A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

Karen

Disclaimer – Janet owns all, except my words

Steph zoomed her Mini to the curb, checked herself in the rearview mirror, then stepped out of the car and walked to her parents' front door. It was a perfect fall day – the air as crisp as a ripe apple and colorful leaves gently dropping from trees as the wind softly wove through the branches. Letting herself in the door, she waved hello to her Dad, who was relaxing in his favorite chair in front of The Weather Channel, and moved along to the kitchen, her eyes going straight to the kitchen table. Which was bare. Which was bad because she had exactly ten minutes before she was due at a stakeout with Ranger, and there was no way she was going to sit in a car with him for hours without sustenance. Normally she'd just take along a bunch of snacks, but recently Ranger had banned all food in his cars after an unfortunate incident with some chips, salsa and cheez whiz.

"Where are the doughnuts?" Steph looked around the kitchen, and then her questioning glance fell on her mother.

"Stephanie, there's a problem."

She looked at her mom and noticed that she was holding a rather large glass with a rather large amount of cinnamon-colored liquid in it.

"Is that apple juice?"

Her mom tipped the glass to her lips and chugged the contents, slammed the glass down, then filled it again from a bottle labeled "Johnny Walker." Nope, not apple juice. Oh, boy. Something big was wrong.

"What is it? Did Grandma open another casket lid?"

Steph's mother rolled her eyes and took another sip. "Between you and your grandmother, I get no sleep. The phone doesn't stop ringing because you don't stop burning things down or blowing things up and Edna can't act her age. But this latest exploit - I don't know if I'll ever hear the end of this one. I do know that you have a lot of explaining to do – and not only to me."

With that, she roughly shoved the paper she had been holding in her lap into Steph's hands. Automatically, Steph looked down. It was The Burg Beacon. It took a few seconds for it to process, then the blood rushed from her face and she sagged against the wall.

The Burg Beacon was the local paper that came out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Required reading for Burg residents, it reported Trenton's trials, tribulations and triumphs, but also concentrated on Burg happenings. The most eagerly read section was 'The Police Beat', where the detours into illegality by Burg residents were faithfully chronicled. DWI's and shoplifting arrests abounded, but sometimes something more titillating would appear. Steph loved this section because as a person whose bloopers were constantly being held up to public ridicule, this was a little way of evening out the humiliation. However many times she rolled in garbage, at least she wasn't getting arrested for it. But today was different. The front page was usually reserved for some community activity – 4th of July parade, Christmas tree lighting ceremony or the new fire station dedication.

Today, it was more of a human interest story. And she was the story.

"Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod," Stephanie chanted, trying to see through the black spots and white stars that were appearing in front of her eyes. "How did this happen?"

She knew very well where they were, and there was no question of what they were doing. Or that it looked like they were doing it very well. She was backed up against a wall, her head thrown back, neck exposed. And the man who was pressed up against her from ankles to shoulders, body molded to hers like they were twins separated at birth, was taking full advantage. His lips were pressed to her throat and one of his hands twined in her hair. Her expression, even reproduced on newsprint, was the epitome of ecstasy. It looked utterly wanton and incredibly sexy, but the fallout was going to be enormous.

"And where's his other hand? This is that Ranger fellow you're so keen on, isn't it? What about Joseph? Did you give him a thought?"

She definitely thought of Joe frequently, but never when Ranger was in close. At those times, all rational thought disappeared. Ranger was very good at inducing temporary amnesia. She looked at the photo again. Fuck. This was going to be bad….

*****************************

She pulled up in the RangeMan garage and walked over to where Ranger was waiting beside a black SUV. She quickly glanced into his eyes, trying to gauge if he knew about this latest disaster. Impenetrable dark pools stared back at her, but she couldn't hazard a guess as to his thoughts. He could be a rock when he wanted, and it was damn irritating. Hopping into the passenger seat, she wondered if he would be amenable to stopping at Dunkin Donuts, but gave that up as a "not gonna happen."

They arrived at Liberty Street and parked at the side of the road, across and a couple houses down the street from Benny's house. He silently picked up the file and read through it. Benny Sandhauser had been on her "Lost Cause" list, but had recently surfaced. Since he was worth $5k to her, she had asked for some backup. Well, he was also old, and historically she had experienced some problems with the elderly FTA's. And Benny definitely qualified as old - 76 - with an Einstein-ish head of white hair and a year-round, purchased tan. He handed her back the file and she put it down and waited.

"I tried to call you this morning." He turned and pinned her to the seat with his gaze.

"I turned my phone off."

"Probably a good idea. So you haven't talked to him?"

Okay, so he knew. Well, of course he knew, Stephanie thought to herself. Batman always knows everything. It was a skill that was damned irritating sometimes, but in this case, it saved her from trying to find out if he knew.

"What am I going to do? He's going to freak!!"

"Deny it."

Steph's mouth dropped open. "Are you insane? There's a picture!"

"Okay, umm, there was a bee flying around and I was protecting you in case you were allergic."

"By kissing my neck? Besides, I'm not allergic to bees and he knows that."

"Hmm, you finally realized you couldn't resist me and I was trying to stop you from throwing yourself at me?"

"Oh, that'll go over well."

"Umm, I was giving you lessons on how a real man kisses?"

"I can see you're going to be no help here."

