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 5: July 28, 2018

Ranger's POV

The last two months have been a flurry of activity as Stephanie and I settled into the routine of our new lives. Her fully moving into my penthouse was the last step from those rooms being a place I stopped for food and rest to a home. Steph slowly added her personal touches by adding splashes of color in every room. It started with a throw pillow on the couch and quickly escalated to a fuzzy blanket on a side chair, pictures of us on the fridge, and a painting we selected together from an Art Gallery off the boardwalk in Point Pleasant. It's added warmth and light, and I can't imagine it any other way.

It turned out Steph had one more secret. The Monday following graduation, she assembled the Core Team in the main conference room for a presentation. Steph used her graduate school resources to access as much information as she could about our nearest competitors in the security field, compared and contrasted that with Rangeman's data, and proposed a new short and long-term business plan with a detailed and analytical look at our strengths and weaknesses. She had Lester begging me to hire her before the meeting was over when she shifted gears with proposed programs and process improvements to our HR, sales, and marketing procedures.

Stephanie refused to take on a full-time position, but she agreed to work as a consultant. It's a perfect fit for us. Steph thrives as CEO of Operation Blue Star Hope; it's my joy to watch her prosper. Her confidence, poise, and passion for her work make me fall in love with her more every day. I've already implemented several of her suggestions at Rangeman, and we are on track to have our best quarterly earnings report to date.

I step off the treadmill as I finish my cool-down run and double step up to the penthouse. I'm hoping to sneak through the shower and slip back into bed before Steph wakes up. I love morning sex with her, but I've also noticed that she's been quieter and slightly withdrawn the last several days. Since that morning a year ago after our first night of making love, our emotional barriers fell. I feel a connectedness with her, and I know she shares it. We can often tell what the other is thinking and feeling, even if we aren't in the same room.

I smile at Steph's sleeping form in the dark shadows of the bedroom and silently move into the bathroom. I don't bother with any more than a towel when I exit a few minutes later, but I frown when I notice the bed is empty. Steph never wakes before 0700.

I walk silently into the living room and stop at the sharp contrast of the outline of Steph's silhouette against the large window in the early morning light. She has her arms wrapped over her middle, reminiscent of when she revealed the true nature of Morelli's character to me. I suppress a sigh against that memory. I never felt as helpless as I did when Steph sobbed against my chest after relaying the atrocities Morelli committed against her.

When Steph fell asleep that night, I called the Core Team to the gym, and it was only a fair match when I took Tank, Lester, and Bobby together to the mats. When I had worked off enough of my anger, I gave the order that Rangeman would remove its support of Morelli and begin documenting any infractions we observed from him in the line of duty. I had to talk down the guys from arranging an accidentfrom happening to the pendejo. Morelli was an okay cop, but unbeknownst to him, he's benefited from Rangeman assets paving the way in his cases. Without our help, he's floundered in his career and is now under investigation for mishandling of evidence, witness tampering, and fraternization due to sleeping with a lower ranked cop in the department by TPD Internal Affairs.

I walk up behind Steph and announce myself with a quiet, "Babe," before placing my hands on her shoulders. She jumps anyway, and I can feel the tension on her shoulders. I kiss the flyaway curls on the top of her head and pull her towards me by wrapping my hands over hers. She sighs heavily and sags against me. I glance down at her. Steph has her eyes closed, but her expression is sad and troubled. It makes my heart ache. "Will you tell me what's bothering you, Babe?" I ask softly.

"This is my least favorite week of the year. My ghosts come out to play, and I usually hideaway. I'm sure you never noticed before because I make it a point to disappear. Now that we live together, I'm not going to do that, but I'm also not sure how to cope," Steph says in a haunted voice.

I hug her to me tighter, wanting my presence to be enough to make her feel safer and more secure. "Why is this your least favorite week?" I question, knowing Steph isn't going to divulge more information willingly.

