Nocturne for Stephanie
A/N- Here we go the final chapter. This has been so much fun. A huge thank you for everyone who has read or reviewed. You'll never know how much this has boosted me over the last few weeks. I will miss checking my emails to see who has left me kind messages. I don't know you are or where in the world you live but thank you.
I really hope you enjoy this last instalment.
Thursday evening found Ranger and I in the closet. Officially I had taken over my half of the space and Ranger was happy to share.
While I had my dress for the party there was a debate over Ranger's outfit. The black suit he wore previously was one option and he stood wearing the other.
"Ranger, I told you that I saw Tank and Lester in their combat uniform but wow, this is beyond anything." All fifteen weeks and four days of my pregnancy hormones were off the scale. I mock fanned my face with my hands. On second thoughts, who was mocking?
His dress uniform took my breath away. The indication of the additional service he gave were four small badges sewn onto the top of his left arm of the Special Forces, Rangers, Airborne tabs and the associated special forces insignia consisting of three lightning bolts and a fighting knife against the backdrop of an arrowhead. No one who saw those would doubt his honourable service.
"Babe, I'm proud to wear this uniform. I'm happy to serve my country and I will wear this if this is what you want but I won't wear it just to prove to your family that I'm not the thug they believe I am."
"I'm thinking Ranger. I'm trying to decide if I want you wear that for me or if there is an alternative motive." I sat down on the upholstered chair.
"A lot of what we're doing this weekend will help me, legitimise my having a bump to those people to whom that matters even if that's not the purpose of the party. I just want people to know we're together and Junior is on his or her way. Why can't we also give no one any reason to question your honour too?"
"Babe, do you believe I care what anyone other than you thinks about me? I don't serve to be able to show these tabs to others. Let's not try to solve everything this weekend."
"So that's a no to your uniform?"
"If you're uncertain why you want it, let's keep it simple."
"Ok, Ranger, we'll go with the suit." I sigh contently and contemplate how much my life has changed. "How did I manage without you all this time?"
"Babe, you needed to figure out that other things were wrong before we stood a chance. And I needed to allow myself to believe I could have what I wanted." He began to undress and carefully returned his uniform to the hangers.
"Yeah, that shouldn't have taken as long as it did. Joe and I were never going to work. Neither of us really wanted to settle down with each other. We were both victims of the pressure from the Burg."
"While I agree, I really don't want to hear his name in our bedroom."
"Crap, Joe!" I exclaim
"So you thought you'd say it again?" Ranger laughed.
I run to the bedroom door. "ok now I'm out of the bedroom I'll continue. Joe doesn't know about this weekend."
Ranger shrugged. Guess it wasn't a big concern to him.
"I have to tell him."
"He deserves to know."
Ranger grunted. "Not sure I agree with that Babe."
"Ranger he's been a part of my life for a very long time. I'd like to be the one to tell him. Then he'll know for sure regardless of what the Burg tells him."
"Ranger? I want to do this. I'd like you to be ok with it too." Alright, 'ok' might be too strong an emotion.
"Ranger, if you'd stepped up at the first chance rather than your no relationships rule we wouldn't be having this conversation. All I'm trying to do is set the record straight. I want to tell him that I've claimed you."
He raised an eyebrow "Babe, first chance?"
"Well maybe not an obvious chance but I was handcuffed naked in the shower and I chose to call you. You admitted to being attracted to me from the start. Do you think I was blind to those muscles Batman? That man of mystery image you had going on would melt a girl's panties."
He stepped closer and pulled me out of the doorway. "You saying they have no effect anymore? I'm not a mystery to you?" He dominated my personal space standing naked. His Bvlgari shower gel mixed with the memory of him in his dress uniform overpowered all my senses.
"Holy smokes Batman!" Was all I could say before he swept me off my feet back to the bed.
I called 'he who shall not be named in the bedroom' on Friday morning and invited him to join me for lunch. I debated over a public or private meeting. I didn't want to create one last Stephanie and Joe debacle for the Burg but equally didn't want to lead him to think that a private meeting meant I was reconsidering our breakup.
Ranger too had his concerns and asked that I took one of the guys. We compromised that Lester would stay in the car while Joe and I met in my apartment.
Junior was on a Ranger food day today so I collected food from the Chinese on the way to my apartment.
It felt weird to be returning to here now that all my stuff had made its way to Haywood. The living room didn't look very different as I never did much to personalise this space after the last fire. My TV had been donated but all other furniture remained in place. Hopefully Joe wouldn't notice the lack of Rex in the kitchen and he definitely wouldn't see the now empty closet in the bedroom. I was ready to hand in my notice to Dillon on Sunday. At the end of the next month I would be officially homeless other than at Haywood and I couldn't be happier.
We'd debated whether we should let Grandma move in to my apartment but concluded that not everyone would hear about my move and I didn't want to expose her to any remaining crazies that might come visiting. Plus, I secretly think that she and Daddy find some enjoyment in rattling each other over the bathroom.
At 12 on the dot I heard I knock on the door and went to answer. At least he didn't break in.
"Hi Joe, come in."
I'd set up the Chinese in the lounge.
Steamed rice with chicken and vegetables stir fry for me. Some sugar coated deep fried chicken and fried noodles for Joe.
"Cupcake, what's with the rabbit food? I was looking forward to a meatball sub." He sat on the couch next to me and picked at his meal removing any trace of broccoli.
"Please, let's not argue. I've been trying to vary my diet. This is what I felt like today."
