Twelve Months Later
Tension gathered along my spine as Ranger entered the foyer of the community centre. I kept my gaze on him as he made his way through the crowd of teens milling around the spacious area, willing him not to look at me. Every time our eyes met there was a stab of some emotion I couldn’t quite name in my chest, and I just couldn’t mask the effect it had on me while helping the young girl before me with her paperwork. He wasn’t supposed to be back until Thursday. Today was only Tuesday. I hadn’t been expecting him.
“Bobby in?” he asked, carefully avoiding meeting my gaze directly as he approached the reception desk.
“With a patient,” I said quickly as he started to move toward the door that lead to the medical suite the company medic had set up. “Shouldn’t be too long.”
“I’ll wait here then,” he announced, giving me the opportunity to protest before he popped around the back of the counter and took up residence in the raised office chair close by. His presence was still unnerving, just as it had been six weeks ago before he’d left. Just as it had been a month before that when we’d somehow been left alone at the table at Shorty’s during a celebratory dinner. Just as it had been the day after I told him I couldn’t be with him when I returned to work Monday morning and we’d had to call a special meeting to explain how a woman who had entered the company under a false identity could be allowed to stay. But it was getting easier to be in the same room as him.
Somehow, we’d gone from barely able to look at each other, to merely uneasy when left alone. I still got the prickly feeling at the back of my neck whenever he was near. And, once or twice, I’d felt my stomach flip when I caught him staring at me from afar. It was clear he still mourned our relationship, and probably the baby that never was.
A few weeks after I made my feelings clear, we met in a neutral public place to discuss our situation more personally. I laid out exactly what I expected of him and why. He agreed and asked only that I tell him if I needed anything from him. He’d been devastated by the fact that I hadn’t gone to him for help six years ago, so I felt it was the least I could do in return for my demands being met. We’d both done very well at staying within the parameters we’d set that day.
“You could make yourself useful,” I suggested, gesturing to the boy loitering a few feet away, an uncertain expression on his face.
“What are we doing?” Ranger asked, craning his neck to see the paperwork the girl and I were working on.
“Enrolments for the new self-defence class the guys are starting up,” I explained. “A lot of these kids have never filled out a form in their life. They just need a little help understanding the questions.”
Ranger gave me a funny look. “We need enrolment forms now?” he asked.
A lot can change in six weeks, I realised. Like the need for enrolment forms. It occurred to us after a boy in one of the kick boxing classes had collapsed from low blood sugar. We hadn’t realised he was diabetic. Until that point our enrolment process had merely been write your name on the clipboard at the door before each session. We had some regulars that we knew quite well, but we realised that a lot of the people that came through the door were not much more than a face and a name. In order to ensure the health and safety of our patrons, we needed to know a little more about them. They didn’t necessarily have to answer all the questions on the form – it wasn’t possible for a lot of them – but they were urged to answer as many as was possible.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “I can do that.”
That was another thing that was odd. Although the community centre was funded by him, he treated it as mine. Like it was my brain child. Like I owned it. Probably, he would give me the deed as a gift if I were to allow it. Which I wasn’t really inclined to do at the moment. It was great working here and all, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Working in tandem, we managed get through all the new enrolments just in time for the class to actually start. As Lester and Hank beckoned the teens through to gym, Ranger sat back in his chair, glancing across the space to me.
“How was Europe?” I asked. It had been a while since we’d had a conversation that didn’t revolve around a skip, so it felt odd to strike one up now, but I couldn’t just sit there in silence. As uneasy as I felt around him, he was still the man I’d loved. Possibly still loved. I hadn’t quite worked through my feelings toward hi yet, but I was working on it with my therapist and we were making strides, as evidenced by the fact that I could sit here without hyperventilating or crying.
“Europe was fine,” he replied.
“Any steps taken to expand Rangeman’s jurisdiction?”
“A couple of promising leads,” he confirmed. “I hear you’re going back to school?”
I nodded confirmation. “I realised that I’m not destined to work in Fugitive Apprehension forever, so I thought I’d get qualified for something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.”
“And what would that be?” he asked pleasantly.
Rolling my eyes, I reached across the counter to grab the forms he’d been piling up to add to my own pile. “Like you don’t already know.”
Ranger speared a look at me, serious. “I don’t,” he assured me. “I don’t ask questions about your life to other people anymore. Nor do I dig into it. If I want to know about your life I’ll ask you directly, which is why I’m asking now.”
“Oh,” I uttered, taken aback. I hadn’t expected that. I guess I’d gotten so used to him knowing every detail of my life before I had a chance to mention anything that I hadn’t thought that perhaps the events that transpired when I returned from Mexico could change that. I concentrated on getting all the paper edges aligned while I tried to work out how I felt about this side of Ranger. It was clear he was trying to put things right. We’d done so much wrong toward each other that it had, at one stage, seemed beyond fixing. But this, I realised, was a step in the right direction. Maybe there was hope for us being at least friends, after all.
