Six Years Ago: Three Months
Prior to Mexico
After a long day of chasing criminals and catching bupkiss, I finally turned into the parking lot of my apartment building looking forward to a long, hot shower and some time just veging out on the sofa. As I habitually surveyed the cars in the lot, though, I couldn't help but let out a groan, followed by an admonishing slap to the forehead as I realised my reaction. In the first row of spaces, right in front of the door, was Ranger's Porsche.
I know what you're thinking. Why such a negative reaction to the surprise presence of your super hot, Cuban sex God of a boyfriend? Well, I wasn't exactly sure...
We'd been together for about six months now, and realistically, things had been going extremely well. How could it not with such a perfect man? He's protective, understands my needs, wasn't afraid to push me a little to extend my skills and comfort zones, and above all, the sex was great. And that's just the problem. He was too perfect.
In all my years, I'd never come across a man as perfect for me as Ranger, and that scared the shit out of me. On the one hand, I was happier than I'd ever been with a man. But on the other, I couldn't help but wonder how long it would last. I'd thought myself perfectly happy with The Dick until his little incident with Joyce Barnhardt on the dining room table, after all. How long did I have before Ranger had the same epiphany every other man I'd ever been with had had, that he was just wasting his time with me?
As I pulled into a parking space three rows back, my thoughts were in the same place they'd been returning to on and off for the last week: Ranger. To be fair, Ranger had occupied a majority of my thoughts, both waking and in sleep, since I'd met him four years ago, but this line of thinking was different. Whereas I'd ordinarily be salivating over memories of Ranger in various stages of undress, or fantasising about the many, delicious acts he could perform while undressed, lately my thoughts had been turned in another direction: Why was he putting up with me so long?
Was I a better lay than I'd always assumed and Ranger found himself as helpless to refuse my wiles as I was his? No. That was ridiculous. If my skills in the bedroom were so amazing Dickie wouldn't have sought other means. While Morelli seemed to be drawn to that aspect of me, and I could almost accept that as the reason we'd broken up and got back together again so many times, that theory just didn't seem to fit with Ranger.
Morelli had always been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am-and-we'll-argue-about-you r-job-later kind of man. But Ranger... Ranger was different. He seemed genuinely interested in me as a person. We had full, back and forth conversations about our days that never ended in raised voices and Italian Hand gestures. In fact, I can't think of a single argument we'd ever had in the four years I'd known him. That couldn't be right. Maybe I was blocking stuff out...
I sat behind the wheel for a few moments, straining to remember even a heated discussion. There'd been a few, I was sure, but nothing stood out as a proper argument. Couples were supposed to argue, weren't they? My parents would argue all the time when I was a kid. And I'd argued almost constantly with Morelli.
Shaking my head, I decided to push all these ill-thought aside and just face the music. That earned me another head slap. Seeing my boyfriend after a long, hard day should not feel like a chore!
A delicious scent wafted toward me as the elevator doors slid open on the second floor and I was immediately jealous of all the old people I was surrounded by with their meals on wheels and their abilities to cook. The only time I got food that smelled that good was when I crashed dinner at my parent's house, or I had dinner at Ranger's, or Ranger cooked dinner here. While the latter did not happen nearly as often as the two previous, it was increasing in frequency lately.
The scent grew stronger as I drew closer to my door, pulling my keys from the pocket I'd stashed them in only a few moments ago, and I could almost forget all my misgivings where the man on the other side was concerned. But then it struck me that this was just one more thing that made me feel like a leech. Ranger did so much for me - hell, usually by now he's opened the door to let me in, instinctively knowing I was there - and all I did in return, apart from destroy his vehicles, injure his men, and deplete his finds, was provide a warm, soft place for him to rest his manhood most nights.
With another determined shake of my head, I unlocked my door and entered, kicking off my sneakers in the entry way so that they landed next to Ranger's combat boots, and dumping my pocketbook on the kitchen counter next to Rex, who was hurriedly stuffing hamster treats into his cheeks. Ranger even took better care of my pet than I did, I acknowledged with a frown. I took a moment to tap on his glass and say hello so that he'd remember that I was his mummy, not Ranger, before peaking into the oven to see what was cooking. Whatever it was, there was a suspicious amount of green hidden beneath the top layer.
