I'm planning on this being a four-part story about Stephanie facing the difficult things in her life. Her personal relationships, her mother, and the Burg rumor mill. Anything familiar belongs to Janet Evanovich. The mistakes are mine.

Well, it's finally happened. The world was about to end. Hell was seconds away from freezing over. And I'm sure pigs would be flying by at any moment. But I, Stephanie Plum, have finally decided to grow up. No one is more surprised about this than me. But I woke up today with a clear head and a purpose. Okay, three purposes. The first one was on his way home.

I had let myself in, probably for the last time, with the key he had given me. I knew this was going to be hard, but it was time. No more taking the easy way out or just going along with whatever someone else wanted. I needed for it to end. Today.

We've become so used to each other being there, that we've begun taking for granted that we always would be. And we've begun taking each other for granted, too. I didn't want that for Joe. And I definitely didn't want that for myself.

So that's why I was sitting here waiting on the couch in Morelli's living room next to his dog, Bob. Well, Bob used to be my dog, but he and Morelli have been living happily together since about a week after I got stuck dogsitting him. I guess it turned out to be a good thing, because I didn't want to have to go through a custody battle on top of telling him that we were over.

Morelli came in about fifteen minutes after I'd gotten there. He dropped a kiss on the top of my head as he came into the room before heading right back out of it and going to the kitchen for a cold beer. If this would have been a few months ago, he would have pulled me to my feet and kissed me for a full five minutes before my shirt came off and hit the floor. Now we were getting perilously close to becoming affectionate roommates instead of the hot couple we started out as. The thought of settling for that kind of relationship had scared me more than I thought it could.

I followed him into the kitchen and stood next to him with my back against the counter. This wasn't going to be a sitting down conversation. Joe knew me well enough to know that something was going on.

"Are you all right?" He asked.

"Not yet, but I'm getting there. That's why I'm here actually." I took a moment to choose the words that I wanted to say; ones that he would have a hard time arguing with."We've been pretty much together for a while now," I began,"and it's been good between us, most of the time, but I can't help but think that if we were meant to stay together permanently, it would have happened by now."

"Cupcake, I've asked you to marry me, remember? You were the one who was freaking out and stalling about setting a date."

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," I said."Why do you think that I was more terrified than happy at the thought? If it was the right step for us, I think I would have felt differently. And don't forget that you weren't all that interested in marriage when we first started seeing each other."

"But I am, now."

"And that's part of the problem. I'm not. I don't know that I'll ever be, either. So I think it's for the best that we end it now while we still like one another, rather than waiting until we're both unhappy and purposely hurting each other."

"You honestly think it would come to that, Steph?" He asked.

"Unfortunately, yes," I said."We've already had more than a few fights that we never really resolved. So it stands to reason that a few more months of long hours, potential stalkers, and family pressure, would make our fights even worse."

Joe didn't say anything to that. I'm sure this came as a shock since, to him, it seemed like we were moving into the comfortable-married-couple stage of our relationship.

"This is about Manoso, isn't it?"

"No Joe," I said to him."For the first, time this is about me. What I want. And us just staying together because it's easy and familiar, isn't what I want."

"Is Ranger what you want?"

I was hoping he wasn't going to ask me that directly. I wasn't going to lie to him, but I didn't want to pour salt in the wound, either.

"If Ranger decided tomorrow that he never wanted to see me again, it wouldn't change what I'm doing here today. I want better for the both of us, Joe," I said."And if you weren't going to say it, then I had to. I want you to know that I tried," I said to him, squeezing the hand that was closest to me."I really, really tried to make this work, but I can't change who I am. Not even for you. And I refuse to ask you to give up what you want for me. You need someone who is ready to settle down and start a family. And settling down is the last thing that I want to do right now. I went from my parents' house, to college, to marriage to the Dick, before getting sucked into this job. I still have a lot of things that I want to do with my life before I have someone else to take care of. That's even if I'm going to want the responsibility of having someone else to take care of. It's not right to keep you from having the life you want, because I can't decide on what I want for mine. I think it's better this way."

"I don't want to lose you, Steph," Morelli said."We don't have to figure everything out right now. Maybe you'll want that kind of life eventually. I can wait."

"That's just it," I told him."I don't want you to. You need to move on with your life, the same way I do. We can still see each other, but as friends."

"I can't imagine finding someone better than you, Cupcake."

I smiled a little at that, since he sounded like he meant it.

"And I think you'll change you're mind once you've had the chance to really think about this, Steph," Joe said."At night, when you're sitting alone in your apartment, you'll start remembering everything we've been through and you'll want me back. And I'll be here."

My smile grew."Maybe I'll only remember all the late nights, bad food, and scary relatives, and then I'll move far away from Trenton."

"Could be," he said. He grabbed both of my hands in his and locked eyes with me. No longer joking."I want us to be together, Stephanie. Tell me what I can do to make that happen."

"I can't Joe," I told him,"because it's not about you. You have your goals in life and, as of this morning, I have mine and they don't match up."

"And your goals are?"

"Get better at my job. Get my mother off my back for good ..."

"Good luck with that."

I couldn't hold back a small laugh."I know. She's going to be worse once she finds out that we broke up, but I'm determined to get her to let up even if it kills me."

"It's good that you have a back up plan in place," Morelli said, smiling for the first time since I got there.



"Thanks for the help," I said, jabbing him in the ribs with my elbow.

"Anytime, Cupcake," he said, and I saw his face turn serious again."Anytime."

I felt a tear slide down my cheek, and I quickly wiped it away. No one ever said that doing the right thing would be easy. And today proved it."Thanks, Joe."

"I mean it, Steph, I'm here for you," Morelli said."If you want to give us another try. If you need a shoulder to cry on ..."

I knew what he was hinting at."I told you Ranger has nothing to do with this decision."

"If he doesn't have anything to do with it now, he will soon."

"Bye, Joe," I said. I leaned up to press a kiss to his mouth.

"I will be seeing you soon, Cupcake."

I smiled at him. He'd make a great husband to someone someday, but it wouldn't be me. And I was sure he'd come to see that in time.

"Tell your mother I said hi," he said.

"You're scum, Morelli."

"But you love me anyway."

"Yeah, Joe, I do," I told him."That's why I had to do this. I hope you realize that."

"I know that you mean well, Cupcake," he said,"but I think you're wrong about us. And I plan on proving it."

I brushed my fingertips across the roughness of his cheek for a moment before turning and walking out of the house that everyone thought I'd be sharing someday.

I was going to miss this little row house, and the man and dog that lived inside of it, but I knew it wasn't where I was meant to spend the rest of my life. As I drove down Slater Street I said a silent goodbye to them, and to the last of my doubts that I'd made the wrong choice. I knew I hadn't, but it didn't make letting go any easier.