Imagine Steph didn't lose her job at EE Martin? Imagine she never blackmailed Vinnie for a bounty hunting job…her life taking a different path? Imagine Ranger and Steph don't meet until much later in their lives. Will the attraction still be there?
They're now fifty and a lot has happened in each of their lives to shape who they've become. Can 'happily ever after' begin at age 50?
Author's Note: Most of the characters in this AU belong to their rightful owner, Janet Evanovich. I'm just borrowing them for a trip to Las Vegas (the setting for this story). The rest of the characters reside in my imagination, as does the storyline. And I am definitely not making one red cent from this, though while we're in Vegas I intend to do a little gambling.
Special thanks to bgrgrmpy for all her encouragement and for painstakingly catching all those pesky little typos. Also, thanks to Mik N'jirnav for her suggestions, especially the one to model 'mature' Ranger after Antonio Banderas, an inspiring choice to have him whispering sweet Spanish nothings in my ear while I'm writing.
Chapter 1—First Impressions
She was gone!
I searched the area for any sign, any little piece of evidence that would tell me more. I was an expert in finding clues anyone else would have missed, but there was nothing. The only proof she'd been here less than thirty minutes ago was the freshly painted wall.
I could still see her in my mind's eye as she danced to a silent tune and ran the paint sprayer back and forth along the block fence covering the graffiti of cuss words and gang signs that littered this part of Las Vegas. She'd been oblivious to the people, cars and sounds around her, enjoying herself and I imagine she'd been feeling good about improving the neighborhood.
I still didn't know what made me stop and approach her, but now I couldn't seem to think of anything else but her. She was the first woman that had caught my interest in years and now she just up and vanished. I didn't know her name, where she worked, what kind of car she drove, nothing.
The only lead I had was she had some connection to a one-time community service project. I was frustrated beyond belief. Dejected, I drove back to the office.
Trying to pick up any detail that might have eluded me, I thought back on the day's events. The day had started out like any other. The fact that it was my fiftieth birthday was irrelevant. I'd stopped celebrating birthdays when I left home as a teenager. I certainly didn't want to be reminded now of how quickly time was passing.
I got up at 6:00 a.m. and completed my workout, no sparring today. Tank and I went over the day's schedule and assignments. Then I went back up to my apartment to get ready for an important business meeting where I hoped to convince a new client to sign with my company.
Earlier that day…
I took one last look in the mirror and made a final adjustment to the fit of my new black suit. It was the first time I'd worn it since it had been delivered last week. I looked damned good if I said so myself. I should for what it cost me. I still couldn't believe I'd succumbed to all the hype about Brioni suits, but during my last trip to Italy my gracious host, Don Giovanni, had insisted there was no better Italian suit than a Brioni.
I'd allowed myself to be measured and fitted and then chunked down nearly $10K for a fucking suit. It's not like I couldn't afford it, but it just seemed excessive and unnecessary. Oh well, the clients I was meeting with today were one of the country's main distributors of designer fashions, and they would recognize the quality of this suit. Maybe it would put RangeMan over the top as contenders for their security contract.
I made a quick stop at the control room to check in with Tank about tonight's stakeout. The catcalls started as soon as I got off the elevator on five. I shot the men a quick glare and everyone turned back to their work stations, though I noticed Santos was still smirking. I rarely wore a suit and the guys knew this was a designer suit tailor-made just for me. I expected some ribbing.
Tank and I took care of business and then I took the stairs to the garage. I couldn't help but smile as I slid into my new Porsche Carrera GT. Talk about unnecessary and excessive, but I just had to have it. The feeling of power and prestige when I drove it was a real turn on.
And besides, what else did I have to spend my money on? After living in Las Vegas the past twenty years, the thrill of high-stakes casino gambling, Vegas showgirls and hobnobbing with celebrities had lost its appeal. It was just like any other big city with a need for a large security firm that also did fugitive apprehensions. In fact, it was one of the more lucrative cities for a company like RangeMan, since many people in trouble with the law gravitated to 'Sin City.'
While idling at the intersection of Tropicana and Pecos Road, I noticed a group of teenaged girls standing on the corner, giggling and pointing at me or maybe they were pointing at my car. The light was still red so I turned to look at them and they immediately ducked their heads down, trying to look anywhere but directly at me. The girls' chatter and giggling increased and a full on smile spread across my face at the teenaged silliness. The light turned green and as I pulled away, one of the girls shouted, "You're so f***ing beautiful. I wanna have your baby."
I just shook my head and thought unfortunately it wasn't the first time that sentiment had been expressed by random females. Usually it had been by drunken women in bars, not by a bunch of girls young enough to be my daughters. It used to make me smile; now it just depressed me.
