Not my characters - everyone here is the property of Janet Evanovich.

SOP: Standard Operating Procedure

Stephanie gets a late night visit from Ranger.


In the Dark

My eyes popped open and I knew who my visitor was by the way the back of my neck tingled. I sighed. "What do you want?"

"Babe."

"Ranger," I leaned up to see the glowing numbers on my clock, "it's four-thirty in the morning. Why are you here?"

He was absolutely silent. Even though the room was pitch black I knew he was leaning against the wall watching me. I have no idea how he sees in the dark…maybe he's part cat or something. This was Ranger's SOP. He'd break into my apartment in the wee hours, watch me sleep for a while, and then either he would crawl into the bed with me for a little quality time or else we'd talk briefly before he vanished into the darkness from whence he came. It had been a while since he had made one of his little visits, though. Four months to be exact. He'd been pretty much avoiding me since Joe and I got back together, so I wasn't sure what his sudden reappearance might mean. I probably should have been concerned, but it was late (or early, depending on how you looked at it) and I hate getting cheated out of sleep so mostly I was just cranky.

A couple of minutes passed with nothing but steady breathing to fill the silence between us. I finally groaned and rolled over, burrowing deeper into my pillows. He'd say whatever was on his mind when and if he got good and ready. I was just drifting off again when the deep velvet rumble of his voice brushed my consciousness.

"Are you going to marry him?"

What? I yanked back from the edge of sleep and sat up so fast I nearly knocked heads with him. Apparently he came over and sat down on the edge of the bed while I dozed.

"What?" I demanded out loud this time.

"Are you going to marry him?" he asked again in that same low, careful tone.

I panicked. "What are you talking about?" I spluttered, trying to stall for some time to think. My mind and pulse raced. I knew perfectly well what he was talking about but I really did not want to have this conversation. Joe had been making noises for several weeks now about "making an honest woman" of me. His phrase, not mine. He kept dropping hints and I spent a good deal of time dodging the topic, afraid of what I might say if he asked me directly. Now it seems that Ranger was going to do it for him.

"Morelli," Ranger said. A note of sadness crept into his voice. "Do you intend to be his wife?"

That wording stopped me cold. "Wife" is such an inert noun, like "dog" or "car." And "his" is just so…possessive. The question brought all my anger and hurt from the whole Dickie debacle flooding back, spurred on by fears and insecurities that had piled up courtesy of my sister Valerie's failed first marriage. I knew in my head that none of those things should have any bearing on the relationship between Joe and I, but fear is very rarely logical. Fear is a cold, heavy thing that sits on your chest and threatens to squash you; it's a niggling doubt that undermines your best defenses and most grounded arguments. I feared marriage.

Or maybe I just feared marrying Joe. The thought of another Burg wedding, of being a soccer-mom tied to that simple little row house, of slowly becoming my mother - absolutely terrified me.

It occurred to me that Ranger was still waiting in the dark for me to answer his question. "I…I don't know," I whispered. My voice sounded small even to me. He rested a big, warm, steady hand on my arm and I clutched it with a small, cold, trembling one of my own. We sat like that for a few minutes, wrapped in the quiet peacefulness of the dark. After a while Ranger broke the silence. "Do you doubt him?"

I opened my mouth to say no, but then I thought about what he was asking. Did I trust Morelli? As a cop? Yes. With my life? Yes. As a husband? I wasn't one-hundred percent sure. Maybe that's where my hesitation came from; I feared the Terry Gilmans of the world and wasn't sure he could resist them. It might be Dickie and Joyce all over again. I shook my head to banish the image. No. Joe would never do that to me. Would he?

"If you have to ask, you probably already know the answer."

Shit. I must have said that last part out loud.

"You did."

Dammit. I sighed. "Why are you here, Ranger?"

"I had to ask you myself."

"Why?"

"Because watching from the outside is tearing me apart."

I took a deep breath. "What do you mean?"

"I can see it coming, Babe. I see him closing the net around you a little more every day, and I see you beginning to give in."

"You sent me back to him, remember?"

"I know," he said, his voice tight. I whispered my next words very carefully. "What do you want me to do?"

Silence. This time the quiet stretched on so long that if not for his hand on my arm and his weight dipping the bed I might have thought he'd left. I finally couldn't take it any more. "Ranger?"

"Carlos," he replied.

"What?"

"You call me Carlos," he said firmly. "You call me by my name."

