A/N: I'll confess: I haven't done any writing since January. Not original stuff or fan fiction. Thought my muse died. Alas, she arose from the dead a few weeks ago, insisting I write this story. I'm going to warn you now: this is an amnesia story. I was resolutely opposed to writing an amnesia story because, in my opinion, it's an overdone and unrealistic concept in books and movies. But. This plotline has been nagging at me ever since I read Secret Seven by Donna B a few years ago. And all writers know, when the nagging plotline won't go away, the only way to banish it is to write it. The voices in your head will take over if you don't. ;)
This story is not heavy in angst, and is a much lighter (and much shorter) treatment of the subject than the amazing story that inspired it.
Any medical errors and misassumptions are mine. Research isn't any fun and fan fiction is supposed to be fun. At least that's my philosophy!
Tank angled out of the SUV just as Ranger passed through the glass doors. Newark International Airport wasn't terribly busy at this time of day; he knew Ranger would have no problem spotting him. They met at the back of the Cayenne and exchanged bare nods while Tank popped the hatch. His silent fare tossed his bags in the back as Tank climbed into the passenger seat. Ranger would insist on driving.
Fall had fully given way to winter and the steady dull grays of barren trees and overcast sky leant a foreboding air to this long awaited homecoming.
His friend looked cool and impassive as always. Black cargo pants tucked into black shit kickers. Painted on black shirt. Black wool pea coat in deference to the January cold. And mirrored aviator glasses just because.
Tank made a production of buckling his seat belt as Ranger peeled away from the curb a little faster than strictly necessary. "Shit, Rangeman, Steph's not goin' nowhere, she knows you're coming home today."
Ranger's lips thinned but he didn't say anything. Tank felt bad for the guy. Truth be told, he felt bad for the bombshell too, but she was taking things pretty well, all things considered.
Changing lanes, Ranger said, "She didn't argue about moving into my apartment." That Tank could detect incredulous doubt in Ranger's flat, matter-of-fact statement told him exactly how off kilter Ranger really was at hearing about Stephanie's predicament.
"Nope. Agreed she shouldn't be alone. Wasn't all the interested in moving in with her folks. Girlfriend might have a closed head injury with zero memory, but her self-preservation instincts are dead on. Week after week of daily familial hospital visits and Helen Plum successfully reestablished the Bombshell Eye Twitch."
Small, nearly imperceptible head shake from Ranger. "And who sold her on moving in with me?"
"First of all, you have to know that the Stephanie you're about to see isn't the Stephanie you left behind."
Ranger's knuckles blanched white on the wheel and Tank instantly regretted his poor phrasing.
"No, man, I mean … she's fine. Aside from the head injury thing and the no memory thing. But she's …" He shook his head, searching for a way to explain this new, emotionally transparent version of the most important woman in Ranger's life. "All I can say is she's the most upbeat, optimistic, trusting, and enthusiastic amnesia patient ever to walk the Earth. Even her doctors are mystified." Tank shook his head again. "If she didn't have so many friends and so much family in the area, I'd be worried about someone taking advantage of her."
"Who convinced her to move in with me?" Ranger repeated, voice hard and patience worn thin.
"You're listed on all her forms as her power of attorney. She may not have her memory, but she can still read."
"That was her doing. She told me there was no way in hell a thirty year-old woman should leave her life decisions in the hands of a 'burg mother."
"Well, there's that, and she noticed you were also listed as her next of kin…"
Ranger spared a glance at Tank. "Who the hell filled out her admission forms?"
"Who the hell you think? You have a whole friggin' dossier on how to deal with a bombshell crisis. There was a crisis; I grabbed her ICE file, called your lawyer and met him at the hospital."
No accolades from Ranger, but then, Tank didn't expect any.
"It'd be nice if, when you're in the wind for weeks at a time, you'd check your fuckin' messages at least once," Tank added conversationally.
"Are you my mother?"
Ranger was freaked, understandably. He'd give him a pass. When women panicked, they'd wring their hands, babble, chew their nails, cry. When Ranger panicked, he generally got real quiet and short, and generally acted like a dick.
Assuming Ranger would want some blanks filled in, Tank told him, "Lula, Connie and Mary Lou visited her in the hospital every day whenever the Plums couldn't. When she started asking the girls what they knew about this Ricardo Manoso guy, they were all too happy to describe her hot Cuban boyfriend, 1000 thread count sheets, and Ella. All that, in addition to the name on the bottom of all her medical and insurance forms, and she was ready to check out AMA."
