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.

Chapter 3: June 24, 2017

When I wake up the next morning, light is filtering through the edges of the curtains. I'm still in Carlos' arms, and when I begin to slide out of bed, he tightens them around me. "I'll be right back," I whisper, kissing his fingertips. I make a quick trip to the restroom. I find a couple of Advil in the medicine cabinet and swallow them dry before briefly stretching out my sore body. When I return, Carlos is laying on his side with the blanket barely coving his manhood. His eyes follow me as I slip under the covers.

I impishly smile when I feel his erection, and I use the element of surprise to roll him onto his back and sit astride him quickly. I bite my lip and moan in pleasure as he slides inside my slit and against my clit. Digging my heels into the mattress, I raise my body to impale myself on him in one stroke. Ranger closes his eyes as his lips part slightly. I only barely hear a whispered "Querida," but it's all I need to begin setting an agonizingly slow pace as I pull out of him almost to the tip before grinding down into him again. I every so carefully increase the speed, enjoying the expression of pure need on his face. I pick up the pace so that I'm grinding intensely against him when places his expert fingers on my clit, and with only a couple flicks, I throw my head back while screaming his name. The orgasm is so strong that I collapse against his chest as mind-numbing ecstasy shoots through me. Carlos wraps an arm around my back, and with a couple of thrusts, moans, "Babe," as he joins me in pure pleasure.

I'm quivering from both the intense orgasm and the sore muscles in my overworked legs. My head is resting on his shoulder with my curls covering my face. "I love you, Carlos," I say softly. Carlos turns us so that we are again laying on our sides face to face with his arm under my head. He uses the other to smooth my hair from my face, kisses my forehead, and then pulls the blanket up around us before taking my hands.

"Babe, look at me," he says with gentle leading. I slowly open my eyes and give him a closed-lip smile. "Querida, my dear," he continues, pausing to kiss my forehead again. "Te quiero, I love you." My eyes glisten at his words, and the declarations of love made in the night blossom in the morning.

But I have to know one thing. There has been so much hesitancy, caveats, and even the distance of time between us that I need to know one thing before this goes any further. I furl my eyebrows together as I search Carlos' eyes and gather my courage. "Is this our someday?" I whisper.

"Oh, Babe," Carlos says solemnly, crushing me against him. "If you'll still have me, yes, I hope it is," he says, his accent strong with emotion.

I begin to cry in happiness and relief. "Of course I do! I love you, Ricardo Carlos Manoso," I said fervently.

I tilt my head up as Carlos' lips meet mine in a kiss that's gentle, passionate, and feels like a promise. When we break apart, we lay facing each other with our bodies intertwined and revel in the shift that's happened.

Eventually, my stomach grumbles loudly, and I giggle at my body's impatience. "Babe," Carlos says, his eyes twinkling. He slides out of bed and walks into the closet before returning quickly after donning a pair of boxer shorts. He sets a black t-shirt beside me and departs with a kiss to the kitchen.

I sit up to pull the offered t-shirt over my head. When I stand, my body aches even more so than before, and once again, I remember just how close I came to a much different outcome yesterday. I close my eyes and lean against the bed as I roll my neck from side to side and stretch out my arms and back. I open them again to see Carlos leaning against the door frame with obvious concern on his face.

I force a smile and take the few stiff steps towards him. "I smell coffee, yummy," I say, deflecting the question in his eyes.

"I think there is something you're not telling me," Carlos says, not baited in the least.

I sigh and look down. I haven't told anyone about my pursuing my MBA, and I don't intend to do so until I finish. I'm doing that for me, and I want the accomplishment to be a surprise to those I choose to share. I'm afraid that if I tell Carlos about my swim yesterday evening, he'll use it to discount this new step in our relationship. I don't want to lose him.

"Let's eat, and maybe then we can talk," Carlos says, placing a hand gently on my back. I nod yes, and we slowly walk together to the kitchen table. I take a seat and stare at my hands while I gather my thoughts. Carlos places a cup of coffee and a bowl with yogurt, granola, and berries in front of me. As I rapidly consume the entire parfait, it occurs to me my last meal was nearly twenty-four hours ago, and I've burned a lot of calories since then.

Carlos raises an eyebrow as he looks between me and the empty bowl. It reminds me of the little things we've missed not being near each other the past year. To save money, I stopped eating out as much and began stocking my fridge with easy to prepare, healthier staples. I don't think I'll ever care for salad very much, but a breakfast like this has become a regular part of my diet. "Do you have any more or anything else? I guess I'm pretty hungry," I say with a small smile.

"How about a muffin?" Carlos offers.