I continued to my meeting across town, but was stopped by another red light. The sound of laughter caught my attention again. Looking to the left side of the street, I saw a group of people spraying paint over graffiti on a block fence. It looked like a typical community service project.
Most of the people in the group seemed to be teenage punk rejects, but there was one woman who stood out from the rest. It was obvious she was quite a bit older than the others in the group, but the ring of laughing teenaged boys hovering around her told me she must still be quite a looker. As I watched, she threw back her head and I could hear her hearty laugh. Even at this distance, it was contagious and I found myself smiling for no reason. The light changed to green and I continued west on Tropicana.
The meeting with the upper echelon of Nordstrom's management team was a fairly quick and successful one. They signed the contracts on the spot. When I got into my car, I called Tank and told him to start the process of scheduling trips for the installation teams to key cities where the newer Nordstrom shops were located. We needed to install the full range of cameras, sensors and alarms in their department stores as soon as possible.
Over the last two decades, RangeMan had expanded exponentially and we now had offices or associate contracts with other security firms in more than half the states. RangeMan had exceeded my wildest expectations. We'd become a force to be reckoned with in the security business world.
An hour and a half later, I drove through the same intersection I'd passed earlier and noticed the only person still painting over graffiti was the woman I'd seen earlier. She was dancing while she sprayed over the remaining offending words and gang signs.
I didn't know what made me do it, but I pulled into an adjacent parking lot and walked over to her. The closer I got, the better she looked, even though her back was to me. If her front looked half as good as her backside she'd be one fine looking woman. She had a long mane of dark brown (or were they auburn?) curls and she was wearing a loose cotton shirt tucked into a pair of well worn but tight jeans.
There was a stretch of gravel between the lot and the block fence, but I was used to moving quietly and was directly behind her before she detected my presence. I obviously startled her and she spun around with the paint sprayer still going full blast.
To my utter surprise and shock, the spray caught me full in the face and upper torso coating me with beige paint before she was able to direct it away from me. I hadn't been that surprised in ages. It caught me off guard and despite the fact I was blinded by the paint, I started laughing. My personal motto was 'always be aware of your surroundings' and she'd been able to 'shoot' me before I could even react.
Momentarily blinded, I heard a genuinely horrified woman's voice exclaim, "Oh my god, I'm so sorry." I could hear the sprayer being turned off and, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then some rustling.
She touched my upper arm and said, "Let me wipe the paint off your face, please." I nodded and she held onto my arm as she carefully wiped as much of the paint as she could from my eyes, nose and mouth. She had a gentle touch and I was enjoying the feel of her hands on me. I was still shaking internally with laughter.
Finally, I felt her step away and I opened my eyes. All I'd seen of her face before she'd filled mine with paint was a flash of sapphire blue. Now I found myself gazing into two of the bluest eyes I'd ever seen. They were framed by long sweeping black lashes. I stared unabashedly at her as a flush of soft pink rose up her creamy white neck suffusing her cheeks with color until they reminded me of two blush apples.
She was very attractive in an understated way. She wasn't wearing much make-up, if any, and her hair was a wild mass of curls floating around her head. Not the kind of woman I normally went for…which was sophisticated, polished, composed…but there was definitely something there, something that touched a chord in me. My interest was certainly piqued.
"I am so sorry. I didn't hear you come up. You startled me. Are you alright?" she asked, concern evident in her face.
"I'm fine. Nothing a little soap and water can't fix." I kept staring at her even as I took the cleanest rag from her hands and continued to wipe my face and neck. She looked to be maybe in her early forties and was in great shape from what I could see. I towered over her by about half a foot. I was pleased to note she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
"Are you sure you're alright? I don't blame you for being angry, I could've injured your eyes," she said.
"Angry? I'm not angry. I think it's rather funny. It isn't often that someone gets the drop on me," I chuckled.
Dropping the soiled rag on the pile next to her, I held out my hand. "I'm Carlos Mañoso. And you are…? I'd like to know the name of the woman who's faster on the draw than me." I gave her my most winning smile, well, as winning as it could be with blotches of beige paint still clinging to my face.
As our hands met, I felt a spark of electricity enter me. The way her eyes widened I imagined she felt the same jolt. The atmosphere must be really dry for static electricity to occur. She took a quick intake of air and her eyes shot up to meet mine. The blueness of them struck me all over again. It was a moment before she spoke and her voice was a little flustered.
"It's…nice to meet you…Mr. Mañoso, but under the circumstances I'm extremely embarrassed. I've ruined your suit…and it looks very expensive. I insist on paying your dry cleaning bill."
I started to interject there was no need for that, but she continued, "On second thought, I doubt if a cleaner can get all that paint out. I promise…I'll pay for a new suit."
I refused to let go of her hand and even placed my other hand on top of hers. They were dainty and feminine, but also very strong. She had a firm handshake. "That won't be necessary. The suit's not important. No harm, no foul, Miss...?
