Chapter 1

They do say "be careful what you wish for – it might come true". Well, I never imagined my wishes would in a million years!

My name is Marie and I'm a married mother I have a husband of 26 years, called John and a daughter, Skye 24. Actually let me clarify that, I say I'm married but I'm not really sure if this is still the case as one Monday morning a couple of months' ago my husband set off for work and never got there. He'd been acting a bit weird for a while but I'd known he'd been under a lot of pressure at work so put it down to that. At about 10-ish I got a call from his boss, Paul, at asking if John was OK as he'd not turned up for a meeting. Seems he's done a Reggie Perrin and disappeared. (famous English sitcom character who faked his own death.)

A couple of weeks went by, Skye was distraught that her Dad disappeared and I was at my wits' end. Where the bloody hell was he – was he OK? Why hadn't he called? Was there someone else?

I needed a Ranger-type character to help me sort this puzzle out as the police had drawn a blank.

I often wished Ranger would walk into my life and find my husband – after all there had to be a body – dead or alive, right? If he was still alive he'd had some explaining to do and there might yet be a dead body...

So, there I was sitting and minding my own business, drinking a cup of tea and trying to work out how I was going to pay the bills and the mortgage when the doorbell rang. I strolled through the house with my drink in my hand and as I got closer to my front door I could see that the person on the other side of the frosted glass was a tall man dressed all in black. Wouldn't it be a laugh if the guy was Ranger – probably a chap with a parcel though, I thought.

I opened the door and the man offered me his business card – Ricardo Carlos Manoso of Rangeman. No, can't be I thought and gave myself a mental pinch – I must be dreaming, right?

He looked a lot like I expect Ranger to look, he smelled like him (I've a keen sense of smell and had even tried Bulgari out on John but decided it wasn't quite him) and he was gorgeous. Oh to be twenty five years younger!

He was talking and I hadn't been listening, so I stopped him in his tracks by raising my hand and said "run that one by me again". I saw the faint flicker of a smile as he leant against the door jamb and folded his arms.

"Caught you off guard, didn't I?" he said

"sort of" absolutely! I replied.

"Can I some in?" the man asked.

This couldn't be Ranger, he didn't exist, he was the figment of an author's imagination so what on earth was going on here.

I looked at him quizzically and he nearly smiled again. "You've been wishing really hard for me to come and help you, so here I am" he said, by way of an explanation.

"Sorry, run that one by me again?" I stammered, not really sure that I'd heard him correctly.

"You often say that you shouldn't wish for something because you might just get it, then wishing I would come and help you anyway, so here I am". He seemed to think this was sufficient explanation and stepped over my threshold, past me and disappeared in the direction of my kitchen.

"Nice," he said matter of factly, looking round the small but bright and sunny room and making himself comfortable on one of my bar stools.

"Hold on a minute" I said, "who are you really?"

"I've already told you" he said, "I'm Ranger".

"Rubbish!" I snorted "Ranger is a character in a book - anyone could pretend to be him, all you have to do is read the books and pretend to be him – just like Scrog did."

"Don't mention him in my presence again" he retorted then a calm and blank wall look descended over his face – just how Stephanie had described it, I thought. He smiled, knowingly.

"Look at it from my point of view" I said. "Here you are, in my kitchen in England, looking like a character I've read about in books..."

"Fantisised about" he cut in.

"Crap" I thought and blushed a little.

He smiled again and stood up, moving towards me, I backed away.

"How did you know that?" I asked as I continued backwards

"In the same way that I knew about the stuff you've written about me – I really liked to story where you made me sort out Morelli once and for all – inspired reasoning. I especially liked the bit with the chicken soup"

"But I haven't written that one down yet". I gulped. Who was this man?

I was now backed into a corner where two work surfaces met and this man was still advancing – I looked around with panic plastered all over my face - Ranger stopped and laughed out loud. "Sorry" he said and took hold of my hands in his. They were large and strong and like the rest of him they were beautiful. I looked down as he started to speak. He let go of one hand and gently pushed my chin up with his index finger so that he could look at me. I felt scalded by his contact.

"You have a rare talent and should use it, you have a great imagination and you should put it into practice – perhaps, once we've found your husband and we've sorted out this mess for you may be you could even earn a living from the ideas in your head."

"How do you know about my husband and how do you know what I've got in my head?" I whispered.

"Easy, you keep broadcasting it to people like me – people who live in stories but who are brought to life by the love and passion of others."

O.K.A.Y.... "Blimey" I said – I was flabbergasted, I was lost for words, which is not like me at all...

"I came to England last week to set up an office in Reading and specifically to find you" he continued. "You've been disturbing my sleep for a while now and I wanted to see what I could do to help" He paused then added "plus I like you."

"Didn't you say that to Babe, once" I thought to myself

"Yes, I did" he softly replied, almost wistfully. I stared at him. What was going on?

I knew I was going to have to really limit my thoughts as for some reason he could hear them – alternatively I was going mad and was speaking out loud and didn't realise.

"You're not going mad" he said, damn him and his ESP!

"Look, sit down and let me explain" he said and pushed me gently into the lounge and onto a sofa. "Nice" he said again (at least my decor meets his approval) and looked straight into my eyes.

I stared back, his eyes were liquid pools of molten chocolate hidden behind long dark lashes and a glass wall. They were tantalising in their beauty but gave nothing away. I could have dived in and drowned and I don't even like brown eyes especially – John's were green. He leaned forward and ran a finger suggestively down my cheek, then he gently laughed.

"What was that for?" I demanded.

"I'm really enjoying your thoughts and I'm very flattered, you have lovely brown eyes too" he added, raising an eyebrow.

"I can see why you're so dangerous" I said, "but I'd really appreciate it if you would stop wandering about inside my head."

"Stop playing with me" I added more softly.

I'm losing it, I thought to myself, looking at the man on my sofa. Why on earth would someone as gorgeous as Ranger be flirting with me? I'm vertically challenged (5' 2" in my socks) and I'm old enough to be his Mother. My body is not what it once was although I do go to the gym 4 days a week so it's not in too bad shape with my clothes on, I have blonde-ish hair out of a bottle (how much grey?!?) and I have sleepless nights that leave me tired and pale. I'm insecure and think I'm about as interesting as a dead fish.

"I'll get out of your head and stay out, if you'd like" Ranger said. "But on one condition"

"What's that" I said

"I want you to stop looking at yourself in such a negative way. You are just like Stephanie."

I stared at him through slightly closed eyes as he continued in his calm voice "you are just as beguiling as Stephanie, in fact you remind me of her in so many ways. Your biggest problem is that bit by bit you've let others stifle the vibrant person you once were. When was the last time you took off for the weekend to behave badly with your girlfriends?"

I thought back to the last time I'd got on a girlie weekend – it must have been five years ago, my mates had stopped asking me after the third no. "What has happened indeed?" I asked. Suddenly I felt empty somehow, I knew he was no longer in my head. "Thank you" I whispered and stood up. Black dots filled my eyes and I remember little else.

I awoke in my house with a huge black man dressed in black clothing standing guard over me "Tank, I suppose?"

"That's right, ma'am"

This was getting more and more surreal.

I glanced around but couldn't see Ranger anywhere.

"Boss'll be back soon" said the great big bear of a man.

I hadn't expected to see Tank, but hey, go with the flow, I thought – it can't get any more weird than this, right? Tank moved off to sit in a chair. I think he thought I'd find him less intimidating – yeah, right.

Not long after that the front door opened and Ranger walked back in with another man, this time a slightly smaller Rangeman employee – if there could be such a thing - wearing glasses and carrying a laptop. He looked a little younger, probably a similar age to Skye, I reckoned. Another imposing and good looking man in my house. Bit like buses I thought nothing for ages then three at once...

He smiled at me in acknowledgement.

"Plug in where you like, Silvio and work your magic" Ranger said before turning and making a slight nod towards Tank.

Silvio immediately sat down and started running a series of searches for John Michael Anderson, which happens to be my husband's name. I left them to it and walked off into the kitchen. Ranger followed.

"Are you OK with this?" he asked

Kind of him to ask.

