Disclaimer: I don't own the Stephanie Plum series or its characters. I don't earn any money with this story, and the plot is completely fictitious!

Author's Note: Thank you, Suzanne, for helping me with the chapter! Your suggestions always inspire me to see new perspectives on the story. And thank you to everyone who reviewed! I'm always happy to read your thoughts. :) You should also know that I'll probably be unable to update until mid-March. I might continue writing a paragraph/ a page or more of the next chapter during the upcoming weeks and if you want to see the progress you should check out my profile. I'll try to remember to write an update there occassionally. And last but not least, happy new year, everybody! Hope you had fun over the holidays!


Chapter 6

Tease

I awoke early the next morning. It was still dark outside, but I was fully awake. Struggling out of bed, I wondered what to do. All of my senses were on alert, especially after my strange near-escape the previous day, and I was itching to snoop and make sense of everything that had happened since I met Fiscelli.

Working with what I had gathered so far, I knew I was still somewhere in Trenton. The massive factories and a glimpse of the New Jersey State Prison had been a dead giveaway. At least I knew I hadn't been shanghaied out of state. It was something.

But the question still remained who Ray and the others were and what was their connection to Ranger and Dickie. It didn't make sense.

Pacing the length of the room, I eyed the door speculatively. As far as I knew, I was being locked in every night, while during the day I was always surrounded by at least one of the guys. Gripping the door knob turned it slowly and was surprised when the door easily opened. Not questioning my good luck, I opened it wider.

Slipping out of the room and into the dark hallway, I took a moment to decide which way to go. My room was on the second floor of the two-story-building and apart from mine I had counted four other doors on the same floor. The first floor was taken up entirely by the "medical hall" and a large exercise room – I knew that because Vince dragged me there daily in order to rebuild muscle mass in my injured shoulder. The ground floor had the kitchen and the dining room and a couple other rooms I hadn't yet seen.

Ray usually was the first to see me during the day when he came to wake me up for breakfast each morning. Judging from the position of the moon in the darkened sky, I still had a few more hours until then.

Following my nose, I swiftly turned to the right. Weak moonlight shone through a window at the end of the hallway and was reflected off of the white walls on either side of me. I tried to tread carefully over the wooden floor, but every now and then a light creaking sound escaped beneath my feet.

Apprehension crept up my spine as I reached the first door. These four other rooms could very likely be other bedrooms that Ray and the others used, and the thought of being caught in the act of snooping by Dan wasn't a very pretty one. But then again, I wasn't even sure if all four of them lived here. I had a feeling that wasn't the case, because Jerome was gone most of the time and I saw Dan only at meals, if at all. Vince and Ray were the only ones I was almost constantly with.

Hesitating for a few more moments, I turned the handle and pushed the door open. Just like in my room, moonlight flooded through two large windows along the side of the room, touching on the bed, a cupboard and a vanity – but it didn't look lived-in. Patting along the side of the wall next to the door, I found the switch and turned the lights on. Stepping further into the room, I noticed a few more things. The bed was made and no clothes or other personal articles littered the room. The bathroom was clean and empty of any toiletries. The cupboards in the bedroom were empty as well.

Backing out of the room again, I closed the door softly behind me. Abruptly, dim light flooded the hallway from an old lamp hanging limply from the ceiling.

"You're quite the early riser, aren't you, Steph?"

Whirling around, I almost ran smack into Vince. He wore a t-shirt and sweat pants and a towel was slung around his neck. In his hand he held a bottle of water. He looked casual and alert at the same time.

"Not even Ray is up at this hour," he continued, studying me closely.

I refused to squirm under his scrutiny and instead took in the mildly curios expression on his face and the relaxed stance of his body in, and decided to try my luck. "Do you sleep here?"

Vince narrowed his eyes, so that only silver slants glinted down at me.

"Sometimes." His eyes looked a bit alarmed as he shifted slightly backwards. I tried not to take it personally and instead focussed on pressing my luck a little further.