I found Ranger in the living room doing some kind of body weight workout, sweat glistening on his bare chest and arms. He grinned, happy as always to see me, and dropped a kiss on my lips mid lunge as I came to stand directly in front of him. My intention had been to ask what he was doing here, but he'd said on a slight pant, "Five more minutes and I'll be done. I'll have a quick shower and then dinner should be ready." A slight jerk of his head let me know that I was free to do whatever until then, not that I needed his permission, since it was my apartment and he was the one invading, but it was nice to know that he hadn't set up this situation as yet another attempt to trick me into exercising with him.
Deciding that I'd basically been dismissed, I returned to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge. At the last second before the door closed, I grabbed out a bottle of water for Ranger as well, thinking I should at least try to show that I was thinking of him. I would have grabbed a second beer, but knew fro experience that he only drank water straight after a workout, so there was no point.
Returning to the living room, I stepped onto the end cushion of the sofa and settled down with my legs tucked under me and my left arm propped on the arm rest. I set the water on the end table beside me and took a long, grateful pull from my beer.
"You've been spending an awful lot of time here," I found myself blurting casually.
"Awful?" Ranger repeated, quirking an eyebrow in question.
Cringing at my own choice of words, I amended, "Maybe awful isn't the right word to u-" I cut myself off as Ranger positioned himself on his back on the floor and commenced a set of sit ups. "Nope, I'd say awful," I said, changing my mind. "Why would anyone willingly exercise in a living room when they could be sitting in comfy chairs?"
"I've got to keep in shape, Babe," he explained, torturing his glorious abdominal muscles by forcing them to haul him into a seated position again and again. "I can still be called into the line of duty at a moment's notice, and you've caused me to consume at least a thousand extra calories in the last week."
"No one forced you to eat those calories," I said defensively.
His eyes twinkled slightly, letting me know that he agreed, and was also about to tease me, which was just what I was in the mood for right now. Not. "No." he said solemnly. "But the appreciative sounds you were making during dessert the other night made me really want a share in whatever could make you moan that much." A wicked grin crossed his face as he added, "And then there was the whipped cream and chocolate syrup."
A blush heated my cheeks as I thought of all the magnificent things Ranger had done with his tongue after slowly drizzling cold chocolate syrup over my body. I was surprised I could walk the next morning after that work out session.
"No one told you to do that, either," I muttered under my breath, crossing my arms over my chest to hide the slight pebbling in my too-thin bra. Ranger didn't need to see how much his words affected me, especially when I was in no mood to have his words acted on, not when I was so confused by my feelings toward him and how our relationship was playing out.
Being in a relationship with Ranger had seemed like the best idea ever when I was with Morelli. We didn't fight, he supported my choice of job and most - if not all - other decisions I made, the sex was phenomenal. In reality, thought, I always felt inadequate. He gave me so much and I had nothing worthy to give him in return.
Did I love him? I thought now, worry and panic tightening my chest. I wasn't sure. I'd thought I loved Dickie, and look how that turned out. My mother had tried to convince me to marry Morelli, despite my constant protests that I didn't love him. so maybe I didn't need to love Ranger in order to fully commit to being with him? That didn't sound right.
Before I could work myself into a tizzy by thinking on the subject of love and marriage any longer, Ranger said, "You're right, it's my own fault."
“I might go take a shower,” I announced, downing the remainder of my beer as I stood.
Ranger jumped to his feet then, a wicked gleam in his eyes that he only got when he was thinking of sex, which was a lot more often than one would assume of a man as disciplined as him.
“Alone,” I added firmly.
“I could scrub your back,” Ranger offered.
“If you step foot in that bathroom we won’t step out of it for at least another hour,” I pointed out, and hurried to continue before he thought I was laying out a plan. “By that time, the dinner you put so much effort into preparing will have burned, set off the smoke alarms and alerted the neighbours. They would have called the fire department who would be breaking down the door and searching the apartment. I will not be caught naked in the act.”
“Okay,” Ranger said, holding his hands palms out in a sign of surrender. “Separate showers. I’ll check on dinner.”
I nodded, satisfied that I’d made my point, and took two steps toward my bedroom intending to do exactly as I’d said, but found myself turning back to face him. “Ranger.”
“Babe,” he responded.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Glancing pointedly to the kitchen he replied. “Dinner.”
