What I Did For Love - Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Love Will Find A Way!
 
Love is not only something you feel.
It is something you do.
-David Wilkerson
 
Joe's words hit me like a slap in the face. How the hell could he think that I would betray him like that? That I'd sell him down the river to protect Ranger? Sure I owed Ranger. Probably I owed him my life for getting rid of Abruzzi. Okay, so definitely I owed him my life. But I could never sacrifice one of the men I loved to save the other! And yes, I admit it. I still loved Ranger. I just figured out that I wasn't IN-love with him anymore.
 
Right now, though, there was absolutely nothing I could do but stand there and watch Joe stalk away from me, fury just radiating off of him. I tried to follow him, tried to make him stop and listen to me, but he just shook my hand off his arm and snarled, "Don't bother, Stephanie! I don't wanna hear it!" He climbed into his SUV and took off, peeling away from the curb and down the block so fast that everybody turned to watch.
 
I was so stunned that it took me a full minute to realize that I was standing out on the sidewalk, in front of the whole neighborhood, with tears streaming down my face. Oh swell! Just one more thing to add to the friggin' Burg gossip mill. I swiped at my cheeks and tried to compose myself as Bob and I watched Joe disappear around the corner.
 
I turned to look at the house and a small shiver ran through me. My spidey sense at work, I guess. It was trying to tell me something, I just didn't know what. At this point, I was on emotional overload and was lucky I could figure out my own name, much less what my gut was trying to warn me about. I gave up trying to interpret the tingle and decided to go hide out inside. I guess I was hoping that if I looked tragic enough, I'd make 'em all feel bad, and they'd leave. Remember, deny, deny, deny!
 
So with as much dignity as I could muster, which wasn't a whole lot, I walked Bob down the driveway planning to slip in the back door and hide from the curious stares of the neighbors. I only got halfway there when one of the cops informed me that Bob wasn't allowed in the house. For some strange reason, Bob, who loved everybody, had apparently taken an instant dislike to Detective Malfitano, growling and baring his teeth at him and Bob had been banished from the house. Never let it be said that Bob didn't have good taste.
 
I hooked Bob's leash on the backyard fence and sat on the steps outside the kitchen door, putting my aching head down on my folded arms. I tried to find my happy place but the trouble was I was I ran out of happy a couple of days ago. Ah well, denial would just have to do.
 
Now everybody who knows me knows that denial is my best friend and there's a really good reason for that. See, if I don't go into deep denial and pretend that my problems don't exist, I have this talent to take things to the absolute opposite extreme.
 
A couple of days ago, I was the prime suspect in this whole mess and I was scared to death that I was going to be arrested and charged with murder. I ignored and denied it all as long as I could, but when denial failed me, I had lain awake at night, playing one over the top scenario after another on the inside of my eyelids.
 
I could see myself being arrested and dragged through the Burg in cuffs, my friends and family booing and hissing, turning their backs on me, denying that they knew me. I saw myself being found guilty by a judge wearing a white wig, looking down at me from a high bench, pounding a huge gavel. I could see myself walking up the steps to the scaffold and the hangman's noose, or being led to the guillotine, or burned at the stake. Yeah, yeah, I know. Melodramatic! But that's me for you.
 
But right now what I was seeing was Joe, hating me, blaming me for messing up his life, taking back his marriage proposal, throwing me out on the street. I was terrified that I'd wind up alone and unloved and homeless and it would all be my fault. I wasn't sure I could handle any of that and I sure as hell didn't know how to fix it either.
 
So anyway, there I sat, trying to wrap my head around everything that had happened so I could deny it all to death. I could deny that I was at fault, deny that Joe blamed me, deny that I was scared silly, deny the raw pain in Joe's face, deny that my whole life was falling apart around me and that I had no idea how to put it back together again.
 
It wasn't Joe's anger that got me, though. What hit me like a punch in the stomach was the pain in Joe's eyes, and my heart ached for him. Was that really my fault? Was I such a screw up that I could have caused this and I didn't even realize it? Was I so focused on saving my own ***, and Ranger's, that I could have hung Joe's out to dry? Was it really my fault that Joe was in danger of losing everything that he had worked so hard for?
 
