Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, they belong to Janet Evanovich. I just like to play with them for a bit.

I'm feeling guilty about starting this fic when I have so many uncompleted ones which I haven't updated in ages (years!). I've recently become a bit of a Tart lover (Merry Men! Yum!) and this is my contribution to what I'm hoping will become a more popular pairing/s in the Plum universe. I hope you enjoy!

Warning: this fic is not Babe or Cupcake.


What Comes Next?

Chapter One


I sighed as I pulled on my black cargo pants and polo shirt. I shouldn't be sighing, because for once, my life was actually on track.

I was doing fantastically in my job and I have managed to put a nice bundle of money into savings. I've had my apartment renovated with a magnificent new bathroom. My current car isn't pre-loved (or hated, as was the case with some of them previously) and has lasted past the six month period, a new record for me. I've even dealt with my conflicting emotions concerning Morelli and Ranger.

So – all in all – life should be great. Right?

I make my way into my kitchen to pour a cup of coffee, adding the required cream and sugar.

Ok, so life should be great, but it isn't.

Sipping my coffee, I think back to that week, seven months ago that changed everything.


One of my previous skips, Denny Johnson, had been released from jail, and was out to get me. So having a crazy after me wasn't particularly unusual, and this time after getting my current car blown up by him I was out for revenge. Not to mention he was FTA again, and my cut of the money if I bought him in would be enough to live off for at least a month and half.

Now, Denny Johnson wasn't easy to bring in the first time. After having gotten away from me for the fourth time in as many days, and leaving me covered in garbage, he thought he would be safe for a night, and hit one of his favourite local haunts. Big mistake. He had broken my good luck at avoiding being covered in garbage for two weeks, and nobody was getting away with that. Not to mention I had to drive the dreaded Buick again due to him.

So after Denny had gotten himself so drunk he could barely crawl, let alone walk, and kicked out of the bar, I just walked straight up and led him to the backseat of my car. He thought I was a taxi driver. When he had passed out in the back, I hogtied him up and hightailed it to the police station.

Eddie was filling in on the desk when I got to the station and with the help of another officer got Denny out my car and into a cell. He joked about losing the most recent betting pool on me, especially after the week's earlier car bombing and garbage incident. I just smirked smugly as I received my body receipt and swang back to my car. As soon as I made it back to my apartment I fell into bed, feeling pretty good about myself.

The good mood continued as I woke up to the smell of fresh coffee and donuts. Bouncing into my kitchen I found both items sitting on the counter with a note. I'm proud of you Babe. Ranger. Grinning I grabbed my coffee and started and to get ready for the day.

Now – this is where it all starts to go downhill. I headed into the Bonds office with my body receipt for Denny and half a dozen Boston Creams, and who should be waiting outside but Morelli. I ignored him while Connie wrote my check and gave me some more FTA files which had come in. I chucked the donuts to Lula to keep her occupied and went outside to talk to Morelli.

When I got out there, I could tell he was mad. Clenching and unclenching his fists. His jaw was tight. And the muscles in his shoulders were tense.

"Denny Johnson?" was all Morelli said.

My smug smile from the night before spread across my face, "Yeah?"

That made Morelli lose it. He was shouting and waving his arms around, going on about how I shouldn't have even tried to bring Denny in, and was amazed that I managed it without getting myself killed. He even threw in the whole 'I won't be letting you do this once we're married' and 'you'll never see Ranger or his goons again' crap.

I just stood there, waiting for the temper tantrum to blow over, my foot tapping calmly and my arms crossed over my chest. Lula and Connie were watching out the window of the bonds office, and I think I even saw Vinnie poke his head out to see what the ruckus was. Not to mention some passersby had stopped to watch the scene.

When Morelli had finally run out of steam, I just looked at him and said, "We're over Joe. I'm not marrying you now or ever. Please don't contact me again." I had decided a couple days beforehand to break it off permanently with Morelli. No more of this on-off again relationship. It wasn't healthy for either of us. After making my short speech I started to walk to the Buick. Unfortunately I hadn't made it very far when Morelli's hand grasped my left wrist and jerked me around to face him, the motion causing my wrist to bend in an unnatural position. I could hear a sickening crunching sound and then pain.

The last I remembered seeing was Lula pushing Morelli away and holding him at gunpoint, then Connie's voice shouting for an ambulance for me. That's when I dropped into unconsciousness.

