Steph and the Merry Men

Stephanie looked at herself critically in the full-length mirror. It was all good, but… She still couldn't believe that she had not only bought this scrap of a dress, but that she was actually planning on wearing it out. With a bunch of guys. And Ranger. Ranger! Christ, what had she been thinking?

That's the point- she hadn't been thinking. She had bought this dress to tempt Ranger, but this was playing with fire. She had spent six months trying to get over the fact that he didn't want a relationship with her- one that she could live with- and she still had momentary lapses of reason about it. She wanted him that bad, dammit. She had to remind herself that tonight wasn't about Ranger.

The dress was a slinky red silk sheath, cut in all the right places to showcase her newly toned curves. Six months of hard training with the RangeMan crew had certainly defined her muscles and given her a new confidence in her looks. That, actually, was the problem. For the first time in her life, she looked in the mirror and didn't worry about what other people thought. She knew she looked hot. She just wasn't sure that she wanted to attract that much attention to herself while hanging out with a bunch of over-protective ex-Army guys. Someone- not the ex-Army guys- could end up seriously hurt.

A quick look at the bedroom alarm clock told her that she didn't have time to change, though. Tank and the guys would be waiting down in the garage for her already. So she took one last look, grabbed her purse, and clicked down the hall on her red, four-inch FMPs to the elevator. A quick ride down, and she exited to a chorus of cat calls. She struck a pose, turning to display the wares, until it died down.

"Damn, Bombshell!" Lester called out, a wide, hungry smile on his face. Tank merely smiled, his eyes roving up and down her body. Bobby gallantly opened the door of the Bronco for her.

Steph felt her face blush a little. She wasn't used to this much attention. Boosting herself up into the truck (not the easiest of feats in the shoes), she tried to situate herself in the back seat without flashing anybody. It didn't work.

Ranger's voice growled from behind her. "Nice thigh-highs, babe."

Fuck, she thought. But it came out of her mouth unbidden.

"Maybe later," Ranger said in a suggestive voice. "I've got business to take care of first."

Relief- and, contradictorily, annoyance- flooded Steph. "You aren't going out with us then?"

Ranger shook his head. "Sorry, babe. Change of plans."

"Your loss," she chimed out. Yep, that sounded mature.

He gave her a look, staring at her as the rest of the guys piled in and they headed out. He stood there until she lost sight of him. Sighing, she turned her attention back to the guys. She had become very comfortable around them and close over her six months of training. She was now, having successfully completed the program and passed the "final exam" Ranger had devised, a real RangeMan employee. Tonight was her celebration. "So, where are you taking me? Please tell me some where nicer than Shorty's."

"And what's wrong with Shorty's?" Tank demanded.

"I don't know if the stains are gravy or blood. Should I start there?" Steph rolled her eyes. This was now an old argument with Tank. It seemed he really liked the place. She still thought Pino's had better pizza. "You said this would be fun. What are we doing?"

Bobby practically danced in his seat. "Well, we had trouble deciding, because you're the first girl we've ever trained. Somehow, we didn't think our usual celebration was appropriate."

"And what is that?" Steph asked.

There was a playful twinkle in Bobby's eyes. "We didn't think that a night at a strip bar was your kind of night."

Steph reigned in a grin. "You never know. You didn't ask."

Lester's grin got bigger and he sat back in his seat with a thud. "I told you, Bobby. Bombshell's a different kind of girl."

Bobby shook his head, a difficult to describe look on his face. She thought it was quickly fading shock, with a little lust mixed in. "Uh, well, we thought maybe dancing might be better."

A low, throaty chuckle came out of her. She did so enjoy making these guys a little uncomfortable around her and surprising them. "Dancing's good, too." Actually, she had never really enjoyed dancing that much, always worried what she looked like flailing around out there. Her natural clumsiness had made dancing difficult; but a great deal of that clumsiness had been beaten out of her during Tank's self-defense instruction. And she felt better about her appearance. Dancing wasn't so scary anymore. She decided to needle them some more. "I didn't think any of you guys danced, though. Hard to do while you're surveilling the surroundings all the time."

"You can't do it all the time. Gotta have some fun." Tank looked at her the in the rearview mirror. "You just have to pick your place carefully. This one is safe, so we can all relax."

"You mean you might even drink?" Steph asked, her eyebrow quirked up. She had been working on that skill, too.

Lester laughed. "Yeah. Wanna join us?"

"Beer is always good." Steph nodded. Maybe all this physical fitness she had acquired might help her handle her liquor better. "Margaritas are better."

"You can have the margaritas. I'm sticking to beer." Bobby's voice was firm.

Lester explained the comment. "He had a bad margarita experience once, and he's never recovered."

Interest piqued- Steph was comfortable around the guys, a result of working closely with them, but she still didn't know much about them- she asked, "What happened?"

Tank chortled. "Bobby doesn't like to talk about it."

Now she really wanted to know. "C'mon, what happened? Had to be pretty bad, if you've sworn them off. Margaritas are great- like a Slurpee with alcohol."

Bobby simply shook his head and wouldn't answer, so Steph concentrated on Tank. "Explain it, Tank! Don't leave me hanging like that! You KNOW how curious I am!"

Bobby shot Tank a look, which he chose to ignore. "Ask him real nice, after a few beers, and maybe he'll show you."

Show her? Steph decided maybe she didn't really want to know. "Uh, yeah, I'll remember that," she muttered. Bobby became the object of some abuse for the rest of the ride, which Steph half-listened to while she looked out the window to try and figure out where they were headed. She was a little surprised to find them pulling in to the Liberty Ballroom.

She waited until the guys had all gotten out, then allowed them to help her down without breaking her neck or a heel. "Uh, guys, have you ever been here before?" She certainly didn't want to remember how she had almost died the last time she was here.

"Nope. Heard it was a fun place." Bobby held his arm out for her.

Should she fill them in before they entered? She decided it might be more fun to wait.

It definitely was worth waiting. It took about twenty minutes for Tank to figure it out; Bobby was a lot quicker. As they stood around a high, small table, sipping drinks, Bobby leaned down and whispered in her ear. "You've been here before?"

Steph nodded. "Yeah." She kept it brief. If he wanted more information about it, he was going to have to ask.

"Uh, for a case?"

Yes, she had him. She knew exactly where his mind was going. She could almost see the gears turning. "Sort of." She left the implication hang, deciding that now would be a good time to dance. Grabbing Lester's arm, she pulled him towards the dance floor. "Time to dance!"

She kept Lester out for a good three songs. He was a great dancer, and she really enjoyed herself. He stepped in to teach her some moves when it was obvious she was not quite used to dancing. It meant that she had his hands on her a lot and he was very close to her body. She was becoming very aware of him, and those damn Hungarian hormones were mamboing. It had been a while for her, since breaking up with Morelli and swearing off physical contact with Ranger.

Steph decided that she needed a drink then and some distance from a male body. She nodded her head toward the bar, pointed, and Lester nodded. He leaned over to ear, speaking loudly so that she would hear him over the music, "I'll be out here."

He moved off, and Steph hoped he'd have luck finding another partner. Amending that, as she observed a tall, blond man headed in Lester's direction, she thought a female partner. She was pretty sure that Lester didn't swing that way.

Apparently, either female partners weren't to be had, or Tank and Bobby decided to drink. "No dancing, gentlemen?" she asked, picking up her margarita glass, which was slippery from condensation. She rubbed its coolness across her brow, enjoying the sensation.

"I didn't realize-" Tank started, but paused at Steph's wide grin. "You knew, didn't you?"

Steph took another mouthful of her drink. "Yeah. I thought everybody knew. This place is listed in the Trenton Rainbow Pages Book."

Frowning, Tank looked at her a little coldly. "You could have said something."

"I'm selfish. I thought this might be interesting until you guys figured it out, and this way I can enjoy myself without getting hit on left and right." Steph lifted her hair off her shoulders, trying to cool herself down. Dancing could be a bit of exercise. "Plus, this way I have three guys paying attention to me all night." She finished with a smile. "Wanna dance?"

There was a struggle on Tank's face between anger and eagerness. He'd been watching Lester and Steph, and he was looking forward to dancing with her out there. As usual, she seemed completely unaware of just how sexy she looked. He grabbed her hand and started towards the floor. "You bet!"

Worried a little that Tank's tremendous height would make dancing a little awkward, she let him lead. This was a fast song, with a strong beat, and he came up behind her and circled her waist, pulling her closer. They began to bump and grind in time with the music. Steph had never really danced like this in public before; she tried to keep thinking "We're just dancing!" but it felt like sex with their clothes on. Not that she wasn't enjoying this, but bad thoughts kept crossing her mind.

She was glad that the next song was slower, and she turned around to face Tank.

Tank wasn't ready for her. He misstepped and landed on her toes. He apologized profusely, looking quite embarrassed. "Don't worry about it, Tank. It didn't hurt that much, and it was my fault for just wheeling around like that." Steph limped a little, and decided that they both needed a break.

Returning to the table yet again, Steph found Bobby staring open-mouthed over in the direction of the door. A quick glance showed her nothing that interested, and she reached over to gently shut Bobby's mouth. "You'll catch flies," she gently admonished.

"What's got you, man?" Tank asked, keeping an eye out for the waitress and motioning her over when he finally caught sight of her.

Bobby shook his head. "Does your cousin Vinnie have a sister?" he asked Steph.

"No, thank God. Why do you ask?"


Bobby didn't day anything else, and Steph nudged him with her elbow. "Why, Bobby?"

"I think Vinnie's here, and he just hit on me."

Tank laughed, spraying beer over himself and the table. "What?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that was Vinnie." Bobby was almost talking to himself.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Steph demanded.

Lester turned up just then, grinning with a petite blond woman on his arm. "You guys see Vinnie?"

Bobby slammed his head down on the table. "I'm gonna kill him."

"What?" Lester demanded.

Steph took her drink from the waitress who had suddenly appeared. Sipping it, she chirped, "Vinnie hit on him!"

The look on Lester's face could only be described as disbelief missed with disgust and repulsion. "You're kidding! He must have thought you wouldn't recognize him, the pervert."

"Why wouldn't he recognize him?" Tank questioned.

Lester laughed. "He's in a fucking dress!"

The petite woman at Lester's side crossed her arms and tapped her foot, speaking up for the first time. "And what's the problem with a guy in a dress?"

Lester looked at the woman as if she were slow, and stated, "He's a guy. In a dress." He paused momentarily, then decided to try and contextualize it. "The guy's a pervert."

Steph prepared to hear a PC rant, but was surprised by the blonde's response. "So I'm a pervert, now? You didn't mind five minutes ago!"

Lester's jaw dropped, and the blond walked off in a fine huff.

Tank and Stephanie laughed out loud, just dissolving into a fit. It took a few minutes, but Steph finally calmed herself, wiping tears from her eyes. Lester still looked puzzled, so Steph leaned over to give him a clue. She whispered in his ear, "That wasn't a woman, Lester."

She almost lost it again at his facial expression when the words finally clicked in his brain. "Oh, man!" was his only response. He looked disturbed.

Steph was really enjoying the comedy show tonight until she saw a familiar face milling about in the crowd. Grabbing Lester's hand, she yanked him out towards the dancing nervously. "C'mon, let's dance. It'll make you feel better."

Lester danced with her, but it wasn't with the same energy as before. He was bummed. Trying to keep tabs on that familiar face, Steph was having a hard time concentrating on dancing, too. But she did not want to go back to that table or any other place where she was cornered and stationary. "Lester, you don't seem very happy. It's hurting my feelings."

"Sorry, Steph. I just really liked her- I mean, him." Lester shook his head. "I couldn't tell! Talk about being aware of your surroundings…" His voice trailed off.

"Look for the Adam's apple next time. Or if 'she' has a scarf or choker hiding where the Adam's apple should be." Steph gave Lester a quick peck on the cheek, trying to cheer him up. "You didn't grow up in a big city, did you?"

"Uh, no. How could you tell?" Lester seemed puzzled.

"Well, your how old? Thirty-ish?"

"Thirty-three. So?" Lester was frowning.

"You didn't have many glam rockers in that small town, did you?" Steph smiled.

"Glam whatters?"

"Small town boy." Steph shook her head. "People who looked like Poison? Britney Fox? Cinderella?" At his blank stare, she tried to come up with some other reference for him. "Headbanger's Ball with Ricky Rachtman?"

Lester still looked puzzled. "Guys who had long hair and make up and wore scarves and spandex onstage?" Steph gave up. "What music did you listen to growing up?"


Oh, that explained it. She decided to drop it. Good thing, too, because just then there was a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, she came face to face with Joe Morelli. "Oh, hi," she managed to say without stuttering.

Morelli looked at Lester. "Mind if I cut in?" He framed it as a question, but it obviously wasn't. Lester looked at Steph, who shook her head No.

"Lady doesn't want to." Lester looked vaguely intimidating, sweeping Steph off to another area of the dance floor.

"Thanks, Lester," Steph said, truly grateful and appreciative.

"I thought you broke up with the cop." Lester stated flatly.

"I did." Steph leaned her forehead against Lester.

"Does he know that you did?" After a few minutes of silence, Lester spoke up again. "If you and the cop are broken up, why aren't you with Ranger?"

Steph stilled, stopping mid-dance and throwing Lester off balance. He stumbled into her as she turned around and headed back for the table. "I need a drink." A few moments later, Lester followed her.

The first words out of Stephanie's mouth when she reached the table were, "Okay, so who's doing shots with me?" Tank looked at her with concern, and Bobby simply said, "I will."

"Two it is." Her eyes found the waitress, who made her way over and took the order.

"Bombshell, you don't usually drink that much. Are you sure you want to start shots?" Tank asked her.

"Yes." Steph was emphatic.

Lester was stubborn. "You didn't answer my question."

Tank's head swiveled to face Lester. "What question?"

Lester continued to look at Steph, who was feeling more and more desperate to avoid the question. "I asked Steph why, if she and Morelli are broken up for good, she isn't with Ranger."

They were interrupted by the waitress, who brought out four shots, a bowl of limes, and salt. "The bar's getting busy, so I got you a double. It might take me a bit to get back to you."

Steph thanked her, and immediately licked her hand, sprinkling salt. Then, licking it again, she downed the tequila shot and popped in a slice of lime. It burned on the way down and the lime made her cringe. It had been a very long time since she'd drunk like this. Tank, Steph observed, looked pissed at Lester. She decided to answer the question and avoid any conflict within the group tonight. That shot must have started to work already. "Ranger just wants sex. He doesn't want a relationship. If I'm with him, I want more than sex."

All three men reached out at once and downed a shot, not pausing for salt or citrus. Tank stood up and, heading for the bar, called over his shoulder, "I'll just get a whole damn bottle."

Steph looked a little bewildered. "What's wrong, guys? Did I shock you?"

"Steph, what gave you that idea?" Bobby asked.

"Which idea?"

"That Ranger just wants to sleep with you?"

"Because he told me so." Steph looked around and found the melting remains of her margarita.

"What exactly did he tell you? And when did he tell you this?" Tank asked, overhearing the last statement as he returned with a full tequila bottle and immediately began pouring another round of shots.

"Right after he slept with me, he told me that that's all it could ever be." Steph's eyes watered a little at the memory. It had really hurt then, and it still hurt now. "That his lifestyle doesn't lend itself to relationships. That was right before he told me to go back to Morelli." Her hand snaked out and another shot went down.

Lester's eyebrows shot so far up that they almost disappeared under his hair. "He sent you back to Morelli?"

Steph shook her head emphatically. Given the amount of tequila she was ingesting, it was quite an effort. "And I don't want Joe. I want Ranger. But Ranger doesn't want me." The tears started flowing.

"Shit, Bombshell," Tank mumbled, coming over and gathering her in his arms. "That man is the dumbest mother-fucker in the world."

"You don't have to say that to make me feel better, Tank," Steph stifled her sobs.

Bobby cursed under his breath. "It's the truth, Steph. I can't believe Ranger did that to you."

Lester just looked incredulous. "Have you told him this? Ranger, I mean."

Steph narrowed her eyes. "You know Ranger when he's made up his mind. No discussion possible." She struggled to sit up, reaching to pour herself another shot. "So, I'm a free woman. Sex-starved, but free." Down went the shot.

Lester's look changed at her comments. "So, you don't want just sex?"

Steph was at the talkative stage of her drunkenness. "Not with Ranger. But that doesn't mean casual sex is a bad thing. No, no, no. It just doesn't work with him."

Bobby was looking interested in the conversation again, too. "So just sex with someone else is okay?"

"'pends on the someone," Steph slurred a little. "Morelli, now, he wants more than just sex and I don't. So he's out. Which sucks, 'cause he's pretty good at it. So what about you guys?" Even drunk, Steph felt the change in atmosphere at the table. And then she realized just who she was mouthing off to, and her current state of drunken hormones.

Bobby stammered. "W-w-what, exactly, are you asking?"

Lester looked at her with hot eyes. "Yeah, Steph, what exactly do you mean?"

"Um," thoughts began to clear in Stephanie's mind, as she realized what that had sounded like.

Tank's shot had stopped halfway to his mouth at her words. Looking at her, he threw it back fast and slammed the shot glass down with a loud bang. "I think it's time we went home. We've all had a little too much to drink."

Lester and Bobby looked at him, then at Steph. She watched all of them, wondering what was going through their minds. She tried to refocus them. "We're celebrating my graduation, and I'm not done drinking."

No one spoke. "Guys?" she asked in a timid voice.

Tank shrugged, Lester sat back, and Bobby took Steph's hand. "We can't leave 'til I get my turn to dance, anyway. C'mon, Steph."

Bobby was an even better dancer than Lester. All of Ranger's men were well-built; Bobby was no exception. Fast, pumping music had their bodies brushing against the other; Steph was acutely aware of Bobby's reactions to her. When the music turned slow, he pressed her close to him and whispered in her ear. "We've never really worked with a woman before. I can see that there are some advantages to it."

Pulling back a little, Steph corrected him. "You've worked with me for a while. The advantages never occur to you before?" She was a little surprised at herself.

Bobby smiled. "I believe that we all had some incorrect information regarding your, uh, love life."

"Oh," Steph understood from the tone. "You all thought Ranger would kill you if you hit on me."

Bobby didn't look the least bit embarrassed. "Pretty much. But this little conversation tonight puts a different spin on things." He turned her around and pulled her back tight to his chest.

"How so?" Steph had to turn her head to see him. He leaned down to answer her and ended up with his mouth covering hers. She was shocked for a moment, before she responded to his probing tongue. His hands around her waist tightened as their tongues battled it out, and he released a moan as she sucked his tongue into her mouth. Both of them were a little breathless as they pulled away from the kiss just as the song came to an end.

Steph wasn't sure what to do after that. She's entertained some pretty erotic thoughts about all the Merryman at some point in the past six months, which was perfectly natural considering her enforced celibacy and close contact with them. But she'd never done anything about them, because Ranger was always a lurking presence. But if Bobby wasn't bothered anymore…

Of course, this could be awkward later. She had to work with these guys in situations where trust mattered. And if she slept with one of them, how would the others react? Bobby seemed to sense her unease, because he led her back to the table, careful to keep touching to the minimum.

Steph wasn't sure if Tank and Lester had seen what had happened on the dance floor, and she felt a little flustered. She was royally screwing this job up, and she had just gotten out of training! She genuinely liked these guys, and did not want to mess that up. Lester handed her a glass of water; the tequila bottle was across the table from her, under Tank's protection. "Here, drink this."

Okay, not alcohol. A subtle hint, she supposed that she had drunk too much and was getting out of hand. She drank it greedily, realizing as the cool liquid flowed into her mouth just how hot and thirsty she was from all the exertion. Finished, she put it on the table. "Thanks, Les."

Tank cleared his throat. "Bombshell, are you really in love with Ranger?"

Steph froze for a minute. "I need more alcohol before I answer that. No, you need more alcohol before I answer that, so that you can't remember- or repeat- my answer."

Bobby looked a little pissed. "You think we'd tell him what you told us tonight?"

Steph salted her hand and licked, threw back a shot, and sucked another lime slice dry. "You're his friends."

Lester snorted. "And you're not our friend?"

She shrugged. "Well, I'd like to think so, but you've all known him longer and better than me."

Tank shook his head, downing a shot of his own, sans salt and lime. "We like you better. You're funnier, honest, and better looking." He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked a bit intimidating. "So you can trust us. Are you really in love with Ranger?"

Steph sniffed as tears began to well up. "Y-y-yes. But he's not in love with me."

Bobby smiled. "Don't be too sure. He can real closed mouthed about some things."

"Well, if he doesn't tell me, how do I know?" Steph questioned, scrubbing at her eyes with a cocktail napkin and smearing her black eyeliner a little bit.

"I got an idea," Lester spoke up. "It works every time. I can testify as male that this will work."

Steph looked at him. His dramatic pause took too long. He reached out for a shot, downed it and slammed the glass down on the table. "Make him jealous."

Steph almost burst into tears at Lester. "Make him jealous? That's your big plan? How the hell can I do that?"

"Let him see you with a guy and the gears will start turning." Bobby leaned back for a moment, thinking over the idea. "Or guys, which will work better in this case. The more guys the better."

"I don't want him to think that I'm a slut, Bobby!"

Tank actually grinned and joined in. "No, not too many. But three would work."

Lester and Bobby joined in grinning at her. The light bulb flicked on, and she shook her head. "Oh, no. This will be very bad. And if he's not interested, why would he be jealous?"

"Trust me, he's interested," Tank emphatically stated. He poured another round of shots and laid them out in front of the team. "The key is to get him more actively interested- which is to give him some competition. If he sees you with a few guys that are obviously only casual flings, he'll start to wonder why you don't just sleep with him, since he made it clear that it could only be casual."

"So are you guys volunteering?" Steph asked uneasily. The more they talked- and drank- the better this idea seemed to be. But Steph knew that it might not seem like such a good idea once she sobered up tomorrow.

The three men grinned. Bobby spoke for the group. "Oh, I think we're all in."

Steph sighed. She wasn't sure it would work, but these guys knew Ranger better than her. And they really were all pretty hot. How terrible would it be to sort-of date them? Especially since they were doing it to help her out, not because they wanted to date her. Right? She decided to clarify it now. "Uh, you guys don't have any ulterior motives here, do you?"

Tank snorted. "We're doing it to help you out. And its not a terribly difficult thing to pretend to date you!"

Steph let out a breath. "So it will just be pretend for all of us?"

Lester gave her a wolf grin, while Bobby leered at her. "Well, there could be certain fringe benefits to the arrangement. But that's your choice."

Steph considered for a minute. "Entirely up to me? And if I chose to…confer said benefits, there are no strings attached?"

"None," the men echoed. She saw an upside to this, especially if it took a while for Ranger to fall victim to their plan.

"Even if only one individual benefited from this with me?" Steph was curious.

The guys looked at each other and did the ESP thing. "Doesn't bother any of us," Bobby spoke for the group.

"Okay, I think I'm liking this plan." Steph had another drink.

"Good thing, Bombshell. Guess who just walked in?" Tank's eyes fixed on the door.

Lester took her hand and pulled her up. "C'mon, Tank and I got lonely back here while you were dancing with Bobby. We want to dance with you."

They were gone from the table before Ranger arrived. One hand being pulled by Lester, the second held by Tank, she was out on the dance floor, her body flanked on either side by a man. Both men were close to her; she could feel them moving against her. Tank held a hand loosely on one hip, Lester on her other. Tank's other hand entwined itself in her curly hair, sending chills up and down her spine. Lester cupped her face with his other hand, fingers curling around her cheekbone and running his thumb over her lower lip and giving her goose bumps. She was a mess of nerve endings and rampant hormones.

She closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of Tank and Lester, when two other hands reached out and touched her. Her eyes fluttered open, and Bobby smiled back at her. A quick glance proved that all three men were dancing with her, their eyes dark and their faces arranged in seductive smiles. She thought for a moment, and cast a quick glance back at the table.

Ranger sat alone, a beer bottle in one hand, staring at their little circle. His eyes were dark and dangerous, and Steph looked away before he could catch her. Judging from the frown on Ranger's face, she knew that she could trust the Merrymen's instincts. Ranger's hand tightened around the long neck of the beer bottle as he watched his employees enjoying the beat of the music.

The plan already seemed to be working.

Chapter Two

Steph woke up the next morning to an incredible pounding in her head. She searched the fuzzy edges of memory for just how many tequila shots she had downed, and lost count after- she thought really hard- nine. Or was it ten? Thinking just that little bit made her tired all over again, and she turned over, shoving the pillow over her head to block some of the sunlight streaming in through the window and hopefully deaden the pounding in her head. The longer she waited for it to subside, the louder it got. She finally decided that some aspirin and a shower would do her more good than lying here, and slowly got herself up to a standing position.

She observed, as she stumbled towards the bathroom, that she had somehow managed to get out of her dress last night, but her lingerie and thigh highs were still with her. Good. Then she probably hadn't embarrassed herself. There had been a lot of alcohol, and close dancing, and good-looking, friendly men, though. She wouldn't be sure that she hadn't embarrassed herself until she asked someone- if anyone other than Ranger could remember enough of the evening to fill her in.

As she headed toward her bathroom, the pounding got louder, and she realized that it wasn't just in her head. There was someone- someone persistent- at her door. Grumbling, she angled herself over and practically ripped the door off its hinges to see what lunatic was out there.

Les' jaw gaped when he looked her over, but his hand stopping making all that damn racket. "What?" she snarled. "I have bed head, so what?"

Lester snapped his jaw shut, and held up a McDonald's bag. "Thought you could use some grease and caffeine."

Steph's eyes lit up and she snatched the bag out of his hands. He had her cure- large Coke and fries. How did he know? Bless him. "Thanks, Les. This is just what I need." She crammed some fries in her mouth, and licked the salt and grease noisily from her fingers. Les continued to stare at her.

"Was there something else?" she asked pointedly, continuing to eat and lick her fingers.

Les nodded, then cleared his throat and answered. "We got control room duty in an hour, and I just wanted to make sure that you were up." He didn't move away, so Steph waited for him to continue, placing one hand expectantly on her hip. Her hands brushed against lace and bare skin, reminding her that she was still in her undies. So, there WAS a reason for Lester to stare.

Somehow, Les' stare didn't bother her. He was assessing her, she knew, but she also knew it was a look of pure admiration and nothing else. That's what had been decided last night. None of the boys was really interested in her, but they were perfectly willing to hang out and fool around a little. So she had made a conscious decision to enjoy the attention. Upon quick reflection, the plan that she had thought she might regret agreeing to last night still seemed like a good idea. And she was sure that she wasn't still drunk. So she gave Les a few more minutes to get an eyeful, and then turned around to let him get a full view. Then she leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Free show's over, Les. I'm going to get dressed."

Lester licked his lips and, as the door began to close behind her, she playfully called out, "Unless you want to help?"

Lester was through the door and had it closed behind them in less than a minute. Steph hadn't expected him to follow, but didn't mind so much. She was actually pretty comfortable around him in her underwear; she knew she looked good. "So, you really want to help?"

Lester colored slightly. "Oh, yeah."

Downing her Coke, Steph pursed her lips and squinted at him. "I don't know. Usually I get a nice meal first, or a movie. A Coke and fries is nice, but not a meal."

Lester swallowed hard. "Steph, about last night…"

Steph narrowed her eyes at him. "You aren't going to renege on our plan now, are you?"

"No…" Les paused. "But I wanted to give you the option to."

"What?" she screeched.

"Well, Bobby and Tank and I were talking this morning, and we really had a lot to drink last night. We wanted to let you know that if you want to drop the plan, our feelings wouldn't be hurt. Honestly. We really do like you, and we don't want to make you uncomfortable-"

Steph snorted as she stopped by her bed to roll down and remove her thigh-highs. "Then you're doing a pretty piss poor job of it. I mean, if you guys want to back out now, I'm not offended. Go ahead. But don't act like I didn't know what I was getting myself into." She reached around to unhook her bra when she felt Lester very close behind her, stopping her.

"Are you sure, Steph, that you don't want to back out of it?" His voice was low, and throaty, and held none of its usual humor, creating a soft breeze on her neck and giving her goose bumps.

She paused momentarily, and considered. Then she leaned back into him, her head finding his shoulder to lean against. "No, I don't want to back out of it. Do you?"

Les shook his head. "No, Bombshell. None of us really want to; we honestly just wanted to give you an out, if you needed it, without any recriminations." His hands found their way around her waist in a loose loop, pulling her more firmly into his hard body. She shivered a bit with the sensation of his soft t-shirt against her mostly bare back.

Lester responded to her shiver with a soft, trailing kiss down her neck by the jawline. She moaned a bit when he hit the hollow at the base of her neck. "Les," she panted. "I thought I'd at least get a date before the sex."

Lester looked at her open eyes with lust in his own. "Then don't answer the door in last night's lingerie." He held her eyes for a few minutes, then placed one last kiss and moved away from her. She felt the loss of his body warmth immediately and crossed her arms against her body to replace some of it. "So, how's Pino's sound after our shift?"

Steph flashed him a smile. She was interested in this casual sex arrangement, and her sex-starved body berated her for cutting this thing with Les off so suddenly, but Pino's was the reason for the smile. "Sounds great."

Lester flashed her a huge, beaming smile. "Great. I get the first date." He practically danced to the door. "See you in the control room in-" he glanced at his watch- "forty minutes." He blew her a kiss and shut the door behind him. She headed directly toward the shower, trying to look a little less hung-over for her shift than she truly felt.

Les and Steph's shift had been uneventful. There were no major cases ongoing at the moment, at least none that she had been told about, and no major catastrophes. Not a single car had blown up, nor a dead body found. She and Les had spent the eight hours trading their knowledge of curses in Spanish and Italian. Both had become fairly proficient by the end, and quite inventive.

Once the easy shit, piss, fuck, and damn had been taken care of, and "motherfucker" mastered, they had moved on to more complicated insults. Steph could now spout off about a half-dozen"Yo' momma" lines without thinking much about it and screwing it up. She continued to practice, under her breath, on the way to her apartment. She had a little under an hour to get ready before she and Les were supposed to leave for Pino's, and it was going to be a race to see if she could make herself beautiful in time. She wanted to dress it up, because she was going out on a date, and because she wanted to wear something Lester wasn't used to seeing.

She was so intent on her wardrobe, running through her possibilities in her mind as she walked, that she didn't see Ranger slouched by her door until he straightened himself and scared the crap out of her. New bounty hunting skills aside, she was relaxed in the safety of RangeMan offices, and didn't keep up her guard while in what she considered a "safe" zone.

Ranger shook his head. "Babe, you need to be more aware of your-

Still trying to slow her racing heart, Steph finished for him- "Surroundings. Got it, Boss."

Ranger's brow furrowed at the "boss" comment. "I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner upstairs tonight."

Steph shook her head, regretfully, but secretly smiling inside. "Sorry, I already have plans."

Ranger's brow furrowed further, threatening to draw in his entire face. "Plans?"

"Uh, yeah," Steph stammered. "Lester asked me to go to Pino's. We're meeting in an hour." She glanced at her watch. "Actually, fifty minutes. "

Ranger pushed off the wall, brushing a kiss against her soft hair on the top of her head. "Maybe another time," he said quietly. Then he walked away, slipping into the elevator and disappearing.

Steph drew in a shaky breath. Alone with Ranger, in Ranger's apartment, was a bad idea. She had no illusions that, in her present hormonal state, she could hold out for more than fifteen minutes before she ended up in bed with him. And then tomorrow, she would feel like shit. She much preferred dinner with Les, and was really glad, now, that he had asked her. She let herself into her apartment, and went about the business of showering, shaving, applying makeup, and choosing an outfit.

She decided to go for casual with a hint of slut. So, short demin skirt, electric blue baby doll tank top under a soft, black cardigan, and four inch black FMPs. Light make-up except for dark, smudged kohl lines around her eyes. Long, dangling silver earrings finished the look. Her hair was its usual untamed self, and she didn't have the time or patience to do more than throw some gel in under the hairdryer.

Les knocked on her door precisely when he stated he would. Opening it, she was rewarded with a sight that would make harder females than her melt. Lester had on a dark brown, almost black, leather biker jacket, an unbuttoned, tight cream henley that emphasized the caramel of his skin, snug jeans that showed off his ass, and black CAT boots. He also wore a braided leather choker and matching bracelet, which were tight enough to show off the surrounding muscle groups. She licked her lips.

"Ready?" Lester inquired, her reaction to him not going unnoticed.

"Yeah, just let me grab my purse!" She called. She paused a moment, wondering where she was going to put her new Glock gun. She had neglected to consider that when choosing an outfit. Lester picked up on her dilemma and, and marching over, reached his arms around her to shove the gun into the small of her back, his fingers dipping below her waist band and pausing unnecessarily there. He removed his hands and covered the bulge up with the cardigan.

Passing out the door past Les, Steph smiled. "Let's go."

Chapter Three

Steph and Lester had a very nice date. As usual, the food was bad for you and tasted excellent. Unusual, but equally good, Steph didn't run into a single person she knew that she felt the need to talk to- and no one who would run to start rumors about who she was out with tonight. And the companionship was more than enjoyable. Lester was the most talkative of Ranger's men, and he had a million stories about the early misadventures of Ranger and the Merry Men. It was nice to know that even Ranger wasn't always perfect, that once upon a time he hadn't been able to keep that fiery Cuban temper under control. Apparently, bar fights used to be a specialty. Steph was a little amazed. She shook her head. "These stories just don't sound like Ranger."

Lester shrugged. "He's changed a lot since then."

"Why?" Steph questioned, sipping her one- and only- beer of the evening.

"Lots of stuff," Lester shrugged again. "He doesn't talk about it, but I can guess a few things."

Steph contemplated asking for more information versus letting it be. She knew that Ranger would be upset if he found out she and Lester were talking about his personal life; but she also knew that she was curious, and unsatisfied curiosity could drive her mad. "What things?"

A very long look, and a sigh, and Lester leaned back in his chair. "I know one thing for sure, and I will only tell you if you promise he won't find out I'm the one that told you."

Ooh, Steph reflected, this must be good. "I swear."

Lester eyed her again. "If he finds out it came from me- I'm going to make you get up every morning at five to run," he threatened.

Steph rolled her eyes at him. "I can keep my sources secret."

"Ranger's divorce and custody battle were- bitter, to say the least," Lester started. " His temper and his behavior- and the police reports- were used against him. His ex got full custody, and he got supervised visitation. He said he felt like a criminal, that he wasn't allowed to be alone with his own kid. The visits didn't last long; he'd rather talk to her on the phone than sit with a court appointed observer. But I think that the experience made him take a good, long look at his lifestyle, and he decided that it wasn't how he wanted to live. It wasn't instantaneous or anything, but it was a year or so later that he started Range Man."

Steph considered for a minute. "Does he ever see his daughter now?"

Les grinned. "Yeah. She's a great kid. Gonna give him a heart attack when she's a teenager, though. She's got the Manoso good looks and then some."

Steph couldn't imagine a feminine-looking Ranger, but along with that beauty, she wondered if the girl had her father's temper. "She act like him, too?"

Les laughed out loud. "Hell, yeah. There's gonna be fireworks there one day, and I'm not sure Ranger's going to end up winning."

Wryly, Steph muttered, "He always wins."

Les' mood immediately changed, as he picked up on her underlying meaning. He leaned over and took Steph's hand. "Hey, don't get discouraged already! The plan hasn't even been in effect for twenty-four hours. He'll come around."

Steph sighed, long and deep. "You guys say so, but I'm still not so sure."

"Trust me," Lester said, leaning in to brush a friendly kiss across her cheek just as his cell phone went off. Seeing Ranger's number, he shot her a grimace and flipped it open immediately. "Boss."

Steph didn't hear the entire conversation, but the bits and pieces she heard told her that their date was just about over. She waved the waitress over and asked for the check just as Lester hung up. He told the waitress to forget it- they weren't leaving.

"If that was Ranger, and he knows we're both off tonight, it must be an emergency. What do you mean, we're not leaving?" Steph kept her voice level.

"He called because he knew we were both here, and he just pulled a skip that frequents the place." Lester took a draw of his own beer. "He wants us to hang around and see if the guy shows up."

Steph pursed her lips. So, Ranger had remembered where they were going to dinner. Interesting. But now there was business at hand. "So, who's the guy? What's he look like? And how will we do the take down?"