"Still no luck with snapping the jeans then?" I decide to ignore that dig. It was hot today and I'd struggled enough to find something to wear which was cool enough but hid Junior. I'd had to settle for maternity shorts and a loose oversized shirt.
We ate in silence for a few minutes.
"How are you doing, Joe? No big cases that I've heard, so you've been around Trenton for a while?"
"Yeah, thankfully all quiet after that last big one. Needed a break from that." He looked really uncomfortable and ran his hands through his hair. I took the opportunity to dive in and eat. Junior was extra hungry today.
"Cupcake, I don't know what you wanted me here for today but I should probably tell you I've been on a couple of dates with someone new. She's nice, quieter than you which is probably a good thing. She works as a customer services rep over in Plainsboro. She's looking for work closer to Trenton but it's good Steph I think I like her."
I manage to swallow my bite "I'm glad to hear that. You deserve someone nice Joe."
He carried on "Look I'm still sorry about the last time we met. I feel terrible I don't know what happened, I was in a rough place and it's no excuse."
I'd rather not relive it "Joe, you're right there was no excuse but I didn't ask you here to rehash our past. I need your help." I see him switch to cop mode.
"Something pretty big is about to come out and I wanted you to know from me. I'd like your help on something related going forwards."
"Are you in danger?" He asked between chewing.
"Not really, possibly, we'll get to that bit later."
"Cupcake, you know I'll always help you if you're in trouble. I don't know how it finds you. Has Rangeman got you involved in something illegal?"
"No. Joe, please listen. I wanted you to know from me. I'm sure the Burg will get hold of it soon and I don't know what mess they'll make of it." Stay calm Stephanie.
"Joe, I'm glad you're seeing someone new. It's probably a good thing she not from the Burg, a clean start. I wanted to tell you, I'm in a relationship too."
He stopped eating and is quiet for a moment "That's great Cupcake, it's about time you got back out there." I'm undecided if he actually means what he's saying. I'm grateful that he's seeing someone else otherwise this could go downhill very quickly.
"You been out, a couple of time with a guy? Good for you. I take it he's not Burg either."
"No, not Burg. Well, it's more than a couple of dates. Actually, we've been together for quite a while but kept it quiet."
He put his fork down. All thoughts of eating have disappeared. He looked at me trying to identify what 'quite a while' implied. "Not while we were together, Joe. I would do that to you. He wasn't the reason we broke up. But it happened very quickly once we did get together."
"Yeah" he deserves me to answer him honestly.
"You kept it hidden?" I see the vein in his neck starting to pulse.
"Joe, there's going to be some of this that I don't tell you. I think once you've heard what I do say, you can figure out some more. But some of this is private between him and me."
"So why now?" His arms are begging to flap.
"Several reasons, we're done hiding it, we love each other. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I don't want people assuming that it is."
I take a deep breath, here we go. "Also, there is another factor that will become fairly obvious soon enough."
I decide to go for the rip of the band aid approach.
"Joe, he and I, we got married and shortly afterwards discovered that I'm pregnant. It was a surprise, we're both happy about this."
He didn't say anything but got up from the couch and walked near the door. His face turning red from the effort of holding his tongue.
"I didn't do any of this to hurt you but I could see that I turned down the idea of marriage and children with you and then go and do exactly that with someone else."
"Cupcake." He grunted but didn't make a move to leave. He rested his back and foot on the door facing into the room and tapped the wall repeatedly with his fisted hand.
"Like I said, it happened quickly. I hadn't thought about it until he asked me and I realised I wanted to say yes to him. The baby was not planned and frankly I'm terrified about it all." I curl up at the end of the couch and tuck my feet up under me facing Joe at the door.
"I know I've dropped a huge thing on you. I don't have a lot of time before other know and I wanted you to know from me."
"You wanted to twist the knife yourself, you mean? What was so wrong with us that you were so set against us committing to each other? But the next guy that comes along you jump at the chance." I need to calm him down before he hears the rest of it.
"Joe, we went over and over that. I thought you agreed with me. Although we both did ultimately want to get married and maybe have kids someday it wasn't going to be with each other." He shrugged and stopped tapping the wall. "We're letting our families know tomorrow. Once my mother knows it will be everywhere. I didn't want you hearing from a rumour."
"Wait, your parents don't know?" he's shocked.
I shook my head. "My Dad was at the wedding but no one else. He had his friend and someone from his family. We kept it very small. It was beautiful."
Finally, Morelli laughed. "Your Mom is going to explode. Tell me you don't want me to help with her?"
I shook my head "Nope my Dad is taking that one on for us."
He's still grinning "She can't even plan your wedding. This will be priceless. Stephanie Plum married and pregnant, the Burg will go wild. Thanks for the heads up, maybe I'll go out of town for the weekend."
I smile, "It's tempting for me too."
"The wedding was a small service. We're having a reception for the families tomorrow and then everyone will know. Both families have been invited. Hopefully that will go some way to appeasing them. You're the only person I'm actually telling, everyone else can figure it out when we walk into the room. I'd appreciate it if you could hold off from mentioning it to anyone until after tomorrow."
"Cupcake you're a cruel woman. I think I thank you for telling me. It will take some time getting used to." He seems to be relatively calm about this.
"I should ask you my favour. I'd like to ask your help going forwards. Given my luck with psychos and concerns over some stuff in his past there may be some times we need a police liaison to work with. I'd like that to be you. I'd like to think you would protect me and my child if needed."
