Standard issue disclaimer… not mine, not making any money, yadda yadda. Characters think, speak and act like adults… Don't read if easily offended
"Congratulations Stephanie," Ella smiled at her, gesturing toward the group of mostly silent men. "I've never seen them this quiet."
She grinned back, looking around. The men were quiet because they were sitting around the campfire, plates in their laps, eating with every sign of enjoyment. The cook had managed to cook up a storm of great food, and in such quantities that no waiting was required.
"Thank you. Guess things turned out pretty well."
"You got to be kiddin' me," Lester said from close by, gesturing for emphasis with a chicken leg in his hand. "Today was great."
"Yeah," Zero agreed, gnawing on a rib.
"…and the food's damn good!" Eddie added with his mouth full.
"Thanks," she said softly, feeling oddly awkward about accepting the compliments. She hadn't been fishing for that. It had been fun organising something for the guys, and she found it enough reward to see everybody have a great day.
Ella gave her a smile and went over to talk to the cook. Stephanie wandered to where Ranger was sitting with Tank and Tsuy.
"Hey Babe," he smiled up at her. His eyes said 'are you okay?'
She flopped down into the sand next to him, careful not to spill her drink.
"Hey. Food's okay?"
"Everything is great," Tank rumbled. "Stop worrying and enjoy."
"I'm not worrying."
"So stop jumping up and checking on everything," Ranger said.
She grinned and took a swig.
She leant against his side and then sat back up, very aware of how it would look to be seen acting intimate in front of the guys. They all knew that she and Ranger were together, but knowing it and seeing it were still different things. She agreed with Ranger that discretion was important.
A hand brushed her shoulder and then gently tugged her back, until she was leaning against his side. Apparently this kind of contact was okay. He was warm and solid where she leant against him, his voice revebrating in his chest as he talked to Tank about an upcoming assignment. His hand trailed along her shoulder before he broke the contact, illustrating a point to Tank. She smiled and re-focussed on Ram, who was telling an outrageous story from when he was in Singapore during his Navy time.
When everybody was sated the cook packed up her things, and Vince and Slick helped her load everything into her van. They'd been unusually helpful today, and she wondered if they were still worried that she'd let Ranger know about their nightly attempt to break in. She wasn't planning on it – they had gotten carried away with the insanity, and no harm was done. Plus, she didn't want to bring members of her team into trouble.
"So are we doing to play another game of Tugby?" Junior said when everybody was just sitting around the fire, talking.
Stephanie grimaced. She was up for a game, but not for that game. She glanced at Tsuy, who was leaning back against Tank's knees. They exchanged a look and a small shake of heads. No way.
"How about something we can all play?" Tank said.
"Skull rugby!" Roy grinned.
Tank gave a tiny shake of his head.
Stephanie grinned. Pom Pom was fun. It was a chase-and-tackle game, but more individual, and there were ways to make it less rough on yourself.
"Do you play with tagging or—"
"We pick people up. More fun that way," Bobby said.
"What kind of game?" Tsuy asked softly, sitting up.
"Someone's in the middle of the field, and the rest lines up on one side," Tank explained to her in a low voice. "Then on a signal they cross, and the one in the middle has to lift one of the crossers off the ground to get them on his side."
"British Bulldogs," Tsuy nodded. "Used to play that a lot."
Tank flashed a wide grin.
"What did you call this game again?" Stephanie asked as they were making their way back to the field.
"So who are the bulldogs?"
woman had been elected the first 'it'; Zero had laughingly suggested
that together they counted as one Rangeman.
We'll see about that.
"Um," Stephanie said. "No way can we lift any of these guys."
The goal of the men was to cross the 20 by 40 metre playing field that had been marked by traffic cones on the corners. Their own goal was to catch the men and 'convert' them to their side by lifting them off the ground.
"Lift? We just need to get them to loose touch of the ground for a moment, don't we?"
Stephanie took a hairband out of the pocket of
her lightweight zip-up hoodie and pulled her hair up in a ponytail.
Then she took her jacket off and tossed it aside. One of the men
wolf-whistled. She shot him an Italian salute.
"So how do we do that?"
