It was a ritual we went through every time that Ranger had to leave.
We'd been together for almost three years now. The first year was rocky, with both of us working through our insecurities and getting past the tendencies that piss each other off and working through the baggage our past relationships had left us. The next year, though. The next year was heavenly. Ranger and I were best friends, lovers, partners. We'd brought up the idea of living together, and made the decision to go ahead and try it. Though as a back-up in case of disaster, we'd decided that I'd keep my apartment for the first few months. I don't know why we'd even thought that it might go wrong. We were already spending together most of time that we weren't working. He'd shown me his home – a very well furnished apartment in the building next to his office. So either he was at my place, or I was at his, or we were out. But we were always together. After a year in his apartment, we'd decided that we wanted a house. So we started looking, and after a few months we found a perfect old brick house in the middle of nowhere a few miles outside of Trenton. The last time Ranger had had to leave was just before we started the move. The guys still aren't convinced that he didn't time it that way on purpose.
I knew that my mom wasn't too happy about all of this. She wanted to see me married with children. Sorry, mom, but guess what? I'm not the burg. I never have and never will fit the burg mold. That didn't make her all that happy. But we don't talk all that much, so I guess it really doesn't matter. Mary Lou and I aren't that close anymore, either. I'll always love her, and cherish the friendship that she gave me, but she can't understand my relationship with Ranger. When she told me that she didn't approve of the relationship that I had with Ranger and should therefore stop seeing him, I knew that it was really over. It proved to me how different we'd become, in our lifestyles, in our values, and in our views. That day at Macy's was really the beginning of the end.
Lula and Connie were great – at first. They were "all about that you're fucking Ranger," as they put it. They never asked. They assumed that we were sleeping together, and they assumed that it was great. We were and it was better than great, but it bothered me that they would just assume things and pass them off as fact. At first I just shrugged and thought it was harmless. Then, they started making things up, pretending that I'd told them. I didn't tell them anything; I never had – never did. They started telling other people that I'd told them things. And I told them that they had to stop. They didn't listen. They said that I'd told them where Ranger lived. That was the thing that got them killed. I'd gotten good enough that I was safe. And by this point, I was living with Ranger, so they couldn't get to me at home. But them? They had no idea what they were doing. God, those poor girls. Somebody got them out of their beds in the middle of the night. They were found, bloody and dead, outside the office in the morning.
I'd taken the time to find out who was responsible. I'd taken the time to find out not only who had ordered it, but who had carried those orders out. Then I'd taken the time to make sure that none of them would ever be able to again. Ranger hadn't found out until it was all over. When I'd finished with them all, I'd gone home and told him what I'd done, how I'd done it, and why. He'd looked at me with his head cocked to one side and said that next time, I should bring him so there would be a look out. Then he'd taken me to bed and soothed all my hurts, inside and out.
I still had friends, though. Tank, Bobby, Lester. They were wonderful. The rest of Ranger's crew were great, too. They took care of me and loved me like their little sister. And I loved them like older brothers. Or younger brothers, depending. Some of them didn't get older brother status. Come to think of it, they were all little brothers. Except maybe Tank, Lester, and Bobby. But all of us, we were one big family. Some of them had girlfriends and wives, but they never made it into this special inner circle. I wasn't sure why I did, since I was just Ranger's girlfriend, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was in, and I was never looking back. This family was better than any that I'd ever had. And in it, as the only woman, I found myself in an unexpected, unforeseen role. I wound up soothing their broken hearts, giving them advice on how to get the girl, and sometimes just explaining why the woman of choice was angry in the first place. Ranger just smiled about the whole thing, though he was as surprised about the whole thing as I was. After a while, though, Ranger came to me to thank me. Apparently, his staff now had more balanced lives and were, in general, happier and more effective at work. Then Ranger went on to demonstrate how much happier he was. Extensively.
But Ranger still had to go away from time to time. Usually he at least knew in advance. And, as soon as he knew, he would tell me. As soon as he knew for sure, that is. I'm sure that it was always a possibility that he would have to leave at any given time, so he only told me when he was definitely going. He knew how upset I got. He'd told me how much it meant to him that I worried about him. How much it meant that I would miss him should he not come home. How much he appreciated it that I didn't nag him, complain about his having to leave.
