What I Did For Love - Chapter 9

Chapter 9: Why? Because I Love You!
If you love someone you would be willing to give up everything for them, but if they loved you back they'd never ask you to.
'Stephanie'? Me? Ranger wanted me? I was the price for his help? All that lovely relief I had felt just seconds ago suddenly evaporated into thin air, replaced by the wave of outrage that washed over me. What the hell did he think I was, a car that Joe could just sign over the title on? Who the hell did he think he was that he could just demand me?
Okay, okay! I guess maybe I expected another de Chooch deal, but I thought it'd be a private arrangement, not that he'd go to Joe with it. I'll admit that when he told me there would be a price, I got a little flutter of lust in the pit of my stomach. Not that Joe's any slouch in that department, but Ranger and I can make magic together.
And Joe, the louse! He went straight to the top of my **** list, too. How dare he manipulate me into going to Miami and humiliate myself by asking for Ranger's help! All he had to do was pick up the damn phone and call Ranger himself. If he had been up front with me, told me he thought there was a better chance that Ranger would do me a favor, well, I probably would have gone anyway. Who the hell did he think he was, using me like that?
I was so furious that I was shaking. It took every ounce of control I had not to march into that living room and tell them just exactly what I thought of them! At that point I could have happily killed them both. It sure would've made me feel a whole lot better and it certainly would've solved all my problems… well, except that I really would have been guilty of murder, of course. But if I could get an all female jury, probably I could plead temporary insanity and they'd let me off, 'cause let's face it, those two were driving me nuts!
Okay, so murder wasn't really an option. All I could do was stand there, plastered against the wall, listening to them sniping at each other and watching their ******* contest.
Shock and then anger registered on Joe's face. "What the hell do you mean, 'Stephanie'?" he snarled. "You want Stephanie as payment for proving me innocent of a murder you committed?"
Ranger's shoulders shook in silent laughter. "You conveniently forget one little point, Morelli."
"What are you talking about? What point?" Confusion laced his voice.
Ranger smiled full out. "Since you knew exactly what I intended to do and you didn't make a move to stop me, under the law, that makes you guilty of complicity. If I'm guilty, you are too, so you can drop the innocent act. It might work on Stephanie, but not on me."
"You son of a *****!" Joe raised his hands and curled them into fists, taking a step toward Ranger.
Ranger calmly glanced down at Joe's fisted hands, then back at his face. "That wouldn't be a wise move, Morelli. You really don't want to **** me off. I'm offering you a proposition that will give us both what we want. You get your life back and I get Stephanie."
Joe dropped his hands to his sides. "It's not a proposition, it's blackmail! I always said you were a crazy bastard, Manoso, but if you think I'd take you up on something like this, you really are out of your ******* mind!"
"Your choice. What's it worth to you to walk away a free man?" Ranger said evenly.
Joe shook his head in disbelief and gave a derisive snort. "I always knew you had a thing for her… you've been trying to get in her pants for years. You think that I don't know that you come sniffing around whenever we get together? Or that you disappear when we break up? This is just a game to you. You don't really want her; you just don't want me to have her either."
"Well, you tell yourself whatever you like. Just remember, people aren't exactly lined up to help you out. When opportunity knocks …" He left the rest unsaid.
"What makes you think I'd agree to a stunt like this? You think I'd just hand her over to the likes of you?" Joe's mouth twisted in disgust. "For all your expensive clothes and cars, under it all you're just a thug, a mercenary!" Joe ground out through clenched teeth.
"Sticks and stones, Morelli. Doesn't change the facts. I'm here because Stephanie asked me to help you." He gave Joe a wry smile. "You're the one who said I was a mercenary. You really wouldn't expect a mercenary to work for free, now would you?"
"You're really are a goddamned lunatic if you think I'd ever go along with this scheme! And even if I did, what about Stephanie?"
"Leave her out of it, this isn't her decision. I'm offering you this deal; you decide whether or not to take it. This is between you and me, just us, man to man. We each have something the other wants. It's as simple as that … an even trade."
"Always the opportunist, huh, Manoso? Just sitting back and waiting for a chance to try to get her away from me."