I mean, Joe's a cop. That's who he is. That's how he defines himself. He had worked his *** off to overcome the so-called 'Morelli Family Curse,' to be different from his father and brothers. Sure, he could have followed in the same footsteps the rest of his male relatives and nobody would have batted an eye. People would have just shaken their heads and said, 'Yeah, well he's a Morelli,' as if that excused it all. But Joe wasn't a drunk, he wasn't a cheat, he wasn't an abuser, and the fact that he wasn't any of those things seemed to shock the **** out of everybody. How sad was that?
 
So what if he had a wild youth filled with barroom brawls and street fights and a whole parade of women? So did a lot of other fine upstanding citizens and no one was surprised that they straightened their lives out and became productive adults. Joe pulled himself together and grew up, served a hitch in the Navy and went to the Police Academy. He rose through the ranks and made detective because he put in the hours, worked the crappy cases, toed the line and obeyed the rules. And because he was good at what he did!
 
And now his fellow cops, his brothers in blue, thought that he had thrown it all away by killing Abruzzi. Joe made himself what he was today … a good man, a good cop, and maybe even the guy I was going to marry. Maybe. I felt like we had stepped into some bizarre alternate universe, some Twilight Zone. This was insane … on what planet would anybody think that Joe could be a murderer?
 
Then my thoughts moved on to Ranger, giving me an even bigger headache. I had to wonder if he knew what was going on. Well, that was a stupid question. Of course he knew. The real question was, would he do anything about it? I couldn't believe that Ranger would let an innocent man go to prison, or worse, for a crime he didn't commit, even if that man was Morelli. But what could he do about it? Ranger stepping forward and confessing wouldn't solve anything either.
 
No matter how many times I tried to think this mess through, I always wound up at the same dead end. There was no way to fix this and all my thinking did was make my head spin and make my heart ache more. Even though Ranger wasn't a part of my life anymore, I couldn't bear the thought of him being locked up just because once upon a time he had cared for me enough, loved me enough, to risk everything just to protect me. I was faced with a choice I couldn't make … tell the cops that Ranger had killed Abruzzi, or let Joe pay the price for a something he didn't do. All I could do was pray for a miracle.
 
A crash and a curse from inside the house brought me back to what was going on around me. The state cops, under the supervision of those rat bastards, Rinaldi and Malfitano, were crawling all over the house and garage like ants. I could hear Rinaldi inside the house, choreographing the search and calling for evidence bags, making sure that every nook and cranny was gone through with a fine tooth-comb. I could hear the dishes rattling as they snooped through the kitchen cabinets, drawers opening and closing, furniture being shoved around, the door to the basement banging shut. They crawled through the rafters in the garage and even opened the bags of recycling stuff. Nothing was overlooked, not even the garbage cans.
 
There was a steady stream of evidence bags being carted out, and I just couldn't figure out what they could possibly have found to build a case with. I didn't think I could ever look at a brown paper bag again without my stomach rolling. Malfitano seemed to be in charge of the evidence chain, checking the labels on the bags and making sure they were numbered correctly and put in the Suburbans. Every time he walked up or down the driveway, Bob would growl at him. Malfitano would glare at me and growl back at Bob. Why wasn't I surprised? The man was an animal!
 
It was almost dark when they finally finished processing the place. The cops piled into the Suburbans, packed with their paper bags and took off, leaving only Rinaldi and Malfitano behind. They leaned over the hood of their car for a while, going over the papers on a clipboard, then Rinaldi walked down the driveway and into the back yard, stopping in front of me. I didn't bother to look up at him until he cleared his throat.
 
"Ms. Plum," he started and blew out a heavy breath when he saw that I was crying. "Ms. Plum … Stephanie … I'm sorry for all of this." He laid a hand on my shoulder and slid it down my arm to my elbow, tugging me gently to my feet. Sympathy was written all over his face and I resisted the urge to throw my arms around him and wail on his shoulder. He reached into his jacket pocket and handed me a neatly folded handkerchief that I used to mop my streaming eyes.
 