"And the others?"

Vince shrugged in a deliberately casual move, though there was nothing casual about the way he continued to scrutinize me. "If the situation calls for it, yes. Why the sudden interest?"

I raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "There's nothing sudden about it. I know nothing about who you are or what you're doing here. I don't even know if you use your real names in front of me. Maybe you're undercover cops. Maybe you're drug dealers; or spies."

Vince seemed to suddenly grow a few inches as he straightened his spine and looked down his nose at me. "And this is our secret hide-out? You've got quite the imagination there, Steph. Ray will like that."

"And you've managed to evade every question I've asked. Isn't that what cops are best at?" I said, thinking in frustration of all the times Morelli refused to tell me anything about a case we were both working on. "Maybe you're using fake names, too."

Vince's face relaxed a little and he even managed to look amused. "Our names are real."

So far, so good. "Ray said this is his house. Do you also live here?"

Vince looked a bit bored by the question and his stance relaxed. "It's his house and you could call it our headquarters. Dan, Jerome and I have our own apartments somewhere else but we usually spend a lot of time here."

I hesitated a bit with my next question. "Are you cops?"

My direct question obviously caught him off-guard, because even though there was amusement on his face at my stubbornness, it seemed to be more grim than genuine and I knew he wouldn't answer any more questions. "Did you find something while you were snooping around that told you that or did something else trigger this theory?"

I rubbed my shoulder in absent-minded frustration. "So you won't tell me what's going on here, I take it?"

"Mr Piccio is coming over later in the day. He'll tell you everything you need to know."

I furrowed my brow. "Mr Piccio?"

Vince smiled and turned to go. "We usually call him the 'Big Boss'. You should go back to your room now. I'm sure Ray will soon come to get you for breakfast."

I nodded and moved to follow him back down the hall, when he suddenly stopped and threw me an inscrutable look over his shoulder. "Why didn't you try to leave?"

I knew he meant why instead of snooping around I hadn't grasped the chance to get out of their clutches. Simple answer if he really knew anything about me. "Because I want to know who you are." I wanted to know who these men were that Ranger would think I was safer with them than without them. And since Ranger and these guys seemed to have the same bad case of close-lipness, I gathered the only way to gather information was to snoop at the source.

Vince continued down the hall and I followed at a distance.

Just as I got back to my room, Ray burst through the door, a scowl on his face. With a curt greeting he led me into the dining room. And he wasn't the only one who looked like he'd like to bash a few heads together. Jerome still looked pale but at the least smiled when we entered, while Dan only threw a glare in our direction from the kitchenette before turning back to the stove. There was a purplish bruise on his jaw that clashed rather horribly with the red colour tingeing his cheeks.

Breakfast was a quite and uncomfortably long affair. That is, until Vince stepped into the room.

Bursting with energy and looking more relaxed than an hour before, he threw his sweat-drenched towel at Ray's head.

"How's the jaw, Dan?"

Dan took his time carefully chewing his food.

"Good," he finally muffled out only to immediately wince and groan in pain.

Vince looked him over briefly with a medical eye before dismissing him. "Relax, Dan. Put some ice on it and it will be fine in a couple days."

A smug Ray threw the towel away from him. "Yeah, Dan, don't throw such a sissy fit. I'm sure Steph here can pack a mean punch, but what? Are you made of sugar? Maybe you shouldn't go out today; it looks like it might rain."

I almost choked on my coffee. I did this to him? Wide-eyed I looked at Dan's bruise more closely. Well, if only Ranger had seen that. He surely wouldn't have laughed at me then.

Dan growled with his mouth firmly shut and moved to stand up. "You punched me too, you bastard!"

Ray leaned back in his seat and tipped a finger to his chin in mock-thought. "You know, I could really get used to this quiet. No cusses, no foul language. Maybe Steph and I should punch you out more often."

Okay, maybe it hadn't been only my punch that did that. But still, I felt pretty good. Maybe Ray was right. Punching someone was much more gratifying than getting all emotional.

