Author's Note: Still don't own them, just playing. I upped the rating because of the violence in this chapter, we'll have smut eventually too so it's better to be safe than sorry, I suppose.

Much thanks to Margaret Fowler who constantly gives advice and support as I work my way through chapters. Further thanks to all of you who've commented or added this story to your lists. I'm continually humbled by the response to this story.

Chapter 14

Steph's POV

Carlos and I were having a late lunch in his apartment. I was full of nervous energy and running pretty much solely on that anxiety and caffeine as I barely slept last night. Carlos was up with me most of the time but didn't seem to be as affected by the sleep deprivation. I tried not to wake him up, tried to stay in the living room but once he knew I was awake he stayed with me.

He was an amazing man, fierce and tender. I found myself constantly wanting to be in his presence. When I first thought about leaving Dickie I assumed I'd want to have a lengthy period of singlehood to get my bearings, but now I can't imagine not having Carlos in my life. We were still feeling each other out, I was still a bit gun-shy, but still whenever we were together life just seemed better, like everything fit and worked.

When he looked at me I knew he felt the same way. He was supremely confident and self-sufficient in every way, the exact opposite of me but it seemed like I gave him something he needed or wanted in his life. Some days I struggled with that, still hearing Dickie's negative words in my head. A few days ago Hector talked with me about it, making me see that Ranger didn't keep people around if he didn't want them there and he rarely let anyone in as far as he had let me.

"Babe." My eyes found his after his voice pulled me out of my head. He reached across the table capturing my hand in his. "Woody is moving out of his apartment on four next week. The open apartment is yours if you want it. You're welcome to stay here with me for as long as you want but I also thought you might like a little independence for a while."

It never ceased to amaze me how well he knew me. I gave him a smile while squeezing his hand. "I would like the apartment. I like staying here with you but I do think I should have my own space for a while." My heart broke a little thinking about spending less time with him.

He nodded. "We'll have lunch and dinner as often as we do now, I hope." I let out a deep breath and nodded. "You having your own place will give me a chance to date you more properly and win you over." He gave me a wide smile and I relaxed completely knowing that we both understood that I was moving into my own place not away from him just so I could remember who I was as a person and heal completely from what Dickie had done to me.

After we finished eating he was putting dishes in the sink and I drank in the view of him. His silky, dark hair pulled back and hanging between his strong shoulders like an arrow begging any woman to follow where it pointed to his tight butt and strong legs. Moving up behind him, my hand traced the waistband of his pants across his back before wrapping my arms around his waist and resting my ear on his back. "Thank you, Carlos."

His arms clung to mine for a brief second before he turned in my embrace to face me. I kept my grip on him as his hands cupped my cheeks. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you." He leaned down to kiss me, it was soft and sweet almost as if he was sealing his words as a promise.

Pulling apart we were both breathless and I could tell by how black his eyes were that we both wanted to take the kiss deeper but now wasn't the time. "In a few hours, I'll be free from Dickie. Do you think he'll leave me alone?" I wanted to celebrate my coming freedom, but apparently my fear couldn't be completely overridden.

"I'm not completely sure, Babe, but you're safe here. We'll keep an eye on you when you go out for a while just to be safe and you keep your panic button." He kissed my forehead, his lips lingering for a moment before he released me.

Carlos led me to the garage where Hector, Tank, Lester, and Bobby were waiting. I didn't think I needed all them to guard me, but Hector had assured me it was more about moral support than it was about safety. Having them all with me would allow me to relax a bit, and I hoped I'd be able to absorb some of the courage they all possessed.

Gabe held my hand under the table while Hector, Ranger, and the rest of the Merry Men sat directly behind us. Dickie and his dad sat at the table across the aisle from us, his brother and mother behind them. The judge talked for a while, but I found it hard to focus. He finished up with his legal duties and just like that I was Stephanie Plum, our marriage dissolved. Like Gabe had said, it was relatively quick and painless. I felt a pang of remorse and sadness at the failing of our marriage but mostly my shoulders felt lighter as my freedom was granted.

