Title: My Thirteen
DISCLAIMER: Just borrowing Janet's wonderful characters and I promise to return them. Not making anything except hopefully smiles and laughs. Please review and let me know what you think.
Tank sat at the console anyone looking at him would think that he was in his zone. And he was in a way he was thinking while he watched the monitors in front of him. He had relieved Hal so that he could grab some lunch.
His thoughts were currently on his boss and best friend Ranger a.k.a. Ricardo Carlos Manoso one of the owners and senior members of Rangeman LLC. Tank had been his partner for close to ten years and had known him even longer.
Currently he was worried about him. He hadn't been the same in these past several months since Julie had been kidnapped and Steph had helped him rescue her. Shit, Steph had put her own life on the line for a little girl she didn't even know. That didn't surprise Tank or any of the other senior partners Bobby Brown and Lester Santos.
No they knew that Steph was that kind of woman. They just looked at her history she had not only brought in Joe Morelli when he was FTA and accused of murder but she had been instrumental in proving his innocence. And when Ranger was FTA had she wondered whether he was guilty or innocent, no she had never doubted his innocence. She had called wanting to make sure he was okay.
Yeah, she was a woman like no other and Tank though that might just be the current problem. Ranger wasn't sure how to proceed with Steph. She was still with the cop, but she was so much more comfortable with him. She come to visit right after he came home from the hospital and brought him cake of all things. Tank had laughed hard when Ranger had told him how she had sat on his desk and they had eaten cake together. A totally sensual experience with Steph.
He had told him how they had talked and laughed and had ended the evening wrapped together lying on the couch watching a movie. He couldn't even remember the name of the movie. Just how soft Steph's skin was and how wonderful she smelled.
Tank had laughed Ranger was talking like a lovesick schoolboy not the mercenary he was. Hell he was able to have any woman he wanted. And the one he wanted didn't seem to realize how much he really wanted her. Plus there was the little problem of his lifestyle. Ranger had decided long ago that he would never have the normal life with a wife and kids. He knew that someone like Steph would eventually want kids she had too much love in her not to share it. She might not want to be a 'burg' wife. But he had not doubt one day she would want kids.
The problem was the longer he was around her he could picture her pregnant her belly tight and round. But when he pictured her babies they looked like him and not Morelli.
Ranger had been coming in checking the logs and disappearing into his office. Tank knew that he had been making phone calls because he had received one from one of their contacts asking what the hell Ranger was up to. Tank had honestly told him that he had no idea.
Rangeman did a bunch of different type of Security work as well the government contracts and bond enforcement. For the past year Ranger had been streamlining the company he had sold off Boston and Atlanta to his partners in those areas. And about six months ago he had started backing off in the bond enforcement, it all made sense. Trenton had always been their home base and he had the Miami office because of Julie.
He'd only opened Atlanta and Boston because it made good business sense. And they had all made a lot of money off the investment. Once they were up and running it also made sense to sell them off, it keep quality up when the partners running the business had more of a vested interest in the profits. And they made the least money on the bond enforcement part of the business.
All the partners knew that if it hadn't been for Stephanie Plum that part of the business would have been shut down years ago when they stopped doing bond work for Les Sebring. But Connie had called just as they were about to close down that part of the business and asked him to help out a new bounty hunter.
Tank laughed to himself remembering Ranger when he had come back from that meeting. He had described Steph as this incredible beautiful woman with wild curly brown hair and the most incredible blue eyes. He told him how she had been a lingerie buyer of all things and now she thought she could be a bounty hunter he had laughed and said he didn't think she would last long.
But Ranger had helped her and taught her. He'd been proud as a brand new daddy the day Steph brought Joe in. And he kept putting off getting rid of the bond enforcement part of the business. They all knew that he kept at it because of Steph.
Then the Stiva incident had happened and all the sudden Ranger had turned into a different person. He finalized the sales of both the Atlanta and Boston branches. Then he met with Vinnie and told him Rangeman would only handle those bonds that Steph couldn't. Rangeman was getting out of the bond business for good.
Tank heard the elevator open. He did one last check of all the monitors and turned to Hal.
"Everything's quiet." And he walked back to his office passing Rangers on the way. He stopped maybe he should try to talk to him again. He knocked on the door.
"Come in." He heard Rangers voice.
He opened the door and entered Rangers private office. Ranger was sitting behind his massive oak desk. Leaning back in his chair his fingers intertwined and steeple.
"Need something." He asked casually. Ranger was watching Tank. Both men studied each other for a fraction of a second.
Then Tank started. "Thought you might be ready to talk you've been locking yourself in here for months."
Ranger started at him his _expression never changing. Giving no hint to what he was thinking.
Tank sighed and sat in the chair. "Man this isn't like you to brood over something this long."
Ranger met his eye. "Julie wants to visit."
"And." I couldn't think of that as a problem. Julie was no longer a secret he needed to keep to protect.
"Her mom's against the idea thinks my lifestyle here isn't fit for a child."
I thought about it. Maybe if I knew more of his thinking I could help him work the problem. "And."
"I agree with her. Trenton is too dangerous for Julie. But there's more."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Julie has been asking to see Steph. Talk to her. She keeps asking me questions."
The corners of my lips started rising by themselves. Steph and Julie had liked one another and spent a fair amount of time together before her mother had come and taken her back to Miami even before Ranger had been released from the hospital.
"And." I asked with a slight laugh to my voice. This would be interesting. The two most important people in his life now knew each other.
Ranger leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. Then he let out a sigh. "Steph keeps asking me how I am. Shit Tank, she's worried about my mental health and me. She was almost killed helping me get my daughter back and she's worried about me."
Ranger leaned forward resting his elbows on the desk then buried his head in his hands.
"She keeps visiting me in my apartment. Last night she told me Morelli proposed again, this time he had a ring." He turned his head and looked at me. "She showed me the fuckin ring."
I was stunned I knew that Steph had told Morelli that she loved him but I'd never thought she would accept his proposal while she clearly had feelings for Ranger.
"She accepted." I asked. I had to know.
Ranger shook his head. "She's still thinking about it." Then he looked me in the eye. "She asked me what I thought she should do."
He was quiet for a minute. Then he started his voice so low it was almost too hard to hear. "Tank I lied to her for the first time last night. I told her I thought she should accept his proposal and I congratulated her and told her I hoped they would be happy."
My mouth fell open.
"How could I be such a fuckin idiot? I let the only woman I've ever loved walk out of my life. But I can't ask her to give up what she could have with Morelli for what a life with me. A new threat everyday. Tank what could I really offer her except danger and probable a shorter life."
I looked at him. He meant it he really didn't think he had anything to offer a woman except great sex. "Carlos." That got his attention. It wasn't often that I called him by his given name and never here at the office.
"You could offer her your love. And don't you really think she has the right to make the choice."
Ranger turned his chair so he was looking out the window.
"David, she's never told me she loves me. Maybe all that's really between us is an incredible attraction."
Tank gave him a long look and sighed. "Man, do you really believe that shit. Because I'll tell you I've seen the two of you in a room and its like lighting. Believe me she loves you she's just waiting for some sign from you."
"David, I've really messed up. I told her I don't do relationships. No Marriage or kids." Then he ran his hand thought his hair. "David, every time I look at her all I can think about is how fuckin beautiful our kids will be. Is that wrong or what? " He paused. And started talking again before Tank could answer. " I can't keep her safe, how am I supposed to keep our kids safe."
"Carlos, Julie wasn't your fault. You need to get over it you did everything you could. If you love the Bombshell you need to make this right with Steph before it's to late."
I walked into my apartment in a daze I couldn't believe that Carlos had told me that I should go ahead and marry Joe and become a burg housewife. He knew that I didn't want that. My eyes clouded and tears fell.
I walked into the kitchen said hi to Rex. And grabbed a tub of chunky monkey from the freezer. Then I curled up on the couch. I watched Ghostbusters and looked at the ring Joe had placed on my finger that morning she remembered his words. "Just think about it Cupcake. We can't keep doing this on and off thing. I want a wife. I want kids and I'm not getting any younger and neither are you. We either do this now or we call it quits for good and move on."
Then he had walked out of his house. He expected an answer in the morning. Was Carlos right? If she said 'no' would she be giving up her last change at marriage and kids. She sighed. And more tears fell. She loved Joe and didn't want to hurt him but she also loved Carlos. She knew she would always wonder and possible regret it if she didn't try to pursue that relationship.
No matter what he said she knew that they had a relationship. She just wasn't sure if there was a name for it.
She fell asleep on the couch and only awoke to the should of the phone ringing the machine had picked it up before she could come out of her sleepy daze.
"Cupcake call me."
I glared at the machine. He could have left a longer message.
As she walked into the bedroom to get ready for a shower the phone rang again. And again I let the machine get it.
For a moment there was silence then she heard Carlos' low voice. "Babe, I'm sorry about yesterday. Can we talk, please? Before you give Morelli an answer." A couple more moments of silence. "Babe, ..a Stephanie...mi amore." And the line went dead.
I sank on the bed. What did that just mean.
As I was trying to puzzle out what to do the phone rang again. I glared at it what was with everyone this morning. I turned and looked at the clock not even 9:00 am yet. The machine once more picked up.
It was Connie. "Stephanie pick up I know your there."
I picked up the phone. "What?" I'm sure I didn't sound pleasant but hey I'd been woke from a sound sleep to not one or two but three phone calls. All before 9:00 am.
"Wow, you don't sound so good." She paused. "Does this mean you turned Morelli down?"
I looked at the phone now how did she know about that. "Did you want something Connie?"
"Oh, yeah. Vinnie's having a fit we have a bunch of FTA's for you today."
"Okay, I'll be in. Give me an hour." And I hung up the phone it felt good to be the one to do it finally.
I'd shower and pick up a few FTA's then I would get back with Joe and Ranger.
I walked out of the elevator and looked across the lot at my black and white mini cooper. Who would ever have thought I would have a car last six months. A smile crept across my lips. Maybe I really was getting better.
As I drove to the office I started thinking. What did I want in the future? Was I willing to give up a chance at kids and marriage. Who was I kidding the though of kids and marriage terrified me. Sure I liked Val's girls they where okay and baby Lisa smelled really good sometimes. I sighed who was I kidding. My clock had started ticking louder after meeting Julie. I could imagine myself with a baby. The problem was the baby looked like Carlos and not Joe.
I passed the Tasty Pastry then turned around donuts might help the thinking process and hey they couldn't hurt could they.
I walked out with a dozen Boston crèmes.
I walked into the Bonds office and sat the donuts down on Connie's desk.
She looked at me for a minute. "You okay Steph?"
I could hear the concern in her voice.
"Yeah Steph, you okay?" Lula asked. Looking her up and down. "Girl your losing to much weight."
I dropped on the couch. I really didn't want to talk about it. I looked up at Connie maybe if I just ignored them.
"Where are my files Connie. Maybe Lula and I can bring in a couple before lunch."
"You didn't answer us Steph. No files until we get answers." Connie said.
I started to rise and Lula pushed me back down. I felt a chill run down my back and looked toward the door as Ranger entered.
"Ladies. Steph." He walked past them into Vinnie's office shutting the door after him.
"Okay Steph spill it. What's going on with you? Morelli not performing any more or what. You're not eating. And you're moody."
Before she could answer Ranger walked back into the room. He pulled me to my feet. And in a soft low voice that I was sure neither Connie or Lula could hear he said. "Babe we need to talk will you come over for dinner tonight?"
I nodded. And he was the wind and gone. I wondered for a minute what was happening between us. Lula and Connie picked up the sigh I let out. And both were giving me glaring looks.
"Okay, you win." And I told then about Joe's proposal slash ultimatum. As well as Ranger's no kids, marriage, and nothing non-consensual. They were both quite as she finished.
Lula spoke first. "So you going to let Batman get away with this shit."
"What you going to tell Joe?" Connie asked.
I looked at them both I wish I knew the answers. Vinnie poked his head out of his office.
"You ever going to get your ass out there and work or should I just lock the doors." Then he slithered back into his office.
"Here's your file." Connie said. Tabling the questions for later." There are four. D.B. Cooper, Alice Richner, Sally Sweet, and Mooner."
I looked at her Mooner was a regular but Sally Sweet wasn't. Sally was a friend He'd been Val's wedding planner and rescued me from the Slayer's.
"What's the deal with Sally?"
"Him and Lula had a gig and someone tried to get fresh. Sally decked him and got arrested for Assault and Battery."
I looked at Lula. She shrugged. " This guy just kept coming up and making request. After about the tenth time Sally told him to shut up...he didn't take it to well."
"And Alice Richner?" I asked. Looking through the file. Shoplifting at Frederick's said she was trying to spice up her marriage. She was out on a five thousand dollar bond. She should be easy.
I opened D.B. Cooper's file. Shit he was out on a hundred thousand dollar bond. I looked at Connie.
She spoke before I could. "Vinnie told me to give him to you. And I don't know why other then that he was arrested for helping out a lady maybe Vinnie thinks he would respond better to you then Ranger."
I looked at the file D.B was thirty three, six foot six, three hundred fifteen pounds. There was no picture.
"You got to be kidding. This guy is big he could snap me in two." I sighed. "Connie there's no picture how am I supposed to know this guy when I see him?"
Connie took the file from me and paged through it. "The shit did it again. Just a minute let me call booking they must have a picture they can fax us. It won't be the best but its better then nothing."
Connie picked up her phone and placed the call. Then she looked at me. "Should be here soon."
The fax started to make a noise. I walked to it and picked up the paper. I looked at the picture then at both Connie and Lula.
Connie noticed the look. "What's wrong?"
I turned the fax so they could see it. Other they that D. B. Cooper was a black man you couldn't tell much from the fax. He could have been anyone. I sighed and looked in his file. There was an address and of course it was on Stark Street. Big black man living on Stark street the hair on my arm were telling me to run from this one.
"Connie I don't feel good about this one. Maybe you could swing it Ranger's way."
Now it was Connie's turn to sigh. "No can do. Ranger said he'd only take skip you couldn't handle."
I glared at Connie. Then said sweetly. "I can't handle this one."
"Oh we can do it Steph. And think of all the shopping we can do with all the money. You were just saying you wanted a new car." Lula said grinning.
"Fine. Let's get started."
"Who we going after first." Lula asked as we climbed into her firebird.
"Let do Alice Richner. She should be easy. Then we'll go talk to Sally."
I gave Lula the address and we peeled out of the lot. Alice lived in the 'burg' not far from my parent's house.
We pulled up in front of Alice's house and she was waiting on the porch. She walked to the car.
"I knew you would be coming for me today." She said quietly. And she opened the back door and climbed in.
We took her to the station and got her rebonded. Then dropped her back at her house. So far the day was going good.
I called Sally and he asked if we could do it over lunch. So I arranged to meet him at the station at noon. I looked at the remaining two files.
Lula looked at me. "Mooner or Cooper?" She asked.
I looked at my watch. 10 a.m. "Mooner."
On the way to Mooner's Lula was quiet. I was grateful. I was busy thinking. I know I had to talk with both the men in my life and I wasn't sure of what I should tell them. I knew I couldn't marry Joe. I loved him I just wasn't in love with him. We wanted different things. Okay maybe we wanted some of the same things. I let out a sigh and Lula looked my way.
"You okay Steph. Sounds like you have the weight of the world on you right now."
"I can't marry Joe."
Lula nodded but remained quite giving me a chance to finish.
"If I don't marry him I may never get married or have kids." I looked at Lula. "I think I might want a kid someday."
Lula nodded. "I understand. Sometimes I wish I could have one...but...well" And she went quite.
I blushed when I remembered why Lula couldn't have kids. "I'm sorry..."
"Not your fault girlfriend. Besides I can be aunty to yours."
I shook my head. "I just told you I can't marry Joe and well Ranger is quite clear about the no marriage or kids thing."
Lula grinned at me. "People change. I saw that man this morning. Wouldn't surprise me if he had you pregnant really soon." Lula looked at me with a serious look on her face. " If you gave him a chance."
The conversation ended as we pulled up in front of Mooner's place.
Mooner was more then happy to accompany us to the station once I promised him a happy meal. We got him bonded back out and home in time for the Star Trek marathon.
I looked at my watch.
Lula read my thoughts. "Lunch time."
"Yup, then we meet Sally at the station."
"What we gonna do about Cooper."
I sighed. I didn't want to think about Cooper. The lack of a good picture and his size scared me. I thought for a minute. I still worked part-time at Rangeman when I needed extra money. I would go use their computers and see what I could find on Cooper. If I needed to I would ask Tank or Lester for some help with then take down. First I needed to find him.
"After we finish with Sally I'll go to Rangeman and see what I can find on him on their computers."
Lula accepted my answer. "Where to for lunch?"
I thought for a minute. I real hadn't been all that hungry lately. But I knew Lula would be on my case if I skipped lunch. "How about if we try that new place down by the river park."
Lula looked at me her mouth dropped open. Then new place was a health food joint and normally I would avoid it with a passion but lately health food was the only thing my stomach really accepted.
"You sure your okay Steph. You know that's a health food place?"
I shrugged. "I heard they had really good lasagne."
Lula started driving. We both ordered the lasagne it came with garlic bread sticks. And took it across the park to eat. It was good. As well as good for you.
Lula dropped me at the bond office after lunch and I went to the station to meet Sally.
After finishing at the station with Sally, I decided to swing by Rangeman and see what I could find on Cooper. I still had a few hours before I had to meet Ranger for dinner. I'd been avoiding Morelli's calls, so what better place to hide from him then in the 'lion's den'.
Pulling into the Rangeman garage, I noticed that one of Ranger's spaces was open and his Porsche was missing. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding, at least I didn't need to worry about running into him. I jumped as someone rapped on my window. I opened the door and stepped out and glared at Lester.
"Hey, Bomber," Lester said with a big smile on his face.
I punched him in the shoulder. "You scared me! And don't give me that 'being aware of my surroundings' speech. I'm in a secure building, I should be able to let my guard down here."
Lester raised an eyebrow.
I started to the elevator. "You know what I mean."
"Bomber, you coming back to work?" Lester asked as he draped an arm around my shoulders and kissed my head.
"Why, so you can tease me?"
"Ah, come on Steph, you know we all love you."
We stepped onto the elevator and I dug the Cooper file out of my bag and handed it to Lester. "Thought I'd see what I could find on a skip."
Lester seemed to pale as he read the file. "Uh, Stephanie, it might be better if Rangeman handled this one. In fact, I'm sure Tank will insist that we do."
My spidey sense jumped into high gear. "Lester, do you know something?"
Before he could answer, the elevator doors opened on the fourth floor and Lester exited saying he'd forgotten something in his apartment. It was only after the doors closed that I realized he still had the file on Cooper.
The elevator continued on, and when the doors opened on the fifth floor, Tank was standing there with a grim look on his face. He took me by my elbow and steered me to his office shutting the door behind us. Suddenly, I wasn't feeling so good. I closed my eyes as I felt the room start to spin.
"Stephanie, are you okay?" I could hear the concern in his voice as he helped me to his couch. He put a hand on my back. "Push against my hand Steph." A minute later I let out a sigh as the feeling passed.
Tank lifted my chin and starred into my eyes. Not liking what he saw, he said, "Steph, I'm calling Bobby to check you out."
I pushed his hand away. "No, I'm fine, just a little dizzy for a minute."
He ran a hand over his head and gave a worried look. Tank knew that If something happened to Steph that he could have prevented by having Bobby check her out that Ranger would kill him. On the other hand, Steph was just as stubborn as Ranger. If he insisted on her seeing Bobby, he knew she would fight him on it. He needed a distraction. Shit, Lester had called and told him about the file. Well if he told her a little about that then it would distract her, maybe.
"Okay, Steph. We need to talk, and none of what I tell you can leave this office."
Steph's eyes widened in surprise. She had expected Tank to fight her and now it looked like he was going to provide her with information.
"Uh, yeah DB Cooper? I was going to use some of…"
Tank gave a little shake of his head. "The programs won't give you any information, Stephanie."
Okay, this was bad. First, Tank was using her whole name - that almost never happened with the Merry Men; they were big on using nick names. Then she narrowed her eyes at him…something was up, she knew a distraction when she saw one. Why wouldn't the programs give her any information?
"Tank, what's up?"
"Cooper is classified."
"Tank, if you're worried about me getting in over my head, I promised Ranger that I would use back up if I needed it," I said, and rolled my eyes. I had found information on classified individuals before for Rangeman.
Tank's phone buzzed before he could answer her. "Yes… in front of me…okay, I'll send her up."
I did a quick look at my watch, damn Ranger must be back. I was thinking how I could get out of the building without being stopped when I felt Tank's hand on my shoulder.
"Steph, you okay?"
I looked up and could see worry in his eyes. "Uh, just think…"
Tank's voice was soft and gentle. "Stephanie, just talk to him. He's just a man, not a superhero. Give him a chance and just listen to your heart, and remember…sometimes actions speak way louder than words ever could."
He pulled her off the couch, and with a hand at her back walked her to the elevator. He even reached in and pushed the button for seven. He cupped her chin in his hand and placed a gentle kiss to her temple.
Tank spoke so softly in her ear that no one else would have known he had said anything. "Bomber, it will all work out. He loves you." He stepped back and the doors slid closed.
When the doors next opened, Ranger was leaning against his apartment door, blank face in place. "Babe."
