Note: The characters, places, and descriptions in this story recognizable as Janet Evanovich's are used solely for entertainment purposes.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I drove from the Burg to my apartment. The streetlights overhead were blurry blobs of steaming yellow-orange light and I couldn't see worth a damn. I stopped for a red light and dug around in my bag for a tissue. When I found it, I glanced up and found the light was still red, so I took a moment to clean up my face. Mostly, I dried my eyes so I didn't wrap my little red Nissan Sentra around a light pole.
The light changed and I plunged ahead, fresh tears leaking out, eyes blurring again. "Damn it!" I shouted and thumped the steering wheel with my hand. If there was anything I hated, it was crying. Not only did it make me feel like crap the next morning, but it also made me look like crap.
I'd been doing a lot of crying lately. Stephanie Plum, the Bombshell Bounty Hunter and royal fuck up extraordinaire. Calling myself a bounty hunter feels like a courtesy title only. I have no problem finding skips due to my quick wit and a keen sixth sense, but apprehending them is another story. I have no apprehension skills save for blind luck and sheer guts.
Sometimes I wondered what kind of crazy pill I was on when I went to my cousin Vinnie's bail bonds office to demand this job from him. He'd given me a challenge he thought I wouldn't pass to bring in Joe Morelli, but pass it I did. The problem is: my life's a wreck and every time I do a takedown, something dramatic happens. Or more like traumatic. I'm a joke to the Trenton Police Department and the object of my mother's nightmares.
I pulled into the parking lot of my red brick apartment building and found a parking space about a hundred miles from the door. It was two in the morning and I was tired, depressed, and now suddenly single … again. Morelli, my on-again, and now off-again boyfriend, and I had a monstrous fight that ended in some of his dishes being broken, a lot of hand flailing, Italian sign language, and then me stomping off in the night.
He may be six feet of lean, hot Italian good looks, but he has a lot to learn about patience and unconditional love. He knows the way around a woman's body like I know my way around Macy's shoe department. Sex with him was always steamy, exhilarating, and kept me coming back for more. As a teen, Morelli had been wild and reckless. As an adult, he was controlled and dangerous. I had experienced both Morelli's naked and I preferred the controlled and dangerous adult, I just wish he'd stop acting like … the commitment-phobe he is.
Tonight, he'd accused me of wanting to redecorate his kitchen. For the second time since we started this dysfunctional relationship. In truth, he was probably right. But Morelli didn't want to marry me, he'd told me so. I wasn't sure if I wanted to marry him, either, to be honest. I just got thoughts on the subject once in a while.
Feeling unloved, unwanted, and a lot pissed off, I'd stormed out. Now, I was sitting in my parking lot with tears streaming down my face and an empty apartment to greet me. Luckily, my pet hamster, Rex, didn't have any reservations about living with me. I could always count on our relationship. I gave him food and he wiggled his whiskers at me. Simple. I like simple.
I entered the back door of my building and rode the elevator up to my apartment. It's a small one-bedroom apartment and, since my income doesn't come at regular intervals, I don't have a lot of luxuries, such as decorations, matching furniture, or food in my refrigerator. I have a kitchen with a few dishes and a pot, a living room with a couch, a chair, and a television, a bathroom with a shower curtain, and a bedroom with a bed, a dresser, and a closet full of clothes. Thanks to my job, I tend to have to replace those clothes quite often.
I unlocked my apartment door and trudged in, emotionally spent and physically exhausted. Not feeling like getting undressed, I flopped onto my couch and dozed off. I woke up later to the sound of scratching and a weird metallic scraping noise. My head snapped up just as my front door opened and a tall, dark figure entered. I would have been terrified if I hadn't recognized the outline of possibly the best body in Trenton: painted on black t-shirt, long hair pulled back at the nape of the neck, bulging muscular thighs and biceps. Ranger.
His head turned in my direction and he walked over to the couch. "Babe."
Every time I saw him after an absence, I thanked my lucky stars that Connie had put me in touch with him. That one meeting so long ago in a crappy little café made me a great friend and mentor. Eh, the one time we'd had sex was good, too. If you can call amazing beyond all reason good.
I sat up and switched on a lamp as he sat down beside me on the couch.
He studied me for a minute before saying, "You slept in your clothes."
