Slightly alternate background. Stephanie worked at the lingerie buyer for a while but after she got laid off, she went back to school for her masters, figuring she wouldn't mind teaching or something in the writing field for a career. Of course, while she's in school she gets her cousin to give her a job as a bounty hunter. Everything else (capturing Morelli as her first skip… etc) is all the same.
In this story Stephanie's world comes crashing around her right after the man she's been too chicken to admit she wanted for so long, leaves her mentally bruised, battered and left behind with a lot of baggage. It's a BABE story eventually.
As I look back now, I should have realized the truth. Things that seem too good to be true usually are. But you never know until you're in it, do you? I'd always known that Ranger and I had a "Look-But-Don't-Covet" relationship, it was a given from the start. He was hot and willing as long as you didn't mind having your heart broken. So when he came to my apartment after a particularly nasty accident of mine involving a gun-shot to the shoulder and a week in a coma, I should have known better. I should not have listened to the "I can't lose you," or the "Let's make this work." I shouldn't have been swayed by the intensity of the kisses or by the way he told me, with his eyes full of determination, that he loved me.
It didn't take two days for it all to come crashing down. I heard them; Ranger and Lisa, one of the people who had arrived two days after my short-lived bliss had begun. They were in his office, just the two of them.
"It's a non-issue." He says. I strain to pick up the words he's saying and I catch quite a few. "I have no attachments … anyone or anything… Stephanie? She's not important… not that it's any of your business but it's my sex life and I'll fuck anyone I like … situation is clear … I'm ready … we can … leave 9AM sharp…"
There's a sharp pain in my chest.
"Good to hear…" she responds. "… over tonight … can't wait …" more mumbled words.
I take a few steps back from the door. I'm backing away as if it's radioactive. Suddenly I'm having trouble breathing. Stephanie? She's not important. That certainly wasn't what he said before. I'd made it clear to Ranger after the first time we'd slept together (a deal made up on his part… a payment to a situation with a skip) that I couldn't do casual sex. I mean, no woman in their right mind would say no to Ranger, but it would be one thing if he wasn't basically my best friend.
Or so I thought.
In my mind I replay the past events leading up to this: Ranger checking up on me in the hospital, us eating pizza and laughing a lot... the cuddling … the sweet gestures … the love making … the words he said that made me so jubilant.
"Steph, are you alright?" Lester comes up behind me, startling me. I hear but don't really see Ranger's office door snap open. "You look pale, do you need something?"
I shake my head, trying not to look at Ranger but I fail. His eyes meet mine; he's as stoic as ever, blank face firmly in place. Expressionless yet analytical.
He knows I heard.
I stare at him, in straight-faced disbelief. My mind is blank and all I can do is stand there feeling like a total idiot. Feel a large amount of anger and hatred.
I tear my eyes away from him and turn. "Here," I say to Lester, slapping the files I have in my hand into his stomach. He catches them as I let go. "The information you need to get Klein. The deadline is midnight but there is new Intel in there. Good luck." There's no way I'm giving the asshole the satisfaction of seeing me look as broken as I feel, so with my head held high and a confident stride, I make my way to the elevator.
Ranger doesn't move.
When I get into the elevator and turn to push the button, he's still staring at me. I can't help but stare back. My stare is full of tragic disappointment, fury, and betrayal. His is intense and unyielding. I want there to be more behind it, I want him to be sorry. I want him to show me that it wasn't true, that he does care. But he doesn't. My own emotions are marring my vision and I don't see anything else but his eyes as the elevator doors close.
I make my way to the garage and am numbly making my way to my car when it happens.
He told me he loved me. I think, bitterly. He made me love him. And I hate him for it.
I want to cry, but I'm too proud. I want to make him feel as hurt and idiotic as I feel now. But I can't. He's batman and I'm pathetic. Always have been.
Always will be.
About two years later
"Okay, that's a wrap for today," The words are hardly out of my mouth before the rustle of papers, the high pitched sounds of zippers opening up backpack and soft thuds of books closing fills the classroom. "Don't forget to bring up your papers."
Like clockwork, each student weaves his or her way down the stadium set-up classroom to drop their assignments off on my desk, most with a small smile or a quick "hey," as they pass me on their way out the door. "Loved your article this week, professor," says one of the students.
