Author's Note: Not mine, not making any money. A "Good Enough" story set approximately five weeks after the events of GECatching Up Stephanie's going out
"So we're on for 5:30? Fantastic! It's a date."
I knew I must have a goofy grin spread across my face, but I didn't care. I was excited, damn it! I did a spontaneous little twirl of my office chair and came face to face with Tank and Ranger.
"Jesus!" I gasped, my hand going to my throat. "Could you guys just once make a noise? I'd like to live to celebrate my 31st birthday you know."
They were both wearing strange, unfriendly expressions. Neither bothered to answer me, and the quiet stretched out. Since my mouth abhors silence more than nature hates a vacuum, I felt myself babbling to fill it.
"So, um, actually it's good that you came along, Ranger. I need to knock off a little early tonight. Can I use your apartment to get ready?"
I heard a noise coming from beside him and thought for a second that Tank was choking, but when I looked at him I figured I must have been wrong. Choking would require movement and expression, and Tank seemed to be in rock mode today.
Ranger's eyes were oddly flat when he answered me. "Hot date, Babe?"
I couldn't help it, I snorted at him. "Yeah. Not likely."
Huh. Now that was bizarre. Did Ranger's expression just…get happier? Well, not happy, but definitely some of the tension left his eyes. Wonder what's up with that.
"Easy mistake to make, Bombshell, since you just said you had one in an hour."
I gave Tank my best Burg eye roll. "Give me some credit here. Don't you think I learned my lesson with Morelli? Men aren't worth the trouble; I'm swearing off of them. I'll take a Boston Crème any day of the week."
"So what's at 5:30?" Ranger sounded nonchalant.
I shrugged. No harm in sharing. "I'm meeting Mary Lou at Bennigan's for Happy Hour and dinner. It's her first night off from 'Mommy-ing' in like a month."
The almost-smile twitched at the corner of Ranger's mouth. "Babe, going to corrupt Mary Lou?"
"Hey! Mary Lou does just fine corrupting herself," I protested. "She just never has time to anymore. I swear, her boys have more of a social life than I do. Actually, though, that isn't saying that much," I paused and shook my head to get myself back on track. "Anyway, I'd never talk to her at all if she didn't spend so much time in the car driving them places. So, can I use your apartment to get ready?"
"You know you don't have to ask."
I shot him a smile. "I know, but I figured I should make sure you're prepared for the hair and make-up bomb that's going to go off in the bathroom." I gestured to the black carryall sitting beside my chair.
I stood up and pushed back my chair, trying to angle past them. "Gotta go, boys. Beauty takes time."
Ranger grabbed me lightly by the arm, and my hormones sat up and took notice. With Herculean effort, I tamped them down. Ranger had been keeping his hands to himself since Morelli and I split after I was released from the hospital when one of my distractions went bad. He'd been pretty touchy right after during a big job in Philly, but that was a while ago. Instead, the friendship side of our relationship seemed to be developing. It was good, but not nearly as much fun.
I figured if he could do friendship then so could I, but my nipples didn't always listen when my brain told them that I was a single, independent woman who didn't need a man.
Ranger broke into my thoughts. "Aren't you going to ask me if it's ok to take the hour of leave?"
"Nope. I've been working hard. I deserve some fun."
"Bombshell, if you wanted to have fun the boys and I could have come up with something to entertain you," Tank said with a chuckle.
I wrinkled my nose at him. "Well as generous as that offer is, I don't think I'm up for throwing anyone out third story windows tonight. Half-price margaritas are much more my speed."
"See, now I'm hurt. Wounded even. We drink margaritas. Where's our invitation for girls' night out?"
I couldn't help it. I laughed out loud. It wasn't often Tank made a joke. I leaned up and pecked him on the cheek. Tank seemed taken aback, and by the slight widening of his eyes, I figured I'd shocked Ranger with the action, too. Mental shrug. I'm beginning to suspect that Tank is a big teddy bear. His scary-guy image is hard to maintain in my head since Lula told me his feet are ticklish.
"As much as Mary Lou and I would enjoy the eye candy, I'm pretty sure you guys have better things to do than sit in a campy restaurant listening to a couple of Burg girls gossip."
With that I pulled away from Ranger and skipped into the elevator. They were still standing at my cubby wall, watching me. Good to know I continued to amuse. I gave them a little finger wave as the doors closed in front of me.Tank makes plans
I leaned against the cubby wall and looked my boss and best friend up and down.
"You didn't look too happy when Bombshell mentioned she had a date."
He didn't answer me. I wasn't surprised. We were close as brothers, but Ranger's relationship with Stephanie Plum was forbidden territory. I figured it was destined to remain one of the great mysteries of the world. Definitely it was a hot topic of conversation around Rangeman. Not that anyone would ask him about it to his face. None of us particularly liked the idea of relocating to sub-Sahara Africa right now.
I watched Ranger as he studied the closed elevator doors. I may not know what's going on with he and Bombshell, but I knew him well enough to know what he was thinking right then.
"So, what were you planning to do for dinner?"
"Suddenly I'm feeling in the mood for a Guinness."
"Guinness. Have to go to an Irish place to find that on tap."
"Only Irish place in town is…" I tapped my chin. "Bennigan's. Course, you could get it in the bottle anywhere."
"Tap is better."
"True. You know, I haven't had a Guinness since we did that last job in New York. What was that, six months ago?"
"Bet Bobby and Lester could go for a Guinness tonight, too."
Ranger shot me a look.