But we still had a ritual that we went through; a tradition we followed every time Ranger left.
I didn't ask him not to go. God knows how much I wanted to, but I never asked that of him. I couldn't ask him to give up something, not even for me. Especially not for me. I've never wanted to change him. I love him, just how he is. If, on his own, he ever decided to give up this kind of thing, I certainly wouldn't complain. I don't like worrying about him while he's gone. I don't like wondering if this time, he won't be coming home. But I won't ask him to give it up. Going into this, I knew about this aspect of his life. And while I didn't like it, I accepted it.
When I knew that he had to leave, we would spend as much time together as we could. Ranger had to get ready for whatever he was doing, wherever he was going, but I made sure that I was touching him as much as realistically possible. If I became a little clingy, or a lot clingy, in the days before he had to go, I don't think Ranger minded. He would even let me curl up against him while he worked on his computer. The first time he'd needed to leave, he'd tried to keep me away from him while he was in his office. He'd told me I couldn't see what he was doing when he was working on the computer. I told him that I didn't give a flying fuck about what he was working on, and that I wasn't going to be paying any attention to the screen. Then I'd led him into his office, sat him in his chair, and fucked him so hard he passed out from the feelings. When he came to, I was firmly in his lap, facing away from the monitor. He hadn't said anything about it since.
The night before he left, we would have a romantic little dinner. Not that prosaic romance that most people think of, but tender and warm, and I thought it incredibly romantic. And I would always sit on the counter and watch as he cooked, trying to memorize his face. After dinner, we would try to memorize each other's body. When Ranger fell asleep, I would lie awake, just looking at him, and enjoying the feeling of his arms around me. Then he would wake up, get dressed, and grab his bag. I would sit in bed and watch him, then tell him that I loved him, and to be safe and come back to me. He would smile, say I love you, and kiss me goodbye before walking out the door.
Once he was gone, I had a habit of my own. While Ranger was home, I wouldn't allow myself to cry. It wouldn't help anything, wouldn't change anything, and it would distract him. When he left, I would take a long, hot shower, and cry myself sick. Then I would pick myself up, and go to church to light a candle and say a prayer. Then I spent the day at the spa. On my way home, I'd stop at the church again, and light another candle, and say another prayer. I would go to church every morning and every evening of every day he was gone. The next day I would spend at the mall, buying a new wardrobe. Half of what I bought would never make it outside the bedroom. That half was Ranger's favorite. The rest of the time, I went about my business. And if I was a little more nervous, a little more worried; if I looked like I was getting a little less sleep, nobody ever mentioned it. But I always went to church in the morning, and I always went in the evening.
The guys had their own routine once Ranger had left. I had no idea if Ranger had asked them to do it, or if they did it on their own, but for the duration I had both a bodyguard and a shadow. The bodyguard was with me at all times; the shadow followed from a discreet distance. I think the logic went something like if an enemy sees me with blatant protection, they won't think to look for the man in the background. I let them do it. While Ranger was gone, I didn't bother them with anything, and they didn't bother me.
It had been just over six months since we'd moved into our new house when Ranger came to me and told me that he had to leave again. And over the next few days, we went through all of our little rituals. We had sex in his office and made love in our bed; he cooked us dinner and kissed me goodbye. Ranger had been gone for two weeks when somebody tried to get me. We were walking to the car when the man who'd been my acting bodyguard for the day was tazed. It was only one man who'd come after me, and I'd shot him pointe blanc before I calmly called for backup. It was only seconds after I'd shot him that the RangeMan employee who'd been shadowing me came running up. There were some questions that went unanswered afterwards; I could see them swimming around in the guys' eyes. But they didn't ask, so I didn't tell.
Since then I'd gotten two bodyguards and three shadows. It was a week later and I was sitting in the park when there was another attempt. This time, they'd disabled the shadows via blunt object to the head, and gotten both of the bodyguards down with shots to the shoulders and legs. One had passed out when he'd fallen and hit his head. The other body guard had managed to hinder the attempted kidnappers with a rain of bullets. I heard two final sounding screams and thuds before he passed out from blood loss. In the meantime, I had pressed the panic button Tank had given me in the event that something like this were to happen. There was only one kidnapper left standing. He wasn't standing for long.
