Here is my first Stephanie Plum fanfiction. Its kind of angsty, I'm warning you now. The characters are slightly OCC, and before you ask, I'm a BABE. Morelli doesn't appear at all in my story, only referenced. I own nothing so please don't sue me. All characters belong to Janet Evanovich.

The Change

Part I

Another mind numbingly difficult day at work. Seriously, Mikey Tarantino is a 75 year old loon, how could catching him be so difficult?

I turn on the shower, run the water until it gets hot and step in. Water pressure is off yet again but whatever. What has my life come to when I can't even enjoy the simple pleasures? I swear, one of these days I'm going to rob a bank, buy a house with a yard and a dog and a big kitchen. And a really amazing shower. A shower like Ranger's shower. Is that really too much to ask for?

And of course thinking about Ranger makes me achy in strategic places so I put my shower massager to good use… doesn't cure the symptoms but it does take the edge off.

Ranger. Batman. Man of Mystery. Those were just a few of his aliases. For me its more like close friend turn one time lover, turned best friend. Though lately he'd been a little off but I can understand that.

See he and I have a kind of unspoken agreement: we flirt mercilessly both knowing that he doesn't want more than sex and I better not get emotionally attached. This was all fine and dandy until my final break up with Joe Morelli, at which point I think Ranger was afraid I may start clinging on to him. But come on, I'm not delusional.

I step out of the shower, towel off and am just pulling a t-shirt over my head when I hear the locks tumble in the front.

Speak of the devil.

Knowing he'll find me in a second, I don't bother to go to him. Instead I'm toweling off my hair when he comes into my bedroom. "Going somewhere?" he asks.

I look up to see him leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed over his chest. There is a white envelope in his hands. "Yep. Bed. I'm tired."

"Maybe you should spend your nights sleeping instead of pacing in your kitchen."

I drop the towel. "What?! You have a camera set up?!"

"A monkey could break in here. Trust me, its for your own good."

"Right, more like for your own amusement."

"You pacing in your underwear isn't very amusing. Its sexy as hell." He says with a grin.

I glare at him. "I want it out, Ranger."

"No." he says simply.

"Why the hell not? I'm not being stalked by anyone, no danger, no crazies. I'd like my privacy."

He looks like he's thinking about letting me have my way. "We'll see. I came by to drop off a check."

That catches my attention. "A check for what?" I barely see Ranger anymore and I haven't worked for his company in weeks.

He deposits the white envelope he's holding on my dresser. "The last distraction job plus an advance on some other work. I'm leaving town for a while and I've had to move some people around in the offices. I'd appreciate it if you could run some searches a couple times a week."

I shrug, "Sure." But as I look up at him, I can almost see something behind the blank face. Something's up and my spidey sense tingles. "Is everything okay?"

He gives me a brief nod. "Fine." But again, he looks as though he wants to add something more.

He doesn't.

He turns around and is about to walk back out of my apartment when I stop him. "Hold up." I don't really have anything to say except the questions that are bubbling to the surface. Asking these questions would probably get me nowhere, but still... "What's going on?" My curiosity always wins.

He looks at me with another blank look and doesn't answer. I'm about to say something else when his cell buzzes. Putting one finger up to silence me he pulls the blackberry out of his pocket. "Talk," he commands in lieu of a greeting.

I leave him to his conversation and walk around my kitchen, scanning for the camera. I search for a bit then finally spot it above the cabinet in the far corner. I skirt around Ranger, whose eyes I can feel on me, and grab a chair from the dining room table. Placing the chair as close to the counter as possible, I climb on top to better reach the unwanted security camera. I reach… just a bit further… almost... there!

Triumphantly I begin to climb back down from the chair when Ranger stops me. "Leave it, Babe." I guess his phone conversation is done.

His large hand is warm on my thigh and its making my thoughts stray to where they shouldn't. "Ranger, I should be able to do anything I want in my own apartment without worrying about being watched." I reason with him softly, "Its creepy."

He sighs and lifts me out of the chair, puts me safely on the ground and kisses the top of my head. "Fine, I'll fix it." He takes the camera from me and begins to make some adjustments in its position. In the mean time I notice that his blackberry is on the counter and the screen is lit. Without really meaning too, I see that the calendar option is open to tomorrow's date. What I see under it gives me an ill feeling.


I million things run through my head as the screen goes dark; is someone sick? Is Ranger sick? No, Batman doesn't get sick. In order to get sick you'd have to be human. Florida... does that mean Julie's hurt? No, I just got an email from her a couple of days ago, if she was she would have mentioned it.

I tear my eyes away from the phone so he doesn't see me staring at it.

"I'm going to have Hector come and put this in the foyer so it looks over the front door and the hallway. We'll be able to see if anyone unfamiliar comes in, but you have the rooms to yourself. Better?"

I cross my arms over my chest. "Only marginally." My thoughts are still on the hospital thing. Its really bugging me but if I ask him, he'll be really pissed off at me for snooping. I hate dealing with angry Ranger. His anger is hardly ever pointed towards me but when it is, its not fun. "Hey, um, I got an email from Julie the other day. She said she's taking surf lessons."

"Mm." No real acknowledgement as he picks up his phone from the counter.

