None of the characters in this story belong to me. My thanks go to JE for providing such rich people to work with.

Many thanks to Jenn/perfectmanhattan for her skillful Beta work.

Chapter 1 – So it Begins

"Thanks for lunch, guys," I said to Les and Bobby as we walked out of Pino's. I had a skip get the better of me on Stark Street and during my pursuit something happened to my car. The good news is my car did not blow up; the bad news is that while I was busy chasing him through the back alleys someone decided to relieve it of the two front tires and the distributor cap so driving away on my own was not an option.

I sat in it for a nearly an hour grumbling internally when the guys pulled in behind me. They saw that my tracker hadn't moved in a long time and thought they would swing by since they were "in the neighborhood." Yea, right. In the neighborhood probably meant they were alerted to a possible problem with Bombshell and came to bail me out of trouble yet again.

Still, I had no other way to get home since a membership in an auto club wasn't in my budget. Of course, if I didn't catch a skip soon rent wasn't going to be in my budget either. Bobby called Al to pick up my less than glamorous Honda Fit and Les hit a home run by suggesting lunch. If I mooched lunch off the guys and hit my parents for dinner I wouldn't have to worry about my lack of food in the apartment until tomorrow.

"Where should we drop you?" Les asked.

Sighing, I decided it would be a big help if they could take me to the Burg to borrow Big Blue from Grandma Mazur. I hated the Buick, but I had no other option at the moment.

"You know, if you'd take Ranger up on his job offer and come to work at RangeMan, you could go home with us to an apartment on four, and you would only need to make a requisition for a new vehicle because the fleet would be at your disposal," Bobby teased.

It was true the last couple of months Ranger had spent a lot of time trying to get me to come to work full time at RangeMan. He had offered virtually every possible scenario to insure me a steady income and security. He even put it in writing before he had to go in the wind. Unfortunately he left last week and from the sound of what he and Tank said I didn't expect to see Ranger again for close to a year.

I was on my own, but it was of my choosing. I know it frustrated the guys that I wouldn't agree to do more than part time searches a couple of days a week. I think they all considered me part of the team and thought it only made sense to make it official.

I remember the day I was about to give in and even made it as far as the break room in telling that to Ranger. I walked out with a bottle of water and went to put my purse away in my desk before telling him the good news when I heard a couple of contract workers talking assuming I was too far gone to hear them.

"Who was that?" the blond haired guy asked.

"That is Miss Stephanie Plum, otherwise known as the Bombshell Bounty Hunter and the Boss' Woman," the no haired guy replied.

"Whew, I would have like to have talked to her, but watching her leave gave me the best view I've seen all day," Blondie pigishly answered.

"You better rein that in, man. Word is Ranger considers that his and spends who knows how much money keeping her around." Baldie explained.

"What does she do?" Blond guy wondered.

"Officially she does searches a few days a week, but unofficially I think that is just a cover for her other duties for the boss," Bald man said followed by the sound of laughter.

"I mean, she may be pretty but there must be a lot more to her if he's willing to associate his name with all the bad press she brings. I can't imagine what she gives him in return." After that statement I soon heart more chuckles.

I tightened the grip on my purse and headed back for the elevator barely getting out of the building before my composure dropped. I was not Ranger's whore and couldn't stand the idea of people thinking so. The worst part was that I would probably give Ranger anything he wanted in a relationship, but he maintained that it wasn't possible for us, at least not now. Whatever that meant…I can't live for someday, but right now someday's all I've got going for me.

After hearing their conversation I decided that I couldn't work for Ranger. He was the one person that had always believed in me and supported me. I couldn't embarrass him by dragging the company he worked so hard to build through the mud. Remembering the that day only affirmed my decision to limit the work I did for RangeMan.

"Thanks for the offer," I finally responded to Bobby pulling myself from my musings, "But I better pick up my wheels at my parent's house."

They dropped me off but as I was getting out of the car Les grabbed my elbow and said, "Can I see your phone?"

Confused I unclipped it from my purse and handed it to him.

He opened it and pretended to check it out before smiling, "Oh good, it works!" He sarcastically explained. Then Les proceeded to program a number in before handing it back to me.

In response to my puzzled expression he said, "I put my number in so you know who to call instead of sitting in your car so long the next time."

They drove off before I could say thank you. I flipped it open and saw a new entry for a local phone number under the name Sexiest Man. At least they were good for a smile.

I mustered up my courage and rang the bell at my parent's house, relieved when Grandma Mazur answered the door in lieu of my mother.

