I awoke to the smell of coffee and bacon and was hard
pressed to contain the moan that burbled up in my throat. Stretching my arms
over my head, I peered, bleary eyed, across the apartment to the little kitchen
area; the source of the smell. My eyes snapped open at what I saw, though.
Lester Santos was shirtless and lightly glistening in the sunlight that
streamed in through the window. Whether the moisture dotting his body was from
the sweat of a workout or he simply hadn’t dried himself properly after a
shower, I had no idea, but I definitely was not complaining. I watched his back
muscles ripple as he moved his arms.
“If you want a shower you should go now,” he informed me without turning around. I chalked up his somehow know I was awake to some kind of ingrained military training that had to do with breathing patterns and other such things I would never quite grasp. “Breakfast will be ready soon.”
Rather than question his instincts or comment on his shirtlessness – which I knew was dangerous territory, since he’d made no secret of his attraction to me – I slipped my feet over the side of the bed, grabbed a few items of clothing from my not-yet-unpacked duffle bag on the floor nearby and hustled to the bathroom. I voided my bladder, showered, dressed and emerged into the main room of my apartment to find a headband to hold my damp hair out of my face. When I made it to the kitchen, hitching myself up onto a stool at the breakfast bar, Lester was just retrieving the last of the bacon from the pan.
“Thank you for staying,” I said as he handed me a plate loaded down with scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. “I just-.”
“You don’t need to explain again,” Lester assured me, taking his own plate and coming around the bench to sit beside me. I’d spent a good half hour worrying over the fact that I didn’t want to run away again, but was afraid that I would anyway given everything that had happened. Lester had responded by pointing out that being conscious of the fact that I didn’t want to do it would probably keep me from doing it, putting my worries to bed almost at the same time he shoved me in the direction of my physical bed. “I completely understand.”
“Do you?” I asked, doubtful. I couldn’t see how he could possibly know how I felt.
He nodded, swallowing his mouthful of egg before explaining, “After my first mission I came home and was so afraid that I would do something terrible to someone – shoot them, or strangle them, or something much worse – because of the knee jerk reactions I’d built up, I installed a lock on my bedroom door and had my roommate lock it from the outside every night until I felt more in control of my reactions.”
“That’s not really the same thing,” I said around a strip of bacon as I chewed.
“Yes it is,” he disagreed. “You were safeguarding yourself. Stopping yourself from doing something you didn’t want to do, but felt you still might anyway. It’s exactly the same.”
“How did your roommate feel about locking you in your room?” I asked, rather than acknowledge that he was right.
Lester shrugged and hopped off his stool to grab the coffee mugs he’d left on the other bench. “Bobby had his own methods of controlling himself. He understood that it was something I needed to do to feel safe.”
I stuffed some bacon into my mouth while I let that sink in. It hadn’t occurred to me that Lester and Bobby would have roomed together at any point in time. I knew they’d known each other a long time and were best friends, but the thought had never entered my head. It probably should have, but it hadn’t.
We ate in silence for a while until Lester was scraping up the last bit of egg from his plate. “So what are your plans for the day?” he asked casually, carrying his plate to the sink.
“I’m gonna go visit my parents,” I said, without even a shadow of a doubt. It was the first confident decision I’d made in what could have been months. It felt good, like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Though I still had all the issues with Ranger hanging over my head, for I was content to reconnect with my mom and dad. I was going to thank them for helping me through every step of my life and come clean to them, telling them the whole story. And maybe Mom would see fit to make me pineapple upside down cake.
I glared at the man in front of me, clutching his ribs and squinting at me through swollen eyes. Probably, I should have let him explain himself before I began beating into him, but my violent urges were on a hair trigger today. After pacing my apartment all day yesterday, waiting for Tank to let me know Stephanie had returned to his home, only to find out she had taken her stuff and left, and then continuing to pace all through the night, since sleep was impossible, I was on edge.
I was confident she hadn’t done a runner again, since the men she associated most with were also missing all day, and Lester never returned to his apartment on the fourth floor. They were probably hiding her somewhere. God only knows why. Yes, I may have manipulated her into coming back, and made it seem like I didn’t recognise her forcing her into a stressful and unnecessary situation, but she’d slept with Morelli and neglected to tell me. Then when she found out she’d been pregnant, rather than tell me and come clean about her night with the cop, she’d kept it all to herself and then run away.
For. Six. Years.
It was only by chance that I’d managed to find her. I don’t know what I’d do if she disappeared again. Maybe let her go. If she can’t commit to me and doesn’t trust me to be understanding when she goes through a tragedy such as the one she experienced six years ago, how am I ever going to be able to trust her not to pull something like that again? I’d have to keep a constant two man surveillance detail on her at all times just for my own peace of mind. And that was no way to build a relationship.
I’d had nearly twenty four hours to stew on the details of what she had done. How she’d kept it to herself because she couldn’t guarantee it was mine. Because she’d slept with Morelli. And when the sunlight began streaming through my bedroom window, I couldn’t take it anymore. I jogged – stomped, really – down all seven flights of stairs to the parking garage, slid behind the wheel of the first SUV I came to and high tailed it over to the burg. Morelli had to learn a lesson, and right at that moment, I felt certain I could teach it to him.
