A/N This is a Babe story – not Morelli or Helen Plum friendly AT ALL! Although the first chapters don't have smut, it is forthcoming. Language is rough in some areas.
Thanks to Jenny and DAS for their editing skills. They caught the stupid mistakes that got past me. And a BIG thanks to Dee who gave me the encouragement to put myself out there!
(She owns them – I wish I did. Hey, when you dream, dream BIG!)
THE BROKEN ROAD HOME
She sat on the hood of her car and watched, replaying the last six months of her life.
Joe had proposed, properly this time. He had taken her to dinner, managed to reserve a quiet, romantic table in the back with soft candles aglow and Champaign on ice. He had kept the conversation light, trying not to make her suspicious and fighting like hell to keep his nerves in check. After the dinner plates had been removed, Joe order dessert and refilled her Champaign glass.
"You look absolutely beautiful tonight, Cupcake," he said softly. It was summer so she was wearing a cream colored sleeveless dress with a slightly plunging neckline. Not trashy, but definitely leaving him wanting more. He stared at her, memorizing her, taking in every detail. The small flames from the candles reflected in her blue eyes, making them sparkle. Her hair was swept up on the sides with light curls hanging around her jaw line. The dim light cast a shadow at her cleavage which danced across her chest with the rise and fall of her breathing.
She smiled and looked down at her lap, blushing slightly at the intensity of his stare. "You said get dressed up tonight. I'm glad you like it." She met his eyes again and was about to ask him what else he had in mind for the evening when dessert was served. The waiter placed a silver, dome-covered plate in front of her, smiled at Morelli and left.
"What is this?" she asked, since she didn't choose the dessert, noticing that there wasn't a plate in front of him.
"Something special, just for you. You won't find it on the menu." He gave her a devilish smile with that statement. She saw his brown eyes flash with anticipation and caught her breath. She was trapped in those eyes, like the proverbial deer, for what seemed like hours. What was this man up to?
Curiosity finally getting the better of her, she raised her hand to remove the dome cover. But he stopped her.
"Allow me," he said, getting up from his chair to stand next to her. As Joe raised the lid, he knelt down, not wanting to intimidate her by hovering over her. Stephanie didn't understand at first why he was making such a big deal over a chocolate cupcake sitting in front of her until she saw what was sitting next to it. A small black box.
"Open it," he whispered, surprised that his voice worked at all. She did, and there it was. A simple, yet brilliant diamond ring. A single, half karat solitaire staring back at her.
"Joe, I..." she was stunned. All she could do was stare at the ring.
"Stephanie, will you marry me?" He had proposed to her once before, but it was half assed and out of desperation. He really wanted to do it right this time. He wanted her to know that this was it. He wanted her for life.
My god, this is it, she thought. He's really doing this. She turned and met his gaze. She didn't think either one of them was breathing. If there were other people in the restaurant, she couldn't tell. The entire world had come to a complete stop, pending her answer. She finally let go of the breath she didn't realize she was holding.
"Yes," she breathed. One simple word was all it took. The noise that seemed to be on hold finally came crashing down around them. She could hear glasses clinking together, silverware hitting plates as people ate, and the light hum of conversations all around them. She wasn't sure if the other diners knew what had just happened, she didn't really care either. Stephanie had just made the biggest decision of her life.
Joe thought his face would split in two, his smile was so big. He took the ring out of the box and put it on her finger, then kisser her hand. The he reached up and lightly kissed her lips. He stood up and grabbed his chair, pulling it closer to her.
"You've just made me the happiest man on the planet, Cupcake," he told her, kissing her hand again. He played with the ring he just placed on her finger and picked up her fork. He sliced into the cupcake and fed it to her, grinning as she moaned her delight. She really did enjoy her desserts.
She sat on the hood of her car and watched, remembering that he took her back to his house that night and made love to her for hours. It was the closest they had ever been to perfection. If only she knew then that it would be the last time.
Shortly after that night, Stephanie agreed to move in with Joe on a full-time basis. She reluctantly gave up her apartment. She decided that if she was going to make this work, really work, she'd have to grow up and let go of childish dreams, like flying. It couldn't really happen anyway.
