A/N:Warnings: Language, kissing/adult themes, some violence, minimal angst. Rated – PG15
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, settings, etc. from the PLUM series are the property of Janet Evanovich. No copyright infringement is intended. I am not making any profit; all credit goes to the aforementioned author.
Summary: Once again, Stephanie finds herself in trouble with one of her skips. Will the Man in Black reach her in time to save her? Will the skip be captured in time? Babe HEA.For Jenny & Das's women's history month challenge: two prompts and eight words used.
The Master of Time
Thirty minutes ago, I was fast asleep, in the peaceful land of dreams, blissfully unaware that my night was about to turn unbelievably shitty. After being rudely awaken, I'd unfortunately found myself very aware of the turn of events and none too happy about them. Maybe my lacking attitude was just because I wasn't a morning person. Then again, maybe not.
My name is Stephanie Plum.
I'm a jersey girl at heart. My hair is brown, curly and wild, my eyes are blue, my figure is okay and I can roll my eyes with the best of them. My death glare may need some fine tuning, though.
For the most part, I'm an okay bounty hunter with a rocky love life and a whole lot of luck. The odds are still up in the air about whether I have really bad luck, or insanely good luck, but regardless, I always manage to get my man. I also always manage to get myself into unbelievable and crazy predicaments and most of the time I come out with only a few scratches.
This is one of those predicaments, however at the moment it would appear I'm a terrible bounty hunter and as of a handful weeks ago, I also have no love life. Things, they are a changing, and not for the good, it seems. The only good thin about this situation, was that I had leant Rex to Mary-Alice for the night so she could take him into school tomorrow. At least he wasn't exposed to this.
It was three am, and I was very nearly considering grabbing my gun out of my cookie jar, scrounging for some bullets in my junk draw, and shooting myself. That would be the plan, anyway, if I could get to my cookie jar. The reason for my sudden death wish was blocking my access, or my escape route. There was also some electronic do-hickey attached to my window, preventing me from climbing out and down the fire escape. In my professional opinion, it looked like a bomb, but I didn't want to get myself worked up into a panic, so I was trying not to think about it.
Denial is always your friend.
My real life nightmare that had begun thirty minutes prior was, of course, not my fault. How was it my fault that my skip was loony and decided he had a bone to pick with me, that he wanted me to suffer?
Harry Russo. The name sounded unassuming enough, but let me tell you, if he ever came up in my FTA stack again, he was going straight to Ranger, with a post-it-note attached with a small warning. Harry Russo was apparently twenty-eight years old, there was no picture provided, but the file said he was five foot ten, with short, dull brown hair, Caucasian, brown eyes, and 160 pounds. The file failed to mention he was completely crazy, that would be what the post-it-note would read. That and Mr Russo should be locked away for life and stripped of his rights.
I'd spent the better part of two weeks trying to nab this guy, with no luck. But you know what they say; perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth. It sure seemed like I'd attempted to get a lead on this guy that many times. Time and time again he'd just slipped through my fingers. I hadn't failed to bring in a skip yet, but this one was appearing to be 'the one that got away'. The days left to bring him in were slowly dwindling; I had less than a week. One week and I had no definite leads; no definite anything. I'd exhausted all my burg contacts, chased down any and all related persons and come up with zip. Except for his alternative, and preferred, name; Master of Time. The name should have set the alarm bells ringing; this guy was a complete nut job. He sounded more suited to Diesel's line of work. His fake address now made a little more sense also; 0900 Timemaster Avenue.
Speaking of alarm bells... well rather, alarm clocks. Hundreds, and hundreds of old fashioned alarm clocks had been jammed into my poor excuse for an apartment. They covered the floors like a carpet, were residing on any flat surface and were all rigged together with some wiring. Again, half of my mind was screaming BOMB, IT'S A BOMB, while the other half was trying to tell me to go back to sleep and worry about all this in the morning. Boy would I ever go back to sleep, except for the infernal racket that was emanating from said alarm clocks. This was a moment I envied all the senior citizens in my building with hearing aids that they took out to sleep in. Every five minutes, another twenty or so clocks would start screeching. I couldn't escape for fear of blowing myself to smithereens so I sat dumbly in the middle of my bed and stared around me in amazement. My mind had absolutely nothing helpful to contribute. This was something that would only ever happen to me.
My eyes shot to my bedside table, where my cell phone sat innocently. Unfortunately, I knew I hadn't placed it there when I went to sleep. That could only mean one thing; the time creep had intentionally placed it there. Why had he put it there, was he daring me to call someone for help? Was it all a trick, had he rigged the bomb to blow as soon as I made a call? Was it just stupid mind games on his part, and there really was no bomb, the wiring was just for show?
The only thing I knew was that the noise in my apartment was getting louder, and I wanted out, any way out would do. I decided to take the chance with my cell phone.
Whenever I desperately needed help, only one name came to my mind, only one name would I ever consider calling when finding myself in such a situation, only one man I trusted with my life, even if I didn't trust him with my heart. Ricardo Carlos Manoso, or as most knew him, Ranger. He was once upon a time my mentor, once my lover, and has for a long time been my best friend and the man I'm utterly and irrevocably in love with. His smooth mocha latte skin, captivating dark eyes, dark silky hair, dangerously toned body and killer smile were only some of his many endearing traits.
Ranger was the man who had ruined me for all other men, both physically and emotionally. He'd held my heart and broken it many times, though I was sure I'd never shown him how much his words hurt me... He had never, not once, asked me what I wanted in a relationship with him; had never given me a vote on the matter, simply dismissing me. Our relationship had never been one of equality, he held all the power over me, had more to his name, was better looking... what am I even talking about, we've never had a relationship, not in that sense, anyway.
Ranger had pretty much crushed my hopes of a 'someday' with him, but my heart didn't seem to be on the same page, which was probably why I'd finally called it quits with my long time on and off again boyfriend, Joe Morelli. Joe hadn't fought the end of our relationship much, said he'd see me around, and that was that. With our long history together, we'd decided amicably to stay friends.
Ranger had supposedly arrived back in town last week after more than a few months extended leave. In other words, he'd been in the wind, saving the world, fighting crime, or whatever the hell it was he did that made him so lethal, and his life so dangerous to others. I hadn't seen him yet, it was silly to think I was avoiding him, or he was avoiding me, but it sure felt like a little bit of both.
Sighing heavily, I hit speed dial one and braced myself to shout out a conversation with Ranger at three 'o eight in the morning.
The phone only rang five times before he answered. I exhaled a deep breath when nothing in my apartment appeared to change. Obviously the mystery bomb hadn't gone off. I said a quick prayer of thanks.
"What the fuck?!" I blinked and flinched at his angry voice, which was noticeably husky from sleep.
"Ranger?!" I shouted over the deafening noise. My head was pounding something vicious; I just wanted it to end, just wanted some peace and quiet. I just wanted my freedom, damn it!
