AN: I hope this ties up any remaining loose ends. Warning: sugary sweet Babe HEA ahead...
1 year later
Fresh from my shower, I'd just applied my final swipe of mascara when my phone rang. I contemplated ignoring it, seeing as we would be a little late for our dinner reservation as is. Ranger and his oozing sex pheromones could be thanked for that. But in the end, I peeked at the screen and answered it. Morelli wouldn't be calling me on Valentine's Day unless it were dire.
"Joe, what's up?" I switched the call to speaker phone, so I could wrestle with my hair while we spoke.
"I screwed up, Cupcake, and I need your help."
Nine months ago, I would have hung up immediately, sure that was a line meant to try and guilt me into getting back together with him. My talk with Morelli after Ranger and I returned from the cruise had ended less than civilly. It had made for some really awkward encounters around town and at the station whenever I brought in a skip.
Then, about six months ago, something shifted. The genuine smiles returned to Morelli's face when he saw me, and he made an effort at small talk. He asked how Rex was doing after I inquired about Bob. I heard the rumors a few days later. He was dating Naomi Cawlins, a newly single-mom and respected RN at St. Francis. And if the Burg gossip could be believed, it was fairly serious.
Since then, Joe and I had fallen into a comfortable friendship. Much to my mother's horror. She still had trouble reconciling my relationship with Ranger. Between that and Grandma Mazur's blasé apology for her secret trip, she'd had spent the week following the cruise drunk as a skunk. We'd taken away the iron for her own safety.
"I hope this doesn't require bail money, because I'm running late for dinner as is."
Morelli laughed morosely. "I don't need help staying out of jail. I need help staying out of the doghouse. I totally forgot today was Valentine's Day."
I chuckled. Same old Morelli. "You're never going to get a reservation at this time of night."
"I know," Morelli shot back. "So, what do I do? Naomi got off work five minutes ago. She'll be over within half an hour."
Part of me wanted to let him sink or swim on his own. After all, I was pretty sure he never called anyone for advice on how to patch things up when he forgot anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays when we were dating. But the fact he was even reaching out, to me of all people, meant he cared for Naomi deeply. Perhaps more deeply than he had for me.
The thought stung a little, but I brushed it aside. I'd found the perfect partner in Ranger, I reminded myself.
"You have any candles?"
"I have air freshener I use when Bob gets gas."
Yep. Perfect partner in Ranger. Best of luck, Naomi.
"Okay. You said you had half an hour. Order pizza and spring for some salad and those garlic knot things. Then run out and buy some candles, a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of champagne, and rent a couple DVDs from Redbox. That new Nicholas Sparks movie should be out."
On the other end, Morelli groaned.
"You want to stay out of the doghouse or not?" I countered before he could say a word. "Hopefully you can save your hairy ass with a nice romantic movie night. Set the table before she gets there. With real plates! Not paper. Put the flowers in a nice vase and scatter the candles around."
"My ass is not hairy."
"Not as I remember it."
Someone cleared their throat, and I jumped, blushing. Ranger leaned against the bathroom doorframe, dressed identically to last Valentine's Day in black dress pants and button-down shirt. He raised his eyebrows my way, amusement dancing behind his eyes.
"Look, Joe, I wish you luck, but I need to finish getting ready. The restaurant will give away our reservation."
"Where is Batman taking you?" he asked, just a hint of bitterness in his tone.
Morelli gagged. "Enjoy your snails and duck liver. I think I'll stick with pizza and a chick flick."
I rolled my eyes so hard I got dizzy. "Enjoy yourself, Joe. Naomi is a lucky gal."
"Thanks, Cupcake. Ranger's pretty damn lucky too."
The line clicked dead. I looked up, meeting Ranger's intense gaze.
"Gotta say, I agree with Morelli. I am pretty damn lucky." He stalked toward me, eyes raking across my black thong and matching black lace bra.
I danced out of his reach. "We're late already."
"I suddenly see the appeal of pizza and movies," he returned, eyes nearly black.
Slipping into the closet, I pulled the red lace Reem Acra dress from its hanger. Everything Ella purchased for the cruise was intermixed with my other clothes in Ranger's closet. I'd been stunned when I'd walked in and seen everything hung neatly, shoes lining the floor, and realized it was mine to keep.
Shimmying into the dress, I adjusted the hem, stepped into a pair of stilettos, and gave myself a once over in the floor length mirror. Ranger stepped into view behind me, his arm snaking around my waist. It took me back in time. With an odd sense of déjà vu, I realized my vision had all but become a reality.
"You okay, Babe?" Ranger's arm tightened around me. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
We weren't playing house anymore. This past year had been so effortless, so easy to fall into the rhythm of life with Ranger in it. Even though I'd never taken him up on the job offer, he never brought it up again. I knew the offer stood if I ever wanted to take it, but he allowed me to steer my own course.