"Thank you," I smile back. Though I'd encouraged everyone to call me by my first name, it hasn't stuck with all of them.
It's been almost two years since I left the Trenton and all the people in it. If you want a quick recap here it is: I finished my master's degree, finally. I'd started working at my cousin Vinnie's Bail Bond company because it was the perfect thing to do while I was still in school, and now I'm a writer for a column in the Jersey Gazette, a small newspaper, and I teach at a local University in the town that I live in along the Pennsylvania border, about half an hour away from the 'Burg. The distance is enough to keep me sane, though sometimes I like to go back and visit Lula and Mary Lou… and Tasty Pastry, of course.
There isn't much I like to remember about my life two years ago. In fact, looking back now I realize that maybe I couldn't blame Ranger for not having anything to do with me. I was pathetic. How I believed everything… every lie he told me. I was so blind-sided from Joe's cheating ass that I didn't realize that the person I thought I could trust just wasn't.
It happened different than it did before. This time there was no deal. I'd almost died one night chasing a skip. The skip's gunshot missed me by millimeters. It was pure, dumb luck. Ranger saw it all happen. When the skip was led to jail by Tank and Lester, Ranger drove me home, completely silent. I'd been afraid to talk, he looked so pissed.
When we got to my place all I remember was that I was suddenly picked up, thrown against a wall and then Ranger's lips were hard on mine. There was something in my head telling me that this was a bad idea, that nothing good could come of this, but I'd ignored it. The way he touched me that night… every touch and kiss was like a desperate caress, a reaffirmation of the lucky reality of life. He touched me as though he loved me. He said it with every part of his body and then, once the passionate fire we'd created stopped roaring, he'd said it with his lips. I can still hear it if I close my eyes and focus. "I love you."
And I believed him. Stupid, right?
Ranger's love for me didn't last two days… that's how long it took until some new people showed up at RangeMan, including Lisa, the one who I saw him holding hands with a few days after I overheard a fun little conversation in his office. Then it was only a matter of days until he left again. I got one message. "I have to go, Babe. Stay safe." That was it. That was the good-bye.
It serves me right for being such an idiot.
Celia Nichols is the last one to hand in her paper. "Don't look too hard at the references," she says as she handed hers to me. "Mia was running amok last night." Celia is one of those students who waited until she started her family before going to school. You get those every once in a while.
I chuckle. "Don't blame the three year old." My messenger bag bulges even more as I slide the pile in and sling the thing over my shoulder. "It's your own fault for leaving it until the last minute."
Celia rolls her eyes, "Just wait until the boys are three. You'll see." We make our way outside and towards the University's day care center.
Most people wouldn't recognize me today. Alright, well I still look the same, basically, but I had to grow up really quickly these past 2 years. If you'd known me then you'd expect a scatterbrained train wreck without any true direction in life.
I'm still a bit scatterbrained, but I'm a lot more put together. I feel different; stronger, somewhat happier. Definitely busier. I have a very close circle of friends that I don't have much time to spend time with but I love them anyway. I have jobs that I like, even if they keep me a little too busy. I'm not rich by any means, but I am financially stable. I'm secure. I'm safe.
I don't let myself think of Ranger and that's difficult, considering he got me pregnant.
Okay, I know what you're thinking, but really it's not as weird as it sounds. I have twins. Yes. Twins. Twin boys whom I love. And the whole Ranger being an asshole thing? Well, I'm over it.
And him. I'm so over him. I've got more important things to do. Thanks to my anger and carelessness over my life two years ago, I went after a couple big skips, really big, and with Tank and Lester, I got a couple people wanted for murder and drug stuff. It was a big deal, and the guy ended up not doing it, but since we brought to light the people who did, well, I got a pretty hefty sum and made a couple of good friends along the way. It's nice not to piss off the wrong people all the time.
To be honest, when I started going after those guys, I was looking to get hurt… majorly hurt. Hurt enough to end the pregnancy. At the time no one else knew but me. But when the job (or suicide mission) went off without a hitch, I went back to my apartment and cried for a very long time. I'm not usually much of a crier; usually my less pleasant emotions get worked out through pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, but this time I was really lost. I was 27, pregnant, alone and scared. I was still in school, my career was crap, I lived in a hole, and I was a joke: how could I possibly be someone's mother?