After the judge left, I hugged Gabe, kissing his cheek. "Thank you so much." He kissed my forehead and led me to our friends in the gallery. The Merry Men said a few quiet words of support and congratulations before leading us outside.

Coming down the steps towards our rig in front of the courthouse, I heard a man call my name. I turned around to see Dickie coming out me with a gun. Chaos erupted as people went screaming into the street, running from the madman with a gun. Hector, however; was calm and stoic as he pulled me behind him.

Dickie's face was red as he moved towards us, waving the gun wildly. "It's your fault, you brainwashed her against me!" He yelled at Hector. Ranger was pulling at me, trying to get me to move but I clung to Hector's arm not wanting him in harm's way.

I heard a gunshot at the same time as Hector staggered back into me a step before crumbling to the sidewalk. A scream shook my body as I fell to my knees trying to check on my dear friend. Things were happening so fast but everything seemed to be in slow-motion at the same time. Ranger was in front of me, putting himself between me and Dickie. There were voices all around me but I couldn't make out what they were saying. I looked down at my sweet friend to see his shoulder bleeding. I clamped my hands over the wound trying to stop the blood. Another round of gunshots cut through the air forcing my eyes up to watch as Dickie's body jerked before he too hit the pavement.

Ranger's POV

Hearing Dickie yell at Hector set me and the rest of my core team into motion. I was trying to pull Stephanie away, wanting to get her in a safe place but she wouldn't let go of Hector's arm. I heard Dickie's gun fire and watched as Hector fell to the ground. I drew my weapon and put myself between Dickie and Steph, knowing that the rest of my team also had their weapons drawn. I was wearing Kevlar, my Babe wasn't and I needed to make sure she made it through this without getting shot.

Tank's voice cut through the air telling Dickie to drop the gun. A second later I heard several more gunshots ring out and knew that Dickie had made an aggressive move. Turning around , my gun still in hand, I saw Dickie on the ground as Tank and Lester cautiously approaching him making sure he couldn't hurt anyone else.

Bobby was on his knees next to Hector trying to pry Steph's hands off his shoulder. Gabe too was kneeling next to Hector's head, his hand running through Hector's hair. Hector's eyes were open as he gasped for air. He was wearing his vest but it looked the bullet had gone through his upper arm just by his shoulder.

"Steph, let me look at him. He's going to be fine, nothing life threatening but I still need to look at him." Bobby was trying not to startle Steph any more than she was already.

Putting my hands over hers, I squeezed them and got her attention. "Babe." She made eye contact with me, her face pale and dotted with blood from the spatter of Hector's wound. She allowed me to remove her hands from Hector's body, as I moved around him and pulled her back half a step, keeping my arm around her shoulder.

Steph was shaking violently in my arms and I figured shock was setting in. I was sure she'd never seen any gun play before let alone watched a dear friend get shot and fall in front of her. Dickie's family was around him shrieking and crying as the courthouse erupted with the action of police and paramedics.

Hector was loaded onto a stretcher. Steph broke out of my embrace and held onto his hand, Gabe on the other side latched on just as fiercely to Hector. Hector looked up at her and despite the pain I knew he was in he smiled and tugged on her hand. "I'm fine, Chica. I'll be home tonight, won't I Bobby?"

Bobby nodded and smiled. "The bullet went straight through, Steph. They'll give him a few stitches, keep him for a few hours then send him home."

"Hal and Vince will be at the hospital and transport you home afterwards." It was standard procedure for RangeMan to keep guards on our employees when they were incapacitated in anyway. I didn't leave any of them open to attacks from skips or other enemies gathered from the types of work we did.

Gabe thanked me and Hector nodded. Hector held my gaze for a second and then looked to Steph and back at me. I knew he was telling me to comfort and care for her, that despite his own injury he was more concerned about her than he was himself. I lifted my chin and wrapped my arm around her shoulder, letting him know I understood and would do my best.

When the paramedics tried to take Hector away, Steph followed. "Chica, stay with Ranger. Gabe and I will call you when I get home." Her eyes were confused but she nodded and leaned down to kiss his cheek, swiping her finger across his tattooes before standing up.