He cleared his throat again, clearly uncomfortable. "I have to ask you to sign a receipt for the things that have been removed," he said gently. He held out the clipboard and a pen to me, then took a step back. Probably he was afraid I'd start to cry all over him.
 
I took a deep breath and looked at the itemized lists … pages and pages of things. Computers, phone bills, handguns, clothing, shoes, CDs, letters, bullets, bank statements, sales receipts, pill bottles, all kinds of stuff; both Joe's and mine. The lists went on and on and just blurred together until I finally just flipped through pages and initialed each one, shoving the papers back at him. He pulled yellow carbon copies out from between the pages and handed the sheaf of papers to me.
 
"I really am sorry, Stephanie. I wish it could be different." He sounded so genuinely sincere that when he turned away, my hand just sort of shot out and grabbed hold of his arm.
 
"Please, I have to know," I practically begged him. "What did I say that made you change your minds and decide Joe was the suspect instead of me?" I'm sure he could hear the desperation in my voice and see it in my face.
 
Rinaldi's eyebrows shot up toward his receding hairline. "Why would you think it was something you said?"
 
"Well," I stuttered, "it had to be. You were investigating me, had me come in for questioning, and then all of a sudden Joe's suspended and you guys are searching his house."
 
I could see the wheels turning in his head, probably deciding just how much to tell me. "Listen. We questioned a lot of people. We have to look at each one and consider motive, opportunity, all that stuff. Nothing you said pointed us in Morelli's direction. Malfitano was already looking at him. That's all I can say about it. Okay?" and he gave me a fatherly pat on the arm.
 
I nodded and swallowed hard a couple of times, too overcome with relief to actually talk. Oh, thank God! It wasn't my fault after all!
 
Malfitano backed the car up the driveway and honked the horn. "Hurry up, Rinaldi. Move your ***," he yelled. "I wanna get home in time to watch the game."
 
"Hold on," Rinaldi bellowed back, using the same tone. "I'm not done here," and he turned back to say something else to me.
 
He didn't have a chance because Bob went nuts, straining at his leash and barking his head off, trying to get to Malfitano. "Shut up, ya mutt," Malfitano snarled. "Too bad that guy wasn't a better shot." He made a gun with his thumb and index finger, lined up his 'sights' on Bob and made a 'Pow' sound as he 'pulled the trigger', then laughed!
 
The bastard! My hands balled into fists and I took a step toward him. Rinaldi put his hand on my arm to stop me. "Don't. It's never a good idea to assault a police officer, even if he deserves it." He steered me back to the steps and kept hold of my arm until I sat down again. Probably a good thing or else I really would really have been hauled off in cuffs.
 
All of a sudden I knew why my spidey sense had been working overtime. It had to be Malfitano. I didn't trust him when I met first him; there had been something seriously off about the guy. It was plain as day. I was gonna have to keep my eye on him … I was sure something hinky was going on, and I was willing to bet that he was right in the middle of it!
 
"Hey!" Rinaldi bellowed at him, "Cut it out!" He ran a hand over his face and I swear he rolled his eyes before he turned to me. "I'm sorry. He's not himself lately, got something on his mind. Just ignore him." I just sat there and glared at Malfitano who was still snickering.
 
Rinaldi asked if I'd be okay and I nodded, not at all sure I shouldn't go sock the son of a ***** on the jaw just for the hell of it. The good cop patted my shoulder again and got into the car with Malfitano. I watched them pull away, wishing I could give Malfitano the evil eye like Grandma Bella, and he'd get four flat tires and a case of the clap. Rinaldi wasn't so bad, just a nice guy doing a crappy job, stuck with an ******* for a partner. I actually felt sorry for him.
 
I took Bob's leash off and let him roam around the yard while I went into the darkened house. I don't know what I expected, but it sure wasn't what I found when I turned on the kitchen light. The house didn't look like it had been searched; it looked like it had been vandalized!
 