Lester's eyes narrowed as he looked over the bar. "Actually, he's already here. Third from the left at the bar, smoking a little cigar. "

Steph got up and moved to Lester's side of the table, leaning into him as she sat down, as if she was moving just to get a little closer to her well-built date. She nonchalantly dared a quick look, covering her action by flipping her hair back over her shoulder with a head twist. "He's not so scary looking," she whispered to Les.

"Yeah, but he's a crazy mother fucker." Pulling out his phone, he dialed Ranger back. "Yeah, boss. Your boy's here already. How do we want to do this?"

After a series of short answers- yes, no, your call, okay- Lester hung back up. "He wants us to wait for him."

"Is this guy really that dangerous?" Steph asked, a little annoyed that their date was being interrupted- by Ranger.

Les paused a minute, and she knew that there was more to it than that. "Les? What is it?"

Les was looking at her stonily, muscles in his jaw tight. "Picking this guy up is a personal favor to Ranger and me."

Steph was confused. Personal favor? For Lester AND Ranger? "What the hell does that mean?"

Les ran his hands through his hair. "Alright, I'll tell you. But don't bring it up again. That jack-off is my cousin. And Ranger's."

Understanding- and astonishment- flooded her. "You and Ranger are cousins?"

"By marriage, not blood. His uncle married my aunt. That-" Lester jerked his thumb towards the bar, "is their second son."

Steph was surprised by the venom in Lester's voice. "You don't like him much, huh?"

Lester gave her a LOOK. It was, she thought, strikingly similar to Ranger's best stare down. "What did he do?"

"Aside from break his mother's heart? Repeatedly? Every time he gets caught, he convinces her that he'll change. And then he goes and does it again." Lester cursed under his breath in Spanish, much more creatively and in depth than Steph could manage to translate. He ducked his face down into Steph's curls as his cousin glanced around the room. "If he sees us coming, it'll get ugly. If he sees me before Ranger gets here, he'll take off."

"Well, I guess that I'll go distract him, then." Steph reached for her purse to freshen her make-up.

"Uh," Lester stuttered. "That's not a good idea, on so many levels."

Steph's eyes narrowed. "And what exactly does that mean?"

Another sigh from Lester. "Do you want an extensive list, or the short answer?"

Steph slugged him in the arm. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Suddenly Ranger was at the table with them, his back to the bar. Probably the one time in his life that he didn't sit facing the entrance. Steph supposed it was more important that his cousin didn't see him coming. "It means that he's dangerous, and we don't want you at any additional risk."

Ranger had surprised Lester with his out-of-thin-air appearance. "Yeah." Lester looked like he was glad that Ranger had gotten there then. "So, how do you want to do this, Ric?"

"You think Tia would be pissed if we broke something on him?" Ranger asked in a low voice. He sounded like he would enjoy breaking something on his cousin.

Lester snorted. "I'm leaving the state when she finds out."

"Yeah. Bad idea." Ranger thought for a minute.

Steph sat there, bored and puzzled. "He's a runt. You two are huge. Just go kick his ass."

Both men looked at her apprehensively. "What?" she asked.

Ranger nervously loosened and retired the leather thong holding his ponytail. "He's not exactly a skip. This is a favor for Tia. We don't have the paperwork yet."

Steph frowned. "So, then you can't legally manhandle yet."

Lester nodded. "Yeah. But if we wait for the paperwork, he may be gone again."

"Okay. So then tell me why I can't pull a distraction." Steph demanded.

"Uh," Lester stuttered again. Ranger sat impassively, looking over her left shoulder. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, at Lester, who immediately shut up.

Steph began touching up her makeup. "If you can't tell me why, I'm going over there. I'll have him out in ten minutes."

A muscle in Ranger's jaw twitched. "No," he stated evenly. "Lester is going to take you home. I'll take care of this myself."

Steph gave him the Burg eye roll. "What aren't you two telling me?' Then a thought occurred to her. "Is he gay?"

Lester laughed out loud at that. Ranger frowned at him, and he quieted. Ranger spoke in measured, clipped tones, completely emotionless. "He's sick, and he should have been locked up and the key thrown away years ago. He just happens to be very, very lucky. We don't want him near you."

Steph could tell that there was still more behind this, but she could also tell that she wasn't going to be told the rest, at least not right now. She was sure that she could get it out of Lester later, though. "Fine. Plan B. I walk past him, fake trip into him, and stun gun him. Everybody will think that he hit his head when he goes down, and no one will question me being a clutz here. So they'll call an ambulance, and you can let the police pick him up." She looked at each of them individually for a full minute. "Obviously, the bond is not what you're interested in here, so it doesn't matter who takes him in."

Lester let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. "Bombshell, I knew there was a reason I loved ya!"

Ranger definitely did not look pleased at Lester's comment, but he nodded. "Sounds like a good plan. Are you sure you can do that without anyone seeing the gun?"

Steph nodded her head, and in the time she took to do that, her stun gun was at Lester's neck, the cold metal making him jump. "Yes." Ranger actually cracked the beginning of a real smile at the sight of Lester's face.

"Okay." Both men, to the casual eye, didn't seem to have done more than shift in their seats as the woman with them got up to use the restroom. A close observer would have noticed that they surreptitiously had loosened buttons and jackets and that their hands suddenly rested near gun-shaped bulges under their jackets. Steph simply ignored them, trusting them implicitly.

Intent on her prey, she dodged with ease a waitress who suddenly crossed her path. The skip turned at that second and looked full on at her, a hungry smile crossing his face. His eyes paused on her when she slowed and smiled back at him, then continued a sweep of the room. His eyes hit the table behind her. Recognition lit up in his eyes, and he scrambled to gather his things and get away. She simply sped up her walk, turning a stage fall into close to the real thing. She got him in the shoulder with the stun gun, before he got his jacket on. He went down, and she began her flustered apologies in front of the suddenly milling crowd.

A half-hour later, Ranger and Lester's cousin was once again in police custody, Ranger was on his way to talk to Tia, and Steph was enjoying some awesome chocolate cheese cake while Lester watched, enthralled. She licked every last trace of cake off the fork before laying it down across the empty plate. She had watched Lester as he had watched her; judging from the dark look in his eyes, she had his attention. She smiled, and asked, "Ready to go?"

Throwing money down, Lester rose and pulled out her chair for her. She took his offered arm, and snuggled in close as they made their way back to the Bronco. Once in the truck, Steph settled back and tried to relax. Most of the date was over and she was wondering just what were Lester's ideas for the rest of the evening. Earlier, contemplating how the date might end, she hoped that they could take up where they had left off this morning. She wasn't nearly as sure now that she wanted that to happen. But first, before anything else happened or she made any other decisions, she had a plan of her own to enact.

As Lester started the truck and pulled into traffic, Steph leaned over and looked up at him through her eyelashes, eyes hooded. She knew that if she was going to be able to pull this off, and get the information she wanted, that she was going to have to do so before they got back to the RangeMan building. So she put her hand on his thigh, letting the loud music blasting from the radio wash over them as she slowly moved her hand up until she was caressing his crotch.

Lester had been watching her out of the corner of his eye during her hand's travels, and took a deep breath when she hit home. "Steph-" he said in a warning breath, as she undid her seatbelt and then his pants.

"You don't like this, Les?" she asked in a dead sexy, gravely voice.

Lester took a very deep breath, and moved her hand off him. "I really don't want to run off the road, and I can't concentrate if you're doing that." He stared straight ahead, knuckles tight on the wheel.

Steph felt her mouth curl up in a smile, and she snaked her hand out again, causing Les to try and shift away from her in his seat. She didn't let him get away, and soon he was panting heavily. She felt him very near to release, amazed that he hadn't had to pull the car over yet, and suddenly withdrew to her own seat and buckled herself in.

Les swore in Spanish, and Steph chuckled. "I'll finish that when we get home, Les, if you'll answer one question for me."

"You are a cruel bitch when you want something," Lester stated, frustration evident in his voice.

"Yes," Steph agreed. "But if you'll answer my question, I'll more than make it up to you." She turned to face him, licking her lips. "I promise." She was a girl from the burg, and she knew how to get her way. Lester didn't really stand a chance.

Lester stopped at a red light and adjusted himself and his clothing as best he could. Looking at her, he sighed. "What question?"

"What weren't you and Ranger telling me about your cousin? Why couldn't I distract him?"

"We were afraid that he might recognize you," Lester ground out behind gritted teeth. "The whole family knows who you are, from stories Ric and I and the other guys have told. They've seen the newspaper articles."

Shock registered on her face. "Why did you guys talk about me to your family?" She was still amazed that Ranger, who had never hinted at more family than a distant daughter in Miami and an elderly grandmother, had never mentioned that he and Lester were related. The fact that she had been brought up to that family was simply unbelievable.

"You gotta admit, you have some pretty funny adventures, if you're not you but an observer to the situation." Lester looked out the corner of his eye again, trying to judge if she was going to explode over that comment. "Plus, well- I told you that Ranger was interested. He talks about you a lot. Slimeball was at a party or two where he heard us, and he seemed a little too interested, if you know what I mean."

"Keep talking, Santos. Fill in the blanks for me." Steph followed so far, but she still didn't see the answer.

"Ranger and Slimeball have had run-ins in the past over women. Slimeball-"

Steph interrupted. "Does Slimeball have a name?"

"Alec. Alec has gone after women Ranger was interested in before, just to see if he could get them. And he wasn't very nice to them when he was through." Lester gripped the steering wheel tight enough to show white around his knuckles. "That would be why he was in jail."

"Oh," Steph began to get the picture. "So, Alec is a threat to me, another crazy that I didn't even know who was after me." She leaned her head back on the seat, staring sightlessly at the roof. She'd really thought that training and working for RangeMan would reduce the number of crazies after her, not increase the list.

"No-" Les began, then stopped himself. "Let's just say, neither Ranger nor I would be willing to chance a distraction."

Steph looked out the window. "Okay. I suppose that's enough of an explanation." In reality, as well trained as she now was, she still didn't want to contemplate just what the details were of this vague threat to her safety. She stayed quiet until they had parked in the office's garage. They sat in the parked car for five minutes before she realized they were there.

Lester grabbed her hand and kissed the palm. "I realize that work intruding on our date kind of killed the mood, but do you think we could go up to your place?" His voice was hopeful, like a kid asking Santa for the one present he hoped to get but was sure that he wouldn't.

Steph hesitantly smiled at him. "Sure."

Chapter Five

Steph walked to the elevator, Lester's arm wrapped heavily around her shoulders. They didn't talk much, but her mind was racing. Along with her body.

In all honesty, Steph thought Lester was very hot, funny, and caring. But knowing that he was related to Ranger, even if it wasn't by blood, had put something of a damper on her desire, incident in the car non-withstanding. The car was purely motivated by the need to get information out of these close-mouthed Cubans. Steph imaged what a dinner with a group of Ranger's relatives would be like, if they were all as non-talkative as him

That much silence might kill her.

When they arrived at her door, Lester removed his arm while she unlocked it and opened the door to him. "Coming?" she queried.

"Hopefully," he whispered at her throatily.

She felt a shiver start at the base of her spine and radiate upwards. Oh, boy, this was more difficult than she had thought it would be. The flirting and joking and talking about a casual sex arrangement had been much easier last night with alcohol involved. Now, she was scared spitless at the idea of finishing what she had started in the car.

Lester seemed to have sensed her reservations. "Steph?"

She bit her lip. "Uh, Lester-"

"You want me to leave, don't you?" Lester sighed. "It's cause I told you we are cousins, isn't it?"

"Uh, yeah, partially." Steph pulled her hair back off her face and up off of her neck, clamping her hands down on her head. "Won't he be really mad if I hook up with his cousin?"

"As opposed to Bobby or Tank?" Lester asked. At her nod, "He might be really mad at me, but not you. And," wolf grin crossing his face," I'm willing to chance the anger."

Steph looked at Lester's eyes. There were fairly easy to read, for her, having worked with him so much, but these were deeper waters than they usually waded in. "Why?"

"I thought we'd been over this," Lester spoke like a frustrated teacher. "You're hot. I'm horny. Wait, we're both hot AND horny. And neither of us is in a relationship. So, we can do whatever we want with each other, no emotional entanglements. Which part don't you get?"

"Maybe more alcohol would help." Steph got up to go to her kitchen, but Lester's hand on her arm stopped her.

"No alcohol, Bomber. Either you want this, or you don't. I don't want to talk you into anything you can't handle. If this is too much- the physical stuff- we won't do anything. We can just sit and talk, or I can leave." Lester waited patiently for her answer.

"Want to watch a movie?" she asked tensely.

Lester smiled back at her, a little disappointment evident. "Sure," he said, making himself comfortable on the sofa. Steph let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding before putting in the movie. "What movie?" he asked, patting the seat next to him.


"Why would I ever think it would be something else?" Lester shook his head a little. It seemed like she watched this movie at least once a week.

Steph settled in next to him, leaning against his shoulder. She felt very safe and comfortable here, just like with Ranger but without the disturbing sexual undercurrents. But Lester really did seem okay with her deciding against the casual sex. The more she thought about it, the less attention she paid to the movie and the more she studied Lester's face. He must have noticed her stares, because he turned to look at her full on, ignoring the movie. "What?" he asked.

"You really aren't mad at me? Especially after…um, the car?" Steph waited anxiously for a response.

Lester drew her into a tight bear hug, her head resting on his chest. "Bomber-" He started, but stopped himself. Staring again, he said, "Steph- I can't say I wasn't looking forward to a night in your bed. But that's not a big deal, when it's obvious that you're bothered by something. You weren't going to enjoy yourself."

"But-" Steph was trying to put her thoughts into a well-worded, non-embarrassing question. "How can you just turn the hormones off?" Her voice held a little awe in it.

Lester laughed, and took one of her hands and held it against his crotch for a moment before moving it away. "The hormones are hardly turned off. But I can control myself. Mind over matter."

Steph just shook her head. "My problem is that I have absolutely NO control over my hormones."

Lester chuckled. "You do, too. I'm on your sofa, not in your bed. That's some control."

"No," Steph blew out an exasperated breath. "That's because you decided you weren't going to end up in my bed. If you hadn't have said something, we'd be doing the horizontal mambo right now. No doubt in my mind."

Lester shook his head regretfully. "If I'd realized that, I might not have been such a gentleman."

A rough punch against his shoulder garnered Steph an out-right laugh. "Pig."

"I could help you with that self-control issue." Lester whispered into her ear. "Kind of a behavior modification program. It could be fun."

Steph felt the whisper in her belly. Ranger's cousin or not, that voice in her ear- husky and barely a whisper- made her begin to question her decision. She moved towards him, "And what exactly does this program entail?"

"Lots and lots of making out, but nothing else." Lester sounded like a junior high kid. "No touching below the waist or beneath the clothes."

"Huh?" Steph asked in a puzzled voice.

"You just have to enjoy the act without thinking beyond it. Enjoy it for what it is- not for what it could be." Lester's voice had turned silky, and his mouth caressed her neck with gentle, small kisses.

"That's all we'll do?" Steph panted, already reacting to Lester's mouth.

"You'd be surprised, but sometimes this is enough." Lester stopped speaking, but Steph could tell that he had left something off that he had originally meant to say.

She pushed him away from her. "What else?"

He looked at her seriously. "Okay, just remember that you asked for this. Your past lovers haven't treated you very well, have they?"

Suddenly nervous again, Steph tried to escape Lester and the sofa. He followed her, even as she entered her bedroom. "What are you doing?" she asked him roughly.

"Not letting you run away from me because I honestly answered your question." Lester crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb, effectively blocking her into the room.

She crossed her arms as well and narrowed her eyes. "Explain what you meant, then."

"Sex isn't always the big finish, if you're any good at it. Obviously, the men you've been with didn't show you that." Lester looked her over.

Steph's body relaxed as she considered his words. Her partners had been good, she thought, but when she really thought about it, remembering details, the act was for them and their pleasure, and not hers. Ranger had paid a great deal of attention to her needs, but he hadn't given her much choice about it, just pushed his way into her bedroom and her. That had tainted the act itself.

So what would it be like, if it was just about her? And then she realized- that's pretty much what this deal with the Merry Men had guaranteed her. It was about what she wanted, when she wanted it- and that was all. She stalked over to Lester- a seductive stalk, not an angry one. "So show me," she breathed in his ear before pulling him down into a forceful kiss.

Chapter Four

Steph had fallen asleep next to Lester in her bed. Unlike Joe or Ranger, Lester was still in her bed this morning and had no desire to immediately leave it. And he hadn't even gotten past first base. He held her in his arms, and gently played with her hair, trying to tempt her to stay in bed with him. She was trying to extract herself to get ready for a workout in the gym, while Lester kept insisting that she didn't have to leave the bed for a workout.

Steph eventually came to a compromise with him; he'd let her up, and even go with her to the company gym, if she'd ditch her usual baggy t-shirt for a sports bra. "Okay, you non-sex fiend," she stated in a threatening voice. "Get out of here now and get changed, or we won't have time for anything before I have to report for the Watkins surveillance job!" Lester was up and dressed in his clothes from last night in a minute, and she was right behind him all the way to the door. "Go change, and I'll meet you at the gym," she ordered Lester as she turned from shutting her door and walked right into Ranger. "Morning," she stated in a shaky voice.

Ranger was looking at her in a thoughtful, Ranger way. That meant that he could be considering shipping her off to a third world country and she'd never be able to tell from his face. "Steph," he answered. She noted that he did not use "Babe." Probably had to do with the fact the he had seen Lester leaving her room in the same clothes he had on last night, shoes in hand, and a dark bite mark on her neck that she couldn't have hidden if she'd tried.

She paused for a moment, waiting to see if Ranger wanted something. He stared at her wordlessly for a few minutes before he opened his mouth. "I'm your partner on surveillance today. We think something might go down, and I'd rather you weren't there by yourself."

She nodded, her stomach uneasy. She wasn't sure if it was because she thought that not wanting her by herself was another way of saying she still sucked as a bounty hunter or because she was positive that Ranger's ESP had malfunctioned and told him she had slept with Lester. "Okay. Meet you in the garage at nine."

Ranger nodded in agreement and headed to the elevator. Steph let him take the lift, waiting for the car to come back down so that she wouldn't have to stand close to Ranger in a small, solitary space. Lester met her in the gym, as agreed.

They weren't the only ones in the gym; Bobby and Tank, free at this time of day, were also working out. As she entered, the other two men called out their greetings to her. "Hey, guys!" she called back as she made her way over to the treadmill and switched it on.

Tank stepped onto the treadmill next to her. "Hey, Bombshell, how'd your date go?"

"What'd ya hear?" she asked, not stopping the quick pace she'd set on the machine.

Tank smiled broadly at her. "Ranger was in a pissy mood this morning when he couldn't get a hold of Santos."

That piqued her interest. "Really?"

"Oh, yeah." Tank chuckled. "He asked the guys in the control room if Santos had made it back to the building last night, and cursed a great deal in Spanish when they told him that Santos had spent the night in your apartment."

Steph bit her lip. "But that's good, right? For the plan?"

"He sounds jealous, doesn't he?" Tank increased the incline of his machine, making talking harder. "So when do I get my chance to take you out?"

Steph continued at her steady pace and thought about it. The plan seemed to be working. "How about Thursday?"

Chapter Six

Ranger had met Steph at the garage, as planned. He barely nodded a greeting to her before they jumped into his truck and took off. He didn't get any more talkative as the night drug on, and the atmosphere in the car was tense, at least to Stephanie. Ranger sat in the driver's seat, slung across it like some jungle cat watching its pray, while she gazed out a huge pair of binoculars towards the empty skip's house. They had been sitting here for almost four hours, in near silence, without catching sight of anyone.

Steph did not deal well with silence; she was chatty. If she couldn't talk to someone else, then her mind held its own conversation. And the thoughts in her head were not good. The guys had gotten her thinking about Ranger again, and the mess that was their relationship. She had managed to put the whole matter out of her head for most of the past six months; she lived in the land of denial and avoidance, and it usually worked for her. But close physical proximity to Ranger, coupled with the consequences of her graduation party, made denial more and more difficult. And whenever she thought about Ranger, that particular train of thought always went back to the night they had spent together, and the image of a naked Ranger that was burned into her mind. So she was desperately- and unsuccessfully- trying to distract herself from Ranger's warm body just inches away from her.

This was the first time that she had been alone with Ranger for more than a few minutes since she and the boys had launched Operation "Make Ranger Jealous." She doubted Ranger would actually bring up the events of the past day and a half, even though he hadn't seemed very happy at the Ballroom, or outside of her door this morning after Lester had spent the night. At her "party," he had sat and watched her and the guys, in various combinations, dance for over two hours. He never asked her to dance, and the boys were careful never to leave her un-partnered. She had had a blast, as long as she forgot that Ranger was sitting there staring at her. Then this morning, Ranger had only spoken a few words to her but his eyes were busy taking in all the details of her appearance. His eyes had lingered over the passion mark on her neck, and had followed her down the hall on her way to the gym. She had felt his eyes staring at her until the gym door had closed behind her.

But stares- dirty, dangerous, I want to strangle someone stares- were the only reaction her and the boys' plan had garnered so far. She could tell that something was bothering Ranger, though, because he of the steel nerves snapped at her in the next minute. "Could you quit twitching so much? And put the damn binoculars down, no one's been in there for hours."

She responded quickly, surprised at his tone. Ranger had never quite- yelled- at her before. Yes, he had been displeased with her, annoyed, angry- but he never raised his voice. She put the goggles away, and sat back in her seat, arms crossed, and continued to stare out the window at the empty house. She didn't trust her temper with a response just now.

"This was a waste," Ranger spat out, disgust evident in his voice.

"Yeah, I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of silence, too," Steph mumbled.

Ranger spared her a hard look. "If you don't like silence, then talk."

"Uh-" Steph was caught off-guard. Ranger wanted to talk?

"Thanks for helping last night with my cousin." Ranger's voice didn't hold any emotion, but at least this was a start. "Sorry it interrupted your evening."

"Not a problem. I'm sure that my ineptitude over the years had interrupted your nights more than once." Steph was a little embarrassed, when she thought about it. All those times she had called Ranger for help, and she had never really asked what –if- she was interrupting. At first, she wasn't sure that she wanted to know what she had taken him away from; he had frightened her just a little bit. Now, after years of experience with Mr. Monosyllabic answers, she wasn't afraid of him so much as she hadn't thought he'd want to share. But she must have inconvenienced him some; last night could be considered hardly the beginning of paying him back for all his help.

"Never a date." Ranger left that hanging, baiting her for some more information.

Steph knew he was trying to get information out of her, but she didn't want to play games. She owed Ranger an honest answer- if he asked- both personally and professionally. Especially since she was dating his entire "A" team- not that he knew that yet. "If you have something you want to know, Ranger" she said lowly, "you can just ask me."

Ranger nodded his head at her, but didn't ask anything. Steph let the silence take the car over again, waiting to see if Ranger was going to actually speak up.

He didn't. But he looked liked he wanted to do so, quite badly. So Steph decided to nudge him. "So how come you never told me Lester was your cousin?"

Shrugging, Ranger said, "Never came up, wasn't that important. Why? Is it important now?" He set his level gaze at her.

"Just an interesting fact." She met his gaze, willing herself not to blush or show discomfort. Apparently she was successful, because Ranger felt the need to talk more instead of just reading her mind.

"Here's another interesting fact. Lester didn't make it back to his place last night. He was a bit hard to find this morning." Ranger's voice was completely and carefully neutral. That emptiness in his voice made her suspect that Ranger was more bothered than her wanted her to know. But she wanted to nudge him into articulating his jealousy. Ranger's reluctance to discuss emotions was one of the reasons that had led to this plan in the first place, and she wanted a full- not partial-victory.

So she decided to employ a Ranger technique- evasion. "I don't think it's any of your business what I do when I'm not working." She had deliberately not answered Ranger's implied question- did she have sex with Lester last night?

"If it might compromise your working relationship with my team, I think I have some right to know." His voice was a little testier, but the emotion in it was still banked.

Yeah, right, Stephanie thought to herself. Lester had been right about this plan. Ranger wanted to know who she was having sex with, if it wasn't him. "I didn't sleep with Lester." She continued looking out the window at the house the entire time they talked, but she could see Ranger's reflection in the window glass. Her answer had surprised him, somehow, because his one eyebrow was raised now.

"He didn't spend the night in your apartment?" There was disbelief in his voice.

"Again- not any of your business- but, yes, Lester spent the night. And no, I did not sleep with him." Steph sat up suddenly, a blur out the corner of her eyes and a light now on in the house telling her that their skip was back. "Ranger-"

"Saw it, too, Babe." The nickname was back. They both drew their guns and quietly shut the car doors behind them. Conversation ended, they went into work mode. Steph took the back door, Ranger the front, and their skip was cuffed and in the back of the Bronco within twenty minutes. Thirty minutes more, and, body receipt in hand, they were back at RangeMan and taking the elevator up to the fifth floor offices.

"So Lester slept over, but you didn't sleep with him?" Ranger asked out of the blue, as the elevator doors closed on them.

Steph kept her mental smile small; she didn't want to jinx the plan with arrogance. "If you really want to know, yes, that's what happened."

His hand rested on the back of her neck, kneading her suddenly tense muscles, before his fingers slid down and pressed hard against the hickey Lester had left on her. "Good. Anything else I should know about?"

His hand on her sent fire along her veins. But that "Good"- egotistical, possessive, annoyingly male- made her see red. Like she wasn't allowed other guys, even though she wasn't with him. "You don't need any of the details." Implying that something had gone on, but not elaborating. Take that, Ranger, she mentally thought.

Suddenly he was behind her, his body hard against hers, his voice low in her ears. "There were details?"

Then the elevator doors opened, and Stephanie escaped. She threw him a small, tight smile and a finger wave, hurrying for the control room and the presence of other people to protect her from any further curiosity on Ranger's part. Ranger, a little stunned, forgot to get off the elevator, allowing her to escape.

"What details?" he asked the empty elevator.

Chapter Seven

The next few days were busy at RangeMan. There were several bigger cases ending at just about the same time, and Steph hardly had time to think about the plan, much less worry about it. So when Thursday arrived, she had actually almost forgotten her date with Tank. What reminded her were the flowers that arrived at the front reception desk about three o'clock that afternoon. It was a bouquet of purple caspia, bright pink and purple Gerber daisies, and baby's breath, with a plain white card tucked in. The card made her smile; in Tank's even scrawl, it said: "Hope you got these right in front of Ranger. Pick you up tonight at seven, and I promise it won't be Shorty's."

She hadn't actually gotten the flowers with Ranger around, but she did run into him on her way back down to her apartment after her shift, the bouquet in hand. He did the raised eyebrow thing again, studying the flowers. "Nice flowers. Lester do something wrong that he need to apologize for?"

Drawing in a deep breath heavy with the scent of the flowers, Steph smiled. "These aren't from Lester."

Ranger's eyebrow went up further, if possible. "Really?"

Again, the elevator doors opened at an opportune moment and Steph took advantage, stepping out on the fourth floor. "Really," she called out over her shoulder.

She unlocked her door, feeling happy inside. Not only had she gotten one up on Ranger again- which was an usual enough occurrence- but she had also gotten flowers. Aside from school dances, she could count the times she had gotten flowers from a guy on one hand. Lester might be right about the guys she had been with before, on more than just a physical level.

The daisies looked cheery in the center of her small dining table. She kept catching the color of them out of the corner of her eye as she ambled about the place, getting ready and straightening up. Never the world's best housekeeper, the past few busy days had only added to the clutter. Clothes that had been carelessly tossed at the end of the day were gathered into a laundry basket and shoved, basket and all, into her closet. Dishes were stowed into the dishwasher, and everything quickly wiped down. She even changed the sheets, just in case.

Not knowing where they were going made wardrobe choices difficult. Steph decided to settle on a khaki cargo skirt that fell a little above her knee, and a cream stretchy three-quarter length tee. Underneath, a lacy cream bra and matching boy panties. Sexy underwear, whether the guy saw it or not, always made her feel more powerful. A pair of semi-conservative (for her) three-inch heels were positioned next to her front door; she was padding around the apartment barefoot, waiting for toenail polish to dry. She left her hair down, partially out of laziness and partially to hide the not-quite faded hickey on her neck. Not that Tank would be jealous or anything, but it did make her feel a little bit self-conscious. All right, a little bit slutty.

She was looking at the mark, playing with the position of her hair in the mirror, when there was a knock at her door. Expecting Tank, she didn't even look through the peephole before opening the door. "Hey, Tank, where are we-" she said, before realizing it was Ranger at her door.

"Expecting someone?" Ranger asked. He was dressed casually, more casually than Steph was used to seeing him. A soft, maroon cashmere sweater showed the outline of every muscle on his torso; fitted but loose, faded blue jeans showed off his assets to the hilt. She had to quickly check for drool, he looked so good.

"Uh, yeah. I had plans tonight-" Steph began.

"Again?" Ranger leaned against her doorframe. "Is Tank the guy who sent you the flowers?"

Steph smiled at Ranger sweetly. "As I said before, what I'm doing when I'm not at work isn't really your business."

"Once upon a time, it might have been," Ranger said, more to himself than to her. He pushed off the doorframe and brushed a kiss across her forehead. "Let me know when you have a spot on the dance card." Then he walked off down the hall, leaving Steph with her mouth hanging open.

Her shock was cut short by Tank's appearance down the end of the hall from his own apartment door. Tank waved at her when she saw her standing there, looking out into the hall, and made his way down. He pulled her into a crushing hug of hello. "Hey, Steph!" he greeted her when he let go.

"Hey, Tank," she responded, still a little out of sorts from her Ranger encounter, moving out of his way so that he could come in.

Tank picked up on her mood immediately. "What's the matter, Steph?"

"Oh, just Ranger stopping by." She shook herself mentally. "Where are we going tonight?"

"What did he stop by for?" Tank asked almost giddily.

"He didn't say." Steph was still thinking about his words.

"Well, what did he say before he left?" Tank asked impatiently.

Steph grinned a little. "He told me to let him know when I had an open spot on my dance card."

Tank grinned back. "And you thought that the plan might not work! Did he even see the flowers?"

"The flowers are beautiful. I love them!" Steph smiled at Tank broadly.

"Glad you like them." Tank smiled evilly. "And did Ranger?"

Steph laughed. "No, I don't think he was happy. He's had a bad few days."

"He ask about Lester?" Tank settled down on her sofa and slouched back.

"What about Lester?" she asked innocently.

Tank laughed at her act, and switched the topic. "So, how about a home cooked meal tonight, Steph?"

It was Steph's turn to laugh. "You aren't thinking I'm gonna cook for you, are you? You may end up in the hospital with food poisoning."

Tank shook his head at her. "Never domesticate the Bombshell. I meant, how would you like me to cook dinner for you?"

"What kind of dinner are we talking?" Steph paused at her door to slip her shoes on. "And does it come with desert?"

"Of course! I am offended that you would think otherwise." Tank stood up, took Steph's arm, and pulled her out the door and down the hall. "It's a Boston crème pie."

Her mouth watering, Steph was easily led to Tank's door. Once open, wonderful smells poured out. "Oh, Tank, that smells great! What's for dinner itself?"

Tank pulled the door shit behind them. "Seafood Alfredo, fresh foccacia, and bruschetta."

"You really know the way to a girl's heart, Tank." He led her to a set table that held a matching bouquet to the one presently residing on her own. Sitting down, she examined the table more closely. Herbed olive oil for dipping the bread, a bowl of olives, a bottle of red wine already open to breath, and real fabric napkins. "Wow."

Tank left her at the table and entered the kitchen. "It'll just be a few minutes. I started cooking before I stopped by to get you."

It was less than ten minutes, and Steph was feasting on the best Alfredo she'd ever had. Taking another forkful, she complimented the chef honestly. "This is just wonderful! Where did you learn to cook like this?"

Grinning, Tank sipped his wine. "My parents owned a restaurant when I was growing up. I worked there from the time I was ten until I left for college. I'd rather cook than clean, so I made sure I got good at it."

Steph seized on the chance to learn more about the usually reserved Tank. Although Tank joked easily at work, he rarely shared personal information. Must be one of the reasons that he got along so well with Ranger. "So where was this restaurant?"


An idea flashed in Steph's brain. "Your parents own Shorty's!"

"Yeah," Tank chuckled.

"Well, that explains your fondness for it, and why you guys feel so safe hanging out there. But I can't believe that you never told me it was your parents' place!" Steph was incredulous.

He shrugged. "I don't advertise it."

Another forkful. Thinking back over her past adventures in the bounty hunter lifestyle, she was beginning to think that secretiveness wasn't so bad. She nodded. "I can understand that. So where did you go to college?"

"Same as Ranger." Tank waited to see if Steph knew the name of the college.

"Were you at Rutgers at the same time as Ranger?" Steph was curious now. More fill-in-the-blanks about Ranger's past.

"Our time overlapped. I graduated a year before he left to join the Army." Tank had already finished his dinner, while Steph was still working on hers.

"What was your major?" Steph asked through a mouthful of noodles.

"Dual majors. Psychology and History." Tank sipped more wine. "I concentrated my classes on military history and post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was always intrigued by the interplay between mental health and the demands of a soldier's job."

"Why?" Again, through a mouthful of noodles. Steph was almost done now, too.

"My father's and grandfather's stories about their military service. They are very gentle, very religious men- and yet, the things they did while in the army, how they managed to live with it and seem normal…"

"Where did they serve?" Steph sat back, spearing the last shrimp off her plate and popping it into her mouth.

"The Pacific Theatre in WWII, Vietnam." Tank topped of his glass and hers with the wine. "I come from a long line of soldiers."

"My dad was in the Army. He never wanted to talk about it much." Steph sipped her wine delicately, keeping in mind her tolerance level. "Having lived through some of the crazy things that have happened to me since I took up bounty hunting, I'm kind of glad he didn't. I have enough of my own nightmares."

Tank nodded. "That's what I was interested in. That's really why I initially joined the Rangers."

"Just curiosity?" Steph shook her head. "And people say I'm too curious."

"Just one of the motivations." Tank gestured at her plate. "You done?"

"Yeah," Steph handed him the plate. "It was really good. So good that I can't believe I'm gonna say this-"

"You are not turning down my desert, now, are you?" Tank did a credible hurt expression.

"God, no! Just…" Steph thought of a good way to put it, "delaying a bit. Let me make some room."

"Okay," Tank was mollified. "I'll clean up. You go 'make room' out on the sofa."

Picking up her wineglass, Steph made her way out to the sofa and arranged herself comfortably. She leaned her head back, and was asleep before she even realized it. She figured it out when the sofa dipping under Tank's weight woke her up. "Oh, I'm sorry, Tank, I didn't mean to fall asleep!"

"It's okay, Steph. It's been a long week." Tank settled next to her and put his head back, too. "I'm not offended. Though now that I'm in the room, if you could keep your eyes open-"

She smiled at him. "I think I can manage. What were your plans for the rest of the evening?"

Tank shrugged. "I was kind of open. Didn't plan much beyond dinner and desert."

What had Steph done when she used to date? Aside from drunken frat parties, she really couldn't remember anything in particular. Had it really been that long since a real date, before Dickie, back in college? Any date with Morelli had ended in sex, quite frankly, and she and Ranger never went out anywhere not related to work. "Sadly enough, I don't even remember what I used to do on dates, aside from dinner and drinks."

Tank quirked one corner of his lips up. "Must not have been very memorable dates then."

Steph sighed. This was the second time someone had said something to that effect to her in the past week, and she found it rather depressing that both men were right. "No, they weren't. How pathetic am I?"

His hand snaked over and enclosed hers. "That was a long time ago. I think-" he paused and looked her directly in the eyes. "Do you really want to know what I think?"

Steph nodded. "Yeah. I'm beginning to think that I need an outsiders' view to my life."

"Okay," Tank kept her hand in his. "I think that you aren't the same person you were then, and now that your perspective has changed, you're beginning to see things you would not otherwise have noticed."

This made sense. Tank was very observant; she wondered what else he had noticed? "Such as?"

"You promise not to hit me, Bombshell?" Tank waited for her answer before continuing. Once she had nodded, he went on. "Okay. I think that you lived life under Burg standards for thirty years or so, the whole time chaffing under the expectations, and now that you've broken out, you can't believe that it's taken you so long. And you blame yourself, and put yourself down, for it to have taken so long. Plus, you never really looked at what else was out there in the world, so now-"

"I don't know what I want, just what I don't want," Steph finished for him.

