We had been loosely together for a few months. Neither one of us pushing, both of us content to just let things play out. We did the dating thing, and the staying in thing, and oh, God, did we do the sex thing.
We hadn't done any group things, though. Get your mind out of the gutter. Going out with friends, double dates, stuff like that. I don't know why, maybe he wasn't comfortable around my friends, or thought I wouldn't be around his. Didn't matter, I wasn't going to force him. As if anything could force Ranger to do something he didn't want to. He was like a force of nature – unstoppable, unchangeable, and with a plan that you can try to predict, but won't get right nine times out of ten.
Tonight was girls night, though. I'd thrown on a tight red dress, and taken a taxi to meet the girls at this new dance club on the river. If I was going to be drinking tonight, I was not going to be driving. Either I'd take another taxi home, or one of the girls was going to be a designated driver. Drinking and driving do not mix. When they do, innocent people die. There is no excuse.
Making my way into the club, I spotted the girls right away. Well, I spotted Lula right away. It wasn't hard, since she was in neon green spandex and had died her hair to match.
"Who's driving tonight?" I asked. Nobody had a drink in front of them yet, so it was a fair question.
"Nuh uh, girl. Tonight we're celebrating. All of us is taking' cabs home," Lula told me. She was quite excited about something, but what, I wasn't quite sure.
"Uh, Lula. What exactly is it that we're celebrating?" Could you really blame me for being a little cautious? Remember, I was talking to a woman wearing neon green spandex. I didn't think so.
"Go get us some drinks, and then we'll tell you," Connie told me. Mary Lou winked. So, they were all in on it, huh?
Three rounds later, they'd finally told me why we were celebrating. And I almost ran out of there as fast as my legs could carry me.
"So," I had asked. "Are you ever gonna tell me why we're so happy?"
"Well, we finally got Ranger to agree to meet us with his crew," she said. "You know, for like, a group date, or something."
That wasn't the bad part.
"Yeah," Lula started in. "An' we gotta do something to keep they interest, right? So we got a plan."
Wait for it.
"We gonna have a competition. We gonna see who can find Ranger first," Lula proudly stated.
Crazy? Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You somehow managed to con Ranger into bringing his team to the club with him." The girls nodded.
"You are all excited about this." They nodded again.
"You think that you need to do something special to keep their attention." More nods.
"And you think that playing ghost-in-the-graveyard with Ranger is gonna do it?" I practically yelled.
"Hell no, girl. We gonna try to find his house," Lula butted in over Mary Lou.
"Even better! And Mary Lou, what about Lenny? Aren't you married? Or did I miss something? And what makes you think that this is going to keep their attention? Don't you think that you should respect the man's privacy? These are his friends, they're not going to want any part in shredding that privacy."
There focus suddenly shifted from me to a point behind me and to my right. Ranger was here, I knew it without looking. He slid into booth, slipping an arm around my shoulders.
"Sticking up for me, babe?" he asked.
"Have you heard," I asked him, "what they want to do? What they're planning to do?"
"Can I assume that it has something to do with my privacy?" he joked.
"They want to find your home. Then they probably want to break in and jump you, but first they have to find you."
Then Ranger did something totally unexpected. He threw his head back and laughed a nice deep laugh. By the time he had finished laughing the other guys had gotten there. With dates. That made me smile, but the girls didn't look quite so happy.
"So, boys," Ranger drawled. "Seems these ladies have a contest going on."
"Not me," I clarified. "I want it made perfectly clear that I had nothing to do with this."
"What's the deal, boss man?" Lester asked.
"They want to see who'll find out where I live first," he told them. "But I'm not sure what the prize is."
"Well," Lula said eyeing the men's dates. "We thought maybe a date with the RangeMan of our choice." The women the guys had come with immediately put their hackles up and I could almost feel the drop in temp.
"Nothing to do with it," I repeated, biting off every word and emphasizing my statement by slamming my drink on the table.
"Girl, you gotta loosen up!" Lula said.
"Yeah, Steph. Geeze, I mean, what's the big deal?" Mary Lou added.
"Mary Lou!" I exclaimed. "You're married. Married. To a good man, and you're playing a game to win a date? I thought better of you than that."
"Well, Steph, I mean," Mary Lou started looking down into her glass. "It's like you said. I'm married with three kids. It's not like I'm actually going to be able to find him while I'm driving the kids to soccer, so I thought what the hell. I'll throw in with Connie and Lula for them to have a chance. Maybe live vicariously a little through the details."
A song came on just then that Ranger liked, and it kept us from arguing anymore. Ranger stood up, holding out a hand for me to dance After a few fast songs, a slower song came on that that gave us a chance to talk.