All the kitchen cabinets had been emptied, and even the shelf paper was pulled up. Every dish, pot, pan, glass, towel, and utensil had been dumped on the counter. The stuff from the dishwasher was stacked on the floor and all the cleaning supplies were out from under the sink. The drawers were all pulled out and left all over the place. Everything from the pantry and fridge had been taken out, and all the stuff from the freezer was thawing in the sink. Rex's soup can was upside down and I dug through the cedar chips to make sure that he hadn't been bagged and tagged as evidence. Even the fifty-pound bag of Bob's dog food had been dumped in the middle of the kitchen floor.
 
I wandered through the dining room and living room with my mouth hung open. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Chairs were turned upside down, and the rugs had been pulled up. Pictures had been taken out of their frames, the plant had been dumped out of its pot. The slipcovers had been taken off the couch and the naked cushions strewn on the floor with CDs and books and magazines tossed into the mix. The blinds were lopsided, the curtains skewed, and the heating registers had been unscrewed from the walls. It looked like a bomb had gone off.
 
Upstairs had been trashed. Towels and bottles of shampoo and shower gel had been tossed in the tub and sink as they had searched through the bathroom medicine cabinet and linen closet. Bedding was lying in a heap on the floor, and the mattresses and box springs were off their frames. The closets were a mess, and my shoes had all been dumped out of their boxes. The ******* bastards had dropped Joe's police dress uniform on the floor. Bad enough to disrespect him, but the uniform, too? I vaguely remember picking it up and hanging it back up.
 
All the dresser drawers were empty. My panties and bras were heaped on top of the dresser along with nighties and hose. It meant that they handled everything I owned, and I wanted to drag it all into the backyard and set fire to it. Joe's stuff was tossed haphazardly all over the floor, boxers and t-shirts and socks and jeans and sweats, all mixed together.
 
The mess was overwhelming. It looked like a giant picked up the house, gave it a good shake, and then put it back. It looked fine from the outside, but inside? Holy hell! I was so stunned that I just sort of turned in a circle, looking around me, tears welling up again. I didn't even have a clue where to start to clean up the place.
 
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the doorbell started ringing. Somebody was leaning on the bell and it rang over and over again. I stumbled down the stairs just in time to see the front door fly open and Lula barge in.
 
"Hey, white girl …" she bellowed. "Where the hell are ya?" She stood in the middle of the living room, a vision in neon orange spandex, hands filled with bags from Pino's and Cluck In A Bucket and Dunkin Donuts.
 
"Hold it down, she's not deaf!" Connie sniped and came in to stand next to her. "Jesus!" was all she could squeak out as she looked around at the wreckage. She held a case of Corona with a pizza box balanced on top.
 
"Holy ****! What a mess!" Mary Lou stopped in the doorway with a cake and a bag that I hoped held ice cream. "Man! Do we have our work cut out for us!" She kicked the door closed and sighed, "Okay, let's get busy."
 
"What are you guys doing here?" I sniffed tearfully from behind them.
 
The three of them spun around and descended on me. "We heard what was goin' down here. I seen searches before. They ain't neat. Figured you could use a hand straightenin' up." They plunked the food down on the coffee table, and Lula pulled me into a bear hug. Connie and Mary Lou joined in and, even though I'm not a huggy person, it was just exactly what I needed.
 
"And you brought me comfort food, too!" I said as we stood with our arms around each other, me leaking tears. "I don't even kn-know w-where to st-sta-a-art," and I really lost it then, bawling my eyes out.
 
"Well, I do," Mary Lou said as she patted my back. "Life's too short, eat dessert first!" She pulled a pint of Phish Food out of the bag, grabbed me by the hand and dragged me into the kitchen. She ripped off about a yard of paper towels for me to blow my nose, then found a spoon in the mess on the counter, washed it off and dug out a chunk of ice cream. I think my eyes rolled back in my head when she shoved it into my mouth, and pushed me into a kitchen chair.
 