I told her about my car and asked to borrow the Buick which she was more than glad to lend to me. Fortunately my mother was out with my dad so I didn't have to listen to her rant about my job and how she didn't understand why I couldn't settle down and give it up. Unfortunately, if she wasn't here I couldn't really hang around waiting for dinner. I would have to go home and skip it tonight.

By the time I got home I was pretty tired so I figured I'd turn in early and miss the hunger. Tomorrow was a new day and I was determined to catch a skip. Hey, I was trying out the power of positive thinking. So far it hadn't done much but I was definitely at that grasping-for-straws phase of my life.

Five hours later I was awakened by an annoying ringing. I threw my alarm clock against the wall which did nothing to stop it. I finally pulled myself up enough to realize it was my phone ringing.

I answered with a groggy, "Hello," while allowing it to register that it was 9:30 at night. I had no right to be upset with the caller; young people didn't normally hit the sack this early.

"Bomber?" Came a confused voice indicating it was one of the Merry Men.

I shook my head to try and clear the cobwebs and replied, "Yes…"

"Sorry Steph, I didn't mean to interrupt, this is Woody," The caller continued giving me the hint of his southern accent that identified him for me.

"Hey Woody, what can I do for you?" I wondered. He never called.

"Well, Tank asked me to call to see if there was anyway possible you could do a distraction for us tonight?" He answered.

Hmmm, I didn't want to do anything other than the occasional day of searches, but distractions usually went well for me and it would be helping them out so I didn't think there was a great risk of embarrassing the company over it.

"When do you need me?" I asked.

"That's the problem, the skip just entered the biker bar Good Times on 3rd Street. The sooner the better, we've been trying to get a bead on this guy for weeks and the bond expires tomorrow. How soon can you be ready?" He explained.

I could skip a shower and Good Times wasn't known for their impressive clientele so I could probably throw together a miracle in twenty minutes. "Can you have someone pick me up at 9:50?" I offered.

"Perfect, Hal will be in the lot waiting on you as soon as you're ready." He replied before hanging up.

I jumped up and threw together a denim mini-skirt that only a junior high school student should be wearing and coupled it with a halter top that appeared to be made out of a red bandana. I pulled up some of my hair leaving the rest to fall down haphazardly. I figured most bikers couldn't spend a lot of time on their hair with the helmet crushing it so they shouldn't spend too much time judging me for mine. I went with bright red lipstick with the color name Sin and splurged on five coats of mascara. I slipped into my knee high shiny black boots with four inch stilettos and sashayed down to a nervous looking Hal right outside my front door.

A glance at the clock in the car told me this was my night. I asked for twenty minutes but only took fifteen.

Ten minutes later we were at the edge of the parking lot where Tank was giving me the history of the skip. "We need you to bring out a guy named Charlie Haughton. He was an attorney but got hooked on drugs and has spiraled out of control. The list of charges on this guy makes it impossible to believe he got bonded out, but we stand to make a pretty penny if we can bring him back in."

They showed me a picture of a sweaty looking guy in need of a shave and a gym. The size of his belly alone made it difficult for me to picture him riding a bike, at least not one without reinforced shocks.

Junior gave me a wire and seemed anxious about what to do next.

"Relax," I assured him. "I can do this part myself."

I pulled up the scrap of material in the front and taped the wire under my left breast before turning around and asking, "Does it show?"

I internally smiled at the reaction. No one wanted to be caught looking directly at my chest so there were coughs, a few blushes, and poor Hal had completely turned around.

Les finally came to my rescue in his typical manner. "From here I don't see a thing, but if you want a full uniform inspection I'll be happy to oblige."

Tank brought us back to the matter at hand. "No one is behind the bar, we didn't have enough time to stage this the way us usually do, so whatever you order to drink, be sure you take it easy."

Honestly, I have done this before, I don't need that kind of instruction.

"Bobby is inside and will point out the skip if you have any trouble. We will be here, split between the exits so we can take him down no matter where you bring him out.

I nodded that I understood and made my way into Good Times.

Before the door closed behind me I was nearly undone by the thick amount of smoke. I assumed it was cigarettes, but there was a small menu available from the bar, so the kitchen could be equally to blame. I was new so I garnered a lot of attention when I first sat down at the bar. Unfortunately, none of it was from Haughton.

The bartender eventually made his way over to me and stood there waiting for an order. I realized my first problem of the evening – I hadn't brought any cash in with me to buy a drink. Normally, it isn't an issue because RangeMan has someone behind the bar, or I get the skip to pay for my drink, but I hadn't gotten that far in my plan. Quickly looking around I saw Bobby playing pool at the table closest to the bar. I shook my head no to the bartender and he lumbered off without a word.

