I know it's been a really long time between updates. Apologies but life really had me by the (metaphorical) balls.
With thanks to Alfonsina, Dee, JannyB and Magdalync for keeping me honest. Special thanks to Magdalync who mercilessly cracked that editorial whip in this chapter, asking the hard questions and brooking no excuses.
I'm grateful to everyone who has left a review or sent a PM - you have no idea how encouraging and uplifting it is to hear from people who have read the story. Your feedback is all the recompense needed by the writers on FF and I thank you for every single review. I have tried to respond personally to all of them - if I have not, please forgive. It was an inadvertent omission (or you have messages turned off; a few people do).
Disclaimer: Any characters you recognise from the books of Janet Evanovich aren't mine and I use them without permission. I make no profit from their use.
The storyline is mine, as are the characters that you don't recognise, including Hank, Paco, Alicia, Andy, and any incidental characters which appear through the story.
The Usual Mayhem
Chapter 24: Another door opens
The sound of a phone woke me before 7 am. As the ringing penetrated my sleep fog, I realized it was the apartment phone, not my cell. It kept ringing and I wondered why Ranger wasn't answering until I remembered he wasn't in the apartment. He'd left at dawn the previous morning, leaving me with the taste of his kiss on my mouth and a promise that he'd be gone no more than six days. He hadn't given me any details about the nature of his 'personal business' and I tried not to think about it, not much liking the images of leggy blonds that my imagination conjured.
The phone was persistent. I debated whether to answer; I couldn't think of anyone who would call me on Ranger's internal phone. Maybe it was the Justice League paging Batman to save the world, although they'd probably call on a secure bat-phone hidden behind a secret panel.
I groaned and sat up on the couch. The blanket I'd snuggled under was on the floor, the TV screen was dark except for the DVD logo floating around it, and I was covered in brownie crumbs. They were all that was left of Ella's fudge brownies which, accompanied by a tub of Ben and Jerry's and a bowl of strawberries on the side, had constituted dinner. I figured the combination had covered most of the important food groups. The sugar overload and an Indiana Jones movie marathon had lulled me to sleep.
I answered the phone, just to make it stop ringing, and heard an apologetic Brett calling from the control room. "Stephanie? Sorry to call so early. You've got some visitors downstairs asking to see you."
"Who is it?" I mumbled with my eyes half closed.
"Um...Mrs. Plum and Mrs. Mazur."
My eyes opened wide. "They're downstairs? The two of them are downstairs? Now? Why?"
"Mrs. Plum is demanding to know why you moved in with...um...why you're staying on seven, and Mrs. Mazur wants to check out the locker rooms."
I was speechless.
"Steph? The guy on the reception desk wants to know whether to let them up. Do you want to see them?"
No, of course I didn't want to see them. "Okay, I guess so. But stall them for a few minutes if you can."
I hung up and stood frozen for a moment, trying to come to grips with the idea of my mother and grandmother in Ranger's space. Oh, my God.
I picked up my cell phone from the breakfast bar and turned it on to scroll through my missed calls; there were eight from my mother since the previous afternoon. Mary Lou had called to warn me as soon as the 'burg rumor mill started spinning. Knowing a call from my mother was imminent, I'd turned off the phone. I couldn't face that conversation until after Johnnie Walker and a bout of ironing had mellowed her hysteria. That's why she was here at the crack of dawn; she wasn't taking any chances of me evading her tongue-lashing.
I hauled ass into Ranger's bedroom to put on some clothes, washed my face and pulled my hair into a ponytail. Closing the bedroom door tight behind me, I raced through the living room to pick up my mess, brushed the crumbs off the couch and fluffed the cushions. With a deep breath, I opened the door. My mom was just stepping out of the elevator with Lester following, my grandmother's arm through his as he firmly held her other hand against his arm; he didn't want to risk her hands wandering to other parts of his anatomy.
