Stephanie

Part of me felt humiliated. I hated crying in front of Morelli. He never gave me a hard time about it, but I knew that he couldn't stand to see me upset because he always got a pained expression on his face when I started crying. I always felt like I was making a fool out of myself when I let myself cry in front of anyone. In the Burg, you didn't express that sort of thing. I could probably count on two hands the number of times I'd cried in front of any member of my family since I became a teenager. My sister, appropriately nicknamed "Saint Valerie", never got upset. I hadn't been an emotional basket case as a kid, but next to her, I was. It was one of the many things that distinguished us and made me feel less than her in my parents' eyes.

Another part of me wondered why I never initiated hugs or kisses with Morelli. I could always blame it on the way I was raised. Growing up, my mom expressed affection with food. Hugs weren't a regular occurrence. Then again, I'd been rebelling against this Burg mentality for most of my life. I had no trouble giving Mary Lou hugs. Not so much the kissing part. On the other hand, we'd been best friends since we'd been in diapers, so there wasn't much insecurity there. There was some emotional insecurity with Morelli, even when it was just us.

Probably, it had more to do with not completely trusting Morelli. Even though the idea of being with him filled me with warm and fuzzy feelings all over, he had hurt me in the past and if I wanted to be completely honest with myself, I was probably still working through that. I knew he wouldn't leave me after sex and write disturbing poems about it on public property, but the past was still there. I wanted to forgive Morelli, and on most days, I'd say I had, but I guess the damage was still there.

Now, Morelli cradled me in his arms and I contemplated our similar upbringings. We'd both grown up in the Burg, with its strict unwritten codes of behavior, most of which I'd rebelled against. He'd rebelled against the expectations of everyone, becoming a decent person despite his family history of the males being cheating drunks. More than that, though, he'd rebelled against the prohibition regarding expressing affection.

Not that he did a lot of that in public, but it seemed second nature in private. On the other hand, I certainly enjoyed his hugs and his kisses and encouraged them, but I always seemed to be the recipient instead of the giver in these exchanges. Sure, I hugged Morelli back and reciprocated his kisses with my own, but he was always the one who started these exchanges. Maybe there was more Burg in me than I'd have liked to admit.

The thought was pretty depressing.

Then, I reminded myself that I initiated sex at least half the time, and felt a little better about myself. I wasn't becoming a Burg housewife.

So, I guess it made sense that he'd been surprised that I'd asked for more non sexual physical intimacy.

Once this registered in my brain, I felt a little more ready to have this conversation. So, I leaned my head back against his shoulder to look at him in the face. "I'm sorry," I whispered.

Morelli's arms tightened around me. "Steph, you have nothing to be sorry for. I'm sorry, okay? It was a stupid comment."

I shook my head. "It's true, though," I said miserably. "I'm a cold person."

Morelli raised his eyebrows at me. "Cupcake, you are anything but cold."

Except he hadn't been saying that five minutes ago, I observed. I definitely wasn't frigid when we were in bed together. I was even willing to try some things I had flat out refused to do when I'd been married to Dickie.

"I'll try harder," I promised, but I realized how awkward that would be for both of us. I'd probably try to hug him at the wrong time, or we'd start making out in front of the guys at his precinct.

Actually, the second one might not be too bad for Morelli. I could see some of his coworkers commenting on me being a good kisser, if that. The thought made me smile. Still, it wasn't like I was going to invent some disgustingly sweet nickname to use on him in public. That would cause lasting damage to his reputation…

"Steph, as cheesy as it sounds, I really don't want you to be anything but yourself." He paused. "Well, maybe if you could stop getting your cars blown up or stolen…"

I gave him what I considered to be a light punch in the stomach. "That's not my fault!" I protested.

"Ow," Morelli complained, loosening his hold on me to rub his stomach.

So much for the punch not hurting much.

"Sorry," I said for the tenth time that day.

Morelli stopped rubbing his stomach and took a seat next to me, putting an arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him. "I love you, Steph. Even if you are insane." When I glared at him, he added, "Which is mostly a good thing."

Glad that the conversation was moving away from the dangerous waters of expressing our feelings towards physical affection, I was happy to take the bait.

"You're not exactly normal either, Morelli," I told him.

Morelli let out a laugh and gave my shoulders a squeeze. "This I gotta hear."

