. The blows Hal were landing could easily have been avoided, blocked, deflected, but as I watched, Lester made no move to defend himself. That meant he felt he deserved what he was getting. Maybe he was finally feeling the guilt from his treatment of Steph during the first couple of weeks of her time here. I knew he’d discovered who she was half way through last week. And since then, his attitude toward her had only worsened. Fluctuating between almost normal and absolute hatred at a moment’s notice. I’d had to get Tank to step up his interferences with the pair to ensure her safety.

Tank had called me on Sunday to inform me that Lester and Steph were in the process of working things out. Probably, she’d said something to make him realise how wrong he’d been toward her and was now taking a beating as a sort of self appointed punishment. It wouldn’t save him from me when all this was resolved, though.

“How did this start?” I asked Mal, since he was the one actually on monitor duty.

“From what I can tell without audio, Hal came storming in and demanded Lester meet him on the mats,” Mal said, awed. “The moment Lester made it down there he got a fist to the face and a knee to the gut. He just let him go to town on him. Oh! He’s fighting back now!”

“Everyone get back to work,” I ordered, not bothering to look at any of them. I was out of the room by the time they’d registered the command and halfway down the stairwell to the gym by the time they followed through on it. Lester and Hal had been talking things through when I left the control room, and I’d figured they were through with the violence, but when I pushed through the double doors I caught the end of the peace talks.

“You got to know her?” Hal was asking. “You know who she is.” The last was not a question, but a statement, making it clear, if it hadn’t been before, that Hal had finally made the connection.

“I do,” Lester replied, sounding exhausted and looking worse as blood streamed down his face from his nose.

And without warning, Hal was flying through the air, crashing down on Lester, an unintelligible exclamation leaving his lips. His fists were driving into Lester’s gut over and over when I finally decided he’d had enough. I crossed the mats in three strides and dragged him off my second cousin by the back of the back of his shirt.

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” I demanded, staring down into the green eyes even as bruises bloomed around them.

“Hal was teaching me a lesson in respect,” Lester panted, groaning as he slowly sat up. “I’ve been mistreating Kit and he was letting me know that it wasn’t okay. I should have known without his prompting, but I guess I let my past blind me a bit.”

I glanced to Hal where he lay sprawled on the mat, unwilling or unable to move. “Anything to add?” I asked, my tone laced with anger.

“He was harassing her, Ranger,” Hal said. “I urged her to file a report, but she refused. So I took matters into my own hands.” Which was classic Steph-induced behaviour.

I looked him over, assessing his injuries. Nothing an ice pack and some pain killers couldn’t fix. “Get someone to drive you home,” I instructed. “I’ll deal with you tomorrow.”

“That’s it?” Lester asked as Hal made his way from the gym.

“I’m not exactly going to give either of you my own beating now, am I?” I pointed out, shaking my head. “Go get Bobby or Tony to fix your face. I wouldn’t want your perfect features to be marred because of your own foolish behaviour.” And with that I left the gym as well, heading straight up to my apartment. I needed time to think about my next step. Obviously, given the nature of the incident, the logical action any other business would take was to find out the woman’s side of the story, and perhaps punish the men. That meant talking to Stephanie. Kit, I reminded myself. I’d have to prepare myself mentally for that. I hadn’t had a private conversation with her since the job interview.

The Next Day

I could tell she was tense when she pulled into a parking space in the garage even through the distance of the security footage on my monitor. I’d spent years studying Stephanie’s motions in every situation you can think of, could identify them without thought. Tank had assured me he didn’t speak to her about last night incident before he left for work this morning, that she had, in fact, been still asleep by the time he was heading out the door. So what had her muscles bunching?

She sat there a moment, eyes darting around the space before she dug out her phone and held it to her ear. A fairly short conversation followed which did nothing to ease her tension. She pulled an annoyed face as she dropped the phone back into her back and used the rear view mirror to check her makeup A long moment passed as she stared at her reflection before she reached across the console of the car and dug something out of the glove box. It only took a second for me to figure out what it was as she shifted her fake glasses to the top of her head and began swiping on the mascara.

