Disclaimer: I do not own these characters, they all belong to Janet Evanovich. But if she'd like to relinquish custody of Ranger, or any of the Merry Men for that matter, I'd be more than happy to take them off of her hands. I promise to take very good care of any/ all of them.

I'm making no money here, so please don't sue me. All I have are student loans and you're welcome to take those at any time, no questions asked.

Author's note: This is the second in what seems to be a developing series: Strong Stephanie. This is NOT related to my first fan fiction, "Stephanie's Great Escape", except that my version of Stephanie is mentally/ physically stronger and more confident than the JE novel version. As of now, I do not plan for it to be an epic 150,000+ word story but I don't seem have much, if any, control of my muse.

This is an eventual Babe HEA but not before Ranger really has to work his hot Cuban buns off for it. No (major) Morelli bashing.

Please let me know what you think! I live for reviews!

Chapter 1

You have to be kidding me. I'm so sick of this alpha dog posturing between Joe and Ranger. Joe was my on-off boyfriend, currently very much off forever, and Ranger was something even more complicated, if that's possible. They were both extremely masculine and they were both fighting for top dog position. But it felt more like the biggest dogshit competition to me.

You know, the similarities between the two were striking. Both were tall and dark, with dark hair and dark eyes. Both were bubbling over with testosterone. Both were in some type of law enforcement. Both were hot enough to melt ice cream with just one look. I guess I have a type. Unfortunately, the personifications of my type were both acting like asses. Hope that's not also a part of my type, I was getting really sick of men who were asses.

They were both walking into the office where I work for my icky cousin Vinnie as a bail enforcement agent, also known as a bounty hunter. But the door wasn't wide enough for them to both walk in at the same time and they both wanted to be first. So they were trying to knock each other out of the doorway.

"Guys, just flip a quarter or something," I called out with exasperation evident in my voice. "Stop acting like asses."

They ignored me and continued jockeying for position. I looked over at Connie and Lulu. They were both watching the display with fascination.

Finally, they were both in the room. Ranger had won the shoving war and he sauntered in first, but Joe was hot on his heels, glaring furiously at Ranger.

Joe and I were definitely done, I was tired of his insistence that I had to quit my job and stop being friends with Ranger or the Merry Men to be with him. I refused to have to be the one to make all the changes to make our relationship work. And I wasn't even sure that I wanted the same things that Joe wanted, namely to be a wife and mother. Kids scare the crap out of me.

Ranger had said before that if my bed was empty for too long he would be in it, but it had been over three months and he'd made no move whatsoever. He hadn't even been kissing me in the alley as much as he was before. So it was pissing me off quite a bit.

I was really, really tired of this childish fight between the two.

"Cupcake, you have to choose! Me or him," Joe exclaimed. Ranger just smirked at me. The last time Joe had made this demand, I had broken up with Joe.

"Joe, we've talked about this. I'm not going to quit my job and stop being friends with Ranger or his guys! They're my friends!" I retorted immediately.

"Cupcake, you don't have to quit your job, even though it's going to get you killed one day. You just have to stop hanging out with Manoso so damn much. It won't look good for my wife and the mother of my children to spend so much time with thugs!"

"Argh!" I threw my hands up. "I'm not going to marry you and I'm not going to have kids with you!"

Ranger had a small smile on his face.

"And what are you smiling at?" I glared at Ranger.

"Babe," he said as he looked from Joe to me.

"I'm entitled to be friends with anyone I choose to be friends with. But this attitude between the two of you is really getting on my nerves. Stop it or I stop talking to the both of you!"

Both Ranger and Joe smiled at me, and something inside of me snapped.

"You both seem to be under the misapprehension that you're the only two men in all of New Jersey. You're not. I don't have to put up with either one of you, so stop pushing me," I said with my voice deadly calm. That got their attention but neither stopped smiling.

"Babe," Ranger said with a bit of a chuckle.

I leaned forward, making sure the girls were making their best impression. Both guys dropped their gaze from my eyes to my chest.

"Ranger," I said "how many distractions have I done for you?"

He pulled his gaze up to my eyes. "I don't know the exact number."

"I'd guess around fifty. Does that sound about right to you?" I asked him. He nodded. "And out of those fifty, how many times was I unsuccessful if the guy was in the club or bar or whatever?"

"Just a couple," he replied, looking a bit confused at the direction of my questions.

"There have been two. One came out when I promised to show him knock-off Jimmy Choo's in my trunk. And the other came out when I called in Hector. So the only two I failed to get out were playing for the other team. So I have a 100% success rate for heterosexual men." I paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. "I've successfully lured out forty-eight guys who knew that there were people out there looking for them because they skipped out on their bail."

Lula and Connie's eyes were so wide I thought they were going to fall out. They knew where I was going with this. "So, think about it. If I can get 100% of guys to come out when they know they're in trouble, how do you think I'll do with regular guys who aren't skips? How long do you think it would take for me to get someone to go home with me?"

Ranger's blank face slammed down and Joe looked pissed. "Exactly." I stood up slowly and let a small smile play across my face. I turned my back on the guys and looked at Connie and Lula.

"Dancing tonight, ladies?" I asked. They both nodded so I turned to face Lula. "Wanna go help me find a little black dress?" She nodded again.

I turned and walked seductively between Joe and Ranger. "See ya around, boys," I called out as I strolled out the door with Lula right behind me. I kept a little extra swing in my hips as I walked to Lula's red Firebird and folded myself into the passenger seat.

