Disclaimer: Had lots of fun, but no remuneration … such is life … and remember Ladies, Merry Men are ALL worthy of TLC!!!
A/N: Since this is the last chapter, I must do the all important Academy Awards Acceptance speech (and yes, I know they get longer with each story – but this wouldn't have happened without them).
I'd like to thank Adalind, Bluzkat, Harmne, Kate Manoso, Spudmom, Magdalync, Robin, Windswept Farms for your continued support of MM stories. You ladies have made it possible for me to believe in myself and the power of storytelling. You helped me understand that a good story, an unpredictable story is worth sharing as well as worth writing.
To Rangerhunters, you have been an incredible support through my endeavor … I count you among the converts (Manny will be stopping by later to make sure you stay converted) … you prove it can be done!
To Katbaby who asked all of the questions in the beginning … babe, you made me know this was possible and you made me think of all the eventualities and made me push my boundaries – thanks, now go play with Sundance!
To Tuck and Liz, thanks for letting Manny play on your board and letting Manny get the extra exposure he deserved. He sends love, kisses, and offers to put suntan oil on either of you whenever and wherever you desire!
To Tiinabelle, plot bunny extraordinaire, Baby, it just wouldn't have been Manny without you. He would have been pale, pasty, and never would have told me what was in the man cave. Let's do it again soon. You've inspired my favorite words for which I owe you a debt of gratitude! I can't wait until we get Daniel all of the way off the ground.
To all who have read and reviewed, thank you for being willing to not only read but accept an alternate pairing. Manny will be nearly naked and serving drinks by the bar for happy hour.
Expect the Unexpected 28 – Final Chapter
"Get dressed," I said. I pulled a mismatched pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt, a thick pair of socks, and a t-shirt for her to wear. I tossed them on the bed so she wouldn't try to have her way with me. I'd just gotten up and dressed to reduce my own temptation. We really needed to talk. It was now or never.
"I'm comfy here, I'd rather be naked." She patted the bed to encourage me. "There's lots of room and I don't bite." Yes she does, but only on request.
It was a tempting offer, but it would have led to sex and no talking and no resolution. We were great at sex but needed to work on communication, at least I did.
She finally conceded and put on the clothes. She wouldn't let me leave and she made a production out of it. It was kind of like watching a reverse strip tease. Who knew watching someone 'put it all on' could be so enticing? My libido decided that it was time to wake up, my willpower was more than stretched.
We had cold cereal, coffee and toast for breakfast. It wasn't what she wanted, she wanted doughnuts. The pastry shop is nowhere near my place.
"We need to have total disclosure," I said, glancing at her over my coffee cup, "about everything." I knew it was what she really wanted and I was finally willing to do it, just for her and just this once.
"Yes. And I need to be the one to start." I told her about my marriage to Rita, my son, my heartache and pain. I explained that I had been trying to punish a dead woman for destroying my life and my world; it was why I didn't do relationships of any kind. I'd been numb to that pain for so many years that now that I allowed myself to have a semi-relationship, I was more than a bit of an asshole at times and very territorial.
"No, you aren't an asshole. Flawed maybe, but we all are," she said taking my hand. "Even when you think you need to stake your claim in public, you really are a good guy."
"I'm glad you think so. You don't hear my inner dialog," I said with a pained smile. I didn't listen to most of it either, but when I did it was replete with self castigation. "Your turn."
She told me about fitting into everyone else's expectations; that was reason she married Mr. Wrong the first time. She also told me that she had a hard time breaking her patterns which was why she had been back and forth with Joe Morelli for so long and why she let Ranger play with her emotions.
"Don't you think you deserve better than that?" I asked. I wanted to say 'this time' but couldn't get the words out; they died in my throat.
"I do, but habits are hard to break."
"The trick with that," I said leaving the table to get the coffee pot from the kitchen, "is to replace it with a new habit."
I refilled both mugs; she added the flavored creamer to both until they were right.
"I wanted to tell you that I kicked my drug of choice during this job," I said quietly. "Thank you."
"What are you talking about? Ranger does periodic drug testing on everybody, even the contractor employees."
