Disclaimer: The characters and the premise belong to the great and wonderful Janet Evanovich. I just like to play around with her genius. I am, of course, making no profit here.
Spoilers: None that I know of. If you've read the first few books and understand the characters, you should be safe. That said, I have read everything up to the FLF preview, so there's no telling what my subconscious might have stuck in here.
A/N: Okay folks, so this is NOT the new story that I have been promising. This actually started out as a one-shot that popped into my head and refused to go away until I wrote it. Well, another one made itself known last night, and I've decided to make a bit of a story. Each chapter will be one late-night visit between Steph and Ranger, and they'll all go together to form a story of a sort. I've got plans to include Absolution in here somewhere, as well. Babe, as always, Morelli isn't really mentioned at all yet. Enjoy!
He drove; his foot on the pedal, one hand resting on the wheel, his mind on the job he'd just completed. A drug dealer was bad enough. One that pushed to kids was worthy of a bullet, in his opinion. Add to that, a couple of bloodied, bruised, scared-out-of-their-minds teenaged prostitutes, and a long, drawn-out death was in order.
He let the road take him where it would; where it always took him on nights like tonight. Really, on this night in particular, there was no other place it could take him. No other place he wanted to be. He could not have altered his course, nor his destination, if nuclear blasts had blocked the way.
He pulled into the lot and killed the engine, savoring the darkness and the silence for long moments. Most nights it would be enough just to sit out here and watch; eyes open, never wavering; senses alive and alert. A sentinel in the night. Some nights he just had to be here and see for himself that there were no crazies on the fire escape, no stalkers sauntering across the lot.
He guarded her because her come-and-fucking-get-me security system was not up to the job. He guarded her because even if she let him install state-of-the-art cameras and complex alarm systems and nigh-impenetrable locks, he'd still trust no one else to do the job.
But tonight he had to do more than guard. Tonight he could not trust what he believed to be a preternatural connection between them. An unexplainable knowledge that she was alive and well. It was a connection they shared. Generally, it allowed them awareness when the other was near, but it had, on occasion, alerted him when she was hurt or in danger. It was an intuition, maybe. It was the hair rising on the back of his neck. A tingle of unease. The feeling that something had been left unfinished.
Tonight, however, he ignored the low-grade hum that came over him nearly every time he thought of her throughout the day. The one that told him she was fine.
No light shone out like a beacon to alert watchers of his presence when he opened the car's door. He shut it again almost without sound, and then stood in the darkness, letting his eyes and ears search out anything that did not have license to be there. All was as it should have been.
His footsteps on the tarmac were silent. He was but darkness within the shadows; as he'd been trained to be. The door swooshed shut behind him as he stepped into the dimly lit lobby. One sweep with his eyes told him that he was alone. The door to the stairwell opened on creaky hinges and he winced at the sound before he realized that no one was around to hear it. And, on this mission at least, it would not have mattered if someone had been. He was allowed to be here. This was not some third-world country. He was not an invading foreign operative with orders to kill. Sometimes it was difficult to forget the training and just live here in the real world.
He took the stairs and the hallway just as quietly as he'd done everything else. Then the non-barrier that was her front door was before him and he paused for a moment to take out his lock picks and open it.
The apartment was dark and silent except for the squeak, squeak, squeak of her hamster running on its tiny rodent-style treadmill. He smirked slightly as he walked by. Funny how her pet was so into fitness when she cried 'Uncle!' at the mere mention of a jog in the park.
Anticipation thrummed in his veins, making his heart beat hard and fast, as he closed the distance to her bedroom. He needed to see her, to know that she was here--alive, unharmed--not back there in that alley beaten and broken and sobbing.
He stepped through the bedroom doorway and paused to let his eyes adjust to the inky blackness. The tingle/hum sensation within him and all over his skin told him that she was here.
He took a few steps closer to the bed and peered down. It took him a minute to find her small body curled up among the quilts and blankets. He smiled as her pale face, haloed by wild, chestnut curls, came into focus. She was here. She was fine.
He'd known she would be. After the first glimpse, he'd known that girl wasn't her, but still he'd had to see for himself. Had to know for sure.
His breath came a little easier and his heart resumed its usual slow, steady pace.
He took off his weapon belt and folded himself into the chair in the corner.
All was well.
Several minutes flashed by in the neon orange of her bedside clock before she stirred. A fractured snore was followed by a groan, and then he heard her murmur, "Ranger?"
He contemplated not answering. He'd done it before. He could be gone without a sound before she mustered up the energy to open her eyes. She never needed to be any the wiser to his nighttime visits.