Lester must have used his charm to stall them and the charm switch was still engaged. He unravelled Grandma's arm from his and steered her gently in front of him. "Ladies, it was my pleasure. Let me know when you're ready to go and I'll show you the way to your car in the garage." He winked at me as the elevator closed on his smiling face.
Mom turned to look at me wide-eyed. "I didn't park in the garage. How did my car get in the garage?"
I shook my head. "Don't ask."
I stepped aside and gestured them into the apartment, showing them into the living room. Mom settled on the edge of the couch, trying to check out the room without being obvious. Grandma didn't bother disguising her curiosity and wandered around, poking her nose into everything. Thank God I'd shut the bedroom door. Just the thought of Grandma seeing the photos on display in there gave me palpitations.
I brought in mugs of coffee and sat in the armchair, prepared to be grilled. Grandma winked and nodded at me, offering solidarity. Mom clasped her hands tightly in her lap. She cleared her throat, fixed her eyes on me and started.
"Eddie told me you had to move out of your apartment for your own safety because you're being stalked by another crazy person. Then you moved in with this Ranger. And then – what a surprise! – you and Joe broke up again. You don't bother to tell your family any of this and you won't answer your phone. It's all over the neighborhood; we had to hear it from every gossip who has our phone number. You didn't think we had a right to know? You didn't think we'd be worried, hearing it all second-hand?"
I slumped into the armchair. "I'm sorry, Mom."
"I don't want to hear I'm sorry. I want to hear what's happening in your life. I want to hear why you're doing all this." She didn't yell; she was calm, reasonable, unflustered. With her hands neatly folded in her lap, she waited for me to respond.
Complaints and recriminations I knew how to handle; Mom listening attentively for my response was totally outside my experience. Okay, then. I did some mental knuckle-cracking, took a big breath and gave her the Cliffs Notes version of the last three days, judiciously censoring the incriminating parts relating to Ranger.
When I finished, Grandma put down her coffee and reached across to pat my knee. "I always knew you had spunk. It's not every woman has the gumption to walk away from the best buns in Trenton. Ain't she a pip, Ellen?"
My mother was contemplating her lap. Grandma wasn't satisfied. "Aren't you going to say anything? Ellen, tell your daughter that her mother is right behind her."
Mom looked up at me. "Stephie, have you thought about what you're doing?"
Mom's use of my old, affectionate, childhood diminutive threw me for a moment and Grandma cut in before I could reply.
"Of course she's sure! She gave him back the ring and everything!" Grandma shot me a look and shook her head disapprovingly. "That wasn't such a great idea, if you ask me; everyone knows you get to keep the ring."
"Would you let me talk? Is it too much to ask that you let me talk to my daughter?" Mom snapped at Grandma and turned to me again.
Mom paused to gather herself and then asked calmly, even gently, "I just wondered whether you made the decision in the heat of the moment or whether you've thought it through. You can be a little impulsive. Stephie, why did the two of you break off the engagement?"
I scrutinised her carefully, in case this was a trick question, but she seemed genuinely interested to hear. Maybe this time she'd get it. "It's been a long time coming, Mom. Joe is just the wrong man for me, and I'm the wrong woman for him. We disagree about all the important things so then we break up and get back together out of habit but we can't seem to find a way through to where both of us can be happy. We finally realized it's never going to change and stopped deluding ourselves it would work out. I can't make him happy without making me unhappy."
"You don't love him?"
I rubbed my knuckles over my breastbone to ease the ache in my chest as I replayed the memory of Morelli disappearing through the door to his house. The door had snicked shut behind him, closing off forever one chapter of my life.
"Not like that. Not enough to give up what I need. I can't change who I am, Mom, and he can't become a different kind of man for me either."
I steeled myself for a tirade but Mom just nodded. "Okay. If you know in your heart that being married to Joseph would make you unhappy, then you're doing the right thing."
Say, what? I shook my head, certain I'd misheard. "You're not mad? You're not disappointed?"
