Nothing belongs to me - the great and mighty Janet Evanovich thought of it all first.
The two male voices arguing just outside my door were getting lower and angrier. I'd been listening long enough to catch the gist of the discussion, but had not opened the door because neither of them had knocked on it yet. Apparently, part of the argument was over which one of them would get that privilege. Finally deciding to intervene before their little 'discussion' became an all out testosterone show-down, I thunked my forehead twice against the wall, sighed, and then pulled the door open.
Morelli and Ranger froze mid-sentence. Joe's ears and neck were flushed red, his brows furrowed, eyes murderous, and his arms stopped in an odd position in the air – he'd obviously been waving them around in traditional angry-Italian fashion. Ranger faced him from about 20 inches away, his feet shoulder-width apart, face carefully blank and still as carved granite, arms crossed tightly across his chest. The air around them positively vibrated with hostility.
They recovered quickly, turning two pairs of surprised eyes to me while each marshaled his body language into something he hoped was less threatening. Ranger was faster and opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off by raising my hands in front of me, palms turned toward them in the universal 'stop' gesture. "No. You two don't get to say anything until you've listened to me," I snapped. "I know there's a nut job after me again and you two feel compelled to protect me."
Charles "the Knife" Lugowski was that nut job's name. I'd hauled him in FTA eighteen months ago. He'd been behind me in the drive-thru line at Cluck-In-A-Bucket, so I pretended my car broke down and kept him trapped there until Carl and Big Dog (who'd been inside eating lunch) came out. As soon as they appeared, I walked back to his car and tapped on the window, playing the damsel in distress and asking him to phone for help. When he reached across the seat to get his cell phone I leaned in the window, cuffed him to his steering wheel, and stole the keys from the ignition. Then I waved Carl and Big Dog over and turned him in with no muss and very little fuss on my part. I proudly considered that one of my slickest apprehensions ever. Unfortunately, Charles is a small-time mob tool that specialized in knife work (hence the nickname) with a bad attitude and he had not appreciated being caught by "Bounty-Hunter Barbie" as he called me. Well, he called me a lot of other things too, but none of the other epithets had quite the same ring to them. Anyway, he'd been released on parole early this morning and it was just a matter of time before he came after me. Joe and Ranger were fighting over which one of them could hide me better.
"I'm not going to stop my life just because some whacko has it in for me," I continued. Both men just glared at me. "Joe, you work odd hours so I wouldn't really be any safer or more guarded at your place then if I holed up here." Morelli's expression wilted in defeat, but I plowed on before Ranger could work up a good gloat. "And I refuse to be placed under house-arrest…or twenty-four hour surveillance…or glorified baby-sitting...or whatever you want to call what I'd be under at Rangeman." Ranger's lips pressed into an even tighter line. I wasn't going anywhere with either of these men – they'd both been intolerable shits the last couple of weeks and I was fed up with it.
"You can't seriously expect us to let you stay here alone?" Joe asked.
"Come on, Babe. Just let us protect you." Ranger added.
I heard a soft plink and movement behind me in the kitchen. Without looking back I smiled and said, "What makes you two think I'm staying here alone?" I pushed the door open wider so they could see past me into the apartment and had to bite down a laugh when both pairs of eyes widened in surprise then instantly narrowed with suspicion and – I'm only guessing here – perhaps just a little bit of jealousy.
"What's up, fellas?" Diesel called over my shoulder. I did glance at him then and nearly fainted at the sight. No wonder the men in the hall looked fit to be tied! Diesel moseyed toward us wearing nothing but a pair of faded blue cotton pajama pants. The drawstring kind. He leaned against the wall eating Fruit Loops out of the box and looking for all the world like he'd just rolled out of bed. My bed, one would have to assume since nobody else knew he could just pop out of thin air. He gave me a little wink and I knew he was enjoying the other guys' reaction. Probably mine too, since I was openly ogling him.
If looks could kill, Ranger would be up on murder charges. Joe sputtered for a moment, then choked out, "So…what, are you going to be her bodyguard or something?"
"Or something," Diesel answered. "I'm kind of between jobs at the moment, so it's no problem for me to stay with Steph twenty-four/seven until this loser is off her tail."
I expected daggers to actually shoot from Ranger's eyes at any second.
"This guy is a professional thug," Morelli said. "Are you sure you're up to the job?"
"Oh, I've got a few skills." Diesel grinned and winked at me again.
"Babe?" Ranger's tone could have caused frost in Hell.
"Um, yeah…" I squeaked. Then I tore my eyes away from Diesel's sculpted chest and tried to focus on the conversation. "You guys are too busy to keep an eye on me all the time, and the Rangemen are afraid of being on Stephanie detail after all the accidents. Besides, this way I'm free to go on about my life instead of having to stay locked inside."
Diesel snaked an arm around my waist and pulled me against him. Suddenly all that firm, warm, male flesh was pressed along my upper body and the sensation made my breath catch. I tried very, very hard to keep a neutral expression on my face and not think about undoing the drawstring pants with my teeth. Joe looked as though his hair were about to burst into flame. Then I met Ranger's gaze, and I almost wet my pants.
Meanwhile, the blond man who had hold of me was still chattering away as cheerfully as if we'd all bumped into each other in the grocery store.
"So," he said, "you see I've got this covered and there's no reason to worry. Sure was nice of you guys to swing by and check on Steph, though. I promise I'll take excellent care of her." And he smiled.
Short of kidnapping me, there was absolutely nothing either of the men still standing in my hallway could do. Neither of them had any sort of official claim on me, and since I'd barely spoken to either of them in at least two weeks they had no way of knowing that Diesel had shown up only moments ago. I was pretty sure Ranger suspected something since he had at least passing knowledge of Diesel's occupation, but Joe just looked pissed. Left with no other real options, they both turned and walked stiffly toward the elevator. Diesel waved happily after them, then pulled me inside and shut the door. He headed back to the kitchen and put the box of cereal away, then opened the refrigerator door and stared inside. While he rummaged, I tried to figure out what just happened.
I finally gave up and just asked. "So how did you end up materializing in my kitchen at the exact moment I needed rescuing? Half-naked, might I add."
His face appeared around the fridge door. "I would have been a minute or so sooner, but then I'd have been completely naked," he answered. "I took enough time to locate - and put on - these pants."
I fought back a blush thanks to that mental image, then asked again, "But how did you know I needed you?"
He shut the door, stared at me for a few seconds, then shrugged. "I kind of keep tabs on you. You popped up on my radar as 'danger'…so here I am."
I tried to process that information and got lost in the thought. I was so distracted that I didn't notice him moving my direction until suddenly he was so close a deep breath would have put us touching. I made that surprised little eep! sound that is exclusively a girl noise. He was very carefully not touching me, but I was effectively pinned against the counter with his big body directly in front of me and his arms braced on either side. I could feel the warmth of his skin and smell his soap. He leaned his mouth close to my ear and his unruly hair brushed my cheek.
"Now," he growled softly, "What was I saying about taking care of you?"