AN: Well, I heard you guys loud and clear. It was a nearly unanimous vote. So here is the promised Epilogue. It's so full of sweetness, you'll probably feel the need to brush your teeth after reading it. But I hope you all enjoy it.
And thanks again to CornFedFiddler for Beta reading and catching all my typos and comma craziness.
Colored light, cast by the stained-glass windows of the church, danced across the sleeping infant resting in the crook of my arm. I was baptized here. My brother and sisters as well. And now, my newest nephew, dressed in the same simple white baptismal gown worn by all the Manosos before him.
I'd like to say it was the only time in my life I'd worn a gown. But Celia was a brutal big sister, and I'd been forced into playing dress up more than once. She'd gleefully shown Steph the photographic evidence almost immediately after they'd met.
We'd see if she still found it so amusing when her three kids all received drum sets for Christmas, courtesy of Uncle Carlos.
The priest, adorned in a deep purple vestment in honor of Advent, cleared his throat, regaining my attention. He addressed my sister and brother-in-law, both standing to my right. "What name have you given your child?"
"Carlos Allen Barrett," they intoned simultaneously.
"What do you ask of God's church for Carlos Allen?"
My mind wandered, affording the ceremony half my attention. The nave smelled strongly of frankincense, the aroma conjuring calming memories of Sundays long past. Candles flickered along the ornately painted niches bearing statues of The Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and directly behind us, John the Baptist. Tiers of potted poinsettias circled the altar and liturgy podium, pops of red and green against the polished oak backdrops.
Among the many eyes focused on our small group circling the stone baptismal font, I felt Steph's acutely. Glancing up, I met her gaze. She sat in the second pew, between Celia and Alex, perfectly at ease with my family. And they with her. Too at ease, perhaps, based on the way she and Celia sometimes giggled when I walked into a room. There had been far too many tales of my childhood misadventures shared over the past six months.
Electric guitars might find their way under Celia's family Christmas tree this year as well.
Steph offered me a dazzling smile across the holy space, one which I returned tenfold. There was very little that could make today's celebration more perfect, surrounded by family and the woman I loved more than anything in the world.
And to think, I'd almost succumbed to the fear and walked away. Now, I was learning to live with it. Taking it one day at a time. And, using a page from my mother's book, treating each moment with Steph like it could be our last. Leave nothing unsaid. Never go to bed angry. Live with no regrets. Make love to her every night.
Sleep deprivation had never before been so welcomed.
We'd had some hiccups, learning to deal with the other's idiosyncrasies in the same shared space, but for the most part we clicked like puzzle pieces. Time felt skewed with Steph as a permanent fixture in my life. Six months didn't seem right. Hadn't it been forever?
It took conscious effort to remind myself we were still new at this. To hold back the urge to drop onto one knee and present her with the ring I'd taken to carrying around in my wallet. Always reminding myself that her first failed marriage had made her gun shy of the institution in general. It was too soon. If I spooked her, she might bolt.
With every passing day, the temptation got harder to fight.
An unhappy mewl pulled my attention downward, as my namesake squirmed. The priest had just anointed him with oil.
Sorry, little man, you're not going to enjoy this next part any better.
After the priest worked through his long list of questions, asking us to renounce sin and profess our faith, he motioned for me to step forward. On my left, David's sister, acting as Godmother, stepped with me.
I adjusted my nephew in my arms, supporting his neck as I moved his head over the bowl of blessed water, reflecting the ornately painted ceiling above. One dark eye cracked open as the child began to wiggle, shooting me such a look of annoyance I nearly laughed aloud. He was Becca's son through and through, no question.
The priest dipped a silver cup into the font. "I baptize you in the name of the Father."
Water drizzled over the lip of the cup and splashed off baby Carlos' bald head. His other eye flew open, arms stiffening as a look of utter shock crossed his tiny features. I bit my lip. My mother would beat me if I lost it in the middle of the actual sacrament.
"And of the Son," the priest recited stoically.
More water. My Godson's face grew splotchy and red. A smile lifted the corners of my lips.
"And of the Holy Spirit."
The last dousing did it. A loud cry split the air, drowning out whatever the priest said next. Becca descended instantly, scooping Carlos from my arms as the infant continued his vocal protest of the cleansing of his original sin. She tried to pop a pacifier into his open mouth, but he spit it immediately onto the floor.