The way she'd played the game before, you hung on to your victim and then lifted them up. Once they had one or two of the guys on their side that would work, but how would they get those?
Tsuy flashed a smile and took off her ballcap and shoes. She positioned herself next to Stephanie in the middle of the field. The women eyed the line of men facing them. All of them outweighing them. Most, outweighing the both of them put together. All of them grinning.
"By surprising the hell out of them. We didn't practise all those throws just for emergencies. So how about we start…"
"We're ready!" Stephanie called to Hawk a few minutes later. Hawk nodded and blew the whistle as a starting sign.
Some of the men took off at a run, others walked across, loudly telling each other they weren't worried. Stephanie went for Ranger, who was jogging across. When she had almost reached him, she suddenly veered off to the right, ending up directly in front of Woody. He moved to evade her but was too late. She managed a crude hip-throw, and he landed with a thud in the sand.
She heard cheering from the group of men now on the other side of the field and turned around. Tsuy was brushing sand off her clothes, as was Michael Scofield.
"…trying to avoid plowing into you," he was saying when Woody and she reached them.
"Hey Michael. Went flying?"
"It was interesting."
The four of them stood together in the middle of the field, discussing their tactic in low voices.
"They still don't think we can do this," Tsuy said. "Let's try to make use of that. Who is the big guy with the tattoage on his head?"
"Cal," Woody said. "You're going to go for him?"
"Might be a good idea to gather some muscle before we tackle the real challenges," Steph said, nodding at Tank, Bobby, Ram, Lester and Ranger. They stood slightly off to the side talking, all the while keeping an eye on them.
"Someone is going to figure out that if they drop to the ground, we'll have trouble lifting them," Tsuy said.
"Leave 'em," Stephanie said. "We can handle that when we have some more bodies."
They nodded to Hawk and the second run started. Tsuy and Woody went after Cal, and Stephanie and Michael tag-teamed Junior. It was a surprisingly easy cooperation, starting with Michael's speed driving the other man where he wanted him, and ending with Stephanie doing a perfect circle throw that earned her an eyebrow-rising from Ranger and an approving nod from Tsuy. She glowed with pleasure and pride.
Junior got to his feet with an unholy gleam in his eyes.
"Right! Now for the best part!" he looked over the playing field and barked a laugh. "Cal, I can't believe she got you!"
They once again gathered in the middle.
"Man, woman tacklin' me to the ground…" Cal sucked air between his teeth. "Don't happen a lot, ya know?"
With the extra two Merry Men on their side they caught another three guys in the next run, and very soon there were more people in the middle of the field than on the line.
"I vote we do the boss next," Lester grinned. He'd been tackled by Junior and Michael and unceremoniously lifted out of the sand with help from Cal and Woody.
"We ain't gonna get the boss," Junior shook his head. "Already tried."
"You just didn't do it right, man. Steph, come over here a moment?"
She leant closer, intrigued by the idea of getting Ranger. She certainly couldn't see how it could be done he was fast, and he was great at dodging any throw or tackle the guys had tried. Lester put his arm about her shoulders and leant in toward Junior, Vince and Cal.
"You notice how he and Tank have been sticking close? I bet if we…"
When the signal sounded a moment later, she ran straight into Ranger's path. The plan was to tempt him to pick being tackled by her over being tackled by the merry men. They would make for Tank, but back her up if Ranger managed to evade her.
Lester's idea worked and Ranger couldn't evade her completely, but the circle throw she'd intended became an ungainly tackle, sending the both of them into the soft sand. His feet hadn't left the ground, and he turned his fall into a controlled roll and was rising to his feet while she was still on her back in the sand. She cursed inwardly for not hanging on to him; now he'd get away.
"Hi boss!" someone said brightly, and the next moment Ranger was surrounded by at least ten rangemen. "So nice of you to stop by."
Junior offered her a hand to get up, and she joined the circle.
"So, shall we do this the easy way or the hard way?" Lester wondered aloud. Stephanie realised that if Ranger was intent on escaping, probably even ten guys couldn't contain him unless they were willing to risk a trip to the emergency room. The agreement was though, that once on the ground, the men wouldn't struggle. They didn't have to cooperate with being lifted, but they couldn't struggle.
