Epilogue: The Game of Life
Disclaimer: Everyone belongs to Janet Evanovich except the ones that are mine, and I'm just playing.
Warnings: LANGUAGE, VIOLENCE, SMUT and WORSE, All 12 books.
A/N: My thanks to the most special group of ladies on the planet: to Karen, Super Editor & Friend who puts up with my sappy Ranger and Wonder Woman Steph, Lindsay, who beats me with the Show, Not Tell Stick, on a regular basis, Luisa, Brain Stormer and Translator Extraordinario, Christie who Cheer Leads me, Lisa for the Phone Calls, Beth C. for the Food and Shopping trips that keep me sane, Linda for letting me bitch and all the BC & PP & BCRUS & FF girls for support, friendship, suggestions, hand holding, cheer leading and general ass kicking. Game wouldn't be without you.
Thank you to all of you wonderful readers and reviewers! I've tried to answer each and every review that you've sent. You've all made my Inner Review Slut very happy!
And now at long last, absolutely, positively, without a doubt The Very End of the Game!
The Name Of The Game!
By Stayce (XJerseyGirl)
Epilogue: The Game of Life!
Stephanie reached her arms up over her head and stretched luxuriously, her legs tangled in the sheets, her body pleasantly sore in all the right places. She was alone in the big bed, but if she closed her eyes, she could still feel his hands on her breasts and his mouth on her belly, she could feel him moving inside of her, branding her as his all over again. A warm breeze billowed the curtains that hung from the four hand hewn bedposts, and she turned to look through the open door at the impossibly blue sea. She slipped out of bed and pulled the gauzy white shift over her head, the tile floor cool under her feet as she crossed the room to look for Ranger.
Running her fingers through her wild curls, she went to the edge of the terrace and looked down at the beach where Ranger was finishing his morning run, her heart turning over at the sight of him. His shorts were low slung on his slim hips, his muscles flexing, his chest and arms covered with a fine sheen of sweat in the early morning sunlight. His hair was cut shorter and curled a bit as it fell over his forehead. He was tall and tanned and perfect as he splashed through the aquamarine water.
She knew that he could feel her eyes on him, and he looked up at her, gifting her with a full on smile. He raised his arm and waved to her, motioning her to come down and join him, but she smiled back and shook her head 'no', sitting instead on the low rock wall that surrounded the terrace so she could watch him. He waved again and ran into the water, diving into a breaking wave, strong and healthy and unscarred, slicing through the water as he swam away from shore.
Stephanie pulled her knees to her chest and folded her arms on top of them, her chin resting on her hands. She watched Ranger, and even after last night, or maybe because of it, lust curled in her belly, the heat shooting through her veins like fire in her blood. She would usually still be asleep when he returned. He would shower and stretch out beside her, waking her with gentle touches and kisses. Sometimes they would talk, sometimes laugh, sometimes they would make love, but always, they made memories.
Today though, it would be different. She would pull him off the terrace and back into bed before he showered. She would kiss his face and throat, shoulders and chest, licking his skin, tasting the salty tang of sea and sweat as she slid down his body. She would take him in her mouth and drive him out of his mind, make him lose control, feel his hands twisting in her hair as she drove him over the edge, tasting him again.
He turned back when he got to the end of the rock jetty and swam to the shore with long, sure strokes. Stephanie watched as he stood in the hip deep water, his hands raised to push the hair back from his handsome face, the knife wound raw and ragged in his side, blood streaming out of him, staining his skin and turning the blue water bright red. He looked so sad when he saw the blood, and raised his eyes to her, the light in them dimming, then dying, as he fell backwards into the sea and vanished.
Stephanie sat bolt upright gasping for air, her silent scream echoing inside her head. As many times as she'd had the same nightmare, she would never get used to it. She slipped out of bed and padded into the bathroom to wash her face and try to wash away the dream, again. Like so many other nights, there would be no more sleep for her.
Stephanie had wracked her brain, giving herself a headache, but the last thing she could remember was being in Ramon's bed with Ranger and knowing that they were going to die together. There was that white light that everybody always talked about, and then … nothing. At least there was nothing until she had finally dragged her eyes open and found Hal and Lester hovering over her, scaring the crap out of her. She had screamed and they both had jumped a little.
She really thought that she was dead and they were looking down at her in her coffin. She didn't know what she expected. Angels maybe? Or God Himself? But even in her drug induced fog, she didn't think she could be in heaven. Not with Lester there! She wouldn't remember that she had looked up at Hal and whispered, "I don't think he's supposed to be here in Heaven," and then she drifted off to sleep again. Much to Lester's disgust, Hal laughed until he cried.
The next time she came to, she was in pain, her back ached where she had been shot and her arm was stiff, her throat so sore she couldn't swallow. She didn't know where she was and wound up having a full blown panic attack, crying out for Ranger, her heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketing. Memories flooded over her and she came awake fighting the hands that were trying to help her, needing find Ranger, to make sure that he was alright, needing to see him and touch him. It was Hal who had wrapped his arms around her and eased her back onto the bed when she tried to get up to search for him. It had been Lester who had held her hand and dried her tears, trying to soothe her while doctors and nurses poked and prodded her. They all tried to tell her that Ranger was still alive, but she was beyond hearing them and she screamed for him until she had to be sedated.
When she opened her eyes and found an exhausted Tank dozing in the chair next to her bed, a stab of fear knifed through her heart at what he was going to tell her. Her heart tried to hammer its way out of her chest and she was working on another panic attack when Tank roused and smiled at her. That smile alone, gave her hope. "Hey Bombshell, good to see you awake!" He leaned over her bed and flipped open his cell phone. "Thought you'd like to see where I've been the last couple days." He held the phone for her so she could see the pictures he had taken of Ranger in the ICU. Relief washed over her and the tears that had welled in her eyes spilled down her face. She finally believed that Ranger had survived.
Tank told her to 'smile pretty' and took a couple of pictures of her to show Ranger when he came around, as proof that Stephanie was still alive, too. She complained, but leaned back against her pillows and smiled. When she saw the pictures though, she was stunned at what her face looked like. Considering how she felt, she was pretty sure the rest of her body looked the same way. Tank chuckled, "Bomber, you are such a girl!" when she whined over her wild hair and the dark circles under her eyes and the huge purple bruises on her neck from Yuri trying to strangle her.
