This is an AU story. I hope you find the characters still themselves even if their world is different.

Thanks to Rach who makes this so much more fun and the writing so much better.


Chapter 24

The day started early with a meeting on 5th floor. Ranger had let me escape reality for a while last night, but now we both had to face it head on. There were all sorts of new questions and fears running through my mind with the thought of someone discovering the secret I'd hidden for so long, but the threat to my life was more serious than the threat to my privacy, so all of that was pushed to the back burner. I would deal with the notes and whoever was sending them later.

Before the meeting started Ranger pulled me into his office and showed me the photo that came in yesterday. It was of me cutting the ribbon out front at the Grand Opening. I shuddered for a moment thinking of how close I must have been to someone who wanted to kill me. But examining the photo further I could tell that it had been taken from father away, with a long range lens. That told me two things: one, that it was the same stalker with the excellent photography equipment, and two, that it was probably someone who would have stood out if they had come closer. Or could it be someone I would recognize? I shuddered at the thought. The idea that it was someone who I knew, not some faceless stranger, made it all the more real and more horrifying.

It wasn't much to go on, but every little bit helped. Studying the photo, it appeared that my eyes had been scratched out. Now I was convinced it was a woman. I tried to make light of the situation. "I guess I was on the right track yesterday, but wrong villain." He raised an eyebrow in question. I rolled my eyes, "It's obviously Catwoman." He just gave me a small smile and shook his head. He pulled me to him and kissed me senseless before leading me down the hall to the conference room.

Inside was Ranger's core team as well as a few of the other guys I knew had been involved in my case - Hector, Hal, Vince, Cal and Junior. Waiting for the meeting to start, I sat for a while reviewing the whole file of photos again, looking for some more clues. After I passed through all of the photos I ran through the notes Vince had compiled. Flipping through the list of mail boxes used to ship the photos to as well as the receipts from the drug store photo processing, something started to click.

"I need a map." I blurted out to no one in particular. "I need a map of Trenton and some markers." I continued to pour over the information while a map of the greater Trenton area and a set of colored sharpies appeared next to me. I could feel several bodies behind me, but I just kept working. Using a blue marker I circled the locations that corresponded to the mailboxes - South Trenton, Villa Park, and Mill Hill. I marked the drug stores and photo shops with green - Wilbur I, Chestnut Park, Old Warf and Franklin Park. Picking up the red marker I played connect the dots. As I followed the arc from dot to dot a definite pattern formed, it wasn't perfect, but it was a circle and dead center was the Chambersburg. I guess it was a home grown loony.

When I looked up from my artwork I found all eyes on me, waiting for an explanation. I'd worked enough cases to have formed my own theories about criminal behavior. "Most of the time when someone is planning on committing a crime they travel a certain distance from where they live." Several heads nodded, following my theory. "If you are going to be doing something suspect you want to do it somewhere you are not well known. Usually there is a radius in which the criminal will travel. Looks to me like my stalker is from the burg." I pointed to the center of my awkward circle. The shiver from earlier returned and my spidey sense was working overtime. Not only would I probably recognize this person, likely it was someone I'd known my whole life.

Ranger's voice snapped everyone back to attention, "What else do we have?" It seemed like we had some forward movement on the case, if we kept going maybe we could hope for the avalanche effect and figure it all out.

Hal spoke up. He'd been tasked with researching the photos that had been uploaded to online businesses. After a lot of back and forth and some none to legal hacking, he finally had some information. When Ranger called on him to report, he looked a little nervous, but he always looked a little nervous so it was kind of hard to tell. "Well, the email accounts are bogus, just used for the one time and the Visa cards they used to pay with were like gift cards, again nothing there." Well that was a whole lot of nothing. Before he started up again he blushed a bright red and shuffled his papers. "Um I did have some success in finding other photos that were uploaded from the same email address at the same time." He stopped and took a big gulp of air, but still keeping his eyes on his files.

"Spit it out Hal." Tank bellowed from the corner of the table.

Hal blushed again, but continued, "The photos are odd. No sex acts are depicted, but they are suggestive and some of them have um…pets in them."

Lester burst out laughing, "Jesus Hal, you're blushing over pictures that show people petting. Christ if you ever got a look at my porn library you might have a stroke." There was a smattering of muffled laughter before a look from Ranger silenced everyone.

Hal glared at Lester, "Not petting. Pets. I guess, but I don't like the way that guy is looking at that rabbit." Hall tossed a file folder at Lester. Photos spilled out all over the table. Ewww. Hal was right. There was something wrong with the photos. They were boudoir scenes, but unlike anything I'd ever seen. One had a guy posing with a fluffy bunny rabbit, there was another guy looking extremely cozy with an amazing set of red pumps. There were some that had a slight S&M bend to them. They were perverted portraits; it was kink with a capital K.

