Disclaimer: All characters belong to Janet Evanovich, except the ones that are mine. I'm only playing with them and I promise to send them home unharmed, although Ranger may be a bit dehydrated.
Warning: Language, Smut Alert, Quotes from all 20 books, Bad writing, Absent Muse, Writer's Block, Real Life! You know the drill … Also Taking literary license here! I've given Quakerbridge Mall a few upscale stores that they don't really have.
A/N: Thank You to Miranda, my editor, beta and friend, for Editing Love. Also thanks to all my friends and readers who have contacted and supported me! Without your laughter and friendship, pep talks and support, as well as encouragement and letting me rant, I'd be living under a rock someplace.
And Thank You to Everyone who has read and reviewed Love … Love wouldn't be Love without you.
And a special 'Thank You' to the Cupcake who inspired this story.
What I Did For Love
Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
William Butler Yeats
Meeting you was fate,
Becoming your friend was a choice.
But falling in love with you was beyond my control!
I'll never know what it was that made me stop and pick up that paper again … but something made me unfold it. It was yesterday's edition of the Trenton Times.
A single picture filled the whole front page. A smiling Mayor Joe Juniak, with his hands on the shoulders of two other smiling men. Men I knew all too well. Joe Morelli and Vincent Malfitano.
The headline read: "Hometown Heroes Bring Down Crime Family". The floor tipped under my feet.
Chapter 39: Love Conquers All!
Living in denial can be a wonderful thing. I should know, I'm a world-class denier! I'm an expert at tucking away everything that's too difficult, too hurtful, too embarrassing, too anything to handle … which is exactly what I did with the whole "Joe dumping me, Abruzzi Family trying to kill me" business. I just pretended it never happened and I got to go on my merry, stress-free way, with my rose-colored glasses happily perched on the end of my nose.
But living in denial is risky business. Denial is one of those "dance and pay the piper" things, and its downside can really suck. Just when you've lulled yourself into a lovely false sense of security, sure that everything in your world is fine and dandy, reality can sneak up behind you and bite you in the ass. You don't get an engraved invitation to meet reality for tea and a chat. Oh, no. You never see it coming. You turn around and there it is. Reality bitch-slaps you upside of the head, punches you in the gut, lays you flat out on the floor, and walks off laughing.
That picture on the front page of The Trenton Times was my bitch-slap from reality.
Standing there looking at that paper, I ran the entire gamut of negative emotions: shock, betrayal, heartbreak, disbelief, fear, anger … you name it, I felt it. I gave a whole new meaning to "dazed and confused", and not in a good way, either.
I couldn't tear my eyes away from the full-page picture of Morelli and Malfitano. I was having a tough time reconciling the two dirty cops who shot me and left me to freeze to death, with the screaming headlines that now declared they were heroes. It was so surreal I felt like I'd slipped into the Twilight Zone. The only thing missing was the weird music.
The paper said they were part of a "joint taskforce undercover sting operation". But my brain flatly refused to process what my eyes were seeing, so the words didn't make any sense to me. It couldn't be real. It was a dream … it had to be. I'd wake up, and everything would be back to nor-
"Stephanie!" Ranger's voice filtered through the haze.
"I know it's hard to take in," Ranger was saying. "You weren't supposed to find out like this," he reached out to touch me.
"Uh-huh." I muttered, still staring at the newspaper.
"I wanted to tell you, before it hit the media, so you wouldn't be blindsided."
"Okay." I nodded kind of dumbly, mesmerized by the picture of Morelli's triumphant smile.
"I planned on telling you as soon as I got here," he cupped my face in his hand. "But we got a little sidetracked last night." He ran his thumb back and forth over my cheek.
"That's nice." I just kept nodding like one of those dashboard bobble-head dolls, my eyes glued to that stupid picture. I mean I heard Ranger's words but my brain was fuzzy and slow and just couldn't grasp what he was telling me.
"Steph? Are you listening to me?" He gave my arm a little shake.
"Huh? Sure. Um … you were gonna tell me … something." I just couldn't get past that picture of Morelli.
Then that something clicked. "Wait. What?" I dragged my eyes away from the newspaper and blinked at him, totally confused. My brain felt like sludge, and I shook my head, trying to clear it.
"You were gonna tell me … a-about this?" I held out the paper, stunned all over again.
"Yes, but you found out bef-"
"You mean you knew?" I heard my voice crack.
"No. Not at first," he said.
"But ...?" I prompted when he didn't continue.
"Later on I got suspicious."
"Morelli's a cop to the bone. I couldn't see him throwing everything away."
"So …?" I couldn't seem to find my words.
"You didn't ask around? Do a little digging?" That's what Ranger usually did.
"Not in the beginning."
Ranger didn't answer.
Something was off, but I didn't know what. Ranger played by his own set of rules, and I didn't have a full copy, so I must have spent a whole minute looking back and forth between Ranger and the newspaper, trying to put it all together. I was missing something, but I couldn't put my finger it. And then the light bulb went on over my head, and all those little pieces fell into place. I gasped in shock when it hit me.
Mental head slap time. "You didn't have to dig or ask around!" I gaped at him, open-mouthed. "You already knew!" I crumpled up the newspaper and bounced it off his chest in irritation. "Of course you knew! You're Ranger," I told him as if he didn't already know who he was. "You have eyes and ears everywhere."
It was like verbal vomit and I just couldn't stop myself. "You don't even have to ask for information! People come out of the woodwork to tell you stuff. Winos on Stark Street and beat cops and Mafia made-men and big-time politicians! And cab drivers and junkies and bartenders and room clerks!" I flapped my arms like a demented chicken. "Delivery guys and mail carriers and cashiers and firefighters … and … and everybody! They all want to be on your good side so whenever they find out something, they can't wait to tell you." I paced in front of him.
"Stephanie?" Ranger was giving me a funny look.
I spun around and pointed at him. "Oh! Oh! I know! Probably you have a hot-line for them to call, a 1-800 number, right? And a line-item in your budget to pay off confidential informants and squealers and snitches and finks and weasels and snakes and moles and rats and stool pigeons. Right? Right!" I nodded in agreement with myself. "That's why you know about everything that goes on in New Jersey … hell, the whole country … the world for all I know." I held out my hands, palms up, eyes opened wide. "Really! How could you NOT know?"
Ranger stepped closer and tried to put his arms around me. "Stephanie, take a breath and calm down, you're going to hyperventilate."
"I don't care!" I slapped at his hands childishly and backed away from him, his voice getting lost in the buzzing in my head. "Why didn't you tell me?" I demanded.