Her mother was very happy with her, said she was finally coming to her senses. If only she would give up that god forsaken job. Joe adamantly agreed. It was no big secret that nobody approved of her bounty hunting job or her skills, or lack thereof.
"Cupcake, you should be coming home and putting food on the table, not coming home to wash it out of your hair." Joe said one night at her parents' house. Joe and her mother were double teaming her again.
"You're absolutely right Joseph. Stephanie, you should listen to him." Her mother turned on her with both barrels. "After all, you'll be married soon and he knows what he's talking about. He knows what's best for you. Dottie DeLuca's daughter, Rita, doesn't run around town chasing people with questionable character and then end up rolling in the gutter with them." Her mother had a very disgusted look on her face with that last statement.
Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Maybe she should try it. It might add some excitement to her life." God, she was getting tired of this conversation. What does she have to do to get these people to shut up? Oh yeah, quit her job.
"Rita has three children and a husband who sells suits at Macy's. What more could she want?" Her mother made it sound like this was all there was in life.
"I rest my case!" Stephanie slammed her hand down on the table so hard the gravy slopped out of its bowl. Her mother crossed herself and mumbled 'why me?', Grandma Mazur jumped up to get a towel, Joe raised his head to the ceiling and sent a silent prayer to God and Stephanie's father remained hunched over his plate eating, like nothing was happening.
Stephanie got up and stormed outside. Were these people ever going to be proud of her? They certainly made her feel ashamed of what she wanted for herself. She thought of the one person who told her several times that he was proud of her. Then she pushed him from her thoughts. If she was going to make this work with Joe, she couldn't have a divided heart. If he could deny himself a life with her, the least she could do was return the favor.
That left Joe. She did love him, and he loved her. A life with Joe would be safe, constant, predictable, and expected. It wouldn't be that hard to do, right? The map was already in front of her. All she had to do was fall in line behind every other Burg woman, follow in their footsteps and stay on the beaten path. 'It's time to grow up, Steph,' she scolded herself silently. 'It's time to grow up.'
Stephanie turned to go back in the house and saw Joe standing there, watching her. "What are we going to do, Cupcake? We can't keep having this same argument over and over. This is no way to start a marriage."
"I know. I'll give my notice to Vinnie and Ranger tomorrow. Two weeks should be enough time for me to wrap things up for them. Any new skips can go to Lula and two weeks should be enough time for Ranger to find a replacement for my position." Stephanie couldn't look Joe in the eye when she spoke of Ranger. She didn't want Joe to see that giving him…her job up was breaking her heart. She wasn't looking forward to that conversation with Ranger either.
"Steph, are you sure? Do you really mean it?" Joe had a hold of Stephanie's shoulders, trying to look in her downcast eyes. Finally, he tipped her chin up with one finger and stared at her intently. He knew she had just made a huge sacrifice. But why?
She would ask herself that same question for the next six months.
She sat on the hood of her car and watched, replaying the dreaded conversation with Ranger.
Stephanie lightly knocked on Ranger's office door the next morning.
Ranger looked up from his computer screen, "Babe," he acknowledged.
"Can I talk to you in private? It's kinda important." Stephanie tried to calm the shaking in her voice but she knew Ranger would pick up on it.
"Is everything okay, Babe?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"Not here. Can we go upstairs?" Stephanie knew the entire building was wired for audio and visual except for the private apartments and she really didn't want an audience right now.
Ranger gave a barely noticeable nod and stood up, heading for the elevator. Stephanie followed closely behind him, feeling like she was being lead to the gallows. They passed through the control room where several of Ranger's men were intently watching surveillance monitors, wisely ignoring the sudden tension in the room as Ranger and Stephanie walked through.
Once they were safely out of earshot, Lester looked at Bobby, sadly shook his head and said, "Here we go. Damn, I'm going to miss her." Bobby let out a deep sigh. They were all going to miss her.
Ranger held the door open to his seventh floor apartment and Stephanie walked into the living room and waited. He then went to the kitchen, grabbed two water bottles out of the fridge, walked into the living room and gave one to Steph. She took it without saying anything, not meeting his gaze.
"What's on your mind, Babe?" Ranger asked, standing in front of her, waiting for her to find her nerve.