"When did you start eating muffins?" I counter.

Carlos smiles back. "When Ella started making them with applesauce as the sweetener, bran, and fresh fruit," he replies.

"Sounds great," I say genuinely. "Thank you." Carlos returns a second later and sets a gorgeous muffin in front of me. I take a bite, and I moan as the taste reminds me of Ella's culinary genius.

"Babe," Carlos intones, shaking his head with a two-hundred-watt smile.

I help with clean-up, and we take our freshly refilled mugs with us to the couch. I set mine on the side table before slowly sinking into the seat as my legs groan in protest. I've been sore from exertion before, but this is a whole new level, and it's clear I won't be able to hide it. More than that, I want a chance at forever with Carlos, and honesty is an essential piece of that foundation.

Carlos sits in the middle of the couch and pulls my legs across his lap. "I'll start. Babe, I've seen more than most could ever fathom, and I've been through a lot. I can't talk about most of it, and it's one reason I don't do relationships. Over the past year, the more we were apart, the more I found myself missing you and wanting to be with you. This last mission was my last. I've renegotiated my contract so that I will no longer do fieldwork for the government. I know it's hypocritical for me to press you for information when I'm not able to reciprocate, but understand that because of my experiences, my imagination is capable of some horrific worst-case scenarios. I want to respect your privacy, but it's difficult for me to see you hurting and not know why," he says, and my heart swells with hope and courage. Carlos was planning on someday months before I crossed his threshold again.

"No more missions?" I repeat with a big smile.

"No more missions," he confirms, and I reach out to take his hand and give it a big squeeze.

"Okay, I'm going to tell you some of what's been going on in my life the past year, but I'm not going to tell you everything right now," I start, and I see the blank face begin to slide into place. "No, please don't close yourself off," I plead, and Carlos raises his eyebrows slightly. "Give me a chance to explain before you pass judgment," I say, searching his eyes. The blank face disappears, and he kisses my knuckles before giving one nod of agreement with his chin.

"I am working on a difficult project I'm not ready to share with anyone. I promise it's nothing dangerous, and you don't have any cause to worry about me. I will tell you what it is in about a year from now. Please, do not spy on me or try to figure it out. The project is very important to me, and I need you to respect this boundary," I state.

"While you think about that," I push forward, "I'll fill you in on other details. I'm sure you know I broke up with Morelli after the deli case. The break-up was cordial, but we don't interact with one another anymore. Not that it should matter, but I haven't dated anyone else since then."

"Michael Rossi?" Carlos queries, and I snort in response.

"It seems I know something Ranger doesn't," I tease in reply, and he raises an eyebrow at me.

"Let's just say Michael and Hector share a relationship I will never enjoy with him," I state, and Carlos lets out a bark of laughter. "Michael and I are friends, but we rarely see each other outside of our professional partnership as bounty hunters. He's a much better partner than Lula, and between the two of us, I've been able to earn a living with far less risk to my life and cars."

"Good," Carlos replies, but my curiosity is piqued.

"Did you think something was going on between Michael and me?" I press, tilting my head to one side.

A pensive look crosses Carlos' face. "I thought there might be when you went to him instead of me for help with your job. I noticed your skills have improved, and I attributed it to training he gave you. I want you to know I never judged you, but I was also constantly worried about you. I'm glad you've improved. Your safety is what is most important, but, yes, I thought you had replaced me in your life with him," Ranger confesses, and his forthrightness stuns me.

"After breaking up with Morelli, and then again when you went in the wind, I've spent a lot of time this past year trying to decide what kind of person I want to be both now and in the future," I contemplate. "I've been critically introspective and brutally honest about what makes me awesome and where I have room to improve. I did this outside of the context of a relationship because I wanted my self-improvement to be for me and not because I was changing myself for somebody," I continue, my voice faltering as I worry about Carlos' response. Carlos squeezes my hand and looks at me encouragingly.

"Those reflections are what led me to recruit Michael as my work-partner. I like Lula, and I understand what it is to hit rock bottom and struggle to try to find a way out again. I was happy to support her at the bonds office, but she constantly placed me in danger by abandoning me, waving her gun around, and not following directions. The last straw was when her immaturity caused the deli to burn to the ground. That stunt could have killed all of us, and she never accepted any responsibility for her actions. I thought about asking you for help, but I already feel like I owe you so much. It's more than that, though," I say, sighing. I look away and run my fingers through my hair before continuing.

