A/N: Ha! It's not even Friday! Surprise!
First, a little follow-up for last chapter: In case anyone noticed or wondered about Ranger's unusual use of 'Dude' in the previous chapter (when Joe suggested Steph was 'on her period') … You may be amused to find that it is a canon Ranger-ism, and I wrote that little slice of that segment in homage to the Lean Mean Thirteen Ranger/Joe/Stephanie conversation in chapter 14. When Steph was bitching at the end of the chapter, Joe told Ranger it was her time of the month. Ranger's only response to him was, "Dude." It cracked me up in LMT so I had to pay some tribute (even if it was in a book after 12 Sharp—you know, the last book in the series?) ;)
Secondly, please keep in mind many readers perceive what happens in the books differently. There are Babes and Cupcakes, and of those two groups, you still can find subsets of people who don't read the scenes the same way. Before you go forward reading the last chapter, you should know I'm of the camp that never read Stephanie as upset, insulted or degraded in Hard Eight after the night of the 'Deal' and the 'go back to Morelli' speech. I think as Babes, we don't like what Ranger said and how it made us feel. But I've never read Steph as holding some great grudge because of it.
Lastly, I'd like to thank all who have followed the story, and especially those who took the extra time to review and offer both encouragement and feedback. That's writer food! A few of you came out of fan fiction reading and/or writing retirement to read and review me, and I want you to know that I appreciate it so, so much. A special thank you goes to xboxbabe for finding time to beta this 8700 word monster chapter while she's busy with her own family and smack in the middle of publishing her own fabulous Stephanie Plum fanfic story, Time Gone Awry.
Now enough of my yammering. Hope everyone enjoys the final chapter!
"What do you mean he's not here?"
Tank looked at Stephanie like she had a few dots missing off her dice. "It's nice to see you too, Bombshell."
"I'm sorry. Hi Tank. I'm looking for Ranger and he's not in his apartment and he's not answering his phone. Can you use your Merry Man juju and see if you can find him for me?"
Both of Tank's substantial eyebrows shot up toward his bald pate. "Merry Man juju?"
Twisting her hands, Steph nodded maniacally. "Please?"
He glanced around the office—Ranger's office—and stood up to look at the seat of his chair as if to check he hadn't sat on something … or someone. Settling his extra-large frame back into Ranger's ergonomically designed yet luxurious leather desk chair, he said, "Yeah. Just checked. He ain't here."
"I got it. You're mad at me and you don't want to help me."
"Why would I be mad at you?"
"I got my memory back the day before yesterday and I might have said some things I didn't mean to Ranger."
Tank eased back in Ranger's chair and folded his hands over his stomach of steel. Tank might have been the size of a refrigerator, but he boasted the same lack of body fat, and the same rippling muscles that Ranger did. "So no more sharing the ins and outs of your wacky menstrual cycle in the break room, or telling Lester his penis is going to fall off if he keeps sticking it in anything warm blooded?"
"You'd be correct on the menstrual cycle. I'm not going to apologize for the Lester thing; someone had to say it."
"So you remember the last couple months too?"
She nodded and looked off to the side towards Ranger's window. The blinds were closed but she didn't need to see outside to know it would be growing dark soon. It'd been a little over 48 hours since she'd talked to Ranger. She'd tried to call him a few times yesterday, but his phone had gone directly to voicemail. She really should have come to find him sooner. "I remembered a not so great moment first. Which reminded me of a bunch of other not so great moments. And then I remembered the last couple of months, and then I was embarrassed."
"Tank, it's hard to explain, and I really think I should be having this conversation with Ranger."
Tank blew out a breath and sat forward again, drumming his fingers on the desk. "He came in for one meeting yesterday morning, told me he was going offline for a few days."
"Did he seem mad or upset?"
"He didn't seem anything, he was all business." Tank shrugged. "All I knew was you moved out the day before and I figured either things were fine and he was with you, or things were not fine and he was busy fixing things with you."
"Yeah, no. That's not what was happening." She collapsed in one of the guest chairs. "Which car did he take? Pull up his GPS."
Tank just stared at her, probably because she sounded a teeny bit like she was giving an order.
She was only apologizing to one person today, and Tank was not that person. She could be polite though. So she said, "Please," as she jerked her chin toward Ranger's computer, giving Ranger's second-in-command her patented get on with it already look.
He smirked, presumably amused by her audacity, and called up the GPS program on Ranger's hard drive. A minute later, Tank blinked at the computer screen and chuckled low.
Instead of answering, Tank stood, tugging his coat off the back of Ranger's chair. He did a quick body check for weapons, patting his pockets for keys as he headed for the door. "Well, come on girl," he called over his shoulder. "Time's a-wastin'!"
Steph hurriedly grabbed her purse, nearly having to jog to catch up. At the elevator she asked, "Where are we going?"
Tank looked down at her benevolently, arms crossed over his chest. "I'm taking you to your destiny, Stephanie Plum."
"My destiny?" No pressure or anything.
"Or my funeral," he added as she stepped onto the elevator. He turned, his eyes flicking down to her purse. "You got a gun?"
Tank pulled to a stop at the base of what looked to be a residential driveway. She hadn't seen a house for miles and she still didn't see one. There was a high wrought iron fence punctuated at intervals with even taller stack-stone pillars stretching across the length of the property border. Two large, black-clad guards flanked the gates looking like a matched set of foreboding, yet hunky sentries.