"I didn't have any real proof!" He made that sound so simple.
"Garbage! You were suspicious … you had a gut feeling and your gut is never wrong." Everybody knew Ranger's instincts were always on target.
"You and I weren't exactly on speaking terms at that point. Would you have believed me? No. You would have demanded proof, and there wasn't any."
Okay, so maybe he was right about that, but still, my heart took a direct hit, and I think I was feeling it break.
"I still can't believe you didn't say anything."
I didn't know if I was more mad or sad, both made me cry, and I took a deep breath, trying to stem the tears that were starting to blur my vision. My head pounded and those friggin' little black dots danced in front of my eyes. Probably holding my breath wasn't helping any.
I slumped down on the bench at the foot of the bed, my head between my knees, struggling to pull air into my lungs, wondering if there was a rehab for people withdrawing from denial.
Ranger's voice seemed to come from so far away. "Breathe … slow and easy. It'll be okay."
But no, it wasn't okay, and I didn't know if it would ever be okay again.
Ranger's hand, usually so warm and comforting, massaged the back of my neck. Now, I pulled away from him. "Just relax, Steph …" he said, putting an arm around me.
"Stop!" I shoved at him. "Leave me alone."
He finally took the hint and backed off.
I took deep breaths and blew them out slowly, determined to still the waves of nausea washing over me. Gradually, the room stopped spinning and my stomach settled down. Ranger watched me as I pushed myself up slowly and scrubbed my hands over my face, trying to clear my eyes, literally and figuratively.
"So let me get this straight," I said, determined to sound calm and rational. "In the beginning, you suspected Morelli was undercover, but you didn't have any proof."
Ranger gave a single nod.
"When did you find out for sure what was going on?"
It was his turn to blow out a deep breath. "A while ago," he answered.
I closed my eyes and bit the inside of my cheek in an effort to stay in control.
"Exactly how long is 'a while'?" I pressed on, not at all sure I could handle the answer.
"Does it matter?"
I looked up at him and arched an eyebrow. "It must if you don't want to tell me."
"Stephanie, this isn't what it looks like."
"Really?" I chewed on that for a minute. "Well, that's good then." The sarcasm was lost on Ranger. "Because what it looks like is that you knew right from the beginning Joe was on the job and you helped him cover it up."
He narrowed his eyes at me, and his hand closed around my arm. "Do you think I would do that to you?" Anger edged his voice. "You think I'd deliberately hurt you?"
"Okay, fine! So maybe not." I fisted my hands so hard my knuckles turned white. "But you're gonna have to explain this to me! Because … I don't get it. You knew what was going on. Why didn't you tell me? Why were you protecting Morelli?"
"Morelli?" Ranger looked at me like I was nuts. "I was protecting you, Stephanie. Sometimes that means protecting you from yourself, which is no easy feat."
While that was probably true, I didn't want to hear it. "Did you know Morelli was gonna kick me to the curb? Was that part of his undercover op?"
He didn't bother answering, just folded his arms over his chest and gave me an icy stare.
"How about the joint … sting … thing? Did you know about that, too?"
"The joint taskforce undercover sting operation." Ranger filled in.
"Yeah, that." I picked the paper up off the floor and smoothed it out. I wanted to hunt down Joe and punch him right in his stupid, smirking face.
Ranger tipped his head back to look up at the ceiling. "By the time I found out Morelli was undercover, the taskforce was fully involved. I was prohibited from divulging any information. Even to you."
"What does that mean?" I scowled at him. "You and Morelli cross your hearts and pinkie swear not to tell me?"
"It means that the situation called for secrecy."
"No, I think you mean the situation called for lies!" I shot back.
"Stephanie." He sounded like he was speaking to a small child. "I promised I wouldn't lie to you, and I haven't. I've always told you the truth."
"Bullshit!" I was on my feet. "If you were telling me the truth, how come I didn't know about this?" I shoved the newspaper into his face. "You knew! How come I didn't get that memo?"
"You know that I'm not always able to tell you everything …"
I turned back, my fists clenched at my sides. "Yeah," I snarled. "About your personal business, your clients, government connections, what you do when you're 'in the wind'," I said sarcastically, making air quotes. "I get that. But you don't get to decide what or how much I should know when it's me and my business we're talking about. You don't get to make those decisions!"
"There wasn't a choice."
"Forget it!" I held up my hand to cut him off. "I know exactly what you did. You took a page straight out of Morelli's handbook! You fed me carefully selected little bits and pieces of the truth. Just enough to make me think I knew what was going on, but never the whole story! Just enough truth to manipulate me into doing whatever would serve you best."
I stormed away from him, then spun around and stormed right back. "And just an FYI, withholding information is exactly the same as lying about it!" All I could do was glare at him. "I don't care what excuses you make to yourself, Ranger, you lied to me!"
I guess I'd pushed him too far, and Ranger shut down. His blank stare slid into place like a door slamming. No surprise there. That mask was Ranger's shield. It closed everyone out, scared them off, made them back down.
But not me. Not this time. I had too many questions, and Ranger had all the answers! I wanted those answers … needed them. Hell, I deserved them.
"You can't even deny it, can you?" I challenged.
"No," he said. "I wouldn't try."
"How noble!" Sarcasm just dripped off those words. "So how long were you involved in this?"
"I was never a part of it." Ranger's voice was flat, his blank mask firmly in place.
He gave no indication of what was going on in his head or heart. Of course, I knew Ranger. He never allowed his motives or actions to be challenged. If I had to venture a guess, I'd have said he was probably somewhere between slightly exasperated and totally pissed off that I dared question him at all. Hard to tell. Ranger was good at hiding his feelings.
Me, on the other hand, not so much. I couldn't hide anything. I was pretty sure that everything I was feeling flashed across my face like a breaking news tagline on a TV screen.
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Did you and Morelli put your heads together and concocted this scheme? Help him set me up to play along … a-gain!" I glared at him. "Don't tell Stephanie anything," I mimicked Morelli's voice. "Nobody will suspect I'm undercover if she's running around acting normal, trying to fix things and getting into trouble just like she always does." I swear I was so mad I growled. "And what? Your job was to make sure I didn't find out too much and screw up the op?"
"Stephanie …" The warning in his voice was clear. I ignored it.
I turned away from him and headed for the dressing room, not waiting for an answer I knew wouldn't come. "Ugh! Men! You're all scum!"
