Author: financebabe PM
RangeMan received a complaint about their services causing Ranger to enlist Stephanie to help train his men in areas that are lacking. Along the way she not only strengthens her relationships with the guys but learns more about herself and what she wants. A Babe HEA.Rated: Fiction M - English - Friendship/Romance - Stephanie P. & Ranger M. - Chapters: 20 - Words: 109,880 - Reviews: 1,211 - Favs: 232 - Follows: 235 - Updated: 07-11-12 - Published: 06-11-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8206258
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I am using the characters from JE's creation below.
Jenny (JenRar) I am also using your superior beta skills on this story.
Chapter 13 – Coming Clean
It took me a while to find Bobby, even though the infirmary was in the same place in New York as it was in the Haywood office. He was helping the local medic, a young guy named Needle, cart up newly ordered supplies. When I'd asked if they'd needed any help, Bobby had grinned in a way that told me I was going to quickly come to regret my offer of assistance. Apparently, Needle was a new hire at Bobby's suggestion for the office. They'd worked together a few times when Bobby had been activated for missions, and when Ranger fired the former medic for his part in the Manuel/Cruz mess, Needle had been more than happy to step into the role.
Unfortunately, little work had been done in the infirmary in quite some time, so Bobby was cleaning out all the old supplies, disinfecting all the cabinets, and then restocking them with the new products and equipment we'd brought on the jet when we flew from Trenton. While they were busy carrying the boxes up and down the stairs, I was on my hands and knees with a bucket of soapy water, scrubbing the cabinets on the inside. I'd told Bobby I'd do anything he needed, so I couldn't exactly back out now. But I had learned why Tank was always telling me to wait to hear the duties before volunteering to help. I'd use the chips in my fingernails as a reminder of this lesson learned.
I'd lost track of time with my head inside the bottom cabinets and my ass up the air. It wasn't my most dignified position ever, but I figured I was alone, so it didn't really matter.
"Damn, Beautiful, you make a man wish he could rewrite history."
I banged my head when he started talking, so I backed up out the cabinet and sat back on my heels to rub my head and ask, "Why do you want to rewrite history?"
"So that I could have met you first and claimed you for my own. The image of you bent over like that is going to play a starring role in my future—"
Before Les could finish his thought, Cal came in and smacked him on the back of his head.
Bobby walked in right behind Cal and found Les and me rubbing our heads. "What happened here?"
"Steph hit her head in the cabinet, and Les hit his on his own stupidity," Cal explained.
Bobby tilted his head, as though considering that thought, and then nodded that it made perfect sense to him. Then he switched gears and began barking out instructions on where everything should be. Apparently, Bobby had always said that the medical suites at all the RangeMan offices should be set up exactly the same way so that regardless of where you were, you could find whatever you needed. The previous medical guy had completely disregarded that instruction, so Bobby and Needle were going to spend the afternoon setting the suite up correctly.
By the time I was released from my work, it was nearly four o'clock, and even though I was glad to feel like my assistance had been a big help, I was happy to be leaving, too. On a whim, I went up to five to see if Ranger was around and to see if there was a workstation I could use to run some searches.
The door to the corner office he'd worked in last night was cracked but not fully open, so I walked up to it and knocked.
"Enter," came his voice, sounding tired and strained.
I pushed the door open and came in ready to pick on him for the one word command. I saw he had someone in the office with him already, so I tried to just wave and apologize for interrupting his meeting.
"No..." He stopped me before I could excuse myself and retreat. Then he made a motion with his hand, inviting me to come in, so I complied, moving to stand next to him as he continued to indicate that I should get closer. Once I'd stopped walking, not sure why he wanted me so close during a meeting, he took my hand in his and pulled me down to sit in his lap.
I was shocked but tried not to show it, as I was sure if Ranger was engaging in a public display of affection that there was a well thought-out reason for it. After I stopped moving in his lap, he hooked his arms around me to hold me tighter against him and then said, "Babe, this is Edward Ness. I have just offered him the job as the New York office Director."
"Hi, Edward," I replied, unable to shake hands because of how tightly Ranger was holding me to him. "I'm Stephanie."
"We all call him Touchy," Ranger added as the man in front of us nodded at my attempt to introduce myself.