"Not my job, Babe, and helping you repair your relationship with Morelli is not on my agenda."

Steph's head snapped back and she forgot to breathe for a moment. She looked at him and saw the heat in his eyes, the hint of a smile on his lips. He had her attention and he knew it.

"And what is on your agenda?"

"That depends on whether you are interested in repairing the relationship, or whether you might be interested in something else."

"Something else," she repeated, as neutrally as possible, given that her stomach was doing flips and turns.

But she never got to hear his answer because just as he opened his mouth, their skip Benny Sandhauser sauntered out of his house as slick as you please and into the detached garage. The plans to follow him, however, were put on hold when a police car pulled up right behind us and the one person she really didn't want to see today slowly eased himself out of the car and, with measured steps, approached the SUV. She could see the tight jaw, the murderous look in his eye and wanted no part of it.

**********************************

(Stephanie POV)

I hopped out my side and, displaying an incredible amount of cowardice, left Ranger to deal with Joe.

"Gotta go catch Benny!" I yelled as I took off toward the garage he had entered. I could hear some low voices, then some yelling, then suddenly Ranger was beside me next to the garage and I heard someone laying rubber, and lots of it, down the street.

"That's gonna leave a mark," Ranger mused, his eyes crinkling with silent laughter.

"What did you say to him?"

"I tried the bee thing, but you were right – it didn't work."

"So…"

"So I went with the 'showing you how the better man kisses' story."

Stars danced in front of my eyes as I stared open-mouthed at him. "You did WHAT?! Oh, my God. He's going to flip. No, wait – he already did flip! What did he say to you?"

"Game On."

"What? Game on? Is that some sort of macho bullshit? What the fuck is 'game on'?"

A roar from the garage interrupted us. We watched as the garage door exploded into flying wooden debris as Benny backed a formerly pristine, cherry red Cadillac Eldorado convertible right through the door. Ranger had his phone to his ear before the car was fully through, but I had my own unique way of dealing with situations like these. I ran over to the car and jumped in. Why? Simple – I needed money and to get the money, I had to have the body. And there was no way the body was leaving without me. So I threw myself head-first into the plush front seat.

Benny looked over at me, his bushy gray eyebrows forming one hairy line across his forehead.

"Are you fucking crazy? Get the fuck out of my car!"

"No can do. I'm here from your bail bondsman and you need to reschedule."

"Chickie, don't I look a little old for that line of bullshit?"

"Well, yeah." I opted for honesty – after all, the truth shall set you free, right? "So let's just drive right to the police station."

"Yeah, right. You just hold your breath waiting for that."

He turned down Sampson St. and then took a right on Slater.

"Jeez, this neighborhood's going to hell – look at the trash all over that yard. What is it with people nowadays?"

I looked over and narrowed my eyes. I knew that house, and knew that trash. But it wasn't trash. In fact, that was my favorite yellow thong flittering in the breeze, hanging off the rose bush next to the front stoop.

"That BASTARD! You stop this car! Stop it RIGHT NOW!!"

I think my screeching temporarily put Benny in so much aural pain that he stopped just to see me leave. But as mad as I was, I wasn't going to just walk away from my capture. I whipped out my handcuffs from the back of my pants and snapped one cuff on Benny's wrist and the other to the wheel. Ignoring his bellows of indignation, I stomped towards the clothing scattered about the lawn and began collecting it. I shoved it all into the clothes basket the rat bastard had so thoughtfully left on the stoop, then stalked to the front door, steam whistling from my ears, my eyes full of fire. I leaned on the doorbell for a good ten seconds and waited. And waited.

"That no good rat bastard coward!" I turned back to the car, then stopped dead as a black SUV pulled up next to Benny. Ranger and Tank stepped out and they took in the situation with one knowledgeable glance, Ranger's eyes pausing on Benny's restraints.

"Good capture, Babe. The execution, especially the car part, was a bit daredevil, but you got your man in the end. Proud of you."

I smiled for a second at the words, then frowned, as my current situation reestablished itself at the front of my mind.

"Do you see this?! Do you see what that rat bastard did? He's going to pay for this!"

Tank walked a few feet, retrieved a red lace demi-bra from the top of a tall evergreen that screened the front window of the house and silently handed it to me.

"Thanks," I mumbled, a blush staining my face, shoving the bra to the bottom of the basket.

Ranger walked over and slung an arm around me, squeezing me against his strength. I inhaled deeply, the distinctive, warm scent comforting me as always.

"Tank, take Benny to the station and get him booked. We'll take Benny's car to the office and someone can bring it back to his house later."

Tank looked at me, then turned to stare at the Jeep in Joe's driveway. A slight grin creased his lips and he went over to his SUV and opened the glove compartment through the passenger door window. His grin turned positively gleeful as he pulled out a rectangular paper and pen, then leaned over the hood of the car, writing something. He walked back to me and as he got closer, I could see that he held a bumper sticker, but I couldn't see the writing. From his expression, though, it was going to be good. He held it up and I read it, then doubled over laughing.

I Suffer From Erectile Dysfunction – Can U Help?

Call 609-989-4170

I now knew what he had been doing over the hood of the car – adding a phone number with a black Sharpie. "Oh. My. God. That's Joe's phone number!"

He held it out to me. "Would you like to do the honors?"