She gave me a one-shouldered shrug. "I know I pushed you too hard about Joseph. I got carried away." That was a big admission for my mom and I saw her flush a little with embarrassment. "It worries me so much, watching you scramble to make ends meet and putting yourself in danger. I want life to be better for you. I hoped if you settled down with Joseph, you'd be happier. Wishful thinking. It's not exactly a surprise that you want to live life on your own terms. You always did, even when you were a little girl. It made me crazy, you were always trying all kinds of things, always doing things different to everyone else. I never knew what kind of trouble you'd get into next. I still worry about those things. I don't want you hurt."
I stared open-mouthed at my mother. She gave me a small, nervous smile. "Did you know I wanted to be a chef when I was a kid?" I shook my head slightly, disconcerted by the sudden change in topic, and she continued. "My dream was to open a French restaurant in New York City. I wanted to earn a Michelin star."
Grandma was astonished. "You never told me! You always said you wanted to be a nurse."
"That was after Mrs. Salvatore gave me a D in Home Economics. She told me fine cuisine was an art, and I didn't have an artistic bone in my body."
Grandma snorted. "Sour grapes. My chicken paprikash beat her cock-a-vein [Coq-au-vin, but Grandma can't speak French] in the Knights of Columbus cook-off that year."
Mom shrugged. "Well, I believed her. After that, I was scared I'd make a fool of myself so I backed off. Then I met Frank and we fell in love and I settled down in the 'burg, just like everybody else. I stayed home and looked after my family. I haven't been unhappy."
Grandma leaned closer to Mom and patted her knee. "Is that why you're taking all those French cooking classes at the community college? I've been wondering."
"I thought maybe a could start a private catering business. Maybe it's a stupid dream but even if it doesn't come to anything, it'll be worth it because I'm having so much fun." Mom looked back at me. "I wish I'd been brave enough earlier to try what I wanted. You are. You live your life so boldly. You don't let other people's opinions hold you back. I worry, but I'm proud of you."
I blinked intently into my mug; the coffee dregs at the bottom were strangely fascinating. I come from a long line of emotionally repressed people whose attitude to talking about feelings was akin to farting in public. Other than the time she ran over a giant rabbit who was gunning for me, Mom's love and support has always been expressed by feeding me. This heart to heart was comparable to a six-course turkey feast with all the trimmings followed by a ten-tiered, giant-sized chocolate sacher torte topped by Bombe Alaska. I had no idea how to respond.
Mom cleared her throat and sounded a little husky when she spoke. "Your father and I want you to be happy. I was wrong to push you to marry Joseph. I know I can't tell you who to love or what to do with your life. "
The conversation was so raw and real we couldn't look directly at each other. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mom blinking rapidly and showing an inordinate interest in the grain of the couch leather. I had an urge to leap over the coffee table to wrap my arms around her waist and bury my face in her lap, the way I did when I was a little girl, but that would have embarrassed both of us.
Grandma broke through the awkwardness. "Well, isn't that something! I knew the Mazur spirit couldn't have jumped a generation."
Galvanized by Grandma's return to form, Mom picked up the coffee mugs and took them into the kitchen. Her habitual polite expression snapped back on and our trip through an alternate dimension was over. Mom put the mugs in the sink and checked out the kitchen, admiring the granite breakfast bar, the gleaming cabinetry, and the state-of-the-art fixtures, all in showroom condition. "It's a beautiful kitchen. Very functional. And it's spotless. Does your...friend cook?"
I didn't doubt Ranger could cook if he wanted to. I'd seen him toast a bagel and make a salad just like a pro. I shrugged. "Ranger works really long hours so his housekeeper usually cooks for him."
Mom sniffed. She was reserving judgment. "Is he already at work at this hour?"
"He's out of town for a few days."
"Hmm," she responded, her eyes turned speculatively towards the closed door at the end of the hall. There was a long pause during which I could practically hear the wheels turning as Mom thought about the sleeping arrangements and the implications of Ranger's absence. "Stephanie, would you call that young man now so he can take us down to the car? I have to drop off your grandmother and do some grocery shopping."
