While this isn't exactly a challenge story, Lulubelle09's "I need a favor" challenge did get me thinking, and this one-shot is what came out of it. My writing has been straying a little more towards sappy than romantic lately, so I apologize in advance for any cavities that may be caused by this story and what I post in the next two weeks. All characters belong to Janet. Any mistakes are mine.
I was still standing in the middle of my kitchen in a mild state of shock when Ranger let himself into my apartment yet again.
"Fuck," is the only thing my brain could think, and my mouth could say, at the time. Luckily, I finally managed to close my mouth seconds before Ranger's arrival. Joe had been talking about our future again, but I hadn't expected this. I really should have, though. It was just like Joe to make a statement without saying a friggin' thing.
Ranger zeroed in on me as soon as he was sure the door was closed and relocked behind him, and I suddenly felt more trapped than I had when I'd walked into my apartment five minutes ago. I saw Ranger's eyes drop to what I was holding in my hand, and then return to my freaked out blue ones again.
"Babe," he said, crossing the room to me, taking the Hallmark-style card out of my hand, and reading out loud what Joe had written inside it. "Will you marry me?"
Yep, the nausea is still there, except I think it might have actually gotten worse in the last minute and a half. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? If I say no to Joe this time, we'll be over for good. Morelli made it clear that marriage is what he wanted. He'd reached his limit, and he wasn't going to wait around for me anymore. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and it was up to me to decide to pick it or bury it for good and not look back. If I said yes, I'd be stuck with a man who'd give me an ultimatum like that in the first place. Not only that, I'd be agreeing to start a family with Joe, which would include a dog, eventual kids, and a husband who'd be working more hours than he'd be home. Joe would be spending more time with the underbelly of Trenton, than with the family he says he wants even though he wouldn't be around to enjoy it. In my head I know what I have to do, but my heart and my conscience were having a little trouble with it.
"Is there something you need to tell me?" Ranger asked.
I inwardly flinched at the distance he suddenly put between us.
Truth is, that's what had made the decision for me. I could live with just being friends with Joe, but I knew the second I committed fully to Morelli, Ranger would disappear - maybe never to be seen again - and I need Ranger in ways I never needed Joe. I think some part of me has always known that, and that's why I played along with Ranger's games and even did some flirting and teasing of my own. I wanted to keep Ranger interested enough in me to stick around, but not completely give up Joe in case Ranger didn't. I've been fucking up all our lives, but those four words Morelli left me just simplified my life, even as it complicated the hell out of another area of it.
"Babe?" Ranger said, his patience with waiting, and probably with me, at an end.
"No. I don't need to tell you anything," I told Ranger, "but Joe is going to want an answer. And he's not going to be happy with the one I have to give him."
Ranger is impossible to read on a very good day and this definitely isn't shaping up to be one, but I did catch the odd look in Ranger's eyes before he let his blank expression take center stage again.
"You're going to tell Morelli no?" Ranger asked, his voice even.
I blew out a sigh. I couldn't be expressionless or emotionless about any of this. I'm going to have to hurt the man who claimed to have loved me, or at least wanted me, since the time I lost my virginity to him in the bakery. Joe had been an ass on and off every time I saw him after that, but I do believe he loves me - as Ranger is fond of saying - in his own way. And I felt the same about him. Joe has been a jerk, my boyfriend, and now he's going to be the guy I refused to marry. Joe will be pissed, the Burg will be outraged, and my mother will have a fit. But none of that is what really concerned me. It's Ranger's reaction to the inevitable breakup that had my stomach twisting itself up into knots.
"Yes," I said finally, remembering that Ranger had asked me a question.
"Yes, I'm going to tell Morelli that there is no way I can marry him. Not now," I said, really thinking about day-to-day life married to Joe, "make that, not ever."
Ranger pinned me to the counter with his stare alone. Damn. He'll have me confessing everything if he kept that up. It didn't occur to me that maybe that had been the idea.
