JE is the one making the money…not me. This is the sequel to From the Beginning. It could probably stand on its own, but I suggest you read the first so this makes more sense. This is a Ranger/Stephanie story but Morelli friendly. This is my own take on the characters and does not follow the books. Has adult language and situations…some sex but not major smut. Once again, I did my own editing. Yeah…I know, but I take full responsibility for all the errors. Thanks to all those that read FTB and your wonderful feedback. I was really blown away that my work was so well received! I hope you like this one as much as the first……Sue

Xylia (my #1 fan-and I don't mean the crazy bitch from Misery that Kathy Bates played so well)-thanks for your encouragement and feedback!

How Things Change by Sue (Jersey Girl in Oxford)

Prologue

Ranger had taken Stephanie down to visit his brother and his family for Thanksgiving. The whole mess with MacGregor and the FBI agent was behind them. With everything that they had been through, Ranger decided to allow himself an unprecedented vacation…with Stephanie of course. She had just gotten her cast off and was recovering nicely from all her injuries. Refusing to leave her dog, Ivy, behind, Ranger thought it would be better to drive down. The drive from Trenton to Miami was long and a pain in the ass, but it would give them time alone. Ranger's brother Raoul and his wife Marissa had invited them down back in October. Raoul had gotten to met Stephanie when he had come up to Trenton. Tank had contacted him to help with the search for Stephanie when she was kidnapped while Ranger was out of town. Raoul had three children, two girls and a boy. Their ages were 15, 13, and 10. Ranger's mother and father had also been invited to Raoul's for the holiday. Stephanie's mother had given her a hard time about missing Thanksgiving dinner, but she promised her they would be there for Christmas.

Raoul and his family were living in Ranger's house on the beach. Ranger offered his brother use of the house for free in exchange for keeping up the maintenance when Raoul agreed to take over Rangeman in Miami. The deal was if Ranger ever wanted to move back, he would give plenty of notice and help them find their own place. Ranger hadn't any plans to move back to Miami. And now that he was with Stephanie, he wasn't going anywhere. Ranger had contacted his ex-wife, Rachel, and had asked if he could stop by and see Julie while he was down there. Rachel had agreed. Ranger, who did miss Julie, wanted Stephanie to meet his daughter.

Rachel was surprised that Ranger was actually in a relationship with someone. Stephanie was not what she expected. She knew all about the bimbos Ranger usually was interested in. Stephanie was different. Julie seemed to take to her right away. Rachel had taken Stephanie aside. "Julie has asked to visit with Ranger but I honestly didn't feel comfortable. He lives alone and it's just all men around all the time. I mean I know his mother and sisters would want to see her, but his lifestyle scares me," she told her. Stephanie nodded. "But since you are in the picture now, I would feel better letting her stay with Ranger. Would this bother you?"

"No…not at all. I think Carlos would really like to have Julie visit with him," she told Rachel with a smile. "Rachel, she's a really nice kid. You did a great job with her." Rachel smiled back. Julie looked a lot like her father. Her skin tone was a little lighter but the same smile was there.

"Maybe Ranger is finally ready to be a father? Are you two talking about getting married?" Stephanie's face twitched as if she smelled something rotten.

"No! I mean no. I was married once and don't want to do that again," she said. Rachel smirked.

"You know, I really didn't want to marry Ranger. I got pressured from my parents. I think he got pressured from my parents and his parents. I don't think he wanted to marry me either but thought he was doing the right thing." She sighed at the memory. "I liked him but I didn't love him. What I did love was the help and support he gave me with Julie. That really meant a lot to us." Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"I know what you mean. I wasn't pregnant but I got married for all the wrong reasons too. It lasted a few months. He cheated on me. I wasn't smart enough to take care of myself and he left me with nothing but debt. He is an attorney. I would just sign stuff and not even read it. I didn't think my husband would rob me blind, but boy did I learn my lesson." Rachel nodded and gave her an understanding smile. The kids bounded into the kitchen and asked if they could play with Ivy outside. "I'm teaching her to catch a Frisbee, do you want to try?" The boys jumped and cheered. With a 200 watt grin like her father, Julie grabbed her by the hand and dragged her out to the back yard.

Ranger wandered into the kitchen. Rachel smiled at him. "I like her a lot, Ranger." Ranger returned the smile.

"Thanks," he said. "You two seemed to be getting along. What were you talking about?"

"Julie has been asking to come and visit you. I have been hesitant to say yes because she is a young girl. I didn't feel comfortable having her stay with you when it's all just ex-military men. Since Stephanie would be around, I asked her if she didn't mind if Julie came for a visit. Would you mind if Julie came to stay with you sometime?"

He shook his head. Truth was he would have felt awkward with a young girl in his care. He could have gotten help from his mother and Ella, but then it would seem that he was dumping her off on someone else. Now, if there were girl issues, Steph could help him. It would have been his luck that the first time Julie had come to stay with him she would have gotten her first period or something. He could handle blood from gunshot wounds, knife wounds, and blunt force trauma, but he couldn't handle menstrual blood from a little girl. That just wasn't right. Come to think of it, he never had to deal with that stuff with Stephanie. Whatever birth control pills she took she doesn't get her period at all. Bonus. "I'd really like that. As long as you are okay with it."

"I would be now." At the sound of loud cheering, they both turned to watch the action in the backyard. Stephanie threw the Frisbee, and they kids cheered again as Ivy caught it. "Maybe she could spend some time with you this summer?"

Ranger nodded. His government contract would be up effective April 1st. "Summer would be a good time."

Rachel got a kick out of watching Ranger stare at Stephanie as she played with Ivy and her children. She smiled to herself. Ranger had always been so serious. He wasn't much on showing any emotion. With Stephanie, he was always looking at her or had to have some sort of contact. He would have his arm around her, or his hand on her, or some part of his body touching her. She saw the sparkle in her eyes as she would smile back at him. She never had that with Ranger. Hell, she didn't even have that much heat with her own husband despite the fact that she loved him very much. It was obvious to her that Ranger and Stephanie had something very special.

Ranger's mother, Maria, and sister-in-law, Melissa made quite a big deal over Stephanie. Ranger had taken Stephanie to meet his parents and his sisters back in October while Stephanie still had her cast and was only able to use the one crutch. His mother had gone overboard with all the attention. His family loved her. He knew they would. And now that her appetite was back in full swing, they couldn't feed her enough for Thanksgiving. He knew she was using superhuman strength to hold back her usual appreciation when she enjoyed her food. Raoul couldn't stop laughing. He told Ranger he now understood why everyone was so concerned about her lack of appetite. "I thought you were exaggerating," he said. "She does eat more than Tank!" The two weeks seemed to fly by before they headed back to Trenton.

Chapter 1

A couple weeks after Stephanie and Ranger had gotten back from Miami she was back to work full time and was started on her physical therapy program. Christmas was in ten more days. Stephanie was back and forth between her place and Ranger's. Ranger kept dropping hints to her that he wanted her to move in with him. With everything that had happened, Stephanie needed some space. As much as she loved Ranger and couldn't wait to be with him, he could be a little smothering at times. Other than his healthy eating habits, his caveman overprotective thing drove her crazy. She understood it was because he loved her. She was also used to being independent so this was a big adjustment for her as well.

Stephanie was having a hard time deciding what to get Ranger for Christmas. He had everything. His tastes were expensive so a lot of things were out of her price range. She knew he wouldn't even think about the price of her gift. She still would feel horrible if he spent a lot of money on her, and she gave him some cheap ass gift. He didn't wear any jewelry except for his diamond studs and the occasional gold hoop. He did wear a watch but no rings. He also had a few gold chains but didn't wear them often. He had a Rolex for when he did get dressed in a suit. He wore Bulgari cologne as well as using the shower gel. As far as she was concerned, there could never be another scent that she would want him to wear. She was nosing through his closet trying to get some ideas.

"I smell something burning, Babe." She jumped and yelped putting a hand to her chest. He was leaning against the door jam with his arms crossed and 200 watt smile.

"Jerk!" She playfully swatted at him. He grabbed her by the collar of her shirt and pulled her into a passionate kiss. "Okay….forgiven."

"You planning to actually work today?" He continued to grin. She rolled her eyes.

"Uh…yes I am," she shot back. She had only been working on searches till a week ago. The doctor felt she could get back to full status as long as she didn't over do. Since she was sleeping with the boss, she had a lot more flexibility with her work schedule. She always made sure she did get her work done because she didn't want to take advantage of that all the time. She was running a little late this morning due to the fact they were up late with a distraction job the night before. The skip showed up at the last minute before Ranger almost called it off. It went off without a hitch. He took to Stephanie like moth to a flame and trotted out with her like a puppy. Her cell phone rang. It was her mother. She made a face and answered the phone.

"Your sister Valerie and her girls are back," her mother told her. Stephanie was not entirely surprised. Val had confided in her that she had been having problems with Steve when she came to visit in October. "She's getting a divorce. Steven took off with the babysitter."

"How is Val doing?"

"Not good. Apparently, Steven had been hiding their poor financial situation for some time. The house is in foreclosure and the back accounts were empty. She has two girls, no job, and no money!" Stephanie winced. She knew that situation all too well. Thank God she didn't have kids to add to the mix. "I think you should come over. Val is very upset."

"Mom, I have to check out my in box and then I'll be over as soon as I can, okay?" Stephanie told her. She could feel Ranger's stare. She disconnected with her mother. "Val and the girls showed up at my parents'. She's getting divorced. Steve apparently pissed away their money, their house is in foreclosure, and he took off with the babysitter." Ranger gave her a hug. "She's flat broke and has two kids to take care of. What an asshole!" She thought for a minute. Ranger had given her $10,000.00. He admitted that he put out a bounty on MacGregor to any of his Merry Men that had shot him. She guessed he never expected in a million years that it would have been her to take him out. She kept refusing the money. He had spent so much on her with the kidnapping and search that she wanted him to keep it. He insisted and had the money electronically transferred to her bank account. She was thinking about giving this money to her sister.

"I smell smoke again, Babe." This broke her out of her train of thought.

"I was thinking of giving Val the money you gave me," she said softly biting her lower lip. "Would that make you mad?"

It would have made him mad under different circumstances, but it touched him how selfless she was. Here, she is finally getting financially stable and she is thinking about giving it away to help someone else. Granted, he was helping her get financially stable. Stephanie was insistent on paying her way. He gave her a warm smile.

"No, it wouldn't make me mad. It makes me love you even more." He pulled her towards him. "But how about you keep that money and I'll see what I can do." She pulled back.

"Carlos! This is not your problem. I appreciate the offer, but I can't let you do that," she insisted. He smiled and kissed her forehead.

"Let's just see what happens," he began. She opened her mouth to protest but he cut her off. "If that's what you want to do, that is fine with me. But it's your family, Babe. I want to help."

Eyes darting to her wrist, she saw it was 8:30. She had a million things to do. She had to check to see if she had any urgent searches to get done, she had to stop at the Bond's Office, and now she had to swing by her parents' house. Swell.

Ranger was glad for the distraction. He wanted her out of the building as much as possible today. He bought her a baby grand piano for Christmas and it was being delivered today. He had the choice of today or sometime the end of January for delivery. He wanted her to have it for Christmas so he settled on today. He was also having a Christmas tree delivered. He never put one up before but he wanted their first Christmas together to be very special. He always allowed Ella to put up a tree and some moderate decorations up in the lobby and on the 5th floor. He watched as she gathered a few things and threw them in her bag. He took her hand and they headed down to the 5th floor. Not having any searches in her in box, she told him she heading to the Bond's Office and kissed Ranger goodbye.

She picked up a box of doughnuts at the Tasty Pasty before going to the Bond's Office. She had a feeling it was going to be one of those days so she might as well start the day right with some sugar. She collected the Rangeman files and checks Connie had prepared for her. Lula had a lead on one of her FTAs and asked Stephanie for help. "I had asked around and he's been seen getting on the bus at 11:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays to New Brunswick. I thought we could grab him today," Lula told her. She looked at her watch. It was only 9:15. This would be good because she wanted to put off going to her parents' house as long as possible.

"Okay, sounds good to me," she replied while taking a Boston crème and plopping down onto the couch. She sighed after taking a bite.

"What's wrong with you today?" Connie asked her while filing her nails.

"Oh let's see….where to begin? I have no idea what to get Carlos for Christmas. He has everything. And everything he has is way expensive. Valerie came back and is leaving her husband. That's a big mess. My mother wants me to come over. I want to be there for Val but I know my mother is going to make a bigger deal over this than it needs to be." She reached for another doughnut. Connie and Lula both sighed, nodding their heads and giving her half smiles.

"What ideas do you have for Ranger?" Connie asked with interest. She shrugged her shoulders.

"Absolutely nothing. Getting personal information out of him is like pulling teeth. He doesn't have any hobbies that you can buy things for. If he sees something that he wants, he buys it. I really want to get him something special and something personal. I have like 10…no 9 shopping days left 'cause I can't count Christmas. He's probably going to buy me something amazing and I'll be giving him something so stupid like a damn tee shirt or something." She rubbed her face with her hands. They both laughed.

"How about getting some sexy Christmas lingerie and ride him like a flying reindeer?" Lula suggested. Stephanie doubled over with laughter. She hadn't thought of that one but she knew Ranger would love it.

"If I'm desperate enough I may have to consider it." She had given some thought to writing him a song. Her father had surprised her by giving her a guitar for her birthday. And not just any guitar either. It was her guitar. It was the one she had to pawn for money. She thought she had lost it forever. She was hesitant because she wasn't sure if he would think it was a stupid gift. Lula grabbed another doughnut and flopped on the couch next to Stephanie. She had Connie toss her the daily paper.

"Well since we got some time to kill, let's see if anything interesting is happening," she told them as she scanned the paper. "Maybe we can get some ideas for you for Ranger." She turned the page. "Dead woman found on the river bank. Baby was cut out of her stomach. Man…that's gross. Man arrested for indecent exposure in Central Park. How come I don't get to see shit like that? Oh...listen to this one…13 year old beats 80 year old grandmother for her Wii. Now that's horrible. I mean what's an 80 year old doing with a Wii?" Stephanie and Connie exchanged glances and just shook their heads in disbelief.

"And this is going to help me figure out what to get Carlos for Christmas…how?" Stephanie sighed. It was going to be a long day.

Ranger was in his office working on paperwork when Hal poked his head in the door. Ranger's head popped up. "There is a Colonel Kirby here to see you. He's on his way up." Ranger nodded. He took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. Here it comes, he thought. There were only a few months left on his government contract and they were going to want every last day. There goes his first Christmas with Stephanie. Probably their first New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day. Fuck! Hal escorted a tall, middle aged man wearing his dress uniform and tan beret. Ranger immediately stood at attention when he came in and gave the man a salute. Colonel Kirby returned the salute and then stuck out his hand. Ranger relaxed and shook it. "Good to see you, Sir." Ranger told him.

"Been a while Captain," he replied. He looked around the office. "I see you are doing well for yourself." Ranger made a motion to the chair in front of his desk and they sat down. "I hear good things about your company, too."

"Thank you, Sir. I have good men working for me. They make it easy." He pushed the intercom button. "Bring some coffee for the Colonel." He leaned back and folded his hands loosely on his lap.

"I'm sure you are anxious to know why I came here," Colonel Kirby began. Ranger nodded. "I heard through the grapevine that you are not renewing your contract. I came to find out why and see if I can persuade you to change your mind." Ranger felt the tension leave his body.

"Well, I've done my time. My business has really grown and it's taking up more of my time," he explained. "And….I recently met someone." He gestured towards her picture.

Colonel Kirby grinned. "Understood." So that's the real reason, he thought, my best soldier went and fell in love.

It was almost 11:30 and Lula and Stephanie were parked half a block down from the bus stop. They spotted Lula's skip, Bobby Healy, casually making his way towards the bus stop as the bus was pulling in. They picked up their pace and hurried to the bus. Glancing down the street before boarding the bus, his eyes widened as they got closer. He pulled a knife on the driver, forced him get up, and pushed him down the stairs. He got behind the wheel and pulled out. He aimed the bus at them and they ran into the Starbucks' doorway for cover. He swerved back into the road but too sharply. Lula and Stephanie crept back onto the sidewalk. "What do we do now?" Lula asked.

"I guess call the police. He just stole the bus," Stephanie replied. They watched as he swerved back into his lane but again too sharply. He plowed into Steph's Road Runner from behind and pushed the car forward in front of the bus. "Shit!!!! My car!!! That bastard!!!" Frantically yelling and waving her arms, Steph tore off down the street after the bus. Healy, the bus, and Steph's car were headed toward the train tracks. Lights and bells warned of the approaching train. Before the barriers came down, he crossed the tracks and somehow dislodged the bus from the Road Runner. The barriers came down and seconds later, the train greeted the Road Runner with the sound of braking glass, crunching metal, and a whoosh from the exploding gas tank. An ear splitting screech reverberated down the city street.

"Holy Shit!" Lula exclaimed. Stephanie did her best impersonation of a mad woman as she furiously stomped her feet, gestured, and let loose a barrage of colorful metaphors.

"Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! I can't fucking believe this! Fuck!...Fuck me!...Fuck me 10 times!" There was a crowd drawing to watch the scene unfold. Sirens could be heard in a distance. "I loved that car! That ratfucksonofabitch!!!"

Of course, the tracking device on the car disappeared off the board. Hal and Ram were on monitor duty. "Shit," Ram muttered. Hal looked over at him. "Steph's car went off line." Hal called Steph's cell. He breathed when she answered the phone. Through her profanity laden rant, he sort of understood something about a bus and a train. He promised her he would tell Ranger and begged her to calm down.

Ranger had just finished telling the Colonel about the past couple of months. "She sounds like something special." Ranger smiled. Hal knocked and walked in. Ranger's stomach tightened as he saw the look on Hal's face.

"Uh…sorry to interrupt but….Steph's car…uh she's okay….I just talked to her," Hal stammered.

"Christ Hal, spit it out!" Ranger demanded.

"Well from what I could understand between all the…uhmm…cursing…was that her car was hit by a bus and a train and blew up I think," Hal finally managed. "But she's okay. Sounds real mad. I've never even heard that much bad language when I was in the Marines." Ranger had to smile. Colonel Kirby barked out laughing.

"Sounds like I came to talk to the wrong person. Stephanie sounds more like she could be a secret weapon for us," he laughed. Ranger smirked at the thought. "Actually, it may be safer for you to keep working for us."

"I have to go, Colonel. Would you like to come along and meet Stephanie?" Ranger stood. Colonel Kirby stood as well.

"I'd like to but another time. Think about the offer. I will need an answer tomorrow." He shook his hand and left. Tank was already in the SUV and waiting for Ranger in the garage.

"She's okay?" he asked as Ranger hopped in the passenger seat. He nodded. "So what did the Colonel want?"

"He made an offer for me to serve out my contract doing some training. I'd be at Bragg half the time and the other half in Norfolk. No combat zones. Just training. If I agree, they will pay me double the amount on my contract as a bonus. I'd be leaving January 2nd and come back on April 1st. If I don't, I still may be called away at any time for any length of time." Tank let out a low whistle.

"What are you going to do? What about Steph?" Ranger shrugged his shoulders.

"I have to talk to her about it. She's not going to be happy about me being gone for 3 months. Hell, I don't want to be away from her either. But, I'll have some days off and will be able to see her. I'll be able to call her from time to time. It may be worth doing this instead of maybe being sent back to Afghanistan or Colombia. I don't know. But if I do this, I'll need you to watch out for her."

"Of course, man. We all will. You know how we feel about her." They pulled up on the scene. The fire department had the car extinguished by that point. "No salvaging that dead soldier." They didn't see Stephanie so Ranger called her.

"Carlos….my car!" she cried.

"I know, Babe. Where are you?"

"Sitting in front of Starbucks."

"Be right there." He disconnected and gestured up the street. Tank drove another block, and seconds later, Stephanie and Lula could be seen sitting on the curb. Tank made a U-turn and pulled in. Ranger got out and she threw herself into his arms.

"I really liked that car," she said softly. He rocked her back and forth and stroked her hair.

"I know, Babe. It's just a car. What matters is that you are okay." He kissed her forehead. He was dreading the conversation they were going to have to have later. "What happened?"

"I was helping Lula with a skip. He saw us and pulled a knife on the bus driver. He tried to run us over then he hit my car and pushed it to the tracks. THEN…a train hit it. AND…it blew up!" she exclaimed throwing her arms in the air for emphasis. "Now I have no car…again!" Ranger opened his mouth as if to say something and she put up her hand to cut him off. "Don't even go there! I'm not going near any of your cars. They'll last longer that way. And don't even think about getting me a car!" Ranger cut his eyes to Tank who shrugged his shoulders.

"That about covers it," Tank told him. Carl and Big Dog walked towards them.

"Uh Steph," Carl began, "since we don't need the bomb squad, you're going to have to have the wreckage towed…somewhere." She gave him a look. "If you keep this up, the guys down the station are going to start a pool. We'll probably get more interest than the Super Bowl pools!" They exchanged glances and laughed.

"Swell," Steph muttered and gave them the finger. Carl snaked his arm around her shoulder and pulled her into him. "Aw come on, Steph. We're just kidding." He told her.

"This was not my fault!" she insisted. With a bratty pout on her face, she crossed her arms and stomped her foot. Ranger made a call to have the car picked up.

"It's taken care of," Ranger told them. "Do you need her for anything else?" Carl shook his head no and they left. Ranger laced his hand with hers and steered her to the SUV. "Come on, Babe. Let's get outta here." His phone rang. It was Hal asking about the delivery. Ranger told him to have someone there to receive it. He didn't want to say anymore with Stephanie right there. Actually, it was good timing. He decided they would drop off Lula and the three of them would go to lunch. He would tell her about the Colonel's offer. He was going to do it in private but with Tank showing support, it might make her more comfortable that he was telling her the whole story.

They took Lula to the Bond's Office. Stephanie gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth. Tank and Ranger both whipped around to look at her. "The files and checks were in the car! Shit!" she exclaimed. "I'll be right back." She hopped out of the SUV and went inside. They could see her talking to Connie. A few minutes she got back inside. "She'll rewrite the checks and make new files for me tomorrow."

"I'm sure you're hungry so why don't we stop for lunch," Ranger offered and he headed to Shorty's.

Stephanie was actually relieved for something to stall going to her parents' house. As usual, they were able to get a table in the back. Ranger was able to sit with his back to the wall and have a view of the entire place. Stephanie noticed Ranger and Tank exchange looks a few times since they picked her up.

"Okay…spill it. What's going on?" she demanded. Ranger let out a small sigh.

"There's something I need to talk to you about," he started. She got a very uneasy feeling. She hoped he wasn't breaking up with her. Maybe he was and brought Tank for protection. She bit her lower lip. "You know my government contract is up April 1st." She nodded. That's it, she told herself, he just got called away for a year or something. "Someone came to see me today to see if he could change my mind about renewing it. When I told him no, he made another offer for me to work out the last couple of months of the contract doing some training. I would be at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and in Norfolk, Virginia. I wouldn't be sent to any combat zones. I won't be shot at. And, I would be able to come up for a few visits every now and then." It didn't sound all that bad but there had to be a bad part, she figured.

"H-how long would you be gone?" she asked hesitantly. He paused a minute before answering.

"I'd have to report on January 2nd and come home April 1st, Babe."

She felt like someone could knock her over with a feather. Three months! He'd be gone three months. The tears began to well up in her eyes, and she silently cursed herself. Try to get a hold of yourself, she kept telling herself. She was enveloped by the warm and comforting feel of his arms. Ranger pulled her close.

"It's really not that long, Babe. I'll be able to call you and I'll even be able to come home a couple of times to see you. If I say no, it will be a gamble whether something comes up." His eyes widened and begged Tank for support.

"He could get called 5 minutes before his contract expires and could be gone for a year or more," Tank added.

Stephanie sniffled. Her brain was racing as it tried to process this information. "S-so this is like…a g-good thing?" She tried to sound brave but it didn't work. Ranger wiped her tears away with his thumb.

"I'd rather not go at all, but this is the only way I can guarantee the safest way to finish out my contract. I could wait it out and nothing could happen at all. If I take this offer, I know that I will come back to you. I wanted to talk to you about this before I made my final decision. Your opinion is important to me, Babe, you know that." She nodded. She felt like her heart was pulled out of her chest. It would be the safest way for him. God, she would miss him. Three whole months! A hand waving in front of her face broke her out of her thoughts. "Earth to Babe."

"If this is what you want to do and think is best to do, then I'll support your decision," she told him softly. It was killing her but what choice did she have? She could throw a temper tantrum but what for? It wasn't his fault. What if they decided to wait it out and he got called away somewhere dangerous? And what if he got seriously hurt or worse…killed? She knew in her head this was the best option, but her heart wasn't going for it. Get yourself together, she kept telling herself. You can cry about it later when you are alone.

"We'll all be here for you, Bombshell" Tank added. Covering her hand with his massive one, a sly smile broke across his normally stone like expression. "Besides, you're not going to have much time to miss him. We have a pretty rigorous training schedule set up for you. Now that you are on the road to recovery, there will be weight training, running, self defense training…." She turned to Ranger and then back to Tank.

"Uh…yeah. And monkeys might fly out of my butt," she muttered. She would concede to maybe work out in the gym a couple of times but that was it. She hated exercise. "Are you putting me in Rangeman Boot Camp while you are away?" This got her a laugh from Tank and a 200 watt grin from Ranger.

"It won't be that bad," Ranger told her. "I want you in better shape, and I want you to be able to defend yourself better. We will always be there to back you up but as a Rangeman employee, you have to be a team player too." Damn, he got her with that one.

"You're just doing this to take my mind off you being gone for three months," she stated.

"That will help to pass the time, but do you think it would be better or worse if I was here to supervise your training?" She thought for a minute. Actually, it would be better without him. He wouldn't put up with her shit. She definitely would be able to manipulate the Merry Men easier.

"I'm not that much of a pushover, Bombshell," Tank smiled. Her jaw dropped. Damn! They all have that friggin' ESP thing going. Ranger smiled.

"Plus, they'll have my permission to drag you out of bed every morning if you don't report for training on time, Babe. So make sure you wear something decent to bed," Ranger told her with his wolfish grin. She rolled her eyes.

"Not if they can't find me," she muttered softly. Tank grinned and Ranger raised his eyebrows.

"Sounds like a challenge to me, Boss," Tank joked.

"You going into hiding, Babe?" he asked turning his whole body to face hers. She rolled her eyes again and sighed.

"I normally would say 'Can this day get any worse?' but I know I still have to deal with my Mom and Val later so I know that the potential is there. Lula was upset over some 80 year old woman who had a Wii. My car gets destroyed. You tell me you're leaving me for three months. And, you top it off by telling me that you're going to be putting me through torture while you're away. Now I don't have a problem with learning how to defend myself better. Or maybe working out like once a month or something, but this better not be an everyday thing!" she ranted. Ranger just shook his head while Tank shook with laughter. Ranger again hugged her to him.

"Are you going to give the guys a hard time while I'm gone?"

"It sounds like it's going to be the other way around to me," she groaned. "I hate exercising."

"I promise we'll make it fun for you, Bombshell," Tank told her with a smile.

"Swell," she muttered. "Rangeman Boot Camp with the Merry Men." At that time, the waitress brought over their pizza. Food, she thought, I really need food.

Chapter 2

Stephanie thought she would never get out of her parents' house. Val and the girls, Angie and Mary Alice, were upset. Helen was blowing everything out of proportion. Like that was a shock. The girls missed their father. Val was worried about money and having nothing for the girls for Christmas. Frank assured her they would help make sure the girls were taken care of for Christmas. Stephanie wanted to tell Val about the money she wanted to give her, but now she wasn't sure if she would need it herself for a new car. She knew Ranger wanted to get a car for her but she wouldn't let him. She was going to offer Val her apartment while Ranger was away. She could stay at his place, but now she was afraid of the Rangeman Boot Camp she was facing. Today just sucked out loud, Stephanie thought to herself. She and Val had a long talk when she was here back in October. She had told Stephanie how she admired how she could stand up to their mother. Stephanie was shocked. There was so much time wasted. Steph felt Val wasn't interested in her and Val felt the same way. Val explained that she felt hurt by Steph and focused on her mother's attention. Val had no idea that their mother had spent Stephanie's college money on her wedding. She knew Steph was into music but had no idea that she sang in a band. Valerie played violin and had an average voice. They inherited their musical talent from Frank's side of the family. Frank's mother had an amazing singing voice. Steph was glad Val was back. Now, they would have a chance to get close.

She didn't have a car but didn't want to call Ranger. They only had a couple of weeks together before he had to leave. She appreciated that he told her upfront and that he wanted her opinion. She was going to have to hold it together around him. She knew he hated to see her cry. She wasn't exactly thrilled about crying in front of him or anyone else for that matter. Wanting to unwind a bit, she decided to walk to her apartment.

Half way there her cell phone rang. It was Ranger. "Yo!" she answered.

"Yo yourself. Where are you, Babe? You're not at your parents'."

"I'm almost to my apartment," she told him.

"Who did you call for a ride?"

"No one. I'm walking. I just wanted time to myself."

Ranger had been concerned about how Stephanie would take the news of his upcoming absence. Then, her car got destroyed. And now she was walking. She did have a stressful day after all. He wasn't sure what to do. "Do you still want to be alone?"

"Alone with you would be nice," she purred. He smiled at her response. His pants felt tight and he pushed down on the gas pedal a little harder.

"I'll pick you up on the way." He disconnected.

She smiled. Only a few minutes had gone by when she heard the sound of a high performance engine behind her. He leaned over and opened the door of his Porsche. She slid inside, and his lips crashed down on hers. A car honking its horn broke them out of their moment. He sped off to her apartment.

They were barely inside when clothes were being feverously tossed in every direction. They staggered back towards the bedroom and finally freed each other of their attire. Kissing her pulse point on her neck, one hand playful pinched one nipple while the other hand snaked its way between her legs. A soft moan escaped her lips. Her hand stroked his hard length as she nibbled on his ear lobe. It never got old. In fact, the sex seemed to get better and better each time. He buried himself inside her pistoning his hips. She matched his rhythm. She knew she wouldn't last long. She could feel her orgasm building. "C-Carlos!" she cried. "Oh God!" Her body shook with pleasure.

It drove Ranger crazy the way she responded to him. He quickened his pace as he was just about there himself. "Oh Christ! BABE!" he growled as he shuddered with his climax. Collapsing on top of her, he took a few minutes to catch his breath before rolling to the side. He pulled her to him and she snuggled into the nook of his arm. "God, I love you," he breathed.

"I love you, too." He kissed her forehead. "I'm sorry I'm so much trouble. It seems like I'm kind of a magnet for it. You'll probably enjoy being away from me for a while."

He rolled on his side to face her. Where the hell did that come from, he thought. "I'm not going to enjoy being away from you at all. Why did you say that?" He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone but it was still there.

"I mean it seems like every time I turn around something happens. And you have to come running to bail me out. I'm sorry about the files and the checks. I was trying to make a joke about you enjoying being away. That's 3 cars in three months. I should probably get used to walking 'cause I'm either not going to be able to get insurance or not be able to afford it." She sighed. He brushed a curl behind one ear.

"Babe, I know you said not to but I'm getting you a company car. You're going to need a car. It's either that or you drive one of mine. I'm not taking no for an answer. I'm doing it and that's it." Narrowing her eyes, she rolled on top of him.

"No, that's not it. I'm not taking a car from you or anyone else. I will get my own car. That way it's mine and I don't have to worry if something happens to it," she told him.

He opened his mouth as if to answer her when it hit him. Dickie Orr had bought her a car and took it back in the divorce leaving her with nothing. She's gun shy about taking anything from a man again. It frustrated him how damn independent she was all the time. But it finally made sense to him. She had been so trusting of everyone and they all screwed her over. She was afraid to trust him. He was a little hurt but he understood the magnitude of the situation now. If he gave her a company car, it would not be in her name. She's already had one man buy her a car and that didn't work out. "Babe, you can use a company car until you get your own. I'm not Dickie. I'm not going to take anything I give you away from you. I don't plan on leaving you. I want you in my life because I love you."

Her face softened. "Thank you for that but it's not just that. I need to be able to take care of myself for me. To prove to myself I can do it and not need to depend on anyone ever again. Carlos, I know you would give me anything I asked for and not even think twice about the price. It's about me and being able to take care of myself. Can you understand that?" She bit her lower lip.

He stared into her eyes. He could get lost in those beautiful aquamarine eyes. He smiled. "Yeah, I understand. But I want to spoil you. I want to give you things. It gives me pleasure to give you things." He gave her a wolfish grin. He couldn't wait for her to see the piano. He couldn't wait until she decided to move in with him. He couldn't wait for his contract to be up so his time would be his own again. He had really been thinking about marriage again. He never thought it would be something he would want. They had only been together three months but he wanted her to be his wife. It was strange how things change. He guessed that when you met the right person it seemed like the right thing to do. He had seen a ring that he liked. He knew she wouldn't want a monstrosity on her hand. It was a 2 carat aschur cut stone set in a simple platinum setting. He decided right there on the spot he was going to buy it and save it for the right moment. Maybe when he got back from training would be the right time?

"Carlos?" Her voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

"Sorry, Babe,"

"What were you thinking about?" She absently ran her hand in slow circles on his washboard stomach. He knew what he was thinking about now and now it was obvious to her what it was.

"How much I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you," he told her. He didn't add as my wife. "And now… I want to show you how much I love you. God Babe, look what you do to me." The next round was slow, sensual and playful.

Afterwards, they lay in each other's arms. Thirty minutes later, Ranger's cell phone rang and he jerked it open. It was Tank. Ranger sighed. "Be there in 20." He looked at his watch. It was 6:30. "Gotta go, Babe. There was a problem with a corporate account and it's almost shift change." They dragged themselves out of bed up and hunted for their clothes. Shit, he thought, not going to be able to see her reaction to the piano. His luck was starting to look up. Stephanie's mother called.

"Where are you? You're late for dinner," she told her. Yes he said to himself. He could drop her off there and pick her up later. She shot him a questioning glance and he nodded.

"I'll be right there."

"You might as well get dinner. I'll grab something when I get back home. I'll pick you up on my way back."

"What if this turns into a late night thing? Ah…I'll just have my Dad bring me back," she told him. Damn, he hoped it wasn't going to take all night.

"Okay. I'll call if it looks like it's going to take me longer than expected," he replied. They finished getting dressed and headed out. He dropped her off and went to pick up Tank.

Luckily, it wasn't a major situation and was able to pick up Stephanie at 7:30. His heart rate picked up a little. He was so anxious for her to see the piano. He surprised himself at his reaction. But then again, he shouldn't be surprised at any feelings or reactions he has where Stephanie is concerned. After getting fed and having pineapple upside down cake, she seemed to be a little calmer and more relaxed than this afternoon.

"How is your sister? I didn't get a chance to ask you earlier. We were…a little busy," he said with a sly smile. She gave him that heart melting smile in return and giggled.

"Well, she's really not doing that great. The girls are upset. They want to see their father. She only has a few hundred dollars after paying for their airfare. She's going to start looking for a job. That's going to be hard because she got married right after college and never worked a day in her life. She got pregnant with Angie almost a year after they got married. Steve was making good money and she didn't have to work. We have some major Christmas shopping to do for the girls. I feel bad for her. With the exception of having the girls, that was me a few years ago. I know what she's going through." Ranger thought about what type of skills he could use in the office.

"What did she get her degree in? What are her skills?" he asked. She thought for a minute.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what she majored in. She was a Beauty Queen. She knows how to walk with a book on her head and wave like this," she told him imitating a stiff armed wave. He gave one of his rare out loud laughs. "Don't laugh…this takes a lot of training and skill." She fought to keep a straight face but burst out laughing herself. They pulled into the parking garage at Haywood. "I bet Ivy's going to be mad at me. I've been gone all day. I'll stop on 5 to get her and take her for a walk." He put his arm around her shoulders and led her to the elevator.

"Leave her there, Babe. I want to show you something first." She shrugged her shoulders and nodded. Ranger felt the elevator would never get to the 7th floor. He swore the elevator ride to the top of the World Trade Center, all 110 floors, had been faster. He led her into the apartment. She walked through the living room and into the bedroom right past the piano. Fuck, he said to himself. She didn't even notice it.

Stephanie stopped. Wait a minute, she said to herself. Was that a piano in the living room? She turned and walked back out and her jaw almost hit the floor. She stared at the piano and was speechless. Ranger stood there watching her reaction with his arms crossed and leaning against the breakfast bar. "Merry Christmas, Babe."

She pointed at the piano still trying to get her thoughts together. Her mind was a total blank. "Th-that's a piano," she finally managed pointing to it. Her gorgeous blue eyes were as wide as saucers. He walked towards her and gave her a hug.

"It's your piano." It was finally registering in her brain that he bought her a piano for Christmas. She was overwhelmed with love, shock, and surprise. The tears came and she couldn't hold it back any longer.

"Thank you," she whispered barely able to get the words out. She had missed playing the piano. The only good thing her mother ever did for her was insist on the piano lessons. She fell in love with the piano right away. She picked up the guitar on her own. She thought she would burst with the love she felt for this man. She had slowly been taking down the barriers she had put up around her heart.

"Play something for me, Babe." He told her softly still holding her in his arms. She gave a short laugh.

"I can't," she told him. "I'm so overwhelmed I can't remember how to play right now." She wiped away the remains of the tears. He smiled. "Give me a minute to get myself together."

"I can give you forever, Babe." She smiled up at him.

"Carlos, I love you so much. I can't believe you got me a piano. Thank you so much!" She hugged him tight.

"I'm so glad I was able to see your reaction. I was worried I might miss it because of the security alarm. It was worth it to see your face," he told her. She lovingly ran her hands over the top of the piano. The top was open and she lifted the lid off the keys.

"Carlos, this is so beautiful," she gave him her amazing smile and his heart melted for the millionth time. She sat down on the bench. The first song she could think of was 'Oh Holy Night'. She figured it would be appropriate since it was a Christmas gift. He sank into the couch not taking his eyes off her. She was so focused on the song, and he was so engrossed in watching and listening to her that neither of them heard Ella come in with a tray. It wasn't the first time she sang in front of him. She had started back to playing her guitar when her hands had gotten better. But she was still nervous all the same.

Ranger was lost in her voice. His throat tightened and while chills ran down his spine. The song always reminded him of Christmas because it was his mother's favorite song. Her voice was so powerful and strong. When she finished, they heard Ella clapping. Stephanie turned pink.

"Oh Stephanie…," Ella gushed. "That was so beautiful." She had tears in her eyes. Ranger smiled. "You have an incredible voice."

"Thank you," she replied. "Carlos gave me this piano for Christmas. I haven't played in so long."

"I didn't mean to interrupt. I brought dinner after I heard you two had finally gotten back. I'll leave you alone. Stephanie, you will have to play more for me later," Ella winked at them and left. Ranger sat down on the bench next to her and pulled her into a passionate kiss.

"That was beautiful, Babe. I'm glad I was able to help bring music back in your life. You really have a gift and it would be a sin to not share it." She hugged him tight. "And…you'll have to play that song for my mother. It's her favorite."

"It's my favorite Christmas song, too. It was the first thing that came to my mind." She sighed. "I can't believe you did this. Carlos, I love this piano but you shouldn't have spent so much money on me…" He covered her mouth with his hand.

"No price, Babe. Remember? There is no price on your safety or your happiness. Besides, seeing the reaction on your face tonight and hearing you play brought me happiness." She kissed his hand. He pulled it away and replaced it with his lips.

Ranger got up early to go for a run. He brought Ivy with him. She was a good running partner. Stephanie worked with her all the time. She was very smart and learned things very fast. She was getting good with catching the Frisbee. He wanted to get a jump on paperwork this morning. He was going to call Colonel Kirby and tell him he would accept his offer. He was thinking about bringing in some extra staff to help cover his absence. Tank would obviously take over for him. That would pull him from the field and leave them a man down. He mulled over bringing his old Army buddy down from Rangeman Boston, Mike McSweeny. He was someone he could trust to help watch over Stephanie. Not that there wasn't a man in his Trenton office that wouldn't put themselves in harm's way to protect her, McSweeny would do the same because she was Ranger's woman. He could also work with his men with Steph's training. He was also a former Drill Instructor. She was right about one thing. She could easily manipulate his men if she wanted to get out of physical activity. It was going to be more challenging to them than it would be for her. He hoped she at least tried. If it didn't work while he was gone, he would personally supervise the training when he got back. She wouldn't be able to put one over on him….well not as easily with him. He could put up with her temper, her pouting, her cursing, her naivety, her stubbornness, but she would crumple him if she cried. That was the one thing that he had no kryptonite against.

He wasn't surprised to see that she was still asleep when he got back. Stephanie was definitely not a morning person like he was. What was so ironic was they were opposite in just as many things as they had in common. After his shower, he got dressed and ready for work. He got her a cup of coffee and set it on the nightstand. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he gazed at her sleeping form. Hair was wild. Face was soft and innocent. He loved watching her sleep. It relaxed him. He glanced at his watch and sighed. He gently ran his hand up and down her back. "Babe," he whispered. She began to stir. "It's time to get up, Babe."

"HHHmmm," she groaned. She brushed a handful of blonde curls off her face and opened her eyes.

"I brought you some coffee." He gestured towards the cup. She smiled.

"You're so good to me," she muttered then yawned. She saw he was already showered and fully dressed. Too bad. He looked and smelled so yummy. She was wondering what it would take to get him out of those clothes and back into bed. He grinned.

"If I didn't have a lot to do today, Babe, I would be happy to get naked and jump you, but I gotta head downstairs," he told her with his wolfish grin. That and he better get going now because his pants were starting to get a little tight. He knew she was naked under that sheet and he was trying not to think about it. He stood up and left the room before his body forced him to change his mind.

"Damn ESP," she groaned. She reached over and took the coffee. "Thank you!" she yelled after him. He actually added cream and sugar!

"I'll see you downstairs, Babe!" he yelled back to her as he walked out of the apartment.

She sat up in bed and hugged the sheet to her chest. She thought about the night before. A piano. He bought her this wonderful piano. Playing again brought back such a sense of herself. Music was her stress relief. It was her joy and happiness. It was such a part of who she was. She hadn't expected to become a famous rock star or anything. She just loved to play. She enjoyed being in the band too. Just like someone who likes to play on a sports team for fun. She thought about writing Ranger a song for Christmas again. She had an idea that had been rolling around in her head but it didn't sound right on the guitar. Now that she had a piano, it would sound better. She had been thinking it was a silly idea. Maybe it was her lack of self confidence. After seeing his face last night, it might not be a stupid idea after all. It was obvious that he supported her music because he spent a butt-load of money on a baby grand piano. Hopefully, she would be able to work on it without him around. If she could get it together, she would go for it. Maybe Mike Baker still had some recording equipment and she could get him to record it for her? She decided to go for it as she sipped her coffee. She was the happiest she had ever been in her life. That also scared her. She was afraid she would lose this too. If Ranger ever decided to leave her because he grew tired of her or wanted to be with another woman, she would be so devastated that she didn't think she could come back again. She knew she was at the point in the relationship that she had to give herself fully to him and take down the rest of the barriers. And this is what she really wanted to do. She looked at the clock and realized that she had to get going. Ivy was sleeping next to her on the bed. Ranger had been taking her running with him the past couple of weeks. She was glad that they were bonding. She thought back to when she first brought her to his apartment. She could tell Ranger wasn't a dog person, but he totally changed. She was 5 months old now and had gotten big. She still was growing, too. She drained her coffee cup and headed to take a shower and get ready for work.

Chapter 3

Ranger had called Colonel Kirby. He told him that he pleased that Ranger accepted. "Good, I'll need you down in DC on Thursday and Friday. We'll have the whole team there and can discuss the training schedule. Good to have you back, Captain, even if it's only for a few more months."

Ranger groaned. It was only for a couple of days but they had a take-down planned for tomorrow night with Steph doing the distraction. He rubbed his hands over his face. She had done several distractions for them and there had been no problems. His men would back her up. He just didn't like that he wouldn't be there. He didn't like that she would be all dressed up and look fucking amazing to lead some scumbag out to the parking lot. If he cancelled or told Tank not to use her for distraction while he was gone, it would send the message that he didn't trust them. If Steph got wind of it she would think that he didn't have enough faith in her to do her part. This would set her back. He could see that she had been gaining confidence, and he would not want to destroy that. He was going to have to suck it up and stop acting like a caveman as she would call him. He called Tank into his office. It was Wednesday and he would have to fly out tonight. He wanted to make sure everything was in place and the intel was double checked for Thursday night. The FTA, John Harding, was heavy duty and he was a big man. Steph could get hurt if anything went wrong.

Tank poked his head in the door. "What's up?" Ranger filled him in on everything. Tank smiled. "Look, I know you're worried about Steph. I'll personally make sure she's okay." Ranger nodded.

"I trust you. Hell, I trust all of you with my life. I know you will do everything to watch out for her. I just feel that it's my responsibility. I don't want you to think that I don't trust you to take care of Steph," Ranger explained. Tank laughed.

"Sucks to be whipped, don't it?" Ranger glared at him. He hated to be called whipped…even if he was. Stephanie appeared in the doorway.

"Good morning," she said. She stood next to the Tank's chair and put her arm around his shoulders

"Morning, Bombshell," he replied. "How did you like your Christmas present?" Her whole face lit up. Ranger beamed.

"I love it! It was such a surprise," she gushed. Tank put his around her waist and hugged her.

"You'll have to show me what you can do one of these days." He got up and nodded to Ranger. "Talk to you later, Boss." He went back to his office.

"I've got to fly down to DC tonight, Babe. I've got meetings tomorrow and Friday but will be back Friday night. Tank's going to make sure everything runs smoothly tomorrow night," he told her. He could see a hint of disappointment in her eyes. Was she afraid to do it without him there? Should he ask her?

"Okay." She sighed.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, it's bad enough you'll be gone for three months but they want you now too," she told him. He relaxed a little. "I've got to get to work. I see Rodriguez has filled my inbox again. Don't want to get in trouble with the boss!" She gave him a quick kiss and headed for her cubicle with Ivy prancing after her. He watched her from behind. She looked great in her Rangeman uniform. The cargo pants were the same as everyone else's but shirt was too short to tuck in and showed skin every time she reached above her head or bent over. He smiled to himself. He purposely had Ella order that style for her. Her uniforms still were a little big. She had gained some weight back from the kidnapping but not all of it yet. He was horrified when Bobby told him how much weight she had lost. She was 115 lbs for her Rangeman new hire physical. The hospital in Pennsylvania had her weight at 108 lbs. She lost another 6 lbs the week after when she had lost her appetite and was down to 102 lbs. She did have a small frame but was 5'7" tall. He still tried to encourage her to eat better and make better food choices but backed off. If she maintained her weight of 115 by eating probably 3000-5000 calories a day (he was only guessing at the total calories because she ate nothing but crap…and lots of it), he was afraid she would lose weight again. Her last recorded weight was 110 lbs. She still needed to gain those last 5 lbs back but her curves were coming back and he could no longer count her ribs.

Stephanie was so engrossed in her work she didn't see or feel Ranger standing behind her. He began to massage her shoulders and she jumped. "You scared me!" She playfully swatted at him.

"You need to be more aware of your surroundings, Babe," he smiled. "I've got to make a site visit with Tank so I can't have lunch with you today. We'll definitely spend a little time together before my flight." They kissed and he left with Tank. She went back to her work and was interrupted again by hands on her shoulders. She spun around to yell at Ranger but it was Lester.

"Hey Beautiful!" She jumped up and gave him a hug.

"Hey Les! Welcome back!" He and Ram had been on vacation the past two weeks. Ranger had given bonuses and extra vacation time to his Merry Men who really lead the team with finding Stephanie. "Did you and Ram have a good time?" They had gone to Hawaii. Lester's olive skin was tanned. He was wearing a lei which he took off his neck, placing it over her head, and kissed both cheeks.

"We had a blast. We had fun in the sun, drank, and had lots of women," he told her. She smiled and shook her head. "Did Ranger dump you for lunch?" She nodded. There was a hint of sadness in her eyes. "Okay, what's wrong?" She rubbed her eyes and dropped back into her chair.

"Don't even get me started. You've been gone for two weeks, and you've missed a lot," she told him. He pulled up an extra chair and sat down.

"Dr Lester is back. Talk to me, Beautiful," he said as he leaned forward elbows on knees. She smiled.

"I have a better idea," she replied and she stood and took his hand. "Take me to lunch and I'll tell you all about it." They left and went to Pino's. She told him about the Road Runner going to car heaven and Ranger leaving for three months.

"Damn," he said. "I did miss a lot. Sorry about the car. That was a cool car." She snorted. He snickered. "I can't believe a bus hit it and pushed it in front of a train. Only you, Steph." She rolled her eyes.

"Carlos totally surprised me with a piano yesterday. It was my Christmas present. I was so overwhelmed. He spends too much money on me, but I really love it. It felt so good to play again." Lester smiled.

"I'm sure you're going to get a car for Christmas too," he joked.

"He better not! I told him no but he wants to get me a company car. I'm afraid for him to get me a car. God only knows what will happen to the next one." She sighed. "And my sister moved back with my parents. Her husband ran off with the babysitter and spent all their money. Now Val is homeless and flat broke with two kids to support. I was going to give her the money Carlos gave me but I'll need it to buy a car. I think I'll give it to her anyway. She needs it more that I do."

Lester shook his head. Typical Stephanie. She was putting herself last again….well except when Macy's was having a sale.

She noticed the tight smile on his face. "Hey, I know exactly what she is going through 'cause I've been there. At least she didn't come home and find her husband screwing someone on their dining room table. I mean, that was where I ate my food. How gross is that?"

Lester laughed. He knew she caught her husband cheating but that was the first time he heard the details. She seemed more upset about her eating environment being defiled than her husband with another woman. "Of course, my mom is getting on her case. Like that's a surprise. I was thinking about letting her stay at my apartment until she can get a job and get something on her own."

"I thought you guys weren't that close. Are you sure you want to go through all that for her?" he asked her. She nodded.

"Val and I had a long talk and came to an understanding. I had no idea that she wanted to be me and she admired the fact that I stood up to Mom. I thought she didn't want to be bothered with me but I was wrong. We're kind of starting over and it's really nice. Better late than never I guess. So tell me more about your vacation?" He grinned and leaned back threading his fingers together and putting his hands behind his head.

"It was nothing but partying and sex. Best vacation I've had in a long time. Went scuba diving with some chicks we picked up then had sex with them. Did some wind surfing. Then had more sex…." Stephanie was holding her side from laughing so hard.

"I'm glad you had a good time, Les. You really deserved it." He took her hand.

"Don't worry Beautiful. You are still my fantasy girl but since you are taken, I have to get it somehow," he joked. Getting laid really helped relieve the sexual tension he felt for her. He still cared about her but was trying to focus more on their friendship. She was with Ranger, and it was Ranger that she wanted. She rolled her eyes.

"Les, I need to ask you something and I want you to be honest," she started. He nodded.

"You can ask me anything, Beautiful. You know that."

"If someone wrote you a song for a gift, would you think that was stupid?" Her eyes were downcast but looked back up directly into his eyes. He broke into a slow smile that turned into a wide grin.

"No, I wouldn't think that was stupid," he told her taking her hand in his. "Actually, I would think that was pretty cool that someone thought that much about me to do that." Her face lit up into her heart melting smile.

"Really?" He nodded and kissed her hand.

"I swear to God. Are you writing a song for Ranger?"

"Yeah, I've been thinking about it. I mean he has everything. He's harder to buy for than my father!" Lester snorted. Ranger was the job 24/7. He didn't allow himself much time for any hobbies…that is if he even had any. "Anyway, I've been working on one but it will sound better with the piano."

"Do I get to hear it?"

"Maybe," she answered with a sly smile.

"Maybe?" He sat back with raised eyebrows.

"Yeah maybe….maybe if you feed me cheese cake too," she smiled. He laughed.

"I see your appetite is back to normal," he told her. He hadn't seen her in almost a month. She had gained some weight and looked better. He motioned for the waitress to order the cheese cake.

Ranger had called a meeting late in the afternoon to run through the distraction and let the staff know about his upcoming absence. They were surprised. The Merry Men were trying to look at Stephanie for her reaction without being too obvious. Stephanie was glad she had some time to process the situation so she didn't break down in front of everyone.

He quickly wrapped up the meeting because he wanted to spend some time with Stephanie before he had to leave. He led her up to the 7th floor and right into the bedroom.

After they made love, he held her as long as he could. "Stay there," he said to her as he got up to shower and get dressed. "I want the last thing I see is you laying naked in my bed." She rolled her eyes and smiled. She stretched lazily like and cat and rolled onto her stomach. "Uh…that will work too." He quickly showed and dressed. He kissed her goodbye. "I'll call you later, Babe."

Ranger told her she could drive any of his cars. He was taking the F-150. That left his Mercedes and the Porsche turbo. The Cayenne had been destroyed by a dumpster. There was no way she was going to touch either of those cars. She was going shopping tomorrow afternoon with Val and she could pick her up in the Buick. Besides, tonight she wanted to work on her song and play her new piano. She got up and showered. She threw on a long sleeve tee shirt and velour track pants. She grabbed a bottled water from the fridge and sat down at the piano. After about an hour, Ella had come in with dinner.

"Oh please don't stop. That sounded beautiful," she told her.

"I'm working on a song for Carlos. I was just getting ready to take a break anyway." Ella raised her eyebrows and smiled.

"It sounded nice. When did you start playing the piano?" Steph walked over to the tray on the counter.

"I started lessons when I was 4 years old. My mom started Valerie on the violin and she made me play piano. I really fell in love with it right away." She made herself a plate of chicken and rice. She smiled when she saw the big chunk of chocolate cake. "Oh my God! I love you!" Ella smiled back.

"You know how I love to bake for you. Ranger never eats dessert. I guess now he gets enough sugar in his diet from kissing you." Stephanie laughed. "Do I get to hear the song when you are finished?" She nodded while taking a fork full of cake.

"Definitely. I'll want your opinion on it before I let him hear it."

"Ranger loves music. There would be nights after a long and stressful day that he would be sitting on the couch with the lights low and playing classical music on his stereo." Ella smiled at the memory. "Not what you would expect of him, is it?" Stephanie agreed. She knew he liked classical music as well as Latino music and rock. There had been a few nights after a long day where he would put on some classical music and they would sit together on the couch sipping wine. It was relaxing. They chatted while Stephanie quickly ate her dinner. She played Ella what she had so far but didn't add the vocals yet. She had those already in her head but was still working out the music.

After Ella left, Stephanie decided to call it an early night. Tomorrow would be a late night with the distraction. She hopped into the shower. While drying her hair, she decided to relax with a cup of tea and cookies but realized that she needed to take Ivy for a walk. Granted, she could call down to the control room but she didn't want to abuse the privilege. She quickly dressed, grabbed the leash and her cell phone, and headed out. Ranger hadn't called yet and she knew he probably would call her while she was out. If she didn't answer the phone, he would call the control room to find out where she was. They were about half way through the walk when he did call.

"Yo," she answered with a smile.

"Yo yourself." She could feel his smile on the other end.

"I see you made it okay."

"Yeah. Just had dinner with the Colonel and now I'm sitting in my hotel room all alone."

"You better be!" she joked.

"Are you alone," he replied.

"No, I'm with Ivy. I'm taking her for a walk then I'm going to bed. It's going to be lonely in that bed tonight." He sighed. He hated her walking the dog alone at night.

"Babe, you should have called the Control Room to have someone do that. I don't like you alone at night in that neighborhood." He heard her sigh and she probably rolled her eyes too.

"You sound like a broken record, Carlos. I'm fine." She paused for a moment. "I miss you." Okay, he thought, time to change the subject.

"I miss you, too. What did you do tonight?"

"Played my new piano. Ate chocolate cake. And as soon as I get back upstairs…I'm walking into the building now by the way so you can stop worrying….I'm going to have tea and cookies before I go to sleep." He grinned.

"Early night? No TV?" She smiled.

"Actually…I'm trying to be responsible. I have a late night tomorrow and I want to be ready. Wouldn't want to disappoint the boss." He thought about the distraction. This would be the first one where he wasn't there.

"Nice to know some of my habits are starting to rub off. I'm sorry I'm not going to be there for you, Babe."

"You'll be there. I'll be thinking about you and you'll be there with me." He grinned again. "I'm back in the apartment by the way so you can really stop worrying."

"Smart ass. I'll let you go have your tea and cookies now. I've got a full schedule tomorrow so I might not be able to talk to you till later. Call me as soon as you guys finish up. I love you."

"I love you too. I'll call you the minute the guys have him handcuffed!" She disconnected and started the water for her tea.

Stephanie got to her cubicle early. There were a few searches so she got them done quickly. She was taking a long lunch to go Christmas shopping with her sister. She still had to pick out an outfit for tonight. It was an average biker bar. Not the sleaziest but not a nice place either. Her target tonight was arrested for dealing drugs and weapons, previous sexual assault, and other assaults. He was a big guy, too. She looked at the file. His face looked….mean. She was going back and forth between the biker bitch look or the virginal slut look. She did virginal slut very well. She had a royal blue dress she hadn't worn in a while. It was short, of course, sleeveless, and was very low cut. She had matching blue 4 inch FMPs that would work. She looked down at the scar just below her right knee. It looked much better but still made her a little self conscious. She could put a little make up concealer over it and wear stockings. She hated stockings but it would hide the scar better. She had thigh high stockings that she could wear. The dress was too short and too tight for garters. She had a black leather jacket that came to the tops of her thighs. That would complete the look.

Most of her normal back up would be there tonight. Tank, Lester, Hal, Ram, and Cal. Bobby was out of town. Hector was out of town as well but he was only involved when they were doing repossessions. Lester was usually her back up on the inside. Sometimes, if they could pull it off in time, they would have another man at the door or at the bar. If the guy was really bad, they would have another man in the bar somewhere. She knew they would be there for her and she wasn't worried with Ranger's absence.

Just before lunch time, Tank came over to her cube. "Hey Bombshell, I've got something for you." He handed her a set of keys.

"What's this for?" she asked.

"Your new truck." Her eyes narrowed and she started to protest but Tank put up his hand. "I know what you said but Ranger insisted and took care of this yesterday. He got you a company car because you need transportation for your job. You can fight with him about it when he gets back, but my job was to give you the keys."

"He is such a caveman," she muttered. Tank laughed. She tossed the keys in her top drawer. "I am not driving it. Something will happen to it. I know it." Tank shook his head.

"It's an official Rangeman vehicle. It's equipped just like all the others with communication, GPS, and bomb detection. Don't you even want to see it?"

"No! I don't want to even know about it because I'm going to break down and drive it, Tank. Then with my luck something will fall on it. Or it will blow up. Or something will hit it. What'd he get me?" Okay, she thought, now she was a little curious. Tank smiled.

"He got you a Ford Escape. Black. He knows you don't feel comfortable driving the big SUVs." He took her hand and pulled her up. Then, he took the keys out of the drawer. "Come on. Let's go take a look."

It looked so cute next to all the big SUVs like it was a little baby SUV. It wasn't as scary as driving one of Ranger's Porsches or his Mercedes. Her tension eased a little. She sighed as she opened the door and got in. Tank showed her how to work all the communication and GPS equipment. "God, I hope nothing happens to this thing."

"Bombshell, don't worry about it. If something is going to happen, there is nothing you can do about it anyway. So why worry about it before hand. I'm sure eventually, this will go to car heaven but not today," Tank teased her.

"Thanks….you made me feel soooo much better," she muttered.

"Now get outta here. I'll see you later." Tank closed the door and headed back to the office. She called Val to tell her she would pick her up in her new company car.

Stephanie was surprised she was able to get a parking spot right by the door. Must be the Rangeman vehicle, she said to herself. They always were able to get the best parking spots. "I can't believe he bought you a car, Steph," Val told her.

"He didn't buy me a car. It's a company car," Stephanie explained. Okay, she thought, who was she trying to kid? He did buy her a car. He would never have gotten a small Escape for any other employee. She was trying to play it down in front of Val. Not that Val would begrudge her having Ranger, she just didn't want to seem like she was throwing her good fortune in Val's face right now. The mall was moderately crowded.

"Dad gave me some money. I have a couple of Steve's credit cards but I'm afraid to use them." Val told her. Steph thought for a minute.

"Are they in both your names?" she asked her. Val shook her head.

"No, I'm only an authorized user on these. I never had any credit cards in my own name. I never thought I had to." Stephanie smiled.

"Let's try them, Val. Worst case scenario is he cancelled them. If not, oh well. Let him get stuck with the bill. It's stuff for his kids anyway." Val thought for a minute. She was going to say that she couldn't do that, but look what that bastard did to her. She smiled.

"Let's go shopping!" Stephanie told her she would also help in case the cards didn't work. After about an hour and an arm load of clothes, they held their breath as the cashier rang up the sale and swiped the card. It went through. They started to breathe a sigh of relief but covered it up. "I guess he forgot about these two."

"Let's hurry up and use them. You guys will need other things too. You didn't bring much with you." Steve had obviously high limits on his credit cards. She bought herself and the girls new clothes. They lived in a warmer climate and didn't have many winter items. She spent a few thousand dollars. Stephanie dropped her off and went back to Rangeman.

There were no new searches so she headed to the Bond's Office to pick up the checks and files that had been lost. Connie and Lula were smiling when she pulled in. "Batman got you a nice set of wheels, White Girl," Lula told her.

"You seemed to have Ranger wrapped around your finger, Steph," Connie kidded. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"It's a company car. It's not mine," she tried to tell them. It even sounded more ridiculous the second time she tried that line. "I have to drive for my job and the other trucks are being used all the time. I'm still going to get my own car."

"Sure you are," Connie teased. She handed her a new stack of files with the checks on top. "Try not to blow these up." Stephanie sighed.

"You guys are going to give me a complex. It wasn't my fault. What happened to him anyway?" Lula laughed.

"Dumb ass tried to drive the bus to New Brunswick hisself. State Troopers picked him up just outside of Trenton. Lost the money on that mother fucker," she groaned. Stephanie suddenly got chill and shuddered. "What's the matter?" Stephanie shrugged.

"I don't know. Just got a weird feeling about something. Like something…off just happened. I can't explain it," she told them.

"Like a premonition or something?" Lula prodded. "My grandmother used to get 'feelings' on stuff. Then she would get a phone call that someone died." She shuddered at the memory.

"I don't know. I mean I never had anything like that, but it's just a strange feeling that something's going to happen that we didn't plan for tonight," she tried to explain.

"What's tonight?" Connie asked.

"I'm doing a distraction tonight. Carlos was a little concerned because he couldn't be there but I trust the guys. But I don't know….it's just a strange feeling and I can't put my finger on it." Grandma Mazur always told her she gets her special instincts from her gypsy Hungarian blood. "I don't know if I should say anything to Tank or not. I don't want them to think that I don't trust them." Lula fanned herself.

"Now that is a fine piece of man right there," she said. "Next to Ranger, I'd take on Tank any day. I've got to get me some of that. Girl, you gotta hook a sister up!" Actually, Stephanie could see Tank with Lula. Lula's personality was larger than life and Tank, himself, was larger than life. She looked at her watch. It was 3:30. She wanted to get back and make sure she didn't have any more searches to do. And, she wanted to work on her song before she had to get ready for tonight. She said goodbye and got in the Escape.

Stephanie took Ivy for a quick walk before dinner. Ella had it waiting for her when she got back. She scarfed it down and got to work at the piano. She had to be ready to go at 9:30. After about an hour, she had most of the music worked out for her lyrics. The song was about how she gained confidence in herself and felt good about herself again. (Author's note: Since this is my fantasy and my world, the song she has written is actually Evanescence's Good Enough from The Open Door album-it's really beautiful and I though it fit this story perfectly. And I think it's a very beautiful song. If you haven't heard the song, check it out. I will always give credit when I steal something!) Now she just had to work it out and see if she could get Mike to record it for her. She ran through it one more time before stopping to get ready for the evening.

Chapter 4

She was just about ready when Tank came up to get her. "Bombshell?"

"In here," she called out from the bathroom. "Just finishing up my make up." He walked in the bathroom and let out a low whistle.

"Damn Bombshell," he told her when he saw her. God, Ranger was a lucky fuck, he thought to himself. The royal blue dress made the color of her eyes pop. She left her hair curly but had fluffed it out, and it was true New Jersey big hair. He had the mic in his hand. "Uh…I know Ranger usually does this…but…uh…." As much as he wanted to, there was no way he was putting his hands under her dress. Plus, the dress was so tight he wouldn't even know where to put it. He handed the mic and ear piece to her. She grinned.

"Don't worry. I know how to place it myself. Carlos just likes to do it…well…uh..." She turned a light shade of pink. They both knew what she meant. He stepped out and she put everything in place. She grabbed her leather jacket and met Tank by the door. "Tank…." She wanted to tell him about her bad feeling but was hesitant. She bit her lower lip.

"Okay, what's wrong?" She looked a little nervous. He was thinking it was because Ranger wasn't there.

"You know what? Forget it. It was stupid." She waved her arm to dismiss what she was going to say. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.

"No, it's not stupid. What's wrong? Are you worried because Ranger isn't here?" He thought he would make it easier for her.

"No, I trust you guys. I just….I just had a weird feeling this afternoon and again tonight that something…changed about tonight. Something is ….off. I don't know. I can't put my finger on it. It's not a good feeling or a bad feeling….just off." Tank knew that Ranger trusted her instincts.

"If you don't feel right about this Bombshell, we'll call it off right now," he told her.

"No! No. Don't do that. It's probably nothing. We just need to…I don't know…be ready for something extra. God, that sounds so stupid saying it out loud," she groaned.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. It's going to be fine. Come on. Let's go." She grabbed Ivy's leash and the three of them headed to the 5th floor. There were whistles and cat calls when she stepped into the Control Room. Tank went over the game plan again. Lester would be inside the bar first. Then Steph would go in. Tank, Ram, Cal, and Woody would be outside ready to grab him. They were able to get Hal at the door. He was going to call as soon as their skip, Johnny Harding, showed up. Tank wasn't sure how to tell the team about Stephanie's uneasiness. He didn't want it to seem like she didn't trust the team because she did. He decided to pull Lester aside.

"Bombshell's got a strange feeling about tonight. It's not because Ranger's not here. She thinks something else is going on. Be on your toes," he told him. Lester nodded. He didn't like that Steph was nervous. He was afraid it would throw her off her game. Tank got the call from Hal. Harding was there. "Okay. Let's go." Tank, Cal, Ram, and Woody got into the elevator. Lester held Steph back.

"We'll be right down," he told them. The doors closed. He turned to face Stephanie. "What's up, Beautiful?"

"I don't know. I can't put my finger on it. It's like…something was added to the mix or something," she explained. He thought for a moment.

"If you feel like your game is off tell me right now. I'll have Tank call this off," he told her.

"No, it's alright. Tank said the same thing. I feel okay about this. I'm just getting the feeling that something else is off. That's all. Really, Les…I'm okay," she replied. He looked into her eyes. Fuck, she looked so hot tonight.

"Okay," he said after a minute. "But if you get scared, nervous, whatever…you give me a signal and I'll be right there, got it?" She smiled.

"God, you can get that caveman thing going just like Ranger," she joked. He smirked.

"Testosterone, Baby," he said putting his arm around her as the elevator doors opened for them.

"Oh God!" she groaned and rolled her eyes. "Les, we really have to work on those stupid lines."

The bar was outside the city limits of Trenton. They dropped Lester off about a block away and waited for him to get in place. He went inside, nodding to Hal as he passed him. He ordered a beer and stood by the bar scanning the room. Harding was sitting at a table with a couple of rough-looking guys. Harding was a big guy himself. Lester sized him up to be maybe a little shorter than he was but more broad. The guy probably had about 30 pound on him. He was trying to be more cautious with surveying the scene because of Stephanie's bad feeling. The good thing was that Harding was sitting at a table that Stephanie would have to pass. If she came in and went to the end of the bar, he definitely would see her come passed him. Lester carefully fed this information to the rest of the team. "He's all yours, Beautiful. Be careful." Tank gave her a look with raised eyebrows as if to ask if she was okay. She put a hand on his arm and smiled.

"Here we go," she told them and walked in to the bar. As usual, she had the full attention of everyone as she walked in. Hal gave her a nod as she came in. She slowly walked to the end of the bar right passed Harding. He and the other men at the table looked her up and down like she was on the menu. They clapped each other on the back and Lester could hear them making rude comments to each other. Their heads spun and bodies turned to watch her take off her jacket. She put it on the back of her chair then sat down crossing her legs. The bartender immediately was there to take her drink order. "Tangueray and tonic, please."

"Coming up, Sweetheart," he replied with a grin. She casually looked around the bar, purposely avoiding Harding's table. Having gotten enough information that Harding was a sucker for a beautiful woman, especially a blonde, it was only a few minutes before he made another rude comment, gesturing to his crotch, and walked over to Stephanie.

"Like a moth to a flame," Lester muttered into his beer.

"Hello Sweetbuns," he leered at her. Sweetbuns, she thought, Jesus Christ Almighty, his lines are worse than Lester's. Guess it could have been worse and called her Snatchypoo. Tank and the team were able to pick up the conversation with no problems. They exchanged looks and smirked at the Sweetbuns comment. "Are you here with anyone?" She smiled sweetly at him.

"I am now," she purred. They were all hoping this would be a quick take down. The fastest time so far was ten minutes. That included the time she walked into the place. He pulled up a stool and sat down.

"I haven't seen you here before." The bartender put her drink down and Harding threw money on the bar to pay for it.

"I've never been here before. I just moved to the area a couple of weeks ago. I've been busy with work and just needed to get out tonight," she lied.

"What's your name, Sweetbuns?" He ordered another beer and two shots of tequila.

"I'm Valerie and you are?" She held her hand out to shake his. He took her hand and kissed it. EEuwww, she thought, I'll have to disinfect that when I get home.

"Johnny." The bartender gave him his beer and put two shot glasses in front of them. He poured the tequila, and then placed the salt shaker and lemons down. Shit, she thought, this isn't going to be good. She was a total light weight when it came to hard liquor.

"Shit," Tank muttered. She's going to get bombed. She always ordered a mixed drink so she could take her time and sip it. She was going to have to do the shot. They licked their hands, sprinkled the salt, and got the lemon wedge ready. He raised his shot glass to her and she did the same.

"Here's to a long night in my bed, Valerie." They downed their shots and sucked on the lemon. Stephanie tried not to grimace but it was hard.

Lester smiled to himself. She was going to have to work on that, he thought.

Before the alcohol had a chance to kick in, and something did go wrong, she decided to push the exit. "I have to be at work early tomorrow and I wasn't planning on staying long. What do you say we get outta here now and go back to my place?" She gave him her sexiest smile she could imagine. He looked at his watch and then at the door.

"I was supposed to meet someone here but he's late. His loss. I'd rather be ramming my dick in you somewhere then waiting on that little prick. Let's go, Sweetbuns." God, this guy was so vile, she thought. She got up and put her coat on.

"Get ready, she bringing him out now," Lester whispered into his mic. The team outside noticed a man in a trench coat hurrying into the bar but didn't think anything about it. Harding grabbed her right hand and started to lead her to the door. The man in the trench coat rushed past Hal and almost ran into Stephanie and Harding.

"Stephanie?"

"Dickie?" Stephanie stared at him like a deer caught in the headlights.

"Stephanie? You said your name was Valerie," Harding growled.

"No, this is my ex, Stephanie Plum. She's a Bounty Hunter you moron!" Dickie told him. Lester and Hal had already started to move in realizing her cover was blown.

"You fucking Bitch!" He cocked his right arm back and punched her, landing his fist on the left side of her face. The powerful punch knocked her backwards, and she fell against a table. The table toppled forward and spilled her on the floor. She lay there not moving. Just as Harding cocked his leg back to kick her, Lester dove at him and they both went down in a fury of punches. Hal tried to grab Harding but Lester and Harding were still going at each other and he couldn't get a grip on him. Tank, Cal, Ram, and Woody burst in. They first focused on Lester and Harding beating the shit out of each other. Then, Ram saw Stephanie lying unconscious on the floor and ran to her side.

"Tank!" he called out. Cal stunned Harding as soon as he found an open spot, and he went down.

"What the hell is going on here?" Dickie Orr demanded. "You stupid Bitch." He yelled at Stephanie's unmoving form. "You always were getting yourself into crazy situations! Dumb cunt…." He was cut off with Hal's fist. Cal and Lester had finally cuffed Harding. "Oh by God, you broke by dose! Somb one call da cops! I want dis man arrested. He assaulted be. You're going to jail you big goon!" Now sounding more nasal, Dickie continued to rant while holding his nose. Blood ran down his face.

"Steph?" Tank gently shook her but there was no response. The left side of her face was beginning to swell. He noticed that blood was beginning to pool behind her head. "Shit! Call an ambulance." Ram already has his phone out. Lester finally saw Stephanie lying on the floor and he was immediately by her side.

"What are you doing wif by client?" Dickie demanded.

"What do you mean your client?" Tank replied. "He's FTA. We have the paperwork to bring him in."

"He called be dis afternoon about representing himb. I was late getting here. Let be see your paperwork. I swear I will hab all of you arrested. Including dat dumb cunt ex-wife of bine!" Hal clocked him again. "Fuck!"

"Come on, Beautiful. Talk to me," Lester whispered in her ear. "Of all times for Bobby to not be here."

"No shit!" Tank told Woody to go get a blanket out of the SUV. Ranger was really going to explode when he hears about his. Dickie continued to rant and rave but didn't make any more negative Stephanie comments. He was in enough pain already. It didn't take long for the police to arrive. Tank and Dickie gave their stories. Lester wrapped Stephanie into the blanket and pulled her onto his lap.

"Please wake up, Beautiful," he begged. "Come on. Show me those baby blues." She was hurt again on his watch. God Dammit! If he was a step or two faster, he would have had Harding. She knew something was wrong. Damn. It was a little freaky. She got a feeling this afternoon the game had changed. It was this afternoon that Harding called Dickie to meet him tonight. Stephanie let out a soft groan. He had her head cradled in the crook his arm. Blood soaked his sleeve. "Hey Beautiful. I got you. You're going to be alright." She didn't open her eyes. From what he could see, the left eye was swollen shut.

"HHHmmm," she groaned again. "Head hurts."

"I know, Baby. We're going to the hospital. You're going to be fine. I'm not going to leave you alone." Lester held her tight.

Tank produced the bond paperwork and the police authorized them to take Harding. But Dickie insisted on pressing charges against Hal. The police had no choice but to arrest him. By the time they were handcuffing Hal, the ambulance arrived. She was out again. The paramedics bandaged her head and put an ice pack on her face. They loaded her onto the stretcher. "Can you take her to St Francis?" Tank asked the crew. They nodded. "Lester, you go with Steph. Woody, Ram, and Cal will bring in that asshole. And I will go bail out Hal and meet you at the hospital. Keep me posted until I get there."

"Should we call Ranger?" Lester asked. Tank thought for a minute.

"Once we get her to the hospital and looked at. No sense just telling Ranger that she got hurt but we don't know what is wrong yet." Lester nodded. He grabbed her bag and followed out the paramedics.

Lester was waiting in Stephanie's room in the ED when Cal, Ram, and Woody arrived. She was getting a CT scan. Lester was holding an ice pack on his jaw and another rested on his right hand. They looked at him expectantly. "She's been in and out. They're doing a head CT now. She's got about a 3 inch gash on the back of her head."

"How are you doing?" Cal asked him looking over his bruises.

"Shit…a lot better than Steph," he snapped. He held up a hand to Cal and shook his head. "Man, I didn't mean to jump all over you. Fuck!" He threw one of the ice packs across the room. "I should have had that guy before he touched her. He was going to kick her while she was down. That piece of shit scumbag!"

"He had an accident getting out of the SUV at the cop shop," Woody told him with a grin. "He's probably going to wind up in the ER himself after he's rebooked. And need a trip to the dentist for his missing teeth."

"Any word from Tank yet?" Cal asked. Lester shook his head. "So that was Steph's ex-husband. What an asshole! Did you hear how he talked to her? Shit, she's laying there and he's calling her fucking names. I'm glad Hal broke the guy's face." Stephanie's cell phone rang. Lester took it out of her purse and looked at the readout.

"Shit," he muttered when he saw it was Ranger. They didn't have to ask who it was. Lester figured he better get it over with because if she didn't answer, he either call Tank or the control room to see where she was and how things went. "Santos."

Ranger paused for a minute and looked at the number. It was her phone. He knew right away something happened for Lester to be answering her phone. "What happened? Is she alright?"

"I'll give you the abridged version. She was leading him out and her ex-husband came in and blew her cover. Harding hit her, she fell and hit her head, and now we are in the ER. She's going to be okay. She's going to need stitches on the back of her head." Lester explained.

"What else happened?" Ranger was furious. That scumbag hurt his woman! He better pray they keep him locked up. It may be worth it to get arrested just to get his hands on that asshole.

"Apparently, Harding contacted Dickie Orr earlier that day to talk about representing him. Orr was late. He got there just as Steph was leading him out. When Orr told him who she was, he hauled off and punched her. Orr was mouthing off and calling Steph a bitch and a bunch of other things. Hal punched him a couple of times and got arrested. Tank's at the police station trying to get Hal bailed out. Woody, Ram, and Cal dropped off Harding. And I went with Steph in the ambulance."

"Ambulance? How bad is she?" Why did these things happen when he wasn't there to be with her?

"She was out cold. She's been in and out. Her left eye is swollen and she's got a cut to the back of her head. She's getting scanned now but they're pretty sure she's got a hell of a concussion. But they said she's going to be alright." Ranger was silent which wasn't a good sign. They were all going to pay for this when he got back.

"Have Tank call me when he gets there. And I want Stephanie to call me as soon as she can. I won't be back until 6 tomorrow night." He disconnected. Shit! He was going to throw his phone across the room but then he wouldn't be able to talk to her later. "Babe," he sighed and buried his face in his hands rubbing his eyes. What's going to happen when he's gone for the next three months?

"That went well," Lester muttered. He called Tank. "Guess who just called Steph?"

"Fuck! How did he take it?" Tank asked.

"Actually…a little better than I expected but he wants you to call him right now."

"How is Steph?"

"She's in and out. Needs stitches. Has a concussion. Looks like a battered wife. She….they're bringing her back in. How much longer are you going to be?" Lester stood up and got out of the way.

"He's been booked. We're waiting for them to set bail and we'll be there as soon as we can." Tank hung up and called Ranger. No sense putting it off and pissing him off even more.

"Talk!" Ranger demanded.

"I may have to hang up at any time. If so, I'll call you right back. I'm waiting for them to post Hal's bail," Tank explained.

"I got the short version from Lester. What the fuck happened?" Ranger was forcing himself to remain calm. Tank had his hands full at the moment. He didn't want to rub in his face that he promised to take care of Stephanie while he was gone. He knew that would be childish because Tank cared for Stephanie and would do everything in his power to protect her. It was driving him crazy that she was hurt and he wasn't there.

"Man, I'm sorry," Tank sighed. "I didn't know what Dickie Orr looked like. We saw this suit going into the place but we were getting into position because she was bringing him out. That rat fuck Harding had already hit her by the time we got inside. Lester was beating the shit out of him. Hal grabbed him and Cal stunned him. Steph was laying on the floor unconscious. That weasel Orr starts mouthin' off calling her all kinds of names and then Hal punched him right in the face." Tank chuckled at the memory. Ranger half smiled. Orr will get his too, he thought. "Then he starts mouthing off about having Hal and us arrested. Then he said something else about Steph and Hal nails him again. He shut the fuck up then. I had Santos sit with her until the ambulance got there. She came around a little but went out again. I wish we had Bobby there tonight. Oh…I gotta go I'll call you back."

"Call me back after you get to the hospital and give me an update on Steph. If she's up to it, I want to talk to her," Ranger told him.

"Will do. 10-4." Tank disconnected and finished getting Hal bonded out.

Lester had refused to leave the room when the surgeon came in to suture up Stephanie's wound. "Last time, the idiot doctor didn't give her any medicine to numb her up. I'm not going anywhere. I don't want her to be alone when she wakes up again." The nurse nodded.

The doctor was going to protest but thought better of it. Cal, Ram, and Woody were standing in the door way. These guys were too big and scary looking to mess around with. He told the nurse to shave the area around the laceration. "You can stay, but don't get in the way please," the surgeon told him. "Due to the location, and the fact that it's pretty deep and a decent length, I'm going to use staples." Lester winced. "I'm going to put some liquid lidocaine on it now to start numbing the area before the area is shaved. Then, I will give her an injection before I put in the staples."

"Will the staples hurt more?" Lester asked. The doctor shook his head.

"No, it's actually quicker than sutures. I can't say whether it hurts less but I haven't seen people complain more with getting them," he explained. Lester nodded.

"Miss Plum?" The nurse gently shook her. She stirred somewhat. "Miss Plum?"

