Chapter 31—It's Funny…Fate

Stephanie's POV

When Joe saw me and my swollen, black and blue face, I thought he was going to be sick. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and exhaled deeply, like he'd been holding his breath for ages. He looked shaken. I gently disengaged myself from his embrace. Like we had a month ago, we just stared at each other.

"Oh my god, are you okay? Do you need medical care? You look horrible, Stephanie." He brought his hand up to touch my swollen cheek, but I flinched and stepped back. Joe winced at my reaction.

"It looks worse than it is. What are you doing here, Joe?" I waited for an answer, but none was forthcoming. Joe looked guilty.

I had to say it. "He knew you. Harry Black knew you. He said you'd talked to him about me…intimate things. Is that true? How did he know you?"

"Steph, I'm so sorry. Sorry you got involved in this mess." Joe rubbed his jaw and chin, dark and scruffy with more than a five o'clock shadow.

"Talk to me, Joe. How are you involved with Harry Black?" I know my voice sounded shrill, but, so help me, after what I'd been through my patience was wearing thin. I didn't want to believe Joe had anything to with it, but why would Harry Black know Joe?

He explained, "We've been investigating Black for over a year for gambling fraud, money laundering and most disgustingly, human slave trading. He's the reason I've been coming to Vegas…gathering enough evidence so we could indict him. We were close…real close. When I heard that four Palace Casino employees had been killed during a kidnapping attempt and one of them was Harry Black, I was relieved. And then I heard your name and I stopped breathing."

His voice was a little ragged. He reached his hand out to touch my face, but I stepped back. Joe shut his eyes and swallowed. "It didn't occur to me that Black would come after you. He did this to get revenge on me."

"Revenge on you…for what? Because you were investigating him?" I asked, remembering Harry said this started as revenge.

"No. It started years before the investigation." Joe ran his hand through his hair. "Steph, Harry was my partner for four years when I first moved back to Trenton. We both worked vice. I used to talk about you, how much I missed you and being married to you. I must have put you on his radar. He knew how much you meant to me."

Joe opened his arms a little, but when I crossed mine over my chest he let his drop to his side. I knew how much Joe wanted to hold me, to reassure himself I was alright, but I just couldn't do it. I needed answers, not comfort. Joe could read me like a book and he backed off.

"I found out Black was a dirty cop and I turned him in. He went to prison because of me. When I got off the witness stand at his trial, he shouted to me he would get even, that he would make me rue the day I 'betrayed' him. I never thought it would come to this. You were in Vegas and we'd been divorced for years. If he wanted revenge, I figured he'd come directly after me. I never thought he'd use you to get to me. If Harry was after you, it's my fault. I'm so sorry, Cupcake."

The pieces were finally starting to fall into place. I stared at Joe, seeing how utterly miserable he was. I'd never seen such a look of despair on his face, except when we lost Cady.

"Joe, this wasn't your fault. This was all Harry's doing…his sick, perverted sense of justice. It's over. I just want to go home, but they won't let us. Can you help with that?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll talk to the local PD. Thanks, Steph…uh, one question?" He glanced over where Carlos was standing with Tank.

"What's your relationship to Ranger Mañoso?" He looked intently at me.

"He's my friend. All four of these men are my friends. They're the only reason I'm still here tonight. They saved my life."

"Friend? Is that all Mañoso is to you?"

I knew without a doubt exactly what Carlos 'Ranger' Mañoso was to me. "I love him, Joe."

Carlos' attention had been riveted on us, but he'd kept his distance as Joe and I talked. Now he was standing just over Joe's shoulder. He had on a 200-watt smile.

"You love me?" he asked, still smiling.

I stepped around Joe and stood directly in front of Carlos. "Yes, I love you," I declared.

Even though the warehouse was filled with law enforcement officers, all I was aware of was the man in front of me. My public confession earned me a crushing bear hug and then a crushing kiss. Both our lips started bleeding again, but it was worth it.

"Te amo, Babe. I love you, too." And he kissed me again, this time more gently. "I feel like I've been waiting for you my entire life."

