What I Did For Love - Chapter 11

Chapter 11: Love Hurts!
 
Diane Chambers: "And everyone knows that hate is not the opposite of love. Indifference is."
 
Sam Malone: "Well, whatever you say. I really don't care."
 
Cheers
 
I'll never know if it was a delayed concussion from Ranger whacking my head against the wall when he grabbed me, or the pain of my jaw hitting the floor in surprise at what he said, or whether it was just plain old, garden variety, I've had it up to my eyeballs, anger. Whatever it was, something made my inner Jersey Girl come roaring to life.
 
Jersey Girl hauled off and smacked me upside the head … Hey, dumb ***! Open you eyes! He's playin' you for a sucker and you're buying it! You really think you could've gotten under his skin like that if he meant any of the BS he's feeding you, huh? Think about it! Wasn't HE the one who told you that the opposite of love is indifference? Girl! Wake up and smell the coffee …
 
I guess that's when the light bulb went on over my head and it finally dawned on me that Ranger's whole hard *** routine was just a great big, fat, distraction job. Hell! I'd done enough of those that I should have recognized one when I saw it! Except I didn't see it, that's why it's call a distraction.
 
I mean, think about it. How many times did I dress up all slutty and get some poor dumb schlub so focused on my boobs and butt and the idea of group sex that he totally missed the Merry Men, lurking around with their great big muscles, and their guns and cuffs, surrounding him so they could cart him back to jail?
 
Well, now I was the dumb schlub and I didn't like it one little bit! Ranger had me focusing on his act … his cold indifference, his demands, his opportunist persona, his deal ! So what wasn't I seeing? What the hell was it that Ranger didn't want me to see?
 
He'd been stringing me along for months and I never caught on. Boy! Talk about feeling like an idiot. I had fallen for his whole act, hook, line, and sinker. I gave myself a mental head slap and a kick in the butt for being so stupid. It made my blood boil and I didn't know who I was madder at, him for feeding me all that bull or me for swallowing it.
 
Okay, I admit it. He was good, but I was better, and two could play at his little game! Maybe it was time he had a taste of his own medicine? I had had just about enough of Mr. High and Mighty Manoso! Somebody needed to knock him off that high horse he was riding on, and it looked like I was just the somebody to do it!
 
Blame it on temporary insanity, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of getting a little revenge, of pulling his strings, keeping him off balance for a change. I was a woman on a mission! I fluffed my hair, licked my lips, stuck out my boobs, threw open the front door, and Stephanie Plum, Hell in High Heels, sauntered out of his apartment, determined to tug the tiger by the tail and make him lose his cool again.
 
I gave a quick glance around to see if Ranger was still here and spotted him at the end of the hall by the stairway door, talking on his cell phone. When he saw me, he stopped and turned to look at me, surprise written all over his face. Okay, so he had an eyebrow raised, for Ranger that qualified as shock.
 
He snapped the phone shut and stalked back down the hall, stopping so close to me that he invaded my personal space. Intimidation Tactics 101, I almost laughed. Instead, I just stayed where I was, in front of the elevator, and calmly pushed the call button. I tapped my toe, completely ignoring the fact that he was practically breathing down my neck.
 
"I thought I told you to wait for Tank to take you back to Morelli," he snapped.
 
I blew out a deep sigh. "I don't need a guide. I've been finding my own way home for years, thankyouverymuch."
 
"You plan on thumbing a ride at," he checked his watch, "1am?"
 
I rolled my eyes and waved my hand at him. "Oh please, Ranger. You are so totally predictable," I said with a bored sigh. "I know my car is down in the garage; it probably got here before I did."
 
"Predictable?"
 
"Yeah, predictable!" I pulled my keys out of my purse with two fingers, held them up and gave them a little shake. "You know … not spontaneous, creature of habit, monotonous…" I shrugged a shoulder and pushed the button again, and Ranger's too, apparently.
 
