A Total Eclipse of the Heart
I would like to acknowledge thank my three wonderful betas.
FinanceBabe, for her honest opinions, and her willingness to be a sounding board.
Sonomom, for her attention to detail, her helpful reviews, her ideas and her support and openness in a long distance friendship.
Majesta Moniet, for her mad grammar skills, and her gentle pushes to get me writing and posting.
A Total Eclipse of the Heart is a sequel to Scent of a Woman. If you have not read SOAW, you may want to do that first. Much of the content of this story is based on information learned, and relationships developed in that story.
Janet Evanovich is the rightful owner of the Stephanie Plum stories and characters.
The man focused intently on the chessboard. His slightly graying hair was perfectly styled and held in place with a touch of gel. His fine Italian silk shirt was exquisitely tailored to show off his broad shoulders, trim waist, and long strong arms. Despite his advancing age, he was a handsome, healthy specimen. A glass of scotch sat just beyond the reach of his well-manicured fingers, which were slowly tapping a rhythm of contemplation on the table. The next move was his and he was taking his time. It had to be a good one. He didn't like to lose.
There was a courtesy knock on the door and then it was opened without waiting for a response. The man that entered bore a striking resemblance to his father. His clothes were more casual, but obviously well fitting and just as expensive. The strong, silent confidence his father exuded was absent and in its place a certain amount of anxious cockiness and immaturity emanated from his younger, but towering, athletic frame. He crossed the room and poured himself a drink. He threw it down his throat, grimaced at the burn, and poured another. He knew better than to speak. He waited for his father's attention.
A slow, satisfying grin formed on the older man's face as he moved his game piece.
There was a groan from the young woman across the table as she realized his play had left her with only two moves, both of which would secure his victory.
The atmosphere in the room changed instantly from that of intense concentration to one of a more lighthearted, playful nature. "Don't worry my dear, you're skills are improving nicely. It took me more than ten moves to defeat you this time."
"You don't play fair." She pouted. "You should let me win every once in a while."
"You'll have to get better if you want to beat me. You know I never let anyone win." He looked up at his son. "Well?"
The son shot a wary look to the beautiful, young woman who had her back to him. The older man acknowledged the message.
"My dear, why don't you go paint your nails. Or better yet, go upstairs and put on that lovely little dress you bought earlier today." He ran his fingers down the side of her face and then lower as they teased her cleavage. "I'll be up later for a private fashion show."
The young woman stood, gave him a sexy smile, and seductively kissed him on the lips. She turned, winked at the son, and sauntered out of the room.
When the door closed, the son downed his second drink and put the glass on the table. "She's out of the hospital."
"Good. Where is she now?"
"Still in Philly. At the house on Juniper Court."
"Does she have her memory back yet?"
"Not that I know of. My source said she was still 'confused' but was undergoing therapy." He glanced at his father. "What do you want me to do?"
"Is Manoso still with her?"
"Yes. A couple of others as well. Her security is as tight as it was in the hospital."
"Don't do anything. Keep an eye on her. Don't lose her. I want her healthy and well before we move in."
"Patience son, revenge is no fun when the victim doesn't know why it's happening." He picked up his scotch and drank it quickly. "Manoso can't protect her all the time. I can be a very patient man. Stephanie Plum will get better…and then…." He set his empty glass on the table. "No one interferes with my family. We take care of our own."
(from Scent of a Woman; Chapter 27)
Stephanie always thought of herself as someone who usually considered the glass half full. It wasn't always easy, but that was what denial was for. At the age of 10, when she jumped off the roof of the garage in an attempt to fly like Wonder Woman, the landing hurt like hell and she broke her arm, but the 2.5-second flight was everything she had dreamed it would be. When she caught her husband boinking Joyce Barnhardt, on her new dining room table fifteen minutes into her marriage with Dickie Orr, sure she was angry, and her self-esteem took a major hit, but she had never really liked that table (or the husband) to begin with. Even when her cars blew up, burned up, or otherwise exited the planet in some equally extraordinary event, they were never the cars of her dreams (Okay, Ranger's Porsche was a big exception). But on the upside, said incidents usually resulted in a Ranger appearance. A Ranger encounter, no matter how brief or how humiliating the circumstances, was always worth it.
Granted, more recently, looking at the glass being half full, when she had been knocked unconscious, undergone brain surgery…twice, and lost most of her memories, took more effort than usual. The one shining point of light in the entire situation had been the opportunity to fall in love with Carlos Manoso…all over again.
Brief glimpses of recollection, and revealing dreams had recovered happy, and sometimes painful, memories of the intricate dance they had executed the first time around. From what she could remember, it had been a remarkable journey that, after years of relationship foreplay, culminated in a romance that progressed at lightning speed when they had finally given in to the veracity of their feelings for each other.