Vince smirked and shook his head. "Enough, Ray. You've had your fun." He glared at Dan until he fell back into his seat again, and downed half of a second water bottle. With a satisfied sigh, his eyes met mine. "Did you know, Ray? Steph here thinks we're cops who are working undercover."

It surprised me that Vince would make a joke out of it when only a few hours ago he'd seemed so tense when I'd asked him about it. Looking at the others, it was clear that they all found this more than slightly amusing. Even Dan showed a grimace of a smile.

Ray laughed loudly and leaned over to me to look directly into my face. "Really. What makes you think that? Because we're so ruggedly handsome? Or is it because we always carry a big and loaded guns around with us." Jerome chuckled quietly and Ray winked at me. He was obviously in a particularly good mood now, though why it changed so fast from anger to cheerful I had no idea. I didn't even understand why it was so funny that I thought they were undercover cops.

I mean, really, apart from all their vagueness I have no idea what gave me that impression of all things…

Dan patted his jaw again and grumbled something unintelligible under his breath.

I shoved fork and knife aside and turned in my seat to get a better view of Ray's face. "So what, you're not cops?"

Ray raised an eyebrow. "You think we wouldn't have already told you if we were?"

Point taken.

"Would have saved us quite a bit of time and trouble, right, Dan?" Dan shot him a dark look and continued grumbling silently to himself. The ever present two blotches of red colour adorned his cheeks again as he stabbed at his food.

If he wasn't so scary, it would have actually been quite funny teasing him – like baiting a crazed piranha.

"How do you know Ranger?"

Ray rocked back on the back legs of his chair, not answering.

"I thought the deal was that you'd eventually give me a few answers."

Ray squeezed his eyes shut, bad mood returning and roughed up his hair.

"Look, I know this may seem like a foreign concept to you, but could you stop being nosey for just a few more hours? Do you think you could do that?"

I tensed. What was it with this guy? Could he maybe just stick to one mood for more than five minutes? A deal was a deal, right? It wasn't like I asked him for world peace. Talk about drama queen. Men.

Vince abruptly and very noisily stood up and returned with an ice bag from the kitchen and tossed it at Dan's head.

It didn't cut through the uncomfortable tension but it brought the focus of Ray's cold eyes away from me and for that I was grateful.

Jerome buttoned his shirt and rolled up the sleeves. "When will he be here?"

Ray shrugged. "Don't know. He said something about noon. Could be later, could be earlier. You know how he is."

"Is he coming just because of her?" Dan got out as he jerked his head in my direction.

"No," Ray denied, looking somber.

0000000000

I was in the exercise room a few hours later with Vince pushing me to do some workout for my injured shoulder when Dan burst through the room.

"Come downstairs. He's here."

My stomach dropped a bit as I saw an uncharacteristically serious expression on Vince's or Dan's face.

Vince let go of my arm and we both followed Dan as he led the way to a room on the first floor I hadn't been in before. It was a dark room with a few small windows, giving the room the view of a large backyard, and dark furniture. Various book shelves and a big TV screen took up the walls. Black leather couches surrounded a large oak table and three men turned their heads as the door closed behind us.

My gaze focussed on only one of them.

He looked like an elderly gentleman. His short hair grey neatly groomed back on his head. His face weathered and full of crinkles but also relaxed. His whole posture was exactly that – relaxed. He wore a dark blue suit underneath his coat and expensive shoes. Legs crossed, hands folded in his lap, he looked me over just as curiously as I had him. But an aura of power engulfed him and I noticed the way Ray and the others were watching him: respectfully and carefully.

He got to his feet slowly and held a hand out to me. "You must be Stephanie Plum." I took his hand and he shook it firmly. "Please, take a seat," he said, gesturing to the space next to him on the couch.

I warily sat down. Ray sat on the couch opposite me with Vince, Dan and Jerome standing tensely behind him. Two unfamiliar men, I hadn't noticed before, stood on either side of the door, watching us.

