All familiar characters belong to Janet. The mistakes are mine alone. If nothing else, I really hope this story can serve as a reminder to never take chances when you're behind the wheel.
"I knew you couldn't be trusted if I closed the door," I said, tilting my head a little more to the side to give Ranger better access to my neck.
"Then why did you?" He asked.
He's so good, his voice and lips can cause goosebumps to form even on the skin he hasn't targeted for seduction yet.
"Because I kinda like that you can't keep your hands or mouth off me."
"And I love it when you're being honest," he said against my rapidly-thumping pulse.
"Your love of honesty is pretty selective," I reminded him. "You didn't care for it when I said I wasn't drinking a smoothie with two green things ground into it, or the other day when I told you I didn't need back up."
"Both of those had to do with helping you stay alive longer so you can spend many more mornings like this with me."
That was said as he tugged the hem of my T-shirt out of my jeans and trailed his fingers up my spine, purposely toying with the hooks on my bra. Even being in his office on five, I wasn't in any hurry to stop him or remind him that this isn't the best place for clothing to be moved or removed.
Fortunately, or unfortunately considering how much my body wants Ranger's lips and fingertips to linger a lot longer, one of the guys knocked on his door. I sighed and went to stand up, but his arms tightened around me to keep me right where I am. His men all know we're together, but I still didn't think they need to actually see it.
"Come in," Ranger called.
A beat later, Ram opened the door and stuck his head in. "I hate to interrupt, but do you have a minute to talk?"
"Yes. What is it?"
I tried to stand again. "I should go," I told them.
Ram stepped inside and closed the door. "You don't have to leave, Steph. You're going to find out from Ranger anyway."
Only after he said that did I notice his face looking a little paler than usual. And his mouth definitely isn't wearing the smile I'm so used to seeing on his face.
"What's wrong?" I asked, before Ranger could say anything.
"Have a seat," the Boss told him. He waited until Ram was sitting across the desk from us to speak again. "Now answer Stephanie's question. What's wrong?"
"I hate to put in this request, but I need to take some time off work."
"What your eyes are screaming isn't 'I'm going on vacation!', so what happened?" I said to him. "To who? And how can we help?"
His eyes dropped to the carpet and we waited in silence as he took a few deep breaths before he continued the conversation. I curled my fingers around Ranger's and squeezed. We both know Ram is about to share some bad news, and it has to be the bad kind of bad for him to need to steel himself in order to tell us about it. When he did, it was eerily clinical like he had detached himself from what he was saying so he could get all the details out and not have to repeat them.
"My cousin was killed in a car accident late last night. The other driver was trying to pass a car and swerved into my cousin's lane to get around it. Orlando tried to avoid being hit by veering off the road into the ditch running along the highway, but …" This time his eyes closed briefly before he got himself under control again. "But that asshole hit Orlando's SUV head-on anyway. He died at the scene."
I have no clue how he's holding it together. I've never met Ram's cousin Orlando, yet I have tears in my eyes that are ready to scale down the side of my face two at a time just picturing the scene and how much this must be ripping apart our Rangeguy.
"Take as much time as you need," Ranger told him, keeping his emotions in check too.
That's fine. They can be as stoic as they wanna be, it just means that there's more emotion for me to express. "What can we do?" I asked. "Seriously, what do you need?"
"Just the time off. My Aunt will require all our help for the funeral, and Orlando left behind a daughter who'll need her family sticking around until she's over the shock of losing another parent."
"Another parent?" I had to ask.
"Yeah. Her mother bailed on both of them when Dayton was only three-months-old."
"Don't worry about the funeral expenses," Ranger told him. "They'll be covered."
"You don't have to …"
"I wasn't asking permission. Just go take care of your family. I'll handle what I can on this end."
"Thanks, Sir. I appreciate that."
"It shouldn't be needed. If criminal charges come out of this for the driver at-fault, I'm offering my legal team to support you and your family anyway they can. DO NOT take matters into your own hands."
The fact that Ram went noticeably silent scared me. He and Ranger clearly just had a conversation without saying a thing that I didn't know was happening even sitting between them.
"Orlando's daughter needs you, Ram," Ranger added. "Don't force her to lose somebody else. Let me take care of what needs to be done."
"If you want us to come and support you at the funeral, we're there," I promised.
"Thank you. I can't give Dayton her Daddy back, and I can't be him, but I can be there to show her that she still has a guy around who loves her."
