Disclaimer: Thank you to Janet Evanovich for creating wonderful characters and letting us play. Not mine.
A/N: We did it. Drive is complete, but our journey with Steph isn't. When I began writing this story, I set out wanting to challenge and improve my writing skills. I had an idea for a story where Stephanie faced her demons head-on, called them out by name, and began to do the difficult work of healing and change. Along the way, she would find love, strength, hidden abilities, courage, and the real meaning of family. I wanted to honor the journeys of those who have experienced similar trauma, and I strived to avoid using sexual and physical assault as romantic plot devices. We've traveled a week and a half of Steph's recovery. I feel I've reached my original goals for this story, but that doesn't mean the story is over. No one heals from anything big in a week and a half. The conclusion of Drive means she's now moving forward in a new direction. When we see Steph again in Lift Off, we will continue experiencing her ups and downs in recovery, deepening her relationship with Ranger, becoming a full-time employee at Rangeman, and we will see the impact a changed Steph has on the Burg. I believe I've left you with more questions than answers for the story at large, and I hope you continue to travel with me when I launch Lift Off in approximately six weeks.
Between now and then, I'm excited to announce chapter one of my short story, To be Proud, will be posted next Friday. This is a drama/romance spin-off from Look Alive Twenty-Five, and I'm thrilled with the way turned out.
I have enjoyed writing this story more than I could have ever imagined. The readers of this fandom are incredible. You've encouraged me, supported me, brainstormed with me, and stuck with me. Thank you. My confidence and courage to write and share my ideas has blossomed, and this hobby has become a positive and wonderful aspect of my life. I am incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to share my words with you.
Lastly, I owe tremendous thanks to misty23y. She volunteered to be my beta before I even knew what a beta was, and I promise you this story wouldn't be what it is without her. She challenged me to flesh out characters, add points of views, pay more attention to certain storylines and details, and helped me re-learn forgotten aspects of grammar. Thank you, Babe.
Date/Time Stamp: Monday, 24SEP18 1500-2100
At the car, Carlos holds the door for me, and I appreciate the small act of kindness. As he enters traffic, I ask, "Could we drive a route home where we park for a minute at a good vista of the ocean? Since being here, I've seen the westward view from home, but I haven't seen the Atlantic at large."
Carlos takes my hand and kisses the back before resting it in his lap. "Of course, Babe," he says, and I enjoy miles of sand, ocean, and palm trees in this urban paradise. Carlos parks, walks around the Porsche, and opens the door before I manage to finish unbuckling myself. "This is Haulover Beach Park. It's still popular with tourists, but we're far enough north from South Beach that the crowds aren't as bad," he says, anticipating my questions. I take his hand, and a smile grows as the sounds of waves crashing ashore and receding again become louder with each step. Carlos leads me to a wooden slatted bench perfectly shaded by two curling palm trees, and I sit with a contented sigh.
"What did you say at Dr. Anderson's office?" I ask. Carlos wraps an arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer.
"Querida, te quiero más que a nada," he says, kissing my head. "I love you more than anything. Thank you for inviting me to sit with you during your session today. Your explanations helped me understand you better, and it helped me take a step back and see this week and even the entire time I've known you from a clearer point of view as well. Babe, you've impressed me in every way today. The professionalism and strength you showed during your physical fitness test this morning blew all of us away. I never doubted you'd pass the test, and I thought you were capable of an Outstanding, especially after a little training with Lester, but I didn't think that was the score you'd earn today. I underestimated you and the work you've already put in with Hector. Well done," Carlos praises, and I smile with pride.
"After I finished making lunch, I went to find you. When I saw you curled up in terror, I was very concerned things were escalating to the point that you'd pass out again from a panic attack. That worry was amplified when you screamed and recoiled when I touched you, and Bobby was behind me with a sedative in case you became physical. Your fear was palpable, and in my experience, people who are that scared tend to become a danger to themselves and others. I've never seen anyone talk themselves so effectively out of fear and communicate what they need in the midst of that fear.
"I didn't understand what you were going through in the closet until your appointment with Dr. Anderson, and I'm even more in awe of the mental strength you demonstrated. I think someday you are going to look back and see today as a pivotal movement in your life," Carlos states assuredly. I twist my body towards him, and he takes my hands, giving them a gentle squeeze.
"Babe, I have zero doubts that you are going to conquer your demons and give yourself a life unleashed. I'm glad I get to be a part of that journey. There are moments of bad now, but there is a lot of good. You are an amazing woman, and it is my privilege to have the opportunity to love, honor, and cherish you," Carlos concludes, his voice rich with emotion.
When the last word leaves his mouth, I press my open lips onto his as I crawl onto his lap. I kiss him with every ounce of desire and adoration I possess, and he returns it equally. It's the most honest, loving, and romantic moment of my life. When our lips inevitably break their contact, he tenderly rubs my back as I rest my head on his shoulder to calm my heaving chest. "Te quiero, Querida. Te quiero," he says in quiet passion.
