For the last time, they're not mine sniff sniff
Warning for shameless fluff and some semi-smut
Stephanie stood completely still, letting the waves lap gently at her bare feet. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply of the ocean air and smiled.
She finally understood the term "true contentment".
Opening her eyes, she settled down in the sand, stretching her legs out so the waves would wash over her toes. She laid back and watched the pinks, purples and oranges spread across the sky like a watercolor painting.
Ranger had taught her the beauty of a good sunrise.
After the nightmare that was her first marriage, the idea of getting married again should have been frightening. The thought of marrying Joe had terrified her. But being married to Ranger, sharing her life with him, was the most natural thing in the world. Stephanie woke up every morning beside her husband, thanking God for letting her have the life she'd always wanted but never thought she could have. Every new day was better than the last. They worked together, they played together, they loved together. And every night, they went to bed together, showing each other in a million different little ways just how much they cherished the other.
It was better than a fairy tale.
Stephanie dug her toes into the wet sand and spread her arms out. Moving to Miami was the best thing she had ever done. Well, after marrying Ranger, that is. The day after they got back from Halloween in Salem, Ranger spoke to Tank, Lester, and Bobby. All three men jumped at the chance of leaving the smog-infested pits of Trenton for a warmer, sunnier climate. Stephanie and Tank got together and made sure that he would be talking to Lula the exact same time Stephanie told her family about her upcoming move. Neither one of them wanted their loved ones to find out about the move from the Burg grapevine.
Lula took the idea very well. The second Tank asked her if she wanted to move to Miami with him, she was planning out the new tropical wardrobe she would be needing to make the trip. Not surprisingly, it consisted of a lot of turquoise and sunshine yellow spandex.
Ellen Plum took the news badly. Although her mother had been more supportive since the Survivor's Meeting, Stephanie had a feeling that supporting her daughter in Trenton and supporting her daughter's move across the country were completely different things.
"What do you mean you're moving to Miami?" Ellen Plum had shrieked, reaching out to grab a hold of the kitchen counter. "You can't leave Trenton! It's your home!"
"Trenton hasn't been my home in a very long time," Stephanie had been proud of how calm she had remained. She never raised her voice once.
"What do you mean it's not your home? Of course it's your home! You grew up here. Your friends and family are here!"
Stephanie stood up straight, staring her mother in the eyes. "Mom, you know I've never fit in the Burg. I fit in Miami. I'm happy down there."
"What about us? What about what makes your family happy?"
She had stood her ground. "I've spent my entire life worrying about what you and everybody else thinks. Never again, Mother. I'm an adult and this is my life. If you don't like it, tough." When her mother opened her mouth to argue, she had held up her hand. "I'm not going to stand here and listen to this. I told you as a common courtesy and nothing more. I'm moving to Miami with Ranger. We're getting married down there, the way we want to. If that's a problem for you, then you can stay here in Trenton and tipple to your heart's content."
Stephanie honestly expected her mother to keep ranting. Instead, Ellen Plum dropped down into a chair as if she were a balloon that someone had deflated. With her hands covering her face, Stephanie could barely hear her muffled words.
"I don't know what I'll do without you around."
Her mother's confession left Stephanie speechless. Ellen Plum looked up at her daughter with tears in her eyes.
"I took you for granted, Stephanie. For your entire life, you've never been further from me than Newark. While Valerie picked up and took off for California, you were still around. I never thought that would change."
Something shifted in the room and Stephanie had to sit down. Everything felt surreal as her mother continued.
"I was terrified when you were gone all those weeks. It may sound selfish, but I wasn't just worried about you. I was worried about myself." Ellen's hands dropped from her face down to her lap and she stared at them, the tears slipping freely down her cheeks. "I lived my life according to the Burg. I got married out of high school, I had children, I stayed at home and kept my house clean and had dinner on the table at six on the dot. Valerie moving to California shook me up. But she eventually came back." She took a deep breath. "Children aren't supposed to move away here. They're supposed to get married and move into the house down the street and have babies and borrow your pot roast recipe. That's why I wanted you to marry Joseph. You would have moved into his house and quit that job and had his children. You would have called me on the phone for my pineapple upside down cake recipe and you and Joseph and your children would come here for holiday dinners."