Still shaking with laughter, I walked to Joe's car and carefully stuck it on his bumper, right where every driver would see it. I walked back to Tank and leaned up and kissed him soundly on the cheek.

"How did you manage to have that with you?"

"Lester's always trying to pull something on us and this was his latest April Fool's Day attempt. Unfortunately for him, the garage is monitored and we had him on tape, but we figured we might as well hold on to it – something would come up."

"I wish I could bug his phone and listen to the messages he's going to get" I exclaimed, then slid a glance toward Ranger, realizing that he was fully capable of arranging just that.

"You probably don't want to stray quite that far off the moral compass, Babe. Something like that might be impossible to forgive."

"I don't want him to ever forgive me – I am completely and 100% done with him." Ranger's eyes glittered with promise at my words, but I wondered a bit to myself if I was 100% sure. I had known Morelli for most of my life and it almost seemed like karma that we had gotten together a few years ago as adults. Certainly the Burg saw us as a de facto couple. And he might have been the teeniest bit justified in being mad after seeing the picture in the Beacon. I mean, if I had seen him with someone else, I probably would have gone ballistic.

Really? My internal voice said. Or would you have used it as an excuse to run to Ranger?

I shook my head and shut down the internal dialogue. Whatever the reasoning, the result was the same. I slid one more quick glance to the new addition to Joe's car and giggled. I only wish I was there to see the fallout.

Ranger guided me toward Benny's car. Tank was removing Benny from the steering wheel and bringing him to the SUV.

"That is so NOT funny, missy." Benny spit the words at me, his face red and angry. "E.D. is not something to laugh about, just ask Bob Dole. Wait till Mr. Macho here is old and has to pee 10 times a night. Then who'll be laughing?"

I dissolved into giggles and Ranger couldn't hide a grin as we hopped into Benny's car and drove away.

***********************************

I sighed and let my body relax against the plush velour seat.

"This seat is more comfortable than my bed."

"Yeah, but driving it is like captaining a king sized mattress – all big pillowy turns and floating straight-aways."

We stopped for a red light and my mouth opened before I had a chance to think about the words. "So it's like we're in bed together?"

He turned to me and I briefly wondered how he could change the temperature of his eyes to be so blazing hot before I forgot everything else as he reached across the seat, slid his hand around my neck and drew me to him, then kissed me. Such a simple phrase – he kissed me – did nothing to describe the incendiary nature of his touch, like throwing gasoline on the low fire that always burned between us. The latent attraction was always there, able to spiral out of control with a simple touch. You can enjoy kissing many people, but sometimes there's only one that can make you forget your name and where you are, and Ranger, from the first moment he kissed me in my parking lot, had been that man.

His other hand reached up to cup my face as his lips slid along mine, seeking entrance. I slid my hand up along his bicep and over his shoulder, luxuriating in the feel of steel muscle covered by warm skin, surrendering to his sheer masculinity. A trembling gasp escaped my lips as his kiss became harder, more passionate. His insistent tongue found mine, sensuously stroking. I was lost in pleasure, awash in desire as my hands dove into his hair, holding his head to mine, slanting my lips to deepen the kiss further. I wanted to crawl inside him.

I felt his touch on my forehead, then my cheek as he reluctantly separated our lips, but then pressed me to his shoulder, his arm cradling me, my arm wrapped around his neck.

"Green light," he murmured, and all I could think of was "Go! – All the way – Start your engines". Any and all analogies that meant 'Let's do this' – I was tired of fighting this attraction and pretending this man meant less to me than he actually did.

That was my last thought, though, as the soothing purr of the engine and the comfort of being in Ranger's arms predictably put me to sleep.

The next thing I knew I was being lifted in Ranger's arms and hazily looked around at the RangeMan garage.

"I'm awake," I said reflexively, my eyes half open and my hands unconsciously stroking his muscles.

"Wonderful. Sex is always better when both people are awake."

Rational thought disappeared as a flush speared through me from head to toe. It had been a while, but the memory of what he could do to my body was never forgotten. My head fell back as I submitted to his embrace, but a thought was struggling to push its way through my lust-induced haze.

"Sex? Just – sex?"

I opened my eyes just in time to see a frown cross his face.

"Shit," he muttered, then slid me down the front of him, holding me closely against his warmth as he reached for his phone.

"Yo," he answered, then I felt his muscles tense as his body went on alert. He questioned the caller on when and where, then listened for a minute, smiled, then hung up. His arms tightened around me for a second, then let me go.

"Bobby's been shot in the leg and has been taken to the hospital. I have to go."

"Oh, my God – is he okay?"

"Flesh wound. So far, he's gotten three nurses' phone numbers and one offer of marriage. I'd say he'll be fine, but I have to check on him. Will you be here?"

A simple question, but one fraught with risks. I took the easy way out.

"I'm going to Pino's to get lunch. Call me when you're done."

"I'll have someone return Benny's car – take the Cayenne."

A quick flash of teeth, a hard, passionate kiss, and then he was gone. I wandered over to Ranger's SUV and got in, my mind in turmoil over the past couple of hours' events. Joe was officially out of my life, well, probably anyhow, and I felt loss, relief…. lonely, yet free. Strange. I pulled into the Pino's lot and parked. There was nothing like a large meatball sandwich smothered in provolone cheese to make everything all better.I took a seat at the counter and looked around. I recognized a few policemen, but no one would return my smile. Hmmm. After a few minutes, Anthony Pino walked right by me behind the counter and waited on the couple that had just sat down at the counter a few seats away. I watched in disbelief as he walked right by me again, ignoring me completely. I began to have a bad feeling, then Eddie Gazarra walked in the door and saw me. A concerned look crossed his face and he slid onto the seat next to me.