I couldn't hear anything on the line for a few long beats and pulled the phone away from my ear to check he hadn't hung up on me. He hadn't.
"Babe?" His voice had changed now; he was awake and alert, ready for action.
"I need your help!" I yelled, cringing as another set of alarm clocks started blaring. I pressed the phone tightly against my ear and plugged my finger in the other ear. Then I buried myself under my duvet, sheets and pillows.
"Where are you, Babe?" I could faintly hear the sound of his sheets rustling as he moved about his room.
"My apartment! I think there's a bomb rigged up to the windows, and probably the doors!" My voice was starting to hurt from all my screeching.
"A bomb." He restated, his tone taking on that deadly edge that let me know his anger was boiling. "I'm on my way with a team, Babe. Sit tight." The dial tone sounded in my ear.
I moved the phone away from my head, ended the call and slid out from under my blanket haven. My eyes roamed the room in dismay while my mind was working furiously.
It was weird how all the alarm clocks faced towards my bed, the moonlight coming in my widow illuminating the plastic. I also found it strange that the wires were running to my bed, rather than away from it. With a big stretch, I managed to flip on my table lamp that was by my bed. It looked so much worse with the lights on; the clocks seemed to be arranged in a pattern, into sections. I crawled to the end of my bed and peered out and chanced a look down. There it was. The bomb. Shit!
I quickly scrambled back up to my head board and hugged my pillow.
I blinked the tears out of my eyes and took another look around, searching for anyway out, or any solution. My heart froze in my chest for a beat as I actually looked at the faces of the alarm clocks closest to me. Each had a letter drawn on their face with a black marker. Together they spelled Time is Up.
I fumbled with my phone, trying to call Ranger back. He had to stay away; I couldn't let him get hurt again because of me. It looked like the clocks were on a countdown timer; the last few near me to ring must set off the bomb. I quickly calculated, and estimated I had maybe fifteen minutes.
I finally managed to hit the right button and squished the phone against my ear.
"Yo!" His voice did little to calm my nerves.
"Ranger, stay away!" I croaked out weakly, unable to keep my sobs at bay. This was really it, the infamous Bombshell Bounty Hunter had met her match... was going to meet her maker.
I started sobbing harder.
"Babe?" I heard him shout out a few instructions in the background before speaking my name again. "Stephanie!"
"S-stay away, R-ranger. You can't c-come here. It's t-too la-late, you won't b-be able to get m-me out." I bawled hysterically.
"Babe. Don't say that." I shook my head, ignoring how his voice cracked.
"It is t-too late. I'm s-sorry for all the tr-trouble I've p-put you through ov-ver the years. I l-love you, you k-know? I love y-you, I'm so-sorry. Thank y-you for everything." I cried harder as I finished speaking. I'd finally worked up the guts to tell him I loved him, only because I'd never see him again and... Shit.
The phone fell loosely from my fingers as I wrapped my arms around my knees and let the tears soak the pillow that was crushed to my chest. I never thought this would be the way I'd go... I always imagined myself growing old, and living like Grandma Mazur. I'd have loved to be one of those women who party hard till the end, living life to the fullest, cherishing each and every day.
I always hoped I'd find someone special to settle down with, maybe start a family a few years down the road, someone I could grow old with and who would love me no matter how many wrinkles I had.
Guess that wasn't meant to be.
The cacophony had reached and all new level of loud, I think I had around seven minutes.
My life flashed before my eyes, me and Joe in his father's garage, and then later behind the Cannoli case, Mary Lou and I getting up to mischief right from the word go, my short marriage to the Dick, my bounty hunting over the past few years... mostly images of Ranger at different moments seemed to race through my mind. Every smile he'd ever given me, the way his eyes got so tender sometimes when he looked at me, how he gently tugged on my curls and placed a warm comforting hand at the back of my neck.
I finally, after all these years, let myself imagine for the first time what our children could have looked like, what type of high-tech house we might have lived in to appease his security worries, what our wedding would have been like... small and romantic, with only a few friends as witnesses...
God, I'd miss him so much.
A new sound emerged in my bedroom. I could only just make it out over the alarm clocks. I popped my head up and scanned the room just in time to see my window shatter into thousands of glass shards. Now why hadn't I thought to break the window?
My heart stopped, and then started beating double time as a strong mocha latte arm, with a black glove on the hand, ran around the frame, clearing loose shards away. He'd come. He'd come for me. He'd come to rescue me even when I told him it was too late...
I watched as the gloved hand inspected the wiring on the sill before disappearing. I didn't dare chance moving, didn't want to wreck whatever small chance I had at being rescued.
The second last group of clocks began blaring and I swallowed thickly, mentally starting the countdown. I sent a quick prayer up to God, praying for Ranger's safety, praying for myself, praying for everyone in and around this building.
Four minutes to go...
I wondered what the hell Ranger was doing out there, if he was by himself or if he'd decided to endanger others' lives even when I'd told him to stay away, if he'd thought about evacuating the other residents in the building, if he'd actually heard my words, heard me say I loved him...
Three minutes to go...
Please Ranger, please don't let me down. I love you so much and you deserve to hear it face to face. Please don't let me die. Please. I love you. You'll always be my knight in shining armour, no matter what, but please, please don't let this be the first time you fail. I need you. I need you so much.
As if he'd heard my thoughts, half of his upper body twisted through my window. His eyes locked on mine and he held both his arms out to me. His fingers made a little come here motion.
Swallowing back my fear, I stood up on my bed. It was a bit of a reach to the window... Blood was rushing through my veins; my pulse was pounding so loudly in my ears, dulling the sounds around me. All I could see was Ranger.
Tears streaking down my face, I took a deep breath and leaned forward, stretching out until I fell into his tight grip. Once he had a solid hold of my arms, I swiftly curled my legs up so I wouldn't knock any of the clocks and inadvertently set off the bomb. My body slammed into the window frame and wall roughly, yet he seemed to easily hold my weight, backing out of the window. I twisted my body so I could crawl through the opening and we both made it out onto the fire escape landing. My knees were shaking, my legs felt like jelly and I was still crying. Time seemed to slow, my movements felt heavy.
"Run!" I screamed and found my body tossed over his shoulder, his muscles moving fluidly as he jumped over the side of the railing and managed to slide down the outside of the fire escape one handed, using his feet to slow down our rapid descent. We landed on the ground roughly, the air rushing from my lungs. Our bodies were more than likely bruised from the impact; my ribs ached, as did my arm. We had collapsed in a pile of limbs, yet he somehow managed to shield my body with his a tenth of a second before a deafening explosion rocked the otherwise quiet Trenton night.
I kept my eyes slammed shut as the noise seemed to drag on for hours. Debris rained down on top of us, mostly plaster and small chunks of wood and concrete.