"I'm not predictable," he enunciated each word. "I'm responsible, cautious, analytical, logical and…"
 
"And booooooooor-ing" I sing-songed, still not looking at him.
 
"As opposed to you who is … what? Thoughtless, impulsive, childish …" he countered.
 
"Free spirited, passionate, adventurous, FUN!" I turned and fluttered my eyelashes at him as the elevator doors slid open.
 
"Ha! More like irresponsible, reckless and harebrained!" he scoffed.
 
"Better than rigid, self-righteous and manipulative!" I taunted, giving him a pissy smile. Stepping into the car, I mashed the button for the garage.
 
"Emotional, immature, erratic…" he threw at me and put his hand on the door to keep it from closing.
 
"Cold blooded, heartless, self-important …" I glared at him and pushed the red alarm button. We could hear it scream down the elevator shaft.
 
"Foolhardy, headstrong …" He reached into the elevator and flipped off the alarm, pushing in the stop button instead.
 
"Arrogant, obsessive …" I cut him off. We heard the buzz when someone hit the call button on another floor. I released the stop button and Ranger got onto the elevator, mashing it again to keep the doors open and the car from moving.
 
"Oblivious!" he snarled and tried to step in front of the control panel.
 
"Egomaniac!" I sneered and pushed past him to get to the buttons, my voice getting louder.
 
"Screwball!" he tossed back as he blocked me.
 
"Control freak!" I shot back.
 
"Flake!" he leaned down and snapped in my face.
 
"Jerk!" I yelled and stomped my foot so hard the elevator bounced. Somebody on another floor was leaning on the call button. But with Ranger holding the Stop button, we weren't going anyplace.
 
Well, I didn't know about Ranger's control, but mine was sure shot to hell! We stood glaring at each other, hands on hips, nose to nose and toe to toe. I jabbed my finger into his chest. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, buddy, but you're not!"
 
"Excuse me?" He said, sarcasm dripping off his words.
 
"There is no excuse for you!" I shot back at him. "I've put up with just about all of your bullshit I can stand! Offering Joe a deal, setting me as your price, acting like a hard ***, manhandling me … If you think for one minute that this routine of yours is gonna fly, I have a newsflash for you, Ace! I am SO over you tha…"
 
"Oh, right! You're over me! I suppose that's why you were in there rolling around on the floor like a cat in heat…" he said with a self-satisfied sneer.
 
I gave him my best pissy face. "Where do you get off criticizing ME!" I poked him in the chest again. "You were right down there rolling around on the floor with me! You couldn't keep your hands off me …"
 
"Only because I wanted to choke you!" he sniped back at me.
 
"With what? Your tongue? You had it stuck far enough down my throat!" I said in the snottiest tone I could come up with.
 
He narrowed his eyes and growled at me, raising his hands, fingers curled, like he wanted to strangle me.
 
"Go ahead! I dare you!" I snarled back. "You don't have the guts!"
 
Ranger lowered his head, his black eyes glittering and I saw the anger flash across them as he took a step toward me. I could practically feel the electricity crackling in the air between us. "Don't . tempt . me!" he ground out and I slapped his hand as he reached out to touch me.
 
I stood my ground, glaring at him, a little thrill of fear skittering down my spine. I barked a laugh, "Oh, you're tempted all right, but not to strangle me!"
 
"You're right! I should drag you back in there and finish what we started. Maybe a good **** will improve your attitude!"
 
"Ha! And just who you gonna call to give it to me … Joe?" Take that Batman!
 
All my life I'd heard that old saying, 'Be careful what you wish for, you might get it,' but I never really understood what it meant. At least not until I stood there and watched Ranger's control evaporate, and I got what I wished for. This wasn't part of his distraction; this was out of control Ranger. I could see it in his black eyes, and the flare of his nostrils, the curve of his mouth.
 
"God damn it, Stephanie!" He took another step toward me and I instinctively shrank back into the corner of the elevator. He'd let go of the Stop button and the doors slid closed. Now I was trapped, and panic set in.
 
