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

Warning: Dark fic. Adult language, adult content, violence, smut. This is written for mature audiences only.

Chapter 29

Three Days Later

Stephanie's POV

"I'm ready," I say, stepping into Ranger's line of sight. I'm dressed in a conservative A-line black dress with tights and boots, my knives stowed in the boots, but I traded my leather jacket for a blazer. Fewer pockets, but I'm not as worried about that as before.

"Beautiful," Ranger says, looking me up and down before wrapping an arm around my waist and pulling me close for a chaste kiss. "Are you sure you're ready?" he asks, placing his hand on my shoulder.

"I'm sure. I need this closure," I state, pushing up on my toes for another kiss before turning and walking together to the elevator. Lester, Bobby, and Hector are waiting in the parking garage.

"We'll follow you to the cemetery," Lester says after giving me a quick hug.

Ranger opens the passenger door to the 911 before guiding us onto the streets to Trenton.

I was shocked to learn Morelli had taken his own life, even more so after I heard Terry was pregnant. If the most salacious rumors are true, Uncle Vito was marching him down to a shotgun wedding. It doesn't matter now, and I hope Terry will be okay. I don't like that Joe had both of us in his bed, but if I'm honest, I know that he loved her most. Joe and I were together trying to be the people the Burg wanted us to be, not our true selves. There's no doubt Terry loved Joe. I pity Terry because being a single mom in the Burg is a tough road to travel.

I didn't want to attend the wake or the funeral. I knew my presence would only be a distraction, and Joe's family deserves better than that. However, even though Joe and I were like fire and ice, and despite how much pain he caused me over the years, a part of me, maybe the little girl who yearned for attention and approval, or the adult who wanted to be accepted and loved, did love him. It took a long time to give up the idea of what a relationship with him could be. I need to say goodbye, and I need to give him my forgiveness.

The last week was a whirlwind. Taking down Tank was hard on the entire Core Team. The guys hated that I was making myself bait, but they couldn't come up with a better plan, and I refused to budge. The hardest part was laying the trap. My old apartment really was too small for anyone to hide, and Tank wouldn't have been fooled for a second. Lester created a hidden trap door into my bathroom from the outside. While Tank was fixated on me, they used that opportunity to sneak in and ambush him. Everyone, including me, though I didn't say so, was worried they wouldn't be able to get into the apartment fast enough. As a backup plan, Hector was hiding in the kitchen island, and I was wearing a concealed bulletproof tank top under my regular clothes.

The tank top cost an obscene amount of money, but it was the only way the plan was going to happen. I knew immediately that Ranger was hesitant about giving it to me, afraid I would push back about taking things from him as I had in the past. But when he placed the tank top on the dining room table and looked at me, hands buried in his pockets and eyes begging me to accept it, I didn't feel any of my old defensiveness. All I saw was someone who loves me, wants me to be successful, and wants me to have the tools I need to be safe. I really began to understand gratitude at that moment, and I am so thankful to be surrounded by these four men who care about me.

Oddly, that conversation with Tank was precisely what I needed to kickstart therapy, and I've gone every day this week with indefinite plans to continue. One of the first things we talked about was setting my therapy goals and what successful therapy is to me. Tank's words gave me the perfect clarity I needed to approach that conversation.

When Tank said, "I'll put this pitiful, miserable, worthless life you have to an end," my first thought was the hell you will! On seven afterward, sitting on the couch with Ranger's arms wrapped securely around me, I took stock in just how much I've changed already. I always felt drawn to Ranger. There's just something magnetic that attracts us. Whenever I looked at him, I felt a spark of fire, of hope. I survived these past several months, but I never lost faith in that spark. I always hoped deep down for that someday.

When Ranger rapped on my car window in the park, I felt something come alive in me again. I felt terrified that he would learn who I am and blow that spark out. Instead, Ranger has fanned it into a bonfire. Further, I know what Ranger and I have is more than lust. It's tender and new, but I think our someday is forever.

I want to see myself more clearly, and that means keeping my perspective about my strengths and weaknesses in balance. I want to learn to more fully trust those who deserve my trust. I want to love myself better, taking care of both my heart and body, and I want to learn to forgive myself and let go of the flaws. I've held onto so much pain, and I can see how much fear I've been channeling to make decisions. I can see already, so early in this process, that I can heal. I'm going to have good days, and I'm going to have bad ones, but I will be okay.