She tried to delete the pictures, but Tank was faster and grabbed the phone back first, telling her that if she didn't behave and follow doctor's orders, he'd send them to the Trenton Times. "Traitor!" she yelled at him, but he just smiled and kissed her on the cheek, telling her that she shouldn't worry about what she looked like. She was alive, and so was Ranger. That was all that really mattered. Even she had to admit that there was no arguing with that logic!
The steady stream of Merry Men who trooped in and out to see her overwhelmed and exhausted her. Her room looked like a florist shop and there were enough stuffed animals and balloons to fill a children's ward. They brought lots of magazines, too, except they were mostly of the Guns and Ammo type. They made sure her TV had a DVD player, and stocked up on all her 'favorite' movies, like all the Die Hards and Rambos. She suspected they had ulterior motives. She'd drift off to one bunch of Merry Men and wake up to find a different set sitting there, watching TV or dozing in chairs.
Lester and Hal only left when the nurses came in to change her bandages or bathe her, and she was never quite sure that Lester didn't peek anyway. When she wondered out loud who was staffing the Trenton office since it seemed that everybody was here, Ram just smiled and told her that they brought in the second string, Rangemen from Boston. It hurt when she snorted a laugh and rolled her eyes. She couldn't wait to hear what the Boston guys would say when they heard about that little crack.
Stephanie knew full well that despite the humor, wherever Ranger was, his men would be too. They would want to be here to stand watch, to guard him, to give blood, to lend morale support, to do whatever was necessary for him. Stephanie could see that they were all exhausted, but still, they weren't going to leave until Ranger did.
A lot of the men had been injured, but they were still came in to see her. Max had his arm in a sling, Cal was limping, Junior moved very slowly, like a man with broken ribs, Binkie was on crutches, his leg in a cast, Woody had a black eye and broken nose, even Lester had bruises and a bandage on his arm. When she asked him about it, he waggled his eyebrows and offered to compare battle scars with her. Some things never changed, she thought with a smile. Thank God!
The guys knew how much she hated not knowing what had happened while she was unconscious. After all, this was Stephanie, and the not knowing was driving her nuts. She badgered them for details and they gleefully made it their duty to fill in all her blank spots. They took turns entertaining her with some wildest tales she had ever heard, about how they had fearlessly fought their way into Ramon's compound and then into the house like comic book heroes, making her smile at their good natured arguing over who was the bravest.
Of course, each time Lester told her a part of the story, it became more outrageous and he became more heroic, until it sounded like he had single-handedly stormed the place and had overcome hordes of bad guys with nothing more than his bare hands and devastating smile, putting all the other Merry Men to shame.
They playfully acted out all the hand to hand combat for her entertainment pleasure. As payback for Lester's boasting, each Merry Man used him as the bad guy, tossing him around like a rag doll. Finally he announced that he was going to just stay on the floor since that was where he was going to wind up anyway. And Stephanie found out the true meaning of the expression, 'It only hurts when I laugh,' having to stop the guys a couple of times when she really thought she was in danger of ripping out her stitches from laughing so hard.
The mood changed and the guys turned serious when Bobby told her how they had taken out the last of Yuri's men in the hall, right outside the bedroom, and how Ram had planted the small explosive charges that blew the door in. They explained that since nobody knew who was in the room, Tank had followed long-standing procedure and yelled, 'RangeMan!' before tossing a flash/bang grenade through the doorway. That way, they told her, any Merry Men who might be in there would know to duck and cover and the bad guys would be stunned by the bright flash and the big bang.
Stephanie vaguely remembered hearing a shout and she realized that it must have been Tank doing the yelling. That's why Ranger hadn't pulled the trigger of the gun he'd had pressed to the back of her head; he knew the procedure and that it was the Merry Men outside the door. That's why she was still alive. She'd have to remember to thank Tank when she saw him.
All the Merry Men carefully glossed over the part about finding her wrapped in Ranger's arms, and that they all thought that both of their friends were dead. Stephanie felt herself choke up when she realized that not one of them mentioned the part about the gun … they were trying to protect her, spare her, in case she didn't know what Ranger had planned to do, and she loved them for it.
There was no joking around when Bobby filled her in about the medical teams he had assembled, and the air rescue helicopter Tank had arranged for. Both of the men knew that there would probably be injuries among the Rangemen during that kind of an operation. He told her how they had almost instantly turned the bedroom into a field hospital. The medics had stabilized both her and Ranger, then air lifted them to a private hospital where a trauma team was standing by. It dawned on Stephanie that she shouldn't be surprised about any of their preparations; after all, this was RangeMan. All of this was the norm for them, just a walk in the park, just an ordinary Tuesday, or whatever day it was, she had lost track.
Even though the doctors had talked to her, Bobby told her more about her injuries and how lucky she was that the bullet that had hit her had been a ricochet, not packing its full punch. It had done enough damage as it was, he said, but nothing permanent and she would be good as new in a couple of weeks. She had lost a lot of blood, and that's why she was so tired and weak. They'd have to watch her for infection, but she'd be home in a week and could recuperate there. The scars on her arm and back could easily be taken care of by a good cosmetic surgeon, he said, and he offered to call Niko Ramos for her.
Bobby promised to give her a daily status report on Ranger's condition. He was gentle with her, but told her the truth. Ranger had had a couple of surgeries to repair the damage from the stab wound, had lost his spleen and too much blood. He was getting transfusions and was still unconscious, but he was young and strong and healthy, and there was no reason he shouldn't make a full recovery. Still, Stephanie couldn't help being worried and scared for him.
When her turn came to tell them what had happened to Ranger and her, the Merry Men filled her room so she'd only have to tell the story once. Despite her brave front, they all knew how hard it would be on her. They filled the chairs and leaned against the walls and doorway, some of the guys sat on the floor, but even though everybody smiled encouragingly, the mood was somber. As much as she hated the thought of having to relive the horror of that night, with bile burning the back of her throat and her voice shaking, she told them everything. Starting from the time she climbed over the compound wall, she stopped her story to apologize to Max for not listening to him, to Ramon grabbing her, to being thrown over the balcony, she didn't leave out anything. Even to her own ears, it sounded like fiction.