This second time, this gift, was similarly wonderful but didn't require the lengthy, angst-ridden tango, and didn't include the complication or interference of competition, poaching or the rules of the 'Burg'. It was pure. A fairy tale-like union that bloomed from a connection they felt in their souls.
"As wonderful as the last several days have been, you have to rejoin the world eventually."
"Why, Carlos? Everything is perfect just the way it is right now." Stephanie rolled onto her back and stared into his eyes.
"I've been selfish. You have fans."
"Fans? You make me sound like a reclusive rock star."
"Okay, not exactly fans. You have family and friends. They love you too."
She giggled as she coyishly ran a finger down the length of his chest. "Not like you do."
"Definitely not like I do." He tenderly caressed her cheek, leaned over, and hungrily engaged her in a brief bout of oral bliss. He pulled away slightly and continued the conversation. "But they love you, and they want to see you."
"Is it wrong?" she said with a heavy sigh.
"Is what wrong?"
"To just want to feel this good for a little while longer? No confusion. No answering questions. No fighting memories. No guilty pain. Just you and me, Carlos, one more day…please?" A single tear ran a zigzag course down her cheek. Ranger stopped it with his thumb.
"It's not wrong, Babe. One more day." He was spoiling her again. He gave in to all of her demands. If he were a parent, his indulgent behavior would be creating the world's most ill-mannered, annoying child. But Stephanie had suffered so much, and he was just thankful that she was with him and healing. Truth be told, he wasn't ready to share her with anyone else yet either.
"Thank you, Carlos." She responded with a culpable glance. "I know I'm putting off the inevitable, and it's irresponsible of me to…."
"Sh, sh, sh, querida." He cut her off with a finger gently placed to her lips. "You have every right to take the time you need. Isn't that what Jack told you?"
"Has he been wrong about anything so far?"
"Then, one more day is what we'll take." He reached over to the bedside table and grabbed his watch. "It's eleven thirty. Jack is going to be here at two. Why don't we take a shower, eat some lunch, and spend some time looking at Hector's book? After your appointment with Jack, we can go to a movie or shop."
Stephanie gave him a smile that beamed her approval of the plan. "Really, I can leave the house? You think it's safe? I know you've been worried."
"Yes. Hal and Hector are on duty this afternoon. They'll provide security."
"It would be wonderful to get out. What about dinner? Can we go to a restaurant, too?"
Ranger thought for a moment. "I'll tell you what. Why don't we ask Lester and Megan to meet us for dinner somewhere?"
"Let's ask Bobby and Adria, too!" Stephanie added enthusiastically. "I really like her a lot. We had so much fun last Saturday on Halloween."
"Okay. I'll talk to Bobby and Lester. If they are both with us, dinner out should be safe enough." He gently tugged on one of her curls. Ranger was not surprised that Stephanie was willing to include his men and their dates in their evening out. Lester was her only link to reality in the hospital and had remained steadfastly at her side. Bobby had been providing non-stop care for Stephanie since her release and had seen her through several episodes of the severe headaches from which she still suffered. Stephanie had recalled much of her time with Bobby prior to the accident and felt comfortable in his presence. Megan and Adria were new acquaintances, and were no threat to her fear of lost memories. And since they were also residents of Philadelphia, it sweetened the deal for Lester and Bobby to spend the majority of their time here with Steph. Both women had been to the house a number of times as a result of their blooming relationships with his two men, and had developed easy friendships with her as well.
Stephanie was almost giddy with anticipation for the rest of the day. "I promise I'll talk to Jack this afternoon about starting the visits tomorrow! Thank you, thank you, thank you." She kissed him several times, jumped out of the bed, and pulled on his hand. "Come on let's take a shower!"
Hector's reintroduction into Stephanie's life had not gone as smoothly as Bobby's or Ranger's.
Two days after her return to the safe house, Hector came into the kitchen through the garage, having been assured by Lester that Steph was upstairs resting. Unbeknownst to Lester, who was entertaining Megan in the living room, a thirsty Steph had come down the back staircase, that entered the kitchen directly, in order to give the new couple their privacy. She was digging through the refrigerator for a Coke when the door from the garage opened. As she turned and had no immediate recognition of the man standing before her, Stephanie was gripped by fear. She dropped the bottle and swiftly reached for a knife on the kitchen counter. Hector backed off quickly and tried to take a non-threatening stance, but Stephanie remained untrusting and called out to Lester who appeared in a flash after having already heard the commotion in the kitchen.
Lester took one look at the situation and quickly realized what was going on.
"Whoa, Beautiful, it's okay! It's just Hector." He slowly put his hands toward her, requesting control of the knife.