She looked at Gabe, "Take care of my most precious friend." He smiled and nodded at her before walking off with Hector and the paramedics.

Morelli took our statements while Steph's body shook against mine. Bobby had wrapped her up in his coat but it hadn't helped. We all knew it was shock and adrenaline , not cold that was making her shake, but that knowledge did nothing to help her calm down.

There were enough witnesses that Bobby, Lester, and Tank wouldn't be charged with shooting Dickie. All three of their bullets had hit Dickie after he shot Hector. He was in critical condition more from blood loss than the actual bullets. Morelli wasn't sure if he'd make it or not. I wouldn't lose any sleep over his death but hated that Steph had to witness it. My men could have hit him non-fatally but I don't think they tried very hard; they probably took pleasure in shooting the man who'd terrorized the beautiful woman who had become so vitally important to us all.

We were riding the elevator to the seventh floor when she looked her still bloody hands. We hadn't cleaned her up at the courthouse, at the time she was in too much shock to notice anyway. "I want a shower, please."

"Of course, Babe." I took her hand and led her into my apartment straight for the bathroom. Lifting her onto the sink, I used a warm cloth to wipe her face and hands trying to keep her focus on my face so that she didn't have to see the blood. "Do you want me to get Ella to help you in the shower?"

Her eyes widened, "Are you leaving?" Her hands gripped at my t-shirt as a little panic began to seep into her soul. I hated that she was afraid but part of me loved knowing that she felt safe with me, wanted me close by.

"No." I rushed to reassure her, cupping her face in my hands. "I just wasn't sure if you'd need help and I figured you might be more comfortable with Ella."

She shook her head. "I can handle the shower, but please don't leave me alone." A tear slid down her cheek.

I wiped it away and pulled her into my chest. "I'll be sitting on the bed. Call for me if you need anything." She nodded before I kissed her forehead and left her alone.

Rage filled me as I listened to the sounds of her cries mixed with the running water. Again, Dickie had shattered a sense of safety and security for her, again he head exposed her to more violence. If he survived the night, I was tempted to make sure he didn't survive tomorrow. I wanted him to experience much more pain and fear but could find some solace in knowing that if he was dead he couldn't hurt her anymore.

When she finally came out of the shower, she was wearing my robe, her face red and exhausted. She sat beside me, allowing me to pull her into my side as I rested against the headboard. The minute her head hit my chest, sobs wracked her body and broke my heart. She had finally come out of her shock, the adrenaline leaving her body and giving her brain a chance to recognize all that had happened today. I held her close, rubbing her arms and whispering words of comfort wanting so badly to remove all this anguish from her tender heart. Eventually she fell asleep but I kept vigil over her wanting to reassure her and myself that she was safe and unharmed.

Hector's POV

Gabe was sitting in a chair next to me. His hand firmly grasping mine as an IV of antibiotics and painkillers dripped into my arm. He had stayed by my side the entire time; his hand only leaving mine when the doctors needed the space. The doctors had given me a few stitches on both sides of my shoulder, closing up the path the bullet had taken through my body. Once the IV bag emptied and they were sure I wasn't suffering from any other injuries I'd be able to go home.

Home with Gabe by my side was exactly where I wanted to be. I needed to hold him close to me and make sure all of the drama and trauma of this morning's events hadn't wounded his gentle soul. The expressions of horror on his and Stephanie's face as they knelt by my head would haunt me for a long time.

I've never had anyone care so deeply about me that they would be that afraid for me. I'd willingly stepped in front of that bullet and would do it time and again to keep Steph and Gabe for that matter safe, but I hadn't realized what a toll it would take on them. I've been shot before and had people visit me as I recovered, but have never had two people be so frightened for me as they did. The guys at RangeMan always took time to visit someone who had been injured but it was a professional courtesy and sign of respect. I knew because I did it when one of my teammates were hurt. The realization of the love Steph and Gabe had for me and how I'd feel if the circumstances were reversed threatened to overwhelm me.