"I want to look around the gym and the locker room first," Grandma insisted. "I want to see how all those big, muscley men keep themselves fit; maybe they can give me some exercise advice."
Right. That's the only reason Grandma wanted to ogle good-looking men stripped down to their gym shorts, so she could pick up fitness tips.
There was an awkward pause at the door before Mom pulled me to her and we hugged. She pecked my cheek before letting me go. Lester escorted them to the elevator and I gave them a finger wave, unable to speak for the lump in my throat.
I had another, quiet, cup of coffee then called down to the control room and asked to be put through to Lester.
"You okay, monada? [beautiful babe] Did it go okay with your mom?"
Totally twilight zone would have been a better description but I kept that to myself. "Yeah, it was fine. Did the guys survive Grandma?"
Lester snorted. "She cleared out the gym. Wanted to check if Bobby's muscles were real; wanted to check him out all over."
I cringed a little. I love my grandma but sometimes she's a little too vaudeville. "Do you and Hank mind if we start digging on Alicia after lunch? I have to go into the bonds office this morning."
"No problem. We'll print out the searches so you can start analyzing them when you get back."
I smiled. It felt good that they acknowledged my peculiar talents. "Thanks, Les. Hey, do me a favor? Run some searches on her dad's soldiers, going back awhile; I think we should dig into possible links from her childhood – you know, family body guards who may still have a soft spot for her from when she was little, that kind of thing."
"That's a great idea. Okay, we'll broaden the parameters."
The hour spent with Mom and Grandma had been emotionally exhausting – in a surprisingly good way, but it had earned me some Boston crèmes. As I wasn't planning on staying out long, Woody and I took one car and we stopped off at the bakery on the way to the bonds office. I breezed in with two dozen donuts, minus four that Woody and I ate on the way in. Woody stayed in the shiny black SUV, parked curbside right out front, and enjoyed the last of his bounty while I went in to face the third degree.
Connie and Lula looked up from where they were hunched over the computer screen and whooped when they saw me. Could be the donuts that inspired the whooping. We worked our way through breakfast while I filled them in whenever I could get a word in edgeways between their questions. Their primary interest was hearing the details of my breakup with Morelli and the inside scoop of what was happening in Ranger's bed. My primary interest was in dodging those same details and getting out intact.
After they had pumped me for all I was willing to give them, Connie finally handed over four skip files and a check.
"Rangeman said to make the whole amount out to you," she said.
I stared down at the check for Bordhern with Lula looking over my shoulder. She whooped again.
"Didn't I say you could take that sucker?" Lula declared. "You should listen to me next time. You should have more confidence, especially when you got me watchin' yo' back. You earned yo'self fifty big ones, girlfriend. That's gonna buy you a shitload of shoes."
My eyes glazed over and the three of us observed a moment of awed silence as we contemplated the possibility of a closet full of new designer heels. Then I remembered I needed to replace everything Alicia had slashed, refurnish and restock my apartment, find another car to replace the Mustang, pay off Macy's, and pay for Ranger's new watch.
I pocketed my check and grabbed the four skip files. "I better get going. I've got some searches to do at Rangeman." I gave them a finger wave and took off to deposit my loot. The visit to the bank was much more satisfying than usual, even though I knew the five-figure balance wouldn't last long.
Woody and I took a detour on the way back to Rangeman to scan for one of the new skips Connie had given me. Gilbert Salieri, who spent his days and all his money on maintaining a whoopy weed daze, had approached an off-duty cop in the 7-11 car park hoping to swap some 'A-grade shit' for the tub of Cherry Garcia the cop had just bought. Bertie was pretty thick with Dougie and Mooner and I figured he would be an easy pick up.
