Change

"The best steel is forged through the hottest fire."


I was covered in unidentifiable food stuffs, my hair and sleeves were singed, and I was in an all around bad mood. But I'd gotten the skip, and that was what mattered. At least to me. When I walked into the station with her, it was a different matter.

People immediately started turning away and chuckling into their hands, and some blatantly laughed and guffawed to my face. I just stood there for a minute, taking it all in. Then I silently walked the skip over to the docket lieutenant, produced my authorization, and handed the troublemaker over. While I was waiting for my receipt, I took the time to look at all the people still watching me, laughing at me and my life. More had come down; they'd probably heard I was down here and wanted to see what I'd gotten into this time. Bastards, every last one of them.

I spotted Carl, and Eddie, and Big Dog in the corner, chuckling to themselves, and Joe walked over to join them. They hadn't been here when I'd first come in, and weren't making their way over to talk to me. That meant they'd come down to see the spectacle that is Stephanie Plum. Probably they didn't want to be seen with me in front of their cop buddies, probably it was too embarrassing to be associated with me in a personal manner. I felt a part of me deep inside break.

The docket lieutenant was finally done with the paper work, and handed over my receipt. I took it, glanced around the room one more time, and left.

I took the time to go home to shower and change before doing anything. There was nothing I could do about my singed hair without going to the salon, so I just pulled it back in a ponytail. I debated with myself about going to my parents' house now or later, and decided to just bite the bullet, so to speak. And maybe I could tell my mother my side before she heard about it from one of the neighbors. With that in mind, I pulled on a nice pair of slacks and a button up blouse. At least that way, she couldn't criticize my clothes.

Pulling up to their house, I looked to the door and sure enough, both my mother and Grandma Mazur were standing at the door, waiting for me. One of these days, I was gonna figure out how they always knew I was here, and how they had enough time to get to the front door like that, and how they managed to always stand in the same, exact position, with the same, exact expression – a doleful glare from my mother, an gleefully unholy grin from my grandmother.

It started as soon as the door shut behind me. That part of me that had always wanted my family to care about me and love me more than they worried about the gossip mill finally got one bruise too many.

Walking into the office, conversation immediately stopped. Connie and Lula practically jumped on me. It was the same thing that happened when I dropped by Mary Lou's.

"Girl, we just heard you was covered in maple syrup and flour! Why'd you have to go an' change? I was looking forward to seein' you covered in that shit." Lula was pretty upset.

"Hey, don't complain," Connie told her as she looked me over. "At least she didn't track anything in, though the day's still young. But it would have been great to see you like that."

Wow. What had happened to hello, I wondered. Greeting somebody, running through the general pleasantries? And these were my friends? They hadn't even made sure I was alright before starting in on me – hadn't even noticed the limp I'd gotten from pulling a muscle in my leg this afternoon. Another part deep inside of me shattered beyond hope at my realization that they really didn't care about me past my gossip potential. Any of them, Mary Lou, Connie, or Lula.

I handed Connie the receipt without a word, and was saved from further inquiry as Ranger and Vinnie came out of the inner office.

Ranger nodded at Connie and Lula, and looked me up and down. It didn't feel sexual, more like he was checking for injuries. If he noticed anything, he didn't voice it.

"Babe, you busy?" he asked.

I just shook my head. I really didn't think I was up to speaking just yet.

"Be waiting for you outside."

I nodded this time. Ranger nodded at the girls again and left. He'd said more words than I had. Beating Ranger at the silence game. Amazing. Had to be a first.

"Jesus, Stephanie." Vinnie looked at me with a sneer on his face. "Can't you just once bring a skip in without making a fool out of yourself? Really, it's not that hard of a job." And he went into his office, slamming the door and throwing the deadbolt. I'd thought that so long as I kept bringing the skips in, he wouldn't complain. So long as he kept making money, right? Apparently not so.

"Oh my God! What's going on with you and Ranger? Da-yam. I'd jump his bones in a New York minute. Why you such a dumb ass? I sure liked you better whey you was getting some. That man is so hot! Why ain't you in his bed yet?"

The girls were pretty much one entity. As soon as one was finished with a sentence, the other would start. Never interrupting the other, never pausing, just one seamless, flowing, stream of questions and accusations. All of them having to do with my sex life, or lack thereof. All of them demeaning and derogatory.