Hal sat on the bed next to her, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, hugging her when her voice broke as she told the guys about not being able to tell Ranger and Ramon apart, watching one get stabbed and the other shot. Lost in the memory, her voice faded away when she told them how she found Ranger, how she got shot herself, and her run in with Yuri. Her hand drifted up to touch her throat when she told them how he tried to strangle her, and about Ranger's miraculous appearance and how he saved her. Some of the men had to turn away, not able to look at her, when she told them about Ranger's plan for the last bullet in his gun.
When she finally finished her story, the guys got up and gave her a standing ovation. They gathered around her bed, telling her that she had saved Ranger and how proud they were of her, kissing her cheek or forehead or hand as they left the room. Suddenly she was so exhausted, both emotionally and physically from reliving it all, that she didn't have the strength to stay awake for another minute. Letting her eyes drift closed, she sagged back against Hal's chest and she drifted off to sleep, totally spent.
On the third day Bobby popped into her room and Stephanie immediately woke up. "Hey Slugger," he said with a huge smile. "Guess who's awake and out of ICU?"
Stephanie's throat closed up and she couldn't speak, overcome by the relief she felt. Her emotions were still all over the map and all she could do was lay there and cry. Bobby raised the head of her bed and sat on the edge, waiting for her to cry it out. When she was finally down to just hiccupping, he handed her a wad of tissues and ordered, "Blow!"
"The very first thing Ranger said was, 'Where's Stephanie?'" Bobby said with a laugh. "And then he ordered me to go and find you. He was ready to climb out of bed and go hunting for you himself if I didn't hustle fast enough," he said, smiling.
"Well then move it, Brown," she gave him a shot in the arm to motivate him. "Let's get going! I need to see him now!" She flipped the covers off of her legs and tried to slide out of the bed.
"Oh, I don't think so Slugger." Bobby said with a laugh, as he gently restrained her. "Wait until they bring you a wheelchair. You're not quite ready to go running off down the halls yet. It's bad enough that he wants to tear this place apart looking for you, don't you give me a hard time, too."
Stephanie flopped back against the pillows and blew out a dramatic sigh, then her Jersey Girl instincts kicked in and she flipped open the mirror on the bed table. She fluffed her hair and grabbed her little make up bag, grateful for the guys' willingness to bring her some of the basics she'd asked for, like a hairbrush and mascara and lip gloss. "I look like death warmed over," she moaned as she looked at the bruises she still sported.
"That's exactly what you are, Slugger, both of you! Death warmed over!" She turned her stricken face toward him. "Don't worry; you'll look beautiful to him. Nothing you can do is ever gonna change that!" Bobby just shook his head and watched her put on another coat of mascara and swipe on lip gloss while they waited for the wheelchair.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Bobby got up and helped Steph slide her legs over the side of the bed, then helped her on with her robe and slippers.
She was more than relieved that she didn't have to wear those embarrassing hospital gowns anymore. Lester had volunteered to take the list she had written up to the nearest mall. He had come back with a several lovely big pink bags from Victoria's Secret, filled with the jammies and robes and undies that she had requested. Lester had leered at her playfully and said that now he could honestly tell everybody that he had had his hands in her panties. Hal smacked him in the back of the head for that one and told him it was from Ranger.
Like a kid on Christmas morning, Stephanie's heart was pounding with anticipation and she was all but bouncing on the bed waiting for the wheelchair to come through the door. It took her a second to register that the people who stalked into her room and stood in front of her weren't hospital employees. Dressed in grey suits and top coats, the three men and a woman were stiff and unsmiling. They all pulled out their IDs in unison, and announced that they were Federal Agents, straight from Washington, D.C.
The lead suit announced, "Stephanie Plum, I have a Federal Warrant for your arrest on charges of Interference with a Federal Investigation. You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, if you cannot afford …" Stephanie zoned out at that point, just looking up at Bobby in shock.
The wheelchair appeared, but instead of a trip to see Ranger, Stephanie was hauled to her feet and patted down by the female agent while the floor tipped under her feet. Her hands were cuffed to the chain that was locked around her waist and her feet were shackled together as if they were afraid that she was going to beat all four of them into a bloody pulp before she made her escape. Before she had a chance to ask a question or say a word, she was shoved down and landed painfully in the wheelchair, then pushed down the hall where they were met by a solid wall of Merry Men … very angry Merry Men.
Tank stepped forward to speak to the agent in charge, firing questions with machine gun speed. What were their names, who had issued the warrant, had Stephanie been released by her physician, where were they taking her, had she been allowed to call her lawyer. Stephanie sat stunned, watching their back and forth like a tennis match. She was having a hard time processing what was going on and almost panicked when she realized that she couldn't even raise her hands to wipe her teary eyes.
Hal knelt beside her and while he blotted her tears with his handkerchief, he whispered to her, "Don't talk to them, don't tell them anything, don't agree to any deals Steph, just keep asking for Haver Williamson. They have to let you talk to your lawyer. Do you understand? And ask for your own doctor, ask for Nikolas Ramos."
She nodded dumbly, "Haver and Niko," she repeated, still not quite grasping what was going on.
Hal smiled at her and jerked his head in the direction of another hospital room door. He stood and while the agents were distracted by the Rangemen, pushed the door open slowly. The patient lying on the bed turned his head … Ranger. He looked furious as he tugged at the cuffs holding his left wrist to the rail of his bed. His anger melted away when his eyes met hers and he mouthed, 'I love you, Babe.' Her heart lifted, and she just had time to mouth back, 'I love you, too' before the feds wheeled her into the elevator. The doors slid closed on a sea of solemn faced Merry Men and Stephanie had never felt so alone in all her life.
It was a short flight from Washington, D.C. and Stephanie's heart skipped a beat as the wheels of the Alexander Ramos' plane touched down at the small private airport. Who would have ever thought that she'd be this excited about coming back to Trenton? She leaned her head against her seat and watched the runway lights flash past her window. She was home! Relief washed over her and she blinked back the tears that pricked at her eyes, mentally scolding herself for being such a wuss.