Stephanie dresses down
I got ready in record time. God, I love Ranger's shower. His whole bathroom, really. The lighting is perfect. There's a mile of counter space. Heck, even the ceramic tile is never cold. I wonder if he has one of those floor-heating things. I paused in my preparation long enough to ponder that for a minute. I can't even keep my water hot for more than five minutes, much less my floor. Sigh. Just one more little bit of evidence that life isn't fair. A bathroom like this needed a Jersey Girl to take advantage of it on a daily basis.
Of course, I thought to myself, I'd been doing a pretty good job of that lately. What can I say? I haven't had sex in 37 days (not that I'm counting), and I'm a shower gel slut.
I took a final look at myself in the mirror. I'd pulled my hair back in a high ponytail with a few tendrils left to curl around my face. I was wearing a stretchy red v-neck shirt with three-quarter length sleeves and low-rise jeans and a wide black belt that made my butt look really good. I had actually been teasing Ranger about the bathroom mess. Since it was Mary Lou and I wasn't looking to attract attention, I had gone almost non-existent on the makeup. Just clear lip-gloss and a swipe of mascara. I'd stuffed my feet into my favorite pair of black Vans.
Much as I hated to admit it, being back at Rangeman had been good for my figure. Everyone on staff was required to make use of the gym a minimum of one hour three times a week. When I was here during the Stiva mess, I hadn't been subject to that little rule. Ranger had left it up to me this time, too, but he'd made sure to remind me when he told me about the policy that I'd asked to be treated just like the guys. Jerk.
Between the exercise and the healthy lunches, plus the occasionally healthy dinner with Ranger, I was looking good. Even my skin seemed kind of fresh and glowy. Ella said it was because I'd fallen in love with turkey-avocado wraps. Something about good fat. I just shrugged, happy that Ranger was allowing me fat at all.
I was humming to myself and bouncing on the balls of my feet as I rode down the elevator. I really was looking forward to tonight. It felt like forever since I'd seen Mary Lou. Plus, I'd been kind of hiding out since my break up with Joe. Everyone assumed it was just another of our many "pauses," but I was pretty sure this one was going to stick. Since the break coincided with me starting my new job, I'd been using the excuse that I was covered up with work to avoid people, most notably my mother.
I hopped into the black Trailblazer Ranger had presented me with on my first day back. I'd protested taking it, but not too hard. After all, me driving Big Blue and working for him might really be enough to crumble his entire empire. It would be really selfish of me to single handedly cost all his men their jobs just because I was too proud to drive a company car, right? That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Bennigan's had been my idea. It was sort of like an Irish Friday's with better drinks and great appetizers. Plus, it had the added benefit of being far enough outside the Burg that if I could get just a little lucky, I wouldn't run into anyone I didn't want to see. I took it as a good sign that I seemed to have positive parking karma. A spot opened up like magic right in front of the door for me. Ranger would have been so proud. I slid out, and beeped the SUV locked. Mary Lou was waiting for me when I walked in the door.
"Steph!" She squealed, and I felt a smile spread across my face as she rushed to me and gathered me up in a huge hug. "Oh my God, you look great!"
I hugged her back just as enthusiastically. "You too, Mare. I love your hair!" She was trying out a deep auburn that looked amazing against her skin.
"Please," she rolled her eyes. "Lenny and the boys are making me gray before my time."
I rolled back at her, and it was an instant time machine. Still talking and giggling, we made our way to the hostess stand.
"Table for two," I said. "In the back, if you have it."
The hostess, who looked about 19 and had long, straight blond hair I would have killed for, smiled and led us to the back corner of the room. We sat in a two-top nestled against a big, empty U-shaped corner booth. Grabbing our menus, we quickly made our first drink and appetizer selections and got down to the business of catching up.
"So, how did you manage to get away tonight?" I asked, genuinely curious.
Mary Lou looked a little guilty. "I played hooky from the booster club meeting. I made Lenny go instead."
"I'm glad you did. It's really great to get to see you." And I meant it. Sometimes I forgot how much I loved Mary Lou. Lula and Connie are awesome, but nothing can ever replace your best friend from forever.
"It's good to be seen. I love Lenny and the boys, but sometimes I feel like if I can't just have a little bit of time to be myself, I'm going to go completely out of my mind," she confessed.
"Whatever, Mare. You're amazing."
She snorted. "Yeah. Amazing. Half the time I look in the mirror and wonder when I turned into our mothers. But enough about me. How are you doing?"
I knew she was talking about Joe. "Surprisingly well," I answered honestly.
"You know you're going to have to give me the real scoop. Is this the real deal or just another break?"
I took a deep breath. "I actually think this one's going to stick. We're both good with it, but we aren't telling our mothers yet. We decided they'd figure it out when we weren't back together in a few months. And actually since we don't have the relationship pressure, the friendship part is really pretty awesome."
Mary Lou shook her head. "I always thought you'd end up with him. I mean, there's something about your first." This coming from her did not surprise me, since I know that Lenny is Mary Lou's one and only. I didn't want to stomp on her romantic dream, so I decided to change the subject, but I didn't have a chance to open my mouth.
All at once, the color drained from Mary Lou's face. She was starring at the door, horrified. I was instantly alert, reaching for my purse to pull out my pepper spray. Or hairspray, whichever one I'd remembered to pack. "What?"
"Don't look now, but Carol Brown, Lynn Mitchell, and Nancy Barber just walked in." She whispered urgently.
