Chapter Nineteen: Epilogue
Amazingly there was no scar. It had been a month to the day that I'd been shot in Venezuela, and there was no residual scar. I'd had several small lacerations where the edges of the coins had cut into my skin, but they were all healed. And the huge hematoma was nearly gone. I was still a little sore and felt an occasional twinge if I turned the wrong way, but for the most part I was fine. It was a good thing, because I was getting ready to test drive a backless, Victoria's Secret demi-cup, push-up, underwire for the first time since we'd been married. But that would be later on in the day, as other matters were more pressing now.
It was still early, and I hurriedly dressed in my usual outfit of jeans and a stretchy t-shirt. I had lots of things to accomplish before I could come home and get ready for the special celebration Ranger had planned. I didn't know exactly what we were doing, but I was going to be dressed for the occasion, and I had a surprise for Ranger. The problem was keeping the surprise from him until the evening.
Since our return from Venezuela my movements had been closely monitored. Ranger made an effort to spend as much time with me as possible. He'd even partnered with me on a couple of apprehensions for Vinnie. It was just like old times when he was Henry Higgins to my Eliza. The difference was, now when we sat side by side on a stake-out, I didn't have to wonder what it would be like to go home after we caught the skip and slide into bed together. I knew what it was like, and the reality was much better than the fantasy.
I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction to what had happened on the mountainside, but I was constantly being accompanied by either Ranger or a merry man du jour, and I was tolerating it well. I figured Ranger would ease off the close supervision eventually. It had been an entire month without a single disaster and I hoped that signaled the beginning of a new phase in my life. Ranger wasn't taking any chances though, so I had become accustomed to a chaperone on my daily activities.
The problem I had today was finding a way to get to Newark without alerting Ranger of my trip. Connie had helped with the first part of the plan two weeks ago when I had given her the gold coin Father Armando had given me. I was still on mandatory bed rest for my injuries and some flu bug I had picked up in Venezuela, so she had taken the coin to a jewelry store owned by her cousin in Newark. It was the only remaining coin of the thirteen that Ranger had presented to me at our wedding, and I wanted to give it back to him. I'd never seen a ring on Ranger's finger and had decided to make a pendant for him from the coin. It was dented from the impact of the bullet, and that made it even more special. The coins given to me, to show his trust in me, had saved my life. I knew my presentation of that coin as a pendant in lieu of a wedding band would be significant to him. I also knew getting out of RangeMan undetected was impossible.
I was going to have to enlist an ally. Hector was my first choice, but he wasn't available. He had returned late last night from a long overdue visit to his sister in Puerto Rico. I was sure he was on duty today, and I couldn't take him away from his planned assignment without raising Ranger's suspicions. I needed to fly under the RangeMan radar today, and that meant asking Tank for help.
When I walked off the elevator on five, I made my way directly to Ranger's office. He was gone. He hadn't mentioned he would be out of the office when he'd left the apartment earlier in the morning. I turned to go in search of Tank and ran smack into him. He reached out to steady me and handed me a newspaper.
"I was just coming to find you," I told him.
"I was just coming to find you," he replied. "Read this." He pointed to a headline in the morning's edition of The Times.
"DEA Denies Involvement," I read aloud. I felt a sense of dread, because both Ranger and Tank had assured me the DEA would take the credit for the murder of Montenegro. If there was any hint of RangeMan involvement, there could be repercussions from the Montenegro-de Franco family. I'd hoped our troubles were over, but maybe not.
I looked up at Tank, and my concern must have shown in my eyes, because he took the paper from me and began to read aloud.
"The DEA firmly denies any involvement in the recent mass murder of Andres Ruiz Montenegro and several of his associates. The murders occurred near the Montenegro family compound in Merida, Venezuela. Montenegro is the nephew of recently arrested Trenton businessman Jolie de Franco. de Franco was arrested last month after an investigation by the DEA. He is currently awaiting trial on several drug trafficking charges. It was rumored his nephew had taken charge of the family business after de Franco's arrest.
The body of Montenegro and several other unidentified bodies were found by a group of monks from a near-by mountainside monastery. The DEA has sole responsibility for coordinating and pursuing U.S. drug investigations abroad, but the local DEA spokesperson from the Trenton field office consistently denies any DEA involvement in the Venezuelan murders."