The roaring in my ears slowly dimmed as I felt two hands on my face, frantic in their inspection. My eyes fluttered open.
"Babe!" Ranger was shouting at me, yet his words were muffled, like I had water in my ears. That gradually faded and I realised just how loud everything around us was. I could hear sirens in the distance, the shouts of some of the Merry Men, the quiet murmurings of the elderly residents from my building. However, my eyes were only on Ranger. One of his arms was bleeding, but otherwise he appeared to be okay.
"Are you alright?" I uttered softly, lifting my arm that didn't hurt to brush his loose hair out of his eyes. His hair was shorter than usual; it didn't quite reach his shoulders.
"Fine, Babe. Just fine." His relief was palpable as I spoke, his head dipping quickly to press his lips to mine in a tender kiss.
I was alive. Ranger was alive. We were kissing. We were okay.
Bobby suddenly replaced Ranger, Ranger moving to kneel by my side, his hands cupping one of mine. A flashlight shone brightly into my eyes, and Bobby's mouth moved at a mile a minute as his fingers prodded and poked.
He found a rather sore spot in my ribs and the world blacked out, my mind welcoming the long due silence.
A warm body was pressed up against my back, and a warm heavy arm was slung low across my hips. My mind slowly began waking up, processing things around me. The quiet beeping of a machine somewhere in the room had me frowning, and I tried to get a grasp on where I was and why.
In a split second it all came flooding back to me; the alarm clocks, the phone call, the bomb, Ranger...
A gasp left my lips and the arm around my hips tightened, drawing me back into a strong familiar body.
"Easy Babe, you're safe. You're okay, querida." His words washed over me, soothing me.
I swallowed, my throat feeling dry, my body one big dull ache, and my head pounding.
"Water?" I croaked, my dry lips cracking as I spoke.
"Sure, Babe." His body shifted from behind me and he eased me over so I was lying on my back.
He was shirtless; bandages were strapped around his chest, arm and hands while sweat pants rested tantalizingly low on his hips.
"You're hurt." I whispered hoarsely as he fiddled with a button next to my bed which raised the top half slightly, allowing me to sit up comfortably.
"Hardly, you broke my fall. How's the pain, Babe?" He asked just before he pressed a straw to my lips, encouraging me to take a drink. After a few sips, I titled my head back.
"I hurt all over, but it's bearable at the moment."Ranger nodded at my answer, carefully cupping my face in both his hands.
"You gave me quite a scare, Babe. I thought the worst when you passed out; internal injuries, haemorrhaging, that you'd hit your head too hard when we landed." His lips pressed against my forehead, my eyelids, my nose, cheeks, and finally, very softly to my lips. "I'm so glad you're okay." He admitted, shocking me slightly. Since when did he share what he was feeling?
"So what is the damage?" I asked wearily, my eyes feeling heavy with fatigue.
"Two broken ribs, a sprained wrist, some bruising and a mild concussion." Taking a deep breath, I realised that would explain why my chest hurt and why it felt so tight; also explained my aching head. All in all though, not too bad.
"And you?" I prompted. A small smile crept onto his lips and he kissed me quickly before climbing back into the small bed, his body curling around mine. I felt his face bury into my hair as he inhaled slowly.
"Bruising, and a few cuts." He murmured.
"Thanks for saving me, again." I confessed quietly.
"No problem, Babe. No problem at all."
We fell silent for a little while. I was just enjoying being held by him, even if my mind was racing. Finally, I couldn't resist asking about some of the things that were on my mind... well namely one, "When can we get out of here?"
His soft laughter surprised me.
"Babe." There was so much warmth in his voice. "As soon as the doctor comes back and gives you the all clear." His lips touched the skin on my neck before he relaxed into the bed once more.
"Any leads?" I questioned uneasily. His body tensed and I instantly regretted bringing it up... although I had to know. What if he was setting up similar predicaments for my family or friends?
"No. Your family's been relocated to a safe house, and your close friends are under surveillance. We'll get him, mi amor." Tears filled my eyes, he always took such good care of me.
"Thank you." I replied quietly, finding his hand and giving it a squeeze.
The good old doctor took that instant to walk in and break up our moment.
"Ms Plum, haven't seen you in a while. How are you feeling?" The doctor barely batted an eyelid at Ranger being in the bed with me. He simply pulled up a chair and sat down, observing us.
I knew he'd seen me before in the ER, but for the life of me, I couldn't recall his name...
"Babe?" Ranger chuckled.
"Huh?" My eyes widened as a smile crept onto the Doc's lips too.
"How are you feeling, Babe?" Ranger prompted.
"Fine, I'm feeling fine. A little sore, my chest feels kind of tight, but the pain killers are doing their job." I answered a little too enthusiastically.
"You're eager to leave, aren't you Ms Plum?" The Doc grinned, standing up and approaching me.
"I hate hospitals. No offense." I added, flinching as he flashed a light in both of my eyes, causing me to flinch away and groan at my quick movements. The Doc then proceeded to prod me like Bobby had.
"Well, I suppose I can release you into the hands of your medic." He was teasing me, the ass-hat. He supposed...
"Wait, medic?" I wondered, biting back a more sarcastic response.
"Bobby, Babe." Ranger explained. He moved out from behind me and stood next to me, squeezing my hand.
"Sounds good to me, discharge us, Doc!" The Doc laughed and finished checking me over.
"So, Bobby assured me you both would be carefully monitored and that your pain medicines would be administered properly. Neither of you are to overdo anything in the next week. I want you both resting and recuperating, understand?" I nodded along with the Doc.
"We'll be spending plenty of time in bed." I gulped and slid my gaze to Ranger. He was wearing a shit-eating grin. I felt my face, and other body parts, heat up significantly.
"While you may have been cleared for light physical activity, your girlfriend here hasn't, Mr Manoso. I suggest you refrain from any bedroom activities until she is cleared, otherwise she will just end up back in here for a week or two of observation." Ranger's eyes gained a steely glint as the Doc very almost nearly blackmailed him. While that may not be the road to take with Ranger, it most certainly would work with me.
"Gottcha, no exercise until I'm all healed. Not a problem!" Both Ranger and the Doc stared at me for a moment.
"She really does hate hospitals, and she did hit her head." Ranger sighed, shrugging his shoulders as if to say, what can you do. The Doc clasped a hand on his shoulder in what I guess was sympathy. He then moved to my side and removed the drip from my hand as well as the heart monitor that was on my finger.
"I'll get the paperwork organised and have you both out of here soon." I watched as the Doc left and covered my face with my hands, groaning loudly.
"Babe." Ranger's lips brushed my hair as his hands covered my own.
"Ranger, don't Babe me! The doctor probably thinks I'm a complete idiot! God, wait until my mother finds out. Stephanie, I can't believe the doctor had to threaten you to abstain from have relations with a man outside of marriage; what will the neighbours say?! I'll be cut off from dessert!" I whined sulkily.