"Who have you married? Not the mob they wouldn't want to involve the police." He pushed off from the door and came back to the couch. Even if he's not thrilled with my announcement I'd like to think he still cares enough to want me to be safe.
"Most likely he too would prefer to deal with any issues with his own resources but I convinced him that we would talk with the authorities when we felt it was needed. I wanted it to be someone I could trust."
"Cupcake?" His eyes look concerned.
"I'm sure that 99 percent of the time there will be nothing. But it is important to him that we plan to keep us safe." I rub my hands over my stomach and Joes eyes are drawn to my little bump.
"You really are pregnant?" Concern is replaced by astonishment on his face.
I stood up and turned sideways to show him my profile.
Joes runs a hand through his hair. "So that's what was different when I practically molested you?"
I nod and sit back down. "I'm sorry Steph, I was a jerk."
"Yeah. Junior has decided to grow a bit more obvious this week. Which is good but my jeans won't be fastening again any time soon."
"A boy?" He sounds amazed.
"We don't know yet it's just the name I'm using until he/she makes an appearance. My dress tomorrow will pretty much let the cat out of the bag. Everyone will be aware by the end of the day. Apparently, a baggy sweatshirt doesn't set the right tone for a formal event. I've been really fortunate so far, but I'm nearly four months along now and it's only going to get bigger from here on in."
I see Morelli count back the months. "Woah Steph, four months? We broke up and what, you ran straight down the aisle with him?" Maybe that was too much information.
"No, I don't have to explain anything to you." I feel very defensive about my actions. "We got married about four weeks AFTER you and I broke up. Joe. I can only tell you the truth. He was not the reason we ended it. I wasn't with him until after we broke up." He's quickly building up steam.
We're heading for an argument over this I can tell. "You've been married that long and no one knows? But you're still living here? What sort of screwed up relationship are you in?" He yells "You sure he doesn't have another wife and family somewhere else?" And he's back on his feet pacing the room.
I try to remain calm and seated on the couch despite him inching to rant. "It's complicated. I know there's no one else. I've met his family. I'll be moving in to his place tomorrow until we look for a place together. I had to stay here to keep the relationship secret." I admit it could sound like I am being dragged into a bigamist scenario you might see on daytime TV.
"Once this all comes out I wanted to know I could still rely on your support. I could have asked Eddie or someone else but I didn't want to avoid you."
Joe is in full stress mode. If there was Maalox nearby he'd be downing it by the bottle. "Steph, you sure this is what you want for your life? Who knows what you're getting yourself involved in."
I reach out my hand to him "Joe, I trust him, I love him and can't imagine my life without him. He loves me too."
He finally stopped walking the room. "I notice you've not yet named the baby daddy. Who is it?"
"Joe come sit down, please." I pat the couch next to me.
"Do I know him?" He looked directly at me.
I pull my feet up to my chest and wrap my arms around them. I nod and take a big deep breath then let it out. "Joe, it's Ranger."
He pulled away and practically leapt over the couch to get away from me.
"Steph! This is a joke, right?" His arms wave to emphasise how mad he is. "You did throw yourself at him after we broke up and he managed to knock you up? So now you've trapped him into marrying you." I shake my head vehemently.
"Cupcake you think he's going to stick around for that?" He pointed at my stomach "You're going to end up stuck raising his kid on your own and who will want you then?"
Ok I tried calm and quiet now I try Italian-Hungarian and get to my feet. No one disrespects Ranger or Junior "It wasn't like that. He proposed, we got married. We love each other and then we discovered about Junior. Quite a traditional route for me." My arms flap in air.
Joe turns on his full Italian "Steph, you want me to be happy for you? You've screwed up your life and now it's going to become obvious you're forced to make up some story about it actually being a relationship rather than just one night that went wrong. You're just trying to keep me on side for when you try to come crawling back to me when he leaves you, and he will!"
"Joe, what you believe is up to you. I wanted you to know I thought I owed you that much. I did still want to be friends but if this is not possible then I'm ok with that too. I'm genuinely happy about this. He's a good man. There's more to him than the person you see on the street and you know that!"
"Cupcake, this is messed up and you know that!" He final words on the subject.
I threw him an invite for tomorrow. "If you want to see how wrong you are, then come tomorrow. But only if you can act like a grown up." I hoped I'd not done the wrong thing.
He picked it up from the floor and walked out the door shaking his head.
I slumped on the floor not even caring to get back to the couch. Mad at myself and him. I don't know what I was expecting to change from this meeting. But I knew I couldn't do any more interrogations like that without Ranger by my side. Morelli made some good points and I suspect that others will ask them too.
What if there was no junior, would Ranger still want to be with me? I hit the side of my head, without Junior there would be no Ranger. We're a package item these days. I won't allow Joes words to stick in my mind.
"Beautiful, don't go hurting yourself." I see Lester didn't wait to come up to the apartment after Morelli stormed out.
"You ok down there?" I shook my head "Nope but take me home and I will be when I get there."
"How did it go?"
"I don't know why I was expecting it to go well. It just reinforced my fears for telling everyone tomorrow. I don't know if I can deal with everyone's questions. Just telling someone the basic facts only means they have more questions and opinions. I barely know the answers to some of my own questions. It feels like no one will be happy for us."
"Come on Steph, let's take you home." He bends down and lifts me up under my arms.
"Don't listen to him. Only those who love and support you will be there tomorrow plus your Mother." I gave him a quick eye roll for that "There's enough of us to keep her away and we'll make sure that people only get to say nice things to you. We'll deal with anything else."
