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 4: May 18, 2018

Today is the day. I'm excited, nervous, relieved, and everything in between. I'm standing in my assigned room at Rutgers' Newark campus waiting to line up and walk the four blocks with my classmates to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Adorned in my black robes with crimson and gold sash and honors tassels, I almost look like someone else. Today is the day that I, Stephanie Michelle Plum, become the first person in my family to earn a graduate degree, and with honors to boot. The Burg can take their marriage certificates and stuff them. A Master's degree is a way better piece of paper.

Today is also the day I reveal to Carlos and my parents what I've been up to the past two years. Hector was instrumental in helping me arrange everything. I trusted Carlos when he said he wouldn't try to spy on me, but I also knew he would figure it out in short order with the number of trackers hidden in my possessions at all times. Hector and I reached an agreement that he would obscure the tracker data and personally monitor my whereabouts for safety if I taught him English. Over the past two years, I've gained a close friend and brother.

I gave my parents a nondescript save-the-date card a week ago, and Hector drove my parents to the ceremony and provided them with entrance tickets at the door. Carlos was a little trickier. I still have my apartment, but I spend most nights on seven. I plan on asking Carlos if I can move in after graduation, but having my own space provided me a place to hide books and study after hours. I blocked the time out on Carlos' calendar, so I know he will be available. I spent the night at my apartment for what I hope will be the last time, and at ten o'clock this morning texted Carlos a dress code, address, and time to meet Hector. It's enough time for Carlos to connect the dots but probably not in their entirety.

This last year has been the most challenging, rewarding, and empowering year of my life. I thought I was in love with Carlos before my ill-fated swim, but I had no idea how much farther I could fall. We're lovers, but he is also my partner, and his unwavering support and belief in me without even knowing what I've been doing has strengthened us and me. We also found new ways to connect. We will never be running buddies, but he often joins me for a swim, especially if I go down to the ocean. We started a tradition of dancing Friday evenings, and Latin dance has done wonderful things to my ass. On Ella's day off, I'm Carlos' sous chef in the kitchen. He never criticizes my efforts or makes me feel small when I'm unsure, and I've gained several small competencies. At least I can boil water without burning it.

One of the most unexpected areas of joy in our relationship is his family. Most of the Manoso clan is more like Lester than Carlos, and they all welcomed me with open arms and hearts. At Christmas, we did a white elephant exchange, and my porcelain stack of donuts cookie jar with a Tasty Pastry gift certificate and pop-gun inside was the "it" gift. Rachael and Carlos renegotiated visitation, and Julie now spends one weekend a month with us. My family will never welcome Carlos with the same enthusiasm, but my mother had the good sense to stop dropping hints about Joseph and every other eligible Burg bachelor when Carlos began accompanying me to family dinner.

I'm shaken out of my memories as the announcement to line up for the procession is given. I adjust my cap, take my place in line, and I can't stop grinning as we step outside. My nervousness at seeing Carlos and my parents vanishes during the walk and instead, I start to feel pride. I know where I stand with Carlos, and if my parents don't appreciate what I accomplished, that's on them. We enter the Performing Arts Center, and I blink at the change of light. There's a hum of energy in the building, but as I proceed down the aisle to my designated seat, I feel the charge shoot down my neck that I only feel whenever Carlos is near. I turn my head, and our eyes connect as he gives me a thousand-watt smile. Hector is seated next to him with my parents on Carlos' other side. Mom and Dad look stunned. Hector gives me a small thumbs up.

We begin the process of standing up and sitting down through protocol and speeches. I feel Carlos' eyes on me the entire time, and it feels like a blanket of love and support.

"Before we begin the procession, Rutgers honors a few of our extraordinary graduates. Most awards were handed out in a separate awards ceremony, but the ones presented today are considered the top honors. First, we invite all graduates elected to Beta Gamma Sigma to stand. These students represent the top ten percent of their class not only in academics but also community service and moral character. Join me in a round of applause!" the Chancellor announced enthusiastically.

I stand and turn my head to give a thousand-watt smile to Carlos. He looks prouder than I've ever seen him, and it makes every late night of studying, the long drives to and from campus, and changes I've made to my life and career even more worth it.

