The Waiting Game


Disclosure:

I am borrowing JE's wonderful characters for fun, not profit.


Chapter 1: I Just Did it with Batman

Stephanie's POV

Oh shit. What did I do? I just did it with the Wizard. Holy Crap! Okay, calm down. Let's examine this more sanely. What just happened here? We did it. And he left. The leaving seemed a smidgen abrupt, but then this was Ranger. What did I expect? And he hadn't been abrupt last night. He'd been . . . amazing. (Hard Eight, Hardback Edition, Page 256.)

Ranger had been more than amazing. He had been magic. I may be ruined for all other men, even Morelli. Morelli, Joe Morelli, is a Trenton cop and my on and off again boyfriend. We're currently off, very off. Morelli's no slouch in the sack, but he's more about hip-to-hip action. Whereas Ranger . . . Wow! Every part of me is still tingling.

My name is Stephanie Plum. I'm thirty years old, five foot seven with curly brown hair and blue eyes. I live in Trenton and work for my Cousin Vinnie, the perv, as a bounty hunter. Ranger is my mentor and friend and I guess after last night, my lover. Ranger, aka Ricardo Carlos Manoso, is six feet of hot, hard, handsome Cuban-American manhood. He has dark brown eyes, dark brown hair and mocha latte skin. Ranger's Batman. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be YUM.

Ranger had moves and techniques that I never experienced before and can't wait to experience again and again and again. Yum. You get my point. Ranger-induced orgasms, yes plural, are beyond amazing. I could be a slut for Ranger-induced orgasms.

My sheets smell of Ranger and his Bulgari Green shower gel. I want to stay in bed all day. I may never launder these sheets. Maybe I'll stash them in a drawer and sniff them whenever I want to feel, um, warm all over. That's not too weird, is it?

I need to tell somebody about this. I'll tell Rex, my hamster, about my adventure with Batman. He'll listen and he'll never tell. I got out of my bed and went to the kitchen to talk to Rex, but he wasn't there. Shit, Rex is still at my Mom's.

My parents live in the Chambersburg section of Trenton. It's a blue collar working class neighborhood of duplex houses. It's affectionally know as the 'Burg. I only live about ten minutes away from my parents. I decided to go see my them and pick up Rex. Afterall, I did have important things to tell Rex.

I did my morning routine. I looked in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth. I was smiling. I tried to not smile, but I couldn't. I tried to frown, but the smile wouldn't go away. I had an afterglow smile. I had a Ranger-induced afterglow smile!

I went to my Mom's to pick up Rex, and I was still smiling. Grandma Mazur noticed. Grandma Mazur is my Mom's mom. She came to live with my parents after Grandpa Mazur went to all you can eat bacon and pancake buffet in the sky. I told Grandma Mazur, that my smile was due to a good night's sleep. She just gave me a knowing wink. I think she figured out that a good night's sleep meant a great time in bed.

My Mom's house always smells like something's cooking. Today it smelled of doughnuts. I went to the kitchen and ate doughnuts with Grandma Mazur and my nieces. The doughnuts were from Tasty Pastry and they were fresh and warm. We ate all of the doughnuts. I had the last one, a Boston Cream, my favorite. The Boston Cream should have been my sister Valerie's doughnut, but she was taking a shower, so she missed out.

My sister Valerie was my parent's perfect child. She never got in trouble, graduated with honors from high school, went to college, met the perfect guy, got married and immediately had kids. After twelve years of marriage, her husband decided that it was time to run off with the baby sitter. Valerie and her daughters, Angie and Mary Alice, moved in with my parents after her divorce was final. Valerie got pregnant on her very first date with Albert Kloughn, who was the very first man that she dated after her divorce.

Valerie's great with child at the moment, and I do mean great with child. She's been eating non-stop ever since she figured out that she was pregnant. When Valerie came into the kitchen and saw that the doughnuts were gone, she pouted and whined. Valerie was adamant about having more doughnuts and I don't argue with a pregnant woman and her raging hormones.

Grandma Mazur and I drove to the Tasty Pastry to get more warm, fresh and, yum, tasty doughnuts. As we were getting out of the car, we were flashed by a Rabbit, I mean a man in a rabbit suit. Just another typical day in the life of Stephanie Plum, Bounty Hunter. My days have a way of starting badly and going downhill. But today was different. Today I had a Ranger-induced afterglow smile.

Did he use condoms? I don't remember. He didn't use condoms. I'm not on the pill! I haven't been on the pill for ages. Why would I be? Morelli always uses a condom. Well with Morelli's past, any sane woman would require it. But still. Holy crap! I could be carrying Ranger's batbaby! Good-bye afterglow smile.

Chapter 2: I Just Did it with Wonder Woman

Ranger's POV

Last night I collected on Babe's debt and we spent the night together. I woke up the next morning when the alarm on my cell phone rang. I waited half a beat and checked my surroundings. I was in Babe's bed and I was holding her, just as I remembered. I rolled over to the nightstand and checked my cell phone. I had a text message. Another Rangeman emergency to deal with. Rangeman is the security company that I own a part of. It keeps me busy when I'm not being a bounty hunter and Babe's mentor. I said, "I have to go Babe". I got out of bed, dressed, collected my stuff and left.

I drove to Rangeman's office on Haywood to take care of the emergency. I would have liked to have stayed a little longer and repeated some of last night's activities. Babe didn't disappoint. I thought it would be good because of the way she reacted when I stole kisses from her. But she was more than I expected, much more. She was . . . amazing.

I looked at myself in the rear view mirror. Is that a smile on my face? Damn it is. I'll pull a blank face. Manoso, a blank face with a smile is not a blank face. Damn it, that's an afterglow smile. This is not good. I will have a blank face by the time I drive into the garage. Did I see the same smile on Babe's face?

I arrived at Haywood and learned that the "emergency" was related to the building we secured last night. More of the squatters arrived this morning. They called me in for this? The team should know how to handle this type of situation. I could still be in bed with Babe doing things to make her scream my name. Damn it. I could feel the smile coming back. I told the smile to back off. I'll think about her tonight when I went to sleep. Then I could grin to high heavens. But until then, blank face. Repeat blank face.

The team and I went to re-secure the building. Once that was done, Tank, my second in command, and I went on a few take downs. I was distracted the whole time. My mind kept wandering back to last night and Babe. This is not good. I'm going to have to nip this in the bud. If this is what I'm like after one night with her, I wouldn't survive a relationship.

We when we got back to Rangeman, I heard that Babe and her Grandma had been nearly attacked by Abruzzi's henchmen, Bill Clinton and a Rabbit. The Rabbit flashed them. They were scared, but not harmed.

Abruzzi's a local mid-level mobster who's been stalking Babe. This was the second time Abruzzi had his crew get too close to her. A few days ago, he had his guys sit a dead body on Babe's couch. I decided it was time that she got a real security system, not the stack of pots she puts behind her door.

I went back to my apartment at Rangeman. I contacted Hector, my security systems specialist, to be ready in an hour to install a system at Babe's. I gave him her address and the specs, so that he could get the equipment. I took a shower and put on a fresh set of clothes. I called Babe and told her that Hector would be at her place in ten minutes to install the security system. I planned to go along since Hector doesn't speak English. And I wanted to see her again.

Before I left for Babe's, I checked and reloaded my guns, restocked my utility belt and put it on. Then I transferred the contents of pockets from yesterday's cargo pants to the pants I was wearing. That's when I found the condoms.

I packed six yesterday, I had six today. What the hell? Did Babe tell me that she was on the pill? Did we discuss it? We didn't. We just did it. Damn! I had unprotected sex with Babe. This is not good. Good-bye afterglow smile.

Chapter 3: A Day in the Life of Stephanie Plum

Stephanie's POV

Ranger showed up as Hector was making the final adjustments to the security system. Ranger said something to Hector in Spanish that I didn't understand. It's not my fault that my Spanish is limited to the Taco Bell menu.

Ranger looked at me with his blank face. Damn, the blank face. Didn't he realize that I could be carrying his batbaby? That I, Stephanie Plum could be not just Stephanie Plum, Bounty Hunter, but Stephanie Plum, Bounty Hunter and Mother of Batbaby. Guess not from the blank face he was giving me.

He called me near to him. On boy! Then he went on to explain the security system. When I asked if the security system goes on my tab, he said there's no tab. Since when? Didn't we sleep together because of the deal and my escalating tab with him? Well that was one reason.

Then he said there's no price for what we give each other. Not ever. Not financial. Not emotional. What the hell?

When I asked him what he meant. I mean I did want to know about this no-emotional price thing. He said that's the way it has to be. Why? Why is he calling the shots? What about my shots? I might have some shots I'd like to call.

And then he said that he had to leave to go to work and told me to repair my relationship with Morelli! What the hell? Morelli and I are on a time out. He knows that. And what's this stuff he said about being back in my bed if the Morelli time out goes on for too long and making me forget Morelli?

Forget Morelli? I forgot about Morelli (something that I thought was damn near impossible) last night or doesn't he remember that?

But hell, I thought being the future Mother of a batbaby was impossible. Wait. Stephanie calm down. Let's think about this rationally. It's not even been a day. You can't know if you pregnant. You can't know if his superhero batsperm made whoopee with one of your eggs. Let's look at the calendar. You might not be ovulating. But we're talking superhero batsperm here. Think back. When was your last period? Damn it's possible. Stephanie, calm down. Wait to see if you get your period. If you don't get it, then panic. I'm probably pregnant. Of course I'm pregnant. We had unprotected sex. His superhero batsperm infiltrated one of my poor unsuspecting eggs. It's not my fault!

Ranger's POV

Maintaining a blank face around Babe was harder than expected. It helped that Hector was there. She's so adorable when she's helpless. I just want to hold her in my arms and keep her safe. Then I want to do things to make her scream my name.

Stop. You're getting distracted. This could be dangerous. Could be dangerous? It is dangerous. But she looks so edible. Manoso, stop this now. Did you forget that you had unprotected sex with her? Think consequences. There could be another little Manoso to answer for. Do damage control. NOW.

Damn she would have to ask if the security system would go on her tab. After last night, there's no tab. There's little I wouldn't do for her. There's no price. Not financial. Not emotional. How can I put a price on my feelings for her? I'm not that mercenary.

Did I just tell her to repair her relationship with Morelli? Not smooth. I'll tell her if her time out with Morelli goes on too long, I'll be back in her bed and that I'll make her forget him. Didn't I make her forget him last night?

But what if she's pregnant? Another child? I have a child that I don't actively parent. How would I act with Babe's child? I didn't love Rachel when Julie was conceived. I do, however, care deeply about Babe. I probably love her. Calm down. You don't know if she's pregnant. You don't know when she last slept with Morelli. You don't know if she's ovulating. You don't know a lot. If Babe's pregnant and it's your kid, you'll know.

Stephanie's POV

The day continued to go downhill. Right after Ranger left, my pervert cousin and boss, Vinnie knocked on my door. He came to remind me that I didn't capture Bender, an FTA, in two days that he would owe money to the court.

I went with Vinnie to get Bender. We used my current vehicle, Ranger's CR-V. On the way to Bender's, the Rabbit and Bill Clinton started following us. It ended up with a chase, gun play and the CR-V being burnt up. My purse, with my credit cards, driver's license, defense spray, cell phone and new lip stain were all destroyed. Damn about the lip stain, it took me forever to pick the right shade. I had also left the keys in the ignition. The keypad to my new security system was on the key ring.

Vinnie thought this was great fun. Little did he realize that this was my normal day. I used Vinnie's cell phone to call Ranger to pick us up. Ranger already knew the car was out of service since the signals from the tracking devices went blank. Then I told him about the key pad.

We were sitting on the curb by the dead CR-V when Ranger arrived. My knight in black SWAT gear. He looked yummy. Stop that. Stop that right now. You might already be carrying his batbaby. So if I'm carrying his batbaby, there's no reason that we can't play. Remember he told you to go back to Morelli. He also gave me an out. Stop. Vinnie's here. Right. Vinnie would want to watch.

By the time that Ranger drove us back to my apartment, Hector had already checked it and was installing a new keypad. Vinnie didn't come into my apartment. He happily went to his Cadillac and drove away.

As we were walking in to my apartment, I apologized to Ranger about the CR-V. he just laughed it off. "A matter of time", he said. "I'll write it off as entertainment." He showed me the new floor bolt on my door, reminded me to engage it and left.

He seemed so, um, nonchalant. Entertainment! I didn't like being entertainment. Especially sexual entertainment. He just wanted physical sex. And what did I want? I know what I wanted. I wanted a Tastycake. A Tastycake or four would solve everything.

Since I didn't have a car, I'd have to talk to get the Tastycakes. I took the keypad for the security system and off I went. Then I realized that my cash and credit cards were burnt with the CR-V. I tried to get back in to my apartment, but I forgot the keypad code. I tried a dozen or more combinations. None worked. I threw the keypad on the floor and jumped on it until it was smashed. I still had my gun on me, so I shot the keypad a few times for extra measure. Were pregnancy hormones kicking in already?

Ranger and Hector came back for the third time. Hector unlocked my door and undid the sensors. Ranger offered to have the system reinstalled and to lend me a Porsche. I declined. What if my hormones go wild again and I shoot up the Porsche?

Ranger was still acting nonchalant. Damn. After he left, I found some frozen cookie dough and ate it. It wasn't a Tastycake, but it was tasty. That soothed my jangled nerves.

I finally went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. I dreamt that I was holding a baby. My baby. The baby was in a black outfit and swaddled in a cape instead of a blanket . . . a bat cape.

Chapter 4: Does Coach Make a Diaper Bag?

Ranger's POV

Babe had another one of her eventful days. She and her perv cousin and boss, Vinnie were going after an FTA when they were chased by and exchanged shots with a Rabbit and Bill Clinton. Then the Rabbit firebombed her car. She called me after firebombing. She thought I might want to know that her car was in cinders, since it was mine. Another line item for Rangeman's entertainment budget.

She also wanted to know if I could pick her up since she and Vinnie were stranded curbside and needed a ride and if she could have a replacement keypad since hers burnt with the car. She's a damsel in distress, but a feisty one.

I arranged for Hector to go to Babe's to reconfigure her security system for a new keypad. And then I went to pick up Babe and Vinnie from their curbside perch.

When I was walking Babe into her apartment building, I noticed she had her gun on her hip. That was unusual; it's usually in her cookie jar. When I asked if she shot anyone, she gave one of her classic answers, "I tried".

"I tried". She has no clue how cute she is. I had to hug her and give her a kiss. It took all of my army training and discipline not to ravish her on the spot. Manoso get a grip.

I don't think Hector saw me kiss Babe. I try to keep the public displays of affection at bay, but the feisty damsel in distress thing is so adorable that sometimes I forget my surroundings. It's so adorable that I forgot to use condoms. It's so adorable that I may be the father of a damselette in distress. Just how cute would that be? Get a grip. Get A Grip! NOW! Damn, I need to give myself the sex and consequences lecture.

Later in the day, she locked herself out of her apartment and shot the keypad. So Hector and I were at her apartment for the third time today. Even if I wanted to keep my distance from her, today was not the day.

It's days like today that endeared her to me.

Stephanie's POV

I woke up tired. I had to go to the office and I had to buy a purse. Maybe Lula would take me shopping. The batbaby dream ran in my brain about thousand times. I dragged myself to the bathroom and stared in the mirror. The hair was its usual disaster. But my skin looked good. My skin was glowing. Is this the pregnancy glow? No Stephanie. Could be. Why wouldn't your skin look good? You've been slapping on extra moisturizer for the last few weeks. It's not a pregnancy glow? Probably not.

But I feel pregnant. Remember the last time you felt pregnant and the whole debacle with the EPT? It wasn't my fault. It was your fault. You didn't read the instructions. The font was tiny. Not that tiny. Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie. The directions clearly tell you to take the test after you miss your period, not when you think you might miss your period. You weren't planning on buying an EPT today and taking the test were you? Well, er, um . . . yes.

When I was getting dressed, I noticed that my bra was snug. I looked in the mirror. My breasts were oozing out of the tops of the cups. Oh my God! My boobs grew. They grew overnight. That must really mean that I am with batbaby. Stephanie, you're wearing your new bra. Of course it's snug, it's a push-up bra. Your boobs are supposed to ooze out of the tops of the cups. You bought it to enhance your bustline. Remember? Oh . . . now I remember. But what about the glow? Didn't we discuss this? You're going to have to wait to see if you get your period. I don't like to wait. Really, I hadn't noticed?

Since I was without a car, I took a taxi to work. The look on Connie and Lula's faces when I arrived in a cab was worth the fare. They couldn't believe that I destroyed another one of Ranger's cars. I don't destroy the cars. I just happen to be using them when they get flattened, crashed, firebombed . . . It's not my fault.

Lula needed a shopping fix as much as I needed a new purse, so she drove us to Quaker Bridge Mall. We went to Macy's. I went directly to the cosmetics department to replace the lip stain. What? I wanted to have something to put into my new purse. Do I have my priorities in order or what?

After I got the lip stain, I walked to the Coach counter to replace the purse that had been crisped. Lula just rolled her eyes and strolled off to look at more Lula-like handbags. While I was buying my purse, I wondered if Coach made diaper bags or a handbag big enough to be used as a diaper bag. I was ready to ask about it, when Lula came back. Since I wasn't ready to share with that I had boinked Batman, I sure as hell wasn't going to share that I was probably carrying his batbaby.

But I did start to wonder, if I was pregnant with Ranger's batbaby, would I have to wear black all the time? Well, would I? I mean having a batbaby is an awesome responsibility and probably has certain requirements. Is wearing black one of those requirements? I'll have to Google it when I get home.

Or I could ask Mooner. The thing about Mooner is that I could ask him all kinds of batmommy and batbaby questions and he'd just think that I was quizzing him on Superheroes. He wouldn't guess that I was doing research. That's what I'll do. I'll ask Mooner. He'll know.

Chapter 5: Are We?

Ranger's POV

It's been a long day. I can't unwind. I ran five miles. It didn't help. I took a long shower. It didn't work. Maybe a beer.

I heard that Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and the Rabbit tried to kidnap Stephanie today. They were fools to think that they could just seize her. Nothing's ever simple with her. Men have been maimed trying to open a car door for her. I heard she fought them off before her Mom appeared and drove over the Rabbit with her Buick. The women in that family and their Buicks are scary.

She could have been hurt trying to fight off Abruzzi's thugs. She could have lost our baby, if there is a baby. Manoso let me remind you again . . . never mind. She could have lost our baby.

The beer didn't work either. Sleep. I need sleep.

I fell asleep thinking: Do I want another kid? Do I want to be the father of a miniature Babe, a damselette in distress? It could be a boy. No, I think I'd like a miniature Babe.

I had a dream of a little girl, about three years old, with blue eyes, dark brown hair and café latte colored skin. She's runs up to me and hugs me. She looks up at me and says, "It's not my fault Daddy".

I woke up smiling. Different smile. Babe's pregnant. I know it.

Stephanie's POV

My Mom ran over the Rabbit with her Buick. She saw me being chased by Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and the Rabbit and ran over the Rabbit. When I limped into her car, Mom has shaking. She was worried that she killed the Easter Bunny. When I told her it was a bad rabbit and it deserved to die, she looked at me in horror. She was convinced she killed the Easter Bunny.

She asked me if I knew what it like for a Mother to drive down her street and see her daughter being chased by a rabbit? Then she gave me the lecture on my job, my sister and my lack of a boyfriend.

I didn't tell my Mom that I had boinked Batman and could possibly be the future mother of a batbaby. Why? I don't think she would be pleased to be to learn she could be the future the grandmother of Ranger's batbaby. I can hear it. You're pregnant with Ranger's illegitimate baby? No Mom, with Ranger's batbaby. A batbaby? Why does my daughter have to have Ranger's love bat child. My friends' daughters don't have love children, bat or not.

Morelli was genuinely speechless when I called him to tell him about the Rabbit. It's nice of him to think of the Rabbit as roadkill and not write up the accident.

I had dinner at my Mom's. Since she gave me the lecture in the car, I figured why not. Besides I should try to eat healthy. Not healthy like Ranger. He's possibly the hottest man ever, but he doesn't eat dessert. What's with that? If I am pregnant, I am going to give the baby dessert. That is after it's born and about a year old.

After dinner, my Dad drove me home. He's a cab driver during the day and tonight, he has taxi service duty again. When I went into my apartment it seemed different. It looked the same, but if felt different. I kept looking around until I found it. The bunny suit was in my closet. Ew! I took it out of my apartment, walked it down the hall and threw it in the elevator. Then I called the cops.

Morelli immediately called me to find out the real story. He was rendered speechless for the second time today. I was surprised that I didn't get a lecture from Morelli. He usually gives me one. Actually, he's constantly giving me lectures about my job, my ability to do my job and Ranger. He thinks Ranger's dangerous. I think Ranger's dangerous too, but in a good way, um, a really, really good way.

I couldn't wait to crawl into my bed and go to my favorite place, Denial Land.

I called Ranger the next day to tell him about the bunny suit. He sent Hector over immediately to reinstall the security system. He's sweet that way.

Ranger's POV

When Stephanie told me that she found the Rabbit suit in her closet, I couldn't get Hector to her place fast enough to reinstall the security system. I'm glad Babe wanted to have the system reinstalled. If she didn't, I'd still have it reinstalled. There are bigger issues involved, like her safety and the baby's.

We need to talk. We need to find out if there is a baby. I wonder how long we have to wait before she can take an EPT?

I went to Vinnie's later in the day to pick up Rangeman's skips. Babe was there, giggling with Lula and Connie. They're always giggling about something. I picked up the skip files and asked Babe if I could talk with her outside.

We went outside and around to the alley. I threw my arm over Babe's shoulder, kissed her and placed my hand on her belly.

Stephanie's POV

What? Ranger just kissed me. And? He kisses me a lot. Yum. But what's with putting his hand on my belly. He knows. He thinks I'm pregnant. Should you talk to him about it? No, we don't need to talk about it. Not now. Then when should you talk about? When you're in labor? That would be a good time. No, you need to talk to him about it now. Not now. Soon. Let's define soon. Do we have too? Yes. Before I go into labor. No! You need to talk to him sooner than that. Why? Because it's the right thing to do. You need to talk to him right after you take the EPT. Only if I'm pregnant. Fine!

I guess I gave Ranger a 'look' because he's staring at me. I look at him again and I gaze at his hand on my belly. He grins at me, or what passes as a grin for Ranger, and says, "Babe".

Ranger's POV

We went to the alley and I kissed Babe. I put my hand on her belly. It seemed right. She gave me a look. Not her patented 'Burg death glare. It was more of a 'what the fuck' look. I grinned at her and said, "Babe".

She seemed flustered. Damn she's so cute. Babe's not a beauty, she's pretty. She has a nice figure, not great, but nice. I've been with some great looking women, but they all were . . . well they weren't Babe. It's her personality that makes her irresistible to me. I am such a fool for her.

I grinned at her again.

Ranger: "Babe. Need to talk?"

Stephanie: (Growing flustered.) "Ur . . . um . . . um . . . maybe?"

I continued to grin at her.

Ranger: "Maybe? How about yes."

Stephanie: (Weakly.) "Okay."

Ranger: "Hungry?"

She nodded.

I ushered her into my car and drove to Rossini's. We placed our usual orders. Pasta for Babe and grilled chicken and vegetables for me. We waited for our food to be served before talking. Since Babe likes to avoid things, like reality, I started the conversation about our night together and the possibility of a baby.

Ranger: "Babe, we didn't use protection."

She bit her lower lip and then continued to eat her pasta.

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Um."

Ranger: "Are you on the pill? We didn't discuss it."

Stephanie: "No."

Ranger: "No?"

Stephanie: "No. The pill doesn't protect you from everything." (Long pause.) "Morelli always uses condoms."

Ranger: "Let's keep Morelli out of this conversation."

Stephanie: (Frowning.) "He might end up in the conversation."

Ranger: "Eventually, but not now."

We were quiet for a while.

Ranger: "Babe how long do we have to wait?"

Stephanie: "For what?"

Ranger: "For you to take an EPT?"

Stephanie: (Indignantly.) "What makes you think I need to take an EPT?"

She's so damn cute.

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "A few weeks."

