Disclaimer: Anything recognizable belongs to Janet Evanovich, and the rest is mine. I'm grateful she lets us play.

Warning: Adult language, adult content, smut. This is written for mature audiences only. Mild spoilers from Look Alive Twenty-Five.

A/N: I read Look Alive Twenty-Five over the holiday break, and this idea took hold and refused to let go. I'm not certain what time period the book took place, so I adjusted it to fit the needs of my story.


Selections from Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich:

So here are some of the reasons I'm not married to Morelli. His job. His family. His friends. And the remaining reason is my inability to commit.

The reason I'm not married to Ranger is much simpler. His life path doesn't include marriage. End of story.

~~oOo~~

"We should go to Point Pleasant," I said. "We could lay on the beach and hold hands."

"Babe," Ranger said.

His voice was soft and wistful. Okay, wistful might be a stretch for Ranger, but there was a quality there that wasn't familiar. Or maybe I was projecting my own feelings. God knows, I felt wistful.

We were halfway down Stark, almost to State Street, and Ranger pulled to the curb.

"We can't go to the beach," he said. "Is there something else? Would you like an ice cream cone? Flowers? A kitten?"

"A kiss," I said.

He leaned across the console and kissed me. Gentle. Loving. Wistful.

"Thanks," I said. "I feel better now."

"Anytime," he said.

~~oOo~~

He nudged me inside, set the basket on the floor, and kissed me. "I'm cutting you loose," he said, "but feel free to drop in if you get a sudden desire to use my shower or my bed."

He kissed me again with enough passion to make me think twice about his offer.

"Jeez Louise," I said.

"Babe," Ranger said. And he left.


Proud to Be

Chapter 1: June 23, 2016

After being guarded twenty-four seven, the quiet serenity of my apartment makes me happy. I give Rex a treat, verify the food fairy hadn't replenished my cupboards, and put my laundry away. After an hour, however, it began to feel a little too quiet and too empty.

I go to the bathroom to fix my ponytail and refresh my lip gloss before grabbing my purse and heading over to Morelli's house. I promised him that I'd walk Bob, and maybe getting back to my normal routine is just what I need to shake the lingering blues I have.

I brace myself for Bob's full-bodied greeting, assure him I'm not hiding any donuts or meatball sandwiches in my pockets and set out on a path through the neighborhood. To Bob's delight, I walk past the usual turnaround point and take an extra-long, meandering route through the Burg. Stretching my legs without an entourage feels liberating (although I would swear I saw one too many black SUVs to be strictly a coincidence drive by cross streets). I find my pace slowing as I beat the return path to Morelli's home, and I sigh when I see it's a full house again.

When I slip through the front door and enter the kitchen to refill Bob's water dish, no one notices me. Anthony, Mooch, and Big Wanger have their eyes glued to the television, engrossed with analyzing and arguing about the ref's call and their instant replay interpretations. It's deja vue a thousand times over.

As I stand in the doorway and stare into the living room, it dawns on me. I'm not scared to commit. I'm scared to commit to this, and for many good reasons. I don't want my lover, my husband to ignore me for sports or to have my homelife revolve around it, especially when I didn't even like the people coming over all that much. Joe's friends certainly aren't my friends, and his family scares the bejesus out of me.

My eyes land on the pool table, and that's when everything becomes crystal clear. Ranger was right. Morelli doesn't want to commit either. No one that wants to have a big, costly Burg wedding, immediately father a Burg-sized brood, and become the sole provider for said large family buys an expensive pool table for the dining room. Morelli is committed to his job, his social life, and his reputation.

Morelli and I have stayed together as long as we have because we are bound together by common interests that have nothing to do with marriage. With the public knowledge that he and I are engaged to be engaged, Morelli essentially gets to continue the bachelor lifestyle. He has readily available but terrific (if I do say so myself) sex regularly and can play the sympathy card to his family (after all, it's easy to say I'm the reason we haven't committed). As for my part, Morelli keeps my mother off of my back by coming to family dinner regularly, his association keeps me in the Burg good graces enough to do my otherwise disreputable job without becoming exiled, and he provides some security when the bad guys get to be too much. It doesn't hurt that the sex is there when I want it.