Ranger looked around, seemed to come to the conclusion that cooperating or not, he would get off the ground, and shrugged. Cal and Vince grabbed him under an arm each, and Lester and Alvirez hooked an arm under Ranger's knees.
"One, two, three—"
A cheer went up and Ranger was back in the sand. She offered him a hand up and he gave her a brief, hard hug the moment he was on his feet.
"Right!" he grinned when he let go. He turned to look at Tank, and then did a gesture where he pointed at his own eyes and then at Tank.
Tank flashed a grin. Nobody had been able to even slow the big man down so far. Momentum combined with agility made him almost impossible to tackle.
Besides Tank still in the game were Ram, Bobby and Manny. Ranger started to organise some of the guys to take down Tank, and Stephanie shared a look with Tsuy.
"Let's leave 'em to that, huh?"
"They're nice guys, but when they're in pack like this they are a little scary."
"Hmm, a bit, I guess," Stephanie answered. Then she realised that that was how she'd felt about the guys at first. As a group, they had seemed like a steam roller without anyone at the wheel. Not malicious, but they could do a lot of damage. She didn't feel that way any longer.
Guess I've grown accustomed to them… and gotten to know
"I don't think 'pack' is the word though… how do you call a group of hyenas? A gaggle?"
They shared a grin.
"No, that's not it. Hmm. A herd of Rangemen? An avalanche of Rangemen?"
"A stampede of Rangemen?" Tsuy suggested.
Stephanie snorted laughter.
"That's it! Perfect. I'll have to—"
"HEY MAN, ANY TIME TODAY?" Bobby bellowed across the field.
Ranger's group broke up their strategy discussion and positioned themselves in the field.
"Shall we grab Loud Spice over there?" Tsuy said, flicking her eyes in Bobby's direction.
At that moment Hawk blew the whistle, and everybody started to run. Tsuy made a 'follow me' gesture as she headed for Bobby's path.
"What are you—"
She swerved off to the right to meet Bobby early on in the field, and then threw herself in his path, hoping to at least unbalance him enough for Tsuy to finish him off somehow. Bobby threw his weight to the left to avoid her, and a moment later she heard him curse loudly.
Stephanie picked up her head from its resting place in the sand and pushed herself to a sit. A couple of paces onward she found both Tsuy and Bobby down in the sand, Bobby's arms around Tsuy's waist. Stephanie lifted one eyebrow, and he grinned at her as he let go of Tsuy.
"Bloody hell," the smaller women summarised.
"Yeah. Ditto. Hell of a feint."
"Hell of a reaction," she said with a disbelieving shake of her head.
Behind them a sudden cheer went up, and they looked around to see Tank bodily hauled out of the sand and then dropped back into it. From the looks of it Ram had won the game, perhaps by sneaking across once everybody else was otherwise engaged.
"Right!" Bobby grinned, already on his feet and offering each of the women a hand to pull them up. "Let's go have a beer."
"I think I speak for everybody here—"
"Not for me!" Slick heckled.
Lester gave him a glare and continued,
"When I say that we had a great time today."
"I take that back!" Slick called.
"Yeah man, it was awesome!"
The circle broke into cheered agreements, nods, and wolf whistles.
Stephanie blushed. It was great that they'd all had fun, but it felt a little awkward to be addressed like this. Just seeing them enjoy the day had been enough.
"So hereby we wanted to ask—" he glanced at Ranger, who gave an infinitesimal nod, "—if you'd like to be next year's organiser."
"Yeah Steph, go on!"
"Promise we won't bug your house!"
"Just as long as it's not sensitivity training!"
She looked at Lester and nodded her assent, and the guys broke into cheering and chattering. Someone suggested this needed drinking on – as if an excuse were needed – and Slick tossed cans around the circle.
Frederick Rodriguez left for a moment, and returned with the big cooler they'd seen earlier.
"To celebrate today, I'd like to offer you this cooking experiment…"
He waited for the cries of mock horror to die down.
"THE HOTTIE!" Roy interrupted.
Rodriguez gave him a death glare. Stephanie knew that his daughter was 21, and strictly forbidden to get within 5 miles of any of the Rangemen. Frederick liked his colleagues, but he was fiercely protective of his daughter.
