Stephanie and Ranger were relaxing on the couch, watching a football game on television when Valerie knocked on the door. Ranger cut his eyes to Stephanie and she gave him a reassuring smile as she stood to answer the door. Making it clear that he wasn't a babysitter, Ranger had informed Stephanie that she was on her own with Lisa.
As soon as Stephanie opened the door, Valerie bounced in with Lisa in her arms. "Thanks for doing this at the last minute."
Looking like a typical P.T.A mom, Valerie was wearing a black skirt, a white blouse with a frilly collar, and a black, knee length winter coat. A strand of pearls hugged her neck like a dog collar.
"No problem," Stephanie said, pulling the sleeping toddler from her sister's arms. "Has she had dinner?"
"She ate an hour ago, but she's full of cough syrup, so she didn't have much of an appetite. I threw some graham crackers in the baby bag, just in case she wants a snack before we get back. Her sippy cup and medicine are also in the bag."
Valerie set a pink baby bag on the foyer table and ran her fingers along Lisa's back. "You know she's finally potty trained, but I put a few pull-ups in the bag, just in case she has an accident."
"Good to know," Stephanie said, gently rocking her niece in her arms. "You're going to be late."
Valerie nodded and opened the door to leave. "If her nose starts to run, give her one dropper full of the Children's Tylenol."
"Got it. Get out of here."
Valerie was a good mother, but like many young mothers with too many children, she could be manic.
Stephanie closed and locked the door behind Valerie and scooped up the baby bag with her free hand. Glancing at the two-year-old sleeping on her shoulder, Stephanie studied her face. Lisa had light colored hair and round cheeks like her father. Long, curly eyelashes and a button nose completed Lisa's adorable features. And as far as Stephanie could tell, Lisa was the calm sister. She was a bit too young to have the eccentric characteristics of her older siblings.
Stephanie carried Lisa into the sitting room and set the baby bag down on the floor next to Ranger. Pushing the sleeping child in Ranger's direction, she said, "I have to pee. Lisa's sound asleep, she won't bite."
Ranger studied the toddler intently for a few seconds. "Are you sure about that?" he asked, pulling the child from Stephanie's arms. "She looks like a biter to me."
"Rub her back gently," Stephanie told Ranger. "It's soothing."
Ranger laid Lisa belly down over his lap and gently rubbed her back, hoping she wouldn't wake up.
"Good job," Stephanie said with a chuckle.
Ranger cut his eyes to Stephanie. "I've had a little practice with my daughter, babe."
Stephanie offered Ranger a playful smile and disappeared into the bathroom.
Ranger appraised the sleeping toddler on his lap. Lisa was wearing pink pajamas and fuzzy kitty cat slippers on her feet. Her hair was pulled into two pony tails, held together with pink barrettes. The corners of Ranger's lips raised a fraction of an inch. Lisa was cute when she was sleeping.
Squirming in her sleep, Lisa pulled in a small breath and let out a sharp sneeze, spraying snot on Ranger's running pants. The sneeze seemed to startle Lisa and she lifted her head, trying to make out her surroundings. She glanced up at Ranger, opened her mouth wide, and let out a piercing wail.
"Babe!" Ranger called to Stephanie, lifting the child from his lap and placing her over his shoulder. The change in position really pissed Lisa off, and she kicked her little legs and arched her back, trying to get away from the man holding her captive. Ranger rubbed the child's back and gently bounced her in his arms as she wailed in his ear.
Lisa continued to cry for a while, resisting Ranger's affection. And then the wails slowly gave way to moans and hiccups. Ranger put his mouth close to Lisa's ear and whispered a soothing, "Shhh…Go back to sleep." And Lisa finally surrendered to the tranquility of his strong arms and soothing voice.
Pushing out one last hiccup, Lisa stuck her thumb into her mouth and laid her head on Ranger's shoulder. Ranger bounced Lisa in his arms and rubbed her back until she closed her eyes, succumbing to the cough medicine in her system.
Standing quietly behind Ranger, Stephanie watched in amazement as a small bond formed between her fiancé and niece. Ranger was a strange concoction of different persona's. Two hours prior, he was holding gun to a man's head, seemingly detached from human emotions. And now he was rocking a child to sleep, whispering calm words in her ear.
Stephanie tried to imagine a younger, wilder Ranger, bouncing his baby daughter in his arms, and she wondered what kind of man he would have become if Julie had been a bigger part of his life. She also wondered what kind of father he'd be once they had their own family. Whatever the case, watching him with Lisa was encouraging.
"Are you testing me, babe?" Ranger asked Stephanie.
Stephanie laughed softly. "No test, Mr. Mom. But I'm surprised you calmed her down on your own. Nice job."
"How long have you been standing there watching me?"
"Long enough to know I like what I see."
