Author's note: Unfortunately, I don't own all of these characters. I am borrowing from Janet Evanovich only…as evidenced by my bank account. This is my first Stephanie/Ranger story. I have been writing fan fics I guess since my high school days many moons ago…before the internet and before they were called fan fics. This is my own take and my own ideas for these characters. I know some people write a chapter and post it as they go but my brain won't let me work that way. I can't show anybody my work until it's done. It's just the way I am wired. I edited my own work so I will take the blame for any mistakes. I want to thank everyone for sharing their imagination and I have enjoyed all of your stories…both the Babes and the Cupcakes (I am Ranger all the way). This is dedicated (I'm giving you my best Jersey accent now) to awl a youz (all of you-for those that can't speak Jersey). This is my first and I hope you enjoy. If not…oh well…maybe the next one. There is language, adult and sexual situations (not too graphic). To be safe, I would give this a NC-17 rating……..Sue

Chapter 1

She had been working for her cousin Vinnie for about a month as a bounty hunter. It wasn't working out like she had planned. It was all on the job training and no one to help her figure it out. It was obvious that she didn't know what she was doing. She stood about 5'7", had a mop of curly blond hair that hung down past her shoulders, and bright blue eyes the color of aquamarine. She had brought in a few easy FTA which bought her a little more time, but wasn't enough. Something had to give. She was almost out of money, her rent was due, and she was driving a 1992 Honda Civic that was bucking for retirement. It was partly her own fault. She blackmailed Vinnie into giving her the job.

"How are things going Steph?" Connie asked her. She worked for Vinnie also, handling the office, the books, payments, etc. Connie was a few years older, shorter, and a little more hour glassed shaped. She was attractive in a Betty Boop sort of way. She plopped down in the chair next to her and sighed.

"Not so good. It's harder than I thought," she stated. "But I know I could get the hang of this if I had someone who knows what they are doing show me the ropes." Connie thought for a moment.

"I know," she said looking through her rolodex. "I'll call Carlos Manoso. He works for Vinnie sometimes taking the higher bond FTAs." She looked at Stephanie. "He may help you. Plus he owes me a favor"

"Who's Carlos Manoso?" she asked her.

"He's the best. He has a security company or something. Used to be in the Army." Connie told her. Stephanie shrugged her shoulders in agreement.

"Do you think he will help me?"

Connie looked down at her outfit. She was wearing a pink tank top short cropped to show a little skin, short denim skirt that rode low on her hips and bone color suede boots that laced up the front and had fringe around the top. Not only was he very intimidating, he also had the reputation for being a ladies' man. "Oh, I think he will be interested."

"I don't want him to help me because of the way I look…." She giggled. But then again, she was getting desperate. Connie began to dial. He must have picked up the phone right away.

"Hi, it's Connie," she started. "No I don't have a case for you but need to ask a favor." Stephanie couldn't hear the other side of the conversation. "I have a new BEA and wondered if you would give her some pointers?" She paused. "Yes…her. Her name is Stephanie, and she's Vinnie's cousin." She started to write something on a note pad. "Okay, she'll meet you there."

"He said to meet him at the diner in 45 min." she told her.

"What does he look like?"

"He's a little taller than you, very muscular, has dark brown hair that's about to the top of his shoulders but wears it pulled back in a short pony tail. Totally gorgeous," Connie fanned herself. "You can't miss him."

"Thanks…I think," Stephanie laughed. She fixed her makeup. Not that she wore that much…just mascara and lip gloss. There was nothing she could do with the thick mop of hair that hung way down past her shoulders. She headed out the door to her car.

She got to the diner 10 minutes early but he was already there. He was sitting in the back, back to the wall so he can keep his eyes on the room. She immediately was able to pick him out from Connie's description. She could see why Connie fanned herself. He was hot. She walked over to the table.

"Are you Carlos Manoso?" she asked him. He nodded, taking off his mirrored shades. "Hi, I'm Stephanie Plum." She extended her hand and he shook it.

Holy Shit, he thought. His stomach did a flip. Connie had to be kidding. There was no way this awesome looking girl was going to have what it takes to be a bounty hunter. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?" Her gorgeous blue eyes narrowed at him. She flopped down in the seat across from him and dumped her bag on the floor next to her.

"Do you see that piece of shit car out there?" he followed where she was pointing. "If I don't start making some money, that's going to be my home soon." She had some spunk. "I know if I have someone who knows what they are doing show me how to do this job, I will be good at it." At that point, the waitress came over.

"You ready to order?" He ordered a salad and water. She looked to Stephanie.

"Oh...I'm not really hungry…I'll just have a pizza burger, fries, a coke and a chocolate milkshake." He looked over at her in disbelief.

"Not hungry, huh?" She looked back into his eyes. God, they were the prettiest eyes he had ever seen.

"Yeah, I just ate a little while ago." She looked straight at him. He was Latino, dark brown eyes, and very sexy. His tight black shirt clung to every curve and bulge of his muscles. "Connie says you're the best."

"I am the best, Babe." She smiled. Her eyes lit up when she smiled.

"And modest too," she laughed. He couldn't help but smile back. "You were in the service?"

"Yeah, Special Forces."

"So how did you get into bounty hunting?" She asked a lot of questions. He could tell she was going to be like the energizer bunny. She sensed his hesitation. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosy."

"It's okay, Babe. I have a security company. Going after FTAs is a part of that." He just stared, taking her in.

"You're star-ing," she told him in sing song voice.

"Sorry….not what I expected."

"What did you expect?" He gave her a full on smile. Wow, she thought, he's got a great smile. His whole face seemed to soften and warm up. She fought the urge to lick her lips.

"Not you." He laughed. "First of all, bounty hunters don't wear pink. You gotta look the part."

"Well, when I start making some money, you can take me shopping for a new wardrobe." She leaned forward. "Right now, you're stuck with pink. I like pink, and I look good in pink." She stared straight at him, challenging him with her eyes. At that moment, the food came. She dug right in, not caring about eating in front of him. He could see that she was thoroughly enjoying every bite of her food, moaning at times. There was something special about her. He was used to women falling all over him. She was different. She didn't seem to be trying to draw attention to herself. He felt she was acting like her natural self and it was very refreshing. He immediately liked that about her. She thrust her pizza burger right in his face.

"Want a bite?" she asked him, her mouth full. He looked amused and shook his head.

"No thanks, Babe. Those things will kill you. The body is a temple and you need to watch what you put in it." She kept right on eating and rolled her eyes.

"Sounds like a load of crap to me." She replied not even picking up her head from her food. He smiled again. He decided right there that he would help her. It was not going to be boring.

"Okay, I'll help you. Since we have to wait on the wardrobe issue, we'll start with getting you a gun permit…."

"I don't like guns," she started.

"What are you going to use to protect yourself with…harsh language?"

"I'm afraid of guns...what else can I use?"

"Babe, you'll need a gun. I'll teach you how to fire it. You'll need cuffs, too. Good idea to carry pepper spray." He finished his salad about the same time she polished off the burger and fries and was starting on the milkshake. She licked her lips. Shit, he thought to himself and his concentration was temporary broken. What was I just going to say, he thought to himself…oh yeah he remembered. "We'll get you set up and you can come on a few take downs with my crew to see how it's done." Her face lit up.

"Thank you…Mr. Manoso...uh Carlos…what should I call you?" she asked. He thought for a minute.

"Call me by my street name…Ranger. That's how everyone knows me."

"Ranger…" she repeated. She looked a little embarrassed. "I don't have any money to pay you right now…"He put up a hand to cut her off.

"My services are free to you, Babe. Finish your shake and we'll get you a handgun permit." The check came and he took it. "This one's on me."

As they walked to the door, he put his hand gently to the small of her back to guide her out. She felt a slight shot of electricity run through her and she involuntarily shivered; something that didn't go unnoticed by Ranger. Luckily, they had just walked under the ceiling fan, so she was able to blame it on that. He guided her over to his Mercedes. "Is this your car?" He nodded unlocking the doors. "Wow, this is really nice." She smiled at him before getting in the passenger seat and he felt like he would melt into the asphalt. He could tell at that moment that she was going to complicate his life.

After applying for the gun permit, getting a handgun, and getting handcuffs, he took her to the Rangeman office building, as he had a shooting range in the basement. "This is your office?" she asked as they drove through the gate into the basement garage. It was a plain, non-descript 7 story office building. He nodded. "Wow, I guess you are the best." She looked over at him and smiled. Shit. This girl was dangerous. His heart melted every time he saw that smile. He should have said no, but he knew that she would wind up getting seriously hurt if he didn't help her. Now he was getting in over his head. No one had ever affected him this she did.

The garage was monitored as well as the shooting range. The men were staring at the monitors. Ranger never brought his women here. "Who is that?" Lester asked Tank. He shrugged.

"Guess the boss was getting a little lonely," he joked. "He hasn't had much time to play lately." Tank looked back at the monitor. Didn't appear to be the usual bimbo with the DD implants that Ranger normally banged. There was something different about this one. He actually brought this one inside. The boss must be interested in this one, Tank thought.

Ranger led her to the shooting range. There were 2 stations that ran the length of the building. The shooting stations were separated by a large bullet proof wall of glass. He unlocked a huge metal cabinet and took out a few small handguns, ammo, headsets and goggles. The guys watched them intently through the monitor. "Do you need any help, Ranger?" Tank's voice boomed over the intercom. Ranger looked up at the camera and shook his head no.

"Who was that?" she asked.

"Tank," He pointed to the camera. "This is a monitored building." She smiled and waved to the camera. He began to go through how to load the gun, safety switch and aiming. They donned the headsets and goggles. She took the stance he had just shown her, Ranger standing right behind her with his hands lightly on her hips and his chest against her back. She tried to concentrate on the target. She turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she squeezed the trigger. He leaned into her, speaking softly into her ear. "Try that again, but this time look at your target and keep your eyes open." What amazed him was that first shot was right between the eyes on the paper target. She took the stance again and started to turn her head but felt his hands on the sides of her face guiding her to face front again. His chest was pressed up against her back again. She was able to smell his cologne. He smelled so good.

They worked on her shooting for another hour. "How does it feel?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"I still don't like guns." She said flatly.

"You don't have to like them, Babe, but you do need to learn how to use them. You need to carry a gun if you want to do this job." He put the guns and headsets away and took out a small Taser gun. "You may want to get one of these." He handed it to her. She looked it over.

"What do you do, just zap someone with this?" she touched his arm and pushed the button not realizing it was turned on. He let out a yell and dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. "OH MY GOD...I'm so sorry!"

The guys in the control room howled with laughter. "Holy shit….she tased him!" Lester forced out while laughing. Tank was on his way to the range.

She quickly dropped the Taser and straddled his stomach, patting his face to try to wake him up. "Ranger? Are you okay? I'm soooo sorry." Shit, she thought; leave it to me to fuck this up. She had been called a walking disaster on more than one occasion. He started to come around, obviously disoriented. At this time, Tank burst into the room. Ranger was shaking his head as if to try to clear to cobweb feeling out of it. "Are you okay?"

"You tased me, didn't you," he managed. She was still sitting on his stomach.

"Yeah…sorry," She stood up and took a step back, reaching her hands down to him to help him up. He took her hands and she helped pull him up. Tank had gotten behind him to assist. The whole situation was so absurd that she started to giggle. They both looked over at her. "I'm sorry" she said through fits of giggles. "That didn't hurt, did it?" Tank started laughing again failing to hold it in, bending over to pick up the taser that Stephanie dropped. Ranger failed to see the humor. She got a hold of herself, "You're not mad, are you?" Ranger was a little unsteady on his feet so Tank led him to the bench. She sat down next to him.

"I'm fine," he said. He let out a sigh. He turned to look at her pleading eyes. "No, I'm not mad. But I think we're done for the day." She started to giggle again.

"I'm sorry…I laugh when I'm nervous. And sometimes I just can't stop," she explained. "It's part of my charm." She gave him that fantastic smile again. He stood up, more steady on his feet.

"I'll introduce you to the guys, and then I'll take you home," he began. "Stephanie, this is Tank." She extended her hand. He was 6'6, almost 300 lbs, black, big, and bald. Tank seemed to suit him.

"Nice to meet you Stephanie. Way to tase the boss." He told her. Ranger shot him a sideways glance.

"Let's go up to the control room to meet the others." They went upstairs. "Lester, Bobby, Hal, Ram…this is Stephanie. She's going to be working with us on a few take downs. She works for Vinnie." They nodded and said their hellos.

"Nice job with the Taser gun," Lester laughed. "You tased him, and then you laughed at him! Priceless!" Stephanie looked back over at Ranger and started to giggle again.

"I'm sorry…I can't help it."

"You can make it up to me by cooking me dinner one night," he said slyly. She gave him a look then rolled her eyes.

"Yeah…like that'sgonna happen. Actually, Stephanie doesn't cook," she started, "You would probably rather me tasing you again." They guys snickered behind her. Ranger was a women magnet. Women were always throwing themselves at him. If Ranger asked or even hinted for a woman to cook for him, she would have learned or paid someone to cook the meal for her. This blond and blue-eyed force of nature was certainly different.

Ranger was quiet on the ride back to her car. He didn't talk on the ride over either. She stared at his profile. He could feel her eyes on him.

"Are you sure you're alright?" He looked over at her. The concern was written all over her face, especially in her eyes.

"Yes." He pulled into the lot and right next to her car.

"When do you want to get together again?" Hopefully, tomorrow?

"I'll pick you up at 7 tomorrow. What's your address?"

"7…AM, like in the morning 7?" She asked in disbelief. He had to smile at that one.

"Got a problem with that, Babe?"

"Uh…no. That's just real early. I'm not a morning person." She smiled. "I can make an exception. Since I tased you and all." That got her that 200 watt smile. She gave him her address.

She started to open the door, but stopped and turned towards him. "Hey…thanks for helping me and everything." She leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. The touch of her soft lips sent chills throughout his body and an ache in his groin. Before he could respond, she was out of the car and had closed the door. He watched her until she pulled out of the lot. What did I get myself into, he thought with a sigh. He wasn't into relationships, but somehow, he couldn't wait to see her again.

Stephanie collapsed against the inside of her apartment door after she closed it behind her. She had just spent the most amazing day she'd had in a very long time. Ranger was so hot. And she tased him! Oh my God. Not only did she tase him, but she laughed at him. She didn't see him wearing a wedding ring, not that it didn't mean he wasn't married. That also didn't mean that he didn't have a girlfriend either. She really had to work hard because she didn't want to screw this up. Disasters just seemed to follow her around. She knew he could teach her a lot. She really needed to find something that was her own. All her life, she was always told what was best for her, how she should feel, what she should do with her life. That's why she married that stupid prick, Dickie Orr. She really didn't love him but she saw it as a way to please her family and get out on her own. She was never a good student. Barely graduated from high school, squeaked by in collage. Music was her first love but she never saw that as a career. She was in a band in high school and college. Her parents thought that was a waste of time and never supported it. They had supported all those years of piano lessons. Her mother always focused on her older sister, Valerie. Valerie was the perfect one. Never made a mistake. Married well, had 2 girls, and was living in California. Bitch! She was definitely the loser in the family.

She put her things on the counter and went into the kitchen. She was pretty hungry. There wasn't much food so she settled for a peanut butter and olive sandwich. Her thoughts turned back to Ranger. He had dark amazing eyes that seemed to see right through her. And she kissed him! She couldn't believe she did that. She was going to have to work more on self control. These guys were all military and were strict and disciplined. They wouldn't take her seriously if she came across as a ditzy blonde. She was sure she might be able to get away with it from time to time, but she really wanted to do this job. She wasn't stupid, but could be very impulsive at times. She finished her sandwich and washed it down with a beer. She went into her bedroom and changed into a black, cropped tank and white boxer shorts with dancing Snoopys all over it.

She looked through all her clothes trying to find what she had in black. Most of her black were skimpy tops, skirts, and dresses. The only black that she had that would possibly work were spandex bike shorts and matching top, spandex workout pants that wear low on the hips, and a spandex wrap around top that was cropped to come down to the bra line and was very low cut. She was leaning toward the bike shorts but was still a little nervous about wearing it. She continued to look through her closet. Nothing. She pulled out a NY Yankee baseball shirt and cut off jeans. She decided to try to go to bed early so she wouldn't be late. She tossed and turned for hours before finally letting sleep overcome her.

Chapter 2

Ranger drank black coffee on the drive over to Stephanie's apartment the next morning. He was about an hour early. He didn't sleep well last night. He couldn't get her out of his head. He overheard one of him men refer to her as a force of nature. That about summed it up. Some people will go there whole lives fading into the crowd. Some people show off to get attention. Some just have that aura about them that draw people in without even trying. That was Stephanie. He pulled into the apartment's parking lot. It was 6:15am. He figured she would be up already getting ready. He walked up to her apartment and knocked on the door. No answer. Maybe she was in the shower. He quickly put that thought out of his mind. That would be too much of a distraction today thinking about her wet and naked. He knocked again. Still no answer. Using the tools of his trade, he let himself in. The place was quiet and dark. He walked to her bedroom. He smiled as he saw her laying face down, stretched out on her bed above the covers in the dimly lit room. Her mass of blonde hair partially covering her face. He walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed, putting his coffee on the nightstand. He stared at her for a while. He was tempted to climb in bed and lay next to her, pulling her next to him. He only met her yesterday so that might not be the best idea. He had a feeling there would be another time. God, she was so beautiful. He put a hand on her shoulder and gently shook her. "Stephanie," he said softly. Nothing. He shook her again, a little firmer this time. "Stephanie."

This time there was a slight groan. She began to stir. She started to wake up and fear gripped her as she realized that there was someone sitting next to her. She gasped, jumped up, and lunged at him knocking both of them to the floor as she caught him off guard. "Babe...it's me. It's Ranger." He held her by the wrist to prevent her from punching him.

"Oh my God! What the hell are you doing in my bed?" She reached over and turned the lamp on. "You scared the shit out of me. How did you get in here?" She demanded. Something else he was not used to. The women in his past would have liked him to sneak in their beds in the middle of the night.

"Nice pajamas, Babe." He was still on the floor.

"What time is it?" she said crawling back into bed. She pulled the covers up over her head.

"Time to get up. It's almost 6:30," he smiled pulling the covers down. "I'm leaving here at 7. If you want to spend the day with me and my crew, you better start getting ready." She let out a loud, long, exaggerated sigh.

"I'm up." She sat up in bed. "Did you bring me breakfast?" She still had this sleepy look in her eye. She pulled her hair back off her face.

"No, but I'll share my coffee with you," he nodded to the nightstand. She took his cup and sipped it.

Physically blanching, "Yuck...it's black. How can you drink coffee without cream and sugar?"

"That stuff's not good for you, Babe," he smiled. "You don't want to ruin your figure, do you?" She rolled her eyes, got up, and walked past him to her kitchen and added cream and sugar to his coffee. He smiled in amusement. He wasn't a regular coffee drinker but had planned on finishing it himself. She took the mug into the bathroom with her. Surprisingly, she didn't take that long. He found her coffee maker and started a pot.

"What are we going to be doing today? I didn't really know what to wear." She was standing in the door way in a short bathrobe. It had been a while since he was with a woman. Work had really kept him busy. It took every bit of his self discipline to keep from ripping off that robe, throwing her down on her bed and taking her.

"We've got a lead on 2 skips, so we'll be doing take downs today. Wear something comfortable. Black if you have it. Pink will ruin my reputation." He heard her mutter "Swell" under her breath. She decided to damn it all to hell and go with the bike shorts and matching top. It was black, she could move in it, but it may not have been to best wardrobe choice. She grabbed her things and went back in the bathroom. A few minutes later, he could hear the hair dryer.

"This is all I have in black that's not too low cut or a short skirt," she told him. She sat on the edge of the bed pulling on pink socks and pink Converse high tops. "I don't have black socks."

"Where are you going to put your gun?" He gave her his 200 watt smile. She stood up and walked towards him to refill her coffee from the kitchen.

"I'm sure I'll think of something," She poured herself coffee in a travel mug, adding cream and lots of sugar. "No comments on my coffee, please." She took a sip. "So, how did you get into my apartment anyway?"

"I'd tell you, Babe, but then I'd have to kill you," he told her.

"Swell," she muttered. "Don't scare me like that again!" She punched him in the arm. She wasn't afraid or intimidated by him at all. He liked that. Or at least, she didn't show it.

"You always need to be aware of your surroundings," he said. "You can get hurt if you're not."

"I was sleeping, in my bed, in my apartment," she said as she grabbed her small shoulder bag, "What? Like you never sleep?"

"No."

"Well, I'm not giving that up either. I like to sleep. I like to eat, and I like my coffee with cream and sugar."

"Babe, "he sighed as he led her outside to his car. They got in and he took her back to Rangeman offices for their morning conference.

Ranger led her inside to the 5th floor where the offices, control room, and conference room were. He showed her to the kitchen where they kept fruit, protein bars, bottled water and juices. "Help yourself," her told her. She made a face at all the healthy foods.

"No doughnuts?" she looked over at him.

"No Babe…no doughnuts." He was able to resist a smile. He tucked a stray curl back behind one ear. "All that sugar and fat is no good for you." He picked up an apple and handed it to her. "Here, this is better for you."

"No, it would be better in a pie or a turnover," she muttered. She also took a cranberry juice and a protein bar and followed him back to the conference room. The guys started to file in and take their seats. Stephanie sat in an extra seat next to Ranger. She recognized the men she had been introduced to yesterday. They nodded their greetings to her and silently admired the outfit she wore.

"Ok," Ranger began, "Let's get this started. We're going after 2 skips today, maybe 3. Armond Smith, 35, white, arrested for dealing, we've got him out at Motel 6 on Route 1. The second is Frank Mauriello, 40, white, charged with rape and assault. He's been staying at a friend's house. If the surveillance is complete on Jose Rodriguez, we'll get him later today." Stephanie had taken a bite of the protein bar and blanched.

"UUUHHh!" Everyone had stopped to look at her. She spit in out into a napkin. The men snickered, trying to hold back laughing. "Oh my God, that is horrible! How can you eat that? It tastes like cardboard!" Ranger was good at keeping a blank face. He wanted to smile, but he didn't want to show he was letting her get away with disrupting the meeting. Especially, when he never let his employees get away with anything. He just stared at her. "You're star-ing," she said in the sing song tone.

"Babe…we're trying to have a meeting here," he started. They noticed that he called her Babe. They never heard him use that word with any of the women he had been with in the past. He usually just called them by their names if he had even bothered to get their names. There were many. He never kept them around for more than a week or so. And, he had never brought any of them to work with him.

"I'm sorry," she look around, apologizing to everyone. "Can we stop at McDonalds after this? I am really, really hungry and I can't eat this shit." Lester opened the file and hid behind it because he was shaking with laughter. Bobby looked over at the file as well because he could no longer hold it in. Ranger knew he had lost control of the meeting at that point.

"Babe…if I promise to stop at McDonalds, will you promise to sit there and keep quiet for the next 15 minutes?" She rolled her eyes.

"Uh..ye-ah." She leaned back in the chair, crossing her arms in front of her. Ranger finished, the meeting ended and everyone got ready for the take downs. Stopping by McDonalds, he got her the breakfast he promised on the way to the first apprehension.

"Babe, I want you to stay right beside me. Mauriello is a murderer and rapist. Not someone you'd want to mess with. Do you have your gun?" She held up a small bag that was draped across her body. "Nervous?"

"No." If she was alone…hell yeah. She was surrounded by tall, muscle men with guns that looked like the American Gladiators. No reason to be nervous. They were in one SUV with Tank and the rest of the crew was in the other.

The two SUVs slowed after passing the target house and parked down the street. They grouped behind the first SUV, putting on their Kevlar vests and taking the safety off their guns. Ranger pulled out an extra vest for Stephanie. They crept up on the house, moving into their assigned positions. Ranger pulled Stephanie close to him. "Get behind me." They all had their weapons drawn. Ranger nodded to Tank, who knocked on the door.

"Bond Enforcement." Mauriello answered with a round of fire from a machine gun. They dropped to the ground with Ranger throwing himself on top of her to shield her. Tank got off a couple shots and Mauriello retreated back into the house. Lester and Bobby had entered from the back and caught him by surprise, taking him down before anyone had gotten hurt. They heard the commotion inside, and Ranger didn't get up until he heard them yell clear.

"You ok, Babe?" He helped her up. She nodded. Eyes were wide.

"Is everyone ok?" she asked. They had him handcuffed and were bringing him out the front door. Hal had gone to get one of the SUVs and pulled into the driveway. She wasn't shaking or even looked that scared. It was more concern.

Mauriello stared at Stephanie as they walked him over to the SUV. He leered after her. His stare gave her the creeps. This guy raped and murdered women and from the look of him, he would do the same to her given the chance. As if he read her mind, he growled, "I'll get you next bitch! I'll fuck you so hard and cut your throat at the same time you fucking whore." Lester smashed his head into the side of the SUV. "Fuck you, mother fucker!" he yelled at Lester. Lester and Bobby threw him in the back seat.

Ranger looked at her with raised eyebrows as if to ask if she was ok. She smiled. "I'm fine. Been called a lot worse by my ex-husband actually." He had run a background check on her so this did not come as a surprise. He put his hand to the small of her back, guiding her back to the SUV. They put their guns away and took off the Kevlar.

"What are you thinking about?"

"I'm thinking about the women he raped and murdered. He has no remorse. If he gets the chance, he'll do it again." She looked over at him. "You can see it in his eyes." He put the vests in the back.

"We deal with those kinds of people all the time, Babe. That's the job" Was she having second thoughts he wondered.

"Then it's a good job. Someone has to get those scumbags off the streets." He didn't expect this answer. She surprised him more and more. He expected her to react a certain way…like he thought most women would react. He gave her a smile and she smiled back. It was at this moment that he knew he was hooked. She was someone that he wanted in his life. He wasn't sure what capacity she would fill but he wanted her around. They drove down to the police station to drop off Mauriello. She waited outside.

"So, what did you think?" Lester asked.

"You guys make it look easy," she smiled. "It's going to be hard doing this by myself." Lester took in that comment. He couldn't imagine her going after skips by herself. That was not going to be a good situation.

"You should always have backup," Lester told her. She could tell he was concerned.

"Well, sometimes I get help from Lula. She's an ex-hooker who now works as a file clerk for Vinnie." She shrugged her shoulders. "That's all we have." Now he was starting to understand Ranger's interest in training her. Besides the fact that she was incredibly beautiful, he really was starting to like her as a person. "Don't worry. They don't give me the hardened criminals to go after." She smiled at him. It must be a job requirement for Ranger to hire good looking, as well as scary looking 6ft plus, muscle-bound ex-military men. Ranger was actually a little shorter than his men at just shy of 6 foot, just a little taller than she was.

Ranger and Tank came outside after getting their body receipt. "Ok, let's go after Smith. You can get a little more involved in this one. He's not as bad as the first."

"Then we can get lunch? I'm getting hungry." She got into the SUV in the front passenger seat as Ranger got into drive. Tank and Lester piled in the back.

"Babe, you just ate breakfast." He sighed. Where the hell did she put the stuff?

"Yeah but that was a long time ago," she told him. Tank and Lester's eyes followed the conversation back and forth like a tennis match.

"It was only two hours ago, Babe."

"Yeah, that was a long time ago. By the time we do this next take down, it will be lunch time." She insisted.

"She's got you there, Boss," Lester added. Ranger glared at him through the rearview mirror. He knew he was not going to win this.

"Yes, we will get lunch after we take care of Smith," he conceded. She shot him a smile.

"It's like watching a married couple fight," Tank joked. She turned and narrowed her eyes at him.

"No, this is purely amateur hour, believe me. Been there…done that." She turned and faced front again.

"You were married?" Lester asked her. Ranger's interest picked up. He was curious as to what happened.

"Yeah…married to a complete asshole."

"Then why did you marry him?" Lester asked. She turned to face him.

"I had a major blonde moment. He wanted a trophy and I was trying to please everyone else and do what was expected of me. I wasn't exactly a well behaved child growing up. My older sister was perfect and I was trouble." She smiled. "This may come as a shock to you, but I can be a little stubborn at times." This even got a smile from Ranger. There was a chorus of "No's" and "you're kidding" which made her laugh. Then, she became serious. "And I'm nobody's trophy."

They pulled up to the Motel 6 and drove around the back. Smith was in a room on the second floor on the other side of the complex. Same routine. They got out, suited up with the Kevlar, and got their guns out. "He's probably got a gun but he's not as dangerous as the last guy. He's been staying here with his girlfriend. She may be in the room. If she is, we'll let you handle her." She gave him a salute. "Smart ass."

They walked up to the second floor and slowly walked to the room. They were starting to position themselves on either side of the door when they heard male and female groaning and moaning coming from inside the room. Oh my God, she thought, they are having sex in there! Slow smiles crept across the men's faces.

"So," she whispered, "what is your normal procedure here? Do you let them finish?" Some on the men snickered. Ranger was unsmiling.

"What would you do?" he asked her.

"Bust in now and catch them off guard," she smiled. He put an arm around her neck, pulled her close to him, and kissed the top of her head.

"You're doing good, Babe." The men were a little surprised at the small display of affection. He nodded to Tank, who kicked in the door.

"Bond Enforcement!" he yelled and barreled in the room with everyone else behind. That's a good place to be, she thought, behind Tank. They were all frozen in disbelief and a little horror. Armond Smith was a small and thin man, now naked and had been pounding his girlfriend from behind as she lay on the bed. The horror part was that his girlfriend looked to be about 600 pounds. She lay on the bed on her stomach, naked, covering the whole thing, rolls of fat everywhere.

"Holy Shit," Lester and Bobby had muttered at the same time. Hal and Ram grabbed Armond. He began to kick, wiggle, bite, scream, and they were having a hard time holding him, as he seemed to have some sort of grease or lubricant all over him, so the men turned their attention to him. Stephanie kept her attention on his girlfriend. She put her gun in her bag. She was looking for a sheet or something to cover her, giving her a little dignity when she saw her reach under the pillow and pull out a gun. She ran over and tried to grab the gun out of her hand. She got off a shot before rolling off the bed and crushing Stephanie beneath her. She lost her grip on the gun and it fell out of her reach. She had fallen between the two twin beds, wedged in, and couldn't move.

The guys had dropped to the floor upon hearing the shot. Ranger looked around in a panic for Stephanie. He saw, in horror, that Stephanie was pinned under this huge woman. "Tank!" he called out, "Give me a hand…quick." Hal and Ram quickly took Armond out to the SUV to chain him to the backseat. Ram stood guard and Hal ran back up to the room. They were trying to lift her up, but she was also covered in the same grease or lubricant, and they couldn't get a grip on her. Stephanie couldn't move and she couldn't breathe. Either she was smothered by the rolls of fat or she had the wind knocked out of her. Or maybe both. She tried to turn her head to the side but couldn't seem to get in a breath. The weight was crushing her.

"Get your fucking hands off me!" she was yelling at them. She was smacking their hands away. Probably embarrassed and humiliated due to the situation.

"Christ…she won't budge," Tank said, out of breath. Lester began to push one of the beds out of the way.

"Roll her fat ass this way," he said. They tugged and pushed and she finally began to move a little. "Come on, again, on three. One…two…three!" They put all their weight and strength in it and they were able to roll her off Stephanie. She was flat on her back but her eyes were open. She was trying to catch her breath. Ranger knelt down next to her on one side and Bobby, who was a medic, on the other.

"Babe, you ok?" She nodded her head first then shook it no. She was able to breathe a little easier and she caught her breath now that dump truck had been removed from her body. She tried to get up, but was restrained by both men. "Don't move, Babe, let Bobby check you out."

"Wind knocked out of you?" Bobby asked. She nodded. "Where do you hurt?"

"Everywhere," she finally managed. She tried to get up again, but was restrained. "I'm fine." She looked over at the heavy woman lying next to her. "I feel like I was hit by a truck." Ranger smiled at her. She was tough. The women continued to yell obscenities but couldn't get herself up. "Can I get up now?" Ranger and Bobby helped her sit up.

"Take it easy, Tiger," Bobby told her. "Just sit for a minute." She was holding her right wrist. He felt it for any breaks and she winced a little. "I don't feel any obvious breaks."

"What happened?" Ranger asked her.

"I was looking for a sheet to cover her and she pulled out a gun. I tried to grab it but she got off a shot and next thing I knew she flattened me like a pancake."

"Good you little skinny ass bitch!" The woman was flopping around trying to get up.

Stephanie started to get up but Ranger helped her up and made her sit on the side of the bed. "You should get that wrist x-rayed. It's most likely sprained or bruised but could be broken. You just had about 600 lbs fall on you," Bobby told her.

"I am not 600 lbs you dumb fuck. I am only 535 lbs! Help me up! What is wrong with you people." Hal had gone down and got the first aid kit. Bobby took out an ice pack and put in on her wrist.

"Somebody get a sheet and cover her," she looked up at the men standing over her. "Please." They were a little shocked and touched by her compassion for this woman. She suddenly was aware how close Ranger was to her and had his arm protectively around her shoulders. It felt so good. He smelled amazing. She looked over at him. She saw concern in his eyes. She gave him a little smile. "Now can we get something to eat?" This got her his full 200 watt smile.

"Whatever you want, Babe," He kissed her forehead.

"But first, we need to go down to the first floor and look for my spleen and pancreas." This got a round of laughs. They realized that she saved someone from getting shot and put herself at risk to do it. Ranger helped her to her feet. "What are you going to do with her?" Good question, he thought. He looked down. Lester had just covered her with the bedspread from the bed they threw to the side.

"She did shoot at us. Probably call the police and let them take care of her." He nodded at Tank who got on his cell phone and made the call. Ranger put his arm around her waist and walked her down to the SUV. "Are you sure you're okay, Babe. You're moving a little slow."

"I'm okay. A little…well, a lot sore, but I'll be okay."

"I'll take you to the ER just to make sure."

"No, really, that's okay. I'm fine." She couldn't afford an ER visit, and she didn't have insurance. She looked into his eyes. "I'll feel even better after getting something to eat." He sighed. He could see the beginnings of black and blue marks on her right cheek.

"Looks like you got a black eye too." Lester told her as she was getting in the SUV.

"I have a feeling I'm going to be one big bruise in the next few hours," she brushed some hair off her face. "I don't know if I got hit with her elbow or her breast or one of her chins." She giggled. "And I don't evenwant to know what this greasy stuff is!" They all got in the SUVs and drove Armond to the station after the police came for the girlfriend.

Stephanie was waiting in the SUV while they took care of dropping off Armond. Tank and Ranger were standing outside the SUV. "One of us would have taken a bullet today if she hadn't been there," Tank said to him. He was very serious. Ranger nodded. "She didn't even think about herself, she just acted. She could have been hit. I can tell you like her." He paused. "We can all tell you like her. We like her too. Don't screw this one over." Ranger glared at him. "Don't give me that look. You know you've broken a lot of hearts 'cause all you wanted was to get laid. This one is special and I won't keep my mouth shut this time." That was a major speech for Tank. Ranger opened his mouth to respond. "I know you're going to say it's not my business, but I'll make it my business."

"I just met her yesterday, Tank," he said through gritted teeth. "Let's not make something more of this." Tank raised his eyebrows. "Yes, I like her and am very attracted to her. I don't know where this is going or what is going to come of it. But I won't hurt her." Where the hell does he get off, Ranger thought. He had known Tank since he was a teenager. Tank knew him better than anyone. He better go back to keeping a low profile and checking his emotions. It was hard to hold back his feelings for Stephanie, and he was having a hard time keeping his hands off her. She really got under his skin. He didn't believe in love at first sight…lust maybe. Only a handful of his men had ever seen him with any of the women he'd been with. Once, he got sloppy and was caught on camera having sex in the woman's car in front of the Rangeman office building. He had a little too much to drink that night and the woman had been all over him. He never brought any of them inside the building or into his 7th floor apartment. He would either go to hotels or back to their place. It was easier for him to leave in the middle of the night or first thing the next morning. His lifestyle didn't lend itself to relationships. It's not that he wanted to break hearts but, he really wasn't interested in anything more than a sexual relationship.

Ranger had gotten a girl pregnant while he was in the service. They were married and divorced shortly after. He's been supporting his daughter ever since. His ex-wife had remarried and her new husband had adopted his daughter although he still sent support. He had met his daughter a few times. He didn't want to interfere as her adopted father was a good man and treated her well. They had 2 other children together but still treated her like she was his own. Although he didn't feel an emotional attachment to his daughter, she still was his daughter and that is why he continued to send money.

The paperwork was done and everyone climbed back in the SUVs. "How about we send for takeout and head back to the office?" Ranger suggested. "We can check on the status of Rodriquez while we are there." They headed back to Rangeman and pulled into the gated parking garage. Stephanie was having a harder time moving as she was feeling more aches and pains as well as stiffening up. She put up a good front as she didn't want to seem weak. Again, Ranger protectively put his arm around her waist and guided her to the elevator. It was comforting and she was really starting to like the feel of his touch on her body. She only met him yesterday. She was attracted to him from the beginning, but the feeling kept building and building with every second they were together. Since she didn't know him, she didn't know if he was a touchy-feely sort of guy. He didn't seem like that type. He seemed like a bad ass that kept his feelings to himself. But how would she know what he was really like? He was now her mentor and teacher. Maybe that's all he was. If that was all it was, she didn't want to ruin that by making a fool of herself by giving away her true feelings. She was going to take it one day and a time and just enjoy every minute they spent together.

Once back in the conference room, Lester whispered in her ear, "You better tell him what you want for lunch, Beautiful, otherwise he's going to order some health food shit."

"Pizza!" she yelled out suddenly. Some of the men jumped. "Let's get pizza!" Lester started shaking with laughter. Ranger contained his smile.

"Been talking to Santos about my eating habits, Babe?" he asked without looking up from the latest surveillance records on Rodriguez.

"Can we get pizza?" she smiled sweetly at him. You can have whatever you want, he thought. He nodded to Hal to order the pizzas. They guys breathed a sigh of relief. They all did not share Ranger's healthy diet. "And Pepsi."

"Diet?" Hal asked as he was dialing.

"Oh God no! Regular, please." Bobby brought in an Ace wrap for her wrist. He also handed her some Advil which she accepted. She was really feeling sore at this point, but kept her mouth shut. "Thanks."

"Okay, we'll forget Rodriguez for today. He's on the move again. You can go back on monitor duty this afternoon." There were groans. Monitor duty could be very boring.

Rangeman, in addition to catching FTAs, provided all types of security services such as home and business security, private duty security, body guards, in addition to other services that weren't illegal, but not quite fully legal. They were in a gray area. Usually, everything was done in a very business-like and military style manner. Not that there weren't a few laughs here and there, but Ranger as a boss, was very serious. Today had actually been a fun day. Stephanie added a positive element to the team. She talked back to the boss, and got away with it. Well, Ranger let her get away with it. He was a different person with her around. There was a side to him that they rarely got to see. Tank, Lester, and Bobby had served with him in the Army. All the rest, were ex-military. They were all used to strict discipline and handled every task with military precision. Not Stephanie. It was almost like the fish out of water story but somehow, she fit in with the group. Ranger had noticed all this as well.

She went to the bathroom while they were waiting for the pizza. It felt like a long time since she had a chance to pee. She checked her makeup in the mirror. Still not bad. She had only put on mascara and a little lip gloss. Her hair was the same old mop of blonde curls. Her black eye was getting more noticeable. Despite getting crushed today, she really had a good day. She felt like she belonged to a group. Maybe they were just being nice to her because Ranger was the boss? It didn't feel like that. She was relieved when Ranger said they were aborting going after Rodriguez. She was really sore and didn't want to wimp out. She was starting to have a hard time turning her head. Her neck was really stiff. She would take a long hot shower when she got home.

The pizza had arrived and everyone dug in. Bobby could tell she was having a hard time moving around. He went and got a few muscle relaxers. "Take one of these every eight hours," he told her. "It's a muscle relaxer. I think you're going to need it. They might make you a little drowsy."

"Thanks," she took one and put the rest in her bag. The Advil was starting to kick in and the soreness was easing up a little. She was so hungry she ate 5 pieces. She would have had more but didn't want to look like a pig.

"Babe, I've got some paperwork I have to finish right now." He walked her to his office. "Why don't you stretch out on the couch and take it easy for a little bit? I'll take you home later." He could see the muscle relaxer starting to kick in as her eyes were looking heavy. She nodded in agreement. She was very sleepy, but she didn't want to leave either. She lay down on the couch and wasn't long before she was out. He didn't have a blanket but he put his black fleece Rangeman jacket over her.

Ranger called his team into the conference room. "First, I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate all of you working with Stephanie today."

"Where is she?" Lester asked.

"She's sleeping on the couch in my office. Those pills Bobby gave her knocked her out. I think she surprised all of us today. I know she surprised the hell out of me. I didn't expect her to take on Shamu. One of us might have eaten a bullet if she didn't act quickly."

"Man, I thought she was going to be crushed to death by that fat cow today," Lester interrupted. "That scared the hell out of me. How fuckin' fat did she say she was?"

"535 pounds, "Tank laughed, "Christ…she still had about 200 lbs on me." He shook his head at the memory. "She had our backs today. That fat bitch could have shot her or one of us." They all nodded in agreement.

"Well, it got me thinking," Ranger began, "Silvio is leaving next month to work at the Miami office. How would you feel if I hired her for his job?" He wanted his team's input as there were no female employees. Well, he had his housekeeper, Ella. Ella took care of Ranger's apartment, as well as the studio apartments on the 4th floor. Her husband, Luis, took care of the rest of the building. Ella would stock the kitchen for the workers on the 5th floor. Silvio's job was doing searches, traces, and research. Mostly office based job, but they could still pull her when they needed a female. She reminded him that it might be good to get a female's perspective on things. They would have left that women laying there naked on the floor. It was Stephanie's request to cover her up.

"So we'd get to work with her all the time? Hell yeah!" Lester agreed. The others shared Lester's enthusiasm. Ranger nodded. If they didn't agree, he wouldn't do it. This was a tight unit. They would take a bullet for each other, trusted each other, and had each other's backs. It wouldn't be fair to bring someone, anyone in, without them feeling comfortable about it. He went back to his office to finish his paperwork. He hoped she would accept. This way, he would be able to spend more time with her and protect her at the same time.

It took her a few minutes to realize where she was when she woke up a few hours later. She sat up. Ranger was at his desk working on reports. Several times he had stopped working to watch her sleep. She looked so peaceful. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I got hit by a Mack truck," she stretched and winced. "What time is it?"

"Five to 5. I'm almost done here. I'll take you home in a little bit," he told her. "If you want to go now, I can have one of the guys drive you." He looked up from his paperwork.

She smiled. "I can wait." Of course, I can wait, she thought, anything to spend more time with Ranger. He also was glad she wanted to wait for him. She stood up, and groaned. "I see a hot shower in my future." She walked over to his desk and sat on it next to the files he was working on. "So…" she began, "I didn't screw things up too badly today, did I?" He looked up at her, staring into those aquamarine eyes. After a few seconds, she said, "You're staring," in that sing song tone again.

"Sorry," he smiled at her. "No, Babe, you did real good today. We were all impressed with you. You really earned the guys' respect."

"Really?" Her face lit up. Unable to help himself, he pulled her onto his lap. She felt like she had butterflies in her stomach with his touch and closeness. She put her arm around his neck and snuggled up against him. Oh God, she thought, this feels so good!

"Yeah, Babe," he said softly. He gently kissed her on the lips. He relaxed a little when he felt her respond and kiss him back. The kiss depended. At that moment, Bobby walked in.

"I just wanted to…." He stopped when he saw the two of them. "Uh….Sorry…I just wanted to see how Stephanie was." He smiled and began to retreat backwards from the office. "As I can see, she's doing better."

"This is going to be the talk of the office…isn't it?" she looked at him. He ran his hand through his hair.

"Afraid so," He gave her a 200 watt smile. He stood up bringing her with him and placed her on her feet. "I'll get you home."

Chapter 3

She walked into the Bond's office, with lattes and doughnuts for everyone. "So…" Connie began, "How'd it go?"

"Great," she told her with a big smile. She selected a Boston Crème and plopped down on the couch. She winced. She was still a little sore, and still had her right wrist wrapped.

"Oh my god…did you have sex with him?" Lula exclaimed with a mouthful of doughnut.

"NO!" Stephanie protested immediately. "Why would you think that?" He had dropped her off, they made out like teenagers in his car, and then she went inside.

"Because it looked like it hurt you to sit," Lula exclaimed. Stephanie started to giggle.

"Oh my God," Steph groaned. "I was trying to grab a gun out of this really big woman's hands and she fell on me." She related the story. Connie and Lula were hysterical.

"Holy Shit, White Girl," Lula snorted. "I thought you looked a little flat today."

"I'm doing a little better today. Bobby, one of Ranger's men, gave me some muscle relaxers and that helped a lot."

"Looks like you got a black eye, too," Connie observed. Steph's hand went up instinctively to her eye.

"I was hoping to cover that with makeup….does it look bad?"

"Uh….," Connie was trying to let her down easy, "It looks like it hurts."

"Swell," Stephanie sighed.

"So what's it like working with Batman?" Lula insisted. They all laughed. Lula referred to him as Batman because he only wore black, drove black vehicles, was very mysterious, and had a cool street rep. Having worked the streets as a prostitute, she knew of him by site and reputation.

"It was really awesome. Actually, I really liked working with all of them." She wanted to add that he was a really great kisser but decided to keep that private. She was very attracted to him and felt like it was mutual, but had no idea what was going on between them. "His office building is like a fortress. There is like everything you would ever need there. All the guys that work for him are these big, huge, muscular, hot guys." She smiled.

"Girl, you got to hook a sister up!" Lula told her.

"Are you going to sit there and have your little coffee klatch, or are you going to get some work done today?" Vinnie poked his head out of his office.

"We're reviewing files," Connie told him. She handed 3 files to Stephanie. "These are actually real easy ones. I have a couple high risk ones that I'll be giving to Ranger."

"Is he coming into today?" Stephanie looked hopeful. Connie smiled at her.

"Uh oh, someone's got it bad." She teased her. Lula joined in.

"Girl, he is so hot. I'd fuck him in a minute!" Stephanie giggled and reached for another Boston Crème. She had a feeling that she would get the opportunity soon.

"You guys are terrible," she laughed, swatting at them with the file. Stephanie looked at the 3 FTAs. None of them were anything serious or were dangerous. "Come on, Lula…let's go get' um."

Stephanie and Lula grabbed their things and got into Stephanie's car. She drove to the first person's address. "This is Mary Lesinsky, she robbed several convenience stores. What an idiot! She kept stealing tampons!" She and Lula laughed. "Let's go see if she's home." They walked up to the door and knocked.

A woman came to the door.

Mary Lesinsky?" the woman nodded. "I'm Stephanie Plum; I work for Vincent Plum's Bond Agency. You missed your court date and I need to take you in to reschedule." She told her.

"I missed my court date because I was out of tampons!" the women yelled at her. Lula reached into her bag and pulled out a tampon.

"Here you go…" handing it to her. She smacked it out of Lula's hand.

"That's not my brand!" she tried to close the door but Stephanie pushed it open.

"You have to come with us to be rebooked. I'll get you some tampons. What brand do you need?" She asked her. The woman began to cry.

"Rely. You can't get them anymore because they pulled them off the market!" she whined.

"You mean the kind that caused Toxic Shock Syndrome?" Steph asked her. Mary nodded. "They have been off the market for years. What have you been using?" Steph wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.

"I've tried all the other brands, but they don't work." She turned and grabbed handfuls of tampons, maxi pads, and mini pads and started throwing them at Stephanie. "Look, these don't work." Steph had her eyes closed but prayed they were unused products. She was relieved when she saw that they were. Mary was hysterical and continued to assault Stephanie with feminine hygiene products.

"Ok, I'm going to pop a cap in her ass!" Lula started and reached for her gun. Stephanie was trying to grab Mary who was now beating her with maxi pads.

"Lula, just get out the cuffs, help me grab her!" They grabbed at her as Mary continued to attack them with pads. They finally got her handcuffed and dragged her out to the car. Stephanie pulled off some pads that were stuck to her and got in behind the wheel. They took her down to the station and dropped her off. They headed back to the Bonds office. Stephanie and Lula were excited to see Ranger's black Mercedes in the lot.

"Oooohhh…Batman's here!" Lula smiled and elbowed her. She smiled back.

"Please don't make any sexual comments that would embarrass me or him!" she begged. Lula gave her a look back that said who me? They went inside. Ranger was standing in front of Connie's desk reviewing a file. She walked over to the desk and handed Connie the body receipt.

He put his hand on the back of her neck and kissed her forehead, "How are you feeling today, Babe?" She started to answer but he got a quizzical look on his face that turned to a small smile.

"What?" He pulled a maxi pad out of her hair.

"I'm not an expert at using these things, Babe, but I'm pretty sure that's not where it goes," he told her with a wolfish grin. He pulled another off her upper back.

"Oh," Stephanie shrugged her shoulders, "They weren't her brand. I thought I got them all." He was obviously amused. She was straining to see behind her, checking for any remaining pads.

"These were it," he handed them to her. Lula forced herself in between them.

"Do I have any more on me?" she asked him, turning around. There were 2 on her butt.

"No," he told her. Stephanie giggled and pulled off the maxi pads. Lula looked disappointed. He put his hand on the small of her back, sending electricity through her body. "Walk me out; I need to talk to you." She handed the pads to Lula.

"I'll be right back," she told her as she walked out with Ranger. She was simply wearing a light turquoise, sleeveless tee shirt and matching Capri pants, with white Keds. The color really highlighted her eyes. He tucked her hair back behind one ear, looking at the black eye. He gently ran a finger down the side of her face.

"Looks like it hurts, Babe," He stared at her.

"Yeah, well it actually looks worse that it feels," she told him. "So, what did you want to talk about?" Hopefully about taking her out to dinner or taking her back to his apartment…

"Got a distraction job for you Friday night, if you're interested," he offered.

"What would I have to do?" she asked him. She could really use the money. She had been picking up some FTAs and at least had some rent money for this month, but still needed to pay bills and buy food.

"We have a 2 for one. Guy is FTA and behind on his car payments. You go in, keep him busy for a little bit while we grab the car, then get him to come outside with you, then we grab him," he explained. Sounded simple enough.

"Okay," she agreed. He pulled her close to him and gently kissed her on the mouth.

"Good, I'll call you later with the details," he turned to get in his car. "Be careful today, Babe." As he drove off, Stephanie headed back inside. She knew she was going to have to answer to Connie and Lula because she couldn't hide that kiss. She walked in to raised eyebrows and smiles.

"We didn't have sex!' she told them. She wanted to add…yet.

"Yeah right….he always gets his women," Lula told her. "What was that all about?"

"Oh, he wants me to help them with a FTA on Friday night," she explained. She ignored the looks and comments. "Come on…let's go get the next guy."

Although they captured the next FTA without too much difficulty, Stephanie got covered in a pot of baked beans. Thank God they had been sitting out a while and were only mildly warm. The FTA was fighting with his wife and she threw the beans at him, but he ducked and she got a face full. "Swell," she sighed after they had finished the paperwork with dropping him off. "This is never going to come out and this is one of my favorite outfits!" Lula laughed. "Let's get this last one and call it a day."

They got into her car and headed to the next FTAs address. Stephanie pulled into a gas station to fill up. Lula went inside to get some snacks. Stephanie got out of the car while the attendant filled it. The attendant's full attention was on her. "I'll be right back." She was walking towards the restroom, when her car exploded. The force of the explosion knocked her flat. Luckily, the outside attendant had walked away from the car and only been knocked back himself. The inside attendant quickly shut the rest of the pumps off so only the pumping station by the car exploded as well. The attendant crawled over to Stephanie, helping her up, and they ran to a safer distance. Lula came running over.

"Holy Shit!!!" Lula yelled, out of breath from the short run, "Are you alright? What the hell did you pump in that tank?" She glared at the attendant. He looked confused.

"What do you mean what did I pump in the tank…..gas!" he yelled back. He pointed at Stephanie. "It was your car that blew up."

"Well something made it blow up, because cars just don't blow up ya know!" Stephanie was getting annoyed that he thought it was her fault. "It's a shitty Honda, and not a God Damn Pinto!" Police arrived, quickly followed by the fire department. "What am I going to do now? I don't have any money for a down payment on another car yet?" Lula sat on the ground next to her.

"I can drive you around, White Girl," Lula told her.

"Oh my God, my stuff was in the car, my bag, my gun...my phone...my handcuffs! SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!" She didn't have the money to buy another set at this time. She knew she could borrow her grandmother's car. It was a 1953 light blue Buick, horrible on gas, but it ran. She really wasn't upset about losing the Honda. The car's days were numbered. She put her head in her hands. "This day can't get any worse."

"Hi Cupcake," she heard a voice behind her.

"I was wrong," she moaned to Lula. She turned and confirmed that the voice was from Joe Morelli. She had known Joe since she was 6. He got her to play choo-choo, post office, and doctor when they were little. He was a few years older than her. She lost her virginity to him at age 15 at the Tasty Pastry where she worked. He had joined the Navy. When he came back, she ran him over with the Buick and broke his leg. He just loved to torment her.

"There always seems to be excitement when you are around," he joked with her. He recently transferred to the Trenton PD from the State Police.

"What are you doing here?" she groaned. She looked really good, except for whatever that crap was in her hair and on her clothes.

"I was investigating a case not too far from here. I came with a black and white unit when the call came in about an explosion," he explained. "Are you alright?" There was actual concern in his eyes…imagine that.

"Yeah, I'm fine." He still looked good…really good, but what a creep! Not only did he take her virginity, he wrote about it on the bathroom wall. He wrote about every little detail. That was why she had to run him over. Paybacks are a bitch! Morelli smiled and walked over to the other officers. If it was humanly possible, she had gotten prettier over the years. He had forgotten about those amazing eyes. Definitely someone he wanted to get reacquainted with.

The police finished taking their statements. "So what are we going to do now?" Lula asked her. She shrugged her shoulders.

"I guess I could call Ranger and see if he could pick us up," She started to look for her bag. "Shit, my phone was in the car. Do you have your cell?" Lula dug in to her bag and pulled out her phone. Luckily, she had his number committed to memory.

"Yo," he answered. Short and sweet.

"Hi, it's Stephanie…" she started.

"Where are you calling from, Babe?" he interrupted. She guessed he could see it was not any of her numbers on the caller ID.

"I'm on Lula's phone. Uh…are you real busy right now?"

"Not yet. What's up?"

"Uh…we need a ride. My car blew up." She told him. There was a slight hesitation. "If you're too busy, I can try someone else."

"No, we can swing by there and pick you up. Where are you? Do you need me to call a tow truck?" She could hear amusement in his voice.

"We're at the Amoco on Route 1. Uh… there really isn't much left to tow. And I think the police are going to have the bomb squad look over it first anyway." He sat up straight in his seat. Tank looked over at him.

"Bomb squad? Explain." He demanded.

"Well, we stopped to get gas and the car exploded as well as part of the gas station. It wasn't my fault."

"I thought you meant the engine blew. I didn't think you actually meant the car exploded. Are you okay?" Stephanie's car exploded, he mouthed to Tank.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"We'll be there in 10," he told her and hung up.

"Was she in an accident?" Tank asked him. Ranger shook his head no.

"She was getting gas at the time. She said part of the station blew with it. I don't like it. I don't think it was random." He was very serious. He called the office and told Lester what happened. "I want to get a copy of the report as soon as it's done." Lester told him he'd take care of it.

Lula and Stephanie were sitting in the grass, off to the side of the gas station, stuffing TastyKakes in their mouths and watching the firemen put the finishing touches on what was left of the fire. The black SUV pulled into the lot and drove over to them. Ranger and Tank got out and walked over. Ranger sat down next to her.

"This really sucks…" she began as tears welled up in her eyes. He put his arm around her and held her to him as she began to cry. Damn it, she thought. She didn't want to cry in front of him. But it felt so good to be held. He smelled amazing. He didn't say a word, he just held her. He hated that she was crying.

Finally, after what seemed like a life time, "It's going to be okay, Babe," he whispered softly in her ear. She pulled back from him.

"No…it's not. I have no car. I have no phone. And I thought that the attendant screwed up while pumping the gas, but no, the police think it was a bomb. Which would mean that someone was trying to kill me. And since I didn't die, that means he will probably try again," she sobbed. "And, the worst part is that I've got baked beans stains all over my clothes!" She broke down again.

"Is that what that shit is all over you?" he tried to make a joke but he knew she was right. Lula was too busy checking out Tank. "Come on, Babe," He got up and pulled her up with him, "Let's get you out of here." He put his arm around her shoulder and she put her arm around his waist as they walked to the SUV.

Lula was busy introducing herself to Tank and giving him her side of the story. Tank seemed amused. He was more concerned about why someone was trying to kill Stephanie. They dropped Lula off at the bonds office. Stephanie collected her fees as she needed the cash. Then they drove her home. Ranger walked her up to her apartment.

"Oh...I have no keys. They were in the car. I'll go get the super to give me an extra set, "she told him. "You don't have to wait. I'll be alright." She looked more relaxed. He thought for a moment. He did have a lot of work to get done, but didn't want to leave her alone until he knew more about what happened.

"Alright," he agreed. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Stay in your apartment and keep the door locked. I don't want you going anywhere till I can get a handle on this." She gave him a slight smile, taking his face in both her hands and gently kissing him on the lips. His hands moved to her hips, pulling her closer to him. The kiss intensified as their tongues touched. After a few more minutes, he broke away. "I'd like to continue this later. I have to go now. Call me if anything else happens and call me the minute something happens." He ordered. She saluted him. "Smart ass." He gave her a quick kiss and left. Stephanie got an extra key from the super and left herself into her apartment. There were already messages from her mother. News travels fast. She called her mom to let her know that she was okay.

Chapter 4

"What are you going to do for transportation?" her mother asked.

"I was hoping to ask Grandma Mazur if I could use the Buick." Her mother asked while Stephanie held on. "She said of course. Do you want your father to come and pick you up? Do you want to come for dinner tonight? I have pineapple upside down cake for dessert." Stephanie could never say no to cake.

"I'll be there but I'll have to call you back with a time. I might be late tonight. There's a man that has been helping learn my job and he's coming back. He's waiting on the police report to see what happened. I'll call you later, Mom, thanks." Stephanie disconnected. Well, that didn't go so bad. She walked to the bedroom and stripped off her clothes. She needed to get the dried on baked beans off her body. She stayed in the shower until the hot water ran cold and she had started to prune. She also was getting a little sore from the day before's mess and had taken some Advil and ½ a muscle relaxer just before her shower. She was a little sleepy so she dried off, put on a cute little tank and bikini pajama set, and lay down on top of her bed. She was asleep before she hit the pillow.

Ranger had called and left a message while she was in the shower. She didn't hear the phone. She was sound asleep when he called again. He told her to stay put. Either, she didn't listen and went out, or something happened. He was getting an uneasy feeling in his stomach and raced over to her apartment. Lester and Tank followed. He knocked on the door and there was no answer. He worked his magic on the lock open and entered the apartment. She hadn't put the chain on the door. "Babe?" he called out. The apartment looked normal. No signs of any foul play, so he was starting to get irritated. He told her to stay there and she went out. He walked to the bedroom and sighed in relief. He saw her stretched out, on top of the covers, in her bed. She was wearing a sexy pink top and bikini bottom. She was right; she did look good in pink. He put up his hand to the guys, walked over to the bed, and sat down on the edge. He tucked her hair behind one ear, getting the hair off her face. "Babe," he said softly, rubbing her back. Lester and Tank appeared in the door way.

"She's fine," he told them. Lester's eyes were almost popping out of his head. Ranger saw half a muscle relaxer pill on the night stand. "Looks like she took the muscle relaxer again. She'll be out for a while." He stood up and walked back into the living room. "Bring me my laptop and I'll finish work from here."

"After we do that, I'll stop down at the station and see if they found anything out about the bomb. If it was a bomb, and they have any of the pieces to it, might give us a clue as to who built it," Lester told him. He looked back at Stephanie sleeping peacefully on her bed. Almost lost in the moment, it bothered him that someone was trying to kill her. Ranger shot him a look. "Who would want to hurt her? I mean what has she done that someone would want her dead?" Ranger eased up. It was obvious he was concerned. Men were going to look at Stephanie. She was a beautiful girl. He was going to have to try to get used to that which would be very hard for him. He could be like an alpha male dog, marking and guarding his territory. He didn't do relationships, so this was going to be something new for him. Plus, his protective drive was in high gear. He had his crew out in the streets trying to get some information. The skips that she had already brought in were small time. Unless one of them had a connection they missed. What really had him worried was that someone was going through Stephanie to get to him. He only met her 2 days ago, so that chance was very slim. Although it was possible, they hadn't really been seen together in public enough to put Stephanie with him.

Stephanie woke up at about 4 in the afternoon. Boy those pills knock you out, she thought. She got up and stretched. Having missed lunch, she started towards the kitchen and stopped when she heard the sounds of typing. She froze. Oh my god, someone is in the apartment. The phone was in the kitchen. Her gun and pepper spray blew up with the car. She snuck her head around the corner to see Ranger at her dining room table. She breathed a sigh of relief.

"Have a nice nap, Babe?" How does he do that, she wondered. He didn't even turn around. She stood there, undecided what to do. She wasn't wearing much. On one hand, she's pretty sure he saw her already, but on the other hand, was she bold enough to prance around in front of him like that. "It would be better if you put something on. You were right." He turned to face her with that wolfish grin; his eyes looking her up and down. "You do look good in pink, but it would be too much of a distraction right now." What, she thought, does he have ESP? She stood there for another moment, with her arms crossed, and biting her lower lip. They starred at each other for a few seconds; both could feel the heat and passion from each other. She licked her lips. She walked over and sat in his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"What if I want to distract you," she purred. He couldn't take it anymore. He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, almost throwing her on the bed with him on top of her. Kissing her passionately and intensely, kissing her neck, nibbling on her ear, hands roaming all over her body. She could feel his hardness against her. Oh boy, she thought, this is going to be good. Then, his cell phone rang.

"Shit," he muttered under his breath, "I gotta take this, Babe, …sorry." It was Lester. He had gotten the report on the bomb. She watched to see the expression on his face as he listened to whoever was speaking. He remained stone-faced. He probably would be a good poker player. "Understood. Be ready in 10." He snapped his phone closed. It was not good. Whoever planted that bomb knew what he was doing.

"Well?"" she demanded. He wanted to tell her some but not everything, not yet.

"It definitely was a bomb." He got off the bed and straightened his clothes. "Get dressed. I want you with me so I can keep an eye on you." He went to her closet and pulled out an overnight bag. "This place is too easy to break in to and it's not monitored. It may not be safe here." He threw the bag on the bed. "I don't know if you were the target or whether it was the wrong car or who is behind this yet. Until I do, I want you to stay with me." The thought of staying with him was exciting, but very claustrophobic. She didn't like men telling her what to do, even if it was for her own good.

"I appreciate the offer…." She began. He stopped her dead with an intense look.

"It's not up for negotiation." He began to look in her drawers to start packing some things. This pissed her off.

"Wait a minute," she marched off the bed and slammed the drawer shut that he had just opened. "This is New Jersey…not Kentucky. I will not be told what to do by anyone. And that includes you!" She pointed a finger into his chest. "I appreciate that you are looking out for me, but I'm not going anywhere. Nobody is going to chase me out of my home!" He was somewhere between anger and amusement. Calm yourself down, he told himself. No one ever talked back to him or defied him when he gave them orders. Plus, she was standing there in those sexy PJs, hands on her hips, with a bratty and pouty look on her face. He was getting aroused again but quickly got control of himself. Besides, if they weren't interrupted by that phone call, they would be going at it like rabbits right now. Hard to stay mad at her. His mother told him that one day he would meet his match, and she was right. He was always in control in everything he did. He knew he would never be able to control anything where Stephanie was concerned. He held his face in his hands and let out a sigh.

"Look," he began slowly. He turned and leaned against the dresser with his arms crossed. "I've went right from the Army to running my own business. I'm used to being in charge. I'm used to giving orders. I'm used to people following and not questioning my orders. You come into my life from out of nowhere and now I don't know if I'm coming or going. All I know is that you are becoming very special to me. Someone put a bomb in your car today and you could have been killed. I don't know if you were the target, or it was a mistake, or who is behind it. I would like you to stay with me until I do find out. You can help us and I can keep you safe. So…would you please stay with me?" He was very serious and looked into her eyes. She dropped her arms to her sides, and appeared to drop her guard. She looked at him, biting her bottom lip.

"I will stay with you but I promised my mother I would be there for dinner tonight. She heard about what happened and wants to see for herself that I'm okay. Plus she made pineapple upside-down cake," she pleaded. "I really, really need some cake. Pleeease?" If that's what it took to get her to stay with him, he gave in.

"Deal," he told her. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Okay, Lester or Tank will be here any second. Get dressed and I'll pack some things for you." She was pulling on a pair of cut off shorts.

"Uh...that's okay. I'll pack myself," she told him. "I have a feeling that I'll wind up with thongs and low cut shirts." She giggled. His phone rang. It was Tank out in the lot.

"Slight change of plans. We're stopping at Stephanie's parents' house for dinner." He smiled at her. "Is there enough for all of us?"

"There is always enough," she laughed. She finished getting dressed and packing her bag. They went down to meet Tank. She hopped into the back seat of the SUV, while Ranger got in the passenger side. "I hope you guys like pot roast."

Stephanie entered her parents' house followed by Ranger, then Tank. She introduced them to her mother, father, and Grandmother. "I hope we're not imposing, Mrs. Plum," Tank said. She was surprised by the two guests that Stephanie brought.

"Oh no...no imposition at all. There is always plenty," she went into the kitchen to get dinner served and take a little nip.

"Why don't you guys have a seat in the living room with my Dad, and I'll help my mom in the kitchen," she told them. "Dad, Ranger and Tank were in the Army…Special Forces. My Dad was in the Army, too." She left them to help her mother. The sooner they got to eat, the sooner they could get out of there. "We can't stay long tonight Mom, but I promised you that I would come over. And I knew you would think that I was hiding something from you and I'm not. I'm okay."