He'd just walked into my life turning it even more upside down than it already was and had kick-started hormones that I'd forgotten I even possessed. John and I had had a safe and comfortable life, but it had been a long time since I'd felt as alive and vital albeit a little scared as I did now. I felt like a silly school girl who'd had to ask her Mother to sort out her playground problems. I was feeling vulnerable, confused and helpless. I didn't like this feeling at all. To cap it all the school heart throb was standing in front of me, asking me if I was OK. I knew I'd wake up in a minute and find it had all been a dream. One in which I'd really like certain bits and really hate others.

"Sorry I left you earlier but I needed to go and pick up Silvio and sort some stuff out – Tank agreed to sit in whilst I was busy. I knew you'd recognise him straight away and would be cool with it."

"No worries" I said. I did a very English thing at that moment, walked into my kitchen and filled up my kettle. When there is a crisis, broken heart, death or major revelation, the English turn to their tea for support. I'm afraid I'm no different to the rest of my countrymen and women. Not quite the reassurance of a cuddle, but at least it was warm.

I took a deep breath "Will you please tell me the absolute truth if I ask you something?" I said, turning to face Ranger again, looking directly at him.

"Depends" he replied, leaning back against my work surface, gripping it gently with both hands and crossing his ankles. His look was guarded yet poised – like a coiled spring, I thought.

"Who are you really and what is really going on?"

Before he had a chance to answer, Silvio came into the room with a look of triumph on his face.

"And?" said Ranger

"I've found our man, he's living in Devon and it looks like he's a popular boy with the McMurray's" he said

"Bastard" I muttered "who are the McMurrays, anyway?" I asked.

Chapter 2

It turns out that the McMurrays are one step away from the Mafia – the only difference being that they are Scottish and live nowhere near Italy. Great, I thought when I found out.

It also transpired that John was not on their most wanted list – he was in fact one of them, married to a woman called Camille and living a life of pure indulgence in a huge converted barn with acres of land around it. There were no kids so she probably had pert breasts too. Bastard I thought again.

Not only had I been living a lie with a man I thought I'd know for most of my adult life, but he had turned me into a laughing stock by marrying someone else three years' ago. They had a fabulous lifestyle and a big house. I thought about my modest 3-bed semi; we'd always agreed we didn't need anything bigger as there was only the three of us. I'd always fancied somewhere with more space. Bastard. Bet she didn't have cellulite either, I thought ruefully.

Silvio was still looking into things as the night began to draw in. I looked over his shoulder and saw a picture of John with another woman. She really was a "younger model" in every way – and not a sign of cellulite. Bastard.

"Fancy a takeaway?" I asked, wondering if I could scrape together enough money for a pizza or curry.

"Already sorted" came the reply from Ranger as Tank stepped in the door carrying several bags of food. I hadn't noticed he'd gone, but to be fair I wasn't firing on all cylinders at that moment so if an elephant had walked in and danced on my dining room table I'd probably have missed that too.

I had loads of beers in my beer fridge but as they weren't Corona I offered wine, Coke and water to go with our food. It wasn't long before we were all sitting on the sofa in silence munching our way through a Kabirs' curry. At least my favourite restaurant never let me down I thought, sadly. Then I did a very large mental scream – if Tank had known where to go to get my favourite meal, what else did he know?

Skye was having a sleepover at her best friend Amy's to celebrate her birthday and I must admit I was glad she wasn't here as I didn't know how I'd explain my house guests. Which reminded me "daft question" I said, "but how long are you planning on being here? Not that I'm trying to get rid of you", I added quickly.

"As long as it takes" replied Tank.

"Actually, you having this problem with the McMurrays helps me a bit" said Ranger "gives me a chance to prove that Rangeman are viable outside the US – great excuse to take them down as they really are becoming a problem."

Fab, I thought, I'm a means to an end, typical. I got up and walked out of the lounge, heading for the stairs. "If you're staying here the least I can do is sort you out somewhere to sleep".

"Who said anything about sleeping?" said a soft voice, behind me and I turned round and straight into Ranger's chest. Yum.

I stepped back and looked up at him. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked closing my eyes slightly and squinting at him. He almost smiled and walked past me, taking the stairs two at a time.

"Nice" he said as he looked into my bedroom

"Don't you know any other adjectives?" I asked

"Well, as you don't like the word awesome, then I guess I don't" he replied.

I chose to ignore him and set about getting out a couple of fold up beds from a cupboard in the spare room. Ranger started to help and we brushed past each other a few times.

"I'm not going to try anything" he said as I jumped for the fourth time. "You're far too freaked out as it is and I would never take advantage of a damsel in distress – then again..." he added with a huge smile.

Was he playing with me or just trying to flatter me? God knows, I thought, pulling angrily at a couple of duvets which were in the same cupboard as the spare beds.

"That's my men sorted but what about me?" Asked Ranger as he shoved the beds into the middle of Skye's room quarter of an hour later.

"Easy" I replied, "you've got the spare room all to yourself".

"Spoilsport!" Ranger chuckled and wandered off to find his men.

I grinned at him then swayed over to my bed and sat down. Please let this dream be over soon, I thought, I don't think I want to play anymore.

Chapter 3

I woke up early and stretched, yawning loudly. As the room came into focus I sat up with a start. Had I dreamed yesterday – God, I hoped so.

I picked up my dressing gown, wrapping it around me and snuggling into its soft interior. John had given it to me as a present for last Christmas – along with a Rolex – said he'd always known I wanted one. At the time I also thought he'd given it to me for cancelling our long weekend in Rome the previous month due to work commitments...

I put my head round my bedroom door with my fingers splayed over my eyes so that I wouldn't see anything I didn't want to – coward I thought. Unfortunately Tank was crossing the landing with one of my bath towels wrapped round him – it only just covered his huge torso. I could see why Lula liked him. "hi" he said as he disappeared into Skye's room.

"Bugger!" I thought, yesterday hadn't been a dream.

I decided the best course of action was to be really mature and hide so I showered and dressed quickly. Pulling my long hair into a scrunchy at the back of my head and waving mascara in the general direction of my eyes, I threw on jeans, t-shirt and a hoody and snuck downstairs. Not quite as dramatic as Stephanie I thought, but I managed to put some trainers on, creep out of the house undetected and tuck myself into a hidden corner by my front porch – I sometimes went there to think when John had been particularly moody. I felt cocooned and as though no-one could see me in my private space. I pulled my legs towards me, put my chin on my knees and wrapped my arms round my calves making myself as small as possible.

I closed my eyes and drifted off into another world where I was 21 again (no, really, I was 21 once). I'd been carefree and self assured. I had more than my fair share of boyfriends, even though most of my friends were taller, better looking or richer than me. Maybe Ranger had a point. At some point in my life I must have had a little bit of "it" that intangible element that draws others to us. Where had my youthful zest for life gone? "put in a box and left in a cupboard" I told myself sadly.

I'd grown up and become my Mother, that was what had happened. When though? It couldn't have been when I first had Skye – I looked at her sometimes and wondered where the time had gone. No, the rot set in before then. Once upon a time I'd look at my friends and feel younger and more immature than them by miles, even thought I was the oldest. In my first job after graduating I'd sit in on meetings and suddenly realise that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about - all grown up and being taken seriously – that had always freaked me out. Nowadays people looked to me for sensible and practical answers. Once I had been the naughty girl – always up to mischief – a cup's half full kind of girl, not anymore. Oh My God! What had happened to my spirit, my joie de vivre?

I began to cry, softly at first then with greater intensity as I thought about all that had gone before me. I hoped no-one was watching as I wasn't a very pretty cry-baby. My face welled up and went red and my eyes disappeared, snot would invariably appear in vast quantities and I'd have red blotches on my face too. I sensed movement behind me but it suddenly stopped, almost unsure whether to continue towards me and as quickly as it came, it was gone.

Eventually I realised I was getting cold. I'd wiped my nose and tidied my eyes up and after a few minutes I got up, sighed loudly, flapped my arms like a bird a few times to warm up and went back into the house.

Tank and Silvio were peering at a map and making notes at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. I kicked my shoes off, walked past them both and murmured a swift "hi". I got an equally "lo" back from them.

When I reached the lounge I flopped into the sofa and put my feet up onto the coffee table. I looked around and told myself I would have cleaned but there was no space – the entire place was filled with computers and other related kit. Perhaps I would clean my bathroom I thought and wandered out to my hall and up the stairs.

Ranger stepped out into my path "Are you OK now?" he ventured. "I was going to talk to you earlier but you seemed a little ... preoccupied".