She blew out a deep sigh and thought about everything that had happened in these last five weeks. Probably she'd been better off waking up in the hospital with those big chunks of time missing, the ones that the Merry Men filled in for her. Unfortunately, she hadn't missed a single frustrating, infuriating, exasperating second of the time that she had spent at Club Fed.
By the time her federal escort had delivered her to D.C. the charges against her had been dropped. Big surprise! The same four agents who had been cold enough to freeze over hell when they arrested her, now told her that out of great concern for her health and well being, she would be held as a Federal Witness … in protective custody … held incommunicado … for her own safety … of course. It had taken just about that long for her shock to wear off and anger to set in.
Stephanie had been locked up for the longest five weeks of her life in the bureaucratic hell of a 'secure' medical facility, as a 'guest' of the federal government. She'd learned a whole new vocabulary, courtesy of the feds. No matter how they sugar coated it, 'secure' meant the place was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in towers, and 'guest' meant she had a bed in a room and a door that locked ... from the outside! They probably paid somebody big bucks to come up with that federal 'speak' crap … your tax dollars at work!
Held 'incommunicado' was another good one. It was just a fancy way of saying solitary confinement. It meant no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines, no books, no phone calls, no visitors, no nothing. The Feds were punishing her for sticking her nose in where it didn't belong … showing her who was boss. Well, Stephanie thought childishly, they aren't the boss of ME!
Of course, she was still supposed to be recovering from her injuries, and she used the time to catch up on her sleep, or tried to. The worst part of being in federal detention was not knowing about Ranger, where he was, how he was. Her imagination ran wild and every worst case scenario played through her mind on a continuous loop. She was plagued by nightmares to the point that she almost hated to close her eyes. She had no appetite, which was not a bad thing in this case, since the food they served her was unidentifiable. The feds had no clue who they were dealing with, though, and Stephanie was determined that they wouldn't break her.
She had dealt with feebs before. They always thought they were smarter than everybody else and nobody could possibly figure out that they were playing games because they were just so slick. Idiots! She figured it must be against some federal rule for them to be upfront about stuff or just tell you what they wanted. That's what the feds were trying to do with this solitary confinement garbage. They were trying to wear her down or soften her up. But all they really did was piss her off. They had no clue who they're screwing with, Stephanie realized, I think it's about time they all meet Stephanie Plum!
The feds showed up to question her, or at least they tried, but she asked for her lawyer. So they smiled said that they'd 'debrief' her instead, no lawyer necessary. "Nope," she said, "I still want my lawyer, and my doctor, too." She was really starting to enjoy herself; she found it very satisfying that she apparently had a gift for making cool, calm, collected federal suits turn red in the face and stroke out. Then they pulled out the big guns, they threatened her with prison, but hell, she was already there. It was a standoff.
Finally, she woke up one morning to find Haver Williamson, RangeMan's legal counsel, standing at the foot of her bed. She'd never been so happy to see anyone in her life and later, when her cell door was unlocked and Niko Ramos strolled in, she finally gave in to her bottled up emotions and cried like a baby.
Between Niko angrily demanding her release because she had received substandard medical care and Haver threatening to charge the feebs with violations of her civil rights, a deal was worked out. Stephanie would testify against all of Ramon and Yuri's men when they were brought to trial, in exchange for her immediate release, which was probably what the feds wanted in the first place. After all the weeks of game playing, in two hours she was on a plane headed home.
Watching the plane descend over Trenton, it seemed to Stephanie that she had been gone for forever and it felt like she'd had every muscle in her body clinched the entire time she was away… like she had been holding her breath, waiting to exhale. It was almost painful to finally let herself go, to relax and breathe again. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz was right, there really was no place like home.
Stephanie had been home for weeks and she still hadn't heard directly from Ranger. Haver and Niko carried messages back and forth for them and everybody made sure that she was kept up to date on what was going on. But she still ached to hear his voice, to find out where they stood, what would happen between the two of them. She felt like she was in limbo, somehow suspended between heaven and hell.
Haver had handed her over to the Merry Men, then he turned around and went right back to Washington to represent Ranger and Hector. Their debriefings would be a totally different kind of hell from hers, especially since most of the government's case depended on their eyewitness accounts and testimony. The feebs needed Ranger and Hector and had given them federal witness status, too, but fortunately for everyone concerned, they knew better than to try to intimidate those two men.
Niko kept regular tabs on her, taking her to dinner and down the Shore to visit with Alexander. He kept her updated on Ranger's rapid physical recovery after the reversal surgery that had removed all traces of Ramon, assuring her that Ranger looked like Ranger again. Another surgeon, an ophthalmic specialist, had removed the false lens on his eye, and except for some temporarily blurred vision, everything was fine. All Stephanie could really do now was sit and wait for Ranger to come back. Unfortunately for Stephanie, patience had never been one of her virtues.
As soon as she had felt up to it, Lula had taken her over to Mr. Alexander who had 'tut-tutted' over how she had mistreated her crowning glory, and then had returned her to the curly haired brunette she had always been. She went shopping or to the movies or dinner with Connie and Lula and Mary Lou. Joe came by and brought Pino's and they'd watch a game, the Merry Men took her to Shorty's and dropped by with donuts. Stephanie and Jeanne Ellen went out looking for office space for their agency and she went to dinner every Sunday at her parents' house. Life was returning to normal … sort of.
When Hector returned to Trenton and showed up, unannounced, on her doorstep, she flung herself at him, nearly knocking them both down the front steps. He was chatty and upbeat and exhausted. He seemed to be amazed to still be alive, thanks, he said, to her … happy to be back at RangeMan, talked about the long vacation he was going to take, and he carefully avoided any mention of Ranger.
When Hector finally ran out of chit chat, an uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Stephanie took a deep breath, "Okay Hector, what's going on? I know there's something, so you might as well just spill it and get it over with." She sounded so calm and in control of herself, but her hands were shaking.
Hector heaved a deep sigh. "It's not bad, Steph. Ranger is fine, honestly! But I think he needs a little time to himself, to convince himself that Ramon is gone for good. I think that he's worried that his persona is simmering just below the surface and that if he lets his self control slip, he'll turn into Ramon again. Ranger doesn't want to bring that back here. He doesn't want to be anyone but Ranger when he comes back."
