Disclaimer: I do not own Stephanie Plum or any of the other characters in the Plum universe.
A/N: I just want to say thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, favorited, and alerted this story! It means a lot to me! I've enjoyed hearing all of your thoughts.
Stephanie laughed as the can shot off of the post, "Now this kind of target practicing I kinda like. I don't know why, but it's more fun watching the can fly, then to see holes in a paper target."
"That's because this is just for fun. A paper target still has the shape of a person, that's why you don't like it. Still, it's good to know you aren't a bad shot, if it came down to you having to fire."
"Is this part of my bridal mercenary training? You need to know I could protect my man if push came to shove?" Stephanie muttered sarcastically.
"I think your man can probably protect himself, but he would feel a lot better knowing you could protect yourself, if he wasn't around to do it. I already know you've killed before, and it's not hard to see you still haven't gotten over it."
Stephanie stared out at the cans lying on the ground, "How many people do I need to kill Jed, before it gets easy for me? When will my conscience be clear?"
"I don't think it would ever get easy for you Sassy. In your line of work though, it's going to be necessary from time to time. Some people just won't listen to niceties. You might think about that."
"What's to think about? Are you telling me I shouldn't be doing this job, I'm not tough enough, because I've got to tell you I've heard it countless times before."
"I think you're very tough. Not many people could go through the things you have and still be sane, or as close to sane as you are," Jed grinned. "But no, I don't think you're cut out for this line of work and I don't think you do either. It's not an insult, but you have to be cold and hard at times to do this. Apparently, you're a big warm softy. That's why you and Ranger are good for each other. You give each other balance. I have to wonder though, if you have a problem with Ranger being able to be hard and cold."
"I think Ranger has a dark past that he doesn't want me to know about."
"Of course he does. There are things he could never tell you about, and I imagine he wouldn't want to even if he could. It's not easy doing the things Ranger and I have had to do. You try to make the world a better place and that comes at a price. Not everyone can do it, but don't hold it against him because he can. Ranger has helped his country many times and he'll have to live with the nightmares that come with that for the rest of his life. He shouldn't have to worry how you secretly view him."
Stephanie was quiet while trying to process that bit of information. Did Ranger really worry about what she thought of him, and did he really have nightmares? She didn't know why, but she never thought about it before. Sometimes she thought nothing could scare him.
"You'd be surprised just how much your opinion truly matters to Ranger whether he'd admit it or not. A man doesn't want his woman to see him as a monster. And for future reference, if he does have a nightmare and you're around, don't question him about it or make a big deal. Just be there for him."
"More advice from Dear Jed?"
"Sassy, you need all the pearls of my wisdom you can get."
"Maybe you should write a book now that you're retired."
Jed laughed, "I might just do that. I've got someone coming to pick up the horses in a little bit. I asked his wife to pick up some ingredients and some simple, beginner recipes. You're cooking tonight. She also picked you up a dress and shoes. Go take a shower, and prepare a delectable feast."
"If it turns out bad, are you still taking me home tomorrow?"
"You're going home tomorrow."
"So you mentioned before about heading to Canada for a while. What are you going to do there?"
"I'm retired, I do whatever I want, but I need to make a trip to Brazil first and see an old acquaintance for coffee."
"Long way to go for a cup of coffee."
"It's my own unique special blend. I'm going out, so don't burn down the cabin."
Jed turned and walked back towards the truck, leaving Stephanie alone.
Guess I've been dismissed. I wonder what a beginner's recipe is.
Stephanie hadn't been out of the shower more than thirty minutes when she heard a knock. Josie and her husband Earl were there to get the horses, and she handed Stephanie a notebook with handwritten instructions for mashed potatoes, fried chicken, peas and carrots, and cornbread. Stephanie figured these were Earl's favorite foods, so maybe Jed liked them too and had requested them.
Josie assured her she wrote step by step instructions and she wouldn't have any problems. She then handed her three bags and turned and left. Stephanie had actually made mashed potatoes before at her mothers, but it had been awhile. If they turned out a little lumpy, she'd just tell Jed she thought he'd like it that way. The peas and carrots were frozen in a bag so they were no fail. The chicken scared her. She had flashbacks to the hot grease splashing on her hands and arms from the fry baskets the horrible day she had to work at Cluck-in-a-Bucket. The chicken was going to be difficult, if she undercooked it, she could possibly kill them with Salmonella. It would probably be better to overcook then undercook. If it turned out a little black, she could just say it was Cajun. Stephanie gathered her frying pan and pots, gave herself a pep talk and got to work.
