Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money. I'm just playing.

Thanks to Abbi for letting me take her one liner and run with it, and to Mud, Dove, Harmne and Dee for all the help. You guys are the best.

Shadow Puppets

Chapter 1

Strains of classical music filtered into the cool of the Porsche through the open window from a neighboring car, providing a backdrop to the mild, sunny morning as Ranger drove through the streets of Trenton. He was cruising towards the bonds office at a leisurely pace, enjoying the purr of the engine and the relative cool of the air before the day started to heat up and the pollution got thick and heavy.

Vinnie had called him and asked him to come in and discuss a business proposition. It was unlikely to be particularly worthwhile, but a reason to visit Vincent Plum bail bonds was never a bad thing, as long as you overlooked having to be in a room with the man himself. His company may have moved on to bigger and better things, but there were a lot of things he missed about the simple days when he was more a bounty hunter than anything else.

He smiled slightly when he reached the door and saw the back of a curly brunette head in the main part of the office. There was the main thing he missed, right there. Stephanie Plum was trouble incarnate and had never let a sleeping dog lie in her life. She was also guaranteed to be the high point of any day that she crossed his path. The woman was a pit bull masquerading as a poodle. It was hard not to respect the way she never let go of something; he just wished she'd make an exception once in a while when her safety was at stake. He'd seen less effective lightning rods.

He waited outside for a moment, watching her chattering animatedly to Connie and Lula. It looked like the weekend post-mortem was underway. Tank's ears should be burning right now, judging by the cat-got-the-cream look that Lula was sporting along with her latest fashion creation, a vision of fuschia, cleavage and straining seams.

Connie said something and all three of them shrieked with laughter. He'd lay odds that some poor bastard was getting his technique dissected right now.

With that thought in mind, he decided to wait for the conversation to move on before letting them know he was there. He could live without being the subject of female speculation this morning. He grinned to himself. Not that Stephanie needed to speculate. Hell, if she needed a refresher he was ready any time she was.

Another burst of laughter broke through the front door, only this time Stephanie was the subject. From the way she was waving a half-eaten donut around while Connie handed her paper towels and Lula roared, he'd guess that food was involved. He stifled a laugh.

He gave it a few more moments then pushed the door open quietly and slipped into the office.

Stephanie had her back to the door and was shaking her head violently. "Wrong, he has ESP. I swear he can tell what I'm thinking all the time. I have to stay away from him after those kind of dreams…"

Connie and Lula both noticed him at the same time and went wide eyed and silent as Stephanie continued. He fought to maintain a straight face from his position behind her.

"…otherwise he'd know every over… heated… detail… " Stephanie trailed off, watching their faces. "He's standing behind me, isn't he?"

Connie and Lula nodded mutely.

"Damn," she muttered.

She pretty much took the words right out of his mouth. There was no way in hell he could walk away from this one. He only had so much willpower.

He watched her take a deep breath and turn around slowly. "Hi Ranger."

"Need to talk to you outside, Babe." He grabbed her hand and pulled her out stumbling through the door before she could recover her wits enough to stop him.

When they got out into the alley he pressed her into the rough brick of the wall and kept a hand on her shoulder to prevent her from bolting.


"About what?" she asked innocently.

"You dream about me?"

"It's not my fault!" she protested. "No-one can help what they dream–"

He cut her off abruptly with a heated kiss, trapping her against the wall. When he pulled away again her eyes were glazed.

"Huh," she muttered incoherently.

"Anything else to say?"


He grinned and leaned in for another kiss, this time taking his time and sliding a hand under her tee-shirt to explore her breast at the same time.

"Jesus Christ!" A familiar voice echoed down the alley to reach them.

Ranger felt Stephanie's body against him stiffen from melting compliance to horrified shock. He released her to turn towards the sound, looking himself at the same time.

Morelli stood at the entrance to the alley, shock and disgust written large on his features. "I never trusted him, but you? I never would have believed this of you, Steph."

"Joe," she said despairingly.

"No. Just forget it." He dropped her forgotten cellphone on the ground where he stood before turning on his heel and stalking away.

"I have to go." Stephanie ran out of the alley after Morelli without looking back.

Ranger sighed silently to himself and walked back round to the bonds office. One day she'd walk away from the cop for good. Until then, God help him, he'd take whatever scraps he could get and carry on warming himself at her fire. A sane man would just turn on the light and the heating, but given the chance he'd rather enjoy the flickering dance and take a chance on his house burning down. No-one had ever called him sane, after all.

o0o o0o o0o

He was coming out of a client's premises in downtown Trenton the next day when a white haired woman detached herself from the shade of the neighboring store front and walked over to him. She was wearing a long black coat and dress despite the summer heat and her glare could have drilled holes through sheet metal.

"Thief," she hissed at him. "Defiler."

She moved in closer and tilted her head back to maintain her stare from her position level with his chest. "You stay away from my grandson's fiancée, or I'll put the eye on you. Do you hear me?"

Ranger walked straight past her without even acknowledging her presence. He had better things to do than stand out in the heat humoring mad old women from the Burg. Stephanie wasn't wearing a ring, and if Morelli couldn't give her what she needed, he needed to deal with his problems with her direct and not hide behind his grandmother's dusty, black skirts.

She followed him for a few steps as he walked away. "This isn't over, thief."