Always the Last to Know

Chapter 55

Lester’s POV

The drive across town was silent and still. Eerie. Steph, usually in constant motion as she fidgeted and rambled, sat motionless in the passenger seat, staring out the window, her small hands tucked between her knees. I’d never seen her so stationary. The few short words we’d exchanged when she first hopped in let me know, in no uncertain terms, that she’d heard about Ranger’s meeting with Morelli and she wasn’t happy about it. Getting her to talk after that was impossible. It was like she was lost in her head somewhere, her ears and eyes turned to something I was not privy to. No topic – not even the suggestion of a pre-confrontation donut – could coax her out of her internalisation.

I pulled into the underground parking garage at Rangeman a few minutes later, steering the SUV into the first available space I saw – it was Sunday, but that didn’t mean the garage was any less full than a week day, Rangeman was a twenty-four/seven operation, after all.

A long moment passed in that same unnerving stillness before Steph seemed to acknowledge we’d arrived at our destination. With slow movements, she unhooked her seatbelt and gathered her purse from floor of the foot well where she’d stashed it. I’d expected her to be a bundle of anger and nerves, unable to stay in the car a second longer than necessary. I’d expected her to be ranting the entire way here. I’d expected her to show the spunk I’d always admired in her. Instead, I was simultaneously creeped out and concerned by this silent, slow moving version of the vibrant Steph I’d known and loved from that first moment.

A slight whistle drew my attention to her once more as she inhaled deeply through her nose and pushed the car door open, causing it to crash into the side of the SUV beside us. That was definitely going to leave a mark. I got out on my side, and hurried to catch up to her as she marched toward the bank of elevators on the far wall. I’d never seen her so determined, especially not in the month and a half since she’d returned from Mexico. Everything about her screamed Woman on a Mission. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be Ranger right about now.

Speaking of my imbecile second cousin, a text chimed through on my phone just as Steph stepped up to press the call button on the elevator. Look out, Ranger’s coming your way –Cal. Well, at least we didn’t have to go looking for him.

“You might want to step back,” I suggested, breaking the silence for the first time. “Ranger’s on his way down to meet us.”

“Good,” she said, sounding somewhere between bitter and relieved. What was going on in the pretty little head of hers?

It took barely a moment for the doors to open – Rangeman elevators rarely take more than a minute to arrive at any given time – and Ranger practically burst out. His hair, usually contained neatly within the leather thong at the nape of his neck, was starting to escape at the front, like he’d been running his fingers through it. It wasn’t an uncommon action when he was stressed, but he usually let his hair fall loose before doing so. That he hadn’t today, together with the wild look in his eyes and the slight heave of his chest as he caught sight of Stephanie, spoke volumes of his mental state.

Any intentions I’d had of letting the pair have some privacy to sort things out flew straight out the metaphoric window. Ranger was not in control. Between the report I’d received of his actions at Morelli’s house and the image of him exploding from within the tiny box that was the elevator, I couldn’t trust him to keep his hands to himself if this didn’t go well. And judging by Steph’s calm stillness, she’d come to a conclusion that she’d never expected arrive at. Given her track record, and recent events, I could only assume it didn’t bode well for reconciling their relationship.

This pair, in this combination, was not something I was willing to leave alone. They needed supervision.

“Steph,” Ranger breathed.

“Ranger,” she replied, no emotion evident in her tone or her face. It was like they’d reversed roles. Ranger, usually so blank, was like an open book, his hope written clearly on his face, while Steph, usually so open and easy to read, was closed off.

“I need to tell you something important,” he announced, taking a step closer to her.

Stephanie crossed her arms over her chest, an action that ordinarily would have lead me to believe she was uncomfortable, or perhaps ready to back away from the situation, but with the square of her shoulders she was anything but. “Is it that you beat up an innocent man simply because you didn’t have the staying power to let me finish explaining that I now know that I didn’t sleep with Morelli? Because I already know. It’s all over the Burg.”

“That’s not…” Ranger tried to protest, but for the first time in forever, he was flustered. “I mean, I did, but I - .”

“I called Morelli a few days ago and asked him,” Stephanie said calmly. “I didn’t sleep with him that night. I’d have told you yesterday if you stuck around long enough for me to finish.”

Shame crossed Ranger’s features, merely a flicker before he managed to regain some semblance of his usual blank mask. “I think you can understand how shocked I was to find out that my girlfriend had had a miscarriage but never told me, even if there was doubt that the child was mine.”

“I know I should have gone about things differently,” Stephanie agreed. “I should have told you everything six years ago. I didn’t. But now I’m trying to let you know the whole story. If you’ll just listen to me.” She paused, waiting for his slight nod before continuing. “I didn’t sleep with Morelli. The baby I lost was yours. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course I can, Babe,” Ranger said, relief clear in his voice as he took another step toward her. Stephanie held her ground, but the look on her face said she didn’t want him any closer. I shoved my cell into my pocket to free up my hands in case I needed to jump in at any moment.

“God, I never thought…” Ranger shook his head, amazed. “When you left I thought you were gone for good. Dead. And then to find out that the reason you left was because of a baby you weren’t sure who fathered. I’m sorry I didn’t let you finish yesterday. I’m sorry I manipulated you into coming back before you were ready, but were you ever going to be ready?”

Steph’s expression turned sad, her blue eyes darkening with emotion. “Maybe not,” she admitted. “But it’s my life and I should have been given the choice, either way.”

“I know,” Ranger said. “I’m sorry.” I’d never heard Ranger apologise so much in my life. He was a take me or leave me kind of guy, never saying sorry for anything. “I was just so glad to find you alive after all this time.”

