One Year Later

Ranger and I slowly walk hand in hand down the Boardwalk. A sparkle catches my eye, and I glance down at my left hand, gently but firmly held, and the set of rings that adorn it. I lift my eyes with a small smile as I feel Ranger's gaze.

"Welcome home, Mrs. Manoso," he says, sweeping me off my feet before carrying me across the threshold. I squeal in spite of myself, and I'm about to blush crimson at the girlish giggle I can't believe escaped when Ranger gives me a thousand-watt smile. That smile instantly makes me feel safe, secure, and loved, and my joy feels unbounded.

A year ago, Ranger and I stood in his office and made the first brave step towards our someday. Every day since then, we continued to take steps towards each other. Ranger never tried to break into my new apartment, and two months after we started dating, I had him over for a movie and Pino's. I included Ranger in my self-defense and weapons proficiency training, and I never knew how afraid he was for my physical safety until I saw him relax as his confidence in my abilities grew.

Ranger came to my family dinners, and I came to his. My father began speaking again at dinner, first by asking Ranger about his service and then sharing his Vietnam stories. The first time it happened, grandma was stunned silent and sat up a little straighter in her chair. My mother put down her iced tea, tears lining her eyes. These were stories none of us had ever heard before, and learning more about my dad and his experiences is a gift I'll treasure forever. That night, my father joined Ranger and me at the door, giving Ranger a firm handshake and a slight nod of his head. Then he turned to me and pulled me into a hug, the first in years, and quietly said, "He's a good one, Steph."

"I love you, daddy," was all I could choke out, his words of approval making my chest expand with happiness.

Three months ago, my father died unexpectedly in his sleep from a heart attack. I used to hate family dinners. But everything changed when Ranger joined us. I learned more about my father in those nine months than in my thirty-four years prior. That table became a place where the Plum family listened, understood, and loved each other. My mother stopped harping at me to get married and finally seemed to accept me as I am. It was like my father's approval with me translated into my mother undergoing her own metamorphosis. I mentioned my observation to grandma once, still a bit in awe over the change in my family dynamics.

"It's simple, Stephanie. Your father stopped pushing your mother away and ignoring her, and your mother stopped criticizing everything and trying to control everyone. They learned to love each other again," Grandma said seriously. "You have more to do with that than you realize. You refused to be controlled or compromise your life, but you also learned to do so without blowing up cars every week. Frank is so proud of how you turned the bail bond business around, and he thinks of Ranger as a son. Helen finally realized that she kept fixing you up with men who are a horse's patoot. You are their little girl, but you grew up. We love you, but until now, your parent's never really let you go so you could fly."

I felt something shift in me that day, and since then, I've held my chin a little higher. After daddy died, I'd give anything to eat one more pot roast with him.

While Joe was at rehab for 90 days, I began to forget about him. That's not a small thing to say. After the incident, every ache and pain I felt was a physical reminder of the emotional scars he left on my heart. I worked hard at avoiding denial, and as I threw myself into healing, growing my business, and, later, being Ranger's girlfriend, I simply stopped thinking about him. So, it was a shock when I turned around from the counter at the Tasty Pastry to see him standing behind me for the first time since that day at Pino's four months prior.

One of the compromises that Ranger and I made was that my movements would no longer be actively tracked and monitored by Rangeman 24/7 but I would willingly keep a couple of alert buttons on or near me. One click turns on tracking, two clicks signals Ranger that I need him, and three clicks means send in the calvary. Without even thinking, I slipped my hand into my purse and clicked my keychain two times.

"Cupcake," Joe started, and I hated the way my pulse instantly increased.

"We discussed this. You do not call me that, and especially not here, of all places," I ground out, hating both the attention the Burg was giving us and that those same busybodies now blocked my path to the door.

"Stephanie," he said instead, giving me a half smile. "How are you?"

"Fine," I replied, doing my part to keep the exchange as civil as possible and, hopefully, gossip to a minimum. I kept my donut box between us as a Boston crème barrier. "I have to get going. Goodbye," I stated with what I hoped was the right mix of airiness to prevent escalation and firmness so that Morelli would take the hint. I was loathed to step toward him, but the now crowded shop was limiting my options, and I attempted to inch toward the door.

Then Joe dared to pull me into an awkward and very one-sided embrace. "Don't be like this, Steph," he said into my ear, his fingers bearing into my biceps as he tried to manipulate my body into returning his embrace. "I want to try again as friends."

"No," I said resolutely. I tried to push back, but the box I was using as a shield was now limiting my options to step away. "Let go."

Morelli did, but he didn't leave my personal space. "Please, Steph. See, I listened to you, and I changed."

