A/N: Typical stuff, she owns them, I don't. No real warnings needed. My thanks go to Jenny for being such a great beta. I couldn't do this without you, Babe!

Hope you all enjoy!

BROKEN ROAD

CHAPTER 26

Stephanie sat in the car and looked at Ranger.

"Are you really sure you want to do this?" she asked, hoping he would say no and peel away from the curb.

"Babe, we're here," Ranger replied.

"Yes, I know we're here. It's why we're here that baffles me," she stated.

"Your mother wanted us over for dinner, so here we are," Ranger said, getting out of the car. He walked over to Steph's side and helped her out, being careful not to pull her back.

"The last time I spoke with my mother, I told her we'd let her know. I never made any definitive plans." In all honesty, Steph was avoiding having dinner at the Plum residence. Although the family dynamics were improving, they were hardly back to normal. Then again, this was her family, so normal didn't actually apply.

"I spoke to your father and let him know we were coming," Ranger admitted.

Stephanie was a bit stunned. "When did you talk to my dad?" she asked.

"Last weekend," Ranger stated. A small smile tilted at his lips when she just stood there and stared at him. "Come on, Babe," he said as he guided her to the door. "Your mother and grandmother are waiting."

Stephanie looked at the front door. Sure enough, there stood the women of the house. As she and Ranger neared, her mother opened the screen door, and Grandma Mazur practically bounded down the steps.

"Oh, Stephanie," she cried. "It's so good to see you up and about. How are you feeling, dear?"

"Much better, Grandma, thanks," Steph replied. She looked at her mother, who had a small smile on her face.

"I have to say, you look much better, Stephanie," Helen said once they were inside the house. "You've obviously been getting some rest."

"Ranger watches me like a hawk and doesn't let me do much," Stephanie said, shooting Ranger a sideways glance.

"You need to follow doctor's orders, Babe," he stated plainly.

"He's right, you know," Helen agreed.

Steph could tell her mother was holding back, refraining from saying everything that was on her mind. Although she had to give her mother credit for the effort, the expression on Helen's face seemed as though it was causing her some pain.

"I know he is, Mother," Steph said, watching relief ease some of her mother's tension. "And I'm doing my best to follow those orders."

Helen had what could only be explained as shock on her face. She looked back and forth from Stephanie to Ranger several times, seeking confirmation that what her daughter had just said was true.

"You've been great, Babe," Ranger said as he placed a kiss on the top of her head. "I'm proud of you."

Steph knew Ranger's statement was mostly for Helen's benefit—his sly way of sticking it to her. However, Steph also knew he meant it, and that made her smile.

"Well, Ranger," Helen said hesitantly. "You obviously have a way with Stephanie if you can get her to do what she's supposed to."

"Helen," Frank growled warningly behind her.

Helen visibly tensed. "I think we all agree, Frank, that it is important for Stephanie to follow what the doctor says," she replied carefully. "After all, her health is important, and if Ranger can get her to see that, well..." Helen didn't dare finish her sentence, so she opted for a shrug instead.

"Yes, Stephanie's health is important," Frank said, slightly narrowing his eyes at his wife.

Ranger had to smile. He remembered a time when even he had difficulty getting Stephanie to do what he wanted, like staying put when told and keeping her ass out of trouble.

"You look good, pumpkin," Frank said as he hugged his daughter. "It's good to see you up and about."

"Thanks, Daddy," Steph replied. Then she watched as her father shook hands with Ranger.

There was an awkward silence for a few moments as everyone considered what to say next.

Finally, Helen spoke up. "Well, I need to finish getting dinner ready," she said, nervously wiping her hands on her apron. "I could use your help, Mother."

"Of course," Grandma Mazur replied. "Why don't you join us, Stephanie?"

Grandma linked her arm in Steph's and tried to lead her to the kitchen, but Steph just stood and stared at the closed kitchen door. A lot of arguments between her and Helen had happened in that room, and Stephanie was hesitant to enter her mother's "lair."

"Behave," growled Frank.

"Oh, Frank, please," Helen huffed, marching into the kitchen.

Stephanie gave a crooked smile. Her father was beginning to sound like Ranger when he was chastising one of the guys—usually Lester. Finally, she allowed her grandmother to lead her into the kitchen as she watched the men disappear to the garage. She thought that was curious. Stephanie had figured they'd plop down in front of the TV and watch whatever game was on.

When Stephanie entered the kitchen, she was hit with a barrage of aromas: roasted chicken and gravy, vegetables, and there on the counter, pineapple upside down cake. Surely Ranger would agree to a little piece of cake.

"Is there anything I can help with?" Steph asked, eyeing the cake.