Lester handed me over directly to Ranger when we returned and I tried not to breakdown in his arms. Ranger took me upstairs to the apartment and settled me on the couch tight in his arms.
"Babe, everything will be ok. He's a jerk. He's probably realising what he's missing out on knowing that you get to be happy with someone that isn't him. Don't give him the satisfaction of bringing you down." I nod
"Ranger, I'm worried about tomorrow. Are we doing the right thing? Will everyone hate us?" I feel him chortle and I gently punch his solid stomach.
He begins to rub my hands and arms "Babe, we're 24 hours away from something which is effectively a wedding. You've planned it in less than 10 days, are 16 weeks pregnant, been nursing an injured husband who was away for the best part of three months, moved house and taken on a new job all in the same time. May I suggest that you're a little stressed? Everything will be wonderful tomorrow. Don't you want everyone to be able to coo over Junior? Think of the good things that come after tomorrow. I've got three married sisters, I don't think I've known a bride not to be nervous the day before without everything else you've managed to do." He's right of course. Even without the madness that bond enforcement brought to my life I'm pretty good at getting myself into plenty of situations.
I breathe slowly and count before exhaling.
"Babe, without sending you over the edge, Ella had one more question for you. I can handle it if you'd prefer."
"It's ok Carlos, tell me?" I snuggle into his arms.
"She'd like to know if there's some music you'd like for tomorrow?"
That I know the answer to, except I still don't actually know the answer. "Yes, let me get it." I broke free from his hold and rummaged in my bag. It had been here the whole time. I retrieved the CD and handed it to Ranger. "I'd like this. I think it's the music that was playing in the rose garden when we got married. I heard it again in your Turbo one time I drove it. I wanted to know what it was."
His lips turned up at the edges "As we walked from the rose garden to the house the piece was The Wedding March by Mendelssohn. A very traditional melody played at weddings. Not my usual listening style but I thought it suited the occasion."
"That was nice but meant the other piece when I walked in and was playing as Judge Griffin spoke."
His smiled widened "That piece was from the same suite of music Mendelssohn wrote for the play of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. At various parts in the play two men and two women, along with some fairies, are tricked by forest sprites using magic juice which makes them fall in love with the wrong person. Finally, the lovers are gathered together and left with the correct partner to sleep in peace. That piece of music is played as the lovers rest together. The sprite arranged it so they would believe it was all a dream when they wake and would be back in love with the right person. A wedding is arranged at the end for all involved, hence the Wedding March music. I told you before I left for Colombia that it felt like a dream being with you. I wanted to be able to finally rest with you and wake up finding we were still together, still in love. The piece is called the Nocturne." He stepped into his office and returned with a marker pen. He took the CD and wrote on the face of it 'Nocturne for Stephanie'.
"I'll tell Ella in the morning that you'd like that piece played."
At ten after eleven the next morning Ranger and I stood outside the doors to the Coach House. Lester and Tank were on guard having ensured everyone else was seated inside.
"Boss" Tank spoke "No one could resist the mystery. We have a full house. The men are equally curious. We have them arranged on the back rows of the seating area. They're not sure if they're supposed to be guarding the guests or are a guest. Ella tried to hand them baskets of petals for later and we got a few odd looks for that!"
I looked to Ranger "Petals?" He shrugged and raised an eyebrow. Best not to question what Ella had been up to.
Lester reached behind him and handed me a hand tied bouquet. It was made up with amnesia roses, ranunculus, lavender and antique hydrangeas all in vintage colours and cream. It reminded me of our rose garden. Wrapped around the stems was an ivory satin ribbon that matched my dress.
Ranger looked as handsome as he did the evening we married in the same black suit and tie. His hair had been trimmed since his return but still hung long and silken. His muscles were a little leaner but knowing what had passed since we last stood together in a similar situation, I was grateful he was here at all.
Lester and Tank also copied their outfits from that night. Three handsome men that really were my family.
I was dressed in an Ivory silk dress with a sweetheart strapless top. A satin ribbon band sat at the empire line. It also had a sleeveless Ivory lace overlay over my shoulders down to the ribbon giving a sheer higher rounded neckline. The layered skirt flowed in a gentle A-line to two inches above my knees. The fabric was slightly gathered at front under the ribbon as it was a maternity dress. Although Junior was still relatively small I wanted to announce his or her existence to the world. The gathered fabric helped emphasise my growing bump. I choose to wear the same Jimmy Choo Lance shoes I wore that night to complete my outfit.
I had decided to wear my hair swept up today. The August sunshine was going to keep me warm enough plus with Junior as my additional little central heating system I needed to do what I could to stay cool.
Everyone in attendance today would already be shocked by Carlos and I revealing our marriage, once the pregnancy was disclosed too, I hoped it would wipe the slate clean for things I was keeping secret.
Ranger looked to me and gave my hand a squeeze. As this wasn't a wedding we were walking down the aisle together. I held my bouquet in one hand and linked my other arm through Rangers' and gave him a nod.
I heard my Nocturne begin to play and listened for a moment before Tank and Lester opened the double doors. I saw the wall of black from the Merry Men and they all began to turn around to see the answer to the mystery of who would be renewing their vows. We were hidden from the view of the other guests until we reached level with the Merry Men. I saw their smiles and heard a round of "Hooah" whispered as we walked near. As the rest of the gathering began to get a glimpse of Ranger and I walking arm in arm together the sounds became more of surprise and amazement. I couldn't help the smile that grew across my face. With a quick glance to Carlos to confirm that he too was enjoying this moment with a slight upturn of his lips I began to scan the crowd.