"Aren't you worried about this?" I asked. "Shouldn't you be a little more concerned?"
"Not really, babe. It's not like any of you could find me," he replied with that confidence of his that alternately made me want to jump him and smack him.
"You're sure about that?" I asked. He nodded.
"Absolutely, babe." I just looked at him for a while.
"What about me," I asked him. "Do you think I could find you?"
"You've gotten a lot better over the past year, but no. You couldn't find where I live."
I let Ranger move me to the music while I swallowed that. He didn't think I was good enough. Little did he know.
"What makes you think I don't already know where you live?" I asked coyly. He laughed, making the hurt that much bigger.
"Come on, babe. If you knew where I live, you'd have pried your way in by now."
"But what if I was respecting your privacy?" I persisted. "What if I was waiting for you to trust me enough to show me? What if I figured that if you hadn't shown me, that there was a damn good reason why. That it was for safety, both mine and your own that you didn't want me to know?" Which was why. And it had better be true, too. If he just didn't want me to know because, I don't know, because he was afraid I'd want to redecorate, then I was gonna scream.
He looked at me, considering, and I wondered what he was thinking.
"Do you know where I live, babe?" he asked.
"You said yourself that I couldn't find it." It wasn't a lie. He had said that. I changed the subject.
"So you're not worried at all that one of the girls may somehow figure it out and put everyone in danger?" I asked one last time.
"No, babe. Not at all," he said with a self-confident grin.
"Let's sit," I suggested. "I wanna get this over with."
Going back to the table, I tried to distance myself. I was still hurt that Ranger thought I couldn't find him. With the girls, the RangeMen, and their dates all crowding the table, Ranger pulled me into his lap. If I was less pliant than usual, a bit stiffer, he didn't notice.
"Rules are as follows," Ranger said. "No hiding in anybody's car. No tracking or tracing. You can only try to follow me or any of the guys from eight in the morning to eight in the evening. Time limit is one week, starting tomorrow morning. Agreed?"
Nods all around. I still couldn't believe he was doing this. Or that the girls were stupid enough not to stipulate that he had to visit his house at least once during those hours. All he had to do was leave by seven a.m. and not go back until after eight p.m.. Which he already did. Their loss. Ranger continued with his rules.
"If someone does find my home in the week, you can have a night with the RangeMan of your choice. But he has to agree. If nobody else will go, I'll take you on a date."
What? He was talking about taking another woman out on a date in front of me? First telling me I wasn't good enough, and now this. The pain that had been budding in my chest was in full bloom. The love of my life, offering to take another woman out for a night. I saw the looks that all the women at the table were giving Ranger, even the dates the boys had brought. Shit, one of them was going to find him if they died trying. I still couldn't understand why he was agreeing to this. Was it just to cause me pain? Because it certainly seemed like it.
"But," Ranger continued. "If none of you find me within the time frame, what do I get? What's the incentive for me to agree to this?"
"A date with one of us?" Lula asked. Did none of them see me? Was I invisible? Was I just that insignificant that they completely discounted me and my feelings?
"I have whatever I need in that department whenever I want it," Ranger dismissed the offer, looking at me.
"No," I said, sticking up for myself. "You don't." I shoved myself off of him and hurried to the door. Ranger, of course, couldn't leave well enough alone. He caught up with me before I was fifteen feet from the table and placed himself between me and the door out.
"What's wrong, babe?" he asked. "Why are you so upset?"
"Upset?" I said. "Who's upset?"
"You. Do you wanna tell me why? After all, it's not like you're the one who's gonna have to deal with this for the next week."
"You know, you're right Ranger," I said in my most patronizing voice. "I have absolutely no reason to be upset. I'm being completely irrational. My feelings are completely unjustified and ridiculous, and I have no right to any of them. That being said, I'm still going home. So move."
"Come on, babe," he wheedled. "I wanna dance with you some more before we leave. And I've gotta finish this deal up." All I could do was look at him and blink. I couldn't believe he was saying this, that he was really that dense. Or that my feelings were that trivial to him.
"We aren't going anywhere. I'm leaving. Now get the hell out of my way." I tried to push past him but it was useless.
"Come back to the table with me for five minutes, babe, while I finish this thing with the girls. Then I'll take you someplace and we can talk about what's bothering you," he said.
"I don't want to go anywhere and talk. I want to go home. Alone."
"Babe," he started. I didn't let him finish.
"Fine. Fine, Ranger. Whatever you want," I stated. After all, he was going to get it anyway.