Both Morelli and I are too comfortable and stubborn to change the predicament we're in, even if it's hurting us in the long run. If we break up, one of us is going to look bad, big time in the eyes of the public. But that's not enough reason to stay together.

I pull out a couple of shopping bags from beneath their storage spot under the kitchen sink and quietly pad upstairs. I only need one to gather up my property. Morelli and I have been off and on so many times that at some point I subconsciously stopped leaving things here to make it easier the next time we would inevitably be off. I look through the rooms and sift through the bag one more time. With a start, I realize I have more things at Ranger's penthouse than Morelli's home. That's something to ponder over later.

I leave the lone grocery sack by the door to look around for the last time. I'm not sad to be leaving, but I also have good memories here, and this feels like closure. I catch Morelli's eyes and jerk my head slightly towards the kitchen. He gives me a lopsided smile and stands to follow me.

"Cupcake, I didn't see you. Should I kick these guys out and start our party early?" he says, trailing a finger down my cleavage and pulling back my shirt slightly to take a peek at my breasts. Morelli has his moments in bed, but some things still strike me as being juvenile; this is one of them. I gently brush Morelli's hand away from my shirt.

"No, I'm heading out. Let's meet for lunch at that new pizza place off Franklin tomorrow. We can talk about how we should have gone to Pino's," I reply. It's public enough that I should be able to avoid a scene, early enough that Morelli should be sober, and new enough that I'll have time to call my mother before the busybodies do. The Burg hates new places.

Morelli chuckles. "Are you sure I can't convince you to stay?" he says, leaning down to kiss me. I can tell he'd like to turn it into a full-fledged make-out session, but I keep the kiss brief and chaste while heading towards the door. Even if I weren't planning on breaking up, I wouldn't want our more passionate moments to be put on display to his buddies in the next room. I have more dignity than that.

"I'm pretty tired after the past week. It's hard work to avoid getting kidnapped and trying to get kidnapped all at the same time. That, and I know being a diner manager isn't my calling," I joke with a small smile, discretely picking up my bag. "Goodbye, Joe," I say, and leave without further fanfare.

On the drive home, I feel a weight lift from my shoulders. I have to make it official tomorrow, but I know I'm doing the right thing for both Morelli and myself. He's a good man who shouldn't sacrifice his thirties and possibly his future by continuing to be comfortable with me. It is also the first time the decision to break up is coming from a place of rational calm versus the infamous Italian temper.

I sleep deeply, and I wake up at 7 am feeling refreshed and confident. It reinforces what I already know; breaking up with Morelli for good is for the best. That said, I'm sure that I will find myself in the crosshairs of my mother and the Burg at large by sunset. I might want to say I don't care what they think, but my past behavior indicates I do care, at least a little. Right now, the ball is in my court; so, Stephanie, what do you want?

I make a cup of coffee and sit out on the fire escape overlooking my parking lot pondering that question. Is this the best my life is going to be? If I survive bounty hunting to old age, will my claim to fame be the longest living resident of this apartment building? I've said I don't want to marry or have kids, but do I want to die alone?

The most obvious answer is that I can't be a bounty hunter forever. My diet and level of exercise alone forbid it. I can barely do the job in my thirties. There's no way I'll be able to earn a living doing it in my fifties. Again, if I live that long, and truth be told, I'm getting tired of worrying about being kidnapped, raped, beaten, or killed. I idly rub the scar on my arm from Abruzzi's hot iron poker.

Somewhere along my train of thought, Ranger crosses my tracks. The fact is that I'd be dead several times over without his help. I have some innate abilities, or I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have, but I've refused any real training he's ever offered me. As a result, I've caused physical harm to Ranger and his men, and by my best mental estimate, I've cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. It hurt when he called me entertainment in his budget, but there's also an element of truth.

If today is the day I hit the reset button on my love life, why not do the same for my professional life? Furthermore, is there any way I can repay Ranger for all the assistance he's given me?