His hair was loose and looked like he'd just stepped out of the shower. Steph picked up the scent of bvlgari drifting in the air. She was frozen in place until he lifted his arms - she walked into them and leaned into his chest. Was it wrong that she felt so safe here? Why was it that the only man who made her feel this way was also the one who could hurt her the most?
"Babe…Life is a war. To survive is a struggle."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but it just felt so good being here in his arms. Then sensible Stephanie appeared and she thought, he told you to marry Morelli. She tried to pull away, but Ranger held her and walked her into his apartment only stopping when he pulled her onto his lap as he sat on the couch.
We sat on the couch with Ranger holding me. He reached down and took my hand in his and stared at the ring on my finger. Then he began twirling it, almost playing with it.
"Babe, what did you tell Morelli?"
I looked away from him. "Nothing, yet…uh…morning. He gave me until tomorrow morning."
Ranger used his other hand to lift my chin so I was looking into his eyes. "Babe, don't marry him. I was wrong."
Suddenly, I was speechless. Did Ranger just tell me he was wrong? His ESP was working because he answered my thoughts. I couldn't even make words, if I had any, come out of my mouth.
"Yes, Babe, I was wrong to tell you to marry Morelli. And, I hope you'll give me another chance."
I took my hand out of Ranger's and stood - it was too hard to think clearly when I was that close to him. I paced for a minute, then stopped a few feet from him. Part of me was so happy, but the sensible part was telling me to continue with caution; I could even see the yellow lights flashing.
"Why?" Was all that I could manage to speak.
"Because, I love you, Babe."
"Yes, I know…in your own way. Condom, no ring. No marriage, or kids. Do I have all that right?"
Ranger lowered his head into his hands. "Babe, I've made a lot of mistakes…"
My head felt like it was going to explode - stop the spinning, I wanted off this ride. Something was seriously wrong…first, Ranger says he was wrong, and, second, he's admitting to mistakes.
"Stephanie, I'm just a man. I make mistakes just like anyone else. As much as you'd like to believe that I'm Batman, believe me, I'm no superhero." I noticed Ranger still had his head in his hands. "Babe, I've done some things… I was trying to protect you… I need you in my life… Would you be willing… Shit."
Ranger stood and started pacing. He looked at me and I could see the sadness in his eyes. "Babe, just tell me if I'm too late."
I leaned into him, wrapped my arms around his waist and soaked in the sense of safety and security I felt while in his arms. "Ranger, you're confusing me. What exactly are you asking me?"
Ranger pulled me in closer to him. "Babe, you and me together… we try someday now."
I could feel him tense slightly as he waited for my response. I released my arms from around his waist and used them to push his body slightly away from mine. I needed to see his eyes; I needed to know what he was feeling. He had his blank face on, so I continued to study him. He turned his face to look away, avoiding my eyes, but I could see the blank face slowly slipping away.
My hands found their way to his face. "Don't hide from me, Carlos."
Ranger brought one of my hands down and kissed the palm before resting it back on his face to caress it.
I cupped his face and brought him to me and lightly kissed his lips. For the first minute he let me have control before he took over and deepened the kiss, turning it from light to sensual.
After ending the kiss, he pulled away slightly to look me in my eyes, and said, "Babe, I don't want to hide…I just…"
"Ranger, are you trying to tell me you want a relationship?"
He didn't answer me, but gave a bare nod before pulling me back into the kiss. Suddenly, the only thing that seemed important right now was knowing he loved me.
The peace of the moment was broken by Ranger's cell phone ringing. He ignored the call and pulled me to the couch. He sat down and pulled me onto his lap, then groaned as the house phone joined his cell.
"Babe, I'm going to have to answer them." I could hear in his voice just how much he wanted to continue what we had started.
He opened his cell, and growled, "YO!" I was glad it wasn't me on the other end. "Yes, she's here." I tried to raise an eyebrow. Ranger noticed and ran a finger over it as he listened to what the person on the other end was telling him. He continued to listen as he started to place butterfly kisses down my cheek and neck. "We'll be down in five," he stated, then closed his cell and returned it to his belt. "Babe, you're in on this meeting."
Ranger took my hand and led me out the door and into the waiting elevator. Once in the elevator he pulled me in front of him and wrapped his arms around my waist.
"Babe, I want you in my life…that means Rangeman too. I want you to learn more about the business and what we do. I can't share everything about our government contract, but I will work to get you the clearances you need to work on some of the projects we're contracted for." I was so stunned, I simply nodded my head.
The doors opened on the third floor and Ranger led me to a conference where the door stood open. As we walked through I noticed all eyes were on us. Tank smiled as he saw our joined hands, and Lester held his hand out to Bobby who handed him something. Hmm…wonder what that's about?
Ranger walked to the head of the table and indicated that I should sit in the chair next to his.
Tank pushed a button and a screen lowered. He cleared his throat, and started, "All the information we currently have on our subject is in the folders in front of you. Tank pointed to the screen and, as he spoke, information showed appeared. Dennis Jenkins was born in Canada to middle class parents, moved to the states when he was ten. His first offense was sexual misconduct at age eleven. After setting fire to a friend's house at age fourteen he spent time in juvie. He has twenty known alias's, and is wanted for arson, rape, and sexual misconduct against a minor. He is the suspect in at least twenty-two disappearances."
Ranger stood. "Gentlemen, we've been contracted to find and deal with Mr. Jenkins." He looked at each person at the table. "Babe, you'll be running the searches. Bobby and Lester will be doing any legwork you need." I nodded. "Hal, Cal, you two will be covering the bond's office." Both men nodded, stood, and walked from the room. "Tank, you and I have our own paperwork to clear."
Tank groaned. "Shit, Range Man, you know how I hate paperwork." Bobby and Lester let out a snicker and Ranger glared at them.
"We don't have a choice, Tank, Jenkins could be anywhere. If we have to leave, I want everything taken care of."
For the next hour, Ranger and the A-team discussed accounts and upcoming commitments. They discussed who would cover what and possible scenarios. Once they were all sure that everything was covered the meeting was closed over.
As we were about to leave the building, I remembered my file. "Uh, guys, about DB Cooper…"
Suddenly, all was quiet.
I could see Ranger and Tank do the ESP thing. Suddenly, Tank turned and walked briskly from the room. Ranger walked over to me and took my hand in his as he led me back to the table. Sitting down in his chair, he pulled me onto his lap and intertwined our fingers. He didn't look at me, he just sat there staring down at the floor. If I didn't know better I would have thought he was nervous. Ranger always said I had good senses, and right now I could sense that something was terribly wrong. I started to fidget as I wondered if he was going to talk or just sit here.
Just then there was a tap on the door and Tank, wearing that infamous blank face that the Rangemen wore most times, walked back in holding a folder. He hesitated a moment before tossing it on the table in front of me. He gave me an almost sad look, then dropped into the nearest chair and rubbed his hands over his face.
I could feel Ranger tense up even more when the file hit the table. So, I extracted myself from his lap, picked up the folder and moved over to the chair next to him. I sat there holding the file in one hand and gripping the chair's arm with my other. Ranger turned to me and an uncontrollable shiver passed through me at the serious expression on his face.
"Babe," Ranger started, then blew out a breath before continuing, "what you read in that file is confidential. You can't share it with anyone. Do you understand?" he explained, as he looked into my eyes as though searching for my answer.
I thought about this. I trusted Ranger more than anyone else in the world. If he trusted me enough to tell me about this, whatever this was, then I would do whatever it took to help him. I nodded my head that 'yes' I understood. I'm sure I wouldn't like it, but I didn't really have a choice. I also knew that this was part of Ranger opening up to me. Part of me was scared to open that file, afraid of what I would find. I looked at the cover and saw that it was stamped 'Confidential…Eyes Only'. Then I looked at the name on the flap - David Barnes Cooper. Shit.
Tank laid his hand on mine and I raised my eyes to meet with his. His voice was as serious as I've ever heard, as he said, "Bomber…what's in that file…" he hesitated then turned away, obviously embarrassed about what was in there. After a few moments, he continued, "Please, Steph, don't judge us …." he waved at the file before he stood and walked from the room.
Ranger stood and brushed a kiss across my temple. "Call me, Babe, when you finish…if you want to talk…if not…just leave the file here," he said, and quietly walked towards the door.
I'd never seen Ranger look like that before. He almost seemed dejected when he spoke those words to me. What the hell is going on here?
I quickly pulled my hand away from the file. Whatever was in it could somehow change how I felt about Ranger and Tank. I cared for both men. Well, truth be told, I cared for one of those men, but I loved the other. Did I really need to know what was in it? Maybe it would be better if I walked away from this one.
Before I could even make that decision, Ranger stopped at the door and, without turning to look at me, said, "Read the file, Babe." Then he was gone.
I glared at the file wishing it would just disappear. When that didn't happen, I let out a sigh then gingerly opened it and started reading. The first thing I noticed was that the spot for a picture was blank. What the hell was it with this guy and no pictures? The description matched with what Vinnie had in the file I had received.
As I read through the file my jaw dropped. This was truly a bad guy. No, 'bad' didn't even begin to describe this person. He was into a little bit of everything - from fraud to rape. I turned the page and froze, DB was also a suspect in money laundering and terrorism. But, it was what I saw half way down the page that stopped me.
I recognized a name listed under 'Known Associate'… Marc Pardo.
I thought back to what Ranger had said when we had been hunting Scrog. Tank had made our train reservation in the name Marc Pardo, and when I had questioned him about it he had said, "No. It's all mine." *
What had he meant? Was he Marc Pardo? I looked over the file again and couldn't get my mind to accept that Ranger, with his moral code, could be an associate of Cooper's. It just didn't make sense. Maybe if I read more.
By the time I finished reading through the file, I was feeling ill. I leaned over and put my head between my knees and breathed deeply through my nose. When the nauseous feeling passed, I slowly raised my head and took a few calming breaths. I looked at the file again, leaned back and closed my eyes.
The door opened and closed and I knew I was no longer alone. I didn't move, even as I heard a chair move and someone sit.
Five minutes passed and then ten.
"Babe…" I held up a hand in the 'stop' gesture.
After a moment, I opened my eyes and saw Tank on one side of the table and Ranger on the other, both starring intently at me.
I met Tank's eyes. "David Cooper, I assume?" He gave a bare nod.
I turned to Ranger. "Marc Pardo?" He also nodded.
I pushed the file away from me and stood. I paced for a minute and could feel the rage in me building. I had thought that, in the last few years, I had gotten to know these men. But, if what that file said was true…I really didn't know anything. Everything I thought I knew was a lie.
I walked back to the table, picked up the file and looked at both men. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes in an effort to calm down, thinking that going into rhino mode wasn't going to help the situation. Ranger had once told me to 'focus on the goal'. Okay…the goal. What the hell was the goal? Yeah… the file…Vinnie…shit! That rat fink had to have known that Tank was Cooper. Note to self…cut off Vinnie's balls.
I heard Tank shifting in his chair as if he was nervous. Ranger cleared his throat, and said, "Babe…"
I opened my eyes and tossed the file on the table. "Tell me that's a lie," I interruped, as I looked between their two faces.
Both men looked at each other and paled. This was not looking good.
Tank spoke first. "Steph, sometimes…shit…I wish…" he looked at Ranger for assistance.
"Babe…" I backed away and saw his blank face slam into place. "Stephanie…some of our contracts have required that we do certain things…"
"Bomber, you know how we feel about some of the things in that file…"
I nodded at Tank. "But, according to that file, you did them anyway."
Ranger shot up so fast that his chair went flying and hit the wall. "I'm not proud of what's in that file, Stephanie, but damn it…it saved lives!" he shouted.
Ranger grabbed the file and thumbed through it for a minute. He handed me a photo and I instantly paled. According to the file, DB Cooper and Marc Pardo had raped and murdered this girl; she was fourteen and a runaway. The file also said she had been deep into drugs and prostitution.
"There's more to the story than what's in the file, most of it classified. Just believe me when I tell you that not everything is true, but most is. I want to tell you, but…" Ranger's voice was so low that I had trouble hearing him, but I could tell there was a definite edge to it.
Tank stood and walked to the door but stopped before opening it. Without turning to face me, he said, "Damn it, Steph, I'm gonna kill Vinnie!" He turned around quickly and walked over to me, picked up one of my hands in his, and got down on one knee in front of me. "Do you really think I'm that man, Steph?"
I looked back and forth between both men. One I loved and the other I considered to be one of my best friends. Did I believe everything I read in that file? Hell no!
Tank stood up in front of me and I raised up on tip toes to put my arms around his shoulders. "No, you're not that man."
Tears were now streaming down my face. Hell, I hated it when I cried. I relaxed my arms from around his neck and pulled back some. I saw the look on Tank's face and remembered that, for a big ex-army man, he hated me crying more than I did.
"Please…don't," I mumbled as his thumb wiped away a tear. I buried my head in his shoulder, fighting to gain control. After a long minute, I was able to regain my senses and released my hold on him.
I turned my head and locked eyes with Ranger. He was standing five feet away watching me and wearing his blank face. This was the man I trusted more than anyone. I loved this man.
I took a step and Ranger held out his arms. I closed the distance between us and threw myself into his arms, wrapping myself around him. "Babe, can I assume this means everything is okay?" he asked, as he gripped me tighter.
I leaned back and shook my head slightly. "It is between us, Ranger," I said honestly, and hoped it would alleviate some of his worries. "But, what am I supposed to do about bringing in DB Cooper? Lula would kick my ass if I took Tank in! Besides, somehow I don't think this is something you want me to share."
Ranger pulled me back into his embrace and lowered his head to mine. "I'll take care of Vinnie, Babe… and, don't worry about the file."
I pulled away only enough to look into Ranger's eyes. "You won't kill him will you?"
"Babe." By his tone, I could tell I was amusing him again.
*from Twelve Sharp
DISCLAIMER: Just borrowing Janet's wonderful characters and I promise to return them. Not making anything except hopefully smiles and laughs. Please review and let me know what you think.
I leaned back and shook my head slightly. "It is between us, Ranger," I said honestly, and hoped it would alleviate some of his worries. "But, what am I supposed to do about bringing in DB Cooper? Lula would kick my ass if I took Tank in! Besides, somehow I don't think this is something you want me to share."
Ranger pulled me back into his embrace and lowered his head to mine. "I'll take care of Vinnie, Babe… and, don't worry about the file."
I pulled away only enough to look into Ranger's eyes. "You won't kill him will you?"
"Babe." By his tone, I could tell I was amusing him again.
There was a tap at the door and then Bobby poked his head in. "Uh, is everything alright?"
I felt, rather than saw, Ranger nod.
Bobby walked into the room and handed Ranger a file. He opened the file and looked through it.
"Shit!" Ranger handed the file to me. "Babe, I need you to get started on those searches," Ranger said as he ran both hands through his hair. "We need to know where this bastard is."
Jenkins had struck again!
Ranger put his hand on the small of my back and kept it there until we reached my work station. "Babe, have dinner with me?"
I nodded, and he gave me his full smile and quick kiss. Then he and Tank walked off and disappeared into his office.
I settled into my chair and let out a loud sigh when I looked at my in-box. Just then, Lester stepped into the doorway. "Hey, Beautiful, welcome back." He gave me a hug and set a coke and a Tastycake on my desk.
"Thanks, Les. Uh, doesn't anyone else ever do searches?" I said as I waved a hand at my overflowing in-box.
Lester tilted his head and looked at me through his lashes. "Bomber, we all know your searches are the best." He winked at me and then he was gone. Well, that didn't answer my question, I thought.
Might as well get started. I looked at the stack of files I had, a very tall stack, and groaned. Rodriguez… someday I was going to find this guy and hurt him.
First, I entered everything we had on Jenkins. Then, I looked through the entire pile and rearranged them in order of importance. I started entering them into the computer and, as information popped up, I looked through it and printed it out. As I was scanning one of the hard copies, deciding what else I needed to search, I felt the hairs on my neck tingle. I looked up and saw Ranger, and he was smiling at me.
"Babe, you said you'd come up for dinner" Ranger said as he leaned against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest.
I looked at the clock and did a double take. It was after seven. My stomach woke up and growled. "I'm sorry, Ranger, I didn't realize it was that late."
"Come on, Babe, Ella has dinner waiting." I hurriedly shut down my computer and tidied up my desk some, before quitting for the night. I stood, and Ranger slung his arm over my shoulder as we walked to the elevator. That simple gesture gave me warm and fuzzy feelings.
In the elevator, on the way to seven, I leaned back against Ranger, his arm across my stomach.
"Mmm." Was all I could manage to say.
We stayed that way, not talking, until the doors opened. I was tired, but my mind was busy working on the latest I had learned about Jenkins. It wasn't going to be easy to get him out of wherever he was holed up without some innocent people getting hurt.
When we entered Ranger's apartment, I could smell the heavenly aromas from whatever Ella had prepared for us for dinner. The breakfast bar area had already been set, so we sat down and began eating. All through dinner, my mind was occupied by the Jenkins file. So much so, that I ate Ella's wonderful meal without even realizing what I was eating. After dinner, I helped Ranger clear the table and rinse the plates before putting them in the dishwasher.
Once everything was cleaned up in the kitchen, Ranger took my hand and led me into the living room. We sat on couch and I curled into him, relishing the feel of his warm, hard body.
"Babe, everything okay?" Ranger asked me as he reached and grabbed the throw from the back of the couch.
I smiled and kissed him. "Just thinking, Batman."
Ranger raised an eyebrow. "Care to share?"
I thought for a minute. No, I needed to work this out in my own mind first. I shook my head. "Maybe later, I just need to think it out right now." I knew Ranger hadn't liked my answer, but he let it go.
"What would you like to do now, Babe? Movie or music?"
"Let's watch a movie," I said as I situated the throw to cover both of us.
We went through the channels until we found an old movie, 'Yours, Mine, and Ours'.
We laughed and talked as we watched it. "Carlos, you came from a large family." It came out sounding like a question. It must be the movie, but a part of me hoped he would answer; he had said he wanted to let me into his life.
"Babe, you know about Celia…" he waited while I nodded, "well, she's the oldest, followed by my other three sisters. Then, there's me and…sometimes it seemed as though our house was never empty. There were always cousins and neighborhood kids; our house was where everyone hung out." He gave me a kiss and we went back to watching the movie.
Everything was fine until I felt Ranger stiffen. It was during the scene where Henry Fonda finds out that Lucy is pregnant. I turned and looked in his eyes and I could see pain.
"Babe, that isn't too far from how I found out about Rachael being pregnant with Julie." He was quiet, so I snuggled into him; offering my silent support.
He started playing with a curl. A few minutes later, he started talking again. "I was on a mission, Babe. I can't tell you where, but just accept that it wasn't going good. I'd only met Rachael that one time…it was at a mixer on base. We were due to ship out the next day. Common practice was to get a girl and spend the night fucking and drinking, to put it bluntly. Most of the missions were almost acts of suicide, so we never knew if we'd return. In fact, a lot of my buddies didn't."
Ranger stood then and started pacing. He didn't speak for several minutes, and I let him take his time. I had a feeling that whatever he was going to say wouldn't be easy for him.
"You have to understand, Babe, I didn't think I was coming back. I know it's no excuse for how I treated Rachael, but…" He hesitated, before turning to look at me.
I stood and walked over to him and put my head on his chest, my arms around his waist. "You don't have to tell me if it's too painful."
Ranger walked us back over to the couch, sat down, and pulled me onto his lap; the movie temporarily forgotten.
He blew out a long breath before speaking. "I was angry when I found out about Julie. Shit. At the time, I thought of her and that one night with her mother as the worst two mistakes I'd ever made. And believe me, Babe, I'd made some big mistakes by that point. The anger followed me onto the mission and it almost got the whole team killed. It was only after we got back and I had a chance to talk with someone, that I cooled off."
Ranger ran a hand through his hair, in a nervous gesture. "I was ready to force Rachael to have an abortion, even knew someone who was willing. I knew she was Catholic, but it didn't matter to me at the time. This friend talked to me and convinced me that, for some reason, God had really smiled on me. Now, if something happened to me on a mission, a part of me would live on. And I have to admit, my ego enjoyed the feeling that a part of me would survive me."
"Uh, the friend…was?"
"It was Tank, Babe. After I got out of the hospital, I returned to Trenton and married Rachael. I moved her into military housing in Miami, but we never lived together. I learned better focus and control. A month before Julie was born, I shipped out on another mission and was gone for six months. By the time I returned, she had already filed for divorce."
We went back to watching the movie, and I let what I had just learned about Ranger sink in. I knew a lot had changed since the Scrog incident. He'd told me how he and Julie now e-mailed each other regularly. Then he told me about Julie wanting to come visit, and how he and Rachael were both against it.
We'd been laying on the couch a couple of hours when I could tell that Steph had fallen asleep. I thought of moving us to the bedroom, but I liked the feel of her laying against me. Without conscious thought, I started playing with one of her curls. 'Babe, what is going through that mind of yours? I know it's something, but I'll wait until you work it out. I'll just have to make sure that the man I have watching you knows to keep an extra close eye'.
I stretched and inhaled deeply, mmm. Silky sheets, Bvlgari, and…My eyes popped open and I sat up fast. Shit! I was in Ranger's bed! I glanced at the ring that was still on my finger and got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I still needed to talk to Joe. I lifted the covers and saw that I was still in my clothes…well, minus pants and shoes. That was good right? It meant that nothing happened.
A smile came to my face knowing that my denial was working in full force this morning. So, I had fallen asleep. There was nothing wrong with that was there? I climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
After finishing in the bathroom, I ventured out and into the kitchen. Ranger was already sitting at the table, so I sat down to join him. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.
