Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to JE, I'm making no money and have no money, so please don't sue.

Note: This is a post-TBO Steph/Lester story (try it, you might like it! If not, please, no tomatoes, I really am a babe at heart).

It is my first attempt at writing fan fiction…or anything, for that matter (unless you count Fluffy's Big Day, for which I won the 2nd Grade Young Author's Award, thank you very much). I started it quite a while ago and have been posting it at PFF, so if you've read it over there, this is nothing new, apart from some grammatical corrections. I've recently discovered this site so I thought I'd try posting here as well since the story is still in progress.

Any comments, critiques, suggestions, etc. are welcome and very much appreciated. Thanks!



The first time I woke up it was because my phone was ringing. I glanced at the clock and, seeing that it was only 6:30am, covered my head with my pillow and ignored the caller. I knew who it was and he knew better than to actually expect me to pick up at this ungodly hour. It was my daily wake-up call, more reliable than an alarm clock.

The second time I woke up was because my actual alarm was going off. 7:00. Without opening my eyes, I smacked it with the palm of my hand, only coming into contact with the snooze button by coincidence. The voice of the annoying disc jockey, who was rambling about some sort of prize wheel and being the fifteenth caller, broke off into oblivion.

7:09…refinance your home loan today…Smack.

7:18…traffic on the turnpike is backed up…Smack.

7:27…followed her to the floor, she said baby lets go, when I told her I said, yeah (yeah)…ohhh, good song. Smack.

7:36…the Nets hang on in overtime…Smack.

My name is Stephanie Plum and, if you haven't picked up on it, I am not a morning person. I don't need to be, not when I can set my own hours working for my slimy cousin Vinnie as a bond-enforcement agent. That's a fancy term for bounty-hunter. Vinnie bails the bad guys out of jail and, if they don't make it to their court appearance, they become known as Failure-to-Appears, or FTAs. It's my job to track the FTAs down and take them in. In exchange I get ten percent of the bond amount. I typically handle low-bond skips, but occasionally get mixed up with some real not-nice guys, for which I am thankful that I have a friend and mentor in Ricardo Carlos Manoso, a.k.a. Ranger. In the world of bounty-hunting, you don't get any better than Ranger. He can make hardened criminals whimper with just a look, and for some reason he has taken to helping me when I need it, which is more often than I'd like to admit.

I live in Trenton, New Jersey, not far from where I grew up in Chambersburg, a friendly, middle-class section of Trenton known as the Burg. If you grow up in the Burg, you are expected to marry someone from the Burg, have 2.3 kids, keep a spotless house, and slow-cook a mouth-watering pot roast. It's a good life for some, just not me. I know because I tried it once. I got as far as the husband, but somewhere before happily ever after, I caught him bare-assed on my dining room table with Joyce "the Skank" Barnhardt. After the divorce, I got a job as a lingerie buyer with E. E. Martin. It was supposed to be the first step to a glamorous career in the fashion industry. After a few years, I got laid off due to budget cuts and, in an act of desperation, I asked my cousin for a job. Asked, blackmailed, what's the difference, really? I thought I would be doing the filing, but instead I wound up chasing skips.

My first skip was a cop fighting a murder rap. His name was Joe Morelli, and he wasn't just any cop. He was someone I had grown up with in the Burg. Morelli taught me to play choo-choo in his father's garage when I was six. Little did I know at the time that you shouldn't let an eight-year-old boy acting like a train talk you into being the tunnel when you're wearing a dress. Ten years later Morelli stole my virginity behind the éclair case at the Tasty Bakery. Maybe stole isn't the right word. I gave it up freely and willingly, but that didn't stop me from running him over with my dad's Buick after he wrote about it on the bathroom wall.

The murder charge he was fighting wound up being bogus and, in the process of tracing him, I helped him prove his innocence. He was, is, a good cop and had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. After I helped Joe clear his name, I just couldn't leave well enough alone and we became on-again, off-again lovers. We even considered, albeit briefly, getting married. In the end, I realized I couldn't be what Joe needed. He thought it was because I was in love with another man, and it took me a long time to convince him that I wasn't.

