Disclaimer: JE owns the characters. Annie Lenox, Enrique Iglesias, and Dave Gahan own the songs in this fic.

A/N: Condensed for your reading pleasure.

Love Songs

Love Song For A Vampire

Come into these arms again
And lay your body down
The rhythm of this trembling heart
Is beating like a drum
It beats for you - It bleeds for you
It knows not how it sounds
For it is the drum of drums
It is the song of songs...

My eyes fell over the card that I held in my hand and the first thing that came to my mind was that I had yet another stalker. This was just perfect. I had been stalker free for six months. No break-ins, no flowers, no paranoia, no gun under my pillow. Okay… no gun in my night stand. It had been a great six months of not waking up to every creak that my apartment floor and ceiling made. At least until today.

The note plagued me through my shower. I had found it sitting on the floor in front of my door, like someone had slid it in under. The only reason I had seen it was because the envelope was hot pink and stood out as I drained my first cup of coffee. Armed with the stalkery love note, I gathered my purse and open files to head over to RangeMan with the hopes that there were finger prints.

Much to my dismay, there was another envelope lying on the floor outside my apartment. I decided that it would be better to get the inevitable over with, so I bent over and snatched the pink envelope off the ground. It taunted me for a brief moment before I ripped it open and read the card inside.

Once I had the rarest rose
That ever deigned to bloom.
Cruel winter chilled the bud
And stole my flower too soon.
Oh loneliness - oh hopelessness
To search the ends of time
For there is in all the world
No greater love than mine.

This guy is really full of himself. 'No greater love then mine'? What the fuck! How does he know? Feeling slightly belligerent, I stuffed the card back in the envelope and marched over to the elevator. My fist slammed into the button and I was disappointed that the aggression that I was feeling didn't waiver. Abandoning my wait for the elevator, I stomped my way down the stairs and slammed my way through the door.

The pink envelope under the windshield wiper of my car glared at me. This guy was going overboard! Doesn't he know that he needs to space the notes out over several days? The red rose lying on the other wiper was a nice touch, but you'd think that he could come up with something better then a plain rose. I almost broke the poor little wiper as I ripped the card out. My aggravation level was bordering Rhino by the time that I got the card out.

Love, oh love, oh love...
Still falls the rain...
Love, oh love, oh, love...
Still falls the night...
Love, oh love, oh love...
Be mine forever....
Love, oh love, oh love....

Creepy psycho guy run out of rhymes? I stuffed the card back in the envelope before I almost ripped my door off of my car to get in. Tossing the offending envelopes, rose, and my purse on the seat next to me, I almost screamed when I saw yet another pink envelope.

"This guy just doesn't give up!" I shouted. "Does he really not know the rules of engagement for stalking? What kind of a psycho leaves so many notes in one day?"

And now I'm shouting at myself, my mental voice berated me. Get a grip, Steph. Snatching the envelope from its taped post on the dash board, I stuck the key in the ignition and fired my old clunker up. The radio turned on as I ripped the card out and read the words.

Let me be the only one
To keep you from the cold
Now the floor of heaven's lain
With stars of brightest gold
They shine for you - they shine for you
They burn for all to see
Come into these arms again
And set this spirit free

I sat back in my seat as I lowered the card and looked down at the stereo. I don't own any Annie Lenox, I thought as I saw that a CD was playing. My stomach started flipping over as I focused on the words. I grabbed the cards and read them over as I hit the back button to hear the song from the beginning.

Oh, Damn! I thought to myself. This isn't a stalker. This is something much worse. This is someone's way of trying to get my attention in a romantic way. Double Damn!

Who would do this? It wasn't something that I could see Ranger doing. Actually, I couldn't see anyone doing something like this. To take such a beautiful song and then write the verses out on individual cards… The planning that went into it. The execution was perfect. This had a Merry Man's name written all over it. But who?


Hero

The pink envelope that sat next to my coffee maker gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling low in my gut. It was interesting that my spidey senses weren't going off. I guess that's a good sign. Especially since Tank had said that there didn't seem to be anything malicious about the notes. Or finger prints for that matter.

Feeling stupid for staring at the envelope for longer than I should, I snatched it up and opened it. No white powder or explosion, so I guess it's safe to open the card with its dainty water color rose.

Would you dance if I asked you to dance?
Would you run and never look back?
Would you cry if you saw me crying?
And would you save my soul, tonight?


Would you tremble if I touched your lips?
Would you laugh? Oh, please tell me this.
Now would you die for the one you love?
Hold me in your arms, tonight.


I can be your hero, baby.
I can kiss away the pain.
I will stand by you forever.
You can take my breath away.

Crap. He's sweet and sentimental. A mushy Merry Man? Who would have thought? I leaned against the counter and held the card to my lips as I thought about what had been written for me. It was then that I caught a whiff of something spicy. I brought the card closer to my nose and sniffed it. Yep. The card smells. That's new.

The scent stayed with me as I readied myself for the rest of my day. It was RangeMan day, so I threw on my uniform and did light make-up. I put my hair in a pony tail and then took a step back to look at the end result. For a brief moment, I though that it was all too wrong. If it is a Merry Man, then shouldn't I look better incase he's working today? But, then, shouldn't he like for the way I am. Yeah. Glam down was the way to go.

There wasn't a card on the hall floor or in my car. It's okay. Maybe he's just prolonging things. Stretching them out a little. Wasn't that what upset me yesterday? Yeah. But now I'm disappointed that there isn't anything here. Crazy. I know.

The guys all greeted me as I walked off the elevator and made my way to my cubby. That was where the next pink envelope was. It was buried in a beautiful arrangement of pink and purple lilies. I snatched the card out as I sat down in my chair, swiveling so that my back was to the wall. The guys were just that nosey.

"What do you got there, Steph?" Lester asked as he popped his head into my cubby.

"Looks like a secret admirer," I said as I grinned up at him.

"He must have gone mad," Lester said as he grinned back. He pointed at the ceiling and said, "The eye in the sky can tell us everything."

I thought about that for a second and then shook my head. "That's not fair, Lester. What if he's shy? What if he has more things planned before he tells me who he is? What if he's just as afraid as I am?"

"What do you mean afraid?" he asked with a frown.

"Afraid of living up to expectations," I said as my smile faltered. "Who ever is doing this is going to a lot of trouble. Maybe he's afraid that he won't live up to my expectations as much as I'm afraid that I'm not good enough to live up to his."

"That's why I'm suggesting the cameras."

"No," I said as I shook my head and then looked at the card in my hands.

I brought the card up to my nose and closed my eyes as the warm spicy sent filled me. I'd never forget the smell as long as I lived. It would be ingrained in my memory even if my secret beau wasn't meant to be. Lester watched me as I opened the card and read the message inside.

Would you swear that you'll always be mine?
Or would you lie? Would you run and hide?
Am I in too deep? Have I lost my mind?
I don't care... You're here tonight
.

I can be your hero, baby.
I can kiss away the pain.
I will stand by you forever.
You can take my breath away.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked up at Lester and smiled.

"Wow," Lester said as his eyes brows rose up into his hair. "I haven't seen you smile like that in a while."

"It's just really sweet," I said with a shrug as I looked back down at the card.

"He's lucky."

"Why?" I asked as I looked back up at him.

"I'd give anything to have a girl look that happy after getting something from me," he said with a sad smile.

I felt sad as I watched Lester walk away. He deserved to be happy just as much as everyone else. Maybe if he lost his play-boy attitude, he'd find someone. I slid the card back into it's envelope before I turned around and got to work. The searches from Rodriguez weren't going to get done by themselves. Unless I could catch a fairy.

Another pink envelope sat on my steering wheel when I climbed in my POS to go home for the day. I put my key in the ignition but opened the card before I started it up.

Oh, I just want to hold you.
I just want to hold you. Oh yeah.
Am I in too deep? Have I lost my mind?
Well I don't care... You're here tonight.


I can be your hero, baby.
I can kiss away the pain, oh yeah
I will stand by you forever.
You can take my breath away.


I can be your hero, baby.
I can kiss away the pain.
And I will stand by you, forever.
You can take my breath away.

You can take my breath away.

I can be your hero.

What I wouldn't give for someone to kiss away all of the pain in my life. There's been too much lately. A tear slid down my cheek as I thought briefly about my last fight with Joe. He had said so many hurtful things. Things that no one could take back, erase. I couldn't even bare to be anywhere near him and that hurt, sometimes more than what he had said.

I reached out and turned my car on, closing my eyes as a guitar softly started to play.

Yeah. It doesn't really matter who it is. I want a hero.


A Slight Diversion

"Have you figured out who it is yet?" Lester asked from the treadmill next to me.

You know that you are in good shape when you can run and talk at the same time without keeling over from a lack of oxygen. It just goes to show how far I've really come since I started working part time for RangeMan again.

"I don't know who it is," I said. Then I shrugged and said, "But I do know who it isn't."

"Let's here it," Lester said with a wave of his hand.

"Alvirez and Rodriguez are out because they are married," I said after I took a drink from my water bottle.

"Obviously," Lester commented.

"Cal and Hal are still seeing those twins in Newark," I continued. "Bobby, Slick, and Zip all have steady girlfriends as well."

"Men can be devious," Lester suggested.

"But none of the guys here would be devious enough to cheat. They know I'd frown upon that," I said as I actually frowned at him. Then I smiled and said, "I can't forget about Tank. He's spoken for as well."

"I wouldn't have even considered Tank on either list."

"He's a man."

"So."

"And he is attractive."

"I didn't just hear that," Lester said as he snatched the bottle of water from my hands and drank half of it. "Who else?"

"Manny, Hector, and Zero are all in Miami with Ranger," I said once I snagged my bottle back and took a drink. "Caesar and Eddie only date Latino women, so they are both out too."

"Got any more?" he asked, agreeing with the list so far.

"You."

"Me?"

"You may have the intelligence to think it up, but you don't have a romantic bone in your body," I sated.

"I'm romantic," he pouted.

"Yeah," I laughed. "And I have a penis."

"So," he said, not taking the bait. "Who does that leave?"

"Woody, Ram, Brett, Binkie, Roy, Vince, and Junior," I rattled off.

"Take Roy off the list," Lester said.

"Why?"

"He's too much in love with his gun to have room to love a woman right now," he said with a grin. "Maybe once he gets over his love of the smell of a well oiled gun…"

"So that leaves me with six guys," I sighed.

"It could be any of them," Lester said with a sudden grim set to his lips. "This is harder than I thought it was going to be."

"Why are you so interested anyway?" I asked as I slowed down my run to a walk to cool down.

"I want to know who keeps making you so happy," he shrugged as he slowed to a walk as well. "That and I want to know how he's so sneaky."