Then I went back and poked a finger at him. "Who the hell do you guys think you are anyway? What gives you the right to keep secrets, to lie, to use people? You seem to think you can do anything you want just because you have a penis! Well, let me tell you something, mister. Just because you can pee standing up doesn't mean you're in charge! You're all a bunch of male chauvinist pig morons!
"I was so stupid!" I said standing toe to toe with him. "I trusted you! I even believed it when you told me you were a better man than Morelli." I gave a disparaging snort. "But you know what? You're not. You're just a better actor."
For just a split second, some unidentifiable emotion, some something, flashed across his face. But Ranger never gave anything away, especially his feelings. You only saw what he allowed you to see. I watched him collect himself, regaining that legendary self-control of his. The mask slid back into place, his shield rose, and when he looked at me again, his eyes were cold and empty.
"Why, Ranger?" I asked. "Just give me that." I could hear the annoyance in my own voice. "Why lie about it? Why couldn't you just tell me the truth?"
He hesitated so long I thought that maybe he wasn't going to answer, and I started to move away from him. He took my arm to stop me. "I did what was necessary under a specific set of circumstances."
"That's double-talk! Just say what you mean!" I demanded.
He seemed to choose his words carefully. "My job was to protect you, from the Abruzzi Family, from the feds, from Morelli, from yourself. If that meant I had to withhold information, or … manipulate the truth, then that's what I did."
A chill passed over me and I had to swallow the bile that burned the back of my throat. "So, this was … what? A security detail?"
Ranger didn't say no.
My heart took another direct hit and stuttered in my chest. A security detail. The pain took my breath away.
A long time ago, Ranger told me how he bled money every time I needed protection, and how he justified security for me. I didn't know why I kept forgetting about that. I guess it was another reality I couldn't bring myself to face.
Now his voice rang in my head. "The truth is, you're a line item in my budget," he'd said.
"I have you listed under entertainment," he'd said.
"This is a high stress business, and you're comedy relief for my entire team. Plus, I get a tax break," he'd said.
Back then, I'd been surprised, and maybe a little hurt. Now, I had an epiphany. I realized that in all the time since he'd spoken those words, nothing about my status had changed one little bit. To Ranger, I was still just entertainment.
It took a couple of seconds to swallow that humiliation, then I shook my head and forced a wry smile at the irony of it all. "Well then, I'm calling us even. I'd say you got your money's worth this time, wouldn't you?"
His brow furrowed ever so slightly. He didn't know what I meant.
"Oh, come on, you know what I'm talking about. I got protection, and in return you got comic relief, a tax write off, and a willing fuck buddy, all rolled into one!" I did a two-shoulder shrug. "Sounds like entertainment to me!"
I was on emotional overload. Tears stung my eyes, and I quickly turned toward the dressing room. I had to get away before I broke down in front of him. I wouldn't give him that satisfaction.
I swear the man growled as I turned my back on him.
"Enough!" he bellowed from behind me.
I hesitated a second. "Yeah," I agreed sadly. "It is." I glanced back at him.
God knows I wanted some reaction from Ranger. I just hadn't counted on this one. Ranger's blank mask evaporated. Chin down, nostrils flared, lips curled into a snarl, a furious Ranger charged across the bedroom after me. This was the look that made hardened criminals wet their pants in terror. But it didn't faze me, although it probably should have.
"Stephanie, stop!" he barked as I tried to close the door in his face. Hewas too quick, though, and straight-armed the door, hitting it so hard that it flew open and the knob buried itself in the wall. He stalked into the dressing room and grabbed me by the shoulders.
"Tired, Stephanie? You should be! Why don't you sit down?" he snarled as he bulldozed me backwards and shoved me roughly into a chair. "You must be all worn out!"
"What?" It was my turn to be confused.
"You've had a lot of exercise this morning, jumping to all those conclusions!"
I would have rolled my eyes if my head hadn't hurt so bad. "Tell me I'm wrong!" I countered.
"You're wrong!" he barked right in my face.
"Prove it!" I yelled right back into his.
He took a deep breath, held it, and blew it out slowly through his nose, collecting himself. He held his hands up in a stop gesture. "We need to talk."
My eyebrows shot up to my hairline. "Now you wanna talk?" I gave a derisive snort. "Too little, too late, Ranger. I'm through talking."
"Fine!" he snapped. "I'll talk! You can shut up and listen for a change."
"And based on recent history, I should listen to you … why?" I retorted, my inner Jersey Girl Bitch showing.
"Because you need to hear what I've got to tell you."
"I reiterate … why?"
"So you'll know how all this happened," he said, pointing at the newspaper.
"Nah! I think I'll just wait and read all about it in the papers. That's where I found out about it in the first place." I practically spit the words at him.
"Aaagh!" he growled, holding out his hands, fingers curled, like he wanted to strangle me. He ran them through his hair instead. "It's a damned good thing I love you!" he grumbled under his breath.
"Oh yeah, right!" I scoffed. "Like I'm supposed to believe that, too?"
"You think I lied about it?" He roared, his face actually turning red.
And there it was … the real root of all my fears. Yes, I was scared to death, terrified, that he'd lied about it. He'd said the "I love you" part before, but what about all the qualifiers that he'd always thrown in? If he'd only given me half-truths about everything else, what if loving me was only half-true, too?
"Why not?" I hollered back at him. "If you 'manipulated the truth' about everything else to get me to follow orders and toe the line, why not that, too?"
"Manipulate 'I love you'? Exactly how does one do that, Stephanie?" He sounded so superior.
"Don't you dare give me that self-righteous crap!" I snarled at him. "You always manipulated it! 'I love you … BUT'. It was always qualified!"
Ranger just arched that damned eyebrow at me.
"I love you, but … I don't do relationships." I jabbed him in the chest with my index finger. "I love you, but … it's in my own way." Another jab. "I love you, but … it comes with a condom, not a ring." Jab-jab-jab-jab-jab! I arched my eyebrows back at him. "Sound familiar?"
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" He sounded exasperated. Tough!
"It was the truth, wasn't it?"
"Was, not is!" he said on an exhale.
"You are a difficult woman, Stephanie Plum!" Ranger just scrubbed his hands over his face.
I just ignored him, grabbed some clothes, and headed for the bathroom. Instead of moving aside, he stepped in front of me, blocking the doorway.
"You're in my way!"
"All I did was listen and look where that got me!"
Ranger stood his ground. I stood mine.
"Move!" I gave his shoulder a shove.
"Stephanie," he sounded irritated as his fingers wrapped around my arm.