I swear, the pain and grief he's feeling is radiating from his heart and shooting straight out of his body. It isn't a crackling energy like Ranger sometimes gives off, this one is a low thrumming of loss with a zap of underlying rage. His eyes and overall body language seem irreversibly stricken, but the expression on his face was gone before it finished forming. I had to question if I actually saw it.
"You won't shoot him if I get up, right?" I said to Ranger.
"No. These are extenuating circumstances. Go ahead and do what you do best."
I pressed a kiss to the underside of his jaw and then slid off his lap. I rounded the desk and wrapped my arms around the top half of Ram before he could tell me that he's okay. It's clear to the three of us that he isn't. That belief was reinforced when his fingers dug into my arm like he was desperate to hold onto something that can't be taken away from him.
I tried to dry my face on the shoulders of his Range-shirt without him noticing, but it was pointless. Big, fat, hard-to-hide tears quickly leaked out to take their place while I worked out what I could possibly say to ease his pain. I gave up, since there's nothing that can do that, and just said what felt right.
"You call us if you need us. Day or night. And if Dayton needs some substitute Daddy time, or just wants someone to scarf cookies with, you bring her here ASAP. We have plenty of good guys who'll be happy to make her the center of their world, and I'm always ready to influence the younger generation."
"You're supposed to be helping him, Babe, not threatening to turn his little cousin into a mini-you."
The hint of Ranger-humor, although I know he's completely serious, put a crack in the sadness that had filled the office. I released Ram, but squeezed his shoulder to provide a little added comfort.
"She could do worse," he said, trying to match the lightness in Ranger's tone.
"That's been my life goal ... to hear people say that there are worse examples out there than me."
"You're the best, Steph. You know that. And don't be surprised if I take you up on your offer when things settle down."
"I'll hurt you if you don't," I warned.
He stood up slowly, like he'd aged ten years since he sat down. "I should get going."
"Will I be called 'Mom' again by the guys if I ask you to call when you get to wherever you're going so we know you arrived safely?" I asked.
"Yes. Bobby, Lester, and Woody live for those moments, but I appreciate the concern. I have to pack a bag and then I'll take off. It should take about an hour to reach my Aunt's house. I already know she's planning to fight like hell to have Dayton stay with her and not let the so-called 'mom' who took off get custody now."
I shook my head at how some people can abandon their kids as easily as they leave birthday cakes sitting all alone in the bakery. "Poor kid. But she has a great Uncle in you, Ram. And she can have more than she'll know what to do with if she needs a building full of a few more oversized ones. Little girls have a huge impact around here. Julie has managed to smooth out even some of Ranger's rough edges. He can now order a pizza without lecturing Shorty on how he's ruining the arteries of everyone in Trenton and its surrounding counties."
"That kid's a miracle worker then," Ram replied, moving towards the door. "I'll try to get you a date as soon as I can for when I'll be back."
"Your place here can't be filled by anyone except you, but I can get the men working together to cover your shifts for you so take all the time you need," Ranger told him. "Don't hurry back until you feel like it's okay to."
"Will do. Thank you again."
"Giving thanks isn't required. Just stay alright and call me if you need any kind of help dealing with this."
There goes another one of those unspoken conversations between them before Ram nodded and turned to leave.
"Don't forget to call!" I shouted out the door after him.
"Yes, Mom," Bobby said, holding up a fist for Ram to bump on his way by.
"I care, so sue me," I told the men now lining the hall to support one of their own.
"And we love you for it, Steph," Lester said, "especially when life is screwing one of us over again. Seems people forget that an impatient asshole driving a fucking car can be just as deadly as one of us pointing a gun at someone."
Guess I don't have to ask if Ram told the guys why he won't be in the building for a while. And I'm sure I'd be struck by lightning for shouting 'Amen' to what Lester just said. Ranger makes me practice for at least thirty-minutes everyday in the gun range so I won't endanger anyone if I have to use my gun during an apprehension, the guys practice just for fun, but no one's standing roadside telling drivers to stay in their own fucking lanes.
"It does feel like the good guys are repeatedly being screwed, while the bad ones get to keep living their lives oblivious to all the damage they've done," I told everyone, finally giving into the anger I feel.
We arrest people every day for hurting, threatening, or destroying someone else, and they go to jail … sometimes … but then they come right back out and pull the same shit all over again.