"I'll make sure to ask him if he ever tells me who he is," I chuckled.

"He will," Lester reassured as we climbed off the treadmills. "He's just trying to get up the courage."

"I wish he'd hurry," I said as we headed towards the stairs. "I like being courted. But it'd be nice to be taken out to dinner, too."

We had formed habits together. We exercised every morning and then went to his apartment on four to get ready for the day. He even cleared out a drawer for me that had a regular stock of clean clothes thanks to Ella. I saw the pink envelope hanging on Lester's door as soon as we stepped into the hallway.

"Speak of the devil," Lester said as he eyed the envelope.

I peeled it off the door and held it up to my nose. It was definitely from my sweetie. Lester waved me in as he held the door open and said, "Open it."

He headed into the bathroom as I sat down on the couch in the small living room. It was the same water color rose card that he had used before. The message on the inside said…

My Love,

Please meet me at your apartment tonight at six. I'd like very much to take you out to dinner so that we may talk.

With Sincerest Adoration,

Your Secret Admirer

"He wants to take me out to dinner tonight," I called out to Lester.

"You so have to call me and tell me who it is," Lester demanded.

"If I'm not tied up," I said with a small chuckle, hoping that that could be the case for the rest of the night


A Delay

After I showered and got dressed, I sat down with Lester for breakfast. Bagels with low fat cream cheese and a bowl of fruit salad. To make up for the healthiness for the meal, Lester added a generous portion of whip cream to the fruit. As an added bonus for not bitching, he gave me a Snickers to go.

It was a Vinnie day, so from Haywood I headed over to the bonds office. The girls were actually tame this morning. We talked for about fifteen minutes as I looked over the three files that Connie had given me. Two repeats and one newbie. Everything appeared to be going great. I was even floating a little bit with the knowledge that I was going to meet my secret admirer later in the day.

My day continued to go well as I went and grabbed Dougie and Mooner for failing to appear. Turns out that they both got caught selling stolen goods from the back of the Rollswagon. They were actually already up and dressed by the time I got there and I wasn't forced to watch five hours of Star Trek to get them to go in.

The day started to deteriorate at 10:30. That's when my mother called and demanded that I appear at her kitchen table for lunch today. It was free food and my mother's cooking. Who was I to refuse? Of course, now that I look back, I should have known that there were strings attached to said meal. If it sounds too good to be true, than it is. Especially with my mother involved.

Joe was sitting at the table when I walked through the door at 11:30. The German chocolate cake that my mom told me about should have been an indication that Satan would be joining us for lunch. She hadn't mentioned Joe in over a month and I thought she had finally understood that it was over between us. Wishful thinking on my part.

From the moment that I stepped into the dining room, everything went down hill. Stephanie, don't be rude to our guest. When are you going to grow up and settle down with Joseph? You need to quit your job and start a family. An October wedding would be beautiful.

Then, Joe started in. We could move you in this weekend. Give it a little time to get settled in before we start wedding plans. After the first year, we could start trying for kids. Of course, that will take a lot of practice. Everything will be great, Cupcake. Just as soon as you stop working for Ranger and Vinnie.

They both stared at me for a moment once they were done telling me what I was going to do. It took me that much time to figure out exactly what I was going to do. I could hear the cake in the kitchen calling my name. But it just wasn't worth the effort that it would take to get it. So I just slowly stood up and walked out of the house, ignoring the calls from my mother and Joe.

I pulled over just around the corner from my parent's house to do some deep breathing. I kept the tears at bay for a few minutes, but the pain in my heart became too overwhelming and the tears slowly slid down my cheeks. Why couldn't they just leave me alone? It's my life to lead and I wasn't going to spend the rest of my life being just a house wife. I will never be just a house wife.

The only FTA that I had left was Dennis Hopper. He had been arrested for arson and resisting arrest. It was a little high on the bond side. But, then again, Vinnie had been taking on some pretty rough people lately. The harassment that I had just endured from my mother and Joe clouded my judgment. Arson is usually something that I call in for help with. Or at least grab Lula.

It didn't really matter once I got to Hopper's house. He was outside watering his grass and actually smiled and waved at me. I would have thought that with all the times my face has been on the cover of the paper that everyone would know who I was by now. But Hopper seemed to be in the dark.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Hopper," I said as I climbed out of my car and started walking up the brick path he had in his yard.

"It's a great afternoon if I have a beautiful woman stopping by to see me," he said with what looked like a genuine smile.

"I'm afraid you are going to change your mind in a second, Mr. Hopper," I said as I tried to put on my best smile. "My name is Stephanie Plum."

I watched as his smile faltered and then disappeared. I'm not sure how a 72 year old man could move as quickly as this one did. But I instantly found a fist flying at my face. There wasn't any time to duck. His fist collided into my face with such force that I actually flew back several feet before I landed on my back in the wet grass. Stars swam into my vision. But they didn't impede the sight of Hopper launching himself at me. He landed on my stomach and proceeded to pummel my face.

Shouts rang out just as blackness took over.

The annoying beep from a heart monitor filtered into my conscious and brought me more into my head. Damn. And my head fucking hurts. I tried to open my eyes to see who was gently stroking the back of my hand, but couldn't. I tried to open my mouth to lick my dry lips and found that I couldn't do that either.

"Just relax, Steph," a deep voice said quietly as my body tensed. "You're at the hospital and everything is going to be okay. Me and some of the guys are here. Just rest."

That actually sounded like a good idea. Yeah. Rest was definitely what I needed. Just a couple more hours and then I'd be good as new. I was just on the verge of falling into the black abyss when I heard voices.

"Are you okay?"

"Yesterday was…" the voice next to me said. "It was the longest day of the year."

"I know what you mean."

Then I just gave up the fight and passed out.


Useful Information

"… using all of your vacation for this."

I came back to a conscious state in the middle of Ranger speaking to someone. My eyes still weren't functioning and I think that it's possible that someone has wired my mouth shut. I thought that they quit doing that ages ago for a broken jaw.

"I'm going to be here every time she wakes up."

The deep voice was back. I felt his hand slightly tense in mine before he started rubbing his thumb over the back of my hand.

"Lester has her power of attorney," Ranger said, bitterness in his voice. "He's the only one that needs to be here."

"I want to be here," he said quietly. "I have three months of vacation saved up. I'll use it all for her if I have to. If she wants me to."

"She's too good for you," Ranger said. "I want you to leave her alone."

"She's too good for all of us, Ranger," he said quietly. "But she should be able to make the choice herself. Don't you think?"

"She's never known what she wants," Ranger said. "She's been chasing after me for the last four years while she's been with the cop."

"You've been chasing after her too, Ranger," he said quietly, anger seeping into his voice. "The only difference between her chasing you and you chasing her was that she was looking for more than just a fuck buddy. That's all that you are after. She deserves better than that. Maybe it should be me telling you to stay away from her. But that's not my call. It's her decision to make."

"Why now?" Ranger asked after a moment.

"After I got shot last month," he said quietly as he tightened his grip on my hand, "I thought about her not knowing. I though about never having the chance to tell her that I love her. About never being able to kiss her just once. About never being able to hold her. I don't want to die and never know if I could have had the chance to feel those things and never did because I was too chicken shit to approach her."

And that's when everything fell into place. Of course I had no clue that he had ever had feelings like this for me. I felt muscles in my body start to relax that I hadn't noticed tighten.

His face came into my mind, the image of that first night he had spent in the hospital. I was there when he had woken up after surgery, kept him from ripping out the tube that was down his throat until the doctor could get there. Once I had gotten him calmed down, I had reached up and pushed his thick dark brown hair off of his forehead. Something had passed through his eyes and I hadn't understood what it was until now. Longing.

The door slowly opened and I heard two sets of shoes come squeaking into the room. They both hesitated for a brief second and then continued to get closer to me. They fiddled around for a minute and then a smooth voice broke the silence of the room.

"I'd like to look at your eyes, Stephanie," the voice said. "We need to make sure that everything is healing well and that you haven't suffered from any permanent damage."

"She's awake?" Ranger asked.

"Of course," the doctor said.

"You should both leave," a female voice said.

My heart hurt after hearing what Ranger thought of me. I really did want him to leave. But the warm hand in mine brought me a sense of peace. I tightened my grip on it when I felt him start to stand and let go.

"I think she wants me to stay," he said quietly. "I'd like to if it's alright with you doc."

"Is that what you want, Stephanie?" the doctor asked.

I nodded.

"What about this other one?" the nurse asked.

I shook my head 'no' and heard the door open and close seconds later.

"That one's scary," the nurse said. I just nodded an agreement.

"I'm going to remove the bandages from your eyes and look at them," the doctor said. "Just keep them closed until I tell you to open them. I'll turn the lights down before I do that since you will have some light sensitivity. Then we can talk about everything that's been going on."

I nodded that I understood and tightened my hand a little more. Fear started to coil through my gut when I felt someone starting to mess with my head.

"When I was still a ranger," he said quietly, picking up on my discomfort, "we were stuck in Venice for a week after a mission went bad. A whole week and they wouldn't let us off the base. We were so pissed that we were ready to break out. All we wanted to do was a little tourism. Go to a few museums or something like that."

"We're going to use some scissors now, Stephanie," the doctor said. "Please try not to move."

"I want to go back sometime," he said as he continued on. "I've even got some of it planned out. What hotel to stay at, what restaurants to eat at, good museums to go to. You should come with me. Even if things don't work out."

"I'm taking the bandages off now, Stephanie," the doctor said. "Just relax for one more minute and then I'll get the lights so that you can test out your eyes."

I nodded once to acknowledge him. I felt cool air hit the upper part of my face a moment later. The doctor tilted my head around several times as he used gentle fingers to probe my face. It felt like the front part of my head was one giant bruise. I noticed that the light behind my eye lids went away.

"Slowly try to open your eyes, Stephanie," the doctor said.

The warm hand in mine gently squeezed mine. I took a deep breath and then slowly opened my eyes, blinking a couple of times as I turned my head to the right. For some reason I wanted to see him first.

When my vision cleared up, I saw the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. It reached all the way up to his light brown eyes, making them twinkle. He was breath taking as always. I tried to smile back at him, but I winced as pain filled my face. He gave my hand a little reassuring squeeze.

"Can you see everything?" the doctor asked.

I looked over to my left at the aging doctor and shook my head.

"That's a relief," he said as he gave me a small smile. "Let's talk about that mouth of yours for a minute."

I nodded for him to go on.

He reached over and started touching a few places along my jaw. "There was a break here, here, and here. We used some screws and wires to get everything back together. The reason that we wired your mouth shut was because some of your co-workers said that you talk a lot. Your jaw needs to be able to heal some before you start using it."