Ranger's answer was a chuckle.
He then moved to the dresser in the corner of the private room and picked up a duffle bag, before moving back to the bed. Unzipping the bag, he pulled out a pair of sweats and two of his t-shirts. Silently, he moved me into a sitting position, being mindful of my injuries. My legs were dangling over the side of the bed as he stood before me. His hands carefully removed the paper gown from my body, his eyes tracing my every curve and resting for long moments on my bandages. I was thankful to note I still had my panties on.
Bending down slowly, Ranger pressed a kiss to the left side of my rib cage, and then the right, ignoring my blush as his hair tickled my naked breasts. He stood tall once more and slid his shirt over my head, very gently slipping one of my arms, than the other through the sleeves. I managed to get through that task with only a few whimpers. Once the shirt was in place, he guided the pants up my legs and over my hips, settling them in place. Pressing his lips to mine, Ranger stood back and slowly pulled on his own shirt, his movements a little jerky with pain.
A nurse took that moment to enter the room with our paperwork. After we had both signed where necessary, I found myself in a wheelchair being pushed out to an SUV by Bobby, Ranger in a matching one by my side although he was being pushed by Tank.
"Hospital policy sucks." I grumbled, shooting Tank a stink eye; he just grinned at me.
"That it does, Babe." Ranger growled.
In the next few minutes, I found myself bundled up into an SUV, with Ranger at my side, and we were all on our way.
"Report, Tank." Ranger grouched, his arms moving around me, and his face burying itself in my neck. I relaxed easily into his embrace, loving the affection he was showing me.
"We've narrowed it down to a few of her skips, a couple are looking promising." I tuned in to the conversation with a frown.
"Wait, what do you mean? Harry Russo set this up. He's one of my current skips. His alias is the Master of Time." It was silent in the SUV following my outburst.
"You sure, Babe?"Ranger asked lightly.
"Yep. Who the hell else would go to the trouble of filling my apartment with old fashioned alarm clocks? Oh! He also wrote Time is Up on the faces." I explained.
"Tank?" Ranger grunted, slouching in his seat.
"On it boss." Tank made a call, instructing whoever answered to start a thorough search on Harry Russo.
I was starting to drift off just as we pulled into the garage. Sighing heavily, I waited for Ranger to jump out, and then carefully followed him, my body moving slowly in resistance to my building pain.
"Take it easy, querida." Ranger murmured, pressing his hand against my lower back as we slowly made our way towards the elevator.
Tank exited when we reached five, but Bobby rode up with us to Ranger's seventh floor apartment.
"Time for your next pain meds dose, Steph, and then I want you in bed and resting. Your ribs are going to hurt like a bitch for the next few weeks." I stood, leaning the majority of my weight against the counter in the kitchen, as Bobby grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and pulled two bottles of pills out of his backpack.
Obediently, I swallowed all four pills and took a long drink of water. I was beyond exhausted and the sun had only been up for an hour.
"C'mon, Babe." Ranger slung his arm around my shoulders and tucked me into his side, kissing my cheek.
"I don't want to see you downstairs until after lunch, Ranger, if at all. Got it?" Bobby warned from behind us.
"Roger, Brown. See yourself out." I let Ranger lead me towards his bedroom.
"Don't forget to wake her every two hours!" Bobby shouted. I groaned; I wasn't going to get any rest.
In the bedroom, the blinds were drawn shut and the bed was already turned down.
God I loved Ella.
My eyelids seriously drooping, I sat down on the edge of the mattress. I love Ranger's sheets; so soft and delicious. I blinked up at Ranger as his hands slipped under my shirt and started pushing the sweatpants down. Once my legs were free of the material, he shifted me into the middle of the bed, my head resting on the pillows. I watched as he pulled his shirt off and climbed in next to me.
I knew we had a lot of things to discuss, namely my telling him I loved him, but I wasn't sure if it was the right time to bring it up. Was there a right time? Did I wait until he brought it up to talk about it, to tell him in person that yes, I really felt that way, it wasn't just a heat of the moment thing?
"Sleep, mi amor." Ranger whispered, effectively solving my problem for the time being. I did as obeyed, my eyes almost immediately closing, and my mind drifting away.
After a handful of hours of broken sleep, I finally gave up when Ranger woke me for the third time.
"What time is it?" I grumbled as his fingers softly traced my face.
"A bit after twelve, Babe. How are you feeling?" His eyes steadily gazed into mine. I took a shallow breath and grimaced.
"Bad." I sighed, running my hand up and down my ribcage carefully.
"It's still another two hours before I can give you more meds; you already had a dose at ten." Pouting a little, I made a move to sit up and very soon found myself lying back down, cringing in pain.
"Shit." I whispered.
"Let me help." Without another word, Ranger steadied me as I slowly sat up. It was a painful process, but we managed after a little cursing on my part.
I hobbled into the kitchen with Ranger and smiled a little bit at the layout of food presented.
"Ella missed you, Babe." Grinning some more, I let Ranger guide me to one of the recliners in the living room.
After I was seated, he retreated back into the kitchen, and returned with two plates and two water bottles. He took a seat on the arm of my chair and handed me my sustenance. We ate in silence, and Ranger cleared away the plates and rubbish.
"Babe, I called a meeting. The men will be up in a few minutes. Did you want to freshen up?" Ranger asked, as he stood in front of me. With a nod, he helped me to the bathroom and let me do my business. He then slid a pair of his sweat pants up my legs, before escorting me back to my chair, and tucking a blanket around me.
"Thanks, Ranger." I murmured as he reclined the chair a little for me.
"No problem, querida." His lips touched mine gently, just as a knock sounded on the door.
He got up and let in the Merry Men. Bobby, Lester, and Tank all took up seats on the couch and other chairs. Ranger resumed his seat on the arm of mine.
"Report." Ranger nodded at Tank.
"Harry Russo, or Master of Time, made a purchase last week for two hundred and fifty alarm clocks from his personal credit card. Forensics confirmed that there were indeed alarm clocks in Steph's apartment, but they couldn't lift any finger prints from the scene. Bomb squad determined C4 and a homemade blasting cap were used, the battery power from the alarm clocks triggering the detonation. Found an accomplice: Ace the Annihilator. Can you believe that shit? Real name's Brian Hinkley, trained as a demolitions expert. Cal and Junior picked him up half an hour ago. Credit card check confirms he purchased the necessary materials for the bomb. He's in a holding cell downstairs. Cops also want a statement from you both." Tank finished and nodded to Lester.
"No word on the street about Russo. It's silent; eerie. Like no-one's heard of the guy. Can't find who he belongs to, where his home base is, nothing. It's like he doesn't exist after he graduated from Rutgers University - New Brunswick Campus, and that was four years ago. He studied physics and quantum mechanics." Lester shrugged nonchalantly and leaned back into the couch.