She did it. She had actually accomplished something she never thought she would. She fixed dinner by herself. She burnt the first couple of pieces, but then she got the hang of it. She also ate those pieces so there was no evidence of her mistake. She even cleaned up the kitchen a little, had the table set, and was dressed in the simple but cute sundress that Josie bought her. The shoes were plain sensible black pumps, not FMP's, but she thought overall it looked pretty good. She actually felt a little like June Cleaver. She never considered what time Jed would come back though when she had started cooking, and now it was six fifteen, and she was afraid it was ruined. Her mother was right, one minute after six and it starts going downhill. She had just decided to put it all back in the pots and try to reheat when she heard the sound of tires on the gravel in the driveway. Finally! She went to the door to open it and yell for him to hurry up. Huh, one meal and she had turned into her mother. She stopped herself from going to the door, and sat down in a chair.
As the door opened she started, "What took you so long, it's getting cold?"
"Didn't know I was expected at a certain time Babe."
"Ranger! What are you doing here?"
Ranger glanced around the room taking in the table which was lit with candles, and looked back at Stephanie, "I thought I was rescuing you, but it looks like maybe I'm interrupting something."
"I think this is my graduation exam. Apparently cooking can be important and Jed wanted me to fix dinner. Where is Jed?" She had expected him to walk in after Ranger.
"He called me this morning and told me where you were at and to come pick you up. I imagine he left, so I wouldn't have to shoot him, and he wouldn't have to shoot me."
Stephanie thought about that for a minute, "You wouldn't really have shot him would you?"
Stephanie looked back at the door, "I can't believe he didn't say goodbye or anything. He acted like he was coming back. He told me to fix a delectable feast, got me this dress and"….. he wanted me to fix it for Ranger. My dinner for the man I love so he can be proud of me. Stephanie felt her eyes start to water and looked away.
"Babe, are you crying?"
"No! Of course not. Do you want something to eat? I mean it's fried not grilled, and I used a lot of butter, but … Ranger would you like to have dinner with me?"
Ranger didn't comment on her red face. He didn't know why she was embarrassed, they'd eaten together before, but he walked over to the chair across from her and sat down.
Stephanie gave him a little smile. It's now or never. She picked up the bowl of potatoes and passed it to him, "Here, have some potatoes; I love you, would you like some cornbread?"
Ranger had reached for the bowl, but froze. He looked at Stephanie for a second, "Babe, did you just tell me you loved me and then ask if I wanted cornbread?"
Stephanie sighed, "I did. I thought it would be like ripping a band aid off, so I just threw it out there."
"So you're saying it's painful telling me that you love me?"
"Not painful, but hard. I don't know why it's so hard for me to say, I mean it's not just with you. I've always had a hard time saying it to anyone. But it's important to me that you know that I do love you. Would you like some chicken?"
Ranger gave her his full smile, "Is this going to be your new way of telling me? Saying I love you and then offering me food."
Stephanie laughed, "Maybe, just until I get the hang of it."
"I love you too Babe."
Stephanie looked at him. She thought back over every time he had helped her, all of the things he had did for her and given her. He never yelled at her. He was always patient with her. Sure he had been aggravated with her, but it had been short lived and he never held any mistakes against her. He had loved her better than anyone had ever loved her. His way was good. His way was the best.
"I know you do."
Stephanie took a bite of her potatoes. Not piping hot, but no lumps either. "If it's not hot enough, I can reheat it."
Ranger took a bite and shook his head, "No, it's good Babe. I didn't know you cooked."
"I don't. I started to give it a try once, but something happened and my first attempt didn't go well, so I didn't ever really try again," she shrugged. She had confessed her story to Jed and she thought it would probably remain a secret between the two. She glanced back to the door. "He didn't say when he'd be back or anything?"
Ranger stopped eating and looked at her, "You're not supposed to bond with your kidnapper's Babe."
Stephanie rolled her eyes, "I didn't!"
Ranger was still watching her.
"Okay, maybe he wasn't so bad and he kinda helped me sort through some stuff and figure things out. I think it was more an intervention then a kidnapping. I just thought he would have at least said goodbye. That's all."
"Jed helped you figure out cooking?"
Stephanie grinned, "He knew I should finish something I started. It feels sort of good that I did it."
"So you enjoy cooking now."
Stephanie thought back to her afternoon alone in the kitchen. Preparing a meal had always seemed like an impossible task to her. It had always intimidated her. She had certainly been intimated earlier, but she struggled through it and persevered. Did she enjoy it?
"You know, I really don't. I'm not sure it's going to be a new hobby, but I can do it if I ever want to, and that feels good. If I ever have to, I can whip up something besides peanut butter and olive sandwiches."
"They're not that bad."
Stephanie had chosen that moment to take a drink of her water, and got strangled. When she stopped coughing and wiped the tears streaming down her face, she glanced up at Ranger. He hadn't meant to say that, she could tell.
"You've eaten them before?"
"No, seriously you do not eat things like that. When did you try one?"