The older, obviously Italian man continued to look at me with a friendly smile. "My name is Massimiliano Piccio. And this is my grandson Severino," he said, indicating a handsome man in his mid-twenties in a black suit with long black hair and multiple rings glittering on his hands sitting on his other side.

Severino nodded coldly at me.

"I'm glad we finally get to meet. I'm sorry for any trouble we have been causing you," Piccio said with a sideways glare at Dan. Dan was rubbing his chin and rolling his eyes, but the deep flush on his cheeks gave his embarrassment away.

"I hope your wound has been seen to?" Piccio inquired in a fatherly concerned voice.

I nodded and adjusted my sling. "Yes." In a way Piccio reminded me of my mother; all gentle inquisition and mother hen concern, but without the angry bouts of ironing. I leaned back on the couch and inwardly began to wonder why Severino was here and not his father.

Piccio nodded back and his smile faded. "Ray, get her a glass of water," he commanded, staying silent until Ray came back and placed a glass of water on the table in front of me. "Good. Now, it is to my understanding that you were at Gregory Fiscelli's house during the shooting and were hit yourself. Is that correct?"

"Yes," I truthfully answered, tensing a bit.

"And you were there for a case – Dickie Orr, am I right?"

"Yes, that's true."

"Well," Piccio said, peering closely at my face. "Were you able to gain any information from Fiscelli before he was shot?"

I shook my head slowly. "No, he didn't tell me anything. Do you know who shot him?"

Piccio looked disappointed. "No and it isn't in my interest to know who shot him. His connection to Orr was the only thing valuable about him."

I recoiled a little, still thinking of the way Fiscelli's body jerked on the ground. Strangely enough, I wasn't the only one who didn't like that cold response. Severino flinched and Ray pressed his lips tightly together and averted his face in annoyance.

Piccio didn't seem to notice. "Do you know anything else about Orr or his whereabouts?"

"No, Fiscelli was my only lead. But why do you want to find Orr? I don't understand what you have to do with him," I asked what felt like the thousandth time.

Piccio rubbed his hands together and exchanged glances with Ray. "To put it simply, he messed up a case for us."

Seemed logical, if I thought about it, at least a part of it. "A court case, you mean? So what, he was your attorney and lost a case for you? I still don't understand why you would go searching for him."

"We would just like to ask him a few questions. He left much too soon after the case was over and there are still a few things that need to be cleared up."

Right. Looking at these guys, the question why Dickie ran didn't seem to be a question any longer. My hands clammed up a bit and I rubbed them.

"So what do you want with me?"

Piccio smiled again. "We have a proposition to offer you. You work together with us to find Orr and we give you any support and protection you could want."

That I did not expect. Hiding my astonishment, I cast a quick glance at Ray's unmoving face. "Why would I need protection? And from whom?"

Piccio grimaced. "Orr's secretary was found dead in Orr's office last night." He turned to Jerome. "I want you to check it out." Jerome bowed his head and left the room swiftly. A silent Ray watched him go with a thoughtful frown on his face. He had been quiet during the whole conversation and it was clear who the "Big Boss" here was and a sense of unease grew in my chest.

"How could I help you? You seem to have the personnel and resources to work without me."

I could see the muscles in Dan's cheeks contracting as he tried not to voice his agreement.

Piccio chuckled and placed a hand on my shoulder. "You have a good track record with finding people who are in hiding. Plus, you have valuable connections. We have the means to let you follow every lead you think could be useful."

This was all too strange. First I was shot, then I was kidnapped and now my kidnappers want me to help them find Dickie. Nothing in my life seemed to make sense anymore. Maybe Morelli was right. Maybe I should find another job… yeah, right. I could also shoot him in the foot if he every came near me again. And shoot Ranger in the other foot for stranding me and being his typically cryptic self.

Now, that was a pleasant thought…

"I don't even know why Dickie is hiding," I stalled. "Have you any ideas?"