"This is awful," I said to Tank. "I thought the DEA was going to claim credit. Now the family will still be looking for the responsible parties."
"The DEA is taking credit," Tank said. "The more they deny their involvement, the more people will assume they were responsible. That's the way it works. The government never admits responsibility. They can't, but the fact they are adamantly stating they weren't responsible, just makes everyone believe they are." I was still unconvinced.
"Take my word for it," Tank said. "This is what we've been waiting for. Now, why were you looking for me?"
"Where's Ranger?" I asked.
"He's offline today. He said he had some personal business to attend to." Tank replied. "He asked me to make myself available to you if you needed to go out."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't need a babysitter," I said. "I just need some space. I have some personal business of my own. Can you help me get away from here without being tracked?"
"But I really need to run some personal errands," I said. "I know he is concerned for my safety, but I need some privacy."
"Do these errands you have to run have anything to do with the fact that today is your one month anniversary?" Tank asked.
"Yes," I said. "They do, and I need to keep what I'm doing a secret from Ranger."
"If you leave RangeMan without accompaniment, he will be alerted. Every man here has been given instruction to make sure that doesn't happen. I'll go with you on your errands. I'll give you as much privacy as I can, and no one will say anything if you leave with me. Where do you want to go, and when do you want to leave?"
"I want to leave now, and it won't work for me to go with you. I was going to go to my mom's and get Big Blue out. I can't risk Ranger knowing where I'm going today. It's a surprise."
"I'll disable the GPS on the SUV we take. We'll be offline, and no one will report it to Ranger, because you'll be with me."
"That can be done?" I asked. "I thought the vehicles all had built in trackers. You can disable the GPS?" My brain was on overdrive. This was a skill I could use.
"I can disable all tracking devices," Tank said. "I wouldn't advise you to try it. If you do it incorrectly, it sends an alarm directly to the control room. Meet me in the garage in ten, and I'll be ready to go."
We left exactly ten minutes later. The day was bright with sunshine, and I was excited to be out, even if I did have Tank for company.
"We need to go to the bank first," I told him. "First National, not the bank Ranger uses." We drove in silence to the bank, and as I got out to go inside, Tank opened his door to follow me in.
"There is no need to be my constant shadow," I said. "I'm just going in to close out my account. I'm erasing all traces of Stephanie Plum. I've already given up my apartment, now I'm taking care of the money part."
"It's okay," Tank said. "I won't repeat anything I see or hear today. I'm staying close to you, because I want you to be safe, not because Ranger asked me to. You can trust me."
"Thanks, Tank," I said. As we walked through the door into the bank lobby, I was suddenly very happy to have Tank at my side. Joe Morelli had turned away from the teller's cage and was walking straight toward us. His eyes were downcast, looking at the bank envelope he held in his hand, and he hadn't seen us yet. It was the first time I'd seen him since the meeting at RangeMan before we left to go back to Venezuela. Joe had a physical presence that was imposing. He was tall, well-built and moved with the careless grace of an athlete, and he really was movie star handsome. I felt a little frisson of unease when his eyes traveled up and saw me standing next to Tank. It may have been guilt. I'd told him I wasn't breaking up with him because of my involvement with Ranger, and at the time it was true. But slightly more than twenty-four hours later, I'd married Ranger. I knew that had piled more hurt on Joe, and that was something I'd never wanted to do.
His eyes took me in, and he gave me a small half-smile before turning his gaze toward Tank. They reached out and did a fist-bump man greeting thing. "Did you see the morning paper?" Joe asked him.
"Yes," Tank said.
"I have it on good authority that was just part one," Joe said. "Tomorrow they are going to run a story line about Roy Higgins and his possible betrayal of the DEA. They are going to deny it in such a way as to admit the truth of it, and any local involvement won't be mentioned. That takes both RangeMan and the Trenton PD out of it."
"That's good to hear," Tank said. "Keep me posted, and I'll let you know anything that comes our way." Joe nodded and gave me a quick appraising look before he turned and walked away. He'd done just what he said he'd do. He'd been professional and courteous, but he was never going to be my friend again. I'd told Tank I was erasing all traces of Stephanie Plum, and seeing Joe was evidence that he'd done some erasing as well.
My transaction at the bank was quickly accomplished, and we were back in the SUV in short order. "Now where?" Tank asked.