"I'm fine" I sighed and walked as if to go past him.

"I really do care about you" he said and gently grabbed my arm, preventing me from going any further.

"Let's get on with finding John" I said and did a u-turn and headed off down the stairs again, Ranger followed at a slight distance.

I looked at the half empty (see!!) coffee pot on the work surface, made myself a cup of tea and looked at the mountain of wholemeal toast gone cold – didn't fancy anything for breakfast anyway - so just wrapped my hands round the mug and started to talk to Tank and Silvio.

Ranger joined us immediately and we started to look at a plan of action. Before too long we had everything prepared. I was to pretend I was having a weekend break to clear my thoughts and somehow by co-incidence I would be staying in the only B&B within a 10 mile radius of John's new home. Everything was ready but as it was Wednesday and we would not be moving out till Friday, we all had time to kill.

I started by removing all items remotely linked to John. By the time I had made a not so small pile of things I was feeling sad, in a totally heart weary way. I stood and looked at the mess before me, wondering how on earth I had come to this. Everything in front of me represented the lie that our life had become. I half heartedly sifted through the pile and stared in horror at a picture containing not just John, Skye and I but her, the other woman – how the bloody hell had she appeared in my life without my knowing. Was she aware she'd married a bigamist?!? Bastard.

I felt Ranger behind me. "What do you want to do with this?" he asked

"Don't throw it away just yet, you'll regret it" he added.

"Not a chance, I like a good fire, think I'll have a bonfire" I replied jumping up. And that is what we did.

As the fire burned down and all that remained was a pile of deep red glowing embers, Ranger handed me a glass of champagne. I looked at him quizzically.

"Time to move on, get the old you back in the saddle" he ventured.

"I'll drink to that" I said and raised my glass. Ranger almost smiled, but behind the smile I could sense his soul and what a tortured soul it was. I stepped closer and said " you didn't answer my question earlier, what is going on and who are you?".

Ranger let out a sigh and I could see he was struggling with whether or not he should open up to me. After all he said he'd been in my head and knew some of my thoughts. Surely he could not see me as a threat.

I nodded with a look of encouragement on my face and we sat down on the wooden patio chairs that we'd pulled over earlier to watch the fire. The wall of glass that I'd seen earlier splintered and shattered into a thousand pieces and suddenly I could see past his eyes and into the tortured organ that was his heart. Before I realised, I was kneeling before him, holding him in my arms as I had done with Skye when her life collapsed, he had his arms round my back and up onto my shoulder blades, his head was buried into my shoulder and he was sobbing as if his world had totally collapsed. I kissed his head gently several times, whispering platitudes softly, rocking backwards and forwards and stroking his hair in the vain hope that I could calm him down. Holy Crap!! Batman has a heart!!!!

Ch 4

After what seemed an eternity he started to pull away from me. I shifted by position so that I could let him do so, but I didn't move from in front of him. I'd perfected this manoeuvre with Skye and had found it to be the best way forward. I left my hands on his thighs, but not in a threatening or sexual way - I was trying to reassure him. He looked at me intently trying to work out whether I was judging him, ready to call him a fool or worse. I just waited patiently for I knew he would start to talk, eventually. I felt like I had connected with him on a new level and that we would always remain friends, perhaps I could even be a Mother figure to him. I also knew he was never destined to take me to his bed, we'd gone beyond the banter.

"I've lost her" he said matter-of-factly, his eyes downcast. "I drove her to him and now she's gone forever so I've done the only thing I could do, I've re-grouped and moved on. But my heart will never recover and I know unless there's a major miracle I'll never have my Babe in my arms again" he paused for a moment and I wondered if he had the strength to continue. I'd never seen a man as broken as he was then.

"Go on" I urged gently.

"We'd had a massive argument, she was throwing my words back as me. Still pissed off about my comparing her to my budget sheets and being entertainment for the team. She stormed out of my apartment telling me she was going over to Morelli's as at least all he wanted her to do was have his babies which had to be better than a relationship which was going nowhere and never would allow her to get any closer to me. The word on the street is that he proposed the next day – I didn't hang around to find out what happened, I was too scared she'd said yes. I've banned her name from being mentioned within Rangeman."

"You absolute idiot" I said "Have you never read any of the books in which you feature?!? Steph loves you more than anything – you don't want marriage, nor does she. You don't want her to change whereas Joe does. You try to tell her how you feel – loving her 'in your own way'. Everyone loves in 'their own way' you moron!" Had I actually called Ranger a moron – oh well, I was making a point wasn't I?

Ranger looked stunned.

"Everything you have ever done has been for the good of others – the army, the Rangers, Delta Force, Rangeman. What about Ricardo Carlos Manoso. Where does he fit in to your plans? When have you ever put him first? When you sent Steph back to Morelli, was it really what you wanted? Was it really what she wanted? You give out such mixed signals that I bet you'd confuse even the most experienced of shrinks. So you figured the best thing was to run away and help me out instead. God, you're such a jerk! Put yourself first for once"

Ranger looked like I'd poured cold water down his trousers and added a large dollop of slime for good measure. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I stood up, picked up my glass and started to wander back into the house.

"Christ, you're perceptive" I heard him mumble to himself.

"Good" I threw back at him and stomped back into the house. Wish I'd taken a step back and looked at myself too, I thought ruefully.

I wandered over to Silvio, a fragment of an idea in my head. I needed a favour...

Ch 5

The next day was Thursday and I suggested we went out for the day to calm everyone down (Ok, so just Ranger and I needed to chill) so I suggested we went punting at Oxford. I'd persuaded the boys to wear something a little less black and they'd all emerged from their rooms in blue jeans and sweatshirts. I figured they were all wearing t-shirts underneath, but if they weren't and the weather warmed up as was threatened then I was in for a treat! What, I've got a pulse, haven't I?

I thought I'd show them the highlights of my time there as a student (perhaps not where I had been knee-deep in alcohol-related mischief though) so we set off at a leisurely pace and got there just before lunch. We ate at one of my old haunts in Headington, a small district just outside central Oxford. The houses still looked beautiful to me with their chunky pale grey stone fascias and tall Edwardian architecture. I felt a rush of nostalgia for the place and the times I'd known then. I never thought I'd grow up when I'd been there – I'd even pretended to be a bit of a cape crusader while I'd been studying (now I'm really telling you some my secrets, but not the BIG ONE no, that one would stay buried within me forever, not even John or my parents knew about that one, anyway that had happened while I was working abroad). The roads were wide and even the traffic seemed to move at a more leisurely pace. We ambled in towards the centre taking in the views.

Our party received lots of interested looks – subtle as only the English can be, but there all the same. I was enjoying being seen out with three rather good looking men. Pity I wasn't 10 (ok, maybe 20) years younger but a girl can dream. Can't she?!?

The day was a great success, Ranger seemed to chill a little and Tank looked less worried about his boss and best friend than he'd probably been for a while. Silvio was still reserved, but we discussed lots of interesting things about the architecture and he looked to be really enjoying himself.

On the way home I realised that Skye would probably be there when we got back so I warned them about my daughter and not to stand any of her nonsense...

As expected my daughter was not pleased when we returned to base.

"Where have you been, Mum?" she asked petulantly. Her big fat auburn curls dancing round her lovely face. Did I forget to mention she was beautiful and I wasn't the only one who thought so?

Ranger was staring, big time, he looked as if someone had hit him with a haddock. Then he composed himself and the shutters went down.

"What's going on in here – it looks like Doctor Who and Torchwood have set up in the lounge and there are two beds in my room which are clearly being used by men! Plus the spare room looks like someone might have been in there, but I can't tell for certain." She ranted.

I laughed to myself, she was so like I had been at her age. She was stamping round the room waving her arms about (I think she gets that from me) making faces and scowling all at the same time (takes some doing, believe me).

"Calm down" I said "We've got visitors. These men, Ranger, Tank and Silvio have kindly agreed to help me find your father as the police have nothing to go on"

Ranger shot me a look full of questions. The man of last night clearly filed away – I hoped that some of what I'd said had sunk in. Only time would tell on that one.

"Hi" he said carefully and with a smile on his face. I saw Skye hyperventilate. Way to go girl, I thought. Keep an air of mystery about yourself.

