Free At Last
Disclaimer: Janet Evanovich owns Stephanie Plum and all of her family and friends. I just like to play around in her world. Anyone you don't recognize is someone from my own imagination, but I'm still not making any money here. Also, the words of the song "Everything" belong to Michael Bublé and his co-writers, Alan Chang and Amy Foster-Gillies.
A/N: Thank you for joining me on my inaugural adventure into the Plum-verse. I've truly enjoyed the journey. Many thanks to those of you who took the time to tell me what you like about my story, as well as hints and recommendations for improving it. I've truly appreciated all of your input and the many encouraging reviews – especially Mik N'jirnav, who sent in the 800th review! And now the time has come – finally - for me to wrap up this story. Although I had written my epilogue ages ago, I made too many plot changes in the previous chapters for it to remain in its original form. Then, upon hearing Michael Bublé's song, "Everything," again, I also decided to present this final chapter in songfic form. So, after several re-writes - and pleading with my former beta, Claire, to check it over for me one last time - here is the closing. Happy reading, everyone! Enjoy! :D
He [Ranger] was standing close, his face inches from mine, his hand at the back of my neck. "We're going to do this, babe," he said. "It's going to be good." And then he kissed me.
Hard Eight by Janet Evanovich
Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's already been ten years since my best friend, Tank, and I left the active-duty Army and started up a little company we decided to call "RangeMan." My government handlers wanted me to gain some "street credibility" and arranged for us to become free-lance bond enforcement agents. At first, we operated out of a couple of hole-in-the-wall offices in Miami and Trenton. When our reputations as competent bounty hunters earned us a lot of respect – as well as a lot of money - we were able to expand our operations and hire more of our like-minded friends and associates. Within a few short years, we actually owned office buildings in Miami, Trenton, Boston and Atlanta. We've also branched out into the private security systems business, which has become our core business to this day and has served as an excellent cover for our more clandestine missions.
After I married Stephanie Plum and took her away "in the wind" with me, Tank was able to strike a good deal with Vincent Plum's bail bonds office. Vinnie's father-in-law, Harry the Hammer, had almost closed down the place when he discovered that there were no employees working for Vinnie anymore. Steph was chasing bad guys out west with me and Connie had taken a permanent leave of absence when she and Vince decided to start their family sooner rather than later. Even Lula had quit chasing skips for Vinnie after she married Tank, so that she could attend college classes full-time to finish her bachelor's degree. Harry agreed to let the bail bonds office stay open only if RangeMan would be on contract to deal with fifty percent of the cases. Now Tank trains the new guys by assigning them to work with Vinnie, who is back on the streets chasing skips again while his wife, Lucille, does his filing – when she feels like it.
After Lula finished her college degree, she had intended to become a social worker, but she became a stay-at-home mother instead. When her old hooker friend Jackie, who used to turn tricks with her on the same corner long ago, discovered that she was dying of cancer, she begged Lula to take care of her children – a boy named Lil' Jack after Jackie, of course, and a girl named Camille. At the time, Lil' Jack was barely two years old and Camille was a four-month-old infant. Thankfully, neither child had been born addicted to whatever it was that Jackie had been smoking, snorting or shooting into her veins.
Apparently, Lula had had a pretty rough childhood due to her own mother's addictions and issues and she couldn't bear to think of Jackie's kids going into the foster care system; therefore, right before the poor woman died, Lula and Tank became the legal guardians of the two helpless babies. Steph and I were skeptical about our friends becoming parents, but they seemed to be excited about it. The official adoption became final a year after Jackie died and, according to Tank, the kids don't seem to remember much of their life before becoming permanent members of the RangeMan family.
"Ranger, I'm tellin' ya'the truth; Lula is the best thing that ever happened to these kids. If Jackie had lived, their life really would've sucked. She had become a total wastoid and had no idea who either kid's actual father was. And the place where she lived was a friggin' dump," Tank had explained to me over the phone when he called to tell me that the adoption went smoothly. "Of course, we'll tell the kids how much their birth mother loved them when they're older, but for now, I'm glad that Jack and Camille only seem to remember me and Lula as being their parents."
"I bet it makes things easier," I had commented at the time, still enjoying my freedom out west with my Babe.
"Easier, sure, but not easy," Tank had replied. "We've had to make a lot of adjustments, but it's been worth it – especially since Lula's body can't bear any children and I never really wanted to inflict my gene pool upon any woman, anyway."
Tank welcomed us back with open arms when Steph and I first returned to Trenton. As the Chief Executive Officer and primary owner RangeMan, I knew I'd always have place for my own use at any of my office locations, but I didn't want to usurp my old friend's place as the boss of the Trenton office. In order to decrease confusion about the "chain of command" for our workforce, Tank and I decided to divide the workload so that I oversaw the security systems side of the business and he handled the majority of the fugitive apprehensions.
To this day, I've dealt mostly with business development and the corporate accounts, as well as my government contracts, while Steph has focused on the residential installations of our security systems. She loves to accompany the various security technicians, like Hector and Manny, out to the clients' properties and offer her female viewpoint on the wisdom and aesthetics of each placement. She also has continued to put her skills to work with the computer searches and background investigations. We have a great, easy-going partnership and we love to work together whenever possible.
You're a falling star; you're the get-away car.
You're the line in the sand when I go too far
You're the swimming pool, on an August day.