The other man Joe was referring to was Ranger. I've always been intrigued by Ranger, but I'm not in love with him. Not the way Joe thought. I used to think Ranger was Batman. It could've had something to do with his incredibly mysterious background and the fact that he only dresses in black. Over the years, as we've grown closer, he's let me see more of the man behind the mask. Not an actual Batman mask with the pointy ears and all, but more like the constant blank, emotionless expression that he wears whenever he's around people he doesn't know and trust, which is pretty much everyone. There are a few exceptions to that and it never ceases to amaze me that I am one of them. I now consider Ranger one of my closest friends and there is no denying that I'm attracted to him. I mean, who wouldn't be? He's Cuban-American, with skin the color of mocha latte. He wears his silky black hair long, just to his shoulders. He has the body of a warrior and the face of a god. There was a time when I'd give anything to jump into bed with him. In fact, I did…once. It was during an off period of my relationship with Joe, and came in the form of a deal. He'd help me with my skip and I'd spend the night with him. What I didn't let him know was that this was a win-win situation for me. Ranger said himself that he's an opportunist, and, well, opportunity knocked. It was an unforgettable experience, but the next day, Ranger pushed me to go back to Joe. I went, but things were never the same. Ranger may have had a little something to do with it, but the truth is I wasn't in love with Joe and he deserved someone who was, so we ended the relationship once and for all.

That was eight months ago. I've been single since, not that I've exactly been lonely. Ranger is an opportunist after all…but not like that. We've only slept together the one time. This is more of the innocent variety. The stolen kisses that stop just short of leading to the bedroom (though there had been a couple of close calls)…the touches that leave us wanting more. But we've never again taken it further. I think we are both afraid of screwing up our friendship. I know I am.

As my girlfriends never fail to remind me, though I'm quite aware without their mentioning it, I've had the good fortune of being involved with two of the sexiest men in Trenton in Joe and Ranger. I only hope whoever I end up with in the future is as, shall I say, talented as these two men. Ranger once told me he would ruin me for all other men. Joe probably could've said the same thing and I wouldn't have been able to argue. It was a toss up as to which of the two was better. With Ranger, it was like an amazing fantasy that didn't feel real, and with Joe, I felt a closeness that I'd never really felt before, not even with my ex-husband, Dickie. I care for both men more than anyone could ever know, but I'm not in love with either of them.

I've managed to remain friends with Joe. He's in a new relationship now and it doesn't even bother me anymore to see them together, though it did for a while. He still comes over to watch hockey games and eat pizza, but not as often as he used to. Kelli didn't really take too kindly to Joe spending time with his ex-girlfriend alone in her apartment, but she's slowly getting used to the idea that Joe and I are friends. I'm being patient, because I can see how much he cares about her.

The most noticeable change in my life since I started working as a bounty hunter, other than the death threats and the firebombings, is the people in my life. My circle of friends has grown, not only in size, but also in character.

Mary Lou Stankovic is still my best friend and has been since kindergarten. Her life is about as opposite from mine as can be. She is the next generation of Burg woman, married, mother of two, works as a housewife. It's the life I would probably be leading if I hadn't walked in on Dickie with the skank. The only difference is I wouldn't have been happy and she, so clearly, is.

Aside from Mary Lou, Ranger, and Joe, the other people that I have become close to in the past three years include Lula, an overweight ex-prostitute with a penchant for spandex and hair dye, Connie, Vinnie's office manager and the daughter of a mob boss, Salvatore "Sally" Sweet, a 7-foot cross-dressing musician, and three ex-Army guys who have more muscle than Schwarzenegger in his pre-politics days. These guys work for Ranger's "security" company, RangeMan, Inc. I say "security," with added emphasis, because I'm pretty sure that's only a small portion of the business they are involved in. I'm not exactly sure what the rest is, but I'm confident that it's mostly legal…mostly. The ex-Army guys are frequently assigned to watch over me when one of my less desirable skips has decided to take an unhealthy interest in me. I may have forgotten to mention that I have a tendency to attract psychos who want to kill me. I don't mean to, I just have a talent, I guess.