"Why would someone put a bomb in your car?" She was very upset. "What have you gotten into now?"

"It wasn't my fault! I don't know who did it. But Ranger and his men are going to find out. I'm staying with them tonight and they are going to keep me safe," she told her. "My cell phone was in the car so don't panic if I don't get your messages right away." They began to put the food out on the table.

Dinner started out in silence. "Oh that reminds me," her mother began, "I heard you saw Joe Morelli today. He's still single, you know." Ranger stiffened at that comment.

"He's still an asshole," Stephanie muttered. Ranger relaxed. He knew Morelli. He didn't know the connection between the two. "Oh…speaking of Morelli, Grandma, you said it was okay if I borrow the Buick right?"

"You can borrow the car anytime you need it," Grandma Mazur told her. She was distracted by the two huge men that she brought over.

"Stephanie. Joseph has a good job and would make a good husband. You used to date him. His mother said he was still interested in you." Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Mom, I didn't date him; I just had sex with him. There's a difference." Her mother gasped and quickly crossed herself. Her father almost choked on his food.

"Christ! I'm trying to eat here!" he growled with his mouth full.

"Sorry Daddy." She looked over at Ranger and shrugged her shoulders.

"Does he have a nice package?" Grandma Mazur asked her excitedly. This time, Ranger almost choked on his food. Tank sat back and enjoyed the show. Stephanie held up her hand and wiggled it back and forth in the so-so motion.

"Morelli always had an over-inflated opinion of himself," she said.

"That's because he was a Navy man," he father added between bites. Ranger and Tank exchanged smiles in agreement. He was not exactly happy talking about her past lovers. She had been married and he hadn't expected her to be a virgin, but he still didn't want to think about her and another man.

"Joe was always so nice, Stephanie. I find it hard to believe…." Her mother continued but she cut her off.

"He's an asshole, Mom. That's why I ran him over with the Buick." She stood up. "I need cake." She went into the kitchen. Ranger couldn't stop laughing.

"Is that how he broke his leg? Stephanie, that wasn't nice," she told her.

"I should have broken something else," she called back from the kitchen as she cut herself a piece of cake.

"I was very proud of you for doing that, Pumpkin," her father added. "That's my girl. That Buick is a good car. Didn't even get a dent. That's what you need to get is a Buick."

"Dad, I'll see what I can afford," she called back from the kitchen. She was standing at the counter eating a huge hunk of cake. If this doesn't scare Ranger off, nothing will.

"Stephanie, you better not eat that whole cake. You need to save some for our guests," she yelled into her.

"I don't really eat cake, Mrs. Plum," Ranger explained.

"I eat cake," Tank interjected.

"I didn't eat it all. I had some," she brought Tank a big piece as well as another one for her father. She smiled at Ranger. "I didn't think you would want one."

"No thanks, Babe," he smiled back. She mouthed, my mother is crazy, making the bats in the belfry sign. Tank polished off the cake.

"Can I take some cake home with us?" she asked her mother.

"Of course. Do you want to take some pot roast too?" She looked over at Ranger.

"Do you have real food or more health food at home? Oh never mind, yes, I'll take some pot roast too," She went in the kitchen with her mom to wrap up the food. Ranger collected the plates and carried them into the kitchen. He gave Stephanie a look that said it was time to go. She smiled and nodded. Just a few more minutes, she mouthed to him, then kissed him. Her mother gasped.

"Stephanie, are you two dating?" she was shocked.

"Yes," he answered for her, putting his arm around her waist.

"How long has this been going on? Why didn't you tell me that you have a man in your life?"

"We just started seeing each other Mom. That's why I brought him over tonight so you can meet him. But we really have to go now. Thanks for dinner and the leftovers. It was really good." She kissed her mother and Grandmother goodbye. She hugged her father. "Night, Daddy."

"Take it easy Pumpkin. You have my permission to use the Buick to run Morelli over again anytime." Ranger liked her father.

Nice meeting you, Sir," he shook his hand. They went back out to the SUV.

"Now can you see why I would live in my car faster than move back home?" she told him. Ranger laughed. "My dad and my grandmother really liked you guys. My mom is a little crazy. She's stuck on Morelli and I have no idea why. I was like 15 years old. It was so long ago." Normally, she would have playfully asked Ranger if he was jealous, but somehow she sensed he was. She didn't push the issue so she decided to try to change to subject. "Tank, I took half the cake so let me know if you want some more. You can have Ranger's piece." Tank smiled.

It wasn't long before they pulled into the garage of the Rangeman office building.

He brought her up to his 7th floor apartment. He explained that there were offices on the 2nd and 3rd floor along with storage and a couple apartments for Rangeman employees, 4th floor apartments for Rangeman employees, 5th floor was the control room and gym, Ella and Luis Guzman were on the 6th floor. There was more storage space. And he had the 7th floor. She was surprised at how nice the apartment was. Not what she expected. It was done in earth tones, very plain, very masculine, and there were no personal touches. No family photos. No knick-knacks. Everything looked expensive and tastefully done. There was a kitchen with a snack bar with connecting dining room, small bathroom by the front door, a living room, and the master bedroom was in the back. She didn't see a guest room.

"Wow," she told him. "This is where you live? Not what I expected." He was looking through his mail.

"I spend most of my time here. My family is in NJ," he replied. "I have similar buildings in Miami, Atlanta, and Boston. I have an apartment in each of the buildings." She walked into the bedroom. There was a king sized bed, a huge closet with a dressing room, and master bath with Jacuzzi bath tub and separate walk in shower with glass doors. There was a faint smell that she recognized as Ranger. He came up behind her wrapping his arms around her, kissing her cheek.

"So what are the sleeping arrangements going to be?" she asked him.

"Well…" he began, "I'm hoping you'll sleep in my bed with me. But if that's too uncomfortable, you can sleep on the couch." Ranger's phone rang. "Yo." He listened. "Right." He closed his phone and put it back on his belt. "Lester's on his way up. He found something very interesting and it might turn out that you weren't the target after all." He was hoping that's what the case was. Her eyes opened wide.

"Really?" Please let it be true, she thought. "Well if that's the case, then I can go back home." She was teasing but wanted to hear what he would say. He just raised his eyebrows at her. He pulled her to him and kissed her.

"No chance, Babe. I want you to spend the night with me." Lester was knocking at the door. He would have just barged in, but after Bobby caught them in his office, he thought better of it. Ranger opened the door for him. He grabbed a few beers from the refrigerator and brought them into the living room to go over the information. This time, she raised her eyebrows at him.

"You're having a beer?" she asked time. "What about all that crap about your body being a temple and blah blah blah…" Lester snickered. She hadn't been around long but she already had him down. Ranger chose to ignore the comment.

"So what have you got?" Lester handed him a file. Ranger looked through it with Stephanie reading over his shoulder

"We got word that there was a hit put out on Frankie DiMucci. He was involved in a few deals that he withheld some payments from the D'Andrade family. It was a lot of money. He wasn't a made guy, real low level, but he lives or has been staying 2 houses down from the…."

"The tampon lady," Stephanie finished. "Wow, talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"And he drives an older brown Toyota, "Ranger added. He relaxed. She dodged a major bullet today. "Don't think you were the target, Babe."

"The report said the detonator was on a timer. It wasn't manually blown," Lester explained.

"See, it's a good thing to eat crap. I needed to get gas, but we really stopped because we were hungry!" She smacked him on the upper arm. "I was saved by a Butterscotch Krimpet!" She gave him a "so there!" look. Lester laughed out loud. It wasn't so much what she said, but how she said it and to whom she said it. People just didn't talk back to Ranger. She plopped down on the couch beside him. "So much for eating healthy!" Ranger was trying hard not to smile, let alone laugh. It's a struggle him didn't win. He burst out laughing, partly because he found her very amusing and partly was a release of the tension of the day.

Lester noticed that Stephanie brought out Ranger's softer side. He must be totally whipped by her because he had always kept his emotions to himself. This was going to be a good thing. Everyone really liked Stephanie. She would be good for Ranger. Hell, he thought, she would be good for me, but the boss met her first. If he hadn't noticed the change in Ranger, he would have felt the same way that Tank did, that he was going to screw her and dump her. "Hey," Stephanie said to him, breaking him out of his thought, "Do you want some pot roast and cake?" She stood up. "There's plenty left." He was hungry. He had been working on the bombing all day and didn't stop to have anything to eat.

"Yeah, I'm starving." She headed into the kitchen to fix him a plate of food. "I think I'll take it down to my place to eat it. Then I think I'm going to call it an early night. I'm beat," he told them. First, he was tired. They were on edge all day, worried that someone was after Stephanie. Second, he could tell Ranger wanted to be alone with her. "You don't have to heat it, Beautiful; I got a microwave in my place." He must live on the 4th floor, she thought. She stood on her toes, reaching up, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"Thanks for your help today," she smiled at him. Glancing over, seeing that Ranger couldn't see into the kitchen, he leaned over and kissed her back.

"You're welcome," He took his plate of food and headed to the door. "See you tomorrow." Ranger locked the door behind him. She was contemplating another piece of cake when he came up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to him. He kissed her neck and nibbled on her ear.

"I want to get back to what we started this afternoon," he whispered in her ear. She could feel how interested he was. He continued to kiss her neck, one hand on her stomach and the other making its way under her shirt towards her breast. She had reached around and had begun to stroke him. He grunted. He started to turn her around and his phone rang. "Fuck!" he growled, "Babe, I'm so sorry…I gotta take this," He grabbed his phone, "What!" He didn't even try to hide his annoyance. "Shit, I'll meet you at the truck in 5." He slammed his phone shut. "There was a break in at a private residence. It's one of our bigger accounts; I have to be there to handle it. I'm really….." She smiled and put a finger to his lips.

"It's okay. It's not that I don't want this, but maybe someone's trying to tell us to slow down a little. Take care of business and I'll be here, waiting for you, when you come back," she told him. She gave him a quick and gentle kiss. "Go." He smiled back. He grabbed his things and started for the door. He turned, gave her a quick kiss, and was out the door. She started at the door for a second. She had a feeling that this was going to be a regular occurrence. She didn't really lead or want a normal life. She had that and it bored her to tears. She felt he was really worth all the baggage that came with him. Hell, she had enough baggage of her own. She pulled out the cake and cut herself another huge piece.

It was close to midnight when she decided to go to bed. She was tired. She put back on the pink tank and bikini panties and crawled into his bed. She could tell the sheets were majorly expensive cotton. They were so soft. The bed was so comfortable. She felt safe and peaceful. It wasn't long before she fell asleep.

Chapter 5

It was almost 4:30 in the morning by the time Ranger had gotten back. He figured she would be asleep. He was so tired himself, he really didn't have the energy to do anything anyway. Plus, he thought about her comment on slowing down. Things did happen very fast between them. He wouldn't push her, but he wasn't going to stop either. He walked into the bedroom and went to the bathroom to turn on the light. He didn't want to wake her. She had pulled the covers back and again was stretched out like a cat, on her stomach. He liked watching her sleep. He took a quick shower, pulled on a pair of silk boxers and got into bed with her. He debated about pulling her to him so he could hold her while they slept. He pushed her hair back off her face and kissed her. She opened her eyes. "Everything go okay?" she asked him sleepily.

"Uh huh,"

"Good." She moved over and snuggled up against him, going back to sleep. He hadn't felt this content and relaxed in a long time. It wasn't much longer before sleep over took him as well.

He had told the person manning the control desk last night that he would be late the next day. Not only did he want to spend a little quiet time with Stephanie, but he really did need some sleep. He had set the alarm for 8:30 and it woke him up out of a sound sleep. Before he had a chance to shut it off, Stephanie began smacking his face in her attempt to hit the snooze button. He quickly shut it off and she stopped. He needed to get up and get to work, but lay there, holding her in his arms, for a few minutes longer. Finally, he got up to take a shower. She was still asleep. He ordered breakfast, and then woke her up.

She poked her head up like a little turtle, "What time is it?"

"A little after 9. Ella will be up here in a few minutes with breakfast. She's my housekeeper and she's a very nice lady. I've never brought a woman here, let alone asked her to make breakfast for 2, so she's going to be very curious." He sat down on the bed to put on his boots. "Not that I have a problem with what you are wearing, but I wouldn't want to make her uncomfortable." She got up and padded to the closet to get her robe out of her bag. She went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and make herself a little more presentable.

Ella had just brought up the tray and was setting out the food when Stephanie came into the dining room to join Ranger. He was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. "Ella, this is the woman I am seeing, Stephanie," he introduced them. Stephanie held out her hand.

"It's very nice to meet you Stephanie," she was all smiles and very excited to see her.

"Same here."

"This is what I normally prepare for Ranger," she showed her the bagel, lox, fruit, and granola. "But, I would be happy to make something else…" Like pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns, Stephanie thought.

"No, this is fine. Thank you," she smiled. She would eat this crap and get something better later.

"I hope to see you again, Stephanie," she said hopefully. "Ranger is such a nice young man and I'm happy to see him with someone…"

"Thank you, Ella," Ranger cut her off. Stephanie giggled.

"Bye Ella. Thank you for breakfast," she told her. Ella left but would be back later to clean the apartment. "Do you eat like this every morning? Don't you like eggs and pancakes, or Captain Crunch?"

"How the hell do you eat so much crap and stay as small as you are?" he looked at her in disbelief. "Do you work out?"

"Yeah…I take a Tai-Bo class every six months or so." He looked at her with raised eyebrows. "No….I avoid exercise as much as possible." Smart ass, he thought. She took a bite of her bagel and with her mouth full added, "Just a fast metabolism I guess."

"So what are your plans today?"

"Well, I gotta pick up the Buick so I have a car. Then Lula and I will go after some skips." She told him. "So are you going to tell me about tomorrow night?"

"Yeah. I need to you to keep some guy busy while we repo his car. He wears an alarm around his wrist to let him know if the car alarm goes off. If we were just after car, it wouldn't matter. But he's FTA. Once we got the car, you get him to leave with you and we'll grab him. I'll put a wire on you so we can monitor what's going on. Especially if you get into any trouble. I'll also have a man in the bar, probably Lester, as backup and to keep an eye on things. Just wear something low cut and short. It won't take much for you to distract a man, Babe."

Stephanie hurried to get ready. Ranger had some meetings and didn't want to be late. He dropped her off at her parents' house so she could get the Buick. He pulled her towards him, passionately kissing her goodbye. "I'll call you later when I get out of these meetings." She could see her mother and grandmother in the window. They couldn't wait for her to come inside.

"Stephanie, what is going on with that man?" he mother demanded. Stephanie rolled her eyes and sighed.

"I'm…uh…dating him, I guess," she stammered. She really didn't know how to describe it. They only met a few days ago. It was so fast and intense that it was a little overwhelming. They went into the kitchen where her mother had coffee and doughnuts. "Ooohhh….doughnuts!" She immediately pulled out a Boston Crème and stuffed it in her mouth. Her mother poured her a cup of coffee, as she sat down.

"What does that meet that you guess you're dating him? What is he anyway?"

"His family is originally from Cuba, but he was born here. He used to be in the Army and now he has his own security company. Connie asked him to help show me the ropes and it kinda took off from there."

"I think he's a hottie!" Grandma Mazur told her smiling. "He's got a nice package!"

"Mother!" Stephanie giggled. Her grandmother would always speak her mind and it drove her mother crazy.

"And this Ranger, he approves of your bounty hunting?"

"Uh…ye-ah. He's teaching me the job. I worked with him and his team the other day. It was actually kind of fun. The only problem I can see is that he is a health food nut. He likes stuff that tastes like cardboard. Other than that, we seem to really get along." She reached for another Boston Crème. "He makes me happy and that's what matters."

After a while, Stephanie headed to the Bond's Office. Connie had 4 FTAs for her to work on. The rest were higher bonds that she would give to Ranger. Lula had just come back from the Tasty Pasty with a box of doughnuts. "Girl, we are not driving around in that big, blue, boat today," she told her.

"Well, you're driving then," she told her.

"Fine, we'll take my car. I won't look cool in that thing!" Lula was indignant.

"Nobody looks cool in that thing!" she told her, "But it will work for temporary transportation. Let's go get these skips so I can get some money for a down payment on another car."

The day went by without incident. Using Lula's phone, Stephanie had only gotten to talk to Ranger once as his day was pretty full. He told her he would stop by later. They were on their way to check out the last FTA, Daniel Denby, charged with embezzlement. They pulled up to his house and there was a red sports car parked on the front lawn with a sign that read, "For Sale $0.75" They got out of the car and walked over to inspect it.

"Wow," Stephanie told her, "This is a 74 Road Runner. This is a nice car. Looks like it was kept up pretty well."

"Yeah...in cop-stop-me-red, too," Lula chimed in. At that moment a women came out of the house.

"Are you interested in the car?" She asked.

"Well, actually, I'm here looking for Daniel Denby. He missed his court date," Stephanie told her, "Is that price right? Only $ 0.75?"

"I'm Mrs.….well soon to be ex-Mrs. Denby. My husband took off with a younger woman." She started to cry.

"That no good mother fucker!" Lula exclaimed.

"Not only did he clean out our bank accounts, he called me to ask me to sell his car and send him the money!" She wiped away the tears. "He loved that damn car more than me and he spent money time and money on that damn thing too!"

"And you are really selling it for $0.75?" Stephanie asked her, mind racing because she could afford this car. And it was really a hot looking car too.

"You go girl!" Lula patted her on the back.

"Yes, I'll show that bastard!" She looked at Stephanie, "Are you interested in the car?"

"Yes," she gushed out. "My car sorta…died the other day. I really didn't have enough money to get a decent car, but I can afford $0.75!"

"Not only did you just buy yourself a car, I'll give you the address where he is staying with that slut too!" She turned and made a gesture for them to follow her inside. "Come on in and let's get the title signed over to you." They followed her inside. She handed Stephanie a folder with receipts. "He kept every receipt for every part and anything he had done to the car. He spent a lot time and money on that car but, as I'm sure you are aware, he had to leave in a hurry."

"I divorced my husband because I came home and found him having sex on my dining room table with some slut," Steph told her sympathetically. "Actually, this will work out great for both of us. I need a car. I can't afford a car. And…I need to bring in your husband. It will really be a kicker when I pick him up in my new car." They all laughed. She signed over the title to Stephanie and she gave her $0.75.

"Lula, can you take me to DMV so I can get it registered and plates?"

"Damn skippy!" Mrs. Denby gave her the keys. They went out to start the car up. The engine roared to life.

"You need to be really careful. He had this thing souped up," she told her. "Actually, you can keep the plates. I don't care what you do with them. It will be his problem." This sounded good to her. She borrowed Lula's phone to call her insurance company to get the car added.

"Okay, Lula, I'll meet you back at the bond's office. I'm going to get this registered." She gave the car a little gas and the car tore off into the street. Wow, she thought, this car's got some major pick up. It was an older car so it had am/fm radio and an 8 track. She never had an 8 cylinder monster before. All her other cars had been 4 cylinder compact cars with the exception of her Mustang that Dickie took back from her. This was a cool car. She couldn't wait to show it off. The only bad thing was it probably got 8 miles to the gallon. The guy really did take care of this car because it looked new. She made it to the DMV and was shocked to find only 2 people waiting in line.

Ranger was at the bonds office when Lula arrived. "Wait till you see White Girl's new wheels!" she told them. "Damn, it's hot!" She was really talking about Ranger but made it seem like she was talking about the car.

"What did she get?" Connie asked, smiling. Ranger looked up from the file he was reading.

"I should probably let her tell you. It's a funny story behind it too." She headed to the door, "I'm going to get some food. I'll be right back."

"This should be good," Ranger muttered and went back to looking through the files. He was taking his time. He hadn't seen her since this morning and only got to talk to her once. Plus, curiosity was getting the better of him. He knew she didn't have any money and wouldn't be able to afford a decent car. He had been thinking about giving her a company car with the job he was going to offer her. But he knew she was proud and she would think of it as charity. It was about 30 minutes later, and he was getting ready to leave, when they heard the car before they actually saw the car. Lula was just coming back with sub-sandwiches for everyone. Ranger walked outside and leaned against his car, crossing his arms. He couldn't believe what he saw. She bought a red, Plymouth Road Runner that looked to be in mint condition. His older brother was into restoring muscle cars so he knew the car was probably worth about $30K. He knew this story was going to be good. He saw her smile when she saw that he was there. She pulled in next to him. He pushed off the car and walked over to her checking the car out. He opened the door for her, "Nice car, Babe." She pulled him into the car and gave him a kiss. After they broke, he looked at the interior.

"It's this cool or what?" she asked excitedly. Her whole face lit up when she was excited.

"Babe, this car is worth about $30k. How much did you pay for it?" He asked.

"That's another thing that is so cool about this car…..it only cost me $0.75," she told him.

"$0.75!" He looked at her like she was pulling his leg. "No really…how much?"

"$0.75," By this time, Connie and Lula came out to join them. "Lula and I went to get Denby. This car is out on the lawn with a sign that says for sale $0.75. Well, his wife comes out and tell us that he took off with some slut and took all their money but he had the never to ask her to sell his car and send him the money. So she sold it for $0.75. And….she gave us the address of where he is staying now. So, tomorrow, we'll go pick up his cheating ass in his old car." She showed him the maintenance folder. "Look, he kept records and receipts of everything. The car is in really good shape." He had to agree. He had his Porches, Mercedes, BMWs, and SUVs, but he really did like the old muscle cars. "Do you want to drive it?" He looked over at her with a sly smile. "Get in," she told Lula and Connie. They climbed into the back seat. They went for a short drive. The traffic was starting to get heavy as it was close to 5pm, so Ranger headed back to the Bond's office.

Vinnie was standing in the doorway. "Where the hell did you go? You can't leave me alone here, Connie! The phones were ringing and I have work to do," he yelled at her.

"Get over it Vinnie," she told him as she got out of the car. "What do you think of Steph's new car?"

"Terrific," he said without even looking, going back to his office.

"Connie, I'll be right in," Steph told her. She wanted to turn in her body receipts for the 3 FTAs she brought in that day. "So," she turned to Ranger, "What do you think?"

"This is a hot car, Babe," he told her pulling her closer. "But not as hot as you are," he whispered in her ear, then began to nibble on her ear. He noticed the 8 track. "Does that actually work?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"The radio does, but I don't have any 8 tracks to try it with." He pulled her onto his lap. They kissed again.

"I gotta go," he told her with a sigh. "I have to finish up some things. What are you doing tonight?" She shrugged her shoulder. "I'll come by later after I'm done. We can spend some quiet time together." They kissed again, starting gently, but became more intense, his hands roaming all over her. He looked at his watch. "I really gotta go, Babe." They got out of the car. She walked him over to his car. They kissed again and he left.

"Ooohhh girl. Kissing Batman like that in public!" Lula fanned herself. "I almost wet my pants." Stephanie giggled.

"Maybe my luck is starting to change," she told them as she collected her money.

Chapter 6

Ranger returned to the office. Tank, Lester, and Bobby were in the kitchen grabbing some food. "Where's Stephanie today?" Lester asked. "Staying out of trouble?" He came in and sat down at the table with them.

"You are not going to believe her luck today," he began, smile on his face, thinking about how she told her car story. This all piqued their curiosity. "She goes to pick up a skip and buys the guy's car for $0.75." He started to laugh. "The guy left town and his wife, cleaning out their bank accounts, but doesn't have time to take his prized possession, a 1974 fully in mint condition, Road Runner." There were some low whistles and a few "no's" "He tells her to sell it and send him the money. So not only did she sell it to Steph for $0.75, she gave her the address where he's hiding." They all started laughing. "She's going after him in his own car." Bobby was into restoring muscle cars. He had worked on his own Pontiac GTO.

"So, what's the car like?" he asked.

"Nice," Ranger told them with raised eyebrows. "Red with white interior. It's even got a God Damn 8 track in it. And that thing really moves too. Couldn't resist taking it for a spin."

"Man, I can't wait to see it. When is she coming by again?" Bobby asked him.

"I'd love to see the look on the dude's face when she pulls up in his car!" Lester laughed. Ranger thought for a minute. That might not be a bad idea. That guy will be really pissed. He might try to hurt Stephanie. He was busy but could send Lester with her.

"That's a good idea, Santos. I want you to go with her when she picks this guy up. He might go crazy if he sees she has his car," he told him. Lester's eyes got wide.

"Are you serious?" he replied. "Hell yeah. This is going to be fun." Okay, Lester thought, he is whipped. But, he was secretly he was thrilled. He had a little crush on Stephanie. Not that he would act on it because she was with the Boss, but he liked being around her because she was fun.

"Are we all going to get a turn working with Stephanie?" Tank joked. Ranger shot him a look. "Did you tell her about the job yet?"

"No…not yet. I think if I asked her now, she would think it was a pity job and won't take it." He was going to add that she needed to feel like she was earning her own way, but decided he had said too much already. "I'll tell her you'll be with her tomorrow and have her pick you up. This way you guys get to see the car." He got up to go to his office to finish his paperwork. It was about 7pm when he called her.

"Hey, Babe," he began, "What are you doing?" She thought about telling him that she was lying in bed naked and waiting for him but thought better of it.

"Watching TV," she answered. "Are you coming over?"

"Yeah, I just want to take a shower first. I'll be over in about 30-45 minutes."

"Have you eaten dinner yet? I could order something like pizza or Chinese…" she asked.

"Let's do Chinese." He told her.

"What do you want?"

"Steamed chicken and vegetables."

"Figures," she giggled. He loved her laugh. "I'll see you in a little while."

The food had arrived about 10 minutes before he did. She had already started. "Sorry, I was really hungry." She shrugged her shoulders. He was learning not to get in the way of her stomach. He made himself a plate and joined her on the couch. "Did you have a good day?"

"Yeah, Babe," he told her. "Wasn't bad. The guys want to see your car. And Lester wants to go with you when you pick up Denby tomorrow." She looked at him quizzically. "He said he wanted to see the look on his face when you pulled up in his car. Maybe it won't be a bad idea to have some backup just in case he freaks out." She raised her eyebrows. "Look, you can say no, but Lester will be disappointed." She softened her glare a little.

"Well, we wouldn't want to disappoint Lester now would we?" she giggled again. She noticed a duffle bag by the door. "Planning on going somewhere?" He shook his head no.

"I want to stay the night with you. I'm getting used to waking you up in the morning and I kind of like it," he smiled at her. "We don't have to do anything that you're not ready for, but I would like to wake up with you in my arms." She stared at him. She was kind of getting to like it herself. "If you're not comfortable, Babe, I won't stay."

"No, I'd really like you to stay," she finished off her food and put the plate on the coffee table. "What did you mean when you told me that I was becoming special to you?" Damn, she asked such direct questions sometimes. He looked right into those beautiful eyes.

"I don't do relationships," he told her. "I never wanted a woman around for more than one or two nights….until I met you." He put his plate on the coffee table. "You have my heart and soul, but with my lifestyle and job, my time isn't always my own. That can be hard on a relationship. I'm also not looking to get married again. At least not at this point in my life."

"Again? Were you married, too?" She was shocked. He hadn't mentioned it before.

"Does that bother you?"

"No…not at all," she answered honestly. "It's just that you hadn't said anything about it before. What happened…if you don't mind me asking? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

"No, I'll tell you about it. I met Rachel after I joined the Army. We were together a couple of times and she got pregnant. We got married, gave the baby my name, and got divorced about 9 months after my daughter was born. She got remarried. He's a good guy and he's good to Julie. He legally adopted her and they had 2 children together. I still send child support and get to see her from time to time." He looked intently at her for her reaction. She didn't seem to be upset by this.

"Do you have a picture?" she smiled. He pulled out a picture from his wallet. She looked at the little girl's face. She looked a lot like Ranger. "She's beautiful, Ranger. How old is she?"

"Thanks. She's ten." He looked at the picture again before putting it back.

"Do you miss being around her?" She was really going for the tough questions, but understandable questions.

"I don't want to sound like a shit, but it's hard not to miss someone that you aren't emotionally attached with. I love her but she's never been a part of my life. She has a good father. Someone who gives her what she needs…stability and consistency. I involve myself as much as she wants me but I'm really a stranger to her."

"This isn't something that is common knowledge, is it?" She was very perceptive.

"No, Babe, it isn't. Just Tank, Bobby, Lester, and you. Well my family of course. Does this bother you?" She looked directly into his eyes.

"No," shaking her head. "Not at all. Thank you for trusting me enough to share this with me." He smiled. "I'm not looking to get married or have children. Not that I may change my mind about marriage later in life, I don't think I'll change my mind about having children."

"Why don't you want to have kids, Babe?" He never knew any female that didn't want kids at some point.

"It would be too claustrophobic," she explained. "Besides, I'd make a terrible mother. I don't cook. I don't clean. I like to sleep. I like to shop. I don't do diapers. I can't stand whiney and crying babies. I would probably kill myself." She saw the strange look on his face. "Well not kill myself, but I would go crazy." He pulled her close and kissed her.

He woke up before the alarm. Stephanie lay beside him. He wanted her so bad last night, but after a very heavy kissing, petting, groping session, they just went to sleep. Their feelings for each other were so strong and so intense, and they came on so fast. Both, not only were enjoying it, but trying to deal with the sudden love in their lives. He had never felt anything so intense before. He knew he found the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, but he wasn't looking to get married and start a family right now. Luckily, she wasn't either. It bothered him a little when she said she didn't want children. He didn't know why it bothered him either. She also seemed to take it well about his daughter. All women he had known wanted to get married and have kids. They wanted him for his money. Stephanie didn't. She hasn't demanded that he take her out to expensive restaurants. She was completely happy with friggin' McDonalds. He smiled at that thought. He was going to try to get her away from eating so much crap. Not that she had to worry about her weight, but too much fat wasn't good for you. He knew that was going to be an uphill battle. He watched her sleep. His watch alarm went off and he immediately turned it off, for fear of getting smacked in the face by Stephanie.

She stirred a little and he pulled her into his arms, kissing her forehead. "Good morning, Babe," She draped her arm across his chest and groaned a small "morning." He wanted this every morning and began to dread when the next mission would call him away. They were getting more infrequent and his time was getting close to being up. Even before meeting Stephanie, he was thinking that he wouldn't re-enlist when his contract was up. Now, it was definite. Less than a year to go. He looked over her battle wounds from the other day. The black eye was almost gone, only a hint of slight yellow left. Her wrist was about the same. She was a lot tougher that she looked. Tonight, she was going to distract his FTA while they repo'd his car. He was looking forward to seeing what she was going to wear. Hell, she could go in there with jeans and a tee shirt and pick up any guys she wanted. He gave her another kiss, disentangled himself, and got up.

This woke her up. "Where are you going?" she asked him groggily, looking up at him with sleepy eyes.

"I gotta get ready for work" he told her. He pulled the covers down. "And so do you." She rolled over and groaned, rubbing her eyes.

"I need coffee," she breathed as she got up and went into the kitchen. He went into the bathroom to take a shower. She started the coffee and hunted around the cabinets for some TastyKakes. Damn, nothing. She did have some Captain Crunch Peanut butter cereal but didn't have any milk, so she poured the cereal into a sandwich baggie and ate it dry. He hadn't closed the bathroom door and she was tempted to steal a peek at a wet, naked Ranger in her shower. Not that she didn't have a pretty good idea already as her hands had wandered all over his body last night. They still haven't had sex yet. She wanted to, and she knew he definitely wanted to, but it seemed right to slow down a little. She didn't want to wait too much longer…hey, she had needs too! The coffee was ready as she heard the water shut off. She poured him a cup of black (yuck) coffee and brought it in to him. He had just finished drying off and wrapped the towel around his waist. God, did he have a great body, she thought, fighting the urge to lick her lips. He had already sensed her presence and without turning around, he said, "See something you like, Babe?" A sly smile came over his face. She just raised her eyebrows at him and put the coffee down on the countertop. She turned to leave but he spun her around, pulling her too him, kissing her. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," she smiled and went to get her clothes ready for the day. It was going to be warm so she decided on a pale pink crop top and Capri length jeans. She pulled out a pink thong and Victoria Secret's push up bra. Anything to help make her look like she had a decent rack will work. He had finished and came out of the bathroom drinking his coffee.

"Did you get a new phone yet?" He asked her as he sat down on the bed to put on his boots.

"Um…not yet. I'll get around to it," she told him as she gathered up her things.

"Babe," he sighed. "I'll take care of it for you." She needs to have a damn phone with her.

"No, that's okay. I can do it." She insisted. "I'm not helpless." She wanted to end the conversation because it would lead to not having handcuffs or her gun.

"When?" he pushed. "I don't like you not having a phone."

"I'll get a replacement today. Promise." She turned the shower on and adjusted the water.

"Okay, but if you don't have a phone by the end of the day, I'll take care of it," He pulled her close and kissed her goodbye. "I'll see you later. Don't forget to pick up Lester. Plus the guys want to see the car." He kissed her again and left.

An hour and a half later, she was finally ready to start her day. She knew Lula would want to see the Rangeman offices but she didn't want to bring her there without talking to Ranger about it first. He liked his privacy and that was his place of business. So she decided that she would go there first, then, she and Lester would pick her up at the Bond's office. She thought they would grab some lunch and go. Unless there were people that skipped today, it was the only FTA she had. Plus there was the job with Ranger tonight. She looked through her closet. She knew the place. The women there were a little skanky. She wanted to look slutty but classy slutty. She decided and a skimpy little black dress with a halter top, tight fitting, and the skirt came down to about an inch below her butt. She would finish the look off with plain black leather pumps with 4 inch heels. Her FMP or fuck me pumps as her friends referred to them. Okay, she said to herself, that should do it. She started to grab her things to leave and remember the cell phone. She got on to her computer and pulled up the web site. After browsing the choices, she ordered a new phone which would arrive in a day or so. There, she can at least tell him that it's on its way. She grabbed her bag and keys and headed down to the car.

Chapter 7

Ranger had left word with the control room to let her in the garage and let him know when she got there. She wasn't surprised that she didn't have to ring the bell when the gate opened for her when she pulled up. There weren't any open spaces so she parked behind Ranger's fleet of cars. By the time she got out the car, the guys had come down to the garage. The guys were all over the car. Bobby got in and popped the hood so he could see the engine. It was a 400 with 3 speed automatic transmission. The previous owner had done some modifications and really souped up the car. Ranger was all over her, kissing her hello.

"I can't believe you got this car for $0.75!" Bobby exclaimed. "This guy really took care of this thing. Damn, this is nice."

"Holy shit…there is an 8 track in this thing!" Lester yelled from the inside of the car. He started the car, gunning the engine. It was really loud in the garage.

"Yeah, I'll have to get a CD player for it," she laughed. They all looked at her like she just said something sacrilegious. "What?"

"Don't touch a thing on this," Bobby told her. "This is all factory installed or original parts used to restore this. You can't put a CD player in it. It will ruin it."

She rolled her eyes. "Uh….yes I can. It's my car." Ranger smiled to himself, shaking his head.

"Then why did you get this if you weren't going to keep it original?" Bobby asked her. She put her hands on her hips.

"Because I needed a car, and it was only $0.75, and it looked pretty," she told him indignantly. Tank and Lester snickered. Ranger had a full on smile.

"Only you, Babe," he grinned at her. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. "I'll talk to you later. Go easy on Lester; I need him for other projects." He kissed the top of her head and headed for the stairs. Tank and Bobby followed.

"Nice car," Tank told her. Lester was sitting in the driver's seat.

"I'm driving, Beautiful, get in." She went around to the passenger side and got in. He looked like a kid in a candy store. He hit a button on his key ring to open the gate. "You ready to see what this thing can do?" He looked over at her smiling.

"I was born ready," she told him. He floored it, back tires spinning, and they screeched out of the garage.

"Where to?"

"Bond's office. We need to pick up Lula," she told him. "Then we are going to get lunch first." He smiled. This was going to be a fun day.

Lula and Connie saw them pull into the lot. "Who is that?" Connie asked.

"He's one of Ranger's men," she told him. "Steph told me he'd be with us today when went get Denby. I forget his name."

"Are all Rangeman employees good looking?"

"So far. I really want to get my meat hooks into Tank. He is one big and beautiful black man. I think he would be enough to satisfy me," Lula told Connie, licking her lips. Stephanie and Lester walked into the office.

"Hey girls, this is Lester," she introduced him with him giving them a nod and a little wave." This is Connie, and this is Lula." They said their hellos.

"You just have Denby. No other FTAs," Connie informed her. "But don't worry, give it some time, we'll have someone jump bail. They always do." Stephanie giggled.

"Come on, let's go to Pino's and get lunch. I'm starving. "Steph said. The 3 of them got into the car, with Lester driving, and they left. Since it was just before the lunch crowd, they were able to get a table right away.

Lula and Lester looked over the menu but Stephanie already knew she was going to get a giant meatball sub, with French fries. She looked over Lester's shoulder at the menu. "You're not going to get a salad and alphalpha sprouts are you?" He looked sideways at her.

"Hell no," he told her. "Ella used to put out all kinds of cookies, brownies, cakes, good stuff. But Ranger felt the guys were getting too fat and too slow." He smiled at the memory. "He probably found that it gives him a discount on our health insurance."

"How long have you known Ranger," she asked. Uh oh, here it comes…a million Ranger questions. He was having regrets about coming along. She saw the uncomfortable look in his eyes and smiled. "Don't worry; I'm not going to ask you personal questions about him. I won't ask about old girlfriends. I won't ask about old secrets. I was actually asking about you." He relaxed a little.

"Good," he told her. "I met Ranger in the service. We were in the same Special Forces Unit, we're in the same reserve unit, and when he told us he was starting this company, he asked me, Tank, and Bobby to work for him." Lula's ears picked up at Tank's name. "I've known him a long time."

"You're friends with Tank?" Lula asked. "Now that is a man right there. UUUUUMMMMMM UUUHHHH. I got to get me some of that." Stephanie giggled while Lester was trying not to sink under the table. The waitress came over and they ordered.

"There is no way you're going to be able to eat a giant meatball sub by yourself," he told her.

"Yes, I am," she looked him in the eye. Man, those are the palest blue eyes he had ever seen. "Don't get all Ranger on me."

"No, I mean, that's a lot of food for someone like you. That's all." He explained.

"Oh, she can eat that sub, her fries, and a box a doughnuts for dessert," Lula stuck up for her. "White Girl can eat." Steph nodded in agreement. He laughed. Ranger was all about portions, healthy eating, exercise, and she was total opposite.

"What's so funny?" she demanded. He couldn't stop smiling.

"Sorry…it's just that you are so opposite Ranger when it comes to eating habits," he finished. "If anyone is able to change him to eating normal, it will be you." She smiled.

"Somehow, I don't think that will happen. He's already trying to change my eating and that's so not going to happen!" she insisted.

"As for old girlfriends," he started. She looked into his eyes. "There really weren't any. That's all I'm going to say about that."

"Well thank you Forrest Gump!" she joked. She liked Lester. He threw her a bone about Ranger's past. The waitress brought over their food.

They were almost through when Joe Morelli had come in with some other officers. He came up behind Stephanie. Lula looked up at him first. "Hi Cupcake."

Stephanie winced and put her face in her hands. "God is punishing me." She muttered. She looked up. "What do you want, Joe?"

"Just to say hello and see how you are doing?" He looked over at Lester who was glaring at him. Who is this jerk, Lester thought. Joe knew Lester worked for Rangeman before even reading the name on his SWAT uniform. "And…to ask if you are free tonight?"

"I'm free every night," she looked up at him, "It's in the Constitution."

"OOH Girl, "Lula said high fiving her. " That was a good one. I have to write that down." Lester snickered. Joe looked slightly embarrassed. He didn't like being shot down in front of other people.

"Have dinner with me," he said. "I want us to get re-acquainted." She rolled her eyes.

"First, I'm seeing someone. Second, there is no us and there never was an "us". It was a one shot deal," she told him straight out.

"What...you're seeing one of Manoso's goons?" He demanded, referring to Lester. Stephanie felt Lester tense up and she put her hand on his arm to calm him.

"Not one of his goons," Lula injected. "She's seeing the man himself!"

"You're seeing Manoso? Cupcake, he's some psycho mercenary. He's a criminal himself. You don't want to be mixed up with someone like that." he told her. Both Stephanie and Lester were coming to the boiling point.

"Joe, besides the obvious, there are several reasons we will never be together. You have every characteristic of the male personality that I can't stand. And, until today, and I didn't think it possible, but I just discovered a few new ones. You're a liar and a back stabber. You treat women like shit. You are so full of yourself. You suck in bed, and…you are an asshole," She grabbed $30.00 out of her bag and threw it on the table. "And stop calling me Cupcake; it's nauseating." She spun on her heel and walked out. Lester and Lula looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

"Guess she told you, "Lester said to him as he walked past him. Joe just looked after her in disbelief.

Stephanie was waiting at the car for them. "God, he makes me so mad."

"White Girl, you cut his ass down. That was a work of fucking art," Lula was hysterical laughing. They got into the car.

"I started to feel sorry for the guy," Lester joked. Stephanie laughed.

"Don't feel sorry for him. He's an asshole," she told him. "And don't say anything to Ranger either." That's all she would need. It was bad enough her mother already told Ranger that Joe was interested. He didn't need to hear about him asking her on a date, too.

"Don't put me in a bad position, Steph. I can't lie to him. He'd want to know if someone was moving in on you. He's my boss and my friend."

"If he asks you…fine. But otherwise, don't offer anything. I just get the feeling some things are better left unsaid." She ran a hand through her blond mop of hair. They headed out to get Denby.

"Why does he call you Cupcake?" Lula asked her. Lester was a little curious himself. Stephanie groaned.

"I was hoping you wouldn't ask that because it's kinda gross," she told them, her face turned bright red.

"It's sexual…isn't it?" Lula got all excited. Stephanie nodded. "Well…spill it. I got to hear this." Stephanie didn't really want to say anything in front of Lester. She liked him and had the feeling that he was going to wind up a very good friend, but she still didn't know him that well. Plus, she didn't want it getting back to Ranger. It would make for very uncomfortable situations if he knew what Morelli meant when he called her Cupcake. They both were looking at her expectantly. She sighed.

"It has to do with eating a cupcake, and I'm not going to say anything else about it!" She looked at both their smiling faces. "You…watch the road!" she told Lester pointing out front. "If one word about this gets back to Ranger, you're not going to be able to come out and play with us ever again!" Lester laughed, turning back to face the road. He tried to get the thought of eating a cupcake out of his mind. This is one he definitely didn't want to tell Ranger. He had a feeling that Morelli wasn't about to give up that easy. Hell, he didn't blame him. But if Ranger knew what cupcake meant, it would be a very bad scene.

"Steph, Morelli's got it bad for you. When were you guys together?" Lula pushed the issues.

"I've known him since I was six. They lived around the corner from us. He's been tormenting me ever since. Finally, we hooked up years later. Then, he goes and writes about it on every bathroom wall in Trenton. He didn't tell me he joined the Navy so he's gone." She didn't add that she did have a crush on him at the time, like every other girl in Trenton, and he really hurt her by screwing her over like that. "Don't worry; I got even when he got out. I ran him over with my Grandfather's Buick and broke his leg in 2 places."

"Yeah Girl! You fixed his ass good!" Lula called out patting her on the back. Lester shook with laughter.

"Remind me not to piss you off," he told her. Christ, she was something else. At first, he was really surprised at Ranger's uncharacteristic display of public affection, bringing a woman with them on a take down in the first place, and how whipped he got so fast. Now, he fully understood. Stephanie was special. Women like Stephanie didn't come along that often. She wasn't fake. She didn't appear to be after Ranger for his money. She wasn't the delicate or high maintenance female that she looked like. She was a tough and strong woman. And, she was hot. He was looking forward to seeing her in action tonight doing the distraction. He was going to be her back up in the bar.

"Yeah, well I'm Italian, Hungarian, and Irish. That can make for a lethal combination," she explained. He laughed.

"I'll keep that in mind." He pulled to the curb about a half a block down from Denby's house. "Do you want me to go with you or stay here?"

"We'll be alright. You can stay here," she told him. "You have your gun, right Lula?" Lula pulls it out.

"Damn straight!" She waves it around.

"Where's your gun?" Lester asked her.

"Oh…well it kinda exploded. Well…maybe not exploded, but I'm sure it melted in the fire," She shrugged her shoulders. He put his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes.

"You don't have a gun," he said slowly.

"Uh…no? I haven't gotten around to getting another one yet." She saw the worried expression on his face. "And don't tell Ranger…."

"Jesus Stephanie!" He looked at her. "I have to tell him that. You need a gun for this job."

"Now you sound like Ranger," She smiled at him. "Relax, Lula has a gun. I'll be fine." Her smile was so disarming he could almost believe her. He sighed.

"I'm coming in there with you," he started to get out of the car. She grabbed his arm.

"No, you need to stay here. If he sees you, it may make him nervous. Lula has her gun, and we will be fine." She looked directly into his eyes. He knew he was not going to win.

"If anything happens to you, I hope you realize I'm a dead man," he sighed again. "Please be careful," he laid his head back against the seat. She kissed him on the cheek.

"I promise I'll be careful." She and Lula got out of the car and walked to the house. "I guess we'll knock on the front door and take it from there." They walked up to the door, and Stephanie knocked.

A short man, whose hair line was starting to recede, answered the door in his underwear. "Daniel Denby?" she asked. He nodded. "I'm Stephanie Plum and I'm a Bond Enforcement Agent, you missed your court date. We need you to come with us so we can get it rescheduled. He looked her up and down. He liked them tall. He quickly debated in his mind what he could do with her and decided to let them in.

"You work for Vinnie?" he asked.

"Yes," she told him. "We can wait while you get dressed. We'll just take you down to get the paperwork straightened out."

Lester got out of the car when he saw them go inside. What the hell are they doing, he wondered. He started walking slowly towards the house.

"You don't look like a Bounty Hunter?" he told her with a sly grin.

"Oh yeah," Stephanie replied. "What's a Bounty Hunter supposed to look like?" He licked his lips. Ok, this guy is nauseating, she thought. Mrs. Denby should consider herself lucky. She smelled something like gas.

"They're big and mean looking men who carry guns," he laughs. "You're more like Bounty Hunter Barbie." She gave him her best annoyed look. Lula pulls out her gun.

"Oh yeah? Well, we got guns and I'll pop a cap in yo' ass if you try anything," she waved the gun around. He jumped back in surprise, holding up his hands.

"Whoa… take it easy," he stopped for a minute and sniffed the air. "Does anybody else smell gas?" Panic appeared on his face and he turned to run towards the kitchen. "The stove….." he was getting ready to make a pot of tea and the pilot light must have gone out again. Lula ran after him.

"You ain't getting away you cheatin' little prick!" She ran after him.

"Lula…don't…." Stephanie yelled running after her. They were all running towards the kitchen. Lula tripped, the gun went off, the bullet whizzed into the kitchen, and the stove exploded.

"Holy Shit!" Lester exclaimed. He ran the rest of the way to the house. "Stephanie!" Stephanie and Lula were dragging Denby down the back steps, choking on the smoke, covered in soot and debris. Lester hearing the noise ran to the back of the house. He ran over to her to make sure she was okay. He hugged her in total relief. "Are you alright? What the hell happened?"

"Pilot light blew out," she choked out. "Lula tripped, her gun went off, and she shot the stove."

"You blew up my girlfriend's house!" he yelled at them.

"Well if you didn't miss your court date, this wouldn't have happened!" Stephanie shot back.

"Your lying and cheatin' ass deserved it!" Lula added as they finished cuffing him. Some neighbors ran over to see if they were okay. They had already called the police and fire department. The faint sounds of sirens could be heard in the distance.

"Shit, Lula, you have to get rid of that gun. You don't have a permit," Stephanie told her. Lula handed her the gun.

"You have a permit…here."

"I don't have in with me. It exploded, remember? You hide it somewhere." She handed it back. They kept passing the gun back and forth. Lester just shook his head. It was like working with Lucy and Ethel. Very appropriate being Ranger was Cuban.

Luckily, the first policeman to arrive was Eddie Gazzara. He was friends with Stephanie, they had gone to high school together, and he was married to her cousin. She took the gun from Lula.

Eddie just shook his head. "That's twice in 1 week, Steph. It's getting dangerous around you." He laughed and Lester relaxed a little.

"It wasn't my fault, Eddie!" she began. "It was an old stove. The pilot light went out." As she began to tell him the whole story, Lester's phone rang. He wasn't surprised that it was Ranger. They monitor the police bands in the control room and was sure they told him when there was a report of an explosion at the very same address were Stephanie's FTA was.

"Yo!" he answered.

"How long were you going to wait to call me, Santos?" He sounded a little pissed.

"I was just going to do it. The police are talking to Stephanie right now…."

"Well, is she alright? What the hell happened?" he demanded.

"Yeah, she's fine. Everyone is fine. I'll let her tell you the story. It will be more entertaining to hear her tell it." He winced a little waiting for Ranger's reply.

"Put her on the phone," He sounded like he lightened up a bit. Lester gave Stephanie the phone. It's Ranger, he mouthed.

"Hi" she answered sweetly.

"What are you doing, Babe?"

"Oh nothing," she had to get louder as the fire trucks were pulling up so she could be heard over the sirens. "I really can't hear you so I'll call you back in a little bit." She hung up the phone and handed it back to Lester. His eyes got very wide.

"You just hung up on Ranger." He was shocked. Ranger hated to be hung up on.

"I couldn't hear him. I told him I'd call him back," she stammered. Lester's phone rang and he handed it right to her. She took it and answered it, holding a finger in the opposite ear. "Hello!" she yelled into the phone.

"Babe," Ranger said. "You hung up on me."

"Huh?...No….un..uh. I said I would call you back because I can't hear you!" She yelled.

"Babe, you can hear me fine. You don't have to yell," He was amused. "Call me after you drop off the skip." Ranger hung up smiling.

"He hung up on me," Stephanie said looking at the phone. "What a baby!" Lester took his phone back. They were done with their report to the police so they took Denby to the car.

"Hey, I have a car just like this," he told them.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Stephanie began, "it is your car. I bought it yesterday from your wife for $0.75." She was pushing him into the back seat with Lula.

"What!" Lester got what he had come for. The look on Denby's face was worth it. "Fucking $0.75! Wait till I get my hand on the bitch!"

"Get over yourself" Stephanie yelled at him. "You stole everything from her so you get what you deserve you little prick."

"Oh listen to Bounty Hunter Barbie," he told her. "After I get back at my wife, I'm coming back for my car. There is no way I'm letting a fucking Barbie doll get the best of me!"

"Okay," Stephanie pulled him back and escorted him to the trunk. Lester followed.

"I'm not getting in there. No fucking way, Barbie!" She opened the trunk. Lester held him still

"Oh yes you are," They hauled him into the trunk and closed it. "That's really a big trunk." She told Lester. He hugged her.

"You are something else, Beautiful." He laughed. "Or should I call you Barbie."

"Yeah, I only wishI was Barbie. She has a lot bigger boobs!" she joked. They got back in the car and headed for the police station. After dropping off Denby, Stephanie told Lester they would drop him off at Haywood, they were going to go shopping. He knew Ranger would be waiting for her but figured that would be their problem.

Ranger came out of his office when Lester came back in the control room. Everyone looked at him waiting to hear what happened. "Where is she? Why didn't she call me back?" he demanded.

"They dropped me off because they were going shopping," He told them. "It was like working with Lucy and Ethel today." He smiled at the memory. Ranger dialed her number but got a recording that her voice mail was full.

"Damn it." He muttered under his breath. She didn't get the phone yet like she promised. He called her home number and left a simple message. "Call me."

"So…how did things go today?" Bobby asked him.

"First, Joe Morelli's trying to move in on you," He told Ranger. "He asked Stephanie if she was free tonight and she tells him she's free every night; that it's in the Constitution. You should have seen the look on his face." They started laughing. Even Ranger had to smile. She was never at a loss for words. "She cut him down good. Then she got mad at the skip for calling her Bounty Hunter Barbie so she put him in the trunk. I was glad to help, of course. This was after blowing up his house." They couldn't stop laughing.

"What happened?" Tank asked.

"Apparently, the stove was on and the pilot light went out. Lula's gun went off when she tripped and shot it at the stove. Oh, by the way, Stephanie doesn't have a gun." Ranger's face became stern. "She said it either blew up or melted in the car." Ranger looked at his watch. It was 5:30. They still had a few hours before their job tonight. "I had a good time." Lester told them. He left out the cupcake story. Ranger seemed pissed about the gun so he's leave it at that.

Chapter 8

Stephanie got back to her apartment at 7pm. She had to hurry to get ready. She gasped and dropped her bags when she saw Ranger sitting on her couch. "Stop doing that!"

"Why didn't you tell me about the gun, Babe?" He got up and picked up her bags, setting them down on the kitchen counter. He pulled her to him giving her a passionate kiss. "And where's your new phone? You promised."

"I ordered it today. It should be here in a day or two," she told him. He sighed. He handed her a Sig Sauer hand gun. He gave her the 5 minutes tour of the gun, safety, loading etc.

"Here, we can practice how to shoot it this weekend," He kissed her forehead. "I'll be back at 9 to pick you up."

"Did Lester have fun today," she asked changing the subject. He gave her a 200 watt smile and left.

She started getting ready. Since this was her first job working for Ranger, she didn't want to disappoint. Plus, she really wanted to look hot. She showered. Shaved her legs. The skirt was so short and she wasn't planning on wearing panty hose, she need to make sure her legs looked good and smooth. She used this hair treatment that she got off a shopping channel that was supposed to de-frizz and smooth unruly hair because she wanted to blow out the curls and straighten her hair.

At 8:45, Ranger called and asked her to meet them in front of her building at 9. She was putting on the finishing touches and applied her favorite perfume, Hypnotic Poison. She was wearing much heavier make up than she usually wears. She wanted to look hot and hide the remainder of the black eye. The dress had a halter top so her shoulders were bare. It was the middle of September and the nights started to get cooler so she grabbed a short, black leather jacket to wear. It was just about 9, so she picked up her bag and headed downstairs. The caravan was waiting for her. Ranger was first in his Mercedes. Tank, Lester, Bobby, and Hal were in the black SUV, then Cal and Hector, were in a flat bed truck. She stood at almost 6 feet in her 4 inch FMPs. The hair probably added another inch or two. She waved as she passed each vehicle and got into the Mercedes with Ranger.

He looked her up and down. God, did she look amazing, he thought. "Well?" she asked him. He smiled.

"You look fucking amazing, Babe," He leaned over and kissed her. She actually smelled amazing, too. The perfume was getting him hot. She smiled. "I'm a little jealous that you didn't dress like that for me tonight." He looked her over again. "I'm dying to know what you are wearing under that." It was very short and skin tight.

"You can find that out later," she told him slyly. He smiled and pulled out with the caravan following behind.

Lester was keeping his opinions to himself but he couldn't take his eyes off her as she walked passed them. She looked like sex on a stick. Bobby's tongue was still handing out and Hal looked like he was going to pass out. Tank broke the silence, "I don't think we are going to have a problem with Stephanie keeping this guy busy tonight." They all agreed. "If this guy isn't interested in her, he's either gay….or dead." They had used other women in the past for distractions. Some were just okay and others just didn't cut it.

They dropped off Lester and he went inside. Ranger took out a wire and an ear piece. He was glad she didn't wear her hair up so the ear piece would be hidden. It was apparent she wasn't wearing a bra, as he had planned to slip the mic in there. "Uuhh…" he began. She turned back one of the straps of the halter. There was a small pocket. He placed it in there, taking his time, feeling his way around, cupping his hand on her bare breast. He kissed her neck, taking in the smell of her perfume. They kissed for a minute before he pulled back. "Need to test the mic, Babe."

"What?" she said dreamily, still reeling from the kissing and the fondling.

"We read you," came over her ear piece. This snapped her to full attention.

"It will take me about 10 min to disable the alarm and another 15 minutes to get the car loaded on the flatbed," This was Hector.

"We'll give you five minutes after going inside before the clock starts. He wears a watch alarm. If the light goes on, he will know someone is messing with his car. Try to change his mind about going outside if that happens. If he gets insistent, don't get in his way. We'll deal with it. I don't want you to get hurt," Ranger told her. She smiled.

"Piece of cake," she told him.

"Steph, he's at the bar. Far end on the right," Lester's voice came over the ear piece. She gave Ranger a quick kiss and got out.

"Be careful," he told her.

They watched her walk down to the entrance and go in. Lester was over by the pool table, nursing a beer, watching her scan the room. She spotted her target and slowly walked over, adding a swing to her hips. He swallowed hard. She made her way to the end of the bar, took off her jacket, and took a seat on the barstool, crossing her legs. She had the attention of every man in the bar, including her target. He got up from his stool and took the stool next to her.

"Bingo," he spoke into his mic.

"Can I buy you a drink, pretty lady?" he asked her. They could hear the conversation without any problems.

"Gray goose martini, please," she told him. It was easier to order a drink versus a shot. She was a light weight when it came to alcohol. Plus, if she needed to, she could really work the olives to keep his mind on her.

"What's a beautiful lady doing out by herself on a Friday night?" What a dumb pick up line, she thought.

"I had a fight with my boyfriend," she told him. "I got all dressed up for him and he wanted a night out with the boys." She took a sip of the drink that had just been set in front of her. She licked her lips. Lester almost dropped his beer and muttered, shit, under his breath. "So I thought I needed a night out with the boys, too." She coyly added.

"Well, I think I can help you with that, Darlin'" His eyes moved up and down, focusing on her chest.

"Okay, clock is running, 25 minutes counting down now," Cal's voice came over the ear piece. She glanced up at the clock over the bar.

She gave him her best sex kitten smile and flashed her eyes, "I'm sure that you can," she purred. Took another sip of her drink. "So, what's your name, Handsome?" She stretched the truth big time on that one. He was average.

"Peter," he told her. "Let me guess your name. It's probably something exotic like Bambi, or Heather."

"Now how did you guess?" she playfully swatted his arm. He turned to the bartender to order another drink. Stephanie shot a look over to Lester and rolled her eyes. He smiled back.

"We got the alarm disabled. You don't have to worry about the watch alarm," Hector's voice came over. Good, 15 more minutes of this, she thought.

"Finish up that drink and let's get out of here," Peter told Stephanie. "We can go back to my place and I'll give you your night out with the boys." Think quick, Steph, she told herself. She took another sip.

"Dance with me first," she cooed. He looked her up and down again. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of quarters.

"Go play us some music," Lester was nonchalantly walking towards the jukebox. Stephanie smiled at the man and took the quarters. She slowly walked over to the jukebox where Lester was now leaning on the left side. She leaned on the jukebox, slightly pushing out her butt, taking her time picking out her selection.

"You're doing good, Beautiful," he told her. She gave him a sideways look.

"I need to waste 12 more minutes. He wants to leave now. Wish me luck," She chose Hysteria by Def Leppard. She turned around, slightly moving her shoulders and hips to the beat in slow and sensual movements. She crooked her finger indicating for him to come to her. Lester began to sweat. Oh my God, he thought. He wanted her bad at that moment. Peter walked over and pulled her roughly towards him. He swayed back and forth with her in time to the music. She could feel his erection poking her in the stomach. She pulled back from him, and he pulled her into him again. She looked at Lester with a face that told him the guy had some serious wood. Hell, he was fighting a semi himself.

"Are you guys almost done? You need to step it up otherwise his hands are going to be up her skirt and on her ass any minute now." Ranger and Tank were at the front door. Tank could see that did not make Ranger happy as he clenched his fists.

"You can bring him out now. The car is loaded and we'll be pulling out in a minute," Cal said.

That's all Stephanie needed to hear. She pulled away from him and headed to the bar. "Okay, let's go." She put her jacket back on and grabbed her bag. Peter grabbed her free hand and pulled her roughly to the exit towards the back. "Where are we going?"

"We're going out the back door. I'm parked out back," he stopped and pushed her up against the wall and kissed her. Ranger and Tank ran around back, Hal was already waiting at the back entrance. Lester followed them to the back. Stephanie tried to push him back.

"Wait…stop..." He grabbed her by the throat.

"You're nothing but a fucking tease!" She brought up her knee as fast as she could and squarely smashed it into his manhood. He went down like a brick. He was on the ground when Lester got there and Ranger and Tank burst in the back door.

"And you're a pig," she told him absently putting a hand up to her throat. She smiled at Ranger who stood there taking in the scene. A slow smile appeared on his face. He didn't expect she would be able to take a big guy like that down by herself. Another surprise. He pulled her towards him.

"You okay, Babe?" he asked. Lester and Tank cuffed Peter and helped him to the SUV. He was having a hard time standing up.

"I'm fine," They kissed. "Let's get out of here." She stood about an inch or two taller than him in those shoes and with the hair. She really looked good. He put his arm around her waist, and she put her arm around his shoulders as they walked outside. Peter was still in so much pain that he didn't notice that Stephanie was part of the group.

"Tank, I'm off line until further notice. I don't want to hear from anyone unless someone is bleeding....or dead," Ranger told him. Tank smiled to himself. That means the boss is getting laid tonight. Lester and Tank watched them get into his Mercedes and take off.

"That is so not fair," Lester whined as he got into the SUV. Tank raised his eye brows at him. "He always gets the girl."

"You better watch yourself," Tank instructed. "He really likes this one. Hell, you see that she's got him wrapped around her finger and he's falling all over himself with this one." Lester shrugged.

"She's really special. I've never met a girl as cool as she is who also is as hot as she is," Lester confessed. Hal got in the back with Peter. The conversation ended. They headed to the station to drop him off.

Ranger and Stephanie headed back to her apartment. They barely got in the door and were pulling off each other's clothes, making their way to her bed. "Ranger…" she breathed, "Don't…."

"Don't deny me tonight, Babe. Please," he begged. "I need you…."

"No….don't stop…" He laid her back on the bed and was inside her. Finally, after three rounds of hot and heavy love making, they fell asleep in each other's arms.

He had seen her at the bar. It was his angel. She was the one he had been looking for all these years to save him. There had been others but they were false. The angel's eyes were the color of the sky. Why was his angel dressed in black and acting like a whore? He had to find her and correct her. She could save him from the devil.

Chapter 9

Ranger spent the weekend with Stephanie. He brought her to Rangeman on Saturday. He took her to the range to teach her to shoot her new gun. He spent every minute possible with her. It was an unusually quiet weekend. Ella actually enjoyed making dessert for a change. Ranger, of course, didn't eat it, but Stephanie did. She moaned when eating the chocolate cake. "Oh my god… this is soooo good!" If he hadn't already experienced that she was more vocal during sex, he would almost believe that eating was a sexual experience for her. Ella liked Stephanie and made it a point to tell Ranger so.

"She's the right person for you. She completes you," she told him. "I can see you are in love with her. Don't shut her out. Go with those feelings because true love does not happen often." He didn't answer. He didn't need to answer because she was right. He still had reservations. He wasn't used to relationships and still concerned for her safety. He decided that he wanted to put a GPS tracker in her car so he could keep an eye on her. He couldn't believe that he only met her a week ago. It was the best week he had in a long time.

Stephanie was having the best time with Ranger. He was sexy, a fantastic lover, supportive and caring, and she felt like she had a good friend too. Ella was an amazing cook. She enjoyed every meal. Ranger must have told her it was okay for her to make dessert because she had make her cheesecake and this incredible chocolate cake that was almost as good as sex with Ranger.

"Babe, tomorrow you can use one of my cars. I'll have one of the guys do some routine maintenance on yours like oil change, check the fluids, tune up, and stuff like that."

"I can't drive one of your cars!" she looked shocked. "I don't have a good track record and you have nice and expensive cars."

"They're just cars, Babe. If something happens, it doesn't matter as long as you are alright," he told her. She still didn't look convinced.

"It's one thing for something to happen to my cars. It's another if something happens to your cars and it's my fault," she shook her head. He sighed.

"Trust me. It will be fine."

"I do trust you. It's me I don't trust," she answered. He got up and kissed her head.

"I've got some paperwork to finish in the office, come down with me," He held her hand and they walked to the elevator. He was going to ask her if she was interested in Silvio's job. She was wearing a plain velour pink track suit, pants worn low on her hips and a jacket cropped a little to show off her belly button. Hair was pulled back into a high pony tail that swung back and forth when she walked. Although she looked amazing the other night, he was just struck by her simple beauty today. She just had her usual mascara and lip gloss. He thought this was the most beautiful he had ever seen her.

"You're star-ing," she told him in the sing song tone. He just smiled.

"I can't help it. You are so beautiful." She just blushed.

"Get outta here," she playfully punched him in the arm. He was starting to realize that Stephanie truly had no idea how beautiful she really was. There were good looking people and then there were the rare few that are so beautiful that people will actually stare. He noticed that everyone stared at Stephanie. Men, women, and children. The doors opened up on the 5th floor and they headed to the control room hand in hand. He introduced her to the staff that she didn't know. Every one of the men, were at least 6 feet tall and huge. Guess that really is a job requirement, she thought. She followed him into his office. He sat at his desk and she sat in his lap as he sorted through some files. He signed a couple contracts and put them in his out bin.

"There's something I want to talk to you about," he told her as brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "I want to offer you a job here."

"Me?" she looked at him surprised.

"It's an office job. Silvio is transferring to the Miami office next month so he can be closer to his family. He does searches, background checks, and any other research we need. And when we need a female on a takedown or distraction, you'd do that as well. That would include benefits and use of the gym." She thought about it. It would be a steady paycheck. She already knew most of Ranger's team and really liked everyone. She did need health insurance. Plus she would get to see Ranger all the time. "You can still work part time for Vinnie if you want. Rangeman handles his high bond FTAs. I could look to include some low bonds too."

"How do you do that?" He could read her mind. "Do you have ESP or something?" He gave her his 200 watt smile.

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." She smiled back. "Plus, the guys think it's a good idea. They like you and want you to work here." He kissed her. "You could think about it if you need to…."

"No, I'd very much like to take the job," she kissed him back. He wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. "I'd still need to work for Vinnie some. He doesn't have anyone else right now." He really loved her loyalty.