Dan hissed.

Piccio smiled to himself and looked oddly pleased. "Maybe, but Orr's reasons for running are his own. You don't need to know anymore at this point. If you agree to work with us, our support is yours in every way you need it. What is your answer?"

He made it sound like I had a choice. Looking at the stern faces around me I wasn't so sure that was the case. But on the other hand, Ranger did leave me here with these men; maybe he wanted me to work with them.

"Dickie is one of the FTAs for the bond's office. As long as I get the bail money, I'd be happy to have a little help."

Dan was back to muttering again. "Greedy bitch."

Yeah, and also a suspicious one. If I got Dickie to the police station to get the forms filled out for the bond's office then hopefully he'd be safe from whatever these guys here wanted from him.

Piccio extracted his hand again. "Agreed." I shook it and hoped I wasn't going to regret this at some point.

The atmosphere in the room changed at once. Everyone looked a little more at ease and Piccio was looking fatherly again.

"Now that business is over," he said, "tell me a little about yourself, Miss Plum. I hear you're from Italian descent?"

"Part Hungarian and part Italian, actually."

"I think I've met your grandmother once," Piccio thought aloud, a whimsical smile playing around his lips. "Lovely lady that Edna."

Severino shifted forward in his seat and stood. "If everything is done here, I think it is time to leave, Grandfather."

Piccio's head jerked up. "You're right, of course." Patting his grandson's arm, he stood as well. "Youth today," he said with a benevolent wink, "have no time to sit down and have a nice conversation anymore. Miss Plum, I believe Mr. Manoso will be waiting for you outside. I am sure we will be seeing each other again. Ray, please escort Miss Plum outside. Dan, I'd like a word with you before I leave."

Ray smiled politely at Piccio and said a brief goodbye before ushering me out of the room. Vince flanked my other side, with my purse dangling from his fingers. Blinking, I took it. I had completely forgotten about it. Rummaging through it, I took note of my wallet, my taser, my car keys, pepper spray and several other items I usually carried around with me.

Before I knew it, I stood outside in light rain in front of a black Porsche, purse in hand, other arm in a sling and Ray and Vince on either side.

The door to the driver's side opened and Ranger gracefully slide out.

My first instinct was to rush around the car, hop inside and empty out the next shop that sold donuts. I needed some serious sugar.

My second instinct was to slug Ranger with my purse.

"Catch," Ray said and tossed Ranger a cell phone. Ranger caught it, then handed it over to me and I realised it was mine. "Big Boss says hi."

Ranger inclined his head. "Get in the car, Babe."

Ranger's shin looked really inviting for a visit with my foot. Getting angry all over again, I gave a mocking two finger salute, wave to Ray and Vince – who seemed to be amusing themselves at my expanse – and got into the passenger seat.

"See you soon, Steph!" Ray shouted after me.

Ranger lingered a bit and said something to Ray before getting in as well and starting the car.

"You okay, Babe?"

Really, and here I thought at least Batman with his oh so superior senses had a better understanding of a woman's mood. Seems like all men are clueless, Ranger included after all.

"No. But I'm sure you could help me out," I said lowly, trying not too sound too angry.

Ranger quirked up one corner of his mouth and there was suddenly a hand on my knee. It was a nice hand, brown and big and strong – and slowly moving up my leg.

My right eye started ticking.

I saw Ranger's chest quiver in silent laughter and the hand vanished. "Sorry, Babe. You looked a little lost there, thought I might give you something pleasant to think about."

Pushing the familiar hot flashes aside, I tried to gather my wits and focus on my anger at him, but it had been a while since my last Ranger-induced high. My eyes fell on his lips.

Mmmh. Full, rosy, inviting and slightly quirking up at the corners…

Realising his amusement, I shook myself out of my horny state and tried to focus on the real issue here: me not getting any kind of answers.

"What's going on here, Ranger?"

I was getting really tired of always asking this question. Unfortunately, Ranger had the same closed-off expression on his face as Ray did every time he evaded my questions.