"HHHmmm," she groaned. Lester took her hand.

"Hey Beautiful. The nurse needs you for a minute," he told her softly. Stephanie fought to open her eyes but everything felt full. Her head felt like it was going to explode. She couldn't seem to open her left eye. Her vision was hazy. Lester kneeled down so he would be at her eye level. "Steph?" Her thoughts were all fuzzy too. Where was she now? Wasn't she bringing Harding outside? Oh yeah, she remembered, Dickie showed up and that's the last thing she remembered. She must have hit her head or something. How embarrassing! Did she screw everything up? "Steph?" Her eyes tried to focus on the voice. She recognized Lester's voice but she was seeing double.

"Lester?" she asked groggily.

"I'm here, Beautiful. Do you remember what happened?" He could see she was trying to focus.

"Yeah. Well…sort of. I was leading him out and Dickie walked in," she told him. "Ooohhh….my head really hurts."

"Harding hit you and you fell back and hit your head on a table. You have a concussion and need to get some stitches."

"No…no stitches, Les! Please," she whined. "Can I go home?"

"Sssshhh….I'll take you home. Just get some rest now. The nurse has to clean up the cut first, okay?"

"M'kay," she muttered and was out again. Lester nodded to the nurse.

"She certainly has a full head of hair," she told him as she was trying to somehow get her mop out of the way. She thought for a moment and pulled out a latex tourniquet. She pulled Stephanie's hair up into a ponytail on the top of her head and tied it off. "There. That will do it. I'm going to cut off this part." She snipped a large section away. And then snipped another. "Now I can shave this area." The nurse went about her business. "Is this your wife or your girlfriend?"

Lester pulled back. Thank God she was out for this, he thought. "Friend," Lester told her immediately after he realized what she just asked. "And coworker. She got hurt on the job tonight." Were his feelings for her that obvious?

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. You looked at her like you love her," she told him. He dropped her hand.

"Well…uh…I do…as a friend. She's a very good friend. I was supposed to have her back tonight and she got hurt," Lester explained. The nurse nodded.

"Like I said. I didn't mean anything by it. She's lucky to have good friends. Especially with her luck." The nurse finished up and called for the surgeon.

Lester watched him like a hawk. If he failed her before, he wasn't going to fail her now. He made sure she got lidocaine. She got 20 staples and didn't even flinch. The nurse shaved enough of an area that he was able to tape some gauze over the wound and not have to wrap her head with cling to hold a bandage in place. "She'll need to have those out in 10-14 days. It will be in the discharge instructions. The CT scan showed that she has a hair line fracture of her left cheek bone and another hairline fracture at the back of her skull. Nothing needed to be done about it. Since she had a positive loss of consciousness and is still groggy, I want to put her in observation. If there are no changes, she'll be home late afternoon." Lester nodded.

Chapter 5

By the time Tank and Hal got to the hospital, Stephanie had been moved to the observation unit. She was sleeping. Lester was dozing in a recliner next to the bed. Cal, Ram, and Woody had gone back to Rangeman. Tank swatted his boots and Lester jumped awake. Tank grinned after assessing the fat lip and bruises on his face and jaw. "Guess he got in a couple of good shots on you," Tank joked. "Maybe we need a little more training." Lester stood up and stretched giving Tank the finger.

"That mother fucker cracked her skull. She got 20 staples in the back of her head. They had to shave her hair. She is gonna freak about that," he told them.

"What do you mean, he cracked her skull?" Tank demanded.

"She's got a hairline fracture on her cheek bone and another one on the back of her head. At least she remembered what happened this time."

"She talked to you?" Lester nodded.

"A little bit. She was really groggy. They're waking her up every 4 hours. We're got another 2 hours to go. If nothing changes, she can go home in the afternoon." Lester turned to Hal and grinned. "Make any new friends in jail? You didn't drop the soap, did you?"

Hal had never been arrested before. In truth, Hal had never even been in trouble before. The guys liked to tease him about being a goody-two-shoes. Hal just shook his head. He was embarrassed for being arrested. But if he ever heard Dickie Orr talk to Stephanie like that again, he would risk getting arrested again. He walked over to look at Stephanie and winced when he saw her face.

"There were guys I was in with who treated their wives or girlfriends like shit. Some of them even hit them. I have never in my life seen a guy hit a woman like that." He was choked up and visibly upset. "She went down so hard. The thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. Then those horrible names that asshole was calling her!" Tank put his hand on his shoulder. "She didn't deserve that."

"You both did everything you could. Nothing you did or didn't do would have stopped that guy from hitting her. And Lester, you said yourself he was going to kick her. You got to him in time before he did worse damage. Ranger is pissed, but he doesn't seem to be pissed at us." They were so busy talking over Stephanie they didn't even notice that she was awake.

"It's not any of you guys' fault," she told them softly.

"Hey Bombshell," Tank replied taking her hand. "How's your head?" She rolled onto her back and winced.

"I feel like I have a major hangover," she groaned. "But I'll be alright." She raised the bed up. "Why would Carlos be made at you guys? You didn't do anything wrong."

"I think he's just angry because he's not here with you," Tank told her.

"You talked to him?" Tank nodded. "I was supposed to call him…"

"He wants you to call him as soon as you are up to it." She nodded. She was trying to get the bed rail down.

"What are you doing, Beautiful?"

"I have to go to the bathroom." Lester let the side rail down.

"Just sit on the side for a minute before you get up," he told her. She did as he asked. "Let me know when you're ready and I'll help you."

"Steph, do you want anything? Something to eat or drink?" Hal asked her. She thought for a minute.

"A Pepsi would be nice," she replied with a smile. Hal went to find a vending machine. She looked up at Lester. "Okay, I think I'm ready." She was a little dizzy but was able to steady herself with his help. She paused at the sink to look at herself in the mirror. "Oh my God." The upper left side of her face was swollen and black. Her hair was tied in a big poof of a ponytail at the top of her head and was caked with dried blood. "I look like fucking ET!" Lester snorted and Tank laughed.

"Actually, you do look like ET," Lester joked. She rolled her eye. He was sure the left one rolled as well but it couldn't be seen with all the swelling.

"Swell," she muttered as she went into the bathroom. After a few minutes, she came back out, washed her hands, and Lester walked her back to the bed.

"The more I think about this whole situation, it probably was best that Ranger wasn't here," Tank told them. "If he had seen Harding hit you, Bombshell, he would have killed him with his bare hands." They all thought about that for a moment.

"Ain't that the truth!" Lester agreed. "And if he heard Dickie talking to you like that, he would have killed him, too. Instead of bailing Hal out of jail for assault, Ranger would have been arrested for manslaughter."

"What happened after I got knocked out?" she asked them. Lester gave her all the details. By this time, Hal came back with a Pepsi and French fries.

"I wasn't sure if you were hungry so I went to the cafeteria to get you something."

"Thanks, Hal. You're so sweet." She took some fries and a big gulp of the Pepsi. "Don't worry about Dickie. He'll drop the charges….believe me."

"Steph, don't get involved in this," Tank warned.

"I'm already involved, Tank. Trust me. He'll drop the charges. I'll talk to him when I get out of here." She was looking around for her bag. Lester handed her phone to her. "He's not going to go to sleep…or calm down until he hears from me."

Ranger saw the ID on his phone and answered it before the end of the first ring. "Babe?"

"What? No 'Yo'?" she teased. He relaxed. She sounded like herself. Tank motioned for the guys to step outside to let her talk to Ranger.

"Are you alright? How do you feel?" he asked.

"Like I had been on a drinking binge for a week, but Hal just got me a Pepsi and some French fries so I think that will help." He grinned. "I'm sorry about tonight. I wish Hal didn't get arrested defending me."

"Babe, it's not your fault. It's not anyone's fault but Harding's. I'm just glad that I'm able to talk to you right now. I've been going crazy not being able to be with you and hear your voice so I know that you are okay."

"Hal got arrest defending my honor. Lester's got a fat lip and an assortment of bruises on his face and hands. Tank looks like he's about to fall over. I really tried not to break any of your men. Sorry." She giggled. "I guess Dickie called me his usual pet names and Hal didn't like it. I didn't actually hear them but bitch and cunt come to mind." Ranger clenched his fists at the thought of the names he used in connection with his woman.

"Did the doctor say anything about your injuries? When are you being released?"

"Uhmm…I think they're going to let me go home in the afternoon as long as I'm still okay. Lester told me that I got a hairline fracture to my left cheek bone and another one at the back of my head. And I got 20 staples for the cut on the back of my head. I have to warn you….half my face looks like ET." He grimaced. He could only imagine her injuries without seeing them. The thought of someone messing up her beautiful face made his blood pressure rise.

"I'm going to let you go so you can get some rest. I'll call you before I get on the plane home. I'm sorry I'm not there for you, Babe. I love you."

"I love you, too. You are always with me, Carlos. Besides, I'll see you tomorrow." She disconnected and went back to eating her fries. The guys came back in. "He seems to be calmed down." Lester flopped back down into the recliner. "Look, why don't you guys go home. I'm fine. I'm just going to finish this stuff and go back to sleep. I'm going to ask the nurse for something for this headache so I'll probably be out for the rest of the night."

"Not a chance," Lester told her. "First of all, I'm not leaving you alone. Second, Ranger would kill us if we left you alone. Third, I'm too friggin' tired to even get up from this chair right now." She giggled and looked at Tank.

"You're covering for Ranger tomorrow. You need to get back. I'll be fine. Lester's staying with me. Both of you go home and get some sleep," she told Tank. He thought for a minute. As long as someone stayed with her, he decided to go back to Haywood. He had to run the morning meeting. "But you can bring breakfast when you come back!" She smiled. Lester nodded in agreement without opening his eyes.

"Okay, Bombshell," Tank agreed. He gave her a hug and kissed the top of her head. "Call me if you need anything. I'll be back after the morning meeting." He and Hal left.

"I finally get to spend the night with you again and I'm too tired to do anything," Lester joked with her.

"Not tonight…I have a headache," she teased. He grinned back without opening his eyes.

"Wake me up if you need anything, Beautiful," he told her and dozed off. She called for the nurse and asked for something for her headache. She came back with some Tylenol #3. She finished off her Pepsi and fries then laid down.

Stephanie was released mid afternoon. Tank brought her a change of clothes that Ella had packed for her. Ranger had called around lunch time to say that he would be able to catch an earlier flight. About an hour before she was discharged, Ranger called her again to let her know that he landed and would be home soon. She had Tank and Lester race to beat him back to the apartment. She wanted to shower to get the dried blood out of her hair and to clean up a little so she wouldn't look as bad.

"Steph…I hate to tell you," Tank began, "but he's going to have a cow when he sees your face. Washing your hair ain't gonna hide that." She groaned. She already knew she looked bad.

"He's going to have the fucking whole herd," Lester mumbled.

"He's seen me with a black eye before," she replied trying to convince herself more than Tank.

"Beautiful, that was just a little bruise. This is…..well this is….uh…worse," Lester stammered. She sighed.

"Okay, I know I look like shit, but my hair looks like the bride of Frankenstein on crack. I can't get this tourniquet thing undone. I have a fucking bald spot that a bandage is hiding a zipper on the back on my head…..stop laughing!" Lester was shaking trying not to laugh out loud. She smacked the back of his head. "If I can at least get my hair looking almost human, it will help to keep him a little more calm."

Tank thought about it for a minute. She was right. Her face looked awful but the hair….well she was also right about the hair. Not much frightened Tank. But her hair was coming close. "You're right Bombshell," he conceded and stepped on the gas. She made a quick call to Ella.

"Ella, I'm going to be there in a few minutes and need your help cleaning up. Carlos will be there any minute and I don't want him to see me like this!"

"Don't worry. I'll have everything ready!" Ella raced up to their apartment. She got the shower going. The pink velour track suit! That was his favorite. He loved her in that outfit. That would help distract him. She hadn't seen Stephanie yet but didn't have to. She saw the look on all their faces and knew it had to be bad. They all loved Stephanie and looked out for her. They hated to see her upset or injured. And Ranger…..oh God, Ranger went insane when she was hurt. They had the gate open and Tank pulled into the garage coming to a screeching halt. Hal had the elevator open and ready.

Stephanie was still a little unsteady on her feet as standing made her somewhat dizzy. With Tank on one side and Lester on the other, they quickly guided her into the elevator. Ella took over at the apartment door where Steph started to strip off her clothes. Ella put up her hand to stop them from coming in. "I'll take it from here. Give me a few minutes to get her in the shower and you can come back up." Ella inspected how the tourniquet was tied and intertwined in her hair. "I'm going to have to cut this out, Honey." She took a few minutes to look at her face. Good God, she thought. The left side of her face was black and blue and so swollen that her left eye was shut. She had a large bandage covering the staples. "I don't think we should get that bandage wet yet. We'll use the shower massager to wash your hair." She cut out the tourniquet. Stephanie finished stripping and got into the shower. Ella washed her hair and put it up in a towel. Steph finished washing herself and stepped out into the robe Ella held for her. "I'll check to see if he's here." Stephanie nodded and quickly began to dry off.

Tank and Hal were sitting in the living room. Lester had gone down to his apartment to shower and change. Hal was holding Ivy on her leash. Tank's phone rang. The control room reported that Ranger was five minutes out per the GPS. Ella ran back in the bathroom to help blow dry her hair. She dressed in the soft pink velour track suit. "This was a good choice, Ella. You know Carlos loves this on me. Okay….how do I look?" Ella tried not to grimace but couldn't help it. She looked like one of those battered wives that you see on the TV news documentaries. Stephanie sighed. "Okay, at least I look better than I did with all the blood in my hair, right?" Ella nodded. That part was true. They went out in to the living room. "Well?"

Tank made a face. "Well at least you don't look like the bride of Frankenstein anymore." Tank's phone rang again with another update.

"Okay, Ranger is on his way up Boys and Girls," he told them. A few seconds later, he barreled into the apartment and right over to Stephanie. She was sitting in the big oversized chair with her good side turned to him. She tried to give him a smile. He knelt down in front of her taking her chin in his hand and turned her to face him.

"Babe," he said softly with a pained expression on his face. She tried to give him a big smile or the best that her face would allow. "Jesus!" Anger began to build in him again. She held out her arms, and he pulled her into a hug. He felt the softness of the velour and noticed for the first time that she was wearing his favorite outfit. Even that didn't help. Her face. Her beautiful face. Everyone was holding their breath waiting for his melt down.

"I'm okay," she told him softly. He broke from the hug and gave her soft kiss on the lips. He traced a finger down the bruised and swollen side of her face. He remembered that she had gotten staples as well. He lifted her hair to take a look but the bandage covered the site. "I'm fine…really." His jaw tightened. Harding should consider himself lucky he was in jail right now. He hugged her to him again.

"Does anybody want anything? Stephanie would you like some tea?" Ella said to break the tension.

"A cup of tea sounds great. And cookies!" Stephanie smiled at her. Ranger looked at Tank.

"We need to talk," he told him. Tank nodded. "Babe, I'll be right back." Ranger motioned for Tank to follow him out to the hall.

"That went well," Stephanie groaned. "He is so pissed. I'm afraid he's going after Harding. He's a scumbag and he's not worth it."

"Stephanie, look what that guy did to you," Hal insisted. "He deserves everything he gets. You don't hit a woman." Hal was always so sweet.

Ranger paced back and forth in the hall. He knew what happened. She told him what her injuries were so he shouldn't have been surprised. It was different to actually see what Harding did to her. "Jesus!" He muttered something else in Spanish.

"I'm sorry, man. I let you down," Tank told him. Ranger stopped pacing and punched a hole in the wall. He pulled back his hand and his knuckles were bleeding. They heard the bang inside. Stephanie got up and staggered to the door. She opened the door and peered out into the hall. Ranger was standing, hand on hips, with his head down. Tank was apologizing for letting her get hurt.

"Hey," she said softly. Ranger's head popped up. "Is everything okay?" He saw the concern on her face and he cursed himself for not being in control. He walked over to her and pulled her close.

"Yeah, Babe." He looked back at Tank and nodded his head to come back inside. He had to put aside his anger and take care of her now. She noticed the blood on his hand.

"What happened?" She took his hand in both of hers. He shook his head.

"It's nothing. Let's get you back on the couch." He guided her to the couch and they both sat down. Ella put the tea and cookies on the coffee table. Stephanie stood up.

"Where are you going?" Ranger asked her.

"Oh, I'm just going to get some Advil or something," she told him. She wanted to take something before her head started to throb again. He sat her back down.

"I'll get it," he told her. He needed to clean up his hand anyway and headed into the bathroom.

"Is he alright, Tank?" she asked. Tank shrugged.

"He knew you were hurt, but to see you hurt is another thing," Tank whispered. At this time, Lester came back upstairs. He could tell there was tension, and he had seen the hole in the wall.

"Who decided to redecorate?" he joked. Ranger had wrapped his hand in gauze and brought the Advil back for Stephanie. She was curled up on the couch sipping her tea. Ranger smirked when he saw his face. Lester grinned back. "You should see the other guy." That broke the tension and got a laugh.

"I'm going back down stairs to start getting dinner ready. Stephanie, I'm making you chocolate cake for dessert," she told her and kissed the top of her head. She handed Ranger an ice pack for his hand.

"I luf oo, Ella," she replied with a mouthful of cookie. Ivy hadn't gone near Stephanie yet. She didn't know what to make of her. "Even my own dog is afraid of me. She probably thinks I'm an evil bridge troll and is afraid I'll turn her into a rock or something." Ranger pulled her onto his lap. She laid the good side of her face on his shoulder.

"How do you feel?" he asked her.

"I have a bad headache, but I'm okay." She held out part of a cookie to Ivy. Ivy hesitantly crawled towards her sniffing the cookie. She took it and then licked her hand. Slowly she edge towards Stephanie till she realized it was okay to climb into her lap. Ranger watched carefully to make sure Ivy didn't hurt her. "Oh Hal…I meant what I said. Dickie will drop the charges so don't worry. I'll give him a call later." Ranger looked at her with raised eyebrows. She looked around the room. "I have some information that he wouldn't want certain government agencies to know about. A certain bank account that I accidently stumbled across in my research. Oops! Trust me, he'll drop the charges." Ranger gave her his 200 watt smile.

"Babe."

After a while, they guys left and gave them their privacy. Stephanie snuggled into Ranger. The Advil was kicking in and the pain was down to a dull roar. "I missed you," she told him softly. "It's going to be really hard when you leave in a couple of weeks."

He felt a twinge of guilt. "I know." He hugged her tight. "It's not going to be easy for me either. I don't like being away from you. Especially since the last two times I went away, something happened to you. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you last night. This should never have happened."

"Carlos, this isn't exactly a safe job. It's no one's fault. It just happened. I know you wouldn't have punched a wall if someone else was punched in the face. Everyone was upset because I'm a female." He couldn't argue.

"That's probably true, Babe. We all love you and hate to see you get hurt. Especially me. I feel so guilty for not being there. Tank said it was for the best because I would have lost control and went after him myself. Then what happened with Orr. It must have been bad for Hal to hit him." He brushed her hair back on the left side, examined he face again, and winced. "I'm sorry, Babe."

"It's not your fault, Carlos. I love you."

"I love you too, Babe." She snuggled back into him and soon fell asleep. Holding her and watching her sleep always calmed him. This was what he needed. Harding and Orr would both get theirs. He planned to ask her what she found on Orr. What did she have that he would drop the charges on Hal? He thought about Lester beating the shit out of Harding. Once again, Lester stepped up to protect her where it should have been him. Then, he thought about Christmas. They were supposed to go to his parents' house on Christmas Eve and to attend midnight mass with them. Christmas day would be spent at the Plums'. He was sure she would still want to go to their parents' houses, but he knew she would not want to be out in public until the swelling and bruising eased up. With some of the take-downs and private eviction jobs he has done, he had seen some battered women before. Black eyes and fat lips. But this was worse because it was his Stephanie that looked like that. Tomorrow, he planned on reviewing the audio tapes recorded from all their mics. He wanted to make sure that nothing was missed to prevent this in the future. That is, if he even let her do another distraction job. It was fun in the beginning. He liked to see her get all dressed up. She really could work that virginal slut look. After they got their skip, he couldn't wait to get her back home and in his bed. But it wasn't worth it to have her hurt or put her in danger. He just wanted to hold her while she slept until Ella brought up dinner.

Stephanie woke up in Ranger's arms. It took her a few minutes to get oriented. Oh yeah, home from hospital and Carlos' meltdown, she thought. She began to stir and felt him hug her tighter. She looked up into his eyes. He tried to hide his emotions but she could still she a hint of a pained looked. "Hey," she said softly. He kissed her gently on the mouth.

"Hey yourself. How do you feel?"

"Okay, I feel a little stiff but I'm okay," she attempted a smile. Then she remembered the Escape. She had totally forgotten about the truck he got her. "Oh…I forgot about the company car you got for me…." He grinned back

Actually, he had forgotten about it too. "I told you I was going to do it, Babe."

"It looks really cute next to all the big Navigators in the garage." She gave him a kiss. "Thank you."

"Glad you like it. Try not to blow it up," he joked. She rolled her eye. He stood up taking her with him. "I'm going to take a quick shower before dinner." He swatted her backside and headed for the bedroom. The sound of running water and opening and closing of the shower door could be heard. Although that scenario was very tempting, she decided to take Ivy out before dinner. She grabbed Ranger's jacket. It was huge on her but she just loved wearing his clothes. His jacket felt like being wrapped in his arms with the added smell of Bulgari. She clipped on the leash and they headed downstairs.

Junior was on monitors with Zip. They saw Stephanie get into the elevator. They only could see the back of her head until she got in the elevator and turned around. "Holy fuck!" Junior muttered. They all heard what happened and were ready to kill Harding. They all heard how bad she looked but they hadn't seen her yet. She looked horrible and the monitors were black and white. They could only imagine what it looked like in person.

"That asshole better pray he doesn't get bonded out again," Zip agreed as he leaned over to see her. "I don't think she should be taking the dog out right now." He jumped up and pushed the button for the elevator. The doors opened. "Hey, Steph." He tried to keep a neutral expression. It did look worse in person. He had an older sister whose husband used to beat her. She was always embarrassed by the way she looked so he didn't want Stephanie to feel the same way.

"Hi Zip….what are you doing?" she asked as he got on the elevator. He smiled and took the leash.

"You probably shouldn't be walking Ivy right now. I'll take her out for you."

She looked away trying to hide the left side of her face. "Do I look that bad?" she tried to joke.

"Steph, you were hurt. You need to take it easy for a couple of days," he calmly replied. She sighed. The doors opened to the first floor. She stretched up and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thanks Zip. You guys are always so good to me," she told him smiling. He knew he was on camera but gave her a quick kiss back on the good cheek.

"You're one of us, Steph. We all look out for each other. You just seem to be more of a shit magnet then the rest of us." This made her laugh. "I'll bring her back up when she'd done." He backed out of the elevator. She hit the key fob to bring the elevator back to 7.

Ranger had come out of the shower. While he was getting dressed, he called to her but there was no answer. When he saw that she was gone he was just getting ready to call down to the control room when she came back in. He looked at her with raised eyebrows. "I was going to take Ivy out real quick before dinner, but Zip jumped on the elevator on 5. He took Ivy and sent me back up here." He smiled when he noticed she was wearing his jacket. He loved when she wore his clothes. He was also glad that Zip stopped her from taking the dog out. She needed to take it easy. Ella brought in dinner. She made all of Stephanie's favorites plus chocolate cake.

Chapter 6

Ranger's apartment was like sanctuary. Between the dull throbbing ache in her head and the fact that she thought she would frighten old ladies and small children, she was trying to avoid going out in public. Ranger wouldn't leave her for long periods of time. He would work out and come back. Any work that needed to be done, he did from his office in the apartment. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with him but also wanted to work on her song. She started to feel a little better on Sunday. Her mother had called to remind them to come to dinner. She tried to get out of it but her mother wouldn't take no for an answer. She really didn't want her father to see her like this. Christmas was this coming Friday. She needed to finish her shopping. They were going to Carlos' parents on Christmas Eve. She could deal with that but didn't want to go to midnight mass. Although the swelling would be down, the rainbow of colors of the bruising would still be a fright to see. She could see through a small slit in her left eye today. Progress…yea!!! She thought back to the first time she met his family. She was so nervous. Carlos and Raoul looked just like their father. He was about the same size as Carlos but much leaner. He was very quiet and reserved. His mother reminded her of Ella. She was about 5'2", short dark brown hair but with a huge personality. Carlos got his looks from his father, but he got his fantastic smile from his mother. She greeted Stephanie with hugs and kisses. She fussed over Stephanie the entire visit. Ranger's oldest sister, Celia, and her family were there. She had 3 sons. All his siblings seemed to have 3 children. They better not expect her to have any children, she had thought to herself. His family made Steph feel welcome and after a while, she was able to relax and enjoy the visit. The first hour felt like the Spanish…no…Cuban Inquisition. Several times, Carlos had jumped in to save her. Especially when questions about marriage and children came up. She was looking forward to seeing them again.

Various Merry Men stopped in and out all weekend. Especially Tank, Hal and Lester. She had tried to get in touch with Dickie but didn't have his home number. His office was closed over the weekend. She knew where he lived so she planned to try his office tomorrow. If she didn't have any luck there, she would go to his home. Their old home. She hadn't even driven past the place since she last walked out that front door. Well….that wasn't entirely true. She did go back and spray paint LYING CHEATING LITTLE PRICK MOTHERFUCKER ASSHOLE on the front of the house when she found out how much debt she got stuck with. But she hadn't been back since that time.

When Carlos came back to check on her, she informed him about dinner at her parents'. He winced. "I know…I'm not happy about it either but I couldn't get out of it. I've been trying to avoid seeing them." He sat down next to her and she snuggled into him. "I'm looking forward to going to your parents' for Christmas Eve, but would you be upset if I asked if we could pass on Midnight Mass? I would feel really self conscious there looking like this."

He knew it was coming. He didn't blame her at all. Actually, he was hoping to find an excuse to avoid mass as well. "I'm sure Mama will be disappointed but she will understand," he told her. "Truthfully, I wasn't looking forward to going to mass either. I'm looking forward to spending some quiet time with you on Christmas Eve." She smiled at him then gazed at the Christmas tree. He could see the colored lights reflected in her eyes. It was delivered on Friday and left in the garage. They brought it up yesterday and decorated it. It was the first Christmas tree that Ranger had in his apartment. His apartment really felt like a home since Stephanie came into his life. He was all about work. Although he viewed his apartment as his private space, it was just a place for him to sleep, shower, and sometimes eat. It was a place for him to come to be alone. Now, he looked forward to coming home because he knew she would be there. Something was missing when she wasn't there. The place felt empty without her presence. He had been suggesting that she move in with him. He didn't want to push it. They mostly slept in his apartment with an occasional night at hers. They hadn't spent a night apart until his recent trip to DC. And now after the holidays, he was going away for three months.

He knew it would be hard when he decided to take the offer. He knew Stephanie would be upset. He knew the 'Merry Men' would watch out for her. But now that he would be leaving next week, it was killing him. Something always seemed to happen when he was gone. He had spoken to McSweeny from his Boston office who was going to come down January 4th. That would give her a couple of days to get used to him being gone. He told him to push her but make sure she didn't get hurt. He advised him of her recent injuries. McSweeny told him he would take the first few days to see what her strengths and weaknesses were and take it from there.

"I need to run a few errands tomorrow. I'm not sure I'll be up to driving myself, so I might need some help," she told him. That was new, he thought, she actually asked for help.

"I'll double check the schedule but I think Hal can take you, Babe. I have a full day." Even though Tank always took over for him on the business end, he was never gone this long after he had expanded his business. He was taking this week and most of the next to go over everything with Tank. Then he had a thought. Steph had a business background. She could help Tank while he was gone. Maybe she would be interested in learning more about the business side? He needed people he could trust. Plus, he was planning on asking her to marry him when he got back. She could be his assistant. She could help him with the marketing and sales and meetings with new and current clients. They would love her. He was pulled out of his thoughts by a hand waving in front of his face.

"Carlos? Hel-lo!" He looked at her and grinned. "You looked like you were a million miles away. What were you thinking about?"

"Actually, I just got an idea about training you to help with business side of things. You've got a degree in business, and you worked in sales." She sat up and turned to face him.

"I'm not good at business. And my experience is buying ladies lingerie…not security! Carlos, I would screw things up. This is your business….you don't want to risk that!" she pleaded with him. He sighed.

"I would teach you, Babe. I wouldn't expect you to know how to run things right away. You would need to come with me when I meet with clients and accounts. Tank really hates that stuff. Not that I'm all that crazy about it either. He doesn't mind most of the paperwork and the day to day operations management. I mean, Babe, let's be realistic, Tank can be very intimidating. The clients get nervous around him. He's the guy they expect to guard their buildings not talk about services." She cocked her head back and forth as if trying to make a decision, then nodded in agreement. "Rangeman has really grown. I'm doing more office work that I'd like. I need help. You would be working directly with me. You wouldn't be my secretary but my assistant. I could hire your sister to be the office secretary. She could answer the business phone lines not the security line. She could type up our schedules and reports. She could do the basic searches and if we need an advance search, then you could do those. While I'm gone you can work with Tank and start learning. When I get back, then I'll take over."

She thought this over. It sounded interesting. Plus, her sister needed at job. But what really got to her was the implication of his offer. This was his business and his whole life. He wanted her to be a major part of Rangeman which meant he wanted her to be a major part in his life. He was committing himself to her. She had realized that she was at the point in their relationship that she had to back off or commit herself 100%. This was the moment.

He could see that thoughts were racing through her mind. She was aware of the significance of what he was offering. His heart beat heavily in his chest. He knew if she declined, she wasn't ready to commit herself to him and not just the job offer. A tear ran down her cheek. Shit, he thought, she is going to back off. He was pushing her too much for a commitment. First with asking her to move in with him and now the job offer.

"Carlos, I would really love that," she replied softly. He sat there for a minute to process what she just said. She just accepted his offer…didn't she? She's smiling…yes! He remained calm except he wanted to jump up and down on the couch like that fool Tom Cruise did on Oprah. Not that he watched Oprah…he just heard about it from his men. He gave her the 200 watt grin. "You'll have to really show me everything. I mean I bought ladies underwear because I thought it looked pretty or sexy. I wasn't really good at the business stuff." He gave her a gentle hug. He wanted to squeeze her but was careful due to her head injury.

"You'll be fine, Babe. The clients will love you. It will be a huge help to me. You know I don't completely trust many people. I trust you with my life and my heart. This is going to be good for us." She kissed him. She looked at the clock.

"We still have plenty of time before we have to go to my parents…." she purred getting off the couch and taking his hand. He felt his pants tighten and was glad the bedroom wasn't that far.

On the drive over she asked about the job for Valerie. "Were you really serious about the job for Valerie?"

"Yes. I know she needs a job. She's your sister. She is someone we can trust."

"I know she can talk on the phone. And she does have some computer skills. Don't forget that she's never worked before. Her learning curve may be worse than mine."

"It will be fine. Plus, the two of you will help me with my minority quota," he gave her a sly smile. She rolled her eyes.

"Maybe the job offer will get everyone's mind off my face," she added. Normally, she was never this self conscious. She had rolled in garbage and had been covered in all kinds of crap, and it never seemed to bother her. She was really taking this hard.

"Babe, the bruising is temporary. In a couple weeks, you'll be your gorgeous self again."

"It's not just the bruises, Carlos. I look like I got the shit beat out of me because I did get the shit beat out of me. I was assaulted. This wasn't from a fall or a car accident. I see the way everyone looks at me. It's pity in addition to the fact that my face grosses them out. I feel like the fucking elephant man! I should probably wear a sign that says 'I am not an animal'." He was stunned. It never occurred to him that she was the victim of an assault. He had been so angry at Harding for punching her and hurting her that he never thought about the emotional trauma that came along with an assault. Come to think of it, she had been a little jumpy these past few days. He pulled over and she gave him a sideways glance.

"What are you doing?" she asked him. He put the Porsche in park and turned to face her, taking her left hand in both of his.

"Babe, I'm sorry. I never thought about that part of it. The emotional part. Are you having a hard time dealing with this?" She saw the concern in his eyes.

"Please stop feeling sorry for me!" she pleaded. "It makes me feel worse. It happened. It's over. Eventually, I'll stop looking like a freak show." He sighed. He'd obviously touched on a nerve.

"Babe," he began softly, "it's nothing to be ashamed of. I never thought about you as the victim. Or that you were assaulted. I mean I know he hit you but I just didn't think about anything but what he did to you. Not about how you felt about the situation. Maybe you should see a counselor or something." This time, she sighed.

"I don't need a counselor, Carlos. I'm fine. What bothers me is the pity. It was an unfortunate turn of events that made me get injured on the job. Nobody is looking at Lester like they are looking at me." She looked over at him. He raised his eyebrows. "Okay…so Lester didn't get his face beat in as bad as I did, but it's the same thing."

"I understand what you are saying, but it doesn't change the fact that the people who love you hate the fact that you were hurt. And they hurt for you, Babe. They don't pity you. I don't pity you." She looked down and shrugged.

"It feels like pity. It's very disconcerting to have people look at you like they've seen some kind of horribly deformed burn victim or something." He couldn't argue with her there. Zip had been the only one not to make a face. He knew about his sister's abusive husband. Zip tried to tell the guys to be very careful around Stephanie and how they looked at her. Some tried but they were just too shocked and angry when they saw her face. His men had walked into walls, desks, doors, and each other from staring at her. To see that beautiful face bruised and swollen, knowing that a skip punched her in the face, they couldn't help their reactions.

"Stephanie…" he began but she cut him off.

"Let's just forget it. We're going to be late for dinner. I'm going to have to deal with my family about this so let's get it over with. We'll eat. You can tell Val about the job and we can go back home…okay?" He stared at her for a moment.

"Okay…but we are going to talk more about this when we get home," he told her firmly. She rolled her eyes.

"I don't want to fight about it," she groaned.

"We're going to talk about it…not fight about it," he replied trying to keep his voice even.

"I don't want to talk about it," she insisted. "I'm allowed to feel how I feel. I feel like I'm being pitied. People are looking at me like I'm a freak…even you…end of story." His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. She was right. He overreacted when he first saw her. He even punched the wall. What a jerk! He lost control when he saw her and made her feel like crap. And now he was trying to argue with her about the way she felt. Fuck! He took her hand.

"Babe…you're right. I'm sorry. You are entitled to your feelings. It's just your reaction that surprised me. You've been covered in crap so many times and that never bothered you before. I've never seen you so self conscious, and it had me worried." She squeezed his hand and looked over at him.

"That other stuff washed off and I'd be back to normal again. This…" She gestured to her face. "This can't be erased in the shower." He leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss on the lips. He put the Porsche in gear and headed to her parents' house.

As to be expected, there was an uproar when they saw Stephanie. She gave them the short version of what happened. She left out Dickie and her overnight hospital stay. Frank was furious. He pulled Ranger aside. Ranger gave him all the details. "I'm not blaming you, Carlos. This could have happened with you there. I want to know what you are going to do about it," Frank said.

"Actually, Stephanie has her own plans for Dickie. I think it's important for her to handle him. Harding is in jail. My men took care of him that night. He better pray he doesn't get bonded out again. He'll get a lesson on how to treat a lady." Ranger had listened to the tapes from that night. He didn't think it was humanly possible to get any angrier at the situation. He was wrong. Most of the skips she had lured out made some crude and suggestive comments to her. He didn't like it but he dealt with it. Harding's comment about him putting his dick in her pushed him over the edge.

After they sat down to dinner, Ranger told Valerie about the job offer. "Are you serious?" she asked in shock. She had started looking but there wasn't much out there at this time of year. Plus, she didn't have any experience.

"Rangeman has full benefits like health insurance, dental, 401K plan. You'd have to wear black and have to deal with all military men…but they're okay," Stephanie added. Ranger shot her a sideways glance. "Some of them are even nice." She put her hand on his thigh under the table.

"When would I start?" she asked. She needed a job and needed health insurance, especially for the girls.

"You can start next week. I'll be going over things with Tank and Stephanie this week. We can get things in order so Steph and I can work with you next week," Ranger told her.

"I was also thinking that you could stay at my apartment until you find something," Stephanie blurted out. "I've pretty much been staying with Carlos. I'm hardly there anymore." Ranger stomach knotted. She finally conceded to move in with him. He could hardly sit still. Tom Cruise came to mind again…damn Oprah. It wasn't a full commitment that she was giving up her apartment totally, but it was close enough for right now. "I know it's only a 1 bedroom apartment. I'll cover the rent until you start making some money."

"Pumpkin, that's not necessary. We can help Val with the rent until she's on her feet again," Frank told her smiling. "That is very generous of you."

"Stephanie!" he mother exclaimed. "That was the nicest thing you have ever done!" Steph was shocked. She never got compliments from her mother. She was in a rare moment with a loss of words.

"Uh…thanks, Mom," she stammered.

"And Carlos!" her mother continued. "Thank you for giving Valerie a job! That was very kind of you." Stephanie and Valerie exchanged 'what the fuck' looks. Stephanie started looking around on the floor.

"What are you looking for Aunt Stephanie," Mary Alice asked her.

"Oh…the pod. You know…like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think they came and took your grandmother away and left this person instead," Steph answered her with a straight face. Ranger choked on his food and Grandma Mazur laughed. Frank and Valerie had tears in their eyes. Helen rolled her eyes. Ranger discovered where Steph had gotten that move from.

After dessert, Stephanie told them she needed to go home. She told Val she would pick her up tomorrow and they would do more shopping. Helen made a goodie bag of leftovers and more pineapple upside down cake. Frank took Ranger aside again and thanked him for giving Valerie the job. "This means a lot to me, Carlos. It's hard enough for a father to lose his daughters to marriage, but it's more difficult when they aren't taken care of or mistreated by their husbands. But it's also affecting my granddaughters too. I expect you to take care of Stephanie, but I really appreciate you helping Valerie. You'll have to understand that she has no business experience but she is smart and hardworking." Ranger nodded.

"Glad to help. My business has grown so much over the last year and I need more help. I'm going to be teaching Stephanie more of the business side. Between her and Valerie, they can pick up a lot of the office and business functions that can free up my men for more of the actual security work," he explained.

"And…we will help him fill his minority quota," Stephanie added. Ranger smiled at her.

"That too," he conceded and put his arm around her.

The drive back to Haywood was quiet. Stephanie was hoping to avoid the conversation they started on the way over. And Ranger….well he was usually quiet when he was in his driving zone. He pulled into the garage and got out to open her door. He took the goodie bag from her and helped her out.

He was thinking about getting back to their previous conversation but he was too excited about her moving in with him. He put his arm around her as they walked to the elevator.

Once in the apartment, Stephanie put the food away and sat down on the couch where he was waiting for her. She snuggled into him and he held her close. He loved the quiet time when he could just hold her but broke the silence. "Are you sure that you want to move in with me and let Val stay at your apartment?" It's what he wanted, but he hoped that is what she really wanted as well.

"Yes," she answered as she pulled back to look him in the face. "I know you've been wanting me to move in with you for a while now. It's not that I haven't wanted that too, but I'm still a little leery of putting myself in a position that I'll lose everything again." That stung him a little bit but he understood.

"I don't want to push you into anything that you're not comfortable with, Babe," he told her softly. "I've told you before that I won't screw you over like he did." She gave him a smile.

"Carlos…it's not you personally. I'm working on my trust issues. Actually, you've been making it easy for me. I want to trust you and I do trust you. I just have to make sure I'll always be able to take care of myself." She gave him her heart melting smile. "I haven't wanted to trust anyone in a long time." He kissed her. "And you may regret your decision when you see how much space I'm going to take up in your closet."

"I've seen your closet, Babe, and it's not that big. How much stuff can actually be in there?" She started to giggle.

"Looks can be deceiving. Just don't say that I didn't warn you."

Chapter 7

Ranger told Hal that he would be driving Stephanie around today in the morning meeting. Of course, the meeting didn't start until Ranger updated everyone on how she was doing. He let her sleep late this morning because he wanted to make sure she got some rest. Ranger reminded everyone to watch their reaction when they saw her. "She's getting really self conscious so try not to make a big deal about it." He made the announcement about hiring Valerie as the office secretary. "There are going to be a lot of changes coming up but they will help all of us out. We can keep you more in the field and doing the work you were hired for and less of the paperwork." They happily nodded in agreement. The only thing they hated more than monitor duty was the office work. "I'll be busy with Tank and Stephanie before I leave. Try to handle the situation yourselves first before you call me or Tank. Also, Mike McSweeny is coming down from the Boston office to help out. He's going to personally oversee Stephanie's training." Several of them exchanged looks.

"What's wrong with us working with Steph?" Lester asked. He was a little annoyed. It made him, as well as the others, feel like Ranger didn't trust them anymore after what just happened.

Ranger picked up on the tension. "I asked him to work with Stephanie because he won't put up with her shit," he told them with a smile.

"You don't think we can handle what she could throw out?" Ram asked in disbelief.

"Okay…let's say you guys are making her run first thing in the morning…." Ranger began. "This presents two problems because Steph hates to run and she hates mornings." They all looked at each other and back at Ranger nodding with expressions that read yeah?...so? "And then she starts complaining that she can't run today because she just got her period and has cramps…." He was cut off by groans and looks of terror. "Or worse….."

"What's worse than a girl on her period?" Woody asked. They all turned to Ranger expectantly waiting his answer because none of them could think of anything worse.

"She starts to cry," he replied. That got them. They all hated to see her cry.

"You know…." Lester added, "Come to think of it, McSweeny is really not a bad idea after all." They all quickly agreed. They were a little put off about Ranger's decision at first, now they were all relieved.

"That doesn't mean that you won't be involved," Ranger insisted. "Mac is going to take the lead." Tank snickered.

"The ex-DI versus the Bombshell Bounty Hunter of Trenton," he joked. The men laughed. Ranger smiled at the thought. "My money's still on Bombshell."

Stephanie called down to see if Hal was ready. Her plan was to stop off to see Dickie Orr first. Then, they would pick up Val and go shopping. She was a little nervous with brining Hal over to see Dickie. She hoped Dickie learned his lesson and would keep his mouth shut. She was sure that if he started calling her names, Hal would punch him out again. She called his office but was informed he was out today. He was probably at home because she heard that Hal broke his nose.

"Steph, I really don't think you should be doing this," Hal told her uneasily as he pulled up to the house. She stared at the house for a minute before answering. She hadn't been there is years. It still looked the same. The garage doors were open. She could see Dickie's Jaguar and BMW and…her Mustang. He still had it after all these years. He bought her a Mustang GT convertible as an engagement present. It was white with twin red strips down the hood and trunk. She loved that car. She looked back at Hal and smiled.

"Don't worry. He's not going to be able to do anything Hal." She got out of the Escape and walked up to the front door. She rang the bell and it was a few minutes before he opened the door. Upon seeing it was Stephanie, he immediately slammed the door in her face.

"Get outta here before I call the cops!" he yelled through the door.

"Open this door right now!" she yelled back. "I need to talk to you about something very important!"

"I have nothing to say to you, Bitch! You and that goon need to leave this minute. This is harassment. I'm calling the cops!"

"Go ahead. You call the cops. I'll just call the FBI about a certain bank account that has an awful lot of money." There was silence behind the door. "I'm talking about account number 4 3 2 1 9 8 7 6 0 0 0 1 5 4. Account balance 5,300,231 dollars and 45 cents."

"Jesus!" they heard Dickie exclaim. Then, they heard the sound of the locks tumbling. The door flew open. He was in his bathrobe. His nose was swollen and a little crooked. He had two black eyes, a split lip and bruised jaw. They stared at each other for a moment. "Shit….you look worse that I do!" Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Thanks," she answered sarcastically. "Are you ready to talk now?" He gestured them to come inside and looked up and down the street nervously.

"How did you find out about that account?" he hissed. He looked panicked.

"I'm not as naïve as I used to be. What are you doing with all that money?"

"It's none of your business. Now what do you want?" She looked around the house.

"It's all the same. You didn't change anything." She was surprised. Dickie shrugged.

"I liked what you did to the house so I left it. Of course the dining room is still the same if you'd like to see it again," he taunted. Stephanie immediately saw red.

"You piece of shit!" Before she could stop herself, she punched him in the nose. Hal grabbed her and held her back.

"Fuck!!!! Not da dose again!!!!! God dabbit!!!" He grabbed his nose as it started to bleed. "I'll hab you arrested, too." He looked around for his phone. He started to dial. Stephanie pulled out her phone and started dialing. "Who are you calling?"

"You're calling the cops, and I'm calling the FBI," she told him smiling. He immediately hung up.

"Okay…what do you want?" Stephanie really just wanted to get the charges against Hal dropped. But since he brought up his infidelity and the dining room incident, she had gotten another idea. She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall.

"Well….first you are going to drop all the charges against Hal. Today. And because you brought the dining room scene into it….I want my Mustang back." She looked at him expectantly. Hal's jaw dropped.

"Fuck that! I'm not giving you a thing!" Stephanie shrugged and opened her cell phone again. "Okay…okay…okay!!! I'll drop the charges and give you your car back." He went into his office to look for the title. It was easy to find because he had everything organized. Hal looked at Stephanie and she gave him a little triumphant smirk. "Here's the title." He signed it over to her and handed her the keys. "You're lucky. It's in great shape. I hardly ever drove it. Now, just take the damn thing and forget all about those bank accounts."

"Accounts?" Stephanie asked him with raised eyebrows. Dickie winced.

"Account, forget about the account, Stephanie. You don't know what you're getting yourself involved in," he warned.

"Now make the call to drop the charges," she insisted. Dickie did as he was asked. He would have to go down to the station to sign some papers. "We can take you."

"No, I will go there myself." She started to protest. "I'll take care of it today. So this is it, right? I paid my blackmail fee, right?"

"Blackmail….is a very ugly word, Dickie," she told him. "I prefer extortion. Makes it sound more like I know what I'm doing." She turned to leave. "Yeah, this is payment for the account…singular…we discussed. I can't promise it's payment for anything else I find. Don't forget what you did to me. How you stuck me with all your bills. Payback is a bitch. And….that bitch would be me! We're going to come back later for the car, and you better have gone down to the station by then." He nodded sheepishly then a slow smile came across his face.

"Too bad you weren't this tough when we were married," he told her. She thought about that for a moment.

"If I was this tough, I never would have married you in the first place," she answered him and walked out the front door. The last time she walked out this door, there was sadness, anger, and pain. Now, she felt…content. She was slowly reclaiming herself and felt good again. She had someone that she was completely in love with and who loved her back. She had a good job and great friends. And, she was even working out her family problems. She finally felt like everything was going her way, and this was the happiest she had ever been in her life. She and Hal went in the garage to check on the car. Stephanie slid behind the wheel. It was like putting on a comfortable pair of jeans. She couldn't stop smiling.

"I can't believe he gave you this car" Hal told her. He was shocked by what just happened. Not only did she get him to agree to drop the charges against him, she got him to give her a car. He felt so relieved. He didn't know what he was going to say to his parents if he had to go to court. They probably would have understood the reason he got arrested. He was always taught to never hit a lady. She started up the car and it roared to life. She was grinning ear to ear.

"This was my car, Hal," she explained. "I lost it in the divorce." She turned the car off and locked it up. Dickie came out into the garage.

"I didn't drive it much but I kept up the maintenance," he explained. He was dressed and going to head down to the police station. She nodded.

"We'll be back for it later. I'll transfer the title and get it registered with new plates. I'll leave the plates here and you can do what you want with them." Dickie nodded and got in his BMW.

Stephanie and Hal left to go pick up Valerie. "Steph?" Hal began. She turned to look at him. "Thanks. I was really worried that I might have to go to jail. I didn't want to disappoint my parents. I mean technically, I was wrong. But I would do it again to defend you." She gave him that fantastic smile.

"You're welcome, Hal. You're a really good friend and a great person. I appreciate all that you do for me." Hal turned varying shades of pink.

"You think of me…as a friend?" She nodded. He beamed. He knew she and Lester were friends. He had no idea that she thought that highly of him. He thought she just thought of him as a coworker and one of Ranger's men. He all of a sudden felt more relaxed around her. He would never be as relaxed as Lester was….Lester seemed to have boundary issues anyway…but now he knew that Stephanie liked him.

They picked up Valerie and went to finish Christmas shopping. "Steph, I can't believe Carlos gave me a job. I'm so nervous. I'm afraid I'm going to mess up." Stephanie smiled.

"Don't worry about it," she told her. "I mess up all the time."

"Yeah…but you're his girlfriend."

"This is true, but I warned him that you never worked before so it's his fault if you mess up," she rationalized.

"Thanks…I think." They found the rest of what they needed for the girls and decided to take a lunch break.

"Hal, are you going home for Christmas?" Steph asked him. He shook his head no.

"I'm working Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. No time to go home and back." They could see he looked disappointed.

"Why don't you come to our house for Christmas?" Steph and Valerie said in unison. They looked at each other and laughed. Hal brightened.

"Really?" He had been away from home at Christmas before when he was in the Marines, but this was the first time he lived away from home outside the service.

"Mom always makes plenty," Valerie told him.

"You would just have to watch out for Grandma Mazur," Steph added.

"I would really like that…as long as it's no trouble," he replied excitedly. He loved being around family at Christmas. This wasn't his family but they were people he cared about so it was like family. Grandma Mazur kind of scared him a little bit but he was willing to risk getting groped to spend the holiday with friends.

After lunch, they dropped off Valerie at her parents' house. Then, Hal took her to the DMV to take care of the Mustang. Stephanie was starting to get a little headache and didn't want to overdo it. She was going to call Mike Baker later to see if he would have time to record her song for Ranger this week. The line was moderate and it took about an hour to get everything done.

Ranger and Tank were in his office going over all the accounts when she walked in. She kissed him hello. "Get everything taken care of?" She nodded and sat in his lap.

"Dickie dropped the charges against Hal," she told him. "And he gave me my car back." She showed him the plates and paperwork. "We just have to go back there and pick it up later." What the fuck, Ranger said to himself.

"He gave you your car back?" he said slowly. She nodded.

"Uh huh. He made me mad so just making him drop the charges against Hal didn't seem like enough." Tank barked out laughing. Ranger smiled and shook his head.

"Babe, you never disappoint." He kissed her uninjured cheek. She looked a little tired. Instead of telling her to go lay down, he tried a different approach. "What are you up to now?"

"I was going to go upstairs and take some Advil. Got a headache and want to lay down for a bit," she replied with a sigh. He smiled. He was glad he didn't have to have an argument over it.

"Oh…Bobby's back. He wants to see you to evaluate your injuries and finish up the incident reports. Call him later." She got off his lap, kissed him again, and headed up to the apartment.

"She blackmailed him into giving her the car back…." Tank started, his grin getting wider and wider. "I think she's going to be good at this business stuff."

She took some Advil then called Bobby. She told him he could come up now if he had the time. He said that he would be up in about 20 to 30 minutes. She contacted Mike and he had the day off on Wednesday. He still had the studio in the basement. He told her that she would probably get the song in one take like she always had in the past. Mike said he was looking forward to hearing what she wrote. She thanked him and disconnected. It was cutting it close but at least he had the time this week.

Bobby read the reports and knew the extent of her injuries. But it was everyone's reaction that had gotten to him. He had to get written reports from everyone that was involved. He hadn't seen her yet but the looks on Lester's, Hal's, Tank's, Ram's, Cal's, and Woody's faces had said it all. He was also brought up to speed about Ranger's government job and the death of Steph's latest car. That was a shame to lose that car. It was in mint condition. Thank God, Stephanie wasn't in the car at the time. No matter what anyone did, Stephanie just seemed to attract trouble. She was sitting on the couch with her feet up watching TV when he came in. Ivy trotted over to great him. He had already been warned to keep his reaction to a minimum. She smiled when he came in and gave him a hug.

"Nice to have you back," she told him. He smiled back. "Did you have a nice vacation?"

"Yeah, it was quiet and relaxing," he told her. Bobby had gone rock climbing with a group of friends. He looked at her face. He could only imagine what it looked like a few days ago. Swelling was down. The bruising was starting to turn brown and greenish yellow in spots but still mostly blue. He checked her pupils then looked at the staple line in the back. "He did some job on you. How have you been feeling? Any dizziness?"

"Just headaches off and on now. I was a little dizzy the first couple of days. I just took some Advil. That has been helping me a lot. I can see out of my left eye. The swelling was so bad that my left eye was shut the first couple of days too," she told him.

"Well, the staple line looks good. They can come out probably next Tuesday. It's healing pretty well. I can take them out so you don't have to go back to the doctor." She smiled at that. "I'm sorry I wasn't there, Steph." She rolled her eyes.

"It's okay. The guys took great care of me. You can't be here 24/7. You need to take care of yourself, too." He nodded. He pulled out some forms for her to fill out.

"I need you to write your version of the incident. We need these for the files as well as the insurance. I've got everyone's but yours and Hal's." She took the pen and started to write. "Now….how are you handling this situation with Ranger?" She leaned back and sighed.

"Okay. I'm not going to lie…it's going to be really hard, Bobby. I know this is the best way for him to finish out his contract. And, it's only 3 months. I see a lot of doughnuts and Reese's peanut-butter cups in my future." Bobby smirked.

"You know I'm here if you ever need to talk…or a shoulder to cry on," he told her putting his hand over hers. She smiled back. He saw bruises on her left knuckles.

"Thanks. I'll probably take you up on that."

"I heard about the car….sorry. I saw the Escape in the garage."

"That's a Rangeman truck. I got a new car today. Well…not new…exactly…" she trailed off with a smile. This piqued his interest.

"What did you get?"

"I got my Mustang back from my ex-husband. I have to pick it up later." His eyes got wide. "It's a GT convertible. I lost it in the divorce. I…uh…persuaded him to sign it back over to me and drop the charges against Hal." Bobby just shook his head. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know how she did it. He picked up her left hand and nodded towards the bruises.

"Let me take a wild guess at how you…persuaded him." Her eyes dropped to her hand. She started to giggle.

"No…that was just a bonus. I happened to find some very interesting information on Dickie when I was doing some research. Information that he wouldn't want certain…agencies to know about. Punching him in the face…well…just sorta…happened," she explained. Bobby laughed out loud. From what he heard, this asshole had it coming, and he was glad Steph got her due.

"Nice job!" He gave her a hug and kissed the top of her head. She put the tea kettle on and finished writing her report.

"Did you want a cup of tea?" He shook his head no.

"I'll take a rain check. I have a mountain of paperwork to get through. Call me if you have any problems or your headaches get worse," he instructed as he headed back to his office. She called the control room and asked Junior to let her know when Ranger was on his way up.

"I'm working on a Christmas surprise and don't want him to see it yet," she explained.

"10-4, Steph," Junior agreed. She ran through the song a few times. She was satisfied but thought a violin accompaniment would add a special touch when she recorded it. She called Val to ask if she still had her violin.

"Yeah, I had gotten a new one but that's gone now. I still have my first violin at Mom and Dad's. I started Angie on violin lessons 2 years ago." Steph explained what she wanted her to do. She played a little of the song over the phone. "I think we can figure something out." Her phone beeped as she got another call.

"It's the control room…I'll call you later," she told Valerie as she took the call. Junior told her Ranger was on his way. "Thanks!" She got up to reheat her tea when he came in the door. He came up behind her, hands on her hips pulling her into him, and nuzzled her neck. She put her hands on top of his and let his scent envelope her. God he always smells so good, she thought.

"Babe," he whispered huskily in her ear. He held her close for a few moments longer before breaking the embrace. She turned to face him and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips. He looked her over. She still looked tired. She probably didn't get any rest like she said she would.

"Do you think you can give me a ride so I can go pick up my car?" She wasn't so much in a hurry to drive it but would feel better once it was in the garage downstairs. He looked at his watch then called downstairs.

"I need a ride," she heard him tell someone. "Meet us in the garage in 5 minutes." He snapped his phone shut and put it away. She looked at him with raised eyebrows and a smile.

"Us?" He gave her a quick kiss.

"Yeah…us. I don't want you driving right now. You look tired. You didn't get any rest this afternoon, did you?" She looked at him. He didn't look annoyed. She shrugged.

"I took some Advil and laid on the couch for a bit. My headache went away and I felt better. I didn't go to work today like you told me to and I didn't overdo it. And…..I plan on going to bed early tonight. Carlos, I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself," she insisted. He picked up her left hand and kissed her bruised knuckles.

"Yeah…so I heard," he replied with a sly smile.

"Oh yeah….I forgot to tell you about that," she sighed. "But it's not like he didn't deserve it!"

"Let's go get your car, Slugger," he joked, putting his arm around her shoulders. Junior dropped them off at Dickie Orr's house. The lights were on and both of his cars were there but he didn't come outside. He did peak out the window. There was a huge Hispanic man with her which he assumed was Carlos Manoso. He found out that he was the latest man in Stephanie's life and the CEO of Rangeman. Ranger put the plates on the car, and they left.

They went for a drive before returning to Haywood. The car didn't seem to have any problems. "Nice car, Babe. I'll have the guys check it over and get the oil and other fluids changed for you." And add a GPS tracker, he said to himself. If she found out about the one on the Road Runner, she never said anything.

The next couple of days seemed to fly by. Stephanie finished her Christmas shopping. Val still had a few more things to get. Val had been practicing the violin the past two days to get ready to help Steph with her song. Ranger still didn't want Stephanie driving alone yet so it was Lester's turn for chauffeur duty. Stephanie had already told him about the song and he was begging her to hear it. She had played it for Ella the other day, and Ella thought Ranger would love it. Stephanie had played the piano part for Mike and Val before he recorded it. They messed around with the violin part until they were satisfied with the arrangement. Mike recorded Val's part. Now all that was left was the vocals. Lester had just sat back and watched quietly. He was really impressed with the whole process. This was the part that he had been waiting for, listening to Stephanie sing. The lyrics were haunting, deep, and powerful. If Ranger didn't already know how she felt about him, this song would do it.

"That was amazing, Beautiful," Lester told her giving her a hug.

"Do you think Carlos will like it?"

"What…are you kiddin' me? He's going to love it." Valerie and Mike agreed.

"This song kicks ass, Steph," Mike added. He played it back to see if he needed to make any adjustments. "I think it sounds fine the way it is…what do you think?" Stephanie agreed.

"Let's go with that." He cut a couple of discs for her. "Mike, I can't even begin to tell you how much I appreciate this." He smiled.

"You can sit in with the band some time." She looked at him quizzically. "Yeah…we still play from time to time. Jam with us for old time's sake."

"Are you serious?"

"You should do it, Steph. Sounds like it would be fun," Val chimed in. Lester agreed. Stephanie shrugged her shoulders.

"Okay, just give me some warning and let me sit in when you rehearse or something," she conceded. Mike smiled.

"Will do. I'll have Tara call you and we'll get together again. We had a fun the last time." Stephanie gave him a hug. It was lunch time so they decided to swing by Pino's.

Joe Morelli was there with his cousin Mooch. He immediately got up when he saw Stephanie. He had heard through the Burg grapevine about her getting punched by a skip. Her face was still bruised. "Jeez, Steph, I heard what happened. How are you doing?" He gave her a hug. "Hi Val. It's good to see you." He gave her a hug too. He nodded a greeting to Lester. "Santos."

"I'm doing better. Why don't you guys get a table and I'll be right there." Val and Lester nodded and sat down. "How have you been? I haven't seen you around lately." She saw him a couple of times before they had gone to Miami, but hadn't seen him since she had gotten back. He smiled that she noticed his absence.

"Been undercover. Closed the case the other day. You still with Manoso?" He was hopeful that their relationship was a passing phase. She nodded.

"Yes, we're still together, Joe. I've been sort of living with him but am going to move in officially. I'm letting Val stay at my apartment," she told him. He looked at her with raised eyebrows.

"Isn't Val married and living in California?"

"Not anymore. Her husband ran off with the babysitter. She moved back last week. She's going to start working at Rangeman next week. It's going to be probably a messier divorce than mine," she explained. "I guess the Plum girls didn't know how to pick their husbands." Joe smiled.

"Dickie Orr is an asshole. I could never figure out why you married him," he replied. He looked at her for a moment. "Why did you marry him?" Stephanie shrugged.

"I made a lot of mistakes, Joe," she looked him in the eye. He raised his eyebrows.

"Was I a mistake?" he asked in a low and husky voice. She stared into his eyes. She loved Carlos and there was no doubt or questions in her mind about her feelings for him. But somehow, she would always feel a connection with Morelli. She always wondered what would have happened between the two of them if she didn't have sex with him. Would he have pursued her after he got out of the Navy? At the time, she loved him and thought he loved her. She gave herself willingly to him. She regretted it the second he pulled up his pants and walked away without even turning back or saying goodbye.

"Yeah…" she told him softly. Her voice was just above a whisper. "I never should have let it happen." She saw him recoil a little. She looked over at their table. "I gotta go. I'll see you around." He nodded.

"We have a lot to talk about, Steph. I don't want you hating me," he said. Her answer had stung. She gave him a smile.

"I don't hate you, Joe. But I can't change the past. We can only move on from here. Friendship is all I can give you." He leaned down and kissed her forehead.

"If that's all I can get, then I'll take it…for now." Stephanie rolled her eyes. "If I don't see you before then, have a nice Christmas."

"You too." She joined Val and Lester. They looked at her expectantly. She looked back and forth at their faces. "What?"

"Well? What did he want? You look pissed," Lester broke the silence. She gave him a dismissive wave.

"Oh…nothing. I mean I'm not pissed at Joe. It's just when people ask me why I married that asshole, I just get annoyed because it was my own fault. Thank God for divorce," she told them. She forgot about Valerie and wanted to smack herself in the head. "Sorry Val."

"I didn't want a divorce. But I don't want to stay with someone who isn't faithful to me either," she sighed.

"Well marriage doesn't guarantee commitment either. I'm not going to do that again. At least if you are just with someone, if something happens you can walk away easier," Stephanie said. Lester smirked.

"You mean to tell me if Ranger asked you to marry him, you would say no?" He looked at her with raised eyebrows. Valerie also raised her eyebrows.

"First of all, he doesn't want marriage either. Second, we've only been together a few months. To even think about getting married at this point is way premature. And third, to answer your question…I would say no." Lester and Valerie looked at each other in shock. "Oh come on! Like you really believe that Carlos wants to get married. Please!"

"Well…," Lester began. "He really loves you, Beautiful." Steph rolled her eyes.

"I love him, too but that doesn't mean I want to get married again."

"Do you think you would change your mind in time?" Valerie asked her. Steph shrugged.

"I don't know how I would feel years from now. I'm only going by how I feel right now. I don't want to get married again, and I don't want to have children," she insisted.

"You don't want children? Why? I thought you loved my girls?" Val cried out.

"I do love Angie and Mary Alice, Val. I love being their Aunt. I just don't want the responsibility of being a mother," she explained. "I mean, could you actually see me as a mom? Puh-lease! I'd probably wind up in jail and my kids in foster care. I can't even take care of myself. I don't even know how to balance a check book. I don't cook. I hate mornings. I am so not mother material."

The waitress brought over their food. Steph looked at them.

"You always get the same thing, so I ordered for you," Lester told her. She gave him a smile.

"Good…'cause I'm hungry."

Chapter 8

Ranger had a catered lunch for everyone on Christmas Eve. "Wow," Stephanie told him as she looked over the food. "You ordered real food and not that healthy crap you eat!" He went with carved turkey and roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy, sweet potatoes, salad, rolls, stuffing, and a pastry tray. He gave her his 200 watt grin.

"Glad you like it, Babe," he told her pulling her to him. "Try to leave some for the rest of the staff." He had similar lunches set up for the night crew and the crew working on Christmas. Ella always offered to make something special but he wanted her and Luis to have time with their own family during the holidays. Steph made a plate for herself and went back to her cubicle. There were about ten searches that needed to be done. With everything that she had to do this week, she had gotten behind. Thankfully, they were easy ones as the holidays were slow. She had gotten half of them done before lunch.

Ranger relieved the men watching the monitors so they could eat. Tank was off but would cover Christmas. Ranger was covering for both of them today. The noise level in the kitchen rose with laughter and multiple conversations. It would probably quiet down for a few seconds when their mouths were stuffed with food. Ranger was a tough boss. He was strict, didn't like excuses or failure. But he also liked to reward hard work and loyalty. Last year, he started giving Christmas bonuses since his business had become so successful. He was successful because of the support, hard work, and loyalty of his staff.

Ram poked his head in her cube. "Aren't you going to join us, Steph? Or does the slave driver have you chained to your desk?" She grinned through a mouth full of brownie.

"I need to catch up on a lot of stuff. Missed too much work this week," she explained. Ram grabbed her by the hand and pulled her out of her chair.

"Fuck working today…" He pulled her into the kitchen. They had a huge box wrapped in Christmas paper with Peanuts characters. "Merry Christmas, Bomber!"

"Oh my God!" she giggled. "What is this?" Lester put his arm around her and walked her over to the box. "You didn't get me a stripper, did you?" Lester thought for a minute.

"Well if that's what you really wanted…," he began as he started to unbutton his shirt. She playfully pushed him away and rolled her eyes.

"You are way past your expiration date Lester Santos!" She looked down at the huge box.

"Come on, Steph. Open it," Woody urged. She pulled off the bow and began to tear the paper. She opened the box and stared quizzically at the contents. She pulled out a helmet with a face mask.

"It's an outfit for the next distraction job," Ram told her. She started to giggled. There were also a chest protector, hockey goalie leg pads, and boxing gloves. They guys howled with laughter. Being a good sport, she put on the equipment. Woody took pictures.

"I don't think wearing all this will help me distract the skip," she told them, still giggling.

"It will…if that's the only thing you are wearing," Lester added. There were whistles and catcalls. They heard a throat being cleared behind them. Ranger was standing in the door way with his arms crossed.

"Car-los!" she whined. He tried to look stern and keep a straight face. The site of her in all that oversized gear was just too funny. He broke into a smile and smirked. "You are no help!" He walked over to her and gave her a hug.

"Sorry, Babe. Can't help it. You look…ridiculous." This garnered another round of laughter and a major eye roll from Stephanie. "But you would look hot if you were naked under all that," he whispered into her ear through a hole in the helmet. She pulled off the helmet.

"I can model it later for you," she whispered back. They had exchanged names for Secret Santa. It made it easy for all of them instead of buying for some and not for others. Last year, Tank had drawn the short straw and had to dress up like Santa to give out the gifts. This year, Cal got stuck with it. He had gone to the bathroom to put on the humiliating red suit and had come back into the kitchen with the bag of gifts.

"Ho...ho...ho…you sick fucks!" he announced when he came in. They had a chair all set aside for him. First, he pulled out a large, raw-hide bone with a red bow for Ivy. Ivy trotted over immediately, took the bone, and ran off to chew it under Stephanie's desk. He pulled another box and looked at the name tag. "Lester! Have you been a good boy?" Lester hopped onto Cal's lap taking the gift. "Christ!" Cal groaned and pushed Lester off on to the floor. Again, the howl of laughter filled the room. Woody had the video camera going. They were also rotating out to cover the monitors at 15 minute intervals so no one missed too much of the fun.

Lester opened his package. He was given a bottle of Maximus male enhancement pills, KY jelly, and the December issue of Hustler. After the laughing died down again, he thumbed through the magazine. "Oh, I read this for the articles, Beautiful," he joked. Steph gave Ranger a sideways glance and he just shook his head. He didn't have her in the grab bag and was a little nervous about what she would get. They usually gave each other gag gifts, but they could get pretty raunchy. A few more gifts were given out. They mostly consisted of nudie magazines, gun oil, tee shirts with guns, military insignias, or other sexual toys. It was Hal's turn. He got a body condom, a book on how to explain the birds and bees to your child, and another book on how to pick up easy women. Stephanie was next.

"So have you been a good girl this year, Steph," Cal asked as he pulled her onto his lap. She looked over at Ranger.

"I don't know…have I been a good girl?" She smiled sweetly at him. More whistles and catcalls. He just gave her a huge smile. Cal handed her a small box. Thank God, Ranger thought. It's probably not that bad. It was a gift card to Victoria's Secret. Stephanie giggled as she got off Cal's lap. It was now Ranger's turn. Because he felt like showing his men that he could have fun as well, he sat on Cal's lap much to Cal's surprise and the roar of laughter from the guys. Ranger's gift was small as well. It was another gift card to Victoria's Secret. Ranger just shook his head.

"Hey…that's really two presents for Ranger," Lester exclaimed. "He gets the benefit of anything purchased from that store. No fair!" Stephanie smacked him the back of the head. Not much work was done the rest of the day, but fortunately, it was very slow. No break-ins. No alarms. No FTAs. All routine patrols. The kitchen was cleaned and the rest of the food was put away. Stephanie went to finish the rest of her searches. Ivy was asleep with her head lying protectively on her new bone…or what was left of her new bone. She didn't want to rush in case she missed anything, but wanted to get it done before 4 o'clock. They were expected at the Manoso's for dinner at 6:30. Newark was not that far but would still take time to get there and she had to get ready.

After finishing the last search, she took Ivy out for a walk and then headed up to their apartment to get ready. Ranger told her to dress casually and comfortably. Ranger explained the situation to his mother earlier in the week. As he expected, she was disappointed about Mass, but was more upset about Stephanie. "Mama, try not to make a big deal over it. She feels self conscious enough as it is," he begged.

"Carlito," she told him, "relax. We will not make her feel uncomfortable. Tell her not to spoil her appetite. We will have a lot of food. I know how much she enjoys eating." He laughed.

"Mama, it's almost impossible for her to spoil her appetite. Believe me, if you feed her…she will come. I'm pretty sure she loves food more than she does me," he joked. His father was a quiet man and didn't say much. Ranger was a lot like him. He had taken him aside the first time he brought Stephanie and told him to make sure he treated her right and how lucky he was to find someone who loved him as much as he loved her. Celia loved Stephanie. Since Ranger was the youngest, he got away with a lot and was used to getting his way ever since. She liked the fact that Stephanie didn't give in to him and put him in his place. She could see that Stephanie loved him…her brother for who he was…and not for his money. One of his younger sisters, Rena, had made comments about him favoring white girls. Ranger never thought of it that way. Rachel was white. Steph was white. He had been with women of all races and never discriminated in the past. He didn't seek out a white girl. Then again, Rena had her own issues. She never seemed to be happy about anything. Fortunately, Rena wouldn't be there tonight.

"Carlos, I don't know what to wear," she sighed, standing in the closet with her hands on her hips. He wrapped his arms around her from behind and pulled her in to him. He kissed her on the temple.

"I can pick something out for you," he told her in a low, husky voice with a wolfish grin that she could not see. But she sure could feel it. And that wasn't the only thing she could feel.

"Are you trying to make us late?" she joked. He held her tighter and began to kiss her earlobe, then work his way down her neck. One hand made its way under her shirt to a breast. It felt so good she gave into him and began to grind her backside into his hardness. He let out a groan and his kisses became more demanding. He pulled her shirt over her head and unhooked her bra. She turned around and his mouth crashed down on hers. She pulled off his shirt and began to fumble with the button and zipper on his pants. She had been so intent of freeing him that she was oblivious to the fact that he had finished undressing her. He swept her up, carried her to the bed, and climbed on top of her.

Her little moans and squeals drove him crazy. He loved the way she responded to him. He tried to be attentive to her needs. She caressed the sensitive spots that she knew turned him on…the back of his neck, his nipples, and the lower abdomen above just above his pubic hair. His body was lean, hard, and beautiful.

He loved to be on top where he felt most in control. This time, she wanted to be on top and took over. She was able to roll him over while keeping him inside her. Arching her back, she reached behind her to massage his balls. "Oh God, Babe," he growled. Although he was getting close and with her taking over, he knew he wasn't going to last much longer. She felt herself building and building till finally she got her release. He finished up shortly behind her. She lay next to him and he pulled her close. They held onto each other panting and satisfied. After a few minutes, Ranger glanced at his watch and sighed. "We'd better get a move on or we will be late."

"Not that I'm complaining, but you still didn't help me solve my problem," she told him. "I don't know what to wear."

"I'm wearing jeans and a sweater. It's nothing fancy. It's just my family." She sighed and got up. She decided on a long jeans skirt, boots, and red cardigan twin set. They rushed around to get ready and were on the road 30 minutes later.

Even though Ranger asked his mother not to make a fuss over Stephanie, she did anyway. She made Stephanie sit down immediately, insisting that she take it easy. "Maria…I'm fine," she told her. Celia came to her defense.

"Mama, don't go overboard. Stephanie is fine." She gave her an apologetic look. Steph smiled back.

"Uncle Carlos!" Celia's boys yelled running over to him. Celia had three children. Her oldest son, John, was 16. He was named after his father, who was an Army reservist that was killed in the first Gulf War. Mike and Ian were 10 year old twins. They idolized their Uncle Carlos. They climbed all over him. John was happy to see Stephanie again because he thought she was hot.

"Jeez Steph," he asked, "What happened to you?" Raoul smacked him in the back of the head. "What did I do?" He rubbed the spot that got hit. He looked to his mother and Ranger. Raoul had warned them all to not talk about her injuries.

"I got hit when we were picking up an FTA," she explained.

"I bet Uncle Carlos kicked that guy's ass," John added. Celia smacked him this time.

"Watch your mouth," she warned. "Sorry Stephanie." Ranger was tensed up. This was all she needed. She's already self conscious as it is, he thought. But Stephanie started to giggle. They all turned to look at her.

"It's okay," she told them. "It's a hazard of the job. I'm fine. And most importantly, we got him." She looked to Ranger and smiled. He gave her a smile back.

"Yeah, but you kicked his ass…right Uncle Carlos?" Ranger hated to tell him the truth.

"Actually, John, he was out of town," Stephanie explained.

"So then Uncle Tank did it, right?" She started to giggle again and nodded.

"Okay, enough of this talk about kicking people's asses on Christmas Eve," Maria interrupted. Stephanie and Ranger were relieved. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes." Selma and her husband, Jose, finally got there. They had an 8 year old daughter, named Maria after her Grandmother.

"Sorry we're late Mama," she told her as they put down their gifts and took off their coats. "I had a patient go into labor and it took forever." Selma was an obstetrician in New Brunswick.

The dinner conversation was much lighter. Ranger and Stephanie didn't bring up that Ranger would be leaving town for 3 months. Although Stephanie tried to be very conscious of her enjoyment of the food, there was still an occasional moan…or seven. When she noticed that the table had fallen silent, she looked up to see everyone staring. She looked over at Ranger who was smirking. She gave them a sheepish grin. "Sorry….but this is really good Maria," she apologized.

"Don't pay any attention to them, Stephanie. I'm glad to see someone enjoy my cooking so much," Maria insisted. Ranger tapped her knee with his. "Besides, wait till you see what we have for dessert." The women were getting the dessert and coffee set up while Stephanie was helping Maria load the dishwasher. "So when are you and Carlito going to get married? Have you even discussed the idea?"

"Uh…no…we've…uh…never discussed it," she stammered. She didn't know what to say. Maybe she should just be upfront with her? "I don't want to get married again. And neither does Carlos." Maria turned to face her. Stephanie was afraid she offended her, but Maria broke into a warm smile.

She could see the look of panic on her face. "You'll know when it's right, Honey," she told her as she cupped Steph's face in her hands. "You make my son happy. He's always so serious all the time. You bring out a side of him that we don't get to see anymore. He loves you so much, Stephanie." Stephanie blushed.

"I love him, too. I just can't go through marriage again, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to be with him." She felt that she had to explain herself. Maria gave her a kiss.

"Just continue to make him happy." Maria smiled. She pulled chocolate cake out of a box and placed it on a platter. Stephanie brightened and applauded. "I know…your favorite."

After dessert, they exchanged gifts. Ranger and his siblings decided to get their parents a 2 weeks Alaskan cruise. His father had always wanted to see Alaska. His mother loved cruises. They were so surprised. "You shouldn't have done this!" Maria scolded them. "This is too expensive."

"Mama, you and Papa deserve it," Celia insisted. "You gave up so much for all of us. We are successful because of your love and sacrifices. We wanted to give some of that back." Stephanie felt a twinge of jealousy. She wished it was like that in her family growing up. At least now, they have a chance to mend fences and have a better future. She loved Ranger's family. Except his sister Rena. For whatever reason, Rena did not like her. She made comments about her being white at Thanksgiving. Rena was 6 years older than Ranger. She was used to being the baby until he came along. She seemed to have a problem with everything Ranger did. She was thinking that she was glad she wasn't there when unexpectedly, Rena came with her latest boyfriend, Doug.

"Nice face Steph" she slurred. It was obvious they had been celebrating…a lot…before they got to her parents' house. Doug had dread-locks and multiple piercings in his face. "Carlos smack you around?" Rena snorted. Steph felt Ranger tense next to her and placed her hand on his thigh. He put his arm protectively around her shoulders.

"Rena!" Maria exclaimed. She gave her a sad look. "Maybe you should have something to eat." Celia grabbed her and pulled her into the kitchen. "Stephanie…I'm so sorry." Steph put up a hand.

"It's okay Maria." Maria shook her head.

"It's not okay. I will not tolerate that kind of behavior in my house. I know you just met her. Unfortunately, this is nothing new to us." She joined Celia and Rena in the kitchen. Stephanie could hear yelling in Spanish. She didn't know what was being said but it must not have been good. She looked over at Ranger and mouthed…'Sorry'.

"Not your fault, Babe," he whispered back. "She has a problem with me. She goes after you to stick it to me. I'm sorry you're in the middle of this." He gave her a soft kiss on the mouth that lingered.

"Are you going to slip her the tongue, Uncle Carlos?" Mike asked. Ranger and Steph's head whipped around to look at him in disbelief. Stephanie turned red. Ranger was trying not to smile.

"No, Mike. I think he's going to pork her," Ian added. John laughed.

"Celia!" Raoul yelled after her. "What the hell are you teaching these kids?"

"They figured out how to get around the parental lock out for the cable," John explained.

"Yeah!" they both said in unison.

"There's all kinds of movies with sex in it Grandpa," Mike explained.

"Yeah, Grandpa. With naked people moaning…like when Stephanie eats," Ian continued. Stephanie's jaw dropped as she gasped. This time, Ranger couldn't hold back his laugher.

"Now can you understand why I don't want children?" Stephanie hissed at Ranger.

Rena decided to leave after her argument. The rest of the evening went by uneventful. They were both quiet on the ride home. After a short while, Stephanie broke the silence.

"I was so embarrassed when the kids were talking about you slipping me the tongue and that you were going to pork me. Then about me moaning when I eat! I am never going to eat in front of your family again!" she said. Ranger shot her a sideways glance grinning.

"Well, I can't blame them, Babe. They were right about one thing. I plan on both slipping you the tongue and porking you when we get home." She rolled her eyes. "And….you'll be moaning for a different reason."

Back in the apartment, Ranger and Stephanie changed into something more comfortable. Stephanie put on a radio station that was playing only Christmas music and lit several candles. Ranger poured two glasses of wine. They sat on the couch with Stephanie snuggled into him. It was so relaxing. He could only think about the woman in his arms. She was the best Christmas present he had ever gotten. He had spent last Christmas alone. At the time, he didn't even know what he was missing. He thought he had everything. He was successful. He could buy whatever he wanted. He could get any woman he wanted. Not that he was leading a bad life, he finally realized he was leading a lonely life. He seemed to appreciate everything he had even more since she had come into his life. Funny how things change, he thought to himself.

Stephanie listened to his heart beating. She was the happiest she had ever been in her whole life. He loved her…flaws and all. She thought about everything they had been through since they met. From getting crushed on the take down, the kidnapping, the shooting, the crazy FBI agent, the trip to Miami, and now together on Christmas Eve. Especially she thought about the Miami trip and the night they went out alone. The slow and sensual dance they shared while Wicked Game played. Making love in the car while driving back to the house. Him taking her out to the beach to make love some more. Listening to the sound of the waves crashing while he buried himself inside her over and over again.

He looked down to see the dreamy smile on her face. "What are you thinking about, Babe?" he asked breaking the silence. It made her jump a little as she was dragged out of her thoughts.

"The trip to Miami," she replied with the smile staying in place. This brought a smile to his face. He immediately thought of that night as well. He never liked to talk, be distracted, or do anything when he was driving. Having sex while driving was a first for him. Trying to watch the road over her shoulder while she moved up and down on him wasn't exactly the safest sex he'd ever had. He only jumped one curb, didn't get pulled over for speeding or reckless driving, and didn't kill them both so he figured he did okay. It was amazing. Then he took her out to the beach and made love to her all night. Thinking about it got him hard. He took the wine glasses and put them on the coffee table. He picked her up and carried her to the bedroom.

"How about we re-live some of those memories?"

Chapter 9

She was still sleeping when Ranger awoke. He brushed her hair off her forehead, gave her a little kiss, and whispered, "Merry Christmas, Babe." He watched her sleep. He was going to miss this when he was gone. They only had one more week together. He was going to make every second count. Ivy jumped on the bed with her leash. He sighed and got up. Due to the holiday, they were running on a skeleton crew so he didn't want to call downstairs to have someone walk her. He got dressed and took her out.

