All recognizable characters belong to Janet Evanovich, I'm just playing.
A/N: Two chapters today, so head back to the previous chapter to pick up the story.
Late February, 16 months after Stephanie's birthday wish
Maybe someday, someday I'm gonna settle down (Long Way Around by The Chicks)
No moans escape as I finish off my French toast. Across the table, Megan gives me a long look. We'd barely sat down for a late breakfast, the only time she could get free today, when I spilled my guts in a manner very similar to the first night I met her. Her queries this time aren't quite as brutal as that original game of Twenty Questions, but I feel just as rung out. And disappointingly sober.
I think my stream of conscious word vomit worked out the reason why I'm holding back on inviting Ranger to my house, just not the "get over it" solution. Megan is quiet throughout my rambling, but the way she's shifting in her chair tells me I might not like what she's going to tell me. Good thing I came to her for a dose of tough love.
"You know that I'm going to support you, no matter what, right?"
"I don't like the way Ranger treated you in the past. That said, if you want to give this relationship a go, you need to put the past in the past and stop waiting for him to hurt you again."
"Hard. I get that. You got over the cop pretty easy because it didn't hurt, and it didn't hurt because it was a surface love. What you feel for Ranger is deep enough to break you. I know I haven't done a great job of putting myself out there, so I know I don't have the right track record to give you advice on this, but I only see two options. You either need to figure out how to trust that he's worked his shit out and what happened before won't happen again or tell him you just want to be friends. If you go into this holding back, keeping an escape clause to protect yourself, then you're just back in the same cycle that you were in with Joe. You're going to sabotage your own happiness."
I get what Megan's saying, but I'm still afraid to step out onto that ledge. For more than a year, I worked to keep my private life private. I worked to not give the gossips anything to talk about, to carve out my own little place in the world, create a life I could be proud of. I did it without Ranger, and I'm afraid to let him back in all the way and risk giving up the control I've gained.
I know he's frustrated that we stay at a hotel when he's here in town instead of letting him fully into my world. I hate that I'm holding back. Dickie cheating on me made me afraid to trust someone again. Joe's constant "you're a screw-up" litany made me doubt my worth for a long time. But Ranger destroying what little home I had? That was the hardest thing of all to come back from. The crappy apartment on St. James Street was my holdback, my proof that I still had a piece of me that wasn't dependent on someone else. I went through hell more than once to make the rent, but I did it. I expected to leave there on my own terms. I was even prepared to be kicked out because of one too many situations with a skip, stalker or crazy. I just never expected the crazy to be Ranger and every time I think I've let go of everything and moved on, a little reminder here or there smacks me in the face.
I'm more than a little perturbed to realize that I'm afraid to let Ranger know where I live, in case things go bad again. How messed up is that? For years I wanted him to open up to me, to let me in, and now I'm the secretive one.
Megan gives me a quick squeezy hug and whispers, "I never thought I'd say this, but the man is in love with you and is rearranging his life to put you front and center. It's ok to let him love you; he knows the cost of losing you. And if he fucks it up, there are plenty of people willing to help you hide the body."
With that, she heads back to her office while I laugh and linger over my coffee. We're still in the 'honeymoon' phase of dating and things are good. Really good, actually. I was blown away by his willingness to move to Philadelphia so we could be together, and he seems happy with the move. There has been nothing since our talk on the beach in December to indicate that Ranger has been anything but sincere in his words and actions and I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I've been looking. If I'm honest, I've been testing him to see if he's going to fall into old habits. Instead, he's given me a cookie jar to make me feel welcome on seven, opened up his beach house, given up undercover contracts for himself to stay local, changed his priorities at Rangeman and is opening a satellite office closer to me so we can be together. He made a place for me in his life without ever asking me to change anything about mine.
My cup is halfway to my face when it hits me that I'm the one falling into my previous mindset. Instead of confronting the fear head-on and figuring out a solution, I've reverted back to my 'wait and hope while hiding' mode. Damn it.
I've wanted to fly and have endeavored to set my life up in a way that allows that happen. I promised myself and Sarah that I'd take the chances that mattered. It's ok to be cautious; but I'm not ok with going back to being scared, head in the sand Stephanie. It's ok to ask for what I need. Decision made, I drop some bills on the table and head out to do a little shopping. I'm a woman on a mission.
