Since this is the final chapter, I'd just like to say thank you to everyone who read this the whole way through, and everyone who reviewed. Your kind words and encouragement means the world to me.
Still don't own them or make any profit….
He handed Livy back to
her, who started screaming the second he let go of her. She sat at the table, staring blankly ahead, rubbing Livy's
back to calm her. It only took the sound of the front door closing
for her to realize what a colossal mistake she had just made.
He handed Livy back to her, who started screaming the second he let go of her. She sat at the table, staring blankly ahead, rubbing Livy's back to calm her.
It only took the sound of the front door closing for her to realize what a colossal mistake she had just made.
Ranger dropped the papers in his bag and headed for the airport. He'd give Steph some space for a couple days. His Uncle Jaime had offered to push the paperwork through immediately, using Ranger's part-time residence in Florida. Since it was important to Steph to get the divorce taken care of, and Jersey would keep them married for months, he had agreed.
For the first two days, he had convinced himself that it was over and he had to walk away. That thought hadn't lasted long. He had never backed down in his life and he wouldn't start now.
He had finally figured out that he did love her - enough and in all the right ways - and he wasn't going to let that go. She'd come around. Eventually.
He was a patient man.
As he was boarding the flight to Miami, his phone rang. Tank. Within a few minutes, he would have to turn the phone off, so he didn't bother to answer it. Whatever it was, he was sure Tank could deal with it.
Steph sat at the kitchen table, frozen. What had she done? Livy screamed in her arms. She wanted the divorce, right? She'd be free from his control. Free of him entirely.
She jumped up and dashed into the living room. "I have to go." She lay Livy on the couch and started gathering up her things.
Joe watched her dashing around the room. "What?"
"I have to go. I just made a huge mistake, didn't I?"
Joe didn't reply, but when she looked up, he was grinning at her.
"Well don't just stand there. Help me!"
He grabbed a bag and held it open for her. She was shoving in bottles, diapers, clothes, bibs...anything she could find, and most of the laundry she had folded. She jammed Livy into warm clothes, hooked her into her carrier, and covered her with blankets. It was close to an hour before she got everything together. "Okay, what I am forgetting?"
"Your purse." Joe handed it to her, along with her keys.
"Thanks!" She grabbed it all and dashed toward the car.
"Hey!" Joe yelled, standing in the front door. "You didn't eat dinner."
"Give it to Bob." She got Livy secured, and started to get into the front seat. But she pivoted and ran back toward the house. Joe was still on the front porch. She wrapped both arms around his waist. "Thanks."
He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head. "Go put your family back together, Steph."
She stared up at him. Some of that hurt had creeped back into his eyes. "I'm sorry, I..."
"I know." He turned her toward the car and slapped her on the ass. "Go."
She ran back to the car, jumped into the front seat, and raced toward Haywood Street. She had to catch Ranger before he filed those papers. God, she was such an idiot! She had spent three days looking for an ulterior motive in him sending the papers, but it was so simple. It was right there all along.
He loved her.
She slapped the steering wheel with her hand. God, she was in idiot. She screeched to a halt in the parking space closest to the elevator. Hopefully that fact that it was empty didn't mean that Ranger was gone. She had to find him.
She had to stop him. She didn't want to get divorced - if she'd actually wanted to, she would have singed the papers days ago and not in a fit to piss off Ranger. She had been waiting for proof from him that she could trust him, when the proof was the divorce papers and they had been sitting right in front of her the whole time.
Setting Livy's carrier on the floor of the elevator, she jammed the button for the fifth floor. "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," she said as it moved through each of the levels at a crawl. The doors opened with a ding and she stepped out, almost landing square in Tank's chest.
"Whoa - slow down Bomber. What's up?"
"Where is he? I need to talk to him."
"Yes Ranger!" Who else would she be driving across town like a madwoman to talk to? She shifted her grip on Livy's carrier. "Is he upstairs?"