The door opened and before he’d managed to get a word out, I’d punched him in the face. Not a smart move, but the usual tight control I had on my body was all but gone in the face of yesterday’s revelations. While he was still reeling from the initial blow, I shoved him inside and slammed the door shut behind us. I took a moment to ensure the curtains were drawn on the surrounding windows. There was no point giving the neighbours more to talk about, I’d probably already set the gossip mill that was the ‘burg in motion by turning up on his door step, let alone letting a fist fly at his nose out in the open where anyone could see.
Once the curtains were closed, I let my fist do the talking for a few more beats before stepping back and pulling myself together. Morelli also took a step back, but I think it was more a defensive manoeuvre than a need to pull up his control. Control, he had. He’d only hit back a handful of times during my tirade. Intact ribs, on the other hand, maybe not.
“What!?” he finally spat, his breathing shallow than normal, due to the intense pain he was probably experiencing.
“You slept with her,” I said, gathering together all the calm I possessed.
A frown creased his features. “What? Slept with who?”
Taking a deep breath to stop myself from flying off the handle a second time, I stated, “Six years ago you took advantage of Stephanie Plum while she was drunk as a sailor on shore leave.”
There was a beat of silence, during which he simply stared at me. “I didn’t,” he finally said.
“Don’t lie to me!” I seethed, clenching my fists at my sides, the little control I’d managed to regain slipping quickly. “I saw you leaving her apartment that night. And she told me about the text you left her.”
“I did not sleep with Steph,” he assured me calmly.
“She left because of that night,” I informed him. Don’t ask me why I was feeling the sudden urge to explain things to him, I don’t know. Maybe it was the fact that I had refused the offer of Tank’s ear so adamantly for the last twenty four hours, when really, I needed to vocalise the thoughts in my head. “She left because she slept with you.”
“That night was months before she left,” he pointed out, standing up a little straighter now. Perhaps I should have punched him a little harder. “Why would she stick around for a few months and before leaving if the reason she left was that night. The night I did not sleep with her, by the way.”
“Do you remember how sick she’d been?” Morelli nodded. “Turns out that was morning sickness.”
His eyebrows rose into his hairline at that moment. “She had a kid? That doesn’t make sense. Why would she leave if she was carrying your baby?”
“That’s the thing,” I said calmly, making my way into the kitchen and crossing to the freezer. I tossed him a bag of peas. “She wasn’t.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I didn’t sleep with her?” he asked, sounding both angered and exasperated as he pressed the frozen package to his right eye.
“I’ll never believe you,” I stated firmly. “But that wasn’t what I was referring to. She wasn’t carrying my baby when she left, because she had a miscarriage. Before she even knew she was pregnant.”
His face dropped at that little piece of information. As much as I hated him, and what he’d put Stephanie through for so many years, I could see that he really did care for her. He didn’t show it in an appropriate way, but then, I didn’t know of a single person in the burg that did.
“Look,” Morelli said, sounding tired all of a sudden. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“We don’t know it was mine.”
He looked confused for a split second. “Why? Was she sleeping with someone else?”
“YOU!” I roared, stopping myself just short of grabbing him by the throat and lifting him off his feet. “YOU SLEPT WITH HER!”
“I DID NOT!” he yelled back, tossing the peas aside. “You can hook me up to a lie detector if you like. I swear I didn’t sleep with her that night. And even if I had wanted to, I never would have gotten any pleasure out of it anyway, because when I was trying to leave she called me by your name!”
That stopped whatever I’d been about to stay. My hands, though still fisted, fell to my sides, and I just stared at him, as if I could drag the meaning of his words, and the truth behind them, from his mind without ever moving from this spot.
He must have taken my silence as a sign to continue, because he did just that, explaining exactly what happened that night. And this time, I was pretty sure I believed him when he said he didn’t sleep with her. That meant the baby had been mine.
“So it’s not my fault Steph left,” Morelli concluded some time later.
And that’s what set me off again. Because, even though he didn’t sleep with her, her leaving was still his fault. If he hadn’t sent that text, Steph wouldn’t have remembered that night at all and there wouldn’t have been any doubt that baby was mine when she found out about the miscarriage. She would have told me about it. I could have helped her through it. Things would have been fine. Instead he’d sent the text. Stephanie had panicked upon learning of her miscarriage, not telling anyone anything about it. Let it stew in her brain for weeks and finally decided that it was easier to just leave without a trace. Without even letting her family know she was alright.
Stormed from the house, pausing only to deliver another blow to the cop’s gut for good measure. I had to find Stephanie and let her know that all the running she’d done had been for nothing. That she hadn’t slept with the cop. That the baby had been mine. For the first time since she told me of her miscarriage, I began to feel a sense of hope for rekindling our relationship. It would take a lot of time and effort on both our parts, but it seemed possible again.