Warnings: language, violence, kissing. Rated – PG15. BABE. BABE HEA.
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters, settings, etc. from the PLUM series are the property of Janet Evanovich. No copyright infringement is intended. I am not making any profit; all credit goes to the aforementioned author.
Summary: A short story that has arisen from a combination of my frustration with the current summer heat in Australia, writer's block, and the use of a writing challenge prompt. Stephanie finds her attempts to cool down thwarted when two men abduct her from her apartment. When she encounters Salvadore Vito Álvarez, things become a little clearer. Will the fearless heroine be saved from danger once more? And what danger does she need saving from – danger to her body, or danger to her heart? Written in third person for a change.
To Stephanie, With Love.
The small temperature gauge she had attached to the wall outside on her fire escape read one hundred and two degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity covered the city in a thick blanket of hot dense sweltering air. Every breath she took seemed to take more effort than the last; the air was heavy and damp. She was drenched in perspiration. Her minimal clothing, a pair of tiny cotton sleep shorts and a sports bra, were sticking to her skin, making her uncomfortable. She had a cold beer bottle in her hand, which she pressed against the side of her face and neck when she wasn't sipping on the delightfully refreshing liquid. She was craving for even a small breeze to take the oppressing heat away from her for just one moment. It was times like these that she wished she had enough money to afford a better lifestyle. A lifestyle that involved an air-conditioned apartment and the ability to afford the jacked up energy bill she'd be required to pay for such a luxury. Unfortunately, Bounty Hunting had been slow the past few weeks, the heat subduing even the criminals. She'd be lucky to make this month's rent on time. Taking another sip of her beer, she groaned, realizing it was sadly empty. She only had one more in the fridge.
With great effort, she stood, grimacing at the sweaty leg prints that resided where she'd been sitting. She hoped the heat wouldn't last much longer as she climbed through her bedroom window and trudged across her apartment. If it did, she'd take Ranger up on his offer to use his apartment while he was gone. She traced her fingers over the dog tags that hung around her neck. He'd given them to her as a promise before he'd left on this mission. A promise that he would return and they'd continue where they had left off. In a loving, exciting, healthy relationship. He'd called her just yesterday and let her know he'd be home soon. The two weeks he'd been gone didn't seem to be such a long time, but she'd endured what felt like every slow torturous minute not knowing who or what his target was, if he was okay, or how his mission was progressing.
Sighing to herself, she paused as she entered the kitchen. Two menacing men were standing there. They wore head to toe black but she didn't recognize them. They didn't belong to Ranger. Their stance was different; the way they were looking at her was making the skin on the back of her neck stand on end. She shivered despite the heat. It was then she noticed the door had been all but torn off of its hinges. The frame was now mostly splintered wood. That was going to be expensive to replace.
Shaking herself out of her heat induced fuzzy thoughts; she took a slow step backwards. The men leered at her. If only she could get to her purse and her panic button… or her gun. Another small step backwards had the men swiftly advancing towards her. She turned and darted through the door to her bedroom, but was caught by a large sweaty arm around her waist. Screaming and struggling, fighting to be free, a damp cloth was placed over her mouth. She breathed in the sweet-smelling vapour of what she recognized to be Chloroform and her world slowly faded out.
Her head pounded. Her mouth was dry. Her tongue felt swollen in her mouth. Taking a deep breath, she realized she was gagged. Groggily opening her eyes, she caught a blurry glance of the room she was in, before the effort became too much and she closed her eyes once more.
Five minutes later, her head had cleared for the most part. She found she was bound at the wrists, her arms pulled behind her back, and her ankles were also bound. Taking another look at her surroundings, she determined she was in a large empty warehouse of some kind. She'd been placed against a wall, in the far left corner, furthest away from the door. There was no-one inside with her, but shadows passed regularly in front of the windows, giving her the impression there were men guarding the warehouse from outside. She struggled for a few minutes, trying to sit up, and finally managed it.