"You have been doing some serious thinking," Tank commented in approval.

"I guess I have." Steph let silence build. It was a comfortable silence, one that she didn't feel needed to be filled up with chatter. Neither, apparently, did Tank. "The real problem is that of the few things I've figured out that I want, none seems to be achievable."

"May be you just need help figuring out a plan. Why don't you tell me about what you want? I'm good at plans." Tank shifted so that she was leaning against his chest. He was a very large man, but he no longer scared her. She pondered for a minute as to why, and she came up with the fact that she had gotten to know him outside of time spent body guarding her, when he was supposed to be scary.

"Well, we already came up with a plan for getting Ranger. Although I'm still not convinced it will work, it's the best plan I have right now." Steph shifted so that she was able to sit up and kick off her shoes. Curling her legs up under her, she repositioned herself into a comfortable position leaning against Tank again. "And I want to be better at my job, which we've been working on for a while."

"What else?"

Steph sipped her wine again, and thought. It took a few minutes. "I'd like to set my own rules, and not be afraid of what everyone else has to say about them."

"Well, you're halfway there. You certainly set your own rules." Tank took her hand again, running his thumb over the palm of her hand. "Not being afraid of what others say is a bit more difficult, because you can't do anything about other people. You have to work on how you choose to react to what people do or say. You have to learn to believe in yourself, increase your self-esteem."

Steph snorted derisively. "And how the hell can I do that? It seems to me like I can't do anything right-"

"Stop that," Tank ordered.

"Stop what?" Steph demanded.

"That. Putting yourself down." Tank turned so that he was sitting facing her, with his back to the arm. "Why do you think that you can't do anything right? Where's the proof?"

"We can start with the fact that I'm thirty-two, divorced once and no re-marriage prospects. I'm a bounty hunter because I couldn't find any other job to support myself; and I work for RangeMan because, for some reason, Ranger feels sorry for me. I can't cook. I've managed to blow up so many cars that I can't get my own insurance anymore. And I'm the object of I don't know how many pools, none of them normal or pleasant." Steph cringed. "Do I need to go on?"

"Did you listen to yourself?" Tank asked. "That list did not include anything but other people's impressions and misstatements of fact."

"I guess I didn't notice that."

"So," Tank continued to press her, keeping eye contact the whole time. "Let's go through that list. First, Ranger did not hire you out of pity. You do a good job. Better now, with training."

"Is that why my skips always managed to cover me in mud or food or Vaseline before I could bring them in?" Steph played with the hem of her shirt nervously.

"How many years you serve in the army? How many forms of martial arts have you studied? How many years were you a cop?" Tank fired questions at her.

"Duh, none," Steph answered, her voice dripping with contempt for herself. "That's the point. I do a job for which I am horrible unqualified."

"No." Tank said forcefully. "You do very well for your training, which you've chosen to expand upon now. Given the lack of training you started with, it's amazing what you've accomplished. You brought in Joe Morelli as your first skip. Ranger didn't even want that case."

That statement caught Steph's attention. "Ranger didn't want it?"

Tank shook his head. "Nope. He thought it would be too difficult, with way too much cop involvement."

Steph considered that a moment. She had taken a case Ranger didn't want, and had gotten her man. Sort of. "You know, I worked with Morelli to solve the case. I wouldn't have had a chance in hell to get him if he didn't cooperate."

"Bombshell, I was at the station turning in a skip when you drove that truck in. Morelli wanted to kill you! I don't think he went in too cooperatively." Tank laughed. That had been a sight to see, a story he had to repeat to Ranger three or four times before Ranger would believe it. "Besides, you use what you have and what you know. Lacking a background in physical force, you usually use what you know about people and human nature. And when in doubt, you stunned or sprayed them. You did-do- a good job. If you didn't, Ranger wouldn't have hired you. Even interested in you, he's not going to pay you out of pity. The man doesn't have THAT much money."

"He has enough to keep giving me cars," Steph muttered.

"Tax write-offs. Didn't cost him a thing, in the end. My guess is, he wanted to see how you well would do with one less problem in your way. I think he's had his eye on you as employee material for a while, longer than as girlfriend material. You need to examine things more closely, try not to draw biased conclusions." Tank shifted, his leg was beginning to fall asleep. "But back to your list. Why does it matter that your divorced and thirty-two? To you, not to the Burg."

"There has to be something wrong with me, then." Steph thought the answer should be obvious.

"What's wrong with you? How is the divorce your fault?" Tank reached for the wine bottle he had brought out and refilled his glass. Steph declined a refill. "I don't know anything about the situation, so fill me in."

"I found the Dick- my ex, Dickie Orr- and Joyce Bernhardt doing it on my dining room table even before our one-year anniversary." Steph took a sip, avoiding Tank's eyes.

"And how the hell were you responsible for that?" Tank dragged her eyes back to his.

"Again. There must have been something wrong with me, that he felt the need to sleep with someone else. Well, the many someone elses. Joyce wasn't the only one." Steph took another sip, which turned into a gulp.

"Did you refuse to sleep with your husband?"

Frowning, Steph answered in a puzzled voice. "No."

"Were you uh…resistant to trying new things with him?"

Her face beginning to blaze in embarrassment, she shook her head. "Uh, if I understand what you mean, no. He never asked me to do- anything like that."

"Then it was his fault, not yours." Tank noted the redness of her face. "I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"I know, you're trying to help. I just embarrass easily." Steph took another gulp of wine. Alcohol might make this conversation go easier. "Even if I concede that his cheating was the reason for the divorce- and therefore it was his fault, not mine- what did I do to make him cheat on me? That's still my fault."

Tank let out a huge sigh. "You're still doing it. He made the decision to cheat; you didn't push him to it. You can't control other people's choices."

"But he must have had a reason! Maybe I just wasn't pretty enough or thin enough-" Her voice had begun to take on a whining tone.

"Bullshit." Tank was becoming frustrated. "Haven't enough men found you attractive since the Dick for you to realize that that wasn't it?"

Steph didn't answer. Her face burned redder, and she reached on her own to fill her glass. Tank, however, snatched the wine out of her hands. "Okay, here's problem one. You have trouble discussing things unless you use a crutch, like alcohol. Because if you drink and say something embarrassing, you can blame it on the alcohol. So- no more alcohol tonight." And he got up, gathered their glasses and the wine bottle, and took it all out to the kitchen counter. He came back in with two glasses of water and sat back down in the same position, his back to the sofa arm and facing her.

"Fine. I'll embarrass myself sober. But if you bring this up in front of other people, I swear I'll shoot you." Steph crossed her arms and sat Indian style across the sofa from Tank. "I've only been with a couple of guys since Dickie, and none of them have made me really feel that attractive."

Tank schooled his face. "How long have you been divorced?"

"Seven years or so," Steph shrugged. "A while."

"And by couple, you mean two? Or more like, less than ten?" Tank couldn't believe this beautiful woman had been left so alone and lonely.

"Two." Steph hung her head a little. This was really embarrassing, more embarrassing than telling the guys that Ranger didn't want her. This was admitting that pretty much no one had wanted her. That was bad enough to admit to herself, let alone a really good looking guy who was dating her out of pity for her situation. She wanted to bang her head into the wall until she passed out.

"Only two?" Tank couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice.

"Geez, don't play the shock up to make me feel better."

"I am shocked." Tank shook his head a little, wondering where this girl had been hanging out that he hadn't run in to her before Ranger did, sometime during her dry spell. He would have been after her in a heartbeat. "I can't believe that men left you alone. I certainly wouldn't have."

A shy smile played at the corners of Stephanie's lips. "That's sweet, Tank. But I'd rather have honesty than false flattery."

"And you need to learn to take a compliment, Steph." Tank was looking at her hard, as if searching for an answer in her face. "You are beautiful, inside and out. Any man that doesn't see that is a fool."

Steph couldn't meet his eyes. "I still don't believe that."

Tank made a quick decision, hoping that he wouldn't regret it. Leaning in, he pulled Steph to him in a crushing, tongue-swapping kiss. She seemed to be into it as much as he was when he pulled away. "Then let me convince you," he said.

Steph didn't speak, but she nodded in agreement.

Restricted Chapter Eight-A

SMUT- Skip ahead if you will be offended….

Tank earnestly set out to convince her, shoving his momentary misgivings aside. They might only be friends, she might be in love with his stupid, assinine best friend, but Stephanie Plum was one hot woman. And she had just consented to be his for the night. He could hardly believe his good luck.

He placed a gentle kiss on her and leaned back slightly from Stephanie's slight form, his eyes hooded as he looked into hers. She was slightly breathless, her eyes were partially closed, and her chest rose and fell quickly, drawing attention to her pert, well-formed breasts.

It was Tank's turn to draw in a slow breath. How to sufficiently seduce this woman and convince her of how attractive she is? He considered it for a moment, his eyes examining her much more closely and slowly than they ever had while she was his co-worker. He was a man, but he wasn't dead- and not dumb enough to get sued for sexual harassment. He had looked Stephanie over before, surreptitiously, but never with such open admiration and desire- even when she was dressed for a distraction.

Judging from another sharp intake of breath from her, he assumed she had picked up on his examination. She leaned in boldly, brushing her lips against his in a rough pass-over kiss, entwining her arms around his neck. Tank helped her continue moving, leaning back slightly and pulling Stephanie up into his lap, her legs straddling his massive ones and causing her khaki skirt to bunch up high on her thighs. His hands settled on her hips and his eyes never left hers; they were pools of shining blue, pupils black and large in the low light. "Are you sure?" he asked, his voice rumbling lower than usual in his chest. He half-expected her to change her mind, but hoped that she wouldn't.

Steph nodded her head affirmatively. "Yes, I'm sure, Tank." She leaned in to kiss him, gently worrying his lower lip with tiny, gentle bites. He enjoyed the sensation for a few moments before drawing away and stilling her, his hand cupping her face.

"This is supposed to be about you, Steph." He brushed a gentle kiss against her full lips again. "Relax." He ran his hands up her back and kneaded gently at her neck and shoulders. The slight pressure on her upper body drove her pelvis down on him; she shivered slightly, captivating him more. "You're all tense."

"I'm a little nervous," she admitted in a small voice.

"Don't be," Tank ordered. He continued to smooth out the knots in her neck, sliding his fingers up into the base of her scalp. She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes, which he took as a positive sign. "What can I do to make you less nervous?" he asked.

She sighed, biting her lip and opening one eye. "Turn out the lights?" she asked in an unsteady voice.

Tank shook his head. "No, Steph. I want to see you. Let's leave the lights on."

Another sigh. "Okay." She was relaxing some, the ministrations of his hands having the desired effect. He turned her head slightly, his fingers still entangled in her hair making it easier to direct her. His tongue snaked out and he ran it down the outer shell of her ear, retracing his path once before blowing gently on it.

She gasped as his warm breath enveloped her delicate ear.

"Did you like that?" he whispered, as he did it again, this time ending the path with a quick nip at her ear lobe that made her arch her back. "I guess so," he answered his own question, turning her head to take up the activity on the other side. As he traced down, he saw a faded bruise on her neck, and followed the path of her ear a bit further, down to the mark. Once there, he applied extra pressure to it. The attention to the mark half-hidden beneath her hair garnered another gasp from her; it was still sensitive in its partially-healed state. He sucked gently on the mark, darkening it again before leaving go after a half-serious bite.

Again, Stephanie jumped. Tank had barely begun, and she was already drawn as tight as a bow-string. She was so wired and sensitive right now that he felt it would prove a distraction for her, wouldn't allow her to fully enjoy her experience. And he really wanted her to enjoy this. He decided that he needed to do something about that. Leaning down to catch her in another fierce kiss, he slid the hem of her skirt up slightly higher, resting his hands at the juncture of her thighs and torso. Rubbing his thumbs in small, insistent circles on the sensitive skin of her inner thighs, he got her to open her legs a bit more, taking the opportunity to slip beneath the lacey edges of her now visible panties.

She turned away from his kiss, resting her forehead against his chest to draw in a shaky breath as his fingers found their target. Pressing against her swollen nub, he rubbed steadily in small, firm circles. Stephanie bucked her hips against him, and he rubbed faster. Her breath caught in her throat, and he increased the pressure. He felt her body straining against him, her breath coming faster as he drew her closer to the edge. He leaned in to whisper in her ear again, the tone of his voice as much as the words exciting her even more. "Come for me, Steph. I want to see you come. I want to hear you come."

Slipping a finger inside her slickness, then another, Tank was quickly rewarded with a half-gasped moan and then her walls clenched tightly around his digits, her whole body stiffening. He continued slow motions against her, letting her come down from her orgasm before pulling her firmly against him. He let her rest a few minutes before speaking. "Ready for more, yet, Bombshell?"

A small smile played around the corners of her mouth. "Oh, yeah," she answered in a sexy tone.

Wrapping one arm around her shoulders and the other under her knees, Tank swiftly stood up and carried her to his bedroom. Steph amazed at how relaxed and comfortable she was with Tank, considered how good she already felt, and the fact they were both still fully clothed, on the way towards the bedroom. This was a singular experience for her; the knowledge that all that lay between the two of them was mutual physical attraction, good sex, and a solid friendship was somewhat liberating. She had never really been one for fuck-buddies, as in her experience one or both of them usually ended up more involved than planned, but she knew that Tank would never do that while Ranger was still anywhere in the picture. Steph also wasn't worried about what the next morning was going to be like, as she would have been with Ranger, nor worried about who else her partner might have been with lately, like with Morelli. All she was concerned with was enjoying Tank's considerable skills and losing some clothing.

Sensing some serious thoughts circling around, Tank paused at the doorway to the bedroom and put Steph back on the floor, letting her body slide down his front with delicious, electric friction. He turned and partially pinned her against the closed door, one arm encircling her waist and the other casually leaning against the door, next to her head. "Steph?" he questioned again.

She closed her eyes and licked her lips, afraid that he might be changing his mind. If he did, she was in such a state that she might attack him anyway. "Tank?" she asked.

He kissed her ferociously again, and she responded in kind, wrapping one leg around his waist and rubbing herself against him. "Just checking…" he mumbled, thrusting right back at her. She felt how affected he was, and any questions she might have entertained that this was a pity-fuck were gone. He wanted her, and wanted her badly. And not because he was some psycho, or couldn't stand to lose, or simply needed to possess her, or any other unfathomable mental dysfunction. He simply found her attractive, as the physical evidence proved.

Tank stilled himself after a long few minutes, and at the loss of motion, she groaned. "Tank!" she gasped, her voice on the edges of angry. "Don't stop!" she ordered.

Smiling, Tank slipped down to his knees, repositioning her leg over his shoulder. Looking up at her, the anger- and hunger- in her eyes made her even more attractive. Pulling her panties to the side, he kissed her mound briefly before parting her nether lips with his fingers and dragging his tongue slowly across her crevice. Her answer was lost in a shuddering moan as he continued passing his tongue roughly over her lips. He could tell that she was close again, and he wanted to see that sweet look on her face once more before he joined her. He continued with his slow torture, pulling her other leg up and over his shoulders as well. It was not long before her thighs tightened around him and she came again, her juices coating his face and hand. She tasted heavenly, sweet with a hint of a stronger spice. He could stay here and worship her for hours, but his own need, pulsing and twitching, drove him to rise and continue their path to his bed.

Laying Stephanie gently down in the center of the bed and kneeling at her feet, Tank began to slide her skirt down her shapely legs. Stephanie kept eye contact the entire time, quite a feat for her, he was sure. Once her skirt was removed, and those sheer, lacy boy pants totally exposed, his mouth went dry. Lingerie of any kind did it for him, but especially those virginal white ones.

She noted his reaction, and raised herself on her elbows to get a better look at him. She was not generally talkative during love-making (usually, with Joe or that once with Ranger, she could barely catch her breath, much less talk), but something about Tank's honesty with her earlier and the way he truly seemed to enjoy her body made her want to share the moment with her partner. Reaching down to the bottom of her stretchy top, she slowly pulled it up and off, arching her back and causing her breasts to jut out. Falling back on her elbows, she smiled crookedly at Tank's reaction to her striptease and asked, "So, see something you like, Tank?"

He grinned hungrily back at her, answering her as he swooped down on her, covering her body with his own before she realized what was going on. "Oh, yeah, Bombshell. There's a lot about you that I like," he intoned before he began kissing her. His hands kneaded her breasts through her bra; her hands, curious, began to explore Tank's muscular body, only to be frustrated by the fact he was still dressed. She found her way to buttons and buckles and zippers and tugged ineffectively.

Tank stilled her hands, and rose off her. She watched with close attention as he quickly peeled off his button down and then a t-shirt to expose dark chocolate skin over rippling muscles. She involuntarily licked her lips, tasting herself from Tank's kiss and garnering a sly half-smile from him as he removed his remaining article of clothing- his pants. His erection, large and rock hard, sprang forth and made her eyes widen slightly in apprehension as they dropped to groin level. Tank caught the change and chuckled. "It'll fit, Bombshell, I promise."

"Damn ESP," she muttered, looking up at Tank.

Tank lay down next to her, running his fingers lightly over her shoulders, down her arm, and finally resting on the healthy curve of her hip. His mouth followed the same path up and down her body, returning to and ending with a playful bite in the hollow of throat. This time, she groaned and arched, but languidly, without the hypersensitivity of earlier. She was calmed down enough to enjoy a long evening, now.

Stephanie returned his caress, licking and sucking her way down his body and stopping in the vicinity of his erection. "No, Steph," he tried to pull her back up, but she wriggled out of his grip and he was not going to be able to move her without bruising her.

She shot him a wicked smile, creeping down his body and crouching between his knees. "Why not?"

"This is about-" Tank started, but she cut him off.

"About me enjoying myself." Steph placed one hand at the base of his penis, stroking him gently up and down. "And I won't be able to enjoy myself if it's only for me. I'm not comfortable with feeling that selfish." She dipped her head down and took his engorged head into her mouth, rolling her tongue around it as her other hand cupped his balls.

He groaned appreciatively. She was quite talented at that, changing pressure and direction randomly, periodically taking more of him into her mouth. He allowed this to go on until the point that he wasn't sure he could hold it together anymore. Stopping her bobbing motions with a hand, he stilled her. "Bombshell, you need to stop that unless you want to take a break for a while."

Steph somehow managed to grin wickedly with her mouth full, then let him slip out to answer. "I guess I can stop." She crawled her way back up his body, pausing at a few places along the way. When she stopped too long at a nipple, teasing and biting, he forcefully tugged at her long curls. She took the hint.

As she made her way up the final stretch, Tank flipped them both over, adroitly settling himself between her legs, a tree-trunk like arm on either side of her body. "Are you ready?" he whispered in her ear, covering her mouth with his own to swallow her gasp as he entered her, pausing as she tensed at the size of him.

Allowing her a few moments to stretch to accommodate his girth, Tank switched from deep kisses to light brushes of his lips against her ear and throat, drawing shaky breaths from Steph. Distracting her yet again with a large hand palming the globe of her breast and twisting her nipple between his calloused fingers, Tank continued to push deeper within her. There was no resistance, just a delightful pressure surrounding him, driving him to want to go deeper. He was careful to go slowly, mindful of the clues of Steph's motions and body, but she didn't seem discomforted by his largeness. So careful was he that he wasn't prepared for the moment he was fully sheathed, buried as deep as he could go and his head resting against her cervix.

Catching his own breath, he rested his forehead on the pillow above Steph's shoulder a moment before he began slowly moving, long, deliberate thrusts that quickly drove Steph near the edge again and kept her there. She tried to speed up his movements, bucked her hips, but he simply held her still by circling her hips with his huge hands and holding her there. "Calm down, Bomber. It's early, yet."

"Ta-a-a-ank!" she wailed.

He chuckled, enjoying her response, until a tightening of her channel- purposeful and accompanied by her own throaty laugh- made him gasp. "Move faster!" she whispered in his ear, biting down on his ear lobe and causing him to thrust more deeply into her. "That's right!' she goaded him on.

Her tone of voice, the roughness of her play, pushed him near the edge of his control. His thrusts became more forceful, her answering cries of pleasure louder, and they both rode out a crest of pleasure together, collapsing in a trembling, tangled heap. Tank rested an arm across his eyes, blocking out the light he had insisted they leave on. "Thank you, Stephanie."

Turning on her side, tiredness evident on her face, Steph smiled a crooked grin. "Shouldn't I be thanking you?"

Tank looked deeply in to her eyes, trying to make her feel the weight of his words. "No, Bombshell. I'm the one benefiting here. Thank you for a wonderful evening."

"And some great sex?" she playfully quipped from her resting spot on his chest. .

"Really great," Tank stated, playing with tendrils of her tangled curls. He really liked her hair- it was one of her best features, another thing that was great about her that she didn't consider so. Steph's breathing evened out and slowed as she drifted off to sleep, wrapped up in his arms. Tank considered the evening's events within the larger picture. Ranger was going to be pissed when he found out- it was inevitable in a building wired with an internal surveillance system- but Tank wasn't that worried. Ranger needed to be confronted with some hard facts and forced to make some decisions; he was Ranger's best friend and saw it as part of his duty to help with that. This wasn't the first time Tank had acted as a lightening rod for Ranger. It probably wouldn't be the last. And, quite frankly, this time it had been a very pleasant duty.

Closing his eyes and simply enjoying the soft warmth of the woman next to him, Tank drifted off

Chapter Eight

Steph woke up naked and entangled in unfamiliar sheets, with a warm presence at her back. She was unusually clear-minded for the early morning. Very early morning, she amended after looking at the clock. Last night had been- wonderful. The long talk with Tank- followed by an even longer round of "convincing"- had started her thinking in a more positive way. After all, if she wasn't as desirable as Tank had tried to convince her that she was, why would he have even bothered? Sex with her was too complicated for it to have been a pity fuck, so he must have wanted it. So had Lester. And, it seemed, so did Bobby.

The thought made her feel a little happier inside than she had in a while. She snuggled back against Tank, who wrapped an arm around her. "Good morning," he whispered in her ear. His breath tickled her ear, so she ended up giggling a good morning back. Looking at the clock, Tank let out a sigh. "Damn, Bombshell. You tired me out so much that I'm gonna be late for my shift."

Steph looked back at him and twisted around to give him a peck on the cheek. "Sorry, Tank."

"It's okay. I'm not late yet. But I will have to get up and run, I'm afraid." Tank hugged her tight. "That's no reflection on you, now, Bombshell."

"Got it, Tank. I'll keep thinking positive." Steph felt a rush of colder air as Tank got out of bed. She turned to watch him. He was a well-built man. Not as well-built as Ranger, of course, but still a fine specimen. "Although, if I feel the need for more convincing?"

Tank leaned back down and brushed a kiss across her cheek. "Anytime, Steph."

Her stomach did a little flip-flop, a good flip-flop. This was the first time that a morning after didn't feel- well, like a morning after. She got up herself and went to look for her clothes while Tank took a quick shower. Just as she was pulling on her shirt, and Tank was still in the bathroom, she heard a cell phone ring. It took four rings before she found the source. Or what she thought was the source.

All Rangeman employees had company issued phones. All the phones were the exact same and looked alike. And in the haste last night to loose clothing, Steph and Tank had dumped their phones on the nightstand, side by side. And now, Steph couldn't tell which phone was hers and which one was Tank's. That was a problem, because, right before the last ring sent it to voicemail, Steph saw the number calling.


Then the second phone rang.

She knew Ranger would be pissed that neither of them answered their phones this morning, but she couldn't tell which phone was hers to answer it. She briefly wondered if Ranger was deliberately calling to check up on her and Tank's date. Although getting a reaction from Ranger was the whole point of the plan, she was beginning to wonder if maybe this was like baiting a tiger- there was no way it was going to end up good, for anyone involved. But would she be happier if nothing changed at all?


The phone- she still couldn't tell if it was hers or Tanks- rang again. She didn't think that if she answered Tank's phone by accident, at this time of the morning, that Ranger would be happy to hear her voice. So, gripped by indecision, she let it go to voice mail again. Tank had gotten out of the shower, towel wrapped dangerously low on his hips, and came back into the room as the phone chirped again.

"Is that you or me?" Tank questioned, as he removed some clothing from a dresser drawer.

"Uh, that's the problem. I can't tell, so I didn't answer it." Steph looked at Tank. He could see guilt written across her face.

Shaking his head, Tank grabbed a land-line phone from the nightstand and dialed a number quickly. As one of the cell phones came to life, he grabbed it and hung up the regular phone. "This one's mine." He scrolled through the received calls before leaving the phone on top of his dresser. "Two in the last five minutes from Ranger." He smiled at Steph. "I think he's fishing." He stepped into a pair of black jeans- tight in all the right places- and slid on a belt.

Steph smiled grimly back. "I thought he might be."

Tank grabbed Steph's hand and kissed the palm. "Are you okay with what happened last night? You look like you feel guilty."

"A little," she said, biting her lip.


"If I'm so in love with Ranger, why did I sleep with his best friend?" she forced out in a rush, running all the words together with barely a breath between them.

"I don't know, Steph. Why did you?" Tank threw the question back to her. He didn't sound annoyed, but Steph thought that he sounded interested in her answer.

She opted for the least sappy but honest explanation. "Because I wanted sex, and you are a very sweet, hot, gentle man."

"So- Ranger had nothing to do with it?" Tank continued to throw questions at her.

"No, actually. He didn't." Steph sounded surprised to herself.

"Then why are you guilty?"

She thought a minute or two before responding. Tank waited patiently, so she thought that's what he wanted her to do. "I guess it's not quite guilt. It's more fear of Ranger's reaction. What if I lose my chance with him because I decided I wanted to get laid?" The fear in her voice was quite apparent.

Tank didn't seem bothered by her desire to keep last night a secret. Maybe he was having second thoughts? But then he did the ESP thing again. "Steph, I have no problem with anyone knowing what happened between us last night. But if you would rather that it be kept a secret, I won't tell anyone. This is your call. But- are you measuring your actions against what you think, or what others think? Or one particular individual?"

Steph bit her lip again. "I don't think there was anything wrong with what we did last night. So, why am I afraid of Ranger's reaction?" Tank nodded, showing he approved of her thought process, just as she lost it. "I'm afraid because he's fucking Ranger! I don't think he'd ever really do me any physical harm, but there could be psychological scarring involved. Or shipping me to a third world country."

Tank shook his head again, and pulled a black t-shirt over his still damp skin. Steph couldn't help but watch. "Hyperbole, Steph. Logically, you know that those just aren't real alternatives." Clothes on, he sat on the bed to lace up his boots.

"How do I know those aren't alternatives?" Steph's voice squeaked a little. "I don't really know much about Ranger, really-"

Tank cut her off, as he strapped on his weapons and shoved his cell phone into a pocket. "Trust me."

Steph felt the beginnings of hyperventilation subside. "Okay. If Ranger asks directly if we had sex, answer him honestly. I don't want to lie to him. But I don't want to give away information, either."

Gathering her into a quick hug, Tank kissed the top of her head. "Good girl. You're getting the hang of this new way of thinking. With a little prodding, at least." He released her and headed towards the door. "Lock up behind you. I don't want any practical jokes left around by Bobby or Lester." Then he was gone.

Steph's phone rang again, and she answered it, deliberating ignoring caller ID. "Yeah?"

"Have you seen Tank?" Ranger asked, in a very subdued voice.

"He's on his way, Ranger." Steph hoped Ranger didn't ask any other questions.

Not her lucky day. "Why weren't either of you answering your phones?"

"We got our phones mixed up last night and it took a bit this morning to sort it out. Sorry, Ranger. I was just about to call you back." A little white lie. She was going to call him back. Once she had showered in her own apartment.

"Oh," was Ranger's only response. "Are you in Tank's apartment?"

Double shit. The adolescent Steph panicked, trying to think of something to say. The newly adult

Steph found a way to be honest, yet evasive. Except there really isn't much use in evasion when it's a yes or no answer. "Yes."

"I trust you had a good date." Neutral voice again.

"Uh, yeah." Brilliant conversationalist on this end, Steph marveled at herself.

"Got an opening somewhere on that dance card yet, Babe?" Ranger's voice sounded odd, almost- she pulled an SAT word out of the recesses of her brain- wistful.

"Huh?" Steph mumbled, caught off guard.

"Translation- when would you be free to go out for an evening with me?"

Steph's heart almost lept out of her chest. "Are you asking me on a date?"

"Yeah, I guess I am." Ranger sounded surprised himself.

"Where?" Steph demanded. A date with Ranger required serious shopping and preparation. The actual time needed would depend entirely on where he was taking her.

"Where do you want to go?"

Dammit. Why, when her brain was half-dead, did the men keep leaving decisions up to her? "You asked, you pick. Just give me hint as to how I should dress."

"Let me think about it. I'll get back to you today about it." The tone of Ranger's voice changed, and Steph could hear sounds in the background. A door opened and closed, and someone- she thought Tank- greeted Ranger.

"Okay." She heard the phone go dead as he hung up. Wow. Ranger had asked her on a date. She walked back to her own apartment in a daze.

Chapter Nine

Shaking off her momentary spaciness, Steph decided to take the opportunity of her morning off to work out at the gym. She had made the gym a part of her regular routine since joining Rangeman, finally understanding Ranger's fixation with early morning running. Exercise was a great mood lifter- now that she could run a few miles while managing to still breathe and without throwing up. She went at it full force this morning, hitting every machine in the place, plus the free weights. She was in a zone when Bobby came up behind her, and didn't notice him until he spoke. "Hey, Steph!"

"Hey, Bobby!" she panted, straining to complete her reps.

He moved in to spot for her, coming in close behind her. "So are you free tomorrow?"

"I'm on until six. What'd you have in mind?" Steph blew out a hard breath, carefully placing the weights on the floor. Bobby loosed the weights and began returning them to their places.

"It's a surprise!" Bobby grinned up at her.

Steph was a little unsure- Bobby's sense of humor and hers did not always mesh well. She wasn't sure if their sense of a good surprise would have the same issues. "Can I have a hint?"

"Don't wear a skirt." Bobby rose, catching her hand in his. "And I promise, you'll have a good time."

"I'll give you the benefit of the doubt." Steph wiped the sheen of sweat from her forehead.

He shot her a smile, and leaned in to brush a kiss against her cheek. He whispered into her ear as he kissed her, "You look beautiful, all flushed and sweaty and out of breath. I can't wait until it's because of me." Then he made his way over to another machine, leaving her with her mouth hanging open and her heart pounding,

She stood for a few minutes, until she gathered her thoughts and decided to head for the pull-up bar, her last stop before leaving. She stole looks at Bobby out the corner of her eye as she chinned herself, loosing count somewhere around twenty when she caught him looking back at her with a hungry, wolfish grin. She was starting over again when Lester showed up looking for her.

"Hey, Steph!" Lester said, smiling.

"Hey, Les. What's up?" She thought that he was doing surveillance this morning on his own, and was puzzled as to why he was in the gym. "Aren't you supposed to be somewhere?"

"Was. But something came up." Lester pulled himself up beside her, biceps bulging and gun still in his shoulder holster. He matched her pace easily, which irked her, so she increased her speed- which he, of course, matched. She never had a chance at winning this contest, but she gave it a half-hearted shot until she tired. Then she dropped down and gave Lester a dirty look. He smirked back.

Panting, Steph headed towards the locker room. Lester was entirely too energetic and playful- not the good kind of playful- for her right now. She knew from his mood that he had something he very much wanted to tell her, and she decided to act like she didn't care. Payback for Lester showing off on the bar. Lester followed behind her, pausing a moment as she hit the door.

Her presence at Rangeman had necessitated some changes to the all-male culture at work. One of those was the need to for a single locker room to accommodate her and the rest of the guys. The guys hadn't minded sharing the locker room- but she had been a bit self conscious about it. So, when she used the locker room, the guys gave her fifteen minutes to herself, vacating the premises. It was long enough to shower and get dressed.

Lester broke the rules by following her, but she had to admit that she had changed the rules by going out on a date with him. Still, she hadn't invited him in. She paused at her locker, kicking off her sneakers. "What do you want, Lester?"

Lester leaned against the locker next to hers. "Ranger and I got a phone call this morning."

Steph, lifting her t-shirt over her arms, paused and looked at Lester. "You get a lot of calls."

He practically danced in place. "C'mon, ask me what made this one special!"

Rolling her eyes, Steph finished removing her shirt. "Fine," she said grudgingly. "What made this one special?"

Practically giggling, Lester managed to get out, "Tia invited you over for dinner. Tonight."

"What?" Steph spat out, shocked, sweaty t-shirt still hanging from her hand.

"Tia called Ranger and said that she wanted to thank you for helping take care of my no-good cousin, and that he and I were to be in attendance as well." He shot her a full-on, mischievous smile. "Ranger can never say no to Tia."

Panic, heart-wrenching, body-soaking, panic, hit her. "I can't go! I can't meet Ranger's aunt! And have dinner with him there!" She slammed her body down into the bench, drooping. "Fuck. And I thought everything was going so well."

"What do you mean, WAS going so well? This is great!" Lester was getting louder the more excited he got. "You wanted Ranger's attention. This is a perfect way to get it." Lester sat next to her on the bench and crossed his arms, a truly happy smile splitting his face. "Plus, I get to be there to see it for myself."

Steph closed her eyes and silently counted to ten. Then to twenty. Didn't help. "Are you free Saturday night?"

Confusion passed over Lester's face. "Yeah. Why?"

Steph's lips curled into a wicked smile. "Wanna go out with me for dinner?"

"Are you asking ME out on a date?" Lester's one eyebrow raised.

"Yeah." Steph waited for his answer. If he said yes, she was holding him to it, no matter what. Payback's a bitch, and she was the bitch.

"But I thought Ranger asked you out already?" Lester's voice was that damned I-want-information-but-I-don't-want-to-give-any neutral.

"He asked. So?" Steph sat up, keeping eye contact with Les and carefully licking her bottom lip before gently biting it.

"Uh, yeah. Saturday's good." Lester's eyes didn't leave her mouth.

Guys were suck suckers sometimes, Steph reflected. "Great. My mother told me to bring a date to dinner. You'll love her desert!"

Lester's face fell. He'd heard stories of her family, but had yet to meet them. He had hoped to keep it that way. Forever. "Uh-"

Steph shook her head and laughed. "No getting out of it. You already agreed. We leave at 5:45 sharp, or it will be our fault that dinner is ruined."

Lester was looking very scared. "This is payback, isn't it?"

Steph chuckled heartily, grabbing her towel and soap and heading towards the shower. "Oh, yeah."

Chapter Ten

The usual work clothes somehow seemed more appropriate for dinner with Tia than any of her dressier (read: sluttier) clothing. Plus, she didn't have time to go back to her apartment to shower and change before Ranger and Lester were supposed to pick her up from her surveillance. Tank was going to meet them here and take over for her. So, Rangeman black fatigues it was. She knew she didn't fill them out quite as well as Ranger or Lester, but where she did fill them out looked great. She had at least bothered with a minimum of make-up, though; the black eyeliner and mascara lightened up enough to make her look classy and the sheer nude lipstick said "soccer-mom" instead of "dating-both-your-nephews-at-the-same-time."

Tank got to her SUV first. She saw him before he saw her, so she was prepared when the passenger side door opened and he climbed in. Proud of herself, she commented on the vehicle he had arrived in. "Thought all you drove was black. Nice red 'stang, there."

Smiling at her, Tank laughed. "Wanted a change. It's a friend's. I'm borrowing it for a while."

"Close friend," Steph commented, keeping her eyes on the house she was supposed to be watching. She filled Tank in on the activity during her shift, then reached back to snag her purse. Rummaging in it, she pulled out a mirror and checked her make-up and hair while Tank watched. His eyes flicked occasionally to the house, but mostly followed her. She started feeling uncomfortable. "What?"

"Stop being so nervous. Tia is a nice lady."

"Does everybody know my business?" Steph asked in irritation.

"The building is wired for sound and pictures, Bombshell." Tank flashed her a wicked smile when she startled, then chuckled. "You didn't know about the sound, did you?"

"How can I have worked here for seven months, and only now someone tells me about the sound?" Steph was panicked, thinking back on her habit of talking to herself. What had people heard?

Tank reached over and grabbed her hand, squeezing it gently. "Don't worry. No one checks the sound unless there's a need."

Steph grumbled under her breath. Damn paranoid men, making her life difficult. "Whatever."

"Hey, at least I gave you something else to worry about now." Tank gave her hand another squeeze. "I really mean it, that Tia is a nice lady. And she knows how frustrating Ranger can be."