Knowing that Steph had seen such a violent exchange enraged me. She was finally feeling some confidence and strength knowing that she was going to be free from Dickie and I feared that all of this would set her back. I'd heard the doctors working on Dickie in the emergency room and I could tell that things didn't look good for him. I wouldn't be sorry if they couldn't save his life, a large part of me hoped all their efforts were in vain.

A soft knock at the door woke me from my thoughts. Gabe's grip on my hand tightened as he stood up to face whoever was entering. I knew the guys outside the door wouldn't let anyone unfriendly in so I tugged on his hand trying to get him to relax. He nodded and smiled at me, understanding what I was trying to convey as Joe Morelli came through the door.

Morelli looked at us, his eyes settling on our joined hands before nodding at me. I wasn't sure how he felt about gays, but honestly didn't care. If Gabe was okay with our relationship being out, so was I. Morelli nodded at me and moved to stand next to my bed. "How are you feeling?"

I chuckled. "Like I've been shot, but I'll be fine."

He smiled. "I need to get your statement. I promise to make it as painless as possible."

Gabe sat down realizing that there was no need to be alarmed or defensive. I lifted my chin to the chair on the other side of me and Morelli took a seat. I gave him my statement with him only asking a few brief questions. He shook my and Gabe's hands before leaving, letting me know what a brave act I'd committed in saving Steph. His words, while kind, meant very little to me. I didn't want or need his approval of how I handled any situation. Still I was glad to know that there was nothing else needed from me today.

Hal and Vince drove us to Gabe's condo after the doctor's released me. Guards would be stationed outside for the night as my body recovered allowing me to relax into the relief and sleep the painkillers would bring. If Gabe minded the guards he didn't say so, I suppose he knew it was pointless to fight it. He knew Ranger made sure all of us were able to heal without worry about attacks from our enemies.

Gabe helped me into the bathroom and stripped me of my bloodied clothes. His hands gently washed me with a warm cloth before helping me slip into his pajamas. There was nothing heated or sexual about his care of me at this moment. He simply expressed his love by caring for me in the best way he knew how.

He helped me get settled into bed, fluffing up several pillows for me to lean on. He grabbed his cell phone and handed it to me. "Call Stephanie and Ranger, while I make you something to eat."

I nodded and smiled watching him leave the room while Ranger's phone rang. Ranger answered with a whispered, "Yo."

"I'm at Gabe's. How is she?"

"As okay as she can be. She's resting now." The hushed tones of his voice let me know that she was most likely resting in his arms. "Do you want me to wake her?"

I let out a small breath glad to know that she was safe. "No. Let her know I called and that I'm fine. I'll talk to her tomorrow."

Ranger reaffirmed that guards would be on duty before hanging up. I put Gabe's phone down and tilted my head back, my eyes heavy from the injury and painkillers. A few minutes later, I opened them to see Gabe staring down at me, a tray of food in his hands. I gave him a small smile, wanting to erase the look of concern on his face.

He took a seat next to me, placing the tray across my legs. "I heated some chicken noodle soup for you."

I ate slowly, Gabe's eyes on me the entire time. His hand lightly caressed my legs as I spooned the soup into my mouth. The painkillers had done a number my stomach and I could only eat about half before I was full.

Gabe cleaned up and came back to bed, pulling me into his arms as he settled against the headboard. "I know you would step in front of that gun every time it was pulled, but I was still terrified. Hearing it fire and watching you fall to the ground, I thought for sure my heart was stopping as my worst nightmare played out in front of my eyes." His grip tightened around my body.

"I'm fine. I always wear my vest, I'm sorry that you had to see that but I'm fine. I know if it was you, I'd be struggling too." I kissed his hand as it traveled across my face.

"Get some sleep, lover. I'll be right here if you need anything." He kissed the top of my head as I relaxed into his embrace. My eyelids fell at his words knowing for certain that I was loved and that my loved ones had made it through the day unharmed. The painkillers pulled me into a deep sleep as my soul was comforted by the sound of Gabe's beating heart in my ear.