DISCLAIMER: They all belong to Janet Evanovich, except Jack. He's mine.

Chapter 11

There's Got To Be A Morning After

"C-Captain Manoso?" Jack stammered. I heard his indrawn breath and noted his straightening posture. At Jack's question Ranger's eyes left me and turned to Jack.

"Bridges!" he exclaimed. I looked at Jack. He was standing at attention. It was hard to say which man was more astonished. I, myself, was astonished. Of all the men in Las Vegas I picked someone known to Ranger to try my re-entry into the world of dating.

"Captain Manoso," Jack repeated, this time more forcefully. "I had no idea. Stephanie said she was single. Her name is Plum not Manoso." He looked at me accusingly and I knew that he was remembering our conversation earlier in the day about the flower over my left ear.

"I'll leave you two alone," Jack said as he turned and walked out the door. I kicked my shoes off and ran after him.

"Jack wait. I am single. I can explain. Really, I am not married!" I made it to the door when Ranger's arm went around my waist and pulled me back slamming the door.

I turned on him kicking and swinging trying to connect with some part of him that would cause pain. I did. My foot connected with his leg and I felt searing pain in my toes. He effortlessly held my arms at my sides. I struggled to get away from him, but he held me tightly, I twisted and turned, my body rubbing against his and suddenly the electricity was back. Big enough to light neon sign on the Strip. I moaned.

"Ranger, please. Let me go." He did, so abruptly that I almost fell. I regained my balance and stepped back to look at him. He was dressed casually in a black silk t-shirt and black slacks. His hair had been cut short and it was mussed as though he'd been running his hands through it. There was no evidence of a gun or a knife but he looked just as darkly dangerous as he did in full SWAT mode.

"What are you doing here Ranger? Your timing stinks. You ruined the first opportunity I've had for an orgasm in months. And how do you know Jack? And how did you get in here?" The last question was a no brainer. I don't think the locked door exists that Ranger can't mysteriously slide through.

"And why," I paused for breath and for effect, "Did you choose to show up now?" That orgasm thing wasn't quite true. The whole reason I asked Jack in was because of that little skittering of electricity up my spine and now I knew Jack hadn't been the cause of it, but I wasn't going to share that with Ranger. I had wanted my next meeting with Ranger to be on my terms. I had fantasized about a carefully planned accidental meeting when I got home. My emotions would be under control and our friendship would be re-established and Ranger would never know the hell he'd put me through. And most importantly my pride would be intact. That scenario was rapidly flying out the window.

Nothing ever turns out as I had planned. Instead of presenting myself as cool and calm, I was in an uproar. My first attempt at restarting a personal life had been witnessed by the very man who had caused me to run away from my old personal life.

"I've got some questions for you too, Babe," Ranger said reaching out to touch my arm. "Like how do you know Bridges? It didn't take you long to get involved with someone else." His tone was harsh. I pulled away from him and put as much distance as I could between us in the small room. I looked carefully at him. This was no blank faced Ranger. His eyes were narrowed and his mouth was a taut slash across his face. He was acting jealous!

"You have forfeited any right you ever had to question me about my personal life Ranger." I flopped on the sofa drawing my legs up under my ass. My skirt rose dangerously up my thighs. I saw Ranger's gaze redirect itself from my face. With a sigh he dropped back into the chair his head lowered into his hands.

"Babe."

"What are you doing here, Ranger?" My voice seemed surprisingly normal and I was starting to regain control of my ping ponging emotions. "Why did you pick this night to show up? Couldn't you have given me the space I asked for? I thought you would honor my request not to search for me."

"I didn't search for you, Stephanie." Ranger lifted his head and stared blankly across the room. "When I came back and found you gone I decided to honor your wishes. I didn't look for you. Two months passed, then three and still no word from you. Tank told me that it was payback for all the times my business took me away from you. I was worried but I got no sympathy from him. I went to Morelli to see if he'd heard from you."

Ranger went to Joe to ask about me. That was something that would have been hard for Ranger to do. Ranger had known Morelli longer than he'd known me, and while they would never have considered themselves friends they had a certain amount of respect for each other in some weird alpha male sort of way. That respect went south on Joe's part when he learned of Ranger's interest in me. I felt a little glimmer of hope that Ranger would do something so contrary to his nature just because I asked him not to use Rangeman to search for me.

All this was swirling in my head but what came out of my mouth was, "Morelli ratted me out!"

"Morelli didn't 'rat you out.'" Ranger said. "I told him I was worried because you said you'd be gone a couple of months and it's been six. He was worried too. He said that he hadn't heard from you but he knew where you were. I could have just as easily used Rangeman to search for you but you asked me not to. He told me to come find you, and make sure you were okay."

"You came out here because Morelli told you to?" I asked incredulously.

"I came out here because I had to Babe," he said as he turned his gaze back to me.

"What's your relationship with Bridges?" Ranger asked abruptly. There was that word I hated to hear coming out of Ranger's mouth.

I have no relationship with him," I said. "I met him this morning. I'm training him and when he's fully trained I am planning on quitting and coming home." I looked down at my hands tightly clasped in my lap. "He told me he was Special Forces in the Army but in my wildest dreams I never thought he'd know you. He seemed like a nice guy so when he asked me to dinner I said yes. I haven't been out the entire time I've been here."

"I was his commander for a short time. He was good soldier. When I saw him kissing you I wanted to kill him."

My head snapped up and I stared at Ranger. He'd spoken with a controlled anger, his words clipped. I knew he was serious, and it made me angry. It made it sound like he cared about me. But would someone who cared about me make love to me all night long and then leave in the morning without a backward glance,… twice? I thought it was time to get some straight answers out of Ranger.

