Five years later…
"Do you think it was a coincidence that Grandma Mazur and Bella Morelli died within hours of each other?" I asked Valerie as we mingled with relatives at the funeral home.
"I think they were waiting each other out. They've probably just moved their feud up to heaven," Valerie responded as we gave similar fake smiles and waves at cousins whose names we couldn't quite remember. My poor, deluded sister, thinking our grandmother and Bella Morelli would be getting into heaven.
"I definitely can't believe it was a coincidence that their viewings were held at the same time and their funerals are back-to-back tomorrow," I added. "The funeral home just wants these two out of their lives forever and is killing two birds with one stone. No pun intended."
Valerie headed towards the front of the room to stand with our mother by the casket and I kept moving on around the room. My father was holding my nine-month-old son, Matthew, because he needed an obvious reason besides the real one for his happy mood and the unfitting smile that had been on his face for the past three days since Grandma Mazur died. He had decided hanging on to his only grandson the was perfect excuse. As I passed, my father stood up and shoved Matthew into my arms.
"He pooped," he said and left the room before I could suggest he change his diaper.
"Are you stinky?" I asked Matthew, who squealed with delight. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and went in search of the diaper bag in the lobby. I had left it on the little shelf under the coat rack and had to push aside several long coats to locate it. When I stood up and turned around, I found myself face-to-face with Joe Morelli, who didn't look as surprised as I felt.
I hadn't seen Morelli since moving to Miami. My mother had told me during her visit to Miami after I had given birth to Serafina that Morelli had taken a job in the private sector and moved to Chicago. He had later met a woman and got married. The last I heard, they had two little boys. He was still sexy, but he was starting to look all of his forty-three years.
"Hey, Joe," I said. "I was sorry to hear about Bella."
"No one was sorry to hear about Bella," he replied. "Even our relatives were celebrating."
"Well, I'm sorry if you're sad," I corrected. "Is that better?"
He shrugged and looked at Matthew. "He has your curly hair and blue eyes, but he looks just like Ranger."
"He's the best combination of us, both physically and so far in his personality," I said, shifting Matthew to my other hip. "Our oldest daughter looks just like him and acts just like me, and our middle daughter looks just like me, but acts just like Carlos."
"Carlos?" Morelli commented.
"It's his name."
"So, three kids, huh?" he asked. I could tell he was uncomfortable. "How are you liking married life and being a mother?"
"I'm really happy," I said. "I hadn't been sure that it was anything I ever wanted, but then it just sort of happened and it has been amazing. And I didn't realize how much more you love your spouse after you have kids. How about you? I heard you're married and have a couple of kids."
Morelli looked uneasy, and I realized I may have waxed a little too much about my happy life when he had wanted to be in Ranger's shoes not that long ago. "I love my kids. My wife left me for someone else a while back."
"I'm sorry," I said. "That must be tough."
He shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets. "We haven't been happy for most of the time we've been married, so it wasn't a surprise. She left the kids with me and moved out to Oregon. I'm getting sole custody, and I'm looking to move back to the area so my family can help out."
"What would you do for a job here? My mother said you were in the private sector these days."
"I head the loss prevention for a big delivery company. I'm looking around here for something similar, if the company I work for won't let me transfer to their Trenton branch. I have to travel a lot, so I need someone who can keep my boys for a few days at a time."
Listening to Morelli worry about who would take care of his children while he worked made me even more thankful for LaShay, who had been working as our nanny and housekeeper since Serafina was three months' old. She had called me up on Valentine's Day that year to say she had just given birth to her baby boy, who she had decided to keep and had aptly named Valentino. She had surprised me when she said that she was in Miami. The placement organization that had been helping her get her life back together had operations in Miami and she had taken them up on living there since she knew there would be a familiar face around. I had gone to see her at the hospital and we introduced our babies. She had told me that her case worker was trying to get her a job in childcare, since that was what she had done in Georgia before being abducted, but all of them still charged employees a high fee for having their children cared for while they worked. She said it barely made it worth the job in most cases. She was going to find something different, but said she wouldn't enjoy it. I had gone home that night after managing to get her middle name and date of birth and ran a background check on her. Once I was sure she wasn't a felon and didn't have anything in her background that would bother Ranger, I mentioned her as a possibility for the nanny we had needed to hire, but had so far failed to agree on any of the people who had applied.
"She's tough, and she knows how to use a gun," I had said. "What more could we want out of someone taking care of our child? Plus, she can have her own child here with her and won't have to worry about daycare."