"Morelli," Steph whispers, and my stomach clenches. "This is the week both of the things I told you about previously happened with him. I'm able to forgive and forget, count my blessings, and move on with life most of the rest of the year, but today is a day that historically is filled with nothing but bad memories for me." My Babe sounds sad and resigned. She's kept her eyes closed, but there are no tears. It makes me wonder if she has any left after twenty years of facing this alone.

I hold her tightly against me as I consider how to help my Babe carry her burden. "Let's make new memories, together," I say, and Steph opens her eyes and turns her head slightly to gaze at me inquisitively. I lean down to softly kiss her. "May I take you to bed with me?" I say, wanting her explicit consent, especially while she's feeling vulnerable.

A small smile flickers on Steph's lips. "Yes," she murmurs, snuggling deeper into my arms. In one quick movement, I pick her up, and her blue eyes flashed open wide in surprise. I love the trust she places in me, and I gently kiss her irresistible lips.

I carry her to the bed and carefully set her down while lying beside her. I'm on my side with one of my legs wrapped over hers and propped on up my elbow. Steph tilts her head towards mine, and I slowly brush a curl off of her forehead before kissing the freshly exposed skin. "I love you, Babe. You're in control. If you want me to stop, I will, no questions. Okay?" I say, cupping the side of her face with my hand.

Steph nuzzles her cheek into my palm and sighs, "Okay. I love you, too. Let's spend today making new memories and living in the present with our future together before us. Thank you for being understanding." She places her hands over mine and turns her head to kiss my palm. A slow ripple of love moves from her lips to my heart, and I feel an overwhelming sensation of affection and desire.

We move slowly but with unspoken coordination and unity. Soon our bodies are entangled with a kiss that starts gentle but soon becomes an outpouring of every emotion churning within us. I feel Steph's passion, pain, love, insecurity, desire, sadness, and faith. I demolish every emotional barrier I have and give her my commitment, strength, fears, love, and trust. I slip my t-shirt over her head, and she moans as our bodies press against each other. Her need is palpable as I roll on top of her. Our eyes lock as I slide into her, and I lose the ability to tell where I end, and she begins. In our oneness, we rock our bodies with the express focus of giving the other our whole hearts. I feel Steph's muscles start to tighten around me.

"Eres hermosa, Querida. Te quiero," I manage to say, gently nipping her earlobe. Her fingers grip my shoulders tightly. She searches my lips with her own, and when our tongues brush past each other, Steph pulls me into her with a strength I didn't know she possessed as she comes again and again. My fingers are entwined in her hair as my body stiffens when I find my completion. Her body seems designed to pull it from me, and I lose track of all conscious thought but my Babe. (You're beautiful, my dear. I love you.)

A minute later, our lips separate as we both pant for breath. I roll on my back, not wanting to make Steph uncomfortable with my weight, and pull her into my side. This woman is truly the other half of my soul, the yang to my yin.

"This is the perfect start, Carlos. I love you," Steph says after several minutes. She sits up and kisses me lightly on the cheek. "I hear you're pretty good in the shower. Care to join me?" she teases, the spark back in her eyes.

I feel my cock twitch in anticipation. I'm going to give my Babe the most unforgettable shower of her life. I don't suppress my smile, and Steph giggles before biting her lip and strutting to the restroom. I enjoy the view before hopping up to join her.

An hour later, I'm impressed with the hot water system in the building and Steph's nearly insatiable sexual appetite. I wrap the towel around her, and I'm about to depart for the closet when she quickly takes my hand in hers, halting my progress. Steph silently looks at me, and I immediately understand her unspoken need to be close. We walk together, and I appreciate the strength she quietly pulls from me. Rather than being needy, she's vulnerable and honest, and this expression of her acceptance of the unconditional love I offer is breathtaking. In the closet, Steph takes down a casual long-sleeved white with light gray pinstripe button up from a hanger and holds it up for me to slide my arms into the shirt.