Ah another blast from the past. The three amigas, all beautiful and perfect cheerleaders from our class. They had ruled the school when we were there. We'd never gotten along, but at this point in my life I'm actually pretty secure, so I didn't understand why Mary Lou was getting so upset.
"What's the big deal? This isn't high school any more, Mare."
That caught her attention, and she gave me a weird look. "Steph, you might not realize this, but in the Burg high school never actually ends. It just sort of changes forums. I serve on committees with these women. They're the presidents of everything. Last year I accidentally spilled a soda on Lynn Mitchell, and I ended up having to sit in the dunking booth at Family Fun Day for four hours." She scrunched down in her seat. "God, I hope they don't see me. They're all on the booster club executive committee this year. If Lenny and I get stuck on trash duty at the pee wee football games he'll murder me!"
Ok, where is the hidden camera? Somewhere in the last two minutes we'd fallen into the Twilight Zone, and I didn't like it. I was a little curious, though. I hadn't seen the Bitch Queens since high school. The Burg is a close-knit community meaning everyone knows everyone's business, but the gossip network is much more audio than visual. I started to twist around in my seat to look at them.
"NO!" Mary Lou hissed at me. "Don't draw their attention. Everyone knows you. They can't see me!"
"Ok, ok. Calm down. Yeesh." From the corner of my eye I could make out their shapes standing at the hostess' podium. I couldn't see any details, but it looked like we were out of the woods.
Then in happened. Our waitress chose that exact moment to come swinging out of the kitchen with our drink-and-goody laden tray, announcing loudly, "Let Happy Hour begin, ladies!"
A heartbeat later I heard from the front of the restaurant, "Is that…Mary Lou? It is! Yoo-hoo, Mary Lou!"
If it was possible, her face got even whiter. But she pasted on a valiant smile and raised her hand in a wave. This time, I swiveled in my seat and saw the women lean into the hostess stand, saying something to the blond, and the four of them headed in our direction.
Mary Lou turned to me with desperate eyes, "Look, Steph, I know you don't understand this. But please, please be nice to them."
I was a little hurt, but I smiled. "No worries, Lou. I've got your back." She shot me a grateful look just as our table was surrounded. Carol had always been the leader of this particular pack, and it looked like nothing much had changed from that in the 12 years since our graduation.
"Mary Lou, we all missed you at the meeting this afternoon." Her eyes turned to me. "Lenny said you had another commitment, but I didn't know you'd be dining with our own little local celebrity."
Her voice was as nasal and annoying as I remembered. Some things really don't ever change. Looks wise, she hadn't aged particularly well. Carol was still thin as a rail, but her golden tan earned through countless hours in a tanning bed had left her looking older than 30. After years of bleaching, her blond hair looked a little crispy, too. The clothes were an odd mix of Burg-mom-meets-Jersey-Girl.
The total package left me feeling very satisfied with myself. Ok, so I know it's wrong, but I spent 18 years of my life not living up to the standard of beauty set by this woman, and it made me feel just a little good to realize that she hadn't aged near as well as me.
"Hey, Carol. Long time no see." I was proud to note that the friendliness I infused my tone with didn't sound nearly as fake as it was. I turned to the two women beside her. I recognized Nancy Barber immediately. She hadn't changed much. Her hair was in a short "Mommy 'Do," and her clothes were total Coldwater Creek. She was the epitome of normal and had been the nicest of the three during school. Lynn Mitchell, on the other hand, got fat. Not huge, but she was definitely shopping the women's sizes. It gave me a slight case of mental whiplash. I mean, this girl had been a flier on the cheerleading squad. "Lynn, Nancy." I added them to the greeting.
Lynn squealed. Guess you can eat the girl out of the uniform, but you'll never eat the cheerleader out of the girl.
"Stephanie Plum! I can't believe you're here. We hear all about you all the time! It's so exciting to get to see you again. Everyone was really disappointed when you didn't make it to Alumni last year. Do you think you'll make it this year?"
Yeah. Let me just think about that. Go to Alumni and listen to 5,000 people ask me about my cars, psychos, and boyfriends or have my fingernails pulled out one at a time with hot tongs. Hard choice, not. Someone please, bring on the tongs.
I was saved from answering by Carol. "You know what, we should all sit together and catch up," she said with a wide smile.
Hmm…looks like someone enjoyed the occasional cigarette, I noted, looking at Carol's not-so-bright-anymore smile. I looked over at Mary Lou. She was frozen, starring at me. I had no idea what the right answer was. Crap. I hate pop quizzes.
I laughed. "You know what, that would be great, Carol. It's too bad we're at a two seater. I don't think we'll all fit. But it was really nice seeing you guys. We'll definitely have to catch up if I see you at Alumni."
I was proud. I am the best fibber. It was such a skill. I waited for the hostess to show them to their table, hopefully on the other side of the restaurant. Apparently, though, all my good luck had gone into getting me my parking space.
Carol turned to the hostess. "Could we just all move to this big booth?"
Oh for the love of Butterscotch Krimpets. "I don't know, Carol. That's their biggest table. It's supposed to hold like twelve people, and we only make five. I' hate to be an imposition," I looked Blondie pointedly in the eye. Ok, God, if you just let this kid take the hint, I'll go out, move my damn car, and hike back in to the restaurant.
God apparently wasn't interested in dealing. The hostess beamed at me. "Oh it's no trouble, Ms. Plum. We never get big parties on the weekdays. I didn't actually realize who you were when you came in, but I read all your articles. That thing with the Slayers was so cool."