I shot his foot and shoulder, and he fell to the ground moaning. While he was down, I took the hunting knife I'd learned to use, and one from each of the bodyguards utility belts. Then I went to the man on the ground, the man who'd tried to kill my friends and kidnap me, and stabbed both his hands into the earth, demanding to know who he worked for. I had the third knife in case he was reluctant. He wasn't. I knew everything he knew long before the cavalry arrived.
When they did, they showed up in force. Lester, Tank, and Bobby were the first to arrive, and they slowly took in the scene – the three would-be kidnappers dead and the two bodyguards primitively bandaged with stuff from the car. And me, of course, sitting on the bench in the park, enjoying the beautiful day. We'd been lucky. There had only been three of them, and all of our people were fine after a few days in the hospital. There were even more questions at the end of that incident, and I could see the speculation on everyone's face. But again, they never asked the questions.
After that, I didn't go out much. It wasn't worth the risk to the guys, and I think that they were thankful. I still went to church, of course, twice a day, everyday. But other than that, I stayed on the grounds. It took two days for me to get tired of magazines and television and books. Then I started cleaning. In three days, the entire house was the cleanest it had ever been. Then I started redecorating. I had the RangeMen running more errands for me that week than they'd run in the past two years. Lester thought to complain to me about it. I told him that if he wanted me to do it, I'd be more than happy to get out of the house, but to please remember what had happened in the park. He didn't complain again. They got me paint chips, and rollers, and books of wall paper, and carpet samples, and floor samples. And that was all before I decided what I wanted done.
Ranger had been gone for a month, and I was slowly going crazy. He'd never been gone for so long, and I had no way of knowing if something had gone wrong. I started to have nightmares about Ranger being tortured and killed. Soon there wasn't a night that I didn't wake up screaming, unable to get those pictures out of my head. I started going to church three times a day, and began work on the house.
The first room I tackled was Ranger's office. The walls were a dingy white, the carpet green, and the filing cabinets an ugly grey metal. It was the first room Ranger had set up when we'd bought the house, the only room he'd had time to set up. Well, he'd be in for a surprise when he came home.
I gave the guys the orders for flooring and paint, and ordered the new furniture on-line. Then when Tank came back with the supplies, he refused to help me move the furniture. After listening to all of the reasons the room should be redone, Tank still refused. I could do another room, he said. Any other room, and he'd help me all I wanted. Fine, I'd said to him. I'll just douse the office with kerosene and watch it burn. I think it was the tone I used and the look in my eyes that got him on the phone. Within ten minutes, Tank, Lester, and Bobby had moved everything out of the office and ripped up the carpet for me. I thanked them and started painting the walls a nice deep red color. They must have stood there for half an hour, watching me, wondering if I really would have set the office on fire. They eventually left me alone, though after that one of them was never far.
After the walls came the floor. Ranger loved hardwood floors, and so I'd bought the stuff to install it in his office. The wood was a mahogany that was finished to compliment the walls and match the furniture. It was hard work, installing the flooring, but I was so exhausted that I was virtually guaranteed to have dreamless sleep. By the time the floors were done and had finished setting, the new furniture had arrived. It took the boys an afternoon to assemble it, put it back in the room, and switch desks. There had been extra room, so I'd bought bookshelves and had the boys set those up, too. Then I arranged all of the accent pieces – the plants and the paintings and the photographs and the clock and the books. The only thing we left were the filing cabinets. Ranger would move all of the contents when he came back.
By now it had been six weeks since Ranger had left. I was scared and miserable, and didn't know what to do. But I still had all of the design plans for other rooms in the house, so out again various RangeMan employees were sent for supplies. By the end of the month, I'd finished two of the guest rooms. Another week and the dining room was done. All rooms that had never been given much attention. Next was going to be the rec room. When I started in on it the next day after church, I suddenly broke down in tears. Two and a half months, Ranger had been gone two and a half months. I was afraid that he was never coming back. Nobody heard me crying, or if they did, they didn't come in. I was just as glad that they didn't. Still crying, I picked up the roller and started painting. The walls had been scuffed and damaged; the guys played hard. But soon they were a warm golden tone.