That was an unusual nickname, so I couldn't stop myself from asking about it. "Why Touchy? Are you an unusually-sensitive tough guy?"
That caused both of the men in the office to laugh. "No, ma'am, I'm not unusually sensitive," he replied. "When I was introduced to everyone in Ranger school, the instructor said my name was Edward Ness, and some idiot in my class got confused and thought I shared the name Elliot Ness from the movie The Untouchables. The instructor heard that and quickly announced that over the next few weeks, he would show us that our miniscule skills would be put to the test to prove to us that we were far from untouchable. Then he told everyone that as far as he was concerned, my name didn't matter because I would going to be touched at every opportunity to knock me down. The guys started referring to me as Touchy, and even though it made no sense, it stuck. Since I was usually the youngest grunt in all the missions I ran, I was always introduced by my superior officer as Touchy, so I never had time to ditch the nickname."
"Why not get rid of it now?" I wondered. "I mean, you are the boss here."
He grinned at my suggestion. "Along the way, I kind of got used to it, and to tell you the truth, I like it better than Edward, so it works. Besides, saying I'm named after Elliot Ness isn't that bad of connection – he did help to bring down Al Capone."
I thought back over all the nicknames I'd heard over the years and agreed – it could have been much worse. "It beats Binkie, I suppose."
That earned me more laughter and gave me the chance to relax against Ranger. I figured if he'd pulled me into his lap, there must have been a reason, and I wasn't going to pass up the chance to enjoy this feeling while I was waiting for him to confess what was really going on.
I waited as they spoke about a few of the guys that remained in the office, basically trying to come up with the right composition for a leadership team here similar to what he had in Trenton and Miami. The leadership teams in the branch offices were made up of four people: a director, a second-in-command, a medic, and a field operations coordinator. Touchy thought that Leo would be a good fit in the team, and even though Ranger liked the kid, he wasn't sure he was ready for that level of responsibility yet.
I tried to picture it, based on how hesitant he'd been yesterday. Once I stopped judging him as not acting like any of the guys from Trenton, I saw that he wasn't exactly hesitant; he was scanning Ranger for any kind of reaction, almost as though he was afraid to let him down. He had a sense of humor, if his Pussycat comment was anything to go off of. And when it came time to come up with a plan, he had a connection to get us in the door of the club safely. When I thought of him filling the role of Lester, I could see it. Then I remembered the search I'd seen that had been poorly completed.
"Who ran the search on Cruz that we used last night?" I blurted out, interrupting their conversation.
Ranger looked at Touchy, making it obvious he was meant to respond.
"Leo might have, but I think it was given to one of the tech guys who run most all of our searches, and then it went to him once it was finished."
"If you want him on the leadership team, he'll need to learn how to read a search better. Time was wasted last night because Ranger was ready to move out but he only had part of the story. If we'd acted on the information he was given, it would have been a waste of time, and we would given away our intent, which would have allowed Cruz to tighten his security and possibly evade any future attempts to bring him in," I explained, knowing I was a little biased about the importance of a well-run background check because I seemed to perform so many of them.
"That's a good idea," Ranger jumped in. "Why don't we set up some time tomorrow for you to work with Leo on the technical side and see how he responds? If he seems to pick it up quickly, then it might make sense to include him on the team because he could oversee that side of the work, as well."
Touchy smiled, obviously relieved to know that the guy he wanted on his team was being considered. I decided to do everything possible to help Leo learn how to run a decent search so that he could fill the role his new boss had in mind for him. This office needed some happy, and getting their leaders in place would be the start of that momentum to move them forward.
The guys got lost discussing various people and accounts. For a while, I just leaned into Ranger, enjoying the feel of him and letting the hum of their masculine voices lull me into a great state of relaxation. When the meeting ended, I tensed up, ready to get off of Ranger so that he could stand up. When the arms around me tightened again, I got the message that he wanted me exactly where I was.
Touchy got to the door and turned back to say, "It was nice to officially meet you, Stephanie."
"You, too," I replied as Ranger spoke over me, commanding the new director to shut the office door on his way out.
Once we were alone, I turned to see Ranger's face better and smiled up at him. "Why does it seem like the privacy you are so guarded with in New Jersey doesn't exist in this office?"