Morelli's death also gave me the gravity I need to break down the barriers that prevent me from wanting to be vulnerable. I've watched Joe's loved ones suffer in their overwhelming grief, and I know that at any point in the past few months, I lived my life so recklessly, it could just as easily be me being laid to rest today. Life is valuable, and it's worth living, and I'm not going to be able to fully do that if I don't take a chance at letting people in. I pushed everyone away when I needed them the most, and I nearly killed me. It's going to be hard, I'm going to have setbacks, but more than ever before, I want to live.

The crowd has mostly dispersed when we park on the edge of the cemetery and begin a slow walk towards the grave. It's a gray morning, misting and chilly, almost as though the earth itself was mourning a life lost before his time.

I give Ranger's hand a light squeeze, and he waits next to a tree lining the road as I travel the rest of the distance alone. There's a lone person standing vigil at the grave's edge.

"I'm so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Morelli," I say, coming to a stop beside her and bowing my head. The smell of broken grass and freshly disturbed earth fills the air around us.

"I just can't stop thinking about what I could have done better," Angie says suddenly, surprising me with her candor. "Why didn't I see this coming? Why did he think he had no other option?"

I pause, gathering my thoughts as my throat constricts at the quiet anguish in her voice. "I did love, Joe. But I also needed to learn how to love myself. I consider myself fortunate that I found a new path, one where I can do that, but I will never judge Joe. This last year has taught me how much grief, shame, fear, anger, sadness, and desperation can cloud a person's judgment and make them think that death is the only way out. I can't answer your questions, but I came here today to tell Joe that I hope he found the peace he was looking for."

I take a deep breath, bend down, and place a single rose on the casket. "For the pain I caused you, I'm sorry. For the pain you caused me, I forgive you. I love you, Joe. I pray God judges you mercifully and that I will see you again in heaven. I pray for peace in the hearts of your family and friends. Amen," I say, crossing myself and rising.

I turn and take Angie's hands in mine. "I established a trust in Joe's name at TPD. Its purpose is to ensure better mental healthcare screenings and care for all members of the force. My hope is that Joe's death can be used to prevent someone else from the same fate. I also hope this gives you some small measure of comfort. I really am so sorry for your loss," I tell the grief-stricken woman before me, and as tears stream down her face, she wraps me in a fierce embrace.

"Thank you, Stephanie. I always knew your heart was too big for the Burg," she says tearfully, and I lose control of my tears, finding unexpected comfort and peace for my grief in her arms.

Joe hurt me. There is no question that he caused me inexcusable harm. But nonetheless, I gave him a part of my heart, and there were times when we were just us, that there was real affection there. Unfortunately, our relationship ended with betrayal and animosity. In some ways, it was inevitable; we always did seem to be the star performers on the Burg's gossip stage. Yet I will always regret that we were never able to get to the point of forgiveness.

I understand Angie's questions, and I know the call of that seductive voice that says this can all be over. Living is hard work, but it's work that's worth doing. I'm eternally blessed to have Hector in my life. He kept telling me again and again that my life has value. That I'm worth it. To live. He saved me from my darkest nights when that voice was loudest, and I'm so grateful to him.

We remain that way for a long minute, and I don't know who is supporting who. When we separate, the clouds break, and light diffuses on the dewy ground around us.

"Goodbye, Mrs. Morelli," I say, wiping the tears from my cheeks. "Goodbye, Joe," I whisper, placing my hand over my heart.

As I step forward slowly, drying my eyes with a tissue, I feel the closure that part of my past needs.

Ranger, Hector, Lester, and Bobby are standing in a solemn row, and as I step into Ranger's embrace, they each place a comforting hand on my back. I don't cry, but I feel the strength of these men ebb into me, building me up with their love.

I slip out of Ranger's arms and wrap my own fiercely around Hector. "Gracias, mi hermano. Thank you for making me give you that promise. I owe you my life," I whisper into his ear, tears pricking my eyes again. (Thank you, my brother.)

Hector's arms tighten around me, and I feel a single drop on my neck. "Siempre, always, just as you have for me, Angelita. Te amo," he whispers back, and I have to strain to hear the words through the constriction of his voice. (I love you.)

"Thank you, Lester," I say, my eyes shining with unshed emotion, as I turn to him. "You've done so much to help me, expecting nothing in return, and often with me fighting against you. Thank you for loving me through my worst and for never giving up on me."

Lester hugs me so fiercely my feet no longer touch the ground. "I'll take that famed knee of yours any day, Beautiful. You're worth it." Lester sets me down, and as I'm smoothing down my jacket continues, "And if that cousin of mine ever fucks it up…" eyebrows in full waggle. I let out a bark of laughter as Ranger slaps him across the back of the head before Lester assumes the expression of a wounded puppy.

