"I just came in for that last little bit. Did I hear you say that you are pregnant with Ricky's baby?" asked Rosa excitedly.
"No! Definitely not! I am a stress eater and, after the last person I shot, I ate everything in sight, which meant that I gained weight, gaining a whole clothing size in about three weeks. Because I gained weight so fast, everyone started asking me whether I was pregnant and my mother and grandmother were convinced I was lying when I denied it. They asked Ranger point blank to his face whether he was the father. This was before we had even started to go out together, so it was especially uncomfortable."
"Oh." Rosa sounded dejected.
"Ranger isn't planning on having any more kids and I think I make a better aunt than I would a mother. If I became a mom, I would have to change my job and my lifestyle and I like my life the way it is. Realistically speaking, I work too many hours and the hours are unpredictable. Definitely not a lifestyle conducive to good parenting."
"Oh. You got me all excited there for a second."
"I actually came through to tell you that dinner is being served."
Ranger and I got up to wash our hands, and joined the table in the dining room. All the children were eating at the kitchen table, and the ten adults were squished around the dining room table.
"On Ranger's and my first date, we went to a seafood restaurant here in Newark that you had recommended, Elena. It was excellent."
"Did you go to Tattersly's?" asked Elena.
"Yes", said Ranger.
"Isn't that place wonderful? They have the best tuna steak there that I have ever tasted." A plate of barbequed chicken breasts, grilled to a caramel colour, were passed around, followed by a parmesan basil butter dip. Following the chicken was a variety of side dishes – asparagus, sautéed mushrooms, candied yams, and yellow summer squash. Also passed around was a bread basket of filled with cut pieces of French baguette.
"This all smells so good!" I exclaimed, taking a deep breath. "What kind of food do you serve at your restaurant?"
"We serve food on a par to Tattersly's, although Tattersly's is a seafood restaurant and we are more of a steak house. We have some fish on the menu, but mostly we have meats", said Elena.
"A woman after my own heart."
"You don't like fish?"
"I love some seafood, like shrimp and crab. But I was never brought up eating fish and so am not used to it. What I have had I like, but I think I will always prefer the heaviness of eating meat."
"So what did you order when you were at Tattersly's?"
"I ordered shrimp surf and turf. It was excellent."
"Someday soon you will have to try our restaurant", said Mr. Manoso. "If you like the heavier fare of meat over seafood, I think there would be many things on the menu that you would like. I am surprised Ricky didn't bring you to our restaurant to start off with, rather than take you to one of our competitors. Tsk, tsk, tsk!" he said with a finger wave and a smile.
"I understand why Ricky didn't take you to Manoso's", said Celia. "Look how much we have grilled Stephanie this evening. It would have been worse if it had been their first date. Instead this is date number…what?"
"This is date three outside the apartment. Ella has made us many special dinners which we have had inside the apartment."
"I can tell that Ricky is really serious about you. This is only your third date and he is already bringing you home to meet us? Fantastico!" said Mrs. Manoso.
"Don't be making this into something it isn't, Mama. Stephanie and I have known each other for years, but until recently she was in a long-term relationship with someone else. Just three weeks ago she broke it off with the other gentleman. It is too soon for either of us to think of anything more than day to day. Having said that, I know a lot about her family and have met all of them, whereas Stephanie knows little about you and had never had the opportunity to meet you. I thought it only fair to introduce you. That's it. I wasn't bringing her home to announce anything, but rather just to share my life with her."
"This dinner is out of this world. If you cook like this in your restaurant, you must have the most popular restaurant in Newark", I said.
"Thank you!" said Elena and William at the same time.
"Our restaurant has won Consumer's Choice awards for the last ten years running", said Mrs. Manoso proudly.
"I can see why. Are those the awards put out by the local paper?"
"Yes, they are."
"I will have to ask Ranger to take me to your restaurant. You have me curious."
"And curious is your middle name. You know what they say about curiosity, don't you?" teased Ranger. "Curiosity killed the cat."
"But satisfaction brought him back", I said with a smile. Everyone around the table laughed.
"That doesn't make much sense", said Ranger. "If a cat is dead, then a cat is dead. Nothing can bring a cat back to life."
"A cat has nine lives. Maybe it is coming back into another life."
"I can see you being a cat in another life. Independent, proud, lucky, and having an infinite number of lives."
"Thank you, I think? I always envisioned myself more like a dog. Dumb but loyal, overenthusiastic and dictated by food."
Ranger laughed. "I don't think that describes you very well at all, although the addicted to food might."
"I see you more as a panther", I said to Ranger. "All black, fast, dangerous, smart, a good hunter, quiet, independent."
"It's funny you should say that. I have always thought of Ricky as a panther as well", said Grandma Rosa. "He would have done well if he had stayed in the army."
"He does well now", I said. "He has the premier security company in Trenton. His company has grown so much he is doubling up on monitoring stations and has had to hire several new staff. And if Sales lands even a small portion of the files they have asked me to research, he may need to hire more people again."