"My daughter gave me a book with ideas for jello shots. This seemed like a good excuse to do some experimenting."
"I love your daughter! I want to marry her!" Eddie called.
He received a look that plainly said 'over my cold, dead body' and grinned.
A tray went around the circle, and everybody took a plastic cup with a brightly coloured jello shot in it. Stephanie took the lid of off hers and smelt it.
"Mmm, blackberry and Triple Sec."
Ranger glanced at her with a disbelieving grin.
"I knew you can identify dessert by scent at twenty paces, but jello shots?"
"All thanks to my college education."
He shot her a smile.
"I have to hand it to you. You completely outmanoeuvred the guys."
She sighed and nestled closer against him.
He was silent for a while, staring at the fire.
"Yeah, me too," he admitted finally, grudgingly. "Didn't realise you were that good of an actress."
"I have many talents."
"One of them being strategy, it seems. That misdirected email to Ella was a nice twist."
Was he really indicating that it worked? She realised this was high praise from the master.
"I had some help."
"Yeah. Did you know?"
"I didn't suspect until a couple of days ago. She didn't seem the type…"
"She gave me Sun Tzu to read."
He laughed silently.
"Oh, before we forget," Tank said while everybody was trying a jello shot. "Steph, you won the book, hands down."
The guys cheered uproariously and applauded.
"We'll arrange things when we're back in the office, so everybody can pay up!" The noise died down abruptly. She grinned. Nobody was going to cheer at the idea of paying up, even though they would do it without complaint. Tank would make sure of that.
"And then… and then…this chick Aurora—"
Stephanie tuned in to the general conversation for a moment, having been talking to Michael and Hawk on the side. Roy was recounting the story with beer-induced openness. She found herself grinning widely as the tale unfolded. Roy and Zero had been suspicious of the 'Holistic Rebirthing centre' and had looked it up to make sure it wasn't some sort of cover.
"This chick Aurora said we could look around, but only if we dint disturb the lessons. And we ended up—" Roy dissolved into laughter. "—ended up—"
"What Roy is sayin' is that we crashed us a yoga class," Zero grinned. "And we had to join in."
"Whaddaya mean 'had to'?" Vince said. "She hold you at gunpoint?"
"Nah, the teacher chick was—" Roy made a few hand gestures that indicated a very large vase… or an extremely curvy woman. "Hot," he summarised.
"So we stayed, so Roy could ask her out," Zero finished, taking a long swig of his beer.
Stephanie couldn't contain her curiosity.
"And what did she say?"
"She don't date men she's never met before," Roy said. His tone was relaxed, and she wondered if he didn't care… or if he'd found a solution.
"So did you sign up?"
"I aint sayin'."
"There's no need!" Zero laughed.
Stephanie smiled, wondering if the yoga teacher had counted on this possibility. Probably not.
"I'd pay good money for photos of Roy in yoga class," she whispered to Ranger. Roy was a big guy, with shoulder-length blonde hair and a beard. A Viking type. She could only imagine what the yoga class had thought when he came in.
Ranger flashed a wide smile.
"Zero might be open to an offer."
"Babe, you look tired," Ranger put an arm around her and dropped a kiss on her head.
"That's because I am," she smiled. "It's been a long day - for you too."
It was nearing 2 AM and the fire was burning low. The party had calmed down. Ella and Luis had left around midnight, and some of the guys had decided that a nightly swim was just the thing. After they'd come back Hal had brought out a guitar to play for a while, softly in the background. Stephanie had been surprised to find he played very well – not just popular songs, but classical pieces as well.
Now most of the guys were sitting in smaller groups, talking softly. Vince, Alvirez and Slick had flopped down into the sand and Vince was snoring rather loudly, but most of the others seemed mostly sober. She'd been half worried that it would end up with everybody drunk, but apparently the rangemen knew how to keep a party pleasant. Maybe they reserved the wilder partying for when their boss was not around.
She hunched down next to Tsuy, who was leaning against Tank's drawn-up knees and listening to what he and Bobby were discussing.
"Hey, I'm going to bed in a little while."