Stephanie sat down next to Ranger and rubbed her niece's back, smoothing out the wrinkles in her pajama top. "Do you wish you'd spent more time with Julie when she was a baby?"
"Yes," Ranger said, gently placing Lisa over his lap again. "At the time, I was young, wild, and irresponsible. If I'd stayed with Julie's mother, she would have probably grown to hate me. So maybe everything worked out for the best."
Stephanie studied Ranger as an idea churned in her head. She said to Ranger, "You know, it's never too late to form a bond. Maybe we should keep Julie sometimes. She could visit for a couple of weeks this summer."
Ranger was quiet for a beat as he considered the idea. Then he said, "I wouldn't want to disrupt Julie's life. I have an agreement with her parents."
"Perhaps you all can work out a new agreement," Stephanie pushed. "Julie's older now, and she might like to see you more often."
"What would we do with a twelve-year-old for two weeks?"
"We can take her sight seeing in New York City, museums, shopping, all that good stuff. The most important part is you'll get more quality time with your daughter."
Ranger let the idea roll around in his head for a few minutes. Stephanie could tell he was apprehensive. And she wondered if it was something he really wanted to do.
"I guess I should have asked if you really want a closer relationship with your daughter."
"The idea is attractive," Ranger said honestly. "I'm just not sure how to make up for all the lost time."
"You can't make up for lost time," Stephanie said gently. "But if you take the initiative to reach out, you might be surprised by her reaction."
"The next time I visit Julie, I'll run the idea by her parents," Ranger said.
"That's a start."
"Yeah, that's a start," Ranger agreed.
"And we could use the practice."
Hinting at a smile, Ranger cut his eye to Stephanie. "Practice for what?"
Stephanie rolled her eyes, and as if on queue, Lisa's eyes popped open and she lifted her head. Recognizing Stephanie's face, she offered a sleepy smile. And then she glanced up at Ranger, curiosity lifting her eye brows. She'd seen Ranger on a few occasions, but she'd never been in close proximity to him. But this time, she didn't cry. Instead, she gave Ranger a lazy smile and pushed out a fart as a token of acceptance.
"Just like her father," Stephanie said, pulling her niece off Ranger's lap. Looking down at the snot on his running pants, Stephanie chuckled. "She must really like you; she's leaving gifts."
Lisa glanced at Stephanie with hopeful eyes. "Wex," she said in a sleepy voice.
"Rex is in the kitchen, Stephanie said to her niece. "Would you like to say hi?"
Lisa nodded her head excitedly and Stephanie carried her into the kitchen and tapped on Rex's cage. Rex stuck his head out of his soup can and twitched his whiskers, looking for a snack.
Lisa waved her hand and said, "Hi, Wex!"
Rex twitched his whiskers again, realizing there was no treat involved with this visit. And he rushed back into his soup can to Lisa's disappointment.
"Wex take nap?" Lisa asked Stephanie.
"Yep, Rex has a bed time, too. We'll talk to Rex some other day, okay?"
Lisa nodded her head reluctantly, a bit disappointed that Rex had cut their visit short.
"Do you want to watch cartoons?" Stephanie asked Lisa, trying to take her mind off Rex's dismissive attitude.
Lisa's eyes grew wide with excitement. "Cawtoons!"
Stephanie shuffled Lisa back into the sitting room and settled in next to Ranger on the couch. Picking up the remote, she said, "Hope you don't mind, but we'll have to watch the Disney Channel for a while."
"Family time," Stephanie said with a smile, flipping through the channels.
"Is this your idea of practice?" Ranger asked Stephanie.
"Well, our kids won't be at a shooting range, practicing with a target."
"Okay, maybe not our daughter," Ranger said. "But our son is going to know how to lock and load by the age of five."
"Not happening," Stephanie said dismissively, even though she was pretty sure Ranger was joking.
"I can tell we're not going to see eye to eye on this parenting thing."
Stephanie finally settled on a channel, and vibrant figures wearing red, green, and blue striped shirts appeared on the flat screen. Lisa clapped her little hands in delight and moved off Stephanie's lap to snuggle up with Ranger. Without further protest, Ranger settled Lisa on his lap and threw an arm around Stephanie's shoulder.
30 minutes into the Fish Hooks episode, Stephanie and Lisa had fallen into a light slumber. Ranger was absently watching the screen, wondering who on earth came up with such ideas. Gently pulling the remote from Stephanie's hand, he switched the channel back to ESPN and turned down the volume.
His eyes traveled to his new little friend sleeping in his arms, and then he looked at Stephanie snuggled into his side. Imagining a similar scenario down the road, Ranger anticipated a new journey with his future wife by his side.
Lisa stirred on Ranger's lap and opened her eyes. Looking up at Ranger with urgency in her eyes, she said, "I go potty!"
Ranger quickly picked Lisa up off his lap and held her at arm's length, and she let out another baby fart.
"Babe, wake up. I'm off duty."
The End…For Now