"You can discuss the benefits and salary with the business office downstairs this week. I'd like you to start in the next week or so to give you time to work with Silvio. Even if you start part time."

"Okay." They kissed again and it got more and more passionate. He slowly pulled down the zipper of her jacket and reached inside placing a hand on her breast. The velour was as soft as her skin. The thoughts of making love to her on his desk were running through his mind when Hector walked in.

"Oh…" Hector turned red. Ranger jumped up knocking Stephanie off his lap and onto the floor.

"Ow!" she landed with a thud.

"Sorry, Babe," He helped her up and they straightened their clothes. Stephanie, realizing that her bra was exposed, zipped her jacket back up. Ranger hoped his hard-on wasn't noticeable.

"Victoria's Secret?" Hector asked jokingly. She turned red but nodded. "Here, these are requests for security systems for this week. They need your approval." He dropped the files in Ranger's IN basket.

"Thanks," Ranger told him. Hector smiled and left the office. "I guess I have to remember to lock that door." She shot him a look. "You don't have to worry about Hector, Babe. He's gay." He gave her the wolfish grin. "If he had come in a few minutes later, he would have seen a lot more than your bra." She rolled her eyes.

He finally convinced her to take one of his cars. He dropped her back at her apartment Monday morning to pick up her car. He gave her the keys to his Porsche Cayenne. "Are you sure you have enough insurance?" she asked.

"Babe," he sighed and took off in the Road Runner. She ran upstairs to drop off her stuff and get ready for work.

Connie and Lula were eating doughnuts at Connie's desk when she pulled up. Their jaws hit the floor when they saw her get out of Ranger's Cayenne.

"He gave you one of his Porsches?" Lula asked in disbelief.

"Don't even go there," she told them. "I'm going to have to pick up a bottle of Maalox before the day is out. I'm a nervous wreck driving that thing." She sat down and grabbed a doughnut.

"How does is handle?" Connie asked. A slow smile came across her face.

"Very nice," she admitted. "I love driving it. But, I'm so afraid something is going to happen to it. Especially, the way my luck has been running."

"Batman must really love you to give you one of his Porsches," Lula told her. "White girl, you got him whipped!"

"I don't know about that. He's got my car because he's going to have one of the guys do some routine maintenance of my car. Either that, or the guys just wanted to play with my car today," she laughed. "Got anything for us?" She wasn't going to mention the job a Rangeman yet. She would tell them at the end of the week.

"Just one. He's a not quite high enough for Rangeman, but he's a little more difficult than what you have been doing. You will probably have to do some surveillance on this one." Connie handed her the file. Jeff Morgan, 41, drug dealer, armed robbery, and a list of other wonderful professions. He jumped bail for dealing. Whereabouts unknown. Had worked at a salvage yard and did some dealing there as well. Looked like the place to start.

"I think I can at least start this one. If it turns out he's over my head, I can ask Ranger for help," she kept the file. "You up for some investigating?"

"Damn skippy!"

"We'll start at the salvage yard. Then I need to stop by my place to see if my phone came yet." She held up a cell. "Ranger gave me this one to use because he didn't want me to wait till Monday." She held up her new gun. "He gave me this too."

"So what is going on with you two?" Connie asked.

"Well…we're a couple I guess. It's weird to say boyfriend, when you are 28 years old. It sounds so high school. All I know is that I am totally crazy for him and we are having a great time. Just going to take it one day at a time," she explained.

"You glow when you talk about him. Someone is in lo-ve," Connie told her. Stephanie blushed. She was head over heels in love with him. But she had been screwed over by so many men, she was trying not to let herself get in too deep. She stood up.

"Come on, Lula, Let's go check out Morgan," They got in the Porsche and headed to the salvage yard.

They spoke to several employees at the salvage yard but no one had seen him in a few days. They got the feeling some people were honest, and some people were protecting him. The word had gotten back to one of Morgan's customers. He was operating the truck that picked up and transported huge industrial dumpsters. He was told they arrived in the Porsche Cayenne that was parked in the lot. He drove over and dropped a dumpster on the Porsche just as they were walking back to the lot.

Stephanie froze. She felt like her chest constricted and her breath was caught in her throat. She couldn't believe what she just saw.

"Holy Shit!" Lula yelled. "Holy Shit! Holy Fucking Shit!" She was just as stunned. The driver had jumped out of the truck on the other side and they didn't see who it was.

Stephanie couldn't breathe. She was in a panic. Ranger's Porsche was crushed. Oh my god, she thought over and over. She felt her body go numb and she began to hyperventilate. Lula grabbed her arm.

"Steph, are you alright?" She helped her sit down. "Breathe, Girl, breathe."

She destroyed Ranger's SUV. Not just any SUV…Ranger's SUV…and a Porsche! A few men ran over to see if she was okay.

"Are you ladies okay? What the hell happened?" he appeared to be a manager or something.

"My friend can't breathe," Lula was panicking.

"She's hyperventilating. Get her a bag to breathe into," Another man yelled. Someone dumped his lunch and handed him a brown bag. He held it up to her face. "Breathe in to this Little Lady." He instructed. "You'll be fine"

No I won't, she thought. The worst part is yet to come. She had to call Ranger.

The GPS signal was still transmitting but it emitted the emergency signal that would indicate an accident and airbag deployment. Hal ran into Ranger's office. Since he was on an important call, he looked up annoyed until he saw Hal's face.

"Something happened to the Porsche Stephanie was using. The GPS indicates heavy body damage and air bag deployment." His heart jumped up into his throat. He explained there was an emergency and would have to call the client back. He immediately called the cell phone that he had given Stephanie. There was no answer. He was in full alert mode. He jumped up and called for Tank. They ran downstairs and took off. Tank called Bobby and Lester to meet then at the location.

Lester was sick to his stomach. Bobby floored the SUV and took a corner almost on 2 wheels. "Shit, I hope she's alright," Bobby muttered. Lester was too on edge to answer.

Stephanie's breathing was almost back to normal by the time they arrived. Ranger hit the ground running over to her and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that she was okay. He dropped to the ground next to her and just held her. She was still a little numb and in a state of shock. "Babe, what happened?" All she could do was point to the dumpster. She was shaking. "It's okay, Babe," He just held her and whispered in her. Tank, Lester and Bobby just looked around for the car after they saw she was okay.

"Where's the Cayenne?" Lester asked.

"Some mother fucker dropped a dumpster on your SUV," she told Ranger. It was then that they saw a tire sticking out from under the dumpster. Stephanie felt her chest tighten again and her breathing picked up.

Bobby sat down next to her, seeing the bag and the shocked look on her face, he figured out she was hyperventilating. "Relax, Steph, slow your breathing down." He put the bag up to her face again.

"I called you. Why didn't you answer your phone?" Ranger asked. It would have saved him some stress he wanted to add. Again, she just pointed to the dumpster. Her phone was in the car. "It's okay, Babe. I told you, it's just a car."

The manager had looked through the truck and came back over. "I'm real sorry Miss. It looks like someone did this on purpose."

"No shit!" Lula told him. Tank smiled. She was starting to grow on him. She turned to Ranger who was still trying to comfort Stephanie. "You can't be mad at her, Batman. It's wasn't her fault." Ranger felt Stephanie stiffen and she gave him a panicked look.

"I'm not mad at her," He told Lula. "I'm not mad at you, Babe," he insisted. "I'm not mad. I don't care about the Cayenne. All I care about is that you are alright."

She looked into his eyes. He could she how upset she was. "I'm sorry," she whispered and tears welled up in her eyes. Damn, he hated to see her cry.

"Look on the brightside…" Lula began. "At least it wasn't a bomb or something. That mother fucker wasn't trying to hurt you. And I'll bet he would have thought twice if he knew who's Porsche that was." They all silently agreed. No one would mess with Ranger or any of his cars.

"I called the Police. They should be her any minute." The manager told them. Ranger would have to get a police report for the insurance. Stephanie was beginning to relax some. The police were just pulling into the lot.

"Take her home," Ranger told Bobby and Lester. "We'll stay here and finish up with the police." They had just taken Stephanie's and Lula's reports. "Babe, it's okay. I'll stop by in a little bit." He hugged her, kissed her, and turned her over to Lester. Lester put his arm around her and led her and Lula to the SUV.

Lester got in the back seat with Stephanie, and Lula climbed up front with Bobby. "White Girl, you need some doughnuts." Steph nodded. Lester put his arm around her again. She buried her face in her hands.

"I destroyed Ranger's SUV," she moaned through her hands.

"He doesn't care about that, Beautiful," Lester told her trying to comfort her. "All he cared about was that you were okay. We're all relieved that you were okay."

"I destroyed Ranger's SUV," she said again softly.

"Damn Girl. I think you need McDonald's too," She turned to Bobby. "Can you stop at McDonald's and then Dunkin Donuts? They're right next to each other." Bobby just grinned and nodded. "Steph, after a couple of Big Macs, a few packs of fries and a big box of munchkins, and you'll feel better."

She nodded again and leaned into Lester. "This is all I need…2 cars and a house in 1 week," she groaned. "I feel like a walking disaster."

"Like Danger-prone Daphne from Scooby-Doo?" Lester joked. This got him a smile. The light was back in her eyes and she giggled.

"Don't make me laugh," she playfully punched him. "This is so not funny. Not only did I destroy his SUV, but it was a Porsche."

"Well, if you're going to do it you might as well do it big," Lester told her.

"Yeah Steph, go big or go home," Bobby added.

"See White Girl, you did it with class," Lula joined in. "And it really wasn't your fault. It was that punk ass mother fucker that did it."

They stopped and picked up several Big Mac meals then Dunkin Donuts before dropping Lula off at the bond's office. Bobby and Lester took her back to her apartment. Ranger had just pulled in and was getting out of the SUV. She gave a quick kiss to Lester and Bobby, taking her food, before getting out of the SUV. Tank climbed in with them to leave the other SUV for Ranger. She walked over with her shopping bag of crap. Ranger just smiled and shook his head.

"We asked them to stop. I needed comfort food," she explained. He put his arm around her and they walked upstairs.

"You look a little better, Babe," he told her tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, then kissing the same spot.

"Ranger….I'm so sorry…" He put a finger up to her lips.

"Stop," said softly. "It was just an SUV. I can replace a vehicle. I could never replace you. And it wasn't your fault. The skip you were asking about had some customers there. You were on the right track to finding him and someone was trying to give you a message to stop. I'm going to have Lester and Bobby help you track this guy. He's more high risk that what you are used to but I want you to get some experience with them."

"'kay," she said softly. She opened her bag and took out a few Big Macs and fries. He shook his head.

"Those things will kill you, Babe." She brought her food to the living room and sat down. He took a couple of calls while she ate. "Pack a bag and stay with me tonight. I'll have Ella make you something special." He didn't have to ask twice. Ella was a wonderful cook. She smiled. "I'll take that as a yes."

Chapter 10

Ranger forced himself to get up at 6am which was still later than his usual time of 5 am. He would get up and go for a run but had been slack the last week because he wanted to spend more time with Stephanie. He finished his run and went back to get ready for work. He stood over the bed, watching her sleep. He loved her position, lying on her stomach, legs stretched out. He leaned over, brushed the blond mop off her face, and kissed her cheek. She stirred, realizing that Ranger was hovering over her.

"Morning," she muttered and stretched. Her movements were very cat like. The sheet barely covered her naked body. He pulled down the sheet to expose her even more. She looked up at him. "What are you doing?"

"Admiring the view," He pulled her towards him. "Take a shower with me, Babe, I have to get ready for work." That got her fully awake. He had already taken off his shirt and kicked off his sneakers when he came in. He pulled off his sweats, then picked her up and carried her to the bathroom.

Ella had breakfast ready by the time they emerged from the bathroom. He finished getting ready in the dressing room while Stephanie blow dried her hair. He was really getting used to having her there every day. He was starting to realize how lonely his life had been. "What have you got planned for today, Babe?"

She had come into the dressing room to get her clothes. "Check with Connie to see what she's got, then I guess work on Morgan again." She sighed. "And I'm taking my own car from now on."

He smiled. "Not if you are going to work on Morgan. I'll have you with Bobby and Lester." He headed to the kitchen for breakfast. He made up a plate, got some coffee, grabbed the morning paper and brought everything to the dining room table.

Headlines read 'Bombshell Bounty Hunter Takes Trenton by Storm' It was a story about Stephanie and the week's events. "Christ," he breathed. There were a couple of pictures of her, the 2 cars, and the house on fire. She's going to freak when she sees this, he thought. Plus, he always kept a low profile. He needed to in his line of work. Now he was involved with Trenton's new celebrity. He heard her coming to the dining room and hid the paper.

"What?" she asked him. Damn, he was going to have to work on his stone face again. Think quick, he told himself.

"You're beautiful," he told her smiling. She looked at him like he was crazy. Lester and Bobby burst into the apartment. At first, Ranger was relieved, even though he told them they better start knocking.

"Good morning, Bombshell," Lester greeted her and kissed her cheek. Shit, he thought, they had already seen the paper.

"Can we get your autograph?" Bobby held out the paper to her. She gasped and grabbed the paper out of his hands.

"Oh my God!" She looked horrified. Bobby and Lester exchanged looks, realizing they were in trouble.

"Uh…I guess you didn't read the paper yet," Lester stammered. Ranger gave him a stern look with eyebrows raised.

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed again. Ranger got up and put his arm around her.

"Babe, it's not that bad," he told her.

"Yes it is! Look how big my butt looks in this picture." She turned around and looked at her behind in a mirror. "Does my butt look that big?" Ranger tried not to laugh, but couldn't help himself. "It's not funny, Ranger!" Lester and Bobby started to laugh as well.

"I'm sorry, Babe," he laughed. "You don't have a big butt." He grabbed her butt with both hands. "Actually, you have a very nice butt," he whispered in her ear, squeezing both cheeks.

"I'm sure Vinnie will be happy that his business got free publicity," she muttered. She plopped down at the dining room table. "I really need some doughnuts." She put her face in her hands. Lester placed a bag down in front of her.

"I had a feeling you may need these," he told her. She squealed when she saw the bag. Ranger smiled to himself. The guys had really taken to Stephanie. He knew they would do anything for her. Ranger gave him a nod. She had the first doughnut stuffed into her mouth already. Ranger's cell phone rang.

"Yo." He looked over at Stephanie and handed her the phone. "Connie."

"Hello?" Her mouth opened wide. "What?" She listened again. "You're lying…." She got quiet again. "Okay, I'll call you later." They looked at her expectantly. She sighed. "This is so not happening."

"Well?" Lester said.

"Connie said there is a crowd of people down at the office. She stopped counting after 17 the number of flower arrangements that were delivered, and there are actually 3 men with diamond rings in hand that want to ask me to marry them."

"Wow…" Ranger began looking at his watch, "It's only 8:45, Babe. That's a pretty good start." He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.

"Well I can kiss off work today. She doesn't have anyone new and me trying to find Morgan today isn't going to work. I am living and breathing Murphy's law. I can accept that weird things usually will happen to me, but this past week has been Murphy's Law on steroids." She sat back at the table and put her head down on folded arms.

"Well at least it's never boring being around you," Lester tried to console her. Ranger and Bobby shot him a look.

"Swell," came her muffled reply. Ranger gave them a look that told them it was time to get back to work.

"We'll catch you later, Bombshell," Lester told her before leaving. Ranger sat down next to her and put his arm around her. She turned her head to the side to look at him.

"Lay low for a few days, Babe. This will blow over." He told her. She gave him a weak smile.

"I really doubt that but thanks for trying." He looked at his watch. He had to get moving.

"You could hang out here today. Sit with Silvio. Start learning the job."

"Ranger, if this gets out of hand, I won't be able to work for you." She told him softly. There was a twinge in his stomach.

"Why do you say that?"

"Your business is important to you. You have to keep a low profile for what you do. You don't need me bringing in a circus. It wouldn't be good to have all that attention." Damn, she was right, but he still wanted her there.

"It will blow over. You'll be in the office mostly anyway. They're not going to be able to get in here." He brushed her hair back off her face. "Don't say no right now. Let's just see what happens." He kissed her forehead.

"Okay." He got up.

"I've got to get to work. What are you going to do today?"

"I'll call Connie later to see if it quiets down over there. I guess for now, I'll just go home."

"I've got a conference call but I'll have Tank take you home."

There on the front page he saw a picture of his angel. Stephanie Plum was the name in the article but he knew it was Seraphina, his arc angel that will be able to save him. It said she was a Bounty Hunter and worked for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. He would go there to find her so he could watch her every move. Soon samhain would be here and Seraphina would set his soul free.

Chapter 11

It took a couple of days for the crowd to die down at the Bond's office. The place looked like a funeral parlor with all the flowers. Connie and Lula were enjoying all the boxed chocolates that were sent to Stephanie. There were still a few stragglers, and a small crowd that seems to follow Stephanie and Lula around. The crowd seemed to get bigger out of nowhere when Stephanie took down a FTA that threw a bag of garbage at her. She was covered in what looked like noodles, red sauce, and a foreign sticky substance that stuck in her hair. The smell was very unkind. But still, they managed to get him cuffed and, as punishment for the garbage, he was placed in the trunk.

Ranger was at the Bonds office going through some files when they got back. He had looked through some of the cards of the many bouquets of flowers that were sent to Stephanie. She came staggering in, arms at her side, and it was obvious she was not happy. Ranger gave her a slow smile. "I hate to say this, Babe, but you look like shit."

"Make one more joke and I will hug you then go sit inside your Porsche on the driver's side. UGH! I don't even want to know what this stuff in my hair is," she groaned. She staggered into the bathroom.

"I don't know Steph," Lula began. "That skip said he was jerking off to your picture before we got there!" They could hear her groan from the bathroom

"This is so gross….." Then they heard an ear piercing scream. Ranger dropped the files to run to the bathroom but she came frantically running out swatting at her hair. "Get them out!!!"

Ranger grabbed her, "Babe, what is it?" He was looking her over, holding her wrists.

"Maggots!" She still was jumping around and he pulled her back into the bathroom. He guided her head to the sink and helped her get the maggots out. "Oh my god, that was so gross. Are they gone? Did you get them out?"

"Hold still…let me look," he told her and checked her hair again. "Yeah, I got them all." He rubbed a towel over her head to help dry her hair.

Connie handed her a check. "I'm going home, taking a shower, and throwing away these clothes," she told everyone and staggered out the door. A crowd of reports swarmed around her. Ranger pushed through and held back the crowd so she could get in her car. She was happy for his help, but she did not want him getting mixed up in the zoo.

"I'll meet you at your place," he kissed her forehead. She was able to get out of the lot and sped off before they could follow. Ranger was right behind her.

There was a bouquet of 2 dozen white roses in front of her door. Ranger was right behind her and picked them up off the floor, handing her the card.

We will be together soon my Angel

They went inside. Ranger noticed that Stephanie looked perplexed. "Something wrong, Babe?" She looked up, shaking her head.

"Oh…no, nothing," She headed for the bedroom, stripping off her clothes. Ranger watched her undress from the doorway. "What?"

"Just admiring the view," he grinned at her. He started to undress. "I'll help you." She got the shower going while he got completely naked and then joined her in the shower.

An hour later, Stephanie, wrapped in her robe, was in the kitchen re-reading the note while Ranger was in the bedroom getting dressed. There was another note that came with 2 dozen white roses on Monday that said:

I finally found you my Angel

It was one thing for people to send stuff to the Bonds office, but this person knew where she lived and it bothered her.

"Babe," Ranger was waving a hand in front of her face, "Earth to Babe."

"Sorry." He wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed her ear, nibbling on her ear lobe. He read the card over her shoulder.

"Something wrong?"

"No…well…it's just…..nothing." She didn't want to worry him.

He stood in front of her, tilting her chin up to look her in the eyes. "It's something. Now what is on your mind?" He looked at the flowers and the card and back to her.

"It's just that I think this is the 2nd card from the same person," she explained. "Monday, I had gotten the same bouquet with a note that said I finally found you my Angel. And now this one."

"And it was delivered here. So he knows where you live," Ranger's face got grim as he took this in.

"Yeah," she said softly. "It just gives me a creepy feeling." He could see that she was a little worried. He pulled out his cell phone.

"Who's available this afternoon?" he asked. "I want him with Stephanie today." He shut his phone and clipped in back on his belt. "Hector is going to be with you. I have business to take care of that I can't get out of. I'd really like you to stay with me, at least for tonight, until I can look into this." She smiled. Okay, here comes the caveman routine.

"On one condition," she smiled. Here it comes, he thought. "Ask Ella to make that chocolate cake again!" He gave her the 200 watt smile.

"Done," she shook his hand and gave him a kiss. She headed into the bedroom to get dressed.

Hector was just a little taller than she was, not as muscular as his coworkers, and a little scary looking. That was, until he smiled. He sort of had the Julio Iglesias, Jr. thing going on when he smiled and looked more relaxed. And, he was gay. He certainly was not the typical Rangeman employee. He was a computer and electronics whiz. He handled all the installation of the security systems that Rangeman did. Stephanie ordered in pizza. She didn't have anywhere to go. Hector actually was very good company. He had a very good sense of humor and enjoyed watching all the court shows with her. He told her that he was happy she was going to come and work for Rangeman. He got along with his co-workers but he felt some of them were uncomfortable around him. He was never in the military. He was in prison for a gang related murder.

She was used to having gay friends. One of her best friends, Anthony, was gay. He lived in New York City and was a stylist. Anthony was obviously gay whereas Hector was not. Not that he was in the closet, but he looked and acted straight. There was a knock at the door. Hector jumped up, gun in hand, to answer it. Stephanie was right behind him. She looked through the peep hole. There was a man that she didn't know in the hall. Hector got behind the door as she opened it.

"Yes?" she said hesitantly. The man was holding a basket with a black puppy.

"Are you Stephanie Plum?" he asked. She nodded. "This is for you." He handed her the basket.

"Aww," she cooed. She put the basket down and picked up the puppy.

"She's a pure bred black German Shepherd. I got an envelope of cash today with a note to deliver you a female puppy. I guess you have a secret admirer." He rubbed the puppy's head. "I have all the papers. This is a little unusual. If you don't want her, please let me know. I am very particular about my dogs and I will only let the puppies go to good homes. I don't know who the person is, but I got $1200 in cash. That's $400 more than I usually charge. Championship bloodlines, you know."

"Come in…Mr.?" She stepped back from the doorway. Hector put away his gun.

"Fred…Fred Cummings," he came in bringing the basket. He set the paperwork on the kitchen counter. Stephanie was totally in love with the puppy. The puppy licked her face.

"Oh..this is Hector. He's a…..co-worker? Or will be co-worker. He works for my boyfriend." That sounded weird saying it out loud the first time.

Fred went over the AKC papers, vaccine history, what food she was eating. He could see she loved the dog.

"I can't believe this," she squealed. "I've had such a weird week. This is really a neat surprise."

"You're the girl in the paper…the Bombshell Bounty Hunter!" Fred thought she looked familiar. She cringed, but nodded.

"I've gotten flowers, candy, marriage proposals, but nothing like this!" she smiled. "This is the best one yet." Hector took the puppy from her. She signed the papers.

"If you have any questions or problems, here's my card. Call me." He left.

"Hector, can you believe this?" she gave the puppy a kiss. Fred had left her a little bag of food, some treats, and a couple of bones and toys in the basket.

"Ranger must be totally whipped on you girl," he told her.

"Do you think Ranger bought me this puppy?" she asked him.

"Who else?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"We need to go to Pet Smart. I need to get her a collar and a leash and more food." She put on her Keds. "I'll call Ranger to let him know where we are so he doesn't have a cow." She had finally gotten her replacement phone the other day.

"Yo, Babe."

"Yo yourself."

"What's up?"

"Hector and I are going to Pet Smart. I just got a German Shepherd puppy as a gift from a Secret Admirer. Any ideas who that may be?" Ranger didn't answer right away. "Hello? Are you still there?"

"Yeah, Babe, I'm still here. Someone bought you a dog?" He was a little perplexed. It wasn't him.

"Yeah, the breeder dropped her off a few minutes ago. She is so cute. She's 10 weeks old and she's all black. You should appreciate that." He smiled.

"Any idea who it's from?" She frowned. She thought for sure it was Ranger.

"No, I thought maybe you…." She trailed off. He winced. Someone got his woman a gift that she sounds like she loves and it wasn't from him.

"I wish I could take credit but it wasn't me."

"Oh," She sounded disappointed. "Well I just wanted to let you know where we were going. I have to get a collar, a leash, and food and stuff." He voice was muffled as she said something to Hector. "I'll call you in a little while, okay?"

"Talk to you later, Babe" She hung up. What the hell is going on, he thought. Never in his life has he ever seen one person get so much unsolicited attention before. And, it really wasn't her fault. She was just trying to learn a new job and pay her own way. She wasn't showboating or even trying to draw attention to herself. He was wondering if it was the same person that sent her the white roses. He was glad that Hector was with her and that she would be staying with him tonight. The only bad thing was he wasn't crazy about the idea of a puppy in his apartment. But if Stephanie was already in love with the puppy, and he was pretty sure she was, he would allow anything in his apartment.

After buying a hot pink collar and matching leash, as well as other puppy toys, brushes, bones, food, and whatever else she thought she would need, they left Pet Smart. She called Ranger.

"Yo!"

"Yo yourself." He smiled.

"Did you get everything you need, Babe?"

"Probably bought too much stuff," she laughed. "Look, I've been thinking. It's probably better if I stay in my place tonight. It will be easier taking her outside every few hours than at your place. Plus, I'm sure you don't want a puppy that's not housebroken in your place…."

"No, I want you to stay with me tonight. It's okay to bring the dog." He told her immediately.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure, Babe. Besides, I know Ella is making you something special for dinner and she's been baking all day. Not only will I be disappointed, but so will Ella."

"Promise you won't get mad if she has any accidents." He sighed.

"I promise. Why don't you just come back now with Hector. Ella said dinner would be ready at 6." It was 4:45.

"Okay. We just have to go back to get my stuff. We'll see you in a little while." They got her stuff and headed to the Rangeman building.

Hector told her he would bring all her stuff up to Ranger's apartment and she headed to the 5th floor with the puppy.

"Hey Beautiful," Lester called out to her. "Who's your friend?" He, Bobby, and Hal walked over to see the puppy.

"This is a present from a secret admirer," she told them. "She's a 10 week old German Shepherd. Isn't she beautiful?"

"Pink?" Hal asked pointing to the collar and leash.

"Girls like pink," she told him.

"What are you going to name her?" Bobby asked. She shrugged her shoulders. Bobby took the puppy.

"I only got her a couple of hours ago. I have no idea yet." She looked behind them. "Ranger in his office?" They nodded. She left the dog with them and headed into his office. He looked up from his paperwork and smiled.

"Hey, Babe." She went over, sitting on his lap, and they passionately kissed. "Where's the little mongrel?"

"She's with the boys," She kissed him again. He got up, standing her up with him. They walked out to the control room arm in arm. "She's got championship bloodlines. I still can't believe someone bought me a dog."

"She's going to be a lot of work, Babe. Puppies need a lot of attention," he told her.

"Does the word, duh, mean anything to you?" She rolled her eyes at him. The guys snickered behind him. "She's going to take up all my free time. I'm just not going to have time for anything else. Nope…no time at all…."

"Okay, I get the point," he interrupted. "The guys can help you with taking her out while you are here." She laughed.

"You mean they will be her pooper-scoopers and dog walkers?" she giggled. They guys protested with some "heys" and feigned indignation.

Chapter 12

She took the puppy back in her arms and she started to fall asleep. "She's had a big day." Ranger couldn't deny the light in her eyes. She was totally taken with this dog. It wouldn't do her any good now but the dog would provider her some protection as she got older. He led her to the elevator. "What do you think of her?"

"Anything that makes you smile like that is fine with me," he told her, kissing her.

"You're not a dog person are you?" Another loaded question, he thought. If he said yes, she probably would see he was lying. If he said no, she would insist on going back to her apartment.

"I've never had a dog as a kid and haven't had time for any since. Just not used to them." It was as honest as he could give her. They walked into his apartment. He looked at all the Pet Smart bags. "Did you buy out the store?"

"No…she needed stuff," she told him. Ella would be coming up with dinner any second now. He wanted to bring her to the bedroom for a quickie but there wasn't enough time. She pulled out a bed and put it down by the couch, placing the sleeping puppy in the bed. He pulled her to him and sat on the couch. "I still have to think up a name. I have no clue yet." She put her head on his shoulder. She loved snuggling with him. She loved just being with him.

"Any ideas about who gave you the puppy yet?" he asked. She shook her head no.

"I just hope it's not the weirdo sending me the roses and calling me Angel," He silently agreed but had a feeling that was who it was. "This past week has been so surreal. I guess you have to be careful for what you wish for."

"What did you wish for, Babe?" He was stroking her hair.

"I really can't complain about my life. It wasn't perfect, but it was never dull. Valerie was my mom's favorite. She was the pageant queen. She was perfect. She had the big huge perfect wedding. The perfect marriage. Kids. Everything. But she never looked like she had any fun." A slow smile crept across her face. "My mom said I was nothing but trouble….but I had a lot of fun getting into trouble." She giggled. "Valerie got everything handed to her. They paid for her college and I got nothing. I had to pay for college myself. My mom said that I didn't deserve it because I had run away from home a couple of times. My friends were older than me and I would go bar hopping with them all the time. We'd go clubbing in New York City. There were a lot of rumors going around about me. You see how bad the gossip is here. I was a disappointment to her. I kinda got back at her by doing whatever pissed her off even more. If my skirt was too short for her, I got an even shorter one. Just did a lot of stupid stuff." She looked into his eyes and sighed. "But I still always had a good time. After I got divorced, and then lost my job, I had nothing. My friends were either married or busy with their own lives. My life got so boring. I wished so hard to get the excitement back in my life." She laughed. "I really didn't need this much excitement." He smiled. He had problems as a teen himself. Maybe they had more in common than he thought.

"Sometimes, boring is not a bad thing, Babe." He told her softly. He kissed her gently, touching her tongue with his. It would turn him on when he felt her respond. There was a knock at the door before Ella entered with dinner.

"I'm so glad to see you again, Stephanie," she smiled. Stephanie gave her a hug when she saw the chocolate cake.

"Yea!!!" she squealed. "You make the best chocolate cake!" Ella beamed. Ranger smiled and shook his head.

"It's so nice to bake for someone who appreciates it like you do, Honey," She turned to Ranger. "He is so strict and never eats any of the cakes and cookies I made for him. And he doesn't let me make them for the men anymore."

"Oh, Ella, come see my new puppy," Stephanie took her hand and pulled her over to the couch. The puppy was curled up in the bed fast asleep. "Someone bought her for me as a surprise. I have no idea who it is either." They spent the next few minutes fawning all over the puppy. Now she was awake and Steph knew she had to go out. "I'll be right back, Ranger, I have to take her outside." She went to get the leash.

"No, honey, you eat dinner. Let me take her out. Your dinner will get cold," Ella insisted, picking up the puppy with her hand out for the leash. She wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Okay," Stephanie conceded. "Thanks." Ella left with the puppy. Steph watched her leave with the puppy looking at her over Ella's shoulder. It suddenly dawned on her that the puppy looked just like a stuffed black dog she had as a little kid. That's so weird, she thought. She saw a hand waving in front of her face. It was Ranger.

"Earth to Babe," he said pulling her towards the table. "You looked a million miles away."

"It's weird," she said as she started putting food on her plate. "She looks so much like Ivy just now. Ivy was my favorite stuffed animal I had when I was little. I took her everywhere. All the other girls had baby dolls and stuff like that. I had Ivy." She brought the fork up to her mouth but stopped. Oh my God, she thought. Morelli. Morelli bought her the dog. Fuck! She dropped the fork and it clattered on the plate almost making Ranger jump. "Shit!"

"What's wrong?"

"Oh…nothing," she took a big bite, filling her mouth with food so she wouldn't have to answer his question. This was not a good situation. She knew she shouldn't keep the puppy, but she really didn't want to give her back. Ranger would be pissed if she kept an expensive gift from Morelli. He just stared at her but she wasn't looking up. She could feel his gaze.

"Are you ignoring me on purpose?" He sounded a little annoyed. She looked up.

"No…well kinda…" She stuffed her mouth with food again. He was losing patience. "I could tell you but you're not going to like it."

"Babe…" he sighed.

"Okay…I think it was Joe Morelli who sent me the dog." She was right, he didn't like it.

"Why do you think that?" He was getting angry.

"Please don't be mad at me….it's not my fault!" Her eyes pleaded with him.

"I'm not mad at you, Babe. Why would Morelli buy you an expensive present, like a German Shepherd."

"I've known him since I'm 6. He probably remembers Ivy. I mean, he should. He stole her enough times from me and made me cry." She got up from the table. "I don't know why….well I kinda have an idea why….but I told him I'm not interested." Lester had told him about Morelli asking her out last week. She hadn't said anything to him about it. "He wants to get together but I told him I'm seeing you and I'm not interested in him. I didn't want to say anything to you because there is nothing to worry about and I didn't want you to think I was trying to make you jealous on purpose." So that's why she didn't say anything, he thought. He got up and took her into his arms. "You believe me, right?"

"Yes, I believe you," he kissed the top of her head. I'm going to have a talk with Morelli, he said to himself.

"The problem is I don't know what to do." She had tears well up in her eyes. "I know I should give her back and not take an expensive gift like that, but I don't want to give her up. I mean it's not like a piece of jewelry or something. That, I would throw back at him in a second. We've already bonded." He secretly wished she would give the dog back, but he couldn't ask her to get rid of the dog. He knew she loved the dog too much at this point and it would crush her to get rid of it. But it did give him some comfort that she didn't want anything from Morelli.

"I know that, Babe. Keep the dog," he told her. It would actually be a relief if Morelli gave her the dog and not the stranger calling her Angel.

"Are you sure you won't mind? I don't want to make you uncomfortable about this." He looked into her eyes and brushed away the few tears that had fallen.

"I see how happy the little mutt makes you and I want you to keep her." She kissed him.

"Thanks" She looked back at her food and smiled. "We'd better finish dinner so Ella doesn't think we didn't like it." Nothing much gets in between Stephanie and her food, he thought, smiling back at her.

Ranger let Stephanie sleep in while he got ready for work. He felt her get up at least 3 times the night before to take the dog out. If Ivy, this is what Steph was calling her now, had any accidents, she must have cleaned them up. He called down to the control room to have one of his men take Ivy outside. Stephanie was going to sit with Silvio again today. He would feel better once she worked for him full time. She would be in the office the majority of the time, and if she had any FTAs, he would send someone with her for backup. He woke her up after he finished breakfast.

"I've got to go now, Babe," He kissed her forehead. "Hal took Ivy out. Silvio will be ready for you at 9." She sat up in bed, yawning.

"I can't wait for her to be housebroken. I like my sleep."

"See you later, Babe." He left.

Waking up with him was becoming a habit she really was getting used to. She wondered if he was close to asking her to move in with him. That thought frightened her a little. She was not ready for that big a commitment yet. She was not ready to give up her apartment and her independence. But if they were to start living together, he did have the nicer place. And, he owned his place where she rented.

She spent the rest of the week working with Silvio. He showed her all their systems and programs. They reviewed how to do the searches and what information was needed. It was not as hard as she was worried it would be. She always had a tendency to underestimate her ability. Hard to get over all those years of being told she was stupid and useless. Silvio was a very good teacher and he treated her with respect and didn't talk down to her. He was actually impressed because some of her questions brought out scenarios or sources that they had never even thought about. She caught on very quick but he could see the doubt in herself. He patted the back of her hand, "You need to have more faith in yourself, Stephanie. You are so much smarter than you give yourself credit." He smiled and her as she blushed.

"That's probably one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said to me," she smiled back. "When you have everyone telling you how stupid you are all your life, it's hard not to believe after a while." She laughed. "I know I have my blonde moments, but I'm not incompetent. It's nice to hear something positive once in a while." He gave her a hug. Silvio was in his early 50s. Most of his family was still in Miami. He came to NJ to help Ranger get the Trenton office up and running. He hoped it would have only been a few months but turned into almost a year. His wife and children stayed behind because they didn't want to pull them out of school. He was friends with Ranger's older brother, who was running the Miami office now. He had known Ranger for a long time. He was happy to see that he found someone special. Not only was this girl so incredibly beautiful on the outside, she was more beautiful on the inside. She was genuine and honest. Plus, she was going to give Ranger a run for his money. Ranger was a control freak. Stephanie was not a person that would allow herself to be controlled by anyone. If you asked her to do something, she would do it with no questions asked. If you told her to do something, she would dig her heels in and you'd be in for a fight. He was almost sorry he was going to miss the excitement around the office when they would butt heads.

Silvio's last day would be next Friday. They were planning a party for him this weekend by taking him out to dinner then out for drinks. It was going to be a surprise. Since there wasn't much more to do, Stephanie decided to stop by the Bonds office to see if there were any FTAs. Since she did follow Ranger's advice, laid low for a while, there was no commotion or crowd waiting around the parking lot.

"Hi, girls," she said to Connie and Lula. They looked up and smiled.

"Hey White Girl," Lula replied. "Where you been? Wait, I know, you've been doing Batman and have been too worn out to come to work." Stephanie blushed. That was partly true. The other part was taking care of Ivy. Ivy trotted over to Connie who had a doggie treat for her.

"She's getting bigger already, Steph," Connie said, patting her on the head. Ivy put her paws on her lap and licked her chin. "She is so sweet."

"So what's been going on in your life this week?" Lula asked, offering her the box of doughnuts. Stephanie took a Boston Crème and sat on the couch.

"I've been working with Silvio learning my new job," She had already told them she was going to work for Rangeman full time but would work part time for Vinnie. "Ranger said he's going to talk to Vinnie about maybe handling some low bonds since he stole me."

"Damn, you are so lucky. You get to have sex with Batman, you work with all those fuckin' hot lookin' guys, and you're famous!" Lula told her. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Oh my God," she moaned. "Believe me, you can have the fame. That part has not been fun. Actually, that part has been horrible. I have some weirdo now sending me stuff to my apartment. Ranger got to see one of the deliveries but I haven't told him about the other two." She took another doughnut. "I'm afraid to tell him because he gets this caveman protective vibe that is so constricting. I think he would actually lock me away somewhere to keep me safe. I mean I appreciate that he cares that much, but let's get real here."

"What have you been getting?" Connie asked with concern.

"Oh, that's right, I hadn't had a chance to talk to you guys about it," she began. Lula plopped down on the couch next to her, taking a doughnut. "I got white roses with a card that said something like I found you Angel. Then I had white roses delivered to my apartment with a note that said we'll be together soon, Angel. That was the same day I had the maggots in my hair and when I got the puppy. Oh, by the way, I think it was Morelli that gave me the puppy." They both gasped. "I'll tell you about that in a minute. Then I got two more deliveries of white roses to my apartment. One card said you can't hide from me and the other said something like I'm almost ready for you. It's kinda spooky. Ranger knows I was freaked about it and he wants me to stay with him. So that's why I didn't tell Ranger about the other two. The truth is I am kinda scared but he'll make me stay inside the Rangeman building and won't let me out unless I have bodyguards or something. That scares me more!" Connie and Lula understood.

"I hear you but what if this guy is really dangerous?" Connie asked her. "Do you know that there have been reports of a couple of 20-something girls that are missing?" Stephanie looked at her.

"I heard a few things from the streets about that," Lula added. "There were 3 women missing. All were blonde with blue eyes." Stephanie got the chills. She put her head in her hands.

"Please don't tell me that," she groaned. "And don't tell me they got white roses delivered to them first."

"I haven't heard anything like that," Connie told her. "Maybe you should stay close to Rangeman, that way you don't have to tell Ranger anything. And you would be safe." Stephanie shrugged her shoulders. "If blonde blue-eyed 20 something year olds keep disappearing, he's going to eventually hear about it anyway."

"I'd rather it be later that he hear about it than now. Look, I'll make sure I carry my gun and pepper spray. I'll be careful. I promise. Please don't say anything to Ranger," she begged them.

"If we hear anymore stories or details about white roses, I'm going to tell him," Connie told her. "And you better make sure you carry that gun."

"So what is this about Morelli?" Lula changed the subject.

"The other night, Ella, Ranger's housekeeper, took her out for me and it hit me that she kinda looked like this little black stuffed dog I had as a kid. Her name was Ivy. Morelli knows about Ivy. He used to steal her from me all the time to make me cry. I can't think of anyone else. I told Ranger and I could tell he wasn't happy about it. I thought about giving her back, but I love her too much to do that. He told me to keep her, but I know he would have liked me to give her back. I haven't talked to Morelli yet, but I need to. I want to see if it really was him, and I guess…to say thank you." She sighed. "I'm not looking forward to that. I called the station and he wasn't there." She took her third doughnut. "It looks like it's going to be a dozen day. I think we need to get more. Do you have any skips for me?"

"No, we only have the high bond ones right now," Connie told her. "Maybe it's a good thing you took that job. It will at least be a steady paycheck for you." Stephanie agreed.

"At least I'll get to go after some FTAs every now and then. The research is kinda interesting. But, being stuck at a desk all day is going to get a little boring after a while."

"Come on," Lula told her. "Let's go get some lunch. I am starving. I'll drive so people don't start following your car around."

"If you bring me back a meatball sub, I'll watch Ivy for you," Connie told her.

"It's a deal."

Chapter 13

They headed to Pino's to get lunch. It was always good to get there just before or after the lunch crowd. Stephanie was surprised to see Morelli there with a few other policemen. He smiled at her when she walked in. He said something to the others and got up, walking towards her.

"Here it comes," Stephanie whispered to Lula.

"Hi Cup….ah, Steph," he smiled.

"Lula, order me the usual. I'll be right there," she told her. Lula nodded and walked to their table. She turned to Morelli. "I got your present." He grinned from ear to ear.

"Now, how did you know it was me?" still smiling. She smiled back.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was the million times you stole Ivy from me. I bet you still have her, too."

"I used to steal her from you because I loved the look on your face when I gave her back to you. You'd stop crying and get this big smile on your face." He looked into her eyes. "I loved that smile." She swallowed hard. He still had some affect on her….damn! Not that it would change her feelings for Ranger. She never had that intense of feelings for Morelli. But somehow, she and Morelli would always be connected. There was something to that saying that you never forget your first love after all. Maybe she could have a friendship with him after all these years. He stared at her. She was always a beautiful girl. He doesn't even remember her having an awkward stage. Maybe it was because he hadn't seen her in a few years and forgot how he could get lost in those aquamarine eyes. "So…did you like her?" She looked back at him for a second before giving him that amazing smile where her eyes would light up.

"Yes, I love her. Why did you do that?" She bit her lower lip. She always did that when she was uncomfortable. "That was a lot of money. I told you that I'm involved with someone and that there is nothing between us…anymore."

"First of all, I wasn't looking to get you a present. I was investigating a missing person. They had the puppies on the lawn next door. After getting my information, I saw her and she looked liked Ivy. I thought of you right away and that you might like her. Plus, your birthday is coming up. I have been a real shit to you in the past. We were friends once. I miss that. If you don't want a relationship with me, I'll have to deal with that, but I'd like to be your friend again." She was shocked. They did have some good times together despite that fact he would pick on her all the time. He looked out for her as well.

"I guess we could work on friends," she said finally. "But you have to understand that I am seeing Ranger." His smiled dropped a little.

"Be careful with him. There's a lot of bad information going around about him. I don't know if it's true or not. But he's mixed up in a lot of dangerous activity. I know his Rangeman business is legit…"

"I know his business is legit. I work for him now. I think there are a lot of rumors going around about him because people don't know him, are scared of him, and jealous of him. Believe me….I know what it's like to have rumors going around about you." She told him. He winced. He started some of the rumors about her when he wrote about their sexual encounter. Lula waved to her as their food was set on the table.

"Steph, I'm sorry about that. Friends…okay? Let's work on it," he begged. She sighed and nodded.

"We'll work on friends," she put her hand out.

"No hug?" he smiled slyly. He took her hand and kissed it. She smiled and started to walk over to their table. She turned back around to him. He had started to go back to his table.

"Joe?" He turned to face her. She gave him a smile. "Thanks for the puppy. I named her Ivy by the way." He returned the smile and went back to his table.

"So?" Lula demanded.

"He gave me the dog and he wants to be friends," she told her.

"And?"

"What are you Ranger all of a sudden?" she laughed referring to her one word interrogation. "We're going to work on friends. We have too much history. And, it's too exhausting to stay mad at someone." She dug into her food.

"What is Ranger gonna say? You know he ain't gonna like that," Lula told her.

"I know, but he's just going to have to get used to it. I'm sure he has women friends that I'm not going to be happy about but I'll have to get over it. Actually, I only have a few female friends. You, Connie, and Mary Lou. All my other friends are male. Ranger's just going to have to trust me. If he doesn't, then we really are in trouble." Morelli came over to their table and sat down. He had a very series look on his face.

"Have you been staying with Ranger?" he asked her.

"Sort of," she began. "Some nights I've stayed at his place, and some nights he stays with me. Not that it's anyone's business. Why?"

"We've just got another missing person report. This is the 4th in the past week. All with blonde hair and blue eyes. All young. All pretty girls. I'm worried about you." Lula's eyes got big.

"Don't worry," Stephanie told him. She pulled her gun out of her bag. "I've got a gun. I'll protect myself."

"You have a permit to carry concealed?" he asked her.

"I have a permit." She insisted.

"I mean a special permit to carry a concealed weapon. Not just a handgun permit."

"Aren't they the same thing?" she asked. He hung his head in his hands and sighed.

"No, they are not the same thing. Put that away and I'll pretend that I didn't see that."

"Tell him about the weirdo sending you the white roses!" Lula gushed out. Stephanie glared at her and kicked her under that table. Morelli looked at her.

"What weirdo? What's going on?" he demanded.

"Nothing," she glared again at Lula, then turned to Morelli. "It's nothing."

"Someone has been sending Stephanie white roses with weird messages and she's scared," Lula told him. Lula was scared for her.

"Does Ranger know about this?"

Stephanie said 'yes' while Lula said 'no' at the same time. She glared at Lula again.

"Ranger does know. He was with me when I got the 2nd bouquet. I showed him the two notes."

"But you didn't tell him about the 3rd and the 4th!" Lula added. Stephanie wanted to kill her. This was going to get out of hand and she was going to wind up being a prisoner at Rangeman.

"Okay, that's enough. I'm outta here." She stood up to leave but Morelli grabbed her arm and sat her back down.

"Steph, this is very serious. We have 4 missing women, who fit your description, and we don't have any leads as to what is going on. For all we know, you could be next. And, for your information, there was a white rose found in the first girl's apartment. That information is not public knowledge so I appreciate you keeping it quiet." Stephanie felt sick to her stomach. The color was drained from her face. She covered her face in her hands.

"I can't believe this is happening," she groaned. Her phone rang. It was Ranger.

"Hi," she tried to sound normal.

"Where are you, Babe?"

"I'm at Pino's having lunch with Lula. We're almost done."

"Meet me at your place in 30." He disconnected.

"Are you going to tell him about this?" Morelli asked her.

"There is nothing to tell. Yes, something is going on, but I am fine. I can take care of myself, thank you very much." She signaled to the waitress. "I'll get this wrapped to go. Ranger wants me to meet him. You get yours wrapped and you can eat with Connie." She turned to Morelli. "Look, thanks for the information. I promise to be careful. If you hear about anything else, please let me know." They wrapped up their food and got Connie's to go order.

"I don't have your number, Steph," Morelli told her. She wrote down her cell and home number. He put his hand on top of hers. "If you get anymore roses or notes, or feel like you are being followed or watched, I want you to call me." He handed her his card after writing his home and cell number on the back.

"Okay, I promise," she told him. "Come on, Lula."

Ranger was waiting for her when she got back to her apartment. Ivy jumped up on his leg, wagging her tail, happy to see him. She was starting to grow on him because she was so friendly and lovable. He pulled Stephanie to him and kissed her passionately. He tasted meatballs and Stephanie. His hands roamed all over. She could feel his arousal against her stomach. They began to head towards the bedroom, removing articles of clothes along the way. He laid her on the bed, kissing her neck, caressing her breasts, running his thumbs over her nipples. She moaned under his touch. She reached down stroking his hard member. He growled as he sucked on her nipple at the feel of her touch. His kissed her all the way down. Oh my God, she thought, here comes the Doomsday Orgasm. After, she thought he would have to peel her off the ceiling. He entered her, slowly rocking his hips. She matched his rhythm. He loved how she responded to him. It got him more excited. He loved being inside her. He loved how she smelled, how she tasted, how she touched him. He quickened his pace as he was getting close himself. Usually, he was quiet during sex. Maybe an occasional moan or deep growl, but he suddenly yelled out, OH GOD, as he came. She had never heard him this loud before which really turned her on. This was the most intense orgasm he ever had. "I love you," he whispered as he lay down on top of her after he was finished.

Oh my God, she thought. Did he just say he loved me? Did he just say that because he was in the throes of passion? Should she say it back to him? Was he expecting her to say it back?

"Ow!" he exclaimed, sitting up. Ivy had just bitten him on the toe. Thanks for the distraction, Ivy, she thought. She started to giggle, then to laugh harder. He looked back down at her, smiling. "It wasn't that funny, Babe." That made her laugh even harder. Tears now running down the sides of her face. Damn, she thought, she couldn't stop laughing when she got nervous.

"Sorry," she forced out through the laughter. He stared into her eyes. He just told her that he loved her and she didn't say anything. He was so in love with her. He never told anyone that he loved them before. He finally does and she laughs. Her laughter subsided back down to giggles. She looked at his face. He was waiting for her to say it back. He did mean to say it to her, she thought. Shit, he tells me he loves me and I laugh at him. She sat up, moving closer to him, placing a hand on the side of his face. "I love you, too." She gave him a gently kiss on his lips. She felt him relax and he pulled her close.

"I mean it, Babe, I love you." They lay back down in each other's arms. "I've never loved anyone like I love you." He had only known her for a couple weeks now but that didn't matter. He had gotten a call about an hour ago and had to leave for a job in a few hours. That's what he wanted to talk to her about but got carried away when she came home. She hugged him tighter.

"Ranger…" she started. He put a finger to her lips.

"Carlos. I want you to call me Carlos, Babe. That's who I really am. Ranger is my street name and what I'm known as in my business life." He tucked her hair behind her ear.

"I love you, Carlos," she told him. He gave her the 200 watt smile. He looked at his watch. She raised her eyebrows at him. They were having an incredible, intimate moment and he's looking at his watch. "Do you have somewhere you'd rather be?"

"No, Babe, it's not that," He sat up, leaning on the headboard. "I wanted to talk to you because I have to go out of town in a few hours. Government job. I wanted to tell you and spend some time with you before I had to leave." She sat up, her smile faltered a little. He felt a small stab of pain from her look.

"Oh," she said. She gave him a weak smile back. "I understand. I'm just going to miss you."

"I'm going to miss you, too. I'm going to be gone at least a week to 10 days. Maybe longer, but hopefully, it's only a week. I brought you a set of keys for the garage and for my apartment. You can stay there while I'm gone if you want. Plus, if you decided to use the gym, there are no separate locker room and showers, or if you need to change, you can use my apartment." He smiled at her. First, she didn't like exercise, so she probably wouldn't use the gym. Second, the chances of her getting some sort of crap on her if she did any apprehensions was pretty great. "Not that the men wouldn't be happy to take a shower with you, but I wouldn't be happy with you showering with my men." She smiled at the thought. "Ella will make you whatever you want and they guys will help you with Ivy."

"I appreciate that but I think I'll stay in my place. I would feel weird staying there right now without you there." She saw his face drop. "I know I will feel more comfortable there alone as time goes on. Also, it really is easier to take her out several times during the night here. The grass is closer to the door. I have to walk her down the block to find a patch of grass for her at your place."

"I can have the guys working take her out at night for you. They're up anyway. You know they like to get away from the monitors when they can." This was true.

"If I get really tired again, I will stay at your place. It's also easier to stay where all your stuff is." She had him on that one. A night here or there away from home is not big deal, but staying away from home for a while can be a pain in the ass. Especially when you had to drag your stuff back and forth. He looked at his watch again.

"I really have to go, Babe. I'll shower and change at home and I still have to pack. I'll try to call you when I can, but I may not be able to talk to you until I get back." They kissed. He hopped out of bed and got dressed. He gave her the keys and key fobs to the office and his apartment. He pulled back the sheet off her body.

"What are you doing?" He gave her his wolfish grin.

"Just getting in a last look, Babe. It's going to have to last me a while," he pulled her to him for one last kiss. He was starting to get aroused again, feeling her naked body against his. "I love you, Babe," he whispered to her.

"I love you, Carlos," she replied, looking into his eyes. He always melted looking into those pale, aquamarine eyes. They were so full of emotion. You could always tell her mood from her eyes. And hearing her call him Carlos sent chills down his spine. He was hoping this would be his last mission so he would never be away from her again. He started to walk out of the bedroom but turned back in the door way.

"If you need anything, let Tank know, I've given him orders to get you whatever you need," he told her and was gone. She was glad that she was able to hold back the tears until he left. The last thing she wanted to do was get him upset by crying because he didn't have a choice. Plus, she didn't want to say anything about her conversation with Morelli. She was afraid that he would be more worried about her than concentrating on his job and being safe himself. She didn't know if she would tell Tank or Lester about what was going on. Maybe she should stay at Ranger's apartment. There were 4 letters with white roses and now 4 women were missing. That was too creepy.

Chapter 14

She decided to stay at her place. If she got anymore flowers, she told herself she would let Tank and Morelli know what was going on. Maybe she was overreacting. She would just really be careful and pay attention to what's going on and just see what happens. Besides, they were taking Silvio out Saturday night and she was looking forward to it. He was so nice and she wanted to make sure everything went off without a hitch. Ella and Luis would be going as well as all the off duty Rangeman employees. Some were taking their girlfriends/wives and some were going stag. Lester told her that he would be her date with Ranger out of town. They really had become good friends. If Ranger wasn't in the picture, Lester would definitely be someone that she could be with. She did get the feeling at times that Lester was interested in being more than friends but he would never make a move due to his respect for Ranger. She liked him a lot and tried to avoid doing anything that would give him the wrong idea about her intentions. He was a lot of fun to be with and she was looking forward to being his "date".

Ram had overheard her making phone calls to find a puppy sitter and offered to watch her. "She can hang out in here with us. I'll take care of her for you." She knew the guys were starting to get attached to Ivy. Hell, she brought her to work every day. Ranger hadn't said anything about it. Like he would have told her no anyway. Okay, now she just had to work on her outfit. It was going to be a casual evening. She didn't want to give Lester a heart attack by wearing something she would dress up in for a distraction. Everyone else was going to be wearing casual shirts and jeans. She decided on a pair of low riding jeans, tan cowboy boots, and a chambray button front shirt. Simple, comfortable, and understated.

Lester was at her door with some pizza and beer. Ivy ran to greet him when he came in. She was getting used to everyone. "Sit," she told her and Ivy obeyed. "Yea!!!" she exclaimed jumping up and down. "She finally did it!" She gave her a Scooby Snack, her favorite treat. Lester just watched her smiling and shaking his head.

"What do I get if I obey?" he joked. She rolled her eyes at him and offered him a Scooby Snack. He just smirked and put the pizza on the coffee table, leaving 2 beers and then putting the rest in the refrigerator. She was dressed in spandex bike shorts and a NY Ranger jersey. She was going to order something and watch the game.

"To what do I owe this honor? I figured you'd have a hot date tonight or something," she told him flopping down on the couch to get some pizza. He hadn't mentioned any current girls in his life. She heard the guys talking about his playboy lifestyle. He was a very good looking man and probably didn't have any problems getting a woman into his bed.

"I came to watch the game with you. I didn't have anything better to do so I got stuck with your company," he answered, sitting down next to her and getting his own slice of pizza. She giggled.

"Thanks….I think." She took a bite of her pizza. "Besides, I would think hanging out with me two nights in a row might be too much for you to handle."

"Beautiful…." he began with a mouthful of pizza. He swallowed and followed it with beer, "I can handle you anytime or anywhere." He gave her a sly look.

"Oh God," she groaned. "We really have to work on those stupid lines, Les." He feigned looking insulted. Then his look got serious. "What?"

"I heard through the grapevine about 4 missing women in the past week," he looked directly at her, taking another bite of his pizza. She looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights, chin almost in her lap.

"Who told you about that?" She was going to kill Lula. He tossed the rest of his piece of pizza on top of the box.

"Not the person who should have, that's for sure." He looked a little pissed. "You want to fill me in on the rest, Steph?" He leaned back, putting his arm on the back of the couch. She took another bite.

"Not really," she told him with a mouth full of pizza. She turned and pretended to be interested in the game. He was only vaguely amused.

"Okay, well how 'bout this….I'm not asking anymore. Tellme what's going on," he told her in a more stern tone. She slowly turned her head to look at him, giving him the best 'don't go there' glare she could muster. "Don't give me that look, Steph." He really looked pissed. "You didn't say anything to Ranger before he left about this, did you?"

"What the fuck was I supposed to say, Les? He's leaving on a job and he needs to worry about himself right now. Why get him all worried about something that he can't do a damn thing about?" She got off the couch to get another round of beers. "He probably has enough stuff to worry about already." She was only partially right.

"Yeah, well what about us? We could be doing the worrying for him. Christ Steph, it's not like nothing is going on. You could really be in danger."

"Did Lula tell you?" She was getting mad. He shook his head.

"Morelli," he told her. Again, her jaw dropped. "He came by the office to talk to Ranger. Tank told him he was in the wind and he told us about the whole thing. You got 2 more deliveries and didn't tell Ranger. Why?" She was getting upset now. This thing was about to get out of hand. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes and she couldn't stop them. She stood there with a beer in each hand in front of him. Shit, he thought, I made her cry. He wasn't trying to make her upset. He took the beers from her and placed them on the table. He stood up and pulled her towards him, holding her gently. "Steph, I'm sorry. Please don't cry. We're not mad at you. We're really worried." He was actually surprised about what Morelli did. He figured the guy for a total asshole. He was really worried about her and went right to his competition, no matter how humiliating it may have been, to protect her.

"I don't want everyone worrying about me," she sobbed. "I cause people enough trouble. Plus, I can take care of myself. I'm not helpless, you know." This was not going the way he planned. His plan was for them to bond over pizza, hoping she would confide in him. This way, he could convince her to come back to Rangeman to stay while Ranger was out of town.

"Steph, we all care about you. Not just because Ranger would probably kill us, but it would kill all of us if anything happened to you. This isn't a regular circumstance." He hadn't realized it but he was stroking her hair and rocking her back and forth. It felt so nice having her in his arms, but he pulled back. "Let's watch the game, finish this pizza and beer, and I'll take you to Ranger's apartment." She shook her head no. He started to protest. God, she was so stubborn.

"I'm staying here. It's easier to take care of Ivy. All my stuff is here. I have a gun. I'll be fine," she sat back on the couch. "I told myself if I did get anymore white roses or notes that I was going to tell you guys and stay at Ranger's. That's the God's honest truth." He sat back down, too.

"Well, if you're staying here, then I'm staying here tonight, too," He grabbed his pizza. "No arguments, I'm staying." She gave him an exaggerated sigh.

"Fine, but you're on the couch tonight," she told him.

"That's what you think, Beautiful," he joked.

"And, you have to help me take Ivy out during the night," she added.

"Fine, now tell me about the notes and the flowers." She told him the whole story. She got the notes from a drawer in the kitchen and showed him. He understood why she was scared. He was a little scared for her. Morelli had told them about the single white rose found in the apartment of the first and third missing girls. No clues or traces of anything. The only things that linked them together were that they were all blondes (not all natural blondes like Steph), had blue eyes, and were in their mid to late twenties. As far as anyone knew, they hadn't gotten any delivery of white roses or any notes calling them Angel. So far, only Stephanie had that distinction.

The next morning, Lester made them breakfast after taking Ivy for a walk. Stephanie was happy to see that he made pancakes. She didn't even know she had the stuff in the apartment to make anything as she never cooked. If it couldn't be eaten at room temperature, heated in the microwave or boiled in a pot, it wasn't happening. Lester was a little stiff. Her couch wasn't long enough for his tall 6'3" frame. Stephanie took a bite of her breakfast and moaned.

"This is really good, Les," she smiled at him. "I didn't know you could cook." He laughed. They all got such a kick out of how much she enjoyed food. She ate all day long.

"I wouldn't call making pancakes knowing how to cook, but thanks."

"Well, that would make you more of a chef compared to me. If I would make pancakes, I would be heating up some Aunt Jahimah in the microwave. That's my kind of cooking." He watched her eat. Even with that blonde mop of hair pulled back into a ponytail off her face and no makeup, she was still beautiful. They finished breakfast and she rinsed off the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. "Look, I really appreciate the fact that you are worried about me but I don't want everyone going overboard with this. It makes me uncomfortable."

"Why?"

"Well, I don't understand why anyone would want to make such a fuss over me anyway. I'm nothing special. I constantly screw things up because I never do anything right. I cause trouble where ever I go without even trying." She plopped down on the couch and Ivy jumped into her lap and licked her face. "You should see how much trouble I cause when I really mean to do it."

"Steph," he began as he walked over and sat on the couch next to her, "why would you even think that. You are very special." She looked at him in disbelief. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. She was probably the most beautiful human being he had ever seen. She had a great personality and a smoking hot body. How could she have such low self esteem? She gave him a smile.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to start a pity party." She leaned back and put her legs up on the couch. Lester picked up her feet and scooted closer to her, laying her legs back down on his lap. "Basically, my mother has been telling me what a fuck up I've been all my life. It's hard to believe anything else." Lester grimaced.

"Wow, that really sucks," he agreed.

"My sister, Valerie, was her favorite. She and my mom had more in common. They liked getting dressed up. She started her in beauty pageants when she was about 5 or 6 years old. Valerie was perfect. I was more of a tomboy. I liked to climb trees, jump off the garage roof because I thought I could fly." He smiled at that. "Which I couldn't, just in case you were wondering." She pointed to a scar on her left shin. "I broke my leg, too. My mom was so mad at me because she had to miss one of Val's pageants because I had to go to the ER." She sighed. "At first, I didn't mean to do things to get in trouble, but eventually, I would do things just to piss her off. She would call me stupid, useless, inconsiderate, trouble, no good. You hear it enough and you start to believe it. Then, one time she told me she was sorry that she even had me. That really hurt. I ran away from home after that fight. I was gone almost 2 weeks before I got caught and was sent back home. That was the first time my Dad really stuck up for me. Things really got worse and worse. That's one of the reasons I married Dickie Orr. It was a way to get out of the house and a way to get my mother's approval. He just finished law school so he was going to have a decent job. He kissed up to my mom so she was totally impressed with him. I didn't love him. So, I did what I do best and screwed things up by marrying him anyway. He cheated on me. Of course, that was my fault too according to my mother. At least my Dad was on my side. Just when I thought I wasn't able to take anymore, he would say something like 'I'm proud of you, Pumpkin,' or 'Way to go', just any encouragement. That would really make me feel better."

Lester was taking all this in. He was really appreciating his parents right now. They had their moments but his parents were very loving and supportive. He couldn't even begin to imagine what life was like for her growing up. He ran his finger along the scar on her leg. "Damn, I don't even know what to say, Steph. That must have been rough." She smiled at him.

"Oh my God. Lester doesn't know what to say? No smart ass comment?" she joked. He took her hand in his.

"No, I am going to tell you this though," he told her. "You are a truly amazing person. You make me laugh. I enjoy being around you and being your friend. You are a very special person. And if I have to tell you that 500 times a day till you start to believe that, I will." He kissed the back of her hand. "And there isn't a guy at Rangeman that wouldn't kill to be with you….with the exception of maybe Hector." She smiled at first and then started to laugh.

"Thanks" she told him, leaning over and giving him a hug. "I can see hanging out with you guys is going to be good for my self esteem."

"The other thing you have to realize is that being a walking disaster is a real talent." He joked. "You destroyed 2 cars and a house in less than a week. That's really impressive." She threw a pillow at him.

"Okay, I think it's time for you to leave now," she laughed. "What time are we leaving tonight?"

"Silvio is old so we're starting earlier," he started. "We have reservations for 4. Do you want me to pick you up?" She shook her head.

"No, I'll come there. I have to drop off Ivy. Ram is Ivy-sitting for me tonight." He stood up to leave.

"Good, then pack a bag and stay at Ranger's tonight." He stretched. "Or, you can stay with me if you want. And I won't make you sleep on my couch." He gave her a sly smile. She rolled her eyes and groaned.

"Yeah…right! That's all I would need," She walked him to the door. "I'm sure Ranger would really love that."

"Ranger doesn't have to know about it," he joked. "It's real easy to keep a secret with all the monitored cameras in the building." She gave him a hug.

"Thanks for the pizza, and the pancakes," She gave him a light kiss on his lips which caught him off guard because she had always kissed him on the cheek. "And…for being my friend." He chose to kiss the back of her hand because if he did kiss her back, he knew his tongue would wind up in her mouth.

"Anytime, Beautiful," he messed up her hair. "See you, later."

Chapter 15

It was 11:00 when Lester left. She still had some time to relax. If the reservations at 4pm, she wanted to leave for Rangeman by 3. This would give her plenty of time to get Ivy situated. She decided she would take a little nap and start getting ready at 1 pm. She set the alarm and went to bed with Ivy curled up with her.

It felt like she had just closed her eyes and the alarm was ringing. She took Ivy out quickly and went back inside to shower and get ready. She blew out her hair straight. She tied the chambray shirt in a knot just above her waist so a small strip of skin was exposed between the bottom of the shirt and the tops of her low slung jeans. She put on a bone choker with cobalt and nickel beads that tied in the back. She kept her make-up simple; only a little heavier than what she wore normally. It was 2:45. She pulled on her cowboy boots and clipped on Ivy's leash. She wanted to take her out 1 more time before she left.

She didn't see the man in the van watching her as she waited for Ivy to do her business. As she walked into the elevator, she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Hello, Seraphina." She started to turn but felt a burning and stinging sensation on her hip.