Stephanie felt him get up but remained quiet. After he left, she ran into the bathroom to wash up and changed into the Christmas lingerie she bought. Even though she did decide to write the song, she still liked Lula's idea about the sexy underwear and riding him like a reindeer. She closed the lid on the piano, wriggled herself on top of it, and lay back on her elbows with one knee bent. She knew he wouldn't be long because Ivy was quick in the morning. She liked to do her business and get back into bed.

Ranger came back in the apartment. "Merry Christmas, Carlos," she told him in a sultry voice. He saw her on top the piano wearing a red corset with black ribbon, red thong, black FMPs, and a Santa hat. Christmas had now officially become his favorite holiday. He crossed the room in 3 strides and took her right there on top of the piano.

After they finished, he hugged her close. "I love my present, Babe," he growled. She smiled.

"This was just one of your presents." She walked over to the tree and bent over with legs straight to pick up a small package. She could feel his eyes on her behind. She climbed into his lap and gave him the present. He opened the gift and stared at the CD case. "You have everything so I decided to write you a song. I hope you like it." She looked down at the floor, biting her lower lip, before looking into his eyes. "I had Mike record it for me."

He was stunned. His heart fluttered in his chest when he realized how much love she had for him to write him a song.

When he didn't respond, she thought he didn't like it. "I know it's stupid but…." He cut her off with a kiss.

"No…it's not stupid. I can't believe you did that for me." She smiled in relief. He started to turn towards the stereo but she stopped him.

"No, you can listen to it later. Right now, I want to play it for you first." He nodded and kissed her again. He sat in the chair closest to the piano. There she was, still in her Christmas lingerie and Santa hat…looking totally fucking hot…and was going to play for him. She performed the song for him. He was so choked up that his eyes did get a little misty. The song was about her being good enough for herself and for him and how much she loved him. It really touched him. Her self esteem had taken a beating over the years, but she had started having more confidence these past couple of months. He felt like he was going to explode. He had to use all of his self control to stop him from getting the ring and proposing to her right there. When she finished the song, she sat there, staring at the keys for a minute, before looking over at him.

He got up, walked over to her, and pulled her into his arms. His lips crashed down on hers. "Thank you," he whispered. He hugged her tight. When he found his voice again, he pulled back. "That was beautiful, Babe. That was the most amazing gift anyone had ever given me." She smiled back.

"Really?" He nodded. "I love you so much Carlos. I wasn't sure if you would think this was stupid. I actually asked Lester if he thought it was stupid idea but he said no. I'm so glad you like it." She let out a big sigh in relief.

"I love it. I can't wait to her the recording." He went to the stereo and put in the disc.

"I had Val play the violin. I think it gave it the right touch." They sat on the couch and listened to the song.

"Who else heard this already?"

"Just Val, Ella, Mike, Lester, and now you," she told him. He got lost in the song all over again. He thought he would have to listen to it several times to hear the whole thing. At least now he had something special that was Stephanie to take with him when he left.

Later that day, they went to the Plums' for dinner. With the help of a couple of Steve's forgotten credit cards, Stephanie, and their parents, the girls had a wonderful Christmas. Valerie was doing everything in her power to take their minds off missing their father. Mary Alice climbed into Ranger's lap. She was telling him about everything that Santa brought for her. Ranger got such a kick out of her. She was like a miniature Stephanie. She had a mop of dirty blonde curls, light blue eyes, and the same smile as Stephanie. Angie looked exactly like Val. He imagined that was what Val and Stephanie were like growing up.

"So you had a good Christmas?" Ranger asked her. She nodded. She looked around to see where her mother was before continuing. She put a hand up to her mouth and whispered to him.

"I was worried that Santa didn't know that we moved. I know Mommy has been sad because of Daddy. I heard her tell Grandma and Grandpa that she was worried that we wouldn't have a good Christmas." She stopped and looked up at him smiling. He couldn't help but smile back. "I guess Santa does know everything, right Carlos?"

"That's why you always have to be a good girl," Ranger replied. "Santa is always watching." There was a knock at the door. It was Hal.

"Merry Christmas Hal," Steph told him. He didn't want to come over empty-handed. He brought over a cheese tray and some wine. "Mom, Val and I invited Hal for dinner." Helen took the tray and thanked Hal.

"That's fine. You know we always have plenty," she told everyone. Grandma Mazur looked Hal up and down.

"And a very handsome young man," she exclaimed. "He has a very nice and firm bottom, too." Hal turned five shades of red.

"Grandma, try to control yourself!" Val exclaimed. "He wasn't able to be with his family for Christmas. Don't scare him away!"

"Dinner will be ready in a few minutes," Helen called out from the kitchen. Stephanie and Valerie finished up setting the table.

"So….how did Carlos like the song?" Val asked her. Stephanie smiled.

"He loved it. I'm so glad because I was nervous there for a while," she sighed. "God, Val. I'm going to miss him so much when he's gone."

"I know, but at least he's coming back in one piece," Val tried to console her.

"I know. And the worst part is they are going to put me through Rangeman Boot Camp while he's away. They're bringing in someone from the Boston office to do it. My life is going to be total hell!"

"Well, try to think of the positive," Val began. "At least it will keep your mind off missing him and you'll get in good shape." Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Sometimes, you are just too positive sometimes. It's a little nauseating." Valerie laughed.

"That's because I've been living in California all these years. Everyone is positive out there," she explained.

"Hopefully, you'll get that negative attitude back after living in Jersey again," Steph muttered.

After dinner, they opened their gifts. Helen put the coffee on and brought out the pineapple upside down cake, cheese cake, and Entenmann's chocolate covered doughnuts. "Chocolate doughnuts?!?!? They're my favorite!!!," both Stephanie and Mary Alice cried out in unison. Ranger and Valerie exchanged smiles.

"She is soooo much like Stephanie that's it's scary," she explained. "A couple years ago, we were at Steve's sister's house for Christmas. She was only four and her oldest was 12. He was teasing her and wouldn't stop. I heard Mary Alice tell him that if he didn't stop, she was going to hit him. Now, I don't want my children to hit people, but I want them to be able to defend themselves. Well, he didn't stop…kept calling her a little baby…so she punched him….she punched him….in the privates," Valerie lowered her voice to a whisper to finish the sentence. Ranger and Frank burst out laughing. "Well, needless to say, Joey doubled over in pain. I should have yelled at her because I don't want her fighting, but I turned my back and pretended I didn't see it."

"Now that is something my Stephanie would have done," Frank beamed with pride. They continued to laugh as they walked into the kitchen. Stephanie and Mary Alice had a good head start on the chocolate covered doughnuts…both their lips smeared with chocolate.

"What's so funny Grandpa?" Mary Alice asked him. He picked her up and got a chocolate covered kiss.

"You are Sweet Pea," he told her. Ranger decided he wanted his own chocolate covered kiss.

"You taste good, Babe," he whispered in her ear.

Hal left shortly after cake and coffee. He thanked everyone for letting him share their holiday. Valerie and Stephanie cleared the table and put everything in the dishwasher. "Hal seems very nice," Val said. Stephanie looked at her with raised eyebrows. "What? I just said that he seems like a nice guy that's all!" Stephanie smiled.

"He is a nice guy." Stephanie stood there smiling at her sister. "Some-bod-y has a cru—ush." She sing-songed softly. Val's face showed panic.

"I do not!" Valerie looked guilty. "Well….maybe a little crush. Steven and I had problems for the past couple years. It was just nice having a man treat me with a little respect I guess." Stephanie gave her a hug.

"Hal is a very nice guy. He's not seeing anyone right now. I'm sure I can set you up if you are interested." Val shook her head no.

"I don't want to get involved with anyone right now. I have too much to work out for me and the girls. I've got to move into your apartment. I start a job next week. I've called for the girls transcripts and have to get them enrolled in school." She dropped her face in her hands. "I'm so overwhelmed right now!"

"What can I do to help?" she asked.

"You've already done enough. I've got a job and a place to live because of you."

"Don't thank me yet…you haven't moved into the apartment yet. It's nothing fancy and it's very small," Stephanie warned.

"But it's a start. Steph, I really appreciate everything you've done. I'm so glad we have a second chance at getting close. I wish we had more of this growing up," Val sighed. Ranger came in the kitchen.

"Ready to go, Babe?" She nodded. Although they did have a nice visit, she knew he wanted to spend as much time together alone as they possibly could before he left. They said their goodnights and headed back to Haywood.

Stephanie immediately went to change into one of Ranger's tee shirts. He went to the stereo to play her song again. She came back out into the living room and found him sitting on the couch with his head back and eyes closed. He was intently listening to the song and taking in every note. She poured two glasses of wine and sat down next to him. He didn't speak until the song was over. "Babe, that was so beautiful." He pulled her into him. "Thank you." She couldn't help smile.

"I don't have the money you have, and I know that you don't value things because of their price tag," she began. "I just wanted to give you something special…something that was a part of me. I'm actually so relieved that you like it."

"Correction…I love it." He held her close while they sipped their wine. It was the best Christmas the both of them ever had.

Ranger, Tank, and Hal were helping Stephanie pack her things to move to the 7th floor apartment. Ranger was flabbergasted. "Babe, where did you get all this stuff? There is no way you had all of this in your apartment. In that closet." Stephanie laughed.

"I warned you. Women have a way of stuffing a closet that is not to be believed," she giggled.

"This is a lot of stuff," Ranger repeated looking over all the boxes and laundry baskets. Hal picked up a box and the bottom fell out. He bent down to pick the clothes up and jumped back as if he was shocked, throwing a black object across the room.

"Uh…I'm sorry…uh…I didn't mean to….uh…oh my God," he stammered. Stephanie looked over at the pile of clothes and realized it was a box of lingerie. She started giggling but began to full out laugh. She picked up the see-through, black lace bra that he had flung across the room. Tank bellowed in laugher when he saw what she was holding. Hal was red in the face.

"It's okay Hal. Why don't I get this box?" She gathered up the lingerie and threw it into the closest laundry basket. Ranger took the bra from her hand and inspected it. The corners of his mouth twitched into a small smile.

"Nice," he commented.

"I used to be a lingerie buyer…remember? I have tons of this stuff," she explained to Hal. Hal nodded and grabbed other boxes and ran out the door. Underestimating the amount of stuff Stephanie had, they wound up making 2 trips.

They headed to the Plums and had lunch. They were also helping Valerie and the girls move into the apartment. "Stephanie, do you actually have any pots and pans in your apartment?" he mother asked.

"I have a pot and a cookie sheet. The toaster is broken, but I have a microwave." She looked at everyone and shrugged. "What can I say? I'm more of a take-out kinda girl." Helen sighed. She took out some extra pots and pans for Valerie.

"I hope you will be able to do something with her Carlos," Helen told him. "She is not even close to being….domesticated." Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"I'm sure I'll figure out something to do with her, Mrs. Plum," Ranger responded giving Stephanie a sideways glance.

"I'll bet you will," Stephanie muttered under her breath. Since Val and the girls didn't bring much with them, they were able to make it with one trip.

"Once I get everything organized and settled in, I'd like you to come to dinner," she told Ranger, Tank, and Hal. "I really appreciate all your help." There was a knock at the door. It was Morelli and his cousin Mooch. They were dropping off a set of bunk beds that his sister had stored in his basement.

Ranger nodded a greeting to Morelli. He gritted his teeth and hands were white-knuckled in fists as Morelli gave Stephanie a hug. "Joe, tell Kathy thanks again. This was really nice of her." Kathy was a year older than Joe. Val had gone to school with both of them.

"Gotta go. I'm working tonight," Joe told them and left. But not before kissing Stephanie on the cheek on his way out the door. She looked at Ranger and gave him her heart melting smile then blew him a kiss. He trusted her. He just didn't trust Morelli.

The week seemed to fly by. Stephanie was working with Tank and Ranger, and trying to get Valerie oriented to the computer systems. Hector was back from his vacation. Her face just had the brownish-yellowish telltale bruises left with most of the swelling gone. Bobby took out the staples on Tuesday. Her headaches were very minimal. Hector was furious when he found out what happened to her. "I will kill him, Bonita," he told her.

"Hector, he's not worth it," Stephanie told him. "Besides, I think the guys helped him to have an….accident…on the way back to jail." Hector was still angry. He loved Stephanie and wouldn't think twice about going after anyone that hurt her. She wanted to get some payback herself but didn't want the guys to risk getting in serious trouble for her. She introduced Hector to her sister. "This is Valerie. She's going to be answering the business phone, doing some searches, and other office stuff." They shook hands. "Hector mainly works on computer systems and installing the security systems. He can help you with any computer problems 'cause he is a wiz on the computer."

Ranger made dinner and hotel reservations at The Plaza for New Year's Eve. He had his tux dry-cleaned. He gave her his credit card. "Go and get yourself a formal dress, Babe. Whatever you want and don't worry about the price." She started to protest but he stopped her with a kiss. She was meeting Lula and Connie for lunch since she had to make a stop at the Bond's office anyway.

"Fuck working today, we need to go shopping!" Lula exclaimed. Connie decided to join them.

"You're going to need help getting ready for the ball, Cinderella!" she joked. Stephanie smirked.

"Yeah, like you guys need an excuse to go shopping," she replied. They all piled in Stephanie's Mustang.

"Girl, this car is the shit," Lula said. "I can't believe you got Dickhead to give you this car back."

"He owed me big time!" Steph insisted. "I really missed this car. It was my first new car. And I always wanted a Mustang."

"I wonder how long this one is going to last?" Connie thought out loud. Stephanie gave her a death glare through the rear-view mirror and rolled her eyes.

"Don't even make a joke like that. That's not funny."

"I hear they started a pool down at the cop shop," Lula told her.

"What happened to the other cars was not my fault!" she insisted. "It was just….just…weird circumstances."

They shopped around Quakerbridge Mall. She tried on a long black, backless gown. Lula shook her head no. "Batman likes your legs too much. This doesn't show them off." Stephanie frowned.

"How do you know what he likes?" She put her hands on her hips.

"Because I'm not blind. He's always looking at your legs. Well…and your ass….and your tits…." Connie started to laugh. Stephanie glanced down at her chest.

"He won't see much there," she muttered.

They looked through the racks some more. "Holy Shit! This is it!" Lula pulled out a short, strapless, pale blue gown. It was very plain. It had a rhinestone studded pin between the breasts. "This will match your eyes and look good on your pasty white skin."

"Oh yeah, Steph. This dress is you," Connie added and the two of them admired the dress. It was pretty.

"Okay, let's see how it looks." She tried on the dress. They were right. It brought out her eyes and the fit was….perfect. She looked at the price tag. $500.00. "Oh my God! I can't get this…look at the price!" Now, she knew that Ranger wouldn't even blink at the price but that didn't mean she should take advantage. She would still have to get shoes and a bag.

"It's 40% off Steph. You have to get this dress. You look amazing in it," Connie told her. She looked back in the mirror and sighed. The dress was really beautiful. The 40% off would help. Doing a quick calculation in her head, the dress was down to $300.00. It always amazed people that she couldn't balance her check book but could instantly calculate the new price of a sale item. Oh…what the hell, she thought.

"Okay, I'll get the dress," she agreed. They found a pair of 4 inch silver strappy stilettos and a silver clutch that went perfect with the dress. She sucked in her breath at the total. At least I didn't spend more than a thousand dollars, she told herself. Plus, Ranger insisted she get something formal. She couldn't go to a New Year's Eve party at The Plaza wearing a cheap dress!

The girls decided to have lunch at the mall in the food court. "So Ranger leaves on Saturday, huh?" Connie began. Stephanie nodded. "How are you handling it?" Stephanie shrugged.

"It's hard. I've been trying not to think about it," she groaned as she shoved a handful of fries into her mouth.

"Aren't you worried about Ranger getting' lonely? I mean…he's a high testosterone kinda guy. I'm sure he can't go for long periods of time without gettin' any," Lula told her. Connie kicked her under that table. "Ow! What did you do that for?" Stephanie hung her face in her hands.

"Ranger isn't interested in anyone else, right Steph?" Connie blurted out and shot Lula a disapproving look.

"Oh…yeah," Lula added. "I'm sure a hot specimen of man like hisself can contain his beastly urges. You probably don't have anything to worry about Stephanie." Connie shot her another death glare.

"I am worried about that," she admitted. "I don't think he's going to set out to cheat on me, but women throw themselves at him all the time. What if he doesn't have the willpower to say no?" Connie grabbed her by the hand.

"Can you stay faithful to Ranger?" Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Duh! Of course I can. I don't want anyone else. I love him, Connie!" she insisted. Connie smiled.

"If you can, than he can. He loves you too, Steph." Lula nodded.

"You wrecked his car….a Porsche….and he didn't get mad. He gave you a truck…" Stephanie interrupted Lula.

"It's a company car!" she groaned.

"White Girl, Batman is totally stuck on you. I'm sure he can keep his pants zipped for a couple of weeks," Lula told her. Stephanie sighed.

"Yeah…but he's going to be gone a couple of months!" She hung her face in her hands again.

"Lula, why don't you just eat and shut up?" Connie growled. "Steph, if he was the type of guy who cheated, he'd be cheating on you already. He wants to be with you."

"It's going to be a long three months," Stephanie sighed.

Stephanie dropped Lula and Connie back at the Bonds Office and picked up checks and new files. She headed back to Haywood to check on Valerie. Since she didn't get a call while she was out, she assumed that things were going fine. She decided to pick up lunch for Val on the way.

She dropped off her purchases on 7 before heading back down to the Control Room. Val was reviewing some reports when she came in. "I got you some lunch. Real food. Carlos only lets Ella stock healthy crap in the kitchen." Val smiled.

"Thanks. I'm starving. I didn't realize what time it was." They headed into the kitchen. Ram, Bobby, Lester, and Hal were having lunch.

"Hey Beautiful," Lester greeted her with a mouthful of food. Val sat down next to Hal. She didn't really know the other guys yet and she felt comfortable around him.

"How's it going?" Hal asked her. She shrugged as she opened the bag.

"So far…so good. I have so much to learn," she told them. Stephanie hopped up and sat on the counter.

"What….you're not eating?" Ram asked her.

"I just ate before I got here," she replied. "So what are you guys doing for New Year's Eve?"

"We're going to a party at a friend's," Bobby answered. Lester looked at him with eyebrows raised.

"Who's we?" This piqued everyone's curiosity.

"We is Tammy and me. She's an old friend that is back in town. I ran into her just before I went on vacation," Bobby explained.

"I'll bet you just 'ran' into her," Lester chided. Ram snickered.

"So what about you, Les? Gotta hot date?" Steph tapped the back of his chair. He took a swig of his bottled water.

"No doubt, Beautiful. I actually have two dates," he said smugly.

"My ass! Who the hell are you going with?" Ram asked. Stephanie hopped off the counter and stood behind Lester.

"Here, Ram," Stephanie joked, "Let me introduce you to his dates." She picked up both of his arms at the wrist and nodded to his hands. The guys roared with laughter. Lester just shook his head and stood up.

"Cute, Beautiful. Real cute," he said. He grabbed something from the freezer. He leaned down and spoke softly in her ear. "You jealous?" Before she could answer, he stuck a handful of ice down the back of her shirt. She screamed and jumped forward, pulling the back of her shirt away from her body to get the ice out.

"Lester!!!" There was more laughter. Even Val, who was quietly taking in the scene had tears in her eyes from laughing.

Hearing Stephanie scream, Ranger immediately appeared in the doorway. Still jumping around with her shirt pulled out, she got the last of the ice cubes out. She noticed that the room got quiet and turned to see Ranger leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed. "What are you doing?" he asked her, trying to look annoyed. She stopped, straightened her shirt, and crossed her arms.

"Uh…nothing." He raised his eyebrows at her response.

"Nothing?" She nodded. "Why did you scream?"

"I didn't scream….um…it was…Lester." She managed to keep a straight face but the others didn't. Even Lester started to laugh.

"Why did Lester scream, Babe?" The corners of his mouth twitched.

"Um…he saw a…spider. I killed it." She put a hand on Lester's shoulder who was shaking with silent laughter. "It's okay, Les. I got it."

"Thanks," he snorted. Ranger leaned against the door jam.

"So…Lester saw a spider and screamed like a little bitch." Snickers and snorts erupted from the table. "And you killed it." He was working very hard to keep his tone flat and even. She bit her lower lip and put her hand on her hips. God she's turning me on, he thought.

"Um…it was a really big spider, Carlos," she added softly. He looks so hot standing there, she thought to herself.

"Babe…can I see you in my office?" He disappeared from the doorway. They let out a few 'ohs'.

"Steph's gotta to go to the principal," Ram joked. She smacked Lester in the back of the head.

"You got me in trouble," she hissed.

"Me? You were the one who screamed!" he insisted.

"Yeah, but you put ice down my back!"

"You made fun of my dates!" he told her as he frantically waved his hands in front of her. She rolled her eyes and left for Ranger's office. She walked into the office but didn't see him. She jumped when he grabbed her from behind and slammed the door shut. His lips crashed down on hers and he backed her up against the door with a bang.

They heard the bang in the kitchen which was right next to Ranger's office. They all looked at each other and smiled. "I hope Ranger's not giving her a hard time," Hal said, all wide-eyed. "She was only joking around." Bobby, Lester, and Ram looked at each other and laughed.

"Oh, I'm sure it's hard…but I don't think that Steph will mind," Lester said. They continued to laugh. Val didn't understand what was so funny. There was more banging against the door. Hal was about to ask another question when it hit him.

"You mean they're…." he trailed off and turned beet red. "Oh my God!" They laughed even harder at him. Hal could be real naïve at times.

"What are they doing?" Val asked. Bobby and Lester stood up. They had to check out two sites and wanted to get them done early. They weren't going to go there and explain that her sister and the boss were getting it on in the next room. Ram just shook his head.

"Forget about it," he told her. "Ask you sister about it….much later." Ram went back to the monitor.

"What are they doing Hal?" Hal was too embarrassed to look at Val. He threw away his trash and spun around quickly to make a fast exit. His nerves got the better of him and he walked into the wall. "Hal…are you okay?" He mumbled something under his breath and ran out of the kitchen.

Chapter 10

Stephanie didn't want the night to end. Ranger looked absolutely delicious in his tuxedo. She took notice how many other women shared her opinion. They danced all night. He gave her an amazing, toe-curling, earth shattering kiss at midnight.

Ranger thought Stephanie looked incredible. She left her hair curly…just like he liked it. The dress she bought was the color of her eyes. And this gorgeous woman was his. He gave several men a death glare when he caught them leering at his woman. One man was so intimidated by Ranger that he turned too quickly to walk away and fell onto the buffet table.

About 30 minutes past the ringing in of the New Year, Ranger decided he'd had enough. He brought her back up to their suite where they made love all night long. Before both of them knew it, the time had come for Ranger to leave for Fort Bragg.

He had packed his truck the night before. He just had a small toiletry bag left. Stephanie tried her best not to cry. She didn't want him leaving and feeling bad. It didn't work. He held her close.

"Babe, please don't cry," he told her softly. You know how I hate to see you cry, he thought to himself. "I'll be back before you know it. Sssshhh. I love you, Stephanie."

"I love you." She was only able to manage a soft whisper. She cursed herself for breaking down in front of him. "I'm sorry…"

He tilted her chin so he could look her in the eyes. "Don't be sorry. It's going to be fine. I know this is really hard on you. Shit, it's hard on me, too. I don't want to be away from you either. This will be the last time. I promise. Then we won't have to be apart ever again." She swallowed hard and nodded. They kissed one last time and he was gone.

She waited till she heard the door close and began to sob again. Ranger took the elevator to the garage. Tank was waiting by his truck to say goodbye. "What are you doing up?"

"Just wanted to say goodbye and wish you luck, man." Tank put out his hand and Ranger shook it. Tank pulled him into a bear hug. "Maybe you'll get back into better shape and might be able to have a better chance at taking me in the ring." Ranger tossed his bag in the truck.

"That'll be the day," Ranger grinned. He looked back at the elevator and sighed. He looked back to Tank again. "Take care of her."

"She okay?" Ranger shook his head no. Tank nodded. He looked at his watch. It was 4:45 am. The bakery opened at 6. "I'll personally make a run for doughnuts in a little while." Ranger gave a small smile. "Take care, Buddy." Ranger gave him another curt nod and he headed out. It would take about 10 hours to get there with moderate traffic. He needed to get settled in today due to being in meetings all day Sunday, and they would get started on Monday.

Stephanie opened her eyes and looked at the clock. It was 6:30. She had cried herself to sleep. It was still too early to get up but she wasn't sleepy. She was so angry at herself for crying when he left. She promised herself that she would wait until he left. Damn it! He left feeling like crap because of her. Ivy was curled up next to her. She didn't want to get up, but Ivy would need to go out. She didn't want to call the Control Room because she didn't want to see anyone right now. She sighed and got up. She threw on sweat pants, sneakers, and Ranger's jacket. She could smell his scent mixed with Bulgari. It was comforting. "Come on, Girl." She grabbed her leash and hooked it into her collar. "The sooner you go…the sooner we can get back to bed."

She got off the elevator and ran into a large wall…Tank. He looked down at her and smiled. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying. She had jumped back in surprise. "Hey Bombshell…I got you something." He held up the 2 boxes of doughnuts. She couldn't help but smile. "I got a dozen Boston crèmes and a dozen of mixed doughnuts." She gave him a hug.

"Thanks Tank." He was glad to see her smile. "I'm really going to need comfort food today." He put the boxes back in his truck. Then, he put his arm around her.

"Let's go for a walk." They both took Ivy out. She had wanted to be alone but was grateful for the company. "You know if you want to talk or need anything…I'm here for you."

"I know," she replied and sighed. "Tank I cried when he said goodbye this morning! I tried so hard not to….I really did. I didn't want to make him feel shitty before he left. But I did." Her voice had wavered and was shaky. The tears started to flow again. He hugged her close to him.

"Bombshell, if you really want to know the truth…I'm glad you did," he began. She looked up at him quizzically. He wiped away her tears with his thumbs.

"Huh?"

"Yes…he hates to see you cry. Yes…he felt bad this morning. Not just because you were upset. He doesn't want to be away from you either. He's going to miss you big time, Bombshell. And now he knows that you will miss him as much as he'll miss you. If you didn't cry, I think it would have made him feel worse," Tank explained. She took in what he said. She sniffed back the rest of her tears.

"Somehow…that retarded logic…makes some sense," she told him with a smile. He gave her a big grin. Ivy finished up her business and they headed back still arm in arm. "How about we get started on those doughnuts?"

"Lester should be back with the lattes by now…they go great with doughnuts." She looked up at him with raised eyebrows. "Bombshell…you know we all love you. Not just because of Ranger. You're a friend and little sister to all of us. We know this is going to be hard for you. I want you to know that we are all here for you." Major speech for Tank! She loved these guys.

"You all love me enough to get me out of Rangeman Boot Camp?" she asked hopefully. Tank threw his head back and laughed out loud. "Tank…I am so not athletic. I don't run. I don't exercise. I even get winded taking the stairs to my apartment!"

"Tell you what…," he began, "you promise me that you will really give a 100% effort, and if you find that something is too much for you, you come directly to me. I'll take care of it. Deal?" She beamed up at him.

"Deal!" Lester had just pulled into the garage before they got back. Tank retrieved the doughnuts from his truck. He knew if he left them out in the open, they doughnuts would have been history. Lester pulled her into a hug and kissed the top of her head.

"You okay?" He saw her red and puffy eyes and could tell she had been crying. She smiled and nodded.

"I will be," she told him honestly. Bobby, Hal, Ram, and Woody were waiting for them in the apartment. She was really touched by this gesture. They wanted to make sure she was okay. They dug into the doughnuts and drank their lattes. They joked around about the training that McSweeny had planned for her. They had been thinking of ways to help get her mind off Ranger.

"Do you want to go out tonight?" Ram asked. They decided they would take her out if she wanted to go. She shook her head no.

"Not tonight but I'll take a rain check," she replied.

"How about you just come down to the rec room and hang out with us?" Bobby suggested. "Sometimes we just either play cards or rent some movies." She thought a minute.

"Don't let me stop you from doing what you guys normally do," she told them. "I appreciate the invitation, but I'm going to be fine."

"Most of us are partied out from New Year's Eve, Steph," Woody added. "We're probably just going to watch movies tonight. If you feel up to it, come down and join us."

"We'll have food, Beautiful," Lester interjected. This got her attention.

"Food? What kind of food?" The guys smirked.

"Whatever kind you want," Lester said.

"Well if you're going to have food, I know how you guys hate to put away leftovers…" she smiled.

Stephanie spent the afternoon lying on the couch and semi-watching TV. Her cell phone rang about 3pm. It was Ranger. "Hey!"

"How are you doing, Babe?" He wanted to call her several times during the drive down but he wasn't sure if it would make it harder on her. She was supposed to be getting used to him being gone. If he called her all day, it wouldn't help the situation.

"I'm okay. The guys brought me doughnuts and lattes this morning to cheer me up. I miss you," she sighed. He swallowed hard. Please don't cry again, he thought to himself.

"I know. I miss you too. It's going to be lonely in this bed tonight," he said. "What are you doing?"

"Watching TV. They guys want me to watch movies with them in the rec room tonight so that's probably what I'm going to do." He gave her the phone number to his apartment. They talked for a while before hanging up. She took another nap.

The phone woke her up. It was Lula. "Hey White Girl….I need your help tonight."

"Doing what?"

"I'm going after Tyrell and I don't want to go to Comstock alone," she explained. Steph sat upright.

"Comstock? Are you nuts?"

"Please Steph. I really need to get him. I need money. I know he's going to be there tonight and I don't want to go alone. Please?" Lula begged. She knew she should ask one of the guys to go with them. She knew neither of them should be anywhere near Comstock, which was in the heart of gang territory, during the day no less at night. "Please?" Steph sighed.

"Okay, but if there looks like there's going to be trouble, let's just get the hell outta there," she told her. Lula agreed.

"I'll pick you up right after dinner. Don't want to chase any skips on an empty stomach!" Hopefully, this wouldn't take long. They would grab him, she would be back to watch movies, and no one would know where she was.

She dressed in jeans, a long sleeve henly, and Ugg boots. It was cold so she grabbed her blue coat with the fur trimmed hood. It was 6 pm and she started out the door, but turned around to grab her stun gun and pepper spray. Lula was waiting for her out front. "Thanks Stephanie. This means a lot. Nobody was jumping bail with the holidays and all. I really need this money." Steph knew that feeling. With working for Rangeman, she didn't have to worry now that she made a steady paycheck.

Lula cruised onto Comstock. There wasn't much activity…outside. It was cold. That didn't mean there wasn't any activity. "He's meeting his girlfriend tonight. She was holding his stuff. I heard he needs to move it get money to get out of Trenton." She parked down the street and they got out. Stephanie's senses were screaming…BAD IDEA…BAD IDEA, but she continued down the street with Lula. With Stephanie being the only white girl on the block and Lula dressing in red spandex pants and a neon yellow down jacket, they were more than a little conspicuous.

Ram had stopped in the control room after working out to talk to Junior who was on monitors. "We're just going to watch movies tonight if you want to stop down. We're trying to cheer Steph up. She was pretty upset about Ranger leaving this morning." Junior made a face.

"She left a little while ago. Someone picked her up in a red Firebird." Junior shrugged. "Maybe she'll be right back." Ram looked at the clock. It was 6:45. "I'm sure she'll be right back. She left Ivy upstairs. If she was going to be gone long, she would have brought her down here." Ram relaxed. Junior was right.

"Maybe I'll catch you later." Ram went down to his apartment.

"He's supposed to be here by now," Lula whispered.

"I hope so 'cause I'm cold," Steph muttered. It was after 7. She left Ivy alone because she didn't think this would take so long. She also didn't bring her bag or her phone. They were crouched behind a dumpster in the ally next to Tyrell's girlfriend's apartment.

"If we don't see him in another 30 minutes, let's call it quits," Lula decided. Stephanie nodded. Now that was the best idea she heard all night. Stephanie felt a cold metal object placed against her temple.

"Now what the fuck do we have here?" Lula turned around with her gun in her hand. Stephanie had her hands in her pockets. She tightened her grip on the stun gun and switched it on. "You better drop your gun Bitch or I'll spray this white girl's brains all over the side of this building." Lula did as she was told.

"You missed your court date Tyrell," Stephanie said in a calm voice. "You just need to reschedule…that's all. You'll get bonded out again." SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! She screamed in her head. What was I thinking? Tank is going to kill me! Forget Tank…Carlos is going to kill me! Why do I get myself into these messes all the time?

"Fuck that," he growled. "I ain't goin' no where. You bitches think you're going to take me in? You're fuckin' crazy."

"Steph isn't the one who's lookin' for you Tyrell. It's me. Just leave her out of this," Lula told him trying to be brave. She was feeling majorly guilty for dragging Stephanie into this mess. Stephanie pulled her stun gun out and attempted to stun him. Lula grabbed for his gun. Tyrell kicked Stephanie in the stomach and she doubled over but managed to zap him in the leg. He went down the same time Lula charged at him and she flattened him to the pavement.

It was 7:30. They had ordered pizza and Hal picked up all kinds of chips, dips, cookies, and crackers. Steph hadn't come down yet. Lester was going to go up to 7 to see if she was still interested in hanging out with them. Ram walked into the rec room and asked, "Is Steph back yet?"

"Back? Where'd she go?" Tank asked.

"Junior said she left about 6. Someone in a red Firebird picked her up," Ram told them. Tank sighed and hung his head.

"That would be Lula," he said. What are you up to, he asked himself. Lester called her cell but only got her voicemail.

"Hey Beautiful….where are you? Call me as soon as you get this." He put in phone on the coffee table. "Maybe they just went to get dinner or something?" Because it was Stephanie, they all had a bad feeling.

"Steph? Are you alright?" Lula asked her as she handcuffed Tyrell.

"Yeah," she groaned. She slowly stood up holding her lower right side. "That's gonna leave a mark." It hurt but she didn't think there was any major damage. "Let's just drop this guy off before we really get into some trouble." Lula agreed.

"I am so with you on that one!" They dragged him to her car and took him to the station. It was after 8:30 when Lula dropped her off. She had a feeling the guys were going to give her a hard time about where she was. She wanted to take Ivy out before meeting up with them.

Tank was notified the second Lula had pulled up. She wasn't totally surprised when the doors opened on 4 to a large and looming figure with his arms crossed…Tank. "Is everything okay?" He looked concerned…and a little pissed. She gave him a smile.

"Yup…everything's fine. I'll be down after I take out Ivy," she replied and hit the door close button. It almost closed but was prevented by his large, baseball gloved sized hand. The doors parted and he got on the elevator with her.

"So…what are we watching tonight?" she asked, trying to change the conversation.

"Are you going to tell me what you and Lula were up to?"

"Nothing major. She needed help with a skip. That's all. We got him and brought him in. Sorry it took so long but no one ever said what time the movies started." She hoped he bought that.

"Why do you have blood on your jacket?" She looked down. Shit! There was blood on her sleeve. Tyrell's nose was bleeding after he smashed his face on the pavement.

"Damn it! I hope this comes out. I like this jacket," she groaned. Blood was a hard stain to remove. She looked back at Tank. "It's not my blood. Lula sort of tackled him and his face hit the pavement." Tank nodded. He would let it go for now.

"I'll see you in a few minutes." She got off on 7 and grabbed Ivy. After a quick walk, she headed back to meet them on 4. While she was out, Tank made a couple of phone calls and found out that they were on Comstock. He was furious but didn't know how to handle the situation. She was having a hard enough time with Ranger's absence. This wasn't Rangeman business. He couldn't control her personal life. But it was his job to look after her. He promised Ranger he would take care of her. Shit, he thought, this is going to be a long three months.

Stephanie finally met the dreaded Mike McSweeny on Monday afternoon. She found out that he was a former Drill Instructor. Swell. Like all other Rangeman employees, he was big and muscular. His hair was buzzed cut. Mike told everyone to call him 'Mac'. He had been given a tour of the building, oriented to SOP of the Trenton office, finally introduced to the woman that Ranger wanted him to train.

He had figured that the woman had to be hot. He couldn't imagine Ranger with a dog, but Holy Fuck he thought to himself. He thought she was called Bombshell because things had a tendency to explode around her. She was gorgeous. Ranger told him he picked him because she would be able to smile her way out of any strenuous exercise with the Trenton guys. This was going to be a challenge. He wanted to talk with her one on one. This way he could find out what motivated her.

Stephanie suggested that they go out for lunch. "First of all, Ranger wants you to learn how to defend yourself and get in better physical shape. I'm just going to help you do that. I'm a hard ass and I will push you. But I'm not going to hurt you." She smiled at him. Shit, he thought, I'm dead.

"I don't like exercise," she told him. "I don't like running. I don't like working out. I don't like getting up early." Mac smirked.

"Okay…what do you like?"

"I like shopping, French fries, Reese's Peanut butter cups, birthday cake…."

"Alright….I get the point. I'm going to take this week to find out your strengths and weaknesses. I need to know what your fitness level is so I know where to start," he explained.

"I'll make it easy for you. I have no fitness level." He gave her a nod.

"You will when I get through with you," he replied.

"Swell," she muttered as she rolled her eyes before digging into to her lunch.

Chapter 11

Knowing that the entertainment value would be worth the effort to get up early, Tank, Bobby, and Lester volunteered to help with Mac's first early morning session with Stephanie. Tank glanced down at his watch when Stephanie dragged herself into the gym at 5:30 am. "I guess we should expect a blizzard or something this week," he joked. She gave him the finger.

"Alright Plum!" Mac barked in his best DI voice. "Let's get started!" She rolled her eyes, let out a long and exaggerated sigh, and sauntered over. Lester and Bobby exchanged smiles.

"That was so unnecessary," she muttered. They did some stretching.

"I'm going to see how bad of shape you are in. Let's see how many push-ups you can do in a minute." She groaned but got down to do it. She promised Tank and Ranger that she would try.

"One?" Mac shouted. "Plum, you only did one push up in 60 seconds?" Tank, Bobby, and Lester tried to contain themselves as they watched her struggle through the one push up she did. She flopped onto her stomach and lay there.

"Are we done for the day?" she asked.

"You gotta be shittin' me Plum! We're just getting started." He had her do pull-ups where she managed two. They tried a few other exercises before coming to sit-ups. This made her a little nervous because her stomach was a little sore from being kicked on Saturday night. But since her performance had been so poor so far, no one would notice that she couldn't do any sit-ups anyway.

Next, he wanted to see how fast she could run a mile. Complaining about the cold, it being too early, the cold again, that she was hungry, how much she hated running, the cold again, she made it two blocks before she gave up and dropped to the side walk. She was out of breath and drenched with sweat. Lester turned around and jogged back to where she was laying on the side walk.

"Damn Beautiful. You're really outta shape," he told her with a grin.

"Lester," she breathed out between panting, "I'm….not…outta shape."

"Jeez…you couldn't even make it around the corner," he responded in surprise at her answer.

"To suggest..…that someone……is outta shape…...implies that…...she was actually…...in shape at some point…….….I was never in shape," she finally managed as she continued to catch her breath. Lester laughed and offered his hand to help her up. She looked over at Mac who stood in a typical Rangeman pose…legs spread and arms crossed with stern look. "Now are we done for the day?" He shook his head in disbelief.

"We got our work cut out for us, Plum," he barked then he smiled. "Yeah…we're done for now."

"Swell," she muttered and headed back to the building. Ivy looked a little disappointed. Ranger took her for longer runs. "Sorry girl, this is not my thing."

That week, Mac worked with her every morning. He booked two sessions in the gun range. He thought exercise was going to be a challenge. She hated guns too. He watched her as she got in a stance to shoot at the paper target at the end of the range. Just before pulling the trigger, she closed her eyes, turned her head away, and squeezed the trigger. It hit dead center in the chest of the paper man.

"What the hell was that? Are you using the Force, Plum?" Mac asked. She looked at him and shrugged.

"Uh…no, Obi Wan. I just don't like guns," she replied. He told her to try it again. He stood behind her, holding her head to keep it straight.

"Keep your eyes open and focus on the target." She did as she was told and her next shot didn't even hit the target. They tried it again. Same thing. "Okay…try it your way." She turned her head and closed her eyes again. Dead center. Mac shook his head. "We'll work on it," he told her with a smile.

Mac emailed a report to Ranger about Stephanie's progress. He made a special note that although her body was out of shape, her middle fingers and eye muscles worked just fine. Ranger smiled to himself. At least she's trying, he thought. He also regretted that he wasn't there. He sent her a quick email before heading out.

With the holiday season behind them, the FTAs were picking up. Between the paperwork, Tank and Stephanie went after a few small time skips. Her days were busy, but the nights were hard and lonely.

After the first week of hell, Mac started her with some simple self defense moves. The list of volunteers was long. If there was a chance for any one of the men to get to roll around on the mat with Stephanie, they all wanted to be included. Lester's name was at the top of the list. Mac had shown her a couple of take-down moves. Unfortunately, she was unable to budge her 6'3", 230 lbs partner. "I'm not going to be able to do this," she whined. "He's bigger than me."

"Size doesn't matter Plum," Mac barked at her.

"Don't you have a volume control on that?" she said and rolled her eyes. She unsuccessfully tried the move again but Lester managed to get her flat on her back, arms pinned above her head as he straddled her hips.

"Lester!" she huffed at him.

"Okay, Plum, now you have to try to get out of the hold," Mac looked down at her and nodded.

"But I don't want to hurt him," she responded. Lester and the crowd of Rangeman employees just burst out laughing.

"Come on, Beautiful…you can't hurt me. Give me what you got," he teased. She looked back up at Mac. He nodded to her again.

"Okay…you asked for it," she warned. He gave her a condescending laugh as she brought up her left knee and squarely connected to his groin.

"OOOOhff!" Lester's hands immediately were drawn to his crotch and his head dropped to her chest. Half the men were on the ground, holding their sides, from laughing so hard. The other half instinctively grabbed their own crotches. Tank and the others in the control room who had been watching from the monitors fell apart. As if Lester were a tree that had just been cut, he slowly toppled over on his side, still protectively holding his crotch. His face was twisted in pain.

"Nice job Plum!" Mac told her. She sat up and put on hand on Lester's shoulder.

"Are you okay?" He just groaned still being unable to speak. She really didn't mean to hurt him and felt bad. Mac helped her up and gave her a hug grinning from ear to ear.

"Okay…who's next?" Mac asked the crowd.

"Not me."

"Gotta go."

"I have to watch the monitors."

The crowd dispersed like smoke in the wind. Lester had pulled himself up to his hands and knees. Stephanie and Bobby kneeled down on either side of him. "Steph, get me an ice pack," Bobby told her still grinning. He helped Lester to his feet. Stephanie punched the ice pack to get it activated and handed it to Lester.

"I'm sorry, Les," she told him. He gave her a short wave and put his arm around Bobby who helped him to the bench. She sat down next to him.

"That's all for today Plum. Good job," Mac told her with a smile.

"God damn," Lester finally managed. "You need to register that knee as a lethal weapon. I think my nuts are up in my throat."

"You told me to do it," she insisted. He stopped and looked at her. Bobby started to snicker.

"I told you to smash my nuts," he responded in disbelief. She nodded.

"Yeah," she told him in her best imitation Lester voice, "Come on, Beautiful…you can't hurt me. Give me what you got!" He rubbed his face with both his hands. Well, she had him there. "I said I didn't want to hurt you. I'm sorry." He sighed.

"You're going to owe me big time for this…now I'm not going to get laid tonight." She rolled her eyes.

"How about if I bring you dinner? Anything you want," she offered. He waggled his eyebrows at her.

"Anything?" he told her with a sly smile.

"How about I kick you in the balls again?"

"Pizza and beer would be fine."

Stephanie ordered a couple of pizzas, picked up some beer, and headed to Lester's apartment. Bobby, Ram, and Woody were already there. They jokingly covered their crotches when she came inside. "I'm having Tank order everyone an anti-Stephanie device," Bobby told her as he tossed something to her. It was an athletic supporter. Gross, she thought, whose balls touched this thing. She tossed it aside.

"I don't think I'm going to be able to have children," Lester whined.

"Good, I don't think you should reproduce," Ram joked. "One asshole is enough."

"Are you feeling better?" Stephanie asked him. Although he was going to milk this for everything it was worth, he knew she felt bad about hurting him.

"Nothing that pizza and beer can't fix," he said. "I'm a little better than I was before." He took a slice and a bottle of beer. "That was a nice move though." He gave her a smile. Her cell phone rang and it was Ranger. She went out into the hall to take the call.

"I miss you so much," she gushed.

"Miss you too, Babe. What are you up to?"

"I bought Lester some pizza and beer. He kinda had a little injury today." Ranger frowned.

"What happened? Is it bad?"

"Um…I kinda…uh…hurt him in my self defense lesson…but he's going to be alright. He's still a little….uh…sore." Ranger grinned.

"What did you do to him?" He heard Lester in the background as took the phone away from her.

"She smashed my nuts. The girl is vicious, Ranger." He could hear Stephanie in the background.

"But you told me to do it!" Ranger laughed. She grabbed the phone back. "Carlos, he told me to do it. Now go back inside." She shoved him back into his apartment.

"Lester told you to smash his nuts?" She told him what happened. He was sure it was on tape somewhere. He couldn't wait to see that one. "I'll be home next Saturday, Babe. I can only stay overnight. I'm catching a military transport that will land at McGuire. I'll have to leave on Sunday. It's a short trip, but at least I'll get to see you." And make love to you the whole time, he added to himself. They talked for another 30 minutes before ending their conversation.

"He's coming home next Saturday!" she told them excitedly when she went back inside. This was the happiest they had seen her since Ranger left.

Ranger met a few of the other trainers at a local bar after he talked to Stephanie. He just wanted to get out and unwind after a long, grueling week. "Well," he heard a familiar voice behind him. "Look what the cat dragged in." He turned and saw Jeanne Ellen.

"What are you doing here?" She walked over to him and sat down.

"Is that anyway to greet an old…friend?" she purred. "Especially…an intimate friend?" Ranger had done several government jobs with Jeanne Ellen in the past. He used to have sex with her whenever they had gotten together. Things had changed since the last time he had been with her. She ordered a drink. "I hear you're not renewing your contract. I was surprised."

"Yeah, this is it. I'm done with all that shit. I have more important things in my life," he told her. She was still a very attractive woman. She stood about 5'5", short and spiky brown hair, and her ample DD chest pouring out of her low cut top. He took a swallow from his beer. "My business has really taken off. I have 3 offices now. And, I met the woman I want to settle down with." She raised her eyebrows at him.

"Really?" she asked. "She must be something special to take a ladies' man like you off the market. Or…are you still available for a night of fun?" He gave her a look that answered her question. "If she's back in Jersey, she won't know what's going on here."

"I'd know. No offense, but not interested," he told her shortly.

"Can't hurt to ask, right? I mean…we can still be friends," she responded. Damn, she was hoping to get in his bed tonight. She didn't like being turned down. She was very curious about this woman that stole Ranger's heart. "So…tell me about her."

"Her name is Stephanie. I was asked to help her with her new job as a bounty hunter. It just took off from there," he explained.

"I thought you didn't do relationships? You were more the love 'em and leave 'em type. Except with me, of course," she said.

"I didn't do relationships. I wasn't looking for one either. After the first day I met her, I wanted her in my life," he explained. "What have you been up to?"

"Same old thing. I'm retired. I'll be looking for a job. Let me know if you hear of anything…interesting." Ranger thought for a minute. He didn't have many female employees. Jeanne Ellen had skills he could use. They had worked together before and he trusted her. Of course, she would have to realize that things have changed. He would never cheat on Stephanie. He wasn't interested in Jeanne Ellen sexually anymore. Jeanne Ellen had good computer skills, good at investigations, spying, planting bugs, weapons, just name it.

"I may have something in my company…if you are interested," he began. "But I'm telling you upfront and right now, I'm with Stephanie. I won't cheat on her and the truth is…I don't want to. If you think you can handle that, I might be able to find something for you." This was easier than I thought, she said to herself.

"I think I would be interested. I'm not going to lie and say that I'm not disappointed that I can't have sex with you. It was always good. But, I need someone that I can trust to work with again. We make a good team," she agreed. He gave her his business card.

"We'll talk again soon," he told her. She kissed him on the mouth.

"Count on it," she replied and left. She had to find out everything about this woman who stole his heart. She had always hoped that he would be hers one day. She knew a relationship while in their line of work would be difficult. Damn, he still looked so good. He was the best lover she ever had. It was noble of him to say that he didn't want to cheat on Stephanie, but he was still a man after all. She would wear him down. Being away from her for three months would make it all the more easy.

Ranger sent Tank an email about Jeanne Ellen with a request to find her a job at Rangeman. Tank knew who Jeanne Ellen Burrows was. He knew that she was Ranger's partner on some government jobs and was his old fuck buddy. Why would he want to bring her into the mix and possibly ruin his relationship with Stephanie? He sent him back an email with just 3 words. Are you sure? Tank sighed. Bombshell was not going to like this. Ranger's response came back…Just do it. He thought it was best to have her at the Boston or Miami office. Nothing good would come of it if she worked in Trenton. He didn't think that Ranger would ever cheat on Stephanie. As a matter of fact, it would shock the hell out of him if he did. With Jeanne Ellen on the scene, he was getting a bad feeling.

Stephanie was able to make it three blocks this week before collapsing. Ivy was still disappointed with her short runs. She missed running with Ranger. Mac had her working on her upper body strength. She would crawl into bed at night shortly after dinner. She was tired and sore. But, it was helping to keep her busy during the day. Because she was so tired at nights, she didn't have much time to lay there thinking about how lonely she was. The week went by fast. She couldn't wait to see Ranger on Saturday. Friday morning, she got an email from Ranger. Sorry Babe….Something came up and I can't make it this weekend. Fill you in as soon as I can….Love, Carlos. She couldn't help but cry. She got herself together to get ready for work.

Tank saw the look on her face and knew that Ranger wasn't coming. "What happened?"

"I don't know. He sent me an email that something came up," she sniffled. Tank hugged her.

"I know you're disappointed. You know he wouldn't cancel on you if he had no choice, right?" She nodded.

"I miss him so much." Tank hoped he wasn't cancelling because of Jeanne Ellen. Ranger sent him an email later that day that Jeanne Ellen would be there Monday. He wanted to get her new hire paperwork processed along with physical exam. Tank shook off the thoughts he was having. Nah…Ranger wouldn't cheat on Bombshell. This was just a coincidence.

Another slow weekend. Stephanie and Val went to their parents' for dinner. Steph had gone out with Mike and Tara on Saturday night. She hadn't heard back from Ranger at all. Two and a half months and counting, she said to herself.

During the Monday morning meeting, Tank was informed that Jeanne Ellen had arrived. He told them to show her to the conference room. "I was going to let you know that Ranger hired an old co-worker of his. Jeanne Ellen Burrows." Stephanie just stared at Tank open-mouthed. "He wants us to get her started today. We'll be orienting her here and find her someplace in the company." Jeanne Ellen was a very attractive woman. She was wearing tight black jeans, a low cut clingy red sweater, and high heeled pumps. Her cleavage was up to her throat. Stephanie's heart sank. She got such an uneasy feeling. Why would he hire her? He didn't hire women! What was going on?

Tank made the introductions. Jeanne Ellen saw her chance to get her first dig into Stephanie. "You must be Stephanie. Ranger told me so much about you this weekend when we were together."

Stephanie felt her stomach flip, and she felt like she might vomit. That's why he cancelled, she thought, he was with her! Keep it together, she told herself. Lester and Bobby exchanged what the fuck looks.

"Nice to meet you," she said as she offered her hand. Stephanie stood up. "You'll have to excuse me. I have some searches to help Valerie with." She got out of the conference room as fast as she could and barely made it to the bathroom. Val saw her race into the bathroom and followed her in.

"Steph?" she asked through the stall. "Are you okay? You looked a little green back there." The toilet flushed and she came out of the stall. She rinsed her mouth and washed her face.

"Carlos hired some woman. He didn't say anything to me about it. He told me about a woman he worked with that he had a….sexual relationship with. I think this is her." She could feel the tears in her eyes. "She was with him this weekend."

"Steph, I'm sure that nothing is going on. Carlos loves you," Val insisted. Steph wiped her eyes with a paper towel.

"Maybe he's tired of me. He never wanted relationships in the past. Maybe he's sick of me and doesn't know how to break it off?" There was a knock at the door. Lester slowly pushed the door open and popped his head in.

"You okay, Beautiful?" He went over and gave her a hug. "Don't even think for a minute that Ranger's cheating on you. That's not his style. He's loyal to the people he loves."

"Then why did he blow me off this weekend to be with her?" Lester shrugged.

"That's something you need to talk about with him. Don't jump to any conclusions," he told her.

Tank gave her the new hire packet of paperwork to fill out. "You can sit in here to get these done. There's stuff in the kitchen so help yourself. You'll need to get a physical exam with our staff doctor. Bobby will help you get that set up."

"Thank you." She started on the forms. Tank went to look for Stephanie. He knew Jeanne Ellen's dig about being with Ranger this weekend was an attack on Stephanie. He didn't like this woman. It was Ranger's call and he just had to follow orders. He met people like her all his life. She was like a virus. She would work her way into the system and shut it down. He just wasn't sure what her agenda was yet. But he'd be damned if he let her hurt Stephanie.

He found Stephanie in Ranger's office on the computer. "Steph, I just found out about this. Are you okay?" He could see by the look in her eyes that she wasn't.

"Tank, be honest with me. Is there something going on between them?" She always could be direct when she needed to be. "Never mind, you wouldn't tell me if you knew anyway." Tank closed the door behind him.

"All I know is that she was someone he used to….see from time to time. They've worked together several times. He asked me to hire her. That's all I know."

"He blew me off to be with her, Tank," she cried. The tears welled up in her eyes. "Is he getting tired of me?" In a flash, Tank was behind Ranger's desk and pulled Stephanie into his arms.

"Don't even think like that," he scolded her. "Ranger loves you. He probably feels obligated to help out a friend. That's all she is Steph…a friend. Just like you are friends with Morelli." He knew that was a low blow but he needed to say it.

"It's similar but very different Tank. I've known Joe all my life and was with him one time. One time! And that was a long time ago. They were together many times and it wasn't all that long ago." He gave her a wide eyed look. "Carlos told me about her. He didn't say her name, but I'm not as dumb as I look."

"Do you trust Ranger?" he asked her. She sat on the couch. She looked at her feet. "Do you?"

"I trust him as much as I can trust anyone, Tank. It's not that simple. Every man that I have ever trusted broke my heart. I want to trust him, but I can't make someone love me and want to stay faithful to me. What if he's tired of me and that's why he hired her?"

"Bombshell, I can't see how he could ever become tired of you," Tank laughed. "Especially since the man is crazy for you." He sat down next to her. "I'm going to be honest with you. I don't like Jeanne Ellen. I think she's got a hidden agenda. I'm going to need your help and support." She looked up.

"Why don't you like her?" This was interesting. This way, if Tank didn't like her, maybe the others wouldn't like her either. Ranger was very big on making sure people fit with the team.

"First of all, she's CIA. They're sneaky fuckers. I don't like sneaky people. I don't like the fact that Ranger didn't let the team decide. I know Ranger trusts her. I don't." This made her feel a little better. "Help me on this one, Bombshell."

"Okay." He grabbed a tissue and wiped her eyes.

"Don't let the bitch see that she got to you. I think that's part of her agenda." That was going to be hard. She wore her emotions on her sleeve.

During lunch, Stephanie and Jeanne Ellen sat in the kitchen. "So…Ranger told me you met when he was training you to become a…bounty hunter?" Stephanie nodded. "He certainly has amazing…..skills," she purred. "I'm sure you know what I mean."

Oh no, Stephanie thought, she did not just say that! Stay calm, Steph, stay calm. "Carlos is very special," she kept her answer short. She looked at her watch. "I've got to go. I guess I'll see you tomorrow." Jeanne Ellen gave her a smile and watched her go.

"Such an easy target," she muttered. Stephanie is so insecure. This is going to be a lot easier than I thought. Ranger might not crack but she will! Now I just have to get to the rest of them!

Chapter 12

During the first couple of days, Jeanne Ellen began talking to the rest of the staff. She was careful to not ask specific questions about Stephanie. Luckily for her, they loved to talk about her. She found out about Joe Morelli and how Ranger didn't like him. She also found out that Stephanie was married to Dickie Orr. That might also be a good avenue for her as well. Jeanne Ellen got the impression that Tank didn't like her. That was fine. She could handle an uneducated oaf like Tank. More muscle than brains. All of the guys loved Stephanie. She would start with a few to turn them against her. Her psychology background would come in handy. After all, her specialty was fucking with people's minds. Once this was over and Stephanie was out of the way, she would convince Ranger they were meant for each other. He would be back in her bed in no time.

Today she was shadowing Lester. He seemed to be the closest with Stephanie. He would be the best one to have turn on her. Jeanne Ellen could easily tell that Lester was attracted to Stephanie. The morning was quiet and nothing was going on. They stopped at the diner to get lunch. "You seem like a nice guy, Lester. Nothing like what Stephanie said about you," she told him. Lester stopped chewing and furrowed his brow.

"What do you mean? What'd she say about me?" He thought she was joking about his love life or something. He didn't expect what Jeanne Ellen was about to say.

"Well," Jeanne Ellen hesitated. Here's another idiot, she thought, this is going to be too easy. "She told me that she has you wrapped around her little finger. She knows that you want her, and she uses that to her advantage. She plays like she is naive and you, out of everyone, fall for it the most. I'm sorry to tell you this, but I hate to see someone shallow like that use such a nice guy."

Lester's heart sank. He thought that Steph was his friend. Yeah, he had a crush on her, but they are…were …friends. There was no way that Steph could do that to him. Could she? He was pulled out of his thoughts as Jeanne Ellen continued.

"She's a great actress. I'm actually surprised that someone as smart as you couldn't see through her. I mean really. She was broke and living in a dump of an apartment. She got Ranger to buy her a car. She lives rent free in his gorgeous apartment. Since she's sleeping with the boss, she basically does whatever she wants."

Lester lost his appetite. This can't be true, he said to himself. But what Jeanne Ellen said made sense. He always found it hard to believe that a beautiful girl had such low self esteem. She had played him like a fool all this time. Damn. "You must have misunderstood what she said," Lester said hopefully. "She's really not like that at all." Jeanne Ellen smiled and went back to her lunch.

"Think what you like. She's a manipulator and user. If you are that dumb to fall for her act, then you deserve it. I was just trying to help you." Jeanne Ellen smiled to herself. He might not believe it yet but the seed was planted. "Besides, whose balls did she crush last week?" His eyes got wide. "She's still laughing about that. She told me that was the closest she would ever come to touching your balls."

Yeah, he thought, they were teaching her self defense but she didn't have to kick him that hard. Maybe Jeanne Ellen was right.

She could see him thinking about what she just said. If she had to seal the deal, she would have sex with him. Men like Lester could be easily controlled with his dick.

After they got back to Haywood, Lester avoided seeing Stephanie. He decided to go out that night, try to pick up a girl, and get laid. He didn't want to believe Jeanne Ellen, but it was hard not to. He never would have pegged Steph as a bitch. He couldn't decide which was worse…that Steph was leading him on or that he fell for it.

Jeanne Ellen over heard Ram, Woody, and Hal talking about going out. She asked them if she could join them. The guys just looked at each other and nodded. They were just going out to a sports bar for a few beers and to watch the Rangers' game. She kept the conversation light until they had a few rounds. Then testing the waters, she said, "Too bad you get stuck working with Stephanie. It must make you nervous to work with someone like her." Hal frowned as the others looked confused.

"What do you mean? We like working with Stephanie," Hal insisted. Ram and Woody nodded. Jeanne Ellen smiled.

"Oh, I'm sure you all like Stephanie…I mean who wouldn't. I'm just talking about safety. She is such a loose cannon. Undisciplined. Don't you worry about getting hurt?" She put on her best concerned look.

"Steph may be undisciplined, but most of the trouble she gets into really isn't her fault," Ram told her. "She just seems to be the biggest shit magnet I have ever seen." Hal and Woody smiled and nodded in agreement.

"Steph's not military like we are," Woody added. "She's smart and has great instincts." These guys are as stupid as the three stooges, Jeanne Ellen smiled to herself. She was a little disappointed in Ranger that he had hired idiots to work for him.

"Was she being smart the other night when she went to Comstock to help Lulu pick up a gang member?"

"It's Lu-La," Hal corrected. "When was this?"

"Apparently, Ranger wasn't even gone a day and she's intentionally putting herself in danger. The man put a gun to her head and almost shot her. And Lula, what kind of back up is she? Isn't she a prostitute? Doesn't sound like Stephanie is all that smart to me. She's going to wind up getting someone killed." She watched as they sat there and took all this information in. She could see that Ram was remembering something.

"That was the night that we asked Steph to watch movies with us, remember? Tank was pissed off about something. She told Tank that she helped Lula. Just because she didn't tell anyone where she was going doesn't mean that she was trying to hide anything. Besides, Steph's a big girl. She doesn't have to answer to any of us," Ram explained. He didn't like her tone.

"Well if she was in trouble or hurt, you would be the first people she would call to bail her out. So her lack of self control could put you in danger," Jeanne Ellen pushed.

"And if Stephanie ever called me and needed help, even if it was her fault, I would be there in a second. No matter what!" Hal told her angrily.

"Damn straight!" Ram agreed. Woody hesitated. He thought about what she was getting at. He really didn't want to get shot because of Steph's stupidity, but he would probably help her regardless if it was her fault. Hal and Ram looked at Woody. "Come on….if Steph was in trouble you'd be one of the first ones there and you know it."

"Yeah…I would," he finally acknowledged. "But she really does need to learn more control. I'd just hate to take a bullet for someone that continually disregards her own safety. That's all I'm saying." Bingo, she thought. I'm planting more seeds than a farmer. They argued a little more over this. Now for the kill.

"Besides, why would you want to take a bullet for someone who thinks you all are a big joke?" They turned to her with their eyebrows raised.

"Bullshit!" Ram told her. "Steph had our backs from the first day we met her. I'm catching on to your act and I'm not buying it." He stood up and threw some money on the table. "I'm going to get some air. Seems to be a little thick in here."

"Okay, don't believe me. Stephanie has all of you wrapped around her finger. She gets away with everything because she's screwing the boss. If you can't be honest with me, at least be honest with yourself. She's trouble and she's going to get someone killed. Just watch yourselves," Jeanne Ellen finished. She got up and grabbed her purse. "I'll find my own way back!" She pretended to storm off hardly concealing the smile on her face.

"Shit," Woody muttered. "If she tells Ranger, we're going to be in trouble."

"I think it would be the other way around, Woody," Hal replied. "I don't think Ranger would like her saying bad stuff about Stephanie. Even if she is his friend." Woody thought about that. Hal was right. Ram had seen Jeanne Ellen leave and came back inside.

"That bitch is trouble," he told them. Hal nodded. "We need to watch Steph's back."

"Yeah, but she's Ranger's friend. He hired her without even talking to Tank about it. Or Steph for that matter. Who do you think he's going to believe?" Woody was nervous about this situation. He didn't want to lose his job.

"I don't care," Hal spoke up. "I love this job but I'm not going to let her bad talk Stephanie. She's my friend."

"Woody, she's trying to stir up shit. She's been here a week and there's a bad vibe in the office already. Lester's got some bug up his ass. Tank's pissed. Stephanie is obviously upset. Just watch yourselves around her. She's ex-CIA. You can't trust them people. And yeah…if Steph went to Comstock with Lula that does piss me off. But I'm not going to turn my back on her," Ram said. Woody shrugged.

"You really think she's trying to cause trouble? Why?" Woody asked. Ram shrugged.

"I'm just taking a guess but I think she wants Steph out of the way so she can have Ranger. I mean she went right after Stephanie first thing. You know how excited Steph was when Ranger was supposed to be coming home last week. She couldn't wait to rub it in her face that she was with Ranger that weekend. Steph was really upset." Ram ordered another round.

"You don't think that Ranger's cheatin' on Steph with Jeanne Ellen…do you?" Hal asked.

"He's a fool if he is," Ram finally said. "Jeanne Ellen isn't bad looking…got a decent rack…but Steph is fucking hot. I mean if you could choose between a chick like Jeanne Ellen or a fox like Steph…who would you want to have in your bed?"

"Well…I mean…Steph is very pretty, but she's a great person, too. Ranger really loves her," Hal agreed. It was obvious around the office, but he got to see the two of them together at the Plums' on Christmas. He was even more attentive to her outside the work environment.

"Yeah, but if you remember how Ranger was before he met Steph…he didn't care who it was. He just wanted to get laid," Woody stated.

"Ranger changed after he met Steph, Woody. We all could see that. He never brought any women to the building. Ever. Now he's got Steph living with him. Ranger's not dumb. He knows he's got something special. He ain't going to jeopardize what he has with Steph just to get laid. Never happen," Ram insisted.

"Should we say something to Steph?" Hal wondered. "I mean…she seemed a little…depressed this week. Maybe we should tell her that…I don't know…that we're on her side or something?" Ram nodded.

"I think that's a good idea. Maybe she thinks that something is going on with Jeanne Ellen and Ranger. God knows what this bitch is saying to Steph."

"Stephanie never had a problem telling people to go to hell before. I'm sure if Jeanne Ellen was giving her a hard time, Steph would tell her off," Woody said.

"Yeah, but she's in a bad spot too. Ranger doesn't like Morelli but doesn't say anything because he's Steph's friend. Steph may not want to make a big deal over it because this is Ranger's friend. It would kind of be like the pot calling the kettle black," Ram explained.

"How the hell did you get so smart all of a sudden?" Woody joked. Ram grinned.

"Navy SEALs are smarter than you Jarheads!"

Jeanne Ellen took a cab back to Haywood to get her car. As she was driving back to her hotel room, she smiled to herself. She found the pictures she had of her in Ranger in bed. She couldn't wait to leave them around for Stephanie to find. She was going to talk to Ranger about getting an apartment in the building. It would make her job even easier. The first week wasn't even over yet and the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. "Damn…I'm good," she said aloud to herself.

Ranger was out in the field on training exercises. Unless something else had come up, he was going to surprise Stephanie this weekend. One of the Special Forces recruits had been critically injured in a jump exercise. Ranger stayed by his side until his family could get there. The soldier was finally out of the woods but would have a slow recovery. He hadn't had access to email or cell coverage. He also didn't want to get her hopes up and disappoint her again. He missed her so much. He couldn't wait to hold her in his arms. He wondered how things were going with Jeanne Ellen. Did I do the right thing, he thought. Maybe I should have talked it over with Tank first? What about Stephanie? He hoped she understood that they were just friends. He would have to wait and see.

Jeanne Ellen continued to infect the staff with her negativity. Now she had some of the Merry Men believing that Stephanie and Tank were getting it on. Some believed there was something going on with her and Ranger. Cliques were starting to form and the office tension was becoming unbearable. Lester kept his distance from not only Stephanie but everyone else. Stephanie was running up to five blocks now. Mac told her he was proud of her progress but had to laugh, "I can't believe how out of shape you were, Plum." She rolled her eyes.

"I was never in shape," she panted. They walked back to the building. He sensed there was something going on. He, too, picked up on the negative vibe in the building.

"You're getting there," he told her. "You know Steph…you can talk to me if you've got something on your mind." She looked over at him in shock. It was the first time he used her first name and not yelled 'Plum!' He could see that her eyes haven't shined since the first week he met her. "I know you miss him." She was touched by the sincerity in his voice and his eyes. She couldn't help the tears that welled up in her eyes. Damn, she thought, here I go again.

"It's not just that…I mean I do miss him," she began. "It's….it's….Jeanne Ellen." The flood gates opened and she began to sob. Mac just held her close and let her cry.

"Ranger's not interested in Jeanne Ellen. That was over a long time ago. And it wasn't much to begin with Steph. She's jealous of you." Stephanie looked up at him.

"But why did he bring her here? He obviously still cares about her."

"You have to be tough, Plum! Don't let her get to you! Don't play into her hands!" He resumed his barking DI tone. She smiled back. "Come on Plum! We still have work to do!"

"Swell," she muttered.

Bobby finished up with getting information from Jeanne Ellen and had set up her physical with the Rangeman PCP. He was bothered by what she had told him. Stephanie came in to give him the December reports to review. "Tank is hoping to close out the year by Friday. This way everything will be done so payroll and accounts payable can run the year end stuff and W-2s," she explained. She turned to leave.

"Steph?" he asked. She turned back around. "Do you have a minute?" She nodded. He motioned her to close the door and sit down. He looked uncomfortable.

"Everything okay, Bobby?" she asked as she sat down. "Is this about Lester? Do you know what's been bothering him?" Bobby shook his head no.

"Steph, do you feel comfortable around me?" She was stunned. What is this about, she wondered.

"Of course, Bobby! Why would you think that?" He relaxed a little. "I've always felt comfortable around you. I mean you took such good care of me when I was hurt."

"You would tell me if you thought I touched you inappropriately, right?"

"Bobby, did I do something wrong?" He shook his head no.

"Jeanne Ellen told me that…that you said that my hands like to wander when I was taking care of your wounds. She said that it made you uncomfortable and you were afraid to tell Ranger. Steph, if I made you feel uncomfortable, I'm sorry. That was not my intention," Bobby insisted. Steph immediately reached across the desk and took his hands into hers.

"Bobby, I never said any of that to Jeanne Ellen! She is a fucking liar! You've got to believe me!" she exclaimed. She was on the verge of tears…again. Damn it…she was like fucking Niagara Falls this week! Bobby was up and around to the other side of his desk in a heartbeat. He knelt down in front of her holding her hands.

"I believe you, Steph. I just wanted to make sure that you didn't feel uncomfortable. I'm not used to working on women. Maybe you felt you had to work with me because of Ranger. I wasn't sure if you were embarrassed because….uh…" he trailed off.

"Because you've seen me naked?" she finished. After the shooting when she had collapsed in the ER waiting room, Bobby had been by her side the whole time. He assisted the nurses and doctor getting her undressed and stabilized. If it was any other Rangeman employee, she would have felt a little weird around them. Not Bobby. He was always professional. Bobby nodded.

"I'd feel weird if it was Lester, but not you!" she joked. Bobby smirked. "Jeanne Ellen is nothing but trouble, Bobby. I don't know what to do. She keeps giving me these little digs about her and Carlos. I know they have been together. She's just supposed to be his friend, but I don't know anymore. If this keeps up, I might…." She put her head down.

"You might what Steph?" Bobby prodded. "Walk away from Ranger? Don't do that. Don't let her win."

"Bobby, I can't and won't fight for someone that cheats on me. But right now, I was just thinking about quitting my job at Rangeman and going back to work for Vinnie. I don't like ultimatums and I won't ask Carlos to choose between us. Obviously, he wants her here. He wouldn't have given her a job if he didn't. And, she has more experience than me. She would be the better choice to stay." She sighed and put her head in her hands. "It's bad enough that he's gone. But I can't deal with this too."

"Yes, you can, Steph," Bobby told her sternly. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You're stronger than that. Look what you just did to Dickie Orr. Take charge. Give yourself some credit. Jeanne Ellen is causing a lot of trouble. We'll back you up on this. We'll all to go Ranger as a united front and tell him she's got to go. It won't just be you." She squeezed his hand.

"Thanks," She kissed his forehead. "Be careful around her Bobby. If you need to do anything with her, make sure I'm there. If I can't be there, get Val or Ella. This way she can't accuse you of anything. Do you think that's what's bothering Lester? He won't talk to me…shit, he won't even be in the same room with me, Bobby."

"He wouldn't tell me what's wrong either. It wouldn't surprise me if Jeanne Ellen is behind what's bothering him. She's some piece of work. But she's like a fucking black cloud. This place hasn't been the same since she got here. I'll talk to Lester again. Hang in there, Steph. We'll get this straightened out." She gave him a hug and went back to Ranger's office. Val came running in with a panicked look on her face.

"Steph, all the year-end reports are gone!" she cried out. "I looked everywhere. I looked on the hard drive and the shared drive. They're gone!" Steph searched the shared drive. The files were empty.

"Shit," she muttered under her breath. She got up and followed Val to her old cubicle and looked on the computer's drive. Those files were empty. Val started to cry.

"Stephanie, I swear they were all there. I had to go to sign some papers for the girls at school. When I got back, everything was gone. I logged off the computer like we are supposed to! I don't know what happened." Val flopped down into the chair. She had to tell Tank. She called Hector first.

"Hector I need you right now," Stephanie told him. "We lost all the year-end report files." Hector frowned.

"I'll be right up, Bonita," he told her calmly. "Don't worry. They can't just disappear." Hector was there in just a few minutes. He checked the hard drive and the shared drive. He asked Val what she had done.

"I just saved the changes that Tank gave me. That's all. I save it to both drives just in case. Then I logged off and went to the school," Val insisted.

"Relax V," Hector replied giving her a smile. He had started calling her 'V' shortly after she started. "I don't think you did anything wrong. Someone intentionally deleted these files. Since you saved them to both drives, it will be easy to recover. I'm going to have to work on better security for the shared drive. It's hard to hack into from the outside, but I didn't think I'd have to have better protection from the inside." Val let out a sigh of relief.

"You really will be able to recover them?" she asked. Hector nodded and patted her thigh.

"It's going to take a little while so I hope you printed them to have a hard copy to work with if you need them right now," he explained. She nodded.

"I printed a copy earlier today and gave to Tank. I don't have a copy with all the latest changes though. I hope he doesn't need them right now." Val looked relieved.

"I've got to tell Tank what happened. I have a feeling who did it too," Stephanie told them. "And if she keeps up this shit, I'm going to punch her in the face." Hector smiled.

"I'd pay to watch that fight, Bonita. Be careful, she is highly trained. And…she's CIA. They're sneaky motherfuckers. I think you should just shoot her." She rolled her eyes.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," she muttered as she went to find Tank. Tank was sitting at his desk going over the reports.

"Ranger would have a good excuse to be away from all this year-end shit," he complained. "This is why I didn't open my own business." Stephanie sat down across from him.

"Well, get ready for more shit," she began. "Someone deleted all the year-end files from the hard drive on Val's computer and the shared drive." Tank's eyes got wide and panic started to set in.

"Fuck!..." Stephanie put up a hand to cut him off.

"Hector's working on it and says he can recover the files." Tank let out a long sigh and his shoulders slumped.

"Thank Christ!" He rubbed his face with his hands. "We would have been royally fucked. What the hell happened?" She told him. She had only seen Tank really pissed only a handful of times. This look went beyond all of them. "Jeanne Ellen?" Stephanie shrugged.

"Can't prove it but that would be my guess. Tank, we've got to get rid of her. I'm willing to take the heat from Carlos over it. She's really turned this place inside out. It looks like she wants me out. If Carlos won't get rid of her, I'll quit. I don't want everyone to get stuck working in a shitty atmosphere because of me."

"You ain't goin' anywhere Bombshell!" Tank growled standing up. He called Ranger but just got his voicemail. "Call me immediately!" He slammed the phone down.

"Look, I'll be the first one to help her out the door, but we can't prove she did it, Tank. We have to play this smart. If we just fire her, she's not going to take it lying down. And, it obvious that Carlos wants her here. In the long run, it's up to him," Stephanie told him.

"He won't keep her around if we all walk, Bombshell. I don't tolerate anyone who fucks over their own." Tank sat back in his chair and folder his arms.

"I'm getting coffee. Do you want anything?" Tank shook his head. Stephanie went into the kitchen. Lester was sitting at the table. He stiffened when she walked in. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds and they stared at each other. "Hi." He looked away. "I know something's wrong, and you're mad at me. Can you at least tell me why?" He looked at her for a minute. He was angry, but most of all he was hurt.

"Yeah…I can't stand two-faced people, Steph. I really liked you. I thought we were friends…"

"We are friends, Lester!" she interrupted. He stood up.

"No…Steph…we're not. I have to put up with you because you're sleeping with the boss. You're all the same. You just smile and have everyone here falling all over you. Well not me…not anymore. If we have to work together, then I'm stuck being around you…otherwise just stay away from me and I'll stay away from you!" His voice was raised and they had the attention of the entire control room. Stephanie was shocked.

"Les…I don't understand…" She tried to put her hand on his arm but he shook it off and walked past her.

"I didn't expect you to understand," he told her and walked off. Stephanie looked at everyone that was staring and walked back into the kitchen. What the hell did she do to Lester, she thought. Was he pissed about the self defense thing? Maybe it was her fault. She didn't want to hurt him and wasn't trying to hurt him. Shit. She made herself a cup of coffee. She needed a sugar laden carb…preferably a chocolate substance…to go with the coffee. She looked around, not really expecting to find anything, but Ella had been sneaking cake and cookies down since Ranger was out of town. There was a Styrofoam container in the back of the fridge with her name on it. She opened it up and saw a huge piece of chocolate cake. God bless Ella. This was just what she needed. Tank came in the kitchen.

"What the hell was that about?" She shrugged as the tears came for the millionth time that day. "I'll have a talk with Lester." She shook her head no.

"Just let it go Tank." She took her coffee and her cake. "I'm going to work from the apartment. I just don't have the energy to deal with this right now." The tears streamed down her face as she walked through the control room to get to the elevator. The men working the monitors just exchanged worried looks. They glanced over at Tank who waved them off.

"Give her space right now," he told them and check with Hector. "How are things going?"

"Got half the files back so far," Hector told him. "It will take another hour or so till I have them all. Then I'm going to work on better security for the shared drive. This wasn't hacked in from the outside. This was internal." Tank nodded that he understood.

"Can you tell who deleted them?" Hector shook his head no.

"I might be able to, but can't guarantee it." Tank patted his shoulder.

"Keep at it. Let me know when you have them back. I'll save them to my hard drive too."

"Is Stephanie okay?" Val asked him. "Should I go up and see her?" Tank shook his head no.

"She needs some space right now. There's a lot of shit going on here and it's going to really hit the fan soon. Believe me." Tank located Lester at the gun range.

"What the fuck is your problem, Santos?" Tank growled.

"None of your business, Tank," Lester told him. Tank pulled the headset off his head.

"It is my business. You and Steph were good friends. What the hell are you so mad about? Are you all of a sudden pissed that she kicked you in the balls?"

"No…well…yeah. I'm just a big joke to her. She thinks all of us are a big joke. She's using Ranger. She had nothing and now she's living rent free in his apartment. She's been using all of us. She had me fooled, Tank. I really thought she was my friend. Then she smashed me in the nuts and that really fuckin' hurt. She used the fact that I'm attracted….that I like her…." He stopped. He didn't mean to say that part out loud. "She's been telling everyone that I'm wrapped around her finger and I fell for it. There wasn't a damn thing that I wouldn't have done for her. Fuck!" He ran a hand through his short and spiky hair.

"And who told you this load of crap? Jeanne Ellen? And you believed her?" Tank asked. He looked up at Tank and nodded. "You actually believed that lying cunt? You believed that Bombshell is really like that? She shot and killed someone to protect you Santos. Stephanie is your friend. You don't even know this cunt and you're taking her word over Steph's. Did you even bother to talk to Steph about this?" Lester started to feel foolish. He shook his head no. "Did it occur to you that all the problems and negativity started around here the day that cunt started?"

"Tank, what she said made sense," Lester tried to defend himself. "It sounded believable at the time. Especially that she was pretending to be insecure. I mean, Christ, how many beautiful girls don't know how good looking they are? Shit, I mean Steph can stop traffic she is so beautiful. She can get those skips to follow her out like love-sick puppies for god's sake. Yeah…I believed it. I'm such a fuckin' moron!" He sat down on the bench. "I hurt her…didn't I?"

"Jeanne Ellen will have to go. I called Ranger but if I don't hear anything by Friday, I'm going to fire her myself. Steph already said she was going to quit. If Ranger wants that cunt working here, then I'm going to quit too." Lester felt like shit. How could he be so stupid? "The year-end files were deleted. Hector was able to recover them. We can't prove it but we think she did it."

"Why is she doing this? Is she trying to get Ranger for something?" Lester asked him.

"I think she's trying to get Bombshell out of the way. I figure she couldn't get to Ranger so she's going after the weaker link." Lester looked up at him with eyebrows raised.

"Steph?" Tank nodded.

"Steph's an easier target. Ranger won't leave Steph but she could push Steph to leave Ranger. Just make people turn against her here and think that Ranger was cheating on her. Steph's tough but she hasn't had much luck with the men in her life. It wouldn't take her much to back off." Lester hung his head in his hands. "And for your information, not that it is your business, Stephanie is still paying the rent on her apartment. She's covering her sister's and her nieces living expenses till they get on their feet. Santos…you, of all people, should have known better."

"Jesus! I played right into that bitch's hands. She made me turn against my friend. What the fuck kinda friend am I?" he groaned. "Bobby tried to talk to me about it and I blew him off. I was just feeling sorry for myself. Fuck me!"

