Chapter 6

The morning after Morelli and Ranger walked out of my life, I awoke aching from the inside out, but I also felt better. I could feel a spark of the Stephanie that lit the dining room table on fire and whose gas foot 'slipped' just as Morelli was crossing the street. When I was in my twenties, I didn't put up with the shit the men in my life doled out at me. But in my thirties, I capitulated to what everyone else wanted, at least to a point. I'm grateful I never gave into my mother's demands for a wedding. Joe said he was chasing the Leave it to Beaver Burg-style fantasy, but the reality is that he wanted a fuck buddy scapegoat. Ranger at least had the dignity to tell me he didn't want a relationship, but his actions didn't match his words. You don't jump off a bridge, step in front of bullets, or kill for someone you don't love. Ranger said he didn't want a relationship, but he also promised a someday. Along the way, my heart got tangled and broken.

My first instinct that morning was to pull the covers over my head and hide until the hurt began to fade. Yet, I quickly overcame that instinct when the fresh and terrifying memory of Joe's actions doused me with hard reality. I needed to take care of myself, and since I fell asleep before taking a bath, I knew I could go to the women's clinic and begin doing the hard work of healing. It was there I was referred to a therapist.

When I struggled to hop along the ground, Dr. Anderson taught me how to spread my wings. Although I only have five weeks and ten sessions behind me, and I'm amazed at how far I've come with willpower, determination, and honesty. I now look forward to our discussions. I have good days and bad as I process what it means to be a victim and a survivor, but now I have the tools I need to move through and accept those feelings. I think that putting myself first is why I'm now contentedly resting on Ranger's lap during this perfect first date.

Ranger's fingers brush along my arms, and I shiver. He frowns slightly. "Are you cold?"

"A little," I admit, reluctantly sliding off his lap and to my feet, stretching my tight back as I do. I smile at Ranger as he slides his suit jacket over my shoulders.

"We only have about five more minutes to go," he says mysteriously before taking my arm in his to lead us down the boardwalk. The rest of the journey passes in silence as we both absorb the evening, but my natural curiosity has me trying to figure out where we are going.

Eventually, we stop at the gate of a large cape cod. The house is light blue with white trim and has a wrap-around porch. Even in the dark, the entire property is so picturesque it looks like it could grace the cover of Architectural Digest.

"This is amazing," I gush, stepping into the foyer and spinning in a small circle to attempt to see as much as possible.

"It's mine, and I'd like to say yours," Ranger says, leaning against the doorframe.

I freeze. "This is the Batcave? I'm in the Batcave?!"

And Ranger gives me that thousand-watt smile that makes me forget my name again.

He gives me a tour, and I feel like a kid in a candy shop as I take in everything. There are personal pictures in his office, and the one closest to his desk is of me. I remember that distraction. Ranger took particular care to make sure my wire was secured just so. In the photo, I'm dressed for the club, and I'm laughing.

"That night, right before you returned the key fob, you were going to say something, and you stopped. What was it? What didn't you mean?" I set down the picture and turn to Ranger, chewing my bottom lip between my teeth, feeling unexpectedly vulnerable.

Ranger takes me in his arms and gently pulls my lip free. "That's better," he says, smiling softly at me. "I've gone over that conversation a thousand times, and I think what you were going to say is that you couldn't help falling in love with me. The reason I think that is because I couldn't help falling in love with you, and I was too scared to admit it. Did you fall in love, Stephanie, but you couldn't say it because you wanted more?"

"Yes." The word is faint as my heart pounds in my chest.

"I love you, Babe, and I want to give you more. Is it too late for our someday?" Ranger looks hopelessly vulnerable, and it's the closest to pleading I've ever heard from him.

"I," I start, the words I love you, too, dancing on the tip of my tongue but refusing to take shape. If I say those three powerful words, I can't take them back. I wanted to say them before, and what I got instead was a broken heart.

"You left," I whispered, my heart dropping into my stomach. "I know I said I was done. I know you were only doing what I asked, and with only a 'Babe,' you took your key and you left. You said you had your phone, but you never tried to talk with me or send me a message. This date is the best one I've ever been on, and I'll cherish it forever. But why now?"

Ranger's expression becomes more intense as I speak, and I feel him tighten his arms around me. "I was an idiota," Ranger says huskily. "I justified walking away as giving you what you said you wanted. I didn't think you wanted a someday with me since you kept going back to Morelli. I was, maybe even still am, insecure, I suppose, with where I stood in your life. I wanted more, but I never thought you'd want it with me when you could have everything with him."

My eyes widen at this unexpected confession. Ranger felt like I saw him as not being enough? That I didn't want more with him?

"I was too angry at your rejection to think clearly at first, but after destroying a sparring bag, it came to me that your words were less pushing me away and more challenging me to step up. Then I was angry at myself that I blew it with you. I thought any text or call I made at that point would be inadequate, so I didn't'," Ranger continued.

I let Ranger's words sit heavily between us as I think through that conversation from his perspective. I suppose it is reasonable that it felt like I was blindsiding him. I was in pain and reeling from my encounter with Morelli, and I'm sure that affected my delivery.

"I'm sorry," I say quietly, not sure what else to say.

"No, I'm sorry," Ranger says. "Please, Babe. Don't give up on me, on us."

And I believe him. I can't explain it. I only just managed to put my heart back together without Morelli, and more importantly, Ranger, in my life. I am a flawed work in progress who spent the last few weeks learning to love myself and believe in myself more. There's an instinct in me that wants to protect my heart. It screams that I'm a fool for letting him back into my life and heart so easily. But then again, wouldn't I also be a fool not to give the someday I always hoped for a chance?

"I'm not the same woman you walked away from. I refuse to compromise who I am for anyone. I won't tolerate being anyone's entertainment or a bet or a joke," I state, surprisingly firmly.

"No, Babe, you aren't. My comments were, again, a stupid way of protecting myself. When I said no price, I meant it, but my actions didn't show that. I'd spend any amount of money and do anything to keep you safe, happy, and healthy. I didn't think you'd last one day on the job, but you've proven everyone wrong, and your tenacity, determination, and kindness have only made me love you more. However, I was never all in before, and that's my fault. It's hard to say no price when I was constantly keeping myself one step removed," Ranger stated with equal parts regret and sincerity.

I purse my lips as I consider his confession. This vulnerable, uncertain Ranger is one that is hard for me to grasp, but it makes sense. The price of pushing each other way, after all, was our hearts. "I need to know that you won't walk away if things get rough. We have a history of pushing each other away. If I give us a chance, I need to know that we are all in. I'm not asking for a ring. I only want to know that when I lay down to sleep at night that you'll be standing beside me tomorrow," I say, my eyes unwaveringly locking on his.

"Siempre," Ranger says huskily. "Always. Do you remember that I told you once that I'd ruin you for all other men?" I nod my head dumbly. "That fact is that you've ruined me for all other women. I thought I lost you forever, and I didn't fully appreciate the light you are in my life until it was gone. A lifetime of tomorrows with you isn't enough. I cherish and protect what is mine, and God, Stephanie, I want you to be mine. I love you, Babe."

"I love you, too," is all I can manage as I rise to my tiptoes and press my lips to Ranger's, my heart, and any control I have left, bursting apart with joy and a desperate need.

This kiss is passion and emotion. It's a kiss that connects our imperfect, healing souls and brings us together. Even if we never get married, with this kiss, I know to the core of my being that I am his and he is mine.