Stephanie's POV

Damn. Ranger thinks we're pregnant. I need to talk to Mooner.

Chapter 6: Knights in Black Satin

Stephanie's POV

It's been two days and I'm avoiding going to see Mooner to ask him batmommy and batbaby questions. Stephanie, for you two days of avoidance is like a nanosecond. What's your point? Avoidance is your co-pilot to Denial Land. That's how much you know, Avoidance is the navigator. Sorry, my mistake. Just so you know.

Time to get my big girl pants on and call Mooner. Do I have to? No. Okay, let's call Mooner. An hour later I was knocking on Mooner's door.

Mooner: "Dudette."

Stephanie: "Mooner."

Mooner: "Dougster, the Dudette's here."

Dougie waved. Dougie and Mooner, does it get better than this? Hopefully.

Mooner: (Looking at Stephanie.)"Dudette, you're like glowing. And your aura, it's, like, blinding. You have, like, enough aura for two."

Damn. Mooner in his haze can see glow and auras?

Stephanie: "I've been using a brightening moisturizer."

Mooner. "Cool. How goes the bounty hunting? Do you need some Superhero help?"

If he only knew how much help I've already had from one Superhero.

Stephanie: "Actually, I need some Superhero information."

Mooner: (Solemnly.) "The Dougster and I are here to serve."

Stephanie: "Was there a batbaby? I mean did Batman ever marry and have a batkid?"

Mooner stroked his chin and looked at Dougie.

Mooner: "Interesting. Batman's not my field of expertise. I, like, specialize in Star Trek. But I've dabbled in the Dark Knight."

Dougie: (Giggling.) "Me too, I've dabbled in the dark night."

I rolled my eyes. Stephanie, you just played straight man to Mooner and Dougie. Yep, I walked right into that one.

Mooner: (Thoughtfully.) "I have to ponder this."

Dougie: (To Stephanie.) "Beer?"

Stephanie: "Water."

Water, blech, but it's safe. Dougie left the room and came back with a glass of water and handed it to me.

Dougie: "Here you go Dudette, one glass of Chateau de Faucet. It's young, but I think you'll find it crisp, refreshing and playful."

Am I getting a contact high? Because that was actually funny.

Mooner: "Dougster, I seem to remember that there was a batbaby."

Dougie" "Yeah, but wasn't that, like, when they showed Batman as a kid."

Mooner: "Right. Issue one forty-seven?"

Dougie nodded.

Mooner: "Dude, was there a Mrs. Batman?"

Dougie: "Not sure. There was a Batwoman."

Mooner: "Dude you are so right. There was a Batwoman."

I looked at them both.

Stephanie: "Did Batwoman and Batman date or get married?"

Mooner: "Um. Don't know about married, but I think they dated."

Dougie nodded in agreement.

Stephanie: "What did Batwoman look like?".

Mooner: "She was like a total babe."

Dougie: "Total."

Stephanie: "What did she wear?"

Mooner: "Dressed like Batman, but you know in girl's clothes."

Damn, she would have to wear black.

Stephanie: "But on her days off, did Batwoman still dress like Batman."

Mooner: "That's the thing. Superheroes don't have days off. The Dougster and I know. That's why we're, like, thinking of quitting the Superhero business. No days off".

Stephanie: "Bummer."

Dougie:"So true. Superheroes don't belong to a union or anything. They're all, like, contact employees. It's not steady work. No benefits, I mean, other than the Superhuman powers."

Good to know. No triple time for saving the world on a holiday.

Stephanie: "So, if Batman and Batwoman had a baby would the baby have to wear bat clothes too?"

Mooner and Dougie both gasped.

Mooner: "Dudette, I don't think that the Bats were married, so there wouldn't be a batbaby."

Whoa! Mooner and Dougie like their Superheroes to be traditional? Dating then marriage then baby. Yeah, who would have thought? Not me.

Stephanie: "And if they were married?"

Mooner: "Well, if they were married, there would be a batbaby, right Dougster?"

Dougie: "Definitely."

Mooner: "And if there was a batbaby, it would wear bat clothes."

Dougie: "Right.".

Damn, not only will I have to wear black all the time, but so will the baby. There's no cute stuff in black in the baby department at Macy's.

Chapter 7: We Are?

Ranger's POV

It's been an active few weeks since Babe and I discussed EPTs and babies. Abruzzi committed suicide, so he's not stalking Babe anymore. This was after he threatened her, threatened me, firebombed my truck and kidnapped her and her sister Valerie. I heard he was depressed.

I haven't seen her for a few days. I think she may have reconciled with Morelli. If we're pregnant, she's going to have to stop dating Morelli or he'll have to commit suicide too.

It's been three weeks. Time to call and find out if it's time to take the EPT. My inner drill sergeant and project manager took over. Manoso, have you noticed that you're batting a thousand? Sir? Think it through Recruit. Each time that you've have unprotected sex, the woman gets pregnant. We haven't confirmed that Stephanie's pregnant, Sir. A formality Soldier. Son you either have the worst timing or super sperm. Which is it? Super sperm Sir!

This baby wasn't a planned event, but you will manage the pregnancy, delivery and child rearing. I am ready to take on this offensive, Sir. Manoso, this is not an offensive, this is a baby, and probably a soft and cuddly one. Yes Sir! What's your next step Soldier?

Administer the EPT and gather results. Supply check!

EPT? Check. (I have ten different tests.)

Stopwatch? Check. (To time the wait period.)

Pre-natal Vitamins? Check. (Yes, I'm that sure.)

What to Expect When You're Expecting? Check. (Two copies, one for her and one for me.)

Baby Names Book? Check. (Two copies, one for each of us.)

Good, the supplies are in order.

Now what? An appointment with her OB/GYN? No. We'll wait for the EPT results to schedule. Trip to Miami? Wha-? Manoso, you're going to have to tell Julie that she's going to be a big sister. After the EPT and the OB/GYN appointment. Have you scheduled time with Babe to administer the test and gather results? Shit!

I called Babe.

Ranger: "Is it time to take the tests?"

Stephanie: "What tests?"

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "That test. Test. Not tests. Test. Only one test is needed."

Ranger: "Do you need to take the test?"

Stephanie: (Silence.)

Ranger: "Are you past due?"

Stephanie: (More silence.)

She was not making this easy. She was going to make me ask all of the questions.

Ranger: "Stephanie-"

Stephanie: (Interrupting.) "You called me Stephanie. Yeesh!"

Ranger: "Stephanie. Did you have your period? Are you past due?"

Stephanie: "You don't have to be so Alpha Male about it."

Ranger: "Stephanie, stop being a pain in the ass. Is your period late?"

Stephanie: "Is that how you'd speak to the Mother of your child?"

Ranger: "Stephanie. Are you pregnant? Did you take the test?"

Stephanie: "No, but I could be pregnant." (After a few beats.) "I'm late."

Ranger: "How late are you?"

Stephanie: "About a week."

Ranger: "And you haven't taken the test?"

Stephanie: "No. But I feel pregnant."

Ranger: "Stephanie, feeling pregnant is not conclusive. You need to take the test."

Stephanie: "I don't want to."

Ranger: "Why?"

Stephanie: "Because."

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "Because if I find out I'm pregnant, I'll have to tell my Mom-"

Ranger: "And Morelli."

Stephanie: "And Morelli."

Damn.

Ranger: "Look at it this way. Take the test to confirm that you're not pregnant."

Stephanie: "Is that what you want?"

Ranger: "What?"

Stephanie: "You don't want me to be pregnant."

Ranger: "I didn't say that."

Stephanie: "You'd be relieved if I weren't pregnant."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Babe! What does that mean?"

Ranger: "That means take the test."

Stephanie: "When?"

Ranger: "Tomorrow."

Stephanie: "Tomorrow?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Stephanie: "Where?"

Ranger: "My place."

Stephanie: "You don't have a your place. You live in an empty lot."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Is there a bat cave?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Stephanie: "I don't know."

There were a few beats of silence.

Stephanie: "Isn't it best if the test is taken first thing in the morning?"

Ranger: "That's what the instructions say."

Stephanie: "You read the instructions! That must mean that you have a test kit."

Ranger: "I have a few."

Stephanie: "A few. What? Do you keep some on hand just in case?"

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "How many EPTs do you have?"

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "How many?"

Ranger: "Ten."

Stephanie: "Yeesh!"

Ranger: "I could pick you up tomorrow. You could come to my place for dinner, spend the night and take the test the next morning."

I heard her gulp.

Stephanie: "I don't think that's such a good idea." (Pause.) "Where would you sleep?"

Ranger: "In my bed."

Stephanie: "Where would I sleep?"

Ranger: (Whispering.) "That's up to you."

Stephanie's POV

Ten. He has ten test kits. Isn't that just a tad overboard? And he wants me to take the test at his place. At the bat cave! I would like to see the bat cave. Then I could tell Lula all about it. Stephanie, bad idea. What? If you tell Lula about the bat cave, she'll want to know all the details. Right. Can't tell Lula about the bat cave.

He wants you to stay overnight at the bat cave. I know. Is that a good idea? Are you going to the bat cave? He did ask. I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings. You know he has feelings, right? Yeesh! I have felt his heart throbbing. That and other parts of him. Yum. That's how you got into this predicament. Is that drool on your face? No! Mop it up before it drips on to your shirt.

The next day, I was singing my version of the Batman song in my head. "Bat cave! I'm going to the bat cave!" Damn. I am going to the bat cave. And I'm going to find out if I'm with batbaby.

Ranger's POV

Babe's eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped when I brought her to my apartment in the Rangeman building. I think she was expecting a tent in the woods.

I had my housekeeper, Ella make dinner and it was waiting in the oven when we walked in apartment. The aroma of the food made the apartment smell homey.

I was looking forward to spending the night with Babe and I was anxious about the EPT.

Stephanie's POV

I did my best imitation of a fish when Ranger took me to his apartment. Holy crap, it's in his own building. He really is Batman. The apartment is refined, but masculine. It's decorated with a mixture of antiques and modern furniture. It looks like it was professionally done. It's spotless. Actually, it gleams. And it smells. It smells like dinner. I wonder where Alfred is.

Stephanie: (Looking at Ranger and making a waving gesture at the apartment.) "This is not an empty lot."

Ranger: (Smiling.) "Babe."

Ranger's POV

We had a nice evening. We had dinner. We looked at all of the tests and read all of the instructions. I mean, I read all of the instructions. We watched a basketball game, since Babe wasn't in the mood for a violent movie. When it was time to go to sleep, I convinced Babe that my bed would be much more comfortable than the couch. And I promised not to get her pregnant.

Stephanie's POV

I woke up the next morning in a tangle of high thread count sheets and warm Ranger. Yum. Stephanie, don't say yum. You're here to take the EPT. Yum. I snuggled closer to Ranger. This is a nice way to wake up. Maybe if I wiggled, I could wake Ranger up too. And what are you going to do if you wake him up? You know. No Stephanie not this morning. But I want to . . . you know. Get up and go pee on a stick.

Ranger snuggled into me and kissed my neck.

Ranger: "Babe, are you ready to do this?"

He got out of bed and gently pulled me out of bed too. He walked me into the bathroom and waited.

Stephanie: "Oh no Mister, I can do this part myself."

Ranger: (Grinning and shaking his head.) "Mister?" (After a few beats.) "You understand the instructions?"

Stephanie: "You read them to me a million times last night?"

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Well not a million times, but at least ten times."

Ranger:"Babe, I read them to you two times."

Stephanie: "What about the question and answer session and the pop quiz?"

Ranger: "Preparation is the key to success in every mission."

Stephanie: "Mission? Preparation? What preparation? I pee on a stick and then wait for three minutes."

Ranger: "Then pee on a stick."

Ranger walked out of the bathroom.

Ranger: "I'll set the stopwatch for three minutes."

It was the longest three minutes of my life. Ranger knocked on the door and called time. I looked at the stick. I looked at it, but there were little stars dancing in front of my eyes. Nothing was registering. Ranger knocked on the door again.

Ranger: "Well?"

Stephanie: "Well what?"

Ranger: "Are we?"

Stephanie: "I don't know."

Ranger: "Didn't the test work?" (Pause.) "Don't worry, we have nine more."

Stephanie: "The test worked just fine. I can't read it."

Ranger: "Why?"

Stephanie: "Because I'm going to faint."

Ranger opened the door to the bathroom and rushed over to me. I showed him the results.

Stephanie: (Poking his chest with her forefinger.) "You did this to me. You knocked me up!"

Ranger looked at me and smiled. Not a grin, a full-blown smile.

Ranger: "Babe."

Chapter 8: Confirmation

Stephanie's POV

I've been in a daze since the EPT said I was pregnant. I get up in the mornings, stagger to Rex's cage and sigh. That is after I retch over the toilet for a half an hour. I've been explaining to him that he won't be an only hamster for long. That he'll have a brother or sister, a human brother or sister, in about seven and a half months.

When is that doctor's appointment? I need to get the official word that I'm having Ranger's love bat child, as if the morning sickness wasn't it's very own special confirmation. And we need to determine the due date, so that I can move to another state and establish my new identity under the Unmarried Pregnant Daughter of Helen Plum Protection Program before I go into labor.

Anyhow, Rex seems nonplussed, but we'll see how he fares when we're living in a new state and I am up all hours of the night tending to the baby. Stephanie, breathe, breathe. You'll catch up on your sleep when the baby goes to college. You can do this. You already did this much. It wasn't my fault. Stephanie, really? It's Ranger's fault.

If he hadn't been so handsome and sexy and sensuous and skilled and . . . Yeesh! You see where I'm going with this. Yeah I see where you're going with this and you seemed only too happy to go along. Duh. Did I not say he was handsome, sexy, sensuous, skilled. And apparently potent. Well he sure as hell isn't impotent and I have the morning sickness to prove it.

Ranger seems excited about the baby. He's being sweet and thoughtful. Only if you consider smothering sweet and thoughtful. He did get you pre-natal vitamins. And pregnancy and baby name books. Yeah and he expects me, in my condition, to read them. And he stocked the refrigerator full of healthy foods. Yuck.

Stephanie, focus. When is the doctor's appointment? I go to my purse and pull out my blackberry to check the date of my doctor's appointment. It's tomorrow at three. Good it's going to take me a day to get ready. Are you going to remind Ranger? Why would I do that? He wants to go with you. Being in the stirrups with the Doctor is bad enough without Ranger being there too. Nothing he hasn't seen before. But he hasn't seen it pregnant. He just wants to hold your hand and be supportive. Then he'll try to take over my pregnancy. He'll try to manage the whole process, just like he did with the EPT. It's my pregnancy. Mine. Mine. Are you still mad that he made you take the EPT? Damn Skippy.

Lucky me, I didn't have to remind Ranger about the doctor's appointment. He called to remind me. He had everything planned. All I have to do was show up and stick my feet in the stirrups. Oh joy.

Ranger's POV

Today's Babe's appointment with her OB/GYN to confirm the pregnancy. She's been moody ever since she saw the results of the EPT. When I see her or talk to her, she looks at me through narrowed eyes and says 'You did this to me. You knocked me up'. I know I did this to her. I was there. It would be a fond memory, if she'd stop saying 'you knocked me up'.

It's been six weeks since we've been together. She should be due in mid-August. Around my birthday. Damn, she's going to be in her third trimester in the summer.

I can only imagine what she's going to be like in her ninth month. Maybe I can get called in the wind and have Tank be her birthing coach. Manoso, you will be managing Project Baby. You started it when you forgot to use a condom and you will see it through. You weren't in the delivery room for Julie's birth. You will be present for this baby's arrival. Stephanie will need you, whether she wants you there or not.

When I told Stephanie that I plan to go to every doctor's appointment, childbirth classes and new parents' classes, she looked at me like I was crazy. This is my kid too. I will be involved. I want to be involved. I wonder if she'd give me her 'Burg death glare if I asked her to get married?

Stephanie's POV

This was the doctor's appointment from hell. We confirmed the pregnancy. No surprise there. But I'm due in mid-August. Mid-August. Pregnant women are overheated all the time and I'm going to be massively pregnant and overheated during a hot, humid Jersey summer! He did this to me. Ranger did this to me and he's going to pay, dearly.

And what's with him being such an A-student with the doctor? He had a list of questions a mile long. He and the doctor talked so much, it was like I was only there for demonstration purposes. Oh, so that's where the uterus is located!

Since Ranger is so interested in this pregnancy, I think that he should carry the baby to term during a hot, humid Jersey summer. He did this to me!

Good thing he's taking me to Marsilio's for dinner and dessert. I deserve dessert. If I don't get dinner and dessert, I won't talk to Ranger until . . whenever I feel like it. So there.

Ranger's POV

Babe got cranky when the doctor told us that her due date was in mid-August. She shot me a look that said 'you did this to me'. And she seemed irritated that I was interested in the pregnancy and that I had questions for the doctor.

Maybe she'll feel better after we have dinner at Marsilio's. Just dinner, no dessert. Sugar's not good for the baby. And no caffeine. That's not good for the baby either.

Babe's going have to start eating healthfully. I tried to encourage her. I stocked her refrigerator with healthy foods. She took one look at the fruits and vegetables I brought to her place and said, and I quote, 'yuck'. This is going to be a long pregnancy.

Stephanie's POV

My child may never see his/her father, because I am going to banish Ranger from my life. He wouldn't let me get dessert at Marsilio's. Everyone knows that they have the best desserts in Trenton. I always have dessert with I go there. No, he ordered us bowls of berries without whipped cream for 'dessert'. That is not dessert. Maybe it's dessert in his book, but its not in mine, definitely not in mine.

And he wouldn't let me have a Coke. "Caffeine and sugar aren't good for the baby," he said, as if someone died and made him the Patron Saint of OB/GYN.

And if no dessert wasn't enough to put me into a foul mood, he wanted to know when we're going to visit our families to tell them the news. I plan to tell my family in twenty, twenty-five years. He wants to do it tomorrow. We compromised, which means I told him in no uncertain terms, that I wasn't announcing anything until after I completed my first trimester. Yeesh! This is going to be a long pregnancy.

Chapter 9: It Had To Be Said.

Ranger's POV

I did not enjoy dinner at Marsilio's. Stephanie was moody. She was mad at the world in general and at me in particular. I was starting to believe that she didn't want to have the baby. As much as I was loathe to do it, I had to discuss this with her. On the drive to her apartment, I broached the subject.

Ranger: "Stephanie, do you want this baby?'

Stephanie: "Wha-"

Ranger: "Do you want to have this baby?"

Stephanie: (Silence.)

Ranger: (Swallowing hard.) "If you don't, it's early enough to terminate the pregnancy."

Stephanie: "Are you talking about an ab-"

Ranger: "Yes."

Stephanie: "Is that what you want?"

Ranger: "Not at all."

Stephanie: "Then why are you bringing it up?"

Ranger: "You."

Stephanie: (Astonished.) "Me!"

Ranger: "You have been on a tear since you realized that you could be pregnant."

Stephanie: (Doing an imitation of a fish.) "I couldn't. This is my baby we're talking about."

Ranger: "This is our baby." (Long pause.) "Do you want to raise the baby? If you don't, I want sole custody."

Stephanie: "You want to take my baby from me?"

Ranger: "OUR baby. No, I don't want to take it from you. But if you don't want to raise the baby, I do."

Stephanie: "Why are you saying this to me?"

Ranger: "Your behavior."

Stephanie: "My behavior?"

Ranger: "Stephanie, contrary to everything you say, I did not do this to you. I did not intentionally forget to wear condoms. We did this."

Stephanie: "Yes, but-"

Ranger: "Stop punishing me. You didn't tell me that you weren't on the pill. Accept that you're as responsible as I am." (Long pause.) If you don't want to go through with it, then I need to know so that we can decide on next steps. And if you do want to have the baby, we still need to decide on next steps."

Stephanie: "Why are you doing this to me?"

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: (Gulping.) "I'm surprised that you're this interested. You weren't with Julie."

Ranger: "I never walked away from Julie."

Stephanie: "But you're not involved with her."

Ranger: "I am involved to the extent that Rachel, Ron and I have agreed to. It's not easy to be distanced from her, but it's what we decided was best for her. If that changes, I will do everything I can to provide the best for her."

Stephanie: "You never mentioned-"

Ranger: "There was no need to."

Stephanie: "Do you love Julie?"

Ranger: "Very much."

Stephanie: "What about-"

Ranger: "Stop. Think about this carefully. Very carefully. When you've come to some decisions, then we'll talk."

Stephanie: "You're mad at me."

Ranger: "I don't get mad." (Pause.) "I'm angry with your behavior."

We arrived at Stephanie's apartment. After I checked that it was safe, I went home. I didn't give her a kiss good-bye. I didn't want to.

Stephanie's POV

Ranger didn't kiss me when he left. Why was that? He's angry with me. Explain. He thinks I don't want the baby. Do you? Yes, but-. But what? I don't know. Ranger told me to think about everything and make some decisions. He's right. I hate it that he's right, but he is. He doesn't want to see me until I've made some decisions. Sounds serious. It is.

I'm scared. Of what? Everything. The pregnancy. Being a Mother. Telling my Mom. Telling Morelli. Ranger. Everything. Ranger? Uh huh. Why? This is changing everything. Maybe it will change everything for the better. I don't know. It's been a long day, go to sleep. I'm exhausted. We'll tackle this tomorrow.

Chapter 10: It Had To Be Said, II

Stephanie's POV

I stood in my kitchen looking blankly at the calendar on the wall. Yesterday, I went to the doctor and he confirmed that I'm pregnant. The baby's due mid-August, during a hot and stinky Jersey summer. I've been so pissy about the pregnancy that Ranger questioned if I wanted to have the baby. He told me to think about things and make some decisions. He was angry. I've never made Ranger really angry before. I've definitely frustrated him. And I've irritated him. But yesterday, yesterday I succeeded in making Ranger angry with me.

He wants the baby. He excited about the baby and I stomped all over his happy with my size eight Dr. Martens.

That was yesterday. Today's December thirty first. A new year starts tomorrow. I'm going to have a baby next year. Not just any baby, I'm going to have Ranger's baby. In mid-August.

I walked to the window in the dining room and looked out. It was snowing. Trenton cleans up nice when it snows. It's going to snow all day and most of the night. It's the perfect day to snuggle up with an afghan on the couch and watch movies. That is if I had a couch. I haven't replaced the one I had to throw out because saturated with death cooties.

Morelli called to tell me his guys missed me. Yeesh! I think I hate that. If he wants to see me and get laid, he should just say so. I don't want to see Morelli or his guys, so I told him that I had plans. What? I do have plans. I going to do the homework that Ranger gave me. Are you really going to think about things? Yep, I'm even going to lie on the bed in my thinking position. If I hear you snore, I'm waking you up. I do not snore. Do too.

I know I'm going to have to tell Joe someday that I'm pregnant and it's not with a little Morelli. The only way that you'd be having Joe's kid is if you'd experienced latex failure. He's not going to like hearing that I'm having Ranger's batbaby. You got that one right. And I'm not ready to tell him. At least not yet. Afraid that Joe's Grandma Bella will give you the eye? Damn Skippy.

It's not that I want to avoid telling him. Well, I do want to avoid telling him. I just want to, you know. No, I don't you know. I want to wait until after the first trimester. Why? Because most miscarriages happen in the first trimester. Oh. Why did you make me say that? I don't want to think about having a miscarriage. But you're thinking about it. I know.

Once I'm past the first trimester, I'll start announcing the news. This is going to be one hot item on the 'Burg grapevine. But it's happy news. I think it's happy news. Finally. Ranger thinks it's happy news. Definitely. Not so sure anyone else will see it that way. Grandma Mazur might think it's good news. She 'likes' Ranger. I know, it's, it's . . I'm not sure what it is besides icky.

I'm having Batman's baby. Wow! I'm going to be the Mommy of a baby Superhero. This is definitely happy news.

Today will be the perfect time to think about Ranger and the baby and Ranger. And then I'll think about Ranger some more. But first you need to do your homework. I know, but I'll start by thinking about Ranger for a little while. Right, we both know that's not possible. Is too? Really? When you start thinking about Ranger, one thing leads to another and suddenly you're in the bathtub abusing the shower massage. So what's your point? You know what my point is. Homework first, then play. Got it. Are you my internal mother? Damn Skippy.

