Chapter Five

Seconds later we reached the seventh floor. Ranger bent to retrieve the abandoned Sais, and I was grateful. My body was Jell-o. It was hard enough to drag myself through his apartment to the bathroom. But Ranger took care of me. He turned the water on and regulated it, stripped me of my clothing, and gently maneuvered me into the hot spray. He left me then, and I soaked the heat into my body.

I was thinking it might be so comfortable just to sit against the shower wall and let the water rush over me…

There was a hand stroking the side of my face. I batted at it, and tried to turn away, but a wall stopped me right quick. "Babe," Ranger said, and I drifted from my fog toward his voice. There was an amused chuckle, very soft, and hands were gripping mine, pulling me upright before my world came into focus.

"Whoa," I said, as I was lifted from the shower. "What happened?"

Ranger wrapped a huge towel around my body and pulled me close to him, inhaling deeply of my hair. I snuggled into his hard body, into the grooves and edges that fit my own curves so perfectly. He held me close to him for a while, just stroking my back and my arms, before he spoke again.

"You fell asleep on my shower floor, Babe. Not safe."

"Hmm, but it was so comfortable."

"I think you over-exhausted yourself today. Can you handle some dinner before I put you to bed?"

Food. My stomach growled loudly and I could feel Ranger laughing. "I'll take that as a yes," he said. He took the towel from my body and dried me off the rest of the way, taking extra care around the sensitive areas. He was so gentle sometimes; it was hard to equate the image with the one of cold, hard mercenary.

Ricardo Carlos Manoso was many men, but I knew I loved all of them equally.

Ranger pulled a long black robe from the hook on the door and bundled me into it. "Better?" he asked me, his voice soft.

I nodded, and took a moment to really look at him coherently. He'd changed from his work clothes into a pair of black jogging pants and a black tank top, and he looked edible. The long black hair was still pulled back, and he was barefoot. That got my attention. He really had beautiful feet.

"Thanks," Ranger said, and grinned when I gaped at him. "Come on, Ella brought up dinner while you were dead to the world."

He directed me to the kitchen through my sleep-induced fog, but the minute I smelled the food I lit up like a Christmas tree. "Spaghetti! And…" I sniffed bigger. "Garlic bread. Mmm…"

Ranger heaped a plate full of food in front of me and sat down across from me. I was surprised he was eating at all, being that spaghetti was against his diet religion. "I have to work tonight, Babe," he said.

"Can I ask where?" I didn't mean it defensively. It was part of our relationship parameters that some things we couldn't share. But it didn't hurt to ask.

"I'll fill you in on all the details when I get back. Until then, I want you to try and get some sleep," he said, smiling as I plowed through the whole plate of spaghetti and reached for more garlic bread. "Ella already knows what you like," he said. "It's a gift."

I nodded vigorously, suddenly ravenous. I ate another half a plate full of spaghetti before I was ready to collapse into a coma again. I was just lolling off with my head back on my chair when Ranger scooped me up in his arms and carried me to bed. "Mmm…" I said, cuddling against him. Our bed.

He laid me down on his side of the bed and opened the belt at my waist, spreading my robe wide. My skin could feel his eyes looking me over for long moments before he nudged me to roll over. The robe was tossed somewhere, and then Ranger's fingers were tracing my face.

"I have to go to work, Babe," he said, but I grabbed at his hands before he could go.

"Stay," I said through my fog. "Just…until I fall asleep. Please, Ric?" I didn't want him to leave me yet. Now that I knew what it was like to feel so safe and secure with his arms around me, I couldn't bear to sleep any other way.

A second later the bed shifted as Ranger's body came up close behind mine. He pulled the covers over my naked and quickly chilling flesh, and followed the blanket with his heavy arms. It felt so good, and I told him so. His nose nuzzled my neck, and tiny little kisses peppered my jaw line. "I'll stay, querida," he whispered into my ear, and I sighed, burrowing backwards to press more firmly against him.

"I love you," I whispered, and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up sometime during the night, disoriented. I had been dreaming about being back in my old apartment, sitting on the couch with Joe and watching the game. A pizza from Pino's had been sitting between us, and Bob the dog sat watching it with forlorn eyes, ever hopeful that we'd look away. It had been a cozy scene, but the reminder wrenched my heart. The past was a hell of a thing.

I sat up and rubbed my hands over my eyes, not surprised that I was alone. Ranger was working. Batman was out making the world safer for the human race.