And you're the perfect thing to say
Today, we're celebrating RangeMan's tenth anniversary as a viable company. Although my men and I can dress up very nicely when we want to, we decided to have a large, casual gathering where everyone could relax and enjoy a day of fun and games. Recently, Tank and I were able to persuade a local businessman to sell us the two underdeveloped lots adjacent to the Haywood building. We plan to build a bigger and better RangeMan office and apartment complex, but for now we've just cleared the lots in preparation for the upcoming construction. Since there's nothing on that property yet, we decided to put up a huge party tent in which to have our company picnic nearby. My cousin, Pete Gonzalez - Gonzo – came into town for the event and he brought a few of the original employees from the Miami office with him, including Silvio. Erik Salvatora arrived from Las Vegas and our business partners from Boston and Atlanta have joined us, too.
Several of the guys Tank and I hired in the beginning – Lester, Bobby, Vince, Benny, Roy, Erik and Silvio – got together for a nostalgic morning workout before the day got crazy. These were the men with whom I had served in the Army – all of us Special Forces, all of us Rangers. They had been with me on that FUBAR mission down in the jungles of Colombia and we all had been severely messed up for a while. Several years ago, Doc O'Neill's specialized treatments helped us all to regain our fertility and today, everyone has at least one kid – except for Roy, who swears he'll stay a bachelor forever, and Bobby, who just got married this year after a very long engagement to his now-doctor/wife, Vivian.
While we were running, the men all started to harass me for starting off the wave of marriages when I eloped with my Babe almost seven years ago. Remarks flew back and forth about how quickly Tank and Lula got hitched, followed soon enough by Vince and Connie, who now have a little boy who's already got a tiny mustache coming in above his upper lip. Vince proudly announced that their second kid is due to arrive during holiday season. While we were congratulating Vince on the happy news, Benny said that he and his wife were working on their second child, too. They have a little girl and are hoping for a boy this time.
"Admit it, cousin," Lester finally urged as we finished the sixth mile of our eight-mile run. "It's your fault that we're all old married guys with kids now." Not surprisingly, Lester "had" to marry his girlfriend, Sheila, a few years ago, before she delivered the first of their two little daughters.
"Who you callin' old, punk?" Tank retorted and playfully slapped the back of Lester's head as he passed by him on the jogging path.
"Hey, speak for yourself, Santos," Silvio chimed in, "I feel real good! And my wife says I've got the same body I had when I was almost half the age I am now."
Lester laughed and called over his shoulder to Silvio in Spanish, **"Yeah, still short and scrawny! It's a good thing Juanita married you young, while she still had a glimmer of hope that you might grow. I'm sure she's used to the disappointing reality of your skinny ass by now!"**
This was followed by a lot of laughter as Lester took off at a faster pace to escape Silvio's retaliation. We all finished the run in good spirits and headed our separate ways to clean up. Roy still lived in an apartment on the fourth floor, so he just continued upstairs when we returned to the Haywood building. Tank, Lester, Bobby, Vince, and Benny all went to their own homes. The men from out-of-town were staying at our nearby safe houses, so that's where they went to get ready for the picnic. I didn't like to disturb Steph's sleep – she still refused to get up early, preferring to go the gym at lunchtime - so I usually took my shower in the basement before I headed up to the seventh floor.
While I was showering, I thought about the conversation we'd had during the run. All joking aside, it's safe to say that we've got our own "baby boom" going on here at RangeMan – and there are more kids on the way. Erik and his wife thought they were done, but their sixth child is due in early summer. Even though Lester has two of the cutest little girls I've ever seen, he says he'll keep trying until he gets a boy or two. Silvio's wife is due to deliver their third child in a couple of months. Cal Hansen keeps us informed about his cousin, Linda – the one who married Joe Morelli – and he just told us that she also is pregnant with her third child. Lester's already running a betting pool with heavy odds on Morelli adding yet another daughter to his first two – as continued justice for his misspent years as a bad boy. Guess it takes one to know one.
And you play it coy, but it's kinda cute.
Ah, when you smile at me you know exactly what you do.
Baby don't pretend, that you don't know it's true.
Cause you can see it when I look at you.
Luckily, Steph and I had had almost two years of traveling to exciting places and doing exciting things before we decided to return to New Jersey to settle down a bit. We caught plenty of bad guys, we went skydiving and scuba diving, and we stayed at some very nice hotels along the way. As I had promised my Babe, we spent the colder months of the year in the warmer places of the world – Aruba, Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys and other tropical spots – and we truly enjoyed ourselves. It felt very good to be off alone with my wife for such a long period of time, especially because I really wasn't quite ready to share her with anyone back then.
To get into her aliases while we were "in the wind," Stephanie had changed her looks drastically for each job. I even let her talk me into changing my hairstyle and color, too. For her "Michelle Morales" character, Steph dyed her hair black and wore brown contact lenses. She decided that "Rico Morales" had long curly hair, as well as a full mustache and beard. Steph's "Stella Pardo" alias had straight, blonde hair, cut very short. My "Marc Pardo" had light brown hair, slicked back from my face and no facial hair. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun together while we worked our asses off.
It was during the time when we were operating under the guise of our aliases out in Las Vegas that Steph began to put on some weight. No matter how hard she worked out in the gym, the extra pounds just wouldn't come off. After Erik Salvatora, who had been helping us locate some key witnesses near Vegas, joked about the way his wife had put on weight when she was pregnant, we went to a local pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test kit. My Babe and I were both in a daze when we figured out that she was pregnant, and as soon as we wrapped up our last case, we knew we needed to sneak back to Trenton for a very short visit.