I'd never been afraid of Ranger, at least not in the physical sense. The thought that he would actually hurt me had never even crossed my mind. But the man was the Wizard! So it was more like fear that he could get me to do just about anything he wanted me to, and then in the morning I'd be kicking myself in the butt as I watched his butt walk out the door and disappear … again.
 
Suddenly, it was like our whole argument had been foreplay, and all that built up sexual tension between us broke loose. I could see exactly what he wanted... he wanted me and he wasn't going to take no for an answer. The real trouble was … I wanted him just as much. Quick as a snake his arm banded around my waist, pulling me flush against him while his other hand twisted in my hair, yanking my head back. I clenched my teeth and hissed at the sudden pain.
 
"Play with fire, Stephanie, and you'll get burned," he murmured against my ear, sending a shiver through me. His tongue flicked my ear lobe before his teeth nipped it. I know I gasped and clutched at him, my knees too weak to support me. Ranger grazed his teeth along my throat and with a sigh, I let my head fall back even more, giving him room to play. He knew my body, he knew just where to lick or kiss or suck to make me sigh or moan. His mouth worked along my jaw to the place just below my ear, then down to the sweet spot where my neck met my shoulder. His lips and tongue worked their magic. He was the Wizard, and he was casting his spell.
 
He pulled back slightly to study my face and he must have found what he was looking for. With a groan his mouth took mine, his tongue stabbing between my lips, fierce and hungry and the two of us fell back against the elevator wall. I pulled the tie out of his hair, his fingers were tangled in mine, we fed on each other as if we were starving.
 
Ranger pressed against me; his mouth hot, his body hard, his thick length throbbing. It would have been so easy to give in to those sensations again, to the raw ache we both felt, to let him pull me down on the floor and satisfy all of our needs. My mind was screaming that I shouldn't give in to the lust that shot through my veins, while my body raged for release.
 
But then what? Where would you go from there? That damned voice in my head just wouldn't shut up. Saint or sinner, Stephanie? Which will it be? It only took a split second for me to admit to myself that there really wasn't any contest. I knew I couldn't betray Joe. But most of all, I knew I just couldn't let Ranger win.
 
I didn't even struggle against him, just swung my purse up as hard as I could and clocked him in the back of the head. I couldn't believe that I actually managed to hit him but I guess I caught him by surprise. He dropped me so fast that I landed on my ***. I was hoping that the smack would bring him to his senses and he'd just back off. He did take a step back, but when I looked up into his face, I could see that, this time, I may have gone a little too far.
 
Right then I reconsidered that whole fear thing. Ranger's eyes had gone flat and black as he looked down at me, and he gave me a cold, hard smile that had my heart trying to hammer its way out of my chest. Do sharks smile before they go into a feeding frenzy? My mouth went dry and my breath hitched in my throat.
 
He hit the button to open the elevator doors and relief flooded through me. At least now I could escape, and I started to inch toward the doors. Of course those hopes were dashed when he blocked my way and leaned down to me. "Stephanie," he said softly, his voice belying the cold look in his eyes. "We're settling this once and for all!" He fisted a hand in the front of my sweater and I let out a shriek when he jerked me up off the floor.
 
I wasn't at all sure what it was that we were settling, I only knew that I didn't want to find out HOW we were going to settle whatever it was! "Let me go, you big bully!" I yelled as Ranger dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of the elevator and across the hall toward the penthouse door. I latched onto the elevator doorway with both hands and held on for dear life, screaming like a banshee!
 
Ranger had just bent down to toss me over his shoulder and carry me into the apartment when the stairwell door burst open and Tank, Lester and Bobby practically tumbled out into the hallway. My heroes, The Three Musketeers, or the Three Stooges, I didn't care which, had come riding to the rescue. I'd never been so happy to see them in all my life!
 
Ranger and I stopped grappling and he took a step back from me. I straightened my clothes and he ran his hands through his hair, both of us trying to catch our breath and look composed..
 