“So what is the great Stephanie Plum putting her mind to now?” he prompted, my silence having gone on long enough. “What classes will she be taking?”
“Teaching,” I said softly. “Stephanie Plum will be earning her Teaching Degree.”
Ranger’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Teaching?” he repeated.
I nodded, staring down at the pages I’d gathered as a new shot of nervousness ran through my stomach. I’d been getting the feeling on and off ever since signing up for college and it had only increased with the acceptance letter. “Spanish and English as a second language,” I informed him.
A slight smile played at the edges of lips. “You’ll be good at that,” he assured me.
Another long, awkward silence stretched between us, but somehow, it wasn’t the same kind of awkward it had been recently. At first he’d spent as much time away from Trenton as possible, an unreadable emotion crossing his face every time he laid eyes on me. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I’d hurt him with all my actions, but having been hurt so much myself, I couldn’t find it in myself to be all that sympathetic toward his issues. So we’d merely steered clear of each other, communicating in text format as much as possible to avoid face to face contact. Then after a few months, the work I’d been doing with my therapist started to sink in and the tension I felt every time I looked at him began to ease. We’d been able to hold civilised, work related conversations face to face, which I’m sure was a big relief for the men. More recently, we’d managed to have perfectly pleasant interactions about day to day events in our lives. It seemed we were making strides.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said, at the same time Ranger uttered, “I realised something the other day.”
We stared at each other for a moment until he made a gesture for me to continue.
“I’ve been thinking,” I repeated. “We’re doing a lot here to help people: providing food and shelter, free self-defence lessons for a variety of age and skill levels, medical treatment. But what about incorporating a less physical side of support as well?”
Ranger raised a single eyebrow to let me know he was intrigued by said nothing.
“Well, why are people on the streets?” I asked him.
“Because they can’t afford living expenses,” he said promptly. “Because they can’t find a job. And a plethora of other reasons.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “What if we started helping in those respects? We’re more than capable of helping people sort out their resumé and providing decent clothes for job interviews. And what if we started up basic classes for language skills and things like that? I mean, I know it could get costly if we keep adding things, but I hate to not be able to help people in the way they need to be helped. We can provide all the beds we want, but if we’re not assisting people get back on their feet for real, we’re not really doing that much, are we?”
“You’re right,” he approved. “I’ll look into it.”
“Thanks. So what were you going to say?”
He held my gaze for a long moment, allowing a real expression to peak through his nearly constant blank mask. “I never truly apologised for everything I did,” he informed me. “I caused you a lot of unnecessary grief by dragging you back and then pretending not to recognise you. I should have been straight with you.”
I nodded agreement, breaking eye contact to slip the enrolment forms into the draw in front of me. “I should have done things differently as well,” I confessed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Morelli, and about the miscarriage.”
“Did I step into an alternate universe?” a female voice called from plate glass double doors that lead to the street.
“Definitely not,” I replied, ducking out from behind the counter in order to put as much distance between myself and Ranger at that suggestion from Sera.
Sera crossed the lobby, a grin spreading across her face as she cut her eyes between her cousin and myself. “Well, this is definitely the most friendly I’ve ever seen you both,” she explained. “Forgive me for jumping to conclusions.”
“Anyway, you ready to go?” she asked me.
“Yes!” I enthused, turning back to the counter. Ranger was in the same spot he had been since arriving. I realised that my relief hadn’t turned up yet. “Except Darren isn’t here yet.”
“If you need to go I can man the desk until he turns up,” Ranger assured me.
I glanced at my watch. “You’re sure?” I asked. “It’s just, I don’t want to be late for my first day of class.”
“I’m sure I can handle it, Babe.”
Trying to ignore the way his pet name made me feel after so long not hearing it, I retrieved my satchel bag from the file drawer and hurried toward the exit. “Feel free to do the filing while you’re waiting,” I suggested, pointing to the overflowing box beside the computer monitor. “Sometimes even the boss needs to get in touch with his inner intern.”
“We’ll see how bored I get,” he suggested.
And I was gone, waving goodbye over my shoulder.
“He’s never gonna touch that filing,” Sera said as she beeped her car unlocked. “You know that right?”
“Not a chance,” I agreed. “He’s above that kind of thing.”
“Doesn’t know his alphabet well enough,” Sera added. “Maybe you can help him with that once you’ve earned your degree.” She waggled her eyebrows at me suggestively as we both slid into the car and she inserted the key into the ignition.
“I’m not thinking about relationships right now,” I told her firmly, but the effects of my sternness was lost as she turned on the car and What Does the Fox Say? blared out of the stereo. Everyone knew I couldn’t keep a straight face while this ridiculous song was on.
“Abuela already classes you as part of the family,” Sera informed me over the yip yip yipping of the song. “It’s just a matter of time until you make it official, one way or another.”
“I love you and all, but I’ve learned my lesson. I will not be pressured into doing things before I’m ready.”
“Good. I’m glad.”