Big mistake. I was fed up with being man-handled and manipulated by the men in my life and something inside me just snapped. Without even thinking about it, I hauled my arm back and launched my fist right at his face. The look of surprise when I connected with his cheekbone was priceless.
"Cut it out!" he barked, gripping my shoulders and giving me a hard shake.
"Cut out what? Your heart? No problem! Gimme a knife!" I snarled right back.
"Give it a rest," Ranger said.
"Get out of my way."
We had a standoff, neither of us was willing to give an inch.
He didn't move so I gave him another shove. This time he shoved back. Snagging my wrists, he yanked my arms up over my head, and backed me up, pinning me against the wall with his body. From shoulders to knees, we fit together like we'd been made for each other.
I was at serious disadvantage. Ranger was almost fully dressed and I was almost fully naked, still only wearing his dress shirt. He was fresh out of the shower and smelled wonderful. The heady aroma of Bulgari and male animal put all my senses, and all my hormones, on full alert.
As furious as I'd been with him a minute ago, as his body heat seeped into me, all my mad seeped out. I was acutely aware of his cheek resting against the side of my head, his hands wrapped around my wrists, his heart beating against mine. I was caught in Ranger's force field and there was no way out.
I shifted under him and felt him harden against me.
"No fair," he said.
"Then get off me." I moved again and heard him suck in his breath. A little power is a dangerous thing, and I moved again.
"Don't push your luck," he groaned.
"Or what?" Talk about false bravado.
He moved his mouth to my ear and whispered, "Or I'll rip that shirt right off you and throw you down on the floor. I'll take you, hard and fast, touch you, taste you, drive myself into you, feel you close around me, hot and wet." Every muscle below my waist clenched and my knees went weak. "I want to feel you move under me, Babe, to hear those little breathy sounds you make that drive me to the edge of reason."
His breath against my ear sent a shiver through me, I forgot how to breathe, and my heart stumbled in my chest. Then I realized what he was doing.
"Hey! You're trying to distract me with sex, aren't you?"
"Is it working?"
Yes! "No! Don't flatter yourself."
"Liar," I could hear the smile in his voice and he grazed his teeth along the side of my neck. Good thing he had me pinned to the wall because that's when my knees totally gave out.
I heard a moan, probably from me, before I pulled myself together. "Well knock it off. This isn't getting us anywhere."
"I was hoping it would get us into bed."
"Good luck with that."
"Next time I'll try birthday cake. I know you can't resist that."
I choked on a laugh. "Arrogant bastard!"
He flashed me the full-on smile, brushed a kiss across my mouth and moved away. He leaned against the opposite wall, arms folded across his chest. I didn't trust my legs to hold me up, so I let myself slide down the wall and sat on the floor.
It was quiet for a minute, each of us waiting for the other to make the next move, I guess. And we both were calmer, that's for sure. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask one final, all-important question. I cleared my throat and swallowed hard. "Was all this your exit strategy?" I asked, afraid of his answer.
"What do you mean?"
"You always have a plan for everything, Ranger … skip chasing, interior decorating, surveillance. You always plan out how to get in, how to do the job, how to get out." I flipped my hand back and forth. "Your 'in' was the deal you made with Morelli. Your job was protecting me and you planned it so I lived with you, worked for you, slept with you. You knew where I was and what I was doing 24/7. Now the security detail's over." I finally looked at him. "So was this your 'out'?"
"You mean is this how I get rid of you?" I think I'd actually surprised Ranger.
I looked away from him and did a half nod, half shrug thing. "Yeah."
"Why would you think that?" There was a real edge to his voice.
I took a deep breath. "When you gave me the Mercedes, you said you could make me wish I never had to leave your bed. But you also made very sure I knew that being in your bed was only temporary, and I'd have to leave it eventually." I gnawed on my bottom lip a little. "Is this 'eventually'?"
"Jesus Christ!" he scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "How did this get so fucked up?" he said on a groan. "Look, I know you're upset …." Ranger Manoso, the Master of Understatement, said from his spot across the dressing room.
"Upset," I repeated, too tired to argue, and just tipped my head back against the opposite wall. "You lied to me, Ranger," I said wearily. "You manipulated me, and misled me for … I don't know how long. You made me a promise, and then you broke it. I trusted you, and you used that against me." I blew out a long, deep sigh. "What did you think would happen when I found out?"
"Not this." He blew out a heavy sigh. "You have to know that I didn't deliberately set out to hurt you, Steph. That was never my goal."
"So you think that makes it all okay? Really?" I asked. "Can I remind you we've been down this road before!"
"No, I didn't kid myself. I knew you'd be furious. But I thought once you knew all the details, at least you'd understand what happened and why."
"Oh. My. God! You are taking lessons from Morelli! That's his modus operandi. The job always comes first. He'd keep me in the dark, use me however he wanted, and take it for granted that when I found out, after the fact, I'd just fall into line with it."
"Only a fool would ever take you for granted. I made a lot of mistakes, but that wasn't one of them."
"Name one!" I wanted to see what Mr. Perfect was willing to admit to.
"I should have told you the whole truth."
Ya think? I cut my eyes to him. "Is that like … a confession?" I almost said "apology", but I didn't think the word was in Ranger's vocabulary.
"They say it's good for the soul."
"And how's that working for ya?"
He lips tipped up into a rueful smile. "Not so good."
"Depends on forgiveness."
That surprised me. "Are you asking me to forgive you?"
He frowned and shook his head. "No." Silence stretched between us. "I don't think you can."
He took a deep breath. "It was my job to protect you. I failed." He leaned his head back against the wall.
"I don't see how …"
He cut me off, his voice hard, his words clipped and angry. "If I'd been doing my job, Little Paulie would never have been able to get his hands on you. I would have known how much of a threat the Abruzzi Family really was, and that the Feds weren't any better."
I could see the fury in his eyes and the tension in his body. "After we found you under the bridge, after I got you back, I swore to myself I would keep you safe, no matter what it took. That became my job, and yes, that job came first. Your life was at stake. There was no room for emotion or sentiment. I had to be ruthless."
"Just like every other security detail," I said.
"No! Not like any other!" He shouted it at me. "This wasn't business, Stephanie. You and I, we're connected … physically, emotionally. That makes a difference. That makes it personal!" He paced the small space.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. There were no words. The emotion Ranger was letting me see took my breath away.
"You want a confession, fine! I'll give you one!" He dropped down to sit on his heels in front of me. "Yes, I knew you'd be hurt and angry, and yes, I resorted to extreme measures. I misled you and manipulated you. I withheld information and twisted the truth. But I won't apologize for any of it."