I first saw Lula fanning herself. Her eyes caught mine and she gave me two hands up and a whispered "Girl, you got Batman!"
I could see Aymee, Carmen and Celia with mock pursed lips and raised eyebrows at Carlos. Their fingers wagging that soon descended into giggles. I can't wait for that conversation. Aymee was the first to notice my bump. She made eye contact to me and then questioned my waist. I gave a slight nod and smiled.
I didn't have time to acknowledge everyone as we walked to the front. I saw that without planning both sets our parents had made it to the front rows. Maria and Ricardo were beaming. Maria dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and grasped her hands together in joy when she caught my profile.
We finally made it to the front of the room and I turned to see my father grinning at us. He then saw Junior and his eyes went wide. I nodded and his grin became even wider.
He was enjoying this moment. My mom's face told a different story. It flicked between confusion and shock with a side of dissatisfaction. I just laughed. There were enough other smiling faces in the room that I could withstand her disapproval. Grandma gave us two thumbs up and a wiggle of her eyebrows. I hoped that she wasn't remembering a naked Ranger, he's mine, all mine.
I saw an older version of Ranger, somewhere between Carlos and Ricardo in age, who I presumed was Marco. I mouthed "thank you" to him and was granted a nod in return. He smiled at Carlos with a raised eyebrow.
We would be answering a lot of questions today but, other than my mother, it looked like they would all be asked from a position of support and acceptance. It would be good to finally be able to talk about my life for the past four months.
I finally noticed who was standing at the front of the room to officiate and grinned back at Judge Malcom Griffin.
I hadn't intentionally been carrying my bouquet to cover junior however it became clear that not everyone had seen him on our journey through the room. I placed my bouquet in the hands of Ella who promptly disappeared with it. When I turned sideways on to face Ranger as instructed by Judge Griffin there was a second round of gasps and oohs as my shape left no doubt.
The families quietened as the Judge began to speak.
"Carlos, Stephanie, family and friends, my name is Judge Malcom Griffin. I had the pleasure of joining this couple in marriage a few short months ago. Many people believe that entering into marriage is the final step in a romantic relationship. But marriage is not meant to be the final step in a couple's relationship—it is really just the beginning of a grand adventure, that hopefully, will be long and fruitful for each couple."
"And, although it was not long ago today you wish to reconfirm your commitment to working together to make your marriage grow and blossom in the years to come. May this ceremony, renewing the vows you took to become husband and wife on your wedding day, remind you that despite the stresses inevitable in every life, your love, trust and understanding of each other will continue to increase your contentment and heighten your joy in living."
"Please join hands." I stood facing my husband and felt the love and friendship of those surrounding us fill the room. I took his hands in mine.
He addressed Carlos first, "Carlos, do you reaffirm your vow to love and care for Stephanie for as long as you both shall live?"
He looked me straight in the eye "I do."
Now my turn, "Stephanie, do you reaffirm your vow to love and care for Carlos for as long as you both shall live?"
I returned his gaze "I do."
On their wedding day Carlos presented Stephanie with a ring. I understand that due to some fairly unique circumstances Stephanie has only had limited opportunity to wear this ring. It is therefore appropriate that at this time of renewal that we renew the commitment that this symbolises.
"Carlos, do you have the ring?" Tank appeared from the side to present Ranger with my precious ring. He took it and held it on the third finger of my left hand
"Stephanie, I gave this ring as my gift to you. Please, wear it and think of me and know that I love you." He pushes the ring to its resting place. I never want it to leave my hand again.
"Stephanie, I understand that you now also have a ring for Carlos?" Judge Griffin asks.
This time Lester stepped forward to offer me the ring I'd chosen.
I had spent a long time selecting something special for Ranger. The ring was bold, masculine and luxurious, it described Ranger perfectly. It was a 5mm platinum ring featuring an urban look brushed central section, the polished square edges and sides provided a striking contrast, just like the many parts that combined into my Ranger. Platinum is the rarest of all precious metals and it too spoke about how unique he was.
I placed the ring on his finger and looked into his eyes once more "Carlos, I give this ring as my gift to you. Please wear it and think of me and know that I love you."
Judge Griffin began to speak once more "It is with pleasure that I conclude the ceremony of renewing the vows of marriage that joined you and binds you as husband and wife. Please celebrate this renewal of vows with a sign of affection…. You may kiss!"
This time when Judge Griffin said we could kiss instead of holding me tight and descending on my lips Ranger knelt down and took my bump in his hands and kissed Junior first before returning to his feet and pulling me into him. His placed his lips gently on mine as we parted he whispered "Thank you babe, ti amo" And we began to kiss again.
With all the clapping and cheering that was going on in the room you'd think it would be difficult to forget that anyone else was there but that's what I did as Carlos and I held each other and allowed our lips to convey our love for each other.
We eventually parted and grinned at each other. Half the room didn't know that Ranger could smile and I could hear several women unrelated to him moan.
I had focussed all my efforts on getting to this point of the day and didn't know what to expect next. Did we need to walk back down the aisle?
Before we could take a step, we were surrounded by the solid walls of Tank, Lester and Bobby.
I could just make out our families trying rush to be the first to congratulate and interrogate us.
"Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends." Tank boomed out across the room. "Please take the French doors either side of the hearth into the courtyard outside for drinks while this space is rearranged for the reception. Carlos and Stephanie will be joining you shortly."