Ranger had known he was fighting a losing battle and gave into my persistence. I had practically skipped up to her hospital room the next day to offer her the job. She had initially been elated, but then realized that she didn't have a car and that the buses didn't come to our neighborhood. She would be forced to walk several blocks from the nearest bus stop. I told her we could either lend her a car, or she could move into our guest house until she was on her feet. I hadn't run either thing by Ranger, but knew he would agree that we had no other option if we wanted her as our nanny. LaShay had cried and hugged me, saying she was so thankful that she had met me and that she would love to take the job. In the end, she lived in the guest house with Valentino and used an extra Rangeman vehicle for several months until she got her own place a few miles away. A year after they moved into their apartment, Tank had moved in with them. I had played matchmaker against Ranger's warning that it would be awkward if they broke up, but thankfully they had been a great match. They had gotten married a year and half ago, and were talking about having a baby together. LaShay she loved our children like they were her own and ran our house like an Admiral ran a ship while Ranger and I were at work. Somewhere along the way, she and her son had become part of our family. Tino and Sera were best friends and went to the same preschool. Stella helped LaShay cook and they told each other silly stories, and Matthew was never in need of anything because she always anticipated what he would want. At some point, she had stopped working for us and we had started working for her because we had been warned before leaving on our flight to not keep her babies up past their bedtimes or she'd kick our asses because they'd be nightmares trying to get back into their routine.
I was distracted from my musings and Morelli by the sound of Sera yelling for me as she came into the lobby. She was breathless and excited as she grabbed the hem of my shirt.
"Mommy, guess what? Stella got in trouble," she said in a sing-song voice, the gleam in her eye similar to one I had always had whenever I thought Valerie was going to be in trouble with our parents.
"Who got on to her?" I asked, confused. She had been with Ranger all day while I had helped my mother. I had brought Matthew because he was still nursing, but Ranger had been bringing the girls later after they had dinner.
"Daddy did," she said. "He had to use his mean voice and he called her Stella Claire Manoso."
I hoped my oldest child wasn't hallucinating. "That seems hard to believe," I said. I looked over at Morelli, who was looking at Sera with an odd expression. "Stella is a daddy's girl. She has never been in trouble with him a day in her life. I'm going to need to go straight to the source on this one."
"But it's true!" Sera said fervently and stomped her foot.
"Okay, Sera. Go play in the other room with your cousins," I said. I watched as she ran off into the private family area attached to slumber room one.
Seconds later, my three-year-old doppelganger stomped through the room, arms crossed and lips pouting as she followed her sister's retreating back. I watched as Ranger came into the room and kept an eye on Stella as she disappeared into the family room. Matthew started to squeal and squirm as he reached for his father. Ranger took him, and Matthew snuggled against his face and tried to give him slobbery kisses.
"Did Stella really get in trouble with you?" I asked.
"Yes. She kept taking Sera's iPad and I was tired of hearing them argue," he replied. He nodded to Morelli, who nodded back in that way men do when they don't like each other, but know kicking one another's ass isn't appropriate in the moment.
I smiled and put an arm on his back. "It's killing you, isn't it? I always figured the only way Stella would be in trouble with you is if she killed someone and left the crime scene too messy."
Morelli snorted with suppressed laughter.
"I had to do it," Ranger said, and I knew he was having to convince himself more than me.
"Yes, you did," I told him. "Stay strong. Don't buy her a puppy or take her for ice cream. She'll stop hating you eventually."
"Do you remember what happened when Sera stole her doll and wouldn't give it back? She cut her hair while she slept. Four days later. The child holds a grudge."
That incident had happened a month ago. I had promptly hidden all scissors and discovered our sweet Stella had another layer to her personality that we were just starting to see. We would have to get her to use that force for good.
Morelli laughed and pulled his ringing cell phone out of his pocket. "Maybe I'm glad I don't have kids with you," he told me. "It sounds like you have your hands full." He ignored the phone call. "My soon-to-be-ex-wife," he explained. "She left town without her children, so she can wait a few hours more to talk to them." We said goodbye to Morelli as he was summoned by his mother and made our way across the lobby to check in on the girls.
"He stinks," Ranger commented, referring to Matthew. I handed him the diaper bag. "Oh, really? Here, you can change him," I suggested. He gave me a look that said he knew he was being played, but didn't argue.