She takes the bottom button in her hands, and after securing it, leans over slightly to kiss the small patch of exposed skin above the fabric folds. Her large eyes glance at mine, and she continues her slow worship of my body until she reaches the final two buttons. Her hands smooth down the front of the shirt, before taking the cuff and rolling it up to my forearms on each side. She kisses the inside of my wrists before finding a pair of dark chinos and handing them to me. I've never felt more cared for by anyone, and it's a moment I know I will always remember.

After pulling on the pants, I remove a light blue sundress and matching lace bra and panty set from her side of the closet. Steph puts the underwear on her herself, but she smiles as I slide the dress over her head. The sundress is one of my favorites. The color brings out her eyes, the slight v of the neckline accents her breasts, and it hugs her slim torso tightly before the fabric flares out, ending a couple of inches above her knees. I spin her around and draw her close to me as I pull up the zipper, brushing my fingers over her breasts as I turn her around again. Steph rewards me with a light kiss, and we finish our morning routines side by side; me shaving and her towel drying her hair and applying light make-up.

"It's nearly noon," Steph says, breaking the silence. "Let's skip breakfast and go down to Pino's. We can make another new memory!"

"What's that, Babe?" I say, placing my hands on her hips.

Steph giggles and the sound is magic. "I'll order the salad, and you order the meatball sub. We can each eat half. The server won't know what hit her," she says, her eyes sparkling.

"Babe," I say with a smile while shaking my head in disbelief.

We take the 911, and Steph gives a little moan of delight when I start the engine. After I back out of the garage, she reaches over and takes my hand, interlacing our fingers together. This comfortable exchange is something I cherish about our relationship. Before, Steph was always hesitant to be physical with me, and I almost exclusively initiated the interactions between us. I thought sex was good with her before, but I had no idea just how good it could be. When Steph let down her barriers and fully accepted me, my definition of good sex turned upside down. Making love to this woman is built through small interactions like this before exploding with passion in the bedroom.

I hold the door open as we walk into Pino's, and I immediately shift into Ranger-mode upon entering the crowded space. I scan the room as Steph and I work our way towards an open table in the back, and I see him the moment Steph does. She tenses but keeps moving. Unfortunately, Morelli stands and blocks our path.

"Hey, Cupcake. It must be destiny we ran into each other today, right?" he croons, running a finger down her crossed arms. I consider intervening, but I wait to see what Steph will do first.

Before Morelli can finish with his intrusive contact, Steph rolls her arm and flicks his hand away before taking a slight step backward. "Yes, Morelli, I suppose it is," she says, disdain oozing from her voice.

"I heard about your degree and that Operation Blue Star, Blue Star, well, it's a long name. Is that why you dumped me? To use Ranger as your sugar daddy to pay for all of it? Well, you should know that I forgive you. Now that you've quit that ridiculous bounty hunting job, and we both know you aren't getting any younger, we're finally in a good place to get married and have those kids we always talked about having together. What do you say?" Morelli cajoles out, completely oblivious the hostility radiating from Steph.

The restaurant is silent as the Burg waits for Steph's response. Then, I feel her body relax as she reaches for my hand. Her grip is tight, but it's otherwise the only indicator of her anxiety as a tight-lipped smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes slowly forms. "How are you enjoying your unpaid leave, Morelli?" she asks with mock sweetness. "Based on the beer belly, I'd say you've had plenty of time to take in all the games with the boys. As for your other boys, I'd have to ask Joyce, Robin, Gina, Maria, Mary Anne, Terri, or, I suppose, any working woman on Stark Street about that. On second thought, I won't. I already know. They've undoubtedly moved on to a man who can satisfy a woman before he takes care of his needs and can last more than one round a night."

I see cell phones video recording the exchange from the periphery vision. Morelli's expression hardens, but Steph doesn't seem phased.