"Not that kind of drug. My drug of choice was the pursuit and seduction of women who had no meaning in my life. They were a series of interchangeable, living, breathing Barbie dolls. I was punishing Rita and I didn't feel quite so alone for a few minutes. Just so you know, you were never a Barbie to me," I said. She looked worried so I continued, "You were so much more than that, so much better."
"Glad to know I was of help," she said looking incredibly uncomfortable. "You didn't have any slip ups, did you?"
"No. Well, almost. The night when you saw me with Lucy was almost a relapse. It would have been under other circumstances. Not even a temptation since."
"Okay." My mother would have been proud, she got at least four syllables out of the word okay.
"I want, no I need you to know that she came to me, she flirted with me, she kissed me."
"You don't like aggressive women?"
"Not when I'm already with someone and I was definitely with someone." I shrugged. At least the emotion about the incident appeared to be gone. "I wouldn't have let anything go any further. You just appeared at the best possible instance for me to blow my credibility with you. I'm sorry it happened and I'm sorry you saw it."
"Me, too. It made me feel like there are no men who are faithful; it hurt to think that especially about you. I mean, I knew things with you were about to end; it had been a great fantasy. There was so much about it that was good, you know?"
I nodded. "Do you want anything else to eat or more coffee?"
"I'm good. Nothing else for me. Can we walk for a while? Never mind, I don't have decent walking shoes."
"Sure you do," I said. "Be right back."
I retrieved a pair of her tatty old sneakers from underneath my bed. She hadn't worn them when she stayed here, but had stored them in an effort for things to look real. When she packed up, they were left behind.
"I forgot about those. Thanks."
After she put them on, she took my hand and followed me out the door to my truck.
"I thought we were going to walk."
"We will, but I want to go somewhere quiet."
The truck drove itself to the same park where I gave her some naughty Spanish a lifetime ago. It was as good a spot as any and the place was empty, even better.
"So," I said, "have you dated anyone lately?" I tried to be casual in my manner and tone, but wasn't, not at all.
"No. I mean, I've been looking, but only sort of. Have you?" She attempted to be nonchalant, too. Neither of us could carry it off.
"No. Because I'm like you, I don't cheat because I know how much it hurts to be cheated on. I especially don't cheat when I'm married." I said the 'm' word quietly. I know she heard it because her breathing changed immediately.
"We were never married. Binky told dirty jokes when he was standing at the altar, he didn't say anything about 'dearly beloved'. He was just a model for the pictures," she said.
"Actually he's ordained through an internet place and has been for years. Now, do you remember the day when you had to sign the marriage license in front of Ranger, Binky, Zero and me?"
"Yeah. You said that Hank needed to send it in for my passport; that I'd been turned down because they couldn't …" Her eyes widened and then she said, "It was real, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. We knew John Russo was going to investigate when he asked for the details of your divorce. The documentation had to stand up to his team's scrutiny. The license was filed electronically."
"But it was backdated, to February 25th. Hey, what's so important about that date anyway?"
I stopped walking and took her hand. "It's Miguel's birthday. It was the best day of my life, probably always will be." I tried to smile, but it was more of a grimace.
"You still miss him, don't you?" She was searching my eyes; if she was looking for pain, she found it.
"Yeah. He's my big dark secret. He's what I've kept hidden away in that room. I have all of his toys, books, and games in there, plus all the photos and scrapbooks."
She took my hand, squeezed it and asked, "What do you miss the most?"
"Tucking him in, listening to his prayers, and kissing him good night."
"Is that why-"
"Yes, that's why it was such a big deal to me to teach you the Our Father in Spanish. I never got a chance to teach him how. Thanks for learning it for me." I'd taught her one phrase at a time when we'd sit in church before we reviewed notes and details of the job. It had taken me weeks to teach her because I'd never given her a motivation other than it would get her to blend in with the rest of the congregation; she had no interest in keeping up with any of them.
"No, I meant about you kissing the medallion every night. I assume it reminds you of him."
I nodded. "Yeah, it's San Miguel, I bought it the day he died; it's the only way I can still kiss him goodnight. It is the only outward sign I show anyone that he was important to me."