"Are you going to get to see her any time soon? She's in Miami, right?"

"No. Yes."

"Do you have family in other parts of Florida?"


I know better than to ask Ranger a bunch of questions, but really, I can't not know. "So are you leaving town on business or pleasure?"

Ranger walks towards the foyer. "Personal business. I have to go. Call Tank if you need back up for anything." And he's gone.

I stand in the kitchen a while longer going over things in my head. His family is mostly in Newark, or in Miami. Maybe someone had to be transferred to a hospital in Tampa. Although that makes no sense. I don't know much about geography but I know Tampa is a good 3-4 hours from Miami. What kind of personal business does Ranger have in Tampa?

Of course, I can't leave well enough alone. An hour later I've searched the internet for all the Dr. Evans' in Tampa Florida. There are three but only one employed at St. George's hospital. He's a surgeon. A great surgeon from the information I gathered, but still a surgeon... why does Ranger have an appointment with a surgeon?

Figuring that what Ranger did was his own business, I go to bed.

I can't seem to sleep, though. My brain is in overdrive and I can't help that nagging feeling that something is wrong. So I do the stupidest thing possible.

I go to my laptop, wait forever for the internet to start up again and book the next flight out to Tampa.



My savings are so going to take a huge dive after this trip.

I arrive in Tampa at 8:59 AM and pick up my rental car. "Could you please tell me how to get to St. George's hospital?" I ask the guy who pulls my car around. He gives me very rushed directions and I actually manage to catch most of it.

"It should take you about 20 minutes to get there from here." He says with a smile. I smile back and am on my way.

20 minutes turns into an hour and a half. When I finally pull into the parking lot at the hospital its 10:20.

I sneak into the hospital with giant sunglasses on and a hoodie, in case Ranger is lurking around. He'd send me to a third world country for this.

It's a really nice hospital, I think. It's clearly one of those really exclusive hospitals with serene looking decor and very friendly looking helpers, although my nerves are way past being calmed by the ambiance. "Excuse me," I say to the lady at the front customer service desk. "I'm here to see Dr. Evans."

She looks down at something on the desk. "You want the fourth floor, surgical wing."

"Thank you." I say as I make a dash for the elevator. Oh jeez, what am I doing?! Ranger is going to kill me for this. Or worse.

I'm feeling overly nervous as I arrive on the fourth floor. I do a quick scan and check for Ranger. All clear. I go to the front desk and quietly ask for Dr. Evans. "I'm sorry," says the guy behind the desk, "he's getting ready for a surgery. Are you here with the patient?"

I feel myself go pale. Prepped for surgery? Who is having surgery? What kind? Please don't let it be Ranger, Please not Ranger. "Um… yes I am. Can you tell me where the patient is?" All I need is a quick look to see that it isn't Ranger and then I'm out.

"Are you family?" the guy asks curiously, "He mentioned was not expecting anyone."

He? So the patient is a he? Okay Steph, I tell myself, don't panic. Ranger once said he had a brother. Maybe his brother is in there. Maybe his Dad. Not that I'm wishing harm on any male in Ranger's family. I probably got the whole thing wrong anyway. Probably this is a waste and I got the wrong Dr. Evans. I probably didn't even read the damn thing right anyway. Ranger's probably fine. In fact he's probably living it up somewhere.

"Yes, I'm family." I say.

The guy looks doubtful for a second, but then consults his books. "Room 34B. Down the hall, last door on the right."

"Thank you." I quietly survey the hall. No Ranger. Good, I'll just sneak a peak in.

Room 34B is a private suite. I look through the little glass pane on the door and freeze.

It's Ranger.

He's laying on a hospital bed with 3 nurses attending to him. He doesn't see me, but I can see him clearly. His blank face is firmly in place. His hair is swept back in a ponytail, his chest is bare (and gorgeous, might I add.) and his skin is a bit paler than normal.

I'm suddenly gripped with fear. Why is he having the surgery? What kind is it? Is it life threatening? Stupid question, all surgeries are in one way or another. Why is he here alone? Is he scared? How long will he take to recover?

I'm still staring when he lifts his head and frowns, as though he can feel something isn't right. I move out of view right before he turns his head. A millisecond later and he would've seen me.

Not knowing what to do, I wander around to the waiting area. It's a separate room and he won't see me in there. I casually take a magazine but I can't focus on it. I stare unseeingly at the same page for an immeasurable amount of time.

Ranger is in surgery. The thought makes my blood run cold.

But he'll be fine, I tell myself. He's Batman. He's probably in there doing the damn surgery himself with minimal assistance from that Dr. Evans.

Before I know it, I look up and its 3 hours later. Hesitantly, I walk back to the guy at the front desk. "Sorry to bother you again," I say in a small voice. "But its been a while. Is everything going alright with the surgery so far?"

"Dr. Evan's surgery? Yes, so far so good. Normally tumors in that area are simple to remove and are out quickly but Dr. Evans is thorough. He'll be fine. Are you the patient's wife?"


Oh shit.


I snap my eyes back to his. "Um, I'm sorry, what?"

"Are you the patient's wife?"

Figuring it would be easier to get information that way I nod. "Yes, I am."