Tank and Silvio both stepped forward to say hello and I left Skye with Tank discussing the amount of equipment littering up my house. I wandered over to Silvio and he smiled and told me everything we'd discussed had being sorted. Not only was he a nice lad, he was intelligent and unaffected by the way he looked. He was also very good at getting things done even when the rule book strictly forbids any action be taken. He'd just gone up a notch in my estimation.

Ch 6

Strange reception, I thought afterwards. Ranger looked as if his eyes were about to pop out of his head, then his mask had slipped into place and I'd seen nothing more. I could tell he was captivated by her, but there was something else too. I meant to ask him about it later.

The rest of the evening went by without much more excitement. We moved Skye in with me for the night and explained that I would be out of the picture with Ranger and his men for a few days.

Skye immediately said she wanted to come. Was it just to be in the picture or did she have designs on Ranger? What was I thinking, she was far more his age than I was, but I still felt a stab of jealousy all the same.

Just before retiring for the night, Ranger and I were finally alone in the kitchen and I was determined to ask him why he's looked so shocked when he'd first clapped eyes on my daughter. I rounded on him, backing him into a corner and handed him a beer.

"You don't have to answer if you don't want to" I started "but your reaction to Skye was not what I was expecting" there, I'd started the conversation.

Ranger looked at me and drilled his penetrating eyes deep into my soul.

"Ha, you're no longer in my head" I said "so answer my question, Man of Mystery"

Then he said something that made me cough on my beer.

"You have two daughters don't you?" How the bloody hell did he work that one out – he'd not been looking for that information when he'd been in my head – THAT information was buried so deep that even I only took it out and savoured it when I was feeling really brave.

"No, not me" I stammered as tears welled up in my eyes

"Don't lie to me" he said and took me in his arms holding me while I wept silently.

"How did you know?" I sobbed "I've never told anyone in this country about her."

"Because Skye is the spitting image of Steph, except Babe has blue eyes, not brown – even their temperament is the same"

"Rubbish" I snapped "Steph is the product of Ellen and Frank Plum and has her Grandma Mazur's feisty love of life"

"No, actually she is not. She doesn't even know. When I found out I spoke with Frank who asked me to keep it to myself. Their daughter, Summer, had died at birth and a young girl in the hospital had just given her day old baby up for adoption so hasty plans were made and the transaction done. Why do you think her and Valerie are so different?"

I could feel black dots starting to appear in front of my eyes. Steph was my daughter! I'd given her up after one day and been told that a good family who'd just lost their baby girl had been allowed to spirit her away. Oh! My! God!

Ranger picked me up (see, I'm not that heavy!) and carried me to the sofa in the lounge where he carefully laid me down.

"Tell me about her" I begged.

"Not until you tell me what happened"

So I told him how I'd met up with Lucas who I fell for instantly. "We'd worked together in Camp America and fallen into bed almost the minute we'd met, even though we knew we'd get into serious trouble if we'd been caught. He had been everything that my boyfriends in England hadn't been. Tall, broad shouldered, good looking (fabulous ass), Italian, and extremely handy with his tongue." I blushed as I told Ranger that bit – he just laughed.

"I thought we'd never break up and so when I told him I was pregnant I expected him to swear his undying love for me but instead he'd walked out of my bed and my life without so much as a backward glance. My first heartbreak."

I looked down at the hands in my lap and realised there were three of them. I smiled and continued.

"I spoke to the camp leaders and as you can imagine they weren't too happy but they let me stay until I was 6 months pregnant which was about the time I was finishing with them anyway. I left the camp and set off towards New York – I'd planned to travel round for a while sightseeing so that fitted my new plans exactly. I found myself working at a bar in New Jersey called Angelos and decided I felt safe there. I'd explained my situation to the boss, and the bar's owner Angelo who must have felt sorry for me – he had a daughter of a similar age – so he agreed to let me stay until my baby arrived. That man saved me.

"As I lay in the delivery room feeling the contractions I savoured every one because I knew my time with my baby would soon be over. I'd tried not to bond with her (I decided my bump was a girl, even though I didn't know), but every time I felt her hiccup or move I'd felt a wave of love rush through me. So now that this time was coming to an end, my heart was breaking, again.

"When she was laid in my arms I looked down at the bundle of pure joy that was snuggling to my breast, searching for my milk and I wept. I didn't have the courage to give her a name. I knew I couldn't take her home with me – there'd have been uproar. Nice girls didn't get pregnant before marriage in those days. I hoped she'd grow up to be a wonderful person – stable in the love that her new parents would give her. I hoped she would learn to fly – got that right, didn't I?!

"When they came to take her away I kissed her soft downy head and heard her moan with contentment. I don't have a clear picture of her at that point as my eyes were filled with tears but I remember her softness, her smell and that noise. That will haunt me forever.

"I went back to Angelos for a few days so that I could gather my thoughts. Then I flew home. No-one here has any idea about what happened Stateside and you're the first person I've ever told."

I heard a rustle behind me and saw Skye standing there.

"I think you need time with your other daughter, Marie," said Ranger as he gently untangled my hands from his and got up to go over to Skye. He gently took her hand in his and guided her over to where I was sitting. To say she looked stunned was understatement.

"Why didn't you tell me, Mum?" she whispered as she sat down. When I turned to look at Ranger he was gone and I had a lot of explaining to do.

Three hours and several boxes of tissues later, Skye was fully aware of all that had happened. She had not been angry with me for keeping such a secret – after all she'd seen my parents in action and could understand why I'd felt the need to keep things from them. I explained that I'd tried to tell her, and John, a couple of times a long time ago, but the time had never been right and the longer I'd left it the harder it had become. So I'd picked up the memory, but it in a box in a cupboard...

I realised then that I needed to reunite my family and boy was that going to be fun!! A little light went on in my head and I decided to let Skye in on my plans for Ranger and Steph, my other daughter. She grinned as I filled her in. Hopefully we were not too late.

I still needed to see a picture of Steph and Ranger had disappeared off to bed before I had a chance to really grill him about her. It was then I realised what a truly tremendous man Ricardo Carlos Manoso was for when I went to my room in the wee small hours, there was a much handled photo on my bed. The woman who looked back at me was indeed the spitting image of Skye. Even down to the twinkle in her eye. I could see why Ranger was in so much agony.

Ch 7

Friday morning.

I woke with a blinding headache and a streaky face. I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair. D-Day – perhaps.

I grabbed a shower and headed downstairs where I could smell coffee brewing and pancakes. Skye also had a sweet tooth and was a whizz in the kitchen – as long at the thing being cooked contained sugar.

I stood at the entrance to the kitchen and took in the sight before me. Three fully grown men were sitting at my breakfast bar, coffee in one hand, forks in the other, munching happily and flirting with Skye as she floated round the kitchen filling their cups and flipping their pancakes. I smiled and stepped in.

"Hi, Mum, sleep well?"

"Yeah" I smiled lazily.

"Grab a seat and get eating, we've got a job to do". Blimey, my daughter was good at being the boss. I noticed Ranger was looking thoughtful, but decided to let it ride. I could question him later, perhaps.

An hour later we were on our way to Devon.

The weather was in our favour and we'd all agreed that the aim of the sting was to reel John in, get him to confess and use him to spy on his own men.

We pulled up in the car park of the B&B and got out to survey the vicinity.

The B&B was a large very old house built over several periods. The main section had Tudor beams and joined a smaller thatched cottage. The two parts were at right angles to each other and this created a courtyard in which a very large and beautiful holly bush was planted. It was covered in bright red berries and really added to the spendour of the place. I reckoned the property probably had 7 or 8 bedrooms. I just hoped it didn't have lots of spiders as is usual in a place like this. Did I tell you I was frightened of our 8 legged friends? Hey ho, onwards and upwards.

We dumped our bags in Reception and Skye and I signed us all in. Ranger had a room to himself but the rest of us had doubles. Obviously Skye and I shared one and Tank and Silvio the other. Whilst we completed the paperwork our bags were taken upstairs. Ranger and his men disappeared to do some checking.

Skye and I went to our room, the others' rooms were situated either side of ours and as we had the keys we thought we'd be nosy. All the rooms were individually decorated and rather beautiful. Ranger's was the most grown up with burgundy gold fleur de lis wallpaper. Opulent was a good word to describe it I'd say. Tank and Silvio had a room with softer tones, gold again but this time with rich royal blue and soft creams. Elegant. Ours was in rich soft greens and oranges. My favourite colours. That was a clever co-incidence. But then again I could have been wrong.