As soon as we arrived back in New Jersey, Bobby took us to see his then-fiancée, Vivian, who had begun working as an intern at the nearby St. Francis Hospital in Trenton. She not only verified Steph's pregnancy, but she also was able to give her some good advice and enough prenatal vitamins to last until we returned to New Jersey. I already had decided to take my Babe on a well-deserved month of vacation down at my uncle's place in the Point Pleasant Resort on St. Thomas, before anyone else figured out that we were in town. We swore Tank, Ella and Bobby to secrecy, and we didn't have to worry about Lula finding out about Steph's pregnancy because she was sick at home with the two kids that she and Tank had adopted earlier that year.
It nearly drove my Babe crazy not to be able to see Lula and her kids in person, but we knew it was best for Steph and our unborn child to stay away from sick people for a while. Since he already had become a family man, Tank convinced me that I would need a certain amount of stability during the rest of Steph's pregnancy and after the baby arrived. In fact, it was Tank who insisted that I stay and work with him again in New Jersey so that he could, in his own way, take care of me and my new family. We both knew that my days of keeping my Babe all to myself were over. Besides, no matter how much I wanted to, I knew I couldn't deprive either my mother or Steph's mother the pleasure of being nearby when our first child was born.
Luckily, my Babe's special ability to be in the right place at the right time was still intact. The timing of our short stay in New Jersey couldn't have been better – Steph's parents had gone down to Miami to check on Grandma Mazur and her husband, Bruno, so we didn't have to worry about them figuring out the reason for our visit. We didn't even travel into the Burg because Steph's best friend, Mary Lou, had a house full of kids with head lice and so did her sister, Valerie. Their kids all went to the same elementary school and, apparently, the place was pretty lousy at that time. Connie was on maternity leave from the bonds office after giving birth to her and Vince's first child, so Steph just chatted on the phone with everyone and told them that we were only in town for two days anyway.
In fact, Steph's uncanny timing had enabled us to make some spectacular captures during our time out "in the wind." We had brought in eight high-dollar federal fugitives, which allowed us to fill up our own bank accounts, as well as the RangeMan coffers, with a tremendous amount of money. Tank and Gonzo and our other business partners were quite happy with our money-earning successes, so they didn't begrudge us our month-long vacation.
As soon as we confirmed Steph's pregnancy, I informed my government handlers that it would be necessary for them to place me on the "inactive list" for a while. Although they weren't pleased by this new development, they agreed to leave me alone for a while - as long as I understood that I still belonged to them. I knew I wouldn't be able to refuse every job that the Feds sent my way, but I promised Steph that I would discuss any jobs with her before I accepted them. I vowed to operate close to home and to stay mostly out of harm's way. My Babe promised to grow out her hair again, as well as to try to stay out of trouble. Of course, we both knew that trouble had a way of finding her anyway.
A big part of regaining our lives revolved around changing our appearances back to normal. We still had the look – and used the passports - of "Marc and Stella Pardo" when we headed for St. Thomas. As promised, Steph grew out her hair and returned it to its natural color during our stay at the island resort. I cut mine short again so that I wouldn't have to use any more hair dye, and I decided to grow back my facial hair before we returned to the mainland. We didn't realize then that it would be a very long time before the two of us would travel together as any of our aliases again.
The changes in my Babe's body totally astounded me and I was amazed by Steph's nearly insatiable appetite for both food and sex throughout her entire pregnancy. Since Rachel and I had had a marriage only on paper, I had never lived with the mother of my first-born child; therefore, I really hadn't ever been around a pregnant woman before. I was glad I took Steph to St. Thomas for our vacation. The tropical atmosphere was extremely good for us and we had access to the best foods the island could offer, so our diet was healthier than ever. Even better, my Babe could barely keep her hands off of me, so our sex life stayed healthy, too.
"Omigod! These sex hormones are the best part of being pregnant - it's like I just can't get enough!" Steph panted and slumped down against my chest after one particularly vigorous round of love-making on the most secluded beach I could find. She liked to be on top, especially now that her belly was beginning to protrude just a little, and I usually obliged her.
"Babe," I crooned as I ran my fingers through her hair and then stroked her sweat-slick back, amazed that she still had enough energy to continue speaking. We made love more now than we ever did when my Babe was sugar-deprived.
Steph sat up again and swept her damp hair off of her neck. Although it only had grown out few inches, her tresses were back to their natural brown color and, without the regular taming from a hot flat iron, the wild curls had returned with a vengeance in the tropical humidity. She gazed seductively down at me and asked, "So … Carlos, what do you think?"
"About what?" I had asked in return as she continued to let my hands wander up and down her bare torso.
She asked, "What do you think about my hair now?"
"I think it's beautiful, querida," I replied, as I ran my fingers through her dark curls. "You're beautiful, Babe."
"Don't you miss being with a blonde?" Steph asked coyly.
"Babe?" I asked warily, wondering what she really meant.
"Well, I was a blonde for such a long time and I just wondered if …" and she let her sentence trail off into a self-conscious shrug.
In my mind, I could sense that Steph was thinking about her old boyfriend Morelli's preference for golden-haired women and I hated the idea that so many of her insecurities came from their time together. Sometimes, even though I thought I had conquered all of my Babe's old thought patterns, stray remnants of her past relationship with the cop would pop up to haunt me. Seeking to vanquish this particular "ghost" once and for all, I rolled our entwined bodies over on our blanket until she was under me and I gazed directly into her clear blue eyes.
"No, Babe; I don't miss your hair being blonde -not at all," I reassured her. "Remember back when you captured Eddie DeChooch and you called me in to help you finish the job?"
