The great Janet Evanovich created the Plum world that I am shamelessly using below.
Jen (JenRar) thank you for agreeing to work as the beta on this story even though it won't feature a Babe ending.
Chapter 1 – A Woman on a Mission
"Babe," Ranger spoke from behind me, causing me to swing my desk chair around with my hand over my heart.
I blinked a few times to calm down from being startled and to readjust to the stunning vision he made when standing there fully decked out as a badass and a sexy Cuban male.
He shook his head and chuckled. "If you can handle being alone with me, the sexy Cuban male would like to meet with you in his office."
Damn mouth and my inability to keep it shut. Something about Ranger had always short circuited my brain so that anything that passed through my mind seemed to blurt out for him to hear.
I followed him to his office and took a seat on the guest chair across from his desk as he shut the door and joined me in the chair next to mine.
"I have a special assignment for you," he began, selecting his words carefully.
I interrupted him before he could continue. "I'll do it."
He gave me another of his sexy smiles and shook his head. "You don't even know what it is. I think you should wait to accept until you know all the particulars."
"Doesn't matter," I assured him. "If you need me, whatever it is, I'll do it."
"It would require you to be out of town for an undetermined period of time," he warned.
"Define undetermined," I stupidly asked.
That earned me another laugh, but his face was so relaxed and open that I didn't care if he was laughing at my guffaw; it was a beautiful thing to see.
"If I could define undetermined, it wouldn't be undetermined, Babe," he replied, calming down a little. "I don't think it's possible to do this job well in less than two weeks, but I'd be shocked if it took more than two months," he offered.
"So I'll need to be out of town for somewhere between two weeks and two months?" I summed up.
"Yes," he agreed, before adding a few more details. "It might be possible for you to come back in the middle, depending on how things progress, but I can't guarantee that."
I sat back, still determined to do whatever it was Ranger needed, but wondering how my family and Joe would react. Joe and I were barely hanging on to any sort of relationship. It seemed every time we were together, we ended up arguing, and then we'd both come down with a whopping case of guilt and call to apologize, setting us up to repeat the cycle the following night. I think we both knew we were over, but neither of us wanted to be the one to break it off. Maybe this job opportunity would give me the ability to break up with Joe, and then leave town, making it impossible for him or his ever needy boys to talk me into reconciling. This might be the very thing I needed to take control of my love life once and for all.
"I'm okay with being gone," I assured him.
"What about the cop?" Ranger asked, trying to point out the fact that I should take some time to consider how this would affect my life in Trenton.
"Joe went to Philadelphia on assignment last month and didn't bother to call and let me know he was gone until the third day of his absence. I don't consider how he feels about me leaving to be important right now," I bit out, sounding more bitter than I was. In fact, having Joe out of town had been a bit of a relief. "Besides," I continued, softening my tone a little, "I think this might give me the excuse I need to break it off with Joe, and then leave to keep him from trying to change my mind."
"You sure you want that?" Ranger pushed. It struck me as odd, because Ranger rarely asked for details about my relationship with Joe.
I looked down to collect my thoughts, "Yeah, I want that, but I've been too scared to go through with it."
"My Babe doesn't do scared," Ranger said in a tender voice.
I jerked my eyes back up to meet his. "You've got another woman out there that you call Babe?" I demanded. "Because I feel like my life is one obstacle to be afraid of after another."
"Trust me; one of you is all I can handle," Ranger said with a laugh. Then he added, "And even though your life may have more than its fair share of danger, you don't cower in fear. You never have. Your courage is one of the things the guys and I appreciate most about you."
"I don't know if I'd call it courage or stubborn insistence in not letting the world tell me what was going to happen," I corrected him, "but thanks."
"So for this assignment, I'd need you and another of the guys to spend a period of time in Boston to perform some tasks, and then go down to Miami and do the same thing in that office, as well," he told me, cleverly speaking in code so that I had no clue what I'd be doing.
"What tasks would I be doing?" I asked him, getting a little nervous about why he wasn't just spelling out what he wanted.