With the efficiency of somebody who had a lot of practice, she loaded the dishwasher saying that we wouldn't want to use stuff after strangers had handled it. She got rid of all the food that had been left out and washed all the utensils, countertops, and cabinets. She gave Rex a new soup can and even swept up and re-bagged fifty pounds of dog food. In no time, everything was wiped down, cleaned up, and put away.
 
By the time Mary Lou finished the kitchen, I had licked the ice cream container clean and had my second wind. Okay, so it was my first wind, but at least I was finally able to do something besides stand there and cry like an idiot.
 
Mary Lou tackled the dining room, and I took on the living room, and we could both hear Connie and Lula yelling at each other as they moved stuff around upstairs, in between trips to the washer and dryer in the basement, that is. I had finished stuffing the couch cushions back into their covers and was folding the afghan when Connie strolled through the living room carrying a laundry basket with all my undies in it and headed back upstairs.
 
"Last load! All nice and clean," she held out the basket. "Oh, and Lula wants me to tell you that you're gonna have to put away Joe's stuff yourself," she said with a wink.
 
"Damn skippy!" Lula yelled down the stairs. "I ain't folding no bunny boxers, no way!" I had to smile at the thought of Joe's reaction to Lula rummaging through his underwear.
 
It was well after midnight by the time we finished cleaning up the house and polished off the food and the beer. The girls didn't even ask me anything about Joe, like where he was or why he wasn't helping with the clean up. I was pretty sure that they already knew about Joe snarling at me and stomping off in a huff … the Burg grape vine at its finest. I was worried about him, though. I knew that he was hurting, and I wondered where he was, if he was still angry and blaming me.
 
Hours later I was still sitting at the kitchen table when I heard the front door open and close softly. Bob was sprawled under the table and his tail thumped the floor, Joe was home. I heard him walk quietly through the living room and dining room and stop in the kitchen doorway. I just stared down at my bottle of now warm, flat beer, waiting I suppose, to see what his mood was.
 
"Couldn't sleep?" he asked.
 
I shrugged my shoulder. "Didn't try," I answered and glanced up at him. He was leaning against the kitchen doorway, hands jammed into his pockets, looking totally miserable… probably as miserable as I felt. I didn't say anything else, just kept playing with that stupid beer bottle.
 
He took a couple of steps into the room. "I drove to Point. Walked the whole boardwalk a couple of times. Realized what a jackass I was and came home." He took a deep breath and blew it out. "I wasn't sure you'd still be here."
 
That made me look up at him in surprise. "You thought I'd leave?"
 
"I wouldn'ta blamed you. I acted like a real jerk. You didn't deserve to be treated like that." He took another step toward me, "I didn't mean …" he started.
 
"I never said any…" I said at the same time, and we both stopped a little awkwardly.
 
"Look," I tried again, but he cut me off. "Me first," he said, and came over and squatted down beside me, taking my hands in his. "I can't apologize enough, Steph. I shouldn't have jumped on you like that. I was angry and frustrated and just so … Anyway, I took it out on you and that was wrong. Honest to God, I didn't mean what I said. I know you'd never …" he finished kind of lamely.
 
The tears welled up in my eyes again. "Joe, you have to believe me, I would never use you to try to protect …"
 
"I know, I know," he stood up, pulling me up out of the chair and into his arms. "I know you wouldn't. I'm sorry I hurt you."
 
We just stood like that for a long time, holding onto each other, both of us emotionally drained and dog tired. When I looked up at him, he kissed me gently and took my hand, leading me through the house and up to bed. There wouldn't be any balls to the wall or wild make-up sex tonight. We just held onto each other, lost in our own thoughts. Birds were chirping when I finally drifted off.
 
It was the middle of the afternoon when I finally made it downstairs and stumbled into the kitchen, plopping down in a chair across the table from Joe, both my eyes tightly shut. I laid my head on the table and only raised it when Joe wrapped my hand around a mug of coffee. He knew better than to talk to me before I had my first cup. I slurped at it in desperation and after a few minutes, the caffeine kicked in and I could pry my eyes open.
 