She looked down, and I saw the battle written plainly of her face. How many germs were on a holy carpet? Did she dare pick it up and offer it to her child again?
In the end, she must have decided that her faith in God didn't go that far. She left the pacifier where it lay and instead tried to soothe her son with gentle shushing sounds. He wanted none of it.
Becca and David exchanged red-faced glances as the priest folded his hands in his robe, waiting for the return of silence so he could continue the traditional blessing. He'd be waiting until the second coming, at this rate.
A single chuckle slipped past my lips. Beside me, David's sister froze. Her eyes swiveled sideways, and she giggled, her hand flying to her lips almost immediately as silent laughter shook her shoulders. A few titters rose from the pews before the damn broke and the church filled with laughter.
My Godson stopped his wail mid-stream, eyes widening at the sound echoing off the walls around him. I offered him my pinkie and he grasped it in his surprisingly strong little fist. Bringing my amusement back under control, I leaned down to brush my lips across his forehead.
Don't lose that fighting spirit, little man.
My sister offered me a look of gratitude. That would fade as soon as she realized I had every intention of spoiling this kid rotten, buying him the most irritating toys on the market, and generally turning him into a hellion.
Revenge was sweet.
As the ceremony concluded, the guests filed out of the church quickly, everyone eagerly anticipating the coming feast. My mother had spent the last three days cooking enough food to feed a small third world country.
We'd just reached the church doors, the last to leave, when Steph stopped and smacked her hand off her forehead. "Sorry. I forgot my purse in the pew. Be right back."
I followed slowly as she hustled back down the aisle, deeply ingrained Catholic habit causing her to genuflect before entering the pew. The hem of her skirt pooled out behind her as she bent her knee, bathed in the white beams of sunlight angling through the huge, circular window behind the sanctuary.
For half a second, I had a vision of her in a white gown, train spread out behind her as she knelt before the altar. It stole the air from my lungs.
I reached for my wallet. It might be too soon, but who was I to ignore a sign from God?
I snagged the strap of my purse, relieved I'd remembered it before we'd driven away. Recently, my brain felt like it had been fried. Starting a business was even harder than I'd expected. If it weren't for Ranger, I probably would have given up months ago.
It had been a slow, frustrating start. Other bounty hunters were reluctant to use my services. And Vinnie downright refused at first, pissed I'd quit and left him in a lurch. He'd come around since then, but I had a sneaky suspicion a visit from Ranger had a lot to do with that, even if neither of them would fess up.
My real break, however, had come from an unlikely source. A woman had dropped into my office unexpectedly, tearfully explaining that her adult daughter was missing. With no signs of foul play, the police couldn't do anything but file a missing person report. With nowhere else to turn, she offered me $500 to find her daughter.
It had taken a couple days, but I eventually tracked her down, holed up inside a drug den on Stark Street. She was now working her way through rehab.
It was then that I'd realized I'd limited myself by only targeting other bounty hunters, and Bombshell Search Services was born. And while I counted a few bounty hunters among my clients, most of my bread and butter came from regular folks just looking for missing friends or loved ones. I'd grown enough I even had to hire a part-time employee: Lula.
We'd worked together long enough that she knew the ins and outs of searching for someone. And to be perfectly honest, there were some parts of Trenton where people would only talk to Lula.
My hardest case, however, had come from Ranger. He'd given me just a name, Riel Fernandez, a town in Cuba, and a range of approximate birth years and potential current ages. That was it. And he wouldn't tell me why I was looking for this person.
Dating Batman could be enormously frustrating. Though, the mind-blowingly phenomenal sex made up for that.
Stepping out of the pew, I turned around and nearly collided with Ranger. He wrapped an arm around my waist, pulling me close. His lips brushed against mine gently.
"Miss me already?" I teased. "I said I'd be right back."
"You know how much I love you, right?" He mumbled it into my hair, my chest constricting at the words.
Why would he ask me that? Had something happened? Was someone threatening us? Was he planning to leave? But he'd seemed so happy this morning and during the baptism…
He stepped away from me and my knees shook, threatening to drag me to the floor. I reached out, desperate to keep him from running. "Please don't go."
His eyes grew wide. "Go? Babe, I'm not going anywhere. Ever."
