The characters you recognize belong to Janet Evanovich. I'm just borrowing them for fun and pleasure.
Spoilers: HS through EOT,CHAPTER ONE
I walked through the parking lot, loaded down with shopping bags. My first trip to the mall since the ordeal with Constantine Spiro, I had to make it worthwhile. I thought I showed great restraint by limiting my purchases to only what I could carry.
"I still think you should have bought those red boots." Mary Lou offered, walking behind me, carrying only one bag. A good friend of mine for as long as I could remember, she never failed to give her opinion. It didn't matter if I asked for it or not.
"I'm only in the market for black clothes this trip." My now permanent status at Rangeman meant I needed to expand my wardrobe of black clothes.
"You're going to have to explain to me why you only wear black at this new job. You can tell me on the way home. Is that one yours?" She pointed at the black Explorer several empty parking spaces ahead of us.
"Yeah." More accurately it was an Explorer assigned to me. But after driving it for a month I considered it mine. I fumbled in my pocketbook for my keys. I was still looking for them when the Explorer exploded.
The noise was incredible. Pieces of my poor vehicle flew everywhere. Some of my bags went flying and the force pushed me backwards. I landed on the ground in a pile of clothes, underwear, shower gel and Mary Lou.
"What the hell?" Mary Lou screamed from underneath me. I rolled off her and rubbed shower gel off my face.
"I think I better find my pocketbook." I extracted my hand from the shopping bag handles and rummaged through the mess to find it. Hands still shaking I pulled out my phone. I could already hear sirens in the distance. No need to call the police. I called Ranger.
"Yo." He answered.
"Hi. It's Stephanie. Um the Explorer you gave me kind of blew up."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, but I need to go shopping again."
"You're at the mall?"
"Un huh. Quaker Bridge, by Macy's. You'll see all the flashing lights."
"Be there in ten."
After we dealt with the police and dropped off Mary Lou we went back to my apartment. Ranger went in first, checking for bad guys and I guess explosives. He motioned me to come in after he finished. Only I didn't always feel completely safe in his presence. Especially when there was a bed close by. He made me feel like I was going to explode when he was close, and even when he wasn't all that close.
We were playing this game but I wasn't sure what to call it. Lately I sort of did my best to avoid him, but my hormones craved his attention. Maybe it was more than my hormones. Then something like this happened and I automatically called him. I'm not good with this emotional expression stuff. Sometimes I wondered if he was suffering from the same problem or something similar. He traveled for sixteen days this past month. No I wasn't counting or anything. Okay so they weren't all in a row, so maybe I was counting. Life seems a little dull and dreary when you're accustomed to regular sex and then you don't get any for an entire month. I knew it was only a matter of time before I did the deed again. I also had a strong feeling it was going to be with Ranger. I was just waiting until I was really ready in my mind. Problem was I wondered how I would know. Would there be a sign?
"Any ideas who might try to blow up your car?" Ranger asked me. He leaned against the counter. His brown eyes looked me over. I wasn't sure if he was checking me for imperfections or sizing me up to have for a snack.
"No one comes to mind."
"You didn't see or hear anything?"
"No it was a very ordinary shopping trip until the Explorer blew up. I bought some great clothes. You would have liked them they were all black." Even the underwear, don't go there.
"Anything out of the ordinary happened recently?"
Last week Grandma Mazur took out a personal ad to meet men. "Not really. Life has been very calm since Spiro was caught."
"Things always liven up when you're around babe." He leaned over and kissed me. It was a soft, light kiss with his lips lingering on mine just too long to be completely innocent. "Do you want to come and stay at my place?"
"No, I'm not worried about staying here alone. Maybe it was an accident or something."
I did not really believe that, but I did not really want to go back to the land of temptation either. It was bad enough I worked there. I needed to figure out what it was about Ranger that made me feel both safe and panicked. Since I wasn't really thinking about it much, I figured it was going to be a while.
"An accident?" Ranger arched a brow.
"I'll be fine. Don't worry." I sounded really convincing. Perhaps a career in acting could be an option for me.
Ranger stepped closer to me, so close I could feel his breath and the warmth of his body. He put his hand behind my neck and kissed me again, this time with tongue. I was floating somewhere between rational thought and oblivion when I heard the door open. Ranger moved away from me and had the intruder against the wall with a gun to his throat by the time I managed to close my mouth.
"Are you going to shoot me Manoso?"
Shit it was Morelli. Ranger recognized Joe about the same time he spoke up and lowered his weapon. I stood in shock for a minute watching the two men size each other up. I didn't want to think about them fighting. They were about the same height, but Ranger had more muscle. A battle between them would be ugly. Morelli was still recovering from his broken leg and a cane leaned at his side. I didn't think Ranger would take advantage of this.