"Maybe you should go and talk to her?" Lester nodded. "She's up on 7."

Chapter 13

Ranger got Tank's message after 10 pm. He called him right away. "Is Stephanie alright?" He immediately thought something happened to her.

"Yes and no," Tank told him. "The problem is that bitch you hired."

"Watch yourself Tank, Jeanne Ellen is my friend," Ranger growled.

"Oh yeah…she's a real good friend, too. She's been trying to turn everyone against Bombshell the second she got here. And succeeded with some people too. Steph is upset and wants to quit. And if you don't let me fire that cunt, I'm going to be right behind her." Ranger was taken by surprise.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"Well first…it didn't go over too well that you didn't include the team on the decision. Then she rubs in Bombshell's face how you two spent the weekend together… the weekend that Steph was so looking forward to spending with you."

"Tank, I didn't even see her last weekend!" Ranger insisted. "We had a chute failure. I spent the time in the hospital with a recruit!" Tank relaxed somewhat. He believed him.

"Well you better tell that to Bombshell. How do you think it looked that you cancel on her and Jeanne Ellen show's up on Monday after you hired her? That cunt has been taking shots at her all week. Talking about your past sex life. Telling the staff things that Steph said about them that weren't true. She's got some believing that you're cheating on Bombshell with her. Hell, she's even got some people believing there's something going on with me and Bombshell. It's been hell here this week. She's a fucking virus. Oh… and I can't prove it but she deleted the year end files. Thank God Hector was able to recover them. We would have been fucked if they were lost." Holy shit, he thought, how could he have misjudged someone who had his back all these years?

"Stephanie thinks I'm cheating on her?" The dinner he had eaten a short while ago twisted in his stomach. How could she think that? Then again, Jeanne Ellen was good at messing with people.

"Yes." Tank cut to the chase. "She's really upset. When can you come up again?"

"If nothing else happens, I'll be there late Friday night. I'm grabbing a transport from Pope to McGuire. Fuck! I didn't think this would happen, Tank. I thought I was helping out a friend. Look, don't do anything. I'll handle it when I come up. If I have to cancel again, then you can fire her. Don't tell Steph I'm coming up just in case I have to cancel again. I don't want her getting her hopes up only to be disappointed again. Especially now. God damn! How much damage control needs to be done?"

"If we get rid of her this week, I think it will be minimal. Stephanie is another thing. Jeanne Ellen turned Lester against her and they had a blow out today. I haven't checked on her since she went upstairs this afternoon. She needed some space." Ranger wasn't sure if he should call her or just wait till her saw her the day after tomorrow. He really wanted to hear her voice and tell her how much he loved her. Ranger hated being taken for a fool. And most of all, he hated anyone messing with Stephanie.

Stephanie avoided everyone as much as possible the next day. She decided to take Ivy with her. Lester had come up and knocked on the door the night before but she didn't answer. She was too hurt to talk to him. She decided to get a box of doughnuts and bring it to the Bonds Office. She had some checks and files to pick up anyway. She bumped into Joe Morelli coming out of the Tasty Pasty. "Can I have one?" he asked. She gave him a smile and opened the box. "I was going to call you today," he told her. "I have a really big favor to ask." She raised her eyebrows. "I'm going out of town for a week. Safe guarding a witness. I need to you take in my mail and check the pipes in the basement for me. I'd ask Mooch but I know he'll forget."

"I'm not a plumber, Joe. I don't know anything about pipes," she responded with a confused look. "I can handle the mail part."

"It's an old house. If it gets too cold, the pipes might burst. I would need you to just turn the faucet on in the kitchen and let the water run during the night so they don't freeze. Do you think you can handle that for me?" he asked as he put his arm around her and walked her to her car. He looked at Ivy who was hanging her head out of the window waiting for her doughnut. "Wow, is she getting big." He rubbed her head.

"Yeah, I can handle that. How long will be you gone?" He handed her a spare set of keys.

"Hopefully just a week but it might be two weeks. I really appreciate this Cupcake…uh Steph. I'll try to call if I'm going to be longer than a week." He kissed her cheek. She put the keys in her bag.

"When are you leaving?"

"Later today. I'll take you to dinner when I get back. Thanks again, Steph. I really appreciate this." He kissed her again, kissed Ivy, and left. Stephanie got into the Escape and headed to the Bonds Office. She didn't see Jeanne Ellen across the street taking pictures.

Lula and Connie were sitting around as usual. "Hey White Girl!" She smiled widened when she saw the box from Tasty Pastry. Ivy bound in behind her.

"Hey Steph, how are things going?" Connie asked. They attacked the box immediately. Steph crammed a whole Boston crème in her mouth before answering. Connie pulled out a bone that she had in her desk drawer. Ivy took it gratefully and lay next to the couch chewing away.

"Not so good this week," she explained. She filled them in on some of the things going on with Jeanne Ellen.

"You think Batman is cheating on you?" Lula was surprised. Stephanie shrugged.

"I don't know. I'm torn between being stupid enough to believe he wouldn't do that to me and the fact that I had been stupid enough in the past to not see that men were cheating on me. I miss him and I really need to talk to him." She spent the morning with the girls trying to avoid the office. Her phone rang a couple of times…Lester twice, Tank, her mother, and Val. She called Tank and Val but wasn't ready to talk to Lester yet. And really wasn't up to dealing with her mother.

She pretty much stayed out of the office all day. She figured she could do paperwork after hours and could even work from the apartment office if she needed to. It was almost dinner time so she headed back. She was surprised to find Lester sitting in front of her door. She gave him an icy stare as she got off the elevator. Ivy trotted over to him to greet him. Traitor, she thought. She didn't say anything as he stood up. She unlocked to door and went inside without a word. He started to follow her in but she shut the door in his face. "Beautiful…..I'm sorry. Please let me in. We need to talk about this," he said through the closed door.

"The time to talk would have been when you first heard that load of shit about me, Les. You should have come to me and asked me about it. That's what a friend would have done. I guess you were right about one thing….you are not my friend!" she replied. Lester thunked his head against the door.

"You're right. I'm sorry. Steph….please let me in," he begged. She didn't answer him. She wasn't ready to talk to him. It would probably be worse the longer she put it off, but she needed time. When she didn't answer, Lester went back to his apartment. Ella had left dinner. She made a delicious beef stew with homemade rolls and left her a huge piece of cheesecake. Ella probably heard about everything that was going on. She hadn't really had a chance to sit down and talk with Ella in a while. She needed to do something for Ella to show how much she appreciated everything that she did for her. She ate dinner and changed into a royal blue velour track suit and sneakers. She went down to Ranger's office to finish her work then was going to stop by Joe's to run the water. It was supposed to get down into the teens that night.

There was a plain white envelope on her desk. She opened it to find photos of Jeanne Ellen and Ranger having sex. Her heart sank and the tears ran down her face. My face is going to get chapped, she groaned to herself. She didn't know when these photos were taken. She hoped they were old. Ranger's hair was very short. These were very hard to look at. They had both been with other people in their past, but it was hard to see it staring her in the face. Of course there was the nagging suspicion that Ranger was still sleeping with Jeanne Ellen. She didn't know what to do. She was jumping to conclusions. She was getting ready to walk and just believe what Jeanne Ellen was feeding her. She hadn't even given Carlos a chance to defend himself. Then she thought about Lester. She was angry at Lester for the same thing that she was getting ready to do the Carlos. Jeanne Ellen was making it so easy for her to believe that Carlos was cheating. She could have done the same thing to make Lester believe that she was using him. She really needed to talk to him. She finished her paperwork and went down to the 4th floor.

Lester opened the door immediately when he saw it was Stephanie. "Beautiful…I'm sorry." They stared at each for a minute.

"Are you going to let me in?" she joked. He stepped back so she could enter. They sat down on the couch facing each other. "Lester…it really hurt me that you actually believed that crap that Jeanne Ellen told you." He looked down at the couch. He felt like shit. "I would have thought a friend would have told her off…like Ram and Hal did. She's tried this shit on everyone." He felt even worse. "I honestly didn't think we could ever be friends again…until I got these." She handed him the envelope with the pictures. His eyes widened when he saw what they were. "I was going to do the same thing to Carlos that you did to me. I was really starting to believe that he was cheating on me. I was ready to walk. But I haven't even talked to him and given him a chance to defend himself. I mean, I don't know when these pictures were taken. Maybe he really is cheating on me…but I owe him the chance to explain." Lester nodded then smiled.

"These pictures are old, Beautiful. Ranger was shot last year in the arm. Bullet just grazed him but he has a scar on his upper arm. There's no scar in these pictures," he explained and handed them back to her. She looked at his arm. Lester was right. "She does have nice tits though." She couldn't help but smile and roll her eyes. He pulled her into a hug. "I am so sorry, Steph. Please forgive me." She hugged him back. She felt his body relax.

"Don't ever do that again!" she scolded. He hugged her again.

"I promise to talk to you if I ever have any problems with you. I swear." She pulled back and stood up.

"I have to go to Joe's. He's out of town and asked me to keep an eye on the pipes. He's afraid they're burst with the cold weather. Want to take a ride?" Lester nodded and smiled.

"Then, how about I treat you to a brownie sundae?" He waggled his eyebrows at her. "I'll even let you kick me in the nuts again." This made her laugh. She pushed him back onto the couch.

"You are such a gonad! I'm going to grab my coat and Ivy and I'll meet you in the garage," she told him. She put the photos back in the envelope and took off.

Lester was waiting in the garage for her and took her keys. He loved to drive her Mustang. His own private vehicle was an older Bronco. Since parking was limited while living at the Rangeman building, he was putting off getting the Corvette he always wanted until he decided to get his own place. She told him how to get to Joe's house. She took in the mail and they went inside.

This was the first time she had been there. It was not what she expected. It was modestly furnished. Of course there was a huge TV in the living room. But he didn't splurge on anything else. It was identical to the layout of her parents' house so it was easy to find her way around. She went down to the basement. No water. She turned the faucet on in the kitchen.

"So this is Morelli's house," Lester muttered. Wasn't what he expected either. There was a picture of Stephanie. He wasn't sure of her age but guessed around 7 or 8. Her hair was in these cute pig tails. She was smiling while holding a black stuffed dog. That must have be the infamous stuffed animal that she named Ivy after. "This is you, right?" He showed her the picture. She smiled.

"Yeah…that's me. That's the dog Ivy that I used to carry around all the time. Joe would steal her from me. His Aunt Rose left him this house. So that's when he decided to transfer to the Trenton PD," Steph explained. "This is just like the house I grew up in." She checked the back door to make sure it was locked and they left. "You owe me a brownie sundae." Since she brought Ivy, Lester ran into the ice cream parlor and got the sundae's to go. They sat in the parking lot to eat. She told Lester about the other things they suspected Jeanne Ellen of doing.

"Do you think Ranger brought her here to test us or something? I mean, I find it hard to believe that he didn't know she was this much of a bitch," Lester wondered aloud. She shrugged her shoulders.

"Tank said that he was helping a friend. To be honest, I don't think she would be doing any of this if it weren't for me. I think she wants me out of the way so she can have him to herself." She finished her sundae. "I just wish I could talk to him."

"Do you know when he's coming home again?" She shook her head no.

"I haven't even heard from him since I got the email that he couldn't come home last week. I don't even know how he's is," she sighed. He took the empty containers and threw them in the trash. He got back in the car and started it up. "Can you swing by McDonalds? I need some French fries." He grinned. The capacity of her stomach never ceased to amaze him.

Before she went to bed that night, she called Ranger. She just got his voicemail like she expected. "I love you."

The next morning, Stephanie had passed Jeanne Ellen in the hall. "Good morning Stephanie. Are you feeling better today? You were out of the office yesterday. I hope you got the pictures I left for you. Have you two ever tried those positions?" Jeanne Ellen smiled at her and started to laugh. Of course, she waited till there were several Rangeman employees standing around. Stephanie felt like she was going to lose control. She wanted to punch her in the face. Before she could stop herself, she turned to face a smug Jeanne Ellen.

"Jeanne Ellen…," she began through gritted teeth, "Go fuck yourself." She zapped her with the Taser. Stephanie saw a split second of surprise in Jeanne Ellen's smug face as she yelped and dropped to the floor like a ton of bricks. Tank, Bobby, and Lester were getting off the elevator at that moment. Stephanie couldn't help but smile. "Oh yeah…I feel a whole lot better now!" Tank stood there with a huge grin on his face. Bobby and Lester just stood there with their jaws wide open. She gave them a finger wave and sashayed her way to Ranger's office. Ram, Hal, and Woody high fived her as she walked past them.

"Go ahead, Bobby…pick her up," Tank told him through laughter. She started to come around as Bobby and Ram knelt down on either side of her.

"What happened?" she asked groggily.

"You fainted," Bobby told her. Remembering what Stephanie told him, Bobby decided to just sit her in a chair there in the open. He didn't want to bring her to the infirmary and give her any chances to accuse him of molesting her. "You okay?"

She nodded. She was trying to remember what she was doing just before this happened. She was talking to…..DAMN HER! "What did she do to me?" Jeanne Ellen demanded.

"Nobody did anything to you. You were inappropriately talking to Stephanie about sexual positions…which is against company policy and code of conduct…and you fainted. There were several witnesses to back that story up," Ram told her.

"She must have stunned me. Isn't assaulting a co-worker against company policy? I want to file a complaint immediately. I also want to press charges against her." She was livid. She hadn't expected Stephanie to stun her. Maybe she wasn't as timid as she thought. This will just give her more ammunition. Now, she could possibly get a restraining order and get her removed from the building. At least she could bring legal action against her and Rangeman. These people didn't know who they were dealing with. To add the icing on the cake, she would hire Dickie Orr to stick it to his ex-wife again! "Fine. Tank, I want to file a complaint against Stephanie." Tank swept his arm towards his office.

He contacted the HR person, Ira Yeager, and the company's attorney, Hunter Williamson. Her statement was taken and then they talked to Stephanie. "Just stick with the fainting story, Steph. We'll all back you up," Tank whispered in his ear.

"I don't want you or Rangeman to get in trouble, Tank. I did it and I'll take the fall for it," she insisted.

"But she's not just going after you, Bombshell, she's filling charges against Rangeman and Ranger," Tank explained. "Hal erased the video right after it happened. None of us are going to say anything different." She nodded

Stephanie told them some of the issues with Jeanne Ellen. She didn't mention the photos. She didn't know how Jeanne Ellen would use them to her advantage. "We were talking and then all of a sudden she just went down. Is she okay?" She surprised herself by being able to keep a straight face.

The Ira finished his report and went back to his office. He would need to call in the rest later to get their versions. Tank asked Hunter to stay and called Stephanie into his office.

Tank hadn't told Stephanie that he had spoken to Ranger the other night. He didn't want to upset her that Ranger didn't call her or let on that he was possibly going to be coming home late that night. He told Hunter most of what had been going on.

"Well, she can always cause problems but she is still under probation for the first ninety days. That's standard Rangeman policy. Rangeman has the right to terminate employment for any reason in those first ninety days. It's only once an employee has finished probation that you have to write everything up, document, give oral, written and final warnings before you can terminate employment. She can still file a complaint during probation. And the fact that everyone…" He paused and broke into a full grin. "…confirms that Ms. Burrows fainted, she doesn't really have a case."

"Can she claim a sexual harassment suit against Carlos?" she asked. She showed them the photos Jeanne Ellen gave her. Tank and Hunter frowned.

"Bombshell…these have to be old…" Tank was stunned. Steph waved him off.

"Lester pointed out that Carlos doesn't have the scar on his upper right arm from a gunshot wound that he got last year. So these pictures would have to have been taken before that. Believe me…I was sick when I first saw these," she explained. Tank studied the photos. She was right.

"Ranger agreed to let us fire her. How is this complaint going to affect that?" Tank asked.

"It depends on how far she wants to push it. It will look odd that she was terminated right after she made the complaint. She could bring a suit against Rangeman. You can never tell how a jury would vote. We have to wait and see what she wants," Hunter told them.

"I know what she wants….she wants me gone," Steph groaned. "I probably made it worse but it was either that or I was going to punch her in the face." Tank smirked.

"She deserved getting punched. I don't think today made a difference, Bombshell. It just shifted the game. We need to start documenting everything. They guys will get it on record the things she has been saying. We can't prove the computer thing. She did give you inappropriate photos. Those could help her or hurt her. She could claim sexual harassment against Ranger. We need to talk to Ranger and see what he thinks. I think we fire her and take our chances with a law suit." Hunter nodded.

"I agree. Law suits are always risky. You could have mountains of evidence but you'll never know how a jury will rule. Even if Rangeman took a loss, it would be worth it to get this albatross out of here. The only problem she could cause is negative press for the company. It may hurt getting new accounts. If people are getting good service, they won't care about a sexual harassment case. New accounts may be influenced. Since Ranger's the boss, it will be his call. For now, suspend her with pay. Keep her out of the building until we get things straightened out." Tank and Steph nodded.

"I know you'd love to be the one to tell Jeanne Ellen to get out, but I'd better do it Bombshell." Tank laughed.

"You just want your turn since I had mine!" she giggled. They thanked Hunter for coming so quickly.

Tank notified the Ira of the plans and called both Jeanne Ellen and him into his office. He told Jeanne Ellen that she was suspended while this situation is being investigated and would be paid. He also told her that she was not to return until notified of the outcome of the investigation and to stay away from all active Rangeman business. Jeanne Ellen broke from her normal calm and cool demeanor. She turned crimson and her face contorted in anger.

"You will hear from my lawyer," she told him. She stood to go. "I'm sure Stephanie is being suspended as well. She is the other party involved in this. I'm sure my attorney will have a field day if I was the only one suspended!" There…take that you overgrown, bald-headed moron. She stormed out of his office and left.

"She's probably right you know," Ira told Tank, "We may need to suspend Stephanie. This could be a problem because she is living on 7. She also may have to leave the building." Fuck! Tank thought. He placed a call to Hunter to discuss that issue.

Hunter didn't see a need for it but advised to deal with it if it came up. Stephanie was not a probationary employee anymore. There were no disciplinary actions in her HR file so it would not warrant her to be suspended at this time.

Tank updated Ira, and he went back to his office. He couldn't wait for Ranger to get back. This really was going to be a long 3…no 2 and a half months!

Jeanne Ellen emailed the photos of Stephanie and Joe to Ranger from her phone as she drove to her hotel. Take that bitch! She smiled to herself. She had placed bugs strategically around the office. She knew that Ranger was coming home later. She knew that Stephanie was watching Morelli's house while he was gone. Stephanie was Ranger's weakness. Ranger was jealous of Morelli's past with her. When she got back to her hotel room, she pulled out a long blond wig. She drove over to Morelli's and easily was able to pick his lock to get inside. If anyone was watching, they would just think it was Stephanie. She went down to the basement to look at the pipes. Taking a hammer from the tool bench, she banged on the old cooper pipe until she punctured it. Water poured from the hole. This will keep her busy tonight. He'll be pissed when he comes home to his precious little Stephanie to find her at Morelli's house. She laughed to herself as she got back in her car and went to go get herself some lunch. Being a first class bitch could work up an appetite!

Chapter 14

Tank hadn't gotten any messages from Ranger yet so he assumed he was still coming home later. He wanted to tell Stephanie so bad but was afraid just in case he cancelled again. Tasing Jeanne Ellen gave her sense that she had some control back. As much as he enjoyed seeing Stephanie take her down, she may have made the situation worse. Who knows with that sneaky bitch, he thought to himself.

Stephanie had the best day she'd had in the past couple of weeks. Part of her regretted that she let Jeanne Ellen get to her. The other part was doing the happy Snoopy dance that she got the best of her. She still hadn't heard from Ranger. She wondered if he would be mad at her for stunning his friend. That's another thing she would have to deal with when he finally was able to come home. Ella was still in the apartment when she got back. Ella gave her a big smile. "I heard what happened today….I mean Jeanne Ellen fainting and all. Couldn't happen to a nicer person." Stephanie smiled back.

"Yeah…imagine that!" she laughed. She looked at her dinner…or most importantly…dessert. Chocolate layer cake. "Ella…I love you!" She gave her a hug. "If you ever decide to leave Luis, I'd marry you in a heartbeat!" Ella laughed.

"I think Ranger has that idea in mind for you, Honey," Ella told her and gave her a knowing wink. Stephanie waved her off.

"Oh yeah…right! Carlos doesn't want to get married and I certainly don't want to get married again," she replied with a snort and began to dig into her dinner. Ella frowned.

"You mean to tell me if Ranger asked you to marry him, you would say no?" Stephanie looked at her.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Her eyes widened in panic. "Ella…do you know something I don't know? Has Carlos said something to you?" Ella didn't expect this reaction. She assumed that marriage would be the next step in their relationship.

"No, Stephanie, Ranger has not said anything. It's obvious how much you love each other. You two have so much chemistry between you it could cause a nuclear meltdown. I just thought marriage would be the natural progression of your relationship," Ella explained. Stephanie relaxed. "Do you love him with all your heart?" Stephanie nodded with a mouth full of food.

"Being married was the worst experience in my whole life, Ella. I never want to do that again." Ella smiled.

"That's because you weren't married to the right person. Luis and I have been married for 30 years. I have loved every minute and am praying we can have another 30," she told her. Stephanie smiled. "Marriage can also be a wonderful experience. It's not something to rush into or take lightly."

Stephanie hung her head. She knew Ella was right, but Ella didn't know all the details of her divorce. She told Ella about her marriage and divorce to Dickie Orr.

Ella was astonished. She knew Stephanie's divorce was messy but she didn't know how badly she was treated by her ex-husband. She understood why Stephanie was so afraid now. "You know that Ranger would never do something like that to you." Stephanie shrugged.

"Ella, my heart tells me no but my head says I don't know. I didn't think that Dickie would do that either. All I know is that I love him so much and want to be with him. But that's all I can let myself think about right now. Especially now with him being away. Things can change when you are apart. Feelings can change. I hope his feelings don't change for me. I'm…I'm just afraid of getting hurt. It hurt with Dickie and I really didn't love him. If Carlos decided he didn't want me anymore, I don't think I'd ever get over it." Ella smiled, gave her a hug, and kissed her forehead.

"I've known him for a long time. His feelings do not change like switching TV stations. He is still friends with the same people…his close and loyal friends. He still likes all the same things he's always liked as a child. Once he decides to make that person or thing or habit a part of his life…it's there for good."

"Ella…thanks," Stephanie sighed. "You are really a good friend. So I guess that means his healthy eating habits aren't going away either." Laughing, Ella gave her another kiss and left. Stephanie finished her dinner. It was going to be another cold night in the single digits so she grabbed Ivy and her coat and went to Morelli's.

Stephanie opened the basement door and turned on the light. She could see the bottom step was submerged in water. "Holy Shit!" she exclaimed and ran down the steps taking them two at a time. The water came to just below her knee. "Joe is gonna shit Frisbees when he sees this!" she exclaimed. Turn the water off, she told herself. She trudged over to the corner were all the pipes were exposed. It wasn't very well lit as there was a single 60 watt exposed bulb light in the middle of the room. The dirt floor of the basement caused the water to appear black and murky. She walked into a cobweb and screamed. [author's note: Here Stephanie has an arachnoleptic fit-the frantic dance with seizure like movement performed after walking through a cobweb heightened by the fear that there may actually be a spider on your body on some unknown location like your hair.] She began flailing her arms around trying to get the web off and tripped over some unseen object on the floor. An out of control arm smashed the light. She was plunged into darkness as she fell face first into the water.

Ranger got back from the field after 8pm. He was catching a 10 pm flight from Pope to McGuire AFB. Before taking a shower, he checked his messages. The first was from Stephanie…I love you. He played it two more times. He missed hearing that voice. He decided to call her since he definitely knew he would be there later. He was disappointed to get her voicemail but left her a message anyway. The next was a text message from Jeanne Ellen with photos attached. His fists clenched when he saw the pictures of Stephanie and Morelli. The note said….while the cat's away the mice will play. She looked…happy. He kissed her. Yeah…it was only on the cheek but he didn't like Morelli touching her at all. Has she been spending time with Morelli because she thinks I'm cheating on her? He tried her cell phone again but only got the voicemail. He called the Control Room.

"Hey Boss! How's it going?" Junior answered.

"Where's Stephanie?" he demanded. Junior looked at the board.

"Uh…Franklin Street…um…at house…." Ranger disconnected. Damn it! He didn't have to wait for the house number. He knew she was at Morelli's house.

Junior looked at Zero and shrugged. "Whose house is that?" Zero punched the address in the computer.

"Shit…" he muttered. "It's Morelli's house."

"What's she doing at Morelli's?" Zero just shook his head.

"I don't know."

Stephanie finally found her way to the bottom of the stairs while cursing and yelling the entire way. Ivy was on the stairs barking and wagging her tail. There was some light filtering down from the lamp over the sink in the kitchen. She was soaked from head to toe. The freezing water caused her body to shiver and teeth to chatter. "Swell," she muttered to herself as she crawled up the stairs. She couldn't find a flash light in the kitchen. She decided to call her father. He would know where the shut off valve was. "Daddy!" she whined when he answered the phone. "I need you to come to Joe's house right now. The pipes burst and there is water all over the basement! I don't know how to shut it off!"

"Pumpkin…calm down. I'll be right there," Frank told her.

"Oh…bring a flash light. The light blew out." Frank was there in ten minutes. Her parents lived around the corner. Frank chuckled when he saw her.

"It's not funny Daddy! There's like a foot of water down there!"

"Pumpkin, you didn't have to go swimming in it," he joked. He had on knee high rubber boots and a large flashlight. They went back down the basement. He went over to the corner and handed her the flashlight. "Hold it right there." She took the light and did what he asked. Frank turned the water off using the valve.

"Thanks," she told him softly. "Daddy, how am I going to get this water out of here? Joe's out of town. I can't leave this for him." She handed him the flashlight and started back to the stairs but not before tripping on something else and falling again. "This sucks!" she whined as she sat up. She started to cry. Frank helped her up.

"I'll call a plumber. Don't worry…we'll get this cleaned up." They headed up to the kitchen. "Stay here…I'll grab a towel from upstairs." Frank got her the towel and then called a plumber. "He'll be here in a little while." Stephanie nodded.

"I'll stay and wait for him, Daddy. I know you've got to go," she told him. Frank was taking a late shift driving the cab that night. He kissed her on the forehead.

"I'll drive past here later to see how things are going," he said then left. Steph reached for her phone but it was missing.

"Shit," she muttered. She must have dropped it in the basement. There was no way she was going to find it now. She must have crawled and fallen over every inch of that place. And she was having such a great day, too. She hoped that Joe wasn't going to be mad at her for this. She did what he asked. Typical Stephanie Plum luck. The plumber showed up thirty minutes later.

"I'm Tony Salerno, you're father called me," he introduced himself. They went to the basement. "The water's off but I won't be able to get this pumped out until morning. It's too dark and I can't see what I'm doing. I'll come back at 7." Stephanie nodded. Shit, that means she would have to get up early. Since the water was off, she couldn't stay there which would have been easier.

Ranger pulled into the garage at Haywood just before midnight. He was able to borrow a jeep instead of renting a car to get him home. Her Mustang was still gone. He had stopped in the Control Room to check on things before going up to 7. He tossed his bag on the bed then rifled through his mail. Picking out some personal mail, he went to his office. He spied the plain white envelope that contained the pictures of him and Jeanne Ellen. "Jesus," he muttered. She's with Morelli because she thinks I'm fucking Jeanne Ellen, he groaned to himself. FUCK! He threw the pictures down on the desk. A sick feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach with the thought that he was losing her. Violently shaking his head in disagreement with that thought, he sank into the chair. "No…I won't let her go," he whispered to himself.

Stephanie went up to Joe's bedroom. She felt weird…like she was invading his private space. She wanted to borrow some dry clothes to wear home. It's was fifteen degrees outside and her clothes were soaked. She grabbed a pair of sweat pants and a hooded Trenton PD sweat shirt. She felt self conscious getting undressed in his bedroom. She had to hold the huge pants up as there was no draw string. She found a plastic shopping bag in the kitchen to put her wet clothes. She locked up and headed back to Haywood. It was almost 12:30.

Junior called Ranger to let him know that Stephanie was pulling in the garage. He went to his computer to look at the feed from the garage. She and Ivy got out of the car. She was wearing sweats that were about ten sizes too big for her. She was holding her pants with one hand. She grabbed a bag out of the trunk briefly letting go of her grip and the sweats dropped to her knees before she was able to tug them back up. He grinned. She didn't look like someone who was coming back from a night of pleasure. She looked…annoyed. That's probably why she didn't see the jeep parked in his space.

Stephanie went up to the apartment. She just wanted to take a hot shower and eat a lot of chocolate cake. She still hadn't heard from Ranger. She was so engrossed in her misery that she didn't see the man lying in bed, leaning against the headboard with arms behind his head and legs crossed. "Babe," he greeted her softly. Stephanie screamed flinging the bag with her wet clothes and losing her grip on the sweat pants as they fell to her ankles.

"Carlos!" she breathed putting a hand to her heart. "Oh my God! You scared the shit out of me!" He turned on the bedside lamp and sauntered over. He pulled her in close to him. She held him tight. "I missed you so much."

He pulled back and got a better look at her. She was a mess. She also felt like a block of ice. "Where have you been? What happened?" She started to tell him the story but began to cry.

"I'm h-house sitting for Joe…and the pipe b-burst…and there was a s-spider web…and I fell…the l-light blew out…and I fell again….and I lost my p-phone…" she started in a shaky voice. He pulled her in close again. He couldn't help but smile. She wasn't cheating on him….thank God! "There's about a foot of water in his b-basement. I have to meet the plumber again at 7. I'm so c-cold!" He went in the bathroom and turned on the water in the shower. He looked down at her in the oversized sweat shirt and the sweat pants still down around her ankles. He pulled her in and kissed her. Their reunion didn't start how he had planned, but he'd be damned if he wouldn't make up for lost time. He backed her to the bathroom.

For the first time, she noticed how short his hair was cut. She didn't think it would be possible for him to look any more handsome…but he did. She stepped out of the sweat pants and kicked off her sneakers that landed with a sloshing sound. Ranger pulled her to him and kissed her senseless. Ranger stripped quickly. His body was just as beautiful as she remembered and it was so warm. He tugged off her sweat shirt and tossed it behind him. Kissing her down her neck to her breasts, he grabbed her buttocks and pulled her close. He slowly backed them towards the shower. She slid her hand around cupping his balls causing him to flinch. She pulled back, but he hugged her tight.

"Sorry Babe….your hands are like ice," he chuckled. He led her to the hot stream of water and took her hands into his. "Let's get you warmed up first."

She couldn't argue. With the soothing feel of the hot water and the wet and naked Ranger in front of her, it wouldn't take long to warm her up. His tongue was torturing her as he made his way down. His hair was much shorter but she was still able to fist her hands in it as his mouth plundered her center. Oh God…magic tongue, she thought. She heard, and felt, him chuckle. Shit…said that out loud! Seconds later, she exploded in ecstasy.

Kissing his way back up, he lifted her and she wrapped her legs around his waist while he entered her. The way she responded to his every touch drove him insane. Expertly pumping and rotating his hips, he brought her to a second orgasm. This time he was able to watch her expression as she came. Watching her, he knew he was losing control. He threw his head back as he came growling in passion. Steadying himself, he leaned forward dropping his head on her shoulder. She tried to unwind her legs around him but he stopped her. "Not yet, Babe," he whispered, "I want to stay inside you and be close to you a little longer."

She nodded and kissed his neck. "I love you," she whispered back.

When he felt able to move again, he let her down. They quickly finished their shower. He dried off and got into bed. She stayed in the bathroom to dry her hair before joining him in bed. There was so much they needed to talk about but not now. They both just wanted this time for themselves. Feeling the most calm and relaxed he had been in weeks, Ranger fell fast asleep in her arms. A few hours later he awoke to find her in the same position. He hadn't lost her. She wasn't with Morelli. She was still his. He was torn between watching her sleep or waking her up and making love to her again. A few minutes later, his desire won out and he woke her up.

Stephanie woke up the next morning in Ranger's arms. "Morning Babe," he whispered in her ear and kissed her neck. She let out a happy moan. His warmth and kisses felt so good. His rock hard body molded next to hers along his the touch of his hands and mouth. Oh how she missed this! Missed…what else am I missing…the basement! She remembered that she had to meet the plumber.

"SHIT!" she yelled and bolted up from Ranger's embrace. She climbed over him to look at the bedside clock. It was 6:55. "Shit!" She tried to get out of the bed but was tangled in the sheet and crashed to the floor.

"What's wrong?" Ranger asked while leaning over the side of the bed to help her up. He gave her his wolfish grin.

"Not now Carlos…I have to meet the plumber in five minutes!" She ran into the bathroom and started the shower. "I'm so late!!!!" He sighed and followed her into the shower.

"I'll go with you," he told her as he joined her. "Then I'll take you to breakfast."

Fortunately, Mr. Salerno was fifteen minutes late. He had only been waiting a few minutes when they pulled up. Stephanie let them inside. The basement smelled very musty. Damn, Ranger thought, she wasn't exaggerating. Stephanie looked around the kitchen and found spare bulbs under the sink. Mr. Salerno brought in his pumping equipment. "I can't do anything with the pipes until I get the water outta here," he explained. "This is going to take a while." Ranger called the control room to see who was available.

"Babe, Hal is going to come over here to wait for this to be done," Ranger explained. She looked at him with raised eyebrows. "If you need anything, just ask Hal to call us. We'll be back later." Ranger told Mr. Salerno. "I want to spend as much time with you as possible. Plus we have a lot to talk about." She nodded. Hal arrived and Ranger took her to the diner for breakfast.

After the waitress took their order, Stephanie was waiting for him to start. They stared at each other for a few minutes. "Tank told me you were going to quit," he began softly. "Why?"

"Because I would never ask you to choose between me and someone you care about," she told him. She couldn't meet his gaze. He reached across the table and took her hand in his.

"It's you I care about the most. It would never have been a contest. I never expected Jeanne Ellen to act like this. I've worked with her a long time. She always had my back. I trusted her. She told me she was looking for a job and I gave her one. I told her from the start about us, Babe. I'm usually good at reading people. She sure had me fooled." He paused to take a drink of water. "I'm sorry that all of you, especially you, had to go through this. I'm going to see Jeanne Ellen today and let her go. Not that I don't care about Rangeman…I do…I can't and won't have anything stand in the way of us. Ever." She squeezed his hand and gave him her heart melting smile.

"Carlos, I was going to quit the job…not us. I don't want me to be the reason for any problems with Rangeman. You've worked too hard to build that company and I won't jeopardize it." The waitress brought over their breakfast.

"So tell me about Jeanne Ellen…fainting…yesterday," he started with a sly smile.

"That's my story and I'm stickin' to it," she laughed and dug into her pancakes. She told him everything that had been going on while he was away. His face was grim. Jeanne Ellen was acting like a bitch and wasn't going down easy. He figured it would be best to talk to Hunter Williamson before doing anything. He called Hunter and asked him to meet him at his office.

It was decided to terminate Jeanne Ellen's employment and they would deal with any law suit that she would bring against them. "I'll go and tell her this afternoon," Ranger decided. Hunter shook his head.

"I wouldn't go alone. She will probably accuse you of assault or rape or something. Why don't we prepare a termination letter, severance check, and I'll take it to her with Tank," Hunter proposed. Ranger thought about this idea.

"Not going alone is a good idea, but I will go with you. I need to talk to her face to face," he insisted. Hunter nodded. They had the paperwork and check drawn up.

Stephanie went back to Morelli's. Most of the water had been pumped out. Hal was sitting in the living room watching TV. He smiled at her when she came in. "How's it going?"

"He said he's got most of the water out. Oh…." He reached into his pocket and tossed her something. It was her phone. "He found this a few minutes ago." She opened the phone and water dripped out.

"Guess this one's a goner, too," she groaned. Mr. Salerno came up the stairs.

"I think you should take a look at this," he told them. Stephanie and Hal followed him down. He showed them the punctured pipes. "This didn't burst because of the cold, Miss Plum. Someone smashed the hell out of it." Stephanie looked at Hal.

"That little bitch!" she exclaimed.

"Steph, how do you know it was Jeanne Ellen?" Hal asked her. She rolled her eyes.

"Who else would do this? I mean I'm sure Joe has some enemies but come on! You know as well as I do that she did this!" Stephanie headed back up the stairs chased by Hal. He caught up with her at the top.

"Steph…let it go. I'll call Ranger. Let him handle it…please!" Hal begged. She let out a long and exaggerated sigh. Hal was right. She didn't care about herself but she didn't want Jeanne Ellen getting back at her through other people. That's what she seemed to be good at. Maybe that was the key…she couldn't handle direct conflict. She decided to file that thought away for later. Hal relaxed when she asked for his phone. She called Ranger and told him about the pipes. He told her he would see her in a little while because they were going to fire Jeanne Ellen.

"Hal, if you want to get going, I'll be here for a while. You're probably hungry. Carlos, Tank and Hunter are on their way to fire Jeanne Ellen," she told him. They looked at each other for a split second then slapped each other five. "Yesss!"

"I don't mind, Steph. I'll wait here with you." She was actually getting hungry again.

"I'll go grab us some lunch, and I'll be right back," she told him. She asked Mr. Salerno what he wanted before going to Pino's.

Ranger was surprised Jeanne Ellen was as calm as she was. He let Hunter do the talking. When they were finished, she asked to speak to him in private. Hunter and Tank shook their head no, but Ranger wanted to ask her why she acted like she did. He waved them off to wait in the hall. "Why?" She slowly walked towards him but he took a step back.

"God, Ranger…I won't bite," she purred. He kept a stone face.

"I thought you understood that I am with Stephanie now. I told you upfront that there would be nothing between us ever again….except friendship. You threw that in my face and really disappointed me," he told her flatly.

"Do you really think it's going to last? I'm actually surprised at you, Ranger. Is she that good in bed? You can't be serious about her," she spit at him. Ranger mouth tightened and jaw clenched. His posture went rigid.

"I love her. That's the way it is. We fucked each other because it was convenient, Jeanne Ellen. That's all it was…sex. Stay away from Stephanie and stay away from me. This is the end of it. I know you're good, but don't push me…I'm better," he growled through gritted teeth. She ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek and nodded.

"If that's the way it has to be…fine. I'll back off," she replied. He nodded and turned to leave. "It's a tough business…security. Hopefully, she won't get hurt." Ranger whirled around to face her.

"So help me God Jeanne Ellen…if you do anything to her…" She cut him off with a dismissive wave.

"Oh…I won't do anything. Not my style. But you…you have many enemies that would love to get their…hands…or other body parts…on Stephanie. Would be a shame if any of the Columbians found out about her…wouldn't it?" She gave him a smug smile and eased herself into the arm chair. Ranger felt nauseated. This was his biggest fear. Ranger was losing control of his temper.

"If anything happens to Stephanie, and I find out that you had something to do with it…I will kill you. Make no mistakes about it. Do you understand?" She just gave him another smug smile. Ranger had to get out of there before he strangled her. Tank and Hunter exchanged worried glances as they saw Ranger storm out of her hotel room and head for the stairs. They quickly followed him.

"What happened?" Tank demanded. Ranger just shook his head. He was too angry to say anything at the moment.

Tank grabbed his arm but the look in Ranger's eyes made him remove his hand and drop the subject. This wasn't good, he thought.

She's going to put Stephanie in danger, he kept telling himself over and over. And I'm fucking going to be out of town! FUCK! If any of the Columbian drug cartels ever got wind of where he was and about his relationship with Stephanie, they wouldn't just kill her. They would rape her and torture her over and over again. That bitch knows that now is the best time for them to get her…when he was away. He was so engrossed in his thoughts he didn't realize Tank had dropped off Hunter and was pulling into the garage.

"Now are you going to tell me what happened?" Tank demanded. Ranger blew out a sigh. Tank was going to have to know because he'll need to protect her while he was gone.

"Jeanne Ellen threatened to let the Columbians know about Stephanie," he finally said. Tank's eyes widened and he dropped his head back against the seat.

"Fuck," he muttered. It was bad. They were vicious. And…they hated Ranger. It would be the perfect payback. "Do you really think she would do that?" Ranger shrugged.

"A couple a weeks ago I would have said no. Now I don't know what she is capable of doing." He turned to Tank. "I want a guard on Stephanie at all times, Tank. Every time she leaves this building, there is to be someone on her. I don't want her out of site for a second," Ranger ordered. Tank grimaced. "Yeah…I know. She's not going to like that but too bad. You know what they would do to her if they took her." Tank nodded. He would die before he let that happen to Bombshell. "Is Hal still with her?" Tank called the control room and confirmed it.

"Yeah…they're both at Morelli's." Ranger got into the Porsche and headed back there. Tank was going to his apartment to take some Motrin. He had one hell of a headache. The Jeanne Ellen at Rangeman problem was gone and another one sprouted up in its place.

Chapter 15

Ranger found Stephanie and Hal watching TV when he returned. She could tell by the look on his face that there was a problem. "Is everything okay?" she asked him cautiously. He nodded.

"Long day, Babe," he sighed and pulled her into a hug. Hal offered to stay so they could spend time together. Ranger gave Mr. Salerno his card. "Send the bill here." Stephanie started to protest. Ranger held up his hand. "We can settle up with Morelli when he gets back." She nodded. She gave Hal a hug and thanked him for staying. Ranger was going to take Stephanie out for dinner but was having second thoughts. He couldn't make her a prisoner. The safest thing for him to do was end their relationship. The thought crossed his mind…but he couldn't. It was selfish of him but he couldn't live without her. And even if he did break up with her, it wouldn't guarantee that they still wouldn't go after her. No…she would be safest under my protection, he decided. He followed her back to Haywood. He told her on the way up to 7 to get dressed for dinner. He was going to take them to Roselli's.

Jeanne Ellen packed her things. She laughed at the memory of Ranger's face when she threatened to tell the Columbians about Stephanie. Priceless! As much as she didn't like Stephanie, she would never intentionally put her in that position. She had been tortured and raped in the line of duty. It was awful. There were other ways to be a thorn in her side. She failed to mention that she accepted a job with Les Sebring Bonds across town. They were probably shitting themselves worrying whether she was going to sue them or not. Now Ranger will tear himself apart thinking the Columbians are after Stephanie. She knew him all too well. He's probably going to assign her a body guard day and night. And from what she knew about Stephanie…she was going to hate this. Sometimes the little zings were more satisfying that pulling the big punches!

Ranger watched Stephanie through the door way as she put on her make-up. She was dressed somewhat conservative for her. Short but simple black dress. She was so beautiful. She began to put on her lip gloss and noticed him leaning in the door way.

He looked so yummy in his black Armani suit. She was starting to get used to his short hair. He looked like he just stepped out of GQ magazine. "I'm still getting used to the new doo…but I think I like it better short," she told him while giving him her heart melting smile. He grinned back. He came up behind her wrapping his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck.

"You look fantastic, Babe." She turned her head and kissed him. "You just about ready?" She nodded and finished putting on her lip gloss. They headed down to the garage and got in the Porsche. Her skirt rode up to expose her stockings and garter belt. Ranger's eyes dilated with lust as she adjusted herself. He ran a hand slowly up her thigh. "Very nice."

"Feed me first, Carlos. I'll need a lot of calories for tonight," she joked and put her hand on top of his. As they ate dinner, Ranger watched…and listened…to Stephanie eat and enjoy her food. He missed that. She looked up and caught him staring. "You're staring." She said to him in that sing-song tone. He smiled.

"Can't help it. You're beautiful." She rolled her eyes. They were quiet for a few more minutes.

"Are you okay about Jeanne Ellen?" she asked him. "I mean…having a friend kind of….disappoint you?" He nodded.

"A little bit," he answered honestly. "She was a friend. She wasn't a close friend like Tank or anything. But she was someone that I trusted." She gave him a sad smile.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to come between you." He smiled and reached for her hand.

"You didn't. It was her choice to try to come between us, Babe. No contest, remember?" She nodded and squeezed his hand.

"I know you don't like Joe…." She began. He cut her off.

"It's a much different situation with you and Joe. He's been in your life a long time. I have to admit…I'm a little jealous. He knows so much about you and he…." Ranger trailed off. Stephanie motioned for him to continue. "He was your first." She squirmed in her seat. He didn't mean to make her uncomfortable.

"He doesn't throw that in your face…does he?" She hoped Morelli wasn't acting like Jeanne Ellen. She'd have to run him over with the Buick again if he did.

"No," Ranger lied. Morelli had made that comment once. Actually, he really hadn't seen much of Morelli in the past couple of months. He thought Morelli was a good cop, probably not a bad guy, but he knew he wanted his woman. That's what he had a problem with.

"Let's talk about something else," she decided. He nodded.

"I haven't had a chance to tell you why I couldn't come home last weekend," he started. "I wasn't with Jeanne Ellen. We had a training accident. A chute didn't open all the way and a young kid got hurt pretty badly. I stayed with him until his family got there. Hell…I would have stayed anyway. It's hard when one of your men gets injured." Her eyes got wide.

"Is he okay?" Ranger nodded.

"He's going to be okay. Had broken bones and internal injuries. He's got a long and slow recovery ahead of him. But he is going to be okay." She was also secretly happy that he wasn't with Jeanne Ellen. He told her some other stories about some of the training. They talked about her training with Mac. "He told me that your middle fingers worked fine, Babe." She rolled her eyes.

"He can be a little loud, too," she sighed. "I'm hopeless Carlos. I wasn't cut out for exercise."

"He said you're getting better and better each week, Babe. Don't sell yourself short." Ranger thought back to the first progress report Mac had given him. "You were really out of shape."

"Like I told them…I was never in shape," she whined.

Ranger decided to take Stephanie to a club. They hadn't really been out since New Year's Eve. She had been surprised how graceful he was on the dance floor. Well…maybe she should have guessed how graceful he was because he certainly was graceful in the bedroom. She hoped the night would never end. He had to leave tomorrow and God knows when she would see him again. By chance or coincidence, Wicked Game began to play. It immediately brought back the memories of that night in Miami. He pulled her closer and slid a hand down her back to her ass. She could feel his hardness against her. She nibbled on his earlobe. She couldn't hear him over the loud and erotic song but felt his groan. His lips crashed down on hers and kissed her like a starving man. They were grinding against each other while they danced. Pausing for a breath of air, Ranger told her, "Let's get outta here. I need you now." They could barely contain themselves till they got into the Porsche. He pulled out of the lot. Turning to her with his wolfish grin, he reached under her dress and tore off her panties. "We won't have the ocean tonight, but how about we re-live a fond memory?" Smiling she leaned over and unzipped his pants. He lifted his hips as she pulled them down a little. "Get on top of me," he grunted.

She happily followed his request and positioned herself over him, sliding down on his shaft. Haywood was only about 15 minutes away. He did his best to watch the road, but was even more distracted this time. "Shit," he muttered.

"What's wrong?" she grunted.

"Just…ran a…red light," he panted. A short time later, they pulled up to the garage. He hit the key fob to open the gate and pulled into his space…coming to a screeching halt. He left the car still running. Now able to use both his hands, he pulled to top of her dress down began to greedily suck on her harden nipples. She screamed his name as he could feel her spasm around him. He wasn't too far behind her. Holding her tight in his arms, they both sat in silence trying to catch their breath.

Junior and Zero watched them pull in on the monitors. Zero was going to run down there because they were concerned at the way Ranger had pulled in so fast. But as they watched the car rocking, they realized it was for a different emergency. They exchanged glances and smirked. "There goes the shocks," Junior joked. The windows were tinted and they couldn't actually see what was going on but the motion of the car gave them a good idea.

"I think that was even better than the last time," Ranger whispered into her ear. She grinned, gave him a kiss, and climbed back into her seat. He pulled up and zipped his pants. She held up her torn underwear.

"I liked these," she joked and threw them at him.

"Sorry, Babe. They were in my way." She rolled her eyes and laughed. She looked at the camera. "I guess we gave them a show tonight." Ranger shook his head.

"You can't see in here. I'm pretty sure the guys already suspected that we are sleeping together so I wouldn't worry about it." She fixed her dress as Ranger got out of the car. He came around to her side and helped her out. They walked arm and arm to the elevator. They went up to the apartment and made love all night long.

Ranger had to leave at lunch time to catch the transport back. He got up at 7, which was sleeping late for him, to meet Tank. Stephanie was still asleep. He wanted to make sure that Tank was able to assign at least one person to Stephanie any time she left the Rangeman building. "I don't want her to know anything about this…at least for right now." Tank nodded.

"What if she finds out she's being followed?" Tank asked. This was Bombshell they were talking about. Normal rules didn't apply.

"We'll deal with that when it happens," Ranger replied. He noticed that Ranger said when it happens and not if it happens. "I'll take the heat for it. Just keep her safe."

Stephanie hoped Ranger leaving this time would be a little easier. She was wrong. It was even harder because she knew how lonely she felt without him.

Leaving was harder for Ranger as well but for a different reason. He was afraid of what would happen if Jeanne Ellen made good on her threat. He had made calls to some of his government contacts on the drive to McGuire AFB. So far, there had been nothing going on in Columbia with the Maldonado or Lopez families. It was still early but he wanted to be alerted the second any rumors were heard. Stephanie had walked him down to the garage this time and seemed to be under control. Of course she lost it once he left.

She decided to take Ivy to the dog park and throw the Frisbee around. It was farther than the other park, but she decided the walk would be good for both of them. She was expected at her parents' for dinner later. She was right. Getting out and running….well Ivy was running…around in the park did make her feel a little better. Seeing Ranger this weekend strengthened her confidence in their relationship. Maybe she was a fool, but she believed him and trusted him. He had 9 more weeks to go and this would all be behind them. Nine long weeks.

Tank didn't have time to call a meeting so he tried to grab or call as many people as he could to let them know that Stephanie was not to leave the Rangeman building without someone tailing her. He stopped into the control room. Vince and Zip were on monitors. Tank filled them in. They exchanged nervous glances. "What?" Tank demanded.

"Uh…Steph left with Ivy over an hour ago," Zip told him.

"Shit," Tank muttered under his breath. "Where did she go?"

"She was walking towards the park," Vince explained. Tank headed for the garage. He wasn't as worried about something happening to her than he was if Ranger found out she was unattended the second he left. He drove past the park but didn't see her. He remembered the dog park a few more blocks away. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw them. Ivy was getting very good at catching the Frisbee. He pulled to the curb and cut the engine. He sat there and watched them for a while.

Stephanie caught sight of something black out of the corner of her eye. She was the black SUV parked on the street. She knew right away that it was a Rangeman SUV. She gave a finger wave. Tank got out of the truck and walked over. "What are you doing here?" she asked. Think fast, Tank said to himself.

"Uh…I just wanted to see how you were," Tank replied. Hey…that sounded pretty good and she must have bought it because she's smiling.

"I'm better," she told him. "I just needed to get out for a while." They started walking towards the SUV.

"How about I give you a ride back?" He hoped she would just agree and was thankful when she nodded. "What are you doing later?"

"The usual…dinner at my parents." That's right, he remembered. They always had dinner on Sunday nights. "And I have to swing by Joe's house. Mr. Salerno replaced the copper pipes with PVC but that basement was a mess."

"I can send someone to do that for you," he offered. She shook her head.

"It's right around the corner from my parents. I can do it," she insisted. Tank had to think fast. If he had to, he would suck it up and go with her. His fear of Ranger was rivaled by his fear of Grandma Mazur. She had grabbed is butt on more than one occasion. The last time, her fingers almost reached his balls. It had been a while since he'd been with a woman…but he wasn't that desperate yet. Hector had just pulled in before them. Hector gave her a hug.

"You okay Bonita?" She nodded.

"Hey…what are you doing later? Do you want to come with me to my parents' for dinner? Pineapple upside down cake?" Tank was thinking he needed to run out and get a lottery ticket because his luck was running high today. He nodded his head behind Stephanie. Hector glanced over her shoulder over him. Hector smiled and accepted. "You'll be safe from Grandma Mazur but she'll be fascinated because she thinks she never met a homosexual before." Hector laughed.

"What time?" Steph told him to meet her in the garage at 5. They would stop at Morelli's on the way. Tank had filled in Hector about 'Bombshell Duty' while Ranger was away. Like all the others, he was horrified at the thought of what could happen to her if Jeanne Ellen made good on her threat.

"Homosexual?" Grandma Mazur exclaimed at the dinner table. "I've never met a homo before. This is really exciting for me. I have so many questions!" Hector just smiled.

"Christ!" Frank sighed.

"What's a homo, Mommy?" Mary Alice asked. Val looked panicked.

"It's when you like boys, Stupid," Angie told her. Stephanie snorted. Helen crossed herself. Mary Alice, who was sitting between Hector and Stephanie, patted Hector's arm and smiled.

"Then I must be a homo, too! I like boys!" she happily exclaimed. Frank choked on his food. Helen excused herself from the table to grab a nip in the kitchen. Stephanie and Hector looked at each other and laughed. Val turned crimson. Dinner with the Plums was always interesting.

The next few days were uneventful. Work had kept them busy. The few times Stephanie did leave the building, she was with Tank meeting with clients. Valerie was getting better at the searches and organizing the office. Val had started typing up the shift reports for the Merry Men which made them easier to read. Stephanie was getting more familiar with the contracts and performing site visits. She had spoken to Ranger briefly on Sunday night. He sent a couple of text messages but he was in an area at Bragg that had gotten spotty cell coverage.

Tank had sent Lester and Mac up to Boston to pick up a high-end bond on Wednesday. Because she hadn't left the building without Tank all week, they didn't notice that she left by herself. She had told Val she was going to the Bonds office to pick up some files. They scrambled to see who was in the area. Ram and Woody weren't far and they parked down the street from the Bond's office to wait for her.

"Hey White Girl! Where have you been hiding yourself?" Lula greeted her.

"Been busy this week. Haven't had much time to get out. What's been going on with you guys?" Connie and Lula exchanged glances. Stephanie looked at both of them. "Okay…spill it."

"Jeanne Ellen is working for Les Sebring," Connie told her. Stephanie groaned. Great, she thought, I thought we'd gotten rid of her.

"We found out yesterday," Connie said. "Sorry." This is going to call for a meatball sandwich and French fry lunch, Stephanie said to herself.

"Are you busy right now?" Lula asked. Stephanie shook her head no.

"Can you help me with this one? I really need the money." She handed her a file. Marty Gruber. 56. A drunk that liked to write bad checks and had a history of embezzlement. Didn't sound like it would be too difficult.

"Okay…then we get some lunch. I need comfort food today!" They went out back and got into Lula's Firebird. Ram and Woody were still out front watching the black Escape. They headed to Gruber's townhouse. Lula knocked but there was no answer. She tried the knob and the door opened.

"Well look at that? He must have been expecting me so I think we can go in," Lula told Stephanie as she went inside. "Hello? Marty?" There was no answer.

"Maybe he ran out for something?" Steph wondered. As she got closer to the bottom of the stairs, she could hear the hiss of the shower upstairs. "Lula…I hear the shower." She had lowered her voice to a whisper.

"Damn…I hate older naked white men. But I really need this money so I guess you'll just have to deal with looking at his old balls," Lula told her. Steph raised her eyebrows.

"Me?"

"Uh…I meant to say we," Lula corrected herself.

"We?"

"Well….me. But you're helping me." They crept up the stairs. The bathroom door was cracked open. Lula peaked in. She could see someone slumped in the shower through the frosted glass. "Damn, I think he's passed out. I hate when you have to carry someone. I could mess up my nails or something. Then we gotta drag his naked white ass down the stairs." She opened the shower door and shut off the water. "Marty?" No response. "Marty…wake up." She nudged him with a pointed toe from her boot.

"He looks kinda…dead," Stephanie added with a grimace on her face.

"Nah…he's just passed out. The file said he has a problem with the bottle." They stepped back.

"So what do you want to do? It's cold out and we can't take him out like that," Steph broke the silence. "We should…I mean you should dry him off or something and put clothes on him."

"Well I sure don't want his wet naked ass in my car. That's my Firebird. That is a fine sports car." She took a towel and tossed it to Stephanie. "Here…you start drying him off and I'll find some clothes for him to wear."

"Why do I have to dry him off? You dry him off and I'll find him something to wear," Stephanie said and she tried to hand the towel back.

"Well…let's flip for it," Lula replied after a second. She took out a quarter. "Heads or tails?" Stephanie sighed.

"Heads." Lula flipped the coin and it landed on tails. "Shit!" Lula smiled.

"Start drying and I'll get his clothes." She smugly left the bathroom.

"Fuck," Steph muttered under her breath. She started to towel off his head and face. Marty still didn't move. His chest did rise and fall so she let out her breath. She thought he was dead there for a second. She had him dried to the waist and had done his legs when Lula came back in with a robe. "It took you all that time to find a robe?"

"Well, I thought this would be the easiest to put on him. Aren't you finished drying him yet?" Steph shook her head no.

"I…I didn't get to his….middle section." She really didn't want to go anywhere near his crotch. "Here Lula…you do it. I mean you have more experience in that area than I do." Lula sighed.

"Oh give me the damn towel. Lay him flat so I can get in there." Marty wasn't a tall man but had a large stomach. Stephanie rolled him onto his back and they both stared. "Damn." They leaned in closer to look.

"Where is it?" Stephanie asked her.

"Huhnn…I don't know. That file didn't say nothin' about him being a…what do you call them….when a man cuts off his willy to be a woman or something?"

"You mean a transsexual?"

"Something like that. Maybe it's under his stomach?" Lula bent over and lifted the bottom of his stomach. "Damn…where the hell is it?"

"This is kinda…gross," Stephanie said. "Let's just get him dressed and drop him off." Lula shook her head no.

"Girl…I have to find his thing. It's like a mission now. This will haunt me until I find it." Lula got down on her knees and started digging around in the rolls in his stomach. "Here it is!" She pulled back the skin to expose the tip of his penis. "Damn that thing is small…no wonder he drinks. I bet his balls are in there too!"

"Lula…just dry him off and let's get outta here!" Stephanie insisted. She handed her another towel.

"I don't want to touch it. This is too weird. I've never seem a man with an innie before. I mean I've seen plenty of men that weren't circumcised but I've never seen stomach rolls that acted like a foreskin. I think we need to call Ripley's Believe it or Not." Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"You just dug around in his fat rolls to find it and now you don't want to touch it?" Lula looked around.

"Use the hair dryer. I'll hold the fat back." Stephanie covered her face in her hands.

"I can't believe I'm going to do this," she muttered. She took the hair dryer and held it over his genitals turning her head to the side. "If you tell anyone I did this you are so dead!" When they were satisfied that it was dry, they struggled to get him in the bathrobe. "Don't you think this is a little weird that he hasn't woken up at all?" Lula shook her head no.

"When drunks are passed out, they don't feel nothin'. He'll be alright." Stephanie checked a pulse just to be sure. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found one.

"He's too heavy to carry down the stairs….maybe we can slide him down using his comforter?" Stephanie suggested. The idea worked until they were halfway down. He picked up momentum and slid the rest of the way down. His head seemed to bounce off every step.

"Oops…I thought I had a better grip," Lula sighed.

Ram and Woody decided to go in the office after they had been waiting an hour. They decided that they would tell her they were in the area and wanted to know if she wanted lunch. Seemed like a believable plan. They were stunned when Connie told them Steph and Lula had left a while ago. She gave them the address and they headed out. "Fuck…should we call Tank?" Woody wondered out loud.

"Let's just see if we can find her first…shit!" Ram groaned. They headed to Gruber's townhouse.

Lula and Steph dragged him out the door and got him in the Firebird. They dumped him in the back seat. The robe opened and exposed his naked body. "Gross!" Steph exclaimed.

"At least his robe is coverin' his ass. I don't want no naked asses on my seats…except maybe that big hunk of man Tank. Girl you gotta hook us up. I could give that man so much pleasure. I'm sure Tank has an outtie…not like Marty back there. And from the size of Tank's hands, I'm sure it would be enough to keep me satisfied." Stephanie just rolled her eyes and groaned. She didn't want to think about Marty's penis let alone Tank's.

"Just drive. I'll feel better once we drop this guy off." Lula pulled out and headed for the police station. A few minutes later, Woody and Ram pulled up to Gruber's. They didn't see Lula's car. They pulled over and checked out the townhouse. They didn't see any signs of a struggle or blood so they took that as a good sign. Figuring that the girls picked him, they decided to head to the police station.

As they were deciding how to carry Marty inside, Stephanie noticed that his chest was not moving. She leaned over the back seat and checked for a pulse in his neck. She didn't feel anything. "Oh my God!"

"Would you quit worryin' Steph. He's just drunk. He's fine." Lula told her.

"He's not fine, Lula. He's dead!"

"Aw shit…that naked ass mother fucker did not just die in my car!" Lula whined. "He didn't shit hisself…did he? I hear dead people shit themselves." She craned her neck and started to sniff the air. She turned to Steph. "I still get paid…right? I mean we can still just drop him off and get my body receipt? Now it really is a body receipt." Lula snorted at her little joke. Stephanie hung her head in her hands.

"What do you think we're going to do? Just walk him in there like Weekend at Bernie's or something?" They stopped and looked at each other. Steph thought for a moment. She snapped her finger. "Wait a minute...the new guy…Dale…is on the desk. Marty's still warm. It might just work." Lula smiled.

"I knew I brought you with me for a reason. First you dried his willy for me and now you're gonna help me pay rent!" Lula laughed.

"This isn't funny! What if they think we killed him? I mean you know my luck!" Lula thought for a minute.

"Well he was alive the last time he was with us. We can say he must have died after the cops took custody of him." Stephanie sighed.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," she muttered. "Okay…we'll get on either side of him and put him on the bench. We'll just say he's drunk and passed out on the way over here. You'll get your receipt and we're outta here. Then you're going to buy me lunch and dessert. And it needs to be something major… like a birthday cake!" Lula nodded.

"Okay, let's go." They struggled to drag him out of the back seat of the Firebird. His robe was wide open. They each took an arm and got under his shoulders and dragged him inside. "Shit, this bastard is heavy. If he was still alive, I would've asked him if he called Jenny yet."

"Just keep moving…we're almost inside," Steph urged. "Besides…it didn't seem to work for Kirstie Allie." Eddie Gazzara was talking to the new officer, Dale, who was covering the desk for Robin. They stopped their conversation to watch Stephanie and Lula.

"Uh…Steph…you might want to close his robe," Eddie joked. They brought him to the bench and took about 5 minutes to get him balanced to sit on his own. As soon as they would get him sitting straight, they would close his robe, and then he would start to slump to one side. After a few more tries, they left his robe open and he maintained his balance.

"It's not like you can see anything anyway," Lula whispered to her.

"Just hurry up and get your receipt!" Stephanie hissed. Lula quickly ran to the desk with the file.

"We're kinda in a hurry…you know…there are all these bail jumpers we have to go after," Lula told Dale as he processed the paperwork.

"Is he okay?" Dale asked looking past Lula at Marty. "He kind of looks…dead."

"Dead drunk!" Stephanie blurted out quickly. "Uh…he's just drunk. He's still alive. We checked his pulse. It was still there…." She trailed off as Lula shot her a look. Yeah…was there a while ago, she said to herself. Marty began to slump forward and tumbled to the floor as Dale handed Lula her receipt.

"Oh look!" Lula began, "He's trying to get away. You better take care of his ass now." She grabbed Stephanie and they turned to run out of the station but hit a black wall. Ram and Woody had just come in to see if they could find her. "Shit!"

"Oh…hi guys…gotta go!" Stephanie exclaimed as she and Lula ran out to the car. Ram and Woody exchanged glances. Dale and Eddie went over to pick up Marty.

"I think he's dead," Eddie muttered. "Shit." Dale felt for a pulse but didn't find one. They began CPR. Another officer called for an ambulance. Ram pulled Woody back from the crowd.

"Let's get the hell outta here and find Steph," Ram told him. "Somehow I get the feeling that they knew they were dropping off a dead guy." Woody tried not to laugh. He would have done a better job if Ram wasn't laughing himself.

Lula drove back to the Bonds office to get her check. "I can't believe we just did that! Oh my God Lula! We are going to be in so much trouble. Carlos is going to kill me!" she whined. "We're going straight to hell for this!"

"You were helpin' a friend. Besides, we didn't kill his ass. He probably drank hisself to death. I think you'll feel better after we get something to eat. We'll go to Pino's then I'll get you a birthday cake from Tasty Pastry," Lula tried to console her. This got Stephanie's attention. "I'll even have them put your name on it!"

"Well…I really am hungry. I bet I'll feel better after I get some food into my stomach. Low blood sugar can make you feel nervous…right?" Lula nodded and smiled.

"Exactly White Girl!" Connie wrote her the check. "Do you want anything from Pino's?" Connie gave them her order. "We'll stop by the bank first and then to Pino's."

"Let's take the Escape. This way if anyone's looking for us….they'll think we're in the Firebird," Stephanie suggested. They got in the truck and headed to the bank. Lula was in and out. Finally, they were headed to get some food. Ram and Woody caught up with them at Pino's. Because she had run into Merry Men at different places, she didn't think this was unusual and motioned Ram and Woody over to join them. Ram slid in next to Steph while Woody next to Lula.

"What have you ladies been up to?" Ram asked nonchalantly.

"Like you saw at the station…just helping Lula with her skip. Nothing special," she answered but couldn't meet his gaze.

"Yeah, White girl helped me bring in a drunk. He was taking a shower when we picked him up. Steph helped me dry off his willy with a hair dryer….oops. That just slipped out." Steph kicked Lula under that table. Her eyes were wide. Ram and Woody burst out laughing.

"You did what?" Ram forced out. Woody had been laughing so hard there were tears in his eyes.

"Did you ever see a guy with an innie?" Lula asked him. Steph hung her head in her hands. Her face was bright red. Ram and Woody shook their heads.

"What do you mean…an innie?" Woody asked.

"You don't really want to know," came a muffled reply from Steph as she still had her face in her hands.

"Well…his stomach was so fat that we couldn't find his willy," Lula explained. "I had to root around for it in his fat rolls, but I found it. We didn't want to touch it so I had Steph dry it off with the hair dryer….oops…sorry." This put them into another fit of laughter.

"Steph….y-you dried him….with a hair dryer?" Ram asked through his laughter and the tears streaming down his face. Stephanie looked up and gave Lula a death glare.

"You are so dead," she told her in a low and flat voice. Lula gave her a palms-up gesture as if to say what did I do.

"Speaking of dead…" Ram started after he got himself under control, "Uh…did you guys know that your skip had died?"

"He did….I mean…he did?" Lula responded. "That's a shame. Good thing we dropped his ass off before he died….right Steph?" It was Lula's turn to kick Steph under the table.

"Oh…yeah….right! Good thing," Stephanie agreed quickly. "Can we order now….I really need food."

Chapter 16

The coroner's report indicated that Marty Gruber had died of a massive heart attack. The coroner was unable to offer any explanations for the bruising to the back of his head. But, that wasn't the major story going around Trenton. It had morphed into Stephanie Plum was a necrophiliac. She went to pick him up, found him dead, had sex with him, and dropped the body at the police station. Somehow, Lula was never mentioned. The Burg grapevine, being as fast as it was, had gotten this information to Helen Plum. The next morning, Stephanie got a call from her mother. "Stephanie! What is this I hear about you….having sex with a dead man?" She had lowered her voice to a whisper because the idea just couldn't be uttered aloud.

"What?....I didn't have sex with a dead man! Mom...that is not true! A guy we picked up yesterday died. That's it. I can't believe this!" Stephanie insisted.

"You swear you didn't?" Helen begged.

"Mom, I swear. How could you even believe I would do something like that?" Now Stephanie was annoyed.

"Well…Carlos is out of town. You do crazy things anyway, Stephanie. You don't lead a normal life," Helen defended herself.

"Yeah, my life is not normal…but Mom! I am not a necrophiliac. That is so gross!" She didn't want to mention hair dryer incident. "Look…I have to get to work. I'll talk to you later." This is not going to be a good day, she thought.

There wasn't much to do so Stephanie decided to review the contracts that were going to expire in the next couple of months. She took the files up to the 7th floor apartment. She called down to Val and told her she would take her shopping during lunch. She was going to go to Quakerbridge Mall. That was out of town. If she went anywhere in Trenton today, she would be the topic of conversation.

About 11 am, Stephanie headed down to the 5th floor, bringing Ivy with her, to get Val. She asked Cal to keep an eye on her while she was gone. "Where you goin', Steph?" he seemed to innocently ask.

"Val and I are going to Quakerbridge. Did you need anything while I'm out?" He shook his head no. As soon as she was out of ear shot, Cal called Tank. Then, Tank called Hal and told him to follow them. Hal gave them a five minute head start before he followed them.

Stephanie and Val chatted about the new rumors about Steph's skip the day before. "Steph…there were always rumors going around about you," Val told her. "How did you handle it?" Steph shrugged.

"Sometimes, it was hard because some of the things said really hurt my feelings. Other times, it was stupid and I just ignored it. Eventually, I got used to it. But I've never been called a necrophiliac before." She told Val the whole story of what actually happened. Val was horrified but then couldn't help but laugh.

"Only you! Stuff like this can only happen to you. You are such a magnet for this stuff," Val said. They pulled into the lot and parked by Macys. They were totally unaware of the black SUV behind them. Hal knew he had to follow them inside. He didn't have a problem with going into Macys. The problem was that he was 6'6, 250lbs, wearing all black, and carrying a gun at his hip. Not your typical Macys shopper. He was bound to draw attention. He wasn't a good liar either. He needed to think of a plausible story now so if Steph or Val saw him, he could explain why he was there. Wait a minute! His sister's birthday was next month! Yeah…that will work. He's trying to get ideas for her birthday present. Then, they will try to help me find something and I won't have to hide, he thought. Hal relaxed as he went inside. He followed them through the store but they didn't seem to be stopping at anything. They were headed inside the mall. The horror began to dawn on Hal as they seemed to be headed for….(gulp!)….Victoria's Secret! Oh no! That store had nothing but….ladies bras and panties. Hal began to break out in to little sweat. There was no way he was going in there! Shit, his orders were to not let Stephanie out of his site. Not only was he terrified of what Ranger would do to him if anything happened to her, he really liked Steph and didn't want her to get hurt. But…bras and panties!

He glanced inside the store. Shit…there were two entrances. There appeared to be only women inside. He decided to watch both entrances. If any men went inside, he would have to suck it up and go in. He looked inside every so often just making sure they were okay. He saw Stephanie holding up a lacy bra and saying something to Valerie. Valerie handed her matching thong panties. Oh my God, he thought. He was trying not to think of Steph or Val wearing that but he couldn't help it. Was it getting hotter in here, he asked himself. He started to feel light headed then there was blackness. Then next thing he saw was Steph and Val. Their voices seemed to be far away.

"Hal….are you okay?" Stephanie asked him again. Oh my God, Hal thought, I fainted. He was so embarrassed. "Hal?"

"Yeah…I'm okay," he finally replied in a small voice. Stephanie and Val helped him sit up. "I think it was a little too hot in here or something." The mall security guard handed Valerie a bottle of water. She opened it and handed it to Hal.

"Here…drink this," she told him. Both Steph and Val looked worried. He took it and did as he was told. His head felt a little clearer, and he stood up. "Are you sure you're okay?" He nodded.

"What are you doing here?" Steph asked him with a confused look on her face. Why was I here, he asked himself, oh yeah….birthday present.

"I was looking for a birthday present for my sister. Her birthday is next month," he explained. "I guess this jacket was too heavy to wear inside and I got overheated."

"Did you have lunch yet?" Steph asked him. He shook his head no. "Well, you come and eat with us. Maybe that will make you feel better." He nodded again.

"Maybe you two can help me find something for my sister. I'm not used to shopping for girls," he added. This would be easier and he wouldn't have to follow them to any embarrassing stores anymore. "And please….don't tell Tank."

Tank had called an early meeting the next morning. It didn't take long for Lester to start in on Stephanie. "So Beautiful….is it true that you grabbed some dead guy's dick?" The room exploded in laughter.

"Uh….no," she replied. "He still had a pulse." Her response got an even bigger reaction. She refused to make eye contact with anyone. She was never going to live this down. Damn Lula and her big mouth! "And for the record…I didn't touch it. I just dried it off with a hair dryer."

"Y-you dried it w-with a hair d-dryer?" he finally managed. His voice was a few octaves higher than normal due to the constricted vocal chords from laughing so hard. After twenty more minutes of teasing Stephanie, Tank cleared his throat and motioned for everyone to calm down.

"Okay, we got a real high end bond that jumped. Kenny Ridzowski. The bond was split between Vinnie and Les Sebring. Of course, Rangeman will be the team to bring him in. The surveillance we've got on him is that he's been spending time in Whitehorse. He's been hanging out at a place called Bucky's. We need to move fast to get him before Sebring's people get him," Tank explained. He really wanted to use Steph for the distraction but Ranger told him no.

"Did you guys hear that Jeanne Ellen's working for him now?" Stephanie told them. There were some comments made under their breath. "So…we're going to set up a distraction…right?" She looked at Tank for confirmation.

"No, Bombshell. You're not in on this one," Tank told her. He couldn't look at her. Lester and Hal exchanged confused looks.

"Who else is going to lead him out?" Lester asked Tank with a slight annoyance to his voice. "What…are we gonna dress Hal up in a blond wig?" There were a few snickers in the room. Stephanie did not look away from Tank.

"Did Carlos tell you not to use me?" Tank gave her a short nod. Stephanie was choking with rage. "Why?" Tank finally met her glare. She saw the answer in his eyes. It was all about what happened with Harding.

"Sorry Bombshell. I have my orders. No more distractions while he is out of town. Not even to use anyone else." Tank could see that Stephanie was getting ready to fly off the handle. "Steph…when you got hurt last time…he…he just took it real hard. It's not that he thinks you can't do it. He blames himself." She could see and hear the sincerity of what he was saying, but it still didn't sit well with her. Les Sebring's team would probably use Jeanne Ellen. Ranger expected her to just sit on the sidelines and watch the show.

Lester could feel the anger radiating off Stephanie. He didn't entirely think that Ranger was wrong. He would feel the exact same way if Steph was his woman. They had done a couple distractions while he was on vacation and didn't like the fact that someone else had backed her up. He could only imagine how Ranger felt. Was it a double standard? Hell yeah. But seeing Harding belt her and watch her go down hard was still fresh in his mind. That was something he never wanted to happen again. "Ah…forget about it Beautiful. He's not your type anyway. He's still got a pulse," he joked. Laughter broke the tension. She leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes and sighed.

"He wasn't dead at the time, Les!" she groaned through gritted teeth. She ran her hands through her thick mop of curls, pulling it back off her face. She turned back to Tank. "Fine. I'll take it up with Carlos when he gets back. I'm not mad at you, Tank." Tank put his massive hand over hers and squeezed.

"Okay…Hal…did you find out where that O-ring came from?" Tank was glad to change the subject. He felt a little sorry for Steph. Ranger should have talked to her about it. Withholding information from her was something that drove her crazy.

"I checked most of the SUVs and some equipment, but don't see any missing. I'm not sure what it's from," Hal replied.

"What O-ring?" Woody asked.

"It was found in the garage. It's about two inches in diameter and made of clear rubber. Must have come from something," Hal explained.

"Keep looking. See if there is any oil on the floor. That might give us a clue where it came from," Tank instructed. They reviewed a few issues with some accounts and went over assignments. Tank walked Stephanie to Ranger's office. "Bombshell, I understand where Ranger is coming from on this. But I also think he should have talked to you about it. I want you to know that I would use you because you're the best we've ever worked with. This is Ranger's call." She gave him a tight smile.

"Like I said, I'm not mad at you Tank. You didn't have a choice. I guess Carlos doesn't have as much confidence in me as I thought," she said softly as she sat at the desk. Tank shook his head no and started to laugh.

"That is so far from the truth, Bombshell. I've known Ranger since he was a kid. It's not often that he loses control. That was one of the few times he did. He still blames himself for Harding. Go easy on him. You've got him whipped, hog-tied, chained…." She waved her hands to cut him off.

"Okay…I get it," she giggled. "Why doesn't he tell me these things? Why am I the last to know?" Tank shrugged his shoulders.

"Ranger's one of the best at what he does…well pretty much at everything. But he still has a lot to learn about communication. He really believes in his head and in his heart that he is doing the best thing for you." Tank smirked. "Truthfully, I think he's taking being away from you harder than you are. I mean, Steph, I love you but you are the biggest shit magnet I have ever met." She rolled her eyes.

"Swell. My boyfriend thinks I might break. My co-workers think of me as a shit-magnet. And my mother thinks I'm a necrophiliac. Can this day get any worse?" Tank bellowed in laughter and she hung her face in her hands. Her cell phone rang causing her to jump. "Shit…it's Morelli." Tank waved and smiled as he left allowing her to take the call. "Hi Joe."

"What happened?" he asked. She explained about Jeanne Ellen and the flood. "Damn, Steph, I'm sorry you had to deal with that. Thanks for taking care of everything. I knew I could count on you."

"No, I'm sorry. You got caught in the middle. Carlos took care of the bill. I was going to pay for it myself but he wouldn't let me." Joe grimaced. He hated being indebted to Ranger. He was grateful that he had some money put aside and was able to send him a check immediately.

"I was going to ask you if you're free tonight but I am now aware that because of the Constitution, you are free every night. So now I'm going to ask if you are available tonight. I'd like to take you to dinner. I can give you a check to give to Ranger as well." She could tell he was smiling as she thought back to the time he tried to ask her out and she rudely shut him down.

"Yeah, I'm free…uh…available tonight. Dinner would be nice." Morelli couldn't help smiling again.

"I'll pick you up at 6. Oh…Steph?"

"Yeah?"

"Did you really try to jerk off some dead guy?"

"He still had a pulse! Where the hell do you people get his stuff?" she groaned. She heard him laugh as he disconnected. Lula, she thought, you are a dead woman!

Ranger was only able to send her a text message that they would be in the field for the next week and wasn't sure if he would be able to come home till next weekend. She decided to let the distraction issue go until he got home to talk about it. She actually had fun with Morelli the other night. They talked about some of the people they used to be friends with and what they were doing now. He didn't make any attempts to come on to her for which she was relieved. She really hoped that he wouldn't act like Jeanne Ellen.

Stephanie had mixed emotions about the take down for Kenny Ridzowski. A part of her was glad Rangeman wasn't able to pick him up. But she was also glad that Les Sebring's team failed as well. They did have Jeanne Ellen doing the distraction. She didn't know if it was true or not, but she heard Kenny didn't even look her way. Take that Bitch! Somehow, Kenny was able to slip out of the bar without being grabbed by Rangeman or Les Sebring's team.

The next two weeks seemed to drag on forever. Ranger was able to call Stephanie a few times but he was unable to make it back to Trenton for a visit. He was hoping he would be able to come up for the week of Valentine's Day. They would be finished up at Fort Bragg, have a week off, then head to Norfolk to finish the second half of the training course. This was half way over. Being away from Stephanie was harder than he could ever have imagined. He even missed the times that she would drive him crazy and annoy the hell out of him. He was also beginning to miss Ivy. She was a good running partner in the morning. After Ranger got out of the shower, he listened to Stephanie's song like he tried to do every night before going to sleep. He wanted her voice to always be the last thing he heard.

Surprisingly, Steph was almost up to running a mile. She still wasn't crazy about exercise or getting up so damn early, but she hated it a little less. Mac kept telling her…between all the yelling at her…how proud of her he was. That's what kept her going. She wanted Ranger and all the Merry Men to be proud of her. Today, she just didn't seem to have the energy. She made it about six blocks before she quit. She flopped down on the bench at a bus stop.

"Plum! You've got two seconds to get off that bench and one of those is gone!" She flipped him the bird without even looking at him. A smile broke across his stern face. It had been at least three weeks since she last gave him the finger. He stood in front of her. "You gotta be shittin' me Plum! You can do better than this!" She finally looked up to meet his gaze.

"No, Mac…I'm not shitting you." He took a good look at her. For the first time that morning, he noticed that she was a little pale. He sat on the bench next to her.

"Are you feeling alright?" he asked in his normal voice. She nodded.

"I just feel really tired today. I don't know…like I just don't have any energy. Maybe I'm coming down with something," she explained. She remembered Val saying something about a virus going around at school.

Mac regarded her for another minute. "Alright, Plum. We'll call it a day." He stood up, holding out his hand to help her to her feet. She gave him that fantastic smile and gave him a hug.

"Thanks, Mac."

Although she just wanted to crawl back in bed, Stephanie pushed herself to get ready for work. It was still early. She figured she would get as much paperwork done and would have time to take a long afternoon nap. She missed napping.

Val was surprised to see Stephanie in the office so early. "If I have known you'd be up, I would have grabbed a latte for you," Val told her with a guilty look on her face. "You feel okay?" Stephanie nodded.