The guy smiles, "Well, don't worry, Mrs. Manoso, I'm sure your husband will be fine. I'll come and get you the minute he gets out of surgery."

I nod. "Thank you." I head back to the waiting area and pull out my cell phone.

"Hey, white girl, where you at?" Lula asks the minute she picks up the phone.

"I'm going to be out of town for a while. I needed a vacation so I decided to go to the beach. It was kind of last minute, do you think you could feed Rex for me?"

"You know, I coulda used a vacation too. You shoulda let me know and we woulda done it up right. Want me to come meet you?"

I shake my head, foolishly because its not like she can see it. "No, that's alright. I don't know how long I'll be gone, though. Get Tank to let you into my place, he'll know how, I'm sure."

"You know Batman left town today too." She says, "Tank told me last night he'd be busy for a while on account of he was taking the lead at RangeMan for a bit."

"Yes, Ranger told me. He stopped by last night."

"Girl! You been holding out on me! Its about time you got some, its been long enough since you caught Supercop with that skinny ass bitch, what was her name?"

I feel my eye twitch at the mention of it. "Terry Gilman," I say through gritted teeth. "And thanks for the reminder."

"I'm just saying," she says defensively.

"Well, relax, nothing happened last night. Could you feed Rex? And maybe tell my parents I'm out for a while too?"

"Sure thing, white girl."

I hang up and walk numbly back to the waiting room.

A tumor.


Ranger has cancer. But he'll be alright, I'm sure. He's Ranger, the cancer is probably afraid of him. He'll kick its ass and be back at work tomorrow probably.

It bothers me that he was here alone. I'm sure he just wants to keep his bad boy image in tack; never show weakness and all. But still. I can't just go back to Trenton when he is here recovering from surgery and possibly battling cancer. I'm going to have to stay.

But then again, he may kill me for snooping around in his private business. It would be a slow and painful death, too, I'm sure.

Oh well, he can kill me after he recovers.



An hour or so later, I'm being nudged awake by the front desk guy. "Hey, Mrs. Manoso?"

I sit up, instantly alert. "Is Ranger alright?"

The guy nods. "Um, Mr. Manoso is alright. Is his name Ranger? I have Carlos in the file…"

I nod, "Yes, sorry, that's what I call him. How is he? What's happening with the tumor? Is it all gone? Will he have to have chemotherapy? Oh God…" I start hyperventilating.

The guy puts a hand on my shoulder, "Everything is all right. Dr. Evans got it all. I don't know about the rest but the doctor will come and fill you in shortly. Would you like to see your husband?"

I hesitate. "Is he awake?"


"Then sure."

I follow him back to Ranger's private room. It's a very nice room for a hospital. It's creamy colored with teal blinds and curtains. There are two armchairs near the bed, by the window and a private bathroom. But my attention is only on the sleeping Ranger on the bed. I always thought people looked peaceful when they slept, but looking at Ranger now, he looks just as serious as ever, only with his eyes closed.

"He'll be out for a while. The doctor will be in shortly," says the nurse man before he lets himself out.

I step cautiously towards Ranger and tears well up in my eyes. I hastily wipe them away. He has to be alright. Please, he just has to. I reach forward, pause for a second as he exhales, and lightly touch his hair. It's silky beneath my fingers. I smooth it back. Looking under the covers, I notice a bandage on his abdomen. Looks like that's where the tumor was.

Please let him be okay.

I spend the next few minutes running my fingers through his hair and I think for a second that I notice the serious expression on his face lessen.

Nope, never mind, its still there.

The door to Ranger's room opens quietly and in steps a man with salt and pepper hair and scrubs. "Hello, Mrs. Manoso. I'm Dr. Evans." He extends his hand and I shake it.

"Hello, Doctor, can you tell me more about his condition?"

He nods. "I must say I'm surprised to see you here. Mr. Manoso didn't mention he was married."

"Yes, he's really a private guy."

The doctor smiles. "I guessed as much. Well, so far we know that everything turned out great. We go the tumor out. We won't know what the next step is until the results come back. If it's benign, he'll recover in no time and can forget this ever happened."

"And if it's not benign?" I ask cautiously.

Dr. Evan's smile falters a bit, "Well if not, we'll have to keep monitoring him bi annually to see that it doesn't come back. If he develops the same symptoms as last time—,"

"Symptoms?" I interrupt.

"Yes, the pain and pressure build up. The tumor was leaning on some blood vessels which is what caused the pressure to his heart. It's gone now, so he should go back to normal, but we want to make sure it doesn't regrow or spread anywhere else. If it's benign we don't have to worry about that."

"And, again, if it's not benign, will he need chemotherapy? Radiation?"

"Possibly, but only if it begins to regrow. As I said, we got it all, every last bit. If it is malignant, then there may be microscopic cells that could possibly regrow, but we can't know for sure yet."

I nod, taking it all in. "How long until we know if it's malignant or not?"

"The lab is backed up at the moment so it may be about a day or so. In any case, he'll be here recovering so we'll know before he is discharged."

That brought another question to my lips. "How long will it take for him to recover?"

"Not long. Your husband is in excellent physical shape, Mrs. Manoso, he should rebound in about a week."