"Is important. He still is important to you." She was right, he always will be important to me. The pain had dulled to an ache, but it would be with me for the rest of my life. She gently kissed me and then backed away.
"Anyway, back to your original question," I said. I needed to get off of the topic of Miguel before I made a fool of myself; he's the wound that will never completely heal. "If you know the right people, you can make almost anything happen. In this case, enough favors were called in that it was no problem to obtain a license, back date it, and have it recorded."
"Oh God. We're married."
"Not anymore but we were under the watchful eyes of the law. The digital record was removed yesterday."
"And you never told me?" She sounded indignant and was probably justified.
"No. We all agreed it was better not to." Neither Ranger or I wanted to take a chance on having her change in any way during the job. We took the coward's way out by saying nothing to her and swearing the others to silence.
"What did you think I was going to do, turn into a shrew or something?" She wasn't building up steam, good, but she wasn't happy either.
"None of us was certain, so we decided not to say anything."
"Anything else you didn't tell me?" She arched her brow.
"Let's find a bench and sit."
"Oh God, there's more. Isn't there?"
"Pretty much, yeah. But don't panic, it hasn't been filed."
She didn't say anything to me, she kept mumbling the words, "Filed? What hasn't been filed? It isn't tax time and I filed my taxes this year. Didn't I?"
We found an old wooden bench under a tree and sat. "Steph, do you remember my birthday?"
"Of course. Well up until the dinner part, then things get fuzzy. It was a nice birthday party, what I remember of it."
I worried my lip as I put my hand in the backpack I'd brought with me. I withdrew a file folder and handed several sheets of paper to her.
"Your annulment from Dickie Orr. In the eyes of the Church, you were never married to him."
"That was nice but I already knew about that," she said. Her smile faded before she continued. "That's not all that's in the folder is it?"
"No. Do you remember the envelopes we each got from John when we left?"
"I opened mine, it had money in it." She banged her fist against her forehead several times and said, "I forgot to give the money to the feds."
"I took care of it for you. Do you know what was in mine?"
"More money?" she asked with hope in her voice.
I handed her several letters and official forms.
"I can't read them; most of them are in Spanish and I'm afraid of the ones in English," she said.
"I took them to a translation service to make sure I wasn't wrong about what I thought they said."
"Just tell me."
"Like I said, they haven't been filed. This one is letter from Father Doyle of Saint Timothy's here."
"That one is in English."
"He also had one written in Spanish. The letter gives us permission to get married in the church." I took her hand and squeezed it. "Breathe, Steph."
"I'm breathing. What's the next one?"
"It's a checklist saying we are free to marry and we've done all the church classes, etc."
"I didn't sign it."
"Neither did I. We didn't need to sign. It's something John and Maris signed, they also had two of their kids sign it. It had to be notarized by witnesses to our compatibility, etc."
"Great. Don't tell me there's more?"
"It's a testimonial from my parish priest pretty much saying we're members in good standing and that if we had been home, we could have gotten married there."
"Put your head between your knees for a few minutes. It'll all be fine."
"No, it's okay. The last one. What's the last one?"
"It's a certificate saying that while we weren't civilly married in Mexico, our union was blessed and witnessed by-"
"Don't say it. I don't want to know."
"Like I said, nothing's been filed so we aren't officially married in the eyes of the church. If you ever wanted to file, it's your choice; we would be married in the eyes of God just not in the eyes of the law. I'm going to give the papers to you unless you want me to shred them."
"Don't shred them, but I don't know if I want them right now."
"Evidently that's what happened at my birthday party. Now we both know." I folded the documents and replaced them in the file.
"We need to go back to that really bad day, our last day, for a minute," I said as I took her hands in mine. "I had actually made a decision. I wanted to talk to you about exclusivity when we came home, about starting something here, together."
"But you didn't."
"No. I didn't find the right time and then later when it might have been, you never gave me a chance to say a word. You shut me out. Remember when we were in the suite with Ranger and you crawled on top of me to sleep?"
She closed her eyes and nodded. "That was stupid of me, but I needed to touch you to sleep."
"I was glad you did it; I missed you. I still miss you." Every day and every night.
"I miss you, too," she said laying her head on my shoulder.
