Disclaimer: Thank you to Janet Evanovich for creating wonderful characters and letting us play. Not mine.

A/N: Only one more chapter to go! I will post the final chapter to Drive on Friday. I'm currently wrapping up a short story (title to be announced Friday) that I will post weekly while I work on Lift Off.

The reader/writer community in the JE fandom is extraordinary. I never imagined enjoying writing as much as I do, and you guys are part of that. Thank you! Misty23y, thank you, Babe.


Chapter 56

Date/Time Stamp: Monday, 24SEP18 1200-1500

Stephanie POV

I take a step backward in horror as my home melts away and an onslaught of living history overtakes me.

I open the door to my apartment, wearing the almost slutty but somehow borderline classy LBD. I had debated who to call when I put it on, knowing deep down I wanted Ranger but chickened out and invited Joe over instead. "Hey, Cupcake," he said, looking me up and down lustfully before pushing a finger down my cleavage.

I'm at Joe's brother Anthony's third wedding to the same woman, and they are acting like this wedding is the first wedding. Anthony pulls the garter off his new-old wife's leg and turns to slingshot it to the waiting crowd of bachelors. Joe is standing in the corner with me beside him. The garter went wide due to Anthony's drunken state and overenthusiasm, and it landed perfectly on the neck of Joe's beer bottle. "Guess we're next, Cupcake," he said before giving me a sloppy kiss to the wild cheers of his family.

The unicorn is a prize Joe won me at the fair. We went there together undercover while he was doing surveillance. It's about the closest we ever got to having a date. The t-shirts are his. I borrowed them as nightshirts when I slept at his house, and I kept them in my drawer for when he came over. The heels are Joe's favorite fuck me pumps.

Morelli deliberately spared these things from his warpath of destruction. He then used Rangeman to send me a message. In a flash of absolute clarity, cold terror courses through my veins.

The ring. The ring is the promise ring he gave me when we agreed to be engaged to be engaged. I tucked into the medicine cabinet after I fled his house a week and a half ago.

Morelli is communicating that he still thinks we're together and that I'm his. He wants me to know I can't escape him.

"No!" I scream, sinking to the floor, tucking my face between my stomach and my knees and wrapping my arms over my head. "No! No! No!" I repeat, crying violently.

I want out of this nightmare, but I'm stuck in the mental assault of the flashbacks. I'm fighting the memories of Joe's hands on my body, of his breath against my skin, and of his manipulative words whispered into my ears.

I'm at family dinner; Joe sits beside me while my family stares at me with abject disappointment while crooning over Joe. "Stephanie, when are you finally going to set a date and marry this fine man?" my mother simpers.

I look over at my father, and he stops eating long enough to shoot me silent look of apparent agreement. At the time I took it to mean he wanted me to marry Morelli to stop my mother's complaining, but now I understand it for what it was. He was looking at his payday.

My heart shatters for the loss of my family as my childhood replays in rapid rewind. In the background of every memory is someone looking at me like they wish they could trade me in for a better model of a child. I'm in my white confirmation dress, proud to be receiving the sacrament today. It's the closest to being a proper Burg child I ever was, and it's the only time I remember my father looking at with approval.

I feel hands on me, and I automatically scream, too scared and lost in the flashbacks to fight. "Stephanie!" The voice sounds distant, but something about it shines like a light in the darkness of my mental battlefield. "Stephanie! Steph!" the voice calls again, and I follow the light.

"No, no," I continue to chant, using the word as a way to cut off the negative memories from getting closer.

"You're safe. You're okay. Stephanie, look at me. It's me, Carlos. Look at me, Babe," I hear, and the light gets brighter as I focus on the voice. I muster every ounce of determination I possess, and I raise my head the minimal amount required to see over my knees. I open my eyes, knowing I found the source of my light before I lift the lids. Dark eyes filled with concern look back at me, and I freeze as I search them with a pounding heart. "That's good, Babe," he says, gently placing a hand on either side of my face. "You're okay, Steph. You're safe. There's nothing to fear here," Carlos says.

"You're wrong," I whisper, my voice shaking.

Carlos studies me a second. "Tell me why I'm wrong, Babe," he presses.

"It's Joe. He sent me a message," I reply, beginning to tremble as my stomach clenches in anxiety. I hide my face again when I see the quick flash of anger in Carlos' eyes and hear a muted, "Fuck!" from behind him.