Something glinted in his right hand, and only then did I notice the diamond ring clutched between his fingertips. Little rainbows flitted across the back of the pew from the massive central stone, diamond encrusted loops circling out to either side to form an infinity symbol.
My knees failed, and I sank to the floor.
"I'm supposed to be the one kneeling," Ranger mused softly, amusement dancing behind his eyes. He dropped fluidly to one knee, bringing us nose to nose.
"Marry me, Steph."
No fancy words or speeches. He wasn't that type of man. And I didn't need them. The pure hope radiating from his eyes said it all. I did, indeed, know how much he loved me. Because I loved him back at least as much, if not more.
I nodded, the "yes" forming on my tongue never making it past my dry lips.
He somehow managed to wrangle my trembling hand, sliding the ring over my knuckle, where it would stay for eternity. I granted myself a full second to stare at it in wonder before throwing my arms around his neck, our lips finding each other's without thought.
He kept his kisses chaste. He pulled away, chuckling, the third time I tried to force my tongue into his mouth. At least one of us remembered we were kneeling in God's house.
"There will be plenty of time for that later, Babe."
I blushed lightly, chastised. My mother would have been appalled. Of course, she was going to be horrified when we broke the news to her either way. She'd headed straight for the liquor cabinet when Ranger and I showed up for dinner holding hands that Saturday six months ago. Having Batman for a son-in-law never fit into her life plan.
"Omigod, we've got to go to your mother's house. Won't Becca be mad if the news of our engagement outshines Carlos' baptism?"
"In this case, I think she'll be thrilled."
Ranger rose to his feet and offered me a hand, lifting me gently. I leaned into him, both of us enjoying a few more minutes of peace. The rest of the day would be insanity.
As the party wound down, Ranger and I cuddled on the loveseat in the living room enjoying the relative seclusion. His siblings searched the house, rounding up over-sugared children, squeezing them into winter coats, and herding them outside. The initial hullabaloo over our engagement had died off quickly, replaced by a general consensus of "about damn time." And wedding talk. Lots and lots of wedding talk.
The appeal of elopement had deepened by the second.
My head rested on Ranger's shoulder contently. We should probably say our goodbyes to his mother, being the last ones remaining, but I couldn't find the motivation to suggest leaving. Besides, I knew once we went home we'd have to discuss telling my mother about our engagement.
Yep. No hurry to get home at all.
My phone vibrated in my pocket and panic shot through me. Could just thinking about my mother have somehow caused her to call? She couldn't have started receiving phone calls already, could she? Glancing at my shiny new iPhone screen, I breathed a sigh of relief and tapped the Facebook message alert. A second later, my sigh of relief reversed as I sucked it back in.
"I think I found him," I murmured mostly to myself. Blinking a few times and re-reading the message just to be sure I wasn't hallucinating.
I tilted the screen, so Ranger could see. "Riel Fernandez."
"What?" In a very uncharacteristic display of emotion, Ranger ripped the phone out of my hands excitedly. "Where?"
"Houston Texas. Maybe." I chewed my lip and waved toward the message. "Locating someone still in Cuba is damn near impossible. Only five percent of the population even has access to the internet, and the government keeps a pretty tight lock on it. I found a group on Facebook dedicated to Cuban refugees who were looking for lost family members, so I posted the information you gave me there hoping a member of his family might see it. Been chasing a ton of potential leads ever since. 'Fernandez' is the freaking 'Smith' of Cuba, apparently."
Ranger still had his eyes focused on my cell. "So this Mateo Fernandez you messaged, he says he has a grandfather named Riel Fernandez who immigrated in the 90's from San Cristobal?"
"Yeah. But I'll need to dig deeper to confirm it's the right Riel Fernandez. You didn't give me much to go on."
Suddenly, Ranger stood. He handed me back the phone and crossed the room to the bookshelf, removing a framed photo from the top shelf and hurriedly disassembling it, with a harried glance toward the doorway. Then he handed me a small black and white photo a second later.
"Take a picture of that with your phone and send it back to this Mateo. See if he can confirm that his grandfather is the Riel in that photo."
An edge crept into Ranger's tone that caused me to obey immediately. I snapped the photo and then sent it to Mateo. Only then, did I really stop to examine the image more closely.