"Holy ****!" Lester grinned as he jogged over to us, "You guys are HOT! The windows in the Control Room are all fogged up!" He looked from me to Ranger and back again. "You'll be happy to know that the security cameras caught it all and the copies of the video will be ready in the morning. You two put on a great show, the control room was packed. Just wait until this hits the streets! We'll make a fortune!"
 
I forgot all about Ranger and turned on Lester. "What? What do you mean the cameras caught it all?"
 
"Well come on now, Bomber, don't get upset. We came up and stopped you guys before you actually did the dirty!" Lester waggled his eyebrows at me. "And you weren't showing any naked body parts or anything like that. Well, you might want to consider a padded bra next time. Your little soldiers were standing at attention!" He leered at me and brushed his fingers over his own nipples. I screamed and covered my boobs as four sets of eyes zeroed in on my chest. "And I don't know what the close up will show when we zoom in on the shot where your skirt was hiked all the way up and you had your leg wrapped aro… ack!"
 
Bobby's hand shot out and grabbed Lester by the throat, pushing him back against the wall and probably saving his life, 'cause I was ready to kill him.
 
The horror of the whole situation hit me and I spun around and lit into Ranger. "You didn't scramble the cameras?" I shrieked and shoved at him with both hands. "This is all your fault!" Okay, that was it! I had reached my limit. Lust, anger and humiliation boiled together to create a hot ball of fury, and that fury had a target. When Ranger turned to glare at Lester, I got in a lucky sucker punch right to Ranger's cheekbone.
 
Before he could even react, Tank grabbed me around the waist and spun me away from Ranger while I screeched in protest. "We gotta get you outta here, Bombshell!" he muttered and put me down against the back wall of the elevator, then turned and blocked the elevator door. Whether he was trying to protect me from Ranger or Ranger from me, I'm not quite sure. I only know I was pissed beyond words and I tried to shove Tank out of my way so I could get to Ranger again. I guess I don't have to tell you how successful that was.
 
Tank pinned me to the wall with a big paw on my shoulder. "You okay?" he asked, trying to distract me. He lifted my hand and studied my skinned knuckles.
 
"I'd be a lot better if you'd just let me at him!" I raged and tried to barge past Tank to get my hands on Ranger.
 
"You know that's not gonna happen, so you might as well calm down," Tank, the voice of reason, said calmly as he caught me and pushed me back against the elevator wall again. "You've had a long, hard day and it's over now. Take a breath."
 
I jammed my hands on my hips and snarked up at him, "And just how do you know what kind of day I had?"
 
Tank didn't answer me, just patted my shoulder kind of awkwardly, trying to sooth me, I guess. I hated it when the guys were right, but I had no more fight left in me so I just gave up. I took that breath like Tank told me, and leaned my forehead against his chest while he shielded me from Ranger and helped me get back some of my own lost self-control.
 
When I finally lifted my head and looked around, I saw that Bobby had his hand on Ranger's shoulder, talking to him quietly. Ranger stood with his head down, hair hiding his face. His hands were on his hips and I could tell that he was forcing himself to breathe slowly, calming himself down as well.
 
I took one last deep breath and hoped that my voice would be steady. "I'm okay now, so let's go. I need to get away from here." Tank nodded and stepped aside while I hunted around for my purse. Head still down, Ranger shot a look my way that told me this had only been the first round. So I stuck my tongue out at him in return. I know, I know … real mature.
 
As Ranger had raised his head to look at me, I could see the beginnings of a bruise on his cheek. Lester's eyes widened and he started to laugh when he saw the bright red blotch. "Oh man, Ranger! I hope the cameras got that! You let a girl get the drop on you! I don't know if your street rep will ever recover!" he hooted.
 
Ranger narrowed his eyes, "Santos! On the mat. 6am!"
 