First, it was Tank who was assigned to guard me when Creepy Carlson left deranged love letters under my door. It was Tank who killed Creepy when he broke into my apartment and tried to smother me in my sleep. It was also Tank who held me until I stopped shaking and my tears dried up.

Then, it was Bobby who kept an eye on me when I started getting phone calls in the middle of the night from a former skip who decided he wanted nothing more in life than to get revenge on me. It was Bobby who shielded me with his body when someone started shooting at me in front of Fiorello's Deli, and it was Bobby who chased the guy down and held him until the police came to make the arrest. It was also Bobby who made sure the guy spent a week or so in the hospital before he was able to go to jail.

Now it's Lester's turn. My most recent psycho, Vic Scully, is completely deranged (as if the others weren't). Scully is one of Ranger's skips. He was arrested after he beat his wife to death during an argument. He is also believed to be involved in gun-running and drug trafficking, though the police can't nail him. Not to mention he's crazier than a loon. He shouldn't be locked in a jail cell. He should be locked in a nuthouse.

A few nights ago, Ranger hired me to do surveillance on Scully's house. I was under strict instructions to call him if anyone showed up. I never saw anyone, but apparently Scully saw me. I guess I need to hone my surveillance skills. Add it to the list.

As is my luck, I bear some sort of physical resemblance to Scully's late wife. Now, he's convinced that his wife is alive and I'm her. He began following me and digging up all kinds of personal information. You'd think that would convince him I'm not his wife. Nope. He thinks I changed my name to Stephanie as part of the witness protection program and he's decided that he wants his wife/me back and he'll stop at nothing to make that happen.

Just another chapter in the saga that is my life…

Chapter One

7:45. Groan.

I begrudgingly decided I'd hit the snooze button enough for one day, so I just let the radio play while I tried to convince my body to roll out of bed. A song I'd never heard before was playing. I immediately recognized it as Destiny's Child and, as I listened to the words, a slow smile spread across my face.

I'm not sure why, but I suddenly felt wide-awake and energized. I jumped out of bed and straight into the shower. I emerged from the bathroom forty-five minutes later clean, smooth, and coifed to the max. I think that's a new record for me. For the first time since Scully entered my life four days ago, I felt like putting an effort into my appearance. I tossed on a pair of faded boot-cut hipster jeans, a white v-neck tee and my new pointy-toed black boots.

I glanced at the clock. Lester would be here any second. As I finished the thought, I heard a knock on my door. Just like clockwork.

"Just a sec," I yelled.

I quickly added a belt and threw on a fitted pinstriped black blazer that tied across the front with a thick ribbon. The jacket was left over from my lingerie buying days when I had to dress in business professional clothes. My life was a lot less complicated in those days, but I wouldn't go back to that for anything, I thought as I looked at my ensemble in the floor-length mirror hanging from the back of my bedroom door. This jacket looked so drab with the matching skirt that stopped two inches above the knee, the customary "uniform" of the professional woman, but damn if it didn't look cute with jeans and a tight-fitting tee-shirt. I stole another glance at the mirror and decided I was good to go.

I followed the rules and looked through the peephole to make sure it was Lester before I flipped the deadbolts and opened the door. He greeted me with a kiss on the cheek as he walked past me into the living room.

He was wearing a dark green hooded sweatshirt under a faded brown leather jacket and equally faded blue jeans that fit just right on his muscular 6'4" frame. He had a stocking cap covering his head and the beginnings of a goatee on his face. He obviously hadn't shaven today. The facial hair set off his rich skin tone, compliments of a mixed-race heritage, and made his dark eyes, accented by mile-long eyelashes, seem almost black. He looked downright sexy and dangerous as hell. I was willing to bet he could outfit a small army with the arsenal that was hidden under his sweatshirt.

"Damn, you're lookin' pretty hot today, Plum," he spoke with a slight New York accent.

Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you, Les.

"Is this why it took you so long to open the door? Do I need to start calling at 6:15 to give you a little extra time to get ready?" he asked, giving me a wink and his trademark crooked grin. The way the left side of his mouth rises slightly higher than the right and the mischievous look he gets in his eyes when he does it is absolutely droolworthy.