Jesus in a Big Mac box; I wish I could thunk my head on the table. Since when did almost getting gang raped and murdered equal cool? Obviously, something has changed in the Trenton Public Schools since I left them. "Uh, thanks." I tried to ESP an apology to Mary Lou, and she sent me a small smile in return. Sorry Mare, I did my best.
We stood up and with a minimum of shuffling, our drinks and food were transferred to the big corner table and so were the five of us. Goody. Nancy still hadn't spoken, and I was feeling friendly vibes from her. I decided to start there.
"So, Nancy. Mary Lou was telling me that you're all on the booster club executive committee."
Nancy sent me a sincere smile. "Yup. Mary Lou and Lenny were both really helpful selling concessions last year."
"We still haven't finished with work assignments for this year, though," Carol cut into the conversation. "We have to make sure everyone's treated fairly. We wouldn't want anyone hogging the popular jobs, right Mary Lou?"
Mary Lou's smile was set in stone, and I wondered briefly if her molars were going to explode. More wings for me if they did, I guess. "That's right Carol," she agreed. I took a moment to admire her restraint, and while I wasn't looking Carol's attention turned back to me.
"So, Stephie, everyone's talking about how you and Joe Morelli broke up again. He sure is a great catch; I bet you're heartbroken."
I bit back a wince. Stephie. I hated people calling me Stephie. Remember Mary Lou. You don't want Mary Lou to have to spend the entire peewee football season cleaning up the locker rooms.
"I certainly should be," I answered noncommittally. How's that for neutrality. Eat your heart out, Switzerland.
"I mean, I can't imagine. Being 30 years old and completely alone."
Lynn was nodding her agreement, looking at me with genuine sympathy. "I couldn't imagine trying to get by without my husband." Hmm…which was worse, bitchiness or the complete inability to operate without a man. "And, no offense, but it's not like you're getting any younger. I mean, you're going to be at least 40 when your kids get really active," Lynn continued.
Oh for God's sakes. This comment was apparently a little too much for Mary Lou, too, because she came to my defense.
"I wouldn't worry about Stephanie. She's always sort of done things her own way." Ok, so maybe it wasn't a fire-breathing set down. But Mary Lou had my back, too. I couldn't let her take the heat for me, though. After all, I didn't have trash duty hanging over my head.
I laughed. "That's right, Lou! I mean, I'm not even sure I can take care of myself right now, much less an actual child." I was going for a mood lightener, but it didn't really work.
"I guess that's true. Children do need some stability. Don't you still live in that one-bedroom rental in the senior building?" Carol asked.
"Sure am." I answered and braced myself for the next verbal missile.
I was doing my best to hold on to the reins of my temper when I felt it.
Oh no. Not now. Please God. Screw moving my car. You can blow it up. Steal it. Flatten it with a garbage truck. Just please, please don't let that be what I think it is. All thoughts of Carol forgotten, I turned toward the restaurant entrance, and there they were. Ranger and his chief merry men had come to play. I met his dark eyes slowly. I could feel them caressing me from across the room. Kill me. Kill me now.
Apparently, the girls noticed my distraction. As one, they turned toward where I was looking. Mary Lou set her drink down with a hard thunk. "Is that…?"
"Oh my God." Carol's chin was almost resting on the table.
"Did Chippendale come to town?" Nancy asked, looking back and forth between Mary Lou and I. "No one mentioned it to me."
Lynn just drooled, which prompted me to surreptitiously check my own mouth. I was good, though. You never really get used to them, but after repeated exposure it is possible to control your reaction to the Rangemen. Difficult, but possible. Plus they were all dressed casually, not in their badass black. The four of them made a very sexy picture.
"There're coming this way!" Lynn squealed, apparently finding her voice.
Carol started patting her hair, and Nancy blinked to clear her gaze. I just sighed and whispered to Mary Lou, "I'm so sorry. I can take them and leave…"
She grabbed my hand before I could finish. "You. Will. Not. Leave. Me. With. These. Three." Yikes. I jerked my hand away, wincing, just as the men arrived at our booth, Ranger in front.
"Ladies," he said looking at the table. If he was puzzled by the added company, you couldn't see it on his face. "Babe."
Lester reached around Ranger and grabbed me by the waist. "What, no greeting for me, Beautiful?"
He handed me off to Bobby, who twirled me and, with a smack on the cheek passed me to Tank. I was starting to get a little dizzy, so it was a relief when Tank just said, "Bombshell," and set me on my feet again in front of Ranger. I was about four inches from his chest, looking up into his face. He was clearly amused.
I was going to kill him. I was going to take the little green umbrella out of my margarita and stab him right through the heart with it. I can't believe they crashed my Happy Hour.
"Looking a little crazy, Babe."
Bobby slid into my spot in the booth next to Mary Lou. I could feel the weight of four sets of wide, female eyes on me when he said. "Introduce us?"
It's a genetic thing. Burg manners win out even if you really don't want them to; I reluctantly tore my gaze away from Ranger's laughing eyes and blank face. The girls were looking shell-shocked. The bitch queens were starring at Ranger (big surprise there), Mary Lou's attention had shifted to Bobby, probably because he was sitting next to her and had slung an arm around her shoulders.
"Girls, these are some of my… " hmmm, what to say "…co-workers." I gestured to them as I went around. "Bobby Brown, Lester Santos, Tank, and Ranger Manoso. Boys, this is my best friend Mary Lou and three women I went to high school with, Carol, Lynn, and Nancy."