A sudden pang in my chest caught me off guard at this quintessential Stephanie action. She did it for extra confidence, which meant that whatever she’d heard from whoever was on the phone did not help her state of mind. I wanted to pull her to my chest and let her know that everything would be okay, but knew from Tank’s reports that she wasn’t ready to open that door yet. He didn’t give me details, just eluded to something that she needed to figure out before she could talk to me as herself. That was his professional opinion, and given that he had more exposure to her than I did at the moment, I was willing to trust him.

I watched her leave her car and enter the stairwell, giving her a few minutes to make her way up to the fifth floor before I sauntered down the short hall. She was just crossing the control room when I caught sight of her, head down, elbows in, shoulders hunched. Making herself as small as possible to avoid being noticed. It didn’t work on me, though. My eyes would always be drawn to her, just as my body was.

“Kit,” I called to her.

She stopped dead in her tracks, spinning on her heels to face me. “Yes, Sir?”

“I’d like a word in my office,” I requested, wondering even as the words left me why I hadn’t just demanded it like I would any other person. Hell, even her in the past.

She glanced to her cubicle, then the elevator, before returning her gaze to my face. An audible swallow. Her mouth opened soundlessly. I filled the silence for her.

“Your session with Cal has already been rescheduled for after lunch,” I informed her, despite the fact that it wasn’t the least bit true, but I could fix that easily enough. “Stow your things and come to my office.” I didn’t give her the chance to say or do anything before I return to my office. Stephanie would have protested the direct order. She may even have defied me completely by heading down to the gun range or starting work in her cubicle. I worried that she would do so now, despite her gallant efforts to keep up her Kit Danger persona, but before I had a chance to complete one full lap of pacing the room, there was a knock at the door.

“Enter,” I called, crossing the three feet to my desk and lowering myself into the chair. I opened the file with the reports both Hal and Lester had written up early this morning. They were carefully worded so as not to reveal the true reason for the altercation: Stephanie. Hal had outlined Lester’s disrespectful and almost careless treatment of Kit Danger as provocation for his violence. Lester had admitted to not being as trusting of her position on the team as he could have. When I read them, all I saw was that they weren’t happy with Stephanie for returning in secret, just as Tank had told me on multiple occasions. But I knew that Lester, at least, had reconciled with the woman now sidling almost silently into the room.

Her eyes were wide and darting, her chest rising and falling rapidly. She was panicked. It would be so easy to just let her know that I know and put an end to the charade. But something was stopping me. A need. A craving. I’d given her my all, or as much as I could legally give her, and was willing to give her more if she needed or desired it. I’d laid everything on the line and she’d fled. Twice.

The night I proposed and she ran from the apartment faster than I’d ever seen her move outside of being chased by a lunatic had hurt. I’d thought to follow her, to make sure she was alright, but I was only human. There was only so much rejection I could take in one night. Instead, I’d sat in my car in the back corner of the parking lot, waiting for her to return, to assure myself that she was okay. I’d called the control room to keep an eye on her tracker and that was it. I never expected that she would come home with the cop, drunk as a skunk. Without thinking, I’d turned the car on and pulled out of the lot. I didn’t stop driving until I’d reached my house on the outskirts of town. I didn’t want to know what was going on in that apartment.

All night, I threw heavy objects around the yard: decorative statues my landscaper had painstakingly picked out, arm chairs dragged from the living room, the washer dryer my sister had recommended when I first moved here and more. By five the next morning it looked like my house had been on a bender and spewed its contents onto the well manicured lawn and I’d moved on to smashing the items with a baseball bat. I’d have to dish out thousands to replace it all, but I didn’t care at the moment in time. If I stopped, I would do something I’d regret.