He held out his hands, then dropped them. "It was the same as when Scrogg was holding you and Julie. I focused on the goal and did whatever was necessary to keep you safe." He was up and pacing again. "I don't know any other way. Whatever the cost, your life is worth it."
"Wait a minute!" I narrowed my eyes at him. "I thought you said there was no price for what we gave each other."
He sagged back against the wall and ran his hands over his face. "There may not be a price, Babe … but there's always a cost." He sounded as sad and weary as I felt.
"So … what'd this security detail cost you?" He must have really bled big bucks this time.
"Looks like the highest price I've ever paid."
"Which is what exactly?"
He held my gaze for the longest time. "You."
"I-I don't understand."
Hiding behind his mask was Ranger's safe place. Expressing his feelings was never easy for him, and I watched the muscle in his jaw work as he wrestled with those emotions.
"I don't know if I've pushed you so far away, you won't want to come back. But it's the chance I had to take. If losing you is the cost of keeping you safe, you being alive is worth it. I'd rather watch you walk away … go back to Morelli … than see you dead."
Morelli? Ranger had surprised me again. I clambered to my feet, scraped up what little was left of my courage, and asked the most important question of my life. "You never answered me before, Ranger." I realized my voice was shaking. "Is this'eventually'?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of 'someday'."
Of all the things I was prepared for him to say, this wasn't one of them. All I could do was blink at him, stunned.
"W-w-why?" I finally choked out.
"The truth is I love you. It may be in my own way, but that's the only way I know."
The tears that I'd held at bay for so long threatened to spill over. I raised my hand to the throbbing scar on my temple and tried to massage away the blinding pain.
Ranger just stood there, watching me, waiting.
"You can be such a stupid, egotistical, high-handed jackass!"
"So you've told me before."
"I have never been so angry with anybody in my whole life, Ranger. Not Jeanne Ellen Burrows, not Joyce Barnyard, not Dickie, not Morelli, not even my mother! But you?" I fisted my hands in my hair. "You push angry to a whole new level!"
"Apparently one of my many talents."
"Once upon a time an arrogant, over-bearing jerk, that would be you, by the way, told me that the opposite of love wasn't hate … it was apathy. That if I could be mad at you, I could still love you."
"That's one theory."
"Right now, I'm so mad at you I just wanna rip out your heart with my bare hands and feed it to feral cats!" I raised my hands, then let them flop down to my sides in surrender. "I guess that means I must still love you, huh?" I said on a sigh.
Ranger's 200-watt smile split his face and in two strides he closed the distance between us, both physical and emotional. His arms came around me, and he held onto me like he'd never let me go. I swear I heard him murmur "Thank God!" as he all but crushed me to his chest.
"I know it hurts, Babe," he whispered into my hair. We both knew he wasn't talking about the pain in my head; he meant the pain in my heart.
He held me close, rocking me gently. His lips pressed against the scar on my temple, my cheek, my jaw, my mouth. I sagged against him. Relief had me exhausted and spent. I felt his heart beating against my own, its steady rhythm soothing me, just like it always did.
"I'll make it better," he promised. I believed him.
Ranger leaned back against the wall and slid down to the floor, taking me with him. I curled against him, burrowing into him, craving his warmth. And he just held onto me tight, whispering soothing words that my poor overwrought brain couldn't even begin to process.
I may have dozed off, I don't really remember. But later, when I opened my eyes, we were still on the floor. I was all warm and toasty, snuggled against Ranger's chest, with his big fluffy robe tucked around me.
"You okay?" Ranger asked, smoothing my hair back from my face.
"Peachy." I sat up carefully, holding my aching head in my hands, just in case it decided to fall off. "Nothing a large dose of caffeine won't cure."
He helped me to my feet. "Let's see about getting some coffee into you."
"'Swell," I muttered, wondering if I'd be able to swallow anything.
"Then we'll talk."
"Oh, goodie." Another something I was so not looking forward to.
Bundled up in his robe, with a box of tissues under my arm, Ranger ushered me into the dining room where Olivia, Miami's version of Ella, had laid out breakfast for us. He pulled out a chair, and I sagged down in it, folding my legs under me and tucking the robe around me.
With one eye cracked open, I watched Ranger pour coffee for me, adding sugar and cream. I guess I looked shaky because he wrapped my hands around that first cup and guided it to my mouth.
That's when the sense of déjà vu hit me. It felt like years ago that this whole misadventure had started in the bonds office, this same exact way, with Ranger helping me drink a cup of coffee.
I looked up at him, and he gave me a tight smile. "Déjà vu all over again?" He remembered, too. "Looks like we came full circle."
I pretty much sucked down that first cup non-stop, only coming up for air when it was empty. Ranger gave me a head shake, then handed me a refill. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my chair and sipped, waiting for the caffeine to kick in.
By the time I finished the second cup, I was feeling a whole lot steadier. I opened my eyes and gave Ranger a weak smile.
"Want your breakfast?" He lifted the dome covering my plate. "French toast and bacon?"
"Ugh, no thanks. I don't think I could keep anything solid down." I just sipped at my coffee.
Ranger, sitting across from me, finished his broiled grapefruit, and started on an egg-white omelet with veggies and cheese.
"Ready to talk?" he asked, finishing his plain, whole-wheat toast.
"God! No!" I said and shuddered. "I'm still trying to process everything." I folded my arms on the table and rested my chin on them. "I kinda feel like the guy Jim Carrey played in that old movie. You know the one, where his whole life was a TV show that the whole world watched. The town he lived in was a set, and the people were all actors. Everybody but him knew it was all fake."
Ranger reached over and squeezed my fingers. "Stephanie, what we had is real."
God knows, I wanted to believe him. But I just didn't have the strength to take that leap of faith yet. I guess he could see that in my face.
"Let's start here," he tapped the front page of the newspaper he'd brought into the dining room. "At the beginning."
I shrugged a shoulder. I really wasn't sure I was ready to hear anything about anything yet, but it didn't look like I had much choice. All I did know was that my poor heart couldn't take any more direct hits.
"First, I need you to know that since the day Morelli called to accept the deal, we haven't had any contact. I never saw or spoke with him, and the only conversation I ever had with him about you, was the one in his living room that you heard yourself."
"Okay." I knew that Ranger wouldn't bother to lie about something I could verify.
"Secondly, remember that when this all started, no one had any reason to think that anything suspicious was going on." He picked up his coffee cup and leaned back in his chair.