"I could sleep," Tsuy admitted. "Where is our tent?"
"Hey, why don't you girls sleep outside?" Bobby said.
"Gonna be a nice night," Tank filled in. "Most of us are going to crash around the fire."
Stephanie looked at Tsuy and saw the indecision.
"Shall we get your stuff from the car first?" she offered. Her friend nodded and stood up.
"If you don't want to do it, that's okay," Stephanie said when they were out of earshot. "I don't mind either way."
"I want to," Tsuy said. "But it's not entirely… proper."
"Which part? Sleeping together with a bunch of people, or sleeping together with Tank?"
"The last," Tsuy said as she unlocked the Landrover.
"You're both in sleeping bags, and you have at least a dozen chaperones," she countered.
"You're corrupting me," Tsuy sighed after a long moment. Stephanie laughed because it was the exact same tone she had used with Ranger at some point.
"You're going out with Tank, and I am corrupting you?"
"Actually I suspect Thomas is doing his level best not to corrupt me," she smiled in the dark.
"So now what?"
"I'll do it."
"You sure? I didn't mean to push you…"
Around the fire the circle had broken up, and some of the guys were moving mats and sleeping bags out of the tents and to a wide circle around the fireplace. Hawk was preparing the fire for the night.
They moved their things to the circle as well and then went into the tipi to change.
"Hope you don't mind doing this in the dark… I noticed that with the light on, this tent is like one of those shadow-puppet theatres."
When they came back outside, most of the men were already changed. She wondered about the complete lack of comments on the changing session – normally that would have been good for a few suggestive jokes and a bit of ribbing. Maybe the guys were on their best manners. Or maybe Ranger or Tank had given them a talking to about appropriate behaviour.
Maybe that sensitivity training wasn't needed after all. In any case she was glad, not for herself but for Tsuy.
Ranger had arranged the four mats next to each other; he left, then Stephanie, then Tsuy, and then Tank on the right outside. Their heads would be a couple of metres from the fire, close enough to still feel the warmth.
Most of the guys were settling in, and someone had put zipped-open sleeping bags over the guys who had fallen asleep in the sand., They had put their mats next to them, so they could roll onto them if they woke up cold. She smiled – they took care of each other.
She settled into her sleeping bag and listened as the camp gradually grew silent. Someone was having a whispered conversation off to her right, but the words disappeared against the background sound of the sea. Tank and Tsuy were silent, facing each other with their hands intertwined.
"Babe," Ranger said. His voice was so soft and low that it made her shiver. She turned toward him and found his lips for a long, leisurely kiss.
"Mmm," he murmured when the kiss ran its course.
"This is nice," she whispered. "The stars are so bright…"
He pulled her close in the crook of his arm, so they could both look up. They watched silently for a while, and Stephanie could feel herself drift off, so comfortable that it was hard to believe she wasn't in a bed. Her limbs were pleasantly tired from the day, but sharing this with Ranger was so wonderful that she wasn't willing to let herself fall asleep yet.
"Sleep, babe," he whispered in her ear, no breath behind the words. "Sleep."
She muddled toward consciousness, wondering what was going on.
"Wake up, Babe," Ranger whispered in her ear in that deliciously low tone.
"I'm awake," she whispered back. Mostly.
"Come on, get up."
She stifled a groan.
"Why? It's early…" At least she assumed so, with the air cold on her face, and the camp still silent.
"Just do it."
She opened her eyes and found it was still dark, though the sky was lightening toward the East. Ranger had put on sweatpants and a T-shirt, and was holding his sweatshirt out to her.
To her surprise she felt rested despite the few hours of sleep. Maybe it was something about the sea air. In any case, now that she'd blinked away the cobwebs of sleep she was quite happy to find out what Ranger was up to. She crawled out of her sleeping bag and put on his too-big black sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants.
As they snuck past she looked at Tsuy and Tank. The big man was on his back, the sleeping bag down about his abdomen. Despite the chill morning air he didn't seem cold in his thin T-shirt. Tsuy on the other hand was burrowed into her sleeping bag, with only her face and a few wisps of hair visible. She laid on her side in the crook of Tank's arm, head pillowed on his shoulder. Stephanie and Ranger shared a smile at the sight.