It was something I didn't take for granted.
Glancing back at the mirror, the only thing preventing my vision from being complete were our hands. My ring was on the wrong finger, his totally bare. That, too, was an offer that sat in my court.
"I'm okay," I replied, heart beginning to race. I licked my lips. That future could be mine if I was brave enough to ask for it.
Ranger was the man God put on Earth to be my partner. Of that I was totally certain.
Before I could chicken out, I tugged the pearl ring off my right hand.
"Babe?" His eyes narrowed, face concerned.
I held the ring out to him. "I'm ready. Ask me."
His eyes immediately doubled in size when he caught my meaning. "Here, in our closet?" Amusement tinged his words.
"I can't guarantee I won't change my mind if you wait for somewhere more romantic."
"It would only take a day or two for me to get a proper ring."
"I like this ring," I returned hurriedly, heart beating in my ears.
Ranger's eyes roamed over me, sensing my rising panic. He took my trembling hands and pressed his lips to my knuckles. Then he sank to one knee, eyes never leaving mine. Anchoring me to him.
"Stephanie Plum, you are my world. You balance me in every way and make me a better man. Marry me?"
The words didn't make it past my tongue, but Ranger read the response on my lips. With a blinding grin, he slid the ring onto my left hand before rising. He pulled me into him, our lips melding together as my arms circled his neck. It was a few minutes later before either one of us remembered we had dinner reservations.
"Forget going out," Ranger whispered hoarsely into my ear. "We'll order pizza. And we'll eat it in bed, because that's where we'll be spending the rest of the night."
7 Months Later
Anyone who says it requires at least a year to plan a wedding has never met a Burg housewife on a mission. Add in one meddling Cuban mama and, voila, huge Catholic wedding in six months flat.
Mostly, I was elated to see my mother and Ranger's mother so deliriously happy. Both had apparently written us off as lost causes long ago, so news of our engagement had turned the two women into fast bosom buddies. Ranger and I allowed them to do most, if not nearly all, of the wedding planning. Because secretly, we knew it didn't matter.
We'd eloped two months after he proposed and had been living clandestinely as husband and wife since. It had eliminated all the stress. Though, neither of us had the heart to rain on our mothers' parades. So here I was, secluded in a room in the basement of St. Boniface, staring at my reflection in a sleek white lace gown with a train a mile long.
Behind me, Val struggled to get Mary Alice to stand still long enough to zip up her junior bridesmaid gown. Both she and Angie looked entirely too grown up in the modestly cut burnt orange dresses. Lisa, in her white flower girl dress, played happily in the corner. All her rose petals already spilled on the carpet around her.
"But I don't want to hold his arm," Angie whined to my mother. "Boys are icky."
I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Angie was none to pleased with being paired with one of Ranger's nephews in the procession.
"You will hold his arm like a proper young lady," my mother returned, clearly at her wit's end. "And smile so the photographer gets some good pictures." She rounded on Mary Alice next. "And remember, young ladies walk down the aisle, they do not trot, canter, or gallop."
Through the floor, the organist transitioned into Ave Maria. It was our signal to start lining up. My mother paled.
"Alright, everyone. Positions!" Ranger's oldest sister, Celia, took charge. She had his personality and the God-given ability to lead without question. "Just like we practiced last night." Grabbing the box from the florist, she started passing out bouquets and shoving women out the door. Between Ranger's four sisters, Lula, Mary Lou, my nieces, and Val as my matron of honor, my wedding party felt more like a three-ring circus.
Finally, the room was empty except for me and Celia. She handed me a beautiful white cascade bouquet. I gripped it, painfully aware of my ringless fingers. I'd decided to keep my pearl ring as my wedding band, but Ranger had requested that I let him make one alteration to it. It was an exercise in trust, as I'd come to love the simplicity and symbolism of the piece. And while today would not be our first day as man and wife, it would be the first time he slipped this new ring on my finger.
"How you holding up?" Celia asked.
I grinned. "I'm good."
Celia shook her head, a knowing smile crossing her lips. "When did you two actually tie the knot?"
I had the grace to at least blush. "April," I confessed in a whisper. "But please don't tell your mom or mine."
Celia pantomimed zipping her lips. "Wish I'd thought of that when I got married."
She leaned in to give me a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. Out of all Ranger's sisters, Celia and I had bonded the most.
"You look beautiful, by the way. Already married or not, you're going to knock my brother's socks off when he sees you."
We stepped out into the hallway and joined the line walking carefully up the steps. Celia darted forward to take her place near the front. Val scooped up my train and ensured I made it to the top of the stairs without incident.
My father waited at the top, beaming in his tuxedo. He gave me a hug and kiss as Val expertly spread my train out behind me.
"You're beautiful, sweetheart," he murmured, voice full of unexpected emotion.