"Yeah, didn't feel like getting undressed."
"You've been crying."
I nodded and resisted the urge to point out his amazing deductive powers.
Ranger stared at me with his dark brown eyes, silent. No telling what was going on inside his head and he didn't usually divulge that information, either. My eyes trailed over his light mocha colored skin before settling on his mouth, which now displayed a knowing smile. Oops. I had to be careful about the messages I sent Ranger. He was always looking for a reason to get back into my bed and reminded me of it at every opportunity.
"So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" I asked.
"If you want pleasure, I can take care of that," he said, his eyes trailing over my body.
Normally, I would joke back. Tonight, my eyes watered and a few tears slipped out. Damn!
"You want to talk about it?" he asked.
I shook my head and swiped at my eyes, smearing away one tear after another. I thought I was going to regain control when he put his arm around me and drew me against his side, pressing my head to his shoulder. If he hadn't been so nice, I would have recovered. As it is, I'm not the sort of woman who can control herself when someone is sweet to her during a sad moment. To my horror, I was overcome with emotion and wailed into his shoulder for a good ten minutes. Completely embarrassing.
He sat silently, rubbing my arm, holding me, and handing me tissues from the box on the side table. When my crying subsided to hiccups and sniffles, he pulled back so he could look at me. "Morelli?"
I snorted. "Who else?"
I nodded again.
"He's an idiot."
I smiled. "Thanks."
"Cheat on you?"
I shook my head.
"Ah," he said.
I looked at him, "What?"
"Broken heart?" he asked, his fingertips working the muscles in the back of my neck.
I thought for a few moments. "I don't know if it's a broken heart. It's more like I'm broken."
He stared at me. "Broken?"
"A failure. I can't make anything work. I'm over thirty, can't keep a boyfriend, and I have a crazy mother that treats me like it's the end of the world that I haven't produced grandchildren for her to spoil." I sniffed and felt even more foolish for whining about my life.
"Is it the end of the world?"
I screwed up my face to keep from crying. "Not to me." I stood up and walked toward the kitchen. "Sure, every girl wants to find that guy who's going to worship her forever. But somehow when I grew up, that worship didn't extend to kids in my head. And the worship thing hasn't really worked out for me so far, either."
I turned around and bumped into his chest. I looked up and met his brown eyes with my blue ones. His hands closed around my upper arms and he pulled me up close to him until my nose was touching his and my feet left the floor. "Do you want to be worshipped?" he asked. His voice was quiet, and his eyes were melted dark chocolate pools in his tanned face and closing in on me.
I gulped and my mouth went dry. I knew what it was like to experience just a smidge of Ranger's style of 'woman worship' and I wasn't sure if I could survive the full onslaught. I shook my head a little and he set me down. I was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when he leaned down and dusted his lips over mine in a feathery light caress.
I felt as if I'd been zapped by a 9-volt battery. The jolt travelled from my lips down to my pelvis. I opened my mouth in a little gasp and he leaned in again, this time with a soft kiss. Another shock jolted through my body, this time lighting up my nipples and causing my pelvic muscles to contract. A tiny moan escaped the back of my throat and my eyes fluttered closed.
His hand slid into my hair and he pressed me close to him as he deepened the kiss, lightly tasting my mouth with his tongue. Alarmed at the intensity, I mustered up all of my strength and pulled back, my breath coming in gasps and my heart slamming against my rib cage. One more minute of kissing and I would have been begging for a little worship.
He stared at me, his eyes pure black, like a shark on a trail of blood. Just seeing the desire in them nearly made collapse. He was possibly the most dangerous man I'd ever known. It had been downright depressing to argue with Morelli tonight. I had a feeling this man would destroy me if I let him in.
After a minute, he stepped back and folded his arms across his chest. I put my hand on the back of my dining chair to steady myself. "I have something to take your mind off Morelli."
I cocked my head at him and narrowed my eyes.
"Not that. Although, the offer stands anytime you're interested." I rolled my eyes and he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a white envelope. "This."
I took the envelope and opened it. It was a brochure for a cruise to the Caribbean. I snapped my eyes up to his. "You want to take me on a cruise?"
He smiled. Ranger's smile could disarm a band of murderous Amazonian women. I willed my heart to calm down and flipped through the brochure.