Getting her bearings, she took stock of herself. She was in the same cotton shorts and sports bra she'd left in and she couldn't detect any injuries. Thankfully, the dog tags Ranger had given her were still around her neck. They made her feel like he was with her, gave her some comfort. Unfortunately, she was still just as hot as when she'd been at her apartment. The sun was still shining through the warehouse windows and the heat seemed to radiate from the walls and roof. Her hair was plastered to her neck and face, but there was little she could do about it. The ropes that bound her were cutting into her skin and chafing. At least she knew she hadn't been out long. It had been late afternoon when they'd snatched her. They couldn't have taken her too far out of Trenton.
Gazing around, she searched for any object that she could use to free herself or use as a weapon. Before she could find anything of use, the man door that was situated inside the roller door swung open and three men strode in. They approached her, the main man assessing her with intelligent eyes. He was Hispanic in origin, his skin appearing naturally tanned; his dark hair was combed back and a moustache was a prominent feature on his face. An expensive looking black on black suit fit snuggly across his broad shoulders, down to his tapered waist and fitted over powerful legs. She guessed he was five foot ten, maybe a little more. Dark shades had been placed in the collar of his shirt. He could almost pass for a relative of Rangers, she thought.
"Do you know who I am, Señora Plum?" The man asked, making a swift motion with his hand. The two men, who she figured were his bodyguards, stepped toward her and grabbed an arm each, lifting her off of the ground. They carried her, painfully, to a small office housed within the warehouse, seating her on a wooden straight back chair.
She said nothing; she may not know who he was, but he certainly seemed aware of whom she was.
"My name is Salvadore Vito Álvarez. I am the leader of Los Reyes de Colombia. The Kings of Colombia! We are an international organized crime syndicate. Perhaps you have heard of us?" Salvatore inquired of the woman. She was fair skinned, with a pretty face, a body he could appreciate and hair that looked like she'd just rolled out of bed. He could understand Mañoso's fascination with her.
Again she held her tongue. She had not heard of them. However, she'd jolted when they had mentioned Colombia. Colombia was where Ranger had gone. She was in some serious trouble, she acknowledged silently.
"No? Perhaps I need to refresh your memory? Does the name Ricardo Carlos Mañoso ring any bells? You see, your boyfriend has been in Colombia, and he's caused me a great deal of problems. Problems that need fixing immediately or we are going to lose a lot of money. Comprender?" Álvarez growled.
Stephanie nodded weakly.
"I want to do a trade. Your life for the property Señor Mañoso has stolen. My negatives, plates, and computer hard drives. Nothing is to be left out or it will be your life. Here is a cell phone. I want you to call him and inform him of our… requests," Álvarez ordered, giving a signal to his men to free her arms.
Stephanie flinched as the ropes were cut away, the knife slicing through her right arm as well. She brought her hands in front of her and rubbed her raw wrists.
"I don't have Rang – Mr Mañoso's number," she informed them quietly.
"Bullshit. He called you just last night, did he not?" Álvarez roared.
"It was a secure line, no number was displayed on my phone," Stephanie explained. She froze as Álvarez pulled a gun out of his suit jacket.
"Call him you little fucking bitch. I won't let some little gringa stand in the way of a multi-billion dollar counterfeiting operation. Call him!"
With a shaking hand, she reached forward and took the small cell phone from Álvarez. She might not have Ranger's number, but she sure as hell had Tank's! The phone rang twice before it was picked up, but silence met her.
"Um, R-Ranger? Hello? It's Steph. I, I'm here with a man, Salvadore Vito Álvarez. He's got me in an abandoned warehouse at gun point near Trenton. He – he says you've stolen something from him, uh, plates, negatives, hard drives. He's r-requested a trade, the stolen property for me, or he'll kill me," Stephanie stuttered along, hoping she was giving them enough time to trace the call. She also hoped the Colombians didn't catch on to how much information she was sharing with their enemy. Although, they'd given her the phone in the first place, so how intelligent could they be?
"Steph. We're right outside. How many men are in there with him? One, two –" Stephanie cleared her throat significantly. "Okay. I want you to give Álvarez the phone, then hit the ground and stay down. Understand?" Tank asked quietly.
"Yes, okay. Mr Álvarez, he wishes to speak with you," Stephanie said, holding out the phone. She watched as he tucked his gun away, then she launched herself out of the chair. Diving at Álvarez, she grabbed his gun, twisting as she fell to the ground. She pulled the trigger twice, aiming for the two bodyguard's kneecaps as she scrambled behind the old office desk before all hell broke loose.