We'd just settled down to some serious relaxing when there was a knock at the door. Skye unravelled her long legs and went to answer it. Silvio's head appeared, followed by his tall muscular body (and he was the smallest of our three men), I'm sure Skye blushed, but it was hot in the room, so maybe not.

"Ranger said we should meet to discuss our plans".

We followed him down to the dining room where lunch ad been laid out for us. Skye walked along inside Silvio's personal space, he turned and smiled at her, she smiled back. Hmmm.

Lunch was simple but tasty fare – ploughmans with really fresh crusty rolls, strong but sweet mature cheddar cheese, pickles, salad and beautiful oak smoked ham. Fab. Skye looked at it and I smiled. Not her thing, but hey, she'd eat some of it and get the rest of her calories from the dessert menu. I swear Ranger rolled his eyes. "What?" I said. "Not my fault if my children have sweet teeth!" Everyone smiled and dug in.

Ch 9

The plan was to meet up for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant as Silvio had found this to be a favourite of John and his new 'wife'. Bastard hadn't taken me out for a meal for ages. They hadn't been for a couple of weeks but they were booked in tonight. I've no idea how Silvio had gained that information – perhaps he could work magic after all. Sky and I were at one table situated in an enclave at the side of the room so that they'd be committed to ordering before we 'noticed' them. Ranger and his men were sat near the rear of the dining room, Ranger had his back to the wall, as usual.

8.15: John walked in with Camille. She was at least 15 years younger than me and had a body that had obviously never been pregnant. They were elegantly and expensively dressed and looking at them made me realised why he'd left me. Cowardly way to do it though, I thought, darkly. Her hand was clasped in his, their fingers intertwined, their body language showed that they were obviously in love. "You can keep him" I thought. Bastard.

I looked over at Ranger, he was staring at me, intently, obviously willing me to stay calm. I gave him a reassuring nod. I wanted John to suffer, but this was neither the time or place.

My appetite had gone and I looked over at Skye. She also looked like she was going to kill her father. Perhaps we'd have a dead body after all... I motioned for her to start the ball rolling. She stood up and marched over to their table, hands on hips. "Way to go kiddo", I thought and "proud of you Babe" escaped my lips before I'd realised I'd said it. I smiled to myself and looked at my beautiful daughter.

John had a look of total shock and abject horror on his face. Camille was looking confused and upset – clearly she thought John was all hers – "I really don't want him back" I whispered. Any feelings I might have had for John were gone, all that was left was pity for the spineless coward who was squirming down in his chair before our magnificent child. I wouldn't have wanted to be at the end of her sharp tongue which was currently giving him an earful of her opinion of him. Ranger looked like he was enjoying himself and was flicking his fork over the pasta he'd ordered.

John turned in his seat and saw me. His face went pale as he realised he'd been rumbled. Bastard.

I got up and walked over, giving him my best 'shocked and surprised what the hell are you doing here?' look and he squirmed even more. Camille got up and threw her glass of wine over him and slapped him for good measure. Picking up her handbag she walked out. She wouldn't get very far, Tank had slipped out during the commotion and as we spoke was probably persuading her into our car at that very moment.

I smiled internally and stood in front of him.

"You've a lot of explaining to do, you bastard" I said even though inside I was really enjoying watching him squirm. "Let's go back to my hotel and sort this out – it's too public here"

To my surprise, he stood up and nodded his head, almost relieved to have been caught.

We all rode in silence back to the hotel. Ranger and I were in a new car that appeared as if by magic – it was a Porsche! I smiled knowingly at him. Steph loved his Porsche I could see why. "What?" he said, angling his head to look at me and smiling. "You and your daughter were magnificent. Fancy joining us at Rangeman?" The final piece of jigsaw fell into place. "Thought you'd never ask" I replied. He tipped his head back and laughed a deep throaty laugh.

Ch 10

I couldn't believe it, I was going to Trenton to meet my eldest daughter. Skye was sitting beside me as the plane took off, smiling and holding my hand. Ranger had phoned Frank and explained about me and he'd promised to stop Steph doing anything rash before I got there. Hopefully we'd not be too late and I knew Frank had some influence on his daughter so he'd try to sabotage the wedding plans. Frank knew how much she needed to fly, just like Edna – being a Burg wife was going to do to her what I'd allowed to happen to me. He liked Morelli, but not as a future son-in-law. He knew Joe would get over it eventually and find someone else.

Ellen had been more worried and very tearful that I was coming. After all, Steph was pretty much hers from day 2 of her life. I could see that and had begged her to meet with me so that I could allay any fears she might have had about corrupting her or running off with her. Plus Steph needed to meet her half sister. Unfortunately I hadn't been able to trace her father, but I doubted that I even wanted to. Sod's law said he was either a bum or senior politician by now. Neither of which struck me as being good role models.

Somehow, despite my excitement I managed to sleep but was woken due to some very disturbing dreams I noticed that Skye had drifted off too, but it looked like she too had been dreaming very vivid dreams too. I put it down to the excitement of our trip.

Both of us were eager to find out what Trenton was like. It was true that the air pollution was terrible, but I'm sure there were clean bits, right? As the plane came into land we held our breath and looked down onto the roads we'd only read about. I was desperate to see if Vinnie really did look like a rat, I really wanted to meet Ella, Ranger's housekeeper and the Plums.

Ranger met us at the airport and updated us on John. With his help Rangeman had managed to reign in some of the McMurray gang. The rest had gone to ground but it was only a matter of time before they too were mopped up. As John had turned supergrass, Ranger thought he'd probably get 5 years for gun running and other nasty crimes. Apparently Camille had stood by him (fool) and had agreed to marry him properly once our divorce went through. They'd be shipped out somewhere to start a new life with new identities. I felt like I too was in the process of being shipped out to start a new life with a new identity.

John had said he wanted nothing more to do with our house and I'd sold it for a healthy profit – I couldn't have stayed there – too many lies. Skye hadn't wanted anything to do with it either.

Ranger pulled me aside when we arrived at our hotel – fabulous place, a thank you from Rangeman UK. Without our help, apparently, Ranger would never have been able to expand as quickly or effectively as he had into the UK market. Way to go Batman, I thought.

"I need to talk to you in private" he said looking ernest.

"Ok, once we've checked in I'll call you from my room".

"No, I need to speak to you in private, in person, now" he said again, emphasis on "in person" and "now".

"O.k.a.y." I said, "Walk this way"

Skye had already bounced into her room and I popped my head round the door and said "hi" before opening the door to my own. Ok, so it was more of a suite. Ok, so it was more of a big suite. OK, so it would have fitted my house inside it. But hey, Rangeman had benefitted by me so what the hell!!

I stood in the middle of the lounge area in stunned silence. I could feel Ranger behind me and I turned to see him looking at me with an air of amusement. "Everything OK?" he asked.

I smiled back and managed to squeak out "Yep, it'll do" then I coughed.

"There's something you need to know about Lucas" he said.

Lucas? Lucas, who? Oh yeah, Steph's father.

"I wasn't sure whether you'd want me to find him but I went looking anyway."

Oh, great.

"I'm afraid it's not good news."

Even better.

"He's dead"

Ah.

"He committed suicide about 10 years ago. He came back from his Camp America trip a changed man. Something had died inside him and he never recovered. He went on to live a very sad and lonely life and in his last years drank far more than was good for him. Couple of years ago he was admitted into a mental institution where he spent most of his time saying how sorry he was. Just before he died, apparently he expanded his apology and he'd said "I'm so sorry Marie". He left no surviving family and had never married. He'd spent a lot of his early twenties planning how he was going to go to England to catch up with a friend he'd met whilst doing a summer camp one year but somehow he never quite managed to get there."

I sat down, straight onto the floor – I did not faint! Ranger picked me up and looked at me.

"What a waste" I said sadly.

"Don't judge him too harshly" said Ranger "he probably wouldn't have been able to take you home whether he had wanted to or not. Pregnancy before marriage was not done back then.

"But here's the interesting thing. He's a distant relative of the Morelli's, having grown up in the Burg so steph is a distant cousin of Joe."

Oh this was precious!! "Not close enough for problems?" I asked. After all, if Joe was her chosen mate then I didn't want to spoil it for her. I had plans of my own that had nothing to do with his family.

