A/N: This is the final chapter. Warning for mushy romantic crap conducive to a fluffy HEA. Oh yeah, almost forgot … warning for smut!
I turned to Ranger as he drove us out of his parents' neighborhood. "Tell me something."
Ranger didn't answer. He wasn't one for wasting words.
"Pilar and I were chatting and she said something about you and a flat iron but when you came back into the room, you cut her off by giving her that super-wedgie. Did you used to straighten your hair with a flat iron? Do you still?"
He didn't do anything so obvious as let out a sigh, but I sensed his mental grimace.
"It's okay, Ranger. I won't judge you. Dickie's nose hair could make a small toupee for Rex if he doesn't keep it under control and Joe has his ass waxed once a month."
His grimace was very real this time and he looked like he might have thrown up in his mouth a little. "Did she happen to mention that she was the one who straightened my hair?" he asked. "Or that I was tied up at the time, courtesy of her and the rest of my sisters so that they could practice hairstyles on me? They also enjoyed doing color analysis. Celia thinks I'm autumn but Pilar insists I'm a winter. Whatever the fuck that means."
I gasped, then clapped a hand over my mouth to hold the laughter in. I might have been only partially successful, because this time he narrowed his eyes almost a whole millimeter.
"I'm sorry, it's just that … well, look at you. It's hard to imagine you small and vulnerable. You're Batman."
He took his eyes off the road for a beat, a small smile on his lips, but his eyes were surprisingly serious. "I'm not a super hero. I'm just a man."
Yes. Yes, he was. "One of the best men I've ever met," I said softly.
He didn't say anything to that. Keeping his eyes on the road, he reached out for my hand, which he squeezed, then brought to settle on his rock hard thigh.
"Even if you did make me meet your parents before I was ready," I added, remembering the look on his mother's face when she'd barged into his childhood bedroom on us, and my own panic at shoving my uncooperative breasts back into my dress. Just the thought of what we'd been doing sent a jolt of lust through me and I crossed my legs and squirmed.
Sliding me a glance, he brought our joined hands to my thigh, holding me still. "Do you need to stop somewhere?"
"Well, I could use a donut."
His mouth curved, and he gave a slight disbelieving shake of his head. "You just had dessert."
"Sometimes a girl needs two." Or an orgasm once in awhile … "Don't you ever just need something sweet? Ever?"
"Now that you mention it, I am craving pie." His voice lowered to a sexy timbre. "You remember how much I like pie."
Oh, boy. I squirmed some more, rubbing my thighs together, thinking maybe it was just as well I wasn't wearing panties. I'd have ruined them. "I remember," I managed.
"We have unfinished business." He said this quietly, letting our fingers slid up my leg, almost to the holy land. Or maybe that was wishful thinking.
I sucked in a breath and resisted the urge to spread my legs. "Don't we always?"
When he didn't answer, I admitted the truth. "Although it feels more unfinished than usual."
"How?" he asked, and I knew what he wanted, he wanted to hear what I was thinking.
Which was tricky, as half the time I had no idea what I was thinking. "This time, it feels different." I paused. "Doesn't it?"
"There's no Joe," I whispered.
It was the first time he'd acknowledged that out loud to me. "So … I no longer have that boundary. As for you and your boundaries, well, I have no idea really. I don't know what holds you back."
His dark eyes locked with mine. "Don't you?"
Okay, so I knew. He'd held back because of me. Because of my own inability to take a stand for what I wanted.
Once more he looked at me and said nothing. And then went back to his driving.
I blew out a breath. "Anyone ever tell you that it's damn annoying to have a conversation with someone who doesn't talk?"
He flashed a small smile and pulled over. I realized we were back in the Burg, and in fact were in front of a lovely two-story house with a white picket fence.
And a For Sale sign in the yard.
"I know what has held you back," he said quietly. "What I don't know, Steph, is what you want. Tell me, Babe. Tell me what you want."