"Oh ****! I was just sayin'…" As he slumped against the wall, Lester turned and shot me a wink. He was taking the heat for me and was going to let Ranger work off his frustrations on him. How could you not love that man?
 
Bobby handed me my shoes that I'd somehow managed to lose, and my purse and car keys that I had dropped out in the hall. "The odds in the RangeMan betting pool were on you, Bomber," he whispered. "You'd have murderized him! And don't worry about Les, he can hold his own." Bobby leaned in and planted a kiss on my cheek.
 
"Cut the chit chat, Brown. Tank, take her back to the cop!" Ranger ordered. He stood in front of the elevator, blank face firmly in place.
 
I just rolled my eyes and pressed the button for the garage. As the elevator doors started to close I raised my eyebrows and looked down at Ranger's crotch. "Better tell your pants it's not polite to point," I said, and gave him a little middle finger way good bye as the doors slid shut. If I'd had the energy, I would have done a happy dance at getting in the last word.
 
Behind me Tank started to choke, coughing until he had tears in his eyes. He shook his head at me. "You got balls, Bombshell! Great big, brass balls!"
 
"I'm not afraid of him!" I raised my chin defiantly.
 
"Well, you're the only one who isn't. You two are a perfect match," he said with a smile and a shake of his head. I shot him a look that told him he was crazy.
 
Sure enough, when the elevator doors opened down in the garage there was my SUV, parked in the very first slot. Yeah, predictable, I thought. I nailed that one! I made for my car only to have Tank grab me by the arm and swing me around to his ******.
 
"Oh, come on Tank! I'm a big girl, I can get myself home," I practically whined.
 
"I know you can, Bombshell." He bent down to look into my face. "But you can't go home looking like that."
 
"What are you talking about? What's the matter with the way I look?" I glanced down at my clothes and they looked okay to me.
 
Tank shook his head. "You look like you've been rolling around on the floor." My head snapped around and I glared at him. If he said, 'Like a cat in heat,' I was gonna bop him one! He must have read my mind because he held his hands up like he was warding me off, and backed away. "I don't mean that in a bad way, Steph, but …" He grinned at me and pointed to the ******'s oversized side-view mirror.
 
I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously and then took a gander in the mirror. Holy ****! Tank was right. My eyes were bright, my cheeks were flushed, my lips were swollen and my hair was tousled… I looked 'just ******'! There was a fine line between looking 'just ******' and looking 'not quite ******', and even I could tell which side of that line I was standing on. Crap! There was no way I could let Joe see me like this. He'd take one look at me and … and I don't know what, but I sure as hell didn't want to find out!
 
It was bad enough I hadn't even called Morelli since Malfitano tossed me out of his office. To tell you the truth, once Ranger grabbed me, I never even had a chance to thinkabout Joe. Until it was almost too late, that is. I was ashamed to admit that I didn't want to have to think about him now, either. I sure didn't want to call him, to open the door to all those questions he'd ask that I didn't want to answer. But I had no choice; I had to get it over with.
 
I leaned my butt against the side of the ****** and scrubbed my hands over my face, then pulled my phone out of my purse and hit Joe's speed dial number. Nothing happened. The phone was so dead it wouldn't even turn on. Saved! I breathed a sigh of relief. I was starting to wilt, feeling the effects of my long, emotion packed day. There was no way I could go another round with anybody.
 
I just stared at Tank's hand when he pulled his phone off his belt and held it out to me. I batted it away. "I'd rather face a pack of midget monkeys than talk to Joe right now!" I shuddered and made a face.
 
He pressed the phone into my hand. "Call him, Steph. You know you have to. Tell him your phone's dead, tell him you're with me, tell him you came out of the State Building and that you car was gone," he gave me a rueful smile, "because it was. You were right, it was already here. You won't be lying to him and you can give him whatever details you want once you're face to face."
 
I blew out a big, shaky sigh and took the phone. I paced while I listened to Joe's phone ring. I could imagine him looking at the caller ID, wondering what the hell Tank was calling him for. Finally, he answered.
 