She demurred, "I insist. I always pay my debts." She pulled her hand out of my grasp and I actually missed the contact. "Again, I'm beyond sorry. Please, tell me how much I owe you for that beautiful suit?"
Of course I wasn't going to take any money from her. I doubted she could afford to reimburse me for one of my regular suits let alone this top of the line designer suit tailored specifically to fit my massive frame.
"There really is no need for that. I'm fine. The suit is a non-issue. Please don't give it another thought, Babe," I said. Not knowing her real name, the endearment just came naturally, though I'd never called any woman that before. She was nothing if not persistent about the suit, but why wouldn't she tell me her name?
She reached out and ran her hand over the sleeve of my suit, then rubbed the fabric between her fingers. "This isn't Brooks Brothers, is it?" she murmured more to herself than to me. "It must have cost him several thousand at a minimum. Where am I going to come up with that kind of money?" she exhaled quietly.
Looking up at me, her expression changed from one of despair to one of determination. It was obvious she had no idea she'd said all that out loud. For some reason I found that trait humorous. I was such a guarded SOB and she was a breath of fresh air, so open even her private thoughts came tumbling out.
She continued, "If you could give me a week, I'll come up with a payment plan. How can I reach you, Mr. Mañoso?"
"Really, it's not necessary." Her determined look changed to a more intimidating one, reminding me of myself. Smiling inwardly, I pulled out my wallet and handed her my business card. She took a sharp breath as she looked at the card.
I continued, "I won't accept any money, but I'd love to hear from you again. Please call me anytime. And I wish you'd tell me your name so I'd know what to call you."
Shaking her head and giving me a small smile, she answered, "As I said, I always pay my debts, Mr. Mañoso, and this was patently my fault. If you'll tell me what it will take to replace your suit, I'll go over my finances and get the money to you as soon as possible."
"Please, call me Carlos and I don't want your money. I'd consider it payment in full if you'd tell me your name and agree to have dinner with me this weekend," I responded, looking earnestly into her eyes and trying not to come across as a jerk just hitting on her.
In a sardonic tone she said, "Great, I insult you by nearly blinding you with paint and destroying your expensive clothes and you respond by asking me to dinner. Doesn't that seem a little backward?"
"A little forward, maybe," I grinned hoping for a similar response back, but she just stared at me. "You aren't going to tell me your name, are you?" I asked, amused by her attempts at avoidance.
"The issue here is your ruined suit. I insist on paying you for it. As my dad always said, my word is my bond. On that, you can depend. As for my name, you've already guessed it." She gave me a small grin.
"What? I called you Babe because I don't know what else to call you unless you give me a clue. You aren't a fugitive running from the law, are you?" I joked.
She tilted her head up and laughed that throaty laugh of hers, sending waves of warmth straight to my loins. I was definitely attracted to her. She'd been able to politely deflect all my inquiries about her identity, yet she was as tenacious as a pit bull about insisting on paying me back for my ruined suit. And it was ruined, but I wasn't about to accept any money from her.
She tapped my business card. "If I was a fugitive, I'd be quaking in my boots right about now. I see RangeMan, Inc. has a reputation for 'securing' anything. I imagine you always get your 'man'.
I smiled. The motto on our business cards stated 'we secure anything' meaning property or person. When I first started RangeMan we were just bounty hunters. We quickly expanded to providing security for homes and businesses. Now we also provided bodyguard services for VIPs.
She stuck out her hand and said, "Mr. Mañoso, I apologize again for my unforgivable behavior. I'll contact you within the week and arrange to make full payment for your suit. I wish we'd met under more pleasant circumstances."
Not only didn't I learn her name, I couldn't even get her to call me by my first name. I was losing my touch.
I took her small hand in mine noticing how warm she was. Most women seemed to have cold hands most of the time. She was effectively dismissing me. This was no ordinary woman. Most women were all over me, if not physically then verbally and they never sought to leave my presence voluntarily.
This woman gave as good as she got. And I wasn't intimidating her. I also didn't think I was making much of an impression on her either. I knew trying to pressure her any further would only harm my future chances with her, so I politely said goodbye and walked to my car. She turned back to her painting, ignoring me completely.
I looked for a car that might be hers, but mine was the only vehicle in the lot. I drove to the office to get cleaned up. If I could return quickly enough, maybe I could convince her to at least have a cup of coffee with me. And find out her name!
I pulled into the garage and with the luck I was having today ran into the day shift as they were leaving. I didn't have time to explain the paint that still clung to me, but trying to walk through a wall of jeering men asking questions I didn't want to answer was sorely trying my patience. I just glared and pushed through them and hit the stairs three at a time. I knew the guys would grill me about the paint tomorrow morning, but right now I had to get cleaned up and back to my Babe.