"Hey, tell me something."
She made a motion with her hand indicating that I needed to complete that thought.
"Are you upset we had a physical relationship?" I had to ask because I needed to hear the answer. She'd admitted it was more than sex for her, both of us really, but I didn't know if how it began was a sticking point that would need to be overcome.
"Does it bother you how it started?"
"No," she said, turning to face me. "I was more upset about the fact that it took you three weeks to find me in your bed."
"You sneaky thing. Why didn't you tell me or made sure I found you?" I smiled despite myself.
"Because good girls don't initiate sex. Because I didn't think you would seriously want me. Because if you found me, it was on you to make the decision to change things or not. It took the burden off of me."
"I knew you were a good girl with bad girl tendencies." I remembered the first time I'd said that out loud, she looked horrified that someone might have her all the way figured out.
"Speaking of, somehow my silk scarves didn't come home with me; I know because they were part of my carryon luggage. Know anything about that?"
I didn't say anything, just gave her a small smile and titled my head. I'd taken possession of them before we left from Mexico City; they were my own souvenir. I really didn't think she'd notice they were gone.
"I thought so. You liked it when I tied you to the bed and had my way with your body," she said.
I didn't answer her, no way I'd cop to it in daylight. I prefer to be the one in control, but she took charge more than once and it was good. There was definitely no way I'd admit I liked being blindfolded; that had been my specialty and now it was hers.
"You look like you're getting chilled. We should head back," I said, draping my arm over her shoulders. "If I had a jacket I'd offer it to you. Sorry."
The air was mostly cleared between us by the time we got home. It wasn't a cold silence this time, it felt companionable. There were still a few things hanging in the air, but not many and that was a relief.
I opened her door and helped her down from the cab.
"You still look cold. Do you want coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?" I asked her.
"Hot chocolate, I think," she said. "Do you mind if I take a quick shower to get warm?"
"You know where everything is." I hadn't moved much since she'd been gone; it was my own way of preserving her time with me.
I pulled down the old coffee mugs, turned on the electric kettle, and got out a couple of envelopes of cocoa. She'd insisted on having it around and this was the first time it was going to be used. Long after the cups were ready, she got out of the shower but never came back into the kitchen.
"Stephanie, are you all right?" I called from the kitchen. I didn't want to invade her privacy at this point. We weren't strangers by a long shot, but we weren't intimate anymore either and I didn't want to overstep things.
"In the bedroom. Still trying to get warm."
I carried the mugs and a bag of mini-marshmallows with me. She was under the covers wearing the new night shirt.
"Sit by me?" she asked holding her hands out for the hot chocolate so I could get on the bed more easily.
I toed off my shoes, but left the rest of my clothes on. I wasn't about to make any presumptions about what would or wouldn't be said at this point.
"So, now it's your turn," I said taking my mug from her hand. I still prefer Earl Grey, but once in a while a little variety is good. "Talk to me."
"Of all the guys Ranger has on his staff, you always struck me as normal and stable," she said slowly. "I mean, you don't fly off the handle or use aggression to settle things when they aren't going well."
I dipped my head to let her know I'd heard her.
"Even though I didn't know you, I always liked you. You're approachable and real. You work out to keep your skills up; you're not like Lester who does it to impress women."
What little she knew; I worked at keeping just enough smaller than the guys that I seemed normal and approachable by comparison. That wasn't a confession I needed to make, it was her own perception. After all, perception is reality to the perceiver.
"… I always trusted you whenever we worked together. Anyway, I wouldn't have done this job with anybody else. I thought you should know that." She put her mug on the nightstand nearest her. "It just looks wrong not to have a romance novel sitting here to use as a coaster."
"I read a couple of the books you left behind. Those things are just awful. The heroine is always the same, so is the leading man. Read one, you've read them all."
"No worse than the stuff you read. Secret spy stuff where the guy gets into an impossible situation and you know when the day is done he'll survive."
"Cause you like to read things by the same author who writes series stuff. The good guy never dies in those."
"Are we friends again?" she asked sliding down the pillows until she was almost lying down.
"We weren't ever not friends, Steph."
"Can I tell you something?"
