I know it's been a whiiiiiiiile since the last update. Bear with me! I promise that I will see this story through to the end. Thanks to everyone who has reviewed or sent an encouraging private message! Sometimes they really are the gentle shove I need to get my rear back in gear!

Bold from Chapter 27

Steph's POV

My eyes filled with tears, happy tears this time. I blinked them back and with a silent nod I began picking up the clothing that was scattered across the room. From the corner of my eye I could see Ranger, Simms, and even Julio helping as well.

What had I been thinking? I was going to leave this? Ranger, a man who I was pretty sure loved me and treated me wonderfully; Simms, one of my best friends; for what? For Joe? For a man who used me, degraded me, and made me feel horrible about myself?

Never again I vowed. Never again would I allow him to control me. To make decisions for me. To use me. Never again.

Chapter 28

Ranger's POV

My cell phone buzzed on my hip. I dropped my black dress shoes back onto the shoe rack and checked the read out. Eddie. I had already gotten a status report from Les and Bobby, so I wasn't sure why Eddie would be calling.

Stephanie looked up as I walked towards the bedroom door. She tipped her head to the side in question, and I held up a hand and shook my head.

"How does he do that?" she muttered under her breath, folding a pair of jeans.

I smirked as I stepped into the kitchen. Stephanie thought that she was unreadable, but her face gave her away every time. Her emotions played across it without restraint.

Keeping one eye on the bedroom door, I answered Eddie's call. "Yo!"

Eddie sighed heavily. "Hey, Ranger. We've got a problem."

Fuck. Those were quite possibly my least favorite words. "Explain." I answered calmly.

"Well…" Eddie cleared his throat nervously. "It's Joe. I'm not quite sure what to do here…"

I waited, but Eddie didn't continue. "My guys said he was fine when they got there."

"Um, yes, he is, but…"

I clenched my jaw. "Eddie, if you need me to help you with something, you're going to have to tell me what's going on."

Eddie started babbling so fast that I could barely catch everything he was saying.

"It's just that I'm a mandated reporter, you know? I'm supposed to report suspected abuse. Like nurses and teachers, they're mandated reporters, too. And I know I didn't do a very good job of that with Steph. I should've reported it. I should've let someone know. I mean, I was supposed to. That's my job. I'm required to report that, but I didn't. I don't know what I was thinking. Well, I wasn't thinking, I guess. I just didn't want it to be true, ya know? So I ignored it, but I can't ignore it this time because Joe keeps telling me over and over! And what if something happens? And I ignored it again? I mean, what kind of friend would I be then? Then I would've let them both down! They'd both be hurt, and I could've stopped it, but I didn't! And what about my job? If the chief ever found out that I knew, I might lose my job! It's just…"

Finally I couldn't take it anymore. "Eddie!" I barked into the phone. Silence. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

He sucked in a breath. "It's Joe. He keeps talking about how his life is worthless now, and there's no point in him going on. He hasn't done anything. As far as we know, he hasn't acted on any of those impulses, but…"

Eddie paused.

"But you're afraid he will."

"Yes." Eddie answered quietly.

I ran a hand through my hair. "What do you need me to do?"

"I don't know. I just can't let another one of my friends get hurt if there's something I can do to prevent it."

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "You know what'll happen if you call the paramedics, right?"

Eddie let out a sigh. "Yeah. They'll take him to a psychiatric hospital for a couple of days. Talk to him. Do group therapy."

"Do you think that's what he needs?"

Eddie snorted. "I don't know. I don't know what he needs. Part of me thinks he needs a good, swift kick in the ass. Another part thinks maybe he does need someone to listen to him."

I clenched my fists and willed myself to remain calm. "I know of a place you can take him. It's a private hospital a few hours away. They do inpatient therapy, and if you let them know what he's saying, they'll keep a much closer eye on him."

"Really?" Eddie asked hopefully. "Do you think that would work?"

"It's probably a better bet than taking him to St. Francis, don't you think?"

"Yeah." Eddie agreed. "He'd prob'ly just check himself out of there."

"Well, he won't be able to check himself out of this place. Plus, they'll monitor his room and his therapy sessions."

"He may not like that."

"He won't know."

"Oh." Eddie sounded surprised by that. "Ummm, how much does this place cost?"

"Don't worry about it. I'll call, make the arrangements, and let them know that Morelli is coming."

"Thanks, Ranger. I really appreciate it. I know that Joe would, too, if he were himself."

I shook my head. "Listen, Eddie, personally I could care less if the bastard killed himself. I know he's your friend, but he's an asshole. He hurt Stephanie. Badly."

There was silence on the other end of the line. He knew that what I was saying was the truth.

"Let's be very clear here. I'm not doing this to help Joe or because I feel bad for your friend. I'm doing this for Stephanie. If he killed himself, she would be destroyed. She would blame herself. She'd think there might have been something she could've done. Should've done." I clenched my jaw. "One day that asshole is going to die. I may even be there to see it happen. But it's not going to be today. Understand?" I growled

Eddie cleared his throat. "Perfectly. Thank you."