"How would those women know I have 1000 thread-count sheets?"
Tank shrugged. "Guess Steph must have told them at some point."
"They told her I was her …"
"Go on. Say it. Her Hot Cuban Boyfriend." Tank smiled, loving Ranger's discomfort. For all of his good qualities, Ricardo Carlos Manoso still suffered mightily from stick-in-ass disease.
No external reaction from the man, but Tank knew he'd just poked the bear. "I'm not her boyfriend," Ranger told him.
"Then who the hell is?"
Ranger did his almost shrug thing and went silent. Stupid fucker.
A few minutes later, Tank offered, "You know she and Morelli are still off."
Nothing from Ranger. In fact, if crickets were allowed to exist in a Rangeman vehicle, they'd be chirping the 1812 Overture right about now.
Tank tried again. "Cop's outta the picture. Been out since before you left. She's living in your apartment, sleeping in your bed and thinks you're her own personal Latino Love Machine. You gonna make your move?"
Ranger scowled. "She's healing from a head injury and has no memory of me, or of the three years of baggage between us, and you're asking if I'm going to make my move. You said it yourself; she could be easily taken advantage of. What kind of asshole do you think I am?"
Tank considered telling his friend that he might be the kind of asshole who possessed a vagina, but decided against it. He liked his teeth exactly where they were.
Not for the first time, Ranger thought of the old adage, 'Be careful of what you wish for.' There had been times in the last few years when Ranger had either wished he'd said certain things to Steph sooner, or not said other things at all. A do-over. But never at a cost of losing what made Stephanie … Stephanie.
He'd gone through at least a dozen emotions since Tank had gotten a hold of him, and the only positive one had been relief that she was alive. But even that momentary relief was overshadowed by the forthcoming knowledge that every second of every moment between them had been erased. Might never return.
Ranger stood outside the reinforced door to his apartment and tried to find his center. It was hopeless. He hadn't been able to find his center since the day he met Stephanie Plum. Ranger had received all Tank's messages as soon as he'd returned stateside, and the news about Steph had turned him upside-down, inside out, and out of his body all at the same time.
Stephanie got hurt picking up a skip. Knocked down cement steps. Cracked her head. Coma for a week. Recovery for four. Living in his apartment for two. Amnesia.
Living in his apartment.
Man the fuck up, he told himself. Blowing out a breath, Ranger fobbed the door open and tossed his keys in the dish on the sideboard. Dumping his duffle on the floor in the foyer, he bent to unlace his boots. He could stall just like anyone else. The trick was to look busy while you were doing it.
There was no handbook to this: How do you introduce yourself to someone you know better than the back of your hand? How do you act with a friend and lover who won't even recognize the sound of your voice?
He'd just started on the second boot when he felt her watching him. Looking up from his task, he couldn't hold back a grin at seeing her crazy hair, her beautiful face. It'd been too long. "Babe."
Stephanie's lips parted, her eyes went wide and unblinking, and her breath caught audibly; an adorable blue-eyed doe caught in the open by the hunter.
Though it was only early evening, Steph was dressed in blue and white plaid flannel pajamas that were partially covered by a chocolate colored throw draped over her shoulders. She had fuzzy oversized socks on her feet. When she found her voice, all she said was, "Holy cow."
Her eyes were raking him from head to foot, her breath uneven, pulse fluttering at her throat. He'd been visually undressed before, and even by Stephanie, but Stephanie hadn't begun to even think about stripping him with her eyes until she was comfortable with him, had been intimate with him—after she knew for certain what he looked like under his clothes. For all intents and purposes, Steph was just meeting Ranger for the first time. She hadn't reacted to him this way the first first time she met him. Admittedly, it'd stung his ego a bit. But it had also had turned him on. Encouraged him to make some effort.
No, this response was closer to the reaction he'd gotten from her when she thought he was about to collect on their deal. She'd ended up drinking herself into a stupor—not a difficult task for Stephanie—and passing out on the sofa. An excellent defensive maneuver, as it turned out, because as badly as he'd wanted her, his moral gray area did not venture into any nonconsensual territory. Unconscious was about as nonconsensual as you could get.
That night stung his ego as well, not that he let it discourage him. He was a bit of a masochist when it came to Steph, he supposed.
Ranger kicked off his boots and took a tentative step toward her; he wasn't sure if she'd bolt.
