The Plum Universe below is all the creation of JE. I deserve no credit at all.
Jenny (JenRar) I don't have the right words to thank you for taking on this tart story as the beta and working so hard to help me complete it. Any moments that have shined have been in great part due to your skills.
Chapter 27 – Epilogue – Eighteen Months Later
"Hey, Williams. Can you help me move some chairs?" I asked the unassuming man who had been my partner for the last year.
"Where do you want them?" he asked, always so eager to help.
I looked around my parents' backyard and pointed to the shady area under the big oak tree. "I guess over there. We need to be sure there's enough seating for everyone to eat."
We set about working, with Williams bringing the folding chairs to me to set-up and arrange.
"Hola, chica!" came a familiar voice from the back door of my parents' house.
I rushed over to Hector and kissed the tears on his cheek, thanking him for coming to help get ready for the barbeque later that evening. I asked him to help my partner finish setting up the seating and smiled when he walked over and kissed the man I'd set him up with eleven months ago.
I watched them work and smiled at the obvious affection between them. I couldn't understand a thing they were saying, since it was all in Spanish, but I didn't need to know the words to hear the love that infused it.
After our honeymoon and return to Trenton, Ranger told Marco and me that we could never work together as partners, but he would allow us to pick who we wanted to work with. I agreed to come on to RangeMan full time after a few months of pressure from the guys, which meant I would never be on my own rounding up skips. Marco couldn't hide his relief at that fact, so I'd given in pretty easily.
Of course, picking a partner had turned out to be harder than I'd thought. I hadn't been able to bear hurting someone's feelings by showing a preference of one guy over the other. In the end, Ranger had suggested bringing someone in to fill the vacant spot when Brent moved to Miami. I'd begun to think about my time there and had remembered the young man with the hard past, and I knew I'd found the solution.
It turned out that we made a wonderful team, and after a few sessions in the gym with Marco, my husband had come to trust Williams out with me, as well. It had only taken a few surveillance shifts for me to get to the truth that Williams had been intrigued by Hector and wanted to get to know him better, but didn't know how to go about it. I'd set about fixing them up, and within a month, they were as much of an item at RangeMan as Marco and I were.
"Stephanie," my mom called from the kitchen, "I've made ten dozen cookies. Do you think that will be enough?"
"Have you pulled any to the side for Marco to have without having to fight for them?" I asked in response.
She pulled out one of her signature tins and smiled at me. "I wasn't including his in the total count."
I grinned at my mother and couldn't stop myself from going to her side of the counter and hugging her. She patted my back briefly, before pulling away from the sign of affection. We loved each, but my mom didn't feel the need to be too demonstrative about it. Her cookies said what her words never could.
"I'm convinced he asked me to marry him because he thought that would give him open access to your desserts," I said, flattering her.
"I'm glad I could play some role, since we didn't get to see the wedding," she teased with a grin.
My parents had been surprisingly wonderful about my elopement in Florida. I could tell my mother wished she had been there, but that was overshadowed by her relief and joy at the fact that I was so happily married. My dad approved, and the two of them would escape to the garage every time we came over so that neither of them had to endure the circus that seemed to happen when Valerie's brood arrived.
There was a pounding at the door that I knew could only be made from Tank's fist. I opened the front door and stood back, letting the guys in and directing them to the backyard. I got hugs from everyone that passed by and walked through.
When Ranger came in, he shut the door and looked around. "The guest of honor not here?"
"No, the birthday boy hasn't gotten back from Boston, where our slave driver boss sent him," I pretended to complain.
Ranger smiled. "I got a call from Erik about ten minutes ago that Rodriguez was on his way."
We walked to the backyard to join everyone else in time to hear Lester and Bobby arguing about the best way to light the charcoal for the grill.
"I'm telling you, man. They need to be in a big pile," Bobby said, correcting Lester, who wanted the briquettes flat on the bottom.
"You going to intervene?" Ranger asked me.
I couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, I'm thinking me and an open flame is just tempting fate for a call to the fire department. This is one debate someone else will have to settle."
Ranger pushed the cuffs of his long sleeve tee higher up his arms and said, "Step aside, boys, and let me show you how a real man runs a grill."
I was so distracted watching them argue that I jumped when a pair of warm arms surrounded me from behind.
"Hey, Jefa. Miss me?"
I spun around and kissed him, letting my actions answer his question. I rested my head on his shoulder after we pulled apart, not willing to let him go after being apart for the past four days. "Welcome home, Marco."
He sighed, obviously happy to be back, and knelt in front of me, placing his hands on my stomach. "Hey, baby. Did you miss Papa?"