When we stand hand in hand, I pause and wait for him to match my gaze. "I love you, too. More than anything. You are an amazing man," I say softly, emotions rippling through my voice. He kisses me again before we wordlessly return to the car.
On the drive back, I feel my confidence and security blossom. I reflect on times I was proud of myself, and an idea takes hold. "Ohh," I say excitedly, clapping my hands together. "I know what we should do tonight!"
I quickly fill Carlos in on my fabulous plan, and he glances over with a thousand-watt smile. "Babe."
I step out of the car and into my home with a spring in my step and bump into Lester in the kitchen. "Hey, Lester. I'm ready whenever you are," I say enthusiastically. He looks me over in surprise before returning my smile and slinging an arm over my shoulder.
"Well then, let's get this party started," he answers.
Lester and I spend the next few hours beginning to orient me on Rangeman administrative programs, policies, and procedures. I can see why he's frustrated with the laborious processes they currently use, and my mind is already churning with ways to streamline large chunks. I'm so engrossed in conversation with Lester that I'm surprised when Bobby walks to the poker table we've converted into a computer desk and announces dinner.
"Are we still on for yoga after we eat?" I ask Lester, knowing the stretching will help keep me from being too stiff in the morning.
"Absolutely," he replies.
"Would it be alright if I joined you?" Bobby asks, looking between us.
"Always," I say, smiling as I walk towards the kitchen.
I enthusiastically chow down on a meal of samosas, curry, and rice, savoring the rich and varied flavors. I can't remember if I tried Indian food before, but this is going down as a top ten favorite meal.
I wander outside after clean-up to see if Lester needs any help with setting up the mats when I find five already rolled out. It would seem that as a family, we are well on our way to forming new traditions and routines. First, Poker Fridays, then, Movie Night Sundays, and now, Sunset Yoga. Carlos is right. Today is the day my ship heaves around, full rudder, all steam ahead, and charts a new course.
I take the mat second to the end, and with Hector on my left and Carlos on my right, find myself loving exercise. When I lay down at the end for savasana, I feel Carlos' fingertips brush mine and rest, barely touching, and I feel true peace. I slowly bring myself back to the present and give Carlos' hand a quick squeeze before standing to roll up my mat.
"Hey guys, if you don't have something else, would you mind spending a little more time out here with me? I want your help lighting up the night," I announce, tucking my mat under my arm. Carlos has a hint of a smile on his face, and the others look curious while nodding their assent. "Great!" I beam.
"I'll get the stuff, Babe," Carlos replies, communicating silently with Bobby and Hector to join him.
Before they walk away, I ask, "Would anyone care for a drink?" I take mental note of the requests and stride over to the bar feeling nervous and excited. Lester joins me after returning the yoga gear to the gym and helps me carry the various glasses and bottles outside.
"What do you have planned, Beautiful?" he asks.
"You'll just have to wait and see!" I tease back, and he groans in mock agony.
They placed a large, metal firepit near the water's edge, and I watch in appreciation of the guys' pyrotechnic skills as they stack various pieces of wood and kindling with exactitude before setting the whole thing ablaze with a crackle and a whoosh.
"Morelli may have taken me by surprise this morning, but in true Stephanie Plum fashion, I never stay down. The last time a man fucked me over, I set everything he owned on fire. Bobby, thank you again for returning those items to me. Now, we burn them," I declare, picking up the black dress and chucking it into the fire.
"Here! Here!" the guys cheer. One by one, they each throw an item into the fire, and as the smoke trails upward to the sky, our bond as a chosen family becomes closer.
The last item in the suitcase is the ring box. I pick it up and turn it over in my hands again, never opening the lid while staring at the flames in contemplation.
"Babe?" Carlos says from his spot at my side, where he's been all along.
"Morelli used this ring, which was supposed to symbolize love and commitment, to send me a message of fear and control. Maybe not, but there may come a day when I need to return that message," I muse out loud. "Would you mind securing this someplace where I won't accidentally find it, and nowhere near our bedroom? I hope never to see it again, but my gut says it isn't time to throw this into the fire yet."
Carlos wordlessly takes the small box out of my fidgeting hands and places it in his pocket. I exhale the anxiousness I hadn't realized was building while holding the ring and lean against him.
"This was a good idea. I'm proud of you, Babe. I love you," Carlos says, tucking me into his shoulder and kissing my head.
"Thank you for helping me, and not just with this. I love you, too" I reply.
We all remain on the patio until the fire is nothing but embers, and I feel myself being strengthened, uplifted, and refined. I have said no, and I will be the one in control of my life. Surrounded by the best possible family, I am filled with quiet hope and confidence for tomorrow and each day after.