"Ow!" she called out but he put in hand over her mouth. He was very strong. She tried to struggle but she felt herself slipping away. He carried her up to her apartment. He gave her another injection of the sedative. He wrapped her in the quilt off her bed and carried her out to his van. He left Ivy in the apartment. He placed her in the back. Using plastic ties, he bound her arms behind her back and tied her legs together just in case the sedative didn't last till he took her to his cabin. He finally had her. He killed the others for her. They were trying to deceive him by trying to look like his Seraphina. They had to be punished. Now, he knew his freedom would be close at hand. He was smiling as he drove away.

It was 3:45 and Stephanie still wasn't there. Lester walked over to the control room to see where her car was. Ranger had put in a GPS in her car that she didn't know about. This helped him to keep tabs on her. Of course it didn't work if she wasn't where her car was. "She hadn't left yet," Ram told him. Lester called her from his cell. He got her voice mail. He tried her home phone and got her answering machine.

"Why don't you go on ahead," Lester told them. "I'll swing by and check on Steph. She probably fell asleep and is still in the shower or something." Everyone but Tank and Hal agreed to head out. They knew about the missing women and were worried. They didn't want to ruin Silvio's night out if it turned out that Steph was running late. The jumped into one of the SUVs and headed over to her apartment.

Her car was still in the lot when they got there. Tank knocked on the door and Ivy started barking. They relaxed a little hearing that thinking that if the dog was there, Steph must be there too. There was no answer. Tank tried the door knob and it turned as it was not locked. The feeling of concern came back full force. They went inside and Ivy ran right over to Lester. She still had the leash attached. They all got the feeling that Stephanie was in deep trouble. They looked in the rest of the apartment and she wasn't there. There was a single white rose on the counter by the phone.

"Fuck!" Tank exclaimed. He grabbed his cell phone to call Morelli. "Call the team and get them out looking for her!" he told Lester. "Hal, you start banging on these doors and see if someone saw anything!" Hal ran to the next apartment. Lester called the control room first, then Bobby.

Morelli and 4 other officers were there about 15 minutes later. Lester told him he left at 11 and hadn't spoken to her since. Hal dragged in Mrs. Bestler. She told them she saw Stephanie take the dog out just before 3. Then about 15 minutes later he saw a tall man, dressed in black, carrying her out to his black van.

"Why didn't you call the police?" Lester was infuriated. She looked upset.

"I didn't know there was something wrong," she insisted. "There are big strong men dressed in all black constantly coming and going for Stephanie. I thought maybe she was sick and one of you were taking her to the doctor or something."

"Was she alive?" Morelli asked. Mrs. Bestler looked horrified.

"I...I…I don't know. She wasn't awake. She was wrapped in a blanket. Oh dear! Do you think she is dead?" None of them wanted to even think that way.

"There was no sign of a struggle or blood anywhere," Tank told them. Lester and Morelli were feeling guilty.

"Can you describe what the man looked like?" Morelli asked her. She nodded. He called for a sketch artist to come to the scene. "Did you see what type of van it was or see the plate number?"

"It was an older van. Like a regular van, not one of those new minivans like the soccer moms drive these days. It was Utah plates but I didn't notice the number. I remember thinking who has company here from Utah." Morelli called in the information to the State Police. Time was on their side. It was less than 2 hours from the last time she was seen, Morelli thought. If they could get out an APB quick enough, they may have a good chance of finding her.

Tank was trying to stay calm. Ranger had only been gone a couple of days. He was hoping Ranger would call to check in but he may not hear from him for at least a week to 10 days. He knew he had to do anything and everything to make sure he got Stephanie back. The investigators were looking for any clues inside her apartment, but there was nothing obviously out of place, broken or damaged. No note was left. Just the single white rose.

"So…" Tank said to Morelli, "we will be involved with looking for her. Let's not turn this into a pissing contest. It will be in Stephanie's best interest if we work together."

"You won't get any argument from me," Morelli replied. "I just want to get her back alive and in one piece." Tank could see that he was trying to hold himself together. He didn't know the whole story but knew they had a history together. "We've put out an APB for the van with the State Police. If this lady can get us a good description, we can put a face out there; maybe get a positive ID on someone."

"We're going to head back to Rangeman. I've got to brief my team and get them out on the streets. Time may be on our side," Tank told him. He nodded to Lester and Hal to come with him. He gave Morelli his cell number to call with any information. Lester grabbed the bag of Ivy's things to take back with him.

"I should have stayed with her," Lester told them as they drove back. "I should have made her come back with me." Tank looked over at him. He was really taking this hard.

"Do you really think anyone was going to make that girl do something that she didn't want to do?" Tank told him. "Even Ranger?"

"Ranger's gonna kill me," Lester said flatly. "Christ, I can't believe this is happening." Hal sat quietly listening to the 2 of them.

"Do they have a chopper out looking for the van?" he asked. Tank thought for a minute then called Morelli. "State Police have one chopper looking, but we'll have our own people out there." He made another call to a pilot they have used in the past. "I don't think Ranger will get on my case about the cost."

Tank organized their teams and got them out in the field. "Sorry to ruin your party, Silvio." Silvio just shook his head.

"We need to do everything humanly and inhumanly possible to save that girl. I'm going to do some research on the internet to see if there are any other crimes similar to this. Maybe there were suspects or clues that might help," he told Tank as he went to his desk. Luis was trying to comfort Ella.

"That poor girl," she whispered. She looked around in the kitchen and got the coffee started. "I'm going upstairs to get some food ready for everyone. I think this is going to be a long night. Plus, I need something to keep me busy."

Off duty employees and some contracted employees began to show up. Tank called Morelli but there were not updates or sightings on the van as of yet. Silvio was researching newspapers in Utah for reports of missing blonde women, white roses, and unsolved murders. There was a tension in the air. This wasn't the first time they had to mobilize for a crisis situation, but it was the first time they had an emotional attachment to the missing person. Silvio had grown very fond of her the past 2 weeks. If nothing had turned up by morning, he was going to call Ranger's brother, Raoul, to come up from Miami to help. Raoul was Ranger's older brother and was running his Miami Rangeman office.

Tank brought over a fax of the sketch that was done of Mrs. Bestler's description. "If nothing turns up by morning, I'm going to call Raoul. He'll come up here to help," Silvio told him. Tank nodded in agreement. He didn't know if Ranger had said anything to his family about Stephanie yet, but Raoul was a good investigator and would be an asset. Raoul had been a detective on the Newark Police Department. He retired after 25 years and moved to Miami. He worked for Ranger after he opened his business. When Ranger opened the Trenton office, he took over the Miami office. Ranger kept a very tight circle. He didn't trust many people.

A few hours later, Ella had brought down carved turkey and roast beef, rolls, and fixings for sandwiches. Those that had been there all day, filed in to get something to eat. She looked around for Ivy. Silvio pointed to under his desk. Stephanie had a little bed for her under the desk. She was curled up there asleep. She picked her up, taking her leash, and took her out side. She saw Lester sitting on the bench out front. He saw Ella with the puppy and jumped up to take her. "I'll take care of her for you," he told her. Ella was going to tell him that she wanted to walk her because she needed something to do, but she saw the hurt in his eyes. She put Ivy down and handed him the leash.

"Are you okay?" she asked him, putting her hand on his arm. He nodded. His face gave away that he was not okay. "You don't have the poker face that Ranger has."

"I should have stayed with her," he finally managed. "If I had stayed, she would be safe right now." They walked up the street arm and arm.

"We can all waste time blaming ourselves right now, but it's no one's fault. Stephanie is a very willful person. She's not going to do anything that she doesn't want to do. If anyone tries to force her, she will run. She is a very strong woman. We have to have faith and believe she will be okay. We have to be strong for her," she told him.

"I know." He sighed. "We've been through so many dangerous situations before. This isn't the first time one of our lives was in danger. But it's different because it's Stephanie. I don't want to see anything happen to her. None of us do."

"I know, Mio," she rubbed his back. Stephanie had another man under her spell. She was aware of Stephanie's affect on the men at Rangeman. From what she could see, she only had eyes for Ranger. She was not only worried about something happening to Stephanie, but that Ranger may never recover if he lost her. He had been so closed off for most of his life. He shut people out, mostly women. He didn't let many get inside. Somehow, Stephanie found a way in through his armor and he didn't fight it this time. It would be a cruel joke if he lost her.

Chapter 16

Stephanie felt like she was floating in darkness and that someone was trying to hold her down. Her arms hurt. She didn't know where she was or what was happening. Her head was spinning. She tried to speak but nothing would come out. Someone was talking, but she couldn't understand what was being said. She felt a sharp and burning pain again. The heavy feeling and slipping away was back and then there was blackness.

"I can't have you awake yet, Seraphina," he told her. "It's not time."

Tank had dozed off at his desk. Ella tried to quietly place a breakfast try on the desk but he bolted awake. "Sorry, I didn't want to wake you up. You haven't gotten much sleep these past couple days." He looked at the food and realized how hungry he was.

"Thanks," he said pulling the tray towards him. "Ranger wouldn't sleep. I don't know what to tell him when he calls." He gulped his coffee. "I don't know what else to do. I don't know where else to look. We've got nothing." He shoved a spoonful of eggs into his mouth. "Raoul will be here today. Hal's gone to the airport to meet him." Cal came into the office.

"We just heard on the police band that they found a body at the dump. Female. Blonde hair." He looked away. Tank and Ella's hearts sank. He jumped up and called for Bobby and Lester to follow him. He had to go see for himself. They headed out to the dump and he briefed them on the way.

Morelli was already there. He looked as bad as they did. He saw the Rangeman SUV pull up. He had just taken a look at the body. The body and the face were mutilated. He couldn't tell by looking at it if that was Stephanie. It was that bad. He was just going to call Tank but that wasn't necessary now. They jumped out of the SUV and walked under the police tape towards him. "Well?" Tank anxiously asked him.

"I can't tell," he replied. "The body is in bad shape. The eyes were cut out….." He trailed off, looking away. He looked down at his feet and it was a minute before he continued as he tried to pull himself together. "They are getting dental records for all the missing girls. They'll do DNA but that will take some time." He rubbed his eyes. "Christ, I haven't seen anything that brutal and I've seen a lot of bodies." Tank, Bobby, and Lester were horrified.

Please don't let that be Steph, Lester thought. Tank's phone rang. It was Silvio. "I think I may have found something. There were similar disappearances and murders near Salt Lake City. The guy was found not guilty due to insanity and was locked in a psychiatric facility. I have a call into the psychiatrist that worked with him. He was released 4 months ago."

"We'll be right there," Tank disconnected. "Silvio may have found a suspect. This guy was committed for similar murders but was let out 4 months ago. He's waiting for the psychiatrist to call him back." He turned to Morelli. "Do you want to sit in on this?"

"Hell yeah. I need to call the Captain. This information can help with the whole investigation."

"Bring him. We'll see you there." Tank headed back to the SUV and Bobby and Lester followed. None of them spoke. The reality of Stephanie's disappearance was hitting home. They came back to Rangeman with everyone anxiously awaiting the news.

"Body was in bad shape. They are going to have to check dental records," he told them. He motioned to Silvio to come back to his/Steph's cubicle to show him what he found. Tank could have dismissed to crowd around the cubicle, but everyone had been working so hard without a break, he felt that they deserved to hear the information.

"Okay, three years ago, there were missing women. All blonde with blue eyes. Four all together. Shane MacGregor was arrested and charged with 4 counts of first degree murder. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder and schizophrenia. He was sentenced to evaluation and treatment at the John Umstead Psychiatric Facility. He was there for 2 years. Was released because it was believed he completed his treatment and was no longer a threat to society. This article was written by the psychiatrist that worked with him. He felt MacGregor was still dangerous and was not ready to be released. He felt he still believed that he needed to find his Angel, Seraphina, to help free him from the demons that were tormenting him. The girls he killed were not his Angel. Dr Johnson went to the state board as well as the parole board but nothing helped. They released him anyway." At that time Morelli and Captain Juniak came in. They filled them in.

"Let's take this to the conference room. That will give us more room," Tank told them. Also at that time, Raoul arrived. He was a little taller than Ranger, shorter hair, good looking, but not quite as handsome. He was leaner and not as muscular. "Raoul…." Tank shook his hand. They all made their greetings and finished introductions. "Head into the conference room. Silvio get everything set up." He motioned to Raoul to follow him into his office to fill him in on everything.

"So my little brother finally let someone in his life," he began.

"And if anything happens to her, it will be the end of him. He's got it bad for Stephanie. But I can't blame him. She's a very special lady," Tank showed him a couple pictures of her. There was one picture that was taken by the security camera of her and Ranger. It was a rare picture of him smiling.

"Wow, she is beautiful," Raoul exclaimed.

"Yeah, she is. But, it's her personality that will get you hooked." Tank laughed at the memory of the meeting he brought her to when they were going after some FTAs. He related the story to Raoul. Raoul chuckled.

"Mama always told him that he was going to meet his match someday and there would be a woman who would put him in his place." He sighed. "Now, I just have to make sure he doesn't lose her." They headed into the conference room. Silvio ran through the whole background again. The sketch was very similar to MacGregor's photos.

"At least we have something more to go on," Captain Juniak said. "Can we get this information sent to the station and the State police? We can get his mug out there and a special number to call for any information. I have a feeling we are running against the clock here." Tank motioned for it to be done. Hector was on it.

"Silvio, call for you on Line 2," a voice came over the intercom. Silvio answered it and it was Dr Johnson.

"I'm going to put you on speaker phone. We have Captain Juniak of the Trenton PD as well as Detective Morelli and other Rangeman employees."

"Hello Gentleman. I understand you have reason to believe that Shane MacGregor is responsible for some missing women in your area. He is a very dangerous man. He had the state board fooled that he improved and did not believe his delusions anymore. I tried to tell them that this man ranked up there with Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, and David Burkowitz. He is criminally insane and will never be safe to be released into society. It all comes down to overcrowding and funding. There were strong influences pushing for his release. Have you found any of the bodies yet?"

"We found one this morning." The Captain replied.

"Were her eyes cut out? Was she mutilated? Was a pentagram carved into her stomach?"

"Yes," Morelli answered thickly. He was the only one in the room to have seen the body. There was a murmur in the room.

"He acts on impulse. He sees a blonde haired and blue eyed woman and will just take her. When he gets a chance to study her, and it's not his idea of his Angel, Seraphina, he will punish her and discard her. He thinks they are evil and were sent by the demons to trick him. Especially if the woman is not a natural blonde."

"What's with the name Seraphina?" Lester asked.

"He got Seraphina from the term Seraphim, which in an Angel. Give me an email address and I will send you some of his drawings. He would paint and draw while he was here. It was always a picture of her." Silvio gave him his email address. It took a minute to receive the file. He pulled up the first picture and sucked in his breath.

The painting was of a blonde woman with pale blue eyes. Blond hair was pulled back off her face in a short pony tail on top of her head, with the blonde hair cascading down around her shoulders. She was wearing white flowing gown but her shoulders were bare except the tiny straps of the gown. Huge white wings expanded in back of her. The face was a dead ringer for Stephanie.

"Holy Shit!" Lester exclaimed.

"Do any of the missing girls look like this?" Dr Johnson asked.

"Yeah, Stephanie Plum, the last one taken," Captain Juniak replied. They pulled out photos of the first 4 women who didn't remotely look like the drawing. "None of the others are even close."

"Then he actually found her. It's either an amazing coincidence or he has seen her before. Anti-social personality shows up at a young age. They have no conscience and absolutely no remorse for their actions. This makes them more dangerous if they engage in criminal behavior. Schizophrenia may not show up until adolescence. Mostly, you will see episodes start around 18-21. They may start seeing things or hearing voices. It's more of a dissociative problem. They have problems with reality. He may have seen her just in passing one time. This is a very beautiful girl that he had drawn. I don't think I would forget her anytime soon if I ever met her. I hate to tell you this but the other girls are dead and you will be finding their bodies soon. He usually kills them within 8 hours of kidnapping them. He does not rape them but will vaginally penetrate them with a knife. It is punishment for their deception. The last girl, Stephanie, may still have some time. This is new territory for me as he had never found his Seraphina before so I'm just going to tell you what his plans are for her and give you my speculation."

"Dr Johnson, anything you can give up would be a help," Raoul told him.

"Part of his symptoms are visual and auditory hallucinations. He does see things but mostly hears voices. He believes the voices are demons. They are going to steal his soul and banish him to hell. The only way to save him is to find the Angel, Seraphina. The only way that Seraphina can save him is for him to burn her alive on the Celtic holiday of samhain(sah-win). Samhain is actually on November 1st. It is the Wiccan New Year. It's a harvest festival. He takes his delusions from some of the myths about the full moon, Halloween, human sacrifices. He believes he must burn her alive on the full moon. To him, that is samhain." There was a pause. "Last Saturday was the New Moon and the full moon is in 12 days on Oct 12."

"That's Steph's birthday," Morelli added glumly. That added the icing on the cake. He got up and left the room. He was trying hard not to lose it. He hadn't slept much in the last few days. He hadn't eaten much. He told Stephanie's parents what happened on Sunday. That was hard. She was someone that he would really like to get involved with again, and not just as friends. Looking at that body today, not knowing if it was Stephanie, put him close to the breaking point. He went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. Lester walked in and leaned against the other sink.

"You doing alright?" He thought the guy was an asshole, but it was obvious he cared about Stephanie. Morelli looked awful.

"I'm dealing. That's about it. I told Steph's parents yesterday. They're not doing too good." He dried off his face. "Seeing that body today wasn't too good either. I hope that wasn't Steph. I don't want to remember her that way."

"Don't give up on Steph yet. From what that guy says, we may still have some time." Lester was trying to reassure himself as well as Morelli. He patted him on the arm.

"Thanks," he replied giving him a weak smile. "I need to get some sleep. Hopefully, I'll wake up and this will have just been a bad dream." They walked back into the conference room.

"Captain, have the ME check for Ketamine. He used Ketamine to drug them. He mixes it with Versed too, but he always uses Ketamine. It's used as either human and animal tranquilizers or anesthetic. Ketamine can be given intravenously, intramuscularly, and orally. He would come up from behind them and inject it into their hip or thigh. It's pretty fast acting and will effectively knock them out. Since it is used in veterinary medicine, it is much easier to get a hold of. If he is trying to keep Stephanie around for a couple weeks, he probably will keep her drugged. He uses the Versed to keep them sedated longer and decrease the hallucinogen affect of the Ketamine down. Also, he talked about a cabin in the woods or mountains. If he is going to burn her tied to a stake, he'll have to be in a secluded area. A cabin in the woods with a lot of trees for privacy." Dr Johnson informed them.

"Dr Johnson, would you be willing to come out here to help with this investigation?" Raoul asked. "Rangeman would fly you out here and pay for your expenses and your time. We really need to find Stephanie. You may make the difference in saving her life."

"I think I can make some time for this. I have a conference in the morning but would be able to come after that."

"Excellent, I'll have the arrangements made and contact you." He picked up the phone to speak directly to him. Dr Johnson gave him all his contact numbers and Raoul gave him his personal numbers as well.

"I appreciate you help with this case. I want to nail this sick motherfucker. Off the record, I'm not pushing to take him in alive if you know what I mean," Captain Juniak told Tank. "You can pass that along to Manoso." Tank shook his hand. "Let us know if you find anything new and we'll keep you in the loop as well." Morelli nodded to them and left with the Captain.

Tank sat back down at the conference table. "This keeps getting fucking worse and worse." He grabbed a bottled water and took a drink. "There have only been a few times in my whole life and Army career where I was scared. I hate to even say this but I'm scared for Bomber." He was reading the file on Shane MacGregor. "This guy is 6'3". He's strong. He could easily overpower her. If he's got her drugged, there's nothing she can do. We can only hope that we've still got 12 days to find her."

"The Poconos aren't that far. If there was an APB out for the van, it would have been spotted by now if he was going farther than that. I think we should contact the Sheriffs' Departments for the counties involved." Raoul told them. "Find out about abandon cabins and show this motherfucker's picture around. Someone may have seen him."

Chapter 17

Stephanie opened her eyes and found herself in an unfamiliar room. She was lying on a cot. Her arms were sore but she could move them. It was a small room with 2 doors. One was a bathroom. There was one window. It had bars on the outside. The window was one big pane of glass. Even if she broke it, she couldn't get past the bars. She had no idea how she got there, where she was, or what day it was. She had bruises around her wrists. She still had on her clothes but she was barefoot. She slowly sat up. There was only the cot in the room. She tried to get up but sat back down hard on the cot. She was so dizzy. She tried again and was able to stagger to the bathroom. If felt like she hadn't peed in days. She was thirsty. She drank from the bathroom faucet. There was a toothbrush and toothpaste on the counter. Her mouth felt like the floor of a taxi cab so she eagerly brushed her teeth. It made her feel a little more human. There was a small octagon shaped window high above the toilet. She staggered back into the room. She tried the door but it was locked. She tried to throw herself against door to open it, but it didn't budge. What was going on? Did this have something to do with the person calling her Angel? She was nauseated. She didn't know that it had been 5 days since she was taken. She had vague memories of being placed in this room, someone speaking to her at times, but everything was just fuzzy. She went back to the bathroom to get another drink. There was no mirror in the bathroom so she didn't know what she looked like. Are they going to be able to find her, she thought. She started to sob but not many tears came out as she was so dehydrated. She thought about Ivy and hoped she was okay. She wondered if anyone was coming back. She might be able to fit through that small window in the bathroom to get out. She decided to wait and see if he comes back. Maybe she can get some information about where she is first. Maybe she can knock him down and get away. She had to be smart about this because she may only have one chance to get away. She looked around the room to see if there was anything she can use as a weapon. There was nothing. The room was clean except for the cot. She looked out the window. She only saw trees. It looked like the Poconos. They used to vacation there when she was little. She tried to think about what Ranger and the guys would do.

She sat on the cot and waited. The sun began to set. There was only a light in the bathroom so she turned in on. She had no watch and there was no clock in the room. It seemed like hours had passed. She heard the sound of a vehicle approach. The door opened and then closed. Someone was here. Her heartbeat quickened. He heard someone walking towards the door, keys jingling, then the door opened. A tall and handsome man walked in. He was about Lester's height, black hair, blue-gray eyes. He was average build. He smiled when he saw her. "So you are awake now, Seraphina. Good." He had a bowl in his hand.

"Who are you? I'm not Seraphina. My name is Stephanie. Where am I?" He put up a hand to silence her.

"My name is Shane, Seraphina. You are going to help me get free from the demons. They want my soul and only you can save me. I have searched a long time for you, Angel. There were many false Angels the demons sent to me. I punished them. It is not our time yet. You need to eat now. No more questions." He put the bowl on the cot. It was a Styrofoam bowl of oatmeal and a plastic spoon. Shit, she thought, Ranger food. But she was starting to get a little hungry as her stomach settled down so she ate it anyway. He left and locked the door behind him again. She saw that the sun was setting behind the house. The front of the house pointed east. If she was in the Poconos like she thought, she would need to head that way. She would wait till she heard him leave again and try to get out through the bathroom window. She would have to take her chances in her bare feet. This guy was totally crazy and she had to do whatever to get away. She hoped he would leave in the morning again. A short while later, she felt a dizziness. The room was spinning and she started to feel that slipping away sensation again. Shit, he drugged me again. It was in the food. Blackness enveloped her again.

Tank got a call from Ranger on Wednesday. He filled him in on what was going on. Ranger was silent.

"Ranger? Are you still there?"

"Yeah."

"Man, I'm sorry. We've been doing everything we can think of. We got the doctor that was treating him here. Raoul came up to help. Silvio stayed. They found another body a little while ago. Morelli is checking it out. The ME confirmed the first body. It wasn't Stephanie. They had to use DNA and dental records. When will you be back?" Ranger closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

"We're finishing up briefings tonight. Get me on the first flight outta here. We should be done by 7pm. If we aren't, I'm still outta here. Call me back with the details." He disconnected. He knew he should have told Tank he was doing a good job, but he needed a minute to process this. "Babe," he whispered. He left thinking the only problem he had was just finishing out his government contract. He would never have expected something like this in a million years. He did have some fears that his relationship with Stephanie may put her at risk because it would make her a target. If someone was trying to get at him, they would go after her. And she had been missing for 5 days without a trace. He called Tank back. "Keep up the good work, Buddy. You did everything that I would have done. This is just….hard."

"I know," Tank told him. He understood. They've had days to adjust to this. He just got hit up with this and she was his lover. He knew this would be hard for him. "Hold on, Raoul wants to talk to you." He handed his phone over to him.

"Hey Carlos," he started. He knew he was hurting. He saw how everyone else was reacting to Stephanie's kidnapping. She seemed to have every one of those men wrapped around her finger. "We're going to find her, Kiddo. We still have time. From what I have learned from everyone here is that she's tough and smart. Have faith, Carlos." Ranger managed a weak smile. He appreciated his brother trying to make him feel better. He was glad he was there.

"I can't lose her, Raoul. She's everything to me. I love her." It was the first time he told anyone that other than Stephanie.

"I know, Carlos. We'll get her back."

Ranger landed in Newark at 2am on Thursday morning. Tank and Raoul met him at the airport. The brothers embraced. Ranger looked at him expectantly. Raoul shook his head. "Nothing yet, but the 2nd body wasn't Stephanie either." He shook Tank's hand and Tank pulled him into a bear hug. It was awkward, but he was Ranger's best friend. The gesture surprised them both.

"Any other information?" he sighed. They walked out to the parking lot.

"Nothing," Tank told him. "We're contacting the Sheriff's Departments for the counties in the Poconos. Dr Johnson thinks he may have taken her there to a secluded cabin or something. He thinks this guy is waiting for the full moon. He's going to burn her alive because he thinks it's the only way to get rid of the demons. This guy is a fucking nut job. I mean, really certifiable." He looked at his friend. He was tired, having bags and dark circles under his eyes. They all looked exhausted. He knew he wouldn't sleep until he found her. He may doze off after fighting it, but wouldn't intentionally try to get any rest.

Ranger met with Dr Johnson in the morning in his office. "Dr Johnson, do you think…would he…" He was trying to ask if he thought MacGregor would torture, abuse, or worse, rape Stephanie. He sensed where he was going with this.

"He has never actually raped any of his victims. He would vaginally stab some of the women he discarded. Make no mistake, he intends to kill her. But he never gave any indication that he would do anything to Seraphina before it was time for her to die for him. He would stare for hours at her pictures. In his own way, he loves her and does not want her to die. But he will kill her because he believes it's what he has to do. I believe he will keep her drugged or locked away until it's time. I think he will limit his interaction with her. This won't help her because from what your men tell me, she's smart and may have enough affect on him to talk him out of it or at least confuse him. This is uncharted territory for him as well. I was shocked when I saw Stephanie's picture," He took a sip of his coffee. "I think it's too much of a coincidence that he just drew something he made up. I think he has seen her before. Where? I don't know. He was originally from New York City. That's not far. He may have seen her and never forgot her. Then she became part of his delusion." Ranger took this all in. Hal knocked on the open door frame. Both men looked at him.

"Sorry, Boss," he began, clearing his throat. "They found another body this morning in a dumpster behind the Bonds office. Blonde female." Ranger stiffened at hearing this. He rubbed his face with his hands.

"I'm going to check this out, Doc," he said, standing up. "Do you want to come?" Dr Johnson nodded. Raoul, Tank, and Hal came with them.

Lula and Connie were in the office holding each other. Lula went to throw out a bag of doughnut boxes and she saw the body. She saw a naked and bloody body with blonde hair and all she could think about was that it was Stephanie. Lula saw Tank and ran up to him, holding on to him for dear life. "I hope that's not her!" she cried. "That body is all fucked up. That can't be Steph." Tank just held her as she cried. This made Connie cry harder. Ranger walked to the back. The area was police taped off but he walked right under it. The police, taking one look at his face, didn't stop him. He looked in the dumpster. He was sickened by the mutilated body. There was a tattoo of a rose on her right hip. He breathed a sigh of relief. Stephanie didn't have any tattoos. He was actually glad that he decided to have a look for himself. He wasn't going to come here just in case it was her. He didn't know if he'd be able to handle actually seeing her like that. He walked back into the office.

"That's not Steph," he told them. They all looked at him.

"How can you be sure?" Lula asked him through hiccups and sniffles. He knew every inch of her. Not only could he tell be looking at the body, but it was confirmed by the tattoo.

"Stephanie doesn't have any tattoos. That girl does." He told them. Maybe compromising some of Stephanie's privacy and giving them too much information, but he felt it was necessary in this situation.

"Oh thank God," Connie breathed. She hugged Ranger. Ranger was taken back a little, but gave her a quick hug back and broke it off. Connie realized what she did and got herself together. She turned at looked outside. Morelli was pulling up. Ranger wasn't that thrilled with his involvement, but was told how helpful he had been. Ranger noticed that he looked as bad as he did.

He nodded to Ranger when he came in. "It's not her." Morelli's body relaxed.

"Thank God," he muttered. He pulled out his cell phone. "I've got to call her parents and let them know. This is all over the news." Ranger wanted to smack himself in the head. He wasn't even thinking about her parents. He should be the one talking with them. He had no idea what they were thinking about him right now. Granted, he wasn't crazy about her mother and grandmother, but he did like her father Frank. He decided he would go see them later. It looked like it was going to rain.

Chapter 18

Stephanie came out of her fog. She was lying on the cot in the small room again. She sat up slowly. It was overcast and lightly raining. She waited for more of the haze to pass before getting up to go to the bathroom again. She brushed her teeth again and drank water out of the faucet. She didn't know if he was in the house or anywhere near. She tried to look out the window but couldn't see anything but trees. She listened at the door, but there were no sounds at all. She decided she was going to try to get out through the bathroom window. This may be her only chance. She had the feeling that he was going to kill her anyway so she didn't want to go down without a fight. It was a small, octagon shaped window. There was no way to open it. There was nothing to smash the glass with so she would have to use her hands. Okay, count to three, Steph, she told herself. One, two, three! She smashed her fists against the glass, breaking it on the first try. It was older, single pane glass. She cut her hands and got a large piece of glass stuck in the fleshy part of the side of her right hand. At first there was just a stinging sensation as blood ran down her arms, then it began to throb. There still was no sound in the house. She pulled what glass she could out of the frame. She pulled herself up and through the window, ignoring the pain. She cut her right hip on a remaining shard of glass, tearing her jeans. It was working. She was able to fit through the window. She dropped head first to the ground. It took her a minute or two to collect herself before getting up. She walked slowly around to the front of the house. There were no cars or any signs that anyone was there. She decided to walk in the woods, keeping the driveway in site. She didn't have shoes and the ground was pretty rough on her feet. It was chilly, damp, and lightly raining. Every so often, she would stop and listen for sounds of cars or neighbors. Blood was slowly oozing from the site where the glass was stuck. She pulled it out, sucking in her breath and whimpering. Shit, that hurts. She held her shirt tail against the wound and applied pressure as she walked. She had no idea that it was Thursday. She didn't know that Ranger, Morelli, and all of Rangeman were looking for her. She came to a paved road. She decided to go to the right, which she believed was south. Again, she stayed off the road to try to hide. Her feet were getting numb due to the damp cold ground. It was a welcome feeling because they were starting to hurt. She was tired and thirsty. About a mile down the road, she heard to sound of a car, maybe more, approaching. There was a silver sedan coming towards her. She could see an older couple in the front seats. Thank God. She walked out into the road waving her arms. She didn't notice the black van coming up behind them. She ran over to the car. "Please help me. I've been kidnapped. Please call the police!" Before she could tell the frightened couple her name, Shane came up behind her and grabbed her. "There you are my love," he said. "You know you shouldn't be outside." He turned to the couple. "This is my wife and she has a drug problem. I brought her here to get off drugs and she ran away. I'll take care of her now. No need to worry." She tried to fight him as he dragged her back to the van. She felt a sharp pain in her hip again and the blackness returned. He walked back over to the stunned couple. "I'm sorry for frightening you. My wife has had a problem with drugs for a while. Her family and I have taken drastic measures and brought her up here to detox and get her away from her dealer friend. She snuck out and I have been looking for her." The woman asked him, "Are you sure she is alright? She was bleeding." He smiled. "I am a doctor and will take care of her wounds. I'm sure she cut her hand on the window that she broke. That's what happens when you are high on drugs. Thank you for your concern." He went back to the van. He drove back to the cabin and carried her inside. He injected her with Versed to keep her sedated then went to gather something to board up the bathroom window. After taking care of that, he left a tee shirt, shorts, and pair of underwear with towels and soap in the bathroom. He would let her clean up once she woke up again.

Stephanie didn't know how long she was out but woke up with throbbing pain in her hands. Her feet felt like raw hamburger. She remembered that she tried to get away but he caught her. There was a light coming from the bathroom. Sitting up, she noticed the items he had left for her. She went into the bathroom to see the window boarded up from the outside. She was nervous about getting undressed to take a shower. She would feel so vulnerable naked. But a shower was so what she needed. She washed very quickly, dried herself and put on the clean, dry clothes. It did make her feel a little better. She sat back down on the cot, just waiting to see what happened next. Not much time passed before Shane came back. He was carrying a sledgehammer and another bowl which she assumed had that crappy oatmeal again. "What is that for?" she asked pointing to the sledgehammer. "I can't have you get away from me again, Seraphina." In 2 steps he was in front of her with the sledgehammer overhead. He brought it down on her right leg, just below the knee. She screamed in pain. "Now you won't be able to run." He dropped the bowl on the cot and left the room. She continued to scream. The pain was beyond imaginable. Blood oozed from the knee. She had felt her bones crack. Her mind was blank and she couldn't think. She was hoping she would pass out from the pain, but it was so bad it wasn't going to let her. She didn't remember how long she screamed. The pain was overwhelming. She saw the bowl of oatmeal and started to eat it. She prayed he loaded it with drugs. She prayed for the blackness. Her feelings were correct. After a while the blackness overtook her.

Rangeman had contacted several county Sheriff's Departments in the Pocono Mountains and emailed them photos of the last 2 missing girls, Stephanie, and Shane MacGregor. So far, none had anything to report. That is, until the 4th body was found behind a grocery store. Friday, Sheriff Mason of Monroe County called to report this to Raoul. The body was found in Mountainhome, Pennsylvania in the same condition as the others. Raoul thanked him for the information and asked him to call as soon as they found anything else. "Carlos, let's pack up and head to Mountainhome. They found a body there that fits the MO of the others. Sheriff Mason's going to call me as soon as he hears anything else." Ranger jumped up and ran up to the 7th floor to gather a few things. Tank, Bobby, Lester, Hal, and Ram also got ready to go.

"We should let Morelli know," Tank told Ranger. Ranger's face was grim, but nodded. He had gone to see Stephanie's family yesterday. He promised Frank he would do everything to bring her home safe. It was hard to hear her mother going on about it probably being Stephanie's fault. He wanted to punch her in the face. She was upset and scared for Stephanie but almost equally worried about how this was going to look to the neighbors and what people were going to say and think. He was surprised when Frank looked at her and told her to shut the fuck up. She did.

They loaded up 2 SUVs, Ranger, Raoul, Tank, and Dr Johnson in one and Bobby, Lester, Hal and Ram in the other. It would be about an hour and a half drive from Trenton. They got on 206 and headed north. Ranger, as usual, drove in silence. Tank and Raoul were used to this and liked the silence as well. "He is probably aware everyone is looking for them by now. That's why the last body was dumped closer to where he is. He still may think he is safe where they are." Dr Johnson broke the silence. Ranger nodded. The Doctor understood they needed the quiet to plan.

The finding of the body was all over the news. Emma turned to her husband, "Do you think that was the blonde girl we saw down the road the other yesterday?" He shrugged his shoulders.

"I think we should pay a visit to Sheriff Mason," he replied grabbing his coat. They went to the Sheriff's office.

Raoul's phone rang. It was Sheriff Mason. "We're about 30 minutes away."

"I have a couple here who believed they saw Ms Plum yesterday. She flagged down their car asking for help. But a man saying he was her husband grabbed her and put her in a black van. He told them that she had a drug problem and he was trying to detox her. They said she looked like 10 miles of rough road. She was bloody and dirty. He said she cut herself when she smashed through a glass window. They said they would stay till you got here. Then they would show us were they found her. The body we found had been dead a while."

"Understood," Raoul hung up. "Let's pick up the pace a bit, Little Brother. Mason said they had a couple that saw Stephanie yesterday. She flagged down a car but a man that matches MacGregor's description caught up with her. He told them she was strung out on drugs and that she smashed through a window. They said she was a little bloody." Ranger grimaced at that, but let out a heavy sigh. She was alive. It was more than he could hope for. Hang on Babe, he thought, I'm coming. He stepped down on the gas and the SUV sped forward.

"What the hell?" Bobby exclaimed as the other SUV sped ahead. Lester's phone rang.

"Someone saw Steph yesterday," Tank told them.

"No shit?" Lester called out smiling. "Someone saw Steph yesterday!" he told the others. Tank could hear cheers and he smiled himself.

"We don't have her yet, but the people that saw her are going to show us where."

"Thank Christ!" Lester breathed. "I'm gonna call the control room and let them know."

"I'm going to call Morelli and given him an update," Tank said to Ranger. Ranger nodded.

"Tell him not to say anything to her parents yet. Let's just get there and check things out." Tank agreed and called Morelli.

"Oh thank Godfor something," Morelli whispered.

"It was obvious the body that they found was dead a while so it's not Steph. Let's wait to tell her parents until we know more," Tank told him.

"Agreed. Call me as soon as you know something….please," Morelli disconnected.

Chapter 19

It was about noon when they reached the Sheriff's office. Introductions were made. Mr. and Mrs. Alston confirmed that it was Stephanie that they saw by looking at photos Ranger had brought with him. They also confirmed that is was MacGregor that took her away.

"She did look like she was drunk or something. She had no shoes on. No jacket. She was soaking wet because of the rain and she had blood all over her arms and hands and on the front of her shirt and jeans." Mrs. Alston told them. "We believed him when he told us about her drug problem. I mean what person that wasn't on drugs would smash through a window? That poor girl! We would have come forward yesterday if we thought she really was in trouble. He said he was a doctor and would take care of her. We just believed him." She was very upset.

"He is a very good manipulator. He could look you in the eyes, stab you while you watched, and convince you that he didn't do it," Dr Johnson told them. "He convinced the State Board that he was fine and they believed him, too."

"Can you show us where you saw her now?" Ranger asked. He wanted to get out there and comb the area. He felt he was very close to finding her and didn't want to waste a second.

"Follow us," Mr. Alston told them. "We live out that way and know the area pretty well." The Alston's led the way, followed by two Sheriff's cars, and then the 2 Rangeman SUVs. After about 15 minutes on a quiet and wooded mountain road, the Alstons pulled over. "It was right about here that she flagged us down. We live another 4 miles down the road. About 1 mile is a vacation cabin, and another mile and a half are the Smiths. I don't know if anyone is staying at the vacation cabin. It gets rented out all the time so we don't have the same people there all the time."

"Which direction did she seem to come from?" Raoul asked.

"I think she was coming towards us, but she walked out of the woods on the right. The vacation cabin is up in the left."

"Do you smell smoke?" Lester asked everyone.

"Many people use their fireplaces and wood burning stoves around this time of year so that smell isn't uncommon. Or they are burning leaves or something." Sheriff Mason explained.

"Let's take a look at the cabin first," Ranger told them.

MacGregor heard they found the body on the radio. He was worried that they might find them now. That old couple saw them and might say something. Maybe he should take care of the old couple so they couldn't ruin it for him. Seraphina wasn't going anywhere now. He wondered if he burned the cabin down with Seraphina in it now, if that would save him from the demons. He felt a sense of urgency and that they wouldn't make it to samhain. He poured gas around the other rooms of the cabin and set it on fire. He left the house and walked into the woods. He knew he couldn't take the van. He had another car stashed at another cabin not too far from here.

Stephanie slowly came to. The pain in her leg was down to a toothache like throb when she was still. It was like lightning bolts of pain when she moved. She had to use the bathroom again. She couldn't put any pressure on her right leg. She hopped to the bathroom. After she peed, she began to brush her teeth. It was then she smelled smoke. She looked at the door and saw smoke coming under it. She hopped over to the door, checking it for heat. She jerked her hand back as the door was hot. Shit, he lit the house on fire. The small window was boarded up and with this leg, she would never be able to get out that way. The only other window has bars. Oh my God, I'm going to die. He had taken the towels so she couldn't wet them and put them by the door to slow the room from filling with smoke. The room was getting warmer. She was going to have to break the glass so she could breathe. She sat on the cot and sobbed. She was never going to see Carlos again. She finally found someone who she really wanted to spend the rest of her life with, never felt that intense love for, and now it was over. She thought back to the last time they were together. She got the sense that Carlos wanted a special goodbye in case something happened to him and he never saw her again. She never dreamed it could be the other way around. She wondered if he even knew what happened to her yet. She didn't know what day it was or how long she was gone. She had only been awake a couple of times. At least she got to tell him that she loved him. And she got to hear that he loved her, too.

It was getting harder to breathe. She decided that she needed to break the glass. She was going to cut herself again but there was no choice. Here I go again, one, two, three! She smashed through the single pain glass.

As they drove up the long and winding drive way, the smell of smoke got stronger. There was a smoky haze filling the woods that lined the driveway. Once they drove into the clearing and could see the cabin, it was obvious it was burning. The pulled as close as they could, jumping out and running to the cabin. The front of the cabin was fully engulfed and there was no way to enter due to the flames. They heard the sound of breaking glass from the back of the cabin. Ranger ran around back and the others followed.

After smashing the glass, she collapsed to the floor. She sat under the window gasping for breath. Blood poured from new cuts and oozed from old ones. She felt herself slipping away as she heard someone call her name.

"Stephanie!" Ranger yelled through the bars. He put one foot against the wall and tugged. Tank and Ram grabbed the bars and with all three of them with their combined weight of more 700 lbs, tore the bars off the side of the cabin. Ranger jumped through the window and hugged her tightly to him.

"Carlos?" she managed in a weak and shaky voice. She looked at him, dazed and not sure if she wasn't imagining him. She put a bloody hand to the side of his face.

"Yeah, Babe," He kissed her. "It's me. I've got you. You're safe, Babe." He picked her up and she sucked in her breath.

"Ow!" she cried out in pain. He passed her through the window to Tank. Tank took her around front while Ram helped Ranger back through the window. Bobby ran back to the SUV to get blankets and his medic bag. Ranger caught up with them, taking her back into his arms. He pulled back to look her over. She was bleeding from her hands. Bobby laid out a blanket to put her on, and other he wrapped around her.

"Babe, do you know where he is?" She shook her head. "Where else are you hurt?"

She pointed to her right knee. They looked down. "Christ! What happened?"

Her voice was still shaky and she was still choking from smoke. "He h-hit me with a s-s-sledgehammer so I couldn't g-get away a-again." Her voice was barely a whisper. She was trying to hold back the tears. Ranger held her close again.

"Fuck! That must have really hurt," Lester exclaimed. Ranger, Stephanie, and the others just looked at him.

"Ya t-think?" Stephanie told him sarcastically. Ranger gave her a smile. That's his Babe. Lester looked sheepish.

"Sorry…" he stammered. " I just meant…well…shit."

"Steph, how did you get all these cuts?" Bobby asked while he was trying clean and dress the wounds.

"W-what day is it?" she asked. They just started at her.

"It's Friday, Oct 4th, Babe," Ranger told her quietly. Her eyes opened wide. He watched her as she took in this information. She continued to cough in an attempt to clear out the irritation from the smoke. It was several more minutes before she answered.

"I've been gone a week? Is Ivy okay?" He nodded. "I don't know what day, but I broke the glass window in the bathroom and got out that way. I think I got to the road. It's kinda fuzzy. He kept drugging me so I don't know if something actually happened or not. He smashed my leg so I couldn't get away again. I just smashed out the window so I could breathe. I think I still have some glass stuck in there…."

"We have to take you to the ER, Steph. You're going to need these cleaned out, get all the glass out, and stitched up. That leg is pretty bad, too. I can feel that you have a tib/fib fracture."

"And I cut my hip on glass when I squeezed out the window, too," she told him. She nodded towards her right hip. Bobby pulled down her shorts on that side just enough to examine that wound. He cleaned and dressed it. Next, he braced and stabilized the right leg.

"Let's get her to a hospital. She's going to need attention to the wounds as well as IV antibiotics and IV fluids. She's very dehydrated." He told Ranger. "When was the last time you had something to eat or drink, Steph?"

"Uhhmm? Maybe yesterday...I think. I drank water out the bathroom faucet. He gave me oatmeal I think twice. He put drugs in my food." Ranger gently lifted her and carried her to one of the SUVs.

"The closest hospital is in East Stroudsburg. We only have an urgent care. If we have a real emergency, they send a medivac chopper," Sheriff Mason told them. I'll follow you to the ER. I'll need to get her statement," Sheriff Mason told them. Ranger climbed in the back seat and settled her on his lap.

"I'll never let you go ever again, Babe," he whispered in her ear. Then he gently kissed her forehead.

"I love you, Carlos," she whispered back. She was so tired. She felt safe and content in his strong arms. She drifted off to sleep on the way to the ER.

"Tank, call Morelli. I'm going to call her father," Ranger said. He dialed Frank Plum and told him the good news. "She's asleep right now, but I'll have her call you in a little while. She's got some injuries that need to be looked at so we're taking her to the hospital right now. Nothing serious. She got a few cuts from glass and injured her leg. Okay, Sir. We'll call you soon." Now he could just hold her in peace for a few minutes till they got to the hospital. Raoul watched his brother with Stephanie. He chuckled to himself. Their mother was right. He met his match.

Chapter 20

The ride to the hospital was about 30 minutes. Ranger had dozed off himself. He hadn't slept at all in the last few days. Once she was taken care of, he would take a short nap. There was still the problem that MacGregor was out there. Once there, Ranger carried her inside. Coming at a slow time, they were taken back right away. Ranger, Raoul, and Bobby went back with her while the other sat in the waiting room. Sheriff Mason decided to sit with the others and let her get treated first.

"That is one lucky girl," he told them. "Not only to come out of this alive, but you have you men looking after her."

"She's one of us," Tank replied. "She works with us as well as being the boss's girlfriend."

"Do you think he's going to keep coming after her?" Lester asked the Doctor.

"If he finds out she is still alive, I would bet on it. His delusions are not going to change, and he will continue to hear the voices. It is all part of his illness. Maybe you should put out a report that they found a body in the cabin. If he thinks she's dead, maybe he'll leave her alone," Dr Johnson told them.

"Now that sounds like a good idea to me. Steph's been through enough," Lester agreed.

The ER doctor examined Stephanie. He had the nurse start an IV and ordered labs, fluids, IV pain medication, IV antibiotics, and x-rays. "I'm putting in for a consults for plastic and orthopedic surgeons. They will probably see you after the x-rays. The nurse will get you something for your pain, Miss Plum."

"Okay," she responded. "Can I have something to drink? I am so thirsty." She looked hopeful.

"You can only have some ice chips," he told her. "I'm pretty sure you going to have to go to the OR so you really can't have anything else." She tried to sit up.

"OR!?! Why?" Ranger put his arm around her.

"Your wounds will need to be cleaned out thoroughly. Because there are so many, and there may be glass deep inside, it would be best to do that under general anesthesia. You also may have to have the leg set as well. We'll know more about that after the x-rays and the orthopedist sees you. I'll have someone bring you ice chips." He turned to Ranger. "Just don't let her go crazy with them." He nodded.

"I don't want to go to the OR," she cried. Ranger leaned over and held her.

"Sssshhh, Babe, it's going to be okay." The nurse came in with the ice chips. Ranger gave her one. The nurse started the IV fluids and gave her some Demerol.

"This is going to make you feel a little better, Honey," the older nurse told her. She heard the story. Poor thing she thought. She was well protected by these big, muscle bound men who were all dressed in black. She had her own private body guards. "My name is Kay. I'll be back in a few minutes to check on you. Just give me a yell if you need anything before I come back."

"M'kay," Stephanie told her. It wasn't long before she drifted off to sleep. About 20 minutes later, a tech came to take her for her x-rays.

"You can wait in the waiting room," he told them. "We'll let you know when she comes back."

"No," Ranger told him calmly. "I'm staying with her." The tech looked at him. He was not someone he wanted to mess with so he just nodded. Ranger was not letting her out of his site until they found and killed MacGregor. Raoul and Bobby headed for the waiting room.

The rest of the men looked up expectantly for an update. "They're taking her for x-rays right now. After a little Demerol, she's not feeling any pain right now," Bobby told them. He was secretly glad the tech didn't push Ranger. Not only was it not a good idea to push any of Ranger's buttons right now, he didn't want Stephanie unguarded. He knew Ranger was going to have MacGregor taken out. He would never stop hunting him until he was dead. And the way they all felt right now, they all would want the chance to pull the trigger themselves. "She's going to be fine." Lester let out a long and drawn out sigh. He can't believe he made the stupid comment about the knee. Duh, he thought, of course it fucking hurt. He just hated the fact that she had to go through that amount of pain. The Sheriff had gone to make some phone calls.

"We're going to need to start planning," Tank whispered to them. "We've got to get this guy before he tries to go after Steph again. You know we can't let him live." They nodded in agreement. "Ranger's not going to leave her side right now until he can get her back to Rangeman. We need to start looking for him."

"Where do we even start?" Hal asked. "I mean, if he still wants Stephanie, won't he come looking for her back in Trenton?"

"Probably, but I'd rather we get him before he comes after her," Tank explained. "Ram, Hal, and Lester, go back to Mountainhome and try to see if you can see where he went." They nodded. Lester would have preferred to stay at the hospital, but he would do anything it takes to get this guy. "Bobby, it's better if you stay close to Ranger and Steph. Raoul and I will work with the office to see what we can come up with."

With all the movement during the x-rays, Stephanie woke up. Ranger was by her side. They had given him a lead vest because he refused to leave the room or go behind the lead shield. When they were finished, the tech took them back to the ER. "You look really tired, Carlos," she told him.

"I'll sleep once we get you back to my apartment," he replied. She gave him a weak smile.

"You need to get some sleep now. Besides, if we want to catch him, I have to go back to my apartment." He looked at her sharply.

"You're not going back to your apartment, Babe. It's not safe there….."

"But I didn't mean I'd be alone. That's where he's going to come to look for me." At that time, Tank, Bobby, and Raoul came back in the room. "And right now, he knows I'm an easy target."

"No, and I'm too tired to argue with you about this right now," Ranger told her finally, looking up at Raoul.

"I know you're tired and I'm not trying to make light about what everyone went through to find me. But this guy is really crazy. If he's going to come after me again, he's going to watch my apartment. He won't make a move unless he sees me there. When I get out of here, I'm going home, back to my apartment, whether you like it or not!" she insisted. The men looked to Ranger for his reaction. Ranger's face got very serious. They could feel his anger.

"No…you're not. You're coming home with me and that's the end of it," he told her through gritted teeth. She sat up propping herself up on her elbows, and she couldn't grab the side rails to get herself up all the way.

"Oh yes I am," she replied indignantly. Raoul smiled to himself. She was tougher than she looked. Ranger stood up.

"God, you are stubborn! Can't you ever just do what you are asked without giving me a hard time?"

"I'm stubborn? What about you? You just expect everyone to do whatever you tell them to do." She tried to get herself up but kept flopping back. Ranger helped her up. "And for the record, you never ask, you tell." God, she drove him crazy. He wasn't used to relationships, but he'd better start to learn the give and take part. He didn't want to lose her. Tank looked at Raoul and they exchanged smiles. They hadn't ever seen Ranger so whipped before. Mr. Bad Ass. Mr. Lady's Man. Totally under the spell of the Bombshell Bounty Hunter of Trenton.

"I know," he said finally. "I'm working on it so cut me some slack." He held up the ice chips and she nodded. He really went through a lot to find her, and she didn't mean to bitchy about it. He gave her an ice chip. "I'll make you a deal. Give me a week to get things under control and get my business back in order, and then we will use you as bait to flush out MacGregor. This way, we all can relax a little and figure out a safe plan and not have to worry about you at the same time. Me, you, and all the guys need some rest after all this. Deal?"

"Deal."

"I never thought I'd see the day that you compromised on anything," Tank teased him. Ranger started to shoot him a stern look, but shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm just too tired to argue about anything right now," he sighed. Tank motioned to Ranger to step out with him. Bobby followed. Raoul stayed in the room.

"I know we didn't formally get introduced, Stephanie, but I'm Raoul Manoso, Carlos' older brother," he told her. She smiled at him.

"It's nice to meet someone from Carlos' family. I'm just sorry it was like this." He smiled at her. He only had what the men and Ranger had told him about her. He could see that she was very beautiful from her photographs, but they did not do her justice in person. Plus, he just witnessed firsthand how she just put his little brother in his place.

"I never thought I'd see the day when my brother would fall head over heels in love with any woman. He is very lucky to have you, Stephanie. He was devastated when we told him what happened. He is a very stubborn man, but he loves you more than anything. Just go a little easy on him. He's not used to anyone not following his orders." Raoul laughed. She smiled again.

"I'll try," she giggled, "But I have a hard time being told what to do."

Tank briefed Ranger on sending the others back to the scene to get some information or any leads on where MacGregor went.

The plastic surgeon, Dr Erdmann, came into the room and introduced himself. Ranger came back to her side. He explained that there were some shards of glass still in some of the wounds. Some wounds needed to be debrided because they were more than six hours old and regular suturing could not be done. "What is interesting is that you have what we call a boxer's fracture on your left hand. It's the 5th metatarsal bone…right here" He pointed to the pinky side of her left hand. "What did you punch?" He asked with a grin. She shrugged her shoulders.

"I punched through a glass window with bars on it," she thought. "I might have hit one of the bars. I really don't remember."

"Some of these don't need sutures and I want to leave them open to drain. Some of the older wounds are infected. We'll start with IV antibiotics and you can go home on oral meds. Your left hand will need a cast but we can't do that until the wounds are closed. I'll let Dr Rose, the orthopedist, talk to you about that. We have to get consent forms signed but with the amount of narcotics you have been given, do you have a next of kin to sign for you?" She pointed to Ranger.

"I can sign for her. I'm her emergency contact," Ranger had all his employees fill out emergency contacts and limited medical power of attorney forms. In their line of work, there may be a life-threatening situation and tracking down the next of kin could waste precious time. He nodded.

"I'll get the paperwork together."

"When can I go home?" she asked him hopefully.

"Well, the earliest would be tomorrow but that would be a stretch. You are very dehydrated and some of your lab values are out of wack because of that. The day after would be more realistic. And, I don't know what will need to be done with the knee. Dr Rose will be in shortly. I just saw him heading to read your x-rays." He headed out to get the consent paperwork together.

"I want to go home tomorrow," she whined to Ranger. He kissed her forehead.

"I know, Babe. But if it's better for you to stay longer, we have to do it." He reassured her.

Dr Rose came into the room. He introduced himself and reviewed her x-rays with them. "You have fractures to both bones in the lower leg, the inner bone is the tibia and the outer bone is the fibula. It's actually a pretty clean fracture. There are a few bone fragments that I will clean out. They are like little bone chips. You probably need screws. I think we can do both at the same time and knock you out only once." She sighed with relief."

"Now the bad news…." They both snapped their heads up to look at him. "We have to put a temporary cast on because you'll have this laceration sutured up. It will be like 2 pieces of a cast, front and back, held together with ace wrap. It's going from your toes to your mid thigh. You're not going to be able to bear weight on that leg for a minimum 4 weeks. With the fracture to your left hand and the wounds to both hands, you're not going to be able to use crutches."

"Well how am I going to walk around?"

"You're not for a while but someone can push you in a wheelchair."

"Wheelchair? No way!" she cried out. Ranger put his arm around her shoulder trying to calm her down. "Oh my God! I can't just lie around for a month. I'm going to go crazy."

"Babe, relax," he whispered calmly in her ear. His tone was so even and soothing. "It's going to be alright. This is just temporary."

"We'll also put a brace on this until some of these wounds are healed a little better. It will be easier to monitor them for infection if we have easy access to them." He looked at her as a few tears ran down her cheeks. "I know this is going to be frustrating and I wish I had another way but the time will go by faster than you realize. And as I can see, you have a room full of big strong men that will wait on you hand over fist." She nodded glumly. "I will get the consent forms ready. I understand you will be signing them for her?" He addressed this to Ranger. Ranger nodded. "There will be an anesthesiologist that will come to see you. She will get a medical history and review the anesthesia part with you. I think we will be able to book the OR within the next 2 hours. They are finishing up with a couple cases and then we can get in there." He left to get the paperwork. Ranger held her tight, gently rubbing her back.

"I'll take care of you, Babe. I'm not going to let anything else happen to you. I love you." She looked up into his eyes.

"I love you too, Carlos," she whispered and they kissed.

Chapter 21

Sheriff Mason got a chance to speak to Stephanie before they took her to the OR. He got all their contact information and headed back to Mountainhome. They moved to the OR waiting room.

"Carlos, why don't you take a short nap?" Raoul told him. "There's nothing you can do right now and you look like you are about to fall over." Ranger nodded. There was a recliner in the corner. Although he was going to fight to stay awake, it wasn't long before he dozed off. Tank got a call from Lester.

"We found a service road about a mile behind the cabin. It comes out on the main road. Other than that, we didn't find a fuckin' thing," he reported. "Cops and fireman are still here. What do you want us to do?"

"You can head back here. Steph just went to the OR and it will be a couple hours before we can see her again. When you get back here, find a hotel close to the hospital and get us a couple of rooms. I'm sure Ranger's going to stay in the room with Steph," he instructed Lester.

"10-4. See you in a little while. Do you want us to pick up food and bring back with us?"

"Yeah, that sounds pretty good."

"Why is Steph in the OR?"

"They are cleaning out and sewing up her wounds and setting her leg. She busted her left hand too and is not going to be able to use crutches and she can't walk on her leg either. Needless to say, she wasn't happy about that." Tank chuckled. Lester grimaced.

"Damn. I guess we're all going to have to take good care of her." He replied. "Later."

"They didn't find anything. Lester will get us some hotel rooms and is bringing food," Tank told them. "What do you think he is going to do, Doctor?"

"He still has another week before the full moon but if he finds out that she is still alive, he'll realize that she is guarded. He won't go far. She has been his obsession for so long. This isn't a passing phase. As long as he is still alive and on the loose, Stephanie is in danger," he explained.

"We really appreciate you taking the time to come out here and help us," Raoul told him. "How much longer can you stay?"

"I'll have to get back by Monday, but would be able to come back out Thursday or Friday. Monday is Grand Rounds and I need to catch up on my patients and review the treatment plans."

"Good enough," Raoul told him. "We haven't told her about the drawings or that she was the real target yet. I think we need to let her get through this and we'll wait till we get her home."

Ranger was still sleeping when the rest of the team got back to the hospital. It was an unusual site for them. Raoul motioned for them to be quiet and not wake him up yet. The OR charge nurse had just come out to tell them they were finishing up in the OR and would be done in another 20 minutes or so and would go to the recovery room. So far, everything was going well. It would be another hour after she hit recovery before she would be placed in her room. Just after she left, Ranger woke up. He immediately looked at his watch then at Raoul. They were all eating the sub sandwiches Lester picked up.

"She's almost done. She'll be in recovery in about 20 minutes," he told him. Ranger nodded.

"Here," Lester handed him a sub. "It's turkey and swiss without mayo." Ranger took the sub and a bottle of water. He was starving. He had only picked at his breakfast this morning and it was almost 7pm. "We got a couple a rooms at the Holiday Inn across the street."

"You can go get some rest," Ranger told them. "I'll be staying here tonight."

"I'll go after Steph gets to her room," Lester replied. They all wanted to see her before they left. Ranger nodded. Only Bobby, Tank, and Raoul had been in to see her since they got here.

A while later, the nurse came out to tell them she was being moved to her room and that she would still be groggy. She gave them the room number and they headed to the elevators. She was in the room by the time they got there. She was still very groggy, throat dry and eyes glazed over. "Thirsty," she managed. The nurse who had just got her settled in, brought her some ice water.

"If you tolerate this, I'll get you some juice next," she told her. Stephanie nodded. "How is your pain right now on a scale of 1-10?"

"8"

"I'll get you something. I'll be right back."

Ranger leaned over the bed and kissed her. "We're here, Babe. The surgeons said everything went fine." She nodded. He held the cup for her as she sipped it. The nurse returned with the pain medication.

"I'll be back in a little while to see if it's working." She turned to Ranger. "Is anyone going to stay with her tonight?" He nodded.

"I am."

"I'm Frannie and I'll be her nurse for the whole night. Her hands and wrists are bandage and she's not going to be able to push the call bell." She showed him where it was. "Just buzz me if she needs anything between me checking on her."

The guys said their hello and goodbyes. Tank decided to take the first watch and stay. Hal was going to get some sleep and come back to relieve Tank. It wasn't long before Stephanie drifted off from the medication. Ranger pulled the recliner next to the bed, laying his arm across her stomach. He kicked the other chair towards Tank.

"You okay?" Tank asked him. Tank was his best friend and knew him better than anybody. Ranger nodded.

"I'm going to hunt him down and I'm going to put a bullet in his head for what he did to her," he told Tank softly. Tank nodded. "I don't know how it happened or why I feel so strongly for her. The first time she smiled at me, my heart melted. I tried to push those feelings aside but it didn't work." It had been a long time since they had a deep conversation.

"And then she tased you," Tank chuckled. A slow smile came across his face before he laughed as well. "And laughed about it." They both laughed again. Stephanie began to stir. Ranger jumped up and leaned over her. She opened her eyes.

"How are you feeling?"

"Okay," she replied, her voice raspy. "Thirsty." He gave her some water. "My throat is so dry."

"Are you in any pain right now?"

"Not really. Just thirsty." She tried to sit up. He put his hand on her shoulder.

"Hold on," he raised the bed so she could sit up. She smiled when she saw Tank sitting there.

"Hey Bombshell," he said.

"Hey." She felt a little groggy. "What time is it?"

"10:30, Babe."

"Can I go home tomorrow?"

"I don't know. We'll see." He gave her some more water. "Do you want some juice?" She nodded. Ranger went out to ask the nurse for juice. Tank walked over to her.

"You sure know how to have a good time, Bomber," he joked. She giggled.

"You know me…always looking for a good time." Ranger stood in the doorway while waiting for the nurse just listening to the conversation.

"You also know how to scare the shit out of the toughest men in Jersey."

"Sorry. I wish you guys didn't have to get involved in this." Tank brushed her hair off her face. "Thanks for everything you did."

"You're one of us now, Bomber. We all remember you taking out that fat chick for us." She laughed.

"It was kinda the other way around!" Tank smiled.

"We all look out for each other. We're a team and a family. You're a part of that family. And not just because you're Ranger's woman." He told her.

"Really?" A tear rolled down her cheek. He nodded.

"And you have a lot of big brothers that would kick anyone's ass that messed with you. And that includes the man himself," he hooked a thumb back towards Ranger in the doorway.

"Does Lester still feel bad that he left me alone?" she asked. Tank nodded again. "It's not his fault." Ranger knew Lester had spent the night at her apartment. He wasn't exactly thrilled about it but he knew he was watching out for her. And of course, Miss Stubborn had refused to stay at his apartment. Lester didn't have much of a choice. "Who's taking care of Ivy?"

"Ella and Luis are, Babe." Ranger walked back in with a few juice boxes. "Apple or cranberry?"

"Cranberry."

A tall man walked up to the hospital information desk in the main lobby. "Is there a patient named Stephanie Plum here?" The security guard looked into the computer census.

"No..sorry. We don't have a patient by that name here. Are you sure she is at this hospital?"

"I wasn't sure. Thank you." He left.

I will find you again, Seraphina.

Chapter 22

Hal came at 7am to relieve Tank. He was stopped by the security guard at the main desk when he came in. "I just wanted to let you know that someone came in last night asking about Stephanie Plum. She is her under an alias. We do that for all patients that were victims of a crime for their protection. The only reason I know is that I was here yesterday when she came into the ER. My supervisor will let you look at the security tapes to see if you can see anything in the lots," he told Hal.

"I'm going to report this to the boss upstairs. He'll want to look at the tapes. Thanks." Hal told him. Shit, he thought. He is still after Stephanie. Taking the stairs 2 at a time, he ran up to her room.

They could tell by the look on Hal's face that something was wrong. Stephanie was still asleep.

"The security guard told me that someone came here looking for Steph last night. He said we could look at the tapes of all the lots if we wanted." Ranger jumped up.

"What did he tell him?" he demanded.

"That she wasn't here. She's under an alias. The security guard only knew because he was here yesterday when she came in." Ranger was torn between looking at the tapes himself and staying with Stephanie. Sensing this was Ranger's concern he added, "Lester is finishing up breakfast and will be here shortly."

"Stay with Stephanie. Don't let her out of your site and stay in this room at all times," He nodded to Tank. "Let's go talk to this guy." They went to the lobby. Stephanie woke just after they left. Looking around for Ranger, she saw Hal and smiled.

"Morning Bomber," he said.

"Hi, Hal." She was trying to push the button to raise the bed but wasn't having much luck. Hal raised the bed for her. "Thanks. This is really going to be frustrating."

"How are you feeling?"

"Okay. Kinda sore but I really don't want to take anything unless it gets bad. It really knocks me out." She still didn't see Ranger.

"Where is Carlos?"

"He'll be right back. He just walked Tank out," Hal thought up quick. She nodded. Frannie, her night nurse, came in with a breakfast tray. At that time, Lester came bounding in the room with some flowers he bought in the gift shop.

"Morning Beautiful!" He went over and gave her a kiss and a hug.

"Do you have a never-ending supply of good looking men to take care of you?" Frannie joked with her.

"She has her own harem," Lester told her. Hal was more shy around Stephanie than Lester. Lester had spent more time with her, and he was more relaxed around the boss's girlfriend. Lester also had a bag of McDonalds Egg McMuffins and hash browns. He picked up the cover on the breakfast tray. "I'm sure you don't want that." He pulled up the bag to show her.