Thinking of him brought a smile to my face, and helped to ease the pain of my dreams. He'd stayed with me, true to his word, until I'd fallen fast asleep. I didn't remember hearing or feeling him move off the bed and leave me. He was always considerate to let me sleep. It was something that surprised me, given his schedule. Joe was always up and moving around, making morning noises. I almost always woke up when he woke up. Looking back now, I could see that he wasn't very considerate about me that way. And in others…

When we made love, Joe was always good with me. I always enjoyed myself, but the focus wasn't solely on me. And when Joe was finished, it was pretty much over. But when I was in Ranger's arms… My mouth went dry, and I swallowed convulsively. Ranger always took his time with me. Okay, except in the elevator, but those were extenuating circumstances. Usually, he seemed more intent on me, how he was making me feel, than on his own pleasure. Not that he didn't enjoy himself immensely. There were times I thought that just seeing me come to my peak set him off. You could see it in his eyes. They'd go liquid black, and narrow just slightly. And if you listened very closely you could hear his breathing kick up, only a notch or two.

I was a very lucky woman, I decided, throwing the covers back. I padded into the kitchen, barefoot and naked and not caring a single little bit. Rex's little wheel was squeaking away. Must be time for that midnight run, I thought dryly. Poor little guy, he must be starving after all that exercise. Rooting around in the fridge again, I tossed a grape inside his cage, following with some hamster nuggets. Gourmet dining at its finest. Then I ate a bunch of grapes, because it seemed like the right thing to do.

The clock on Ranger's microwave read '8:47,' so it wasn't really all that late. Good. Maybe I could get down to the gym and practice a bit before the guys got back. Likely, it was empty this time of night. I hoped.

That decided, I changed into my black stretchy yoga pants (thank you, Macy's!) and a tight white t-shirt. My hair was a rat's nest, so I shoved it back into a ponytail and hoped no one would see me.

That said, it still felt a little strange living here. Okay, it was only my first day, and I hadn't had the opportunity to really get acquainted with any more of Ranger's Merry Men besides Zack. I should give it a little more time before I pegged one feeling or another about it. Probably all Ranger's men were great. Probably none of them had prison records. Probably they all knew that I was Ranger's property (ooh, did I just say 'property' and like it? Whoa…) and wouldn't make any comments. Yeah, I was going to go with that possibility.

I wondered if they all thought I was a joke. Most of the time I frequently thought it, so it would come as no surprise for these seasoned professionals to have a laugh at my expense. The way my job went sometimes, you had to know how to have a laugh or you'd jump off a bridge.

Grabbing a water bottle out of the fridge and rummaging around in the drawers for something to write with, I penned Ranger a note telling him where I was. It was probably a futile gesture, considering the whole building was covered in cameras and surveillance equipment, but it felt like the right thing to do. Considerate. That was me, sweet and considerate Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter extraordinaire…

The hallway was empty on the fifth floor when the elevator doors slid open. Good. I resisted the urge to sprint through the lobby. Whoever was manning the cameras tonight didn't need any more reasons to laugh at me. The time I hit Hal with the stun gun would keep me in their thoughts long enough as it was.

The gym was fairly empty, though not as much as I'd hoped. A few guys were gathered around some of the weight machines, lifting and talking. They were big, and more than a little gorgeous, but I resisted the temptation to go stare. Instead I directed myself to the treadmill that had bucked me off earlier. At least I'd been paying attention when Zack had shown me how to use it. I definitely knew which way not to push the lever.

There were little headphones attached to a TV on the ceiling that I hadn't noticed before. Yay! I could watch TV while I worked out! Every couch potato's dream come true. However, even with all the channels RangeMan LLC could afford, there was still no showing of Ghostbusters on. Dammit. I settled on MTV instead. At least the music would keep me going!

So there I was, Stephanie Plum, actually using a treadmill. The urge to feel my forehead was strong. But then the image of Jeanne Ellen in her perfect leather pants popped into my head, and I was pissed off. I pushed the lever, speeding up the treadmill and my workout. A heavy rap song was playing on the TV, and it motivated me to work harder. If I had to run on this stupid machine every damn day to make my ass look better than hers, I would.

Time passed. I'm not sure how long it was, but I was breathing hard and sweating profusely. None of the guys in the room bothered me, and it let me concentrate on working out. I remembered how I had felt earlier, when Zack was teaching me how to use the Sais, and tried to recapture that feeling. No good. Maybe I only felt sexy when I was actually using them. Oh well. In the morning I'd get Zack to show me more moves. The fact that he was drop dead YUMMY had nothing to do with it, either. Nope.

I'm a big fat liar, too.

The man was incredibly gorgeous. I was beginning to think there must be a female board that 'Okays' the Merry Men before RangeMan can employ them. Man, if I could only get that job…