Finally, when my arms would no longer move, I collapsed onto one of the badly battered sun lounge cushions that had made it over to the edge of the pool at some point during my rampage and fell into the worst sleep I’d ever experienced. And that was saying something, because I’d once been trapped in the jungle with hostiles hunting me for weeks.

Shaking my head as I realised the one thing I needed from Stephanie Plum right now was for her to show she cared enough to reveal herself to me, I instructed her to take a seat. I waited patiently for her to do so, breathing slowly to calm myself. Six years had passed since that night. I’d forgiven her quickly, wanting to believe she’d been too drunk to remember anything that happened that night save my proposal and her panic. She was the light of my life; the one bright spot I’d had in years and I couldn’t stay mad at her for something she did under the influence of alcohol. It would only have kept her at bay, and I couldn’t do that to myself anymore. I’d had a taste of how it felt to have her all to myself and I didn’t want to give it up. She calmed me. She caused happiness to bloom in the empty cavity that my heart had become. To give her up was to give up on life. So when she came to me, I accepted her. It was the only solution.

Now, with six years distancing me from those raw feelings, I wasn’t sure what to think beyond wanting her to want me. I pushed it all from my mind, finally lifting my gaze from the file I stared blankly at, and focused on the official purpose for calling her in here.

“How have things been going, Kit?” I asked.

Her eyelids fluttered in confusion and I mentally slapped myself. She’d always had a knack for sensing the mood of those around her. My own brooding was probably hitting her in the chest right now. Pleasantries were not what she’d be expecting from such an energy force. It didn’t matter though. I couldn’t take it back.

“Fine,” she blurted.

“Fine?” I asked, not believing her for a minute. Recent reports from Tank were that while she’d been making strides with the men accepting her for who she was, she was still battling herself on certain issues from her past. Tank had observed that no amount of asking persuade her to share the details, but I suspected that she’d shared them with Lester. Full disclosure on something unexpected or heart wrenching is one of the only things that can turn a person around so fully. I just wish she would tell me. That she could have told me when it first happened, whatever it was.

“Good,” she tried again, sounding harried. Her hands twisted together in her lap. The movement drew my gaze automatically, but I forced them back to her face.

“Which is it? Fine or good?” I asked.

The grimace she displayed was fleeting, like she’d been trying to keep it hidden. “Good.”

“Are you sure?”

“Everyone is very accepting,” she assured me.

“Everyone?”

The one word questions were probably killing her. My lack of words always had, but she managed to calm her face, clasping her hands together tightly as she replied, “The men are more than willing to take a little extra time to explain some aspects of the business if I ask. And the team you have me working with is slowly getting the hang of balancing security and safety with comfort and accessibility.”

I decided to put her out of her misery a little. It was clear that she was not aware of what had happened so any line of questioning I tried would get us nowhere. We’d end up sitting here all day and be no further in the official paper trail than before we started. Ordinarily, I’d jump at the chance to spend all day with Stephanie, but with the Kit barrier between us, it just seemed more painful than it was worth. For both of us probably.

“The reason I ask, Kit,” I said, “Is that there was an incident late last night between two senior members of staff. Do you happen to know anything about it?”

Her brows drew together, forming little wrinkles in her forehead that were never there before she ran away to Mexico. I watched the creases deepen a little as her gaze darted all over my desk, searching for clues. After a moment, her eyebrows – which were still brown – shot up to meet her hairline, drawing my attention to the slight regrowth visible at the roots, the chestnut colour peaking through the red. My consideration of her hair was averted, however, as I the sound of her breathing registered in my ears. It was too fast. She sounded the same as she did the few times I’d taken her out running with me. After five minutes she’d be gasping for breath and begging for mercy. Now, she was hyperventilating and panicking.