"Not enough. You have no right to touch me, ever. I was perfectly clear. We are done," I said, my voice traitorously shaky as adrenaline unwelcomingly flooded my system.

Joe gave me his Italian Stallion smolder expression, and I felt my stomach roil. I honestly thought rehab and some time volunteering would give him perspective. I knew he returned last month, but since our paths never crossed and the rumor mill was quiet, I thought that perhaps Morelli had grown up and learned his lesson. I wasn't so sure anymore.

"It'll be different," Joe said, confidence and charm oozing. "While I was away, I realized how much I missed you. I love you, Steph."

No. No. No. This cannot be happening. Burg manners be damned, I was getting out of there right now. I began pushing my way between Mrs. Markowitz and Morelli when I felt his hand touch my shoulder again.

And then the hand was gone, replaced by one that immediately filled me with relief.

"I need to get out of here," I whispered, leaning against Ranger's body, and just like that, the crowd parts as he securely tucks me against him and ushers me into the Cayenne stopped in front of the store. Looking through the vehicle window as Ranger pulled away, I saw Lester escorting Morelli out the door and around the back of the building.

"Babe," Ranger said, and I hated that I flinched when he touched my forearm.

"I'm sorry," I replied automatically, tears spilling over. "It's not you. I'm sorry. Thank you," I mumbled, hating how weak I felt. I was doing great! How can one interaction with Morelli make me feel wholly undone?

Ranger shifted his hand so that it rested on the console between us. "You have nothing to apologize for, Babe," he said emphatically. "Where do you want to go?" he asked after a pause.

I took a deep breath at the question and willed my scrambled emotions to focus. "The beach," I responded. "Take me to our place."

We rode in silence, and lost in my thoughts, I didn't notice we arrived until I was startled by my door opening and the donuts I didn't realize I was still clutching being removed from my hands. Ranger gently reached across and released my seatbelt before holding out his hand for me to take as I stepped out. I placed my palm in his, and with warmth tingling through my fingertips, I tightened my grip as we walked into the house.

Once the door was locked behind us, I leaned against Ranger, resting my head on his chest as he wrapped his arms around me.

"Are you okay, Babe?" Ranger asked, breaking the silence.

"No," I respond, hating that I was still trembling. "I hate this. I thought I was okay, and I thought I was strong. I hate that he has this power over me," I rush out.

"You are strong, Babe," Ranger responded. "You can be both strong and not okay. He hurt you, and sometimes hurt like that doesn't fully go away."

"He isn't going to stop," I replied sadly, hating that I was still trembling. "I didn't want to report him, knowing it could cost him everything, but he isn't going to leave me alone."

"Probably not, but I'll do anything you want to keep you safe," Ranger said, his hands rubbing a slow circle on my back. His comforting, welcome touch helped push away the fear that had settled in my belly, and I noticed that I had subconsciously matched his deep, slow breaths.

It was standing there, feeling safe with someone who respected and listened to me, that I felt strong enough to make my next choice. With Ranger beside me and my attorney representing me, I filed a report against Morelli. Once I did, three other women came forward with similar stories. With overwhelming evidence against him, and Angie disowning him, Morelli quickly accepted a settlement offer and is now serving six years in a New Jersey state prison. There will be probation to follow, and I have a Final Restraining Order already in place.

Ranger never tried to be my Cuban knight. Instead, he stood beside me, reminding me that I already have the strength and courage I need to fly.

Ranger and I go out to what I now consider our bistro every two weeks, talking, dancing, and kissing. But we've never taken it farther. I asked Ranger once if he was frustrated that our relationship wasn't more physical.

"No, querida," he said seriously. "I want to be with you, and sometimes I want you so badly that it burns hot within me, but I know we are good in bed. Now, we are learning to be good together. Someday, I will lay you down and worship you, but that day is not today."

It was probably a combination of my dad's funeral making me realize how short life is and the space my mom gave me by no longer bringing up marriage every conversation, but over the last year I began to think maybe just having Ranger in my life wasn't enough.

A month ago, walking along the Boardwalk, we stopped at our bench to watch nightfall descend over the ocean. "I love you, Carlos," I said, my head leaning on his shoulder.

"Te amo," he softly replied.

It was a moment of perfect contentedness. I was no longer a scared woman unable to draw boundaries in my relationships and who floundered at her job, at life, really. I had decided I wanted more, even if it meant losing Ranger. Instead, I got more than I had ever hoped for.

"Will you marry me?" I said suddenly, afraid to look him in the eyes. I felt Ranger stiffen beside me before suddenly standing, leaving me alone on the bench. I looked down, swallowing the sudden lump in my throat. Stupid, Stephanie. Didn't you learn that asking life altering questions to Ranger out of the blue is the best way to drive him away? I thought, mentally berating myself.