When she glanced back, Tank's eyes were open. He looked at Ranger, perhaps wondering what was going on. Ranger shook his head and made an OK sign, and understanding that there was nothing wrong, Tank closed his eyes again.
"Nice to see them getting along," Stephanie said idly when they were out of earshot. Ranger led her off to the right, slightly toward the surf. "You're not going to make me run, right?"
He turned to her with a blinding smile.
"Oh good. So what…?"
He found a ledge near the top of a dune that seemed to satisfy him, and spread out a blanket to sit on. It offered a wide view of the sea and the sky, which was growing paler in the East.
He doesn't plan to…
"Not that," he grinned at her, pulling her down to sit next to him. "We'll save that for a time and place more private."
She blushed because he'd guessed her thoughts… again.
"I made myself wake up in time, and it's such a nice morning… I wanted to share this with you," he finished under his breath.
She leant in to kiss his temple, stomach light with happiness. This felt real, being here with him. He hadn't done it because it was a romantic thing to do – he had done it because it mattered to him and he wanted to share it with her.
I love you.
She didn't say the words because she didn't want him to feel pressured to say them, so she settled for;
He curled his arm around her and pulled her in for a slow, gentle kiss.
The sky turned a hazy orange, and she leaned against Ranger, feeling so happy that her heart felt like bursting. This was like something from a romance novel.
"This is really cliché."
"The sunrise, sitting here with you. All that's missing is that you're called Harald or perhaps Rudolf and have your shirt open too far. And me swooning."
A grin broke through on his face.
"If you want to wear a bodice I'd be happy to rip it open for you."
"I'll keep that in mind," she grinned. "Are you telling me you know the stories I'm talking about?"
"Broke into my sister's stash one day to find out what the fuss was about. You used to read 'em?"
"I bought one when I was fourteen and read it secretly, because they were 'dirty books'." They both laughed. "Then grandma walked in and we giggled about it together. It was so silly."
He shifted so he was sitting behind her, legs outside of hers. She sighed in happiness and leaned back against his chest. He put his arms around her and drew her close against him, resting his chin on the top of her head.
"So what about the future?" he said after a couple of minutes of comfortable silence. She shrugged slightly. What was he asking? It seemed an idle question, as if he wanted to discuss something with her but didn't quite know how to bring it up.
"I don't know. You planning to disappear?"
"Call me when you're away?"
He was silent for a while, and she just waited. They hadn't discussed it before, but it still bothered her. She wasn't desperate for a phone call if she knew he was okay, but if he promised then he had to deliver.
"I did intend to call, Babe."
He was silent again, and she waited him out.
"It was getting serious, babe. That last weekend with you…"
She remembered him sleeping on her couch while she watched films. It had been comfortable and intimate. She'd felt like she was with the person, not the persona. With Carlos.
"…I wasn't sure if I could handle it. So I tried to create some distance."
He let out a long sigh.
"Then I felt worse because I risked losing you."
"And then you came back and I was in your bed?"
He chuckled at the memory.
"Pretty much. You made it easy for me."
"I know." It had been selfish, in a way. By going to his apartment she had spared herself the worry and wait about whether or not he would contact her on his return.
"I'm sorry, Babe. Yes, I'll call when I can."
"Good." She punctuated with a kiss. "That's all I need to know about the future."
"There are a few more things…"
Another time those words might have filled her with dread, but she was in his arms, and his eyes were warm. There was no bad-news vibe; not even a closed-off vibe.
"Like your job."
"What's with it?"
"Rangeday is in for a reorganisation, so I hope you're up for a change."
"What kind of reorganisation?"
"Anyone can run the basic searches, so routine research is going back to whoever is handling the case. They will be backed up by a pool of research experts for the harder cases."
She nodded. It made sense to let everybody type in their own searches and print off the results. But what did that leave for her to do?
"I'm going to move you off routine research, and onto a new project Tank is going to set up. It'll involve a lot of field-research, and it's a completely new avenue for Rangeman, so you guys will have to make the path as you go."
"That sounds interesting," she said. A lot more challenging than typing in search requests, that was for sure. "What will we be doing?"