"I'm not going to argue my motives with you, Morelli. I've never tried to hide the fact that I was an opportunist," Ranger said with a shrug. "I could always just wait for you to be arrested. I could move in on her then, and make her forget all about you, and you know it!"
"You have the morals of a tom cat," Joe growled at him. "You think I don't know what goes on in that alley by Vinnie's… all the times you dragged her back there into the shadows to play your little pat and tickle games? This is the Burg for Christ sake! Everybody knows!" He gave Ranger a smug grin. "You wanna know why I've never said anything about it? Why it never bothered me? Because she leaves you in the shadows where you belong, and it's my bed she shares every night. I'm the one she spreads her legs for. I'm the one who gets to **** her," he sneered.
Ranger raised an eyebrow. "That's not how I would describe that particular pleasure," he said, baiting Joe.
Joe snorted, "One you'll never know. Stephanie would never go for one of your deals!"
Ranger turned toward the door, a smirk on his face, and my heart dropped to my feet. If Joe noticed Ranger's expression, he'd be sure to question it. I had to clap a hand over my mouth to keep from yelling at them and giving myself away.
"She already has."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Joe demanded.
The silence was deafening. My heart stopped beating, and I forgot how to breathe. Oh God! Ranger wouldn't tell Joe about the de Chooch deal, would he? He wouldn't tell Joe that I had already accepted one of his deals and had traded my body for his help. He wouldn't do that … he wouldn't betray me by telling Joe. My stomach rolled at the thought.
I pushed away from the wall, but before I could get into the living room, Ranger was answering Joe's question. "When she came to Miami I made it clear that my help carried a price. She agreed to pay it, whatever it was."
"You're full of ****, Manoso! She'd never agree to anything like that!"
"Why don't we ask her?" Ranger hadn't given any indication that he knew I was there, but still, he walked into the dining room and held out his hand to me. I just stood there slumped against the wall, frozen, staring at his hand. I felt like my feet were nailed to the floor and I couldn't have moved if my life depended on it. Ranger came closer and put his hand on the small of my back, nudging me gently into the living room.
Joe was surprised, though. He obviously had no idea I had been listening. I'm no good at hiding my emotions, so I guess both of them could see the shock and anger and disappointment and fear that I was feeling. Joe blew out a breath and looked at the floor, Ranger wore his blank face. Big surprise!
"Did you?" Joe asked me, his voice tight.
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out, so I just gave him one of Ranger's almost imperceptible nods. Joe ran his hands through his hair and turned away to look out the front window. We all just stood there for a minute, silent.
"And just exactly what is that price?" Joe finally asked.
I shook my head and lifted a shoulder. Ranger had said there would be a price, but he never named it.
Ranger didn't even look at me. He was talking to Joe, totally ignoring me, as if I wasn't even there. "Stephanie will move into the penthouse." My eyes shot to his, but they were flat and cold, like a shark's. Corporate Ranger, the consummate businessman, didn't give any inkling of what he was feeling, if he was feeling anything at all. This wasn't a negotiation, this was the bottom line.
"She'll work for my company. Eat at my table. Sleep in my bed …"
"NO!" Joe roared. "Get the hell outta my house, you son of a *****!" Joe tried to grab Ranger by the lapels, but Ranger blocked Joe's hands and shoved him back a couple of steps.
"That's the deal, Morelli. Take it or leave it. The choice is yours." Ranger turned, and without looking at me, walked out the door and down the steps to his car.
I heard the chirp of the door locks on the Mercedes opening, and it was like I had been unlocked, too. Before I realized what I was doing, I had flown out of the house and into the street after him, rage seeping out of every pore on my body. I literally flung myself at Ranger, my teeth bared and my hands curled into claws. I went straight for his face, determined to rip that smug grin right off him.
He spun at the last second and grabbed me by my upper arms, pinning them to my sides and trapping me between his body and the car.
"I hate you!" I snarled at him while I struggled against his hands. "I can't believe I ever thought I was in love with you! I hate you for doing this to me," I hissed at him, literally vibrating with fury.
He shook his head and gave me a grim smile. "The opposite of love isn't hate, Stephanie. The opposite of love is apathy, and you feel anything but indifference toward me. You wouldn't be this angry if there wasn't still something between us."