Gun fire echoed loudly inside and outside the building. Debris was flying all around the small room. The shouts, cries, and screams of men rang in her ears. Suddenly, it all stopped. Inhaling a deep breath, she crawled out from the desk and surveyed the damage around her. Álvarez was on his knees, hands on his head, while Lester pressed a gun to the back of his head. Both of Álvarez's bodyguards were severely wounded, her two shots only one of the many bullets that seemed to have penetrated them both. She could hear Cal outside ordering more of Álvarez's men around.
"How's it hanging, Beautiful? You okay?" Lester asked with a half-smile.
"Okay, I'm okay. All in a day's work, huh?" She answered as she reached up to place Álvarez's gun on the desk and started to work at the ropes that bound her ankles together.
Lester chuckled as Tank walked in, assessed the room and moved to kneel by Stephanie.
"Steph," Tank spoke, pulling a knife out and gently freeing her from the ropes. He inspected her silently. Cut arm, raw wrists and ankles. Not too bad. "Let's get you outside. Bobby will want to take a look at you." He helped her up, keeping an arm around her shoulders as he steered her past Lester and Álvarez and out of the office and warehouse.
She noted six Merry Men outside guarding eight of Álvarez's men who were all kneeling with their hands on their heads. Bobby had just pulled up in a Black GMC Yukon, had climbed out of the SUV and was jogging straight over to her.
"You did good, Steph," Tank acknowledged quietly as Bobby came to a stop in front of them.
"Come on, Steph," Bobby instructed, moving an arm around her waist as he led her over to the back of the SUV. She knew from experience that the first aid kit would be stored there. Bobby opened the rear door and helped her to sit down, by lifting her off the ground and placing her on the tailgate. He quickly got to work cleaning, treating, and dressing her minor wounds. Once finished, he helped her into the passenger's seat and climbed behind the wheel.
They were cruising back into Trenton within the hour. Although, Stephanie could admit that their speedy return may have had something to do with Bobby's race car driving. When they pulled into the Rangeman garage, she didn't fight it. She knew if Ranger came home and found out she'd been abducted from her apartment and was still living there, heads would roll, including her own. He'd told her to be careful and she knew the Merry Men probably had orders to lock her down if there was even a hint of danger. She was honestly just happy to be there, because she'd get to enjoy the luxury of Ranger's apartment, and relax in air-conditioned bliss.
"I'll take you up to seven. Someone will stop by your apartment to pick up your things." Bobby ushered her into the elevator.
"How did you guys find me?" Stephanie inquired. Bobby shifted a little on his feet.
"Ranger had a tracker inserted into the dog tags. We were only to use it in the case of an emergency. He said we had no right infringing on your privacy by having it on all the time," Bobby said quickly.
"Oh. Well I'm glad you all came to my rescue," she stated simply. She and Ranger had calmly discussed additional security measures when they'd ventured into their relationship.
Bobby shook his head at her calm reaction and left her in the entry hall of the apartment. "Let me know if you need anything," he called out as he exited.
Stephanie quietly shut the door behind Bobby. There had been subtle changes to Ranger's apartment over the past eight months they'd been dating. There were a few more photos, a little more warmth and personality, more of her clothes in his closet, and all of her bathroom essentials in his vanity cabinet. She touched the photo of them that sat proudly on his sideboard next to his key dish. Slowly moving into the bedroom, she enjoyed the cool air circulating through the apartment. It settled over her damp skin and gave her a slight chill. The perfect temperature. She grabbed a pair of soft yoga pants, underwear, and one of Ranger's shirts before walking into the bathroom, quickly stripping and stepping in the shower. Twenty minutes later, she was clean, relaxed and feeling sleepy.
Trudging over to the bed, she threw back the covers on Ranger's side and began to crawl in. It was then she spotted a small, blue, Tiffany and Co. jewelery box on the side table. Frowning a little, she picked up the box and examined it. She didn't think it had been there when she'd entered the bedroom. But then again, everyone was always telling her to be more aware of her surroundings, so perhaps she just hadn't spotted it. A short note was attached to the box: To Stephanie, with love from C. Sitting back on the bed, she held the box in the palm of her hand and stared at it intensely. A quiet chuckle from the bedroom door had her startled.