"It's a mission."
I cocked an eyebrow at him. "A mission out at sea?"
He nodded. "We'd have to leave..." he glanced at his watch "in about ten minutes to catch the plane down to Florida. We take off at 0500."
My jaw dropped. "What? I can't pack for a cruise in ten minutes!"
"Your bags are packed."
"Wardrobe?" I asked. He nodded. Figured. Ranger usually provided a wardrobe for me when I did any work for him. "What's my role?"
"Private cocktail waitress, slash escort." I thought I saw his lips twitch.
My hands went to my hips. "Tell me that it isn't the kind of escort who leaves her dates with the happy ending."
He shook his head once. "No. This is a luxury cruise and they cater to their wealthy clients very well. Personal assistants, designated waitresses, all that. You'll be personally assigned to one of their clients."
I gave him a small glare. "A waitress? So, I'm assuming the guy I'm assigned to is our mission. Are we guarding him?"
He shook his head. "He's a high bond skip Vinnie needs me to bring in. Sonny D'Amico."
"Sonny "the shoes" D'Amico?" I asked. "You want me to spend time charming him?"
"That's the idea."
"You know why they call him "the shoes," right? He presses his shoe against your neck, cutting off your air until you die! Sounds like a great time, Mr. D'Amico. Sure, I'd love to be your personal escort." I snorted and crossed my arms.
"Nothing to worry about. We just need someone to serve him drinks and keep him happy so we can snoop. Tank, Bobby and Ram are coming. We're security." He walked to my coat closet and pulled out a jacket for me.
"What did he do?"
"Murdered a couple of people." He shrugged.
Only six? "And you want me to spend close, intimate time with him," I said as my voice hitched up a notch.
"No. No intimate time. Dinner, dancing, walking around the ship. Employee rules forbid you from entering his room, so you'll have an excuse not to go with him." His face was unreadable, but there was a line between his eyebrows that hadn't been there before.
"Still seems risky. I thought you liked me."
"I love you, babe. And I'd never put you in danger you couldn't handle." He dropped a kiss on to the top of my head and walked over to the table where Rex's cage sat and picked it up. He probably thought he distracted me from hearing him say he loved me without qualifying it, but I'd tucked that little statement away to ponder another time.
"What are you doing with Rex?" I asked, walking over to check that he wasn't upset.
"Ella is going to take care of him."
I sighed and looked around. It wasn't as if I had anything pressing going on. I'd just completed my last skip yesterday. A domestic violence case. A woman had stabbed a fork into her husband's scrotum when he told her he wanted a divorce. He filed charges and she'd skipped out on her court date. It was actually one of my more mild cases lately.
"Okay, but I need to tell my mother. She'll panic."
He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. "Sorry, babe. You can't tell anyone. D'Amico has eyes and ears all over this town. You can't risk someone blowing your cover. It's safest for this mission if you just disappear."
"Ranger! She'll worry and I don't mean normal worry. I'm talking calling-the-National-Guard worrying." I put my hands up to my temples and rubbed them. "Can I at least leave a note?"
"It's best to just leave." I nibbled on my lower lip. He walked over to me and slid his hand beneath my chin, tipping it up so he could look me in the eye. "It's one week. I know people will worry and I don't like to do it, but we have to keep this quiet."
He was right. We had to do it this way. D'Amico knew too many people. In Trenton. In New Jersey. Hell, in the whole country.
"You ready?" he asked.
I nodded. Oh boy. Here we go to the Caribbean.
With my fake New York license and fake passport in hand, I followed Ranger through the security check point at Trenton Mercer airport. Ranger had secured a private jet for our flight down since it would be easier for us to travel inconspicuously that way. He had received the details that D'Amico's was taking this cruise late in the game, so finding commercial flights to get us there on time had been impossible.
My name was now Cassandra Zanetti. I was a waitress on the King Louis V, a luxury cruise liner that catered to the rich and famous. I was on my way out of New Jersey without so much as a word to anyone I knew. I dreaded the pandemonium I'd come back to find. For now, I just focused on learning about my character.
I was an actress wannabe from New York City, looking to do television, but my goal was the big screen. Oh brother. I'd been married twice, once at seventeen, with my parents' permission, and again at twenty-three. Both marriages had lasted a year. I had no children, thank God, and this was an in-between job for me.