Stephanie held her defensive stance a moment longer while she processed the name, the face, and the uniform. Lester had told her that Hector would be coming today. He and Hal were going to be the final additions to her personal 'in house' security team. Jack had suggested that she re-meet them one at a time. "Hector?" She asked him directly.
"Si, Chica." He pointed to the St. Joan of Arc medal she was wearing around her neck. "From me."
Stephanie reached her casted hand up to her neck and grasped the medal. "This is from you?"
Stephanie looked down at the knife and quickly handed it to Lester. "I'm sorry." She apologized to Hector. "I…I…don't recognize you. I'm so embarrassed. I love this necklace. It means a lot to me." She gave him a shy smile. "Thank you."
"It is okay, Bonita. I did not worry. You are not so good with a knife anyway." He teasingly smirked, and Stephanie felt relieved at his easy acceptance of her embarrassing mistake.
As Stephanie spoke further with Hector, flashes of memory crossed her vision. She was getting used to this. At first she found it quite distracting and had a difficult time deciphering the images and maintaining conversations at the same time. This happened mostly with her exchanges between Ranger, Bobby, and Lester and they all had become quite familiar with and very patient of her broken sentences and abrupt changes of direction during their conversations. She quickly learned, however, to multi-task, and discovered a way to process the new information and add it to the current discussion simultaneously.
A few days after the 'kitchen incident', Hector showed up at the house with a gift for Stephanie. The box was wrapped in shiny gold foil paper and was topped with a large dark blue velvet bow. Inside was a book. Really it was a photo album, but what it contained simply overwhelmed Stephanie beyond words. Entitled: The Real World of Stephanie Plum; she opened it to the first page. There were numerous pictures of her and Ranger. In fact, the first several pages were photos of the two of them. Almost none of them were posed shots; they appeared to be more candid as if she and Ranger had been unaware of the cameras presence. The quality was slightly grainy as well. A couple of the pictures made Stephanie blush as they showed them in some compromising positions, and she quickly turned through the pages only to discover faces and names of dozens of people, some she recognized, most she didn't. She looked up at Hector, still unable to speak from the emotion caught in her throat.
He casually stated in his heavy Hispanic accent, "I do not want you to be frightened by your friends anymore."
She kissed him on the cheek and hugged him tightly, the open book clumsily wedged between their torsos, tears streaming down her face. As she stepped back from the embrace, the pages flipped to the final photo. Stephanie took a finger and gently outlined the furry face of her forgotten friend Rex. She looked up at Hector and gave him a panicked look of realization.
"Oh my god. Is he alright?"
"He is fine, mi pequeña, I bring him to you, okay?" This garnered him another moist hug and a happy nod against his chest.
In the days that followed, Stephanie spent hours examining the book, with Rex now keeping a watchful eye from the kitchen counter. Sometimes she studied it alone, and sometimes with Carlos or one of the Merry Men staying in the house. They would answer questions or give detailed information on events surrounding a particular photo. It was obvious that Hector had put a great deal of time and effort into the book. There were several current photos of almost everyone she assumed she had ever met. He must have run all over town with his camera, requesting of people to pose for her book. She recalled enough of her relationship with Hector to know that while professionally he was a fierce fighter, who, with a single look, could make even the toughest thug wet his pants in fear, personally he was a very private and shy person. She was warmed and honored that he had been willing to step outside his comfort zone for her. Being able to look at the photos, and take her time remembering details, gave Stephanie peace of mind and lessened the dread she harbored toward so many impending reunions. She seriously considered petitioning the Pope to nominate Hector for sainthood.
At two o'clock Jack arrived, and he and Stephanie took up their usual spot in the living room. It was comfortable, and the casual atmosphere helped Stephanie feel more relaxed and open to conversation.
"How has your day been so far?" This was always the first question Jack asked.
"It's been a good day. No headaches."
"That's good. The last one was two days ago?" Steph nodded in confirmation. "They're becoming less frequent. That means you're healing. You have a follow-up appointment with Curtis tomorrow don't you?"
"Yes, and after that appointment I won't need to go back for a month."
Stephanie looked a little uncomfortable with this information and Jack called her on it. "Isn't that good news?"
"Yeesss, I suppose." She didn't sound very convincing.
"What are you still concerned about?" He leaned forward and placed a caring hand on her arm. "Are you experiencing other symptoms? Because if you are then…"
"No! It's nothing like that. It's just…just…. God, I'm such a coward."
"We've talked about that, Stephanie. It's not allowed. Denigrating yourself isn't helpful to your recovery. You only use it to avoid confronting your true fears."
"Okay, okay…geesh!" She relented. "I'm afraid! Okay? Is that better?"
"Yes, much." He smiled. "What are you afraid of?"