Without thinking, I made my way around the desk closing the distance between us until I was right beside her chair. I hesitated barely a second before placing my hand on the back of her neck, gently pressing forward. She refused to move at first, an occurrence that had never happened before. I puzzled over it for a second before recalling what was missing. Whenever I had to calm her down I would talk to her in Spanish. Don’t ask me why, but it always soothed her, which was good, because I automatically reverted to Spanish in high stress situations. I couldn’t just say what I used to, though, because if nothing else had changed in the last six years, Stephanie still knew Spanish and would understand every word that left my lips.

Head down, Kit,” I murmured in Spanish, using a touch more force until she began to lower her head between her knees. “Slow, deep breaths. You need to calm down.”

I don’t know how long I stood there, whispering calming words to her before she finally got her breathing under control and sat up. “Sorry,” she said mournfully. “This is so embarrassing.”

“What’s embarrassing?” I asked, curiously. Surely she didn’t mean breaking down in front of me? She’d done so more times than I could count. As Steph, that is. I took three steps to the desk and leaned on the front edge of it so I could see what her face was doing. Her eyes and mouth had always been so expressive. I could read her every thought by the way her eyes darted or stared and her mouth twitched or hung open.

“Uh, practically breaking down in front of my boss?” she said, like a question, leading me to believe that she had mentioned the embarrassment out of necessity for her Kit persona.

“How is that embarrassing?” I asked. “You’re only human. Overwhelming emotions are part of the territory.” Especially for you, I thought, but I couldn’t add that without letting her know I knew she wasn’t who she said she was.

She blinked twice, like my words had shocked her. “You don’t think I’m just a weak girl?”

I could never think that of you, I wanted to say. But again, I couldn’t say that with her Kit cover still intact, so I just shook my head.

“But why?” she said, furrowing her brow once more as she stared just past my shoulder. “I’ve been watching your men for weeks. It’s like they live in this neutral gear all the time, only occasionally shifting out of it to crack a joke or a smile.” She took a deep breath before she went on. “I’ve been trying to be emotionless like them, but I just can’t do it.”

I felt that underneath the surface of this question laid a more important question: Why had I ever wanted her around at all? And to answer her honestly, I had to tell her what it was like when she left. I’m sure some of the men had already attempted to tell her how devastated they were when she left, but sometimes it takes the right person to finally get the message across.

“I don’t need a female version of the men I already have,” I started. “I hired you for you compassion, not your ability to bottle everything up.” Although she is very good at the latter if six years ago is any evidence. I crossed my arms over my chest, watching her carefully. “There was a time when my men would laugh and joke around the office. They all worked together so effortlessly.”

“What happened?”

I’m sure she could have guessed, but I had to continue anyway. Staring straight into her grey contacted eyes, I said quietly, “We lost our heart.”

My gaze flickered briefly to her fingers as they latched onto the edge of the chair she was sitting on. “Your what?” she asked a little too sharply. If I hadn’t been aware of her true identity, I certainly would have been suspicious of her now. That’s not exactly the way an unrelated person reacts to a simple statement like that.

“Our heart,” I repeated. “Our cause. The soul of the company.”

The Following Thursday Evening

It was all I could do to keep my fist from flying into Tanks jaw. First, he’d made it sound like he and Kit Danger, whom we all know is really Stephanie Plum, but no one wants to point out the elephant in the room and be labelled the traitor, were dating. And then he has the gall to call her Babe and make out with her. It’s like he’s trying to end his life.

He sat in the same spot for the longest time after the door closed behind Stephanie and Lester, a dazed expression on his face. His lips were swollen from kissing and his eyes were glazed over like he was reliving every second of it. I didn’t need to look below the belt to know he would have a raging hard on. I knew the effects Stephanie could have on a man. It was irreparable damage, which was part of the reason I was so lost for her. The rest of it was that she didn’t realise what kind of power she held. She always seemed shocked or confused when people loved her, or devoted themselves to saving her, because she didn’t realise how much joy they brought to their lives. No matter how many times you tell her, she will never believe you. And for that, I blame her mother.