I nodded that I understood.

"You should still be able to talk even with it wired shut," the doctor said. "You just won't be able to enunciate very well. We should be able to take the wires off in three or four weeks. Until then, you are on a liquid diet."

I frowned and then winced.

"They do make better shakes then they did five years ago," the doctor said with a chuckle. "Aim for protein and higher calories and you should be fine."

"When can we get her out of here?"

"Tomorrow morning as long as she behaves," the doctor said as he looked down at the file in his hands. "And she's probably going to have to stay with someone."

I looked back over to my right. He had a worried look on his face. I pointed at myself and then at him. The look vanished instantly into a smile. He shook his head and I saw some tension in his eyes vanish.

"Try to let her get some more rest and let the nurses know if she starts hurting," the doctor said before he and the nurse turned around and left.

"Do you want me to stay a little longer?" he asked.

After I nodded, he sat back down in the chair next to my bed. I rolled over some so that I wasn't hurting my neck looking at him. I ended up having to move the pillow so that my face hung off the edge.

I pointed at my face and gritted out, "Tell me."

He heard how raspy my voice was and grabbed the cup next to the bed, offering it to me for a drink. He chuckled when half of it leaked all over the front of me. I couldn't get up the energy to glare. He was right anyway. It was funny that my mouth didn't quite work right.

He sobered as he leaned back in his chair. He looked down at our hands still linked together before he looked back up at me. I could see the pain in his eyes. Was my face really that bad? Has Hopper turned me into some scarred mess that no longer looks like what I use to be?

"I'm not going to lie to you, Steph," he said quietly as he brought his other hand up to cover mine. "There's a lot of bruising and swelling. They also had to open you up along your jaw line so that they could get everything straightened back out. On top of that, they had to put in some stitches because Hopper had hit you so hard that the skin broke open."

He fell silent for a moment and just looked at me.

His voice was a whisper when he started talking again. "Bobby said that there were a few things on the market that might keep the stitches from scarring. I'm so sorry, Steph. But none of us are sure if this incident won't permanently scar you."

"Where's Hopper?" I managed to grit out.

"He's dead Steph," he said after a moment. "Big Dog and Eddie were the first ones on the scene; they couldn't get him to get off you. Big Dog was aiming to wound, but Hopper turned at the last second and took one to the chest. The ambulance didn't get there in time to try to help him. TPD is saying that it was a clean shooting so Big Dog isn't in any trouble."

"Good," I whispered through my teeth.

"Why don't you try to get some sleep," he said as he leaned back into his seat. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise?" I asked weakly.

"Promise," he said as he flashed me a wide grin.

I reluctantly closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep with the picture of his smile in my mind.


There Are Always Nightmares

My arms flew up over my head as I startled from my nightmare, my knees coming up to my chest as I lay on my side. I felt a hand in my hair and a hand on my arm, a voice barely penetrating through the screams in my head. My whole body was shaking and I was having a hard time getting my breathing under control.

"Find him," Lester shouted. "She's losing it!"

The only thing that I could see was two giant fists flying at my face. Every blow wrenched my body. A sob escaped through my clenched teeth as my body continued to shake.

"I think she's seizing!" a voice shouted.

"No!" Lester shouted. "No drugs! Where the fuck is Junior?"

"I can see him running down the hall," someone said from the door. "He's almost here, Steph. Just hang on."

"What's happening?" Junior shouted as he came running down the hall.

"She's freaking out and we can't get her to respond to us," another voice said. I think that was Binkie.

"She was asleep when I went for coffee," Junior said as he slipped into the room and rushed to the side of my bed.

My whole body tensed into a tight ball as two strong hands lifted me up. The strong smell of spice and woods flooded my senses as two strong arms wrapped around me. My breathing started to slow down as a hand drifted into my hair. He started to rock us back and forth as he gently rubbed my arm with his other hand.

"She's cold," he said quietly. "Help me get her wrapped up, Les."

I flinched as a hand caressed the side of my face. I saw a thick fist fly at my face again and I tilted my head into Junior's chest. The fist vanished as I took a deep breath and sunk into his cologne. Heat started to return to my body after they got a blanket around the other side of me.

"Clear out guys," Junior whispered. "Let me try to get her to relax."

"Sure thing," Lester said.

I heard the door close and felt my body start to relax into the one that I was trying to cocoon into. We stayed silent as I let the tears fall freely and soak into his shirt. I struggled for a little while, and then finally gave up the fight as I melted the rest of the way into him and relaxed.

Once I was completely relaxed, I felt a stinging sensation start to prickle along the right side of my jaw. It spread like a wild fire and raced across the lower half of my face. I winced as I jerked away from Junior, my hands flying up to my jaw.

"Hold on. Hold on."

I watched through blurred vision as Junior leaned over and grabbed something from the nearby table. He ripped of the packaging and then pressed something onto my arm after he got the sleeve up.

"The nurse dropped this off before I went for coffee," Junior said as he pulled me back into his arms. "It's a morphine patch. I didn't want to give it to you until you needed it. You probably clenched you teeth together when you were freaking out."

I nodded my head because it made sense.

A few minutes later, the door quietly opened and closed. I looked over Junior's shoulder and peered at the mid-thirties woman in a nurse's getup. She gave me a small smile.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked as she came over to the machines next to my bed.

I nodded and Junior said, "Yes."

"Good," she said as she nodded without looking over at us. She started turning the machines off as she said, "I just need to get you unhooked and the IV out and you are released to go home."

"What about after release information?" Junior asked. "She's staying with me and no one's told me what we are suppose to do."

"I went over everything with Bobby," she said as she gently took my hand and laid it on one of the rolling tables. She continued to prep for removing the IV as she said, "He told me that she'd be staying at your work until she was better and that he tends to everyone's injuries. Since he's a medic, he pretty much knew everything that I told him. He has all of her release paper work and her prescriptions. He said that he'd get them filled on his way back to the office."

I winced as she pulled the tape off my arm, taking the IV needle right along with it. She efficiently put a folded four-by-four on the small drop of blood that formed and taped it on. She silently moved around the two of us and removed the heart monitor thingies. Over all, I gave her a 9.4 rating. Subtracting .6 points since she looked surprised that the needle came out with the tape coming off, like that hadn't been on purpose.

I watched her clean up the table and then she stopped and looked over at me. She gave me a shy smile as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a pink glittery pen and a spiral bound pocket note book.

She handed it to me and said, "I thought this might come in handy. They say that you can talk through your teeth. But if you are a girl like me, you talk a lot and after a while, it starts to hurt your jaw. Try to only talk when you have to. Use the pad for other times."

I tried to smile, but wasn't able to pull it off.

She nodded and said, "It's okay. Try to get one of these Beef Cakes," she said as she pointed at Junior, "to get you some more of these little pads. You'll go through a ton of them before they unwire you."

Junior snorted at the 'Beef Cake' comment and agreed to purchase more as soon as he could. The nurse took his word at that and then disappeared.

"There's a bag in the bathroom with some clean clothes," Junior said as he moved me out of his arms and climbed off the bed. "I had one of the nurses tape up some of those blue and white pads over the mirror. None of us were sure that you'd be able to handle seeing your face with it still being bruised and swollen."

For once, I was relieved that the guys thought so little about how strong I might be. I wasn't so sure that I'd be able to handle my appearance either. It must have showed in my eyes because he released a breath that I didn't know he was holding. He smiled as he held out a hand to help me down off the bed. My knees were a little wobbly, but I was able to get to the bathroom without hurting myself, or Junior.

I had just gotten my pants on when I thought hit me. I hadn't seen either of my parents or Grandma since I landed in here. It seemed unusual. My mother should have been here since I've woken up to harass me about getting hurt again. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that she hasn't stopped by. But I was just a little curious as to why I hadn't seen her.

I walked out of the bathroom a minute later with my pad in my hand and handed it over to Junior. I had written a brief note on the first page. Where are my parents? He looked down at it and then a frown appeared between his eye brows. He sighed as he sat down on the bed and looked over at me.

"They stopped by the first night that you were here," he said quietly. He frowned harder and then looked down at his hands. "I don't want you to be mad at me. But, I told your mom that if she wasn't going to be supportive, that she had to leave. She came in here and started ranting that we were going to get you killed. That you shouldn't be doing your job any more. I'm sorry. I just lost it."

How could I possibly be mad at him for defending me to my mother? I slowly walked over to him and placed my fingers under his chin, lightly lifting his face to look up at me. He had pulled on a blank face that was cracking under my gaze. Worry flooded into his eyes as he stared back up at me. I leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"You aren't mad?" he whispered as I leaned back.

I shook my head and then was blessed with seeing his award winning smile. Damn. He was going to break my heart.


The Ride

There are several different categories for classifying a man.

For instance, 'Keg', '18-pack', and '6-pack' all relate to gauging just how much beer you'd have to drink in order to have sex with a guy. Of course, that presumes I'm actually capable of having a one night stand. I'm not. It's not my thing, but I do have fun categorizing them. I also find that the longer I go between orgasms, there seems to be fewer men that fall in the 'Keg' category.

And if you aren't considering picking up a guy for a random fling, and therefore measuring everything in beer quantities, then you have a whole different classification system to work with.

Binkie falls in the 'Cute' category. While he is attractive, he'll never lose that boy-next-door quality that he has. You know. He's the guy that you grew up with that will always just be cute.

Cal is 'Handsome'. If it weren't for the tattoo on his forehead, he'd definitely move up to the next level. Not that tattoos have a complete bearing on how high up the ladder you go. It's just that the placement of his kind of takes away from the rest of the picture.

The next category is 'HOT'. Lester falls in this category. He's the guy that you can't help but stare at as he walks by. You still have the ability to function, but you can sometimes hesitate for a moment so that you can briefly enjoy the view.

'Oh My God' only has one man in it right now. That's Ranger. You lose the ability to think when he's near you. You often drool and really stupid things come out of your mouth.

I could have sworn that Ranger was in the top most category. But, as I sat in the Explorer and watched Junior drive us to Haywood, I realized that I had been wrong. He must have sensed that I was looking at him because at a red light, he turned and smiled down at me.

It was the smile that he gave me that opened a whole new category. 'Devastatingly Delicious'. In all honesty, it wasn't just the smile. It was everything. The way the corners of his eyes creased slightly. The way a light breeze had blown through his open window and ruffled his hair across his forehead. It was the way his whole face softened as he looked across at me. Like all the horror that he had seen, and carried with him, vanished for that brief moment before he returned his attention to the road as the light changed.

"Just so that you aren't surprised," he said, finally breaking the silence as we turned onto Haywood, "we've made minor alterations for you."