She didn't move. Her eyes kept flitting between his face, his chest, his abs and—he noticed with some amusement—his groin. She just kept muttering, "holy cow," under her breath, her hands twisting at the ends of her makeshift shawl.
At a loss for what to do, he held out his hand, thinking he should introduce himself. "Carlos Manoso."
She stopped her unabashed appraisal of him instantly and frowned at his outstretched hand. "I thought you were my boyfriend." She seemed disappointed. "Ranger," she clarified.
Disappointed he wasn't Ranger? And then he thought about what she'd really said. It was surreal hearing Stephanie Plum say the words Ranger and boyfriend in the same breath, referring to him.
He decided it wasn't worth splitting hairs.
"I go by Ranger," he told her.
The pleats marring forehead smoothed instantly, and then she was up on tiptoes, pressing a sweet kiss to his cheek. "Welcome home," she breathed.
Before he could think of how to respond to a Stephanie instigated kiss, even a chaste one, she appeared to realize her brazenness and stepped back to her original position, flushed and fidgeting. Her mannerisms were so artless and charming, he couldn't help but smile.
Seeing that change in his face, Stephanie tipped a fraction to the left, bumping the wall, seemingly blinded. "Holy cow," she whispered, gobsmacked.
Grabbing her under her elbow, Ranger guided her into the living room. Stephanie seemed torn between watching where she was going and looking over her shoulder at him, as if she couldn't believe he was real.
He couldn't blame her. He couldn't believe any of this was real.
Once she'd settled on the sofa, Ranger sat across from her on the coffee table, his knees bracketing hers. He made to tuck her hair behind her ear, more out of habit than necessity, but dropped his hand impotently, realizing he had to start at square one in the boundary department. Which was difficult, because he never started at square one with any woman—standard operating procedure was starting at square three or four.
Square one was for pussies and lovesick fools. He decided not to ponder which category he belonged in. Wasn't productive.
Clearly having noticed his aborted movement, Stephanie said, "It's okay, you can touch me."
He hooked the curly strands over the shell of her ear, acutely aware of her rapt gaze on his face.
She blurted, "You're so pretty."
"Babe," he said on a laugh.
"Seriously," Stephanie said shaking her head. "How the hell did I land you?" Before he could answer, she stood up and started pacing, the blanket falling to the floor unnoticed. "I mean, the cop, that Joe guy…" Steph stopped and leveled a knowing look at Ranger. "He's hot. Movie star handsome, even."
Ranger had nothing helpful to add to Steph's enthusiastic—if misguided, in his opinion—description of his arch-nemesis, so he just quirked a brow.
"But everyone tells me that he was kinda the town bike—a man whore—and that I lost my virginity to him. So I decided I must be really good in bed, or have gotten really good in bed if Officer McHottie to stuck around for three years."
Ranger had to make a concerted effort to keep his face blank and to not picture Steph and the cop in bed, or the cop training her … to do anything.
He must have given off some vibe, because Steph narrowed her eyes at him. "Is that it? Am I like some sort of sexual savant? A freak in bed? Cause you're … Wow. And I'm …" she waggled her hand in the air in a so-so gesture. "Meh."
She looked him up and down again, shaking her head. "A pairing like this doesn't occur in nature. Unless …" She twisted her mouth thoughtfully. "… do I do butt stuff?"
Ranger barked out a full-on laugh. And just like she did when she didn't have amnesia, her face lit up at the sound.
The hell with boundaries. Ranger stood and pulled a startled Steph up, then snug against his hips. She stiffened for a moment, then went with it, sagging into him, sliding her hands over his shoulders.
He looked at her perfect face—at least perfect to him—scrutinizing every part of it, from her shockingly crystalline eyes to the delectable cupid's bow of her upper lip. He looked at her hair, wild and electric. He remembered her body, soft and lush, just where a woman's should be.
"Babe, to me, on a scale of one to ten, you're a thirty."
She frowned a little, disbelieving. "But I have a ginormous ass."
"I'm Cuban," he told her, like that would explain everything. She continued to look perplexed, so he added, "Our men honor and revere that type of thing. Worship it, even."
Steph squeaked, "So I do do butt stuff?"
Resting his forehead against hers, Ranger gave her a mischievous grin. "Not so far."
"But I'm good in bed?" she asked, bringing a hand to her mouth to gnaw on her thumbnail.
"We're good in bed. Together."
"So we do it a lot?" She looked both terrorized and excited. Finally, a familiar expression from Steph.