"Trenton is by far my most profitable office. On paper, there is no reason for that to be true. The security and monitoring side of things does better in both of the other offices, so the difference in income is completely from the BEA and recovery jobs we do. I've been spending an equal amount of time in all three locations lately, and I've been able to deduce two things that might account for the difference," he told me in what was a long speech by his usual standards.
"What's different?" I asked, hanging on his every word.
"Trenton has a much more advanced search team for background checks and information gathering, and it is the only office that uses distractions as a method for catching skips," he said, making me smile.
I was involved in both of those things. Finally, I was in a position to be helpful to Ranger's business in order to repay him for all he'd done for me.
"I would like you to travel to Boston and train the guys in how you perform a search, aside from the basic instruction they already know. I want you to try and teach them how to follow a paper trail to get better information, before running off, trying to capture someone without all the background flushed out," he told me in his commanding voice he uses as boss.
"And I'd like you to work with the woman they've hired to begin running distractions. I want her to see you run a few, and then I want you to assist her in performing some to be sure she is capable of handing the work."
I would have loved someone to have done this for me when I first started doing distractions. Both of these tasks seemed manageable, so I quickly told him, "Of course I'll do it. I'd love to help in anyway I can."
"There's one more thing, Babe, and this might be the more important part of your assignment," Ranger added in a softer voice, sounding less sure of himself.
"What else can I do?" I quickly volunteered, wondering why he seemed so worried about this final part.
"I want Rodriguez to go with you," he informed me.
I shrugged my shoulders, unsure of why this was so important. "I've never worked with him," I told Ranger. "In fact, I was starting to think you guys made him up just to give me extra work without me getting angry at you for dumping stuff in my inbox."
He grinned at the thought of that. "No, he's real, but over the last three years, he's withdrawn so that he doesn't go out much and he rarely deals with people. He runs searches as thoroughly as you do, but he only works at night, when the office is empty. He respects the work you do, so I think you'll get along professionally."
I was confused about that last part. "How is getting along professionally any different than just getting along?"
The corner of Ranger's lip curled up, but it didn't turn into a full smile. I was amusing him. "Rodriguez used to be a force of nature. Five years ago, he had the best skip capture rate of anyone in the RangeMan organization, including me."
Wow, the idea that anybody could be better than Ranger at capturing the bad guys was a little hard to accept.
"But some things happened, and he stopped working in that side of the business and started spending more and more time alone. Now, he's turned into a first class computer geek, which would be all right, if it made him happy, but it doesn't. I was hoping…" Ranger stopped talking and ran his fingers through his hair, still short from his last mission. It was a sign of frustration and seemed completely out of place on the man I thought defined confidence.
"What do you want me to do to help Rodriguez?" I asked, thinking I understood what he was after.
This time, the upturned corner of his lips took over his whole mouth, and he smiled. "I want you to do what you do. Talk to him; try to draw him back out of his shell. I want you to keep him involved in this assignment and not let him hide in the shadows. I think he needs something huge to snap him back into life, and you are the only thing I haven't tried that might fit that category."
I decided not to be insulted by the fact he'd just told me I was huge. I mean, I knew I had to lie back on my bed and suck in my stomach to button my jeans, but I did get them closed, so there was no reason to pick on the couple of extra pounds I was carrying.
"Hell, Stephanie," he said, using my full name and doing the frustrated hair rubbing again. "Rodriguez used to be the fifth in the core team, and we want to help him, but everything we've tried has failed, and I'm at a loss about what to do."
"Is there any reason to think he's dangerous? I mean, if he's been closed up for a long time, is he likely to snap and freak out if you force him to be around people?" I wondered.
Ranger grimaced at my question. "The Rodriguez I knew would never do that, but he's like a different person now. I don't think it's likely, but just to be sure, you two will be working together in the offices so that you can be protected by the staff in both locations."
"Who else knows about this?" I pushed, needing the full picture.
"Tank, Lester, and Bobby here, plus Raoul, who runs Miami, and Angel, who heads up the office in Boston," he replied. "They all know Rodriguez, and we all agreed that this was the best bet of reaching him in a way that he might accept."
