None of these characters belong to me. I wish they did, but alas...Janet Evanovich thought of them first.
I flopped backwards onto my couch and blew the stray curls out of my face. Rex was cheerfully running in his wheel, oblivious to the dismal, rainy night and my miserable mood. "You've brought this on yourself, Stephanie." my mother's voice said in my head. "I know. I know!" I answered aloud. I sat up, hunching over my legs with my elbows on my knees and pressing the heels of my hands against my eyes hard enough to see little white spots.
"Shit," I said to no one. I was at an impasse with life. I was tired of being broke all the time – I wanted more, but had no idea what to do about it. I could marry Morelli, but his idea of a wife was a compromise I couldn't bring myself to make. Ranger would keep me in fine style, but it wouldn't be a marriage of equals. Hell, it wouldn't be a marriage at all. I would be a kept woman; a possession. Belong to him in ways that no person should belong to another. But I obviously wasn't getting anywhere in life on my own and I was running out of options. And this funk wasn't just about my absolute failure of a life….I was lonely.
To make matters worse, Morelli and Ranger had finally drawn that proverbial line in the sand. I had to make a choice. Morelli had become so distracted worrying about me that he was making mistakes at work. Mistakes that could get him – or someone else – killed. To choose him I had to give up both bond enforcement and Ranger. The first requirement I didn't like but thought I could probably live with. The second was a complete deal breaker. I flat refused to give up my relationship – whatever it was – with Ranger.
Ranger. Christ, he's another complication in my life all by himself. When Joe threw down his ultimatum, Ranger countered it with one of his own. I could choose him, but I had to choose him completely. When I say I would be his, I mean he would own me. There were no conditions about employment or where I would live, but Ranger does not share well and he was tired of sharing me with Joe. I hadn't seen or spoken to either of them in the two whole weeks since they'd declared their positions.
I had only two real choices here: lose one of them, or lose them both. How do you decide which half of your heart to carve out? I blew out a sigh and slowly thunked my forehead against the heels of my hands once, twice, three times. This sucks. I looked around at my shitty furniture in my shitty apartment and thought about my shitty life. No, strike that. My life is not shitty. I have two gorgeous, sexy men who love me and want to rescue me from all of this. How many thirty-something divorcees can say that? Come on Steph, you can do this. All you have to do is choose. Is that so tough?
Yes. Yes it is.
I heaved myself off the couch and padded into the kitchen on socked feet. I opened and closed a few cabinet doors to confirm that the food-fairy had not paid me a visit, then stood staring into the open refrigerator. When neither dinner nor inspiration leapt out at me I sighed, grabbed my last beer, and headed back to the couch. Though I'd done it a dozen times before with no success, I began a pro and con list in my head comparing the two men in my life.
I did Joe first. Pros: he's gorgeous, he loves me, he's amazing in bed, I've known him my whole life, my family likes him, and he wants to marry me. Cons: torrid past, dangerous job, Italian temper, wants me to give up Ranger, hates my job. Yep, that about covers it.
So what about Ranger? Pros: he's gorgeous, he loves me, he's amazing in bed, he accepts my crazy life, he doesn't care what my family thinks, and he doesn't expect me to play Harriet to his Ozzie. Cons: mysterious past (probably torrid, at least dark), dangerous job, Latin temper, wants me to choose him but might actually be relieved if I pick Morelli.
OK – a bunch of those cancel each other out. Now what?
I put my empty bottle on the coffee table, laid down lengthwise on the couch, and picked at the fraying waistband of my sweatpants. Boiled down, I've got a choice between a man who wants me to marry him and become a Stepford Wife and a man who doesn't want to marry me but doesn't expect me to change either. Both of them would be good providers. Both of them would be good protectors (hell, they'd take a bullet for me). Neither of them are likely to live to see forty.
Talking all this through with Mary Lou had only earned me this sage little piece of insight: "Your head says you belong with Joe, and your heart is lost to Ranger. Sounds like you've got to decide which one to listen to." No shit. The irritating thing is – I know she's right. Joe is the smart choice. He's stable and he's Burg. He's the secure future and cozy home life that every self-respecting Burg daughter wants. So why am I leaning more and more towards Ranger and all the uncertainty that comes with him? Why can't Ranger just be reasonable about a relationship? I mean, that is the only thing keeping me from choosing him hands down. Isn't it?