"Steph, what are you doing here?"

"Trying to get a sandwich? Why, what's going on?"

"Uh, Joe's awfully pissed about that picture in the Beacon newspaper. He's put this place off-limits for you. He promised Anthony that if he serves you, no policeman will step foot in this place. You've really done it this time. I think he logged over a hundred calls on his phone before he even woke up."

"Well, it's not like everything was going along swimmingly. We just had another big fight and my stuff at his house was all packed up ready to go again. Did you know he took my basket and threw everything on the front lawn? Did you? Isn't there some sort of rule against destruction of property?"

Eddie looked at me for a long moment. "Steph, did you ever stop to think that if you keep breaking up, there's a reason for it?"

"Yeah, that's he's a rat bastard?!"

Eddie grinned. "Seems like you had that coming to you after the picture in the newspaper. You might just want to let it die. Give him a few days to cool off and I'm sure you'll be back here."

The bumper sticker jumped into my mind and a guilty expression crossed my face.

"Oh, no, Steph – what have you done now?"

Deny, deny. "Nothing. Nothing at all." Maybe people wouldn't even notice.

Eddie shook his head sadly. "Oh, man. I don't want to see this one."

"Yeah, well, banning me from Pino's deserves some payback. He can't do this to me! He knows that I practically live on this food."

"Hit 'em where it hurts – there'd be no point in barring you from the produce market, right?"

Well, this hurt all right. I wanted – no – Needed – a Pino's sub. I angrily jerked my cell phone from its case and jabbed in Joe's number. It rang twice, then switched to the answering machine. "Mail box full. Please call again."

Oh, shit. I'll bet I know the reason it's full.

A grim smile crossed my face as I got up from my seat. Two could play this game. I would go back to RangeMan and order delivery from there. Ha!

I drove back and parked in the garage. Letting myself up to the seventh floor, I paused for a minute and let the apartment's soothing ambience wash over me. I took a deep breath and sank into the plush couch, then picked up the phone and dialed the control room.

"Gonna offer us some of that pizza?" Lester's cocky voice teased into my ear.

"How do you know where I was? And how do you know I wasn't Ranger?" Oh. Duh. GPS. "I couldn't get any pizza." I went on to explain to Lester about Joe's latest stunt in the "Game On" war and he was suitably angry enough to order an extra-loaded just for me.

"Seriously, though, Steph – that kind of assault can't go unpunished. We need to retaliate somehow."

Grinning, I told him about the bumper sticker.

"I wondered where that went! Okay, that was good, but it was for the mass destruction of your clothing. We need to send a volley back for the Pino's mess."

I could hear him yelling into the control room. "We need some good revenge strategies for Steph." I could hear him mumbling, then he came back. "Okay, you can tell him you're pregnant."

I blanched. "And have his mother on my doorstep delivering knitted booties and Joe's christening outfit? I think not."

"Good point. Okay – you could send him a letter from the health department saying you have VD and you need to contact all your partners."

"Uh, No. I don't want to say I have VD. My mother would find out."

"Hmmm. You're being a spoilsport. Hmmm. Wait a minute, I was just reading something….Yes! Does he have cable?"

"Of course – regular, expanded, sports package – all of it."

"Oh, man! I've got it. Rangers are playing tonight in the playoffs, right? So he'll be home watching it?"

"Yes, we had planned on it. He wouldn't miss it. Of course, I won't be there."

I could feel Lester's smile. "Don't be too sure of that."

**********************************

Steph heard a low murmur and felt only pleasure. She was dreaming. Everything was unclear, but she felt a caress start on the inside of her elbow and move up. Lips replaced fingers as they reached her neck and she could feel sweet kisses being pressed to her neck, her hair pushed aside as the kisses slowly made their way to her ear then swept along her jawline. She took a deep breath and smiled, the scent of Bulgari invading her nose, igniting her pleasure receptors. She slowly opened her eyes and stretched, hearing his gratifying indrawn breath as her breasts lifted and strained against her v-neck shirt.

She nestled her head into his palm. "I fell asleep after the pizza."

"As long as you're awake now."

Her sultry murmur of assent cut off abruptly as she remembered and her voice took on a sharpness.

"For Sex?"

Ranger wasn't stupid. "That's one word for it," he said cautiously, gauging her mood.

"That's the one you used."

"And you object?" He inquired, his voice mild, his fingers mindlessly playing with her hair.

She thought about it for a minute. It wasn't so much that she objected to the word, it just sounded so objective, like it didn't mean anything. Like he could just do it, then get up and leave and not care.

Bingo, Steph thought to herself. I don't want to be loved and left. Again. Too much was between them now. Great – so now I have to figure this out before. Sheer and utter bliss is within my reach and I'm having a crisis of conscience. Just fucking lovely.

Ranger leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips. "You're thinking too much."

"Am not."

"Are too. I can hear the gears turning. You're practically vibrating with tension."

"I want this to mean something. To not be…" her voice trailed off as she misplaced the words she was searching for.