"Our next award is the Beta Gamma Sigma Alumni Bronze Medallion. We present this award to the graduating student who has demonstrated outstanding character; scholastic achievement; participation in collegiate affairs; and potential for civic, business, or professional leadership. This year's recipient is someone who has not only excelled in the classroom, but with her leadership, enthusiasm, and character, constantly impacted those around her positively. She could always be seen helping a classmate, volunteering throughout campus, and challenged the school's curriculum when she identified a need that was not already met by our programs. This person demonstrated how Rutgers could be a greater source of good in our community. As a capstone project, our honoree created a burgeoning non-profit organization to benefit families of deceased and missing in action service members. Over the past year, Operation Blue Star Hope has become the fastest growing organization founded by any Rutgers student. It has received national attention and has already supported hundreds of families in the mid-Atlantic region. It is with pleasure I announce Stephanie Plum as the recipient of this year's Bronze Medallion!" the Chancellor booms as the room bursts into applause.

I'm stunned and frozen in my seat. I never expected this. My classmates reach across to shake my hand or pat me on the shoulder and congratulate me, and it's enough to propel my legs forward. I'm not sure how I managed the long walk to the stage, but with a smile that won't quit and trembling hands, I somehow thank the Chancellor and accept my award. Everyone is on their feet, and I have to fight the overwhelming tears of joy, gratitude, and surprise from spilling down my cheeks. My eyes scan the crowd and lock with Carlos'. I begin my return to my seat as the ceremony continues, keeping my eyes on him. The unadulterated pride and love on his face cause my chest to constrict, and a single happy tear slips out.

The rest of the ceremony is a blur. I smile for the photographer as I collect my honorary diploma and join my classmates in throwing my cap in the air as Convocation concludes. We depart before the general assembly, and I stand in the corner of the reception area to wait for Hector to escort Carlos and my parents to our prearranged meeting place. As I do, I finger my diploma and medallion in astonishment.

I look up as Carlos approaches, and I can't wait for him to finish crossing the room. I jog forward and leap into his arms. He catches me and swings me around once before kissing me with as much passion as he knows I am comfortable with sharing in a professional environment and setting me down onto my feet again. "You never disappoint, Babe. I'm so proud of you," Carlos says, his face echoing every word.

"I'm proud of me, too," I say confidently as a huge grin erupts across my face.

I turn to Hector and embrace him as my brother. "Gracias, hermano," I say so only he can hear. "I'm grateful you kept my secret." (Thank you, brother.)

"For you, Angelita, anything," he replies.

I pivot and stand in front of my parents. My mother has been silent this entire time, a first. With the same persistent smile, I shrug and say, "I told you two years ago I would change my life, Mom. I have, and I will continue to do so. You don't have to worry about me anymore."

In astonishment, I watch as my Mom wipes her eyes with her hanky and walks forward to pull me into a firm embrace. "You did good, Stephanie. I love you," she says in a shaky voice.

Tears flood my eyes. I don't think my mom has either approved of me or said she loves me since I was a small child. Had she hated everything about the surprise ceremony and my accomplishments, I would still be glad I did it, but it would have meant I needed to make some serious decisions about how much of a relationship I would have with my parents moving forward. Never in my wildest daydreams did I imagine she would accept me and my chosen path with open arms.

"Oh, Mom. I love you, too," I say, hugging her tighter.

I'm pulled from my mother's arms by my dad. He gives me an awkward pat on the back, and we take a quick step apart. He keeps his hands on my shoulders and gruffly says, "A daughter of mine earning an MBA. Well done."

I nod back at him and purse my lips as I try not to break down sobbing at the uncharacteristic level of affection from my parents. Carlos places a hand on the small of my back, and I instantly feel stronger. I take a couple of tissues from Hector and carefully dab my face in a quest to avoid raccoon eyes.

We chat and laugh a few minutes longer, and I pose for several photos in my graduation swag. I walk my parents to a waiting Rangeman vehicle with Carlos and Hector. As I wave goodbye to them, I turn to the two most important men in my life. "I have someplace I want to take you before we head back to Haywood," I state.

Hector suppresses a knowing grin, and Carlos looks intrigued. Hector volunteers to bring the SUV around, and Carlos and I move to a shaded alcove along the side of the building. The moment the shadows obscure us from view, Carlos presses me against the wall with a kiss that instantly makes me forget my name. "I'm. So. Proud. Of. You," Carlos staccatos in between kisses. He rests his forehead against mine. "I can't wait to get you back to seven and show you how proud of you I am," he says huskily, and my panties are instantly soaked.

"Mmmm," I groan, my command of the English language temporarily forgotten as I look into Carlos' deep brown eyes.

"Babe," he smirks back before taking me by the elbow and leading me to the waiting SUV. He holds the back door open for me, and I settle in as he joins me in the back on the driver's side. I give Hector an address. As he pulls out onto the congested roads, Carlos reaches over to take the medallion and diploma from my lap. He scrutinizes them and returns them to me with a smile I will never grow tired of seeing.