"What?" he barked.
 
"Hey Joe, it's me." I sounded a little teary.
 
"Jesus Christ, Stephanie? Where the hell have you been? What are you doing with one of Ranger's goons? Why didn't you call me? I've been worried sick abo…"
 
"Joe … JOE," I hissed into the phone, trying to make him listen, "It's a long story. My phone is dead, my car wasn't where I parked it, Tank's gonna bring me home and I'll tell you all about it when I get there, okay?" I could feel the tears burning my eyes.
 
Joe was silent for a couple of seconds. "Did you tell them about Manoso?"
 
"Um … that really didn't work out." Joe was going to explode when I told him about my 'confession'.
 
"Why not?" he pressed.
 
"Joe … this really isn't a good time to have this discussion, you know? I'm not exactly alone here." Not that there was ever going to be a good time to have it.
 
"Fine! How soon will you be home?"
 
"That's up to Tank, but it shouldn't be too long."
 
"Where are you right now, maybe I should come and pick you …"
 
"Oh sorry! Tank needs his phone. Gotta go! Bye." I snapped the phone shut and handed it back to Tank, swiping at the tears in my eyes.
 
"Coward," Tank teased, giving me a hug and handing me his handkerchief.
 
"Bingo!" I mumbled. I closed my eyes and leaned against him, too tired and light-headed to move. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, hadn't eaten anything all day, and the garage floor was looking like a pretty good place to curl up and take a nap.
 
"Come on, Steph. We're gonna make a pit stop before I drop you off at Morelli's." Tank lifted me into the passenger seat of his ****** and helped me fasten the seat belt. Fifteen minutes later we pulled into a parking space at the diner out on Rt.1. I was going to need some fortification if I was going to face Joe tonight.
 
Our butts had no sooner hit the booth when our waitress sashayed over and handed us our menus. Tall, blonde and bored, the Marilyn Monroe look alike glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as she turned over the coffee mug on the table in front of me and filled it, then looked at Tank and smiled. I was busy adding cream and sugar, but I knew she was looking at me again. She shot another glance at me while she filled Tank's cup and gave him a smile and a wink.
 
Blondie touched his arm and licked her lips when she handed him his menu. I figured she'd flash her boobs at him when he ordered. She glanced under the table at Tank's feet, made a little 'Umm!' sound, and walked away, swinging her hips so hard that she could have knocked diners out of their chairs if she'd hit them.
 
"What the hell was that all about?" I whispered, glaring after her.
 
Tank nonchalantly sipped his coffee and shrugged. "I just have that effect on women." He grinned at me. "Or maybe it's because your sweater is on inside out and backwards."
 
My eyes bugged out and my hands flew to the neckline of the sweater. Sure enough, there was the tag, on the outside. "Oh my God!" I could feel my face turning red.
 
"Don't worry about it, Bombshell! She won't even remember you. She's thinking we been doin' the deed and that I'm so good you didn't even notice you put your clothes on wrong." He leaned back in the booth and stretched his arms across the back of the seat. "I don't suppose I could get you to pick up the check too, could I? Maybe she'll think I'm a kept man." His grin turned into a full on smile. Men!
 
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I saw her check out your feet! I don't think that fairy tale about a man's shoe size has anything to do with his … equipment. I think clumsy guys with great big, flat feet just made that up to boost their own egos!" I hissed across the table at him, and he threw his head back and roared with laughter. Glad I was so entertaining. I sputtered something nasty about the size of his ego before I flounced to the ladies' room to fix the sweater problem.
 
While I was in there I ran a brush through my hair, added a coat of mascara, and some lip gloss. By the time I got back to the booth, the caffeine had kicked in and I felt a little better.
 