Stephanie's heart sank and little black dots danced across her field of vision. She tried go breathe and focused on her hands, clinched in her lap, until the dots disappeared. "Where is he going? For how long?"
"We don't know, Steph. I don't think he knows either," Hector said sympathetically.
"We? Who's 'we'?" Her voice had an edge to it that she didn't recognize … anger, maybe?
"Ranger sent word to Tank. He just said that he wouldn't be back for a while and Tank and the guys should take care of RangeMan … and you."
"Oh Great!" she said bitterly. "So he's pawning me off on his employees again until he can figure out what to do with me, huh? Good to know where I stand with him. You guys still get extra pay for that?" She ran her hand over her face, swiping away her tears.
"Jesus, Steph, no!" Hector got up out of his chair and squatted down in front of her, taking her icy hands in his. "He told me that he was going to come and tell you himself. We, Tank and I, thought that you should have a heads up, just so that you'd know what was going on."
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know, Steph. We had dinner and he told me that he thought he needed to get away from everything, just so he could get himself centered again. The next morning he was gone. Nobody knows where."
"Well, thanks for letting me know Hector. I appreciate it, really I do. Um …" she got up out of her chair and went toward the front door, "I have a lot of stuff I have to do, so I … I better get busy. You understand, right? Thanks a lot for stopping by and I'll see you soon."
She all but shoved him out onto the steps and slammed the door behind him, then went back into the living room and curled up in the big, overstuffed chair, pulled the soft chenille throw around her, and cried until she had no more tears left in her.
Stephanie got out of the shower and wrapped a bath towel around herself, tucking the tail of it between her breasts, and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror as she towel dried her hair and then finger combed her curls. It felt good to look almost like her old self again and even better to feel almost like her old self, except now, she had high maintenance hair again.
She knew that she was still too thin, but she didn't have any appetite. She found herself eating salads instead of birthday cake. How bizarre was that? Probably she was just channeling Ranger, she decided, as she slathered moisturizer all over herself, trying not to think about how much she missed him. Probably when he came back she'd fall into all those bad eating habits again, TastyKakes and Boston Crèmes and pineapple upside down cake. Probably.
She chose a Tiffany blue satin nightshirt to sleep in, having to give up boxers and tank tops. Anything elastic around her waist irritated the spot where the bullet had lodged in her back. Niko assured her that pretty soon, he'd be able to take care of the scar tissue and she'd never even be able to tell that she had been shot. Too bad he couldn't erase the memories for her as easily as he could the scars.
Stephanie flipped off the bathroom light and walked out into the bedroom, turning the comforter back on the big lonely bed and slipping in between the silky sheets. Lying there in the dark, watching the rain fling itself against the bedroom windows, the drops exploded against the glass like tiny little fragments of light. She wondered what would happen when Ranger came back, if he came back. It had been almost a week since Hector had been there, and still no word from Ranger. Would they ever be able to pick up the pieces and put their life back together again? Would he even still want her? The questions went round and round in her brain before she finally fell into an exhausted, dream filled sleep.
She knew he was there in her room before she even opened her eyes, could feel him watching her in the dark. She turned over and searched the room for him, finding him sprawled in the chair in the corner, his long legs stretched out in front of him, a duffle bag and leather jacket on the floor by the door.
"Hey stranger," she said softly. "I've been waiting for you."
Ranger leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I'm sorry, Babe. I should have called you as soon as I was released from custody."
"Yeah, you should have." She whispered because it was so hard to talk around the lump in her throat. All she really wanted to do was run across the room and wrap herself around him.
He nodded slightly. "I couldn't say what I had to say to you on the phone, Babe, and it took me a while to get here."
It was her turn to nod. "What's so terrible that you have to tell me face to face?"
He took a deep breath, "I'm going away, Stephanie, I need some time alone." He looked down at his hands, like he was trying to choose his words carefully. "I feel like I still have Ramon lurking in the back of my head, waiting to invade our lives. I let him hurt you once and I can't ever let that happen again. I have to make sure that he really is dead and gone. I have to find out if I can trust myself again." He looked up at her then, and met her eyes. "Can you understand that?"
She swallowed hard and blinked back the tears in her eyes. "I don't have much choice, do I? Any idea how long you'll be gone?"
He shook his head again. "As long as it takes, I guess."
"And what happens then, to us I mean?"
"I suppose we'll just have to wait and see." Stephanie could hear the melancholy in his voice.
She lay there for several long moments, fighting the tears she was determined not to let him see, and then she held out her hand to him.
Ranger unfolded out of the chair, stepping into the dim light that filtered through the curtains. Her eyes never left his face as he slowly crossed the room to her. All the scars were gone, replaced by a thin line, almost unnoticeable in the darkness of the bedroom, his lips perfect, and his eye undamaged. He was Ranger again, only different. He'd lost a lot of his bulk and weight so that he'd look more like Ramon. Added to that, the toll that his injuries, the long hospital stay and the debriefing had taken on him was clearly visible.
Ranger sat on the edge of her bed and took her hand in both of his, running his fingertips over her knuckles, uncurling her fingers to brush a kiss in her palm. He leaned across her, bracing himself over her on one arm, just watching her for a minute before reaching out to wrap a curl around his finger, tugging on it gently before he tucked it behind her ear. He smiled then, "I missed your curly hair, Babe, and your blue eyes." He ran the tip of his fingers across her lips and her tongue flicked out to lick them. He fixated on her mouth, "And your mouth…"
He leaned down and kissed her then, touching her mouth so gently, it was like a whisper across her lips, leaving her wanting more. Stephanie wound her hands around the back of his neck and pulled him down so she could fuse her mouth to his, hungry and demanding. She slid her tongue between his lips, colliding with his, tempting and teasing him, her hands running over his shoulders and down his back, feeling the coiled muscles through the fabric of his shirt as he slid his arms under her, arching her back and pressing her breasts against his chest.
Breathless, they broke the kiss, and Ranger pulled back to look into her eyes that mirrored his own passion and need. He dragged her up against him and kissed her again, hard and deep this time, his hand cupping her breast almost roughly, kneading it in rhythm with his tongue stabbing into her mouth. She shivered and gave herself over to the sensations that his hands and his mouth were causing, an ache that started low in her belly and spread outward to the tips of her fingers and the soles of her feet and the top of her head.
