By the time we arrived at the Manosa's, my stomach was rocking and rolling and I was shaking. "Deep breaths, Babe. If you can make it through Morelli's Grandma Bella, you can make it through my family." And that's the thing. I barely made it through Grandma Bella. She liked to curse me and she did so quite often. It didn't matter what I did, it was never good enough. I wouldn't class my dealings with Grandma Bella as being successful ones. "Besides, I will be right beside you the whole time, okay?"
"You know, meeting your family seemed much better in theory than it does right now."
"It will be all right. Have I ever lied to you?"
"Not that I know of. But maybe you are just such a good liar that I don't even know when you are lying to me."
"Okay." Taking a deep breath, I opened the car door and got out of the car. Ranger locked the car and engaged the car alarm, then placed his hand at the small of my back and guided me to his parents' house. I love it when he does that, and the warmth of his hand at the small of my back was both sexy and comforting at the same time. Ranger opened the door for me, and we walked in. Manosas came running from every direction, and Ranger and I were pulled into hugs with everybody, even the children. My nerves started to ease a bit.
Ranger's sisters, mother and grandmother were all little people, barely five feet tall. I towered over them, and since Ranger was much larger than me, he looked like a giant amongst his family. His dad was about my height, so Ranger was much larger than his father as well.
Mrs. Manoso led me into the living room to the loveseat, and indicated that Ranger and I should sit there. "What will you have to drink?" she asked.
"Water would be wonderful, please", I said.
"Carbonated or still?"
"Still, please", I said. Carbonated water always reminded me of farts in a bathtub and, once that image came to my mind a few years ago, I never wanted to drink carbonated water again.
I mentally ran over everyone's name in my head. Elena brought over the water and put it on the side table for me before sitting down. "I have to ask – how did you meet Ricky?"
I smiled and Ranger looked embarrassed. "If you call me Ricky in front of the guys, you are fired."
"'I don't know. I think it's kind of cute." I laughed at his discomfort. I turned to Elena to explain. "Ranger is only called Ranger, or boss, by his staff. They don't even call him Ricardo. So I knew of Ranger's name just like he knows my middle name, but just like he never uses my middle name and in fact it would throw him if he heard it used, it threw me for a minute when you called him Ricky. In answer to your question, though, I met Ranger a few years ago. He was the best bounty hunter in the business – still is – and I was an out-of-work lingerie buyer. I applied for a job with my cousin at the bail bonds office and was desperate to capture some skips so that I wouldn't get evicted from my apartment. Ranger helped me learn everything I know about being a bounty hunter, which doesn't say anything good about his teaching skills. I think at first he was telling me stuff in order to get me to go away and leave him alone. But I kept coming back for more lessons and, but the end of it, he had set me up in the business, taught me proper protocols and safety procedures, and had provided back-up for me many times. He still provides back-up and support for me periodically when I am doing bounty hunter business."
"Isn't that a dangerous job for a young, beautiful woman?" asked Mrs. Manoso.
"Thank you for the compliment. Most of what is required as a bounty hunter is really boring. You make lots of phone calls and knock on lots of doors, and your sit in a car until your body goes numb watching one particular house, waiting for one particular person. It involves a lot of luck. Sometimes it is a little more exciting, but eighty to ninety percent of the time it is pretty boring."
"But when it isn't boring, it is fun, right?" asked one of the boys, the older one, probably about twelve in age. I couldn't remember which sister he belonged to.
"No, the other ten to twenty percent of the time it is terrifying."
"Have you ever shot someone?" he asked with bloodthirsty relish.
I could feel my face go white. Ranger draped his arm across the back of the loveseat and started massaging the base of my neck.
"Carlos!" interjected Elena. "I am sorry for my son", she said to me.
"That's okay. It's a valid question. Yes, I have shot people and they are dark periods in my life that I prefer not to think about."
"What does dark periods in her life mean, Mama?" asked a little girl, about six in age.
"It means," said Elena, "that shooting someone, even if it is necessary, is a terrible thing to happen and will make you feel bad."
"That's right. If someone is threatening you, and it comes down to you shooting them or them shooting you, it still doesn't matter", I said. "The bad person is still someone's son, someone's brother, someone's friend. It takes a piece of your soul every time you shoot someone."
"But…" said Carlos.
"No buts, Carlos", said Ranger. Carlos, looking at his uncle, subsided. A silence descended upon the room.
"More recently, Stephanie has started working for me part-time", said Ranger. "She now does her skip chasing part-time and does research for me part-time. She has flex hours for the research and can work it around being a bounty hunter."
"Do you like working for Ricky?" asked Celia.