"It still exists," he disagreed. "I had Touchy shut the door, didn't I?"
"Yes, but only after you pulled me into your lap so that we were together in front of him for over half an hour," I pointed out.
"I did that to protect my privacy, too," Ranger replied, beginning to put his dangerous lips into good use on my neck.
"How is me sitting in your lap protecting anything?" I managed to ask just before I sucked in a quick breath at the feel of his teeth grazing my neck.
"When you appeared in the doorway, my body responded to yours like those damn dogs of Pavlov's reacted to a bell," he explained without moving his lips away from my skin. The movement of his mouth tickled against my neck, and I couldn't stop the shiver.
I got the Pavlov reference, but my brain was quickly getting cloudy, so I couldn't quite apply it to the current circumstance. "You started to drool?"
Ranger didn't respond with words; instead, he lifted his hips so that I felt the definite pressure of a very hard erection pressing into the back of my upper thigh. Now I got what he was talking about.
"So I needed you to help cover up the evidence of what happens when all I did was look up. I figured if you moved or said anything, the bulge in my pants would only get more obvious, so I used you to cover it up and protect my privacy," he said, pulling the conversation back to where we started.
"I'm not sure I appreciate being used like that," I pretended to object. It might have been believable if, when he found a particularly sensitive spot behind my ear, my hand hadn't flown up to the back of his head, pressing his mouth tighter against me.
"I can see how fervently you're objecting," he teased after I found the strength to release him. "Maybe we can discuss this further over dinner."
After letting out a low humming sound when his tongue ran up the column of my throat, I finally agreed, "Okay. How do I need to dress?"
"That depends on how your leg feels," he stated, pulling away so that my mind could clear enough for me to answer him.
"It was sore and stiff this morning, but after getting on my hands and knees for Bobby, most of that has faded." I thought my explanation was perfect, but at the mention of being on my knees for one of his men, I heard a low rumble in Ranger's chest. It was like listening to a dog warning another animal to stay away from the things he considered to be his. In thinking it through, I could see how my statement sounded, so for the sake of protecting the man who cared for me most often, I clarified, "I was washing the inside of the cabinets in the medical suite so that he and Needle could restock it.
Ranger's forehead rested on my shoulder, and he shook his head slowly. "From time to time, I would picture the two of us together, and I thought I had identified all the possible downsides to us giving into this. But I never considered that clarifying how I felt about you would make me more jealous instead of less so. It's like admitting that you're too wonderful to resist means that might be true for my men, as well."
I let my fingertips wander across his chest as I pointed out a flaw in his thinking. "The thing you need to remember is that the only person I consider impossible to resist is you. The guys may flirt or tease, or even occasionally touch, but they will never tempt me, because you are all that I want."
"I'm glad to hear that, because I feel the same way," he replied, pulling me in for a searing kiss.
When we broke apart, I felt the need to either lock his office door or to lighten the mood before it got so hot that we broke in this obviously sturdy desk. "You mean the guys may occasionally touch you, but I'm all you'll ever want?"
"Smartass." He grinned as he attempted to chastise me. "Can you be ready to leave in forty-five minutes?"
"That depends on what kind of ready I need to be." I still hadn't been told how to dress.
"Wear something nice. We'll go to a little place I know close by and have a quiet dinner in a good restaurant and then come back to work on that contract renegotiation I believe you've requested."
I let him help me up and gave my knees a second to adjust to standing again. Sea legs were nothing compared to just been kissed by Ranger legs.
As I rode up in the elevator, I was glad that I'd packed a dress. Of course, it was the only one I'd packed, so I hoped it would be appropriate for where we were going. I had to rush through my routine, but there were some things that had to be done, so I shaved and did a fast mini-wax, attempting to prepare for a best case scenario. I didn't have enough time to curl my hair, so I ran some gel through it and hoped that as it dried, it would stay semi-manageable instead of blowing up and frizzing out.
While my hair was deciding which version of its split personality to treat me to, I ran into the bedroom and pulled on a matching bra and panty set. They were both black, French, and trimmed in lace. I'd never worn them because I thought they were too special to just throw on under a pair of jeans, and I refused to give a skip a view of something this nice, so I'd saved them hoping for an occasion worthy of this lingerie splurge. Then I pulled on some black thigh highs and secured them with a matching garter belt. When I took a quick peek in the mirror, I was very happy with what I saw.