Heat radiated off of him, washing over her in waves, soaking into her and streaking along every nerve, setting her body on fire. It had been so long since she had felt like this, she thought, and she molded herself against him, wanting nothing more than to be absorbed into him, become a part of him, so that he couldn't leave her ever again. Frantically, she pulled at his shirt, trying to free it from his jeans, desperate for the feel of his naked skin against hers.
It took her a few seconds to register that his hands were gripping her shoulders, his fingers flexing, biting into her, and he put her away from him, holding her at arm's length. He let her go to stand up and cross the room, putting distance between them. Scrubbing his hands over his face and running his fingers through his hair, he turned his head back toward the bed, but didn't look at her. "Gotta go," he said flatly, and he picked up his duffle and jacket.
Ranger walked to the door and was reaching for the knob when something in her snapped. She was out of bed and across the room in a heartbeat, standing a few steps behind him. "If you walk out on me like this again, I won't be here when you get back!" her calm, firm voice belying her inner turmoil.
He hesitated, but didn't turn around to look at her. "Sorry you feel that way."
She stood behind him, talking to his back, trembling with the emotion of it all. "Bullshit! What is it with you and bedrooms? I've watched you walk out on me without even saying good-bye too damn many times, Ranger. After 'The Deal' you got out of my bed and left without so much as a backward glance, like I was no more than some ho you picked up on a corner. And I forgave that. And then you discarded me, you threw me out like trash, to take on the Lazarus Mission. You walked out of the bedroom and you never looked back. I know, because I watched. And I forgave that, too." She clinched her teeth to hold the tears at bay. "And now you're gonna do it again? I don't think so! It's my turn to walk away."
She tried to shove past him, to open the door and to escape first, but he dropped his jacket and duffle and pinned her against the smooth wood with his weight, his chest against her back, trapping her. He bent his head and buried his face in her hair. She struggled against him, needing to get away before she broke down in tears.
"I couldn't look at you," he said softly. "I wouldn't have been able to leave if I had. I wasn't trying to hurt you, I love you."
He leaned back a little, giving her enough room to turn around to face him. He didn't know what he expected, a tirade, a slap, but she surprised him by sliding her arms around his waist and laying her head on his shoulder. "Then show me, Ranger," she whispered, her lips moving against his neck. "Say good-bye like you love me." She felt his body stir against her, and she smiled and kissed his neck, making him shudder.
She sucked in a breath when he stepped back and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, hauling it over his head, and she saw the horrible scar on his side. She reached out to touch his bare chest, running her fingers down over his abs, lingering on the scar from the stab wound, the puckered skin making her painfully aware of how close they had come to really losing each other. He distracted her by toeing off his boots and shucking his jeans, proving just how much he really wanted her.
Ranger touched the collar of her satin nightshirt, "Pretty," he said softly, and her nipples contracted as he grasped the neckline and tore the shirt open, sending the tiny satin covered buttons flying, skittering across the floor. Bending his head, he took her mouth again as he stripped the nightshirt down her arms, letting it slide down her body to pool on the floor. His hands followed the path of the satin, drifting over her skin like the fine fabric had. His fingertips grazed the surgical scar on her back where the bullet had been removed, her hissed in breath telling him that the spot was still tender.
Stephanie stepped in to him so that they were chest to chest, her nipples hardening almost painfully as they skimmed his naked skin. She let her mouth slide across his jaw to his throat and ran her tongue down the corded muscles to the spot where his neck and shoulder met, just savoring the taste of him. Tracing small circles with the tip of her tongue on that sensitive spot drew a groan from deep in his chest and she reveled in how powerful she felt. Sucking his skin into her mouth, marking him deeply, she wished she could brand him as hers for all the world to see.
He pulsed against her when she ran her nails down his chest, teasing his nipples, and his muscles tightened as she outlined his abs with her tongue. When she sank to her knees in front of him she could feel tremors of anticipation rock him, and he growled when she nuzzled the line of fine black hair that ran, arrow straight, down from his navel. He was looking down at her, his eyes hooded and black with lust as she tortured him with licks and nips and kisses and she watched as his head fell back and he exhaled a soft 'Ahhhhh' at the silken swirl of her tongue when she finally took his hard, thick shaft in her mouth.
"Jesus, Stephanie," he murmured, as he laced his fingers into her hair and pulled himself away from her mouth, dragging her to her feet. He drew a ragged breath, "I don't think that I can go slow …"
She licked her lips as wantonness shot through her veins like fire. "Slow is always good," she whispered breathlessly, "but sometimes hard and fast is better." Every cell in her body quivered at the thought of hard and fast and Ranger.
"Good to know," and he fused his greedy mouth to hers, stealing her breath away. He wrapped his arms around her waist and picked her up, carrying her to the bed and falling onto it with her.
She moaned at how good he felt, his weight pressing her into the mattress, his talented mouth and hands everywhere at once. He ravaged her mouth and marked her neck, kissed the swell of her aching breasts, and sucked hard on her nipples, driving her crazy with need. Her hips shot up off the bed when he slid his fingers into her hot, slick center and she whimpered at the loss when he withdrew them. She spread her legs, opening herself to him in an invitation that he accepted, and she gasped as he filled her with one sure stroke, not giving her a second to adjust to his size. The friction of his movements overwhelmed her, her body tightening, her focus narrowing to only the feel of him thrusting into her and pulling out, again and again, harder, faster, spiraling out of control until she shattered into a million tiny glittering fragments like the raindrops that had splashed against her windows. She felt him explode a few seconds later, collapsing slack limbed on top of her, his lips next to her ear, whispering words of love.
They made love more slowly the next time, delighting in each touch and taste, their orgasms as intense as the first. Hours later, in the shower, standing under the warm water, her palms pressed against the tile, his hands gliding over her breasts and belly, she tried to memorize the feel of him as he slid into her. Her head fell back on her shoulder and he kissed her with as much greed and hunger as he had the first time. Each time was always like the first time, full of passion and wonder and surprise, and she wanted to hold onto it. She tried to remember the feel of his body sliding against hers, of him moving inside of her, of his arms around her, before it slipped away, maybe forever.