Steph's night seemed a little brighter. "Does that mean that I might have another ally here?"

Tank leaned over, planting a friendly kiss on her cheek, and then leaned his large body back in the seat. He never let go of her hand. "You might."

They sat in silence until Ranger and Lester pulled up next to them. Extracting her hand, Steph exited the vehicle to the sound of Tank's "Have fun!" Lester opened the truck's door for her and helped her up into the middle of the front seat, wedging her between Ranger and himself. Under less stressful conditions, Steph would have greatly enjoyed being sandwiched between the two of them. Tonight, she was busy worrying over meeting Tia.

Ranger noticed immediately. "Babe, my family is easier than yours. Relax."

Lester seconded the sentiment. "Tia is looking forward to meeting you. She's wanted to for a while." The dirty look Ranger sent Lester in the rearview mirror was not lost on Stephanie, although she wasn't sure what it was about. "And she makes really great desert. The best flan you'll ever taste."

Steph liked flan, but not as much as chocolate cake. She was still wrapping her mind around the statement that Tia knew who she was 'for a while.' "What do you mean, she's wanted to meet me for a while?"

Lester looked over at Ranger, who scowled at him, and changed the subject. "Heard you got a date tomorrow night, Bomber. Where's Bobby taking you?"

Ranger's hands tightened on the steering wheel, knuckles showing white against his dark skin and the black leather of the wheel. "You're going out with Bobby tomorrow?" he questioned.

Deer caught in the headlights feeling, Steph stuttered an answer. "Uh, y-y-yeah."

Lester was watching Ranger closely. Steph took the opportunity to dig her elbow into Lester's side, deeply, while shifting in her seat. Unfortunately, as satisfying as it was to see Lester flinch, it brought her closer against Ranger's body. He spared a moment from the road, casting his eyes over her, before responding. "What are you two going to do on your date?"

Knowing Steph couldn't answer, Lester answered for her. "It's surprise. Bobby won't even tell me."

"Yeah," Steph seconded. "He just said not to wear a skirt."

Ranger took this information in. "Be prepared, Babe. You never know what Bobby is up to. He could have you bungee jumping off a bridge."

Steph must have blanched at that, because Ranger chuckled. Lester leaned and whispered in her ear, "He may be laughing, but he's not joking."

Steph was less and less happy with her decision to go out with Bobby. He was the Rangeman she knew least, on Ranger's A-team, and she was starting to really worry. "Bungee cord jumping?"

Ranger only smiled at her, and Lester wrapped an arm around her. 'The key is to not stiffen up as you reach the end. Relax and just flow with the bouncing."

Steph took a deep breath. She'd rather have a gun pointed at her than jump off of something with a fancy rubberband attached to her ankle. "You might want to remind Bobby about my bad luck passing on to those around me. His cord might snap if I'm there."

Ranger and Lester actually looked concerned for a moment, which annoyed her- but also gave her hope that Lester could talk Bobby out of anything scary like bungee jumping. She concentrated on that thought, trying to ignore two warm, muscular thighs rubbing against her from either side of the seat. It was difficult. Ranger, in any close proximity, affected her body; but remembering her date with Lester as well, Steph was feeling flustered by the time they pulled up in front of a large, old Victorian single in the middle of a less-than-prosperous block on the wrong side of Trenton.

Ranger's eyes caught sight of Lester's arm on Steph's shoulders and flashed dark for a moment, as Lester helped her down from the trunk. Ranger took Steph's other side as the men guided her up a short path to the wide, wrap around porch and a stunning, carved wooden door with an art glass window. Lester gave her one last look, smiling at her, before Ranger pulled the door open. He preceded them in, stepping aside as Steph passed into the foyer. A small woman, with long steel gray hair pulled back into a single thick braid and dressed in jeans and a button down men's shirt (all in black, of course), emerged from the back of the house, a wooden spoon in her hand.

"Welcome, Stephanie!" the woman pulled her into a hearty embrace. She was small, but strong. "And thank you for your help in this family matter."

Steph wasn't sure how to reply. "No problem."

Tia looked Steph over carefully, nodding to herself. "You are more beautiful than my nephew said you were. And strong. I can see a strength of character in you that is impressive." Tia shook her head slightly, as if to clear it. "Enough of that. You should call me Tia as well. Now let me say hello to my boys." Ranger bent himself over to hug Tia back, but Lester simply pulled her up to his height and twirled her around. She was laughing when he set her down. "Lester, you are like a little boy sometimes." She swatted at him with the wooden spoon still in her hand. "Come, dinner is ready."

The small group followed her out to the dining room and sat down to eat, Tia controlling the conversation and dishing out the food. Arroz con polle, tender and flavorful, fresh vegetables, and thick bread slathered with sweet butter. In between mouthfuls of food, Steph answered Tia's questions about herself. Tia already knew her name, her age, about her divorce, and just about every incidence of blowing up a car, whether or not it had made the paper. The difficult questions started when Tia sent the boys to the kitchen to get desert and desert dishes. As soon as the door swished shut behind them, the interrogation began. "So why do you do this job?"

Steph sweated it out for a minutes before answering when it became apparent that Ranger and Lester wouldn't be rescuing her. "I don't like panty hose and I don't like being told what to do or what I should want out of life." It was the answer she had come upon not that long ago, during that serious thinking she had been doing about her life.

Tia simply nodded her head. "And, I'm sure, it doesn't hurt that you're the only woman working with a group of such handsome young men."

Steph stared at her, glad that she didn't have any food in her mouth to choke on in surprise. The only thing that calmed Steph down was the twinkle in Tia's eyes, similar to Lester's chidding twinkle. She weakly grinned and added, "There are certain fringe benefits, as well."

Tia laughed, setting Stephanie more at ease. "My boys are a handsome bunch. Some are more thick-headed than others when it comes to women, though."

Steph tensed back up. Tia seemed to share Ranger's ESP ability. "Oh, dear, I should have been less blunt about this. Lester had told me all about Ric's stubbornness."

Steph was unsure how to respond. She let Tia keep talking. "I am an old woman, and I want grandchildren, dammit."

"Uh, Ran- Ric has a daughter." Nice one, Steph thought to herself. Just where was Tia headed with this?"

"Ana lives in Miami. I hardly ever get to see her. I miss her terribly." Tia shook her head. "And a grandmother should have many grandchildren."

Grandmother? It was obvious that Ranger and Lester were very close to their aunt, but Steph hadn't realized how close. "And you think Ric will have children with me?"

Tia smiled indulgently at her. "You are the only woman he's even mentioned to the family in years. He's quite taken with you. And, from what Lester has told me, you are more than a little taken with Ric." Tia reached over and patted Stephanie's hand. "Sometimes men just need a little shove for them to realize what it is they feel. Ric is one of those men, dear. I hope your plan works."

Just then the door opened to reveal Ranger balancing a large flan in one hand and a bowl of thick whipped cream in the other. Lester followed with a huge platter of fresh fruit. Putting it on the table, Lester caught her eyes with a questioning look in his own. "Desert is served!"

"Ranger tells me that you love sweets, Stephanie." Tia cut a large piece from the flan, spooning a mound of whipped cream and fruit next to it, and handed it to Stephanie. "This is a family recipe."

Steph took the plate and took a small taste with her fork. She immediately shoveled in a larger bite, proclaiming how good desert was. "This is amazing!"

Tia beamed, and served Lester and Ranger theirs. She took only a little bit for herself. To Steph's amazement, Ranger ate his desert with relish. When Tia began gathering dishes, Steph leaned over and whispered in his ear, "I thought that you didn't eat desert!"

Ranger smiled at her, licking his fork clean. The sight of his tongue doing that just about ruined Steph's panties. "This is the only desert that I eat."

Lester caught Steph's now glazed expression, and stood up to take dishes out to the kitchen. "I'll clear the table."

Tia nodded. "Ranger can help you clean up, while I talk more to Stephanie." Ranger stiffened, but stood up immediately and took a stack of plates through the doorway. What didn't he want Tia to tell her? Now she was curious, and immediately followed the older woman into a comfortable living room, family pictures looking down on them from one immense wall populated solely by frames of various sizes, and they sat down on a comfortable, over-stuffed couch. Steph smiled widely as Tia reached for a worn, leather photo album.

Chapter Eleven

By the end of the evening, Stephanie had decided that she liked Tia a great deal. The woman was warm, funny, and- best of all- told Stephanie as much as she wanted to know about Ranger, even when Ranger protested. Among other things, Stephanie now knew that Ranger was two years older than her (his birthday was October 16th), had played high school football (good enough to get scholarships), had won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star (for unspecified services in the Rangers), had gotten arrested his junior year of high school for vandalism (before he turned his graffiti urges into more artistic endeavors, the results of which graced several of Tia's walls), and was afraid of clowns (at least when he was little.)

Ranger had sat quietly, teeth clenched and flushed, through most of the evening. He rarely spoke, even to protest a story that Tia told or an old, embarrassing picture Tia ahowed. (And what pictures there were- Ranger in short pants one Easter, Ranger as a pirate for a school play, and Ranger as an 80s head banger, long dark hair loose down to his ass and clad in a bad ass biker jacket. Stephanie wanted a copy of that one just to daydream about.) By the second hour of Ranger stories, Steph took pity on him and asked questions about Lester, too.

Somehow, Tia always maneuvered the conversation back to Ranger. Stephanie enjoyed the stories about Ranger. She had intellectually known that Ranger wasn't always the scary, dangerous bounty hunter she knew that he could be, but she hadn't really thought much about how he had become one. Ranger had never been very open about himself, and Steph had honored his unvoiced barriers, for the most part. But she really wished she had pushed him more, now. There was a complex and caring man somewhere under all that bad-ass black camouflage.

Steph decided that she was going to rectify the situation as soon as possible. Taking advantage of Tia's momentary absence when the phone rang and Lester going to the bathroom, Steph got up from her spot on the sofa and made her way over to Ranger's chair. He watched her on her way, leaning his head against the back of the chair and heaving a great sigh. "I think my image is now ruined."

"Oh, yeah. The clown fear did it. Big bad Batman, afraid of a clown." Steph laughed before turning serious. "But it makes you a very interesting person. I'm glad that I got to know more about you tonight, Ranger."

He simply watched her, and did not respond right away. He seemed to be considering his words. "Why?"

Biting her lip, Steph replied. "You always seem so perfect, like you never make mistakes or look stupid. That kind of perfection is scary and intimidating, especially to someone like me. It's nice to know you did dumb things, too, once upon a time."

Ranger patted the arm of his chair, motioning for her to sit there. When she did, he slid his warm hand up and down her back before hooking one of his long fingers through her belt loop and leaving it there. "I'm far from perfect, Babe."

Steph looked back over her shoulder at him. "You could have fooled me. Well, almost. There are one or two things that you aren't perfect at, but they seemed so minor…" She let her voice trail off.

The finger in her belt loop tugged at her. "One or two?" Ranger questioned.

Steph felt brave. The intimate setting, the stories, Tia's comments earlier, all combined to motivate her. She turned herself so that she was facing Ranger, her leg bent against the arm of the chair. "You need to work on your personal skills, Batman. Dark and mysterious is getting old."

"Uh-uh," Ranger grunted, the hand entangled with her belt loop now tracing patterns on Steph's thigh through the material.

"And a woman likes to be taken seriously. You told me I was entertainment to you." Steph paused to see if Ranger would respond. He had the good grace to look abashed.

"I admit, that wasn't the way it was meant to come out. I should have explained better." Ranger looked directly into her eyes. "Forgive me?"

"Maybe. Another time, another place, you can explain to me what you should have said." Steph felt her hormones kicking in as Ranger's fingers continued their mesmerizing path around her thigh. "But where you really screwed up? That was telling me to go back to Morelli."

Ranger's hand stilled at her words.

"Did that come out the way you meant it?" Steph asked lowly, placing her hand on top of Ranger's, her fingers taking up Ranger's stilled pattern.

Just then, Tia came back into the room, phone in her hand. "Tank is on the phone, Ranger. He has some bad news."

Ranger was up in an instant. He took the phone from Tia with a thanks. "What went wrong?"

"Is he alright?" Ranger listened intently to the answer. "Yeah, we'll be over in twenty." He hung up and turned to Steph. "Bobby was shot about a half-hour ago. Nothing too serious, but he's going to be at the hospital over night. We'll stop by on our way home."

Tia shook her head. "What happened?" she asked before Stephanie could.

"Hazards of the job. Just a skip that was a good shot." Ranger reached for his cell phone, clipped to his belt, and turned it on. Stephanie hadn't noticed his cell phone was off the entire time they had been here, but that explained why Tank had called Tia's instead of Ranger directly.

Steph raised her eyebrows at Ranger, but the look on his face told her that he wouldn't say any more in front of Tia. "But he's okay?" Steph double-checked.

"Yeah, just uncomfortable." Ranger paused a minute. "He got shot in the ass."

Steph laughed out loud. "Did he get shot in the ass, or catch a richochet?"

"Ricochet." Ranger leaned down to hug Tia. "We need to go, but we'll be back soon, Tia."

Lester re-entered the room. "Where are we going?" he questioned.

Tia reached for Lester. "Bobby got shot in the ass, and you need to go to the hospital to laugh at him." She released Lester. "Let me pack you left-overs before you go. Stephanie, come help me."

Caught by surprise, Steph meekly followed Tia out into the kitchen and stood at a loss as Tia began expertly extracting containers from cabinets and filling them. "Don't worry, dear. I don't really need help. I just wanted to talk to you alone."

Uh-oh, thought Steph. But Tia's ESP kicked in. "It's nothing bad. I just wanted to tell you how glad I am that I got to finally meet you, and that I hope you will work this out with Ranger. But if you don't, I have more than one nephew."

Steph was caught again. "Huh?" she questioned.

Tia stacked the containers into a brown paper bag and handed the bag to Stephanie. "Lester's quite the catch, too. You don't happen to have any unmarried sisters, do you?"

Steph reminded herself to breathe. She wasn't used to the mothers of her boyfriends actually liking her- she didn't remember ANY that had- and she certainly wasn't used to them throwing other sons at her if it didn't work out with the first one. "Uh, my sister is married. With three kids."

Tia shrugged. "Oh, well." She gave Stephanie a hearty hug. "A mother can always hope."

Ranger loomed in the partially opened doorway. "Steph? Tia? Are we ready?"

Tia patted Steph's hand. "Yes, Ranger. Please tell Bobby I hope that he feels better soon." A smile crossed her face. "And to be careful when he sits."

Ranger chuckled, while Steph's jaw dropped. Tia was an interesting woman.

Chapter Twelve

The ride to the hospital didn't take long. As soon as they were in the truck, and away from Tia's ears, Ranger filled them in on details that Stephanie wasn't sure she really wanted to know. "Bobby was attacked after he was shot. He got hit in the head, and passed out. He's being kept overnight for observation. The gun shot actually was just a graze."

Lester processed the information more quickly than Steph. She was still trying to sort through what Ranger said when Lester asked, "Who's been up for parole?"

"Tank's already on it, but he's come up empty so far." Ranger pulled into the hospital garage and parked. Both he and Lester were out as soon as Ranger cut the engine; Steph was still a bit confused and took a minute longer. She still didn't understand what exactly had happened to Bobby.

"What are you guys talking about? Why was Bobby attacked?" she asked.

Ranger caught her arm and guided her towards the stairs, Lester following. "The attack wasn't related to the job he was on; no one was at the property he was watching at the time he was attacked. Whoever shot at him didn't want to kill him; they hit him when they came to check out the car. If they wanted him dead, he'd be dead."

Steph struggled a bit to keep up with the guys' longer legs on the stairs. "And?"

"Someone either wanted him hurt or thought he was someone else." Lester held the stairs' door open for Steph and Ranger, then followed them through. "We make a few enemies, doing what we do, so Tank went looking to see if anyone got out recently that might have that kind of grudge."

Her heart raced a bit. "I thought working for you was supposed to reduce the number of psychos after me, not increase it!"

"Babe, it's just supposed to make you safer. You attract the psychos completely on your own." The corner of Ranger's mouth was up, showing his amusement at Steph's reaction. "And this very rarely happens. Never before on this scale. Right now, we'll just talk to Bobby and see if we can turn anything up."

Conversation stopped as they approached the gift shop, which attracted Steph's attention. Her steps slowed, as she considered stopping to get Bobby a "Get Well" card. Lester realized she'd fallen behind first, when she didn't step into the elevator with him and Ranger. Holding the door and looking out, he saw where she was and smiled. A word to Ranger, and he stepped out to go back and meet her. He left Ranger head up to Bobby's room.

"Bombshell, what are you doing?" he asked her laughingly, as she ducked into the store and headed towards the cards.

"I'm getting Bobby a card." She looked at Lester. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for you. You don't know the room number." Lester leaned against a refrigerated case holding flower arrangements.

Steph nodded. "True."

"Plus, Ranger wants to talk to Bobby about what happened. I wanted to talk to you about Tia and dinner." He made a face at her cringe. "It's hard to have two conversations going on at once."

Steph nodded, evasive. Lester had been happy about dinner with Tia. What was the problem now?

He was nervous. "You're not upset that I told Tia about our plan?"

A little panic swirled in Steph's stomach. "You didn't go into full details, did you? She seems to like me, and I'd like to keep it that way."

Lester shook his head and pushed off the case, wrapping a large arm around her shoulders. "She's practically our mother. I'm not telling her where I spend my nights." He paused. "Or where you choose to spend yours. She's pretty cool, but-" he shrugged.

Steph let out a breath noisily, thankful. "Good." Grabbing a card after a brief inspection, Steph made her way to the cashier, Lester in tow. The transaction took long enough for Steph to borrow a pen to sign the card, and then the two of them were in the elevator up to Bobby's room. Thinking back to all she had learned tonight, a little light bulb went off in Steph's head. She reached out and smacked Lester lightly on the arm. "Hey!"

Looking questioningly at her, Lester caught the hand she had smacked him with and enveloped it into his. "What?"

"You told me that you grew up in a small town, country boy."

Lester nodded in agreement. "I did. I didn't move from that town until I was a senior in high school."

"So why are you so close to Tia, then? It sounds like she practically raised you and Ranger." Steph was trying to figure out the family ties more clearly.

She felt Lester's thumb slowly stroke over the palm of the hand he had imprisoned. "My parents got a divorce when I was thirteen, and my mom remarried almost immediately. I didn't like my step-father, and he didn't like me much. But my dad was shipped all over the place pretty frequently. So I spent a lot of time visiting at Tia's- Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all summer. When my mom decided to move to Miami, I decided stayed with Tia to finish out high school here."

Steph felt badly, now, practically accusing Lester of lying to her about where he grew up. "Oh. That sounds like a difficult situation."

Lester pulled her in for a quick hug and a brush of a kiss across her forehead. "It wasn't easy, but it was a long time ago, and I like the way my life turned out."

Steph gave him a supportive hug back. "Yeah, you turned out okay. A bit of a smart ass, but-"

"There are better things you can say about my ass," Lester slid her hand into his back jeans pocket, and walked into Bobby's room with his arm around her.

Ranger's brow furrowed when he saw the two of them walk in like that, but Bobby was mid-sentence and Ranger didn't interrupt him. "-I swear, I didn't see anyone around, just felt the shot. Then, almost immediately, the door was yanked open and something hit me in the head. Then I don't remember anything."

Bobby noticed the two of them and smiled at Steph. The look on Ranger's face hadn't escaped Bobby's notice. "Bombshell!"

"How are you, Bobby?" Steph asked, freeing herself from Lester and making her way to the side of Bobby's bed, where she bent and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Are you trying to get out of our date?"

Laughing, Bobby shook his head- only to immediately regret it. "Hell, no. Looks like some of your luck rubbed off on me."

She glared at him. "I wasn't even there. This one cannot be blamed on me." She handed him the card. "This is for you."

Bobby looked genuinely pleased. "Thanks, Steph," he said after reading it. "But seriously, I'm sorry that we won't be able to go out tomorrow."

"You just got hit on the head and shot in the ass. Barely need a Band-Aid," she grinned at him. "I've had worse. You aren't getting out of it."

Bobby's eyes widened a bit, as Ranger, listening to the conversation, narrowed his. "I don't think he's up for a date, Babe."

Steph turned to look at him. "Bobby can decide that tomorrow. We'll just change our plans if he's not feeling 100."

Ranger shook his head. "For now, I want someone here with Bobby until he can leave. Lester?"

"Sure, cuz." He made his way to a bedside chair and got comfortable.

Ranger took Steph by the arm. "I'll take you home."

Steph considered staying, but only briefly. Ranger didn't seem in the mood to tolerate argument right now. "Bye, guys. Feel better, Bobby!" she called out over her shoulder as they passed through the doorway.

The walk to the truck was silent. Ranger slid into his zone as he pulled out into traffic, and Stephanie was left with her own thoughts. Again. So she began reviewing the night's events, and the things she'd learned about Ranger. He really had a lot more to him than the mercenary she knew. Not surprisingly, when she considered it, was that she found that she really wanted to know more. A lot more.

There was one thing she really wanted to know, but hadn't had the balls to ask Tia earlier. It seemed too rude to just ask, and she hadn't been able to think of a tactful way to put it. But her curiosity was beginning to kill her. She decided to be brave.

The sound of Steph clearing her throat broke Ranger's concentration. He looked at her in the rear view mirror. "Problem, Babe?" he asked.

"Not a problem. Just a question."

Ranger exhaled in an almost-sigh. "Yes?"

"You and Lester seem very close to Tia." Steph considered her words. She was sure, no matter how hard she tried, she'd bungle this, but it was important to her to ask. "She acts like she's your mom. How close are you?"

Ranger thought about his answer a bit longer. His voice was careful, not tense but definitely controlled. "My father died when I was ten, and my mother got sick not long after. She died about three years later, of colon cancer. Tia had helped take care of my mother and me, and I moved in with her after my mother passed away. " He pulled the truck into the underground garage and slid into one of his reserved slots. He left it idle.

Wow. Steph mentally dropped her jaw. Tia was probably the person Ranger was closest to in the world. Suddenly, she felt honored to have been asked to Tia's, and Ranger's acquiescence to a visit he had obviously been uncomfortable with made more sense. Steph was pretty sure that Ranger did whatever Tia asked him to do- even if that meant he spent a very uncomfortable night being talked about as if he wasn't there in the room. "She sounds like a pretty great woman," was the best response Steph could come up with right now.

Ranger killed the truck's engine and spoke softly. "She is. I'm glad you met her." He opened the door and gave her a very subdued half-smile. "I just wish she hadn't told you about the clowns."

Chapter Thirteen

Ranger left Steph off at the fourth floor, and she made her way to her apartment. She felt bad that Bobby had been shot, but there wasn't much she could do to help him there. If he needed protection, Lester was definitely a better choice than her. Ranger and Tank were busy trying to figure out what had happened. She felt like, as a member of the team, she should be doing something to help as well, but Ranger hadn't given her any directions. This kind of investigation- into past cases of RangeMan, Inc.- wasn't one where she would be an asset, she knew. The Merry Men had worked together much longer and knew the previous cases; she didn't.

But wasn't there something she could do?

At a loss, Steph decided to take the opportunity of a mostly free night to catch up with her family. A half-hour later, she regretted the thought. Valerie had complained endlessly about her life, with a wailing baby and horsey sounds in the background. Her mother had lectured her about living with her boss- her mother saw living in the same building as living with the man- as well as all those other men. Grandma Mazur had quizzed her about the packages of the men she worked with. Her father had simply asked how she was and told her he loved her before the phone was ripped out of his hand by her mother, ready to lecture again. She managed to get off the phone by promising to be at dinner this Saturday with one of her co-workers for them to meet.

The catch-up call to Mary Lou was much easier. "Hey, Mare!"

"Well, look who finally decided to get in touch." There was a touch of huff in her voice, which quickly disappeared at Stephanie's next comment.

"Sorry. I've been busy- had a couple hot dates this week." She paused as it sunk in, at which point Mary Lou screamed so loudly that Steph had to hold the phone away from her ear.

"It's Ranger, isn't it? Did he finally smarten up and sweep you off your feet? Did you sleep with him? Tell me you slept with him! That's one fine piece of man-"

She cut Mary Lou off. "No. It's not Ranger."

The silence was deafening. "Not Ranger?"

"No." She waited again.

"THEN WHO!" Mare screeched. "Don't keep me hanging, here!"

"Lester and Tank."

"TWO guys? Damn, Stephanie. Where'd you go? What'd you do?" Mary Lou's voice went up an octave, then dropped to a whisper. "OM MY GOD! You didn't sleep with both of them, did you?"

A smile plastered itself over her face as she thought about her 'dates.' "Not exactly."

The conversation was juicy from there on out. The plan for making Ranger jealous elicited a gasp, especially the no-strings-attached sex. Mary Lou also agreed with Lester and Tank's assessment of her previous relationships, and said so, but was much more interested in the details of the dates. Steph skirted some of the more intimate details, but included Lester's 'behavior modification' plan and the phone mix up at Tank's.

"So what about the third guy, Bobby? When are you going out with him?"

"We were supposed to go out tomorrow, but he got shot and he's in the hospital." Steph explained.

"And when is this date with Ranger?"

"Still not settled. Unless he counts dinner tonight with his Aunt as our date." Steph decided she didn't want to say anything about Alec. "She's heard a lot about me and decided she wanted to meet me."

"I don't think that Ranger is the type to count a family dinner as a date. He's more a-"

"Don't say it, Mary Lou. You might be surprised. I found out a lot about him from his Aunt, and he hasn't always the big bad-ass he looks like." Steph considered, then decided to share a tid-bit. "She showed me a picture of him back in high school- oh my god, he was hot even then. Black biker jacket, long, LONG, hair. I think I drooled."

"You always did have a thing for the long-haired bad boys, Steph." There was some yelling in the background, and Mary Lou yelled back. She interrupted herself. "Listen, Steph, one of the boys just tried to flush the cat down the toilet. I gotta go."

Steph hung up, glad once again that she was only mother to a hamster. Connie wasn't home, and Lula said she would call Steph back tomorrow. She had a date over. Once again, Steph had nothing to do. She decided to wander up to the offices, in the hope that Ranger or Tank could find something for her to do to keep busy.

She found Ranger hunched over his desk, sorting through some paper files with a very frustrated look on his face. Tank was no where to be found. Pausing in the doorway, she observed Ranger closely. The intense look on his face was incredibly sexy. "Find anything, Ranger?"

Ranger looked up at her. "No. And it's pissing me off."

Steph came up behind him and leaned over to look at the folders. They were several years old. "Are you sure this was a premeditated attack?"

"Nothing stolen. Could have killed him, easily, but didn't. The skip he was watching for was not a dangerous guy- it was a high bond case, but purely non-violent white collar crime."

"Maybe it was random?" she asked, leaning against the side of the desk to face Ranger directly.

"That's the conclusion I keep coming up with. But it still doesn't feel right." Ranger pushed his chair back from the desk and stood, moving closer to her. "Changing the subject, I still need to schedule a date with you."

Steph felt a tingle in her lower body that she tried like hell to ignore. "You never got back to me."

Running a finger along her hairline, "Sorry, Babe. The day got a little busy, then Tia called…" His voice trailed off as the finger continued its path, following around her ear, making her shiver. His eyes darkened. He leaned in for a hungry kiss.

The kiss stole her breath, and she leaned into it, the sensation of Ranger overpowering. His hands grasped her head, tangling in her hair, as he deepened the kiss. She felt her body responding with a will of its own. She briefly considered scrapping the whole stupid plan, just to get a night of Ranger orgasms, when his hands began exploring her body and she lost the ability to think again.

Ranger pulled away first, a little breathless. "Can we just skip the date and go upstairs?"

Her heart skipped a beat at his words and then her brain kicked in. What are you doing? She chided herself. She brought her hands up and pressed against his chest to give herself some room. Looking him directly in the eye, she shook her head. "No, Ranger. I don't think that's a good idea."

A look of surprise and disappointment crossed Ranger's face momentarily before the blank face fell back into place. "How about Saturday, late afternoon?"

"Where will we be going?" Steph asked.

"What do you want to do?" Ranger asked her back.

Steph shook her head. "That's up to you." She was going to make him work for this a bit, she decided. "You asked me." Then she remembered. "But Saturday won't work. I forgot, I'm going to my parents' for dinner."

Ranger pushed back against her hands, reducing the space, brushing light kisses across her neck. "You could call and reschedule that."

"No," Steph stated emphatically.

"Sure you can," Ranger whispered as he met her mouth again for another searing kiss. "I'll make it worth your while." He trailed kisses down to the base of her throat. She almost forgot why she wasn't agreeing with him, but then a thought crossed her mind. It brought with it a clarifying flood of anger.

This date was just about getting her into bed? Now, she was pissed. Her body stiffened, and she took several steps away from Ranger. Ignoring her hormones, she took a deep breath and couldn't believe that she was going to do this. "I'm beginning to think that this whole dating the boss thing isn't a good idea, Ranger. Maybe another time."

"What?" he asked.

The disbelief in his voice, under other circumstances, would have been priceless. "You'll make it worth my while? What do you mean by that? Because the way you are acting right now, I don't like the way it sounds."

Her anger made her harsher than she meant to be, but the realization that Ranger's no-relationship relationship rule still held hurt. Ranger still wanted the sex without the relationship. It sounded like he thought a date was the price for a night with her. It made her feel cheap. "A date is not irrelevant. You could put some thought into it. Make it seem like it matters to you. But if it's just a way to get me into your bed, don't waste the energy. Just ask if I'll fuck you."

Ranger closed the space between them, pinning her against the door frame. "Are you telling me that you don't want to fuck me?" His voice was low and dangerous.

Tears came, unbidden, to Stephanie's eyes. She refused to cry in front of Ranger. "No, I don't." Her voice rough, she put all her strength into a shove to move him. It worked. She gave him one last look before walking away very quickly. Then she made her way to the elevator, deciding that she needed to be out of here before Ranger came to finish this conversation.

Chapter Fourteen

Once in the garage, still mindful of the cameras, Steph silently cried. The tears streamed down her face, but she didn't let them deter her from finding her SUV and climbing in. Throwing it into gear, she sped out the garage and into the night. Unconsciously, she had taken the route back to the hospital. Knowing both Bobby and Lester were there, she decided to stop, visiting hours be damned.

She must have seemed upset or forbidding, because not a single person so much as looked at her sternly on her way to Bobby's room. She saw the light still on, and knocked gently before entering. Lester's hand was on his gun, and both men looked to the door. "It's just me."

Lester raised an eyebrow, moving his hand away from his gun. "I thought you would be home, or at Ranger's." The kidding twinkle was in his eye, but the humor fell flat. She was still upset, and tears involuntarily welled up again. She bit her lip, and both Lester and Bobby caught the emotion. Lester came over to her and wiped a tear away with his thumb before pulling her into a friendly hug.

Bobby sat up a little straighter in his hospital bed. "What's bothering you, Bombshell?"

"Ranger is an ass." She sniffled, bringing herself under control.

"And that was a news flash?" Bobby asked.

"Just driven home again tonight." Steph made her way to the chair next to Bobby's chair.

Lester sat on a straight-back chair next to her and took her hand. "What did he do now?"

Steph shrugged. "When I got home, Ranger sent me to my apartment. I got bored. I went up to the office to see if there was anything I could do to help. I thought Tank would still be there-"

"He's here. He went to the cafeteria to get coffee." Lester interjected.

"Oh." Steph thought about it for a minute. What was Tank doing here, too? Then she continued. "I found Ranger, and I was talking to him about Bobby, when he suddenly changed the subject to our as-yet-unscheduled date and got entirely too friendly."

Lester's eyes darkened. "How friendly?"

Shaking her head, Steph headed off the thought she knew was going around in Lester and Bobby's heads. "Nothing like your thinking. Ranger would never do that. He just got- kinda touchy feel-ly and close. And he asked about the date, but didn't have a time or place or anything in mind. He suggested a time that I already have plans, and didn't seem to care much about the date at all. He suggested that we could just skip the date and go upstairs."

Bobby looked blank, and Lester didn't seem sure what she was saying. "I told him no. He just wanted sex, guys. If he needed to take me out on a date to get it, he was willing to. But he would much rather skip the date altogether."

Still clueless stares. "I told him that he should save himself the energy of planning a date that didn't matter to him and just ask me to fuck him if that's what he wanted. I was yelling that part."

The stares were less clueless, but dark. "Why were you fighting him about a date- which is what you wanted?" Bobby shook his head, confused.

The tears were welling again. "I don't want a god damned date, I want a relationship. And just because you take me on a date doesn't mean you are going to get laid. A date just for sex makes it worse. It makes me feel like a whore." Understanding began to flicker in those eyes.

"What did Ranger say?" Lester asked.

"He pinned me to a wall and told me to tell him that I didn't want to fuck him." Steph leaned her head back. "I lied and said no. He had me so worked up, that bastard. Then I left, and came here."

Bobby shook his head, while Lester cracked his knuckles. "You two do understand why I am upset, right?"

Lester nodded. "Yeah, I think so. But I think you might have over reacted. I wasn't there, though, so I can't know."

"Over reacted?" She fired at him.

Les wisely allowed it to go uncommented on. "Maybe he's just getting frustrated. You have been pretty busy lately."

Steph just shook her head and held her tongue. These men were her friends, but they weren't women. They just didn't understand. "I just needed to get out for while. I didn't want Ranger to come looking for me to 'talk' some more." She drew her legs up under her and looked at Bobby. "So how are you feeling?"

Bobby smiled. "Okay. Better now that you're here."

"You're sweet." She smiled back. "How bad is it, really?"

"Just a little headache and butt-ache." Bobby smiled wider. "You could kiss it better."

Steph laughed. "Yeah, you're feeling fine."

They talked a bit more, Lester telling Bobby about dinner and Tia's stories. They were laughing when Tank came through the door carrying styrofoam coffee cups. He was surprised by Steph's presence, but didn't ask any questions after one good look at her. He tried to give her his coffee, saying he would go for more, but she wouldn't let him. "I don't want any caffeine. I don't need to lay awake tonight and keep thinking about this shitty day."

Given the limited number of chairs in the room, Steph decided to sit on the side of Bobby's bed so that Tank could have a spot. Bobby immediately snaked his arm around her and pulled her back against him. It felt awkward, but she tried to relax. She let the three men carry the conversation, picking up bits and pieces of it through the mess of her own thoughts.

Had she really over reacted? She examined the scene again, and didn't think so. She hoped that the whole incident could be forgotten, one more embarrassment to put behind her. She needed to work on moving past these feelings for Ranger, as it was becoming more and more obvious that the feelings weren't reciprocated. She had decided that, after the date with Bobby, the plan was over. She wasn't going to stand him up. She knew now, if her hormones got out of control, she had options.

As for her heart… She must have dozed off, because the next thing she remembered was Bobby shaking her and whispering in her ear. "Stephanie, time to get up."

"What's going on?" she mumbled, as her senses slowly returned.

Tank took her hand and pulled her to stand up. "Time to go home, Bomber. I'll drive your SUV, and we'll leave the Bronco here for Les and Bobby to come home in."

"What time is it?" she asked, more aware. She wanted to know how long she had been gone from RangeMan headquarters.

Lester caught on. "It's late enough, Steph."

Tank raised an eyebrow at Lester's comment, but kept his thoughts to himself. Good-byes said- and good-bye hugs given to Stephanie all around- she and Tank made their way to her car. Tank held his hand out for the keys, and as tired as she was, she gave them up without a fight. Tank hit the automatic lock, and they climbed in at the same time. Turning over the ignition, he pulled out onto the road. He spared a quick glance in the rearview mirror before turning his attention to her. "So what happened tonight?"

Steph tried to play dumb. "I had dinner with Lester, Ranger, and Tia."

"Cute. Why were you back at the hospital?"

Steph wanted nothing more than to avoid the topic, but she knew that Tank would be persistent. So she just told him. He was clenching his jaw long before she was done. She included Bobby and Lester's reactions. "No, Bombshell," Tank spat out as soon as she finished. "You didn't over react."

Relief flooded Steph that someone else agreed that she hadn't over reacted. "He turns me inside out and upside down, sometimes. I really wanted to just sleep with him- but I knew I would regret it in the morning. I'm still amazed that I had the strength to say no."

"Love makes you stronger, Steph." The conversation had brought them back to the RangeMan building. Tank pulled into the lot, parked, and turned to her. "It's not always an easy road, but the end result is well worth the rough travel."