"Yeah," she answered, a slow grin spreading across her face. "That was when we made 'The Deal,' wasn't it?"
I nodded and grinned back at her. "All of my fantasies of being with you had been with the original brunette version of you," I admitted. "When you called me over to your apartment that night, you had just dyed your hair blonde and I hated it. And when I returned after securing DeChooch at the hospital, the blonde hair ruined the moment for me."
Steph gasped and asked, "Is that why it took you so long to collect your "fee" for helping me to capture DeChooch?"
"If I remember correctly – and I do - you weren't really ready for me at that time, anyway." I grinned and nodded as I twirled a strand of her beautiful, dark hair around one of my fingers. "I've only tolerated your recent blondeness because it was a good look for our assignments in Vegas, but seriously, Babe, I'm glad you're back to your normal brunette self."
"You really don't think that blondes have more fun?" she asked as she arched her body against mine, clearly feeling more confident and already ready for another round of lovemaking.
All I remembered saying before I crushed her lips with mine was, "Babe." And then we were at it again.
And in this crazy life, and through these crazy times
It's you, it's you; you make me sing.
You're every line, you're every word, you're everything.
I'm still a control freak. It's my basic nature to try to control whatever I'm able to control, for however long I can control it. Of course, these days, I'm much better at accepting the fact that I cannot control every aspect of my life, but this realization doesn't necessarily prevent me from trying to maintain at least some control. It doesn't help matters that I married a wonderful, wacky woman who has brought chaos and uncertainty into almost every adventure we've ever had together. Over the years, however, I've discovered that a little bit of chaos isn't such a bad thing after all.
Morning is still my favorite time of the day. I like to wake up early, when the apartment is usually very quiet and I can indulge my illusion that everything is under my control. I also love waking up next to my totally tantalizing wife. Even after all this time, she somehow manages to drape herself over me while we sleep, but I certainly don't mind that. This morning, when I disentangled my body from hers so that I could go out for my run with my oldest friends, my Babe didn't stir at all. And when I returned to the apartment and slid back under the covers, I noticed that she still hadn't moved a muscle. She was completed exhausted and the reasons for her exhaustion happened to be sleeping all around us in our now-overcrowded apartment.
Of course, back when we returned to New Jersey after our vacation in St. Thomas, everyone went crazy over the news of Steph's pregnancy. Both my mother and Steph's mother threw lavish baby showers for her, which filled our apartment with all sorts of baby stuff. Not surprisingly, our families harassed us about our decision to stay in our seventh-floor "fortress" apartment, instead of finding a "real" house to live in. What they didn't know was that while my Babe and I had been on vacation, Ella and Louis Guzman had transformed my den office into a nursery for us. There was no way I was going to subject myself and my new family to the constant intrusions of well-meaning, but pesky, family members once the baby arrived.
Vivian had recommended that we see a respected obstetrician in Philadelphia, but my Babe caved in to family pressure and we ended up going to Valerie's doctor, instead, who scolded us for not getting the proper prenatal care earlier. It took all of my self-control not to drop-kick the old coot out of the window after every appointment, but I refused to let the man make Steph feel guilty. I promised myself that, in the future, we would go to doctors who didn't know anyone in the Plum family. I didn't care if that made them mad at me. After all, I already had made both sets of our parents angry by taking Steph and the new baby – a son, born to us on the day after Julie's fourteenth birthday – up to our apartment and making everyone sign in at the front desk when they came to visit.
Against my admittedly weak protests, Stephanie insisted that we name our first child after me. Thus, Ricardo Carlos Mañoso, Junior joined the RangeMan family and everyone promptly started calling him "CJ" for Carlos Junior. Regardless of my son's name or nickname, I was the happiest man on the face of the earth and my Babe was pretty proud of herself, too. Oddly enough, Joe Morelli's wife was in the hospital at the same time, having just given birth to their second daughter. We were friendly toward each other, but I could tell that the cop felt a little self-conscious about only having girls so far. Of course, Frank Plum was overjoyed to have another grandson. Helen Plum and my parents were just happy to have a grandchild from Steph's body – which, fortunately, bounced back into shape very quickly.
There were a few major snow storms in New Jersey before Christmas that year, so we spent a lot of time snuggled up together indoors with our little son, who slept quite a lot. My Babe and I celebrated her body's speedy recovery a bit too enthusiastically and when CJ was only six months old, we soon discovered that we'd be parents again rather quickly. After the holidays, Steph insisted that we head to Miami for the rest of the winter months, which worked out great because we were able to introduce our son to all of the Miami relatives and friends. Rosie and Shelly had transformed the den in my Biscayne Boulevard apartment into a nursery, too, and that was a tremendous help.
One of the bonuses of us being in Miami was that we were able to be involved with the preparations for Julie's quinceañero party. I offered to pay for everything, as a gift to Julie, and Rachel and Ron accepted with gratitude. Rachel was very gracious toward Stephanie, who remembered a lot of details from the time she had helped my Aunt Maribel with her granddaughter's quinceañero in Tampa. My Uncle Diego flew my parents down to Miami in the corporate jet so that they could attend the momentous occasion. It was my mother's first visit to the Súarez side of the family in more than a decade. The women spent a lot of time planning the big event while my father and I spent a lot of time on the Batcave, fishing with Papí Súarez. Even though Ron handled the most important roles during the ceremonies, my daughter included a special dance with me in front of all her guests. I felt quite honored.