“Yes, but why?”I had no idea why I was pressing the matter. So I’d been looking forward to spending the evening alone in my apartment and my perfect boyfriend had surprised me with a home cooked meal instead. That shouldn’t be a big deal. But it felt like it. It was almost smothering.
Oh my god, what was wrong with me?
“I heard you had a hard day and thought you could use some decent food and company.”
“Why today?” I asked. “Every day is hard day for me. Why choose today for the comforting boyfriend routine?”
“Babe, if you don’t want me here, say the word and I’ll leave.”
I cringed. There’d been no hurt in his voice and no pain in his expression, which would have been okay, if it weren’t for the fact that his tone was flat and his face was blank. My questions were hurting him, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like the part of my brain responsible for self control had control had packed up and walked out, leaving me for dead.
“Sorry,” I said, sagging against the door frame as guilt washed over me. “I’m just not in a great mood. I was looking forward to having some alone time tonight to recharge.”
Silence stretched between us, and not the usual comfortable kind that was Ranger’s signature, either. This silence was as tense as the moments that followed my Grandma Mazur’s announcement that the pot roast was dry. Everyone was waiting for an explosion of some kind, whether from Mom as she as she accused the last person to arrive of ruining dinner, or from Dad as he finally made good on all the threats he’d made toward his mother-in-law over the years, nobody knew, but the tension in the air was always palpable just like it was between Ranger and me right now.
After the longest three seconds of my life, Ranger nodded solemnly. “You’re right,” he said. “I should have called to ask if you wanted company rather than just assuming. I’ll finish up while you’re in the shower and be out of your hair.”
I blinked at him in confusion. I’d expected something a little more argumentative. It was clearly a thoughtful gesture to come and cook for me when he probably could have been getting a whole lot more pressing stuff done at work. A normal man would be annoyed that I wasn’t grateful for all the effort he’d put in. But Ranger wasn’t a normal man. He was used to staring down malicious military men without batting an eye. Being turned down for an impromptu dinner date obviously didn’t faze him in the slightest.
But that fact irked me.
Before I knew what I was doing, I was shouting at him. “For God’s sake! Stop agreeing with me! Why won’t you just argue and defend yourself?!”
“Because I love you,” Ranger shrugged.
The serious expression his features had set in scared me out of my wits. I wasn’t ready for the L-word yet. I was too busy worrying over everything that had run through my head since I’d arrived him. I blame panic for the next words that left my mouth: “If you love me so much, why don’t you marry me?” It was a phrase my nieces had uttered countless time in the last few encounters I’d had with them. The moment anyone mentioned losing anyone or anything, they asked the same question. I’m not sure I’d managed the same teasing sarcasm they used, though.
My suspicions were confirmed when Ranger said, “Okay,” and immediately dropped to one knee. “I was going to wait until after a romantic dinner, but here goes. Stephanie Plum, will you mar-.”
He didn’t get any more of his question out before I freaked out. Loudly.
“No!” I screeched, waving my hands in his face. “Not how this is supposed to go. I can’t – we’re not – just – I have to get out of here.” It was as if I was playing Monopoly and had just pulled a go to jail card out of the Chance pile, except instead of jail, it said freak out. Go to freak out. Go directly to freak out. Do not pass go. Do not collect shining engagement ring.
“Where did you go?” Lester asked when I lapsed into silence, recalling just how that night had ended. I didn’t particularly want to share the sordid details with Lester, but I’d promised him the full story and if I left this bit out it would only create questions later on.
“I ended up at a bar,” I informed him, burying my face in my hands to avoid the judgement that was sure to accompany the next part of the tale. “I started drinking to try to relax and calm down. Then I continued drinking. And the next thing I knew I was waking up in my bed. Naked and alone.”
“That’s not so bad,” Lester said, almost encouragingly.
“There was a text on my phone,” I countered, peaking at him through my fingers. “From Morelli.”
His cold, hard, blank stare slammed down with this information and I was suddenly very aware of how grateful I was that he did not have my wrists in his grasp as his fists clenched tight. “What did it say?”
“I don’t remember the exact wording,” I admitted. “But it was along the lines of ‘I had a great time last night, but we probably shouldn’t see each other again.’”
“You slept with him?” Lester asked.
I cringed. “I don’t remember.”