Finally, I pulled on my black dress. It wasn't exactly fancy, but the cut was flattering to my figure, and it was comfortable, so I figured I could eat whatever I wanted without worrying about the zipper getting so stressed that it might split open. I was just slipping my feet into my shoes when the door to the apartment opened.
Ranger came in and smiled at me from the doorway. "My God, you're a beautiful woman."
I did a quick turn around so he could see the whole package and then moved closer to him. "You aren't so bad yourself."
I hoped he could pick up on the major understatement of that sentence, because there were no words for how handsome the man in front of me was at the moment. He'd obviously gotten ready downstairs, because he'd appeared in a pair of charcoal pants and a button up white dress shirt with a black jacket on top. He wasn't wearing a tie, so I would be able to look at that little glimpse of his lower neck uninhibited all night long. He was dressed up without looking uncomfortable or stiff, and I couldn't believe this was yet another look he could pull off effortlessly.
When we both put in earrings at the same time, I smiled, realizing that even that act was made manlier looking by him. Everything about him was different than what I was used to, and I decided it was time to stop trying to hold him to the old standards that everyone else had – or hadn't – lived up to. He was a force all his own, and I needed to adjust my expectations accordingly.
He raised and eyebrow in my direction, so I took a wild guess that he was wondering if I was ready. I looked at myself once more in the mirror and nodded, taking his hand when he reached out for me and letting him lead me to the elevator.
"I'm going to miss this when we're back in Trenton," I sighed as he pulled my back to his chest on the ride down to the garage.
He pulled his lips from my neck long enough to ask, "Miss what?"
"This..." I punctuated my word by leaning into him further. "This affectionate side of you that doesn't care who is watching us together."
"Who says you have to miss it?" Ranger asked, sounding curious. "Are you planning on treating me differently in Jersey?"
"No!" I quickly corrected that misconception. "I'll be the same, but you've never been this touchy-feely in front of everyone before, so I figured it wouldn't last when we were in front of the guys that we knew."
"Babe." He spun me around and stopped the elevator all in one smooth motion. "I wasn't as tactile in front of people out of respect to you. Until I knew what you wanted, I wasn't going to risk your reputation by kissing you or holding you around the gossip mongers of our hometown. But now that we're clear about being together, I don't have a reason to hold back. If anything, I might be a little more physical just to be sure that everyone gets the message that you're mine."
He stopped talking long enough to lean in and give me a tender, lingering kiss. He wasn't forcing the passion between us to rise to the surface, but just like turning the heat on low under a pot of water, I could feel the beginning of the warmth between us. I knew by the time the night was over, I would be bubbling over.
When he pulled back, he whispered, "You are mine, right?" I nodded that I was, which allowed him to add, "And when we get back home, will you be okay with a little more public touching?"
"Anytime," I quickly assured him, stretching up to claim another kiss. "Anytime."
I hadn't been aware of him starting the elevator again, so when the bell dinged and the doors opened, I was surprised.
Standing in the garage in front of us were a smiling Cal and Lester.
Les spoke as we stepped out. "We thought the elevator got stuck. If it hadn't started moving soon, I was about the climb down the shaft to rescue you." The grin on his face told me he was more than aware of the fact that there were no mechanical problems. "Then I realized if any shafts were going to get attention, Ranger probably preferred it be his own."
"Santos," Ranger growled out his name, but he started to chuckle at the end of it, and once he lost control of the blank face, I burst out laughing.
"It was a horrible pun, Les, but it was kind of funny," I explained, breaking any tension that might have remained and getting us moving toward the cars.
"Do we really need both of the guys with us?" I asked Ranger when we climbed in the Explorer from the night before. "I thought you said if we went out, you'd personally see to my safety."
"I will," Ranger assured me. "They're here to see to my safety while I'm looking after yours."
There was no way to tell how accurate that statement was, but because of the way he'd stated that the guys were coming with us to protect Ranger himself, I couldn't really argue against them. The last thing I'd ever do purposefully was endanger this man, so it looked like our first real date as a couple was going to happen with a set of twin shadows.