"So, after all Harry did to try to scare you away, you hung in there and finally won the girl?"

"Nothing could keep me away from you, Babe."

"I thought I was jinxed. That no man would ever want me again. After my divorce, no man would give me a second look. I just gave up…until you came along."

Joe moved into my line of sight and gave me a wave. "You weren't jinxed. That was me, Steph."

He gave Carlos a polite nod. "Joe Morelli, Steph's ex." Carlos didn't let go of me, but he did acknowledge Joe with a clipped, "Carlos Mañoso."

Joe turned to look at me. "I'm ashamed of my actions now, but back then I truly thought we'd get back together, in spite of the divorce. I thought we were just in one of our 'off' phases," Joe said, looking a little sheepish.

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"I kept watch over you. Cupcake, you were so depressed for so long, I was worried about you. Then you started your business and seemed like your old self again. I thought we had a chance." Joe looked down at his feet and then threw his hands out. He never could talk for long without his Italian hand gestures.

"When I heard you had a date with another man, I got jealous. I talked to him and 'explained' we were trying to work things out and just needed a little time. The guy backed off. So I did it with several other guys who showed interest in you. After you turned me down for the umpteenth time, I finally realized how unfair I was being to you, but I knew I couldn't watch you be with another man. That's when I decided to move back to Trenton."

My jaw dropped. "All those men who never asked me for a second date? All those men who stood me up? That was you?" Joe gave me an apologetic look, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

I didn't know what to say to that. I kept thinking how devastated I'd been to think no man would ever want me again. It had been a pivotal moment in my life and not a good one. I was starting to see red, when Carlos reached out to shake Joe's hand.

"I want to thank you, Morelli. If you hadn't done that, Stephanie could have married someone else and I might never have found her." Carlos smiled at me. "Though I believe we were meant to be together."

Until he said that last sentence, I'd wanted to hit both of them. But I couldn't resist smiling back at Carlos.

Joe looked from me to Carlos and back to me again, watching us grin like lovesick fools at each other.

He shook his head. "I guess we're really over, Cupcake."

I pulled my eyes away from Carlos long enough to say, "You have no idea, Joe."

I was still debating whether to punch him in the nose. I finally decided there'd been too much violence already. I rolled my eyes at him instead and scratched my cheek with my middle finger extended.

Joe stared at me for the longest time, before glancing at Carlos and nodding. He walked over to the Vegas and Henderson police gathered around the town cars. They were counting stacks of Harry's 'laundered' money. Carlos' lawyer had arrived just after Joe. The lawyer, Joe and two of the police officers talked at length. Finally, the cop in charge came over and told us we were free to leave, but to stay in Las Vegas. We knew this was just the beginning of a longer investigation.

We wasted no time and walked across the road to the RangeMan vehicles. Before we got in, Lester carefully hugged me, trying hard not to disturb any of my bruises and also protect his ribs. "You're one in a million, Tiger. You were terrific. I'll follow you anywhere because I know the ride will be a wild one. I had a blast."

"You're a nut, Les. I don't want any more excitement like that for the rest of my life. But I'm sure glad you joined our little party and that you lived to enjoy it. Thank you for coming to rescue me. I guess you no longer owe me a favor." I kissed him on the only unbruised spot on his cheek.

"You can always ask me for a favor. Anything you want, Tiger." Lester gave me one of his suggestive smiles, then winced as it reopened his cut lip.

Bobby was next. He took my hands in his and advised, "Steph, I think you should go to the ER and get checked out."

"No, no, no. No hospitals. I'm fine, Bobby. I just need a little healing time and let nature take its course."

"Well, at least come back to RangeMan and let me treat you for the worst of it, okay?" he prodded.

Carlos stepped in. "Bobby's right. If you won't go to the hospital, I insist you let Bobby check you out."

"What about all of you? You had it much worse than I did. Who checks you guys out?" I huffed.

Seeing me start to get worked up, Tank jumped into the fray. "Bobby's a medical doctor, Steph. He takes care of all of us. Ram has had a lot of medical training, and he'll check Bobby out. Satisfied?"