"Look at me, Stephanie," Ranger said, taking my hands. I obey, slowly raising my quivering chin to see Ranger on one knee before me, looking almost like a god as his skin, hair, and eyes glowed in the light of the setting sun. "You are the missing piece my heart was looking for. I was a cold man, ruthless in the accomplishment of my mission and driven to succeed, but I felt empty. You give me warmth. You are radiant, and I adore you. Yes, Babe, I will marry you," he says, sliding an exquisite solitaire onto my left ring finger as my tears drip freely from my eyes.

Tonight, we wed in an intimate ceremony on the patio of our restaurant, witnessed by the maître de and the chef. We will repeat our vows and hold a small reception with our families and friends later, but tonight was about us and about our someday. We didn't need anything more.

As Ranger carries me across the threshold, I see the playful affection in his eyes shift and transform into raw desire, and I shiver as his need washes over me.

I needed this last year of abstinence because it taught me that I am worth waiting for. True to his word, Ranger never pushed me farther than I was willing to go, and it made me feel empowered. That said, the more in love I fell with Ranger, the greater my desire for him grew, transforming from lust to a fervent ache in my heart.

My hands frantically untuck Ranger's shirt as I desperately seek to touch him. "You are mine," I say before pressing my breasts against him as I grip his waist, suddenly frustrated at the fabric between us, and I groan. "I want you, Carlos. God, I want you," I breathe into his ear before pulling back to see Ranger's eyes burning that that same desire.

"Y tu eres mia," Ranger says, his voice thick and husky. "And you are mine."

My trembling fingers undo the top three buttons, and I begin the place kisses on the smooth skin of his neck and upper chest.

"Babe," he groans, stopping before what I presume is the master bed, but I'm too busy savoring mocha-colored flesh to be sure. He lefts my chin to make sure I'm looking at him directly. "Babe, listen to me. I need you to know that you have the power here. You can tell me, yes and at any time, if you change your mind, say no. I'll stop, and everything will be okay. I love you, Babe, and I want to cherish you and take care of you."

Tears of joy unbiddenly fill my eyes. "I love you, Ranger. Thank you. I will tell you what I need, and I trust you to stop. I want you to make love to me. Please, Ranger, show me your love."

With that, Ranger's mouth engulfs mine as I feel the zipper on the back of my dress open. "You're beautiful," he says, setting me on my feet. He slowly brushes the straps of my white dress down my arms, and his eyes drink in my breasts as they emerge. The gown swishes to the floor, and I'm left in my blue lace panties, matching strapless bra, and heels. "Hermoso, beautiful."

Then Ranger lays me on the bed, stripping off his clothing before laying over me, his elbows supporting his weight. An easy smile spreads across his face as he begins to leave a trail of kisses across my body, pausing to remove my bra before slowly pulling down my panties. His eyes widen as his fingers delicately trail the smooth skin there. I blush with a shy smile, and I silently thank Lula for her insistence.

Ranger's eyes glint, impossibly dark, before he dipped his head and slowly put his tongue to perfect use. Ranger took his time, lavishing my womanhood, and I was shaking with the need for release. My hips were bucking against his luscious mouth as my fists gripped at the duvet. Then he adds one finger, and another, and I come, screaming "Carlos!"

"Babe," he says into my mouth before kissing me, the taste of my sex on his lips turning me on even more. "I will never grow tired of hearing you scream my name, and I'm not done making you scream tonight."

"Carlos," I moan as the hard yet oh so soft tip of his manhood, warm and wet, slides along the inside of my folds.

"Do you want this?" he asks, continuing to tease me.

"Yes, Carlos, yes," I pant, never surer of anything. "I want you, all of you. Please."

He enters me then, slowly and carefully, his eyes never leaving mine. I gasp as we meld together. Our bodies together felt full and complete, made for one another. My fingers grip his broad shoulders as he slowly begins to move. My orgasm builds quickly as every nerve ending in my body feels like it is afire for this man.

"Babe," he groans, and I know he feels it too.

"Don't hold back. I want you. Come for me, Carlos. I love you!" His pace quickens, and we climax together, our arms wrapped tightly around each other, knowing we will never let go again.

"Te amo, querida, siempre," Carlos says, kissing me softly while rolling us onto our sides, our bodies still joined together. "I love you, dear, always."

A/N: Thank you again for your support for my writing, whether it is by reading, following, loving, or commenting. I am so very grateful. This epilogue is dedicated to you. It was not an original part of this story, but reading your comments, here and elsewhere, inspired me to write a little more.