Three days later, I'm enjoying the last of my chicken modiga while Ranger finishes off his salmon. Dinner has been laid back and fun. We're in Federal Bistro, a neighborhood place I like to eat at once in a while. It's a step up from the casual places I frequent, but less stuffy than the upscale places he probably prefers. I'm trying to set the tone for the weekend, a mix of both of our personalities.
Dropping a generous tip on the table, Ranger helps me up and steers me out of the restaurant with a firm but gentle hand to the small of my back. I think I surprised him, telling him to just meet me here at the restaurant instead of me coming to the hotel. I'm hoping that being on home turf, introducing him to the area the way I see it, will stack the deck in my favor.
"Ok if we walk for a bit and work off dinner?"
He nods his agreement and I start us off in the direction of my home. I've done my best to stave off nerves all night, but now that the time is here, it's hard to keep my hands from shaking. I'm trying to figure out how to start my soft sell when he interrupts my thoughts.
"Do we have plans for this weekend?"
"Just Sunday. It's meal swap day."
He tries to hide his smile. I can see that the thought of me cooking and doing meal prep and swapping amuses him. It's the polar opposite of how I approached food in the past. "Whose house are we hanging out at?"
Ranger freezes momentarily but continues walking with me. It wasn't supposed to be my month, but a call to Ryan to change up the order made it happen. I've rehearsed this in my head a million times, but I'm still struggling with putting the words together to make it all make sense. Even as I made my plans, I wondered if it was too soon, but then I realized that the one thing we're not guaranteed in life is time.
"I love this neighborhood. The energy, the townhouses, the people. I always wished I could find something like this in Trenton. I mean, not that I want to go back to living in Trenton..."
This is harder than I expected. I know I'm rambling, probably not making any sense, but I really don't know how to get to "do you want to live with me?" For the first time in my life, it feels right and not like a concession, but for the love of all things holy, this is awkward. I thought I was doing pretty good with the whole adulting thing, but maybe not.
"It's a nice area. Do you come down here a lot?"
"Yes. Do you remember how I did a lot of reading and thinking?" He looks momentarily befuddled at the topic change, but I think it might be easier for me to just rip the bandage off. At his head nod, I ramble on.
"I think one of the reasons I was so scared to commit to Joe was that it meant giving up everything and moving into his world. In his house, with things the way he wanted them, with his family dropping by. After I caught Dickie with Joyce, I lost that house. I mean, I didn't want to stay there with him, but I didn't want to be out on the street either, you know? So, I found my crappy little apartment and I could afford it on my own while I was putting my life back together. No one cared if I left the cereal out on the counter next to Rex, or if my makeup was all over the sink or there was too much crap in the closet. I got to make the rules, and after a lifetime of following my mom's rules, and then college rules, and then Dickie's rules, it was nice to make my own rules. It was hard for me to get excited about following someone else's rules again. And that's what I would have been pressured into doing."
Ranger smirks a little. "I'm getting that you're not much of a rule follower. Is this supposed to surprise me, Babe?"
"Smart ass." With that, I bump his shoulder a little, and with a quick glance I can see the Rangeman SUV down the street. Getting him to meet me here instead of downtown at the hotel should mean that his bag is in the SUV for easy access when we get to the house. Hopefully. If I don't screw this up.
"Yeah, not much for rules that I don't agree with. But with Joe it was more than that. I think I always knew deep down that it just wouldn't have worked. I always came up with a reason to leave. Walking back into my apartment, even as depressing as it was, felt like being able to take a deep breath. I didn't want to give it up, because it was always a place I could run back to. I think that's what hurt the most, losing that fallback, that place where I could safely be me."
I can see the regret in his eyes. "Babe."
I loop my arm around his. "I'm gonna give you that one, because I know I'm not making a whole lot of sense, so bear with me." He squeezes the hand holding his arm and plants a small kiss on my temple. We've been walking as we're talking, and we're only a block or so from my townhouse. I need to kick this into gear.
"I realized that having a place to call my own, or at least having a stake in where I live, is a not-going-to-budge cornerstone for me. It was always one of my goals as I started this journey to a me that I like, but it's more than that. It's a necessity for my mental health, knowing that I always have someplace to go; it's why I could never give up my apartment to move in with Joe. I needed to hold onto a piece of me. Back in January, I pulled in two federal skips and Williamson, and suddenly I was sitting on a pile of cash. You would've laughed at how I hyperventilated."
He smiles, and I can laugh at it now, the gobsmacked and near sobbing mess I turned into at the notion I could really take care of myself and how I could have been doing it in better style than I had been.