Then Mary Lou called the office, wanting to make sure she had all the details. I listened to them talking about me for a few minutes, completely ignoring me. Then I took my check from Connie's desk, and walked out the door. I think they would have followed, but seeing Ranger standing against his Bronco probably kept them at bay.

Ranger had just opened the passenger side door and motioned me in. Shutting the door behind me, he got in on his side, saying that he wanted privacy. I supposed it made sense. After all, the windows were tinted to within an inch of their lives, and the car was sound proofed, I was sure.

"Heard you had some trouble with a skip today."

I nodded.

"You alright?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"I noticed you limping."

I nodded again.

"You get it looked at?"

"Just pulled something."

"Take it easy a couple of days. Light stretching, nothing else. Only skips like Eula. Should be ok."

"Kay."

He looked at me for a minute.

"Other than the leg, are you ok?"

Ranger would notice, wouldn't he. Just like he'd noticed my limp when I hadn't had to walk more than a yard or two to get to him.

I shook my head. He raised an eyebrow.

"You know, you keep it up and you're gonna give me a Chatty Patty rep," he told me.

It was the most unexpected thing. I just started laughing, and I couldn't stop. And then I was crying, and I couldn't stop that, either.

Ranger pushed the lever that made his seat go back before unbuckling my seatbelt and pulling me to him. He cradled me to his chest, holding me and rubbing my back while I sobbed into his neck over all the parts of me that were broken.

All I could do was hold her while she spent her tears. I had been watching her for some time now, waiting for something like this to happen. I could feel how she had been slowly shutting down; listening and believing all the negative things her family and supposed friends kept telling her. I knew that she was close to the breaking point, but there was nothing I could do. Not until she'd come to me, or let me help. If I'd forced the issue, or tried to do something before now, it probably would have done more harm than good. Even now, there wasn't much I could do, except hold her and comfort her. So I did.

Eventually, her tears subsided, and her breathing calmed. After a while, I realized that she was asleep, still holding onto me like a life preserver. Looking at her tear-stained face, I made a decision. I shifted Steph back to the passenger seat and pulled out of Vinnie's lot. In the rearview mirror, I saw Connie and Lula with their noses pressed to the glass and was glad the windows in the BMW were blacked out.

Pulling out my phone, I called Tank and told him to clear my schedule until further notice.

"You're in charge," I told him. "Do what you think is best."

"Sure, boss. Anything else?"

"I'm not available. To anyone, you included. Call only in case of a dire emergency. Dire, Tank. Dire emergencies only."

I pulled into my driveway and parked, carrying Steph inside. I brought her upstairs to my bedroom and lay her in my bed. Then I got out my suitcase and started packing. It only took me fifteen minutes to get everything together and out to the car, Steph included. I suppose I could have left her in the car, but I wanted to keep her with me. I didn't want to chance her waking up alone. I took a minute to switch cars, too. The BMW wouldn't hold everything and the Hummer was better for the terrain we would be driving through.

I whistled for Georgie and she came running. Georgie's a purebred Belgian Tervuren, and the smartest dog I've ever met. She was very protective, though, and didn't like anybody around me. She'd been known to nip Tank's hand and drag him away to what she felt was a safe distance. The guys had had a big laugh about it until she'd done the same to them when they'd gotten too close.

"In," I told her, pointing to the back of the Hummer. She wagged her tail a little and jumped in.

"Good girl," I said, scratching her head.

Then the three of us made our way over to her apartment. I repeated the process, bringing Steph in and putting her to bed before starting to pack. Georgie whined a bit about being left in the car, but I shushed her and went up to the apartment. I was a little surprised that Steph was sleeping so much, but I guess I shouldn't have been. Before her…episode, she had looked exhausted, like the people and the day had just taken everything out of her, and it was only sheer force of will that kept her going.

I paused in her bathroom, unsure of what Steph would need, before deciding to just sweep everything in a bag and be done with it. Five minutes later, we were on our way.

Somewhere near the Pennsylvania border, Steph stirred a little.

"Ranger?" she asked, eyes still closed.

"Shh, I'm here, babe. It's ok, just go back to sleep," I told her.

"Mmm-kay."

A few seconds later, she spoke up again.

"Mm cold, Ranger."

I pulled off the road for a minute to take off my jacket and drape it over her.

"Better?" I asked.

"Mmm. Smells safe," she said. I sat there for a minute, looking at her and wondering how something could smell safe. Then I let Georgie out to stretch for a few minutes before getting back on the interstate.