"Well, for one thing, you're much hotter than normal."

He grinned widely. "Uh huh. Okay, I can't say I disagree with you there."

"I mean," I continued, "aside from the fact that you have a tiny scar on your face and you usually look like you need a haircut, you pretty much wake up looking drop dead sexy."

His face began to turn red. "Maybe that's because you're not wearing contacts when you wake up," he pointed out.

I rolled my eyes. "I'm serious."

Morelli brushed a piece of hair out of my face. "Cupcake, you don't exactly wake up looking like a zombie."

I made a face. "Yeah right. I need a shower, a blow dryer, and a ton of makeup just to look okay."

Morelli raised his eyebrows. "Sweetie, you never look just okay. Besides, I love your crazy hair when you just wake up."

I did another eye roll, but I appreciated the compliment. "Uh huh. I look like a mad scientist."

Which he'd told me, albeit jokingly, on more than one occasion.

"A very sexy mad scientist," Morelli contradicted. At my snort, he added, "I think it's a girl thing."

Eyes narrowed, I asked, "And what do you mean by that?"

Morelli raised his hands in the universal signal of surrender. "Just that women usually have longer hair than men, so it takes more work to keep it under control. Especially after sleeping on it for eight hours or so."

He had a point. "You think I should get super short hair?" I teased.

As though on cue, Morelli slung one arm around my shoulder and began to play with my hair with the other one. "I think you'd look sexy even if you were bald. But I like your hair the way it is right now. Maybe even a little longer," he added.

That was something to think about. Later, though.

"So what you're saying is, you don't take hotness enhancing drugs?" I queried.

"We need to get you new contact lenses, Cupcake," he grinned.

"Okay." I paused, considering other alternatives that did not have to do with my eyesight. My mind immediately turned to Twilight. "Maybe you're a vampire."

He made a face. "I don't drink your blood, and I certainly don't sparkle when I go out in the sun."

"The blood part is questionable," I retorted. "You might do it when I'm sleeping."

Speaking of which, I was starting to feel pretty tired. Crying usually wears me out.

"I might," he conceded with a grin, "but I guess you'll never know."

I tried to swallow a yawn, but it came out anyway. Morelli scooped me up in his arms and headed in the direction of the bedroom.

"Time for your nap," he told me, placing me on the bed. I yawned but, not wanting to sleep in my clothes, started to take off my dress before he could tuck me into the covers. Morelli watched as I stripped down to just my underwear, and grinned.

I rolled my eyes at him. "No, we're not doing it right now. I'm too tired."

Morelli gave me a kiss on the back of my neck. "How about after you get your beauty sleep? I can show you some of my vampire moves."

I smiled. "Maybe. Hey, I thought you said you weren't a vampire."

Morelli just did another grin, which faded as I walked over to the dresser and began searching for a nightgown.

Morelli stepped in front of me, blocking my view of the assorted clothes and nighttime attire I'd jammed into the drawers.

"I think you're too tired for that, Cupcake."

I gave him a halfhearted shove. "Not that tired, Morelli. Now, move."

Morelli must have realized that I was serious, because he stepped aside without further protest. As a means of compromise, I put on the sexiest nightgown I packed, which was basically a see through slip that covered my butt, but not much else. Morelli carried my dress and bra over to the top of one of our dressers and then got a good look at me and groaned.

"You're trying to torture me, aren't you?"

I pulled the covers off the bed and got comfortable under the sheets. "I'd consider it a compromise. It's better than sleeping naked."

"I don't know about that," Morelli commented.

"Remember what we were talking about earlier?" I asked. At his nod, I continued, "I'll be extra nice later."

Morelli just groaned and started to head for the door. Acting before my brain caught up with my mouth, I spoke up.

"Will you stay with me? I thought we could cuddle."

Even saying the word gave me goosebumps.

Morelli's eyes seemed to soften as he considered for exactly half a second. "Okay."

He sure didn't waste time as he peeled off most of his clothes. Less than a minute later, he was lying next to me, holding me in his arms, only wearing a pair of boxers. I sighed contentedly and lay me head against his chest. He began to rub my shoulders with his free hand.

"When you wake up," he promised, "I'm going to show you why you think I'm hot."

I maneuvered myself out of his arms to give him a kiss on the lips. "I'm really looking forward to that."