I finger waved at everyone as they dutifully obeyed the instruction. Each of the children were carrying a pink or blue tote bag embroidered with their name. Ella must have put together an activity bag for them. I did wonder how the Stankovic and Gazarra boys had stayed so quiet during the service.
I saw another familiar face at the back of the room. Joe Morelli stood with his arm around a petite blonde-haired woman. They must have been sitting directly in front of the Merry Men and I had missed him when we entered. He gave me a nod and a small smile and recognised Carlos with a two fingered salute before turning and leaving the building out the doors we'd walked through. It felt like we'd reached a truce.
I happily stayed wrapped in Carlos' arms while drinks were served to those outside.
Finally, we were released from our honour guard and made our way to door into the courtyard. I could see Ella's touches everywhere. Due to the heat from the sun various sails shades were strung around the space creating cooler areas. Bar tables were scattered around the space, covered in pristine table clothes set with smaller versions of my bouquet.
The younger children were gathered around the promised bubble machine chasing every time a flurry escaped and everyone else eagerly awaited our entrance.
In the time old tradition Tank tapped a metal object against the side of his glass to quieten the group. "Ladies and gentlemen, please may I present to you Carlos, Stephanie and yet to be named Baby Manoso!" And we walked in to a flurry of petals and a cheer from our families who closed in on us quickly.
I tried to maintain my hold on Rangers hand but lost it as we were pulled into various hugs and squeezes. I felt a little like a bobbin on Ella's sewing machine being spun from one person to the next. Anytime I was released from one hug someone else stood ready to congratulate us.
Thankfully no one had a chance to ask any questions yet. Talking had been limited to the quick exclamation
"Damn Skippy, a bat baby!" Lula
"You sly fox." Connie
"Welcome to the family" Celia
"Steph, you lucky girl, those muscles." Val
"I'm speechless, but absolutely thrilled for you. I take it you're happy?" Mary Lou
Just as I was thinking the spinning would never stop, it did and I found myself stood facing my Mother. It felt that the warmth was sucked out of the air and everyone froze waiting to see our interaction
"Stephanie Michelle Plum! Why do you..."
I interrupted before she got any further "No, Mom, I think you missed the entire point of what just happened in there." I pointed to the coach house. "It's Stephanie Michelle Manoso now." I hadn't spent another afternoon of my life completing paperwork to change my name from Plum to Manoso to allow her to insult me like that. "If you're going to dare criticise me or disapprove of any aspect of my life in front of my friends and family at least get my name right first."
She stood there open-mouthed gasping like a goldfish.
My father stepped in before she could regain her composure and gave me a hug "Pumpkin it was a lovely service just as nice as your wedding day."
I see my mother begin to sway as she understood the implication of my Dads comment. A chair appeared behind her as she slumped down in to it. Her glass was topped up by a passing waiter. I suspect she'd be plastered in the next ten minutes.
"Frank" She slurred "maybe we should head home."
He gently patted her shoulder "Hush Helen, I'm having a wonderful time meeting our new family. I've already spoken with Ricardo and Xander. I should introduce myself to Maria and her daughters. The heat must be affecting you, why don't you rest a little while until you feel able to join in polite conversation." He turned back to me "Pumpkin, would you introduce me to the little one you've been keeping hidden from me?"
"Dad, meet Junior, name and gender currently unknown" I rub my stomach.
"You know I'll love any child of yours but I would really like a grandson. I'm sure you and Ranger will do your best to help me in that." And with a smile he walked me back to the other side of the courtyard to return me to Rangers arms.
He was leaning back against a low wall with a beer in his hand, surrounded by the males from his family. He swung an arm around my neck and pulled me in tight.
"Babe, you holding up ok?"
"Hmmm, you?" I nod
"Yeah, Marco and my brothers-in-law have been enjoying all this at my expense. Apparently, I can never do anything the simple way."
"I think my mother was trying to say almost the same thing to me."
He just squeezed me tighter and kissed the side of my head as the surrounding families saw the chance to find out more of our story. I took a deep breath as Val and Shirley wandered over from one direction at the same time as Aymee and Isabelle (sister not abuela) came from the other. Feeling that inquisition was about to start I tensed up.
"Here we go Ranger."
I caught Lester out the corner of my eye and gave him my deer in the headlights look as I turned to the approaching women.
I was saved from the start of the questions as Lester came to my rescue. By clinking a spoon to his beer glass. "Hello everyone. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Lester Santos, Ranger/Carlos Manoso is my cousin and boss." He quickly got everyone's attention.
"Now, I'm sure that all of you have plenty of questions for our lovebirds here." Waving over to us. "And they are thrilled to be able to answer them however to ensure that they will have plenty of time to talk with you all individually we wanted to give you some of the basics so they don't have to repeat themselves."
I mouth 'thank you' to him as he looks my way.
"The gentlemen to my left and right will provide us with a briefing covering the wedding, baby and anything else we're at liberty to disclose." I laugh. it may not be the romantic way that most of the women would like to gush over the news but its perfect for Rangeman style.
"Tank, Report!" Lester is enjoying this far too much
Tank looked down at the printed card in his hand "Who wrote this crap? You don't honestly expect me to say that, do you?" as his indicated to a clearly offensive section. The audience, other than the Merry Men laughed. No one was allowed to laugh at Tank. Lester just grinned. A woman I think was Lester's mother called out "Come on Pierre," there was a snicker from the Merry Men which received a glare from Tank. "How bad can it be?"