I would, except a ball of panic and anxiety had settled in my chest, and I wasn't sure why. All I knew was that this moment had suddenly, inexplicably, become incredibly important. "I don't understand. Why are we here, in front of this house?"
He looked at the For Sale sign, then into my eyes. "Is this what you want, Babe?"
I knew he didn't mean the house, he meant the life that would go with this house. But I didn't want the Burg life, I really didn't.
But the fact that he would give it to me if I said that's what I really wanted, had my heart rolling over and exposing its under belly.
"Babe. We're waiting on you."
I studied his face, looking for any indication of what he was feeling. For the first time this evening, it was carefully blank, but not the cold, shuttered expression he'd perfected so well. It was blank in a way that told me he was going to really listen to me. That whatever I had to say was of the utmost importance, because if it was important to me, it was important to him. Somehow I knew that if I asked him to pull the stars from the sky and stick them in my back pocket, he would. For me.
"No," I whispered. I saw his brows furrow infinitesimally and then his true blank mask slammed down nearly breaking my heart.
"No! I mean…" I squeezed his hand and looked back at the house trying to come up with a way to explain what I wanted. "First of all, much as I'd love to see you shirtless and pushing a lawn mower around this postage stamp yard, I'm afraid the neighbor ladies might trample the begonias in the stampede to tuck dollar bills in your shorts. Wait a minute. Do you even own shorts?"
He gave me a look that told me I was once again both surprising and amusing him. "Of course I own shorts."
"Where do you hide them? Because I've gone through your entire apartment a few times and I've never seen any shorts. Maybe you have them tucked away with your flat iron?"
His mouth kicked up a fraction but he didn't comment so I decided he wanted to get back to the subject at hand. Or at the very least, he wanted me to forget about the flat iron. "There are some things I like about this property, Ranger, but they're not things you'd ever list on a spec sheet."
I lifted his hand to my mouth and, for once, kissed his knuckles. "Just a second," I told him and climbed out of the car, grabbed a flyer, and climbed back in. "Okay, see, mostly this just lists number of bedrooms, bathrooms, a keeping room—what the hell is a keeping room? Is that like a dungeon or— "
"Babe." He was laughing at me, silently, and without moving a single muscle in his face. But I assure you, he was laughing at me.
"Anyway, it doesn't say anything about the way the people inside chose to make a life together, chose not only to share space, but to commit to a future, to commit to each other. Even if one of them has a really boring food pyramid and is obnoxiously pretty and has way better hair than the other, they're committed."
"You can read all that between the lines on the sales brochure."
"Ranger." See, this is why I avoid talking about my feelings. I think I'm worse at it than he is.
I flicked my finger toward the big wheel sitting at the edge of the driveway. "And look, that's a huge commitment."
"Buying a big wheel?"
I heaved a big sigh and looked down at his hand into my lap. I studied the way my hand was dwarfed by his, the contrast of our skin. I smiled softly at the knowledge that despite the violence this hand could wield because of his profession, because of his need to defend and protect, this hand had never shown me anything but pleasure, tenderness and comfort.
This was the hand I wanted to hold for the rest of my life.
My eyes misted over at that thought, and with my chin tucked to my chest I said, "I don't want the Burg. I don't want a house with a picket fence. I'm not sure if I need that piece of paper or a diamond ring, but I'd like them to be options. I'm not sure I want a," I coughed, "big wheel. But if I did want a big wheel, I'd want it with you."
He stared at me for a beat, then thrust the Porsche into gear and executed a tight U-turn and took us out of the Burg.
Confusion hit first. "What are you doing?"
He didn't answer.
"Ranger? Where are we going?"
More not answering, and frankly, I was getting a little pissed off. "I spill my guts and you say nothing, and now you're just randomly driving—"
"I'm not randomly driving, and you didn't spill your guts. You've never spilled your guts to me."
I stared at his profile, which wasn't giving much away.