"Operation Blue Star Hope?" he questions.

"Do you remember when Binky's brother died about three years ago from an IED?" I respond, and Hector catches my eyes in the rearview mirror as Carlos nods once. "He was devastated, and I spent whatever time I could with him, to listen to him and try to help as best as I was able. As the months went on, the conversation shifted from the loss to concern about his sister-in-law. She was struggling through the military funeral process, which for an Arlington burial can be months, death benefits paperwork, how to best financially manage the life insurance payout, how to move and establish a new home, healthcare insurance, and other things. It seemed there were lots of people available in the beginning, but fewer and fewer as time went on. I started to do research, and I realized that we are missing opportunities to serve better those left behind. I wanted to do something to help, so, with a couple of my classmates, we used our talents to create a non-profit foundation to address some of those needs," I explain.

"Things took off faster than I expected, but luckily, I was able to leverage the media attention into more financial support. I found my calling in sales and marketing, and it's unleashed leadership potential I never knew I possessed. Technically, I'm the CEO of the foundation, but as we grow, we'll be interviewing more experienced non-profit veterans to fill out the board. I want this to succeed in the long-term, and I won't let my pride prevent that from happening," I continue, and Carlos reaches over to squeeze my hand.

"I don't think that's possible," he says. I smile in return as a blush fills my cheeks. The rest of the drive quickly passes as I answer various questions about school and OBSH.

"Ah, park here," I direct Hector as we pull up to a five-story professional office building on the outskirts of Trenton that's near the easiest freeway access to Philadelphia. It's a gleaming glass and concrete building. I step out of the car and remove my graduation robes to reveal a smart plum-colored sheath dress with a peekaboo keyhole neckline. I finger comb my hair and reapply my lipstick before setting my shoulders and striding confidently inside with Carlos and Hector on either side. We take the elevator to three, and I unlock a door at the end of a short corridor.

"This is Operation Blue Star Hope," I say, spreading my arms proudly as I show off my baby. The lights automatically turn on as I walk through the workspace. There's a receptionist desk and waiting room near the front with the non-profit's emblem proudly displayed. I open a second door to reveal a warm and comfortably decorated office setting. "We have cubicle spaces along the far wall and meditation space in the rear. My office and that of the executive team's is over there," I show off, pointing to an opposite corner. "One of my goals was to have an inviting space that was both professional but honored the difficult phase of life our still grieving clients are going through. The truth is, we'll probably outgrow this facility in a year at our current rate of growth, but I'll cross that bridge later. And before you ask, yes, Rangeman does security on the building," I say, and Carlos lets out a bark of laughter.

Hector makes himself scarce as I lead Carlos to my office, closing the door behind us, and sit on the edge of my desk. "Pretty great, huh," I smirk as he stands with his legs outside mine.

"Amazing, Babe," he responds, giving me a light kiss before resting his forehead on mine. "Why did you keep it a secret?" he asks quietly, and a small stab of pain at the slight hurt in his voice shoots through me. I place both of my hands on his face, kiss him gently, and hop down to lead us to the couch under the window.

I turn my body towards Carlos' and take his nearest hand in both of mine. "I have spent my entire life feeling as though I was somehow deficient, inept, and often unworthy of love. When I married Dickie, I did so with a deep desire to be loved. His rejection of me and my mother's subsequent disapproval destroyed my self-esteem. I hid my insecurities behind my independence, and I lived a life where I straddled a line between what I wanted and what everyone wanted from me," I say with my eyes searching his. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing.

"You were very clear to me that you didn't do relationships, and I tried to accept that. But some of the reasons you had to push me away hurt me but also challenged me. I don't want to be your entertainment. I want to be your equal. I know you've said there's no price between us, and I know things have changed more between us than I could have ever foreseen over the past year, but those things failed to silence the little voice inside of me that said I wasn't good enough," I confess, my voice becoming quieter. Carlos places his free hand over ours and gives it a light squeeze.

"I began my journey of self-improvement before we became an us, and I needed to finish this part of it on my own. I know that you are committed to me and that you love me. You've helped and saved me more times than I can count. I did this, in part, to give back to you and your men and their families as best as I could. That said, if you look at the corner of my desk, you'll see the picture of us I swiped from your office. You're always with me," I try to explain, knowing the hardest part is yet to come.

"The truth is, I'm still a woman who struggles with feeling worthy of love and acceptance, and of being proud of herself. I was afraid of your rejection, or, conversely, that you would have to become involved or save the project and then I would have failed in my mission to pay back some of the debt I owe," I state, my most profound measures of shame laid bare in complete vulnerability. I look down as my chest constricts and tears flood my eyes.