Bertie opened the front door of his shared abode wearing saggy underwear and old sports socks with holes in the toes, and a floppy, white, fisherman's bucket hat. Must have been watching Gilligan's Island reruns. Thin as a reed, with knobby knees and elbows, he blinked at us through dazed, red-rimmed eyes. He had no idea he'd missed his court date and was very apologetic about making us wait for him to pull on some jeans. We didn't bother cuffing him and, all the way to Trenton PD, he kept apologizing for inconveniencing us.
I checked the PD lot for Morelli's police issue rust bucket but I couldn't see it. The station was unusually quiet, just the desk sergeant, an old guy nearing retirement who paid me cursory attention and processed Bertie with speedy efficiency. I took the body receipt and turned to go, and Morelli walked in through the door.
We both froze, uncertain of how to respond. Woody walked on toward the door, nodded politely to Morelli. He looked at me and jerked his head toward the parking lot to indicate he'd wait for me outside.
Morelli recovered first and put his cop face firmly into place. "Hi," he said.
"Hi, Joe," I greeted him cautiously, approaching to within three or so feet of him.
He cleared his throat. "I talked to Father Gabriel this morning and explained the situation."
"Oh. Thanks, Joe. I appreciate it." It surprised me that Morelli had acted so quickly but I was relieved he'd taken that difficult task out of my hands. Making the call would have been a bitter pill for him. "Is there anything I need to do?"
Morelli shook his head. "No. I took care of it."
"Okay, then. Thanks." I nodded. "I was going to make some calls tonight to cancel the invitations for Saturday week. Do you want me to ––?"
Morelli's smile was rueful. "The rumor mill's spinning. I don't think we need to do much."
Connie had told me that his mom and Grandma Bella had been on his doorstep this morning, much the same way my mom and Grandma had arrived to straighten things out with me. I knew this latest incident was already being woven into the colorful tapestry of Chambersburg mythology.
"I've asked Mooch to make some formal calls on my behalf; you could ask Mary Lou to do the same for you," he suggested.
"I'll think about it. What about..." I hesitated for a moment, "...the christening this weekend, and Grandma Bella's—"
Morelli shook his head. "Not your problem. I'll deal with my family, you deal with yours."
"Okay," I nodded, "that makes sense. Thanks. I better get back to work. Take care, Joe."
He stood silent as I stepped past him to the door.
I turned to look at him.
"You don't need to avoid me, okay? I'm going to need some time to..." he shrugged, leaving the rest unsaid, "But there's no need to make it more awkward than it already is. We can be civil, right?"
"Sure. Yeah, we can do that," I agreed, my voice struggling to get past the lump in my throat. I nodded like a bobble-head doll and my eyes started to prickle with tears. I blinked hard. "You're a good man, Joe."
"Yeah, that's me." His smile didn't succeed, twisting bitterly at the end, and he turned away abruptly to return to his office.
The rest of the day I spent at Rangeman with Lester and Hank, buried under an avalanche of background reports on Alicia. As well as our searches, we had phone and banking records, and surveillance reports on her movements since Rangeman had taken on Andy Lopez' security.
"How did we get these?" I asked Lester, looking up from a transcribed phone conversation with her grocer that informed me that Alicia had personally ordered some fresh asparagus.
Lester stared back at me silently.
"We've bugged her phones? Jesus, Lester. You guys scare me sometimes."
Lester shrugged. "We're responsible for Andy's security. She's dangerous to others, not just to you."
Hank sat back in his chair to stretch out his shoulders. "So far we've got nothing; no old flames, no recent contact with any of her father's soldiers or associates. She must have found a local hire to deliver the flowers."
Lester shook head. "We know she's not connected around here. Unless she's been making contacts in her dreams, she hasn't been near any local talent."
"That's another thing," I interjected. "There's something odd about how the roses were delivered. If she paid a local guy to scare me off or punish me or give me some kind of message, he did a rotten job. I can't see Alicia putting up with incompetence. But if it's someone she knows, maybe someone who's doing her a favor, maybe she didn't realize he wasn't doing the strong-arm stuff."