"Like what?" I asked slowly.

"Hal and Cal put up a bunch of those white and blue pads from the hospital all over the elevator to block the mirrors," he said, slightly unsure of how I was going to take it. Then he added, "They did the same with the mirror in my bathroom."

I really wanted to be pissed about this. It was sweet that the guys were going to all this trouble to make me comfortable. But, they were also going to a lot of trouble to do it. I would have been grateful for the mirror being covered. But doing the elevator was over board. It looks like Junior was right to be cautious. The longer I thought about it, the more I was getting pissed. Exactly how atrocious did I look? I knew it wasn't pretty but the guys were taking this to ridiculous lengths, and it was making me extremely self conscious, which only pissed me off more.

My blood pressure was nearing boiling point as we pulled into the RangeMan garage. I didn't wait for Junior to come around to my door. After jumping out and slamming the door shut, I huffed my way over to the elevator and punched the call button. The doors opened just as Junior got to my side.

I honestly tried to take a deep calming breath as I took in all the blue and white hospital pads. But it ended up being ragged and almost sounding like a hiss. Freaking jaw! The fact that I couldn't even take a deep calming breath when I needed to annoyed me even more. I stood as far away from Junior as I could get as we rode up to the fourth floor. I know that it wasn't his fault. But he was the only person unfortunate enough to be in my presence.

Junior may be one of the smartest people I know. He didn't push or crowd me. He just stayed back and let me work through my anger. By the time we were standing in his small living room, my emotions were slightly less than rage. I took out my pad of paper and started writing.

I appreciate that the guys were trying to do something nice for me. But I don't want to be coddled either. Sooner or later I'm going to have to look at my face. More sooner than later. Please, leave the mirror in the bathroom, but have the guys take the pads down in the elevator.

I handed the small pad to Junior and he read it over. He looked slightly relieved as he looked from the pad to me.

"I'll have the guys take them down," he said quietly as he came over and pulled me down on the couch. "I'm sorry that we upset you. I know that this might sound harsh. But if it was one of the guys that had been hurt this bad, we wouldn't have done that. Women are simply more vain than men are. Men look at it as battle scars and women look at it as disfigurement. To give credit where it's due, Ella had said that it was a bad idea. But, we are honestly out of our depth with this, and thought that we'd better be safe than have you lose it before you are ready to."

And now I felt bad for getting pissed in the first place. Crap. "It's okay."

"On an Ella note," he said quickly changing the subject. "She brought down some stuff that you had on seven. When I talked to her earlier, she said that all your bath stuff was in the bathroom and that she cleared out the top drawer in my dresser for you. Plus, there are some things hanging in my closet. If there's something that you want from home, we can run over there later and grab it."

It was then that I looked around the small apartment and started to get a weird feeling. This was going to be my home for the next few weeks. I was going to co-habitate with someone that I really didn't know all that well. My eyes flickered over to the one bed in the apartment and I felt a wave of fear slither through my stomach. That was something else that I hadn't thought about.

"One thing at a time, Steph."

I looked up at Junior and realized that he had been watching me. He gave me a gentle smile as he reached up and tucked a curl behind my ear. It was sweet and oddly familiar from all the times that Ranger had done it. The way that Junior did it was comforting.

My stomach always seems to voice its hunger when I'm having a nice moment. This moment wasn't any different. Junior seemed to get a kick out of the loud rumble.

"Why don't you jump in the shower and I'll call Ella," he chuckled. "We can finish getting you settled in and get a list together for what you need from your apartment."

The mention of my apartment brought 'Bad Hamster Mommy' feelings into the pit of my stomach. I turned back to my trusty pad. Where's Rex?

"He's in the control room with the guys." He blushed. "Brett lost him on the first day he was here. Seems he thought the little guy could use one of those little balls that they run around in. Rex went missing for about four hours. He was finally found under your desk, hiding in the corner. Ella was able to find a ball that had a bell on it and Hal taped a GPS unit to it so that they wouldn't lose him again."

At least he wasn't starving to death.

A shower really was a good idea. I still didn't know how many days I had been at the hospital and I could still faintly smell the disinfectant that all hospitals smell like. The dresser worried me slightly. Ella had said that she gave me a top drawer, but there were two to choose from. I really wasn't sure how I felt about opening a drawer and finding Junior's boxers. I gave him a look as I stopped in front of the dresser.

"Your guess is as good as mine as to which drawer is yours," he said with a shrug. "You'd probably be better off running across my boxers than I'd be about running across your underwear. I'd get distracted."

At least he was honest. I turned back to the dresser as he picked up the phone next to the couch. A relieved sigh escaped my lips when I opened the first drawer and found that it was mine. When I turned back to Junior, I pointed at myself and then the drawer. He nodded that he understood and then went back to his call. I caught enough to know that it was Ella as I grabbed some underwear, a bra, and socks. I moved over to the closet and found my clothes hanging to the right of his. I actually didn't freak when I saw that one of his shirts was touching one of mine. Weird.

After grabbing a blue t-shirt that I had never seen before and a pair of black cargos, I headed into the bathroom. My bathroom stuff was mixed with his. My tooth brush sat next to his in the little holder in the corner. My deodorant sat next to his beside the tooth brush holder. Even my hair brush sat next to his. It was the same in the shower. His and hers. It was creepy in a nice kind of way.


Mirrors

Apparently, the wonderful water pressure in Ranger's shower extends to the rest of the showers in the building. I stood under the scalding water, letting it pound into my shoulders and back, for about ten minutes before I finally moved and started washing up. After thoroughly washing my body twice and my hair three times, I decided that I was past pruney and needed to evacuate the shower.

As I pulled the shower curtain back, my eyes flicked to the mirror and its lack of blue and white pads. The tape hadn't been able to withstand the moisture and heat from my shower, falling down into the sink.

The clear blue eyes that stared back at me were the only recognizable thing. My face was literally one large bruise from ear to ear and hair line to halfway down my neck. There were three sets of stitches on my face. One coming up out of my left eyebrow, ending half way up my forehead. One running across my right cheek bone that was about an inch and a half long extending towards my ear. And the last one ran straight up and down on the left side of my face, close to my ear.

I grabbed a towel off the bar and stepped out of the shower, walking up to the mirror to get a better look. The swelling wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. It looked like I had gained a few pounds, just in my face. The stitches that ran along the underside of my jaw would probably be the least noticeable because they sat behind my jaw instead of on it.

With a tired sigh, I towel dried my hair and then wrapped the towel around my body. I'd love to be vain and start freaking out that I'm never going to look the same way again. But I was alive and breathing. That's important, right? Junior was not going to be impressed that I had seen my face this early in the healing process. I'll have to admit, at least to myself, that the sight of my face is discouraging.

After wadding up the pads and peeling off the rest that hadn't already fallen, I opened the door. Junior and Bobby turned to look at me at the same time. I felt the first sting in my eyes as I held up the pads.

"Shit," Junior swore softly. His face was blank, but his eyes were one hundred percent concerned.

Bobby held his hands out to me and I dropped the pads in them. I watched him take the pads over to the garbage can and toss them in. It was like everything slowed down for a minute. I seriously wanted to cry, but I knew that crying wasn't going to make anything better.

I felt lost. And when I feel lost, denial is my best friend. My eyes wandered back over to Junior. He was standing completely still, not sure what it was that I needed him to do. In all honesty, I wasn't sure what he was suppose to do either.

Turning around slowly, I went back into the bathroom and shut the door. I leaned back against the door and let myself slide to the floor. Crap. I think I'm going to cry anyway.

Ten minutes later, I pulled myself off the floor and looked in the mirror, again. Amazingly enough, I didn't look any worse after silently crying. I stared at myself for a minute and then stopped. I just couldn't look at myself anymore. After slipping on my clothes, I ran my brush through my hair and then pulled it back into a French braid. I then proceeded to try really hard to brush my teeth. It was definitely easier said than done. My jaw ached, no doubt from the stitches and, of course, the bruising. It made my teeth ache too.

Junior was sitting on the couch eye balling the two shakes that sat on the coffee table when I walked out of the bathroom. He grinned at me and patted the couch next to him before he leaned forward and grabbed both shakes. I looked around the small apartment as I walked over and noticed that Bobby was MIA.

"Bobby said he'd be back later to check up on you," Junior said when he caught my eyes wandering. "He also gave me strict instructions to feed you and then make you lay down."

My eyes narrowed slightly at the large cup that Junior was trying to hand me. He rolled his eyes at me as he gave me a lopsided grin and took a drink of my shake.

"See," he said, as he tried to hide a grimace, "it's not too bad."

I just stared at him. Who was he kidding?

"I have a solution," he said as he jumped up and headed for the small kitchen. "If you tell anyone that I did this, I'll deny it and insist on a psych eval."

The guys threatened psych evaluations when they had something that Ranger considered 'contraband'. If they had the goods before I came around, then they were using it for personal use first. This made it all the worse if Ranger got wind of it. Junior looked at me over his shoulder and waited for a response. I crossed my finger over my heart and then clasped my hands together to pray.

I only had one thought running through my mind fifteen minutes later. Junior is a God. He has to be. He keeps Hershey's Syrup in the back of his fridge. He claims that it's because it makes better chocolate milk. Whatever floats his boat.

"I hate to be the grown up here," Junior said as I tried to suck the corners of the bottom of the cup, a vain attempt to get the very last bit. "But you need to go lay down now."

Pouting was the first thing that popped into my head. But then I realized that I was slightly tired. Junior pulled me up off the couch and pushed me towards the bed.

"I'm going to run up stairs really quick and grab a lap top," he said as I climbed up on the bed. "I'll try to be quiet and let you rest."

I pulled the pen and pad out of my pocket and wrote quickly as he looked down at me.

You don't have to watch me sleep.

He looked at the pad and then shrugged. "Bobby said not to leave you alone while you sleep. He doesn't want a reoccurrence of yesterday."

I nodded that I understood as I flipped the book closed. He took the pen and pad from me, sitting them on the table beside the bed. Something passed through his eyes before he sighed and sat down on the bed next to me. I got a bad feeling when he sighed again and took my hands in his.

"I honestly don't know if this is going to be good news or bad news," he said quietly as he played with my fingers, keeping his eyes down. He winced as he said, "Ranger left for Miami late last night."

"And?" I asked, really wishing that I could frown and not hurt myself.

His head jerked up. "You aren't mad or upset?"

I sighed as I leaned across to grab the paper and pen.

I don't really want to talk about this.

"Oh." He frowned, doubt rolling through his eyes. "That's okay. It's not really my business."

