A/N All recognizable characters belong to Janet Evanovich. I use them for fun and not profit.
This story would not have been possible without help from friends. I owe great thanks to jago-ji,latetolove, and SuperSekritID . They gave generously of their time and talent to fix my glaring mistakes. Thanks also to suedesigns101 for listening to me whine for the last four months. Fan Fiction is a great community of generous people and I feel lucky to be part of it.
I knew as soon as my hand touched the doorknob. Ranger had been here. Slowly I opened the door and waited but there was no sound. The day hadn't been that good to start with and now I had to deal with a visit from Ranger. I walked into my apartment knowing he was gone just as surely as he'd been there. My eyes were drawn to the dining room table. A small bouquet of white stargazer lilies in a beautiful crystal vase fragranced the room. There was no card.
Today was the 5th and I knew Ranger was the only person who would understand the importance of this day. I stood and stared at the flowers for a few moments. Resisting the urge to pick up the vase and hurl it against the wall, I turned and walked toward the bedroom, tears falling before I'd taken a step.
I took in a deep breath and blew out as much air as I could. I quickly grasped the waistband of my jeans and mentally prepared myself for the struggle of closure. To my amazement the jeans zipped and buttoned easily. I smiled with true pleasure. These were my favorite jeans and I'd been dreading this moment since I finished my third piece of cheesecake in a row, late last night. My Hungarian metabolism was obviously still working. There would come a day when I'd have to invert my personal food pyramid. A girl could only live so long with donuts, cake, meatball subs and beer as her four food groups, but fortunately I didn't have to worry about it yet.
My name is Stephanie Plum and I'm a bounty hunter. I fell into this job by accident, but lately I've been thinking, like my jeans, this job fits me pretty well. If I hadn't lost my job as a lingerie buyer and blackmailed my cousin Vinnie into giving me this job I might have never reconnected with my first love, Joe Morelli. Certainly I'd never have met my mentor and the true love of my life Ricardo Carlos Mañoso, aka Henry Higgins, aka Ranger. Presently, though, I was manless and I had lots of time to spend advancing my career.
A stretchy red t-shirt and red high top Chuck Taylors finished my outfit du jour. I looked in the mirror and was pleased with my appearance. I looked nice and non-threatening. I appeared to be just a normal woman from the Burg who was on her way to Giovichinni's deli to make her weekly purchases. That was, in fact, on my list of things to do for the day. I was going to convince Maria Fiorelli, the cashier, to come with me to get rebonded, and then I'd shop.
I was ready to face the New Jersey morning and for once I was ready early. I wanted to get to Maria before the store became crowded with shoppers, but Giovichinni's wouldn't open for another half hour. There were things that still needed to be taken care of in the dining room and I decided not to procrastinate any longer.
The flowers were ten days old and mostly dead. As unwelcome as they'd been I was hesitant to throw them away, but the shriveled petals were past their prime and there was no sense trying to save them. I carried the vase into the kitchen and up-ended it letting the stems fall into the trash. The vase was Waterford and my Burg upbringing made it impossible for me to follow my impulse and pitch it in the trash after the flowers. I washed it and gave it a new home next to the jelly jar drinking glass collection in my cupboard.
I tied the trash bag closed and pulled on my coat. I made a quick stop by the dumpster to make my deposit on top of a mountain of similarly wrapped garbage. I felt my eyes start to fill at the thought of Ranger's remembrance and I knew I had to get control. Making a strong effort, I crossed the parking lot and plopped into the driver's seat of my latest gas guzzling ride, praying the heater would work. It was a cold grey winter morning and I was determined to keep my mood from matching the day. I was off to capture my FTA.
It was mid-month and my bank account was in great shape. I had next month's rent socked away and if today went like I planned I was going shopping. It was time to replace my black Coach tote with this year's slightly larger model. I carried all my important bounty hunting gear with me and I needed all the pocketbook space I could afford. I needed room for my cuffs, my mace spray, my mag light, my hairspray and occasionally my gun and bullets.
A short two hours later I was dropping Maria back off at Giovichinni's. Maria's crime was simple assault. She'd missed her court date because she wasn't convinced dumping a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil on the head of her ex-fiancée's new fiancée qualified as assault. She'd come willingly with me and Connie met us at the cop shop to get her rebonded quickly. I followed her back into the store and made a few purchases and then went home for a solitary lunch.
As I approached my door I saw a large padded envelope leaning against the doorjamb. I picked it up to see my name written in now familiar bold block letters across the front. There was no return address or postage of any kind so obviously, once again, I was the recipient of a hand delivered gift. I picked it up and held it to my ear. No ticking. I shook it. Nothing moved inside. This was the third anonymous gift I'd received. I had to face it. There was a new stalker in my life.