I stopped for the night in a small town near the West Virginia border. There was only one hotel and one restaurant, both owned by the same family. I stopped at the restaurant and got two orders to go before checking us into the hotel. The hotel was nothing special, just a one-story rectangular building with the doors on the outside. Normally, there wouldn't have been a problem getting any number of rooms, but there was apparently a family reunion going on and so there was only one available room. Paying with cash, I took the key and went back out to Steph.

Driving over to park by the room, Steph woke up again.

"Hungry, babe?" I asked. She shook her head no. I held back a sigh and handed her the room key.

"Go on in, babe. I'll be there in a minute." She slid my jacket on, took the proffered key and went into the room, leaving the door cracked. I quickly opened the back for Georgie to get out, grabbed the food and the bags from the back seat, and followed. Walking in, I saw there was only one bed. Well, I thought, it wouldn't be the first time we'd shared a bed. Though it was a lot more fun the last time.

"Eat," I told her, giving her the take-out I'd ordered for her. She took it and began to eat the food in silence. I couldn't tell if she was angry or what, but I knew she wasn't back to normal. Not that I'd expected her to be so soon.

"Where are we?" she finally asked.

"Hotel," I answered. She looked at me for a minute, thinking about it.

"Ok," she said. Then she saw Georgie. I'd been wondering how they'd react to each other. So far, Georgie had been very good. She hadn't barked or growled at Steph or tried to get her out of the room.

"What's her name?" Steph asked with a smile. It was the first smile I'd seen on her since we'd left.

"Georgie," I said. The dog and the woman both looked at me.

"That's nice," Steph said. She slid down to the floor, patting her hand next to her and calling Georgie.

"Babe, she's a little…" I started. Then I saw Georgie sniffing her way over to Steph and finally sit in front of her, head cocked to one side. Stephanie put her hand out for Georgie to smell, and then Georgie lay down in front of her. I finished my thought, "She's a little protective."

Stephanie started stroking her back and scratching her head. Alright. I got up and poured some dog food and water for Georgie and laid it in the corner.

"Georgie, food," I said. "We should get ready for bed now, Steph." She blinked and nodded, looking at me like I had all the answers in the world. I gave her the only answer I had. I pointed her to her suitcase. She complied easily, without saying a word, and I got even more worried. Georgie just got up and ate.

I quickly stripped down to my boxers and grabbed my shaving kit. I glanced back at Steph and saw her carefully folding her dirty clothes and putting on one of her extra large shirts. I was brushing my teeth when she followed me into the bathroom, trailed closely by the dog. It was a little crowded.

"Georgie, go lay down," I told her. She went right outside the bathroom door and laid down, keeping an eye on us both.

Stephanie was laying in the bed when I came back from letting the dog out one more time. I shut off the light and put my gun on the table before getting in bed. I'd just rolled over to see if she was asleep when Georgie jumped up on the bed and settled right between us. Steph turned and laid a hand on Georgie's back, giving her an absent minded scratch before falling asleep. I just sat there for a minute, looking at them both, before shaking my head in disbelief and going to sleep.

The next morning when I woke up, Steph was draped around my chest and Georgie was laying across our legs. And I was sweating like a pig. My God, they were suffocating me. I slipped out, careful not to disturb either of the ladies, and took a shower. By the time I was out, Georgie was awake and waiting by the door. I threw on my clothes and took her out to do her business. I didn't want to leave Stephanie alone for too long, so I had to cut short Georgie's play time, but she'd be out for a while later in the day.

We went back in and Georgie was quick to try to wake Steph up. I leaned against the wall to watch. She jumped on the bed and started whining and nudging her hand with her muzzle. When that didn't work, Georgie took a more proactive approach, pawing Stephanie's arm and licking her face.

"What?" Stephanie asked as she came awake with a start.

"Down, Georgie," I told her. She looked at me before reluctantly jumping off the bed.

"Sorry about that, babe," I said with a quick smile. Stephanie just blinked.

"Ok," she said.

We were in Athens, Ohio, before lunch. Or near it, anyway. I have a facility there, a place I go to train and get away from it all. It's not a very big place, just a small coach house with a lot of land. And I mean a lot of land by Midwest standards. Then there was a house, a gun range, a training course, a kill house, a gym, and a few other things. So I guess it's not really small, but the house is.

"We're here, babe," I told Stephanie as I nudged her awake. She sat up and looked around.