I had long gotten over my embarrassment of people touching my stomach, and whenever Marco did it, I was so touched, I'd never ask him to stop. Something about the way my big tough guy altered in front of my eyes into a tender pile of affection reinforced my joy at our impending parenthood.
"Mom has something for you," I told him, pulling his attention from my newly expanded stomach.
Marco stood up and turned around just as my mother appeared in the door way. "Hey, Mom." He greeted her with a kiss to the cheek. "I left my tin on the counter in the kitchen. Thanks for the care package while I was gone."
She blushed a little at his attention, and then patted the hand on her shoulder. "I filled up a new tin for you. Don't forget it before you leave tonight."
I shook my head, still at a loss about how well those two got along. From the moment I'd introduced him as my husband, she had accepted him. One night, I'd come over when he was working a late shift and told her the story of his life – or at least, the highlights about his family – and from then on, she had adopted him, determined that he never go another day without the love of a mother.
We went to the backyard, and Marco pulled me into his lap in a chair as far as possible from the grill and the flames.
"I'm glad you're home," I admitted to him as he rubbed my stomach in soft circles.
"Me, too," he admitted, nuzzling my neck to place warm kisses there and kicking my already overactive hormones into overdrive.
"You need to stop," I warned him. "We have to stay for dinner and cake, so you can't deliver on what you're starting for at least a couple of hours."
He chuckled, and then redoubled his efforts, apparently ignoring my instructions. "Who says I can't deliver on it?"
"Not here, you can't," I assured him, before he decided to prove me different.
"A minor alteration to our location is all it would take," he pushed.
I let a moan escape, without the ability to stop it. He was entirely too good at pushing my buttons, and I knew if he didn't stop soon, I'd agree to anything he wanted.
"Here are the burgers," my mother announced, handing over the platter of meat to Ranger to cook. "They'll only take fifteen minutes, and I'll have everything else ready then, too."
He nodded, understanding what she was saying – if he dried out the meat, it wasn't her fault, because everything else was going to be ready on time.
"We've got fifteen minutes," Marco growled in my ear.
"Yeah," I said sadly. "Fifteen minutes isn't long enough."
"The hell it isn't," he disagreed, picking me up and rushing us into the house, upstairs to what used to be my room, and slammed the door closed.
"If you want to be able to wear that shirt tonight, you'll take if off," he instructed, gripping the door, as though it were the only thing holding him in place.
Recognizing he needed to feel connected after his time away, I stopped fighting it and lifted my red maternity shirt over my head, dropping it on the floor, before pushing the skirt I was wearing down and stepping out of it, as well.
"Oh, Steph…" he started, unable to finish whatever thought was running through his head.
I met him in the middle as he pushed away from the door, and the instant our hands touched, it was a blur of movement, grabbing, pulling, touching, pleasuring. He had my panties off within seconds and wasted no time thrusting into me.
I bit his shoulder to hold back the scream that threatened to escape at the feel of him completely filling me. "Oh, God…I've missed you," I finally managed to relax enough to say.
As he set a pace that was definitely going to meet my mother's condition of eating in fifteen minutes, I heard him say, "Just you and me." He repeated it over and over again.
A year ago, Ranger had made Marco the Chief Planning Officer for RangeMan, so he often traveled to the other offices to help them plan high profile or large bond take downs to better our chances of success. It was a great job for him, but when he was away from me, he struggled to not withdrawal. I couldn't help but notice the need that poured from him whenever he returned home from one of his trips. There was a desperation to reconnect, as though his strength for facing life was drawn from somewhere deep within me.
I gladly complied, as it thrilled me to be able to help him, and I honestly always loved the reconnection after being apart. Something in my soul needed the reassurance that my other half was safely back in my arms.
"I promise, tonight, I'll take good care of you, Jefa. I'll do anything you want, but I can't hold back now," he mumbled an apology, only heightening my pleasure.
I didn't know how to convince him that when he was so turned on that he couldn't control himself, it had a direct effect on me, as well. "Let go," I assured him, pulling him closer to me and meeting him thrust for thrust.
He kissed me hard enough to take my breath away as I slammed my eyes shut and exploded. Marco slowed down and spilled his warmth into me, shivering with his own release.
He pulled himself back together before I could and looked over to ask if I was okay.
"No," I frightened him by responding. "I'm pissed off that I have to get up and rejoin that party, when all I want to do is go to sleep with you."
"Do you need to rest?" he asked, constantly worried about my well being since we found out I was pregnant.