On closer inspection, Steph realized said sentries were wearing winter weight Rangeman windbreakers not unlike the one she was wearing now. "I thought you didn't know where Ranger was."
"I didn't know he was here until I pulled it up on GPS. You didn't ask me where Manny, Cal and Brett were. This job has been on the books for weeks.
Manny ambled over to the driver's side as Tank rolled down his window.
"Need to see some ID," Manny clipped, straight faced.
"I showed your mama ten inches of my ID last night, and she's still walkin' funny. Now open the goddamn gate, and quit fuckin' around."
Manny grinned and bent lower to look across the interior of the car. "Is that Stephanie Plum I see?"
Stephanie couldn't help but grin back and then jumped when there was tapping on the glass to her right. Turning toward the source, she saw Cal gesturing to lower her window.
Cal gave her a dopey grin. "Hey, sweetness. You here for Dr. Keeling's birthday bash?"
Tank must have lost what little patience he had with these two. He yanked the earpiece off Manny's head, held it to his own ear and barked, "Rangeman One to Rangeman Three, this is Big Papa, come in Rangeman Three."
Stephanie snorted at Big Papa but quickly squelched it when Big Papa glared at her.
She couldn't hear what Rangeman Three—Brett?—was saying through the earpiece, so she smiled at poor Manny, who was stuck in a clearly uncomfortable bent-at-the-waist position since he was still semi-attached to his earpiece.
Tank said, "Front gate and requesting entrance." Then he huffed a mildly put-upon grunt, pulled an iPhone out of a cargo pocket and tapped the front a few times with his thumb. Scanning down the screen, he found what he was looking for and said, presumably to Brett, "Alpha Niner Zulu Charlie Whiskey Zero Kilo." Some sort of password, Stephanie surmised.
Tank slapped the borrowed earpiece into Manny's gut, eliciting a grunt from the man.
The gates seemingly opened by magic. Manny thumped the roof of the Explorer twice. "You kids have a good time!"
After being greeted at the top of the circular driveway by Brett, they pulled forward under a stately stone portico attached to the side of the house. There was a super-sized carriage lantern hanging overhead and smaller matching pseudo gaslights flickering along the supporting pillars and the connecting wall.
A very young and cute Jake Gyllenhaal looking dude –not a Rangeman—opened Steph's car door for her. Once both she and Tank were out of the vehicle, he climbed in the driver's seat and drove off into parts unknown.
The property was that big.
Stephanie followed Tank up the stone steps that connected the portico to the massive front porch. They came to a stop in front of a pair of country French solid wood double doors, the kind that came to a rounded arch at the top. Tank rang the gonging doorbell and they waited.
Steph burrowed her hands in her coat pockets, shifting from foot to foot. She was pretty sure she was underdressed for anything that happened in a house like this, even cleaning. She looked down at herself, grateful at least that she didn't have any jelly donut stains on her white cowl neck sweater, and that her low-rise jeans didn't have any holes in the knees. Yet. Probably she shouldn't worry, but focusing on what she was or wasn't wearing was better than giving into her nerves. What was Ranger was going to say when he saw her? What was she going to say when she saw him?
She was hoping for divine inspiration.
The door on the right swung open revealing another adorable young man in a company logo shirt that matched Jake Gyllenhaal's. This guy looked uncannily like a twenty-two year old version of Ryan Gosling, and she felt herself inexplicably blushing like a fangirl as he helped her off with her coat, which was ridiculous, because clearly he wasn't the Ryan Gosling. Dammit.
While the man took Tank's coat, she watched as a Ryan Reynolds-y looking fella came out of the noisy room across the hall carrying a full tray of empty cups and mugs. Whoever this Dr. Keeling was, he'd accomplished some sort of hot household help hat trick, the lucky bastard. Probably the good doctor was straight and didn't realize his good fortune.
Bringing her attention back to Cute Ryan Gosling Boy, Steph couldn't help but grin when the kid winked at her while Tank was busy adjusting his shirt to conceal his gun.
Tank held out a hand indicating Steph should precede him down the hall. Steph had just taken a few steps when she heard a whap. Turning, she saw the kid rubbing the back of his of his head and scowling at Tank.
"What the fff-"
"You work for McGinty, boy?"
"You know I was in the army with McGinty? Known the man for nearly 15 years."
"Yes, sir," the kid responded warily.
"You know who else was in the Army with McGinty?"
"Ranger Manoso. You know that name, son?"
The kid paled. "Yes, sir."
"That ass you were just checking out belongs to Ranger Manoso."
"Hey!" Steph automatically clapped her hands over both rear checks assessing they were still in her possession.
Tank and the kid ignored her. "You shouldn't be looking at any ass when you're on duty whether you're a valet, a doorman or a bodyguard. I'm pretty sure McGinty would agree with me there."
"Yes, sir," he croaked. The poor kid looked like he was thinking about throwing up.
"If you were checking out asses on duty, and McGinty found out, what would happen?"
The kid swallowed. "I'd be fired, sir."
Tank nodded. "You'd be fired. That's right. Do you want to know what would happen if Manoso found out you were eyeballing his woman's ass the way you just were?"
The boy flicked his eyes to Steph and she gave him a little I'm sorry pout in apology for Tank, even though her ego was enjoying the little boost. The kid looked back at the black man towering over him. "Yes sir. I mean no, sir, I would not like to find out, sir."
Tank slapped him on the back so hard the kid was forced to take a step forward to keep his balance. "Good choice. Now get back to work."