This 'Mrs. Manoso' stuff is making me a bit uncomfortable. "Please, call me Stephanie."

"Alright, Stephanie. He's going to be here for at least 2 days. He'll be sore for that long. Because of the area where the tumor was, I don't want him doing any physical activities for 2 weeks. He is to take it easy, which I'm certain for him will be a problem."

I sigh, "You're not kidding."

"Also, he'll be in pain for a while. I'm going to prescribe some pain killers. I know he said he didn't want drugs after the surgery, but I thought perhaps you could persuade him. It really needn't be any more uncomfortable than it is."

"Um, I don't know if he'll listen but it can't hurt to try. How long until he wakes up?"

"The anesthesia should wear off in a couple of hours." He waits, "Any other questions?"

I shake my head. "Not at the moment. Thank you so much for everything."

He smiles again. "Not a problem. When he wakes up you can let him know I'll be in to check on him."

When he leaves, I look back at Ranger. I've been in a lot of scary situations in my life, most of them in the last few years. I've been stalked, kidnapped, put into a coffin, been shot at and almost blown up on a daily basis. There is only one other moment that I felt the kind of fear I feel at this time and it involved Ranger almost dying trying to save me and his daughter. For the second time in my life, I'm imagining life without Ranger around.

Something in my chest gives a painful lurch and I shut my eyes tightly, trying to block out the thoughts: this hurts too much to think about.

I bend down and place a soft kiss on his forehead. "You're going to be fine." I whisper in his ear.

Because he has to be.

I don't leave his side for a while but soon my feet get tired and I automatically sit in one of the armchairs near his bed. Sometime later I become aware of how uncomfortable I am and I realize that I've fallen asleep in a really weird position. My eyes are still shut but I can tell that it's no longer daytime. Reluctantly, I open my eyes.

Ranger is sitting up and staring right at me. And he looks mad!

I sit up, afraid to really look at him, and wait for him to speak. He waits for a minute, maybe to control his anger, maybe just to drive me crazy then finally he breaks the unnerving silence. "Funny story," he says with absolute humorlessness, "The doctor comes in and tells me how surprised he was to find out I had a wife. Not as surprised as I was, though."

"I didn't tell them I was your wife," I say once I find my voice. "They assumed. I just didn't correct them."

He says nothing. Just more hostile staring.

"Besides," I continue. "They wouldn't have told me anything if I'd told them you were my friend who bails me out of trouble all the time and I have no real ties to."

"What are you doing here?"

"I was curious."

"How did you find out?"

I look away, "I…. um… I guess I sort of saw it written down."

"Saw what written down and where?"

I sigh I defeat, "In your blackberry. I saw the calendar thing yesterday in your blackberry."

Now he looks livid. Normal people would think his face looked calm, but I know better. He's giving off such an angry vibe that the entire room feels colder... I suddenly want to run and hide. "You went into my calendar?" He asks in a low, deadly tone.

"No! I didn't, I swear. It was open and on the counter and I glanced and there was the appointment. It was big and scarily official looking and I got a weird feeling about it so I snooped. I know I shouldn't have, but come on, I find out that this guy is a surgeon and you have an appointment with him... I thought... I don't know... it just... I decided to come down." I can't bear to look at him.

I risk a peak at him and notice that he's breathing a bit heavier than normal. "Ranger, don't get mad, it can't be good for you right now."


I yelp and jump up, "Please," I plead, "Just relax for now. You can send me to a third world country later. I'll go quietly. I'll even book my own flight, just please…"

He doesn't let up. "Who knows about this?"

"No one. I didn't tell anyone."

"Who knows where you are?"

"No one. I didn't tell people where I was going. I called Lula when you were in surgery and told her I was going on vacation and to feed Rex. No one knows where I am."

He seems satisfied with that answer, though he kept eyeing me as though he was about to kill me. I pull out my cell phone and check the time while he contains his anger. Its past midnight. "Here is what's going to happen." His voice is like a gun shot. "You're going to take the next flight back to Trenton. You're going to forget this ever happened and not say anything to anyone. From now on you're going to stay to fuck out of my business."

Nope. That wasn't happening. Somehow I muster up some courage. "Look, I'll leave soon enough. But I'm going to be here when the results come back."

"No, you're not."

"Ranger," I plead yet again, "be reasonable. I have to wait for those results. I need to know you're okay. Sorry, but I do."

Ranger's glare turned bone chilling, "You're letting this 'Mrs. Manoso' thing get to your head. You're not my wife, you're hardly more than a convenient fuck half the time. You think playing nurse is going to, what, make me fall in love with you? Leave. Now. I don't want you here."

Ouch. Yeah… ouch.

Through some miracle, I'm able to focus on the anger more than the hurt. I'm a jersey girl, it's always anger first. "You want me to leave? Get better and make me." Angrily, I grab the headphones from my bag, jam them in my ear and blast the sound from my iPod. I take a seat in the armchair again and close my eyes.

Fucking Ranger.

By 1 o'clock in the afternoon on the following day, Ranger and I haven't spoken to each other. I'm quite surprised he hasn't called someone to come remove me by force. We don't talk. He hardly sleeps, or maybe he did, I can't always tell. He goes through period where his eyes are closed and he breathes evenly but the slightest noise and he opens his eyes.