Sitting back down, Ranger went to grab me to hold me on his lap again, but I waved him off.
"I'll rub your neck, baby," I whispered in his ear. He loves to have his neck massaged. His whole back, really, but especially his neck. Not only do his muscles get really tense throughout the day, but his neck is an especially sensitive spot on his body. I didn't want to be touching any part of him at the moment, but even less did I want to be sitting in his lap. So it was a sure thing, the lesser of two evils.
"So what do I get," Ranger continued. "What do I get for agreeing to this little game?" When nobody answered, Ranger came up with a suggestion of his own.
"Then how about this," he said with that cocky grin still on his face. "When none of you find me, all of you stop trying to find out where I live. No more trying to follow me or my men, no more trying to needle the info out of any of my men. And you leave me alone about my personal business when I see you." Well that was certainly a party stopper. Everybody paused, thinking it through. Everyone except the boys, that is. They seemed very pleased with the whole thing. Like the cat who ate the canary.
So now I could understand why Ranger was going through with it. Why he was willing to take the risk. Not only was he confident that the location of his house would stay a secret, but in just a week he'd succeed in getting Lula off his back about it for good. That didn't make my feelings any less hurt about the whole thing. He'd still offered to take someone out while I was sitting right there. He'd still said that I wasn't good enough to find him. But at least now I understood. A little.
"Deal?" he asked.
"Deal," all the women said.
"Good," Ranger said. "Steph and I are gonna get out of here now. Have a good night." I waved my goodbye and led the way out. In the car, Ranger asked where I wanted to go.
"Wherever," I answered, laying my hand on his thigh. I didn't really feel like talking to him right now, didn't feel like explaining my feelings and why his actions had hurt me. So instead I planned on distracting him. As he pulled out of the club parking lot I started to stroke my hand up and down his leg, lingering toward the top. He smiled a predatory smile, like he was in control of the situation. Little did he know. I moved from his thigh to his dick, pressing suddenly, and it was a good thing Ranger had had to stop for a light or I would have caused an accident. I smiled a big, innocent smile at Ranger, and he sped up the car. Apparently, he was in a hurry. I wonder why.
I added my other hand, unzipping his pants and playing with him, wreaking havoc on his control. I could feel his dick growing in my hands and his thigh muscles tightening under them. And when we stopped for another traffic light a block from his office, I went down on him.
"Jesus shit, Stephanie," he yelled. From the horns blaring behind us I gathered that the light had changed, but I stayed with him, sucking and blowing and nipping, but keeping him just on this side of it all, denying him that release. After all, I wanted him in a frenzy, and sating him didn't keep him in that state.
"God, Steph…" Ranger groaned.
I paused in my work for a moment to say, "Better keep driving if you want us to get somewhere we can finish this."
After he had me in his car, against his car, on the garage floor, in the elevator, and in the hall, we'd finally made it to his office. But by then we were too tired to do anything but collapse on the couch. So we did. As we were drifting off to sleep, I thought back to when I'd first figured out where Ranger lived.
I'd taken on a skip who lived, I realized as I did a drive by of his house, in one of the richer parts of Trenton. Big Blue stuck out like a sore thumb. A very kitschy sore thumb. I drove around to a park that was a few streets back and walked to the house. I wasn't sure what my plan was, but I figured I'd improvise. I was lucky that night had begun to fall and twilight had set in, so when I slipped over the fence and into the branches of a tree when nobody was around to see.
I had been watching the streets, waiting for the skip to drive up when I saw a car that was frighteningly familiar. Ranger. What was he doing here? Did he want the skip? Was he here to tell me that she'd been caught? He drove to the house catty-corner to the one my skip lived in, and the gate opened for him. From the looks of it, nobody would be able to climb that fence nearly as easily as I'd climbed this one. Could it be where Ranger lived? Could it be the sacred ground? The holy grail?
I whipped out my cell to make a call. It rang four times before Ranger picked up.
"Yo yourself. What's up?" I asked. He paused, like he wasn't sure I was really saying this.
"Not a whole lot. Just got home." Oh, my God! It was Ranger's house. It was, it was, it was!
"I'm out waiting for a skip. If I have some trouble with him, can I call you? Will you be busy?" I asked to cover the reason behind the call.
"Sure babe. I wasn't planning on doing much tonight."
"Uh, ok. Thanks, bye." I hung up quickly, almost dropping the phone like a hot potato.
Just to make sure that it was Ranger's house, I'd gone back the following three of four nights and a few of the mornings. I was prepared; I brought binoculars. And one morning, I saw Ranger come out of the gates to run. It was his house. I finally caught the skip, but I never said a word about finding his house. Not a word.