"Great. Now that we're all friends…" Lester slid in next to Bobby and reached up to pull me down beside him. "What's good here?"
Tank took a seat on the other end of the booth beside Carol, and Ranger sat down on my right. His thigh was pressing against mine, and I caught a faint whiff of the intoxicating combination of Bulgari and male. No, that wasn't distracting at all. As we were getting settled, the waitress came around and brought everyone a round of dark beer in glasses. I took a sip and managed not to curl my lip. Ick. I hate Guinness served warm. I did have to give her props, though, for not dropping the tray in the face of the waves of testosterone surrounding our corner.
I'm not sure how they did it, but the four of them pretty much all managed to end up sitting with their backs to at least one wall. Huh. Is there such a thing as wall karma? Best to think about that later.
Mary Lou was trying to catch my eye again. Good luck, Mare. I can't ESP. I just shook my head at her, trying to telegraph a "This is so not my fault," look. Mostly I think I failed, because Tank looked across the booth at me and asked, "Bombshell, you eat something nasty?"
Death glare. Major death glare.
The temporary thrall the bitch queens seemed to be held in was finally starting to thaw. Too bad; they were much more pleasant speechless. Carol got control of herself first.
"Well, Stephie, you do lead an interesting life if these are your co-workers."
"Not really." I muttered. She chose to ignore me.
"Mr. Manoso," her voice was so sickly sweet I wanted to puke. "I remember reading about you in the paper a few months ago. Your daughter was kidnapped, wasn't she?"
Oh great bring that up. My chest felt a little tight. I hoped we wouldn't be talking about the Scrogg thing. Even months after it's over, I can't think about that mess without getting panicky, let alone have a conversation about it. Ranger must have been in a good mood, because he just leveled a serious look at her instead of whipping out his cell phone to make arrangements to have her sent to Siberia. "It was a difficult time, and not something I like to discuss."
Guess that was the end of that. Sometimes it's good to be scary.
Carol was appropriately cowed. Down but not out, she obviously decided to redirect and set her sights back to what she must have seen as an easier target: me.
She happened to be sitting next to Tank, so he got caught in the crossfire. Poor guy. I'm always getting him into messes. Carol laid a hand on his arm and squeezed a little. "Stephie, realizing that you work with all these obviously athletic men has me wondering if you'd like to help with the booster club this year." She shot Tank the salacious smile that conquered half the football team during our senior year and continued, lowering her voice a little. "Normally we wouldn't really try to recruit someone in your situation, but since you're still Mary Lou's best friend, we could probably make an exception."
Judging from the look on Tank's face, her smile had lost some of its impact over the years. Lester interrupted the conversation, sounding genuinely puzzled. "You got a 'situation' we don't know about, Beautiful?"
Lynn rushed to answer before I could. "It's just that Stephie isn't married."
"And…" Lester trailed off, obviously not making the connection.
Lynn never was the brightest Crayon in the box. "And she doesn't have any children…"
"What's wrong with that?" Bobby was looking at Mary Lou with his head cocked.
From the fishy way her mouth was moving, Lou obviously had no idea how to explain the standards of a successful life versus resounding failure in the Burg. Carol, on the other hand, had no problem pointing out my shortcomings.
Her voice as dripping with sympathy, and the commiserating look she gave me would have done my mother proud. "Obviously you don't know Stephie very well. Her personal relationships are just so sad. I mean, first she lost Dickie and now, well she's 30 years old and not even with anyone. Usually we look for people who are a little more…stable…for something as important as the booster club. The Tiger Cubs are depending on us, you know!" She finished brightly.
I felt Ranger tense beside me and looked up at him, puzzled. His jaw was tight. I felt a curl of alarm and wondered if he'd sensed trouble. Maybe and FTA had come in, or a lone gunman. Please, God, send me a psycho so the boys will have something else to think about besides what a screw up I am.
I tried to nudge him, but his eyes were fixed on Carol. Tank caught my attention when he spoke.
"So what you're saying is that Steph can't handle the responsibility of…little league sports? Because she isn't married."
Tank, Tank, Tank. It's no wonder I'm always getting you shot and blown up. You just walk right into trouble. I was gratified to notice that Nancy had scrunched down in her seat and was looking both embarrassed and wary. Maybe she'd gotten better with age. Mary Lou was pretty much still frozen, but there was a furrow to her brow I didn't like. I caught her eye again and tried one my time to ESP. This time my message was, "Stay out of it, Lou. I don't want to be responsible for you getting stuck with dumpster duty for six months."
Bobby pushed my drink toward me. "Bombshell, you got something stuck in your throat?" Damn. Guess the ESP failed again.
Carol and Lynn missed the exchange. They were too busy explaining to Lester, Tank, and Ranger why I wasn't good enough for booster club. As I listened, I wished again for a rogue FTA.
"Well, it's not just her failed marriage. She also lost Joe Morelli." Gee. Thanks for the emphasis. Lynn turned to me. "I don't mean to hurt your feelings, Stephie. But Joe had to be pretty much your last chance."
"Yup. I'm doomed." I tried to sound sad about it. Really I did. Maybe I pulled it off, because Carol and Lynn were nodding in agreement.
"Doomed?" Lester sounded incredulous, and I could feel my eye starting to twitch. Couldn't these guys just take a hint and leave things alone? I guess not. I let out a world-weary sigh. What to do?