Joe was sitting hunched over the table, tapping his fingers on the stack of papers in front of him… the carbon copies of the itemized lists of 'evidence' that was carted out of the house yesterday. I realized that he was dressed up, his suit jacket hanging over the back of his chair, his tie pulled loose. And he looked worried, real worried.
 
I knew he wanted to talk about something, and he was waiting until I had my second cup of coffee before he started. Guess he knew I wasn't awake enough to process anything yet. Finally, I just said, "Okay, what is it that you're trying so hard not to tell me?"
 
He sighed and leaned back in his chair, scrubbing his hands over his face. "I spent the morning on the phone with my union rep," he took a deep breath, "and he told me I need to get a lawyer. He's pretty sure it's only a matter of time before I'm arrested."
 
My stomach immediately rolled, and I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat, fighting the urge to bolt for the bathroom. I just nodded because I didn't trust my voice not to crack, and the screaming headache I'd had yesterday came back full force. I had been holding on to the hope that everybody would realize their mistake and this would all just go away. Guess that wasn't going to happen.
 
"He, uh, recommended a team of criminal defense lawyers that he thought could handle this case. I went to see them while you were asleep."
 
I squeezed my eyes tight shut so that the tears that were welling up wouldn't slip out. The last thing that Joe needed was me blubbering all over the place. "So what did they say?" I managed to choke out.
 
He got up from the table and started to pace the length of the kitchen and back. "Okay, look Steph, I know that you're not gonna like this, but like it or not, I'm pretty sure they're on the right track here."
 
I didn't say anything, just watched him pace, a rock forming in my stomach at what he was going to tell me.
 
Joe cut right to the chase. "They think the only reason that the Attorney General zeroed in on me as Abruzzi's killer is because of your association with Abruzzi," he took a deep breath before he dropped the other shoe, "and my relationship with you."
 
"What? I can't believe you're still blaming me? We weren't even together then!" I jumped up and stood in front of him, hands on hips, ready to fight.
 
He took me by my shoulders and pushed me back down into my chair. "Stephanie, listen to me!" I could hear the aggravation in his voice and that only pissed me off more. "I'm not blaming you, but it's a fact that we have to deal with. The only connection I had with Abruzzi was through you. The lawyers think the AG's office will try to pin this on me by using you. You know, you were in danger and I came to the rescue, I was trying to impress you to get you back. That kind of ****. And now here we are, together again, proving that they could be right."
 
"So now what do we do?"
 
"So now I don't know what. I have another appointment with them Monday afternoon and they should have a plan worked out by then." He ran his hands through his hair and started pacing again.
 
A plan! That's what we needed. A plan was a good thing, right?
 
Joe stopped in front of the sink and looked out the kitchen window. "There's something we haven't ever talked about." He turned his head to look at me, his hands gripping the edge of the sink. "We both know that I didn't kill Abruzzi," he looked back out the window, "and we both know who did."
 
My heart stuttered in my chest. Joe was right; we'd never talked about it. As far as we knew, only the three of us, Ranger, Joe and me, really knew what had happened to Abruzzi, and Joe had made it perfectly clear that it wasn't a subject for conversation. He was a cop, and he was covering up a crime. He'd be in enough trouble if anybody found out about that. Now that had come back to bite us both in the ***.
 
I held my hands out helplessly. "We never talked about it either … I mean Ranger and me. Neither one of us ever said a word about it."
 
"You're not gonna want to hear this," he said on a sigh, "but I think now's the time for you to have that talk with him."
 
"You want me to go to Ranger and tell him what, exactly, that he needs to confess?" I practically squeaked.
 
Joe sighed in exasperation. "He needs to know that I'm not taking the fall for him."
 
"Oh, Jesus, Joe! I really think you should tell him that yourself." I was up and pacing now too. This was getting worse by the minute.
 
"Yeah, like he'd be real anxious to turn himself in to get me off the hook." Sarcasm dripped from his words.
 
"And what makes you think he'd do that for me?" I almost yelled it at him.
 
"Stephanie, the man killed for you. He loves you," Joe said matter-of-factly.
 