I poured myself a mug of coffee. Ranger pushed a covered plate my way and our eyes met, but I quickly looked down. He reached out a hand and gently brushed my curls away from my face. I leaned into his hand, accepting his strength and support.
I removed the cover from the plate and moaned. Ella had outdone herself. I tried to eat in silence, but I could tell from the dark look Ranger was giving me that some sounds had escaped. I truly couldn't help it. I pushed the plate away, unsnapped my jeans and looked at Ranger.
"I have to talk to Joe this morning."
Ranger gave me the barest of nods. He stood and walked over to stand behind me with his hands settling on my shoulders. He bent forward and his lips brushed my neck as he spoke, "You going to be okay, Babe?"
I sighed and, once again, looked at the ring on my finger. I could feel Ranger tense up as I looked at the ring. "Yeah," I said, then turned so I could look into his eyes. "I'll be fine." I rose just enough to brush my lips across his.
Ranger rested his forehead on mine and said, "Babe, I need you to help me with a stakeout later." I nodded, then stood so I could help him clean up in the kitchen.
We cleaned up the breakfast dishes as Ranger filled me in on the stakeout. We were looking for Clarence Johnson, age thirty-two. He was out on DUI, but his bond was high. That's because his three daughters had been in the car when he'd been pulled over and none of the kids were wearing their seatbelts. Johnson had also decided to hit one of the officers, so he was also facing resisting arrest and assault on an officer. Needless to say, it had gone to Rangeman.
We walked onto the elevator together and Ranger pushed the buttons for five and the parking garage. The elevator stopped on five and Ranger walked off after giving me a quick kiss. He stopped and turned to me saying, "Ten o'clock, Babe."
I rolled my eyes and looked at the camera. Ranger knew I hated stakeouts. I had a big problem sitting still for that long. But, sheesh, ten? Most stakeout's were six hour shifts, so that meant that I'd miss lunch.
I climbed into my car and decided a stop at the market was called for. Huh, I'd surprise him for once and come prepared.
As I walked down the aisle, I went over what I would tell Joe.
Finally, after a couple of calls to Ella, I was happy with my selection and headed for the checkout. Clara looked at what I placed on the belt and raised an eyebrow. What is it with everyone able to do that but me.
"You on a diet, Stephanie?" She asked.
I shook my head and declined to answer. I knew the grapevine would be talking about my unusual purchases.
I drove home and wasn't surprised to find Morelli's truck parked in the lot.
I sighed and grabbed my bags thinking, time to face the music.
I walked into my apartment and Joe meant me at the door.
His voice was tinged with barely controlled anger. "Cupcake… Where. The. Fuck. Have. You. Been."
He took the bags from my arms and sat them on the counter. He started to empty the bags and suddenly stopped.
He glared from the packaged healthy wraps in his hand and back to me. He knew I wouldn't choose something like that if I were making a sandwich just for myself. He tossed the wraps onto the counter and turned to me. "Shit. Cupcake, you want to tell me what's going on?"
I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. Sure, I'd known I would have to have this talk with him, but I just wasn't sure how to do it without losing my friend.
He walked over to me and picked up my hands. He lifted them and kissed the finger with the ring on it. I felt the color leave my face as I saw the corners of his lips start to raise. Then he saw my reaction and his blank cop face slide into place.
I played with the ring and then started to remove it from my finger.
Tears ran down my cheek as I spoke, "I'm sorry, Joe…I can't…" I handed him the ring and ran for my bedroom.
He followed and, before I could close the door, he had me in his arms. He used a finger to raise my chin and look into my eyes. Then he kissed my forehead and cradled me to him.
"Cupcake, you tell Manoso if he ever hurt's you, it won't be pretty."
He walked me to my bed and helped me to lay down. "Get some rest, Cupcake." Then he was gone.
I laid there listening to Rex running on his wheel, traffic noises, the wind in the trees across the lot, and the sound of my heart breaking. I loved Ranger. I knew this, but, I also loved Joe. He had been part of my life as long as I could remember. I also knew my love for each man was different.
My phone rang and I sat up in a panic, taking a quick glance at the alarm clock. Shit. It was already nine-thirty. I had to meet Ranger in half an hour and I wasn't ready yet.
"Babe, that's my line."
"Uh, well you see…I'm kind of running behind," I rushed out.
"Babe, I can pick you up."
"Thanks, Ranger. I'll be ready."
Ranger disconnected and I rushed into the bathroom. I finished up in there and ran back into the bedroom to get ready. I made record time and was actually waiting for Ranger when he pulled up.
Ranger looked at the cooler and thermos and raised an eyebrow. I could tell I was amusing him again, but that was okay. I would rather amuse him then miss lunch.
One hour later I was bored, but not quite ready for lunch. "Babe, you're fidgeting."
I started digging through my bag. Voilá. I pulled out the miniature manicure kit Mary Alice had given me for Christmas. So, I started doing my nails and humming.
"Babe, you're supposed to be watching," Ranger said with an annoyed look on his face.
"I can watch and still do my nails. I'd lose my standing as a 'burg girl if I couldn't do more than one thing at a time, Ranger."
Meanwhile, back in the Control Room…
Tank walked off the elevator and the first thing he noticed was how all the guys were crowded around one monitor. He cleared his throat and watched as they all jumped and scrambled off in different directions.
"O'Neil, explain!" Tank barked out.
O'Neil looked around for support and saw that everyone had returned to their assigned workstations. Shit. He really liked this job, he thought. Hell, he liked to breathe and, after this, he might not be.
"Uh, Sir…" Tank walked over, hit a couple of buttons and listened to the feed.
"Babe, you're supposed to be watching."
"I can watch and still do my nails."
Tank hit the button and there was silence.
Tank drilled a look at O'Neil. He could tell that O'Neil was about to piss his pants, and he had to work hard to keep the blank look on his face.
Tank's voice was controlled as he spoke. "You were listening in on the boss?"
Hal looked from the station he was at to Tank and O'Neil. He wondered for just a minute if O'Neil would be able to stand up under Tank's glare. Then, he decided to help him out.
"Tank, Bossman's with Bombshell."
Tank raised an eyebrow, clearly waiting to hear the rest. Hal sighed, he really didn't want to have to spell it out.
O'Neil spoke up and Tank transferred his glare from Hal back to him. "Uh, Sir, I heard stories…" He looked around the room and continued. "About Ms. Plum…"
Tank wasn't sure he liked where this was going. "So, you decided to invade your employer's privacy?"
O'Neil was shaking his head. "No, you don't understand…" He looked to Hal for help.
"Tank, he's talking about stuff blowing up and catching fire…" Hal explained.
Back in the Truck…
Stephanie had finished her nails and was looking at Ranger. She took his hand in hers and narrowed her eyes.
She looked into his eyes and smiled sweetly.
Ranger shifted uncomfortably. What had he gotten himself into? He had figured having Steph with him would offer some amusement and make sure that she was out of trouble. He would never admit it, but it turned him on to a degree to watch her as she fidgeted. True to form, Steph had surprised him once more. He had never expected her to be so prepared.
Tank raised an eyebrow at Hal. "How big is the pot?" If Steph knew they were betting on her, it wouldn't be pretty. The girl believed in revenge. Then Tank thought of Ranger. His friend would not like the betting, but he would understand.
"A thousand dollars."
"And the bet is?"
"Uh, everybody kind of thinks something different will happen," O'Neil stuttered, clearly surprised that Rangeman's second in command hadn't already killed him for his indiscretion.
Slowly, each man revealed his bet. Tank smiled. "Put me in for fifty."
"Sir?" O'Neil was clearly surprised.
"I say…by the end of the shift, Ranger will be laughing his head off." All the men looked at Tank as if he'd lost it.
Tank flicked the switch and the sounds from the truck filled the Comm. Room.
Then there were other sounds they couldn't identify. After ten minutes, Tank asked, "Do we have a visual?"
Hal blanched. They all knew better then to spy on Ranger. Sure, they were listening, but that was different. Right?
"Uh, cameras are operational." Tank nodded. He knew that the cameras were only there in case something went bad and they needed the documentation. He listened to the sounds from the speakers. He could now here rustling and the clear sound of containers being opened.
Ranger was looking at the manicure his Babe had just given him when she leaned over the seat and pulled the cooler and thermos into the seat between them.
He looked out the window. No sign of Johnson. Steph pulled the cooler open and then handed him something wrapped in paper.
"You have to eat lunch, right? So, I made us something."
He peeled the paper back and was surprised to find it was a wrap. He took a bite and moaned. Then he looked at Steph.
She shrugged and continued to pull out stuff. "I called Ella and she said you liked crab wraps."
Ranger watched in amazement as Stephanie finished off three of the healthy wraps. Then, she opened a bowl of fresh fruit that was cut into bite-size pieces.
He watched in amazement for the next two hours as she snacked on healthy items.
"Babe?" Ranger questioned twenty minutes before their shift was due to end.
Stephanie smiled at him and leaned over to whisper in his ear.
The Control Room was suddenly filled with the sound of Ranger laughing. Tank held out his hand and pocketed his winnings. Then he flicked off the switch and walked into his office, closing the door behind him.
Tank flicked open his phone. "Got some info. You and Steph should head in."
After closing his phone Tank walked to his desk, sat down and booted up his computer. He hit a few keys and read over the information as it loaded. He was still at his computer when there was a tap on his door and in walked Ranger and Stephanie.
"Report!" Ranger said gruffly.
"We've found Jenkins."
Ranger closed the door and we walked to Tank's desk.
Tank looked up and handed Ranger the file with all the information he'd just finished printing. "Seems an old girlfriend left him some land in Washington State. He was recently spotted there."
Ranger quietly read through the file. When he was finished he threw it onto Tank's desk. I could tell by Ranger's body language that he was not happy with the situation.
Tank looked from me to Ranger. "We use Bombshell. The only time he comes into town is to visit the local bar. He picks up a woman and then disappears back onto his land. His place is booby-trapped, so our only chance is to get him is while he's in town."
Ranger looked at me and, while he didn't out and out say it, I know he wasn't happy with the suggestion. I looked at Tank and saw that he had come to the same conclusion…that, the only safe way to get Jenkins would be if we used distraction.
"Get the team together and call a meeting at 1500." Ranger took my elbow and steered me from the room. He didn't stop until we were in the elevator and my back was to his front, our normal position when we're alone together.
The doors opened on seven and he guided me into the apartment.
"Babe, I don't want you doing this distraction." I started to protest and he held up a hand. "Babe, I know about your dizzy spells."
I wrapped my arms around myself and put some distance between us. I spoke with my back to him. "It's nothing. Probably just low blood sugar."
Ranger walked to me and turned me so I was facing him. "Liar. Want to tell me why you changed your diet?" I shook my head. No way was I discussing any of this with Ranger.
"Babe." He directed me to the couch. Well, double damn. Maybe we would be talking about some of this. Once we were on the couch he positioned us so that he sat in the corner with me between his legs, my back resting on his chest, his arms around me and resting on my belly.
I looked up at the clock and let out a sigh. It was only one o'clock, so we would have time to have this talk before the meeting.
Ranger started tracing circles on Steph's belly and went over everything he knew. Tank had told him about the dizzy spell Steph had in the office. He'd also mentioned how Lula had remarked that Steph had been picking strange places to eat lately. He stilled for just a minute, feeling her belly under his fingers and wondered if she was pregnant. Just the thought made his stomach tighten. If Steph was pregnant, would she change her mind about giving them a chance? Would she decide that the right thing to do would be to marry the Morelli? Damn.
If she were pregnant, it had to be the cops, unless…no, Steph didn't do one nights, so if she was, then it was Morelli's child in there. Did it matter to him if she was carrying another man's child? He stilled his hand for just a minute as he pondered that thought. No, it didn't matter. He loved this woman. If she were pregnant, he would love the child as his own.
Steph felt Ranger stiffen for a minute, then he relaxed and continued the motion he was making on her belly. It was comforting and soothing. As she relaxed she tried to figure out how to start the talk with Ranger.
They both started awake when the alarm went off on Ranger's watch. Steph looked at the clock and let out a sigh. There was no time for the talk before the meeting. Ranger took her face in his hands and brushed a kiss across her lips.
"Babe, we'll talk about this. It affects the case." Then they were up and heading for the door.
"Uh, I have to…" I said and gestured to the bathroom. "I'll meet you down there."
Ranger didn't look happy at that, but he left, closing the door behind him. He leaned against the closed door and rubbed his eyes. What the hell was up with her? He needed to know-it affected more than the case-this was his life. What would he do if she decided to marry the cop and have a batch of little Morelli's?
I walked into the bathroom and flipped my phone open. "Anything yet? Okay. Yes, I'm following the diet. Okay, tomorrow."
I flipped the phone closed and sighed as I leaned against the wall. I finished up in the bathroom and headed down to the meeting. One thing I knew for sure, I wasn't going to let Ranger stop me from doing this distraction.
I walked into the conference room and wasn't surprised that the chair next to Ranger was empty and waiting for me. I sat down and the meeting immediately started. The screen showed images of Jenkins' place and I was amazed. It was clear that some of these images were from satellite photos. Tank, Hal, and Lester went over what they knew of the area and Jenkins' patterns.
Several suggestions were made as to how Jenkins could be taken, but all agreed that distraction had the best chance.
Ranger looked at Tank and flatly stated. "Call Jeanne Ellen."
The room went silent. The guys were looking from me to Ranger and I could see the questions in their eyes. Me, I was going into rhino mode. How dare he think he could just exclude me from this case.
His ESP was working. "Babe, I'm not excluding you. You just won't be involved in the takedown."
Tank spoke first. "Uh, Jeanne Ellen…" He looked at me. "I thought Bomber would be doing this one." The rest of the guys nodded.
When Ranger spoke, his voice was level but filled with threat. I'm sure his tone had made many an FTA wet themselves. Call me foolish, but I wasn't afraid of him. I was fairly sure he wouldn't hurt me.
"Clear the room," Ranger practically barked the order. "Steph, you stay." He centered his gaze on me.
Once the room was cleared, Ranger pulled my chair so we were face to face.
"Babe, we never talked and, until we do, you are not doing any field work."
I sighed and buried my head in my hands. Damn. I really did not want to talk about this.
Ranger's voice was low and controlled. "Babe, are you pregnant?"
I know I surprised him when I jumped up. "What? No! Why would you think that?" I think I heard Ranger let out a sigh of relief.
I walked over to the window. I know my voice was just above a whisper as I said, "Please. I'm fine, but it's private." Ranger walked up and put his arms around me, I leaned into him and accepted his strength. He nuzzled my neck. "Could you, maybe, just give me more time?"
He turned me and looked into my eyes. "Babe, promise me that you're okay, or I'll have Bobby give you a physical before I let you do this job."
I pushed him away. Okay, he let me, but I walked, putting some space between us. I narrowed my eyes at him. "Don't push me."
"Babe, if there is a problem and you get hurt…if I could have prevented it…"
Okay, I gave myself a pep talk. I could do this. I could talk to Ranger and be an adult.
"I'm not pregnant," I said and folded my arms across my chest. Suddenly it felt awfully cold in here, or maybe it was me. "Would you just trust me to let you know if I need your help?"
Ranger pulled me into his arms. "You're not pregnant?" I shook my head no. "And, you'll tell me if you need anything?" I nodded as my face was buried in his chest inhaling the intoxicating mix of bvlgari and Ranger. "Babe, I love you. I'm just trying to keep you safe."
I pulled away just enough so that I could look up at his face. "So, does this mean I get to do the job?"
He gave a bare nod.
He let me go, pushed a button and called the rest of the team back into the room.
We spent the next few hours hammering out the details. The meeting only ended when Ranger heard my stomach growl and then he looked at his watch.
"Okay, I think we hit all the key items. Back here at 0800 and we leave at 1300. Tank, Bobby, Lester you know what you need to do." They all nodded and left the room. "Hal, you'll be in charge. If you have any questions, be ready in the morning with them."
Hal nodded, picked up his pad and left. Cal, Junior, and Woody followed him out.
Ranger pulled me from my chair and brushed his lips against mine. "Babe, should I call Ella, or would you like to go out?"
I only thought for a second. "Ella."
After the long day, I was too tired to even think about getting ready to go out. Besides, I had Ranger and I was looking forward to some private time together. I knew that, with both of our lifestyles, we would have to treasure the time we spent together.
I thought I was dreaming; it felt so good. Then, I heard a moan and realized it had come from me. I cracked an eye open and quickly closed it again. Ugh. It was too early, way too early to be awake. Ranger and I had spent most of the night making slow, tender love. I was almost certain that I'd had less than the necessary amount of sleep.
I heard a soft noise that could only be Ranger. I turned to face him as his hands traced lines across my body. He was placing butterfly kisses across my face, eyes, and chin. Mmm…his hands felt so good.
"Babe, time to get up."
No, no, no. As much as I liked what he was doing to me, it was too early for my eyes to open. I'd just lay here and enjoy. Yup, that sounded good.
His lips settled on my breast and I let out a moan. Then, a shutter went through my body. Another minute and I would explode.
Ranger flipped us, and his weight settled on me. A minute later, he sheathed himself and waited for me to adjust to his size, then he started a steady rhythm. His lips caressed mine - nipping and sucking. The kiss went from gentle to sensual. I felt myself reaching the peak and we climaxed together. We were both breathless, shaking. He recovered first and turned us so I was cocooned in his arms, my back to his front.
His lips were on my ear as he whispered, "Morning, Babe."
"Mmm, you know I could get used to being woken like that." I placed some kisses of my own on him.
Ranger untangled us and stood. "Shower, Babe?"
Hmm…wet Ranger, yum. I cracked my eye open and had to smile. Ranger was standing next to the bed, in all his glory, with his hand out to help me from bed. I licked my lips and Ranger growled.
"Babe, we have work to do, but if you keep that up we're not leaving the apartment today."
He tugged my hand, dragging me from the bed and we walked into the bathroom, hand in hand.
An hour later, we walked out of the elevator and onto the fifth floor.
We walked into the conference room and I had to smile. Sitting in front of my place was a steaming cup of coffee and two Boston Crèmes. I looked at the seated men and caught Lester's wink. Ranger pulled out my chair and I sat, giving Lester a small smile.
Ranger looked down the table-he hadn't missed the communication happening between Lester and Steph. He was glad that his men accepted her and, it was okay with him, as long as they didn't try to get too close. He made sure he didn't react…Lester loved to yank his chain.
"Tank." The big man stood.
Steph lost concentration after the first five minutes. She started to fidget. Hours later, Tank finished with his report and Steph looked at the clock. No way had only twenty minutes passed. She made a glance down the table…no one else seemed to notice the problem with the clock.
One by one, the men stood and gave their reports. When they were finished, Ranger stood.
"We meet downstairs at 2100!" The men rose and filed out.
"Babe, will you stay, please."
Hal was last out and, before he closed the door, he winked at me.
Ranger walked toward me and it reminded me of a big cat stalking its prey. Then, his arms went around me and pulled me to him. "Babe, you're corrupting my men."
I leaned into Ranger and listened to the steady beat of his heart. There was so much comfort and safety here. It felt right being in his arms and, for just a minute, I let myself wonder why I'd never felt the same with Joe.
Without moving, I answered Ranger, "Not my fault."
"Babe, one of my men brought contraband into an official Rangeman meeting."
I tilted my head, only enough to meet Ranger's eyes. "Now, that I work here, maybe your list needs to be revised."
Ranger narrowed his eyes. "Babe."
"What? The guys know I operate better if I have coffee and donuts for breakfast." Ranger let out a little laugh.
"And, I thought maybe I'd reformed you with all the healthy stuff you've been eating lately." Ranger felt Steph tense a little, so he decided to let it go. "Babe, what are your plans for the rest of the day?"
I sighed. "Lunch at my parents' and then I need to stop by Val's. She wants me to help her with nursery stuff." I rolled my eyes at that. It wasn't like I had any experience with nurseries. "After that, I need to stop at the Bond's office."
"Babe, Connie already knows you'll be gone." I just nodded.
What was I going to tell him…that I needed to fill up on girl talk before I had to spend at least a week, maybe more, surrounded by testosterone?
"Babe, are we really that bad?"
Damn ESP, or had I said that out loud? I looked at Ranger. Yup, definitely had said it out loud. Have to try watching that.
I wrapped my arms around Ranger's neck and pulled him down; of course, I knew he let me. My lips met his and I put a lot of passion into the kiss. When I felt his hands stop their motion on my back, and his hardness on my belly, I pulled away. I looked into Ranger's dazed eyes and smiled. I was glad I could affect him the way he did me.
"Sometimes, you guys are…smothering." While he was dazed and thinking, I decided now would be a good time to make my get away. I was to the door and had it opened before he answered.
"Babe, we just want to keep you safe."
I rolled my eyes and gave him a smile. "I know, Baby. Love you."
I rode the elevator down, knowing I had a goofy grin on my face. This thing with Ranger was working out better than I had hoped-we were talking and communicating. Lost in my thoughts, I walked into a wall of muscle when the doors opened. I looked up and caught a grin from Junior.
I held up a hand. "If you're going to tell me I should be more aware…"
Junior shook his head. "I was just going to say that you look happy."
I'm sure that silly grin of mine just got bigger. I walked out to my truck and answered him over my shoulder, "I am."