I straightened my spine and cleared my throat, and glared pointedly at Carol. She caught my eye, looking like the cat that ate the canary but sending me an innocent smile. "I wouldn't say doomed, Stephie. I'm sure you're…very happy?" The way she trailed off made it perfectly clear that she really couldn't think of a reason why I would be happy at all.
I shot her a look I knew she would understand. "You're wasting your time, Carol. Every one of them has a penis. Subtle isn't going to work." I started out with biting sarcasm, but I could admit even to myself that I ended sounding a little resigned. I was throwing down the gauntlet, and I knew it. From the looks I was getting, none of the women at the table missed the challenge. The penises—er, men—mostly looked confused. Ranger had his blank face on, but I could feel his thigh tense against me. I nudged him, not taking my eyes of Carol. "Let me out. I have to use the ladies room."
"Steph—" Mary Lou started, her eyes big, but I cut her off. She was trying to stop me, and I knew exactly why. Burg protocol is that when the subject of gossip is away, it's perfectly acceptable to say whatever the Hell you want about her. Once she came back, though, you had to work really hard to make her think you hadn't mentioned her name at all while she was gone. This meant that the cattiness would abruptly end in favor of nonsensical chitchat designed to throw me off the trail as soon as I came back. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of Ranger and the boys getting a five-minute, uncensored ear full, but it was better than sitting through another hour of veiled insults.
"It's cool, Lou. I'll be back in a few minutes." I turned my eyes to Ranger. "Let me out?"
Ranger slid from the booth wordlessly but grabbed my arm in a light hold as I stood up. I looked into his face and was distracted for a second by how really beautiful he looked today. Yum. His eyes were dark but guarded, his brow furrowed slightly. I could tell he was unsure of the situation, and I felt a flash of tenderness because I knew how rarely it happened that Batman was at a loss.
I really wanted to lean up and kiss away the worry, but I managed to restrain myself. He's always taking care of me, but this time the enemy was one he'd never faced before: Burg women. I settled for a quick, reassuring squeeze of his forearm and was rewarded when I saw warmth creep into his eyes.
I dropped his hand and pulled my arm away, edging past him. Not a good idea to be touching Ranger when his eyes get soft like that, especially in light of our recent foray into friendship. I wasn't quite fast enough, though. Good to know that I can be aroused and embarrassed at the same time. I'm an excellent multitasker.
I squared my shoulders, quashed down my arousal, shoved the embarrassment over the things I could imagine were going to be said in my absence aside, and headed toward the ladies room.
Ranger gets a handle on it
I felt Steph's spine straighten under my hand and thought, "Proud of you, Babe."
When the men and I walked into Bennigan's and spotted Stephanie and Mary Lou at a table with several strange women, I was a little nonplussed. Crashing their get together had sounded…amusing…when I knew it would be just the two of them. The presence of unknown factors gave me pause, though. I don't like to go into a situation without understanding what I'll be up against. I could tell Tank was feeling the same way, but Bobby and Lester plowed on unaware, and the choice to continue with the plan and join them was made for me.
Halfway across the restaurant I realized that something wasn't right. Mary Lou looked like she was about to pass out, and Stephanie's normally expressive face was a tense mask. I decided to play amused until I could get a better assessment of the situation. Then we sat down and they started talking.
Even Bobby and Lester caught on then. I could see Tank looking at me from across the table. Too bad the puntas didn't seem to have a speck of women's intuition in them. They would have been able to tell that speaking negatively about Stephanie Plum wasn't a good idea in this crowd. Or should I say "Stephie?" What the Hell was up with that? Steph obviously didn't like it either because every time she heard the name she winced slightly.
Frankly, I was amazed that Steph was just sitting here, taking the little digs, with nothing more than an occasional smart-ass comment. Five minutes after taking my seat, I was barely holding my anger in check.
Then she did it. Before I met Stephanie Plum, I honestly thought I'd seen just about everything. Shock was not an emotion I felt anymore. Over the years she's proven me wrong several times, but I don't know if I've ever been throw for a bigger loop than I was when I heard her tell the bleached blonde "point man" that the four of us had dicks—no, not dicks, penises.
I knew a challenge when I heard it, and I desperately wanted to demand an explanation when she got up to leave. I could tell she wasn't happy with the situation, but her look told me this is what she wanted, and I always try to respect Steph's wishes.
I had a feeling, though, as I sat back down that this was going to be one of the times I regretted that.
Tank follows the rules
There is a standing "No Kill" policy in the United State Armed Forces Standard Rules of Engagement regarding women and children except in cases of absolute necessity, and Rangeman has always followed basic ROE guidelines on all missions, both foreign and domestic.
I kept repeating that to myself as I watched Ranger from across the table. Here's the problem: he considers defending Stephanie an absolute necessity. So what do I do if he decides to kill the trashy bitch with the stained teeth that wouldn't shut the fuck up? The man has lots of get out of jail free cards, but this is a pretty public place. Is it cowardly to bug out of a restaurant? We could grab Bombshell on her way out of the john and be at Shorty's in 20 minutes. Shorty's has beer, and he serves his cold. Hell, I don't even like Guinness that much.
I looked across at Ranger. He didn't seem inclined to leave. Shit. Maybe between the three of us, Bobby, Lester, and I could save Skank No. 2. She didn't seem evil, just idiotic. Best I could hope for Skank No. 1 was that I got her hands off me before Ranger's went around her throat. Mary Lou and the other lady were probably safe. Probably.