"It's nice," she said. Still no questions about where we were or why we were there. Worrisome, but I didn't expect her to snap back right away.

"Would you get Georgie?" I asked.

As Steph got the dog, I grabbed the bags and brought them into the house.

All that day, I'd let Steph wander around and do whatever she wanted. Mostly she just sat outside in the sun and slept. I watched, and Georgie stood guard. I'd never seen her take to anybody like she'd taken to Steph. I had a theory about it, though. Steph had been wearing my jacket, and she, Georgie and I had all been in tight quarters for a few hours before the two actually met. By that time, Steph had probably smelled quite a bit like both me and Georgie, hence the warm reception on the dog's part. It was the best I could come up with, since Georgie kept everyone else away from me, but had adopted Steph as a member of the family.

That night, I showed Steph to her room, planning on going to mine, but when I tried to leave, there was a problem. Both of the women started crying. I'd just shut the door to Stephanie's room when Georgie started barking.

"It's ok, girl. Come on," I told her. She just sat in front of the door and kept barking.

"Georgie, enough." She stopped barking, but started to whimper. Stephanie opened the door and Georgie bounded in. I shook my head and turned to leave. That was when Stephanie started.

"Ranger?" she asked. I looked back and she had tears in her eyes. "Would you…would you stay? Until I fall asleep?"

"Of course," I told her. It was the first thing she'd asked for since yesterday afternoon. I wasn't going to say no. And there was the more mundane shot to my ego that she wanted me to stay, but never mind that.

I took off my boots and set my gun on the night stand before laying in bed with her, holding onto her until she fell asleep. It turns out I should have taken more off. Steph turned into me until she lay practically on top of me, and Georgie, again, was sprawled across my legs. And again I was suffocating and sweating and unable to move. It took a while, but I managed to get out from under the dog pile. Stephanie didn't wake up, but Georgie did.

When I tried to leave, she blocked my path to the door. When I got past her, she held my hand in her mouth and tried to tug me back.

"Georgie," I warned. She let go, and laid down and whimpered. It's not that I didn't love her, but God, she was a pain in the ass sometimes.

"Fine. Fine," I told her. "Guard. I'll be back." She sat up, looking infinitely happier. Damn dog. I went down to the underground gym to run a few miles before taking a shower and going to bed. I'd almost forgotten about the Georgie predicament when I was walking by Stephanie's room to go to mine. All I was wearing was a towel and a grin, and soon, I wasn't wearing either.

When Georgie saw me, her tail started thumping against the ground, but she held her post. My mistake was scratching her ears as I went past. She grabbed the towel and tried to tug me into the room. Unfortunately, all she tugged was the towel.

"No. Bad girl. Stay," I said. I bent over to pick up the towel and Stephanie rolled over.

"Ranger?" she asked still half asleep.

"I'll be there in a minute," I told her, hoping she wouldn't sit up and open her eyes.

"Kay, Ranger," she murmured. I let out a breath of relief, grabbed the towel, and took off to my room to get a pair of boxers. I skulked back into Stephanie's room and slipped into her bed. I didn't want either the dog or the woman to nag me anymore that night, I just wanted to go to sleep. Sure, I told myself. That was all. I drew Steph next to me, and Georgie jumped into the mix and settled down on Steph's other side. Just one big happy family.

It had been a week since we'd gotten here. A week of letting Steph do nothing but lay around and sleep and eat and not much else. That ended now.

"Steph," I called to her. "Get up. We're going running."

"Ok," she said. She got up and went in the house to change without comment or complaint. That started the trend for the next few weeks. There was running and weight training and self-defense and weapons and take-down moves, and she never complained. She was seemingly content for me to be in charge. It was a good thing I had morals, or Steph could have been seriously taken advantage of.

Not that Georgie wasn't trying to get us together. Or, rather, keep us together. Tervurens are herding dogs that like to spend as much time as possible with their people. Georgie specifically likes to guard her family. She likes to keep me in sight at all times. And now that she thought Steph was one of the family, she wanted the both of us in her line of sight at all times. So whenever I tried to sleep in my room, Georgie would throw a fit. She would bark and whimper when Stephanie and I were in different rooms, and cry when I yelled at her. It was hopeless. If I wanted any sleep at all I had to sleep with Stephanie. Not that it was a hardship, but I thought I was losing weight from all of the sweating I'd been doing, what with the two of them draped all over me.