Ranger levered himself off of her body and removed his hands from her hair. He walked around to the edge of the couch and kneeled down.

"It does mean something, Steph. You mean something. You know I'm not a picket fence type of guy, but that doesn't mean my feelings for you are any less real. We'll pick our way through the details later, but I want you in my life. As mine."

Warmth invaded her body and a smile grew upon her lips. "Really?"

"Really." And being a man of few words, that was the last she heard for a while. His lips descended to hers and his mouth was slow and persuasive, his tongue searching for hers and playing, their bodies hard against each other. Her breasts were crushed against the rock hard wall of his chest and she could feel his arousal against her stomach. This was what she wanted – his muscled body on top of hers, wanted him between her legs and inside her body, filling her as only he could do.

He broke the kiss and swept kisses down her neck, also sweeping a hot need down her body. His hands slid down to her waist, then back up, taking her shirt with them. He undid her bra, and her stomach clenched as his lips licked their way up the slope of her breast. His hand reached up and surrounded the heavy globe, lifting it and fitting it to his palm. She watched breathlessly as his lips opened on her protruding nipple and sucked. Steph's back arched, pushing her breast even further into his mouth. His teeth nipped and her nipple hardened further, aching for his mouth. He drew the rosy bud deep, then released it, his fingers replacing his mouth as he moved over to sweetly pleasure, tease and taunt the other breast.

His eyes found hers and held them as he felt her body's involuntary trembling and her quick gasps of pleasure. A smile of pure male satisfaction curved his lips as he saw her reactions to him. Her hands reached out for him, tracing the defined muscles of his chest, then inching lower, past the bands of muscle on his abdomen then dipping below the waistband of his pants. She undid the button and carefully unzipped, pushing the pants down and out of her way. She dipped her hands to him and his cock thrust itself into her fingers, incredibly hard and thick, a soft moan coming from him as she stroked his length.

She reached down to cradle his balls with one hand and pushed his body to the side with the other, moving so that she was straddling him. She bent down toward him and his breathing stopped as his eyes gleamed at her, anticipating her next move. She let her lips brush against the swollen head, then explored more, her tongue caressing every ridge, sucking each delicious inch into her mouth, delighting in his musky taste and obvious arousal. Her hands moved to his legs, and her fingernails lightly stroked along the inside of his thighs, slowly moving upwards, fingering his balls, cupping them in one palm while the other hand grasped the base of his cock, moving in the same motion as her mouth.

His breath was coming in short, harsh gasps as she sucked him more deeply into her mouth. His hips bucked as she slid his balls between her fingers; he didn't know if he could endure sensations she was creating. A groan tore from him and he separated her mouth from his cock, then pushed her back and fit himself between her legs, her hips cradling him, his rigid length firm against her.

"I don't think I can wait," he breathed, lifting one knee up and laying the length of his cock against her. Slowly he pulled back, coating his shaft in her juices, then watched as the head disappeared inside her. She sighed in pleasure as he pushed, filling her, her body expanding to accommodate his width. He withdrew, then surged forward, her wetness opening a path for him, feeling her body stretch, clasp him. Steph felt every ridge and bump as he fucked her slowly; long leisurely strokes that had her body screaming for more.

"This is making love, Steph, and it has its place. But I think you want more."

"Oh God, please", she moaned, frantic with need, her hips lifting to meet his slow thrusts, desperate for more."

He leaned down and whispered in her ear. "I think you want me to fuck you hard; so hard that you can't think of anything else except me inside you. Every inch of me wants you, Steph; I want to drive myself inside you until I'm completely buried inside your body and I make you mine. Is that what you want, Babe? Tell me that's what you want."

He pulled out and only entered her in slow, shallow thrusts, one hand holding her leg up, the other lifted her ass to him.

"Ranger…" she moaned, her head whipping from side to side. "Please, now… I want you now."

"I know you do." She was wetter than he ever imagined she could be and her nipples were hard points of arousal. He could feel the tremors begin deep inside her and, lifting her thigh high, he drove his cock into her until his balls nestled against her ass, savoring the feeling of her muscles clenched around him, milking him.

She could feel every thick inch of him sliding in and out of her and lifted her hips to meet his thrusts.

"Harder," she moaned.

He drove faster and deeper, her body open and wet for him. His sac tightened and he could feel the ache in his balls. She was close and he reached down between them, finding her swollen clit and firmly pressing against her until she broke.

Steph could feel body tightening until she almost couldn't stand the pressure, then she felt it break and her body shatter. She tried to speak but only gasps and broken syllables came out as the spasms of her orgasm broke over her. It was almost too much, too intense – her body arched and she screamed his name in one long, drawn-out breath.

Ranger felt her spasms triggering his own release, coming so hard he threw back his head and cried out as her tight walls milked him. He spilled into her like lava, heated and powerful as he drove himself into her even deeper than before, filling her completely. His heart raced in his chest as he gasped for air. His arms reached for her and held her shaking body, his tremors matched hers. He drew her close and held her, softly kissing her face and murmuring low words in her ear.

Content, sated, and happier than she'd been in a long time, her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

****************************************

The insistent ring of the phone penetrated Steph's slumber and she stretched and lifted her head, trying to figure out where she was. "Ah," she thought, looking around, "Ranger's bedroom. A flash of him leaning over and murmuring "mine" was in her head and she smiled. She leaned over to the bed table and picked up the phone.