It took two weeks of moping, pacing, worrying and crying before I got my act together. The fact that I hadn't died had to be a sign, right? That's when I decided to take control.
And since then I've never looked back. I have three jobs, not including bounty hunting, which I still do on occasion, when I have the time or when Lula is in over her head. I had to bite my pride and get a job at RangeMan, though, thankfully, it was way after Ranger left. But, whatever, I needed the money if I was going to support myself and a child, let alone two.
"Don't even." I say to Celia. The thought of my twins running around as three year olds makes me cringe. I picture Mary Lou's kids and it scares me, "I don't want to think about it. They're already turning one year old tomorrow."
Celia grins, "It goes fast, right?"
"Lightning speed." I agree. I briefly remember when they were first born.
Thanks to me working my ass off during my pregnancy, I had finished my masters, had all three of my current jobs and was financially stable enough to put a down payment on a very small house outside of Trenton, all by the time the twins were born. I've always been rather skinny, so no one noticed I was pregnant, and since it was almost winter when the boys were born, no one gave a second look at my oversized sweatshirts. Not even my parents… until I called them from the hospital.
The silent treatment with them had started right after Ranger left almost two years ago. I was a mess for a while there and one night my mother just pushed me over the edge. Everyone knew by that time but I'd gotten to be a pro at ignoring the looks and the gossip. There was a lot of talk around the Burg about me… about Ranger leaving me. I was a cautionary tale of what happens to girls when they don't marry right away and settle down. Of what happens when you actually dare to have a mind of your own. God, I can remember sitting, feeling so lost at that dinner table…
My mother is mortified both at my haphazard appearance and my zombie behavior. "This just goes to show you that I've been right all these years! I don't know why you didn't just stay married to Dickie." She says as we're all seated around the dining table one night.
My grandmother jumps to my defense. "Would you stay with a man who was getting frisky with Joyce Barnhardt on your dining room table? She did the right thing." I shoot Grandma Mazur a grateful glance.
My sister takes my mother's side. "They might have been able to work it out." I almost want to jump in and say that it was that kind of mentality that got her stranded by her husband with two kids and no money.
My father shovels food into his mouth and says nothing.
"No man wants a woman who thinks she's too good for him. Stephanie, why can't you just be happy with the degree you already have? Isn't one enough? You think men want some smarty pants wife? All you need to do is learn to cook. That's all Joe wanted, too." My mother continues as she angrily forks her mashed potatoes. "You know, I think you still have a shot with him but enough of this bounty hunting crap. And leave school already, you don't have to be a genius to know how to make pot roast."
I push the food around on my plate and say nothing. To be honest I'm trying not to listen.
"A master's degree!" My mother says as she shakes her head in disbelief. "You were raised as a nice young lady; I raised you to be a modest and kind woman. What do you do? You go thinking you're too good for the life I gave you. What do you need a master's degree for? What's it going to do for you? You going to be a doctor? No. Waste of money if you ask me."
Saint Valerie chimes in using her most soothing voice. "Steph, maybe mom is right. Joe really likes you and he has a house." In her defense, she does sound sincere so I can't fault her for trying to make me see what she really thinks will help me out. It's just sad that she believes this crap.
"She and Joe weren't right for each other." Grandma Mazur says. "Stephanie is too cool for him; she wants more in life than to learn to make cake and pot roast. And he's not hot like Ranger."
At the mention of Ranger's name, I feel a stab through my heart.
My mother rolls her eyes. "Ranger. Humph. Even Ranger didn't want her."
There is an almost inaudible gasp and suddenly everyone at the table is quiet: even they know she went too far.
I suddenly feel dizzy. "I'm telling you, no one wants a wife who thinks she's too good for them." My mother doesn't notice the sudden intensity at the table, "Stephanie needs to come up off her high horse—,"
But I'd had enough.
Slowly I get up from the table and all eyes turn to me. I feel disgusted. With them. With her especially.
I want to run away but somehow anger has penetrated through the wall blocking me from all emotions for the past few days. The criticism is nothing I can't handle but where I thought at one point it would make me want to slit my wrists, it doesn't. It's gotten to that point and I'm not depressed by it.
I'm mad as hell.