"Wait. Is that your mother?"
Ranger gently plucked the photo from my fingertips and replaced it in the frame. "Yes."
Before I could demand he elaborate, my phone buzzed again with Mateo's reply. Ranger raised his eyebrows at me expectantly.
"He says his grandfather lives with them, so he's going to show him the photo now. Guess we'll know in a few minutes." I grinned at Ranger, more than a little proud of myself. "You might end this night owing me $500 bucks. My going rate."
Ranger didn't smile at my taunt. Instead, his eyes seemed to look right through me. "Five hundred is nothing compared to what you and I owe Riel, Babe."
Mouth open to demand clarification, my phone buzzed. Mateo had irritatingly bad timing. Looking down, I saw that he was trying to video message me. That could only mean good news, right?
I tapped the button to accept, but the face that filled my phone screen wasn't that of the young man featured in Mateo's profile picture. An old man, with clouded brown eyes and a few wisps of white hair atop his head, blinked back at me for a second.
"De donde sacaste esta foto?" He barked, voice surprisingly strong despite the clear oxygen tubing resting under his nose and snaking around his head. "Quien eres tu?"
I performed a pretty accurate impression of a fish out of water before Ranger grabbed the phone from my hand.
"Mi nombre es Carlos Manoso. La foto es de mi madre, Renata."
"Renata…" The man's voice trailed off. "Ella vive?" He asked softly a moment later.
"Si." Ranger looked over at me. "Find my mother, Babe."
The urgency in his voice tied a knot in my stomach. I scurried from the living room, finding Renata in the kitchen packing up leftovers.
"What can I help you with, hija?" she asked with a smile.
Words failed me as I realized I had no idea what to tell Renata. Or any idea how Riel fit into her life. "Umm, Carlos asked me to…I mean, he has something… someone really… to show you. I think."
Renata's eyes widened, but she followed me out of the kitchen anyway. Ranger motioned to the sofa as we entered the living room.
"Sit, Mama." His voice wavered. Was that nervousness I sensed in his tone?
"Carlos, what is this about?" she demanded, though she sat none-the-less.
"Renata?" Riel's muffled voice came through the speaker of my phone, still clutched in Ranger's fist.
Renata froze, a hand clutched to her chest. I moved toward her, concerned she might be having a heart attack. Just before I reached her, she sucked in a breath.
"Riel?" The name swam with emotion.
Ranger nodded, gently placing my cell phone into his mother's trembling hands. She gasped. A moment later, she and Riel were both speaking. Rapid Spanish filling the air as Renata brushed away tears.
Ranger gently touched my elbow, leading me from the room. "Let's give them a moment."
"Let's," I agreed. "And you can tell me what the hell is going on."
We settled around the kitchen table, and I helped myself to a sugar cookie before fixing an expectant stare on Ranger.
"Riel Fernandez helped convince me to stay."
"But I only just found him!"
Ranger's lips tilted upward. I listened raptly as he explained how his mother had changed his mind six months ago. I'd never demanded the specifics, always assuming she'd used the superpower bestowed upon all women the moment they give birth: guilt.
"Why didn't you tell me all this when you asked me to look for Riel?"
Ranger scooted his chair closer to mine, taking my hand. "Because I didn't want you to feel guilty if you didn't find him. I knew the odds were slim if he didn't leave Cuba, or that he may not even be alive."
I fidgeted with my ring for a few seconds, still adjusting to its weight on my finger. How much different my life might be if Renata had not understood her son enough to share her relationship with Riel. With a sigh, I leaned into Ranger. His arm curled around my shoulder. I sensed his thoughts running along the same line as mine.
"Should we go check on your mom?" I asked a few minutes later. He nodded in response.
Renata was still on the couch, talking animatedly in Spanish. She glanced up as Ranger and I entered.
"Carlos, you can set it up so I can do this again, yes?"
Ranger's eyes shone with soft affection. "Of course, Mama."
"Buenas noches, Riel. Hablaremos de nuevo pronto." She paused, studying the screen for a moment before jabbing at it and then handing me back my phone. Plucking a tissue from the box on the coffee table, she dabbed her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered, pulling Ranger and I into a three-way hug, a blanket of love settling over us.
Three years later…
It was 3am before we finally found ourselves alone again.