"Babe, look at me," Carlos says with quiet direction. I hesitate as I struggle to hold back the tears. "Please." It's the word I can't refuse, and with blurred vision, slowly lift my quivering chin as I purse my lips with anxiety. Carlos reaches up with his hand and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear before wiping away a tear with his thumb.

"You owe me nothing, and you've never owed me anything. I was wrong and a fool to push you away like that. You are the only woman for me, and the only woman I will ever love. You are a sun in my otherwise dark life, and sometimes I feel unworthy of you. You challenge me to be a better man. I'm prouder of you than I can say. What you have accomplished the last two years is nothing short of incredible," Carlos says gently but ardently.

"Babe, there is no cost between us. No debt. You are my equal and my partner. I love you. No catches, no caveats, no exceptions," Carlos states emphatically. "What you've created here reflects your character, spirit, and heart, and it's beautiful."

I broadly smile as I see the sincerity of his words reflected in his eyes. Carlos looks pensive for a moment and raises an eyebrow while asking, "Do you have any more secrets to reveal?"

"Just one more," I reply mischievously, my visage reflecting my merriment at having the upper hand.

Carlos considers me a moment before a challenge accepted expression settles on his face. He leans over and kisses me senseless. My hair is splayed out around me as my head rests on the corner of the couch with my skirt is riding up as he lightly trails a finger along the inside of my thighs. Just as he's about to brush the outside of my wet panties, Carlos abruptly pulls back and sits up, looking as calm, cool, and collected as when he walked into my office.

"Ugh!" I groan, throwing up my hands in surrender. "Keeping secrets from you is hard work as it is, and now you're playing dirty. I'll tell you anything you want, don't stop!"

"Babe," Carlos smirks, beginning to brush his fingers above my knees again. He straddles me with one knee on the couch and the other on the floor, our bodies almost touching but not quite. I arch my back upwards in a desperate quest for contact before lifting my head to try and capture his lips with mine. I move to wrap my arms around his neck, and he stops his slow travel towards my aching center to grab my wrists.

Carlos raises his eyebrow while shaking his head no with a slight smirk. "Move, Babe, and I stop," he says, placing my hands back over my head. His lips brush mine. "Was there something you were about to tell me?" he says, adding more seduction to the words than I thought possible.

"I gave up the lease on my apartment," I whisper into his ear, and Carlos pulls back with a look of surprise followed by pure joy. "I don't suppose you know somewhere I could live," I tease, biting my lip with mock worry and concern.

Carlos' eyes darken with need as he replies, "I think I could make some accommodations could be made for you at my place, that is, if you find the company acceptable," while sliding a finger under my panties.

I give a shiver of delight. "Oh, yes, definitely," I sigh affirmatively, grinding my pelvis against Carlos' hand. Carlos slips in one finger and then two into my dripping core as he rubs his thumb against my swollen pleasure center.

I writhe against his expert touch. Carlos knows me better than I know myself, and he quickly brings me to the edge of release. He kisses me deeply while using his spare hand to slip through the hole in my top and brush my nipples. "Don't hold back, Babe. I am all about your pleasure right now," he whispers, and I fall into the oblivion of bliss.

I completely forget the order to keep my hands still as the rush of delight overtakes me, and I wrap my arms around Carlos's body to pull him closer to me. "Carlos," I moan into his neck. "Carlos, I love you. God, I love you so much."

As I still in the settling glow of the orgasm, Carlos tucks an errant curl behind my ear and softly kisses my swollen lips. "Querida, te quiero," he whispers. My eyes flutter open, and he helps me stand. I lean my head against his chest as he places his arms securely around me.

"Thank you for everything. These last two years have been a difficult but unimaginably rewarding transformation for me. I would have done everything I did regardless, but to do so with you by my side is oh so much sweeter," I state lovingly, and Carlos kisses my curls in a familiar move of comfort and adoration. It communicates more than a verbose reply ever could.

We find Hector in the meditation space, and he smirks knowingly at me. In the SUV, I nap on the ride back to Haywood with my head on Carlos' shoulder, and he kisses me awake in the parking garage. "Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," he teases, and I blush and yawn widely. He walks around the vehicle to open the door and hold a hand out for me. I accept before leaning back inside to gather my graduation gown, diploma, and medallion. I follow Carlos to the elevator and assume Hector went ahead.

Carlos scrambles the video feed to the elevator with his fob as we step in before pressing me against the wall with a kiss that promises good things when we step off on seven. He pulls away as the elevator rises, and I smile in anticipation of things to come. The trip is shorter than I expected, and I glance at Carlos in confusion when the car stops on five.