But her voice brought such peace and warmth on this dark night that instead he found himself saying just as quietly as she had, "Yeah, babe. I'm here."
She struggled to pull herself out from under the blankets, and then pushed up into a sitting position.
"Wha…what are you doing here?"
He smiled at her sleep-rumpled form, her obvious confusion.
"Nothing, babe. Go back to sleep."
"Everything's fine, Steph. Sleep."
He saw her blink several times before her gaze sought him out in the darkness. She flicked on the bedside lamp and they both squinted against its glare for a moment.
"What are you doing here, Ranger?"
He watched her, knowing that she wouldn't give up now that she was awake, wondering what to tell her.
"Nothing," he said quietly. "Not anymore."
She rubbed her eyes and smoothed her hair back behind her ears before replying.
"What do you mean?"
"Everything's fine now," he whispered.
She made to get up, but he motioned for her to stay where she was and stood to move towards the bed.
"When weren't they fine?" She asked when he stood beside her.
He contemplated brushing her off and leaving before she could ask more questions, but he knew she hated his "man of mystery" routine, and there was really no reason to deny her. Besides, for some reason, he wanted to tell her.
"Earlier," he said.
She scooted over and patted the bed beside her.
He sat without a second thought.
"When?" She asked.
He couldn't take his eyes off of her. Her pale cheeks were flushed with sleep. Her crystalline blue eyes were lazy and soft. Her curls were rumpled and wild, speaking of hot sex and long nights. He wanted to throw all of his self-made excuses out the window, pull her into his arms, and never let her go again.
Maybe someday soon he'd be able to do all of that.
"We had a takedown earlier," he told her.
"Is everyone alright?"
She sounded so genuinely concerned. He loved that she felt such compassion towards his men. So many people saw them only as mercenaries, muscle for hire, brutes and bullies. But not Stephanie. She saw beneath the surface. It was one of the things that drew him to her.
"Everyone's fine," he told her. Then the image of that poor girl popped into his mind and he forced his attention back to the woman beside him. "Well, no, not everyone."
Her eyes widened and she sucked in a breath. "Who?"
"We were picking up a big-time drug dealer," he began slowly. "Dante Malto. He wasn't alone when we found him. There was this prostitute. At first…at first I thought it was you."
He paused to watch her reaction. She didn't so much as flinch. That's my girl, he thought.
"She had your hair," he explained, catching a curl between his fingers and tugging gently. "Anyway, it turns out she was just a kid. Eighteen or nineteen maybe. He'd hurt her, badly. Dios, she looked up at me with these huge blue eyes like she knew that I was there to save her. Just knew that I'd make it better."
He closed his eyes and saw it all again. All he'd been able to perceive in those eyes was Stephanie. Cold and hurt and alone. He'd left the guys to deal with everything. He'd had to get here.
"You were there to save her, Ranger," Steph whispered. "You did make it better."
He shook his head. "I wish I could have."
He felt her eyes on him as they sat there in silence for several moments.
"Did you take her to the hospital?" She asked finally.
"I had Santos take her."
She reached over and tipped his chin up until their eyes met once more.
"Will you take me to meet her tomorrow?"
Really, he should have expected her reaction. Steph was always trying to save those around her; taking under her wing retired ho's, washed out stoners, and hard-edged mercenaries. He nodded.
"If she's still there. Girls like her have a habit of disappearing from hospitals. Doctors ask too many questions, provide too many hard truths. Not to mention the threat of the cops showing up."
She nodded in understanding. "We'll go first thing in the morning. The hospital has early visiting hours."
He knew he should stand, knew that it was time to leave. But he couldn't bring himself to move away from her.
"You're exhausted," he heard her whisper as her fingers brushed his jaw-line. "Why don't you just sleep here?"
He didn't have the energy or the will to argue. The adrenaline from earlier was ebbing. Now that he had convinced himself of her safety, it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. So instead, he pulled off his shirt and slipped under the covers with her. He flicked off the light once she was settled down beside him, and pulled her into his arms, holding her close and tucking his face into her soft curls.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep, he heard her whisper the one thing he hadn't known he needed to hear until it slipped past her lips.
"I'm fine, Ranger. How could I not be with you always protecting me?"
His arms tightened around her and he smiled gently as her breathing evened and he followed her into oblivion.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading, and don't forget to let me know what you thought!
Check out my profile to vote for the names of the new characters in my (as yet unposted) new Plum fic. Thanks to those who voted on the last one! The results of that one are also in my profile.