"No he's--" he checked his watch. "Boarding a plane to Miami."
"Miami! What's he doing in Miami?"
Tank gave her a funny look. "He's doing some work in that office. He's been going back and forth for almost a year now."
She rolled her eyes. "I know that. But why is he going there now?"
Tank just looked at her. "To work."
She was barely hanging on to her panic. "Can you get me on a flight?"
Tank just kept looking at her.
"He has the divorce papers. I signed them. He took them, and he's going to file them, and I have to stop him."
Lester rambled up, having heard her last statement, and gave her a grin. "Wanna ride to the airport, Beautiful?"
Tank eyed them both. "I don't know if--"
She pointed her finger at his chest. "Get me on a flight, Tank. Now." She was a woman on edge - she couldn't help herself. She shoved Livy's carrier, which was getting heavier by the second, toward Lester and hit the down button on the elevator.
When she turned back to Tank, he was grinning and has his phone to his ear. "Go get 'em, slugger," he said.
"Take a deep breath, Steph," Lester said. "It's going to take hours to get there."
"I know." She tried to stop fidgeting, but it didn't work. She turned around to check on Livy, who was asleep in her car seat in the back.
"So she's finally stopped crying, huh?" Lester said. "I was prepared to lose my ear-drums on this drive."
"She still cries some late at night, or whenever Ranger leaves, but for the most part, she's calmed down."
"Thank god. That kid has a set of lungs on her."
"Yeah. I think she got that from me."
Lester winked at her. She tried to relax until her phone rang. It was Tank.
"There's no flights tonight," he said, as soon as she answered.
"What?" She forced herself to calm down and lower her voice a notch. "What do you mean there's no flights?"
"Ranger's on the last flight from Newark to Miami, and it left half an hour ago. I've got a red-eye out of JFK that leaves in four hours."
"Get me on it."
"I'm sure, Tank. Get me a seat."
"Where are you guys now?"
Steph glanced at Lester and repeated the question. "Elizabeth," she said to Tank.
"You're going to need more stuff for the baby. Why don't you stop at Mrs. Mansoso's in Newark for a few hours. Ella is willing to get what you need and meet you there."
She glanced at Lester. "Did you have any plans for the evening?"
"I'm all your beautiful."
She grinned. "Sounds like a plan," she said to Tank.
"I'll call and give her a head's up. See in you in an hour or so."
Twenty minutes later, they were pulling up to a now familiar brick house. Lilane, wrapped in a warm winter coat, met them on the porch. "Give me that precious girl," she said, reaching for Livy. She carried her inside, cuddling her close. "Now, what is going on?"
Steph explained in a nutshell - she knew Lilane would be on her side.
Lilane stared at her. "You're going to Miami? Tonight?" She waited for Steph's nod before continuing. "No. There's no way you can deal with Livy and all this."
"I'm sure I can--"
"I'll go with you. You have a pump? We can bottle up some breast milk, and this way you can actually get some sleep. You look dead on your feet, child."
"I don't think--"
"Lester, honey, call Tank and get me a seat on that flight."
Steph tried again. "Lil--"
"And Stephanie, you need a nap. Poor woman, you have bags under your eyes. Go upstairs and lay down. When will she need to eat again?"
Steph blinked at her. So this is where Ranger got it. She glanced at her watch. "Soon."
"Okay then. There's a rocking chair in the living room. You feed Livy, and then give her to me and take a nap. Ella and I are old friends - we'll make sure everything's packed and ready and get you up in time."
Lilane handed her the baby and steered her toward the living room, making more plans as she walked. Knowing it was useless to protest anymore, Steph let her. As tired and panicked as she was, it was a relief to let someone else take charge. She fed Livy, and found herself upstairs, in bed before she knew it. She dialed Ranger's cell phone, but it went straight to voice-mail. Still on the plane then. She closed her eyes and forced herself to relax. She wasn't even sure he had the papers with him. He couldn't file in Florida, could he? Maybe his lawyer was going to file for them - she hadn't thought of that.