"Newark," I said. "Martin Rossoli's Jewelry Emporium to be exact."
At Tank's raised eyebrows I said, "Connie's cousin. You said you could keep a secret, so I'll tell you. I'm not getting Ranger a wedding ring. I'm getting him something made especially for him, and I don't want him to know about it before we go out this evening. I didn't want to take a chance of the Burg gossip mill getting wind of what I was doing, so Connie helped me out. I'm getting the gold coin I have made into a pendant for him."
Tank's head swiveled toward me. "You have a coin?" he asked. "One of Ranger's coins?"
"Yes," I said. "Father Armando found it partially embedded in me, uh…under my left breast. He gave it to me, and I've kept it hidden. I knew right away what I was going to do with it. I gave it to Connie, and her cousin made it into a pendant for Ranger to wear." Tank was still swiveling his head back and forth between the road and me. His surprise had me second guessing my plan. "I'm giving it to him in place of a ring. I thought he'd like it."
"He will," Tank said with a certainty that made me relax. "He's been in touch with the padre several times, and the doms have searched the area, but none of the coins could be found. I don't think Armando told him you have the coin. He will be very surprised, and pleased."
The trip to Newark was accomplished in good time. Tank turned to me and said, "What's the address?"
"Can't you just use the GPS?" I asked. He turned and gave me a patient stare.
"Not unless you want someone from the control room to call Ranger, and tell him we're in Newark…at a jewelry store.
I rummaged in my purse and pulled out a slip of paper. "135 Market Street," I told Tank.
We found the jewelry store without benefit of GPS and just as importantly, we found a parking space in front. I handed the ticket Connie had given me to the sales clerk, and she took it into a back room. The man returning with my ticket and a small black box was definitely Connie's cousin. They shared the same bone structure and coloring.
"Stephanie, I'm Martin. I've heard so much about you from Connie," he said extending his hand.
I shook hands and, at his continued stare, blurted out, "It wasn't my fault!" Connie had a big mouth. He looked puzzled for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. He opened the box and held it out for my inspection.
"It's beautiful," I said. The chain was substantial, but not overpowering for the small coin hanging from it.
"It's a very unusual coin," he said. "And quite valuable."
"It's priceless to me," I said.
"Yes," Martin said. "Connie told me it was very important to you sentimentally, but even damaged it is still a valuable piece." His finger ran over the small divot at the edge of the coin where a bullet had struck it. "It's an antique Cuban coin, all gold, and very rare. If it was in good condition I wouldn't have wanted to drill it for a pendant. In excellent condition it would be worth several thousand dollars. It is a 1916 peso and one of the earlier coins minted after Cuba's war for independence. It makes a beautiful pendant."
I picked up the coin, now attached to the chain and looked at it carefully. It was a perfect gift for Ranger, and I felt happy I'd had the thought. "Thank you, Martin. This is beautiful. It's exactly what I wanted." It took most of Stephanie Plum's money to pay for the pendant, but I wanted to give Ranger something from me, and using his money, even though it was now our money, hadn't seemed right. I was happy to pay the price.
We left the jewelry store and headed back to Trenton. "Just one more stop," I told Tank.
When we approached the entrance of Victoria's Secret, Tank held back. "What's wrong?" I chided him? "Don't you want to come in and keep me safe?"
"I'll see you from out here," he said. "I think Ranger would like it better if I didn't see the underwear you were buying." He had a point.
We were almost back from Trenton when my cell phone rang. With delight I saw it was Hector.
"Bueno, mi esposa," I said, getting a laugh of surprise from him.
"Bonita, I want to buy you lunch. I want to tell you about my visit to my sister, which I never would have taken without your prodding. It was a very good visit."
"That would be great," I said. "But I have a babysitter that will have to come. I'm with Tank."
"No problem, Chica," Hector said, "but he will have to buy his own lunch."
Twenty minutes later we were sitting at a booth in Shorty's, when Ranger walked in and joined us. He waited a moment for Hector to move, and when it became apparent Hector wasn't moving, he sighed and slid onto the seat across from me, next to Tank.
"Where were you this morning?" He asked. He turned to Tank, "The GPS was off in the SUV."