Bobby smiles warmly at me, and we share a short embrace. "Thank you, Bobby, for giving me the resources I need to heal. I'm grateful to have your friendship and support."

"You don't need to thank me, Bomber. I should have been a better friend from the beginning, but I'm going to do everything I can to help you move forward. You can count on me," Bobby says assuredly, and I give him a wide smile in return.

"I know I can."

"Ready, Babe?" Ranger asks, sliding an arm around my shoulders.

"Yes," I say simply, taking a deep, cleansing breath as I slip my hand into Ranger's and walk into my future, heart wide open.

In the 911, Bach quietly streams from the speakers, and I let my thoughts float on the peaceful melodies. It isn't long before my phone rings and glancing at the screen, I see it's my mother.

"Hello, mom," I answer, and I grin at the silence that follows. I haven't answered a call from my mother since Farro.

"Stephanie," she manages, then "Stephanie," her voice recovering quickly from the surprise. "How are you?" I'm struck at how authentic the question sounds.

"I'm good," I say. "Really."

"I heard what you did for Angie," my mom says, "and, well, that's really good of you. Thank you, Stephanie."

Now it's my turn to be speechless.

"Will you come to dinner? Pot roast and pineapple upside-down cake. Bring anyone you like, or not," my mom jumps in, saving me from figuring out what to say. Glancing out the window, I realize we aren't headed towards Rangeman.

"Sunday?" I ask, and I hear my mom let out a rush of air.

"Sunday is great."

"Okay, I need to go. See you Sunday. Bye, mom," I respond, but I don't feel any of the eye-twitch inducing stress conversations with my mom usually cause. But then, she's worked to respect my boundaries more over the last year. We will never have a "normal" mother-daughter relationship, but there's hope yet.

"Bye, Stephanie," mom says, and I press my lips together in a satisfied smile as I tuck my phone back into my pocket.

I place my arm on the center dash and rest my hand against Ranger's bicep, relishing in the ease his touch gives me.

"Where are we going, Ranger?" I ask with a tone of reserved curiosity, feeling somewhat subdued from the emotional day. He sets a hand on my thigh and gives it a small squeeze.

"Carlos," he says.

"What?" I interrupt, turning my head toward him with my brow furrowed.

The corner of Ranger's mouth quirks upward. "Carlos. My full name is Ricardo Carlos Manoso. When we aren't at work, please call me Carlos."

My mouth drops open in shock, and with real physical prowess, I manage to close it enough to say, "Where are we going, Carlos?"

"The Batcave," Ranger says in a deadpan voice, and this time it takes several seconds for me to pick my jaw up again.

"The Batcave," I nearly shout in shock. "It's real?"

This time Ranger breaks into a thousand-watt smile, and my expression morphs into one of stunned astonishment.

"We own a home on a quiet part of the beach south of Point Pleasant, near Herring Island," he says.

"We own a beach house," I parrot dumbly. "Wait, I don't own a beach house!"

Ranger just blinds me again with a flash of perfectly white teeth as he turns onto Ocean Ave, slowing down a mile later outside a secluded home, at least as secluded as a home on the Jersey shore can be, and punching in a code for the gate before proceeding into the garage. The house is stunning, a three-story new construction Cape Cod style beach home with wooden shakers and white trim that walks right out to the coast.

"Ranger, I mean Carlos, I mean, what do you mean, WE own this?" I stutter, scrambling out of the Porsche.

Ranger reaches into his pocket and hands me a key while telling me a six-digit code.

I stand statue-still, my flat palm held out in front of me with the key resting on top. "That's the day you met me in the diner," I whisper.

"I've loved you since the first day I met you, Babe. I denied what my heart knew for far too long, but I deep down always hoped for a someday with you. I began construction on this house shortly after the first time I followed you to the beach. You'd had a terrible day, and I felt this pull to make sure you were okay. I watched you a long time before showing myself, mesmerized by how free and beautiful you looked," he says, weaving his fingers through my hair and tilting my chin upward. "I titled this house in both of our names. My life is dangerous, especially before I resigned from my government contract position, and with the missions I was doing, I knew there was a real chance I might never come home. I wanted you to have this place in case anything happened to me, but now, I want to build a future with you here."

"Carlos," I breath, awed, before capturing his lips on mine. The kiss is tender, needy, and I feel his love for me poured into it, but there is also no pressure for anything more. It's a kiss of pure love.