Steph started walking further into the house knowing Tank would catch up with her in two strides. "That was a little harsh, don't you think?"
Tank was kept from answering when a tall, distinguished man came out of the noisy over-crowded parlor-style room they were just about to enter. "Tank, my man, good of you to come. And what's this beautiful lady here doing with a stodgy old fart like you?" The man smiling at her now seemed to be in his mid to late forties, sandy hair, graying at the temples. His skin was warm, like a maintained a perpetual tan, his jaw chiseled, and his eyes were an unusual mossy green, flanked by crinkling laugh lines. She thought that if she weren't so in love with Ranger, she might be susceptible to this guy's particular brand of sexy.
Tank yanked at Steph's arm, making her stumble in front of him. "Dr. Keeling, this is Stephanie Plum." Dr. Keeling clearly recognized her name; his smile had gone from a cordial curve of the lips, to a warm and knowing grin.
Tank continued his introduction. "Stephanie Plum, this is Christian Keeling, New Jersey's finest OB/GYN, and husband to Celia Keeling," Tank smirked down at Stephanie, "…formerly known as Celia Manoso."
"No!" she blurted. Tank had brought her to some private Manoso family function? At least she hoped it was a private family function. What if it was some sort of weird doodah convention? But no, Cal said it was Dr. Keeling's birthday party.
Ranger was going to kill her.
Or kill Tank.
She started digging wildly in her purse. "I don't think I have bullets. Do you have any extra bullets?" She said this as she was heading for the front door. Tank snagged her arm, easily dragging her back.
"Where's Ranger?" Tank asked the host, who seemed to be quite amused by Stephanie's discombobulation.
The tall doctor stuffed his hands into the pockets of his dress slacks and rocked back on his heels. "So this is the infamous Bombshell Bounty Hunter."
"It wasn't my fault!" she blurted. Then she narrowed her eyes. "Wait. Infamous in what way?"
Christian just smiled at her and answered Tank's last question, only directing it toward Stephanie. "Last I heard Ranger was out back with Marcus. Just follow that hall, go through the kitchen and out the door off the mudroom." He turned back to Tank and threw his arm over the larger man's shoulders, ready to guide Tank into the party in progress in the parlor.
"Wait, Tank! You're not going with me?"
Both men turned back to look at her. Dr. Keeling smiled indulgently at her. Tank, however, looked like a parent putting his kindergartner on the bus for the first time. "This is a journey you have to make alone, Bombshell."
Tank dug into one of his cargo pockets, his face relaxing as soon as he found what he was looking for. He held out his hand. "Here. Just in case."
He was already through the doorway, and half swallowed by a boisterous crowd of men when she opened her hand to see what he'd given her.
A pair of bullets.
With friends like these, who needed enemies?
Stephanie followed Dr. Keeling's directions and found herself wending her way back toward the sounds of melodious feminine laughter. Once at the entrance to the kitchen, she saw it was one of those multi-use oversized kitchen/hearth room combinations, shaped in an L. The working portion of the kitchen was on one end, sitting area and fireplace on the other, large dining table situated where the two open rooms intersected.
It was enchantingly warm, done in what Stephanie considered a tasteful mix of country French, French provincial and Tuscan. The floors were faded brick, and the cabinets in the kitchen area were a creamy distressed white. There was an over-sized dark wood rough-hewn table with bench seats that looked to be seating at least a dozen women at the moment. There was a large center island serving as an hors d'oeuvre station and bar, though she could see through a doorway to a formal dinning room where is was clear more substantial food items were offered, along with a large cake. The counters were some sort of stone or unpolished marble, and the white cathedral ceilings were finished to look like old plaster accented with dark wood beams. Any fabrics in the room were mismatched in a shabby chic style and held the common theme of deep reds and golds.
Stephanie's presence had gone unnoticed so she took the time to study the women in the room. At least a dozen of them had to be Ranger's blood relatives if their coloring, flashing dark eyes and unearthly beauty were any indication. There were seven or eight Caucasian women, two African American women, and one of Asian decent. Ages ranged from preteen to mid sixties. The women were sitting or standing in clusters, eating, drinking, gossiping and laughing.
An attractive woman, who'd come to the counter nearest Stephanie to pour herself a cup of cocoa, was the first to notice her. While the woman was extremely petite, her cautious and dark eyes were strikingly Rangeresque, as was the color of her chin-length bobbed hair. She handed Steph the fresh mug of cocoa. "Hi there. I'm Helena Manoso-Perez." The tiny woman rose up on tiptoes to peer behind Steph. "Did you arrive with someone?"
Steph reflexively looked over her shoulder, then mentally slapped herself. "I'm Tank." Duh! "I mean, I arrived with Tank. To see Rang—uh, Carlos. I'm Stephanie. Stephanie Plum. I came with Tank. Shit. Did I say that already?"
The room was suddenly silent and Steph didn't know where to look. There had to have been at least forty sets of eyes scrutinizing her.
A woman who appeared to be in her late thirties stepped forward then, looking like a much taller version of Helena. Her jet-black hair was lightly shot with the occasional strand of silver, and was smoothed back into a sleek French twist, jeweled hairpins accenting the simple style. Her silky jersey dress proved to anyone with eyes that her body could stop traffic. "Marshmallows?" She was holding out a crystal bowl full of miniature marshmallows, an elegant sterling silver spoon handle sticking out from amidst the fluffy pile.