"I know it was," Tank said. "I had some personal business to attend to, and I asked Stephanie to help me." Ranger gave him a thoughtful look, but said nothing. The rest of the meal was an enjoyable experience, listening to Hector tell of his visit with his sister and then dropping the bombshell she was coming to Trenton for an extended visit with him.
As we stood to leave, Ranger turned to Tank, "I'll take Steph back to Haywood." Tank nodded, and Ranger and I made our way out to the parking lot. As he opened the door for me, he leaned in and kissed my neck. "Looking forward to tonight, Babe?"
"Yes," I said. "But I'd be looking forward to it more if I knew exactly what we were doing."
Two could play this game. "Are you looking forward to it?" I asked. He leaned toward me and kissed me with a mixture of tenderness and promise.
"Yes," he said. "I am."
"Good, because I've replaced those red pumps and black lace thong I left behind at de Franco's resort. I'm planning on recreating that scene from the hotel room…minus the bullets and the interruption, and by the time we're finished, number five on your list of best sexual experiences might just jump to number one."
My husband was speechless.
Dios, when she said that, all my blood rushed south, and I was rethinking my plan for the evening with a whole different part of my body. Our honeymoon activities had been limited since our night at the hot springs. Between her injuries and mine, physical intimacy had not been very 'physical', so the images she had conjured up with those words, kept my mind reeling for the first five minutes of the drive back to Haywood. I was hoping Steph would assume I had entered my driving 'zone', but I didn't really think I was fooling her. She had that 'cat that ate the canary' look.
On the flight from Venezuela, Stephanie's pain had returned. She had denied it, but I had seen her fighting it. We all had. She had refused another dose of the pain meds Armando had sent with us, claiming it made her nauseous. Shortly after take-off, I had pulled Tank aside for a conference about the details of what had happened on the mountain. I returned my attention to Stephanie and had found that Hector had moved to her side and was gently stroking her hand as they engaged in deep conversation. The act had me seriously rethinking my generous "Mi esposa es su esposa" statement, when I realized that whatever they had been discussing, it had held Stephanie's complete attention and had been distracting her from her pain. As we had gotten closer to the States, she had spiked a fever and had begun having trouble breathing. I had immediately made the decision to land in Miami and secured arrangements for her to be taken directly to a private clinic I frequently used for treating injuries sustained by my men. Stephanie had tried to protest, but the concerned and determined looks on the faces of the three men surrounding her must have been enough to convince her it was useless.
At the clinic, an MRI, chest x-rays, and a physical examination had shown that her sternum had been bruised and cracked, but not broken…just as Armando had already determined. Swelling from the bruising had caused her breathing difficulty, and the fever was from a virus she had picked up along the way. The doctor's suggested treatment had included plenty of bed rest for the next three to four weeks, anti-inflammatories for the pain and swelling, and deep breathing exercises several times a day to prevent pneumonia. I had no trouble at all with the idea of keeping her in bed and promoting those deep breathing exercises through the use of long, carefully orchestrated make-out sessions.
As RangeMan protocol demanded, both Tank and Hector had been given immediate time off for their involvement in the shooting that resulted in the deaths of the suspects. As soon as they had completed their reports concerning the mission, Hector had given Stephanie a quick kiss and a wink, and had taken off to parts unknown. Stephanie and I had decided to remain in Miami for several days, neither of us eager to get back on a plane, or meet the impending Trenton social obligations. Tank had remained also.
I'm still not sure if it was the witnessing of our relationship resolution and quick marriage, or if it was the mission and his time spent at the monastery, but Tank became very introspective in Miami. I had assumed he would have spent his free time hanging out with some of his old army buddies that were on staff there, but he hadn't. Instead, he had left the building early each morning and had returned late each evening. After three days of this, Stephanie had come right out and had asked him what he had been doing while he'd been out.
"Walking on the beach," had been his simple answer.
On the fourth day, Stephanie had asked him to join us for dinner in the apartment. He accepted and had asked if he could bring a date. She had smiled widely at his request and had enthusiastically responded to him with a "yes!"
That was the night we had met Charmaine. While getting dressed that evening, Stephanie had openly speculated as to what Tank's date would be like. He had been happy and close to Lula, before their break-up, and Steph had envisioned someone similar to Lula in personality and style. She couldn't have been more wrong. Charmaine was at least six feet tall. She had an athletic build and broad shoulders. She had long dark hair and a Jamaican accent. During the course of the evening, we had learned that she was a graduate student in business at Miami University and was also in training to make the Olympic U.S Women's Beach Volleyball team; explaining Tank's extensive visits to the beach. Even in our younger days in the Army, I had never seen Tank so attentive and taken with a woman before.