"Yea! I am soooo hungry," she replied. "You're going to have to feed me." She held up her bandaged and splinted hands and opened her mouth. He grinned from ear to ear.

"You're killin' me, Beautiful," he laughed, holding a McMuffin for her as she took a bite. Hal just sat back and watched with amusement. She moaned.

"Oh my God that is so good." She sighed. "I think the last good meal I had was your pancakes."

"That was a week ago, Steph," Lester grimaced. "Damn, you haven't eaten in a week?"

"Well, I did get some oatmeal laced with drugs. Does that count?" She could see the guilty look on his face. "Lester, don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault." She opened her mouth again. He smiled and fed her some more McMuffin.

"I should have stayed with you. I shouldn't have left you alone. This wouldn't have happened," he told her.

"Come here," she opened her arms and hugged him to her. He hugged her back.

"I'm sorry."

"I don't blame you and neither does Ranger. It's not your fault." They broke from their hug and she looked into his green eyes and smiled. "Besides, I couldn't stay mad at anyone who feeds me breakfast." She opened her mouth for another bite. He smiled back and fed her some more.

She had finished the sandwich by the time Ranger and Tank got back. They only saw MacGregor in the lobby on the tapes. Nothing was seen in the parking lots. But they confirmed he did come here looking for her. Ranger was a little surprised to see Lester sitting in the bed with her. She just smiled at him when he walked in and he relaxed a little. He shot Lester a look.

"Do you mind?"

"Not at all, Boss. I was keeping your spot warm for you," he joked as he got off the bed. He held up the McDonald's bag. "Are you ready for another?" She shook her head no.

"Actually, I'm kinda full," she shrugged her shoulders.

"But you only had one?" Lester looked confused. "Are you feeling alright?" They all looked at her.

"I'm fine….I'm just full. I guess it's the drugs," she replied. "Don't throw it away. I'm sure I'll eat it in a little while."

Dr Erdmann came in the room. "Good morning, Miss Plum." Ranger nodded to the men to leave and give the doctor some room. "I'm going to take a look at your wounds." The morning nurse came in with scissors, tape, gauze, and bandages.

"I'm Lisa. I'll be your nurse for today." She pulled over the bedside table and placed the supplies on it. Dr Erdmann took the scissors and cut away her bandages. Ranger stood on the other side of the bed, trying to stay out of the way, but he wanted to see the wounds. The worst was the 2.5 inch laceration on the side of her right hand. There were a lot a little lacerations. The left hand had about a 1.5 inch laceration on the left side of her palm.

"They look pretty good. This one was really deep. You nicked a tendon on your right hand. If the glass had gone in a little further, it would have done some major damage. You will need some physical therapy to get full range of motion and strength back in that hand. There was no tendon damage in the left hand. Just the lacerations and the fracture. I'm going to wrap these back up. I want you to keep them covered for a couple more days. Then I want them open to air. The sutures are dissolving. The tape over the bigger ones will fall off in a few days after you can start getting them wet."

"When will that be?" She wanted a shower now.

"I usually like to keep the sutures and dermabond dry for at least 72 hours. Some say 24 but I like to be on the safe side. You can still shower; just cover them with baggies taped to your arms to prevent them from getting wet." He added before she could protest.

"Can I go home today?" she was hopeful. He looked at her chart.

"I'd like to get 2 more rounds of Ancef into you first. Then you can go home on Keflex…pills. If Dr Rose is okay with that plan, you can go home tonight." She smiled and looked at Ranger. It would be a long day with a long trip home, but since MacGregor was seen here looking for her he was more than happy to get her back to Rangeman. "Dr Rose will be here in a little while. He got called to the ER."

"Do you think you would be able to give us her prescriptions now or call them into a pharmacy in Trenton?" Ranger asked him. "If we leave later, it will be about an hour and a half before we get home. It may be too late to get them filled." He nodded.

"Write out what she needs, and when Dr Rose comes, I'll have him to the same. I can call them in for you," Lisa told them. Stephanie smiled at her.

"Thanks. I really want to go home," she said. Dr Erdmann wrapped her hands back up.

"I know a doctor in Trenton that you can follow up with. I'm sure you don't want to come all the way back up here for a checkup. I did my residency with him. I'll have you fill out a release to send your records to him if you'd like."

"Thank you. I would like to do that."

"I need to do my assessment and take out your catheter." She looked over at Ranger.

"If it's okay with you, he can stay." Stephanie told her. She nodded and closed the door. She took out the Foley.

"We need to get you up today. Have to make sure you can pee on your own."

"I'm not using a bed pan. He can help me to the bathroom," Stephanie insisted. She looked over at Ranger. He just shook his head. Lisa took her vital signs, listened to her lungs and finished her assessment.

"How are you doing on pain? 0-10?"

"It's about a 6 right now."

"I'll get you something. Since you are eating now, they changed to order to Percocet." She stopped the IV fluids and hep-locked the IV. "We'll leave in the IV until you get your last dose of Ancef, which is scheduled for 6. I can actually give it to you at 5 so you can get out of here sooner." She smiled at Ranger. "I brought you some soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, towels. We only have combs." She looked ruefully at the mop of blonde curls. "I don't know if this is going to cut it." Stephanie winced.

"How bad is my hair?" she looked them nervously.

"It's not bad looking…just knotty. You're going to need a brush to get through that." She was afraid to look at herself. She hadn't seen herself in a week. "I can help you unless you would like your boyfriend to help you."

"He can help me, thanks" Lisa left the room, keeping the door closed. "How bad do I look?"

"You look beautiful to me, Babe," he kissed her forehead. He helped her to the sink. She was able to bear weight on her left leg but was unsteady on it. He carried her to the recliner. "Sit here and I'll get you set up."

"Carlos, I don't have any clothes to wear…or shoes." He thought for a minute.

"I'll send one of the guys to get you something. Let's just get you cleaned up and sitting up the chair for a while." She nodded. He brushed her teeth, washed her up, and got her in a clean gown. He got her settled in the recliner after helping her to the bathroom. "Uh…I'll have them get a brush too." There was no way the comb was going to get through that mess. He opened the door. Tank, Lester, and Bobby were waiting outside. "She might be discharged tonight. Lester, will you and Hal go pick up some clothes and shoes for her?"

"What's your size, Beautiful?" She let out an exaggerated sigh.

"Shit. This is going to be good." Lester laughed. Bobby and Tank snickered. "I can't believe I'm getting ready to tell you my underwear size."

"Come on….I fed you breakfast," he joked. Ranger smacked him in the back of the head. She giggled.

"I wear a 32C bra, underwear…small. Clothes are either small or size 2. I wear an 8.5 shoe. And you better not get me a thong or grannie panties!" she told him laughing.

"Hey, this isn't going to be any picnic for me either," he told them. "I'm going to look like an idiot shopping for woman's underwear."

"No, you'll just look like a pervert when you get caught sniffing the panties. Try not to get arrested." Bobby joked. They all burst out laughing.

"Oh my God! Lester, pleasedon't sniff my panties!" she cried. Even Ranger laughed. It was good to have things seem like normal again. Raoul, Hal, and Ram came in the room. Ranger also told them to get a hair brush, and maybe some detangling spray.

"What's so funny?" Raoul asked.

"Me and Hal are going to the store to buy Steph some underwear," Lester got up to leave. "Trust me, Beautiful. I'll get you something nice." He winked at her. "Come Hal…I'll show you right way to buy panties for your girl."

"Stephanie might be going home tonight. We're just waiting for the orthopedic doctor to come and see her." Ranger told them.

"Good. We need to get Dr Johnson back tonight. He's got a flight first thing in the morning," Raoul said.

"Who's Dr Johnson?" Stephanie asked. Raoul looked to Ranger to answer.

"He's the psychiatrist that was MacGregor's doctor. We flew him out her to help us find you."

"Did he do this before?" she asked. Ranger didn't want to get into this until after he got her home. He nodded.

"He killed some women back in Utah and was committed to a psych facility. He got out 4 months ago. There is more and I will tell you about it, but let's just get you home first, okay?" She looked at him. He still looked so tired and beaten down. She smiled and nodded. She wouldn't push the issue…now.

Dr Rose examined her leg and agreed that it was okay to go home later. He also gave them 2 names of orthopedic surgeons that she could follow up with when she got home. Lisa called in her prescriptions and got the medical release forms for Ranger to sign. Lisa went over the discharge plans with Stephanie, Ranger, and Bobby. She handed them the prescription for the Percocet because this narcotic could not be called in over the phone. She gave them a take home pack with 4 tabs of Percocet.

An hour and a half later, Lester and Hal returned from shopping. "I'm so afraid to see what you bought," Stephanie laughed.

"You have to trust me, Beautiful. I know how to dress…and undress a woman!"

"Lester, you are such a gonad." She giggled. They all laughed. He put the shopping bag down on the bed.

"You ready?"

"I was born ready," she replied. Ranger smiled at her.

"Okay, since you're Ranger's woman, and he only wears black…I got you this." He held up a pair of black string bikinis and turns it over to show the word "HOT" in bright pink. "I know you like pink." There were some whistles and catcalls. She looked at Ranger and started to giggle. "We're not done." He pulls out a black push up bra with lace trim. "And finally…" He pulled out a black hoodie top and elastic pull on pants. "We thought you'd be comfortable in this." Finally he pulled out black Keds and black socks. She smiled at him.

"I have to say I am pleasantly surprised. You did good!" Ranger silently agreed. There were 2 reasons he sent Lester. One was that Lester would be the only one of them that wouldn't care that he was shopping for women's underwear. And two, he could tell he cared about Stephanie and he would get her something nice. He was a little leery of how comfortable Stephanie and Lester were together. Out of all his men, Lester did spend the most time with her and Lester was not a shy person around women. He trusted Stephanie but, once again, not being used to relationships he was a little jealous. "Now, if you don't mind stepping outside, I want to get dressed." They did as she asked. Ranger removed the tags and helped her into the clothes.

"You are hot," he told her as he grabbed her ass. He gave her a passionate kiss, tongue and all. "I can't wait to get you back to my apartment tonight," he whispered to her. "You can't imagine all the things I want to do to you, Babe." They kissed again. "I love you so much." His hand was up her shirt and under her bra.

"Oh Carlos," she breathed back. She was going to run her hand down to his crotch, but remembered her injuries. "I'm sorry." She pulled back from him. She looked down at her hands. "I can't…" He put a finger to her lips.

"It's okay, Babe," He kissed her. "We'll have plenty of time for more."

"I know, but I want to touch you now." He held her close. He slid into the recliner with her, pulling her on top of him. She laid her head down on his shoulder. After a short while, they both fell asleep.

Chapter 23

Ranger awoke from a sound sleep. Stephanie was still asleep, lying in his arms. He always slept so deeply with her. It was 1 pm. The nurse was able to run her noon IV without waking either of them. He must have been more tired than he realized. He didn't even hear her come in. Raoul sat in the bed, reading the newspaper.

"Hey, Little Brother. Feeling better?" he said softly, trying not to wake up Stephanie. Ranger nodded. "I had Tank, Ram, and Hal take Dr Johnson back to Trenton. Bobby and Lester just went to get some lunch." Ranger nodded again. He wanted to get up but wanted to let Stephanie sleep. The pain medication really knocked her out. "They're going to bring something back for us." He folded the paper up. "So when are you going to introduce her to Mama?" Ranger's eyes got wide.

"I hadn't thought that far ahead," he whispered. "Things kinda happened fast between us. I had to leave and then all this shit went down."

"I haven't called Mama or Celia yet, but I'll have to see them before I go home. You know I will never hear the end of it if I don't." Ranger smirked.

"I know. I just want to give Steph a few days before I subject her to my family."

"They are going to love her, you know." Raoul told him. "She suits you. You are a very lucky man, Carlos. Women like her don't come around too often. She's got the total package and she loves you." Ranger looked down at her sleeping face.

"I know. And I love her." He kissed her forehead. After about another 30 minutes, Ranger needed to get up. Stephanie immediately woke up. He slipped out of the chair. "I'll be back in a minute." He went to the bathroom and then just a short walk around the unit to stretch his legs. Now, he needed to be sharp. It was only a few more hours until he knew she would be the safest. He didn't want to let his guard down. His senses felt sharper after getting some decent sleep. MacGregor was here once. He may come back.

She was on the phone with her parents when he got back. "I don't know. I'll be staying with Carlos for now." She rolled her eyes as he came in. "I'm sure he will let you come see me. Look, I won't get home till later. I'll call you tomorrow, okay?" She smiled at him. "Bye." Raoul, who had been holding the phone for her, disconnected and put in back on his belt. "They want to come by and see me tomorrow." She looked a little nervous. "I don't just want to invite people to your apartment, but they're my parents and they want to see me."

"It's okay, Babe. They can come anytime they want."

"Can you help me to the bathroom?" He did and as he was helping her back into the bed, Bobby and Lester came in with pizza. Lester handed a separate bag to Ranger.

"I got you a grilled chicken salad." Ranger gave him a slight smile taking the bag.

"Thanks."

"Pizza?" Lester asked Stephanie. She shook her head no.

"No thanks. I'm not hungry." Everyone turned to look at her. "You're star-ing" she told them in that sing song tone.

"Are you feeling okay, Babe?"

"I'm fine. I'm just not hungry right now. I don't know why." She rolled her eyes and sighed. "I can't win with you guys. You make fun of me because I eat too much and now you're getting on me because I'm not hungry. Give me a break!"

"Babe, you're the only human being I know who eats more than Tank," Ranger said. "And, now you aren't eating anything. That worries me more than all the crap you usually eat."

"Fine, I'll have some pizza," she groaned. Lester looked over at Ranger as if to ask if he should help her with the pizza. Ranger nodded. He started to take out a piece for her. "I really can't eat that right now….I'll throw up."

"What do you think you can tolerate? You have to eat something," Ranger asked.

"I don't want anything right now but maybe some crackers later, okay?" She didn't want to eat anything and didn't want to fight about it anymore. She closed her eyes. "I'm tired and just want sleep." Lester looked at Ranger again, and he just shook his head putting up his hands. He hoped it was just the medication but it worried him that the human Hoover wasn't interested in food.

Finally, the nurse had run the last dose of Ancef. She gave Stephanie a dose of Percocet for the long ride home. The IV was removed and they were on their way. Raoul and Lester had pulled the SUV up to the front entrance. The pain medication was starting to kick in as she felt the dizziness. As Ranger was getting the door, she could have sworn she saw MacGregor across the street. "It's him," she whispered. She was very sleepy and her eyes were glazed over.

"What's the matter, Beautiful?" Lester looked over at her line of site.

"It's him," Ranger snapped around.

"Where?" Lester looked furiously in that direction but didn't see him. She was fighting to stay awake.

"He was across the street. I saw him." They looked across the street but didn't see anything. Lester ran in that direction looking around. He looked back at Ranger shaking his head.

"Babe, are you sure you saw him?" She nodded.

"Yes," was her groggy reply before falling asleep. Did she imagine it? Ranger wondered. It was possible. She was pretty doped up right now. But it was also possible he's been watching the hospital.

"Let's just get the fuck out of here," Ranger told them. He picked her up and got into the back seat of the SUV. Lester got in the back with them. Bobby got in the driver's seat with Raoul in the front. "I don't know if she was seeing things or he was there. It doesn't matter right now. I just want to get her back the Rangeman where I know we can keep her safe."

An hour and a half later, they pulled into the garage at Rangeman. Still sleeping, Ranger carried her up to the 7th floor and put her in his bed. Ella, Luis, Silvio, Hector, and Hal were waiting for them. They were a little disappointed that she was asleep. Ella showed Ranger all the prescriptions. "She needs to take this one around midnight. That's the antibiotic. Can I get her something to eat? How about I get you something to eat?"

"I could use something. Stephanie's not been eating. That's got me worried. Do we have crackers or something light? She thinks it's the medicine." Ella could see the worry on his face.

"I'm sure it is. Narcotic pain medication can make you nauseated, take away your appetite, slow your whole GI system down." She rubbed his arm and smiled. "Don't worry. You'll be yelling at her about eating too much before you know it."

"I don't yell at her. I…." She cut him off with at look. "I yell at her?"

"She doesn't listen to you anyway, Carlos." He smiled. This was true. "I'll make some chicken soup. That would be easy on the stomach. I just want to go in and see her." She went in to look at the sleeping Stephanie, giving her a kiss on the forehead. "We'll keep Ivy for tonight." The others also went in to see her, keeping quiet. Ella ushered them outside. "Okay, we can see her in the morning. Let's get out of here so they can get some rest." Ranger gave her a grateful nod. She had fixed dinner for Ranger and Raoul. Needing a good night's sleep, Raoul went to his room immediately after eating.

Ranger took a shower and got into bed with her, holding her close. It was not long before he fell into a deep sleep.

He watched the men in black take his Seraphina away. They were working for the demons. The demons were trying to keep Seraphina from him. He knew she was not dead because he could still hear the voices. She had seen him but the agents of the demons did not. He got in his car and followed. They took her to a guarded tower. He knew he could not get her there. But, he also knew that she would not be there forever. He waited to find her for a long time. He could wait again. He would get his Seraphina back in time. He went back to the veterinarian's home. His body was still on the living room floor where he had left it. He looked around the home. No one had come looking for him yet so he still had a place to hide. He found the gun cabinet. There were 2 shotguns and a handgun. He knew he had to act fast because Seraphina could not run from him because he hobbled her. He would use the guns to take out the men in black. No one would come between him and his Seraphina. He wished there could be another way. Seraphina was much more beautiful in person than he imagined. He wanted to keep her but if she didn't burn, he would be tormented by the demons forever.

Chapter 24

Ranger had set his watch alarm for midnight so he could give Stephanie her next dose of Keflex. She was not in the bed next to him. This was the second time he was unaware and must be more tired than he realized because he didn't feel her get up. There was light coming out of the bathroom. He got up and knocked on the door. "Babe?"

"You can come in." She was half sitting on the counter with her casted leg on the counter. She was trying to get a brush through her hair. With her hands bandaged, not being able to get a good grip on the brush, and with the tangled, knotty mess, she wasn't having much luck. He gave her a little smile. "I'm never going to get these knots out." She cursed as she dropped the brush on the floor. He walked over to her and kissed her forehead. He picked up the brush and began to brush her hair.

"Let me help."

"Did I wake you up?"

"I set the alarm so I could give you your medicine." He was starting to make some progress with the knots. "How do you feel?"

"Better. A little sore but better. I never realized how far it was from your bed to the bathroom."

"You didn't walk on your bad leg, did you?" She smirked.

"I hopped. I had to go and I didn't want to wake. You looked almost as bad as I do." He finished brushing her hair. "Please help me shower in the morning."

"My pleasure," he muttered while kissing her neck. He picked her up and carried her back to the bed. "Ella made you some soup. Do you want to try some with crackers?" He was hoping she would say yes.

"Uhhmm…okay." He heated up a bowl, grabbing some crackers, and getting her medicine. He brought a tray back to the bedroom. "He was there outside the hospital when we left. I saw him across the street." His face got serious.

"Are you sure, Babe? We didn't see him." She looked him in the eye.

"I'm sure. He was probably watching every day." He fed her a spoonful of soup. "He is after me, isn't he? It's not random. He killed those other girls because they weren't me." She looked into his eyes for confirmation. He stared back for a moment. This was a conversation he didn't want to have yet.

"Yes." He gave her a cracker. She took in this information.

"Why me?"

"Dr Johnson thinks that he may have met you or seen you in the past. He's originally from New York. He has psychological problems and you became part of his delusion."

"Wow," she said after a few minutes, "that's creepy." He kept feeding her the soup and she was accepting it which made him happy that she was eating something. "So, he's going to keep coming after me, isn't he?" He didn't want her worrying more than she needed to, but this information may help to keep her inside the Rangeman building with less fighting about it.

"Yes."

"Swell," she muttered. She knew that meant that she was going to be stuck inside or not able to go anywhere without bodyguards. She finished off the soup and crackers. He gave her the Keflex.

"Do you need something for pain?" She thought for a minute. She was sore, but didn't want to keep getting knocked out.

"Maybe just some Tylenol or Motrin. I really don't want anything stronger if I can help it. I may need to take that after my parents visit." She gave him a smile. "How is Ivy? Where is she?"

"Ella will bring her up in the morning. You were out when we got home and I thought it was best for you….us to get some sleep tonight." He got the Motrin. "Do you want more soup and crackers?" She shook her head no.

"No thanks." He put the tray back in the kitchen and got back in bed with her turning out the light. "Carlos?"

"Yeah, Babe?" He pulled her to him nuzzling her neck.

"I love you. Thank you for everything you did for me," she paused for a moment. "Just before you found me…I really thought I was going to die. All I could think about was our last time together and I was so thankful that I had gotten the chance to tell you that I loved you." She turned so she could look in his eyes. "I thought I would never see you again and that was worse than knowing I was going to die." He gave her a soft kiss. Since he had found her, the what if's kept playing through his mind. If they had gotten there even 15 minutes later, he would have lost her.

"I'm so sorry you had to go through that. I thought I had lost you. I couldn't allow myself to think that way because I know you needed me at 100% to find you. I don't get scared. My men don't get scared. You…had us all scared." Tears started to well up in her eyes. Everything was beginning to overwhelm her. She was trying to hold it in but began to sob. He just held her tightly. "It's alright, Babe," he whispered, "Just let it out." She had been relatively calm throughout the whole time, and he was sure she was due for a breakdown. He was close to one himself. He hated to see her cry. After a while, she had cried herself to sleep, with him soon after.

Ranger awoke to his 6 o'clock alarm. He was dreading the day because there were going to be people coming and going who wanted to see Stephanie. He wanted to tell everyone no, but he couldn't do that to Stephanie. Other than his employees, his mother a few times, and Stephanie, no one else had been to his apartment. He was always a very private person. If he refused to let her have visitors, she would insist on going back to her apartment. Right now, he couldn't let her do that until they caught MacGregor. He got her medication and some juice and then woke her up. "Babe, I'm going for a run. I'll be back in a little while. If you need anything, buzz Ella"

"M'kay," she replied sleepily. He kissed her forehead and she went back to sleep.

After his run, he stopped in the control room to get an update. He looked through the mail and paperwork in his in box. Hector popped his head in the doorway. "How is she doing?" Ranger tossed the mail back in the box.

"She's okay. She was sleeping when I left. You can come up and see her later," Ranger told him. Hector nodded. He was coming off a night shift. Since they had spent most of the past week looking for Stephanie, they had been doing double shifts and covering for others. He was going to his 4th floor apartment to get some sleep.

"Are we going to draw to see who gets to kill this mother fucker?" Hector was dead serious. Hector was not as tall or muscular as his other men, but no one should ever underestimate him.

"I'd like to be the one to snap his fucking neck with my bare hands," Ranger growled through gritted teeth. "$10,000.00 cash bonus to anyone of my men that kills him." He was serious. He had been thinking about it this whole time. He was thinking about what to do for Tank, Silvio, Raoul, Lester, Bobby, Hal, and Ram. They all worked non-stop to help find Stephanie. He was in all their debt. He knew they not only did it for him, but they did it because they loved her too. Hector nodded. $10,000 would be nice but because MacGregor hurt Stephanie, he would do it for free.

Ranger was not surprised to see that Stephanie was still sleeping when he got back. He slid into bed with her and pulled her to him and lay there until she woke. After a short while, he carried her into the bathroom to shower. It took about an hour and a half to get her ready, showered, dried, hair blow dried, and dressed. He didn't realize how much time and effort Stephanie had put into her hair just to keep it from looking like a frizzed mop of wild curls. Her hair was thick and long. It was always beautiful to him. It gave him a new appreciation for her "beautification ritual". Ella had brought over a suitcase of clothes and personal items from her apartment. He saw that she brought his favorite outfit…the soft pink velour track suit. The last time she wore it, he loved the way it hugged her curves and the color that brought out those amazing aquamarine eyes. He was concerned to see that it was big and just hung on her. He noticed in the shower that he could count her ribs. He never thought he would ever think that he would be happy to see her go back to eating crap. He almost wanted to do cartwheels when she ate the whole bowl of soup with crackers last night. He carried her out to the living room and set her down on the couch. "Ella's making your favorite, chocolate pancakes, for breakfast, Babe. Even if you aren't hungry, please just eat a little so you won't disappoint her, okay?" He kissed her.

"Okay, but only if you do a little better than that," she playfully replied. He grinned and obliged her request. They came up for air when they heard Ella come in. Ivy ran over to Stephanie, jumping in her lap and licking her face. Her body swayed back and forth from her tail wagging so fast.

"Hi, Ivy! I missed you. Have you been a good girl?" Ranger stood by making sure Ivy didn't accidently hurt her. "Hi, Ella." Ella came over and hugged her.

"We were so worried about you! Thank God, you are back with us safe and sound." She stood back and looked over her injuries and how thin she was. "Oh Nina, I'm so sorry." Ella had tears in her eyes.

"I'm fine, Ella…really. I'm sorry you all had to go through all this," Stephanie started to cry, overwhelmed again that these people really cared for her. And not one put the blame on her. Ivy licked the tears off her face.

"I didn't mean to upset you," Ella hugged her again. "I'm just so happy to have you back." She walked over to the counter. "I made you chocolate pancakes. I'll make you whatever you want. Don't worry about what Ranger says. You need to put some weight on…you're too thin. I'm making chocolate cake and white chocolate and raspberry cheese cake for you." Stephanie smiled.

"Thanks. The soup was really good. I had some last night." Ella made up a plate and brought it over to her. She looked at her bandaged hands.

"Oh….I'll feed you." Ranger walked over.

"I can do that," he told Ella. She shook her head and shoved him away.

"You go eat. I'll take care of Stephanie." She began to feed her the pancakes. Stephanie remembered what Ranger asked her and took the pancakes. Her appetite wasn't anywhere near what it used to be, but she knew she could get in a pancake or two. Ranger ate his breakfast, watching them from the breakfast bar. Thank god, he thought, she's eating.

After eating a pancake and a half, Stephanie put up her hand. "I'm full. I can't get in another bite right now, Ella, but that was really, really good." Ella looked over at Ranger. Normally, she would have eaten the whole stack. Ranger just put up his hand as if to say don't ask.

"Okay," she said, backing off. "What would you like for lunch? Maybe something light on your stomach?"

"Well, I know my parents want to come over today. I don't know what time but I'm sure they will bring food. There is soup left. That was really good and I can have that." Stephanie didn't want everyone worrying about her eating in addition to everything else. "Speaking of which, Carlos, can you dial my parent's number? I promised them I would call first thing in the morning." He walked over to her pulling out his cell phone and dialed the number. Stephanie spoke to her mother and they were going to come over about noon. She gave her father the address. She had been up a while now but really started to feel tired. Ranger could see that she looked worn out.

"Why don't you take a nap, Babe, you look tired." Ivy had curled up on her lap. "It's going to be crazy here today because everyone wants to see you, but you still need to take it easy." She nodded. He picked her up, Ivy in lap and all, and walked towards the bedroom.

"Thanks, Ella," she told her. She would personally thank her later. She saw that Ella had refilled her birth control pills that she was supposed to start back up today. It was in her bag of personal items along with her special shampoo, conditioner, and hair care products. Ranger put her in the bed and it wasn't long before she went to sleep with Ivy curled up with her.

Raoul had stopped up to check on Stephanie and to let Ranger know he was on his way to visit their mother in Newark. "You know she's going to call you later…sorry," Raoul told him with a smile. Ranger nodded. "It would be worse if she found out I was up here and didn't stop by." After he left, Ranger decided to lie down next to Stephanie for a short while. He loved to watch her sleep. She was so beautiful. She looked peaceful. Ivy poked up her head and licked his hand as he gently put his arm around Stephanie. He was so engrossed in staring at her, he didn't realize an hour went by. He got up and went into his small office to try to catch up on work.

Lester and Bobby came up around 11. "You can wake her up. Her parents will be coming in an hour anyway," Ranger told them. Ivy came running out of the bedroom to great them. Lester picked her up.

"Does she need to go out?"

"Probably." Lester grabbed her leash and went to take her out. Bobby had brought a bag up with him to change Stephanie's bandages. She had just woken up when she heard Ivy bark.

"Steph?" Bobby asked as he poked his head in the bedroom. She rolled over.

"I'm up." He came over to the bed, setting down the bag.

"I came up to change your bandages," he told her. She nodded. "How are you feeling today?"

"Okay. I'm really tired today." He began to cut off the bandaged on her hands.

"How are you doing on pain?"

"Okay I guess."

"What do you mean you guess? Aren't you taking anything? They wrote you for pain medication." She shrugged.

"I took some Motrin last night. The other stuff really knocks me out. I don't want to keep taking it," she told him.

"Steph, if you're hurting, take the Percocet. That's what it's there for. The first several days will be the worst." He looked over her hands and wrists and grimaced.

"What? What's wrong?" she asked him anxiously. Ranger came in the room.

"Nothing is wrong. I hadn't seen your wounds since we found you. It was hard to see exactly how many lacerations you had with all the bleeding and swelling. I'm sorry Steph. It just looks like it really hurts." She smiled at the both of them.

"It looks like it hurts because it does hurt," she replied. "Most women can handle pain better than men." Ranger silently agreed. He got to see the wounds yesterday when they changed the bandages. It looked the same with maybe it being a little less swollen.

"Can you wiggle your fingers?" Bobby asked her. She could wiggle the fingers on her left hand with a little grimace. She could only wiggle her thumb, index and middle finger on her right hand. "That's where the doctor said you nicked that tendon. He recommended PT, which will be no problem as I'm a licensed physical therapist. I'll call these doctors and get your follow up appointments set up tomorrow. I'm going to wrap your hands back up and get the brace on your left hand. They may still want the left hand wrapped so the brace doesn't rub on the stitches."

Lester came back, keeping Ivy on the leash while Bobby took care of Stephanie. He winced when he saw her hands. Bobby finished her hands and then began to unwrap the ace bandages that held her long leg cast together so he could check on those sutures. Ranger held her leg up to help. When he got all the ace wrap off, he nodded to Ranger to lay the leg back down. He lifted the top half off. Her knee and the top part of her lower leg were all black and blue and swollen. It looked bad. The suture line was intact and Bobby didn't see any sign and symptoms of infection.

"Damn, Babe," Ranger told her. He was sitting behind her now with his arm around her waist. He was glad she couldn't see his face. It made him even more thirsty for revenge. He also wasn't going to second guess her or encourage her to take an OTC pain med if she wanted something stronger. MacGregor really did a job on her leg. Indirectly, he was responsible for her injuring her hands as well. Killing him would let him off the hook. He has thoughts of brining him to the holding cells in the basement and torturing him for a while before he killed him.

"Before you put that back on, can I wash my leg?" she asked him. Bobby really didn't want to move her leg around or take it out of the bottom of the cast.

"Uh…I don't know Steph…" he stammered. "I don't think it's a good idea to move your leg at all." He looked to Ranger for support because her eyes were pleading with his.

"Pleeeeaaase," she begged. "It looks and feels so gross…" Ranger brushed her hair back behind one ear.

"Babe, it's not a good idea," he told her softly, kissing her ear.

"It doesn't look thatbad, Beautiful," Lester added. All three looked up at him giving him a dumb look.

"Nice try, Les," she muttered. "Look, you know I'm going to try to do it myself. And wouldn't that be worse? At least now, all of you can help me." Ranger let out an exaggerated sigh.

"Babe," he began, "Do you always have to do things the hard way? I've been in combat where the odds were stacked against us and that wasn't anywhere near as stressful as dealing with you." She turned to stare at him.

"So this is my fault?" She was getting angry. "Oh, I'm sorry it's been so stressful for you." Lester and Bobby exchanged glances. They knew a big fight was coming. "Yeah, I can imagine how hard it was for you. Let's see, I was drugged and kidnapped. And the few times I did get food, it was oatmeal! I mean…who the hell actually eats oatmeal on purpose? I was able to drink water out of the faucet in the bathroom. And, the only way out was through the window. It was raining and I had no shoes and didn't know where I was. He caught me again and then smashed my leg with a sledgehammer. And when that didn't work, he set the house on fire leaving me no way to get out. I'm so sorry that you had such a bad time. I don't want to be a burden on you. My parents are coming and they can take me back to my apartment so I don't cause you anymore stress!" She looked at Bobby. "Go ahead. Put it back on so I can get out of here." Ranger was stunned. He didn't know what to say. He was starting to get angry. He wanted to strangle her. For a moment, he was regretting starting a relationship with her, but that quickly passed. He realized he shouldn't have said that and probably hurt her feelings. Bobby looked to Ranger. Ranger nodded and he put the top of the cast back on. Ranger started to put his arm around her shoulder and she pulled away from him. He looked to Lester and Bobby and nodded his head in the direction of the door. They left them alone.

"Babe, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that," he told her softly. "I don't want you to go. Please stay here with me." He put his arm around her and this time she didn't pull away. He could feel her body relax as he drew her closer.

"Why did you say that? If you don't want to be with me anymore, I'll leave. You don't have to feel obligated to help me. I don't want bring any stress to your life," she replied in a tired voice. "I'll leave with my family and you can get on with your life."

"Stephanie, I love you and I don't want you to go. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. It frustrates me when people don't do what I tell them to do. I'm really working on that. It frustrates me more when you don't listen because I love you so much." She turned to look at him. She could see a hint of pain in his eyes. Not much as he didn't show emotion that often. "Please stay here with me."

"I love you too, Carlos," she sighed. "I'm not used to depending on anyone. Too many people, including my parents have let me down too many times. I'm totally helpless right now. I can't walk. I can't do anything for myself. I can't even walk my dog without help. This is really hard for me because I don't want to have to depend on anyone. I….I just…don't…." she trailed off, leaning her head against his shoulder.

"You just don't what?" He stroked her hair.

"I just don't feel like myself right now," she finished. "I feel so useless, and I feel like a burden to you."

"Don't ever feel like that, Babe," he replied. "I would do anything for you. They guys would do anything for you. Not because of me, but because they all like you. This is a bad situation right now. That was a stupid comment I made and I am sorry. I really didn't mean it like it came out. This has been so stressful for me because I've never loved anyone like I love you. And I had and still have no control over the situation. He took you from me and he hurt you. He's still out there and I know he is going to try it again. I won't let him hurt you again. You can depend on me, Babe. I'm not perfect and I'll probably piss you off from time to time, but I'll always be there for you. That's a promise." He kissed her lips and held her tight. There was a knock at the door. Come in." Bobby poked his head in.

"Sorry, but Steph's family just got here," he told them.

"I'll go down and get them. You can finish up with Stephanie," Ranger told him. He kissed her again and went downstairs to meet her family. Bobby and Lester began to re-wrap the ace on her cast.

"Are you okay, Beautiful?" Lester asked her as he held her leg up so Bobby could get the wrap on easier. She leaned against him and gave him a little smile.

"Yeah, I'm okay." She sighed. "He apologized. I apologized. I'm just tired and frustrated. The one thing I really hate is needing people to do things for me. And I can't do anything for myself right now."

"Steph, we don't mind helping you at all," Bobby told her. "I wouldn't be crazy about cleaning up dog shit, but I would do anything for you." She giggled.

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind helping you in the shower," Lester joked. She and Bobby gave him a look, but he just smiled back.

"You are so not right Lester Santos," she told him. He just laughed. "I'll let Ranger know you offered." He stopped laughing and Bobby smirked. Bobby secured the last ace wrap and Lester put her leg down.

"Okay, Steph. Let me just get a look at the wound on your hip." She rolled on her left side and Bobby slid her pants down over her right hip. Lester swallowed hard. Her hip bone was clearly seen. Bobby changed the dressing and noted that the wound looked good. When finished he slid her pants back up just as Ranger came back with her family. "Is your appetite any better?"

"A little, but I'm going to eat till I puke because my mother will never shut up if I don't eat whatever she brought," she told them.

"Stephanie!" her mother called out and ran over to her.

"Hi Mom." She was followed by Grandma Mazur and her father. "Hi Daddy. Grandma." They each gave her a hug.

"My god, Stephanie. You are so thin! Are you alright?" Before she could even answer, her mother continued. "I brought lasagna and garlic bread." She looked at Bobby and Lester. "There's enough for everyone. And we brought pastries and I made pineapple upside down cake."

"Thanks." She looked at Bobby and Lester. "You can stay for lunch, right?" Lester and Bobby looked at each other and nodded. Ranger appeared in the doorway. He had just put all the packages they brought in the kitchen. "I'm sure it's still hot, so why don't we eat now." Lester picked her up to carry her into the dining room.

"Carlos, can you help me with the dishes and silverware?" Helen asked him. He did as he was asked. He was pleased that her mother seemed to be treating him well. He knew there were long time problems between Stephanie and her mother, but it still was her mother and Stephanie hadn't given up on her yet. He introduced Bobby and Lester to her family. Ranger helped Helen put the food on the plates. He made sure he fixed Stephanie's plate…giving her a small portion hoping her mother wouldn't notice.

"Stephanie, you are so lucky to be surrounded by all these handsome men," her grandmother told her. Oh God, here it comes, Stephanie thought. Tank and Hector came in. They smelled the food. Ranger was actually grateful for more company. He wanted to show her mother that they loved and supported Stephanie.

"I thought I smelled food," Tank announced. "I really enjoyed your pot roast, Mrs. Plum."

"Thank you. I made plenty for everyone," Helen told them. She was busy being the perfect hostess. "Stephanie, why aren't you eating?" She held up her hands. "Oh." Ranger sat down next to her.

"I'll help her," he told her. He gave her a small bite. "Just take small bites and take your time, Babe. Don't eat more than you think you can," he whispered in her ear. She smiled at him. I love you, she mouthed to him. I love you too, Babe, he mouthed back. Helen sat down after she made sure that everyone got a plate of food.

"This is very good, Mrs. Plum," Tank told her and helped himself to another plate. Grandma Mazur pinched his buttock when he walked passed. Lester and Hector snickered as Tank yelled out.

"Grandma, please don't molest my friends," Stephanie told her with a sigh.

"It's not fair, Stephanie, to hog all the good looking men in Trenton," she told her. "And all of them with impressive packages!" Hector and Bobby choked on their food. Lester burst of laughing.

"Christ! I'm eating," Frank Plum growled. Stephanie looked at the guys and mouthed "Sorry" to all of them. She looked at Ranger and smiled. He just shook his head and smiled back.

"So Stephanie, are you coming over Friday night for dinner? You always come over for dinner on your birthday," Helen asked her. Ranger wanted to smack his head. He completely forgot about her birthday. She looked at Ranger.

"Uh…I don't know Mom," she stammered. "I really don't feel like doing anything for my birthday this year." She didn't want to get into the fact that there still was a psycho killer on the loose that was after her.

"But it's your birthday, Stephanie. You always come over for cake. You have to celebrate your birthday." She insisted. Ranger was starting to get a little annoyed. He was torn between keeping her safe and making sure she got to do what she wanted on her birthday.

"Helen, can it. Stephanie needs to stay here right now," Frank spoke up. "That crazy person is still running around and Ranger will keep her safe here. Don't worry about it, Pumpkin." Stephanie beamed at her father.

"Thanks, Daddy," she told him. "Mom, we can do something when things calm down. I know you mean well, but it's not just a good time right now." Lester saw what Stephanie told him about her family. He was glad to see her father stick up for her.

The rest of the visit was uneventful. Frank could see that his daughter was getting uncomfortable and tired. He motioned for Ranger to follow him into the kitchen.

"I just wanted to thank you again for bringing my baby girl back home safe," he told him, shaking his hand. "My wife means well, but we both know that Stephanie is not going to be safe until that nut job is caught. I trust that you will keep her here until that happens." Ranger nodded. "Now, I know my daughter. She is very stubborn and headstrong. She's going to start to feel caged up and is going to give you a hard time. I'm asking that you be patient with her. I know she loves you very much. I haven't seen her this happy…ever. Don't give up on her. If she gets out of line, I want you to call me and I'll come here and straighten her out." Ranger liked Frank from the first time they met. Now, he gained even more respect for him.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to her, Frank. I love her. She is the most precious thing in the world to me. Plus, all of my men care for her and will look out for her," Ranger promised him. "And, I know firsthand how stubborn Stephanie is, but I will call you if I need you." Frank nodded and shook his hand.

"I'll get them outta here. Stephanie looks uncomfortable and tired. She needs to rest. I know it's her birthday on Friday and Helen is going to want to do something. The thing is that her sister, Valerie, is coming for a surprise visit with her 2 daughters. I know Stephanie will want to see her sister. If you don't mind, maybe we can let Helen make her a cake and bring it over here." Ranger nodded.

"That would be fine. I will call you during the week to set it up. Maybe we can throw her a small surprise party here. There is a rec room on the 4th floor for the staff that have apartments here. We can set up down there to keep it a surprise." Frank nodded. He rounded up Helen and Grandma Mazur. They said their goodbyes and Ranger took them back down to the garage.

"See, I told you," Stephanie said to Lester.

"Yeah, but your Dad stuck up for you," he replied. She smiled.

"Yeah…he always does."

"Steph, I'm going to pick up some protein shakes for you to drink today," Bobby told her. "You're going to need to protein for healing. Since you're not eating…."

"I'm eating," she protested. "I'm just not eating as much as I usually do. I ate the lasagna."

"Yeah, and I saw you spit some out for the dog," Bobby replied. "I'll get the shakes. This will help you get in some calories. Steph, I can see your bones. I know your appetite is in the toilet right now, but we have to figure out a way to get some calories into you."

"Okay…whatever," she conceded. Lester picked her up and brought her over to the couch, sitting down with her in his lap. "Tank, I'm sorry about my Grandmother." She started to laugh. Lester, Bobby, and Hector laughed. Tank looked embarrassed. "I'm just glad she didn't pinch something else." Tank looked horrified at that thought.

Ranger came back into the apartment. Seeing Stephanie on Lester's lap gave him a twinge of jealously, until she looked at him and smiled, with her eyes lighting up. She looked a little tired and uncomfortable like Frank had observed. "Do you want anything?" She nodded.

"I'm thirsty, maybe something to drink." He headed for the kitchen. Bobby followed him in and told him he was going to get the protein shakes for her.

"Steph, can I get you anything?" Bobby asked her. She looked past him to Ranger who was out of her line of site. She mouthed "Pepsi". He smiled and nodded. Ranger brought her an ice tea.

"Thanks," she said. Lester took the glass and held it for her and she drank from the straw. "Thanks for putting up with my family today. I mean I love them, but they can be a little much at times." She giggled. Ivy jumped up into Stephanie's lap, curled up and went to sleep. It was very apparent she was happy to have Stephanie back home. She rested her hands on top of her. "So, what do we do next?"

"About what?" Lester asked. She looked at Ranger.

"MacGregor." They all looked at Ranger. "I promised you I would stay here and I will do that, but I want to be involved in this. If you can't find him, you are going to have to use me for bait and you know it." Ranger sat in the chair. They waited for him to respond.

"First, we will stake out your apartment to see if he comes looking for you there. He may already know you are here. You said you saw him in front of the hospital. He may have followed us here. We'll keep watch in this area too. Right now, that's about it. You can help do research and background checks to see if there is anything else we can find out about him. That may help us find him too. And if all this fails, maybe, just maybe, we will use your for bait," he told them. "Babe, you are totally defenseless right now. You need to get stronger before I would even consider putting you in that position." The guys agreed.

"Steph, if one of us misses something, or gets hung up for even a second, that could put your life at risk because there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. You can't even hold a gun right now, no less pull the trigger," Tank told her.

"I understand, and I'm not arguing. But the fastest way to find him is to let him think he's got clear access to me. We just have to figure out how to do that." She told them. "I may be blonde, but I'm not stupid. I don't want to put me at risk either, but I'll never be safe until he's dead." They all looked at her. Did she hear us talking about killing him, Ranger wondered. "Hel-lo! He was found not guilty before, what's to say it won't happen again. I'm not trying to be his Angel of Death, but the truth of the matter is that it's me or him." She never ceased to amaze him. Just when he thought she was so vulnerable, she would bring out this strength and toughness that would surprise him.

"If we find him, Bonita, he's as good as dead," Hector told her. Ranger shot him a look. It was one thing for her to know about it, but he didn't want to involve her in it and discuss it in front of her.

"And once he is gone, then one of you can take me to the mall," she told them. Ranger smiled. Lester slid out from under her and stood up.

"Count me out, Beautiful," he told her. "It was bad enough I had to go buy woman's underwear, I'm not going to the mall." He put her ice tea on the table. "It was kind of fun to watch how embarrassed Hal was though. I'll take the dog out again." He grabbed the leash and Ivy jumped up and ran after him. Hector and Tank stood to leave also.

"We'll come back later to check on you, Bombshell," Tank hugged her. Hector gave her a kiss.

"Thanks for checking on me, guys," she told them. When they left, Ranger slid next to her on the couch, pulling her onto his lap. She snuggled up next to him, which made him feel a little better after she had been sitting on Lester's lap. He kissed her temple, then began to nibble on her ear lobe. He slipped a hand under her shirt and caressed her breast. She let out a little moan which turned him on. He loved the little noises she made in response to his touches. She could feel him getting hard. She slowly grinded her hips against it.

"Oh, Babe," he moaned. He unzipped her jacket and pushed up the tank top she wore under it. He angled his body so he could get his mouth on one of her pebbled nipples.

"Carlos," she breathed. She softly moaned again. Then she realized that Lester would be back any second and she tensed up. Ranger looked at her. "Lester will be coming back." He had forgotten that Lester had taken to dog out. He pulled her shirt back down. "We can finish this after he leaves." He gave her his usual wolfish grin. He picked her up and carried her to the bed just as Lester came back. Ranger went back out to the living room. He thanked Lester and locked the dead bolt behind him. He went back to Stephanie to finish what they started.

Chapter 25

Even though he was careful and slow, Stephanie's leg was throbbing after they made love. "Babe, I wish you said something. I didn't want to hurt you."

"Carlos, it seemed like forever from the last time we made love. I didn't care. I wanted you so bad," she told him. He gave her some Percocet and made her take it with crackers. He decided to give her the Keflex a little early. She would be out when the next dose was due, and he wanted her to get her rest. Ivy curled back up with Stephanie and it wasn't long before they were both asleep.

Ranger decided to go back down to his office to review the file on MacGregor. He was sitting at his desk when Tank came in and sat down. "What's up?"

"I got a call from Morelli. He asked if he could come by to see Stephanie," Tank told him. Ranger's face got grim. He never thought of himself as a jealous person before. Now, he hated to admit he was. Tank was his best friend and could read him like a book. "He worked with us and helped us out to find her. Look, I know he wants her, but that girl has eyes only for you. Morelli has been in her life a long time and you're not going to be able to change that. Let him see her." Ranger let out a sigh and nodded.

"If Stephanie wants to see him, it's okay. She's sleeping right now and she just had some pain meds so she will be out a while. Maybe it would be better tomorrow," Ranger conceded. Tank looked at him.

"Well, he asked if he could come to see her today." Ranger shot him a look. "Come on. We all got a chance to see her. Wouldn't you want to see her right away?"

"She's mine, Tank. I have a right to see her." Tank just smiled at him. First, he had never seen his friend so whipped, and now, he is jealous. "What's so funny?" Tank smirked.

"You. I never thought I'd see bad ass Carlos Manoso so head over heels in love with a woman. And jealous as all hell too." Ranger shrugged his shoulders. He put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes.

"Me neither." He sat there for a moment. "I keep thinking if Connie has waited another week or so to ask me to teach Stephanie how to be a bounty hunter or if MacGregor had found her before the other girls, that she could be dead right now. And, I would have never gotten to know her. She is so special. I don't know how I got so lucky to have someone like that in my life." Tank nodded.

"I told you she was special from the beginning. I wasn't going to let you treat her like you treated all the rest." Ranger winced at the thought. He really did treat them poorly.

"What I don't get is how Morelli and her ex-husband let her slip away. Morelli took advantage of her and threw her away like garbage. Her ex-husband cheated on her and then left her broke and homeless in the divorce. I did some research on him. He left her with nothing, Tank. Her car was in his name. He bought it just before they got married and he gave it to her. He had her sign paperwork that she didn't even know what it was so all their assets were in off shore accounts in his name. He left her with nothing but debt. He even took everything she had beforethey were married. She finally paid it off and then loses her job at a lingerie company. I mean, I know Steph can be stubborn…" They both laughed. "But, I could never fuck with a woman like that and then rub her face in it."

"It's their loss. Let's forget for a minute how beautiful she is, but she's got a lot of spunk. I'll never forget how she tased you and then laughed about it." Ranger smiled at the memory.

"It's her birthday on Friday and I almost forgot. I've got to get her something special."

"How 'bout a ring?" Tank raised his eyebrows at him. Ranger just stared back at him. He would never admit it to anyone but the thoughts of marrying Stephanie had crossed his mind several times in the past couple of days. Not right away, but he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her in it. "Okay, maybe get her something else. Morelli already got her a dog so that one is out."

"Asshole." Tank laughed. "Okay, tell Morelli he can come over around 7. She should be up by then." Tank pointed at the file. "I'm trying to see if there is anything I missed. I don't want to use Steph as bait. I don't want him anywhere near her. I know I can't keep her locked in my apartment forever. Shit, she's been held prisoner for over a week. Right now, she's hurt and tired so it will be easy to get her to cooperate. When she starts feeling better, she's going to be begging me to let her out. I hope we nail him before that happens." Tank nodded.

"I've looked at the tapes from the external cameras out front already. I made some notes of the cars that passed by and slowed just after you got back. I'll check the tapes again tomorrow to see if any of them come back." Ranger nodded. "Don't try to do it all yourself. We'll help you. Hell, let Stephanie help. It will keep her busy and make her feel needed. Plus, she wants some payback too. She shocked the hell out of me before. She's a lot tougher than we give her credit."

"I want him dead. I'm going to give a $10,000.00 cash bonus to any of my men who pull the trigger." Tank raised his eyebrows.

"The Bounty Hunter putting a bounty on a man's head?" Tank smirked. "Do you think there is anyone of us that has to be bribed to take this guy out?"

"No, it just a bonus to show my appreciation," Ranger insisted. "Call Morelli. I'm going back upstairs." Tank took out his phone to call Morelli. Ranger was going to check out the internet upstairs to get some ideas for a birthday present for Stephanie. He wanted to get her something very special. He wanted it to be personal. Something that showed his love for her.

Ella was coming out of the bedroom when he got back. "Is she alright?" She smiled at him.

"Yes, she's fine. I just wanted to check on her." He relaxed. "How did lunch with her family go? Did she eat?"

"It went better than I thought. She did eat some. Bobby is getting her some protein shakes…" Ella pointed to the kitchen. He looked in the refrigerator and saw cans of shakes and Pepsi. He smiled. "That's not all he got her."

"Leave her alone," Ella told him. "If she wants Pepsi, let her have Pepsi. Plus there are a lot of calories in a can of Pepsi."

"Ella, thank you for everything you do for Stephanie. She means a lot to me and it's appreciated." Ella gave him a hug.

"It's my pleasure. I adore her. You couldn't ask for a better woman in your life. You are lucky to have found each other. Make sure you open up to her. If you let her in, let her in all the way." He rolled his eyes then realized she was starting to rub off on him. Ella smiled. "She still does it better."

"It's her birthday on Friday. I'm trying to find something special for her." Ella got excited.

"We have to have a party. I can make some food and a cake…." He put up his hands.

"Whoa…slow down. I promised her parents that they could bring a cake for her. Her sister is coming for a surprise visit. I told them we could set something up in the rec center on the 4th floor. I really don't want her leaving here right now. It's not safe." Ella nodded.

"Well, they can bring the cake and I can make hor d'oeuvres. And….maybe you want to invite your parents so they can meet her?" Ella gave him a look.

"Maybe," he told her. His phone rang. It was his mother. She probably couldn't wait for Raoul to leave so she could call him. "Hi, Mama." Ella smiled and left the apartment. He promised his mother that he would bring her over to meet them as soon as she felt up to it. Friday was going to be hectic enough for Stephanie without bringing his family into the mix. He saw that Ella had brought up food for dinner. He looked at his watch and it was almost 5:30 already. Morelli would be coming in a little while. He knew it was mean, but if she was still asleep he was not going to wake her up for him. He looked in on Stephanie. Ivy was still curled up with her. Her ears perked up as he walked towards the bed. She looked over at him and wagged her tail. He wasn't a dog person, but he was slowly getting used to her. It was hard not to like her because she was so friendly and affectionate. Like Stephanie.

Morelli arrived at exactly 7 pm. He had her favorites…carnations, a huge bag of Reese's Peanut butter cups, and a large box of Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts. Tank met him in the garage and brought him up to the 7th floor. Morelli was impressed. He knew about Rangeman and had worked indirectly with Ranger a few times. The Captain told them to always give Rangeman full cooperation as they had some high level government contacts. "The 7th floor is Ranger's. Our control room and main office is on the 5th floor. We have storage and offices on the 2nd & 3rd floors." Tank explained.

"Manoso lives on the entire 7th floor?" Morelli asked. Tank nodded. He's already seen his impressive display of his cars in the garage. A Mercedes, a Porsche Turbo, a BMW, and an F-150 and all the other company SUVs. He wasn't sure if he made all his money legally. Tank knocked before entering the apartment. Ranger nodded to Morelli. It irked him to see that he was bringing Stephanie gifts. But he would never give him the satisfaction that it bothered him.

"She's still sleeping," Ranger told him. Morelli looked disappointed.

"Oh, I don't want you to wake her…" he began. Ranger loosened up.

"It's okay if you want to stay and wait for her to wake up. She's been out a while now and I'm sure she'll be up soon. The pain meds really knock her out. Tank, can you take the dog out?" Morelli nodded. Tank raised his eyebrows, but understood that he didn't want Morelli alone in his apartment. Ranger gave a short whistle and Ivy came running out. Morelli smiled when he saw the dog. Tank put the leash on her.

"She's getting big."

"She loves her," Ranger told him. He was trying to be civil. "You could put that stuff on the dining room table." He pointed to the items her brought for her.

"They're all her favorites," Morelli told him.

"I'm sure she'll like them." Damn, he thought, he didn't like the fact that Morelli knew more about her than he did. He nodded to the couch. "Have a seat. I'll see if she's up." He didn't want to wake her but was going to do it anyway. He didn't want to deal with Morelli any longer than he had to. He slid in bed next to her, brushing her hair from her face. He kissed her temple. "Babe?" he said softly. She began to stir and gave a little groan. "Babe, Joe Morelli's here to see you."

"HHHmmm?" He slid his arm around her.

"Joe Morelli's here to see you." She opened her eyes and yawned. "How do you feel?"

"Okay," she told him. "Who's here? What time is it?"

"Morelli. It's a little after 7."

"Joe's here?" He nodded.

"He called Tank earlier and asked if he could come see you. He worked with us to find you, Babe. He just wants to see that you are alright." She yawned and nodded. He helped her to the bathroom and then carried her into the living room. Joe immediately jumped up.

Ranger put her on the couch and Joe gave her a hug. "Steph, I am so glad you are okay. You scared the crap out of me," he told her.

"Well I guess I have to say thank you," she began. "I was really mad at you for telling Tank and Lester about the missing girls. But if you hadn't done that, they wouldn't have been worried about me. They wouldn't have started looking for me as soon as they did and I'd probably be dead."

"Steph, I know how stubborn you are," Joe replied. "I knew that even if you did get anymore flowers and letters that you wouldn't say anything. No matter how scared you were. You didn't leave me any choice."

"I know and I forgive you this time," she told him, then giggled. Ranger smiled.

"Can I get you anything?" Ranger asked him. He was really trying to show Joe that he didn't feel like he was a threat to his relationship with Stephanie.

"Beer if you have it."

"Babe?" He could tell she was wondering if Bobby bought her the Pepsi. She was so easy to read most of the time. And she didn't realize that she said what she was thinking out loud. "Yeah, Bobby got you Pepsi." Her eyes got wide and she stared at him with a guilty look.

"How do you do that all the time?" He smiled and went to the kitchen.

Joe would have stayed longer but about 9 pm, he could see Stephanie looking a little tired. Stephanie gave him a hug and thanked him for coming and the presents. He shook Ranger's hand.

"I'll walk you down to the garage," Ranger told him and the two men left.

"Look, I'm going to be honest with you," Joe told him. "First, I appreciate you letting me see her." Ranger nodded. "But I'm not happy that she is with you. I haven't really worked with you and don't fully trust you. Plus, I'm sure you already know that I am interested in her. We've known each other almost all our lives. I know everything about her. I looked after her growing up. I let her tag along with me. I was her first. I'm not going to give up on her…I love her and I always have." Ranger didn't change his expression. He kept his cool.

"She is mine, Morelli," he told him. "She loves me. Youhad your chance a long time ago, and you fucked it up. Ididn't take advantage of a kid and throw her away like garbage and write about it all over Trenton." The elevator doors slide open and Ranger made a sweeping gesture with his arm. "Have a nice evening." Morelli just gave him a look as he walked out. Damn Manoso. He did treat Stephanie like a whore when people said it like that. The truth was he just selfishly wanted to be her first. He was the first to touch her everywhere. He was the first to kiss her. He felt like he was entitled to be her first lover. He regretted the way he handled it ever since.

As Morelli pulled out, Raoul pulled in. Ranger waited for him at the elevator. "Mama called me already." Raoul laughed.

"I'd like to say that she was happy to see me, but all we talked about was you and Stephanie," he told him. "She's excited for you and really wants to meet her. I showed her pictures, which she insisted on keeping. They're on the refrigerator by the way." Ranger just shook his head.

"I told her as soon as Stephanie feels better that I would take her over there. We have too much going on right now." They got into the elevator.

"How is she doing today?"

"Okay. It's been a long day. I'm sure there will be more people that want to see her, but I have to make sure she gets some rest." They got off the elevator and walked into the apartment. Stephanie was still on the couch. Tank had returned with Ivy and was feeding Stephanie some of the munchkins. Hector, Sylvio, and Hal were also there. He would let them visit for a little while longer then kick them out so he could have Steph all to himself.

Ranger's phone rang. He listened and muttered, "Shit", under his breath. "Tank, we gotta go. Break in." He looked over at Raoul.

"Yeah, I can stay with her till you get back." Ranger gave her a kiss and Tank and the others left.

"Did you have a nice visit with your family today?" she asked him. He nodded. He got up and went into the kitchen.

"Do you want anything?" He took a beer for himself.

"Pepsi, please." He opened the can and put a straw in it for her. She was able to hold the can in her bandaged hands. "Thanks. Tomorrow I can lose these bandages. I can't wait." He sat down in the chair across from her.

"How are you feeling today?"

"Okay. I just feel soooo tired. I don't know why because I just feel like all I've been doing the past few days is sleeping." She sipped her Pepsi.

"You've been through a lot, Steph. It's probably all catching up with you." He pointed to the box of munchkins. It had been a long time since he had any. She nodded and he took a couple. "Our mother can't wait to meet you. She's excited that Carlos has a girlfriend." She smiled. "Just be patient with her, Steph, she's already planning the wedding." Steph rolled her eyes.

"I hate to burst her bubble, but I'm not getting married again…or having any kids." Raoul was a little surprised at this.

"Why not?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"I've been married before and it wasn't good. I just don't want to be in that position ever again. As far as kids go….I just don't want them." She sipped her soda again. Raoul wanted to ask her what happened but she seemed to shut down. He would ask Ranger about it later.

"I'm sorry. That was none of my business," he took a long drink from his beer. She looked uncomfortable. She nervously bit her lower lip. She felt like she offended him. "Stephanie…it's okay. You have your reasons and that's between you and Carlos." A tear slid down her cheek. Raoul felt bad. He didn't mean to upset her. He got up and sat down next to her on the couch and pulled her into a hug. "Steph, I'm sorry. Please don't cry. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to get married." She got herself together after a few minutes.

"I'm sorry," she told him. "My marriage and divorce were really bad. I just can't do that again." He nodded. He wasn't going to push for anymore.

Ella came in. She saw Raoul holding her and red eyes with tear streaked cheeks. "Stephanie? Are you alright?" She looked for confirmation from Raoul. She nodded.

"I'm fine, Ella. I think I'm just a little tired."

"Ranger said you slept through dinner. I came up to get you something to eat." Stephanie nodded to the munchkin's box. Ella grimaced. "That's not a proper dinner. Before you say that you are not hungry, I'm going to make you a little something. You don't have to eat it all, but you will have to eat something. You need to eat and get back some of the weight you lost." Stephanie didn't want to argue.

"Maybe just a peanut butter sandwich…with some milk?" Ella nodded and went into the kitchen to make it for her.

"Your appetite is legendary with Rangeman, Steph. That's why it's got everyone worried that you are not eating," Raoul told her with a smile. She smiled back.

"I wish everyone would stop worrying about me. I'm fine." She sighed. "All this attention is starting to drive me crazy. I hate having to depend on people. I feel like a burden right now."

"Nonsense," Ella told her, bringing her a plate with her sandwich and a glass of milk with a straw.

"I can't even feed myself, Ella. I can't even take care of my own dog. I hate having to ask everyone to keep taking her out. Once I get these bandages off my hands, I can at least hold the leash. I can hop to take her out, but I know Carlos doesn't want be leaving this building right now. I promised him I would stay. But I know me. I'm going to start going crazy in a few days. Then, I'm going to get really sarcastic and bitchy. I mean even more sarcastic than I am now. Everyone is going to want to avoid me and I won't blame them." Ella sat on the other side of her.

"Stephanie, you have been through a lot. Every man in this company would do anything for you and not think twice about it. They have been lining up to offer to help you. They like Ivy and don't mind taking care of her for you. You know they look for any reason to get away from those monitors." Stephanie nodded. That she knew was true. Out of all the assignments, monitor duty was the least favorite.

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm just feeling sorry for myself again." She accepted a bite of the sandwich. Ella gave her a look as she chewed. She swallowed and chased it with milk. "I kinda had a fight with Carlos about it this morning. It's really hard to have to depend on someone for everything when you are so used to doing everything yourself."

"I understand," Ella told her knowingly. Raoul nodded. "You are a strong and independent woman, but you are with people who love you." She smiled.

"I know that, Ella. I'm going to try to behave myself." She laughed. "I really, really am going to try." Ella turned to Raoul.

"You make sure that she finishes this." She gave Steph a stern look. "I'm not asking you to eat a lot but you need to eat this whole sandwich." Steph gave her a salute. She kissed her forehead, and then did the same to Raoul.

"Goodnight, Ella. And thanks for everything," Stephanie told her. Raoul gave her another bite.

"Do you think it would have been better if you stayed with your parents?" he asked thinking that maybe it was more stressful here because she had only known everyone for a little over a month. She laughed.

"No. I think I would be calling MacGregor to come and finish the job after a few days. Don't get me wrong, I love my family. My mom and I have a strained relationship." She gave him a smile. "Today was actually the first time that she didn't blame me for what happened. Which could either mean that my father warned her not to say anything or Carlos warned her not to say anything." Raoul was going to ask about her relationship about her mother but decided against it. He didn't want to upset her again. He didn't have the stone face the Ranger had. She could read his emotions better. "Let's just say that my mom and I have issues that we are working on."

They spent the rest of the time talking about his family. She had fallen asleep just after 11pm. He carried her to the bed and carefully tucked her in. Ivy jumped up and curled up with her. She wagged her tail and licked Raoul's hand as he pet her head. They never had dogs growing up. His children kept begging for a dog. He really had taken to this dog and was starting to rethink the whole no pet rule. He stretched out on the couch and fell asleep himself.

Ranger had gotten back after 2 am. He realized the she didn't have her midnight dose of Keflex and woke her up so she could take it. He hated waking her up but knew it was important.

"Everything go okay?" she asked him. He kissed her cheek.

"Yeah, Babe. Go back to sleep." He showered then snuggled in bed with her.

Chapter 26

After his run, Ranger woke Stephanie to help her shower and take her meds. He didn't have time to help with her hair and she just let it dry curly. Although she really looked hot when she blew the curls out straight, he liked her hair natural best.

"Bobby will be up after our morning meeting to take off those bandages," he told her over breakfast. He was pleased to see that she ate a whole bagel. She did a good job on the munchkins, but he also knew that she had some help. Raoul had slept on the couch. Ranger didn't want to wake him when he came in. He had joined them for breakfast. He was going back to Miami on Wednesday. Ranger was going to miss him. He started to get used to his brother being around again.

"I can't wait," she moaned. "I can't wait till I can walk again. Or at least use crutches or something." Ranger gave her a sly smile.

"I can always get you a wheelchair, Babe." She rolled her eyes and shot him a death glare.

"You are so lucky I can't throw anything at you right now." Ranger and Raoul smirked at the same time. "Great…wise ass in stereo." She muttered. Raoul had finished his breakfast.

"On that note…." He rose to leave. "I'm going back to my room to shower. I'll see you on 5. I've got some reports to go over." He patted Ranger on the back and kissed the top of Stephanie's head before leaving.

"What are you going to do today, Carlos?"

"Catch up on paperwork. Make sure everything is running the way it's supposed to be. Have lunch with you." She smiled. "I have some errands to run this afternoon. Is there anything I can get for you?" She shrugged.

"How about take me with you?" She looked at him hopefully. He raised his eyebrows. "I know," she sighed. "Just checking."

"Are you going to start giving me a hard time about staying in the building?" He asked her with a sly smile. She smiled back.

"Probably. But I'm going to ask you now, before we have a fight about it, to put yourself in my place. How would you feel if you were cooped up and couldn't go outside? And to make matters worse, not be able to walk?" He considered what she was saying. He would go nuts. "I'm really going to try to cooperate, but I know I'm going to get a little crazy. I'm just asking you now to be patient with me. I know you love me and want to keep me safe. But if we don't get him soon, I'm going to have to be able to go outside eventually. Oh and another thing…" Here it comes, he thought. "I know my Mom is going to push to do something for my birthday. I really don't want anything. With everything that has been going on, I'm not in the mood to celebrate." He kissed her.