"I…I need to give you my notice. I've decided to give up bounty hunting and skip tracing. With a wedding to plan, I won't have the time…" Stephanie finally looked up at Ranger with tears in her eyes. God, she hated this, but it was the right thing to do. Wasn't it?
Ranger gave a weak smile and stepped closer to her, pulling her into a light hug. "Knew this was coming, Babe. But I appreciate you giving me fair warning. Knew you just wouldn't leave me hangin'." He did know this was coming. When he saw the ring on her finger, he knew her days at RangeMan were numbered. He started looking for her replacement then and already had someone lined up by the time she came to him.
"You gotta do what you gotta do. No one faults you for that." He could feel her crying against his chest. He pulled her back slightly and wiped away her tears. Was this really going to be the last time he would ever get to hold her? He knew she was making a mistake, but he would never tell her that. People just have to find some things out for themselves.
Ranger also knew that once she was gone from his employ, Morelli would make it his life's mission to keep her away from him. Ranger didn't much like the sound of that but knew it was for the best. He couldn't offer Stephanie the stability Joe could. But then again, there were some things that Ranger could give Steph that Joe could never dream of.
But she had made her choice and they both had to live with it. And wasn't this partly his fault too? After all, he was the one who told her that serious, long-term relationships didn't fit into his lifestyle. Oh sure, the sexual tension between the two of them was enough to choke an elephant and he was sure that if he applied enough pressure he could find himself back in her bed. But Steph wasn't a 'casual sex' kind of person, for which he was grateful. She deserved better than that. She deserved love, commitment and respect. She deserved all of him, heart and soul. But Ranger wasn't willing to give himself over to her completely, wasn't able to give another person that kind of control over him.
Oh, he loved her. He loved her deeply, more than he ever loved anyone before or would again. And that was where the danger lay. Someone that close to him became an instant target to be used against him by his enemies, of which there were many.
"I'm sorry." Her whisper brought him back from his thoughts. Her voice was as shaky as her hands. Tears were still streaming down her face but the sobbing had stopped. Being in Ranger's arms always had a calming effect on her.
"Nothing to apologize for, Babe. This is your life, your decision. You've got to go with what you feel is right," even if I think it's the worst thing you could do, he thought to himself.
Did she have to choose the cop? Sure, he was a good detective. They had worked together on several cases in the past. But Ranger thought Morelli was a pompous ass that was self-absorbed and didn't accept Stephanie for who and what she was. Ranger would have been happier if Steph had chosen one of his men instead. At least they accepted her the way she was. Of course, Ranger would have been ecstatic if she chose him. But Ranger had made his choice too, and they both had to live it.
She didn't wait the full two weeks before leaving, especially once her new replacement had arrived. It was one of his guys from the Boston office. He wanted to move back to Jersey to be closer to his family. He already knew the ropes so there wasn't much of a need for training.
She left fairly unceremoniously, no big party with food catered and banners hung wishing her good luck, just a lot of hugs from the guys and tears, mostly from her. They all told her to keep in touch and to let them know about the wedding. They were the closest things to brothers Steph had ever had and she was going to miss them all.
She sat on the hood of her car and watched, trying to remember when it all started to fall apart. Were there really any obvious signs? No, not really, well…maybe.
After Stephanie moved in, she and Joe fell into a comfortable routine fairly quickly. They would wake up; she would make coffee and a small breakfast and walk Bob while Joe was in the shower. After Joe would leave for work, she would clean up the kitchen and herself and either work around the house or head to her mother's house for a cooking lesson and/or wedding planning.
If things ran late with her mother, she would call Joe and have him pick something up on his way home from work. That is, if he wasn't working late, in which case Stephanie would just stay there for dinner. On nights like that, Steph would go home to a dark house and crawl into bed alone, with Joe finally joining her hours later. Sometimes he'd wake her up, but most times he left her alone.
One the night that he did come home, dinner was spent in front of the T.V. watching whatever game happened to be on. They would clean up the kitchen and living room, walk Bob again and head up to bed. On the nights they had sex, it was great. But then again, it always had been. Then there were the night that Joe was just too tired, claiming his case load was a real bitch.
Funny, Steph thought looking back; Joe's been tired a lot lately.