I ended the call and looked up to see Stephanie walk out of my bedroom with a big smile on her face.

I shoved the phone back into my pocket and schooled my own features into a calm mask. "All done, Babe?"

She slid her arms around my middle, her lips resting against my ear. "All done."

I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her crazy curls.

She tipped her head back and looked up at me. "Who was on the phone?"

I kissed her nose. "No one important. You ready for lunch?"

Her blue eyes widened and sparkled. "I'm always ready to eat!"

R&S R&S R&S R&S R&S

Steph's POV

Sighing contentedly, I leaned back against Ranger and propped my feet up on the couch. It had been a long day, and I was glad it was over.

Ranger rubbed his hands up and down my arms. "Penny for your thoughts."

I pretended to pout. "You have a private jet and at least two Porsches, and my thoughts are only worth a penny? Geesh!"

Ranger spun me around so that I was facing him. His eyes flashed, and a wicked grin spread across his face. "You feeling playful, Babe?" he growled.

I yelped and tried to scoot backwards along the couch, but Ranger pounced. Wrapping his arms around me, he laid me down on the couch and began devouring my lips and my neck.

I was so caught up in the wonderful things that his lips, tongue, and teeth were doing to my body, that I cannot be held responsible for anything I did. For example, tangling my fingers in his hair and trying to move his very talented lips just a little bit lower. Or the embarrassingly loud moans coming from my throat. And my mother probably would have been horrified that a good little Burg girl even knew some of the lewd words that were popping out of my mouth, let alone that I was using them to give suggestions of exactly what Ranger could do with his body and my body next.

He pulled back, his dark hair hanging over part of his face. "Is that better than a penny?" he asked huskily.

"Much better!" I agreed quickly, reaching up to pull his lips back to mine.

"Uh uh!" he teased, pulling back and sitting up.

"Huh?" I looked at him, confused.

"I paid the price, now you have to tell me your thoughts, remember?"

I was still breathing erratically, my cheeks were flushed, and my lips were swollen. I was sure that it was pretty damn clear exactly what was on my mind right now!

"Babe!" Ranger moaned, his eyes narrowing as he leaned closer.

I bit my lip. "Out loud?"

"Yeah, out loud." He reached over and tugged my lip free. "And if you don't quit biting that damn lip of yours, I'm going to show you exactly what's on my mind right now!"

Ranger wanted me! That was one truth that I knew for certain. The knowledge of it made me feel strong, powerful. The strength surged through my body and gave me the courage to look him right in the eye as I playfully bit down hard on my lower lip.

With a growl, he pounced on me again, effectively ending our conversation.

R&S R&S R&S R&S R&S

I sighed happily and snuggled back into Ranger's chest, imagining that I looked a lot like a very satisfied, lazy kitten lounging in the sun. In fact, if I were capable, I would have been purring.

Ranger's lips skimmed over the shell of my ear, and I made a happy little moaning noise in appreciation.

"Penny for your thoughts." He teased.

My eyes stayed closed, but my lips tipped up at the corners. I was even too lazy to give a full smile.

"I have no thoughts right now." I mumbled. "I am completely brainless. And boneless."

I could feel Ranger's chest shaking with silent laughter.

"Shut up," I mumbled, giving him a half-hearted smack on the chest.

He laced his fingers through mine, and we sat quietly for a few minutes. I had almost drifted off to sleep when his voice broke through the quiet.

"When do you want to head back to Trenton, Steph?"

I rolled over and pushed my hair out of my face. "What?"

His lips twitched. "Do you want to stay down here for a while longer? Head for home in a few days? A week? What are your thoughts?"

I closed my eyes and exhaled a big breath. "Actually, I'd like to go back tomorrow if we can."

Ranger raised one eyebrow and a guarded look took over his face. "Why is that?"

I looked down at the sheet and began picking at imaginary pieces of lint. "Well, I've been thinking about what you said. About how problems don't usually go away until you face them and deal with them. I think you're probably right."

I glanced up quickly and found Ranger watching me. The closed off, guarded look was gone, but he was still listening cautiously.

"I think I've spent so much of my life running away from problems, that it's almost second nature to me now. I don't even realize I'm doing it; it's just my go-to reaction. Run. There are a lot of things that I need to deal with in Trenton. Tom needs me to file paperwork, Bobby has a surgery on hold, and…"

I paused, trying to collect the rest of my scrambled thoughts.

"And?" Ranger prompted quietly.

"And I need to quit running from Joe. Our families are from the same neighborhood, belong to the same church, shop at the same stores. Unless one of us moves, I'm going to see him around town. This has been a nice little vacation from reality, but it's time to go home."

I could feel Ranger's gaze, watching me, taking in everything I said. He reached out a finger and tipped my chin up. "Do you want to see Joe when you get back?"

I shook my head hard and fast. "No! I'm not ready for that!"

He nodded. "It's over, right?"

I swallowed hard and nodded. "Right."

He wrapped his arms around my middle, pulling my back against his chest. "Then we'll leave for Trenton tomorrow."

TBC