About twenty minutes later, I pulled up to my parent's house. The first thing I noticed was that my mother and grandmother were not on the porch waiting for me. I stepped out of the truck and walked up the sidewalk. I gave a light knock on the door, stepped into the foyer and then stopped. The house was quiet…too quiet. The Plum house was never quiet.
There was no talking and the TV was off. Hmm. I walked into the living room, empty. Where was everybody? I walked into the dining room and then went into the kitchen. No one. I pulled out my cell and called Val.
"Thank you for calling. You've reached the Kloughn residence, please leave a message. Beep…" I closed the phone and sighed.
Okay, now what ? I closed my eyes to think. Unless aliens had picked them all up, they had to be somewhere. I decided to go with denial for now. After all, if something were wrong, I would have heard about it. Right?
I walked back out the front door, closing it behind me and looked around. I didn't see anything out of the ordinary, so I walked to my truck, angled into the seat and headed to the Bond's office.
As I pulled up to the office, I smiled when I saw Lula's Firebird. Looking into the window, I could see Connie sitting at her desk. Well, at least they hadn't vanished. Just then, my stomach let out a loud growl. That's when I realized that, in my concern over where everyone had disappeared, I hadn't eaten lunch yet.
Connie looked up as I walked into the office and smiled. She held up a finger and pointed to the phone letting me know that she was involved in a conversation. Looking around for Lula, I was surprised to find her sitting quietly in front of the file cabinets humming to her Mp3 player. I flopped down on the couch.
Connie pulled off her headphone and flung it on the desk. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. Vinnie's out of town, picking up a skip, so we can close the office."
She picked up a large paperweight from her desk and then let it drop. Lula jumped, yanked off her headphones and pulled a gun out from some place.
She looked around the office, glaring. "Okay, what happened?"
Connie rolled her eyes. "Lunch. I'm hungry."
Just then, my stomach let out a loud growl. Both ladies smiled and next thing I knew we were headed out of the office and climbing into my truck. Putting the key into the ignition, it dawned on me I didn't know where we were going.
Connie was digging through her bag and then pulled out a folded piece of paper. She was smiling as she handed it to me.
I read the paper. "You have got to be kidding." Connie shook her head.
"What the hell?" Lula snatched the paper from my hand.
Lula read the paper and grinned. "Well, girlfriend, what you gonna to do about this?"
I knew I should be mad, maybe it was all the Ranger lovin I'd been getting lately, but I was just having trouble going into Rhino mode over this.
Taking the paper back from Lula, I started thinking.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Guess we're going to a party."
Both Lula and Connie grinned as I pulled out my phone and made some calls.
After I was finished, Connie spoke. "Girl, this is going to be some party."
Lula laughed. "Your mama is going to be ticked."
"Hey! They weren't invited and they should be there for this."
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to Lario's valet parking. The three of us got out of my truck, and I handed the attendant my keys.
When we got inside, we could hear soft music playing. A few seconds later, the maître d' walked up to us with a wide smile on his face. He was a short, round man and reminded me a little of Santa. His cheeks were rosy, he had a head full of silver hair, and bright blue eyes that seemed to sparkle.
"Ah! Miss Plum, you're expected. If you and your guests will follow me, please."
So, off we went. He opened a door and then stepped to the side. Taking a tentative step inside, I abruptly stopped. There was a chorus of 'Surprise'. 'Congratulations' and, 'We didn't think you'd ever say yes'.
My parents were standing, front and center. Next to them, Joe's mom and Grandma Bella. Val and Albert were off to one side. A smile crossed my face, briefly, as I heard Mary Alice asking if there was any hay there.
Joe walked up, and I took a step back. Okay, I tried to step back, but Connie and Lula were there stopping my flight from the room.
I heard a commotion coming from door to the hall and then a smile did come to my face. Joe saw it, and misunderstood.
"Cupcake, all our friends wanted to…"
Before he could finish, Ranger appeared next to me. It didn't miss my awareness that his arm went possessively around my waist and pulled me to him, making it clear to everyone that we were together.
Ranger brushed a kiss across my temple. "Sorry we're late, Babe."
Morelli's face went dark. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Ranger kept a straight face as he answered, "Heard there was a party for my…" he looked me in the eye, "woman."
A quiver went through me and parts of me started to melt. Then, I remembered where we were. Shit. Mom would cut me off from dessert. I glanced over to where I'd seen my parents standing. Dad had a grin on his face. Okay, I'd find out what that was about later. Mom, on the other hand, was wringing her hands. Next to mom were Angie Morelli and Grandma Bella. They both looked surprised, but not entirely unhappy. I gave a small nod to the gathered group, which was a mix of friends and family.
Just as Joe was about to explode, Lula burst into the room holding Tank's hand.
"Okay, let's get this party kickin!"
Lula and Tank were followed by a bunch of Rangemen and Connie.
Joe took my elbow and hissed into my ear, "We need to talk," he glared at Ranger, "in private!"
I could tell by the look on Ranger's face that he didn't like the idea of me alone with Joe. I gave Ranger a kiss and turned to Joe. For once, I agreed with him…we needed to talk. Here, I thought, we'd worked everything out.
"Joe, is there a room nearby we can use?" I asked.
Then, before Ranger could object, I addressed him. "Post a man outside, okay?" He gave a bare nod.
Joe, Ranger, and I slipped out the door and down the hall; it looked like we would be using the restaurant manager's office. Joe and I entered the room while Ranger took up position on the outside. I waited until the door was closed, then I exploded like Fourth of July fireworks.
"Morelli, want is the meaning of that?" I shouted as I threw my hand up, indicating to the other room.
Joe ran his hand through his hair and sighed. Then, he pulled bottle of Maalox from his pocket and took a swig.
"Will you please just calm down. I'm sure it's not good for you in your condition."
What condition, I thought. Other than being royally pissed at my ex-boyfriend, there was nothing wrong with me.
I gave him the death glare. "And what condition would you be talking about?"
"Cupcake, it's okay. I know and I'm happy about it. Look…" He proceeded to pull a jewelry case from his pocket and started to kneel. "When I first found out…sure, I was pissed that you hadn't told me yourself. But, now…"
"Joe, what the hell are you talking about?" I took a step closer to the door.
"The baby, of course…" Suddenly, Joe's face darkened and he started yelling. "NO WAY IN HELL I'M LETTING MANOSO RAISE MY CHILD! We. Are. Getting. Married. Is that why you didn't tell me? You were planning on letting Rambo raise my child?"
I took another step back and felt a wall behind me. I looked and there was a none-too-happy Ranger. Joe let out a bellow and then flew at Ranger, catching him in the jaw.
I backed out of the room and ran down the hall. I quickly grabbed Tank and explained what was happening…Joe and Ranger were going to kill each other and they needed to be stopped.
Tank signaled a couple of the guys. Eddie noticed, and a few of the off-duty cops followed us out of the room. They took care of Joe while Tank and Lester took care of Ranger.
After the fight was broken up, Bobby paced between both groups.
"We're going to discuss this like adults."
Joe spoke first and all eyes shifted to me. "Rambo is not raising my child!"
I held up my hands. "Don't know what he's talking about."
"Are you pregnant?" Morelli asked as he glared at me.
I heard a gasp from behind me. I turned and locked eyes with Lula. She started to slip from the room. "Freeze!" I yelled at her.
Now all eyes locked on the two of us.
Joe was getting impatient, and Ranger didn't look all that happy either. Sheesh, men.
"Stephanie, answer the question." His grin told me he thought he knew the answer. Was he about to be surprised along with a few others?
I looked at the floor and groaned. How do I get myself into stuff like this? Oh, yeah, now I remember. I had promised to help a friend and keep a secret. I snuck a glance at Lula. She was making hand signals and was looking pale. Well, as pale as a black woman dressed in neon spandex can look. I looked up into the waiting eyes of Joe and Ranger, as well as half of Rangeman and a bunch of off-duty cops.
"Okay. But first, some people need to leave." I turned and leveled a look at Carl and Eddie. "Guys?"
Carl started to say something and Joe cut him off, "Go, it'll be okay." They all filed out, not a happy face on one of them. This was going to be good burg gossip and they were going to miss it.
Once they were gone, I turned to the Rangemen and pointed to the door. I caught a silent communication between Ranger and Tank. All the guys, except Tank, filed from the room. I met Tank's eyes and relaxed. Then I turned to Joe.
Hands on hips, I answered. "No, Joe. I. Am. Not. Pregnant."
He raised an eyebrow. "Really? Then, why did you go see your gynecologist last week? Why the change in diet, and jobs?"
Letting out a sigh, I looked down at myself. Did I look pregnant? After all, this is the second time in as many days that I've been asked that question. Relief flooded me when I came to the conclusion that I did not look pregnant. Val looked pregnant, not me.
"Joe, please, believe me…I am not pregnant. Last week was just a check up." I felt myself blush. Okay, it was because I wanted to talk to her about changing my birth control, but he didn't need to know that. The only person who needed to know anything about that was Ranger.
I walked up to him and pushed a finger into his chest. "Besides, buddy, in case you forgot we broke up. For good!"
Ranger pulled me into his embrace. Joe looked from him to me.
"You're not pregnant." He almost sounded relieved as he said it.
"No, I'm not."
Then, I swear I saw a shiver go through him. He groaned, sank down into a chair and bent over with his head in his hands.
"The party. What are we going to tell everyone? They all think we're getting married because you're pregnant."
I could just imagine Angie Morelli and Grandma Bella, they would be thrilled.
Ranger whispered in my ear, "Babe, I hate to break up the party, but we have things that need to be done before we fly out."
I grabbed Ranger's hand and headed toward the door. "Joe, I hate to run, but…well, bye."
I was in my truck and Ranger was fastening my seatbelt. Five minutes later, we were in the Rangeman garage.
"Figured you could use some lunch, Babe. Dinner might be late." Trust Ranger to make sure I was taken care of and fed.
The rest of my day went smoother and, at 2100, we were all gathered in the garage. We split up, and I ended up riding with Lester, Bobby, and Cal.
"We're here, Babe, you need to wake up."
I remember mumbling something before I got the sensation that I was floating.
The next time I woke, we were in the air.
I looked into Ranger's eyes and watched as they went from milky to molten. I heard a moan and realized that it must have come from me.
"Babe." Then I realized what must have woken me. Ranger was putting my seatbelt on and, in the process, his hand was traveling over my stomach. "We're about to land."
Damn, I must have slept during the entire flight. Tank and Bobby were across the aisle playing cards. Looking around, the plane didn't appear to be all that big. Ranger's ESP was up and working, as he answered my question before I could ask.
"Private plane, Babe, borrowed. Let's just say that RangeMan has several clients who don't mind if we use their planes if we need to."
I nodded and then looked out the window. I saw some lakes and a whole lot of trees, but nothing that looked like a city. I could tell from the feel of the plane that we were going down, but I couldn't see an airport either.
"Private airstrip, Babe, we don't want Jenkins to know were coming." I turned and stuck my tongue out at him. He grinned and leaned over and kissed me until I was breathless. "Stop teasing, Babe."
I tried for mad, but, after that kiss, I just couldn't do it. "Well, stop reading my mind."
Ranger gave me his almost smile. "Babe, if you had paid attention in the meeting you would know all this."
Just then, the wheel touched down and I instinctively grabbed Ranger. He held me tight until the plane came to a stop.
The door was open and, what looked like a giant ladder, was pushed against the side of the plane. Ranger called it a ramp, but I had my doubts. It looked like a ladder that wished it were a ramp. Looking down, I was surprised to see we were sitting on the tarmac and not dirt. Trees surrounded the field and I didn't see a building in sight. I spotted the odd collection of vehicles pulling up to the plane, turned, and looked at Ranger. Not one of them was new, or black.
Ranger let out a breath. "Babe…"
I held up a hand. "I already know…part of our cover."
Ranger swatted my ass, then whispered in my ear, "Stop being a smartass."
The town only had one motel, so we would all be staying there. However, we would all be entering town at different times, from different directions.
The last thing everyone had done before leaving the plane was to change out of our RangeMan work clothes. I looked around at the guys and had to check myself for drool. Tank and Bobby were wearing leather and they had Harleys to ride. Ranger and I were in faded jeans and t-shirts. I had to smile at the jeep we would be using. My first boyfriend in college had one and we used to park and watch the stars while making out.
"Uh…what?" Ranger shook his head.
"Babe, did you hear any of what I just said?"
I looked down at the ground, kicked a stone and shook my head. Ranger had caught me again. Damn. I had to learn to pay attention.
He took my chin and lifted my head until my eyes met his. My heart jumped at the emotions I saw there. "Babe, I just want you prepared. You know our cover." He waited until I nodded.
We were going in as a honeymoon couple. It would give us good cover if we were caught while collecting information. I was hoping that it wouldn't take long to find out Jenkins' routine so we could take him down.
The town was smaller than I had expected, but it was beautiful; there were trees everywhere. The motel looked as if it had seen better days though. I tried to remember if I had packed Ranger's bvlgari and if I was going to be brave enough to take a shower here.
"Babe, the town's main revenue is logging. With the economic slowdown, times here are hard. Tourism and the local wineries are helping."
I had noticed that a lot of the businesses on the main road had been closed. The exception being the antique stores. We must have passed a couple dozen since we got off the interstate.
"So where do we start?" I asked Ranger.
"First, we check in. Then, I thought we'd have lunch." I rolled my eyes at him. "Babe, a local diner might be just the place to pick up Jenkins' trail and get the local view on him."
We needed to know if Jenkins had any known associates in the area and how many. We didn't want to be out numbered; it was already suspected that he had his land booby-trapped.
The room turned out to be better than I had expected. When you looked at the place from the outside, it was nothing but peeling paint and a tired looking roof. From looking around the room, I could tell it was recently remodeled. There was a king size bed, and the bathroom had a hot tub as well as a separate shower.
I was eyeing the tub and thinking how good it would feel to soak for a while. Just then, Ranger walked up and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me back to him and burying his face in my curls.
"Hold that thought, Babe. Right now, we need to get to the diner." He took my hand and tugged me from the room.
I looked up at the sign, 'HONEY'S'. The lot was full, so the place must be popular. Ranger opened my door and took my hand. And, that's how we walked in, hand-in-hand.
The hostess greeted us as we walked in the door. "Hey, welcome to Honey's. Would that be a table for two?"
She was about five two and had the greenest eyes I'd ever seen. But, the thing I'd liked about her the most was how she had greeted the both of us and not just Ranger. At the table, she even handed the menu to me first.
"My name's Rena. We're short a waitress today, so I'll be back for your order in a minute. What can I bring you to drink?"
I ordered a coke and Ranger wanted iced tea. A couple minutes later, Rena was setting them on the table as the bell on the door dinged. Looking over, I noticed that Lester and Hal had just walked in. Rena walked over and greeted them, then sat them at the table across from us. A smile danced on my face as I watched Lester watching Rena.
Just in the few minutes we'd been sitting here I'd noticed that Rena seemed more than capable of taking care of herself. She handled several passes from some of the local loggers, easily slipping out of their clutches and avoiding roaming hands.
After seating half a dozen more guests and dropping off baskets of fresh rolls and breads to the tables she passed, she returned to take our orders.
We managed to find out Jenkins was a regular on Friday nights and that he seemed to like fish.
I almost choked when Lester asked Rena out and she politely turned him down just before she accidentally knocked over his coffee cup. Guess she didn't like his pick up line. Ranger nudged me as I silently giggled. It was always refreshing to see the guys treated like normal guys since women had a tendency to fall all over them. When we were finished, Ranger laid some money on the table and signaled to Rena that we were leaving.
She came over to our table and said, "You kids enjoy yourself and, if you need any more recommendations, just stop back."
Rena had already given me the name of the best place to get donuts for breakfast. I had the name of a place just outside town that she swore made the best homemade ice cream in America. Ranger had given me a pained look when she told me this, but he had kept quiet.
Once we were in the jeep, I turned to Ranger. "What now?"
"We check out that ice cream place." I know my mouth fell open. Ranger wanted to get ice cream?
"Babe, it will give us a reason to be near where Jenkins' place is." I rolled my eyes. Ranger leaned over and brushed his lips across mine. "Besides, I know you're dying to try it."
Who knew such a small place could have so many flavors. I was walking from case to case trying to decide when Ranger leaned down and placed a kiss on my neck.
"Babe, just pick one." The tone of his voice was telling me that I was once more entertainment.
I finally settled on a dish with three different flavors and had to roll my eyes when Ranger ordered a small vanilla yogurt.
Ranger took my hand and we headed into the woods. After hours of walking, okay, Ranger said it was fifteen minutes, he pulled a thingy out of his pocket.
Before he could say anything else, he had moved lighting fast and had me pinned to a tree, his tongue in my mouth, kissing me senseless. Then, I heard the ratchet of a shotgun and the crunch as branches broke. I could feel the tension in Ranger's body. I also knew what he wanted me to do, so I waited for a signal from him.
Without moving his body from me, he turned his head. "Okay, if I move?"
"Slowly!" A voice growled.
As Ranger turned, I pulled the gun from his back and kept it hidden in my hand behind his back. I knew he had also pulled my gun from my back.
Other than the gun, our assailant didn't inspire fear in me. He was older, with gray hair peeking out from beneath the ball cap he was wearing. He didn't miss the fact that Ranger was obviously protecting me with his body.
"What you two doing up here? This is private property."
Ranger held up his hand and flashed the ring on his finger. "Honeymoon."
"Name's Pete." He gestured around. "This here's my land." He lowered the gun and I felt some of the tension leave Ranger's body.
"Bought an ice cream…" Ranger said, then drew attention to the ice cream we had dropped when he pulled me into the kiss, "and thought we'd take a walk to eat it."
Pete smiled and held out his hand. "Sorry I startled you good folks. Can't be too careful these days."
Pete turned out to be a wealth of information on the people and the area. He would fit in perfectly in the burg. Without even knowing that he was doing it, Pete gave us all the information we needed to know about Jenkins. He walked back with us to the jeep and smiled, waving as we pulled away.
Ranger took my hand and held it until we pulled into the motel lot.
"Babe, what do you think of Pete?"
I knew what Ranger was asking…he wanted to know if my spidey sense had tingled.
"I think he was telling us what he knew." I paused biting my lip. Pete and my grandmother would make a great pair if Pete was just a little older.
"Babe, there's more. Tell me." I blushed.
I buried my head in my hands. "I was just thinking that Pete and Grandma would make a good pair." Ranger gave me a pained 'Babe' before stepping out of the jeep and walking around to open my door.
That night we all gathered in our room to discuss strategies and to plan the takedown. That done, the guys left to go to their rooms.
DISCLAIMER: Just borrowing Janet's wonderful characters and I promise to return them. Not making anything except hopefully smiles and laughs. Please review and let me know what you think.
"Babe, there's more. Tell me." I blushed.
I buried my head in my hands. "I was just thinking that Pete and Grandma would make a good pair." Ranger gave me a pained 'Babe' before stepping out of the jeep and walking around to open my door.
That night we all gathered in our room to discuss strategies and to plan the takedown. That done, the guys left to go to their rooms.
The next two days were a rush of activity. Every detail was researched and nothing was left to chance.
After three days of being here, we were ready to go. As excited as I was about finally wrapping this up and heading home, I was going to miss my new best friend Rena. We had gone shopping a couple of times, and she had finally given in and agreed to go out with Lester.
Lester walked into the room as we were wrapping up the final details. Looking up, I couldn't help but notice that Lester looked like he'd just lost his best friend. I glanced at Bobby and he seemed okay to me, so it had to be Rena. I watched as Lester collapsed into a chair. Ranger gave him one look, frowned, and kicked his boot.
"You gonna to be okay to do this?"
Lester nodded. "Sure thing, Boss."
Ranger studied him. Satisfied with what he saw, he continued with his work. The takedown would take place the next night as Jenkins would be leaving the diner. It was the only consistent time that he left his compound.
After the meeting was over, everyone filed out in groups. Lester was still in the chair after everyone else was gone. I looked at Ranger and realized that, without knowing it, we'd had a complete conversation. He stepped from the room, leaving me alone with Lester.
I nudged him until he shifted and I could sit on his lap. We'd been partners plenty of times and, when he wanted to get a girl's point of view, he would come to me.
"Talk," I simply said to him. He started playing with my curls, something I knew he did to bait Ranger. But Ranger wasn't in the room, so I knew he was doing it to distract me. I slapped his hand. "Talk, buddy." My stomach growled and he laughed.
"Rena and I went out last night." I nodded, hoping he'd share more.
We all knew about his date with Rena. This was a small town and the gossip mill worked much like it did in the burg.
Lester lifted me, stood and sat me in the chair as he started pacing the room.
"Don't take this wrong, Steph. I really like you, but…well, hell. I know this isn't going to sound right. Until I met Rena I couldn't really understand why Ranger would want to tie himself to just one woman…"
"Les…" He held his hands up in surrender.
"Hear me out, Steph. You're a wonderful person, but Ranger could have any woman he wanted…"
We all knew that Lester prided himself on being a ladies' man and having a different woman in his bed every night. His philosophy was that there was only one of him and it was his duty to please as many women as possible.
"After going out with Rena, I think I understand why Ranger…" He looked at me sheepishly. "Is happy with one woman."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Playboy Lester was admitting that he might be willing to give up his playboy lifestyle and be with only one woman.
"Lester, are you serious?" I could see some problems in his future. The first of which was that they lived on different coasts.