Morelli tucked a stray piece of hair away from my face. "Me too. Sweet dreams, Cupcake."

Joe

I was glad I'd been able to smooth things over with Steph before they'd reached an all out fight. We weren't new to fighting, and the makeup sex usually made them worth it, but I didn't want our vacation to be ruined with a huge confrontation about Steph's lack of physical affection. Especially since, while it may bug me from time to time, I mostly accepted it as one of her quirks. It was similar to how she was obsessed with peanut butter, whereas I could take or leave the stuff.

Not that I'd been right to confront Steph about it.

I'd known for awhile that she came from a family that showed love by showering the other person with food, as opposed to hugs or just telling that person that they loved them.

My family had been a little better at the hugs and telling people you loved them. Or maybe it was one of the ways I'd matured over the years. Also, most of the women I'd dated had been pretty affectionate. Lots of kissing, plenty of hugs, and they always wanted to cuddle after sex. Sometimes, it had been a little too much, so Steph's standoffishness was actually sort of appealing. It wasn't completely unlike getting used to a cat after spending your whole life with dogs. Steph was loving in her own way, but she didn't run to greet you at the door with a hug that would knock the breath out of you.

Had she always been like this, or was her reserve a response to how I'd treated her when we were growing up? I remembered Steph being sort of quiet at the Tasty Pastry, almost shy. Of course, girls were usually nervous around me. She'd certainly been loud enough with her friends.

At the same time, even if Steph wasn't used to giving hugs, I guess I'd figured I'd been used to this until that comment came out of my mouth.

It felt like the kind of thing you'd tell someone if you were drunk, but I hadn't had any wine or beer that day.

Then again, being around Steph makes me happy and kind of tipsy a lot of the time, so I guess that there are similarities there. The main question was whether Steph acted like she did because it was a comfort issue, or because I'd hurt her in the past and it was some kind of defense mechanism?

Unfortunately, I didn't think that even Steph really knew the answer to that question. I'd just have to be patient and let her know I was there. I wouldn't pressure her to do anything she wasn't completely comfortable with.

I realized that our families were expecting that this vacation would result in some concrete answers to the questions they'd been hinting at, if not asking outright.

Questions like where's Stephanie's ring, when's the wedding, and are you going to insist that Steph quits her bounty hunting job and become a decent wife?

Well, the last question had a pretty concrete answer. A definite no. I had no business telling Stephanie what kind of job to take, even if her current job sort of scared me at times.

Then again, if she decided (on her own) that bounty hunting no longer appealed to her now that she was going to get married and didn't need a source of income, I would completely and totally encourage that decision.

Hell, even if she decided that she wanted to take on another job that was almost as risky, I'd be okay with that. I knew where the lines were, since she'd drawn them plenty of times. I smiled as I remembered her kicking me out of her Buick, half naked, after she'd discovered the bug I'd planted in her handbag. I'd done it to keep her safe when she'd been tracking Kenny Mancuso, but I'd been stupid to count on her not finding it. What rotten timing, for her to have found it just when we were about to have sex for the first time in fourteen years!

Looking back, I should have come clean and told Steph that I wanted to bug her for safety reasons. She'd let me place a bug on her just a few weeks prior to that case, back when I'd been FTA. Sure, she'd gotten even with me by wearing the bug in her panties, but she'd worn it so I could keep her safe, and that had been what mattered. Really, I could think of several times when I probably could have kept Steph safer if I'd been more honest with her. I didn't want to be a tyrant, but it was hard not to come across as a little hard headed when danger seemed to stalk Stephanie Plum. I guessed that, even now, I was still learning by trial and error what she would and would not tolerate from me.

I watched her now, sleeping peacefully, totally content in my arms. I always enjoyed watching Stephanie sleep. She'd look younger, like the kid I'd grown up knowing even if we rarely interacted. Sometimes, I still couldn't believe that I was dating Stephanie Plum, the girl I'd had a crush on as a teenager but was too scared to do anything about.

Scared of her family as much as her. I'd known my reputation as a bad boy.