I don't actually remember much from the rest of that day, except for waking up in hospital with a heavy cast on my left wrist. But Lula and Connie (not to mention my mother and grandmother) have filled me in on what happened after I passed out.

Lula really did hold Morelli at gunpoint, until the police showed up. Eddie and Big Dog were the first on the scene and managed to get a photo on Big Dog's phone of it. Lula now has that photo framed and sitting upon her mantle piece. I got taken away in an ambulance to St. Francis' hospital, while Lula and Connie filled in the police on what had happened and statements were taken from the people who had been watching. Apparently Eddie and Big Dog were so angry that they took Morelli into the station in the back of their patrol car. And booked him with physical abuse.

I was told that throughout the whole process, Morelli had looked sick and pale. Apparently he hadn't meant to hurt me. Even though I was angry as hell, especially about having to wear a freaking cast on my arm, I've let the charges drop on the condition that Morelli leaves me alone and doesn't make contact. So far he has kept this condition, except to apologise about it. And the guys down at the station make sure of it as well. I don't think they've forgiven him, even though it was only an accident.

After being released from hospital I gladly headed home, courtesy of a lift from my Dad. He helped me up to my apartment and kissed my check. "I'm proud of you Stephanie" was all he said before ambling back down the hallway. I shrugged and used my key to open my apartment door. I was tired and all I wanted to do was take some painkillers for my arm, then crawl into bed.

My plans were ruined however, because when I stepped into my apartment and had closed and locked the door, I felt Ranger's presence. "Babe" was all he said before pushing me up against the wall and giving me a mind-melting kiss. ..

But something wasn't quite right about the kiss, and both Ranger and I pulled back. I must have looked shocked, and he looked confused.

It took us both a second to realise what was wrong...

There was no chemistry. Nada. Nil. Zilch.

After three or so years of built up sexual chemistry, not to mention that amazing single night, it floored both of us that there was nothing there.

I gave Ranger a shaky smile, and held out my hand for a handshake, "Friends?"

He grasped my good hand and softly pulled me in against his chest for a hug, "Yeah, Babe. Friends."

After that we sat on my couch drinking a beer each and just talking. During this conservation, Ranger offered me a position at Rangeman. No – not because he was feeling sorry for me, because I wouldn't be able chase skips with one wrist in a cast - but because he was impressed with how I handled the final Denny Johnson takedown. He mentioned something about finally having the patience to sit and wait out a decent plan for a takedown.

So starting on the Monday I started working full time at Rangeman. I realised how much leeway I had been given before, because this time I was treated exactly like a new recruit. I'm happy about this now, though it took a bit of getting used to at the beginning.

It turns out that for the first six months of employment, new recruits don't do any fieldwork. They learn the ins and outs of Rangeman. This involves learning everything. Computers, background searches, breaking and entering, protocols for fieldwork, guns and weapons... Everything.

Of course, due to my wrist being in a cast for the first six weeks of employment I was restricted to working with Hector. At first I was a bit scared due to the gang tattoos (especially the teardrop) and not being able to understand each other, but we clarified everything quick enough. It turns out Hector does speak English. Very good English. But he likes to make others think he can't – it means he can just get his work done without the idle chitchat, and people will talk around him thinking he can't understand. Which is extremely useful for gathering information. I still haven't found out about the tattoos, but Hector doesn't give off a bad vibe or set my spidery tingle off so I've left the topic alone.

He showed me how to weave my way through masses of information, computer data and background searches. He even (sneakily) taught me how to hack into basic systems and networks and not get caught. I learnt how to wire up security monitors and devices. Hector started to turn me into techie. He even joked that he was starting to run out of things to teach me, and that he never heard "so, what comes next?" out of one persons mouth so often.

After my cast got taken off, the routine changed a bit. Exercising, self defence, street fighting and weaponry were all covered. Now I look forward to hitting the mat with my training buddy Bobby. I've even managed to beat him a couple times recently.

Ranger and I are friends, and we act exactly like that. The guys at Rangeman felt the shift in our relationship that first day I started working there. They were confused at first, but are more comfortable with me being around, and I've become close friends with a lot of them. It's something that wouldn't have happened if Ranger and I had still had the 'chemistry' going on.

Even my mother has let up recently about my job and has stopped setting me up on blind dates. I think she's just happy I'm not having my car blown up on a regular basis, and isn't receiving phone calls asking about why I was covered in Vaseline.


So, as I said before, life was going great. Or was meant to be.

Which brings me back to my sighing.