Stephanie couldn't physically form words. She was trapped between rage for her mother's preferences and selfishness and pity for her plans crumbling at her feet.
"I wasn't happy when Valerie got divorced, but she eventually got married again and had another baby and got the house in the Burg," Ellen continued, her gaze never wavering from her clasped hands. "I wanted that from you. If you move to Miami, that will never happen. Ranger's not Joseph. He's not from the Burg. With him, I won't be able to have you here and available."
"Even if I wasn't moving away, I wouldn't live that life you want, Mom," Stephanie finally spoke up. "I don't want the Burg. I don't want a mini van and spotless windows and two point five kids. I don't want the P.T.A. and pot roasts. What you were expecting and planning for was never going to happen."
Ellen finally looked up, her eyes red and watery. "Is it so bad to live that life, Stephanie? Is it so bad to want those things for you?"
Stephanie reached out to grip her mother's hand. Their eyes met and held. "That life would have killed me, Mom. It almost did. This place…these rules…it's all too much for me. Please understand that I have to live my life for me. Not for anybody else."
Ellen took a shaky breath. "You're getting married though. Will you have children?"
Stephanie shrugged. "Honestly, Mom, I don't know. Ranger's daughter is down there and I love her as if she were my own. Julie's enough for me. If I never had my own kids, I don't think I would regret it."
"What about what Ranger wants? Doesn't he want more children?"
"Ranger supports my decisions. Unconditionally."
Ellen shook her head. "But what does he want?"
Stephanie leaned forward, staring her mother in the eyes. "He wants what I want. If I decide I want children, he'll be all for it. If I decide that I don't, he'll be right behind me."
Ellen's eyes closed tightly. "I'm sorry, Stephanie. I just can't imagine not wanting children."
"Then it's a good thing you're not me. You already have three granddaughters that drive you crazy most of the time. What is the big deal about adding more to that list?"
"It's just what you do in the Burg."
"And I already told you. I'm not the Burg."
It took most of the afternoon to drill into her mother's head that all those Burg dreams would not be coming true. By the time Stephanie had left the house and gone back to RangeMan, she was drained. Of course, Ranger had taken one look at her and cleared his schedule for the rest of the day, leading her up to their apartment and helping her forget all her problems.
The Merry Man transition from one office to the other had been incredibly smooth. Lester and Bobby had their apartments at the RangeMan building. Tank and Lula had gotten their own condo a few blocks away. And Stephanie and Ranger had moved into their house. Every Friday night, unless there was an emergency, they would all go out together with Leo, Jerome, and Silvio. Sometimes they would hit the clubs. Other times, they would have dinner. And sometimes, everybody would gather at the house for a cookout and bonfire on the beach. The family that Stephanie had gained through Ranger had been more supportive of her than her biological family. She felt bad for thinking it, but who needed Ellen Plum and the Burg when you had Ranger and the Merry Men?
Three months after moving to Miami, Stephanie and Ranger had their small, private wedding right on their own private beach. Besides their Miami family, the Manosos showed up along with the Plums, Grandma Mazur, Mary Lou and Connie. Since Mary Lou had already stood up for Stephanie at her wedding to Dickie, Stephanie asked Julie to do it this time. Her soon to be stepdaughter had almost burst a blood vessel when she was asked. It took her a full twenty minutes to stop screaming and jumping up and down enough to give her answer.
The wedding was everything that Stephanie had ever dreamed of.
The sun was just starting to set as Stephanie made her way towards Ranger and the Justice of the Peace. Her dress was a stunning yet simple A-line white chiffon with thin shoulder straps and an asymmetrically ruched bodice. Her hair fell in loose curls halfway down her back and the only adornment was the creamy white gardenia tucked behind her ear. Julie and Lula had helped her pick it out and Stephanie had been amazed at how much fun it could be shopping for wedding dresses. Everything seemed so much better without her mother and the Burg putting in their two cents.
Ranger stood near the edge of the sand, looking amazing in his perfect black tuxedo, a matching gardenia tucked carefully in his lapel. His hair was down and the only other adornment he wore was the smile on his lips and the look of sheer adoration in his eyes. The instant their gazes locked on one another, it was like there was nobody else left on earth.