Ranger gave her his blank look, and she thought he wasn't going to answer her. After a few seconds he said, "You left some bread and peanut butter in my cabinets, I had some olives, so one evening I decided to try one and see why you enjoyed them so much."
Stephanie grinned at him. No one had ever tried one of her sandwiches before. Not Joe, not Dickie. They always said it was gross. Knowing Ranger cared enough about her to want to know why she liked them made her incredibly happy. And Valerie thought her cuddle umpkins was sweet. Stephanie realized Ranger probably wouldn't want to hear how sweet that was so she didn't comment. Also for some unknown reason she felt the need to share an embarrassing tidbit with him, since he didn't already know hundreds. This was an embarrassment just for him though.
"The people at the counter in Macy's now hide the sample bottle of Bulgari from me, because I spray so much of it whenever I pass by. It makes me think of you, especially when you're out of town, so I spray it all over my clothes and then it feels like you're close to me."
Ranger didn't comment to that, but Stephanie could tell he liked it.
"This is good Babe."
"Thanks," Stephanie actually felt giddy that she had fixed dinner for Ranger and he liked it. Okay so maybe it might be a little bit of fun fixing him some of his favorite foods. She'd have to snoop around and see if she could figure out one of his favorites.
"I'm not for sure what changes you've decided to make, but I need to discuss a few things with you."
Stephanie put her fork down and gave Ranger her full attention.
"As of this morning, Rangeman is now the owner of Vinnie's. We're still finalizing the details, but I will be making some changes. First off will be the name. I'm keeping Connie on as office manager and Lula as a receptionist and file clerk, although she will have some training first."
Stephanie smirked at that. Lula working for Batman. She'd be too afraid working for Ranger not to act professional.
"I'll be rotating some of the guys to work out of the bond's office. I won't have a position for you there."
This could not be happening. "You're firing me? Unbelievable! This is just great; it's like some curse or something. Stephanie fixes dinner and she gets screwed over yet again!" She grabbed Ranger's plate and headed to the sink. She felt so stupid. She thought they were sharing a moment. She had spent the last few days thinking about him, realizing she wanted more with him, and he spent the week doing business and getting rid of her. She felt Ranger standing behind her. She wasn't for sure what possessed her to do it, but before she could think of the consequences, she scooped up a handful of potatoes and turned and flung them in Ranger's face.
Ranger had been caught off guard. Stephanie guessed no one had ever started a food fight with Batman. It didn't take him long to recover though, and before Stephanie could hit him with the peas and carrots, he had her hands restrained. She supposed the adrenaline was keeping her going and instead of stopping she kept fighting and somehow it turned into a wrestling match. They were both rolling around on the floor, Stephanie assumed Ranger was trying to avoid handling her to roughly, but that just made her mad. He apparently didn't mind breaking her emotionally. She figured she held her own for a good thirty seconds before Ranger had her fully restrained. He sat with one arm wrapped around her, one hand over her mouth, and his leg draped over her legs, holding them down. He didn't say anything for a minute; probably giving them both time to calm down.
"I was not finished. I do not have a position for you at the bonds office; however I would like to offer you a position at Rangeman. Do you want to hear it?"
Stephanie shrugged her shoulders. When Ranger didn't continue, she nodded her head yes.
"I would like to use you for research, and customer relations. You were a buyer for EE Martin. I'd like you to use your business skills to help sell security for Rangeman. You said before I could use a woman working for the company fulltime. I've held off hiring anyone, hoping you would decide to come back. I won't force you to take it. If you really want to work at the bonds office, I'll make room for you after you complete an extensive training program. I could use you at Rangeman though. You have a way with people, and I think you could really help expand the company."
Ranger took his hand down from her mouth, "You would have your own office. You would handle client lunches, and dinners. I think most of our clients would feel more comfortable meeting with you. You'll have an expense account for clothing; you'll need business attire since you'll be out of the office a lot. You have good instincts, and I'd like you to use them in dealing with clients, and research when we need it. You'll also have a company car. Are you interested?"
Ranger was offering her a dream job. She felt so stupid now. She turned to look up at him, "I am. I'm also sorry I threw potatoes on you. I kinda snapped for a minute."
"You were scary Babe."
"I know. I thought you were cutting me out. It made me mad and it hurt."
"I'm trying to bring you in closer Babe, but there will have to be some compromises."
Stephanie figured there would, "Okay, let's hear it."
"If I bring you fully in my life, I need to take precautions to keep you safe. You'll continue to carry a personal tracker with you at all times as well as one on the vehicle you are driving. I'll also want to assign a bodyguard to you when you are out of the office."
"I've gotten use to the trackers, but a bodyguard, I don't know. That seems a little extreme."
"You won't know he's there if you don't want to."
"This is important to you?"