"I realized I loved you after Scrog, but I wasn't ready to act on it. I felt like we had danced around a someday for so long that it might never happen. I consider you my best friend, and I felt like I was the person who was always taking and never giving. In my mind, it seems better to work on myself as an individual so I could be in a better place for my next relationship. I want that to be with you; however, I have always been fully aware that might not be the case. You have reasons I may never understand to keep me at arm's length, and I guess I reached a point where I couldn't be vulnerable until I made myself stronger. I can see how my failure to communicate with you created unnecessary confusion and hurt. I'm sorry," I finish humbly, lifting my gaze, hoping to communicate my sincerity with my expression.

Carlos remains still with his back against the seat cushions, but his body is rigid. He doesn't match my stare immediately, and when he does, I'm startled by the pain I see. "Babe, don't apologize," he says quietly. "I fail to see anything you did wrong. You're correct. I have spent years pushing you away. You had every reason to take me at my word eventually. I've been an ass, and I was wrong. I should have reached out to you instead of wallowing in assumptions and misinformation," Carlos says emphatically. He turns in his seat so that he is facing me directly, never letting go of my hands.

"The truth is that I fell in love with you somewhere between the diner and when you called me to free you after Morelli handcuffed you to the shower curtain rod. I couldn't believe the trust you had in me when you were so defenseless. You've always given more to me than I have to you. I've given you monetary assets and held it over your head. You've given me your faith, good humor, persistence, joyful spirit, and loyalty. I never saw Morelli as a threat, and I was surprised when you started dating him. I thought I misread things between us, and I know I'm the lesser man between the two of us. I'm a difficult person to be in a relationship with because my life is unpredictable, often dangerous. I might never be able to give you the life I thought you would want, so I pushed you back to Morelli. That was the stupidest and hardest thing I've ever done. There's no reason I couldn't have talked to you sometime this past year either," Carlos says with a fervency I've never heard. The most I can muster is to look at him with my mouth hanging half open and eyes wide open.

Carlos takes in my expression with a ghost of a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. He quirks an eyebrow slightly and asks, "Why did you break up with Morelli?"

I sag back slightly against the corner of the couch and look at the far wall of the room. My mind is so wrapped up in Carlos' confession it takes me a second to shift gears. "We should never have dated, but I guess I'm a slow learner," I muse.

"Babe?" Carlos questions.

"We're too much alike and too different at the same. Worse, there's a history behind us I should never have tried to rewrite. Further, I gave into the expectations of the Burg and my parents and settled on a path of least resistance that was only going to hurt Morelli and myself eventually. I broke up out of self-preservation. I hated the person I was becoming. You've always said that you're proud of me, and I wanted to begin to be someone I was proud of, too," I state, hating the tears that threaten to appear against my best fight.

"What history?" Carlos asks. I glance at him out of the corner of my eyes before looking down at my hands. I pull them away from his and pick at the edge of my cuticles.

"Why are we going over this? You already know," I state defensively.

"Let's say this conversation is teaching me a lesson about hearsay and assumptions," Carlos responds calmly.

His tone does nothing to tamp down my growing anxiety. I shouldn't have said anything, but I was distracted and didn't consider my words carefully enough. I stand and walk to the floor to ceiling window on the far side of the penthouse. I wrap my arms over my chest and grip my biceps. My top-notch skills in avoidance and denial are all built around a fierce desire to never talk about this.

"Babe," Carlos says softly behind me, touching my shoulders. I jump as my heart begins to beat faster. I clench my jaw and breath through my nose as I try to get a handle on my sudden desire to run away. "Hey, Steph, it's okay," Carlos says gently, placing his hands so that his fingers rest over mine. He doesn't pressure me, and I'm grateful for the quiet stillness. I lean back against his muscular frame and concentrate on the rise and fall of his chest. Carlos wraps his arms over mine, but I don't feel trapped. Instead, I focus on relaxing my muscles and letting go of the stress while accepting the safety and security of the man who has always stood with me.

"Morelli molested me when I was six, and he was eight. We were in his father's garage, and he said that I was the tunnel and he was the train. Playing choo-choo, he called it. My Mom blamed me. When I was sixteen, Morelli came into the Tasty Pastry, where I was working, and raped me on the bakery floor before writing about it all over town and leaving for the Navy. He wouldn't take no for an answer, insisting I wanted it and him. After my Mom faulted me the first time, I knew no one would believe I never gave my consent, so I said nothing and let people talk. Boy, did they talk. It made my life hell for a couple of years. I was pretty angry about it, and that's why I drove him over with Big Blue," I say in a near whisper as unwanted tears trickle down my cheeks.