The tears welled up again. "I still don't believe that it will ever end well. Tonight just proved it to me. The plan is off, Tank. Ranger IS jealous- but for the wrong reasons. He just wants to reserve his time in my bed." Steph sniffled and wiped at her eyes.

Tank pulled her into an embrace, carrying her over the center console to reach her comfortably. Steph relaxed into the bear hug, comfortable and feeling safe. "I still beg to differ with you, Steph. I know somewhere deep down, he loves you. He just may not be ready to admit it. I hope he'll realize it before it's too late. I don't like seeing you in pain like this. I feel like some of this is our fault, because we proposed this plan."

"No, Tank! You guys are not to blame at all. It seemed like a good plan at first to me, too." Steph sighed against him. "But not all great plans work out."

"True," Tank agreed. "Even if the plan is off, can we still go out for a night every once in a while? You're a fun date, Steph."

She considered the idea. She had enjoyed her time with Tank, too. "Sure."

Tank kissed her cheek. "Thanks."

Steph stayed where she was, comfortable. "No problem. Can we stay like this for a while? I fell better like this."

Tank chuckled, the laughter rumbling deeply in his chest and tickling Steph. "Bombshell, as long as you want. But we could sit like this upstairs, on a sofa, where there's beer and TV, too." He looked down at her.

Ranger had made a similar suggestion just a few hours ago, and she had turned him down. She didn't hesitate with Tank, who she knew was a good friend. Squirming herself off of Tank and back onto her own side was a little difficult. She was sure the SUV was rocking by the time she slid out, butt first, into the garage. Tank had an easier time, and he was waiting patiently for her.

Once out, Steph took Tank's offered hand and led him up to her apartment.

Chapter Fifteen

Light filtered through blinds at a different angle than Steph was used to, and her arm and neck were very stiff. She squinted and slowly looked around the room. It was her apartment, but this wasn't her bedroom. She was on her sofa, curled up at an angle. She rolled over, trying to the situation, but hit a large, immovable object.

The last moments of the previous night returned to her memory, and she smiled. Tank was a very good friend. They had come back to her apartment, had a beer each, and fell asleep before the movie had ended. She curled up against him, wrapping her arms around the dark mountain of a man. She felt his breathing change and knew that he was awake. "Wakey, wakey, Tank. Time to get up."

"Already up, Bombshell." He stretched, dislodging her. "What time is it?"

She stumbled towards the kitchen clock, straining to see it through her usual morning mental fog, when a cell phone began ringing. "I guess we're late for work."

She ignored the phone, reaching instead for the coffee and coffeepot. She did NOT want to talk to Ranger right this minute. But then a second cell phone took up the cacophony, and finally the land-line when neither of them answered. Tank stilled her with his hands, and blew out a hard, frustrated breath. "He's going to keep calling."

Steph tried to keep making coffee, but Tank wouldn't let her. "I'll deal with him after I have my coffee. You talk to him."

Tank shook his head. "He called you first. He wants to talk to you. I think you two need to have a conversation."

Uneasy with Tank's tone, Steph stopped what she was doing and faced him. "Why?"

Tank closed his eyes. "You admitted last night that the plan worked. You have Ranger's attention. But he doesn't know what you want from him. You need to tell him."

"I know what he wants from me. He made that clear last night. This plan was never going to work if his feelings weren't there. I just need to move on, now." Steph decided to make her way to the bathroom and a shower. "He can't just push his way into my bed whenever he wants. I don't want that."

"If you don't talk to him, how will you know if that's all that he still wants?" Tank asked her through the bathroom door.

Steph finished what she was doing and opened the door. "I did talk to him, last night, and I told you what he said."

Tank sighed, rubbing his face with his hand. "I mean calmly talk to him. When you both aren't stressing about something. Yesterday wasn't easy on either of you, you know."

"What do you mean?" Steph asked.

"Ranger was a bit busy trying to figure out what happened to Bobby. You were still processing Tia's dinner party." Tank and Steph both jumped a bit at the loud knocking on her door. "Shit."

"You look a little nervous, Tank," Steph commented as she approached the door. "No matter what it looks like, we didn't do anything wrong, remember? We fell asleep. And it's not any of his business anyway."

Tank cracked his neck nervously. "True. That doesn't mean that Ranger isn't going to be pissed, especially after what happened between you two last night."

Steph took a deep breath and opened her door. Ranger stood there, a dark scowl on his face, hand raised for another pounding knock. "Stephanie, you need to answer you phone."

Not how she expected this to start. "Sorry."

Ranger spied Tank looming behind her. His eyes widened for a second, then narrowed dangerously. "You're fucking kidding me."

Tank schooled his features, reminding himself that Ranger was not thinking about what he was saying. "Ranger."

Steph stood expectantly, her arms crossed against her chest. "Excuse me?"

"Is there anyone who works here that you aren't sleeping with?" Ranger's voice was hard, and his words cut.

Steph mentally counted to ten. She was pissed at his tone. "Well, there's you."

The line of Ranger's mouth only hardened. "Your personal life is starting to interfere with work. If I call, take his dick out of your mouth and answer the fucking phone."

That did it. Steph lost her temper, big time. "Again, Mr. Manoso, it's no business of yours who's dick is in my mouth if I'm not on duty. And-" she deliberately looked at the clock- "I don't go on duty for another fifteen minutes."

Ranger clenched his jaw harder, the muscles jumping. "Tank, I need to talk to you. Stephanie, you will be in the gym in exactly fifteen minutes." He turned and stalked down the hall, Tank following after a quick look at Stephanie.

Tank and Ranger stood side by side, not talking, waiting for the elevator. Tank broke the silence first. "That was harsh, man."

Looking at Tank out the corner of his eye, Ranger ground out his question. "Was it accurate?"

Tank thought about his answer. Steph had told him to be honest if Ranger asked. "Not this morning."

Ranger's hands clenched into fists, but he didn't say anything. When the elevator opened, he and Tank stepped in and sent it to the fifth floor. Ranger headed toward the gym when the doors opened. "I still need to talk to you about work, Tank, but now is not a good time."

"I think you need to talk to me before Bombshell shows up." Tank caught Ranger's shoulder in a big, beefy hand. "Things aren't always what they seem, Ric. You know that."

"I think this situation is exactly what it seems." Ranger continued to the gym, changing his destination to the mats when he saw that Tank wasn't leaving. He went to the middle of the mat and turned. Tank fell into position opposite him without a word. Neither man had bothered with any pads or gloves. This was not a training match. Ranger had some anger to work out, and Tank felt the need for a little penance.

Ranger circled Tank slowly. He had always had agility and speed over Tank, being smaller, but what Tank lost in size he made up for in sheer strength. And Ranger wanted to win today. He wanted to inflict some damage. He paced himself, looking for an opening. Tank had left an obvious hole in his defense, and Ranger was considering taking the bait when Tank scored on him from his blind side. "Don't assume things about Stephanie, Ric. That's what started this whole mess."

Ranger stumbled back a step, falling to a knee, but was back up quickly and pressing Tank toward a corner. "What the hell are you talking about?" He kicked up and out, but Tank caught his foot and pushed him back.

"Stephanie is not the type of woman you're used to, and you need to remember that." Tank feigned a high kick to Ranger's chest, dropping to a knee shot at the last minute and catching Ranger unaware. The sheer power behind the kick, even if it hadn't connected cleanly, would have rocked Ranger on his feet. As it was, he fell to the mat and came back at Tank with a leg swipe. "She's more fragile than she looks."

Tank stumbled a little at the swipe, but didn't go down. Ranger rolled full-force into the bigger man's legs, buckling his knees and finally bringing Tank down to the mat with him. When Ranger didn't say anything, Tank continued. "You said and did some things that hurt her, Ric. And she's spent a lot of time turning what could have been little things into huge obstacles that she can't get past. You weren't honest with her, and now she has a very inaccurate impression of what you meant." Tank stood up first, and offered a hand to Ranger. When Ranger took the hand, Tank pulled him into a flip, slamming him into the mat.

Air left Ranger's chest in a rush, and he coughed. "I have no clue what you're talking about, Tank." He rolled over and got up, crouching in a defensive position.

Tank sighed, mirroring Ranger's body. Ranger reached out first, landing a good, solid hit on Tank's middle. Tank barely flinched. There were advantages to being built so big. "You made a deal to sleep with her, Ric. Services for services rendered. You practically called her a whore."

Ranger scored a second hit, and Tank felt that one a bit. "She told you this?"

Tank hit back. "After a few drinks, she told us all. We can't believe you did that to her."

"Is my entire team under her thrall?" Ranger got Tank with a quick, vicious hit on his side, winding the mountain of a man.

Out of breath, Tank struggled to reply. "We all like her, Ric. And we know how you feel about her. But you haven't told her, and she's been miserable."

Ranger's eyes changed, a little curiosity mingled with the hard anger. His voice was still sharp, however. "So you all thought you'd comfort her for me? Keep her warm at night?"

"She's a beautiful woman, Ranger. She's an adult. Did you really think she'd wait around for you forever? And do you really think any man in his right mind would decline an invitation into her bed?"

Ranger scored another breath-stealing hit, and Tank sagged a little. "I thought my friends might."

"Why? You weren't in her bed anymore, and she didn't think she'd have you back." Tank played up the hurt angle, tricking Ric into getting close enough to throw his body full force into him and pin him to the mat. He held Ranger down, finishing what he wanted to say. "At least with me, she knew up-front it was just friendly sex and would never be anything more, and she was okay with it. Her heart was never involved."

Ranger twisted this way and that, but Tank had a firm grip on him. Tank had to loosen it for Ranger to spring back up. "I offered her that. She turned me down."

His patience now gone, Tank peppered his words with heavy kicks and blows at Ranger, driving the smaller man into a corner and pinning him against the wall. "You gave her a lot of mixed signals. She was very confused. And then you called her entertainment? How did you think she'd feel?

Holding Ranger in place, Tank continued. "She loves you, man, and she wants you. But she doesn't want you for just one night, which is all she thinks you want from her. I told her that if that was true, you wouldn't be jealous about her going out with all of us. She was just starting to hope that I was right when you pulled that shit with her last night. You just keep pissing her off with your mouth."

Ranger stopped trying to defend himself somewhere around "she loves you" and "one night is all she thinks you want." His mind was trying to wrap itself around the statement. "She wants more?" he asked Tank, shocked.

Chapter Sixteen

Tank looked at Ranger. The shock seemed genuine, but Ric wasn't stupid. How could he not have known? "You act surprised."

"Christ, Tank! What more can I give?" Ranger ran his hands through his hair, pulling it loose from its leather tie back. "Every time she called, I went to her. Whatever she needed help with, I helped. How many of my cars did she destroy? How many of my men did she send to the hospital? How many times did I protect her when she was in danger, even when she didn't want it? How many times did I grin and bear it when she went back to the cop?" Ranger dropped his voice. "I've killed for the woman, Tank. Without hesitation. How can she question my feelings?"

"Actions can be interpreted many different ways." Tank watched Ranger's eyes, seeing the emotion and pain in them. "Some people need the motivations explained- to hear the words, Ranger, and know that you mean those words."

Ranger merely looked more frustrated, so Tank decided to try a slightly different angle. "How many conversations have you had with her that did not involve work? Or gone somewhere with her that wasn't job-related? How many times have you let her know that you were just a man, instead of fuckin' Batman?" Tank jabbed his finger sharply into Ranger's chest. "She was amazed after dinner at Tia's. There was so much she didn't know about you, because all you ever presented to her was the mercenary street thug. Face it, Ric, she's too good for that. And you knew it all along. You played a role to keep her distant. It worked better than you thought."

Tank laughed grimly. "Then you fucked her and sent her back to Morelli, but continued to pressure her. Your actions and words contradicted themselves. Can you blame her for thinking you don't really want her?"

Ranger slumped his shoulders. He replayed in his mind, like a movie reel, the scene with Stephanie after their night together. He hadn't meant to hurt her, honestly. He did what he thought was best for her. He wasn't the kind of man to give her the life she deserved. "I said what I did to protect her."

"You said what you did to protect yourself." Disgust dripped from Tank's voice. "You didn't want to get hurt. You didn't want to have to swallow that pride of yours if she decided to go back to Morelli again. So you hurt her first. But you weren't man enough to stay away from her."

Ranger couldn't deny the truth in Tank's words. He had come to that same conclusion himself not long ago, and he wasn't proud of himself. "I can't help myself, Tank. And I'm afraid I've lost her."

"So do something about it, Ric. You haven't lost her yet, but you're damn close." Tank stared Ranger down.

Ranger looked dejected. Tank shook his head, half in disgust and half in sympathy. Steph was starting to grow on him, and if Ranger moved out of the picture permanently, Tank would seriously considering moving into it. But only after these two really settled things and made some decisions. "Talk to her, Ric. And be real nice about it." Tank turned to leave. "If she'll still talk to you after this morning."

Tank made it as far as the door when he found Stephanie suddenly blocking his way. He looked her straight in the eye, brushed a kiss on her cheek, and pushed his way past her and into the hall. Her eyes got big, and as she looked around for Ranger, she wondered what the hell happened between the two men to cause Tank's kiss in the middle of the gym.

At least Tank was still alive and whole. She had had some doubts about the possibility of that when he and Ranger had walked out this morning.

Ranger was leaning against a back wall, behind a floor mat. Steph approached him cautiously, her anger simmering but not boiling over. The boil point was hard to sustain for very long, and once Ranger and Tank had left earlier, her nerves had gotten the better of her. Righteous anger or not- a third world country could be her next destination, if Ranger got pissed enough at her. Or unemployment, sexual harrassment laws be damned. She watched him watch her approach. He wore his professional blank face, showing no emotion. She paused at the edge of the mat, waiting for Ranger to speak.

He pushed off the wall, languidly, like a cat rising from a nap. He paused at the middle of the mat. "Let's see how rusty you are."

"Excuse me?" Steph asked, Burg indignation radiating. "Just what are you implying?"

"The guys and I trained for years to make our hand-to-hand skills instinct. You trained for six months, and haven't really had to use what you learned. I want to see what you've lost." He stood loosely, waiting for Steph to join him on the mats.

Her anger was building again. Trust Ranger to know how to push her buttons. She had been practicing, at least once or twice a week with one of the guys. She knew she could take care of herself. Obviously, Ranger needed to be reminded. But she didn't want to have to tussle with Ranger himself; she was afraid she might forget it was practice and really beat the crap out of him.

Or he might forget.

So she delayed meeting him on the mat. She tensed up, unsure what to expect at ignoring his request. Still, she was surprised when he launched himself in a flying tackle at her. Not so surprised that she didn't fight back, though.

As soon as it became apparent that Ranger was attacking her, Steph had a moment of shock and then let her recent months of training kick in. She used Ranger's momentum against him, choosing the moment just as he closed his arms on her to drop herself down as small as possible and throw herself into a backward roll. Her motion brought Ranger over her head, flat on his back, and her leaning down on his chest with her whole body weight. "What the fuck was that?" she asked, when the shock- at Ranger attacking her and her fighting him off successfully- wore off. She pushed herself up none too gently.

"Just checking your reflexes," came Ranger's groaning answer. Steph just stared at him, lying there. He had gone over the edge, she decided. She figured she was still safe, as long as there were other RangeMan employees in the gym.

Ranger slowly sat up, easing himself off the ground. "We traced fingerprints on the SUV was Bobby shot in to an associate of my cousin's." Ranger stood and turned to face her. "It is also the same one you and Lester took to Pino's for your date. And it's the company vehicle that you normally use."

Steph processed for a minute, suddenly a little less pissed at Ranger's physical greeting. "So I guess your cousin sent someone looking for me?"

"Seems like." Ranger crossed his arms. "That's why you are confined to the Rangeman building until further notice."

The hackles went back up. So this was what it was all about. "This is not the Army, Ranger. Your orders have limits here. We've been over this. When I am not at work, you cannot tell me what to do. It's none of your business. If I want to go fuck the entire Rangers hockey team in the middle of Giovanicci's parking lot, I can, and you have no say in it." Her volume was slowing building, and two or three of the men in the gym looked over their shoulders at them. Once they saw whom she was talking with, all the men quickly turned back to their activities.

"This isn't about your love life, Babe." Ranger's voice was even and calm, absolutely no emotion in it. "This is about keeping you alive and unhurt. Alec wants you, and I don't want him to catch you. He doesn't play nice games with the women he takes." His eyes bore into hers. "I know this for a fact, personally. This isn't an idle threat- he means business."

Steph considered his words. Alec wasn't as scary as a whole gang determined to rape and kill her, but something about even Lester not wanting her involved in the takedown made her pause. Lester, whenever he got back, could fill her in on the details Ranger was leaving out. If he didn't want to cooperate, she was sure she could 'convince' him; she knew his weakness. She just wasn't sure she really wanted to know the details.

Besides, Bobby wasn't really up to going out tonight, anyway. They could just spend their 'date' hanging out in one of their apartments. And she did have some paperwork to catch up on. She could handle it for a day; that should give Ranger time to gather more info and come up with a different plan. "I'll give you twenty-four hours. Then we'll see. I'm not living under house arrest again just for a lone loon. I wouldn't do it when Morelli wanted me to, and I certainly won't do it for you."

Ranger's jaw tightened, and she could tell he didn't like her words. "Fine. Twenty-four hours. If it goes on longer then that, you will at least stay in this building for your shifts. You're in the control room until further notice, and when you're not there, you are to train in hand-to-hand with Lester, Tank, or Bobby."

"I just countered your attack!" Steph asked, angrier at the implications about her skills than being confined in the god-awful, boring control room for hours.

"Yes, you did. But you need to learn more, and practice it, in case Alec does get his hands on you." Ranger pulled her face up with his fingers on her chin. "No matter what you think about my reasons, I only have your best interests at heart."

Steph wasn't sure how to take that last comment. It seemed to refer to more than just the Alec situation, but she didn't want to ask, afraid of embarrassing herself. Then she realized that Ranger had just handed her over to the three men he had been incredibly pissed that she was dating/sleeping with (he had at least assumed so) not a half-hour ago.

Ranger let this sink in for a minute. "Conference room, 10:30. Lester and Bobby will be back by then." Then he turned and left her.

Chapter Seventeen

Steph had completed her workout, showered, dressed, and was waiting in the conference room by 10:25. She was anxious to hear what the other men thought of this situation. With any luck, they wouldn't side with Ranger about her being restricted to the offices. Lester and Bobby were en route from the hospital; Tank had been off the radar, not answering his cell or his door. So she still didn't know exactly what had happened this morning. As if on cue, Tank loomed in the doorway. He smiled at her crookedly. "I see you survived your meeting with the boss."

Steph frowned at him. "Did you know he was planning on a hand-to-hand pop quiz?"

"No." Tank looked concerned. "What exactly happened?"

"Didn't he tell you about the fingerprints?" Steph crossed her arms.

Again, Tank was clueless. "What fingerprints?"

"Just what did you two talk about?" Steph demanded.

Tank came over to her and leaned down for a peck on the cheek. "Most of it will stay between him and me. You don't need to know what was said. You know what set the conversation off, so you can imagine." Tank moved into the leather swivel seat next to her and settled back. "He did ask me, directly, if we had slept together."

Steph banged her head down on the table.

"You told me not to lie if he asked me." Tank watched her, waiting to see just how upset she was.

Sitting up, Steph shrugged. "Yeah, I did. I was just hoping he wouldn't ask."

Smiling broadly, Tank gave her a slight shake of his head. "You didn't think he'd care."

"I acknowledge that he seems to care, but not for the same reasons that you think he does," Steph stated. "How badly did he react?"

Tank chuckled. "Neither of us has a one-way ticket to a third world country."

"That's so not funny," Steph said in exasperation. They were interrupted by the arrival of Lester and Bobby, who did indeed have a donut pillow with him. Lester and Bobby both stopped to give her a hug before taking the flanking chairs on either side of her and Tank. Bobby maneuvered himself next to Steph, while Lester was almost opposite her.

She immediately turned to Bobby and gave him a smile. "How are you feeling today?"

He returned her smile, shifting a little in his chair. "Fine. Don't even need the pain meds."

"Just a donut?" Tank laughed at Bobby, who frowned.

"Hey, Tank, don't make too much fun of him!" Stephanie protested. "He got that ass wound on account of me!"

All the men immediately looked puzzled. Ranger's voice echoed from the doorway. "Starting without me, Steph?" He made his way in and took the chair at the head of the table, a manila folder in his hand. Opening it, he passed around copies of a mug shot. "This is the shooter- Ian McKinnen. His fingerprints were found on the SUV. He is a known associate of Alec's. The SUV that you used last night. Bobby, was the same one that Lester and Steph used the night we brought Alec in. It's also the one that Steph has been using a lot lately."

Tank spoke first. "The plan, boss?"

"Usual drill to try and find the guy before he makes a second attempt. I doubt he's going to go away easily." Ranger shrugged. "Hopefully, this guy is the only one of Alex's friends going after Steph."

None of the men wanted to discuss the possibility of a second stalker.

"Stephanie is on control room duty indefinitely right now," Lester almost groaned out loud until Ranger said, "with Bobby," who looked less than enthusiastic. "Four hour shifts, plus serious hand-to-hand training, two of you at a time."

Tank raised an eyebrow. "Weapons?"

"As much as possible, but concentrate on serious hand to hand. It's more likely she'll need that." Ranger rose from the table. "Cal and I will start looking for him, and Lester and Bobby will get some rest. Tank and Steph- start some training. Any questions?"

When no one spoke up, Ranger nodded. "Dismissed." As Steph headed for the door, Ranger asked, "Can I talk to you, Stephanie?"

Unsure what Ranger wanted, but positive she wouldn't like it, Steph nodded and sat back down. Tank paused a moment on his way out, giving Steph a questioning look. "Meet you in the gym, Steph," he said as he left.

Once the other men had left, Ranger closed the conference room door and sat down next to Steph. He didn't speak immediately, and she waited him out. His voice was hesitant when he finally said something. "Stephanie, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier. I was incredibly rude and disrespectful. I'm sorry."

Stunned didn't begin to describe Stephanie's reaction. Ranger usually never did much wrong to begin with, much less apologize for anything. She couldn't recall any other incidence of apology. He was waiting for her reaction, and she couldn't make her mouth work to respond. Her silence seemed to make him uneasy, and the usually silent Ranger began to ramble.

"You're right that what you do on your own time is not my concern. I simply overreacted this morning to finding you with Tank. After you ran away from me last night…well, I never thought you'd run to someone else, much less Tank. And it was a shock when I saw him there. I was just angry, and my pride was hurt." Ranger actually couldn't look her in the eyes. "No woman has ever turned me down so- forcefully."

The gears of Steph's mind began turning. She was surprised that ANY woman had ever turned Ranger down. And Ranger was apologizing in the hopes that she'd sooth his ego? Or was he really sorry? "I didn't run to Tank. What you found this morning wasn't what you thought it was. Tank brought me home from the hospital last night, after I went back to see Bobby and Lester. We had some beer and fell asleep on my sofa."

"You don't have to explain it to me, Steph. You don't owe me an explanation." Ranger wouldn't meet her eyes. This was definitely not like him. He seemed so unsure of himself.

"Why won't you look at me, Ranger?" Steph asked, annoyed with the avoidance and a little freaked out. When he didn't answer, she added, "Does it bother you that much that I've slept with Tank?"

Ranger looked at her quickly, his eyes barely flicking in her direction, then away again. "Yes," he said softly.

Steph felt her heart break inside. The plan had backfired, gotten fucked up beyond belief. Ranger couldn't even look at her now. "Why?"

That mocha latte skin actually burned a shade of crimson. It took Ranger a minute to consider his words. "Is it more than just sex?"

"No. It was sex, plain and simple. Tank's my friend, but that's all," Steph answered, her throat tight.

Ranger breathed an audible sigh, but still couldn't meet her eyes. "Then it doesn't bother me. Would you reconsider going out on a date with me?"

It was Steph's turn to hesitate. As much as she wanted this, things just hasn't been working out lately. She didn't know if she could handle it. "Ranger, I still don't know if dating is a good idea."

"Would you at least consider it?" Ranger asked, hope in his voice.

"You still want to go out on a date, even though you can't look me in the eye?" Steph asked in disbelief. "Or will we spend the night dancing around Tank's rather large shadow?"

Ranger took a gulping breath. It took all his will to look her in the eye, because he was truly afraid of what he would see there after his recent behavior. "Yes, I do. And whatever goes on with Tank…it's between you and him. It's not my business."

Steph snorted. "Your business or not, it can still bother you."

"Honestly, Steph- it's not an issue." Ranger told that to himself, as well. "My only concern is what happens between us."

It was almost sweet. "There's an 'us', now? I guess this means that your life now lends itself to relationships. What changed so much?" Steph asked, bitterness tingeing her words despite her best efforts.

Ranger stilled in his chair. "Steph, I think I need to apologize for quite a few things I've done and said since DeChooch."

The pit of Steph's stomach began a butterfly dance. Was Ranger actually going to willingly address that horrible morning after? "Such as?"

Taking a deep breath, Ranger reached out and caught her hand, pressing a brief kiss into her palm. "Can we discuss it later- in a proper setting for the groveling I need to do to make things right?"

Groveling? Ranger? Multiple apologies? Steph thought that she must have gotten hit on the head during their sparring at the gym or something. This had to be a dream or alternate reality. "What might that setting be?" Steph asked, trying to lighten the mood.

"Let me know about the date, and I'll be sure to arrange something appropriate." Ranger released her hand. "I need to get started looking for this bastard, and you need to meet Tank and get to work." As Ranger stood up to go, he paused a minute and looked back at her. "I want you to go somewhere with me this afternoon, around three."

"I thought you said I was confined to the building?" Steph asked.

Ranger toyed with the manila folder in front of him. "There is something important that I need you to see. You'll be with me, and we'll take back-up just to be careful. But this is important."

Steph nodded. "Okay. Three." Then she headed towards the gym, and Tank.

Chapter Eighteen

Tank took his orders from Ranger very seriously. Given the nature of the threat, he altogether skipped offensive maneuvers and went for defensive; if Steph needed his training, it would mean that the stalker had broken through serious defenses and Steph might be on her own. Tank wanted Steph to be able to disable her attacker and walk away, not pick a fight with him. He started his lessons off with knife attacks and how to disarm knived-attackers. He was waving a fake, rubber knife at her when he finally broached what Ranger had wanted with Steph after their morning meeting.

Casually, he asked, "So what did Ranger want to talk about?"

Sure he was simply trying to break her concentration, Steph ignored him. Tank lunged, she dodged, and he repeated his question. "So what did Ranger want to talk to you about, Steph?"

Still watching the "knife," Steph couldn't hide the smile that crossed her face. But she still didn't answer. "Would you attack me already, you nosy busybody!"

In answer, Tank moved in with great efficiency. Steph had barely registered Tank's movement by the time she was flat on the mat, gasping for air. "What did he want?" Tank held out a hand to help her up.

Steph only smiled, taking his hand and slowly rising.

After a few minutes of dancing around each other, Tank lunged again. He scored on her, what would have been a killing shot, and took her to the mat again. "I'll keep dropping you until you tell me, Bombshell."

"Okay, okay- I'll tell you-" Steph laughed, a happy sound. "But just a summary. He wants a real date, we're going somewhere at three today, and he said he would grovel."

That caused Tank to pause mid-attack, allowing Steph to almost take him down- almost. He stumbled, but didn't go to the mat. "He said he would be groveling? This is Ranger Manoso, we're discussing, right?"

"Yes." Steph was almost giddy.

Smiling, Tank laughed. "Where you going with him?" he pressed.

Sensing he was getting ready to attack again, Steph shrugged. "Didn't say."

Tank raised an eyebrow before sneaking past Steph's defense to grab her into a bear hug. "I told you the plan would work." He planted a friendly kiss on her cheek loudly, put her back down, and picked up the rubber knife again.

An argument over the "I-told-you-so" and almost two hard hours of work later, Steph was sore and bruised. Tank had shown her several different approaches an attacker might take, and the most effective way of countering each attack. Unfortunately for Steph, the hardest to learn was also the most difficult to practice- an attacker from behind putting her in a choke hold with the knife. Tank's incredible height made a choke hold on her more realistic than she liked.

Quite frankly, if this was only sparring with Tank, she knew she'd never stand a chance against him if he wanted to hurt her. Tank was holding back his attacks, but they still weren't sissy strength. They hurt. And he so easily won that she got frustrated and very pissed off rather quickly. Her emotions made her lose concentration and make stupid mistakes, which in turn only made her angrier. The training had slowly degenerated; she ceased learning, lost in annoyance. Ever observant, Tank noticed her increasing crankiness and was ready to finally call a break when Lester showed up in the gym with Bobby.

Steph took the opportunity presented by the distraction of their appearance to show Tank that she had, in fact, learned something this morning. She waited until Tank's eyes showed his split attention before she stepped inside his reach and against his chest. She used her full body weight to catch his arm in a twist of her own and pull down. She pulled enough to "score," but not enough to break his arm, which was- in real life- the desired outcome to the move. He dropped his play knife to the mat, and Bobby congratulated her on the move.

"Good job, Steph!" he called out.

She turned to smile at him, putting her back to Tank, who picked the knife back up and had it at her throat again before she realized it. "That's not fair, Tank! That's cheating!" Tank , silent, still held her firmly, as her feet almost dangled and she ineffectively struggled. She kicked and squirmed for a few minutes, then gave up completely. Somewhat contritely, she stated, "You win this round, Tank. Put me down, please."

Tank didn't move. "Get out of it, Steph."

"I said, let me go. You win." Steph's voice was rapidly rising close to the top of the pissed off meter, which Bobby noted but Tank and Lester ignored.

When Tank still held her, she appealed to Lester for help. "Les, make him put me down! I give up, for Chrissakes!"

Les stood like a stone statue. "Find a way to get out of it, Steph."

Sighing, with a good old Burg eye roll, she renewed her struggle, as best she could, but it was just as ineffective as before. Frustrated, she swore a blue streak in Italian and then Spanish. When she hit the more imaginative Spanish curses, Tank's body started shaking with laughter. "Damn, Bombshell! You got a real potty-mouth going there. Spending too much time around Santos here."

Steph was not in the mood for funny. "Put me down! I am done with this!"

Lester moved in so that he stood two steps away from Steph and Tank. "No, Tank, don't. She's got to learn how to get out." As Steph started a venomous streak at him, he simply shook his head. "If you don't know how to get out of it, let's talk your way through it, step-by-step."

A deep breath- or as deep as Tank's choke hold allowed- and Steph felt the power to control her temper start to return. Lester watched her closely, and when he judged she was ready, asked, "What is the first thing you think you need to do to get out of this?"

Steph tried to think through the moves Tank had shown her earlier. "Well, I need to keep the knife from getting any closer. So I should try to pull his hand away."

Lester pursed his lips. "And?"

Steph tried to shrug her shoulders unsuccessfully. "I'm not sure. I can't get a good grip on his arm to keep it immobilized."

"Because you're missing something." Bobby chimed in.

"What?" Steph snapped.

"Put your chin down at the same time you try to push- not pull- his arm away." Lester spoke patiently, as if to a child. Steph tried what he said, and got a bit further along in her struggle than she had before. She still couldn't free herself, though, and Tank wouldn't let her go. Frustrated, she considered just kicking him in the groin, but couldn't quite bring herself to do something that ruthlessly mean when Tank was trying to help her. She was just really frustrated. Lester sensed it, and helped talk her through the steps.

Once out, she stretched her neck muscles. "I need a serious break. Like lunch. Or shopping."

Tank agreed to a lunch break. So did Lester, who volunteered to make a Pino's run for them all and meet them back at Steph's in a half-hour. Bobby bowed out, as he had some paperwork to catch up on. Steph headed to her apartment to shower, Tank headed to his, and Lester hit the garage.

Freshly showered and half-dressed- a t-shirt and panties, but pantless- Steph lay down, just for a minute, on her bed. She passed out immediately, awaking to a pounding on her door. She surged up, forgetting her half-dressed state, and made her way to the door, wrenching it wide open. Lester stood there, balancing a pizza box and a smallish-square box wrapped in bright blue paper with a huge, matching gauzy bow. His attention was quickly split further when he realized Steph wasn't fully dressed.

Steph managed to catch the pie before it hit the floor, and Lester managed to retain the nicely wrapped gift box. "Damn, Steph," Lester swore.

"What?" she demanded in an irritated voice as she carried the pizza to her dining room table. Lester closed the door and followed her.

"Any girl but you, and I would take being greeted undressed like that as a sexual invitation." Lester was looking at her hungrily.

Shit, she swore in her head. "I forgot. I fell asleep." She made her way towards the bedroom. "Let me get dressed."

"Don't get dressed on my account, Bomber. I like the show." Lester shot her a wolf grin, ripping off a piece of pie and taking a bite.

"This isn't dinner theater." She closed the bedroom door behind her and reached for some jeans to pull on when she heard an odd snippet of computer-generated music in her apartment. She stood and listened, and realized it was coming from the living room. It sounded like…the Batman theme song. She whipped the door open and headed straight for the source of the noise- the box Lester had brought in.

She found Lester staring at it as well. "What's in the box, Les?" she asked when the music died down.

He shrugged. "Dunno. It was outside your door when I got here." He took another bite of pizza and mumbled through his food. "It has a card on it."

Steph fumbled to find the card buried under all that fancy wrapping. It was plain, simple, and yet very elegant. The card itself was a thick blue marbled paper, just a shade lighter than the bow and wrap. It read:


Hope this will make it more difficult for you and Tank to mix up phones.


Steph tried to calmly unwrap the box, saving the luxurious bow, but Lester got impatient and took it out of her hands.

"Stop being such a girl and just rip it," he said, popping the bow off and ripping the paper as well, all at once. He then handed her the box back and picked up the card where she had dropped it. "Did I miss something?"

Steph reached into a cocoon of bubble wrap and extracted a new cell phone. It was the same make and model as her old phone, except for the artwork on the case. This phone had Wonder Woman, swinging her Lasso of Truth in the air, across the back. No invisible plane, though. Ignoring Santos, she found the "Calls Received" and called Ranger back.


"Nice phone, Batman." She said, her voice low.

"Like it?"

"I love it! Where did you find a Wonder Woman cover?" Steph leaned against the counter, avoiding looking at Lester, who was laughing at her.

"Have a friend who's an artist. Made it just for you." Ranger spoke in his usual clipped tones, but Steph could swear there was something new in his voice. Not the tone he had used earlier, when he spoke to her after the meeting, but definitely not the usual Ranger tone.

"Thank you, Ranger." She wasn't sure what else to say- especially with Lester two feet away.

"Training session go well?"

Steph paused. Ranger was making small talk? Cameras were everywhere at RangeMan. If he had wanted to, he could have asked for a report from the control room. "Uh, it went okay. We did knife attacks."

"Good idea. Take a rest. I'll meet you in the garage at three?" The background sounds had changed; Ranger must be in the car.

"Sounds good. You gonna tell we where we're going?" Steph dug.

"Has to do with the case. We may stop and see Tia." Ranger opened his car door. "Gotta go, Babe." He hung up.

Lester had devoured a second piece of pie during the conversation. "Why'd he give you a new phone? You haven't burned one up with a car in a while."

Steph looked at him steadily. "Tank and I had some phone confusion when Ranger called. All our phones look the same. Ranger wasn't happy about it."

An eyebrow raised, Lester crossed his arms. "And the phone confusion?"

"We left them both out on the nightstand, and I couldn't tell which one was mine and which one was Tank's when Ranger called. So I didn't answer." Steph crammed some pizza into her mouth to avoid more questions about how the phones ended up on the nightstand.

"Well, that present will make sure it doesn't happen again." Lester kept his arms crossed. "What else is going on? I thought you were confined to the building, but you're going out with Ranger this afternoon?" His eyes studied her. He took in the small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Is this a date?"

Steph swallowed her pizza. "No. But he did ask me if I would reconsider going out on a date with him. And he apologized. He said he wanted to make things right with me."

Lester whooped and grabbed her for a hug. "I told you the plan would work! I told you!" He danced her around the kitchen. "See, he really does care about you!"

It took several tries, but Steph finally extracted herself from Lester's arms. "We'll see. I'm still not entirely convinced. He was really rude to me this morning before the meeting." A knock at her door pulled her away before she could explain to Lester. As expected, it was Tank.