We walk through the house, each room more lovely than the next, light and airy with accents of blue and green before stepping out onto the central patio. There's a tiled pool with raised hot tub to my right and several plush lounging chairs with an uninterrupted view of the beach to my left.

I lean against the rail and close my eyes as the late afternoon sun presses onto my face. It's so quiet, and I feel the peace of this place seep into my very pores.

"Beautiful," Ranger says again, and through my periphery vision, I see he only has eyes for me.

"Thank you," I say, turning, so my body faces his.

"No price, Babe," Ranger replies warmly, placing his hand over the one I have resting on the rail.

"I feel guilty, you know. Tank, Vinnie, and Lula are in jail, Joe was buried today, Farro and Martin," I pause, letting out a long stream of air. "There's a part of me that feels too, undeserving, I guess, to feel happy today, especially today, here, with you. Like I've done too much bad and caused too much pain to have any in my life. But I also know that isn't true, and I have you to thank for leading me down that path of self-discovery. Those people made their choices, just like I made mine. I can't take on the responsibility for their bad decisions, and I need to forgive myself for mine. I don't honor the dead by ceasing to live myself. I'm truly sorry so many lives have been upturned this past year, but I am incredibly grateful that I feel like I'm being given a second chance at life." I look up at Ranger's soft expression, heartened by the small smile I see there.

"I'm proud of you, Babe," he says, and my heart soars. "You are exquisite, inside and out. Your determination, compassion, and spirit are lifechanging for those who accept you into their lives. You are a warrior, a survivor, and my best friend."

"I'm not a warrior, Ranger," I say, frowning a little. "You, Lester, and Bobby. You guys are the warriors. You've served your country on the battlefield. I'm a bumbling bounty hunter from New Jersey."

Ranger gives my hand a squeeze. "Do you know what a warrior is, Babe?" he asks, giving a slight pause. "There are only two kinds of people once the bullets start to fly: warriors and victims, those who fight and those who are unprepared, unable, or unwilling to defend themselves."* Ranger reaches and takes my other hand in his. "Babe, you are a warrior. You never gave up, never stopped fighting for yourself and those you care about. You are not just a survivor, you are a warrior, and I am so proud of you. You did not have the support and people you needed in response to what you went through. Yet, with the deck stacked against you, you kept fighting the best way you knew how. Thank you for never giving up and for fighting to move forward with your life now. You should never feel guilty about living. I love you, Babe."

I press my lips together as I sort through the swell of emotions. Me? A warrior?

"Thank you, Carlos. I love you, too," I say, leaning up for a kiss. "I'm going to go for a swim. I think I need to clear my head."

Ranger gives my forehead a kiss, and I go back to the master bedroom, where I had previously noticed that Ella, I assume, had fully stocked the closet for us, and open several drawers before finding a black bikini and cover-up. I slip out along the side of the house and enjoy the feel of the sand between my toes as I step towards the water. I slip the coverup off my shoulders a safe distance from the waves and anchor it in place with the sandals I'm carrying.

I reach my hands over my head and stretch widely, flexing my shoulders before jogging into the surf and diving through a wave. I give a squeal of delight as I surface, immediately enlivened by the coolness of the water. I begin the swim out and then parallel to the surf, moving my still not quite at full-strength body at a leisurely pace. With each stroke, I imagine that I am shedding some of the weight that has held me down this past year. I have my demons. I have my ghosts. But a warrior? I never loved or held myself in many regards at all these past few months, but I was never unwilling, unable, or unprepared to defend myself. Unconventional, especially before I started to get better training, yes, but I always fought.

And I'm going to continue that battle now. I will be the warrior I need myself to be. I'm going to fight for my life like I never have. Fight for my relationship with Ranger, fight as a Core Team member, fight to define my place in my family and community, and, most importantly, fight to love myself with my whole heart. I can't do anything about the bullets people aim at me. I can do something about what I do in response. I may be wounded, and even forever changed, but I won't stay down.

I head to shore and stop to feel the edge of the wave rush between my toes, sinking my feet into the silt. I feel lighter. I blink, push my hair out of my eyes, squinting into the late afternoon sun marked by a dark silhouette. Ranger shakes out my coverup and holds it out for me to slide my arms into. But when it's halfway up, he pauses and begins to lightly trace the edges of my winged tattoo with his finger.

"Do you remember, when you first saw this, what I said?" I ask, feeling my confidence soar with his touch. His fingers stop their movement. "I said I wasn't sure what this meant to me. I know now."