"Please," Steph croaked, telling herself not to be intimidated.
Yet another woman stepped over, this one shorter, like Helena, but she had at least twenty years on both women. Her hair was also jet black with an artful undyed strip of silver starting just to the right of her widow's peak and running the length of her long hair, which was twisted into a complicated chignon. The woman tipped her head slightly to the side, index finger to her lips, studying Steph with shrewd eyes. "Stephanie Plum. We expected you to come with my Carlos. And I'm Angelina, or Lina, by the way, Carlos's mother." She didn't have a full-on Cuban accent per se, but there was a hint of Cuba in her words, and Steph would venture to guess it was by way of Miami. She definitely rolled her Rs when she said Carlos.
Stephanie had the absurd urge to take the tips of Lina's fingers, hold the fabric of her own imaginary skirt out to the side, bowing deeply to offer the woman a royal curtsey. Instead she eloquently said, "Um …"
The taller woman stepped closer with her marshmallow bowl and tipped it toward her. Steph helped herself to a scoop. The goddess marshmallow bearer said, "I'm Celia. Carlos was supposed to ask you two weeks ago, when I planned this party for Christian, but he said he wanted to wait until after your first date. Said he didn't want to scare you off too soon."
Lina said to Celia, "I don't understand how can they be living in sin and never go on one single date." Steph wanted to say hey, I'm right here! Lina turned to Steph. "And Tank has said you've been my son's woman for the last three years. Yet it seems there was no dating. What kind of relationship is that, Stephanie?"
Holy crap on a cracker. "It's, uh … you know, Mrs. Manoso, it's sort of complicated-"
Lina made a spitting noise. "This is all Carlos ever says. It tells me nothing. I will light candles for you," Angelina told her. "I don't waste my time on Carlos. He is man, and is therefore beyond all help."
Steph took a noisy slurp of her cocoa and set it on a nearby counter. "Speaking of Carlos…"
Angelina waved her hand as if whatever Steph had to say was unimportant. "So how do you feel about children?"
"Um…." Lina grabbed Steph's wrists and held her arms out to the sides, presumably scrutinizing her waist and hips. She felt like a horse on the auction block. Steph nonchalantly sucked at her teeth, hoping the inspection wouldn't venture to an oral cavity search.
Pursing her lips, Lina nodded approvingly. "Nice wide hips. You know Carlos had very broad shoulders, even as an infant. Nearly split me in two, that boy. And you are how old? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?"
"Thirty," Celia offered helpfully. "Lester said she's thirty. Christian says that's generally still fertile," she told Mrs. Manoso. "Might take them a few months, but there should still be some decent eggs in there." Steph gaped at Ranger's sister. Celia just winked back, smiling. "You're not pregnant now, are you Stephanie?"
All the Cuban women frowned at her horrified reaction. Perhaps they were insulted on Ranger's behalf. "I mean, no, I'm not currently gestating Ranger's fetus at this time. And I'm not living in sin with him anymore. I moved out two days ago. But for the record, we weren't really living in sin. Your son has been quite the gentleman.
"Being a gentleman is not going to get me more grandchildren, Stephanie," Lina said very seriously.
"But we're not married," Steph answered carefully.
"Get pregnant and you will be."
"Mother!" Helena said, shocked. Celia just snorted, the rest of the women tittered behind their hands.
"What?" Lina asked the room at large. "He's thirty. She's thirty. I'm not getting any younger, here."
"Uh…" Oh, come on, Stephanie, she told herself. What was up with all the uhs and ums? She sounded like a spineless dork. Someone needed to smack her.
Folding her arms over her chest, Lina said, "And what is this moving out nonsense? This is a step backward, in my opinion."
"Uhh, I'm just going to…" Steph patted her purse and looked around, trying to decide her best escape route.
Just then, a gust of cold air blew in from across the kitchen, a door slammed, and then there were bizarre clomping sounds coming from the adjoining room.
"Take those skates off now Marcus!" Celia barked. She'd make a good drill sergeant.
"How did you know it was me?" replied the young, disembodied voice.
"Because your Uncle Carlos knows I'd shove a sharpened skate up his ass if he wore hockey equipment in my house."
"Celia!" Her mother admonished.
"Oh please," Celia said as she pointed over to the dessert counter. "Not ten minutes ago you said my flan looked like burnt baby shit."
"Well it does," Lina said. Steph shuddered. It really did look like it could have been scooped out of a diaper.
A gorgeous lanky teen with sandy hair and mocha skin peered around the corner from what must be the mudroom. He spotted Steph and gave her the patented Manoso 200 watt smile. She could swear she saw a sparkle shoot off one of his teeth and there was some dimple action involved. Jesus.
"How you doing?" he rumbled, voice surprisingly deep for a boy Stephanie guessed was, at most, seventeen.
"Take your damn skates off, Marcus, and stop flirting with your uncle's girlfriend."
He ducked back into the mudroom for about ten seconds and then he strutted in to the hearth room, ostensibly to warm his hands by the fire. He was about 5'10" in his stocking feet and he had all the makings of a Lester-style heartbreaker. He was on the thin side but the breadth of his shoulders indicated he'd probably nearly killed Celia on the way out, and would likely be built like Ranger one day.
"You Stephanie?" he asked, looking at her over his shoulder, single eyebrow annoyingly arched.
"How do you all know me?"