"Not near as much as I'd like," he admitted. "You've been known to turn me down from time to time." Almost every time, he amended silently.
Steph stopped gnawing a moment and gaped. "How do I say no?"
"A question for the ages, Babe," he said. Finally pulling away from her, Ranger headed for the bedroom. It'd been a long day.
She padded behind him, flopping on the edge of the bed as Ranger continued on to the closet.
Up until he'd left on this last mission, Steph's clothing took up maybe five percent of the hanging area. Mostly uniforms, but also a few distraction outfits, as well an item or two of casual wear that Steph had left behind and Ella had laundered. Steph had also been allotted a drawer for undergarments, and a small section for shoes.
Now Steph had usurped a good, solid forty percent of his closet. Maybe forty-five. Ella may or may not have had a hand in things; the entire space smelled girly. Yanking open a random drawer, Ranger found a froth of silk, lace and satin, and nestled in the center of the pile was a tiny purple embroidered pillow of sorts—a sachet?
He held it up to his nose. Yup. The source of the girly smell. He wasn't categorically opposed to girly smell, per se; he just preferred it directly on the girl.
Dropping the sachet back into the drawer, Ranger shook his head. When Steph's memory came back, he was seriously going to explain couple to her. If he was expected to hand over fifty percent of his dressing room, negotiations were in order.
Once he peeled out of everything but his cargoes, he made his way back into the bedroom. There he found Steph splayed out in her thinking position, knees hanging over the edge of the mattress, eyes closed.
Walking to her, he nudged her knee with his.
Her eyes popped open and she propped herself up on her elbows. "Yeah? Holy cow! Nobody's stomach looks like that! Nobody!" She reached a hand forward as if the touch him, but stopped short, remembering herself.
Ranger arched a single brow, a silent dare. He couldn't help it.
She looked up into his eyes then, both amusement and frustration clear on her face. "This is weird," she told him. "I don't know how to act with you."
"That never stopped you before."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that the Stephanie Plum I know shoots now and worries about a lack of bullets later."
"Why do I think that wasn't a figure of speech?"
It was then that he noticed just the smallest measure of terror behind her blue eyes. She was scared. She was a stranger in a strange land and she'd put all her trust in some guy listed on the bottom of some forms.
Though his intent was to run through the shower, then reassess and regroup under the guise of catching up on office work, his instincts told him otherwise. He sat near her hip, his eyes focused on the wall in front of them.
"I don't know how to act, either," he admitted.
The bed dipped a little as Steph turned towards him, on her side, and she hesitantly traced her finger along a faded scar low on his back, making him harden almost instantly. Only Steph could induce a state of imminent lust with such an innocuous touch. Thank Christ he had his back to her. No sense in New Steph knowing who had all the power this early in the proceedings.
He was sure she was going to ask about the scar; he was wrong.
"We're like strangers," she stated, "but then again, we're a couple."
"Of sorts," Ranger hedged, as he looked at the floor between his feet.
Her finger froze in its path. "We're … lovers?"
He couldn't lie to her. He had no moral problem with evading certain issues, answering ambiguously, or ignoring questions all together, but he couldn't outright lie, not to her. Not about this. "We've been lovers, yes. And friends-"
Steph scrambled to her knees, looking mortified and ready to bolt. "Been lovers. Not currently lovers? They implied you were my boyfriend! Lula said … We're just-Oh my God! I've been driving your cute little Mercedes since last week. I moved that stinky hamster into your pristine kitchen. All my clothes … I threw out all my ratty panties so you'd only see my best ones!" she nearly sobbed.
He grabbed her arm before she could leap off the bed and possibly out of her skin.
"Babe." He poured every ounce of intimacy in his tone, hoping to somehow reach the piece of Stephanie that belonged only to him.
She went still. It shouldn't have amazed him, but it did. Ranger moved to squat on the floor in front of her and cupped his hand behind her neck; she was clammy. "Head between your knees tiger, slow, deep breaths."
He rubbed her back while she collected herself, telling her truthfully, "You should be here. We're not just friends. We were never just friends." He looked around the room, searching for the perfect words to describe their relationship … and failed. No such words existed.
And probably he'd fuck up what he meant to say anyway. He had a special gift for doing that, he though wryly.
He could tell her he loved her, but that wouldn't really even scratch the surface. Ranger used to tell Steph that she and Joe had an unhealthy pattern of relationship. Truth was, so did he and Steph. It was hard to remember that there was a time when he thought this love triangle bullshit was fun, exciting.