We got into our seats and buckled up for the take-off. I looked at Ranger. He squeezed the back of my neck and settled in to his seat. "How long until we're there?" I asked.
"Roughly an hour." He clicked his belt together and turned to look at me. "I can think of a few things to keep your mind busy if you're bored."
The thought of what those things might be sent a zing of pleasure right to my hoo-hah. His eyes darkened slightly and he leaned closer to me. "Watch your thoughts, babe. I'm only human."
I nodded and made myself busy leafing through a magazine. Tank, Bobby, and Ram filed past us and got into their seats. Everything grew quiet and the plane started moving to pull out to taxi. I turned back to Ranger. "There's something I don't understand."
He looked at me, which was about as much of an invitation as I'd receive from him.
"Why do we need to actually do the cruise? Why can't we just catch him as he's boarding and be done with it? This seems a little overboard just to catch a skip." It had been nagging in my mind, but I'd been too tired to think of earlier. I was still tired, but the excitement of the trip woke me up some.
He just stared at me. There was more to this mission than he was telling me.
I leaned toward him and whispered in his ear, "Are you going to keep this a big secret from me for the whole time?" No response. Great.
I could hear the plane gearing up for the takeoff and I yawned and looked out my window, suddenly remembering that I'd only gotten a couple of hours sleep after I got home from Morelli's.
The plane began to taxi and pulled into the air within a few moments and the next thing I knew, Ranger was gently shaking me awake. I opened one eye and saw Bobby and then Ram exit the plane. I sat up and looked at Ranger. I'd been cuddled against his side under his arm with my head on his shoulder.
"What's the matter?" I asked around a yawn. "Did something happen?"
He smiled and tucked a curl behind my ear. "We're here."
I sat up and looked outside. Sure enough, the airport looked different. Gone were the black morning sky and New Jersey smog and in their place were a blue, cloudless sky and palm trees. Mornings in Florida certainly beat mornings in Trenton. "I hardly remember us taking off." I turned back to him. He was still sitting there watching me. "I'm sorry."
"Falling asleep on you." I reached under my seat and grabbed my purse.
"You didn't. You fell asleep on the window and I moved you." My mouth formed a little 'oh' and I smiled sheepishly. "It looked uncomfortable."
He leaned forward and kissed me softly, and then he stood and exited the plane. I followed suit accepting his hand to help me down the stairs. The heat hit me as soon as soon as I approached the hatch. I seriously wish I wasn't wearing a sweatshirt and jeans right now. Once my feet were on terra firma, he pressed his hand to the small of my back and ushered me across the tarmac to the little office at the private airstrip.
About forty-five minutes later, we arrived at the King Pin Cruises offices where Ranger met with the employee relations director. They were cooperating with Rangeman on this assignment because the knowledge of D'Amico's past activities made them nervous to have him on board their ship. They wanted us there to help keep him out of trouble as much as we wanted to be there to get him off the streets.
While I was waiting, I pulled out my cell phone and checked to see if I had any phone messages. Even if I'd been gone only a few hours, the nervousness of just disappearing like this was getting to me. There was just one message from Morelli on my machine. "Call me."
I sighed and closed my phone. This was going to be a long week.
Tank was with Ranger and I was seated between Bobby and Ram. We were all silent while we waited. I thought I would go crazy by the time Ranger and Tank returned. The three of us stood and followed them out of the building and loaded into the rented black Lincoln Navigator, Ram in the back, Bobby and I in the middle seat, and Ranger driving with Tank riding shotgun.
Ranger looked at me in the rearview mirror. "We're going to stay on the ship tonight so we can set up our surveillance systems. It's going to be a couple of hours before we're there if you want to rest." I nodded and, since I felt groggy, leaned my seat back and dozed off.
When I woke up, I was in Ranger's arms and he was carrying me through a small door in a narrow hallway. As he stepped through, I saw that it was a small bedroom and I figured we must be on the ship. The bedspread was burgundy silk. There was a massive quantity of pillows on the bed. The carpet was thick plush carpeting in a rich tan color and the walls were paneled in a light oak.