We'd been in Ohio for three weeks. It had been two weeks since she'd started training with me. She was still quiet, never asking for anything. And I wasn't sure what else I could do for her. She would smile with me and be pleasant, and have fun with Georgie, but she was still depressed. Other than that, Georgie and being polite, she never had any expression. She didn't look sad, but she didn't look happy. She just looked like she wasn't there. I was at my wits' end.

Then, on an ordinary day, we were running with Georgie. Steph tripped and fell so I stopped to go back and help her. It wasn't too bad, just a skinned knee and a twisted ankle. I smiled and kissed the knee before hoisting her up and moving off the path to a more comfortable grove of trees so we could talk. We sat together under one of the bigger trees, and I took a ball out of my pocket to play fetch with Georgie.

"Steph," I said, "I don't know what else to do for you."

"You don't have to do anything for me. I'm fine," she said, looking sharply away from me and drawing her arms up around her. Um, ok.

"Alright. But, well, do you want to go back to Trenton?" I asked. She shook her head no.

"Do you want to stay here?" I asked. She nodded.

"Do you want me to stay?" She nodded again, this time a little more vigorously, which was nice for me, but that's beside the point.

"But you're fine," I repeated as I shook my head. "Stephanie, you're not fine."

"I'm fine, Ranger. Thank you," was all she said.

"So what would you do if we were back in Trenton tomorrow?" I asked. She finally looked back in my general direction.

"Could I stay with you?" she wanted to know.

"No," I told her. She looked up at me and finally had some expression on her face. It was confusion mixed with fright mixed with hurt.

"You don't want me?" she asked. "Even a little?" I could see her lip start to quiver and hear the tremble in her voice, but I continued on my path. I'd started down this road, and I was going to finish it out and see where it took me.

"No," I said very bluntly. "I don't want you. Not like this. You have no opinions, no thoughts, no feelings, no nothing. And you've stopped functioning; I make all of your decisions for you because you can't or won't do it. You're a shell right now, and I don't want that. I want the old Stephanie." The whole time I'd been talking, I'd also been watching, analyzing. And her reaction was well worth it. She jumped up and looked at me incredulously and started walking back and forth. I got up as well. Georgie came running back with the ball and dropped it at my feet.

"The old Stephanie?" she asked. "The old Stephanie? Nobody liked the old Stephanie. She was a joke, a mishap, a mistake, and a good laugh. And you want her?"

Georgie started barking for me to pick up the ball and throw it again.

"She was nothing," she said as she raised her voice and began to jab me with every word. "She was nothing anybody would like."

"Nothing," she yelled. She really started to hit me then, hysterically screaming and taking it out on me. Georgie didn't know what to do. Anybody else and she would have beene biting and pushing and scratching, but it was another member of the family. She started running back and forth, barking her head off and adding to the chaos.

"Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!"

Stephanie was railing against me, but I let her, because screeching and flailing, she was finally letting it out. I let her pound her fists against me as she shrieked and cried because it was worth it to get her back. It wasn't long before she lost steam. It dwindled off, her fists coming at me more and more slowly until she was just resting against me, not doing anything except muttering nothing over and over again.

I drew my arms around her and sat down in the grass and rocked her until she was done. That was the turning point.

"She was everything, babe," I whispered to her as she calmed down. "She had fire and spunk and determination. Everything." Georgie calmed down, too. She stopped barking, and laid next to us. Both my girls were very upset, and all I could do was hold one and stroke the other. They slowly stopped crying and whimpering, which was a relief for me on more than one level.

During the next few weeks, Stephanie's rebound was remarkable. It wasn't instantaneous, and in fact it was even worse for the rest of that day, but the next morning Steph started to smile more. Really smile. She began to joke with me, and tease me, and showed enthusiasm for things. She started to train seriously, and took confidence from her progress. And she laughed.

It was wonderful.

We'd been at the facility in Ohio just a week over two months. Stephanie had regained her confidence and sense of self, and had learned all the skills that she'd refused to learn in the past. Skills she needed to do the job.

I was impressed with how she applied herself, and glad that she half-heartedly complained about it all. I taught her hand-to-hand, drilled her relentlessly with hand guns and gave her a crash course in rifles and sniper rifles, and made her continue a strict regimen of weights and cardio exercises in addition to morning runs.

But we had fun doing it all, especially when Georgie got involved. The dog was in heaven; in Trenton I have to work and so I have to leave her home. In Ohio, I was 'home' all the time, and could be with Georgie almost all the time. She was happier than a pig in a blanket. And now it was time to go back.

