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

Warning: Adult language, adult content, smut. This is written for mature audiences only. Mild spoilers from Look Alive Twenty-Five.

A/N: Happy Valentine's Day!

Chapter 2: June 23, 2017

I'm driving back from a summer class at Rutgers on Friday afternoon when I decide to take a detour to Point Pleasant. Along the way, I reflect on the difference a year makes. This time last year Ranger was helping me make sandwiches in a deli while smiling more than I've ever seen him. Unfortunately, it was at amusement with the train wreck called my life. I was the star in the soap opera that was a hopeless love triangle and a dead-end job.

Breaking up with Morelli was the beginning of a series of excellent decisions. I spent the next month studying non-stop for the GMAT, and I earned a 712, surprising even myself. Rutgers accepted me into their full-time MBA program with an emphasis on marketing. I'm thriving. It might be my determination to prove myself, but I've never had better grades, and I'm on track to graduate next year with honors.

When I told Vinnie that I would be scaling back my hours for undisclosed reasons, he was pissed, but I informed him I would continue to pick up my regulars and any cases higher than Lula could handle, but less than Rangeman typically picked up. It was a perfect balance, at least for me. Lula wasn't able to rise to the challenge of a full-time bounty hunter. In the end, she decided to go back to cosmetology school with plans to open a nail salon employing other former 'hos.

Right about that time, I ran into an old classmate of mine, Michael Rossi, who had recently returned home from a year-long National Guard tour in Afghanistan. We caught up over a pizza at Pino's, and I asked him what he planned to do now that he was home. Michael said the regimented military lifestyle was not for him, and for that reason, he didn't want to apply for a job at Rangeman and was afraid he'd have to move to find work. I told Michel about the opening at the Bonds office, and Vinnie gave him a shot.

Michael took to the job like chocolate frosting on a Boston Crème, and he only destroyed one car and got thrown into a trash pile twice before finding his stride. Even better, when Michael and I worked together, Vinnie was willing to pass along higher bonds that normally went to Rangeman. That meant that I was able to secure a year's worth of wages in three captures, which enabled me to focus on my studies and not flounder in debt.

I roll down the window as I get closer to Point Pleasant and let the salty late summer breeze fill the car. Outside of Ranger and Bulgari Green, it's my favorite smell in the world. I've continued to do the occasional distraction job for Rangeman, and I filled in for Rodriguez a few times doing searches, but otherwise, I have limited my interaction with Ranger. With me being a lot smarter about what FTAs I take on and having a qualified partner with me when I do, there's been a lot less professional need for our paths to intersect.

To make things worse, Ranger left on a six-month government contract over Christmas. I knew by the smell of Bulgari in the air that Ranger had visited my apartment while I slept both before he left and after he returned, but I'm not sure why he didn't want to see me conscious. He must know I broke up with Morelli; I think everyone in the tri-state area knows we broke up.

The gossip started slower than I expected, but when it didn't take Morelli long to move on, things got vicious. I felt like I relived the Dickie fallout all over again. It must be my fault, the busybodies whispered to each other because I can't keep a man happy if you know what I mean. I think it's because of her job; because of her cooking. Because she's getting too old to have kids, it went on and on. I roll my eyes at the memory. To my Mom's credit, she and my grandmother did their best to defend me, and I appreciate their continued love and support. The day it came out that Morelli was seen sneaking Joyce Barnhardt out of his house, my Mom brought a pineapple upside down cake to my apartment.

There's one big difference, however, from when I left Dickie and when I left Morelli. When I divorced Dickie, I made a fiery splash, but then I holed up to lick my wounds. This time, I refuse to let anyone keep me down. I've thrown myself into the Stephanie Plum improvement plan, and for the first time, I'm beginning to feel proud of who I am. My only regret is Ranger. I consider him to be my best friend, but when I broke up with Morelli, it seems one of the unintended consequences is that I broke up with him. After the love triangle, I did make a deliberate decision to avoid sex and relationships in general while I focused on myself, but I never thought there wouldn't be even an illicit alleyway kiss in all that time. I haven't had sex with anyone in a year. My showerhead has long since stopped scratching that itch.