She willed herself to sleep. She'd find him first thing in the morning, before he or anyone else could file anything.
Though what she would say when she found him, she had no idea.
They arrived at the RangeMan Miami office at ten after seven the next morning. She dashed off the elevator onto the control room floor, running smack into Jose. She had met him when she had come down to get married, and vaguely remembered him Tank's Miami counter-part.
"Stephanie. Nice to see you again." He steadied her arms and moved over to Lilane, kissing her on the cheek. "Mama, how are you?" He took the baby from Lilane's arms, ignoring Steph's swiveling head and wide-eyes. "And this must be my newest niece. Hi baby."
He made a face at Livy, which set her to giggling and batting her arms at his nose.
Lilane spoke in rapid Spanish, and Jose answered her, though his eyes never strayed from Livy. Finally, he glanced at Steph and switched to English. "He's not here. He left half an hour ago."
Steph rubbed a hand over her forehead. She should have called again and told him to stay put, but she still had no idea what to say. "Do you know where he went?"
"No, but I can pull up GPS. Actually, I was surprised to see him at all. I was under the impression it'd be another month or so before he got back down here."
"Yeah, well that may be my fault."
Jose winked. "He always did have his head up his ass, when it came to you."
"Jose!" Lilane said.
He grinned and handed the baby back to her. "Well it's true."
It was the smile, Steph thought. "I should have seen the family resemblance, shouldn't I?"
"Gotta be more aware--"
"Oh no, not you too," Steph said. "One of you is enough."
"Try living with three," Lilane said. "Their father was the same way, God rest his soul."
"Come on," Jose said, slinging an arm around Steph's shoulders. "Let's track down this idiot husband of yours."
Lilane followed them across the control room floor. Steph had given up offering to carry the baby - Grandma was in heaven with all this interrupted baby time.
"Okay," Jose said, leaning over a computer and punching in a series of numbers. A blinking light popped up on screen, moving South. "He's driving downtown. I can call and find out where he's going--"
Steph shook her head. She had to do this in person. Though to be honest, at this point, she was just hoping that if she saw him, the right words would come out her mouth.
"Nick!" Jose yelled. Instantly, a quintessential RangeMan - complete with the black uniform, buff muscles, and a smile able to charm the pants of any woman in a ten-mile radius - appeared in front of her.
Without even meaning to, Steph glanced Nick up and down. "I'm telling you, he could make a fortune off the action figures."
Lilane laughed and Nick's gorgeous face flushed. Steph clamped a hand over her mouth and turned to Lilane. "Did I say that out loud?"
"Yes. And I love your imagination."
She turned back to Nick. "Sorry."
Without cracking a smile, he gave one nod. "Ma'am."
Jose cleared his throat. "Nick, will you please drive Mrs. Manoso--" he cast a glance at Steph as he said it "--downtown and wait for further instructions."
"Sir," Nick said with another terse nod.
Twenty minutes later, after kissing Livy good-bye and leaving her with Lilane, they sat in rush hour traffic. They were watching Ranger's little red dot on the GPS, and it had finally stopped. Her phone rang.
"Where is he?" she said to Jose.
"GPS says he's in a parking garage downtown."
"Which one? Where did he go?"
"Steph, there's no way to know where he went. If he parked downtown, he could have gone anywhere."
"Okay." She tried to think. Dropping her head on the back of the seat, she racked her brain. "Well, what's near the garage. What buildings?"
"Let me see," Jose said. "There's the Basketball arena, that Cuban museum, the Courthouse, there's a mall--"
"The Courthouse," she said. "He's at the Courthouse. He's going to file the papers here." She hung up and turned to Nick. "How fast can you get us there?"
"In this traffic?"
She gave him her best burg glare. "Try."