"Acquiring information for outside parties. Boston PD is interested in using our skills, and they're not the only one."
"Don't cops have their own research network?"
He kissed her behind the ear.
"They do, but it turns up different things from ours. People don't like talking to cops. They like talking to you. People tell you stuff."
She stifled a giggle. It was true – just usually they didn't tell her the important stuff.
"I'd have to work in Boston?"
"I'm starting with one department for this project, so if an assignment took you there, yes, at least at first. If there's enough market for it, Boston will set up its own department."
"Cool. Business trips."
"What about Tank? People like to tell him stuff, as well?"
"Tank is very good at acquiring information. And people will tell you stuff because they think the alternative to talking to you, is talking to him," Ranger said.
"Works for me."
"You'll be doing that for about 60 percent of your time, and the remaining time will be some general fieldwork, research backup, training courses, and the odd take-down."
She half-turned, so she could kiss him. She'd never told him how the days in the office got to her, but he'd clearly been aware of it. Now it was possible, he'd given her something that would take her out of the office – and from the sounds of it, without much risk of being shot at.
"I like it. I'll really be pulling my weight in the company…"
His eyebrows rose.
"You haven't so far?"
"I have… but… you know."
A shake of his head said that he didn't.
"Sometimes I felt like the only reason I was working there was that you didn't like seeing me chase criminals for Vinnie."
"You've never been my charity project, Babe." He pressed a kiss just under her ear. "You needed a job off the streets, and I had something at the time."
She nodded. It was true that at the time, she certainly hadn't been up to taking down FTAs. She was grateful that he'd known what she needed, when she hadn't even really known it herself.
They were silent for a while, watching the rim of the sun rise over the horizon.
"Is that why you didn't want me to buy you a car?" Ranger asked softly.
She startled to attention. So he hadn't forgotten about that.
"Err… partly. I wasn't…" she trailed off. I wasn't sure how to ask you if they were stolen. Sure, that's a great way to put it.
"I wasn't—I didn't know if it would be the kind of car I shouldn't ask questions about."
He let out a sigh, and she felt him shake his head.
She wanted to tell him that it didn't matter, but she would have been lying. It did matter.
"I'd never give you a car that could get you into trouble." He hugged her tighter to him. "I never have."
She smiled a little sadly, because she was going to have to pry her unspoken questions out of him. How did you ask a guy if he was involved in anything illegal? It was hard enough to accept the danger that his line of work placed him into. She didn't want to have to worry about police investigations and jail time as well.
"So where do the cars come from? I hate to pry, but if we're talking about a future…"
He chuckled softly.
"I have had some grey cars in the past, but as of the last two years, everything is clean. I have a deal with an old friend. I secure his car business and he supplies me with vehicles at cost price."
"As for the rest of the business… same story. I've been cleaning up."
She nodded, satisfied with that.
"So how do you see the future?" she asked after a long moment. She realised that so far he'd only wanted to know about her ideas, without telling her his own.
"Be with you," he whispered in her ear.
She rolled her eyes.
"That's it, Babe. I just want you in my life; for a long time, as much as possible."
"Oh." Did that mean he'd changed--
"Does the no-marriage clause still stand?" she said before she could stop herself. She felt his body tense. Great going, Steph. Why don't you just tell him you want a ring?
"Yes, he said finally. His arms tightened around her and she realised that she was holding her breath. Tears burned in the back of her throat. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Here she was thinking things had changed, that he wanted to share his life with her, and meanwhile he—
"No marriage does not mean no commitment, Babe."
"If you're okay with commitment, why don't you want to marry?"
"I was married once. So were you. Did it give you any guarantee that things would last?"
She shrugged her tense shoulders, needing some space, not really wanting to hear his reasoning. Trying not to care. She'd always held hope that if he really loved her, really wanted to be with her, he'd change his mind.
"Not guarantee, but—" But what? If she was brutally honest with herself, a guarantee was exactly what she wanted. She wanted him to promise, in front of witnesses, that he'd stay with her for the rest of their lives.
"—you're not Dickie," she finished lamely.