"Carlos?" Stephanie breathed, rising up on her knees as she watched him push away from the door frame and swagger over to stand in front of her. She noted his five o'clock shadow, that his hair was a little longer and his skin a little darker. There were no obvious signs of injury. Relief swept through her.
"Babe," he murmured, tilting her chin up to claim her lips in a sweet kiss.
"I – Álvarez, he," she stuttered as they pulled away from each other a fraction. Ranger's lips brushed over her cheeks, nose and eye lids. He lifted one of her wrists and gently kissed it, repeating the same treatment for the other.
"Tank briefed me on the situation. I only just got back stateside, Babe, otherwise I'd have been there too. They called me mid-flight. I was worried," he admitted softly, cupping her face in both his hands. "And I'm sorry," he added as his lips descended to capture hers once more, this time in a heady kiss that left them both reeling.
"It's not your fault," she protested weakly.
"It was a consequence of my actions," he corrected with a teasing smile. He didn't want to argue with her. Not tonight. "Open it, Stephanie," he prompted.
"Open what?" she inquired, puzzled.
"The box, Babe. Open the box," Ranger chuckled, lifting her right hand that was clasped around the desired object.
"Oh," she giggled nervously. Her fingers were clumsy as she removed the ribbon and slowly lifted the lid. A soft gasp left her lips as she gazed inside. A beautifully simple, three stone diamond ring was nestled in white satin. An inscription inside the lid in silver cursive writing simply read: Stephanie + Carlos – 2011.
"Will you marry me, Babe?" Ranger asked simply, kneeling down before her.
Her heart jumped to her throat. She hadn't been inspecting this. She'd never expect this; not from him. What surprised her even more was her lack of fear; she felt an overwhelming desire to say yes. Blinking tears away from her suddenly watery eyes, she gazed at the man she loved.
"Someone I respect a great deal has always told me to follow my instincts," she sniffled, smiling a little.
"What are your instincts telling you now?" Ranger wondered, reaching forward to wipe away her tears.
"That becoming your wife would make me the happiest woman alive," she whispered, throwing herself into his arms. He caught her and wrapped her tightly in his embrace as he kissed her for all they were worth.
It was a number of minutes before they drew breath, their foreheads touching as they both panted quietly. Ranger picked up the discarded box that lay among their sheets and slipped the ring onto her finger, sealing the deal with a soft, brief kiss. Stephanie gently took the box from him, replaced the lid and re-tied the ribbon.
"Can I keep this?" she murmured, staring into his warm brown eyes. He nodded once, smiling at her again.
"Have you eaten, Babe?" he queried, standing before her and holding out a hand.
"No. What did you have in mind?" she replied, taking his hand and getting to her feet. She slipped the box into her pant pocket and followed him as he led her out of the bedroom.
"A little place I know. It's a bit of a commute," he remarked dryly. She didn't understand what was so amusing.
"But Carlos, I need to change. I can't go out like this," she protested, even as he collected his car keys, wallet, and phone and steered her from the apartment.
"We'll be making a stop at my Villa, Babe," he chuckled, tucking her under his arm and pulling her against his chest. He pressed his lips to her forehead.
"Your Villa? But, I thought you didn't have a house in Trenton?" she queried.
"Sorry Babe, our Villa. I don't have a house in Trenton," he said calmly, confusing her even more.
"But, then where are we going?" she asked, glancing up at him as they reached the garage.
"Spain, Babe. I'm taking you to Spain. We're long overdue for a vacation," he revealed, helping her into his Porsche Carrera while she was momentarily stunned.
Spain! She touched the little box in her pocket and smiled to herself. A new beginning, and a future she'd never dreamed of having.
"I love you, Carlos Mañoso," she murmured, resting her hand over his as he grasped the gear stick.
"I love you, Stephanie Mañoso."
"It has a nice ring to it," Stephanie chuckled, her heart fluttering at the sound of her new name.
"It certainly does," Ranger agreed, taking her hand and raising it to his lips.
As they headed toward the private air-field, the skies opened up, and the rain fell upon them, washing away the oppressive heat that had encompassed the city of Trenton and with it, providing a clear path for their future.