"There are definite perks. The regular pay being one. Being a bounty hunter pays per job so, if you don't capture anyone, you don't get paid anything. The benefits are also a bonus. The staff are supportive, a strong team, and the food is awesome. The work itself is boring, but I like the sense of accomplishment I feel when I find a particularly hidden piece of information. I'm very stubborn, and the job suits my personality. And working for Ranger is safe. I have just finished going through some unsafe periods in my life, and working at Rangeman, having the whole Rangeman team behind me, is making me feel much more secure. I don't know if I will always work at Rangeman, but for right now it is where I need to be." I took a sip of the ice water.
"What is Ricky like as a boss?" asked Rosa.
"Remember that I can hear you, and I can fire you at any time", Ranger teased in his deadpan way. I laughed.
"He is extremely fair, but his rules are his rules and everyone has to follow them. His word is law. There are no exceptions for anyone including himself. He leads by example and all his staff look up to and love him."
"When I am older I want to work at Rangeman", said Carlos.
"When you are much, much older we will talk about it", said Ranger. "I don't hire anyone under the age of twenty-five, even family. Until then, you need to stay out of trouble, learn well in school, and listen to your mother."
"What do you do?" I asked everyone in the room. "Grandma Rosa, you were the hostess in the restaurant? And Mr. and Mrs. Manoso, you used to run the restaurant? And Elena, you now run it?"
"Yes, that's true", said Elena.
"What do the rest of you do?"
"I am a stay-at-home mother", said Celia.
"It can be. But rewarding as well. My husband is a chartered accountant. Elena's husband is the head chef at the restaurant, and Rosa is a librarian part-time, and looks after the house for my parents the rest of the time."
"Do you have children?" asked the little girl.
"No, I don't. But I do have a hamster." In my view, a hamster was a much better dependent than a child. Easier to look after, costs less, less sleepless nights. Of course, that is as long as the sound of the wheel squeaking doesn't keep you up.
"Really? What is it like, because I would really like a hamster and Mommy and Daddy keep saying 'no'."
"Having a hamster is like having any pet. It is a big responsibility. You have to feed them every day. You have to change their water every day. You have to clean out its cage once a week. You have to provide a safe place for it to live. You have to be gentle with them, and thoughtful of their feelings. They are living creatures that are dependent solely upon you, so that is why it is a big responsibility."
"I could do all that."
"That I something you have to take up with your parents. I don't know you well enough to know if you would be a good hamster owner."
"Do you have family?" asked Grandma Rosa.
"Yes, I do. Not as big as yours, but I do have family. My Grandma Mazur lives with my mother and father, and I have a sister, Valerie, who is married and has four little girls."
"I know this seems like you are on an interview panel", said Celia, "but until Friday we didn't even know Ricky was seeing anyone. He has told us nothing about you. We are quite curious about you."
"I am equally curious about all of you. Although Ranger and I have known each other for a few years, we only recently started dating."
"I can imagine Ricky would not have told you too much either. He doesn't share information easily. Ask away with whatever questions you have."
I turned to the children. "How old are all of you?" I asked. I found out I had guessed right. Elena's three children were aged twelve, ten and six. Celia's two were younger, at two and one. The two-year old walked over to me and put his hands up. I picked him up and put him on my knee, bouncing my knees around to give him a ride. He giggled with glee and, every time I stopped, he said "again".
"I think we have been grilling Stephanie long enough", said Elena. "It is time to make dinner."
"Do you need help?" I asked.
"No, thanks, I think we have it well in hand."
"Oh, thank goodness", I said with intense relief. Ranger let out a snort, and I could feel the laughter rumbling in his chest. When Elena looked at me in question, I explained that I didn't know how to cook. "But I am a mean hand at setting the table and doing dishes."
"You don't know how to cook?" asked Mrs. Manoso. "You poor thing!" Everyone was looking at me like they just discovered I was terminally ill. "You just sit there. You are our guest. The children set the table, so there is nothing for you to do."
"If you don't cook, what do you eat?" asked Cecelia, the little girl.
"I can make grilled cheese, and peanut butter and olive sandwiches, and cereal. I eat whatever Ella cooks, or my mother cooks, or what I can buy already cooked. Or I eat frozen foods, like a heated up lasagne from the grocery store. I mainly get by on what Ella cooks and what my mother cooks."
"Peanut butter and olive sandwiches?" Mrs. Manoso made a face. "We will send a doggie bag home with you."
William, Mr. Manoso and the womenfolk disappeared into the kitchen. Ranger got up and refilled my water, and I chatted with the kids about school. I was thankful that Val's kids were about the same age as Ranger's niece and nephews. It meant that I knew what to talk about.
"Now that my mother is out of the room," said Carlos, "what was it like to shoot someone?"
"Carlos!" said Gabriel in warning.
Ranger quietly came up behind Carlos and placed the ice cold glass of water against the back of the boy's neck, making the boy jump. "Your mother told you that you weren't supposed to talk about this anymore", Ranger said quietly. "And I don't want to hear you talk about it anymore either."