"There's always a trail. Find it, find out everything there is to know about this piece of shit. Maybe we can get something out of the fuckhead downstairs." Ranger stood up and started towards the door.
"Whoa, boss. Where the hell do you think you're going?! I know you haven't been released for vigorous physical activity." Bobby protested, blocking Ranger's access to the door.
"Move aside, Bobby. I'm going to beat some sense into the fucker that almost killed my Babe." Ranger's voice had a steely undertone; he meant business and he was pissed off.
"Rangeman, how about Lester and I interrogate him and you can watch? If you're not satisfied with the results, then you can have a go. Deal?" I watched as Ranger's shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch and he inclined his head.
"Coming, Babe?" Ranger turned back to me and raised an eyebrow.
"Who, me?" My eyes were wide. He wanted me to go with him and watch Tank conduct an 'interrogation' ?
"Yeah, you. You want to come with me?" He took a few steps towards me, until his legs were nearly touching my chair.
"Um, will there be somewhere for me to sit down?" I questioned slowly, my mind still wrapping around the fact that Ranger was letting me in on the case.
"There's a two way mirror, we can sit on the other side to watch." He held out his hand to me, and assisted me to my feet.
"You're going to enjoy this, Bombshell." Tank smirked as we piled into the elevator. I was surprised we weren't exceeding the damn things capacity.
Ranger's arm was resting around my hips, his hand possessively splayed over my ass.
I grew more nervous as I watched the elevator numbers decrease until they opened on -2. One of the underground floors, that I had never been shown, or chosen to investigate on my own.
"You're in good hands, mi amor. Don't worry." His soft lips on mine were enough to relax me.
We moved down the narrow halls, past many mysterious doors. Down the end of one corridor were three large rooms, each with two doors. One door held no window, while the other had a small one. Ranger and I followed the guys to the far room. It was labelled I-C. We all entered through the door with the window. My eyes grew wide as we moved inside. There were a handful of chairs facing the transparent wall that separated the two halves of the room.
"Standard two way mirror, Babe." I nodded at Ranger's words, but continued to stare.
On the other side was a man who was seated in a straight back wooden chair. It had arm rests, but did by no means scream comfort. The rest of the room was empty, except for another chair of the exact make. There was hardly any lighting, just a single globe that hung half a foot from the ceiling, providing a dull glow. The walls were painted grey, and aside from the two way mirror, there was nothing adoring the other walls. The man himself was slim, had dirty blonde hair that was receding, and was wearing only a pair of gym shorts.
Ranger held out a padded office chair for me, and took the one by my side as soon as I was seated. Bobby took the other seat.
"Break 'em and Beat 'em." Tank pounded Lester's fist before they both exited.
Seconds later, Tank was stepping through the other door and strode to the centre of the room, a couple of yards away from the man. Lester took up position just inside the door, effectively blocking the exit.
"Mr Hinkley, can I get you anything?" Tank began, lazily taking a seat, maintaining eye contact with the man.
"I'd prefer you to call me Ace." The man grunted, folding his arms across his chest.
"Ace? Why not Brian?" Tank asked nonchalantly.
"That's not who I am anymore!" Brian, uh, Ace, whatever, replied forcefully.
"Alright, Ace. Would you like a cup of coffee, some water, or perhaps a cigarette?" Tank tried again, his face calm, his body relaxed.
"No. Thank you." Ace snapped.
"Could you tell us where you were last night, between the hours of nine pm and two am?" Lester demanded, his voice harsh.
"I don't think that's any of your business. You're not the cops; I want my attorney." The man stiffened, his body tensing, his eyes flashing in defiance.
"Wrong. It is our business. Answer the question." I flinched at the cold tone of Lester's voice. He cracked his knuckles menacingly and flexed his arms.
"At home. Asleep." Ace nervously jiggled his leg and slid his gaze to the side.
"He's lying." I whispered, easily picking the tell.
Ranger glanced at me a moment before Lester roared, "You're lying to me! I don't like liars. Tell me the truth."
"I went to a Seven Eleven at ten, to get some fucking ice cream!" Ace shouted hysterically, his gaze now darting from a still and silent Tank, to an apparently raging Lester. Sweat was beginning to form on Ace's brow.
"Is that so? You didn't happen to make a pit stop anywhere, did you?" Lester growled, moving away from the door to walk around the man's chair. "Maybe at a certain apartment building, a few blocks over from Chambersburg?" Lester placed a hand on Ace's shoulder and squeezed roughly. It would probably be bruised tomorrow. "Perhaps you know it; it's at St. James and Dunworth, Apt. 215, ugly red brick building. Ring any bells?!" Lester yelled into the man's ear.
"You don't have an alibi! No one to confirm where you were, when you said you were!" Lester thundered.
"The clerk at the Seven Eleven, fucking video footage, I don't know!" Ace retaliated, jumping to his feet.
Lester waved him off; stepped back and walked stiffly back to the door, clenching his fists by his side as he stared the suspect down.
Tank broke the tense silence.
"You have had extensive training in demolitions, haven't you Ace?" Tank wondered quietly.
"Yes." Ace nodded, his body relaxing before my eyes as he retook his seat.
"The bomb in the victim's apartment was constructed from C4 and a homemade blasting cap." Tank continued steadily.
"So?" Ace queried. Tank simply shrugged in response.
"Credit records have been found of you purchasing equipment needed for such a bomb!" Lester snarled viciously, striding towards Ace once more.
"I don't know what you're talking a-about!" Ace cried, his tongue darting out to lick his lips as he swallowed thickly.
"How did you meet Harry Russo?!" Lester barked suddenly, changing tact.
"I – I have never heard of that man." Ace's eyes didn't meet Lester's as he spoke.
"No? How about the Master of Time? Heard of him?!" I watched Lester squat down in front of his target, his eyes drilling holes in the man's head.
"Why were you trying to kill Stephanie Plum?!" Lester exclaimed agitatedly.
"It was her apartment building where you set up the explosive device, while she was sleeping helplessly, defenceless. You trapped her inside with no means of escape! She would have died! Dead! Her family would have grieved; her friends would be out for revenge! She would have been blown into thousands of bloody, grotesque pieces!" I cringed as Lester boomed out the truth, spittle flying from his mouth, his chest heaving, his hands clenching and unclenching.
"I didn't fucking do it!" Ace all but screamed, he was shaking in his seat, his leg was jiggling once more and his eyes were shooting around the room and between his two captors.
"Okay." Tank laid a hand on Lester's arm, ceasing his antagonistic movements. Lester shook him off and paced behind his chair restlessly. "Let's say you didn't do it Ace, how would you have gone about it, being an expert on demolitions and bombs? Surely you must have some kind of insight for us, you were once the leading man in your field, were you not?" Tank asked quietly, his voice attempting to portray flattery, or respect of Ace's achievements.