He loomed in the doorway, studying her. "Forgive me yet for making you work so hard this morning?" He didn't enter until she answered.

"I wasn't mad at you, big guy." Steph closed the door behind him and followed him to the kitchen. "I was mad that I couldn't do better."

"You did fine." Tank took a piece of pizza, and Lester waited expectantly. When Steph didn't return to their previous conversation, he asked, "What did Ranger do to you this morning?"

Steph sighed and looked at Tank. Tank shrugged and continued to eat. "He showed up at my door, pissed, when I didn't answer my phone again. He was pissed Tank was here, and he made some very crude comments." Her skin burned again at the thought of Ranger's words.

"What exactly did he say?" Lester asked in that implacable tone he used when he wasn't going to give up on something she didn't want to talk about.

Tank took the story up. At the recounting of the anatomy directive, Lester's eyes narrowed and he looked pissed for a minute. Then he laughed. "I haven't seen Ranger as pissed as he sounded this morning in a very long time. He doesn't usually exchange verbal comments when he's mad. You get hit, or you get the silent death glare. He must really love you."

Steph felt the smile plaster itself on her face again. "I guess we'll see."

"Does this mean I don't have to go to dinner Saturday?" Lester asked. Steph could sense his hopefulness before she crushed it.

"You still have to go." Steph smiled sweetly at him. "I already told my mother. She wants to see my latest boyfriend."

Lester shook his head. "Don't you want to take Ranger, then?" He tried to charm her, but it wasn't working. Tank just sat back, eating, his eyes smiling at Lester's discomfort.

"You've been drafted. That's it." Steph looked at the clock. "I gotta get ready to meet Ranger. Clean up after yourselves!" she called out to the two men as she shut herself into her bedroom.

Chapter Nineteen

Although she arrived promptly at three, Ranger was already waiting for Steph in the garage. He was leaning against the Porsche, dressed like a regular guy instead of an urban commando or super-rich businessman. He had on well worn blue jeans, a wine colored, button-down shirt open over a gray Army t-shirt, and regular running shoes. He had a baseball cap on, his hair loose underneath it, and a brown leather jacket casually flung over a shoulder. He looked sexy as hell, and Steph had to slow down and take a deep breath before greeting him.

"In disguise today, Ranger? Where's all the black?" she asked in a slightly teasing voice.

"You don't like it, babe?" He looked at her with heavy lidded eyes.

She smiled at him. "It takes some getting used to. Last time you dressed like this, you were FTA. Are you trying to pass for a normal guy?"

He didn't reply. He simply flashed her a smile and walked around to open the passenger side door for her, holding it until she got in. Then Ranger got in himself. Steph didn't expect much conversation from Ranger while he was driving, and she wasn't disappointed. He sunk into his driving zone, heading for the Turnpike south. Steph spent her time simply watching Ranger, studying his profile.

Ranger had the longest eyelashes Stephanie had ever seen on a man, thickly fringing eyes of liquid chocolate. Ranger had amazing cheekbones as well, high and sharp. His lips were full and sensual, made for kissing. She also noticed that his eyes crinkled just a little at the corners when he squinted into the sun; the little lines weren't permanent yet, but by forty-five or so, they would be. She found herself considering how attractive Ranger would be with just a touch of gray in his hair… And then she snapped herself out of it as the car slowed for a toll.

The man had not even taken her out yet and she was wondering how he would look in a decade or more? God, she really did have it bad. She only hoped Ranger's ESP wasn't working today. Mr. "No Relationships" would have run screaming if he knew what she was presently thinking. Looking back at him again from the corner of her eye, Ranger seemed oblivious to her thoughts for once. His usual relaxed driving posture seemed tensed. Once the Porsche cleared the highway and pulled out onto a little country road, Steph couldn't help but ask. "Ranger?" she asked softly. "Where are we going?"

Ranger's nervousness seemed to increase. He almost twitched. He spared a moment from the road to glance at her. "Steph, there are a lot of things that you don't know about me, that I don't want you to know."

Steph opened her mouth to say something, but Ranger cut her off with an up-raised hand. "This isn't me being secretive. I've done some things in my life that I'm not proud of, things that I was ordered to do as a Ranger that I will not talk about." He tried a weak smile. "I really would have to kill you if I told you."

Steph stayed quiet, to her own surprise. Ranger took a deep breath, as if to build up his courage before he spoke again. "There are also things that I am embarrassed about, which you will probably hear about eventually, but I still don't like to talk about. I want to tell you as much as I can- I want you to get to know the real me, not this superhero you've built up in your mind. Because I am not, and have never been, a superhero, despite any claims I might have made to the contrary."

She had a mental moment of disagreement- he could stand in for Superman in bed anytime, she thought- but Steph held her tongue. "I want to get to know that man, Ric." She gave him a genuine smile.

He gave her one back, all two hundred watts. "There are some things you need to know about me in order to understand why I've acted the way I have. That's where I'm taking you today. There is a small private hospital, St. Agnes, that specializes in treatment of post traumatic stress disorder and long-term recovery from severe trauma."

A long pause, which Stephanie chose not to break, and Ranger continued. "There is someone there- a patient- that I want to introduce you to. Her name is Yavierlis; her daughter, Esperanza, should be visiting her today."

"Who is she to you?" Stephanie asked a bit forwardly, emboldened by Ranger's earlier words.

Ranger pulled off the road onto a little drive. He ignored Steph's question, and Steph fought internally but tried to show none of it to Ranger. This –her trip here with him, and Yavierlis, whoever she was- was obviously important to him. And he seemed to have trouble talking about emotions, but he was trying. She had to give him credit. This was quite a change from normal. Steph just wished she knew what weird situation she was getting herself into- the better to prepare herself.

The drive twisted and a small, Georgian style building loomed in front of them. The Porsche was guided into a visitor's slot, and Ranger shut it down. He sat for a moment and then looked directly at Steph, his hands clenching and unclenching the steering wheel.

"Lis- Javierlis- and I dated in high school, and briefly again after my divorce." Ranger swallowed hard. "She also dated my cousin Alec."

Steph felt the gears begin to turn. "Did she date Alec before or after you?" she asked, her throat a bit dry.

"Between. Alec had long since dumped her, but he wasn't happy when she went out with me again." Ranger looked pained. "I ran into her after my divorce, home on leave, and we met for coffee to catch up. We made plans to go out to dinner the next night. When I showed up at her apartment to pick her up, I found her."

Sure she didn't want to hear the rest, but knowing she should, Steph asked. "What do you mean, found her?"

"Alec had paid her a visit. I didn't know who had done it at the time. I didn't know for several years." Ranger took off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his hair. "She had been badly beaten and raped. I've seen corpses dead a day that have looked better than she did then."

"My God." Steph couldn't think of anything else to say. Ranger's fierce protectiveness of her in the face of Alec's past deeds was more than understandable. "Did she press charges?"

Ranger shook his head. "She was too scared to- claimed she didn't see who did it. At any rate, I had to go when my leave was up, but she wasn't even out of the hospital yet. I contacted her to check up on her, and found out several months later that she was pregnant. She didn't want an abortion, but was having problems dealing with the pregnancy and the baby."

"I'm amazed that she kept the baby. I don't think I could have." Steph had some admiration for Javierlis. "What happened to her that she ended up here?"

"She couldn't handle life. She hadn't pressed charges, but she saw my cousin around. It was killing her." Ranger closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "I kept in touch with her; I tried to help her out a bit, give her an ear and a shoulder to cry on. But I wasn't here enough. She just- snapped, one day."

Steph felt a tightening in her chest. "What do you mean, snapped?"

"I don't want to talk about details. It was horrible." Ranger's eyes went distant, remembering, and he had to visibly force himself to continue. "Esperanza has recovered from her injuries; Lis hasn't. Lis' mom takes care of Esperanza now, and she brings her to see Lis once a month. Even after what Lis did, her mom feels its important that Esperanza know Lis." Ranger unsnapped his seatbelt and started to get out.

Steph stopped him with her hand on his arm. "When did you find out it was Alec?"

"When she called me after the…breakdown. I asked her why she tried to kill herself and Esperanza, and she told me everything. But she wouldn't even go to the police after all that time, and she wouldn't go after Alec for a paternity test."

"I can tell this bothers you, a lot. But why is this so personal for you? You aren't responsible for it; you couldn't control what Alec did." Steph was curious.

"It wasn't my fault, but it still happened because of me. Her whole life, and her daughter's, was ruined because I asked her to go to dinner with me." Ranger shrugged. "It marked me. I know what Alec is capable of, and I can't stand the thought of what he'll do to you if he gets a hold of you. Lis didn't mean nearly as much to me as you do, and Alec knows it."

Steph tried to keep focused, and file away "didn't mean as much to me as you do" comment for later. "Is this one of the reasons you said you don't do relationships?"

Ranger pulled her into an embrace. "Every woman I love ends up leaving, one way or another. I would rather be nothing more than your friend than have you hurt or worse because of me."

Steph was stunned into silence, and trailed behind him up the walk to the front door.

Chapter Twenty

Stephanie remained silent as she followed Ranger through the twisting hallways, subdued. The interior was furnished in faux old money- nice wood furniture, rich upholstery, big sculpted busts on pedestals scattered about. It was also clean and bright, but still obviously a hospital. Stephanie had become overly familiar with hospitals in the last few years, and found them quite depressing. Nothing good ever caused someone to end up in a hospital.

She tried to avoid looking at the few patients wandering the halls that they met during their passage. These people did not look overtly ill; their sicknesses went much deeper. It made Stephanie very uncomfortable to contemplate what terrible traumas had brought them to this place, reduced them to these empty shells- how close she herself had come to a similar trauma, back in the parking lot at Valerie's shower. It made her shiver, and Ranger looked back at her.

"Babe?" he questioned, sensing her unease with those ESP powers of his.

"I'm fine, Ranger," she answered, half distracted. When she said nothing else, he turned, taking her hand gently in his and pulling her towards a set of double doors at the end of a short hall. He paused before them, one hand on the handle, refocusing his attention back on her. His thumb traced little patterns on the hand he held.

"Lis isn't always lucid. Sometimes, she makes more sense than others. I've found it best to simply smile and nod at her, if she seems a bit lost." He paused, as if unsure how to continue. His grip on her hand momentarily tightened. "I've never brought anyone with me to visit her before. I'm not sure how she will react."

Steph bit her lip, her discomfort increasing. "I'll let you introduce me."

Ranger shot her a small smile, tight at the corners, before he took a deep breath, releasing her hand to open the door, and walked in. Steph followed close behind. The room was bright and sunny, with a golden oak floor and warm red armchairs. It was empty except for a trio of people in the far corner, toward whom Ranger immediately angled.

The trio was composed of three females. The older woman had gray liberally threaded throughout her short hair, the younger woman was in a robe and slippers, and then a little girl in pink sweat pants who looked to be about seven or eight. The little girl ran over before Steph and Ranger were halfway across the room. She zeroed in on Ranger and grabbed him tightly around the middle. "Uncle Ric!"

Ranger reached down and pulled her up into a hug. "Little one, how are you?"

The little girl smiled, taking Ranger's hand as he put her down. She leaned, pulling him towards a little table. "'buela made cookies!"

Ranger looked towards the older woman, and nodded at her, speaking in rapid Spanish. The woman answered, equally rapidly, as her eyes strayed over at Stephanie. Ranger spoke to her again before he turned towards Stephanie, switching to English. "This is Stephanie Plum, Dagmari. We sometimes work together."

Dagmari smiled. "It is nice to meet you, Miss Plum." She motioned the little girl over and straightened her dress. Arms around her, she whispered into the girl's ear loudly, "Say hello to Miss Plum, Esperanza."

Stephanie tried to smile at the little girl, but even as inexperienced with children as she was she could sense something just a little off about her. Instead, she settled for what she hoped was a friendly tone of voice. She crouched down to the girl's height and addressed her directly. "Hi, Esperanza."

The little girl looked up at Stephanie through her eyelashes, never quite looking her directly in the eye, and mumbled, "'lo, Mizplum."

Stephanie crouched down in front of the girl, putting out her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

Esperanza took Steph's hand carefully. "Nistametcha," she mumbled shyly. Then she shoved her hands behind her back and looked at the ground.

Steph offered her hand to Dagmari as well, who took it warmly. "Ricardo has mentioned you before, Miss Plum. It's nice to finally meet you."

"Please, call me Stephanie." She wondered why Ranger had talked about her with Dagmari, but- again- filed it for later discussion. She chatted with Dagmari while Ranger sat down next to Javierlis, who hadn't moved except for her eyes. He whispered something to her, but she didn't respond. Her eyes followed her daughter, as if Stephanie wasn't even there.

After a few more minutes and a hug, Esperanza was back, tugging Ranger by the hand towards a child's plastic tea set on an end table. Ranger reached out and squeezed Lis' hand before allowing himself to be maneuvered in front of a pink tea cup. Stephanie watched, amused, as he sat patiently for a half-hour sipping imaginary tea. Dagmari spoke little, watching Stephanie watch Esperanza. "Ricardo is very good with the little one, isn't he?" Dagmari finally asked.

Dagmari's words snapped Steph out of a reverie. She had been marveling at the site of Ranger playing on the floor and thinking very much the same thing. "Yes, he is," she agreed.

"Ricardo takes his responsibilities very seriously. He comes to see Javierlis every month, even with how she is now. And he makes sure that Esperanza is comfortable as well." Dagmari patted Stephanie's arm. "He'll be a good husband to you and father for your children, too."

Steph almost choked at Dagmari's words. She was so busy contemplating that husband/father comment that she didn't process the "responsibilities" and making sure that Esperanza was "comfortable" at first.

Or the "too" tacked onto the end.

Chapter Twenty-One

Stephanie felt drained after the hospital visit. She had watched Ranger spend the better part of an hour playing with the damaged little girl, as her mother had watched on, eyes mostly empty. Lis was less than a shell of a woman; she wore her body as if it were a costume, an inconvenience tied to her loose mind. Stephanie mentally shivered again, not wanting to consider just what terrible things Alec had done to Lis to so horribly mark her. Thinking about it made her feel uncomfortable. She tried to ignore the threat of Alec over her head, but it was more difficult, confronted with a living testament to his evilness.

Little that Lis had said during their visit had made much sense, unless she was speaking directly to Esperanza. Then, her words were tinged with deep emotions. She often reached out and harshly hugged the child to her. Ranger's face during the visit, each time he glanced at Lis, was almost as painful to watch as Javierlis interact with her daughter.

His face wore a shadow, of regret and resignation. Stephanie wondered at the stoic stillness of it, which he maintained as they had made their way back to the car. She knew part of his silence was worry over her, but that wasn't all. She sensed that this visit was something of a penance for him, and she wasn't sure how to lighten his burden.

The silence continued as Ranger unlocked the car and they both climbed in. Stephanie was surprised when Ranger turned it on but didn't pull out. He startled her even further when he started talking instead of immediately slipping into his driving zone. "What did you think of Esperanza?"

Steph leaned with her elbow against the window and turned to face Ranger. She considered her answer carefully, watching his face. "She's a little girl. Kinda cute." She momentarily paused. "What's wrong with her, exactly?"

Judging from the tension in his jaw, Ranger didn't seem to like her answer. "She suffered brain damage. We're not entirely sure how much it will affect her development yet, because she was so young, but as you can see, it's pretty severe." He shifted in his seat. "You kept your distance from her. Does she make you uncomfortable?"

Shrugging, Steph answered. "All kids make me uncomfortable. They're, you know, kids. I'm more comfortable around little green men. Or dead bodies. What do I know about kids?" Steph asked, feeling that this wasn't the kind of answer Ranger was looking for, but not sure how to respond.

"I've seen you around your nieces. They don't make you uncomfortable- or at not as uncomfortable as you seemed in there." Ranger wasn't looking at her. His eyes went past her, towards the looming hospital.

"Why does it matter what I think of her?" Her voice was low.

A shadow crossed Ranger's face. "I'd like to know."

"Why?" Stephanie shot back. "Why was it so important to bring me here, Ranger?" This certainly wasn't what she had expected or hoped for when Ranger had first asked her to go somewhere with him. Then Dagmari's comment clicked with Ranger's words in Stephanie's mind. "Dagmari thinks that you're Esperanza's father."

Ranger nodded, a nod so brief and quick that if she hadn't been looking for it, she wouldn't have recognized it as such. "Dagmari is not in the best health, and Lis isn't going to be able to take care of Esperanza any time soon- if at all." Ranger put the vehicle into gear and began driving, avoiding Stephanie's eyes. "But I have the means to do so. Regardless of what a piece of shit Alec is, Esperanza is family."

For once, Steph out waited the master of silence.

Ranger continued. "When Dagmari dies- and she's been very sick lately, taking chemo for a recurrence of breast cancer- there is no one else to take care of Esperanza except me." Ranger nervously licked his lips, and Stephanie was distracted for just a moment. "Because of the extent of her injuries, she'll probably need life long care. We don't think she'll ever be able to live on her own, by herself."

"And as her father..." Stephanie waited expectantly for his response.

"I never said I was. Dagmari assumed, and she's never out right asked me." Ranger paused in talking to switch lanes, passing a slow mini-van. "All the legal paperwork to make me Esperanza's guardian, when the time comes, is already signed."

Stephanie studied his profile. The more she learned about this man, the more she was attracted to him. Ranger was a man of conviction and ethics, contrary to the street image he had carefully cultivated. He was willing to take on the tremendous responsibility of a child like Esperanza, because he felt responsibility for the circumstances under which she was conceived. The thought made her reconsider Ranger's actions, both recent and less current, regarding herself. "Why did you agree to teach me the ropes when Connie asked you?"

"I didn't decide that I actually would until I met you." Ranger smiled slightly, remembering that day. "But you made an impression."

"What kind of impression, exactly?" Steph was curious, now. Why had Ranger taken on the responsibility of training her? He obviously wasn't a man to take such promise lightly; his concern for Esperanza made that clear.

Ranger weighed his words. "You made a convincing case. You needed money, and this was the way to get it. To learn to skip-trace, you needed help. Given all that, I couldn't say no."

"Why not?" Steph wondered aloud.

He shrugged. "You were going to do skip-tracing with or with out my help. If I didn't help you, and something happened to you, it would be my fault." Ranger reached over and took her hand. "I do have to apologize. I didn't do the best job of Bounty Hunter 101." His comment brightened the mood in the car.

Steph knit her fingers into Ranger's and squeezed, trying to keep the lighter mood going. "You never did teach me B&E."

The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Maybe our next outing."

Noting that they were quite close to the office, Steph felt the need to bring some closure to an unsettling afternoon. She worried that once they left the cocoon of the car, the emotions of the afternoon would be lost. "Ranger-" she started, then changed tactics. "Ric."

He looked at her, his eyes registering her choice of name for him. "Babe?"

"I understand why you're so worried about this Alec threat. I really do." Steph tried to put her mood into words. "But I'm not Javierlis. If I get hurt, it's not your fault. I chose this work; I know that it can be dangerous. I wanted to help you bring in Alec."

Ranger opened his mouth as if to speak, but Steph cut him off. "I'm also not your ex-wife," she continued, taking a deep breath and pressing on, risking Ranger's ire. "And I'm not your mother. I won't leave you, and I won't stop being your friend." She leaned over and brushed a kiss against his cheek. "Even if you can be a difficult ass sometimes."

Then she popped her door open, getting out and leaving him a bit flustered, still in the car.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Stephanie held her breath the entire way up to her fourth floor apartment. Her mind was racing, trying to absorb the events and revelations of the afternoon. Ranger had, in his usual Ranger way- the roundabout, word-economical way- basically told her that he had feelings for her. To finally know- it was hard to describe how light her heart felt, because there was an equal weight pulling it down. Stephanie now knew that Ranger was afraid of a relationship with her, and it had nothing to do with her. It was his own, convoluted past and its ghosts that had kept him from her.

How was she going to convince him that a relationship with her wouldn't end like those in his past? Especially given the disasters that tended to follow her?

She was still mentally overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue when the elevator doors opened. Not paying attention, she stepped out and directly into a wall named Bobby.

Bobby caught her as she stumbled back. "You okay, Bombshell?"

"Yeah, Bobby," Steph grabbed his arm to steady herself. "Just thinking instead of looking where I was going."

"Should have smelled the smoke," Bobby smiled. "Must be something important." His smile dimmed a fraction. "I just stopped by to see you. I know you're confined to the building, but I thought we could still hang out."

"I just got back-" Steph started, but Bobby cut her off.

"Back? You were confined to the building, Steph!" Bobby looked a little angry.

"I know. Ranger asked me to go somewhere with him this afternoon, and we just got back." Steph reached into her purse and dug out her keys, deciding that she could use a distraction from her day of Ranger revelations. "Give me fifteen minutes, and I'll be ready. Meet you at your place?"

Bobby's smile returned. "You really won't mind just hanging out at my place tonight?"

"I prefer it to bungee jumping," she answered in a serious tone.

Bobby shot her an odd look. "Talking to Ranger about our date?"

"It was brought up." Steph looked at Bobby worriedly. "That wasn't really your plan for tonight, was it?"

"Bungee jumping is strictly a day-time date." Bobby smiled and chuckled. His laugh was deep and echoed down the hall. "See you in fifteen." He brushed a kiss against her forehead, leaving her to make her way down the hall to her own apartment. She watched him go, admiringly. Shot or not, his ass was still nice to look at.

She unlocked her door and pushed it open. The boys had cleaned up after themselves rather nicely. The dishes they'd used were washed and put away, and her vase with Tank's bouquet of flowers had even had some water added. They'd saved her a few slices of pizza in the fridge. She stopped briefly to grab a glass of water, downing it on the way to the bedroom. She freshened up her make-up, brushed her teeth, and re-sprayed her hair. A glance in the mirror told her she looked good enough. So she headed out again, down the hall, where she stopped and knocked on Bobby's door.

He opened it immediately. A heavenly smell of steak rolled out to greet her as well. "Hope you like filet mignon, Steph."

She smiled back. "Smells great. Let's eat!"

Bobby pulled her in and steered her toward his small dining table. He pulled her chair out for her before taking a seat opposite her. "The filets will be ready in a few minutes. How about we start with salad?"

Steph weakly smiled at the mention of green. "Sure. What kind of dressing?"

"Nice, fatteningly rich blue cheese and croutons." Bobby reached for the salad, placing some in a small bowl for her. "I know better than to try and feed you healthy food by itself, Steph."

"Good." Steph reached for the salad dressing and a nearby bowl of croutons. "Any bacon bits?"

Bobby chuckled. "I won't feed you healthy food, but I'm not trying to block your arteries on purpose."

"No bacon bits, then, huh?" Steph commented wryly.

"Nope." Bobby paused a moment. "And fruit for desert. Hope you aren't disappointed, Bombshell."

"So far, so good, Bobby." Steph watched him finish up his salad at an amazing speed before getting up to go out to the kitchen. The steaks he brought back were done to perfection- tender and pink in the middle. "Are all you guys great cooks? Where did you learn?" A horrible thought popped into her head. "This isn't part of RangeMan training, is it?"

Bobby let out a hearty laugh. "I think you'd rather quit than learn to cook, Steph!"

She wasn't so amused. "I just think putting me in a small room with lots of sharp objects and a gas line is a bad idea."

That was a sobering thought for Bobby, who stopped laughing. "If we go out again, I promise no bungee jumping."

Steph wasn't sure if she should be offended or relieved, so she said so. "Is that a comment about me being dangerous?"

Bobby looked afraid of her just then. "Uh-"

Steph shook her head, taking pity on him. "I'll act like you didn't bring that up." He looked relieved. "So how are you feeling, Bobby?"

Bobby shifted in his seat. "More embarrassed than anything else. You know that the guys will never let me live down getting shot in the ass." He cringed. "As if I wasn't embarrassed enough that someone took me by surprise."

Steph patted his arm from across the table. "It's not like he came up and overpowered you. He shot you, for Christ's sake, and then hit you over the head when you were hurt."

The muscles in Bobby's jar twitched. "I should have been more aware. It never would have happened to the other guys." Bobby shook his head.

Sensing his mood, Steph gave him a tiny look. "It could be worse, Bobby. At least you've never blown up any of Ranger's fancy cars." She caught and kept his eyes until his smile started to twitch at the corners of his mouth.

"This is true, Bombshell." He reached for his knife and resumed eating his steak. "Speaking of Ranger, where did he take you this afternoon?"

Not sure how much of this afternoon she- or Ranger- wanted to share, Steph aimed for the general before shoving more food in her mouth. "He wanted me to meet someone."

Bobby nodded knowingly. He dramatically paused, asking "And how is Javierlis?"

The shock must have shown on her face, because Bobby chuckled between mouthfuls. "The company has handled Alec a time or two before. And Ranger visits her like clockwork, every month."

Steph wasn't sure which shocked her more, that Bobby knew about Javierlis or that he knew where Ranger had taken her this afternoon. Shaking her head, Steph muttered. "Am the only one who knows next to nothing about Ranger?"

"It took years to get to know him, Bombshell, plus a couple of near-suicide missions." Bobby looked directly at her. " The boys and I all know what he's like. That's why we came up with the plan."

Steph finished up her dinner, placed her silverware on the plate, and pushed it away. Adopting Ranger mannerisms, she was brief. "Explain."

Finishing up his own dinner, Bobby stood up and took both plates. "Let me clean up fast, and then we'll talk about Ranger."

Steph nodded, jumping up and taking some of the table clutter with her as she followed Bobby. "I'll help."

Bobby looked doubtful, putting the dishes down on the counter and taking things out of her hands. "Thanks, Bombshell, but I got it."

Instead of taking offense, Steph took the opportunity to snoop for desert. Bobby headed her off, physically turning her around and pushing her out to the living room. "Go relax, and I'll be out in a few minutes. I insist."

One last look over her shoulder earned her a swat on the ass. "Get out, Bombshell, or no dessert."

Steph took the playful swat much less seriously than the threat of no dessert. Even unsure just what dessert might be (fruit can be disguised in a lot of ways), she wasn't willing to risk the loss of it. As much as she would enjoy watching a man cook and then clean up the kitchen, dessert out ranked the sight. So she headed towards a large brown leather couch in front of a huge big screen television.

Looking around as she heard dishes clinking the small kitchen, Stephanie realized that this was the first time she had been further into Bobby's apartment than the doorway. It was decorated in a very masculine but tasteful way. One wall was painted a vibrant maroon; the wall was filled with assorted framed pictures, some of which were people Steph didn't recognize but most were of the RangeMen in a variety of places. The older pictures had Ranger with short military hair; it was difficult to see those pictures and not think about the less obvious differences in Ranger since they had been taken. Steph was studying one picture of Tank, Lester, Bobby, and Ranger in fatigues and sunglasses, holding serious fire power, somewhere in the middle of a desert, when Bobby suddenly appeared behind her.

Seeing her interest, Bobby reached around her and took the picture off the wall. "Hard to believe we were ever that young anymore. I couldn't even legally drink what that was taken."

"Where was it?" Steph asked. "Or would you have to kill me once you told me?"

There was no answering laughter. Bobby shook his head. "That's true of more missions we carried out than you would guess."

Steph considered her response. "You four really were into some serious security shit, weren't you?"

"Steph-" Bobby started, then shrugged in a what-the-hell movement. "Lester, Tank, Ranger, and I did a lot of secret missions and dangerous, high-level shit. We've all suffered our share of psychological traumas and physical injuries. Mentally, I don't know about the other guys, but there is some shit I will never get over and I never, ever want to talk about."

The serious tone he used momentarily stunned Steph. "Why tell me this? Why not just try to distract me from these pictures?"

"There are a lot of reasons why Ranger is the way he is; Javierlis is just one. Now that Ranger seems interested, I think you should realize what you're getting yourself into while you can still get out without being hurt too much." Bobby put the picture back on the wall and pulled Steph down next to him on the sofa.

She shifted next to Bobby, wondering where this was going. "Are you trying to talk me out of this, now?"

"No." Bobby was quite emphatic. "But if you aren't up to a real relationship with him, I'd rather you figure it out now. Before he gets hurt."

"What do you mean, if I'm not 'up' to it?" Steph asked indignantly.

"Ranger's not an easy man. Really, none of us. But Ranger's much worse than any of the rest of us." Bobby slung his arm around Steph. "And I like you, Steph. I don't want to see either of you hurt."

Slightly mollified, she rested against Bobby. "Neither do I." She considered a minute, deciding that she needed a change of subject. "But that's enough about Ranger. We have a date, mister. So entertain me."

Bobby laughed again. Next to Lester, he laughed the most out of all the RangeMen; he had a great laugh. "I don't know, Bombshell, my usual 'entertainment' skills might make Ranger mad."

Steph managed to laugh back; the memory of Bobby's kiss at the club piqued her interest in his 'skills,' but then she thought better of it. "Got Monopoly? I kick ass at Monopoly."

"Prepare to lose to the master, Bombshell." Bobby grinned wickedly.

That sounded like a dare. "Oh, really? And what would you like to wager on the outcome of this game?" Steph asked. "It has to be something pretty interesting, too. I don't do piddling bets."

Bobby's grin widened into a predatory, wolf expression and his eyes got thoughtful. "I win, I get to practice some of my other skills with you."

Steph felt her temperature shoot up. These guys- they were doing wonders for her ego. And she was sure that she would win. "Okay. And if I win, you tell me- wait, what did Tank say? Show me- why you hate margaritas."

Bobby considered it for a moment. "Okay." He held out his hand. "Deal!"

Steph shook his hand, certain her curiosity about Bobby's comments the night of her graduation celebration would be satisfied by game's end. And if not her curiosity, she was sure some other parts of her would get some satisfaction anyway.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Monopoly game went on until 2 AM, when Bobby finally landed on Park Place for the last time and, with three hotels (the two monopoly sharks made up rules along the way to keep it interesting), went beyond bankrupt trying to come up with rent. After every hotel was sold back and every property mortgaged, he was still a thousand short. "Is there some other way I can pay up, Bombshell?" Bobby asked in a seductive tone, leering in a suggestive way.

Steph sat back, arms crossed and a huge pile of paper monopoly money in front of her. "Nope."

He sighed deeply, then began cleaning up. Sorting Steph's enormous pile into smaller piles of matching denominations, he ignored his part of the deal. Steph began to squirm after a few minutes of silence, unable to keep herself still and calm. She was much too close to resolving her curiosity to be stopped now. "Spill, Bobby! I won fair and square. Why do you hate margaritas so much?"

He continued putting the game away, ignoring Steph completely. She nudged him with her foot. Nothing. "BOBBY!"

"I still don't believe I lost. I've never even lost to Ranger the real estate tycoon." Bobby sounded dejected.

"I did warn you, Brown." Steph shot him a dirty look. "Pay up."

He sighed again. "I went out on leave with this girl once in Texas, ended up across the border, drunk off my ass in a Mexican jail, with… Well, a semi-permanent physical reminder of our evening. All from one too many margaritas." Bobby stood up, the box in his hand. "Happy now?"

"That doesn't sound too bad. A Mexican jail couldn't be that much worse than some other places you've been in the Army." Steph laughed. "But what's this physical reminder? Did you get some stupid tattoo? I don't remember you having a tattoo, but if it was somewhere odd, or secret, or embarrassing… Do you have a tattoo on your butt?"

Bobby grimaced, but didn't answer. So Steph continued. "But only semi-permanent…Did you get it removed?"

"No. No tattoo. That's all I'm saying." Bobby put the game back into the closet. Steph was directly behind him when he turned around, finger jabbing into his chest.

"If I'd lost, you wouldn't settle for a peck on the cheek, mister. I want the FULL story." She narrowed her eyes. "Tank said you'd have to show me the reason, so I guess that you still have this 'physical reminder.' Full disclosure, Brown. Show it."

Bobby cracked a grin, and started unbuttoning his jeans. "Just remember, you asked for it Bombshell."

Steph was suddenly uncomfortable. "Uh, Bobby?"

Bobby paused, top button on his button fly jeans undone. "You said you wanted to see it."

"How about you just tell me?" Steph's voice squeaked.

One more button popped. "You sure you don't want to see it?"

Steph shook her head vigorously. "Changed my mind. Just tell me what it is."

Bobby shook his head regretfully. "Okay. But I bet you'll wanna see it once I tell you."

Her burg eye roll didn't phase him. "Ever hear of a Prince Albert?"

Her gasp make him laugh. "Guess so."

Okay, her ears had been pierced for as long as she could remember; baby rite of passage in her neighborhood. She had added the second holes in high school. The third, fourth, and fifth had been collected over time. She had considered a nose piercing, once upon a time, but that was the extent of it. Piercing something that much more intimate- oh, no, so yuck. It gave her chills to think about it.

But she still couldn't help but feel a little bit curious. "You're kidding me, right? How many margaritas did it take to talk you into that?"

Bobby leaned back onto the sofa, fingers laced behind his head. "Not as many as you might think. She was gorgeous and easy. Made it sound like a great idea."

Steph sat down next to him. "Didn't it hurt?"

"Not right away, actually. Too drunk." He crossed his feet and put them up on the coffee table. "Hurt like a sunnuva bitch later, though."

Steph laughed. "Bet it did. Why didn't you get rid of it?"

Bobby laughed ruefully. "Too stubborn. And it turns out-" He leaned in to whisper in her ear, "The ladies actually do love it."

Intriguing picture in her head. Steph had to admit that she wondered what that would be like… But for once, her curiosity wasn't enough to spur her on. "I'll take your word on that, Bobby. It's late, and we both need to be up in- oh, three hours?" She groaned.

Bobby helped her up and guided her to the door. He gave her a hug and shoved her out. "See you in the morning, Bombshell." The door clicked behind her as she made her way home.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Three hours' worth of sleep was not enough. Steph slept through her alarm and a barrage of phone calls- one each from Tank and Lester and three from Bobby. She finally woke up when she felt a weight drop down on the bed next to her. Crawling up through the bog of sleep, she saw Lester, Tank, and Bobby arrayed around and smiling down at her. Shoving sleep aside to think, it took a few minutes to come up with any idea as to why all three of them were waking her up. Given how tired she felt, she assumed that they must have broken into her apartment to check on her when she hadn't surfaced earlier. "Time to get up, Bombshell!" Lester cheerfully said as he poked her in the side.

"Fuck off." Steph muttered into her pillow.

Tank rapped his knuckles on the top of her head. "You're late for training. Get up, Steph."

She pulled her blanket tighter around her and burrrowed down. "No. I'm tired."

Bobby sighed. "I'm tired, but I'm up. You've had more sleep than me by over an hour. Get up!"

Tank crooked an eyebrow at that comment. "Bobby keep you up last night, Bombshell?"

Lester leaned over to whisper in Steph's ear. "Damn. I wanted that job. It was the Albert, wasn't it?"

Steph turned to face him, her face a little red. The feel of that whisper was waking up parts of her, at least. "We'll see how you do at dinner tonight, Les."

Score one for Plum. Lester paled under his tan. "I was hoping you forgot about that."

"Nope." Steph rolled away and snuggled down again. "But I might reconsider if you let me sleep another hour."

Bobby shook his head, and pulled the blankets off Steph. The cold raised goose-bumps everywhere skin was exposed, which happened to be quite a bit of her body. She simply tried to fold her limbs under her trunk to warm up. She had no intention of getting up just yet.

Tank reached over and snapped the waistband on her panties. Hard. Childish, maybe, but it did hurt. Other than to shoot him an indignant glare, however, it elicited no further reaction. The men exchanged looks, obviously consulting via RangeMan ESP. Steph inwardly grumbled. She hadn't gotten that part of the training yet.

Lester sighed. "Well, I'm already screwed with dinner at the Plums tonight, so I'll do it, gentlemen."

Steph popped one-eye open. She got a glimpse of Tank and Bobby leaving her bedroom, laughing, and then she was upside down over Lester's shoulder before she knew what was happening. She bounced a little uncomfortably as he strode toward the bathroom, her stomach knotting up as she considered what Lester might be doing. She didn't even bother to fight back at first, knowing that she wasn't going to win unless she truly fought to win- and she didn't want to hurt him for real. Once she heard Lester turn the shower on full force, though, she started half-seriously struggling. The problem was that she couldn't get a good grip on him anywhere- too many damn muscles. She found herself slightly airborne and then dropped directly into the cold spray, on her ass.