"Yes ma'am." He hit the gas pedal and started weaving between lanes. Steph grabbed the sissy bar and held her breath. If he was at the courthouse, then he was filing the papers and it would be too late...
She closed her eyes and tried to figure out what she was going to say. Nothing came to her. Before she was ready, Nick was screeching to a stop in front of the courthouse. She looked up at those intimidating steps and white pillars, the same building where she had gotten married.
"Wish me luck," she said under her breath as she climbed out of the SUV.
"Good luck, Mrs. Manoso," Nick said.
She glanced at him. "I didn't actually mean--" She stopped and shook her head. "Do you mind waiting?"
"My orders are to provide what you need today. I'll be right over there." He pointed to a standing area where cars and taxis waited. "Good luck."
She rolled her eyes and headed inside. The last time she had walked up these steps, she had been four months pregnant and cursing Ranger. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
It was a lifetime ago.
She stepped inside was immediately sucked into a flow of rushing people. She was through security and into the main hallway before she realized she had no idea how to find him. The courthouse complex was huge, with multiple buildings - there was no way to know where he had gone.
She gave in and hauled her phone out of her pocket. But when she called his number, it went straight to voicemail. His phone was off. She rubbed her eyes and tried to think. A small Hispanic man bumped into her, pushing her to the side.
"Sorry," she said absently. She moved to the wall, trying to get out of the way. Think! she ordered herself. His Uncle - his uncle had an office here. If he married them, could he divorce them too? Maybe. But if not, maybe he'd at least know where Ranger had gone.
There was a directory against the far wall. She ducked through the hoard of people in the hallway and scanned it. But the sheer number of names was overwhelming, and for the life of her, she couldn't remember the Judge's name.
She called Lilane. "Carlos has an uncle who works in the courthouse. Do you--"
"Jaime," she said. "He's a judge. Jaime Meledez, and let's see...office C-412, if I remember right."
Steph scanned the list of names. There were two J. Melendez listed, but only one was in the C building. "Got it, thanks."
Her heart was in her throat as she rushed in the right direction, weaving through people in less of a hurry than her. "Get out of my way," she muttered toward a group of lawyers standing around talking.
Even following the maps and "you are here" signs, it took her seven minutes and three wrong turns to reach the correct office. By the time she got there, she was frenzied and her breathing was choppy. Every delay meant that much greater of a chance that she was too late.
Finally, she made it. She burst through the door of the outer office, heading straight for the Judge's chambers.
"Excuse me." A secretary blocked her way.
Steph skidded to a stop. She didn't remember a secretary from last time, but she had been so angry that she hadn't noticed much. She pressed a hand to her chest and tried to talk around her rapid breathing. "Is there a Cuban guy in there with him?"
The secretary gave her a blank stare. Right. They were in Miami - everyone was Cuban. Including both the secretary and the Judge. "Uh, really buff, a smile that will make you walk into the wall?"
"Oh! His nephew, yes. But--"
She squelched an inner cheer - she found him! She shoved past the secretary, lunging for the door.
"You can't go in there!"
Steph grabbed the door and jerked it open. Two steps in and Ranger's eyes met hers, freezing her. She stared as he slowly stood, unfolding himself from the chair in front of the Judge's desk.
She bit down on her lower lip and tried to calm her frantic heart. "Hi."
"I'm sorry, Judge," the secretary said from behind her. "I tried to stop her--"
"It's fine, Luisa," Judge Melendez said. "Hello Stephanie."
But she couldn't take her eyes off Ranger. His face was blank - she couldn't read anything in his expression - but there was a warmth in his eyes that hadn't been there in almost a year.
Her heart lurched and her knees almost buckled as she let that word and tone and warmth fill her. Finally wrenching her eyes away from his, she started searching for the papers. There - they were on the Judge's desk. His pen was poised over the bottom sheet.
"No!" She lunged over the desk and snatched them away.
The secretary gasped from the doorway. Probably, no one entirely sane had ever barged in and snatched papers away from the Judge. But when she raised her gaze to his, the Judge was smiling at her.