The kid shrugged. "You're in the papers a lot. You popped up on the Manoso family radar after the Julie thing. Ella won't say shit, I mean poop," he quickly corrected himself, giving his mother an apologetic grin. "But to be honest, Tank and Uncle Lester gossip like a couple of cheerleaders in 7th period study hall."
"This is true," Celia chimed in. "Especially if you feed them."
Ranger's mother looked thoughtfully at Stephanie. "Ranger won't say much, but he has said you were hurt in an accident and you have lost your memories."
"Yeah … well … I kinda found them the other day. My memories, that is. Funny thing, really, how it came back. Not funny ha-ha, actually, just classic Stephanie Plum. Um, yeah, I just…" Steph tapped at her temple. "It's all back now, plus, you know, I've got the last few months as a bonus feature, so..." She looked around and saw that the facial expressions of her audience varied from vaguely confused to stunned disorientation. Stephanie stupor. She had to fix this. "If Ranger seemed a little, uh…" She tapped her head again, "I was a little scrambled up at first, so I, uh, well I said some things to Ranger and… It's been a crazy few days with the memory thing and the moving thing…" she trailed off lamely. The room at large seemed to be digesting Stephanie's eloquent soliloquy.
She thought it best to jump ship while they were still mesmerized by her silver tongue. "Is Ranger out through there?" she asked, pointing in the direction from which Marcus had come.
Stephanie walked through the mudroom, nearly tripping over a pair of black skates and a Jason-style hockey facemask. She'd just swung open the back door when Celia caught up with her carrying a coat. It was a huge cream-colored man-sized down filled coat, sure to be warm, but also likely to make her look like she weighed forty more pounds than she did.
She quietly thanked Ranger's sister for the loaner coat. Slipping it on with Celia's help, she noticed the Burberry tag on the inside and the light musky citrus scent of what must have the owner's cologne.
"It's Christian's." Celia told her, buttoning Stephanie in like she was a child, making her smile despite her nerves. Concentrating on the snaps, Celia said, "And Mama's worried your ovaries will get cold and your eggs will freeze."
Stephanie laughed and Celia added, "You think I'm kidding? She's been convinced since Julie's kidnapping that you're her last chance at grandchildren from Carlos."
"I don't … Ranger doesn't…"
"No pressure. But just so you know, as far as any of us can tell, you're the only woman that's been a regular part of his life. Ever. This is even according to Lester and Tank. That means something, Steph."
Rocked by her sobering words, Steph swallowed, jarringly shifting from nervous to terrified. "Do you have any advice?"
"Do you love him?"
Ranger's sister seemed so kind and earnest just now, Steph didn't even think about lying, not for a second. "More than anything."
"Tell him that."
Stepping out the door, Steph stood on the stoop and squinted out into the sloping white canvas of the backyard. The patio was brick and had been shoveled recently. To the left, there was a good sixty-foot radius area where the snow had been trampled with thousands of variously sized and shaped footprints, clear evidence that snow play was taken seriously in this family. Once her eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, Steph could see there'd been a bitter snowman sword battle. One unlucky snowman lay on the ground, his head violently separated from his body. He had two twig Xs for eyes, indicating his death.
It only took her a moment to pick out where Ranger was. Beyond the trampled area of snow, the landscape was a smooth unbroken sheet of white, except for a single winding walkway, punctuated at each serpentine curve by an evergreen shaped mound of snow and an adjacent glowing garden light.
At the foot of the path was a small frozen pond. A few ornate iron park benches were placed at intervals around the pond, and what looked to be a gazebo was on the opposite side.
Affixed to a pole that blended into the nearest copse of trees was a pair of security lights. Only one was glowing now, it illuminated half the pond, and she could see Ranger's dark figure standing just on the margin that encompassed the no man's land between light and the shadow.
He had what she assumed was a pile of pucks on the ice near his feet, and he was shooting simple penalty shots into the net Marcus must have been guarding earlier. Considering the lack of opponent and the repetitive ease with which he made every single identical shot, it seemed his mind was somewhere else entirely and he was just going through the motions.
She'd nearly forgotten the butterflies in her stomach while she'd been dealing with the Manoso females. Now she'd realized those butterflies, while unmonitored, had gone completely out of control. The creatures were now apparently afflicted with grand mal butterfly seizures and ADHD, they'd invited in some spastic hummingbirds, and had seemingly opened up a mosh pit in her gut.
Everything in her being said this is too hard, too scary. Turn around. Leave him alone. Retreat. This was Ranger. He was a private man and he would be furious, not just with her intruding on his family, but for catching him so unguarded.
But then she remembered the look on his face when he came home and found Un-Stephanie living with him. So happy and so sad at the same time, the love so obvious on his face, it shamed her she ever doubted him. Thinking about his face, the myriad of expressions she'd witnessed from him over the last several weeks brought her to the night she told him she was moving out. How hurt and betrayed he looked, and how he'd laid his feelings bare for her to see, even if he thought he'd hidden them.
She couldn't run away. They'd come too far.
Not watching her footing, Stephanie slipped on a small patch of ice halfway down the paved path, the bottom surface of her faux riding boots making the slightest scraping noise against the cement.
Ranger turned towards the sound, and though he was half in shadow, she could see plainly how quickly he'd shifted his grip on the hockey stick and reached for his weapon.
She froze right where she was, put her hands up—palms out—on either side of her head. "It's just me," she called out, her voice sounding thready and thin, even to her own ears.
