Chapter 12

Six Months Later...

Ranger's POV

When my cell phone alarm beeped, I came out of sleep immediately and reached over to grab it, turning it off before it could wake Steph—although my woman could sleep through almost anything, so I didn't really need to worry. I climbed out of bed, pulled the sheet back over her, and moved to the bathroom to pull on sweats and a T-shirt so I could head head down to the gym.

Once I was dressed, I kissed the top of Stephanie's head—the only part that wasn't covered—and then left the apartment.

Lucky was lifting weights in the gym when I got downstairs, and he nodded to me as I came in and headed straight for the treadmill.

"Luca," I said, giving him a nod in return.

Luca Fiore had been working for RangeMan for nearly four months. Two months after Steph's kidnapping, he'd called and asked if the job offer was still good. I'd called him less than a week after we'd returned from Philadelphia in August. It had only taken the rest of the core team and myself a few minutes to come to the decision that we wanted to offer him a place at RangeMan. We'd all been impressed with his ability to remember even the smallest of details when he had no reason to, as well as his ability to strategize tactically. When I first made the offer, he'd politely turned me down, saying he couldn't leave his father alone to run the restaurant. Then when he'd called out of the blue two months later, he'd said his sister had graduated college and was home, wanting to work at the store, so his father had told him to call me, as he'd known how much Luca had wanted the job. I'd hired him immediately, and he'd moved into the RangeMan building and reported to work a week later.

It hadn't taken long for the guys to turn Luca into Lucky, since he had a penchant for kicking our asses around the poker table when we played. He swore it was skill, but Santos had immediately called bullshit and proclaimed that he was just one lucky son of a bitch, and the name had stuck. Stephanie was the only one that never called him by anything but his first name. She was enamored with saying his name with an Italian accent—something he found amusing, since even he didn't have one of those.

"Steph still asleep?" Luca asked, pulling me out of my zone as he moved to one of the other treadmills.

I grinned without looking over. "Completely."

He laughed, starting up the machine and quickly working his way to a jog.

Slipping back into my zone, I let my mind clear of everything but the burn in my muscles as I ran.

Thirty minutes later, I slowed to a cool-down walk and then turned off the treadmill, stepping off and grabbing a towel from the shelf to wipe my face. Moving back to the treadmills, I lightly smacked the handle of Luca's machine to get his attention. When he pulled his ear bud out, I asked, "Wanna spar?"

"Give me a minute," he said, and I nodded, moving to the center of the mats as he slowed the machine down.

~*~OoMH~*~

I finally stepped back, breathing heavily. Luca was damn good on the mats—one of the best at RangeMan, outside of the core team and Hector. I'd kept the upper hand throughout the twenty minutes we'd been sparring, but just barely.

"Not gonna be long till he bests you, Rangeman," Tank said with a grin. He'd come into the gym about halfway through our bout, and rather than start his own workout, he'd opted to watch us. He'd been joined by a few of the other guys, although he was the only to stand and watch, rather than immediately start to work out.

"Fuck off," I growled mildly, flipping him the bird before reaching out and giving Luca a hand up from where I'd taken him down the last time.

"Shit, I dunno about that," Luca groused, shaking his head. "Every time I think I've got you beat, you pull some magical move and I'm suddenly looking up at you from the mats."

Choosing to leave him with that impression, rather than confirm what Tank had said, I patted his shoulder and then turned to head back upstairs.

When I got up to seven, the apartment was still dark. Stephanie was still asleep in the bed, although the sheet had slipped down, exposing most of her back to my view in the dim light peeking through the curtain. I wanted nothing more than to cover her body with mine and touch and kiss every inch of exposed skin, but I resisted. We'd been up late making love, and I didn't want to wake her.

Silently, I closed the bathroom door, pulling off my clothes before turning the water on, climbing into the shower, and stepping under the spray.

As the hot water streamed down, wetting my hair—longer now, much to Stephanie's happiness—and washing away the sweat from my workout, I thought about the woman a few feet away in the bedroom.

In the last six months, Stephanie and I had been happier than either of us had ever been before. She'd moved in with me shortly after our return from Philadelphia. I'd been worried she wouldn't feel safe at RangeMan, but she'd made it abundantly clear that my worries were unfounded. She'd asked Hector to walk us both through the changes he'd made to the system to prevent what had happened before from happening again.