At least there would be someone in each of the offices that I could go to if I thought Rodriguez was going to crack.
"I don't want you to be uncomfortable. I realize asking you to secretly befriend someone and try to draw them back into the land of the living isn't the easiest thing to do, but we all agreed that if you couldn't reach him after everything you've done for the guys here, then we're going to give up hope of ever getting the guy we once knew back," he confessed in a defeated tone.
"I'll do it," I assured him, placing my hand on his arm as a physical pledge of my promise.
Ranger put his hand on mine and opened his mouth, but shut it and looked away. Whatever thought he'd had wasn't going to be voiced aloud. Instead, we sat together for a few moments with his hand on mine, surrounded by a comfortable silence.
He cleared his throat in a slightly nervous gesture and spoke in his boss voice again. "I'll be doubling your usual salary for the time you are away, and RangeMan will pay your rent and utilities, as well as provide rat sitting services for that caged beast you insist on keeping. You'll have your own private apartment in both offices and a corporate credit card to pick up all your food, snacks, nights on the town, and other needs while you're on assignment."
"That's too much," I interrupted him.
"It's the same thing I'm giving Rodriguez," Ranger coolly explained in a voice that said he was going to do it anyway, so I needed to just accept it and move on.
"But why double my salary, just to do the work I do here for half that amount?" I pushed, uncomfortable with him doing this.
"Ah, but you aren't doing the same thing. You will be training and supervising, which is different than what you do here; plus, there is the whole extra part with Rodriguez," he pointed out.
I put my hand up to stop him. "I'll train the staff as a favor to you, so I shouldn't get paid to do a favor, or it ceases to be something I'm giving you. And the part with Rodriguez…" I struggled to find the right words for what I wanted to say. "I'll treat him the same way I do the guys here. If that helps him somehow, then I'll be lucky to have another Merry Man to hang out with. But I'm not befriending him in order to get money. That would cheapen any conversations we have, and I'd be uncomfortable with that. I'm not a shrink; I would think if you guys haven't been able to get through to him, then I'm not so sure what I can do that you couldn't. I'm willing to try, but you can't increase my paycheck because of that."
"You realize you're negotiating to get paid less while doing more, right?" he spoke with amusement.
"Are you going to pay Rodriguez's rent while he's gone?" I wondered.
"RangeMan does it anytime we send someone out of town for more than a week," he explained.
"Well, then, you can do that, but you aren't paying me a penny more than you usually do," I said in a firm voice.
The look on his face told me he was going to double my take home pay anyway, so I would need to stay on top of any direct deposits while I was out of town, in order to complain about it if he tried to pull a fast one, thinking I wouldn't notice.
Ranger raised an eyebrow, waiting for me to say the rest of what I was thinking, but I decided to be mature and stick my tongue out as a challenge instead.
He leaned forward, and his whole demeanor changed, as though a switch had been flipped, changing him from boss man to sexy man. "The next time you do that, I'll consider it a challenge to show you a better use for your mouth than childish gestures."
If only he would, I thought, with a mental image of his mouth on mine.
"Babe," he groaned.
"Did I say that out loud?" I wondered. I could have sworn my lips had stayed shut that time.
Ranger chuckled again and assured me, "No, but it was written all over your face while you moaned."
I debated sticking out my tongue once more because of how he was laughing at me, and to test his threat, but he got serious and tucked a curl behind my ear. "You make a man wish for things he shouldn't."
"Why shouldn't you?" I pressed, wishing for once he would explain to me why he forced distance between us, despite the obvious attraction.
He looked away and let his hand fall from my hair. "We make decisions as young men that carry consequences for the rest of our lives. I don't exactly regret the ones I've made, but there are times when I wish it could be different."
"You're Batman," I pointed out. "You can do anything."
He looked at me for a long moment, making the back of my neck tingle even more. "I'm no superhero, but I love that you think I am."
He looked away and took his time gathering his thoughts. "If you are still willing to go to Boston and Miami, I'll set everything up. How soon can you leave?"