I just nodded.
"Closed cases are reopened for all kinds of reasons, and ten million in insurance money was a damned good one. Abruzzi's family was paying for the exhumation and new autopsy, and the Attorney General's Office would take a cursory look to make sure the TPD and the local ME didn't screw up the initial investigation. The expectation was that nothing new would turn up and the case would be closed once and for all."
"Too bad it didn't turn out that way," I said into my coffee cup.
"With Rinaldi running the show? Not a chance. It was his job to make sure that Mama Abruzzi got that ten million dollar insurance pay-out. Once the new autopsy results, which the Abruzzi Family paid for, changed the cause of death from suicide to murder, all Rinaldi had to do was find a plausible suspect."
"I still don't get why they decided on Joe."
"Morelli was probably just easiest to set up. He had motive, he had opportunity, and by planting the gun in his house, they made it look like Morelli had some connection to the method … the murder weapon."
"I guess," I sighed.
"Rinaldi conducted what appeared to be a legitimate investigation. He took another look at all the players for the murder, you, me, Abruzzi's goons, all his victims. And once they zeroed in on Morelli, I knew you were in the clear and didn't give the investigation another thought."
"You were worried about me?"
"Babe." He seemed surprised I'd questioned that. "If you had become their prime suspect, I would have stepped in right away."
"So you waited to see what would happen."
"Patience is a virtue."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," I grumbled, and Ranger grinned. We both knew that patience wasn't one of my more stellar qualities.
"Well, in this case it paid off. They targeted Morelli, and you were off the hook," he said.
"Not quite," I said, looking him straight in the eye. "If I recall correctly, I was on the hook ... to you, for the price of your help."
"Yes, well, I was angry." He made it sound like that was a good excuse. Men!
I just raised my eyebrows at him.
"Morelli was trying to manipulate me by sending you to Miami. If he'd asked me for help, I'd have turned him down flat. He knew I wouldn't say no to you."
"But you didn't say yes!"
"I tried to force your hand. To see if, maybe, you'd try a little blackmail, demand that I turn myself in for Abruzzi's murder, or you'd do it for me." Ranger flicked his eyes up to me, then back down to his coffee cup.
My jaw hit the table. "You actually thought I could do something like that?"
He didn't look at me. "I wasn't sure how far you'd go for Morelli. We've all done crazy things in the name of love."
No joke. "Even you?"
He didn't answer, just shrugged a shoulder, a very un-Ranger-like gesture.
He blew out a long breath through his nose … Ranger's version of a sigh. "The deal I offered Morelli."
"I thought I hated you then," I said softly. "I still don't understand why you did that."
"It was a test," he said.
"What kind of test?" I prompted.
"To see if Morelli deserved you."
Ranger looked into my eyes. "He failed."
Yeah. He sure did. "What if he'd passed?"
Ranger stabbed a wedge of honeydew melon out of the fruit bowl and cut it into smaller pieces. "I would have walked out of your life and left you and Morelli alone," he said. "Even though I knew you loved me."
I searched his face. "How did you know that?"
"You didn't blackmail me." He gave me a full-on smile. "And when you tried to confess to Abruzzi's murder, you still thought I killed him." Ranger leaned across the table and held out the honeydew to me. "You could have sold me down the river, but you didn't. You were willing to sacrifice yourself. Not just for Morelli, but for me, too."
"I couldn't think of any other way to protect you both." I said around the mouthful of melon.
"You did it for love."
"Yessiree! That's me! Officially a fool for love!" I sighed, taking the glass of juice he handed me.
"It's nice to have company," he quipped, and we just smiled at one another.
"Anyway, once Morelli took me up on my offer, I made it my business to find out what was going on, so that's when I started digging," Ranger said. "Whoever was setting him up was heavy-handed and amateurish. The murder weapon conveniently went missing from the evidence locker, then it was found, hidden in plain sight in Morelli's cellar? He's not that stupid. If he had taken it, it would never have been found."
He picked up a fat strawberry and held it out to me. I just opened my mouth like a baby bird and ate it.
I sat with my elbows on the table, my chin in my hands, and sighed. "Joe put on a real good act, you know, even at home. I can't believe he strung me along like that." Tears stung my eyes, and I rubbed them away with my fingers. "Or that I fell for it."
Ranger blew out a breath. "As much as I hate helping Morelli score points, I have it on good authority that he didn't know what was going on. He thought he was really being set up to take the fall for Abruzzi's murder."
"Honest to God?" Relief washed over me. I could stop beating myself up for being stupid, for falling for an act.
"Honest to God." While he talked, Ranger took a warm croissant out of the basket, slathered it with butter and strawberry jam, and handed it across the table to me. I automatically snarfed it down.
"I thought you didn't like Morelli?"
"I don't. But that doesn't mean I don't recognize him for what he is … a good cop."
"Yeah," I sighed. Good cop, lousy boyfriend.
"At some point, he must have been approached by the Feds to go undercover, probably before the arraignment."
"So it was Rinaldi who set him up?" Boy, my spidey-sense failed me there! He'd seemed like such a nice guy.
Ranger gave a nod. "Rinaldi had been in Abruzzi's pocket for years, passing on any information about local, state and federal investigations or probes that would affect his business. In return, Abruzzi rewarded Rinaldi very well."
"Where did Malfitano fit in? I thought he and Rinaldi were partners."
"They were, but he was partnered with Rinaldi by Internal Affairs. IAB knew they had a dirty cop and had been watching Rinaldi for a while, but didn't have any solid evidence against him. Enter Malfitano who eventually convinced Rinaldi that he could be bought, and Rinaldi brought him on board. Malfitano became an IAB mole in the Abruzzi Family."
"And nobody knew any of this was going on?"
"I talked with the cops, held out a hand to the local Families, put an ear to the ground down on Stark Street, I even went to the Feds. All I came up with was some vague rumors, but nothing solid, which made me more suspicious."
I nodded in agreement. If Ranger couldn't get the straight scoop, then something was up.
"Then you and I worked out our arrangement, and I forgot about Morelli and focused on a different goal."
"Which was what?"
He gave me his wolf grin. "Making you forget about Morelli, too."
I had a hot flash thinking about how he had done just that and ruined me for all other men.
"So why the deal at all?"
"I'm a selfish bastard, Stephanie. I wanted you, but on my own terms. You'd already agreed to pay whatever my price was. The deal with Morelli was the perfect opportunity to have you, guilt-free, with none of your strings attached."