"One of my plans was to move to a safer apartment, but I just kept putting it off. I even thought about looking for a house outside of Trenton, but I wasn't sure I wanted to stay there, especially with things so unsettled with you. And honestly, I didn't want unsolicited advice from my mom or for her to think buying a house there meant that I suddenly wanted the Burg life. Even though we have a much better relationship now, part of me thinks she's still hoping I'll change my mind and fall in line."
I rest my head on his shoulder. "After I had to move out of the apartment, I stayed with Megan for a bit, but I made it a priority to get out of her house and not be a burden as fast as possible."
I feel him tense up and our walking slows. "Babe, there will never be a time when I don't regret my actions that day."
"I know, and I don't think we need to rehash it. I haven't meant to keep you at arm's length. I was just scared, because with you, there'll be no holding back, no running and no half measures. For you, I'm willing to make concessions and changes. That's scary as hell for me. Jake likes to call me a work in progress, but sometimes that progress moves at a snail's pace. You opened your homes to me, but I've made us stay in a hotel when we're here. That's going to change, but I just needed time to work it all out in my head. And Megan to kick my ass."
Uh oh, full name and we stop walking. Something must have shown on my face because he softens the delivery with a hand to my jaw and a kiss to the forehead.
"Babe, I love you. I just want to be with you, however that looks. I told you I would wait until you were ready. We both made some missteps, me most of all, but I damaged your trust in me. There's no way to sugar coat that. I'm just thankful we're here now, together."
With that, he pulls me into a hug. Looking past Ranger, I see that we're a few doors down from my house and the Merry Men following us have parked across the street. This is good. I can work with this. I'm relaxing into the hug, reveling in his warmth and acceptance. The words "do you think you'd want to live with me?" are forming on my tongue when I'm rudely interrupted.
"Are you two just going to hang out here on the sidewalk, or are you intending to actually go somewhere?"
Freaking Lester. My head drops to Ranger's chest, and I hear a growl. A cranky Ranger is not what I need right now and a bit of rhino peeks out.
"Damn it, Lester! I've never asked someone to live with me before, and I'm screwing it up enough on my own. I don't need any extra help from you!"
Stunned silence wraps around us; no one, not even me, expecting the outburst. Just when it starts to get awkward, I feel a gentle hand on my chin, angling my face and attention away from Lester and back toward Ranger.
"Babe?" His eyes are full of confusion and love.
"I have a townhouse here in Fishtown. I fell in love with it at first sight, even though it was basically gutted back to the studs. It felt like an extension of me, a work in progress that was a mess but could be awesome. I spent just about everything that wasn't earmarked for taxes to buy it outright. It's my place, my forever place that no one can kick me out of. Each skip I went after was one more project I could do on the house. That distraction at the hotel you saw? I almost called it off, but I needed running water!"
That earns me a smile, and I continue on, feeling a little emboldened by his response. "It's basically done. But I was going to ask if you would be interested in living with me, here. I need to feel equal in this, like we're both bringing something to the table. I'm bringing my home, where we can both be us, away from work. It's close to downtown, and close to the interstate to get back to Trenton. There's a security system and ballistic resistant glass on the bottom two floors. The only thing is that you might not like it inside because I used color, because I need some color, but there's a little home gym, and I emptied a closet and bought a bigger bed because I wanted you to be comfortable and-"
My rambling is cut off with a kiss so hot I swear my brain, underwear and shoes have melted. Thank God! We're both short of breath when we pull apart and he rests his forehead against mine.
"Yes, I want to live with you. I want to be wherever you are."
"Well, I was thinking we live here in Philly and stay on seven when we're in Trenton. I know you'll have to go back for meetings and stuff. I was thinking I could tag along some of the time."
That earns me an actual smile. "We're going to make our own rules."
"And fuck everyone else. That's the plan."
"When do I get to see this house? I think we need to check out this new bed and christen it." The wolf grin that follows makes my legs weak; thank God we don't have far to go!
Laughing, I step back and head towards the SUV while pointing out our home. "We're two houses down on the left, with the blue door. We just need to grab your suitcase; I know how you hate to run around naked!"
Ranger throws his head back and laughs, while Lester looks like he's in pain, holding in whatever smartass comments that are fighting to come out while Ram retrieves the suitcase from the back. He hands it over with a smile before getting back in the passenger seat.