"I don't need to," I assured him, before clarifying, "I just want to be alone with my husband."
Marco kissed me once more, warmly caressing my lips with his own.
He stood up and pulled his clothes on efficiently, before tenderly helping to dress me.
I hugged him once more to me before he opened the door for us to join the party in his honor downstairs. "Happy birthday, Marco," I told him happily. "I can't wait for you to unwrap your present."
"Please tell me my present is you dressed in leather," he groaned.
I laughed at the idea of my newly rounded belly in leather. "I can't tell you that, but you're thinking in the right direction."
"Let's make this the fastest birthday party ever," he directed, opening the door and pulling me downstairs. "My wish when I blow out the candles will be an early end to the celebration and a long night alone with my wife."
"You were going to get the second part anyway, so there's no reason to waste your birthday wish on me," I pointed out as we slipped back into the backyard without being noticed.
My mom placed the last side dish on the eight foot table she'd turned into a buffet server and announced dinner was ready. We stayed in our seats, waiting until Ranger, Lester, Bobby, Tank, Williams, Hector, and Cal – Marco's current partner, had all gone through, and then we followed my parents through to get our own plates.
Two hours later, I was helping my mom stack the plates in the kitchen as the last of the guests left.
Marco came in from carrying the trash bags to the garbage and sat on a stool against the side of the counter. "Thank you for a great dinner, Mom," he told her, making her smile even with her back to him.
She'd never admit it, but she loved it when he called her Mom.
Dad was over the moon with a male in the family he could relate to. Albert might be a good husband to Valerie, but he wasn't exactly Dad's kind of guy. From the moment we shared the news of our pregnancy, Dad had taken to introducing people to Marco as his son-in-law and the man who was going to give him his first grandson. I had just found out the sex of the baby while Marco was on assignment this week, so I knew it was just my Dad projecting his own hope for the future.
Ten minutes later, we were driving to our house, halfway between the 'Burg and Haywood. We'd managed to find a house that met all our requirements and Ranger's security walkthrough after searching for nearly a year. It had taken a few weeks for Hector to wire it up to everyone's specifications, but eventually, we were able to move in. Apparently, we'd been really happy with our new place, because five weeks later, I'd found out I was pregnant. We had just decided to start trying, assuming it would take us a while, and had been shocked that we'd apparently gotten lucky on our first try.
Marco set the alarms, and I put the leftovers from Mom in the fridge and took off my shoes to free my tired feet. I hated the effect this pregnancy was having on my energy level, but I knew it would be worth it when our baby came into the world, so I tried to keep my complaining to a minimum.
I waited until he'd done the sweep that I knew was necessary for him to relax, and once he'd declared the house was all clear, he pulled my back to his chest to hold me to him.
"Now, about my present," he began in his gravely sexy voice.
I had to stretch away from him, bending at the waist, since he was gripping my hips, to reach the small package I'd wrapped for him to open.
"Oh yeah," he groaned as I bent over and stretched, lifting my rear end slightly in front of him. "Happy birthday to me," he teased some more.
I finally reached the present and stood up to give it to him.
"I hope you like it," I told him as I gave him the present, nervous that I should have tried harder to find him a real gift.
Never one to take his time with presents, Marco ripped the paper off the box and stared at the small silver frame containing the picture of the ultrasound from yesterday. "What is this?" he asked, not looking away from the frame.
I ran my finger over the picture I now knew so well. "This is the first picture we have of your son."
"My…son?" he asked, swallowing back emotion between words, and then reaching out for a stool to sit on, as though his legs couldn't hold up the extra weight of the picture.
I ran my fingers through his dark hair and kissed the top of his head, standing beside him protectively. "We're having a baby boy," I rephrased, hoping that would help him to accept the news a little easier.
Marco wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me closer still. "It's not just you and me anymore, is it?"
I softly laughed at his first concern since I'd announced we were having a baby. "Of course it is. This little boy is a part of you and a part of me. It's just that who we are is expanding by one. But for all time, it will be just you and me."
My warped explanation seemed to satisfy him enough to stand the picture up, and then turn to pull me to stand between his legs. "My son," he repeated, rubbing my belly and leaning down to kiss the shirt over my little bump.
"It's hard to picture now, since we still have sleepless nights, dirty diapers, and teething to get through first, but this little boy is going to grow up big and strong and have a life of his own one day. And once he's all grown up and making his way in the world, it will still be you and me, Marco," I assured him, feeling my love continue to deepen for the man who held me so securely.
"You'll make sure I'm a good papa, right?" he asked, uncertain.
"You're already a great papa," I promised. "You love me, and you'll love this piece of me, too."
