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Chapter Forty One

“I'm leaving you, Barbie," I said in the deepest voice I could manage, waggling my Ken doll in front of me.
“No, Ken, don't leave!" Kimberly said, speaking for the Barbie doll in her hand.  “I love you!"
“It's too late for that," I argued, turning Ken around and walking him away.  “You'll never understand me."
“No!" Barbie called after him, bouncing around agitatedly.  “We were supposed to get married and have a baby!"
“I never wanted a baby," Ken said back.  “I just wanted a hippopotamus to play fetch with!"
Kimberly snorted, breaking character for a moment, and then said, “But hippos can't be pets, Ken!  It's against the rules!"
Ken glared at Barbie with all the defiance a plastic doll could muster.  “I am my own man, Barbie!  If I want to buy a hippo, I'll go to the pet store right now and do it!"
“No, please don't, Ken!" Barbie pleaded.  “Hippos are…"  Kimberly started to giggle, “made of poo!"
I gave her a weird look just before we both broke down and started to laugh.
“Hippos are made of poo?" I asked when I had caught my breath.  “Where did you learn that one?"
Still laughing, Kimberly slugged me on the arm.  “That's not how it's supposed to go!  There aren't any hippos in Barbie!"
“And why not?" I asked, putting my fists on my hips.  “Who said there can't be hippos when we play Barbie?"
“There just aren't!" Kimberly insisted.  She stopped giggling for a moment to let out a big yawn.
Perfect timing, I thought, glancing at the clock on the wall.  I scooped her up in my arms, “Come on, let's get you to bed."
The smell of fresh hamburgers was still heavy in the air when I pulled out Kimberly's bed and tucked her into it.  She was wearing brand new pink pajamas, courtesy of the fully stocked closet Majestic had provided for us.  She snuggled up with Blister, clinging to him so tightly that I thought his fluff-stuffed head would pop off.
“Good night," I said turning off the lights and lying down on my own bed.
“Night," she replied, already halfway into dreamland.  I laid there for ten minutes, until I was certain that she wasn't going to wake up, and then got out of bed.
I hadn't changed into any nightclothes, so all I had to do was slip my tennis shoes back on and leave.  The Swag Pag had been happy to leave me and Kimberly alone after our victory the day before.  D.K. was consumed with his normal apathy, swaggering around the house and blasting his ridiculous music.  Tyler was still recovering, and Kaylie was busy taking care of him.  It was weird.  She still hadn't gone back to D.K., and the alpha didn't seem to be in any hurry to have her back… not yet, at least.
I hesitated when I got to the living room door, but D.K. was staring blankly at the TV screen, an empty beer bottle clutched in his hand.  When I walked past, he didn't even glance my way.  It was risky, leaving while he was still awake, but hopefully he was so drunk he wouldn't even realize I was gone.  I rushed to the front door as quietly as I could, and stepped out into the cold night.
I broke out into a jog, wanting to get to the burger place as fast as I could.  My stomach had been doing flips all day thinking about my secret meeting with Stark.  Why did he want to meet with me?  Who exactly was he?  He terrified me, and yet I couldn't have turned and gone back to the Swag Pag's house now if I'd wanted to.
The cold weather didn't feel nearly as harsh this time, since I was wearing a jacket I'd found in Majestic's closet.  I'd have to be careful about that.  As thick as he was, even D.K. would eventually figure out that I was wearing a different set of clothes every day.  Ed was right, I didn't think my alpha would react well to that.
The sidewalks were almost completely vacant tonight, which was a little strange for this time of night.  Still, it made jogging to the burger shop easier, since I had fewer people to weave around.  In half an hour, I was there.  And there he was.
I could see Stark sitting inside by the window.  He was wearing the same clothes I'd always seen him in.  Anxiety made my palms sweat as I looked at him, and I wiped them dry on my jeans.  He hadn't looked out the window once, but somehow I got the idea that he knew I was there anyway.  Well, I thought, taking a deep breath, let's get this over with.
I walked across the parking lot and pushed the door open, jingling the bell above me.
“Sit wherever you want, hon," the waitress called from behind the counter.  “We're not busy tonight."
“There she is!" I spun around in surprise to see Stark standing up and making his way towards me, a huge smile on his grizzled face.  “I was starting to think you wouldn't make it!"
He clapped me on the shoulder and led me to his booth.  Two menus lay on it, and we sat down across from each other.  I couldn't take my eyes off of him.  I didn't think he meant me harm, not yet at least, but only an idiot lets someone this dangerous out of their sight.
“Order whatever you want," he said, motioning toward the menu in front of me.  “You ever been here before?"
“A couple times," I admitted meekly.  “I was a vegetarian back then, though."