It was true. I'd never spilled my guts. Not to anyone. Not even Joe. But the truth is if there was going to be any gut spilling, I wanted it to be to Ranger.
I just …
I was afraid. I was afraid he might laugh, or worse, not react at all. I was afraid I'd spill way more guts than I should and that his guts didn't feel the same. Mentally cringing at the thought of Ranger's guts literally spilling I decided to work harder on coming up with better idioms. Or was it metaphors? Huh. Probably something I shouldn't worry about right now.
I looked out the window, watching the route with interest. We weren't going back to the Rangeman building.
We weren't going back to my apartment.
He took us out of Trenton, and into the hills of Pennsylvania, and up a long winding gravel road. We came to a stop at a stone structure that looked like it housed a mailbox. Ranger placed his palm on the front and just waited.
This was weird. "Uh, are you doing some Jedi trick, you know, trying to deduce how long the mail's been sitting there by how warm the mailbox is?"
Ranger closed his eyes a moment and he gave a small shake of his head. "Babe, you do that to the hood of a car to see if the engine is still hot." I heard a click, like a release, and Ranger pulled the mailbox open. Only this wasn't a mailbox. There was a keypad inside. Ranger pressed his thumb to a small black screen next to the keypad, a little green light lit up and then he keyed in an excruciatingly long code.
I should have been paying more attention to what he was doing, or giving more thought to where exactly we were. But I had more important questions pressing on my mind.
"What if a person really had to pee? I'd have totally disgraced myself in the amount of time it's taken— " I stopped talking as I watched ivy covered iron gates I hadn't noticed slowly swing open to grant us entrance.
It seemed like we drove for another quarter mile within the gates. The gravel road became even more winding and a little too narrow for my liking and then suddenly we came to a stop at the base of a circular driveway, parking before a beautiful house. And beautiful didn't even begin to describe it. It was the kind of house where a butler announced you at the door. After he frisked you, relieved you of your weapons and the secret service cleared you after nineteen hours of questioning using bamboo chutes and water boarding.
I stared at it, butterflies going crazy in my belly. "Where are we?" I whispered, already knowing. I turned to him, eyes wide. "The Batcave?"
He acknowledged this with a barely there nod and came around for me, leading me up the steps to the front door.
"But … you said the Batcave was forever."
Once inside, he quickly opened a door off the far end of the foyer, reached in and I heard the low beeps of him dealing with his alarm system.
"Is that a closet?"
He closed the door and took my hand leading me across the marble floored foyer. "Powder room. Right next to the front door is a little obvious."
Extricating his hand from mine, he nudged me through a spacious living, his fingers pressing the small of my back, and into a kitchen that Ella would drool over. "Oh my God. Do you cook?"
"Babe." He brought me a bottle of water and sat at the island with me, our knees touching.
I looked into his eyes and let out a breath. "I want to spill my guts," I whispered, terrified. "I do. I just …"
"I love you, Steph."
I felt my heart squeeze. But just as the rush of endorphins surged through my veins, making my heart beat double time and an all over tingling flush suffuse my body, I remembered all the qualifiers. Looking down and fiddling with the cap on my water I told him, "Yes, you love me. With a condom, not a ring. As a line item on your entertainment budget. In your own way. Because your life doesn't lend itself to relationships."
"I've said some stupid shit to you, but in all fairness, I meant what I said at the time. In some of the cases, there's a possibility you misunderstood my meaning."
"How exactly was I supposed to interpret line item on the entertainment budget?"
"Babe, I was trying to make you laugh. After making that stupid comment about bleeding money…" He let that though trail off with a short shake of his head, as if even now he couldn't believe he'd said such a thing to me.
My heart squeezed. "Well, Conan O'Brien you're not. I have to tell you, if you weren't so hot, Ranger humor would really blow chunks."
We fell into and awkward silence, me twisting the lid on and off of my water bottle, Ranger utterly still except for his thumb absently rubbing a spot on the side of my knee.