Lester looks down toward the townhouse I indicated. "Seriously, Beautiful! You have a house? When do we get to see it?"
In for a penny, in for a pound; no more holding on to old hurts. "Tomorrow morning, after 9, and only if you bring breakfast tacos from Lupe's three blocks west. I want a bacon, egg and cheese with green sauce."
Ranger smirks and adds his order before reaching out to take the suitcase from me and placing a hand low on my back. I know the guys will likely camp out here tonight until Ranger is satisfied with my security set-up. Nervousness flares up as we approach the steps to the front door. "Breathe, Babe."
Keying in the combination to open the door, I start telling him about the locks, cameras, and alarm. His eyes get suspiciously darker and heavy lidded the longer I talk about security measures. By the time I get done telling him how a series of smash and grab robberies around the neighborhood led me to put in shatter and ballistic resistant glass in the windows that were even somewhat accessible, he's looking at me like dessert.
I don't even try and hide my amusement. "The weirdest things turn you on."
"Babe, everything you do turns me on. But being so proactive with your safety, taking away that worry for me, takes it to another level. I just might have to reward you."
I'd laugh, but the look on his face lets me know he's not kidding and suddenly I couldn't care less about pointing out house features. Heading for the stairs and holding out my hand, I state the obvious. "Maybe we should skip the tour until tomorrow."
The blinding smile and "Babe" confirm his agreement. At the base of the stairs, I stop and turn to him, taking his face in my hands and try to convey my love and happiness in a single kiss. "Welcome home, Batman. We're going to do this, and it's going to be good."
A/N: Thank you for taking this journey with me. It all started with the idea, what would happen if Steph learned she was excluded from something, which led to wondering what if she "grew up"? What would that look like and how would Ranger handle that? What would happen if his touchstone changed all the rules between them while he was out of town and he struggled to compensate. What started as a what if turned into a story of assumptions, misunderstandings, grace, forgiveness, second chances and moving forward for two imperfect people. My brain is strange; I wrote the chapters of the story out of order, working from a synopsis on whichever chapter spoke to me at the time. Chapter 33, with Ranger and Steph at dinner, was the first chapter I wrote; chapter 37, where Ranger presents the plans for the satellite office in Philadelphia was the last.
While it's not my first story on FF, it was the first one I started writing. It's also my first attempt at writing anything in over 20 years, and some skills came back quicker than others. I tried to put the reader in Steph and Ranger's shoes as they found the files or heard, "open season" without all the information. Like Steph and Ranger, some got angry, made assumptions, and wrote people off. As hard as the reviews were to read, it made sense. Bringing them back together was the hardest part; both needed to go through refining fires and see the damage in order to move forward. Hence the pacing of the story and their back-and-forth interactions.
The pacing was matched to the storyline and to fit what I felt matched the characters, who are taken from cannon through book 26. There were some reviews that Ranger was out of character; well, yes. That was the point. He's been thrown off his axis and is struggling. There were comments that this is not Ranger, he's a protector and not a predator. Agreed. There is not a lot of forward momentum or character growth in the books, but time does march on. Between book 9 (when baby Lisa is born) and book 26 (when it is stated that baby Lisa is 3) is no more than 4 years. That's a lot of kidnappings, assaults, injuries and near-death experiences for Steph to endure without making changes, and for Ranger her protector to save her from and feel like he failed, especially when she is targeted by people from his past. That's got to play with his head and his tightly held control, even more so when she is suddenly no longer behaving and reacting the same way she has for the entirety that he's known her. Add in extreme fatigue, burnout, and perceived betrayal? Powder keg. In hindsight, I would have maybe not had him quite go so ballistic in her apartment. Live and learn for the next story. Ranger in no way gets a pass for his actions. None. But he wasn't just acting out because he's an ass. Some readers got that and said, "I recognize that reaction."
I had 4 betas for the story, including one who only reads the books. All four said the why things happened the way they did and that the coming back together worked for them. Not everybody is going to agree, and I knew that going in. There are a lot of "Ranger doesn't deserve her forgiveness" reviews. Forgiveness is a personal thing, and you can put ten people together in a room and have ten different opinions on it Nobody deserves forgiveness. Grace, forgiveness, and second chances are ours to freely give or withhold. Steph strikes me as having a forgiving heart and a brave spirt, so she was willing to take a chance. She still the Steph that leaps; now she looks first.
Thanks again for taking a chance on my story.