Helen never supported Stephanie. Not once in her entire life. All she did was lower her self confidence by comparing her to her older sister, not realising that, although they share parents and are part of the same gene pool, they are not alike at all. I could never picture Stephanie conforming to the Stepford wife life that seems to be the norm in the burg. She needed space. Freedom. She needed to be able to stretch her wings. Which is why I loved her so much. Nothing could hold her down for long. She had a brain and she wasn’t opposed to using it.

Finally, Tank broke the silence that had fallen with the click of his front door. “Dude, how do you ever keep your hands off her?” he asked

I was on him before I acknowledged the conscious decision to move. One second I’m sitting, tense, in my chair, stopping myself from either beating him to a pulp or racing after Stephanie to show her how a real man kissed, and the next I had Tank by the throat, pressed up against the wall. His eye bugged out as he stared down at me.

“Don’t ever lay your hands or any other part of your body on her like that again,” I seethed, as close to his face as I could get with our height difference. I may not have the same stature as he did, but I could be just a intimidating, if not more. And he knew good and well not to mess with me. He’d seen the effects of a pissed off Ranger more times than either of us could count.

“Sorry,” he gasped, and unbelievably, a grin began to spread across his lips. “I couldn’t help myself. I’m sure you understand how that is.”

I didn’t reply, just kneed him in the groin. If he was going to think with his penis, I was going to disable his primary brain. Maybe then we could work out how to put an end to this agonising deception the entire company had going on. I let anger rain down on him, keeping my blows to the areas I knew would be covered just in case I left visible marks.

When I’d had my fill, I stepped back and sat back down, waiting for him to pick himself up off the floor. He didn’t wince or limp. There were no outward signs that he was in pain, but I knew he must be. I’d come down hard on him. Once he was sitting calmly in the same chair he’d occupied while fondling Stephanie, I spoke.

“How close to ending this do you think Steph is?” I asked.

“She thinks, every time you look at her, that you’re going to finally recognise her and it frightens her. It’s anyone’s guess.”

“That’s all you have to say?” I demanded.

He shrugged. “Lester is doing some research on something to help her out. I don’t know what it is, but from what I understand, she refuses to talk to Hal about the issues they’re having in reconciling until she has the information.”

“Have you looked into it?”

“None of my business.”

I grit my teeth, not bothering to hide how much he was frustrating me. “Of course it’s your business. You’re the only one on both sides of this. You’re supposed to be manipulating the situation. Guiding us all toward an end.”

“You want me to manipulate Stephanie into coming out to you?” he asked, pouring himself a drink from the bottle left on the table. “Manipulate her, like every stalker she’s ever had; like her family has her entire life? You’re okay with that?”

“Yes,” I say automatically, but in the silence that follows, I realise that I’m not. I shake my head. “Of course not.” I stand and start toward the door.

“That’s it?” Tank asks, getting to his feet to follow me. “I expected to be unconscious by the time you left after that...”

“There’s still time,” I replied, heading for the stairs rather than the door. “I’m borrowing your computer. I’m going to search Lester’s electronic movements over the last few days. I’m going to find out what she needs to know so I can assure her I know and it doesn’t matter.”

The Next Day

He was waiting in my office when I arrived, late the next morning. His presence shocked me, but I didn’t allow him to see. We’d never met in building before. We’d agreed it was too risky. The men would wonder about our communications. In light of the events I had kept from them, they would find out what was going on and revolt. I’d have been left in the dust as they stormed the figurative castle. But now he was here, which meant something was up.

I said nothing, not even a greeting, as I crossed to sit in one of the visitors chairs across the desk from where he’d claimed my own chair. Minutes passed in silence. He knew something. And given the basis of our communication in the last six years, it could be only one thing.

“I spoke to Stephanie last night,” he said quietly. “In person.” I said nothing, waiting for the accusation I knew was coming. Not straight away, though. “It was the strangest thing. I woke up in the middle of the night and decided to go for a walk, and there she was, asleep in her car not two doors down. Care to explain how she got there?”