I heard him let out a long breath, then he said, "I know you think I'm a superhero. I'm just a man. I'm human just like you, Steph. Do you know how hard it is to tell someone you love them over and over and never hear it back?"
I could barely breathe. Spill. Spill your guts. "I … I have a little problem with sharing my emotions. And I might not have said stupid shit to you, but I did stupid shit." I swallowed hard. "I let you scare me into going back to Morelli when I should have stood my ground with you. I told Mrs. Apusenja that you wanted to rent a room in her place just so you'd exact revenge on me – which you never did. I snooped through your entire apartment for your underwear and then never told you how much it turns me on to know you're commando."
He arched a brow at that one.
"I put you name in a bowl and I peeked because I was afraid I would pick you and now I wonder what would have happened if I'd picked you. Sometimes I wish I'd put two pieces of paper in there with your name on them. I should have…"
Now he was looking at me like he needed to throw a net over me and dose me with lithium. But he's looked at me like that before, so I continued, "I've stolen your shirts and wear them just so I can smell you all night long. After Scrog shot you I realized … I realized how I felt about you, how much I felt for you and I buried my head in the sand rather than face the truth. I played ostrich for a good long time, until I started working at Rangeman to help you figure out who was robbing your accounts. You offered sex and closet space, and I nearly took you up on it."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I wanted more than sex from you. I wanted what I told myself you couldn't give me."
Ranger reached out and took my hand, gently squeezing it in his bigger one.
"I always took the easy route," I said, disgusted with myself. "The comfortable one."
I nodded. "I loved him, Ranger."
He brought our joined hands up to his mouth and brushed his lips over my knuckles. "I know."
"But I wasn't in love with him." I stared at my hand in his, then looked into his eyes, dark and warm and utterly open to me, showing me everything. "I'm in love with you," I whispered.
Something flashed in his eyes, a brilliant heat that warmed me from my toes upward, lingering in certain spots. Not that I got the chance to think about that because in the next beat, he'd taken the water from my hands, set it on the island, and drawn me to my feet. Pulling me tight against him, he kissed me. A really great kiss, a deep, soul-searching, body-tingly, brain-cell destroying kiss.
"Not here," he said when he pulled away, and led me out of the kitchen, through the living room and up a set of stairs.
And then he was nudging me into what I hoped was his bedroom.
"Here?" I whispered hopefully.
"Here," he answered softly. He placed a light kiss on my shoulder, then walked across the room toward the fireplace and flicked a switch. Instantly, a fire was blazing in the hearth.
He made his way back toward me and I said, "That's kind of cheating, don't you think?"
He paused in front of me, looked over his shoulder at the flames dancing in the hearth, then back at me, his brow furrowed. "It's a gas fireplace, Steph."
"It would have been more romantic if I could have watched you build the fire…"
"Are you serious?"
"… with your shirt off."
His face changed from incredulous to devastatingly serious in under a second and I enjoyed the view as he took his time unbuttoning his shirt with practiced ease. The practiced ease of my very own personal male stripper.
Stepping forward, I covered his hands with mine and pushed them down, then took up where he left off. The ends of his dark hair tickled over my knuckles as he watched my smaller hands complete their task. And what a worthwhile task it was. With each button I opened, another few inches of mocha latte skin was uncovered and it was all I could do not to drop to my knees and taste and lick, rub my face against every inch of this beautiful man.
I must have gotten a little carried away with my thoughts because the next thing I knew, I'd popped the button on the top of his jeans and now his hands were wrapped around my wrists.
His voice was low and I looked up to find his eyes dilated to jet-black, the hunger in them barely suppressed. Letting go of my wrists, he slipped one arm around my waist, pulling me into him and I almost cried out at the feel of his length pressing into me. His other hand went to my hair and a moment later, my curls fell into a wild tumble around my shoulders. I heard a low sound, between a growl and a purr as he nuzzled his face into my hair, taking in its texture and scent.