I brought that fact up at dinner.

"What?" she asked, looking up at me with those eyes wide with apprehension and anxiety.

"It's time to go back home, Steph," I said again.

"Well," she said. She just sat there and blinked, fork still in hand. "Well."

"You have your confidence back, Steph," I told her. "And you have a whole host of new skills. You can shoot and fight and get a man cuffed more than twenty ways. You're ready to get back to your life."

"Well," she said. "Alright." Then she got up and walked out. Not quite the reaction I'd been hoping for, though I wasn't really sure what reaction I would have preferred. I certainly didn't want her to be ecstatic about getting away from me, but I didn't want her freaking out about going back, either. Right now, though, she seemed to be leaning toward the latter.

I got up and cleaned up the dishes from dinner.

"So what do you think, Georgie?" I asked. "Is it to soon?" She barked.

"I know you don't wanna go back. It means I go back to work and you have to spend the day with the housekeeper. But we gotta go back sometime, babe." She barked again and padded over to rub her head against my leg and nuzzle my hand.

"Yeah, yeah. Here's your food," I said as I set it down for her. "Food, Georgie." She barked and dove into the food.

When I looked up again I saw Steph leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen.

I really wasn't sure anymore what to think. I'd left the table and gone to my bed to lay down and think. I turned into the pillow, and could still smell Ranger's scent there. He'd been with me every night since we'd left Trenton – he and Georgie and I, and it was nice. I was confused and scared, and didn't want to go back to Trenton. Ranger had said before that he didn't want me, and that I couldn't stay with him when we went back.

But laying there, breathing in that scent that's uniquely his, I figured it out. He did want me. He wanted me a lot, and didn't know what to do about it. But he also wanted what was best for me, and thought that just then what was best for me was to go back to Trenton. That was fine, but he wasn't going to get rid of me that easily. He wasn't going to go back to hiding. After all, I knew his dog.

I got up and went back out to the kitchen, leaning against the threshold. I watched as he talked to Georgie and set out her dinner, and then he looked up at me.

"So we're going back, huh?" I asked. I didn't quite have a smirk on my face, but it was close.

"Yeah," he nodded. "You're ready."

"Yeah," I said. "I am."

Two days later we were packed and ready to head out. Ranger had been giving me odd looks, like he wasn't quite sure what I was thinking. I would just smile, pretend I didn't notice. But I knew why. The past two days I'd been much more sensual. It was very faint, very subtle – almost elusive and tantalizingly so. And it was slowly driving him crazy, because he couldn't figure out just what it was that I was doing. He couldn't put his finger on it and define it. And that was just fine with me. It was just little things, a slight swing to my step, standing just that much closer to him, little things like that. But it was working like a charm.

We had one more night in Ohio before we left. Ranger wanted to leave in the morning and drive all day. That was fine with me. That night in bed we lay there just as we had every night since we'd gotten here; we were holding each other with Georgie at our feet. But just before falling asleep, I moved so I could look down at him.

"What's wrong, babe?" he asked. I shook my head.

"Thank you for this, Ranger," I said. "Thank you for taking the time out of your life to do this for me. It was really very caring of you, and I'm very grateful."

"It was my pleasure, babe," he told me. He was still laying flat on his back, looking up at me with smiling eyes.

"Thank you," I said again as I bent and gave him a chaste kiss. Then I settled back down on the bed, laying more on him than on the bed, and went to sleep listening to him breathe.

We'd gotten back to Trenton a few days ago, and it wasn't going according to plan. It had been awkward when he'd dropped me off at my apartment. He hadn't even come up. And I was lonely.

I'd gone back to Vinnie's the day after I got back. Surprised doesn't even begin to describe their reactions, but it's a start. I walked in and asked for my files.

"Steph?" they'd asked.

"Damn, girl, where the hell you been?" Lula demanded.

"Oh my God!" Connie squealed. "You've got to spill everything. Now. Last we saw you got into the car with Ranger and drove away. This is so great! You've got to tell us now."

They were almost salivating at the thought of the gossip they could spread. No thanks, girls.

"Files," I repeated. "Now."

"Not until you tell us everything," Connie said stubbornly.

"Vinnie," I yelled. He popped his head out of his office.