I snorted, "Not at this point he doesn't," I muttered under my breath.
 
Joe narrowed his eyes and looked at me. "What? Is there something you're not telling me? Something I oughtta know?"
 
I turned in my chair to look at Joe. "If it had been the other way around, if Ranger had taken Val and me home and you were left to deal with Abruzzi, what would you have done? Would you have handled it the same way?" Joe's eyes held mine for a long second, then slid away. I had my answer. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and left, off to I didn't know where.
 
I just sat with my elbows on the table and my head in my hands, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to say to Ranger. Joe told me that our phones were probably tapped, but I couldn't very well just call Ranger with something like this anyway. I had to talk to him in person, so I had to get to Miami and face him. And I'd have to go alone, because Joe had been ordered not to leave town. Plus he was being tailed everyplace he went. I hoped that I wasn't. I needed to be real careful that I didn't do anything to clue in the AG's office that Ranger was involved. I'd already done enough damage to Joe's life.
 
Thanks to Tank, I was on Monday night's red eye to Miami on 'confidential RangeMan business', for the benefit of any cops who might be looking. To say that I was nervous was the understatement of the century. If any of the other passengers on the plane complained about it being a bumpy flight, they had me to thank for that. I was absolutely shaking in my shoes at the thought of facing Ranger.
 
I wasn't able to sleep on the plane, and I'd had enough coffee that I had the shakes from caffeine overload. Ranger had always told me that he was an opportunist and that I shouldn't give any information or advantage to the enemy, so I purposely hadn't worn my RangeMan uniform. I didn't want to give him the advantage of dealing with a lowly employee. I chose a short black skirt with matching jacket, a white silk wrap blouse and peep toe pumps to give me confidence; not just to show off my best assets, honest.
 
A trip to the airport ladies room to freshen my makeup just confirmed my worst fears. I looked pale and scared. Crap! I might as well just serve myself up to him on a platter like a sacrificial lamb. I pulled out my mascara and slathered on two extra coats … courage in a tube. I added a swipe of ***** red lipstick, at least now I was supposed to look pale. That was my story and I was sticking with it!
 
7:30 am found me at the reception desk in the RangeMan Miami building waiting for the Merry Man who'd take me up to Ranger's office. Somehow or other I knew that Ranger was watching me on the in-house security monitors. I tried to act cool and composed and looked straight into the camera lens. Take that, Ranger! You don't scare me … much.
 
Ranger stood up when I was escorted into his office, but didn't bother to greet me, just motioned to a guest chair. I sat down, and there were about sixty really long seconds of awkward silence while we just stared at each. My heart hammered in my chest so hard I was sure he could hear it. No matter how long it had been since we had seen each other, that man always had the same effect on me.
 
He wore his hair loose, longer than I'd ever seen it, and his skin tone was a shade darker; probably from being out in the Miami sun. He was still all in black, but not the normal t-shirt and cargoes. Instead, he was wearing lightweight black dress pants and a black silk shirt, open at the throat, sleeves rolled up. He looked every bit as delicious as he ever did. And I missed him.
 
Finally, he broke the silence. "You wanted this appointment, Stephanie. What did you want to see me about?"
 
I looked down at my hands in my lap and cleared my throat. "I guess you know all about the Abruzzi investigation?"
 
He nodded once, but didn't say anything. He wasn't going to make this easy on me.
 
"I have to admit that I was pretty scared when the Attorney General's office decided I was their prime suspect," I said with a rueful smile.
 
Ranger didn't say anything, just sat there with his fingers steepled, watching me, his blank face firmly in place.
 
"But it's even worse now that they're focused on Joe."
 
Oh, Ranger was an opportunist alright! He was trying to keep me off balance with this one-sided conversation. But I wasn't going to give him the advantage, so I just plowed right on.
 
"I wanted you to know that Joe and I haven't said anything to the police about … um … your … involvement in the matter." I could have kicked myself for stumbling over the words.
 
"And you came more than a thousand miles just to tell me that?" His voice was as emotionless as the expression on his face. "Why?"
 