I waved my hands vigorously in front of my chest. How could someone so smart be so clueless? I hunkered back down and wrote furiously.

I don't want to talk about it because my hand would fall off from so much writing. I'm honestly too angry at Ranger to be upset that he left. It's really my fault that I let myself read between lines that weren't there.

Anger flashed across Junior's face as he read my note. "It wasn't your fault. I saw what he was doing to you, Stephanie. Any one would think that he was in love with you if they saw the way that he looks at you."

My hands flew up in the air in surrender. If my mouth was working, I would give him a run for his money on how it was my own delusional brain that thought things were different with Ranger.

He grabbed my hands and brought them up to his lips. He softly kissed each one, and then looked up at me. "It doesn't matter anyway. Ranger left, and that means that I get more time to get you to fall in love with me."

If my jaw wasn't wired shut, it would have dropped down to my chin.

"Try to get some rest," he said as he placed my hands in my lap and stood up. "I'll be back in a few minutes with the five years worth of paper work that I need to catch up on."

I watched him leave before I settled myself down on his bed. A fleeting thought about tonight's sleeping situation bugged me for a moment just before I closed my eyes. One small step at a time.


The Picture

I became aware of a slightly annoying scratching sound. My mind drifted back to a state of consciousness, reluctantly letting go of the warm dream world where I'd been hiding. I slit my eyes open and saw Junior sitting Indian style at the foot of the bed with a large pad in his lap. His hands moved around the paper, dragging the pencil across it. I watched his lips tilt up after the CD player in the living room flipped around and music softly started playing.

It wasn't a song that I recognized, but he evidently knew it well. His lips parted and he started singing along. "Like a cat dragged in from the rain, who goes straight back out to do it all over again." A grin flashed across his lips. "I'll be back for more."

His hand never hesitated or wavered as it moved back and forth, stopping to concentrate on something small before moving on. I caught him glancing down at my legs before he went back to drawing.

"It's something that is out of our hands. Something we will never understand," he sang on. "It's a hidden law. The apple falls. Destiny calls. I follow you."

I remained absolutely still as I listened to his soft, deep voice. It was hypnotizing. His lack of awareness at my watching him, showed me more of him than I had ever seen before. It was eye opening, how soft he could be.

"Like a pawn on the eternal board. Who's never quite sure what he's moved towards," he sang as he leaned down and sketched quickly. "I walk blindly on."

"And heaven is in front of me," his eyes flicked to my face and widened slightly when he saw me staring back at him. Without missing a beat, he sang on. "Your heaven beckons me enticingly. When I arrive it's gone. The river flows. The wise man knows. I follow you."

I thought for sure that he was going to stop singing once he noticed that I was awake. To my own surprise, I felt a surge of pleasure race through me as he continued singing.

"I'm yearning. I am burning," he sang as he went back to his sketching. "I feel love's wheels turning."

A small smile twitched at the corners of his lips. "Like a moth on love's bright light. I will get burned each and every night. I'm dying to. The sun will shine. The bottom line. I follow you."

He repeated that last part along with the song and followed it through to the end. As the song was fading out, he reached down beside his leg and grabbed a small remote. He pointed it towards the radio and turned it off as he handed the pad to me.

I hesitated, and he grinned. "I haven't drawn anything in years. I'd like you to see it since it's a picture of you."

I slid myself up the bed to sit up and took the pad that he was still holding out for me. After holding his gaze for a moment, my eyes fell to the paper in front of me. It was a perfect drawing of me stretched out over the bed. My wild curls spread out over his pillow, my hand lying across my stomach. The whole picture was perfect. My eyes went up to my face, and he had done it flawlessly.

"I wasn't sure how you would feel about me making your face the way that it is now," he said quietly. "So I used the face that I have in all of my dreams. The way that I see you."

There was a second between the first sting in the back of my eyes until the first tear fell down my cheek. It was the single most beautiful drawing that I had ever seen. It didn't have a feeling of something trapped on paper, it looked almost alive. As if I were about to roll over on the page.

"Damn," he cursed softly. He reached out and pulled me into his arms, setting the pad on the bed next to us. "I didn't want to upset you. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have let you see that."

I shook my head and pulled back to look up at him, a small smile tilted up the corner of my lips causing no pain at all. He looked so distressed and I knew that he had taken my tears the wrong way. I leaned back further and reached for my pad and pen, quickly writing to dispell that look that he had.

They're happy tears. I love what you did.

His eyes shot down to the pad that I held up and his body relaxed. He gathered me back into his arms and let out a deep breath as he buried his face in my hair.

"Hey," he said as he leaned back, "don't think I didn't see that smile. You didn't wince. That's good, right?"

I smiled lightly again and it still didn't hurt. I nodded and he flashed me a glittering smile that went straight to his eyes. He pulled me back into his chest again and kissed my hair before he put his head back on top of mine. It was comfortable in his arms with the sound of his heart steadily beating under my ear. Unfortunately, the feeling didn't last long.

A knock came at the door and Junior called out that it was open. Instinctively, or maybe insecurely, I ducked my head down and turned into his chest to hide my face. The movement wasn't missed by Junior and he simply tightened his arms around me.

"Bobby called me and said that it was about time for Stephanie to have another shake," Ella said as she opened the door and walked in. "How is she feeling, Junior?"

"A little better, I think," Junior said after a moment. "She smiled a little."

"That's a good improvement." A smile was evident in Ella's voice. "Call me if you need anything."

"I will," Junior replied as Ella closed the door quietly behind her as she left.

"Are you going to hide your face every time someone comes in?" he asked quietly.

I shook my head no. I already knew that most of the guys had seen my face while I was in the hospital. I liked Ella though. And I really didn't want her to see my face like this. I know that I won't ever be back to the way that I was. But I could spare her from having to see the swelling and the bruising. It was the least that I could do for her with all that she has done for me over the years.

"How about we watch a movie while we drink our shakes?" he asked as he turned us on the bed and scooted to the edge. "I think I have Ghostbusters."

I pulled out of his arms and stood up as I shook my head in agreement. Ghostbusters is just what the doctor ordered.


A Gift

I woke up slightly disoriented and, after looking around, alone in Junior's bed. My face was starting to hurt again, so I rolled off the bed and wandered over to the kitchen. My morphine patches were sitting on the counter next to a bottle of liquid Tylenol. I really didn't want the druggy feeling that the morphine gave me, so I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge so that I had a chaser for the Tylenol.

"How's she doing?"

I looked over at the door and saw that it was slightly ajar. Junior was just barely visible as he leaned against the door frame, his head hanging low as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"As much as I can tell, she's doing fine," he said after a moment. "The swelling is almost completely gone and the edges of the bruises are starting to turn yellow. I think that her face will be back to its normal color in about a week."

"That's not what I meant," Cal said from somewhere further out in the hall. "I'm talking about her mental stability."

"Oh." He hesitated for a minute, but finally started talking softly. "I'm concerned about the nightmares. She had the one really bad one in the hospital while I was out stretching my legs and getting coffee. I found her curled up with her arms over her head this morning when I came back from grabbing some paper work and a laptop. I don't think that she remembers having the nightmare. She calmed down after I got up on the bed with her and started whispering in her ear that she was safe and no one was going to harm her."

"I don't think that it's healthy for her to have such a dependence on you," Cal stated after he took a minute to consider everything that Junior had just told him. "Binkie's really close to her. I'd like for him to spend some time with her alone. It'd give you time to get some work done and it'd give her some time with someone else so that she can be evaluated by someone who's not so close to her."

"You think I have blinders on," Junior said with a small nod. "It's a good idea. But I think that we need to be up front with her on this. If she finds out that you guys are evaluating her without her knowledge, she won't be happy about it."

"If you think that's what's best for her."

"I love her." I watched Junior run his hands through his hair. All men seem to do that when they are frustrated. "I want to do what's best for her, not what's best for me. If she'll agree to hang out with Binkie, then I'll call Tank to arrange Binkie's schedule so that he can hang with her while I work. But, I'm warning you, Cal, if there's even a hint that she's uncomfortable with this, or if she can't handle it, I'm pulling Binkie out and going back to it being just me."

"Of course," Cal agreed quietly, hearing the edge in Junior's voice and trying to calm it. "We all want what's best for her. We'll just play it by ear."

Their conversation seemed to be winding down, so I moved further back into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. There really wasn't much use in hiding the fact that I had already heard the discussion. He'd see that I was awake and already know that I had heard. I really hoped he wouldn't get upset about my eaves dropping.

As Junior walked through the door, he hesitated as he saw me standing there. He tensed slightly as he observed me leaning back casually. I gave him a small smile and the tension in his shoulders lessened a tiny bit.

"So I'm guessing that you heard some of that," he said as he walked to the fridge and grabbed a water.

I nodded my head.

"Are you okay with spending some time with Binkie?" he asked as he leaned against the counter next to me.

I nodded again. I liked Binkie and we got along well. It wouldn't be a hardship and I wouldn't be in Junior's hair all the time. He'd need a break from me sooner or later. As far as I could tell, he had barely left my side since the day that I was attacked.

"And you'll tell me if you don't feel comfortable with him?"

"Yeah," I gritted through my teeth.

"Okay." He stood back up as he took a drink and then took a closer look at me. "Are you in a lot of pain?"

"Not to bad." I held up the bottle of Tylenol to indicate that I took some.

He looked down at his watch and I knew that he was noting the time mentally so that he'd know when to offer me more.

"Cal hasn't been the only one to stop by while you were passed out," Junior said as he looked back up at me.

I waved him on as I drained the rest of my water.

"Ella dropped off the dinner shake, Tank stopped by to tell you to contact Lula, and you got a delivery."

I must have looked confused when he mentioned the delivery.

"There's a present for you in the freezer." He grinned at me.

If I had the ability to do it, I would have raised an eye brow at him before I turned to open the freezer door. The sad thing is that it wasn't the bruising stopping me from doing it; it was the lack of facial muscle coordination. I can raise them both at the same time, but not individually like 99.99999% of the population.

To my complete and utter shock, there was 'contraband' in Junior's freezer. Most people might say 'contraband shmatraband', but my contraband was the equivalent to high end heroine in RangeMan eyes. Okay. Maybe not heroine. More like crystal meth. A small smile appeared across my lips as I read the note attached to the large cup.

Steph,

Tank said that I shouldn't bother you since you've recently been wounded. But I know how you get when you are confined to the building. In an endeavor to alleviate the impending madness, I've brought you a laptop and various searches. Bobby indicated that you could work as long as you only do it for 30 minute stints, taking a 30 respite between to rest your eyes. They aren't 'priority' searches, but someone has to do them none the less. E-mail me when you get them completed and I'll bring you more.