I tried to get as much swing in my walk as possible without risking an early hip replacement and leaned against the pool table Bobby was staking out. I noticed that Haughton was drinking beer from a pitcher at the small table behind us.

In a slightly loud voice I said, "I have problem I'm hoping you can help with."

Playing along Bobby replied, "Oh yea, what is that?"

"I'm really thirsty, but I managed to come in without any money and wondered if I could play you a game of pool for a beer?" I teased.

The guys all knew I could play pool, but more importantly they knew I could play the skip if I had a cue in my hands and a reason to bend over.

Bobby acted uninterested and said, "I'll play you in pool but I'm not giving you a drink until I see how good you are."

I took my chance to say, "Honey don't flatter yourself, I usually want a little more in a man. Tonight I'm just after a good time and you seemed to be the only one looking."

The corners of his mouth twitched, but Bobby maintained control of his blank face when he handed me a cue and instructed me to break.

I took my time eyeing the table before I intentionally over bent to line up my shot. I knew I had him when I heard a "Good Lord" mumbled behind me just as the stick knocked the ball into the right corner pocket.

One more ball in a pocket and Haughton came to me with a glass of questionable cleanliness and said, "Honey, I'd be glad to offer you a beer and anything else you want tonight."

I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelling when he touched my arm but I smiled and accepted his drink instead. I sat it on the edge of the pool table and asked, "Would one of those bikes outside be yours by any chance?"

"The hog right outside the door is all me. Do you need a ride somewhere?" Charlie offered.

I put my hand on his and said, "Follow me, you look exactly like what I'm looking for tonight."

Two steps from the door and Tank stepped out to cuff Haughton. My work was done. Unfortunately my night wasn't nearly over.

Hal brought me back home and my stomach growled just as we were pulling up to my apartment. "Do you need me to pick up something for you to eat?" He offered.

"No thanks," I lied hoping he wouldn't press the issue.

"I saw Morelli's car in the lot, do you need me to come up?" Hal asked me

"Shit!" I let that one slip getting me Hal's full attention. I rarely swore, at least I didn't think I did. I thought the words but tried really hard to keep it from going public.

"No," I quickly added. "I didn't want to see him tonight, but he's harmless. We're just currently disagreeing over our status. I claim we are through forever, and he thinks we are one night from being engaged." The explanation made sense to me, but it had obviously not been as clear to Hal. I waved him off and told him goodnight.

I tried to pull on my skirt hoping for a miracle that it would stretch by a foot or two by the time I unlocked my door.

"Cupcake, what in the hell were you thinking going out dressed like that?" He asked as soon as I stepped in. I sighed, so much for miracles.

"I had a distraction for RangeMan tonight to help them get Charlie Haughton and this was the outfit that did the trick." I explained.

"That outfit looks like it should be turning tricks, but not for RangeMan." He slurred out.

I began to inch my way back to the door realizing that Joe had been drinking. The growing regularity of which was one of the reasons I had broken it off with him. He was a caring man, but when he drank he tended to be rough and mean spirited, then the following morning he was filled with remorse and pitiful over what had happened.

The number of gruesome homicides he been investigating was leading him to drink after his shift to forget some of what he had seen. I understood needing to relax but I no longer wanted to be part of that ritual.

I was one step away from the door when I realized he was following me. I decided to try and talk him into leaving but I was at a loss as to how to do that.

"Joe, I wasn't expecting to see you tonight. I thought we talked about it and agreed to be friends." I began.

"No, you talked about it and I listened, but after thinking about it I realized that you were wrong. I think you leaving is what's wrong." He stepped closer allowing me a whiff of his breath proving he had been "relaxing" with whiskey for some time already. The nearly empty bottle in his hand served as further proof too.

"Joe, you're drunk and I want you to leave. I don't want to fight tonight." I pleaded as my stomach growled.

"I hear you're hungry, Cupcake. I'm guessing there isn't a thing to eat in your apartment. That's one more reason why you should come back with me tonight. I have food and then you can thank me wearing that outfit. The boys miss you," He slurred again taking the final step positioning himself right in front of me.

I tried to get out of his way, but even drunk, Joe is a strong man and his years as a cop had given him skills in subduing a suspect even when they resist.

He managed to break his bottle against the wall during our struggle which frightened me because I knew even if he didn't mean to he could hurt me with the jagged edge in his hand.

"Please, Joe. Don't do this," I tried pleading again. "You don't want to do this."