He smiled and looked back up to my face. "Yeah, I can do that."
Come on," I said, taking his hand in mine. "We've still got a couple of hours left in your birthday, and there's something else you need to unwrap upstairs."
He raised a single eyebrow at me, clearly interested in whatever I had in mind.
"Give me a five minute head start to change," I instructed.
"I can help you change," he suggested. "Better yet, I can just take those clothes off of you, and we can jump right to the good stuff."
I held my hand up to stop him when he stood up. Not breaking eye contact, I took a few steps to the side where we hung our keys on little hooks and picked up the item I'd placed there before leaving home this morning. I knew exactly how to cut the crop through the air to make it smack loudly against my hand for the greatest effect.
"I said to give me a five minute head start, and I meant it."
Marco didn't so much sit back down as he did stagger and collapse against the stool. "You still have the crop?" he asked, his eyes getting larger as he focused on my hands.
"I don't think I gave you permission to ask any questions," I pointed out, reaching over to run the end of the crop up his leg.
I had never tried giving him the full Dominant treatment like he'd coached me in Boston, and for some reason, I felt like trying it out tonight. He often let me take control when we had sex, but I'd never assumed a position of complete dominance, and had begun to wonder what it would be like.
I could see the outline of an erection against the zipper of his jeans, so I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be one hell of night.
Moving the crop under his chin to lift his face, I looked him in the eye, and then glanced at the clock on the wall. "In five minutes, you will walk up those stairs and sit on the end of the bed to wait for my next instruction. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he replied with that growl I loved in his voice.
Wanting to take this as far as he'd let me, I asked, "Yes, what?"
He couldn't stop my favorite crooked grin from coming over his face. "Yes, Jefa."
"That's right. Don't forget who's the boss here," I warned, struggling to keep my face from matching his.
It only took me two minutes to rip my clothes off and slip into the nightie I'd found at Fredericks of Hollywood. I'd needed something a little more than what Victoria's Secret could supply, and when I found this lace teddy with leather strips woven in, I knew it was the perfect outfit for tonight. It was loose enough to accommodate my growing belly, yet I still felt sexy in it. Plus, there were little ties all over it that I intended to have Marco undo with his teeth.
I leaned over the counter in the bathroom to fluff my hair and wait for Marco to come up and saw the smile on my face. I remembered the morning before we first made love and how I'd done the same thing at the beach house.
So much had happened since then. I was happily married, settling into a home, and loving the idea of starting a family. My parents and I were getting along beautifully. We had lost Grandma Mazur after her heart attack two months ago, but she had been so happy with her life right up to the day she passed away that I couldn't mourn her too much, because I knew it was exactly what she wanted. I was blessed beyond measure with a great job that I loved, friends almost too many to count, and a husband who adored me more than I could have ever guessed or hoped for.
When Ranger first sent me on that assignment to Boston, I'd worried I would fail and not be able to train the staff or help Marco to come out of his self-imposed exile. I didn't think I was ready for a real relationship, and I never would have guessed that I was marriage material. And yet, I'd decided I was going to use the break from Trenton to look at myself and come back home a new woman – one that was stronger and more in control of her own life. As I heard the sound of Marco's footsteps, I couldn't help but smile.
It seemed I had managed to do that very thing. With the help of Rodriguez, I had come home a new woman, stronger, and more in control, because I'd learned there was strength in letting someone support you, and sometimes, allowing someone to join your journey was the greatest sort of control.
I opened the door of the bathroom and stopped there to see the man I loved waiting with his hands clasped between his knees. I strutted over and lifted his chin to look into his eyes. I needed to let him know he could stop me at any time, but I could tell from his expression, he understood that already.
Instead, I simply said, "It's still just you and me."
This time, it was his turn to add, "Forever."
Of course, that didn't mean every day of eternity had to be the same…now, where had I put that crop?
A/N: I can't believe this story is finished. I say that everytime, but for Marco and Stephanie it seems espeically true. Of course, no story is developed without lots of help, and this was no exception. I am blessed beyond measure with a wonderful beta who gives of her time and excitement to keep me on track and typing away. And to all of you who took time out of your day to leave a review - thank you. Knowing that people were reading along and enjoying the journey of these characters meant so much. And for you Babes who began reading against your will, hiding behind disguises and swearing you could never see Stephanie with anyone but Ranger - thanks for giving Marco a chance. I have been blown away by your support. I'll be taking a week or two off to get these characters out of my head and then I'll be back with a new Ranger/Steph adventure. Hopefully you all will join me! ~Jennifer