The emotional upheaval I'm experiencing from articulating my worst memories is as powerful as it is unexpected. I thought that after all this time I had managed to detach myself more effectively than this. My fingers are digging into my arms as an outlet for the intense tension that begins in my chest and extends outward, and I'm vibrating with the stress of holding myself together. Carlos slowly curls his fingers under mine so that I am holding onto him, and he is holding me. The act radiates calm, and it gives my overwhelmed brain something to focus on. I am loved, and, together, we are strong. I take a deep breath and continue with a clearer voice.

"After I captured Morelli when he was FTA, I thought that would be it. But my self-esteem was in a terrible place, and I guess I liked the attention he paid me. I think I thought that if I got things right this time, it would make the shitty things okay. Yeah, I know how dumb that sounds, but the heart isn't always logical. I believe that Morelli thinks that he loves me, and I don't think he knows how much he hurt me. He's not a bad guy, but he had a terrible childhood, and I think he took some of the wrong lessons from it. Unfortunately for me, I got caught up in the middle of it. Morelli and I were doomed from the start, and I never loved him the way a girlfriend thinking about marriage should. I finally realized that the wrongs would never make a right. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I've made a lot of good ones after that," I finish, glad that I sound more confident now than when I started.

I sniffle once and pull my hand away from under Carlos' to wipe my cheeks dry with the back of my hand. "I didn't mean to get all emotional on you," I say, looking down, trying to keep control of the raw feelings still constricting my chest. "I hate talking about this. You're the first person I've told the whole truth to," I admit.

Carlos kisses the back of my head before slowly turning me so that I'm facing him. With the same gentleness, he wraps me in a warm embrace. I still have my arms crossed over my body, and with my ear on his heart and face tucked into his shoulder, I feel unquestionably cared for and accepted.

"Babe, I had no idea," Carlos says, his voice cracking. "You never have to hide what you're feeling from me. I'll never judge you. Thank you for trusting me." With that, my dam breaks, and I begin to cry in earnest. Bringing my dark past to the light is cathartic. As the tears fall, rolling from my eyes to Carlos' chest, I feel like my soul is cleansed. I mourn a little girl who should have never bourn the blame for the wrongs done to her, and a teenager who was scared, confused, and alone; I'm ready to put my past behind me. I'm more determined than ever to live embracing my true self.

As my sobs calm, Carlos sweeps an arm under my legs and carries me to the couch. I settle onto his lap and stifle a groan as my sore muscles adjust to the new position. "Do you think any less of me?" I ask, giving one of my deepest fears voice. If Carlos doesn't see me as a good match for him, I need to know now before I give any more of my heart away.

Carlos squeezes me before lifting my chin so that I can see his face. He kisses my forehead before looking at me with an expression of unconditional love and acceptance. I bite my lower lip as I scan his face in guarded hope. "Not in the slightest. I only love you more," he says. "I'm sorry you've carried that burden alone for so long, and I'm sorry for ever pushing you towards him. I should have listened to my heart a long time ago."

"We weren't ready. Neither one of us. We both needed to work through our issues before we could be ready for each other. I don't hold anything against you," I say evenly in reply.

"Nonetheless, Babe, I am sorry for the times I pushed you away. I've been a jerk, and I did think I lost you to Rossi. I'm glad I was wrong," Carlos says, leaning down to kiss my lips gently. I sigh in contentment and snuggle back into his shoulder.

"Outside of my relationship with Morelli, I believe I gave you several good reasons to take pause when considering a relationship for me. For one, I'm sorry I didn't accept training sooner. Michael hasn't trained me as much as you think. Working with a competent partner has been a game changer for me, but more importantly, I internalized some of the things you taught me as my mentor and finally put them into action. For example, I started going to the gun range weekly, and I took a private self-defense course. I've also started exercising and eating better," I say openly.

"Really?" Carlos says in surprise. I look up and give a big smile at the astonishment on his face.

"I still hate leafy greens and running, but I am enjoying feeling healthier and fitter overall. I've been swimming most of my life, and I've done it a lot more over the past year as my cardio. Yesterday, I went to Point Pleasant for an evening swim. It did not go well," I say, looking down again as the smile falls from my face.

Carlos kisses the top of my hair and gives me a gentle hug of encouragement. The simple touch sends calming comfort through me. "I swam my usual half-mile, but when I went to turn around, I realized I got caught up in a longshore drift. I tried riding it out, but it eventually fed into a strong rip current. It took about an hour before I broke free, but I had drifted fairly far out and was a couple of miles away from my starting point. It was well after dark by the time I crawled back ashore and another hour before I made it back to my car.