Near the door was a light oak writing desk with a matching chair and a seat that matched the bedspread. On the far wall was a light oak four drawer dresser. There was an oak door immediately to our right, which I guessed to be the bathroom, and a closet with ornately mirrored doors next to the dresser.
I smiled sleepily at Ranger and he smiled back. "You didn't want to wake up."
Slightly embarrassed, I moved to slide my legs down, but he held me fast. "I can help with setup if you want."
He smiled and shook his head. "You can rest. It won't take us long."
"I must be getting heavy. I'm not exactly a lightweight," I said nervously.
His eyes were focused on mine. He laid me on the bed and remained over me, a hand on either side of my shoulders, never removing his eyes from mine. I saw black fire smoldering in their depths and my breath caught in my throat. His hand slid to my jaw and he leaned down to kiss me.
This kiss was different than all the others. It was filled with desire and heat. He deepened the kiss, teasing and tasting with his tongue. His hand slid down my neck, down to my breast and he lightly caressed his thumb over my nipple through my sweatshirt.
Holy hell, this man could set an iceberg on fire. My blood felt like lava coursing through my veins, carrying heat to all of my extremities. I arched my back to press against his hand and he broke the kiss and stood up, his breathing slow and even.
I stared at him, my breath coming in gasps, fighting off the weakness that had overtaken me.
He blew out a breath. "My guys are waiting for me. We have a short window of opportunity." He leaned down and planted a quick kiss to the base of my neck. "Back later, babe."
Back later? I watched him walk out the door and worried about what later would bring. I was too wide awake now to sleep, so I decided to walk around the ship and get a feel for the lay of the land. I looked to my right and left when I walked out through the door and saw daylight to my right, so I followed it.
There was a stairwell through another small doorway and I looked up the stairs and saw that there were a couple of flights and the daylight got brighter near the top, so I started climbing. At the top, I walked outside onto a beautiful wooden deck. The ship was huge. It looked like a small country to me. There was a really large swimming pool a couple of stories down on what I guessed to be the main deck.
I was standing in the middle of a walkway that had stairs going down on either side. There were workers cleaning and setting things up all over the main deck. Carts with supplies were being pushed here and there. Everyone was in a flurry of activity making final preparations for the voyage. I was about to take the stairs in front of me when I felt a hand at my elbow.
I turned around to face Ranger. "What are you doing?"
"You need to stay out of sight until the crew finishes their work."
"You didn't tell me."
"I'm telling you now." He pulled me inside and led me back to my cabin. "I thought you'd go back to sleep."
"You woke me up." This earned me the two hundred watt smile.
"Do you want to come with me? Will that keep you out of trouble?" he asked.
I nodded. "It would be a start."
His arm snaked around my waist and pulled me in close. He locked eyes with me. "I never seem to be able to keep my hands off you."
My eyes widened a fraction. "Put them in your pockets."
He smiled and squeezed me tighter. "I don't think you really want me to do that."
"Yes I do."
"No, you don't." He punctuated each word with a kiss down my neck. Oh God, he was right. Heaven help me, I was glad he put his hands on me. It might be scary to be sucked into his force field, but it was also a damn good time.
I sighed. "You're right, I don't." I put a finger to his lips. "But, I'm also a little bruised right now. Can you just keep that in mind? It's hard enough for me to keep my head on straight when things are going well. Turning you down when my life is a mess is … nearly impossible."
He dropped a kiss on top of my head and stood back. "Okay, I'll give you time. A little time. Some things are inevitable, babe. Just remember that."
Wow. I nodded and followed him back down the stairs and the opposite way down the passageway from where I'd come.
We went up another flight of stairs and ended up in an ornately decorated passageway. There was a door on each wall stained a dark mahogany. The carpet was cream with mauve and brown fleur de lis running down the sides. On the doors were gold plaques and golden peep holes.
Ranger turned to me. "Executive state cabins."
I raised my eyebrows. Impressive. He knocked on one of the doors. It opened and Tank stepped out. "You done?" Tank nodded. "Okay, take Stephanie with you to the dining room. She should meet the Maître d' before she starts her shift tomorrow." Tank nodded. I turned to Ranger, but he was already heading back the way we had come. I turned to Tank and smiled.