It was hard for me to believe that my oldest child was now a young lady. Julie was so tall and beautiful and confident. In addition to classical dance classes, Rachel and Ron had supported her learning the martial art of karate and our daughter plans on earning her black belt before she finishes high school next year. As a popular junior at Coral Gables High School, the same place from which both Rachel and I had graduated, Julie has had more than her fair share of potential dates. Fortunately, all of her teen-aged male Súarez cousins have kept their watchful eyes on her, which helps to support Ron and Rachel in their efforts to keep all the horny high school boys away from Julie. This parenting stuff is not for wimps!
While we were in Florida, we also celebrated CJ's first birthday by having a little party on the beach the weekend after Julie's quinceañero. Of course, my parents and Grandma Mazur and Papí Súarez, as well as many of my Miami relatives and the Florida RangeMan crew, were completely overjoyed at being able to join us for the happy event. With an August due date, it was too late for us to fly back up to New Jersey and so our second son was born in Miami, two days before my thirty-fifth birthday. What a great present!
As payback for CJ's name, I insisted that we name our new little boy after Stephanie. Esteban Miguel Mañoso, whom we decided to call Miguel, joined the ever-expanding RangeMan family. We decided to stay in Florida for the rest of that year. Of course, Steph's mother whined and complained when we didn't come home to Trenton for the holidays, but Papí hosted a big fiesta for everyone in Miami and it was fun to spend Christmas on the beach with my Babe and my boys. Sadly, the RangeMan crew of Miami - spurred on by Gonzo, I'm sure - started calling me and Steph "Bat-Daddy" and "Range-Mom" during our extended stay and that's when I began to call them Merry Men.
You would think that my Babe and I might have learned our lessons about celebrating her speedy recoveries, but you would be wrong. Thus, two days after Steph's thirty-sixth birthday, we added little Elena – yes, our third child in just over three years - to our family. It was almost springtime by the time we figured out that Steph was pregnant and she declared that she wanted to give birth to our next child in New Jersey. There was no way Steph would try to endure another hurricane season in the Sunshine State. The tropical heat of the previous summer had been unbearable for my Babe, especially right before Miguel's arrival. So we headed back North while Steph was in her second trimester with Elena.
Of course, Rosie was very sad to see us go, but Ella was ecstatic to have us back on the seventh floor of the Haywood building. Upon our return, there were lots of jokes on the control room floor about my now-obvious virility. Also, someone from Miami - probably Gonzo - must have spread the word about our new nicknames, because they went through the building like wildfire. While Steph didn't mind being called "Range-Mom," I quickly grew tired of "Bat-Daddy." Anyway, I was able to get into great shape with all the extra time on the mats – especially with Lester, who just couldn't keep his big mouth shut. I guess some things really never change!
Steph nursed each of the boys for the first few months of their lives – until their teeth came in – and she was able to regain her pre-pregnancy shape pretty quickly. There even was the added bonus of her having a bit more cleavage than before, which was quite the pleasant surprise for both of us. Call me selfish, but I'm hoping that all of Elena's teeth will come in early because I'm tired of sharing my Babe's luscious body with all of these wonderful little people I helped to create.
You're a carousel, you're a wishing well,
And you light me up, when you ring my bell.
You're a mystery, you're from outer space,
You're every minute of my every day.
A smile crept across my face as I slid under the covers, snuggled up behind my Babe and tightened my arm's grip around her soft midsection. I gazed over at the sleeping form of the newest little "agent of chaos" to enter our home - our baby daughter, Elena Maria-Blanca Mañoso. Admittedly, it's a mouthful of a name, but we wanted to honor several of the women in our family. Although it's my youngest sister's name, "Elena" also happens to be the Spanish equivalent of "Helen" which, of course, made the Plum side of the family very happy. "Maria" is a traditional part of the names of many of the women in my family, and Blanca was my beloved abuela's name. Yes, our baby girl is already well-loved by everyone on both sides of her family, but most of all, by me.
Resisting the urge to shake my head in disbelief, I merely smiled at the thought of the sixteen-year-difference between my oldest and youngest children. As if she knew I was thinking about her, my precious baby girl began to squirm inside her portable crib, which was next to our bed. I gently raised myself up onto my elbow until I could see Elena's little face. Her clear blue-green eyes, which were exactly like my Abuela Blanca's eyes, popped open and she stared silently at me before she stuck her tiny thumb into her rosebud of a mouth. Elena and I regarded each other for a long moment and, once again, I noticed how much she resembled Julie, who, of course, also looked like me - except for the blue eyes.
I couldn't help myself as I whispered across Steph's still-sleeping form, "You know you're the last one, right, baby girl? There won't be any more after you." And I seriously meant it.
Six-month-old Elena continued to suck on her thumb and she merely stared sleepily into my eyes without making a sound.
This might sound strange, especially after everything I've gone through since that fateful mission to Colombia, but I've recently recovered from a vasectomy. For better or for worse, it seemed that every time we had unprotected sex, Steph got pregnant. My men even started calling us a "baby-making force of nature" – to my face! Now that we are the parents of three wonderful, but truly unexpected children, our seventh-floor apartment is too crowded. That's part of the reason Tank and I decided to build a bigger headquarters next door, with a substantially larger apartment for me and family, as well as more facilities for training and housing our unmarried employees who do a lot of shift-work. I actually thought about moving my little crew out to a large house on the Jersey Shore, but nothing seemed as right for us as living within the safety and security of our RangeMan home – and my Babe agreed.