Now he has his eyes closed on the bed again. I can tell he's not sleeping because every once in a while he winces. It's almost unnoticeable but I can tell he's hurting. I wish he'd take something for the pain. And I say so. "Maybe you should take the medication. The nurse said it wouldn't knock you out."

"Mind your own business."

Charming. "This is my business."

"The fuck it is."

I angrily jump up from the arm chair. "You think it would be easy for me, going off thinking you're seriously hurt or sick? You think I could find out you're being cut open and just go on with my day as if nothing was happening? Well I can't!" I'm pacing and my arms are waving in anger, "You are being such a fucking hypocrite. You're allowed to put fucking cameras in my apartment and tracers on me whenever you feel like it, yet I'm just supposed to ignore the fact that you had a tumor?!?! Are you insane?!"

I stop pacing and coldly stare at him. "Forget it. Not happening. And while I'm at it, I may as well let you know in no uncertain terms that I'm not delusional. Don't flatter yourself, I'm not that into you. I don't get off on being treated like a whore, or worse a yo-yo, being pulled in one minute and thrust back out the next time you feel like you've had enough. I have needs too and you're great in bed but that's it." I tell him, looking him straight in the eyes. He's going to know I'm being serious.

I take a deep breath. "Believe it or not, I care about you because I consider you my friend. A mean, mood-swinging, infuriating, opportunistic bastard half the time, but somehow still a friend. Keep acting like such an asshole, though, and that'll change real quick. Then you can let me know if being alone is really all you hoped it would be."

I grab my purse and walk out the door still fuming.

In a daze, I make my way downstairs into one of the bathrooms. I didn't want to use the one in Ranger's room, I don't want to be anywhere near him at the moment. The bastard.

Cursing at my reflection in the mirror over one of the sinks, I pull out a hair tie from my bag and put my hair into a messy pony tail. I resist the urge to cry, wash my face, apply a little bit of make-up for courage and go down to the cafeteria. This cafeteria has a crappy selection and I end up going for Jell-O and fries. Weird combination, I know.

I don't want to miss the doctor if he comes in with the results, and I'm certain Ranger won't feel like talking to me, so I quickly run to the gift shop, pick up a chocolate bar and a magazine and rush back upstairs. Ranger is in the same position, the bed tilted up so that he's half sitting, half lying down. His face in tilted up, parallel to the ceiling and when I walk in, he glances briefly towards me then looks back up. I say nothing and go back to the arm chair, putting my head phones in place with the volume cranked up.

An hour goes by before I glance up from my magazine. Ranger appears to be asleep.

I let myself look him over, checking for signs of illness or fatigue but he seems to feel my gaze on him and looks back at me. Guess he wasn't really asleep. He doesn't appear to be as angry as before but I have no intention of being friendly right now, so I turn back to my magazine.

A while later, once I've finally lost the headphones, there is a knock on the door which breaks the heavy silence. We both look up as Dr. Evans comes in with a folder in hand. "Is this a good time?" He looks back and forth between us.

"Yes." Ranger says. "Are those the results?"

The doctor nods. "Yes." He opens the folder. I stand, leaving the magazine on the sear. As the doctor steps further into the room, I feel as though time is moving extra slow. Somehow I find myself standing next to Ranger's bed, though I don't remember walking towards it. My nerves are so tangled up, I can hardly feel my fingertips. The doctor looks at the papers in the folder and looks back towards us. "It was benign."

And just like that, I can breathe again. Sweet relief fills my lungs as I breathe in and out.

I don't look at Ranger; for some reason it seems unfair to add more to my vulnerability at the moment.

"The tumor was completely benign and we have no reason to believe it will ever come back." Dr. Evans continues. "We still want to keep him for another two days for observation. How's the pain?"

"Manageable." Ranger says simply.

Dr. Evans nods. "Well, the pills are on your bedside if you need them. They are very mild and they won't knock you out. Keep that in mind if the pain gets to be too much."

"Thank you, doctor." He says.

Dr. Evans is about to make his way out when I stop him, "How long until he's back to normal?"

"Well, to make a full recovery I'd give it about 3-4 weeks. No strenuous activities for the first 2 weeks, though."

I nod. "Thank you, doctor."

"Sure thing." He leaves.

I unconsciously take a deep breath and feel a bit faint. I'd been so nervous since I found out what was wrong… anyway, its fine now. Everything is fine, I think silently to myself. I let the words echo in my head, the comfort they provide soothes me. I stay still another few seconds, holding myself steady on Ranger's bed. He'll be fine. He's fine.

Thank God!

The warmth of Ranger's hand on my own jolts me back to reality. "Are you okay?" he asks.

"I should be asking you that."

"I'm fine. Are you?"

I nod. "Sure. Are you in any pain?"

"I'm fine." He repeats. His words are softer than they were the last time he spoke to me.

I pause. "You can be a real asshole."

He cracks a smile. "I know. I'm sorry."

"Well, other than that, you'll be fine. That's what matters." I pull away from him.

"Are you leaving now?" he asks, his voice still soft. It's an innocent question, no malice behind it.