I look around the apartment, it's messy, so I straighten up. I clean Rex's cage so he can start the New Year with fresh bedding. I ask Rex if he's made any resolutions. He hasn't. I give him a mini marshmallow as a New Year's treat, just because. Are my maternal instincts kicking in or what?

I'm hungry, so I make myself a peanut butter and olive sandwich on mushy white bread. Since it's a holiday, I add potato chips for texture and extra flavor. Potato chips, olives and peanut butter, all vegetables. I have three of my five servings of fruits and vegetables in one sandwich. And Ranger was worried that I wasn't eating healthy foods.

Now that the apartment is tidy and Rex is taken care of and I've had a nutritious meal, I can watch Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. What? It's research. Sigourney Weaver's a single Mom in Ghostbusters 2. I'm going to be a single Mom. I could learn something here.

Since I haven't replaced the death cooties couch, I sit on the living room floor to watch the DVDs. After Ghostbusters is over, my ass is sore. I decide to take a break and walk around the apartment before watching Ghostbusters 2.

I look at the clock in the kitchen; it's eight. Four more hours until midnight and New Years. I'm bored. I want company. It would be, um, nice to see Ranger. I'll just call and invite him over. We can watch Ghostbusters 2 together.

Stephanie: "Yo."

Ranger: "Yo yourself."

Stephanie: "It's New Year's Eve."

Ranger: "It is."

Stephanie: "It would be nice to have company."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Want to come over and watch the ball drop on TV?

Ranger: "Can't. I'm working a double on the monitors."

Stephanie: (Whining.) "But you're the boss. Why are you working on New Year's Eve?"

Ranger: "Because I'm the boss. Most of the guys wanted the night off to spend with their girlfriends."

Stephanie: "What about you? You have me."

Ranger: "Do I?"

Stephanie: (Hesitating.) "Well, um, I mean-"

Ranger: "I thought so."

Stephanie: "Ranger."

Ranger: (Gently.) "Don't you have thinking to do?"

Stephanie: "I'm thinking."

Ranger: "Good to know." (Pause.) "Babe."

Stephanie: "Yes."

Ranger: "Happy New Year."

Stephanie: "You too."

Well so much for cuddling with Ranger and getting a kiss at midnight. I'll show him, next year, I'll kiss my baby at midnight on New Year's. Whoa! Next New Year's Eve, I'll be a Mom. I need to start thinking about things. I went to my bedroom, flopped on to the bed and got into my thinking position.

I woke up the next morning with my face smooshed against the pillow. I followed my bladder to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror after I did my usual A.M. routine, which now includes morning sickness, thank you very much. My face looked smooshed too. What a great way to start a new year.

The telephone rang. It was my Mom asking me over for New Year's dinner. As I was able to make room in my busy social calendar of nothing, I told her I'd be there.

It was still snowing. I peered out of my bedroom window and looked at my latest POS car. It was covered with snow. I thought about going out to clean off the snow, but decided to wait until I was ready to go to my Mom's. Maybe a big gust of wind will come by and clean the car for me. And maybe there is a Santa Claus. Could be. There is a Batman.

I decided to have a traditional New Year's and watch the Rose Bowl Parade. I love the floats and the marching bands. The themes of the floats were so hopeful and heartwarming. I started to cry and couldn't stop.

I wanted to be hopeful. But what am I going to do with a baby? I barely make enough money to pay the rent and keep Rex in hamster pellets. Babies need stuff, like a crib and a car seat and diapers. Lots and lots of diapers. When I'm really low on cash I go to my Mom's for dinner so I can eat without buying food. My Mom's going to disown me once I tell her I'm pregnant, so she won't be inviting me for dinner.

What about work? There were times when I was literally thrown to the ground picking up skips. What if the baby gets hurt when I'm chasing an FTA? But if I don't bring in skips, I don't bring in cash. If I don't make money, we'll be homeless.

Whose going to take me to the hospital when I go into labor? Will I have to call a taxi and hope my Dad is on duty?

How am I going to do this? As I kept thinking, I kept crying. I barely heard the telephone when it rang.

Stephanie: (Sniffling.) "Hello."

Ranger: "Yo."

Stephanie: (Still sniffling.) "Happy New Year."

Ranger: "Babe." (After a beat.) "Are you crying?"

Stephanie: "I'm watching the Rose Bowl parade."

Ranger: "Didn't know that floats covered in petals could do that to you."

Stephanie: "There's a lot that you don't know about me."

Ranger: "Such as?"

Stephanie: (Pause.) "I'm scared."

Ranger: "About what?"

Stephanie: (Stammering.) "About the baby. About being a Mom. About . . . about everything."

Ranger: "Babe." (Pause.) "Would you like me to come over?"

Stephanie: "Sure, you can watch the Rose Bowl with me."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Would you like to go to dinner at my Mom's? She's making a traditional New Year's dinner. Kielbasa and sauerkraut. She'll even have vegetables. She'll have carrots cut in discs so that they look like gold coins for prosperity."

Ranger: "That's not a traditional New Year's dinner."

Stephanie: "It is."

Ranger: "It's not a traditional Cuban New Year's dinner."

Stephanie: "What's a traditional Cuban New Year's dinner?"

Ranger: "Not that."

Stephanie: "Are you coming over?"

Ranger: "For the game, yes. For dinner, no. See you in thirty."

Ranger came bearing food. A Pino's meatball sub and a pint of my favorite Ben and Jerry's for me and a salad for him. Oh boy, he brought ice cream. I'll bet he brought it because this is a holiday meal.

He placed the sub and the salad on the dining room table. He went to the kitchen and put the Ben and Jerry's in the freezer. I followed behind and got two bottles of water from the refrigerator. Ranger got plates, flatware and napkins and took them to the dining room. He set the table and put the food on plates. We sat at the table and ate our meal.

I went to kitchen as soon as I had my last bite of the sub. I took the Ben and Jerry's out of the freezer and got a spoon from the drawer. I went back to the dining room, sat at the table and ate the whole pint. I would have offered Ranger some, but sugar's not good for the baby. I was so excited about the sub and the ice cream that I barely spoke to him while I ate.

Ranger looked around and noticed that I still didn't have a couch. He gave me one of his barely there grins. He took our plates and flatware to the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher. He came back to the dining room, took me by the hand and led me into the living room. Ranger sat on the floor near a wall. He had his back against the wall, legs straddled, knees bent. Ranger carefully pulled me down to sit between his legs. He swivled me around so that my legs were over his right thigh. He leaned my head onto his chest (right over his heart), and wrapped his arms around me.

Ranger: "You're scared?"

I looked up at him and nodded.

Ranger: "Of what?"

He held me and listened while I told him what I was worried about. He didn't speak until I was done.

Ranger: "You're not going to be alone."

Stephanie: "No?"

Ranger: "I'll be here with you."

Stephanie: "You mean here?"

Ranger: "If that's what you want. Or at my place."

Stephanie: "At the Batcave?"

Ranger: (Smiling.) "At the Batcave."

Stephanie: "You'd do that for me?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Stephanie: "Why?"

Ranger: "I love you."

I looked up at Ranger and then I gave him a kiss. I snuggled closer to him and he tightened his arms around me. He held me close until I needed to get ready to go to my Mom's for dinner.

Chapter 11: As the Cupcake Crumbles

Stephanie's POV

Today is Valentine's Day and I'm going to Point Pleasant with Ranger. No big deal. It is a big deal when you're going to Point Pleasant to get married. Ack! I'm doing it again. This time I'm not a tender twenty-four year old having the big 'Burg wedding. This time, I'm thirty and three months pregnant and I'm going to a Justice of the Peace to marry Ranger. What am I thinking? I'm allergic to relationships and marriage. It must be the pregnancy hormones. If I get married and it doesn't work out can I use insanity due to pregnancy hormones as the reason for the divorce?

It's not that I don't want to marry Ranger. In theory it's a good idea, no it's a great idea. In reality, I'm not so sure. We went from being friends to being lovers to being expectant parents in little over a month. That's supersonic by my standards, if you consider that I lived on and off with Morelli for over two years and I never once told him that I loved him. I haven't told Ranger that I love him either. I'm pretty sure that I probably love him. Why wouldn't I love him? He's handsome, smart, sexy, yummy, sexy, yummy. I'm getting off on a tangent here. Actually, I'm getting off. Am I overheated because of the pregnancy hormones? No, it's Ranger. He's so sexy he inspires heat. But does he inspire marriage?

So why am hesitating to marry a man that most women would sell their souls to the devil to date let alone marry? Because, I'm sure he's only marrying me because of the baby. I know he loves me. He told me so. But would he be marrying me if I weren't pregnant? I don't think so. We'd still be flirting and stealing kisses in the alley behind Vinnie's.

And what about living together? Since we found out that we're pregnant we've spent more time with each other, but living together is something else entirely. And being married. Being married means we're attached legally. I've been legally attached and the detachment process is painful.

So we've decided (actually I decided and whined so much that Ranger finally agreed), to get married but not live together . . . yet. He was the one who insisted that we get married. He's the one who wants us to be married longer than two minutes before the obstetrician arrives in the delivery room. Not me, I wanted to wait until right before the baby's due to get married, but it was vetoed by my, er, um, husband-to-be. Am I hyperventilating? Deep breaths. Calming breaths. I don't want to speak ill of the gorgeous man who is soon to be my husband, but sometimes, Ranger can be a teensy weensy bit bossy. Teensy weensy? I'm only three months pregnant. Why am I talking baby talk? Yeesh!

This is our first Valentine's Day as a couple and it's going to be our anniversary day for the rest of whatever. Yeah we became a couple after I broke up with Morelli. I had to break up with Morelli. Hello, I'm having Ranger's baby. Technically I conceived when Morelli and I were on a time out, so Joe can't fault me for sleeping with Ranger. We were on a time out. It's not my fault. And I don't think Morelli would go for raising my batbaby, given his opinion of Ranger. Besides, Ranger's the baby's father and he wants to be the baby's daddy. Who am I to deny Ranger? Only the Mother and I don't want to deny Ranger. Why would I when giving in is so much fun. Damn these raging hormones.

Joe and I had another of our huge arguments the day after Christmas. It registered a eight point five on the 'Burg seismograph. It was over my couch or lack of a couch. He decided that since I didn't have a couch that I should move in with him. Less to move and, in his words, "God knows Cupcake, when you would earn enough to buy another one". And since we were going to live together, then why not get married. Joe was surprised that I didn't find this to be the romantic proposal that every girl dreams of. I guess it was better than the last time he proposed. When he proposed before he told me that the benefits of getting married included wedding cake, oral sex and the use of his credit card. I have my own credit card and I can get day old birthday cake (which is just wedding cake with colored icing) when I wanted it. The oral sex I couldn't do on my own. I'm not double-jointed. But that's not a reason to get married. At least I don't think so.

When Joe called on New Year's Eve to get together because his guys missed me, I declined the offer. I had just confirmed that I was pregnant the day before and I had a lot to think about, including my relationship with Joe.

Why would I want to marry Morelli? Did I still have a crush on him? Was it that I was amazed that I was actually dating the hot guy that every girl in high school swooned over? Was that it?

And what about our history? Was I romanticizing our past because I thought Joe was my last chance at marriage? He fondled me when I was six. He deflowered me behind the éclair case at the Tasty Pastry when I was sixteen and then wrote graffiti about it all over town. He went to the Navy after he took my virginity. I was grounded for three months and got a daily lecture about what good girls do and don't do.

And what about our current relationship? He has intentionally given me bad information on cases that we worked on. He berates my job and my ability to do it. He wants me to be a 'Burg housewife and mother. Ha! That's what he knows. I am going to be a mother! But I'm not going to be a 'Burg housewife. And it really bothers me that the only time he takes me out is to a family dinner or wedding. He says he loves me, but I'm not sure that I want what he calls love.

So when Joe called a few days after New Year's to offer me a movie, bed and breakfast at Hotel Morelli, I told him that I wouldn't be staying at his place in the foreseeable future or ever. He thought it was another of our usual arguments. But when I asked him to return the key to my apartment and to stop calling me Cupcake, he finally started to get it. When he asked why, I told him why. I told him everything; except that I had slept with Ranger and that I'm pregnant with a batbaby. I figured he'd hear that through the "Burg grapevine in due time.

So much for Joe. I've got other things to do to like go to Point Pleasant and marry Ranger. Then announce the happy news to our families.

Chapter 12: Legally Attached

Ranger's POV

It's been an interesting new year. Babe broke up with Morelli, we became a couple in the eyes of the 'Burg, Babe was stalked by the Web Master, I started going to weekly dinners at her parents and I asked Babe to marry me.

I thought I was commitment phobic until I met Babe. I asked her to marry me every day for a week before she said maybe. She had a million reasons for not wanting to marry.

Stephanie: "You only want to marry me because of the baby."

Ranger: "Babe, the baby just accelerated the process. I want to marry you because I love you."

Stephanie: "What if this marriage turns out like my first marriage."

Ranger: "The chances of me fucking Joyce Barnhardt on the dining room table or any other surface are nonexistent."

Stephanie: "Didn't you once tell me that you're love didn't come with a ring, but a condom might come in handy?"

Ranger: "Babe. You're pregnant. Obviously my love came without a condom." (Pause.) "But there will be a ring."

Stephanie: "A ring. Um. I hadn't expected a ring."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "But, you're not marriage material. You're carrying two guns and a knife."

Ranger: "I can carry two guns and a knife and be a husband. A very good husband."

Stephanie: "Yum." (Clearing her throat.) "I mean, good to know."

Ranger: "And what about you?"

Stephanie: "Me?"

Ranger: (Winking.) "Can you keep your gun in a cookie jar and be a wife?"

Stephanie: (Indignantly.) "Yes!"

Ranger: "Good to know."

Stephanie: "Okay, I must love you because I'm going to say yes."

Ranger: "Yes to what?"

Stephanie: "Yes to marrying you."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "But I want to keep my own apartment."

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "I'm not ready to move in with you yet."

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "Getting married is one thing. But living together? Living together is huge."

Ranger: "Babe." (Long pause.) "Let's get married on Valentine's Day."

Stephanie: "So soon? Can't we wait a bit?"

Ranger: "Wait? How long?"

Stephanie: "July."

Ranger: "July. Stephanie, I don't want to get married two beats before the obstetrician tells you to bear down and push because the baby's crowning."

Stephanie: "Yeesh!"

Ranger: "Valentine's Day?"

Stephanie: "If you insist."

Ranger: "I do."

Stephanie: (Stammering.) "Ranger, I, um, er, um, I love you."

Ranger: "Babe."

Finally, she agreed to marry me. On Valentine 's Day, we're going to Point Pleasant to get married. Babe wants it to be simple, so we're going to the Justice of the Peace. At this point, I'm so surprised that she's willing to get married, that I'd let an Elvis impersonator perform the ceremony if that's what she wanted.

I asked her to be at my place at nine in the morning on Valentine's Day and to pack an overnight bag. I have a few surprises for her.

Stephanie's POV

Ranger asked me to be at his place at nine in the morning so that we can go to Point Pleasant to get married. Doesn't he realize I have morning sickness until nine most mornings? I guess I'll make an exception since we're getting married today. And he wants me to bring an overnight bag? I don't want to go anywhere. I want to sleep in my own bed. He can stay with me if he wants to, but he has to stay on his side of the bed because I am in no mood for playtime. I wonder what he has planned.

I got to Ranger's at exactly nine, which for me is an accomplishment. Since it is our wedding day, I wore my pale gray silk suit with a white lace shell underneath and pale grey kid pumps. I did hair and make-up. I wanted to look pretty for our wedding. Ranger looked at me and said, "You never disappoint". He can be so mushy sometimes.

Of course, I was nowhere near as pretty as Ranger. Ranger was perfect, in a charcoal grey Polo Ralph Lauren suit, white dress shirt, black and grey Hermes tie and highly polished John Lobb oxfords. It was Corporate Ranger at his finest. Yum. Lucky me, I get to sleep with this man. That is whenever my hormones finally decide that sex is a good thing again. Most women go into sexual hyper drive when they're pregnant. My hormones went the other way. Yeesh!

He gave me his wolf grin when we took the elevator to the garage. He held our overnight bags in one hand and had his other arm around my shoulder. He kissed me by my ear and then put his tongue where he had kissed me. I felt a jolt that went straight from my ear to my doo-dah. Um. Maybe my pregnancy hormones will meet up with my raging Hungarian hormones and kick start my sex drive. Yum.

Ranger's POV

Stephanie and I went to the garage. I opened the door to the Porsche so that she could get in and then put our bags in the trunk. I got in the car, started it, put on classical music and started to drive to Point Pleasant. Babe was asleep in ten minutes.

Within an hour and a half, we were at the Justice of the Peace's office. The Justice read the ceremony, signed the license and pronounced us married. I gave Babe a hug and a kiss.

As we were walking out of the JP's office, I asked Babe if she was hungry. She surprised me by saying no. We got into the car and I began to drive to our hotel.

Stephanie: (Looking at her hand.) "No ring. You said there would be a ring."

Ranger: "There will be."

Stephanie: "When?"

Ranger: "Soon."

Stephanie: "How soon?"

Ranger: "After we get to the hotel."

Stephanie: (Looking out of the car window.) "Where are we going? Aren't we staying in Point Pleasant?"

Ranger: "No. I had another idea."

Stephanie: "So where are we going?"

Ranger: "It's a surprise."

Stephanie: "I hate surprises. Where are we going?"

Ranger: "New York, specifically Manhattan."

Stephanie: "Oh."

Ranger: "Is that okay?"

Stephanie: "I guess so."

Ranger: "Why don't you nap. I'll wake you when we get there."

Stephanie slept until I pulled up at the carriage drive of The Plaza Hotel. The doorman opened her door, while I gently woke her up.

Ranger: "We're here."

Stephanie: (Getting out of the car and looking around.) "We're staying at The Plaza!"

Ranger: "Is that okay with you?"

Stephanie: (Stuttering.) "Yes, but, but-"

Ranger: "I thought it would be a nice place for our honeymoon."

Stephanie: "Wow!"

We checked in at the front desk. I had our bags sent up to our room. Stephanie was rounding the corner towards the bank of elevators when I tugged her elbow.

Ranger: "Not upstairs. Not now."

Stephanie: "But-"

Ranger: "We have an appointment."

Stephanie: "Where?"

Ranger: "Come with me."

I took Stephanie by the arm and walked her to Tiffany's. I asked her to wait by the jewelry cases for a moment while I went to talk to Alphonse, my salesman. Alphonse went over to Stephanie and said, "Ms. Plum, please come with me". He walked her into a small room off the sales floor. Babe looked at me in confusion as I followed her into the little room.

Stephanie's POV

How many surprises does Ranger have in store for me? We're staying at The Plaza. I'll bet the rate for the room is about the same as my monthly rent. We're in Tiffany's and a salesman has just led me into a private consulation room. Ranger's walking behind us like this is an everyday occurrence.

The room is tastefully decorated. There is a desk in the middle of the room and Alphonse, the salesman, invites Ranger and me to sit on one side of the desk. He brings us sparkling water that he serves in crystal glasses. He sits behind the desk and brings out a tray of diamond rings.

Alphonse: "Ms. Plum, I understand that you and Mr. Manoso have just been married.

Stephanie: (Dumbfounded.) "Yes."

Alphonse: "I also understand from Mr. Manoso that you need an engagement ring and a wedding band."

Stephanie: (Nodding.) "I, I guess so."

Alphonse: "Mr. Manoso has asked me to select a range of rings so that you can choose the one that you would like."

Stephanie: (Eyeing the tray of rings.) "Oh. I get to choose one of these rings?"

Alphonse: "Mr. Manoso had a few requirements. Shall I tell you about them?"

Stephanie: (Looking at Ranger and then at Alphonse.) "Yes. Please."

Alphonse: "Mr. Manoso requested platinum settings. Stones that were one carat and D flawless. The choices of cut and setting are yours. Does this meet with your approval?"

I'm thinking 'Damn Skippy', but I managed to politely say yes. This was so much better than picking a dozen of assorted doughnuts at Tasty Pastry. Is that drool on my chin?

There were twenty-four rings to choose from. I tried on each ring twice. I finally picked an emerald cut with a baguette at each side. Alphonse assured me that I had made the classic choice. I chose a wedding band to match the engagement ring. Then Ranger surprised me again by insisting that I get an eternity band for everyday wear. Like I'm ever going to take my engagement ring off my finger. We even got a wedding band for Ranger. Ranger asked for each ring to be engraved with our wedding date and for the rings to be ready the next day. When Ranger said there would be a ring, he wasn't kidding. If this was married life with Ranger, wow!

Ranger's POV

I think Babe enjoyed shopping at Tiffany's. I loved watching her pick out her rings. The only time I've seen her that happy is when she picks out a dozen of assorted doughnuts at Tasty Pastry.

As we were walking out of Tiffany's, Babe had a small frown on her face.

Stephanie: "Ranger."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "I didn't bring any cute lingerie with me. And tonight's our wedding night."

Ranger: "You don't need lingerie for what I'm going to do to you."

Stephanie: "But it would be nice. You could unwrap me like a present."

Yeah, my sex drive kicked in.

Ranger: "Um. Let's go shopping, but I want to pick put the lingerie."

Stephanie: "Um. Okay. Is your taste in lingerie as good as your taste in jewelry stores?"

Ranger: "Babe."

We went to Bergdorf Goodman's and Ranger picked out a beautiful nightgown for me. It's so bridal. He also bought me some fabulous bra and panty sets. His taste in lingerie is as good as his taste in jewelry stores. I couldn't wait to get back to The Plaza to model my new goodies and to ravage my incredibly sexy husband.

Ranger's POV

Shopping had a magical effect on Babe. We stayed in bed and made love until we were both sore. While there are some great restaurants in The Plaza, leaving our room was not an option. We ordered in. As one more surprise for Babe, I ordered her Eloise's super duper sundae for dessert.

The next day we checked out of The Plaza and went to Tiffany's to pick up our rings. Babe was so excited she wore all of her rings on her left ring finger. We left New York and drove back to Trenton.

Now we can tell our families that we're married and about the baby.

Stephanie's POV

Ranger and I've been married for one day and I like it. I'm wearing my engagement ring, wedding band and eternity ring all on my left ring finger. Tasteful, by Jersey standards.

Now we get to tell our families that we're married and pregnant. I'll just make the sign of the cross a few million times and hope for the best.

Chapter 13: Family Drama, The Plums

POV

Mrs. Plum and Grandma Mazur were waiting by the front door when Babe and I arrived for dinner at five minutes to six on February fifteenth, the day after we were married. We walked into the house, took off our coats, scarves and gloves in the foyer and hung them on the hooks on the wall.

We walked through the living room to the dining room and took our places at the table. Albert, Stephanie's sister's boyfriend and her daughters, Angie and Mary Alice, were sitting at one side. Stephanie, Grandma Mazur and I sat at the other side. Her parents were at the heads of the table.

The food was on the table and we were ready to eat except Valerie, Babe's sister, wasn't there. Mrs. Plum got up in a huff, went through the living room to the base of staircase in the foyer and called to Valerie. She told her to come to the table immediately. Mrs. Plum told her that it would be her fault if the meal was cold. Valerie, who is in her third trimester, immediately clomped down the steps and waddled to sit beside Albert.

Once everyone was seated, the food was passed around. Everyone looked at each other for a second and then started to eat. There was a momentary hush when Babe's rings sparkled in the light.

Grandma Mazur: (Grabbing Stephanie's left hand.) "Well look at that. Guess somebody has something to tell us."

Valerie: (Looking at Stephanie's rings.) "I'll bet she does have something to tell us."

Mr. Plum: (Looking up from his plate.) "Wha-"

Mrs. Plum: (Looking at Stephanie, Ranger and then at Mr. Plum.) "Frank, Stephanie has something to tell us. Don't you Stephanie?"

Stephanie: (Very quickly) "RangerandIaremarried."

Mrs. Plum left the dining room and went to the kitchen. I could hear cupboard doors open and shut and then it was quiet for a while. Mrs. Plum returned to her chair at the head of the table.

Mrs. Plum: "Stephanie, say that again, slowly."

Stephanie: "Ranger and I are married."