"Wake up, it's 6:30pm - time for revenge!" Lester's voice boomed into her ear.

Steph stretched again, wiggling her toes against the smooth-as-silk sheets. "You know, Lester, I've kind of lost the desire..."

"No way, Bombshell – I've been working on this and I've got everything all set up. You ever want Pino's again?"

Steph remembered the humiliation of her Pino's experience and although nothing was going to pierce the happy bubble she was in right now, she did feel a bit revengeful, now that she thought about it.

"Okay, what's the plan?"

"Meet me in the control room in 10. Wear black. And by the way, Ranger's with Tank – there was a break in at a client and he needed to check it out. He said to tell you he won't be long."

"Oh, um, okay." Steph replaced the phone and wondered if Lester felt awkward about updating her on Ranger's whereabouts. She could bet it didn't happen often. Her thoughts on that matter were pushed to the side as she realized she now only had 8 minutes to get ready. A quick swipe of mascara and a ponytail and she was only 3 minutes late.

Lester yelled for a replacement in the control room, then ushered her into the elevator and down to the garage. "Okay," he said, the words practically dancing with glee, "Here's the plan."

They arrived at Slater Street and parked a block away from Morelli's. They got out of the car and walked to the house, positioning themselves behind the foundation bushes, right next to the living room window facing the television.

Lester leaned into Steph. "Wait a minute or two to make sure no one saw us. No sense in putting that on and then having someone find us."

They waited, then put on black headcovers with eye and nose holes, then peered into the window. Steph had to look twice to find Lester because between the black clothes they wore and the black headcovers, they were practically invisible in the dark. Inside the house, the scene was set for watching a hockey game with a bowl of chips to one side and a Pino's pizza on the other. The coffee table held an ice bucket with six beers poking out of the top.

Steph looked around, then spotted Joe next to the kitchen wall, listening to his messages. A giggle escaped her as she remembered the bumper sticker. She watched, eyes dancing, as his face, at first puzzled, became redder and angrier until he finally wrenched the phone from the wall and threw it across the floor. He stalked to the front door and yanked it open, flicked on the side yard light, then stomped to his car, stopping behind it in complete disbelief.

"Son of a fucking bitch! I'm going to Kill her!" He yelled to no one in particular.

"Probably that means you," Lester whispered helpfully.

Joe pried off a piece of the bumper sticker, but it would only come off in thin strips that broke half way through. He looked like a madman as he furiously ripped tiny strips of the sticker off his bumper, grimly continuing until all the writing was gone. His mouth moved silently, his expression livid as he returned to the house.

Steph and Lester could see his huge sigh as he threw himself onto the couch and clicked the remote on. Madison Square Garden appeared on the wide screen as the Rangers hockey game continued with 10 minutes left to play in the first period.

"Okay," Lester whispered. "Let's try this baby out." He pointed a remote control towards Joe's television and pressed "channel up." The tv obligingly turned to The Disney Channel and Hannah Montana singing "The Best of Both Worlds."

Joe looked at the tv, then looked at the remote and gave a little shake to his head and put the NHL Channel back on. Lester and Steph looked at each other and grinned, then he pressed "channel down" and The Family Guy popped onto the screen. Joe picked up the remote that he had put on the coffee table and examined it for a minute. He pressed the power button off, then on again, then found the NHL Channel yet again. He carefully placed the remote sideways on the coffee table so it didn't face the television.

Steph smothered a laugh and this time pressed channel 168, which she knew was Lifetime. They watched as Joe snatched his remote and examined it again, turning it around and upside down, then giving it a "Whack!" on the arm of the chair. He found the NHL Channel again, but they could hear the swearing from inside the house when he realized he had just missed the first goal.

"This is too easy," Lester grinned and punched in another channel. The Food Channel came up this time, with Bobbie Flay demonstrating how a real man cooks. Joe stared at the screen for a minute, then walked over to his phone. He looked blankly at the empty wall for a second before apparently remembering he had torn the phone off the wall about 10 minutes ago. He pulled his cell phone from his hip and dialed.

"Oh, no – is he calling about us?" Steph asked.

"No, probably not. Most likely he's calling a friend to see if his tv is doing the same thing. He's checking to see if it's the cable system."

Lester pointed his remote again and pressed random buttons. Steph looked on in horror as Bob Dole appeared on the screen with the caption "Viagra can help your Erectile Dysfunction." "Oh, my God," she breathed. Joe put his cell phone down and sat as still as a statue for a full ten seconds, then picked up the cable remote and hurled it as hard as possible towards the television. Sparks flew and glass shattered as the missile made contact.

Lester and Steph looked at each other.

"We've probably done all we can here."

They slid through the shadows one house down, then crossed the street, keeping in the darkness on the way back to the car.

"I can't believe that remote worked so well – how long did it take you to program it?"

Lester grinned. "Not long at all. I went over to his house this afternoon, while you were….ah, asleep." Steph blushed and motioned him to continue. "I had my handy electric meter reader outfit on, and I just stayed by that window and programmed the numbers associated with Joe's tv through the window. Everyone has the same remote from the cable company – it's just different codes for different televisions and the remotes come with the guide that lists all of them. I just dug mine up and looked through the window to see what brand his tv was, programmed the codes, and then – presto! Instant duplicate remote."