"Steph, Babe, how can I help?" Carlos asks, one hand resting on my knees while the other rubs my back.

I take several deep breaths and use all of my mental energy to focus on Carlos. I channel my senses on his presence, and I use that to separate my feelings in reaction to the flashbacks to my physical security in the here and now. Morelli isn't here. I am safe.

"Please help me get out of this room. I need to get out of this room," I say, lifting my eyes a little higher this time.

Carlos nods, "Do you want to walk, or should I pick you up?" he questions in the same calm voice that's a balm to my frayed nerves.

"Walk," I say quietly. "But I want to only look at you. Stay between me and the island."

"Okay, Babe. Whenever you're ready," he says, never breaking eye contact.

I decide it's now or never as I feel my heart rate pick up and breathing becoming shallower as my anxiousness grows. I don't want Joe or my family to have this power over me. I want to show myself how much I've learned and healed this week by finding my courage and trusting Carlos. I slowly unwrap my shaking hands from behind my head and wrap my white-knuckled fingers around Carlos' forearms. I clench my teeth together and breathing through my nose, fix my gaze on Carlos as I pull myself to a standing position. I can do this. I won't let the past hold me hostage. Without pause, I focus on a spot on the floor on the other side of the door and half walk, half stumble out of the closet, continuing into the bedroom.

I pause, but I'm aware that if I turned, I would still be able to see the suitcase that triggered this episode behind me. Carlos places the hand closest to my side on my back, but he doesn't pressure me. When I continue to walk out of the room, he's beside me every step of the way.

I stop in a beam of sunlight that is streaming through the windows in the great room, turn, and wrap my still shaking arms around Carlos. "Thank you," I whisper, and he kisses the top of my head. While my mind is becoming sharper, my body is rapidly feeling the effects of the adrenaline crash. Carlos notices when I sag against him and pulls me into his lap on the couch.

"Breathe, Babe. With me. Nice and slow," he quietly directs me. "Focus on filling your belly with air, good. Now let it out slowly through your nose. Let's do it again."

I tilt my head back and look at him, continuing to use all my senses to continue to ground me in his presence. Bobby enters my line of sight carrying a blanket, and I follow him with my eyes as he sits on the coffee table to place it around my shoulders. "You're doing a great job of calming down, Steph. With PTSD, your body is primed to flood with adrenaline. Keep breathing through it, and your heart rate will slow, and your body will move away from a survival posture. You're doing a good job working through your body's reaction," Bobby says, and it helps to hold off some of the creeping guilt and shame I'm beginning to feel at falling apart again.

I close my eyes and rest my head against Carlos' chest as I feel myself becoming still again. After another minute, I sit up straighter and scoot off of Carlos' lap so that I'm in the corner seat of the couch with my knees pulled to my chest, the blanket still wrapped around me. Carlos keeps an arm draped around my shoulders with his body turned towards me. By changing my position, I feel independently stronger, but I still have his support. I'm ready to talk.

"Where's Hector and Lester? I'm sure they are nearby," I say, looking between Carlos and Bobby.

"Do you want me to get them?" Bobby asks, standing when I nod yes.

I close my eyes and rest my head on Carlos' shoulder. "I love you, Babe. I'm here for you," he says, and my spark of courage grows. I hear quiet footfalls behind me, and set my shoulders and lift my chin. Once the guys have found seats throughout the room, I begin with a tone to match my inner resolve.

"Bobby gave me a suitcase of the few things he and Tank were able to salvage from my apartment. When I opened the bag, I realized that each of the things was related to a specific event between Morelli and myself. It triggered a series of flashbacks, and I'm very sorry if my reaction upset any of you. I'm fine. I understand Morelli intended to use fear to drive me back to him. That's not going to work. Neither he, my family, or the Burg at large has control over me or my life anymore. More significantly, his tactics reinforce what I already know. You guys are professional and thorough, but far from the gossip of being thugs, you're compassionate and empathetic. Bobby, you braved the wreckage of my apartment and sought to bring me a bit of comfort. Thank you," I say sincerely, finishing by looking directly at Bobby with a small smile.