"There are two reasons I didn't die yesterday, and they both have to do with you. I knew my diet and exercise stunk, and it was likely I would have a shortened life due to the unhealthy choices I was making today. I've hoped for someday for a long time, and I wanted to be fit enough to hold out for however long that took. I know that if I had gotten caught in that current a year ago, I would not have had the stamina to survive it. As it is, I'm incredibly sore today. The second reason is that I kept thinking of you. At first, I thought of your quiet calm under pressure, and I channeled that to keep myself from panicking, to conserve energy, and to have the patience to ride the current out. Later, I kept thinking of you, because I didn't want to die and wish I had fought harder for us. I know there were a lot of valid reasons for you to decline a relationship with me, and there probably still are. I've worked hard to make myself a better person. If you don't want a someday with me, I will always be glad I made those changes. However, I do hope that you like the person I am today a little more and that perhaps some of your hesitancies have been removed."

Carlos crushes his lips against mine before pulling me closer to him in an equally firm embrace. I rest my head on his chest with my hand resting slightly under my cheek. "Babe, I love you for you, and my hesitation to be in a relationship was never about you, it was about me," Carlos said with a thick voice. "When Rachel and I had Julie, I wanted to make it work with her. Rachel cheated on me, and I buried myself in my work at the expense of my relationship with my daughter. Ron is a far better husband to Rachel than I ever was, and he is a great father to Julie. The entire experience made me question my ability to be the husband, and potentially father, that you deserve.

"I've also done a lot of reflecting this past year, and I concluded that I'm not the person I was. Meaning, I was little more than a still immature teenager myself when I married Rachel and had Julie. In the Army, life came at me fast, and it changed me. I'm much more mature, serious, and responsible. War has taken a toll on my mental health, and I've used the past several months to address that. Counseling has helped me learned how to open myself up to people I trust. For the first time, I feel I'm ready to be in a relationship, and I'm grateful you are ready to be in one with me," Carlos explains, and my heart sores. I pull back and sit up slightly so that we are looking evenly at once another.

"Babe, I am proud of you. You honor me with your willingness to share your past with me. I think you are an incredible woman. I respect your boundaries, and I will not try to figure out your secret, but I do hope you can eventually trust me with it. But Babe, why were you reluctant to tell me about what happened last night?" Carlos questions after a pause.

I got this far by not being scared and passive, and this is not to moment to start. I look directly at Carlos, set my chin high, and with a steadfast voice say, "I was afraid you would push me away again. I didn't come over so you could put me back together, and I don't want to be a damsel in distress continually. When I was in the water, I had a moment of clarity, and it gave me courage. I knew that if I survived, the experience would show myself that I am a stronger, more capable woman than I've ever been and that I have achieved some of my goals. I saw myself as being worthy of love, and if you didn't want me, I would be okay. I decided to act on what my heart has wanted for a long time."

My heart is pounding in my chest as I wait for Carlos' reaction, but thankfully, I don't have to wait long. Carlos' eyes widen, and his expression softens into one of unquestionable adoration. He twists me in his lap so that we are facing each other before kissing me with such passion it makes my toes curl. He has his one hand on my bottom and the other tangled in my hair, and when our lips break apart, he rests his forehead on mine. "Babe, last night was the best of my life. What I said has not changed, and if anything, I only mean it more. I want a relationship with you. I'm all in. It terrifies me to think of how close you came to drowning, and I can't imagine this world without you in it. You and Julie are the most important people in the world to me.

"The reason I decided to end my involvement in field work is that during my last mission, I could tell something had changed inside of me. I didn't want to take the same risks, and I realized it was because I had people that I needed to come home to, who needed me in their life. I love your courage, your heart, your confidence, and your willingness to open yourself up to me. Querida, te quiero," Ranger says.

"I love you, too," I respond against his lips before kissing him again. Carlos lays me down on the couch, and we continue growing our connection in the way only lovers can.

A/N: I was blown away and humbled by the tremendous response to Chapter 2. I think I have replied to everyone's comments. To those I can't reply directly to, your encouragement and enthusiasm made me feel proud all over. This hobby is so much more enjoyable with feedback, and please know I value the time you take to push the review button. Chapter 2 was a big, brave, courageous leap in my writing, and you guys make me want to do more.

I posted a new short story this week entitled Warrior. It's as dark as this story is light, but the darkness has a purpose. I hope you get a chance to check it out.

I will thank my beta, misty23y after every chapter I post. She edits, she helps me when I'm stuck on a storyline, and she's a great cheerleader. Thank you, Babe. She has a crossover story, The Night That Changed Everything, in progress right now, and it's riveting. I highly recommend reading it.