"Like the De Chooch deal." I felt my face flame.
"It worked once." He leaned back in his chair and gave a self-deprecating snort. "I thought I was so slick. I was going to get everything I wanted. Then I got tangled up in all those strings of yours, and realized that my world is a better place with you in it."
My heart did a little flutter and I had to smile. Ranger slid my plate across the table to me. "Eat!" I took one look at the powdered sugar dusted slices of bread and the crispy bacon, and realized I was starving. I dug in and ate until I cleaned everything but the pattern off the plate.
"What did you mean before when you said that the FBI was as bad as the Abruzzi Family?
From the look on Ranger's face, it was clear I'd hit a sore spot. "The first long-term contract RangeMan ever got was with the FBI. You know what we do, Federal FTA work, some undercover and occasional surveillance jobs. Our working relationship has always been good. Outside of that, our association had been … contentious," he said with a sour expression.
"I can't imagine why," my snide side was showing. "I've always found the Feebs to be a charming bunch of bureaucratic stuffed shirts with overblown opinions of themselves, who always want to run the show, no matter whose turf they're on. Asshats, one and all!"
"No argument from me," Ranger snorted. "After your car blew up at the Mall, I needed to pin down where the threat was coming from. I reached out to the Feds to see if you were on anybody's radar. They stonewalled me, claiming they had no idea who or why anyone might be after you."
"Not okay," he threw his napkin on the table. "As a matter of protocol I increased your security and we immediately found out you had a stalker. Little Paulie."
"Wha-a-at?" I whined.
"Oh, it gets better." Ranger shook his head. "Little Paulie had a tail, too. Feds. Any time you went out, you had your very own parade. There was you, then Paulie, the Feds, and then a RangeMan chase car that followed everybody."
"Oh my God!"
"Not surprisingly, the Feds never caught on that we were following them, or that we put trackers on all their vehicles."
"You're kidding! You GPSed the Feds?" Now that made me laugh out loud.
"So, I arranged an informal meeting with that agent," Ranger's voice was icy. "Just to let him know that I did not take kindly to his lack of concern for your safety."
"You mean you jumped him someplace."
Ranger made a small sound of agreement. "Call it what you like."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Was there bloodshed?"
"Not mine," he said, and picked up his coffee cup.
I sighed. "So what happened?"
"He thought he was very clever and tried to convince me that the constant tail on Paulie would afford you another layer of protection." Ranger looked like he wanted to roll his eyes. "He really was reluctant to share any further information. But, I … pressed him and he finally … coughed up the idea that perhaps Paulie was trying to ingratiate himself with the Abruzzi Family by providing them with information about you."
Knowing him as long as I had, I spoke fluent Ranger. From what he'd just told me, I had a clear mental image of pissed off Ranger pinning this man against a wall somewhere, an arm across his windpipe, cutting off his oxygen. Sure the guy "coughed up" information. Probably he couldn't breathe!
"You get into trouble for that?" I mean, what Ranger did constituted assault on a federal officer.
"No," he said nonchalantly. "Nothing that paying a small medical and dental bill didn't cure."
I squinched my eyes and furrowed my brow at him.
"His face had an unfortunate encounter with a brick wall and his teeth and nose didn't fare too well. Clumsy guy."
All I could do was groan.
"He did give me his personal guarantee that if there was any threat to you, he would contact me immediately."
"And we all know just how much a fed's word is worth."
"Unfortunately." Ranger tapped his finger on the edge of the table, a sign of how irritated he was. "The night you were grabbed, nobody was following Paulie."
About twelve different reasons for that shot through my head … none of them good. "Do you think they set it up so Paulie could get to me?"
"It crossed my mind."
"Do you think Morelli knew? Before I was kidnapped, I mean."
Ranger was silent for a minute. "I don't know, Stephanie. But I intend to find out." He left the "… and when I do …" part unspoken.
I caught Ranger's eye. "So do I."
"As soon as they realized you witnessed Little Paulie's murder, every member of that joint taskforce was bound and determined to grab you as a material witness and put you into their own protective custody. Control of the investigation would go to whichever agency had you. They'd bring the case to trial, your testimony would guarantee a win, and they'd get bragging rights. The FBI, a couple of other federal agencies, the Attorney General's people, the State Racketeering Bureau, they were all out in force, trying to find you."
"Yikes! It sounds like I was some kind of prize or something!"
"You were. You were the Holy Grail of witnesses. You were the only one who had nothing to gain by testifying against all of them. That's why I took you to a private hospital and registered you under an assumed name. I didn't want anyone to be able to find you, cops, feds, Abruzzis, nobody."
"How are you supposed to know who to trust?"
"Simple. You don't trust anyone but yourself."
"O-kay. That's when you asked me to come here to Miami and hide out," I said.
He held up one finger. "And I told you why."
"Yeah, you did."
"And that's when I decided to put you on a need-to-know status. You'd been kidnapped, shot, almost frozen to death, traumatized. You'd had enough, you didn't need to know that you may have been set up for it all."
"Real kind of you," I snarked. "But why do I have the feeling that there was more to it than that?" I cocked my head and gave him a pissy look.
Ranger leaned back in his chair. "You're right, there was more. The FBI knew you weren't dead when you were left in that car. The feds, in their infinite wisdom, were afraid you'd try to contact Morelli, to thank him or declare your undying love for him or kick his ass … something, and blow his cover. They wanted to tuck you away for the duration so the undercover operation wouldn't be compromised."
"Isn't that just flippin' great."
"Truthfully, I wasn't so sure that you wouldn't try to find him either."
"I promised! Why didn't you trust me to follow orders?"
The corners of Ranger's mouth tipped up. "Let me remind you that we've been down this road before."
"Oh, well, yeah."
"I had this vision of stunned Rangemen dropping like flies, and you on the loose." He looked so serious I just had to roll my eyes.
"Steph, I wasn't about to let any of them get their hands on you. I know how they operate. To them, protective custody means locks on the outside of the door, not the inside. They would have legally held you incommunicado, no contact with the outside world, no lawyer, TV, internet, newspapers, nothing, until you gave them everything they needed to solidify their case against the Abruzzi Family." The more he told me, the angrier he got. I did, too.
"They would have videoed your statements and sworn depositions, then played fast and loose with your safety. They would have used you as bait to lure the Abruzzis out, in hopes they'd make another attempt on your life. If anything happened to you, they'd call it collateral damage, but they'd still have your testimony. Dead or alive, they would have had what they needed from you."