"Oh. Well, it's easy enough to do, if you know what you're doing. A little C4, a bit of primary explosive, pyrotechnic ignition mix, fuse and a cylinder case. Nothing to it, you just have to make sure you have the right amount of explosives for the area you want to destroy." Ace was again calming down.
"What about a timer, how is that set up, to trigger the explosion?" Tank prodded, his apparent interest would fool me, if I didn't know any better.
"Depends. If you have a countdown timer, it trips the fuse and kaa-boom. Simple, and beautiful." Ace's smile was creepy, to say the least. Ranger raised my hand to his lips, kissing it softly and capturing my attention momentarily.
"Tell me about your day, from six am yesterday, to six am today. What did you do? Where did you go? Who did you meet? Just a basic run down will suffice." Tank requested easily, his casual manner had Ace answering instantly.
We listened as Ace outlined a rather boring and simple day. He didn't get out of bed till eleven, made a run to McDonalds at noon, then to the grocery store at one. He spent the afternoon on the internet, playing cyber games, before cooking dinner at six. It wasn't until eleven when he left again, to go to Seven Eleven. Then he went to bed, woke up around nine and headed to the mall, where Cal and Junior eventually picked him up.
"I thought you said, originally that you went to Seven Eleven at ten pm?" Tank frowned, before raising an eyebrow at his mark.
"Ten, eleven. What does it matter?" Ace chuckled.
"Where did you say you met Harry, again?" Tank inquired.
"Onl - I didn't say where." Ace's jaw clenched shut tightly, his eyes widening frantically.
"But you have met him." Tank stated, there was no question in his infliction.
"I – no." Ace stuttered, his hands shaking as he gripped the edge of the chair.
"Did you meet him on an online gamers' community? How long ago did he first make contact? When did you first meet?" Lester rapidly demanded, his voice more subdued than before, but still tense none-the-less.
"I – yes. Four years ago both for initial contact and meeting." I couldn't believe it as I saw Ace sink down in his chair, weary and resigned. They'd broken him, and neither of them had hurt him badly in any way.
"Ah, I see. Harry was a bit different, was he? Bit strange? Not all quite there?" Tank re-entered the conversation, sympathy honeying his voice.
"He had this obsession, with this brunette he stalked in college. Apparently he'd been following her for years, since he'd spotted her on campus in his freshman year. So yeah, you could say there was something wrong with him. I didn't really understand what was so special about this chick, and when I questioned him on it, he threatened to have me killed, that I should never speak about his sweetheart that way again. He's a scary man, has a lot of swing in some bad places." Ace admitted feebly.
"Anyone in your position, would undoubtedly go along with whatever he said, just to stay alive, right? To keep from getting on his bad side?" Tank pushed carefully.
"Yeah, sure." Ace agreed, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
"So you made him a bomb without a second thought, right? Just set it up in the victim's apartment ready to blow?" I sat forward slightly, awaiting the answer; I could feel Ranger just as tense by my side.
"I – no, yes. Okay! Yes, I made a bomb, but I had no fucking clue what he was going to use it for! I didn't know he was going to try to kill the chick he's obsessed over for years! I delivered the bomb to him three days ago, as per his specifications. I didn't fucking know!" I blinked as I watched the man break down in tears and sob, snot dripping from his nose, his face red and blotchy, and his body sweaty and shaky.
"Calm down, Ace. I'm going to ask you a few questions about Harry Russo, okay? You just answer as truthfully as you can; it could help you when making a deal with the DA." Tank pulled out a tape recorder from his pocket and stated his name, as well as the suspect's name, before informing him he was being recorded.
"Come on, Babe. We've seen enough. Let's head back up stairs. You need to rest." I leaned heavily against Ranger in the elevator, my body weak and lethargic. Bobby reminded Ranger about my meds and my concussion as he exited on four.
We settled in together in front of the TV, with me in the recliner and Ranger resting his back against the chair, between my legs. My fingers almost automatically found his silky hair, tunnelling through it.
"This sucks, you know?" I mumbled.
"What sucks, Babe? My hair?" I smiled as Ranger chuckled lightly. The smile slowly slid off my face though, as I recounted what we'd just learned.
"No. Harry Russo. He's been stalking me for years, years Ranger. I just – I just feel so violated... so low, lousy even, I didn't even notice, me with my spidey-sense that usually never fails me! I'm such a sham; a bounty hunter with a one hundred percent capture rate, yet I couldn't even detect this guy!" My eyes filled with angry tears as I expressed my thoughts.
"Hey," Ranger whispered, turning around and kneeling between my legs. "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, Babe. Don't let this one idiot make you second guess everything." He asserted, taking my hands in his and kissing my knuckles. "You're so much more than he ever will be; you're a winner mi amor, you help others and put them before yourself. You're a smart, beautiful, bright woman, don't let him get to you." I sniffled as his tender eyes gazed into mine. Now was the right time; he needed to know how much I cared for him.
"I love you." I confided softly, my lips wobbling as I tried to keep my tears under wraps. My eyes couldn't maintain contact with his, but I squeezed his hands gently. "You've done so much for me, you show me more respect than anyone in my life, you care about me, you let me fly, you make me feel special, like I'm not a complete an utter failure. What I guess I'm trying to say is thank you. I'm honoured to have someone like you in my life, even if you don't return my feelings. I just wanted you to know." I ended faintly, my voice almost inaudible. Me being the coward that I am, couldn't take a chance and gauge his reaction, so my stare stayed focused on our joined hands.
"Querida," He muttered hoarsely. "Babe, look at me." I felt our joined hands lift together until he tilted my chin back, our eyes meeting. The emotions that were shining in his took my breath away. "It's hard for me to say this... you know I'm not a man who shows his emotions often, let alone wears them on his sleeve but," He paused to clear his throat, swallowing twice, "I love you too, Steph. My life would be an incredibly dark place if I didn't have you in it. You've changed my way of thinking over the years; changed my hopes, aspirations and dreams. You made me want a life with you, which is something I've been working towards but I couldn't tell you in case it didn't work out. I didn't want to give you false hope of our someday. If you'll have me, I'd like us to start a life together. Babe, today is someday." His voice was husky as he finished, his eyes pleaded with me.
"I'd like that very much!" I sobbed, no longer able to keep the tears at bay. Yanking on his hands, I felt him crawl up onto the chair, until his body was hovering directly over mine.
Our lips touched slowly at first, as we shared our first kiss as lovers, in the real sense of the word. Tenderness and unbridled passion seemed to be contained in our kiss as we deepened it without the slightest bit of hesitation. The force of his lips on mine felt like they were conveying how much he did in fact love me, how much this meant to him as mine tried to return the same sentiments. It was a number of minuted before we pulled apart, our short choppy breaths intermingling as our mutually affectionate gazes converged.