The last nurse exited with a friendly smile. "Try to get some sleep. Just press the call button if you need anything." She pulled the door shut behind her.
I glanced down at my wife resting in her hospital bed. Dark circles rimmed her eyes, but not even exhaustion could extinguish the excitement dancing behind the blue orbs.
"Proud of you, Babe." My lips brushed across her forehead.
Steph smiled up at me, the light in her eyes sparkling mischievously. "You're not going to hunt down the ultrasound tech who told us we were having a daughter, are you?"
A light laugh escaped. "We have a healthy son. And you're well. That's all that matters."
After months of preparing for a daughter, a shock wave had reverberated around the delivery room when the doctor announced it was a boy. Considering all the other risks involved in childbirth, if that was the worst surprise we'd received, we were blessed.
Steph's eyes left mine, focusing on the tightly swaddled bundle in her arms. Our son slept peacefully, perfect in every way.
"He's got my nose," she said softly, "but the rest of his face is all you." She grinned up at me. "We'll be beating the girls off with a stick when he's a teenager."
"We need to discuss names."
"Yeah. Guess Gabriela Renata isn't going to work now, is it?" She sighed heavily. "We're going to have to repaint the nursery. Ugh, and we brought a dress for a going home outfit. That's not going to work!"
I kissed her again, this time lightly on the lips. "Relax, Steph. None of that really matters. But he does need a name."
Her eyes crinkled in thought. "What about…" she paused hesitantly. "What about Riel Ricardo?"
"Riel Ricardo Manoso. Has a nice ring to it."
"You don't think your mom will mind? What if someone asks how we came up with the name?"
"We'll just say we both liked it." So far, Riel remained a secret just between us and my mother. The decision to tell anyone else would always remain hers, and hers alone. "And I think Mama will approve, considering."
A yawn cracked Steph's jaw.
"I'll hold Riel, Babe. You need to sleep."
Conflict crossed her face, but in the end, she allowed me to lift him from her arms. He nestled into the crook of my left arm, like God had intended him to fit there perfectly.
"Two hands!" she cried, trying to reach out.
I chuckled. "Babe. I'm not going to drop him. There isn't a child in the state who will be more protected than our son."
She huffed but couldn't argue with my logic.
God. I had two of them to protect now. The reality of that was just now settling over me. The now familiar fear tried to rise in my chest, but I pushed it down. I was nearly an expert in that now.
"Sleep, Steph. While you can."
"What about you?"
I shrugged. "I've been specially trained to operate in sleep deprived conditions."
Her laugh warmed the room as she snuggled into her pillow. I reclined the bed to nearly flat and tucked the thin white sheet around her. A few minutes later, she was out, snoring softly, mouth open, a trickle of drool escaping the corner. Sexy as ever. More so now, in a way I couldn't describe as my wife and mother of my child.
Walking away from her bed, I settled into the wooden rocking chair next to the large window overlooking Trenton. The city lights sparkled in the darkness, obscuring the stars. Out of habit, I scanned the nearly empty streets, assessing for threats. Searching for anything out of the ordinary.
All seemed right with the world today.
"Let's let your mother sleep as long as possible, okay?" I told my son in Spanish, a smile spreading across my face. It was impossible to erase.
My son. Mine.
A flash of light pulled my attention back outside as a shooting star streaked across the sky. God was getting better at giving me signs. Or more likely, I was finally seeing them. How long had I stumbled through life blind to the path I should follow? Oblivious to the clues pointing the way?
The irony didn't escape me. It took Steph temporarily losing her sight for me to find mine.
"I suppose we should make a wish," I mused to Riel, still in Spanish. He'd learn the language alongside English, just as I had. "A long and happy life for you, my son. One with no regrets."
AN: Well? Was that enough sugary sweetness to give you a stomach ache? I hope it tied up any remaining loose ends. I have no plans for a sequel. Too many other projects crowding my plate. But I subscribe to a "never say never" mantra, so who knows. Anyway, please add me to your author alert. I have a very fun, kinda smutty Babe fic in the works involving Ranger and Steph going undercover on a cruise ship to catch an international jewel thief. So stay tuned.
If you enjoy my writing, I have also published some original romantic suspense works. Please visit my profile for links to my website and social media sites to learn more. Thank you.