It had been a rather awkward walk down the aisle with him at my first wedding. This time, it felt natural to take his proffered arm.
"I promise this is the last time I'll make you do this," I joked.
"I don't mind," he replied. "At least this time, I know I'm handing you off to a man who deserves you." He leaned toward me. "Don't tell your mother, but I was always rooting for Ranger. Damn good man."
I had no time to process my shock, because at that moment Val stepped around the corner and out of view on her way down the aisle. I was next. Two ushers shut the heavy wooden church doors, allowing me to shuffle into place unseen. The melody floating from inside switched to a fanfare, as the first strains of Wagner's Bridal Chorus rang out.
My father patted my hand reassuringly as the doors were thrown back open. I barely registered the pews filled with standing guests as I stepped forward in time with the music. My entire focus rested on the tuxedoed man standing just in front of the altar. Ranger's face glowed with his 200-watt smile, pure joy dancing behind his eyes as I neared.
"Gorgeous," Ranger mouthed as my father transferred my hands to his.
The priest began the ceremony, my mind paying only enough attention to reply when required. Otherwise, I lost myself in Ranger's eyes. Before I knew it, it was time for the rings. One of Ranger's nephews scurried forward with a satin pillow, and I sucked in a breath when I saw the change made to my ring.
Ranger scooped it up and followed the priest's prompts, sliding it onto my left ring finger with a soft, "With this ring, I thee wed."
The two pearls had become three. A new setting, bridging the gap between the white pearl and chocolate one, featured a large cream-colored pearl, the perfect blend of the original two. The symbolism was not lost on me, considering the reason there would only be sparkling grape juice in my champagne flute at the reception. I blinked back tears, moved beyond words.
After sliding an onyx titanium ring onto Ranger's finger, I poured every ounce of love into the kiss we shared. Pulling away, Ranger rested his forehead against mine as we shared a moment amid the cheers and hoots from our audience.
Hours later, as the reception wound down, Ranger and I finally found a moment to slip outside for some alone time. I caught him nod toward Tank, who closed the French doors behind us and took up a parade rest position in front of them.
Breathing in the cool September night air, I leaned against the railing of the deck that overlooked the large lake on the edge of the country club.
"How are you holding up?" Ranger asked, a hint of concern in his tone as he wrapped his arms around me.
"Exhausted, but that's to be expected, all things considered."
He nuzzled my neck. "We can go whenever you want. They'll keep partying without us." He lips skipped across my skin, following the neckline of the gown downward. "Besides, I can't have you too exhausted. I haven't had you all to myself yet."
The words ignited a warm fire in my belly. "In that case, what are we waiting for?"
I leaned back into him, kissing the side of his neck on the coattails of a contented sigh. His arms tightened around me, hands slipping over the lace until they rested on my still-flat abdomen. I covered them with my own.
"We're ticking the wants off your list rather quickly, Mr. Manoso."
The pregnancy had come as a complete surprise. The doctor had been unable to explain why my birth control had seemingly failed, other than to mumble the standard line about nothing being one-hundred-percent effective. Give it a few more months, and Ranger would get to feel those nudges.
"What about your wants, Mrs. Manoso? Am I meeting those?"
"Exceptionally well," I murmured, responding to the inuendo in his question. "That, in part, is how we find ourselves in this predicament," I teased.
A second passed. "You're truly happy, Steph?"
I spun, so that we were chest to chest. "Yes, of course! Scared shitless, but happy." We'd already discussed my trepidation about becoming a mother so soon.
Ranger chuckled. He stepped back and offered me his hand. "Remember when we cliff dived in Bermuda? I leaped with you then, Steph. This isn't any different."
I took his hand, and he twirled me into him, planting a sweet kiss on my lips.
"After seeing the wedding they put together, I'm a little concerned over what the baby shower will look like after we tell our mothers. Not to mention, they are going to do the math with the due date."
He grinned down at me. "We're in this new adventure together, Babe. Besides, what fun would life be if we didn't make a few waves?"
AN: Thank you to everyone who read or reviewed. Also, thank you to cornfedfiddler for her beta reading skills. You all should check out her Plum Sweet fic.
If you haven't already read them, I have two other complete HEA Babe fics: 'Hot and Bothered' and 'Blindsided.'
The pinterest page has been updated with what I envisioned as Steph's wedding dress. Sadly, I couldn't find a good picture of a three pearl ring that fit my mental picture, so you'll just have to use your imaginations on that.
No, there will not be a sequel to this fic. In fact, this may be my last fic. I recently signed a publication contract for an original romance novel I wrote, so that will be taking up much of my time. I hope to keep my fanfics posted, but will likely be in a legal gray area if I continue to write and post them. If you are interested in learning about my original romantic suspense novel, please visit my profile page for links to my website and social media pages. Thank you for reading!