He grinned and inclined his head and I followed him down the passageway. Tank's not one for talking, but he is a big softy. He was my favorite of Ranger's men, probably because of the pictures of all the cats he keeps in his wallet. Another guy at Rangeman, Ramon, can be chummy, but I suspect he got a lecture from Ranger about how closely he was associating with me because he's been more aloof lately. There is an understanding at Rangeman that I am Ranger's property, whatever that means.
We entered the state dining room where the crème de la crème would eat. This was where I would be the personal escort to D'Amico. What a weird setup. I supposed you really could have anything if you had enough money.
The room was fully decked out and rich. The walls and ceiling were wood paneled in cherry, the wooden floor was cherry with four huge area rugs in deep emerald and cream with taupe accents. Eight crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, twenty cherry wood tables were placed strategically around the room with matching chairs and covered with linen table cloths, full place settings, bone china, crystal glassware ... real silver. It was something you'd expect in Buckingham Palace, not a freaking cruise ship.
"Whoa," I said.
Tank raised his eyebrows. I smiled at him again.
I looked around and saw a door discreetly embedded into the paneling to my left. There were a couple of swinging cherry wood doors that obviously came from the kitchen, but this door was different. I nodded toward the door and we walked over.
I rapped on the door with my knuckles and heard a muffled sing-song voice call out, "Come in!"
I moved to open the door and Tank blocked me, gave me a look that said "this is my job", and opened the door. I shrugged and walked in behind him. A skinny little man was sitting at a neat cherry roll top desk writing in a ledger. He had wire framed glasses, a pair of grey dress slacks, white dress shirt that was pressed and buttoned, and a burgundy cashmere sweater vest over top. He was balding with a little bit of sandy blonde hair in the back of his head. He kept the top neatly trimmed.
Pale green eyes looked at us through the lenses, taking in the sight of Tank, who was easily the size of three of him, and me, sleep rumpled and travel worn. "Yes, may I help you?" He enunciated each syllable with precision.
I decided to take it from here and pushed past Tank to stand before the man. "Hi, I'm Cassandra Zanetti. I was told to come and meet you before the guests began arriving tomorrow."
"I'm Mr. Quist." He looked me over from top to bottom. "You will have appropriate attire to wear for the guests, I assume?"
Prick. "Yes, of course. I apologize for my appearance now. I was called up suddenly and had to fly in from New York at a moment's notice this morning," I explained.
He nodded and smiled. "Of course. Let me see." He rifled through a file drawer and pulled out a schedule. "Ah, yes. You will be accompanying a Mr. D'Amico. He has requested a companion to for the evenings. You will be with him from five pm until midnight each night." He handed me an envelope. "In there you will find your key to the staff room where you can retrieve anything he will need following dinner. If he wants a snack, a drink, anything. Also, you have access to all decks, beverage, and food stations on the ship at all hours, on the clock or not."
I was a bit stunned. He must have sensed my shock, because he looked at me over his rims and asked, "Is there a problem?"
"No. No problem at all." I gave him my brightest Miss America smile. Might as well start playing the part of the wanna-be actress, right?
"Good. You will be on-call just in case he should request your presence from ten am until two pm, with the exception of Tuesday and Thursday. Those are your afternoons off. Mr. D'Amico is aware of this arrangement. The hours outside of ten to two and five to twelve are yours to do whatever you want at your leisure. Tardiness will not be tolerated."
He gave me a lanyard with a badge attached. "This will give you access anywhere. Guests are not allowed in your room and you are not allowed in theirs. Mr. D'Amico will have been briefed on this, but sometimes our guests can be, eh, persistent. This is a respectable business. We do not engage in illegal activities and if you accept any money or other expensive gifts from Mr. D'Amico, your employment will be immediately terminated and we will return you to the States." He stood and smiled. "Any questions?"
The little twerp was about five foot four and bigger than his britches. Figured. "None whatsoever. I am on-call tomorrow morning beginning at 10 am. How do I know if Mr. D'Amico needs me?"
He reached into the top right drawer of his desk. "You will wear this pager. If he requests your presence, this will notify you. You are correct that you are on-call tomorrow morning. Each evening at four forty five, you must report to the staff lounge ... on time." He smiled. I had a nasty feeling he knew about my tardy record.
"Done," I said. Ranger was so in trouble.