Grandma Mazur: "Well ain't that a pip. You married the bounty hunter with the great package."

Valerie: (Putting her hands over Mary Alice's ears.) "Grandma, there are children present, my children."

Grandma Mazur: "Umph. Better to hear it at home than on the playground."

Mr. Plum: "Stephanie's married? Again?"

Valerie: (Smugly.) "Yes Daddy."

Mrs. Plum: "When, when did you do this? Does Joseph know?"

Ranger: "We got married yesterday."

Grandma Mazur: "On Valentine's day? Aren't you the one?"

Mrs. Plum: "Stephanie, does Joseph know that you got married?"

Stephanie: "I didn't tell Joe that I got married, because we're on an off period."

Mrs. Plum: "And how long will this off period with Joseph last?"

Stephanie: "For as long as Ranger and I are married."

Mrs. Plum: "And how long do you expect to be married to Ranger?"

Ranger: "Until one of us dies."

Mrs. Plum: "That long."

Grandma Mazur: "Good for you. Let's look at those sparklers."

Babe held out her left hand and the women at the table, even Valerie's girls took great interest in the rings.

Angie: "When I grow up, I want diamond rings like Aunt Stephanie's."

Mary Alice: "Me too."

Her Mom pretended not to be interested at first, but then she took a look, a close look.

Mrs. Plum: "Nice rings."

Stephanie: "They are aren't they?"

Mrs. Plum: (Looking at Ranger.) "Did you pick them out?"

Stephanie: "He did better than that."

That seemed to capture everyone's attention. Stephanie told her family about going to Tiffany's to get the rings.

Mrs. Plum: (Astonished.) "He took you to Tiffany's to get your rings?"

Mary Alice: "What's Tiffany's?"

Angie: "A really nice jewelry store."

Valerie: "A really, really nice jewelry store."

Grandma Mazur: (Looking at Ranger.) "And you let her pick out her own ring? Well you are a pip."

Mrs. Plum: "Stephanie, why did you get married? You wouldn't marry Joseph when he asked you."

Stephanie: "If you consider telling me that the highlights of getting married included wedding cake and the use of his credit card a proposal."

Mrs. Plum: "You like wedding cake."

Ranger: "We got married because we love each other."

Mrs. Plum: "You call that a reason? Frank, what do you think?"

Mr. Plum: "Do you love her?"

Ranger: "Very much."

Mr. Plum: "Can you provide for her?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Mr. Plum: "You make enough being a bounty hunter to support the two of you."

Ranger: "I'm a bounty hunter part time."

Mr. Plum: (Rubbing his face with his hands.) "I thought you said that you could support her."

Stephanie: "Daddy, I can take care of myself. I've been supporting myself ever since I divorced Dickie."

Everyone at the table looked at Babe.

Stephanie: "Well I have been."

Ranger: "I'm part owner of Rangeman."

Mr. Plum: "What's Rangeman?"

Ranger: "It's a security company."

Mr. Plum: "How's it doing?"

Ranger: "Well."

Mr. Plum: "Does that mean you won't be moving in here with me?"

Ranger: "We won't be moving in here."

Mrs. Plum: "Where will you be living?"

Stephanie: "At Ranger's. It's bigger that my apartment."

I gave everyone my blank face, but inside I was smiling. Babe just told her family that we're living at my place.

Mr. Plum: "Works for me. (Pause.) "Would you like to take your Grandmother-in-law in?"

Stephanie: "Daddy, we just got married."

Grandma Mazur: "They just got married. They need time to make noise."

Mr. Plum grimaced at the thought of Babe and me making 'noise'.

Valerie: "Grandma, the children."

Grandma Mazur: (Winking at Stephanie and Ranger.) "And they need time to make me some more great grandchildren."

I smiled when Grandma Mazur said that. Maybe too broadly.

Grandma Mazur: (Looking at Stephanie and Ranger.) "Maybe you have more news to share with us."

Mrs. Plum: (Making the sign of the cross.) "Please no more news. I've had enough for one day."

Valerie: (To Stephanie.) "Is there more news?"

Stephanie: (Sheepishly.) "Yes."

Grandma Mazur: "Did the Package put a bun in your oven?"

Mrs. Plum: (Making the sign of the cross again.) "Did he?"

Stephanie nodded. Mrs. Plum left the table again and went to the kitchen. Cupboard doors were opened and closed. A few minutes later, she returned.

Mrs. Plum: "Well that explains why you got married."

Ranger: "Not entirely. I love Stephanie."

Mrs. Plum: "When are you due."

Stephanie: (Carefully.) "Mid-August."

We waited for everyone to do the math. It took a few minutes.

Valerie: "Then you must have gotten pregnant before Thanksgiving."

Mrs. Plum: (Thinking aloud.) "Thanksgiving.? (After a beat.) "Thanksgiving!" (Another beat.) "You cheated on Joseph, with this-"

Stephanie: (Interrupting.) "I didn't cheat on Joe. We were on an off period."

Mrs. Plum: (Making the sign of the Cross. Then pounding her fist against her chest.) "Why me? Why do my daughters have to get pregnant out of wedlock? First Valerie clowns around with Albert and gets pregnant. Now Stephanie. None of my friends' daughters have children out of wedlock."

Ranger: "Mrs. Plum. We're married. Our baby won't be born out of wedlock."

Mrs. Plum: "The baby was conceived out of wedlock." (Looking at Stephanie.) "This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't broken up with Joseph. You wouldn't have gotten pregnant out of wedlock with Joseph."

Ranger: "Mrs. Plu-"

Stephanie: (Interrupting.) "Mom every bride in the Morelli family, including Joe's mother, was pregnant on her wedding day."

Mrs. Plum: "Angie Morelli was not pregnant when she got married."

Grandma Mazur: "Was too."

Mrs. Plum: "How do you know this?"

Stephanie: "Joe's Aunt Loretta told me."

Mrs. Plum: "Angie Morelli isn't perfect?"

Grandma Mazur: "Hell no. She married a Morelli."

Mrs. Plum: "Your right. She didn't marry a good man like my Frank."

Mr. Plum: (Looking up after hearing his name.) "What?"

Mrs. Plum: "Frank! Weren't you listening. Stephanie's pregnant."

Mr. Plum: (Looking at Ranger.) "You did that to my daughter?"

Ranger: (Nodding.) "Yes sir."

Mr. Plum: (Pointing at Ranger.) "There's only one thing I ask. And I expect you to give it to me."

Ranger: "What's that Mr. Plum?

Mr. Plum: "A grandson." (Waving his arm.) "I'm surrounded by women."

Valerie: "I might be having a boy."

Mr. Plum: (Smirking at Valerie and Albert.) "Right." (Turning to Ranger.) "I want a grandson."

Valerie: "Daddy!"

Mr. Plum: "I want a grandson to watch ball games with."

Stephanie: "Daddy! I watch ball games with you."

Mr. Plum: (Looking at Stephanie.) "Give me a grandson and we'll watch the games together." (Staring at Ranger.) "A grandson." (After a few beats. With a small sigh.) "You have no idea what it's like to be surrounded by women."

Ranger: "I do. I have four sisters and a daughter."

Mrs. Plum: "A daughter!" (Clutching her heart.) "None of my-"

Ranger: "Mrs. Plum. I have a nine year-old daughter from my first marriage."

Mrs. Plum: (To Stephanie.) "Did you know he had a first marriage and a daughter?"

Stephanie: "Yes. Her name's Julie."

Mr. Plum: "Do you take care of her?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Mr. Plum: "Can you afford to take care of all of them?"

Ranger: "Yes."

Mr. Plum: "And you're not going to move in with us?"

Ranger: "Right."

Mr. Plum: "Good enough for me."

Mrs. Plum: "But Frank-"

Mr. Plum: "But nothing Helen." (To Ranger.) "A grandson. Did you hear me Manoso? I want a grandson and I want him on my knee by the end of August."

Chapter 14: Family Drama, The Manosos

Stephanie's POV

It's been a few days since Ranger and I told my family that we're married and expecting a batbaby. Well I didn't tell my family that I'm expecting a batbaby. Because then I'd have to explain why it's a batbaby and that Ranger is Batman. We'd still be at the dinner table and the pot roast would have definitely gotten cold.

My Dad seems excited that there could be the possibility of a grandson. Who knew he felt so strongly about having a boy in the family. Yeesh! He looked at Ranger as if he was the ideal candidate to spew Y-chromosomes and produce the long awaited grandson. It will be sad to see Daddy's hopes dashed if it's a girl.

Ranger and I are driving to Newark to visit his family. He's been giving me background information on his parents, sisters and brother. He's also been giving a primer on dinner at the Manoso's. His mother prepares each plate and they are passed around until everyone has one. Next, they say grace. Then, only after Mrs. Manoso lifts her fork does everyone start to eat. Ranger said it was his Mother's way of keeping order. He also told me that there was always dinner conversation and that everyone was expected to participate. Yeesh!

Ranger's parents live in a neighborhood a lot like the 'Burg. They live in a single-family house instead of a duplex, but the neighborhood felt homey to me. We parked near the house. Just like my Mom and Grandma, Ranger's Mom was waiting at the door for us to arrive.

Ranger's Mom, Maria, is about five foot five with a sturdy body and an ample bosom. She's as pretty as Ranger is handsome. Her skin is a bit lighter than Ranger's and her hair is just as dark. When we walked into the house, Mrs. Manoso walked up to Ranger and said, "Carlito, you're here". Carlito? He didn't tell me that his Mom called him 'Carlito'. She hugged Ranger and gave him about a million kisses on both cheeks. My Mother has never kissed me that much in my entire life. Am I expected to kiss everybody a million times too? She said something rapidly in Spanish and hugged him again. After she finished hugging her son, Mrs. Manoso stepped away from Ranger and he introduced me.

Mrs. Manoso led us into the house through the foyer and through the central hallway. We turned left and went into the living room. Ranger's Dad, Enrique, was sitting in an easy chair when we came in the room. He stood up and Ranger went over to his father and gave him a kiss on each cheek. Yeesh! These people kiss a lot.

Ranger brought me over and introduced me to his father. Then he introduced me to the other people in the living room. Two of his sisters (Celia and Betty) were there with their husbands and children along with his Grandma Rosa. Ranger's Dad looked at my rings and raised an eyebrow. So that's who Ranger gets it from. He looked over at his wife and said, "Maria, he knocked up another one." There was a collective gasp in the room. Ranger was blank faced and I did my imitation of a fish.

Maria Manoso: "Enrique, why would you say such a thing?"

Enrique Manoso: "Because it's true. Why else would he bring a woman home to meet us?"

Grandma Rosa: "Carlito, is it true? Did you get this woman pregnant?"

Ranger nodded his head.

Grandma Rosa: "I told you to keep that thing in your pants or there would be trouble. First Julie, now another child."

Maria Manoso: "Carlito, did you do right by this woman? Did you marry her?"

Ranger: "Yes Mama." (Pause.) "Mama."

Maria Manoso: "Yes."

Ranger: "Her name is Stephanie."

Maria Manoso: "Another wife and another child."

Enrique Manoso: "See I told you he knocked her up."

Maria Manoso: "Si Enrique. Let's go into the dining room and eat."

This was going well. We all followed Mrs. Manoso into the dining room. She led us to the seats she'd assigned to us. Mr. Manoso and Grandma Rosa were at the heads of the table. I was seated at Mr. Manoso's right and Ranger was seated by his Grandma. Since the table was crowded, the children and Ranger's sister, Betty, were sent to the kitchen to eat.

As Ranger promised, Mrs. Manoso prepared a plate for each one at the table. The plates were passed around and grace was said. I was keeping my eye on Ranger's Mom to see when I could eat. The food smelled so good. I was starving and the batbaby was hungry too.

Everyone waited, including Ranger's Mom until Grandma Rosa lifted her fork to her mouth, then we all began to eat. Game change. Ranger didn't prepare me for possible game changes. Note: Grandma Rosa trumps Ranger's Mom as the queen of the dinner table.

Mrs. Manoso: "Stephanie, we know so little about you. How did you meet my Carlito?"

Ranger: "Mama, I told you, we met through work. Stephanie's a bounty hunter too."

Mrs. Manoso: "Carlito, I want to get to know my new daughter-in-law. Let her talk."

Stephanie: "Rang-, I mean Carl-, he's right, we met through work. I'm a bounty hunter too."

Mr. Manoso: "Isn't that dangerous for a woman in your condition?"

Stephanie: (Stretching the truth.) "Not really. I'm very safe."

Mr. Manoso: "Carlos, do you keep her safe? Do you help her?"

Ranger: "Yes Papi, when she needs it."

Mr. Manoso: "You keep her safe. This is my grandson that she's carrying."

Mrs. Manoso: "Enrique, it could be a girl."

Mr. Manoso: "Okay, Maria, have it your way. It could be a girl, but I know it's a boy."

Celia: "Papi, you thought I was having boys during both of my pregnancies and I had girls."

Mr. Manoso: (Waving his hand.) "Okay, we'll wait and see. It'll be a boy and I'll be right."

Ranger: "Stephanie's father thinks it's a boy too. He doesn't have any grandsons."

Mr. Manoso: "No grandsons. Stephanie, do you have brothers?"

Stephanie: "No, just a sister."

Mr. Manoso: (Tsking.) "No sons to carry on the name."

Grandma Rosa: (Looking at Stephanie.) "You have to have a son and you have to name it after your father."

Stephanie: "Why do I have to name it after Daddy?"

Mrs. Manoso: "To keep your father's name alive."

Ranger: "It's a tradition in our family to name the first son after his grandfather."

Stephanie: "What about your father? Wouldn't we name our son, if we have a boy, after him?"

Ranger: "No, because my brother, Jose, named his first son after Papi."

Stephanie: "Oh. Good to know."

Celia: "But what if it's a girl? What would you name a girl?"

Ranger: "I like the name Fabiola."

Grandma Rosa: "After my sister."

Mrs. Manoso: "Carlito, so nice to honor your great aunt."

Stephanie: "Carlos, if we have a daughter and you want to name her Fabiola, you better hope I die giving birth."

Ranger: "Stephanie, why would you say that?"

Stephanie: "Because it'll be over my dead body that you will name my daughter, Fabiola."

Did I say that out loud? I must have, because it's very silent and they are all staring at me. I better fix this.

Stephanie: "Sorry, the pregnancy hormones are making me crazy."

Celia: "Of course. I was very cranky when I was pregnant too."

Roberto Martinez (Celia's husband): (Changing the subject.) "Carlos, Stephanie's rings are very nice. Did you visit Alphonse?"

Ranger: "Yes. He was very helpful."

Stephanie: "You knew Alphonse?"

Ranger: "Not really. He's a friend of Roberto's family. I met him went I bought cufflinks a few years ago."

Mrs. Manoso: "Carlito, Stephanie's rings are lovely. You did well."

Chapter 15: After Math

Ranger's POV

I don't think that Stephanie expected that she would be the main course at dinner with my family. I thought I had prepared her for that. All new family members are grilled when they meet the family for the first time. And she only met some of the family. They were gentle on Babe. I thought that they were harder on me, but she didn't see it that way. On the drive back to Trenton, Babe was visibly upset.

Stephanie: "They hated me."

Ranger: "Babe. They didn't hate you. They don't know you."

Stephanie: "What does that mean?"

Ranger: "I mean when they get to know you, they'll love you."

Stephanie: "It felt like they hated me."

Ranger: "Babe, they're disappointed in me."

Stephanie: "Why, because you married me?"

Ranger: "No, not that."

Stephanie: "What?"

Ranger: "I'm not doing this well am I?"

Stephanie: "What was your first clue?"

Ranger: "Let me explain."

Stephanie: "You can start talking . . . now."

Ranger: "I didn't tell my parents that Rachel and I were married until Julie was born and then I told them that we were getting a divorce."

Stephanie: "And?"

Ranger: "And when I told my parents that I was coming to dinner, I told them that I was bringing someone with me."

Stephanie: "That's all you said."

Ranger: "Yes."

Stephanie: "No explanations."

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "Did anyone ever tell you that you need to work on your communications skills?"

Ranger: "Constantly."

Stephanie: "Just so you know."

Ranger: "They were surprised to learn about you and the marriage and the baby." (Pause.) "Sorry."

Stephanie: "Well at least I know why they hate me."

Ranger: "Babe, they don't hate you. They were surprised."

Stephanie: "They didn't ask if we loved each other or when the baby's due or anything like that."

Ranger: "Be glad that they didn't."

Stephanie: "Why?"

Ranger: "Because once they start asking questions, they don't stop."

Stephanie: "I want to go home."

Babe looked exhausted. I smiled at her and patted her hand. I focused on driving and Babe fell asleep. When we were near Trenton, I stopped at a convenience store and bought a pint of Babe's favorite Ben & Jerry's, and then I drove to her apartment. She was sleeping so peacefully. I hated to wake her up.

Ranger: (Nudging Stephanie to wake her up.) "We're here."

Stephanie: (Rubbing her eyes and looking at the building.) "Why are we here?"

Ranger: "You asked me to take you home."

Stephanie: "I meant Haywood." (Long pause.) "But since we're here, we can we get Rex."

Ranger: (Handing Stephanie the pint of Ben & Jerry's) "This is for you. I'll pack up Rex."

We walked in to Babe's apartment. She went to the kitchen to get a spoon and began eating the ice cream. I went into the kitchen to begin collecting Rex's stuff. I gathered Babe into my arms and gave her a kiss on the forehead and she gave me a spoonful of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. It was a nice moment, even if it caused my blood sugar level to spike.

Babe walked around the apartment.

Stephanie: "I wonder if Valerie and Albert would like to live here until my lease is over."

Ranger: "Sure you want to do that?"

Stephanie: "My Dad would be glad if they were out of the house. Especially with their baby being due in a month."

Ranger: "Babe, you're sure?"

Stephanie: "I think so."

Ranger: "You won't be able to run back here if you need to be in your own space."

Stephanie: "I know. I can move my stuff to your place next week."

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Is that okay?"

Ranger: (Smiling.) "Sure. But only if you let me and some of my guys do the packing."

Stephanie: (Frowning.) "But then what will I do?"

Ranger: "Supervise."

Stephanie's POV

A week after the Manoso family dinner, I decided to go to Vinnie's to get some skip files so that I could make enough money to pay this month's rent. It occurred to me that I didn't have to worry about making rent. I live with Ranger, my husband. I'm still getting used to that. I live in his apartment in Rangeman. Ranger being the savvy business owner that he is owns the building out right. No mortgage, just upkeep, insurance and taxes. And since the Kloughn Clan will be taking over my apartment, no rent. So why am I still catching skips? Because you like it? Yeah, I do. Because you're getting better at it? I am getting better. Because you never want to be a housewife? Damn Skippy.

I went to Vinnie's wearing my winter jacket, a girl tee shirt, jeans, Dr. Martens and my engagement and wedding rings. Connie was at her desk painting her nails deep red. Vinnie's office door was shut. I heard a soft moaning sound behind the door. He must be on an Internet porn site. Lula was sitting on the couch across from Connie's desk talking to Connie and eating a bag of salt and vinegar chips. She was wearing an animal print and metallic outfit and her hair was dyed to a natural shade of banana yellow. Yep, everything's normal at Ye Olde Bond's Shoppe. What? I watched Nicholas Nickleby last night.

I made my usual hellos and went to get my skip files from Connie. As she handed me the files she froze for a beat.

Connie: "Nice looking ice. Cubic zirconia? The shopping channel?"

Lula put the chips bag aside, dusted chip crumbs off her ample bosom and came to join us.

Lula: (Umphing.) "Those sure are nice looking rings. They almost look real."

Stephanie: (Wiggling her fingers.) "They are real."

Lula: "You and Officer Hottie got married?"

Connie: "There's no way that Morelli could afford this kind of real on a cop's salary, unless he's on the take."

Lula: "I never heard that hot cop was on the take, so these here rings did not come from him."

Connie and Lula: (In unison.) "Batman!"

I nodded.

Lula: "You married Batman!"

Connie: "You can talk to us. We only want every detail."

I blushed.

Lula: "That good?"

I blushed even more.

Connie: "Yeesh!"

Lula: "But you too only started officially dating over a month ago. Girl, this is sud-den."

Stephanie: "We waited as long as we could."

Oops, shouldn't have said that.

Connie: "What does that mean? Waited as long as we could? For? Because?"

Lula: "I'll bet Stephanie's pregnant. Let me look at you."

Lula looked me up and down and back and forth.

Lula: "You are pregnant. You're pregnant with Batman's batbaby"

Stephanie: "How would you know that?"

Lula: "I am a student of human nature and I can read these things."

Connie: "That and the silly grin on your face."

Lula: "This calls for a celebration. Let's go to Pino's for lunch and Tasty Pastry for dessert, cause I could use a 'my friend's pregnant with Batman's batbaby' doughnut or two."

We got into my Porsche Cayenne. Yes I'm driving one of Ranger's fully loaded and fully secure vehicles. He took one good look at my current POS and begged me to use the Porsche since it was built like a tank and a tad safer than my POS car. He said please. What could I do? I said yes. The POS car is going to convey with my apartment so that Valerie and Albert can have a second car.

We went to Pino's and celebrated my marriage and the baby. Connie and Lula had both decided that the batbaby would be a girl and that they were looking forward to being God Aunties, as Lula put it, since a family member would have to be the Godmother.

As we were walking out of Pino's to go to the Tasty Pastry, I literally walked into Morelli. He and Big Dog were going to Pino's for lunch. Morelli pulled me aside and said, "We have to talk. Now."

It didn't take the 'Burg grapevine long to circulate that news that I'm pregnant and oh, by the way Stephanie got married again. Morelli, either by selective listening or whatever only heard that I was pregnant.

Morelli: (Smiling.) "Cupcake, you're pregnant."

Stephanie: "How do you know?"

Morelli: "How do I know anything?"

Stephanie: "'Burg grapevine?"

Morelli; "Yep. Why didn't you tell me? You can move into my place. If we apply for the license today we can be married in three days."

Stephanie: "Is that all you heard through the grapevine? That I'm pregnant?"

Morelli: "What else was there to hear? When I found out today that you're pregnant, I was happy."

Stephanie: "Who told you?"

Morelli: "Eddie."

Eddie Gazzara, the Trenton beat cop whose married to my cousin Shirley, the whiner.

Stephanie: "That's all Eddie told you?"

Morelli: "That's all he said when my cell phone rang."

Stephanie: "So he didn't tell you that I married Ranger."

Morelli: "Why would he do that?" (Long pause, then scrubbing his face with his hands.) "It can't be Manoso's baby. You two just started dating."

Stephanie: "It's Ranger's baby."

Morelli: "When are you due?"

Stephanie: "Mid-August."

Morelli: "Mid-August!" (Calculating the conception date.) "Cupcake. You must have gotten pregnant in November. We were still together. This is my baby."

Stephanie: "We broke up before Halloween."

Morelli: "You cheated on me with Manoso!"

Stephanie: "No! We were on a time out."

Morelli: "This could still be my baby. I want proof. I want a DNA test when the baby's born."

Stephanie: "Joe, you always used condoms. Unless there was a latex failure, it's unlikely that you're the Dad. Ranger's the baby's father."

Morelli: "Are you one hundred percent sure that Ranger's the father?"

Stephanie: "ninety-nine and nine tenths sure."

Morelli: "Then there's a sliver of a chance that it's my kid and I demand that you have the test."

Stephanie: "I was going to say no to the test because you're acting like such an ass. But to prove you wrong, I will have a DNA test run on my baby. "

Morelli: "I can't believe that you cheated on me. That you did this to me."

Stephanie: "Morelli, listen to me. I did not cheat on you. We were on a time out."

And with that I turned on my Dr. Martens and returned to Lula and Connie, who were standing by the Porsche with their mouths open. I looked at them and said, "That went well. I need a dozen doughnuts.". We got in the car and drove to the Tasty Pastry.

Ranger's POV

I didn't realize how fast news went through the 'Burg Grapevine until I saw it in action. According to Grandma Mazur the phone hasn't stopped ringing at the Plum household. Babe's Mom has stopped answering the phone. She's reverted to her favorite stress relievers whenever one of hers is the late breaking news on the grapevine, slapping back Jack Daniels and ironing. I heard that she even asked the neighbors if she could do their ironing.