"You think I want what Joe Morelli has to offer?" I ask my mother slowly and dangerously. She looks up from her plate, eyeing me as though she doesn't understand what's going on. Her face shows no understanding as to why I'm suddenly so angry. "You're right, mom. I am too good for him." She looks at me as though she wants to argue but is afraid. "You want me to have your life? Sitting around spying on the neighbors? Taking a few shots of liquor every now and again when you think no one is looking? Seriously? Because all I see when I look at you lately is my worst nightmare. Here you are, a grown woman with a family and a pretty good life, but you can't see any of that because you're too busy worrying about what everyone else thinks to appreciate what's right in front of you." I lean down on the table and get close to her face. "I never want to be you." My deadly whisper frightens her.
"Tell me," I continue, "when was the last time you can honestly say you had a good time? When was the last time you accomplished anything other than making dinner? When was the last time you felt good about yourself? Or do you feel good about yourself when you push your daughter onto a guy who molested her when she was six and has since had more lovers than Hugh Hefner?"
My mother sits there staring at me with her mouth hanging open. My father stares at me, too, with a drumstick half way to his mouth.
"I'm sick of this crap," I say as stand up straight. "Sick of this town and of definitely sick and fucking tired your antics. If you can't support anything I do then I don't want you in my life anymore." I step away from the table, shaking with anger. I grab my purse that's by the front door and leave…
Anyway, that's in the past. Like I said, I was so out of touch with them that they didn't even know about the pregnancy until I called them. Well, specifically, I called my dad. I asked him not to bring my mother. I hadn't meant to call him, it's just that the labor pains were so bad that I was sure I wasn't going to make it and after spending nine months getting acquainted with the idea of being a mom, I wanted to make sure the babies would be taken care of.
It took them a while to arrive since it wasn't the normal Trenton hospital we go to, but when they got there, they were shocked. They hadn't known I was pregnant. They knew nothing about my life. My mother came anyway, along with my grandmother. I was in labor a long time and saw her enter the room, open her mouth to say something but I cut her off and asked that she not be in the room. Whatever criticisms she had, I didn't want to hear them. She looked flabbergasted and kept saying, "But I'm her mother! I should be here! I'm her mother!" as my father escorted her from the room. To be honest, I thought she looked a little sad, but that may have been the pain playing tricks on my mind.
Instead my grandmother stayed with me. She rubbed my head, wiped the sweat off my face, flirted with the doctor and held my hand when I needed her to. About 7 hours into labor, I let the wall that I'd built up slip and started crying. I blubbered, worrying endlessly how I was to raise twins on my own, how they were ever to survive with a mother like me, how I was in way over my head.
Grandma Mazur was a saint. She said that I would do great. She told me that she's always admired me and that I could do anything I set my mind to. She said I was her hero and if she could do it all over again, she'd live her life like I do. Then she let me cry for as long as I needed, since my hormones were on over drive. She held me and rubbed my back soothingly until I calmed down on my own.
And everything turned out alright.
"You're coming to the party right?" I ask Celia.
She nods. "Although I have to leave early… Carlos is coming back tomorrow. My mother is forcing the fam—,"
My mind can barely register her words. "Wait, Ranger's coming back?"
She sighs. "Yes." I open my mouth to speak but she cuts me off, "Relax, no one knows, except me and Lester, of course." To my discomfort, Hector, one of Ranger's scariest looking 'Merry Men' discovered the truth early on in my pregnancy. It wasn't long before Lester and Tank knew also, and although I was hell bent on keeping everything to myself, I was glad to have someone to talk to about it. "I won't tell him, either. That's your bomb to throw."
My friendship with Celia came about in a strange way. At the beginning of the semester we were as any other student/teacher would be towards each other. However, being that our children were in the University's daycare center together, it didn't take long for her to find out exactly who I was. I'd traveled far enough away that I was sure no one outside the 'Burg would have recognized me as the 'Bombshell Bounty Hunter' and so when she came up to me in the day care saying "I knew I recognized you, you're that ´Stephanie!" I was certain she was referring to my infamous bounty hunting mishaps.
That wasn't it at all.
Celia didn't recognize me exactly, but I caught her one day staring questioningly at the twins while I was picking them up. It's not at all surprising that she would: they have a lot of their father in them. That's when she came up to me.