On the way down, as it registered what was going to happen to her (sans the cold water, which was still a complete surprise), she decided to implement some real self-defense moves. Not wanting to hurt him, but definitely wanting a little revenge, Steph managed to get a good enough grasp on Lester to pull him partway into the shower with her. "Fuck, Bombshell!" he cursed, his top half now dripping wet. Trying to catch his balance, Lester failed, so the rest of him followed her in as he fell, too.

Lester landing on top of Steph drove the air out of her lungs with a whoosh. She was momentarily stunned, then worried that Lester might have hit his head when he landed, because he was dead weight on top her. "Les?" she asked worriedly, her voice muffled by his mass.

"What?" Lester groaned.

A sigh of relief escaped from her crushed lungs. "Can you get off of me?"

Lester twisted and turned a bit, trying to get a strong enough grip on the slippery tub to get himself out- or at least off Steph- and failing miserably. His hands went some rather intimate places, much to Steph's surprise. She finally managed to free herself enough to shove Lester off her. They ended up sitting side by side in the tub, under the cold spray.

Rising, teeth chattering, Steph reached around Lester and turned the water off. "You bastard, Les. That was way beyond playing around." Still standing in the shower, she reached for a towel and tried drying off, eventually giving up the battle against her wet t-shirt and panties. Water continued to cascade off her as she considered further revenge.

"What do you call pulling me in after you?" Les asked, not at all that perturbed. He was busy staring at her erect nipples through her thin, wet t-shirt.

Still glaring at Les, and not appreciating his tone, she decided to be a bit cruel. Reaching for the edges of her shirt, she peeled it slowly over her head, dropping the wet material with a plop on the bathroom floor. She slid the wet panties down as well, inch by clinging inch. Standing there, she towel dried her hair as Lester's jaw dropped.

"Uh, Bombshell, you want to get a robe or something?" Lester stuttered, soaked to the skin and dripping himself.

"Nope." She stepped out of the shower, careful to brush parts of her anatomy against Les on her way to out. She stopped to strike a pose for him. "I'm fine. You got a problem?"

Lester shook his head, recovering his poise rather quickly. Two could play at Steph's game. He stripped off his own soaking shirt quickly, catching Steph by surprise. "No, I'm fine with the view. Actually-" he was beside her in an instant, his hand on her arm, "it's quite a nice show, Steph." He leaned in and caught her off guard, catching her mouth in a quick, searing kiss. He wrapped a towel around her as he pulled away. "But you shouldn't tease men like that. Not every one has my self-control."

The kiss shocked her for a brief moment; she was getting into it just as Les pulled away and covered her up. But then he pissed her off with his words. What was it with these hot men around her who just ruined it when they opened their mouths? She dropped her usual voice to a sultry pitch. "Who said I was teasing? Maybe you interrupted a really good dream, and you only owe it to me for waking me up."

Lester grinned. His arms were around her waist again in a second, pulling her closer to his smooth, bare chest, and finding her mouth with his again. The moisture on his skin was cool against her. He was damn good at this, Steph mentally noted as she enjoyed herself a bit. A throat clearing noise from her doorway echoed through the room, bringing them both back to earth. Tank raised an eyebrow as they separated, Steph a little out of breath and bright red- everywhere- and Lester a little bit annoyed. "Kids? We have work to do in the gym. Bobby already headed up to the control room."

Lester recovered first, and spoke without even turning around. He kept his eyes on Step. "Got it, Tank. We'll meet you up there in fifteen."

"No way am I leaving you two alone and half-naked." Tank made his way over and lay down, hands behind his head, on the bed. "I'll be left waiting in the gym all morning. Since I'm not explaining to Ranger where you two are, I'll wait here for you."

The mere mention of Ranger's name and the thought of this silly game she was currently playing with Les- while Tank watched- made her turn quickly away. Yanking up her towel, she started to look for her sweats. Sometimes her Hungarian hormones carried her away, but not quite enough to make out semi-naked with an audience. "Give me five minutes, Tank, and I'll be at the gym."

Tank nodded. "Sure, Bombshell. Lester and I will be waiting for you there." He stared, hard and hostile, at Lester until Les, shirtless but still dripping from his cotton shorts, grudgingly preceded him out.

When she finally felt recovered from her early morning cold shower, Stephanie- wet hair pulled up into a simple pony-tail and still dripping down her back- grabbed her keys, a water bottle, and her cell phone before heading towards the gym. She decided to start her exercise a little early, and take the stairs. Popping open the stairway door, she jogged up the stairs and didn't really look around. Four steps from the top, a quick sharp pain to the base of her neck and the world went black.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Steph woke up to a tight grip on her hand, her body leaning against a firm, broad chest. Her head hurt like hell and her mouth was dry. As for just whose chest she was leaning against, the Bulgari clued her in as much as his words (or lack of them.) "Babe?"

"What the hell happened, Ranger?" she asked, opening her eyes but still feeling groggy.

"We're not sure yet, Babe." Ranger brushed her hair gently back from her face. "Bobby caught some of it on camera, but not the beginning of the attack. As soon as he saw it, we were on our way." His grip tightened on her hand. "It looked like a guy came up from behind and stunned you."

Eyes wide and shaking her head in disbelief, Steph asked in shock, "Who the hell stunned me in RangeMan headquarters?" Then she groaned as she quickly regretted trying to turn her head.

"Careful, Babe. I think you might have hit your head on the way down." Ranger studied her eyes, his hand on her chin, looking carefully at her pupils. "How bad do you feel?"

Well, wrapped in Ranger's arms, not too bad, all things considered. But she would not contribute that little bit of information. All in all, she was feeling strangely calm; the queen of denial still reigned, although the panic could break through at any moment. "Still a little spacey, but I think I can manage to stand up." Steph wavered on her feet as Ranger helped her get up, mentally cursing her condition. She hated getting stunned; it was like a twenty-shot hangover with none of the fun.

Ranger was steadying her by leaning her up against a wall when Lester jogged up the steps to meet them, gun drawn. His mouth was a tight line and his eyes were angry. "He's gone, Ric. Just a step far enough ahead of us." Noticing Steph was now awake, Lester grabbed her into a bear hug. "You scared the shit out of us, Bomber."

Steph hung like a dead weight from Lester's embrace, legs dangling. "Sorry, Les." She waited until he put her down to even try to say more; he was squeezing the breath out of her.

"What happened, Steph? We left you alone for, like, ten minutes." Lester said. He set her back down on her feet, but didn't loosen his grip on her arms. Concern was obvious in his facial expression, just as much as it was in Ranger's.

Steph shrugged carefully, trying not to jostle her already-pounding head. "I'm not entirely sure. I remember you, Tank, and Bobby all waking me up this morning." Ranger frowned, his eyes dark. "And I remember the shower with you." Ranger's frown tightened and his eyes narrowed. "Then I was on my way to the gym, and then I don't remember anything until I woke up on Ranger."

Lester simply smirked at Ranger's expression and released his hold on Steph's arm. "We were waiting for you in the gym when Bobby sent out the call. We just missed him."

Ranger ground his teeth, his jaw tight. "How the fuck did someone get into this building?"

Shaking his head, Lester shrugged. "He was very lucky, very smart, or a professional. Whatever, he managed to time it to avoid our cameras. That's the only explanation that I can think of."

"We need to figure it out," Ranger growled.

"Bobby is reviewing all the tapes now." Lester semi-answered, knowing nothing he said would make Ranger any calmer right now.

"From now on, two men on Steph at all times, even in this building." Ranger brushed a kiss across her forehead, catching her chin in his hand again to look her in the eye. "I'm sorry, Babe. I thought you would be safe here. I'm not taking any more chances."

"Yeah, I got stunned, but not dead and not kidnapped." Steph half-heartedly chuckled. "That's pretty good for me." Sadly, that wasn't said just to make Ranger feel better. It was really true.

Ranger's face went blank. "How do you feel about staying at a safe house for a few days?"

Stephanie immediately straightened up, looking much better than she felt. "Hell, no."

"That's what I thought." Ranger looked, considering a moment before he turned to face Lester. "Les, take Steph back to her apartment. I need to go see Bobby. I'll be back later to check on her." He started up the stairs, then paused and turned around. "And stay out of her shower."

Again, Lester smirked at Ranger as he walked away. "Sure thing, cuz." Steph herself was too beat to take Lester to task for his comments. She actually took Lester's proffered arm and leaned on him heavily as they went down the stairs to the fourth floor. Lester took the steps slowly, allowing Steph to take her time. He even opened her apartment for her and did a quick, walk-through search before allowing her to enter. It was beginning to feel just like old times, and Steph didn't like it one bit.

"I'm a trained professional now. This shouldn't be happening. I should be working at finding who's stalking me, not hiding." Steph sighed tiredly as she entered her apartment and settled onto her couch. She out her feet up on the coffee table.

"Bomber, this is serious shit. No one has even broken in to RangeMan before." Lester looked concerned, pacing the floor in front of her. "I never thought Alec knew anyone with these kinds of skills."

Stephanie listened to him, leaning back into the sofa and closing her eyes. Lester was immediately beside her, poking her in the ribs. "You can't sleep until we know if you have a concussion or not."

She opened one eye to glare at him. "Do you know what it feels like to be stunned?"

"For once, I'm glad to say no." Lester continued to poke at her. "I'm sure it sucks, but I still won't let you fall asleep until I check you out. Open both your eyes so that I can get a good look at your pupils."

Steph sighed again, this one of resignation. Opening her eyes and turning to face Lester, she told him to check. He checks her pupils' reactions, pulling out a light on his key chain and switching her end table lights off and on. After several minutes of examination, he agreed with her. "I guess you're okay. Nothing seems to point to a concussion."

Steph smiled at him. "Good. I can take a nap then."

A knock at her door interrupted. She stayed where she was and called out, "Come in!" before Lester could stop her. He was up in a second, his gun drawn and aimed at the door as it swung open. Tank scowled from the doorway, his massive arms crossed against his chest. "Stephanie! What the hell were you thinking? Look before you let someone in- especially ten minutes after you were attacked not fifty feet from here!"

Stephanie winced at his booming voice. "Tank, my head!"

Tank swore at her as he strode in. "You're lucky it's still there to hurt, telling people to walk right in. I could have been your attacker coming back!"

Steph chose to ignore him. "Worry wart. Like the guy would be back that quick, with everyone in the building looking for his ass." She closed her eyes and leaned back again. "And I was too tired to get up."

Tank scowled and Lester shrugged. Tank spoke first. "I can't believe that you aren't taking this more seriously."

Steph got up- slowly and carefully. "I am taking this seriously, Tank. Actually, I'm kind of used to this type of thing, if you remember. But I can't let it rule my life. Which is why Lester and I will still be going to dinner at my parents tonight."

Lester turned a shade of red as Tank glared, first at him and then at Steph. "You're doing what?"

"Dinner. At my parents." Steph made her way towards her bedroom, determined to get a nap. "At six o'clock. With Lester." She paused in the doorway and looked back. "Any other questions? 'Cause I'm beat."

Lester sat back down on her sofa, holstering his gun and shaking his head. Tank reached for his cell, flipped it open, and dialed. When it was picked up, he spoke. "Yo, Ranger. Bombshell's being difficult."

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Stephanie's head felt thick with sleep and her limbs moved sluggishly to her mental commands. The light slanting through her window let her know it was well into the afternoon, an she decided that it was time to meet the day. And that, hopefully, this time she could make it off her floor before she got attacked.

Tank was sitting on her sofa, reading one of her crappy detective novels, waiting for her to wake up. He wasn't exactly happy to see her. "Nice to finally see you," he mumbled sourly at her, mentally marking his page before putting the book down on her coffee table and turning to face her. Lester's head popped out of her kitchen at the sound.

"Bomber!" Lester chirped- yea, chirped. He was way too happy sometimes. "We were giving you one more half-hour before tossing you into another cold shower!"

The comment earned him two scowls, one from Steph and one from Tank. "If you every do that again, Les, I'm shooting you." Steph shot Tank a glare and pushed past Santos to get into the kitchen and yank a Coke form her fridge. "How long have you two been waiting?" she asked more pleasantly after a long, caffeine-filled pull from the bottle.

"Since you went back to bed this morning," Tank supplied, looming behind Santos in the doorway. "We have a training session today, plus you have two men on you 24-7 after this morning."

Steph nodded, still pissed about the morning. "We know anything more?"

Lester answered, a pensive look shot at Tank first. "No. Still working on it."

"Which is why your little dinner is off, Steph." Tank crossed his arms and looked like his namesake, preventing her from leaving the kitchen. "Ranger's orders. Too dangerous."

Narrowing her eyes, Steph reached for her phone and dialed Ranger's cell from memory. "I'm going to dinner at my parents."

There was a charged silence at Ranger's end, then a deep breath. "No, Babe, you're not."

"Are you hard of hearing?" she asked, her voice nasty. "I am, and since Lester is going with me, I've already got a body guard. I'll be back at eight."

Ranger's voice sent chills down her spine, despite her anger, but she held her ground. "Stephanie, there is no way I am letting you go out of this building. I barely managed to protect you IN this building, which I thought was impenetrable. Don't test me."

Stephanie hung the phone up, glancing at the clock. Four-forty five. Plenty of time to get ready and stop to get a bottle of wine on the way. "I'm taking a shower and getting dressed. Be ready in a half-hour, Santos."

Lester shook his head. "Nope. Ranger's orders."

Steph smiled at Lester, and leaned in close to him, stretching her body out and brushing against his in all the right places. "And I thought the other night that you had a really impressive set. Guess I was mistaken."

Lester's face looked pissed, but half-way pleased. Tank's frown deepened. Steph merely shrugged and headed into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Steph took her time in the bathroom, luxuriating in a hot, steamy shower and tons of shower gel (Bulgari, of course!) She let the warmth wash over and loosen her tight muscles, easing tension from her body, tension she hadn't even realized she had been feeling. She felt better, after the extra sleep and the shower, then she had since Bobby had been shot. The good mood lasted until she shut off the water and pulled back the shower curtain to reach for a towel. Instead of having to stretch a bit to reach the bar, the towel was in easy reach.

Because Ranger was holding it.

Fuck, she thought. Or maybe she said it out loud. She wasn't sure, because she was so busy trying to figure out Ranger's level of pissed off from his face. It was completely expressionless. That was never good. Trying for brave, she wrapped the towel around her mass of dripping wet curls, turban-style, and held her hand out for another one.

Ranger kept his cold glare on her, even as he handed her the second towel. "I told you before, never hang up on me."

Stunned for a second- not the opening she had expected- Steph stepped out of the shower and started heading toward her bedroom. As she neared the door, she answered Ranger over her shoulder. "Don't tell me what to do on my own time, Manoso, and I won't have to hang up on you." She was still pretty pissed, even as she quaked in her boots.

Ranger's eyes widened for a minute, then anger rolled across them darkly. His hand snaked out and he gripped her upper arm tightly, stopping her in her tracks if she wanted to keep it attached. She barely had time to react when she felt the cold metal a second before she heard the tiny click. Then Ranger pulled her back, almost dragging her, to the shower. He had her left arm above her head and handcuffed to the shower rod before she could get past her shock.

"Ranger!" she yelled. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

His tone was bitter. "You forced me into this. I didn't want to stun you again, and I don't want to hurt you, but you aren't leaving this building, Stephanie." He crossed his arms in front of his chest and studied her.

Stephanie tried to speak, but wasn't able to get past the lump of red-hot anger caught in her throat. The anger was well beyond Ranger ordering her around. It was even more than if he'd stunned her or- as with the Slayers- had given his men orders to stun her.

He'd locked her up just like Morelli had. How had she ever thought that, in the end, she and Ranger would work out any better than her and Morelli had? Both of them had always frustrated the hell out of her when it came to them protecting her from herself. Ranger had been better at it than Joe, but even Ranger had once tried to ship her off to a safe house against her will. The main difference was that Joe didn't have anyone working for him to sic on her; he had to piss her off directly by doing it himself. As she hung there, Stephanie already began plotting just how she was going to get out of this.

Ranger watched her a minute more before he handed her a phone. "Tell your mother you won't be making it for dinner." Then he walked out.

Before Ranger had handed her the phone, Steph was furious. The moment he handed her the phone, the anger was gone, replaced by cold calculation. He had know exactly what he was doing and how it would make her feel, to have him recreate the shower scene.

Only this time it wouldn't be Ranger she'd call to help her out.

And she wasn't COMPLETELY naked, either.

Hiking up her now very loose towel, Steph tried to think things through logically. Even cuffing her to the shower rod, Ranger would have left a guard on her- just in case. Who would it be? Les, Bobby, or Tank? Or someone she didn't know? Any presented challenges, but Les and Tank she could manage. Tank- having been the one to call Ranger- had the added vengeance factor. Bobby- that would be a bit more work, balanced against the edge his injury might give her. She hoped, though, for Lester, remembering her knife fight lessons the other day with Tank. Even justified anger might not give her the edge she needed to face Tank.

Dialing, Steph held her breath and prayed to hear a tiny, electronic ringing. Lester's cell phone sang from somewhere in the vicinity of her kitchen. She heard Lester curse under his breath and ignore it. Hanging up, she called him again.

And again.

And again.

Lester finally appeared in the doorway. He had on the full utility belt, holstered gun, pepper spray, Mag-lite, and stun gun. He kept his hand near the stun gun. "Steph, I'm not allowed to unlock you." He looked very uncomfortable.

Score one for Steph. Lester might make it easier than she thought it would be. "Then how about you at least keep me company, until Ranger calms down? You owe me that much."

Lester shook his head. "What the hell did you do to piss him off enough to handcuff you to a shower rod?"

She shrugged. "It's a talent. And a long story."

Lester raised an eyebrow. "Wanna share it?"

"Not just now, no," Steph replied. "So what exactly did Ranger tell you you're supposed to do with me?"

"Make sure you don't leave." Lester moved into the room, leaning against the vanity with hands flat on the countertop and crossing his legs to get comfortable. "Stun you, if I have to."

"Can't he get a new routine? That's been done," she smiled, a bit evilly, "and you all saw how well that worked out."

"Hal has been instructed that if he hands you any weapon, until further notice, it's his ass." Lester smiled. "And I'm brighter than Hal. You aren't getting any help from me."

It sounded like an unstated challenge. At Lester's words, Steph began to warm up to the mental plan she had been forming. Steph actually liked Lester, and he couldn't help that he was related to Ranger. She hadn't wanted to hurt him, but now- a good Burg girl always takes the dare. Dropping her voice, Stephanie licked her lips. "What if it's not that kind of help?"

Lester smirked. "As if I'd fall for that."

Stephanie gave him a small smile. "You know, Ranger interrupted something." Steph bit her lip and let the phone hang from her fingertips. "And you know first hand what my love life has been like lately. I'm feeling frustrated here."

Lester continued staring at her, smirk firmly plastered across his face.

This wasn't working. Steph tried again, pulling out every trick she knew. Licking her lips, dramatically gesturing to her towel-clad form. "I need more than one hand."

Again, nothing. Maybe it was the towel turban. She eased it off her head and let the wet curls plaster themselves to her. "Lester, I feel like I'm going to spontaneously combust here."

Lester looked intrigued, against his better judgement, but he really was so much brighter than Hal. "I'm not getting within distance of you."

"Well, if you aren't going to help me out…" Steph sighed, hopefully not too dramatically, "leave. I've got some business to try and take care of here."

Again, the smirk. "Whatever you say, Bomber." Lester pushed off the sink and left the room, leaving the door opened just a fraction of an inch. His booming laughter echoed slightly against the tiles.

Well, if womanly charms and hormones wouldn't work for her- crushing her Jersey girl spirit just a bit- she'd have to go commando on their asses.

She considered that thought for a bit.

She really was fucked.

Ranger had yet to give her more than cursory lessons in lock picking, and it's not like she had her little leather case of tools here in the shower with her. Visions of the water torture scene from Lethal Weapon briefly played through her head, but she didn't want to hurt Lester or any of the guys. And that was the problem. RangeMan had trained her to win, not to fight fair, not to worry about her opponent.

And she did.

She dialed her phone again, not sure what she was going to say or if he would even pick it up. He answered on the second ring. "Don't hang up! Listen to me first, okay?"

"It's been a long time, Cupcake."

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Stephanie took a deep breath. Was she really doing this? Yeah, she was. Ranger was going to be really pissed at her now. Hello, third world country. "I need some help."

Joe sighed. She had a flashback to the beginning of a million and one fights between them. "I guessed that already. But I am not helping you with your crazy job. We've already discussed my opinion of your job, ad nauseum. Ask Gazarra for help if you need a cop."

Mentally cursing, Steph wished she had thought out this phone call better. "It isn't exactly my job."

There was a heavy pause. "Not exactly your job." Morelli sounded like he didn't want to ask, but couldn't help himself. "Then what is it?"

Her mind raced. How to explain this concisely enough? And make it sound serious but not too serious? Because she really didn't want to get Ranger arrested or any trouble like that. She just wanted out of the cuffs. She decided on short. "I've been kidnapped and I'm being held hostage." There, that about summed it up. Sort of.

Joe chuckled. "Ranger stuck you in a safe house, didn't he? And now you're pissed."

Steph's voice hardened, although she tried to keep a friendly, calm tone. "I am not in a safe house."

"Then where did he put you? I heard some new crazy was after you." Joe let out another sigh. "I'm just glad its not my job to worry about you anymore. You're too much work."

Steph momentarily felt the sting of his words, questioning why she had done this. "Fine. Forget it. Hope your life is great."

Joe recognized the dismissal and cut her off. His voice grew serious. "Is Ranger treating you all right? He is protecting you, isn't he?" The concern was there, unfeigned. It probably always would be, at least a little. Steph felt a mild nostalgic twinge before dismissing it.

"I have adequate protection. I just don't agree with the methods." Steph blew out a sigh now, anger still tinging her voice. "Again."

"Well, if you took a less dangerous job, Cupcake, you wouldn't need protection." Joe's voice was patronizing, then it dropped a heartbeat later to his sexy tone. "Then I would be around to look out for you. Whatever you needed."

Right, like she'd be happy with that. Mentally berating herself for even trying this plan, she gritted her teeth. "Got it. Thanks, Joe. Sorry to bother you-"

"Where's he got you?" Joe cut in, his voice business-like again.

Shaking her head, Steph decided to try for a parting shot, as childish and probably ineffective as it might be. But she was testy and getting more annoyed- both with herself and Ranger. "I'm handcuffed to a shower rod, semi-naked."

Joe laughed outright. "Been there, done that. You got out of it once, get out of it again."

"Ranger got me out last time." Steph let the detail slip, and Morelli rose to the bait.

A brief bit of silence. "So that's how you got out. It started back even then."

"What do you mean?" Steph asked, her temperature rising.

"The dance you do with Manoso. Why his men trailed behind you every time you get in hot water. Why he'd keep give a bounty-hunter screw-up like you a job." Joe's voice dripped now. "You're a rather high-maintenance girlfriend, even for a mercenary."

The last of her control slipped. "We really have been here, done this, so many times. There was nothing going on between Ranger and me while we were together." She made the implication clear with her emphasis.

The tension in Joe's voice went up a notch. "But you jumped right into his bed whenever we had a fight, I bet." She heard him shift, setting off a barrage of small squeaks- he must still be at work, sitting at his desk and pushing papers around before leaving for the day. "How long after we broke up did it take? Was there even a mourning period for you?"

Steph felt anger stiffen her spine. "What would there be to mourn? The end of ultimatums and constant fights?" She barked a short, angry laugh, thick with banked emotions. "I felt liberated, Joe. Free. And just for your information, I have not had Ranger in my bed since you and I broke up. Is it so inconceivable that he and I could just be friends?"

"Can we just be friends, Steph? Was that ever a real possibility?" Joe's tone dared her to answer honestly.

"I don't know," Steph grudgingly admitted.

Joe's frustration pulsed over the phone. How had her planned plea for help gone so wrong, so fast? Why had she even bothered? The pain in his voice cut through her fog of anger. "Cupcake, I don't think Ranger agrees that you're just friends."

"What do you mean?" Steph asked suspiciously. How many people saw signs that Ranger really cared for her, while she was blind? Were the words really that important to her, the formal -acknowledgement of a relationship that exists, named or not? "There's nothing to work out."

"Ranger called me a couple days ago about this new situation with you." Joe paused, carefully weighing his words. "He wanted me to look into something for him, keep an eye out. He knew that I would do it for you without asking any questions. He was worried." Stephanie felt as much as heard Joe began pacing his office. "Manoso doesn't worry, Steph.."

"And?" Stephanie asked impatiently as Morelli paused.

Joe continued. "I can't make you believe what I'm saying, but this was what I always feared when we were together, Steph. You are Ranger's; you do almost anything he asks, no matter what it is- as long as it doesn't have to do with your own safety. Even if you won't acknowledge it."

Steph had to prompt him again. "So?"

"He has done the same for you. It was obvious, in my face the whole time, and I just ignored it." Joe sounded as if a weight was being lifted from his shoulders, as if the mixed emotions he had been carrying around about the breakup were gone. He spoke with a clarity that amazed Steph. "Ranger's loves you, Steph. He's not the kind of guy to tell you, he's more the type to show you. Which he's done over and over again. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?"

Steph was a bit dumbstruck. In her silence, Joe continued. "I don't think, whatever has been said or done or is going on between you and Ranger right now needs my interference. Whatever happened between us, whatever happens in the future, I want you to be happy." Joe's voice thickened. "That's all I ever wanted for you. I'm just not the one who can do that for you. I think Ranger is, and I think I've known it for while. But I wasn't going to push the matter if you weren't. What we had worked well for me at the time."

"So you're over me and moving on?" Steph asked, all attitude quietly vanished from her voice. "And you think I should be with Ranger? Even though you never liked me working with him?"

"When we were together, no. He was a threat to me." Joe settled back down into the noisy chair again. "We aren't now. Plus he skirts the edges of the law, where I didn't want you to get caught, because I might not be able to protect you from the fall out. But as a friend, I'm telling you to give Ranger a real, honest chance." Papers shuffled on Joe's end. "I can't believe I'm saying, and actually meaning, this."

"Neither can I. Why exactly are you saying it?" Steph asked in an unsteady voice.

"Swallow your pride over making your own, uncompromising, stubborn choices." Morelli's cell phone rang, and she could hear him unclip it from his belt and check the caller ID. "He isn't putting you in a safe house for you; he's doing it for him. He can't stand the thought of you getting hurt. He wants to know you'll be okay, so that he can breathe and work and function, not worry all the time. Believe me, I understand what he's going through."

His cell phone rang again. "Do it for him, because he asked- not because you're scared or running. Cut the guy a break, for Christ's sake. I gotta go now, though. Listen to Ranger, will you?"

Biting her lip, Steph considered what had just come from Morelli. "I'll think it over. Thanks, Joe."

Another sigh, not as deep as the first one of the conversation, nor as angry as the others. "No problem, Cupcake. Stay safe."

Stephanie clicked the phone off.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Steph's arm, swinging from its metal bracelet, was stiffening up. Even with a towel, she was beginning to get a chill as the last of the steam and heat dissipated from the bathroom. The chill settled around her like a blanket, seeping into her bones and her heart. Joe's words, unexpected as they were, were keeping her mind in a furious whirlwind of thought.

Ranger was really pissed at her, as were the Merry Men. She was being stubborn and irrational, acting out of fear and her irrepressible talent for denial. And the more she thought about it, the more pissed- both at herself and all of them- she got.

Yes, she had said no to the safe house. It had been partially because she simply didn't want to give up her regular life for the psycho of the week; she hadn't liked it when it had been necessary before, and now she really hated it. Why? Because now, she was the trained professional. She wasn't supposed to have to hide from this type of thing. One of the reasons she was here at RangeMan was so that she could lead a semi-normal life.

But the old fears, the ones that had kept her awake through the dark nights after the first Ramirez incident, had come back. And she refused to acknowledge that fear, because she didn't want to be so incapacitated ever again. She didn't want to be such a screw-up; such a…girl. She did not want to have to be taken care of by someone else in order to stay safe.

She wanted to be able to take care of herself.

And she thought that she had become that responsible, that adult, that well-trained.

It was a crushing weight on her chest, making breathing difficult, every time that she had to acknowledge that she wasn't that person, not yet.

Joe had been wrong on one point, though. Ranger had not asked her to go to a safe house; he had ordered it. If he had asked, after the stairwell incident, her own sense of self-preservation would have kicked in and probably would have made her say yes. The problem was that he hadn't asked. And Ranger, being who he was, probably didn't even realize what a difference it would have made to her.

Maybe she needed to actually explain it to Ranger, so that he understood, rather than throwing a temper tantrum. Which was what this whole dinner-at-the-parents argument really was, when she critically considered it. The real question now was how to explain all this to Ranger? He probably wouldn't even answer her phone calls right now- he had been that pissed. Lester, who would forgive her almost anything and was a great friend, didn't even trust her enough to get within distance of physical contact with her.

How to fix this? First, she decided, she needed to talk to Ranger. Taking a deep breath, and hoping that the conversation with Joe wasn't an omen for this conversation, she dialed Ranger's cell.

He didn't pick up, and it went to voice mail. She wasn't sure what message to leave, so she hung up. Then she tried his other numbers, to no avail.

Then Tank, who didn't answer, either.

Or Bobby.

She was officially being avoided.

At least Lester was still here. "Hey, Les? Can I talk to you?" she called out through the partially opened bathroom door.

There was no response, so she tried again. More apologetic and louder this time. "Hey, Lester! Could you please come in here so that I can talk to you?"

It took several pleading minutes before he peered in at her from the safe distance of the doorway. "Yes?" His voice was toneless, his face expressionless.

"Lester, I want to apologize for my behavior earlier." Steph took a deep breath. She wasn't very good at this apology stuff; probably another contributing factor to her and Joe's demise and the difficulties with Ranger. "I'm not going to give you any excuses. I just wanted to apologize."

Lester looked at her for a few long moments, leaning one broad shoulder against the doorframe, searching her face for something. "Do you really mean it, or are you just trying to find a way out of those cuffs?"

She deserved that. "I really mean it. Yes, I would very much like to get out of the cuffs, but I know you can't let me out. If I were you, I wouldn't let me out." A very true statement, she admitted to herself. Quite frankly, if she were Ranger, she would have let the maniac she had become this afternoon go out and get her self killed.

Good thing she wasn't Ranger.

Lester pushed off the frame and made his way closer. Once again, he leaned against the vanity counter, arms crossed. "What changed your attitude so quickly?"

"I figured out that I was acting like a spoiled child denied a piece of candy instead of someone who should be grateful to have people to look out for me." Steph tried to adjust her towel one handed, but just managed to flash a bit more cleavage before she gave up and just hugged the towel to her with her one free arm. "A friend I talked to brought it to my attention and made me think about things."

"Sounds like a good friend." Lester continued to study her.

"I guess he actually is." Steph wondered a bit at that. She and Morelli had been many things, but she would never have labeled the relationship as friendship. Maybe there was hope for them to be friends after all. "I tried to call Ranger, and the guys, but no one wants to answer my calls right now. I know that I need to apologize to everyone, but I really need to talk to Ranger first. Can you ask him to talk to me?"

"I don't know, Steph-" Lester began, but she cut him off.

"Please, Les? Ranger had never been so pissed at me, ever, and I need to make things right with him. If he'll talk to me, I'll go to the safe house with no arguments or problems." Stephanie tried to project this sudden, deep, overwhelming need to talk to Ranger. "I promise."

Lester sighed, reaching for his cell phone and walking back out towards the living room. "I'll see what I can do."

Chapter Thirty

Steph could hear Lester's low, rumbling voice out in the kitchen as she swiveled about her metallic tether. The phone conversation didn't go on too long; it was marked by brief pauses and then rapid words, most of them in Spanish. The tone itself seemed calm, so Steph hoped she had a shot at Ranger answering his phone next time. Lester didn't come back in to see her, which she wasn't sure was good. About ten minutes later, Steph heard her front door open and an exchange between two people, carefully quiet, before the door closed again.

She strained to hear anything else, any clue as to what was going on or who was out there. Was it a change of guard? Or something else- like Ranger? She was so busy listening that she wasn't watching the door. The shadow that quickly passed over her as someone stood in the doorway startled her into a high-pitched shriek.

"Babe?" Ranger questioned tentatively from the doorway.

Steph tried to breathe again. "Fuck, Ranger! You scared the shit out of me!" She immediately wanted to take the words back; that certainly wasn't the first thing she had wanted him to hear from her just now.

Ranger visible tensed, one eyebrow quirking up as he crossed the thresh hold and paused before her, hands hooked casually into his fatigue pockets. Ignoring the greeting as well as her gaze, staring somewhere to her left and up, he asked, "You wanted to talk to me?"

Taking a deep breath, Stephanie tried to organize her chaotic thoughts. Looking over at her own personal Rambo, every muscle outlined under his t-shirt and gun holster, wasn't helping her mental daze. She had to force herself to concentrate on the task at hand- apologize. She did not want to mess this up. She couldn't stand the thought of Ranger's disapproval or how low his opinion of her must be right now. He didn't look nearly as pissed as he did early, but he certainly wasn't completely calm yet, either.

"I've calmed down," he intoned, wordless mirth crossing his face. His ESP was working, or she was thinking out loud again.

Dammit, she thought, careful this time to keep her thoughts IN her head. "I wanted to apologize for, and try to explain my earlier behavior."

Although he didn't say anything at her words, Ranger inclined his head, which she took as an invitation to continue. "I am grateful that you have always taken care of me when I've been in over my head, be it from lack of skills or pursuit by a loon or for whatever reason. Thank you. I know I am not always easy to get along with." She paused, not sure how to be blunt without being rude. "But you aren't easy to get along with either."

Ranger did not respond, simply waited for her to continue. The stillness and quiet of him was disconcerting in her present, agitated state. He was like an emotionless rock, standing before her, and she despaired of ever being able to read past the surface of him. She felt her eyes began to tear up against her will, and she blinked to try to hide it.

Why try to hide anything from Ranger? He stepped to her, reaching out to wipe a tear away before it fell. His voice was soft and gentle. "Babe, I never want to make you cry."

Steph bit her lip, trying to compose herself. Her thoughts tried to rush out, tying up her tongue and her emotions. "I am not crying, dammit."

Ranger chuckled, almost against his will. She could feel the vibrations deep in his chest as he held her. "Okay, Babe. Those aren't tears."

Steph drew a shaky breath and tried to explain her feelings in a way that would make sense to Ranger. Keeping what Joe had said to her in mind, she made it simple. "I'm well aware that I am in danger. I'm not stupid. I would have gone to the safe house if you had asked me to, you know. But you didn't ask." She sniffled and choked back a bit of a sob. "You never ask me!"

Ranger looked genuinely puzzled, so she continued. "You tell me what to do, but you don't ASK me. Think about it, though. When have I ever said no when you actually asked me?" Steph forced herself to look him in the eye. "Never. Even when it might have been in my best interest to say no." She paused, but couldn't keep from adding, as an after thought, "I wouldn't have said no the night you collected on our deal, either, if you had asked."

Eyes slightly abashed, Ranger almost flinched at her words. "You never said no."

"You didn't exactly stop to ask, either. And I didn't feel like it would have mattered." Steph said, somewhat bitterly.

Ranger's voice sounded more hurt than angry. "Are you saying that I forced you against your will?"

"NO!" she shouted. Another conversation that she couldn't keep on track. "We both wanted what happened." There, she had acknowledged it. Now for the main point. "But it still would have been nice to feel as if I had a bit more control over it."

Ranger looked puzzled still. "Babe-"

She cut him off. In for a penny, in for a pound. If he was already pissed at her, she might as well throw all her cards on the table. "Have you ever felt powerless, Ranger? Not in an invading-another-country-combat kind of way. I mean in an everyday-walking-down-the-street kind of way."

He shook his head with a slight shrug of his shoulders; he still didn't quite get it, she could tell. "I've spent most of my life that way. I have not had real control over anything; my life was determined by the whims of fate and other people. The Burg told me what I should do, how I should do it, and chastised me if I wavered from that path. I didn't get to say what I wanted my life to be like. It's not a fun way to exist."

She took a deep breath, thinking back to her conversation with Tank. "I thought that I'd finally gotten some control in my life, finally felt like I had the power. And now-" She sniffled, rather unattractively, "I find out that I don't. And to have it shoved in my face- getting attacked, then being ordered around- set me off like Fourth of July fireworks. I just reacted, didn't think about it. I am sorry about the way I acted, but this whole situation has made me feel like I'm not really me, like I'm some silly woman who has to be rescued. Again. And I don't want to be that person."