Two manly brows twitched. Lester sighed. "Okay. We'll think of where else to dig and then run some more searches tomorrow when we're fresh. I'm gonna call it a night."
Ranger didn't turn up overnight. Admittedly, he had been gone only two days so it was unlikely he'd be back so soon, but I still hoped I'd wake up with him next to me. A girl can dream, right?
I missed our daily phone calls. He never called when he was 'in the wind' but I'd gotten used to hearing his voice and the comfort of sharing the details of our day. Although the most significant event in my life since he'd gone I wouldn't share over the phone anyway. The best I could do to get some happy was a Bulgari shower-gel experience.
After breakfast, I dragged my ass downstairs to meet Lester and Hank. We spent another four, frustrating hours prying into the lives of former and current employees and associates of the Alvarez-Pereira clan looking for possible connections between any of them and Alicia. Nothing but dead ends.
By midday I was stir crazy and itching to get out of the building. "Lunchtime," I announced.
Lester pushed back his chair. "Let's go out to eat. Maybe a change of scene will help."
"I want a burrito," Hank said, as he stood and stretched his arms.
I admired the spectacle of Hank's muscles working beneath his t-shirt, then glanced away before I was caught gawking. "Sorry, no can do, guys. Paco's down from New York and I'm taking him to lunch."
Lester grinned at me. "I hope you're taking him to Shorty's because I'm watching your body today, and I'd kill for a pizza."
"I'm thinking Pino's."
Lester's grin turned wry. "I'm thinking that after Sunday's events, you might want to go somewhere that's not in the 'burg."
He had a point; in the eyes of the 'burg, taking another man to lunch at Pino's would be a lot like throwing it in Morelli's face. My mood deflated further.
Lester winked at me. "Hey. You know all of us here have got your back, right?" I cracked a smile.
"Are you going to be gone the whole afternoon?" Hank asked.
I shook my head. "No, it won't be a long lunch."
We all took the elevator down to the garage and peeled out in three cars, me leading the procession in the Mercedes, Lester and Hank exiting behind me in two shiny, black Explorers. Hank turned south, headed for Casa Bella on Hudson for his burrito, and Lester followed me east on State Street.
I was meeting Paco at a friend's photography studio that he was checking out for the calendar shoot. He thought it would be easier for him to come to Trenton than to control twelve crazy old ladies in New York, and he'd come down to organize the details and equipment for his borrowed premises in preparation for the shoot the next week.
Paco was on the sidewalk talking to a skinny guy with a goatee. I parked the Mercedes and Paco threw me a big grin, ended the conversation with the goatee guy and turned to grab me in a tight clinch to spin me around off my feet. We were both laughing by the time he put me back down on the ground. Lester leaned back against the Explorer and watched us, shaking his head slightly.
Paco grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door of the studio. "We won't be long," he assured Lester, "I need to show Steph how things are going to work so she can help me explain it to her grandmother."
"Nope, I'm coming in," Lester insisted, and followed us into the reception area. He wasn't going to let me out of his sight in an unsecured building.
The studio itself was a stripped down warehouse-type space, with walls painted matte black, big studio lights on adjustable stands and fixed to ceiling struts, reflective screens, light diffusers, pulleys and props. Lester checked out the security and rear exits and Paco showed me around while he explained how he was going to set up the shoot. The space was relatively small and it didn't take long.
Half an hour later, Paco and I pulled up outside Shorty's. Lester sat on his own in a corner between the front and rear exits and his back to the wall with a clear view of the whole room. He got to work immediately on a blond waitress and I watched as she settled in the chair next to him within thirty seconds of Lester smiling at her.
We ordered and Paco slid a black leather box across the table. Ranger's birthday present. I hadn't paid much attention to the photos of the watch, being much more amused at the time by Paco's accolades. I opened the box to take a good look at it. The design was deceptively simple despite all the techno-slick features Paco had raved about. It was sleek, elegant, understated, matte black with a non-reflective face, and it weighed much less than I expected. It was beautiful and tasteful, perfect for Ranger.