The other questions would be more difficult, but necessary to ask. Okay, maybe not so much the ring one, but we'd have to figure out when we wanted a wedding, which implied that we both wanted to get married. There was no question that I wanted a relationship with Stephanie, and that would include marriage eventually. I considered myself to be a fairly traditional guy. Well, maybe in the very beginning, when we started having sex again, I'd been afraid of a relationship. But Steph had been equally scared, even if she wouldn't admit it. I'd hurt her before, after all. And when we'd first flirted with the idea of hooking up, back after Mo had been caught, I'd gone into hiding (from her) for a few months. That hadn't been a good decision, even if I'd told myself I had been attempting to give her time to really think things through.

After we'd first hooked up after fourteen years, back when Steph had been staying at my apartment, I'd been extremely nervous about what would happen between us. I wasn't so much opposed to marriage as opposed to marriage to someone who'd gotten me addicted to Maalox through her insane lifestyle. A good Burg housewife would be the obvious choice, and there were plenty of women out there who would be happy to join the Morelli clan. Still, I wasn't attracted to any of them, and I was attracted to Stephanie. At first, I'd been too scared to admit that it went further than attraction and chemistry. As soon as she started throwing terms around like "commitment", I'd gotten scared and we'd stopped having sex altogether. Later on, we sort of came to an agreement that we could be together in a relationship without needing to set a wedding date.

Except, of course, my nosy and scary grandmother butted in and scared us (okay, more Steph than myself) into getting engaged. I'd initially been opposed to the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more attracted I became. I mean, Steph WAS the girl for me, and I knew that there were other men (specifically, Ranger) who had their eye on her. I wasn't as old fashioned as the rest of the men in my family, who would pretty saw marriage as the man claiming the woman as his personal property. That idea kind of sickened me. If Steph and I were going to get married, I would belong to her as much as she would belong to me. We'd be complete equals...that is, if she didn't take complete charge. The problem was, I wasn't sure if Steph wanted to get married, and I didn't want to push her into something she wasn't completely ready for. She'd had a horrible experience with Dickie, and if she needed more time with me so I could show her I wouldn't be anything like her turd-brained ex-husband, I was more than willing to give her that.

I just knew that we'd have to have some sort of discussion about this before the long weekend was up, if only to have something to tell our families. I was at least 70% sure my grandmother wouldn't attempt to curse Stephanie if we ended up not being engaged (not that she COULD curse people), and I suspected that Stephanie's family would wait-albeit grumpily-as long as she needed them to do so. Then again, if Steph DID want to get married, I wouldn't want to be the one to hold her back.

Yeah, we definitely needed to have that talk at some point...

Up until my grandmother's intervention, I'd thought that we were in a pretty good position. We were committed to each other, and that meant taking time to spend quality time with each other as well as having sex. The time that Steph's grandmother had been living at her apartment had been really hard for both of us—Steph because sleep had become a thing of the past, and me because any time alone with her had become a distant memory. When I found out that the lack of sleep had pretty much triggered her flu, I began to feel really bad that I hadn't been more receptive to Steph's needs during that time. I could have given her a key to my house so she could head there during the day, when she would have had the time to rest and clear her head. Even if I wouldn't be there to enjoy that time with her.

Part of the reason I'd been so insistent that she stay with me after getting sick, even going so far as to "kidnap" Stephanie, was out of guilt that I hadn't really been able to prevent it.

Deep down, I knew it wasn't directly my fault that Steph had gotten sick. Then again, I'd have trouble NOT going into a severe depression if I found out that Steph learned she had an inoperable brain tumor or some other deadly disease that couldn't have been prevented. What I did blame myself for was not doing enough to prevent Steph from getting sick. I mean, there are steps you can take to prevent illness that was caused, at least in part, by exhaustion.

Like, eliminating the exhaustion factor. Steph wasn't a dainty Barbie doll, but she had limits, even if she refused to admit to them. Besides, I liked taking care of Stephanie. Steph would call it the chauvinist in me, but I liked making sure that she was safe and being there to see to all of her needs.

This meant that I still felt kind of guilty about giving her food poisoning, maybe more so than I would have felt if she'd gotten angry at me for it. Steph had known I hadn't done it on purpose, but that just made me blame myself more.