“Not anymore, though?" he asked, then rolled his eyes.  “At least something good came of all this."
“Yeah, I guess," I said, idly flipping through the pages.
There was silence for a couple minutes, and just when I was about to explode from anticipation, Stark looked up and raised his hand.  I jumped at the sudden motion, but realized he was just waving the waitress over.
“What'cha want, hon?" she asked, pulling out a notepad.  She smacked her gum as she waited, reminding me of Stacey.  Maybe they were related?
“I'll have the number three with extra bacon, no pickles, and a double order of fries."
“'kay," she said, jotting it down, and then turned to me.
“Um," I said, quickly going through the menu again.  I hadn't really been paying attention.  Eating was kinda the last thing on my mind at the moment.  “I'll just have a cheeseburger."
“That it?"
“Put mushrooms and swiss cheese on it," Stark interrupted.  “And bring us both a strawberry milkshake."
“A'ight," the waitress put her notepad away and went back to the kitchen.  “It'll be a few minutes."
“Mushroom swiss burgers are the best," Stark said, giving me a wink.  “You'll be glad I ordered it.  Unless you're already partial to gremlin meat."
He said that last sentence so casually that I almost jumped again.
“Should you be saying that so loud?" I asked quietly, instinctively lowering my head.
Stark laughed.  “These are just normal people, Amber.  Even if they hear us, they won't have any idea what we're talking about."
The waitress came back with our milkshakes, and Stark thanked her before taking a big drink from his.
“I'll admit," he said, setting it back down with a satisfied sigh, “the burgers here are okay, but it's the shakes that keep me coming back."
He nodded to mine, and I obediently reached for it and took a drink.  He was right, it was good.  I didn't let it distract me, though.  He wouldn't have brought me here just to enjoy milkshakes, right?
“I'm sorry," I said, leaning towards him and lowering my voice, “but you said we had stuff to talk about, didn't you?"
“Yep," Stark agreed, raising his eyebrows, “but we're gonna eat first.  If I wanted to discuss business, I wouldn't have invited you to a burger joint."
“I can't stay long," I protested.  “Kimberly is…"
“What I have to say has a lot to do with her," he interjected.  “Trust me, you want to hear it.  Besides," he nodded at me with a chuckle, “you look like you haven't had a good meal in days."
That wasn't entirely true.  Majestic's gift had kept both me and Kimberly satisfied for the past day.  Still, if he was offering free food, then I guess Kimberly would be all right for a little bit longer.  Ed had said that the door would keep D.K. and the others out, after all.
The food came a couple of minutes later.  Two huge burgers with mountains of French fries in red plastic baskets.  My mouth started to water just looking at them.
“Don't wait for my permission," Stark laughed when he saw me staring at it.  “Dig in!"
I didn't need to be told twice.  I had eaten just before leaving, but the greasy smell of the meat and fries was enough to make my stomach growl again.  I picked up the hamburger, stringing melted cheese behind it, and took a bite.
“Ooh," I moaned, eyes closed and mouth full, “that is good."
“I don't figure those idiots feed you well," Stark said, twirling a fry between his fingers before tossing it into his mouth.  “Consider it a gift."
“Thank you," I said before taking another bite.
Stark let us eat in silence.  I finished my burger before he did, and then just sat there, watching him.  I still couldn't shake my unease around him, but seeing him like this, pigging out on a hamburger and fries, he didn't look quite so threatening.  It almost felt like I was being taken out to dinner by my uncle or something.
“I love this place," he said with a belch after swallowing the last bite.  “Hey, Dolly!"
The waitress came back, and he dug a crumpled up bill out of his pocket for her.  Dolly, I thought.  Exactly the kind of name someone would expect from a waitress in a retro little place like this.
“Okay," I said, trying to not let the hot food make me feel sleepy, “so…"
“Not here," he cut me off.  “Outside.  Come with me."
He got up and headed for the door.  After a few tense seconds of indecision, I got up and joined him.  He said he wanted to talk about Kimberly, which meant maybe, maybe, he wanted to do something to help her.  After everything that had happened, I doubted I would be able to trust anyone completely ever again.  If there was a possibility he actually wanted to help, though, I would put aside my suspicions and go wherever he told me to do.
“Sir?" Dolly called to him from the register, a shocked expression on her face.  “This is way more than you owe!"
I looked, and saw her holding a hundred dollar bill, pinching it between two fingers like she thought it would vanish if she dropped it.  Stark turned and gave her a sly wink from the doorway.
“Keep the change."
NEXT TIME: Dang, Stark doesn't seem so bad, does he?  And he's rich!  Couldn't have told that by the clothes he wears, huh?  Looks like things are going pretty well.  Wonder what he has to say about Kimberly?


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