We talked until Ranger tapped on the door. I looked at the clock and realized that we'd been talking for over an hour and, if we didn't hurry, we'd miss having dinner before the takedown. And, if we didn't eat dinner soon, there wouldn't be any dinner. Did I mention this is a small town? They roll up their sidewalks at nine o'clock. The takedown was planned for right after dinner. If our intel was right, Jenkins should show just as we were ready to leave.
We walked into Honey's and Rena greeted us, letting us know there would be a little wait. Less than five minutes later she was back and leading us to a table in the back. Tonight was the Friday night 'fish fry' and it looked as if the whole town came out for it.
Ranger and I were just finishing up with our dinners when we saw Jenkins walk in. Showtime. I stood and slapped Ranger, then ran from the table and straight into Jenkins. Oops.
I looked up at him through tear filled lashes. "Sorry…"
"That's okay, little lady." For a creep he seemed awfully nice.
I gave a frightened look back over my shoulder were Ranger was standing, hands on hips. "Uh, would you mind walking me out to my car, please?"
He put his hand on my waist and walked us out. We were about halfway to my car when I heard the sizzle of a stun gun and then Jenkins fell to the ground. Lester snapped on the cuffs and Tank and Bobby lifted him and hauled him into the SUV for his trip back to justice.
They next day, we turned Jenkins over to federal marshals.
"You bitch! You'll die for this!" Jenkins screamed as he was escorted onto the plane, his hands in cuffs and his feet in shackles. I felt a chill run down my spine at his words.
Ranger pulled me to him, my back to his front. "Babe, ready to go home?"
I nodded as I watched the plane carrying Jenkins rise into the air. I tried to shake the feeling that something was wrong and leaned back into Ranger, absorbing some of his strength.
Lester ruffled my hair. "Bomber, you did good. Now, let's get home."
We all walked across the tarmac to the plane that would take us back to Trenton. In a few hours we would be home.
Excited to be on our way home, I sat looking out the window and holding Ranger's hand. The excitement literally pulsed through me as the plane taxied down the runway. I watched as we neared the end of the runway, butterflies tickled my stomach as we became airborne. With awe, I watched as we climbed higher into the sky, then the plane turned and started to bank. I could make out the town in the distance and it looked like a miniature model. I'd slept on the way here, so I was determined to stay awake on the way home. The last few days had been busy, I thought as I fought a yawn.
Ranger squeezed my hand. "Okay, Babe?"
I nodded, then pointed out the window. In the far below meadow was a group of deer. The past few days were catching up to me. That, combined with the steady hum of the plane, and before I knew it, I was drifting off. Leaning my head against Ranger's shoulder, his arm around me, I gave in to the inevitable and dozed off.
I reached out to silence the alarm that was emitting a low whining sound. I wasn't ready to wake up. Ranger and I had been relaxing on his couch. Ghostbusters playing.
"Babe, wake up." I could hear the tension in his voice as I pulled myself from my dream state to actual consciousness.
I heard the same sound that had invaded my dream and cringed. I knew that sound; it was the whine of metal being stressed, and being pushed to its limits. Upon hearing that eerie sound, I could actually feel fear starting in my belly. All of a sudden, the plane dropped. I gasped out loud and automatically grabbed for Ranger who was already wrapping me protectively in his arms.
He was whispering in my ear, changing between Spanish and English. The words didn't matter and I'll never remember what he said, but I knew the words comforted me. If I was going to die, I wanted it to be in Ranger's arms knowing he loved me.
The plane leveled and the noise tapered off somewhat until it stopped.
I opened my eyes and, the fear, that until then I hadn't really realized I was feeling, slowly left me. I couldn't help but think that, damn, I wasn't ready to die yet!
"Babe, we're not going to die." Damn ESP.
Then a laugh popped out as I took in the sight in front of me. Tank had been returning from the galley when we had our bit of turbulence and he was now on the floor covered in his sandwich; a piece of lettuce hanging from one ear and cheese covering his bald head like a child's cap.
"Bomber." Tank growled giving me a menacing frown.
Just as the he started to stand, the plane dipped again and, instead of getting up, he was tossed onto Bobby. All laughter died. Suddenly, my stomach wasn't feeling so good. The butterflies from earlier were back, but now they were full-sized birds.
Time seemed to stand still. I knew Ranger was working to get both of our belts on and the look on his face told me whatever was happening was serious.
Tank pulled himself into a seat and was securing his belt.
This can't be happening! Ranger and I just found each other…we have a life to live. I knew Ranger was against kids, but suddenly I really wanted a little boy who looked like Ranger and a little girl who would wrap him around her finger with a smile.
Ranger pulled me close and said, "Babe, it'll be fine." He tried giving me a small smile, but it seemed a little forced. A single tear escaped and made its way down my face.
Ranger had never lied to me; his words calmed me even as fear crept up my spine. I tried to relax a little as the plane once more leveled out. My spidey sense was yelling at me, telling me this is bad and that, maybe this time, there wasn't an out. A chill went through me as I thought of my parents and Grandma Mazur.
Something pulled me from my inner thoughts and I glanced around, then noticed that everyone was sitting in their seats and being unusually quiet. I wonder why everyone's so quiet, I thought. Just then, there was a ringing from the armrest next to Ranger. He opened it and pulled out a phone.
"Yo." Even in the air he had no phone manners. He listened and cast glances at the men and then he replaced the phone and shut the armrest.
"We've lost an engine…" I did a quick look out the window. I could still see two engines. "Babe…" I looked up at Ranger. "The pilot had to shut down one of the engines." I hadn't really thought one of the engines had fallen off. Ranger continued. "Seems that some geese got sucked into the number two engine and it overheated, so he shut it down for safety reasons. We'll be okay because the plane can fly fine on three engines."
Just as Ranger finished telling me that we would be fine, the plane took another plunge. Fear shot through me like wildfire. I grabbed Ranger, digging my fingers into his arm.
"We just lost another engine," Tank shouted. "What the hell is goin on?"
Ranger's phone rang. This time when he hung up, his blank face was on. Oh shit. This could so not be good.
Ranger did his silent ESP with the guys and they all strapped themselves in. Then, he pulled me close and kissed me.
"Babe, we have to make an emergency landing." I tightened my grip on him as panic raced through me. This could not be happening!
He hadn't finished talking when I felt the plane start to go down. I looked out the window and all I could see were trees. Where the hell were we going to land? I started making promises to God to let me live and, before I could finish, we dropped again. I closed my eyes and buried my face in Ranger's shoulder. I took a deep breath and, for a moment, wondered if this would be the last thing I would smell…the combination of bvlgari and Ranger.
Ranger pushed my head down and I didn't miss the fact that he was using his body to protect mine. Denial was working and I decided to let it pass for now, I'd give him hell later, if we lived.
Ranger was doing his best to comfort me. I pulled from his embrace and looked at his face. We looked into each other's eyes and we both spoke at the same time, "I love you, Babe." "I love you, Ranger."
Suddenly, the plane jumped and bucked. That awful screeching from earlier was back tenfold. The cabin lights went off and we were plunged into darkness. It was hard to breath and all the air was being sucked from my lungs.
Ranger opened his eyes and spotted an unconscious Stephanie. Just the sight of her calmed him momentarily. When he tried to stand to walk to her he found that he was too weak, so he crawled. He pushed the pain from his mind as his training kicked in. His senses were on high alert. First, he needed to get to Stephanie and then he would work out the rest.
He knew it didn't take him long to get to her side, but it felt like it had. Carefully checking her over, he let out a sigh of relief when he didn't spot any major injuries. She had some minor cuts and bruises. He didn't think she had any broken bones, but he'd have to have Bobby check her later. He did notice a big lump on the back of her head and made a mental note to ask Bobby if she might have a concussion.
He kissed her temple before looking around. They were on the edge of a good-sized lake. The sun was just about to sink into the horizon, so he knew that a few hours must have passed since they crashed. He remembered unbuckling Steph and getting them both off the plane, but he couldn't remember them making it to shore. The last time he'd seen the men they had been on the plane seeing what they could salvage.
He could still make out the tail of the plane sticking up from the water. There was no sign of his men and he could only hope that they had made it and were somewhere else on the bank of the lake. His head still wasn't clear, but something was niggling at him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Without glancing at his watch he knew that it was almost the time they had been scheduled to touch down in Trenton.
Then his memory sparked. Shit! He remembered what Lester had found. He needed to get them to shelter and away from the edge of the lake. He grabbed Steph's shirt and started to slowly pull her up the beach toward the tree line.
They were still ten feet from the shelter of the trees when the ground shook. The plane had exploded. Smoke and debris filled the air and started raining down around them. He instinctively moved to cover and protect Stephanie. A piece of the debris hit his back and burned. Breathing became labored, each breath burned, and then darkness took him.
Stephanie opened her eyes and, at first, thought that she was blind. She couldn't see anything, but then noticed that the only illumination came from the stars overhead. After a minute of trying to get her bearings, she tried to turn over and realized a body was lying next to her. She reached out and felt, Ranger. She used her hands to check him over and let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding when she determined that he was breathing, although it was labored. Oh, thank God! He was alive! Please stay alive, Ranger, Steph thought as she mentally scrambled to pull herself together.
A few minutes later, she felt the wet stickiness that could only be blood. Also, she could feel something sticking out of Ranger's back. He'd let a groan of pain as her finger touched it. She wished for light so she could see what it was. She knew enough about first aid to know that, for the moment, it was better if she left it in place. Continuing her examination she was relieved to find no other injuries, at least none that she could feel.
Now that she knew she wasn't alone, her focus returned to what had woken her, namely a full bladder. No bathroom in sight, she knew she would just have to make due. She started to stand and pain shot up her leg. Damn. She had checked out Ranger, but never thought about her own condition. She gingerly moved both arms and all her fingers, then her legs and toes. She let out a sigh of relief, she was sore and had some pain but everything seemed to work. It didn't feel as if anything was broken, her head hurt like hell and she had major pain in her leg. She had probably sprained her ankle and knocked her head sometime during the crash, but at least she was alive.
Pulling herself, she crawled maybe six feet when she realized that, in the dark, she couldn't see Ranger. Panic set in, for a minute. Steph, you can do this, she told herself. Just find a place to relieve yourself and then crawl back to Ranger. You'll probably wake up in the morning and find it was all a bad dream.
Business taken care of, she made her way back to Ranger.
Curling into his body and using his heat, she fell asleep…dreaming of tropical beaches and Ranger in a Speedo.
Stephanie awoke in the predawn morning to the sound of someone thrashing and moaning. For the briefest of moments she forgot where they were and what had happened, but it all can back as soon as she opened her eyes.
Lester and Tank were holding Ranger down as Bobby attempted to remove the shrapnel from his back from when the plane exploded.
Ranger was letting out a whole string of cuss words. She had seen Ranger angry and hurt before, but he'd always maintained his stoic presence.
"Shit, Rangeman, hold still," Bobby said.
Lester started laughing. "Uh, Ranger, you know that's not even possible."
I couldn't help it, the look Ranger gave Lester made me let out a laugh. They all turned and I took a step back. It was a little intimidating having that amount of testosterone aimed my way.
Bobby must have finished what he was doing because Tank and Lester stepped back and Ranger held his arms out to me.
"Babe." It came out low and hoarse. Without even thinking I stumbled into his arms and laid my head on his chest. At that minute I needed to hear the strong beat of his heart, needed to feel safe, protected, and loved. Our plane had crashed and we were who knows where, but being in Ranger's arms, I knew it would be all right.
Tank cleared his throat. "Ranger…"
Ranger's hand drew soothing circles on my back. "Babe, we need to get moving." He drew me away from him and looked into my eyes. His voice was steady, the tone serious. "There was a bomb on the plane, Babe. If we had landed in Trenton…" He left unsaid that we would have all died.
I looked at Lester, Bobby, and Tank. Tank was the only one still wearing a shirt.
"We got as much off the plane as we could before it blew," Tank said.
Ranger's eyes never left mine as he listened to the guys, his hand once more roaming over my body, reassuring himself that I was whole and uninjured. I tried not to wince when he would touch a bruise or a cut. He stopped when he touched my leg as I almost flew into the air.
"Babe," Ranger whispered into my ear.
I shook my head slightly. "Nothing. I think it's sprained."
Ranger spoke, interrupting what Tank had been saying about which direction we should take. "Bobby, I want you to check out Steph."
I pushed away from him being careful not to put too much weight on my left leg. Glaring up at Ranger, hands on hips for effect. "I don't need Bobby to check me!"
Bobby tilted his head at me and grinned. He knew that if Ranger wanted me checked over, I was going to get checked over. I had accepted a long time ago, that the Merry Men were a special breed amongst themselves-fiercely loyal to each other and as stubborn as the day was long. If they got something in their heads, there was no changing their minds, normally.
I know that I had changed that somewhat. They never tired of encouraging my independent nature and I know they enjoyed how I would actively fight for what I thought was right. My stubbornness had helped me grow and thrive among them. If they pushed, I dug in my heals and fought. Nobody was pushing me around and telling me what to do, even if I loved him.
Lester walked to me and slung an arm around my shoulder and ruffled my hair. "Bomber, Bobby's already checked us all over. Only reason he hasn't looked at you yet is Ranger wanted you to get some more sleep before we move out."
She trusted Bobby and knew that it would be best if he checked out her leg. Her fuzzy brain started working and she stilled.
"There was a bomb on the plane?" she said calmly, almost without emotion.
Her mind was reeling…Who?…Why?…How? The plane had a guard on it since they'd landed. Their skip had nothing in his file that pointed to him having that kind of knowledge. Besides, he would have had to get past the guards. Steph's spidey sense was tingling big time - something was off, but she couldn't pin down what it was.
Ranger watched her as her mind raced through the mental Olympics. He loved how he could read everything in her expressive face and eyes; she was so open, so real. He hoped that he hadn't made a mistake by letting her into his life. Damn, he hoped they were wrong about the origin of that bomb. Because, if they were right, he might have signed her death warrant, and they were all fucked.
Ranger pulled her into him and kissed her curls. He'd never admit it, but she helped him feel centered and he needed that right now.
"We don't know yet, Babe, but we'll find out."
The guys looked at him with raised eyebrows. They didn't know for sure, but they all had a good idea. If they were right, they weren't out of danger yet. Hell, if they were right, then it was as bad as it could get.
Bobby finished looking at Steph's leg. "It's not broken, probably just a sprain. However, she won't be able to walk on it."
The men looked at each other and did their ESP. They had three packs. Ranger couldn't carry one because of his back wound, and he couldn't carry Steph for the same reason. They still didn't know if Ranger had any internal damage from the shrapnel. Bobby didn't think he did, but hours on the trail was hard on a healthy man and they'd all just survived a crash, landing on a lake that had killed their pilot.
Steph stood and glared at the guys. "I can walk. Tank, I'm sure you can find me a walking stick, or something to lean on."
An hour later, Steph was rethinking the wisdom of insisting she could walk. She had stumbled and fell over another root sticking from the ground and landed on her already scraped knees.
"Shitty damn root getting in my way…"
Lester laughed and pulled her up, almost hurling her into a tree. "Problem, Bomber?" She focused her death glare at him and he laughed harder.
Bobby just walked up to her and, without missing a step, lifted her so she was sitting on the pack on his back. She started to protest and Tank held up a hand. Suddenly, all the men quieted and moved off the trial they'd been following and melted into the bushes. After a few tense minutes, they all started walking again; only this time, they veered away from the well-worn trail.
Steph really tried to stay awake, but soon she felt like her eyelids weighted pounds and felt them drifting closed. The steady pace Bobby was setting didn't help. At first, she tried to stay awake by asking questions, but stopped when no one would answer her.
Tank had finally held up a finger in the universal 'shush' sign. She knew they were listening for something, but didn't know what; unless it was large animals that would want to eat them. She'd forgotten to ask before they started out how long they thought it would be before they could get to someplace where they could get help getting back home. She tried not to think about home. Her plane had gone down. Did her family and friends think she was dead? Oh God, her grandmother would be devastated.
Tank took the lead, followed by Bobby, then, because of his injury, Ranger, with Lester, brought up the rear. They'd all been in this situation before, just not in their own country. They were all on alert; aware of everything going on around them and would continue to operate this way until they knew they were safe. Even in sleep, they would be alert to changes around them.
Ranger watched Stephanie. He knew she hated to be a burden and would have preferred to walk, but the truth was they needed to move fast and it was faster if Steph was being carried. Besides, with her being carried, it was easier to hide their trail. He watched as, first she looked around asking questions. Then, he saw the disappointment flash across her face to be replaced by understanding when Tank signaled her to be quiet.
It wouldn't take long before, whoever placed the bomb, figured out that they had crashed and send a team to check it out and see if they had survived. They needed to get to a safe place before they were found. Steph slipped to one side and quickly straightened a little. Later, it became apparent that she had given into exhaustion and had fallen asleep. They stopped and, with Tank's help, she was soon cradled in Lester's arms.
Ranger glared at him. "Just remember, that's my woman you're carrying." Lester grinned. He loved teasing Ranger, even if wasn't the smartest thing to do.
Ranger was his cousin and he'd long ago learned, growing up, how fun and dangerous it was to jerk the tiger's tail. As kids, Ranger had shown him how to fight and defend himself. Nobody he knew fought meaner than Ranger, especially when he, or someone he loved was cornered.
When Ranger had joined the army after a mishap that left him little choice, he had lied about his age and followed his cousin into the army. Ranger had tried to convince him to go home, but he was as stubborn as his older cousin. He stuck it out and even ended up in the same Special Forces unit, on the same team.
Lester smiled and brushed a kiss across Steph's brow. "Just keeping her safe for you, brother."
Steph opened her eyes and looked into deep dark brown ones. She blinked and was met with a blinding smile.
"Feel up to walking some, Bomber?" Lester asked her.
She tried to remember, or figure out how she had gone from Bobby's back to Lester's arms. It didn't really matter now. She needed to get down and the sooner the better; her bladder felt like it would burst at any minute. Not feeling like broadcasting to the world, she whispered into Lester's ear and then slugged him when he told the whole group.
"Bombshell needs a potty break." They all looked at her and she turned several shades of red. What was it with men and never needing to pee?
Ranger looked up at the sun. "Good time for us to stop and rest. Tank, scout the area. Bobby, see if you can find us something to eat. Lester, you're in charge of setting up camp."
He estimated they had made about fifteen miles.
An hour later, they were all gathered around a fire. Bobby had found some native plants they could eat. He had dug a pit and lined it with leaves; the vegetables would steam in the pit while the pheasant he had trapped was roasting over the fire.
Steph watched the men in amazement. She knew, without a doubt, that they were in their element. They each performed their task without effort.
Tank had returned shortly after Bobby and reported that there was no sign that they were being tracked. He'd also seen no trace of any type of shelter in the area, so it looked like they would be sleeping under the stars tonight. Ranger had later told Steph that sometimes you could find a hunting cabin, or a cave to sleep in.
Ranger handed her a plate, fashioned out of a piece of bark. Steph looked at the brown and gray mass and her stomach turned a little. Any doubts she'd had about the meal flew out the window when she took her first bite. She didn't know how they did it, but even in the middle of nowhere, without a stove in sight, they had prepared a delicious meal. Steph dug in and only stopped when she realized that the guys weren't eating.
Ranger leaned into her. "Babe, if you don't want the guys to watch as I make love to you…"
"Bomber, I'm glad you like my cooking," Bobby said.
Lester leaned into her other ear and earned himself a glare from Ranger. "Sweetie, I love it when you make those little noises."
I fixed my gaze on my plate and concentrated on not making any noise as I ate. My rhythm was almost perfect - plate, fingers, mouth, plate, fingers, mouth. Then, I went to scoop up more and my plate was empty. I sighed and tossed my plate into the fire. Ah, at least that was one good thing about all this - no dishes to do.
Ranger watched the smile that crossed Steph's face as she threw her plate into the fire. He loved that, something as simple as having no dishes to do, made her smile.
After dinner, Steph sat next to the fire watching the guys as they were moving around like worker bees. She'd asked a couple times if she could help and had been told just to rest her leg; they would be doing a lot more walking tomorrow.
Gradually, the sky darkened and Tank put out the fire saying that it was too dangerous to keep it going all night.
Ranger lead me to the nest of leaves he had made. We would share one of the two blankets they had recovered from the plane. We lay together and I couldn't help looking up at all the stars in the sky; there seemed to be millions of them. I was a city girl, but as a girl, I loved to lay out in the backyard on a blanket with my dad looking up at the stars; he would point out the common stars and constellations. Valerie would be in the house helping mom in the kitchen, so it had been our time together. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek as I thought of dad and wondered if he thought he'd lost his little girl.
Ranger leaned over and brushed the tear from my cheek. "Babe." I could hear the concern in his voice.
"I was thinking of my dad…"
Of course she was thinking of family. Steph always put other people first; it was just how she was and one of the things he loved about her. Here she was, hurt and lost, and her first concern was how her disappearance would affect her family.
I brushed a kiss across her lips. "We'll be home soon." She looked into my eyes, for reassurances.
"But, just because we're home won't mean we're safe, will it?" Ranger's blank face slid into place and I knew that I had my answer.
Damn, I knew her instincts were good, but I'd hoped that she would be distracted enough to not put it all together, or at least not until we got home and I could get her into a safe house.
"Ranger, someone put a bomb on our plane. I know it wasn't our skip…"
She leveled her eyes at me and I could swear she was looking into my soul.
"Do you know? Why aren't you telling me if you know?"