"Um…okay…" What the hell is going on here?

"Stephanie," he began slowly. Uh-oh, he used my name. He never uses my name. "Do you trust me?" he asked.

"Of course," I answered immediately. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt the truth in them. In that moment the words were unequivocally true as they'd never been for anyone else in my life outside of my own family. Hell, for that matter, even including my family. Ranger – Carlos – was my safe harbor; my Dark Knight. He'd been rescuing me since I met him. He never demanded that I be anything or anyone other than myself, even when myself wasn't the best thing to be. True, he might lock me away in a tower from time to time if he thought I was in danger, but even then he found ways to let me keep being me. The chemistry between us was so strong it almost hurt. If he hadn't pushed me away all those months ago…no, I couldn't afford to think that way. I was with Joe now, and likely to stay that way permanently if things continued the way they'd been going. I sighed.

"Don't," he whispered. What?

"What?"

"Don't," he repeated.

"Don't what? Ra…Carlos, I don't understand."

"Don't marry him." Was that fear in Batman's voice?

I panicked. Again. The whole racing heart and whirling brain thing happened all over again for the second time since he woke me up. Why wouldn't he want me to marry Morelli? He had made it oh so clear that we'd never be anything but casual at the absolute most, and had – literally – sent me back into Joe's arms.

"You're scaring me," I whispered.

"I know. I'm sorry, Babe. I don't mean to, but…" he let the sentence trail off unfinished.

"But what?" I paused, "Carlos…why, exactly, don't you want me to marry Joe?"

No answer except the steady rhythm of his breathing. I suddenly wished I could see his face. Not that it would give me any clues to his thoughts – he is the master of blank-face – but this just felt like a conversation we should be able to see each other for. So turn on the light, dumb ass. Unh. Mental head-slap. I reached over and turned on the bedside lamp.

We both blinked in the sudden brightness, then his eyes focused on me and the corners of his mouth twitched.

"What are you laughing at?"

His lips twitched again. "Nice hair."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Hey, you come sneaking in here at ungodly hours and wake me up for pillow talk, you get bed-head. Deal with it." He, of course, was the picture of male perfection packed into tight fitting black cargo pants and a matching t-shirt. He looked as cool and polished now as he did first thing in the morning or any other time of the day…or night.

The corners of his mouth tipped up slightly. "I don't sneak."

"Whatever." I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at him, tightening my grip on his hand instead. "What's going on?" I asked in a low voice.

He sighed heavily and stared at the floor. "I can't do it," he said.

"Do what?"

"Sit back and watch you stop being Stephanie in order to be his wife."

Holy shit – he really can read my mind. "He…I…you…" I was stammering like an idiot. I stopped, took a deep breath, and tried again. "But you sent me back to him."

"I know." He closed his eyes and took his own deep breath. "I thought I could do it – that it would be best for you. I…" he looked away. "My life is not conducive to relationships, Babe. One of these days I'm going to just not come home."

I was too stunned to reply so I just gave him a weak little nod. After a few seconds of silence he continued. "I thought I could do it, but I can't. I won't stand back and watch him try to make you be something you're not. I'm just too selfish for that."

"What are you saying?"

His eyes locked onto mine and a fierce resolve filled his voice. "I'm saying: I'm in. I may be too late, your heart may already be his, but I'm going to give him a fucking run for it. I have to do this, Babe. If I bow out without even trying I'll never be able to face myself in the mirror again. It's a poor excuse for a man who lets someone else marry the woman he loves without putting up a fight."

I gaped at him in open-mouthed shock. 1) That was the longest speech I'd ever heard from him; and 2) he said he loved me.

"You…love me?" I squeaked.

"You know I do," he growled.

I shook my head, nodded, then shook my head again – too confused and astounded to even keep my gestures coordinated. I fought down a sudden tide of overwhelmed tears and said quietly, "I need to think."

He stood up, cupping my face with one hand and reaching for the lamp with the other. "I'm not giving up this time, Babe. You're going to have to send me away…if that's what you decide." He switched off the light and plunged the room into pre-dawn darkness. He brushed a kiss across my forehead and then I heard him moving toward the door. He paused, his voice ghosting through the darkened space. "I do love you, Stephanie Plum. Don't ever doubt that. Morelli is in for one hell of a fight." He moved farther into the living room and whispered, "I just thought you should know." And then, though I never heard his footsteps or the opening and closing of the door, he disappeared into the night.