"Unfortunately not" said Ranger and left me to unpack.

Ch 11

We'd agreed that Skye and I would spend a day unpacking and getting to know Trenton before meeting with Frank and Ellen in the morning. Steph didn't know about us yet and I figured she was under enough pressure to finalise her wedding plans – Joe had been pushing her to set a date but so far she'd stalled. Plus I needed to meet the Plums before hand so that we could decide on the best way forward. I didn't want to lose her again.

10.30: Frank and Ellen walked into the lobby of our hotel where I'd been sitting nervously. Ranger had offered to stay with me, but I needed him out of the way so that I could talk about him without him knowing that he was so important to my plans.

I stood up when they arrived and Frank had greeted me openly. Ellen was more guarded. Can't say I blamed her.

They were just as I'd imagined. Frank was a tall man and I could imagine that in his day he had been a great looking man. Now life had taken its toll and he was a little frayed round the edges. His stomach protruded slightly forward of his broad shouldered frame, his hair was salt and pepper grey and he had laughter lines etched round his eyes. I warmed to him immediately and felt comfortable in his presence.

Ellen wore muted colours – beige dress with small burgundy flowers on it, her hair which was just starting to go grey was highlighted with warm chestnut colours which suited her face. She was still a good looking woman but she was slightly more faded than Frank.

If a stranger had walked into the room and assessed us they would have said she was at least 10 years older than me. So very grown up and responsible.

We sat down and I poured coffee for us all. A selection of small cakes sat on the table between us separating us both metaphorically and physically.

I cleared my throat and looked at them both. They both had a look of fear in their eyes though neither would admit to it later. They thought I was there to steal Steph away from them. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I needed their help with a plan I had been cooking since that Thursday evening in England.

"Frank, Ellen" I began "thank you for coming to see me, this meeting must have been hard for you to cope with. I know I'm a bit nervous myself." I paused, allowing my feelings to sink in/

"I know you're probably wondering why it's taken me so long to turn up. Well, it's like this..."

Before any of us knew it, it was 1.00. All three of us had bared our souls about our feelings for Steph and we'd talked about how we were going to introduce me. I'd arranged for Skye to drop in at 1.00 and right on time, she appeared at the other end of the lobby.

She walked over when I waved at her. She looked so nervous and I was so proud of her. My youngest daughter was breath taking, a mixture of youth and old wordly wise in one great package. I hoped Frank and Ellen would recognise some of Steph in her.

I glanced at the Plums and saw tears in Ellen's eyes. She looked at me and as she smiled her face relaxed. I knew then that they would back me in my attempt to get to know my other daughter. At that moment I also knew with all my heart that I'd made the right decision to give Steph up and that God had smiled down on me and given her to the wonderful people she now called Mom and Dad.

Skye reached our table and we all stood up. I introduced everyone and we all sat down again. I expected an awkward silence but everyone started talking at once and we all laughed. Now that the embarrassing bit was over we all relaxed and just talked and talked.

God, it felt good to be alive and if I could put everything else right then I would be a very happy woman.

"Marie, what do you think?" said Frank "Marie?" he asked again.

"Sorry, just thinking" I said "I missed what you said"

Frank smiled and began again "Ellen, Skye & I think we should get Steph over here now, y'know, while we're all sitting here and feeling brave, what do you think?"

"Er, yes, what do you mean right this minute?"

"Yes Mum, right this minute" said Skye with a soft look of love on her face.

She smiled at me and chuckled slightly. "If I had a camera" she said "Mum, your face is a picture!" and she playfully grabbed my hand.

I turned to see that Frank was on his mobile phone, speaking to Steph I assumed. He smiled as he finished the call.

"She's just on her way over, be about 10-15 minutes"

Oh! My! God! I was going to meet my daughter. I hoped we wouldn't freak her out too much.

Whilst we waited, Skye ate all the pastries and Ellen and I ordered a glass of wine – I think we both felt we needed it for medicinal purposes. Dutch courage and all that.

That 10 minutes felt like 10 days. I have never felt so frightened in all my life. What if today was the end? My plans would be ruined but that was a different issue entirely and not one I wanted to dwell on at that moment.

I closed my eyes and for the first time in God knows how long, I prayed. I prayed to the God of love, frightened women and adopted daughters. I prayed to the God of love, Lucas and Skye. And I prayed to the God of my inner self.

"Please, let her like me, even if only a little bit"

The whirlwind that is Stephanie Plum smashed her way into the lobby. She ran over to us looking confused.

"I thought you said there was an emergency, Dad" she gushed.

Stephanie Michelle Plum raced back into my heart in that moment and I knew I wanted to save her from becoming me. I wanted that SO much. She and Skye needed to fly and until I could meet Joe Morelli and decide for myself, I was firmly in Ranger's camp.

"Sweetheart" began Ellen "there's something we've been meaning to tell you since you were old enough to talk, but somehow we never did and I'm not sure whether we've left it too late for you not to hate us for it." She looked down at her hands that were folded onto her lap on that faded dress. She looked so old and tired. My heart broke for her. She was going to destroy all of her daughter's trust in her. To me Ellen Plum became the biggest hero I've ever had the fortune to meet. Again I thanked God for giving my child to her.

Steph looked quizzically at her, she looked scared so she sat down and automatically picked up a cake that had been put down on our table when the drinks had arrived.

Frank continued "Pumpkin, you've always known that we love you, and we felt that the information we are about to share with you may have made you feel even more of an outsider that you already feel. You're not like Valerie, and there's a good reason for that."

Flawed logic, but I liked the way Frank was setting out his pitch.

"You're my sister" Blurted out Skye and everyone turned to look at her, with various degrees of shock on their faces.

"Ok, where's the camera hidden" said Steph, trying to lighten the conversation "someone's going to pop out from behind that bush and shout surprise in a minute, aren't they?"

"No, they're not" said Frank slowly and quietly.

Steph stood up, the crumbs from her cake fell off her t-shirt onto the ground, but she didn't notice. She made as if she was going to dash away, but Skye stood up and took her hands before she had a chance to say or do anything.

"I know it's hard to believe, but please it's true. Come with me" she said and led her by the hand to a wall on which I noticed a mirror hung.

Steph looked at both of their reflections and then back at Skye. Then she looked back at the mirror. Then back at Skye. Her fight or flight instincts were clearly visible but somehow, holding Skye's hand seemed to stop her dashing away.

Skye led her back to the table and sat her down, offering her the plate of cakes before picking one for herself and plonking herself down at Steph's side.

"O.K..... when did you figure you were going to tell me? I've spent my whole life not fitting into the Burg, never matching up to Saint Valerie and screaming against the confinement of my life and not knowing why my life was so difficult to live with" she said angrily.

"I'm sorry, Steph, we really felt it was for the best. Only your Grandmother and us knew our secret. We just never found the right moment to tell you..."

"and the gossips would have had a field day" Steph interjected, looking pointedly at Ellen. "So, where is my mother" she spat out as the light went on and she turned to look at me.

I returned her stare, but without the anger that I saw behind Steph's eyes. Tears had formed and were threatening to escape down my face.

"Don't" she said and got up and left.

Ch 12

My world had fallen apart, but Skye was there for me. Frank and Ellen left promising to speak to Steph when she'd calmed down. God knows when that would be, or even if she would talk to them. Things were not looking good.

Ranger called later that evening and I filled him in on how things had gone. He asked Skye and I to come to his offices in the morning and we agreed to do so. I must admit I was worried how Steph would take it if she found out that we were there, but Ranger assured me that Steph no longer came to Haywood now that she was marrying Morelli. I felt a little relieved but sad at the same time.

After using the gym the next morning I dropped in on sky who was having a leisurely coffee with a paper in her room.

"Look at this Mum" she said, showing me the front page.

The headline news article was about a flight – our flight – having crashed somewhere over the Atlantic with the loss of everyone on board. My stomach did a flip flop thing and I felt myself going lightheaded.

"Sweetheart, did you have any weird dreams on the way over here?" I asked, already knowing that the answer would be positive. She nodded with a look of terror on her face.

"Care to enlighten me?" I ventured. Again, I knew what the answer was going to be before she told me as I had the same dream...

"I dreamt I was floating then suffocating in a black void" she replied.

"Snap."