"Quick," I said under my breath to Ranger, "remind me why I can't go make the life of the person who caused this totally miserable. You can try out that mental talk-thing like you did with Ram."
"The killer's life is already pretty miserable, Steph. He's in the ICU in critical condition and may not make it," Ranger told me, either consulting an officer he knows, a news site, or God himself via his cell to get the information he just shared.
That should've made me feel a little better, but I felt myself growing even angrier. "How is that fair? They kill someone and then get to die in a hospital too drugged-up to feel much of anything, much less guilt or remorse for what they've just done to Ram and his family? His daughter is essentially an orphan now just because some a-hole wanted to get somewhere a few seconds faster? There's no justice that can make up for that kind of stupidity or selfishness."
Chills developed over my entire body when what Ranger said to me minutes before Ram knocked on his door came rushing back ... how he wanted to keep me alive longer so I could spend as many mornings as possible with him. Mornings Ram's cousin will never get to experience again.
"Breathe," Batman ordered me.
I did, realizing I'd been holding my breath in outrage. I keep putting myself in Ram's boots, picturing the nightmare he's just about to step fully into. Except this is one he won't ever be able to wake up from. He may not have wanted to be held so he could cry like a baby, but I'm not above going that route. I turned into Ranger's arms and cried for Ram, for Orlando, and for the little girl who no longer has the Daddy who protected and loved her.
Ranger moved back a few steps until he was back in his office, taking me with him. And he continued to hold me until I got a grip on myself, my emotions, and the simmering rage I can still feel.
"What do we do now?" I asked him, needing four tissues to clean up the waterworks that had exploded out of my eyes and nose.
"We wait to hear what Ram needs from us."
"I hate waiting," I said, wanting to fix things now.
"I know you do. But there are a few things we have zero control of. We couldn't have saved Ram's cousin, and we don't get to decide when or if Ram contacts us for help."
I know that, I really do, but it doesn't make me hate this helpless feeling that's taken over the building any less. We're used to preventing or protecting against danger, not standing back and watching one of our people struggle with the outcome of one nobody can protect against except those who cause it.
Six days after Ram left, Ranger and I were getting dressed to attend what I consider a family funeral … something I never want to have to face again.
"How do I look?" I asked Batman, glancing down at the pure black, bell-sleeve, short sheath dress I unfortunately had to buy for today.
Maybe I just stumbled onto why Ranger chose an all-black uniform for his company ... he knew losing people would be inevitable and he wanted us to be prepared for it. It was a pretty sickening thought, though oddly comforting since my Merry Men are all planning to pay their respects in waves today so Ram will see that his family here have his back. The only accessories I added to my outfit are the diamond bar earrings Ranger gave to me for my birthday, and the depression and rage that has been really hard to shake at such a senseless tragedy.
"Beautiful, Babe," Ranger replied.
"I don't want to be beautiful, I want to look respectful."
"Consider that box checked as well."
"This sucks," I said, staring into the full-length mirror, but no longer seeing my reflection in it.
I can only see the ravaged look in Ram's eyes before he left Ranger's office a week ago. Ranger's arms came around me and he rested his chin against my temple. "It does," he agreed. "But you can't live and not experience death, your own or someone else's. The key is to pack as much life into the time you have so those you leave behind will always have something of you to carry with them."
His words always pack a punch and usually come complete with a double meaning. I didn't fully figure out what he meant until we walked into the church and I spotted Ram on bended knee so he'd be closer in height to a girl who looked to be newly-tween in age. Her eyes are swollen from I'd guess non-stop crying since the crash happened, and are now red-rimmed due to a fresh round of them. Her honey-blond hair is tied back into a high ponytail, likely so the strands will stop getting caught in the tear-trails like I find keeps happening to me. Her black dress seemed to swallow her … or maybe it's the depth of her emotions trying to do that particular job.
I'm not a maternal person, but I had the strongest urge to run over and hug her. I felt an enormous amount of relief that Ram has been there for her. He bent his head so his forehead rested against hers. After a few seconds passed between them, he lifted the ball chain that was dangling from her neck and then folded her hands over the dog tags she's now wearing.
As Ranger said back in his apartment, Dayton may not have her Dad physically with her anymore, but she's walking around every day carrying his vital stats around her neck and who he was as a man and a father in every memory she has of him, judging by the look of love and devastation she can't hide every time her eyes slide back to what a girl her age should never have to see ... her Daddy's casket.