I watched as my boys walked away towards the men's room and still felt a little amazed at my life. I had been confident that Ranger would be a decent father. I had figured there would be plenty of areas where he would struggle and I would pick up the slack, but didn't mind because I knew he would do the same for me. What had surprised both of us was not only how terrific he was at being a father, but how much he loved it. The first day he had gone back to work after Sera was born, he had called or texted to check on her every hour. He had already made plans to cut back his hours at the office once she was born, but ended up making even more drastic cuts once he realized how much he missed her while he was gone. He and Stella had bonded so well because I had experienced a severe bout of postpartum depression after having her. It had gotten so bad that I had been forced to go into a treatment facility for two weeks until I was stabilized on an antidepressant and set up with a counselor. He had taken care of her when I wasn't able to get out of bed. LaShay had tried to stay extra hours, but he had always sent her home and managed both girls on his own while I couldn't have cared if I lived or died. I had always felt guilty about my depression and worried that it had kept me from bonding with Stella. Ranger had assured me that she was bonded with me, but that they were just closer because they had similar personalities.
We hadn't planned on having Matthew. Ranger had undergone a vasectomy and had been told that we would need to keep using back up birth control until all stored sperm was depleted. We had done fine, except the night of Tank's and LaShay's wedding. I had been horny and encouraged him to pull over so we could get busy without the worry that a little girl would knock on the bedroom door wanting a drink. We hadn't used a condom, thinking we were out of the woods. It was Ranger who told me I was pregnant two weeks later, citing my swelling breasts and abdomen. I had called him a dirty rotten liar, peed on the stick, and sobbed on the bathroom floor for two hours after it came up positive. I had been terrified of another bout of depression, and had been enormously relieved when it hadn't happened. But we knew for sure that Matthew would be our last, and I was thankful for our lapse that night. Matthew was the sweetest of our children and we loved having a little boy after two girls.
Stella had gotten over her pout as she built a tower of blocks with Valerie's youngest daughter, and I was sure she would be all over Ranger that evening at bedtime, insisting he read her bedtime stories in Spanish even though they were written in English. I heard Matthew jabbering at Ranger as they came back to the lobby and Ranger was responding in Spanish. I had been trying to learn Spanish as our kids learned it, but hadn't caught on nearly as well. The girls could have entire conversations with him and I would only catch every other word. Matthew squealed when he saw me and decided to wanted to be with me again.
"There's my handsome boy," I cooed as I took him back. Motherhood had turned me into a simpering idiot at times, but since I was able to keep it limited to the kids, I didn't think it was too big of a deal.
"I used to be your handsome boy," Ranger said. "Then I made my own competition." He stood next to me while we watched the girls play. "Morelli's still in love you."
"No he isn't," I said. "Maybe there was a little nostalgia, but not love. Not after this long."
"He was looking at you the same way I look at you," he murmured as a group of Morelli relatives passed by. "If he thought you'd run away with him tonight, he would do it."
I let out a gasp and gave Matthew an excited look. "Did you hear that, Matthew? We could run away with Morelli! Let's go pack our bags. We'll leave the girls with Daddy."
Ranger gave my ass a firm pinch. "Funny."
We made our way back to the slumber room where Grandma Mazur lay in the pink casket with a large arrangement of flowers on top. She had an open casket so that everyone could look at her. Her hairdresser had taken care of her hair and make-up for the funeral, insisting that Grandma wouldn't have it any other way. She looked pretty good in death.
"Has word gotten out about how she died?" Ranger asked as we stood to one side of the room.
"Not that I'm hearing. My mother seems to have kept a lid on it," I said. When she had called me to say Grandma Mazur had died, she had been hysterical. Not only because her mother was dead, but because Grandma had died while having sex with her seventy-four-year-old boyfriend, Moe.
"I think she would want people to know she went out with a bang," he said with a smirk. "I know it's how I hope to go."
"I don't," I said. "Especially if I haven't finished and have to roll your dead body off me."
"I'll make sure we both finish before I drop dead," he commented.
Various relatives approached us and talked about how adorable our children were, asked Ranger about his business, and talked about how different the Burg would be without Grandma Mazur. As we hauled three sleepy children out of the funeral home at nine that evening, I was reminded of Grandma Mazur's encouragement of my relationship with Ranger. She had been the only one to ever support it before we got married and had given me plenty of sound advice in the years since. I started to cry as Ranger drove us towards the office.
"I'm going to miss Grandma," I said quietly, not wanting to wake our sleeping children. "She was the only person in my family who ever really understood me."
Ranger reached over to hold my hand. "Me too. She made life interesting."
I gave a watery laugh. "I'm probably going to end up like her one day."
"I'm already prepared for it."
I squeezed his hand, thankful to have a husband who loved me unconditionally. Even when he knew I was going to turn into a crazy old lady someday.