The Search – Day One
Lula and Mary Lou and Connie were at the office when I got there. They were talking about what they were going to do; how they were going to go about finding Ranger's house.
"So what's your game plan, Steph?" Connie finally asked me.
"Don't have one. I told you all before that I was going to have nothing to do with this, and I'm not."
"No?" Lula asked. "Why not? He said it was alright, so what's your problem?"
"Whatever," I said. "You guys do what you want. I heard a rumor that he lives near Princeton. Does that help?"
"Hell, yeah, girl," Lula screeched.
"Thanks, Steph," Connie said. "At least now we have a place to start." She handed over the files and they got to work.
As I left, I tried to cover my smile. Princeton. That was a good one.
The Search – Day Two
Ranger had stopped by my place late during the second night of the competition. As we were lying in bed, he turned to me to talk.
"Heard a rumor today," he said.
"Oh did you?" The rumors he told me were usually very interesting.
"Heard you were helping the girls find me."
"Oh," I said, disappointed. I'd thought it would be something good. Maybe something on a skip I was looking for, or a bit about somebody that I could use later on.
"What did you hear," I asked dutifully.
"You sent them to Princeton?" he asked, barely hiding his mirth. "Trying to get rid of the competition, babe?"
"Whatever you say, Ranger."
The Search – Day Three
Day three and we were sitting in a Bronco, doing surveillance on one of Ranger's skips.
"So what are you doing for it, Steph?" Ranger asked as I dug into my purse for a candy I knew was in there somewhere.
"Doing for what?" I asked distractedly.
Oh, God, not this again.
"What makes you think I'm doing anything?" I wanted to know.
"Why wouldn't you? I said it was alright this week, and you have enough curiosity to kill ten cats, so of course you're looking," he said with that self-assured tone. Like his word was the word of God.
"Well then if you know me so well you should know exactly what I'm doing for the search, shouldn't you."
I found the candy and went back to watching the house.
The Search – Day Four
The stupid competition had been going on for four days now. Connie and Lula were devoting all of their time to it, calling in favors from everyone they knew and following him, or trying to, whenever they saw him in the twelve hours allotted. Ranger still had this calm about him, like he wasn't worried in the least. But I saw him eyeing me, like I was an enigma. Like before, he'd known exactly what to expect around all of my corners, but now he didn't know what lay in wait for him. That was fine. A woman was supposed to have a little mystery.
The Search – Day Five
It was at dinner on night five that he couldn't take the pressure anymore.
"Steph?" he asked. "What is it? What do you know?"
"What are you talking about, Ranger?" I asked, playing innocent.
"What have you found out about my house? What do you know?" He even looked nervous.
"What makes you think I know anything? Are you nervous?" I asked incredulously. I was going to milk this one for all it was worth and then some.
"No, I…God. Yes. Yes, I'm nervous," he spit out angrily. "From all that I can tell, you haven't done anything to find my place all week. I gave my ok for the silly game. You shouldn't have anymore complaints, any reasons not to participate. Except that it seems like you aren't doing a damn thing. And that makes me nervous. More nervous. Because if I can't see what you're doing, then you must be doing it pretty damn well. So tell me what you know."
Oh, God, I thought. This was even better than I'd hoped for. Ranger was nervous. And he was angry. I'd made Ranger nervous enough to be angry.
I smiled my most predatory smile and said to him, "Weren't you were the one to say I wasn't good enough to find you? And since you're always right, you shouldn't be worried, now should you."
Somehow, he didn't look reassured.
What a shame.
The Search – Day Six
"Why don't you want me to know where you live, Ranger?" I asked. It was the day before the competition was over.
"What?" he asked, confused by the question so out of the blue.
"You need to tell me," I stated calmly. "Now. And don't give me any bull that you and I both know isn't true and insults both of our intelligence."
"Safety," he finally said.
"Yours or mine?"
"Both." I nodded. That was an acceptable answer.
"Are we in a serious relationship?" I asked. He looked baffled by my questions – sudden, serious, and steady.
"Well, yeah," he said. "Don't you want to be?" I ignored his question.
"So if we're in a serious relationship, doesn't that mean eventually moving on to the next level?"
"I guess it does, but what do you mean by…"
"In a serious relationship, don't people usually move in together?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose," he said. "Stephanie?" It was a plea for a life line. Poor man didn't know what was coming.
"So if my even knowing where you live is a safety issue, how are we ever going to move in together? If we're never going to be able to grow in our relationship, then what's the point at all? Why are we even bothering when if we get too serious, you're going to tell me to take a hike because of our safety?" Poor, poor man. He was so completely confused and helpless. And I wasn't going to throw him a rope.