That question gives me pause, and I take a long drink of coffee before I return inside, find a pen and legal pad, and sit down at my small table. I've given my relationship with Morelli an honest look; it's only fair I do the same with Ranger. Ranger has made it clear that he is not willing to commit to me, but I know he likes me, possibly loves me. There's no other reason for him to have risked his life to save mine as many times as he has. I might even love him.

I shake my head. No. I'm not going to make any life changes with the hope that Ranger will suddenly declare his undying love to me. There are tales of women riddled throughout history whose hearts are left destroyed by following that path. I will, however, make decisions that result in me being less of a liability and more of an asset in his life. I will also put myself in a position to be able to have a career and income through retirement. My parents aren't going to live forever, and if they were to die today or if I was to have a catastrophic injury, I would be destitute. It's time I started living a life that makes me happy today with an investment in tomorrow.

I begin brainstorming ideas as to what my next career move might be. Heaven knows it isn't in the restaurant business. The things I like about bounty hunting are being out of a traditional office setting and the changing variety of work. I generally enjoy being in the security field, and I like the mental challenge of figuring out people and tracking them down. I hate living paycheck to paycheck, the lack of benefits, no retirement plan, and the constant threat to my life and limb.

I think back to my days at EE Martin. I didn't like sitting behind a desk day in and day out; I hated wearing pantyhose every day, and I drowned in the monotony of the job. I take another sip of coffee and look back on that time of my life with more detached reflection. I did like the sales portion of the work, especially the rare opportunities when I engaged with vendors and clients. In much the same way as bounty hunting, studying people and using my instincts to push for favorable contracts and sales gave me a thrill. I felt I was beginning to make inroads with strong advancement prospects when the company went under, closed down due to getting caught in a sting.

When working a temp job at Rangeman, I always love being around the Merry Men. I often report to Lester, who is responsible for personnel, and I think back to a candid conversation we had my last time in the office. He was complaining about Rangeman's processes, in both human resources and sales. He told me in confidence that he was concerned Rangeman was going to grow faster via reputation than his ability to ensure that reputation.

With that, an idea hits me. I pull open my laptop and begin to peruse the various MBA options near me. I have a general business degree, and I graduated with a 3.4 GPA. With my work history, it should be enough for me to gain entry to a program where I can concentrate in either human resources or marketing. The only question is whether or not I will need to take the GMAT and how I'll pay for it.

I begin to research MBA programs in New Jersey on my laptop, and far and away, the closest and highest ranked program is Rutgers. That's Ranger's alma mater. I embrace my fearless attitude for the day and register for an information session being held later this week. I see I'll need to take the GMAT, but I have time to do so and still be eligible to begin the program this fall. I feel hopeful for the first time in a while.

I glance at the clock and realize I only have an hour before my meeting with Morelli. I make myself presentable but don't attempt any glam before grabbing my keys and dashing out the door. I feel so good about my decision to break up with him; I don't need any mascara.

I beat Morelli to the restaurant and grab us a booth in a quiet corner near the back. I slowly exhale a sigh of relief when I don't see anyone we know. I'm thankful I don't have to wait long before he saunters in, and when he gives me that sexy half-smile, I almost feel my resolve diminish. I mean, do I want to give up regular sex? No. I am going to do this.

Morelli leans down to kiss me before taking the seat across from me. We exchange pleasantries and order a pepperoni pizza before he says, "You look like you want to say something, Cupcake, and I'm not sure I want to know what it is."

That perceptiveness is part of what makes Morelli a good cop, and in this case, helps to propel me forward before I get cold feet. "Joe, I love you. I always will, but I'm canceling our engaged to be engaged engagement," I say, taking off my ring and leaving it on the table in front of him. He stares at it and then stares at me.

"Keep it, Cupcake. We'll be back together next week anyway," he says, leaning back in his seat with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Not this time. I'm sure about this. I hope we can continue to be friends, but I understand if we can't. I think you're a great man, and someday, you're going to make the right woman very happy. I'm sure I'm not that woman," I say, attempting to sound both firm and compassionate for the situation I've placed him in.

Morelli exhales a long sigh and runs his fingers through his hair. "Are you dumping me for Ranger?" he asks, and a bolt of jealousy and hostility flashes in his eyes.