The waitress was hovering around the table, serving Tank like he was a god and she was one of his handmaidens. Steak and eggs and hash browns and pancakes and biscuits and God only knew what else covered the table. Tank had ordered for me, too, and my coffee cup had been replaced by a large vanilla Coke, pork roll with egg and cheese on a hard roll, and an order of cheese fries. My stomach rumbled at the smell of the food, and I was convinced that I had died and gone to heaven. I put my head down and dug in, not looking up until my plate was clean.
 
"Okay," I said as I pushed my empty plate to the side. "Let's cut to the chase. You knew I had a bad day. How did you find out that I was gonna go to the cops?"
 
Tank folded his arms on the table. "You remember that little talk we had a while back. The one when I told you to come to me before you went and did anything stupid? I nodded. "And you gave me your word?" He arched an eyebrow at me and I cringed a little. "Did you really think I believed you?"
 
I squirmed in my seat a little and shrugged my shoulders. "Okay, I'm a lousy liar. So …?"
 
He took a deep breath and blew it out. "So, keep your day job. You'll never make it as a spy. We just followed your trail of breadcrumbs."
 
"What are you talking about?" Now I was totally confused. Not a difficult thing at this stage of the game.
 
"You snooped around Stark Street and asked questions about unregistered weapons. You paid Connie's cousin to get you the copy of the autopsy reports. You hit up the records clerk at the cop shop for all the original police reports. You tried to get your hands on the results of the Attorney General's investigation." He ticked off each thing on his fingers. "Shall I go on? We knew you were up to something. All we had to do was wait for somebody to spill the beans."
 
I rubbed my forehead, trying to ward off the headache that was brewing behind my eyes.
 
"Tank! I didn't tell anybody," I said wearily. "Nobody knew, so there wasn't anybody to spill anything!"
 
He smiled at me. "You ratted yourself out, Bombshell. Junior and Zero saw you dump your notes at the donut shop yesterday. They dug them out of the trash and brought them to me."
 
I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. It was like they had all been looking over my shoulder the whole time. "So then you ratted me out to Ranger."
 
He reached across the table and took my hand. "Do you think that any of us, Ranger included, would let you go to jail?"
 
"So did Ranger know that I was going to talk to Malfitano and Rinaldi, or was his being there just a coincidence?"
 
"What do you think?" He said with a smile. "He brought your 'study guide' to them."
 
I would have rolled my eyes if my head hadn't hurt so much so I put my head in my hands and just groaned instead.
 
I blew out a deep sigh and blinked back the tears that were welling in my eyes. "Pretty stupid, huh?" I whispered, my humiliation complete.
 
"Pretty great from where I'm sitting," Tank said into his coffee cup. "Does the cop appreciate what you were willing to do for him?"
 
"He doesn't know," I said with a shrug.
 
"You have to tell him, you know that, right?" Tank watched me intently.
 
"Yeah, I guess, but I don't see that it makes any difference. Nothing's changed." Even to my own ears I sounded defeated.
 
"Oh, everything's changed, Bombshell," Tank said cryptically.
 
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked him.
 
"I think that's a conversation for another day. Come on, let's get you home."
 
I paid the tab, and even left the waitress a hefty tip. After all, she'd made Tank's day and it really had been very entertaining. I even threw in a couple of adoring glances and deep sighs for her benefit. I thought Blondie was going to melt and Tank had a tough time keeping a straight face.
 
He was helping me into the ****** when I remembered something that had me curious. "So who doctored the hospital records? No pun intended." I asked, without any humor.
 
Tank smiled and playfully puffed out his chest. "That would be me, your friendly, neighborhood hacker!"
 
I leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, I think."
 
"Any time, kiddo, any time!" And I knew he meant it. It was good to have friends.
 
It was after three o'clock by the time Tank pulled to the curb in front of Morelli's house and helped me out of the SUV. He slung an arm around my shoulders as we went up the front walk to the stoop. The front door swung open and Joe came out onto the porch, arms folded across his chest. "It took you long enough to get her home," he said sourly.
 
Tank arched an eyebrow at Joe. "I was on my dinner break. Your lady," he tipped his head toward me, "hadn't eaten today. Took care of that for you, Morelli."
 