When I'd told her that I'd set up one more security precaution, she'd asked if I felt safe again. The sensors set up around the edge of the roof were hooked up to directly notify the core team and Hector. No one else knew about them, and they were hidden so they weren't noticeable unless you knew what you were looking for. We'd adjusted them to account for the birds that liked to land on the roof, but anything over five pounds that came over the edge of the roof would alert the five of us. Between that and Hector's assurances that no one could get into the system, I did indeed feel secure having Stephanie there. She'd moved in the next day.

We'd spent Thanksgiving with Stephanie's family, opting to go to Newark the day after so Stephanie could finally meet mine. It had been a gentle introduction—only my parents and Grandma Rosa—and as I'd promised Stephanie, they had loved her. When Christmas rolled around, we'd spent Christmas Eve with Stephanie's family, watching her nieces open the presents from us and going to midnight mass with them, and then Christmas morning, we'd gone back down to Newark to spend the day with my family—my entire family. Stephanie had been overwhelmed, meeting all four of my siblings and their spouses and children, but by the time we got back to RangeMan, she was already trying to figure out when we could go back. I'd fallen even more in love with her that day, watching her accept my family as she had. Now, almost six weeks later, my future had never been more clear. Stephanie was my future.

As if my thoughts had woken her, the bathroom door opened and Stephanie stepped inside. I was quiet as she did her business on the other side of the bathroom, and when she pulled the shower door open, I stepped back, giving her room to move under the spray.

"Morning," she mumbled, wrapping her arms around me.

"Morning, Babe." I dipped my head down to kiss her when she looked up at me. "Did I wake you?"

She shook her head, but didn't comment. When she stepped back into the spray, wetting her hair, I swallowed hard. With her arms up, her chest rose, pushing her breasts up, like they were begging to be touched. The water sluiced down her body, and I wanted to catch every drop with my tongue as they dripped from her pink nipples and trailed down her curves, gathering in the trimmed thatch of hair between her thighs.

"Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to touch me?" she asked suddenly, sounding amused.

I quickly looked up, realizing I'd been watching a single drop of water make its way down her body. She was grinning and cupping her breasts, pinching and teasing her nipples into hard points.

"Babe," I murmured as my hands and mouth brushed hers away so I could do what I'd been itching to do since she'd stepped into the shower.

Stephanie moaned softly as I wrapped my lips around one taut peak, sucking gently, and began teasing the other with my fingers. Her breasts were the perfect size, not too big, but big enough that I could feel the weight in my hands as I cupped them. I kissed my way across her chest, repeating the actions on her other breast.

After one last tease to her sensitive, pebbled tip, I began kissing my way down. I stopped once to take the skin of the underside of her breast into my mouth, sucking hard and leaving a red spot that was visible proof of our time together. Dropping to my knees, I kissed my way over the soft curve of her belly, dipping my tongue into her navel before moving farther south. I nipped at the skin on both hipbones, delighting in the way Stephanie gasped and slapped her hands against the shower wall, as if the sensation was almost too much.

Trailing my tongue along the crease of her thigh, I groaned as her scent suddenly overwhelmed me. Her arousal, musky, yet enticingly erotic, was growing the closer I got to where she wanted me the most. I took a deep breath, letting it wash over me—the proof of how much she desired me was a heady feeling. After a moment, I picked up one of her legs and pulled it over my shoulder, which opened her to my view.

She was swollen and visibly wet, from more than just the shower. Her clit was peeking out from her lips, as if begging for attention...but for the moment, I ignored it. Instead, I leaned in and licked from the bottom of her slit to the top, pulling away before I reached the sensitive bud. I groaned as her taste exploded on my tongue. Tart, like green apples, and clean, the evidence of Stephanie's arousal was addictive. Ignoring my throbbing dick, I dove back in for more, burying my face in her pussy and kissing her deep with my tongue, as far inside her as I could get.

Steph cried out and reached down with one hand to tangle her fingers in my hair, holding me to her. "More, Carlos. Fuck!"

Grasping the back of her thigh with one hand, I used the other to hold her open for me. I continued to lick and suck, drawing out her juices and lapping them up as I pushed her higher and higher. She continued to voice her enjoyment, keeping her tight grip on my hair as she thrust her hips to my face as much as I allowed her to move.

My dick was so hard, I was hurting, my balls hanging heavy between my thighs. I needed inside her more than I needed my next breath, but I locked it down, wanting to feel her come on my tongue before I got my own. Stroking her one last time with my tongue, I pulled away long enough to look up at her: face flushed, head thrown back, eyes closed, and breasts heaving with every breath she took, she was the picture of sin and temptation, beautiful and sexy beyond even my wildest dreams.