"I'm just a little tired today." She handed her latte to Stephanie.

"Here…you take this. I can make coffee," Val told her as she offered her cup. Stephanie waved her off.

"That's okay, Val. I'll have some coffee in a little while." Val went to the kitchen to get the coffee started. Then she sat in her cubicle to get started on some searches.

The normally quiet office always got a little noisier at shift change. Zip and Zero gave up the monitors to Hal, Woody, and Ram. Tank grunted a greeting as he headed into his office. Not that they didn't make their own coffee when they wanted some, but they really appreciated having Val in the office now. She always had fresh coffee made first thing in the morning. The din began to lower to a soft murmur as the night shift left and the day shift settled in. That was when a pinging sound became apparent.

"What is that?" Ram asked. Woody shrugged his shoulders. Tank came out of his office.

"What the hell is that noise?" he growled. "It's starting to get on my nerves." He looked over to Val.

"I don't know," she replied. "It sounds like video game or something." They began hunting around the office trying to trace the sound. Tank walked passed Ranger's office and the sound seemed to get louder. He walked in to find Stephanie had fallen asleep with her head on the keyboard.

"Bombshell?" he exclaimed. Her head immediately popped up. She was so startled that she jerked herself backwards and spilled herself onto the floor. Val, Ram, and Hal hurried to the office to see what was going on. Tank was around the desk and helping her to her feet. She had an imprint of the keys on the left side of her face. "Are you alright?"

"Uh…yeah. I'm fine," she told them and she rubbed her eyes. "I guess I just fell asleep." She heard a chorus of snickers behind Tank. Even Tank was now smiling. She felt the left side of her face and panicked. "What the hell is on my face?" She frantically dug through the top drawer looking for a mirror.

"Relax, Bombshell. You fell asleep on the keyboard. You've got a nice little design on your face," Tank told her. Laughing, Ram and Hal went back to the monitors. Val walked over to the desk.

"You really look tired, Steph. Maybe you should go upstairs and lay down for awhile," Val urged. Tank took another look at her. She did look tired and pale too.

"Val's right. Go get some rest. I'll call you if I need anything," Tank insisted. Stephanie nodded and headed back up to the apartment. She immediately flopped face first on to the bed and didn't bother to take off her boots. She was asleep before her face hit the pillow.

Tank sent Valerie up to check on Stephanie at lunch time. She was still sound asleep. "Maybe she's coming down with something? I heard there is a virus going around in the schools," Val suggested. Ivy had followed her down. Val turned to head over to her desk and bumped into Hal who spilled his coffee on both of them.

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "I'm sorry." Without thinking, he pulled out a bandana from his pocket and began to blot the coffee off her chest. Then, realizing what he was doing, Hal turn red. "Uh…I'm sorry….I wasn't thinking…Oh my God…I didn't mean to….Shit!" Beads of sweat appeared on his brow. Val was equally as flustered.

"Oh…uh…it's okay. It was an accident, Hal. Don't worry about it," Val told him. Hal needed to get out of there in a hurry. Hal offered to take Ivy out. "Um..okay. Steph is still sleeping so I'm sure she'd appreciate it." Hal was too embarrassed to reply so he just nodded. He grabbed the extra leash that Stephanie kept in the Control Room and headed to the stairs.

Mac came in the office to look for Stephanie. He had them scheduled for shooting practice in the range. Tank told him that she's was upstairs.

"She wasn't feeling too well this morning. She fell asleep on her computer." Mac nodded.

"She couldn't make the run this morning so we quit early. Maybe we should call off tomorrow morning?" Tank thought about this for a moment.

"That's probably a good idea. If she's sick, she's better off getting some rest," Tank decided.

Stephanie woke up just before 4 in the afternoon. Her stomach growled. She realized that she hadn't eaten all day and was starving. She glanced at the clock and was shocked at how late it was. She had slept all day! Grabbing the phone, she called down to Tank to check in. There wasn't anything she was needed for so she dragged herself to the kitchen. Ivy wasn't around so she assumed she was down in the control room. Val stopped up before going home to check on her.

"Are you feeling better?" Steph nodded.

"Yeah but I still feel a little tired."

"Tank wanted me to tell you that he and Mac decided to cancel your morning session tomorrow. You're probably coming down with something and it's better if you get some rest." Stephanie wanted to do the happy Snoopy dance. Maybe getting up so early these past weeks was catching up with her and her body was rebelling? They chatted for a short while before Val left for the day. On a whim, she called Ranger and left him another short message….I miss you.

Ranger had gotten a few moments over the weekend to give Stephanie a call. They chatted for a while about what he was doing. She told him she was so nervous about the upcoming meeting she had with Tank this week. They were meeting with a potential client and both had never done this before. Tank had gone with Ranger but was just an observer. "I'm so afraid that I'm going to do something to screw everything up," she whined. Ranger laughed.

"Babe, you and Tank will do fine. Besides, if they don't like you, I don't want them for a client anyway," he joked. "Just keep calm and don't do anything to offend them." He heard her sigh. "Look…I gotta get going. I believe in you, Babe. You can do this. I need you to stay calm and focused to help Tank. He's probably more nervous that you are. You have experience meeting with clients…even if it was about sexy underwear and not security. The product may be different but it's still business. Gotta go….love you!" He disconnected.

"Love you too," she said softly to the dial tone. She thought about what he had said. He was right. She knew how to talk to clients. Plus, she really had learned a lot about Rangeman and the security business. She had to stop underestimating herself. There was a knock at the door. It was Lester.

"Hey Beautiful," he greeted her with a hug. "You feelin' any better?" He brought a family size box of Dunkin Munchkins. She still looked a little pale to him. She was dressed in one of Ranger's black tee shirts and flannel pajama pants with that were light blue covered with white sheep.

"A little bit," she replied. "Did you guys have a good time last night?" A group of the Merry Men went out. They had asked Stephanie and Val to join them, but she had declined. "Did Val go?" Lester nodded while helping himself to a few Munchkins. She settled back on the couch.

"Yeah…I think she had a good time," Lester replied. "We got her drunk and she danced on the bar." Stephanie's eyes widened. Lester laughed and waved it off. "Just kiddin'. She spent a lot of time with Hal." He waggled his eyebrows. Stephanie smiled. "I think Hal's got a crush on your sister." Stephanie nodded.

"Me too," she told him with a mouth full of Munchkin. "The more I think of it, they really are perfect for each other. Hal's a really nice guy. He'd never do anything to hurt Val…or the girls. And my sister is kinda…dorky like he is." Lester smirked.

"I wasn't going to say anything because she's your sister, but you're right," he laughed.

"So…did you get lucky last night?" Lester gave her the cat that ate the canary smile. She laughed. "So that's why you're in such a good mood this morning." He gave her a wicked smile, but became somber.

"Steph…is everything okay?" he asked with concern on his face. She gave him her heart melting smile.

"I'm not hiding anything…if that's what you mean. I've just been really tired these past few days. I think everything is catching up with me and I haven't been getting enough sleep. Hey…I'm used to sleeping late and taking naps and not exercising. You guys have put me through a lot!" She threw a pillow at him. He tossed it back at her and smiled.

"Bobby thinks that you should to the doctor and get checked out," he insisted. She rolled her eyes.

"If I don't start feeling better, I will. I promise." She took more Munchkins.

Stephanie had chosen a double breasted black pin-striped suit with a white silk shell to wear to the meeting. She pulled back her wild mop and fastened it at the base of her neck with a large barrette bow. She decided to keep her make-up simple but added a little more foundation to give her some color. She cut her eyes to the bedside clock. She had thirty more minutes before the clients were arriving. Ella was preparing lunch for them. Thank God, because she was starting to get hungry. She had been a little nauseated this morning but it passed after having some tea and toast. Not wanting to be late, she crammed her feet into four inch black suede pumps and headed down to 5. She wanted a few minutes to go over the presentation with Tank.

Tank was nervously pacing in his office. Stephanie had never seen him in a suit before. "God Tank," she began, "you look great." She gave him an encouraging smile. Tank had beads of perspiration on his forehead and was ringing his hands. He blew out a deep breath.

"Same here, Bombshell," he grinned. "I hope we don't fuck this up."

"Carlos told me that if they don't like me he doesn't want them for a client anyway," she joked. Tank smirked.

"I don't think you'll be the problem, it's me I'm worried about. I don't like public speaking." He handed her the copy of the presentation. "I think you'd be better at it." Yikes, she thought.

"But you know what you are talking about, Tank. I'll start rambling on and probably get off the subject, and start to sound stupid…" Tank cut her off.

"But these are men, Bombshell. Sometimes they don't give a shit what a beautiful woman has to say, they'll just stare at you and agree to everything you say. Just smile and it's in the bag!" She couldn't tell if he was joking or if he was actually serious. But she did realize that he was way too uptight to do the presentation so she let the sexist comment slide. She gave an exaggerated sigh.

"Okay, but if I start to get off the subject, you have to help me," she insisted. Tank excitedly began to nod his head.

"Yeah, Bombshell, I can to that." He began to look a little more relaxed. "Let's wait in the conference room."

It wasn't long before Phillip Morris, Sr., Phillip Morris, Jr., and Phillip Morris, III, arrived for their meeting. It was a family owned shipping business called Morris and Sons. They had a huge warehouse on the docks by the Delaware River. Mr. Morris, Sr. had been referred to Rangeman as being one of the best for security in the area. Introductions were made.

"I thought we would be meeting with Mr. Manoso," Mr. Morris, Jr. began. "He came so highly recommended and we usually deal with the owner. Does he not care enough about this account?" It was obvious he was annoyed with the change in plans.

"Mr. Manoso is currently out of town supervising a training course for Special Forces. He will be finished next month. We are so proud that he was able to dedicate his time to assist our troops….especially these days. Don't you think?" Stephanie rattled off and gave them her heart melting smile. Inside, she was giving Mr. Morris, Jr. the double fingers.

"That is certainly admirable," Mr. Morris, Sr. agreed and gave his son a sharp look. "I served in Korea…US Army. I was artillery." Tank gave him a nod.

"Forget Manoso…I'd rather deal with Miss Plum," Mr. Morris, III muttered under his breath. Both Mr. Morris, Sr. and Jr. shot him a death glare.

This was going better than Tank expected. Bombshell had these guys eating out of her hand. He wanted to pound the middle one for his sarcastic comment about Ranger not being there. She just turned on the charm and had the old guy agreeing with her. He was starting to relax. Ella knocked on the door and asked if they were ready for lunch. She had prepared a wonderful buffet with a variety of foods, a tossed salad, homemade rolls, and a platter filled with slices of different cakes.

Usually, anything that Ella made smelled heavenly to Stephanie. But not today. Something must have had too much spice or garlic or something because the smell was a little overwhelming. The men had heaped food on their plates and were beginning to dig in. Stephanie didn't want to insult Ella or draw any attention to herself so she made herself a small plate with a little food and a lot of cake.

"So tell me more about Rangeman, Miss Plum," Mr. Morris, Sr., asked. She was grateful for not being able to put any food in her mouth at the time. She stomach was starting to flutter and twist. Her mouth began to salivate and she knew she didn't have much time to get to the bathroom.

"Would you excuse me?" she said as she started to rise. Tank grabbed her wrist to prevent her from leaving. He shot her a nervous look that begged her not to leave him alone with the Morris gang. "I really have to go now…I'll be right back." She stood up but it was too late. Her breakfast projected itself onto Tank's lap. Stephanie was mortified. Tank actually turned white. She had always heard that expression before but had never seen a black man turn white. She wanted to apologize but another wave was hitting her and she ran from the room. Unfortunately, she still didn't make it to the bathroom and vomited out in the hall.

The Morris men just gaped in horror at Tank. Tank slowly rose and took some napkins off the buffet table in an attempt to clean himself. "Uh…I'm sorry this happened," he tried to explain. "She hasn't been feeling well this week. I guess I should have let her go." He gave a short nervous laugh then shrugged his shoulders. "Uh…you all keep eating…uh don't let this ruin your lunch…uh...I'll be right back." Tank ran out into the hall where he found Val and Lester helping Stephanie sit in a chair. She looked up at Tank as the tears started to fall.

"Tank…I'm so sorry," she cried. "It just hit me so fast. I tried to get out of there but…" Tank knelt down in front of her and smiled.

"But I held you back, Bombshell," he finished. "I just told them to keep eating so I could check on you."

"Tank, I just recreated the scene from the Exorcist and you told the clients to keep eating?" she gasped. Lester snorted.

"Shit! I didn't know what else to say," he explained as he smacked himself in the head. "Are you alright?" Val brought her a cool rag to put on her forehead. She nodded as she brought the rag to her head.

"I guess we can kiss that account goodbye," she groaned. She looked back down at Tank and bit her lip. "Sorry about your suit. You really looked good today." He gave her a huge smile.

"I hated this thing anyway," he replied. Luis came down to clean the floor. "I'm going back in there. You feel up to coming back?" She nodded.

"I think so." Tank helped her up and they went back into the conference room. "Gentlemen, I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me. I've been fighting this flu bug for a few days."

"We understand Miss Plum," Mr. Morris, Sr., said. "My wife…she's a teacher…has been talking about this virus going around." He stood and the other two Morrises followed suit. "We have a copy of your proposal and think we've gotten enough information about Rangeman to make our decision at this time. Uh…Thank you for….your time." He held out his hand to Stephanie. She shook it and gave him an apologetic smile.

"I'm sorry I ruined your lunch. Ella is really a good cook," she told him. Mr. Morris, Sr. gave her a wide smile and laughed.

"I've never in my 40 years of business ever had quite a unique presentation, Miss Plum," he replied. "But I am impressed with Rangeman and will not let a little…uh mishap…change my position." She and Tank both mentally relaxed. Tank squeezed her shoulder and walked the men down to their car. She dropped into the nearest chair, put her face in her hands, and began to cry. Ella, Val, Lester, and Bobby came in to console her.

"I totally screwed this up!" she sobbed. "We're not going to get this account and it's all my fault!" Ella hugged Stephanie to her and began to stroke her hair.

"Stephanie, it's okay. If they can't handle something minor like this, maybe it's best to not have them as a client," Ella told her in a soothing voice.

"Yeah Beautiful. You ralphed on Tank…not them. They should give you credit for your aim!" Lester joked. Ella shot him a look.

"Lester…you're not helping. Why don't you get Stephanie a cool water to drink?" He nodded and went to the kitchen. "Stephanie, why don't we get you upstairs, change into something more comfortable, and have you lie down for a while? I'll make you some tea."

"That sound so good, Ella. Thanks," Stephanie softly replied. She let Ella and Val lead her to the 7th floor apartment. Val helped Ella get Stephanie settled in and went back to the 5th floor. Ella had her suspicions about Stephanie's condition but kept them to herself.

Chapter 17

Various Merry Men stopped up to check on Stephanie during the afternoon. Tank kept assuring her that if Morris & Sons really want the best, they will decide to give Rangeman the account.

"Just when I thought everything was going so well…," she whined. "Leave it to me to screw things up!"

"Bombshell…if we get the account, it will be because of you. You had them eating out of your hand….at least until you threw up," Tank told her. She rolled her eyes. "If I did the presentation, I would have looked like a babbling idiot. I'm not a good public speaker….hell I'm not a public speaker at all. I loved how you came back at the middle one that was annoyed that Ranger was out of town. You even had his own father putting him in his place. You're really good at dealing with people, Steph."

"Really?" Tank smiled and nodded.

"Ranger knew what he was doing when he wanted you to learn the business," he added. She dropped her head back on the arm of the chair and sighed.

"We'll see. Wait till Carlos hears about this!"

Val stopped up before going home. "Feel any better?" Stephanie nodded.

"I don't know what hit me, Val. I was a little sick this morning but after Ella brought in that food….uh! The smell hit me and everything just came up." She saw that Val had a little plastic bag in her hands. "What's that?"

"Oh…it's that stupid O-ring thing that they have been talking about for the past 2 weeks. Tank wants me to send it to an auto-parts dealer to see if they can figure out where it came from," she explained and held up the bag. No, Stephanie thought, it couldn't be. She grabbed the bag out of Val's hands. Oh my God! She ran for the bathroom. "Steph?"

Stephanie dropped her pants as soon as got inside the bathroom. She stuck a finger inside her to check for her NuvaRing. Gone! "Holy Shit!" she exclaimed. Two months ago at her annual check-up while reviewing her current birth control, her GYN suggested the NuvaRing. It would be easier to use and less chance of forgetting to take a pill each day, the doctor told her. Just put it in and leave it. After three weeks, take it out and replace it with another one after 1 week. Yeah…just so fucking simple. Except hers fell out. It must have fallen out after they had sex in the Porsche! OH MY GOD!!! Tank had Hal check every Rangeman vehicle and piece of equipment looking for where this damn thing came from!!! If they only knew where it had come from! Val was banging on the door.

"Steph…what's wrong? Are you okay?" Then another horrific idea began to echo loudly in her head….was she pregnant? She pulled up her pants and washed her hands. "Steph?" She opened the bathroom door and held up the plastic bag. "What is that thing?"

"Val…this is my NuvaRing!" she told her. Val gave her a quizzical look. "My birth control thing. I started using this two months ago instead of the pills. I was afraid I might forget a pill and since I'm getting it regularly, I wanted to make sure I didn't get pregnant. Fucking piece of shit thing!!!! The doctor never told me it could fall out!" Val gasped.

"Do you think you're….pregnant?" Val asked, whispering the last word. Steph nodded. "How did it get in the garage?"

"Duh…we had sex in the Porsche!" Val gasped again. "Not only is this the worst thing possibly imaginable, but now it's embarrassing as well. Especially since they are going to find out this isn't an O-ring. It's a birth control device. Tank's gonna have a cow. And Hal is going to have a whole herd when he finds out he touched something that was in my vagina! He'll never be able to look at me again."

"If you are pregnant, what are you going to do?" Val asked. They both dropped down on the side of the bed. Stephanie began to cry.

"I don't know. I don't want kids. Carlos doesn't want any more kids. God Val…this is so bad." She flopped on her back. "Now Carlos will feel obligated to marry me like he did with Rachel. Maybe I shouldn't tell him and just get a…just get rid of it." Val gasped.

"Stephanie Michelle Plum you cannot get an abortion!" she scolded. This brought tears to her eyes. Val lay next to her and gave her a hug. "First, let's find out if you are pregnant. Let's go to the drug store and get a test. Maybe you aren't pregnant and just have a stomach bug?" She wiped the tears from her eyes and sat up.

"Yeah…maybe you're right. What other symptoms did you have when you were pregnant?"

"I had some morning sickness. I was tired. My boobs really hurt…especially the…you know…nipples. They were very sensitive." Stephanie had to smile at the fact that Val had a hard time saying body parts out loud. Just like their mother, she would whisper words that may cause others embarrassment. This was not sounding promising. She had all those symptoms.

"Okay…let's go to Rite Aid. There is one a couple blocks from here." Val nodded. They headed down to the garage, got in the Buick, and headed for Rite Aid.

Ram, not realizing at first that Stephanie was leaving with Val, scrambled to find someone to follow them. "Shit, there's no GPS on the Buick!" He slammed his hand down on the console. He called Tank to advise him on Steph's absence.

By the time they got a team to pull out and go look for her, Val was pulling back in the garage. They got out and headed right up to the 7th floor apartment. Ram called off the search. Once in the apartment, Stephanie called Ella. She didn't want to do this alone and Ella would be a better support than both Val and her mother.

Stephanie had purchased every type of over the counter pregnancy test they had. Ella couldn't help but laugh. "Just in case one is defective or something," Stephanie explained. They opened all the boxes and handed her one of every test.

"Which one do you want to use?" Val asked her. Stephanie began to take the caps off all of them.

"I'm peeing on all of these things," she told them as she headed in the bathroom with a handful of pregnancy tests. Ella covered her mouth to try to stifle the laughter. Val just shook her head.

"Steph is not going to handle this well," Val whispered to Ella. Ella just smiled and put an arm around Val.

"Stephanie will do fine. She's just afraid but she will make an excellent mother. She is a very caring person. And Ranger will make a wonderful father."

"Stephanie's worried that he'll feel obligated to marry her." Ella shook her head.

"I think Ranger has already been thinking about marrying Stephanie. He loves her and will never let her go." They heard a groan from the bathroom. "What's wrong Honey?"

"I peed on my hand," came Steph's whiney response through the closed door. Val and Ella couldn't help laughing. "Stop laughing! This is not funny!" After a few more minutes, they could hear the water running in the sink as she washed her hands. Stephanie replaced the caps on the ends. She handed the test sticks to Ella.

"Here," she told her. "I can't look." She lay back on the bed. "Okay…what's the result?"

Ella read the results as they came up quickly without having to wait the 5 minutes. "Okay we have two with 2 blue lines, three plus signs, two check marks, oh and this one even says…pregnant!" Ella was excited. Val stood there with mouth wide open. Stephanie began to bawl.

"Noooooo! This can't be happening!" she whined through heavy sobs. Ella and Val just held her as she cried.

"Steph…it's not going to be that bad," Val told her softly. "I know you didn't want children and I did. But the truth is…I can't imagine my life without my girls. They remind me so much of us growing up. Dealing with Steve leaving us is still hard for me, but I'll get over him. All that matters is my girls. And we're all here for you. You won't be alone." Stephanie hugged Val tight.

"Let's just forget for a moment how irresponsible I am…" Steph sniffled. "Carlos doesn't want any more children. I know he loves me. But he'll feel pressured to marry me or stay with me because we have a child. I mean…I'm not putting down his decision, but he signed away his parental rights for Julie. What does that tell you?"

"He thought it was in the best interest of his daughter, Stephanie," Ella told her sternly. "This is very different. He got a girl pregnant when he was a teenager. He loves you and wants to be with you. I can't believe that you even think for a second that Ranger would not be there for you." Stephanie felt a twinge of guilt. Her emotions were flying like acrobats in the circus.

"I don't know what to do?" she whined again. "I mean…what happens now? What should I be doing?"

"First, you need to make an appointment with your OB/GYN," Ella told her. She sat up and wiped her eyes.

"Right…good idea," she agreed. "I need to punch her in the face for suggesting that stupid ring thing!" Ella looked at Val with raised eyebrows.

"Uh…Steph was using the NuvaRing and it….um….sorta fell out," Val explained. "That's the O-Ring that the guys have been going crazy over the past 2 weeks." She held up the baggie. Ella burst out laughing.

She thought back to the past two weeks. That's all Luis and the men were talking about. Oh my Lord, she thought. Wait till they find out what that ring came from! "Stephanie….I'm so sorry, but the fuss that was made over that thing!" Ella had tears in her eyes. They had never seen Ella laugh so hard. Val started to laugh. Stephanie shot them both an evil look.

"This is so not funny!" Steph yelled at both of them. It took several minutes for Val and Ella to get themselves under control.

"Steph, do you know how far along you are? I mean…when was your last period?" Ella asked. Stephanie shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know…maybe a year…year and a half." Ella frowned. "I was on Loestrin 24 Fe. I didn't get a period with those pills. It was great. I've only been using the ring for the past 2 months. It has hormones in it too. Shit, I don't even know how far along I am."

"The doctor can figure it out, Stephanie. Don't worry," Ella said. "First thing in the morning, we'll call your doctor. I'll tell Tank…." Stephanie stiffened.

"No…you can't say anything to anyone! I don't want anybody to know!" she begged.

"Calm down. I'll tell him you are sick and we are setting up a doctor's appointment. I'll handle the guys. Just stay in the apartment. Maybe they will be able to fit you in tomorrow." Stephanie nodded. God is so punishing me, she sighed to herself.

"Are you going to call Carlos tonight?" Val asked. Stephanie blanched at the thought.

"Oh God no!" She pulled herself up to lean against the headboard. "I'm going to avoid him like the plague! This is the last thing he needs right now."

"Stephanie, you are going to have to tell him. The sooner the better," Ella urged.

"I know, but he's going to want to know all the details. He's going to freak out. First of all because he's not here. Then he's going to get crazy because I won't be able to answer any of his questions. I mean this news alone is going to majorly test his self control," Stephanie explained. She started to cry again.

"What's going on?" They jumped at the sound of Lester's voice. He was standing in the bedroom doorway. No one heard him come in. He had his hands shoved in his pockets and nervously shifted his weight back and forth. Ella handed Stephanie the test sticks and motioned to Val to leave with her.

"Honey, I'm going to bring you some soup and crackers. I'll be back in a while." Val nodded.

"I gotta go too Steph. The girls will need help with their homework. Call me if you need me…otherwise I'll see you in the morning." She gave her a quick hug and left. Lester nodded to both of them as they left. Stephanie wiped the tears from her eyes.

"Uh…I just stopped up to see how you were feeling," he told her from the doorway. Something bad was going on. He could feel it. She looked awful. Not just because she was sick, but something really upset her.

"I'm okay," she lied. Shaking his head no, he walked over and sat next to her.

"No, you're not okay…what's wrong?" She looked into his eyes. Big mistake. She could see worry, concern, fear, and friendship. She didn't want anyone to know she was pregnant. Well, not yet anyway. She wanted to tell Ranger first. But if she didn't say anything to Lester right now, he'd make himself sick worrying about her over nothing. She opened her mouth to tell him but started crying instead. "It's bad…isn't it?" All she could do was nod. He pulled her close hugging her tight to his chest.

"Cancer?" he whispered. Fear gripped his throat and took away the strength of his voice. He held his breath waiting for her answer.

"Worse." Worse! Oh my God! She's dying. He could feel tears start to sting his eyes.

"Are…are you…dying?" he breathed out the question.

"Worse!" Worse? What the hell could be worse than dying? What the hell was wrong with her? He leaned back and looked down at her.

"What's worse than dying?" he demanded.

"I-I'm p-preg-nant!" she bawled. He let out the breath that he didn't even realize that he had been holding. "Here! Look!" She thrust a bunch of sticks at him with a few spilling into his lap and the floor. They were pregnancy tests which he assumed all were positive. He was so relieved that she wasn't dying that he began to laugh. Her head popped up sharply and she gave him a hard shove. "It's not funny!"

"S-sorry Beautiful," he grinned. "Jesus…you scared the shit out of me. I thought you were dying or something. Well….I guess…congratulations are in order." He pulled her close again. "Does Ranger know yet?" She shook her head.

"You can't tell anybody, Les. I mean it. No one!" she told him. Shit, this was going to be hard. Knowing Stephanie, she was not going to slow down or take it easy. Now she expected him to just stand there and watch and not say anything.

"Steph, you can't keep this a secret. I mean everyone can tell something is going on with you. You've been tired. You hurled on Tank and in the Control Room. And you kinda look…uh…like…um…crap." She rolled her eyes.

"Thanks Lester. I can always count on you to make me feel better," she groaned sarcastically. "I'm not going to keep it a secret forever. Christ…I don't even know how far along I am. I want to tell Carlos first before I make this major announcement. I wouldn't have told you except you looked so worried, and I couldn't let you think there was something wrong with me. I'm going to call my doctor in the morning and set up an appointment." He nodded.

"I know you didn't want kids. Are you…uh…how do you feel about this?" She shrugged.

"My first thought was to get rid of it. I don't know. I don't know what to do. I guess I want to see how Carlos reacts. If I can tell he doesn't want this baby, then I won't have it." Lester honestly had no idea how Ranger would react to Stephanie being pregnant. Lester remembered how he reacted when he found out about Rachel. It wasn't good. That was a different time and different circumstance. He didn't know why but he felt that Ranger was going to be thrilled this time.

"This is gonna be one helluva good looking kid," he joked. Stephanie smirked. She knew she could count on Lester for making her laugh. "Can you imagine having a girl? And she looks like you? The first boy that even looks at her is going to get castrated." He felt her laughing.

"God help Carlos if there were two of us," she added. "I don't know if I can do this, Les. I mean…seriously…can you see me as a mom?" He gave her one of the biggest smiles she had ever seen and slowly began to nod.

"Oh yeah, Beautiful. I think you'd make an awesome mom," he told her. "Besides…I think I'll make a great uncle." This got him her full smile.

"Uncle Lester," she mused. She put her hand gently on the side of his face. "Thanks Les. You're a really good friend…you know that? And you will make a great Uncle Lester." He took her hand and kissed the palm.

"No doubt, Beautiful, no doubt."

Just before Lester left, Hal brought Ivy up to the apartment. They had been playing Frisbee with her in the garage. Lester kissed her forehead. "Call me if you need anything."

"Thanks." The apartment was quiet. She had so much to think about. She was always sure that she would have an abortion if she ever became pregnant. Even though the thought crossed her mind, she knew in her heart that she couldn't do it. Deep down, she really wanted this baby. Funny how things change. She was still scared. She knew she didn't want to be anything like her mother. She wanted to be a good mom. Her life was so crazy. So much would have to change. She thought Carlos was overprotective before, God only knows how bad that was going to get. What if he didn't want her or the baby? Would he still love her? Her head was spinning and she was exhausted. It wasn't long before she was asleep.

In the middle of the night, Stephanie woke up suddenly. She was covered in sweat and felt like she was gasping for breath. She had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong. She didn't have any bleeding or cramping. Ivy was okay. She couldn't remember if she was having a nightmare. Just that feeling that something was wrong. She dismissed it thinking it was stress from the events of the day. It took her a while to relax but did eventually fall back to sleep.

Stephanie was able to get a morning appointment with her doctor. Ella offered to go with her. "Thanks. I didn't want to go alone," she told her. Remembering the odd feeling last night, she turned to Ella. "Is everything okay? Did anything happen last night that you know of?" Ella shook her head.

"I haven't heard anything. Everyone seems to be acting normal. Why?" Stephanie waved her off.

"Oh…it's nothing. I just had a weird feeling last night. Probably just having weird dreams about everything that happened yesterday. My nerves are a little shot," she explained. Ella smiled.

"Pregnancy hormones can do that to you."

They confirmed Stephanie's pregnancy during the exam. "I wish you would have told me that damn thing could fall out!" The doctor laughed.

"It's explained in the packaging. It's not too uncommon during intense sex or if your partner is well endowed," the doctor explained. Swell, she thought to herself, that's two for two. "We sent off a HCG count. We'll need to set you up for an ultrasound. Since you haven't gotten a period for quite some time, we'll have to use the count and the ultrasound to figure out when you are due. I would guess, taking into consideration your NuvaRing…uh…failure… you're probably around 4-6 weeks pregnant. If that calculation is correct, you would be due mid to late October. But the ultrasound will give us the best estimate." They set up the ultrasound for Monday.

Lester was waiting in the SUV. Since they still were not letting her go out unattended, Lester volunteered to drive. This way he would be able to watch her and still help to keep her secret. "So…what'd you find out?"

"I have an ultrasound on Monday. They took some blood today and that will help them to figure out when I'm due. She's guessing sometime in October." He grinned.

"A Halloween baby?" She laughed.

"Something like that."

Lester took them back to Rangeman. Ella went back to 6 and Lester and Steph stopped on 5. The tension in the office was thick. Tank immediately came over and led her by the hand to his office. Bobby was waiting inside. Tank motioned for Lester to follow as well. That sinking feeling from the night before was beginning to return. "Tank…what's wrong?" He kneeled down in front of her. Oh God, this is not good. Something must have happened to Carlos. "Is he okay?"

"He's pretty banged up, Bombshell. But we were told he's going to make it." He pulled her into a hug as she began to sob. Lester turned to Bobby.

"What happened?" he demanded.

"Helicopter crash last night. Only two made it out. Ranger was one of them. The Colonel called Tank this morning. Some internal bleeding that has been controlled. His head and shoulder injuries were the worst. But he's going to be fine, Steph," Bobby informed them. She pushed Tank back and tried to stand up.

"I'm going to him," she insisted. Tank gently but firmly sat her back down. "I mean it Tank. Where is he?"

"He's at Womack. I've already spoken to Raoul and he is getting on a plane as we speak. He's going to call us with an update," Tank explained calmly.

"So when is our flight?" she asked hesitantly. She got the sense that he was holding back. He wasn't fine like they just told her.

"I haven't booked one yet. He's…he is going to be fine, Bombshell. I'm telling you the truth but there's a…problem." His chest constricted from watching the pained look on her face with the tears that were starting to fall. He knew she was going to crumple when he told her. "The doctor's think it's temporary due to the swelling in the brain…but he's blind…Bombshell?"

Her vision began to swim. She could hear Tank's voice off in a distance He could feel his massive hands on her shoulders. Carlos is blind a voice yelled in her head. Tank was saying something else but his words were lost on her. She was vaguely aware of being carried into Ranger's office and placed on the couch. She felt a cooling sensation on her forehead and a tightness around her upper arm.

Bobby had placed a rag on her and was taking her blood pressure. "Steph?" he asked her gently. "Steph…talk to me." He watched as her far away stare shifted to his face. "That's it Honey…it's going to be alright. Just relax."

Lester didn't know what to do. She made him promise not to say anything. He felt at least Tank and Bobby should know. Especially now. And he didn't even know if it was okay for her to fly or travel.

Tank sat on the edge of the couch next to her. He didn't even get to the worst part yet. He was afraid to tell her that his memory was affected as well. From what the doctors could tell, he seemed to have lost the last three years. He thought he was in Afghanistan. He would remember Lester, Bobby, and himself, that he owned Rangeman in Miami, but he wouldn't remember Stephanie.

"Les, get her some water, will ya?" Bobby asked. He nodded and went to the kitchen. "Steph…you feeling better?" She nodded.

"H-he's blind?" she whispered. Tank took her hand.

"The doctors think it's temporary, Bombshell. He got a pretty bad head injury. He also is having….problems with his memory." Tank finally managed. She tried to sit up but they held her back.

"Tank…tell me all of it….now! I know there's more!" she begged.

"Ranger thinks it's three years ago." Tank's words echoed in her head. The room began to spin and she felt like there was no air.

"Steph…slow your breathing down," Bobby ordered her calmly. Lester rubbed his face with his hands. He didn't want to betray Steph's trust, but this latest blow was going to be too much for her to handle. Especially in her condition. He figured too much stress couldn't be good for the baby.

"Uh…I don't know how to tell you this but….Shit….she's gonna kill me," Lester stammered.

"What?" Tank demanded.

"She's pregnant." Stephanie could hear Lester's voice in the distance. Damn it, she thought, he told them. This got her tensed up and her chest hitched again.

"Steph, you really need to calm down. Ranger is going to be fine. It's a temporary condition. They didn't see any damage to the brain on the MRI. I know this is upsetting news but you have to calm down and breathe," Bobby instructed. She nodded like a bobble head doll and tried to take slow deep breaths. Bobby had at least a dozen questions for her but he needed her to calm down first.

Tank was stunned. He knew she hadn't been feeling well but being pregnant was the last…well wasn't even on his mind. She was in no shape to make the trip to North Carolina. Hell, he didn't even know if she was supposed to be flying. He didn't know anything about how to take care of a pregnant woman. After several minutes, Stephanie's strangled breaths were down to small sobs.

"Steph…how long have you known that you're pregnant?" Bobby asked her.

"F-found out y-yes-terday!"

"How far along are you?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"D-don't k-know yet. H-have an ul-trasound on M-Monday." Bobby gave her a hug.

"Congratulations." She just nodded. It may have been good news before. Now the father of her baby doesn't even remember her. All she wanted to do was see Ranger.

"Tank?" she asked.

"Yeah, Bombshell?" It was his turn to hold her.

"When are we going to go to see Carlos?" He hugged her tight.

"I don't know. I'm waiting for Raoul to call me with an update. I probably will be heading down tonight or tomorrow. I don't think it's a good idea for you to go…especially now." She started to protest. "Bombshell, you're not feeling well, and now I find out that you're pregnant. I don't think it's a good idea for you to go anywhere right now."

"I'm going to see Carlos. I'm not asking anyone's permission, Tank. I have to see him. So either you can book us both a flight and we can go together or I'll make the arrangements on my own. No one is going to stop me," she hissed. Tank sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He didn't want to argue with her. She needed to get some rest. Fighting with her about it was just going to stress her out and that couldn't be good for the baby.

"Listen to me…I'll have Bobby call your doctor. If he or she says it's okay for you to fly, then I'll take you. But if not, you stay here. I need to think about you, the baby, and Ranger right now. The last thing Ranger will need is to find out that not only is it 3 years later, but the man who doesn't do relationships has another pregnant girlfriend!" As soon as those words left his mouth, he realized how awful that just came out. Her already tear streaked face and swollen eyes were filling with fresh tears again. Fuck…he didn't mean it like that. He was just afraid Ranger would say something that would really hurt her feelings. This was the Ranger from three years ago. The mercenary, the playboy, the man who hardly ever smiled or didn't do relationships past a one night stand. Lester and Bobby shot him evil glances. "Bombshell…I didn't mean that like is sounded. Ranger is like my brother and I would do anything for him, but there were times that he was a real asshole. You know he's not one to give into pain. He's going to be angry and frustrated that he can't see or remember his current life. We need to give him a little time right now and not charge in there to make the situation worse."

She knew that Tank was speaking the truth, but it still hurt. She just nodded. "I knew something bad happened last night. I woke up out of a sound sleep and the bad vibe was so strong. Oh God…what if he doesn't get his memory back? What if he never remembers me or what we have?"

"Then he'll fall in love with you all over again," Tank told her. "Why don't you get some rest? I'll take you upstairs and I promise to tell you as soon as I talk to Raoul." She again nodded. She didn't even have the energy to get up. She let Tank carry her to the 7th floor. Lester had called Ella who was waiting for her upstairs.

As soon as Tank let her down, she bolted to the bathroom and threw up. She didn't think that had anything to do with her pregnancy. Her stomach was in such tight knots. Tank left because he wanted to get as much done as possible before he left. He instructed Bobby to call her doctor and ask if she could travel. Once she thought there was nothing left inside, she staggered out to the living room.

"Stephanie, go lay down," Ella ordered. Stephanie nodded and flopped on the couch. "How about some tea?" She nodded again. Lester sat next to her.

"Beautiful…I'm sorry I told them. You just really had me scared," he sheepishly explained. She patted his hand.

"It's okay. Actually, it's kind of a relief." She gave him a waned smile. "I just want to be with him Les."

"I know. But at least you know he's going to be okay. They said this is temporary. Let us do the worrying for you. You need to take care of you and Little Ranger." He lightened up when he saw her smile.

"Or Little Stephanie!" Ella added. Bobby had been in the kitchen on the phone with Stephanie's doctor. They all looked up at him expectantly.

"Well, she said it's usually safe to fly in the first trimester. She wouldn't recommend it for you because flying can make the morning sickness worse and she still doesn't know how far along you are. She would feel better if you waited until you had the ultrasound. They didn't have any earlier appointments but she promised to call if there is a cancellation before then," Bobby explained. "Steph, I agree with the doctor. This is going to be stressful enough on you. You or the baby don't need anything extra."

"I'll wait to see what Raoul says before I decide. I don't want to do anything that's going to hurt the baby, but I'm going to see Carlos…even if I have to take a train or drive down," she insisted. Bobby nodded.

"We'll see what happens, Steph," Bobby agreed. "If I have to, I'll drive you down myself…okay?"

Jeanne Ellen had gotten a call from one of her contacts at the Pentagon. She was told about Ranger's accident. "Lost the last 3 years, huh?" she smirked. "Thanks. I'm going to catch the next flight." She made her travel arrangements and began to pack. This is too rich, she told herself. He won't even remember his precious Babe! She cackled to herself. But he will certainly remember me! That's when they were at their hottest and heaviest. Once he was up to it, she would get her some Ranger-lovin'. Even if he did remember that stupid bitch, she would dump him for cheating on her. Oh the humanity!!! She laughed at her own quick wit.

Chapter 18

Stephanie finally convinced everyone that she was fine and wanted to be alone. Music. She needed her music. She felt like everything was out of control. It had been at least two weeks since she had time to play. And of course the last week, she hadn't been feeling well. She stared at her beautiful piano and remembered the night Ranger surprised her with it. She played some Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks. If she didn't have to pee so often, she would not have realized the time. She decided the next bathroom break she took, she would call Tank to see if he heard anything.

As soon as her bladder prodded her to take another trip, she finished up the Stevie Nick's song Sorcerer. She was startled to see Tank leaning against the breakfast bar. Gasping, she put a hand to her chest. "Jesus, Tank, you guys really have to learn how to make some noise." He chuckled. "Well?"

"You're really good, Bombshell. I should come up here more often."

"How is he?" she demanded.

"Raoul said he's…a little angry right now. We're having a hard time with this so imagine what it's like for him? He hates to depend on anyone. He can't see. He can't do much for himself. And he's being told that it's 3 years later. Shit…you know how proud and stubborn he can be. You especially can appreciate being stubborn." She quickly ran to the bathroom to take care of her newly overactive bladder.

"So…so what do we do now, Tank?" She sat on a barstool next to him. He turned and leaned on the counter on folder arms.

"I'm going down there first. I don't think it's the right time for you to be there yet." She opened her mouth but he silenced her by putting up one of his hands. "Hear me out." She closed her mouth and nodded. "I know you want to be there. Let me feel out the situation. Let me and Raoul fill him in on the past few years. Hell, maybe he'll start to remember on his own. I'll also get a sense of how long he needs to be there. Then, we'll bring you down there. If the doctor says you can fly, I'll have Bobby and Lester take you. If you can't fly, they can drive you down. Please, Steph. Work with me on this. I have to do what's best for all three of you."

The tears fell. Damn pregnancy hormones. She wasn't as upset as she was before but she cried anyway. She nodded. She could see Tank's shoulders slump and the muscles in his face relax. She knew this was hard on all of them. She didn't want to act like a spoiled brat or a demanding bitch. "Did Raoul tell his parents yet?"

"He's going to call them tonight. He wanted to see him first."

"When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow morning. Stephanie, promise me that you will take it easy while I'm gone. It's bad enough I'm going to be worrying about you while I'm gone. But if something happens to you, well….it's not going to be good," Tank requested. "You need to take care of my little niece or nephew. The guys will take care of you. I'll take care of Ranger. I promise I'll bring him back home to you. To all of us." She hugged him tight.

Tank was packing his suitcase when Raoul called him. Raoul gave him an update. Ranger was starting to calm down some. "Who's Jeanne Ellen?" Raoul asked him out of the blue. Tank grimaced. "She showed up today. Carlos was happy to see her. Is everything okay with him and Stephanie?" He sank into the couch and began to massage his forehead. Fuck, he thought to himself.

"She's trouble Raoul…nothing but fucking trouble. She was Ranger's fuck buddy a while back. CIA. They worked together several times. Ranger hired her about a month ago and she caused all kinds of shit here. Most of it aimed at Bombshell. Ranger fired her and she made some threats. It was just fuckin' bad. Christ…she's gonna come after him again and he's in no shape to know any better. Is he beginning to remember anything?"

"Bits and flashes of things. The doctor told me that he was calling for Stephanie when they brought him in. He was pretty out of it from what they told me. They asked who 'Babe' was. I told Carlos about Steph. Didn't get into details because I don't want him to get overwhelmed. He asked me if she was blonde with blue eyes. So he hasn't lost everything totally. The doctor said that most patients usually start to remember things within 48 to 72 hours. They may either get full recovery by then or may just start to remember pieces of things. If it takes longer than that, the damage may be more severe than they thought. Tank exhaled. He'd have to tell her that…anything so she would have some hope. "This Jeanne Ellen seemed to get a little too friendly with Carlos, and he didn't seem to mind. When are you coming down?"

"Tomorrow morning. It's just going to be me right now. Steph…uh…she's pregnant, Raoul. Just found out yesterday. Been sick as a dog this past week. We don't know how far along she is and the doctor really doesn't want her to travel until she has her ultrasound. Plus, I wanted to feel out the situation. I don't want her getting anymore stressed than she already is."

"How is she handling this? I mean she was pretty adamant about not wanting children," Raoul wondered.

"She's doing better about it. It was a shock to all of us. I don't think it will be a good idea to mention this to Ranger until he gets his memory back," Tank chuckled. Raoul snickered. "Try not to leave Ranger alone with that bitch. She's going to poison him against Steph. If he does anything with her, Stephanie will be gone. Accident or no accident, she will never get over Ranger being with another woman." Raoul laughed.

"Well, right now, he's really not in any shape to get laid, Tank," Raoul told him.

"Ranger was always up for getting laid. That's the problem. For Stephanie, it's not just about sex. If Ranger even gets friendly with Jeanne Ellen, the game is over. You don't know all the details about what happened. And with Steph's track record…just about every guy she had been with screwed her over. I won't let her get hurt." Raoul understood. "Have you told your parents?"

"Yeah…just got off the phone with Papa. They are going to try to get down on the next flight. I've made reservations for all of you. I thought Stephanie would be coming with you. Give her my best, Tank. I'm going to head back to the hospital. I'll see you tomorrow."

"God fucking dammit!" Tank growled as he threw his phone across the room. They didn't need this extra shit right now. That bitch could really do some major damage. Ranger used to trust her. He's going to believe everything she says. And he had no doubt in his mind she was going to drag Stephanie through the mud. He didn't think it was a good idea for her to travel yet, now he wasn't so sure. Maybe Stephanie would help Ranger to remember. He did remember something about her. He finished getting his things together then headed up to see Stephanie.

"Bombshell?" Ivy trotted out of the bedroom to greet him. He hoped she wasn't asleep because he would hate to wake her. He looked into the bedroom but she wasn't there. "Bombshell?" he called out softly again.

"In here," came a strained voice from the bathroom. She was sitting on the floor, back to the sink cabinets, right next to the toilet.

"You alright?" She nodded. She didn't look alright.

"I don't know why they call this morning sickness when it lasts all fucking day," she groaned. He sat on the floor next to her. "You hear anything else?" He gave her a smile.

"Yeah, I just talked to Raoul again. He's remembering bits and pieces. Raoul told me that he was calling for you when they brought him in. He said the doctor asked him who 'Babe' was." This brought a smile to her face.

"Thank God," she sighed. "Tank I was so afraid that he would never remember me. I don't want to lose him." He patted her hand.

"Raoul told him about you. He wanted to know if you had blond hair and blue eyes. He knows your face but can't remember much else. That's a start." She nodded. "Otherwise, he's coping a little better." He decided to not say anything about Jeanne Ellen. There wasn't anything either of them could do about it right now. Stephanie had enough to deal with at the moment. "I told Raoul about the baby." He eyes narrowed and she swatted his arm.

"Tank!" she exclaimed. "I don't want people to know. I really wanted to tell Carlos first. But I had to tell Lester because he thought I was dying of cancer. And Big Mouth tells you and Bobby. And you tell Raoul…who's going to tell his parents. You guys are worse than Grandma Mazur and the ladies down at the Cut and Curl!"

"It's not like it's going to be a secret forever, Bombshell. I mean…I'm sorry. I think it's great news. Ranger had a lot of regret with Julie. He felt guilty that he wanted Rachel to have an abortion. He regretted he missed the whole pregnancy and missed being there when she was born. Not right away….but he did later on." She looked down at her feet and bit her lower lip.

"Tank…I know that he felt he was doing what was best for Julie but….why did he sign away his parental rights or why didn't he see her more often?" She looked into Tank's eyes and could see his hesitancy. She waved off the question. "Never mind. It's really not my business. Forget I asked."

"No Bombshell…it's okay. Plain and simple…Ranger was an asshole. He changed over the past few years. Don't get me wrong…he's my best friend, well brother really. We would lay down our lives for each other. But, Ranger was always selfish...especially when it came to women. He wasn't a bad person. Tried to do the right thing most of the time, but he looked out for number one. It didn't help that most of the women that threw themselves at him were just out for what they could get as well. Rachel was really the first nice girl that he took advantage of. The rest of them were playing the game too. Then there was you." Tank threw back his head and laughed. "You got my man so whipped so fast!" Stephanie began to giggle. "He never stood a chance against you. Hell…he didn't even hesitate…brought you here the first day he met you."

"Where I tased him by accident," she sighed. Tank howled with laughter again.

"We still have that on tape. Along with you kicking Santos in the balls. Hector told me he's putting together a DVD of your greatest hits." They both laughed till Stephanie sat upright.

"Tank….that's a great idea! I mean Carlos can't watch it just yet, but maybe something like that will help him remember?" she suggested excitedly. Tank furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side. He pursed his lips slowly nodded his head.

"Hmmm…that might not be a bad idea. I'll have Hector work on that," he replied. He stood up and offered her a hand. "I'm going to get some sleep. Got an early flight to catch. Please…take it easy. Let's the guys help you with anything you need." She gave him a hug.

"I promise Uncle Tank," she joked.

By the time Tank had arrived a Womack, the Army Hospital, Ranger was sitting up in the chair. He still was unable to see and but was continuing to remember more and more. Raoul and Jeanne Ellen were there. He shook Raoul's hand but ignored Jeanne Ellen. "Aren't you glad to see me Tank?" she bated him. "Ranger was."

"When he remembers how you stabbed him in the back, I'm sure he'll be fuckin' thrilled," Tank growled. He hadn't planned on starting any trouble but he was not about to let her take control of the situation. And he didn't know what damage was already done. He walked over to Ranger and shook his good hand. "How are you feeling?"

"Hey Tank," Ranger gave him a tight smile. "I'm alright. Going a little crazy being caged up like this." He closed his eyes. "Can you give me a minute with Tank?" Jeanne Ellen didn't look happy but did as she was asked. She and Raoul left the room and Tank closed the door.

"What's up man?" Tank asked sitting in the chair beside him.

"What the fuck is going on?" Ranger growled at him. "Why are you attacking Jeanne Ellen?"

"There are a lot of things that you don't remember, Ranger. I'm not going to beat around the bush. She came here to start trouble. She doesn't like you being with Stephanie. She tried to break you up once before and she's trying it again."

"If this…what's her name and I have such a great relationship….then where is she?" Ranger snapped. "Jeanne Ellen told me all about her. Sounds like I'm getting led around by my dick. She apparently is enjoying my money." Tank smirked.

"Yeah…I'm not surprised that bitch put her down. Let me tell you about the woman you love. Not only is she beautiful on the outside, but she's sweet, kind, compassionate, tough, can be as mean as a snake if you push her, she works hard, she gives you 150% of herself, and she loves Carlos Manoso more than life itself. As for your money, she fights with you every time you want to spend your money on her. She wants to pay her own way Ranger. Jeanne Ellen wants to be with you. You hired her last month while you were down here. She was such a bitch and tried to fuck everyone over that you fired her. You can't believe anything she says." Tank paused to let that sink in. "And just so you know, Stephanie is…sick. We had to fight with her not to come. You've got enough going on right now and the last thing you need is to get her virus." Ranger turned away and nodded.

"I can see bits and pieces of things. Nothing makes sense. This fucking sucks! I just want to go home to Miami and sit on the beach," he told him softly.

"You live in Trenton now," Tank explained. "You still have that house but a couple years ago you let Raoul and his family live there while he took over the Miami office."

"Raoul told me some things about….what's her name again?"

"Stephanie."

"Yeah…Stephanie." He rubbed his face. "I can't believe that I'm in a relationship with someone. Why the hell did I do something so stupid like that?" Tank grimaced.

"Because she is something special. Even you have to admit that possibility. You fell in love with her the day you met her, man. You were asked to train her as a Bounty Hunter. She's the biggest shit magnet that any of us have seen. She attracts crazies and stalkers, cars and houses blow up, and…she loves you as much as you love her." Ranger frowned.

"Jeanne Ellen has a different story," he told his friend.

"Are you going to believe me or Jeanne Ellen?" Tank growled. "Shit man. I'm your best friend, and I'm going to do everything I can to prevent you from throwing away the best thing that's ever happened to you because you can't help thinking with your dick." Ranger smirked.

"Jeanne Ellen told me that she's the office whore. Not only is she with me, but I share her with Santos. Jeanne Ellen's always had my back, Tank. Why would she just make this shit up?"

"Because she's a cunt. I told you. She wants Steph out of the way so she can be with you. You actually took Stephanie to meet your family. They love her. You begged her for weeks to move in with you. Does that sound like she's some whore that you are sharing with your staff?" Ranger bowed his head and pursed his lips. He shook his head no after thinking about what Tank said.

"The doctors said I'll be able to get outta here in a few days. I don't want to live with a….stranger. Can you get her out of my….what the hell do I even live in?" Ranger asked Tank. Tank's stomach twisted into a knot. Shit, he thought, he wants me to kick out Bombshell.

"You have an apartment on the 7th floor of the Rangeman office building. Are you asking me to kick your girlfriend out of your apartment?" Tank was incredulous. Ranger nodded.

"I don't know who she is, Tank. You know I'm a private person. I need my space right now," Ranger insisted. Tank stared at him for a moment. "Can you help me back in bed? I'm really tired." Tank helped him to his feet and walked him to the bed. "Tank care of that for me…please?" Tank nodded. He waited for Ranger to doze off before he let Raoul and Jeanne Ellen back in the room.

Ranger again dreamed of the beautiful blonde woman. Her eyes were the color of aquamarine. Her hair was the color of the golden sun and a massive tangle of wild curls. Her touch caused fluttering in his stomach. And that song. There was something so familiar about that song that kept playing over and over again in his head.

Tank and Raoul went to the cafeteria to grab some lunch. "He wants me to move Stephanie out of his apartment," Tank sighed. Raoul's face twisted.

"You can't do that, Tank. You can't do that to her," Raoul insisted. Tank shrugged.

"I don't want to but it might be better coming from me than him. I'll just try to see if a couple of the guys will double up and I'll move her to one of the apartments. Mac is staying in the spare." Tank slammed down his drink. "She's emotional enough already…this is gonna kill her." His phone rang and he checked the caller ID. "Speak of the devil… Hi Bombshell."

"How's he doing, Tank," Stephanie asked.

"He was up in a chair today. Able to walk a little bit…but no other changes."

"Oh," she softly replied. "How is Raoul?"

"Why don't you say hi…he's right here." Tank handed the phone over.

"Hi Steph," Raoul said. "Congratulations!" She rolled her eyes. These men were almost as good as she was when it came to changing the subject.

"Thanks. Have your parents gotten there yet?"

"I'm going to the airport in about an hour to go and pick them up. Am I allowed to tell them the news?" Well at least he asked, she thought. Hell…it sounded like she was going to need everyone on her side to help Carlos remember who she was.

"Yeah…go ahead. I'm hoping to come down there. The guys won't let me. I really want to see him, Raoul."

"I know Steph…but if it's not a good idea to travel right now, you have to stay put. He's doing pretty good and the doctors think he might be released early next week. I don't know if he'll need to stay in the area longer or if they will let him go home. So…you may not need to come down here anyway." Home next week! Oh please God let that be true. She wanted to hold him so bad. She wanted to take care of him like he had taken care of her.

"Well that's great news! But if he needs to stay there longer, I am going to come down," she insisted. Raoul smirked. They ended their conversation and he handed to phone back to Tank.

"I hope he's able to go home next week," Raoul began. "She's itching to come down and we both know that no one is going to be able to stop her." Raoul chuckled.

Lester and Ram decided to stay home on Friday night. All the Merry Men didn't want to leave Stephanie alone….especially on Valentine's Day. Stephanie was in Ranger's office working on some schedules. She looked up when Ram poked his head in the door way. "Hey Steph…what are you doing tonight?"

"I was planning on going to a few clubs in New York City…why?" She watched as his face contorted in confusion.

"Steph…are you sure you feel up to something like that?" Ram stammered. She laughed and shook her head.

"Actually, I'm probably going to stick around the apartment and vomit all night. I'm really not up for doing anything," she explained.

"Oh…well Santos and I wanted to know if you wanted to hang out with us in the rec room. We were just going to rent some movies or something. Do you want to join us?" She loved these guys. She heard them talking earlier this week that they had planned on going out Friday night. It was obvious these two must have drawn the short straw or something.

"Look," she began, "I'm okay. I don't need babysitters. I know you guys were going out tonight. Don't cancel your plans because of me, Ram." He put his head down and shoved his hands in his pockets.

"Come on Steph…we'll watch whatever you want. No complaints." He gave her a huge grin. Stephanie crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair.

"So…if I want to watch…oh…the whole first season of Queen as Folk…you guys will watch it with me?" It was fun to watch Ram get embarrassed. Most of the Merry Men, with the exception of Hal, never got embarrassed.

"Shit Steph! It's me and Lester….okay? That's something you can watch with Hector…" Ram began.

"But you said we'd watch whatever I wanted to," She gave him her puppy dog eyes and best pout. He shifted around nervously.

"Fuck me," he muttered under his breath. "Alright…whatever you want to watch. But you don't really want to watch that…do you?" She started to laugh.

"The look on your face!" she giggled covering her mouth. Then she started to shake her head no. "No, we don't have to watch that." He started to laugh when he realized she was pulling his leg. "But really, you guys go out, okay? I'm going to go to bed early anyway. Thanks for asking." Ram gave her a nod.

The front desk buzzed her. There was a flower delivery down in the lobby for her that she had to sign for. It suddenly dawned on her that it was Valentine's Day. A sadness came over her. It would have been their first. Now they were apart…really apart. There was a tall and solid built man waiting by the desk. He had sandy blond hair and a warm and friendly smile. He looked somewhat familiar to her. "Miss Plum?" he asked her with a smile. She just nodded. He gestured to a massively huge bouquet of what looked like a million red carnations. "Happy Valentine's Day. I just need to you sign this for me." He held out a clip board. She signed and he gave her the card. Since Ranger was really out of commission, she had no idea who sent this wonderful bouquet. It was someone that had to know her because carnations were her favorite. She tore open the card. They were from Ranger. She turned to say thank you but the man was gone. The card read:

Happy Valentine's Day, Babe

Sorry I can't be there with you

But you will always be with me

And soon we will never be apart

Love, Carlos

Knowing Ranger like she did, he probably had this arranged in case he couldn't be there to do it himself. It was bittersweet. This showed her how much he cared. This also showed her how much she could lose if he didn't get his memory back. Her fingertips caressed the pink tourmaline heart pendant that Ranger had given her for her birthday. He told her he was giving her his heart. Yeah, she said to herself, she has his heart but not his mind. She carried the enormous bouquet up to the 5th floor. Val gushed all over the flowers. She was excited herself because the guys had given her flowers and candy. Plus, Hal gave her a single red rose.

"Jeez Steph….how many flowers are there?" She was nodding her head with a finger ticking off each flower as she silently counted. "5 dozen. Wow. Are they from Carlos?" Steph nodded.

"Ladies." They turned to see Lester and Bobby in the door way. She had never seen Bobby in a suit before. Bobby was taking his friend Tammy out to dinner. They had been seeing each other here and there since New Year's Eve.

"Wow Bobby….you look great!" Bobby made a poor attempt at a fashion pose. Lester gave him a playful shove then grabbed Steph into a hug.

"Happy VD, Beautiful." He gave her a kiss then kissed Valerie. "You too Val." Val turned a fire engine shade of red. "Hey…Ram said you are blowing us off tonight."

"Please don't cancel your plans because of me, Les. I wouldn't want to keep you from the ladies, and I'm really not up to anything anyway. Besides…Ram wouldn't let me watch what I wanted to." Lester stiffened.

"Fuck that…we'll watch whatever you want. He'll just have to deal with it," he insisted then his face scrunched up as he thought for a moment. "What did you want to watch?" he asked hesitantly.

"The first season of Queer as Folk," she replied with a straight face. Bobby burst out laughing. Val gasped. Lester blanched.

"You expected me and Ram….especially me…Lester Santos…to watch a TV show about gay men?" he exclaimed. "Hell no! Beautiful…I would rather you kick me in the nuts again." Stephanie couldn't hold it back any longer and laughed.

"Lucky you…I don't seem to have the energy to kick you in the nuts these days," she muttered. "Les…go out. I'm staying in, will probably eat something, throw up, and go to bed. But I really appreciate the offer." She gave him a hug. He truly looked disappointed.

Stephanie took a nap right after dinner. She was startled awake by the phone. "Hello?" she answered groggily. She didn't recognize the number on the caller ID.

"Well hello Stacey. Remember me?" a female voice responded. The voice was familiar but she couldn't place it.

"Who is this?"

"I'm hurt that you don't remember me. It's Jeanne Ellen. I was calling to let you know that I'm here with Ranger and he's doing fine with me. He remembers me. He still has no clue who you are. How sad…for you!" She gave a short laugh. Stephanie wanted to cry or scream…or both but she refused to give Jeanne Ellen the satisfaction.

"Why are you calling me, Jeanne Ellen?"

"I'm surprised you're not here. I mean you're supposed to care for him so much. But I guess it doesn't matter. Here…why don't you talk to him…." She heard Jeanne Ellen speaking to someone away from the phone. "Go ahead Ranger…it's your girlfriend Stacey. Say hi."

"What do you want me to say? I don't know her." Those words cut like a knife to the heart. The tears fell silently. "Hello?"

"Hi Carlos," she said softly, trying hard not to give away that she was crying. "I'm sorry I'm not there….I miss you. How are you feeling?" There was silence.

"I'm better Stacey."

"Stephanie," she corrected. The voice on the phone seemed to be familiar, but he still didn't know what to say. Jeanne Ellen told him about her and Tank and Raoul had a different story.

"Stephanie…sorry." This was awkward, and he was annoyed that Jeanne Ellen put him in this position.

"The guys wouldn't let me come down. I'll be there as soon as I can Carlos. I mean…that is…if you want me to. I know you don't remember me…." The tightness in her throat swallowed up her voice. She lost the battle and did start to cry.

Damn, he thought, she's crying. Ranger was astonished that her pain affected him the way it did. He felt this involuntary urge to hold her and comfort her. There must be something between them to feel this way. "Don't cry…if you want to come down then come down." He heard sniffles as she was trying to pull herself together. "Look, I'm going to be honest with you Stacey…I don't remember you. I don't remember us. I don't know what to say. The doctor said it's temporary. All I know is that I've lost three years of my life. I don't want to be worrying about anything else right now."

"I'm sorry," she breathed. He handed the phone back to Jeanne Ellen.

"See Stacey…he doesn't want you. Don't worry about Ranger, I'll take care of all his needs," Jeanne Ellen told her and hung up.

Stephanie totally lost control when she got off the phone. God, she thought, all I have been doing is crying all week. He was like a total stranger to her on the phone. And Jeanne Ellen is there with him. She was sure that Tank knew she was there and didn't say anything. Probably trying to protect her but she hated when they kept things from her. Now she wasn't sure if they were hiding something else from her. Was he worse off than they told her? Was that the real reason they didn't want her going down there? She didn't know what to do. All she knew was that she had to see him and no one was going to stop her. She called Continental and made reservations for two. She figured someone would insist on going with her. The earliest flight was at 8 am. That kind of sucked because she would have to get up early and be at the airport by 6 am. But she had to get to Carlos and didn't care how she did it.

She knew it was the head injury and memory loss talking. That's what her head kept telling her. But it still was breaking her heart. She hated feeling out of control. She went to the closet to start packing a bag. She was almost finished when her guitar caught her eye. That's what she needed. It was cold but at least it wasn't snowing. She grabbed a blanket and threw on one of Ranger's jackets. She took the guitar out of its case and headed to the roof. She knew the Control Room would see her and probably call…someone. She hoped they would just leave her alone for a while. After getting herself set up in her favorite spot, she began to play. Ivy snuggled up next to her on the blanket. Between, the comforter, Ivy, and the warmth and smell of Ranger, she wasn't cold.

Zero and Junior were watching her on the monitor. They guys finally convinced Hector to add a microphone to the camera. Since the weather had gotten cold, she hadn't gone up to the roof in a while. And with monitor duty being as stimulating as it was, they were more than happy to flip the mic on so they could listen to her play. "How is Ranger doing? Have you heard anything?" Zero asked him. Junior shrugged his shoulders.

"Last I heard he was doing okay. Still doesn't remember Steph or a lot of stuff yet. I don't think he got his sight back yet either. I'm sure Steph is having a hard time with this. Plus she's been so sick. I'm sure this isn't helping," Junior told him. Zero nodded in agreement.

"What if he doesn't remember?" Zero mused.

"I don't even want to think about that," Junior told him.

Chapter 19

Lester and Ram decided to try to ask Stephanie one more time. They didn't want

her to be alone on Valentine's Day. Before he could knock on the door, Lester's phone rang. "She's on the roof," Junior told him. Lester wasn't sure what to do.

"Junior said she's on the roof," Lester explained. "She probably wants to be alone. I don't know if we should bother her or not." Ram shrugged.

"Well…we could ask her. If she wants to be alone, we'll leave," he suggested. Lester nodded in agreement and they headed to the roof. Ram quietly opened the door and they immediately could hear the guitar and her sweet voice playing But I Do Love You by Leann Rimes.

She knew she was no longer alone when she felt Ivy pick up her head. She decided to finish this last song because her newly hyperactive bladder was starting to urge her to make a bathroom trip. Even though she was only up there for about 45 minutes, it really helped to get her head together. She didn't know if it was the sound or feel of the guitar, the night air or open sky, or the soothing music she played. Maybe it was all of the above. Although she played everything from classical to heavy metal, it was the soft or slow rock that got her centered. She looked up when she finished to see Lester and Ram standing by the door. "Are you two stalking me?" she joked.

"We just wanted to ask one more time to see if you wanted to hang with us, Beautiful. Besides…Ram wants to watch Queer as Folk," Lester replied. Ram punched him in the arm.

"I do not!" he insisted. "I would rather rip my dick off than watch that shit!" Lester punched him back.

"Yes…you do!"

"Guys….," Steph began to giggle.

"If you want to be alone, we'll go," Lester said. She shook her head.

"I was just finishing up. Other than vomiting and needing 500 naps during the day, I have to pee all the time now too," she explained and started to stand up. Ram looked quizzically at Lester then at Stephanie. Stephanie realized that Ram didn't know. She just assumed it was all over the building by now. "I'm pregnant." Ram's jaw hit the roof.

"Holy shit," he muttered under his breath. He knew she had been sick but he didn't know this. Christ, he thought, she must be going crazy with this situation with Ranger. "I...I didn't know Steph." He immediately helped her with the blanket and took the guitar.

"I'm just pregnant, Ram…not helpless." He didn't know what to say so he pulled her into a bear hug.

"You know I'm here for you," he whispered.

"I know. I know all of you care about me. This is really hard right now. Especially since I got a call from Jeanne Ellen. She's down there with Carlos," she told them. She could tell by the way Lester stiffened that he already knew.

"That bitch called you?" he spat out. She headed for the door.

"Let's go downstairs…it's getting cold and I have to pee." They followed her down to the apartment. After taking care of business and putting her guitar away, she joined them in the living room. "I'm catching an 8am flight tomorrow morning. I booked two seats so if anyone wants to come with me, he can. I'm going and that's final," she told them. Ram and Lester exchanged worried looks.

"The doctor said…" Lester began. Stephanie gave him a dismissive wave.

"I don't give a shit what the doctor said, Les. I'm going. Period. End of story. That's all folks," she insisted crossing her arms.

"Did you tell Tank yet?" Lester asked. She shook her head.

"I will. I need to make arrangements for someone to take care of Ivy…." Ram cut her off.

"I'll watch her, Steph."

"Tell Tank that I'm going with you," Lester told her. "I'm going to talk to Bobby and pack a bag. How long are we staying?"

"Well, I didn't want to miss my appointment on Monday so we'll be back late Sunday night. I'm not trying to overdo but I have to see him," she explained. Lester nodded. He knew that there would be no stopping her when she found out about Jeanne Ellen. He decided he was going to be the one to call Tank and took out his cell phone.

"I'll tell Tank that we'll be there tomorrow." She gave him a sad smile.

"I talked to Carlos, too," she sighed. A tear ran down her cheek. "He told me he doesn't remember me or us. And that he doesn't want to worry about anything else right now." Lester's eyes widened in surprise. "He called me…Stacey." She dropped onto the couch, face in her hands, as she started to sob again. Lester and Ram exchanged desolate looks. Neither had any idea about what to do. Lester knelt in front of her.

"Steph…look at me," he began softly. "He's not himself right now. I know this is hard on you, but that's the head injury talking. Okay? Things are going to get back to normal….I promise."

"He seems to want Jeanne Ellen there." Lester mentally grimaced. He prayed that Ranger wouldn't do anything stupid right now. He didn't know what to say so he just gave her a hug.

Tank was seething. That fucking cunt! He was hoping that Steph wouldn't find out about her being there. He should have known better. Lester was coming down with her. Maybe it would help Ranger to remember her to see….well maybe not see her but to be with her in person. He needed to calm down so he decided to go have a drink in the hotel bar. He was surprised to see Raoul and Raoul, Sr. sitting at the bar.

"Join us Tank," Raoul Sr. invited. Tank ordered a whiskey.

"That cunt called Bombshell tonight. I don't know what was said but she's coming down tomorrow morning," Tank told them. Raoul raised his eyebrows.

"I thought the doctor didn't want her to travel?" Tank smirked and shot him a look like Raoul had just asked him to wear a dress. Raoul smiled. "Okay…stupid question."

"Who is this Jeanne Ellen?" Raoul Sr. asked. "I know Maria does not like her at all. She seems like a sneaky bitch to me."

"She is Papa," Tank replied. He told them about Ranger's past with her and her disastrous Rangeman employment. He left out what she had threatened to do. Those were some high level government missions and they were top secret.

"You said something about threats?" Raoul asked. Shit, he was hoping to avoid that part. Tank nodded.

"I really can't get into it. You know that Ranger has made some enemies through his government work. Some are really bad people. If they ever had gotten wind of Stephanie...." He paused and looked into his drink. He downed it in one gulp and nodded to the bartender for another. "Let's just say it wouldn't be pretty." They nodded. He was grateful when Raoul decided to change the subject.

"Mama was so excited to hear that Steph was pregnant. She had all she could do to prevent herself from congratulating Carlos. She'll be happy to see her tomorrow. Then of course she'll lecture her for coming against doctor's orders," Raoul laughed.

"I was against her coming down but that was before I knew that bitch would be here. Ranger trusts her. He told me the things that she had already said about Bombshell. Stuff like she was a gold digger, the office whore, all kinds of shit. She even told him that he and Santos were sharing her. Fuck…he doesn't know any better right now. I told him it was all bullshit. He better not do anything stupid when he sees her tomorrow. She's real fragile. Now, he wants me to move her out of the apartment." Raoul Sr. sat upright.

"My son wants you to do what?" he asked. "He wants you to kick out his pregnant girlfriend? Dios mio!"

"Papa….Carlos doesn't know she's pregnant. It's probably not the time to tell him yet either. Don't worry. We'll all make sure Steph is taken care of. He needs time to figure out things. This is hard on him too, Papa. I'm sure Steph will understand." Tank ordered another drink. He wasn't so optimistic.

After Jeanne Ellen left, Ranger finally had time to himself. Every so often, he would get déjà vu like images flash in his head. He thought about what Tank and Raoul told him about his life. Deep down, he knew they would never lie to him. Especially in the situation he was in now. Something was off about Jeanne Ellen. He was a little annoyed with her for calling his….girlfriend? Girlfriend. Fuck. Her voice did sound a little familiar. He kept getting images of a blonde girl. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Was this her? It made him angry thinking about it. He didn't want to get involved in a relationship. Too much trouble. Had he changed that much? Christ, he didn't even know himself anymore. He felt so useless. He couldn't see. He couldn't remember. He couldn't use his right arm. He called the nurse and asked for some pain medication. Raoul had picked up a few things for him at his apartment. He felt around on the bedside table until he found his iPod. Listening to classical music calmed him. After a few songs later, the pain medication started to kick in. The next song started out with just a piano with a violin accompaniment. It was so familiar. This song seemed to haunt him. This was the song that was stuck in his head. The sweet vocals lulled him off to sleep.

The flight down was uneventful and Stephanie slept the entire time. She only ate crackers before the flight. She was afraid of throwing up all over everyone. She wasn't so lucky when she got off the plane and headed for the nearest ladies room. Tank met them at the airport. "Do you want to stop at the hotel first and lay down?" Tank asked her. She shook her head no.

"Please Tank…let's go right to the hospital. I need to see him," she begged.

"After you see him, then we get something to eat. You only had crackers today and you just left them back at the airport," Lester told her. She just rolled her eyes.

Ranger sat quietly while the nursing assistant set him up for breakfast. She explained what was on his plate and where it was. "I could feed you if you need me to Captain," she offered.

"No." He found his fork and began to eat. He didn't have an appetite but knew he needed the protein for healing. He couldn't wait to get out of this fucking place. Maybe if he got back to his regular life, it would help him remember. That song played over again in his head. What was up with that song? He felt like it meant something to him but he didn't know why. He thought about the conversation he had with whatever her name was. Stacey? He was a little short with her and started to feel a twinge of guilt. It wasn't her fault. If he actually asked a woman to move in with him, he must have strong feelings for her. He never acted impulsively in his entire life. He was starting to remember a little more about when he expanded his business. Glimpses of a small office building. A black dog. Images of having sex with the blonde. He wondered if Tank told her to move yet. Was he being a prick about the whole thing? Maybe he should wait and meet her? "Fuck me," he muttered under his breath as he dropped his head back against the pillow. For the first time in his life, he felt lost. And he didn't like it at all.

A short time after breakfast, Raoul and his parents arrived. Raoul told him that Tank would be in later because he was picking Stephanie and Lester up at the airport. "Great," he groaned. He wasn't sure if he was ready for that problem today.

"What's wrong Carlito?" Maria asked him.

"Let's see….what's wrong…I can't see…I don't remember what happened to me in the past three years….and now someone that I don't even know is on her way! Christ! I don't know what you people expect from me!" Ranger growled. Maria took Raoul, Sr.'s hand.

"Carlos," his father began calmly, "we understand this is hard for you. You've always been independent. Even as a child. But, don't show your mother any disrespect. We love you and are concerned for you. And when Stephanie gets here, you will treat her with respect too."

Jeanne Ellen finally arrived much to the chagrin of Maria. She immediately walked over to Ranger and made a big showing of kissing him on the lips. Ranger didn't push her away, but he didn't allow the kiss to linger either. "How are you feeling today?"

"Fucking wonderful," Ranger muttered too softly for anyone to hear. Yeah, he remembered Jeanne Ellen. He remembered he worked with her and fucked her a few times. The disgust he felt for her had started to grow right after the phone call last night. He could sense that her presence was upsetting his family and downright pissing Tank off.

"Stephanie is coming today," Maria told Jeanne Ellen. Jeanne Ellen smiled sweetly.

"It doesn't matter anyway. Ranger doesn't remember her. He told her to back off on the phone last night. She's just going to upset Ranger by coming here." Before Ranger could answer, Maria took his hand.

"Oh, I don't think she's wasting her time," she told Jeanne Ellen. "Carlito and Stephanie have too strong a bond between them. As soon as he sees her…."

"Keep up with current events Mama Manoso! He's blind. He won't be able to see her. He doesn't need some sniveling little gold-digging bitch crying all over him right now," Jeanne Ellen spit out. Ranger tensed. The room became quiet. Stephanie, Tank, and Lester stood in the doorway.

"What's going on?" Ranger asked.

"Stephanie!" Maria called out breaking the tension. She immediately pulled Stephanie into a hug. "We're so glad you're here. Carlito…Stephanie's here." She took her by the hand and led her over to the bed. Stephanie was nervous to begin with but with all the tension she felt in the room, her palms became cold and clammy. Maria must have felt her anxiety because she gently squeezed her hand and gave her a warm smile.

"Hi Carlos," she told him softly. She bent down and gave him a soft kiss on the lips. She had intended to kiss his cheek or forehead but as she drew close she needed to touch his lips. Tension drained from her body as she felt him return the kiss.

Immediately feeling her soft lips upon his, a bolt of electricity shot through his body. His body never responded to a woman's touch like this. Before he could stop himself, he returned the kiss. He was enveloped by her scent of her perfume. It gave him a warm feeling in the pit of his stomach. Thank God she broke the kiss when she did. It would have been hard to hide his arousal while wearing a flimsy hospital gown and a thin sheet. He felt her hand on top of his and laced his fingers through hers. Her palm was moist. She was as nervous about seeing him as he was about her. But what should he say to her? "I'm glad you came to see me." Okay, that sounded stupid but this was still a little awkward.

"How are you feeling?" she asked. The feel of his hand joined with hers was giving her strength. She was so glad that she decided to come. She refused to look over at Jeanne Ellen but could feel the daggers of her death glare.

"Better every day." The touch of her hand was suddenly not enough for him. He slid over in the bed and motioned for her to sit which she immediately did so.

"That's great Carlos. Lester's here too. He came down with me."

"Santos?" he called. Lester walked over to the bed. Ranger let go of Stephanie's hand to shake his.

"Hey man…what…were you trying to get out of working hard?" Lester joked. Jeanne Ellen shot him a look but Lester ignored her.

"Kiss my ass," Ranger shot back. He reached for Stephanie's hand again. That move surprised him because he did it without thinking. It was so natural to him. He was rethinking his decision to have her move out. It was probably best for him to be alone until he remembered his life…not just Stacey or whatever her name is. But there was something about her presence that was comforting, he was drawing strength from it.

"So Tank…did you tell Stacey that Ranger wants her out of his apartment before he gets back?" Jeanne Ellen asked him smugly. Stephanie pulled her hand out of his. Ranger did a double take. The negative feelings he was starting to have for Jeanne Ellen were valid. Tank was right about her. He still didn't remember what happened to get to this point, but he knew Jeanne Ellen was trouble.

"You want me to move out?" Stephanie asked him in a whisper that was full of anguish. He felt her get off the edge of the bed. Before he could even respond, his mother jumped all over him.

"Carlito! How could you kick her out? You begged this girl to move in with you and now you want to throw her out on the street? Is that how I raised you?" Maria hissed. Jeanne Ellen got up and walked around to the foot of the bed.

"Oh for Christ sake…just cut the cord Mama Manoso. He's a grown man. He doesn't need to be treated like a 5 year old by his fucking mother," Jeanne Ellen said. "If he wants this whore out of his apartment, she needs to go." The men were livid, but Ranger was boiling. No one was allowed to disrespect his mother.

"How dare you speak to Maria like that!" Stephanie just saw red. The stress of the past few days all of a sudden came to a head. The pain, sadness, anguish, nausea, heartache, stress, and fatigue all came together is a rush.

"What are you going to do about it, Stacey? Try and stun me again?" Jeanne Ellen challenged.

Before Stephanie could stop herself, her fist connected with Jeanne Ellen's nose. Jeanne Ellen flew backwards into a chair, and the force toppled the chair landing her on her back. Stephanie lunged for her but Lester had his arms around her and pulled her back.

"Okay Mike Tyson…don't bite her ear off," Lester joked, "Calm down. You won this fight by knock out." Maria and Raoul stood there with mouths wide open. Tank threw back his head and bellowed in laughter. Ranger sat upright in bed demanding to know what just happened.

"Dat bitch broke by dose!" Jeanne Ellen whined holding her bloody nose with one hand and pulling herself up with the other. Lester picked Stephanie up and carried her out of the room while she wiggled to get loose to get in another swing. Tank pulled himself together enough to help Jeanne Ellen up.

"Carlos," Raoul Sr. began. "I already told you this but I'll tell you again. I liked Stephanie before…when you first brought her to meet us, but seeing that she's got one hell of a left hook, I like her even more." Lester was trying to convince Stephanie to calm down or she was going to get herself kicked out.

"Ranger….are you just going to let dat bitch do dis to be? We're more den friends…" she started but Ranger cut her off.

"Jeanne Ellen, right now I don't know what's going on but you don't ever disrespect my mother. I thought you were my friend but I guess Tank was right. I don't know what the hell has gotten into you but I want you to leave and don't bother to come back," Ranger growled. She insulted Stephanie, disrespected his mother, and made him look like a slime ball all in less than a minute. Jeanne Ellen grabbed her bag and coat and left.

Jeanne Ellen was furious. She never saw the punch coming. It was something she could have easily blocked. This was the second time that bitch got the best of her. She wasn't done yet. She would hide back in the shadows and hit again when she found the next weak spot. Ranger told her that she was good but he was better. He didn't know how wrong he was.

Lester finally had gotten Stephanie to calm down. "She's gone Beautiful. Ranger kicked her out," he told her. He could feel her go limp in his arms and he loosened his grip.

"God that woman makes me so mad!" she huffed. She leaned against the wall. Lester took her left hand in his and checked it over. There was a little swelling and the beginnings of a bruise by her knuckles.

"Don't think anything's broken," he told her. "We should still get some ice for it. Come on." He slung his arm around her and led her back to Ranger's room. They paused outside the door to listen to everyone arguing with him.

"Ranger, I hadn't talked to her yet about moving out. Of course she's going to be upset. I mean…shit….how would you feel if it was the other way around?" Tank told him.

"I didn't mean for you to put her out on the street, Tank. I just wanted some time to myself. How would you feel if you lost three years of your life? It's not just her that I don't remember. My daughter was six and now she's nine. I used to live in Miami and now I'm living in Trenton. Christ…it's like living in the fucking Twilight Zone!" he groaned.

"Carlito…watch your language!" Maria scolded him.