Ranger stood there for the longest time, not moving, as though he was having a very hard time placing the woman on the hill in his current habitat.
Steph felt the same way when she ran into her dentist at the grocery store.
Eventually Ranger moved, and so did she. Not taking her eyes off the man on the ice, Stephanie picked her way carefully down the remainder of the path while Ranger moved his hand from his weapon and watched her progress toward him.
He stayed where he was, holding the hockey stick like a shepherd's crook, watching her. As she got closer she could see he was in skates, not that it affected his balance or posture.
At the end of the walkway was a narrow strip of land covered in snow, dividing the paved landing from the pond. She eyed the eighteen or so inch width of piled snow, wondering if she stepped in it, if it would suck off her boot. Even if it didn't, she knew she couldn't walk across the ice to him. The soles of her boots were hard, slick and impractical.
Ranger was more in shadow now than he was before and she wasn't certain if it was happenstance or by design. One thing was certain; he was waiting. The next move was hers. She just needed to get off her metaphorical ass and make it.
"I…" the single syllable came out as a croak, she cleared her throat and started again. "I hope this is okay, my being here, I mean. You weren't answering your phone, and I went to Tank-"
"My phone's been off. It's fine." His voice was clear and audible, but held no particular inflection. She was a little hurt he didn't skate towards her, close the chasm, but she supposed that was a petty thought considering the pain she must have put this man through in the last few months, let alone the last few days, even if none of it was intentional.
She didn't know where to begin; her list of unintended infractions was miles long.
She pushed her hands deep into the lined pockets of the coat she was wearing, more as a nervous gesture than a perceived need for warmth. She was so anxious she couldn't feel anything.
"Before I start," she told him, making her voice loud enough to carry across the ice. "I just want you to know that I'm really sucky at apologizing. Everyone says it. That's the main reason I almost never do it."
Ranger said nothing.
"And also," she continued nervously, "if I totally derail this apology by trying to push the blame back on you somehow, you should know I'm premenstrual. So if you feel your little Cuban temper coming on, you're just going to have to bank it until after my period."
"I don't have a temper," he said skating towards her with an innate male grace she wouldn't have imagined.
"Ha!" Whoopsies. "Wait, forget that. I take back that ha. Even though you so do have a temper. That's not why I'm here. But can I also just say, for future reference, when I tell you to go away, I do not mean fall off the face of the earth. Pretty much you should ignore anything I say while shrieking. Or at least give me a 24 hour cooling-off period to offer a retraction."
Ranger stepped off the ice, over the small bank of snow, and then he was towering over her more than usual, his skates adding an extra few inches to his height. His eyes were dark and unreadable, which wasn't surprising, though it made her heart hurt a little that he was back to hiding everything he was feeling from her.
His hair was loose, black and silky and he was wearing nothing more over his clothes than a black quilted vest. Under the vest was her favorite cream-colored sweater of his and on closer inspection, she realized what she thought had been dress slacks were really black cargo pants. He didn't have on gloves.
"You are pretty bad at this," he said.
"Just you wait. It'll get worse, I'm sure."
She watched as he leaned the hockey stick against the back of the ornate wrought iron bench. Then he sat down and started unlacing a skate. It was then that she saw what she'd missed, the pair of black combat boots tucked away underneath the bench.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she sat down beside him, close enough that their thighs touched, and focused her attention on the gazebo across the pond. "Your family seems nice, but your mom is kind of scary."
"Scary like Kathy Bates in Misery or scary like your mother."
"Scarily like my mother. She talked about lighting candles. There were questions about my ovaries."
Ranger shook his head as he pushed his heel down in his boot, yanked hard on the laces.
She kind of knew what she wanted to say now, but it was so hard to make herself say it. With all of her memories returned, the new ones included, she was feeling all kinds of vulnerable and embarrassed, like she'd shown Ranger all her cards and her scrabble tiles. Only it was worse than that. It was like she'd shown him her high school diary, her hidden 'period panty' collection, and the 6th grade school picture her mom had kept where she'd had a tumor-sized zit near the center of her forehead, and the hint of a booger in one nostril.
Talking about your feelings was humbling and horrible and icky. Talking about your faults was unthinkable. It gave other people powers over you. She desperately wanted Un-Stephanie to sweep in and come save her.
Ranger had both his boots on and tied now. He was just sitting there, elbows on knees, fingers loosely woven, looking at the ground between his feet.
"I'm sorry," she said.
From the corner of her eye she saw the smallest dip of his head, encouragement for her to continue.
She heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry for the last three years. And the last two days. And for what I said through the door. I'm sorry for pretty much everything in between all that."
"If it makes you feel better," Ranger said, "I'm sorry for a lot too. I deserved what you said through the door." She thought he was done talking until he added quietly, "You sorry you met me?"
She turned on him then, shocked. "No! God, no. I just … I wish I had done some things differently. Listened better. Actually seen what was in front of me."
"What was in front of you, Steph?"
Everything, she wanted to say. Loyalty. Trust. Passion. Possession. Unconditional love. Strength. Patience. Hopefully forgiveness. "You," her voice cracked. "I didn't know I had you. I missed it. I missed everything."
Ranger didn't move, didn't say anything. Stephanie went on, "You said a few weeks ago that I don't really like dealing with the hard stuff. And that unless I asked a direct question, it meant I wasn't ready for an answer." She closed her eyes and tried to dig deep for some courage. All she found was a jumble of butterflies, crushed up hummingbird parts, and some undigested peanut butter and olive sandwich. No help there, unless she wanted to vomit.