Tank took a deep breath "I'm going to summarise this, no way I'll be saying this flowery crap. Although to some of you this may be a surprise, those of us closest to Ranger and Stephanie have seen the love between these two grow over a number of years, even if they refused to admit it to each other." A general murmur of agreement came from the Trenton contingent. "Finally, Ranger got his head out of his ass and proposed to Little Girl however the timing was bad. He was needed on a contractual obligation which would take him away for several months only a week after he proposed. No further details available on that don't ask. It says here he took her to Point Pleasant for the evening in order to propose as it is somewhere that Stephanie likes to go relax and think. They decided it was important to get married before he went away so a small service was held in the grounds of Judge Griffins home a few days later. Mr Plum, Stephanie's father, Lester and myself witnessed a brief but beautiful service where these two made the same vows you heard them renew today. She wore a dress, he a suit." He looked up from the card to Lester "Seriously, do people want to know all these details? They wore clothes, we all wore clothes."
"Yes!" came the cry from the women. I suspect I'll still be answering questions about the missing details from the wedding.
He scans down the page. "There were flowers, music, cake. He said, she said, then husband and wife and they kissed." Several of the women swooned thinking about a kiss.
"Yes, it was kept a secret. It was to protect Stephanie from gossips and other elements, again no further details, don't ask, until Ranger could return. He did and now you all get to know. They will be living at Rangers place in the immediate future until a family home is purchased. All correspondence to the couple should addressed care of his place of work. Prior to their marriage Stephanie worked as a Bond Enforcement Agent and recently joined the team at Rangeman. She will not be operating in field while pregnant in line with company policies." That must be a new policy, I wasn't aware of any pregnancies in Rangeman history other than mine. I glance to Ranger and raise my eyebrow, his nods nonchalantly. "We recognise that their relationship and courting may not have been the most conventional however I am reminded of something I heard recently in a film 'people always do crazy things when they're in love'. And its clear that these two most certainly are! Please raise your glasses to Stephanie and Ranger!" I laugh, ok it covered most of the basics, would save me some interrogation.
As the crowd sip their drinks Lester turns to his other side "Bobby, Report!"
Bobby took his turn to deliver his report. "As of today, Stephanie is at 15 weeks 6 days gestation. Confirmed at 11 weeks by blood and urine tests supervised by Tank, Lester and myself." Well that's going to generate more questions than answers. "Conception would have occurred in the weekend following the wedding." I cough loudly.
"Too much information Bobby." And there's a general laughter at my expense.
He continues "Initial examinations confirm all is progressing within expected parameters. Sonograph pictures are available for viewing." He waves copies of my scans, where did he get them? "Gender will not be known until 20 weeks scan in around a month. No significant morning sickness suffered, no noticeable food cravings. If anything, Stephanie's diet has improved. Foetus potentially taking after the father in dietary preferences. Foetus is currently known as Junior; my suggestion of Cletus the Foetus was rejected. As you can see Junior is rapidly expanding, although Stephanie's weight gain has been minimal as prenatal exercise program is being followed which is balancing the weight gain with general reduction in fat from low impact cardio. Due date is 5 February. Family and friends, we couldn't be happier that Stephanie and Ranger are finally together and that we're expecting the first Rangebaby. Please drink a toast to Stephanie, Ranger and Junior!"
"To Junior!" came the reply.
Well I think that about covered everything. Ahead of anyone regaining the ability to ask any other questions we were ushered back into the building where tables had been set out for the reception dinner.
Ella elected to make the seating plans, which was a great relief. Two large circular tables were placed in the centre of the room visible to all the others and the children were safely placed at one of these. The girls all made for one table which had been set out as the ultimate princess tea party. Even the older girls were happy to be seated here as it was certainly better than any tea party I had ever attended. The general them of the room was light neutrals. The girls table used the same scheme but added flowers, balloons, beads, bunting and decorative teacups in shades of pink and creams. Each setting had yet another personalised gift which could be carried home in their tote bags. I was slightly envious of that table.
The boys equally migrated to their table which had a more masculine party theme their table leaned towards woodlands and I caught a glimpse of army cammo bunting. Balloons became parachutes, plates and cups were replaced with tin canteens and mugs. Little green army men covered the surface along with hopefully pretend grenades.
The remaining tables were filled with the adults and babies that couldn't be safely accommodated on the children's tables. Each table had a mix of our families and the Merry Men. It was a perfect representation of our combined lives. The vintage floral theme from my bouquet was repeated on each of the tables
Ranger and I initially sat at the head table with our parents and grandmothers. My Mother had regained her composure sufficiently to join in the chatter around the table. I also noticed that Daddy has cut off her liquor supply which was helping the situation.
As anticipated the food was divine and enjoyed by all if the general hum of appreciation was to be believed. I spared a moment for the bride who'd chosen it for her own wedding but didn't get to enjoy it.
After the main course I was surprised when Ranger got to his feet and requested everyone's attention.
He began to speak "My wife and I" a cheer came up from the gathered friends and family "would like to thank you for being with us today. We appreciate your kindness and acceptance of our unusual way of undertaking the events which have brought us here. I apologise for not being able to answer all your questions regarding the secrecy of our marriage, I thought it was best to protect Stephanie while I was away. However, I am grateful that we now can share it will you and the news of our upcoming addition to the family." Another cheer "I would like to propose a toast. To love, life, and family." Glasses were raised and the toast offered by all.