He slid his fingers down my left arm to my hand and, taking my ring finger between his thumb and forefinger, lifted my hand. "Why haven't you accepted his proposal, Stephanie? Why aren't you wearing his ring?" He rubbed the pad of his thumb over my naked finger. "Tell me, what's keeping you from saying 'Yes' to him?"
His eyes were boring into me, but I refused to answer him, not that I had any answer to give him. I tried to yank my hand away, but he held it too tightly. My breath hitched in my throat, and I was so angry I was afraid I'd start to cry … the final humiliation. "I never want to see you again," came out in a breathless whisper.
Ranger looked past me to where Joe was standing in the doorway. "Oh, but you will, Stephanie. Sooner than you think, you will." To my shock he raised my hand and kissed my ring finger, then bent his head and brushed a soft kiss over my mouth. He dropped his hands from my arms, got into his car, and pulled away leaving me standing in the middle of the street, fuming!
I turned back to the house and saw Joe standing in the doorway, arms folded over his chest, outrage written all over his face. I stomped past him into the living room, headed for the kitchen, and he slammed the door so hard the whole house shook.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" he bellowed at me. "You let that bastard kiss you in the middle of the street…"
"Morelli," I yelled right back. "Cut it out! You can be as pissed off at Ranger as you want, but don't you dare try to take it out on me! I'm just as mad, but I'm not working it off on you!" I whirled around and slammed through the swinging door into the kitchen.
In all the months we'd been together, we hadn't had one of our famous fights. Maybe that should be infamous? You know the kind I mean, the ones with the arm waving, yelling, and creative Italian hand gestures. I certainly wasn't in the mood to have one now, but if Morelli thought I was gonna let him work off his unspent Ranger anger on me, he had another thing coming.
Actually, I wasn't in much better shape. I was so furious with both of them I didn't know what to do with myself. I stalked around the kitchen, picked up a coffee cup and put it down again, got a bottle of water out of the fridge and then put it back, paced, wadded up a towel and fired it across the room, muttering under my breath the whole time. I was so mad I wanted to hit something and if Morelli came through the door, he'd be on the top of my list to use as a punching bag.
Rex even came out of his can to watch me stamp around. He twitched his whiskers and gave me that look with his beady little eyes … and I think he arched an eyebrow at me. Another male on my **** list. "What?" I snapped at him. I swear to God he held up his paws in an 'I didn't say a word' gesture and beat a hasty retreat back to his soup can. Too bad that the smartest man in my life had four feet!
I stood staring out into the backyard where Bob was basking in the sunshine, trying to calm myself down so I could wrap my head around everything that had happened. Well, at least now I knew what Ranger's price was, and I had to admit that I really wasn't all that surprised. I kinda expected that's what it would be. That particular deal had worked so well for him the first time around, why shouldn't he try it again? I just never thought he'd go to Morelli with it. That's the part that threw me. I just couldn't figure out why he went to Joe.
I didn't turn around when I heard the door swing open and Joe come into the kitchen. I guess I put the fear of God into him because he just stood on the other side of the room. "You know I'd never take him up on that deal, right?" he said to my back.
"Honestly, Joe?" I said with a deep sigh, "I don't know what I know anymore. I never thought Ranger would do anything like that. I never thought you would use me the way you did." I turned to face him and threw my hands up in frustration. "I'm angry and hurt and scared and so many other things I can't even name them. I feel like a little kid. I want somebody to put their arms around me and tell me not to worry about it, that everything'll be all right." I scrubbed my hands over my face and through my hair. "I just don't know anything anymore."
Joe didn't say a word, but came over and tried to wrap his arms around me. I knew he meant well, but I held out a hand to ward him off. "You can't be the comfort when you're part of the problem, Joe." I wasn't trying to hurt him, but I could tell from the look on his face that I had.
I dug in my pocket for his car keys and handed them to him. "I think you better run the rest of your errands yourself. I need some space." He watched as I went out and got into my own car and drove off. Funny how I'd been needing 'some space' a lot lately. The stress of the whole situation was playing hell with our nerves, and we both seemed to be taking it out on one another.
Driving around always helped me clear my head and calm down. This time, though, I paid real close attention to where I drove. No way was I gonna wind up parked in front of RangeMan again. Jeez! Wouldn't that just be the perfect message to send Ranger?