Again, I stayed quiet.

“We had an agreement,” he went on. “You keep an eye on her until I decide she’s ready to come home, or she decides on her own. You were never supposed to make that decision.”

“Who’s to say I did?” I countered.

“Don’t play dumb,” Frank spat. “You’re much too smart for it to be believable.” His fingertips dug into the blotter on my desk, the only physical sign that he was angry. He was a man skilled in distancing himself both emotionally and physically from those he loved, but that did not mean that he didn’t love them and wouldn’t beat someone to death if he saw reason to. “You expect me to believe that Tank just happened to find her while on a government mission you nominated him for? You may as well have ‘found’ her yourself.”

As soon as I’d found Stephanie, four months after she disappeared, I knew I had to let Frank know. I couldn’t let him sit idly by, wondering whether his youngest daughter was still alive. So I met with him and let him know what I knew. We’d agreed that she should be kept under surveillance in case she got herself into trouble, but that we should not interfere until she was ready. After much debate, I’d finally conceded that he would be the one to make that final decision, even if it did grate on me. If his wife hadn’t been so harsh and condescending on Stephanie her entire life, she wouldn’t have been so messed up when it came to relationships. She might not have been so adverse to making a commitment. I might have been able to keep her with me for the last six years.

“You weren’t ever going to let me bring her back, Frank,” I stated, emotionless. “We both know that.”

Before he could say anything to the contrary, the phone on my desk rang. I reached across the space to snag it before he could stop me.

“Yo,” I said, assuming it was one of the men with some kind of issue.

“Ranger, it’s Morelli.” The cop. I’d managed to avoid him, let him live, for six years, and now he was contacting me? Today was not my day. “Have you heard from Stephanie lately?” he asked.

I cut my eyes to Frank, sitting passively in the chair now. “No,” I said.

“Don’t you want to know why I’d ask such a question out of the blue after all this time?” he asked, sounding both frustrated and exhausted. What had he been up to? “Aren’t you the least bit interested?”

“Are you reopening the case?” I asked, trying to remain vague since I had an audience, but also keep the conversation going. If he was contacting me, there had to be a purpose to the call.

“Not unless you give me a reason to,” he said. I decided to stay silent this time. Silence always worked to get people from the burg to talk. “She just called me,” he said.

“What did she say?” What could have possibly prompted Stephanie to contact Morelli? Was it related to the information Lester was helping her find?

“She asked about a night six years ago,” he said.

And just like that I wanted to flee to my house and destroy all the items I’d bought to replace the things I’d destroyed on the night I felt certain she was referring to. I’d thought she didn’t remember what happened. Was too drunk to be aware of the decisions she’d made in the middle of the night. But if she was asking about it, she must have. Why hadn’t she told me if she knew?

I couldn’t let any of my thoughts show on my face, in my body or in my voice, though.

“And what did you tell her?” I asked. Had he taken advantage of her all those years ago? I’d never indulged myself enough to find out. If Stephanie didn’t know what she’d done that night, why should I go digging it up? What good would it do? It wasn’t like I could just throw it in her face and ask her to explain.

“Nothing yet,” he said, completely oblivious to my thoughts. “She’s calling me back when I get home. I just thought you might be interested in knowing that she’d made contact.” I stayed silent, waiting to see if he would say anything about the night in question. The pause dragged on for almost a minute before he simply said, “So yeah.”

“Let me know how it goes,” I requested, finally replacing the phone in its cradle and returning my attention to Frank. “Tell me everything you know of the situation,” I requested, sitting back down with a sigh. I may as well let the man in on everything else. He might even be able to help Stephanie open up properly. It was doubtful, but she’d always raved about her father and how much he loved her. It was true, I could tell. But, he’d allowed his wife to mentally abuse her for years, so there’d always be that seed of doubt in my mind.


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