To be honest I don't know what to tell him. I hadn't thought this through. "Not until you're out of the hospital," I hear myself saying, and it surprises me.

For once, he doesn't argue.



"Which hotel is it again?" I ask Ranger yet again. He has just been released from the hospital, though you'd never know it from the way he looks. He's got his usual uniform on and some sunglasses.

The last two days are the hospital were… quiet. Calm. We didn't talk about our fight. Ranger seemed to have come to terms with the fact that I was going to be there whether he wanted me there or not. I'd done what I could to help, even talked him into pain killers earlier today. I'd brought him edible food, the weird cardboard stuff he likes and tried to help him up when he needed to go to the bathroom, though he refused every time. Seriously, you'd never know he was sick. He had worn black sweat pants and no shirt the entire time and other than the bandage and the occasional twitch of pain, he was as stoic as ever.

I hadn't gotten a hotel room yet, I'd been too afraid to leave. I'd showered yesterday in Ranger's bathroom. My neck has a permanent cramp from the damn arm chair and I haven't gotten more than an hour of sleep at a time in 2 days. Don't ask me how I'm so alert right now.

Now we're headed to Ranger's hotel. Trust Ranger to be staying at a really nice hotel right by the beach in the Tampa Bay area. There is a valet and a bellhop waiting to assist us and take the car. Ranger steps out of the car, looking as in charge and intimidating as ever. No weakness. I follow him to the front desk where he briefly converses with the person standing behind it. They hand him two card keys. He then turns and motions for me to follow him.

When we reach the room, I'm taken aback. We're on the 10th floor and its gorgeous. There is the most comfortable looking king sized bed I've ever seen. Everything is crisp and clean, the carpet feels soft under my sandals. I step further into the room and am drawn to the balcony. I pull back the luxurious curtains and gasp. There is an incredible view of the ocean. The beach is right downstairs and there is a pool below us. Its spectacular.

I don't even realize when the bellhop leaves until Ranger comes onto the balcony and places a soft hand on my hip, stepping close behind me. "This is a great view." I tell him.

He nods but says nothing.

Oh boy, here comes the awkward part. I have no reason to stay, Ranger is doing fine and as much as I want to take advantage of the beach, perhaps I should get back to my life. I turn towards him. "Well, now that you're all settled I guess I should be—,"

"Come on." He interrupts and takes my hand.

"Where are we going?" I ask as I'm being pulled along.

"Lunch." He says. "I'm starving."

I've never been one to pass up a meal and I'm not going to start now. We go downstairs and walk away from the boardwalk. I protest against him walking but he shoots me a 'are you kidding me?' look so I shut up. We walk a couple of blocks before he pulls me into a restaurant.

We sit and the waitress comes and brings us breadsticks. "What would you like to drink?" she asks.

Ranger nods towards me.

"Coke please," I say to the waitress.

"Water for me," Ranger tells her. Of course.

We open our menus in silence. I'm hardly looking over it, I'm so tired. And hungry. And confused. And tired. In fact, I don't know what I am. By the time the waitress comes back I'm still in a half-zombie state so I get the first thing I see, which turns out to be lobster ravioli.

We have a nice lunch, talking about nothing in particular; skips, trenton, the best beaches on the east coast. We laugh quite a bit actually. Ranger is really funny when he wants to be. We settle into the comfortable friendship we usually have where conversation is easy and silences are comfortable and his presence is soothing. Then, when we're done, we walk back towards the hotel. I'm so full I'm hardly awake but the smell of the ocean is amazing. I gaze longingly in that direction for a split second.

The minute we walk back into his hotel room, I try to rub the sleepiness out of my eyes and go to Ranger's laptop. "Do you mind if I use this? You have wireless right?"

He's leaning against the door to the balcony. "Sure."

I wait for the thing to start up, and it does in seconds. "How come your laptop is faster than mine?"

"Because I don't open every spam email sent to me. Which reminds me, don't check your mail on my computer."

I roll my eyes, "I know better than to open spam... most of the time. Anyway, relax, I'm not checking my mail, I'm booking a flight. Your computer is safe."

He comes forward and pulls me away from the computer. "Later, you're dead on your feet. Why don't you sleep for a while?"

I ignore him. "How are you feeling? Maybe you should nap instead. Sleep is the best medicine."

He grins. "Where did you hear that?"

"One of the nurses said it while you were sleeping."

"I'm not tired. You sleep."

I yawn and shake my head. "Thanks but I'm fine. All I need is a shower and then I'll be good. I still smell like a hospital." I survey the small bag I brought with me; I hadn't brought much in the way of clothes. "I only brought one other tank top and it's now dirty so I'm stealing one of your t-shirts." I tell him. "Hand it over."

"What if I say no?"

"Then I'll have to make something out of the drapes, a la Scarlett O'Hara. Don't think they won't charge you an arm and a leg for them when you check out."

Ranger laughs. He goes to his small suitcase and pulls out a clean black t-shirt.

"Thank you," I say with a smile when he hands it over.

The bathroom is as lovely as the room. Really, why can't my shower at home be like this? One day I'm going to get a house with a great shower.