With two fingers, I gathered her slick wetness before pressing them slowly inside her. Stephanie whined long and low as I teased her clit with my tongue, light flicks against her skin without any of the much-wanted pressure. I started a slow stroking motion with my fingers as I began to circle her clit. By the time I finally lapped at the hard little button peeking through its hood, Stephanie was shaking, gripping my hair like a lifeline and tugging to the point of pain—a pain I relished, as it heightened my own arousal, yet kept me from coming without even touching myself, which I was close to doing, just from watching and tasting my Babe.

"C-Carlos, please," Stephanie stuttered, clenching tight around my fingers.

I hummed as I finally wrapped my lips around her clit, teasing it with my tongue and teeth as I curled my fingers, and Stephanie cried out, jerking her hips hard as she came. I continued stroking her, lapping up every drop of her arousal as it spilled out around my fingers, until her breathing began to even out.

Carefully setting her leg back on the floor of the shower, I stood and moved to the bench, taking a seat and tugging her over to me.

"Ride me, Babe," I told her, pulling her down so she was straddling my thighs, facing me.

Stephanie reached down and wrapped her slender fingers around my dick, which was threatening to burst right out of my skin, it was so hard. She stroked a few times before raising up on her toes and then lowering herself back down over me. She sank down slowly until our thighs were flush against one another's and I was buried to the hilt.

"Dios," I guttered, feeling her already clenching around me. She was still so sensitive that it wouldn't take much to push her over the edge again.

Cupping her face, I angled her head and plundered her mouth with my tongue as she began moving up and down my shaft. She whimpered as she tasted herself on me, pulling away to kiss and lick at my lips.

"Christ, that's sexy," I murmured against her lips. "You taste good, don't you, Babe?"

Stephanie nodded, wrapping her arms around my neck and tangling her hand in my hair at the base of my neck as she continued to ride my dick.

Using her hair, I pulled her back and attached my lips to her throat, sucking and kissing and teasing, scraping my teeth across her skin as I began to thrust up into her. My balls were drawn up tight, and I needed a release, but I wanted her to come again with me. Reaching between us, I thumbed her clit, pressing hard.

"Come for me, Babe. I wanna feel you come around my cock."

When my nail scraped across her clit and I bit gently at the tender skin under her ear, she shattered, crying out my name and nearly breaking my dick off, she squeezed me so hard.

Heat raced through my veins, and my entire body went numb for a moment before my world exploded. My dick pulsed, swelling, and then I spilled myself inside her with a roar that echoed off the shower walls.

I felt drained—both literally and physically—a few minutes later as I helped Stephanie from my lap. We made quick work of actually showering ourselves clean, and before we stepped out, I kissed her once more.

"Love you," she breathed against my lips.

Smiling softly at her words, I could do nothing but echo her. "Te quiero, Stephanie. Mi corazón."

~*~OoMH~*~

Stephanie's POV

Weekly dinners at my parents' house had turned into bi-monthly dinners since Ranger and I had become an official couple after my kidnapping. We went to my parents' one week, his parents' the next, and so on. My mom and I had grown closer over the last few months, once she realized I was happier with Ranger than I'd ever been with Joe. So that, combined with the fact that one out of the two dinners a month, Val and her family went to Albert's parents' for dinner, and things were—for the most part—a lot calmer on our visits. I still went over a couple of times a week for lunch, simply because my mom requested it, but since our relationship was better, it was a lot more fun. I got good food without the drama, which was a nice change.

As Ranger parked the Cayenne in front of the house, I smiled, remembering that tonight was just us, my parents, and Grandma Mazur. I loved my sister and nieces, but with three girls, it was definitely loud and overwhelming.

Ranger met me at my door and smiled, taking my hand.

Just as they always did, my mom and grandma were waiting at the door. The difference now was they were all smiles, rather than the disapproving or worried looks I used to get from my mom.

"Good, good, you're here," my mother said, pulling me into a hug. "Dinner's almost ready. I hope you're hungry. We're having pot roast, with gravy on the side, plus your choice of mashed potatoes or wild rice."

She was really going all-out to accommodate Ranger's eating habits, while still letting the rest of us eat what we wanted.

When I raised an eyebrow at her, she simply smiled and turned to Ranger, hugging him as well. He awkwardly patted her back, still not used to the affection from her, even after nearly six months of it.

"Hi, Grandma," I said, accepting her fierce hug.

"Did you hear?" she asked, stepping back. "Your sister's pregnant again."