I nodded my head once. She still hadn't revealed much to me I didn't already know.
"I was in love with you even though I knew you didn't feel that way about me. Knowing that made me sad, but I could deal with it. The blonde really made me angry. Anger is easier than most other emotions for me. You told me emotions were off limits and I'd lost my distance in the beginning."
I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "But I did. I do. I do love you. I felt the same way for a long time." I pillowed my forehead against hers and closed my eyes. I haven't said those words in English in over a decade and the last time I wasn't sure if I meant them; this time, I did.
"I don't know exactly. Maybe it was when I quit resisting all the space you took up in the closet and medicine cabinet. Could have been when I quit arguing with you about wearing my shirts despite all the clothes on your own side of the closet." It was long before that, but I wasn't going to admit it.
The night Zero made the recording of us was when I realized I was approaching the deep end, I'd been territorial, jealous and besotted all at once. I'd closed my eyes to all the indicators and had prayed she hadn't recognized them.
"I didn't take up that much room, did I?"
"Check for yourself." I opened my eyes and kissed her nose. "I left the closet the way it was the day you moved out."
"Oh. Never mind."
"You kept creeping up on me. It was all very insidious."
"Like when I realized it no longer bothered me that you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle and not the end. Or when it no longer got to me that my clothes all smelled like flowers after you'd done the laundry. Like I said, it crept up on me."
"Do you know when it started to be more than just friends for me?"
I shook my head. Until now I'd had hopes but not direct confirmation and nothing specific to use as a date stamp of sorts.
"It was when you wouldn't let me go home that first night, you took away my keys. You were the only man who was honest about what he expected from me in a relationship. After things changed and we became intimate, you brought Zero to help me train – that meant a lot. You wanted me safe and you didn't want to hurt me. And it got deeper but that crept up on me, too."
"Anything else we need to talk about before I take you home?"
"There's nothing else to talk about, Manny, and I think I am home." Her words were uncertain, as though she thought the offer was now off the table. It wasn't.
"In that case, Nieves, would you breathe with me for just a little while?"
"I'd like that, but there is one more thing."
"Whatever you need. Whatever you want." I couldn't be offering anything, could I?
"I want you to tell me some of the things you would say in Spanish when we were in the throes of – you know."
I smiled. "You think it was pretty dirty, huh?" Some of it had been, but I wasn't going to elaborate on that with her.
"Please?" she whispered.
I leaned in and stroked her face. "Remember, you wanted to know." I proceeded to whisper the words making certain to kiss her in between. I said things like: mine, magnificent, pure, unique, forever, always, joy, hope, beauty, perfect, and salvation.
"Yeah, in so many ways you saved me from me. You elevated my life emotionally. Thank you," I said. "You let me remember that I could love someone body and soul and I did."
"Wow. You're right, I probably would have argued with you."
"Now I don't want to hear any more. I'd rather have you show me. Cariño, will you breathe with me?"
"I love nonverbal communication." Then she proceeded to show me just how much.
This felt good and it felt right. Between us we had peace and truth at last.
"Manny, are you awake?" She rolled onto her back and put some distance between us.
"I am now."
"Never mind," she said in a hesitant voice. She rolled back to her side and put even more distance between us.
"It's okay. What's going on?" I put my arm around her waist and dragged her back toward me.
"I want to ask you something."
"Shoot." I kissed the back of her neck. Now wasn't a time I really wanted to talk, but if she did, I would.
"Remember the paperwork you showed me today? If it was strictly up to you, what would you have done with it when you found it?"
"Filed it with the church," I said. It was probably the wrong answer, but it was the truth. I would have done my best to keep the electronic record of the marriage from being expunged, too.
"Yes, really. What about you?"
I was disappointed in the answer, but not surprised by it. My feelings had obviously been stronger than hers, I mean there are all kinds of love. Well, I'd just have to live with it.
"Now?" I asked.
"File the paperwork, Manny. Soon."
"That's kind of unexpected coming from you."
"It is, but I've changed. I'm not afraid of forever with one person anymore, as long as it's you. Hey, I'm hungry again. What about you?" she asked.
"I could eat."
"What've you got that's easy? Got any sausage?" she asked with a wink and a smile.