"I can't believe that E.D. commercial came up. Oh God, I've never seen him so mad."

"Yeah, sometimes things just fall into place – you couldn't have planned that better. He'll never see Bob Dole's face again without remembering."

"He'll probably never vote Republican!"

Their laughter carried them halfway back to RangeMan before Lester cleared his throat.

"You know, Steph, this has been fun and all, but I actually do feel a bit badly for Morelli over the picture in the Beacon and everything. Seeing that had to hurt."

"Well, we were teetering on the edge of the "off again" side of "on again/off again." In other words, anything I had at Joe's was packed again and…" Steph's face dissolved into an expression of sadness and regret as she heaved a sigh. "You're right, though. Even if the whole relationship was dysfunctional, he deserved better. I'll give him a few days to get over this, uh, incident, then I'll talk to him."

She was silent for a mile or so, then turned to Lester.

"Can you stop at the convenience store? I need some happy."

"What's the problem – berries and roots with fat free plain yogurt won't do it for you?"

"Yeah, I'm not much of a 'body is a temple' sort of person. Thanks, Lester," Steph said as he pulled to a stop.

"I'm going to run to the drugstore right down the street – I'll pick you back up in a few minutes, okay"

"Sure."

Steph got out of the car and walked toward the door. Hearing someone behind her, she looked over and held the door open. She automatically smiled at the man, but something in his cruel expression made her look down and her mouth opened to scream when she saw the pistol he was holding. Cursing, the man grabbed her and forced her in the door.

"Everybody down! Give me the money in the register." The clerk stared at him, apparently too scared to move a muscle.

"Give me the fucking money, dumbass!! Move it!"

Steph looked out the front window as a car pulled into the parking lot. She looked back at the gunman to see if he had noticed, but he was busy watching the clerk pull the money out of the register drawer he had managed to open.

She turned back to the window and her eyes widened in shock as she recognized the Jeep in the lot. Joe Morelli got out of the car and walked toward the door. She knew what he was here for – she had completely stressed him out and they both had the same coping mechanism for stress – junk food. She felt crushed with guilt realizing that his presence here was all her fault. She began shaking her head "no - no" but it was the voice from the back of the store that caught the robber's attention and caused the disaster.

"You're shit out of luck now, you piece of garbage – the police are here!"

The gunman's head first turned to the back of the store to identify the voice and Steph wildly waved her arm to Joe just as Lester pulled back into the parking lot with his big black SUV, cutting Joe off from the front door. She had seen the horrified recognition on his face the second before he was cut off. The robber whipped his head towards the front door and saw the black SUV, then without hesitation he lifted his arm and fired off a couple of rounds through the front window. The shots went wide, wide enough to hit the crate of Blue Rhino propane tanks.

Later people would say there was almost a three second calm and that you could hear the timer click down - click, click….. BOOM!! The propane tanks exploded, shattering the front store windows and creating a cloud of black smoke and a blast that was felt and seen throughout the Burg.

Outside, the fact that Lester had driven directly in front of Joe to stop him from entering the store saved his life, the car protecting him from the immediate blast and flying debris. He was still thrown back to the ground by the force, but picked himself up and turned toward the store.

"Oh, no – Stephanie!" he yelled.

The driver's side door of the SUV was dented in too much to open, so Lester crawled out the passenger door and they stood next to each other, frantically searching for a way into the building to help save any lives.

"I'm going around the back!" Joe ran around the back of the building just as the first blast of the fire engine siren was heard and the news truck arrived. He wrenched open the back door and ran into the store, the front of which was on fire, flames shooting out the busted front windows and up the side of the building. The fire was trying to find some fuel on the inside of the store and Joe knew he had to find Steph immediately and get her out of here. Smoke was everywhere, an oily, dense haze that made breathing next to impossible. He bent down and ran, helping the few customers that had been laying on the ground anyway to find the back door by pointing them in that direction.

He could see what looked like a big pool of oil on the floor with a large lump in the middle of it and his steps faltered. He reached the pool and found an arm thrown out from a body on the floor that looked like the skin had been charred on a barbecue – black and lifeless, with pieces of bone visible. The body had a twelve inch piece of plate glass sticking out from it. Joe swallowed thickly, his voice a bit shaky.

"Steph? Cupcake? Oh, my God!"

Looking closer, he could see some achingly familiar curly hair that was floating in the puddle of blood, but she seemed to be lying under the body on top. Joe took a deep breath, then pulled the top body off of her and anxiously surveyed every beloved inch of her for injuries.

"Joe?" she murmured, "Joe? Is that you? Are you okay?" Her eyes opened briefly, then closed back again. "I'm going to get blamed for this."

He smiled, relieved beyond anything he could imagine that she was okay.

"Let's get you out of here."

He looked out the front window for a second and realized the fire trucks had already arrived and sprayed the front of the building, putting out the major part of the blaze. He reached out and effortlessly picked her up, his arms beneath her neck and knees, and walked towards the front of the store. Flash after flash went off as the camera men got their pictures and the video rolled. Joe blinked in the bright lights and paused, then walked to the rescue squad and gently lowered her to the gurney. She reached up a hand to cup his cheek.

"Thank you." She was silent for a minute.

Joe's voice was rough with emotion."I have to say I lost a few years off my life when I saw you in that pool of blood."