She looked up at the stars and didn't say anything for a long time. What she said when she spoke sent a knife like pain through his gut.
"You stopped doing missions…Tank said something…Oh, God! They're coming after you because of me…"
She started crying and was near hysterical. Ranger grabbed her shoulders and pulled her close into his body, running his hands down her back to comfort her.
"Babe, it's not you. It was my choice to quit doing contract jobs and missions."
Her crying slowed.
"But, that's why …"
"We think so, Babe. It's the only thing that makes sense. We need to get back so I can go to D.C. and see if I can get to the bottom of this."
He wouldn't tell her how slim his chance of coming back was. If the powers that be had decided he was too much of a risk, he was a dead man, even with all the insurance he'd stashed away over the years. He just wanted to make sure Steph was safe and not a target. And, in order to do that, he would do whatever he had to.
Stephanie watched the sky and, as it grew darker, it looked as if someone was painting it with flashes of color. She'd heard of the Northern Lights, but had never seen anything quite this…breathtaking. Ranger held her and, together, they watched the miracle taking place in the sky until they both gave in and sleep took them.
Ranger woke and listened, trying to detect what had disturbed his sleep. Stephanie lay next to him, nestled into his side. He reached out a hand and tapped Tank on the shoulder, not surprised to find the other man awake. A few quiet hand signals and Bobby was slipping into the surrounding woods. Ranger rolled a sleeping Stephanie so she was now lying between them. She stirred a little, so he rubbed her back until she settled.
A few tense minutes later Bobby and Lester walked into the clearing. They both shrugged.
"Nothing. If someone's out there, they're well hidden," Bobby said.
Lester walked to where Bobby had been sleeping, laid down and, within minutes, they heard the sound of soft snoring coming from him.
"Tank, you take watch. We still have a few hours 'til dawn. Bobby, get some more rest."
He pulled Stephanie closer to him and wrapped one of her curls around his finger, then watched as it sprang back. She shifted and let out a small groan as she settled onto her left side. No doubt, the groan was from the pain her leg had been giving her. He'd have to watch her closely. She was stubborn, so he didn't want her stressing the leg too much.
Her curls cascaded over her face, covering it, and he slowly brushed them away, revealing her face. His stomach clenched. She looked so soft and innocent, her wild, sexy curls framing her beautiful face, and a body made for loving. It was her spirit that amazed him. She was a strong fiercely independent woman; her determination could make a strong man cry. He really wanted to deal with this threat without involving her, but experience told him that was unlikely; Stephanie would insist upon helping. He still had doubts whether he had done the right thing by bringing her into his life. This current situation was just what he had feared…someone from his past coming at them with a vendetta.
A few hours later, Stephanie stirred. She felt a weight across her stomach and another across her legs; she was pinned. Inhaling deeply, she recognized familiar as well as unfamiliar scents of Ranger and bvlgari, wood smoke, pine, and the earthen smell of dirt. She turned as best she could into the warmth that Ranger's body provided. It was summer, but even with Ranger and the blanket there was cool and slightly damp feeling this morning. Her stomach growled and her bladder screamed. She wondered if the guys had found anything they could eat for breakfast yet, vowing that, once they got home, she would never take McDonald's for granted again.
She tried to free herself from Ranger and his hold tightened. She hissed into his ear, "If you don't want to get wet you better let me up."
Ranger brushed a kiss across her neck. "All you had to do was ask, Babe."
Ranger rolled and she was free. She sprung up, okay so it was more like a slow moaning and groaning rise off the ground. Someone should come up with a way to make sleeping on the ground more comfortable, she thought.
"Babe, there are cots, sleeping bags…"
She rolled her eyes at him and his ESP before disappearing into the woods to take care of business.
When Stephanie walked back into camp Ranger was on the other side of the fire with Tank, Bobby, and Lester. They all had their heads together and were talking, but she couldn't hear what they were saying. Sensing her presence, they all stood and turned her way as she approached. Her stomach let out a loud growl and Lester laughed.
She wanted to throw a smart remake back at him, but before she could, her stomach growled again. So, instead, she just grinned at the guys and nodded.
"Do we have anything to eat?"
She was hoping the answer was yes, praying that breakfast was an egg McMuffin and a large coffee, heavy on the cream and sugar. Taking a deep breath, she let it out in a sigh. They were in the woods, miles from civilization so, of course, they couldn't have coffee, but damn it, she could smell it and almost taste it.
Bobby nudged her and she broke from her thoughts. She smiled when he handed her a mug of coffee and then sat a plate next to her with what looked like eggs on it.
"How…where…" Looking at the eggs, suddenly her stomach turned. She dropped the mug and dashed into the woods, dropping to her knees behind the nearest tree and dry heaving.
Ranger looked at the guys for a second before following Stephanie. He pulled her hair back and held it, tenderly rubbing her neck and whispering to her. When the heaves stopped, the shakes began, so he cradled her to him and noticed that her body was covered with a fine sheen of sweat. He rocked her and cradled her until she fell into a fitful sleep.
Bobby touched Ranger's shoulder and he turned, still holding Stephanie to him. "We need to move out," Bobby said and reached to lift Stephanie from Ranger's hold.
"I'll carry her," Ranger growled. He didn't know what was going on with Steph, but at the present, he felt the need to be close to her.
Bobby stiffened. He knew better than to cross Ranger when he was in a mood. But, there was no way, with his injury, that he could carry Stephanie without the risk of ripping open the stitches he'd put in yesterday. He took a breath and held it, waiting for the desire to pummel his friend to pass.
He spoke through gritted teeth, "Rangeman, you can't carry her. You'll rip your stitches." He waited for Ranger to let him take Stephanie.
Tank and Lester had noticed what was happening and Ranger could tell they were prepared to help Bobby if the need arose.
Ranger brushed a kiss across Steph's temple and let Bobby lift her into his arms.
"Bobby, I'm worried about her."
Bobby had known his friend and partner long enough to detect the unstated worry and concern the man had for the woman in his arms without him having to say a word.
Bobby shifted Stephanie in his arms so he could carry her more comfortably. "Man, she's a strong woman. She'll be fine and, when we get home, even if we had to strap her to a bed, she's getting a complete physical."
Tank and Lester took turns scouting ahead, whoever wasn't scouting would bring up the rear. They had been walking about two hours when Steph started to stir.
As consciousness returned Steph knew she was being carried again and not by Ranger, she could tell by smell, how bad is that, even in the middle of nowhere she could feel Ranger near her and detect his unique scent. She opened her eyes and looked into concerned brown ones.
She squirmed. "Uh, Bobby you can put me down now!" As nice as it felt to be next to those muscles as they flexed walking and carrying her she really felt the need to get down.
Bobby slowly lowered her to the ground making sure she was steady on her feet before he let go. Steph sighed, sometimes these men reminded her more of big mother hens then big bad mercenaries. She took a step and fought against the pain running up her leg; no way was she being carried the whole way.
Bobby watched and could read the pain as she walked. Damn, she was some stubborn woman. He knew better than wounding her pride by offering to carry her when she made it apparent that she didn't want to be a burden even though they would never see her that way.
He walked close but not too close, ready to lend support if she needed it. At the moment she was leaning heavily on the walking stick Tank had made for her and it seemed to be giving her the support she needed.
Steph put one foot in front of the other determined that she wasn't going to be a burden to the guys. Concentrating hard, she wasn't paying a lot of attention to her surroundings until she walked into a tree and fell on her ass. She looked up in surprise and noticed that Bobby and Lester were giving hand signs; she looked ahead and, for the first time, noticed the cabin sitting five hundred yards ahead. Ranger quickly pulled her to him and she was surprised to see that his face wasn't blank but, for just a split second, it was ablaze with emotion, anger, and worry.
Her 'spidey sense' was screaming run! She looked around and it was as if someone had slowed down time. There was nothing special about the cabin. It looked deserted, but all of her senses were telling her that wasn't the case, or maybe it was the shiny black SUV parked out front.
Looking around, she quickly spotted Lester and Bobby, and Ranger was holding her. In fact, if he held her any tighter she wouldn't be able to breathe and they would have to become one person. She looked again, and it registered that Tank wasn't in sight. She went with denial. No, nothing had happened to the big man, he must just be hiding really well; he had been point after all.
Ranger was slowly moving them back farther into the surrounding woods. Bobby and Lester had moved closer. The cabin door opened. A voice boomed from the door. "Manoso…I know you're out there. I have your man." Suddenly, Tank was in the doorway. I could tell he was being propped up. Shit, this was bad. How do you take out a guy as big as Tank that fast?
Ranger stiffened but continued our backward movement.
A shot rang out, and even though I couldn't see it, I knew it was Tank falling when, a second later, I heard a thump as a body hit the flooring of the cabin porch.
All three men were almost running while propelling my body along, we were a good distance from the cabin. The sound of a vehicle starting brought them to an abrupt stop.
I was breathless from the run and my heart was thumping wildly in my chest. All I could think about was how Lula would feel if anything were to happen to Tank. We had to go back. We had to make sure he was okay, even though a part of me was screaming that, even to consider going back, was a bad idea.
Ranger pulled me into a kiss that left me breathless and dazed. As the fog was lifting, it had sunk in what Ranger was telling the guys.
"I'll meet you in two hours. If I don't show, don't wait."
"No, you can't…" I pounded on his chest. He was hurt. If he went back, it was death! I had to make him understand that. If he died, I would die; life wouldn't be worth living.
My chest hurt, dots danced before my eyes, and I heard a rushing sound in my ears. "Breathe, Babe….BABE…" Ranger shook me. "Breathe! That's it. In…now out…slow…" My chest wasn't hurting as much, and the blackness was receding.
Ranger held me in his arms, his fingers gently massaging my scalp. He tipped my head and looked into my eyes. "Babe, I have to go back. Bobby and Lester will take care of you. Please do what they say." He waited for my affirmative answer before disappearing into the trees.
Bobby took one arm and Lester the other. "We need to move, Steph."
It felt as if we were flying through the trees, we were moving so fast. As shocked as I was, I was hyper aware and knew we weren't leaving a trail, and that we were moving silently.
We all stopped as we heard the unmistakable sound of an explosion. My knees gave and I started sinking to the ground…'Ranger'. Bobby and Lester only paused a second to look back in the general direction of the cabin. Smoke and flames filled the sky.
"Shit, we need to get out of here, fast." I don't know which said it; it didn't matter.
Suddenly, Bobby and Lester stopped. It seemed like hours since we'd heard the cabin explode. "Ninety minutes, Bomber," Lester said with a small smile. Damn, ESP. I was almost afraid to ask why we were stopping when, for the past hour and a half, we'd been moving non-stop at the speed of light.
Bobby pulled me close, his lips to my ear. "Bomber, we need to be really quiet. This is where Ranger will meet us if he can."
I looked around. We were on the edge of a large open spot. If we moved forward, there would be no place to hide. I could see more trees and a mountain off in the distance ahead of us.
My stomach growled and I could feel rather than hear his laugh. We were in a flight for our lives and I was still amusement to the guys. I buried my head in Bobby's chest and let the tears I'd been fighting to keep in and they flowed. We were lost, someone wanted us dead, and I was hungry and had no idea where or when I would have my next meal. Could this day get any worse?
I heard a rustling. "Here, Bomber." Lester pushed a TastyKake in my hand. I'm sure my mouth dropped open. How?
"Rescued from the plane," Lester said as he kissed my cheek.
I tore the wrapper open, took a bite and moaned; ah, sugar and fat. I sighed as I licked my fingers clean, making sure I didn't miss a crumb. The sugar must have cleared my brain because, suddenly, I was wondering what else they might have rescued from the plane.
Narrowing my eyes, I glared at Bobby and Lester. We'd been eating bark and twigs; sure, it hadn't tasted too bad, but if they had something better, then, damn it, I wanted some. Both men looked nervous and uncertain; they took a step back. They were comfortable taking over a third world country, but they were hopeless against a Burg girl and her hormones.
Just as I was about to let them have it, we all heard a branch break. Suddenly, I was encased in Merry Men. Both Lester and Bobby had their arms around me, making motions for me to be silent and to move with them. Once we were totally hidden, they stopped.
I tried to see, well, anything, but from where we were, all I could see were low-lying branches and the normal forest floor debris, mostly leaves and branches. Other than the wind, some bird noises, and small animals scurrying around, I couldn't make out any sounds that shouldn't be there.
After what seemed like hours, I had to move; a stick or something was poking me in an uncomfortable area. And, it felt like I had bugs or something crawling all over me. Bobby pulled me close to him, and I really had to listen to hear what he was saying. "Bomber, stay still, they're close. We don't want to be found."
Shit, how could he know that? If I didn't move soon and get rid of whatever was crawling on me I was sure I'd go mad. I sucked in a breath, closed my eyes and concentrated on being still. Then, I remembered something Tank had said at one of our training sessions: "Steph, mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless. You can do this, you just need to believe in yourself."
I used what Tank had taught me that day. Suddenly, I felt myself relaxing; I could do this. Bobby relaxed his hold and together we waited, and waited. I woke to a hand gently brushing a stray curl from my cheek. "Babe, time to get up, we need to move."
I jumped up and wrapped my body around Ranger. I was happy, relieved and frantic to make sure he was okay. "You made it! You're alive! You didn't die…"
Ranger leaned his forehead on mine and looked into my eyes. Just his touch was calming me. "Babe, you just agreed to be mine. I plan on being around for awhile." Lester clearing his throat interrupted us, which was probably good considering everything.
Ranger pulled me up and wrapped his arm around me, there was no space between us. "They took Tank with them." He handed Bobby a note that had been left behind. Bobby passed it to Lester who, after reading it, looked back at Ranger, no doubt awaiting instructions.
"It's dark, we need to make it into a town and find transportation."
"But, we don't…" I stopped mid-sentence as I watched Lester with the note.
Lester turned the note over. On the back, the bad guys had been nice enough to include a map of at least three towns within ten miles of where we were, or where the cabin had been.
I didn't trust the bad guys; wonder if they were waiting? Going to these towns could be a trap.
"But…" I started to say before Ranger cut me off.
"Stephanie, we're not going to one of the towns on the map. But I now have a good idea of where we are, and I know of a couple small towns where we could have some help getting what we need." I couldn't help but see the amusement in Ranger's eyes as he spoke. He was in his element in situations like this, and I had the feeling that I was about to learn a lot about Ranger, his skills, and his ego.
It was full dark before we started out, moving quietly, but quickly. Just before the sun started to rise, we ducked into the cover of trees, once more, and soon after, crossed a road. In the next couple of hours, we crossed more roads, and once saw a truck from a distance.
Just as full light was almost on us, Lester led the way into a cave. Ranger took my hand and I gasped at the sight ahead of me. The cave opened up after several hundred feet, and there was a lake in the cave along with a waterfall.
"Thought you might like a shower before heading into town, Babe." I kissed him and then jumped under the water. I shrieked and jumped back out, glaring at three laughing hyenas. Lester was laughing so hard that he was rolling on the ground. I shot death glares at them and wrapped my arms around myself to try to warm up. Shit, but that water was cold! Then I noticed my nipples; hard and pointy. Damn. I wondered for just a moment if the guys had noticed, glancing at Ranger. Oh yeah, he'd noticed, his eyes had started to turn warm and milky chocolate. Bobby was examining the floor and trying hard to look anywhere but in my direction.
A shiver ran through me and I knew it was not only because of the chill; part of it was the look Ranger was giving me, and the guys.
"Babe, we need to get you warmed up and dry." He pulled me farther into one of the side chambers and there was, what looked for all the world, like a big steaming pool. "Indians used to use these chambers in their ceremony; they were used to purify." As he talked and told me of the area and legions and traditions, he peeled off my clothes and helped me into the warm pool.
Ah, I stretched and turned and bumped into a warm body. This was worrying since I was fairly sure I had just rolled away from Ranger and I was also fairly sure I was still naked.
Opening my eyes I stopped breathing. My eyes met warm green ones filled with amusement. His chiseled face had an almost smile and was framed with honey colored hair that was flowing down just missing his nipples. His chest was firm and well muscled. I licked my lips. Shit, it was suddenly very hot in here.
He didn't seem threatening and he hadn't moved or said anything, but on the side of caution, I scooted back toward Ranger. Then, I took a cautious look around. I needed something to cover up with. I was wondering where Lester and Bobby were and who this stranger was.
His hand extended and, there in his hand, were my clothes. "Ms. Plum, as much as I appreciate the view maybe you should put these on." Then, he stood and walked out of the chamber.
I turned and Ranger was sitting with his blank face firmly in place. I tried to stand but Ranger pulled me back to him, pulling me into a kiss.
Pointing to the chamber opening, I asked, "Who was that?"
At this point, I was sure that it was someone Ranger and the guys knew and trusted. How else would he have ended up sleeping with Ranger and me?
We could make out voices and conversation coming from the other chamber.
"Tyree. He'll help us get back to Trenton." Ranger then stood and helped me pull on my clothes. Once I was dressed, he pulled on his pants and we joined the guys.
I was surprised to find a lot of guys in the outer chamber. "Babe, these are some of my independent agents."
"Shit, man what are you talking about? You know we're the guys you call when you need your asses pulled out of the freaking fire." He held out his hand to me. "Let me introduce myself since this collection of miscreants, he moved a hand indicating Ranger, Lester and Bobby, isn't up to it. "Murphy Mc Donnal, at your service beautiful lady." He kissed my hand. And, looking into Ranger's eyes, his eyes twinkled as he continued to introduce the gathered men. Each man nodded in acknowledgment.
Murphy had chestnut brown eyes that danced with merriment as he spoke, shiny brown hair cut short and a body that would give him Merry Man status any day. After he finished, he turned to me. "Anytime you want to dump this bunch of clowns you let me know. I know how to treat a lady."
Ranger growled and pulled me to him until space ceased to exist. "Mine, back off." After positioning me behind him and giving a look to Bobby and Lester, he sprang. Before I knew what was happening, he and Murphy were rolling on the floor wrestling.
I was in shock. Ranger shouldn't be fighting with stitches. Looking at Bobby, I noticed he was grinning. I jabbed him in the side. "Do something."
He ruffled my already messy hair. "Bomber, they're just playing."
Looking back at the men, it didn't look like play. But then again, what did I know about how the guys liked to play.
Looking up at Lester, I asked, "How do you know?"
He tugged a curl and smiled. "No weapons." Then he took my hand, walked to a medium size boulder, sat down and then pulled me down into his lap. In way of an explanation, he said, "This could take awhile so we may as well get comfy."
Lester started working with my hair, separating and taming some curls, getting out some of the knots and tangles that had formed. At some point it felt so good I closed my eyes and an involuntary moan escaped my lips. A moment later Ranger was lifting me from Lester and growling. "My woman, get you own."
A roar of laughter went up. Ranger looked at the gathered men and gave them a look that I'd seen make skips wet themselves; these men just continued to laugh.
Ranger sat and pulled me onto his lap. "Time to get this show started."
Everyone sat. Ranger outlined what he knew. Then to my surprise, Murphy started speaking. He stopped a couple of times to get the okay for him to share classified information with me present. Each time Ranger gave him a bare nod and he continued. Shit. My life was on the line here also and I wasn't in the mood to have information withheld from me. So it was good he had continued; I'd have hated to have a reason to send what was probably a great pair of balls north.
Suddenly, all talking stopped and all eyes were on me.
Uh oh. I looked to Ranger and then tried to hide. I couldn't believe I just said that out loud.
I rolled my eyes. Hey, I'm a Jersey girl and sometimes things just seep out. Ranger smiled and the meeting continued.
A plan worked out, the guys started to leave in pairs. We would spend the rest of the day here and then leave at dark. A truck would be waiting for us and we'd be on our way to Trenton. A team would work on finding out where Tank was being held.
After everyone was gone, I looked around. It was just after lunchtime and my stomach let out a growl at its being neglected so much lately. Glancing around, I noticed that Ranger, Lester, and Bobby had their heads together talking, no doubt planning. I wondered for a moment where Bobby's pack was; after all, he had pulled a TastyKake out of it for me so maybe he had something else in it.
Ranger watched Steph as he made plans with Lester and Bobby. She was wandering around the chamber looking behind boulders and into crevasses. As she neared the exit, he stood, walked to her and then placed a hand on her neck.
"Babe, what are you doing?"
Her stomach let out a loud rumble. Oh yeah, it had been awhile since they'd had a meal. He grimaced. He and the guys were used to going without eating as often on missions, and he felt bad that he'd neglected to think of Steph; she wouldn't be, and of course, she was hungry.
He pulled out the sat phone Tyree had given him and made a call. He closed the phone and gave Steph a grin. "Food will be here soon, Babe." He pulled her in for a kiss. "Sorry, forgive me?" Steph looked at him confused. His ESP was working. "Babe, in the last couple days I've got you shot at, the plane we were in crashed and blew up, a cabin exploded…" He twisted a curl around his finger. "And, I've neglected to feed you."
She leaned into him; he was such a good man. "You've kind of had your hands full. I understand …"
She lifted her head and inhaled. Damn, she could swear she smelled pepperoni pizza, but no way; he hadn't placed the call more than twenty minutes ago. She looked into Ranger's eyes and was touched by all the emotion she saw there. They were still looking into each other's eyes when they heard someone clearing their throat.
Tyree looked at Bobby and Lester. "They always like that?"
Lester grinned. "Just lately, they were kind of slow…"
"Lester." Ranger growled, which made both Lester and Tyree break out into laughs and smiles.