Ranger wasn't happy with the distance between us, so he put an arm around me and pulled me across the slick leather seats so that my side was pressed against his. "They aren't a part of our evening together, but when we're in places I can't secure and I don't want to be on the offensive, then we will have guards with us. Is that something you can handle?"
Privacy was a big thing for me. I'd spent enough time as the object of community discussions and gossip that I coveted the small parts of my life that I could call my own. So having a group share the times that I wanted to treasure as my own was a big deal for me. But in thinking it through, there were some misadventures that never made it to the grapevine.
No one outside of RangeMan was aware that I'd once stunned one of Ranger's men with his own gun in order to escape the safety of his building. No one knew that three months ago, I had been to the boardwalk at Point Pleasant and had too much cotton candy, funnel cakes, and roasted nuts and gotten to the office just in time to hurl everywhere in the garage. It was exactly the kind of thing that would have kicked off innumerable rumors in the 'Burg, and despite every one of the guys being aware, they never spoke of it except to ask if I was all right. These were men who knew how to keep their mouths shut and had proven their loyalty time and time again. Having them around didn't equate in a surrender of privacy. If anything, having them nearby might ensure a greater circle of intimacy because we could relax and leave the curiosity seekers to the guys watching over us.
I'd been lost in my head long enough that I had allowed the silence to stretch, and I could feel Ranger stiffening beside me, obviously worried about my answer. "I can handle it," I assured him. "In time, I think I'll even grow to appreciate it."
Once again, I'd proven the right answer got a more than worthwhile award, because Ranger lowered his lips to mine and kissed me so gently that I wondered if any woman had ever felt this adored.
"All right, love birds," Lester announced from the front. "We're here, and Cal is going to secure the entrance for you. After I park, I'll join him in the restaurant. You can let me know when you're ready to leave, and I'll grab the truck to pick you up."
His word choice sounded light, but his tone was all business. The carefree guy that had been picking on us in the garage was on shift right now, and he took his job very seriously. I relaxed with that thought and realized this must be how Ranger felt. With somebody he trusted watching his back, he could focus on me. Looking at it that way, I no longer resented the extra staff on our date, but I welcomed it.
The restaurant was a small space, probably holding a maximum of eleven tables, with none of them capable of holding more than four people. The smells coming from the kitchen were only enhanced by the small space capturing them and holding the garlic, marinara, and cheese to make me aware of how hungry I was suddenly feeling.
"Ah, Carlos," said an elderly man who walked quickly toward us, despite being slightly humped over at his shoulders. "You are back in town, and you've come for more of my Maria's cooking, yes?"
"That's right. Alfonzo, I'd like you to meet Stephanie." As he introduced me, he put an arm around my waist and drew me closer to his side.
I wasn't sure how long it would take me to adjust to this side of Ranger, but I was looking forward to enough repeated exposure that it might one day feel normal.
"Stephanie, this is Alfonzo. He owns this restaurant, and his wife runs the kitchen," Ranger explained. "They were very kind to me when I was first setting up the office in New York, so every time I'm in town, I always make sure to come by."
"It's very nice to meet you," I replied, my 'Burg manners never failing me. "And from the delicious smells, I'm looking forward to sampling your wife's cooking."
The mention of his bride brought a wonderful smile to his face, and I decided he was one of those special people who accepted everyone he came into contact with. I liked him instantly and was glad to be here for our first real date.
He put us in a cozy table for two. It was shaped like a triangle, which allowed Ranger to have his back in the corner and me to sit beside him instead of across the table. We sat down, and Alfonzo asked, "What are you in the mood to eat tonight?"
I looked down and didn't see a menu, so I glanced at Ranger, who explained, "There aren't menus. You tell him the type of food you're hungry for, and he goes into the kitchen and tells his wife, who creates something especially for you. While you're waiting for it to cook, he brings you a sampling of appetizers and some wine."
Ranger lead by example and told Alfonzo, "I'd love some chicken, nothing too heavy, and a salad with spinach."
"And for you?" he asked, turning to look at me with such a genuine expression of interest that it made me smile.
I thought about it and said, "I'm not the healthy eater he is, so anything covered in cheese with a rich sauce is going to hit the spot."