"Because …" I licked my lips, "because I can't let Joe go to jail for killing Abruzzi." The words came out of me in a rush.
 
"So … you what?" He raised an eyebrow, "You came to blackmail me? Threaten to tell the cops if I don't turn myself in to save your boyfriend?" He leaned back in his chair, crossed his long legs and stared at me.
 
I was on my feet in a heartbeat, my hands flat on his desk, leaning toward him, my nervousness replaced by fury. "I came because I owe you more than I can ever repay. I came because Joe told me that he wouldn't go to jail for something you did. I thought I came to warn you. My mistake. I won't take up any more of your precious time!"
 
Turning my back on Ranger, I grabbed up my purse and headed for the door. I got about halfway across the room before he caught up with me and grabbed my arm, hauling me around to face him. I was so angry that I was vibrating. Right at that moment I think I hated him, and I yanked my arm away as hard as I could. I actually raised my hand to slap him, but he wrapped his hands around my wrists and, with a growl, backed me against the wall. I struggled against him, but he trapped me by pressing my hands next to my head, holding me there with his weight.
 
He leaned his body against mine, and I could feel the heat radiating off him. The heady mix of Bulgari and Ranger brought a flood of memories I thought I had banished a long time ago. Our bodies knew each other, craved each other, and I could feel his mouth and his hands on me lighting fires everywhere he touched. I could feel our bodies moving together, my fingernails digging into him, my legs wrapped around him. I could feel him in me and I knew from his ragged breathing that he felt all the same things.

 
"Tell me!" he murmured, his mouth close to my ear. "Tell me why you came here." His lips skimmed my cheek, my jaw, my neck, his hot breath making me shiver. My eyes drifted shut, and the temptation to give myself over to the sensations that he shot through me was almost overpowering. "Tell me!" he demanded against my mouth.
 
"Morelli …" I stammered. "I can't let him go to jail, to lose everything …" I managed to gasp out.
 
He pulled back and studied my face with dark, hooded eyes. "Is that why you came here, Stephanie? You want me to help you clear Morelli?" His voice was cold and flat again.
 
I tried to keep my face blank, my eyes flat like he had. "Yes."
 
He stiffened and pushed away from me, stepping back and folding his arms over his chest just staring at me. "I'll consider it," he finally said, all business, and dismissed me, turning back to his desk.
 
I had my hand on the doorknob when he spoke again. "Stephanie," he said sharply, and I turned to look at him again. "If I do agree to help you, there will be a price."
 
I shouldn't have been surprised that he would ask for payment. I guess he really was the opportunist he always told me he was.
 
His eyes never left mine as he stalked across the room, closing the distance between us. I fought the sudden need to run. "Are you willing to pay it?" he asked, his eyes searching mine. He reached out to thread his fingers into my hair. Moving still closer, he bent his head down, "No matter what it is?" his lips whispered against my mouth, his hand sliding around to lay on the back of my neck.
 
I gave him a single nod, agreeing to God only knew what. He put his arm around my waist and pulled me against him, kissing me, hard and greedy. His tongue forced its way into my mouth and his hand tightened on the back of my neck. There was nothing loving or romantic about the kiss and it let me know exactly what he wanted from me.
 
"It's no wonder Morelli loves you," he whispered to me.
 
"A long time ago," I said softly, "I had myself convinced that you loved me, too."
 
"What changed your mind?" he asked.
 
"When you starve something, Ranger, you kill it. A slow death, maybe, but it always dies."
 
I saw something in his eyes then, something I couldn't identify … heat… hunger… need, all the same things I felt. At that moment, I realized that no matter what ever happened between us, some part of me would always belong to this man.
 
I pulled out of his arms and walked out the door.
 
I had made a big mistake in coming here. I knew what I had to do to protect both Joe and Ranger, and I had to get back to Trenton to do it.
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

Your detailing of officers of the law are on the money. My father always said, ''We play everyone against each other. " Your writing is movie material that the public yearns for. You have everything in your story ...comedy, humour, passion and danger and much more. Reading on.