I sigh and frown the more I think about Ranger and me. The distance between us is partially my fault. I know I'm a chicken, but until I have my ducks in a row, I'm a little afraid of putting myself out there. When Ranger ultimately rejects me, I don't want it to be because of any obvious reason why I'm not good enough for him.

On that note, I've also started regularly working out. I'm never going to be gung-ho about exercise, but I do enjoy consistently being able to button my jeans. I've taken advantage of the gym at Rutgers to try a few different classes, and I found I enjoyed Zumba and yoga. I even completed a self-defense course, and it forced me to realize that if I set my pride aside and sought this kind of training sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of pain and embarrassment the past couple of years. Having spent as much of my school breaks as a teenager at the beach as I could, I also developed an affinity for swimming. I'll never enjoy running, but Rutgers has a student pool that serves as a good cardio substitute.

I park and pull my gym bag out of the backseat to change into my swimsuit in the public restroom. I put my bag in the trunk, zip the car key in a special pocket in my bikini bottoms, and head down to the water for a swim. I've always felt that a pool is practical but that the ocean is magical. When I dive beneath the waves, I feel like a mermaid, if only for a second, and I break the surface feeling the slight tingle of magic.

Once I'm out far enough to be beyond the break, I begin my parallel path along the shore. I intend to swim about a half mile before turning around and returning on the same course. It's something I've done more times than I can count, and I'm proud of myself for gaining this competency.

I reach my turnaround point faster than I expected, and when I attempt to reverse direction, I realize with dread that I'm stuck in the longshore feeder current. Treading water to gather my bearings, I see I'm continuing to drift faster than I should be. I take a deep breath and reevaluate my situation. The most important thing is to conserve energy. I change strokes to the side stroke and force my muscles to relax. If I panic, I will drown.

I attempt to turn around, but I quickly realize I'm not a strong enough swimmer to go against the current. I decide to swim with the current to see if it decreases, and then I'll move towards the shore and walk back. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and through the shadows, I see the water ahead of me looks more turgid.

Suddenly, I feel myself change in direction as a rip current intersects my path, and I'm pulled further out to sea. My heart rate picks up as fear creeps into my mind for the first time. Stay calm, Stephanie, I coach myself. What would Ranger do? The current is strong, and I estimate I'm moving around three mph away from the shore. I have to conserve energy, and I can't panic. I recall the lifeguard safety instructions from summers when I was a kid. I need to paddle parallel to the shore, and eventually, I will break free of the current. I look around, reorient myself, and begin using a breaststroke.

As the sun begins to set, I feel my body temperature lowering from the prolonged exposure in the water. To hold back my fear and distract myself from my discomfort, I force myself to think of happy things. The first thing that pops in my brain is Ranger and the look he gave me when I asked him to come to the beach and hold hands with me.

Ranger's expression was wistful, at least for him. I think of how the toughest person I know could be gentle, loving, tender, and passionate. I think of Hawaii and the intense nights of lovemaking we shared. I think of his hands stroking my breasts whenever he plants a wire for a distraction job. I think of how he would sit in my room before he left to do what I can only conceive as an unimaginably difficult government contract. Ranger always found a way home, and he always found a way to save me. I'll be damned if today is the day I'm going to die.

With that focus, I begin to feel less drag, and I angle my stroke to see if I can break free of my undesired course through the water. With a hoot of relief, I'm able to begin closing the distance to the shore. Swimming back towards land and through the breakwater is exhausting work, and when I finally reach the shallows, I crawl onto the sand with shaking limbs. Even though I'm shivering from the cold water and muscle fatigue from keeping myself afloat, and I've never been so happy. I'm alive.

When I stand to begin walking back to my car, the moon has fully risen in a cloudless sky. The walk is long, and my bikini is dry when I reach my car. I opt to brush the sand off and pull my clothes over the suit versus getting wet all over again in the freezing public showers. I blast the heat as I turn towards home.

Reality sinks in during the drive, and I know that without the exercise regimen of the past year, I wouldn't have had enough stamina to survive today. I have a lot to be proud of even without a degree in hand. With that thought, I drive past my apartment and fob my way into the Rangeman garage.