"Isn't this home? Aren't you comfortable here? It's a beautiful home. You have everything you need. You even have your little furry…rat, Max over there."
"Rex! And he's not a rat! He's a hamster!"
"I stand corrected." Jack was well aware of the living situation and the hamster's name; he found it helpful to get her riled. When Stephanie got angry and stood up for herself it kept her from focusing on the negative and she was much more likely to express her true feelings.
"You know very well that this is not my home! This is…is…a stopover. An escape. A hideout. Now that I won't have to be here so frequently for my doctor appointments, it doesn't make sense to stay here. I've inconvenienced Ranger and his men long enough."
"Did Ranger tell you he was being inconvenienced?"
"No. He would never say that. He's been very supportive. But he's running himself ragged between here and Trenton. He spoils me, and I let him, but he's got a business to run. I need to get back on my feet and take some control over my life."
"So you feel out of control?"
"No, not out of control like...losing my mind or dancing on the table naked…out of control. I just don't have control of my life. I have no direction. I'm not producing. I'm just taking."
"From Ranger, Lester, Bobby. All of them."
"And that bothers you?"
"Hell yes, it bothers me!"
"Because, I can't do that. It's not me!" Stephanie was getting irritated so she stood up and started pacing. "I can't live like that. I know me and I..." She froze.
Jack's faced opened into a huge grin.
"I…know…me." She whispered in realization.
"What do you know about yourself, Stephanie?" He prodded her in an encouraging tone.
Distracted by her thoughts, she almost didn't hear his question. "Hmm?...Oh...I can't sit around like this. I have to work. I have to take care of myself." Her words of self-revelation were surprising even to her own ears.
"I have an apartment. It's a crappy apartment, but it's mine. I pay for it."
"Why is that so important to you?"
Stephanie thought about that for a moment, and then confessed, "Because when I depend on me…I can't be disappointed by anyone letting me down." A flash of memories whirled through her mind. Details from her marriage to Dickie were among them.
Jack nodded. "Stephanie, we'll get back to your trust issues later, but for right now, do you see what you've just done?"
She smiled. "Yes. I've been working so hard on trying to remember everyone else; I hadn't spent anytime trying to remember me. Remembering who I am."
"For the last several days you've been defining yourself through the people you know and remember now. And to some extent that's okay and helpful. But people are who they are, because of the sum of their life experiences. Good, bad, happy, sad, pleasant, painful, beautiful and ugly. Our encounters with people who are still part of our life and those who are not, all play a significant role in cultivating our personality, our fears, our strengths etcetera. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"You're saying that I need to give some thought to aspects of my life not represented in Hector's book."
"How do I do that?"
"Your memories will continue to return and fill in on a daily basis. With each person you reconnect with, more of your past will resurface. Not only will you learn about the people in your life, you will learn more about yourself as well. You haven't lost your basic personality traits. They're still there. It's just that you have been isolated here, focusing on recovery and redeveloping your relationship with Carlos. That's been very important, and he and his men are an incredible support system for you. They're safe. But you're ready for more now."
"So it's time to go back to Trenton."
"It's time to go back to Trenton."
"Swell." She sighed and plopped back down into her chair.
"So which is it now; you need to go back to Trenton, or you're afraid to go back to Trenton?"
"Both." She sighed again.
The wide smile returned to Jack's face. "That's my girl. Let's work on that."
Stephanie and Jack continued their discussion for the next forty-five minutes or so. When they were about to wrap it up for the day, Stephanie placed a hand on Jack's arm.
"Jack, why don't you join us for dinner tonight? We're actually going out for the first time. Some of the guys will be there. It'll be fun!"
"Stephanie, you've been really great by inviting me over here for dinner almost every night this past week. But believe it or not, you are not responsible for my social calendar. I am perfectly capable of finding ways to entertain myself."
She looked at him skeptically. "Jack, I don't think pay-per-view and room service count as quality entertainment."
"I happen to have a date." Jack commented while he was busy packing up his notes and putting on his coat.
"A date?" Stephanie responded buoyantly. "With who?"
Jack just grinned and gave her a wink.
"Jack?" Stephanie pursued him to the door. "Jack! With who?"
Jack came to an abrupt stop and turned around. "If you think about it, you probably already know. You have one of the most perceptive minds I've ever encountered. It's actually rather scary. Not much gets past you when it comes to reading people. Really, Stephanie, before you can trust anyone else completely, you have to start trusting yourself first. Why don't you begin with trusting your gut instinct on this one?"
Stephanie paused for just a second and her mouth slowly stretched into a satisfied 'Cheshire cat' grin. "I knew it!" She accused. "I had a feeling about you two."
He nodded and turned to leave.
"Jack?" She called after him, still smiling, and he looked back at her. "Have a great time."
"That's the plan."