"So, now, that's that. I can't control when a flashback happens so I would be grateful if someone would pack up the suitcase and remove it from the closet before I go back into the room. I dropped a ring somewhere. Lester, I'd prefer to continue my training after my appointment with Dr. Anderson rather than before," I continue, taking charge of my situation.

"No problem, Beautiful," Lester says. I shift my eyes between the three men, and they all appear to be trying to maintain neutral expressions, but I can see the anger simmering behind the façade. Hector is the least successful at hiding the murderous rage lurking beneath the surface.

I stand and walk over to Bobby. He rises from his chair as I approach, and I give him a quick hug. "It's okay. What happened isn't your fault. Thank you for caring so much about me," I say quietly before continuing forward and stepping outside into the warm Florida sun. I still have the blanket around me, and the swinging of my hormones has left me feeling chilled.

Carlos joins me the next second, and I lead us to the couch near the firepit. "How do you turn this on?" I ask, and he ignites the gas flames from a panel on the side before sitting down beside me. I lay down using his thigh as a pillow and stare at the flickers of red, yellow, and blue.

"Thanks. I understand if you need to get back to work. I'm doing a lot better, and you don't have to babysit me," I say, not wanting him to leave so much as not wanting him to be in a position where he is sacrificing his job any more than he already has for me.

"Babe," Carlos says, giving my shoulder a slight squeeze. I understand from the tone of the one word that he isn't going anywhere and that he wouldn't go even if I tried to convince him otherwise. His fingers begin to play with a lock of my hair. "Are you up to eating anything?" I nod yes, and close my eyes for a quick cat nap while he pulls out his phone to text one of the guys.

I'm gently pulled to alertness again as Carlos leaves a series of kisses from my temple across my cheekbone. My eyes flutter open, and I stretch my legs before sitting up. A sandwich and a glass of iced tea are on the edge of the firepit in front of me. I lean forward to grab the meal, set the plate on my lap, and begin to nibble as I watch various waterborne vessels weave paths on the water before me. When I finish, I set the plate beside me and brush off the crumbs before turning to look at Carlos.

"I'm not sure what time it is. When do we need to leave to go see Dr. Anderson?" I ask.

Carlos glances at this watch and kisses my forehead before replying, "We need to go in fifteen minutes."

I sigh and look down at my hands. "Please don't think I'm weak, but would you mind walking with me to the bedroom? I'm sure you guys already removed everything Morelli saved for me, but I'd feel better if you were with me," I say.

Carlos takes a finger and lifts my chin. "Of course, Babe. I don't think you're weak. I saw how scared you were, and you did a tremendous job finding your courage. Every day I see you healing and getting stronger. I'm proud of you, and I love you," he says, and I wrap my arms around him in a quick hug before standing.

We put our plates in the dishwasher and enter the bathroom to freshen up together. Carlos doesn't give it a second thought when I ask him to grab my socks and tennis shoes from the closet. We take the 911 to Dr. Anderson's office, and I rest my hand in the bent crook where his abs end and lap begins. Classical music plays through the sound system, and I close my eyes to organize my thoughts for the appointment.

In the waiting room, Dr. Anderson invites me back. "Join me?" I ask Carlos, and he follows my path to the couch.

"Good afternoon, Stephanie. Let's start by checking in. How was your weekend?" she asks pleasantly.

"Hard. I'll begin with Saturday night," I say, and I proceed to layout the highs and lows from discovering the investigation files through my flashbacks today.

"The events of this weekend revealed several things to me. The first is that I have a harder time trusting people, including my internal voice than I thought I did. I understand that several of my patterns of behavior were unconscious decisions to create barriers between myself and others. Examples that come to mind immediately are excessively clinging to my independence and keeping some toxic people in my life. I'm deliberately trying to dismantle some of those walls and demonstrate trust towards Carlos and the guys, and it's scary for me," I confess, hugging a pillow over my lap.

"The second thing is that I realize how much control I've allowed others to have over my life, especially Morelli, my family, and the Burg at large. For most of my life, I've let how others perceive me determine my self-esteem and even if I see myself as being worthy of love. From that vantage, it makes sense why I believed my mother when she blamed me for being molested and then again when Morelli raped me. It makes sense why I let myself be talked into the marriage with Dickie when deep down I knew we weren't good together, and it's why I never understood that rape could also occur within a marriage. I've believed for a long time that there is something inherently wrong with me. I've worked very hard to hide my true self and abilities, to the point of allowing, even if I didn't mean for it to happen, physical harm to come to me and others," I continue, pausing to push down the shame that comes hand in hand with these memories. I take a deep breath and press on.