"So, what do I say?" she continues, tilting her head to the side while tapping her index finger against her lips in a theatric demonstration of thinking. "Hmmm…"

I feel Steph become more confident as she rolls her shoulders back, stands a little taller, and places her free hand on her waist in a classic Wonder Woman pose. "I think that as a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, which, by the way, I paid for with that degree with my ridiculous bounty hunting job, I don't need you, or anyone, to take care of me. I do not define my happiness by your standards of securing a husband and having children. I'm proud of my accomplishments and of who I am. Ranger gets that. He's my partner and my equal. Together, we are unstoppable. Leaving you changed the course of my life, and I've never been stronger, healthier, or more secure in me. Morelli, let me be clear. We are never getting back together."

Just when I think I can't be any prouder of Steph, she exceeds my expectations all over again. I want to wrap her in my arms and kiss her senseless, but I'm mindful of the threat Morelli can potentially be and remain still with my blank face in place.

"Shall we?" Steph says, glancing at me before taking a step towards the table behind Morelli. As she passes him, he reaches over and grabs her arm.

"Come on, Cupcake. Let's go outside and talk this over in private," he says, attempting turning on the Italian Stallion charm.

Steph looks at Morelli in disbelief, and I'm half a second away from breaking his hand when Steph spins him around in a perfect armbar. He's completely immobilized, and he knows it. "I will never go anywhere with you. Do not call me Cupcake. Touch me again, and I will press charges," Steph states with unwavering authority. She pushes him into a clustered group of TPD officers and sits down at the table.

Our server materializes immediately. "Hey, Steph. Always nice to see you. What can I get for ya?" Angela Costa says, snapping her gum.

"Hi, Angela. I'll have the Italian salad, dressing on the side, and an iced tea, please," Steph says, and Angela looks confused.

"A meatball sub and water," I state, and she walks away shaking her head. I look behind her retreating frame to see Big Dog walking Morelli to his truck. I feel my phone buzz, and I text Lester to let him know we don't need back-up. Word travels unbelievably fast in the Burg.

I take Steph's hand and place it on my lap as she scoots her chair so that it's next to mine. "Proud of you, Babe," I say with a smile.

Steph matches it watt for watt. "I'm proud of me, too. Today is becoming a great day," she beams. We share our meal with constant interruptions from people telling Steph how good she was, congrats on her degree and business, and tidbits of gossip. By the end, I can see she's appreciative of the show of support but ready to escape.

I throw a couple of twenty dollar bills on the table and lead us back to the Porsche. I pull out and begin driving with no particular destination in mind.

"We should go to Point Pleasant," Steph says wistfully. "We could lay on the beach and hold hands."

"Babe," I reply softly, immediately taken back to the same conversation two years ago. Everything in me wanted to say yes then, and I fought it believing I was doing the right thing by pushing Steph away. God, I can be an idiot sometimes.

We are halfway down Franklin when I pull over to the curb.

"Yes, let's go to the beach," I say, squeezing her hand. "Is there anything else you want? Would you like an ice cream cone? Flowers? A kitten?" I query with a small smile.

"A kiss," Steph replies, her eyes lighting up.

I lean across the console and kiss her. Gentle. Loving. Passionate.

"Thanks," she says. "I feel better now."

"Anytime," I affirm, pulling back into traffic.

I enter my zone as we drive towards Point Pleasant. Stephanie isn't the same woman she was two years ago, and I'm not the same man either. She set out on a path of personal redemption, and I'll be forever grateful her journey ultimately intersected with mine again. When Steph decided to save herself, she inadvertently saved me, too. Her sudden distance from me was the kick I needed to face my demons and have the courage to allow someone into my life and heart.

Steph rolls down the window as we approach the ocean and turns her face into the sun. She looks completely relaxed and blissful. She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

I give her hand a slight squeeze before releasing it when I place the car in park. When Steph steps out of the car, she's radiant with joy and anticipation. We stroll past a cart vendor, and I buy a large towel. Reaching the sand, I slip off my loafers and carry them while Steph dangles her sandals from her fingertips. We walk a small distance away from a cluster of families on summer vacation and teenagers escaping their families to a quiet spot near the dunes.