"I'm not," he agreed, pulling her closer against his chest. "And I'll never treat you that way. I love you, and I want you in my life."
"I don't understand," she sighed. "How can you say all that and not want to marry?"
"I don't believe it's good for a relationship to tie each other down. People get lazy, because the other can't just leave."
And he wanted to reserve the right to just up and leave one day? The thought upset her, but then she thought of the marriages she knew that had gone wrong. Being married didn't stop people from leaving anyway.
"What are you saying?"
His lips were trailing along her neck, feathery kisses that made her shiver. Very distracting. Her near-tears were fading. He'd just said he loved her. Whatever else the future held might need some more negotiating, but she knew the important part when she heard it.
"I'm saying…" he whispered in her ear, "…that I want to make each day I'm with you so good that there'll always be another day."
She had a small revelation, and smiled. It might not be the proposal and the ring she had been brought up to want, but in his own way he promised her his world. Her spine relaxed, and she leaned into him.
Her mother would have a fit, but Stephanie didn't need to be safely married off to someone who would take care of her. She wasn't a cow, after all. She didn't have to barter with the milk.
"Will you come live with me?"
She half-turned in the sand to catch his lips, stilling him for a long moment. When the kiss had come to an end she smiled at him.
"Where would we live?"
He thought about that for a moment.
"The cabin isn't really suited to long-term occupation, but the apartment—"
"Is wonderful, but it's not really a home," she said softly.
He tilted his head a little, conceding her the point.
"What makes a home to you?"
"Doesn't have to be big. It has personal stuff, photos, books… furniture we've picked up over time. Real stuff, nothing designer-bought. A big dinner table so we can invite friends over…"
He was nodding along.
"We can buy a house."
Her face must have reflected her sudden panic,
because he hugged her closer and said;
"I don't mean right now. When we feel ready."
"Okay. Can we get a dog then?"
"No kids." She looked at him to see if he was okay with that, and he just smiled.
"Works for me. I hope to see more of Julie."
"I'd like that. She's a wonderful girl."
Relief washed over her at the lack of drama. The last few months she was with him, Joe had grown more and more eager for a bunch of little Morelli's around the house. He had said he was ready - and she had felt suffocated. She'd always assumed she'd want that someday. All women wanted children, right? At some point the thought would stop making her stomach feel squishy, and she'd hear a baby cry and instead of cringe at the noise, would want one for herself. Right?
Mary Lou had taken it as a sign that Joe wasn't the right man, but the thought of children with Ranger did the same. The conclusion was finally clear. She'd waited for years for the motherly urges to appear, but they hadn't, and it became easier and easier to admit that she wasn't sorry.
"What kind of dog do you want?"
"I don't know, maybe a Chihuahua?"
The two seconds he stared at her in complete shock were truly film-worthy. Then she burst into laughter, body convulsing with the force of it.
"You—your face," she hiccoughed, laughing uncontrollably.
He pressed close and growled.
She yelped as he started to tickle her, and pushed off in the sand to get away from him. That made her re-discover that they were on a dune, and she grabbed at the sand to stop herself from sliding down on her stomach. Tears of laughter didn't make it any easier.
Ranger loomed over her on hands and knees.
"I'll agree to a German Shepherd," he tempted in a sexy voice.
"A Shitzu?" she counter-offered, still laughing.
The next moment he pounced, and they went tumbling down the dune together, over and over.
The loose, soft sand, warm on the surface
The sound of their mingled laughter
His hand clamped on her upper arm, warm and firm
Rays of the early morning sun lighting up his laughing face
His dark, sparkling eyes so close
The scent of salt on the air
The weight of his body against her, shaking with laughter
They rolled to a halt at the foot of the dune, and Ranger rolled his weight off of her, bringing them side to side, facing each other.
She'd been about to say something, but the words died on her lips when his eyes grew serious. His hand came up, fingertips tracing her face so tenderly. His eyes were entrancing, and for once she had no trouble understanding what emotion was behind his look.
Yes, it will be.
I want to thank my attorney, my agent, my make-up artist, and, and, and ;-) Ehle, Nathalie and Robin for their input on various parts of this story, and the faithful readers at the plumfanfic lists. Thanks for your support!