"Joe what are you doing here?" I asked, trying to break the tension.
Ranger moved away from Morelli, his gun already tucked out of sight. Morelli walked towards me. I took a step backwards. I didn't want to be near either of them. I felt really strange all of a sudden and very warm.
"I heard about the explosion at the mall. I wanted to see that you were all right."
"I'm fine, " I assured him. I'd be better if this apartment wasn't feeling quite so crowded and hot. It sure did seem like it was getting hotter in here. Maybe I should open a window. Or jump out one
"I'll see you at work tomorrow." Ranger opened the door and our eyes met. "Call me if you need a ride."
"Thanks." I answered, feeling really lame at the awkwardness of his departure.
I stood and I felt like I could hear nothing but emotions swirling in my head. Problem was they were speaking a language I didn't understand. Or maybe I wasn't listening carefully enough. I'm not good with words. I think I do better with hand gestures.
"Give me my keys back Joe. You shouldn't just barge in here." I railed at him.
"What's the matter did I interrupt something between you two?" Morelli yelled back at me.
"My keys." I held out my hand.
Frowning, Morelli pulled his keys out of his pocket and took my keys off his ring.
"When are you going to grow up?" He slammed the keys on the counter.
"I am grown up. This is it. This is me. You were always waiting for me to become someone else. That's your problem."
We had not really talked since the huge fight we had after I went back for Constantine Spiro. I made sure he had someone to help him and I moved back to my apartment the next day. I think he asked Terry Gillman and his Grandmother just to spite me
"I might be out of touch for a while." Morelli told me after we both calmed down.
"Because of work you mean?" What are you doing?
"I'm working on an assignment for work."
"That's sudden isn't it?"
"Not really. I might be in and out of the area."
"What are you going to do with Bob?" Bob the dog used to belong to both of us, but now he belonged to mostly Morelli. I think I missed Bob more than I missed Morelli.
"Tony is going to take care of him."
"I could take Bob." I offered.
"You're not fit to take care of a dog. You can barely take care of yourself. You know, I really wish you were working a safer job. I won't always be here to look out for you."
"I am working a safe job now, I work behind a desk. Not that it is any of your business and I don't need you or anyone to take care of me." What did he mean I wasn't fit to take care of Bob? I took care of him and Bob after he broke his leg.
"Is this how you want it to be Stephanie? You don't want us to be together?"
I hated when he put it like that. It sounded so sad. I had to face up to him though. I could not keep running back to him for sex and familiarity and then continue pretending I'd someday become the perfect wife. I'd never be content to sit home.
"I think it's time we faced the truth Joe. I'm not going to be the wife you want me to be. I think we should stop hurting each other."
"This is because of Ranger isn't it?"
Was it because of Ranger? No my problem with Ranger was not really related. Ranger may have helped me see part of my problems with my relationship with Joe but it wasn't because of my feelings for him. That was another issue entirely.
"You and I have always had this problem Joe. We were lovers and friends but our lifestyles are different."
"I don't like it but I have to agree. You give me an ulcer even working behind a desk at Rangeman." He shook his head.
Morelli kissed me on the cheek and he was gone. I felt a little sad. I had already cried my tears over Morelli. I think I'm over that. The crying part at least. Now the apartment felt empty. I could call Ranger and I knew he would come back, but he would try to persuade me to stay at the offices. I could easily do that but I didn't want to. I wanted to retain my independence for the time being.
The next morning I woke up at six, which I never do on my own and couldn't fall back to sleep. Surprising considering I tossed and turned all night. I took a long shower to try to wake up. I stayed in the shower until I was warm, toasty and pruney if not awake. Coffee would be needed for that. I dressed in black jeans and a black sweater. Not very original but it worked. I added silver hoop earrings and convinced myself it was great fashion.
I started a pot of coffee and took the elevator down to get the mail I forgot last night. I walked up the stairs remembering that Morelli said I wasn't fit to take care of Bob. I could take the stairs, I was fit damn it. Of course I didn't even have a way to get to work. I'd probably just call my Dad. I felt awkward calling Ranger.
I sorted through the mail, bill, bill, junk mail. One letter addressed to me with no return address. I tore it open and photos fell out. One was of Ranger next to his truck; one was of Tank getting out of his Explorer. One was of Hal getting out of his Explorer. There was a laser printed letter folded in the envelope. This was creepy already.
Tell Manoso eyes are everywhere.