"Sorry Mama. You have no idea what I'm going through. I just wanted some space. Can't you understand that?" he begged. Lester hugged Stephanie tightly. She pulled away and walked into the room.

"I understand," she told him softly. His head popped up. Shit, he thought. He didn't want her to hear that. He didn't want to hurt her more than she probably was. She put her hand in his. "I'll move out. I don't want to make you uncomfortable in your own apartment, Carlos. I know this is hard for you too."

"Uh…why don't we give you two sometime alone?" Raoul Sr. ushered everyone out of the room and closed the door behind them. "We'll get some lunch and bring something back for Stephanie."

Ranger slid over again and motioned for her to sit. He waited for her to get settled before continuing. "I'm sorry…uh…Stephanie. I'm not trying to be an asshole. I've always been a loner. I thought I needed time alone. I'm not going to lie and say I remember us because I don't. I feel I know you. I remember your touch….how you smell…and your kiss. I felt your kiss down to my toes." He gave her his 200 watt smile. She put on hand to the side of his face and kissed him again. He felt the shock of electricity again and deepened the kiss. After a few minutes, he pulled back for air. "Oh yeah…I remember that," he told her with a wolfish grin.

She was devastated when she found out he wanted her gone. She understood why but it still hurt. It also made her realize it was her own fault. She broke her own rules with Ranger. She made herself promise that she would never allow herself to get into a position where she didn't have the control again. She should have never moved in with him in the first place. It was his apartment. Of course if anything happened, she would be the one out in the streets. But now she was homeless and pregnant. She knew that once he got his memory back, he would want her to move back but she couldn't do that. She would have to get her own place and take care of herself. Not that she wouldn't want Ranger in her life…she did more than anything…but she would need to back off and become more self sufficient. She was startled when his voice broke the silence.

"Do you really understand that I needed some time?" he asked. "I want to get to know you again. This isn't permanent, Stacey…uh Stephanie. I know want you in my life. I can feel how much I want you." She didn't answer but he felt her head nod against his shoulder. "Promise me you won't give up on us…I'm not. I…I just need time to figure out who I've become in these last three years. And right now…I'm not so sure I want you to move out anymore. I'm really confused about everything."

Everything he said made sense. She really understood what he needed. And she didn't think it was selfish of him either. It just made it more clear what she needed to do for herself. And of course during this tense moment, her bladder called her for duty. She started to slide off the bed but he held her tight. "Please don't leave."

"I have to go to the bathroom. I'll be right back." He released his grip. She didn't want to use the bathroom in his room. She needed a few minutes to herself so she went to the public bathroom down the hall. After taking care of business, she shuffled back to his room. He immediately sat up and slid over wanting her to join him again. She climbed in and leaned against him.

"Are you okay?" He couldn't see her face but she felt tight.

"I'm really tired," she yawned. He also felt like he could use a nap. It had been a long and trying morning for both of them. He lowered the bed back.

"I don't want to talk about anything. I don't want to think about anything. My head hurts from trying to remember my life. Right now, what I do want to do is just lay here with you…okay?" He felt her nod again against his shoulder.

Stephanie was too tired to protest and she couldn't fight how good it felt to lay in his arms again. There were so many thoughts racing through her mind but she didn't have the energy to deal with them right now. It didn't take her long to drift off to sleep.

Ranger felt so at ease with her in his arms. It felt strange to be so comfortable with someone that he didn't know. He did know her, but…shit…he was going to drive himself crazy. Right now, this felt…right. He felt incredibly relaxed by the feel of the rise and fall of her chest. It had such a calming effect on him that he too drifted off to sleep.

They were still sleeping when the Manosos got back to the room. Tank and Lester went back to Ranger's apartment to get a few more things that he requested. Maria couldn't help but smile to find them wrapped in each other's arms. She knew it wouldn't take long for her son to remember the woman who had stolen his heart. She had found a way to the depth of his soul. She was also relieved that Stephanie was getting some rest. She looked worn out and pale. This all must have been a tremendous shock to her. And for her to be pregnant on top of it all! Maria was still floating from the news of her pregnancy. She loved grandchildren. She didn't get to see Julie that much. She looked at her son's face. It was so peaceful and relaxed. Stephanie had brought out his softer side. From his years of running with the gangs, his military career, and now his security business, his face always bore a harden expression. Mostly likely because his lifestyle exposed him to horrors that most people wouldn't see in their worst nightmares. She gave thanks in her daily prayers that they had found each other.

Ranger woke up to Stephanie in his arms. He had dozed off for a while. He had dreamed about her again. One moment, he was pulling her out of a burning house. At another point, they were making love on the beach at night. He remembered her laugh. He remembered opening the Trenton office. Jogging with a black dog. There were other bits and pieces that were still a little fuzzy. He opened his eyes, expecting blackness, but was able to see. The light seemed to bother him causing him to squint. He glanced down at the beautiful woman in his arms. His vision was somewhat blurred, but he could see it was the woman in his dreams. He saw his parents sitting by the foot of the bed. He still was coming up blank on major chunks of his life. While he didn't fully remember their relationship, Stephanie was no longer a total stranger to him. He probably should have immediately told everyone that his sight had returned. But for a little while longer, he just wanted to watch this beautiful woman that was snuggled up next to him sleep. He couldn't figure out why. It just seemed to be so comforting to him.

After what seemed like hours, Ranger decided to share the good news with his parents. "Mama…I can see," he stated breaking the silence. Maria and Raoul both jumped up and flew to the bedside.

"Oh Carlito! Gracias Dio! Is your memory back too? Do you remember everything?" Maria squeezed his hand. He shook his head.

"More things are coming back to me, but no…not everything." He glanced down at Stephanie.

"I think we should let the doctor know, Carlos," his father told him. Ranger nodded. Raoul went out to the nurses' station. Maria gave him an expectant look.

"No Mama. I still don't remember everything about Stephanie." He could see the disappointment in her face.

"I just figured you did since….," she trailed off and waved a hand over the two of them in the bed. Ranger couldn't help but smile.

"I may not remember everything about her but I'm not stupid enough to kick a beautiful woman out of my bed, Mama," he joked. Maria groaned and threw up her hands in defeat.

"Carlito! If you didn't have a head injury, I would smack you!" The nurse came in to do an assessment before paging the doctor. Ranger finally felt like he was making some progress. Ranger could be very patient…to a certain point. The memory loss was bad enough, but to have lost his sight on top of that was pushing him to his limits. The anger and frustration he had been feeling the past few days began to ebb. He felt Stephanie begin to stir. He watched her face as her eyes opened. Christ, she was so beautiful, he thought to himself.

Stephanie opened her eyes to see Ranger staring down at her. He had some bruises and a few scratches but nothing could ever detract from his handsome features. She was grateful that he seemed to making progress a little tiny bit at a time. But her heart ached with the fact he still didn't remember her. He gave her his 200 watt smile and she smiled back. What? "Hey," he said softly. Her eyes widen and she bolted upright.

"You can see!" she exclaimed. He nodded.

"His sight just came back," Maria told her. Stephanie looked to Maria and Raoul for confirmation and they both nodded.

"Oh my God Carlos! That's wonderful!" She leaned forward and kissed him. Their tongues touched and gently explored each other's mouth. Having forgot where she was and that his parents were standing right there, she broke from the kiss. He just gave her his usual wolfish grin. "Do you remember….everything?" She wanted to ask if he remembered her but was afraid. His smiled faltered which gave her the answer. Sighing, her shoulders slumped and she slid off the bed. He started to protest but she cut him off. "I'll be right back. I need the bathroom." He laid back and nodded. She left the room to use the bathroom down the hall. She was trying to look at the positives. He could see. He was starting to remember things….just not her. She felt a little shaky. After taking care of her bladder, she washed her hands and splashed water on her face. She took a good look at her face while blotting herself with paper towels. God, she looked like hell.

Raoul helped Ranger up to the chair. The nursing assistant reheated his lunch tray. He stared ruefully at the contents. "This crap looked better when I was blind," he muttered.

"I can go to the cafeteria and get you something else," Raoul offered.

"No thanks, Papa. I've eaten worse things than this." Raoul nodded and sat down next to his son.

"You still don't remember her….do you?" Ranger slowly shook his head.

"She's familiar to me. I remember some things…but not how I feel about her," Ranger explained. Maria crossed her arms and sighed.

"She's very special, Carlito. You were blessed to meet someone like Stephanie. You love her so much." Ranger threw down his fork causing a loud clatter that made his mother jump.

"I'm not doing it on purpose! Christ! I've been wracking my brain trying to remember my life. No…I don't remember her. I have no idea how I feel about her!" He was about to say something else when he noticed that Stephanie had slipped back in the room. She stood by the door frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. Shit!

"Uh…I…um…didn't mean to interrupt. I'll just….step outside." She backed out through the door. She could hear Maria scolding him. Her head was spinning. What the hell was all that about? He doesn't care about her but wanted her in his bed. Maybe she should have waited till he remembered her…if he remembered her…to come down here. She didn't feel well. She leaned against the wall hoping the lightheaded feeling would pass.

Raoul had just gotten off the elevator and was coming down the hall. He saw Stephanie leaning against the wall. A nurse stopped to say something to her. He saw her nod to the nurse and start to walk way. A few seconds later, Stephanie collapsed. The nurse got to her before Raoul did.

Stephanie felt someone shaking her awake. She was on the floor in the hallway. It took her a couple of seconds to realize that she must have fainted. Swell! Of course, any time she fell or did anything embarrassing, it was always for public spectacle. Why couldn't she do these things in the privacy of her own apartment?

"Steph?" It was Raoul. She gave him a little smile.

"I'm okay. I just got a little lightheaded is all," she explained. "I didn't really have much to eat today." Raoul helped her up.

"Maybe we should take you down to the ER," the nurse suggested. She shook her head.

"No, I'm okay. I just need to eat something," she told them. The nurse looked to Raoul, who nodded.

"I'll take it from here." He started to steer her back to Ranger's room but she pulled back.

"I think I just want to go outside and get some air," she said. He glanced at the door and then looked back at Stephanie.

"What happened?"

"Nothing….well Carlos did his sight back. I'm just a little overwhelmed that's all," she sighed. Raoul smiled. Thank God his little brother was improving. He still didn't remember her…it was written all over her face. "I'll be back in a little bit."

"Steph, I don't think you should go just yet. Come back inside and sit down for a minute. You look like you're going to pass out again. Please?" Damn! What is it with Manoso men and that word? She shrugged her shoulders but relented. It was a bad situation for everyone and she didn't want to make it worse.

As they got to the door, a tech with a wheelchair showed up to take Ranger to Radiology for a repeat CT-scan. Stephanie and Raoul waited outside while the tech got him in the chair and rolled him out of the room. She stood behind Raoul because she didn't want to deal with him yet which didn't go unnoticed by Raoul.

"He's having a hard time with this Stephanie," Raoul, Sr. told her. Maria led her to the recliner.

"You look like you are about to fall over. You need to eat. Here, we brought you back a sandwich and some cookies," Maria instructed. Stephanie did as she was told.

"She did fall over," Raoul, Jr. informed them. "She just fainted in the hallway." She shot him her best 'Burg death glare. He knew she would never say anything, but now was not the time for her to play the hero. Maria gasped.

"Are you okay? Maybe we should bring you down to the ER. Did you hurt yourself?" Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Yes…No….and No! I'm fine. I just got a little dizzy. I really haven't eaten much the past couple days. And what I have eaten hasn't really stayed down. I'll be fine," she explained.

"You need to take good care of yourself and my grandchild. I know pregnancy can knock the stuffing out of you," Maria told her knowingly.

"I know. It's just that everything comes on me so fast. One minute I'm fine and the next minute I'm either too tired to keep my eyes open or I'm throwing up. Just ask Tank…he'll tell you all about that one!" She took a bite of her sandwich. She didn't realize how hungry she was. Before she was finished, two police officers appeared in the door.

"Stephanie Plum?" the taller officer asked. Stephanie nodded.

"Yes?" They walked over and pulled out a set of handcuffs.

"Miss Plum…you are under arrest for assault and battery. You have the right to remain silent…" The shorter officer slapped the cuffs on her and pulled her to her feet as the taller officer finished reading her the Miranda rights.

"Under arrest?" she cried out. "For what?"

"There must be some mistake," Raoul Sr. told the policemen. Raoul Jr. immediately called Tank.

"Please folks…step aside," the shorter officer told them. He pulled Stephanie towards the door.

"Wait a minute…who did I assault?" Stephanie insisted and she tried to pull free. The shorter police officer violently pulled her back by the arm and she yelped in pain.

"Take it easy with her!" Raoul Jr. insisted.

"Miss Plum…you assaulted one Jeanne Ellen Burrows. I don't know what y'all are used to in New Jersey but you ain't allowed to hit people in North Carolina," the taller officer told them sharply.

"I didn't punch her," Stephanie insisted. "She ran into my fist! Her face assaulted my hand." Raoul Jr. started to follow but the shorter policeman put up his hand.

"Back off. We're taking her to the station on Main Street. You can meet her down there."

Tank slammed his phone shut. "I don't fucking believe this!" Lester gave him an expectant look. "Ranger got his sight back and most of his memory but Stephanie was just arrested for assault."

"Jesus," Lester muttered. Tank finished jamming Ranger's clothes in a bag.

"He said they took her to the Main Street station." Lester smiled. "Yeah…I know. We've all spent a lot of time there. I hope she throws up on that one cop that split my head open that one time." He absently rubbed the back of his head where the scar was.

"How did Ranger handle it?" Lester wondered. Tank furled his brow.

"Don't know. Raoul didn't say." Tank looked around the room to make sure he got everything Ranger wanted. "Alright…let's get Bombshell bailed out."

Raoul was sitting on a bench by the desk when they got there. "What happened?" Tank asked.

"They had taken Carlos down for a cat scan. He wasn't there. I don't even know if he knows yet and I don't know how he's going to handle it. He got his sight back but still doesn't really remember her. Two cops came in and arrested her. I guess Jeanne Ellen went right to the police station to press charges." He paused and started to laugh. "She told the cops that Jeanne Ellen ran into her fist." His smile faded quickly. "One did get a little rough with her and yanked her by the arm. They hadn't booked her yet and I couldn't see her. We need to call Hunter Williams. I don't have his number with me." Tank called Rangeman to get the number. Raoul made the call while they were waiting. After a couple hours went by, Tank headed over to the desk.

"Has Stephanie Plum been booked yet? We want to post her bail," he began.

"She'll get booked when we get around to it. And not only is she being charged with assault and battery, she's being charged with assault on a government official. Don't count on getting her bailed out till Monday. The Judge is out of town," the officer behind the desk told him.

"What do you mean we can't bail her out till Monday?" Tank bellowed. Lester and Raoul jumped up and flanked Tank. "She can't stay in jail until Monday!" Lester and Raoul exchanged worried glances.

"Don't worry…the princess won't melt," the officer replied dryly. "Come back Monday." He walked away from the desk and turned his back on the three men. Tank rubbed his eyes.

"Fuck," he breathed.

"What are we going to do? She can't stay in jail!" Lester insisted. He tapped on the desk till the officer finally acknowledged him.

"What now?"

"She's pregnant. You can't leave her in here. She's been really sick," Lester told him. The officer sighed.

"Look…she couldn't have been all that sick to punch some CIA agent in the face. She chose to break the law and now she has to pay. Got it? Women give birth in jails all over the country every day. Now quit wasting my time." He turned back around. Lester pushed back from the desk in frustration. Raoul was back on the phone with Hunter.

"They won't post bail until Monday….They won't let us see her either……She's not finished getting booked yet…..I don't know who she's going to call….How soon can you get down here?....Okay, call me back when you know." Raoul closed his phone and put it back on his belt. "Hunter's coming down. He suggested you contact an attorney down here and he'll speak to him when he gets here." Tank nodded.

"I'll contact the Colonel and see who he recommends. Maybe he knows enough people so we can get her out tonight. I can deal with Ranger going ballistic but I can't handle the fact that Bombshell is stuck in jail." Tank looked defeated. "We shouldn't have let her come down here." Lester hung his head.

"It's my fault. I should have stopped her. I...I didn't think anything like this would happen. I was more worried about the baby," he glumly replied.

"Yeah…like either of you would have been able to stop her," Raoul laughed. "We need to get back to the hospital and check on Carlos. I have no idea how he's going to react to this. But the second he remembers her, he's going to blow."

"Should I stay here?" Lester asked. "I mean I know we can't see her but I don't like the idea of her being alone." Tank agreed.

"Good idea. We'll handle Ranger. I'll call you when I get to the hospital. If anything changes, call right away," Tank ordered. Lester nodded.

Chapter 20

Ranger was sitting in the recliner when they got back. He had tried to pace but he had to sit down after a short while as he tired easily. He had a few incisions on his abdomen from the laparscopic surgery for his internal bleeding. He had various scrapes and bruises all over his body in addition the crushed shoulder that also was surgically repaired. Although he still had some missing pages, he began to remember his feelings for Stephanie. Their first meeting in the diner had come back to him like it was just yesterday while he was getting his scan. He felt so helpless. It was bad enough that she had to deal with his accident and injuries, but his reactions to everything didn't make the situation any better for her. Tank and Raoul appeared in the door but he didn't see Stephanie. "Where is she?" he demanded as he struggled to get to his feet. Tank and Raoul exchanged nervous glances.

"He's back," Tank muttered to Raoul. This was not going to go well. "They won't let us post bail until Monday. Said the judge was out of town. Hunter's catching the next flight down here but he wants us to get a hold of someone local. Thought we could get the Colonel to recommend someone." Ranger closed his eyes and swallowed hard.

"I don't want her in jail till Monday," Ranger insisted. Maria grabbed Raoul Sr.'s hand.

"Oh that poor girl! What can we do? We can't leave her in there!" she cried.

"Mama, there's nothing we can do right now," Raoul Jr. explained. "They wouldn't let us see her because she wasn't booked yet. Maybe after she makes her phone call and gets to see her attorney, we'll be able to but right now our hands are tied." Ranger staggered over to Tank and took his bag. "What are you doing?"

"I'm taking a shower and getting dressed. Then I'm going down to the station," Ranger told them. All hell broke loose as they all started in on him.

"Carlos, you are going to get back in that bed and take it easy," Raoul Sr. told him while grabbing the duffle bag out of his hands. "You are not going to be helping Stephanie if you injure yourself further." He took hold of his good arm and led him to the bed.

"Ranger you're just going to cause a scene and they are going to make it hard on Bombshell. Is that what you want?" Tank scolded. "Lester stayed behind to see if he could get in to see her. We didn't leave her alone. Don't make this harder on us. We can't be worrying about you and her. God, I feel like I'm having the same conversation I had with her this week!"

"You said she's been sick. Do you remember what condition those cells where in?" Ranger reminded. Tank nodded.

"If you want to clean up and get dressed, we'll help you but you ain't going anywhere my friend. We will handle this," Tank instructed.

Feeling exposed, tired, and in considerable pain, Ranger relented. He didn't know if the pain was from his injuries or that Stephanie was stuck in some shit hole because of him. Jeanne Ellen wanted him and was hurting Stephanie to do it. Raoul Sr. went out to ask his nurse for something to cover his sutures and staples so he could shower.

Stephanie was finally booked. She hadn't said a word since she was put in the back of the squad car. She gave short answers when asked any questions but didn't offer anything. The female officer, Aycock…what a name, told her she could make one phone call. This presented a problem. She was sure that Raoul had told Tank and Lester by now, but she didn't' know any of their phone numbers. She had Ranger's committed to memory but she remembered that he didn't have his cell with him at the hospital. And if she did call him at the hospital, she didn't even know if he would care. Tank and Lester's numbers….well all the Rangeman numbers for that matter….were programmed into her cell phone. She would just select the name of the person she wanted. She wouldn't dare call her parents. Well her father would understand but he was in Jersey. What would he be able to do anyway? She started to cry. The officer with the horrible name seemed to take pity on her.

"What's the matter Sugar? Don't you have anyone to call?" she asked. She almost sounded sympathetic.

"I have people to call but I don't know how to get a hold of anyone," she explained through the tears rolling down her cheeks. "I don't have my cell phone and the numbers were already programmed in so I don't know them." Her chest hitched. "My boyfriend is in the hospital and he doesn't have his cell phone with him. That's the only number I do know." The officer handed her a tissue. The shift at the desk had changed at 3pm. She knew there was a tall and handsome man out by the desk waiting for her since she was brought in. She was allowed an attorney but knew she was from out of state and probably didn't have one locally. This woman didn't look like a violent or repeated offender.

"Why did you punch this lady?" she asked her. Curiosity had gotten the better of her.

Stephanie gave her the briefest explanation she could. "I don't know what came over me. Damn pregnancy hormones!" She blew her nose then wiped the tears off her face.

"You're pregnant?" she asked. Shoot, she thought, not the most sanitary place for her. Stephanie nodded. Okay, she said to herself, this is going to be breaking the rules but if the judge wasn't out of town, this girl would have been bailed out by now. "I'm not supposed to do this, but I'm going to let you talk to the hot looking guy that's been sitting out there since you've been her." Her eyes widened. "He's tall, got a body that won't quit, and killer green eyes."

"Lester," she breathed. She cleared her throat. "His name is Lester Santos." The officer nodded. She led Stephanie to a small interrogation room.

"Wait here…I'll get him." She walked out front. Lester immediately sat up and looked at her expectantly. "Are you Lester?" He nodded and stood up. The officer looked him up and down. She looked around to make sure that no one was watching. "Come on."

He didn't wait for her to ask twice. The officer brought him to the room. Stephanie immediately jumped up and into his arms. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tight. "You okay?" She nodded against his chest.

"I didn't know who to call," she sniffled. "The numbers are in my cell. She felt sorry for me."

"We're working on getting you outta here, Beautiful. Raoul said that Hunter's coming down."

"They said I can't get out until Monday, Les. I don't want to stay here…" The tears welled up in her eyes. God being pregnant was a pain in the ass! She was an emotional person to begin with. They must think she was a major cry baby! He pulled her into a hug again.

"I know," he whispered to him in a soothing voice. "If I had known you were going to get arrested for this Beautiful I would have let you get in a few more swings." She snorted. Leave it to Lester to always make her laugh.

"You are such a gonad," she half laughed and half cried. Lester kissed the top of her head. He pulled out his phone and called Tank. She looked at him with questioning eyes.

"Calling Tank…Hey…guess who I'm sitting with right now?"

"Is she okay?" Tank asked. "Lester's with Bombshell." He told everyone in the room. Ranger held his hand out for the phone. "Ranger wants to talk to her."

"She's okay…..Ranger wants to talk to you." He gave her the phone.

"Carlos?"

"Babe…are you alright? Are they going to let you post bail?" he blurted out. Babe! He called her Babe! She was so happy that she couldn't answer. He must have known what she was thinking. "Yeah, Babe, I love you."

Lester could tell from the smile and look of relief on her face that Ranger must have gotten all his memory back. He squeezed her hand.

"Thank God," she whispered. "I love you too. Um…they said I can't post bail until Monday." She wanted to go on about not wanting to stay in jail but there wasn't anything he could do about it anyway. "This female officer took mercy on me when I didn't know who to call so she let Lester back here to see me."

"What do you mean you didn't know who to call?" Ranger asked her in shock. Why wouldn't she call one of them?

"I don't know anyone's number. They're all in my phone!" she explained. His mouth twitched into a small smile. He probably would have had the same problem. "How did the CT-scan go? Is everything alright?" Typical Stephanie. Thinking about everyone else before herself.

"I'm fine. Did Lester tell you that Hunter's on his way? The Colonel is making some phone calls. Hopefully, we can get you out of there soon. Hang in there, Babe."

"I love you," she told him. Officer Aycock came back in the room.

"Sorry…you'll have to go now," she told Lester. He nodded. He didn't want to piss her off in case she might let her back again.

"Carlos, I have to go now. I love you." He felt his stomach tighten.

"I love you too. Stay strong." She disconnected and gave Lester back his phone. Lester stood up and gave her a hug. "He remembers me, Lester!"

"You really are hard to forget. I'll be out front, Beautiful. If I'm not there, then it will be Tank or Raoul. We won't leave you alone, okay?" She nodded again. "Thanks." He gave the officer one of his best smiles. If he had to flirt with this cop all night to make sure Steph was okay, he was willing to do it.

"Thanks Les." He was led back to the front desk area then she came back to take Stephanie to her cell.

"Thank you," Stephanie told her. "I know you didn't have to do that but I really appreciate it." She nodded.

"Are you hungry?" Stephanie vigorously nodded her head. She ate crackers on the way to the airport and part of a sandwich a few hours ago but her stomach was growling. She didn't know if it would stay down like her lunch did but she wanted to eat. "I'll see what I can get you. Dinner will be served in an hour or so." She brought her back to the cell. There were a few women in there…a couple of prostitutes but they seemed to keep to themselves. That was fine with her. She didn't want any trouble if she was stuck here for two days.

Dinner was….awful. She probably would have enjoyed eating the rectum out of a dead giraffe more than this crap. She was used to fried and greasy foods but this was what Ranger would call a clogged artery waiting to happen. Fried chicken steak….whatever the hell that was. It was like a piece of breaded and fried shoe leather. Green beans with fat back…whose back fat touched these beans? Fried potatoes….not too bad but there was more grease than potato. And a biscuit…actually that was the best thing on the plate. Just like she feared, it didn't stay down too long. There was only one toilet in the room for all of them. Figures. She had tried to hold off using it as long as she could but peeing seemed to be a new past time for her. Now she was worshiping this stainless steel god. She could feel their eyes burning into her back. She could hear their whispers about Miss White Bread. When she finally felt that there was nothing else left, she flushed the toilet, rinsed her mouth out, and washed her hands at the sink. Turning to face her roommates, she softly apologized.

"What's wrong with you?" the tallest of the women asked her. Steph shuffled to her bunk, which was right next to hers, and laid down.

"Pregnant," she groaned. The nausea was back. She wished she had her gun so she could put herself out of her misery.

"What's your name?"

"Stephanie."

"I'm Laqueda. That's Angela…Nora….Chantae….and that ugly skank is Bernadette," Laqueda told her. "What'd you do to get in here White Girl?" Stephanie tried to sit up but she didn't feel up to it.

"I punched some bitch in the face. She really deserved it though," Stephanie sighed.

"You from here?" Nora asked her. They were all regulars but had never seen Stephanie before.

"No…from Jersey. My boyfriend was in an accident so I came down here to see him," she explained. "Sorry that you guys are stuck with me. I'm not exactly going to be a great cell mate." The second wave hit her and she bolted to the toilet again.

Colonel Kirby came to the hospital to talk to Ranger and his men. "I've made some calls. The earliest we might be able to get her out is tomorrow. I've called in some favors and we'll take her under military custody. After all, the assault did take place on base. It should have come through the MPs but Burrows knew what she was doing. We all know how the Fayetteville PD operates. I'm sorry I couldn't do more Captain." Ranger tried to hide is disappointment. "I'm still shooting for this to happen tonight but I can't guarantee it." Ranger nodded.

"I really appreciate your help, Sir," Ranger told him. The all thanked the Colonel and said their goodbyes. "Shit! I can't stand the fact that she's stuck in that place," Ranger groaned. He also knew there would be more to come. Jeanne Ellen wasn't going to go gentle into that good night. She told him that she was retired but she was still active. Another fucking lie. He hated that someone that he respected and trusted betrayed him. But most of all, he hated that he fell for it. Jeanne Ellen could come at him anytime and she wouldn't get to him. But she found his weak spot…Stephanie. She would keep coming after him through Stephanie. He remembered Jeanne Ellen's threats and felt his stomach tie in knots. He had killed people in the line of duty. He killed people as ordered through his government jobs. He never killed for personal gain before. But if Jeanne Ellen made good on her threats, he would put a bullet in her brain. Maria pulled him out of her thoughts.

"We are heading back to the hotel. Call us if you need anything or hear anything about Stephanie," she told him kissing his cheek. His father squeezed his shoulder.

"I'll come back after I drop them off," Raoul told him. Tank sat down in the chair next to Ranger.

"We'll get her out of there as soon as we can," he told him.

"The thought of her stuck there makes me skin crawl," Ranger growled. Tank nodded. Ranger studied his friend. "She fainted in the hall today. You're not telling me everything Tank. What's going on with Stephanie?"

"She's got some sort of stomach virus. Was tired last week. Puked her guts up this week. She's getting better but we didn't want her getting you sick either," Tank told him with his stone face. He hated lying to Ranger. This wasn't the time to get into Steph being pregnant. Plus, she wants to be the one to tell him. Tank smirked. "I'm not sure if we're going to get the Morris account. Bombshell threw up on me while we were eating lunch." Tank started to laugh. The corners of Ranger's mouth twitched. It wasn't long before his body shook with laughter. Wincing, he grabbed his stomach.

"Fuckin' hurts to laugh," he moaned. "She's never going to want to meet with a client again."

"She was doing real good too," Tank explained. "You were right…she's a natural with the clients. They were eating up everything she said…..even after she hurled in my lap." Tank smirked again at the memory. "She tried to excuse herself but I was so nervous about being left alone with them that I grabbed her wrist and wouldn't let her go." Ranger laughed again, grabbing his stomach. They were interrupted by Ranger's cell phone ringing.

"Yo!" He sat upright and winced. Tank knew it was good news when his 200 watt smile flashed across his face. "Understood. Where should we meet?....Thank you Sir." Ranger snapped his phone shut. "The Colonel is personally going with the MPs to get her. Get down to the station right away. He said they will take her into custody and release her to you. He pulled some strings and the MPs aren't going to charge her with anything. Thank God!" He blew out a long breath.

"I have to call Raoul to pick me up. I'll bring her back to the hotel…" Ranger started to protest. He wanted Stephanie to stay with him but Tank held up his hand, "so she can get a shower and change. Then I'll bring her back here." Ranger nodded. Tank called Raoul and told him the good news. He was just dropping off his parents in from of the hotel and informed them. He could hear Maria in the background and smiled. "He's on his way here. I'll give Lester a heads up."

Lester was anxiously waiting for the cavalry to arrive. His stomach had been in knots all afternoon. Tank and Raoul had arrived about ten minutes before he saw the Colonel's hummer pull up. They decided to hang back and let Colonel Kirby handle it all. The officer at the desk immediately called his superior.

"I understand you came on base today and made an arrest of civilian Stephanie Plum," the Colonel told him in an authoritative tone. The officer nodded. "As you well know, you do not have jurisdiction on the grounds of Fort Bragg and you bypassed the Military Police. We will be taking Miss Plum into our custody immediately." The officer's mouth opened and closed like a fish. His superior office finally arrived at the desk. He repeated what the Colonel had told him.

"I'm sorry Colonel but we received a complaint and it's our job to follow up on it. Especially if it involves a civilian," he told him smugly.

"Once again, Lieutenant, you are sadly mistaken. Fayetteville police have no jurisdiction at Fort Bragg or Pope. You overstepped your bounds, came on base without permission or notice to the Military Police, and took custody of a civilian. Either you will release her to my custody now and drop the charges, or I take this to the Governor. You will lose your job you little piss ant. We are tired of the disrespect your department shows the men and women who are putting their lives on the line for you." He leaned forward on the desk to emphasize his point. "Now, you have 5 seconds to release Miss Plum or we are going in there to get her. Do I make myself clear?" To support the Colonel's demand, the four MPs unholstered their guns.

The Lieutenant swallowed hard. He didn't want to give these jerks the satisfaction, but he knew he wouldn't win. Especially not over a blonde who punched another woman. She must be close with someone high up to get a full bird colonel down here to get her out. He nodded to the desk officer who called to the cell to have her released.

Stephanie felt awful. What the hell did they put in that food? There couldn't possibly be anything left in her stomach. As she was laying there in her misery, an officer unlocked the door. "Plum…you're getting' out." She slowly sat up in disbelief.

"Really? Please tell me you're not joking?" she begged.

"Come on. I ain't got all night." She stood up but got a little dizzy. She stilled and shut her eyes, and it seemed to pass. The officer guided her to the front. Her eyes widened when she saw the army guys standing at the desk. Jeez, now what did I do, she thought.

The Colonel watched as the officer led Stephanie towards the desk. She looked a little shell shocked. She also looked a little green. The officer gave her a little shove towards the desk, and she almost lost her balance. Before he could even open his mouth, she had grabbed the officer's arm to steady herself and vomited all over his chest.

"Christ!" the officer yelled. Tank, Raoul, and Lester had rushed to desk to see what was going on. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

"Sorry," she replied weakly. "I don't feel so well." Officer Aycock walked in. She assisted Stephanie to the front lobby.

"You take care now, ya hear?" Stephanie nodded and thanked her for her help.

"Bombshell…are you alright?" Tank grabbed her into a bear hug. She nodded.

"How did you get them to release me?" she wondered. Tank nodded to the Colonel.

"That's Colonel Kirby. Ranger called him to help us out," Tank explained. Stephanie gave him a huge smile.

"Thank you. That place was so gross. And the food was even worse," she told him.

"You're welcome Miss Plum. I think you better get out of here. And I'm sure Captain Manoso is anxious to see you," he told them with a wink. Tank picked her up and carried her to the car.

"We're taking you back the hotel. You can shower and get cleaned up then we'll take you back to the hospital. Ranger is anxious to see you," Tank told her. She nodded. "Are you okay?" She nodded again.

"That food was so nasty that I still feel sick to my stomach. But other than that, I'm okay." Tank started to smile.

"Thanks Bombshell," he laughed. She gave him a quizzical look. "That cop you puked on was a total asshole. Years ago, he was the one that punched me in the back of the head with a set of handcuffs. I've wanted to get even for years!" Lester and Raoul laughed. Stephanie just shook her head.

"I'm glad I was able to help." She called Ranger on the way over to the hotel. He was relieved that she was out of jail and would be with him soon.

She started to feel a little human after a shower. She changed into an oversized hoodie top and leggings. She just wanted to be comfortable. Lester and Tank had picked up subs in the mean time. She laid across the bed.

"Feeling any better, Beautiful?" Lester asked. "We got you a sandwich. If you don't feel up to eating it now, you can take it with you for later."

"Thanks. I'm actually getting a little hungry but I'll wait a bit," she muttered with her face in the pillow. As she was laying on her stomach, she realized she could feel something like a hard grapefruit was in her lower belly. Other than the fatigue, her hypersensitive nipples, and the morning/all day sickness, this was the first confirmation that something was growing inside her. Her stomach was still flat and she couldn't feel it otherwise. "Oh my god!" she cried out and her hands flew to inspect her growth.

"What's the matter?" Tank asked with a mouthful of food standing up. She rolled onto her back still clutching her belly. "Is it the baby?" Now Lester jumped up.

"Well…sort of," she told him with a smile. "I can feel it. It feels like there's a grapefruit in there." Her smile faltered as she drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs. "It's only going to get bigger and I'm going to look like a whale." There was a knock at the door. Lester let in Maria and Raoul Jr.

"Oh Stephanie…thank God!" Maria exclaimed as she burst in the room. She immediately embraced her. "Are you alright?" Stephanie nodded. She wished her own mother was more like Maria. It was kind of funny how opposite she and Ranger were of their mothers. "You look tired. Why don't you lie down? Can I get you anything?" Stephanie gave her a smile.

"Maria, I'm fine. I'm going back up to see Carlos. I promise I'll get some sleep tonight," she explained.

"So have you decided when you are going to tell him about the baby?" she asked anxiously. Stephanie shrugged her shoulders.

"Like maybe when he goes to college?" she sighed. Lester smirked.

"Oh I'm sure you'll be able to hide that one from Ranger!" Lester joked.

"I think I'm going to wait till he gets home Maria. I just want him getting stronger. He's been through so much these past few days….I don't want to overwhelm him right now," Stephanie admitted. Maria looked disappointed. She put a hand over Stephanie's.

"I understand. But please don't wait too long. I'm going to go crazy not being able to talk about it in front of him!" Maria begged. She handed Stephanie a bag. "Just a little snack." Stephanie took the bag and looked inside. Cookies….yea!!! God…Carlos was so not like his mother! She selected a sugar cookie, took a huge bite, and began to moan. Tank and Lester exchanged glances and smirked.

Chapter 21

Tank dropped Stephanie off at the hospital. He didn't bother going up to the room. They needed time alone. He knew Ranger was worried that she was still going to move out. He was hoping that things would calm down and get back to normal one the dust settled. Everyone's nerves were frayed from the events of the past few days.

Ranger immediately hugged her close to him. "I'm sorry Babe." She just gave him a smile and made him sit down.

"You don't need to be overdoing it Carlos. You'll be back to normal in no time but don't push your luck," she warned him. He pulled her on to his lap.

"Yes Ma'am," he replied. "This has been a crazy week for us." He sighed. He didn't know if he should bring up the subject of moving out but he had to know what was waiting for him when he got home. "When I asked Tank about moving you out, I didn't remember you. Jeanne Ellen was filling my head with all kinds of crap about you. I didn't know what I was doing, Babe." He looked at her face to see her expression. Her face was blank. Damn, he thought, have they been working with her on hiding her emotions too? "The truth was I was nervous about you coming here but you felt so familiar to me. My body naturally responded to you. Then I didn't want you to move out. Even before I remembered everything. I was going to tell Tank to forget it when Jeanne Ellen opened her mouth. I'm sorry. Please don't move out." She got up and sat in the chair next to him.

"Carlos, you're going to need help when you get home. I will be there for you," she told him.

"But….I feel a 'but' coming," he added. She nodded.

"I understood why you wanted me out. I really did. And I wasn't mad about it. I made a promise to myself a long time ago to never put myself into a position where I could lose everything and become homeless again. Well, I did that when I moved in with you." He opened his mouth to protest but she stopped him with a wave of her hand. "I know this is different. You were in a helicopter crash for God's sake. I know. But it doesn't change what happened. I can't let that happen to me again, Carlos. I….just can't." He nodded but couldn't say anything. "When Val gets a place of her own, I'm moving back to my apartment. But I'm not going to leave you….but I can't live with you." She couldn't look at his face. She needed to stay strong.

"Well, I'll just move in with you," he insisted. She popped her head up looking incredulous. He just gave her a smug grin. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. Then she began to giggle.

"Oh right…you'd give up your amazing apartment and Ella to live with me in my dump!" He just continued to give her that smug grin.

"Well, Ella can deliver, Babe. Besides, home to me is where ever you are. We could live in a tent somewhere and I wouldn't mind. As long as you are there with me," he said. It took her a minute to realize he was serious. He really did love her as much as she loved him. Her stupid trust issues kept getting in the way. She leaned forward and kissed him.

"Thank you for that," she whispered.

"Don't move out, Babe. Please." She ran her hand through her mop of curls.

"Let's forget about this for now….okay? I just want to eat then hold you all night," she explained. He watched her take a sandwich and cookie out of her overnight bag.

"What are we having?" She pulled the over the bed table next to the recliner and lowered it. She gently sat in his lap and unwrapped the sandwich.

"It's turkey…plain….just like you like it." She broke off a piece and fed it to him then took a bit herself. After finishing the sandwich and cookie, she helped him take a short walk around the unit before they lay down for the night. Both slept the deepest they had in weeks.

A nurse had shaken Stephanie gently awake around 6 am. "I'm sorry Ma'am. I have to check his wounds," she explained. She nodded and attempted to get up. Ranger felt her shift and tightened his grip.

"Carlos, I have to get up. The nurse needs to check you," she told him softly. He released his grip and she got up. He yawned and rolled over flat on his back. Stephanie's stomach began to roll so she excused herself from the room. She headed to the public bathroom where she emptied the contents of her stomach. When she got back to the room, the nurse had just finished up and he was sitting up in bed. Stephanie got her toothbrush and toothpaste out and brushed her teeth. She didn't want to kiss him with puke breath.

She still looked a little pale to him. He knew something was going on with her. They all knew but were holding it back from him. He had a feeling that if he asked her about it again she wouldn't tell him the truth. He was beginning to believe there was really something horribly wrong with her. Something so bad that they didn't want to tell him. He watched her as she brushed her teeth at the sink.

"Carlos? Do you want me to help you get washed up this morning?" she asked him. He nodded then she got his things ready for him. He slowly got up from the bed. Getting from a laying to sitting position and a sitting to standing position were the toughest. His stomach hurt. Once he was there, he was okay. He wasn't able to use his right arm much. He could move from the elbow down, but the shoulder was secured in place. The doctor told him it was going to be a long rehab process and he might not get 100% range of motion back. His shoulder had been crushed and now it was pieced together with pins and screws. He should consider himself lucky, only two of them made it out. The other survivor's injuries were worse than his. Now that he was able to get around a little better, he was going to ask Stephanie to walk with him to visit the guy. He brushed his own teeth but had Stephanie shave him. He would have like to take another shower but it was such a big production yesterday, he thought it would be easier to just wash up at the sink today. Steph could have helped him but that shower stall really didn't have room for the both of them. And he would have wanted to do more than shower.

"Let's take a walk, Babe," he suggested. He draped his left arm around her shoulders and she steadied him by putting her arm around his waist. They took a slow walk around the hospital before breakfast. "You didn't say how long you were staying?"

"Our flight is at 7 tonight," she sighed.

"You're leaving tonight?" Ranger was a little disappointed. He didn't realize she would be going back so soon. "Can't you stay longer?"

"Well….," she stammered. It would sound like she was hiding something if she told him she had a doctor's appointment that she didn't want to miss. She couldn't just say no. She felt he suspected something was going on but she wasn't ready to tell him about the baby. Maybe she could postpone the appointment until they got back? She really wanted to stay with him. She could have Ella send her some clothes. Being the Queen of Denial anyway, what was putting off knowing how far along she was for another week or so? It wasn't going to change anything…right? "I'm sure I can change my flight. I'll call Ella and ask her to send me some clothes. I only brought a few things with me." He gave her his 200 watt grin in approval. Shit…now to tell Tank and Lester, she thought.

After breakfast, the doctors made their rounds. They were very pleased with Ranger's progress. They felt he could be released in a day or so. They wanted him to stay around for at least a week after being discharged. The doctor said he would help him find a surgeon in New Jersey to follow his progress. "Maybe Bobby should come down when they get ready to release you so he'll be in the loop with all the things you need to do," Stephanie suggested. Ranger nodded. "I'll give him a call and see if he can arrange it." And ask him to reschedule my appointment, she added to herself. "I'm going to the cafeteria to get something to eat. I'll be right back." She called Bobby on the way down. She gave him the update on Ranger.

"That's a relief Steph," he told her. "Lester filled me in last night. How are you doing?"

"I'm okay. Not happy about getting arrested but it's not like she didn't deserve it," she giggled. There was silence. "Bobby?....You still there?"

"Yeah…I'm here….What do you mean you got arrested?" Shit! Lester didn't tell him about that.

"Oh never mind. It's a long story and I'll tell you when I get home. Speaking on coming home, I need you to reschedule my appointment. Carlos wants me to stay with him. Can you see if they have anything next week?" She held her breath waiting for his answer. She heard him sigh.

"Steph….," he began, "you need to keep that appointment. You promised you would work with us. You broke that promise. You promised you would come back for this appointment, and now you are breaking that promise. This is important. It's not just about you anymore." Oops, she thought, he's mad.

"He wants me to stay Bobby. What am I supposed to do? I don't want to tell him yet. He's doing well but I want to wait till he comes home. That will be next week. What difference is this ultrasound going to make anyway? It's not going to change how far along I am. I'm trying to eat and drink. Jeanne Ellen was telling him all kinds of bad things about me, Bobby. I had to come down here. Stress isn't good for the baby either. At least now, I'm more calm and relaxed. I know Carlos is going to be fine. He wants me here to help him. I'll tell him when we get back and maybe he will be able to come with me for the ultrasound. Please don't be mad. I'm taking it easy and I'm getting rest. You know not being here would be harder for me," she pleaded. She heard him sigh again.

He knew she was right. Stephanie would be under more stress being away from Ranger right now. Giving her a hard time about this would just make her upset. "Alright…I will reschedule your appointment," he conceded. "Then I'll make arrangements to come down either Monday night or Tuesday. I can bring you some extra clothes. I'll have Ella pack a bag for you. Once this is all over and both of you are back here, I don't want either of you giving me any trouble about following medical orders. Do you understand me?"

"Yes sir!" she giggled. "I'll call Ella and tell her what I need. I'll just wash what I have at the hotel. Bobby….thanks. I don't want to do anything to hurt the baby. I am really trying to take care of myself. It just that when Jeanne Ellen called me…" She trailed off. She tried to fight off the tears. Damn!

He could hear her crying through the phone. "Steph…I understand. I know how much you love him. And we all know what a bitch Jeanne Ellen is. God, I'll just be glad when Ranger knows you are pregnant and we don't have to hide it anymore," he joked with her.

"Thanks. Call me when you have your flight information. Lester will be coming home tonight and I'm not sure when Tank is coming back. Bye." She disconnected and wiped the tears from her eyes. Nothing really appealed to her in the cafeteria except a toasted bagel with a little butter. Cream cheese looked too heavy. She decided to get a large ice tea with lemon. She needed some crap to throw Ranger off so he wouldn't get suspicious. The hospital had a Cinnabon kiosk. And they really smelled good. That would do the trick. She would pick up a bunch. Whatever she couldn't eat, she was sure someone else would.

Maria, Raoul Sr., and Raoul Jr. were in the room by the time she got back. As usual, Maria greeted Stephanie with a hug. Ranger was sitting up in the recliner so she climbed into the bed sitting Indian style to eat her breakfast. Ranger looked over her food with raised eyebrows.

"This stuff is a little easier on my stomach," she explained. "I called Bobby. He's going to call me back and let me know if he's coming tomorrow night or Tuesday. He's going to bring me extra clothes." Ranger nodded. Raoul Jr. gave her a look.

"You're staying?" She knew by his tone that she was going to get some flack.

"I want her to stay," Ranger told them. He picked up on the tone in his brother's voice. "Is that a problem?" Raoul Jr. quickly recovered himself.

"No problem. We just don't want Stephanie to overdo it," he explained while looking her in the eye.

"I'm feeling better and I promise I won't overdo it. If I'm here, I won't be putting extra stress on myself worrying about Carlos. He's doing great and I can see that he's getting better so I'm not pulling my hair out wondering what is going on," she replied with a mouthful of bagel.

"Well you're father and I will be staying till you are ready to come home Carlito," Maria informed him. And this way she could keep her eye on Stephanie and make sure she takes care of herself.

"Mama, you don't have to do that…" Ranger began but Maria gave him a dismissive wave. He knew better than to argue with his mother. It wasn't too long before Tank and Lester arrived. Ranger told them about the change in plans. "Tank, you and Lester can head back up. Stephanie will be staying with me. Bobby will be coming down early in the week. I'll be getting out in a day or two and will be able to go home next week." Tank and Lester exchanged glances. Stephanie avoided eye contact with them and continued to eat her breakfast.

"Uh…Steph….is that a good idea?" Tank began hesitantly.

"It will be fine Tank," she replied quickly and changed the subject. "The doctors are very happy with his progress. They said he's going to need a lot of rehab for his shoulder."

"Raoul and I are also staying," Maria interrupted giving Tank a knowing look that said she would take care of Stephanie. Tank nodded.

"I'm going to step out and make some calls to see if I can switch my flight to Lester's," Tank told them and left. He called Bobby immediately. "Did Bombshell talk to you?"

"Yeah, I'm going to cancel her appointment for tomorrow and see if I can get it set up for next week. I know Tank but Ranger wants her there. What story are we going to come up with to tell him that she can't stay?" Bobby said. Tank knew he was right. "So what happened down there?"

"Jeanne Ellen got out of line." He laughed. "Bombshell's got one hell of a left hook. She popped that bitch but good. Anyway, she got arrested for assault and we didn't think we'd be able to bail her out until Monday because the judge was conveniently out of town. We contacted the Colonel and he took a bunch of MPs down there and demanded that they release her to their custody. Usual Bombshell trouble. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of Jeanne Ellen."

"How is Steph doing?"

"She's okay. Still getting sick but she looks a little better today. Raoul said she fainted yesterday. I guess seeing that Ranger is getting better and just being with him relaxed her a lot. It turned out to be the best thing having her come down here…for both of them. Ranger's parents are staying so Mama can help keep an eye on her. Then you'll be down here. I'll just be glad when everyone is back home. Ranger's done. The Colonel said he's working out his contract on disability and not going to extend it. Thank God. Now we can just work our Rangeman contracts and have a life now." Tank was ready to settle into some form of normal life. Well as normal as he could get given his chosen profession. His contract expired two years ago and he didn't renew. Ranger was the last to extend his. Now they were all free.

"I'm booked on a flight for Tuesday afternoon. Tell Steph that Ella will call her to ask what she needs." They ended their conversation and Tank went back in the room. Ranger wanted to see the other survivor and asked Tank and Lester to walk with him.

"I'll be right back, Babe," Ranger told her. Flanked by Tank and Lester, they walked to the ICU.

"Stephanie, do you think it's a good idea for you to stay here?" Raoul Jr. asked as soon as they left. "The doctor doesn't want you to overdo it. You have to think of the baby." She sighed.

"Yes I thought of that. He wants me to stay. I know I'll do better staying here because I won't be worrying about what is going on. I'm just pregnant Raoul not dying. Although there are some distinct similarities there. Besides, how do I explain that to Carlos without telling him the truth? He already suspects something as it is," she replied.

"I can't wait till we are home and you tell Carlito the good news. He is going to be excited, Stephanie, I just know it," Maria gushed.

In a hotel room across town, Jeanne Ellen listened to the conversation from the bug that she planted. First, she was annoyed that Stephanie was able to be released before Monday. But this latest news…..she's pregnant. Fuck! She's pregnant with Ranger's child. This was not fair. It should be her with Ranger. She knew Ranger hated to wear condoms. She lied and told him that she was on the pill. When she found out she was pregnant, she knew he would be all hers. Then that last minute mission came up. She was raped, tortured, and beaten so badly that she miscarried. Her injuries were so severe that the doctors told her that she would never be able to have children due to the heavy scar tissue. Now this bitch was having Ranger's child. She was not about to let that happen. Stephanie got into trouble and accidents all the time. There were also pills that would cause a spontaneous abortion. A prescription was needed in the States but they were easily available overseas. She could call one of her contacts to get what she needed. She told Ranger she would tell the Columbians about Stephanie. They would do to Stephanie exactly what they did to her. Despite the fact that she hated Stephanie, she could never intentionally put another woman through that. Those hellish images raced through her mind and she quickly pushed them aside. But she could not let Stephanie have Ranger's child. He would never leave her then. He would feel obligated like he did to the first one he knocked up. No, she would do something to cause Stephanie to lose that baby. It looked like she was going to have to go through with her lawsuit with Rangeman after all. First thing Monday, she would call her attorney and instruct him to file the paperwork. Stephanie was under the protection of Rangeman and living in that building. For her plan to work, she had to somehow separate Stephanie from Rangeman.

Ranger stood in the doorway of Sgt Major Dale Zagiba's room. His injuries were more severe than Ranger's. He sustained a T-12 transverse fracture, multiple rib fractures bilaterally causing a fail chest, right femur fracture, a partial collapse of the left lung and complete collapse of the right, with some internal injuries as well. They had him intubated and sedated, tubes coming from just about every part of his body. His prognosis was good. He appeared to have muscle tone in his lower body but the extent of the spinal cord damage wouldn't be known until he was fully conscious. His wife was by his side. Zagiba had two children in middle school. Ranger introduced himself. She smiled.

"He spoke very highly of you Captain," she told Ranger. She looked back at her husband. "They told me he is going to pull through. Still not sure if he will be able to walk again, but we'll have to stay positive. I know he was badly injured but I have been thanking God every day that he survived. I don't know how, but I'm not going to question it." Ranger nodded and put a hand on her shoulder.

"If there is anything that I can do, please let me know," he told her. She nodded and thanked him. They walked back to the room in silence. Tank finally spoke up.

"That crash was pretty bad, it really is a miracle that you both made it," he said solemnly. Ranger just nodded again. He hadn't seen the pictures or reports of the crash but knew he would have to deal with that when he got out of the hospital. He hoped it would be the last review he would have to be involved in with a mission going south. He couldn't wait to put all this past him. When they got home, he was going to ask Stephanie to marry him. He could start all over and have a life with his soul mate. He never in a million years would have thought he had a soul mate or that he even believed in that crap. Maybe one day she would even change her mind about having children. If she didn't, that would be okay too. He just wanted to be with her. Funny how things change.

The week was chaotic. Ranger continued to make progress and was looking forward to getting discharged. They decided to all stay in the hotel. Bobby was able to arrange a suite with an adjoining room so he would be available if Stephanie needed help with Ranger. He was going to be released on Wednesday. Stephanie had been in contact with Val and told her that she could let their father know what was going on but didn't want her to tell him about the baby yet.

Tank just about had things in order back at the office when he got hit with Jeanne Ellen's lawsuit. She was suing Rangeman, Ricardo Carlos Manoso, and Stephanie Plum for sexual harassment, assault, and wrongful termination. There was a court order to suspend Stephanie pending the outcome of a hearing which would also bar her from any and all Rangeman activities including the building. Stephanie was not allowed to come within 1000 feet of the Haywood office, any Rangeman employee, or location where Rangeman business was conducted. Holy fuck, he said to himself. This was bad. How in God's name was he going to tell Ranger this? What were they going to do about Stephanie? There was no way Ranger was going to stay 1 foot away from her no less 1000 feet. "Jesus," Tank moaned. He left a message for Hunter to call him immediately. Ranger was going to have to be told. Bombshell was going to have to tell him about the baby now. He needed to talk to Ranger but decided to call Bobby.

"Christ," Bobby muttered under his breath after Tank told him what was going on. "What are we going to do? Ranger has to know and the sooner the better."

"I know Bobby. Is Bombshell around? I'm going to tell her first. She needs to have a serious talk with Ranger and fast," Tank replied.

"They're in the next room. Uh…I don't think now is the right time. Uh…they haven't been…um…alone for a while," Bobby stammered.

"I realize that but this is important. I need to talk to her now. I'm sure they will understand," Tank insisted.

"The walls aren't quite as thick as the walls at Rangeman, Tank. And they are not quiet…if you know what I mean. There is no way in hell I'm going next door right now." Tank got the point. "Shit Tank…Ranger is going to go ballistic. What are we going to do about Steph?"

"I'm sure Ranger will put her up somewhere, but there's a court order keeping her from all Rangeman employees…that includes him! Do you think anyone is going to stop him from being with her? Especially when he finds out she's pregnant? This Jeanne Ellen situation is about to become a major FUBAR," Tank groaned.

Stephanie climbed off Ranger and lay next to him. It had been so long since they last made love. He kissed her forehead. "Sorry…that's all I can handle right now, Babe," he apologized. With all his injuries, he was restricted in his movements.

"You don't hear me complaining…do you?" she joked. It just felt so good to be with him again.

"You know what I mean," he replied. He didn't expect to be so worn out. Just getting out of the hospital, packing up the rest of his things from his apartment, and making love to his woman zapped him of his energy. He hated giving in to what he perceived as being weak. With Stephanie snuggled up against him, he drifted off to sleep.

Ranger was still sound asleep. Stephanie was able to sneak out of bed without waking him up and got dressed. She was hungry and decided to grab something to eat from the hotel restaurant. She didn't bother asking Bobby but figured she would get something for all of them. Stephanie wasn't gone twenty minutes when Ranger's cell phone rang. It startled him awake and was able to answer it before it went to voice mail.

"Yo!" he answered in a husky voice. He didn't have time to check the caller ID before he answered it.

"Well hello Ranger. I'm glad that you are out of the hospital now. Do you miss me?"

It was Jeanne Ellen. Christ…why can't this woman leave it alone, he thought to himself.

"I just wanted to personally congratulate you….Daddy!" she purred into the phone.

"What are you talking about?" Did something happen to Julie that he wasn't told?

"I'm talking about Stephanie being pregnant of course! I mean…I was surprised when I heard. Still despise condoms I see. I didn't think you were a family type man. I hope she didn't trap you. It's very common for low income women to try to snag wealthy husbands you know." She could hardly contain her laughter.

"Jeanne Ellen," Ranger sighed, "you need to cut the bullshit. It's starting to get real old. Stephanie is not pregnant. Believe me…if she was, I'd be the first to know."

"Well maybe you better ask her then Ranger. It appears that you are the last to know. It's all over Trenton. Everyone knows but you. Maybe she didn't tell you because it's not yours?" She could almost feel his anger through the phone.

"What is it going to take for you to leave us alone?" he groaned.

"You'll see." She hung up and began to laugh hysterically. She knew him all too well. He may have been excited about finding out about Stephanie's pregnancy but now he was going to be furious that she didn't tell him. Once he calmed down, he would realize his mistake. But it may come too late. His negative reaction would destroy Stephanie and the damage would already be done. Damn, she was good!

Ranger jammed himself into sweat pants. He gingerly slipped his right arm into a sweat shirt, then pulled it over his head and rammed his left arm in the other sleeve. Jeanne Ellen had gone too far this time. That's all Stephanie would need were rumors about her being pregnant all over Trenton. She didn't want kids. He wasn't ready to become a full time father either. He pulled on sneakers but wasn't able to do the laces. Then it slowly began to dawn on him. Stephanie had been sick. She wasn't looking so great. Everyone was worried about her. She had been throwing up. They wouldn't let her come down right away. Oh my God, he said to himself. Without knocking, he barged into Bobby's room. Bobby was working on his laptop and whirled around to face him.

"Hey Ranger," he began. "How are you feeling?" His smile began to falter. Ranger didn't look happy. "What's the matter?"

"Is Stephanie pregnant?" he demanded. The look on Bobby's face answered his question. "Jesus! Why the fuck didn't she tell me?" Before Bobby could answer, they heard Steph in the next room.

"Carlos? Bobby? I picked up some food. Are you guys hungry?" She appeared in the doorway. "Hey….you're up. How are you feeling…?" She trailed off when she saw the angry expression on his face and the worried look on Bobby's. "What's the matter?"

"When were you going to tell me that you're pregnant, Babe?" he asked through gritted teeth. Stephanie was overwhelmed by his sudden coldness to her. She took a step backwards unable to move or speak. Oh no, she told herself, he is angry about the baby!

"Well?...You always seem to have an answer for everything Stephanie. Don't you have an answer for me? Am I the fucking last person to know?" He was having a hard time controlling his anger. For a fleeting second, he thought she might not have told him because the baby wasn't his.

"Ranger…calm down….you don't understand…" Bobby told him trying to diffuse the situation. Bobby was shocked at Ranger's reaction.

"I…I…I'm sorry," she whispered. She couldn't believe what was happening. She had never seen him this angry before. She never expected he would react like this.

"Yeah…you're sorry. Well thank you very much for your trust, Stephanie!" he hissed as he pushed past her. "I need to get outta here." He stomped through their room and they heard the door slam. Stephanie crumpled to the floor in tears. Bobby flew to her side.

"Steph…let him calm down. I don't know what just happened, but it will be alright," Bobby tried to console her. She was sobbing hysterically.

"It's…..n-not…go….going…t-to….be…al-right!" He picked her up off the floor and carried her into their room.

"I want you to calm down…okay? I'm going to get Maria. Then I'm going to find Ranger. Steph, there's gotta be something else going on. Ranger loves you. Remember that….okay?" Bobby gave her a hug and left to find Maria.

Stephanie couldn't wait. She had to get out of there. Ranger didn't want her or their baby. She just wanted to go home. She jumped up and grabbed her suitcase, furiously throwing all her clothes into it. She scooped up her stuff from the bathroom counter and added that. She zipped it closed, grabbed the handle and left the room. She decided she would call a cab to take her to the airport. She would go back to Trenton, get the rest of her stuff from Ranger's apartment, and…..and….and then what? She couldn't go back to her parents'. She would have to move in with Val and the girls until she could figure out what to do. Luckily, the hotel had a van that would be able to take her to the airport.

Just as the van pulled out, Bobby, Maria, and Raoul were coming out of the restaurant. Maria was upset. She was disappointed in her son's behavior. Poor Stephanie! She must be devastated!

Raoul was furious with his son. How dare he treat the woman he loves with such disrespect! And the future mother of his child? He did not raise his children like that. They entered the hotel room but found it empty.

"Steph?" Bobby called out. He looked in his room. Nothing. "Shit," he muttered under his breath. "She's not here." He knew Ranger wasn't in shape to go very far. "Why don't you wait her for her to come back? I'm going after Ranger." Maria nodded. Raoul shook his head.

"I'm coming with you. I need to knock some sense into my son's head."

Stephanie was able to change her flight. The next one for Newark was fortunately leaving in an hour. She checked her one bag then headed to the rest room to empty her stomach.

Chapter 22

Ranger wasn't even paying attention to where he was going. Why didn't she tell him? Was she that damaged that she would never be able to trust him? She was going to have his child. He should have been the first to know. And he had to find out from Jeanne Ellen. Jesus Christ! He couldn't believe that she had put him through this with everything that happened. Why did she feel that she couldn't tell him? The thought that the child might not be his popped into his mind again. He just wouldn't let himself believe that Stephanie cheated on him. He was angry and hurt about the way he found out. His body started to ache. Damn! He got fatigued too fucking fast. There weren't any benches or places to sit so he sat down under a tree and leaned against the trunk. Doesn't she love him? He didn't know what else to do to prove it to her. He felt like she betrayed him. He loved her so much it hurt. He opened himself up to her like no one else…even his best friends and family. There were so many thoughts racing through his mind that he began to get a headache. His mind was on overload. He had to calm and center himself. He began some deep breathing exercises. But all he could see was the pained and hurt expression on Stephanie's face as he yelled at her. His heart started to ache as he slowly become conscious of what he had done. He hurt her. And he hurt her bad. His fucking pride got in the way. He was so wrapped and angry over how he found out instead of news itself. Stephanie was pregnant with his child. He knew it was his child. The woman he loved more than life itself. The woman he was going to ask to be his wife. And he just pushed her aside like garbage because his ego was bruised. How fucking stupid could he be? His baby…no…their baby.

Bobby and Raoul finally caught up with him. "Carlos!" his father growled. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" Ranger couldn't even look at his father's face and stared at the ground. He was ashamed of himself. Bobby remained silent. Although he had a healthy respect for his boss, he was furious with him at the moment. "Aren't you man enough to look at me when I'm speaking to you?" Reluctantly, Ranger looked at his father.

"Why didn't she tell me?" he asked softly. "I know I was wrong with the way I reacted. Was she afraid to tell me? How far along is she?"

"Who told you?" Bobby asked him as he sat down beside him.

"Jeanne Ellen called me and told me. I told her it wasn't true. I just thought she was trying to start trouble….again. Then I put two and two together. She's been throwing up and you are all worried about her. That's when I confronted you and….you know the rest."

"There's more Ranger," Bobby started. He needed to know everything now. "Jeanne Ellen filed a law suit against Rangeman, you, and Stephanie. They got a restraining order on Steph that she cannot be within 1000 feet of the Rangeman office, Rangeman employees, and any Rangeman business. She needs to be suspended pending the outcome of a hearing. Tank just called me a little while ago. I was waiting for you to wake up to tell you. Not everyone knows about the baby. Actually, she's only known for a week now. She found out last Wednesday…the day of your accident." Ranger really wanted to crawl into a hole now. He opened his mouth to speak but Bobby cut him off. "She took some over the counter tests Wednesday night. Only Val and Ella knew. That's also the same day that she threw up on Tank during the presentation. Lester had come up to check on her and she was so upset that she told him because he thought she was dying or something." Ranger let that sink in and he chuckled. "When we told her about your accident and your injuries she got herself so worked up that Lester got scared and told me and Tank. Tank told Raoul who told your parents. There may be a few more at the office that know but I don't even think she told her parents yet. She wanted to tell you before she told anyone else. That's the truth. But you lost your memory and didn't even remember who she was. She was waiting to tell you as soon as we got back to Trenton. She wanted you to get past the accident first. How Jeanne Ellen found out is a mystery to me." Ranger took all this information in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree. "You didn't even give her the chance to explain. She collapsed after you left Ranger. I'm not trying to rub this in your face right now but you were totally out of line. I brought your mother up to be with her but she wasn't there."

Bobby swallowed hard as he saw something he'd never seen before or thought he'd ever see. Ranger had tears in his eyes. The knowledge that he hurt Stephanie so badly must have been too much for him. Bobby had to look away because he began choking up himself. Raoul offered his hand to his son. "Carlos, you need to go to her and make it right. Stephanie needs you now." Ranger nodded and wiped the tears away with the back of his hand. He took his father's hand who helped him up. Raoul pulled him close and held him tight.

"Papa? Did I lose her?" he whispered. Raoul snickered.

"No son. Stephanie loves you. But you will need time to heal the pain you have caused," Raoul gently explained.

"What about the law suit? There is no way in hell that I will stay away from her! God damn it….she lives with me. They can't bar her from her home! Jesus!"

"We'll see if Tank spoke with Hunter yet. I can't see the court kicking a pregnant woman out of her home, Ranger," Bobby added. Ranger nodded. After he talked with Stephanie, he would call Hunter.

Maria was getting frantic. It had been almost two hours and hadn't heard from anyone. When the door opened, she jumped up from her chair and flew across the room. She looked past the men hoping to see Stephanie. "Where is she?"

"She hasn't come back yet?" Ranger asked. Maria shook her head no. "Mama…I'm sorry. I acted like a fool. I have to find her." He reached for his phone and called her. He was disappointed when he got her voicemail. "Babe…I'm so sorry. Please call me as soon as you get this. I love you."

"I'm going to look around the grounds of the hotel," Bobby told them and left the room. Maria turned to her son.

"Carlito…how could you?" Raoul put a hand on her shoulder.

"He knows he screwed up Maria. Leave him be for now," he instructed. Ranger sank into the arm chair in the corner. Maria, seeing her son looking so beaten down, put her arms around him.

"You will be able to fix this Carlito. Stephanie loves you. And you two have a child on the way. This will work out…you'll see," she told him and kissed the top of his head.

"I hope so Mama. I really hope so."

Stephanie didn't want to talk to anyone after she landed at Newark. She didn't have much money so she decided to take the train home. She turned on her phone. There was a message from Ranger. She didn't even want to listen to it. She was afraid of what it said. Right now, she couldn't handle anymore rejection. Now was the time to figure out what she was going to do. She needed to get her things from the apartment, her car, and Ivy. God what a mess her life had become! Ranger probably thought she was trying to trap him. She knew he had a temper but she had never seen him so angry before. He must hate her. What was her mother going to say? Jesus! She was pregnant out of wedlock, now homeless, jobless, and all alone. Not only did she ruin her own life, but she was dragging a baby into her world of shit.

Bobby came back without Stephanie. "I looked all over. I have no idea where she is. I'm sorry." Ranger tried her phone again but just got the voicemail. He left another message. He started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He pulled himself up from the chair and looked in the closet. Her suitcase was gone. He looked in the bathroom and saw her things were missing.

"No Babe," he muttered under his breath and thunked his head against the door. Bobby saw him looking around.

"Is her stuff gone?" Ranger nodded. "I'll check to see if she got another room!" Ranger hoped that's all she did. Ranger called Tank.

"Have you heard from Stephanie?" The tone in Ranger's voice made Tank nervous.

"Uh…no. Why? What happened?" Ranger told him. Tank gripped the phone so hard he heard the cracking of the plastic. "You're a fucking idiot Ranger!"

"I know Tank!" Ranger cut him off. "I need your help to find her. If she calls you or you hear anything, call me immediately!" Ranger disconnected before Tank could give him anymore shit. He felt bad enough as it was. He just wanted to find Stephanie. Fuck! He forgot to ask about what Hunter had to say about the law suit. That didn't matter right now anyway. Worst case scenario, he would rent them a place to stay until things got straighten out.

Tank called all the available men to the conference room. "Has anyone heard from Bombshell?" He could tell by all the dumb looks that no one had.

"What's going on Tank," Lester demanded.

"Jeanne Ellen told Ranger about Stephanie. Ranger went off on her because she didn't tell him. Now they can't find her. She packed her suitcase and took off," Tank told them. He could see the anger and resentment building. "Put your feelings aside right now…we need to help find Bombshell." There were a few of the Merry Men that looked confused. Tank realized that not everyone knew. "Look, Bombshell was waiting to tell Ranger first, but since the cat is out of the bag, she's pregnant." There were a few gasps, curses being muttered, and shocked faces of the ones that didn't know.

"I'll check the airlines, trains, and car rental companies to see if she made any reservations," Cal told them and headed to a computer. Tank called Valerie in to the conference room.

"Have you heard from Stephanie?" She shook her head no.

"I talked to her over the weekend but not since. Why? What's going on?"

"She and Ranger had a fight and she took off. Let me know the minute she calls you." Valerie nodded.

"I'll call Daddy. Maybe she called him?" Tank nodded as she ran back to her cubicle.

"How did Jeanne Ellen find out about Stephanie being pregnant?" Lester asked Tank.

"Be damned if I know," Tank sighed. "Maybe she overhead something at the hospital. All I know is that she's been an emotional roller coaster this week and Ranger hurt her bad. And we still don't even fucking know if that bitch said anything to the Columbians. She could be in real trouble right now and we don't even know." Tank rubbed his face with his hands.

"I can't believe that I was so wrong about Ranger," Lester began. "I mean…I really thought he'd be excited about the baby. I'm…I'm…disappointed in him right now." Lester just couldn't believe that Ranger acted like a total ass. He knows how much Ranger loves her. How could he do this to her?

"You know Ranger doesn't like surprises." Lester gave him an incredulous look. "I'm not making an excuse for him. His stupid pride got in the way. He acted like an ass because he felt betrayed. I've known him for a long time, Lester. I also know after he blew off the steam and had time to think about it that he'd beat himself up over what he'd done. He's devastated that he hurt her. Again, I'm not taking his side or saying he did the right thing. 'Cause Lord knows he didn't. If she told him, things would have went down a lot differently." Tank's phone rang. It was Bobby. "You find her?"

"No. And she didn't check into any of the other area hotels either," Bobby told him. "Tank…it was really bad, man. I've never seen her come apart like that. I wanted to punch him in the face myself. He took off. We were so busy looking for him that I never expected that Steph would take off. I told him everything and he…he totally lost it. I have never seen Ranger look so…defeated before. Christ! Now is not the time to get on his case about this. He's kicking his own ass enough for all of us."

"Understood. His parents are still there, right?" Tank actually started to feel sorry for Ranger. He wasn't used to relationships. Hell, none of them were. Ranger never had to concern himself with another person's feelings before. Tank just wanted to make sure they both came through this in one piece.

"Yeah. Not that his mother isn't, but his father is helping him hold it together. Look…call me as soon as you guys hear anything, okay" Tank agreed and disconnected.

Stephanie got off the train. She was tired and hungry. Her apartment wasn't that far. Dillon would let her in if Val wasn't there yet. She decided to walk. She had only gotten about two blocks from the train station when she heard a vehicle pull up behind her. "Steph?" She turned to see Morelli. "Can I give you a ride?" She nodded and got in. "I heard about Ranger…how is he doing?" She couldn't hold it in anymore and burst into tears. He put the truck in park and hugged her to him. "Hey…I'm sure he'll be okay Steph. Ranger's tough." He tried to comfort her.

"He's g-going t-t-to be f-fine," she hiccoughed. "H-he h-hates me, Joe!" Morelli furrowed his brow.

"Steph, I don't think Ranger hates you. Did you have a fight?" She rapidly bobbed her head up and down. "Where were you headed?"

"My apartment. I don't have anywhere else to go." Morelli pulled back and brushed the hair back off her face.

"You can stay with me. I have a spare room…." She opened her mouth to protest. "No strings attached. At least stay with me tonight, okay? We'll figure something out." She looked into his soft brown eyes as he wiped away her tears with his thumbs. He looked sincere. She nodded and sniffled. "I'll drop you off and get you settled in. Then I'll get us some meatball subs from Pino's and you can tell me all about it." She just nodded again. Morelli put the truck in gear and headed to his house. He showed her the guest room. "Why don't you lay down for a while? You look tired. I've got to stop at the station and drop off some reports. I'll pick up our dinner on the way home. We can talk about this later."

"Okay," she replied. He started to turn to leave. "Joe…thank you." He gave her a smile. "And please don't tell anyone I'm here…okay? I just need some time." He nodded. Stephanie removed her sneakers and got into the bed. She was asleep soon after her head hit the pillow.

Morelli was thinking about calling Tank to find out what was going on. He heard about Ranger's accident. He was worried about Stephanie. She looked really wiped out. But since he promised to keep her secret, he decided to wait until he talked to her about the situation. She had a history of running away when things got to be too much.

Cal burst into the conference room. "She's back in Jersey. She caught the Flight 336 at 13:36 on Continental. Landed on time in Newark at 15:00. If she took a cab, train, or drove she would be in Trenton by now." Tank called Ranger.

"She flew back to Jersey. We still don't know where she is yet but don't worry….we'll find her." Ranger closed his eyes and sighed.

"I'm coming up on the next flight." He told Tank then disconnected. "She must have gone straight to the airport because she flew back to Jersey. She hasn't called anyone yet but I'm going back and I'm going to find her." Bobby knew better than to argue with him. He was supposed to stay to follow up with the surgeons and the final review board after the crash. But his mind was made up and no one was going to change it.

"I'll get us on the next flight," Bobby told him and pulled out his phone.

"Carlos, if you can book us with you…do it. If not, we will get a flight home tomorrow," Raoul told him. He nodded to Bobby who gave him a thumbs up.

"The earliest flight we can get is tomorrow night….everything is booked. I'll keep checking back in case there is a cancellation," Bobby explained.

"Or…we can just take my truck and drive back now," Ranger offered. He didn't want to wait. It was a ten hour drive. That still would be sooner than waiting for tomorrow night. Bobby looked sheepish. He was tired. That was a long drive and he would be the one that had to do it.

"I think we should wait to take the next flight, Ranger. I don't think you're up to that long drive. And I'll be honest…I'm don't have the energy for that drive tonight. I know you want to get home right away, but we don't even know where Steph is." Ranger's stone face slammed down. He just nodded and looked away. "You look beat. Why don't you get some rest? I'll wake you as soon as I hear anything. Steph's going to need you healthy."

Ranger was too tired to argue. His body was screaming. His head was spinning. He still couldn't believe what he had done. It was like a nightmare that kept playing over and over again in his mind. He was not a religious person although his parents raised him Catholic, but for the second time, he prayed that Stephanie was okay and would come back to him safe.

Joe heard the talk about the lawsuit against Rangeman down at the station. Eddie told him about the restraining order on Stephanie. He figured that's what she was so upset about, but why wouldn't Ranger put her up somewhere? There was a big piece missing to this puzzle. He didn't tell them that she was at his house. He finished what he needed on his reports and left for Pino's.

Stephanie was sleeping when he got back. Since she looked so tired, he decided to leave her alone. They could talk when she woke up. She was still sleeping at 10pm so he decided to go to bed himself. He had to get up early for work. He left a note on the kitchen table that her sub was in the fridge and for her to help herself to anything she wanted. He looked in on her before going to bed. She was so beautiful. He only wished it was his bed that she was sleeping in. He wasn't going to push her. If this was the end of her and Manoso, he would play his cards right and just be there for her. She would need time to get over him. Hell, he waited this long for her, he could wait some more. Stephanie was certainly worth it. He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek then retired to his room.

Stephanie awoke in a strange bed. It took her a few minutes to realize she was at Morelli's. She knew this wasn't the most ideal place but didn't have anywhere else to go. She glanced at her watch. Oh wow, she thought. It was after midnight! She felt rested but was still hungry. She quietly padded into the hall. Joe's door was open and she could her some low snoring. She crept downstairs to use the bathroom. Her stomach reminded her that she'd been avoiding it all day. Joe left her a note about her meatball sub. He had Pepsi in the fridge as well. Thank God! As she savored each bite of her comfort food, her thoughts turned to Ranger. She couldn't believe it was over between them. She just felt…numb. She loved him so much. It was her own fault for letting herself get too involved with him. She will never forget watching his back as he walked away from her. The tears ran silently down her cheeks. She would have to let someone know where she was. Wasn't fair for everyone to worry, but she just couldn't face anyone right now. She finished her sub and Pepsi and went back upstairs. Looking through her suitcase, she pulled out one of Ranger's black tee shirts. She needed to feel close to him at that moment even though he didn't want her anymore. The tears began to flow once more as she changed quickly and got into bed. Hours had passed before she was able to fall back to sleep.

Ranger tossed and turned all night. The look on her face continued to haunt him. He needed to hold her and tell her that everything was going to be alright. She needed to hear how much he loves her and that he was wrong. He wondered where she was and if she was safe. Was she still crying? Hell, he actually cried…in front of his father! Finally, the pain in his shoulder and abdomen became worse than the pain in his heart and he broke down and took some pain medication. Taking the maximum dose, he figured it was the only way he would get any sleep that night. He needed his rest. Tomorrow was going to be a long and stressful day.

Morelli awoke to the sounds of retching in his bathroom. "Steph?" More retching. He hurried to the bathroom to find Stephanie on her knees with her face in the toilet. "You okay?" She flushed and wiped her mouth with toilet paper.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you," she told him as she sat on the floor and leaned against the tub. She looked up at the quizzical expression on his face. "I'm fine….I'm just pregnant."

Holy shit, he said to himself. His stomach knotted with major disappointment. He realized it wouldn't be anytime soon that he would have a chance with her. She was having Manoso's child. "Wow." He couldn't think of anything else to say. "Uh…can I get you anything?" He didn't know what to do.

"No thanks," she replied. "I found out last week. I wasn't going to say anything to Carlos until we got home with everything that was going on. But he found out and was mad. He walked out and I came home." The tears started to fall. Morelli sat on the floor next to her draping an arm over her shoulders. "He doesn't want us, Joe."

"Did he say that, Steph? I mean he told you he doesn't want you or the baby?" Morelli didn't care for Ranger. Mainly because he had something Morelli wanted. There was also a question about how he did business or if he was involved in illegal activities. Stephanie shook her head.

"He was so mad that I didn't tell him and doesn't think that I trust him. I don't even know how he found out! He was so cold to me and just walked out," she cried. "I don't know what to do now." She didn't say anything about the law suit. He wondered if she even knew about it yet.

"Do your parents know you're pregnant?" She shook her head again. Morelli thought for a minute. "Steph, I don't want to come between you and Ranger, but you can stay here. You can even bring the dog. Uh…did you hear anything about the law suit?" She sniffled and wiped her eyes.

"No…what law suit?"

"I forget the woman's name, but she is suing Rangeman. Sexual harassment, assault, and wrongful termination. Uh…they have a restraining order against you," he told her.

"Jeanne Ellen," she whispered.

"Is that the one who flooded my basement?" She nodded.

"What is the restraining order about?" He explained the terms.

"You can't come within 1000 feet of Rangeman, any Rangeman employees, or where Rangeman is conducting business. It's just until the hearing. This just came down in the last day or so. I think you need to talk to Ranger, Steph. Or at least call Tank." She nodded again.

"Well…I was going to have to move out anyway. I'm sure he won't even want me working there anymore so I guess it's not going to be an issue. I was going to call my Dad today and ask him to get my car and Ivy for me. I'll call Ella and ask her to pack up my things." She sniffled again and her chest hitched. "God, I never expected this, Joe. I should have but I didn't."

"Why would you expect this?"

"Because nobody seems to want me. I'm not good enough for anyone. Even you. At the Tasty Pastry…you couldn't get outta there fast enough." He rubbed his face with his hands.

"Steph, I wasn't proud of what I did. I was very selfish when it came to you. I…I felt entitled to be your first. I was leaving for the Navy. If I waited till I got back, I was afraid someone else would have beaten me to it." Her eyes were as wide as saucers. "I let you hang around me all the time because I wanted you there. I stole that stupid dog from you because I loved to see that bright smile when I told you I found it. I was the first one to…touch you and kiss you. I had to be your first. I was an asshole back then. I was all about getting laid. You didn't deserve that. You were too good for me back then. Hell…you're probably too good for me now." He squeezed her shoulder. "Then you ran over me with that fucking aircraft carrier of a car and broke my leg." She snorted.

"I probably should apologize for that but you really did deserve it," she giggled. Morelli smiled. "But why did you write about it? That was really mean. Did you have any idea how bad that made me look?" Morelli hung his head.

"I really don't know why I did that. Part of me hoped that guys would leave you alone because they thought you were mine. Part of me wanted to brag about being with you. I really don't have an excuse for it. I was wrong. I did deserve the broken leg. You and Manoso have a lot to work out. I'm not going to get in the way. I'll still be your friend if you stay together. But, if for whatever reason, things don't work out, I want a chance for us, Stephanie. No matter what happens, I'm here for you because….I love you." He stared into those beautiful aquamarine eyes…well despite the redness and swelling from all the crying…they were still beautiful. He leaned forward and gave her a soft and gentle kiss on the lips. She looked down at the floor and bit her lower lip.

"Sorry about the puke breath," she giggled. He grinned back and tasseled her hair.