"You are so bad."
"You love me anyway."
"You're right, Nieves. I do. Te amo. Te lo juro." (I'm in love with you. I swear it.)
Several months later …
"Pay up, guys," I said to the small group at the Side Pocket Palace. Yes, I still meet the guys at the pool hall on a semi-regular basis to blow off steam. Nothing there has changed: not the price of the beer, the uniforms of the servers, or the bets the guys make. I still run the book, just not as often. There seems to be less to bet on these days.
"It can't be true, that wasn't how things were supposed to end," Tank said. "By my calculations it should have been next month right after Easter. I was going to be a rich man. I had plans for that money. Big plans."
"Tank, you remember rule number one when it comes to women: whenever you think you actually understand a woman, you're automatically wrong. Haven't I taught you anything?" I never have and never will understand women; there is only one I understand and I don't think I'll ever have her figured out completely.
He shrugged as he opened his wallet and counted out some bills.
"It's only a C note, right?" he asked. "I can swing that easy."
I pulled a card out of my wallet to verify the results of the pool. He was in for two-hundred, not for one. He had the least amount of money on the table. Lester was in for the most, not as much as some pools, but more than anyone else.
I shook my head and pointed to a figure that he'd not only written but initialed. I do that whenever Lester is involved, it cuts down on the hassle. I still believe in keeping things clean and easy. Besides, I'm not one for arguments and back peddling, from anyone.
Eventually after much belly aching, all five of the guys paid out, except for Lester. Don't get me wrong, I still don't trust him. I never have and probably never will. I was going to have to help him cash advance his credit cards to pay down his debt, again. At least he learned his lesson and didn't owe me more than a grand this time around.
Zero said, "I still say you're whipped."
"Maybe, but it's all been worth it," I said with a smile.
"I can't believe you're gonna do it, man."
"Yeah, I know, either can I. I'll survive and that's all that matters."
I had been called on the carpet by Frank Plum for not making an honest woman of his daughter. As a result, I'd been subjected to weekly family dinners as penance. Initially my backside was bruised by Stephanie's grandmother on a regular basis. Now I keep a can of SKOAL chewing tobacco in one of my back pockets and my wallet in the other; it gives Edna less to pinch.
After a long negotiation with Frank, and later with Stephanie, I reduced my sentence to monthly dinners with the family and they were held at our home. The electronic record of our marriage was re-filed at the state using the original date and the paperwork from the marriage blessing had been filed at our parish. There was only one thing left to do, a honeymoon and a real one this time.
"So you're actually going to do this?"
I nodded. Tickets were purchased, itinerary set, bags packed and in the pack of Zero's rig for the trip to the airport.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" Zero asked.
"Nah, but it's important to her and sometimes compromise is important. If you ever want a tour guide into how to survive marriage, let me know." I still don't use the 'w' word or the 'm' word if I can avoid it.
"I think I'd rather play house, more variety that way. Besides, Annie looks cute in the French maid's uniform. Want to see?" He reached into his back pocket to produce another flash drive.
"I'd be skinned alive and I kind of like my skin."
Stephanie appeared at my side. "Cariño, are you guys ready to go?"
"Nope, but we're going to do it anyway," I said. We'd be alone together for two weeks, Italy this time. She still thinks she wants to go to Texas and Chihuahua. She's never given up on the idea of Copper Canyon. I'm building my courage to face my entire family. It's been almost a decade since I've seen most of them. For now, I wanted to keep her to myself.
"It won't be that bad," she said.
I rolled my eyes at the thought of the plane flight; at least I'd have a soft pillow.
When I was in my twenties, I thought I knew what to expect from my life. I'd found happiness and contentment. In my thirties, I was convinced I'd never have true happiness or joy again; so I never planned for it or expected it. Now that I'm older, I realize that the unexpected things, the unplanned, are sometimes best.
I have taken a vow to no longer think I've got it all planned out. Now I've built in room to expect the unexpected.
A/N: Mondays won't be the same without Manny … and I'll miss him more than you know. In my wildest dreams, I never would have guessed he'd have such a fantastic response. Thank you all for reading and reviewing!!! Kisses all around! Alf.