I hesitate a second before getting out of my car. Me showing up in the dead of night is a bold move. What if Ranger has a girlfriend now? What if that's the reason there's been a distance between us? Hell, I don't even know if he is here or not, but the slight tingle on the back of my neck makes me think he is. I know Ranger will see me regardless of his relationship status, but he is an honorable man, and I trust that he would manage his affairs accordingly. Either way, tonight I will have an answer to some of the questions persisting in the back of my brain.

I give a two-finger wave at the security camera as I take the elevator to seven. Ranger meets me at the door, holding it open for me. I see the question in his eyes as he says, "Babe." The single word ignites a fire deep in my belly. I drop my purse on the floor next to the door as I push it closed behind me.

I match his gaze equally, and with a small smile, walk towards him. God, I've missed him. I put my hands on his shoulders and with a firm, but tender touch, run them down his arms until my hands are encircling his wrists. Ranger's back is against the wall. We both know he could easily break free, but his eyes smolder with interest and desire, and he chooses to let me take control. I press my body against his and with my lips millimeters away from his, look at him through hooded eyes and seductively say, "You told me once I could come over anytime I needed a shower or a bed." I blink once, lick my lips and encircle my lower lip in my teeth before continuing with a small grin. "Does the offer still stand?"

Ranger's eyes become impossibly darker, and he gives a single nod with his chin. When I feel him begin to move his arms, I shake my head no with a slight raise of my eyebrows before tightening my grip on his wrists and kissing him until I almost forget my name. As I kiss him, my breasts grind into his chest, and I spread my legs to either side of his so that I can feel his entrapped cock pulse against me.

I catch his eyes again, and I'm taken aback at the blatant need on his face. The blank face is gone, and I feel myself standing on the precipice of falling irrevocably in love. But it doesn't matter tonight, I tell myself. Tonight, I'm going to remind him and me what we have and why it's worth fighting for a chance.

I stand on my tiptoes and place my forehead against his for a brief moment while I catch my breath. I close my eyes as Ranger's body chemistry washes over me, and for a second it feels as though no time has passed at all. I give his luscious lips a quick kiss before kissing him in a slow path towards his ear where I capture the lobe in my mouth. I graze my teeth downward, and I feel him shiver slightly at the release. "Do you remember when you told me you would ruin me for all other men?" I whisper. I plant another kiss in the soft spot just behind the lobe. "Tonight, I'm going to ruin you for all other women."

"Babe," he groans, and I ruin my bikini bottoms.

"Don't move," I instruct as I release my hands and place them on his hips. I'm confident no one has ever told Ranger what to do during foreplay before, and I feel his muscles tense as he fights the urge to take control. It's empowering. I run a hand over the barely restrained bulge and moan in delight as I sink to my knees while pulling down the elastic band of his shorts.

All things Ranger are my go-to shower fantasies, but staring at him now, I know my fantasies have fallen short of the reality. With unbridled lust in my expression, I lick him from tip to base before encircling him with my mouth. Ranger groans, and closes his eyes while resting his head against the wall. I feel like a goddess on a mission to bring absolute pleasure. I hold nothing back, and soon I begin to feel his balls tense in my hands.

"Babe," he groans again, but this time with a hint of warning.

I pull my mouth off of the tip with a pop. "This is for your pleasure," I say, looking up with absolute confidence, continuing to pump Ranger's rock-hard penis with both hands before engulfing him again. Ranger loses his control, even if just for a few seconds, and I hear a guttural groan just before I feel the hot load hit the back of my throat. It's more than I expected, but I swallow it all.

A little of his offering seeped through the corner of my mouth, and with my index finger, I wipe it off before licking my finger clean, never breaking eye contact with Ranger. I stand and turn, beginning to walk towards the bathroom. After a step, I pull my shirt over my head, toss it over my shoulder towards a frozen Ranger, and with a slight smile said, "I think it's time for that shower."

With that, Ranger breaks his trance, and he follows my trail of garments. Ranger reaches inside the shower to adjust the water temperature but pauses before entering the steaming stall. He places a hand on either side of my face and kisses me so fiercely that every nerve ending in my body is afire. I give a slight shiver, and without breaking the kiss, he guides us into the shower. I halt in my backward walk when I hit the wall behind me. I begin to wrap a thigh around Rangers', and he deftly lifts me so that I can cross my legs around his waist. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly he recovers, and I reach down to angle him inside me in one move.