I really thought the shower would wake me up but I'm more tired than ever. I'm barely walking straight when I step out of the bathroom and place my dirt clothes in a bag. Ranger, of course, notices this right away and pulls me into him and before I know it, I'm leaning against him. He cups my face. "You're staying. Go to sleep."

Like I have the willpower to say no. "Okay." I say. He leads me towards the bed, peels my jeans off and his hand moves up my leg, over my hip and settles on my waist. "Wait," I say groggily. I don't really know how to string sentences together at this point. "What about you? We agreed I'd leave you alone when you were out of the hospital."

"Forget about that. I don't want you to. In fact, I'm making it mandatory. This is part of your RangeMan services."

"You're nuts."

He cracks a smile, "That's what they tell me." He suddenly kisses me on the lips. Its nothing intense, no tongue, just sweetness. "Sweet dreams, Babe."


My eyes slowly open and its dark out. For a second I forget where I am. I feel a body in bed next to me. I reach out and touch Ranger's warm skin and it all comes back to me. At my touch, though, he swings and arm around me and pulls me to him.


Unwillingly, I melt against him. He smells amazing, he feels amazing.

I find myself wondering how long it will last this time… or if I'll survive the disappointment.



The next two days we spent lounging on the beach. Ranger asked me to stay since he may need some help, though he admitted it grudgingly. I agreed. I hadn't brought many clothes at all, so we went shopping. Both for him and me.

Shopping was a blast. We were walking along the boardwalk, going into boutiques that would catch my eye. Honestly, I never expected him to buy me clothes, but he sat patiently while I tried on clothes. When I would exit the fitting room, he'd usually have the wolf grin on his face. This time was no exception.

"What do you think?" I say as I pull the curtain back and show off the designer shorts and cute blouse.

There's that grin again. "Sexy."

I blush, "You know its not fair that I have to try stuff on when you don't."

"I don't try on clothes."

I roll my eyes and go back in the dressing room. When I come out, he takes the stuff from me and purchases it before I get a chance to object. "Thanks," I say. "You don't have to do that."

He takes my hand and kisses the back of it. "I know."

Ranger is recovering so quickly. He doesn't take the pain killers ever and he doesn't wince anymore. He has an appointment with the doctor in a week to take the stitches out, but I half expect him to just pull them out himself at this point.

We're walking again and Ranger stops to answer his phone, which is buzzing. I leave him to his conversation and stare at the window to another shop. There is the most beautiful dress on the window. Its an aquamarine, Grecian style dress, long, flowy and sleeveless. The neckline comes really far down but is held together beautifully by the same fabric draped across the middle.

"See something you like, Babe?" Ranger's voice catches me off guard. He's looking at the dress also.

I shrug, "Its very pretty." I loop my arm in his and turn away but he doesn't budge.

"Do you want to try it on?"

I roll my eyes. "Where do you see me wearing that? To the next distraction job maybe?" I say sarcastically.

He doesn't say anything but lets me lead him away. In the end, I have quite a few new clothes and some shoes. I have no idea how I'm going to get them back to Trenton in my tiny canvas bag but whatever.

We have pizza, laugh a whole lot through dinner, then its on to the beach. The water is warm and the sky is setting and Ranger's arms are around me and everything is perfect.

The next few days are spent the same way. We laugh a lot, we talk even more. Somewhere along the way Ranger stopped being scary and I got my best friend back. He opens up a bit more about his life and his family. He's one of the youngest in his family and according to him growing up with four sisters is no joke. I told him neither was growing up with Grandma Mazur. We visit the aquarium one day, which was pretty big and kind of neat. We spend a lot of time on the beach. I try not to focus too much on the times he puts sun block on me… dangerous territory. At night we usually fall asleep wrapped up together.

We avoid talking about Trenton or going back. Well, at least I do.

The night before his check up, we're watching a movie in bed. My head is on his shoulder and his fingers are tracing circles on my back. We're both half asleep and I can barely keep my eyes open. Instead I turn off the TV, and kiss his cheek. He responds by kissing my lips and pulling me towards him. His hands are roaming… his breath is hot on my neck… oh God

"Stop," I say breathlessly.

He kisses me with a lot of tongue and I grasp onto him. "Why?" He asks.

"No strenuous activities for another week." I mumble, repeating Dr. Evans' words.

Ranger groans. He kisses me once more on the lips, hugs me close and we both doze off.

And then it happens. I was half asleep and think I'm dreaming when I say it, "I love you." I'm dreaming. I'm sure I didn't say that out loud. I'm dreaming.

The next morning everything is different. I can tell immediately because when I wake up, Ranger isn't in bed. I start to get up and he's by the dresser, already dressed.

"There's coffee." He says shortly. "We have to leave in an hour."

"Sure." I say nonchalantly and make my way towards the bathroom. Whatever disappointment I have, I swallow it. I knew heaven wouldn't last forever. It's time I face reality.

I take a long shower, shampoo and condition my hair and shave my legs. The best way to look like you're confident and nothing bothers you is to look damn good, although not like you're trying. Just effortlessly pretty. So that's what I do. I make my hair behave and put it up in a ponytail, with curls cascading down the back. I apply a little bit of make-up, mostly just mascara, some liner, some blush and cherry lip balm. I put on black shorts and a tank top with wedge sandals and make my way out of the bathroom. "I'm ready to go," I say, not looking at him.