He charged at me, knocked me over and my head crashed into the wall. The single piece of cheese pizza I mooched for lunch had left my system and I was weak already. My vision went blurry and I couldn't get up. I felt Joe pull me up himself, "I'm glad you decided to see it my way, Cupcake." His grip on my arms was painful but I couldn't fight against it.

He had me nearly to his car when I regained my hold on full consciousness and began to fight him anew.

Not liking my resistance he punched me with the hand that was holding the broken bottle top. It shattered in his hand cutting his palm and fingers. Unfortunately, it also sliced into my jaw and down the edge of my neck. I fell to the asphalt and didn't bother trying to get up. I put my hand against my neck feeling the blood seeping out.

Joe screamed in pain from his own injury before yelling, "Cupcake, you are simply not worth it." He accented his opinion with a swift kick to my back before climbing into his car to drive away. He gunned the gas to his Ford and small pieces of rock and debris from the parking lot were kicked up under his tires and thrown at me cutting into my exposed skin. I laid there for a few minutes listening to be sure he wasn't going to return, uncertain of what I would do if he did.

Finally I realized I was alone and decided I needed to get inside. I couldn't risk passing out in the parking lot dressed this way. What would my mother think? I could hear it now: "No one else's daughter was found in broad daylight dressed as a streetwalker covered in blood and dirt."

I thought the stairs might be safer because once I began to move I was afraid stopping to ride the elevator would prove too much and I wouldn't be able to get off.

I made it up every step despite seeing twice as many as there actually were. By the time I got the door I realized Joe has shut it and the knob was locked. I had no keys and no way to get in. I let my legs go and slid to the floor.

That was my last thought until I heard a man's voice saying, "Yes sir, she's beginning to make some sounds."

The voice was familiar but I couldn't quite place it. Realizing I was exhausted I went back to sleep figuring if someone had kidnapped me they could just have their way with me. I was tired of fighting.

"Come on Steph, you need to wake up for us. We want to get you home, but we can't do that until you wake up," Someone obviously didn't understand the need I had for a longer nap.

I tried moving my face away from the voice but a different one came from the other side. "That's it Beautiful, come back to us, please."

Lester had to say please, didn't he? Despite not wanting to, I fought back against the darkness and blinked my eyes open.

Les was holding my hand which had an IV in it. He kissed my fingers when I focused on his face. "She's back," He said with great relief and all joking gone.

I turned to see who he was talking to and saw Bobby on the other side reaching for a blood pressure cuff and concentrating on taking my vitals. Hal stood straight against the wall staring at my feet with his head slightly lowered.

"Where am I?" I scratched out praying they didn't say St. Francis Hospital.

"You're in my office," Bobby replied.

"Thank goodness," I gushed.

"I'm glad you approve. It took all our convincing to get them to release you from the hospital to my care yesterday." He explained.

That woke me up the rest of the way and I tried sitting up feeling sore everywhere, but uncertain why.

"Why was I at St. Francis?" I asked panicked at who else might know.

"We were hoping you could fill us in on that, Beautiful." Les said softer than his normal tone. "Junior was working in the control room and heard a rescue squad call to your apartment building and called us to check it out. We met you in the bay as they were pulling you into the ER. One of your neighbors said you passed out in the hall in a puddle of blood and called 911. What happened?"

I tried to talk through it hoping I could piece it together as I went. "I remember the distraction. We got the guy we needed to. Hal took me home…" My voice drifted as I tried really hard to remember what happened next.

That spurred Hal to speak up, but he didn't move his eyes from my feet. "Morelli was there and you didn't want to see him, but you told me it was fine and that I should let you go so I left you there alone."

Then the memories came flooding back. "You did exactly what I told you do." I said sternly. Clearly Hal somehow suffered from the delusion this was partly his fault.

"Regardless of what you told him," Tank said causing me to acknowledge his presence which I had not previously noticed. Apparently I had some vision issues too if I missed an enormous man dressed in all black standing against a solid white wall.

"He broke protocol in not walking you up and securing your apartment after a distraction. We put that policy into place because we recognize that you dress in a way that might make you a victim in order to help our company. So insuring your safety into your apartment is required regardless of what you might say." Breaking orders was not tolerated at RangeMan so I knew no amount of trying to talk him out of it would relieve Hal of what ever punishment Tank dished out. Still I felt bad because he had only done what I asked.

"Since we know Morelli was there, can you tell us what happened?" Bobby prompted.