Rodriguez

P.S.: I know your fondness for coffee and chocolate. Enjoy!

I tore the note off the front of the cup and almost fainted at the vision that is the green, white, and black logo of Starbucks. He brought me a Venti Iced Mocha Latte with lots of whipped cream on top. If it were possible to fall in love with someone who was occasionally the bane of my existence, I would fall in love with Rodriguez in a heart beat. The man brought me two of my three weaknesses, coffee and chocolate. Scratch that. The GOD brought me two of my three weaknesses.

A moan escaped me as the sweet, caffeinated goodness started sliding down my throat. It wasn't slushy from sitting in the freezer, so I must have just barely missed him dropping it off. I took a brief moment to close my eyes so that I could just appreciate the drink. Of course, as soon as I opened my eyes, the euphoric feeling I was enjoying vanished.

On the kitchen table sat a large file folder box with a laptop sitting on top. Was it really worth the delicious decadency that was descending down my throat? No. But, Rodriguez was correct; it would save me, and Junior, from going completely insane. With a sigh, I walked over to the carton and took the lid off without removing the computer. Just as I had anticipated. Completely jam-packed.

"It'll help a little," Junior said, grabbing my attention and forcing me to return to reality. "We'll just have to find something to keep you occupied for the thirty minute breaks."

My mind went straight into the gutter and back to fantasy land. Fellatio was out of the question and kissing was pretty limited. But his mouth was perfectly fine and, as far as I knew, everything else was in working order. My mouth started salivating over the possibilities for 'break time'.

A hand waved in front of my face and I jumped back, the drink falling to the floor as my hands came up to protect my face. A flash of two large fists flying at my face slammed into my head as I squeezed my eyes shut. My body instantly started shaking as a sob broke through my teeth.

Two arms locked around my back and brought me flush against a solid chest. The first breath that I took instantly filled me with Junior's familiar scent, which calmed me immediately. The shaking started to subside and the river of tears flowing down my face slowed to a light stream.

"I'm so sorry, Steph," he whispered in my ear. "You hadn't heard what I said so I tried to get your attention. I should have known better than to do something like that."

I brought my hands down from my face and wrapped them around his waist, burrowing deep into the comfort that he was offering. I knew right off the bat that it had simply been a trick of the eye that forced the memories to come flooding back and I immediately felt terrible for my reaction. I knew without a doubt that Junior would never raise a hand to me in that way.

"It was an accident, Junior," I whispered around a sniffle. "Just be careful."

He pulled me back slightly and ever so gently took my face in his hands, lightly wiping the tears away with his thumb. "You're quickness to forgive people has always amazed me."

"Hard to stay mad at someone you care for." And I did care for him.


Open Mouths

"When did you know that you were in love with Junior?"

I turned slightly from the counter sink to look over at Bobby, who had taken me away from luxuriating in the feeling of brushing the inside of my teeth. A girl should be given at least fifteen minutes to brush all of her teeth completely after having them wired shut for nearly three weeks. It's just plain wrong to get any less time then that. Plus, I still haven't gotten to floss yet.

I contemplated his question as I rinsed my mouth out. "It was about a week ago."

"I've never been in love before." He had a wistful sound in his voice. "What does it feel like?"

"It's hard to explain," I said as I leaned over the counter and used the small mirror to floss.

"Try," he insisted as he leaned against the counter next to me.

After staring at my reflection for a moment, my hands still raised to my mouth with the floss wrapped around my fingers, I leaned back and turned to Bobby. "It's like being home every time I'm near him. My heart flutters whenever I hear his voice. Every thing I do, I think about how it will affect him. When I close my eyes at night, he's the last thought that I have. And when I wake up in the morning, he's the first thought I have."

He nodded slightly and looked down at the floor as he considered my words. I took his thought filled silence as a chance to floss. I had just dropped the floss in the garbage when he turned back to me, another question waiting to pop out. I waved my hands for him to go ahead.

"So, then, you aren't in love with Ranger anymore?" he asked slowly.

I didn't have to think about that one. I had spent numerous hours already thinking about that over the last week. "I never was in love with Ranger in the first place, Bobby. I think it was more of an infatuation or just a plane old crush. I've never felt what I feel for Junior when it came to Ranger."

"What happened to make you realize that Junior was the one?"

This was a lot of personal questions from Mr. Brown. "What's wrong, Bobby?"

"I just wanted to know what it feels like to be so completely happy and how you got there," he said, a slightly helpless look in his eyes. "You've both been so happy these last few weeks. Everyone can see it. The way that you look at each other, the secret smiles. You have what I want more than anything in this world. I'd give everything that I have to have just one day of being in love."

"Itwasacupofcoffee." My words came out in a jumbled mess.

"What?" He was just as confused as I was.

"It was a coffee cup," I repeated more slowly. "I woke up one morning and found a fresh coffee cup next to the bed, just the way I like it. Junior doesn't always drink coffee. But it was the first time that I realized that he had started making coffee every morning before he went to the gym. He would leave a steaming cup on the night stand, the fresh aroma would slowly waking me up."

"There it is," I heard Bobby whisper.

I shook my head to come out of the small trance I had fallen into. "What?"

"Your smile," he whispered. "I want to give a woman that smile."

I reached out and slid my arm around his waist, trying hard to comfort a man that was twice as big as I was. "You'll find her when you least expect it, Bobby. You're too wonderful a person to be alone for the rest of your life. I'll even help by keeping an eye out for you."

"You'd do that?"

The expression on his face was one of pure shock. I laughed. "I'd do it for any one of my friends without a second thought."

He grinned. The grin faltered slightly as he asked, "What's your favorite part about being in love?"

"It's not just one thing," I said as I looked away and stared off into space, seeing Junior's face in perfect clarity. My eyes started to burn. "It's lying on the couch watching a movie. Its late night talks after the lights have been turned off. It's the way he whispers 'Sleep well, Boo' in my ear every night as I drift off to sleep. It's the possibility that it can only go down hill from here and we'll be together the whole way down."

I stopped and took a deep breath after my voice cracked. "It's knowing that no matter what I've done in the past, or what I might do in the future, Junior is always going to love me with everything that he has. It's the way he clings to me when he wakes up from a nightmare in the middle of the night, his eyes pleading for forgiveness for all of the terrible things that he's had to do for our country. It's knowing that, deep down inside, he's not the monster that he sees in his nightmares. He's the man that I will love until my last dying breath."

I looked back up at Bobby as a tear rolled down my cheek. He mouthed a 'Wow'.

"I've always been afraid of falling in love," I whispered. "But Junior has made it so easy and natural. I can't remember what it feels like to not love him."

Bobby smiled wistfully as he slid his arm around my waist. "I envy you and Junior, the love that you have for each other. He's a lucky man for finding a woman like you."

"He might not be so lucky when I go back to work for Vinnie," I laughed, trying to lighten the mood back up.

"You can't do that till I clear you," Bobby warned. "It's going to be another three weeks before I can to that."

He released me and pushed off the counter. The conversation was over and he was ready to get back to his work, I was silently dismissed. Grabbing my oral health care products, I put everything in my Ziploc bag and almost ran out of the small doctor's office that Bobby worked out of on the third floor.

I hit the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, a sudden giddiness washed over me at the thought for finally really kissing Junior. My feet started moving faster up the stairs and I sprinted out of the stair well, the door banging against the wall.

"Where's the bomb?" Vince asked as I ran by.

I flashed him a wide grin and watched the concern fade from his face as a bright smile replaces it. I just barely caught the thumbs up as I turned the corner to run down the aisle between the cubbies.

Junior pushed his chair out into the aisle and was immediately out of his chair when he saw me running. I launched myself in the air and wrapped myself around him as his arms came around me. My lips cut off his surprised chuckle and his shaking shoulders halted as my tongue swept across his lips.

A deep growl rumbled through his chest and shook me straight down to my core as one of his came up and fisted in my hair. His mouth opened and fire works erupted behind my eye lids as his tongue swept into my mouth. We ignored the whistles and cat calls and just focused on the act of simply kissing each other.

The kiss said everything. I love you. I need you. Thank God. His soft, warm, thick tongue gently stroked mine and it was so much more than I had expected and everything that I had never thought to hope for. I should have known better though. This was Junior, the man that I love. Of course the way that his mouth moved over mine would be the most blissful thing that the two of us could do… with all our clothes on.


Atlanta

Junior's POV

The erection pressing against the front of my cargoes was the most wonderful thing that I've had the privilege of feeling in the past three weeks. Well, it was ranking a close second to Stephanie's perfectly soft lips and warm tongue as she continued to kiss the hell out of me. I had no clue that I was missing this much. Unfortunately, Lester and Brett were in the vicinity and just had to say the worst thing at such an inconvenient moment.

"This reminds me of that night with Ranger and Tank doing shots at Domino's," Lester said in a loud whisper.

"You mean the night that they got arrested with those hookers a few months back for indecent exposure?" Brett whispered back. "I heard that Ranger was practically banging that chick in the parking lot."

Stephanie's tongue froze in my mouth. My eyes opened at the sudden tension that ran through every muscle in her body. Our eyes locked and she winced slightly as she removed her tongue from my mouth.

"Yeah." Lester continued on. "They ended up spending a whole night in jail."

"I always miss out on all the fun," Brett whined.

Stephanie pulled further back, her face giving nothing away as to what she was feeling as she unwrapped her legs from around my waist and climbed down.

"Hey," Lester said loudly. "Look who came up for air."

Stephanie's head slowly rotated on her shoulders and I caught the glare that was setting into her eyes. Both Lester and Brett winced when she looked up and then they each took one large step back so that they were out of arms reach. A wise decision. If I wasn't in her good graces at the moment, I would have backed up, too. Her glares have improved over the last few weeks with her limited talk time.

"So," Brett said looking from Steph back over to me. "Our flight is at nine hundred tomorrow morning and we are no where near ready for this workshop."

My heart rate kicked into high gear.

"Where are you off to, Brett?" Stephanie asked, her anger quickly being replaced with curiosity.

"We're," he said making a large circle with his hand to indicate Lester, me and himself, "going to Atlanta for a week long workshop on the computer system that your man made."

And then my heart fell to my feet. She slowly looked back up at me, her eyes wide for a brief moment before they started to narrow. She was about to hit 'Rhino' and with good reason. I had not once hinted that I had to leave town for anything. And frankly, I was hoping that Lester and Brett would have been able to handle the whole thing without me.

"Let me tell you all about it over dinner." The words tumbled out of my mouth quickly and there was no disguising the plea in my voice. "I know that you are going to be furious with me. But, please, give me the chance to explain myself before you read too far into things."

"Dude!" Lester butted in. "You didn't freaking tell her that you were leaving?"