Babe told me about Morelli's comments when she saw him in Pino's parking lot. I almost needed to do my own special stress relief, but Babe reminded me that beating up a cop involves a lot of paperwork. So instead, I went for a long run and then socked the punching bag in Rangeman's gym for a half hour. I pretended that the punching bag was Morelli. It felt good.

Stephanie's POV

A few days after my chat with Morelli, I bumped into Mooner and Dougie at Giovichinni's market. They both looked at me in awe.

Dougie: (Breaking the silence.) "Dudette, you're having a baby. Like wow."

Mooner: "I knew it. Your aura's been blinding. I knew it was enough aura for two."

They asked if they could put their hands on my tummy to feel the baby's vibe. I said it was okay and unbuttoned my jacket. They discussed at length whose hand should go where. They finally decided that one hand should be one side and the other hand on the other side. Then they each gently put their hands on each side of my tiny baby bump. We stood like this for a while. We all had glistening eyes. Mooner and Dougie were giving my baby a group hug.

Chapter 16: Who's the Daddy

Stephanie's POV

I'm in my eighteenth week and I'm glowing. Not with the pregnancy glow. Today I am glowing with revenge. Today is the day that I am going to prove to Morelli that he's not the baby's father and that he is indeed an ass. Today the results are due from the doctor and I have an appointment to meet with him this afternoon. I'm still irritated with Joe's demand that I have a DNA test to prove his paternity. Who in the hell does he think he is? Apparently he thinks that he' the father.

After Morelli and I had our 'chat' at Pino's and after Connie, Lula and I went to the Tasty Pastry to get doughnuts, I called Ranger and told him what happened. Why did I wait until after I went to Tasty Pastry? Because I needed doughnuts. I needed medicinal Tasty Pastry doughnuts. I needed them to calm me down and keep me from hyperventilating. Plus, I swear that I heard the baby say, "I want a Boston cream doughnut from Tasty Pastry." It was either the baby or Lula.

Did I mention that I told Ranger about my chat with Morelli and his demand for a DNA Test? Ranger took it well. He offered to do a variety of things to Morelli, all of which would have created an incredible amount of paper work, so he opted to beat the punching bag in the Rangeman gym.

When Ranger and I were finally calm enough, we discussed Morelli's request for a DNA Test rationally. Yes, rationally. I didn't know that I could discuss things like Morelli or a DNA test rationally, but I found that I can. Well if Ranger could do it, so can I. So there.

Ranger: "Babe, why does Morelli want a DNA test?"

Stephanie: (Duh.) "To prove paternity."

Ranger: "I know what the test is for. But why does he want the test?"

Stephanie: "For some reason, he thinks he's the father."

Ranger: "Babe. Why would he think that?"

Stephanie: "Because of my due date."

I could see Ranger doing a mental eye roll.

Ranger: "Let me guess. He asked when you're due. He did the math and figured that you were together when the baby was conceived."

Stephanie: "Something like that."

Ranger: "And?"

Stephanie: "And what?"

Ranger: "Could Morelli be the father?"

Stephanie: "Why would you ask me something like that?"

Ranger: "Babe. Could Morelli be the baby's father?"

Stephanie: "NO! Of course not."

Ranger: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "Morelli's is mixed up. We started our time out before Halloween. I had my period between the last time I was with Morelli and when we were together. Morelli can't be the baby's father. You are."

Ranger: "Did you tell him about your period?"

Stephanie: "No. We were in Pino's. I'm not going to talk about my menstrual cycle in the middle of Pino's."

Ranger: "So you don't need to do the DNA Test."

Stephanie: "I think we do. I don't think that Morelli will believe me if I told him about my period. And how could I prove when I had it? I can't. If I have the test, then it proves scientifically that he's not the father. Hard to argue with scientific, admissible in a court of law proof."

Ranger: "Good point. Do you want to do it now or wait until the baby's born?"

Stephanie: "If we wait, Morelli will-. It'll be all over the 'Burg that- God it could be all over the 'Burg now. And-"

I started to hyperventilate. The thought of waiting until the baby was born to do the test was overwhelming. I had no idea what havoc Joe could wreak and I didn't want to find out. Ranger helped me to concentrate on my breathing and to calm down. My breathing soon became regular. Ranger looked at me and said, "We need to get the test done as soon as possible." I gave him a pathetic grin and nodded.

My doctor suggested that we wait until after my fourteenth week and to the DNA testing by amniocentesis. It wasn't my preferred way to go. I would have rather done the test the next day by CVS, but Dr. Rossetti, my OB/GYN, felt that my pregnancy was probably past the stage that the CVS test could be done.

I didn't get an appointment to have the test done until my seventeenth week. I tried to get the test done sooner stating that it was a matter of life and death. When I explained that it was a matter of Morelli's life and death, the doctor's office manager didn't agree. The cow. So I had more than a month to wait to prove that Ranger was the father of our baby, not Morelli.

And what a fun month that has been. Of course, the news hit the 'Burg grapevine in a flash that Morelli was my baby daddy. My Dad didn't pay attention to the Grapevine. He never did. Besides, as he told me, "I told Ranger to give me a grandson, not Morelli." So that was that as far as Daddy was concerned.

My Mother on the other hand, did so much ironing that she was considering taking in laundry. Grandma Mazur was so concerned so she asked me to come to lunch and talk to Mom. Grandma Mazur and my Mom were at the kitchen table when I arrived. That was strange, usually they're at the front door when I come to visit. Mom had a tablet in front of her with a list of names and slogans that she made up for the laundry business.

Stephanie: (Sitting down at the table and looking at the table.) "What's this?"

Mrs. Plum: "Nothing. I'm thinking of starting a little home-based business."

Grandma Mazur: "She wants to start a laundry business. Ain't that a pip, my daughter the laundress."

Mrs. Plum: "Mother, I wouldn't be a laundress. I'd be providing a service."

Stephanie: "Why would you want to do that? Do you really like to do laundry."

Mrs. Plum: "Not really. It's just that every time that you or Valerie are the talk of the 'Burg, I iron to keep from screaming."

Grandma Mazur: "And she tipples."

Mrs. Plum: "Since you and Valerie seem to be the only people that anyone talks about these days, I thought I could make some money while I iron to keep from screaming."

Stephanie: (Taking the tablet from her Mother and reading the list aloud.) "Mom's Laundry. Our business is folding. Catchy, but I think I've seen that somewhere."

Mrs. Plum: "Too bad, that was my favorite one."

Stephanie: "Chambersburg Laundry Service. We launder everything but money. Not laundering cash may limit your business potential."

Mrs. Plum: "I know, but I want it to be a clean business." (Giggling.) "Oh, I made a joke. I almost never make jokes."

Stephanie: "Laundry by Helen. I'll get that damn spot out. Interesting, but maybe to literary for the 'Burg."

Grandma Mazur: "That's what I told her. She needs something catchy. Something that will appeal to the 'Burgers."

Stephanie: "Mom do you have to take in laundry? Valerie and I won't always be the hot topic on the Grapevine."

Mrs. Plum: (Staring at Stephanie in surprise.) "Really? When do you think that you and Valerie will be off the Grapevine? Between the pregnancies, your marriage and the whole paternity thing with Joseph, you two are the Grapevine. My friends' daughters are hardly ever the talk of the 'Burg. But my daughters, my daughters and their antics are the only things the 'Burg talks about."

Stephanie: "Other than Morelli and the DNA test, the news about the babies is good. Isn't it?"

Mrs. Plum: "I guess two new grandchildren are good news."

Stephanie: "No reason to hide behind a stack of ironing."

Mrs. Plum: "Maybe not. But if the test shows that Morelli's the father of your baby and Ranger isn't, my business will be folding."

Did my Mother just say that she preferred Ranger to Joe? I think so. My Dad already likes Ranger because he's convinced that he'll give him a grandson. And now my Mother likes Ranger too. Un-fucking-believable.

I had the test last week. What an ordeal. Not the test itself. The ordeal was Morelli. We needed to have cheek swabs from both Ranger and Joe for the test. Joe of course decided that it would be best if his cheek swab was taken when I was having the test. He wanted to be with me during the amnio. Of course, I didn't want him with me. And Joe didn't want Ranger in the room if he couldn't be there.

I looked at Morelli and had a strange feeling inside of me. I knew this feeling. I had it whenever I saw Dickie Orr, my ex-husband. Dickie and I were married for fifteen minutes when I caught Joyce Barnhardt riding him like a jockey at the Kentucky Derby on our new dining room table. I still have a few unresolved anger issues where Dickie is concerned.

The next thing I knew I lunged toward Morelli. I had my hands around his throat. I was shaking him and yelling, "It's not your baby. I told you it's not your baby. You're keeping me from having a happy pregnancy. I should be glowing with joy, but I'm not. It's all your fault."

The doctor tried to pull me away from Joe. Ranger stepped in between us and pried my hands off Morelli's neck. Joe punched Ranger in the eye and Ranger punched Joe in the stomach. They kept hitting each other until the building's security guards pulled them a part. Ranger was taken to one examination room to be looked at and Joe was taken to another examination room on the other side of the doctor's suite. While they were in their respective exam rooms, they got their injuries tended to and their cheeks swabbed.

I was still hopping mad when the technician came in to prep me for the test. She made some comment that she didn't expect to have ringside seats when she came to work that day. I gave her my best 'Burg death glare and she shut up. Smart move.

I knew that the news about the fight would be the talk of the 'Burg immediately. I called my Mom after the test and offered to be the first customer in her newly formed laundry business.

It was finally time to go to the doctor's and get the results. I've been anxious all day about this. Just as I suspected, Ranger's the Dad and Joe isn't. I did a mental happy dance. I gave the doctor permission to send a copy of the results of the test to Morelli.

Dr. Rossetti had a surprise for me. He told me that while he was doing the DNA test, he determined the sex of the baby. He asked me if I wanted to know if I was having a girl or a boy. I nodded. He told me I'm having a boy. Wow! A boy. I'm having my Dad's grandson. I'm having Francis Albert Plum Manoso.

Chapter 17: A Preview of Coming Events

Ranger's POV

Babe nearly knocked me over when she came back from getting the results of the DNA Test. I was sitting in my office doing paperwork, when she came in. She ran up to me and gave me a big hug and many deep kisses.

Stephanie: (Holding the test results and pointing at them.) "You're the father! The results said that you're the father. I knew it."

Ranger: "Good to know." (Beaming.) "Very good to know."

Stephanie: (Excitedly.) "And guess what else?"

Ranger: (Grabbing Stephanie and sitting her on his lap.) "What?"

Stephanie: "Dr. Rossetti did another test and we're having . . ."

Ranger: "We're having?"

Stephanie: (Coyly.) "A baby."

Ranger: "Good to know. I'd worry if we were having a puppy."

Stephanie: (Patting Ranger's chest.) "Silly. We're having a boy!"

Ranger: (Beaming again.) "A boy. Wow! A son. We're having a son!"

Stephanie: "Yeah and my Dad's going to have his grandson. You are going to be THE MAN, where Daddy's concerned."

Ranger: "My Dad will be pleased too. Another boy to carry on the Manoso name. Are we going to go with tradition and name our boy after his grandfather?"

Stephanie: (Nodding her head.) "Uh huh."

Ranger: "So what's your Dad's name? What are we going to name our son?"

Stephanie: (Giggling.) "Joseph Anthony Morelli the third."

Ranger: (Tickling Stephanie.) "Over Morelli's dead body."

Stephanie: "Got that right. My Dad's full name is Francis Albert Plum."

Ranger: "Albert? Not Albert."

Stephanie: "Yes, Francis Albert. You know, like after Francis Albert Sinatra."

Ranger: "Oh." (Waits a few beats.) "I'm so glad that my Dad wasn't named after Desi Arnez or Fidel Castro. Could you imagine Desi Manoso or Fidel Manoso?"

Stephanie: (Mock glaring at Ranger.) "As easily as I could imagine Fabiola Manoso. I want to name our son, Francis Albert Plum Manoso."

Ranger: "That's a lot of name for a little kid."

Stephanie: "If he's anything like his father, he'll grow into it. Besides I really want Plum to be a part of his name since there's no one to carry on my family name."

Ranger: "Do you want to have his last name be Plum-Manoso? I know my family would understand."

Stephanie: "Umm. Manoso will be fine. Just as long as Plum is part of his name."

Ranger: (Patting Stephanie's baby bump.) "Francis Albert Plum Manoso it is. What about you?"

Stephanie: "What about me?"

Ranger: "We haven't discussed it, but what name are you going to use?"

Stephanie: "As a bounty hunter, I'm Stephanie Plum. As a wife and mom, I'm Stephanie Manoso."

Ranger: "Good to know. So what should I call you? Stephanie Plum or Stephanie Manoso?"

Stephanie: (Smiling.) "You can call me Babe."

I hugged Babe close to me and gave her a million kisses. What a great day. Morelli's out of the picture and the baby's a boy.

Stephanie's POV

Valerie went to labor the day after got the DNA results. Of course, it was not without incident.

I still work for Vinnie, as a bounty hunter. Ranger didn't expect me to quit working. He just wanted to make sure that the baby and I are safe. So now a Merry Man comes along to do the take downs when I catch a skip. Ranger never goes without back up and he's big and strong and knows what he's doing. So why should I go without a back up . . . with someone other than Lula? Since it was my suggestion to have the Merry Men help me and Ranger agreed to it, it works.

I'm not sure how the Merry Men feel about doing Stephanie duty. I know that no one volunteers for it. Why would they? I'm a disaster magnet. I'm constantly being shot at, kidnapped and stalked. I know that Ranger told each and every one of them that if I broke some much as a fingernail that they would have to answer to him. I think they draw lots daily to see who will be assigned to me. I also think that Ranger pays extra for hazard duty to anyone that works with me.

The good thing about working with the Merry Men is that I don't have to carry a gun, stun gun, pepper spray or any of that stuff. The Merry Men carry all of that. Hey! I'm carrying a baby, that's more than enough.

It works like this. I find the skip and tell him that he needs to have his court date rescheduled. I then point to the skip. The Merry Man du jour cuffs the skip and we take him to the police station to get our body receipt. I get to keep working and Ranger gets to sleep at night.

Occasionally when we're bringing in a skip, I run into Morelli. He usually makes some asinine comment about how prenatal DNA tests aren't conclusive and that we need to get another test after the baby's born. I remind him that prenatal DNA testing is ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent accurate and give him an Italian hand gesture. The next time he comments on the results of the DNA test and if he's off duty, because I don't want to be arrested during my pregnancy, I may just punch him in the nose. But only if he's off duty. I don't want my mug shot to be in the "Our Baby" scrapbook that Connie and Lula are making for me.

On the day that Valerie went into labor, Tank, Ranger's second in command, and I went to pick up Butchy Salazar. Tank's real name is Pierre, but he's called Tank since he's built like one. Butchy was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, his Jeep Cherokee, and skipped his court appearance. This is why Tank and I were paying a house call on him. Butchy's a bartender at a local dive. One night he got into a fight with Ryan Mott over a woman, Candace Lalor. Guess what 'Lalor' rhymes with? Butchy was drunk and he ran over Mott with his Cherokee three times, just to make a point.

Butchy lives in the 'Burg. He lives in a two-story duplex just like my parents'. We knocked on his door and announced ourselves. He didn't answer, so I called him on my cell phone. Butchy answered and said he wasn't interested in having his court date rescheduled today, but that he might be interested next month. What was he thinking? Did he think this was like rescheduling court time for a game of doubles at the Trenton Country Club?

Butchy wouldn't open the door so Tank had to kick it in. Butchy scrambled to the second floor with Tank going after him. Butchy exited out a window to the roof over the stoop of the front door. Tank came out of the house and stood on the lawn in front of the stoop. Butchy jumped off the roof and landed on Tank. After I got Butchy cuffed and heaved him off Tank, I noticed that Tank's leg look twisted. Tank looked at me at said, "I'm glad you didn't get hurt. Now, I don't have to answer to Ranger." Then Tank asked me if I had a bullet he could bite on. Of course I didn't.

I called Ranger and the EMS. The EMS put Tank's leg into an inflatable cast and took him to the emergency room at St. Francis's. Ranger came along with my replacement Merry Man du Jour, Cal. Cal is almost as big as Tank and he looks meaner. He has tattoos everywhere I could see skin, including a flaming skull on his forehead. Ouch, that must have hurt. Well it would have hurt me, but I don't think that Cal feels pain. According to Ranger, Cal doesn't hurt people when he remembers to take his medication and he almost always takes his medication. Good to know.

Ranger went to St. Francis's to check on Tank. Cal stayed with me and we took Butchy to the Cop Shop on Perry Street. It was busy at the police station so it took a few hours to process Butchy.

It was almost dinnertime when we were driving back to Rangeman. Grandma Mazur called to tell me that Valerie was in labor and that Albert was still at his office. Albert is a struggling lawyer and the father of Valerie's baby. I called Albert and told him to get his ass over to my parents' immediately. Cal made a u-turn and we drove to the 'Burg. Cal and I arrived at my parent's house at the same time that Albert arrived. Valerie was in the middle of a huge contraction when we walked in the house. After the contraction passed, Cal and I packed Valerie, Albert and my Mom into my Dad's Buick. Dad got in the car and drove them to the emergency room at St. Francis's. Cal and I followed behind.

I called Ranger to tell him that Valerie was in labor and that I was going to St. Francis's. Ranger called the Emergency Room so they were ready for Valerie when my Dad dropped her, Albert and my Mother off.

Valerie must have looked like she was ready to drop the baby, because the admitting nurse, Julie Singer, who went to high school with Valerie and me, immediately put her into a wheelchair and started to whisk her to the maternity unit.

I tried to get Cal to leave me since I wasn't doing bounty hunter stuff, but he wouldn't. He told me that Ranger had told him to say by my side and that's what he was doing. I walked outside and called Ranger and asked him to call off Cal, but he wouldn't. I hung up on Ranger in a huff and stomped back into the Emergency Room and went to look for Valerie. Cal followed close behind me.

We found Valerie on a gurney in the hallway of the second floor of the hospital. She was wearing a hospital gown and had a sheet draped over her. She was holding Albert's hand in a vise-like grip. The blood had drained out of Albert's face and he looked pastier than usual. Nurse Julie was taking Valerie's vitals. Our parents were by Valerie's head and Mom was mopping her brow. I went and stood beside Albert and Cal went to stand at the foot of the gurney.

Valerie grunted and there was an explosion of water. Her water broke and it sprayed everywhere, but mostly on Cal. Another contraction hit and Valerie drew her legs up to bear the pain. Unfortunately, the sheet fell away and Cal got a view of Valerie that only Albert and the OB/GYN see. Nurse Julie looked around and said, "I see a foot. We need to get her into the delivery room now."

Cal took one look at the foot and CRASH. He was on the floor, out cold. We all rushed to Cal. Valerie screamed again and we rushed back to her. Valerie's doctor appeared and rolled her to the delivery room with Albert trotting behind.

A group of nurses came to revive Cal. He opened his eyes, but he was dazed and confused. One of the nurses said, "He fell on his head. He could have a concussion. He should be checked.". I was sure that Cal was okay, because I was sure that his skull was so thick that his brain was unharmed.

They had to call in some of the janitorial and security staff to get Cal on a gurney. It took six burly guys to hoist him on to it. It took two of those guys to wheel him back to the ER.

I followed Cal to the emergency room to get him admitted. Then I went back to the maternity unit.

Albert came out of the delivery room and announced that Valerie was fine and that she had given birth to a healthy baby girl. He looked both relieved and thrilled. I gave Albert a big hug. My parents were waiting in the hall outside of the delivery room. I could tell they were thrilled with the news. I went over to my Mom and hugged her. Then I went and hugged my Dad. He said, "Another granddaughter. I thought Valerie would have another girl. This is good news." I looked at my Father and said, "It is good news. Valerie's fine and the baby's healthy." We both smiled at each other. I wanted to tell my Dad that his next grandchild would be a grandson, but I didn't want to steal Valerie's moment.

I went outside and called Ranger. I told him about Valerie and the baby. Then I told him about Cal. That was two Merry Men down in a day. Ranger was going to have to hike the rate on hazard duty to get his guys to work with me. I also told Ranger that based on what I saw of Valerie's labor, that I wanted to outsource the delivery of our baby.

Chapter 18: Oh What fun, a Grandson

Ranger's POV

It's Friday night and Babe and I are going to her parents for dinner. It's pot roast night. Babe loves her Mother's pot roast, so we're at the Plums' most Fridays for dinner. I like her Mom's pot roast too. It's tasty. But I say no to her desserts. They all roll their eyes when I give my dessert to Babe.

I got Babe to give up caffeine for the duration of the pregnancy, but I lost the sugar war. There's Ben and Jerry's in our freezer and Tasty Cakes in the cabinets.

Some Fridays Babe's family comes to our place for dinner. Thank God, Ella cooks for these events. Ella and Babe have a good division of labor. Ella cooks and Babe eats. Mrs. Plum seems to like having the occasional night off. Mr. Plum, let's just say that he's just happy if there's a plate of food in front of him at six p.m..

Babe's been dancing in her seat at the family dinners for the last month, waiting for the right time to tell her parents that were having a boy. We wanted to tell Babe's parents first and then share the news with everyone else. Albert, Valerie and the girls won't be at the Plums' tonight. They are going to Albert's Mom's for Sabbath dinner. So we decided to tell Babe's parents and Grandma Mazur tonight.

We just started eating when Babe made the announcement. Mr. Plum stopped eating. He came up to me and hugged me. We were astounded. Mr. Plum rarely hugs Mrs. Plum.

Mr. Plum: (Smiling.) "Well Manoso, you did it. I asked you for a grandson and now I'm going to have one."

Mrs. Plum: "Really Frank. You're acting like this is your first grandchild."

Mr. Plum: "Well it is. I mean this is going to be my first grandson."

Mrs. Plum: "My grandson, my grandson. This will be our first grandson. And what about your granddaughters? You have three lovely granddaughters."

Mr. Plum: "The granddaughters are lovely, but now I'm going to have a grandson."

Stephanie: "I know Daddy, someone to watch the games with."

Mr. Plum: "Excuse my language, but Damn Skippy."

Ranger: "You're pleased?"

Mr. Plum: "Pleased? I'm delighted."

Mrs. Plum: "Delighted? Frank, you're never delighted."

Mr. Plum: "I'm delighted."

Grandma Mazur: "Well isn't that something. Frank's delighted."

Stephanie: "Daddy, we're going to name him Francis Albert Plum Manoso".

Mr. Plum: (Speechless.)

Ranger: "It's a tradition in my family to name the first grandson after his grandfather."

Mrs. Plum: "Why aren't you naming the baby after your father?"

Ranger: "My brother Jose named his son after my father."

Mr. Plum: "Francis Albert Plum Manoso. I like it. It has a nice ring to it."

Mrs. Plum: "My! That's a lot of name for a baby."

Mr. Plum: "He'll grow into it." (Doing his imitation of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone.) "Maybe when it's his time, he'll be the one to hold the strings. Senator Manoso, Governor Manoso, something."

Ranger: (Doing his imitation of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.) "Another pezzonovante. We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there."

I think I heard Babe humming the theme from The Godfather. Nice Touch.

Mr. Plum: (After a long pause.) "Manoso, you did good."

Stephanie: "Daddy!"

Mr. Plum: "And you too." (Pause.) "Manoso after dinner we'll go to the garage and have a cigar and a glass of whiskey. Helen, do we have any whiskey left?"

Grandma Mazur: "Yep. I saw a bottle in the kitchen cabinet behind the olive oil."

Mrs. Plum: (Glaring at Grandma Mazur.) "Mother!"

Grandma Mazur: (Giggling.) "Oops!"

Mr. Plum. "Okay. We'll go to the garage, smoke a cigar and drink a toast to Francis Albert Plum Manoso."

Stephanie: "But Dad-"

Mr. Plum. "What? You can't come with us. You can't drink whiskey while you're pregnant with my grandson."

Mrs. Plum: "She can't drink whiskey while she's pregnant, period."

Mr. Plum: "And you never liked cigars. They made you lightheaded."

Mrs. Plum: "Frank please don't tell me that you gave Stephanie cigars."

Stephanie: "I had a cigar with Daddy a few times. Yuck!"