"But they weren't really sure I was alive, so it was no big deal," I shrugged.
"They knew, Steph. They even had the safe-house staked out and were ready to storm the place and take you in."
"How'd they find me? I mean we were so careful sneaking me out of the hospital and all."
Ranger gave me a rueful smile. "They followed your mother, and she led them right to you."
"Oh, God! Mom'll plotz!" I hid my face in my hands. I could just see her, taking up permanent residence in the pantry, chugging Johnny Walker Black straight out of the bottle! "She can never find out, or we'll have to send her to rehab!"
"Mum's the word," Ranger agreed.
"I can't believe they actually followed her."
He turned his head to look at me. "In hindsight, I can only assume it was Morelli's idea."
"What?" I practically shrieked. "That son of a bitch! I'm gonna kill him!"
"Only if you get to him first!"
I made a face at him.
"So to keep them from moving in on you, I made a deal with the Devil," Ranger said.
Another deal? Immediately suspicious, I narrowed my eyes at him. "And the deal was what, exactly?"
"That I would provide your security in Miami with no interference from federal, state, or local cops, and in return, I would guarantee them your full cooperation when the threat had been neutralized."
"And if they didn't agree?"
"I told them that you would disappear so completely it would look like you really were dead."
"And exactly how would you have accomplished that?"
Ranger gave me the look of someone sitting in the catbird seat. "I have family in Cuba, contacts all over South America, can call in favors in the Middle East and Asia, friends in Europe, a couple of grateful warlords in Africa. You'd have loved globe-trotting."
"Wow! And they bought it?"
"They really had no choice. And for the most part, everything went smoothly."
"With the exception of me having terminal cabin fever for almost ten weeks!"
"Still better than Federal lock up."
"I guess," I said with a massive, self-pitying sigh.
"Anyway, two days ago, the Feds called me to Washington to discuss an immediate threat to your safety. I got there, and they kept me cooling my heels for almost twelve hours. Yesterday, I threatened to leave and sever ties with all the alphabet agencies. By way of explanation, they handed me that newspaper," he tipped his head toward the Trenton Times that he'd brought to the table, "and gave me a condensed version of what went on. I came straight here, hoping I'd make it before you saw the headlines."
"I don't get it," I said. "Why'd they want you in D.C.?"
"I don't think they wanted me in D.C. as much as they didn't want me in Trenton. Not when all this went down," Ranger said, looking none too happy about it.
"Why not?" None of this was making any sense to me at all.
"I'm guessing they thought I'd interfere."
"Interfere? How?" I asked
"They were probably afraid I'd kill Morelli and blow their whole case."
I tried to swallow and almost choked. "You wouldn't have done anything like that!" I gaped at him. "Would you?"
He thought about it for a minute. "Maybe not kill him," he said without looking at me. "But close."
"But you won't do that either, will you?"
He slowly raised his eyes to meet mine. "Are you asking me not to?"
I took a deep breath. "I guess I am," I nodded. "'Cause you know why, Batman?" He cocked an eyebrow at me. "Wonder Woman doesn't want her hero to settle the score for her. She needs to handle that herself."
"And I take it you're Wonder Woman?"
"Well, yeah! Unless you wanna wear the high-heeled boots and red bustier."
That earned me a full-out laugh from Ranger, and we both relaxed a little.
Ranger looked at his watch. "I only have about ten minutes before my meeting." He pushed back from the table and stood. "Instead of going straight home, how would you like go down to Key West and spend a few days playing tourist?" he asked, out of the blue.
"I'd love it, but don't I have to go to meet with the Feds right away?" I curled my lip. I hated playing nice with them.
"Considering the run-around they gave me, I'm not inclined to go out of my way to do anything to help them." He pulled me up out of my chair. "I think they should cool their own heels for a while."
"But won't that get you into trouble? You guaranteed them my full cooperation."
"True, but I never said when," he pulled me into his arms and pressed his lips against my forehead. "We are more important than they are, and we need to get away together."
I closed my eyes and lay my head on his shoulder. "Sounds like heaven!" Sandy beaches, ocean breezes, waving palm trees, and fruity drinks with little paper umbrellas danced in my head.
"We'll leave as soon as I finish up here." He framed my face with his hands and kissed me long and slow and gentle. "We have a lot of lost time to make up for."
He scooped me up in his arms and carried me back into the bedroom. "Were you planning on starting now?" I laughed.
"Sorry, Babe, but if we're going to Key West, I've got a lot of work to get done first."
"And I have to start packing up my stuff to go back home," I said, yawning hugely.
"Just grab whatever you want to take to Key West with you. Olivia will pack up everything else and have it sent to Trenton. I think you should go back to bed. You're already half asleep."
Last thing I remembered was Ranger tucking me into bed and kissing me gently on the lips.
"Still think I'm a jerk?" he whispered.
"Oh yeah," I mumbled back. "But you're my jerk."
I heard him chuckle as he closed the bedroom door.
Key West was glorious. Our little get-away turned into a week-long vacation. Ranger rented us a little house right on the beach, complete with a hammock on the porch.
By day, we swam with dolphins and snorkeled, went sailing on impossibly blue water, and watched fantastic sunsets. We played tourist, shopping and eating our way through the town, and then dozed in that hammock.
At night we explored famous Duval Street, stopping at the Green Parrot and Sloppy Joe's, listening to music, dancing on the sand, having candlelit dinners, and making love under the stars.
It was carefree and romantic and relaxing, and by the time we left, we were ready to take on whatever real life had to throw at us … together.
Until we stepped off the plane in New Jersey.
A/N: I know, I know. It's been a loooong time since I updated. Blame it on writer's block, loss of mojo, real life, stress … It was a combination of a lot of things, but one day, I just didn't hear Stephanie in my head anymore. I didn't know where she went or how to get her back. I tried to write every single day, but the harder I tried, the less successful, and more frustrated, I got. I wrote and rewrote this chapter no less than 12 times, and none of it was right. Then one day, I heard this voice, "I'm ba-a-a-ack!" And there she was. It still wasn't easy … just ask Miranda The Magnificent, my editor. But here it is.
This was supposed to be the last chapter, but it wound up so long, from tying up all those loose ends, that this became the next-to-the-last chapter. So one more to come.
Please let me know how I've done. I'm as nervous about posting this chapter as I was about the very first chapter, of the very first story I ever wrote.
To everyone who asked me to finish Love, who sent love and support, who threatened to kick my butt or to hunt me down … thank you for sticking with me and Love. I appreciate your care and concern.