"What are you thinking about?" Stephanie's voice broke into my thoughts.
"Oh, that may have been true a few minutes ago, when you had that sexy wolf grin on your face, but now your forehead is creased, and you look all serious."
"Okay, querida. You caught me," I confessed. "I was thinking about Tank and Charmaine. Do you think it's serious?"
"Are you asking as his friend, or are you concerned that your number two will want a transfer to Miami, leaving you high and dry in Trenton?"
"Well, I think you should ask him about that."
I looked at Stephanie like she was crazy. "Babe, that's not a conversation I would have with Tank. That's a conversation you would have with Tank."
"Are you saying that part of my job at RangeMan, now, is to get inside information on your men and report it to you?"
"No, I'm saying that as my wife, you are the one who keeps up on the social aspects of our friends…and now and then you could choose to share your opinions with me."
"You think I have an opinion on Tank's relationship with Charmaine?"
"Babe, I know you have an opinion on it."
"What's it worth to you?" she bargained.
"Are you looking to make a deal?"
"MmmHmmm," she purred.
I pulled into the garage and parked the car near the elevator. Instead of getting out, I turned to face Stephanie. She was acting very coy and playful. I took her hand and kissed her palm. She was still tender with certain movements, so I slowly kissed my way up her arm and carefully pulled her toward me and into my lap.
"Do I have something in particular you're interested in?" I whispered into her ear. I didn't think I could wait for the red shoes and the thong.
"You know you do," she whispered back in a spicy, suggestive voice and ran her hands through my hair. "It's something I've been dying for all day."
"Is it one of your fantasies that you want to play out?"
"Mmmm, nooope." She put an emphasis on the "p" which carried a very warm puff of air into my ear, and I could have sworn the heat traveled straight to my cock.
I pulled her even closer and ran my hands under her thighs. "Name your price."
"I want you," she whispered as she nibbled along my chin and down my throat.
I found her lips and kissed her deeply. "I want you, too, Babe."
She pulled back slightly from our embrace and teasingly ran a single finger over my lips "No, I want you…" she leaned in for another sensuous kiss…"to tell me where we're going tonight, so I'll know how to dress."
I froze. She had played me and had done it well, but I wasn't without my resources. I pulled out my cell phone and pushed speed dial eight. It picked up after three rings.
"Hello, Carlos?" The voice on the other end of the line answered.
"Yes," I responded. "You told me to call if I had any trouble with her," I continued. "She's trying to ruin my surprise."
"Is she there?"
"Put her on. I'll talk to her."
Stephanie was completely baffled by my actions, and I watched her face carefully as I handed her the phone. "It's for you," I said in all seriousness.
Very hesitantly, she took the phone and put it to her ear. "Hello?" she cautiously spoke.
"Stephanie, this is your mother. What are you doing to poor Carlos? He's trying to give you a nice surprise, and you're ruining it. Honestly, a man like that is hard to find, and you insist on making it difficult for him." Stephanie's eyes went wide and shot me a death glare as her mother continued her rant. "Now, I know it's hard to find something appropriate for any occasion but, if you go with a nice, but modest, black dress, you can't go wrong. Oh, and maybe you should take a sweater, too. I hear it's going to be chilly tonight. And for goodness sake, wear some decent underwear, would you? Those little things you girls consider stylish these days are nothing but scraps of fabric. You'll get a yeast infection from wearing that stuff. In my day, a young woman would never be caught dead wearing…"
"Mom." Stephanie finally jumped in.
"I got it. You don't have to worry. I promise not to ruin Carlos' surprise."
"Well, okay. Why don't the two of you come over for dinner tomorrow? We can talk about a reception. It's not too late to book the lodge. It's a perfectly nice location and would hold a lot of people. I spoke to Carla Giovichinni and they got some really nice roast beef…
"I'll let you know about tomorrow. I have to go now. Bye."
During the entire conversation, Stephanie never took her eyes off me. When she closed the phone, she handed it back to me and slowly slid back into her seat before speaking. "You have my mother on speed dial?" she said incredulously.
"We talked. I thought it might come in handy."