"Perfecto," Alfonzo replied. "She is the kind of guest my wife loves to cook for," he said to Ranger, before turning back to me and warning, "I hope you are very hungry, because she will prepare a feast based upon that description."
After Alfonzo disappeared, Ranger reached out and took my hand in his.
"I love it here," I confessed.
"The food is wonderful, but Alfonzo and his wife are good people, so I try to stop by every time I'm in town to check on them. They are getting older, and none of their children were interested in helping out in the restaurant, so I don't know how much longer they'll be able to keep it open."
He shared the story of how he'd been caught in an unexpected downpour one night after he'd spent the better part of the day looking at possible office space. Since he was in front of this place when the rain started, he decided to come in while waiting for the storm to pass over. Because the weather kept most people in that evening, Ranger was the only customer for the first hour, so he got the undivided attention of the owner. And even though he rarely shared anything about himself, he caught a glimpse of an old framed purple heart handing on the wall, and he felt a connection to the friendly old man, so he began answering the questions he was being asked. By the time his meal was over, he felt much more confident about his decision to grow his business here. He said it wasn't that Alfonzo had really offered him any good advice that he hadn't thought of on his own, but it was the way he made him feel as though his ideas were good ones that needed to be acted on instead of thought about anymore.
It took us over two hours to finish our meal, since Alfonzo insisted on us staying for dessert. "This is the lovely woman you have spoken of before, so I know she would like to end her meal with something sweet. I will bring you a little something."
His version of a little something turned out to be ample portions of tiramisu, two flavors of gelato, a light fruit mousse, and biscotti to dip in our cappuccinos. It was a relief to have the excuse of needing to eat a lot of the desserts to keep from hurting his feelings. But in truth, they were all too delicious to stop tasting them.
While I was attempting the shine the small glass dish with my spoon, I hinted, "Alfonzo seemed to know a little bit about me."
"Anytime I needed to talk through something, I came here and had dinner. He has spent more than one night trying to convince me to act on my feelings for you instead of holding onto them out of some desire to keep you safe. He'd nearly convinced me to act on how I felt when you started pushing me a little in your emails. I think between the two of you, I didn't stand a chance."
"So how do you feel?" I couldn't help but push some more. I knew it was unfair to back him into a corner like that, but I needed to hear it and not be left to wonder if he was acting this way out of attraction and not something more.
Ranger took my hand in his, forcing me to stop scraping the dessert dish and look at him. He waited to speak, and I got the feeling it wasn't because he was trying to make up his mind. His emotions were set; it was his mouth he was trying to convince.
I knew before he spoke that he'd found the strength to step out of his comfort zone and be vulnerable enough to confess.
"I love you, Stephanie. I have for a long time, even though I tried every possible way to talk myself out of it."
"Why did you try to talk yourself out of it?" I wondered, unable to look away from his dark eyes.
"Because I knew that acting on how I felt would bind us together in a way that I'd never be able to let go of," he confessed.
"Are you planning on walking away?" I asked in a panic.
"Never," he quickly assured me. "But I've watched you walk away from Morelli repeatedly, and I knew I'd never survive that kind of thing."
"I walked away from Morelli because there was nothing there that tied me to him other than a shared history," I attempted to explain the difference.
"And what about now?" he asked, doing a little pushing of his own.
"Now, I completely understand what you mean about being bound in a way that I can't let go of. If you decide to go back to your previous position of not being relationship material, then I don't know how I'll handle that kind of rejection," I told him, trying to give him the same level of honesty.
He ran his free hand over his face and let out a long breath. "It's a wonder you even speak to me after all the bullshit lines I fed you."
"As long as you don't plan on reviving any of your previous positions, I think we'll be fine," I warned him.
"I think the ball for that is completely in your court," he replied.
"My court?" I didn't understand that at all.
"You know that I love you..." He paused briefly to trace down my fingers. "But how do you feel about me?"
In the past, this question would have made me nauseous, but looking into his eyes, I felt that same sense of peace that Ranger always gave me. I felt brave, supported, and adored, and there was no reason to panic when I knew this was the man that had sacrificed in order to guarantee my dreams could come true.
"I love you, Ranger," I confessed. "I love you something fierce."