I was trying to buy myself some time, because how can I tell Ranger that I'm turning down Joe because I couldn't love him enough, that I'm in love with a man who isn't Joe Morelli? Ranger would know how I really feel about him after that. And then Ranger will no doubt smirk at me, just hearing that I'd pick him over what Joe and I had. He'd then mostly likely spend the night making me feel good and also feel that I'd made the right decision, and then he'll go back to Rangeman tomorrow and we'll resume our on and off again sex-fest. The problem with that is I don't think I can go back to that either. I may deny my feelings any chance I get, but they are all still there hiding under multiple layers of doubt, worry, and guilt. Even though it made absolutely no sense, I really wanted Ranger to have been the guy proposing to me. I still would have freaked out a little, but I'm pretty sure after I thought about it, and had a glass or two of wine, my answer would be a different one than I plan on giving Joe.
"Why can't you marry Morelli, Steph?" Ranger asked me, prying open the wound and pushing sharp objects into it.
"Does it matter?" I countered. "If our track record is anything to go by, if I'm not engaged, we can still make out in the alley and have sex without any strings until one of us gets tired of it. So you should be happy right now, not being a jerk about this."
Ranger's lips twitched, but he didn't let me off the hook.
"I am happy that you're not going to marry Morelli," Ranger said, using his body to trap me against the counter this time. "And for future reference, I will never get tired of you, Stephanie."
This isn't good. As soon as Ranger gets within touching distance, I manage to convince myself that I'm happy with what we have. And I am. A little. I don't need a ring, or Ranger repeating a vow promising to love me forever. Right now, I just need to hear that he loves me and wants to only be with me. No conditions. No timetables. And no one else for either of us. I thought we could both handle that at least. Now I'm not so sure. Ranger isn't saying much one way or another. And his last statement is just one in a long string of lines that I could interpret fifty different ways.
"While that's nice to hear," I said to Ranger, making some contact of my own by cupping Ranger's face in my hands so he had to look at me, "I want to know exactly what you mean by it. Are you saying that my amusement factor will never go away? Or that you'll never get tired of having me throw myself at you every time you so much as smile at me? Or did you mean that you love me, and don't want to see me with another man, taking his name and becoming his wife?"
I felt a muscle in Ranger's jaw clench tight under my palm. Shit. I finally let everything out that I've been holding in, and it could have just cost me the one person I'm afraid I can't live without. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! I let my hands drop from his face while I tried to decide whether to stick to my guns just to see what Ranger would say, or back down and tell him that I don't want to lose what we do have, whatever the hell that is.
I swallowed hard before opening my mouth, only to snap it shut again. I had no idea what to do, but Ranger apparently had a few ideas. He threaded his fingers through my hair, not letting me move away from him. Which just proves how well Ranger knows me. He had picked up on my annoying habit of bringing up something important to me only to run before I had to really discuss it.
Since I couldn't go anywhere without my head, and I still wasn't sure what Ranger would say to me, I tried to distract myself by dropping my eyes to the collar of his Rangeman T-shirt, counting the stitches I saw there until he finally said my name.
"Stephanie, look at me," Ranger said, tightening his hands in my hair to get my attention.
I tried to breathe as I lifted my eyes again. I swear I felt the earth shake when they collided with his dark ones. Why did Ranger have to freakin' look like that? All sexy and in control, while my skin is probably freakishly pale and my hair felt like it was three inches wider thanks to me repeatedly tugging at it in frustration before Ranger got here. And now with both of Ranger's hands clutching my curls like a lifeline, it had to look even worse. The only bride I'd be is Frankenstein's.
"My answer is yes to all three questions," Ranger said. "I will always find you amusing, but not in the way you think. I love the fact that you can find humor in any situation, no matter how serious. I didn't realize until you came into my life just how much I needed that."
"No, Steph, let me finish. There will never come a time that I don't enjoy the affect I have on you ..."
"Oh, you definitely have enjoyed that," I couldn't stop myself from saying, thinking about the time Ranger showed up at my apartment to collect on the deal, or during the stupid 'vordo' thing.