"I will answer the question first", I said. "It was upsetting and terrifying. You have nightmares about it for weeks afterwards, and it affects everything you do. It messes you up like nothing else you will ever go through. The doing it was easy. The second-guessing yourself afterwards, the sense of loss, the depression, all that is hard."
"Is that because you are a woman?" he asked. I sucked in a breath and tensed up.
"No", said Ranger, sitting down beside me and starting to massage the back of my neck again. "When you shoot someone you have literally taken the life of someone. Both Stephanie and I are in this business to protect people, so to have to shoot one of those people we have sworn to protect takes something out of you. As Stephanie says, it takes a bit of your soul. The more people you shoot, the more you feel like parts of your soul are missing. Shooting someone, no matter how necessary, feels like it lacks honour. I still have nightmares about the people I have shot in the line of duty. That is one of the main reasons I have a minimum age requirement in my company. I find that people younger than twenty-five do not understand the impact shooting someone can have on the shooter and are consequently trigger happy. I don't want a trigger happy person working for me."
"Do you play Barbies?" asked Cecelia.
"Yes", I said, grateful for the change in topic. "I used to play Barbies all the time when I was your age, and I still play them occasionally with my nieces. I like to pretend my Barbie is Wonder Woman. Or sometimes the Bionic Woman, depending upon whether my Barbie has dark hair or light."
"Who are they?"
"Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman?" When Cecelia nodded her head, I said "Wonder Woman is a woman who had superpowers. She fought the bad in society, she had all sorts of cool tools to use, like a magical lasso and an invisible plane, she was strong and she always came at the right time to save the day. You know it is unrealistic as she did it all without breaking a sweat or getting her hair mussed."
I heard a snort of laughter from Ranger and felt the rumble of laughter in his chest. "Really? The invisible plane and magical lasso didn't tip you off that it was unrealistic?"
I ignored him. "The Bionic Woman was a normal woman who, because of a skydiving accident, had parts of her body removed and replaced with manufactured, fake parts. These fake parts let her do all sorts of things that normal humans could not do. For example, she could lift a truck with one arm, or run faster than a car, or could hear better than anyone else. She was amazing."
"I think I would like to be Wonder Woman. I would like to have an invisible plane. Then I could leave late for school and get there early."
"Cecelia is a sleepyhead in the morning", said Carlos.
"So who are you named after?" I asked.
"I am named after Uncle Ricky", said Carlos. "He is my godfather. And Uncle Ricky is named after Grandpa."
"And I am named after Aunt Celia. She is my godmother", said Cecelia. "And she is named after my great-grandmother, who used to live in Florida before she died."
I looked at the ten-year old. "Roberto's name is Uncle Silvio's middle name. Uncle Silvio is his godfather. Roberto doesn't talk much. He is very shy", said Carlos, saying that like it was a character flaw.
"Your Uncle Ricky doesn't talk much either, and I find that he notices a lot more than most people as a result." Roberto smiled a shy but pleased smile. Apparently Ranger was a role model for more than just Carlos.
"What about you? How did you get your name?" asked Cecelia.
"My father was convinced that I was going to be a boy before I was born. He wanted to name me Stefano after his father. But I came out a girl. My father was disappointed and so my mother named me Stephanie to appease my father."
"Your father would have preferred boys?" asked Cecelia in a small voice.
"No, it turned out he was really happy to have had another girl. The main reason he wanted a boy was so he had someone to watch sports with and I watch sports with him all the time. So he is quite happy he had me", I said, crossing my fingers in the hopes that it was true.
"Why did you never have children?" asked Cecelia.
"If you have children, you need to love them and care for them, help them with their homework and soothe them out of bad dreams. You need to cook for them and clean for them and do their laundry. The responsibility sounds very intimidating to me and I have not yet met anyone who I think could change my mind on wanting to have children."
"What about Uncle Ricky?" asked Cecelia.
"Your uncle is pretty happy with Julie and does not want any more children." The two-year old slid down off my lap and ran over to his father, pulling on his pant leg in order to get up.
"I would like to have another girl cousin", said Cecelia. "Someone I could play Barbies with. I hardly know Julie. She doesn't come very often."
"That's because, squirt, Julie lives in Florida and that is a long way away", said Ranger.
The children were called to come to set the table. They got up en masse, and hurried into the bathroom to wash their hands. Gabriel got up and went to supervise.
"How are you holding up?" asked Ranger.
"Good. Your family is really nice."
"They are really curious, anyway. I didn't think it would be so much like the Inquisition."
"No, it is okay. At least they haven't asked me to marry you, like my mother has repeatedly asked you to marry me. And they haven't asked me if I am pregnant with your baby, like my grandmother has asked you, so we are doing well."