Honestly, I never imagined that there ever would be such a crew. I don't have anything against large families – after all, I wouldn't even exist if my parents had decided to stop having kids after they'd had Nestor or Maria. . It's just that I never imagined myself to be the father of so many offspring. Although I was very proud and relieved to discover that my body had become fully functional and highly capable of producing children, I did not want us to end up like Valerie and Albert. They just had their sixth and seventh children – another boy and then one more girl within the past two years. Steph's mother and grandmother are ecstatic about having so many grand- and great-grandchildren, but the prospect of having more than four children seriously freaked me out.
As soon as Steph gave birth to Elena and the doctor's verified that both of them were healthy, I made an appointment to see a highly-recommended urologist. He explained what happened to me and Steph by saying that "the physical manifestation of my now-potent virility had overwhelmed the contraceptive precautions that were in place at the time." In other words, the Pill wasn't able to protect my Babe's womb from the onslaught of my super-sneaky "Batsperm" – as she now calls it. After several consultations with both Dr. O'Neill and the urologist, I decided to get the vasectomy and Steph supported me wholeheartedly.
No, as I watched my baby girl close her eyes and drift back to sleep, I could say without a doubt that I have no regrets about getting what my Babe now calls the "big snip-snip." I'm fully recovered now and so is Steph. We're free again to relax and enjoy all the sex we want without having to worry about bringing another child into the world every year. This is very important to me because not only do I despise condoms, but also because Steph's libido has never decreased – not even with the back-to-back pregnancies. We're still just as addicted to one another as we ever were, but after Elena was born, Steph finally admitted that she was tired of being pregnant. Three kids of our own are enough for us. Life is good and we want it to stay that way.
And I can't believe, uh that I'm your man,
And I get to kiss you baby just because I can.
Whatever comes our way, ah we'll see it through,
And you know that's what our love can do.
As I've said before, some things never change. Although Steph has discovered the joy of afternoon naptime, when she and all three of our children usually will sleep for almost two hours, she knows that morning is still my favorite time of the day. As soon as I was certain that little Elena was asleep again, I silently moved her crib into the nursery between CJ's toddler-sized bed and Miguel's crib. None of the children stirred when I closed and locked the door.
"Hey, Batman," Steph rasped sexily as she wriggled her backside against me when I returned to our bed. "Do you think there's enough time to-"
I interrupted her question with a kiss and then I grinned down at her. I always made time for this. Ever since the arrival of CJ, Steph and I have learned how to satisfy our perpetual addiction to each other by taking advantage of every free moment that comes our way. And although we have refined the art of silent lovemaking, neither of us wanted our little trio to interrupt our fun this morning. First, my Babe made exquisite love to me and then I pulled her on top of my body to return the favor.
Afterward, I deeply inhaled the scent of her wild mane of hair and said, "That was good, Babe. Real good."
Steph nodded and murmured, "Mmmm … yes, it was, Carlos. It's really great that we're celebrating RangeMan's tenth year and everything today, but I'm glad we got to celebrate in our own way now. It's gonna be a long day and we both know that the kids'll be tired and cranky by the time we get back up here."
I grinned even wider and said, "Ella's gonna take CJ and Miguel to her apartment tonight, so we'll only have to worry about Elena. As soon as you give the baby her last feeding of the evening, we'll have the rest of the night to ourselves."
"The rest of the night to ourselves, huh?" Steph smiled down at me. "Yum!" She leaned down to kiss me soundly and then the unmistakable sound of CJ's little fist banging on the door interrupted us.
"Mama! Papa!" CJ yelled through the locked door. "I gotta go pee-pee."
Sighing, I lifted my Babe off of me, got out of our bed and opened the door to the nursery. CJ ran past me and into the bathroom. Obviously in a big hurry, our oldest son waved his little hand at Steph, but he didn't slow down for his usual morning hug. CJ took great pride in the fact that he was fully potty-trained and didn't have to wear diapers like his younger brother and sister. In fact, there hadn't been an accidental wetting since Elena was born.
Jarred out of her slumber by the noise, Elena began to cry, so I gently rescued her from her crib and tried to comfort her. Unfortunately, I didn't possess what my daughter really wanted, so I took her to Steph for her morning feeding. My Babe's ability to nourish our children from her own body never ceased to amaze me and although I could watch her nursing one of our babies all day, Miguel was now clamoring for my attention.
My younger son was a comical sight as he stood there in his crib with his chubby little fingers wrapped around the bars, loudly and indignantly protesting his "imprisonment" until I silenced him with a glare. Then I scooped up my dark-haired, blue-eyed son and tossed him into the air a few times. His squeals of delight put a smile on my face. Soon, though, the pungent odor of his fully-loaded diaper put that activity to a swift end until I cleaned him up a bit. My sandy-haired, dark-eyed son returned to the nursery, sat on the edge of his toddler-sized bed and observed my actions.
"You see this, CJ?" I asked my oldest son as I lifted his brother's bottom and placed a fresh diaper under it. "Real men aren't afraid of doing anything – not even this!" But then I lowered my voice and said, "But let's just keep this to ourselves. Don't tell any of your uncles that your Papa does this, okay?"
CJ nodded and, as always, I was amazed by how much he also resembled my oldest child, Julie. Whenever I compared their baby photos, it was difficult to see which one was which. Their silky, sandy-brown hair could have been a legacy from my Abuela Blanca or from someone on Steph's Hungarian side of the family, but their eyes were all mine – deep brown and serious, with long eyelashes.