I got up and headed for the bathroom, stopping to visit with Rex along the way. "What do you think I should do?" I asked him. He paused on his wheel and turned those black button eyes up at me for a beat, twitched his whiskers, and then resumed running. I figure that's hamster for, "Beats me."
"Thanks a lot," I replied and continued on to the bathroom. I glanced in the mirror as I shut the door. Eek! After my shower I'd pulled on my most comfortable – and therefore rattiest – sweats and faded Godsmack t-shirt. I'd let my hair dry on its own without any assistance from goop, then twisted the frizz into a wad on top of my head and secured it by stabbing a pencil through it instead of searching for an elastic. The ensemble's crowning glory, however, was the pair of socks Valerie's girls had given me for Christmas. They were fuzzy bright blue ones that fit over my toes like gloves and were covered in little pictures of Smurfette. I looked down at my feet and smiled. They'd given me four pairs: blue Smurfette, pink Hello Kitty, acid-green Scooby-Doo, and yellow Winnie-the-Pooh. The Smurfettes are my favorites.
I thought about Val's family…the unlikely way they'd ended up together, what a blundering, caring fool Albert is, and how happy they all are. No doubt about it, Albert was not the smart thing for Val but it didn't seem to matter. They just work together.
Wait, did I just compare my sister's second marriage to what's happening in my life right now? Crap. Neither of my guys are anything like Albert! In fact, I think Albert is so far at the opposite end of the spectrum that he might just be the Anti-Ranger. But…the way he accepted Valerie and her girls – even when Val was doing her best Shamu impression – without asking her to change or give anything up for him…maybe that is kind of like Ranger's complete acceptance of me. Maybe that's the key difference: Morelli loves what he thinks we could be together. Ranger just loves me…craziness, bad hair, exploding cars and all.
Damn. Was that an epiphany? I smiled, then frowned. Is a permanent shack-up enough for me? Ranger may love and accept me for who and what I am, but can I return the favor enough to give up forever on marriage?
I was still pondering that question when there was a soft knock on my door. I looked down at my disheveled clothes, glanced in the mirror at my nightmare hair and lack of make-up, snatched the pencil out of my bun, then shrugged and went to the door. I peeked through the peephole and my heart froze. What the hell? I gasped and yanked the door open.
Every woman's wet dream was kneeling in the hallway wearing a monochrome black Valentino suit, silk shirt, Hermes tie, and Ferragamo loafers. He held a dozen red roses in one hand and a velvet ring box in the other. "What the…" I began but he cut me off with a look that radiated heat and raw emotion. He lifted his hand and flipped the lid of the little box open with his thumb to reveal a gorgeous antique square diamond solitaire set in a platinum band. His gaze never left my face.
"Marry me." he said softly. Somehow it didn't sound like a question.
When I just stood there staring at him like an idiot, he obviously decided he'd better explain a little further. "I've spent the last two weeks scared shitless you would pick him. I finally decided to do something about it. Marry me, Stephanie."
I bit my lower lip against the tears that welled up and nodded furiously. "Y-yes. Oh God…yes!" I stammered when I finally found my voice.
He stood and wrapped me in his arms in one fluid motion. His lips crushed mine and time stopped. Somehow everything clicked together in my head…like my whole universe realigned, and suddenly I couldn't remember why I had such a hard time choosing between them. It was just so right. He broke the kiss, pulling away from me just enough to draw up my trembling left hand and slide the ring into place. We both blinked at it for a second, then his face split into a heart-stopping smile. He swept me up into his arms and stepped inside, kicking the door shut behind him and bee-lining for the bedroom. The roses got dropped somewhere en route. He tossed me onto the bed and started stripping. I followed his example. He was done first and vaulted onto the bed beside me. As we wrestled my sweatpants off, he snorted and said, "Nice socks."
"They're dead-sexy and you know it." I countered. He just grinned at me.