I needed to pack, which would probably involve some shopping, I would need to get Rex ready for his stay at RangeMan with his uncles, and then I'd need to talk to my parents and Joe. Although, maybe I could skip Joe and just send him a postcard from the road...
I realized Ranger was waiting for a real response, so I suggested, "It's Friday now. Would Monday be okay?"
He considered what I'd said and nodded. "That's fine; I'll make all the arrangements. You and Rodriguez will fly on out on the jet from the private airstrip, so you can come here Monday at 0700 to depart."
"Um, 0700, as in seven in the morning, you expect me to be in the office, ready to travel?" I hoped I could talk him into letting us leave later.
"Is there a problem?" he asked, not giving anything away.
"I was hoping that we might not have to leave before nine or maybe ten," I hesitantly suggested.
Both of Ranger's eyebrows shot up at the idea of not leaving until ten. "How about we compromise, and I swing by to pick you up at 0730? That way, you don't have to drive over here and you get an extra thirty minutes?"
I didn't think it was that much better, but then I wouldn't have to worry about my car taking up space in the RangeMan garage while I was gone, so I agreed.
"Will I get to meet Rodriguez before we leave?" I asked, hopeful. It would be nice to know who I would be working with over the next few weeks.
Ranger made a non-committal shrug with his shoulder and stood up to go behind his desk. "I'll suggest it, but don't be disappointed if he says no."
"I guess there's always the flight up to Boston to get to know each other," I reflected as an alternative.
Ranger picked up a black credit card and held it out to me. "Take this, and use it. I know there are things you will need for this trip, and RangeMan will cover the full cost of everything you need."
"I can't take that..." I stepped back, as though he were offering me a snake to carry.
He let out a heavy breath, which was the Ranger equivalent of an eye-roll and sigh all mixed into one. "I'm serious. Everything from the headache medicine, clothes, a new suitcase, and an emergency stash of Tasty Cakes that you can't get in Boston should all be charged to RangeMan."
I took the card and slipped it in my pocket, and then I thought better of it and pulled it back out to put in my purse when I sat down at my desk. As tight as these jeans were, I was afraid the card would snap in half from the pressure when I leaned over.
"Bobby is going to want to talk to you before you go, as well," he threw out when I turned to leave.
"Why?" I asked, confused about the odd request to see Bobby, when I was completely healthy.
"Everybody has to check in with him before they leave town on an assignment," he explained succinctly.
As long as everybody else did it, I was okay with it.
This time, I got the door open before he spoke once more. "Thank you, Stephanie."
I shook my head. "No price, remember?" I replied, before walking out of his office.
I went to my cubicle on autopilot and thought over what I'd been asked to do. It didn't seem that hard, and as long as Rodriguez wasn't outright mean to me, it might be fun to see some different places and meet some of the RangeMan family in other cities. I'd heard about them for years, so it would be nice to have faces to go with names.
Then, as I thought back over the discussion with Ranger, I felt that familiar ache in my chest. I loved Ranger, I was convinced of that fact, but he had made it abundantly clear that despite how he might feel about me, we would never be more than we were now. I was tired of the push and pull of the men in my life.
Joe wanted to pull me out of my life to change me into what he thought I should be. And Ranger thought my life was fine, but he continually pushed me away from him. The more I thought of them, the better this upcoming assignment sounded. I could get out of town and away from the men who said they loved me, even though neither of them really wanted me.
With that firmly in mind, I stood up and walked to the elevator. While I was tapping my foot, waiting for the elevator to arrive to take me down to the third floor to Bobby's medical office, I decided this was my chance to make some changes – not just with the men of my life, but with me, too. I was tired of being a toy, entertainment, and a pushover. I was tired of being the brunt of jokes, the betting jackpot of the Trenton PD, and the person famous all over town as the woman who blew things up.
When the elevator dinged its arrival, I squared my shoulders and got in. After this assignment was over, I swore I wasn't going to be the same person I was when it started.
Look out, world. Here comes a woman on a mission.