"You are important to me. I need to know you're safe as possible. I don't know how to do this Steph, I'm willing to try, but I don't know what I'm doing."
"Me neither, but do you love me?"
"More than anything."
"Then we'll figure it out. I love you too," She looked at the mess on the floor. "There's still chicken and cornbread, if you want some."
Ranger laughed. "You're combining your love for me with food again Babe."
They got an early start back to Trenton the next day, and Stephanie checked the messages on her cell phone. Jed had left it in her bag. Most of the calls were from Lula and her mother, with one from the bank this morning. She decided to call and get that one over with. Maybe when she told them she had a new job, and would be depositing more in her account, they would agree to waive the fee this month, putting her back in the plus instead of minus. Linda left a message for her to call back as soon as it was convenient for her. They went to school together, and she thought maybe Linda could help her out.
"Hey Steph, thank you so much for returning my call. We really don't recommend customers leaving so much cash in a checking account. You don't have a savings account with us, so we would like you to consider an IRA or CD."
"Very funny. Look, I'm changing jobs, so I'll be depositing more in my account soon. Could you maybe waive the fee as a onetime courtesy until I get my finances straightened out?"
Linda was quiet for a minute, "Steph five hundred thousand was wired into your account this morning. Just stop in as soon as you get a chance and someone here will help you decide which options you should consider."
Stephanie disconnected without saying goodbye. "He gave me the chance for variety," she said in disbelief. He didn't say goodbye, but he gave her half a million dollars.
"He's giving me the chance for lean cuisines. Ranger I have to find him, please help me. He said he was going to Brazil, something about coffee and an old acquaintance."
Ranger shook his head in disbelief. How she did it he did not know. He had fallen madly in love with her, and Jedidiah had more or less adopted her. Probably she wouldn't want to know that Jed was taking out a possible threat to her, "Babe, I couldn't find him even if I tried. If he wants to be found, he'll let us know somehow. Maybe he'll send you a postcard."
"I feel like those people who just won publisher's clearing house. I can't believe he gave me his life savings."
Ranger let out a bark of laughter, "Babe, that's a drop in the bucket for him. That old man has a lot more than that. He probably didn't want to overwhelm you."
"Overwhelm me? Ranger yesterday I had minus twenty-five dollars!"
Stephanie's phone rang making her jump. She had hoped it would be Jed, but it was Lula.
"Girl, everyone is talking about it! Shocked, I was shocked. I mean I suspected, but I never thought it would actually happen!"
Great, now they figured out she had been kidnapped. She didn't like the term. Jed had helped her, he was her friend. She didn't want anyone thinking badly of him.
"I'm alright, it all worked out. I'm actually on my way home now."
"Well, you need to get over to your mother's house. Mary-Lou and Valerie are arguing it's going to be them, Mary-Lou's in a tiff thinking Kelli will try to get it. I know it's going to be me, but I'm not even going to tell them, I'll let you do that."
"Lula what are you talking about?"
"What am I talking about? Maid of Honor! What else would I be talking about? Everyone's talking about it. When Kelli called me and told me to check out the morning paper, I didn't know what to think. Then she told me how Batman came out there and proposed like that. Girl, I didn't know he could be so romantic. "
"Wait a minute, what do you mean Maid of Honor and morning paper?" Stephanie looked over at Ranger who was listening intently.
"Girl, it's on the front page and your mama's phone has been ringing off the hook. Of course this time it's not because you blew something up. Girl you and Batman are famous! No one else's engagement announcement ever gets on the front. That's how big this is. You hurry up and get over here. If you want a June wedding, we got a lot of work to do and I'm taking classes now too you know since I have a high position at Rangeman. What….. I don't know? Your mama wants to know if you're going to use black as one of your colors."
Stephanie snapped her phone shut.
"I guess he's planning on visiting in June."
Stephanie couldn't find her voice to answer him.
"I think maybe it would be better if we eloped in May, Babe. It might be safer for your dad, just in case Jed was planning on walking you down the aisle."
That statement snapped her out of her stupor, "Are you serious?"
"You never can tell with Jed. I'll put a man on your dad in the meantime."
Stephanie grinned at him and shook her head.
"Big day Babe. What excites you more, the money, our surprise engagement or seeing Jed Again?"
"I think I'm dreaming! This doesn't seem real. Ranger if Jed does come back, couldn't you find a place for him at Rangeman? "
"What? He would be a very valuable asset to your company. Look at all of the experience he would be bringing. You said yourself, you can't even find him. He could help train your men or something."
"Babe, my men would be terrified of him."
Stephanie snorted, "He's an old man, be serious."
"I am being serious."
"Please? Just think about it, okay."
Ranger picked up her hand and kissed it. She said please, and she wanted it, so he knew he would give it to her. Hopefully she'd change her mind!