"When I read the marriage bet investigation report, I think the best analogy is that the ledge I was standing on crumbled, and now I see things from a new point of view. I no longer believe that my parents love me or have my best interest at heart. I excused a lot of their behavior by telling myself that they meant well. I'm glad I cut them out of my life, but I mostly feel a sense of loss. I think I'm grieving a relationship I've accepted I'll never have. I'm placing communication with everyone in the Burg on hold until I work through this grief. That might be a week, or it might be forever. I don't think it will be the latter, because I do care about my Grandmother, nieces, and my friend Mary Lou, but when I tried to write the letters to them, I got stuck. I think with time, I'll be able to try again with more clarity," I declare, still feeling somewhat detached from it all.

"The flashbacks that I had when I went through the suitcase of things from my apartment today were terrifying," I say, my voice cracking, and I have to swallow back the fear that suddenly swells in my chest. Carlos, who has remained nearby but passive, slides closer and takes my hand. I grip it firmly as I restart the explanation. "I've been through a lot of crap, but that is the most scared I've ever been. The thing is, they weren't terrifying because I relived the negative events that often plague my nightmares. Today's event was different. I was horrified because I remembered all the times I tried to say no, where I tried to ask for better, or where I knew I needed to make a different choice but wouldn't find the courage to do so. I relived the control Morelli, my parents, and the Burg had over me, and I felt it destroying me. I felt, for a moment, what I used to feel; hopeless, worthless, and defective." Tears stream down my cheeks, but I don't let them stop me.

With a furrowed brow and the hand not held by Carlos' clenched into a fist, I pound it into the pillow as I emphatically state, "I never want to feel that way again. I got out of the flashback by telling all those memories, 'No!' and by making the conscious decision to be stronger than the fear. I'm certain I wouldn't have been able to do that without the relationships forged and revelations gained over the past week. I know now that a bet doesn't determine my value, and neither does whether or not I get married, how sexually pure I am, how feminine my dress and behavior is, my employment, my hobbies, or how well I can make lasagna. I'm a good person. I have more strength than I know. I deserve a better life than the one I've lived so far, but the only way that's going to happen is if I fight for it." I purse my lips and use a tissue offered by Dr. Anderson. For the first time in the session, I look directly at Carlos. When I see the tenderness and pride on his face, my heart swells.

"Carlos, thank you. I know I don't see myself the way you do, but I am working towards gaining that perspective. I'm stronger and better with you. Thank you for loving me unconditionally, for respecting me, and for cherishing me. I love you, too," I say before the tears of gratitude prevent me from saying any more.

"Querida, te quiero más que a nada," he says softly, wiping the tears away with a fingertip.

I turn back towards Dr. Anderson and take a deep breath before shrugging and saying, "So, yeah, that's how my weekend went."

"Stephanie, wow. Have you taken any time to pat yourself on the back?" Dr. Anderson says, and I look back at her blankly. "Take a second to think about your first visit to this office one week ago. In six sessions you've managed to do what can sometimes take years of work. Every person is different, and I don't mean to make any comparisons, but you have a lot to be proud of today. You're actively reflecting on each experience and pulling the lessons learned forward as you define a new life. Change can be hard. It's okay to feel good about all the positive choices you are making, even as you mourn the loss of parts of your old life.

"Don't worry about writing anyone now. If those relationships are as good as you think, it can wait. You'll likely continue to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and periods of hypervigilance, and I would ask that you don't be hard on yourself if it does happen. As you work through the therapy process, those events will decrease as your body and mind become adjusted to a new normal," Dr. Anderson says, and I give her a tight-lipped smile in reply.

"Before we end our session today, let's go over a new tool for your mental health toolbox. I would like you to find something each day to be grateful for, even if it's a small as enjoying the sunshine, and I would like you to find something you are proud of yourself for. Add that to your journal during your daily reflections," she says before shifting her gaze to Carlos. "You, too. Remember your self-care as well," Dr. Anderson finishes with an encouraging smile before closing her folder and standing.