Instead, I drove to the Quakerbridge Mall and power walked the whole mall a couple of times. The fact that I didn't even buy anything should tell you the state I was in. Hell! I didn't even stop to look at the Jimmy Choos that were on sale. As I walked, I ran one scenario after another through my head, visualizing how I'd like to torture Joe and Ranger. I actually found myself smiling at some of the things I came up with. Revenge is sweet, even if it's only make believe.
I decided that since it sounded like Ranger wanted to lock me up at RangeMan like some kind of pet, I'd lock him in a cage like Rex, and only feed him fried food, McDonald's, and birthday cake… no egg white omelets, fat free yogurt, or green stuff. I wouldn't let him have a wheel, either. Nope, no exercise for him! The thought of 'Mr. That Stuff Is Gonna Kill You' living every day feeling his arteries clog up made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Maybe I'd let him waddle away when he weighed five hundred pounds and his heart was ready to explode. If the rat even had a heart.
As for Joe, that one was easy. I'd just let him go to jail for killing Abruzzi. He manipulated me, got me to do what he should have done himself. The louse needed a taste of his own medicine. The prison guards would be more than happy to tell him where to go and what to do and when to do it. A year or so of having someone else control every move he made should be enough, don't you think?
It took a while, but I finally got over my snit. I had to keep reminding myself that nothing Ranger or Joe did was really important. Pretty soon I was gonna be sitting in a jail cell where they could deal and manipulate to their heart's content, and it wouldn't make any difference at all.
No matter how pissed I was at both of them, I was still going through with my plan to confess. I had to, it was my responsibility. It was the only way I could make things right for everybody.
About halfway back to Morelli's house, I realized that I had picked up a tail. It was following a block behind me, and probably had been all the way from the mall parking lot, but I hadn't noticed. Since it was a big, black, shiny SUV, I wasn't particularly worried. Pissed? Yeah. Worried? No. Ranger probably wanted to make sure that I didn't try to escape, just in case Joe took him up on the deal. Bastard!
I walked through the house, looking for Joe and found him in the backyard, throwing a ball for Bob. I grabbed a couple of beers and sat out on the back steps, watching them, Joe grim faced and Bob in his glory. Something was up.
Without turning around, Joe finally said, "Your friend Linda, the court reporter called. She said she sneaked a look at the court clerk's schedule and the Prosecutor will be presenting my case to the Grand Jury tomorrow." He looked down at the ball he was turning in his hand. "Looks like this is it, Steph." He threw the ball one last time and finally turned to look at me. I saw such pain in his eyes that, in a heartbeat, I was off the steps and had my arms around him.
"Don't worry, Joe," I told him, running my hand soothingly up and down his back. "Everything'll be all right. I promise." Wasn't it ironic that I should be saying the same words to Joe that I wanted someone to say to me?
He kissed me on the top of the head and blew out a deep breath. "How about we make a night of it. I'll call Rossini's for reservations, and we'll dress up and eat and dance and have ourselves a night to remember." He stepped back and looked at me, forcing a smile. "I'm sick and tired of hiding in the house waiting for the axe to fall. Let's go have some fun!"
And that's just what we did. The fact that half the patrons at Rossini's openly stared at us, whispering behind their hands, didn't put a damper on our night. Much as I love Rossini's food, I couldn't tell you what I ate or even if I ate. But we drank wine and danced and held each other close. When we finally got home we spent the rest of the night making slow, sweet love to each other, sharing the only comfort we had to give. If Joe noticed the black SUV that had followed us all night and was now parked down the street, he didn't mention it. He didn't let Ranger intrude on our night together.
I didn't sleep, just lay there watching Joe until the sun came up. It was a rainy, grey day, perfect for the mood I was in. I got up as quietly as I could; I didn't have the heart to wake Joe who had barely slept at all these last few weeks. I made coffee, took care of Bob, and slipped out of the house.
I pulled into Dunkin' Donuts, got myself a cappuccino and, because my stomach was still a little squinchy from all the stress, a couple of plain cake donuts. Taking my usual table in the back, I pulled out my notes on the Abruzzi file. I'd been studying the police and ME's reports and spread it all out on the table so I could go over it one last time.