I took in a deep breath and gathered my courage. I had already lost everything important to me and I had just spent the last six months figuring out how to live my life without him as my lover. I spoke softly, but with no hesitation. "When you left after our night of lovemaking you almost broke me. I was hurting so badly that I knew that I had to leave Trenton to get my head back on straight. I went to Joe because I thought he would help me and he did. He got this job for me. I took money from you, but I have it to give back."

Ranger crossed the room to sit beside me. He raised a hand touching my lips to stop my explanation. "Babe." His voice was soft and his eyes looked suspiciously moist. I took his hand with mine holding it in my lap.

"Let me finish this before I lose my nerve," I said. "I have given this so much thought these last few months. I love you. I'm not ashamed to tell you that. But I can't have you in my life as a lover. You would destroy me. You say that your life doesn't lend itself to relationships. Well mine does, and someday I may find someone who will be right for me. Right now I'm not looking because I still want what I can't have. Maybe we can work on building a friendship, because I've missed you every day I've been gone. But I can't risk letting you use me and throw me away again. So what do want from me Ranger? Why are you really here? And why did you say you were my husband. Surely there is no more threat from the Ramos family. Was there trouble with the annulment?"

"Babe, I've done some thinking these last six months as well. I have told you many times that my life doesn't lend itself to relationships. I've never said that I didn't want a relationship. I've made so many enemies that I felt it would be unfair and dangerous to anyone I was with. Your life has been in danger twice lately because of me. You would never have come into contact with the Ramos brothers if it wasn't for me. Tank pointed out to me that not being with you wasn't keeping you safe. He called me a coward, and he was right. He said if I really wanted to keep you safe I should pull my head out of my ass and do the right thing."

"A coward?" I asked. "Tank's a brave man. Not many people would have the guts to call you a coward."

"Tank is my brother. He cares about me and he cares about you too Stephanie. He called me the day you left and told me to get back to Trenton and start fixing things. And that's what I did Babe. I fixed things and waited for you to come back, but you didn't come so I had to come get you.

"Ranger, I told you no. I said we couldn't make love, and you said we could. And we did. What happened that night was way beyond physical and you know it. When I woke up to find you gone I was destroyed. I had to turn to your 'brother' and my ex-lover for help. And they did help me. I wouldn't have made it without Morelli and Tank. Why did you leave me?"

Ranger lifted a hand to caress my cheek. I felt a tremor in his hand. "I knew from the moment you chose to help me when I was being set up for Homer's murder that something was building between us. When we made love the first time at your apartment I thought one night with you would be enough. I thought I could get you out of my system and send you back to Morelli and you'd be safe from me and my enemies. But it didn't work out that way. I bragged to you once that I could ruin you for all other men. I wanted you like I'd never wanted anyone and I was a fool to think one night would be enough. After I'd made love to you I knew there would never be anyone else for me."

My heart was beating erratically. Was he saying what I think he was saying? "Then why did you leave, Ranger?"

Ranger ran a hand through his hair and got up from the sofa. He began pacing the length of my small room. Who was this nervous, gorgeous, out of control man? "Every day I wanted you more and more and every day I was slapped down with the fact that my life had no room for you in it. There were factors I could not control that would have made it dangerous for you and me to be together. When we got married to keep you safe it was torture for me to be so near you. On our last night together I lost all control. I wanted you so badly that I put my need for you before your safety. Tank is right I was a coward. I couldn't face you the next morning and tell you there was nothing more for us. I left so I wouldn't be faced with hurting you"

Ranger had said more to me this evening that he had said in the whole time we'd known each other. It seemed if the dam had finally broken and words were streaming out. Each word was precious to me. I still didn't have a clear idea of where our conversation was leading us, but there was a building joy in the fact that he was with me and we were talking.

"When I came back I knew I had to try and repair what I had destroyed," he continued. "I went to see Father Rodriguez, and I told him there would be no annulment. And then I went to my family and told them the entire story of our engagement and marriage." Ranger came back and sat beside me. He took my hands in his. "I told them I was coming to ask you to give me a chance to make our marriage a real one. "

I started to cry. Not quiet little tears, but big fat ones. "Are you asking me to marry you?" I asked sniffing and wiping tears away with the back of my hand.

"Babe." Ranger leaned forward and kissed the tears off my cheeks. "I am asking you to spend the rest of your life with me. My grandma gave me this." He held out a gold band. "My grandfather put this ring on her finger before they left Cuba. She told me not to come back until this ring was on your finger."

I held out my hand and he slipped the ring on my finger with a trembling hand. I looked up to see tears in his eyes. We came together with passion and urgency. We had waited so long to have a life together and it was time for that life to begin.

I stood pulling Ranger to his feet. Our mouths met and we moved as one across the small apartment toward the bedroom. I was in a frenzy of need. I began pulling his t-shirt from the waistband of his pants. I wanted my hands on his skin. I wanted his hands on my skin. And then I felt Ranger pulling back.

"Babe, we can't," he whispered in my ear.

"We can't?" I asked, my voice low and raspy with passion.

"Not yet." He tugged at me pulling me back into the living room. "There's something else."

I groaned. Hadn't we talked enough for one night. Surely anything else could wait for the morning. I knew he'd be here when the next day dawned. Ranger walked to the sofa and picked up a white box from the end table. Wordlessly he handed it to me. I opened the box. Nestled inside were two pieces of wedding cake. I gave him the full two hundred watt smile.

The End

Thank you to everyone who has reviewed and offered suggestions for this story. This was my first attempt at fan fiction and it has been so much fun. I appreciated all comments and will gladly accept any constructive criticism.