This is a new story, set after LMT to make the time-line work, but no LMT spoilers (but there are a lot of TS spoilers)

It's loosely based of the short "Julie has a plan" – no need to go back and reread – it will be posted as the next chapter.

Thanks to Alate for all her tireless moths of editing, and to Stephannie, Tracy, Sue, and Jenn for reading all 300 pages and giving me their unadulterated thoughts.

Rated PG-13 for some language and violence; nothing major

I own none of these characters, except Anna, who I like enough to claim. I am making no money, and all of JE's characters will be returned to her shortly.

Prologue

Tuesday, February 21st

She sank back into the couch, her eyes staring sightlessly ahead, frozen in fear. She had received threats before, but these were different. These didn't threaten her, but someone even more precious.

Her gaze skitted back to the coffee table where she had dropped the two letters. One had arrived yesterday, one today. They said the same thing, really, with just a few creative differences.

You put me in jail, you and that little brat of yours. But now I'm getting out. And I'll get my revenge. That pretty dark skin and dark hair… I can't wait.

You're going to pay, bitch. Or maybe that little girl of yours should pay for you.

She tried to be objective as she read back over them. To put aside the unproductive emotion and focus on the goal. Isn't that what he had told her to do last time Julie was threatened?

But this time, there was no Batman to swoop in and save her. No, she had burned that bridge. Carefully, and with a lot of accelerant. She didn't want to have to ask for help now.

She continued studying the letters, looking for an edge, anything.

Finally, it hit her. This man who wrote the letters, he assumed Julie belonged to her. Assumed that Julie was her daughter. Which mean that he didn't know who Julie actually belonged to.

And she could use that.

She didn't know how yet, or what it would mean, but her spidey-sense was screaming that this little fact was vital. She could use it. Move back in with Ranger and Julie, act like Julie's mom. And somehow, some way, protect Julie in the process, without getting Ranger involved.

But protecting Julie was not what had her heart beating at a frantic pace, the palms of her hands becoming slick with sweat. No, the problem was the cost of protecting Julie. She had already given her heart to this little family, only to have it returned to her in some mangled, unrecognizable shape. That had been six months ago, and she was little closer to making all the pieces fit back in her chest than she had been the day she overheard Ranger's conversation that forced her to run. Burn the bridge.

But now she'd have to go back. Live with them again. Pretend to be a family, again. Last time they had done this, she had done it willingly. She had wanted a family, so she had walked into the situation knowing it was make-believe. But now she knew better. She would guard her heart, stand strong. So that this time, when Ranger so politely told her to go back to her own life, she just might be able to.

She jumped when the locks tumbled on the front door. That's how the whole thing had started, with her locks tumbling. But today, it was Ranger who appeared in the doorway, wearing a thick coat over his traditional cargos, to ward off the sharp February wind. He frowned slightly as he took in her surprised face, her disheveled appearance and tear stained face, her awkward stance in front of the shredder that sat on her dining room floor.

"Hey."

"Hey, Babe." He paused, like he was fishing for the right words. In spite of her surprise, Steph had to smother a grin. They had had one conversation in the past six months. That had been two weeks ago, and it had not gone well. He almost seemed nervous about this one.

"I, um, we…" he trailed off, only to start again a second later, this time with more purpose. "Julie is acting up again, getting into trouble. You're the only one she listens to. I know you left, but we need you back. I need you."

That had been the same too. He had said he needed her, and her heart had melted. She had kissed him and happily given him everything she could. This time, when she heard his words, she felt nothing. She would do as he asked, but only because it suited her purposes, what she needed.

And that was to keep Julie safe, at any cost to herself or her still bruised heart.

"I'll come back. I just need to pack a bag if you don't mind waiting a minute."

Ranger stared after her as she walked toward the bedroom. Only his extreme level of training stopped him from psychically displaying his shock. He had come expecting a fight, a screaming match, anything really. Steph had been angry when she left.

No, that wasn't quite true. He still didn't know what she had been feeling. This woman, who he had always been able to read, had become a mystery to him. He had no idea why she had left, or what she had been running from.

And he had no idea why, today, she had simply given in and agreed to come back.

Moving quietly, still listening for sounds of her packing from her bedroom, he walked to the shredder. He grabbed the top two handfuls of long strips, and filled the pockets of his cargos with them.

He sat on the couch, content to wait for Steph to finish packing. He didn't care how long it took. He had seen the look on her face. She couldn't conceal her emotions well enough to hide her skepticism when he'd confessed that he needed her.

But he did need her, desperately. Julie needed her too, but that was a lesser concern. He could discipline Julie if he wanted to, force her to straighten up and make her realize that Steph wasn't coming back. But he hadn't bothered. He'd been looking for an excuse for weeks to bring Steph back, and Julie's behavior was just that.

He had decided, two weeks ago, that he wanted a relationship with Steph. He had seen the sacrifice she had made for them, and the things she had done for his daughter. And he knew he would never be the same. To hell with his stance on relationships and families. He needed Steph in his life. And he had decided then and there to convince her that they would make it work.

But she hadn't wanted to hear it. She had left before he could even explain. And he hadn't spoken to her until today. He knew, instinctively, that this was his last shot. He had no intention of letting it slip by.