I looked at my watch. Right now the Grand Jury was deciding whether or not to indict Joe. If they did, I had to be ready to go to Malfitano and Rinaldi with my confession. I had to be very good, very convincing, because I had to make sure they believed me when I told them that I was the one who killed Abruzzi.
I ran my story through my mind over and over again. I had to have it down pat, and I had to act and sound natural. I had to be ready to answer any questions they threw at me. Keeping the story simple would help. At least I'd be able to keep it straight in my own head. I planned on telling them that I felt so guilty for Joe taking the rap for something I did, that I just couldn't keep quiet any more.
I decided that I was gonna say that Abruzzi called me while I was at the hospital that night, having the burn treated. He wanted to talk about Evelyn and Annie Soder, and told me to meet him in the Farmers' Market parking lot. I'd say I was scared to go, but I was more scared not to. He had already kidnapped me and Val, and had hurt me. I still had the scar on my arm to prove it. The cops knew he was insane, so if I told them he threatened to go after my nieces if I didn't do what he wanted, I was pretty sure they'd believe me.
I'd say I was afraid he'd try to hurt me again. I mean, look what he had already done to me! So, I brought along a gun, a throw down piece I bought off a guy on Stark Street when I first started bounty hunting. I'd tell the cops that I waited for Joe to fall asleep and then I sneaked out of the house and drove to the Farmers' Market. Abruzzi tried to attack me and I pulled out the gun, we struggled, the gun went off, and I panicked. I went to the bonds office, it was only a couple of blocks away, and typed up the suicide note on the computer. I went back to Abruzzi's car and left the note and the gun.
I'd tell them I snuck back into Joe's house and took the pain pills I got at the hospital. When I woke up in the morning, Joe told me that Abruzzi had committed suicide, and I tried to put the whole thing behind me. I never dreamed it would come back to bite me, or anybody else, in the ***. But since it had and I couldn't let an innocent man pay for my actions, I would go to their office and tell them what really happened. I didn't want a jury trial. I just wanted to plead guilty and get it over with. That was my story and I was gonna stick to it!
My cell phone chirped, and my heart dropped when I saw that it was Linda. The Grand Jury was deliberating whether or not to return an indictment against Joe. She told me she'd call as soon as she had any news. I needed to get back to Joe so that we could wait this out together. I quickly gathered up my papers and since I wouldn't be needing them anymore, I threw them into the trash at the donut shop. The guys waiting in the black SUV got a little finger wave as I drove past them. I might as well let them know that their stealth cloaking device wasn't working and I could see them.
I made Joe breakfast to kill some time. Oh, stop laughing! I know how to make French toast and microwave bacon! Anyway, we ate and then sat and just stared at the phone, willing it to ring and end the torture of waiting. I swear that those were the longest hours of my life. Joe's, too.
I didn't want to jinx our luck by getting ready to go talk to Malfitano and Rinaldi if I didn't have to, but I needed to keep busy so I wouldn't go completely nuts. I showered and shaved and buffed and puffed. Joe helped. I was going to seriously miss his talented fingers and mouth once I was incarcerated, so we just took our time and enjoyed each other. I was pretty sure he was thinking the same thing about me. He leaned in the doorway and watched while I did my hair and makeup, almost like he'd never seen me do it before, and I watched him shave. We didn't say much to each other, a good thing really, since I had a lump in my throat the size of Iowa.
Joe followed me into the bedroom, smiling as I shimmied into a lacy bra and panties. I took a little longer than I usually would, knowing that he was enjoying the show. I heaved a sigh when I looked at the closet with my clothes all lined up, and the boxes upon boxes of shoes. This was probably my last chance to choose what I wanted to wear before I traded in my wardrobe for a prison jumpsuit. Orange is SO not my color.
I'd already decided what to wear, after all, clothes make the woman and I wanted to be taken seriously. I figured that this was like a job interview or an audition, so I needed to dress the part. I chose a black pencil skirt that hit just above my knees, a matching short jacket, and sapphire scoop-necked sweater. Black peep toe pumps, a small bag and silver jewelry finished my 'last day as a free woman' ensemble. I spritzed on a shot of 'Dolce Vita' and I called myself done.