She was dragging her feet about the wedding plans. Her mother was making most of them. But Steph wouldn't give definite answers to some specific details, like which dress she wanted what kind of flowers she liked, and it left a lot of things unconfirmed. Steph knew that this aggravated her mother but Joe seemed to take it in stride.
"You'll figure it all out, Cupcake," he said one evening, kissing the top of her head. She was sitting on the couch with magazines spread all over the coffee table, trying to pick a style of cake she liked. When Joe came home, Stephanie was staring at all the pictures with a glazed look on her face.
When she asked him which one he liked, he just shrugged and went upstairs to take a shower. Joe wasn't real active in the planning of the wedding, claiming it was 'girl stuff.'
Come to think of it, Steph thought, he wasn't real active in a lot of things lately.
Then there were the mood swings. Not hers, as one would think, but his. Most of the time, Joe was his normal, happy go-lucky self. Then some nights, when he didn't come home late, he was moody, dark and brooding. Steph figured it was just a case giving him trouble.
One night, she tried to talk to him.
"Are you okay, Joe?" she asked as they sat in front of the T.V. eating dinner.
"I'm fine," he mumbled, not even looking at her.
"You just seem upset or bothered by something. I thought maybe if you talked about…" she said softly, trying to get him to open up. But he exploded.
"Dammit, Steph! Just shut the fuck up! Can't you see I'm trying to watch the game? When I come home, the last thing I need is to be grilled by you! I get enough shit from work, I don't need to come home and get more from you!" He was screaming so loud, Stephanie was sure that the neighbors three doors down could here him.
"And every once in a while it would be nice to come home to a decent meal instead of eating out of a bag all the damn time. And if you do grace me with a home-cooked meal, it's either cold or over done. I mean, aren't you supposed to be getting cooking tips from your mother? Or are you not paying attention? Are you really spending all that time with your mom or are you spending it with someone else?" He was firing so many questions at her, she had a hard time keeping up.
"Of course I'm at my mother's. Where else would I be?" she whispered. Tears were welling up in her eyes and she could hardly speak through the lump in her throat. She had to work had to regain control over herself.
He sat there glaring at her when she began to fire back at him.
"If you would come home at a decent time like you used to, maybe your dinner would still be in decent shape. There's no point in going to all the trouble to make a nice meal if you're not even going to be home to eat it!" By this time, Steph had gotten off the couch and started cleaning up the coffee table which served as their dining table. She started to move toward the kitchen but he grabbed her wrist, stopping her.
"Are you saying that this is all my fault?" he screamed. "Can't you grow up enough to take responsibility for what you've done, or what you don't do, as the case may be? Leave it to a woman to turn everything around to make it the guy's fault! God, you can be so stupid sometimes, you know that, Cupcake?" He had such a tight grip on her wrist that her knees began to buckle from the pain.
"Joe, please. You're hurting me. Let go of my wrist," she begged.
The tears began to build again, running down her cheeks. Joe looked from her face to his hand that was wrapped around her wrist. She was trying to pull away from him, to free herself from the death-grip he had on her but she just wasn't strong enough. Without another work, he released her and went back to watching the game.
Stephanie ran upstairs and slammed the bedroom door. She flung herself on the bed and cried herself to sleep.
Sometime later, Joe crawled into bed next to her. She woke up immediately but stayed perfectly still, hoping that he would just fall asleep quickly. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her and gently pulled her close to him.
"I'm sorry, Cupcake. I don't know what come over me. I didn't mean those things I said and I never meant to hurt you. Work is just stressful right now and I took it out on you. I'm sorry, Cupcake. Please forgive me. It won't happen again, I promise." His words were so soft, so soothing, so loving.
She turned to look at him and he could see the tears streaming down her face. He wiped them away and then kissed her, ever so softly. Then slowly, the kiss deepened and intensified. It reminded her of the way he used to kiss her when they were dating. How long ago was that, she wondered?
When he finally broke the kiss, she was breathless. He sighed into her hair and snuggled her into his chest. Within minutes, he was sound asleep. Usually, a kiss like that would have led to a round of sex, but not tonight. Tonight, he just held her and fell asleep. She figured it was the guilt of what had happened earlier that night that had kept him from making love to her.
If only she knew then what she knew now.