Her voice elevated a few decibels. "You spoke with my mother?"
"It's always important to have good back up for a mission, Babe." I grinned.
Now, she was the one who was speechless. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but nothing escaped except a couple of incoherent syllables.
At seven pm exactly, Stephanie walked out of our bedroom looking like million dollars. She hadn't taken her mother's advice on the dress. There was nothing modest about it. The shoes alone sent my blood pressure up twenty points. She was still a little conscientious about the discoloration of her skin from the bruising, so the dress was cut high and straight across her shoulders in the front, but was completely backless down to her waist. It was sexy as hell.
"Now will you tell me where we're going?" she practically begged.
"Not just yet. It's sort of a two part date."
"There's dinner, and there's…after."
Stephanie got a smirk on her face. "You don't have to explain the after. I know about the after. I told you earlier, it involves these shoes, and no interruptions."
I pulled her into an embrace. "Yes it does, querida, but I have something special in mind. Can you hold off the questions for just a little while longer? If you can't, I can always call…"
"Please! Not my mother!" She bent to pick up her purse from the coffee table. "Geez, how many times are you going to pull that one on me? What kind of husband uses his mother-in-law to control his wife?"
"A very smart one." I walked us toward the door. "Are you ready?"
I'd made reservations at a small Italian restaurant in Belmar, near the coast. We spent the entire meal sharing food and laughing at some of the reactions we had gotten from people since the news of our marriage had become public. We may have only been married a month, but we already had a lifetime of memories, and sharing them in private moments had become one of the ways we had been able to be safely intimate with each other over the past few weeks.
For dessert, Stephanie ordered an Italian Cheesecake. I thought for sure she would have wanted the cannoli, but she insisted that cannoli didn't hold any appeal to her anymore. Before she was finished, she fished a small box from her purse.
"I have something for you," she shyly murmured. She put the box in front of me on the table, and when I reached for it, she laid her hand over mine to stop me. "I'm sorry that I lost the coins in Venezuela. I know they meant a lot to you and your family. They meant a great deal to me, too. I hope this will make it up to you."
I was stunned. I had no idea that she had been feeling guilty about the coins. I leaned over towards her and took her face in my hands. "Dios, Stephanie, the coins…the coins mean nothing to me except that they are the reason you are alive. They did what my abuela promised. They became one of the most important things I had ever owned, but only because they protected the most important person in my life. They saved your life for me."
She wordlessly nodded her understanding, and with my thumb, I wiped away the few tears she was seemingly unaware had fallen.
I opened the box and closed my eyes in appreciation of its contents.
Stephanie found her voice. "Tank told me you had asked Father Armando to try and find the coins. He had already given me this one the night we left. He said it was one that took the brunt of the impact from the bullet and was lodged against my chest. I had this made for you. The jeweler said the coin was very valuable, but I told him it was priceless." She finished her story with a slight smile then added. "I know I don't tell you this often, but I really do love you. I love you more than I thought would ever be possible for me to love anybody, and I know my life is crazy, and I'm more trouble than I'm worth sometimes, but I..."
I couldn't listen anymore. I pulled her to my lips and kissed her long and hard. "Dios, Babe, I love you. I don't think you will ever know how much. The gift is perfect. This one coin is much more precious to me than all the others. It's the only one I would want." I kissed her one more time and slipped the pendant over my head, dropping it under the collar of my dress shirt so that it could lie next to my heart. When I finished, I discretely took a small box from my own pocket. "At our wedding, when I gave you the bracelet, I promised you I would replace it with a ring."
"I love the bracelet. I'll never take it off." Stephanie's arm was lying across the table, and she fingered the silver charm bracelet with affection.
"Do you remember when we were in Miami, and I went to visit Julie?"
Stephanie laughed. "Yes, you said she let out an eardrum-piercing shriek when you told her about our marriage."
I nodded. "Rachel told me that it was a preteen thing, and that it was a good sign. Apparently Julie shrieks a lot these days. I may have to rethink the idea of her coming to stay with us for an extended period until that passes."
"Not a bad idea. I remember that phase well. Mary Lou and I shrieked over everything. It's much worse when there are two preteens doing it."