"Babe," he groans through our mouths, and my vision blurs as I become overwhelmed by the utter completeness of the moment. He fills me in a way no one else can come close to touching. I can't imagine this getting any better, and then he begins to rock his hips against mine. I'm so turned on even the small movement brings me to the edge of sheer ecstasy.

"Condom?" he manages, breaking the kiss

I bury my face in his hair. I threaded my arms under his armpits, and they wind up his back with my fingertips pressing desperately into his shoulder. "No. IUD. Trust. You," I reply in gasps, so overtaken by the intense array of sensations our connected bodies create that I seem to have lost my ability to form sentences.

Ranger begins to thrust harder, and that's all it takes for me to lose myself in an explosion of bliss. I throw my head back in abandon as my womanhood clenches around Ranger, and he grips my bottom with one final thrust before filling me, making our connection complete. It's the biggest feeling I've ever had, and my eyes water with the immensity of the moment as wave after wave of love, fulfillment, contentment, and passion wash over me. It's also the shortest sex we've ever had, and I know Ranger lost as much control as I did. It only increases my astonishment at the energy flowing between us.

I feel him lowering me to my feet, and I'm grateful when Ranger sets me on the shower bench. I have no faith in my legs, which are exhausted from the swim and the mother of all orgasms, being able to support me. Ranger sits next to me wraps his arms around me as I begin to lean against him. I take the minute to steady my breathing and enjoy the afterglow, but I'm nowhere near ready to be done. Just as I'm about to make my next move, Ranger whispers in my ear, "Stay, Babe, and let me take care of you."

I raise my eyes to him, and my breath catches at the tender expression on the usually impassive face. Ranger stands, detaches one of the shower heads, and begins to soak my hair. The nearness of the warm spray increases my relaxation to the point of near bonelessness. Then Ranger starts to massage my scalp, and my brain engages a split second before those magical fingers can turn me into complete mush. He's using my coconut shampoo. Why would he have that in here? I haven't used his shower in over a year.

I turn slightly to stare at him with my mouth hanging agape. "You still have my soap," I say stupidly, too astounded to form a more eloquent sentence.

Ranger looks at me with an intensity I can't remember seeing before. "Always, Babe. You are always welcome to use my bed or my shower, but I want you to know that you can always have me," he says. "I've missed you."

When I was least expecting it, has someday arrived? My heart swells with hope. "Me, too," I say quietly, fighting for my composure in this charged atmosphere. I break eye contact as soap runs into them, and Ranger gently rinses my head before continuing his massage of my scalp with the conditioner. He finishes with my scalp before taking the loofah and lights every inch of my skin on fire a millimeter at a time with his attentive ministrations.

I want to protest when Ranger withdraws his touch to rinse the remaining soap away, but then he says, "Patience, Babe. I need the bed for what I have in mind," before trailing a fingertip as lightly as possible along the water's pathway. He grazes it down my shoulder and to my arm before kissing the crook of my elbow. He continues across the crease of my hips, pausing to kiss my pubic bone, and finishes by drawing his finger up through my slit, sending an instant bolt of heat through me. I'm nearly panting with need as I take his offered hand and follow him into the bathroom.

The cooler air of the room is a sharp contrast to the warm shower, and the memories of the cold ocean water I narrowly escaped only a couple of hours ago jumps to the forefront of my mind. Oh Lord, I am so grateful I lived, that I managed to get myself out of the ocean, to have more days, and especially more nights, like this. I have my eyes closed as I compose myself against the swirl of emotions, and I let out a long sigh when Ranger wraps a warm towel around me from behind.

"Are you okay, Babe?" he says, and his attentive thoughtfulness touches me.