I backed off. "Okay. I can live with that. Bobby, I can't thank you enough for everything you did for me tonight. I'm glad you're my friend." I kissed his cheek and he kissed my forehead.

"Now, get me outta here. If I never see Henderson again, it'll suit me just fine," I said.

Carlos opened the back door to the SUV and helped me in. He slid in next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. Tank climbed in the driver's seat and we were off, Lester and Bobby following in their vehicle. I leaned forward and draped my arms around Tank's neck.

"Thank you, too, my very dear friend. You've earned a lifetime of free dinners at Cady's and all the cupcakes you can eat. I don't know what I'd do without you." I laid my cheek next to his. Tank patted my head.

Then I snuggled back into Carlos' shoulder, careful not to touch his bruised ribs. Carlos kissed the top of my head and slowly stroked my arm. I think we both needed to reassure ourselves the ordeal was over and we were both okay. We sat together quietly for at least ten minutes, none of us talking, not even Tank.

My body may have been still, but my mind was racing. I replayed the terrible parts of the last day and started to panic a little. I immediately clamped down on those thoughts.

Trying to concentrate on the positive, I realized I'd finally told Carlos I loved him and he said he loved me. That meant a real relationship. I thought about how my life would change now that I'd have to factor in another person's wants and needs. I'd been alone for so long and had become set in my ways.

I'd been dreading letting any man see me naked or get into bed with me. Actually, the thought had petrified me before. Now, after today, I couldn't wait. All those fears about my 'aging' body didn't seem too important anymore. And I couldn't imagine being embarrassed with Carlos. Not after all we shared. I nearly lost him. I wanted to hold him forever. I wanted to get as close to him as two people in love could get. He must have read my thoughts.

"Babe, when Bobby's finished treating you, do you want me to take you to your house or would you consider staying with me?" Carlos asked, speaking in a low voice though I figured Tank could still hear us.

"You mean, stay with you in your apartment?"

He nodded. I kept my face tucked into his shoulder, but I was grinning to beat the band. I asked, "You'll let me come back to RangeMan and make sure Bobby checks you over?"

Carlos nodded.

"You'll let me be with you even if you're hurt and in pain?"


"Just making sure."

"I will never turn you away again."

"Even if Joe comes to you and tries to convince you I belong with him?"

"I would never send you back to Morelli. I'm not a fool, Babe. You've always belonged to me. I felt it the minute we met."

"It's funny…fate," I said. "If I hadn't joined that group of Cady's Kids painting that fence, we'd never have met."

"I'll do you one better. We both grew up in New Jersey and we're the same age. We could have met at anytime…at the beach one summer, at a sports event, or at a local restaurant."

"As a bounty hunter!" I exclaimed. "You do that kind of work, don't you? My cousin owns a bail bonds company in Trenton. I always thought that sounded exciting. I could have become a bounty hunter and we might have met that way."

"Babe. Really…"

"We might have." I looked up. "McDonalds!" I cried.

"We would never have met at McDonalds. I don't eat junk food." Carlos chuckled.

"No, there's a McDonalds up ahead. Tank, pull in. I'm starving. I haven't had anything to eat in nearly 24 hours." To underscore the point, my stomach rumbled so loudly even Tank heard it.

"Tiger, we'd better feed that beast before it breaks free." Tank pulled into the drive-thru lane, Bobby and Lester right behind us. I turned around to look at the guys and Lester was wearing a huge grin. I'm sure he was thinking about Ranger eating a Big Mac.

Since it was daybreak, I got an Egg McMuffin, hash browns and a coffee with cream and sugar. Tank got three Sausage Egg McMuffins, three hash browns, an orange juice and a black coffee. Carlos got scrambled eggs, fresh fruit and water.

I inhaled the fried hunk of hash browns first. "That stuff will kill you," Carlos said.

"After what I just lived through, I'm willing to chance it. Today's my lucky day." I smiled, biting into my Egg McMuffin. I downed it in a few large bites.