The wedding had gone off without a hitch. Even Ellen Plum behaved herself, biting her tongue about her daughter's choice of dress and even though it was hard, she kept her mouth shut about the lack of a church and a priest. She seemed to know that if she made any snide comments or selfish demands, that she would never be invited to her daughter's home again.
The reception was perfect; held outdoors and catered by the combined efforts of Mira and Ella. They even made the cake, a stunning four-tiered creation with gum paste cherry blossoms and brown piped frosting stems. Even Ranger declared the temple "on hiatus" and indulged in a piece.
The reception lasted far into the night and it was a long time before Ranger carried Stephanie up the stairs to their bedroom.
He set her down on the edge of the bed as gently as if she were made of the most delicate porcelain. Standing back, he stared down at her, his eyes flickering in the light of three dozen candles.
"I've never seen anything so exquisite in all my life."
The sheer honesty of his voice brought tears to Stephanie's eyes. When he stepped closer to her and reached out, she felt her breath halt as his hands ghosted down her body, almost as if he wasn't quite sure she was truly in front of him. He needed to feel her there. He needed to make sure it hadn't been a dream.
They took their time, peeling each other's clothing away, kissing every centimeter of bare flesh they exposed, staring into each other's eyes and tasting of each other until Ranger finally laid Stephanie down on the bed. And when he finally slid inside of her, they were both brought to tears. Nothing had ever felt so good and the sheer sensations were almost too much to bear.
They made love the entire night, continuing long after the sun rose. When they finally climaxed for the last time, they clung to each other, falling into sleep still joined.
That afternoon, they left for their honeymoon. An entire month in the Mediterranean, where the only times they left the comfort of their bed was to find food and bathe.
Ranger promised that the next time they were there, they'd actually get out long enough to see the sights. Maybe.
Not long after they returned from their honeymoon, Raphael's trial began. The lawyers had found seventeen women total who claimed that he had raped them within the last five years. A few of those women had been minors at the time. There were more before that, but the statute of limitations had run out on their cases. Ranger had been stunned and sickened and the rest of the Manosos had disowned Raphael.
It took three days to hear the testimony of Stephanie and the other victims. It took another two days to go over all the evidence. When it was all over, it took the jury less than an hour to decide that Raphael was guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to six years in prison for each count of rape and three years for the assault on Stephanie, all to be served consecutively. So unless he lived for a hundred and five years, he would never be a free man again.
The sound of the judge's gavel reverberated through the room. Everybody was stunned by the sentence. A hundred and five years. For the rape of seventeen women. And the attempted rape of Stephanie Manoso.
Stephanie sat still, unable to comprehend what had happened. Granted, she was grateful that a monster like that would never get the chance to hurt another woman again. Yet, she still felt grief for her husband and her in-laws. Their brother, their son, was going to prison for the rest of his life. Never again would he show up for a family dinner. Never again would he unwrap presents and laugh with his family during the holidays. She couldn't even imagine the grief and anguish they were feeling.
Ranger sat beside her, clutching her hand tightly in his. His blank mask was on, but Stephanie could still see the shock, disgust and rage in his eyes. Shock that it was finally over. Disgust that his own brother had violated and abused a woman, let alone such a sickening number. Rage that his brother was still breathing and that he hadn't ended such an evil life when he found out the extent of his sins.
They sat in that courtroom and watched as Mariela stood up and walked toward the partition separating her from her son. Raphael turned around, his eyes meeting hers as the guards cuffed his wrists and shackled his ankles. They stared at each other for a long moment until Mariela spit in his face, her eyes a mask of fury.
"You are dead to me."
For the first time, Raphael's eyes showed emotion other than anger and cockiness. They watered and true grief etched across his face. His family had disowned him. He was alone in the world.
Stephanie found that she couldn't find an ounce of pity for the man.