Skank No. 1 watched Steph walk away before she started talking again. "I am just so sorry about that!" Her eyes were wide open. I think she was trying to look earnest. Mostly it just came off as fake. "I can't believe Stephie would say something like that."
Ranger turned his full attention to her. "Something like what?"
Too stupid to know she was in trouble, Carol tried to giggle girlishly. It didn't work very well for her. "Er—about your—you know," her voice dropped to a whisper, "privates."
Christ. Privates. Bobby and Lester snorted, and I think I heard Mary Lou chuckle, too. Carol obviously didn't like being laughed at. Her nostrils flared, and she whirled on Mary Lou, going from zero to irrational in .45 seconds flat.
"Excuse me if I'm not vulgar like your friend."
"What are you talking about? Steph isn't vulgar." Good for you, Mary Lou. It's important to have your friends' back.
Carol rolled her eyes. Guess Steph isn't the only one who can do that. "Oh whatever Mary Lou. Stephanie Plum is a complete mess. If you had any sense, you'd stay away from her."
Ok, so this was different. Where did the fake concern go?
"What are you talking about?" Bobby sounded pissed off. Probably because he was. Bobby was one of Steph's biggest fans.
Carol affected a sigh. "Look. She'll be back in a minute so I have to be quick with this. You all seem like men with very…high…standards." She took a minute to throw what I assumed was her version of a sex kitten look at Lester. "Stephie's new at your company, right? Just think of this as a friendly tip. You might want to think about ditching her during the trial period."
"Why would we do that?" Lester's voice, normally jovial, was cold. I kept my eyes firmly on Ranger's willing him to look at me so I could see how close to the edge he was, but his flat gaze was locked on the skank. He'd seen to it that an FBI agent lost his job after the Philly bust because he'd been ragging on Steph. Ranger didn't like it when people gave her a hard time.
The skank snorted, and any lingering vestiges of the fake friendliness she'd been playing at when we sat down flew out the window. "Well there's her old job, for starters. That poor woman's mother. What did Ellen ever do to deserve a daughter who makes a fool of herself every single day? I mean it's obvious that she's completely incompetent. You work for a security company, right? I don't know what kind of background checks you do, but just because Stephie was a 'bounty hunter' doesn't mean she was any good at it."
"Steph always, always brings in her skips Carol," Mary Lou protested.
"Yeah. She blows up cars and buildings and spends most of her time covered in garbage while she's doing it, though. Incompetent. I could do a better job than that." She turned to Bobby. "The worst part, though, is that she's a huge slut."
Ok. Color me shocked. I don't know much, but I know Steph isn't a slut.
Skank No. 3, who'd been mostly quiet, broke in with a protest. "Carol. You shouldn't say that. We don't actually know that she sleeps with all those men."
"Oh, grow up." Carol turned back to Lester. "She constantly has men following her around. It's a new one practically every day. They're all big, kind of like you guys. But they dress in all black. Everyone knows they're common street thugs. She probably picked them up hanging around Stark Street. Plus, she goes into bars dressed like, well, I can't even say the word, all the time and picks up men. Oh, and while she was with Joe there were always rumors about her making out with other guys in public. He's lucky to be rid of her."
Mary Lou's face was red. She looked furious. Carol saw her. "Don't even act like I'm telling you anything new, Mary Lou. Everyone in the Burg knows about Stephanie Plum's men."
It's a good thing Carol wasn't touching me anymore. I wasn't worried about Ranger killing her. I was going to do it myself. Through my angry haze, I caught sight of Ranger and felt a wave of shock. He looked angry, yes, but also a little like he'd been sucker punched. What the Hell? Then it hit me: guilt. He was feeling guilty.
"Carol you are such an idiot sometimes," the quiet woman—Nancy maybe—broke into the conversation. "You've been jealous of Stephanie Plum since high school. You need to stop this right now. That's just a rumor, and you know it."
Apparently being accused of jealousy pushed Skank No. 1 right over the edge of sanity.
"Ha! A rumor!" Carol's voice was a nasally hiss. "You know what I know. I know that there is no way she could afford some of the cars she drives around sometimes on her salary. I know she should have been homeless 100 times by now. My cousin works at the courthouse; most of her skips only make her a couple of hundred bucks. If you ask me, all those men are just proof that she isn't paying her way with money from skips. Stephanie Plum maybe has managed to fool half the Burg, the police force, whoever. But I know the truth, and so do a lot of other people. She's nothing but a dirty little whore!"
The silence was deafening. I think even Carol realized she'd gone too far.
Ranger's voice was…deadly. I felt my blood freeze a little listening to it. He held the attention of everyone at the table. Dimly, I heard strangled gasps from the other women, and I noted out of the corner of my eye that Lester and Bobby were shifting slightly, shielding them.
The color drained from Carol's face. She looked terrified, and she was right to be. I moved my arm in front of Carol. This was not going to end well.
"Ranger, man," I started, trying to calm him down.
"Tank stand up and get her away from me." Just like that, I knew I wasn't listening to my boss anymore. I wasn't listening to Ric Manoso. I wasn't even listening to Ranger. He was in control, but the capacity for something very bad was there.
Bobby, Lester and I had been put under Ranger's command not long after we invaded Afghanistan. I was glad to be there; I'd had gone through both basic and Ranger training with the man. We'd saved each other's asses on our first mission, and just like that the friendship was cemented. He'd gone on to bigger things, things I didn't quite understand, after a year in Rangers. He wasn't exactly the same person after that, but the friendship remained, laced with a healthy level of respect.