Then he left. Stephanie stood at the bay window in the living room and watched him walk down the steps to the sidewalk. He stopped under the streetlight in front of her house and turned to look up at her, staring into her eyes for a moment, then turned the collar of his jacket up against the misty rain and disappeared into the dark. She watched him walk through the puddles of light from the lamps in the little pocket park across the street, his head down, duffle bag on his shoulder. He stopped in the light at the corner and looked back at her again. He looked so lonely that her heart broke for him; it broke for herself, too. She was as lonely as he was. She pressed her hand against the glass, and he raised his briefly, then stepped out of the light, and was gone. At least he turned to look at her, she thought. At least she got her backward glance.
Days bled into weeks and weeks became months and still no Ranger. Occasionally a postcard came in the mail, Canada, Texas, California, Montana … always the same message, 'Love, R,' nothing else.
She had stopped haunting Tank, hoping for some scrap of news. Hal had gone back to his job and apartment at RangeMan, and she and Rex were alone in the house. Stephanie had stopped hanging out with the Merry Men, it was just too painful. She couldn't stop her brain though, much as she tried. She wondered if maybe Ranger had found a new life for himself and had decided not to come back to Trenton at all.
Stephanie threw herself into work at Burrows and Plum Investigations, spending long hours there. She and Jeanne Ellen had set up shop in office space close to the Court House and police station. They were making a name for themselves and were starting to get some insurance investigation cases. All in all, their business was a success and Stephanie should have been happy. Instead she felt like she was at loose ends, waiting to get on with her life, waiting for Ranger to come back, or rather, hoping Ranger would come back.
She had just finishing yet another peanut butter and olive sandwich dinner when her cell phone rang. She looked at the Caller ID and saw that it was Haver. Her stomach dropped. This couldn't be good. Why would RangeMan's lawyer be calling her?
"Hi Haver," she tried to sound chipper. "What can I do for you?"
"Hello Steph, how are you," his soft Southern drawl made her smile. "I need you to stop by RangeMan tomorrow, if you can. I'm collecting information, and I could use your help. I understand that Miss Ella is making lunch for all of us."
Stephanie looked at the remains of her dinner and tossed it in the trash. "I guess, Haver. What's the meeting about?"
"Well now, you know that during the Lazarus Mission, Ranger was declared legally dead. None of the federal agencies saw fit to make sure that declaration was reversed, so it appears that it's up to us to prove that he's still alive. I'll need sworn statements from everyone."
"Okay, I'll be there." Stephanie hesitated a second, then asked, "Have you heard anything from him?"
She heard Haver sigh heavily, "I'm sorry Stephanie. He hasn't gotten in touch with me."
It was her turn to sigh. "See you tomorrow."
The next morning, Stephanie parked her car across the street from the RangeMan building. She still couldn't bring herself to pull into the garage, to see Ranger's cars, to flashback to what her life had been here. Grabbing her purse, she crossed the street and went through the front door, like a client. It was easier on her heart that way.
She didn't even make it into the front door before her whole body started to hum. Since he had walked away from her, she had felt like she was in limbo, like she had been holding her breath, waiting to see what would happen. She had to be on serious emotional overload if simply coming to the building made her react this way, she thought.
Three minutes later, Haver was escorting her into the conference room. Tank and Lester and Bobby and Hector were already there, waiting for her. Just being in the building was taking an emotional toll on her.
"Stephanie," Haver said, reaching across the conference table to take her hand, "before we get started, there's something I need you to do."
Haver and Tank exchanged a quick glance, and the other Merry Men looked at anything but her, making her instantly suspicious. Haver took a deep breath and hurried on. "I know this won't be easy, and I wouldn't ask if it weren't absolutely necessary."
"What?" was all she could get out because her heart was lurching in her chest.
"I need all of Ranger's personal papers, his birth certificate, passport, service record, driver's license, all of those kind of things."
Stephanie looked and felt confused. "Why are you asking me? I don't have them." She turned to look at Tank.
Tank cleared his throat, clearly unhappy about the whole thing. "It's all in the safe in the apartment, Steph."
Oh God! She closed here eyes and bit her lip. She remembered when the safe was installed … biometric, they called it. It could only be opened using Ranger's thumb print … or hers. It had been poured right into the concrete wall when the penthouse was remodeled, so the safe couldn't come to her … she had to go to the safe.
She wrapped her arms around herself and slumped in her chair, suddenly freezing cold and strangely exhausted. Every time she thought she was past all this, something new came up to slap her in the face. Everyone knew that she hadn't been back to the apartment since the day Ranger threw her out. Hell, this was only the second time she'd been back to RangeMan at all.
Going back up there would be like visiting her own grave. Rationally, she knew that it had all been an act, that Ranger had hurt as much as she had, that he was trying to protect her, that he still loved her … maybe. But emotionally, well, that was different. If she went up there, she would relive that morning, hear the words, see him turn his back as he walked away, and she didn't think that she was strong enough to go through that again. She looked up at the ceiling as if she could see into the apartment from where she was sitting.
"Can't …" her voice cracked, "can't you wait for him to come back? Does it have to be now?" She asked, knowing full well that if they could have waited for Ranger, they would have.
"Do you want me to go up with you?" Haver asked, but she just shook her head.
She swallowed hard. "I don't have keys. He told me to leave them… that morning."
Tank slid a keychain with a fob across the table and she looked at it as if it were going to bite her, then grabbed it and stood up, headed for the door. It wasn't her keychain; it didn't have the little silver tag engraved with her name, 'Babe', on it. It was just a generic set of keys that didn't belong to anybody. They were safe, they didn't hold any memories.
Stephanie walked down the hall to the elevator by herself and only hesitated a second when the elevator doors slid open. She got on and pointed the fob at the control panel, just like she had done a million times before, and waited while the car rose to the seventh floor. See? She told herself, she had to stop being a wuss. She could handle this just fine. Except when the doors opened on seven, her feet wouldn't move and she had to force herself to get off the elevator.
She stood there, looking around, feeling like she was having an out of body experience, and jumped when the elevator doors snapped shut behind her. She took a deep breath and blew it out and marched over to the apartment door and tried to put the key in the lock, but her hands were shaking so hard that she dropped them, twice. Finally, she got the door unlocked; now all she had to do was turn the knob and push. Why did that seem like such a Herculean effort?