I gave him a good old-fashioned Jersey eye roll and he just laughed as he pulled off his stocking cap and ran his fingers back and forth over his closely trimmed jet black hair, leaving it just a tad messy...and extremely sexy.

Whoa, Steph. What has gotten into you? Maybe it has been too long, I thought to myself.

"It took me so long because I'm not used to getting up to answer my door. Why don't you just break in like everyone else?"

"Steph, this is your apartment. I'm not just gonna barge in on you." He said it as if it was ludicrous that someone would actually do such a thing.

"Everyone else does."

"Yeah, well," he didn't finish the thought, but I saw him roll his eyes and shake his head slightly.

Although I hate the idea of having a babysitter, the truth is I am really grateful that Lester's been around. At least now I can go out in public with some sense of security. As an added plus, he keeps me constantly entertained with his ridiculous stories and antics. I've laughed more in the past three days than I have in a long time. Sometimes I even forget that I have a big scary psycho that wants me as his personal plaything.

Unlike the other guys Ranger has had watching over me during my run-ins with the less than upstanding citizens of Trenton, New Jersey, Lester has a more in-your-face approach to bodyguarding. He doesn't even try to blend into the shadows. Forget tailing me, he rides shotgun in my red Escape. If you saw us on the street you would think we were just two friends hanging out, though I have no doubt that despite his relaxed nature he is wound and ready to pounce if a situation arises. I know Ranger wouldn't trust him otherwise.

"What's the plan for today, gorgeous?" Sexy, fun, and he does amazing things for my self-esteem. Nope, I really can't complain much about having Lester around. "Can we go back to the mall? Pretty please?"

Yesterday I dragged him through Macy's against his will. I felt kind of bad, but they were having a huge shoe sale, hence the new boots, and a girl's got to have her priorities. Big, bad bodyguard just had to deal with it.

"Only if you're good," I teased. "Actually, I don't have any plans today. We can do whatever you want…except that," I amended when I saw the mischievous look on his face.

"Oh, come on. It'll be fun. I'll let you be on top," he teased. The crooked grin turned into a laugh when he saw me roll my eyes. "Ok, fine, your loss. I don't care what we do today, but I think we should go out tonight. Tank and Bobby are meeting up at Ten-Forty. What do you say?"

"Definitely, I could use a night out."

"My thoughts exactly. It's stressful keeping you alive."

"Yeah, well, it's pretty stressful staying alive when every nutjob in the city has it out for me. I just feel bad that you have to spend your days babysitting me. I don't mean to attract psychos. I really don't."

"It's not babysitting, and I know you don't mean to attract psychos. You just have this magnetic personality that makes people want to stalk you. Guys meet you and they can't help it," he said with a grin.

"Yeah, too bad they are all nasty and scary. Why can't I have any good-looking, decent, charming stalkers?"

"Like me?" he asked, making his eyebrows dance.

"Yeah, but you're paid to stalk me. It's your job. My mother always tells me that I should get a new job, but I think you need to get a new job. Following me around can't be high on your list of dream jobs."

"You'd be surprised," he mumbled under his breath. What does he mean by that?

"So tell me, Lester Santos, if you could be doing anything right now, what would it be?"

"For a job?"

"No. Right now, anything, anywhere. What would it be?"

"If I could be doing anything I wanted right now, I would probably be," he paused for a second to think about his answer, "sitting here talking to you."

My jaw dropped. Wow. Quite a confession.

"If you could do anything in the world, you would be here talking to me?" I asked, not bothering to hide the shock in my voice.

"Well, maybe we wouldn't be talking," he said with his crooked grin.

Ooh. Let's see if I can make the tough man blush.

"What would we be doing if we weren't talking?" I asked in the best innocent voice I could muster. I should've known better. His eyes darkened and his lips quirked up in a sultry smile.

"Never mind, I don't want to know."

He just laughed and picked up the channel changer. With no pressing commitments for the day, we settled on the couch and watched a movie.

"Do people actually do that?" I asked pointing to the screen where a couple was sitting on a blanket in the middle of a park, feeding each other grapes and sipping champagne. It was an old romantic movie that I'm still shocked I got Lester to watch. "I don't know anyone who's actually gone on a romantic picnic. That would never happen in real life. Never. The only picnic I've ever been on involved a big wooden table, lots of mosquitoes and my mother yelling at me for spilling red Kool-aid inside the camper."