"Again?" I squeaked, shaking my head. I started to make a comment about needing to teach my sister the finer points of birth control, but she and Albert were doing well and this was what she'd always wanted, so who was I to argue. Smiling, I said, "That's great. I'll have to go by and see her next week and offer to watch the girls while she naps, since I know she'll need it."

Grandma Mazur nodded and then reached out to Ranger, who deftly avoided her hug by taking her hands in his instead and kissing the back of one.

"Mrs. Mazur, it's a pleasure to see you, ma'am."

She giggled like a school girl, her eyes twinkling. "Oh you. Always so charming."

"Here, ma'am. Let me get the door for you."

And just like that, he all but forced her to go into the house before him, keeping his backside protected from her wandering hands.

"Mrs. Plum," he continued with a sweep of his hand.

"Now, Ranger, I've told you to call me Helen." But she still smiled and walked inside before giving him a chance to respond.

His eyes were light and amused when he looked at me, shaking his head. "Babe, your family..."

Chuckling softly, I nodded. "I know."

Knowing he wouldn't allow otherwise, I stepped into the house before him and then moved aside so he could come in. Once the door was closed, I wrapped my arm around his waist and we moved farther into the house. Just before we reached the living room, I slid my hand down and pinched, grinning at his surprised expression.

"Someone has to," I teased.

"Babe..."

Dancing out of the way of his fingers, which were clearly on a mission of their own, I made my way into the kitchen while he went to visit with my dad. They'd quickly figured out they had a common interest in the History and Military Channels, and they would always talk about whatever program had kept their attention since they'd seen each other last. I found it adorable, and I made sure to tease Ranger about it every time we left my parents' house.

When I got to the kitchen, my grandma was sitting at the small kitchen table, watching my mom, who was adding the veggies from the pot roast around the meat on the serving platter.

"Oh good. Stephanie, would you start taking food to the table, please? The rice needs five more minutes."

I nodded and grabbed the bowl of mashed potatoes in one hand and the salad—which had become a staple at dinners with my parents—in the other, carrying them into the dining room. Stopping short, I looked harder at the table. Instead of the normal dishes and glassware we used, my mom had set out her fancy china, the stuff we only used at holidays. Shrugging, I set the food on the table, putting the salad closer to Ranger's seat and the potatoes by my dad's, and then went back to the kitchen.

"Pour the wine," my mother instructed, handing me a bottle. "And here's Ranger's water."

I smiled, taking them both and shaking my head as I made my way back to the dining room.

By the time I finished pouring the wine and leaving the bottle by my mother's chair, she and my grandma were coming into the room carrying the roast and veggies and the small bowl of wild rice.

"Grab your father and Carlos," she said, setting the roast in the middle of the table and then turning to take the rice, which I knew would end up in front of Ranger.

Once we were all seated around the dinner table, my mother surprised me by reaching out and grasping Ranger's hand in her right and my grandma's hand in her left.

"I'd like Frank to say a prayer tonight," she said softly. "With Valerie's announcement and...well, just life, I think extra prayers and thanking God can't hurt."

I smiled, nodding, and joined hand's with my dad—who cringed slightly before taking Grandma Mazur's—and linking my fingers with Ranger.

After a short prayer for Val and the baby, the rest of our family's continued health, happiness, and all our blessings, my dad closed with, "Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen."

Dinner was low-key, although my mom, grandma, and I kept a running conversation throughout. Ranger smiled when I added rice to my plate instead of potatoes, and it grew when I added a large portion of salad as well.

"Proud of you, Babe," he murmured into my ear.

"Hey," I said with a shrug. "My jeans are looser, and that's a good thing. Plus, my mom has pineapple upside-down cake in the kitchen, so I figured I'd better choose well now."

He chuckled and sat back, taking another bite of the pot roast—without gravy. Even I hadn't given up the gravy, although I hadn't added any to the rice, which I would've done with the potatoes.

Once the last plate had been pushed away, my mom stood, grabbing her plate and my grandma's. I followed behind her after picking up the other plates.

"I've got these," she said when I set them on the counter beside the sink. "Could you start bringing in the food?"

"Sure."

I left the room and smiled at the others as I grabbed the pot roast. Grandma Mazur was telling Ranger, who had a look of interest on his face—even though I could tell that it was solely out of politeness—about her latest date with Eugene Mancini, and my dad was trying hard to think of anything other than where they'd gone necking.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Mazur," Ranger interrupted, standing. "Let me help you with that, Stephanie."

He took the pot roast from me and then picked up the rice and salad, leaving me with the mashed potatoes and gravy boat.

"Chicken," I teased quietly as we walked through the kitchen doorway.