After the trial, life went back to normal. Every morning, Ranger and Stephanie went for their run. They would shower together and have breakfast together before leaving for the office together. At five, they would leave the office and have dinner together before spending the evening together. Stephanie always thought that spending so much time with the same person day in and day out would get annoying and monotonous, but she soon discovered that twenty-four hours a day was just not enough time to spend with her husband. Ranger felt the same way, but until they could figure out how to extend time, they would have to deal with it.
Stephanie only had to meet with Dr. Sandoval once a month. Their talks were much happier and when Jen had given Stephanie the same test that Dr. Childress had given her on their first meeting in the emergency room in Point Pleasant, she had done much better.
"What words would you use to describe yourself, Steph?"
Stephanie chuckled, remembering another time she had been asked that question. God, it seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Unpredictable. Not Burg. Open minded." She started, grinning when Dr. Sandoval rolled her eyes.
"Happy. Content. Strong. Loved. Accomplished. Funny. Independent."
Jen smiled, writing the words down. "Anything else?"
Stephanie paused, remembering the night before. Ranger had his face firmly planted between her thighs and he looked up for a minute, his eyes the color of onyx.
"So beautiful, Babe."
And then he went back to his feast.
Stephanie blushed at the memory. Looking up at her therapist and friend, she smiled.
Watching the sun rise above the ocean, Stephanie still couldn't stop the blush as she remembered that night with Ranger. Or any night with Ranger. He had a way of doing that to her.
Her neck began to tingle and Stephanie sat up, waiting. It wasn't a minute later before Ranger sat down beside her in the sand, a warm smile on his face. She grinned back when he held out the post-it she had left for him on the bathroom mirror.
I love the way you complete me.
"Well I do," she said, laughing softly at the mushy face he was making. That face was pretty rare. It might ruin his badass reputation.
"What a coincidence," he teased, reaching out to tuck a wayward curl behind her ear. "You took the words right out of my mouth."
"Those ESP classes I've been taking have really paid off." She gave him a saucy smile and he rolled his eyes.
They sat quietly for a while, their hands clasped and their eyes forward, staring at the serenity in front of them. It was Ranger who broke the silence.
"You working at Teen Lifeline this afternoon?"
Stephanie nodded. "I'm picking Julie up on the way. She's got her junior training seminar to go to. Rachel said to go ahead and bring her to the office afterwards."
Ranger turned his face forward to stare back out at the ocean. "How do you feel about going shopping afterwards?"
She grinned at his words. "You're actually offering to take me shopping?"
Ranger smiled. "Can't have you picking out furniture for the nursery without me."
Her grin turned to a smile as her free hand automatically moved to her still flat stomach. Who knew that she would want to have Ranger's child so soon?
They both sat on the edge of the bed, their hands clasped tightly together. Stephanie remembered being in this position before, only it had been right after one of Bella Morelli's "visions". That old woman had a sick obsession with Stephanie's womb.
Last time, the only thing she had felt was sheer terror. This time, though, she felt a wild jubilation. They both knew how it would turn out. All the signs were there. And after Stephanie had been weaned off her anti-depressants, they had been trying in earnest.
Ranger glanced at the alarm clock. "It's been three minutes, Babe."
She nodded and they both stood up, making their way to the bathroom. On the counter was the thin plastic stick. They reached for it at the same time, each holding one end so it was between them.
There were two pink lines in the window.
"Julie wanted to go with us when we filled out the gift registry. I think she wants to plan the baby shower for us."
"Sounds good," he agreed quickly, looking forward to spending time with his two favorite girls. "We can stop for dinner afterwards."
"Nothing too healthy. I think Baby here will be craving pizza."
Ranger laughed. "I wouldn't expect anything else, Babe."
A few minutes later, they stood up and started stretching for their morning run. As they began jogging, side-by-side, Stephanie felt like she was running towards the future. A future full of nothing but happiness and contentment.
She was home. She was happy.
She was right where she was supposed to be.
I can't thank you all enough for all the support and kindness you've shown me these past few months. Thank you all for the wonderful reviews. And a huge thanks to Alfonsina d. for being the most incredible beta a girl could ask for. God, I'm in shock that it's over now. And more than a little sad. It's gonna take a lot of Ben and Jerry's and Jello Pudding Pops to bring my happy back up. I hope you liked the epilogue. Thanks for reading!