"No," I say firmly, shaking my head. I consider saying more, but I don't have to justify myself to him.

Morelli searches my eyes as though the answers he doesn't have lay within. Eventually, he looks away and seems to gather himself for a minute before picking up the ring and sliding it in his pocket. "I don't like it, but okay. I'm not going to beg you to stay with me. I want to be friends, too, but right now, I need you to give me a wide berth," he says heavily. Then he stands, pulls a twenty out of his wallet, and leaves it on the table. "I love you, too, Cupcake. You're a great woman, and I hope you find what you're looking for when this door closes between us. I'm here if you change your mind but don't wait too long."

I stand, and we give each other a hug that feels like good-bye. Wordlessly, we separate, and Morelli strides out of the pizzeria without a backward glance. I ask the waitress to box up the order. With my new take-charge attitude, I immediately head to my parent's house. We are still in the Burg, and even with the drama-free break-up, I'm not at all convinced she hasn't already heard.

I enter the house and find her cleaning up the lunch dishes in the kitchen. "Hello, Stephanie. I wasn't expecting you. We've already put the food away, but can I can I offer you anything for lunch?" she greets.

"No, Mom. I stopped by to give you some news before you hear about it from someone else," I start.

Before I can continue, my mother is giving herself the sign of the cross and glancing at the cupboard above the sink. "What did you do this time?" she says, sounding like an aggrieved martyr. I don't let her bait me.

"I broke up with Morelli. It's for good this time, Mom. We aren't getting back together. I've returned the ring, and things are amicable between us. Before you get upset," I barrel on, holding my hands out in front of me like stops signs, "I have something else to say you'll like better."

My Mom narrows her eyes at me. "Go on," she says.

"I know I can't be a bounty hunter forever, and I'm beginning the process of figuring out what my next career step is going to be. No, I'm not going to work at the button factory or on the line for the sanitary napkins plant. I have bigger aspirations than that. I don't want to say any more right now, and I might not for some time," I say, pausing to gage my Mom's reaction. She isn't exploding at me, so I continue. "Mom, I know you have dreams for me that involve marriage, kids, and a white picket fence. We've fought a lot about that over the years. That dream isn't my dream. I understand, however, why you worry about me in my current job. I won't be quitting for at least a year a two, but please know that I am going to work to live a life I'm proud of, and hopefully, you will be, too," I finish softly, hating that in some ways I still feel like a kid seeking her approval.

For perhaps the first time in my adult life, my mom regards me with quiet contemplation. "Okay, Stephanie. You're right. I don't much like any of this. Joseph is a good match for you, and he would give you a secure life. With the amount of prodding me and everyone else has given, if you two were going to get married, you'd have done so already. At least this way I have the chance of setting you up with someone new," she says, and I have to repress my sigh of annoyance. Mom stops herself and leans against the kitchen counter and fidgets with the side of her apron before continuing.

"I'm glad you are planning on moving on from that dangerous bounty hunting job. You're a smart woman, Stephanie, and you're capable of a lot more than you seem to think. If you don't want what I want for you, fine, but then show your father and me that you will provide for yourself. We won't live forever, and I want to die knowing my little girl is going to be okay," she says, and I'm stunned. It's the most honest moment I've ever had with my mother, and it oddly echoes my thoughts earlier this morning.

Tears spring to my eyes, and I walk forward to embrace my Mom in a hug. "Thank you, Mom. I will. Give me a little time, and I will," I say quietly.

"Alright then," my Mom says, ending the moment as quickly as it began. "Since you aren't eating here, why don't you take some of this chocolate cake with you?" she blusters while beginning to package up the food before my reply. I smile as I watch her work. Today is a good day.


A/N: To be Proud is complete with five chapters. I will post it every Friday while working on Lift Off, the sequel to Drive. Thank you for joining me on this new Stephanie Plum adventure. Please review and let me know what you think!

Thank you to misty23y for once again being my wonderful beta! She not only does a great job editing this for grammar, but she challenges me to make sure the storylines are as good as they can be. Thanks, Babe. Please check out her amazing crossover story The Night That Changed Everything. It's quite a ride.