"You aren't helping, Lester," I growled as I looked over Steph's head and glared at him. My eyes fell back down to the seething woman that was moving slowly out of my arms. Shit! This was not going to wait for privacy. "I didn't tell you because I thought Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum over there were going to be able to do it without me. I didn't find out until an hour ago that I don't have a choice. I have to go per Ranger's orders. He doesn't want anyone but me leading the workshop."

The anger started to fade out of her eyes as she contemplated my words. They were still slightly shiny, as if she were thinking about crying. But, for the most part, after a minute or two, the corners of her lips started to curve up.

"Whipped," Lester muttered.

"Both of them," Brett agreed.

"Will you two please shut the hell up," I growled without looking up.

"They're right," Stephanie said with a sigh. "I know I'm whipped because I can't stay mad at you when you have a very logical explanation for not telling me."

"He does?" Brett asked.

"He didn't want me to get worked up over him leaving if he wasn't," she said with a shrug, still staring up at me. "He was worried that I'd freak out with him not being here for a week."

I nodded. "I know that you are doing better. But, I wasn't sure how you'd handle it. If you don't want me to go, I'll tell Ranger to go fuck himself."

"That's not necessary," she said as she shook her head. She gave me a sly smile. "It'll give me a chance to hound the guys into telling me stories about your younger years."

"So then you should go to Pino's and get dinner while I start bribing the guys to keep their traps shut." I chuckled as I pulled out my wallet and gave her some cash. "We need beer, too."

"I have money," she said waving off my hand.

"I thought the upside to being my girlfriend was that you got to spend all my money," I said, letting my eyebrows narrow in fake confusion.

"That's funny," she chuckled. "I though the upside to being your girlfriend was that you kept my butt warm at night."

"Can you two can the cute banter," Brett said, a hint of irritation in his voice. "We do have work to do."

"Sorry, sorry," Steph said as she grabbed the money and started backing away. "I'll call you when I get back."

I nodded. "Be safe."

She grinned. "Always."

"I hate guys in love," Lester groused after Steph walked away.

"That'll change when you finally meet a girl that sends everything in your life upside down with just a smile," I said with a shake of my head.

"If that's what she does with a smile," Brett said, "then what happens when you sucks your-"

My fist hitting Brett's chest stopped his comment cold. I can stand some of the heckling that the guys have been doing to me. But, I'm not about to start letting them get that personal. Especially since we haven't gotten that personal. I sighed as I sat down in my chair. She's almost ready.


Lunch With B

"So tell me how last night went," Binkie said as our waitress walked away with our order.

"Last night was…"

My voice trailed off as memories flooded my mind. Junior definitely left me with plenty of heated thoughts to get me through the next week. We had had a quiet dinner, sitting side by side on the couch with our meatball subs and Coronas. He was on me as soon as I got the last of our trash in the trash can.

Everything happened so quickly that it was all a blur. Until right before he entered me. He just stopped and looked down at me, our eyes locking and both of us grinning like fools. He laid a gentle kiss on my lips as he took both of my hands in his and raised them over my head. With the sweetest agony, he slowly entered me and shattered my world. With in the blink of an eye, it soared into a fever pitch that took us both into outer space.

The second round actually lead to us taking off all our clothes and was so sweet that he took my breath away. Every touch was soft, every kiss was long. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. It completely blew my one night with Ranger out of the water and I couldn't be more thrilled about that.

"Last night was the best night of my life," I said simply as my eye focus back on Binkie.

He grinned. "Junior definitely seemed to be on cloud nine this morning. How are you feeling about the direction that your relationship is taking?"

"I'm excited," I giggled. Yes. I giggled. "I haven't felt this way since high school. Carefree and grounded at the same time. If I would have known that things could be this way with Junior, I would have gotten with him the first time that I met him."

"He's a good man," Binkie nodded. "I'm glad that the two of you are happy together."

"You look like there's a 'but' in there," I said as I looked across the table at him. "We've been talking everyday for the last two weeks. Why are you now hesitant to say something to me?"

He sighed as he brought his hand up to rub his forehead while he looked down at the table. Binkie looked damn well stressed now that I had a long look at him. I decided to give him a minute to gather whatever thoughts where running through his head as the waitress laid our plates on the table. Binkie really is a god send for suggesting IHOP for lunch. At this moment, there really is nothing better than pancakes for lunch.

"What about Ranger?"

My head snapped up and my eyes locked with his. He had been silent for so long that I though he would just wait until we were done eating and pick a different subject.

I leaned back and took a drink to clear out my mouth. "What about Ranger?"

"What are you going to do when he gets back?"

I nodded, understanding where he was going. "I've invested a lot more in my relationship with Junior than I did with Joe. Ranger is going to have to understand that whatever he got away with when I was with Joe is not going to happen while I'm with Junior. I'm hoping he'll respect that and let me go."

"And if he doesn't?" The question was asked slowly, as if he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear the answer.

"Then, I guess I'll have to go back to Vinnie's and put extra, heavy duty locks on my doors," I said with a shrug. "Ranger had plenty of time after me and Joe broke up to stake his claim on me and he didn't. And even if he did, I probably would have been unhappy with him anyway. Ranger lacks the ability to really love someone. I don't doubt that he cares for me. It's just that he doesn't love me the way that I need to be loved, with his whole heart."

Binkie just sat there and nodded as a grin started spreading across his lips. "Anything else?"

My small answering grin faltered. "I never really loved Ranger."

"Really?" His eyebrows shot up so far that I thought they were going to land on the back of his neck.

I nodded. "I figured it out about a week ago, once I figured out that I was in love with Junior. I do care for Ranger and I probably always will. But I've never been in love with Ranger and the likelihood of that ever happening is so small that it's the size of a grain of sand. Ranger and I are better off as friends and I'm content with that."

"You don't know how relieved I am to hear you say all of that." Binkie's smile was so genuine. "I love you and I want you to be happy more than anything. If Junior is the one that makes you happy, than I'll be there to back you up all the way. Even if I have to beat down Ranger to make it happen."

My heart swelled. "I love you too, B."

He gave me a wry grin. "I've waited my whole life for a girl to say that to me and I have to hear it from my best friend's girl. This is just so damn wrong."

"If it makes you feel any better, I'd go out with you if I weren't with Junior," I said with great sympathy as I patted his hand.

"That actually makes it worse." He's so damn cute when he blushes. His hand flipped over and grabbed mine, giving it a light squeeze before linking our hands together. "What are the rest of your plans for the day?"

"I have to stop by the bonds office. Tank is trapped in meetings all day." The grin that we shred was mischievous, both of us knowing the hell that Tank was living. "I was going to have dinner at my parents and then take a nap. But Vince called me this morning and asked if I'd switch shifts with him, me working his three to eleven in the com room and him working my eleven to seven. Something about needing to see him mom."

Binkie shrugged right along with me.

"If you need anything tonight after you get off work, just swing by," he said lightly. "I know that you feel fine now. But going back to an empty apartment might get to you later."

"Thanks, B," I said as I squeezed his hand, still linked with mine.

Binkie has proven to be a very dear friend. And I know that the affection that the two of us show each other is nothing more than 'sibling' love. He, like Bobby, really needs to find a sweet girl to complete his life.

We finished lunch, talking about this and that, and then headed our separate ways. My stop by the bonds office was made in record time. Connie had been busy setting up a bond and Lula was no where in sight. Lucky for me. I knew by Connie's raised eyebrows that I still had that freshly fucked glow to my skin.

Ram was quietly waiting for me when I got back to the office. He was going to be my partner in crime for the rest of the night, swearing that once the rest of the crew had departed for the day we'd order pizza. Our night together was pleasant, enjoyable. Not a single alarm went off and Ram was content keeping with small talk interspersed with breaks of silence.

The hinky feeling didn't set in until I walked into Junior's apartment. Rex was happily running on his wheel and only gave me a brief look after I dropped a few grapes in his dish. I checked my e-mail and sent a few replies, mainly updating Rodriguez on a few in depth searches that I was working on for him.

The hinky feeling returned around three when I was brought out of a deep sleep by the bolt in the door sliding back and the door silently opening. Oh, damn.


The Confrontation

"Exactly what do you think you are doing?" I asked as the door closed and the room plunged into darkness.

"Babe." Incredulousness at it's best.

"What do you want, Ranger?" I'm going to go with being direct to see where that gets me.

"Go back to sleep, Babe."

I reached over and turned on the bed side lamp as I sat up. After blinking a few times to get my vision back, I stared at Ranger as he walked over to the bed. "I'll pass on the sleep. What do you want, Ranger?"

"I wanted to see you," he said simply as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

He reached out towards me and I leaned back. A frown crinkled his eyebrows together as he dropped his hand to the bed. I brought my knees up to my chest as I scooted back to lean against the head board.

"How are you?" he asked after the silence had stretched out.

"I'm doing fine," I said with a shrug. "How are you?"

"Better." A small smile tilted up the corners of his lips. "I was surprised when Tank told me that you were still staying here."

"Junior wanted me to stay until he got back," I explained as simply as possible. "He doesn't feel all that great about how safe my apartment is right now. I don't think that Binkie would let me go home anyway."

"Exactly how many employees of mine are you sleeping with, Babe?"

My hand reached out so fast and struck his face, that I couldn't have stopped myself if I wanted to. And once it happened, I was glad that I had. He had no right to make such an assumption, much less voice it.

"Number one. Who I sleep with is none of your concern," I gritted out between clenched teeth. "Number two. Where the hell do you get off judging me and my bed mates? People in glass houses, Ranger. And number three. Fuck you."

Not waiting for a response, I climbed out on the opposite side of the bed and walked over to grab a pair of shorts out of the dresser. Once they were on, I walked right out the door without looking back at Ranger. My trip down the hall was short, just doing to the next door down on the left.

Binkie just moved the covers over and patted the side of the bed as I walked in. I stubbed my toe on the coffee table and banged my knee on the recliner as I made my way over to the bed. Neither one of us said a word as I climbed in his bed and rolled over on my side, facing the door and leaving my back to him.

I felt his eyes on the back of my head. That was all that I needed to have the water works start up. And that was all he needed to get him to roll over and wrap his arms around me. He held me through the tears and rocked me gently back and forth.

"Tell me what happened," he whispered once the tears finally stopped falling.

"Ranger broke into Junior's apartment," I whispered. "You were right. He thought he could just do what ever he wanted. Then when it didn't go his way, he turned into an asshole. He basically called me a whore, just not in so many words."

Binkie was out of bed and running for the door the second all of my words settled into his brain. The door flew open and, in my stunned silence, I could only watch him run out the door. This was only going to get worse and it was my entire fault. I should have just kept my mouth shut. But I could always tell B anything and I didn't think that he would get so upset that he would run out on me.