Her eyes were filled with sadness and a bit of shame. "Sorry about today…"

"I am, too. I think we both got a little out of control today. That remote thing…you're going to have to tell me how you did that. I might re-use that one." He chuckled, then his expression turned serious. "But you're definitely replacing my television!"

"I think that can be arranged. As long as you still invite me over for Ranger's games."

"But not anything else." His voice questioned, yet it wasn't a question.

"I think I need to try something else. Our constant getting together and breaking up – I think it wears us down and eventually one of us will do something the other can't forgive. I would never want to lose you completely."

"Never, Cupcake. I'll be here driving you crazy, letting you drive me crazy, for as long as we're both alive. I do love you , Steph."

She closed her eyes for a minute, overwhelmed by emotion. She didn't know what she had done right to earn the love of two such good men, but she knew she wanted to do this right.

"And I love you – I always will – you're a part of my childhood, you watched me grow up from a girl, and I fell in love with you again as an adult. I will always be there for you."

He leaned down and kissed her forehead, his lips lingering, his arms holding her gently.

"You let me know if he doesn't treat you right," he whispered. "I'll fix his ass but good."

Steph laughed, relieved to know this day, with its roller coater of emotional upheaval, was nearly over. She saw a movement and peeked around Joe to look at the front of the rescue. Ranger and an EMT stood to the side of the vehicle, waiting. Joe hopped out and briefly stopped near Ranger. He eyed the other man coolly, then spoke.

"She will always be my girl, Manoso. Treat her badly and you'll have me to answer to."

Ranger stared back stoically, then gave him a short nod and entered the vehicle.

"Babe." He held out his arms wrapped her inside them, cocooning her in his warmth.

"Oh, my God, I was so scared. I just stopped for a snack. That's all. That explosion was NOT my fault." She dug her head closer and tighter into the crook of his shoulder and continued. "Is Lester okay?"

"Lester's fine. My car, however…" His voice trailed off.

The EMT jumped inside the car and closed the doors. "We're taking you to the hospital to be checked out, Ms. Plum."

"I'm fine – I don't want to go to the hospital."

"You're going, Steph. I'll be here with you." And with those comforting words, she leaned back and dropped her head to the gurney, her head spinning with a slideshow of scenes from the day.

*****************************************

Stephanie unclosed an eye and surveyed her surroundings. A happy sound came from her mouth and she wriggled back a little further into the warmth surrounding her, held in place by a muscular arm thrown over her waist, fingers splayed protectively over her skin. She luxuriated in the smoother than silk sheets, the calm and quiet, then her mind woke up and she started thinking. Twisting, she turned to face Ranger, her hand smoothing back the hair that had fallen across his eyes. She took a second to appreciate the carved-from-rock muscles covered by caramel skin, the dark silky hair, the soft yet masculine lips that were just waiting to be kissed. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his, savoring the feel and the taste of him.

His eyes opened briefly and his hands caressed her skin, his fingers setting off sensory nerves and awakening every pore of her body. Then she remembered what she was thinking.

"What did Joe say to you last night?"

A soft laugh escaped him. "You don't miss much, do you?"

"Unfortunately for you, no." She looked over to the bed table as her phone vibrated a text message alert. She picked it up, read it, and her eyes closed for a full ten seconds.

"It's from Mary Lou – I'm on the front page of the paper again, but that I should check it out." She groaned. "When is there going to be some actual news around here?"

"Babe – robbing and destroying a store IS news. You just happened to be there, too. It's completely amazing that no one other than the gunman was killed." He rolled over to the phone and punched in a number.

"Yo, you got that Burg paper down there? Steph wants to see it." He listened for a minute, then his face stilled. "Just send it up."

"What's the matter? What did he say?"

"He said I wouldn't particularly like it this morning."

Steph rolled that over in her mind, thinking of what could be on the cover, then there was a knock on the door and Ranger went to answer it. He walked slowly back into the bedroom, eyes on the front page.

"I can see what Lester meant."

She reached for the page, then stared. The photographer had probably dropped to the ground, then shot up, so it looked like the subjects were bigger than they actually were. Framed by some lingering flames, a wall of smoke and a burned out carcass of a building, Joe Morelli stood tall and proud with Stephanie held in his arms, his expression a mixture of triumph and relief. He looked like a victorious warrior after a battle, holding the spoils of war. It was one of the sexiest pictures she had ever seen, but sexy without being titillating or lewd. It was just a great picture.

"Oh, wow." She had a moment's doubt of her decision. I gave this up? Yowza!, then looked up guiltily. A wry grin split Ranger's face as he deciphered her expression. She threw down the paper and ran to him, throwing her arms around his shoulders and wrapping her legs around his waist. He held her tightly and buried his face in her curls.

"What Joe said to me last night," he began, leaning back to look at her. "was that you would always be his girl and I'd better watch my step."

"And what did you say?"

"I had nothing that wouldn't piss him off, so I said nothing. What I will say to you is that he's right."

"What?"

"It's true. The girl in you will always love him. But I have something better – I have the love of the woman you've become. And there is nothing I would ever do to lose that. I love you, Steph. It's just you and me, Babe, for as long as you can stand me."

"Until we're both gray-haired and visiting Stiva's for some excitement?"

Ranger let her slide down his body and gathered her close. "Until even then."

The End