The sun was just coming up. It was going to be a beautiful day in Las Vegas. Of course, I doubted if I would see any of it. I planned to spend the entire day in bed and not just sleeping. Like I said, today was my lucky day and I planned on getting very lucky. Many times.

We were still about ten minutes out from RangeMan. I wasn't content just snuggling anymore. My lips found their way to the sensitive spot behind Carlos' ear and I kissed and licked him. A low growl sounded from Carlos' throat. I increased the pressure of my kisses and sucked his skin into my mouth, biting down just a little. His growl deepened.

His hand moved from my arm to my tummy and he lightly rubbed me there. That was definitely one of my erogenous zones and I was soon breathing a little faster. I had a fluttery feeling in my stomach and the lower his hand went, the lower the butterflies moved. Soon a familiar ache started in my core and I knew there was only one thing that would make the ache go away.

I remembered what I'd felt pressed against my stomach during our Christmas make-out session in the restroom, and I wanted to know if he was all he seemed to be. I'd always had way too much curiosity for my own good. But mainly, I wanted to tease him and pay him back for leading me on that day.

I slipped my hand into his waistband and reached for it. I didn't have far to reach. It met me and, oh my god, I was so getting lucky today. I mean, really lucky in a 'big' way. It wasn't rolled up socks he had down there. I also got the answer to another question…not boxers, not briefs, but commando.

As I grabbed hold, Carlos sucked in a huge breath of air. I wrapped my hand around his cock, at least as far as I could and lightly squeezed. Carlos dropped his head back and closed his eyes, a low moan escaping his lips. "Oh, Babe. Que se siente tan bien." [That feels so good.]

He let me continue stroking him for about fifteen seconds before he whispered in my ear. "It really pains me to say this, but seriously, if you don't stop that right now, I won't be responsible for what happens next. And then Tank's going to get quite an eyeful."

In the morning light, I could see his eyes darken from brown to nearly black and his look change from loving to predatory. His hand was now tightly cupping my mound. I was already in a state and the pressure from his fingertips was indescribable. I nearly came on the spot.

I grinned and slowly…regretfully…withdrew my hand. "Payback's a bitch, huh?" I teased. He looked puzzled for a moment and then smiled. In spite of his injured ribs, he hugged me tightly to him.

"Wait till it's my turn to tease you," he whispered and let his fingers do his talking. I felt a rush of wetness between my thighs.

Tank had been silent all this time, but he finally spoke up, exasperation rasping his voice. "If you two don't quit that right now, I'm going to stop this car in the middle of the street and walk away. It's not a hotel room, for chrissakes."

I giggled. Carlos chuckled. Tank scowled, but kept driving. He pulled into the RangeMan garage and as soon as he parked and turned off the engine he was out of there. Lester and Bobby pulled in next to us and got out to wait. Carlos waved them on. Lester came over to open the door, but when he saw where Carlos' hand was he veered away and headed for the stairs. We were finally alone.

And Carlos wanted to talk. Great!

"The past twenty-four hours have been really fucked up, Babe, and I know you must be exhausted and in pain. If you just want to sleep for a while, I'll understand. No pressure."

My mind started racing. Did he say that for my benefit, to give me a way out or was he really too badly injured and needed some time to recuperate?

"How about we let Bobby do his thing and you let me take a hot shower. Then we'll crawl into that big bed of yours and see how we feel."

As I spoke I placed my hand on his crotch, to let him know what I wanted. With a huge grin, he grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the vehicle. We walked briskly to the elevators. The door closed behind us and he hit three.

"Bobby's office," he explained. He held my hand, but kept the rest of his body away from me. He was taking deep breaths and not looking at me. I swear he was fidgeting. I think I made my point.

Bobby checked us over and put some butterfly bandaids on the deepest of Carlos' wounds, but there wasn't much to do for the bruises and smaller cuts. Luckily, none of Carlos' ribs were cracked. Bobby examined my face, pressing on all the painful swollen parts. He finally told me my nose wasn't broken and the swelling would go down in a few days. He gave us some flexible ice packs and sent us on our way.