Raised voices from the hall flowed into the apartment. I slowly slid out of Binkie's bed and made my way over to the door, the voices getting loader as more people flooded out into the hall.

"You fucking piece of shit!" Binkie shouted as he slammed Ranger into the wall.

"Chill out, Man," Cal shouted as he tried to pull Binkie off.

Hal and Ram came running down the hall and joined in, all three trying to pull Binkie off their boss. Tears started falling down my cheeks again.

Binkie wasn't giving up. "She's not one of your whores that you can treat any way you want! This is Stephanie we're talking about, you son of a bitch! How dare you treat her so fucking poorly?"

"What the hell are you talking about, Binkie?" Ram said once they finally got Binkie pulled back and pinned to the opposite wall.

"She wouldn't let him get back in her bed and he starts calling her names." Binkie actually spit at Ranger. "I'm glad she fucking fell in love with Junior. He would never have said something like that to her."

"Let's calm down, Kids."

I turned around and found Tank standing behind me.

"She needs you at her side, Binkie," Tank said as he nudged me back into Binkie's apartment. "Not causing more problems."

There was a small commotion down the hall that ended with Binkie saying 'I'm cool'. A second later he was in front of me, his arms coming around my shoulders as he walked me further back into the apartment. As the door closed, I heard Tank's booming voice, 'Fired my ass you fucking prick!' God bless that large, scary man. Big freaking teddy bear is a better description.

Binkie trembled in my arms as he pinned me to his chest, his cheek resting my on hair as he panted. I lightly ran my hands up and down his spine, trying to sooth him. The shaking started to subside as he took several deep breaths to get his emotions under control.

"I'm so sorry, Steph," he said as he pulled back, leaving one arm around my shoulders as he guided me back to the bed.

"Are you okay, B?" I asked, still slightly worried over what I had just witnessed out in the hall.

There wasn't a concern over Binkie hurting me. I was worried that he would have to go looking for a new job in the morning. I had never seen any of the guys lose it like that before. Their size and physical power had never worried me. But, now, after seeing Binkie slam Ranger into the wall, I could see why people shrank away from them. I'd have to remember to look at the wall in the morning to see if there was a dent where Ranger's head hit the wall.

"I'm going to be fine, Sweetie," Binkie said as he got me back in bed and flopped down next to me.

He pulled me down and brought me into his side, laying a kiss in my curls. For a moment, I worried that Binkie's feeling for me might be straying to far into the 'more than siblings love' side of love. But then he bonked his forehead with mine and I knew that he was just being a big brother. There's just no way that there could be anything other than brotherly love with a head bonk like that.

"I told you I'd stand up for you if Junior's really the one that you want to be with," Binkie whispered after a while of us silently lying in the dark. "But, I'm afraid that I might actually hurt Ranger. So, tomorrow I'm getting you to Atlanta. Junior can take care of you out there and you can call me if you need me."

"I don't want to disturb him while he's teaching," I said with a shake of my head. "I'll just go to my parent's house until he gets back and fixes up my apartment."

"Did you really think that he wanted you to stay with him just because your apartment isn't safe?"

His gentle chide had me actually using my brain. "What was he planning?"

"His new place will be ready by the time he gets back."

"His new place?"

"A small house just outside the Burg," Binkie whispered. "Not too far from Joe's."

"A house?" I whispered.

"You're repeating my words." His chest was shaking with a silent laugh.

I hit him. "A house."

"What?" Binkie said as he sobered. "Did you think that you two would be able to live in an apartment here, or your place, and not trip over each other all the time? It's a nice place."

"I guess that's something that I'll have to talk to him about when I get to Atlanta."

We both fell silent and I knew the minute that Binkie drifted off to sleep, his breathing evening out and his grip on my shoulder loosening slightly. I stared off into the darkness and thought for a while. A house.


The Bottom Line

As I stared at his back through the window in the conference room door, a thought hit me and turned my stomach into a giant knot. "What if he doesn't want me here?"

"How could he not?"

The rhetorical question came from Binkie, his voice completely confident, as he stood behind me. True to his word, this morning I found myself being forced onto a plane and flown down here to Atlanta. His presence had been reassuring; his hand firmly linked in mine every step of the way. Well, up until this very moment.

"I can't go back to RangeMan Trenton," I whispered as I shook my head.

Binkie's hand came up and gently squeezed my shoulder. "No one said you had to."

"This is so FUBARed."

"Tell me something I don't know."

I stood there for a moment watching Junior move around a wireless mouse and then type on the key board in front of him, filling in areas of a common RangeMan form.

I shook my head. "Can you set us up in the break room till he's done?"

"Negative." This came from the tall blond standing to my left. "He said to bring you in as soon as you got here."

Without waiting for anything else, Tin, the blond, raised his hand and knocked loudly on the door. Junior's head swung around and a bright smile light up his face. He waved me in and I hesitated.

"I'm going to go see a man about a room," Binkie said, laying a kiss in my hair as he opened the door.

"Thanks for disserting me, B." His chuckle was not at all amusing as he shoved me into the conference room and closed the door. Bastard.

"Gentlemen. I'm sure you all know Stephanie." There was an affirmative rumble around the room. He waved me towards the front of the room and pulled me into his side as soon as I was in arms reach. He smiled down at me. "I'm almost at a stopping point. Sit down and let me finish. Then we can do lunch."

I nodded and sat in a chair a few feet away.

"As I was saying," he said turning back to the screen hanging on the wall. "After all of the lines are filled in, you…"

I shook my head as he clicked on several button, talking his way through each screen. He was taking the long route.

"Something wrong, Honey?" Junior inquired without turning around.

"Go back to the screen you were on when I walked in," I instructed as I stood back up and walked over to his side.

He gave an amused look, but humored me by doing as I asked.

"Once you have your form filled out," I said as I brought my hand out to hover over the key board, I looked back at the small class and grinned. "Hit F4 and it automatically fills out the other two forms for you."

"How did you do that?" Junior asked in a loud whisper as he stared in awe up at the big screen.

I grinned up at him. "I altered your program before you sent the final out to Silvio."

"You little shit," he chuckled. "What else did you do?"

I shrugged. "A little of this and a little of that. I just made it easier and quicker. Want me to show you?"

"How about after lunch?" The suggestion came from somewhere in the back of the room.

"Alright, alright," Junior relented. "Everyone back here in an hour. At that time, Stephanie will show us everything from the beginning."

"So." Junior's face immediately sobered as he leaned against the table and he brought me over to stand between his legs. "Tell me what happened."

"You know what happened," I said quietly as I moved a little closer, my eyes lowering as I started playing with the bottom of his un-tucked shirt. "Ranger was just being Ranger."

"And only you and Ranger know what happened last night." His voice started out light. But his added words held a hint of fear. "Please tell me."

My eyes met his as I looked up. Fear and pain mixed together in his light brown eyes, breaking my heart and forcing my mouth to move.

"I couldn't get comfortable last night," I said as I started re-accounting the story for him. "I locked the door for privacy and pulled on one of your shirts from the dirty clothes."

This brought a small smile to his lips. He had often found me in his dirty shirts. I claimed that I liked the way that he smelled. But I think that we both really knew that it was his scent that reminded me of the security that I always felt around him.

"I woke up when I heard the lock picked and the door open. He walked in like he use to when I was at my place, before we got together. I turned the light on and confronted him on why he was breaking in. He claimed that he just wanted to see me, but he had that look in his eyes. He asked why I hadn't gone home after you left and I said that you wanted me to stay so that I was safe." I stopped and took a breath as I internally cringed at my next words. "When I added that I didn't think Binkie would let me leave anyway, he basically called me a slut by asking how many of his men I was sleeping with."

"I don't fucking believe it." His face quickly contorted with rage.

"I didn't either," I continued on. "That's why I slapped him and then went straight to B's room. B got upset and attacked Ranger out in the hall. Tank got everything back under control, but there's no way that I can go back there now."

I stopped talking and sunk my teeth into my bottom lip, trying like hell to keep the tears that were coming from flowing down my cheeks. Everything had gotten so screwed up and it felt like my world was tilting over on itself.

"It's not your fault, Honey," Junior said as he reached out and pulled me into his arms.

That was all that it took for the water works to start. His arms tightened around me like vises as he buried his face in my hair. He just stood there and let me hang on him, not minding that I was soaking his shirt.

When I was finally down to hiccups, he pulled my head back and smiled down at me. "It's not the end of the world, Honey. No one's going to make you take one more step into that building ever again. I'm positive that none of the guys will have a problem coming to you."

"This is Ranger's company," I said, sadly shaking my head. "What if he fires you and B?"

"Then we'll get different jobs." He shrugged. "RangeMan isn't the only security company out there."

"But you love the guys and your job…"

He brought my hands up to his chest and squeezed them. "Do you trust me?"

It was a stupid question. "Of course."

"Then put this all out of your mind for a little while," he insisted.

"Put this all out of my mind for a little while," I repeated.

He nodded. "Help me with the class."

"Where did your little helpers go?" I asked, suddenly remembering Lester and Brett.

"They hung around for about the first fifteen minutes of class and then took off," he said. Then added with a wry smile, "Not that it matters since my girlfriend knows more about my system than I do."

I laughed and it felt good. "Okay. Find me food and I'll get everything set up."

"Deal."

He gave me a quick kiss and moved me back so that he could stand. I tried really hard to bite my tongue and not worry about anything. But my nerves were too shot and it was really starting to bug me. I lasted until he got to the door.

"When were you going to tell me about the house?"

Junior stopped with his hand on the door, softly cursing Binkie under his breath. He turned back and looked at me, his eyes searching mine for a sign of something. A small smile peeked out from his lips as he released the handle and walked back over.

His left hand came up and threaded through the hair on the back of my head as his right hand came up to my face. "I was going to tell you when I gave you this."

I looked down at his hand and felt the blood drain from my face.

"It's a promise ring," he chuckled. "A promise that it's just the two of us and no one else. A promise that you'll think about wanting more, the picket fence and rocking chairs on the porch. A promise that we'll both put our hearts on the line because we are all that's it for each other."

"Really?" My voice was barely a whisper as I stared at the ring. It was a simple silver band and nothing more.

"Really," he whispered back. "Because the bottom line is that I will follow you where ever you go."

I looked up into his soft brown eyes and felt my heart melt as I nodded my head. He slipped the ring on my finger and I felt that it was a perfect fit without looking down. A perfect fit, just like Junior. And I suddenly knew that, no matter what, everything really was going to be okay.

Because… We were both the bottom line to each other.