Then for measure I added "bugger"

We hugged for a few minutes then I got up and left to have a shower and to clear my head.

Ch 13

We reached Haywood and were let into the carpark. Apparently we were expected. No great surprise there.

I was getting used to Skye being stared at so wasn't surprised when the receptionist did a double take and waved us over to the lift.

As we stepped out on 5, I heard "incoming Bombshell" and smiled to myself. How wrong Ranger's Merry Men were. He obviously hadn't told them anything. Why did that not surprise me.

Ranger strolled over smiling. Dressed in his signature black he looked every inch the owner of his own destiny. I knew more about this man than anyone in this room, with the exception of Tank and did and internal chuckle. If only his team knew.

He held out his hand and I shook it. His firm felt reassuring and strong. He turned to Skye and did the same, then half turning away from us he said "ladies, shall we" and swept his arm out and waved us into his office.

Skye and I sat down on the sofa at the side of the office and Ranger sat in the chair next to us. Tank had followed us in and he shut the door before joining us.

"So, yesterday went well?" he ventured.

Ah, sort of

"Got any ideas where we go from here?"

No, well sort of

"How's about Tank fills you in on what happened after Steph left"

"You tailed her?" I asked, my eyes open wide

"Of course" he said putting his elbows onto the chair arms, bringing his fingers together to form a steeple and pressing his index fingers to his lips. He crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair.

"She got into her car and drove to Point Pleasant" Tank stated "It's where she goes to think"

"So, I haven't lost my big sis yet?" said Skye, hopefully

"Nah, Steph loves the idea of not being related to Saint Valerie and having a dim and distant past. I just think she freaked that her wishes have come true, plus she's really pissed off with her adoptive parents for lying to her for all these years"

"Not lying exactly, more like omitting the truth" I said in their defence.

"Are you sure?" I asked

"Positive" said Ranger

"Care to enlarge?" I tried again

"I know Steph, she's always been easy to read. She'll probably call me to talk about it once she's got her head round the facts as she knows them."

At that moment Ranger's phone went off. He looked down at it and decided to take the call.

"Yo"

"Really?"

"I'll be there"

He disconnected.

"That was the famous girl herself" he said, smiling slightly. "I'm meeting her for lunch at Shorty's – care to join us?"

"You're joking aren't you?" I said. "She'll never talk to you while I'm there. Plus she'll freak if she finds out you know me. She'll probably disown you for good and set a wedding date."

"Good point" he countered. "How's about you listen in?"

"Is that a good idea?"

"Probably not, but it could be worth a try"

"Yeah, you're right, but have you any idea where Steph gets her nosiness from?"

Skye sniggered and I smiled at her.

Ch 14

The rest of the morning was spent looking round Rangeman. Somehow Ranger knew we couldn't go home. I was waiting for him to explain how we'd managed to die on a plane but still be alive and on a grand tour.

Ranger outlined his plans for us as he saw them. Skye would work for Tank – organising the men and the office and I would be in charge of new business. My background in management consulting would be dusted off and put to good use. Fab, I thought, using my brain again. Ranger had realised that I would not be happy desk bound and had found the perfect job for me.

Ranger left to meet up with Steph suitably wired up. I hoped that if he decided to poach a kiss the wire wouldn't be noticed. He assured me that Steph was now completely off limits and that this was the first time they'd talked since he'd flown to England plus guilt would stop her from doing anything physical anyway.

I turned back to Skye only to find that she'd disappeared. "Gone off with Silvio to discuss the computer systems" said Hal (least I think it was Hal, they're all so tall and serious that apart from Tank and Silvio it's hard to distinguish them). I chuckled to myself and wandered in the direction of the kitchen for a bite to eat.

I bumped into a woman with dark hair and dark and alert eyes who I assumed to be Ella. I offered my hand and we smiled an introduced ourselves. I was right, she was just how I imagined her to be. I picked up a sandwich and plate and walked back to the control room to listen in to Ranger and Steph's conversation.

Ranger was in the process of explaining how he'd gone to England, found me and Skye and discovered that we were Steph's family too. She did not seem pleased. He then explained about my situation when she was born and I heard a sob, then Ranger reassured her that I was not a bad person, but a product of my generation's guidelines. Hence why I'd given her up. He then pressed her further and suggested that we were given a second chance. "Why should I?" She'd asked. "because I like them" was his only reply.

The conversation turned to other things so I left the room, deep in thought. There was a chance of us. Perhaps there was a chance for Ranger too.

Ranger came back to Rangeman with Steph in tow. He led her into his office and came to find me. Once he had reunited us he silently left the room and shut the door.

The first few minutes were awkward to say the least. We looked at each other from opposite corners of the sofa. At least we were in the same part of the room. That was a start.

I smiled, took a breath and told her everything I could about what had happened and what she had meant to me. I guess I was hoping for her understanding. Trust? No, far too early for that. When I had finished I added the word "thank you."

"Thank you for what?" she asked

"For letting me try to explain"

"I came back here because Ranger used the please word" she said

Oh

"then I realised that deep down inside I've never felt really Burg, there was and is more to me than babies, pot roast and clean curtains." She added. Her shoulders sagged and I could tell she was close to tears.

"I should be the one saying thank you –you're being here has made me realise that I'm not going mad. I really can fly and now I know why. I should never have doubted myself."

"You've got Ranger to thank for that" I added gently, hoping shed read so much more into that statement than I was able to tell her. "He's the one who came to help me in England. If Skye hadn't walked in neither of us would ever have known the truth and we wouldn't all be here now."

"But what about Mom and Dad?" she said

"What about them? They're still your parents. I might have given birth to you but they've loved you in a way that I was never able to. They took you to the hospital when you fell off the roof. They've guided you through your growing years and they were there for you when Orr turned out to have a thing for Joyce Barnhardt. They've never stopped loving you but right now they're probably worried about whether you still want them in your life."

"Of course I do, but this changes everything" she asserted

"Not really," I said "the only thing it should change is how you feel about yourself. You've already told me that you now know you're not going mad. Now you need to find out what else has changed. One thing you need to also think about is whether you actually need to change. I did, bit by bit I lost my zest for life. It started when the love of my life, Lucas left me and I gave you away, but it continued when I settled for a man who was comfortable. Granted I would never have had Skye who I love so much, but I lost me along the way. Are you sure you want this for yourself too?" I finished the sentence almost at a whisper.

Steph shot across the sofa –I thought she was going to hit me but she rushed into my arms and hugged me. Crying.

"Have you told Joe about me yet?" I asked, knowing the answer – Christ, I'm getting good at this ESP thing. Twice in one day, who'd have thought it!

"No" came the tearful reply. I continued to stroke her hair – so like Lucas's. Wow, I thought I'd forgotten all of him. Suddenly I needed to see a picture of him, I needed to show Steph who her father was and to beg that she could forgive him, as I had once Ranger had told me about him.

"Don't you think you should speak to your fiance?" I continued.

"Crap, you're right! I'll ring him now and we'll meet up at his for dinner tonight"

"No, somewhere less intimate" I said. I had no intention of meeting Joe anywhere where he was at ease. I needed somewhere more public so that I could judge him properly. If he was going to marry my daughter he'd better be up to the job, so to speak. We agreed venue and a time and pulled out of our embrace.

Steph left the building having first given Ranger a big thank you hug. He looked at me quizzically and I just smiled. I hoped he'd removed the wire as I didn't want Steph to know we were plotting anything. Hey, I was plotting something but no-one except Silvio knew.

Where was he and my other daughter anyway?!?

Ch15

My cunning plan was starting to come together. I'd caught up with Silvio and put the final touches to it then left to return to my hotel room. Skye wanted to stay and talk to Silvio more about scheduling side of things. Yeah, right. I had a feeling there was a lot more going on there than that!

8.00 found me in the carpark of Luigi's. I got out of my car and walked slowly into the restaurant hoping to find that I was early. Damn. They were already there.

Steph waved me over and I smiled as she stood up to greet me.

"Mom, this is Joe" she said with a smile

She called me Mom , not Mum, but hey

She called me Mom

Joe stood up and put his hand out to shake mine.

"Nice to meet you, I've heard so much about you" good looking man, yup, he definitely was Captain Hottie.