Steph and I spread the towel out together, and I lay down with my back supported by my elbows before relaxing completely when Steph curls in with her head on my shoulder. We're a perfect fit.

Steph trails her fingers in a nonsensical pattern over my chest. "Carlos, do you have any hopes or dreams for our relationship?" she asks hesitantly, and I'm surprised by the turn in the conversation.

"Babe?" I reply, wanting her to see if she'll reveal what lead to this topic.

"I know you love me, and I love you. After we agreed that our someday had arrived, we've both mentioned forever in passing. If someday was a relationship, have we already arrived at forever, or do you want something more?" Stephanie says quietly, her fingers halting their travels.

I sit up slightly so I can look at Steph directly. Her eyes often tell me much more than her words. I take her hand in mine. "Babe, I want you to be my partner for life. If that looks like a marriage to you, I'm all in. If that's a committed relationship, I will be by your side until I die. Querida, te quiero," I say with an understated passion. I want Steph to know how sincere I am, but nor do I want to scare her.

Steph gasps. "You would marry me?" she responds tentatively, and her eyes widen. I confidently nod my head, yes, but my heart is pounding. "Ask me," my Babe whispers.

"Are you sure, Babe?" I reply, unable to contain a smile from escaping. Steph nods yes without hesitation, and her eyes sparkle assuredly with hope.

I raise myself to one knee, pull the small box I always carry out of my pocket, and take Steph's hand with the other.

"Stephanie Michelle Plum, I have loved you since the beginning. I've lived the past five years in awe of your warmth, kindness, tenacity, and brilliance. I love you unconditionally. You already have my heart. Would you do me the tremendous honor of taking this ring and agreeing to be my wife?" I say, my eyes never leaving Steph's.

I watch in wonder as I see a peaceful calmness settle over her. "Yes," Stephanie says clearly. "I will be your wife. I love more today than I did yesterday, and I will gladly enjoy the rest of my life spending every day falling more in love with you."

My heart bursts with joy, and I smile as widely as possible as I slide the ring onto Steph's finger. She gives a small squeal of delight before launching herself at me. I catch her around her waist as she wraps her hands around my neck and kisses me with intense passion.

Steph pulls away slightly, and while still trembling in my arms with uncontained happiness says, "Today is my new favorite day. I truly feel free, and I'm proud of myself and you for reaching this point in our lives. I've always wanted to fly. I know that with you, we can both soar higher than we ever could alone. I love you, Carlos."

I swallow thickly. I don't remember the last time anyone said that they were proud of me. "Gracias, Querida. Te quiero." I manage, too overwhelmed to express even these simple sentiments in English. I've always been better with actions over words, and I press my lips into hers again while clutching her body against mine. My hands travel over her curves and through her hair. It's time to find a place where I can show my Babe exactly what she means to me.

I stand, pulling Steph up with me. "I can't wait until we get home," she says with wide eyes, pressing her body against mine. "Please, there must be a hotel nearby we can begin celebrating our engagement," she proposes, reading my mind.

"Babe," I say with a smile, and she kisses me again. This time it is slow and filled with promise. "Let's go continue our forever," I say, bending down to quickly gather our things before taking Steph's hand in mine once again.

"Forever," she says, and we walk fearlessly towards our future together.

A/N: Thank you for every review, notes of encouragement, page views, favorites, follows, and for reading. Your involvement makes me a better writer. To be Proud was a joy for me to write, and I hope I was able to share even a portion of that emotion with you.

In the beginning, I promised I would be working on Lift Off during the weekly postings of this story. While I have the story outlined, my muse is currently and completely occupied with Warrior. I will keep posting updates about Lift Off in the author's notes of Warrior, and I plan on beginning to post that story sometime this spring. I apologize to any of you who were looking forward to Lift Off and feel misled. Again, thank you for reading!

Lastly, hats off to misty23y. She is a beta and author extraordinaire, and I am so grateful for the time and talent she invests in my stories. She just posted a new short story, The Call, and it's a wonderful must binge.