Steph glared at the guys, grabbed the pizza and had two pieces gone before they sat down to join her. Ranger sat and then pulled Steph between his spread legs; she leaned back and rested on his chest as she ate.
The guys joined them. Lester started telling stories about some of her bounty hunting adventures. Steph groaned as Lester told of the garbage truck landing on Ranger's car and flattening it.
"Well shit, maybe I should consider transferring to Trenton."
Embarrassed and full, I decided to get some rest. I turned in to Ranger and was soon fast asleep. I'd lived the stories and really wasn't interested in hearing them again. It was bad enough I'd been teased and laughed at when they happened, I didn't need to relive them. Ranger was warm and safe and even after two days in the woods, he still smelled delicious. How unfair is that?
My eyes drifted shut and Ranger spoke softly into my ear, "Rest, Babe, we'll most likely be traveling most of the night."
Ranger, like Bobby and Lester, kept the stories focused on Steph's adventures until they were sure she was out. Then, Ranger redirected the conversation.
"What news do you have from Trenton?" he asked Tyree. Tyree had been his head of the Vegas office since it opened.
"Word on the street is that you're trying to get out of the business, and that's ticked off some people." Tyree raised an eyebrow at him in question. "These people think if they put enough pressure on you'll change your mind."
"Russell, Banks, and Erickson."
Tyree laughed, a huge smile coming to his face. "Took out three of their guys. They're holding him at your safe house in Maine. Idiots."
Ranger smiled, and for the first time since this had all begun, could see that they might come out of this alive. "Okay, change of plans. We go to Maine first and rescue Tank. Then we make a stop in D.C. and set some people straight on my future availability."
They spent the next hour hammering out the plans, then Tyree left. Ranger looked at the sleeping woman in his arms…maybe someday for them would come after all.
"Bobby, you're on watch. We leave at 2300. Lester, get some rest."
Steph felt a chill and tried to move from it. She dreamed that she was running through a field and the blades of grass were tickling her skin as she ran carefree, the sun was kissing her, and felt warm on her skin. Suddenly her dream changed. She was lying in the field and Ranger was leaning over her…she moaned as his lips traveled from her pert nipple south stopping…
"Babe, wake up!" She was being shaken, firmly. The dream receded…her mind slowly cleared. Shit, they were in a cave. She looked around. Lester and Bobby were trying to look anywhere but at her. She blushed as she remembered the dream and thought of the sounds she must have been making as a result.
She was pulled from her thoughts by Ranger's voice. "Steph, we need to move out."
"Uh, I need to…" And I blushed again. Shit. It was bad being the only woman among a bunch of men. Sometimes they had such an unfair advantage-they could just whip it out anytime they needed to go and find the nearest bush.
Lester chuckled. "Little girl's room is that way. Just don't go too far."
I nodded and hurried. After taking care of business I was ready to get moving.
Spending one day in a cave was enough for her. She stopped for a minute to look at her reflection in the lake. Oh well, nothing she could do about her hair right now. Ranger and the guys hadn't said anything, so maybe it wasn't really as bad as it looked in the lake, distortion and all that.
We had no sooner left the cave when Ranger and the guys started with the hand signals. Ranger had an arm around my waist holding me close to him and he was directing my steps. It didn't take me long to pick up that we were all stepping in the same places, leaving no tracks and making no noise as we walked. There was no moon and I had trouble seeing, but Ranger was never farther than a step or two from me, guiding me like a ghost in the night.
Soon I felt myself tiring; it felt like we'd been walking for hours. A cramp worked its way up my leg and I stumbled, almost taking Ranger with me, but he steadied us both. Then he made a sound, almost like a birdcall.
Lester lifted me, laying a finger on my lips. I tried to make out anything in the darkness, but couldn't. Twice we crossed roads. The sky started to lighten and in the distance, I could make out the shapes of houses, some with lights twinkling in the twilight of early dawn. We kept moving and soon the lights were a distant memory. Then I heard the distinct sound of cars and trucks moving a speed down a road; we were traveling parallel to a big road. We came to a river and moved away from the sound of traffic. Soon, all I could hear were the sounds of the early morning that I'd become so familiar with these past few days.
I let out a very silent sigh as I realized that, in some small way, I would miss these days. Not the dirt, or all the walking, and definitely not the bark and twigs, but the time with Ranger and the guys…that I would miss once we were back.
"Babe, we're going to spend the day here. It's too dangerous to travel during the daylight."
Stephanie looked around. They were in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by bush and small trees. As she was about to speak, Lester removed a pack from his back, pulling out what must be tents. He threw one to Bobby who caught it without effort. That answered the question of where they would spend the day, although as tired as she was, she was sure she wouldn't have trouble just dropping and sleeping on the ground. Oh gross. Bugs and creepy crawly things lived on the ground! What had she been thinking? Tents were good. Yeah, good…tents, no sleeping on the ground. Then she spied Ranger glancing her way. A shiver went down her back and her hormones shouted she could always sleep on Ranger. Yum.
Ranger watched the play of emotions as they crossed Steph's face. Damn. One day the woman was going to kill him with her thoughts. He walked to her slowly, enjoying the show. Then he slowly traced a line down her face with his finger and followed it gently with his lips.
"Babe, as soon as we get camp set, we can eat and then catch some rest."
She watched in awe and fascination as the guys set up camp. Within minutes they had the tents up and, if her stomach was any judge, something delicious on a campfire cooking.
An hour after they had stopped, they were all stretched out resting. Tonight they would get to where their transportation would be waiting.
"I'm not going to take this lying down."
Steph was stunned and started looking around for the cameras; this had to be an episode of Candid Camera.
"Babe, what are you looking for?" She jumped at the sound of his voice.
"The cameras." Then she punched him. "Make a noise. One of these days you're going to give me a heart attack."
The guys all tensed when she said cameras and then relaxed as she explained.
Ranger raised an eyebrow. "Cameras, Babe?"
"Yeah. You know, from that show Candid Camera. I mean, no way can you think that we'll make it to Trenton in that." She gestured to the POS camper parked in front of them.
Lester started laughing so hard, he fell to the ground and started rolling.
"Santos!" Ranger growled. "Would you like to walk back to Trenton?"
Bobby draped an arm around her shoulder. "Bomber, it's not what it looks like." He took her hand, leading her to the camper. He opened the door and pulled her in. The inside was nothing like the outside. The equipment was the first give away.
Shit, it looked like something out of a movie. Bobby gently closed her mouth. She hadn't noticed Ranger following them in and jumped when he started talking.
"Babe, no one will expect us to show up in a camper. Remember...Hide in plain sight. With my rep, they'll be looking for a truck or a sports car."
"So, we're driving this to Maine? Isn't that going to take a long time? What about Tank?" Part of me was glad we weren't flying. I'd always wanted to fly, but falling out of the sky once was enough to dampen my enthusiasm. Just the thought of getting on a plane made me feel dizzy and short of breath even though I wasn't about to let Ranger and the guys know this.
"We have some guys watching the cabin. Tank is holding his own. We'll drive to a remote strip and catch a ride on a plane most of the way."
My vision blurred, and suddenly there wasn't enough air as I struggled to breath.
"Babe, slow breaths." Ranger's touch was gentle and reassuring. "Dammit, Bobby, what's wrong with her?" He growled, knowing it wasn't Bobby's fault.
Even as darkness swirled around me, I could feel Ranger beside me and hear Bobby talking to me reassuring me that I would be okay. I felt a prick and I sank into blissful darkness.
Ranger held Steph in his lap, brushing stray curls from her face. Steph had collapsed, but feeling helpless was something he wasn't used to feeling.
Bobby finished with his exam. "Panic attack." He rubbed a hand over his face. He could understand how Steph felt. It'd only been a few days since she had been in a plane crash and they were already getting ready to get on another plane. With everything that had happened since the crash, Steph was just having some trouble dealing. The real problem was they didn't have the luxury of time to let her get over the trauma right now. And leaving her behind wasn't an option any of them would consider; she was part of the team and the RangeMan family.
Ranger met Bobby's eyes. Steph wasn't going to like it, but they weren't leaving her behind.
She turned and her eyes widened a second before realization struck. A second later darkness took her.
She awoke hours later cradled at Ranger's side. She stiffened and pulled away just to hit a body behind her.
She glared at Ranger. "I'm not going to take this lying down!"
"Babe, you wouldn't be you otherwise."
I knew they had just done what they felt was right, but damn they'd taken away my choice. Then, wise Stephanie popped up, and said, 'You know they would never hurt you'. That helped the hurt of what they'd done, but not completely. Wicked Stephanie popped up, and said, 'That's what payback is for'.
Satisfied for the time, she lapsed into denial mode. She'd think of it and payback later…Like when they were home safe.
For the first time since waking, she looked around and let out a breath in relief when she realized they weren't on the dreaded plane. Of course that meant she must have been out for awhile.
Ranger's voice was soft and gentle, laced with love she recognized as he spoke. "Babe, we thought it best to keep you sedated for the flight. We landed twenty minutes ago…"
Bobby interrupted Ranger. He took her wrist as he spoke. "How are you feeling, Bomber? Really sorry about drugging you, but there was no other option…"
Lester cupped her chin in his huge hands and looked into her eyes. "Sis, no way were we leaving you behind."
Steph blinked. What was it with these guys and making her melt with their words. Who would have thought big ex-army guys could be so caring? And shit, if she kept thinking like this, she might just have to forgive them. She narrowed her eyes and gave them her best 'burg girl glare.
"I know you're just trying to soften me up so I don't seek revenge on you for drugging me."
Three sets of puppy dog eyes met hers.
"Uh, is it working?"
"Bomber, you know you love us and we only acted in your best interest…"
I rolled my eyes. But the roll was cut short when I happened a glance out the window and noticed we were on a highway.
"Want to tell me where we are?" Before anyone could answer it happened. It started with a slow roll of the stomach and a creeping feeling of impending nausea. My hands flew to my lips. Bobby was the first to realize what was about to happen.
"Les…pull the truck over. NOW!"
Les took one quick glance in the mirror and swerved through the three oncoming lanes of traffic.
Ranger barely had the door open before Steph bent over and started heaving out the open door. He held her, whispered soothing words into her hair. When the heaving slowed and turned into dry heaves, he wrapped his arms around her and held her. When the heaves ended and a shiver ran down her arm and the chills started, he pulled his shirt off and pulled it over her head. It was only once she was sound asleep that he let himself relax.
Damn, he'd known drugging her was a bad idea.
Reading his thoughts, Bobby spoke. "Wasn't anything else we could have done." He felt Steph's pulse and gave Ranger a nod. Steph would be fine; she's a strong woman.
The next time Steph woke, she noticed before she opened her eyes that they were no longer moving. Her stomach growled reminding her that it had been to long since they had last eaten, then she remembered throwing up earlier. Her stomach growled even louder - guess it was over its upset at being drugged. She inhaled and moaned - whatever it was she smelled, it was divine.
Sitting up, she looked around the room. She was in a king-size bed with tons of covers. Tossing the covers to the side, she lowered her feet to the floor and almost jumped back into the bed and under the covers - shit, but the floor was cold.
Looking around, she noticed a pair of fuzzy slippers, and slipped them on. Hum, two doors. One had to be the bathroom and the other had to lead…hum…where? Out of the room for sure, but was she in a house? She looked around, pale walls. Nice furniture. One large window covered in drapes, not curtains or blinds. Guess she was in a house. Quickly making her way to the doors she hesitated only a moment before opening one and blinked. It wasn't either the bathroom she was expecting or the way out, it was a walk-in closet.
Stepping back, she looked around. Yup, still alone. Walking into the closet, she studied the clothes. There was some black here but it wasn't the dominant color like in Rangers closet on the seventh floor. Then she noticed that there were also women's clothes here. She paused, if this was Ranger's place then…she backed out of the closet shutting the door. She'd think about that later. Right now she needed to find the bathroom; her need was approaching critical.
Pulling open the other door she was greeted with a large hallway. Stepping out, she looked both ways. To her left were two other closed doors, on her right were more doors but the hallway seemed longer this way.
"Now if I was a bathroom where would I be," she asked herself. Deciding to check the door to her left first, she jumped as she reached for the first handle and a large hand landed on her shoulder.
"Easy there, Bomber…"
Spinning around, she glared up at Bobby. "Make some noise, damn it."
He just grinned at her. "Looking for something?"
He pointed to a door down the hall the other way. As Steph rushed in and was closing the door, he spoke. "Better hurry, dinner is almost ready. End of the hall, down the stairs." He laughed low. "Follow the smells."
Finished with business, Steph looked in the mirror and shrieked. She pulled open drawers finally finding a brush and scrunches. Hair in a loose ponytail and face washed she headed off to find the dinner Bobby had promised. As tempted as she was to do some exploring now that she was fully awake she needed something to eat.
Bobby hadn't been kidding about following the scent of food. She sniffed the air and followed her nose. Turning a corner, she walked into what could only be the dining room. Ranger was setting a salad on the table and Bobby and Lester each had a couple bowls and plates.
Lester spotted her and gave her a smile. "Good. Steph's here, now we can eat."
Bobby elbowed him. "Manners, clod."
Ranger pulled out a chair for her. Dinner was quiet and Steph spent some of the time studying the room they were in; this was no ordinary house. Hell, it was a mini-mansion. Not at all what she pictured when she thought of Ranger and the Batcave.
Once they were done, everyone helped clear the table. Clean up was done in no time and Ranger took her hand and led her into a room filled with comfy looking couches and chairs. The room also had a huge fireplace with a fire blazing in it.
Ranger sat and pulled Steph onto his lap.
"Babe, this is a place I borrow sometimes. The man who owns it owes me some favors."
I nodded. I was going to be quiet as long as Ranger was talking.
"Edmond employs a shopper. When I knew we'd be staying here, I called her and asked her to get some things in your size. I hope you like what she picked out, but if not, I'll have her get something else. Until this is over, it wouldn't be safe to go shopping. But I promise you a trip to New York when this is all over."
"So, the clothes in your closet…"
"Babe, I told you. You're the only woman for me." His lips closed on mine in a tender kiss.
Bobby and Lester walked into the room.
"Get a room you two." Bobby grumbled.
"Boss, I'd enjoy watching more if we didn't have a job to get done. Think I can get a replay after this is all over."
"Lester…" Ranger growled. "When this is over, it's you and me in the gym."
Lester just laughed at the implied threat.
Ranger slid me from his lap and I could see the tension reenter his body; he was back in work mode.
"Okay, we have some planning to do. Lester, you have the satellite data."
Lester unrolled a map on the coffee table. He pointed as he spoke. "Cabin…guard…camera…we couldn't find any mike's or motion sensors…very sloppy work. We should be able to breach…here…here, or here."
"I was able to hack into the surveillance feed. Tank's being held…here. He appears to be sedated which makes sense. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure he'd have already found his way out of there. As Lester said…sloppy."
"Okay, we go in at 0200. Any questions?"
I held up my hand.
Lester and Bobby grinned.
"Babe, you don't have to raise your hand."
I was nervous and just started talking. "Sister Mary Margaret always made us raise…"
Guess Ranger didn't want to hear about how my teacher had spent all of third grade trying to drill that lesson into me.
Coming out of my musings, I noticed Ranger with his almost smile starring at me. "Babe, did you have a question?"
"Uh…yeah…um…where will I be while you're rescuing Tank?"
They all looked at me in stunned silence. I started to get self conscious.
They all spoke at once. "With us of course."
"Babe, we'll all have our part to play if this is going to go down smooth."
"Bomber, you're an important part of our team."
I was stunned and merely nodded. We spent the next few hours going over everything down to the smallest detail. By the time we finished I was ready. We were going to do this and I was part of the team. I had never felt so good and confident.
Tank looked around. Walls peeling, water stains probably a century old, brick or block, looked like it had once long ago been painted white or something close now it just looked gray and streaked. Cobwebs hung from the pipes running along the low ceiling. The floor appeared to be dirt, no windows or at least none that he could see and make out in the low light. Where the hell was the light coming from he couldn't see any bulbs. Then he looked up it was filtering through the slats from the floor above his head.
He pulled once more at the restraints holding him to the chair; his arms were numb from being cuffed behind his back to long. He held in the groan of pain that shot up his arms. Maybe if he tried his legs, shit they must have used a whole roll of duct tape on both legs, each leg was wrapped to a leg of the chair, he wasn't getting loose anytime soon. But he kept struggling, giving up wasn't in his nature and he knew from experience that if he struggled long enough he'd at least loosen the tape and give himself a small chance, and sometimes small chances were all that was between you and death.
He thought of Ranger and some of the tough spots they had been in through the years, for just a second he let himself wonder if Ranger, Steph if they were still alive. He knew if they were they'd come after him. He also knew he had to stop them somehow, if they came they would be walking into a trap one he didn't think any of them would walk out of this alive.
Then he heard a door opening, light flood the floor a thud as something landed on the floor. Then the creaking and moaning of steps, someone was coming. He closed his eyes; let his head hang to the side.
He knew anyone looking at him would assume that he was still unconscious, he would have an advantage if he could get lose. One of the advantages of a rapid metabolism was drugs didn't last long in his system.
He remained alert listening.
"Damn, it smells down here."
"Just grab your end and stop belly aching, do you think I want to be down here?"
The sound of something heavy being drug across the floor. Clink, scrap, metal on metal, then the groan as a door was opened. He hadn't noticed a door down here; he made a mental note to look for it later. A breeze, fresh air but somehow he was sure he was in a basement. He started thinking, racking his brain. Then it came to him, well damn. The root cellar, Ranger's root cellar, things were looking up if he could get loose there was a chance.
If he was where he thought he was. Ranger owned a place in Maine; sometimes he would take a team there to train. In true Ranger fashion, the place was a , which was probably why they had brought him there. But, he was sure that they wouldn't know about the tunnels or hidden passages that blanketed the place.
Ranger had got the drop on more than one new recruit using the tunnels, coming up on them when they least expected it.
Then he heard a thud and the distinct sound of a shovel hitting dirt. Shit were they in for a surprise, the floor might look like dirt but if this was Ranger's place…he waited one, two, the blast knocked him on his side
Grinning, he opened his eyes. A door on the opposite wall was hanging at an angle; the two men who had come down the stairs were laying unconscious, shovels nearby.
Concussion grenades, planted in the floor just in case someone tried to access the tunnels through the floor in the cellar.
With more effort than he'd used earlier, Tank strained until little by little he moved closer to the wall behind him. If he could get into the passage, Ranger had weapons hidden. He could find something to help him free himself.
A groan, he stopped any movement. More moaning and he went completely slack.
"Damn, what was that?"
"There's something under the dirt here. Maybe Manoso buried some of his money up here."
He heard a slap.
"What did you do that for?"
"Were not looking for money, we need to bury this shit."
"My head hurts and it stinks down here…uh Mack."
"Why'd you say my name?"
Scuffling of feet, they were coming closer. His boot was kicked.
"Do you think he's dead?"
A groan followed by the sound of boots on dirt. They were walking toward him.
"Shit I hope not. Do you want to dig a hole that big?"
He slowed his breathing; from experience he knew his pulse was low. Years of training was doing its job. A hand was placed close to his face.
"I don't feel any breath."
Groan followed quickly by swearing and the clearing of a throat and some spitting.
"Check for a pulse?"
"You check I don't like touching dead people."
A smack and a grunt.
"Will you stop hitting me?"
"Idiot, you kill people for a living."
"Well, I don't go touching them afterward. You check for the damn pulse."
If he wasn't all tied up he'd find dumb and dumber funny.
He listened to the two argue, he smiled when they stopped. They had decided that the only way they'd be able to get him sitting back up was to unlock the cuffs and take off the tape. Since he was obviously unconscious they would just secure him again once he was sitting.
He remained limp, letting his hands fall as they might once the cuffs were off.
Dumb to Dumber. "We're never going to be able to get this tape off."
"Here use my knife, yours couldn't cut threw butter, melted butter. Why do you even keep that thing? It's no good."
"Souvenir, killed my first man with this knife."
Tank heard some muttering and the sound of tape being peeled from his body. Almost time to move. In his head he counted and got ready. Three…two…one…
Tank waited. For a big man he could move surprisingly fast when he needed to and right now he needed to. Weak from being tied, his arms felt like lead weights were tied to them and his legs were tingling from lack of circulation.
One leg was free; both men were working on freeing his other leg. It took every bit of concentration and training he had to remain still. His leg felt like bugs were crawling on it as the sensation of pins and needles shot threw his leg. He knew his only chance was surprise. If they had any idea he was awake they'd be on him like white on rice. They may have been dumb but they were both his size and armed.
He waited, feeling returned to his arms as his two assailants attempted to lift him back onto the chair. They dropped him once, twice by the third time most of the feeling had returned to his arms and legs. Seeing his chance he moved lashing out he struck, he caught both men unaware, getting in several blows before they even swung once. It was two against one but he had more experience. It wasn't long before he'd won the fight, both men knocked unconscious.
Using the cuffs and a roll of duct tape he secured them to one of the overhead pipes, pipes that he knew Ranger had re-enforced. Satisfied that they wouldn't be coming after him he took their guns and knives. Then he opened the panel leading to the tunnels, he knew these two had friends and the only way out would be through the tunnels.
Once in the tunnels he quickly made his way to the stockpile Ranger kept for emergencies. Tank opened the door to the bunker and grinned, Ranger liked his toys and the bunker had some good ones.