He loved me.
Ricardo Carlos Manoso, the mercenary, loved me.
Words weren't needed as he carefully settled down by my uninjured side, cocooning me in his delicious scent and body heat. I drifted asleep as Ranger and I watched a movie long into the afternoon. He woke me for dinner, helped me shower and then tucked me into his bed. We kissed gently as we lay side by side, his hands smoothing away my curls and soothing my aches and pains with gentle touches.
"Goodnight, Ranger. I love you." I whispered, smiling at him softly.
"Night, mi amor. I love you." I watched his eyes crinkle as he smiled back, placing one more chaste kiss to my lips before drawing me flushing against his body and relaxing his muscles.
"So the sick fucker went to the same university as her, developed an obsession and has been following her, what else?" Ranger's voice drifted into my subconscious. Damn, it was too early for this. Why wasn't he in bed with me?
"He got himself arrested on purpose, in the bond range Stephanie usually takes, just so she'd have to chase him down." Lester's voice now joined in. I opened my eyes and yawned quietly. Ranger's alarm clock read 0600 hours. No wonder he wasn't in bed.
"But he's been obsessed with her for years. Why the change in attitude, why'd he want to kill her now?" Tank asked, giving the other men pause.
"Don't know... maybe he didn't." Ranger suggested. I groaned as I rolled over onto my back; it was going to be painful getting up today. Maybe it was because I hadn't taken any meds since dinner last night. I couldn't remember Ranger waking me at all during the night...
"Babe?" I smiled weakly as he pushed open the bedroom door and strode towards me.
"Hey. Could you please help me up? Then maybe grab my meds?" I whined slightly, holding out my hand pitifully.
"Babe." He drew me to my feet, giving me a welcomed good morning kiss.
After using his bathroom facilities, Ranger dressed me and led me out to the kitchen, where the guys were seated on the breakfast bar stools.
"Morning, Beautiful!" Lester cheered happily. I gave him a small smile, my hands clutching my side as I took shallow breaths. Walking was a bitch, I hadn't realised how much you used all the muscles in your abdomen and back...
"Ranger!" Bobby barked, "When the hell was the last time she took her meds?!" I cringed a little at his volume, and rested against Ranger's chest.
"Ten hours ago." Ranger calculated, dropping a kiss to my head. "Sorry mi amor." I grunted an answer and held out my hand. Sure enough, Bobby placed my pills into my palm and held out a bottle of water.
"So I take it you didn't wake her up every two hours, either?" Bobby sighed grumpily, glaring at Ranger.
"She needs sleep, uninterrupted sleep." Ranger argued.
"Okay, take it easy guys. Is there any breakfast yet?" I wondered quietly.
"Come and take a seat, Bombshell. Ranger will fix you something." Tank insisted, patting the empty stool between him and Lester.
After I pecked Ranger on the lips, I made my way over there, and struggled up onto the seat, cursing under my breath the entire time.
"It'll get better, eventually." Lester chuckled. I shot him a death glare, which once again failed to have the desired effect. He didn't even wilt just a little.
"Rangeman, you said maybe he didn't mean to kill her. How do you figure that?" Tank inquired, ruffling my hair as Ranger moved to the fridge.
"Well, for years he's watched her, desired her. It would make no sense for him to try that now; he'd have plenty of chances in the past, and nothing has happened recently in her life to set him off." I chewed on my bottom lip thoughtfully.
"I don't buy it. I think he cracked." Lester shook his head.
"Me neither. He wanted her dead with that amount of C4." Bobby added.
"Uh – guys?" I began. All their eyes focused on me. Great. "Well, he did leave my cell phone on my bed side table, and now that we know this extra info, maybe Time is Up wasn't referring to my life as such, but maybe he's grown tired of watching and wants to be a participant in my life. Like, my time is up for playing around, it's now time to get serious with him?" I shrugged as they simply continued to stare. "It was just an idea." I mumbled.
"Okay, Ranger was right; he wasn't trying to kill her. Shit, this makes it worse." Tank complained.
The other men agreed quietly.
"So what's the plan?" I prompted, smiling as Ranger placed a plate with two strawberry pop tarts in front of me. God I loved him; he would pollute his apartment with pop tarts for me.
"I love you." I grinned, lifting one up to my mouth, inhaling a whiff of the sugary goodness.
"I know, Babe." Ranger smirked, ignoring the looks the guys gave us both.
I moaned my way through breakfast as the Merry Men hashed out a couple of plans.
"We could use Brian Hinkley." Tank suggested.
"Russo's probably already knows Hinkley's been nabbed." Ranger nixed the idea, coming around the counter to stand behind me and wrap his arms around my shoulders. I giggled as he rubbed his nose against my cheek.
"Blackmail?" Bobby proposed, flashing an evil looking smile.
"Maybe." Tank agreed, nodding thoughtfully.
"Bribe with money?" Lester added.
"Possibly." Tank concurred once more.
"Hire a fake hitman and force him out?" Lester asked, more enthusiastically this time.
"Nah, that would more than likely send him deeper." Bobby shook his head in the negative.
"Does he have any close family or friends, Babe?" Ranger questioned me pensively.
"He has a few relatives... I think he's probably closest to his mother. I went over to her house asking about him. She gave me fake information and a tongue lashing. While I was inside her house, I did notice a lot of photos. They matched the description of the skip, but it could have been a brother or nephew." I explained quickly.
"So we have somewhere we can start to apply pressure. We could draw him out with a threat to his mother. Did she put up the bail money?" Ranger requested.
"Yep. Mortgaged her house." I affirmed.
"Right, get Vinnie to make contact with the mother, tell him what he needs to say to upset her enough that she'll tell her son. It may provoke him enough. If not, we can fake her arrest; that should draw him out." Ranger said confidently.
"And if not, boss?" Bobby wondered.
"We can always use Steph as bait." Tank advised guardedly, no doubt bracing for Ranger's reaction.
The man in question didn't disappoint, roaring a resounding, "No!"
"Ranger," I started hesitantly, only to be cut off as he moved away from me, pacing furiously.
"No, Babe. You're seriously injured as it is. I will not risk your life. That is final." His voice echoed with such authority that no one made any reply. "Tank, Lester and Bobby, get started on the mother and keep looking for the bastard; maybe we'll just get lucky. He's going to be pissed when he can't find the object of his affections so he's likely to make mistakes. Let's not miss an opportunity. Dismissed!" The men all grumbled as they got to their feet and slunk out of the apartment.
Four days passed with no sign of the skip emerging. As the days went by, Ranger grew more nervous and more short-tempered. The mother was showing no signs of weakness, and no one had seen hide or hair of Mr Harry Russo. The likely timeframe of finding Russo was slipping away. We needed to do something to draw him out. There was only two days left on his bail.