"See, I'm too much of a gentleman now to even say something like that." He got up off the floor. "But since you mentioned it, you may want to brush your teeth. Your breath is a little…ripe."

"Jerk," she muttered. He offered her a hand and helped her up. She rinsed her mouth out using the Scope that was on the counter.

"Since I'm up, I might as well get ready for work. Why don't you go lay down and I'll bring you some tea?" She gave him a little smile turning to go to the guest room but spun back around to face him.

"Joe…you are always going to be special to me, but I'm in love with Carlos. I don't think that matters anymore but it doesn't change how I feel." She placed her hand on his cheek before returning to her room. He sadly watched her go.

After showering, getting dressed, and having breakfast, Morelli brought Stephanie some tea and toast. "What are you going to do today?" She sat up and reached for a piece of toast.

"I was going to call Daddy and see if he'd get Ivy and my car. I guess I'm going to have to look for another job but I think I'll start that next week." He sat on the edge of the bed.

"It's starting to snow. So be careful if you go out anywhere. I wrote all my numbers down by the phone in the kitchen. You'll be able to get a hold of me if you need anything." He stood up to leave. "Maybe you should give him a call today. Let him know where you are and that you're okay." She rolled her eyes. "Or…not. You know you can stay here for as long as you want. It will probably be better coming from you than hearing it through the 'Burg grapevine. You know what it will sound like then."

"Maybe I'll call him this weekend. I just don't want to talk to anyone just yet."

"I gotta go. Call me if you need me. I'll bring home dinner but you're on your own for lunch. My mother filled my freezer with all kind of stuff….so help yourself."

"Thanks." She heard him leave while she sipped her tea. She had no idea what to do. She was sure that other people were worried about her. Her father wouldn't be up for another hour or so. She pulled on a pair of leggings under the tee shirt and took her tea and toast downstairs to watch TV. She stared out the window and watched the snow fall.

Frank Plum arrived five minutes after Stephanie called him. He had spoken to Val the day before and was given some idea of the problem. He was just thankful that she was okay. Stephanie told him about the baby, Ranger's accident, the fight, and the law suit. Even though she was cried out about the whole situation, the tears fell anyway. He was more than shocked about Ranger's reaction to her pregnancy. His youngest daughter had a knack for having the most unusual situations happen to her. "Daddy? Can you pick up Ivy and my car today? I don't want to see anybody yet. Besides, I'm not even supposed to go there because of the restraining order. Please?"

"Pumpkin, I will take care of that for you. But I'm going to tell them where you are and that you are safe. I don't know what came over Carlos, but you need to give him a chance to explain. Don't forget, he was in a tragic accident last week, Honey, where he was badly injured and people died. I'm not excusing his behavior at all. But we all make mistakes. I know you still love him. And I am sure he loves you. And he will love your baby. Both of you have been through a lot this past week."

"Carlos doesn't want me or the baby, Daddy. You didn't see his face or feel how cold he was to me. I guess I can understand him being upset with me because I didn't tell him yet. He did call me a couple of times but I didn't listen to the messages. I can't find the charger and the phone died last night. I might have left it at the hotel we were staying at. Daddy…I just feel so alone," she whined. Frank hugged her tight.

"That is far from the truth, Pumpkin, and you know it. You are not alone. You have me, your mother, you're crazy-ass Grandmother, Val, and you have Carlos and all the men that work for him. Let's not forget Joe. You can't close yourself off. That's not fair to the people that love you." He looked out the window. The snow was really starting to accumulate. "I'm going to have your mother drop me off there now. I'm going to tell her what's going on…" She opened her mouth to protest but Frank cut her off. "I'll handle your mother. Don't worry about that. I'm going to talk to Tank and let him know what's going on. I'll keep the Mustang in our garage for now. It's not good to have snow pile up on a rag top. Then I'll bring Ivy over here to you." She hugged him tight.

"Thanks Daddy."

Chapter 23

Helen Plum kept her mouth shut as she drove Frank to the Rangeman office. He warned her not to get on Stephanie's case but she wasn't surprised. Not only was she divorced, but now she was pregnant out of wedlock, no longer with the baby's father, and living with another man. What will the neighbor's say? This was so humiliating for her! She dropped Frank off in the front of the building and decided to do her grocery shopping before the news was all over Trenton and she couldn't show her face in public.

Hal appeared in Tank's doorway. "Uh…Mr. Plum is here and he wants to see you."

Tank immediately jumped up. "Has he heard from Bombshell?" Hal shrugged his shoulders.

"He didn't say. He just asked for you."

"Show him up." A few minutes later, Hal escorted Frank into his office. Tank offered his hand. "Mr. Plum, we're worried about Stephanie. Have you heard from her?" Tank motioned for him to sit.

"Yes, she's fine. Well maybe not fine, she is very upset. She has asked me to pick up Ivy, some of her things, and her car. She didn't want me to tell anyone where she was but I told her that wasn't being fair to her friends. She is staying with Joe Morelli." Tank sat down hard in his seat. Holy fuck, he thought. Ranger is going to blow when he hears this! "She heard about the law suit and the restraining order and was afraid to come with me. Also, she doesn't want to see anyone right now. I got her side of the story. I told her she needs to talk to Carlos and get his side. Do you know what the hell happened?" Tank sighed.

"Ranger is not handling this well right now. He acted like a total jackass and he knows it. He's supposed to be flying back here later today but if this snow doesn't let up, his flight might get cancelled." Tank gave him a brief review of the whole Jeanne Ellen situation, their fight, and Ranger's remorse.

"Stephanie is under the impression that Carlos doesn't want her or the baby. She is very distraught. Morelli saw her walking from the train station and offered her a ride. When she broke down, he took her to his house. She's staying in the guest room. What is going on with this restraining order?"

"It's a mess Mr. Plum. Rangeman's lawyer has filed a motion against it. The restraining order says that she has to stay away at least 1000 feet from here, any Rangeman business, and all Rangeman employees. That includes Ranger. He's already told us that he is not going to follow that one. He's going to arrange a place for them to stay until this is taken care of. He's called her several times….but she's not taking his calls." Frank laughed.

"It's a little hard to get a call on a cell phone with a dead battery. She lost the charger."

Tank smiled. "Ranger loves Stephanie. We all love her. She is family to us. I'm not too happy with him at the moment because his pride was wounded and he took it out on her. He walked out of the hotel room because he felt betrayed. Steph's been through the mill the past week with everything going on. Ranger's been through hell himself. It was a bad situation that got blown out of proportion." Tank leaned forward. "After speaking to her, do you think she's willing to work this out?" Frank nodded.

"My daughter is in love with Carlos and wants to be with him. She thinks he doesn't want her. The only problem I can see is that it's going to be hard convincing her that he does want to be with her and not just because of the baby. I'm sorry to have to run but I want to get this done before the weather gets worse. I'll ask Stephanie to give you a call." Frank stood up and offered his hand to Tank. Frank stopped by to tell Val what was going on. Ram brought Ivy down. He loaded the Mustang with Stephanie's things including her guitar and Ivy's food and bowls. Frank noticed a new charger for Stephanie's phone and smiled. He knew convincing his daughter that Ranger's intentions were sincere was going to be an uphill battle. If he had any doubts about the men at Rangeman, they were totally pushed aside. They all loved his daughter.

As soon as Frank left, Tank called Ranger. "She's at Morelli's?" he asked in disbelief. "Why?" He was relieved to hear that she was okay, but his heart sank when he thought of his Stephanie living with Morelli.

"It was sort of by accident. He saw her walking from the train station. She's in the guest room. At least she is somewhere safe and he's letting her keep Ivy there. Morelli knows about the restraining order so he told her she could stay there until you got things worked out," Tank explained.

"She won't take my calls Tank," Ranger sighed. Tank chuckled.

"She lost the charger for her phone man. I gave Frank another one to give her. She might not even think you tried calling her. She thinks you don't want her or the baby, Ranger. Her father said she's devastated, but he said she wants to be with you. It's going to work out. He just thinks the hard part is convincing her that you don't just want her because she's pregnant. She needs to know you don't feel obligated." Ranger took this information in. If he felt like crap before, he felt even worse now. His immature temper tantrum made her think he didn't love her anymore. Fuck!

"Tank…I was going to ask her to marry me when my contract was up. I bought the ring back in December. Now…she's going to think the only reason I'm asking is because she's pregnant. God damn it!" Tank let out a low whistle. He had a feeling Ranger would eventually pop the question but didn't think he already had a plan. But he was right. Bombshell would never believe it was because he wanted to marry her instead of having to marry her.

"Don't worry about that now. She'll come around. What time is your flight?"

"5:32. Bobby said it's snowing up there so with my luck, I'm sure the flight will be delayed or cancelled. If it is, we'll change it to this weekend. The review board meeting is tomorrow morning so if we get cancelled, I might as well get it over with. I'll try calling her in a little while. God I hope she takes my call. This is driving me crazy, Tank. I need to hear her voice. I need to fix this."

"It'll work out. It just might take more time than you want, but she loves you and wants to be with you. You can't ask for more than that. Hell, Ranger, it could be worse…she could hate you and never want to see you again." Not only were both of them hurt and upset, but they both seemed to be feeling a little sorry for themselves. This situation may need some divine intervention to get on the right track.

Ranger thought about what Tank said. He was right. Not only was this situation with Stephanie driving him crazy, not being in control was also getting to him. He hated not having control over everything. He realized a long time ago that he couldn't control what Stephanie did, nor did he want to, but she would cause him to lose control. No one ever had that affect on him. "I know. Look, if you talk to her, please tell her that I do want her and the baby. Our baby. Tell her…no beg her to call me or at least answer the phone when I call. I'd feel a little if I could just talk to her." They disconnected. Ranger just wanted to go home. He knew he could fix this once he got home. He decided to call her again. The voice message advised that her mail box was full and no message could be left. Damn!

Frank dropped off Ivy and the rest of Stephanie's things. He handed her the charger with a smile. "Tank insisted." He was glad to see her smile back. "Please call them, Pumpkin. They are all worried about you….especially Carlos." She rolled her eyes.

"I doubt that Daddy," she grumbled. She turned her full attention to Ivy who was ecstatic to see her. After a few minutes of puppy affection, she plugged in her phone and turned it on. She dialed into her voice mail.

"You have 50 new messages," the computer generated voice told her. She looked at her father in disbelief.

"I have like 50 messages," she exclaimed. Frank smirked.

"I told you. You have a lot of people that care about you." He went back out to the car to bring in her guitar. "I thought this might help." Her face brightened the room with her smile. He picked up the two heaviest suitcases and brought them up to her room. "I promised Tank that I would tell you to call him…and Carlos. Honey, you're going to do whatever you want anyway, but call Carlos. We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. You should have heard some of the fights your mother and I had before we got married. According to Tank, Carlos is devastated and afraid he lost you for good. He wants to be with you and the baby. I know you're hurt but you have to be fair about this too, Steph. If you love him, talk to him."

"I will Daddy. I promise. I just might not do it today. I still need some time to get my head straight…okay?" He kissed the top of her head. "So…how bad is Mom handling this?"

"Don't worry about your mother, Pumpkin. She'll get over it. She's another one that was raised in a different time with a strict set of beliefs. She is so insecure with herself that it's easier to turn it into something else. Besides, you know how she loves grandchildren. She'll come around." Stephanie half-smiled. This was true. She loved Angie and Mary-Alice. "I'll put the Mustang in our garage. You can get it after the snow stops."

"Okay Daddy….thanks," she told him with a hug. After he left, she decided to call Tank.

"Bombshell! Thank God! Girl, you had me so worried," Tank exclaimed. She started to feel guilty. Maybe she had been too wrapped up in herself and her own feelings. "Are you okay?"

"I'm okay, Tank. I didn't mean to worry everyone. I'm so sorry…" She broke off before she would lose it and start crying….again.

"Have you spoken to Ranger yet? He's sick over this Bombshell. I'm not taking his side because I personally want to knock his teeth down his throat as it is, but man is broken," Tank explained.

"I'm not ready to talk to him yet. I…need some more time. I just wanted to let you know that I'm alright. I'm sure my Dad told you I was at Morelli's. Next week, I will start looking for a new job and then I can find a place of my own."

"You have a job, Bombshell. Here…at Rangeman. I'm going to have Hunter call you. There's a lot of stuff we have to go over for this law suit and the hearing. We suspended Jeanne Ellen with pay so the court order is demanding that we do that same with you. We might be able to get all this stuff dismissed before it ever goes to trial," Tank told her. She sighed.

"Jeanne Ellen wants me out of the way, Tank. As long as I'm gone, she'll back off. Rangeman is too important to Carlos. If this goes forward, I'm sure their history will be brought up as well as those pictures. It's going to bring bad publicity to Rangeman and I don't want that," she replied.

"Ranger wants you working for him…well…with him. Bombshell, you did really good with that presentation and the other clients love you. I'm actually a little disappointed in you that you are giving up so easily. I thought you had more heart than that," Tank goaded. There was a minute of silence before she answered.

"I do not give up easily, Tank!" It worked. "How can you say that? Jeanne Ellen is going down….mark my words! But she doesn't like to fight fair. She likes to get at her targets through other people. If she thinks I'm out of the picture, she'll back off the pressure on Carlos and Rangeman. And once all the possible targets have been removed, she'll have to deal directly with me. And she better be afraid….she better be very afraid 'cause you don't want to go head to head with a pissed off girl from Jersey!" That's the Bombshell he knew and loved.

"You don't have to do it alone. We don't have to help you in the open. We can let her think you're alone. Don't forget…she's CIA. She's got contacts all over the world and she is one sneaky bitch. I mean…how did she find out that you are pregnant?" She frowned.

"She knows I'm pregnant?"

"She's the one who told Ranger. He didn't believe her and argued with her that you weren't pregnant…..Uh…he kinda felt like a fool when he found out you kinda… uh...were. And…well…you know what happened then." She was dumbfounded. No wonder he was so mad! Jesus! She felt foolish now about her meltdown.

"Tank, I didn't realize that's how he found out. Oh my God! I have never seen him so angry before. I wish he'd told me that's how he found out." She knew she was not going to wait till the next day to call him now. She only hoped he would take her call.

"I think you two need to work on your communication skills….a lot," Tank added.

"No shit," she muttered. "How did she find out? We never said anything about it in front of her, Tank." The two sat in silence for another moment. The realization dawned on them at the same time. He cursed under his breath. "Bugs? Do you think she has the office bugged?"

"Bombshell, I gotta go. We gotta sweep this whole place. I'll call you back later. I'm gonna have Hunter call you to set up a time to meet with him. And I have to call Ranger," he said.

"Okay….uh…tell Carlos….um…tell him I love him," she stammered. Tank grinned.

"Will do! At least I'll be able to tell him something that will make him happy. Thanks." He disconnected and called Hector. Then he told all the men to meet him in the garage except those on monitors. He met Hector at the elevator and told him to sweep for bugs. If there were bugs, he figured they would be in the office, maybe the gym and locker rooms, but hoping not in the garage. With all the noise from the vehicles and the outside, picking up conversation would be difficult. Hector nodded and went to his office on the 3rd floor to get his equipment.

"What's up? Is something wrong with Steph?" Lester asked. They all looked concerned.

"No…I just talked to her and she's fine. But we both realized that bitch may have planted bugs around this building. I have Hector doing a sweep right now. I mean, how else would Jeanne Ellen know that Bombshell is pregnant?" There was a low murmur as they took in this possibility. "She could be listening to us plan how we are going to handle the law suit, getting information that she can use against us. I mean we erased the video, but has anyone else talked about her being stunned and not fainting? Until we get this law suit past us, do not….and I mean….do not talk about anything pertaining to Bombshell, that bitch, the law suit….none of it. Do I make myself clear?" They either nodded or voiced their agreement. "Dismissed." The men went back to their posts or what they were doing leaving Tank and Lester in the garage.

"You talked to Steph? She's okay?" Lester had left her a couple of messages but she hadn't called him back. Tank nodded.

"She didn't know it was Jeanne Ellen that told Ranger she was pregnant. She kind of understands Ranger's reaction now." Tank broke out into a full grin. "She is pissed. Jeanne Ellen better not underestimate her. Bombshell's coming after her with both barrels. I gotta call Ranger and let him know what's going on." He looked past the gate at the snow. "Wouldn't be surprised if their flight gets cancelled. It's really getting deep out there. Have Luis start shoveling the drive way and side walk, will you?" Lester nodded and headed for the elevator. He called Ranger.

"Yo." It was a half hearted 'yo'. Tank guessed that he already knew his flight was cancelled. He decided to give him something to lift his spirits first.

"I have a message from Bombshell…she loves you," Tank gushed. Ranger couldn't help but smile. He felt…lighter. And, he felt relieved. Bobby looked over at him expectantly and mouthed, "Stephanie?" Ranger just shook his head.

"You talked to her?"

"Yeah…she's doing fine. We'll get back to that but we figured that Jeanne Ellen might have the place bugged. It's the only way she could have found out that Bombshell is pregnant," Tank told him. Ranger's jaw set tight. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly blew it out. Of course she planted bugs. She was good at what she does.

"That makes sense. Have Hector…." Tank cut him off.

"Already working on it. If she did plant bugs, I'm sure there's more than one. Hell, she could have planted one in your hospital room for all we know. Bombshell was pissed when she found out it was the bitch who told you. She said she sort of understands why you were so mad about it. But I think she's ready to talk to you now." Ranger felt the rest of the tension leave his body. Their flight was cancelled due to the weather in Newark. Flights from all over the world were backed up there.

"We're stuck here because of the snow. I'll just attend the review board meeting tomorrow. I have a follow up on Monday so it would be easier to just stay here. I'm going to call her right now. I need to talk to her Tank. Call me back and let me know if Hector finds anything," Ranger ordered and disconnected. He immediately called Stephanie.

Stephanie had a feeling that Ranger would call right after he spoke with Tank. She was so angry that Jeanne Ellen was responsible for their fight. She hated that Jeanne Ellen was able to get to them like that. She was anxious to talk to him. She needed to hear his voice. But most of all, she needed to hear him say that he still loved her. "Hi," she answered softly.

"Babe," he breathed in relief. Thank God she answered. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me for the way I acted. I love you so much. I don't know what I was thinking. Babe, I want you and our baby! I can't believe that I made you think that I don't." She listened as he continued to ramble on. She smiled listening to him. Ranger never rambled….that was something she did! He finally ended with "I love you."

"Carlos….I love you." Then something Tank said made her start to laugh. Then, she couldn't stop.

Ranger couldn't understand why she was laughing. This was a serious moment and she was laughing at him. "Babe?"

"I….I…I'm sorry! T-Tank…said…we…n-need to work on our….c-communication skills. Boy was he right!" She snorted and got herself under control. "I'm sorry I left. You were just so cold towards me. I'm a little….well a lot more sensitive these days. I just thought you didn't want me or the baby, and I was hurt and scared. I just wanted to go home." She heard him sigh.

"I shouldn't have blown up at you like that, Babe. I'm so sorry. It's been a rough week for both of us. But that still didn't give me the right to act like that. God…I love you so much. Please…don't leave me. I want to be with you and the…our baby. I miss you." Damn pregnancy hormones! The tears were back. She didn't think it was possible for a human being to cry this much.

"I miss you too," she cried. "I'm sorry I acted like such a baby!" He could hear her crying and immediately cut her off.

"No Babe…it wasn't your fault. It was my fault. I should have hugged you and told you how happy I was about you being pregnant. Instead, I let my stupid pride get in the way because Jeanne Ellen made me look like a fool. I understand why you didn't tell me yet."

"Are you really happy about the baby? I mean…I know you didn't want any more kids. I know I didn't want kids. Is this really what you want? I don't want you to feel obligated to me, Carlos. I don't want you to stay with me and our baby, and then have you hating and resenting me down the line because you feel trapped." She decided to just throw it out there. She needed to know where he stood. He had never lied to her before. She hoped he would tell her the truth now. Even if he told her he didn't know what he wanted.

"I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I felt that the first day I met you but pushed it aside. But the longer I was with you, the more I knew that's what I really wanted. You made me realize how lonely I had been. How empty my life was. I want you and need you in my life. I'll take whatever you can give me. I thought maybe you would change your mind some day about children. If you didn't, that would still be okay as long as I had you. Now I want you to be honest with me…do you want this baby?" He didn't want to force her to have his child. He surprised himself with how much he wanted their child. Her feelings about not wanting children were pretty strong, and he didn't want her to have this baby only to please him. He began to sweat when she didn't answer right away.

"I was scared and upset when I found out. But even though I thought about…not having it, I just couldn't do that. A part of you was inside me and it….made me want this baby. I don't know why. I'm still scared. I'm afraid I'm going to be a horrible mother," she told him. He smiled.

"I'm glad you feel that way because I want this baby, too. But I wouldn't want to make you have it for me. I want to be a good father. I missed so much with Julie. Julie had Ron and he's a good father so it makes me happy that she didn't miss out. I don't want to miss anything with our child, Babe. Christ, I wish we weren't having this conversation over the phone!" he groaned.

"I know. When are you coming home?"

"I was coming back tonight but the flight was cancelled. I have the review board hearing tomorrow and doctor's appointment on Monday so I'll be here till early next week. I don't want you travelling right now. I know you're staying at Morelli's. I'm not exactly thrilled about it, but we'll straighten that out when I come home."

"But I can't stay with you Carlos. The restraining order….remember? I can't be around anyone. I don't want you to get in trouble," she whined.

"Babe, let me worry about that. I'm not staying away from you. I don't care what the restraining order says. Talk to Hunter. We'll get this taken care of for good."

"Carlos, I'm going to resign from Rangeman. Jeanne Ellen is doing this to you because she wants me out of the way. She's trying to pull us apart, and she will do anything to make that happen. I'll start looking for a job next week…."

"Please don't do anything till I come home!" he begged. He didn't want her to resign or move out. Damn it…this was so frustrating being away!

"Carlos….trust me," she asked him softly. He rubbed his face with his hand.

"I trust you Babe. Just keep me in the loop with everything…okay?" he responded. "And don't overdo!" He heard her giggle. He loved her laugh.

"I promise. I have to go…Hunter is calling me. Love you! Call you later!" she said as she disconnected. "Hunter?"

"Hi Stephanie. How are you doing?" Hunter asked. She filled him in with everything going on. "We need to go over a lot of things. Why don't I come to you…say tomorrow morning at 10:00?" She agreed.

"We can talk more about this tomorrow but how much wind will it take out of her sails if I resign?" Hunter frowned.

"Steph, why would you want to resign? Have you spoken to Ranger about this?" He was confused.

"Yes I have and please answer my question," she insisted.

"It would really deflate her sails. The basis of her law suit was that you were getting preferential treatment because you were sexually involved with the boss. That you assaulted her and no disciplinary action was taken against you. If you are no longer there, it will be hard for her team to proceed. She still could come after Ranger for sexual harassment. Those photos were submitted as evidence that they had a sexual relationship. She is claiming that they were currently having a sexual relationship, and then he terminated her because he had moved on to you," Hunter explained.

"She wants me out of the way because she wants to be with Carlos. I'm going to back off and let her think she won. She won't expect it. We can't keep going round and round like this. I'm pregnant, Hunter. We have a baby to think about. I can't keep living my life looking over my shoulder. Besides, you know how over protective Carlos is." Hunter chuckled.

"She may not stop, Stephanie. What if she resorts to physically hurting you? Right now, she seems to be content with only psychologically hurting you."

"I know. That's another reason I think it's best to back off. Maybe diffuse her a little. Regardless, I'm going to give Tank my official resignation as of today. We can talk more about this tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay. This will definitely change the game plan. 10:00 tomorrow morning."

Hector found bugs planted in the conference room, the kitchen, Ranger's office, and the monitor station. Tank informed Ranger. Ranger, again, blamed himself. He brought Jeanne Ellen into Rangeman. If she didn't back off, he was going to have to do something he really didn't want to do. She was going to have to disappear. It might be the only way to get rid of her. Ranger decided to make some calls to see if there was something more going on with her that he didn't know about.

Stephanie had listened to….well not all…of her 50 messages. Eighteen of them were from Ranger. There were a few from Tank, a couple from Lester, Val, Lula, her father, Ella, and one from Hal. She called her sister to let her know she was okay. She had already called Ella who insisted that she was going to bring over some food for her. She half-heartedly argued on that one. Ella's chocolate cake and fettuccini Alfredo was exactly what she needed right now. She made a quick call to Lester but got his voice mail. She thought about her resigning and Jeanne Ellen. Was she doing the right thing? What was up with all these psycho women who seemed to have it out for her? The guys joked about her being a shit magnet but she hated to admit that she was. She thought she would try to get her old job back with Vinnie. That way she could work her own hours. God, I hope I'm not making a mistake, she groaned to herself. She gazed out the window at the fallen snow. This time of year, the snow rarely lasted. It was almost March. It could still create one hell of a mess though. Tank had called her to let her know they did find several bugs in the office. God only knows what information Jeanne Ellen was able to get from them. She thought about confronting Jeanne Ellen outright. She didn't know what the right way to handle this was but decided to just go with her instincts. And her instincts were telling her to back off and let her think Ranger left her and she resigned from Rangeman.

Chapter 24

Jeanne Ellen had found out about Ranger and Stephanie's fight. She didn't get all the details, but she knew Ranger was upset about her pregnancy. She also knew that Stephanie returned to Trenton….alone. This was good, but she didn't think it would be enough. Ranger still would be tied to her because she was still having his bastard child. She had to work on getting rid of that baby and doing it soon. Although the abortion pills would work the best, the problem was how to get her to take them. She could probably crush the pills and put it in something but couldn't guarantee that she would get it. Accidents would be messy and could possibly be traced back to her, but it seemed to be her only option. It was obvious she wasn't at Rangeman or her parents'. She also didn't see her going anywhere near her old apartment. She needed to find out where she was staying and figure something out from there. Working for Les Sebring could help her. She had access to all their files. There were a lot of criminals out there who would do anything for money. Hell, just last week, Sebring bonded out John Harding. That was the guy who beat the shit out of her. Rumor had it that some of Ranger's men roughed him up pretty bad when they took him in. His file mentioned something about recent dental work and facial fractures. Harding was being represented by the same firm where Stephanie's ex-husband was a partner. His rap sheet was impressive. He was big, dumb, violent, and looked like there wasn't much he wouldn't do it the price was right.

She wasn't surprised that Stephanie got out of jail sooner than she had planned but was disappointed. If Ranger hadn't regained his memory as quickly as he did, she would have sat there all weekend. Ranger had just as many contacts as she did. Her attorney told her that Colonel Kirby himself went down there to get her released. She felt a sense of urgency and the need to act fast. Ranger would be at Bragg at least till next week. The restraining order would leave Stephanie unprotected since they weren't supposed to come within 1000 feet of her. She had made some phone calls to her contacts overseas about obtaining the abortion pills. In the United States, a woman needed a prescription. In some countries, they could be purchased over the counter. She decided to contact Harding. She didn't want any phone records that would connect her to Harding so she decided to try to track him down and meet with him in person. She donned a short red wig. She reviewed the file and wrote down the names of his hang-outs. It may take a few days to track him down so she decided to start now. Considering the roads were bad, she would try the two local places first.

Stephanie was awakened from her nap by Ivy barking at the back door. She cautiously crept to the kitchen and peered around the corner. Lester! She flew to the back door and flung it open. "Lester! What are you doing here? You can't be here?" she asked but was still glad to see him. Grinning from ear to ear, he picked her up and swung her around.

"Hey Beautiful!" he replied. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay." He set her down then bent down to greet Ivy. Then, he grabbed a couple of bags off the back stoop and placed them on the counter. She closed the door behind him. "I drove my own truck, parked around the corner, and came down the alley. I wasn't followed." He was in regular clothes with no Rangeman markings. "I'm on my own time right now and this isn't Rangeman business. Those are care packages from Ella." She flashed him her amazing smile.

"Thanks Lester," she sighed. She put the containers of food away. Nodding her head towards the living room, he followed after her. "Tank told me Hector found the bugs. I talked with Carlos today. I didn't know it was Jeanne Ellen that told him about the baby. She's like fucking gum stuck to your shoe…no matter how hard you scrape, there's always still some left." Lester smirked. "Anyway…I'm giving her what she wants. I resigned from Rangeman. Let her think that Carlos and I are through. Hunter thinks it will really hurt her law suit." Lester's eyes were wide.

"You can't do that, Beautiful! Don't let her win," he insisted. "Ranger won't want you to quit."

"Lester, no matter what we do or how we go on the defense with her, she backs off and comes back again. She hits us from a different angle and when we least expect it. I'm going to beat her at her own game. But I can't do that while working at Rangeman. I'm meeting with Hunter tomorrow morning. We'll work out some of the details. Which reminds me…" She jumped up and grabbed an envelope off the TV and handed it to Lester. "Could you give that to Tank for me? I faxed him a copy but was going to mail the original. It's my resignation letter. As two hours ago, I am no longer a Rangeman employee." Lester leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head down.

"Are you sure about this? I mean…there's probably a better way to do this," he began. He was going to continue but he realized that she was probably right.

"You know I'm right Les." He slowly nodded.

"What can I do to help," he offered with a smile. She giggled.

"Don't tell Carlos this but I really don't have an exact plan….I'm kinda making this up as I go." He groaned and flopped back into the chair.

"I wish you didn't tell me that, Beautiful!" he whined as he covered his face with his hands.

"But when I think of something or need help, I'll let you know," she promised.

"You're going to make me regret coming over here," he sighed. She threw a pillow at him. "Okay…let's talk about something else. Something that won't get me in trouble. Like…how are you feeling?"

"Good hours and bad hours. If I try to eat light, I don't throw up as much. Taking naps helps with being tired. I was going to call Bobby to see when my ultrasound was rescheduled but I just realized that I quit my job and don't have health insurance anymore. So I'll have to wait till I get another job. See, I haven't figured out all the issues yet but I'll deal with them as they come up."

"Steph, keep the appointment. We'll take care of it. Besides, you're health insurance will still be good till the end of the month. And I'm sure that Ranger's going to keep it active. You're going to give me an ulcer…you know that? First, you go to see Ranger even though the doctor said no. Then you get arrested. Great punch by the way. Then you drop the bomb that you are going to stay with Ranger and skip your appointment. And the icing on the cake was when you just took off and we didn't know where you were or what happened to you. Do you know how worried I was? How worried we all were?" He was trying not to sound angry, but he was.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that. You weren't there Les. Carlos was really mad and he hurt my feelings. He acted like he didn't want me or the baby. What was I supposed to do? Stay where I wasn't wanted? I don't think so! I just wanted to go home but when I got back to Jersey, I realized I didn't have a home anymore." She hung her head in her hands and groaned. "I really have to get my own place."

"Steph…sometimes you are your own worst enemy. You know that?"

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

"And sometimes Les….you're a real jerk!"

"Am not!"

"Are too!" They started at each other for a moment before they both burst out laughing. "I can take care of myself. I've been doing it for a long time, Lester. Yes, I make mistakes. I'm not perfect like Carlos. But I will accept the consequences of the decisions I make."

"You also don't have to do this by yourself, Beautiful." She rolled her eyes. Ivy came back in the living room with her leash. She leaned over and pulled on her Ugg boots. "I can take her." She stood up and gave him a dismissive wave.

"Nah…I need to stretch my legs anyway. I haven't had to get up at the butt crack of dawn and go running with Mac in over a week. Thank God! But now I'm starting to feel a little guilty." She looked over at a now quiet Lester. "What?" He shook his head and chuckled.

"Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to get pulled into some crazy scheme of yours and Ranger's going to ship me off to Antarctica?" She rolled her eyes.

"Well…I can always ask Lula to help me. She's not afraid," she replied with hands on hips. Lester smirked.

"You're not getting me with that one, Beautiful," he joked. "And you better ask me for help." She hooked Ivy to the leash and grabbed her coat.

"I'll ask you for help when I need it….promise. But if I need help with something and I don't want Carlos to find out, I'll ask Lula. That way you won't freeze your cute little butt off." Lester turned to admire his behind in the mirror.

"It is kinda cute….isn't it?" She pushed him towards the back door.

"You are so not right, Lester Santos!"

Stephanie walked Lester to his truck and continued around the corner to make sure Ivy did her business. The snow was starting to lighten up. Snow always looked so pretty when it was falling and just after the storm. It made everything look so calm and serene. Then a day or two after it fell, it was gray and black slush. Her thoughts turned to her fight with Ranger. How stupid, she thought. Jeanne Ellen had a knack for causing turmoil where ever she went. She knew how to push people's buttons and get them to turn on each other. She needed to follow her around. She was getting one of her feelings that something wasn't right. Either there was more to their relationship than Ranger admitted or the feelings were more one-sided on her part. She couldn't really fault Jeanne Ellen's obsession with Ranger. He was an amazing lover and human being. She felt a stab of jealousy while wondering if Ranger was as attentive to Jeanne Ellen as he was to her. What surprised Stephanie the most is that an intelligent, strong, and capable woman like Jeanne Ellen would continue to pursue a man that made it clear that he didn't want her. It didn't make sense, and it was troubling her. So far, Ranger had never lied to her. Or, she never caught him in a lie! He told her it was work and sex. Why do men think it ever could be just sex? It is the most intimate bond two people can share. It doesn't necessarily mean love, but there is something emotional that passes between two people having sex. Either men are just hardwired to not care or they refuse to admit they do.

As Stephanie was coming down the street, she saw Joe pulling into his drive way. He walked to the sideway and waved. Ivy jerked the leash towards him causing her to pull back, lose her footing in the snow, and land on her butt. Trying to conceal his smile, he trotted down to her to help her up. "That wasn't funny," she told him. Now she got a full on smile.

"You're right…that wasn't funny." He brushed the snow off her bottom.

"Uh….what are you doing?" He took her by the hand and led her back to his house.

"Just trying to help."

"Help me….or help yourself?"

"Am I a shit if I say both?" Stephanie just shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Okay…well how about I take you out to dinner? Anything you want." He unlocked the front door and let them inside.

"Actually, I really could go for a turkey club sandwich at the diner. Turkey seems to be stomach friendly these days." He nodded.

"Did you talk to Ranger today?" They were taking off their boots and coats in the foyer. She nodded.

"I spoke to my father, Carlos, Tank, Hunter, and Lester…well Lester just left before you got home. And…I resigned from Rangeman, too." He raised his eyebrows.

"Wow….busy day." She flopped on the couch. "I'm going to take a quick shower and change. Then we'll go out. You can tell me all about it over dinner."

"Okay. I'm going to call Carlos while I'm waiting for you." Joe headed upstairs as she dialed his number.

"Yo!"

"Yo yourself! I can't talk too long because Joe is going to take me to the diner but I can call you back later."

"Tank told me you resigned, Babe. You don't have to do that you know."

"It's not for good, Carlos. I just think it will help. Something is not right with her. Was there more to your relationship than you've told me?" she asked. She hated to ask but she really felt that he would tell her the truth.

"We didn't have a relationship, Babe. I told you everything. We worked together and had sex. HAD…past tense. I never had any relationships before you. That's the truth," he explained. He held his breath waiting for her response. Please believe me, he silently begged.

"I want you to know that I believe you. I really do. It's just….just something more is going on with her. Did you ever tell her that you loved her or really cared about her?" She nibbled on her lower lip.

"No. You're the only person I ever loved. Why?" He heard her sigh.

"Women see and feel things differently, Carlos. Maybe she took your…affection…the wrong way. I don't know what her damage is but I'm going to find out. She's caused a lot of heartache for all of us. It's got to stop."

"Babe…I can smell the smoke from here. What are you up to?" He didn't have to see her face. He knew she was planning on doing something. He didn't want her doing anything until he was back in Trenton.

"Let's not talk about it now. Right now, I want to know how you are feeling," she said changing the subject. He decided to go along with it. Besides, there were so many questions he had about the baby.

"You're right, Babe. You haven't even told me yet when you are due."

"Um…the doctor said maybe the middle to end of October? She's not sure. She wants me to have an ultrasound. I was supposed to have it Monday but I had Bobby cancel it for me." She heard him groan into the phone. Okay, she thought, here is comes.

"Why did you cancel the appointment? Why don't they know when you are due?" It wasn't until after the words came out of his mouth that he realized that he asked her to stay with him. Of course she was going to stay with him…he was in a fucking helicopter accident! "Sorry Babe…part of that was my fault. I begged you to stay with me. But I'll have Bobby call you and make sure you get it rescheduled. But as far as when you are due, don't they calculate that based on your period?"

"Carlos…uh as long as you can remember….when did I have a period?" He stopped and thought back. That's right, he said to himself, she's never had a period since they've been together. Now he really was confused. She was using birth control.

"Did you forget to take your pill or something?" He wasn't blaming her at all. He hated to use condoms. It was both their responsibility to be careful…not just hers.

She hung her head. Morelli was coming down the stairs. "You ready?" He saw she was on the phone and put up his hand. She gave him a nod.

"Look…I'll call you back in a little while. We're going to get something to eat. We'll finish this conversation later," she told him. "I love you."

"Love you too, Babe."

Stephanie filled Morelli in on all the details that took place. He was a little disappointed that things worked out with Manoso although he wasn't surprised. She was having his child. They needed to try to work it out. "So…he knows you're staying with me? And he's okay with that?"

"I wouldn't say he's doing cartwheels that I'm here, but he knows and understands. He said he's going to rent a place for us to stay when he gets home. But I think it would be best if Jeanne Ellen thinks we broke up. I think she'll drop the law suit and make a play for Carlos. That way, I can do a little investigating on her. There is something off with her, Joe. She seems to be a little psycho…like the FBI agent that had it out for me. Is this like a government thing? Do they purposely hire unstable, love sick women? I mean, Carlos can't tell me about his government work. I know it must be top secret or spy stuff or something. He worked with her a lot. They sort of….had…a thing. But that was it. Now, she comes out from nowhere, and wants to stake her claim on him or something. I told you what she did before…well you know what she did to you."

"Steph, if I didn't experience how vindictive she is, I might be second guessing Ranger. I would think that he might not be telling you the truth. But I think you're right. I'll help you how ever I can, but I can't break the law to do it. I just don't have to know about it." She smiled.

"Plus…she's probably a little mad at me because I punched her in the face," she giggled. A slow smiled spread across his face. "She had me arrested and put in jail. They fed me this really gross food and I threw up. Carlos called this Colonel he knows and they got me out of jail. It was really bad." Morelli laughed.

"Why did you punch her?" She told him the whole story. He frowned.

"Be careful with her Steph. She's baiting you. I'll do some checking on her from my side." She nodded.

"I'm going to follow her and see what I can find out. I'm going to let her think we're over. She'll find out I'm staying with you. She may think we're together. I don't want to use you like that but it would help."

"You'll owe me big time for that," Morelli joked. She rolled her eyes. "So…how is your mother handling this latest….development?"

"I'm sure she wants to disown me…again. Daddy is really supportive…like always. He seems to think that she'll come around. I'm sure she'll be pushing for me to get married again," she groaned.

"Won't you and Ranger get married?"

"Why? People shouldn't get married just because they are having a child together! I already got married for the wrong reasons and I don't plan on doing that ever again!" she insisted.

"You mean you won't ever marry Ranger?"

"First of all, I don't want to get married again and second, Carlos doesn't either."

"I'd want to get married," Morelli told her softly. "I want to find someone special to spend my life with. Get married and have a family." She stared at him in disbelief. This was not the Joe Morelli she grew up with. This Joe Morelli took her by surprise.

"You want to get married and have kids? You…Joe Morelli. The same Joe Morelli that only cared about getting laid? The same Joe Morelli that only cared about himself?" He looked down at his food and shrugged his shoulders.

"Yeah…that same one," he replied then snorted. "I said I want to get married and have kids…not give up sex. I still want to have sex. I want to have a lot of sex." She smiled back and shook her head. "Some things will never change!"

As they drove back to his place, Stephanie thought about how much she enjoyed Morelli's company as she replayed their conversation in her mind. It had been a long time since they used to hang out as friends. She wanted to be his friend but didn't want to lead him on. He made it clear that he wanted her. Sometimes, she got the same feelings about Lester. She didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. She hoped she made it clear she loved Ranger. Maybe she needed to back way off from both of them. Everything was a mess right now. Hopefully, Ranger would be home next week and things would start to straighten out. Morelli had settled in front of the TV and she went upstairs to call Ranger.

"Yo!"

"Yo yourself!" Although it was great to hear his voice, she couldn't wait to feel his touch.

"Have a nice dinner, Babe?" He was proud of himself that he was able to keep the distain out of his voice.

"Uh…actually…yes I did! Turkey sandwiches seem to agree with the baby these days," she joked.

"Well…getting back to our conversation….you were using birth control…weren't you?" He mentally slapped himself. He didn't mean for it to come out that way. "I'm not blaming you, Babe. I mean we were being careful…right?"

"Um….there is….um something I have to tell you about that." Ranger winced. She slipped up and now she's going to blame herself. "Um…remember when I told you I switched from taking the pill to that ring thing?" He vaguely recalled that rubber ring insert.

"Yeah…I think I remember."

"Um…well….it….um…it…um…didn't work," she stammered. Ranger smiled.

"Obviously."

"Well…there's more." She drew in a deep breath and blew it out.

"Babe, just tell me. I'm not mad or anything. It was both our responsibility to be careful. What happened? Did you forget to put it in?"

"No, I didn't forget to put it in." She took a deep breath again and plunged forward. "ITFELLOUTWHENWEHADSEXINTHEPORSCHEINTHEGARAGE!" she gushed.

"English, Babe." He slowly began to shake his head. Somehow, he knew this explanation was going to be good.

"Do you remember the last night we were together? Dinner and dancing and….the mind blowing sex we had on the way home?" Smiling, he thought back to that night.

"Oh yeah….I remember." He frowned. "What does that have to do with…do you think that's the night I got you pregnant?" She sighed.

"I'm only guessing that was it. But…see….um...."

"Babe…what?" he demanded.

"ITMUSTHAVEFALLENOUTANDHALFOUNDITANDTANKHADHIMCHECKEVERYTHING!" she blurted out.

"Babe."

"Carlos….this is so embarrassing! The ring must have fallen out in the garage. Hal found it and Tank had him check all the vehicles and equipment for a missing O-ring. I didn't know what it was until he was going to have Val send it to an auto parts store to see what it was. Well, I saw what it was and mine was….missing! It's got hormones in it and so…well…" Ranger was silent. Shit, he's going to be mad at me! Then after a minute, she heard him begin to laugh. First, it was a little chuckle. Then, he roared with laughter, cursing at times because it must be hurting his stomach. "Carlos…this is not funny. I am mortified. Hal is going to need counseling after he finds out where that ring came from!" This made Ranger laugh harder. He even had tears in his eyes.

"S-s-sorry Babe!" Oh my God! A sit-com writer couldn't even think this up! Only his Stephanie! Holy Shit! He remembered he ripped off her panties and how hot he had gotten thinking about her going commando back to the apartment! It took a few minutes to get himself under control. Bobby had poked his head in the room to check to make sure he was okay. "Only you, Babe. You never disappoint!"

"I'm glad you find this funny because I sure don't! That stupid doctor never told me that intense sex or a well endowed partner could shake it loose! We were two for two on that!" Well at least he wasn't having a cow about it. Maybe in time, she would find this funny…but not today.

"I aim to please." He was proud of himself. He knew he was big but getting independent confirmation about his size fed his ego. He chuckled again thinking about the whole situation.

"You're going to get it when you get home! Carlos…you weren't here! They made such a big deal about that stupid O-ring. I'll never live this down!" she whined.

"So…what are your plans about Jeanne Ellen? I know you've got something in mind," he asked.

"Well, I think she will back off if she thinks we've broken up. And the fact that I'm staying with Joe will help. I'm just going to check some things out. Don't worry though…I'll be careful," she explained. "I'm meeting with Hunter tomorrow. He's going to go over stuff with me."

"Babe, I told Tank to have payroll change your salary to severance pay. We'll put in the termination as mutual. This way you'll keep getting your paycheck. You won't need to get another job while this is taken care of and I don't want you working. Your health benefits will also continue. I don't want you missing any prenatal care. Bobby said your ultrasound was rescheduled for 10 next Wednesday. I'm hoping to be home by then so I can go with you. And before you argue, it's a done deal. I hate to admit when I'm not at 100%. I'm too tired to fight about it, and I don't think either of us needs the added stress right now. It's bad enough I'm not there. At least let me make sure that you and our child are taken care of….please?" She sighed. Damn…he got her with the please! She wanted to be more independent and not have to rely on anyone but herself. But if she didn't have to work, she could spend all of her time trailing Jeanne Ellen. "Babe?"

"Okay. I miss you so much. I'm sorry about our fight. I wish I had known it was Jeanne Ellen. I feel so foolish now," she cried.

"I'm the one who feels foolish! All I can promise you is that it will never happen again. I'm sorry for what I put you through. When I think of how I hurt you….." He couldn't continue. The memory of the pained expression on her face was too much to think about.

"We're human, Carlos. We make mistakes. You know I've had trust issues but it made me realize that I do trust you. I trust you completely. When I asked you about your relationship with Jeanne Ellen, I knew you would tell me the truth. You haven't lied to me before. I love you so much and the thought of losing you would kill me." It took him a few seconds to realize what she had said. She was finally giving herself fully to him. A vision of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch flashed through his mind again. Fucking Oprah!

"God I love you too," he whispered because emotions had overpowered his vocal chords. He heard her yawn. "Look…as much as I would like to keep talking to you, you need to get your rest. Hell, I think I might be able to get a better night's sleep knowing that I didn't lose you. I'll be in hearings on the crash tomorrow so I might not be able to talk to you till after dinner, okay?"

"Okay…I love you." She disconnected. She was exhausted and wanted to go to bed but Ivy needed to go out. This is where she did miss having the Merry Men around. Morelli was still watching a Rangers' game. He saw her walking towards the door.

"Go to bed Steph…you look beat. I'll take her out before I turn in," he told her.

"Are you sure?" He nodded.

"Go to bed." She leaned over to kiss his cheek but he turned his head and her lips touched his. She pulled back and swatted his arm. "Sorry…couldn't help myself." She rolled her eyes. "Hey…it's not like I got any tongue or anything!"

"You know…you and Lester would really get along well," she groaned as she climbed the stairs.

Chapter 25

Since Stephanie had the morning appointment with Hunter, she decided to sleep in and follow Jeanne Ellen around later. She called the Bond's Office to talk to Connie and Lula.

"Girl….where the hell have you been? What's this I hear that you are living with Morelli? What about Batman?" Lula scolded. She hated being the last to find out.

"It's a long story and we can get together later where I'll fill you in with the details. Here's the Reader's Digest version….Carlos was in a bad accident. I went down to see him. Jeanne Ellen is back to her old tricks. She's suing Rangeman and there is a restrainer order on me to stay away from Rangeman. Yes, I'm staying with Joe. And….I'm pregnant…" She was cut off from the screams of Connie and Lula.

"Oh my God Steph? You're going to have Ranger's baby?" Connie exclaimed.

"Oooohhh White Girl! That man must have some super sperm or something!" Lula added.

"Look…there is a lot more but I won't get into right now. I'm going to need both of your help with Jeanne Ellen. I need to find out everything I can about her. There is something seriously wrong with her. She wants me out of the way and wants Carlos. Connie, can you check her out with your search programs? And Lula…I'll need you to help me follow her around. I want to see what she does and who she meets with. I….I have to go. The Rangeman lawyer is here to go over stuff. I'll stop by after. We can do lunch and I'll tell you the rest!" She disconnected and opened the door for Hunter.

Hunter reviewed the contents of the lawsuit. "I notified her attorney that you no longer are employed with Rangeman. I haven't heard back yet. The hearing is two weeks from Monday. The judge will decide if the restraining order on you needs to be continued. Ranger will be back in Trenton by then. Stephanie…are you sure you want to do this?"

"Yes. Hunter….she wants Carlos. If she thinks I'm out of the way, she will back off. I can feel it. If we fight, she's not going to give up. She'll back off and come at us again. This has to end. If I don't take care of it, I'm afraid Carlos will." She looked straight at Hunter. He could tell what she meant. Jeanne Ellen was good at fucking with people's minds to unbalance them and distract them. Ranger's specialty was taking them out for good. He thought about this for a moment then nodded.

"Okay Steph, we'll play it your way. I want you to keep me in the loop. I'll also call you as soon as I hear from her attorney." He put the files back in his brief case. "Steph….be careful. She's not working with a full deck. I did some checking on my own. I have a few CIA contacts myself. She's on a mandated leave. High level operatives like her work in very extreme and stressful conditions. Something must have happened to her for them to force a leave of absence on her. I did mention this to Ranger but he wasn't involved in it. I probably shouldn't even be telling you this but I'm afraid you might do something to push her over the edge." Stephanie nodded.

"Thanks Hunter. I'll be careful. I just want to follow her and see what she does and who she is meeting with. I don't think she wants to hurt me. I know she wants Carlos. If she thinks I'm out of the way, I won't be a threat to her anymore." Hunter stood up to leave and Steph walked him to the door. This really piqued her interest. She was on psycho leave. Swell. She really didn't know exactly what Ranger and Jeanne Ellen did. She only let her imagination run wild with James Bond sort of spy missions. Something must have gone down wrong or someone close to her got killed or something. She would have to check out her apartment. She might have some personal papers or something lying around. She would have to ask Lula for help. Ranger and the guys would refuse to help her with that one. She grabbed her coat, attached Ivy to the leash, and headed out. Her parents only lived around the corner. She hoped she could sneak in there and get her car without incurring her mother's wrath.

Before she was able to get within ten feet of the garage, her mother called out to her. Shit…no such luck. "Hi Mom." She might as well get it over with, she thought as she headed to the open front door.

"You have a lot of explaining to do," her mother told her as she wiped her feet. She took in a deep breath and exhaled.

"Do you really want to know everything? Or do you just want to give me shit about it?" Oops….she didn't mean for it to come out like that. She looked up to see her mother standing there, staring at her open mouthed. "I'm sorry Mom. It's been a really rough week. Carlos was badly hurt in an accident. Then I find out I'm pregnant. Yeah…it's not the ideal situation but I'm 29 years old, Mom. I'm not a little kid. I really would hope that you are happy for me and Carlos and will be there for us and the baby. Your grandchild! And….I'm going to need your help 'cause I have no idea how to be a mother." Damn pregnancy hormones! The tears started to run down her cheeks. That last comment seemed to snap Helen out of her trance.

"Well of course I'm going to be there for my grandchild, Stephanie! I don't see why you didn't come to tell me you were pregnant. And why are you living with Joseph? What is going on?" It was Stephanie's turn to be stunned. Did the pod people come back again? She was brought back to reality by Grandma Mazur.

"Hello Stephanie! Congratulations!" She pulled her into a hug. "I could tell that gorgeous man of yours would know how to work that impressive package of his!"

"Mother!" Helen retreated to the kitchen. "I just made some oatmeal cookies."

"Thanks Grandma."

"When are you due?"

"Um…they think mid to end October. I have an ultrasound next Wednesday. The doctor said they could tell for sure with that," she told them. "Where's Daddy?"

"He's driving the cab today." Grandma Mazur linked arms with her and led her into the kitchen. Stephanie took a cookie and moaned at the taste. She loved her mother's cookies.

"These are so good, Mom," she moaned again. Helen placed a few dozen in a small tin and handed it to her. "Thanks."

"You said Carlos was in an accident. Is he okay?" Helen asked.

"He's doing better. I found out I was pregnant last week. The same day he was in the accident. He crushed his shoulder, had some internal bleeding, and a head injury. There were only two of them that survived. I went down there to see him. He temporarily lost his memory and didn't even know who I was for a couple days. But he's doing much better. He'll be home early next week. I wanted to tell him first before I told everyone else. It was just a really crazy week. Then we were hit with this law suit. I really don't want to get into all the details but I can't come within 1000 feet of the building or any Rangeman business. I sort of bumped into Joe when I got home and he said I could stay with him. Carlos is going to arrange for a place for us to stay when he gets home," she told them. She didn't want to get into all the details. She hated to rush off, especially since her mother was being human, but wanted to get to the Bond's Office to start working on Jeanne Ellen. "Mom, I'll be over on Sunday for dinner as usual. We can talk more then…okay? I really have to go now. I have work to do."

"You're not going to keep bounty hunting…are you? I'm sure Carlos is not going to let you keep working in your condition!" her mother insisted. Stephanie counted to ten in her head. Then she counted to twenty. Thirty. It was the comment about him letting her work that caused the elevation in her blood pressure. No man was going to tell her what to do. But a part of her knew that Ranger was going to get into full caveman mode about working while she was pregnant. She was not in the mood to deal with another problem at this time. The list was long enough as it was.

"First of all, it's not up to Carlos whether I work or not. That will be up to me and my doctor. Anyway….I'm just doing some investigating. Nothing major. Mom…thanks for the cookies." She gave each of them a quick kiss. "I really have to go. I'll see you on Sunday and we can talk more." She hurried to the garage to get her car. The snow hadn't melted yet but all the roads had been plowed and salted.

Lula and Connie were anxiously waiting for her. Lula grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the office. "Okay…spill everything!" Stephanie told them everything but the details of having sex in the Porsche and the whole NuvaRing mess. "Holy Shit White Girl! You really know how to get into trouble!" Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"I can't believe you're pregnant, Honey!" Connie told her placing her hand on her stomach. "There's a little Ranger or Stephanie in there. How have you been feeling?"

"Actually, okay the past two days. I haven't thrown up since yesterday morning. I'm real tired though." She dropped onto the couch. "Were you able to find out anything on Jeanne Ellen?" Connie shook her head.

"Not much. I know she's working full time for Les Sebring. I hear she's doing a good job for them too. She moved into Trenton Gardens back in January. But that's about it. I talked with Mary, their office assistant, and she told me that Jeanne Ellen stays to herself most of the time. They've asked her to go out with them but she always declines," Connie told them.

"Trenton Gardens?" Lula asked. Connie nodded. "I know one of the doormen there. He was a real good customer too. He would always give me a tip and buy me some food. I always gave him a little extra sumthin'…if you know what I mean. I bet he'd let us into her apartment if I asked him real nice." Stephanie bounced up and down.

"Lula…that would be great! I'll bet we can find out what's wrong with her or at least find something that will get Carlos out of this law suit! Do you think he'd do that for us?" Stephanie couldn't have hoped for a better situation. This would make it easier than having to break into her apartment.

"I'm sure he would. I'll give him the right incentive. Now…you're going to owe me big time for this White Girl! I think you need to fix me up with that beautiful, bald, big, black man named Tank. He looks like a man that will be able to sat-is-fy me. Uhm huh! I could just eat him up!" Stephanie winced. It was bad enough when you had to repay someone with a favor, but it was worse when that favor included a miscellaneous person not involved in the deal in the first place. She loved Tank and thought that he and Lula would be great together…in a weird sort of way. If a person could get past Lula's loud…and tight…fashion….uh…preferences, he would really see a wonderful and loving woman. As far as she knew, Tank wasn't seeing anyone at the moment. He never mentioned anyone either. This might work.

"Lula, I can only maybe get us together for a group thing. I would feel funny setting up a blind date between two of my friends. What if it didn't work out? There would be weirdness and I'd be in the middle." Lula smiled.

"Girl, just get him to come out and let Lula work her magic. That's all I'm asking. Once a man has a piece of all this fabulousness, he comes back beggin' for more." Stephanie and Connie laughed.

"Okay, we'll set up a night for all of us to go out. Connie…do you know if she's working on any FTAs right now?"

"She's working on a couple. Nothing major right now." Stephanie thought for a minute.

"I'm going to talk to Hector and see if he can plant a GPS tracker on her car. This way we know where she is. And…better yet…when she'll be away from her apartment!" She started to dig around in her bag. "Shit! I forgot my phone." Lula thrust her cell phone at her.

"Here…use mine. The more I help you the closer I get to having a night of pleasure with that big ol' hunk of love…Tank." Stephanie giggled as she dialed Hector. After a short conversation, Hector agreed to place the tracker. Rangeman still had her vehicle information on file. He promised to get it done this afternoon. The office phone rang. It was Val.

"No…she's right here. No….everything's fine. Hang on…I'll put her on," Connie told Val and handed Stephanie the phone. "It's your sister."

"Val?"

"Oh my God Steph! Where have you been? I tried your cell phone and Joe's. I've been going crazy here!" Val exclaimed.

"I left my phone at Joe's. What wrong?" Val seemed upset and a little crazed. Stephanie's heart beat a little faster. What now, she asked herself.

"Hal asked me to go out with them tonight! I haven't been on a date in a very long time. I don't know what to wear. I don't know what to expect. I mean…." She began to whisper. "I've only had sex with Steve." Stephanie let out the breath she didn't even realize she was holding. "I mean…do you think he expects to have sex on the first date?" Stephanie smiled.

"This is Hal we're talking about….not Lester or Ram. I really don't think so Val. Where are you going?"

"Well…the guys are going out tonight. It's going to be a group of us but he asked me to go with him. I really like him but I'm so nervous! What if he thinks I'm boring and dorky? And…I'm a little older than he is….and a mother of two girls! Oh…maybe I should tell him I can't go!" she whined.

"Val…first of all, Hal knows you have two girls. He knows your loser husband left you. Besides, both of you are dorky. You guys are perfect for each other. If it's just a sports bar or some of the typical dives around here where they usually go, just wear a nice sweater and jeans. They don't get all dressed up and hang out at nice places," Stephanie told her. "Where are you going?"

"Gatsby's. I've never been there….have you?" Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Yeah…been there many times. Our band played there too. Wear what I told you and you'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Okay," she sighed. "So…how are you doing? I miss you here. Everyone misses you here. Tank said Carlos will straighten everything out when he gets home. I can't believe she got a court order to get you out of your own home! You could have stayed with me. I mean I know it would have been cramped….but it is your apartment. How are you feeling? Have you talked to Mom? She kinda freaked out a little about the baby….but I'm sure she'll get over it. I'm sorry. I know I'm rambling. I'm just so nervous about my date with Hal." Stephanie thought for a second. She wondered who else was going. If Tank was going, she could just show up with Lula. Then, she would keep her promise to get them together.

"Who else is going?"

"Uh…Hal, Woody, Ram, Junior, Cal, Tank, and a couple of others," she told her. "Steph…why don't you go? We're all off duty. It's not Rangeman business. They can't say anything about being on your own time." Stephanie smiled. Thank God something was going her way.

"I think Lula, Connie, and I can stop by for a drink or two," Stephanie replied giving a thumbs up to Lula and Connie. "What time?"

"Hal said 7. So…I'll see you there? I won't be as nervous if you are there," Val begged.

"We'll see you there, Val." She disconnected. "Tank and the guys are going to Gatsby's tonight. And we three will make an appearance." Lula let out an ungodly sound that may have once been recorded as the sound of a Bigfoot in heat causing both Connie and Stephanie to clap their hands over their ears. "Shit! I'm deaf," she muttered.

"That big love machine is going to be there? Holy Shit White Girl! We have to go shopping. I need a new outfit and shoes! And we have to stop by Victoria's Secret. Just in case he wants to take me back to my place and pleasure me all night." Stephanie and Connie just shook their heads in disbelief.

"Let's get some lunch first. How about I go pick something up and bring it back here. I can't bring Ivy inside with me anyway. How does Pino's sound?" Connie called it in so Steph could just run in and out. She stopped by Morelli's to get her phone. There were the few messages from Val, one from Hector, Tank, Lester, Morelli, and a heavy breather. The number was blocked. She ran into Pino's and the order was ready. She returned the calls while they ate lunch. Tank and Morelli were just checking to make sure she was okay. Lester was calling to invite her out with the guys. Hector called to let her know the tracker was placed.

"What the hell are you eatin'? That ain't no meatball sub," Lula exclaimed while looking over her lunch with distain.

"It's a turkey sub. The meatballs don't sit too well with me these days. I got French fries!" she insisted.

"Damn…I guess healthy eatin' is genetic. You got a little Batman growing in there and he don't want no real food. He's got you eatin' healthy shit already!" Lula told her. Stephanie rolled her eyes and gave her a dismissive wave.

"Yeah…right!" She snorted at the thought of something so ridiculous then quickly became somber. What if Lula was right? Shit! She hated healthy food. Damn it! So far…real food made her sick. If she ate like Ranger, she was okay. "Is that really true?" Connie laughed. "I mean if I kinda eat like Carlos, I don't seem to get as sick. I thought it was just pregnancy hormones or something. What if I have to eat like Carlos for the whole pregnancy? Oh my God!" Tears rolled down her face.

"Oh Steph…it is because your pregnant. You're stomach is a little sensitive. Especially in the first trimester. You'll get back to normal in another month or so. You'll see," Connie explained putting an arm around her shoulder.

"I don't know. Batman has that super sperm. I bet his genes have magic powers too. I bet they're making you eat all that healthy shit. It's not good for a person to eat like that all the time. Your body needs fats and carbs too. You better ask the doctor next time you go. He'll tell you," Lula insisted.

"Being pregnant….sucks!" Stephanie cried. She shoveled a hand full of fries into her mouth to prove to herself that she could still eat normally. After eating lunch, Lula called her former customer. He was working all weekend. Since they had the tracker on her car and Lula's doorman friend was on duty this weekend, they decided to put off spying on Jeanne Ellen till Saturday. Stephanie told them she would pick them up at 5:30, and they would grab dinner there. Since she couldn't drink, she offered to be the designated driver for the night. After lunch, Stephanie decided to go back to Morelli's to take a nap.

It was almost 4 o'clock when Stephanie woke up. She called Morelli to see if he had any plans that evening. He told her he did have to work late but might be able to stop by if they got done early. She took Ivy for a quick walk before getting ready. God only knows what Lula had planned to wear. She was going to wear something similar to what she told Val to wear. Smiling, she thought of her sister with Hal. Hal and Val! At least she knew Hal would treat her sister right. The guys always teased Hal because he didn't do one night stands. Hal was probably the last of the true gentlemen. The Merry Men had a tendency to attract…loose women. That was what they were looking for in their lives right now. Not many of them seemed to be interested in relationships. Except Bobby. He was sort of seeing a woman named Tammy. She hadn't met her yet but Bobby told her she was a pharmacist and working on her PhD. Bobby was thinking about going back to school himself. He was looking into schools that offered a Physician's Assistant program. Stephanie thought he would do very well. He took care of all of them at Rangeman. He was excellent at what he did. Bobby was expressed interest in working in Emergency Medicine. She was sure that Ranger would create a PA position for him if it would convince him to stay at Rangeman. The rest of the Merry Men seemed to be content at their jobs. Although they didn't seem to have to ambition that Bobby did, they still were all great at what they did too.

Letting her hair dry curly, she was pleased to still be able to get in her skinny jeans. She didn't know how much longer she would be able to fit in her own clothes. She put on a brown and turquoise stretchy v-necked top and completed the look with a pair of tan Frye boots. She hadn't planned on wearing much make up but after deciding she looked a little pale, she put some on. Her mouth was a little dry and she realized that she only had some Pepsi with her lunch today. She knew she needed to drink more but it increased the number of trips to the bathroom. She quickly downed a cup of water before heading out.

The dinner crowd was moderate. It would get busier later. Stephanie noticed that Mike Baker was tending bar. She excused herself and went over to say hello. "Hi Mike." Grinning, he came around the bar to give her a hug.

"Steph! How ya doin'? You here with Carlos?" She shook her head.

"He's out of town. Had a bad accident at Fort Bragg but he'll be home next week. I'm here with some friends. We'll be meeting up with more friends later. How's Tara?"

"She's doing a wedding tonight otherwise I'd call her down here. Hey…Frankie's band is playing tonight. They'll be here any minute to start settin' up. I told him I've been back in touch with you. You gotta sing something," he insisted. She shook her head.

"We'll see."

"We'll just get you drunk. That will get you up there," he teased.

"Not drinking tonight, Mike. I'm pregnant." He did a double take.

"Holy shit! Uh…congratulations? I didn't think you wanted kids," he replied. She shrugged.

"Wasn't planned but we're happy about it. Hey…I'll talk to you later but when Carlos gets back and things calm down again, the four of us will get together again." She hugged him again and rejoined Lula and Connie.

"Who was that?" Connie asked.

"Mike Baker. We used to play in a band together a long time ago. He said a friend of our's band is playing tonight. This should be good," Stephanie told them.

The three of them were just finishing up their dinner when the Merry Men started to arrive. With the exception of Tank and Lester, it had been over a week since they had seen or spoken to her. After they each took their turns at getting a hug, Stephanie introduced Lula and Connie to the ones they didn't know. Mike set up a big table for them in the corner. Lula made sure she sat right next to Tank. She was actually dressed conservative for Lula standards. She wore black spandex pants with black patent leather boots and a low cut v-neck leopard print tunic top. Stephanie thought she looked pretty good. Still yet to arrive were Hal and Val…and Lester. Before she could ask where they were, Hal and Val waltzed in. Oh my God, she thought, Hal is holding her hand…how cute!

Mike brought Frankie over to see Stephanie. "Holy Shit, you still look good!" he told her. Mike played drums and Frankie played guitar in their old band.

"You haven't changed either," she told him. Stephanie introduced Mike and Frankie to everyone.

"You gotta do a couple songs with us Steph," Frankie urged. Before she could even protest, everyone began to urge her on.

"You totally have to do it White Girl!"

"Come on Steph. I'd never seen your band play…please," Val begged. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Maybe," she told them.

Lester finally arrived. He nodded a quick hello to everyone before leaning over and whispering something to Tank. Tank got up and followed Lester outside. "What's that about?" Stephanie asked Ram. Ram shrugged his shoulders.

He wasn't sure what was going on but thought it was best to try to change the subject. "So Steph…are we going to be able to get you up there?" He tilted his head towards the band. She rolled her eyes.

"Maybe," Stephanie said again. Tank and Lester still weren't back. Her stomach began to tighten. Did something happen to Carlos, she wondered. She decided she would make an excuse to use the ladies' room but try to find out what was going on. Rising, she told them, "I'll be right back." Her bladder did betray her and she had to make the bathroom her first stop.

Ram leaned over to Woody. "What's up?" Woody shrugged his shoulders. Before he could ask Cal, Tank and Lester returned. Ram looked at Lester expectantly, but Lester shook him off. He pulled out his phone and sent him a text. 'Harding's out on bond. Jeanne Ellen met with him tonight.' Ram's eyes widened. Fuck! The only reason Jeanne Ellen could possibly want to meet with Harding was to use him to hurt Steph. This was not good.

"Where is she?" Lester asked as he looked around the bar.

"Bathroom," Cal told him. Lester finally saw her through the crowd, got up, and headed towards her. Taking her hand, he led her to the dance floor.

"Dance with me, Beautiful," he said with a smile. He could see the panicked look in her eyes.

"Is Carlos alright?" He nodded and pulled her close. He could feel her relax in his arms. "What's going on?" Tank didn't want her to know yet. Not until they could find out what the situation was first.

"Just Rangeman business. Stayed late to finish up and just gave Tank the update," he lied. There was too much going on right now and they didn't want her more stressed than she already was.

She could tell he was lying. There was something going on and they weren't telling her. At first, she was angry. But the more she thought about it, the less guilty she would have to feel when she didn't include them in her own investigation of Jeanne Ellen. Two could play at this game.

Lester could sense her frustration. He was well aware of her uncanny sixth sense…or whatever she called it. In addition, her emotions were telegraphed through her eyes and her face. It didn't take a rocket scientist or a psychic to read Stephanie's thoughts. Especially the times she would say things out loud and not even realize it. Like now…she had something planned tomorrow and wasn't going to call him. "Come on…it's just Rangeman business." She looked up and stepped back.

"I understand. It's not my business anyway. I'm not a Rangeman employee anymore. I don't need to know…right?" Okay, she was beginning to get a little tired and was getting cranky. She didn't want Lester to feel bad so reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "It's okay, Les. I'm going to call Carlos." She slowly turned and headed for their table with Lester hot on her heels. She pulled out her phone. "I'll be right back. I just want to call Carlos real quick." Leaving her jacket and bag at the table, she went outside to make her call.

All eyes focused on Lester. "What did you do?" Ram asked him. He shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know….nothing," he replied while grabbing a seat. He looked around for Tank and saw him on the dance floor with Lula. Ram followed his gaze.

"Kinda scary…ain't it?" Lester looked back at Ram with a lopsided grin.

"You know…not really."

Chapter 26

"Yo!"

"Yo yourself, Carlos. How are you doing?"

"Getting a little better every day, Babe. Sorry I didn't call earlier, just got out of a meeting," he explained. He was in Review Board meetings all day. The last two hours were spent with Bobby, Colonel Kirby, and John Torres, a CIA operative that Ranger had worked with in the past.

"We're all at Gatsby's. I just stepped outside to see if I could reach you. I miss you so much."

"Who's we?" He was thinking she was out with Morelli and some friends. He felt a twinge of jealousy.

"Lula, Connie, Tank, Lester, Val, Hal, Cal, Ram, Woody…." He smiled. No Morelli.

"Okay…just the gang, huh?" He was glad everyone was still looking out for her despite the law suit mess.

"Yeah. How did it go today?"

"It was rough. It was the first time I got to see pictures of the scene. It was…pretty bad. I don't mean to scare you but I am lucky to be alive at all." She swallowed hard and closed her eyes. She knew the crash was bad because most of the men were killed. But to hear again how close to death he was really hit home. "Babe?"

"Sorry…just thinking about how I…uh we…almost lost you," she told him.

"We?"

"Yeah…me and the baby. We," she explained. He grinned from ear to ear. Tuesday couldn't come soon enough for him. "So…anything else going on?" Not that she expected him to tell her, but she figured she'd try.

"I met with someone else we used to work with. He's going to do some checking on Jeanne Ellen for us. That's why I didn't call earlier. I didn't realize how late it got." He wasn't going to say anything but he wanted her to know that he was trying to do everything he could to get this situation resolved.

"Carlos, what if we can't get her to leave us alone?" she whined. "Something's not right with her. Hunter told me she's on a forced leave of absence. Did you find out why?" He sighed. The only thing he did find out was that something went wrong on a job in Columbia. That's what his contact was going to look into.

"Not yet. Just try to stay away from her, Babe. I think your idea was right on the money. Let her think we're through. Stay with Morelli. When I get back, we'll work on this together." She smiled. God, she couldn't wait for him to get home. "Oh, my parents left today. Mama insisted that I give her your number. She's worried about you, Babe. I'm sure she's going to be calling you soon. Sorry."

"It's okay. Really. It's nice to have some make a fuss over you once in a while. I'm going to get back inside. I'm probably not going to last too long tonight. I know Connie and Lula will be disappointed. I'm their designated driver but this bus will be leaving in a little while," she laughed. She hoped she could get out of there before they made her sing. Not that she didn't want to, she wasn't prepared to.

"Okay, I should probably get to bed early myself. Had a long day and I'm beat. I'm going to listen to your song and then get some sleep. I'll call you tomorrow. I love you," he told her.

"Love you too," she replied and disconnected. She started to head back in when she saw Morelli's truck pull into the lot. She waited for him to park the truck by the front entrance. She didn't see the man in the shadows of the bushes by the far corner of the building. Morelli, seeing her without a coat, put his arm around her and pulled her towards him.

"It's freezing out here. What are you doing out here without a coat?" he asked her as he led her inside.

"I just got off the phone with Carlos. I didn't think you'd make it," she replied.

"Almost didn't. I was able to pull this one out of my ass at the last minute." She put her arm around his waist.

"Well I'm glad you made it." The man waited till they were inside before he emerged from hiding. He whipped out his cell phone and punched in a number.

"Yeah….she's here with the cop…I guess so 'cause they looked pretty cozy to me….Don't worry, I'll take care of it," he told the person on the other end, slapped the phone shut and tucked it away.

Ranger changed into sweats and a tee shirt and stretched out on the oversized chair in his hotel room. He listened to his voice messages then flipped through the text messages. Bobby joined him and set up the late dinner at the table.

"Shit," Ranger muttered when he read the text from Tank. Harding out on bail. Met with Jeanne Ellen tonite. Bobby stared at him with eyebrows raised. "Harding got bonded out and Jeanne Ellen met with him tonight." Fuck the restraining order, he thought. He was going to make sure there was someone on her at all times now. He sent Tank a reply. Tell Morelli. Make sure you have someone on Steph at all times.

"What is Jeanne Ellen after?" Bobby asked him. Ranger shook his head.

"Steph thinks she wants me. It's obvious she wants Steph out of the way. She was someone I worked with…and had been with. I never got the impression that she was interested in anything but sex. We need to find out what happened in Columbia. The Jeanne Ellen I knew was different. She was smart, strong, professional, and damn good at her job. She was never emotional about anything. I know she's been fucking with Steph's mind from day one, but I never thought she would do anything to physically hurt her. I don't think she's going through all this just because she wants us to be together. Doesn't feel right," Ranger explained.

"Do you think she wants to hurt Stephanie now?" Bobby was concerned. When she was at Rangeman, she came at Steph balls to the wall trying to get everyone to turn against her. Ranger looked at Bobby and nodded.

"Why else would she meet with Harding? I think Steph was right to let her believe that we broke up over the baby. Let her come after me and leave Stephanie alone. Jesus! How did this get so fucked up?" Ranger mused.

During the second set, Frankie called Stephanie up to the stage. After getting the crowd to chant her name for encouragement, Stephanie relented and joined him at the mic. They performed Cream's White Room with Frankie singing the verse and Stephanie singing the chorus. The Merry Men and the girls went wild when they finished. Stephanie felt something that she hadn't felt in a long time. Accomplishment. Frankie talked her into doing two more songs: Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin, and Ballroom Blitz by Sweet. The power of performing in front of an audience again was overwhelming. "Let's give it up for Stephanie everyone!" Frankie exclaimed. "Maybe we can get her back up here later?" The crowd cheered and yelled encouragement as she hugged Frankie and left the stage.

While Stephanie was performing with the band, Tank let Morelli know about Harding. "Ranger wants us to put a man on her at all times. Let us know if you see him around her at all and watch her back." Morelli nodded. "Ranger agrees that it would be a good idea to make her think they're over and she's with you." Morelli smiled to himself. Stephanie returned to their table and Morelli pulled her to him.

"Just go with this and I'll explain at home," he whispered into her ear before he kissed her. He felt her stiffen in his arms.

"There better be a good reason," she replied. Lester and Ram exchanged confused looks as did Connie and Lula.

"Steph…you were amazing!" Val gushed. She popped up and hugged her. Mike brought Stephanie over a bottle of water.

"Thanks Mike," she told him as she opened the cap to take a drink. Her mouth felt like cotton.

"See…you gotta jam with us next time, Steph," he begged as he replaced the empty pitchers with new ones. Lester reached for his wallet to pay for this round but Mike wave him off. "This one's on the house." He gave Stephanie a wink and returned to the bar.

"How come you always get out of paying?" Ram whined. Lester gave him a wide grin.

"No…you need to thank White Girl for this round," Lula told them. "If she wasn't such a hot rock star, you'd be paying for these drinks right now." The table cheered.

"To Stephanie!" Cal said as he raised his glass. They all raised their glasses.

"To Stephanie!" they echoed. Stephanie just shook her head and raised her bottle of water laughing.

"You going to get back up there later?" Lester asked her as she sat down between him and Morelli. She shook her head. There were boos and groans.

"Not tonight. Actually, I hate to break up a good party, but I'm tired and it's past my bed time. You ready to go?" she said looking at Connie and Lula. Lula looked horrified.

She was having a good time with Tank and wasn't ready to leave. Connie either. "Stay a little longer White Girl….please?" she begged. Stephanie sighed.

"Okay…but just for a little while. I'm really getting tired," she conceded. Hal, who was driving anyway, had been limiting what he had to drink. He offered to take Connie and Lula home if she really wanted to leave now. Connie and Lula hooted and whooped.

"Yeah, Hal can take us Steph if you want to leave," Connie told her. Stephanie looked at Lula, making a telephone with her hand to her ear, mouthed call me tomorrow. Lula nodded. Stephanie got up and put her jacket on while Morelli also stood up.

"Steph, leave your car here. I'll take you home," he told her. She raised her eyebrows. "You're tired. I'd rather you made it home in one piece. We'll come back for your car tomorrow…okay?" If she wasn't so tired, she would have insisted on driving herself home. It actually seemed like a good idea. She shrugged her shoulders and nodded. After kissing and hugging everyone goodbye, Morelli guided her out to his truck.

"What the fuck was that?" Lester asked Tank.

"Ranger thinks it's a good idea if Jeanne Ellen believes Steph is with Morelli. We'll talk about this more later," Tank told him in a hushed tone. Lester nodded.

Stephanie was asleep within five minutes of pulling out of Gatsby's parking lot. Morelli thought about her singing tonight. He had forgotten how good she was. She didn't know that he had seen their band play while he was home on leave one time. He was going to try to hook up with her but she was with one of the guys in the band by then. He was hoping that they would become closer with Stephanie staying with him. They did…but not in the way he had hoped. Coming home to find Stephanie waiting for him filled a void in his life. It also made him realize that he didn't have a chance with Stephanie anymore. She loved Manoso. Game over. The least he could do was go back to being one of her best friends and help to keep her safe. Not wanting to wake her, Morelli carried her inside and lay her down on the couch. He attached Ivy's leash and took her for a walk.

Morelli was once again awakened to the sound of Stephanie heaving in the bathroom. He went to the kitchen to get her a bottle of water and headed back up to the bathroom. She was on her knees hugging the bowl with both hands. After a few leftover, dry heaves, she sank down against the bathtub. Morelli ran a face cloth under some cool water, rung it out, and put it on her forehead. "Thanks," she muttered. She held the cloth in place for a moment before patting her face with it. "Sorry…didn't mean to wake you." He handed her the bottle of water. She accepted it with a smile.

"Feel a little better?" he asked as he sat on the floor next to her. Ivy, who had been watching from the doorway came in and lay next to her with her head in Stephanie's lap.

"A little," she replied. "It's my own fault. I ate normal food last night. I hate to say this…but I think Lula was right. Carlos's DNA is preventing me from eating regular food." He frowned. "Oh…Carlos only eats healthy food all the time. It's kinda sickening." Morelli smirked. "So…are you going to tell me what that kiss was about?"

"Did you like it?" he joked, waggling his eyebrows. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"You are lucky that I don't have the energy to punch you right now."

"Tank told me that Ranger wants people to think you've split up and are with me. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Mad?" She shook her head no. She took a sip of the water. When she was satisfied that it would stay down, she took a bigger sip.

"I think I'm going back to bed now." Morelli helped her up. She rinsed her mouth with mouthwash before going back to her room. She gave him a hug on the way to her room. "Joe…I'm glad we're friends again. I really missed that." He beamed.

"Me too, Cupcake," he told her. She rolled her eyes and groaned.

"Just don't call me that in front of anyone…okay?"

"Deal."

When Stephanie hadn't heard from Lula by 10:30, she gave her a call. She was greeted by an indistinguishable grunt. "Lula?"

"Don't yell…my head is going to explode," she moaned.

"Are you going to help me follow Jeanne Ellen today? You don't sound like you're up to it."

"Do we have to do it this early?"

"Lula…it's 10:30 in the morning. Hector said she's still at her place but we have to be ready if she leaves." Another grunt could be heard.

"Okay…I'm going to take a handful of aspirin, shower, and I'll come pick you up. But you better have coffee made. Is it possible to have doughnuts there for me too?"

"I can ask Joe. He's off today and I don't have my car."

"Okay…at least have the coffee. I'll see you in a little while." Stephanie found Morelli at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. Looking over the top of the paper, he greeted her with a smile.

"Good morning," she said. "Can I borrow your car to go get some doughnuts for Lula?" He raised his eyebrows, folded the paper, and placed it on the table.

"Normally, I would just hand over the keys but you don't have a great track record with cars." Her hands flew to her hips with left hip popped out and lower lip quivered in a bratty pout. He knew it would infuriate her more but couldn't help smiling. "Nice to see you still pout when you get pissed." She opened her mouth to protest but he cut her off. "I'll go pick you up some doughnuts. Just tell me what you want." Her face relaxed then a slow smile spread into a wide grin.

"Thank you," she told him sweetly. "Boston crèmes of course. Then just get an assortment. Lula needs coffee and doughnuts to wake herself up this morning." This got his interest.

"What are you two doing today?"

"We're going to follow around Jeanne Ellen." He didn't expect this answer. He dropped his face into his hands and groaned.

"I wish you wouldn't. Let Tank and Ranger handle this, Cupcake. Please?"

"Carlos knows. I told him we were going to check her out. I'm not going to do anything crazy, Joe. I just want to see what she's up to." He grabbed his keys and his jacket.

"I'll be right back. You'll be here when I get back…right?" She nodded. She started a fresh pot of coffee.

Morelli was pulling in the driveway when Lula finally arrived. She was dressed in a hot pink and black velour track suit under a huge faux fur coat. Dark sunglasses helped to hide her from the daylight. He waited for her on the porch.