There was only one person I knew of that might have some information for us. "Somebody needs to talk to Vinnie. He might know something." All of the guys kind of froze and then all tried very hard to make themselves invisible. I'd seen the kids at the daycare do it, even my own nieces and nephew when something was broken and no one wanted to step up to the plate. Seeing 200lb army men trying to attempt it was hilarious. Finally I took pity on them. "Fine. I'll do it." They all let out a collective breath. Ranger dismissed everyone while I mumbled under my breath about grown men acting like babies. They all had the decency to look a little ashamed, but I notice no one volunteered. I took solace in the knowledge that at least two of them would have to accompany me anyway. Mentally I stuck my tongue out at them.

It wasn't until I heard the door shut that I realized Ranger and I were alone. The shiver of revulsion of having to visit my cousin Vinnie had replaced the hinky feelings I had about the stalker. Either way I was grateful to have Ranger gather me into his arms. He was warm and strong and smelled wonderful. His breath tickled my neck, "I love to watch your mind work. That was amazing." My heart swelled at the tinge of pride in his voice. He gave me a squeeze before continuing. "We're getting closer." His words were reassuring.

Of course, I could never leave well enough alone. "At least to one stalker." The last hour or so I'd been solely focused on the person who wanted to kill me, but in Ranger's presence I let myself relax enough to let my thoughts drift to Frankie and the notes. There was someone out there who wanted to kill me and someone else who wanted to expose me.

"Do you really think it's about Frankie?" I pulled out of Ranger's embrace and started pacing, hoping the movement would help me to think clearly. While his arms offered strength, there was force to his gravitational pull that made thoughts of anything but him naked, vanish. I needed to think.

I turned to look at him. He settled himself in his chair and watched me. Finally he shrugged, "It all fits. No threats, just trying to intimidate you." No threats? I thought it was a pretty good threat myself. Someone knew what I had done and they were judging me by it. Why shouldn't they? I did.

I stopped pacing and settled myself in front of the window. I'd spent a lot of time over the years thinking about what I'd done. But at the time it was just me, alone with my thoughts. Now that there was someone else who knew about Frankie, the shame was almost unbearable. I didn't hear his footsteps, but soon I felt his presence behind me, silently offering me his support. Too bad I didn't deserve it.

He slid his arms around my waist. "Want to tell me what you are beating yourself up about now?" His voice was gentle, but I knew not answering him wasn't an option. I wanted so badly to tell him, to share the burden, but my shame was stopping me. He spun me to face him, holding my face in his hands, forcing me to look at him. "Don't tell me you think this is your fault?" I opened my mouth to say no of course not, but shut it again when no words would come. His expression hardened slightly. "Steph, you're too smart for that. You work with women who have been victims of crime often enough to know better."

His words were logical. Did I force someone to stalk me, threaten me and my family? No, of course not, but did my actions cause this? Yes, they damn well did and I knew it. The feelings were overwhelming guilt, shame and anger. They'd been bubbling below the surface for years, brought to a simmer since coming clean last night and now I was ready to boil over. I twisted out of Ranger's embrace and resumed my pacing. I couldn't let him offer me comfort, comfort I didn't deserve.

My words were bitter on my tongue, "Really? I'm not to blame? Just because I took it upon myself to play judge and jury? Took a child from his mother, concealed his very existence from his own father? All to save my own pride?"

If I was disgusted with myself, he was more disgusted with my opinion of myself and he let me know it. "Is that how you see it? You rescued a child whose mother didn't want him, couldn't care for him and you gave him a home with a loving family." His voice had an edge to it I hadn't seen before, it was a little scary.

My thoughts weren't on his opinion of me; they were looking backward, at Dickie. My voice was shaky, with anger, disgust, "I thought about telling him. I did. At first I was too angry." He'd forced me into this. Because he couldn't keep it in his pants I was forced into this situation. "It felt good knowing I had a secret from him. He had kept so many things from me. I told myself what's good for the gander…but then it was like I was doing it to punish him." I sighed, "Things got better between us. A détente I guess you could say. There has been a million times that telling him has been on the tip of my tongue." I stopped again in front of the window and thought of all I'd lost. This time when I spoke, my voice was soft and sad, "We wanted children, in the beginning." But then I was forced to let that dream die along with all the others.

I shook my head out of the day dream family I'd conjured early in my marriage, the curly haired little girl with pig tails and the little blond boy with the striking green eyes. My voice cracked, "I tell myself that I did it for Frankie. I couldn't let Charles get a hold of him." The injustices Dickie suffered at the hands of his father, I couldn't let that happen again. And Charles desperately wanted an heir. If he could get Dickie as far as the Governor's mansion, could he get the next generation into the White House?

Beyond embarrassment I continued, "But if I'm honest about it, I did it for purely selfish reasons. Its one thing to know your husband is having an affair, to see the signs, even the other women. But for him to father another woman's child is..." There were no words.