But I didn't back down.

"Why didn't you take me with you yesterday? What was that about?"

Ranger manoeuvred smoothly through traffic and already we were passing streets that felt more familiar to me. "It was for your safety, Babe."

Right. That explained everything. Not.

"My safety? Was I in danger? And why would I be safer with Ray than with you?" The more questions tumbled out of my mouth, the more frustrated I got. Really, was it so hard to just receive one understandable answer that left no further questions?

"I want you to give the case to me, Babe. I'll handle it," Ranger said, not glancing at me. If he had, I'm sure he would have seen what a mistake his dismissive order had been. I was surprised he could still see through the windshield for the steam coming from my ears. Or something.

A few moments later we stopped at a red light and without a word I unbuckled my seatbelt and jumped out of the car. It felt a little like déjà vu of my near-escape from Dan the day before. I really needed more female acquaintances that weren't such closed-mouthed, ordering me around idiots. Maybe Lula could help me find something out about Dickie's secretary. Meanwhile Connie could start a search in her data base for Ray, Piccio and the others…

See, I didn't need Ranger. Or Morelli. Or any man.

A warm hand wrapped itself around my uninjured arm and I was whirled around.

"Where are you going, Steph?" Ranger asked, now looking intensely at my face, his brow slightly furrowed.

"If you can't give me straight answers, Ranger then you can just leave me alone."

Ranger blinked once at my anger. "Steph, this is a really dangerous situation. You don't know what you're.."

I felt a sudden itch to taser him and kick his shin. "You're right, I don't know anything. And that's entirely your fault because of your cryptic answers and cryptic warnings and cryptic lifestyle and cryptic lines. I've had it! If you think I can't handle the case then you and Morelli and Ray and all the others can just go to hell! I want to go home and I want to see Rex. And then I'm going to find the ugly ass of my ex-husband! And I don't need your permission for any of that!"

I felt like a banshee. If I had any energy left, I probably would have been horrified over the fact that I was turning into my mother. As it was, there seemed to be only two options left at this point: hit someone or comfort food.

I was trembling from head to toe and Ranger suddenly blurred a little along the sides. A warm hand settled at the base of my neck and in the next second I was enveloped in warmth. Without a word, Ranger settled both arms around me and pressed me tightly against him. A couple tears slid down my face and I burrowed my face deeper into his shirt. It felt nice. It was better than comfort food and better than hitting Dan – but only slightly – and it was dangerous.

"You're safe now," Ranger murmured into my hair. "Everything's okay." He didn't get it, I wasn't scared, I was mad and frustrated and tired and homesick.

There was a strange humming in my chest that made me nervous. Ranger's comforting warmth was dangerous, pushing away from Ranger, and with a big sigh I wiped my face clean and followed him back to where he'd parked the car in a hurry. Getting inside, Ranger didn't immediately start the engine; instead he turned to face me.

"Ray is part of the Italian mafia here in this area. Orr was their attorney. Orr made a mistake and now there are a lot of people who want to track him down." Maybe he did get it. Ranger's hand slowly rose before finding its way to my right cheek. "I don't want you involved, Stephanie. Piccio asked me to take on this case." And then again, maybe not….but instead of going postal over the cave man act, even if he did use please, my mind latched on to the information. I bit my lower lip as one of my theories had just been confirmed. So Ray and the others were members of the mob, and probably with Piccio as their "Big mafia boss".

"If they're so dangerous, why did you leave me behind with them?" I asked sharply.

"Piccio is in a fight with another gang at the moment. That's why Fiscelli was killed; he was a member of that other gang. I felt it safer leaving you with Ray until both gangs knew you weren't a threat."

A threat? A threat to whom?

"Piccio asked me to work together with them," I said.

A muscle jumped in Ranger's cheek. He didn't look happy.

"Is this where we go back to you trying to handcuff me to the car and lock me up inside the bat cave?" I mused out loud.