"No, you just sit there and relax. Dinner is almost done, and your grandmother can set the table," Helen said, handing her mother some plates.

"So you're really feeling okay?" Helen asked.

"Yeah, I just have to be careful," Steph replied. "Lots of rest, no lifting…"

No sex.

"How are you doing, Mother?" Steph asked hesitantly. So far, her mother had remained calm, but dinner hadn't started yet.

"I'm doing okay," Helen said as she peered into the oven to check the chicken. "I took your advice."

"What advice was that?" Steph asked, a little confused.

"She's seeing a shrink!" Grandma exclaimed as she entered the kitchen.

"Oh, Mother, really," Helen huffed. "She's not a shrink. She's a counselor. Just someone to talk to."

"Do you like her?" Steph asked.

"Yeah, I do. She's helped a lot," Helen admitted. "I see her once a week for about an hour."

"What do you talk about? Or is that confidential?" Stephanie asked.

"Oh, this and that," Helen replied with a wave of her hand. "Things that happened in the past, current relationships, and what I want for the future."

Stephanie knew better than to ask what her mother wanted in the future. It was all she'd ever heard about growing up.

"Well, I'm glad you have someone to talk to, Mother." Stephanie really didn't know how to respond to her mother. Helen's counseling was new territory, and Stephanie wasn't quite sure how to navigate it.

"Your mother is also off the booze," Edna added. "She was quite cranky in the beginning."

"Damn it, Mother," Helen huffed.

"Guess she still is," Edna giggled.

"You stopped drinking?" Stephanie asked.

"Well, it wasn't like I was a falling down drunk, but yes, I've given it up," Helen replied. "If I'm going to work on a few things, I need a clear head in order to do so."

"That's great, Mom," Stephanie said. She was quite surprised by the changes her mother was making. It seemed like both Plum women were making strides to improve their lives.

"Well, baby steps, right?" Helen chuckled. "At least that's what Gloria says."

"Gloria?" Steph inquired.

"Her shrink," Grandma whispered.

"Counselor," Helen corrected.

"Well, I don't care what you call her. I'm just glad she's helping," Steph replied.

"I'm not sure your father is completely convinced," Helen admitted.

"Why not?" Steph asked.

"He's still sleeping in your old room," Grandma whispered again.

"Mother, really," Helen sighed with her hands on her hips. "Would you please put the silverware on the table?"

"Guess she wants to get rid of me," Edna said as she grabbed the silverware and stalked out of the kitchen.

"Don't be too hard on Grandma, Mom," Steph said. "She's just used to you being…" Steph was at a loss for words.

"Uptight?" Helen said, a small smile on her face.

"Conservative," Steph added.

"That's just a polite way of saying the same thing," Helen replied.

The timer dinged, and Helen pulled the chicken out of the oven. Stephanie's salivary glands went into overdrive. Her mother could be a royal pain in the ass at times, but the woman could cook. Nobody could ever take that away from her.

"So how's Valerie?" Steph asked, changing the subject. She hadn't spoken to her sister since the incident with her, Helen, and Cal months ago.

"She's fine, I guess," Helen said.

"You guess?" Stephanie was confused. Helen and Valerie had always been very close.

"Well, she doesn't quite approve of Gloria," Helen said. "She doesn't think I should be airing out my dirty laundry to a complete stranger."

"No, she's more of a spread-it-all-over-the-neighborhood kind of girl," Steph quipped.

"I swear, Stephanie," Helen said, shaking her head. "You're just like your grandmother."

Stephanie smiled. "Thank you."

Helen couldn't help but laugh. "You're welcome." She chuckled. "Oh, and Albert got an offer with a law firm in New York."

"God help them," Stephanie mumbled.

"Yes, well, he accepted it, and they'll be moving in a few weeks," Helen said.

"Are you okay with that?" Steph asked.

"Sure, I guess." Helen shrugged. "It wouldn't be the first time Valerie moved away."

Valerie had lived in California with her first husband until she'd caught him banging the babysitter and moved back to New Jersey.

"Well, hopefully Albert will learn a few things." Like how to practice law, Steph thought.

"I'm sure it'll be a great opportunity," Helen continued. "It's not a real big firm, but I'm sure it's better than what he's doing here."

"I don't see how it could be much worse..."

"You know, Stephanie, Albert is a nice man," Helen scolded.

"I know. He's just a little...dingy," Steph replied. "Daddy thinks he's a moron."

"Well, morons can be nice people, too," Helen shot back.