And suddenly I felt my dress fall to the floor, leaving me standing in the middle of Ranger's bedroom in nothing but a pair of four-inch FMPs and a full body flush, backlit by firelight.
Ranger stepped back and his eyes raked over me, cataloging every inch, the desire in his face making me ache in the places I wanted him to touch.
He raised his hand and brushed my cheek with his knuckles, then skimmed his fingers down my neck, across my collarbone and down until he was cupping my breast in his palm. Gently ghosting his thumb across the tightened peak, he whispered, "You're so beautiful, Babe."
I wanted to argue that he was the beautiful one but I couldn't find any energy to do anything but bask in his undivided attention and enjoy every single exquisite sensation he offered me.
He lowered his mouth to mine, kissing me with such tenderness it made my heart feel like it would burst from my chest. Fisting my hands into his hair, I kissed him back with reckless abandon, pouring everything I had back into him with every little nip of my teeth and the sensual glide of my tongue.
And then I was beneath him, looking up at him from the center of his bed. He was braced over me, magnificent as a warrior. My eyes flowed over the rich swells of his pectorals, down the rippled definition of his abdomen, settling at the straining evidence of his erection pressed against the opened fly of his jeans. I tried to reach for him, but he stopped me, pressing my hands over my head.
His mouth found one breast and then the other and he spent what seemed like hours kissing, sucking, nibbling, driving me out of my mind. He peppered kisses down my torso, pausing to dip his tongue in to my navel at the very same time his thumb found my core.
My legs fell open and he lowered himself down the bed, splaying me even wider with the breadth of his shoulders. His fingers glided across the slick seam of me, painting over me, parting me, his tongue working delicately over my clit.
I cried out as he entered me with one finger, then two. He patiently took me to the edge repeatedly, but never would let me fall over.
Raking at his shoulders, tugging at his hair, I panted out, "God, Ranger, please!"
And he stopped. I looked down at him, down past my own heaving chest slicked with sweat and took in the beautiful man who had been loving me so well. His hair was mussed, his lips damp from my juices. Leaning up on an elbow, he kissed the inside of my thigh and said, "What do you want, amante?"
Oh Christ. I wanted him to keep speaking Spanish. No! I want him inside of me! Or… maybe he could be inside of me and speaking Spanish. Would that be too much to ask?
While I was having my internal debate, Ranger had come over me once again, naked this time.
I reached down and stroked him. His breath hitched and I nearly came at the sound, but then he rolled away. Before I could whine over the loss, he was back with a condom.
"At least until we figure out the Big Wheel Dilemma," he said, bending to press a kiss over my heart, and then turned his head slightly and kissed my breast, lingering …
God, I loved this man. I whispered it to him, watching as my words filled him with wonder. "Te amo," he whispered back, and buried himself to the hilt in one long, fluid motion.
Flooded with pleasure so intense it arched my back and had me crying out, clutching at him. I was almost unable to believe we were finally here, in this very spot, doing as I'd dreamed about almost every night for two years.
"Fuck, Steph," he murmured, voice strained.
With a choked groan, he slid his hands in my hair and held my head so that I couldn't look away as he began to move within me. His eyes were dark and sexy sultry, his mouth looking like something I couldn't get enough of, so I reared up and nipped at his full bottom lip. He took control of the kiss, making me melt into him all the more as he buried himself into me over and over, deeper, harder, faster, the whole time holding my gaze with his, letting me see everything I did for him. It took me right over the edge and into a shattering orgasm. I was still shuddering when he grabbed my hips and thrust one last time, holding himself tight against me as he came with me.
When I could breathe, he came to lie beside me and was holding me close, running a hand over my heated, damp skin, waiting while I caught my breath. His wasn't all that steady either.
"That might have been worth waiting for," I said.
He was quiet a moment. Then he said, "Is this really what you want?"