"It does everything but make coffee, if I recall correctly," I joked. I glanced at the inscription on the back.
Paco smiled. "It says exactly what you asked for on the phone. And seeing it's in Spanish, I'm assuming it's not for your Italian fiance." He looked pointedly at my naked left hand and then back at me. "Former fiance?"
I took a sip of my coke and stared down at the bottle. "Yeah. But I don't want to talk about it, Paco."
He could read between the lines. "Okay, we won't. But I hope Ranger appreciates it."
Oh, boy. Whenever I thought about what I was admitting by giving the watch to Ranger, it freaked me out. I wasn't ready to talk about it to anybody. Our pizza arrived and we turned our attention to the food.
While I ate, Paco talked about the shoot. He normally had five or six assistants on a big commercial shoot, but he'd be using a skeleton crew of two for the calendar. Georgie, the makeup artist, would get each model into costume and take care of hair and makeup and then hand them on to Sam for the set-up. Meanwhile, Paco wanted me to keep them quietly seated in the reception area while he and his team handled one old lady at a time.
"Are you deranged? We'll never get out of there alive. I can't even control Grandma when she's on her own. It'll be like herding cats."
"I'll bribe them."
"I'll think of something. Let's go talk to your grandma and see what we can work out."
"You want to go now?"
Paco shrugged. "No time like the present. We're shooting next week."
I looked across at Lester, who was whispering something into the waitress's ear that was making her lick her lips. He looked straight over at me and I gestured my head towards the door. We left money on the table and headed out.
Under the guise of coffee and cake in my mother's living room, serious business was going down. Mom was next to Grandma on the couch, I was in the armchair in the corner and Lester had escaped from his original seat on the couch, where Grandma had enjoyed easy access to his person, to take up a defensive position on my dad's easy chair. Paco and Grandma were horse-trading across the coffee table.
Mom, Lester and I swung our heads between the two of them like spectators at a tennis match. Lester and I were having a good time with it; there was no popcorn but we were polishing off the coffee cake. I snuck a glance at Lester, who wasn't even trying to suppress his grin. Mom looked like she'd be having a visit with Johnnie Walker as soon as we left.
Paco was going in for the kill. "Edna, if you or any of the others so much as blink out of turn, you can kiss good-bye to any chance of me inviting Warren Beatty to the launch. In fact, if I'm not happy with the photos, I'll pull out altogether."
Grandma narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you playing hard ball with a bunch of vulnerable old ladies?"
"Yes, I am. And you are not a vulnerable old lady; you are a she-devil."
Grandma blinked a couple times, trying to look hurt and innocent, but Paco wasn't buying it.
Grandma dropped the ill-attempted ingenue look and leaned forward with a business-like glint in her eye. "I've got some conditions, too. We give you our full cooperation, and you bring six real lookers to the launch. They don't all have to be celebrities but they've got to have all their parts in working order, you know what I mean? And Warren Beatty launches the calendar with me."
Paco held out his hand across the coffee table. Grandma shook it. A small whimper came from Mom's seat.
I helped clean up the dishes and we made our way out. Mom looked pale and dazed but was holding it together enough to bid us a dignified goodbye. "Thank you for dropping by. Stephanie, are you coming to dinner Friday night?"
"Sure, unless something urgent comes up for work. I'll call you."
Lester and I stepped onto the porch, just in time to see Alicia racing in four inch heels from behind Ranger's Mercedes and into the passenger seat of a waiting silver sedan. The car burned rubber as it screeched away.
I looked back at the Mercedes. It looked intact, except for a plume of smoke coming from where a burning rag had been stuffed into the gas tank. Uh oh.
Lester and I flung ourselves onto the other three, pushing them back through the door and onto the floor as the gas tank exploded. The concussive boom of heat and noise rocked over us and various car parts flew out in concentric shock waves. I heard screaming. Might have been me and mom.