"I have never seen Ricky's apartment. Have you?" asked Mrs. Manoso.
"Yes. I have used Ranger's apartment as a safe house many times."
"What does it look like?" Celia asked.
"It is a large one-bedroom. It is divided into two halves, his living area and his master suite. His living area consists of a Homes and Gardens type of kitchen, a classic and contemporary dining room and a living room. It is open concept. There is a hall and a half bath dividing the living area and the master suite. The master suite consists of a large five-piece bathroom, an enormous walk-in closet that is the same size as the bedroom that I grew up in, a large bedroom, and an office/den combination. The whole apartment is decorated in masculine neutrals – dark woods, brown leather furnishings, black, taupe and cream accents, walls the colour of chocolate milk, silver and black lamps. Artwork is decorator basic. The effect is pleasing and relaxing."
"Where do you sleep when you use his apartment as a safe house?" asked Grandma Rosa.
"The couch." I could see Ranger out of the corner of my eye and could see that he was thinking about smiling.
"So tell me", I said, "if Ranger is like a panther now, what was he like as a child?"
"He was more like a lion cub. He had a big roar, but no claws to give it any teeth. He was little for his age. He didn't grow into his height until much later. He fought a lot. He wasn't very good at fighting and was always getting into scrapes of one sort or another. When he was quite young, he couldn't keep his mouth shut, and would constantly tell people off if he thought they needed it. He got in a lot of trouble both in school and out. He started running with the wrong crowd when he was in his early teens and would do anything to try to get accepted by them. We ended up sending him down to live with his other grandmother in Miami for a few years. We just didn't have the time to help a troubled boy when we had the restaurant as well."
"You did all right, Mama", said Ranger. "Juvie for jacking the car, and then going down to Miami and having a chance to change friends, did me a world of good. And those early years taught me well. They taught me to listen and think before I speak, they taught me how to fight and how to live with my back to the wall, and they taught me how to blend in so I wouldn't be noticed. Without my childhood, I would not have been as successful as I was in the military, nor would I be as successful in my current career. Now, do you need help clearing the table for dessert?"
Dessert was homemade banana rum custard tart, and it was delicious. Ranger even had a tiny sliver.
After dinner, Ranger and I did the dishes while Elena, Celia and Rosa put the clean dishes away. Rosa told me about the children's program that she was implementing in the library where she worked, and Celia told me about the volunteer work she was doing in her children's school. Elena told us about a problem that she was having with inconsistent quality with one of her suppliers, and I told them about some of the funny arrests that people had skipped out on.
At the end of doing dishes, I asked whether there were any pictures of Ranger as a child. "Now you've done it", said Ranger as he led me back to the loveseat in the living room. Mrs. Manoso popped up. "Oh, yes. I was just looking at the album the other day. I will get it to show you."
She came back into the room carrying an album about two inches thick. Ranger exchanged seats with her, and she lovingly showed me all the pictures, including the newspaper articles about Ranger's unit and work that he had done while he was still in the Special Forces. I paused over the articles about Julie's kidnapping. I saw my name in them. "I forgot that the paper made a mention of me when Julie was kidnapped."
Mrs. Manoso looked. "That's you? Thank you for looking after Julie the way you did. You could have ignored that little girl, yet you put your life in danger to help her. I remember Ricky telling us about you. I remember how amazed I was that someone would be so caring as to look out for a little girl like that, but I did not put that person that helped Julie together with you. I'm sorry. I should have put it together right away."
"No, you shouldn't have. I think that whole identity theft case is something we would all like to forget. There is nothing scarier than terror for a loved one and not being able to do anything about it."
"True. You feel so helpless", said Mrs. Manoso.
"Gabriel, that happened just before you started seeing Celia", said Ranger. "My daughter was kidnapped by someone who was trying to steal my identity. Stephanie and I worked together to try to figure out what was going on. That was a time when I used her apartment as a safe house. It was Stephanie who figured out who the guy was, and then she volunteered herself to be kidnapped so that she could look after my daughter", said Ranger.
"That's very brave of you", said Gabriel.
"A little girl's life was at stake. Besides, Ranger would have done it for me. In fact, he has found me several times when I have been kidnapped."
"You've been kidnapped several times?" asked Grandma Rosa, crossing herself.
"Yes. My skips aren't always nice people with good intentions. But the key thing is that Ranger has always found me. That's the most important part."
"He can't be there all the time", said Rosa. "What happens if next time he can't be there?"
"The bonds office staff call him Batman – not to his face, but behind his back." I felt Ranger's half-smile. "And Batman is always there when you need him. But in the event where I haven't been able to go to Ranger for help, like when he has been picking up skips from out of state or out of country, I have gone to Tank or some of the other guys on the Rangeman team for help, and I have friends in the police department as well. I have lots of protectors. It's just that Ranger is the best and my favourite."