I looked over at Lester, but he wasn't paying attention to me. He had pulled out his phone and was dialing someone. "Can you excuse me for a minute, Steph? I gotta make a call."

He disappeared into the hallway. Ten minutes later he returned with Bobby on his heels. "Bobby is gonna keep you company for a while. I have to run out and take care of some stuff. I won't be gone long."

"Okay, but honestly guys, I'll be fine here for a little while. I won't go anywhere. I promise. You're welcome to stay, Bobby, but don't feel like you have to."

"No problem, kid. I could use a break anyway. I'll just hang out here," he said as he plopped on the sofa.

Lester walked up behind the couch and kissed the top of my head. "I'll be back soon."

I saw Bobby smirk and as soon as Lester had pulled the door shut behind him, I looked at him through narrowed eyes. "What?" I asked.

"I didn't say a word," he said with a smile before turning back to the TV. I don't know what that was about, but I guess we weren't going to be discussing it.

An hour and several arguments about what we were watching later, I heard Lester knock on my door. I hope he brought lunch, I was starving.

"Come on in," I yelled.

"Steph, get up off the couch, look through the hole to make sure you recognize who is it is, then open the door carefully," he yelled back.

"Oh, for crying out loud, I know it's you!"

"Do it, Stephanie, NOW," he yelled. He didn't sound amused.

I did as he said, making sure to lose the dirty look I had aimed in his direction before I opened the door.

"Don't make a face at me. It's for your own good." How did he know?

He came in and I was slightly disappointed not to find him carrying a take-out bag.

I guess Bobby was, too. "What, man, you couldn't even bring us lunch?"

"You're on you own, Brown. Steph, I thought we could hang out at my place this afternoon. We can get lunch there. Is that cool with you?"

Uh, yeah! I jumped at the chance to see where Lester lived. I've been intrigued by these guys since I met them and I wasn't about to miss out on an opportunity to catch a glimpse into their personal lives. "Sounds good. Can we go soon? My stomach's growling so loud I'm surprised you didn't hear it when you pulled into the parking lot."

"We'll go as soon as you're ready."

I hurried off to the bathroom to take care of business. As I was drying my hands, I heard Lester and Bobby talking in hushed voices, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. I figured it had to do with Scully and they didn't want me to find out about it. I opened the bathroom door slightly to see if I could hear anything.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" Bobby asked.

"No, but I can't help myself. Look, man, she's going through a tough time right now with that fucking wife killer after her. If I can do something to make her feel better, then I'm gonna do it. Nothing's gonna happen. I'm a glutton for punishment, that's all."

"Just be careful, man. If something does happen and Ranger finds out, he's gonna break you, that's if she doesn't do it first."

"I know," he let out a breath that was loud enough for me to hear. "Jesus, I must be out of my fucking mind."

What the hell were they talking about? I leaned forward to hear better, but I only succeeded in making the bathroom door creak. They immediately stopped talking, so I walked into the room.

"Ready to go, guys?" I asked in my best I-haven't-been-eavesdropping voice.

"Yeah, I gotta go get some grub, since Santos here didn't invite me to lunch," Bobby added, a bit sarcastically.

"Why don't you come with us, Bobby?"

He opened his mouth to say something, but Lester cut him off.

"Bobby's busy."

I looked back to Bobby and he was smirking again. What's with that?

The three of us made our way to the parking lot. I waved goodbye to Bobby and thanked him for keeping me company. Lester held the passenger door of his black Cadillac EXT for me as I slid in.

We made the drive in silence. This I expected from Ranger, but not Lester. He looked distracted and I have never, and I mean never, seen any of these guys look distracted. After overhearing that strange conversation between him and Bobby and now this, I was starting to get worried.

"Lester, are you okay?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, Steph. I'm fine." He gave me wink and a slight smile. Damn he's hot. I didn't expect him to tell me if something was bothering him, but I thought it would be rude not to at least ask. Oh, well, I tried.