"I was afraid to ask you the hard questions. Afraid I wouldn't like the answers. Joe was easy. We made it look hard, we didn't get along most the time and we disappointed each other more than we made each other happy … but I knew it was easier. I knew…"
"You knew what?" Ranger asked. She could barely hear his voice over the sound of her pounding heart.
Keeping her eyes squeezed shut, she forced out, "I knew that falling back into old patterns with him would be so much easier than putting myself out there to be rejected by you."
Silence reigned for long moments. Realizing she hadn't spontaneously burst into flames with her admission, she edged one eye open. Still looking at the ground, Ranger simply nodded, almost if she'd just confirmed something he'd always believed.
"About out night together…" Ranger started.
The stupid cold air was making her stupid eyes water. Ugh! She sniffed, turned away to wipe her eyes while pretending to scratch her nose.
At least he'd brought up something fairly easy. She knew the answer to this one. It's all she thought of since he'd left. "I was really confused when I got my memory back," she said.
Headlights briefly broke through the tree line across the pond, making Steph pause. Ranger said, "That's the valet either parking or retrieving a car."
She nodded and continued. "What happened that night of the deal and what you said the next day didn't really upset me at the time. I mean, not like over-the-top upset me. What I said the other day, the way I said it, isn't how I really how I feel. That wasn't even really how I felt then, when it happened.
"It's hard to explain, but what I feel for you now, what's been there for a while … well, I was feeling that two days ago when I got my memory back. I was feeling it at the same time I was remembering the night of our deal and the morning after. So it made me think your actions and words were more hurtful, more callous than they really were. But they weren't. We were friends, sort of. We hooked up. I wouldn't have minded a kiss goodbye, but I was still smiling when I brushed my teeth that morning. I didn't expect anything much to change between us. I think maybe I was a little disappointed, after the fact, that you only wanted sex from me, but I also remember thinking I was a hypocrite for even thinking that. I was just clarifying things the next day, mostly to myself. You didn't lie to me and you weren't cruel. Just blunt, I guess."
"I didn't say what I said to be hurtful," Ranger said, "but I could have said it differently. Better. I wish I had. I've always been honest with you. Back then I was almost able to convince myself we could keep things simple. I didn't kiss you goodbye because if I had, I would have made love to you again, and it might have sent the wrong message. I knew I couldn't give you what you wanted at that time. But I was tempted, believe me."
"What did you think I wanted at the time?"
Stephanie shrugged. "I think I came to want the more the longer I knew you. But I didn't expect it then, not if I'm honest with myself. Hell, I didn't know what I wanted from Morelli, either. I was a hot mess," she said laughingly as she scrubbed at her face.
They were silent for a time when Ranger suddenly said, "You made me want more, and I resented it." She looked at him, surprised by his admission.
"So you do resent me."
"No. Not you. I resented that I had no control over what I felt and when. That's never happened to me before. But I wouldn't call what I felt for you resentment. It just felt like I missed the beginning of the game and the reading of the rules. Morelli was already halfway around the board and you still expected me to figure out how to win."
"Oh." Put that way, she felt kind of like a shmuck. If she really thought about, she always had expected more from Ranger than Joe.
"I know I'm partly to blame for things, Steph. I said things in ways … I may have never lied to you, but I could have been clearer. More honest. I never gave you a sign I could offer more if you pushed for it. I never asked you exactly what you wanted from me. Part of me did resent the fact that you never just walked away from the cop and flat out told me what you wanted. That you didn't push me for more. But that makes me a hypocrite. And you weren't ready to ask the questions."
They both thought about that for a moment as a burst of muffled laughter leaked from the house, floating across the cold air and interrupting the silence.
Ranger chuckled. "I have to say, as much as I didn't enjoy our little talk through your apartment door, I wish you could have seen Joe's face when you told him to go fuck himself."
She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, God, I forgot about that." She turned to Ranger, hopeful, because he was looking at her now, his face much less guarded. She said, "What came back to me first was our deal night, the death cooties, the cookies. Then it was the next morning, and then I heard all the cryptic things you've said to me over the years and I probably interpreted in the worst way. Then I remembered the last few months. And then I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that I'd given away so much to you, all the things I'd kept hidden, embarrassed that I'd pushed my way into your apartment, pushed myself on you."
"I'm not done. Then Joe was there and I was back in time again. God, it was so confusing. I had all those jumbled thoughts; it was like I was in two heads at the same time. All the worst of my memories came back first. Things with you, bad shit between Joe and me, crap with my mom, The Dick, that skank-whore Joyce…. I have to tell you, if you were seeing the previews that I was seeing, you'd have wanted to walk out of the movie too."
"Let me finish, Ranger. I had all those shitty old memories, the times I wasn't so happy. And then I had the thoughts of Amnesia Steph, the one who thinks maybe Steph was kind of a loser with no husband, no kids, no identifiable career path … someone who would willingly string two guys along at the same time … I couldn't imagine how you could possibly love a person like that. Do you know that as scared as I was, part of me hoped the old me wouldn't come back? I really didn't like the old me all that much."
"Stephanie, stop. I understand."
"—And that's why having that memory of our night hurt. The person in love with you remembered it, just like it had happened the night before. It's about as logical as being pissed off at someone for doing something awful to you in a dream, but there it is." She turned to him then, "Wait, what?"