To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. But you have to understand, I'd gone a long way to distance myself from all that is Ranger. I'd worked my ass off, scraped enough together to buy a home, got myself two promising careers (with a little help from RangeMan on the side whenever I needed it, thanks to Tank), and made a decent life for me and the twins.
Anyway, back to Celia. When she told me that the boys looked so much like her brother, I was confused. Then she told me her brother was Ranger and I went a little limp. I told her to please leave me and my family alone, speed-dialed Lester, who is related. I went through a lot to distance myself from all that is Ranger and I didn't want to give him another chance to hurt me again, especially not when I had two babies to take care of. I couldn't afford to let him back under my skin.
Lester immediately contacted Celia and she has kept the secret from the rest of her family. "You're the Stephanie that Carlos talked about." She'd said when she introduced herself properly. "We had to force things out of him when he let your name slip once but I've always wanted to meet you."
Don't get the wrong idea. I know that Ranger has a right to know about his sons, and I fully planned on telling him. I've tried to contact him so many times over the past two years, it was insane. I didn't feel as though this was something that could be said over the phone, so I just asked him to please call me back, that I had something I wanted to talk to him about. I've never gotten a reply. I've checked to make sure that's still his number; I've left messages in several different places and sent countless email. No response.
Oh well, I gave it an honest shot. But really, it's better this way.
Anyway, now Celia and I are good friends and she's a great person to turn to for parenting advice; she already has a family of four. Crazy, right? Four kids.
We get to the University's daycare and when I see them I smile wide. "Boys!" I say happily and they crawl over to me the minute they see me. I scoop them up in my arms and wave to one of the day care people. "Were you good today?" I ask them as I kiss their cheeks.
The boys gurgle in response while I put their little coats on them to shield them from the chilly early November air outside.
Alexander and Christopher are a blast. Seriously, I have the coolest kids in the world. I know I always thought motherhood would suck (Mary Lou's monsters gave me that impression) but the boys are relatively well behaved. They're funny and they laugh a lot. Their energy supply is endless, but it's alright because it keeps me on my toes and one of them is always doing something to amaze me. I love spending time with them and watching their blue eyes light up with excitement as they discover something new (which is everything, since they are babies and all).
As I'm bundling them up, Emily, a good friend comes up to us with her daughter Maggie in tow. "Hey!" She says. Emily is psychology professor at the University. We bonded instantly because we're among the youngest of the staff and we're both single moms. Maggie is about a month younger than the twins. "How are the birthday plans coming along?"
"Great. I've ordered a car themed birthday cake." I tell her. "You're both coming to the party, right?" I ask. It took me a while to learn to leave the kids in day care; even it's only for two or so hours at a time while I have my classes. Usually when I'm writing or I'm running searches for RangeMan, I have them with me. Grandma Mazur and Ella are the only babysitters I trust if I really need one, besides the RangeMan guys but they're very busy most of the time. But once I met Emily and Maggie, I was glad to have them in day care. They socialize more with other kids, not just each other, which according to their doctor and every parenting book I've read is a good thing.
Besides, technically speaking, they're not even a year old and already in college. Ha!
"Definitely." She says before turning to Celia, "You're coming right? Please don't let me be the only other mom there."
Celia chuckles. "Yes. I'll be there and my husband is driving so there better be alcohol. I'm going to need it if I'm going to see my little brother tomorrow and resist the urge to slap him."
Emily's eyes widen. "Your brother? You mean… Ranger?" I've gotten really close to Emily so, of course, she knows all about Ranger. "Steph, did you know he was coming?"
I sigh. "Nope. I don't even want to think about it."
"Wait a minute, Stephanie, are you going to tell him?"
I shrug. "If he calls me. If I see him." I don't really want to tell him anything or deal with him at all, but one look at my boys and I waver: they deserve a chance to have their father in their lives. Despite my feelings for him, it's what's best for them that matters.
Celia shakes her head angrily, "You know, I really should hit him. Just once. I'm his big sister, he's a little afraid of me."
I smile. "Thanks but that's okay. Anyway, enough Ranger talk. I'll see you guys at the party tomorrow."
"Booze, Stephanie." Celia reminds me as I turn to leave. "Don't forget the booze."
Thoughts so far? I should warn you, it gets darker. They'll be some angst in this story also. But I never know how to begin so bear with me for a chapter or two.