"Stephanie thought you'd need these," he told her while holding up the box of doughnuts. She replied with something like a grunt. Stephanie greeted her at the door with a large cup of steaming coffee.

"Thank you White Girl," she moaned and took the cup. They all headed to the kitchen. Morelli broke into the doughnut box first.

"So what trouble do the two of you plan on getting in today?" he asked them.

"You probably don't want to know…being a cop and all," Lula explained with a mouthful of doughnut. Stephanie kicked Lula under the table. "OW!" Morelli turned to Steph waiting for an explanation.

"Don't worry…it's totally fine," Stephanie waved him off. For the first time since he got back to Trenton, he was almost glad she was Manoso's problem and not his. She had a knack for getting herself into sticky situations as a little girl. Then, it was his turn to keep her safe. Now, it was someone else's job. Lucky for Manoso that he had a company full of highly trained men at his disposal to keep tabs on her. Laughing, he shook his head. He didn't want to betray her trust, but would put a call into Tank after they left.

"Ahhh…I think the coffee and doughnuts are helping the aspirin to kick in," Lula said.

"How much did you drink last night?" Stephanie asked.

"Too much…I think what's his name had to carry me inside. There was a large hand print on my ass this morning. He might have used an ass cheek as a handle. I really don't remember how I got home," Lula groaned. Stephanie giggled.

"So how did things go with Tank?" Lula smiled for the first time that morning.

"He is a fine specimen of man that Tank. And just like I thought, he certainly does not have an innie! I rubbed up against it a few times on the dance floor and I don't even think it was hard! He is hung like a horse!" Lula blurted out. Morelli turned all shades of red.

"I think I leave you two to finish your breakfast. I'll be up in my office." Stephanie watched him leave.

"So what was up with you kissing Morelli last night?" Lula looked at her over the tops of her shades. Now Stephanie turned pink.

"Uh…we…Carlos…um…it's just pretend. We want Jeanne Ellen to think we broke up and I'm with Joe. There's nothing going on," she explained. "So…are you going to see Tank again?" She shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know. We didn't make any plans or anything." She frowned. "I don't remember if we exchanged numbers or anything. Damn….I shouldn't have had that last shot!" Stephanie's cell phone rang. It was Hector. He reported that Jeanne Ellen just left her apartment.

"Great! I'll call you when we get there just to make sure she wasn't heading back." She closed her phone and jumped up. Lula groaned but grabbed her coat and they headed out.

Joe waited till they pulled away before he called Tank. "Yo!"

"It's Morelli. I don't know what Steph and Lula are up to, but I'm sure it's nothing good. They are following around Jeanne Ellen today." Tank banged his head against the headboard of his bed.

"Thanks. I'll have someone on them. I'll also have someone pick up Bombshell's car later." He disconnected. "If you weren't pregnant Bombshell…I would kill you myself," he muttered as he got up. They hadn't gotten a location on Harding yet. If she got hurt, Ranger would kill him. Maybe not now…but once he got better from his accident he would then. He called Lester. "What are you doing right now?"

"I was just heading to the gym, why?" Tank sighed.

"Just got a call from Morelli. Bombshell just left with Lula and they are following that bitch around. Do me a favor and follow them?" Lester agreed and headed back into his apartment to change.

Lula pulled up to the Trenton Gardens apartment building and Stephanie called Hector. "No Bonita… you're still good. I'll call if the car moves so you can get ready to leave if you have to."

"Thanks Hector!" They entered the lobby where Lula's friend greeted them.

"Lula….girl you are lookin' just as fine as I remember!" he told her as he pulled her into a hug. They left their coats and bags in the office behind the desk. He led them up to Jeanne Ellen's apartment on the top floor. "Now don't tell anyone I did this for you. I don't want to lose my job."

Stephanie and Lula crept into the apartment. It was very plain and sparsely furnished. It kind of reminded Stephanie of Ranger's apartment. Lula looked in her refrigerator, grabbed out a soda, and took a long drink.

"Lula!" Stephanie cried. Lula let out a belch.

"What? She ain't gonna miss one soda. Do you want one?"

"No....start looking around. We don't know how much time we have," Steph insisted. There was a small alcove in the bedroom that Jeanne Ellen had set up as an office. Lula opened both bi-fold doors to the huge closet.

"Oh my God…look at this!" Lula exclaimed. Stephanie rushed over and peered in. "This closet is one big mother fucker!"

"Lula!" Steph groaned. "Take this seriously! I don't give a shit about her closet! We need to…. Oh…look at these shoes!" She stepped in and picked up a pair of strappy sandals. "I love these!" She turned the shoes over to look at the size. "10! She's got big feet!"

"I'm a 10…give me those!" Lula grabbed the shoes and sat on her bed.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm gonna see if these fit…if they do, they are mine!" She pulled off her sneakers and put on the sandals. "Oh yeah! These are mine!" She began to do a little victory dance.

"Lula…put them back. We're here to find out stuff about her…not steal her shoes!" Lula slid her feet back into her sneakers.

"She ain't gonna know it was me that took 'em White Girl. Why should you care about Jeanne Ellen any way? That bitch hates you and is trying to steal your man. Besides, I always get souvenirs where ever I go!"

"Give me those!" Stephanie grabbed at the shoes. "She'll know someone was here when she finds them missing!"

"Nah uh….that big blonde guy who gave me a ride home and had his hand on my ass told me that she called me a fat ho. I'm keepin' em!" They were engaged in a hot battle of tug of war over the shoes. With one last desperate tug, Lula ripped the shoes from Stephanie's grip and one sandal went flying back over her head.

"Ow!…Fuck!" Lula and Stephanie screamed and turned around to find Lester doubled over holding his left eye. "Jesus!"

"Lester! What are you doing here?" Stephanie demanded. "You scared the shit out of us!"

"That shoe better not have been damaged!" Lula told him. He reached down and grabbed the shoe off the floor before straightening up. He removed his hand. His left eye was a little puffy and bloodshot. Lula took the shoe from him and examined it. "You're lucky this shoe didn't get fucked up. I like these."

"What are you doing here?" Stephanie asked him again.

"The question is Beautiful…what are you doing here? I thought we were supposed to work together on this," he replied. He looked at himself in the mirror. "God damn that thing hurt."

"I can get you some ice out of the freezer?" Lula offered. "She's got some Cokes in there…want one?"

"Lula….we're here to look for stuff…not loot for stuff! Stop taking things!" Stephanie scolded her. Even though Lester was annoyed at her, he couldn't help but smile. Lucy and Ethel together again, he thought.

"What are you looking for?" Stephanie shrugged.

"I don't know. Something that might tell me what's going on. I'll know it when I see it." She turned and saw Lula going through her drawers. She held up a lace thong.

"Hey…this is nice!" Stephanie grabbed it out of her hand and shoved it back in the drawer.

"Will you stop?" Lester walked over to her desk. The drawers were locked. He took out a little tool and had the drawers open in no time. Stephanie pulled out some files and handed Lester a stack. He sat down at the desk and began to look through his pile. Stephanie sat down on the floor next to him and looked through her stack. Lula continued looking through her drawers.

After a few minutes, Stephanie found an envelope of more pictures of Jeanne Ellen and Ranger. Some were duplicates of the sex pictures she gave Steph before. There were pictures of Jeanne Ellen having sex with another man. She handed them to Lester. "I don't know who this guy is," he told her. The last folder she had contained some medical records. The first letter was a referral to an OB/GYN specialist regarding a second opinion on infertility related to a trauma suffered as a teenager. The doctor had noted that the damage to her vagina and uterus was too severe, and she would not be able to conceive or bear any children…even through artificial means. There was a copy of her Rangeman file with her application. But that was it.

Lula didn't find anything interesting in her drawers and focused her attention back on the closet. Lester found a small package in the bottom drawer. It was post marked from South America. Inside was a pill bottle with 25 yellow cylindrical tablets with MF imprinted on them. There was a hand written note inside the box. Hope this works for you. "I wonder what these are for?" Stephanie looked at them and shrugged.

"There a letter in here from a specialist telling her that she won't be able to have children. Something about damage to her vagina and uterus. Do you think she has a problem with me because I'm pregnant?"

"And that you have her man!" Lula yelled back from the closet. Lester looked at the letter.

"This letter was from five years ago. She's on forced medical leave. She's hell bent on getting you out of the way to get to Ranger. She didn't like you before you were pregnant. I bet she fuckin' loves you now! She's sound like she's a couple of sandwiches shy of a picnic, Beautiful. I don't like the fact that you're not at Rangeman now. Who knows what she is capable of?" Stephanie nodded in agreement.

"Do you think she has a drug problem? What are these that pills she's taking?" Stephanie wondered aloud. "I'm going to take one and see if I can find out what it is." She took a baggie out of the kitchen and dropped a pill in the bag.

"Hey!" Lula exclaimed. "You're yelling at me for taking stuff and now you're doing the same thing!" Lester shook his head.

"It's not the same thing! You're stealing her stuff. I'm trying to find out what this pill is!" Stephanie insisted. Lester placed all the files back in the desk and made sure the lock held when the drawers were shut. They stood up to leave and heard the front door open. They looked at each other, eyes wide. "In the closet!"

"I'm not going to fit in there," Lester whispered. Stephanie pushed him into the closet. He banged his head on the shelf before squatting down in the corner. Lula dropped into his lap. "Jesus!" he groaned with strangled breath. Stephanie closed the doors leaving a two inch space to see what was going on. Lula pulled her back onto her lap. The three of them crouched in the corner and held their breath.

Chapter 27

Tank was finally awake after taking a shower, eating breakfast, and getting dressed. He thought about the night before. He had a good time with Lula. Even though having a relationship was difficult with their line of work, he didn't share Ranger's beliefs about relationships. Or Ranger's old beliefs about not wanting a relationship. Most men would have said they would kill to have his problem with women. That is…until they were actually in his shoes. Both men and women were intimidated by him because of his sheer size and bulk. For those women that saw past that and it got to be intimate, most women couldn't handle his size. There were a few that could and came back for more, but most could only handle him for one night. He liked Lula from the beginning. She was a good friend to Bombshell. He couldn't fault anyone that worked hard to better herself. He did things in his past that he was ashamed of or had felt regret. Lula was out there, but there was something about her that made him want to get to know her better. He walked into the Control Room to see who would be available to pick up Bombshell's car. An alarm went off at a warehouse. Her car would have to wait.

Jeanne Ellen strode into her bedroom and tossed her coat over the chair. She retrieved a secured cell phone from her nightstand and made a call. "It's me. Did you take care of what we discussed?.....Good. You know if this doesn't work, we will have to try something else…..I got those pills and I'm told that will do the trick….Remember I will contact you….. Are you sure she is with the cop?....Great. I'll call you in a couple of days. I may be going out of town." She began to undress.

What is she doing, Lester mouthed.

I don't know. I can't see, Stephanie replied. One side of the bi-fold doors opened revealing a naked Jeanne Ellen who began to shuffle through her clothes. Stephanie looked over at Lester who had this big dumb grin on his face. They tried to remain as still as possible holding their breath. If she looked in the left side of the closet, she would have found the Stephanie, Lula, and Lester totem pole in the corner. Luckily, she found what she was looking for and disappeared from view. They all quietly exhaled in a sigh of relief.

"I'm getting a cramp," Lester whispered. His right calf was screaming from supporting all their weight.

"I have to pee," Stephanie quietly whined.

"I have to fart," Lula admitted.

"Fuck," Lester groaned as he felt the gas released on his thigh. Stephanie and Lester sniffed the air and gave Lula a death glare. Stephanie cupped a hand over her mouth and nose to help prevent gagging. Lula just shrugged her shoulders and mouthed…Sorry.

"What is she doing now?" Lester asked.

"I can't see," Steph told him. They heard the bedsprings creak as she lay on her back.

"Ooohhh Ranger!" Jeanne Ellen groaned. Without even thinking, Stephanie began to rise. Lester grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back down. After a few more moans and groans, they heard a soft buzzing sound.

"Oh my god! She's got the Rabbit," Lula replied excitedly in a hushed tone. "That's the best out there!" Stephanie was horrified. She was stuck in Jeanne Ellen's closet with Lula and Lester, the unholy stench from Lula's fart, Jeanne Ellen masturbating with her vibrator calling out Ranger's name, and she had to pee….bad! She glanced over at Lula and Lester. Lula let out another round of silent gas. She watched as Lester's face, who had been grinning a mile a minute listening to Jeanne Ellen get off, contort in horror as the smell wafted to his nose.

"Argh! What the hell did you eat?" Before Lula could answer, Jeanne Ellen called out Ranger's name again as she climaxed. She took a minute to collect herself before heading to the bathroom. They heard the shower running. Stephanie slowly got up and looked out.

"Hurry up! She's in the shower!" she breathed. Lula got up and grabbed the sandals. Lester got up and hit his head on the clothes bar.

"Shit!" He hobbled out of the closet rubbing his head with one hand and rubbing his right calf with the other. "Thank God….I can breathe again!" Lula headed for the front door. Stephanie grabbed Lester by the hand and pulled him out of the apartment. They didn't stop till they got to the lobby. Stephanie spied a bathroom next to the front desk and made a bee line for it. When she was finished, Lester and Lula were waiting by the desk with her coat and bag. "Let's get the fuck outta here."

"I thought Hector was supposed to call when the car was moving again?" Lula asked.

"Hector?" Lester looked at Steph expectantly.

"Let's just get outta here," Stephanie told them. She saw that Lula had the sandals in her hand. "Lula! She's gonna know those shoes are missing."

"Yeah…but she won't know it was us," Lula insisted.

"Let's just head back to Joe's. We can order Pino's and have it delivered," she told them. "Meet us there?" Lester nodded.

Stephanie called Hector on the way to Morelli's. "You forgot to call me! Jesus…she showed up and almost caught us!

"Her car still hasn't moved Bonita! I would have called you if it did. Are you alright?"

"Yeah….oh my God, Hector! It was so gross. Jeanne Ellen got naked and masturbated on her bed. She called out Ranger's name! Lula, Lester, and I hid in her closet. By the way….how did Lester find out where we were?" Hector didn't answer. "Hector?"

"Sorry Bonita. He came up behind me when I called you. He said that Tank told him to follow you. I don't know why Tank wanted him tailing you," Hector explained. Stephanie frowned.

"Morelli must have called him! What is it with you men?"

"Don't look at me Bonita. I don't have that macho thing going on. I know how big my dick is. It's a straight man thing." Stephanie had to smile. He was right. "I'll try to find out where her car is. I'll call you back." She thanked him and disconnected.

"What did Morelli do? And don't be too hard on him…he got us doughnuts this morning," Lula asked.

"He must have called Tank after we left. Who then told Lester to follow us. I appreciate the concern, but this is really getting old. I should be able to go anywhere I want to whenever I want! Carlos and I are going to have to have a serious talk when he gets home."

Lester called Tank on the way to Morelli's. "She's defective, Tank. It's obvious she wants Steph out of Ranger's life, but I think she really wants to hurt her. Oh…the best part was when she got naked and got herself off with a vibrator! Holy Shit! I couldn't see it but she was moaning and calling Ranger's name. Don't think Steph was too happy about that, but it made up for Lula clocking me with a shoe." Tank frowned and hung his head.

"What the fuck were they doing in Jeanne Ellen's apartment?" Tank groaned.

"I haven't gotten to that but I'll ask. We found a bottle of pills that she got from someone in South America. Maybe she's got a drug problem or something. And we found a letter from a doctor that said she'd never be able to have children. Something about a trauma. I'll try to talk her into telling Ranger everything. This way…we won't get in trouble with Ranger. And not make us betray her trust. I'm starting to feel like I'm stuck in the middle. I don't want anything to happen to her but she's my friend. Ranger's my friend and my boss. It sucks being in the middle." Tank knew what he meant, but his job was to protect Bombshell at all costs. Not only because she was Ranger's woman, but she was also his friend, too. "Anyway, she took one of those pills to check it out. Maybe Morelli can do something with it or we can take it to a pharmacy or something. I'm heading over to Morelli's. Call you later."

Morelli's truck was in the driveway. Stephanie stormed inside. "Joe!" He immediately came down the stairs. "Did you call Tank or Lester on us?" she demanded.

"I was worried about you, Cupcake," he explained. Lester appeared at the storm door and Lula let him in. Morelli looked to Lester for help. "We have to tell her." Lester nodded. "Jeanne Ellen met with Harding the other night." Her jaw dropped.

"That's why I was late, Beautiful. Tank didn't want to worry you. You've been hit with a lot of shit this past week. We wanted to see what was going on before we told you," Lester explained.

"Who's Harding?" Lula asked.

"He's the skip that hit me in December," Stephanie told her with a sigh. She flopped onto the couch.

"The one that fucked up your face?" Lula's eyes were wide. Stephanie nodded. "Damn! What's he doin' meetin' with that masturbatin' bitch?" Morelli looked perplexed. Lester grinned. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Sounds like I'm missing something here," Morelli said frowning.

"Oh yeah….you totally missed out!" Lester told him still smiling.

"I'm really getting sick and tired of people making decisions for me. I am an adult. If there is something going on that concerns me, I should be told about it. Then…people get mad at me when I don't say anything about what I know or what I do. Well…it's gonna stop. When Val gets her own place, I can move back into my own apartment. Have my privacy back. And not have someone up my ass all the time!" she told them. Okay…getting tired and cranky again. She didn't like the idea of Jeanne Ellen getting off thinking about Ranger. Morelli ratted on her. Her car was still at Gatsby's. Ranger was still out of town. Damn it…here come the tears again. Fucking pregnancy hormones!

Lester's shoulders slumped, and Morelli shifted his weight back and forth shoving his hands in his pockets. Lula sat down next to her and draped an arm over her shoulder. "It's okay White Girl. I think you need some food. Get this pregnant girl some food!" she barked at the two men nervously watching her cry. Morelli and Lester snapped to attention.

"Yeah…what do you want Beautiful? I'll get you whatever you want to eat," Lester insisted.

"Do you want Pino's? I'll call them right now," Morelli offered.

"Food kind of sounds good," she sniffled. "A turkey sandwich and French fries would be nice."

"The diner!" Morelli exclaimed. "I know you like the turkey club at the diner. We'll get you that. I'll order it right now."

"And I'll go pick it up," Lester added. Stephanie nodded her head and wiped her eyes. As much as she hated crying, it really seemed to work. It was almost comical to see two tough guys fall all over themselves to get her to stop crying. Even Ranger seemed to fall apart when she cried. She'd have to file this away for later use.

Morelli wrote down everyone's order before calling it in. Lester left to pick up their food. "What happened?" Morelli asked Steph as he sat on the other side on her.

"We went to Jeanne Ellen's apartment to see if we could find out any information on her. Hector was supposed to call if he picked up her car coming back. Well…we were still there when she walked in and we hid in the closet," she explained. Morelli smiled at the thought of the three of them jammed in a closet.

"Must have been some closet," he mused. Lula grunted.

"It was a big ass mother fucker," Lula told him. "Oh…tell him about her doin' herself with the Rabbit!"

"It was kinda…gross," Stephanie began, shuddering at the memory. "We couldn't see her…thank God…but we heard her…."

"Yeah…she started moanin' and groanin' and yellin' out Ranger's name while she got herself off with a vibrator," Lula added enthusiastically. Morelli tried not to laugh. "I know it had to be the Rabbit 'cause she got herself off real quick like."

"Shit…I did miss out," he muttered under his breath.

"I found a letter from a doctor that she wouldn't be able to have children because of some kind of trauma that happened to her. Oh…and we found this." She pulled the baggie out of her pocket and showed him the little yellow pill. Ivy sniffed it with interest. "No girl…this isn't for you." She opened the baggie as Ivy continued to try to stick her nose in it. Morelli took the back and sniffed. He shrugged his shoulders.

"Has a weird pill smell but I don't know what this is. Do you want me to take it to the station to have it analyzed?" She nodded.

"Maybe she's having a hard time dealing with the fact she can't have kids? I don't know. Maybe she's on drugs? It would make sense. I mean…she was someone that Carlos trusted. He was surprised by how she changed. And Carlos rarely gets surprised." She hung her head. "I sort of feel bad for her." Morelli and Lula both groaned. "No…I mean I'm not trying to excuse what she did, but obviously something happened to her. Something horrible. That's all I'm saying." Morelli slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into a hug. Same old Stephanie. She was probably the most forgiving person he knew. Lord knows, enough people in her life did her wrong…including him.

"Well I say it's karma," Lula decided. "You can only do so many shitty things in life before it catches up with you and bites you on the ass. Don't feel sorry for her White Girl. If she wasn't so busy fuckin' with people to try to hurt them, this probably would have never happened to her."

"I know. I don't want to see bad things happen to people…well most people. There are a few exceptions…like Dickie and Joyce. Maybe Carlos will be able to find out what happened in Columbia." Lester returned with the food and they dug in.

"Are you going to tell Ranger about this?" Lester asked. He figured he might as well get it over with. He was relieved when she nodded. "I mean…all of it? Not the Reader's Digest/Stephanie Plum version?" She smirked and nodded again.

Ranger and Bobby met with Agent John Torres again. He gave them a name of an agent that Jeanne Ellen had worked with just before she worked with Ranger. "Marco Jimenez was her usual partner. He was married but rumor had it that the two of them had something going on. Hey…we all know what the deal is." John shrugged his shoulders. Ranger knew all too well what he was talking about. "Anyway…something happened and they had a falling out. I don't know if she told his wife or the wife found out. It was bad. He refused to work with her anymore. Not only that, but he and his wife wanted to start a family so he was pulling back from taking those types of assignments. Jeanne Ellen went ape shit about it. Now what I'm about to tell you was only speculation…no one could prove anything." He looked Bobby and Ranger in the eye for confirmation. They nodded and urged him to proceed. "Well…Marco's wife was almost 4 months pregnant when she lost the baby." Ranger's blood went cold. "First trimester miscarriages are common, but they could still happen in the second trimester, but later miscarriages are more related to abnormalities, fetal death, trauma, ingestion of teratogenic substances."

"Teratogenic?" Ranger asked.

"Harmful to the embryo or fetus. Can cause major birth defects or death," Bobby explained. John nodded.

"Again…like I said…couldn't prove anything, but Marco swears Jeanne Ellen had something to do with it. A little over a year ago, he was supposed to work the job in Columbia with her and flat out refused. His replacement was you, but you had to back out or something. They only had a rookie to send to back her up." Ranger looked to his right shoulder. He was shot during a takedown. Bullet had just grazed him but was unable to take the job and had to back out.

"What happened on that job?" he asked.

"I don't know all the specifics but it went down bad. Real bad. The Maldonado family got her. She was almost beaten to death. Was in the hospital for almost a month."

"Was she raped?" Ranger held his breath waiting for the answer. As much as he was angry at her, he would never wish something like that on her…or anyone for that matter.

"Suspect she was, but we really don't know. She seemed to get worse after that and was put on administrative leave. She's supposed to be getting counseling but don't know if she had. You know they don't like to get rid of their best operatives but will if one of them blows a gasket and are dangerous." Ranger nodded. Bobby looked at him without saying a word. He knew what Bobby was thinking. Stephanie was pregnant. If Jeanne Ellen was capable of causing another pregnant woman to lose her baby, she could try the same thing with Stephanie.

"John…my girlfriend is pregnant." John's eyes got wide. "Were there any signs that caused her to lose that baby…unnaturally?" John just shook his head.

"It was about a month after that Marco started to suspect something. Too late to get any toxicology screens done. It would have been out of her system by then and the fetus had already been cremated. I talked to Marco and told him what was going on. He agreed to let me give you his number to call him for any questions. He'd rather not get involved. He's moved on, they have children, and his wife wouldn't want him to bring it up again." Ranger felt the bile rise in this throat. This situation may be worse than they thought.

"She is suing me and my company. She got a court order against Stephanie that keeps her away from the building my employees, and any Rangeman business. She's staying with a friend and they're keeping tabs on her as best they can. I don't like her being exposed like that. Right now, she thinks we've broken up and I hope she'll back off Stephanie. I was hoping that would be enough, but now…I just don't know," Ranger sighed.

"Can Hunter get an emergency hearing?" Bobby asked. "If we can get Steph back at Rangeman, we can protect her better."

"I don't know but I'll call and ask." Ranger pulled out his cell phone to contact Hunter. If something else were to happen, Ranger decided the court order wouldn't matter. He would do whatever it takes to keep her safe.

Hunter told him that he would work on it but didn't think he could get anything done until Monday. "The courts wouldn't know if you put her in a safe house somewhere."

"That might not be a bad idea. Let me know as soon as you find anything out." He closed and put away his phone. "I appreciate this John. Do her superiors suspect anything? They must have to force her to take a leave."

"I can find out for you," John told him.

After eating their late lunch, Stephanie wanted to get her car. "Tank said he was going to have someone get it for you," Morelli told her.

"I'll call him," Lester offered. Tank explained about the break in and they didn't have time yet. "We'll get the car." He disconnected with Tank. "They got tied up. I'll take you to get it." She stood and stretched.

"After that's done, I'll call Carlos. Then I'll take a nap," she told them. Morelli grabbed his jacket.

"I'll go with you." She gave him a quizzical look. "Hey…we still don't know where Harding is. Just humor me…okay?" She rolled her eyes but agreed. They all walked out together. Lester dropped them off at Gatsby's.

"Do you want me to wait?" Lester asked them.

"No thanks. We've got it from here," Stephanie told him and waved good bye. Morelli took the keys. "I can drive you know." He steered her towards the passenger side door.

"I know. It's not every day I get to drive a Mustang GT. It's a guy thing. Just go with it," he joked. She groaned again but got in the passenger side.

For the first few minutes of the drive, they had all the green lights and traffic was minimal. An eighteen wheeler hit a patch of ice and lost control. It swerved in front of Morelli and Stephanie. "Shit!" Morelli muttered as he applied the brake. No response. The car failed to slow at all. "No brakes!" The truck clipped the side of the Mustang forcing them off the road. The Mustang rolled twice before coming to rest against a tree.

Ranger and Bobby were driving back to the hotel. Ranger's mind was racing a mile a minute. He knew it was in his best interest to stay for the follow up appointments, but he had this sense of urgency to get home to Stephanie. Aside from the loneliness he felt without her. Tuesday just didn't seem like it would come fast enough.

"Santos." Lester was heading back to Rangeman after dropping off Stephanie and Morelli.

"Where are you? The Mustang dropped off the board!" Tank told him. There was an edge to his voice.

"I drove Morelli and Steph to get her car. I left them about 10-15 minutes ago." The sub sandwich he had eaten a short while ago now felt like a brick in his stomach. "I'll double back and check it out. Call you when I get there." Making an illegal u-turn, Lester drove across the median and headed back.

Morelli felt like he was in a fog. His brain seemed to be moving in slow motion. He could hear a man's voice off in the distance but couldn't make out who he was or what he was saying. There were the sounds of sirens in the distance. It was all slowly coming back to him. They went to get Steph's Mustang. No brakes. He became aware that the car was on its side. Stephanie! "Steph?" No answer. He looked to his right to see her strapped in the seat next to him. "Stephanie?" He reached over and took her hand in his. He could feel the pulse in her wrist. "Thank God," he muttered. He didn't see any major bleeding. They both seemed to have some cuts and scrapes from the broken glass. "Stephanie?"

"Are you okay in there?" the driver of the 18 wheeler called to them again. "I've called the police and an ambulance. The car's not on fire. Don't move until they get here."

"Cupcake…are you okay?" Morelli asked her again while squeezing her hand. He breathed a sigh of relief when she squeezed him back. She began to groan. "Try to stay as still as possible, Steph. We had an accident. Helps on the way." Her eyes opened.

"My stomach hurts Joe," she cried. The events flashed through her head like a slide show on crack. The truck. The car rolling. The airbags. Her stomach hurt. The baby! Please let the baby be okay.

"Just hang in there Cupcake. Everything's going to be okay," Morelli kept repeating over and over. He was trying to keep her calm. He didn't see any bleeding between her legs but he hoped the baby was okay.

Lester hit the ground running when he got to the scene. He saw the Mustang tipped up on the passenger side against a tree about 200 feet off the road. He heard the sirens coming. He asked the driver of the 18 wheeler what happened. "Steph? Morelli?" he called into the car.

"We're okay," Morelli told him. He looked at Santos through the windshield. Santos whipped out his phone to call Tank.

"They were in an accident. Rollover. Fire Department and ambulance are on the way. Don't know the extent of the injuries but they're both conscious. Steph looks more out of it than Morelli," he told him.

"We'll be there in 10!" Tank barked out as he headed to the garage.

By the time the police arrived, there was a large crowd growing. No one noticed a man standing in the back of the crowd making a call on his cell phone. He had taken a photo of the accident and sent it to his associate.

The fireman and the paramedics were working on how best to get them out. They cut open the rag top and a paramedic climbed inside with them. He applied cervical collars on both Stephanie and Morelli. It was decide to right the car to make it easier to extricate them. Tank, Ram, Cal, Lester, Hal, and Woody assisted the fireman. The huge men made it look easy to gently get the car back on the tires. They unlatched the top and manually pulled it back for easier access. Stephanie was crying and holding her stomach. IVs were started on both and immobilized on spine boards. Tank grabbed Stephanie's bag and handed it to Lester.

"You go with her. I'll have Woody drive your truck back," he instructed. Lester nodded and climbed into the ambulance with Stephanie. He walked over to Morelli. "You alright?"

"I'm sore but don't think anything's broken. I'm worried about Steph. She says her stomach hurts," Morelli told him. "Oh…have someone check the brake line. The truck cut us off and I tried to stop. No brakes."

Tank grimaced. With everything that Stephanie and Ranger had been through lately, this was the last thing they needed. "We'll see you at the hospital."

"Hey Beautiful…you're going to be okay," Lester told her while taking her hand. Tears flowed freely.

"I'm scared. M-my stomach h-hurts, Les," she whimpered. The paramedic asked her about her medical history. "I'm pregnant. Maybe around 6 weeks."

"Show me where it hurts, Hon," she asked her. Stephanie put her hands over her lower abdomen. The paramedic lifted her shirt and unbuttoned her jeans. There was an angry red mark from the seat belt. It also extended upwards to her right shoulder. "You have a mark from the seatbelt. They are designed to retract to hold you back in your seat in an accident. I don't see any bleeding between your legs. Most likely, you're going to have bruising and soreness from the seatbelt. But they're going to do a full work up in the ER, okay? Are you hurting anywhere else?"

"My right shoulder is sore, b-but not too bad. Is Joe okay?"

"Yeah…he's going to be fine. They've got in him the other ambulance." Lester took her hand again. "Do you remember what happened?"

"The truck swerved in front of us and the next thing I remember was the car rolling over. It happened so fast, I didn't even have time to be scared," she told him.

"Man…you guys were lucky," Lester said.

"I guess I have to thank Dickie for that," she smiled. Lester frowned. "The Mustang was the top of the line. It had every safety feature you could image. Front airbags. Side airbags. And the roll bar…." She trailed off and groaned. "That's another car destroyed!" Lester smirked.

"Well this is the first time you were in it," Lester remarked.

Chapter 28

It wasn't long before news of the crash was all over the Burg. Stephanie's family, Lula, Connie, and half of Rangeman were in the waiting room. Morelli mainly had cuts and scrapes but nothing broken. Same for Stephanie. All they were waiting for was her ultrasound. The doctor had examined her and established that her cervix was closed. The doctors were convinced she was having pain due to the seat belt trauma.

Big Dog and Carl came back to see Morelli. They confirmed that the brake line had been cut. Morelli cursed himself for being so careless. He didn't even think to check the car before they got into it.

Frank, Helen, and Val were allowed to see Stephanie. "Thank God you're alright Pumpkin," Frank told her.

"I'm a little sore but I'm okay," she said. "I'm waiting to get an ultrasound. They just want to make sure everything is okay. Val…will you go back with me?" Val nodded. She really wished Ranger was here with her. What was she going to tell him? Did they call him yet? He's going to go crazy when he finds out what happened. The tech came into her room to take her for her ultrasound.

"We'll be in the waiting room, Stephanie. We're not going anywhere," Helen told her.

Ranger and Bobby called Marco Jimenez when they got back to the hotel. He told them his whole history with Jeanne Ellen. "She comes across as being normal but as soon as you pull back or you don't go along with what she wants…watch out. It wasn't till after my wife lost the baby that I found out about Steve Sorenson. He was her partner before me. He was found dead in his apartment…cyanide. They determined it was homicide but never found out who did it. I can't prove it, but it wouldn't surprise me if that bitch did it," Marco told them.

"Were they together?" Bobby asked.

"Didn't know him that well but heard he was a player. Liked his whiskey and liked his women. A lot of women. Jeanne Ellen doesn't like to share." Ranger and Bobby exchanged glances.

"Did you hear what happened to her in Columbia last year?" Ranger inquired.

"I was asked to do the job with her and told them hell no! Yeah, it was my fault that I cheated on my wife. But she tried to ruin my marriage. You know how it is. We didn't know if we would be coming back from some of these jobs. If the opportunity for last chance sex came up….hey…I took it. I just heard that the rookie fucked up and she was taken prisoner. Oh…by the way…I heard that rookie showed up dead last year. Cyanide. Right after that, she's put on forced leave."

"You think she did it…right?" Ranger pushed.

"She was probably behind it. She wouldn't do it herself but she would have gotten someone else to do her dirty work. That's how she operates. Watch your back, Ranger. I can't get too involved. I have my wife and kids to think about. I can't have that crazy bitch after us again. I'll answer any questions you have but I'm not getting involved. If you ask me, it's time they put her down," Marco rambled on. The distain was obvious in his tone.

"I appreciate the information, Marco. I'll call you if I have any of questions," Ranger told him and disconnected.

"What are we going to do?" Bobby asked him. Ranger leaned back in his chair and dropped his head back with a sigh.

"I'm hoping she thinks Steph's out of the picture and will come after me. Shit!" He sat up and leaned forward. "I can't do much down here. I'll stay for the Monday appointment but we leave right after. I have to get home and take care of this." Bobby nodded. "I'm going to call the Colonel and get him up to speed."

Val held Stephanie's hand as the tech moved the transducer over her lower abdomen. She flinched from the cold gel and when she applied pressure over the seatbelt bruising. "Since the doctor was only guessing at how far along you are, we may or may not see a heartbeat today but that doesn't mean that anything happened. They took another HCG quant to check." Stephanie just nodded. She was holding her breath. "Here we go….there's the heartbeat!" Both Stephanie's and Val's eyes filled up. For Stephanie, it was for joy and relief but a little sadness that Ranger wasn't here to see this too.

"Thank God," Stephanie whispered. Val gave her a hug.

"Your doctor will review this and give you the official report," the tech explained. "It looks like you're around 6 or 7 weeks pregnant." Despite the aches and pains from the accident, and the fact that they could only give her Tylenol, Stephanie felt like a weight was lifted from her body. The baby was okay. It struck her how things changed. She couldn't believe that she briefly thought about getting rid of it and now…how desperately she wanted this child.

Morelli had gotten his discharge instructions and was talking to the ER doctor when the tech brought Stephanie back to her room. He could already tell by the smile on her face that everything was okay. He handed the doctor the yellow pill in the baggie. "Can you tell me what this is?" The doctor took the baggie and examined the pill through the plastic.

"MF?" he muttered as he read the letters. "I'll have one of our pharmacists take a look at it." Morelli handed him his card.

"Personal cell number's on the back. I'd really appreciate this. This will help in an investigation I'm working on," Morelli explained.

"I'll try and get back to you as soon as I can," the doctor told him. He shook his hand and trudged over to Stephanie.

"We're okay," she exclaimed. He gently gave her a hug. She showed him the picture the tech had given her. He groaned when he straightened up. He was just as sore as she was. Val left to tell the rest of their family the good news. "What happened?"

"Someone cut your brake line," he sighed. "I couldn't stop after that truck cut us off. Steph…" He paused for a moment. "We're going to have to figure something out. You can stay with me but….but I don't know if I can keep you safe."

"I don't have anywhere else to go. I can stay at my apartment on the couch or at my parents' house but I don't see those as being safer options," she cried.

"No…I mean we'll have to get you out of Trenton. You could have been killed today, Steph. This is serious."

"You could have been killed too! I'm not going anywhere, Joe. She's made this personal and I'm not going to just sit back and take it. She just doesn't want me out of the way…she wants me dead!" Stephanie insisted. Tank appeared in the door.

"Sorry Bombshell, but Morelli is right. But we're not going to talk about it here. Don't know who is listening. I haven't called Ranger yet…." Stephanie cut Tank off.

"Please don't tell him!" she begged. "Tank…you know as well as I do that he'll be on the next plane up here. He needs to stay there…at least for his Monday doctor appointments." Tank's shoulders slumped and he rubbed his face with his hands. "You know I'm right Tank. It's important that he takes care of himself. We're fine. It's not going to change anything if we wait to tell him when he gets here!"

He looked into her pleading eyes. She was right. It still wasn't going to change the fact that Ranger would have a stroke when he found out. He was going to have a stroke either way but it would at least be better if he kept his appointments before returning to Trenton. "Okay Bombshell," he conceded, "we'll do it your way."

"Thank you," she gushed. "I'll take the blame for this. It would have been one thing if we were hurt. But we're fine." She grabbed one of Tank's massive hands. He squeezed back.

"Don't thank me yet…we still have to talk about what to do with you. And you might not like it," he told her. The doctor came in to review her discharge plan. Tank and Morelli stepped out. "I'm going to have Hector sweep your place for bugs. Then we'll take her back to your place and talk about what the hell to do next." Morelli nodded.

"You're really not going to tell Ranger about this?" Morelli was surprised. Tank shrugged.

"He's going to go off either way, but she's right. We need to make sure he's doing what he's supposed to as well." Tank smirked. "That's one of the things they have in common…they are both as stubborn as hell."

Colonel Kirby was disturbed by what Ranger had told him. He told Ranger he would make some calls and get back to him. An hour later he called Ranger. "Can you meet with us tonight? Apparently, this is a serious issue. There's more to this but it can't be discussed over the phone."

"What time?" Ranger asked.

"I'll pick you up in an hour. Just you. This is high level and Brown doesn't have clearance." Ranger agreed.

"The Colonel is picking me up. Something serious is going down and it's classified. Sorry," he explained to Bobby. Bobby nodded in understanding. Ranger called Stephanie but only got her voicemail. "I've got a meeting tonight Babe and think it's going to run late. If I can't call you later, I'll talk to you tomorrow. I love you." After Ranger left, Bobby called Lester to see what was going on.

"Is Ranger with you?" Lester asked him nervously.

"No, he's meeting with the Colonel. Top level stuff about Jeanne Ellen. I was just calling to see what I've been missing. We're going stir crazy down here," Bobby joked.

"Shit man…you're missing a lot. Steph and Morelli were in a bad accident today….."

"What? Is Steph okay?" Bobby interrupted.

"Yeah…she's a little banged up but she's fine. And the baby is fine. They did an ultrasound at the hospital. Morelli's okay, too. We went out to Gatsby's last night. Oh…a friend of Steph's got her to sing a few songs with the band. It was great! Anyway, she wanted to leave early because she was tired. Tank told Morelli about Harding, so he took her home and they left the car there. The brake line was cut. I took them to get the car and they got into an accident on the way home. Shit…Bobby they were lucky. The car flipped a few times." He shuddered at the memory.

"Jesus," Bobby muttered. "When did this happen? You guys didn't tell Ranger yet…did you?"

"No, Steph begged Tank not to. I mean he's going to shit either way and she wanted to make sure he stayed for his doctor appointment. Please don't tell him Bobby. She'd probably smash my nuts up into my throat again!" Lester begged.

"Shit! I'm not going to be the one to tell him that! We've been talking to some of the partners she's worked with before Ranger. It's not good, Les. Her first partner wound up dead. The second guy's wife had a mysterious miscarriage. Her last partner is also dead." Lester sucked in his breath.

"Tank had me follow Steph and Lula today. They broke into that bitch's apartment. Didn't really find much except some pictures of her and Ranger and her and some other guy. And a bottle of pills that someone from South America sent her. Steph took one to have Morelli see if he could get it analyzed. She comes home and we had to hide in the closet. Here comes the best part….she gets naked and starts playing with herself!"

"No way!"

"Unfortunately, I didn't get to see it. I just heard it. She was calling out Ranger's name. When she jumped in the shower, we got the hell out of there. She called someone while we were there too. I think she was talking to the person that she had cut the brake line. I'd bet it was Harding."

"What are we going to do about Steph?" Bobby asked.

"Tank's having Hector sweep Morelli's for bugs. Then, we're going to meet there to talk about it. I think Tank and Morelli want to get her out of Trenton. Steph's gonna love that!"

"I know…but at this point, it really doesn't matter what Steph wants. We have to do what's best for her…and the baby." Bobby sighed. "Ranger wants us to leave right after his Monday appointment so we'll be home that night. Oh…tell Steph that if Morelli needs help with that pill, they can talk to Tammy. She's a pharmacist and might be able to find out what that pill is." Lester told him he would mention it. Then, he told him about Lula and Steph fighting over Jeanne Ellen's shoes and the fart in the closet. Bobby was almost in tears laughing so hard.

"Too bad I missed that." Bobby chuckled again. Lester got a call from Tank that Morelli's house was clean.

"Gotta go, Bobby. I'll let you know what's going on."

As soon as they got back to Morelli's, all Stephanie wanted to do was take a nap. She ached all over and was exhausted. She kicked off her boots, wrapped herself in a blanket, and curled up on the couch. Morelli flopped on the other end of the couch with a groan. Ivy brought her leash over to Stephanie. "I'll take her," Lester told her as he walked in with Hal and Tank. He put the leash on but Hal took her out.

"Thank you, Hal," Stephanie mumbled without even opening her eyes.

"We need to talk, Bombshell. Don't go to sleep yet," Tank instructed. "We have to make a decision about where we're going to hide you." This got her fully awake.

"What do you mean…where you are going to hide me? I'll just stay here. I won't go outside. It's not like I have a car….again!" she argued. Tank chuckled.

"It's not safe. For you and the baby. We got caught with our pants down today and you two could have been killed. It's not going to happen again. I know Ranger will be back on Tuesday…." Lester cut him off.

"Monday night. I just talked to Bobby and he said they're leaving right after the appointment," Lester corrected him.

"Okay…Monday. And he would do the same thing since you can't get within 1000 feet of Rangeman building, Bombshell. Tonight, I have two teams watching the house. Don't even poke your head out that door," Tank ordered. Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"Ohh kaaay," she groaned. She was too tired and too sore to argue with them at the moment. "Where do you want me to go?" She decided she would keep agreeing with them and stall until Ranger could get home.

"We've got a safe house just outside Trenton. It hasn't been used in a while so I have a crew getting it ready. We'll move you there tomorrow. We'll wait till after dark. Be packed and ready to leave…..Bombshell?" Tank leaned over her. She was sound asleep. He shook his head.

"Who's going to stay with her?" Morelli asked.

"I've got some contract workers ready to go," Tank told him. Lester started to protest. "It's got to look like business as usual. We're not supposed to be involved with her. It's supposed to look like Ranger's done with her. And we'll need the whole team to watch this bitch round the clock." Tank sunk down into the chair across from Morelli. There was a knock at the door. Tank and Lester drew their guns. Morelli slowly got up, grimacing with the pain, and shuffled to the door. It was Eddie Gazzara with Hal and Ivy right behind him.

"Hey Joe. How are you doing? How's Steph?" he asked as Morelli let them in. The guys put away their weapons and relaxed. Morelli lowered himself back on the couch next to Stephanie. Eddie smirked when he saw her. Ivy jumped up on the couch and curled up with her.

"Have you guys found out anything?" Morelli asked.

"There were prints on the break line…but they weren't Harding's," Eddie told them. Heads popped up. "We ran 'em twice. We know we've got Harding's prints on file. Nothing came up."

"Jesus," Tank muttered. Morelli's phone rang.

"Morelli." His jaw dropped. "Are you sure?....How long?....Yeah….I'll be right there." He turned to face the group. "They found Harding on the banks of the Delaware River. Bullet to the head. I gotta go. Can one of you stay with Steph?" Tank nodded.

"Hal…you stay here. Santos and I will take you down there. You're not in great shape either, Morelli," Tank ordered. "This may or may not have anything to do with Jeanne Ellen, but she's got someone else after Bombshell. We're back to square one. I was trying to keep this quiet for her sake, but I don't have any choice now. I'm going to have to update Ranger."

After several hours of reviewing files, listening to John Torres, Marco Jimenez via phone, and Ranger's recent dealings with Jeanne Ellen, the decision was made to start a formal investigation. "We don't have any evidence. Nothing linking her to any of these deaths," CIA Assistant Director Harry Rimsdale insisted.

"Then we get some," Colonel Kirby told him sternly. "Ranger is her next target. He could wear a wire. Maybe get her to confess."

"Oh sure. Manoso can just go in there and fuck a confession out of her!" Rimsdale said sarcastically. Ranger's blood began to boil. "She didn't admit to any of this when we confronted her about it last time! What makes you think your dick is big enough to make her admit it now?" Before Ranger could open his mouth, the Colonel scattered the files in front of him in anger.

"Are you telling me you knew there was a possibility that she killed her partners? And didn't do a fucking thing about it?" Colonel Kirby growled while rising from his chair.

"She's the best at what she does! She gets the job done. Don't get so high and mighty, Colonel. You're team has probably killed a lot of innocent victims too. It's all in the interest of National Security. It comes with the job!" Rimsdale yelled back also rising from his seat.

"Okay! I've heard enough!" General Bullock commanded. "Sit down! All of you." He stood up and began to walk around the table. "Captain Manoso…would you be willing to wear a wire?"

"Yes Sir. She thinks my girlfriend and I have split up. Maybe I can get her to talk," Ranger agreed.

"When are you able to go back home?" John asked him.

"We're leaving Monday after my doctor's appointment. She has an apartment in Trenton. I can call her and tell her I want to see her," Ranger suggested. General Bullock nodded. He looked at his watch.

"Call her now. Put in on speaker phone," the General ordered. Ranger took out his phone and dialed her number. She picked up on the third ring.

"Well….I'm surprised to be hearing from you Ranger," Jeanne Ellen cooed into the phone.

"I wanted to see if we could get together," Ranger replied. He forced himself to keep his voice neutral.

"So it's true? You're not with her anymore?"

"No, she was just interested in me for my money. We're done." Ranger's stomach knotted. Even though he didn't mean a word of it, it was still hard to hear himself say it out loud.

"What about the baby?" she asked.

"What about it? Not my problem, Jeanne Ellen. You were right. We are better suited for each other. Will you meet with me? I'll be home Monday night. We could get together then." There was a brief silence.

"So you really don't care about her anymore? It doesn't matter to you that she and the cop were in an accident today?" Ranger stiffened. His mind was racing on how to answer her.

"No…it doesn't matter anymore. She's with Morelli now. I want to see you again." Ranger felt his heart pounding in his chest.

"Okay…call me when you get home. We have a lot to talk about." She disconnected. He immediately called Tank.

"Talk!" he barked into the phone. Tank winced. The look on his face told Morelli and Lester who was on the other end. He could tell by the tone that Ranger knew about the accident.

"She's okay. So is the baby," Tank quickly answered.

"Why didn't you call me? What happened?" Ranger was trying to calm himself down. He didn't want the General and everyone to think he couldn't control himself.

"It happened this afternoon. The break line was cut on her Mustang. We thought it was Harding but he's dead. Santos and I are with Morelli at the scene. Bullet to the brain. They weren't his prints on the break line…."

"Who's with Stephanie?" Ranger cut him off.

"Hal. Look Ranger…I don't want to talk about this here. The area is not secure. I'll call you later." Tank crossed his fingers that Ranger would accept this plan.

"Steph and the baby are really okay?" Tank sighed. He could tell by Ranger's tone that he was calming down.

"Yeah…why don't you call her? She was asleep when we left but I'm sure she'd be happy to hear from you." The corners of Ranger's mouth tipped upward slightly. "I'll call you in a little while." Ranger disconnected. He explained what little he knew to the General, Colonel, and the rest. He wanted to call Stephanie right away, but he decided to wait till he got back to the hotel.

"How did he find out?" Tank wondered aloud. "I know Bobby wouldn't have told him…." He closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. "Jeanne Ellen."

Jeanne Ellen was so excited that she couldn't sit still. Her plan was working. Ranger wanted her. Now, she had work harder to get rid of his bastard child. He would always be connected to Stephanie because of that baby. She took the pills out of her bottom drawer. She knew she would never get close enough to Stephanie to slip her these pills. She would have to wait for her to order take out or have food delivered to Morelli's house. She would have her associate intercept the delivery boy and spread the crushed pills in her food. And she would have to work fast. She took out her secured cell phone and made a call. "I need to meet you now. We have to go to plan B as soon as possible." Then, she made a call to her attorney. "I think there are Rangeman employees that are in violation of the restraining order." She wrapped up the conversation and headed out.

Stephanie woke up and groaned. It seemed like every part of her body was screaming. She opened her eyes to find Hal nervously standing over her.

"Are you okay Steph?" She nodded and tried to sit up but hissed in pain. "Steph?"

"I'm okay…I think everything just tightened up on me. Can you help me up?" She asked him as she held out her hand. Instead of helping her up, Hal picked her up.

"Where do you want to go?" She couldn't help but smile.

"You can put me down, Hal. I want to go to the bathroom." He carried her to the bathroom door before setting her down. After taking care of business, she dragged herself back into the living room. "Where is everyone?" Hal's eyes widened. He didn't know what to say…or what he was allowed to say. "Hal?"

"Uh…Morelli had to go to a crime scene so Tank and Lester took him." Hal breathed a sigh of relief. He hated to lie to her but he silently congratulated himself on his answer. She looked at the clock. It was almost 9 o'clock.

"Hey…can you order some pizza? I'm hungry. I'm just going upstairs to change into something more comfortable," she asked him as she headed for the stairs. Hal nodded. He was getting a little hungry himself. He figured the guys would want something to eat when they got back as well. He called Pino's to have it delivered.

Stephanie decided to take a hot shower to help loosen up. She was only allowed to take regular Tylenol. Even though she knew it wouldn't do much good, she took it anyway. The shower helped a little. The hot water caused some of the cuts and scrapes from the glass to sting. She dried off and put on a pair of yoga pants and a long sleeve hoodie. She didn't have the energy or desire to do anything with her hair so she let it dry naturally. Too bad Ranger wasn't here for it. That's how he liked it best, she thought to herself. She headed back downstairs.

Morelli was finished up at the crime scene when Hal called Tank. He just wanted to let them know that he ordered dinner. "That sounds good. I'm getting hungry," Morelli told them. "And after I eat, I think I need to lay down for a while. I really stiffened up." His phone rang. It was the ER doctor.

"That pill is 200 milligrams of Mifepristone. Also known as RU486. It's an abortion pill. It can be prescribed to cause an abortion instead of having the surgical procedure. It's given in a dose of three pills. If the woman doesn't miscarry in a couple of days, she is to take a dose of misoprostol which will cause uterine contractions to expel the terminated pregnancy. I hope this helps." Morelli was horrified. He quickly thanked the doctor and hung up. Tank and Lester looked at him expectantly.

"Those pills Jeanne Ellen has in her apartment are supposed to cause a miscarriage," he told them flatly. Tank, not having paid attention, almost swerved into oncoming traffic. He quickly pulled over.

"Holy fuck!" Lester exclaimed. Morelli dropped his face in his hands.

"She just doesn't want Bombshell out of the way…she don't want her having Ranger's child either!" Tank surmised. "What the hell do I tell Ranger? Shit…we've got to tell Bombshell."

"I don't know how she would get Steph to take it, but just the thought that she's got these pills….." Morelli trailed off and shook his head.

Tank called Ranger on the ride back. He gave him the details of the crash and finding Harding. "Steph had an ultrasound at the hospital. The baby is fine. Steph is fine…although I'm sure she's going to be real sore tomorrow. I'm having her moved to a safe house tomorrow. I've got contract men already lined up to stay with her 24/7. She won't be left alone. Did you call her yet?"

"No, I just got back to the hotel. I can't give you all the details but I spoke to Jeanne Ellen tonight. I told her that Steph and I are done and that I want to see her. I'm meeting with her Monday night. They've been ignoring this problem for a long time. Apparently, I'm just the latest obsession. I don't care how much it costs…keep her safe, Tank. I don't care about the law suit or the restraining order," Ranger insisted.

"I've got 2 teams watching Morelli's. I'm going to leave Hal and Lester there inside. Morelli's in no shape to bodyguard anyone tonight," Tank explained. Ranger felt a little relieved.

"How did she take the news about the safe house?" Ranger smiled. He couldn't imagine she went along easily with the program.

"She agreed to it without arguing. It scared me," Tank replied. "Then again, she really wasn't in any shape to argue either." Tank decided to leave out the information about the abortion pills. Ranger had amazing self discipline and self control. More than any person he had ever seen. But when it came to anything with Bombshell, his control faltered. Ranger needed to focus on dealing with Jeanne Ellen right now.

"I'm going to give her a call. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Call me if anything happens Tank." He disconnected and called Stephanie.

"Yo!"

"Babe…are you okay?"

"Yeah…we're fine, Carlos," she replied carefully. She wasn't sure if he knew about the accident but didn't want to slip and tell him if he didn't. "How are you doing? How was your meeting?"

"Babe." Shit…he knew. She wondered who the big mouth was. "Jeanne Ellen told me then I called Tank." Damn ESP!

"I didn't want you to know until you got home. I begged Tank not to tell you. We're okay. I didn't even break a nail! I'm a little bruised and a lot sore but we're okay," she explained deciding to come clean.

"Why didn't you want me to know?"

"Because you would worry and I was afraid you would come straight home and miss your doctor appointment. You need to take care of yourself too, Carlos," she whined. Ranger smiled. She was right. He would have been on the next flight had he heard. "Hey…I got to see the baby's heartbeat today! I wish you were there, too. They said I'm about 7 weeks. They gave me a picture to show you."

"I can't wait till I get home, Babe. God…I miss you," Ranger groaned. She could feel her eyes well up. "You're plan is working. Jeanne Ellen thinks we're through. I'm meeting with her when I get back. I can't give you all the details but there have been other problems with her. I'm going to wear a wire when I meet with her. But in the mean time, you're not going to give Tank a hard time about the safe house are you?" She rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Why do I have to hide? I don't want to be locked away. You'll be home on Monday. Why can't we just wait?" she whined. Ranger closed his eyes and counted to ten.

"Because we don't know who else is working with Jeanne Ellen. We have to do whatever it takes to protect you and our baby. Whatever it takes. Please do this for me, Babe." Damn…he got her with the please.

"Okay, I'll go along with the plan. I can't promise that I won't whine and cry about it but I'll do it," she agreed. She could never say no to him when he used the 'P' word.

"This is almost over. I'll never be away from you like this again, Stephanie. I need you to stay strong for me…and our baby. I love you so much."

"Carlos…I miss you. You'll come to see me as soon as you get back, right?"

"Of course, Babe. The second I get back," he promised.

"I love you." There were voices in the background. Ivy started to bark. "Hal ordered us pizza and it's here."

"I'll let you go. Get some rest, Babe, and I'll talk to you tomorrow." They disconnected. Ivy continued to bark. She could hear Hal trying to calm her down. Then, she heard Ivy begin to growl.

Chapter 29

Ranger tossed and turned for the majority of the night. He had been in some pretty involved missions in the past. Poor intelligence. Unknown variables. Uncooperative weather. Civilian hostages. He was always able to focus and concentrate on the goal. Nothing ever distracted him. That was until he met Stephanie. He trusted Tank. Tank would take care of his Stephanie. He had to focus on that. He needed to concentrate on getting information on Jeanne Ellen.

Tank pulled into the Rangeman garage a little after 8 AM. He was physically and emotionally drained from the night before. The hardest part was yet to come. He had called a meeting for all on and off duty staff for 8:30. He didn't have time to grab a nap or a shower so he headed straight to the 5th floor. God bless whoever had the coffee made. He drained his first cup, poured the second, and headed into the conference room. He took a minute to look at all the faces staring at him. "Okay," he began. "Most of you already know about the car accident yesterday. Someone cut the brake line on Bombshell's car. She and Morelli were okay. They were damn lucky." There was a low murmur from those who didn't know. "We thought it was Harding. It still may have been but they found him by the river. One shot to the head." He sat down hard and swallowed. This was going to be harder than he thought. "Uh…last night….Bombshell…lost the baby." The room was filled with gasps, cursing, expletives, and expressions of shock.

"What happened?" Woody finally asked. Tank shook his head.

"Don't know. Could have been caused by the accident. We just don't know."

"How is she doing?" Ram wondered. "Where is she? Can we see her?"

"She's not doing too well. We still don't know who cut the brake line and if they are still after her, so she's been moved to a safe house. Lester and Hal are with her. I haven't told Ranger yet. I'll call him later. We need to go about business as usual. I think Jeanne Ellen had something to do with the car…and maybe she did something to Bombshell to make her lose the baby. But if we are going to prove this, we need to stay focused. Ranger and Bombshell will need all of you to be on your game. That's all for now." Tank got up and went to his apartment.

The Merry Men were devastated. They were starting to get used to the idea of becoming uncles to a Little Ranger or Stephanie. They would have to feed off each other's strength. Like Tank said, they would focus on the goal. They needed to do their job. For Ranger and Stephanie.

Lester went on a doughnut run first thing in the morning. Hal was sitting in the oversized chair, leaning forward, with his face in his hands. He glanced up at Lester when he came in. "She's still crying. I asked her through the door if there was anything I could do and she said she wanted to be left alone," Hal sighed. "I don't know what to do." Lester nodded. He patted Hal's shoulder as he walked past. He knocked on her door. He could hear her sobbing on the side.

"Hey Beautiful," he began when she didn't answer, "I got you some doughnuts."

"I j-just want to b-be alone right n-now…o-okay?" she replied in sobs. Lester rested his forehead against the door in defeat.

"Okay. I'll be in the next room if you need anything." He walked back into the living room and dropped on the couch. "God this sucks." He tossed the bag to Hal who grabbed a doughnut. "Why don't you try to get some sleep? I'll take the first watch." Hal wolfed down a second doughnut before he leaned back in the chair.

"I'm too tired to move. Just wake me up if something happens." He was exhausted but it still took a while before his body would let him sleep. The last 18 hours drained him.

Tank showered and then fell into bed. He had to call Ranger but knew he needed all his strength for that conversation. He set his watch alarm to wake him in a few hours to make that call. He soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Lester startled himself awake. He had dozed off on the couch. Hal was sound asleep in the chair. The place was quiet. He staggered over to the bedroom door and gently knocked. No answer. He expected the door to be locked when he tried the knob but sighed when it turned. He opened the door a crack and peered in. Stephanie was curled up on the bed with Ivy. She had finally drifted…well probably cried herself….off to sleep. This was probably one of the toughest situations she had to deal with, he thought. He went back out to the living room and grabbed the bag of doughnuts. He brought it to the bedroom for her and placed it on the nightstand. He wondered if Tank told Ranger yet. Ranger's gonna shit, he thought. No…Ranger will hold it inside. He's going to try to be strong for her and not let himself feel any pain. Jesus! What a fucking nightmare! He backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Tank waited an hour after waking up to call Ranger. He had stalled enough. He thought about calling Bobby first, but decided to just get it over with. "Yo!"

"Hey Boss….uh…I have some bad news. Bomb….Stephanie lost the baby late last night." There was silence on the other end.

Ranger felt like time stood still. It had to be a mistake. He must have misunderstood what Tank said. There is no way that she lost their baby. Thank God he was sitting down. His body betrayed him and went limp. "Ranger? I…I'm sorry." Ranger tried to find his voice.

"What happened?" he whispered. Tank's chest tightened. Fuck, this was hard.

"The doctor said she couldn't tell. It could have been because of the accident. Or it could have been just one of those things. They just don't know." Tank braced himself. As soon as Ranger absorbed this information, he was going to start his barrage of questions about Bombshell.

"How is she? I need to talk to her, Tank."

"We moved her to a safe house. Lester and Hal are with her and there is a contract crew watching the place on the outside. She's…..dealing." Yeah, she's really not dealing. "You know the drill. No outside calls. Only emergent communication on a secured line. We still need her safe and out of the way while you deal with Jeanne Ellen. Bombshell knows that."

"This is fucking different, Tank! She just lost our baby! I have to talk to her! What is that number?" Ranger demanded. Okay, he knew he was breaking his own rules but this was Stephanie. He knew she was upset, hurt, devastated, possibly in physical pain, and he needed to hear her voice. He needed to comfort her.

"No can do Boss. Like I said…you know the drill. We can't compromise her position. End of discussion. Tomorrow, you take care of that bitch. I'll make sure Bombshell is safe. Lester and Hal are with her. I was going to have contract staff originally but after what happened, I made sure she had family around her. Don't lose your focus, Carlos. You know what you need to do," Tank urged him. This snapped Ranger out of his funk. Tank rarely called him Carlos anymore. He was right. He had to push the pain aside and concentrate on the goal. He would allow himself to grieve when it was all over.

"I know Tank. You're right. But answer me this? Did they do any tests to see if she was exposed to any…substances that might cause a miscarriage?" It was in the back of his mind that Jeanne Ellen may have had something to do with this. It sounded more like the accident was the cause….but she was responsible for that as well.

"Don't know yet. I wasn't going to tell you this but Bombshell and Lula got into Jeanne Ellen's apartment yesterday. She found a bottle of pills that someone sent her from South America. She took one to check it out. Morelli gave it to the ER doctor after the crash. It was RU486….the abortion pill. I'm not accusing Jeanne Ellen of slipping it to Bombshell. Hell…she might have wanted it for herself. It's just a little suspicious." Tank decided to give him this information. Maybe Ranger could get her to admit to giving it to Steph.

"Jesus!" Ranger muttered. He never felt so useless and helpless before. He felt like he failed his Stephanie. But his focus was strengthening. He knew his purpose was to nail Jeanne Ellen. He was not big on revenge…preferred to make someone answer for his or her actions. "I don't want to hear anymore. I need to concentrate on my plan. Tank…tell her that I love her. Tell her I don't blame her for this. I know she's feeling guilty right now. Like this is all her fault. Tell her I will be with her soon."

"You got it. We're taking good care of her. She's family. I'll talk to you later. We'll be backing you up tomorrow night, right?"

"Yeah. I'll work out something with the Colonel. I'll call you later to set everything up." Ranger disconnected. He needed to go for a walk to clear his head.

Tank sighed and tossed his phone on the couch. "Christ," he muttered under his breath and rubbed his head. He knew Ranger was hurting. He hated it for him. Bombshell had quickly become his life. She was everything to him. When she was happy, he was thrilled. When she was in pain, he was in agony. While her pregnancy came out of left field, they both came to accept it and were beginning to get excited about it. His best friend's anguish was hitting him like a ton of bricks. He decided to hit the gym to take his mind off this situation.

After about an hour and a half, Ranger felt zapped of his energy. He spotted a bench by a bus stop and dragged himself to it. "Babe," he sighed. He really didn't plan on having more children. Then again, he didn't plan on ever getting married again either. He wondered how long they would have to wait to try again. It surprised him how much he wanted to get her pregnant again. Okay Manoso, he scolded himself, stop thinking about it. Focus on the goal. The ringing of his phone brought him out of his thoughts. "Yo."

"Where are you?" Bobby asked.

"I just needed to get out."

"Are you alright?" Ranger's tone concerned him. He sounded….defeated.

"Stephanie lost the baby," he told him flatly. Bobby gasped. He was shocked. Lester had told him everything was okay.

"What happened?" He heard Ranger sigh.

"They don't know. Look, I just want to be alone right now. I'll talk to you about it when I get back." He disconnected. He didn't mean to be rude to Bobby. He knew Bobby would be just as upset as everyone else. He needed more time to get his head together.

Bobby tried to call Lester but kept getting his voicemail. Same with Tank. He hesitated but decided to try calling Stephanie. He wasn't surprised when her voicemail picked up. He didn't think she would be answering her phone. He called the Control Room. He got a hold of Ram who gave him what little information they were told. "Lester and Hal are with her. Man…I feel like shit. No one of got to see her or anything. Is she going to be okay, Bobby?"

"Yeah…eventually. She's just going to need some time. We just have to be there for her…well both of them," Bobby told him.

"How is Ranger?" Ram thought he was probably having a hard time, too.

"He went for a walk. I talked to him. He's dealing. But you know Ranger…he's not going to show his emotions like we do. And certainly not like Steph does! Shit! This just really sucks," Bobby groaned.

Stephanie awoke to strange surroundings. Her head was pounding. Her body ached. Her stomach hurt. She felt the warmth of Ivy curled up next to her. Ivy, somehow sensing that she was awake, rolled on her back and angled her head to lick her face. Stephanie rubbed her belly and her tail began to thump on the bed. The last twenty four hours seemed like a bad dream. She craved to be in Ranger's arms. Just being enveloped in him…feeling his warmth…taking in his scent…making her feel alright. Lester and Hal tried so hard to comfort her. She didn't mean to push them away. The guilt was eating at her soul. She needed to be alone. She wondered if Tank told Ranger yet. Just when she didn't think it was humanly possible to produce anymore tears, her eyes stung as the salty fluid burned her raw cheeks. Trying to calm herself down, she lost that battle and began to sob again.

Morelli couldn't sleep. He tried to at least get a few hours when he got back home. He laid there staring at the ceiling for hours. He had to tell the Plums what happened. That was going to be fucking fun. Mr. Plum was going to be full of questions that he couldn't give him the answers and Mrs. Plum would go on and on about it being Stephanie's fault. Grandma Mazur would probably try to grab his ass. Normally, he would have smirked at the thought. Not today. He started to sit up but the pain changed his mind. He should have taken something before he laid down. The events from the night before kept playing through his mind like they were on a loop. He gave himself another thirty minutes before he forced himself to get up.

The news of the accident and Stephanie's miscarriage were all over Trenton by mid afternoon. Jeanne Ellen smiled as she read her Sunday paper over her coffee at the diner. Ranger was finally going to be hers. Nothing stood in their way now. Once they were together, she would drop the law suit. They would work side by side at his company. She would have him fire that dumb ox Tank. Oh yeah…she would make sure Ranger fired Stephanie's sister, too. No reminders of that bitch anywhere. Her only regret would be that she could not have his child. But if she couldn't, no one else would ever bear his children. Too bad she didn't know him sooner. She could have prevented that first bastard child from being born. She almost felt a little sorry for Stephanie. When she lost Ranger's baby…the only baby she ever carried…she was devastated. It was partly Ranger's fault. He bailed on her. She only agreed to do that job when she found out Ranger was replacing Marco. It wasn't until she was already in place that she found out Ranger backed out. She would make him pay for that…but not until she was done with him first. She couldn't believe her luck last night. She met her associate at Pino's. She had just handed him the bottle of pill when they over heard the order for Franklin Street come in. She went into the restroom to crush the pills into a powder. She gave the bottle to her associate and distracted the teenager behind the counter. She knew this was a sign that it was meant for her and Ranger to be together.

Tank called Ranger on a secured phone to go over the plan. It was decided that John Torres would wait outside with a team from Rangeman to take her in if they could get anything incriminating on tape. They had enough information to get a warrant, but nothing strong enough to convict her. If she didn't talk, Ranger was going to have to keep up the pretense of being interested in her. This scenario didn't particularly thrill Ranger. Just like he told Stephanie, he needed to do whatever it took to nail Jeanne Ellen. He would…..everything shy of actually having sex with her. He figured he'd be able to avoid that due to his injuries but he wasn't too sure he could avoid all intimate contact. He wasn't too sure that Stephanie would understand. His thoughts again turned to Stephanie. He allowed himself a few more seconds before forcing her from him mind.

The surgeons were pleased with Ranger's progress. He would need to keep the shoulder immobilized for another four weeks as the bones and screws healed. They gave him the names of several orthopedic surgeons to follow up with. One of them was Stephanie's doctor. He was satisfied with the care that doctor had given her and decided to use him. He was given the basic restrictions for the next four weeks, no driving, no lifting, no strenuous activity, and basic signs and symptoms of infection. He looked to Bobby. "Let's get the fuck outta here." It would take them about nine or ten hours to get back to Trenton.

Tank received a call from Ranger late in the afternoon. They were passing Washington, DC. They probably weren't going to get to Trenton till around 7 pm. He told Tank he was going to call Jeanne Ellen right after to make sure they were still on for that evening. "Have you talked to Stephanie?" He already knew the answer but his heart still made him ask.

"No. I'm sure she's doing okay. If there were any problems, I would have heard. Stay strong, Carlos," Tank urged. Ranger grunted and disconnected.

Stephanie stayed in the bedroom until lunch time. She didn't have much of an appetite but did nibble on the doughnuts and sipped the bottled water Lester and Hal kept bringing her. They both looked up at her when she appeared in the doorway. She knew she looked like hell. Her face was blotchy and swollen from crying. Her hair was disheveled and unbrushed since Saturday night. "Come here, Beautiful," Lester broke the silence patting the cushion next to him. Without responding, she shuffled over to the couch eased down next to him. Lester pulled her into him. "Everything's going to be okay. I promise." She hugged him back. "How are you feeling?"

"A little sore. Some cramps," she answered him in a hoarse voice.

"Are you hungry, Steph? You really hadn't eaten much. I'll get you whatever you want. Just tell me," Hal offered. She was hungry. "They had Ella stock the fridge for you."

"Is there stuff for sandwiches?" A sandwich…and maybe soup sounded really good right now. The answer was obviously yes as Hal got all excited.

"Yeah, we've got turkey, ham, and roast beef. And not just cold cut stuff, it's real meat. And there's rolls and bread….uh…what do you want?" Hal jumped up. Hal was such a nice guy. She felt a little guilty monopolizing his time. Val had her first date with Hal on Friday. And now he had been suck on Stephanie duty since Saturday.

"Turkey, please." She was going to get up and make the sandwich herself, but she was afraid to disappoint Hal. He….and Lester…were trying so hard to take care of her. Hal almost ran into the wall trying to get into the kitchen fast enough to get her something to eat. That almost put a smile on her face. She leaned back against Lester and sighed.

"He's not going to be mad at you, Beautiful. It wasn't your fault." She looked up into his eyes and frowned. His eye was still red and swollen. There was a little bruise at the corner.

"That looks worse today….sorry." Lester smirked. He had forgotten about his eye.

"It looks worse than it is." He leaned over and grabbed the remote. "Let's see if there's anything good to watch." He surfed the channels as Hal made her lunch. He settled on Judge Judy. Hal made this huge sandwich with a couple pickles and a pile of potato chips.

"Thanks." Hal sat on the couch next to her staring intently. He was waiting for her to try it. She took a bite, swallowed, then turned to Hal. "This is really good, Hal. Thank you." He grinned from ear to ear and eased back into his seat. A NuvaRing commercial came on. It was going on and on about being as effective as birth control pills, the ease of use, and it's 99% effective rating. "99% effective my ass," she muttered under her breath. "Piece of shit thing!"

Lester only caught the tail end of what she said. He didn't get it at first, but it hit him that the commercial was about birth control. Then, it really started to sink in what she was grumbling about. He couldn't help himself, he started to chuckle. "Uh…I'm just going to take a wild guess here but you were a victim of NuvaRing failure." Stephanie's eyes got wide. Lester became somber and realized this wasn't the time to make a joke. She struggled to get to her feet. "I'm sorry, Beautiful!" She stormed out of the room, pausing at the doorway then spun on her heels. She marched back and grabbed her lunch tray, then stomped back to her room.

"Nice one, asshole," Hal hissed.

"Come on, Beautiful. I'm sorry," Lester yelled after her. They heard the bedroom door slam and the click of the lock. Hal threw a pillow out him. "Jeez! I was just joking around!"

Stephanie was mortified. There was no way they were getting into that conversation….now. The whole miscarriage thing was horrible enough, but to have Hal stroke out when he found out the truth about the O-ring would push her over the edge. God, she wanted Ranger so bad. She knew he would be home later today but didn't know when she would be able to see him. She knew he was meeting with Jeanne Ellen. She trusted Ranger implicitly. She was trying not to think of what Ranger would have to do to get Jeanne Ellen to believe it was over between them. She felt in her heart that Ranger would never cheat on her. Okay, maybe call her stupid and naïve and that she would never learn, but it's what she wanted to believe. Morelli kissed her at Gatsby's. It was a pretty passionate kiss but no tongue. Not that he didn't try…she refused his entry. Maybe Ranger would have to do the same thing. The thought was nauseating.

Morelli's cell phone rang. There was a body found behind the grocery story. Jordan Throckmorton. 25 year old male Caucasian. No priors. There were no signs of trauma. "I'll be right there." The name Throckmorton sounded familiar. He grabbed his jacket and headed to the scene. The body was next to the dumpster on the pavement. No obvious footprints or tire marks. The body hadn't been there more than 24 hours. Looked like the body was dumped there. He overheard Carl and Big Dog talking. "Wonder if he took a hit for his old man?" Carl asked. That's it, Morelli realized. Jeff Throckmorton was this kid's father. He's been in and out of jail for dealing for as long as he could remember.

"What's his father up to?" Morelli asked Carl.

"I think he might be out on bail right now…why?"

"Is Sebring holding the bond?" Carl thought for a minute.

"I think so. He burned his bridges with Vinnie." Morelli rubbed his face in his hands.

"Check this kid's prints against the one's found on Steph's brake line. I have a feeling that we'll have a match," Morelli ordered. Carl and Big Dog looked shocked.

"You think he's the one that cut the brake line?" Big Dog gasped. Morelli nodded. Yeah…that and putting the RU486 on the pizzas. If the prints were a match, he would call Tank.

Ranger and Bobby finally pulled in the Haywood garage at 6:00. Bobby broke a few speed limits to shorten to trip a bit. John Torres had taken a morning flight and was waiting on the 5th floor. Ranger had called Jeanne Ellen and still wanted to meet with him that night. He told her he would be there at 8:00 but would call if it would be later. Ella brought down dinner for everyone as they went over the plan again. She paused to gently place her hand on Ranger's shoulder. He looked up and could see the pain she felt for them. He gave her a nod. She squeezed his shoulder and left. Tank's phone rang. He had a short conversation and disconnected.

"That was Morelli. They found the guy who cut Bombshell's brake line. Jordan Throckmorton. Dead. His prints matched the ones found on the brake line. ME suspects cyanide poisoning. There was an odor of almonds. They'll know for sure after testing," Tank told them. It was a bit of a relief. One less piece of the puzzle to deal with.

"Jeff Throckmorton's kid?" Ranger asked. Tank rolled his chair over to the computer station and began to type.

"Yeah. Jeff's out on bail. Sebring's holding the bond. His kid didn't have any priors."

"Throckmorton would sell his own family down the river if it suited his purpose," Ranger grumbled. He was about to ask about Stephanie but again pushed the thought aside. After dinner, Ranger went up to the apartment to get ready. It was so quiet and empty. He quickly showered and got dressed. Tank came up and placed the wire. He locked eyes with his best friend. "Let's do this."

Chapter 30

Ranger knocked on Jeanne Ellen's door. He didn't have to wait long for her to answer. She was wearing a low cut red blouse and tight jeans. "Glad to see you up and around…come in," she greeted him. He nodded and entered her apartment. "Have a seat. Can I get you anything?" Yeah…like a cyanide cocktail, he thought to himself.

"No...I'm good. A little tired though. It was a long drive," he told her as he sat in a chair. He hoped she got the hint that it was obvious he wasn't up for sex.

"You look good. I mean compared to the last time I saw you at the hospital." She had just poured herself a cup of tea and brought it into the living room. There was an awkward silence. "So you really have broken up with Stephanie?"

"Yeah. I guess I'm not cut out for relationships. They don't seem to work for me."

"Did you hear that Stephanie lost the baby? Are you okay about that?" Her eyes bore into his.

"Will it make me sound like a piece of shit if I say I'm a little relieved?" Jeanne Ellen smiled.

"No, you're just being honest." She sipped her tea. "Can I ask you a question?"

"You can ask me anything."

"Why did you bail on me for the Columbia job last year? I never would have agreed to it if I had known you weren't coming."

"I didn't know you were involved when I accepted the offer. Just before I had to leave, I got hit on a takedown. Wasn't serious but enough to take me off the job. How'd the job go?" He figured he would ask. Didn't know if she would answer or give him the whole story but he had nothing to lose. She looked away.

"It went bad. They sent me a rookie. He fucked up and I paid the price." The tone in her voice was rising. "Don't worry, he got his."

"What happened?" Ranger kept calm. She waved him off.

"Let's not talk about that right now. I'm sure you want to discuss the law suit I have against you." The anger in her face left as her features softened.

"Well now that you mention it…I do want to talk about it. First of all…why? What happened between us?" She sipped her tea again.

"Because you were with Stephanie. Everything was about her! What was so special about her that you wanted to settle down her….and not me?"

"I didn't know you were interested in me other that just to have sex. As far as Stephanie goes….I don't know. Probably was just thinking with my dick." Jeanne Ellen smirked. "What about you? Weren't you with…uh…what was his name? Marco?" Her face dropped when he mentioned Marco.

"I was with him. He used me. He was going to leave his wife, and she got herself pregnant. He felt obligated to be with her. He started trouble by bad mouthing me. Refusing to work with me. Yeah….well I showed him. I'm surprised he didn't thank me for getting rid of his problem." Ranger forced himself to keep his expression neutral.

"What problem was that?" Jeanne Ellen looked at him for a second.

"His pregnant wife was the problem. You know Ranger….too bad we didn't know each other sooner. I could have helped you with your first problem." Ranger couldn't believe what she just said. "I mean you really should thank me for taking care of your current problem." Stay focused Manoso, he commanded himself.

"Did you do something to Stephanie to make her lose the baby?" He forced a little smile to make it look like he was thankful. She smiled back.

"Would that make you happy if I did?" she coyly answered. He nodded. "Yeah…I did it for us. She would always have your little bastard! It would just get in our way."

John Torres figured they had enough on tape to get Jeanne Ellen. He nodded to Tank and they broke the door down. Jeanne Ellen looked from the Agents to the Merry Men and back to Ranger. Her face contorted in anger. "You set me up? You fucking piece of shit! It's all your fault I lost our baby! How could you do this to me?" She lunged at Ranger but was grabbed by John and the other CIA agent.

"What baby? What are you talking about?" Ranger growled. "You took away our baby! Mine and Stephanie's. I will never forgive you. I'll make sure you go down for this and the agents you killed!" She screamed in pain.

"I'm not talking about that bitch! I'm talking about our baby. Yours and mine! I was pregnant when I was taken in Columbia. You were supposed to be there. They beat and raped me so bad I lost our baby! And now…I can't have anymore! It's all your fault!" She yanked her arm away from the Agent and grabbed his gun. She leveled the gun at Ranger's head. Before anyone could react, Tank aimed and fired. Jeanne Ellen went down. She was dead before she hit the carpet.

Ranger was astounded. Jeanne Ellen had been pregnant with his baby? What happened to her in Columbia was beyond horrible. He didn't know what to believe. She was losing it before he met her. If she hadn't hurt Stephanie and caused her to lose their child, he might have felt sorry for her. He sank down into the chair. He felt a strong arm on his shoulder. Tank kneeled down in front of him. "You okay?" Ranger nodded.

"Are you?" He just realized that Tank just shot and killed her. He saved his life. It wasn't the first time, but didn't mean he wasn't grateful just the same. Tank gave him a half smile and a nod. Morelli arrived with some uniforms. Ranger thought the questioning would never end. After about an hour, they were cleared to leave. "Tank…please take me to Stephanie," he begged.

Ranger was glad Tank was in his own driving zone. The silence was giving him time to reflect. He thought about everything that happened on the ride to the safe house. Was Jeanne Ellen really pregnant? Was it even his? Why couldn't he see that she wasn't working with a full deck from the beginning? Then his thoughts turned to the woman he loved. With the Jeanne Ellen mess was behind them, the pain of their loss was starting to really hit him full force. Right now, he just needed Stephanie.

Ranger and Tank burst into the safe house. Lester and Hal looked expectantly at them both to find out what happened. When Ranger didn't answer, Lester pointed at the bedroom. Ranger didn't waste any time. Flipping on the light, he found her sitting in the dark but wide awake. She looked wiped out and drawn. Tears filled her eyes when she realized he was finally there. "Babe," he whispered as he pulled her to him with his left arm. She hissed from the pain of the bruises but didn't pull back.

"Carlos! Oh my god!" she sobbed. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to do this to you!"

"Sshh. It's not your fault, Babe. It's my fault. I should have never brought her into our lives. Don't worry. I know it's not going to make up for losing this baby…but we can try again. Okay? Please, Babe….it's going to be alright. I'm so sorry. I love you, Stephanie." She pulled back from him. He started to say something to protest, but she covered his mouth with her hand.

"No Carlos…you don't understand. I'm so sorry to put you through all this. I'm still pregnant!" She removed her hand. He furrowed his brow in confusion.

"Babe?"