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulled her into him, laid a kiss on her head. "There's nothing to forgive."
This seemed far too easy. It had to be a trick.
He rubbed his hand up and down the sleeve of her coat. "So you remember everything that happened since you lost your memory."
She nodded against his chest, her heart still racing, but the knots of tension in her stomach had loosened and she was enjoying his warmth and his scent.
"You said the person in love with me remembered our night. You meant the new Stephanie."
Oh, shit. See, she knew there was a trick. Explaining her less than rational reaction the other day was actually not that hard, now that it was behind her. Throwing in vague phrases like 'the person in love with you' was a cheater's method of admitting your feelings. It was actually wimpier than the pathetic I like yous she used to stumble over for Joe.
She looked down at his pants and flicked a nail over a loose thread on one of his pockets. "She, uh, the new Stephanie was falling in love with you. But she didn't even feel half of what I feel about you, or even know you like I do, so I'm pretty certain she couldn't, uh... I uh…" Are you kidding me, she screamed at herself. Just say it!
But nothing came out. Not from her at least.
Ranger had no such qualms. "She knew I was in love with you, said it was plain as day to her. That's something you've implied you didn't know." His reminder made her instantly defensive.
"That's not fair. She didn't have 30 years of bullshit cluttering her head or any memory of your stupid mixed messages. If you had graduated from Rutgers, never joined the military, and had become some geeky accountant or something, you wouldn't be carrying two guns and a knife and thinking things like marriage and pregnancy were stupid."
Ranger gave her a squeeze. "Touché."
"I'm sorry. See, I'm terrible at this."
"The worst," Ranger agreed solemnly. "But Babe, considering we're a Latino and Italian-Hungarian couple, the fact that no one's screaming, calling each other filthy names, waving their arms violently, or throwing things, to me that says we're doing pretty well."
"Mostly it's because I'm too cold to move and the pucks are all the way over there," she said pointing to the pond.
He actually laughed at this and the next thing she knew, he'd hauled her into his lap and was kissing her like a soldier returned from war. It was heady and intoxicating, and when it turned tender, it nearly made her weep.
"I love you," she whispered against his lips, a secret she couldn't keep inside one more second.
"Thank Christ," he whispered back, making her laugh.
"You have to say it too," she prodded.
"I love you Stephanie Plum, even though you're more emotionally stunted than most men, and disappointingly less slutty than your Un-Stephanie alter ego."
"You should have taken advantage of me," she told him seriously. "As long as the orgasms were earth shattering and plentiful, I would have eventually forgiven you."
"I need to get that in writing for next time."
They smiled at each other, but both of them seemed to realize the same thing at the same time. That her injury had been serious, could have been much more serious. They'd been lucky.
Steph lowered her eyes to his chest and asked, "What was with all that pining, Ranger?"
He sighed, his cool hands sliding under her coat and sweater, to knead at her lower back, or just to touch her skin. "I'm not going to apologize, Stephanie. It's how I felt."
"Fine," she said, still not looking into his eyes. "But promise me if something happens to me in a forever kind of way, you won't, you know, pine for me indefinitely."
He pinched her waist, making her squirm. "Babe, I hate to break this to you, but I only had about twelve hours of pining left in me."
She gaped at him. "I was only twelve hours away from a Ranger induced orgasm? I don't know whether to be proud of Un-Stephanie or hurt that you'd let go of me that easily."
"Try not to see it as letting go. Try to see it as a metaphysical ménage à trois," he teased.
"Okay, now you're just being a pig."
"Don't be hurt. You're the only girl in the world who could make me get over you."
"That makes no sense."
"Says the girl who's had two first kisses with the same man, fallen in love with him twice, and speaks about her amnesic alter ego in the third person."
"So did you."
"It seemed safer to play along. Un-Stephanie was a little scary."
She grinned at him, thinking of something else. "So all I had to do to make you snap was move out?"
"You only think you moved out."
"No," she said slowly. "I'm pretty sure I moved out."
"Have you actually unpacked? Did you notice I kept 51 percent of your clothes? That's a controlling share. Also, I got Rex back from Angie yesterday and I'm acting as an interim guardian until you come to your senses as his mother and return to Haywood where you belong.
She felt a huge burst at happiness in her chest at his words. Where you belong.
"You'd use my son as a bargaining chip?" she asked.
"Sex, rodent offspring, nothing's off the table."
"Don't think I don't remember your cagey answers and responses to my questions when you first got back. We don't do butt stuff … yet? And I also remember someone not being all that alarmed by the mention of the M word."
"Maybe one of those things is the clincher for the other."
She'd smack him if his wolf grin weren't so damn sexy. "You are such a pig! You've kept it hidden all these years."
"But you still love me," he said, smiling up into her face.
He was right. She loved him, loved everything about him. The good, the bad, and everything in between.
She realized then he was telling the truth when he said he loved both of her. All of her. That everything was her.
She also realized that certain things happen only once, if at all, and most people don't realize the importance of them until it's far too late. They don't know to savor it, to appreciate the moment, to hold on to it, to stretch it from a moment to a lifetime.
But Stephanie had a second chance. A rare second opportunity to grab onto her happiness with the most wonderful, frustrating, arrogant, loyal, beautiful, obstinate, amazingly patient man.
A man who loved her.
The best and the worst of her.
"And you still love me," she told him, knowing it was true.
They fell for each other, not just once … but twice.
If that wasn't the stuff of fairy tales, she didn't know what was.