Disgusted with himself, he simply admitted, "Steph, you and I are a lot alike. We do things the way we want, when we want and how we want. We forge our own paths, and we don't try to fit in."
From the small twitch of her mouth, Ranger thought maybe she wasn't surprised to hear this about herself.
"Neither one of us have ever really talked about what's between us, we've never defined it. Both of our lives are complicated. You're complicated."
Steph snorted, "My life is complicated? I have no husband, no kids, no identifiable career path, and I possess less than some homeless people do. How am I complicated?"
"You have no idea." Ranger shook his head. "Bottom line, I trust you. I'll always have your back. And I'm pretty sure you'll always have mine."
"Babe, before you bumped your head, you were not the most open book in the world. Your face has always been expressive and you often made your opinions known whether it be with a razor sharp tongue or a deftly delivered hand gesture, but you are not a talk about our feelings kind of girl."
"Wouldn't a guy like that?" obviously latching on to the last part of what he said.
"You'd think." Truth be told, not knowing exactly how she felt about him or what her expectations were did allow him some measure of distance, which was a desirable effect when the cop was in the picture. But mostly it drove him batshit crazy.
She frowned at him, still confused. He swore softly and then decided to just level with her. Sort of. "If you ask anyone on Stark Street, you're my woman." Both her eyebrows popped up at that. "If you ask anyone in this building, they'll tell you that you belong to me." In for a penny, in for a pound. "While you're living here with me, if you come home to me without your panties, I'm going to go out looking for the guy who has them, and it won't be pretty."
"Why would I…" she shook her head and started on a different tack. "You sound pretty domineering. Do I like that?" she asked, sounding doubtful.
"Not at all."
"But I put up with it?"
"Not really. I just ask that you keep the power plays private; my men don't need to see you getting away with things they'd never get away with."
Her eyes narrowed slightly, challenging. "Do we fight?"
He thought about it. There had been times he'd been frustrated with her, even angry, and he was damned certain she'd been angry with him in the past. But between the two of them, they'd always managed to diffuse things. He knew for a fact there'd never been a screaming match between them and he'd never once raised his voice to her.
"We've had differences of opinion," he told her. "But we've never had a proper fight, not once in three years.
"But I'm Italian," she told him, incredulous.
"And Hungarian," he added helpfully.
"My grandmother says that's probably explains how I've bagged two of the hottest men in Trenton. Hungarian pheromones."
"I'm both frightened and fascinated by this unfiltered version of you."
"That's what Tank keeps saying. And Lula. And Mary Lou."
Which reminded him. "I'm curious. What exactly have people told you about me, us?"
Steph feigned sudden interest in a nonexistent snag in the stitching of his duvet. "Tank doesn't say much. He mutters under his breath, mostly, and does a lot of head shaking. But he insisted I was his responsibility until you 'got your ass home'." She'd deepened her voice two octaves and did an adorably accurate impression of his second in command.
"And Mary Lou," he nudged.
Steph still wouldn't meet his eyes. She seemed more comfortable talking to his chest. "Mary Lou said that about a month before you left, Joe and I broke up for good, and I told her if I ever even considered getting back together with him, she should strip me naked, tie my ankles to Big Blue's undercarriage and drag my ass all over New Jersey until I recanted. So I thought that moving into this Joe guy's place seemed the wrong way to go. And …" she looked down at her lap and took a deep breath. "…she didn't know anything concrete, but she was pretty sure you and I have had something going on, on the down-low, for at least the last two years … maybe while I was dating Joe." She looked up at him then, obviously miserable at the thought that she was the type of person to be unfaithful to anyone, and fairly pleading with him to dispute what she'd just told him.
He blew out a breath and stood, waiting for her to look up into his eyes. Once she did, he said, "It wasn't like that. Not how she made it sound. You and Joe … I don't really think you two had strictly defined parameters … and you two broke up and got back together a lot."
"What's a lot?"
He could have told her nineteen times in the last thirty-eight months, but he was pretty sure she'd be more horrified than he was that he knew the actual number. He said nothing.
"So I just jump from one bed to another?" she prodded.
"Babe, what does it matter?"
"Apparently it matters more than you're letting on, or else you'd just tell me."
Just his luck.
Her instincts were, as always, dead on.
ICE-In Case of Emergency
AMA- Against Medical Advice