I turn, place my hand on Ranger's hips, and gaze assuredly at his curious expression. "I want to be Hector's Angelita, your warrior, and my best self. I want the death that has followed me this past year to have meaning with life. I am imperfect, but I am good, and I want to fly."

Ranger's eyes become impossibly dark with affection and desire. "Me haces volar, y tú eres mi luz. Querida, te quiero." Ranger's voice is thick and husky, and he leans down to kiss me. It's fervent and passionate, hotter than the Jersey sun. (You make me fly, and you are my light.)

I pull apart first, take his hand, and begin to lead us with urgency to the house. We are barely through the door when I push Ranger against the wall with my body pressed firmly to his, our tongues clashing with a desperate desire to be closer.

As I'm on the cusp of losing all reason, the small voice of doubt in my brain whispers, and I pull back suddenly. I look away for a second as I take a quivering breath.

"Are you sure?" I blurt out, knowing my courage will only sustain itself in a big burst of bravery. "I've changed. I know you know my reputation," I trail off, running my hands over my face and through my hair. "I'm not going to apologize to you for not being the Virgin Mary, and I don't want the kind of encounters I've had these past few years with you. I want more. God, I want so much more that it scares me. I want to give you my heart. I want to touch and be touched. I want real intimacy, something I've never had with anyone. It's a lot, I know that, to lay on you after a kiss on the beach. I can slow down if you need it, but I'm ready. I'm ready to be all in with you, but only if you are sure."

I turn back, my arms awkwardly hanging by my side, and I implore directly into Ranger's chocolate eyes. "Are you?"

I observe my Carlos with my every nerve ending firing with anticipation as he takes a slow, seductive step towards me before scooping me up into his arms with a quiet strength that's practically sinful. I place my hands around his neck, and with his lips millimeters from mine, I think my heart can't decide if it wants to stop or explode.

"Si, querida." Ranger's Cuban-American accent is so thick, I think I'm teetering on the edge of orgasm from his voice alone. "I will never be as sure about anything as I am about you."

With that, he kisses me with the fire of a lover, the tenderness of a soulmate, and an eternal passion. I'm unaware of the journey, but I acutely feel the loss of Ranger's body next to mine when he gently lays me on the bed.

I whimper, my hand reaching towards him, and his lips quirk in that small smile of his.

"Patience, Babe," he says, pulling his shirt over his head. As he slips his pants down his hips, I lick my lips at the sight of Ranger's sex, impressive and attentive, and moan.

Ranger, undeterred by my impatience, kneels between my legs and runs both sets of fingers lightly up my legs, my sides and my breasts before resting his hands on either side of my head on the mattress. As his hands made their ascent, his body followed, sliding slowly over mine until the head of his penis is grinding with slightly increasing pressure against the apex of my folds. I'm quivering with need, my breath coming in short gasps.

"Please, now," I say, peppering his face with kisses, and I lose myself entirely as he pushes slowly inside me, the completeness of our two bodies pushing me fully over the edge. I wrap my legs and arms around Ranger's hard body, and my back arches as I let out a scream of primal satisfaction.

In the spotty haze of my semi-consciousness, Ranger grunts, and I feel his release inside me as he presses his lips against mine. This time the kiss is soft and affectionate.

"I love you," I say, and the words come so easily, it is astonishing. "I love you."

"Te quiero, querida."

We rest in each other's arms, neither one of us able to move for a few minutes, and I lock this moment of sheer perfection away in my heart.

"I'm going to spend the rest of today worshiping you, Babe," Ranger says into my ear, and my eyes fly open to meet the intensity of his gaze. "I'm going to show you again and again just how sure I am."

Oh boy!


* Quote from On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. This is the quote that inspired me to write this story. We have warriors that surround us, many who are military vets, but there are many other members of our communities who carry that same burden. Stephanie Plum is a character who inspires me like an unspoken warrior, and I think her fighting spirit is in many of us. We all need our people, those who form our support to get through the good and the bad. I hope this story imparted some of the brilliant strength of Steph's warrior spirit to you.

If you want to see the beach home inspiration, go to Zillow and search 1127 Ocean Ave, Mantoloking, NJ 08738. My home is a little further south with better, has all an all-encompassing security wall and gate, and the pool faces the ocean instead of the street.

Thank you again to misty23y for your heartfelt work as my beta.

I probably won't finish the epilogue until this weekend, but our characters have a few more things to say. And to think I thought this was going to be a short story! Haha! I look forward to giving you the last installation soon. You are the best readers. Thank you for your comments, page views, enthusiasm, and support.