Lester helped everyone off the floor and checked quickly that no one was hurt before taking out his phone to report in to Tank. On unsteady legs, I helped Grandma and Mom get to the sofa. The two of them were chattering in an adrenaline high. Paco was watching the action from the door and Lester was outside, securing the scene. Sirens were already at the end of the street.
I'd caused the destruction of Ranger's newest, late-model, luxury sports car. Again. I knew what he'd say; I could even hear his voice in my head: Things can be replaced, babe. People can't. But I was bowed down by the guilt of it. My cell phone interrupted my self-pitying thoughts with the sound of the bat-theme.
I stared at the phone in disbelief. Ranger was off with the wind, possibly in some far-flung corner of the globe; he couldn't know I'd killed another car. This had to be a coincidence. I walked to the kitchen to answer in privacy.
"Babe, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Everything's good." And it was. Hearing his voice created a rush of warmth right down to my toes that made everything okay. Well, not everything. The Mercedes, the Rangeman Explorer and several of the neighbor's cars weren't okay. "Why are you asking? Are you back in Trenton?"
"I'm at the airport in Arizona on my way back. Your car went off the grid."
"How can you know that if you're in Arizona?"
Ranger raised his left eyebrow, waiting silently for more information. I couldn't see him but I knew that's what he was doing.
I sighed. "It was parked outside my parents' house and Alicia blew it up while Lester, Paco and I were having coffee and cake inside. No one was hurt. The car is a write-off, though. I'm really sorry, Ranger."
"Babe, it's not your fault. As long as you're not hurt, the rest isn't important."
His reassurance made my eyes prickle so I had to blink away the blurry vision. "I was tempting fate. I knew I should have swapped it out for the Buick."
"I told you it was yours as long as you wanted. I meant it. Has Alicia been made?"
"Yeah, there were half a dozen eye witnesses and Lester's giving the police everything we've got on her. But there's still no lead on her accomplice. He was probably driving the car today."
"I'll handle him. I'm calling Tank now to put more men on you 24/7. Morelli is just going to have to deal with surveillance on his house."
Ranger hadn't heard about me and Morelli. He thought I had moved in as planned. This was where the rubber hit the road.
I took a breath. "No need to put anyone on Morelli's house. I didn't move in there. I'm staying on seven."
There was a long silence on Ranger's end of the line. Just the white noise of airport bustle in the background. The long pause made me nervous. "Is that okay? I can move back to my apartment as soon as Dillon's finished with the maintenance work. It'll only be a few days –"
"Stephanie, it's okay. It's very okay. Stay as long as you want."
When Ranger used my whole name he was either really serious or really pissed off. I was going with the former and I blew out a breath.
He sounded hesitant when he next spoke. "Are you postponing the move?"
"No. I'm not moving in with him at all. We ended the engagement."
Ranger didn't respond and the long silence seemed even longer as my heart began to race. This was a big conversation and not one I planned to have over the phone. I could hear my pulse in my ears. The urge to break the tension got stronger and I knew I'd be blurting out something stupid any second if Ranger didn't speak.
I heard him suck in air. "I need to call Tank before my flight boards, babe. But you and I have unfinished business."
"Yes, we do."
"I'll see you when I get back. We're going to talk."
"Okay. How long does it take to fly from Arizona, anyway?"
"I'll be back at Rangeman in eight hours."
"Ranger?" I got in before he disconnected. He waited for me to continue.
"I'm really, really sorry about the car."
"Babe. If it'll help you feel better, I'll consider some suitably pleasurable forms of atonement for you. You might even enjoy the experience as much as I will."
Holy hot flash. I leaned against the cabinets.
Ranger disconnected without saying goodbye but that was okay because I was doing a fish imitation and couldn't talk. I put my phone on the counter and opened Mom's pantry, pulled out her Johnnie Walker and took a slug.