"Where the hell have you been?" he asked. "No, I don't wanna know. Just get to work. Connie has about a million files for you. Joyce hasn't been able to bring almost anyone it and the skips are backed up forever. Connie, give her the files now." Then he slammed the door again.

Ranger came in and looked at us all. The girls started to hyperventilate, and I went back to the conversation.

"Files, Connie," I said. She pouted, but handed them over.

I turned to Ranger and winked, walking out of the office.

I'd taken in ten of those skips that day. They were all drunks and petty criminals, but were surprisingly easy. It made me realize just how much Ranger had taught me while we'd been away. I decided that I should join a gym to keep it up.

The cops were just as surprised to see me as the girls had been, and they weren't shy about expressing it when I came in with my first skip.

"Holy shit," the guy at the desk said. "She's back. She's back!" I was confused about why he was so happy until I learned that he'd been the only one in the pool to put down that day as the day I came back.

"Well," I told him. "Why don't you go collect your winnings? What's the pot up to by now?"

"Almost a thousand dollars," he said excitedly. Ranger had come in. I couldn't hear him or see him, but I could tell.

"Great," I said. "I'm taking a thirty percent cut." The room went silent.

"That's three hundred dollars. I'm not leaving until I get it."

"Good for you, babe," I heard Ranger say from somewhere behind me.

"Thanks," I said as I turned to him. "It only seems fair that I make something off the rampant betting on my life." Ranger gave me a wide smile as the cops started shuffling out of the room, undoubtedly to spread the news.

"So my money?" I asked the desk clerk. With a dazed look, he handed it over.

"And the body receipt?" I reminded him. He filled that out and gave it to me, too.

"Thanks," I said. I flashed a smile to the whole room and started to leave. When I was right next to Ranger, I paused, moving so that I was almost brushing against him.

I laid a hand on his chest and stood on tiptoes so I could whisper in his ear, "I'll be waiting, Ranger."

I was sitting against Ranger's pristine BMW waiting for him when he came out of the station.

"Yo, babe," he said when he saw me.

"Yo yourself," I responded. Ranger was directly in front of me, only a foot away but definitely in his own space. Not for long. I reached out my hands to his hips and tugged him closer. He followed my lead with an ease that can only be acquired after prolonged periods of close contact.

"What's up, babe?" he asked as he rested his hands on my hips. My hands moved up his chest to his shoulders, and I was too busy soaking in being next to him again to answer his question. We'd been in constant contact on a daily basis for more than two months. There was rarely a time when we would be separated by even a room. I loved it that he was always within my line of sight, and I'd grown spoiled to having him so close and so often touching me.

And then we'd come back to Trenton and had immediately spent almost a day in different parts of the city. You can't go from everything to nothing and not be affected by it. At least I couldn't. And from the way Ranger was holding onto me, it seemed like he couldn't, either.

"So what have you been up to?" I asked.

"Unpacking. Settling back into life in Trenton. You?"

"Pretty much the same," I told him. "How's Georgie?"

"She's not happy to be home. Now that we're back, I have to work so I can't spend time with her like I did in Ohio. She doesn't like that at all."

Yeah Georgie, I thought, I know the feeling.

I was just getting to the office as Ranger walked out.

"Hey, Ranger," I called to him. He stopped and looked to me, smiling.

"Steph."

"Hi," I said to him. Then I wasn't really sure what to say or do.

"So," he said. And then he stopped. I looked up to him – looked into his face, and saw that maybe he was just as confused as I was. Maybe he was just as unsure about what to do as I was. So I decided to take a leap of faith, and hope that Ranger would catch me.

"I've missed you," I said quietly, but with all the emotion that I felt. "I've missed you a lot. I've missed seeing you and being with you and falling asleep next to you. I've… I've missed you, Ranger."

And that was it. It was out there, in the open, and there was nothing I could do to take it back. All I could do was wait until Ranger gave me some indication of what he was feeling. And then he smiled even more.

"I've missed you, too, babe," he said. It was the most beautiful smile. He opened the passenger door to his car and motioned me in.

"I don't know, Ranger," I teased. "Last time I got in your car here, I was gone for months."

"Worried that I'll steal you again, babe?" he asked.

"No," I said with a smirk. "Just warning you that you've got a lot to live up to." He laughed and helped me into the car.

When we were pulling out of the lot, Ranger looked over to me and said, "I think I can meet that challenge, babe. Georgie's missed you, too."

"I can see her?" I asked excitedly. "Where is she?"

"Home, babe. Home."