Ranger let out a bark of laughter, but it wasn't like I'd heard from him before, it wasn't a happy sound. I turned to see him standing behind me, arms crossed. He shook his head, "Steph you couldn't be selfish if you tried. You don't have it in you. You've spent your life taking care of other people and their problems, your clients, your husband. You helped Emily, Val and Frankie. Do you think the boy could be any happier? And don't even try to tell me you're ashamed of his existence. You love that boy like he was your own. I know it, you know it and most importantly he knows it." In two quick strides he was in front of me and pulled me to him. "Are you ashamed, embarrassed, angry? Yes and you have every right to be. Sorry Steph, you're human just like the rest of us, whether you like it or not." This time his laughter was softer as he ran his hands over my back to soothe my pain and this time I let him. It felt so good to be in his arms, to allow him to absolve me of my sins. I'd take a little Ranger therapy over 3 Hail Marys any day of the week.

What may have been a more thorough consoling was cut short by the intercom announcing Connie's arrival. We straightened ourselves and Ranger disappeared to his office, giving Connie and I the conference room to work in. Life goes on, stalkers or not, and it had been nearly a week since we'd been able to meet. She helped me with everything from public appearances to keeping up with all of my cases at the Foundation.

Woody knocked on the open conference room door announcing Connie's arrival. It was a good thing she had an escort because Connie looked to be in a fog brought about by testosterone poisoning. I knew it well. The men of Rangeman were a sight to behold. Each in their own right was a good looking guy, but dressed in black and all together in one building was enough to put even a nun in a stupor… and Connie was no nun. After Woody left us and I plied her with some cold water she seemed to regain her faculties.

"Okay there Con?" I grinned and gave her a knowing smile. She shook her head and then blushed slightly before getting down to work. The first order of business was to get in touch with my cousin Vinnie. Connie had worked for him at the bond office before coming to work for me so she knew his schedule. I told her that I had some questions for him that had to do with my stalker. I didn't go into details about the photos. Connie was a major hub of burg gossip and I didn't want to spook our stalker. After a few calls to family contacts Connie found out that Vinnie was away at a family reunion, his wife Lucille's family, more importantly his father-in-law Harry the Hammer's family, and he was not to be disturbed. They were due back in town late tomorrow. I made a note to let Ranger know and we could plan to welcome Vinnie home from his little trip.

Talk turned to the Foundation which was business as usual. "Yesterday was a huge success! There was a big picture in the paper today." She pulled out the article. The photo itself was eerily similar to the one sent by the stalker and I had to suppress a shiver. Connie didn't seem to notice my reaction and kept on with her notes, "The donations yesterday were very generous. There was another large check from the Ramos family." She paused and gave me a raised eyebrow in question. Not having any answers for her I just shrugged and motioned for her to continue. "I have multiple messages from Dmitri Ramos. He's interested in the vacant spot on the board for directors."

She looked at me for my reaction to this. I was still trying to figure out what the youngest Ramos was up to. I mean I had no qualms about having him sit across from me at a board meeting, especially since many board members where in their 70s and 80s. Dmitri was definitely pleasant to look at and the man certainly was charming. But I couldn't help wondering what his motive was. Was he looking to find favor with the Governor? Surely there were other ways of doing so? He seemed to want to get close to me. I by no means deluded myself into thinking I was what he was interested in. I promised Connie that I would return his calls. He was not someone who would be ignored; I couldn't afford to insult him while I tried to psycho analyze his motives.

The next topic was a dinner party we were to attend tonight. It was for the New Jersey Law Enforcement Brotherhood. Oh goodie. Just what I felt like doing, partying. "I'll send over a couple of options for dresses. What time do you need me here to help you get ready?"

I rolled my eyes at her. "I'm a big girl now Connie, I can even tie my own shoes. Pretty sure I can get myself dressed for a dinner party." She looked a little embarrassed. I felt bad, "Besides you need to be getting yourself ready anyway." Surprised doesn't even begin to cover the look on her face. I explained, "We still need to have security tonight, but Ranger wants to keep it as discrete as possible, so the Rangemen will be there as attendees and they need dates." I waggled my eyebrows at her. "Think you can take one for the team and escort one of their ugly mugs out tonight?" Just the thought looked enough to send her into cardiac arrest. I promised her the pick of the litter and told her that Lula was coming to. At that she relaxed.

We worked for several more hours, only stopping when lunch arrived. The small Cuban woman introduced herself as Ella. I held out my hand, but she engulfed me in a fierce hug that brought the phrase 'small but mighty' to mind. She explained that she was the Rangeman housekeeper and she and her husband Luis took care of the building and the men. When she heard Connie mention dressing for the evening she offered her help. I tried to politely decline, I'd never really gotten used to having other people do things for me that I was capable of doing myself. But she refused to take no for an answer and promised to meet my up in the apartment late in the afternoon.

By mid afternoon Connie and I had covered everything and I could tell she was giddy thinking about her evening out. She left to hit Macy's for a new dress and I returned to the 7th floor apartment to find a little peace and quiet. Tonight I had to be the First Lady and just the thought of it made me very tired.