I watched Stephanie sleep now, my arms still cradling her body against mine. The expression on her face was peaceful, which was how she usually looked when she slept. Stephanie was a very sound sleeper, only snoring occasionally. Which she'd never admit to doing. Actually, when she snored, it sounded more like a small animal coughing than any human noise. Weird sounding, I knew, but that was the best way I could think of to describe it. One of these days, I'd have to smuggle a tape recorder into our bedroom and catch her in the act. She still wouldn't believe me, but it would be evidence. I grinned, thinking of ways I could threaten to use this evidence against her. Tell her I'd bring it up at one of her family dinners.

Not that I would. Steph knew I'd make threats on which I had no intention of following through. I considered it to be more playful than anything else.

Steph's nose began to twitch, and she actually let out a couple of tiny sneezes in her sleep.

"Steph?" I asked, tentatively.

"Mmph," she grunted, eyes still closed. She rolled over on her side, nearly crushing my arm in the process. "No more chocolate cake."

At least, that's what I thought she said. Maybe it had been "no more milk shakes."

Feeling sort of devious, I decided to see what else she'd say. "Any vanilla cake?" I queried. "Birthday cake?"

There was a pause, and then, she said, "Bob, don't eat my bra."

I covered my mouth to muffle my snicker. That was definitely something that Bob would do.

"But what about the cake?" I pressed, stroking her hair.

Steph turned her head towards the pillow and told it something unintelligible. It consisted more of sounds than letters, but if I were to repeat it, it would sound something like, "Mmshdi oskkhh mmph burr kkmrdmd."

I gently removed Steph's face away from the pillow, and then she started snoring. I stroked her forehead, and she stopped and leaned in towards me. I watched her sleep for a few more minutes, but she seemed to be past talking or making weird noises. Oh well.

I wasn't feeling very tired, and I figured that Steph would be out for at least another hour, so I stretched my hand over towards the small desk and retrieved the remote. I turned on the TV, keeping the volume high enough to hear what was going on, but low enough not to run the risk of waking her. Given that it was a Saturday afternoon, there wasn't much good on. Lots of kid shows and soap operas. Some sports games with extra innings, but those were teams and sports I didn't care about. I clicked over to the movie section and decided to check out what was available as far as free movies went. Usually, the free movies were old or obscure titles, but sometimes you found something good.

I was pleased to see that "Twilight" was one of the titles offered. I'd suggest to Steph that we watch it later that night, after buying plenty of popcorn and candy. No point in watching a movie without those necessary items. I continued to browse the other free movies, but aside from horror movies that would definitely wake Stephanie up and ensure that she didn't sleep for a long time (not, I reflected, that this would be entirely bad…), nothing looked appealing. I switched over to the TV shows and was catching up with the final season of Lost when Steph roused herself from her sleep.

I knew she was up because I felt her move closer towards me—not a small feat when we were already cuddling—and placed her head on my chest, face down. I grinned and began stroking her hair. She let out a few appreciative noises and then removed her arms from my back and began to stretch them. Her head flopped away from my stomach and onto the sheets. Steph rolled over on her stomach and nearly fell off the bed before I caught her.

"Man, Cupcake, even sleeping is dangerous for you," I informed Stephanie, planting a kiss on her forehead.

"Yeah," she agreed, clearly more asleep than awake.

It always took Steph a few minutes to wake up from a sound sleep, so I used the time to hold her with one arm and smooth her hair back with the other. When she was no longer in danger of falling off the bed without my assistance, I reluctantly let go.

"Was I out long?" she asked me, moving to a sitting position.

I'd made it through the first three episodes of Lost, so I estimated that she'd been sleeping for at least an hour and a half.

"Less than two hours," I confirmed. "Are you feeling…rested?"

Knowing what I meant, Steph grinned. "Very."

I turned off the TV so I could focus my entire attention on Stephanie, who was starting to fumble with her nightgown.

"I can help you with that," I offered.

A half an hour later, we were back to cuddling as our heart rates slowed down.

"If we keep this up, I'm going to need a lot more pizza and boardwalk fries for energy," Steph remarked, rather dryly. "Not to mention multiple naps for recovering."

I snorted back laughter. "Recovery? Great, you make it sound like it's an operation."

Steph just poked me on the arm. "You know what I mean."

I did. As much as we both loved sex, Steph's usual reaction to it was—if not downright exhaustion—then at least drowsiness for a good half an hour. She always slept like a rock if we did it more than twice before bedtime. We could never make love more than once during a weekday morning unless, by some rare chance, neither of us had to go to work before noon. This had happened once in all the time we'd been together.