"Good." He says, though he looks at me for a second longer than he means to, I can tell. "I returned your rental car the other day, so we're taking a cab."

We make our way out, not touching. When I trip over my own feet on the way out of the elevator, though, he catches me, steadies me, holds onto me for an instant, but the promptly lets go.

At the hospital we're seen right away. Dr. Evans checks his handiwork. "I'm shocked." He says. "You've healed quicker than I could have anticipated." I wasn't surprised, Ranger is Batman. "I'd say you'd be back to normal in about a week. Do you feel any pain?"

Ranger shakes his head once. "No."

"Good. Well then let me remove these." He carefully removes the stitches, shakes both our hands and then we're on our way.

"Are you hungry?" I ask Ranger on the way back to the hotel.

"I'm good, Stephanie, you don't have to nurse me anymore."

I roll my eyes. Great. "Just asking, jeez."

He looks at me and for an instant his expression softens. "I didn't mean to jump on you."

I pause, then ask, "Is that an apology?" He shoots me an almost smile and I can't help but grin back. "I swear, your mood swings are worse than any pregnant lady I've ever met." Then again, I'd only really hung around two pregnant women. Valerie was intense though.

Ranger's lips tilt up at the corners. "Yeah, well. I get cranky when I can't work out."

"Well give it a couple days, you'll be able to soon."

"Soon isn't fast enough. I'm losing muscle mass."

I roll my eyes, "Doesn't look like it from where I'm sitting."

The 200-watt smile spreads across his face. "You think I look hot?"

"I didn't say that."

"Not in so many words." He says.

I shrug. "Whatever. You look... fine."


"What are you, Narcissus incarnate?" I say sarcastically, "Fine, you're hot. You're damn sexy! Happy now?"

Ranger laughs, "Ecstatic."

That night he lets me get close again. He kisses me like a man possessed, like he can't get enough of me... like he loves me. And I reciprocate. I get lost in him, in his skin, in his touch. We would build up to an incredible pace, then slow down for really passionate love making. Sometimes we laugh, but mostly moaning and crying out melt into one. There are a few earth shattering climaxes and then blissful rest, tangled up in each other. In the minutes before my eyes crash shut for the last time tonight, I feel him kissing my fingers, my face, my eyes. I burrow into him, getting as close as possible, memorizing the feel of him as he holds me close.


"Steph, last night was great," he's saying to me over breakfast, "and don't get me wrong, I want to do it again, but you should probably head back to Trenton."

I nod. Once again, I knew it was coming. I needed the Ranger-induced orgasm and I was willing to risk certain heartbreak to get it. "Fine, I'll book my flight in a bit."

He shakes his head, "I've booked you one already. You leave in a few hours."

"Wow, sick of me already?" I mean it to be funny but somehow it doesn't come out that way.

He looks at me with his blank face in place. "Stephanie, I'm not a one-woman man. I can't come home to you every night. I warned you before, you get involved with me and you're likely to get your heart broken."

"I never asked you to. You assume that just because I care for you that I expect you to change your ways and propose to me? Get over yourself! I care about you. Big deal. You care about me too, you're just more of an ass about it"

He pauses, puts his coffee cup down and stares at me. "I like you, Babe. I'm not going to lie about it. Hell, I love you, its no secret. But I know you and I know what you want. I can't give that to you."

"You have no idea what I want." I stand up from the table on the balcony, put on my flip flops and head to the beach.

I stay there a long time, wondering why I bother with Ranger.

Some friend, says a voice in my head. But despite the negative, the only times I've been truly happy in the past few years are when I've been with Ranger. There was a brief period of Morelli, but even that wasn't as much fun. The truth is that I have to figure out a way to be happy without him. What would make me happy?

A house, says that same voice, with a decent shower and a yard. And a better shower head massager. The truth was, I like some aspects of my job. I like chasing skips and bringing them in. The stalking and the Burg rumors were the problem. Somehow, with Ranger, those things hadn't been an issue ever. I have to be more independent.

But for all the times Ranger had taken care of me, I figure we're now even. Well, perhaps not completely even, considering how many cars of his I've totaled and all the times he's rescued me, but seeing someone through a tumor and possibly cancer has to have some merit.

The sun is starting to set as I make my way back to the hotel and I'm leaving in only a couple of hours. I buy another bag from one of the shops in the hotel (a ripoff, by the way) since I have more stuff now. I need to pack and hopefully clear the air between Ranger and myself, but when I get up to the room, he isn't there. There is large envelope with my name on it and when I open in, there is the boarding pass and all the flight information. I pack my 2 small bags, which is much more difficult now because of all the shopping. I've just slipped my shoes on and grabbed my jacket when I hear the door. "Ranger, I'm—," but it isn't Ranger.

At least, it isn't just Ranger.

In comes a pretty girl, with one leg wrapped around Ranger's torso. For a second I'm floored. When she sees me, she stops for a second and looks at him.

"Thought you'd be gone by now." he says with a shrug as though there is nothing wrong.

"Going now." I say, averting my eyes. I grab my small suitcase and make my way out of the hotel.


Don't hate me. It gets better. I promise.