"If you really don't want anything, nobody will force you. But Ella and the guys got excited when they found out that your birthday's Friday. It's going to be hard to tell them no." She made a face. "But if you don't want anything, I'll tell them no." He hoped she would change her mind. He looked at his watch. "I gotta get downstairs. I'll see you for lunch. Call me…." She held up her bandaged hands and wrists as if to say how. "Uh….shit" He looked around for an idea. "Fuck," he muttered. He didn't want to leave her alone but had to get downstairs. "I guess you're going to have to come with me, Babe." She grinned from ear to ear. "Bobby can bring you back up and get those bandages off. Then we'll see what you will be able to do." He scooped her up, with Ivy bounding along, and they went downstairs.

The men were surprised but happy to see Ranger bringing Stephanie to the meeting. Ivy greeted them as well. Ranger knew they were going to be late getting the meeting started. The men each took their turns giving her hugs. They were so happy to see her but it killed them that she was injured. Ranger was going to announce the $10,000.00 bounty but didn't want to do it in front of Stephanie. He would do it later. They ran through usual business and caught up with all the accounts. Stephanie was so glad to be with them and just out of Ranger's apartment even if it was for a short time.

When the meeting was over, Bobby took her back upstairs to take off the bandages and check her wounds. "Ranger wants me to make sure you can use the phone or intercom before I leave," he told her as he unwrapped her hands. The swelling had gone down a little more and the sutures and other lacerations were free from signs and symptoms of infection. "Wiggle your fingers." She could wiggle the fingers somewhat on her left hand. She could still only wiggle her thumb and the first 2 fingers on her right. "Try to call Ranger." She tried to pick up the cell but dropped it because she couldn't get a good grasp on it. The majority of the lacerations were on the pinky side and the outer side of her hands and fingers so it pulled on them when she tried to made a fist or close her hands. "Ooookay. That's not going to work yet. Just try to push the intercom." She was able to do that without any difficulty.

"Yo," came Ranger's voice. She detected a hint of a smile.

"Yo yourself," she answered.

"I take it you can call if you need me."

"I can't hold the cell, but I can use the intercom." Well at least she can call someone who could call me if I wasn't in the office, he thought.

"I'll see you for lunch, Babe."

"I want to get a look at your hip." She lay on her side and he checked the site. He left the bandage off. "Looks good. We don't have to check your knee again till tomorrow. I'm going to call and make your appointments this morning." He threw away the old bandages. "How are you doing on pain?" She shrugged her shoulders again.

"Okay, I guess." He sighed.

"Steph…" he huffed, "take the pain meds….please."

"I'm tired of feeling drugged, Bobby. I've been in La-La Land for over a week now. It will stop hurting eventually." He looked at the dose.

"It says to take 1-2 pills. How many have you been taking?" They were the stronger Percocet at 10mg each.

"They have been giving me 2 pills."

"No wonder, Steph. These are really strong. Just take 1 pill. And if that's too strong, you can take a half. I'll ask the doctor if he can write a script for Vicodin or Tylenol #3. You don't need to suffer, Steph. Christ, 2 pills would even knock Tank on his ass." He got her bottled water, a protein shake, and a Percocet. She made a face at the protein shake. "Drink it." He wasn't going to leave until she drank the whole thing. She blanched. "You don't have to like it but you need the calories and the protein. Once you starting eating enough, I won't make you drink them anymore." She rolled her eyes and gave him a salute.

"Why is everyone so worried about me eating? I'm just not that hungry right now. I'm pretty sure when I start feeling better, I'll be eating normal again. I mean I'm not starving myself. I ameating something." He looked at her.

"Steph, you weren't a heavy person before this happened. I realize that. As a matter of fact, your weight was on the very low end of normal for your height. So even if you lose 5 lbs, it's going to look like a 20 lb or more loss on me. I'm not trying to upset you, but you are really thin now. Your clothes are hanging off you. Your body is in overdrive due to the injuries and needs the extra calories for healing." He hesitated a minute for continuing. "Steph…have you ever had an eating disorder? Sometimes when a person feels out of control, she feels that the only thing she can control is what she eats." She looked at him for a minute. This wasn't the first time she heard this only she had been accused of being bulimic. Since she ate so much, people swore she had to make herself vomit because she was so small. She started to smile.

"Yeah….I've been told I eat like a pig," she giggled. Bobby's jaw tightened.

"Steph, I'm serious."

"I know you are….I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. It's just that I've been accused several times in the past of having bulimia. No one believed that I could actually eat what I eat and never gain any weight. They swore that I was making myself throw up. There were so many rumors going around about me. That was just another one I had to deal with." She gave him a rueful look. "That was the only thing I was lucky enough to be born with…my fast metabolism." She smiled. She's got to be kidding, Bobby thought. She was also born with those amazing blue eyes, porcelain skin, and drop dead gorgeous looks. The fact that every man at Rangeman would kill for a chance at her was totally oblivious to her. He smiled back.

"I was just making sure. We all care about you and I want to make sure you are okay." She gave him a hug.

"Thanks Bobby. All my life, everyone always made such a big deal about things I screwed up or did wrong. But if there wasanything positive about me, someone always started a rumor to turn it into a bad thing. Steph's so thin. That's because she's bulimic. The captain of the hockey team wants to ask you out. He only wants to go out with Steph because she's already screwed the whole team and he wants a turn. Blah…blah…blah." He was shocked.

"Gee Steph. I'm sorry. I can only imagine that they were so jealous of you." She looked at him and smiled. Her eyes lit up.

"Get outta here," she elbowed him in the upper arm. "Why would someone be jealous of me?" Bobby's jaw dropped.

"Maybe because you are an incredibly beautiful woman with an awesome personality to match." She rolled her eyes again. "Let me tell you something. And I'm not saying this to upset you or anything. Ranger could, and did, have any woman he wanted. Women throw themselves at his feet. He wouldn't give even 95% of them the time of day. And they were some pretty fine looking women. Ranger isthe job. 24/7. He is all business and hardly ever took the time for any pleasure." She stared at him. "Stephanie, you brought Mr. Bad Ass to his knees. He never brought a woman here. I mean even to this building. He never brought anyone, male or female, with us on a take-down. He has never shown any affection in public before. Just so you know, if you see us laughing, we are laughing at him, not you. He can't keep his hands off you. He can't stop staring at you. When you talk back to him…" He smiled at her. "Steph, we almost piss ourselves. No one ever talks back to Ranger and gets away with it. Except you." She searched his face to see if he was kidding, but Bobby was serious.

"You're really serious, aren't you?" she asked, incredulous. He nodded.

"It just blows me away that you really have no clue how gorgeous you are." She just stared at him in disbelief, jaw dropping towards the floor. He smiled at her. "Maybe that's why you are so special. You're not conceded or bitchy like most beautiful women." She giggled.

"Well I don't know about the bitchy part," she smirked. "I can be a total bitch at times." She was starting to feel a little funny. "Besides, my sister Val was the pretty one. She was the pageant queen. And my Mom's favorite." She blinked and shook her head.

"You okay, Steph?" Bobby narrowed his eyes at her.

"Yeah…" she slurred. "Why is the room starting to spin?" Her eyes had become constricted and glazed over.

"I think the Percocet is kicking in," he smiled. She started to giggle and couldn't stop. Bobby had to laugh. She was totally stoned. She tried to stand up but fell over with Bobby catching her. "Okay, I guess we try half a pill next time."

"I'm going to get a Pepsi….do you want one?" she asked him. She tried to stand up again but he pulled her back on the bed. This was not going to be good, he thought.

"Steph, you wait here and I'll get you a Pepsi. Stay on the bed. Don't move." Bobby stood up and slowly backed to the door. He was watching her. "Stay on the bed, Steph." She giggled.

"Okay….I'll stay on the bed," she mimicked him in a deeper voice. Pepsi, she thought to herself and giggled again. She punched the intercom to Ranger.

"Yo."

"Carlos? You know what's a weird word? Pepsi." She giggled again. He smiled to himself.

"Babe, where's Bobby?" She got off the bed to head for the kitchen, but fell flat as she lost her balance.

"OOOOhff," she groaned when she hit the floor. Bobby was on his way back but didn't get to her in time to catch her.

"Steph!" He knelt down next to her.

"What's going on?" Ranger demanded. "Is she alright?" Bobby was looking her over and helped her up.

"Are you okay?" She giggled again.

"The floor came up and hit me." She looked up at him. "Isn't Pepsi a weird word?" She laughed as he put her back in the bed. A moment later, Ranger and Lester came bursting into the room.

"What the hell happened?" He looked at them with a grim set face. Bobby gave him a sheepish look.

"Hi guys. Bobby got me a Pepsi," she told them and broke out in a fit of laughter again. Lester smiled.

"She's as high as a kite," he told Ranger. Ranger looked angry.

"What the hell did you give her?" he demanded.

"He made me drink a protein shake. It must have been some good shit," she slurred her explanation. He sat on the bed next to her. She put her arms around his neck and gave him a forceful kiss. Lester started to laugh.

"What the hell did you give her, Bobby?" Lester asked him. "I want some." Ranger pulled her back.

"I gave her 1 Percocet. The 2 pills were way too strong for her. So instead of knocking her out.. she's a little high," he explained. "She wanted a Pepsi. I went to get it for her and she tried to get up and walk but fell." Ranger looked back at her.

"Pepsi," she told him and giggled again. Ranger smiled at her and brushed a curl back behind one ear.

"Babe, you don't disappoint." He looked over at Bobby and Lester. "You two can babysit until she comes back down to earth." She rolled her eyes.

"I don't need a babysitter," she told him, mimicking his tone. "I just wanted some Pepsi." She exploded into another fit of giggles. Ranger just slowly shook his head. He kissed her forehead.

"I've got to get back to work. Babe, try not to break any of my men today." Bobby handed her the Pepsi which she immediately began to drink. Ranger got up and headed back to his office.

Bobby had Lester sit with her while Bobby made his phone calls. He set up a follow up appointment with the plastic surgeon on Wed and the orthopedist on Friday. He called the PCP for Rangeman and had them call in a prescription for Tylenol #3 for her. By the time he was finished, she was coming down off her high and had fallen asleep.

"You should have seen the look on Ranger's face when she called him," Lester started laughing when he told Bobby. "First of all, she sounded drunk and then goes on about Pepsi being a weird word. Holy shit…I almost fell on the floor." Bobby smiled. "Then he ran up here after he heard her fall." He stroked her hair while she slept. "It's never dull when Bombshell is around."

"Ranger's going to be up here in about an hour," Bobby told him. "Since she's asleep now, you can head back downstairs. I can finish my paperwork up here." Lester nodded.

"I'll take Ivy with me. She'll need to go out anyway." Lester found her leash and Ivy jumped up and ran over to him.

He had sat across the street in the veterinarian's truck. He was parked down the street watching the building where the men in black held his Seraphina. He knew she would come out eventually. A shotgun sat in his lap. He would remove anyone who stood in his way to get her back.

Chapter 27

Ranger relieved Bobby when he came up for lunch. Ella had already brought up a tray. Stephanie had been asleep but easily woke when he lay down on the bed pulling her to him. He kissed her ear then began to kiss her neck.

"Time for lunch, Babe," he whispered. He slipped one hand under her shirt and cupped her breast.

"HHHmmm," she groaned. He pulled off her shirt and unhooked her bra. "What's for lunch?" He pulled off his shirt.

"You," he whispered.

He held her for a while after they finished. He always felt most relaxed with Stephanie snuggled up against him. She scared him earlier when he heard her fall. She had sounded drunk, and he had no idea what was going on. Now looking back at the situation, he smiled to himself. He thought back to when he first met her at the diner and how much they experienced in the short time they had been together. From the beginning, she stole his heart. That felt like a lifetime ago. He heard of people talk about finding their soul mates but thought it was nothing but a load of crap. Now, he believed every word.

"Are you okay, Babe?" He was even more gentle this time because he hurt her after the last time they made love.

"I'm fine," she replied. "I'm sorry about before. I won't take any more of that stuff. You guys can't keep wasting time babysitting me." He chuckled.

"Babe, none of us had any idea that stuff would affect you like that. It's okay. Bobby is picking up another prescription for you. It's not as strong as the Percocet." He kissed her cheek. "I want you to promise me that if you are having pain, you'll take something. There is no reason for you to be hurting."

"Okay, I promise." She looked into his eyes. "What did Ella bring for lunch?" He raised both eyebrows in surprise.

"Are you hungry?" He sat up. She nodded. He couldn't get his clothes on fast enough and then raced to get her dressed. He knew he was overreacting, but he wanted to get her to the table to eat before she lost her appetite. Stephanie giggled because she knew he was excited that she wanted to eat.

He carried her to the dining room table and brought over the whole tray. He hadn't even looked at what she made yet. Ella made roast chicken breast with broccoli. There was some garlic bread. She must have made it for Stephanie because Ranger didn't eat garlic bread that often. For the first time in a while, she really felt hungry. Ranger was ecstatic when she ate almost all of the chicken breast, some broccoli and a whole piece of garlic bread.

"That was really good," she told him. He couldn't seem to wipe the smile off his face. "Okay…did you take some of the Percocet? You are starting to scare me now."

"I can't believe how excited I am that you actually ate a respectable amount of food," he told her. "You've really had me worried there for a while." She smiled back.

"I just felt really hungry this afternoon. I guess it helped to work up an appetite," she gave him her sex kitten look.

"If that's what it's going to take to get you to eat more, I'll be happy to oblige," he replied giving her his wolfish grin. "Are you up for dessert? Looks like Ella made you cheesecake." Her eyes lit up and she nodded.

Ranger felt like he was walking on a cloud as he headed to the garage. He was going shopping for her birthday present. He never thought he could be so happy to see her eat food before. Granted, it wasn't close to her normal portion, but she ate a good amount and had dessert. Bobby told him about her appointments. He couldn't go Wednesday, but Bobby said he and Lester would take her. Bobby also asked if it was okay if they took her to lunch after the appointment. He hesitated at first but as long as she had two of his men with her, she would be okay. Friday, he would go with her and Bobby to the doctor. This would give her something to look forward to and she would be able to get out for a little while. He was headed to a jewelry store in Newark. His sister swore by this place and got all her jewelry there. He wanted to get her something special. Something that showed how much he loved her. Something that was so….Stephanie. He wasn't sure exactly what he wanted, but he would know when saw it.

"Carlos!" An older man called out to him as he saw Ranger come in the store. Ranger looked over and nodded.

"Hello Mr. Vasquez," he replied shaking the man's hand.

"I haven't seen you in years. How have you been?"

"Good. How about yourself?"

"Can't complain. Business is good. What can I do for you? Are you looking for something special?" He asked. Ranger nodded.

"I'm looking for a gift for my girlfriend. It's her birthday Friday." He explained.

"Do you have anything in mind? What does she like?" He led him to one of the jewelry cases. "Do you want a ring, a bracelet, or a necklace? Any particular stone or do you want gold?" Ranger thought for a minute.

"Her favorite color is pink. I want something special and something different. Opal is her birthstone but that's not what I want." Mr. Vasquez thought for a minute.

"Actually, I think I might have something. Follow me." He led him in the back to his office. He gestured to the seat in front of his desk. He opened his safe and took out a tray. "I don't keep these in the case. I've got a couple of pink sapphires and one pink tourmaline. Tourmaline is an alternative birthstone for October." He showed Ranger the stones. The sapphires were nice, but it was the pink tourmaline that caught his eye. It was a 3 carat heart shaped stone. It was perfect.

"Would you be able to have this set in a pendant for me by Friday?" He asked.

"What do you want it set in?"

"Platinum?" Ranger asked. Mr. Vasquez thought for a minute.

"Platinum is nice, but I have another suggestion. She likes pink so why not set it in rose gold? That's also known as pink gold. It would be different and unique. And the stone would look fabulous." Ranger nodded. "What kind of setting would you like?" Ranger shrugged.

"How many types are there?" Mr. Vasquez smiled.

"Too many. But this is a beautiful stone all on its own. I think a plain basket setting would show it off nicely. Let me call my supplier to see if I can get it for you in the time you need." He made the call and would be able to get the mounting by Wednesday. He told Ranger he would do a rush job and have it ready by Thursday evening. Ranger picked out a chain to go with it. He thanked Mr. Vasquez and left.

Mary Lou, Connie, and Lula had come to visit Stephanie that afternoon. Her mother had called. Hector and Hal also had come up to see her. For the first time ever, Stephanie was starting to feel like she had true friends. Mary Lou and Anthony had always been there for her and were very loyal. She had some other friends but they were the only ones she could ever count on to have her back. Bobby, Lester, Raoul, and Tank also had popped in at different times to check on her. Bobby made her promise that if she needed to take anything for pain, even the Tylenol #3, that she call him to sit with her to make sure she was safe.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Tank had approached Ranger about taking out Raoul Tuesday night before he went back to Miami on Wednesday. They guys wanted to take him out for dinner and drinks. Ranger thought for a minute and told him, "You guys go ahead. Enjoy yourselves." Tank gave him a look.

"That invitation included you. He is your brother."

"I know, but I'm not going to go out and leave Stephanie by herself right now," he explained. "And don't say anything about this to her. She'll insist that I go and will feel bad when I don't." Tank nodded. He was going to make a joke about him being whipped but Steph was really not in any condition to be totally left alone at this point.

Stephanie was sitting on the couch waiting for Ranger to come home. Ella had just brought up dinner. She flashed him her heart melting smile when he walked in. Seeing her waiting for him in his apartment to come home made his heart skip a beat. He wanted this every day. He wanted her to move in but figured he would discuss it after they took care of MacGregor. He walked over to her, taking her into his arms, and gave her an earth-shattering kiss. "How 'bout we work up an appetite for dinner, Babe?" he whispered into her ear when the kiss broke. She ran her tongue along his ear and nibbled on the lobe. A low groan escaped his mouth.

"Sounds good to me," she breathed. He picked her up and brought her into the bedroom.

An hour and a half later, they were sitting at the dining room table. Ranger reheated their dinner and he was extremely pleased to see her eat with all the gusto he was used to seeing. Her little moans when she was pleased with the taste were back. He smiled. "Babe, you're going to wear me out if we have to do that before every meal." She raised her eyebrows at him.

"Well, Carlos, if you're not up to it, I'm sure we can call down to the control room and get some volunteers for help," she joked. Now it was his turn to raise his eyebrows. She giggled.

"I don'tneed any help in that area, Babe. I can keep up with you. And if I can't, I'll just give you some Percocet." He gave her a smirk.

"Nice….drug your girlfriend if she wants too much sex," she replied. "Oh, what are you guys going to do for Raoul? He's leaving Wednesday so you only have tomorrow night. Are you going to take him out? You need to do something, Carlos." Either someone had mentioned their plans to her or she just had too good instincts. He decided to tell her the truth.

"The guys are taking him out tomorrow night."

"Just the guys? You're going too, right?" She looked into his eyes. He shook his head. "Carlos, you better go. He's just not your employee…he's your brother."

"Babe, I'm not going out and leaving you here by yourself. And don't say Ella will be here. She can't pick you up and carry you around. There will be another time when you are able to walk. As a matter of fact, when you are doing better, we'll fly down to Miami for a visit." He thought that would pacify her.

"No, you are going out with Raoul and the guys tomorrow night. I'll be fine. As a matter of fact, I'll have the girls come over and stay with me while you are gone. I won't be alone and if there are any problems, I can call down to the control room for help. Don't argue with me, Carlos. You are going." He let out a sigh.

"We'll see," he told her. He picked up her right hand. Taking a minute to look at her lacerations, cuts, and abrasions. He kissed the palm of her hand. "I love you." She gave him a huge smile where those amazing aquamarine eyes light up.

"I love you, too. But don't change the subject."

"Babe," he sighed.

"I haven't seen anything about me in the papers so far," she began. "Or have you been hiding that from me?"

"No, we haven't told anyone you are here. Sheriff Mason has not released any information that you were found. We're trying to keep a low profile until we get him." He knew she might be seen when she goes out on Wednesday. "Bobby and Lester will be taking you to your appointment on Wednesday. I'm taking Raoul to the airport so I can't go. They asked if they could take you out to lunch after and I told them yes." Her eyes lit up when she smiled.

"Really?" she asked excitedly. He smiled back.

"I thought you'd be okay as long as you had my men with you. The only problem with that is you might be seen and it will be all over Trenton."

"I'll try to wear a disguise or something," she joked.

"That's not a bad idea, but I think if you just wear black and don't stand out, it will be fine. Wear a ball cap and sunglasses and pull your hair back to make you more inconspicuous." He tucked a curl back behind one ear. "You'd still draw a crowd, Babe." He gave her a soft kiss.

"You are going to go out with Raoul and the guys tomorrow night," she told him. He sighed but gave in.

"I'll go. But if you need me, I want you to call me…or the control room to get me right away. Promise me that," he insisted.

"I promise."

Stephanie had called Lula and Connie and they agreed to come over for dinner and have girls night while they guys took out Raoul. Stephanie sat on the bed and watched Ranger as he got ready to go out. He put on a long sleeve black silk shirt and black jeans. He was so incredibly hot, she thought. She was beginning to get a little jealous. She knew women would be hitting on him all night. Hell, women would be flocking to all of them tonight. She wanted to believe that Ranger would never act on any of it. She still had trust issues with men. She wanted him to go out with the guys and have a good time. She remembered what Bobby had told her about all the women who throw themselves at Ranger and how only she had brought him to his knees. That made her feel a little better.

"Wow," she told him, "you look good enough to eat." He walked over to her and kissed her.

"I wish you were going with us tonight," he replied. She smiled.

"Where are you guys going?"

"Gatsby's." Gatsby's was a bar and restaurant just on the edge of Trenton. Wasn't exactly a dive but not the classiest of places either. There was usually a band playing on Friday and Saturday nights and they had a mix of entertainment during the week to include karaoke, sport events on their big screen TVs, and DJs. The food was inexpensive but very good. Stephanie's old band had played their often during high school and college. She hadn't been there in years. She was drawn out of her thoughts by Ranger waving his hand in front of her face. "Earth to Babe." She came out of her fog and smiled up at him. "Anything wrong?" She shook her head no.

"Haven't thought about that place in years," she told him with a smile. "A lot of good memories there."

"You'll have to tell me about them sometime." There was a knock at the door. Connie and Lula had arrived. They had 2 huge bags with them. Ranger carried her out to the couch and then let them in.

Ranger headed down to the garage to meet the rest of the guys to leave. Gatsby's was relatively full for a Tuesday night. Tank had called ahead and reserved a large table for 10 towards the back. Since it was a weeknight, they decided to just order pitchers of beer and only have a few rounds of shots. Just as Stephanie thought, the women were checking them out like they were on the menu. They started the evening out with a round of tequila shots and assorted appetizers. The conversation started out with war stories of military and work related incidents but soon turned to Stephanie. They joked about their first meeting when Ranger brought her to the gun range and she had accidently stunned him, the fat lady falling on her, her being more upset about an unflattering picture in the paper, her appetite, and her various captures. Even Ranger had to laugh out loud. The next round of shots arrived.

"To Stephanie," Tank said, holding up his shot glass. They all raised their shot glasses and repeated, "To Stephanie!" After they downed that shot, Tank looked at Ranger. "You are one lucky mother fucker." Ranger smiled. He couldn't argue that.

The fun conversation continued throughout dinner. More Rangeman war stories were told. There was video playing on all the TVs of bands that had played there in the past. The theme was 80's night. There were some people dancing. A small group of women were dancing as close to their table as possible trying to catch their eyes. Ranger, Raoul, and Sylvio didn't even take notice. The others, who were all single, were watching. Finally, Lester got up and danced with them. Soon, Bobby, Ram, and Cal joined them. Woody and Hal were too shy. A new song blasted through the speakers. Lester had glanced at the screen and did a double take.

"Stephanie?" he blurted out.

The drunk woman who was grinding all over him slurred out, "It's Bethany…not Stephanie." She looked a little annoyed. He pushed her off him and walked back over to the table.

"Is that Stephanie?" he asked them. They all focused on the TV. It was a very young Stephanie. Ranger would know her anywhere. She was dressed in a skimpy sleeveless pink tee shirt that came just below the bra line, a very short, black leather mini, black boots that came to mid calf, long hair straight and hanging about ¾ of the way down her back. Ranger guessed she was in her late teens. She looked and sounded incredible.

"Ho-ly Shit," Ranger muttered. He was shocked. She had never mentioned this at all. There on stage was a very confident Stephanie with tremendous stage presence.

"I didn't know she could sing," Lester said. They were mesmerized. They watched as she sang and moved to the song. She was belting out a very strong and sexy "Burning Up for Your Love" by Madonna.

The bartender was bringing over a few more pitchers of beer. "When was this recorded?" Ranger asked him. The bartender smiled.

"That was a while back…about 13-14 years ago. Steph's really something, ain't she?" The next song they did was Scandal's "Goodbye to You." "Do you guys know Steph?" Ranger nodded.

"That's me on the drums. We played in a band together. Steph's about 15 in this video. When she left the band to marry that asshole, it was never the same. We could never find anyone close to replacing her voice. She could play piano, guitar and sax. Plus, she was so fuckin' hot." He picked up the empty pitchers. "Since you guys are friends of Steph's, this round is on me."

Ranger just watched in awe. Why didn't she say anything about this, he wondered. They performed Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night", and Madonna's "Crazy For You". Then the video flashed to another band. Ranger walked over to the bartender.

"Is there any way I could get a copy of that video?" he asked him.

"I'm sure I could get you another copy. My girlfriend filmed all our performances. I've got tons of this stuff. How do you know Steph?"

"She is my girlfriend."

"Is she okay? I heard that she was missing or something." He dried his hands off on a towel and extended a hand to Ranger. "I'm Mike…Mike Baker."

"Carlos Manoso," he replied shaking his hand. "She's fine. I'll tell her I met you tonight. This kind of took me by surprise. She never said anything about this."

"Well I'm not surprised. The Dick took everything away from her," he told him with disgust. "He made her quit the band after they got engaged. He made her give up music. I lost touch with her after they got engaged. Their marriage didn't last long, thank god. Tell her I said hello. If she's interested, we have to get together sometime. If you give me your number, I'll call you when I can get some of these videos together. Like I said, I have tons of this stuff and I'll try to put together out best stuff. We did a lot of covers for college bars to really make some money. But we did original stuff too. Steph was a hell of a song writer." Ranger gave him his card. "I'll call you." Ranger thanked him and went back to the table.

The drunken girl, Bethany that had been dancing with Lester attached herself to Hal. "How about you and I have a dance now?" she slurred in his ear and practically parked herself in his lap. He looked to Lester who gave him a gesture that indicated he should go ahead.

"I can get another one," Lester joked. Bethany shot him a dirty look as Hal stood up. As if to prove his point, one of her friends appeared by his side, and he took her out to the dance floor. Another one from their group saddled up to Ranger as he walked back over to the table. She brazenly put her arms around his waist, sliding one hand down to his butt. Ranger quickly grabbed her by the wrists, removing him from her grasp. The woman looked startled.

"Excuse me," Ranger told her and started to continue back to the table. Silvio and Raoul watched. This was not unusual for Ranger to be approach by women when he was out. It actually wasn't totally unusual for him to brush them off either. She was persistent. She ran up to him and stepped in front of him with her hands on his chest.

"Hey," she began, "Aren't you looking for a good time? I can make sure you have a real good time tonight, Handsome." Ranger shot her a stern look and once again, removed her hands from his body. Thank God Steph isn't here to see this, he thought.

"Not interested," he told her flatly and walked past her again. She turned around with her hands on her hips and glared at him. She obviously didn't like being shot down.

"What…..are you gay?" she spat at him. Ranger chose to ignore her as he sat back down.

"Guess we have an unhappy customer," Raoul laughed. Ranger shrugged. She didn't like being ignored either and walked over to the table.

"You must be gay!" she told him again. "What's wrong with you?" Ranger glanced at her and turned back to his brother.

"It gets real old after a while," he sighed. He turned back to her. "What part of not interested didn't you understand?"

"You're out of luck. He's got a gorgeous blonde waiting for him back home, Darlin'," Tank told her. "My man said he's not interested so why don't you move along." She turned with a huff and marched off. "At least I can tell Bombshell I was protecting her man."

"I have a feeling she should be grateful that gorgeous blonde is at home right now otherwise cast or no cast she'd have gotten her ass kicked seven ways till Sunday," Raoul joked. They all laughed. He's probably right, Ranger thought. Hal sat back down and was red in the face.

"What's with you?" Tank asked.

"Nothing," he muttered. They continued to look at him. He looked sheepish. "I don't know how Lester does it. He'll go after anything. Those girls are kinda…skanky. That one…" He pointed to the girl he had danced with and they all looked at her. "She kept trying to unzip my pants." He was not virgin but was not used to the brazen and forward women in the NY-NJ area. Some of them snickered. Hal got insulted. "Well maybe that's what you guys want, but not me. I want a nice girl and not a disease factory!" They watched as Lester disappeared with his dance partner. Lester hadn't been with a woman in over a month. After meeting Stephanie, his interest had diminished somewhat as all he could think about was her. Then the shit hit the fan, and he hadn't had the time to go out and get laid. He knew Stephanie was with Ranger and he had no chance but he couldn't help that she was his fantasy. He just wanted to do this girl in the parking lot and he would pretend it was Stephanie. It might help relieve some of the sexual tension he felt around her.

After about a half hour or so, Lester came back to the table. "You're fly's open," Bobby pointed out.

"What are you staring at my junk for?" Lester replied zipping his pants. He sat down a poured himself a beer. They had decided when the beers ran out they would call it a night.

"So…how was it?" Woody asked him. Lester just smiled.

"I've had better, but it wasn't bad."

Ranger had noticed after watching the videos run after seeing Stephanie there were graphics in the corner indicating the name of the band when their set was being shown. He heard a piano playing the familiar tune of Unchained Melody and looked at the TV. It was Stephanie playing the piano. The Trenton Local was written in the lower right corner. Raoul followed his gaze. He smiled.

"She's really good, isn't she?" Ranger nodded. He sat again, mesmerized by her on the screen. This must have been a different performance. Her hair was its natural curly self and she wore jean cut off shorts and a stretchy mock turtleneck sleeveless top. Then, they played Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away'. This time there were only 3 songs shown in this loop. They finished with 'White Rabbit' by Jefferson Airplane. Ranger was impressed with her range. The Trenton local was the name of the NJ Transit run from Trenton to Penn Station, NY. It made all the local stops including Trenton, New Brunswick, Metro Park, and Newark, ending in NYC.

"Damn she was good," Lester exclaimed. "I wonder why she gave it up?" He looked around at them. Ranger was really beginning to despise Dickie Orr. Now he fully realized how much he had taken away from Stephanie. He not only took all her money and possessions, he took a huge part of her by taking away her music.

"It's just one more thing her ex took from her," Ranger said. "The bartender told me he made her quit after they got engaged. I just can't see someone as stubborn as Stephanie giving in to that. I don't know what happened there."

"Are you going to tell her you know about her rock and roll past?" Tank asked. "Or do we have to keep this a secret?" Ranger shrugged his shoulders.

"Don't know how to call this one. There may be a reason why she hasn't said anything, but she certainly doesn't have anything to be embarrassed about. I mean, she was phenomenal."

"Did that guy say she was 15 in the first clip?" Bobby asked. Raoul and Ranger nodded. Bobby let out a low whistle. "Talk about major jail bait!" They nodded in agreement.

"That would have been worth the jail time," Lester added. Ranger shot him a look. "Sorry Boss, but that was the hottest 15 year old I've ever seen."

"How was she able to get into a bar at 15?" Hal asked. They all gave him a dumb look.

"If you were a bouncer, you mean to tell me you wouldn't let that into your club?" Lester asked him. Hal thought for a moment.

"But if she didn't have ID…." He tried to reply but was cut off by laughs and groans. Ranger smiled. Hal was a good guy. He was young, as big as an ox (actually one of his biggest men next Tank), loyal as all hell, but could be so naïve sometimes. "Do you think she had a fake ID?" Even Ranger had to laugh out loud at that one. Ranger got up and went to the bar to pay the tab. He left $100.00 bill as a tip.

"Hey thanks!" Mike told him. "Don't forget to tell Steph I said hi. I'll get in touch with you about copies of the tapes." Ranger nodded and went back to the table.

"You guys can stay if you want, but I'm ready to go." That also meant they were on their own for drinks for the rest of the night if they decided to stay.

Chapter 28

Stephanie had gone down to the garage to see Connie and Lula to their car. She needed to stretch and anything to get out of the apartment. It was exhausting to hop on 1 leg. They gave her a hug and pulled out. The gate stayed open and she turned around to see the guys returning. Ranger was surprised to see her at the elevator doors. He did see Lula's car pass them half way down the block. She leaned back against the wall and waited for them.

"So…did you have a good time?" Ranger walked over to her and gave her a passionate kiss.

"We met an old friend of yours, Babe," he began. "Mike Baker." She stiffened in his arms. He decided he was going to tell her about the videos of her band. She looked like a deer caught in headlights. "You've got an awesome voice."

"Why didn't you tell us you were a rock star, Beautiful?" Lester added. She looked around at all their faces. They were waiting for an answer. She was stunned. This was something that wasn't a secret but not something she was ready to talk about yet.

"What did Mike tell you?" she stammered. Ranger was surprised by her reaction and felt bad that it looked like they were ganging up on her. He sensed she felt uncomfortable.

"He was playing old videos of your band and other bands that played there. Why didn't you tell me you were in a band?" He tried to lighten the mood. She leaned over and pushed the elevator button.

"Isn't a girl entitled to keep some secrets?" Smiling, she pulled back and started for the open elevator. Ranger looked back at Raoul. He scooped her up and carried her in the elevator. She gave the rest of them a wave. "Goodnight Gentlemen." They guys knew well enough to let them have their privacy. They were shocked by her reaction. How could she possibly be ashamed or embarrassed that they knew about her past? Especially that it was something good.

Once the elevator doors closed, Ranger spoke. "Okay, what's the problem? Steph, you were amazing. Why are you upset?"

"How would you feel if you got blind-sided with something from your past in front of a group of people?" she replied. The doors opened and he carried her into the apartment. She didn't speak again until after he sat her on the couch. Ivy jumped up next to her and curled up. "I know it wasn't a secret or anything…." She paused and swallowed hard. A single tear rolled from her eye down her cheek. He felt his stomach tighten. He couldn't understand why she was so upset.

"Steph…." She looked up at him. There was so much pain in her eyes. He wiped the lone tear away with his thumb.

"It's just another Stephanie failure," she whispered. "Music was such a big part of my life. It helped me get through some really rough times. It helped my cope with my problems. It was the only thing that I was truly good at. I allowed someone to take that away from me. So therefore it was another fuck up in my life. I don't like to talk about it or see it or listen to it because it's like it is being thrown back in my face."

"What happened? Why did you give it up?" Ranger asked her gently as he pulled her into his lap. She laid her head against his shoulder.

"Because Dickie thought it wasn't appropriate. He had big political aspirations, and it wouldn't look good if his wife sang in bars on the weekends while dressed like a cheap whore. At first, I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but there was so much pressure from him, his family…my mother. I just gave in and I've hated myself for it. I have no one to blame but myself. Like I said, it wasn't a secret. Hell, we played all over Jersey and clubs in New York." He kissed her forehead.

"You can't always beat yourself up for choices that you made, Babe. You can't change the past. There comes a time when you have to let it go," he told her soothingly.

"I thought I had until it was thrown back in my face again," she sighed. She felt him tense up. "I didn't mean it like that…sorry. I mean that I was forced to face it again."

"Mike was playing videos of all the bands that had played there. It's was 80's night. Babe, I have to be honest with you….I was blown away. You were amazing. Mike said he's got more videos and is going to make me copies. I want to see them. It's a part of you that I would love to see more of. Does that bother you?" She thought for a minute.

"No…actually it doesn't. I think that other then it being a past failure for me, I'm angry that my choice to tell you about it was taken away. I would have eventually told you about it. I'm still trying to deal with trust issues. And, we haven't known each other that long. There is more that I will eventually tell you, but not yet. I'm not ready yet. Actually, there is still so much I don't know about you." He started to protest but realized she was right.

"What do you want to know about me, Babe?"

"Everything," she looked into his eyes. "One piece of information at a time." She smiled. There was a knock on the door. Ranger got up to answer it. It was Raoul. He wanted to check on Stephanie.

"Is everything okay?" he tentatively asked. She smiled at him.

"Everything is fine. Come on in." Ranger went to the kitchen and grabbed some bottles of water. He tossed one to Raoul. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't ruin the rest of your night."

"Steph, we didn't mean to upset you. You were really good. Since we didn't know, it took us by surprise."

"I know. I was just telling Carlos that it was a part of my past that I wasn't ready to talk about yet. And there is was again. I was really surprised. And, I wasn't prepared to talk about it in front of an audience."

"You don't owe me any explanations," Raoul told her.

"I should have asked you about it in private first, Babe. I'm sorry," Ranger said and sat down next to her. She stared into space for a moment with a small smile on her face.

"God, we had some good times." Ranger pulled her back onto his lap.

"Mike said you play piano, guitar, and sax. Do you still play?" he asked her. She shook her head no.

"Dickie gave my piano to a charity to auction off without my knowledge. I sold my sax after we got divorced to pay for food. I pawned my guitar but never had to money to buy it back so I lost it." She sighed. Great, Ranger thought to himself, now he knew what he would get her for Christmas.

"You were really fantastic, Stephanie. We all were impressed. Maybe not today or tomorrow but you need to get back to your music. It's who you are," Raoul told her. She smiled at him.

"One day," was all she replied. Ranger hugged her tighter. Raoul got up.

"I'm going to bed. I'll finish packing in the morning. I'll see you two for breakfast." He kissed Stephanie on the cheek and playfully smacked Ranger on the back of the head.

"It's been a long day, Babe. Let's go to bed." She nodded. He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom with Ivy bounding behind them.

Raoul had breakfast with Ranger and Stephanie. "You all packed up?" Ranger asked him. Raoul nodded and took a sip of his coffee. "I was just getting used to having you around again."

"The Manoso Brothers together again," he joked. "You'll have to bring Stephanie down for a visit when she's feeling up to it. I would like my family to meet you."

"That sounds like a good plan. After everything is over, I'm going to need a vacation. I guess I'll have to clear it with the boss first." She looked over at Ranger.

"You only worked for me for a week. You're on medical leave. And now, you want vacation time?" Ranger teased.

"Uh huh," she smiled back. This got her the 200 watt smile. "What time is your flight?"

"12:45 out of Newark." He looked at his watch. It was 8 am. "We should leave no later than 10. I only have carry-on but you know how long it takes to get through security there." Ranger nodded. "What time is your appointment, Steph?"

"I think it's at 11. Do either of you know where Bobby and Lester are taking me?" She was looking forward to getting out of the building. Ranger shook his head.

"Bobby didn't say. I think they are going to let you pick the place." She was so excited. She tried to pull off a piece of her bagel and cream cheese but it flipped out of her hands, "Oh!" and flopped on to Ranger's shoulder cream cheese side down. He stared straight ahead for a moment before slowly looking at the bagel stuck to his shoulder. She began to giggle. Raoul chuckled. "I'm sorry!" she forced out between giggles. Ranger let out a long sigh.

"Babe." This made her laugh even harder. He loved her laugh. He removed the bagel and placed it on his plate. He kissed her forehead and went to change his shirt.

Ranger and Raoul went down to 5 to wrap up some work before leaving for the airport. Hal came up to get Ivy at 10:30. At 10:50, Lester came rushing into the apartment to get Stephanie to take her to her appointment. "Sorry Beautiful," he told her, "We got hung up on a take-down and we're running late." She grabbed her bag, and Lester picked her up and they headed to the garage. Bobby was waiting in the SUV. They were still wearing their full gear from the take-down.

The surgeon was pleased with the wounds. No infection. Swelling was almost gone. He reviewed some physical therapy orders with Bobby. They set up another follow up appointment in 2 weeks. Bobby was finishing up the paperwork and Lester helped Stephanie to the SUV. He put her down and opened the back door. Lester was getting ready to help her in when they heard a voice from behind them. "Hello Seraphina." They turned to face MacGregor. He was pointing a shotgun at them. Lester stepped forward and shoved Stephanie behind him. MacGregor fired, hitting Lester in the chest, and knocking him back into Stephanie and they both fell to the ground. Stephanie hit the bottom of the door frame with Lester falling on top of her. The pain in her side took her breath away. She heard Lester groan. Oh my God she kept saying over and over again in her head. He shot Lester! He shot Lester.

"I knew I would find you again, my Love. I am taking you back, Seraphina. The Agents of Evil cannot keep you from me any longer. I will eliminate them." He pointed the shotgun again at Lester and was getting ready to fire. Stephanie, without thinking, reached around and grabbed Lester sidearm. It was a Sig just like hers. She pointed the gun at MacGregor and fired. She emptied the whole clip into his head and chest. She was so scared she continued to press the trigger even though the gun was empty and he was down and not moving.

She was in such a fog she didn't notice that two hands gently took the gun from her. "You got him Beautiful," Lester breathed. He felt like someone hit him in the chest with a baseball bat. "Are you alright? Were you hit?" His head was lying against her chest. She couldn't answer. She was in shock. She just shot someone. And she was pretty sure she killed him. "Steph…were you hit?" She shook her head no but he couldn't see her. Bobby came running over to them and snapped his cell phone shut. He had called 911 and just got off the phone with the Control Room at Rangeman. He saw MacGregor and felt for a pulse. He was dead. He went to Lester next, pulling off his vest and started to cut away his shirt.

Sirens were head in the distance. "You okay, Steph?" She looked at him blankly, but nodded. There were huge bruises over the center and right side of Lester's chest. There was some minor bleeding as a few pellets had superficially penetrated. "You didn't get hit, did you Steph?" She shook her head no. Lester tried to angle himself so he could see that she was alright for himself but the pain stopped him. "Take it easy, you probably have some broken ribs."

"Is she alright?" he asked Bobby. Bobby nodded.

"I think she's just in shock. I don't see any blood." Lester relaxed some. Stephanie's head was starting to clear. Oh my God, she thought, Lester was shot!

"L-Les….a-are you o-okay?" she asked him shakily. She wrapped her arms around him in a hug. He put his hands over hers.

"Yeah, Beautiful. I'm fine. A little sore, but I'm going to be alright. How about you?"

"Is he dead?" She looked at Bobby. He nodded putting a hand on her shoulder.

"You had no choice, Steph. If you didn't shoot him, he was going to kill you both."

At that time, the police and a Rangeman SUV pulled up. Tank, Hal, Ram, and Hector hit the ground running. "Report!" Tank demanded. He looked over Stephanie and Lester to make sure they were okay.

"MacGregor was waiting for us when we came out," Lester told him, wincing at the pain as he tried to sit up. Bobby pushed him back down with Stephanie guiding him back to leaning on her.

"Don't move, Les. I you have some broken ribs. You don't want to puncture your heart or lungs." Lester nodded.

"He fired at us. I took a hit and he knocked me back. Steph got my gun and took him out." Tank looked at Stephanie. She was holding Lester, leaning her head on his and staring in to space.

"You okay, Bombshell?" She nodded. He had to make sure before he called Ranger. It was 11:45. He should be on his way back from Newark. The police taped off the area and began to question Bobby, Stephanie, and Lester. The ambulance arrived. Tank called Ranger.

"Yo."

"First, I want to tell you that Stephanie, Lester, and Bobby are alright…" Ranger tensed up. My God, he thought, what happened.

"Report!"

"MacGregor was waiting for them after the appointment. Lester took a shotgun blast to the chest but was wearing his vest. He's got some major bruising, some broken ribs and minor bleeding. Steph wasn't hit. She's a little freaked out right now. She….uh…she shot and killed MacGregor with Lester's gun." Ranger was stunned. Thank God she and everyone were okay.

"Can you put her on the phone?"

"Not yet. The ambulance just got here and they are working on Lester. He's kinda on top of her and she's between Lester and the door frame of the SUV."

"Did Santos take the hit for her?"

"Looks like it. He was getting ready to fire at Lester again when Steph grabbed his gun and she shot him." Holy Shit, Ranger thought.

"Have her call me as soon as she can. I'm still on the Turnpike. Should be there in 25-30 min. Keep me posted."

Chapter 29

The paramedics had gotten Lester on the stretcher and loaded in the ambulance. Tank picked up Stephanie and she hissed in pain. "Are you okay, Bombshell?" She nodded. "Don't bullshit me. You know Ranger will have my ass if your hurt and I don't do anything about it. Bobby!" He called Bobby over. "What hurts?"

"Steph?" Bobby asked with raised eyebrows. Her right side hurt like hell. She hit her right side on the bottom of the door frame when they fell. She was not about to admit to any new injuries and she certainly didn't want to find out if she had anything else wrong with her.

"Nothing….well my leg is a little sore. We fell kinda hard. And…well Lester is not exactly a light weight," she lied. They appeared to have bought her story because they relaxed. "Is Lester really going to be okay? This is all my fault. He shot Lester because of me." She had tears in her eyes. Tank hugged her to him.

"He's going to be fine. It's not your fault. The guy was crazy." This reminded her that she killed him and she cried harder.

"I…I shot him," she cried. "I killed h-him!" Tank just held her. Stephanie had never shot anyone before. This was going to be very hard for her. Tank remembered the first time he killed someone. Granted, it was in combat, but it was still difficult all the same. He was trained to kill. Stephanie was not. She still saved Lester's life and probably her own since MacGregor was hell bent on killing her anyway.

"Steph, you had no choice. He was going to kill Lester and take you to kill you too. You saved Lester's life. It's normal to feel guilty right now. Let your feelings out. Don't keep it inside. We're all behind you." This was a major speech for Tank. He felt her nod. Her crying was down to sobs. "Ranger wants you to call him. He's on his way. Are you up for that now?" She nodded again and he made the call. "Here's Steph." He held the phone for her.

"Babe, are you okay?"

"Yes," she hiccoughed. "He s-shot Lester."

"I know. He's going to be okay. You're going to be okay. Stay close to Tank, alright? I'll be there soon. I love you, Stephanie."

"I love you too, Carlos." Stephanie looked at Tank as he spoke to Ranger.

"She's still upset. We're heading to the hospital. The ambulance just took Lester…..Right….I'll keep you posted."

"We need to get a statement, Steph," Carl Costanza said.

"Can't we do this later?" she asked. She just wanted to get to the hospital. She also wanted to get away from the scene.

"Steph, just give me the basics right now. We can get more detail from you later. I have to get a report started," he begged. She nodded.

"Lester was helping me into the SUV. He came up behind us and called me Seraphina. Lester pulled me behind him and he shot Lester. He fell back on me. He…MacGregor…was going to shoot Lester again. I grabbed Lester's gun and I shot him." Tears ran down her cheeks again. Carl put a hand on her shoulder.

"How many shots did you fire?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know….how many bullets were in the gun?" Carl winced. He had Lester gun in a plastic evidence bag.

"Clip holds eight rounds," Tank told him looking concerned. "Is there a problem?" Steph, Tank, and Bobby looked expectantly at him.

"I know it's a clear case of self defense…just like all of TPD knows it was self defense. It's still a crime scene. If eight shots were fired, I have to find eight spent rounds….although I don't think that's going to be a problem." He glanced over at the body. "That was some nice shootin', Tex." He tried to joke with Stephanie. She gave him a small smile because she knew he was trying to get her to relax. "This will be enough for now, Steph. You know we'll need you and Santos to make formal statements later."

"m'kay," she agreed. Tank nodded to Bobby and Hal to take Steph to the other SUV. She winced again when Bobby scooped her up. He looked at her. "I'm fine." They put her in the other SUV. Tank walked over to Carl.

"Is there a problem?" Carl nodded.

"I didn't want to say anything in front of Steph, but there is a FBI agent that's been down the station this week working on this case. She seems to…I don't know…have it out for Steph. She was investigating the Utah murders and is reviewing the murders here. She was going to contact Stephanie this week. It's almost like she's blaming Stephanie for the whole thing. I don't know. She just really seems….off," he explained.

"What's her name?" Tank demanded. No one told them about any FBI investigation.

"Special Agent Amy McCann. I guess because he took her across state lines, you know, they have to get involved. She was already working this case so I guess they kept her on it." Tank clapped his shoulder. "Steph was a pretty damn good shot. She got him right between the eyes with one shot. I just have a feeling that McCann is going to bitch about excessive force. I just wanted you guys to be aware of it."

Tank jogged back to the SUV and they headed to the hospital. Bobby could see that something was wrong but decided he would ask him about it in private. There was silence on the way to the hospital. The pain in Stephanie's side was starting to get a little worse. She thought it was because she was more aware of the pain since she was starting to come out of the adrenaline shock rush of the whole thing. She was hoping she just bruised her ribs, but with her luck maybe she did crack a rib or something. They pulled into the parking lot, Tank helped her out and carried her into the waiting room. Bobby went back to see what was going on with Lester.

"You look a little pale, Bombshell. You sure you're okay?" Tank asked. She nodded.

"I am kinda thirsty, though. Can you get me a Pepsi?" She hadn't eaten since breakfast and her appetite had started to come back. She wasn't hungry as her stomach was in knots right now, but she started to feel very thirsty. Hal jumped up and went to the vending machines. He brought her a can of Pepsi. He popped the top and handed her the can. "Thanks." She drank the whole can in about 5 gulps.

"Damn, I guess you were thirsty!" Hal exclaimed. Bobby came out and they all looked up.

"He's in Radiology right now. They're getting x-rays and a CT scan of his chest." He sat down next to Stephanie. "You look a little pale, Steph."

"I'm tired and cold, and my leg hurts," she lied. Actually, she didn't lie. Her leg was a little sore. She just omitted that her right side was killing her.

"Maybe I should take you home, Steph. You probably should lie down for a while. I can bring you back later," Bobby suggested. She shook her head. He took off his jacket and put it around her.

"I'll be okay. I want to stay," she insisted.

After a little while, with the pain increasing, Stephanie found it harder to breathe. She was afraid that if she kept getting worse, she was going to have to say something. She just thought it would pass. After they had been there waiting for 30 minutes or so, a nurse came out to tell them Lester was back from his studies. She said he could have visitors in small groups. Bobby and Tank stood up. Stephanie struggled to stand but dizziness overtook her.

"Steph!" Bobby exclaimed and caught her before she fell. He picked her up and the nurse pointed to an extra stretcher by the triage area. She was out cold but began to come around after a few seconds.

"HHHmmm," she groaned. She winced when Bobby laid her on the stretcher. The nurse placed a blood pressure cuff and took a reading.

"50/30," she told them. Bobby had been getting her pulse at that time.

"125 pulse and 32 respirations," He noticed she was guarding her right side and pulled up her shirt. On her right flank and side area was one large, purple bruise. He palpated her abdomen and it was rigid on that side. "She's got some internal bleeding." He felt her ribs and detected at least one broken rib. He was looking for an entrance wound as he thought she may have been hit. There was no entrance wound nor external bleeding.

"Let's get her back. I think she may have a hemothorax. Breath sounds are diminished on the right," the nurse told them. She and Bobby rolled the stretcher back to an empty room. Bobby gave the nurse and the ER doctor, who followed them in, her medical history to include her recent injuries. The doctor called for a stat portable chest x-ray.

She was in the room across from Lester who could see what was going on before they pulled the curtain to get her undressed. Bobby stayed but Tank stepped out. He saw Lester and walked over to his room.

"What happened? What's wrong with Steph?" Lester demanded. He tried to sit up, but the pain helped him to decide to lie back down along with Tank's hand on his shoulder.

"She might have broken some ribs and internal bleeding," Tank told him. "She wasn't looking too good out there and just passed out. Her blood pressure is real low…something like 50/30. Damn it! I knew something was wrong. She kept saying she was fine. Ranger's going to go ape shit when he gets here. We all told him she was fine."

When the curtains opened again, they had her in a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV, and oxygen mask on her face. The portable x-ray was done and they were waiting on the results. Bobby stayed by her side. The x-rays had confirmed that she had a hemothorax from internal bleeding from 2 broken ribs. The doctor brought over the surgeon to explain that they had to insert a chest tube to drain out the blood which had partially collapsed her right lung. Her blood count was very low due to the blood loss and would need a transfusion.

By this time, Ranger had finally gotten to the hospital. And as Tank predicted, he went ballistic when he found out that Stephanie was hurt. At first, he thought that they lied to him. He calmed down when he saw her. She was so pale. They had just finished explaining the procedure and needed for her to sign consents. Ranger indicated he was the person to sign for her and took care of it. Bobby filled him in on the whole situation. "I'm sorry," she whispered to him.

"It's okay, Babe. This isn't your fault." They had given her some IV pain medication. The surgeon and his resident came in and the nurse was just finished setting up the equipment and supplies to place the chest tube.

"Okay, I need you gentlemen to step out please."

"No….Carlos….I need you to stay…" she whined. They looked from her to Ranger.

"I'm sorry Ms Plum. We don't have enough room in here. This is done with sterile technique. He can come back in right after. I promise." She nodded but that didn't stop the tears.

"Babe, I'll be right outside the door." He stepped outside with Bobby. He noticed Tank standing by Lester's bed across the hall. He walked over to them. "How are you?" He put a hand on his shoulder.

"I feel like I got hit in the chest with a baseball bat, but I'm alright," he told him. He was a little groggy as they had just given him another dose of Morphine. "How is Stephanie?"

"They're putting in a chest tube right now," Ranger told them. They heard Stephanie scream and there were voices arguing and yelling at each other.

"Hold her still!"

"Stop! You're hurting me!"

"Shit!"

"Nurse…get another resident in here!"

"Did you give her enough lidocaine?"

As another resident ran in the room, Ranger was right behind him. He sucked in his breath when he saw all the blood on the stretcher and the floor. Stephanie was crying and trying to pull away as the nurse was trying to hold her still. The surgeon was trying to insert the tube while the other resident was also trying to hold her still.

"Miss Plum…you need to hold still!" he was yelling at her.

"What's going on in here?" Ranger demanded.

"You need to step out," the first resident told him.

"Mr. Manoso, you can stay if you can get her calmed down," the surgeon told him. "I just about got the tube in but I have to suture it in place. We need her still. This is a painful procedure."

"Dumb ass forgot to give her a lidocaine injection before her cut into her," the nurse explained. The resident shot her a death glare. "Now, they have no choice but to finish." Stephanie continued to wail and couldn't hold still. The nurse indicated that Ranger should take her spot. "I'll give her more morphine. That should help some."

"Give her some Versed too," the surgeon ordered. "It will help to calm her down and give the morphine a better chance to work." The nurse gave her 10mg of morphine and then 2 mg of Versed. It didn't take long before the sobs subsided and she was a sleep. Ranger was livid.

"You cut her open and didn't numb up the area?" he asked slowly through gritted teeth.

"Oh shit," Bobby murmured.

"What happened?" Tank asked him. He saw the panic in Bobby's eyes.

"Just be ready to grab Ranger. You might have to stun him. They put in her chest tube without numbing her up with lidocaine. No wonder she screamed. Holy Shit! That was fucking painful," Bobby explained. Tank became furious.

"You may have to stun me first!" Tank growled.

"Is she okay?" Lester asked. The curtain to the room opened again. Ranger was leaning over the stretcher and holding her. She looked to be asleep. There was blood all over the right side of the stretcher and the floor. The surgeon said something to Ranger; he nodded, then escorted the resident out of the room by his arm. Bobby and Tank walked in.

"Make sure they keep that fucking resident away from me," he told them. It had been a while since they had seen that look in his eye. It was a very dangerous look. He looked back down at her. "He fucking cut her without numbing her up."

The surgeon came back in. "Mr. Manoso, I want to apologize first to you, and will apologize to Miss Plum when she is awake, about the error made by my resident. I want you to know that this incident will be written up. He is being reprimanded and will not be able to practice until a hearing is conducted. I know it doesn't matter how much lidocaine is used and that a chest tube insertion is very painful anyway, but there is no excuse." Ranger gave him a curt nod. "We'll start her out in observation. We'll repeat a chest x-ray for placement of the tube. It appears that we got out almost 2 liters of blood. I've ordered her to get 2 units of blood and we'll re-evaluate her at that time to see if she needs more. Her low blood counts are even lower because of her recent injuries and surgery. She'll also need a CT scan to find the source of the bleeding. It looks like it was a venous bleed which was slower. Worst case scenario is that she will need to go to the OR to repair the bleed. We'll know more after the CT scan. Do you have any questions?" Ranger shook his head no.

Morelli stuck his head in the room. "Is she okay?" Ranger nodded. "Have you called her parents yet?"

"No. I only got here a little while ago and I'm waiting for all the tests to be done before I call them," he told Morelli.

"Don't you think they have a right to be here now?" Morelli challenged him. Tank stepped up next to him. Dumb move to push Ranger now, Tank thought. Morelli took out his phone. Ranger stepped forward.

"Don't call them yet," Ranger told him in a no nonsense tone that surprised Morelli. He looked into Ranger's eyes and was a little intimidated. "She is not up to having anyone else here right now and that includes you." Morelli stood his ground.

"I'm not going anywhere, Manoso," he fired back. Steph let out a soft moan. Ranger was immediately at her side.

"I'm here, Babe," he whispered to her and kissed her forehead. He looked back at Morelli. "This is about her and what she needs right now. It's not about your fucking ego or about you."

A tech came to take her for her chest x-ray and CT scan. Ranger went with them. "I think you better leave now Morelli," Tank told him sternly. "This is not a good time to fuck with Ranger. It's been a bad day for Stephanie, which means it's been a worse day for Ranger. Quit while you are ahead and don't call her parents yet." He and Bobby walked back to Lester's room. Morelli stood there for a moment, hands on hips, then decided he would leave. If they told Stephanie he caused a scene, he would look like the bad guy. And, he really did want what was best for her right now. He wanted to be there for her and it was killing him the he was being shut out.

"What happened?" Lester now demanded. Bobby told him. "Shit, she just can't catch a break." The doctor told Lester they would be keeping him overnight to make sure everything remained fine. He told them he was concerned of possible cardiac tamponade which is when the heart cannot beat effectively due to fluid or swelling in the pericardial sac. If things remained the same, he could be released in the morning. They would discuss work restrictions at that time. "I'm sure I'll get monitor duty," he moaned.

As it turned out, the bleeding was causes by multiple small blood vessels that were injured. The bleeding was severe because the chest cavity was so vascular and she was bruised in so many areas. She did not need surgery. The chest tube was in the proper position. A respiratory therapist would be demonstrating how to use the incentive spirometer and deep breathing exercises to help keep the lung inflated and to help prevent pneumonia when she woke up. He was concerned because she was already immobile due to the broken leg. It was around dinner time when she was moved to a room. Ranger called Frank and told him about the situation. Frank thanked him and asked if she was up for visitors that night. Ranger was honest and told him no, but also added that they are not visitors that they are her parents. Frank told him that he would stop by himself to keep things to a minimum but that Helen and Grandma Mazur would insist on coming tomorrow. Ranger was grateful. He really didn't want to deal with her mother today and he was sure Stephanie didn't want that either.

She was still sleeping. Tank told Ranger the details he knew about this afternoon and about what Carl said about the FBI agent.

"Why do I get the feeling that this has shit written all over it? If it was one of us, there would be no problem. Because it's Stephanie, it's nothing but bad news. And again, she didn't do anything to provoke this," Ranger sighed and sunk into a chair next to her bed. "Have Silvio run a background check on this FBI agent." Tank nodded and called it in. Hal came into the room and asked if they wanted him to get some food.

Both Tank and Ranger said, "Yes." Ranger hadn't eaten since breakfast and was starving. They gave Hal their orders and he left. Stephanie let out a soft moan as she stirred. Ranger jumped up and was by her side.

"Babe?" He kissed her forehead and brushed the hair off her face. Her eyes fluttered open, and she still looked a little groggy. She smiled when she saw him and tried to sit up.

"Ow!" she cried out in pain.

"Lay still, Babe," he told her. She looked puzzled.

"Carlos….what happened? Why am I here?" she asked nervously. Ranger looked over at Tank and back to Stephanie.

"Babe, don't you remember?" he began. "The shooting?" She tried to sit up again but groaned in pain again.

"Was I shot?" she asked.

"No….you broke your ribs when you fell…..what is the last thing you remember?" Ranger asked her. She thought for a minute.

"I was having breakfast with you and Raoul and waiting to go to the doctor……and then waking up here. What is going on? What happened?" Ranger called the nurse to get the doctor.

"Babe, MacGregor came after you today. He shot Lester…" Her eyes got wide and she tried to sit up again but the pain stopped her again.

"He shot Lester! Oh my God! Is he okay?" She was in a panic now.

"Yeah, Lester is fine. He had on his vest. You fell back against the SUV and broke some ribs. There was bleeding and they had to put in a chest tube. Your lung had collapsed. You're going to be fine, Babe. Just relax." The doctor had come in.

"She doesn't remember what happened," he told him. The doctor reviewed the chart quickly. He was the doctor who would be following her stay in the observation unit. He had not treated her in the ER and had not yet examined her as she was just transferred to the unit.

"She got Versed when they put in the chest tube. That can cause memory loss. It usually causes patients to forget any pain or discomfort for procedures that are done in a semi-conscious state. Since she didn't have a head injury, I'm sure the memory loss is from that," the doctor explained. "Miss Plum, I'm Dr. Thornton. What is the last thing you remember?"

"Having breakfast and waiting to go to the doctor," she replied. Ranger was gently holding her hand.

"How long will it take before she remembers?" Tank asked him. They all looked to the doctor.

"Uh…well…you may never remember. Or you may remember bits and pieces. It's not like amnesia due to trauma. The drug kind of…well…erases some things." He excused himself and said he would be back shortly.

"Shit," Ranger muttered under his breath. How could she defend herself if she didn't remember? Thank God Santos was there. He could back up her story. Something told him this FBI agent was going to make trouble for Stephanie but had no idea why.

"Carlos…what happened?" she pleaded with him.

"I wasn't there, Babe, but from what you and Lester told everyone was MacGregor was waiting for you after your appointment. He must have followed you to the doctor from Haywood. He shot Lester. Lester fell back and knocked the both of you down. You hit your side on the door frame. He was going to shoot Lester again and….and you took Lester's gun and shot him first. He's dead." Ranger gave her a minute to process this information. She stared at him with her eyes wide. She shot him. She killed him. Oh my god. "Are you okay?" She nodded. That wasn't entirely true. She wasn't okay. She shot and killed someone and has no recollection of it.

"Lester is okay right? You're telling me the truth right?" she asked. Ranger nodded.

"He has some broken ribs and is bruised pretty bad, but he's doing fine. He's somewhere in this observation unit. He should be released in the morning." He explained. She relaxed a little.

"No one else was hurt right?"

"No, just you and Lester."

"When can I go home?"

"The doctor will be back soon. We can ask him then. But don't get your hopes up, I don't think you will be going home for a couple of days." He kissed her palm. She shifted her position, winced, and sucked in some air. "Are you in pain?" She nodded.

"I can't seem to get comfortable," she explained. "I am thirsty, too." Tank snapped forward.

"Do you want a Pepsi, Bombshell?" She smiled and nodded. Tank left to get her one. Ranger called for the nurse to get her something for pain.

"I called your father, Babe. He's going to come here tonight. We both thought it would be too much for you to have your mother and grandmother visit right now." She gave him a big smile.

"You always know how to take good care of me, Carlos. No wonder I love you so much." God didhe love this woman. The doctor came in to do his assessment. Ranger had mentioned the problems she had with the Percocets. Dr Thornton smiled.

"How bad is you pain, 0-10?"

"Well it's not real bad when I'm still, maybe around a 4-5, but I can't seem to get comfortable. I really don't want anything strong. I've slept enough this past week," she explained.

"Let's try two Tylenol #3's. If that doesn't cut it, they can give you some IV fentanyl. It's shorter acting but works pretty well on pain." He looked at her chest tube site. "That's a hell of a bruise. I see that you were supposed to have an orthopedic follow up this week. I'll call the office and see if Dr Raban can see you when he is here doing rounds. It will save you the time and you probably won't make your appointment on Friday anyway."

"When can I go home?"

"It depends. I'd count on at least 48 hours here in Obs. You may be fully admitted after that time. We have to see how your lung is doing, make sure the bleeding has stopped, and once we pulled the tube we have to make sure the lung stays inflated. You're almost finished with the 2nd unit of blood. We have to make sure your blood counts are stable too." She nodded but was disappointed. But at least this time, she wouldn't be restricted to the Rangeman building. She could go back to her apartment. Not that she didn't like staying with Ranger, she also wanted her own space back. "I'll check on you before the end of my shift. Just let the nurse know if you need anything before that."

"Well at least I won't have to be locked away anymore," she told Ranger. "I can go back to my apartment now." Ranger tensed up.

"I'd rather you stay with me for a little while longer, Babe. You still need help. You can't even walk yet." He surprised himself that he remained calm and didn't yell or order her to stay with him. This was something she noticed immediately and smiled.

"Ah…you are asking me to stay and not telling me. Thank you," she told him. He smiled back.

"I told you that I was working on it," he said giving her his 200 watt smile. "How is this….please stay with me until you can do more things on your own. Plus, I love waking up next to you every morning."

"Okay, I'll stay with you," she answered. "And I love waking up with you, too." Tank came in with a big Gulp of Pepsi and the nurse brought in her pain medication. "Uh…how am I going to get to the bathroom with all this stuff hooked up to me?"

"I can get you a bedpan," the nurse offered. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"No! Absolutely not!" She looked around. It was one room and there didn't appear to be any bathroom. "Where is the bathroom?" The nurse walked over to the corner where there was a cabinet next to a curtain. She pulled a handle on the cabinet door and pulled down a toilet seat. "Swell," she muttered.

"Actually, it will be good for you to move around," The nurse explained. "The respiratory therapist will be in to see you in a little while. You'll need to work on breathing exercises so help prevent pneumonia." She took down the side rail and moved over the pleurvac which the chest tube was attached to that monitored the drainage and suction and then the IV poles. "Can you bear weight on your left leg?" She nodded. Ranger moved over to help. "No, that's okay," she told him. "I got it. Been doing this a long time and most of my patients are heavier than she is."

Tank shot Ranger an amused look. The nurse helped Stephanie stand and pivot to the toilet. She pulled the curtain. "Okay, gentlemen, if you would kindly step out and give her some privacy."