I lean back as he wraps his arms around me over the towel, and I rest my dripping head against his chest. With my eyes still closed, I murmur, "Mmm hmm." I take a deep breath, flutter my eyes open, and turn within his embrace. Looking at him directly, I feel the deep-set confidence of someone who knows she cheated death and is living with full knowledge of the value of the current moment, and say, "Make love to me, Ranger." A look of surprise followed by want and perhaps a small amount of uncertainty crosses his expression so fast I barely have time to register it. "Please," I whisper with my lips brushing his, and Ranger lifts me off my feet and carries me bridal-style to his bed.

He lays me gently on the duvet with my head on the pillow. He moves to the foot of the bed and begins kissing my body, starting with my toes and, using both his hands and mouth, begins a slow journey towards my waiting lips. He kisses around my thighs and pelvic area, but only grazes my most tender flesh, causing my back to arch upwards toward him with impatient craving. I feel his smile against my stomach. He remains longer at my breasts, and the flick of his tongue and a light bite of his teeth against my nipples has me dripping with desire and anticipation. By the time he reaches my mouth, I'm incapable of being aware of anything other than him and the effect he has on me.

As our lips connect, I realize that I feel adored. Carlos worshiped nearly every bit of my exposed flesh, and I feel a sense of intimacy bloom between us. I meet his kiss and throw every ounce of desire I have into it. As our tongues brush past each other in their dance of passion, I spread my legs and wrap my calves around his ankles as his penis provides some much-needed friction against my clit. I groan at the surge of pleasure the pressure brings, but as I begin to grind my hips against him, Ranger slides down my body. He places my legs over his shoulders before rolling his tongue against my womanhood. It is impossible to suppress the mewls of delight that escape me as I throw my head back against the pillow.

"It's your turn, Babe. Let go for me. I have a lot I want to do with you, so don't hold back," he instructs, and I do. I grip the duvet while squeezing my thighs together as stars explode in my vision, this orgasm bigger than the last. I writhe against the sheets, and before I've even begun to come down from the high, Ranger slides into me with one motion.

My eyes flash open, and gripping his biceps; I gasp out, "Yes! Yes, please, more." Ranger's expression is one of complete devotion, and our bodies move together in instantaneous harmony. We pull apart and press into each other with the express intention of increasing the other's pleasure and thereby find more of our own. I'm so lost in my focus on Ranger, that I don't immediately notice my building orgasm, but perhaps it never fully receded.

I'm not sure I can hold it back, but I don't want to take my attention away from Ranger. Further, I'm so enraptured with our union; I don't want it to end. I'm struggling to keep my gaze on his while my muscles tighten as I fight the mounting pressure, and I grip his back and bottom even more firmly as I grind my pelvis against his, driving him deeper inside of me.

Ranger moves his hands so that they are gently framing my face, and leans down to kiss me so sweetly that, while in complete contrast of the fervent energy between us, the kiss somehow only amplifies it. "Querida, te quiero," he says huskily before kissing the soft spot of my neck, and I cross the point of no return.

This orgasm is different from any I've ever had as it originates in my heart before cascading through my entire body. "Carlos," I nearly scream when I feel him reach his completion at the peak of my own. In the all-encompassing tsunami of emotions that carries me away in the perfect unity of Ranger's arms, I know that I have fallen head-over-heels in love.

"Say it again," Ranger says, his eyes glistening.

"Carlos," I say with devotion. "I love you, too." Tears of joy are streaming unchecked down my cheeks.

Carlos wipes the tears away with his thumbs before gently kissing me again. He captures me in his arms as he rolls off of me to lay down on the mattress. I curl into his side, and as sleep quickly overtakes me, I feel him kiss the top of my head.

A/N: I am feeling ALL of the love from your reviews to chapter one. You guys wrote nearly twice the number of comments as from the first chapter of Drive. Wow and thank you! I hope this chapter has given you even more to talk about. :) It was definitely a step outside my comfort zone to put this chapter together, and when I re-read it, I was glad I decided to be brave.

I also need to share the love with my awesome beta misty23y. She's a phenomenal writer, a wonderful person to bounce outline and story plot ideas off of, and I'm so glad she volunteered to help me with this project as well.

While working on Lift Off, my muse was hijacked by another short story entitled Warrior. It is many of the things I wanted to say in Drive, but I didn't have the skills or organization to do so. It is much different in tone and execution from what I have presented to you previously, and I'm excited to begin sharing it with you next week.