I didn't want to. I knew the guys would be furious, but I was afraid that not telling them would be worse by leaving their imaginations to come up with a story for the cuts and bruises on my body.

"What do you know?" I wondered how much detail would be required.

Les' jaw was clenched tight when he answered, "We know that he banged your head against something, hit you in the face, and the bruise on your back which also bruised your kidney usually means you've been kicked with a boot. What we don't know is where the cut on your neck and all the embedded rocks and dirt are from. What did he do?"

I had no choice but to level with them. Just as I expected, they were furious. The look on Tank and Les' faces scared me.

"Guys, I promise I didn't know he was drinking. I wouldn't have gone up there alone if I had known. I didn't mean for this to happen," I began to ramble.

Les shushed me and ran his fingers along the edge of my hair. "Beautiful, we aren't mad at you. Morelli is a cop and should have known better. You can't let him get away with this. You have to press charges. One way or another he has to pay for this."

I didn't want this story to get out and into the local newspaper so pressing charges wasn't an option. I could already hear my mother's rants on how this was all my fault and that I somehow drove him to do this to me. I also didn't want the guys to take matters into their own hands and risk one of them getting arrested. I needed to come up with something quick.

"I'll talk to Eddie and see what he suggests. I don't want to press charges and deal with this hitting the newsstand, but I don't want him to get off scot free either. Maybe he can help me come up with something." I said silently praying they would accept my solution.

The room was silent for a moment before Tank finally spoke. "Okay, we can try it your way, but until you're completely healed to Bobby's satisfaction, you aren't going anywhere without one of us with you."

I quickly agreed thinking I could just stay at my apartment until Bobby said I was better and then start going out again alone.

"So, how long until I'm as good as new?" I asked trying to sound upbeat.

Bobby shook his head before giving me the report. "The bruising on your back and kidney needs to be monitored closely for a few more days. After that you will have soreness and pain there for two or three weeks at a minimum. The knot on your head didn't result in a concussion, so the swelling should begin to recede in a few days. The grit and gravel extractions are primarily scratches, although a few required stitches which can come out in a week. The worst was the cut to your neck."

At that point he stopped and rubbed the back of his neck with his large dark hand.

When he had himself under control again he said, "The cut missed your jugular by only a couple of centimeters. There was glass in the wound and it took eighteen stitches to close it up because of the jagged nature of the cut. You aren't going to like this, but it's going to leave a scar. Once it's healed completely we could have a plastic surgeon look at it, but right now it is important to minimize movement to allow the stitches to do their job in holding the delicate seam together. You came so close…" He didn't finish that sentence. He didn't need to.

"When can I go back to my apartment?" I asked softly afraid of the answer.

"You'll need to be here overnight and after that you could go back tomorrow, but you can't drive or move around too much for another week. You're stuck there, Steph. Wouldn't you rather stay here and keep us company?" Bobby asked giving me another chance to accept an apartment at RangeMan.

"I'll be fine. If I need to lie around anyway I may as well do it in my own bed." I replied lightly.

Seeing I was determined to leave the next day the guys told me good night and left me to get some rest. It was hard to get comfortable and sleep didn't come easily.

The next morning I was already awake when Bobby gently opened the door to check on me.

"Good morning!" I greeted him happily.

"Alright Bomber. Let's get you changed and Vince will take you home. We've decided to stay in the parking lot to give you your space, but someone will be there around the clock. You also have to promise to take a panic button with you in case something slips by the guy outside. Until you are able to move around freely I really need you to work with me on this. I'll stop by in the morning to check on you, but call me anytime you need me – day or night." Bobby pleaded.

"Okay," I told him. "I'll be good, I promise."

He planted a kiss on my head and left me to change into some clothes Ella brought.

An hour later I was in my apartment which was eerily quiet. I looked around and everything was as I left it, except the food fairy had been by. The heating instructions on the dishes told me I needed to thank Ella the next time I was at Haywood.

True to my promise I called Eddie at the station and talked to him. He was a good friend and listened. Eddie was completely shocked when I told him about Joe's drinking.

"We knew he had an occasional drink, but we didn't know it had gotten that bad."

I gave him the full scoop of what happened and Eddie was furious. Like I said, he was a good friend.

"Steph, me and the guys will take care of this. I appreciate you not wanting to press charges; it might be hard to prove anyway, but don't you worry; we will handle it."

I went to sleep that night feeling safe and fortunate to have such good friends. The guys at the station would deal with Joe and the guys at RangeMan had my back until I could take care of myself. I was glad I talked to Eddie instead of making a public spectacle. Obviously, this was the better way to go.