Mrs. Plum: (Crosses herself.)

Mr. Plum: "Sure. Stephanie was as close as I got to having a son. I couldn't give Princess Valerie a cigar. She would have upchucked."

Mrs. Plum: "Frank really. We're at the table.

Mr. Plum: "Sorry Dear. I forgot."

Did I just hear my father-in-law call my mother-in-law dear? He must be 'delighted'.

Mrs. Plum: "Ranger, see what you married into. You have a wife who smokes cigars."

Stephanie: "Smoked cigars, not smokes. And I only smoked cigars a few times. It wasn't my fault."

Mrs. Plum: "You're right. For once, it wasn't your fault. It was your father's fault." (Pauses for a beat, then turns to Ranger.) "I'll bet none of your sisters ever smoked cigars."

Stephanie elbowed me before I could mentally roll my eyes.

Stephanie's POV

The last time I saw my Dad this happy was when the Giants won the Super Bowl. He actually hugged Ranger. I'm trying to remember the last time he hugged me. Ranger now walks on hallowed ground as far as Daddy's concerned. I knew he'd be THE MAN.

I remember when I brought Ranger home to dinner for the first time. My family didn't know what to make of him. Well Grandma did, but . . . never mind. Daddy was . . . what? Perplexed when I brought Ranger home? Yep, I think he was perplexed.

My Dad is one hundred percent Italian and in his heart, Italians are superior. I'm surprised that he married Mom, because she's Hungarian. When they have arguments, or disagreements as my Mother likes to call them, Daddy invariably says, "Of course you wouldn't understand Helen, you're not Italian". Daddy also thinks that if you're worth your salt, you buy American and you drive a Buick. He took one look at Ranger and knew he wasn't Italian. And He wasn't sure about Ranger's Bronco, black wardrobe and street name. But when I told Daddy that I was having a boy, he looked at Ranger as if he had magically become Italian. And when Ranger quoted The Godfather with him, Ranger became blood.

Yeesh! I thought I dodged a bullet when I broke up with the very Italian Morelli and fell in love with the very Cuban Ranger. Now that Ranger's 'Italian' I hope that he doesn't start yelling and waving his arms to make a point. I don't think that will happen.

Ranger doesn't argue. He expects me to discuss things with him. I'm not used to that after being with Morelli. If we have a problem or a disagreement, he expects us to discuss it and develop a solution, as he puts it. And by solution, he means something that we both agree to. No finger pointing. No yelling. No accusations. No Italian hand gestures. No drama. But there is make-up sex, a lot of it. Yum.

Actually, Ranger's easy to live with. He has his quirks, like getting up at the crack of dawn to work out and that no dessert thing. True, but he doesn't keep you from eating desserts. I know, but he makes me take a walk with him every night after dinner. It's his way making you exercise. I know, but still. It's good for you and the baby. You walk at your pace, which is much slower than Ranger's. Not that much slower. Much slower. You hold hands and talk about your day. You like it. Yeah, I like it, but don't tell Ranger.

Ranger aka Batman, the Man of Mystery is affectionate and sentimental. I didn't know that until we got married. He's constantly giving me 'just because' kisses and hugs. He cuddles me with me before we fall asleep. He holds me when we watch television or go to a movie. Yeah, Ranger takes me on dates. Unlike Morelli, who only took me on one date the whole time we were together, unless you want to count dinners at his Mother's and going to his Cousin Julie's wedding, which I don't. And where did Morelli take me on our one and only date? To Pino's. Yeesh!

When we decided to convert Ranger's office in the apartment into the baby's room, Ranger asked to help decorate. He pouted when I said that Ella and I would do the decorating. Ranger's pout is when his lower lip protrudes a millimeter. Since he wanted to help, I figured, okay, why not.

At first, I was worried that he'd want posters of Sig Sauers as wall art, but I was wrong. And he was concerned that I would want to have the nursery decorated with murals of The League of Justice. How did he know that's what I wanted? Because he's Batman. Ranger shook his head and said to me, "Babe, the baby's room should be serene". And then he did it again. He pouted.

You know what I learned? I learned that Ranger's pout is a powerful thing and that I crumble like a cookie, whenever he does it. Cookie. Yum. Cookie. I rubbed my tummy. Does baby want a cookie? Maybe? Does Mommy want a cookie? Mommy wants a cookie. Mommy wants a cookie now!

We finally decided on a Winnie-the-Pooh theme since we both like Tigger. I know why I like Tigger. He's bouncy. I'm not sure why Ranger likes Tigger. Tigger can't sit still and he talks constantly, like me. Oh. Now I know why Ranger likes Tigger.

A Pooh themed room will be nice, but a League of Justice nursery would have been intergalactically fabulous. Phooey! No super heroes in the Nursery . . . except when Batman's there to change the baby's diaper.

Chapter 19: Preparation

Ranger's POV

It was my first day back in the office after being in Miami for a week. There were some staff and client matters in the Miami office the needed my attention. I asked Babe to come with me so that she could meet Julie and my Abuela Ana.

The week went well. I met with the at-risk clients to resolve their complaints and I realigned the staff by firing two employees who weren't meeting Rangeman standards. I hate firing people. I try to be very careful in the hiring process to make offers to candidates that meet our particular requirements and who have the personal stamina to endure a demanding work environment. Usually it works out and I rarely have to fire anyone. But when it doesn't work out, I like to act quickly.

I was anxious when I introduced Julie and Abuela to Babe. All three have strong personalities and I wasn't sure if they would get along or combust. But they seem to like each other. Julie's looking forward to being a big sister and Babe's looking forward to having Julie visit us. At first, Abuela wasn't pleased that I 'knocked up' another one. She said, "Carlito, you couldn't wear a raincoat?" But she liked Stephanie and now she's looking forward to another great grandson.

Before we went to Miami, we told my parents that we were having a boy. My parents were as pleased as Babe's father to learn that we were having a son. My father was especially pleased. He got to say to Mama and Celia, "Told you so".

I told my team that we were having a boy before we left for Florida and Babe told Lula and Connie. The Merry Men are looking forward to having a Rangeman in training. When I told Babe that my team was looking forward to having a new recruit, she grimaced until I promised her no boot camp until he was three.

Connie and Lula were disappointed at first. Babe said that they were sure that they were going to be God Aunties to a girl and they were looking forward to being role models to her. Sometimes I have visions of a miniature Babe in animal print spandex and I shudder. I'm glad we're having a boy.

Babe and I were going to our first class at Baby University tonight and I need to leave at five so that we can be on time. I went to Tank's office to get caught up and to tell him that I'll be going offline at five and won't be online until tomorrow morning.

Stephanie's POV

I'm glad we're back from Miami. I like sleeping in my own bed. I mean Ranger's bed. I never had a bed this big when I lived in my apartment and my sheets were never this silky. Or is it our bed now? We're married and we sleep and you know in this bed. It is our bed.

I had no idea how little I knew about Ranger, Man of Mystery, until we got married and then made this trip to Florida. I knew that he's one of the finest physical specimens that I've ever bumped into. Which is why I keep bumping into him.

I knew he was multilingual. Really? Tell me more. Not what you're thinking! He speaks street, Wall Street, Spanish, English and um . . . you know. Okay, exactly what you're thinking.

Last night while we were having dinner, I looked at Ranger and thought underneath his clothes, he's naked. My doodah went yahoo!

I'm in a perpetual state of horny. I want him when I wake up. I want him when I sleep. I want him in the shower. I want him on floor. I want him in a car. I want him in a bar. I want him in a trolley car. Trolley car? Yeesh! I'm starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss book. Ah! Dr. Seuss. We could have decorated the nursery with Sam I am, Horton, the Cat and the fishies. Fishies?

Most afternoons I call Ranger on his cell and say, "Hey big boy, seventh floor, NOW!" I can't believe I've called him big boy. I know. I know. It's embarrassing. But hey, it's an accurate description. Being the ever-dutiful husband, he's usually in our bedroom in a nanosecond doing his husbandly duty. And he does do his husbandly duty. Does he ever. Whew! He does his duty until I'm grasping the sheets and singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

What else did I know? I knew that Ranger was a badass Bounty Hunter and former Special Ops. I knew he had a daughter. I knew that he owned Rangeman. I knew that he had a long-term relationship with the color black.

I learned a lot more about Ranger in Miami. I met his daughter Julie. She's a pretty girl. She looks so much like Ranger. He's so sweet, patient and gentle with her. I know he'll be that way with our baby. Julie wants to come to Trenton to visit us after the baby is born and I'm looking forward to having us all together.

Ranger's Abuela Ana was, as Grandma Mazur would say, a pip. She told me a lot of stories about Ranger as kid. Ranger spent most of the time when we were at his Grandma's saying, "Abuela, do you have to tell that story?". His Abuela just rolled her eyes and said, "Of course Carlito, Stephanie wants to know about you", and I would nod my head. It was fun to double team Ranger.

Tonight we go to our first class at Baby University at St. Francis's. I don't want to go. I figure my Mom and sister will teach me what I need to know. But Daddy Ranger really wants to go. He did the pout thing. And we know what I do when he pouts. I crumble like a cookie. That reminds me, I need to put some emergency food in my purse. The last time I looked in Ranger's Cayenne, there were no Tasty Cakes.

Ranger's POV

We arrived late for our first Baby University class. We had to make a last minute stop at the Tasty Pastry for some Boston Cream doughnuts.

The other couples were seated in a circle when we arrived. The Midwife who was teaching the class welcomed us and asked the group to make room for us. I found two chairs in the room and dragged them into the circle so that we could join in.

Midwife: (Looking at the couples.) "I want you to introduce yourselves, tell us when your baby's due and what sort of births you think you want."

The Midwife pointed to us to start.

Stephanie: "I'm Stephanie and he's Ranger. Our baby is due in mid-August and I want a painless delivery. I want to be knocked out."

Midwife: "That isn't done anymore."

Stephanie: "Why not? My mother was knocked out when she had me."

Midwife: "It's not good for the baby."

Stephanie: "What about the Mother? I don't want to be in pain. I don't deal well with pain. I want a painless delivery."

Midwife: "We don't put Mothers asleep to give birth unless there are complications."

Stephanie: (Whispering to Ranger.) "Maybe we should find a hospital that will knock me out."

Midwife: (Overhearing Stephanie.) "I can't think of any hospital that will do that."

Stephanie: "Too bad. What other options do I have?"

Midwife: "An epidural."

Stephanie: "Will I feel pain?"

Midwife: "Probably not. But you will be awake."

Stephanie: "Awake! Do I have to look?"

Midwife: "Only if you want to."

Ranger: "Babe, you may want to look."

Stephanie: (Glaring at Ranger.)

Ranger: "Or not."

The other couples introduced themselves. Then the Midwife passed around handouts and explained various terms, like episiotomy. I paid attention and took notes because I knew Babe wasn't listening. I knew she was thinking about actually having our baby.

The Midwife then showed an animated presentation that showed how the baby got into position for delivery and pushed itself down the birth canal. Babe's eyes opened wide and she dug her nails into my forearm and said, "Oh no. I'm not doing this."

Chapter 20: It's Raining

Stephanie's POV

I'm looking in the mirror as I brush my teeth in the fabulous marble bathroom that I share with Ranger and I'm practicing my surprised looks. I've been practicing them for about a week now and I haven't found the look. I'm going for a humble, yet appreciative 'for me, you did all of this for me' look.

Lula and Connie are throwing me a baby shower. It was supposed to be a surprise, but I found out. I helped them plan the shower. I know, not much of a surprise, but I agreed to let them surprise me with the date and the location. Well almost, I told them that the shower had to before I started my final month of the pregnancy. According to Dr. Rossetti, anything can happen.

A few weeks ago, I walked into the Bonds office with Bobby to pick up skip files and we caught Connie and Lula planning my baby shower. It wasn't hard to guess what they were doing. There were baby decorations strewn across the sofa.

Connie: (Trying to gather things up and put them away.) "Stephanie, what are you doing here?"

Lula: "Yeah what are you doing here?"

Stephanie: "I work here. I came to pick up my skip files."

Lula: "I cannot believe that Batm-, I mean Ranger is letting you work in your advanced stage of pregnancy."

Stephanie: "Ranger doesn't make all the decisions in our marriage."

Connie and Lula looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

Stephanie: "I'm going to keep working until I ready not to. Besides, now that I'm really pregnant, it's easy to catch skips. They practically walk themselves to the Cop Shop because they're worried that I'll go into labor."

Lula: (Pointing at Bobby.) "That and having big, strong and fearsome with you at all times."

I looked at Bobby. He was grinning. I'm sure he liked being called fearsome. The Merry Men like that kind of stuff.

Stephanie: "Yeah and that too." (Long pause. In a singsong voice.) "Are you planning a shower for me?"

Connie: "No. Why would we? You have everything."

Bobby: "Yeah, the Little Recruit has two of everything."

Lula: "Who's the Little Recruit?"

Bobby: (Stammering.) "You know Ranger's son, I mean, you know, Ranger's baby."

Stephanie: "And my baby. It's my baby too. I'm the one who's carrying Ranger's baby."

Bobby: "Yes Ma'am."

Lula: "Is that what the Merry Men call the baby, the Little Recruit?"

Bobby: "Affirmative."

Connie: "That is sooo cute."

Stephanie: "You're not planning a shower for me? Gee, I wanted one."

Connie: "Of course we're planning a shower for you. You just walked in and ruined the surprise."

Stephanie: "That's okay, I don't like surprises but I do like showers."

Connie: (Hitting her head with her hand.) "Of course you don't like surprises. That's why you plan each take down with such military precision."

Stephanie: "I would if Vinnie didn't have such tight deadlines."

So there. That told her.

Vinnie: (Poking his head out of his office.) "If it isn't Stephanie Plum, Ranger's baby mama. Are you here to catch some FTAs?"

Stephanie: "Maybe."

So there. Told him too. Vinnie looked around at everyone. He nodded to Bobby and then went back into his office, closing the door behind him.

Connie: (Fuming.) "He'll be in that office all afternoon, watching porn on the Internet."

We all winced, even Bobby.

Lula: "Now that you've done ruined the surprise. Do you want to help plan?"

Connie: "We were going to do the invitation and decorations in baby blue camo since it was supposed to be an undercover operation, as in surprise."

Bobby: "Baby blue camo for the Little Recruit. I like it."

Connie: (Looking at Bobby.) "Do you want to help too?"

Bobby nodded.

Lula: "If we're going to be planning, I think we should do it at Pino's. I plan better when I'm eating a meatball sub and a pizza."

Stephanie: "Me too."

Connie: "Then let's get to Pino's."

We all climbed in to the Explorer that Bobby was driving and headed off to Pino's. When we got to Pino's everyone got out of the Explorer and went into the restaurant. Everyone but me. I can still get into the Explorer on my own, but I need help getting out. A few minutes later Bobby came out and helped me out of the car and into Pino's. I could tell he was embarrassed because he blushed.

They were already sitting at a booth, but we had to move to a table. There's not enough room for me and the bump to sit at a booth these days. The waitress had just handed us the menus, as if I ever needed a menu at Pino's, when I felt someone tap my shoulder. I looked up and there was Morelli, grinning at me.

Morelli: "Hey Cupcake. Can I talk to you for a moment?"

I saw Big Dog and Carl Costanza sitting at a table nearby. I smiled and gave them a finger wave.

Stephanie: "No. I'm in a meeting. And it's may I talk to you, not can I talk to you."

Morelli: (Smiling.) "Practicing to be a Mom?"

Stephanie: "I am a Mom; I just haven't had the baby yet."

Morelli: "That's what I want to talk to you about."

Stephanie: "Uh?"

I got out of my chair, with help from Bobby. I asked him to order me my usual lunch, a meatball sub, a salad with extra Italian dressing, mozzarella sticks and a large lemonade. I walked to the back of the restaurant and motioned to Joe to follow me.

Morelli: "When are you having the baby? You look like you're ready to pop any second."

Stephanie: (Seething.) "What do you mean I look like I'm ready to pop?"

Morelli: "Cupcake. Are you sure that you estimated the date of conception correctly?

Stephanie: "Of course I did. I have two months to go."

Morelli: "Are you sure? I'm still thinking-"

Stephanie: "Thinking what?"

I was starting to get that strange Dickie Orr feeling again. I could felt my hands tightening into a fist.

Morelli: "That it could be my kid."

I was holding my arms close to my sides, just in case they should involuntarily try to swing at him.

Stephanie: "We took the test. You got the results. You're not the father. Ranger is."

Morelli: "Those things aren't one hundred percent conclusive."

Stephanie: "Are you on duty?"

Morelli: "Yeah."

Damn. I wanted to hurt him. Calming breaths. It's not good for me or the baby to be incarcerated for decking an asshole, even if he's one of Trenton's so called finest. Think serene and happy thoughts. Is kneeing Joe in the balls a happy thought? I think it is. I'm seeing me knee him in the balls. He's cupping his guys and doubling over in pain. I'm feeling calmer.

Morelli: "Grandma Bella had a vision. She saw us, you and me, christening our daughter."

Stephanie: "Yeesh! I knew Grandma Bella was a fraud. If she really had visions, she'd be seeing Ranger and me christening our son, Francis Albert Plum Manoso, because I'm having a boy."

Morelli: "A boy. Damn Cupcake. I want a son. I want to have a son with you."

Stephanie: "You can have a son. Just not with me. Now if you'll excuse me, I was in a business meeting when you interrupted me."

I turned on my heels and nearly lost my balance. I hobbled back to the table. I tried to cop my best Jersey girl attitude, but that's kind of hard when you're as pregnant as I am.

I looked at Connie, Lula and Bobby and asked if we could have our food packed up and take it to eat at my place. They all agreed. Connie and Lula really wanted to see the nursery.

When we got to the apartment, Ella was there straightening and dusting. We asked her if she wanted to help us plan the shower. She smiled and put down her feather duster.

Ella and I showed everyone the nursery. They oohed and ahhed, because it is an adorable baby's room. Then we went to the dining room to eat lunch and plan the shower.

I could tell that Ella had planned one or two events in her day because she had the best ideas. We decided no games. According to Bobby, the only games that the Merry Men play are war games. Okay, no games, definitely no games, just food and cake. Lots of cake. And we decided to have a coed shower so that the Merry Men and the men in my life, Daddy, Mooner, Dougie, (choke) Vinnie and even Albert could attend.

So I've been practicing my surprised look and wearing a nice outfit every day, just in case. By nice outfit, I mean something that will cover my very large bump and the rest of me, feel comfortable in the Jersey summer and make me look cute. No outfit can do all of that. I have clothes that cover me and are comfortable. For cute, I have to rely on my old standbys, mascara, lip gloss and a smile.

I padded to the baby's room to look around. The room's adorable. I think we do have two of everything for the Little Recruit. I don't need to have a shower, but I want one. Valerie had a shower when she was expecting Angie. Mary Lou had a one when she was expecting her first. I want my baby to have a shower too. So even with all this stuff, Connie and Lula are still giving me a shower. Oh boy!

It's Saturday and I think that the shower might be today. Ranger has the day off and he's taking me to Pino's for lunch. He knows it's my favorite. I know he'd rather go to Shorty's. That's why I think the shower's today.

I'm wearing a cute white eyelet top, my extra comfy maternity jeans, flip-flops and of course, mascara (about five coats), pink lip gloss and a big smile. I'm beaming and looking lovely. Actually, I'm bloated and my skin is splotchy, but I'm convinced that today's the shower, so I have my happy face on.

We went to Pino's and I ordered my usual lunch. Ranger ordered a salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a bottle of water. Our waitress placed our order with the kitchen and brought us our drinks.

Ranger and I talked about this and that. I tried to subtly find out if the shower is today, short of asking him directly. He pulled his usual blank face. It doesn't matter. I know the shower's today. I can feel it.

I was taking a sip of my lemonade when I saw the waitress coming up to our table with our salads. Then I saw her trip over her own feet and in very slow motion, I saw our salads fly and hit me in the face and down the front of my shirt. I'm soaked. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar are smeared all over my pretty white eyelet top. Not one bit of food landed on Ranger.

I looked at him and started to cry. He came over to me and picked off salad bits and blotted. We had the rest of our food packed up, paid the bill and drove home.

We opened the door to the apartment and heard a crowd shout "Surprise". Ranger looked at me and then at the group. He was surprised as I was. He saw Tank in the group and glared at him. Tank smiled at Ranger and said, "Hey man, you have got to be more aware of your surroundings".

Chapter 21: Party Time

Ranger's POV

I waded through the debris of the shower that Connie and Lula gave Babe in our apartment. I am amazed at all of the 'essentials' that a baby needs. I am not sure that a baby needs a zoo full of stuffed animals, but I have been assured that it is essential.

The shower was a surprise not only for Babe, but for me too. We knew that there would be one, since Babe helped plan it, but she left the date and location up to Connie and Lula.

Babe and I were coming back from a lunch disaster at Pino's. Pino's is Babe's favorite and I thought it would be nice to take her there to lunch. It was Tank's suggestion, "You have Saturday off. It's supposed to be a nice day. Take Stephanie to lunch at Pino's and then to take her for a walk through the park in Hamilton Township but be aware of the geese." Tank is always suggesting that I take Babe out to dinner or the movies. I'm not sure why other than he's hopeless when it comes to women. When he finally falls in love, he's going to be a fool for his woman. I never suspected that he was setting me up.

Our waitress tripped when she was bringing our salads, and everything on her tray ended up on Babe. Babe had been wiggling with excitement. She was sure that the shower was going to be today. Babe was convinced that I had inside information and she must have asked me fifty questions about the shower. When the salads went flying and landed on her, Babe looked at me and started to cry. After we cleaned her up, we decided to go home.

When we walked into the foyer of our apartment, we heard a loud "Surprise". We were. Babe started to cry again and mumbled something about big surprise and stained shirt. Within seconds, Ella and her Mom whisked Babe away, presumably to help her change into clean clothes.

I looked at group and spotted Tank. We stared at each other for a moment. Then Tank made a comment about me being more aware of my surroundings. I hope he remembers that when we're sparring on Monday.

It was quite a group. Babe's family, the Rangeman core team, the Bonds office and Mooner and Dougie, Babe's stoner friends, were all in one room and they were getting along with each other. Tank was flirting with Lula. Grandma Mazur was winking at my men. Vinnie was talking with Dougie and Mooner . . . I don't want to know.

Valerie, Babe's sister, brought her daughters to the shower. Angie, who's ten, was helping by being the perfect little hostess. Mary Alice, who's eight, thinks she's a horse. She showed us her new dressage routine. And three-month old Lisa was being a cutie. My men were fascinated with her. They all asked Valerie if they could hold Lisa. As my men played pass the baby, Lisa cooed and Valerie and her boyfriend Albert held their breaths. I don't know why. The Merry Men can be gentle when needed, like when they're detonating a bomb.

It was nice that my core team came. When Babe decided that she wanted to continue working during the pregnancy, we decided that one of the Merry Men would accompany on all of her takedowns. I knew that I would do anything and everything to keep Babe safe because I love her. I had no expectations that my men would do everything and anything to keep her safe. They're not emotionally attached to her. So, I contracted Rangeman Miami to provide bodyguard services for Babe. I know it's strange to hire your own company, but it made sense. Rangeman Miami manages the contract and the Trenton staff does the work. By doing this, my men know they are doing contract work when they have Babe Duty, as they call it, and the orders come from someone other than me. By keeping Babe Duty business, it diffused any resentment that my men could have developed for babysitting the Boss's wife, who on occasion was known to be a disaster magnet. That my men came to like and respect Babe was her doing.

Stephanie's POV

We walked into our apartment and a crowd shouted "Surprise". Surprise? Surprise! Oh no! I looked cute when we went to Pino's, now I'm wearing lunch. I'm a complete mess. I started to cry again. My Mom and Ella saw that I was in a state and they immediately took me to the bedroom. I was crying so hard, that I could barely breathe or talk.

Mom sat me down on the bed, gave me a hug. That was strange. My family doesn't hug. Ella and Mom sat with me until I calmed down. Ella found some clean clothes in the closet for me to wear. She chose a navy blue sailor top and white pants. I forgot I bought white pants. White pants for me? What was I thinking? But the outfit looked nice, nicer than my first choice. I went to the bathroom to take a quick shower and to put on my new unstained outfit. Hey! I had a shower to go to and my baby and I were the guests of honor. I couldn't wait to get to the party.