"Before I came back to you at RangeMan, I visited several jewelry shops. I wanted to find a ring that would not only replace the bracelet, but also replace the loss of the coins. I have plenty of money, and could have purchased the most expensive ring in any of their stores, but the coins had signified more than my grandparent's wealth. They had symbolized our family's history and my grandparent's long-term commitment, love, and trust in a relationship that had withstood all the obstacles they faced as a married couple. I couldn't find that meaning in any ring I found in any of the stores I entered."
"I understand, Ranger. I really do love the bracelet. It's enough for me."
"When we visited my parents last week, my mother pulled me aside while you were answering the barrage of questions being thrown at you by my siblings. She gave me this." I set the box on the table in front of her and nodded for her to open it.
Stephanie delicately opened the jeweler's box and gasped. "Ranger, they're beautiful!"
"As her only daughter, my mother inherited Abuela's wedding set. "I know we never officially became engaged…"
Stephanie protested. "Yes we did! You asked me to marry you, and I said yes. You didn't drag me down the aisle unconscious."
"Babe, I don't think a two and half hour engagement quite meets the standards of wedding etiquette."
"Ranger, nothing we have done in this relationship has met any standards of etiquette. But it's our relationship, not Emily Post's or my mother's. Except for the getting shot part, I wouldn't have changed anything about that day."
I took the rings out of the box. "Stephanie, will you wear my grandmother's rings?"
"Yes!" she cried, wiping away a few more tears. "They're amazing, and you're right, they mean so much more than anything you could have bought at a store. I love them."
I slipped the rings onto her left hand and brought them to my lips, but didn't stop there. I kissed my way up her arm, and then her neck, and finally made it to her lips. We were lost in each other and only stopped when our waiter cleared his throat. "Is there anything else I can do for you this evening sir?"
"Why does everyone want to interrupt us when we're kissing?" Stephanie sighed.
I waved off the waiter. "Perhaps we should move on to the 'after' part of the date." I whispered into her ear.
"Now, do I get to know where we're going?"
"I rented a house at Point Pleasant for the week. I plan to give you a suitable honeymoon, and I didn't think you wanted to board another plane to do it, so I chose something a little closer to home."
"It sounds perfect, but…" She looked confused, and I knew what was bothering her.
"I had Ella pack for you. The suitcases are in the trunk of the car."
She still hesitated. "I need to go to the restroom before we leave. I…I have to change."
"Don't change, querida, I love your dress. We're not far from the house," I kissed her and gave her a sly grin, "and I will be more than happy to help you remove all of your clothes."
She was turning three shades of red, and I still didn't understand her problem. "I don't want to change my dress…I need to change…something else." When my look of confusion continued, she dropped her shoulders and let out a heavy sigh. "I need to change my panties." She quickly whispered confidentially. "I was mad at you for calling my mother, so I put on a pair of granny panties to teach you a lesson, but at the last minute I thought I might change my mind, and I put the black thong in my purse. I don't want you to see the granny panties, now. They're awful and ugly, and I feel stupid for wearing them in the first place."
I couldn't help but laugh, and the more I thought about it, the more comical it seemed.
At first Stephanie didn't appreciate my amusement at her expense, but I think the longer she thought about it, the funnier it became to her as well, and she finally broke a smile. "Stop it," she said, as she slapped my arm. "You're making fun of me."
I stood and pulled her to her feet, wrapping her in my arms. "Don't you dare change a thing, querida. I love you, and I love your granny panties." I grabbed her purse off the table and peeked inside. "We'll save the black thong for later."
A/N: This has been the best writing experience of my life. Throughout this story I would receive a chapter from my writing partner and be so excited to open the email and read. The chapter would be so good; I would immediately begin to write in response trying hard to maintain her level of excellence. I had the double benefit of being a writer and a reader of the same story. It is a unique perspective…and it was a true collaboration. We have been writing this book for about eight months and I will miss the chapter exchanges.
I won't miss the emailing back and forth, because we won't be ending that. We've gone from AlmostCompleteStrangers to best friends we've never known. Thank you for all the reviews and PM's we received throughout the posting. So latetolove…thanks for the fun!
Author's Note #2: I can't tell you what a privilege it has been to co-write this piece of fanfiction with Cathy. It was extraordinary to be part of the energy this story generated from our very supportive readers and reviewers. The entire experience was humbling, educational and fulfilling. We most definitely will be back with another exploration into the world of Stephanie Plum.