A twinge of worry crept into my mind, and I wondered if she wasn't feeling some effect of the flu and the food poisoning.

"You're okay, though, right? You're not sick?"

Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Joe, I'm fine."

"Okay, but if you ever feel like you aren't, please tell me," I requested.

Stephanie let out a long sigh. "Fine, but quit babying me, okay? I'm not a kid."

That remark stung. "I know that."

My hurt must have shown, because Steph softened. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Me too," I complied, sort of surprised. Apologizing was a big thing for her. I extended my arms to her, and she climbed into them and made herself comfortable in my lap. "I love you," I told her.

She smiled and gave me a long kiss on the lips. I guessed this was Steph's way of saying she felt the same way.

It didn't exactly bother me that Stephanie hadn't used those words to me. As with physical affection, I just realized that it wasn't something she was used to. I hoped that if I was patient enough, it would come naturally, on its own.

It would sort of defeat the point if I had to ask Steph to tell me she loved me.

Besides, I knew that loving someone meant more than just saying it to them. My father had told my mother that he loved her regularly, but this was usually in the middle of a fight, or after she found out that he'd contracted a disease from another woman he'd been seeing on the side. What my father usually said was some form of, "Angie, you know I love you." My mother would just nod and tell him, always sort of sadly and quietly, that she loved him too.

I guessed that she must have, to have stayed with him for so long. Then again, Morellis didn't believe in divorce. Not even under the grounds of adultery. I sort of agreed with that, but I knew that I'd take the sanctity of marriage more seriously than most of my male relatives, living or deceased.

It had helped, growing up, that my dad never hit my mom in front of us kids. Maybe he hit her behind closed doors, but it was never hard enough to leave a mark. Also, his behavior with other women made me fairly certain that he never forced my mom to have sex with him.

The thing was, there were codes of behavior even in our dysfunctional family, and the families like ours that traditional Burg housewives would refer to as "bums." The men passed down these rules from generation to generation, but the rules were never stated explicitly and always taught by example. They prevented the "bums" from becoming truly heinous criminals. There was a huge difference between a jerk and someone who did stuff you could go to jail for.

These rules were as follows: Absolutely no nonconsensual sex for the males. If your wife or girlfriend wouldn't give you sex, you could find it somewhere else, as long as you were reasonably discreet. Hitting the kids was okay, as long as you didn't send them to the hospital. If you have to hit your wife, don't ever do it in front of the kids or other adults. On a similar note, the male kids were not allowed to hit the girls, or else the not hitting them to the extent of them needing medical treatment rule didn't apply. If you got a girl pregnant, you married her. Female Morellis weren't supposed to have sex until marriage. Males were supposed to have sex as long as they were careful or, if they weren't careful, were prepared to marry the woman they impregnated. Also, if you were a male Morelli and weren't having safe sex, it better be because you had a girlfriend. After all, Morelli men could have affairs outside of marriage, but they weren't supposed to father children outside of marriage.

All of these rules were all unspoken, but every kid and adult knew them. Every one of us obeyed them.

I rejected all of them, except for the marrying your pregnant girlfriend and not hurting your wife in front of the kids. But I didn't believe in hitting your wife, period, so I guessed that I rejected that one as well.

My hormones may have led me to follow the rules about having a lot of sex with consenting females, but my morality made me see that it was pretty pointless to do this unless you planned on being with that one woman permanently. That "one woman" was Stephanie Plum.

If a female didn't know these rules before she married a Morelli, she found them out soon enough. Of course, few females who married into the Morelli family were completely ignorant about what they were getting themselves into. We had a reputation throughout the Burg.

I knew I didn't want to be the typical cheating Morelli husband when I married Stephanie. I'd hurt her enough when I'd been a teenager. If I could go back in time and do things over, I'd never have visited her before joining the navy. Or, if I had found myself unable to stop my past self from visiting the Tasty Pastry on that fateful day, I probably would have stopped things before they progressed to making out.

Sure, I'd have told Steph how much I cared about her, but explained that my commitment to join the navy was about my becoming a better person.

And not nullified that by taking her virginity. That action had caused us both a ton of heartache. Even now, I couldn't blame Stephanie for not being able to tell me that she loved me.

I knew that she did whenever we kissed or made love.