"You're misunderstanding me again, Babe," Ranger said. "The fact that we are so drawn to each other even though we shouldn't be says a lot."
"Not really," I told him. "That just says that you're extremely hot and I'm easy."
"Some may say that Morelli qualifies as 'hot', too. So why aren't you with him right now celebrating your engagement?"
My eyes burned thinking of what would happen if I did say yes to Joe. I would have to give up Ranger for good. That sounded like a fate worse than death at this point. Being completely in love with someone fucking sucks. It's scary. It isn't simple. And it doesn't come with any guarantees.
"Because he isn't you," I admitted to Ranger, as a tear slid down my face.
Crap. I hate crying. Especially in front of this man.
Ranger wiped my tear away before speaking again.
"As for the third question," he continued, pretending that I wasn't making a fool out of myself here, "I do love you. In my mind, you've been mine for a long time. And I've been an asshole for not telling you this sooner. The only man you will ever be married to is me, Stephanie."
My eyes widened, taking in every bit of his cocky grin.
"I must be hearing things," I said to Ranger, "because that sounded an awful lot like a proposal. If you didn't do relationships, you sure as heck don't do marriage. Condom, yes. Ring, no. I got that loud and clear."
Ranger lowered his head and teased my lips with his so I couldn't say anything else. Being in shock again is the only logical reason I could come up with for why I let him distract me at all.
Ranger lifted his head and looked down at me. "Babe, will you marry me?"
"Are you serious?" I asked. "We've barely even gone out on a date, and you're proposing twenty minutes after Joe?"
"I never second guess myself, Stephanie. Or wait for the ideal moment to get something done. You should know that by now."
I did know that. Ranger had gone from mentor to pursuer in the time it took to get rid of Joyce with one arrogant statement. Unfortunately for my relationship with Joe, Ranger had been telling Joyce the truth. He did ruin me for anyone else ... including Joe. The Man of Mystery can also be the man I want to smack just for being right all the freakin' time.
"When I found out that Morelli was shopping around for an engagement ring," Ranger said to me, "I had one of those now or never moments. At first, I told myself to take a step back and let you decide who was right for you before I did anything to change your mind. And I stayed away as long as I could because I did think that Joe was the better man for you, but I realized today that I don't believe that anymore. I'm the better man ... period, and the only man for you. We should be together, Steph, not you and Joe."
I needed a minute to process Batman proposing to me, so I went with the least important question I could think up for him to answer.
"How did you know Joe was going to propose?" I asked Ranger.
"The store he went to is also a Rangeman client. Hal noticed that Morelli had been there and decided that I needed to know. Morelli was either having an off day and didn't notice the 'Protected by Rangeman' decal on the door, or he wanted to prove that I had lost my chance with you," Ranger said, smirking just like I knew he would. "Joe always did underestimate me. But I need to hear it from you, Babe. Do you think the two of us belong together? Or do agree with Morelli?"
"You're asking me to choose between you and Joe?"
"Yes. Have I lost my chance with you, Babe?"
"No, you haven't," I said after a beat, kissing the lips that I fantasize about daily. "I think Joe underestimated us. And yes, I will marry you. Tomorrow if you want."
Ranger lowered his head and slanted his mouth over mine. I was breathing heavy when he eventually pulled back. Ranger moved his hand off my ass and took a small box out of his jacket pocket.
"Promise me something, Babe," Ranger said, sliding a two carat diamond onto my finger.
"What? That I'll love you forever? No problem," I said.
I thought back to what I'd said to myself after Ranger showed up, that I didn't need a ring and a promise of forever. Now I have both.
"That wasn't it, but now that you said it, I want that, too," Ranger told me, bringing my fingers up to his lips. "I was going to have you promise to let me be the one to tell Morelli about this."
Ranger quickly wrapped his arms around me, and kissed me again, to stop the punch and the half-hearted protest he knew would be coming. When he let me go to swing me up into his arms as he headed to my bedroom, Ranger knew he had me. I would promise him that and much, much more from this day on through the rest of our lives.