I unlocked my door and walked to the dining room where I dropped my pocketbook on the table scattering the growing pile of unopened mail. I hung my coat on the back of a chair and went into the kitchen. I stuffed the perishables into the refrigerator and pulled a steak knife from the drawer to slice the edge of the envelope open. The right tool for the right job as my dad always said.
I tipped the envelope and caught the contents as they slipped out. I walked back into the living room and collapsed on the sofa. My previous life as a lingerie buyer for E. E. Martin had not prepared me for what I was holding in my hand. While being a lingerie buyer sounded like a fun, glamorous job it was, in fact, none of the above. Most of my days had been spent haggling over the wholesale price of nylon granny panties in multiple sizes and shades of white. In spite of the job, I was something of an expert when it came to recognizing quality lingerie and the lace-edged ebony-colored froth spilling over my hand and puddling in my lap was quality lingerie.
I looked at the tags and discovered the Nina Ricci chemise was part of the Esquisse collection, and it was my size. The fabric was silky and sheer and wonderful to the touch. I held the chemise up and looked through the filmy silk. This garment was meant for one purpose, seduction. The quality of the workmanship matched the previous gifts I'd received and I knew it would retail for every bit of four hundred dollars.
I went into my bedroom and pulled two other padded envelopes from my dresser drawer. I poured the contents out onto my bed and looked at my growing collection. The first to arrive had been a soft gray thong that was all lace, satin and silk. The brand was unfamiliar to me, but I recognized quality workmanship. A little searching on the Internet had told me it was handmade in Belgium and retailed at almost three hundred dollars. I wondered who'd be sending something of that value to me.
Ranger was the only person I knew who could afford it and there was no question, Ranger was uninvolved with this gift. Ranger would never leave an envelope with my name on it leaning against the door. He'd bring it into my apartment as he'd done with the flowers…and as of seven months ago Ranger would never give me a personal gift, but who else could afford such an exquisite surprise? When no answer was forthcoming I felt a little skittering of unease crawl up my spine.
The second offering came a week later in another padded envelope leaning against my door. This time it was a matching demi-bra and panty set. A second Internet search had shown it to be part of the Eres Caviar Collection and at least a five hundred dollar purchase. The brown silk bra and panties had been so beautiful I couldn't resist. I'd tried them on. They fit like a second skin, the bra enhancing my small cleavage and the panties with their high cut making my legs look long and slim. The creepiness factor of what I was doing hit me with such force that I quickly peeled the lingerie off and placed it back in the envelope.
Today's arrival had upped my awareness that I had a problem. I was probably going to have to say something to someone, but the question was, to whom? For most of my recent past, my life had revolved around two men. After the big blow up three quarters of a year ago there was no one I could turn to.
I'd lost my appetite so I headed to the bonds office with the body receipt for Maria. When I walked in the door Lula was sitting at Connie's desk with an extra large bucket of chicken. My appetite returned and fortunately for me she was in the mood to share.
Connie came in from the back room and said, "I've been waiting for you. We just got a new skip in and Vinnie is hot to get this guy. He thinks he's a high flight risk." She held out a folder to me and I took it, handing her the body receipt for Maria Fiorelli.
As Connie set about cutting a check for me I looked at the folder.
A sense of dread ran up my spine. "I can't get this guy," I said. "Give him to RangeMan." Connie looked surprised, but said nothing.
I heard my own voice filling the silence. "I just don't want to deal with Morelli and there is no way I can bring in his cousin without running into Joe." The file was on Mooch Morelli, and I wasn't sure why Vinnie wanted me to go after him so quickly. Mooch was no flight threat. I could count on one hand the times he'd been outside the Burg in his entire life.
"Why does Vinnie think he's gonna run?" I asked.
"Word on the street is Joe's pissed big time and wants the book thrown at Mooch. He won't be hanging around trying to smooth things out for his cousin."
This was interesting to me because Joe and Mooch had always been close. I took the file back from Connie and sat down to read. My mouth fell open in a silent 'oh' as I realized Mooch had been arrested for the minor crime of public drunkenness. That was a fairly common occurrence for Mooch. The difference was this time he'd been caught in a compromising position with Terry Gilman, Joe's former and current lover. This was interesting. If he'd had sex with Terry the Trenton Court system was the least of his problems. One thing I knew from personal experience was Joe didn't like anyone poaching on his territory. Either way, it was a mess and I didn't want to be involved.
"I can't do this," I said to Connie. "Give it to RangeMan."
"RangeMan doesn't take bonds that low," she said. "You're really the only option here."
I sighed and grabbed the folder back from Connie. I shoved it into my pocketbook and waited for her to hand me the check for Maria. Some days life was hard. I had a stalker who, so far, seemed harmless, but I knew that could change. I had the ongoing problem of man-drought and now I was going to have to jump into the middle of a Morelli family foray.
"Alright," I grumbled, "but I'm going shopping first."