Disclaimer: Characters owned by the Creator Janet Evanovich and are used purely for entertainment. What can I say - I like to play in her world!
What might have happened if the coin toss in Eleven On Top had happened a little differently...
My cell rang as I was turning onto Haywood. It was Woody in the control room.
"Cluck-in-a-Bucket is on fire, and a call just went out from Costanza to Morelli that Stephanie was on scene but unhurt. Thought you'd want to know."
I sighed and made a u-turn. Tomorrow's paper would probably claim another catastrophe for the Bombshell Bounty Hunter, but I'd be willing to bet that little if any of the blame was actually hers.
I brought the Turbo to the curb a half a block down from the scene and a beat-up Crown Vic slid in behind me. Morelli fell into step with me before I reached the parking lot.
The building was a bonfire fuelled by grease, and there was the usual chaos of fire trucks, police cars, firemen and hoses, cops and gawkers. It took a minute to locate Steph. She was at the far edge of the lot in the shadows with the '53 Buick she called Big Blue, and even at this distance in the dark she was easy to read.
"She looks miserable," I said, nodding toward her. "She must not have had time to get her purse or she'd have left."
Morelli followed my gaze and sighed. "She's trying to fade into the background. She hates that it'll be in the paper again when for once she was just trying a normal job."
"Normal doesn't suit her." I said softly.
"She's a mess. I'll flip you – whoever loses has to clean her up."
"I win, I'll clean her up," I corrected. Morelli just shrugged.
"Suit yourself. Let's go."
I had to smile as we approached but I knew it was tainted with worry. She looked so miserable. I wondered how sure Costanza was that she wasn't hurt.
Stephanie was hunched in on herself, leaning against Big Blue for support. There were smudges of smoke and smears of grease all over her, and globs of pink foam dripped from the chicken-hat and her hair onto her shirt. The gaudy uniform pants were wet to the knees and part of one leg looked charred. I wondered if she even realized she'd nearly caught fire.
Morelli reached out and flicked at the foam on her hat.
""Fire extinguisher foam," she explained. "It wasn't my fault.""
""Costanza told me the fire was started with a bomb.""
""I guess that might be true…indirectly.""
My lips twitched as I listened to her matter-of-fact accounting of events. As usual, my Babe had kept her cool while others had panicked.
Morelli pulled a quarter out of his pocket and looked at me.
"Heads," I said, and he flipped. He extended his hand to me so I could see the quarter, grinning.
"Good luck," he said, and left.
Stephanie was gaping at Morelli's retreating back and trying to work up some outrage. Then she glared at me. "I can't believe you flipped for me!"
There was no way I was going to try and explain, so I just smiled at her and slipped my jacket off. When I tried to wrap it around her she protested.
"This foam stuff might ruin it."
"It won't," I assured her. Hell, I didn't care if it did. She was starting to shiver.
I guided her around the mess, avoiding cops and shielding her from a couple of reporters with cameras, and got her to the car. She hesitated only briefly when I opened the door for her, glancing at me and then back at the leather seat before she got in. She was quiet on the drive and didn't protest when I headed for Haywood instead of her apartment.
Just inside the foyer she toed off her shoes and started across the carpet on her tiptoes, holding her baggy pant legs up with her hands as I flipped on the lights. Now that I could get a better look I realized that some idiot had taped the headset to her head with black electric tape. Frowning, I detoured through the kitchen before I followed her.
The deformed chicken hat sailed past me and landed in the trash can as I stepped into the bathroom. Steph looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
"It will dissolve the tape adhesive. Trust me."
I opened the jar and scooped some out, finding the end of the tape and starting to work the peanut butter into the hair underneath. What I'd initially thought was water in her hair was a combination of water, smoke, and grease, so the reason behind the tape became clearer. It still pissed me off, and I had to concentrate to keep my hands gentle, but finally the tape started to let go.
After a few minutes Steph said, "You should just pull if off."
"Babe." It would take half her hair with it – and it would hurt. Instead, I picked her up and turned to sit her on the countertop so she didn't have to stand while I worked. It had the secondary advantage of putting her back to the mirror so she couldn't see her bedraggled appearance.
When at last the tape and headset came off I breathed a sigh of relief and reached for her shirt. I wasn't too surprised when she pushed me away, slid off the counter and started undressing herself, so I didn't take it personally. Instead I started the shower and set out a couple of bath sheets. From the cabinet under the sink I pulled the shower-basket I'd asked Ella to stock with Steph's toiletries from a list I supplied. Everything was there, from her brands of shampoo and lotion to the 'miracle' hair conditioner from Mr. Alexander's shop. Then I stripped.
Steph's eyes widened when I handed her the basket and pulled her into the shower with me. Her eyes followed the basket when I took it from her and put in a convenient spot. She was smiling faintly when she turned back to me.
"You forgot my shower gel."
"I like it when you use my shower gel," I admitted grudgingly. "But I love the way your hair usually smells." It was getting easier to tell her these things out loud, and I was rewarded with a soft smile. I brushed a kiss across her lips, promising myself more later, and guided her body into the stream of water. "Now, let me make sure I got all of the adhesive out before I shampoo your hair."
She stood obediently while I ran my fingers through her hair, working the peanut butter through from her scalp to the tips to make sure I'd gotten all the sticky strands. Her eyes were closed, her face tilted toward me, and her lips were still curved when she murmured, "This is going to change my appetite for peanut butter for a while."
Mine, too. I was getting a craving, imagining licking peanut butter off of her skin. I cast a rueful eye down at the aching part of my anatomy bobbing between us and made a mental promise to try it some time in the future, when she'd put this experience behind her. Then I reached for the shampoo.
The first shampoo didn't lather much, so I turned her to rinse and back to do it again. This time it foamed nicely and I took my time, working it through every inch of hair, massaging her scalp and the back of her neck.
"I'm sorry." Her soft words came out of nowhere as I guided her to rinse again.
"For what?" I was reaching for a bath puff and loading it with my shower gel.
"I'm sorry you lost the toss and had to clean me up."
That froze me mid-motion. I couldn't let that go without correcting her.
"Babe." I cupped her cheek with my palm and tilted her face up, willing her to open her eyes. When she did I gave her my best smile. "I won the toss."
For a heartbeat she looked shocked, then her smile lit up her face. "Then…thank you."
"My pleasure." And believe me, I was going to make sure she enjoyed it, too.
Should I continue...?