I had just stepped back to look at the first wall when I heard a sound above me. People running upstairs on the main floor. Then I heard laughter and yelling. I was afraid to get my hopes up; I didn't think I could handle the let-down when it turned out not to be Ranger. Then there was someone bounding down the steps, and it was him.
I dropped the roller and launched myself at Ranger.
"Oh, God. Oh, God, you're back. You're safe. You're ok, oh, God. You're here," I kept saying that, or something very similar for a long time while I held onto him to make sure he was real. Somewhere in the back of my mind it registered that all of the guys were filing down here and slapping him on the back, but I was so caught up in the fact that Ranger was finally home that I didn't pay them any attention. I don't know when I started crying, or when it turned from a gentle stream of tears to harsh sobs, but eventually, I stopped.
Ranger took in the wall I'd just finished painting, and looked down at me with a grin.
"Redecorating, babe?" he asked.
I laughed and told him, "Something like that."
"Just wait, Boss," Lester told him. "Wait 'til you see the rest."
"Babe?" Ranger looked at me with his eyebrow arched in question. I just laughed and kissed him for all I was worth. When we stopped, it was because of the whistles and catcalls we were getting. He lifted me up and spun me around and we laughed like young lovers.
"Oh, God, babe, it's good to be home."
Later, when things had calmed down a bit, we all moved into living room, where there were the most chairs. Even so, they had to bring in more from the kitchen and dining room. I say they because I wasn't letting go of Ranger long enough for either of us to help, so he just sat in one of the big armchairs with me in his lap.
"So who's gonna fill me in?" he asked.
Tank started, telling Ranger about all of the ops that had been going on when he'd left, then moving on to the ones that had been contracted for after he'd gone, and finally the ones yet to be completed. Then Bobby told him about the attempts on me while he'd been gone, and I felt Ranger's arms tighten around me.
"But she did a good job keeping her head and staying safe until we got there," he said.
"Why wasn't somebody already there?" Ranger almost growled.
"They were," I told him. "They were just knocked out or passed out or incapacitated. I took care of myself, though, so it's alright."
"Like sitting on a bench takes much," one of the younger men joked. I raised my eyebrows and smiled, and held my peace. The man sitting next to him, one of my bodyguards that day, didn't. There was a smack, then an "ow," and a grumbled apology.
"More importantly," I started. "I did some redecorating while you were gone." Having made numerous trips back and forth to various suppliers, they all started to groan.
"I take it it's more than the rec room," Ranger said.
"A lot more. You have a pretty big credit card to pay off."
"l have a big bill?" Ranger sputtered.
I looked at him.
"Yes," I said slowly. "In fact, you have a huge bill. And you're going to be happy about it, too." Ranger threw his head back and laughed.
"I'll be ecstatic, babe. Thrilled."
"I thought so."
"You may not be so thrilled when you see the pink walls," Lester quipped.
"Pink, babe?" Ranger asked.
"In your office," Tank added.
"In my office?" I could hear Ranger starting to panic. I threw him a look.
"I'm sure whatever it is, I'll love it," he said, though the panicked look was still there around his eyes.
"Excellent answer, Ranger," I said. I heard one of the guys make that whip sound, but I ignored it.
"I'm sure Ranger's very happy to see you all," I told them. "But he just got home, and I can't welcome him properly with you all in the house."
There were a lot of catcalls and whistles and lewd comments, and someone yelled out "Ranger's gonna get some tonight."
"That's right," I said. "And he'd get it a helluva lot sooner if you'd all get the hell out of here." That brought some chuckles, and I could have sworn Ranger was blushing.
"Can't I stay and watch?" Lester asked with a pout.
"Only if you pay off the credit card bill," I quipped. When he looked to be calculating it in his head, I reminded him about all of the furniture he had helped move. He shook his head and left with everybody else.
When they were all gone, I unfolded myself from Ranger's lap and took his hand.
"Come see," I said. I showed him all of the rooms I'd finished, ending with the office.
"You like?" I asked.
"I like very much."
"While I was stuck in the house," I started to tell him. "I got so bored. I didn't know what to do, and then I started to think about how this room could use a new coat of paint and then I thought about using a different color and it all spread from there."
"It's great, babe. But I seem to remember something about getting laid?"
And we finished the last part of our little ritual right there on the new hardwood floor in the office.