"Okay, Mom," Steph said, holding up her hands in surrender. "Albert's a nice guy, and I'm sure he'll do great in New York." The last thing she wanted was to fight with her mother, especially over something as stupid as Albert's law career, or lack thereof. Just then, Grandma Mazur re-entered the kitchen.

"Personally, I think he's going to fall flat on his kiester, and they'll end up moving back here within six months," Grandma said.

"I swear, Mother, you sound just like Frank." Helen sighed.

"Well, you'd better not let him hear you say that," Grandma said with a giggle. "It'll give the poor man a stroke."

Helen stood in the kitchen, closed her eyes, and breathed a heavy sigh.

"Stephanie," Helen said slowly, "would you please tell your father and Ranger that dinner is ready?"

"Sure, Mom. No problem." Stephanie was all too happy to get out of the kitchen. She could see her mother was working very hard not to blow up, and Steph didn't want to be there just in case she did. She quickly exited the kitchen and went off in search of the men.

Frank and Ranger walked into the garage through a side door. Frank headed for a small refrigerator and grabbed a couple of beers while Ranger stood and admired the old Buick Roadmaster parked in front of him.

"So this is where the old beast is hiding," Ranger said as he took the bottle Frank offered him.

"No, she's in the kitchen working on dinner," Frank said, a sly smile on his face.

Ranger almost snorted into his beer. "They sure don't make cars like this anymore," he said once he'd recovered. "I swear it's the only thing Stephanie can't blow up."

"Yeah, she's a little hard on cars," Frank admitted.

"A little?" Ranger asked, both eyebrows up.

"Okay, so my daughter makes a demolition derby look like a simple fender-bender." Frank laughed. "But I don't think you agreed to come out here just to talk about cars. What's on your mind?"

Ranger had to admire Frank for getting straight to the point. However, now that he had, a wave of nervousness washed over Ranger. It was a feeling he wasn't quite used to.

"I wanted to talk to you about Stephanie," Ranger finally said.

"Is she okay? Is her recovery not going well?" Frank asked.

Ranger could see the concern on Frank's face and immediately wanted to kick himself. "No, she's fine," Ranger assured him. "Her recovery is going well—great, in fact. The doctors are very pleased with her progress."

"That's good to hear." Frank gave a sigh of relief.

"Yes, I'm very proud of her," Ranger admitted. He thought for a moment on how well Stephanie was following the doctor's orders and taking care of herself. She was getting stronger every day and more like her old self, which made Ranger very happy.

"Yes, very proud of her. She's doing well," Ranger half-mumbled to himself.

"You're stalling, son," Frank said. "Just spit it out."

Ranger had been in more war zones and fire fights than he cared to remember. His military career had toughened his spine and given him nerves of steel. Yet, what he was about to do scared the hell out of him. So he did the only thing he knew how to do. He took a deep breath and went for it.

"I'd like to have your daughter's hand in marriage, sir," he blurted out. Then he added, "Please."

Frank stood there for what seemed like forever, considering Ranger's request. He would run through all the questions a father would normally ask a suitor, but he already knew the answers. Stephanie had never been happier in her life. She knew what she wanted and was more confident. Frank knew that was due in a large part to Ranger. Yet, seeing the anticipation on Ranger's face, Frank couldn't help but make the ex-Army bad-ass squirm just a little.

"You want to marry Stephanie, eh?" Frank asked.

"Yes, sir," Ranger said quickly.

"Marriage is a big responsibility..."

"I realize that, sir," Ranger said. He had been married before, although the reasons had been completely different. He'd been a kid, and he'd had to get married because there'd been a baby involved. This time, all that was involved was his deep love and devotion for a blue-eyed, curly-haired spit-fire of a woman.

"And being married to Stephanie may be difficult," Frank added. "After all, she is a bit of a free spirit."

"Which is one of the things I love about her, sir," Ranger admitted.

Frank nodded but raised an eyebrow. "I love that about her, too, but it can be exasperating."

"Yes, sir." Ranger knew that all too well. "Still, if she wants to fly, then I want to be there to help her."

"Well said, son," Frank replied, smiling.

"So, is that a yes?" Ranger was dying inside. He was pretty sure Frank wouldn't have a problem with him marrying his daughter, but one could never be too sure.

"That's a yes," Frank said, extending his hand to Ranger. "Welcome to the family."

"Thank you, sir," Ranger replied, taking Frank's hand and shaking it firmly. "I promise to take good care of your daughter."

"I haven't been disappointed in you so far. You've been a man of your word. Of course, you realize that in marrying Stephanie, you do get her mother and grandmother in the deal," Frank stated.

"Steph is well worth the risk, sir." Ranger couldn't stop the smile from forming on his face.