"Babe, we'll go check on Lester. We'll be right back." At first Ranger was a little put out because he wanted to help. But, the nurse seemed to know what she was doing so he didn't push it. They found Lester's room. Bobby and Ram were there.

"How's Steph?" Bobby asked. Ranger shook his head.

"She doesn't remember anything since this morning," he told them.

"What?" Bobby and Lester exclaimed at the same time.

"They fucked up when they put in her chest tube. The resident didn't numb up the site first and they hurt her bad. They gave her...uh…what was it called again…Versed and now she doesn't remember anything. And the doctor said the memory probably won't come back either."

"Shit!" Bobby whispered. "What's the last thing she does remember?"

"Waiting for you guys to take her to the doctor. From there till she just woke up….nada." Ranger leaned against the door frame. "And now there is an FBI agent that's been investigating this case from when it started back in Utah that seems to believe this is all Stephanie's fault."

"What does he think is Steph's fault?" Ram asked.

"She," Tank added. "Costanza warned me about her at the scene. She showed up this week to investigate this case here and he said it's like she's got it in for Bombshell. He said they feel like something's not right with her and to watch ours and Steph's back."

"But she hadn't done anything wrong or against the law," Lester insisted.

"We know that…hell all of Trenton knows that, but this is the government we're talking about. You've worked for the government. They can fuck anyone over they want to," Ranger replied with a forced disgusted laugh. "We're running a background check on her and if I have to, I'll call in some favors from my government contacts."

Stephanie was helped back into bed by the nurse. She was trying to get comfortable while the nurse readjusted her pump and pleuravac. Hal came in with bags of food. She looked up and smiled. He was surprised to see her alone and she understood. "They're in Lester's room right now." He walked over to the bedside table and placed down the bags. He had one McDonald's bag.

"You were still sleeping when I took everyone's order but I stopped at McDonald's for you," He told her shyly. Hal was so sweet. It was strange for someone so big and intimidating to be so thoughtful and considerate. "I know you like Big Macs but I got you chicken McNuggets 'cuz I thought it would be easier for you to pick up." She gave him her heart melting smile that lights up her aquamarine eyes. Ranger is so lucky, Hal thought to himself.

"Thank you, Hal. That was so sweet of you to think about me like that," she replied. He took out the McNuggets, large fries and several kinds of sauce.

"I didn't know what kind you liked so I got them all." She pointed to the barbeque and the honey mustard and he opened them for her.

"Do you have a girlfriend, Hal?" she asked him. He shook his head no. "Well, you are going to make someone very happy one of these days. You're a nice guy, you know that?" He turned fire engine red.

"Thanks," he mumbled. A compliment coming from someone like Stephanie made him feel like he was somebody. But he was still so shy around her and he couldn't help it. "I'm going to bring them their food. I'll be back to see you before I go." She nodded while eating some fries.

"Thanks for the food, Hal." He grabbed the bags and headed to Lester's room. Hal found them still in Lester's room.

"Food, thank God!" Lester exclaimed. "I'm fucking starving." He handed each of their orders to them.

"I figured Stephanie would want McDonalds so I got her something from there," he told Ranger. "I gave it to her already." Ranger nodded.

"I'm going to eat with her," he told them and went back to her room. They stayed with Lester to give them some private time together.

"How is she doing?" Lester asked. Hal shrugged.

"She looked okay, I guess. I just feel bad for her. It hasn't even been a week since she got out of the hospital last time. And now she's back in the hospital," Hal explained. Lester smiled at him.

"Aw….Hal's gotta crush," Lester teased him. Hal turned fire engine red again. Tank and Ram smirked and Bobby smiled. Hal could be such an easy target.

"Don't say stuff like that, Lester. Ranger will kill me or ship me off to some third world country or something!"

Frank Plum stopped in to see Stephanie around 8pm. "Hi Pumpkin."

"Hi Daddy." He gave her a gentle hug and kissed the top of her head.

"How are you feeling?"

"A little better. I guess I'm not having a very good October this year," she joked. Frank laughed.

"No Pumpkin, it sure hasn't been your month." He stayed a short time. He was driving the cab tonight and had to go.

Stephanie turned to Ranger. "Carlos, you can go home. You don't have to stay with me tonight. I'll be alright. You need to get your sleep and get back to work. I'm probably just going to sleep all night myself."

"What if I want to stay with you?" he answered her softly.

"That's not the issue. I know you want to stay with me. But you can't keep putting your life and your business on hold for me. I'm a big girl. I'll be okay." Ranger nodded.

"How about we both get some sleep tonight? I'm sure that bed can hold us both," He finished his chicken Caesar salad. She gave him a smile.

"I guess we could do that," she agreed. The respiratory therapist had come in earlier while Ranger was out of the room. She was glad because that way he didn't know everything that he told her to do. Not that she wanted to get pneumonia, but he could be such a Nazi when it came to doing everything by the book. Tank, Hal, Bobby, and Ram stopped in before leaving. Visiting hours were over and they were getting kicked out.

"I guess you'll be staying here tonight," Tank joked. Ranger nodded. They said their good nights to Stephanie and left. Ranger kicked off his boots and put his belt on the chair, then he slide carefully into the bed with Stephanie. She was secretly glad he insisted on staying. She seemed to sleep better when he was next to her.

She had to get up twice during the night. Around 1 am, she needed something for pain. The Tylenol #3 seemed to give her the right amount of pain control without knocking her out for hours at a time. Ranger held her gently all night. At times he rubbed her back and it felt so soothing. He was hoping this would be their last trip to the hospital but he had a feeling that this would be a way of life with Stephanie. In their line of work, injuries both major and minor were a part of the game. But in the past, it had just been him and his men. Adding Stephanie to his dangerous world was going to be a big adjustment. This whole mess with MacGregor had nothing to do with his world.

He got up at 6am and called for a ride back to Rangeman. "I'll be back later, Babe," he whispered to her. She nodded but went back to sleep. He checked in on Lester who was also asleep. He went downstairs to meet his ride.

Chapter 30

Ranger went for a run, showered, ate breakfast and headed to his office. He had a file on his desk from Silvio about Agent McCann. She was 2 years older than Stephanie. Was a very plain looking woman. Nothing remarkable in her file. All the photos showed a woman who looked like she had been sucking on lemons all day. From what he could see, there was no obvious connection to Stephanie. He decided to contact her today and set up a meeting. He wanted to meet with her first before she talked to Steph. If she came off like Costanza said, he planned to ask her outright what her issue was with Stephanie. He looked through the rest of his bin. Then he looked through his e-mails. Tank came in the office.

"I'm surprised to see you here," he told him. "How is she this morning?"

"I left at 6. She was sleeping. She had a good night though. She didn't need any more blood. The drainage from the chest tube was starting to clear and it's a minimal amount now. I want to set up a meeting with Agent McCann today. I want to talk to her before she talks to Stephanie. I just looked through her file and can find anything linking them," Ranger replied. Tank nodded.

"Do you get a bad vibe from this like I do?" Ranger nodded.

"MacGregor is dead but I get the feeling that this is far from over. I don't think her life is in danger but there is definitely going to be trouble." Ranger called Raoul. He knew he would be in his office by this time. He told him what happened. Raoul was shocked.

"Are you okay?" Since he was told that Lester and Stephanie were okay, he knew his little brother was putting himself last.

"Yeah, it's been a rollercoaster ride these past few weeks. I swear I am actually going to take a vacation when this is over. I just want to take Steph somewhere and just be alone with her. God, she doesn't deserve any of this Raoul. I thought I was going to lose it and strangle that doctor. I can still hear her scream when he cut her. Then I think back to when MacGregor hit her with the sledgehammer. Did she scream like that too?"

"Just give her your support and your love. That's what she needs most. She loves you very much, Carlos. Even a blind man can see that." Ranger smirked. "Do you need me to come back there?" As much as Ranger would like to have his brother working by his side again, he declined.

"Thanks, but you're needed down there. Plus, I think Marissa would kick my ass if I took you away again." They both laughed.

"All she wants to know about is Stephanie. She can't wait to meet her. Why don't you plan to come down here for Thanksgiving? It will be a nice little getaway for the both of you." That might not be a bad idea, Ranger thought.

"Let's just get through this crisis first. But it sounds tempting."

After Lester woke up, he asked for supplies to wash up and brush his teeth. The nurse told him that she couldn't take out the IV until the doctors made their rounds, but she wrapped it so he could take a shower. She showed him where the shower was. After his shower, he put back on the clothes he had on yesterday. It was almost time for breakfast so he headed to Stephanie's room. He saw a plain looking woman in a suit walk into her room.

Stephanie was shaken awake. "Ow!" she exclaimed as she tried to sit up.

"Miss Plum, I'm Special Agent Amy McCann of the FBI," she told her authoritatively. "I have been working the MacGregor case and I have to ask you some questions." Stephanie looked at her blankly as she was coming out of her fog.

"You're who?" she yawned. Special Agent McCann sighed.

"Special Agent McCann of the FBI. Miss Plum, this is important and I need for you to stop wasting my time." Who the hell is this bitch, Steph thought. Lester had been standing just outside the door. He thought back to their conversation about this last night. He didn't think she should be alone.

"Good morning, Beautiful!" He tried to be cheerful. She smiled when Lester came in. Agent McCann turned to look at him and sucked in her breath. Lester, like all the Rangeman roster, was very good looking and had a nice body to match.

"He was talking to me," Stephanie got in her own little dig. "Hey, Les!" He gave her a gentle hug and she kissed him on the cheek. "How are you feeling? I was soworried about you when I heard you were shot" Agent McCann cleared her throat. Lester let down the side rail and sat in the bed next to her.

"Before you two go at it, I have questions for Miss Plum," she told them testily. Steph and Lester exchanged glances and Steph rolled her eyes.

"I have no problems answering any of your questions, but you can 86 the pissy attitude," Steph replied. She was in no mood for this bullshit today.

"I have my cell, Beautiful, do you want me to call Ranger?" She shook her head no. She can't keep running to him every time someone gives her a problem.

"Like I said, I need to speak to Miss Plum so you can leave," she addressed this to Lester.

"Well, he is staying. Plus, he was there yesterday. You're going to have to ask him what happened because I don't remember," Steph told her.

"What do you mean, you don't remember? This just happened yesterday!" She didn't believe her.

"It's true. They gave her some type of medicine when they put in the chest tube and it's a side effect of the drug. I can tell you what happened," Lester insisted. She glared at him. "We were coming out of the doctor's office and he called to us. We turned around and he shot me with a shot gun. I fell back on top of Steph. He was going to shoot me again when Steph grabbed my gun and shot him. It was self defense and she saved my life." He put his arm protectively around her shoulders.

"Well you certainly have a way to get men to do anything for you. Don't you, Miss Plum? A whore shakes her ass and you fall all over her." Stephanie looked at Lester again in disbelief. She must not have heard this bitch right. But Lester had the same 'what the fuck' expression as she did.

"Excuse me. I think I just hallucinated there for a minute. Did you just call me a whore?"

"You heard me. You've been taunting Shane MacGregor for years. It drove him to kill innocent people."

"Wait a minute!" Stephanie was getting angry now. "I didn't even know him. The first time I even laid eyes on him was when I woke up after he kidnapped me. Who the fuck do you think you are?" Lester tightened his arm around her.

"I think you better leave now," he told her through gritted teeth.

"He was obsessed with you. He had pictures of you and videos of you. The first time he met you was in Fort Lauderdale about 13 years ago. He left his girlfriend for you."

"Lady, you need to double your dose because you are as crazy as he is," Stephanie told her.

"You mean as crazy as he was. You murdered him yesterday. I am getting a warrant to have you arrested for the murder of Shane MacGregor. If you shot him once, they may buy the whole self defense lie. But you shot him eight times. That shows malicious intent. You are going to jail Miss Plum. Right where you belong." Stephanie was stunned. "And now you think you have a convenient memory loss, well that is not going to fly." Lester pulled out his phone and called Ranger immediately.

"You need to get out of my room. Just walk outta here in those ugly-ass shoes and go get your warrant. Until then, stay the fuck away from me, you crazy bitch!" The nurse had overheard the conversation and called hospital security. They were at the door.

"Ma'am, we'll have to ask you to leave. You cannot be disturbing the patients here," the guard told her. She showed them her FBI ID. "That's nice but you still have no right to be here."

"This is not over Miss Plum," she turned to leave. Ranger had answered the call but before Lester could speak he heard the end of the conversation.

"You bet it's not!" Stephanie called after her.

"Uh…yeah. It's Lester. Steph just had a visit from the FBI bitch." Stephanie reached for the phone but dropped it.

"Damn it!" she exclaimed. Lester picked up the phone and held it for her.

"Carlos, she called me a whore and said she's going to have me arrested for murdering MacGregor!"

"Babe, calm down. What happened?"

"Just what I told you. She called me a whore and is going to have me arrested for murder." She looked to Lester for support.

"Uh…that really iswhat happened, Boss. Hospital security just threw her out. She told Steph it's all her fault that MacGregor killed all those people. And that he left his girlfriend for Steph and he's been obsessed with her for years. The bitch is fucking crazy," Lester reported. Ranger rubbed a hand over his face.

"We'll be there soon." He disconnected. "Tank!" Tank appeared in the door way. "Agent McCann was at the hospital just now to talk to Steph. She told Steph she was going to have her arrested for the murder of MacGregor." He was up and headed down to the garage.

Lester kept his arm around her but she was fidgety. "Are you alright?"

"I just can't get comfortable. Yelling back at her made my side hurt. I can't believe this is happening. I didn't know this guy. I swear to you I didn't." she pleaded with him.

"I believe you, Steph. Maybe he saw your band play somewhere. Did you guys play in Fort Lauderdale." She nodded.

"We played there during Spring Break a couple of times. But that was a long time ago. I met so many people. I don't remember. And I certainly never dated him. I remember everyone that I had been with. He wasn't one of them." She told him.

"Steph, you are really hot. I'm sure there were 100s, if not 1000s of guys that would have made a play for you. Hell, if you weren't with Ranger, I would be one of them. I just have to settle for you being one of my good friends." She looked into his eyes and gave him a smile.

"Thanks for being a good friend, Les. I really mean that. You are very important to me too." He gave her a huge smile.

"Those really were some ugly-ass shoes," he joked. She started to laugh but winced, holding her side.

"Ow! Oh…Les…don't make me laugh," she begged. "You forgot to ask Ranger to bring breakfast." They both started to laugh but stopped as it hurt their broken ribs.

"You're killin' me, Beautiful," he told her sucking in some air and holding his chest. She got somber, biting her lower lip.

"Do you think that she can really have me arrested? I don't want to go to jail," she said leaning her head against him. "Is there like an 'I hate Stephanie' convention in town or something? That woman really hates me. And I have no idea why." Lester shrugged.

"I wish I had an answer for you, but I can tell you that Ranger is not going to let you go to jail, Steph. None of us are going to let that happen," he reassured her.

"I feel like I'm trapped in an episode of the Twilight Zone or something. This is so surreal. I don't remember what happened yesterday. Today, some crazy FBI bitch starts making all these accusations and blaming me for things I didn't even do."

Ranger and Tank walked into her room. The sight of Lester sitting with her in her hospital bed gave him another flash of jealousy. He pushed it back in his mind. He reminded himself that Lester took a bullet for her yesterday. And, of course, when she flashed him her heart melting smile, he was at ease. Lester slowly eased himself off the bed and gently stood up letting Ranger have access to her unhurt side. He gently kissed her. "She said she's going to get a warrant and have me arrested for murder. She said it was my fault that MacGregor killed all those people. She is totally nuts," she told him. "And, she had some nerve calling me a whore! You should have seen those ugly shoes she had on!" This brought a smile to Ranger's face. Lester smirked again, holding his chest. He brushed a curl behind one ear.

"We ran a background check on her and we can't find a connection between you," he told her.

"Please don't let me go to jail!" she begged. He held her close.

"You're not going to jail, Babe. You didn't do anything wrong. She was out of line today. We're tracking down her supervisor. We'll file charges against her if it goes any farther. Don't worry, I'm not going to let anything happen to you," Ranger explained. Tank produced a McDonald's bag that contained Egg McMuffins and hash browns. Stephanie smiled and looked over at Lester.

"I guess we didn't have to ask after all." Lester smiled back.

"Thank God, the food here sucks," Lester joked while taking his breakfast out of the bag.

"Are you getting out today?" Tank asked him. Lester nodded.

"Waiting for the doctors to make rounds." Tank gave Lester a nod. "We'll be right back." Tank and Lester headed back to Lester's room.

"Carlos, do you think you can get me a laptop with wireless internet?" she asked.

"Not a problem, Babe. Why?"

"Well, since I'm stuck in here, I want to do some research. I want to see what I can find out about McCann. I never met her before or at least I don't remember it if I did. But she seems to know me from somewhere. She told me that MacGregor left his girlfriend for me, that he was obsessed with me. She said he had pictures and videos of me. That I met him in Fort Lauderdale about 13 years ago."

"Where you there 13 years ago?" She nodded.

"We played there during spring break. We went down there for a job, but we did party like everyone else. I could have met him or he could have seen me there. I do remember that I didn't hook up with anyone. The guys and their girlfriends kinda looked out for me because I was a lot younger than them. I wasn't seeing anyone at that time either. Mike, you know, Mike Baker, the guy you met the other night, his girlfriend was a film and photography major and videotaped everything we did. She videoed us playing, practice, hanging out before we played, breaks, after....you get the picture. I just get the feeling if I look at the tapes, I'll get my answer." Ranger was impressed. She had good instincts. He took out his cell and called Hector. He told Hector what he needed to be put on the laptop.

"Hector will get you set up, Babe. I'm going to try to get in touch with her superior. If she comes back, don't answer any questions. I'm going to call Rangeman's attorney. I'm also going to call Dr Johnson again and see if he knows anything about Agent McCann." He looked into her eyes. "We're going to get this figured out. Don't worry. I promised I wouldn't let you go to jail and I always keep my promises."

"I love you." He gave her a wolfish grin and kissed her.

The doctor was happy with her progress. They would change the chest tube to water seal today and if drainage was clear and minimal, they would pull the tube tomorrow. Blood counts were stable. She would be able to go home maybe Friday evening. This made her happy. This also might give Ranger a little more time. He wanted to pick up her necklace today but he wanted to get a better handle on this new situation. If he couldn't do it today, he could at least pick it up tomorrow morning. The doctor signed for Lester's release. He was supposed to be out of work for the rest of the week, then on restricted desk duty for 2 more weeks before being re-evaluated. They said good bye to Stephanie and the three headed back to Rangeman. Ranger told him to take it easy and he could help Steph with her research next week instead of monitor duty.

"I owe you one, Boss," Lester smiled.

"No, I owe you one. For Stephanie," he replied. Lester nodded in understanding.

"You don't owe me for that, Boss. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I'd do anything for her. All of us would do anything for her," Lester told him. Tank agreed.

"I know but I appreciate it."

"So…um…Ranger," Tank began. "Does this mean Steph gets the 10 grand? You said any of your men who nail him gets 10 grand. Well, although Steph is obviously not a man, she is a Rangeman employee. And she was the one to nail him." Lester grinned. Ranger thought for a moment and smiled.

"I guess she does," he replied.

Hector had brought her the laptop at lunch time. Her mother and grandmother had just left. Steph was surprised they didn't stay longer or give her a hard time. What she didn't know was they had to get to the airport to pick up her sister and her children. She had the whole afternoon to research. Hector had also brought her an older model cell phone that was a little bigger and easier for her to grip. She had already taken 2 calls from Ranger. She tracked down Mike Baker's number and called him. She explained she was trying to get a hold of any tapes they had from Fort Lauderdale. He said he would have his girlfriend make her copies of everything as soon as possible. She asked for Tara's number. She wanted to talk to her to see if she remembered anything. She was in the audience. She always knew and was aware of any problems with things going on behind the scenes.

"Steph, we have to get together when you are feeling better," he said.

"Mike, I promise we will. I really missed you guys."

Ranger had left a message with Agent McCann's supervisor and was waiting for a call back. He decided to go pick up her necklace. He really wanted to give it to her as soon as she woke up. He had forgotten that they wanted to have a party for her in the 4th floor rec room. Steph said she didn't want anything. Now, he really didn't think she'd be up to any party anyway. Maybe he would have Ella make a special dinner, invite her family, and have a quiet night. There was so much going on right now he really didn't want to think about it.

Mr. Vasquez had done an outstanding job. He never would have thought of the rose gold but it really set off the watermelon pink heart shaped stone. Although he knew she would love it, he still couldn't wait to see the look on her face. He knew it didn't matter what he gave her, she would love and appreciate it because it came from him. That was another thing he loved about her. He was glad to have gotten this out of the way so he didn't have to rush around Friday. Especially since it looked like she was going to come tomorrow night.

Dr Johnson had returned Ranger's call while he was riding back to Trenton. Ranger filled him in on what happened. He was shocked. He expressed concern for Stephanie and was worried about how she was dealing with all this. He explained she was probably dealing better now because she didn't actually remember doing it. He told him about the chest tube insertion incident.

"She has been through so much. I'd be happy to talk with her if you think it would be helpful."

"We may take you up on that, Doc. I also wanted to know if you ever dealt with Special Agent Amy McCann from the FBI. She came here to investigate and now she wants to have Stephanie arrested for murdering him. She made a lot of accusations about Steph's involvement with MacGregor." There was a brief silence.

"She is trouble. I don't know what her connection is to him, but I think there is something there. She was the one to help convince the State Board to release him. I didn't put 2 and 2 together until you just gave me this information. Until I found out about Stephanie, I didn't know that she actually existed. It's obvious to me that after he got out, she must have told him where to find Stephanie. I mean, don't you think it's a strong coincidence that he came to Trenton straight from Utah? If he really knew who she was, he would have gone after her directly and wouldn't have killed all those other girls." Ranger absorbed this information.

"That bitch set her up? Fuck!" Ranger was trying to control his anger.

"I think so. I mean I don't have any proof, but it appears to be obvious. Look, I can still come out there if you need me," Dr Johnson offered.

"I think that would be a good idea," Ranger agreed. "I'll call you back to set it up. I'm in the car right now and there is so much going on." The ended the conversation and Ranger threw his cell on the seat next to him. "Fuck!" McCann told him where to find her. She knew he wanted to kill her and she did it anyway. That bitch sent a psycho after her. At first, he didn't think Steph was in any danger but now he wasn't so sure.

Stephanie had gotten a hold of Tara. "Stephanie? Oh my God! How are you doing? Mike was just talking about you the other day. He met some friends of your," she gushed. Stephanie filled her in on why she called. Tara said she would have copies of the Fort Lauderdale tapes for her this weekend.

"As far as the other stuff goes, I really don't remember much. There were always girls that were jealous of you because their boyfriends were either talking about you or trying to hit on you. That happened all the time. Maybe looking at the tapes may help remind me. I mean it's not like we played stadiums or anything. A lot of these places were small." Steph gave her number and address.

"I'm staying with my boyfriend and it's a secured building. You'll need to call before you come over so I can make sure the guys let you in. I'm really looking forward to seeing you again. I'm so sorry I let so much time go by. You all tried to warn me about Dickie and I didn't listen," Steph explained.

"Steph, it's okay. You were getting a lot of pressure from your family. You thought you were doing the right thing at the time. I'm just glad you didn't take too long to get rid of him," Tara replied. They chatted for a few more minutes before ending the conversation.

"Hi Cupcake." She looked up to see Joe standing in the doorway.

"Joe…I told you not to call me Cupcake anymore," she sighed. He walked in smiling. He had a bag of Reese's peanut butter cups in one hand.

"I know, but I will always think of you as soft and sweet and good to eat," he told her slyly. "How are you feeling?" He walked over and kissed her cheek. He handed her the bag. "I figured you would need something sweet." She rolled her eyes.

"Thanks…..but please don't call me Cupcake anymore."

"I tried to see you yesterday but your boyfriend wouldn't let me," Joe told her. "I don't blame him. I think he's a little jealous of our long history together."

"I wouldn't have remembered it anyway. They hurt me when they put this tube in and gave me some medicine that made me forget what happened yesterday." Morelli's eyes widened.

"Did they tell you what happened?" She nodded. "Are you okay about that?" She shrugged.

"It's hard to know how to feel. I shot and killed someone but I don't remember doing it. It's kind of hard to believe. Lester is okay though. He was discharged this morning. I might be able to go tomorrow." A lunch tray was brought in. She looked at the food and blanched. Morelli smiled at her. "And this crazy woman from the FBI came to see me this morning and she wants to have me arrested for killing him. Joe, this woman hatesme. She called me a whore. She said it's all my fault that MacGregor killed those girls. She totally has it out for me and I don't know why."

"She kind of made that impression down the station," Morelli told her. "She didn't call you a whore, but she certain made it known that she was not a fan of yours."

"He shot at us. Wouldn't that be self defense? I mean after everything he did to me and those other girls. She said I shot him eight times. I don't remember anything." He put his arm around her.

"Don't worry. With Santos' testimony, and what he did, I can't see how she could even get a warrant, Steph. And I'm sure Ranger will get you the best lawyer his money could buy." He got a page. "I've got to go. I'll try to come by and see you again tomorrow." He gave her a quick kiss on the lips. Steph had mixed feelings about Joe. On one hand, she still had some feelings for him. Not love-love, but strong friend love. He was her first crush. She knew he wanted more. She also didn't miss the dig that Carlos hadn't let him see her. She wanted to be friends but not at the cost of her relationship with Carlos. Carlos was being patient, but she could see he was very protective and possessive of her and had his limits. Her cell phone ringing woke her out of her thoughts.

"Yo!" she answered knowing whose number it was.

"Yo yourself," Ranger replied. "How are you feeling, Babe?"

"A little tired now. They brought this disgusting tray of something for lunch. I don't know what it is." She heard him laugh softly.

"Any luck with your research?"

"Well I called Mike and Tara. She's going to put the tapes together for me by this weekend. Morelli was here and just left. He brought me some Reese's so at least I'll have a decent lunch now." He gritted his teeth. "Did you find out anything?" Ranger didn't want to tell her about McCann yet, at least not over the phone.

"No, I'm waiting for her supervisor to call me back."

"Morelli said that everyone is talking about her down at the station. She really made it clear that she doesn't like me. Morelli doesn't think there is anyway she'd be able to get a warrant to arrest me."

"He's right, Babe. You didn't do anything wrong or against the law. I promised that I wouldn't let anything happen to you and I mean it." She smiled.

"I know. Are you coming back later?"

"You know it. I'm trying to get everything done so when I get up there, I can stay until you come home. Has anything changed?"

"Like what?" she asked. She didn't understand what he was asking.

"With your status. Everything still going well?" What did she think I meant, he wondered.

"Oh, no. They disconnected me from the suction thing so I'm just connected to this box thing. My hands are doing better though. I am able to wiggle all the fingers on my right hand now. And I'm doing my breathing exercises. The last thing I want to get is pneumonia. I think I've been through enough. I don't need to get sick on top of everything else." Isn't that the truth, Ranger thought.

"Make sure you get some rest, Babe. Don't overdo. Lester needs a couple days of rest too. I told him he can help you with your research on McCann. Since he took a hit for you, I don't have the heart to only stick him with monitor duty while he's on the DL." She smiled. At least Lester would be fun to work with.

"I love you, Carlos."

"Love you, too, Babe. Later." Ranger disconnected. Stephanie buzzed the nurse to get some pain medication. After taking the pills, she tried to get as comfortable as possible. After a short time, she fell asleep.

Connie and Lula had come for a visit. Costanza and Gazzara also stopped by. They talked about McCann. "She's really trying to make trouble for you Steph," Costanza told her. "What the hell did you do to her?" He was only half joking.

"I wish I knew. She says she's going to have me arrested for killing him. Do you think she can do that?"

"Steph, anything is possible where you are concerned, but she's really got nothing. Okay, you shot him 8 times but it was self-defense. He had a gun on you and he already shot Santos. That's in addition to kidnapping you before that." Gazzara added. "Besides, you have a lot of friends down at the station. We've got your back." She gave her heart melting smile. That meant a lot to her.

"Yeah, White Girl. Nothing is going to happen to you. Batman will make sure of that," Lula said. She handed her another Boston Crème. "Here, you need to eat more. You were skinny before but you are like a stick now." Stephanie winced.

"I'm not that bad," she insisted. "My appetite is coming back. You guys are going to make me really self conscious. Carlos, Bobby, and Ella have really been on my case to eat. I'm trying but I haven't really been that hungry. And when I do eat, I get full fast. I'm not starving myself. I love food too much to do that." She looked at all their faces. "Do I really look that bad?"

"Steph," Connie began, "you don't look bad at all. You just look tired and like you've been through the mill. You were small before this so any weight loss on you is going to be magnified times ten." She gave Steph a supportive smile.

"Thanks. The irony is that everyone made fun of me because I could eat a lot. And now that I'm not, everyone is worried. Hey, I had almost a quarter of a bag of Reese's today." The guys laughed.

"Well, when you're up for it, Steph, we'll take you to Pino's," Gazzara told her. Costanza and Gazzara kissed and hugged her goodbye. Connie and Lula stayed with her until Ranger returned. They, too, kissed and hugged her goodbye. Ranger waited for them to leave.

"Hey, Babe," he told her with a wolfish grin and kissed her like he was a starving man. "I missed you today." He wanted to melt into the floor when she returned his smile with that amazing smile that he would never get used to. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm doing okay," she replied. "I am so ready to get out of here." He sat in the bed with her and pulled her into him.

"I know, Babe, but we have to do what's best. If you have to stay longer, that's what we do. Believe me…I can't wait to get you back in my bed," he whispered. She gave a slight groan.

"Are you staying with me tonight?"

"I'll be staying with you every night." It was just nice to be held. She didn't want to talk about anything anymore. She just wanted to sit there in his arms. It was so soothing. She always felt so safe with him. She loved the way he smelled. She had found out it was the Bulgari shower gel. But, it really smelled so good on him.

"I love you," she sighed. He kissed her temple.

"I love you, too, Babe." He noticed that her lunch tray was still there and untouched. It was almost dinner time. If she didn't eat that, he would send out one of his men for something else. "Didn't want your lunch?" She shook her head.

"It was gross. I had Reese's and doughnuts." He grimaced. At least she ate something but it was all empty calories.

"If you don't like dinner, I get you something else….anything you want."

"M'kay," she yawned. She was very tired. It was a long day. She didn't want to go to sleep now because he just got there. But she couldn't fight it anymore.

He loved to watch her sleep. Holding her calmed him. He was enjoying the quiet and private time they had together. After, the events of today, he needed it. McCann's supervisor had not called him back yet which really annoyed him. He hated to have to call someone a second time, but he had. Still no return phone call. He left a message to call him back at anytime.

The dinner tray didn't even look like something Ranger would have eaten in a 3rd world country so he called Tank to send someone to get Stephanie dinner. She had been asleep but the vibration of his voice in his chest woke her. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"It's okay. I didn't mean to fall asleep on you," she started to giggle but got a sharp pain in her ribs. "Ow!" She held her side. He tensed up. "It hurts to laugh," she explained.

"I called Tank to have someone get some real dinner. I wouldn't even eat that," he pointed to the tray. She smiled at him.

"Good, 'cause I'm kinda hungry."

"That's what I want to hear, Babe." She pulled back from him and looked into his eyes.

"Carlos, do I really look that bad?"

"You're beautiful."

"I mean my weight. Everyone keeps telling me I'm too thin. Is it really that bad?" He could see the anxious look in her eyes. He was thinking how to carefully answer her.

"It's not that you look bad….just very thin. Uh…you looked better…more healthy…before."

"Oh," she replied looking down. "That bad." She laid her head against him again. "I'm trying to eat. I really am." He kissed her forehead.

"I know you are. Don't worry about it. Just do your best." He felt her nod against his chest.

Tank and Hal brought them dinner. The four of them ate together. Ram, Cal, Hector, and Bobby stopped by for a short visit. They talked about McCann.

"I heard from Costanza that she tried to get a warrant to arrest you, Bomber but was turned down. I also found out that the bank next door caught the whole thing on their security camera. They're sending us a copy as well as TPD." Ranger's eyebrows shot up. "Just found out when we were picking up dinner." Stephanie let out a long sigh.

"I need to find out what happened that got a bug up her ass about me," she told them. "For all I know, she told MacGregor where to find me. I think she hates me that much." Ranger shot Tank a look that she couldn't see. Tank kept a blank face as the look Ranger gave him confirmed her suspicion. "If she is capable of that, she needs to double…no triple her fucking dose."

After a short while, the guys left. Tank had brought her a duffle bag with a change of clothes and toiletries that Ella had prepared.

Chapter 31

Stephanie had another good night. Ranger himself slept well. His bio-clock had him awake at 5 AM. He again, watched her sleep. He rubbed her back and stroked her hair. She began to stir around 6. "Happy Birthday, Babe," he whispered in her ear and then kissed the same spot. "I love you."

"I love you, too. Carlos. Being with you is the best birthday present I could ever ask for," she whispered back. She was the greatest present he could ever hope for. He helped her up to use the bathroom and wash up at the sink. He also brushed his teeth and washed up for breakfast. He helped her to the chair for her to sit up for a while. He got the box that held the necklace and handed it to her. He felt like a little kid at Christmas. He couldn't wait for her to open it. She opened the box and stared at the beautiful heart pendant.

"Carlos! Oh my god! This is so beautiful…" she choked up with tears.

"It symbolizes that I'm giving you my heart, Stephanie. I love you like I have never loved anyone. I want you to wear my heart next to your heart." The tears slide down her cheeks. He put the necklace on her.

"It's so beautiful…..it's so different. I love rose gold. Is this a pink tourmaline?" he nodded as he brushed away her tears. "I love you so much." She kissed him. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, Babe."

Later, the doctor came in and decided to pull the chest tube. "Is it going to hurt?" She was a little nervous.

"It's going to be somewhat uncomfortable. There will be a pinching sensation followed by what patient's tell me is a weird sensation of their insides being pulled out. Like finger nails on a chalk board. But this is nothing compared to having it put in. This is the easy part." She nodded. "On the count of three, I'm going to have you take a deep breath then long exhale. That's when I'm going to pull the tube." The tube came out without difficulty. He put an occlusive dressing over the site to prevent air getting into the chest cavity. "Dr Raban will be in before lunch to see you. He's the orthopedic surgeon. If everything goes well over the next 8 hours, we'll get another chest x-ray. If that looks good and your blood counts are still good, you can go home before dinner."

Tank brought Ella who made chocolate pancakes for Stephanie. "Happy Birthday!" She gave Stephanie a gentle hug. "How are you feeling today?"

"Better," she smiled back. "It only hurts when I laugh…or move…or breathe." Ranger gave her his 200 watt smile. Tank smirked. Ella was happy to see that she actually ate 4 pancakes. Still not her normal amount but she was doing much better. She noticed Stephanie's necklace.

"That is beautiful. Where did you get that?" She smiled again at Ranger.

"Carlos gave me this for my birthday. This is about the prettiest thing I ever seen!" She actually glowed when she spoke of his gift and he felt like he could fly. He knew that she truly loved his present and it was because she truly loved him. Ella looked back at Ranger who had worn an expression like that cat that just swallowed the canary. Tank shot him a look of approval.

"I am very impressed, Carlos," Ella told him. He feigned being insulted.

"Hey, I do have good taste," he joked. "I found something almost as beautiful as my Stephanie." Ella gave him a hug.

"Whipped," Tank said under his breath.

"What?" Ranger asked but Stephanie heard what he said and started to laugh.

"Ow…ow," she moaned and held her side. She had tears in her eyes and tried to stop laughing. "Oh…please Tank….don't make me laugh…it hurts…." She tried to get herself together. Ranger put his arm around her.

"What did he say?" Ranger insisted but this got her laughing again.

"OW! Don't…..just forget it," she begged.

"Sorry Bomber," Tank apologized trying not to laugh himself. Ranger shot Tank a look with eyebrows raised.

"Well, why don't I change the subject and discuss birthday party plans," Ella interrupted. Stephanie got herself back under control. "I know you don't want a party, Stephanie. I thought we could just do dinner with your family. We can keep it simple. They guys really want to give you a big party. We can have them come up for cake after dinner. If you don't feel up to it tonight, or any night for that matter, we don't have to do anything at all. Carlos and I don't want to pressure you, Dear." Stephanie smiled. God, she loved these people. She really didn't want a party because she didn't want anyone making a fuss over her. But now she could see they wanted to make a fuss over her because they really cared about her.

"Ella, that is so sweet. It's really going to be a long day today and I honestly don't know if I'm going to be up for….anything tonight. Maybe something tomorrow would be better," she told her. Ella smiled. She had a feeling the real reason Stephanie did not want a party had nothing to do with her injuries. She did think it would be too much for her to have anything tonight. Stephanie was having a hard time dealing with the attention the men at Rangeman were giving her. She knew from various things she has said and that Carlos had said that she had trust and insecurity issues. God knows the men in her past, and even her own mother, had done nothing to raise her up and nurture her.

"Then we will plan for tomorrow night. Do you want anything special for dinner?" Stephanie shook her head.

"Ella, please don't go to any trouble. Besides, everything you make is excellent anyway," she told her smiling.

"I will call Stephanie's parents and arrange everything," Ella told Ranger as her and Tank prepared to leave. "We will see you both later."

The day seemed to drag on. Dr Raban was able to stop by and see her. Again, he reminded her that she was to stay off that leg for another 3 weeks and he would see her again at that time. If the repeat x-ray looked good, he would put on a walking cast. He advised her to wait another 4-5 days before trying to use a crutch on the right side.

All her repeat studies were acceptable for her to be discharged. The nurse got her paperwork together and brought the wheelchair. Stephanie couldn't wait to get out of there.

"I can't wait to get home, Carlos," she sighed. He smiled. She knew they were going back to his apartment. She had called it home. He wanted to ask her to move in with him permanently but he also knew it was too soon. Soon. He would ask her soon.

Lester, Bobby, Hal, and Ram met them in the garage. Hal had Ivy. Ivy had jumped into the Porsche onto Stephanie's lap and frantically licked her face. "Hi, Baby! I missed you, too."

"Happy Birthday, Beautiful," Lester told her as he leaned into the car and kissed her. They all gave her hugs.

"Why don't we take Steph upstairs for you," Bobby whispered to Ranger. "There are 2 FBI agents waiting for you in the conference room. McCann and someone else." Ranger nodded.

"Babe, they'll take you up. I have a client that's waiting for me right now that I have to take care of," He kissed the top of her head.

"Okay." Bobby picked her up. Ranger took the stairs and they took the elevator.

"How are you feeling today, Les?"

"Better. Still feel like I was hit in the chest with a bat," he told her as he rubbed his chest. "Just don't make me laugh. It fucking hurts."

"Tell me about it," she replied.

Special Agents McCann and Joe Durrer were waiting in the conference room with Tank. They looked up as Ranger entered. "This is Carlos Manoso. He's the boss here. This is Special Agent McCann and Special Agent Durrer of the FBI. They want to talk to Stephanie."

"Mr. Manoso," Special Agent McCann began, "I tried to speak to Miss Plum yesterday, but she was uncooperative. We need to speak to her now. And alone. This does not concern any of you."

"It had been brought to my attention that you have a personal issue with Stephanie, Agent McCann. Do you care to enlighten us why?" Ranger answered trying to keep his cool. There was no way in hell he would allow Stephanie to face them alone.

"Like I just said, this doesn't concern you. Now, where is Miss Plum?" She stood up and became more insistent.

"Do you have a warrant?" Ranger challenged.

"Mr. Manoso, this is routine. We need to speak to Miss Plum about her abduction and about the shooting this week. I'm sure you are aware that MacGregor was institutionalized for a similar incident a few years back. Right now, he had been accused of kidnapping and murder. No statements have been taken. There are no other witnesses or evidence. MacGregor is dead but we still have to investigate," Agent Durrer told him. "If Miss Plum is not available, or up to this now, we need to set up a time to get this taken care of."

"Mr. Manoso, I have evidence that Miss Plum has been involved with Shane MacGregor for a long time. She tricked him in to doing anything for her. She turned him into an obsessed shell of a man. She used him and left him depressed. She is of low moral character and nothing but a common whore." Ranger pushed a chair out of his way and stepped forward.

"I think you better get out now. You know nothing about Stephanie. If she says she didn't know him, then she didn't know him. He may have met her in passing somewhere. But that was his problem, not hers." Ranger was seething.

"Oh she knew him alright," McCann shot back. "She came on to him. She had him following her around like a puppy dog. She made him make a complete fool of himself. He left his girlfriend for her. He gave her money. He did everything she told him to do. He asked her to marry him and she refused. She left him for the attorney. He begged her to come back to him. It emotionally crippled him. She encouraged him to kill those women. She made him crazy. He was the innocent victim in this whole mess. I understand she did the same thing to the attorney. She used him and left him as well!" McCann looked like she was going to stroke out. The veins in her neck were bulging. Ranger and Tank exchanged glances.

"And how do you know all this?" Tank asked her. "What…were you the girl he dumped?" Tank half laughed. All those that had spoken to her already were not kidding…this woman was crazy. Ranger shook his head. He thought Stephanie was exaggerating the other day on the phone after McCann had come to see her. Agent Durrer sighed.

"Agent McCann's investigation has nothing to do with mine. I need to speak to Miss Plum about her abduction and the shooting, Mr. Manoso. We are from two differentoffices," Agent Durrer interrupted. It was apparent that he had heard this argument several times before and hadn't believed a word of it. "Agent McCann has not been able to obtain a warrant for Miss Plum because it was obviouslya case of self-defense. We discovered another body Wednesday night. Apparently, the vehicle at the scene that we believe he used was registered to a Dr Gerald Hoagland. He was a vet that was on a sabbatical. We found his body in his home. He had been dead for some time. There were items that belonged to MacGregor there. The medicine cabinet had been broken in to. Inventory showed there was Versed and Ketamine missing. They found several photos of Miss Plum and a short video tape that was taken in Fort Lauderdale. Miss Plum was seen in the video. There were no photos of MacGregor and Miss Plum together." He glanced and McCann and gave her a look. "I understand Miss Plum was just released from the hospital and she may not be up to speaking to me at this time." He gave Ranger his card. "Either you and Miss Plum can call me and we can set something up." Ranger took the card and thought for a moment.

"If McCann leaves, I'll bring Stephanie down to talk to you now," he offered. McCann's jaw dropped and she whipped her head to look at Agent Durrer.

"McCann, you can head back to the office. I need to get my work done so Miss Plum can get on with her life. Go back to your notes and you can continue your witch hunt on your own time," he told her flatly. "I can call a cab." Ranger nodded to Tank.

"Show her out, Tank." He turned to Agent Durrer. "When we are finished, I'll have one of my men give you a ride back." Agent McCann stormed out of the room and Tank followed. "What is her problem?" He let out an exaggerated sigh again and shrugged his shoulder.

"No one has been able to make the connection. Believe me….we checked. For all we know, shecould have been dumped by him. All we know is that he was obsessed with Miss Plum for a long time. McCann has some high level contacts. That's the only reason I can think of that they are letting her continue her 'investigation'." He made quotation marks with his fingers as he spoke. Ranger took out his cell and called Bobby to bring Stephanie down.

Stephanie told him everything she remembered. Agent Durrer took some notes. "Miss Plum, you are a very lucky woman. This man was severely mentally ill. I only needed the information of your abduction and of the shooting. But, I want to help you with McCann. Did you know him?" She shook her head no. "He had some videos and photos of you. Some were of you singing in a band, some were just of you with your friends at what looked like the same bar. There were photos of you on the beach, walking down street…I mean nothing special. No posed photos. They looked like surveillance photos." She looked and Ranger and shivered.

"That is so creepy. We played at a couple places in Fort Lauderdale during spring break. I know I met a lot of people, but I don't remember him. I don't even remember meeting him in passing. We played spring break 2 years in a row. The reason we stopped is because it was getting too crazy. Guys were getting too aggressive. I mean I couldn't even walk across the bar to the bathroom without getting grabbed. My band mates' girlfriends were getting pawed too. It just didn't feel safe. So we decided not to do it again the following year. It was so bad that I was actually pulled off the stage. The guy grabbed me so hard that he dislocated my shoulder." Ranger just sat next to her, rubbing the small of her back and listened. Tank had come back in the room and Bobby had stayed. "I don't understand why she thinks we had this relationship. And you know what else I think…" She looked him right in the eye. "I think she told him where to find me when he got released from that hospital. I mean he came right here. That is not a coincidence."

"Dr Johnson, who was his doctor there, told me it was Agent McCann that helped to convince the state board to release him," Ranger told him. Stephanie turned quickly to look at him and winced from moving too fast.

"When did you find this out?" she demanded.

"Yesterday afternoon, Babe." He didn't elaborate. "We have access to some pretty detailed and high level search web sites, but haven't been able to find anything that would like her to Stephanie or MacGregor. We could use some help with that."

"Miss Plum, she said that he asked you to marry him but turned him down and married someone else." She made a face and rolled her eyes.

"The only person who ever asked me to marry him was Dickie Orr. And we did get married." She was starting to squirm in her seat.

"What's the matter, Babe?"

"I can't get comfortable." Agent Durrer stood up. He could see that she need to rest.

"Miss Plum, thank you for your cooperation. You need to go lie down and take it easy. As far as my investigation is concerned, the matter is closed. That includes the shooting. Mr. Manoso has my card. If there are any background checks that you need help with, contact me directly. I'll do my best to help. McCann is from the Utah office. The shooting took place here. She has no right to press charges here. She may use any information or evidence, which she doesn't seem to have, in her investigation of the Utah case. You are only remotely connected to that because you were his obsession." Ranger stood up and well as Tank.

"I'll take you back to your office," Tank told him and they left.

"That makes me feel a lot better," she told Ranger. "Can you get me the file you have on McCann and MacGregor? I want to look through them to see if I can find something." Ranger smiled.

"I'll get them for you, but not tonight." He kissed her forehead. "Right now, I'm taking you back upstairs, giving you some pain medication, and putting you to bed…no arguments. You can work on this tomorrow." She was going to protest but decided he was right. She nodded.

"Ella brought up dinner," Bobby told them. Hal and Ivy came back from a walk. Ranger picked her up and took Ivy's leash. They went up to the apartment. He gave her some pain medication just before dinner.

"I think if you'll help wrap my leg, I'll take a shower and just go to bed. I am really sore and tired." Ranger nodded.

After her shower, he helped her into bed and she was asleep almost immediately. Ivy jumped in bed and curled up. It was a little after 9 o'clock. He decided to catch up on e-mails and paperwork. He went down to his office to pick up the files she wanted and his paperwork. He was going to work out of his office in the apartment. He looked through the files again. Nothing. It wouldn't hurt to have Steph look. She had really great instincts. Her thought process wasn't the norm or logical, but her instincts were amazing. At least the local branch of the FBI wasn't looking to hang her for the shooting.

It was close to 10:30 when he lay down next to her. He watched her sleep for a while. It was always calming, almost hypnotic, to watch her sleep. It seemed to put him at ease and help him fall into a deep sleep.

Stephanie woke up about 3 am. Ranger was fast asleep. She slowly hopped, holding on to the wall and taking the long way around the room, to the bathroom. Hopping was annoying before, but now it hurt her side. On her way back to the bed, she noticed his desk lamp was still on. She could see the files she asked for and worked her way to the chair. She looked through the MacGregor file. He was from New York. Both his parents were dead. Although she had seen him in person, this was the first time she was able to study his face. She was sure she didn't know him. He was actually a very good looking man. He didn't go to college. He had worked as a bouncer at a club that she had never been to. He was never married. She looked at the next photo and gasped, dropping the file and all the papers slid to the floor. It was a photo of one of his victims. Oh my God, she thought. The body was mutilated. That could have been me! A tear slid down her cheek. Ivy, who had followed her trek around the room, had been sitting dutifully next to her. She jumped up and licked her face. She rubbed her head and kissed her back. She looked down at the scattered papers. She attempted to slowly bend down to pick them up but hissed in pain. Shit!

"Leave them, Babe…" his voice low and husky cut through the dark doorway. She jumped and grabbed her side again.

"OW!" He walked towards her smiling. "Stop doing that. Not only did you scare me, but you made me hurt my side." He bent down and picked up the papers getting a full face lick from Ivy.

"I would rather that have been your tongue." He looked up at her. She tried not to laugh but the expression on his face was priceless.

"Carlos, please don't make me laugh," she told him holding her side. He put the papers back in the file.

"What are you doing up?"

"Well, I really was making a bathroom trip. I saw the files and curiosity got the better of me." She sighed and nodded towards his file. "I don't see anything in there. Well, except that picture of the dead body. That was sick. I mean, that could have been me." He was glad the drawings he made of Stephanie had fallen on the floor. She would see them tomorrow if she looked in the file again, but for now, he just wanted her to get some rest.

"Come back to bed. You can start again in the morning, Babe." She nodded. He picked her up and they went back to bed. She thought sleep would overtake her, especially with everything she had been through this week. Maybe she was so used to drug induced sleep that she couldn't fall asleep on her own. The picture of the dead girl was stuck in her mind. Her conversations with the crazy FBI lady kept playing over and over. She was comforted to be snuggled up to Ranger. Her mind was on such overload that she knew she would not be able to fall asleep. She decided that she would wait until Ranger fell asleep then she would go back and read the files again.

After about an hour, she figured he would be deep asleep. She slowly slid away from him and edged to the side of the bed. "Where are you going, Babe?" Shit.

"Uh…to the bathroom?" Nice Steph, try to be more convincing next time she said to herself. He smiled to himself.

"Not sure?"

"Well…then I was going to go to the kitchen and get something to drink…and maybe a snack too." She added. Now that sounded a little better. "I'm sorry I woke you." He rolled over to face her and propped himself up on his arm.

"You didn't. I can't fall asleep until you do." Double shit, she thought. "Either you are in pain or you have a lot on your mind."

"I guess I've been sleeping so much these past couple of weeks with the help of drugs that I'm either not tired or just can fall asleep," she lied. She stood up, using one had to brace herself against the wall, started to hop. Ranger was around the bed in second. He was poised to pick her up.

"Where to Babe?" She opened her mouth to protest but he placed a finger on her lips. He replaced his finger with his lips in a soft and gentle kiss.

"Kitchen." He carried her into the kitchen and deposited her on a stool. "Pepsi please." He saw her keep glancing at the files on the desk. He put the can on top of desk. Then, he brought her over and put her in the big leather chair. She smiled at him. "What else can I get you?"

"Cheese Doodles?" He sighed but brought her the bag.

"Try not to get that orange shit all over the files, Babe," he told her as he went back to bed.

"Thank you," she called after him. She picked up the file for Special Agent McCann. Nothing really stood out. She was from Connecticut. Went to college at NYU. Then went to the FBI Academy. Father was a professor. Mother was a business woman. Blah. Blah. Blah. No brothers or sisters. She could feel that something was missing. But what was it? She knew there was a connection somewhere. Did she know Dickie? Dickie went to NYU. She really didn't want to call him and ask. She would only do that as a last resort. She did some searches on Dickie and some more on McCann. She used more unconventional sites like and NYU alumni sites. She wasn't looking for criminal background but regular life background. Maybe something would give her a lead or a clue.

Ranger woke at 6 am. The bed was empty bedside him. He could hear the keys clicking of his laptop. Damn, he thought, she is still at it. He realized early on that Stephanie was like a dog with a bone when her mind was set. He stretched, got up, and walked into his office. "Morning, Babe." He wrapped his arms around her from behind and kissed the top of her head. She glanced at the time.

"Oh wow! I didn't realize what time it was."

"Find anything?" She shook her head.

"She went to NYU at the same time as Dickie. They both were in pre-law and may have been in the same classes. I'm hoping I don't have to call Dickie to ask him about it but I may have to as a last resort. I've got some other contacts of people she went to school with, but other than Dickie, I don't see any connection to me." He was impressed. He looked at some of the information she had printed. He would have never in a million years thought to look at these sites. Sylvio told him she would be an asset to the company. She didn't think in military terms or think like a man. He may let her do background checks on all perspective new hires. This was some really good information.

"I'm really proud of you, Babe. You haven't really worked here that long, but I'm already thinking about giving you a raise." She snorted.

"Carlos, I haven't even really worked yet. Besides, with all the staff you brought on and the time you spent to find me, it cost you a fortune. I should probably work for you for free." He knew she was making a joke but she really felt bad about it. He lifted her chin up to look in her eyes.

"There is no cost that is too great when it comes to you. Now that I have you in my life, all of this," he made a sweeping gesture with the other arm, "would mean absolutely nothing to me. I would trade it all just to have you." She just stared back with a stunned look on her face. "Stephanie, I love you." She gave him that heart melting smile.

"Carlos, I love you too." He pulled her to him and his lips crashed down on hers. She pulled back, sucking in air, and holding her side. "Sorry…." He silently cursed himself for being so careless.

"No, I'm sorry…..I forgot. God, what you do to me," he groaned. He stood up and it was obvious by the bulge in his silk boxers. "I know there's nothing we can do about this until you're better." She gave him a sly smile. She reached over and began to stroke him through the boxers. He groaned again.

"Well….," she began with her best sexy voice, "there may be something we can do about it." He gave her his wolfish grin, picked her up, and carried her to the bed.

It had been a long time since he had been totally satisfied with a hand job alone. He held her close and slid his hand inside her panties to return the favor. After she had been pleasured, she fell asleep in his arms. He watched her for a while and he, too, fell back to sleep.

Ivy, having to go out, decided to lick Ranger's face. He called down to the control room to have someone take her out. Stephanie was sound asleep. He expected to her sleep late since she was up most of the night. He decided to go for a run. He was going to have to get back in his routine again. He didn't want to get out of shape. Once Stephanie was up to it, he was going to encourage her to run with him. Not only would it get her in better physical shape, it would be another thing they could do together.

Tonight was going to be crazy. What started out to be dinner with her family, turned into a huge party to include Lula, Connie, his staff, some of Trenton PD, and God knows who else got invited. As long as it made Stephanie happy, he didn't care. The guys in the control room were playing with Ivy when he stopped in to check his in-box. They froze when he came in, but he just shook his head and went to his office. They breathed a sigh of relief. Having Stephanie around had changed his mood. Not that they still weren't afraid of him, but he had seemed to lighten up a lot in the past month.

Chapter 32

Ranger found Stephanie back at his desk reading the files again. He sighed. She was staring at something in the file. He walked over and was going to hug her from behind when he saw what she was staring at. It was the drawings MacGregor had done of her. "When were you going to tell me about these?" she asked him softly.

Shit, he thought. "I hadn't thought about it. You were dealing with enough crap and I thought it would upset you." She continued to stare at the drawings.

"When did you first see these?" He pulled over a chair and sat next to her running a hand through his hair.

"When I got back. Dr. Johnson had sent them over just after you were missing." He was bracing himself for a shit storm but it didn't come. She sighed and put the file back on the desk. She leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes. He took her hand in his. She didn't pull away so that was a good sign.

"I know there are things that you won't be able to tell me, and I understand that. But…" She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Have you ever had something like this happen to you? Like one second in time or a random meeting that would come back to haunt you? And I don't even know when or what it was. It's really scary to find out there is the crazy stalker out there that killed people and draws pictures of you. And then….another crazy person who hates your guts so much that she points him in your direction. I mean did I do something so horrible in my life that this is karma coming to bite me in the ass?"

"Babe, you didn't do anything to deserve this," he told her softly. He brushed a few curls back behind one ear. "And to answer your question, I've had people try to kill me but as a soldier or because of my job. But, I've never had anyone make it personal before. I wouldn't be surprised if it happened to me. I've made some enemies over the years. But you…." He kissed her hand. "You didn't do anything wrong." She gave him a waned smile. "Maybe Raoul was right," he started to say.

"Right about what?"

"Going to Miami once you're up to it. You've really been through the mill lately and you need to get away," he explained. This got him her full smile.

"I'd really like that, Carlos."

Just before lunch time, Tara had called and would be pulling up to the building shortly. Stephanie had called down to the control room to let her in and allow her access to the 7th floor. It had been a few years since she had seen her. Tara was 4 years older, a few inches shorter, and had short spiky hair. She was a cross between a punk and a biker chick. Out of all her band mate's girlfriends, she was closest to Tara. Tara was buzzed up to the 7th floor. Stephanie hopped to the door to let her in. She was glad that Ranger had things to do with Tank today. This way, they would have the apartment to themselves to talk and catch up.

"Tara! Oh my God! You look great. You haven't changed at all," Stephanie told her as she hugged her. Tara looked her up and down, taking in all her injuries.

"Shit Steph. What the hell happened?" She led her to the couch and filled her in by giving her the Reader's Digest version. "Holy Shit! You are lucky to be alive. I'm so sorry Steph. That must have been horrible!"

"I was hoping it was all over but now I have some crazy FBI lady out to get me. And I have no idea why." They talked for a while and got up to speed in each other's lives. She handed Stephanie 10 DVD cases.

"I've got everything from Fort Lauderdale and a few others that I thought you'd get a kick out of," she laughed. Stephanie smiled.

"Oh yeah? Like what?"

"When the strippers were trying to teach us to pole dance and the Stone Pony," Tara told her. Stephanie laughed.

"Oh my God! I had forgotten about that!" She stopped laughing and her face got serious. "I hadn't realized how much I missed you guys until this week. I'm sorry we lost touch."

"Steph, it's not entirely your fault. Mike and I could have made a better effort, too," Tara replied. The talked again about old times when something occurred to Stephanie. She had been seeing a member of the band named TJ. She had met Dickie right after they started having problems. Before they had become a couple, her band mates would joke about his old girlfriend. They had nicknamed her the psycho hose beast. Stephanie began to have a sinking feeling.

"Tara….what was TJ's old girlfriend's name? The one you guys used to make fun of all the time," she asked. She was hoping her gut was wrong. Tara thought for a minute.

"You mean Psycho Hose Beast?" Steph nodded. "It was Amy….Amy Mc something. Why?"

"Amy McCann?"

"Yeah, that was it. What made you think of her?" Stephanie's head was spinning. "Steph what's wrong?"

"She's the FBI agent that's out to get me. Oh my God Tara. I never even met her. Tell me everything you know about her and TJ."

"Well, she was totally up his ass all the time. He couldn't go anywhere without her calling or showing up. He was done with her before he met you, Steph. She just didn't get the hint." Tara told her.

"Did he ever tell her that he left her for me?" Tara shrugged.

"I don't know about that. I know TJ took it hard when you guys broke up. He was devastated when you got engaged and left the band. He always thought you would get back together." Tara said. Steph had a million thoughts racing through her head.

"Do you know why we broke up?" Steph asked her.

"I thought it was because of you and Dickie. Why? Was there another reason?" Stephanie nodded.

"TJ had a bad drug problem. I mean we all experimented but TJ's habit went way beyond that. He was doing heroin. I found him shooting up between his toes. That's why no one ever saw track marks. I overlooked a bunch of stuff because I really cared about him. I loved him to a certain degree I guess. But I couldn't deal with that. I gave him a choice. It was drugs or me. He chose the drugs. I met Dickie right after that. Dickie had nothing to do with us breaking up. Did he tell you guys it was because of Dickie?" Tara nodded. "Have you heard from TJ at all? I mean the last time I saw him was just before my wedding. He came to ask me to forgive him and take him back. It was too late for that. Even if Dickie wasn't in the picture. Do you know how to get a hold of him? I really need to talk to him." Tara's expression changed.

"Uh…Steph….uh….TJ's dead," she told her flatly. "He….uh….killed himself the day after you got married." She saw the panicked look on Stephanie's face. "Oh my God, Steph. I thought you knew." She shook her head. "He shot himself. It wasn't in the local papers because he was in New York when it happened. Shit Steph…I'm so sorry." The tears ran down her face. It was her fault. TJ begged her to come back. She was so cold to him. If she had known what he was going to do to himself, she would have tried to help. It just didn't make sense that he shot himself. He didn't have a gun that she remembered. He wasn't into guns. "Steph, are you alright?"

"He killed himself because of me, Tara. Oh my God, I was so rude to him. I had given him so many chances to get clean and he didn't even try." She sobbed again.

"It was his own fault, Steph. You have no control over another person."

"She blames me. That's why she's after me. It's because of TJ." Tara looked at her watch.

"Steph, I hate to leave you like this, but I have a shoot in about an hour and I have to get ready," Tara explained.

"No, it's okay. Look, I'll call you during the week," she told her and gave her a hug. Once alone, Stephanie broke down. She felt so guilty. No wonder McCann hated her. She blamed her for his suicide. And she was right. It was her fault.

Ranger was notified that her friend had left and he went upstairs to check to see how Stephanie was doing. He wanted to make sure she got some rest before her party later. He was surprised to find her hysterically crying. "Babe?" He rushed to her side. "What wrong? What happened?" She couldn't even answer him. She held on to him while she continued to sob. Ranger was going crazy. What the hell happened? Why is she so upset? He felt so helpless. "Babe, please tell me. What's wrong?"

"H-he killed h-himself b-because of me!" she managed between sobs.

"Who killed himself?" What the hell was this about? She just shook her head. After several minutes, her sobs began to subside and she was getting more control over herself. Ranger gave her the time to collect herself but was on pins and needles waiting to find out what was going on. She pulled back from him sniffing and wiping her eyes.

"McCann is after me because of TJ. TJ was in the band and we had been going together for about 5-6 years. We started to have problems because I found out the TJ was shooting up. I eventually gave him an ultimatum. Drugs or me. He didn't even try to quit so I walked. It was at that time I met Dickie. Just before I got married, TJ came to see me and begged me to take him back. He was high. We got into a big fight. I was soooo rude and nasty to him. I hadn't seen him since. I asked Tara about him and she told me he shot himself the day after I got married. Carlos….it's all my fault!" The tears welled up in her eyes again. "He killed himself because of me." Ranger held her and stroked her hair.

"You can't blame yourself, Babe. It was his choice. But what has this got to do with McCann?" She pulled back and looked up at him.

"She was seeing TJ before me. Tara said he broke up with her before I joined the band, but she didn't get the message. I remember they were always joking about his ex. They said how she would constantly call him and follow him around or just show up. They called her Psycho Hose Beast. That's why she hates me. She thinks TJ dumped her for me and she's right when she thinks he's dead because of me." Ranger shook his head.

"No…it's not your fault, Stephanie. That was hisdecision. If he had a problem with drugs, he killed himself because of that. Not because you wouldn't take him back." She had told him that she had more to tell him and would one day. He knew about her ex-husband and Morelli. This was another man in her life. He didn't have any right to be jealous or angry. He had more than his fair share of women in his past. But none of them meant anything to him. This guy obviously meant something to her for her to be with him for 6 years.

"When I think of all the horrible things I said to him…..oh God," she moaned. "I can't believe no one told me about this before. I have to call his mom. She probably thinks I'm a real bitch for not calling her….." She trailed off as the tears started again. Ranger just held her. He didn't know what to say.

"Babe," he said softly after several minutes, "why don't you go lie down for a while? You've really had a bad shock with that news. You need to get some rest anyway. Plus, it's going to be a busy night with everyone coming over for your birthday party." He felt her stiffen.

"Oh Carlos….I don't want to see anyoneright now," she whined. He winced at that thought. Ella and the guys had been working hard on getting it set up. Her parents were coming and she didn't know that her sister and her nieces were in town. "I will lie down but I really just want to be alone." She wiped the tears with the back of her right hand. "I know people are coming but I don't want to see anybody. And I certainly don't feel like celebrating anything right now." He kissed her forehead. He wasn't going to argue with her about it. She had a long day and was upset and tired. They still have 5 hours before the party. He would talk to her about it after she took a nap. He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom.

"I'll come back in a little while and check on you. Call me if you need me sooner, okay?"

"Okay….I love you…I just really need time alone right now," she explained. He gave her a smile.

"I understand. I love you, too." He kissed her and left the bedroom closing the door behind him. Fuck, he said to himself. What was he going to do? Force her to go downstairs? That was some pretty major information she learned. It was bad enough the guy shoots himself but he does it right after he begs Stephanie to take him back. He could see why she felt guilty. He was going to talk to Ella. If Steph wasn't up to having company tonight, he was not going to force her and he wanted people to be ready for it.

Chapter 33

Ella was hard at work in her kitchen. Everything smelled wonderful. Ranger told Ella about what just happened. "She doesn't want to see anyone. I can't force her. She's really upset. She doesn't even want me around right now."

"What else is going to be piled on that poor girl?" she sighed. "Do you think she will change her mind? A party may help cheer her up?" Ella was really thinking out loud. Ranger shrugged.

"She's been through so much but I never saw her lose her…spirit. I think this was the final straw that broke her spirit. She just shut down. I don't want to push her into anything right now. She's blaming herself for his death. If she wants time alone, I'm going to give it to her. I just wanted you to be prepared that she may not be there tonight. I think we should still go ahead with everything. I would hate that you all went to so much trouble for nothing. I'm going to call her father. I'll let him decide what they should do." Ella nodded. She gave him a hug.

"Just be there for her. Give her your love and support. She needs time right now but she is strong. She'll get through this." Ranger kissed her on the cheek and left. He went to his office on the 5th floor and called Frank. He told Frank what happened. "I don't know what to do."

"If it's alright with you, I'd like to come over and see her now," he told Ranger. Ranger was actually a little relieved.

"Of course, you never have to ask to come see Stephanie."

"I'll be there in 30 minutes."

Stephanie had tried to sleep but she was too restless. The final conversation she had with TJ kept playing over and over again in her head. She heard a knock at the bedroom door. She knew it wasn't Carlos. He would have just come in. She wasn't in the mood to see anyone. There was another knock before the door opened a crack. "Pumpkin?"

"Daddy?" she asked in surprise. He came in and sat down next to her. She sat up too fast, hissing, and grabbing her side. "Shit," she muttered under her breath. He took her into his arms.

"Carlos called me and told me about TJ," he told her softly. She began to cry again. "Pumpkin, you need to know that he did not take is life because of you. Suicide is a personal choice. No one can make anyone take his own life. He feels it's a solution to a problem. TJ took his life because he was not happy with himself. Having you back in his life would never have changed that. He had you in his life and it didn't make him a better and happy person, did it?" Her crying was down to sniffles and she shook her head no. Ranger was standing just outside the doorway listening to the conversation.