Under Ranger, who was called Strider back then, our primary job function was the elimination of the most highly trained enemy operatives to pave the way for take down teams. We'd all been very good at our jobs, but Ranger was the best. Tango networks from the Middle East to South America called him "Death's Wings." He'd more than earned the moniker. Sometimes when we made a capture, all we had to do was threaten the prisoner with that name, and they would break.
Right then, in a crappy restaurant in Trenton, if felt like that's who was talking to me. The man who gave the worst of the worst nightmares.
Maybe better than anyone else, I knew how hard Ranger had to work to close off that part of himself. I didn't quite understand it, but I'd watched it. You couldn't stay sane with a monster like that running free inside you, so when we went civilian, he'd shut it away. I already knew he would kill for Stephanie. Die for her. For the first time, I understood that he would sell his soul for her, too. I wondered for an instant if this is who Abruzzi saw in his last minutes on Earth. If this was why he'd agreed to write the note.
Stephanie chose that moment to come back to the table.
"So, did you guys have a nice chat?" She asked brightly.
Stephanie calms the storm
The words were barely out of my mouth when it registered that something was wrong. Really, really wrong. Mary Lou, Nancy and Lynn looked terrified. Carol looked like she was starring the devil in the face. The Merry Men were in obviously protective positions, and even they looked worried.
My eyes found Ranger, and I bit back a gasp.
This wasn't my friend and mentor, my boss, or my lover. I understood the fright in the faces around me, and felt it echo in my stomach, too, for a heartbeat.
I pushed away the fear and doubt with a firm mental shove. I didn't know what was going on, but this was Ranger. Ranger on the edge, but still Ranger. I had to get this situation under control. Now to figure out just how to do that.
"Hey." His muscles were locked under my hands on his shoulders. "What's up?"
He didn't look at me or move at all, but I knew he was talking to me. "Did you know?"
Huh? "Did I know what?" I asked carefully. I'm usually pretty happy to fly blindly into a situation, but this time a clue would have come in handy.
"Did you know what they were saying about you?"
Yeesh. I closed my eyes. Dunkin' Donuts deliver us, this was because of some silly rumors? Everyone looks like they're waiting for a blood bath to start over a little bit of gossip. It's really very sad when I'm the rational one. Ok, Stephanie, you need to play this cool, I told myself. You need to diffuse this situation. You need to not lose your temper and tell everyone to quit acting like a bunch of fifth graders.
"Ranger, people say a lot of things about me. I'm used to it. It's ok." Reasonable. Mature. Check.
I couldn't help it. I laughed. He sounded so serious. Tank's eyes got huge, and he shook his head almost imperceptibly. I took that in and turned my attention back to Ranger. The tenderness was back. He was way past upset about this, and it was a little heartwarming. Totally silly and unnecessary, but heartwarming. Very scary, too, though. That got my mind back on track in a hurry.
I reached out with my other hand, not moving the one that was resting on Ranger's shoulder, and touched his cheek. I turned his face toward me. His eyes were flat, dead almost, and I felt a fission of nervousness again. Keep it together, I ordered myself. Whatever rumor Carol chose to share must have been really bad. I did what came naturally.
I looked into his face and smiled, letting warmth fill my eyes. "The people I care about know the truth." I paused there…hmm…that might not be 100 percent accurate, but I figured it was close enough. "At least, they know something close to the truth. And I really don't care about anyone who's stupid or petty enough to believe a bunch of wild ridiculous rumors." I leaned down and brushed my lips across his. "Thank you for defending me, though, Batman."
The moment stretched, and I worried fleetingly that it wouldn't be enough.
The change, when it came, was subtle, but there. His eyes cleared, and some of the tension left his muscles. When the thinking-about-smiling smile crept into his face, I knew it was going to be ok.
"You know what, Mary Lou. I'm thinking this is more of a Ghostbusters night than a margarita night. Let's go back to my place and veg with some ice cream." I turned to the Merry Men. "You guys are welcome to join us, but I hope you're not disappointed if we're all gossiped out."
They seemed to be waiting for Ranger to answer. He did, in his usual manner.
"Babe, you never disappoint." Ranger linked his fingers through mine and stood up. The Merry Men and Mary Lou clambered out of the booth, too, leaving it in the sole possession of the bitch queens.
Before we walked away, Ranger pulled out his wallet and flipped a hundred dollar bill onto the table. "For the drinks." He looked at Carol and his eyes hardened again. Not like before, but still enough to make the average criminal's knees knock. "I hope you're 'all gossiped out,' too."
She nodded mutely.
"Good. I'd hate to hear that you weren't. Ever."
She nodded again, and I did a little mental Snoopy dance. Carol was the worst kind of Burg rumormonger. I didn't know how long it would last, but with her shut down my mom should definitely be spending less time with the iron. Yippie. Maybe she'd make me a chocolate volcano cake again.
Plus Ranger was still holding my hand. Life was good.
Tank takes note
The three of us followed Steph, the boss, and Mary Lou out. Bobby and Lester were joking about the three women we'd left at the table.
"I wouldn't fuck the blonde with Bea Arthur's dick." Lester declared with a laugh.
"Man, you ain't right." Bobby replied, shaking his head.
"Dude, did you see her teeth?"
I wasn't really listening, though. I was busy processessing what I'd seen. Bombshell, it seemed, could bring out the beast in Ranger. Thank God it looked like she could put it back in, too.
Something to remember.