Once Miguel's bottom was dry and freshly diapered, his bright blue eyes gazed up at me and he smiled. As long as his diaper was dry and empty, he was a happy-go-lucky little boy. His brown hair was beginning to show the tiniest hint of a curl and his eyes and disposition definitely came from Stephanie. Thankfully, he couldn't escape from his crib – yet. After I finished dressing both of the boys they followed me back into the master bedroom, where we all climbed into the bed next to Steph and the baby. I told both boys to give their mama a good morning kiss and she soon was covered with our children. As soon as Elena was finished with her breakfast, I heard Ella's timely knock on the front door and we knew that breakfast for the rest of us had arrived.
And in this crazy life, and through these crazy times
It's you, it's you, you make me sing.
You're every line, you're every word, you're everything.
"Babe," I called down the hallway, "Hurry up! We're gonna be late." It was almost time for the anniversary celebration to begin and I had been downstairs with Tank, checking on a few last-minute details, while Steph finished getting ready.
"No we're not!" Steph's voice came back at me. "I set all the clocks to be ten minutes fast. Lula told me that's how she's been getting to places on time these days and I thought it was a neat trick."
Sighing, I glanced down at my wristwatch and compared it to the digital display on the microwave oven in the kitchen. Sure enough, there was a ten-minute discrepancy between the two time-keepers. I knew that Steph had meant well, but part of me wanted to take charge of the situation again and return all of the clocks to the actual time. I took a few deep breaths and let the moment pass.
"Since when do you copy ideas off of Lula?" I called down the hallway again, feeling a bit annoyed.
Steph laughed and replied, "Since we ran into each other – literally – down in the basement garage yesterday afternoon. I was hurrying out to go to my parents' house to pick up our kids as she was coming in to the building to pick up her kids. They were visiting with Ella while Lula was running errands. Anyway, she had a bunch of files and papers for Tank in her arms and her stuff went flying everywhere when I crashed into her. After she finished cursing me out, she told me that I just needed to trick my mind into thinking that I had less time than I actually do, so that I could stop rushing around at the last minute."
Shaking my head, I said, "She's got a point there. But I thought Tank said that Lula didn't use bad language anymore."
"Only around the kids," explained Steph as she came out of our bathroom and sashayed toward me. She was still wearing her robe – my old robe - and her wet hair was wrapped up in a towel. "So … relax, Batman! Ella came by earlier and took Elena and the boys with her, which means that we've got plenty of time to get ready by ourselves." Then she kissed me lightly on my lips and said, "Besides, the Merry Men all know us well enough by now that they'll just assume we got distracted on our way down."
As always, my body reacted to the seductive tone in my Babe's last statement. I had a quick internal argument with myself about whether or not I wanted to make us arrive really late for our own party, even though the event was taking place in our own backyard, so to speak. "We are not going to be late, Babe," I insisted – more for my own fortification than hers. "Just consider this to be… unfinished business."
Steph's blue eyes darkened with desire and she cooed, "Oooo! You know unfinished business is one of my favorite excuses." Then she dropped her voice even lower and said, "Besides, since the kids aren't here right now … we can, um, make as much noise as we wan-"
A low growl inadvertently escaped from my throat as I grabbed my sexy Babe's hand and pulled her back toward the bedroom. "Screw it!" I said, "The Merry Men can wait."
Steph giggled and said, "I was counting on you saying that!"
And in this crazy life, and through these crazy times
It's you, it's you, you make me sing.
You're every line, you're every word, you're everything.
You're every song, and I sing along.
'Cause you're my everything.
Not surprisingly, the employees and friends of RangeMan produced loud and vigorous wolf-whistles and cat-calls when Stephanie and I entered the picnic tent and strolled toward the podium in front of the bandstand. Many people were seated at the round tables which surrounded a wooden dance floor. Tank, who was standing off to the side of the bandstand with a beer in his hand, merely saluted me with his bottle and gave me a knowing grin. Gonzo shook his head in mock disgust and began to applaud us and everybody else in the room quickly joined in.
"Hey Bat-Daddy!" called out a familiar voice in Spanish before I got very far. **"You know you two really should let baby number three get a little older, before you start working on baby number four. Give the rest of us a chance to catch up, okay?"** Lester knew that Steph now understood a lot of basic phrases, but there was no way she would have been able to translate everything he'd just said. However, the guys who did understand Spanish chuckled at his remarks.
"Mats, Santos! Monday morning at oh-dark-thirty. Don't be late!" I growled in English for emphasis, but my satisfied grin wouldn't disappear from my face.
I winked at my Babe and released her hand. She looked gorgeous in her red sundress and I knew that she was blushing so fiercely that her skin probably would match the color of the dress very soon. She hurried over to a table where Ella and Lula sat with all of our children and slid into the seat that they had saved for her. It was a good thing that our kids were too young to understand the true meaning of all the coarse jokes and not-so-subtle innuendos that were flying around. Ignoring all of the rowdy Merry Men, I brushed at a nonexistent speck on the sleeve of my crisp blue shirt and then reached for the microphone to deliver my speech.
"Gentlemen – and ladies," I inclined my head toward Steph, Ella, Lula and Connie and they grinned back at me. "Thank you all for coming out today as we celebrate ten years of RangeMan, Incorporated. As most of you know, we started out very small – really, just Tank and me working the streets of Miami and then Trenton after we came off active duty."
"Hooah!" A deep chorus, consisting mostly of male voices, boomed throughout the tent.
I waited for the men to quiet down before I continued, "We invited more of you to join us as we built up our street credibility as all-around 'security experts' as well as bad-ass bounty hunters."