Oh just do it, Stephanie! she told herself. Stop being so dramatic and just get it over with! She should listen to herself more often, she decided, and pushed the door open and stepped into the apartment. It was cool and calm, just like it had always been, but something was different. It took a moment until she realized that it smelled closed up and dusty.
She automatically turned to drop the keys in the silver dish on the sideboard and saw that the fresh flowers Ella put there every day were long dead; their dried petals lying like faded confetti on the dusty wood.
Her keys and gun and phone and ID were laid out neatly, exactly where she had left them that last morning, as if they hadn't been touched. She moved down the hall and glanced into the kitchen. The pieces of Rex's cage were stacked right where she had put them, the kitchen towel still on the counter. The living room looked sad and unlived in, everything covered in a thick layer of dust. The same magazines that she had straightened all those months ago were angled on the coffee table.
The empty picture frame that she had left on Ranger's desk still lay in the same spot, and when she finally brought herself to go into the bedroom, tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She had made the bed that morning, sweeping her hand over the comforter to smooth it … those marks were still there. The dresser drawer that held all those beautiful blue Tiffany jewelry cases was still slightly ajar, the wad of hundred dollar bills that Ranger had left for her still sat where he had tossed it on dresser.
All of their clothes still hung in the closet, just like always. Nothing had changed. Her dresses danced with his suits, his shirts hugged her blouses, their shoes touched each other on the floor. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and realized that the whole time she had been here in the apartment she'd had a death grip on the pearl. It was her talisman, it kept her heart safe.
It was like the whole apartment was frozen in time, like the clock had just … stopped. Ranger obviously hadn't lived here after she left. It didn't look like anyone had even been in here once she had closed the door that last time. It was like a still life of the last minutes of their life together. Sadness over what they had once shared washed over her, making her chest ache. She couldn't seem to take a deep breath.
She sank down and sat on the edge of the bed … their bed, and looked around her. She had been so happy, so in love with Ranger and their life together … she had to wonder if she'd ever be happy again. These days she was just … numb, just going through the motions. She wasn't happy … she wasn't unhappy, either. She wasn't anything, and that was the scary part.
Maybe Ranger had the right idea, taking off and getting away from everything. Maybe it was time for her to do the same thing? Could she just walk away? There really wasn't anything to keep her here in Trenton except her mother and father. Her friends would understand … yeah, maybe that's what she needed to do.
Stephanie opened her eyes and looked around her. She had fallen asleep, curled up on the bottom of the bed. The room was getting dark and she realized that she must have been up here for hours while Haver and the guys waited for those papers. She got up and went into the closet, opened the safe and grabbed everything that was in there and made for the front door.
As she went down the hall, Stephanie could see that there was a light on in the kitchen. She hadn't noticed it before, but she ducked in to turn it off anyway, and stopped in the doorway, frozen in shock. The papers that she held in her hands drifted to the floor, unnoticed, as she stared at the kitchen counter.
There, sitting on the counter, under a task light, was a brown bear cookie jar. It couldn't have been there when she came in, she thought, she was sure she would have seen it. It wasn't until she stood right in front of it that she realized that it was her brown bear cookie jar, saved from the street and painstakingly pieced together. There were little pieces missing here and there, a big chip on his nose, a part of the blue bow tied around his neck, a chunk out of his ear. But it was her brown bear cookie jar, back where it belonged.
Her heart clutched in her chest and her breath came out in a sob. Very gently, so as not to wake herself up from the dream, because she knew that's what this had to be, she slid the brown bear toward her and holding her breath, gently lifted the lid to look inside. TastyKakes, it was filled with TastyKakes just like it had always been.
Before her first tear fell, the familiar tingle shot down her spine and she spun around to find him. He was leaning in the doorway, tall and tanned and perfect, his mirrored sunglasses pushed up on his head, watching her.
She took a couple of steps toward him and stopped, pointing over her shoulder at the cookie jar. "Did you …?"
"Yeah, I needed to try to repair it," he said, his eyes never leaving her as he pushed off the doorway and came toward her.
"That must have been hard to do," and she swiped at the tears that slid down her cheeks.
"Putting things back together is never easy," he hesitated for a few seconds. "Sometimes the pieces don't fit anymore."
"We're not talking about the cookie jar, are we?" she asked him.
"No, Babe," he answered quietly. "We're not."
She took another step or two, "So, are you okay?"
"I am now," he said with a small smile and came closer.
She took one more step and swallowed hard. "Are you home for good?" she barely whispered.
He met her in the middle of the kitchen and held out his hand, "Only if you are, Babe. It's only home if you're here with me."
She flung herself into his arms, the past evaporating into thin air and their future stretching out in front of them. They were happy and in love, and just like the cookie jar, they were back where they belonged.
"Welcome home, Babe," he gave her a 500 watt smile as he hugged her to him. "I think we should have ourselves a Welcome Home party."
She gave him a wicked little smile as she snaked her arms around his neck. "And I know just how to start the celebration!"
By the time they made it to the bedroom, they were breathless and overjoyed and naked, the laughter bubbling up out of them like champagne and they were both drunk on happiness.
They spent the night wecoming each other home … over and over again. (A little dust never hurt anybody!)
Ranger and Stephanie were friends and lovers and partners, and they had all the time in the world.
And They Loved Happily Ever After!
The Very End!
A/N: This isn't the ending I had planned for Game, but that would mean another chapter. Insert eye roll here The original ending will be the beginning of the third story in the series, Killing Him Softly. They vacation in Greece, swim, eat, make love, have fun … I live vicariously through these characters and I can't wait to get to Greece!
I need a little break from the angst though, and I'm gonna try to write something a little lighter for a change with What I Did For Love. I'll start it after FF is released and we're all gonna need some happy after that. I've read the Advanced Reader Copy of FF.
Thank you for all of your support and encouragement, and of course, your wonderful reviews. Game wouldn't be what it is without each and every one of you. I appreciate you all more than you'll ever know.
Also thank you for reading and reviewing from Ranger and Steph and Niko and Alexander and Tank and all the Merry Men. Even the bad guys say Thanks! They love you all!
Don't forget to read and review Kashy's (akasha) latest, These Days!