He raised his hands to hush the room and continued, "As you may know Stephanie is particularly partial to dessert. She has even resorted to negotiating with our unborn child to ensure she was able to continue eating as she desired. I'm almost surprised she didn't amend our vows to include mention of her requirement for cake on a regular basis." Hah-de-hah "We did get to enjoy a small wedding cake on the evening of our wedding but it would be tantamount to torture if I deprived her of it today."
I pulled my hands to my mouth in shock, how could I have forgotten a cake for today?
He signalled to the waiting staff
"I saw how much Stephanie and Ella have been working to prepare for today and I would like to add my small contribution." He indicated over to the kitchen doors as a trolley was wheeled out with a towering three tier semi naked cake sitting on a slice of tree trunk. The multiple layers of cake in each tier were lightly covered with a cream cheese frosting but cake could still be clearly seen. Arrangements of summer fruits were balanced on all tiers. It was stunning.
Ranger pulled me to my feet and over to the cake to cut the first slice. "It's a compromise, each cake is both fruit and cake. We have pineapple cake, hummingbird cake and carrot cake."
"Ranger, you do know that carrots aren't a fruit?"
"Babe." And he placed a large slice of cake into my hand to quash any further objections.
After many more toasts and hours of wandering from table to table making sure we spoke to everyone Ranger and I pulled our seats back from the table and sat down. We observed the gathering we had instigated. Rangers jacket and tie had been discarded. He had undone the top two buttons of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. He rested his left arm on the back of my chair and I placed my right hand on his left thigh. I could look at him forever and never tire of seeing the minute details that made up the man I loved.
As we looked around we saw not two families and disparate friends but one combined group happy to be in each other's company.
We had decided against dancing for the evening preferring to end the reception a little earlier. Everyone appeared to be content with just simple background music and pleasant chatting. Plus, Rangers style of dancing is best suited to the privacy of our apartment with the bedroom nearby where it inevitably led.
The boys, and Albert, were in one area enthralled by the Merry Men. Foam bullet guns and targets had magically appeared at some point. The Merry Men were happy to demonstrate their prowess and provide training to those interested.
The girls were giggling together. The older girls looking after the younger without eye rolling and sighing. They had their own catapult and crossbow weapons also with foam bullets in a more feminine colours and some were happy to fire those off at random intervals. Others were braiding hair.
Rangers siblings and Val along with Marylou and Shirley were happily chatting and discussing the pros and cons of the latest child crazes sweeping the state or how to get their offspring to eat vegetables. I'm sure I'll have an opinion on all of that soon enough.
Their husbands and our fathers kept slipping outside to the courtyard. There may be some illicit Cuban cigar smoking happening out there.
Connie and Lula had finally discovered that Marco was single and were attempting to lure him away from the rest of the Merry Men. I don't think either of them would be Rangers sister-in-law any time soon.
Lester's Mom was a wonderful strong-willed women with a wicked sense of humour. She's had to be with Lester as her son. Currently she was sat with little Lottie who had grown so much since our last meeting. She was content to sit on her lap and babble at the other children running around. I smiled when I thought that Lottie was there at the beginning. Her first birthday would be close to Juniors arrival. A year from now Junior would be around the same age. A squishy feeling passed through me and I leaned a little closer into Ranger.
Rangers Abuela caught my eye and gave me a nod and a smile. She was as content as we were to observe the rest of the party for a moment. I had thanked her earlier for her part in raising Carlos to the man he is now. She had patted my cheek and given junior a rub. In broken English she told me "he was always a good boy, just got a little lost. I'm glad you help him find himself."
I know that life won't always be as perfect and calm as today. But for now, I'd enjoy it.
I reached for Carlos's chin and turned him to face me.
As I gazed into his eyes I spoke "I love you Carlos Manoso"
"I love you too Stephanie Manoso. Thank you for giving me this" He swept his hand across the room "and this." And placed his hand where Junior rested. "I always knew I wanted it but thought it was impossible. I'm happy to be proven wrong."
"Ranger, there's something to be said for getting what you want."
He leant in a kissed me again. "Yeah, Babe."
Five months later we welcomed Alejandro Mateo Manoso into the world known as Matty. His name means defender, protector and gift. Carlos was quick to agree to those. There aren't many people that get to save another life before being born.
In my true style, none of the carefully laid plans arranged by the Merry Men matched the actual situation as I went into labour. I can't believe they didn't have a scenario planned for my being locked in an old building with no heat in one of the worst snow storms in Trenton history. The room had icicles hanging from the window.
They've already started a debrief on where it all went wrong. I told them to let it go but that's another story.
A/N - I made it! My first FF completed. My version of how Steph and Ranger could get together.
This has been an amazing experience. All of 'you out there' that have read and reviewed have really helped me along. Thank you for staying with me to the end. I'm beginning to realise the great community that exists within FF.
I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I have pulling it together.
I have promised my husband that I will spend some time acknowledging his existence before I begin any more writing. He has been very patiently supporting me as I've spent all my spare time getting my ideas from my head to the page.
I do have an idea for a sequel covering the events between the reception and the arrival of Matty that I just couldn't squeeze into this story. That one has a little more action and adventure for Stephanie. This was always going to be a bit more romantic.
I purposely left a number of loose ends in this story which can be wrapped up at another time. There's probably a few other unintended loose ends too. I guess that's a bit like real life!
I also have another idea for when Steph returns to work following maternity leave. Or perhaps I'll try something completely different.
I've loved taking the chance to write something creative and I don't think it will be my last.
Thank you again. xx