"Daddy, did you know that he came to see me before I got married? I was so mean to him. He was on the ledge and I left him hanging there. What kind of person does that? He begged me not to marry Dickie and take him back. He was stoned and crying. I was soooo rotten to him. We were really close once that should have counted for something," she explained.

"If things were different, would you see yourself with him now?" Stephanie thought for a minute. Ranger was straining to hear her answer.

"I don't know," she whispered. "Honestly….I don't think so. I never got the feeling that he was the person I would spent the rest of my life with. I never had the strong feelings for him that I have for Carlos. But that doesn't mean that I can't feel like shit because I pushed him away and he killed himself. I keep playing it over and over in my head and I can't stop. I see his face. I hear his words. It might not be totally my fault but I am partly to blame." Ranger's heart skipped a beat when he heard her talk about her feelings for him. He never felt this way about anyone before and it made him feel like he could fly that she felt the same.

"Stephanie, I know this was very upsetting news. I know you need time to process all this, but you can't change what's happened. You can't keep second guessing decisions you've made. It happened. You have to deal with it. You learn from it. Then, you move on."

"Oh….great. I learned that I'm a total bitch," she groaned. He father sighed.

"Pumpkin, this is going to take time….and birthday cake." She looked up at him and gave a little smile. Okay, he had her on that one.

"Daddy, I think it's going to take more than birthday cake. This is going to take birthday cake, a few Big Macs, lots of French fries, and a whole family size box of Munchkins with a couple bags of Reese's as an appetizer."

"I'm not going to force you to come to your own party later. I do think it will help you to see how many people love and care about you. I didn't want to ruin the surprise but Val and the girls are here. They came Thursday." Her eyes opened wide.

"You're kidding?" She was surprised. They were never really close but there was always time to change that. Stephanie knew she had to at least make an appearance at this party. This was a shock to her but she was very tired. Maybe Carlos was right that she needed to get some rest. Not that she would feel totally better, but at least she would have the energy to face everyone.

"I have another surprise for you. It's something I've had for a long time, but I think the time is right to give it to you." He got up and went into the living room. He nodded to Ranger. He came back to the bedroom with a huge box. He helped her unwrap it. It was a guitar.

"Oh my God! Daddy! This looks so much like my guitar," she told him with a huge smile on her face. She missed her guitar.

"It is your guitar, Pumpkin," he told her. She looked at him quizzically. "You wouldn't ask for any help from us and that's partly my fault. I should have gotten more involved. When it became obvious that you didn't have enough money to get this out of hock, I bought it. I knew that one day, the time would be right to give it to you. That time is now." Her breath seemed to be caught in her throat. The tears flowed freely. She felt like on old friend came back home. She hugged her father and he just held her while she cried.

"I can't believe this. H-how did you know?" He smiled at her. He watched as she ran her hands over the guitar hugging it to her.

"Pumpkin, you never went anywhere without that thing. Did you think I wouldn't notice it was missing?" Actually, she didn't realize that he knew her that well. "I used to love listening to you play in the middle of the night when you would climb out on to the roof. You didn't think anyone heard you, did you?" Again she shook her head. "You need the music back in your life. It's a part of you. That's what you've been missing. It will get you centered and you'll get your inner strength back." Having her guitar back was making her feel a little better already.

"I love you, Daddy." She hugged him again.

"I know, I love you too, Pumpkin," he replied. He kissed the top of her head. "Now, there's a man out there that is worried sick about you. You need to get some rest. You've been through so much, Baby, you can't keep on pushing yourself. I'm going home but will back in a few hours for your party. Will I see you there?" She smiled and nodded. "Good. See you later, Pumpkin."

"Bye Daddy," she whispered. He got up and left. She heard low voices but couldn't hear what was being said.

Ranger was grinning. He shook his hand. "Thanks, Frank. I didn't know what else to do." He looked back at the bedroom.

"I would forewarn everyone to not speak about TJ at all. At least not tonight." Ranger nodded. "I'll see you later." She heard her father leave.

"Carlos?" she called to him. He walked into the bedroom and sat down next to her. "Would you lay with me for a while?" He gave her his 200 watt smile getting in the bed next to her.

"For as long as you want, Babe," He put his arm around her and stayed with her until she fell asleep. He slowly slid out of the bed and she didn't wake up. He wanted to pass the word to everyone not to mention anything about McCann, the band, MacGregor, nothing. He went back down to the 5th floor and grabbed Tank. He filled Tank in about the whole situation. Tank grimaced.

"Is she alright?" Ranger could see the concern on his face. All his men really cared about Stephanie.

"For now. I called her father. I didn't know what to do about tonight. She was so upset. Even with everything that's happened, I still hadn't seen her that upset. I think she was at the end of her rope and just didn't have the strength to deal with it. I don't want anyone talking about this tonight. Help me pass the word around. I want her to have a good time tonight. She's sleeping right now so hopefully, she'll feel up to going." Tank nodded.

"You take care of Bombshell. I'll tell the guys." Ranger clapped his shoulder. Ranger went back to tell Ella that Stephanie told her father she would go. Ella smiled.

"We'll make her feel special. She'll have a good time and it will cheer her up," she told him. Ranger thanked her again and went back upstairs.

Stephanie was glad she decided to go to her party. Ella had out done herself with the food. Her mother made pineapple upside down cake. The guys had given her a lot of gag gifts which made her laugh. She had to tell them to stop at times because the laughing made her side hurt. Lester agreed since laughing hurt his broken ribs too. Grandma Mazur was in all her glory with all the good looking men. She was able to grab a few butts which made her night. Stephanie didn't have much time to talk to Val in private. She was going to be around for the rest of the week so they would have more time. She couldn't believe how big her nieces, Angela and Mary Alice, had gotten. Stephanie decided to focus on the party and try to put TJ out of her mind.

Everyone seemed to have a good time. After a few hours, the party started to wind down. Helen and Val helped Ella start to clean up. Once the food was put away, Ranger insisted they stop. He and the men would finish the rest. The girls were tired so her family left. Ella and Luis went back to their apartment. Some of the men left to go home. Eventually, all that was left were the ones that lived in the building.

"That was really nice, guys. Thanks," Stephanie told them. Lester sat down next to her and handed her a gift bag.

"This is from me…with a little help from Ella," he told her and kissed her cheek. "Happy Birthday, Beautiful." She took the bag and opened it. A big smile appeared on her face. It was an 18 inch Snoopy dressed in a Rangeman uniform. The clothes even had the same embroidery that their uniforms had. He had a black cap, black boots, black cargos, and black tee shirt with a gun in holster on the utility belt.

"Oh my God…this is soooo adorable," she cooed. Even Ranger had to smile. Anything that made Stephanie happy, made him happy. Even if it was a stuffed Rangeman beagle. Stephanie gave Lester a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you. I can't believe you did this! I love Snoopy."

"I have my moments," he joked. He was relieved to see her smile. She seemed to have a good time at the party. He felt so bad for her when Tank told them what happened. At least now they know the connection with McCann. He didn't have any idea what Stephanie was going to do about it. She pulled out the toy gun. It was a little Sig hers.

"This is just too cute. I didn't know you were that into details, Les," she joked back with him. He put his arm around her shoulder.

"Oh I'm a detailed kind of guy." She rolled her eyes and looked at Ranger with a smile. Ranger smiled back.

"I hate to break up a party, but I'm really tired and want to lie down," she told them. "Thanks everybody. It was just what I needed. I know you guys know what happened today and I appreciate the support. I love all of you." They said their good nights and Ranger took her back upstairs. She took some pain medication and fell asleep almost immediately.

Ranger did some research on TJ. Stephanie told him his full name was Terrance Jason Walden. There wasn't much on him. He had no arrest history. He went to Rutgers in New Brunswick. There wasn't even much on his death. Father died when he was young from a brain aneurysm. His mother was still alive and lived in Metuchen. She moved from her upstate New York home shortly after her son's death. He found a few pictures. He was a decent looking guy. He remembered his face from the videos of their band he had seen at Gatsby's. He knew Stephanie was going to look into his death and speak to his mother. She needed to know everything about what happened. He knew that she wouldn't be able to move on from this until she did know the whole story. He wanted to help her in any and every way he knew how.

Having slept soundly all night, Stephanie felt better when she woke up. She wanted to talk to TJ's mother today. She had to. The party was very nice, and she did have a good time. Ranger must have been out for his run because Ivy was gone and the apartment was silent. She slowly made her way to the bathroom. She was supposed to wait a few more days before using the crutch on her right side, but she decided to try it. It was nice to almost walk and not have to hop or be carried everywhere. She wrapped her leg in a plastic bag and took a shower. She dressed in blue sweat pants and a NY Ranger jersey. She went over to Ranger's office and saw the print outs that he left for her. He tracked down Mrs. Walden. She moved to Metuchen. That would be easier than going into New York to see her. It was too early to call her but she knew she would be up in a couple of hours. They didn't want to bother Ella this morning for breakfast so she hobbled into the kitchen to see what was there. Oooohhh….pineapple upside down cake, she thought, that will do. She cut herself a large piece and settled onto the stool at the counter.

Ranger had decided to work out after his run. He dropped Ivy off in the Control Room before his run. He didn't know whether Steph still wanted some space and he figured she would probably sleep late anyway. He knew she was going to want to go see that guy's mother today. He knew either he had to take her himself or she would find some way to get there on her own. He was also trying to delay the inevitable.

Stephanie was on her second piece of cake and Ranger still wasn't back yet. It was 9:30. She decided to call TJ's mother. "Hello?" Stephanie swallowed hard.

"Mrs. Walden?"

"Yes?"

"Hi, Mrs. Walden. This is Stephanie Plum. I wanted to call you because I just found out about TJ yesterday. I…I wanted…." She trailed off because her throat tightened up and her eyes stung with tears. Mrs. Walden could hear her cries through the phone.

"Stephanie, it's good to hear from you. I wondered why you never came to see me after his death. I should have known that you had no idea." Stephanie struggled to get herself under control.

"I would have been there if I'd known. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Walden. It's all my fault. He came to see me and I sent him away. I was so mean to him. I'm a horrible person." She sobbed again.

"I think we need to talk about this, can you come to see me?" She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffled.

"Yes, I'd really like that. When?"

"Well…I'm not doing anything today. Do you know how to get here? I assume you know where I live since you called me."

"Yes, I'll be there around lunch time, is that okay?" Stephanie wanted to head over there right away.

"That would be fine. I really look forward to seeing you again, Dear. And Stephanie….it wasn't you're fault. We'll talk when you get here." Thank God she doesn't blame me, she thought. She would give Ranger another 30 minutes before she would start calling around looking for him. If he wouldn't take her, she would ask someone else. Or, she would drive herself if she had to.

A few of the guys had started goofing around in the boxing ring. It became a contest as one would call the winner of a round. The on duty personnel watched from the monitors in the control room. It finally became Ranger and Tank's turn to box. Neither man was afraid of the other but both knew he was up against a powerful and worthy opponent. With all the cheering, Ranger didn't hear his phone ring.

Stephanie called down to the Control Room. Ram told her he was in the ring with Tank. "Do you want me to get him for you?"

"No," she told him. "Let him play with the boys. It wasn't anything important. Is Ivy with them?"

"No, she's with me. Well actually I think she curled up under your desk for a nap," he replied. She thanked him and disconnected. She called her father.

"I'll be there in a half hour," he told her. She changed into a royal blue velour track suit. This one had wide legs and was easy to put on. She had tried to bend over to put on a sneaker but her side protested. She found her slide on sneakers and slipped into the left one. She called Ranger again but only got his voice mail. She left him a message about where she was going. It was 11 am when her father picked her up.

"Are you sure you want to do this today, Pumpkin?" She looked over at him.

"Yeah. I need to know the whole story, Daddy. I was going to ask Carlos but he and the guys are have a boxing competition or something. I didn't want to disturb him. He needs some fun too," she explained.

"I'm sure he would have wanted to go with you today." He looked over at her.

"I know. He's been so supportive. It just would have felt a little weird in a way. You know, talking about an old boyfriend in front of my current boyfriend. Weird for both of us, not just him."

"I just don't want you overdoing it, Pumpkin. You've been through a lot these past few weeks. We won't stay too long. And you will get some rest when I take you back home," he told her.

"Yes sir!" She gave him a salute.

Ranger and Tank kept going round and round. It was a draw but neither of them wanted to settle for that. They were too competitive and had too much ego to concede to the other. After a few more rounds, both were too exhausted to continue and mutually decided to call it a draw. "We will do this another time," Tank told him. "You know I was just going easy on you."

"Fuck you," Ranger smiled. "I could have taken you anytime if I reallywanted to. I can't have my employees out on workman's comp right now. I was trying not to hurt you."

"My ass!" Tank shot back. "You might have been able to come close to taking me on if you hadn't gotten so whipped." There were 'oohs' and laughs from the crowd. Ranger stood straight up. He hated to be called whipped. He wasn't whipped. Okay, so maybe he was a little whipped but Stephanie was certainly worth it. Shit! He looked at the clock. It was 11:45. He left the apartment at 6 am. He ran to his phone and saw there was a message from her. "Whipped!" he gave Tank the finger as he dialed in for her message.

"Damn it!" he muttered under his breath and called the control room. "How long ago did she leave?"

"She left at 11," Ram told him. He headed back to his apartment and called her cell. He just got her voicemail. He cursed again under his breath. He wanted to go with her. He should have paid more attention to the time. "Damn it!" He hopped in the shower.

Stephanie had turned off her cell because she didn't want to be interrupted when talking to Mrs. Walden. She had made some sandwiches and fruit salad for them.

"You didn't have to go to all this trouble, Mrs. Walden," she told her.

"Stephanie, this is no trouble at all. It is so good to see you. You look fantastic. What happened to you?" She pointed to her leg.

"It's a long story. I wanted to talk to you about TJ. I am so sorry. I just heard about this yesterday. I feel like it's all my fault. He came to be just before I got married. He us to get back together and I sent him away. I was rude and mean and hateful. I'm so sorry!" She began to cry. Mrs. Walden put her arm around her and hugged her.

"Stephanie, it is not your fault. Whatever you said to him made him want to go to rehab and get clean," she told her. Stephanie pulled back sniffing and wiping her eyes.

"What?"

"He came to me and told me that he had to get clean and straighten up his act if he would ever have a chance of getting you back in his life. He realized that he had to do it for himself. You kept telling him to go to rehab but he wasn't ready. Whatever you said or however you said it, finally made it sink into his thick skull. He was checking into different rehabs and what program he thought would help him the most. The next day, he went down to the clinic to see about detox. It was the next day that he was dead. He didn't seem suicidal to me. He really seemed like he wanted to get clean. The whole thing was such a shock and didn't make sense." Mrs. Walden took a deep breath.

"You…you weren't the one to find him were you?" Stephanie asked her cautiously. She shook her head no.

"No, his old girl friend found him. Amy…Amy…oh I forget her last name. She was the one he couldn't stand." A sick feeling started to grow in Stephanie's stomach. "I heard them arguing and then she left. She said she had come back a few hours later to apologize and she found him. I never heard a shot or anything."

"Did he leave a note or anything," Frank asked. Mrs. Walden seemed to hesitate before answering.

"Yes. It was addressed to you Stephanie," she told her with a sad smile. "But the note didn't make sense to me. It was almost complete opposite of what he told me the day before."

"Can I see it?" she asked. Mrs. Walden sighed. "Please, I need to see it." She nodded and got up. She went to the desk and searched through the drawer for the file.

"It might upset you, Dear." She handed her the file. Her father put his arm around her while she opened the file.

"It's typed," she told her looking surprised. Mrs. Walden nodded. "TJ didn't know how to type." She looked again at the note. "Actually, this is from a laser jet printer, it's not even typed. TJ didn't know how to turn on a computer no less use a word processing program." There was something not right about the whole situation. Especially now that she knew McCann was there. She began to read the note. It started with 'Stephanie'. "Now I know he didn't write this note. TJ never called me Stephanie. He always called me Stevie. It started out as a joke when we first met. I was having a really bad hair day and it was frizzy and curly. They made jokes about me looking like Stevie Nicks. He called me Stevie ever since."

"I had a feeling about that note," Mrs. Walden told her. "No one found that note right away. The police found it the next day in his room. I tried to tell the police that he wasn't suicidal but they didn't believe me. They said he told Amy that he didn't want to live anymore because you rejected him and married someone else. I have copies of the police reports and everyone's statements." Stephanie read through the rest of the file. It was becoming more obvious that Amy McCann may have been involved.

"Mrs. Walden, I don't think TJ killed himself. I think Amy did. She was obsessed with him. Plus, she…." She was thinking of how to tell her what had just recently happened. "She sent a mentally ill killer after me." She told her the story of McGregor, what he did in Utah, her being kidnapped by him, and the shooting. Mrs. Walden went pale.

"You poor thing!" she gushed. "You are lucky to be alive."

"Amy was the FBI agent on the case in Utah. We found out that she had a lot to do with him getting released. Then, by coincidence, he shows up in Trenton. She has been trying to get me arrested for shooting him. I thought that she was blaming me for TJ's death. But now, I think she may have something to do with it. TJ didn't own a gun as far as I knew." Mrs. Walden agreed.

"Unless he bought it just before, he has never had a gun. He didn't care for guns," Mrs. Walden agreed again. "I asked the police to check into this further, but they said it was a clear case of suicide. It always seemed suspicious to me. I never trusted that girl. Do you think she killed him?"

"I have a feeling that she did, but I can't prove it. Agent Durrer of the local FBI told me he would help me with her. I'm going to call him tomorrow and see if he can look into this for us. I don't know if she killed him in anger or by accident, but I know she's involved somehow. And I knowthat TJ didn't write this note." Mrs. Walden looked relieved.

"Stephanie, I know you left him because of his drug problem. But I know you were a very good friend to him. If someone killed him, I want justice for him. He wasn't perfect but he was my son. I owe it to him. If you can help me, I would really appreciate it." Stephanie nodded.

"And I can help get another psycho off the street," she added. Mrs. Walden stood up.

"Please, now that the unpleasantries are over, let's have some lunch."

Chapter 34

It was 2:30 and Ranger tried to call Stephanie again. Still no answer. He didn't know if she was angry with him because he was too busy goofing off with the guys this morning or if she was upset. Damn it! He knew she was with her father and that they went to Metuchen to see TJ's mother. His phone rang. He looked at the number and felt relief. "Yo!"

"Yo yourself!"

"Is everything alright? I would have taken you, Babe," he quickly explained.

"I know but you were having so much fun with Tank. I didn't want to interrupt." She giggled.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. I'll tell you all the details when I get home. TJ didn't kill himself. I think Amy McCann shot him and made it look like a suicide. Mrs. Walden gave me the police file." Ranger's jaw tightened. "We'll be home in a little while. I love you."

"Love you too, Babe." She disconnected. Holy shit, he thought. This woman was more dangerous than they thought. And, she is after Stephanie. He was going to make sure she didn't go out alone until they were able to nail this bitch. If she really did kill him, what's to say that she wouldn't try to kill Stephanie? His protective mode was on hyper-drive until she finally came home.

Stephanie showed him the file and the suicide note. She explained to him why she knew he didn't write the note. Ranger had a feeling that she was right. "What are you going to do about this, Babe?"

"Well, I thought I would call Agent Durrer. Maybe he could help us look into this. And maybe…..Joe. He does homicide. He might be able to help too." Ranger inwardly cringed at her mentioning Morelli. Unfortunately, she was right. Morelli would be an asset. "She is blaming me because TJ didn't want her. Mrs. Walden told me that despite the fact that I was a total bitch to him, he realized he wanted to get clean. She said he went to the clinic the next day to start detox and was looking at different rehab programs. She said he was fine. Then Amy shows up and they had a huge fight. Amy told the police she came back to apologize and found his body. They found the note the next day. Carlos, I know she shot him. I don't know if it was on purpose or by accident, but I know she did it. She must have typed the note and left it there for the police to find the next day. She probably freaked when she saw that McGregor was obsessed with me. She helps him to get out and sends him my way hoping that he'll kill me. I was so upset before but now I'm pissed. I am reallypissed off! For TJ, those 5 people he killed here, and for me, that bitch is going down." She had a look that he had never seen before. She was dead serious. It was a look of determination and don't fucking get in my way. He kissed her lips gently.

"We'll get her, Babe. I'll be behind you 100%." They kissed again. "Right now, you look tired. I want you to lay down for a while. I'm going to take these files down to my office and try to do some more investigating, okay?" She gave him a half smile. She was sore from the trip. She knew she was doing too much but conceded to rest now.

"Okay, but promise me you won't do anything without me. This is very personal to me. I want to be involved every step of the way," she told him.

"I promise. But you promise me you won't go off on your own. You let me know where you are and what you are up to. You're not exactly in top shape right now," he replied. She nodded.

"It's a deal." He carried her to the bed. "Oh…can you take me to my parents' later? I wanted to visit with my sister for a little while." He bent down and kissed her.

"No problem. Get some rest now. I'll be back up in a little bit. If you need me, I'll be in my office." Ranger took the file and headed to his office. Reading through the police reports, he could see that McCann really convinced the police department that it was a suicide. There really was no other reason or motive to believe it otherwise. His ex-girlfriend had gotten married and he had a drug problem. Looking at her file, she would have been in the FBI Academy at that time, too. She made a credible witness. She would also have access to firearms. Christ, he thought to himself, this was a fucking mess. At least she knew he didn't kill himself because of her. He had never seen her so defeated before and it almost broke his heart. McCann's FBI record was spotless. They could get the support of the local FBI office and the Trenton PD to be character witnesses to her unprofessional behavior and that it appeared that McCann had a grudge against Stephanie. He thought back to a conversation they had the other night. How something from the past can come back to haunt. She innocently got involved with a guy who had a psycho ex-girlfriend and has a chance meeting with a deranged schizophrenic for whom she became his obsession. You can't even write that shit for the TV movie of the week, he sighed. Now what do we do about it? He hung his head in his hands leaning on his desk and rubbed his eyes.

"Everything okay?" Tank broke the silence. Ranger gestured to the chair and he sat down. "Bombshell okay?" Ranger nodded.

"She's taking a nap. She was looking wiped out when she got back." He grabbed a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator next to his desk. He offered one to Tank who accepted. "Stephanie talked to this guy's mother today. She is positive that he didn't shoot himself and it looks like it was that FBI bitch who did it." Tank usually could keep a straight face void of emotion like Ranger could. Now was not one of those times. His chin practically hit his lap. "The short version is that after Stephanie told him to get lost, he went home and told his mother that he was going to clean up his act and go to rehab. He went to the clinic the next day for detox. McCann showed up and they had a fight. Supposedly when she came back to apologize, she found the body. The next day, police find this note," he pushed the file towards Tank who immediately opened it, "A note to Stephanie. It's computer printed. With her story, they think it's clear cut case of suicide and don't investigate any further. His mom wanted them to look into it more but they already made up their minds. His ex told him to get lost and he couldn't handle it plus he was a drug addict." Tank read the suicide note. It was pretty harsh and clearly placed blame on Steph.

"Did Bombshell see this?" Ranger nodded and he winced.

"Actually, it was a good thing that she saw it. She knew right away that he didn't write it. She said he never typed anything and he didn't even know how to turn on a computer. Also, he never called her Stephanie. He called her Stevie." Tank smiled at that.

"Stevie? That kind of suits her," he smirked. Ranger smiled.

"It was a joke or something about her hair and Stevie Nicks. Anyway, the nickname stuck. Both Steph and his mom insist that he never had any guns and wasn't into guns. The whole story doesn't make sense. Steph thinks that McCann killed him. Either by accident or on purpose. I think she's right." He sat back down.

"And now we try to prove it," Tank sighed. "We already know this bitch is out to get Bombshell. Do you think she would try to kill her?" Ranger shrugged.

"Maybe. She sent McGregor after her. Maybe she killed Walden. I would think if she wanted to directly kill Steph, she would have tried by now. I know she wants to hurt her. One thing though, Steph is determined to take her down. I made her promise to not try anything alone. To let us help. But you know Stephanie…." He trailed off. Tank snorted. "And sometimes she doesn't even have to try and gets into a mess of shit." Ivy bounded into his office carrying her leash in her mouth. Tank laughed.

"I guess she's trying to tell you something," Tank joked. Ranger got up and put the leash on her collar.

"Okay, I think a walk will do us both good right now. I need to think of a plan." Tank clapped him on the back.

"You know we all got her back. If I don't see you later, I'll see you in the morning." Tank followed Ranger out and headed to his apartment.

Stephanie and Val sat on the back porch. They had a long talk about their childhood. Val admitted that she envied Stephanie. That she was able to stand up to their mother and she never could. Stephanie told her that she didn't think Val was even interested in spending any time with her. They laughed and cried. Stephanie talked about TJ and her failed marriage to Dickie Orr. She talked about her time with the band. Val talked about her marriage and her children. She told Steph that she had a suspicion that Steve was having an affair. She said their relationship had changed over the past 2 years. She didn't know what she was doing wrong. She tried to be the perfect housewife and mother. Stephanie talked about her relationship with Ranger. She talked about her fears about getting screwed over again. This was the first heart to hear talk they ever had. Steph felt regret that they let all this time go by without trying to be close. They made a pact to keep in touch and work at getting closer.

"Your life was always more interesting than mine," Val joked. Stephanie smirked, It's about to get even more interesting, she thought. She still had to take care of McCann. Ranger was inside with Frank. Ivy, and the girls. Angie and Mary Alice were fascinated with him. He had to smile to himself that Angie was so much like her mother and Mary Alice was like his Stephanie. Angie was a little stand offish whereas Mary Alice made herself comfortable on his lap. Helen was slowly warming up to Ranger. She at least stopped asking Stephanie about Joe Morelli in front of him. Grandma Mazur was another story. He was used to women looking at him like he was their next meal, but it was uncomfortable to have an elderly lady do it. And, the old lady being Stephanie's grandmother.

"Stephanie really needs to gain some weight, Carlos. I've packed up some leftovers for her. Make sure you take them home with you," Helen told him.

"Yes Mrs. Plum. I know Stephanie will like that," he replied. He will always be civil to her mother. He still didn't care much for her but she was treating him better and most of all, treating Stephanie better in front of him. Stephanie and Val came back inside. He looked at the two of them. Valerie was a very pretty lady, but not as good looking as Stephanie. She was a couple inches shorter and a little heavier than Steph. Her hair was more of a dirty blonde and had baby blue eyes. Not the bright aquamarine eyes that Steph had but still a pretty blue. He was close to his brother and most of his sisters. He hoped they could get close. Family is important. He still had to take Stephanie to meet his mother and sister Celia. Since she seemed to be getting around better, maybe he would take her to his parent's house for dinner this coming weekend.

Stephanie was unusually quiet on the ride back to his apartment. "You okay, Babe?"

"Yeah," was all she said. She could feel his eyes on her so she turned and gave him a smile.

"You're never this quiet. What's on your mind?" Ranger insisted.

"Just tired I guess. I have a lot on my mind. I'm kinda on overload right now," she sighed. He couldn't argue with that.

"You know you can always talk to me about it."

"I know," she replied. They didn't speak again until they got back to the apartment. He wanted to carry her but she insisted on using the crutch. It helped her to feel more independent and more like herself. Ranger closed and bolted the door behind him. He watched her make her way to the couch and plop down. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

He walked over and sat down next to her. He put his arm around her and pulled her to him. She hissed and held her side. Damn, he cursed himself. "Sorry, Babe. I forgot." She shifted her hips to get closer to him.

"It's okay," she told him as she snuggled into him. They had left Ivy at her parents because the girls wanted to Ivy-sit her. It was quiet and dark in the apartment.

"Are you going to tell me what's on your mind?" he whispered to her. She looked up into his beautiful chocolate brown eyes that were full of concern. She surprised him by leaning forward and kissing him. It was intense and passionate. He let his hands wander all over her body but reminded himself to be gentle. They hadn't made love in almost a week. He pulled back and broke from the kiss. "Are you sure, Babe? Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Make love to me Carlos," she breathed. He carried her into the bedroom.

Ranger got up at his usual time and went for a run. Stephanie got up after he left. She showered and dressed. She had a busy day ahead of her. She was going to call Special Agent Durrer first thing and see if he could help. She got on the computer to research McCann's FBI Academy classmates. Maybe they would have information about TJ's death. She would have at least talked to someone about it. She grabbed the rest of the pineapple upside down cake and took it back to the office. She was so engrossed in what she was doing that she didn't hear Ranger come in. He read the computer screen over her shoulder then put his hands on her to massage her shoulders. He didn't expect her to scream and jump up from her seat. He was so startled that he even jumped back. She lost her balance and wound up on the floor. "Ow! Shit!"

"Babe, I'm sorry!" He immediately bent down to help her up. "Are you okay?" He sat her back in the chair and started to look her over. She gave him a look.

"You've got to stop sneaking up on me!" she scolded him. "You scared the living shit out of me." He was trying to suppress a laugh but wasn't doing a very good job. "You better not be laughing at me. You're bed will become a very lonely place, Mister!" That helped to whip the smile off his face.

"You need to be more aware of your surroundings, Babe," he told her as he took her hand and kissed the palm. He looked at the half eaten cake and back at the computer. "I didn't expect you to be up so early. What are you doing?" She turned back to the computer.

"Trying to do more research on McCann. Something from her Academy days. Maybe she said something to one of her classmates. I'm going to call Agent Durrer at 8. Hopefully, he'll be able to meet with me this morning." He sighed.

"Babe, I don't want you doing too much. You've got to give yourself healing time. And we made a deal to do this together, remember?" He had the feeling she was going off on her own no matter what he said.

"I'm not doing anything. I'm just going to talk to him about his. See what information he can find out. Then we can figure out what to do about Psycho Hose Beast," she told him. "Can't I ask questions without you holding my hand? I'm not going to leave you out, Carlos. I'm just trying to get some answers. AndI'm a big girl. I can decide for myself when I need to rest so I wish all of you would back off a little." She sighed and put her head in her hands. He came around and leaned against the desk. She reached for one of his hands and took it in both of hers. She looked up at him. "I'm sorry. I'm just really stressed out. I didn't mean to be a bitch." He kneeled down to look into her eyes.

"I know you're an adult and are capable of making your own decisions. But you are mine now. I can't help but care about you. It may drive you crazy and I know you don't like being told what to do, but I can't help it. I love you and want to take care of you." He kissed her hand again. She gave him her heart melting smile.

"I love you, too. And I appreciate that you care, but I meant was I said. I am capable of deciding when I need to rest and what I am physically capable of handling. But, I really enjoy you taking care of me. Actually, I love you taking care of me." She flashed him that smile again. He returned the smile.

"I'm going to take a shower and get ready for work." He headed off to the bathroom.

Stephanie called Agent Durrer at 7:58. She left a message on his voice mail. He returned the call at 8:30. He thought it would be better to meet her at Rangeman to talk. He took down some information and was going to see what he could find out. He said he would meet her for lunch. She was going to go crazy until that time. She called Ranger to let him know what her plans were. "I won't be able to be there, but Lester can sit in. Don't forget, he's on the DL and can help you with the research. Otherwise, I'll stick him on monitor duty." She could feel him grinning through the phone.

"So I get my own Rangeman to do whatever I want?" she joked back.

"Whatever you want….within reason." He disconnected. She called Lester.

"Hey…what are you doing?" she asked him. He sounded like she caught him in the middle of something as he was a little out of breath.

"Just got out of the shower. Ran to get the phone. You doing okay?" he replied.

"I'm fine. Ranger said you are mine today. You up for some investigating?"

"Sure. Give me about 20 minutes to get dressed. Where are you?"

"I'm on 7. Come up when you're ready. I'll have Ella bring us breakfast. I'll fill you in when you get here." She called Ella and asked for breakfast.

She filled Lester in as they ate breakfast. "I know it was her, Les. I know TJ didn't write that note. This bitch is really crazy." She pushed the file over towards him. Ivy was sitting next to her waiting for a piece of bacon. She leaned over and gave her one. Her shirt rode up and exposed the black and blue skin of her right side. Lester winced. He pulled the shirt up a little more to get a better look at the whole area and grimaced.

"Damn, Beautiful. I didn't realize how bad you were hurt," he told her.

"It's getting better. I know it looks bad. That's why I had all the bleeding. I really bruised a lot of stuff," she replied. "How bad is yours?" He lifted his shirt to show her the bruising on his chest. His was just as colorful as hers but was not as extensive. His was bad because it was right by his heart. She grimaced.

"Ouch. Yours doesn't look much better," she giggled. "Are you feeling better?" He nodded taking a spoonful of eggs.

"Not as bad as it was a few days ago. Coughing and laughing still hurts like a bitch though," he explained.

"I'm just glad I'm able to walk….well sort of walk with a crutch now. Hopping around or getting carried was really getting old. My hands are doing a little better. I can't put too much pressure on my right hand for long periods of time, but it's getting better. Two and a half weeks till I can get a walking cast and counting." They finished breakfast and then went over to the couch to look through the files.

"Do you really think she killed him?" She nodded.

"I'd bet my life on it. I've got to make sure she doesn't get away with this, Les. For those girls MacGregor killed, for TJ, and for me." He nodded.

"I'll do whatever you need." He noticed the DVDs on the coffee table. "What are those?" He pointed to the stack.

"Oh…Tara brought those. They're footage of us playing in Fort Lauderdale and some other stuff. I was going to look at the Fort Lauderdale stuff to see if I could find something on MacGregor. I haven't looked at any of them since I found the connection." She shrugged.

"Can we watch them now?" She looked at him. "I mean we have to wait till Durrer gets here so we have some time to waste. We still might see something." She thought about it a minute.

"We might even see McCann or something…good idea." He wasn't thinking about that but that was a good idea. He just wanted to see her in the band. They all had been curious since seeing the videos of her last week. She looked through the stack. She pulled out two DVDs. "Here…these are the Fort Lauderdale ones." He took them from her and walked over to the TV. "I have to warn you…I haven't seen these so I have no idea what's on them. It was a long time ago." He looked back at her and smiled.

"You mean there might be wet tee shirts and dancing on the bar and stuff?" He gave her a sly look while waggling his eyebrows, and she rolled her eyes.

"No wet tee shirts…not much to see there anyway, but maybe dancing on the bar. I don't remember," she joked. He popped in the first DVD and sat back down on the couch.

It started with them sitting around in a back room. They were laughing and joking around. He didn't see Steph right away. The camera panned towards a 16 year old Stephanie who was sitting on top of cases of beer. She had just lit a cigarette and was taking a drag. Lester gave her a sideways glance.

"You smoked?" She shrugged and nodded.

"Not one of my better decisions," she conceded. "But hey…I did eventually quit." After a few more minutes of hanging out, it was time to play. They played a mix of dance and rock. Lester was really impressed.

"Steph….I've been meaning to ask you," he began. She looked up at him. "Why didn't you tell anyone about this? You're really good." He saw a sadness in her eyes. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." He didn't want to upset her. She looked down.

"Sorry…it's not that. Just seeing TJ…." she trailed off. Damn, he thought. He forgot about him being in the videos too. He just wanted to see her.

"Beautiful, I'm sorry…" She put up a hand to cut him off.

"It's okay. It's just hard to see him, you know? It's bringing back a lot of memories." He nodded. "And to answer your question, I quit because Dickie talked me into it. I can't say that he made me because that wouldn't be the whole truth. He said he didn't want his future wife dressed up like a whore teasing pud when he was a respectable lawyer. And doing what I do best, I screwed up and did what he told me to do. I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. But there was pressure from my mom, Dickie, his family…." She sighed. "So I quit. I haven't talked about it because I've been angry with myself for giving up so much of me for that asshole. Not to mention the $100,000.00 of debt he stuck me with." Lester sat up straight.

"How much?" he gasped, incredulous. She bit her lower lip.

"$100,000.00."

"Holy Shit!" he exclaimed. "$100,000.00!" He wanted to ask so many questions but he couldn't articulate any.

"Yeah…I know what you want ask. How was I that stupid to let him stick me with all that, right? I was stupid. I should have paid more attention to things but I didn't. He had me sign stuff and took care of all the finances. I just did it. I didn't know he transferred all his student loans and other debt into my name. He moved all our assets into off shore accounts. He bought me a car for an engagement present. I didn't know that it was in his name only. I just drove it. So, he took it back when we got divorced because legally it was his before we got married. Of course the stuff I signed, which was before we were married, I assumed the financial responsibility for all his debts so that's how I got stuck with that. I didn't have any money to get a lawyer and fight it. I didn't sign under coercion so I didn't have a leg to stand on anyway. I was totally screwed." She sighed. Lester knew that her ex screwed her over but this was the first time he heard the details. This guy was slick and sounded like he married her just to screw her over.

"I'm sorry," he told her. He couldn't think of anything else to say. Between the issues with her mother and her ex-husband, she really had a hard life.

"It took me everything I had to pay it off. My credit was shot in the toilet. I couldn't put any money aside. I had just paid everything off and I lost my job. As a last act of desperation, I blackmailed my cousin into giving me a job. The file clerk job was full so I took the bounty hunter job." She gave him a smile. "And the rest you know." He smiled back.

"You're something else, Beautiful. What you've been through would have taken out a lesser person. You're a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for." She snickered.

"Well one thing's for sure. I learned that I will never get married again or give anyone that much control over me again. I only have myself to depend on and to never trust anyone again." She saw the look on his face.

"You can trust us, Steph," he told her with a serious look. "Ranger would never do anything like that to you. I'd never do anything like that to you. No one here would do that to you." She sighed.

"Well actually that part is in a gray area right now. I haven't really met anyone that I wanted to put my trust in again….till I met you guys." She smiled. "I'm working on it, but it's going to take some time." They continued to watch the video. There wasn't much footage of the audience. Lester was enjoying himself. This was much better than monitor duty. He felt her lean against him. Looking down, he saw that she had fallen asleep. He was tempted to put his arm around her but if Ranger had walked in, he knew that wouldn't look too good. He turned back to the video when he thought he saw MacGregor. He paused it and shook her awake.

"Take a look at this, Beautiful," he told her. He rewound the scene and played it in slow motion. It really looked like him. He was sitting at a table of all college looking young men.

"It really looks like him, doesn't it?" She agreed. Then a female walked over to him and whispered something in his ear. They couldn't see her face….until he got up. It was McCann. "Holy Crap!" MacGregor walked over to the stage, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her off the stage. "Oh my God! It was him." Stephanie was stunned. "She told him to do it. She knew him before Utah!"

"Do you remember that incident?"

"Yeah, but I just remember some drunk pulling me offstage. Oh my God, Lester. This is really freaking me out. The first year we played down there was pretty fun. The second year was nothing but trouble. I didn't feel comfortable or safe. Couldn't go anywhere without getting groped. It's nothing but drunks all over the place. When I got pulled offstage, that was the last straw. We didn't play the last set or the next night. If they wanted to get another singer to play the following year, I told them to go ahead but I wasn't going back. The guys' girlfriends didn't feel safe either so we decided not to play spring break there anymore. I need cake….a lot of cake right now!" She got up and hobbled to the kitchen. Lester replayed the scene, then paused it. He called Ranger.

"We found both MacGregor and McCann on the Fort Lauderdale tape. He's the one who pulled her off the stage and McCann looks like she told him to do it," Lester reported to him.

"Be there in 5." He headed up to his apartment. Stephanie was sitting at the counter eating a huge piece of chocolate cake. He smiled. It wasn't the best of food choices but it was calories.

"Carlos….this keeps getting worse and worse," she whined and took another huge bit of cake. He walked over to give her a hug and kissed the top of her head.

"Glad to see your appetite wasn't affected," he joked. She rolled her eyes. "What have you got?" Lester played him the scene. "Well at least now we have some concrete evidence, Babe. When is Durrer coming?"

"He said lunch time so I'm guessing around 12." It was 11 am.

"Tank and I have a couple of rounds to make so call me if you find out anything else. I'll see you later this afternoon." He kissed her again and left. She cut herself another piece of cake. Lester sat at the counter and cut one for himself.

"Okay, we have about an hour to kill," she told him with a mouthful of cake. "It's your turn. Tell me about you now." He grinned and took a bit of cake.

"My life is not nearly as exciting as yours," he laughed. "Both my parents are still alive and still married. I have 2 older sisters who were very bossy growing up. They are both married and I have nieces and nephews. I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school. Was going to go to college but decided on the army. I qualified for Special Forces and that's where I met Ranger, Tank, and Bobby. I wouldn't exactly say I was a goody-two-shoes because I did my fare share of partying, but I never did drugs or anything illegal. Dated lots of girls. When Ranger told us he was starting up his own company, we all signed on. I signed a government contract like the others did but after 2 years, I decided that was it. I didn't renew. Gave me a really nice nest egg to put away, but I just didn't want to go through all that crap anymore." Wow, she thought, he really opened up.

"Anyone special in your life?" He smirked.

"No…not really. I had a couple of long term girlfriends, but none that I would want to spend the rest of my life with. I like being unattached at this point in my life. I guess I haven't found that person who's right for me yet. Or no one thinks I'm special enough to want to stay with me." She smiled.

"You just have to work on the corny lines," she laughed. He pretended to look hurt. "If you come across as just wanting sex, women may be afraid to expect anything more from you. If you really care about someone, you need to let them know. Otherwise, you could miss out." He shrugged.

"Maybe…." He thought. He didn't want to have this conversation anymore because he felt like he already missed out. Ranger met and claimed her first. He had to just settle with being her friend. He enjoyed being with her and hoped they would become good friends. "You can help me find somebody one day. I like girls who are stacked. Who have long legs and…." She put up her hand.

"Okay….I get it." She laughed. "I'm not a good match maker and I'm certainly not going to be your pimp. Plus, I should be the last person giving relationship advice. I'm more the 'don't let this happen to you' poster child."

Chapter 35

Stephanie and Lester reviewed everything they had with Special Agent Durrer. He was shocked at the tape. "This is good stuff," he told them. "Can I get copies of this?" Lester had already made a copy of the DVD but took the file to Ranger's office in the other room to make copies. "I've made some calls and am waiting for copies of the 911 call. I should have that this afternoon. I found out that her superior is a friend of her father's. That's where she had been getting the protection. Christ, I don't know how she made it past the psych evaluation for the Academy. It's pretty strict. Scary, actually, that she made it through." Stephanie stood up.

"Ella's bringing lunch up. Can I get you anything to drink Agent Durrer?" she asked.

"It's Joe. Water, ice tea, whatever you have is fine, Miss Plum."

"Stephanie. We have all that. We even have Pepsi. I had it smuggled in." Lester jumped up to get it.

"You sit down," he told her. Ella brought lunch and put in on the dining room table. Lester brought over ice tea and Pepsi. They sat down to lunch.

"So what do we do now?" she asked.

"Once I get the tape, I'll review that. I'll let you hear it. I'll see if I can get someone to take a peek into her Academy records. Then I'll take all this to my boss. He can't stand her either. The Agent who is covering for her is pretty high up."

"I'll bet that's why he never called Carlos back. He called her supervisor when she started making all the accusations at me." She giggled. "He gets so mad when people don't call him back." Lester had to laugh too. She got that right.

"Another issue that that she will be caught in an outright lie. She has made formal accusations that you knew MacGregor for a long time. You were involved with him. He asked you to marry him. You dumped him for the attorney. You convinced him to kill those people. All that crap. Oh and he left his girlfriend for you. Apparently she was talking about TJ Walden."

"Tara swears that they had broken up before he even met me. I remember them joking about her…calling her Psycho Hose Beast. I never met her. I asked Tara if TJ ever told her that he left her for me and she didn't know. And for the record, I didn't leave him for Dickie Orr either. I had already broken up with him when I met Dickie. Just before I got married, he begged me not to marry Dickie. Should have listened on that one, but why break my perfect track record of never listening to anybody. He never asked me to marry him." They finished lunch.

"I'll call you when I get the rest of the information. Then I would like you to come down to the station to talk to my boss. We can decide from there how to proceed. It's a tough process when you accuse one of your own. We need to act fast. She's going to be heading back to Utah at the end of the week. She'll have less protection out here." Stephanie nodded.

"I'll walk you out," Lester told him. "I'll be right back." He led him to the elevator. "Do you think Steph is in danger?" Durrer shrugged.

"I'm not sure. But I wouldn't leave her alone. I'm less worried about her with McCann in Trenton. We can keep an eye on her here. But once she goes back to Utah, God only knows what she will do. I don't think she would go after her now. She's knows we think she's full of shit. If anything happened to Stephanie, she would be the prime suspect. She's sneaky but she is smart. Tell Manoso to have someone with her at all times outside this building. It will probably be easy with her in that condition." Lester shook his hand. He walked him to his car and opened the gate so he could leave. He went back up to 7.

"I'm going to take Ivy for a walk and I'll be back," he told her. While he took the dog out, he called Ranger.

Since they were waiting for Durrer to get back to them, there wasn't much to do. Stephanie went down to the 5th floor for a while and did a few searches to keep her busy. She wasn't actually medically cleared to go back to work yet but she didn't think anyone would mind. Ranger and Tank had gotten back from the sites visits around 3 pm. He found her in her cubicle.

"What are you doing, Babe?" She had jumped at the sound of his voice grabbing her side.

"You really have to stop doing that," she muttered. He kissed her and leaned against her desk. "I'm waiting for Joe…Durrer…to call us back. I got board being upstairs by myself. I figured I would do a couple of searches. I'm not overdoing it." This got her a smile.

"I know, but you aren't cleared to come back to work yet. Don't push it." She rolled her eyes.

"Fine, I'll go back upstairs." She stood up, with Ranger's help. He kissed her again.

"I'll be up in a little while. I have to work on these reports now. Call me if you hear anything." She nodded, gave him a salute, and headed back up with Ivy on her heels. "Smart ass."

She no sooner got in the apartment when the phone rang. It was Special Agent Durrer. "I just listened to the 911 tape. It's a little suspicious. It was too late today to set something up with my supervisor but he's got time first thing in the morning to talk about this. I showed him briefly what we've got. Can you come to the office tomorrow morning at 9?"

"Absolutely!" she replied. "I'll see if Carlos can make it. I know I can get someone to take me over there. Do you think we have enough to get her?"

"Don't know. But we have enough for an investigation. I'll see you tomorrow morning." She called Ranger immediately. She gave him the update.

"I can take you, Babe. I'll have Tank take a meeting for me. He hates the business side of things but he needs get used to it. I'll see you in a little while. Get some rest." He disconnected before she could reply. She stuck her tongue out at the phone. She decided on more cake. She had an uneasy feeling that she couldn't shake. Something was up. She was probably just nervous about the meeting in the morning. She wanted to nail McCann so badly. She was also getting antsy. She had been cooped up for a while. She missed being able to just grab her things and head out the door. She missed going to the mall. She missed her privacy. She was probably just getting a little stir crazy. Everyone had been so good to her. She needed to keep her cool and try not to be a demanding bitch right now. She probably should lie down and get some rest but then she would be giving in to what Carlos told her to do. She hated to be told what to do even if it was in her best interest. The guitar, she thought. Playing her guitar always mellowed her out. She didn't know if her hands were totally up to it yet but what the hell? She wished she was back at her parents' house and she would be able to climb out on the roof. She smiled to herself. The roof! She remembered seeing another door at the end of the entrance hall. Bet that went up to the roof here, she decided. She hobbled to the bedroom to get her guitar. She pulled over the strap and hung the guitar down her back. She grabbed a jacket and Ivy and headed to the door. It wasn't locked. She made her way up the stairs. The outer door was also not locked. It was the door to the roof. She figured she was probably on camera. She couldn't imagine that Ranger didn't have the roof entrance monitored in the control room. She found a spot that she liked and plopped down. She pulled the guitar around front and strummed. She made a few adjustments to get it back in tune. It felt like having an old friend back in her life. She played some easy songs and hummed along.

Ram had been watching on the monitor. He elbowed Woody. "What is she doing?" They watched her walk out the door and on the roof. They watched her playing the guitar. Ivy laid down next to her. "Too bad we don't have mics installed up there." Woody nodded.

"Do we tell Ranger?" Woody asked. She wasn't leaving the building. She probably just wanted a little space. But if Ranger found out she was up on the roof and they didn't say anything, they would get in trouble.

"I don't know. Probably should. I think we should ask Hector to install mics up in the roof," Ram replied with a smile. "I'll bet this won't be the last time she goes up to the roof." Woody smiled back. That would be a good idea, he thought, because that could help pass the boring time of monitor duty. Ram buzzed Ranger on the intercom. "Uh…Boss. I just wanted to let you know that Steph is up on the roof…."

"What!" Ranger interrupted. The intercom went dead and he was at the monitor bay a few seconds later. He looked at her on the monitor. She was sitting with her back against the bricks and playing her guitar. He relaxed a little. She wasn't doing anything crazy. He was torn from going straight up there and letting her have her space. He sighed. "It's alright. Just let me know if she has any trouble getting up." Ram and Woody exchanged a surprised look and shrugged their shoulders. Ranger didn't smile until he got back to his office. He remembered listening to her father telling how he loved to listen to her playing on the roof in the middle of the night. He closed the door and punched up the roof camera on his computer. He watched her playing. She looked relaxed. She hadn't touched the guitar since she got it. He hadn't known how important music had been in her life until this past week. That was part of her soul. She probably felt about music like he felt about martial arts. He was small for his age growing up and was not as tall as the other boys in school. He was teased and picked on. He hit his growth in his later teens. He ran with a tough crowd. He felt like he had something to prove when he was younger. He started with body building and karate at the local YMCA. He really loved it. It helped to center him and give him confidence. Probably the same way music centered Steph. She had gotten away from music for a long time. She was an amazing person but lacked so much self confidence thanks to a lot of people who screwed her over and broke her down. He was anxious to see how strong she would become mentally and emotionally with getting back to her music.

She was still on the roof when he finished his paperwork. He decided to go up to the roof. She hadn't noticed him leaning against the door. He just listened to her sweet voice with the strumming of the guitar. She wasn't playing anything fancy probably because her hands weren't 100 percent yet. After a few minutes, she did look up and stopped. "Don't stop on my account, Babe." She smiled at him and continued to play. He walked over and sat down beside her. She finished the song.

"What did you think?" He gave her his 200 watt smile.

"It was pretty good." They kissed. "That's all you're going to get right now since we're on camera." She giggled and waved to the camera.

"I was getting a little crazy being cooped up. I just needed to get out and it seemed like a good idea at the time. You're not mad are you?" She bit her lower lip. He shook his head.

"You can come up here whenever you want to. I just hope that you won't mind if I come up to listen from time to time." She gave him that heart melting smile. She looked at his watch.

"Oh wow," she exclaimed. "I didn't realize what time it was." She had been up there for a few hours.

"Ella will have dinner ready in a few minutes. Come on, Babe." He helped her up and carried the guitar for her then they made their way back to the apartment.

As usual, Ella made a delicious meal. He could always tell that she enjoyed her food from all the moaning. Although he was getting used to it, it still turned him on. She looked up and found him grinning at her. She starred back. "Your star-ing," she told him in that sing song tone. He just shook his head.

"Can't help it. I love you." She returned his smile. "One of these days, I'm going to have to bring you to my parents for dinner. Mama is dying to meet you. I'm just going to have to warn her about your pornographic moaning when you eat." She looked panicked.

"I sound like a porn star when I eat?" She put her fork down. "Oh my God! I'm never going to eat in front of anyone again."

"You don't sound like a porn star…I just have…other moaning to compare it to and it gets me turned on," he told her waggling his eye brows at her. She rolled her eyes.

"I don't even realize I'm doing it. I love food and if it's good food….I can't help it," she whined. He continued to grin at her.

"It's another one of the little things I love about you. As you say…it's part of your charm."

"What else do you love about me?" she prodded.

"That your eyes light up when you smile." He added. "When you bite your lower lip when you are nervous. When you blurt out some totally inappropriate statement." He moved closer to her. "When you kiss me…." He started out with a gentle kiss but it soon depended. He began to let his hands wander. She reached down and started to stroke his hardness through his cargo pants. He groaned. "Oh yeah….and when you do that too." He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom.

As they lay there afterwards in each other's arms he asked, "What do you love about me, Babe?" She sighed.

"Where to start" she began. "You always look so serious all the time so when you smile it makes me want to smile." She lazily ran her hand over his chest. "I love when you hold me. It makes me feel loved and safe. I love that when you are near me that you always are touching me in some way. Maybe just your hand, or your arm around me, or if your leg is against mine. It's just so…so….comforting." He snickered. "What's so funny about that?"

"I can't keep my hands off you. If you are in the same room with me, I have to have some contact with you. I can't help myself and I can't control myself when it comes to you. I've been getting some shit about it from Tank and the guys. You know, Mr. Control is so out of control." She remembered what Bobby had told her about this. She had seen the guys laughing or smirking whenever he touched her in public.

"What were you like as a kid? Did you play sports? What did you like to do?" He realized that he hadn't told her much about himself. She knew he was married and had a daughter. She knew he dropped out of college to join the service. She knew about his business, but he really never gave her his life story.

"I was the youngest of 6. Raoul's the oldest, then Celia, Selma, Ana, Rena, then me. Raoul is 22 years older than me and Rena is 6 years older than me. I was spoiled rotten because of all the attention I got." She laughed.

"That doesn't surprise me, Carlos. You still throw a temper tantrum when you don't get your way," she giggled. He grinned back.

"I was one of the smallest in my class. I was picked on a lot. Hung out with a bad crowd. Stole a car. Got arrested. My parents sent me to live with my Grandmother Rosa so I could go to a different school system. That's where I met Tank. We've been friends ever since. I started taking karate at the 'Y' and later body building. I started getting taller at 16. As I got taller and filled out more, I got more noticed by the girls. I started out a Rutgers in Newark but Tank was joining the Army. I quit and signed up too. Right after I got through the Ranger Induction Program, I met Rachel. I was really just looking for some female company and took advantage of her. Soon after I got back to Bragg, I get a phone call that she's pregnant. She wouldn't have an abortion and I felt like I had to do the right thing and marry her. As you know, it doesn't work when you get married for the wrong reasons. A few months after Julie was born, we got divorced. She didn't want to be with me either. I made sure I sent money to take care of Julie. She met someone else and asked if I would sign over my parental rights. I really didn't have any relationship with Julie and this guy loved Rachel and Julie, so I thought it was the right thing to do. I focused on my career and when I got out, I had saved enough money to start Rangeman. The security business has been really good to me and I was able to expand. Of course, I asked Tank to come in with me. I met Bobby and Lester in the service and when they got out, I hired both of them. I signed a government contract to get the contacts to get my business going. Plus it helped me to keep up my military training. Before I met you, I was already thinking of not re-signing. I'm pretty busy with all 4 offices. But after I met you, I knew that was it. You ruined me, Babe." She giggled.

"Did you have any relationships besides Rachel?" Okay…he was spilling his guts. He knew about her past relationships. She wanted to know about his.

He thought for a minute before answering. There was one other relationship that he had but would more call a fuck buddy. There was a woman who was an agent that he had worked with several times, Jeanne Ellen Burrows. She was actually the female version of him. They would have sex every time they worked together or if she was in town. He hadn't seen or heard from her in almost 8 months. She still couldn't hold a candle to Stephanie. "There was someone that I worked with and we would get together from time to time but nothing really exclusive. The rest were one night stands. I've never had anyone else in my life that I wanted to see the next day until I met you." That was the truth. Stephanie took this information in.

"It's funny how things work out," she told him and snuggled up into the crook of his arm. He grunted in agreement. They lay in each others' arms for a while longer. Ranger's phone rang.

"Yo!" He listed for a minute than groaned. "I'll be there in 5." He sighed. "I gotta go, Babe. Alarm on one of the commercial accounts." She kissed him then he scrambled to get dressed and out the door. It was still early so she got dressed in sweats and went into the living room to watch some TV and have more chocolate cake.

After skimming the channels, she didn't find anything interesting so she decided to call her sister. They chatted for a while. She told her what had been going on and that she was meeting with the FBI the next day. "I just can't wait for all this shit to be over, Val," she whined. "It's been like a horrible roller coaster ride, and you know I like roller coasters. I just want to get better, do my job, shop for shoes, and be with Carlos. Not necessarily in that order but you get what I mean."

"It's like you found a stalker within a stalker. It's creepy," Val agreed. They finished their conversation and decided to go out to dinner the next night just the two of them. Since she didn't know when Ranger would get back, she called down to the control room to have someone take Ivy out. A few minutes later, Hector had come up. He took Ivy and returned shortly. He stayed and they talked for a while. He told her the guys had asked him to place some microphones on the roof. She laughed and told him why.

"Do you want your privacy up there, Bonita?" They hadn't told him the reason. She shrugged.

"I didn't think I could get any privacy here. Maybe in the apartment, but not anywhere else in this place." Hector smirked.

"Si, it's hard to keep a secret in this place. I mean it's nice to have an apartment here. It's reasonable rent and it comes right out of our checks. We are allowed to have…uh…guests, but there are rules. And you have to be with your guest at all times. Right now, it suits my life. I'm saving for my own place. They guys know I'm gay. They don't give me a hard time about it…or at least to my face. I know it freaks them out to see me with someone. The guys here are so…..straight." Stephanie giggled. She was used to being around gay men. Two of her closest friends growing up were gay men. In the lingerie business, it was either out of the closet gay men or perverted straight men. "Even when I work out, I always go back to my apartment to shower." He laughed. "I've been tempted to shower with them and drop the soap and stuff…" They both laughed and she held her side.

"Oh my God! Hector…stop….my ribs!" she forced out through laugher. The more she pictured the scene, the more it made her laugh. She never heard any of them make any homophobic comments or jokes, but they were all manly men. Then she thought about the Mel Brooks movie of Men in Tights. "They're like…the Merry Men….from the movie Men in Tights!" The two of them exploded into laughter.

"Faggolas? No, we're manly men," Hector joked as he quoted from the movie. "Does that make Ranger….Robin Hood?" She laughed again.

"Lula calls him Batman. I think he would prefer that to Robin Hood!" she giggled. "I think we need chocolate cake." Hector was going to cut each of them a piece but Stephanie interrupted him. "Just bring the whole plate." He looked at her with raised eyebrows. "I'm hungry." He was glad to see her appetite back. They polished off the cake. Hector stayed a little longer then went back to his apartment.

Ranger still had not gotten back so she decided to go to bed. Her right hand was a little sore from using the crutch and her side hurt from laughing so hard. She decided to take some Advil before going to bed. She was asleep by the time Ranger had gotten back at 11:30. Not wanting to wake her, he took Ivy out one last time, grabbed a quick shower, then slid into bed with her. Without waking, she unconsciously snuggled into him and he gently pulled her close. Rubbing her back and watching her sleep helped to calm him enough that he soon fell asleep as well.

Chapter 36

"Are you ready for today, Babe?" he asked her as they ate breakfast. She nodded. She was anxious to get it over with because she was filled with nervous energy.

"I feel like I just drank a gallon of Pepsi with extra caffeine. I'm so nervous," she told him.

"Nothing to be nervous about. Just tell them everything." She shrugged.

"I know…I just feel so….like I….oh I don't know!" He tucked a stray curl behind one ear and kissed her temple.

"You'll do fine. I'm going to run downstairs and will be back to take you in an hour." He left for the 5th floor.

Stephanie and Ranger met with Agent Durrer and his supervisor. He looked again through all the files, all Agent McCann's statements, the video, and the audio from the 911 call. In the beginning of the call she said, "I..he shot himself." It was almost like she started to say "I shot him" but changed her mind.

"We also checked the reports on the finger prints. There were smudges but the only liftable prints on the gun were Walden's. What was really interesting is that Walden's prints were not found on the suicide note. There were no prints found at all. I'm surprised they didn't investigate further. There were a lot of inconsistencies in her story. First she said she tried to stop him. Then, she said she came back and found him. I think we need to have a talk with Agent McCann," the supervisor told them.

"Do you think she's going to actually admit to anything?" Stephanie said. Ranger silently agreed.

"Maybe not in the open, but she may confess to you in private. We can pick up everything if you wear a wire," he explained. Ranger didn't like that idea at all.

"I don't want her alone with this nut job," Ranger insisted. "It's not safe and Stephanie can't defend herself." Agent Durrer agreed.

"There has got to be another way. Why don't we question her and hit her with the evidence? Maybe she'll slip up again," he suggested.

"I'll wear a wire," Stephanie offered. "I'll do anything to help." Ranger's jaw tightened.

"It's not a good idea, Babe. You've been through enough. Let the FBI handle it," he insisted. She looked at him and rolled her eyes.

"Okay, you guys play cavemen while I go to the ladies' room," she sighed as she stood up.

"Down the hall on the left," Durrer told her. She gave Ranger a smile as she hobbled past him to leave the room.

"I don't want her involved. I will have the resources of my entire company at your disposal, but you will not use her. She has been through enough because of McCann," Ranger again insisted.

"Mr. Manoso, I wouldn't use Miss Plum unless I feel it is absolutely necessary. Miss Plum may be the key to this whole thing. It's apparent that McCann has some sort of unhealthy fixation on Miss Plum. Do you think she is going to stop?" the supervisor explained. "No, she's going to keep coming after her. Next time, she could wind up dead."

Stephanie came out of the stall and washed her hands. The door to the stall next to hers opened. McCann came out with her gun in her hand. "Well….if it isn't the whore?" Stephanie stiffened up. "What are you doing here, whore?" Normally, Stephanie would have been terrified. Having someone point a gun at your face would give a normal person a bladder control problem. Thankfully, she had just eliminated that embarrassing moment. She was waiting for the fear to take over but there wasn't any fear. What she felt was anger. Anger at the horrible things this crazy bitch did to her. Her mouth started working before she thought what she was going to say through.

"Oh just telling a few people how it was you that killed TJ. Got some real good evidence, too. You're the one that's going to jail, you crazy bitch!" McCann's eyes widened. "No wonder he dumped you. He thought you were a joke. Everyone in the band used to make fun of you." Okay Steph, might not be so smart to bait a crazy person, she thought. But she couldn't help herself. She was so angry. So many innocent people were dead because of her. McCann began to shake.

"I loved him!" she spat at her. "You took him from me!" Stephanie held her ground.

"Is that why you killed him? Because he wanted me and not you?"

"I didn't mean to shoot him! I knew you were getting married to the lawyer and I went to be with him. He was going to go to rehab and didn't want anything to do with me. He said he wanted to get clean so you would take him back. I told him I would kill myself if he didn't want me. He grabbed the gun and it went off. It was all your fault!" McCann was now screaming at the top of her lungs.

Ranger heard a commotion out in the hall. He had a bad feeling that somehow Stephanie was in the middle of it all. The men all jumped up and ran into the hall. There was a crowd standing outside of the ladies room. Ranger's heart sank. He knew Stephanie was in trouble.

"Not only did you kill him…you sent that psychopath after me, too! Didn't you?" Stephanie kept pushing.

"That was another man you had wrapped around your finger you whore!"

"I didn'tknow him. How many times to I have to tell you that? It's not my fault if no one wants you. I haven't known you that long and I can't stand you either." Ranger could hear Stephanie's reply. Babe, he said to himself, what are you doing? She was baiting and fighting with this psycho. Durrer opened the door and they saw McCann pointing the gun at Stephanie's head. Ranger's blood went cold and he drew his own gun.

"Get out of here before I splatter this whore's brains all over that wall!" she screamed at Durrer.

"What are you doing McCann? You are supposed to be an FBI agent. You've got your gun pointed at an innocent person," Durrer calmly told her. He was trying to calm the situation and talk her down. Ranger looked at Stephanie's face. He was surprised that he didn't see any fear in her eyes. She was pissed. Now he was more worried because he was afraid she was going to do something to get herself killed.

"Tell him how you shot TJ," Stephanie taunted. She put the barrel of the gun to Stephanie's forehead.

"Shut up!" she screamed. Yeah Babe, Ranger thought, shut up! Stephanie didn't blink.

"She was threatening to kill herself. TJ tried to take the gun away and she shot him," Stephanie told them calmly.

"You took him away from me! I loved him. I would have taken care of him. You tossed him aside like garbage! You fucking whore!"

"You loved him," Stephanie agreed softly. "But he didn't love you." The two women started at each other for a second. Ranger's heart jumped into his throat. McCann looked like he was going to shoot her. "You can shoot me too, but it's never going to change the fact that he loved me….notyou." This statement seem to really get to McCann. She lowered the gun a couple of inches. Stephanie just reacted and swung her splinted arm upward towards the gun and lunged forward. This move took all of them by surprise. The gun went off as the two fell to the floor.

"Babe!" Ranger exclaimed as he ran forward. Durrer dove forward and grabbed McCann's gun forcing it out of her hands and it skidded into a stall. Still full of rage and anger, Stephanie punched McCann in the face before Ranger pulled her up and into his arms. He hugged her tight in a sigh of relief. She's okay….she wasn't shot, he told himself. She sucked in her breath as he squeezed her ribs too hard. "Thank God," he breathed. "I thought she was going to kill you."

"I'm okay, Carlos," she whispered back kissing his neck. His lips crashed down on hers, and they passionately kissed.

Durrer and another agent wrestled with and handcuffed McCann. "It's all your fault you whore! I loved him! I loved him! He would still be alive if it wasn't for you! I couldn't live without him anymore! I should have shot you instead!" She continued to rant as they lead her to a holding cell to book her.

"She came after me in the bathroom. She put the gun in my face, and I don't know why but I was so mad. I normally would have been scared, but I wasn't. The more she opened her mouth, the angrier I got. I kept telling myself to shut up, but my mouth wasn't listening to my brain. I kept telling myself you've got a crazy person with a gun shoved in your face…stop baiting her. I just couldn't stop," she explained to him.

"I was hoping you would shut up. Babe, you had me scared. I thought for sure she was going to put a bullet in your head, and there was nothing I could do about it." He hugged her again but this time was more aware of her ribs.

"I'd ask if you messed your drawers but I know you don't wear any," she told him with a sly smile.

"Babe."