When Linda did call, the news wasn't good. Joe still thought I was going to go hand Malfitano and Rinaldi Ranger's head on a silver platter. He had no clue what I was really planning. And I wanted to keep it that way. He'd find out the truth soon enough. After all, he was gonna be my one phone call.
Joe walked me out to my car, and I just stood in the driveway and held onto him, afraid of what was going to happen when I let go. I knew that I was doing the right thing, but suddenly I was so scared I was shaking. Tears pricked at my eyes as I tried to memorize the feel of his arms around me, the smell of him, the sound of his voice. And all the while he thought I was upset because I was betraying Ranger.
He tipped my chin up to look into my eyes. "You know I wouldn't ask you to do this if there was any other way, right Steph? I know you think Manoso did this for you, but the deal he offered me proves what kind of man he really is. Under all that slick veneer, he's just a common street thug."
"Please don't, Joe. I know what I have to do; you don't have to try to convince me."
Joe blew out a deep breath. "Just remember that I love you and want to make a life with you. He just wants to add you to his string of possessions, like his cars or his real estate. He doesn't deserve your loyalty, and he sure as hell doesn't deserve you."
He cupped my face in his hands and kissed me gently, "I love you, Stephanie. Nothing will ever change that."
I held onto his wrists and kissed him back. "Remember that I love you, too. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing this," I whispered, and I kissed him good-bye.
Joe held the car door open for me, and smiled as I got in. Stepping back, he shoved his hands in his pockets and stood on the curb as I pulled away. I watched him in the rear view mirror, standing there, until I turned onto Hamilton Avenue, a shiny black SUV about half a block behind me.
By the time I got downtown to the State Building that housed all the Attorney General's offices, and drove around the block half a dozen times looking for a parking spot, I was a little calmer and much more in control. I mean, they'd expect me to be jumpy, right? Who wouldn't be? At least I wouldn't have to try to act like I was nervous. A car pulled out and I slid into the spot and fed the parking meter for the maximum number of hours. The black SUV was nowhere in sight, and I guessed they'd just have to keep circling the block until they got dizzy, waiting for me to come back to the car … which I wouldn't be doing.
I stood at the bottom of the steps that led to the main entrance and looked up. Remember the daydream I told you about? The one where I was walking up the stairs to the scaffold to be hung? Well, it was coming true after all. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and marched up the stairs and into the building.
Waiting for the elevator doors to open in the crowded foyer, I got a good look at myself in the polished metal. My face was so pale that I looked like I was going to pass out. My knees were shaking so hard they felt weak, and it wasn't until my chest started to ache that I realized I had been holding my breath. It was probably a good thing that the elevator was crowded. I think it was the crush of people that was holding me up.
I have to admit that I was more than a little unsteady as I walked down the hall to the double doors that lead to the Criminal Investigation Unit and Malfitano and Rinaldi's office. This was where they had brought me for the interview when I was their prime suspect. Halfway to the door I bolted into a ladies' room, scared that I was going to throw up. I used the facilities and slurped some cold water from the sink out of my hand. I even touched up my lipstick.
I procrastinated as long as I could and finally gave up. I figured I might as well just get it over with. It really was harder than I thought it would be. I guess in my mind's eye I saw myself bravely marching in there, head held high, holding my hands out and announcing, "Okay, boys. I did it. Slap the cuffs on me."
I stopped in front of the doors and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to work up enough courage to actually walk through them. Finally, I hauled the door open and I stepped into the room. There was no turning back now. A voice, mine I think, told the secretary that I wanted to talk to Rinaldi and Malfitano, and she picked up the phone and said a few words, then pointed to their office door.
I had my hand raised to knock when the door swung open and Malfitano stood there, glaring at me. "Well, well, if it isn't Miss Plum. We were told to expect you," he said sourly.
Surprise didn't cover what I was feeling, and I guess it showed. "Who told you that?" I demanded. I didn't know whether to be angry or relieved.
Malfitano stepped back, opening the door wider and held his hand out toward the man lounging in a guest chair, legs crossed, fingers steepled.
Oh ****!
"Stephanie," was all Ranger said as his eyes, black with fury, bored into mine.
I guess I'd go with scared!
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

I am captivated by this story,and have read nothing yet that was cheesy, I like Ranger, but who is he really? READING ON.......