"I can take care of her!" Joe snapped, staring at Tank.
 
"You better," was all Tank said back to him, but the unspoken message between the two men was clear. Tank turned to me, gave me a bear hug and a kiss on the top of the head, told me to call him if I needed anything at all, and left.
 
Joe stomped into the house but I waited on the porch until Tank pulled away. I really didn't want to do this now. Hell! I didn't want to do this at all. But it was another 'no choice' situation.
 
Joe was pacing the living room when I got inside. "So, now that you've chatted with you buddy and had a bite to eat," he said sarcastically, "you think you could spare a few minutes out of your busy social schedule to tell me what the hell's going on?"
 
I guess I couldn't blame him for being upset. He'd been waiting for hours to find out what had happened. I tossed my purse onto the coffee table and sat in the armchair. "Sit down, Joe, and I'll start from the beginning."
 
He sat on the couch, arms crossed over his chest, the picture of a coiled spring. I knew he was anxious, worried, even scared, and my story wasn't going to help matters any, probably just make everything worse. Whoever said that confession is good for the soul had no clue what they were talking about.
 
Anyway, I started at the beginning and told Joe everything. Well, almost everything. I sort of left out the stuff about Ranger, but there was no sense in getting Joe any more upset that he already was, right? And it really didn't have anything to do with Abruzzi's murder anyway, so it wasn't like I was lying or anything. I didn't think I needed to tell Joe about the Merry Men following me, or figuring out my plan, or hacking into the hospital records. If he asked, I'd tell him the truth. But if he didn't ask, why rock the boat?
 
I watched the expression on Joe's face change as I told my story. Frustration and anger turned into shock and disbelief, finally settling into a kind of bewilderment. I finished with Malfitano pitching me out of his office. I guess Joe was so stunned that I had tried to confess, that he never got around to asking any of those questions that I had been so afraid of, like why hadn't tried to turn Ranger into Malfitano and Rinaldi, or what Ranger was doing in their office in the first place.
 
I just sat there and let Joe digest everything I told him. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I don't know what to say, Steph." He held his hands out, palms up. "I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around all this. I can't believe you did this for me."
 
I shrugged, uncomfortable with his emotions. "I had to try to fix it. I couldn't just let you go to jail. I'm sorry it didn't work."
 
He got up off the couch, came over to where I was sitting, and pulled me up out of the chair. He ran his hands up my arms and then gently cupped my face. "We'll get through this Steph. We have to believe in the system. Everything will turn out okay and we'll have the rest of our lives ahead of us."
 
He bent to brush his lips across mine and whisper, "I love you," against my mouth. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him back. I know I didn't say it often, but he needed to hear it. "I love you, too," I whispered back to him, and meant it.
 
He pulled me closer and I melted into him, my head on his shoulder, his face buried in my hair. "Do you, Stephanie?" I felt him stiffen, his hands curled into my arms as he pulled back and looked into my face. "Do you really?" he ground out and shoved me away from him so hard that I staggered backward.
 
"What?" I said, stunned. "What's the matter?"
 
"Did you even go to the cops?" He was angry but I didn't know why.
 
"Of course I went …" He didn't give me a chance to finish.
 
"Was this the plan all along? Get rid of me and then you could be together?""What are you talking about? Are you nuts?" I reached out to touch his arm, but he pulled away.
 
"You've been with Manoso … I can smell him on you!" he spat, his eyes boring into me.
 
"Joe please! It's not what you…" but he wasn't listening.
 
"Don't bother Stephanie; I don't want to hear it!"
 
He grabbed his keys and threw open the front door. He only got as far as the porch. Malfitano and Rinaldi were coming up the walk.
 
Rinaldi stepped forward. "Joseph Anthony Morelli, we have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of murder. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right …"
 
Joe turned to look at me while Malfitano pulled his arms behind his back and cuffed him.
 
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

Your a fine writer.....back later to read more.