"Congratulations!" all of Rangeman yells as Carlos guides me out of the elevator. I stand there in shocked surprise before clasping my hands in joy. There's a 'Happy Graduation' banner along the wall, a cake with a graduation cap and Class of 2018 on it, and balloons tied to the ends of the cubicles.

"Great job, Beautiful!" Lester booms, before spinning me around in a huge bear hug and passing me off to Tank.

"Way to go, Little Girl!" Tanks praises, crushing me in his huge arms. "We had no idea Operation Blue Star Hope was you."

"Yeah, it's scary the way Hector, and you were able to hide that from us," Lester says before waggling his eyebrows. "Anything else I should know, like that you're finally dumping that guy for me?" he says, sticking his thumb towards Carlos.

"Just that I hear you're on moving detail tomorrow. I'm making Haywood my new permanent address," I tease back, and everyone laughs and cheers.

"Put on your robes," Cal calls out from the back.

"Good idea, Bomber!" Bobby exclaims. "I want to see your merchandise," he states, reaching for the diploma and medallion.

Carlos helps me into my robes, and I don the cap before doing a fashion runway strut and turn. The guys whistle and cheer loudly. I bite my lip at the attention, and just as I begin to feel overwhelmed, Carlos is there with a hand behind my back.

Carlos looks at Bobby, and he opens a bottle of champagne with a loud Pop! Lester and Tank open one of their own, and soon everyone is standing with a bubbling glass in hand.

Carlos raises his glass slightly and turns towards me. The room is immediately quiet and attentive. "Babe, five years ago you entered our often dark business and changed our lives with your spirit of acceptance. We are better men for it. You got our attention with your successful albeit unconventional style of bounty hunting, but you took our hearts with your spirit, intelligence, tenacity, and infectious joy. Today we celebrate your accomplishments not only as an honor graduate, earning an MBA from Rutgers with High Distinction but also as the CEO of an exploding non-profit that has already positively impacted several of the families of the men in this room. Operation Blue Star Hope is a reflection of many of the best parts of you. I'm so proud of you, Babe," Carlos says, and my eyes are brimming with tears of happiness. Carlos takes my hand in his and raises his glass. "To Stephanie, congratulations!"

"Congratulations!" all of Rangeman replies loudly before clinking their glasses. Carlos taps the brim of his flute against mine before taking a sip. I follow suit before placing a soft kiss on his lips.

"Thank you," I say so only he can hear. "I love you." Carlos rewards me with a thousand-watt smile.

I take another sip of the bubbly drink. "Now let's eat the cake before Ranger changes his mind about allowing it in the building!" I direct, and everyone laughs again. I walk over to Ella, who is preparing to serve, and envelop her in a warm hug.

"Gracias, Tia Ella. You make me feel so special," I say as my voice cracks. "I don't know how you did this so fast. I'm grateful to have you in my life."

"Te amor, Stephanie. I'm proud of you," she replies, and we both have to wipe the tears from the corners of our eyes.

With a corner piece with extra buttercream flowers in hand, every Merry Man passes me along to the next. Each congratulates me with their special nickname for me and a unique handshake, hug, or catchphrase. I feel loved and home. When I reach Binky, I set the plate of cake down on the nearest desk and embrace him as the tears threaten to fall again.

"I can't say thank you enough. Operation Blue Star Hope has been a Godsend to my sister-in-law," Binky says, his voice deeper than usual.

"It isn't enough, but it's a start. You gave me the idea, and I'm glad I had an opportunity to be able to help. Thank you for sharing your story with me," I say in reply, again losing my battle against the tears.

Carlos materializes behind me, somehow knowing I was beginning to miss him, and he silently passes me a tissue before shaking Binky's hand. He places a hand on my back and guides me a little away from the crowd. I take a deep, stabilizing breath and rest against my rock. "Are you ready to take this celebration upstairs?" he says, seduction dripping from his voice as he pulls me a little closer. A flash of heat shoots through me as the words tickle against my ear. Oh boy.


A/N: Midnight makes it Friday! Boom - next chapter! I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to leave a comment or review. They are incredibly rewarding to me, and really, the only payment I receive for the hours of work that goes into writing. I do it because I genuinely love the creative process, but hearing from you makes it oh, so much better. I might even post the final chapter early... :)

Many thanks to misty23y. She's a wonderful part of the JE fandom, and with every chapter in every story, I'm reminded how blessed I am to have her on my team. Please consider reading her current work, The Night That Changed Everything. She's updating at least three times a week, and the story is both captivating and emotional.