Slowly, I shook my head. Steph and I both knew that Ranger hadn’t just discovered Steph’s location six months ago when Tank ‘stumbled’ over her on a mission. This was where things were going to get messy.

“Don’t lie to me,” Steph said, her voice low. “I know Sera is your cousin. I know she’s been keeping you updated for years. Don’t try to make it seem like you only discovered me recently.”

Ranger looked shocked, his eyebrows almost disappearing into his hair line. “How did you-“

“You think I wouldn’t recognise my own second cousin?” I inserted, stepping forward.

“I didn’t send her down there to baby sit you,” Ranger told Steph firmly. “She made that decision herself.”

“But you urged her to give you regular updates. I know. I’ve already spoken to her about it.”

“Steph,” Ranger said, his tone almost pleading a wrinkle appeared between his brows.

Steph replied coolly, “Ranger.”

They were starting to scare me now. I’d never seen them interact like this. It brought to mind those moments in the gym when I’d been grappling with the realisation that Steph was Steph. How cold I had felt toward her, while she’d been begging me to understand. I’d been prepared to tear her to shreds at one point, I was so angry. And now Stephanie was here, giving off a similar vibe toward not some terrible criminal, but the man she’d loved. How many times had I seen her face light up at his arrival over the years? How many smiles were his fault? How many laughs? And now all he could coax out of her was a scowl.

“I left,” Steph began to explain, “Because I felt like my life in Trenton was spiralling out of control, and not just because I’d possibly conceived a child with a man I couldn’t remember sleeping with. I’d let everyone else in the world take the reins, steering me this way or that as they saw fit. Even you, I allowed to have more power over my life than I allowed myself. I left because I needed to get away from the situation I’d created for myself.

“The miscarriage made me realise that it was time for me to grow up, but as time went on and I started acting more grown up – helping my family, learning to cook, committing more fully to you – the grief of losing the baby still weighed me down.”

“You should have told me,” Ranger interrupted.

“Yes,” Steph agreed. “I should have. I realise that now. But you have to understand. By the time I felt the desperate need to get out of Trenton, a month and a half had already passed since it happened. What would you have said if I’d come to you six weeks after the fact and told you I’d had a miscarriage but I wasn’t sure the baby was yours?”

It was a good point. I wasn’t sure what I would have done, but it would have been hard to get past. Relationships were about sharing, and if one party couldn’t share it was bound to end in tragedy. The problem with Steph and Ranger was, one party was legally unable to share a big part of his life with her from the very beginning, which left a rather large excuse for Steph to keep certain things to herself if she felt the need. Why should she have to share every detail of her life with him when he couldn’t do the same for her? A heavy sadness settled over me as I realised that it would be the same if I’d ever gotten a chance with her.

“We’d have gotten through it somehow,” Ranger said quietly, taking another small step closer. “We’d have found a way. We still can.”

“You wouldn’t have trusted me again,” Stephanie accused. “But it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done and can’t be undone. We both made our beds and now we have to lie in them.”

Ranger looked confused for a moment. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Steph let out a weary sigh. “I can’t trust you to give me the space I need when I need it. I can’t trust you to not manipulate me into doing what you want me to do. I can’t trust you. What you did, even though I know it was only in response to what I first did to you, hurt. And I can’t get past that right now. I need time. Time for these wounds to heal. And so do you. We can’t be together the way we were before. We may never be able to. I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t be with you right now.”

A short nod was all Ranger could muster in reply for the longest time and I didn’t blame him. This was the strongest I’d ever seen Stephanie. Never before had she taken such strides in standing up for herself. She’d confessed last night that she was worried she’d be stuck in a never ending cycle of never quite making the mature choice for the rest of her life. That she’d always be letting other people make decisions for her instead of taking the wheel herself. Here, in this moment, she’d managed to take the first step toward remedying that problem. She’d stated exactly how she felt and what she felt was the best solution. I was so proud of her.

“What about the community centre?” Ranger asked. His blank mask was firmly in place, but he was shell shocked, I could tell. He’d never expected Steph to stand up for herself like this. Probably, he’d hoped that, with the knowledge that she had not, in fact, slept with the cop, they could somehow reconcile their relationship and everything would be like it was before all of this happened. I’d never viewed Ranger as a dreamer, but clearly everyone had dreams, and it was clear that he loved her, even now. And what’s worse, he’d never been broken up with before.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Steph said, her voice softer than it had been. “I’m staying in Trenton, and if you’ll still have me, I’d like to keep working here. For now at least.” She paused.

“Of course,” he agreed, tone flat. This was Corporate Ranger. Or at least as much of him as he could must in the wake of Stephanie’s words. “The company runs smoother with you than without. Your cubicle is always available.”

With that, he turned on his heels and strode purposefully toward his Porsche. Stephanie did not follow his progress, merely standing as she had throughout the entire confrontation, head held upright, shoulders squared and strong, arms crossed over her chest, feet shoulder-width apart. She stared straight ahead at the closed elevator doors, breathing evenly, but as the Porsche roared to life and tore from the lot I saw a single tear run down her cheek, followed by another and another and before I knew it, she was sobbing.

Crossing the small space quickly, I gathered her into my arms, and let her bury he face in my chest until she’d regained her composure. Holding her own against Ranger had taken everything out of her.

Long minutes later, she lifted her head and stared into my eyes as though only now realising that I held her. “I can’t be with you either,” she hiccoughed, another tear sliding down her face, following the tracks left by the others.

“I know,” I assured her, tucking an errant curl back behind her ear. “But I can still be your friend.”

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