I didn't even have to think about it. "Do I still have all the power?"
I smiled against his chest. "Then ask me again."
"Is this what you want? Steph, am I what you want?"
"Well, what do you think? God, Ranger, I've been working my ass off pushing you, seducing you. And let me just say, you weren't much help. I mean seriously, you tried to ply me with ho-hos. You did yourself in the shower when I was right on the other side of the door."
He just looked at me, but I could tell he was smiling on the inside. "I have to admit it was interesting to see the lengths you'd go to in order to apply pressure. You turned the tables on the master," he said.
"The master," I deadpanned, rolling my eyes.
"You can drop the first part and just call me master if you prefer," he murmured, giving my ass a playful squeeze.
I suffered a small hot flash as I imagined Ranger in nothing but leather pants, cracking the proverbial whip and commanding me to submit to his every desire. And then I check for drool.
"I think that all this time, you were nothing but talk. I think you were afraid of me. A big, bad bounty hunter afraid of a little white Jersey girl."
He said nothing to this but I think I detected a low-level death glare. I was able to deflect it with my post-orgasmic shield of bliss. I'd left my indestructible bracelets and lasso of truth at home. Not that they'd really help in this situation.
"And I have to say, I think I set a new benchmark for applying pressure," I told him. "Offering myself up for total ruination, repeatedly," I ticked off on my fingers, "getting up early to run with you. Totally wasted those Boston crèmes. That was a real sacrifice. And I know how much you like my ass. You don't even know how many times I've caught you staring at my ass. I offered you my ass!"
Ranger looked stunned. And then his face reflected a little disappointment mixed with a glimmer of hope and panic. "Wait a minute. I thought butt stuff was off the table. You should have been more clear- "
I smacked his chest. "Focus! Butt stuff was never on the table! Just wipe that table clean." I shuddered. "Don't even think about sitting at that table, or pulling up a chair…. Probably burning that table might be a good idea."
He snuggled me to his side and gripped my bottom with both hands. "Can we just put the table up in the attic and maybe think about using it later?"
I narrowed my eyes at him.
Uhn! Time to change the subject. "And you …" I poked him in the bare chest, which didn't give an inch. "You were a total prude."
His mouth opened and then closed. The equivalent of Ranger shock. "A prude," he repeated in a voice that had most men peeing in their pants. "I've been called a lot of things in my life and a prude has never been one of them. Did you not understand the table conversation we just had? Because by table, I meant-"
"I know what you meant! Stop squeezing my butt! You're making me nervous. And yes. Ranger Manoso is a Prude. Capital P."
He shook his head, allowing a smile to cross those lips that nearly took me to heaven and back. "Only you, Babe. Only you could orchestrate a test this bizarre. You shook your bare ass in my face," he paused and his eyes glazed over a little. "Even now you're daring to call me names and yet you live to tell the tale."
I narrowed my eyes. "So you knew all along that I was testing you?"
He just arched a single brow. Yeah, he'd known. I sighed. Damned Batman. "Well, in theory it was good."
"It was good," he said, his smile going full watts. "Best foreplay I've ever had."
I couldn't take my eyes off the sight of him, sprawled out in bed, naked, gorgeous. Grinning.
My heart sighed. "It was good, wasn't it? And it worked! Nagging, bossing, begging, whining … it all worked! Almost none of my plans actually work. Usually my plans blow up in my face, literally." I know I was beaming at him. I could tell because my face hurt.
Ranger chuckled and pulled me over to straddle him. Hands on my hips, he dragged me back and forth over my favorite part of his anatomy. He groaned when I leaned forward and pushed back, flexing my hips, letting his body slip and slide against me.
"You should know this about me, Ranger. I always get my man."
His eyes closed and he hissed out a breath as I broke the contact between us to reach for another condom.
I grasped him with a gentle hand and whispered on a smile, "I've got this. Just lie there and look pretty."