We both looked down at the handcuffs tucked into his utility belt.

I scrambled for the door again, but it wouldn't budge. Looking back at Ranger, I saw his hand on one of the buttons underneath the door handle to his left.

"Babe," he said and smiled a little smile, chocolate brown eyes shining.

Smug bastard.

"You know you can't keep me locked up," I told him. "You'd need to go out and do your Batman moves and I'd find a way to leave."

Ranger considered this. "I could have Tank babysit you."

"And make him risk never getting Lula to have monkey sex with him again? I don't think so."

Ranger gave me a look that said 'And he'd risk making me angry instead?' Well, if he put it like that…

Starting the car, Ranger easily pulled back into traffic.

"I'm doing this case, Ranger, you can't stop me. And you said it yourself that those members of the gangs now know I'm not a threat. So I'll be fine." I hoped.

Ranger's gaze skimmed over my sling and there was a subtly tightening of his mouth. It was a great mouth. Though it had been a few days since I'd last tasted it, my lips began tingling at just the memory of it. Since his mouth didn't open to speak again and my hormones were beginning to go a little too crazy I snapped my gaze up to his hair. Black, shiny, orderly put in a ponytail. I wish he'd let it hang loosely around his shoulders so I could rake my hand through it while I-

"On one condition."

Since when did he have conditions for sex? Oh yeah, right, since he thought Morelli and I had a serious thing that was going to pull us together again every time we were in an off-stage. Mmh.

"You work with me."

"Huh?"

"You take on this case, then you take me on as well."

The hot flashes rolling over me in waves turned into pricks of indignation.

"I can do this without your help."

Ranger didn't look impressed. "Do you have a lead?"

Damn. "No."

Ranger pulled into my parking lot and I had never been happier to see my apartment building. Ranger followed me upstairs and went through the routine of checking all my rooms before letting me inside. It was a good feeling being home again. My answering machine was blinking like crazy but I ignored it for the moment. Throwing my purse onto the kitchen counter, I turned to Ranger to tell him to leave so I could take a shower, when the empty living room table caught my sight. Where was Rex?

"Morelli took him to his house," Ranger's voice rang through my panicked thoughts.

I calmed down for a moment before I remembered my fight with Joe and frowned. "Why?"

Ranger looked steadily at me and stayed silent.

Great. Just what I needed: another fight with Morelli.

Placing a hand on my lower back, Ranger pulled me closer to him. "You sure you're okay?"

I don't think I ever said I was okay.

"Sure."

Ranger slowly leaned down; his eyes still connected with mine, and let his soft lips touch mine for a few short moments. A sigh escaped my lips at the same time my toes began to curl and I reached up to grab the back of his head and deepen the kiss, but ended up clinging to his shoulders instead as Ranger's hands gripped my ass in a sudden move and I was hoisted up onto the kitchen table. Spreading my thighs, he stood so close that his body touched mine from the hips upward and his mouth slanted over mine with a ferocity that he had to place a steadying hand on my neck or I would have been knocked down on my back in no time. Completely encased in his arms, the feel of his body, the scent and taste of him, delicious tension began to steadily build inside of me. My whole body felt on fire and still I was begging for more. Arching upward and trying to get even closer to him, I almost fell off the table when he backed away before my hand could get a tighter grip on him. Slowly taking in the sight of me with a smoldering gaze, he was gone with a "See you tomorrow, Babe" before my sexually hazed vision had cleared. Suddenly I was alone with my harsh gasping breathing and a throbbing sensation that didn't stem from my shoulder.

Angry, frustrated and horny, I took a cold shower – which wasn't easy with only one hand available – and plunked down on the couch with a beer in front of me and the TV blasting, even though it was only early afternoon and I had a lot to do. Reintroducing denial-land to my current thoughts and fears, I curled my legs under my body and watched a cartoon.

I fell asleep within minutes. My last coherent thoughts were of a deliciously butt-naked Ranger instead of a moody Ray and his group of crazy cryptic loons.


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