These were all questions and issues I'd been hinting around and asking about for the past few months, but he'd waved off as inconsequential. So it was all his own damn fault. He'd been pigheaded and stubborn and unwilling to listen to reason or logic. And he'd dug the hole even deeper with this whole find the house game. If he'd just listened to me, even once, or even answered just one of my questions, a lot of this could have been avoided. But he hadn't. So he could drown in the damn hole, or stew in his own juices. Or something like that, anyway. I was still waiting to hear his answer.
"When the time comes, we'll think of something," he finally said.
"Think hard, Ranger," I told him. "Think fast, think hard."
The Search – Day Seven
Midnight on day seven. It was finally over. Ranger came over with champagne to celebrate. We were well into our second or third bottle when discussion about the stupid game started.
"So none of you could fine me," he said happily.
"I didn't play, Ranger," I told him. "I've said from the beginning that I was not a part of it in any way, shape or form. I didn't participate."
"Whatever you say, babe, but even if you had, you wouldn't have found me."
"Are you so sure about that, Ranger?" I wanted to know. "Are you so sure that I'm so inept that I wouldn't be able to find you? Because I think I could."
"Didn't say you were inept, babe. Just that you couldn't find my house."
"I think I could. I know I could."
"Oh really," he asked. "And how would you go about doing that?"
"You really wanna know?" I asked him.
"You better believe it," he said in that self-assured, cocky tone. The one that said that he was right, I was wrong, and he was gonna prove it to me once and for all. I started to tell him.
"Your average response time to come to my place is just more than ten minutes. Never less than five, never more than twenty. I've got to figure that some of those times you're coming from home, so you can't live further away from me than it would take twenty minutes to drive. You're consistently quicker when I'm on the west side of town. That would put you somewhere in this circle," I said as I drew one on the map of Trenton. "You have no less than four cars that you use on a regular basis. You could house them somewhere else, like your office building, but my guess is you want them close to you. So probably you have a five plus car garage. Security is an issue for you, so your place has to have gates and be a distance from the walls on all sides. That means you have to have a bit of property. How'm I doing so far?"
"Pretty well, but you haven't narrowed it down very far."
"First thing you have to do is profile the place. Then you move on to actual targets. Next I'd get a listing of all property in that circle. I know every realtor in Trenton and a lot of people who work for the city. I'd get an accounting of every square inch within that circle. The first places I would check out are the ones that would be conspicuously missing from the records. If you weren't in any of those, then I'd move on to the electric and cable companies. I know enough people who work in both places that I'd be able to get lists of every building they provide service to within that area. First I'd go to the places neither provide for. If you weren't at any of those places, I'd cross reference with the phone book, crossing out the places people are listed. Then I'd work through the addresses left. There would be enough I could cover it in a day, two tops. I'd find you, Ranger. If I wanted to, I could find your house. The only thing that's kept me from doing it – just to rub it in your face – is that I respect your privacy. You haven't shown me where you live, so obviously there's a reason for you not wanting me there. But don't ever doubt that I could find you if I wanted to. And it wouldn't take me the seven days you gave the girls."
He just looked at me for the longest time. Then he knocked back both his champagne and mine and looked at me some more.
"Back at the club," he finally said. "When we started this whole thing, you were upset."
No shit, Sherlock.
"We didn't start anything. You and the girls started it. I wanted nothing to do with any of it," I clarified.
"Alright," he nodded. "But you were upset. You almost walked out on me, and we said we'd talk about it later."
"We didn't say anything. You said we'd go somewhere and talk about it. After you closed that ever important deal. And maybe after a dance or two."
"What? It's not like we didn't know that nobody would be able to find me."
"We didn't know anything. You insisted that nobody would be able to locate your house. Including me. And I've just demonstrated that I could find your house if I were so inclined."
He looked at me again, like I had three heads and they were all breathing fire at him, before he poured two more glasses of champagne and gulped them down.
"It doesn't matter what I say now, does it," he asked. "I'm going to get it wrong."
"Not necessarily," I told him. "You can admit that you were wrong on many, many levels and apologize to me from the bottom of your heart." He blinked.
"Or we can have bedroom Olympics," he said. "And we can do the other thing in the morning when we both have clear heads."
"Or we could do that," I agreed as Ranger loomed over me, scooping me up and kissing me senseless.
Much, much later as we lay exhausted in my bed, Ranger nudged me to make sure I was awake.
"What," I grunted.
"So do you know where I live or not?"
I just smiled.