The look in Carlos' eyes as we left Bobby's office had me wet with desire. But it seemed we were running an endless gauntlet of delays. Ducky stopped us before we reached the elevators.

"Ranger, Stephanie…I am delighted to see you both. Oh my…Ram told me all five of you had suffered a serious beating, but I never imagined. How are you holding up?" Ducky was being solicitous, but all I wanted was to get upstairs and be alone with Carlos.

"I'm fine, Ducky. Nothing a little time won't heal." I started to move on.

Ducky put his hand on my forearm. "My dear, you've been through quite a trauma. I insist we talk."

"Okay, Ducky. But not now. If you'll excuse us, all I really want is to take a shower and wash the last twenty-four hours off me."

"I'll expect you Monday then, tomorrow morning."

Both Ranger and I shouted simultaneously, "NO!"

Ranger continued in a quieter voice, "Steph will see you first thing Tuesday morning. Would that fit in your schedule, Ducky?"

Ducky studied both our faces before answering. "Ah! Yes. Tuesday morning will be fine."

I blushed as I saw a smile play across Ducky's face. It was like having your father catch you in the act. I shouldn't be embarrassed. I was a grown woman. Carlos and I were both unattached and consenting adults. But just knowing that Ducky knew what we'd be doing shortly had my stomach filling with butterflies. Or maybe Carlos and his magic touch created the butterflies. Whatever…I felt like a schoolgirl, again. But first…a shower.

Carlos practically dragged me down the hall to the elevator. When the doors opened, he scooped me up and hit seven, all in one smooth move. Letting me slide down his body, he pressed me against the back wall. With a ferocity that had my heart beating triple time, his lips crashed down on mine as his hands stroked me everywhere. I was quickly on sensory overload.

I didn't push him away, but I did come up briefly for air. Breathing heavily, I said, "I thought I was going to get to take a hot shower?" As much as I wanted to continue, I needed to wash off the horrors of the past day.

The elevator doors opened on a small anteroom. Walking me backwards, Carlos guided me to the door to his apartment. I leaned with my back against the door while he pulled a key fob out of his pocket and hit one of the buttons, his other hand stroking my throat.

Gently, he pinned me to the door with his body and my arms wound themselves around his neck. Whispering in my ear, he murmured, "About that shower, I demand a do-over. Our first shower together wasn't my best work. I hope you'll give me another chance." He began nibbling on my earlobe.

In mock seriousness, I replied, "I don't know. A good shower is important to me."

Carlos grinned at me, "I give great shower, Babe."

"Oh yeah, what are your shower credentials then?" I teased.

He molded his body to mine and I could feel his entire hard length pressing into my stomach. It was one pretty impressive credential all by itself.

Carlos could be very persuasive when he wanted something. "I have a black belt in lathering and I won the gold 'Squeaky Clean' award ten years in a row. I also hold the Guinness world record for 'lasting the longest' after the hot water runs out." I could feel his warm breath on my neck and when he let his lips touch my skin, I let out a moan. I gave myself a quick shake.

"I'm impressed, but…" I pretended to think it over, letting a frown crease my face, "I've been showering alone for a long time now and I have certain standards to uphold." My hands were stroking the back of his neck and playing with his hair.

"Put yourself in my capable hands and you'll never go back to showering alone again. And as for your shower massager," he let his hands drop to my ass, "I'll make it obsolete, a thing of the past. Just give me this one chance." He slowly massaged each cheek, driving me crazy.

"I don't know…" I drawled, letting my mouth trail a line of kisses from his ear down his neck to the top of his shirt. I blew gently on the wet patch of skin and felt him shiver.

His voice deepened considerably. "Babe, I'm good in the shower…really good. I don't...I won't…disappoint."

He ran his hands up the sides of my torso and rubbed his thumbs over my breasts making my nipples harden with the first pass. I couldn't take anymore of this slow foreplay.

"In that case, I guess I could let you audition for me…"

His mouth found mine again as the door swung open. He lifted me and I automatically wrapped my legs around his waist and, together, we crossed the threshold.

The End