I hadn't seen the outside of the Rangeman building since the morning we'd come in from the hospital. The only good thing about being cooped up inside and injured, was that Ranger thought it necessary to spend the majority of his days by my side. The phenomenal kissing sessions were one thing, but through admitting our love, it was like a barrier had fallen down between us. We talked easily and freely, admitting what we wanted for the future, our hopes and fears. Now don't get me wrong, Ranger still wasn't exactly chatty Kathy, but he was opening up none-the-less.
"What about blackmailing him, that was a suggestion?!" Ranger grouched, pacing along the conference room table. The Merry Men had set up base camp in conference room three.
"We can't get a hold of him." Lester mumbled, rubbing a weary hand over his face.
"Bribery?" Ranger barked.
"Again, we can't contact him." Lester repeated.
"Fuck!" I flinched as Ranger's fists collided with the mahogany table.
"We got to do it, Rangeman. She'll be safe; we'll have eyes on her every time she goes out, and trackers." Tank spoke carefully; very aware he could set Ranger off at any second.
Ranger's eyes met mine and we stared at each other for a beat.
"Give us five." He ordered, his eyes not leaving mine.
The men moved outside the room, the door closing with a quiet click.
"Babe, come here." I watched as he sat down heavily in a chair and held out his hand. Standing slowly, I made my way over to him and climbed into his lap. His arms wrapped around me as his lips brushed against my temple and trailed down my cheek. They moved across lightly until they reached my lips, and we shared a passionate kiss, his tongue delving into my mouth and caressing my own. He broke away first, resting his head on my shoulder.
"Is it the best way to get the most effective results?" I spoke as I pressed my lips to his head.
"Yes." He answered gruffly.
"Then that's what we need to do. I want this guy behind bars, Ranger. I don't want to have to worry for the rest of my life if he's following me, just waiting to make another move." I explained, feeling more than a little uneasy at the thought of the man terrorising me for years to come.
"I'll keep you safe." He promised, lifting his head to search my face with his eyes. I wasn't sure what he was looking for.
"I know you will. I trust you with my life. Let's bring the guys back in so we can plan this out, okay?" At his nod, I stood and opened the door.
The Merry Men settled back down in their seats as I curled back up in Ranger's lap.
Two hours later, with a definite plan in place, we set about implementing it. I found myself in the infirmary, Ranger by my side and Bobby scrubbed up and ready to go.
"It won't hurt too bad, Steph. Just a tiny incision and two stitches tops. The device is small, see?" I blinked as Bobby thrust a tiny human tracking microchip in front of my eyes that was held with tweezers. It was maybe a quarter of an inch in length and even less in width.
"Okay." I held Ranger's hand as Bobby made the cut and inserted the device. He didn't even stitch it, simply used some special glue to seal the wound.
I was dressed in a pair of jeans and a Rangeman t-shirt that had trackers sewn into the material. Under the t-shirt, I was squeezed into a heavy flak vest that really sat uncomfortably on my chest. My underwear and bra also had trackers in them. Ranger slid some diamond studs into my ears, which were also equipped with similar devices. A gun was tucked into my waistband, and a panic button in my pocket that I was to use when I spotted Russo. Guess Ranger didn't want to take any chances.
Tank, Lester, Bobby and a handful of other Merry Men, all piled into three SUV's. I was to take Ranger's Porsche, even though I wasn't supposed to be driving yet. It wasn't exactly far to the Quaker Bridge Mall.
"I love you, Babe. Go get him, tiger." Ranger smiled, his arms were wrapped around me gently as we stood in front of my awaiting ride.
"I love you, too. Just because I'm making an appearance, doesn't mean he'll show though." I worried, my head tilted back a little so I could see his eyes properly.
"He will, Babe. He's more than likely got eyes everywhere. Once he gets word that you're there, he'll show." Ranger stated confidently.
"See you soon, then. Hopefully after we catch this guy. Don't get shot." I warned lightly.
"Don't go crazy." He whispered right before his lips gently kissed mine.
Ranger helped me into the car before climbing into one of the others' SUV's.
I made my way to the mall, without spotting my tails once.
Once I'd found a park, thankfully close to the entrance, I slowly made my way inside, giving all the other shoppers a wide birth. I did not want someone to accidentally bump my ribs.
Half an hour later, I was sitting down in the food court, slurping down a chocolate thick shake when I spotted someone who definitely resembled my skip, and the photos that were in his mother's house.
Calmly, I slipped my hand into my pocket and activated the panic button. Then I waited.
I'd like to say the takedown went down seamlessly, but with me involved, that's never been the case.
I watched nervously as Russo walked directly towards me, pulled out the chair opposite me and sat down. I'd had my gun out from behind my back and resting in my lap before he'd even reached me. His vacant, lifeless eyes stared at me unblinkingly across the small table.
"Stephanie Plum." His whispery, hair raising voice sent a shiver down my spine.
"Harry Russo." I answered blankly, trying to keep all emotion out of my voice.
"You do not call me that! Address me as Master! Now! Do it." He snarled.
"Sorry, Master." I gulped; I just wanted to be as far away from this lunatic as was physically possible.
"Here's how we're going to do this," I narrowed my eyes as he moved the barrel of a gun above the edge of the table, pointing it at my heart. "You're going to stand up calmly and wait until I move behind you, then we're both going to walk out of here and get into my car. Understand sweetheart?" My heart started pounding in my chest as he clicked the safety off. There was no way in hell I was going anywhere with this psycho. Shaking slightly, I lifted my gun, aiming it at the centre of his chest. His eyes didn't even register his surprise.
"That's not how this is going to work." I heard another voice, deep and familiar. My eyes shot up and I smiled weakly in relief as Ranger stood behind Russo, his gun pressed to the man's temple, his stun gun resting lightly against Russo's arm.
Within seconds, the small table was surrounded by Merry Men and police officers, their weapons all trained on my skip, demanding he drop his weapon.
We were at a standoff, his gun trained steadily on me, all other weapons trained on his. I supposed the men around me couldn't risk taking a shot and having Russo's nervous system spasm, and his finger pulling the trigger. My stomach dropped as a sick, twisted smile crept onto Russo's face.
"Time's up." He rasped, a split second before his gun discharged. I felt the impact of the bullet just below my shoulder. The force of it at such a short range knocked me back, my body crashing to the floor. Amidst my plummet, I heard gun shots echo around me.
Russo was dead; of that I was sure. It was an immense relief.
Two hours later, after the paramedics treated me on the scene for a severely bruised muscle and the police finished questioning the guys from Rangeman and me, we were free.
"C'mon, Babe. Let's get you back to bed. I gotta feeling you'll be needing all the strength you can get a couple weeks from now." I felt my body warm in certain places as his eyes darkened dramatically and he pulled me in for a swift, forceful kiss.
"Looking forward to it." I whispered, grinning up at the man I loved.