"Damn straight," he muttered under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear. Louder, he said, "Why don't you go visit with your dad and grandma? I'll help your mom put away the food and bring out dessert." Leaning down, he brushed his lips across my cheek on his way to my ear, where he said just for me, "And pour some more wine when you get out there. I have a feeling I'll need it if your grandma keeps talking..."

I chuckled and set the food on the counter, shaking my head as I moved back to the dining room.

"Oh, good, Stephanie," Grandma said. "Have you ever tried that cherry-flavored edible underwear down at Pleasure Treasures? Eugene likes the watermelon better, but he didn't like the grape at all."

I held back a laugh when my dad blanched. Shaking my head, I said, "No, Grandma, I can't say I have, but I'll keep that in mind."

As I poured more wine for everyone, she began telling me about the next viewing she wanted to attend.

Five minutes later, Ranger and my mom walked out, carrying five small plates with slices of cake on them. Ranger handed my dad's to him and then set a piece down in front of me before taking his seat. I started to tell him I thought he'd given me the wrong plate, but then he turned to me and said, "Oh, this one's yours."

I smiled because the piece on the new plate was much larger than the one he took away from me...and then I looked more closely.

Sitting on the edge of the plate was a beautiful silver ring with a large diamond flanked by two beautiful sapphires. All three were princess-cut, and it was gorgeous, but I suddenly felt frozen, and I couldn't pick it up to look at it more closely.

There was a buzzing in my ears, and when I shook my head, it went away and I realized the room had fallen completely silent. Looking up, I realized my mom and grandma were beaming, both with tears in their eyes. A quick glance at my dad showed pride and even a hint of a shine in his eyes as well. Finally, I turned to Ranger...who was down on one knee.

"Oh!" I gasped softly, my hand flying to my mouth in surprise.

"Babe," he chuckled, reaching out and snagging the ring on his pinkie. There was no trace of his blank face. I was able to read every emotion he was feeling: happiness, confidence, but also a few nerves—which was strange to see on him—but above all that, there was love. It radiated from him and warmed me from the inside out.

"Stephanie," he started again, reaching over and taking my left hand in his, "we've come a long way since that first day in the diner. I didn't take you serious that day, but I quickly learned that you have more tenacity, more drive, and more determination than anyone I've ever met. I fell in love with you before I was able to do anything about it, and over the last two years, my love has only grown. Six months ago, when you told me you loved me, it was the best day of my life. I've learned so many things from you, and every day, you teach me more."

He shook his head. "Tu me vuelves loca, mi amor, pero te necesito." At my confused look, he translated, "You drive me crazy, my love, but I need you. I need you to keep me in the light, when the dark sides of my life threaten to close in. I need you to remind me that life is more than work, more than duty, but to be lived and enjoyed...savored. Above all, I need you to love me unconditionally, as I love you."

Pulling the ring from his finger, he held it over the end of my fourth finger on my left hand and took a deep breath. "Tú eres mi vida. You are my life, Stephanie Plum. Would you do me the honor of also becoming my wife?"

A thousand thoughts flew through my mind. After my divorce, I'd sworn off marriage, and anytime Joe had even brought up the subject, I'd broken out in hives and run scared. With Ranger, there was none of that. No hives. No nerves. No worry that I would come home and find him on the dining room table with another woman. I trusted Ranger with my life every day, and I'd learned—especially in the last six months—that I could trust him with my heart. Knowing that, my answer was easy.

"Yes," I told him firmly, smiling so wide that it hurt my cheeks. "Yes, I'll marry you!"

Ranger's answering smile was brilliant as he slid the ring onto my finger and then pulled me into his arms, cupping my face as he kissed me, pulling back only when my dad cleared his throat.

"Te quiero más que la vida misma, Babe," Ranger murmured against my lips. "Dios, I love you."

Our story may have started out rocky and we may have had our ups and downs, but as I stood, wrapped in his arms and accepting my family's congratulations, I knew every bump in the road had been worth it. I'd found the man I was meant to spend the rest of my life with, and with him, I felt treasured, like he held the rarest and most beautiful jewel in the world in his hands. I couldn't ask for more than that.

~*~OoMH~*~

A/N: The last line of Spanish from Ranger is: I love you more than life itself.

This is it. The last chapter. Thank you so much for all the kind words and the support you gave me throughout this story. I'm sad to mark it as complete, but honestly, this story was so much fun to write, and this was one of my favorite chapters, so I'm glad it's finally getting posted! :)

Please, one last time for this one, leave me a note and let me know what you thought! – Jen