He sat at the console and started flipping switches. A grid appeared on the screen complete with GPS locations for each of the heat signals the sensors were picking up. Satisfied for the moment that he knew where the players were in this little cluster fuck. He stood and walked to a nearby panel; hitting the hidden button the panel opened revealing a small arsenal. Once armed Tank decided the next order of business was food.
He didn't know how long he'd been held, but he'd seen enough in the cellar to know that he'd been kept drugged and they had been feeding him by IV.
A trunk in the corner held MREs meals. They tasted like cardboard but had a lot of nutrition in them. He stuffed some nutrition bars in his pocket. Once he left the bunker, he wasn't sure what he would be facing.
Armed and with food taken care of he sat back down and studied the screen. Two heat signals in the cabin above him, six more in the woods nearby and well shit eight more at the outer perimeter that the signal reached. He thought for a moment trying to remember how far the signal covered. Ranger was cautious with good cause. Flicking some more switches, he turned on the mikes in the cabin and the few in the surrounding woods.
Maybe he could find out what the fuckers were up to, he also needed to find out where Ranger was and he knew they would be his best source right then.
Stephanie stepped on a branch and it echoed so loud it sounded to her like a cannon going off, she'd been following the guys for what seemed like hours but she was sure it was longer. She was so tired she was having trouble putting her feet into the tracks or the place a track would have been if the guys left tracks.
She stopped at the sound, sure that the bad guys would be on them in a second because of her mistake. Bobby placed a hand on her shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze.
He spoke so soft she had trouble hearing his words over the silence of the woods. Sure there were noises leaves rustling, birds, she could even hear water somewhere but they weren't the sounds she was used to hearing.
"Just a little farther Bomber we're almost to a safe rest area. Can you make it or should I carry you?"
As tired as I was I had to smile the guys always had my back, I was part of the team and they wouldn't leave me behind.
"I can make it." I know it came out kind of raspy, but damn I was tired and I was using everything I had in me to keep going. At this point, I wasn't sure if I was more hungry or tired, I was leaning toward tired. But, I wasn't going to be the weak link that caused us to fail. Bobby moved from walking behind me to next to me with his large hand resting on my hip.
The next time I stumbled, Bobby swung me up onto his back without even missing a step. He silenced my protest.
"Bomber, we can move faster with you up there. Relax and enjoy the ride."
The up and down motion soon had me fighting to keep my eyes open. Ranger wished they could stop for a minute as he watched Bobby lift Steph onto his back, but it just wasn't safe. It had been confirmed that Tank was being held at his cabin, Ranger wished they could tell if the tunnels had been accessed. If they hadn't, there was still a chance for them. But, they had to keep going until they reached Hill Glen.
Hill Glen was just a cave but it had been famous at one time for its sparkling clear springs, people had come for miles to swim in the crystal clear waters and explore the formations in the caves. Legend said that Indians had used the caves to hide from early settlers. History told of the caves being used as a hospital for injured Union Soldiers. Rumor said the caves were haunted, a rumor that he helped to perpetuate since it kept most people away from the caves.
It was abandoned twenty years ago when the company that owned it went bankrupt. He saw it as a golden opportunity and bought the land, using dummy corporations. Unless someone really did some digging, it wouldn't be traced back to him.
Hill Glen also had an opening into the tunnels that ran under his cabin. Shortly after buying the cabin he had found the tunnels left over from slave running during the civil war, he had reinforced them and made sure they were safe. Now they would be the perfect place to use as a base camp.
Stephanie stirred trying to ignore nature's call but the sound of running water made the urge worse; she opened her eyes and blinked. She sat and rubbed her eyes, she really was seeing a beautiful waterfall.
Looking around she didn't see any sign of the guys and wondered for a moment where they were. She could only guess that they were in a cave. It looked to be a large cave. The water from the fall pooled into a small lake at the bottom of it.
Stretching some to ease the ache out of her tired muscles, she winced. She would be glad when this was over and they could go home. As crazy as it sounded she missed her Mom bugging her about her life, she missed her Dad's silence, she missed Grandma Mazur embarrassing her with all the sex questions, she even missed her sister and her crazy family, and she missed all her friends. A single tear ran down her cheeks thinking about them all.
Standing her thoughts returned to her present problem, namely where to take care of natures call. In the woods, she would go behind a convenient bush or tree, as far as she could see the cave offered neither.
A shiver ran down her back and she looked around. Then she heard voices, Ranger stepped into the chamber. She blinked and walked toward him. Looking at where he had entered the chamber, she noticed that one wall overlapped the other. From a distance, it looked like a solid wall but up close you could see the tunnel going off the chamber.
Ranger pulled her into his embrace. "Babe, I didn't think you'd be up yet." He placed a kiss on her brow.
She wiggled from his grasp, dancing for a minute from foot to foot.
"Babe, you got a problem?"
Stephanie leveled a death glare at him. "Men" why was it they never had to do the pee-pee dance.
"Bathroom." She hissed between gritted teeth.
Lester pointed toward the way they had come. She grabbed his hand and pulled him with her.
Ranger raised an eyebrow. "Babe."
"If I get lost…" She looked at Lester. "I'll have food."
Lester wiggled his eyebrows. "Glad to show you, Bomber."
"Santos." Ranger growled. "Show her where to go and give her plenty of privacy."
"Santos, it would be a shame if you were needed for a long mission to a not so nice place…do I make myself clear."
"You really know how to take the fun of out a situation."
"Babe, don't take too long we'll have a meeting when you get back."
Business taken care of Stephanie was anxious to find out what the guys had learned while she slept. She walked back into the chamber and noticed that they guys were sitting on the fall in a circle. Hum, no comfy place to sit. She looked at the men, from one man to the next. They were talking and paying her no attention. She could only see one good place to sit. So, she walked over and sat on Ranger's lap.
He placed a kiss on her ear. "Welcome back. I was just going over the tunnel layout with everyone."
She looked at the ground in front of Ranger and sure enough, he had drawn what looked like an elaborate diagram.
Stephanie listened as Ranger and the guys discussed the best way to reach the cabin. It hit her like a brick this isn't just a job, this was the life each of these men had chosen. That gave her the warm fuzzies .
Ranger was hoping that the tunnels hadn't been breached. The cabin was equipped with a command room, much like the one at Rangeman, which monitored the surrounding woods.
She really tried to keep up with everything, but her stomach growled from lack of attention and her eyes started to droop and glaze over. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore.
"Why don't we just…" She waved her hands at the drawing that now had added detail. She stopped talking when she noticed that all the guys had quieted and that she was now the center of attention.
Blushing, she said, "I mean, why don't we just get into the tunnels and at least try…"
"Babe, a goal without a plan is just a wish."
She glared at Ranger for a second before responding. "Well my motto is improvise, adapt, and overcome."
She crossed her arms and waited for Ranger's response, knowing he wouldn't back down from the challenge.
Lester and Bobby grinned, while Tyree and Murphy sat back to watch the show. They'd never seen anyone, male or female, stand up to Ranger the way Stephanie had.
Pulling Stephanie close, Ranger spoke softly into her ear. Much to the chagrin of the others, they couldn't hear a word he said. Stephanie felt a shiver of pleasure go down her back as he spoke, his warm breath on her neck. Heat spread and she felt herself becoming wet in spite of the company.
"Babe, I love the way you improvise. If we didn't have a mission to complete, I'd show you how good I am at adapting. Then I'd help you overcome, again and again."
Yelp, talk about a double entendre.
Ranger's tongue traced a line down her neck; he took a small nip at her pulse point.
Lifting his head from her neck, none of them missed the look on his face. He was telling all of them that this was his woman.
Then his blank face slammed down.
"Gentlemen, Steph is right. We need to move. We go at 0300. Tyree, you're in charge of grub. Go find something. Just try not to be noticed. Bobby and Lester, see if any of the stockpiles have any supplies left in them from our last Rangeman day here. Murphy, guard duty."
Ranger stood, pulling Stephanie up with him. She tried raising an eyebrow as she looked at him.
He didn't talk and his hand didn't leave hers as he pulled her toward the passage. She stopped at the opening, halting Ranger.
"Where are we going?"
She could hear the exhale and thought she might have caught just a little bit of an eye roll. Maybe she wasn't good for Ranger. He was always doing thing that just weren't like him when she was around.
"Trust me?" He held out his hand, waiting for her to take it.
She sighed, putting her hand in his. If nothing else, she did trust him with her life and maybe even with her heart.
The farther they walked down the tunnel, the darker it became. She could only guess that the chamber had some kind of natural light source. How could Ranger see, she wondered, then she paused. Her stopping tugged at Ranger's hand, but he didn't let go for which she was grateful. It was now dark enough that she wasn't sure she'd be able to find her way back. They'd had passed several side passages.
"Babe, we're almost there. Just a little farther, then we can rest." He gave her hand a tug. "I've been in almost every inch of these caves. Tank helped me connect the tunnels to the cave. We came up here for training because it keeps the guys sharp."
She decided that since he was talking and she was getting information, the wise thing to do was to remain silent.
They entered a chamber and Stephanie couldn't help it when her jaw dropped. She stood and turned looking, in a circle, amazed. The ceiling was a million crystals, but the amazing thing was the light they threw. They acted as prisms. The chamber was filled with the colors of the rainbow.
Ranger used a finger to close Steph's open mouth. "I found this chamber while Tank and I were mapping the cave. We also found things that had been left behind when the cave was used as a hospital during the Civil War."
Shit, the thought just crossed her mind. What if he'd found bodies, yuck. She hoped none had been in here…
"Babe, I didn't find any bodies. Just some old lanterns, knives, stuff like that. Tank did find some arrowheads. Ask he'll show them to you."
I wanted to glare at him for using his ESP again, but the chamber just made me happy. Ranger grinned and took my hand. Interlacing our fingers, he led me to the far side of the chamber, and then he pulled me down. His lips were on mine in a kiss full of lust, love and promises of a future shared.
We separated only when we both were breathless. I rested my head on Ranger's chest, letting my mind clear and listening to the clear, strong beat of his heart. Our lovemaking was magical, with rainbows and dancing lights overhead. We both gave to the other, two parts of a whole. Neither of us complete without the other. Ranger's fingers soothed me until I surrendered to darkness and sleep. I dreamt of rainbows, fairy tales, and superheroes.
Tank's POVTank went over the maps again. If he were Ranger, how would he approach? He knew from listening to the conversation overhead that Ranger hadn't been spotted since the cabin and that didn't surprise him. He'd also found out that the guys here were Russell's henchmen. Russell, Banks, and Erickson were in D.C., working on taking over RangeMan.
He'd been busy since his escape. He now knew what they needed to do to shut them down for good. All he had to do was get in touch with Ranger. Suddenly he saw it. Damn, he should have remembered the caves that connected to the tunnels. At that moment, he knew if Ranger was coming, he'd come through the caves. He wouldn't have to worry about being detected by sound or motion sensors. Even heat scans wouldn't pick him up until he was ready to attack.
Having learned what he could from listening to Russell's men, he loaded up and prepared to meet Ranger. He had no doubt Ranger would show.
The closer he got to the entrance of the cave, the slower he went, being careful not to set off some of the traps they'd set last time they had been through the caves. He was also careful to look for any sign that Ranger or anyone else had passed through recently and gave a little sigh of relief when he noticed that no one had been in the tunnels recently.
Ranger held Steph close. She was sleeping and his eyes were closed as he thought. His fingers traced small circles over her flat stomach. He'd never thought that he would want more kids. Julie had been an accident. At one time, he'd even considered getting himself sterilized, but the thought of letting someone that close to his manhood with a sharp instrument convinced him that he couldn't do that.
They hadn't rested much lately and he knew Steph was feeling it more than the rest of them. She tried to hide it, but he'd caught her yawning and stretching more than once. Her eyes had dark circles and she'd lost more weight; weight she didn't need to lose, weight he thought she needed.
Their lovemaking had been slow and gentle. They had shown each other just how much the other meant to them. They both knew this was about to come to an end and it was possible they wouldn't live to see too many more days.
Ranger heard a noise and moved them so that Steph was now spooned to his back, hidden from the view of anyone entering the chamber. Slowly he pulled their clothes toward him and quietly he covered Steph with her discarded clothing. He knew there was no way he could get dressed without giving away to whomever he'd heard his presence, so he bunched the clothes in front of him. Then he released the safety on his gun.
He waited and listened, finally hearing the panel separating the tunnels from the cave close. It made almost no noise. If one didn't know what it was, you wouldn't even separate it from the ambient noises in the cave, but he'd heard it and he was familiar with it.
When he heard the light sound of boot hitting rock, he felt the air move, he raised the gun, readied his finger on the trigger with the safety off.
Ranger lowered the gun as Tank stepped into view.
"You fucker I almost shot you. How are you?"
Tank noticed Steph behind Ranger and grinned.
"It's about damn time."
Ranger stood making sure to keep Steph covered, and motioned for Tank to follow him into the passage. He didn't want to wake Steph yet the past few weeks had been stressful on her and he was still worried about her.
Lester and Bobby had also heard the passage opening and met Ranger and Tank.
"Man, it's good to see you." Lester gave him a manly hug.
Bobby looked him up and down. "You, okay? Anything that might need treatment?"
Tank shook his head. "They tied me up and beat me a little, I'm okay, could eat a horse."
"You got info?" Ranger asked.
"Yeah, you want it now?" Tank looked around figuring Ranger had to have more guys with him.
"Go with Bobby and Lester the rest are in one of the rooms that way. I'll get Stephanie…don't eat all the grub you know how she gets if there's nothing to eat."
They all agreed that a hungry Bombshell was dangerous. Once they were on their way, Ranger went back to Stephanie, as much as he hated waking her he knew it was time.
He knelt down. "Babe, time to get up."
"Uhm, tired go way." Then she turned stretching.
Ranger felt himself go hard again. Shit, she reminded him of a cat, stretching and flexing until she found another comfortable position, when she turned, the clothes that had just been laid on her fell away revealing her creamy smooth skin.
Shit, he wanted nothing more right now then to cover her and push his hard cock into her tight pussy but they didn't have time for that. He lifted Steph and she curled into him. Damn, she was going to hate him for what he was about to do but that didn't stop him.
He walked across the cavern to the pool stopping when he was knee deep. Then he dropped Steph watching as she hit the water and went under. She woke sputtering and cussing.
"Ranger, I'm going to kill you but first I'll cutting off your balls."
Steph was awake now and glaring at him.
His lips tilted up a little at the corners. "Babe, Tank is here. Were having a meeting and moving out I thought you'd like to attend."
She stood dripping water and accepted my hand. I pulled her into my embrace and gently kissed her.
She looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes of hers and smiled. "You do know I'm going to get back at you."
I wrapped my arm around her waist. "Babe, I'm counting on it." She wouldn't be my Babe if she didn't try to get revenge.
We walked into the chamber and the guys all fell silent. Steph ran from me to Tank and after hugging him she made him stand and turn as she inspected him for damage.
Tanks face turned into a grin as Stephanie examined him. It was nice to know that a woman cared whether he was in one piece or not even if that woman belonged to someone else.
"Babe, if you're done maybe we can start the meeting."
Steph nodded then poked Tank in the chest.
"Don't scare me again."
He ruffled her hair and pushed her toward Ranger.
"Glad to know you care Bomber."
They ate what meager food they'd been able to scrounge and Tank passed out the energy bars he had then they started the meeting.
Tank updated them on what he'd found out. Turned out all the key players were here maybe they wouldn't have to make a trip to DC after all.
They spent hours going over tactical maneuvers. Making and changing plans, then coming up with back up plans. Ranger wanted this tight before they even made a move.
It was decided they would take out the outer ring guys first. Activate some of Rangers more unique toys so that their perimeter would be secure. Using the tunnels they could move like ghost attacking and disappearing.
Once the troops were neutralized they would move on the three men who had been responsible for all this in the beginning. Stupid of them to all be in one place, but then again it hadn't been very bright of them to go after Ranger in the beginning. Now they would pay for their mistake with their lives.
Once all the plans were done they found a comfortable place and rested.
They would attack at 0500.
They silently made their way through the tunnels. Ranger pressed the hidden access pad and the store room lay open to them. Quickly and efficiently they outfitted themselves with the weapons they would need.
Ranger took Steph's hand in his as she reached for a berretta 9mm. "Babe, you won't need that. You're staying here with Lester." His lips descended on hers in a searing kiss. "See you later Babe, I love you."
Dazed by the kiss her mind slowly processed what Ranger had said. She was still thinking when he clamped a cuff onto her wrist, a minute before he exited and shut the access panel.
Steph pounded on the door.
"Hey! Don't call me Babe! You can't imprison someone and then call them Babe!
A single tear ran down her cheek as she sank to the floor. She knew he just wanted to keep her safe but damn he could have asked her, they could have talked. No he had to go all caveman and lock her up. She hated it when choices were taken from her and he knew that better than anyone. She knew that was why this seemed like more of a betrayal than if Morelli had locked her up Ranger had always given her choices.
Five minutes passed then ten. Then she heard a noise as someone hit the panel to open the room. She pressed herself closer to the wall.
The guys were gone, well except for Lester who she knew should have been guarding the door from outside. Ranger wouldn't take a chance that he would get talked into letting her free before the action was over with.
Her heart jumped when she saw that it was Ranger stepping cautiously back into the room.
He sounded unsure as he spoke. "Stephanie is it safe for me…"
I stood and punched him in the chest a minute before I wrapped myself around him. No matter what I loved this man, he was mine and I was his.
She wrapped her arms around his neck pulling him close just before their lips meet she spoke. "Would you please stop trying to save me?"
"Babe, get used to it. You're my other half the part that completes me I'll always try to keep you safe."
"Come on Babe, bad guys to kill." He took her hand and lead her quietly down the tunnel.
Stephanie stood looking out the window. Down on the street seven floors below, she could just make out the last of the ambulances and police cars as they pulled away. Looking at the corner, you'd never guess that three people had just died there. She wiped at the stubborn tear that made its way down her cheek.
She felt Ranger enter the room before he wrapped her in his arms, holding her tightly against him.
"Babe, it's not your fault. Nothing you could have done."
"I could have quit."
He turned her in his arms and using a finger, lifted her chin so she was looking into his eyes.
"Babe, you're not a quitter. You face life full on and don't back down. Babe, you're the bravest woman I know." He kissed her gently on the lips. "It's not the result of one's life that's important. It's the day-to-day concerns, the personal victories, and the celebration of life... and love."
She turned in his arms and looked deeply into his chocolate brown eyes that at this moment were blacker than brown. "You really love me?"
"Babe, you could ever doubt my love after the last month?"
"No, not really. But I love you, Carlos." She gave him a soft kiss and nipped his lips with her teeth, teasing. "So it's really over, all the bad guys captured or dead?"
They both looked down at the street. Relieved it was over, glad to be home in each other's arms.
The Next Day Rangeman 5th Floor Conference Room
Ranger walked into the room, his arm on Steph's waist. Neither seemed bothered by the obvious PDA. At the table sat the elite in the Rangeman Organization: Anthony, Ranger's brother and head of Boston Rangeman and Manuel, his brother-in-law and head of Miami Rangeman, who was married to Ranger's sister Amelia. Also at the table were Ranger's A-Team: Tank, Bobby, Lester, Hal and Cal and Tyree and Murphy.
Ranger sat at the head of the table, pulling Steph down on his lap.
Lying on the table in front of them was a folder holding everything that had transpired in the last month, starting with their plane going down. It listed the involved parties, covered the motives each had and their personal parts in the situation. Some they had found out soon after the crash, but some had come as a surprise up in the mountains outside the cave.
Flashback 48 hours
Stephanie snuck up and pressed her gun to the back of the man in front of her. "Drop the weapon." She pressed her gun more firmly to his skull.
He dropped his gun and she kicked it away, then peeled the mask he was wearing off, letting out an involuntary gasp.
"Dickie, why?" She knew he hated her, but to try and kill her and Ranger was a little much. Plus, why was he working with the group trying to kill Ranger? She needed something to make sense. She glared at Dickie.
Dickie let out a low laugh. "I don't think your death ray is working. I'm standing right in it, and I'm not dead yet."
Stephanie noticed a couple of big rocks nearby, a perfect place to sit and talk. Without lowering her weapon, she indicated the rocks to Dickie.
She and Ranger had made their way from the caves, each member of the team having been assigned certain targets to take out. Infrared sensors had told them locations of everyone topside. Once targets were taken out or captured, they would meet near where Steph sat with Dickie.
"I rejected your reality and substitute my own, " Dickie said. "See, after you took Tootsie's clock, it got me thinking. That clock wasn't the only thing I had left from our short marriage." Now he was grinning, obviously thinking back. "You don't remember signing a will, do you, or a life insurance policy?"
"You teamed up with Russell, Banks, and Erickson so that you could get some insurance money?" Stephanie asked.
Dickie shrugged. "Sounded like a good idea at the time. They had the resources and I needed the money."
"Dickie, you're scum." She tagged him with her stun gun.
Back at Rangeman
Ranger nodded to Tank, letting him know he should start the meeting.
"As you all know Dickie chose to turn state's evidence. With the information he provided, Russell, Banks, and Erickson will be spending their remaining years in prison."
It was Banks' men who had tried to ambush them outside of Rangeman. Either they hadn't heard that their boss had been apprehended or they didn't care. The result had been a shoot out with three men dead. Banks wasn't talking while Russell and Erickson were singing like birds, trying to get a deal.
They spent the next three hours going over the file in-depth, making sure they'd missed nothing.