"Hooah!" was the vigorous response again.
It was a rare sunny, early spring day in Trenton and everyone was in good spirits. I slowly gazed around at all of the happy, familiar faces under the tent and waited for the loud exclamations to taper off before I continued to speak again. Congratulating everyone on the fine work that they had given over the past ten years and more, I made sure that I had eye contact with each person as I spoke. I talked about the many ways that our people had served and continued to serve our nation by providing safety and security in whatever ways we could do so.
"With the offices that we've established and maintained in several locations, RangeMan quickly became a force of its own," I said, holding up a hand to demand quiet. "Now, I know it's been somewhat of a joke over the years that I might possibly be Batman. And although my wife definitely is Wonder Woman and 'Range-Mom,' I must admit that I am not the famed Caped Crusader – and certainly not 'Bat-Daddy.'" I waited for the laughter to die down and then said, "Be that as it may, we finally have decided to build … the Batcave."
There was a loud roar of approval before I told them all about the plans for the newer, bigger and better RangeMan Headquarters which we would build together on the ground where our feet currently rested. Tank unveiled an easel with the architectural drawings of what we hoped the new complex would look like when it was completed. My speech wasn't very long, but final chorus of enthusiastic "Hooah!"s I received when I was finished let me know that I had done a good job. I shook my head in amazement over all that we had accomplished so far. Now it was time to enjoy a little bit of the good life – at least until the next tough mission.
Then the DJ, who was one of Lester's cousins, cranked up the music and the party went into full swing. Everyone I passed either shook my hand or patted me on the back in congratulations. When I finally sat down next to Steph, she slipped her hand into mine and pulled me toward her for a deep kiss of approval. Ella also nodded her approval of my speech and then wandered off to corral the children so that they could eat their lunch. My Babe handed a cold Corona to me and I silently sipped it as I watched some of guys dancing with their wives or dates. Those of us with younger kids would join them on the dancefloor eventually, but for now, we passed our babies around to sit on each other's laps.
Although I am a survivor, there have been many occasions when I doubted that I'd ever live past the ripe old age of forty. Sometimes, there wasn't much I even wanted to live for – that is, until Stephanie Plum sashayed into my life and captured my heart. Even after that happened, there were days when I was certain that she wouldn't choose to be with me, especially since I was so messed-up for such a long time. Now, I want to live, if not forever, then certainly as long as it takes for me and my Babe to raise our three wonderful children together and I'm making every effort to live every moment of this life to the fullest.
Steph interrupted my deep thoughts when she tapped my shoulder to let me know that it was time for her to nurse Elena again. Ella smiled and told me to accompany my wife on her quest for privacy. Our saintly housekeeper had become a "third" grandmother to our children and she had both CJ and Miguel under her complete control. After I escorted my ladies up to our apartment, I decided to go up to the roof of the building. Sometimes I liked to stand and look out at the horizon and survey my surroundings from the high vantage point.
A stiff breeze greeted me when I stepped out onto the roof and I carefully walked around the tall radio transmission towers to gaze down at the property where the new building would exist someday. Unfortunately, I don't possess x-ray vision, so I couldn't see through the party tent to observe the festivities, but some of the men were playing a rather cut-throat game of volleyball on the bare ground beyond the tent. Smiling up toward the sun, I allowed my thoughts to drift for a while. As usual, my thoughts always returned to my Babe.
Over the years, it's been very satisfying to watch Stephanie Plum finally break free from her mother's tight "apron strings," as well as the ludicrous expectations of her Burg upbringing. Even though I had rebelled and escaped from the restrictive ties of my own family long ago, I discovered that I wasn't as free as I'd always thought I was. Actually, I was messed up in many different ways, but with the love and help of my beautiful and talented Babe – I've been able to break free of the bondage of my tortured past and become the healed man that I am today.
My life is the best it's ever been and it's getting better every year. Slowly, but surely, Steph and I have declared our independence from the past hurts and failures and fears. The bond between us is complete. Most of the time, we're truly aware of each other's feelings, desires, triumphs and challenges. When we argue, which we most certainly do at times - we try to fight fair. Since we're both committed to raising CJ, Miguel and Elena in the safest environment possible, we try not to work as many hours as we used to. Perhaps someday, when our kids are much older, we'll get back to chasing skips together, but for now, my Babe and I make sure to sleep in each other's arms each night and we take time to marvel at all the little miracles in our lives.
Yes, today, we truly are free at last.
A/N: My two favorite Stephanie Plum novels are Eleven on Top and Twelve Sharp. As you know, at the beginning of each chapter, I've included quotes from every book in the series, except Sizzlin' Sixteen, which hadn't been released when I started writing. Not surprisingly, the most quotes – seven in total – came from EOT. When I saw the action between Ranger and Steph in those books, I thought (hoped, fantasized, etc.) that JE really would put them together. And after Morelli sheltered the odious Dickie Orr in Lean Mean Thirteen, I was sure that Joe would get marginalized. Guess that shows how much I know. Anyway, I have enjoyed writing this story and I think that most of you have enjoyed reading it. Again, I offer my deepest appreciation to those of you who have taken the time to tell me what you like about each and every chapter of my story, as well as those of you who offered hints and recommendations for improvement along the way. There are too many of you to mention by name, but you know who you are. And to my awesome beta, Claire - I owe you big time! You're the best! Thanks so much for your support and encouragement and patience along the way! I do plan write other stories in this fandom, so stay tuned. Please continue to let me know what you think of my writing. I look forward to hearing from all of you in the future. Happy reading! :D