Did the whole family have that same smile?
"Nice to see you again, Stephanie," he said, holding the pen in the air. "I had a feeling you'd be back. I'm surprised it took this long."
"Yeah, well, it turns out I'm a little stubborn. And your nephew here was being an ass." She turned toward Ranger. "But I changed my mind. I don't want a divorce."
He raised an eyebrow. "It's too late."
"No, it's not," she said, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that he was talking about his heart and not the papers she was holding. She spotted a shredder on the far wall and dashed toward it. "It's not too late. I changed my mind." She pressed the power button and shoved the first page into it.
The sound of the motor filled the small chambers as the shredder ate the first sheet, then the second. "I made a mistake," she said to Ranger, raising her voice so she could still be heard. She shoved the next sheet into the shredder. "I don't want the divorce."
His face didn't change. "Why not?"
She stopped shredding and stared at him. How did she explain this - how did she make him understand - when she didn't entirely understand it herself? She stared at the remaining papers still in her hands. "I figured it out," she said, repeating his cryptic words from the night before.
The lines around his mouth softened. "Figured what out?"
She bit down on her lower lip, trying to get the right words. "That I was running the wrong direction."
His lips tilted up. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled something out and flicked it toward her. It flipped end over end, landing in her outstretched hand. It was the ring - his grandmother's ring. Her fingers closed around it. Forgetting to breathe, or even think, she lifted her eyes to his.
His gaze was dark and serious, but for the first time she could see what had been there all along if she'd been looking for it. He loved her.
He took a step toward her, then another. Reaching her, he uncurled her fingers and took the ring. Without ever breaking eye contact, he slipped it onto her finger, back where it belonged. Before she realized how it happened, she was in his arms. Everything in her stilled - this is where she was supposed to be. Right here. His hand came up to rest on her back and his lips touched hers. A sigh escaped her as she parted her lips, inviting him.
Then she was being lifted off the ground. Her legs came around his waist and his tongue plunged deep into her mouth, claiming her. When she pulled back, he was smiling at her, all 200-watts. "I love you," he said, his voice low, so deep the vibrations moved through her.
"I love you too."
His lips were on hers again when a throat cleared behind them.
She blinked and glanced around the room. Both the Judge and the secretary were staring at them. She could feel her face flaming as she buried her face against Ranger's neck. He chuckled. "Put me down," she said.
She unhooked her legs from around his waist, and slid down his body, until she was standing in front of him again. His arms didn't move from around her. "Gracias, Tio," Ranger said.
Judge Melendez came around form his desk and slapped Ranger on the back before reaching out to shake Steph's hand. "I told you not to give up hope, Stephanie. I knew you two would work it out."
She crinkled up her nose. "I still don't like you."
The Judge smiled wider.
"Where's Livy?" Ranger said.
"She's with your mom, at your office."
Ranger stared at her for a minute. "You brought my mother with you?"
"She kind of has this way of getting what she wants."
He chuckled. "Yeah," he said. "Get used to that." He rested a hand a the small of her back and led her to the door. "Come on, let's go find them."
They were halfway down the crowded courthouse hallway when he pushed her into a small alcove, his hard body pressing hers into the wall. His mouth lowered and his tongue touched hers, hungry, demanding.
When he pulled back to look at her, his eyes were serious. "It's never going to be easy." He traced a finger down the side of her face, whisper soft, and let his hand come to rest cupping her jaw.
"No. I'm stubborn and you're controlling." She gave him a saucy grin. "It's a bad combination."
He smiled and pressed a kiss to her temple, letting his lips linger. "I'm not going anywhere, Steph. I can promise you that."
Her fingers crept up his chest until they were resting over his heart. "Me neither."
"If we both stick it out, it'll work. You think we can do that?"
She studied the ring on her finger, resting against his heart, before meeting his eyes. "Yeah," she said. "I do."