When I was finished dressing, I left the bathroom with my soiled clothes in my hands. I was going to put them in the hamper in the closet/dressing room. Ella and my Mom intercepted the dirty clothes and started to have an in-depth discussion on stain removal. I left them discussing the merits of pre-treating and soaking and went to the party.

Ranger's POV

I was surprised that there weren't any silly games at this shower. According to my sisters, it is required that you have silly games at a shower, especially a shower in Jersey. But there were none. That's good because the only games that my men know are war games and there's not enough space in the apartment.

There was one game; I think it was a game. When Babe was opening the presents, each gift had to be handed to her by a different person. Babe had to guess if the person handing her the gift was handing her his or her gift or if they were handing her someone else's gift. This is a clever way to figure out if someone has a tell. Babe with her Spidey sense guessed most right.

I was surprised to learn that Cal had made one of the afghans we received. He said he's been crocheting since he was a kid. His grandmother taught him. He said crocheting was calming. Bobby seemed interested in learning more about crocheting. I overheard Bobby say to Cal, "I'm a medic. I stitch up people. I could learn how to stitch up a blanket or a scarf". Then I heard Cal promising to teach Bobby how to crochet. What's next, a Rangeman crochet circle and coffee klatch?

Most of the gifts were for the baby. We got the usual stuff, like onesies, pajamas, books, bibs, socks, and some not so usual stuff. Our baby now has Rangeman outfits, a Rangeman blanket and a Rangeman cap. The core team got me a fully stocked Rangeman diaper bag for when I'm doing Daddy duty solo. I didn't know that burp cloths came in black. I could tell that Ella had been busy stitching the Rangeman logo with her embroidery machine. We also got a Wonder Woman bear, a Batman bear and, of course, a Rangeman bear. Mr. Plum, who was wearing a "I'm the Grandfather" T-shirt, got 'his' grandson a Giants' shirt and a Giants' bear.

The most surprising gift came from Mooner and Dougie. They gave us baby monitors, so that, as Mooner said, "We could keep track of the little dude". Mooner and Dougie gave us a practical gift. I was astounded. I was just starting to think that Mooner and Dougie might be more than your average Garden State stoners, until I heard giggling in the nursery. They were lying on the floor and looking at the ceiling. Louis, Ella's husband and Rangeman's property manager, painted the ceiling to look like a cloud-filled sky. Mooner and Dougie were staring at the 'sky' trying to decide what the clouds looked like. However, according to them, the clouds kept changing. I had Tank escort them home.

After every one left, we cleaned up the apartment and put the gifts in the nursery. I surveyed the room. Our boy has enough stuff to fill a store. I decided that when my son is old enough, I'm thinking about three or four months old, that we are going to have a man-to-man talk about traveling light.

Stephanie's POV

I had such a good time at my shower. We got some great gifts like the afghan that Cal crocheted, which is absolutely beautiful. Every time I imagine Cal in a yarn shop, I start to giggle.

Maybe he can teach me to crochet when he teaches Bobby. Maybe we can have a crochet circle and coffee klatch on Wednesdays after their shift. My Mom, Grandma Mazur and Ella crochet. Maybe they'll want to join us.

Ranger's family threw a shower for us a week later. We got more onesies, pajamas, bibs, socks and books. We got Huevos Verdes Con Jamon, Winny de Puh, and El Terciopelo de Conejo*. I can learn Spanish when Ranger reads to our son. Then I'll be multilingual like Ranger. Well, not exactly like Ranger. But I will be able to speak English, Spanish and Jersey. Oh boy!

* In order, Green Eggs and Ham, Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit.

Chapter 22: Labor Pains, Part 1

Ranger's POV

The large conference room is on the fifth floor of the Rangeman building. It is wood paneled and windowless. The room is set up for video and audio conferencing. There is a white board on one wall and a projection screen and plasma television on another. The large table in the center of the room seats twenty people or ten Merry Men.

The Core Team meets every Friday in this conference room to discuss the up-coming week. Since Babe started her third trimester, we also discuss Project Delivery. Babe's in her thirty-sixth week. We were at Dr. Rosetti's on Monday. He said that Babe's slightly effaced and the baby could come early.

Babe's still working for Vinnie. She's also working part time for Rangeman, consulting for residential security systems installations. She's provided excellent input. As a woman who has lived on her own and as an expectant mother, she has a unique viewpoint. Our clients find her comments helpful.

Because Babe's still working, Rangeman's still doing Babe Duty. Each member of the team needs to understand this stage of the pregnancy, how to determine real and false labor, know various routes to the hospital in case of GPS failure and how to deliver the baby, just in case.

I put together Project Delivery books with this information for each Rangeman vehicle and we review them every week. Since it's summer, we also update the routes to the hospital for construction weekly. I showed my Project Delivery book to our instructor at Baby University. She liked it so much, that she suggested that the other couples in our class do the same.

We were in the conference room reviewing Project Delivery, when the speakerphone rang.

Ranger: "Report."

Lester: "Boss, Stephanie's not feeling well."

Ranger: "What's wrong? Did you call her doctor?"

Lester: "Affirmative on the Doctor. Stephanie thinks she's in labor. Dr. Rossetti's at St. Francis's today, so we're going there so he can take a look-see. But we're stuck in traffic."

A look-see? We're talking about the possible birth of my son and Santos refers to it as a 'look-see'.

Ranger: "Are we on speaker?"

Stephanie: "Ranger."

Ranger: "Babe. Why do you think you're in labor?"

Stephanie: "Because I'm having contractions."

Ranger: "You thought you were in labor last week and it was indigestion. And you've had Braxton Hicks contractions every day since Dr. Rossetti told us you were effaced."

Stephanie: (Whispering into the speaker.) "Shush, I don't want the whole world to know that I'm effaced.

Ranger: "Babe, its only Santos."

Stephanie: "No, we're not alone."

Ranger: "Who's with you?"

Stephanie: "Simon Diggery."

Diggery's a professional grave robber who does taxes on the side. He lives in a doublewide trailer with his wife, children, pet snake and other assorted members of his motley family. Every month, Diggery gets drunk and disorderly. Every month, Vinnie bonds him out and he goes FTA. This time he was FTA for trashing a bar on Ninth Street.

Ranger: "How? Why?"

Stephanie: "Lester and I were at Quakerbridge Mall getting a deep dish brownie at David's Cookies. I needed a snack after this morning's system installation. And I wanted to get some things for the baby at Lord and Taylor's. They're having a sale."

I held my breath. She's ruining my team with her need for sugary snacks. They eat with her. I've noticed Tasty Pastry bags in the trash bins on the fifth floor. More things for the baby? We have enough stuff for the baby to outfit the infants of a third world country.

Ranger: "And."

Stephanie: "And Diggery was doing estimated quarterly taxes by the Chick-Fil-A. We waited until he was done with his clients and then we picked him up. OW!"

Ranger: "Babe!"

Stephanie: "Contraction! These contractions are different than the other ones."

Ranger: "What's different?"

Stephanie: "Feels different."

Ranger: "How? How are they different?"

Stephanie: "My back hurts and they keep coming."

Ranger: "I'm leaving for St. Francis's now."

Stephanie: "Don't."

Ranger: "Don't'?"

Stephanie: "We're stuck in traffic. Somebody needs to come and get me."

Ranger: "Stay where you are. I'll find out what's happening and report back."

Stephanie: "Duh. I'm not going anywhere." (After a few beats.) "I love you."

Diggery: (Mocking.) "I love you."

Ranger: "I love you too Babe. Diggery, shut up."

I disconnected the phone and started looking for a way to get Babe to the hospital. I hadn't planned on a traffic jam.

Stephanie's POV

I cannot believe this. We are stuck in traffic on the Trenton Freeway. The freeway has turned into a parking lot. We've been stuck for at least a half hour and I've had two contractions.

I'm sure that these are real labor pains, not Braxton Hicks contractions. My back hurts and when the contractions come, they're intense. Dr. Rossetti said that the baby could come early. I do not want to have my son in a traffic jam on Route One. Not with Simon Diggery in the car. I do not want Lester and Diggery delivering my kid. Yeesh!

Lester can't find out why we're in a gridlock. We're in the lane nearest to the median strip, so we can't pull out on to the shoulder and drive to the nearest exit. If we could do that, then we could go to St. Francis's. We called Ranger for help. He's Batman, he'll figure this out. I hope he figures it out before I start to deliver.

Ranger's POV

Ranger: "Yo."

Stephanie: "Ow!" (Breathes heavily) "Yo yourself."

Ranger: "An oil tanker jackknifed a mile south of where you are. The truck is burning. First responders are at the scene and all lanes of traffic are gridlocked. It's going to take hours to get it cleaned up.

Stephanie: "Hours, I might not have hours!"

Ranger: "Can you get to the side of the road and drive on the shoulder.

Lester: "Boss, I would've have done that if it was an option."

Ranger: "Right. Give me five."

I thought about going to pick Babe up, but I might get stuck in traffic too. I called the Trenton emergency services and explained that my wife was in labor and that she was stuck on the Trenton Freeway. They couldn't send an ambulance since they were needed at the accident, but they promised to send a Blue & White.

Ranger: "Yo"

Stephanie: "Yo back at you."

Ranger: "A Trenton Blue and White is coming to pick you up to take you St. Francis's. You'll need to get to the shoulder of the road."

Stephanie: "How soon will they be here?"

Ranger: "Not sure. I'll call you when I have better intel. But go to the shoulder of the road. I'll call you on your cell phone."

Stephanie's POV

After Ranger hung up, I looked at Lester and growled. Then I looked at Diggery and growled again. I needed the bathroom. I'm having contractions. I'm stuck in traffic. And now I have to go to the side of the road to wait for a cop car to take me to the hospital.

Lester helped Diggery and me out of the Explorer. Diggery was wearing handcuffs and shackles so it took as much effort to get him out of the Explorer as it took to get me out. Lester walked us through three lanes of traffic to the shoulder of the road to wait for our ride.

It was hot, humid and very sunny. I was uncomfortable and cranky. There was no shade. There was no place to sit. I was miserable. I whined about everything. When Diggery told me to suck it up, because millions of women had babies in extreme conditions, I stomped on his foot and gave him an Italian hand gesture. That'll teach him to annoy a woman in labor. He has kids. He should know better.

We waited an eternity for the Blue and White to arrive. Actually, it was about five minutes, but it was a very long five minutes. It was the longest five minutes in the history of the earth. The cop car arrived with Eddie Gazzara and Benny Gaspick inside. Gaspick had just been booted back to being a beat cop, for being . . . Gaspick. I was so happy to see Eddie. I was even happy to see Gaspick. We called Ranger before we left and told him to meet us at the Emergency Room in fifteen minutes. They packed Diggery and me into the back of the cop car, put the siren on and drove away. Lester stayed behind with the Explorer.

I had a contraction in the car and that motivated Gaspick to drive as fast as he could to get me to St. Francis's. He's didn't want to have to deliver my baby and I didn't want him to. I want Dr. Rossetti to deliver my baby. I like him. He's been to medical school, a real medical school. He went to Penn. He knows from birthing babies. He's delivered every baby in Trenton since nineteen seventy-seven. I started to hyperventilate. Eddie handed me a paper bag.

We were driving up to the entrance of the emergency room, when it occurred to me that I left my purse in the Explorer. I was starting to hyperventilate again, when another contraction hit. I was recovering from the contraction, when Ranger opened the door to the cop car and helped me out.

We had just walked into the emergency room when I saw Morelli. He was standing with his hands in the pockets of his jeans and rocking on his heels when he saw us. He ran up to me and grabbed my arm.

Morelli: "Cupcake. I hear you're in labor."

Stephanie: (Looking at Ranger and then at Morelli.) "How can you know that?"

Morelli: "You had a Blue and White bring you in. Of course I heard."

Ranger: "Morelli, what does this have to do with you?"

Morelli: (To Ranger.) "Looks like Stephanie might have miscalculated. This might be my baby. Manoso, I suggest you get out of the way."

Ranger and Morelli started to go at it. I yelled at them to stop. I stepped between them only to see Morelli pull back his arm. His fist landed on my left eye. Little black dots and stars shimmered in front of my eyes. I found myself on my ass on the floor. I was turning on to my hands and knees to hoist myself off the floor, when another contraction hit. I rolled on my back and clutched my abdomen.

Ranger and Morelli scrambled to help me get up. I heard Joe say, "Oh my God Cupcake. I didn't mean it. That punch was for Ranger." I looked at them through squinted eyes and shrieked, "Get away from me!"

Chapter 23: Labor Pains, Part 2

Stephanie's POV

Ranger and Morelli hovered over me. I tried to get back on my hands and knees, but I couldn't roll over.

Ranger: "Babe!"

Morelli: "Cupcake!"

Stephanie: (Still shrieking.) "Get away from me! Both of you. Get away from me and stay away from me!"

Two Nurses' Aides rushed to me. They helped me off the floor and bundled me into a wheel chair. I asked Ranger to have me admitted. One of the Aides rolled me away to an exam room so that Dr. Rossetti could take a 'look-see'.

The Aide helped me change into a hospital gown. You know the kind, the kind that provides air-conditioning through the back because your ass is exposed. Given that I had just been out in the ninety-degree plus, humid Jersey summer and that my emotional state had spiked my temperature, I was happy for the draft. The Aide helped me on to the exam table and left the room.

Julie Wisneski came in with an ice pack and a washcloth. Julie and I graduated together. After high school she became a nurse. Julie asked about Valerie, (she was on duty when Valerie had Lisa), while she folded the washcloth and put it on the left side of my face. Then she gently placed the ice pack on the washcloth. She looked at her watch and grimaced. Julie assured me that Dr. Rossetti would be in shortly to check on me and the baby and left.

Dr. Rossetti is a kindly, avuncular man. He's originally from the 'Burg, but he left to get an Ivy League education at Penn. He returned home after his residency and has had his practice in Trenton for his whole career. Most of the women I know go to Dr. Rossetti because he's a 'Burg boy and has a reputation for being an excellent doctor. He's tailored in his appearance, starched white lab jacket over dress shirt, tie and suit pants and formal in his manner. He peers over his bi-focals when he talks to you. He makes me feel comfortable which is something considering he's an Obstetrician/Gynecologist.

Dr. Rossetti walked into the exam room with my chart in his hands. He was wearing blue scrubs that looked like they were custom made for him. He read my chart and frowned.

Dr. Rossetti: "Ms. Plum, er Mrs. Manoso, what happened?"

Stephanie: "OW!" (Panting.) "Stephanie, call me Stephanie."

Dr. Rossetti: "Contraction?"

Stephanie: (Nodding her head.)

Dr. Rossetti: "Let's time it."

Dr. Rossetti looked at his watch and scribbled some notes on my chart. Then he gave me a look that said, let's continue our conversation.

Stephanie: "Remember the scene at your office when I had the DNA test?"

Dr. Rossetti: (Shaking his head.) "Vividly."

Stephanie: "There was a repeat performance."

Dr. Rossetti: (Silence.)

Stephanie: "Only this time I got between them. I caught a punch and fell on my bottom. It wasn't my fault."

Dr. Rossetti: (Patting Stephanie's arm.) "I'm sure that it wasn't." (Long pause.) "What caused the . . . alterca-"

Stephanie: "Morelli. Morelli still thinks he could be the father. And since it looks like I'm having the baby early, he really thinks that he could be the father."

Dr. Rossetti: "The test results show that Mr. Manoso is the father. Results of DNA testing are ninety-nine percent accurate."

Stephanie: "I told him that, but since it's not 'hundred percent', Joe thinks there's a possibility that he's the Dad."

Dr. Rossetti: (Long pause.) "This is very unusual for me to do, but would you like me to have a discussion with Mr. Morelli and explain the test results?"

Stephanie: "No, I'll talk to him."

Dr. Rossetti: "Alright. Let's take a look at you."

Dr. Rossetti placed my chart on the counter adjacent to the exam table. He stepped out of the exam room and returned with Julie. Dr. Rossetti removed the ice pack and washcloth and handed them to her. After he examined my eye and the rest of me, he told me that I would have a black eye, bruises and feel sore.

He then asked me to get into position and pulled up a stool so that he could perform the pelvic exam. When he was done performing the exam, Dr. Rossetti pushed his stool back from the exam table.

Dr. Rossetti: (Looking over his bi-focals.) "Seems that son of yours is eager to meet you."

Stephanie: "I'm really in labor?"

Dr. Rossetti: "Yes. You're in the early phase. It'll be hours before you're ready to deliver. Normally I'd send you home, but since this is your first child and you've been . . . traumatized, I'm going to keep you here."

Dr. Rossetti summoned Julie and murmured instructions to her.

Julie: "We're going to transfer you to another room for you to wait out early labor. When you start active labor, you'll be moved to a delivery room."

Julie put the washcloth and ice pack back on my face.

Stephanie: "Oh."

Julie: "I'm going to see if your room is ready."

Julie left to check on the room. Dr. Rossetti waited a few beats before he spoke.

Dr. Rossetti: "Stephanie, where's Mr. Manoso? He's always with you for your exams."

Stephanie: "I think he's in the reception area."

Dr. Rossetti: "Shouldn't he be with you?"

Stephanie: (Holding back tears.) "I don't know. I don't think I want to see him. He should go home."

Dr. Rossetti: "Excuse me if I'm overstepping, but he is the father and he seems to care for you and the baby. You should have him with you."

Stephanie: "Why?"

Dr. Rossetti: (Grinning.) "If Mr. Manoso's here he can make himself useful. When you're in the transition phase and you want to lash out, and you will want to lash out, you can do it with him, not me. He's a big guy. He can handle it."

Stephanie: "Oh."

Dr. Rossetti: (Patting Stephanie's arm again.) "Think about it. I'll see you later."

With that, Dr. Rossetti walked out of the exam room.

Ranger's POV

The Emergency Room is bustling. Since this is the closest hospital to accident involving the jack-knifed oil tanker, the victims have been sent here. The families are filling up the reception area. Everyone is wondering and worrying about their loved ones like me. I have been sitting in this reception area for nearly an hour and haven't heard anything.

Morelli's on the other side of the reception area. He sits. He paces. He sits. He paces. Our eyes have locked a few times. When he stares at me, he has a smirk on his face. The look says I might be the father. He's not. The DNA test proved that I'm the father. I want to take him outside and go a few rounds, but I'm not moving from this spot until I know what's happening with Stephanie and our baby.

I'm a patient man, but not where they're concerned. I went to the Nurses' station and asked if there's any news on Stephanie Manoso. The nurse verified that I'm next of kin. She held up her forefinger signaling to me to wait and walked away. Morelli walked up to the Nurses' Station and asked another nurse about Stephanie. Since Morelli's not next of kin, she didn't give him any information. I glared at him. It was difficult, but I contained myself. I didn't want to provoke a fight and I didn't want to be thrown out of the hospital.

A few minutes later, a nurse came to tell me that Babe's in labor and was moved to a room on the second floor. She gave me the room number and the directions. I went off to find Babe. Morelli followed behind me.

Ranger: (Quietly, but forcefully.) "Morelli are you following me?"

Morelli: "Yes."

Ranger: "Why?"

Morelli: "I want to see Stephanie."

I stopped in my tracks and Morelli bumped into me. I turned around to look at Morelli. He had his right arm pulled back and his hand in a fist. I grabbed hold of his wrist. I stretched my other arm and put my hand on his chest. He did the same. We pushed at each other as if we were arm wrestling.

Ranger: "Why?"

Morelli: "Because this might be my baby."

Ranger: "He's not. The DNA test proved that he's my child."

Morelli: "Those tests aren't one hundred percent conclusive."

Ranger: "They are plus ninety-nine percent conclusive."

Morelli: "I want another test done after the baby's born."

Ranger: "No."

Morelli: "We'll just see what Stephanie has to say about this."

Ranger: "I know what she'll say. She won't agree."

I unclasped Morelli's wrist and pushed him back. I started walking to Stephanie's room. He continued to follow. When we reached Babe's room, we both tried to enter it at the same time and got stuck. I pushed my shoulder forward and entered a beat before Morelli.

Stephanie was lying on the bed attached to a monitor. The bed was bent like a chaise lounge, so she could see us walking into the room. There was an ice pack on the left side of her face. She looked at us in disbelief.

Stephanie: "Stop. Both of you stop right where you are."

We both stopped and looked at her.

Stephanie: "Morelli, I need to talk to Ranger. Go out in the hallway."

Morelli: "But Cupcake?"

Stephanie: "Go. Now."

She motioned for me to come to her. I kissed her on the top of her head.

Ranger: "May I see your eye?"

Babe nodded and I lifted the ice pack and washcloth. I looked at her eye and replaced the cloth and ice pack.

Ranger: "You're going to have one hell of a shiner tomorrow."

Stephanie: "I know. Just my luck. I'm going to look like an abuse victim when we take pictures of the baby and me. There's no good way to Photoshop out swelling and deep purple bruises."

Ranger: (Stroking Stephanie's hair.) "We'll photograph you in profile. That way the black eye won't show."

Stephanie: "I'm not sure my right side is my good side."

Ranger: "All of your sides are good."

Stephanie: (Smiling.) "I need a favor. I want you to go home-"

Ranger: "Babe, I want to be here with you."

Stephanie: "I know. I want you here with me too. It's just that my bags with the baby's stuff and my stuff are home and I need them."

Ranger: "It's necessary?"

Stephanie: "Yeah. Dr. Rossetti said that I could be here for hours and I need my stuff."

Ranger: (Reluctantly.) "Okay."

Stephanie: "Could you call our parents and tell them I'm in labor?"

Ranger: "Sure, but you know that means that they'll come to the hospital."

Stephanie: "I know. I want my-"

Ranger: "Mom?"

Stephanie: "Yes, no, I mean . . . I want my Dad here."

Ranger: (Leaning over and giving Stephanie a quick kiss.) "I'll be back soon."

Stephanie: "Ranger, ask Joe to come in here."

Ranger: "Wha-"

Stephanie: "It's time for me to have a chat with him."

I walked out of the room and told Morelli that Stephanie wanted to talk to him.

Stephanie's POV

I watched Morelli come into the room. He had a lilt in his walk and he was wearing a self-satisfied smile. He came up to me and took the ice pack and cloth off my face.

Morelli: (Tsking.) "Sorry Cupcake. I didn't mean to hit you. How 'bout I kiss it and make it better?"

I gritted my teeth. Morelli replaced the cloth and ice pack on my sore eye.

Morelli: (Whispering into Stephanie's ear.) "You know I'm good at kissing . . . and making it better."

Stephanie: "Christ Morelli, I'm in labor and you're coming on to me."

Morelli: "What can I say, I can't resist you."

Stephanie: (Rolling her eyes.) "We need to talk."

Morelli: "Are we going to talk dirty?"

Stephanie: "No. I'm going to talk some sense into you."

Morelli: "Cupcake that's no fun. Let's talk dirty."

Stephanie: "OW!" (Grabbing Morelli's shirt and pulling him to her.) "Stop calling me Cupcake!"

Morelli: "Ah you know you like it when I call you Cupcake."

Stephanie: (Releasing Joe's shirt.) "No, I tolerate you calling me Cupcake."

Morelli: "I thought you liked it."

Stephanie: "No. It reminds me of those damn poems that you wrote about me on the men's room wall at Mario's and at the Stadium."

Morelli: "They were flattering."

Stephanie: (Rolling her eyes.) "Yeah right. 'Warm and sweet and good to eat.' Do you know how much trouble you caused me?"

Morelli: "Yeah, you were grounded for three months."

Stephanie: "You're lucky that my Dad never found out who wrote those damn poems, 'cause he would have crushed your other leg with the Buick."

Morelli: "That was a long time ago. Don't confu-"

Stephanie: "I know. 'Don't confuse me with that eighteen-year-old kid.'" (Pause.) "You never even apologized."

Morelli: (Seductively.) "For what?"

Stephanie: "For ruining my reputation! My life was hell after you wrote those things about me."

Morelli: "How?"

Stephanie: "How 'bout, a lot of guys asked me out because they assumed I'd put out. When I didn't, they were . . . obnoxious. Jimmy Zuccato told me that I was as stuck up as wallpaper."