"I hadn't ever thought about it from your perspective, I guess. I'm used to people listening to me." Ranger conceded, his tone of voice conciliatory.

Steph nodded into his shoulder. "I know. And you are always in control of the situation. But I'm not just 'people,' Ranger. Getting ordered around is one thing, getting ordered around by you is another."

"What do you mean, Babe?" Ranger hadn't let go of her during the conversation. He kept his arms around her, ignoring her half-covered state. In her emotional distress, Stephanie had forgotten about it, but was being reminded by one hormonal corner of her mind. She told it to stifle itself and listen to almost adult, relationship-type exchange.

"There's enough going on between us already, Ranger, without adding in my crisis-of-the-week. I don't feel like myself, being thrown into this situation, and then-" Stephanie thought for moment, unsure how to continue without skirting swampy relationship grounds that neither of them were ready to deal with just now. "You just unbalance me even more. It makes me feel like an idiot."

"How am I doing that?" Ranger asked, his voice soft with concern and genuine emotion. "I am trying to keep you safe, Stephanie."

"You aren't letting me handle it. You aren't giving me any options in the situation. You're just dictating. In that scenario, I become nothing more than the loon magnet." She took a bigger breath to rush the last part out. "I'm more than that, dammit."

Ranger brushed his lips against her hair and agreed. "Much more, Babe. I didn't realize that this was how I made you feel."

"Fuck," Steph sniffled. "That's the whole other part of the problem. I don't know how you make me feel. Actually, no- I know how you make me feel. Ninety percent of the time, it's great. But I don't know how I make you feel." Inwardly cringing, she decided to continue and push the envelope between her and Ranger. "And I don't know where things are going with you. Are we going to be able to actually date and stuff? Or are you always this pushy? 'Cause I won't be anyone's doormat again."

Pulling her closer, ignoring the falling towel, Ranger sighed. "I would never ask you to be a doormat. I reacted without thinking as well. I should have asked you to go to the safe house, but I guess I'm just not used to asking." He leaned back from her. "I don't want you to go because you can't help protect yourself, Babe. I want you to go for my peace of mind. I need you to be safe so that I can concentrate on getting a handle on this situation. Would you go stay at a RangeMan safe house for me?"

What do you know? Morelli was right about some of this. Was he right about all of it? "Yes, Ranger. I'll go." Steph took a deep breath, unsure if this was a good time or place, but unable to hold back any longer. "If it will make you happy, I'll do it." Pulling back to look in his eyes, she pulled out the big guns. " Anything you want me to- as long as you ask."

Chapter Thirty-One

The silence of the room hung heavily over them, the echo of Stephanie's last words dying before Ranger even drew breath to answer. Steph was counting the seconds of silence that stretched into minutes, her heart contracting tightly in on itself the entire time. She was mentally kicking herself so hard that she almost missed Ranger's barely-audible response.

"Anything?" Ranger asked, his voice lower than usual.

Biting her lip, Steph repeated, "Anything."

Ranger's arms tightened around her, gripping her close. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head so that she couldn't see his face. "Than why did you say no when I asked you to go up to my apartment with me?"

Steph sighed. She wasn't sure she was ready for this now, but since she had emotionally ambushed Ranger she guessed turn-about was only fair play. "It didn't feel like a sincere request."

She felt Ranger slump a little against her. His voice sounded unsure, something she was not at all used to hearing from Ranger. "Sincere?" he asked. "I thought it was obvious what I felt."

"Obvious?" she squealed, not quite ready to shove off Ranger and lose contact but not draped happily against him anymore, either. "Nothing with you is obvious!" Now Steph was getting annoyed again. She had thought Ranger was picking up on her issues, but he still didn't understand why she had said no. A sense of deja vu flooded her, and she pulled far enough away from Ranger so that she could look him in the eye. "I thought I had made this clear, Ricardo Carlos Manoso. I want more than one night, or occasional night, of sex with you."

"Then what is it that you want from me?" Ranger asked, tension evident in his body and voice. Steph wasn't sure if Ranger's tension was because he needed to hear the words as badly as she did, or because he didn't want to actually hear her state it out loud. Once it was out there, their non-relationship would never be the same. The thought petrified her.

Steph pulled away, struggling with her towel again before she gave up for a final time and just allowed it to fall to the floor. "A better question, Ranger, is what are you willing to give me?" She wouldn't look directly at him, just vainly stood trying to cross her arms- one immobile still- in front of her naked body.

Ranger pulled away from her and moved back to leaning on the sink. She immediately felt chilled. "I think that depends on your answer to my question," Ranger stated, his blank look firmly back in place.

"Oh, no, Ranger. I wasn't the one who said I didn't do relationships. I didn't send you back to someone else the morning after." Steph brusquely tried pulling her hair out of her face before giving up in further exasperation. "I'm not the one who had roaming hands, applying pressure all the time. You tell me what the fuck you want from me, in plain god-damn English." She finished her speech, the volume slowly rising until she was yelling, her hand jabbing the air in Ranger's direction and one hand on her hips.

Ranger didn't answer her, just stared at her, his face inscrutable. Stephanie felt her anger slowly leaving her, and sheer desperation and hopelessness taking its place. The whole plan with the boys, the strange game she and Ranger had been playing for almost three years, all of it just seemed like too much drama all of a sudden, and she was desperately tired.

Freakin' game of chicken, she muttered in her head. Well, Steph had had enough of it. She decided to lay it all out there in one ballsy move and be down with it. Prevail, or move on. "Dammit, Ranger, I want you. All of you- Batman and regular human, corporate boss and street thug- every day and every night, for the rest of my life." She turned her head away from him, determined not to see the look in his eyes, the gentle rejection she feared. Her last words were a half-strangled sob. "Ring or no ring."

Ranger's breathing audibly caught in his chest. She turned to look at him, shocked that she had gotten any reaction and almost half-seriously to see if he was having a stroke or something from the strangled sound that he had made. "Babe?" Ranger asked, a little dazed.

Steph tried to stifle her tears. She was so worked up, she couldn't even manage to blurt out "This is so embarrassing!' past the lump of pure humiliation in her throat.

Then the world moved past her in fast-forward motion. Ranger's arms were suddenly around her, rough yet gentle, cradling her as he freed her arm from the handcuff and at the same time holding her up when her body slid down, too weak-kneed to support herself. She hadn't wanted to do this this way, to tell him how she felt with no warning and out of the blue and in this situation. It was supposed to involve a lot of romantically lit candles and music and sexy lingerie… Plus, now she was scared- more scared than she had ever been in her life. Slayers could hurt her body, but Ranger could rip out her heart with a word and never mean to. She practically quivered in his arms.

Ranger seemed to sense her emotions, because he finally chose to speak a full sentence. "Stephanie, do you really mean what you just said?"

Steph pulled away and flashed him an indignant look before she remembered that she wasn't supposed to look at him. "It's not a super secret plan to get me out of these cuffs, Ranger, if that's what you're asking," she retorted.

He paused, catching her chin in his hand and forcing her to look at him. His voice was insistent. "Do you really mean it, Babe? Are you sure that you're really ready for that?"

Steph snorted. "Don't even start the let-down speech, Ranger. I know that you're not interested in me that way. Why would you be?-"

Ranger cut her off with a deep, passionate, pent-up kiss. If Steph had thought he was good at kissing before, this one was off the scale. She couldn't help but melt into it, and didn't resurface- shaky and unsteady on her feet- until Ranger pulled away for a breath. "Why wouldn't I be, Babe?" he asked, a little bit breathless, too.

She sighed, trying to hold her thoughts together against his offensive tactics. "Is this some game to you? See how much I will embarrass myself?" She tried to shrug out of Ranger's insistent embrace. "See if I'll fold and head up to your place, anyway?"

"Never." That one word, in Ranger's deadly-serious tone, stopped her cold.

Steph felt a glimmer of hope. "I thought I was amusement for you. You told me I was an entertainment line-item. Am I more than that to you after all?" she asked, bravery suddenly flooding her.

Ranger just pulled her tighter. "This is where I need to do some groveling."

His choice of words, his change in demeanor, made Steph's head, still not altogether from her earlier stunning, spin. "Groveling?"

Ranger scooped her up into his arms and carried out to her bed. Setting her down, he turned and methodically pulled out panties and a t-shirt for her. Turning back, he slid the t-shirt over her head and Stephanie grabbed and put on the panties before he decided to help with that, too. Once she was dressed, he pulled back her covers and slid her body up the bed, as if she were a child, until her head rested on the pillow and the blankets were tucked back up under her chin. Then he kicked off his shoes and slid in next to her, wrapping a muscular arm over her and resting her back to his front.

Pulling up the blankets to cover both of them, Ranger let out a contented little noise, almost like a purr. "Stephanie Plum, I want to apologize. I was an idiot, and inconsiderate. I have made many, many mistakes in my relationship with you." He grasped her hand in his and began playing his maddening games with it, swirling his thumb across the palm gently. "And I will spend as long as you will let me trying to make up for it."

Chapter Thirty-Two

Ranger had just apologized- again. And wanted to make up for being an idiot. If Steph hadn't been so damn happy at the words- once the meaning sunk in through the fog of her emotion-addled brain- she would have looked for a hidden camera crew or something, sure that this couldn't be real. Drawing in a ragged breath, she closed her eyes and smiled, drinking in this moment for which she had been waiting for years. Ranger took it as silent expectation for him to continue, which he did.

"Stephanie, I was attracted to you the minute I saw you, before you even introduced yourself. The attraction has just grown and grown over the years. I could not control my reaction to you, my need for you, my need just to be around you." Ranger gave her a quick squeeze. "I have never felt that way about anyone, ever." He grimaced a little. "I am always in control."

Steph actually chuckled at that. "I've noticed that about you, Ric."

Another small shudder ran though Ranger's body. "You called me Ric. You never call me Ric," he said, his voice husky.

"It seemed appropriate. Do you want me to stop?" Steph asked, circling Ranger's arm around her waist with her own. She liked the way it just seemed to come out of her mouth and hoped he would say no, not to stop. She still thought of him as Ranger, but she could think of him as Ric at times, as well, she was sure. Although he would always be Ranger to her heart.

"No. I like it." He paused a moment and picked up the stream of his thoughts again, slipping back into his story. "I didn't know what to do about my feelings for you. I've never wanted a woman like I want you. I've never had the desire for a woman to hang around longer than a few nights, to be honest. None ever interested me that much, beyond the mere physical act. But you were different. I knew that immediately."

Slightly surprised, and still glowing inside to hear Ranger actually discussing emotions, Steph couldn't help but let slip out, "What about your ex-wife?" Although she knew there was an ex-wife and a daughter, that was pretty much all she knew, except for a few scraps from Lester. Turning her head so that she could see Ranger's face more clearly, she asked, "Why would you marry a woman if you didn't feel strongly about her?"

Ranger looked uncomfortable. "I was young, and didn't realize that you could feel like this about someone. And then Rita told me she was pregnant. I thought I had to marry her, and didn't realize that a marriage was such difficult work. I thought it would resolve itself into a happy ending because I still somehow believed that if you did what you were supposed to do, life rewarded you." He snorted in contempt at his younger self. "I should have known better, but I didn't. Needless to say, it didn't take long for it to all fall apart."

"What happened?" Stephanie asked quietly, wondering what Ranger had been like so long ago. He sounded eerily similar to her, with her Burg notions of what her life should be like and some of the dumb decisions- like marrying the Dick- she had made to try and fit those notions. In some ways, she and Ranger were more alike than she had realized.

"Fights. Disagreements over stupid things until we were screaming at each other- and then the bigger things. I didn't want Ana baptized, Rita did. She did it behind my back and I found out about it." He looked pained. "I lost my temper, threw a ceramic bowl at the wall. It shattered and a piece hit her." He stopped his story again.

"This is one of those things you aren't proud of, and don't really want to tell me, isn't it, Ric?" Steph kept her eyes on his and waited until he answered.

"Yes. I didn't hurt her on purpose, didn't even aim for her. And I never, ever laid a hand on her. But she called the cops on me, told them I hit her. Old white cops decided that the young Hispanic was guilty without really talking to me. The charges got dropped, eventually, for lack of evidence." The tone of Ranger's voice had changed, gotten rougher. His inflection changed as well, deepening and echoing the exaggerated ghetto-speak Ranger sometimes affected. "But it was the beginning of divorce proceedings."

"I'm sorry, Ranger. I can hear the pain in your voice." It had happened so long ago, and she had no part in it, but Steph still felt badly for Ranger. The whole experience had obviously taken its toll on him.

"It's was a long time ago. And no matter what I went through, I still have Ana." Ranger leaned back on the pillow and smiled. "She's worth anything. I didn't know just how much this tiny, helpless creature would mean to me before she was actually born."

Steph tried to lighten the mood. "Did the big-bad ex-Special Forces guy cry?"

"Yeah," Ranger admitted nonchalantly. "Bawled like the proverbially baby."

"She must be very special." Stephanie snuggled in to Ranger further. It might be her biological clock, or it might just be Ranger, but seeing and hearing him talk about his daughter and being a father was damn sexy. This turn in the conversation stirred up feelings in Stephanie that she'd rather ignore for the immediate present.

"She is. I think you'll like her." Ranger pulled her tighter. "If you want to meet her, that is. I still have a few things to clear up for you, so that there are no misunderstandings. I want a clean slate before we try this new relationship."

"Okay," Stephanie agreed, dredging up the messiest part of her and Ranger's history. Taking a deep breath, she broached the topic that she most wanted to know about. "Then tell me why you sent me back to Morelli."

"I don't live a normal lifestyle, Stephanie. I navigate gray areas that could put people close to me in bad positions." Ranger sighed deeply. "I also was afraid. Any other women in my life- not that there have been many that I've been close to- have all left me, one way or another."

"Except for Tia." Steph stated, wanting to clarify the record.

"Except for Tia," he acknowledged. "I never let women in too closely. I never had to. Women were just always there if I wanted them. I simply never wanted them for very long."

Steph considered his words. Ranger- well, there was never any doubt that Ranger could have any woman he truly wanted. Women routinely forgot their own name around him and went vapidly blonde, unless they were comatose or dead. It wasn't him being vain, either. It was simply a fact. But she had never considered that it might have made him uncomfortable, or that he didn't enjoy it. And it was only made worse because she couldn't for the life of her see why Ranger would want to be with her out of all the women he could have. So she asked. "Why do you want me? How do I know that it will last? That you won't get tired of me any time soon?"

Ranger kissed her, a gentle brush against her lips that left her craving more. "You asked for my help, I helped. I watched over you, to make sure you would be okay. I didn't want to tell you how I felt, because I wasn't sure how you felt. And I didn't want to lose whatever relationship we had. Anything with you was better than nothing."

Stephanie mentally agreed. That was also one of the reasons she hadn't told Ranger how she felt. But it didn't answer her question. "But if this doesn't work out? I don't have the best relationship history, Ranger."

"Babe, neither do I." Ranger pushed himself up so that his was resting on one bent arm. "I promise you, the thought of not having you in my life at all scares the hell out of me. I can't even consider it. So if you want to pursue a relationship with me, know now that even if it ends badly, I can't cut you out of my life altogether."

Ranger shifted onto his back again, letting the words hang in the air and pulling her with him so that she rested partially on one muscular arm and was laying across his broad chest. She smiled, surveying the wide expanse and thinking "Mine" before snuggling in with a tiny, satisfied sigh. A thousand and one things could still go wrong- and there was still the matter of Ranger's psycho cousin- but for this one perfect moment, she felt contentment spreading across her body and soul.

Pulling her even closer, playing with tendrils of her hair as he spoke, Ranger stared up at the ceiling. "And then Morelli kept coming back into the damn picture. I could see that he made you happy at times, but mostly unhappy. I also knew that, with your history and background, there was unfinished business with him that I had to let you finish. That didn't mean it was easy, or that I didn't worry I was losing you."

"Morelli didn't tell me what to do, or who to-" Steph began, but he cut her off.

"If I were Morelli, Babe, you wouldn't have been working with me anymore. He could deal with me for your sake, but if he didn't need to, he wanted me far away." Ranger smiled a tiny, harsh smile. "I was a threat to him, just as he was a threat to me. We're both predators and we recognized the enemy."

"Then why send me back to him?" Steph asked impatiently.

"I thought it was best for you," he said simply. "I think I've now learned that you need to be allowed to make your own choices, which I took away from you after that night." Ranger played with her hair again. "And all I can do now is apologize over and over again."

Stephanie lay limp in Ranger's arms, the past two days catching up with her. She yawned. "Apology accepted," she said simply. They stayed in each other's arms, still and peaceful, as Steph began drifting off. Ranger had stayed with her- no vanishing act- she noted when a cell phone chirped out. It was Ranger's, quickly followed by her own. Groaning a bit, they both reached for their respective phones, aggravation at the interruption evident in their voices.

"Talk!" Ranger ordered.

"This had better be good!" Steph hissed from behind clenched teeth.

Lester's voice, laughter bubbling beneath the surface, clearly carried. "Am I interrupting something, Bomber? Ranger's been in there for a while…"

"Well?" Stephanie asked, impatient. "What happened?"

"There was an escape from the lock-up." Lester stated, all amusement suddenly gone and his voice tense.

"Let me guess," Steph sat up and looked nervously at Ranger. He looked equally unhappy at his conversation; she assumed her was on the phone with Tank, getting the bad news as well. "You cousin has moved on to new accommodations?"

Lester didn't laugh at her humor, which was not a good sign. "Uh, yeah. Forwarding address unknown."

Steph and Ranger swore at the same time and both hung up. "Fuck."

Chapter Thirty-Three

Ranger was up in a single, fluid movement, dragging Steph up behind him with a tug on her arm. "Better get dressed, Babe."

Steph sighed deeply. Things finally looked like they might get settled- or started?- between her and Ranger, and they got interrupted. Nothing new there, but her patience was being tested. Crazy frikkin' psychos.

Pulling her to him for a quick embrace, Ranger grinned. "I have the feeling that psychos are a constant that we will have to deal with."

Dammit, she said that aloud. Again. She vowed to redouble her efforts to keep her comments to herself, especially around Ranger- he didn't need to hear some of the things (good or bad) that she thought about him. Reaching for a pair of jeans and a bra, Steph conceded. "Well, it was a nice hiatus for six months before returning to the psycho of the week."

Eyes dark and serious, Ranger waited for her at the door. "I will always protect you from them, Steph."

His tone of voice- deadly, fierce, and sexy- made her melt inside. The intimidating figure of strength and force he made, standing in her doorway with his hands draped in his pockets, made other parts of her liquefy. "I know that, Ranger, and I appreciate it. But I don't have to like the fact I need you to do so." She slid her gun into its holster and pulled a button down flannel shirt on top. She didn't feel very self-assured or well-trained today, so RangeMan black didn't seem to fit. Glancing in the mirror, she hoped a return to flannel wouldn't be symbolic of a return to her early years as a joke of a bounty hunter. Trying to head off that train of thought, she turned to Ranger after she locked her door and asked "So what did Tank tell you?" as they headed to the elevator.

"Wait until we get there." Ranger's reflection stretched over hers in the mirrored walls of the elevator as his arm snaked around her middle and pulled her close to him. Those muscles felt just as good pressing against her back as she remembered them. Momentarily soaking in his warmth, she leaned back into Ranger and he bent his head down to rest his cheek against the top of her head. Breaking the spell of the moment, Ranger began, "Neither of us is the easiest to get along with, Babe, and I don't want to lose this beginning we have going. Promise me that if we have a disagreement, you won't just get pissed at me, that you'll try to talk things out with me. I'll promise to do the same."

Steph closed her eyes, mentally sighing, wishing it could be that simple. But she knew herself and her weaknesses pretty well after all the hanging around with the Rangemen guys. They were pretty smart for Rambo doubles, and she had learned a lot about herself and her reactions. "I would really like to, Ranger, honestly, but I just can't promise anything like that." Here she tried to insert some humor, which fell quite flat. "I'm half-Italian, arguments are my specialty."

She soldiered on despite Ranger's lack of reaction. "I don't want to make a promise to you that I can't keep. I have a temper, I get mad; that's just how I am." She put her hand on top of his and met his eyes. "But I'll try my best. Honestly."

It was Ranger's turn to sigh, though audibly. "I guess that will have to be good enough." There was a beat of silence before he added, his arms tightening around her for the briefest of moments, "Though if we do fight, I'd rather not find that you ran to someone else for the night."

Steph let that pass, already fighting her instincts in an effort- thankfully successful, although she would revisit the remark sometime later, in a more private setting- not to say something. The doors opened then, saving her the inner conflict, and Lester, lounging against the wall waiting for them, shot them a half-smile. Headed towards the office, he called over his shoulder, eyes registering the change in demeanor between Stephanie and Ranger. "Every one else is already in the conference room."

Ranger and Steph wordlessly followed him, Ranger's hand firmly holding hers, only letting reluctantly go a second before the big, oak door swung open. The long table, the leather chairs, the slanted, lowered blinds changed the mood and Ranger turned back into his usual commander role.

Steph settled in a chair to Ranger's left, Lester between them, and tried very hard to pay attention to the meeting. It was difficult, even though for once Lester was serious and still during the meeting instead of clowning around. But she kept finding her attention sidelined by watching Ranger. He was an enjoying sight at any time, smooth dark skin rippling over more well-defined but not exaggerated musculature, gun holster and fatigues hugging suggestively. But when he took control of a situation,. the air of authority he wore like a second skin only heightened the effect of his good looks. Bits and pieces of information filtered through her Ranger-induced haze, which she filed away to reflect on later, until her attention was snapped back to the situation at hand by the words 'safe house," followed by an expectant silence.

She felt eyes on her as she tried to integrate the bits of information she had casually stored for later use and formulate an answer to the statement she had not actually heard. Ranger was looking at her, as were Tank, Lester, and Bobby. Each man's eyes wore a different expression, from one of gentle bemusement to slight exasperation. Thankfully, when she didn't answer after a minute or two of complete silence, Ranger prodded her.

"I was saying that a safe house is the best place for you right now, but it's up to you." The formation of his command as a question cost him, as well as obviously having to repeat again for her benefit, she could tell. It got more than one raised eyebrow from the other men, all of whom seem braced for an outburst, and a quick, questioning look shot at her from Lester.

"Are you asking me to go, Ranger?" She asked carefully, her voice low.

His eyes levelly met hers, never wavering. The deep, dark depths of them were mesmerizing. "Yes."

A sigh escaped in her interior, mental voice. She didn't want to hide, she wanted to face this situation head on, but Ranger had ASKED. She couldn't say no. not after their earlier discussion. She couldn't even voice her impatientness with a "how long." So she simply nodded in agreement.

Lester seemed slightly stunned at her response. Tank did a quick impression of a fish out of water before he caught himself and simply frowned.

Ranger shrugged. "I don't know how long you'll have to be there yet, but this is only a short term solution."

Steph was a bit afraid to ask what Ranger's definition of 'short term' might be. He was the most patient person she knew- he could wait hours for a skip to show up. And she was like the Energizer Bunny if you asked her to sit still and be quiet for more than five minutes. Her attention span was notoriously short. This safe house better have TV, books, and board games out the wazoo, or her babysitters would be calling for backup within a few short hours.

"As long as it isn't going to end up like a witness protection program, okay?" A second thought struck her, almost scarier than the first. If there was anything worse than being bored out of your mind, it was being bored out of your mind in the middle of no where, with absolutely nothing to break the monotony. "Just where is this safe house?" She had visions of some shack in the woods behind barbed wire fencing. Didn't seem to go with Ranger's tastes, but you never knew.

"If I told you, that would defeat the purpose, Babe." Ranger had been waiting for her answer with a touch of nervousness; the slight tension in his shoulders gave him away. Steph wasn't sure if Ranger was deliberately dropping his guard with her, or if she was getting better at reading him, but she was still pretty impressed with herself.

Steph looked around. "So who's baby sitting me, then?"

Lester leaned over. "You weren't paying any attention to half of what was going on, were you?" he whispered at her.

She shot him a dirty look, which sent him back to his seat, looking out in a different direction. Ranger's sigh carried clearly across the broad, shiny wood table. "Tank and Lester. I'll stop by at some point, if I judge it safe."

Steph nodded. "The bright side is, I don't have to do to dinner at my parents. The down side? I have to tell my mom. Well, tell her something. I'm not telling her I'm in danger again. She'll disown me. Or worse, stop feeding me."

Ranger cracked a smile. "I wouldn't want you to be forever denied pineapple upside down cake."

"Is there any way I can stop and see her before we go to the safe house?" Steph wasn't sure she wanted the answer to be yes, but if it was no. she had at least tried to perform her daughterly duty.

Ranger looked reprovingly at her. "Babe." He could say that name and carry a world of meaning in those four little letters. "I'm sure that you're mother would prefer you alive rather than make you attend Sunday dinner."

"Ranger, you've met my mother. Why on earth would you think that?" Steph asked dismally. It looked as if she was going to be desert-less for quite some time.

Chapter Thirty-Four

The tension in the air was gone, once Stephanie agreed to go to a safe house of her own free will. The impromptu meeting lost steam for a few minutes, as one of it's main objectives was so easily accomplished. The men all thought it was going to take a lot longer to convince Stephanie, her previous change of heart nonwithstanding. Tank, still looking a bit confused, began to fill them all in on the details of Alec's apparent prison break. "He has to be working with someone. Not only was Alec missing after a rec period, there was someone else left in his place."

Steph sat up straighter at that. "What do you mean, someone left in his place?"

Lester explained for her. "There was a body there in his uniform, unconscious. The guards assumed it was him, and no one was the wiser for most of the day."

Ranger's expression grew dark. "Was it cold or kicking?" The iciness of his voice, the lack of emotion in his coarse question, gave Stephanie a chill. The callousness made Stephanie think back to her "date" with Bobby, and remember how much she didn't know about Ranger and the guys. She had been relatively shielded from the mercenary side, even working with and for Ranger, up until now. Suddenly, she was very glad that she didn't know the details of their military careers.

Tank answered tersely. "Barely kicking. Found the guy at ten this morning, didn't realize he wasn't Alec until an hour ago. Guard recognized the error, set off the alarm, but it was too late. Alec was probably long gone. They haven't found him in the prison and are still checking how he could have gotten out, so it's on lock-down for now."

"That shit," Lester muttered, the disdain in his voice evident. "So who's the replacement?"

"Maintenance worker at the prison, we think." Tank shifted some papers in front of him. "No official word, yet, and our source wasn't able to confirm an identity for me."

Steph spoke up, unnerved. This was like a movie plot. "What time did he disappear, exactly?"

Ranger picked up on where she was going with this. He addressed her unspoken question before turning back to Tank and the men. "Not early enough to be your attacker, Babe. So that means there are probably at least three of them in on this."

Steph felt a bit faint and leaned back in the chair, closing her eyes. "Just checking. Three. Got it."

Lester looked at her, a trace of worry in his eyes. "We got ya, Bomber."

Not opening her eyes to respond, Steph nodded. "Know it. Still not thrilled about all this."

Tank grunted an agreement to Ranger' statement. "There's no way the escape could have been Alec working alone, and it's not a Three Stooges job. Either he's gotten smarter, or his buddies have."

"Well, this is a hot situation. We've got to work fast, before the cops get too involved and screw up our investigation." Ranger looked over at Steph. "No trips to your parents, then- straight to the safe house."

Steph sighed in resignation. "I'll go pack," she stated flatly, rising and waiting to see which of the guys was going to follow her. She was going to comply with all of Ranger's requests regarding her safety, like not going it alone even in the RangeMan building, because she was truly scared now. A quick nod at Lester from Ranger, and Lester rose and followed her out.

Once in the hall, she breathed a small sigh of relief that Ranger didn't choose to accompany her himself. She thought she might break down, if she couldn't keep her mind from working in the circles it kept going, and she didn't want to do it in front of Ranger. Lester seemed to read her mind. As they stood waiting for the elevator, he quietly asked, "You doing okay, Steph?"

"Not really," she wavered in a voice that didn't sound like her own. "Now my pyscho-stalker has multiplied into three, and gotten smarter. That's never a good thing. I actually WANT to go to a safe house now- also not a good thing. It makes me question my choice of lifestyle. Maybe my mother's right and I need to get a job in the tampon factory."

Lester reached an arm around her and pulled her into a supportive hug, "And other than that?"

She chuckled at him, glad for the company and slight distraction. "Great, I guess."

"I take it you and Ranger made up, since he let you out of the cuffs." Lester leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Not that that wasn't a sight to enjoy, under other circumstances." He let her go, keeping an arm casually draped across her shoulders. "Did my call interrupt anything? You sounded cranky."

A slow smile stretched across Steph's face, but she didn't answer right away. Lester leered at her. "I guess you and Ranger must have been getting busy, then."

"Get your mind out of the gutter." Stephanie smacked him upside the head. "Yes, you interrupted, but not what you think you were interrupting."

Lester raised an eyebrow. "What was it, if it isn't what I'm thinking it was?"

"Snuggling." Steph stated as the doors opened and she stepped out,

Lester trailed behind her. "Snuggling? That's its?"

"Hey!" Steph glared at him. "Who's the one who made me spend an entire evening learning how to enjoy first base?"

"You got me." Lester looked mildly sheepish for all of two seconds before his gossipy side kicked in. "So, did you two work things out or what?"

"Actually, yes. To a degree." An impatient glare from Lester made her quickly continue. "I told him what I want from him, and he-" Steph didn't know if she should share the details of her conversation with Ranger, but decided to divulge a little bit,"-he told me that he has feelings for me." The smile got wider. "We agreed to work on it."

"Score, Bomber!" Lester gave her a high-five. "We told you!"

"It's not like its all solved now, Les." Stephanie opened her door, allowing Lester through first to do a quick search and waiting for him to give the all clear. Once inside, she headed towards the bathroom to gather her store of hair-taming supplies. "It's going to be hard work, and given my luck, I could still screw this up."

Lester gave an exasperated, deep, long sigh. "I know. So could he. But it's a start! Just enjoy it and be happy for right now."

Steph agreed, continuing to throw clothing and other items into a couple of bags. "Yeah. I'm sure that I'll enjoy it in isolation at a safe house…."

Chapter Thirty- Five

Lester and Tank were ready to kill her, and she was ready to kill them.

And it was only Day Five.

One of them stayed with her at a time, for four-hour shifts, except when she was asleep. The other man monitored from a control room in a small out-building. Then they switched off, six hours each, to sleep or monitor the security system. While they all normally got along, after a day or so the enforced closeness with very little to do began to take its toll. Tempers began to flare on a regular basis- Stephanie had broken a lamp throwing things at Tank, and Lester had put a hole in a wall, slamming open a door. All in all, an unhappy place.

Not that the house itself was that bad- in fact, the safe house was better than Steph had envisioned. It was on the beach of a small lake, not complete wilderness yet still fairly isolated- but it didn't have much else to do, since she wasn't allowed outside. There was a huge plasma TV, stereo system, CDs, DVDs, computer with on-line access…. Yet she was still amazed by the fact that with several hundred TV channels there wasn't a single thing to watch. Or, if she DID find something, it was almost guaranteed that either Lester or Tank (whoever was with her that shift) wouldn't want to watch it. And the DVDs tended toward crappy westerns that she couldn't stand or action adventure movies that apparently required endless commentary from the peanut gallery about how unrealistic the explosions and fights were. Plus, the radio reception was lousy and the CDs selection as bad as the DVDs. Steph never wanted to hear another twangy ode to a totaled pick-up truck.

So that's why, by the fifth day, with no endpoint yet determined, all three of them were in desperate need to find a distraction and work the edge off the case of nerves that was building up.

Steph happened upon the solution while mindlessly wandering the house during the night. Lester, the unlucky monitor for that shift, had already called her cell phone three times asking what the hell she was doing and could she possibly go to sleep and make his life a little easier? Her response wasn't very mature or dignified, but he got the point and stopped calling.

Steph simply wasn't tired enough to sleep. She had become used to some serious physical exertion in her months working for RangeMan, and lying around watching crappy TV just wasn't that taxing. She had tried cleaning- her usual stress reliever- but there simply wasn't that much to clean. (Lester and Tank were fairly tidy, and she didn't have enough stuff with her to cause her usual damage.) And after one disastrous, smoke alarm setting off attempt at baking a chocolate cake from scratch (at 3 AM), she had been banned from using the kitchen on her own.

So she had begun roaming the house at night, when she had trouble sleeping. Simply wandering from room to room, picking up and putting down objects, staring out windows. There was nothing that different from the daytime, however, and it didn't really soothe her that much. So she got nosier, going through closets and drawers, which were mostly empty. That was when she spied it, the crack in the hallway ceiling that told her there was a pull ladder, which meant an attic. It was like a light bulb went off over her head.

The frustration of her situation, the enforced idleness, and the damn sleepless nights had sent Steph on the lookout for some physical exertion, and finding what was (hopefully) a big, open space had given her an idea. Since the house didn't have gym equipment (which surprised the hell out of her), she figured out that- since she couldn't leave the house to run- the only way to keep up with daily workouts would be sparring matches, which had the added advantage of working out some anger and frustrations. And she was supposed to be training with the guys, anyway. The problem had been, however, that there was no space to accommodate the activity. After all, it was a safe house, not a mansion (at least not in this lifetime.) Now, however, Steph had found a spot. She was planning on taking a look first thing in the morning; the hope of some excitement for the next day finally calming her nerves enough to let her sleep deeply.

And let her ignore the odd dreams, verging on nightmares, that she had been experiencing.

The dream always started out the same way. She was climbing the stairs at the RangeMan offices, when a dark shadow loomed behind her on the stairs. Then a bolt of electricity arched out to her from the shadows' hand, and she saw darkness and felt it. It was very cold. Then, she would wake up. This is where variety set in. She would sometimes wake up back in Ranger's apartment, snug in his bed, but he was no where to be found. Sometimes she would wake up back in her old apartment, just as the locks tumbled open, and she would expect it to be Ranger, only to find that it was a very pissed-off Morelli.

Those two, upon reflection, made sense. But there were others that she had thought that she was long past, the ones that scared the piss out of her. She woke up back in the circle in the Slayer's playground, usually being pummeled by the Slayers again but sometimes surrounded by people from her everyday life, now determined to kill her- the RangeMen, her steady skips, once even her family. Her mother had delivered a mean right hook in that one.

And then there was yet another dream. She woke up sitting on Tia's porch, where there was a dinner party going on in the dining room, but no one would let her in. She was forced to watch from the window as Ranger had dinner with Tia and another, very beautiful woman that he was obviously in love with, from the physicality of their interactions. It made her heart hurt and she had trouble breathing. She always woke up as Ranger and the woman, lip-locked and groping, made their way up Tia's wide wooden staircase while Tia smiled on.

But the last one, the one that was becoming more common, was the worse. The shadow was still there when she woke up, and had taken on Alec's form. The torture and punishment he visited on her were indescribable, and nothing she did allowed her to free herself in the dream or wake herself up. Even knowing that it was only a dream didn't make it seem any less real, just more trapped. She spent the time screaming in pain for Ranger to come save her, only he never showed up. She would eventually pass out, be revived, and pass out again in what felt like an endless cycle. Eventually, finally, she would wake up on her own in a hospital, not for physical injuries, but a mental hospital like Javierlis'. The blank look in her eyes as she stared into her reflection's empty ones were worse than all the earlier torture.

And still Ranger was not there.

This time, when she really woke up near dawn, she felt more haggard than she had been all week. The night had been endless, cycling dreams, moving from one to another. As light began filtering through the sheer curtains on her bedroom window, and she heard Tank and Lester talking downstairs as they switched shifts, she was determined to get the attic opened and cleaned up. She needed the physical release, the tiredness of exertion, to keep the horrible dreams at bay, if she couldn't have Ranger here with her to drive them away. Throwing the blankets off of her, she turned and stood up, pulling on some sweats and an old t-shirt of Ranger's she had filched and brought with her.

Time to tell the guys her plan, though not the reasons for it. They were going so stir-crazy that it probably wouldn't be necessary to tell them the trouble she was having with dreams. Or so she hoped, because they would tell Ranger and Ranger would worry about her. And he was worrying about her enough all ready. Almost a week had passed, and all she had had were two short phone calls to report no progress. Ranger still hadn't felt it safe enough to visit, and she missed him.

That fact was just something that made being confined worse, because it was just something else that she personally could do nothing about right now.