We all sat down and Joe asked me how we'd met. I looked at him and knew that this part of my plan had to spot on. I needed to sow the seeds of doubt with Joe and see how he'd react. React one way and he was the one for Steph. React the other and I'd made it my mission to split them up for good.

Over dinner, I proceeded to tell Joe about Ranger and how he'd realised when he first saw Skye that I had two daughters. I could see him assessing me. Obviously he was trying to work out who's side I was on. I stayed neutral and carefully worded what I said. I wanted to draw him out, test him. Did he want my daughter to change into another me? Did he want her to fly? I knew he loved her, that was obvious. But would he still love her in 15 years' time when her spark had left. Would he slowly let her die then leave her the way John had with me? I needed to know and that night I found out.

Ch 16

That night I couldn't sleep so I lay tossing and turning for what seemed like hours before I finally got up and went to the gym. Unlike my two daughters I enjoy physical exercise, well at least the type you can do in public. I never got the other type any more so this was my release.

As I stepped onto the treadmill I realised how far I'd come in only a matter of weeks. I was thinking again about my future for the first time in years. I was more positive than I had any right to be. I'd gained a daughter, a new job and a friend who was downright amazing. Shame about the age gap, but hey, he wanted my daughter not me.

I sensed a presence and caught Ranger in my peripheral vision. Blimey, he can move so silently.

"How was your evening?" he asked, casually.

"Interesting" I replied. Two can play at the silent thing, I thought to myself.

"My turn to ask a question" I said

"Fire away"

"What really happened to my flight?"

"Ah"

Ah?!?

"Care to enlarge?"

"Well, you know how when we first met you thought I was a character in a book. Well, you and Skye are now characters in the same book"

Ok, things just got weird again.

"Care to explain?"

"Can't, don't understand it myself, Silvio's the man for that one"

Hmmm.

"Changing the subject somewhat, I don't suppose you have any pictures of Lucas for me, stashed away, perhaps..."

"See what I can do" he said then left as quickly as he'd come.

Plan B was going to, well Plan B. Perhaps I should give my plans a code name. Operation.... pineapple. Don't ask me, just popped into my head whilst on the cross trainer!

Ch 17

Next morning I hooked up with Skye and we set off for Rangeman.

When we got there I pulled her into Silvio's office and shut the door.

"Is this office bugged?" I asked

"Not any more" said Silvio "why?"

"Operation Pineapple has commenced" I said smiling

"Mum, you read too much James Bond!" Skye said laughing

I proceeded to fill them in on my plans...

Ch 18

Ranger supplied me with a couple of pictures of Lucas. He really was as beautiful – I'd forgotten how lovely his face was and his hands, well let's just say they were magic. He gazed up at me out of the picture with his dark brown eyes sparkling and his arm round a young woman. I looked in amazement, it was me. A much younger carefree version of the woman I'd become. How the bloody hell Ranger had managed to find this one, I'll never know. I vaguely remembered it being taken. There was a second one of him looking very sultry and my heart bled for my loss, his loss, Steph's loss. I looked at them for what seemed like ages until I heard a cough and my eyes were pulled away to Skye who was looking at me with concern in her eyes.

"You OK, Mum?" she asked

"Yeah" I replied shakily

There was one other photo. Taken about a year ago and this one was of John and I. We were both smiling but there was no joy behind my smile, just a look of resentment and resignation. How sad, I thought. I so don't want this for Steph.

That evening we were going for dinner at the Plums' house. My plan was falling into place nicely as I'd also spoken with Frank and Ellen over coffee that morning. I'd taken the photos with me as proof of what I was telling them. Frank completely understood my point ofview but Ellen had seemed surprised at my interference but had eventually agreed that perhaps her interest in Joe was purely to do with his Burg background.

Yep, tonight, Operation Pineapple was going down and so was Joe Morelli. I hoped!

Tonight was a long way off so I spent my day fretting and wondering about what I was doing. Did I have the right to split them up? Could I even do it for good this time? Was I being fair to Joe – no – but I needed to be fair to Steph. I'd abandoned her once, I wasn't about to do so a second time.

Finally 6.00 came. Skye and I had arrived at about quarter to and Steph and Joe arrived with seconds to spare. Typical. Why hadn't JE built any time consideration into her? Hey ho. The table groaned with food and the number of people round it. Saint Valerie and Snuggle Umpkins (yes, still calls him that, and boy is it annoying) had left the kids with a baby sitter so that they could get to meet Skye and I, Grandma Mazur, Frank, Ellen, Skye, Steph, Joe and I all sat down.

Joe and Steph both looked a little flushed but I wasn't sure why. However, 10 minutes into the meatloaf, the reason came out.

They'd been arguing about the size of the wedding. Joe wanted a typical Burg extravaganza and Steph wanted something far more low key. Ellen, bless her, managed to keep her thoughts to herself as I tried to drag out of them what they both really wanted to prove by the wedding they preferred. Joe wanted to prove that he had finally beaten Ranger and the Steph was his. Steph wanted to keep the whole thing more intimate and less circus-like. I pushed Joe again. What was this thing with Ranger? He was Steph's friend, he looked out for her and mentored her. Surely he shouldn't be so vindictive towards him – he only wanted what he thought was best for her anyway, surely? Everyone round the table leaned in to hear his reply. They could all see where this was going, even Steph was looking at him with bated breath.

Joe couldn't stop himself, poor man. He explained that Steph would need to break off their friendship and stop working for Rangeman. She'd also have to work for Vinnie only on low-key FTA's that wouldn't involve any real danger. He needed her to get a safe job, but realised that she wouldn't agree to that so he felt that he'd allow her to do a little bounty hunting, but limit her...

I looked over to Ellen who was staring at Joe with open mouth. She had finally realised that Joe's love would stifle her and that eventually it would harm her. She also realised that the Burg was not the place for her.

Hurray, I thought, my final ally is in place, so I went for the kill.

"Joe, where do you think you'll be in 5-10 years' time?"

Stupid, stupid boy, you've fallen into my trap...

"For a start, we'll probably have 2 or three little people running around so Steph will be busy looking after them while I go and fight the bad guys. We'll have a bigger house – I'm a great cop, you know, and I'm expecting promotion in the next 6-9 months so we'll be able to afford to move up. In fact, we'll be just like Valerie was in California, but here in the Burg."

B I N G O!! Bye bye Joe...

He really didn't know what he'd done but Steph did.

"Joe! Kitchen! Now!" she hissed and stormed out of the dining room.

Ch 19

Three years on

Poor Joe, I had to feel sorry for him. He'd really meant to do the best for Steph, but hadn't realised that he was pushing his dream and aspirations onto someone who really didn't share them. They broke up for good that night. I must admit I didn't feel brilliant about what I'd done, but at least I'd saved Steph from my slow death. Had it been the right thing to do? Only time would tell.

Ellen had been brilliant and had told the gossips what she thought of them. Grandma Mazur had sorted out the ladies at the beauty parlour and Frank, well, Frank just was.

Skye and I really got to know the whole Plum family really well – we became an extension to them, not a separate annex of them and everyone benefitted.

What of Ranger? What of Steph? What of Joe?

Joe was easy. Eventually he decided that he didn't want to stay around so he applied and was transferred to New York. He got his promotion and it looks like he started dating about a year ago. Good lad, knew he wouldn't be alone for ever.

Ranger was more complex. It took him a while before he started sniffing round to see if he could be more than just a friend to Steph. He left her to lick her wounds for about 8 months. He called her during that time and they worked together, but he needed her to sort her head out before he tried to reach for her. He even stopped poaching whilst she got her head together. Eventually he asked her on a date.

Me? I'd shown her the pictures Ranger had given me on that fateful day and had talked to about how much my life had changed thanks to three different men. Ranger had given me permission to fly again too.

Steph? My amazing daughter went to hell and back. But with everyone's love and support she realised that it had to be for good this time. Joe loved her but stifled her and much as she loved him, she couldn't change for him. She was sad but glad to have finally made a decision. She had been worried that Ranger kept away from her, but as I pointed out he was letting her have her space and she stopped worrying. She accepted his offer of a date.

Now:

"And could you all please be upstanding for the bride and groom...

Mr & Mrs Silvio Durante"

I smiled with pride as Skye and her husband walked arm in arm into the room. I looked across the table at Steph and noticed that she had tears in her eyes. Ranger was whispering something into her ear and she was nodding.

Maybe....