Morelli: (Smiling.) "Jimbo said that?"

Stephanie: "Stop smiling! We have important stuff to talk about."

Morelli: "Like if we're going to name the baby Joseph Anthony or Anthony Joseph?"

Stephanie: "No! My son is going to be named after my father since he's the first grandson."

Morelli: "I'm fine with that, as long as we name our second son after my Dad."

Stephanie: "Morelli there isn't going to be a second child because there isn't a first one."

Morelli: (Reaching to pat Stephanie's bump.) "Yes there is."

Stephanie: (Intercepting Morelli's hand.) "No there isn't. You are not the father. Did you hear me? You are not the father. Ranger's the father. The test results proved that."

Morelli: "But the test isn-"

Stephanie: "It is. The test is conclusive. Back off! I don't ever want to hear you say that you might be the father because you're not. Ranger's the father."

Morelli: But-"

Stephanie: "No buts. Now leave and please, for the love of Mike, don't come back."

Chapter 24: Labor Pains, Part 3

Ranger's POV

Since there was very little traffic, I was able to be get home quickly to pick up the all-important stuff. When I got to apartment, Ella had Babe's bags ready. Lester had tipped her off. I looked at what Ella had assembled and sighed. We were not traveling light. There were two large duffel bags, one for Babe and one for the Baby, a bed pillow, portable DVD player and a bag of snacks.

I peered inside the snack bag and sighed again. The Midwife at Baby University suggested that we pack crackers, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, granola bars or whatever the mom would enjoy. Babe's snack pack had peanut butter crackers, cheese doodles, potato chips and Tasty Cakes. Ella had added two bottles of sparkling cider so that we could toast the baby.

I gathered the stuff and put in it in the hallway between the apartment and the elevator. I called Tank and asked him to have Lester take the stuff to my car. I dialed the Plums. Mr. Plum answered the phone. When I told him that Stephanie was in labor, he announced, "Helen, Ranger's on the phone. Stephanie's in labor with my grandson at St. Francis. Let's get a move on." Mrs. Plum responded, "Honestly Frank, Stephanie's in labor with her son." "Who just happens to be my grandson," Mr. Plum replied. When Mr. Plum returned to the phone, he asked if we needed anything and hung up on me. I had similar conversations with my parents and my daughter Julie.

My car was packed and ready when I got to it. Tank was sitting in the passenger's seat holding a box of 'It's a Boy!' bubble gum cigars was on his lap. Tank grinned and said, "We figured you were going to need some help hauling all this, um, stuff into the hospital. Lester will follow in the Explorer."

Babe's hospital room was empty when I arrived with Tank and Lester in tow. Fifteen minutes later, we trailed into Babe's new room in the OB/GYN ward. Babe was hooked up to two monitors. Her parents and Grandma Mazur were with her. They all heaved a sigh of relief when we came into the room. It was if they thought for a split second that I went into the wind.

Stephanie's POV

Dr. Rossetti came to see me soon after Morelli left. He decided that while I was still in the early stages of labor I should be moved to a delivery room. I've been having contractions for forever and he thinks I'm in the early stage. Yeesh! I could be here for days.

I asked Dr. Rossetti to promise me a painless delivery. He peered over his bi-focals, patted my arm and said, "Have you changed your mind about the epidural?" I was all for the epidural until I learned more about it. It's not that I'm afraid of a needle in my spine, it's that I am afraid a needle in my spine. In a moment of bravery or insanity, take your pick; I decided that it would be better for the baby and me to have natural childbirth. Hey, if Ranger could live in the wilds and eat twigs and branches on a mission, I could go through childbirth unmedicated. But only if I could whine and moan about it. When I told Ranger that I opted to go natural, he said, "Proud of you". Right. I'll bet he was thinking . . . I'm not sure what he was thinking, but I'm sure it wasn't proud of you.

"We'll make you as comfortable as possible", Dr Rossetti said. "Just thought I'd ask", I said feebly. As comfortable as possible? I asked for painless, not for as comfortable as possible. I do not bear pain well. It takes five shots of Novocain to get me numb enough to have a cavity filled and I still feel twinges. I asked myself for the umpteenth time, "Why am I doing natural childbirth?" And for the umpteenth time, I answered, "Because it's good for the baby." I felt like such an adult.

As I waited to be moved, I played with my ice pack. It melted and was smooshy. I took it on and off and finally put it on the bed stand. My eye was swollen. I could barely see. I wanted a doughnut. We'd named the baby, so there was no use in trying on names. There was nothing on television. I hoped Ranger was bringing the DVD player and Ghostbusters. I thought about napping. If I napped, they'd wake me up when they move me. I thought happy thoughts. I thought about meeting my baby.

Mom, Dad and Grandma Mazur showed up. They gasped when they saw my eye.

Grandma Mazur: "What happened?"

Stephanie: "I caught a punch."

Grandma Mazur: "Does the other guy looks worse?"

Mr. Plum: "Who threw it?"

Stephanie: "Morelli."

Mrs. Plum: "Joseph hit you?"

Mr. Plum: "I'll kill him."

Stephanie: "He didn't mean to hit me. He was trying to punch Ranger."

Mrs. Plum: "Why was Joe trying to punch Ranger?"

Stephanie: (Rolling her eyes.) "Same old. Joe still thinks he's the father."

Mrs. Plum: "Is he the father? I mean could he be the father?"

Stephanie: "NO! Ranger's the father. The test results proved that."

Mrs. Plum: "Is the test conclusive?"

Stephanie: "Mom! Of course. I told you that."

Mr. Plum: "Helen, really. Why are you always for Joe?"

Mrs. Plum: "Because-"

Grandma Mazur: "Because he's a nice 'Burg boy. Forget it. Stephanie's got the hot bounty hunter with the great package."

Stephanie: "Mom, if I wanted that 'Burg boy, I'd have married him."

Mrs. Plum: "I guess so. Why would you what I want? My daughters never do what I want. All I ever wanted was for you and your sister to marry nice men and have children."

Mr. Plum: "Stephanie did that."

Grandma Mazur: "I'm glad she didn't marry Joe."

My mom looked at Grandma quizzically.

Grandma Mazur: "He's a horse's behind. He and Terry Gilman are the talk of the beauty shop."

There were a few beats of silence as we considered this.

Mrs. Plum: (Sighing heavily.) "Tell us. Tell us how you got the black eye."

Stephanie: "Joe was here when we arrived."

Grandma Mazur: "How'd he know you were here?"

Stephanie: "Because a cop car brought me to the hospital."

My Mom looked around the room and spotted a chair. She dragged herself over and plopped in it.

Mrs. Plum: "Why me? Why my daughters? Valerie nearly delivers in the corridor. Stephanie's brought to the hospital by the police. Millie Valiga's daughter didn't almost give birth in a hallway. Gert Kohar's daughter was driven to the hospital by her husband, not by the Trenton Police Department."

Stephanie: "It wasn't my fault."

Mr. Plum: "Of course it wasn't your fault."

Mrs. Plum: "Frank, you always say that. Nothing's ever her fault as far as you're concerned."

Mr. Plum: "It usually isn't."

Mrs. Plum: "Frank!"

Stephanie: "Thanks Daddy."

Mr. Plum: "This has got to be some story. What happened?"

I told them how I landed in the hospital with a black eye. I wish I could say they were surprised, but they weren't. As Grandma Mazur said, I'm a disaster magnet.

Ranger's POV

Hours passed. Babe's contractions became more frequent and intense. We watched Ghostbusters twice. I rubbed her back. I even read parts of the novel she brought. It was about about a woman who shopped. I kept her calm by remaining in my zone.

"You're fully dilated now," Dr. Rossetti said after he inspected Babe. "You'll be ready to push soon." The doctor tapped me on the shoulder and said, "She'll be starting transition. Brace yourself."

Babe's pains became more intense. I tried to keep her calm, but everything I said irritated her.

Ranger: "Babe, I'm here."

Babe glared at me as a strong contraction hit.

Ranger: "What I do? Can I get you anything?"

Stephanie: (Panting heavily.) "I want a restraining order!"

Ranger: "Wha-"

Stephanie: "You did this to me! I want a restraining order to keep you fifty feet from me."

I was told, be prepared for Stephanie to say anything in transition. But I was surprised by this. I took a few steps away from her.

Stephanie: (Grabbing Ranger's shirt.) "Ricardo Carlos Manoso!"

All three names. Shit! Only my mother uses all three names. I wondered if Babe would do that with our son. I imagined her calling "Francis Albert Plum Manoso, get over here young man", in a stern voice and shuddered.

Stephanie: "On no you don't. You got me into this situation and you're staying with me through the whole thing."

Dr. Rossetti, a nurse and a technician came into the room. They moved things around and prepared for the delivery.

Stephanie was pushing and panting.

Stephanie: "It hurts!"

Ranger: "Babe, you can do it. Proud of you."

Stephanie: "Grrr! Don't. Want. To. Do. This. Want. To. Go. Home."

Dr. Rossetti: "You're doing well. Keep focused."

Stephanie pushed.

Dr. Rossetti: "You're crowning. Stop pushing."

Stephanie: "But I want to push."

Dr. Rossetti: "I know, but you need to pant now. Once the head's out, we'll sit you up to deliver."

Within seconds the head was out and then the rest of the body. Dr. Rossetti cut the cord and checked that our boy was breathing properly. The Nurse called out, "Eleven forty-seven p.m., July fifteen".

Dr. Rossetti: "It's a boy. Do you want him now or do you want to wait until he's cleaned up?"

Stephanie stretched out her arms and said, "Now." Dr. Rossetti handed our son to me and I kissed his head. I put him in Babe's arms and she cuddled and kissed him. He rooted for her breast and latched on. Babe was laughing and crying. She pulled me over to her and said, "He looks just like you. I love him. I love you." Then she pulled on my shirt so that we were face to face and we kissed.

Dr. Rossetti: "What are you going to name him?"

Ranger: "We're naming Francis Albert Plum Manoso, after his grandfather."

Dr. Rossetti: "I have a brother named Francis Albert. He was named after Sinatra."

Stephanie: "So was my Dad."

The nurse came over to and said, "If you'll let me have him, I'll check him over and put some clothes on him." Babe reluctantly handed our son to the nurse.

Stephanie: "Francis Rossetti? Frank Rossetti? Is your brother Frank Rossetti, Trenton's singing plumber?"

Dr. Rossetti: "One and the same."

Stephanie: "When he put in my parents' hot water heater, he sang New York, New York to my Mom and Grandma."

Dr. Rossetti: (Chuckling.) "That's my brother."

Ranger: "Babe, I think our families are in the waiting room. Should I go and tell them?"

Babe smiled and nodded.d

Dr. Rossetti: "Wait a minute. You need to know how much he weighs. That's the one of the first things they ask."

Nurse: "He's seven and a half pounds."

Dr. Rossetti: "Good size for an early baby." (Pause, then looking at Ranger and singing.) "Start spreading the news . . ."

Chapter 25: Meet the Baby

Stephanie's POV

I fell asleep while I was holding my beautiful baby boy. Ranger had taken Frank out of my arms and put him in the bassinet beside my bed. I had urged Ranger to take his parents to our place rather than have them drive back to Newark so late at night, so I was alone with my baby.

Our parents were so excited that they could barely wait until we were transferred in to our room to see Frank. It was early morning when they left. I remember Ranger kissing me and saying, "Love you Babe" and then falling into a deeper sleep.

Then I heard a rustling noise. I opened my eyes and in an instant, my joy turned to panic. I started gasping and fumbling to get the side of the bed down. I needed to get out of that damn bed. I needed to get to my baby out of Morelli's arms.

Stephanie: (Trying to get out of the bed.) "Morelli! Oh no, you are not taking my child!"

Morelli: "Cupcake, calm down, I'm not here to take your baby."

Stephanie: "How-! Why-! Give him to me!"

Morelli: "News travels fast in the 'Burg."

Stephanie: "It's only been a few hours!"

Morelli: "You know how the 'Burg is. Stephanie, get back in the bed and I'll hand him to you."

Stephanie: (Sitting back in the bed and reaching for the baby.) "Give him to me."

Morelli: (Putting the baby in Stephanie's arms) "I had to see him."

Stephanie: "Why? I told you to-"

Morelli: "You know why." (Pause.) "He's Ranger's kid."

Stephanie: "Finally!"

Morelli: "He looks just like him."

Stephanie: (Cuddling Frank.) "He does."

Morelli: "Why couldn't he have been our kid?"

I just looked at Joe. I had no answer, no answer that would satisfy him.

Morelli: "I really wanted us to get married and have a few kids. Now here you are a wife and mother."

Stephanie: "Yeah, I am." (Pause.) "But I'm not a 'Burg housewife and mother."

Morelli: "I guess you were never cut out to be a 'Burg housewife."

Stephanie: "I never wanted that."

Morelli: "I guess I thought if-"

Stephanie: (Gently.) "I know. It wasn't-" (Long Pause.) "In some way, I'll always love you."

Morelli: "Me too." (Clearing his throat.) "I will say this Cupcake, he's a good looking kid."

I smiled at Joe. He leaned over, kissed me on the forehead and walked out of the room. It was a bittersweet moment. I held my son close and wept.

Ranger's POV

For the week after Frankie was born, we had guests daily. Our family and friends were eager to meet him and, being slightly proud parents, Babe and I were happy to show him off.

My family thinks he looks like a café-au-lait version of me. I have to agree with that. The Merry Men commented that he's a bruiser. They bought him barbell shaped rattles to develop his biceps. As Tank says, and I agree with him one hundred percent, you can never start training too early. Lula and Connie claim he will be a heartthrob by the time he's thirteen. Of course that means I'll be giving him the "don't make me a young grandfather " lecture my Dad gave me. The difference will be that Frank will listen to me. And everyone said that he has the bluest eyes of any baby they know. They are, they're just like Babe's.

Everyone has their own special name for our boy. Some are better than others. Babe's Dad calls him, what else, Frank. Babe usually calls him her Angel. It's sweet . . . for now. It'll embarass the hell out of him when he's in middle school. My family calls him Francisco. Of course. He's the Little Recruit to the Merry Men and Handsome to Lula and Connie. I call him Big Guy.

My favorite name for our boy came from his cousins. One afternoon when Babe's family was visiting, her nieces Angie and Mary Alice kept staring at Frankie.

Angie (To Mary Alice.) "Frankie has the bluest eyes."

Mary Alice: "He does." (After a few beats.) "He's Frankie Blue Eyes."

Angie: "He is. He's Frankie Blue Eyes. Cool."

Grandma Mazur: (Looking at Frankie.) "Well ain't that something."

When they were leaving, Mary Alice gave Frankie a kiss on the cheek and said, "Bye Frankie Blue". I asked Mary Alice, "Frankie Blue? Not Frankie Blue Eyes?" She gave me a serious look and said, "Uncle Ranger, Frankie Blue Eyes is a lot for a horse to say". All I could say was, "Good to know".

Stephanie's POV

For the past few months, I've been waking up to an empty bed. No, Ranger did not leave me. Ranger knows that I'm a sleepy head in the morning, so he doesn't wake me when he gets up to run and workout, usually. Sometimes Ranger does wake me before he goes on his run so that I can have a workout. Yum.

These days after his work out, Ranger takes a shower and does his morning routine, which now includes Dad time with Frankie. I nursed for a while, but I have a hungry baby and while it's rare, I never produced enough milk. Frankie has been drinking formula since he was born. Every morning Ranger gives Frankie his bottle and they talk. Ranger talks and Frankie listens while he gulps. I eavesdropped once. I had to; the suspense was just too much. I didn't understand much since Ranger speaks and sings, yes sings, to Frankie in Spanish. Once we start doing Spanish story time, I'll figure out just what those two are talking about. I'm sure Ranger says, "You have the most wonderful Mother in the world" and Frankie smiles. That is if Frankie smiles.

Don't get me wrong, he is the most wonderful child ever, except . . . except he has his father's blank face. No, it's true. I know that babies are not supposed to have blank faces, but my son has a Zen-like blank face.

I figured Frank was a happy baby and had no reason to frown or grimace. I had heard stories of babies who barely slept, didn't eat well and cried constantly. But Frank ate without fuss, slept soundly and rarely cried. I figured that I got really lucky in the baby lottery. I figured I gave birth to a serene child.

So I was working with my serene child theory and feeling quite smug about it, until something happened to challenge my assumption.

Ranger takes Frankie for an afternoon each week so that I can have Stephanie time. I love my baby, but I do like having the time to do to lunch with Connie and Lula, go to Mr. Alexander to get my hair cut and do the girl stuff that I enjoy. On my afternoons off, Ranger takes Frankie to the fifth floor to inspect the premises and visit his Merry Uncles.

When I get back from Stephanie time, I usually can't get to the fifth floor fast enough to see my guys. I never know where I'll find Frank, because the Uncles take turns 'hanging with the Little Recruit'. 'Hanging with the Little Recruit' is Merry Man code for babysitting.

After a recent Stephanie afternoon, I was prowling the fifth floor looking for Frankie. I found my guys in Tank's office. Tank was showing Frank flash cards of hand weapons. I walked into this tender scene as Tank was pointing to a flashcard and saying 'pistol'.

Stephanie: (Looking at Ranger and then at Tank.) "I thought we agreed no lessons on weaponry until he learns the alphabet."

Ranger: "Babe, he likes it. Look at his face."

Stephanie: "I don't see that he likes it. He looks like he always does."

Tank: "That's because the Little Recruit has his blank face on."

Stephanie: (Cooing at Frankie.) "Then young man, you must always have your blank face on."

Then it struck me. He has his blank face on. He always has his blank face on. Maybe I didn't give birth to a serene child. Maybe he's suffering and I don't know, because (Gasp!) he's suffering in silence.

Ranger: "He's not suffering in silence. He's a serene child."

Stephanie: "I said that out loud?"

Ranger: "Babe."

Stephanie: "Is he really a serene child?"

Tank: "No, he has his blank face on."

Ranger: "Probably Frankie's wearing his blank face. My mom said I was born wearing a blank face."

So I'm thinking, and hopefully to myself, great, I'm surrounded by blank faces.

Stephanie: (Panicking.) "If he has his blank face on, how will I know if he's okay or needs something or he's sick?"

Ranger: (Grinning.) "You'll figure it out. You figured me out."

Now I was really worried.

Chapter 26: Boo!

Stephanie's POV

Three months, three months. It's hard to believe that my baby is three months old. I finally learned how to read Frankie's facial cues, subtle as they are. Ranger and his Mom helped me.

Ranger's Mom told me that both of her sons were like Frankie. Ranger and his brother Jose are the bookends of the siblings. Jose being the eldest and Ranger being the baby. I have to smile when I think of Ranger as the baby in his family.

By the time Ranger was born, his Mom was experienced with the blank face of the Manoso male. But even with that, she said she was amazed at Ranger's ability to withstand discomfort as an infant. Celia, the youngest of the sisters, was four years old when Ranger was born. According to Mrs. Manoso, Celia was not happy giving up her place as the baby and took it out on him.

As she put it, "At first, Celia seemed to be very affectionate with Carlito. Always giving him kisses and sitting near anyone who was holding him. Then we started to notice that Carlito would whimper every time would Celia kiss him. We couldn't figure it out. We all thought it was so cute how attached Celia was to him. Then Abuela Rosa noticed that when Celia gave Carlito a kiss on the cheek, she would smack his stomach at the same time. Since we were watching their faces, she got away with it. When we asked her if she was hitting Carlito, Celia started to cry and said, "I lub my baby brudder". The next time Celia went to give Carlito a kiss, Enrique went up behind Celia and grabbed her hand when she lifted it to smack him. We told her that we never hit babies. She stopped, but she wasn't happy. We had such a time with her. She did not want to have a baby brother. One time she tried to pack him in a box to return him to God. No matter what Celia did to him, Carlito never cried, he whimpered but never cried. He was strong even as a baby."

That's when she told me that I have to look very carefully at Frankie's face to see if there was just a hint of his lips turning either up or down, because, "he's as strong as his father". I kept looking but I couldn't see a smile or a frown. I was so frustrated. What kind of mother couldn't read her own baby's expressions? Me. I couldn't tell if Frankie was happy or sad. I failed Motherhood one-o-one.

One day when Ranger was playing with Frank, I heard him say, "What's wrong Big Guy?" I nearly broke my ankle running to see Frankie's face. There it was, the slightest, the very slightest frown. Frankie was hungry. Then I discovered that Frankie would grin if I gave him a raspberry on his tummy and if I gave him a lot of raspberries, he would laugh. At last, I could read my own child.

oOoOoOo

Halloween is my favorite holiday and it'll be here in a few days. And it'll be Frankie's first. Oh boy! We're going to my Mom's house to help hand out candy.

I have so much fun at Halloween. I love wearing costumes. Since my post-Frankie figure is curvy, I'm going to dress up as a Roman Goddess. It was Ranger's idea. I think he likes my newfound curves since he worships at my temple daily. Ranger's original idea was for me to dress up as Venus on the half shell, but it's a bit chilly in late October to go around naked in Trenton. As if I ever would. We compromised. I'll wear the chiton at Mom's. Later at our place, I'll do the Venus on the half shell thing. Ranger's promised to do tricks and give me treats. And Ranger's tricks and treats are worth undressing for..

Frankie's going to be in his very first costume, but I'm not sure what it's going to be. Ranger said he wants to surprise me with the baby's costume. I did tell Ranger, that Frank's Rangeman SWAT outfit was not a Halloween costume. He nodded. I wasn't convinced. So I told him again, Frankie's Rangeman gear, not a costume. We'll see. I might be worried.

Anyhow, we're going to my Mom's. Do you know how many Trick or Treaters we'd get at our apartment on the seventh floor of a high security building in a commercial neighborhood? Two, Frankie and me. I don't think that going to the Merry Men's cubicles on the fifth floor is really trick or treating. And just what kind of treats would we get? Post-it notes. Felt-tip pens. Bullets. You see where I'm going with this.

I want Frankie to have a normal Halloween experience and trick or treating at Rangeman is not the way to go. Helping to hand out treats at Grandma Plum's is the way to go. I'm sure that Ranger will have at least two of the Merry Men watching us and at least two more watching the neighborhood. Add to that the new security system that Rangeman installed at my parents' house and maybe, maybe, Ranger will allow us to hand out a piece of candy to a Disney Princess without interrogating her parents first.

Ranger insisted that I go to my parents for dinner alone and that he would bring Frankie later for trick-or-treats. He's really taking this surprise thing to the extreme. I love it. Ranger even hinted that he might dress up too. I hope he's a Roman soldier so we can match.

Valerie and Grandma Mazur like Halloween as much as I do and they always dress up too. Valerie's dressed up as Pierrot. A clown. Okay, a French clown, but still. I guess that was clever. But I was disappointed. I half expected Valerie to be dressed up as the Madonna. Not Madonna, The Madonna. The one who was a Virgin. Valerie always had that serene and perfect Madonna-like bearing. But dressing up as the Virgin Mary on Halloween would be sacrilege and having Lisa out of wedlock was as far as she was willing to walk on the wild side.

Grandma Mazur was a hippie and was as far out as only she could be. Valerie's daughters were all adorable. Angie was an Angel and Mary Alice was a horse. No surprises there. Baby Lisa was a sunflower. Albert showed up dressed as a lawyer.

My Mom and Dad were wearing their traditional Halloween costumes. Mom was dressed up as a 'Burg Housewife and Daddy wore his Giants' sweatshirt and claimed that he was dressed up as a Giants' fan.

It's nearly time for the Trick or Treaters to start arriving and Ranger and Frankie aren't here yet. Albert and Valerie and the girls have left to make the rounds in the neighborhood. I looked out the front door. I saw Cal and Lester across the street and I gave them a finger wave. I closed the door and paced around the house. The doorbell rang. Grandma Mazur and I opened the door.

Ranger was standing on the porch holding Frankie. I stood there imitating a fish. Frankie was dressed up as a batbaby. Ranger handed Frankie to me. I smiled as I realized that was just like the dream that I had long ago, the one where I was holding the batbaby. Only now, I was holding my batbaby.

Ranger smiled and said, "Babe. Trick or Treat!"

The End.