"I'll remember you said that the next time that crazy old bat tries to grab your backside," Frank laughed.

"I learned long ago never to turn my back on Mrs. Mazur," Ranger said. He really did like Edna, even if she was a little nuts.

"Any idea when you'll pop the question to Stephanie?"

"I'd like a little time to get things together," Ranger answered. "Probably next weekend." If he could hold out that long.

"Then I'll keep this under my hat," Frank said. "I promise not to breathe a word to anyone, especially her mother."

"I appreciate that, sir."

"You appreciate what?" Stephanie asked from the doorway.

Ranger turned around quickly, stunned to see Stephanie standing there. He had been so wrapped up in his conversation with Frank that he hadn't heard her approaching. He silently berated himself for not being more aware of his surroundings. Fortunately, Frank came to his rescue.

"I was just telling Ranger how good he is for you," Frank said, walking up to Stephanie and giving her a hug. "You look good, and he says your recovery is going very well."

"Thanks, Daddy," Stephanie said, hugging him back. "Mom says dinner is ready, so we'd better go in. You know how she gets if we're late to the table."

"Facing a firing squad would be easier," Frank mumbled as he stalked toward the house. "Oh, and you'd better not bring that beer in the house," Frank said over his shoulder. "Ever since Helen got off the sauce, she won't allow any kind of booze in the house, even if it's not hers."

Ranger downed his beer and then set the empty bottle on the counter. He figured he would need the extra shot of courage. Then he wrapped his arm around Stephanie's waist as he escorted her to the house. She peered up at him with a concerned look.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"I'm fine, Babe," Ranger replied plainly. It took everything in his power to hold down his excitement and not ask her to marry him right there on the sidewalk.

"You just looked a little strange when I walked into the garage." Steph tried raising a single eyebrow. "Almost as if I caught you doing something you shouldn't be doing."

"Just having a beer with your dad, that's all." Ranger hated lying to her, but he figured this one time could be forgiven, considering the circumstances. "Come on. Let's go have some dinner." Then he led her into the house.

Everyone took a seat around the table and waited for Frank to carve the chicken.

Frank looked at the chicken, then at Grandma Mazur, before finally turning to Ranger.

"You don't have a gun on you, do you?" Frank asked.

"Daddy," Steph exclaimed.

Ranger's lip curled slightly. "Always."

Helen sat wide-eyed and crossed herself.

"Then keep it away from that crazy woman," Frank said, pointing to Grandma Mazur.

Ranger cocked an eyebrow at Stephanie.

"The last time we had a guest over for roasted chicken, Grandma shot it," Steph explained.

"The chicken or the guest?" Ranger asked, an evil grin spread across his face.

Helen snorted in her sparkling cider and almost choked, and Stephanie jabbed Ranger with her elbow.

"It wasn't my fault," Grandma complained.

Ranger couldn't hold back a bark of laughter. If he had a dollar for every time he'd heard Stephanie say the exact same thing, he'd have more money than Bill Gates of Microsoft.

"It was so entirely your fault," Frank cried. "The way you were waving that damn gun around, it's a miracle that you didn't blow all our heads off."

"I didn't know it was loaded," Grandma said in her defense.

"Which is why you have no business carrying deadly weapons," Frank argued.

Grandma huffed. "I have a right to bear arms."

"You have a right to be committed," Frank shot back.

"Frank, please," Helen chimed in.

"I'm sorry, Helen, but your mother is a whack job."

"She is not," Helen replied. "She may be a bit eccentric, but she's harmless."

"Harmless?" Frank cried. "I don't consider toting a gun and blowing dinner to bits harmless. She's a menace."

Ranger sat back in his chair and watched the chaos unfold. Part of him wanted to grab Stephanie and get the hell out of there, but the other part was curious to see what would happen next.

While Stephanie's parents continue to argue, she sat there quietly until she'd had enough. "Will you two stop fighting?" Stephanie cried. "If you don't, Ranger and I are leaving."

That shut everyone up. Although Ranger kept a straight face, inside, he was bursting with pride for Stephanie.

"Daddy, if Ranger agrees to keep his gun safe and out of reach, will you lay off Grandma?"

Frank narrowed his eye at Edna, daring her to do something wrong.

"Daddy," Stephanie urged.

"Fine," Frank said flatly. "Please don't leave." Then he shot Ranger a look, as if to say, See what you're getting into?

The remainder of the evening was spent in idle conversation, and no new arguments cropped up, for which Stephanie was grateful.

That night in bed, as Ranger held a sleeping Stephanie, he replayed his conversation with Frank over and over in his mind. He made several mental notes as to what he needed to accomplish by the following weekend.

It was going to be a long week.