Lula got in without a word and headed towards the mall. Once we were out of visible range, she exploded. "Damn, girl! What the hell was that?"

"They seem to think they're my only options in Trenton. I'm tired of their shit so I was just reminding them that other men do occasionally find me attractive too."

"Batman and Supercop didn't look happy," she replied.

"They can both deal with it. I'm not dating either one of them, they have no claim on me," I said with a pissy tone.

"You sure you should be taunting Batman?" Lula sounded hesitant.

"I've seen him a lot less since Joe and I broke up than I did before. I think he just liked the competition. He only wanted to be around me when I was in a relationship with Joe, when I was no threat to him. Well, fuck that!" I told her.

"You think he's really going to let you bring home some new man?"

"He doesn't have a choice," I said. "He had a chance, he'd had three months of chances. So he doesn't get to be upset if I see someone else!"

"We really going dancing tonight? And to buy you a new dress?" Lula wanted to know.

"Yes and yes." We chatted for a few minutes about the various clubs. I texted Connie and she said that our plan was fine. We'd meet for dinner and then hit the club. I texted the info to Mary Lou too, but she immediately texted back that she couldn't since Lenny was working late on a job.

We parked at the mall and went into Macy's. I found a great dress on the clearance rack. Given how little fabric there was, it should be less expensive! It was strapless and had a bodice that dipped low and made the best of my limited cleavage. The skirt was longer than I usually wore to a distraction, but it more than made up for that by having slits on both sides exposing more of my leg. It was black with a couple of bold, electric blue flowers.

My bank account balance wasn't that big, so I decided that I had some black heels at home that would work with the dress. I knew also had underwear that would work with it too, so I had to reluctantly walk by Victoria's Secret without going inside.

Lula found a poison green tiny dress. Her cups runneth over, literally. She fit her plus size body into a much smaller size. She should be a quality control tester for Spandex. She certainly tested the hell out of the integrity of those seams.

She dropped me off by the bonds office so I could pick up my POS du jour. I'd meet the girls at Pino's for dinner before we headed out to shake our grove thang at the club.

I went home and immediately started on my regular beauty ritual. I hopped in the shower and shaved all the important areas. I didn't plan to bring a guy home tonight, but I certainly wouldn't mind getting a few numbers. Once everything was silky smooth and soft, I started working on my curls, trying to tame the beast that is my hair. Once my hair was cooperating, I applied makeup, focusing on my eyes. My blue eyes were one of my best features and I wanted them to stand out. After a couple of coats of mascara, I walked into the bedroom to get dressed.

Just as I finished zipping the dress, I heard my front door open. It had to be either Ranger or Joe, not that it was exactly a rare occurrence for someone to break into my apartment. The tingle on my neck told me it was Ranger.

"Why are you here, Ranger?" I called out as I slid my feet into four-inch high strappy heels. They looked awesome with the dress and made my legs look endlessly long. I bent over to buckle the straps and heard a slight gasp. I smirked to myself. Guess Ranger liked the view.

"Babe," he said.

"Ranger," I replied. His one-word sentences made me nuts at times. It was my new goal in life to make him as nuts as he made me. And I'm nothing if not tenacious.

"You aren't really going out to hook up, are you?" he asked.

I looked up at him. "What does it look like?" I asked Ranger.

"Babe," he replied. I rolled my eyes at him.

"Why?" he asked. We really need to work on his communication skills.

"Why not?" I asked him in return.


"Ranger, you have to use actual words if you want to talk to me."

"Are you really going to go look for guys?" he asked.




He sighed. Yes, I was already making him nuts!

"I broke up with Joe months ago. No reason why I shouldn't explore other possibilities, is there?" I said with raised eyebrows as I stood up.

His blank face was firmly in place and he didn't respond. "That's what I thought," I said as I walked to my closet and bent over to rummage around looking for an appropriate purse. I finally pulled out a beaded black clutch and walked over to the mirror to check it out.

"What do you think? Will it work?" I asked Ranger. He just shot me an unreadable look so I shrugged to myself and checked out my reflection in the mirror. It would work.

Ranger followed me as I went into the kitchen and switched the essentials from my big everyday purse into the clutch. I put my ID, cash, debit card, lipstick and cell phone into the clutch and then slid the wrist strap over my hand. I pumped my hands in the air to raise the roof as a test to see how it would feel when I was dancing. It would be fine.

I grabbed my keys and had my hand on the doorknob before I felt Ranger's hand go around my wrist. I looked at him in askance. He growled faintly and moved towards me like he was going to kiss me. Oh hell no. I put one hand on his chest to stop him and moved back. "No."

He stopped and looked at me. "No?" he said questioningly.

"I'm not your toy. You don't get to come in and kiss me whenever you feel like it. So back off."

"Babe," he seemed torn between shock and amusement. "You've made your point. You can stop now."

"I'm not planning to stop until I have a least a couple of phone numbers."

Then he wasn't as amused. "You're really going to go looking for guys at a club?"

"Seems like a better option than trying to meet them at work given my current occupation, don't you think?" I replied. "The last couple of guys I met at work haven't really worked out all that great."

I knew my jab had reached him when his blank look had settled across his face. I'd met Ranger when Connie had asked him to help me get started as a bounty hunter and Joe was the first person I brought in as a BEA. Of course, I'd known Joe all my life but that was how we got reacquainted.

He stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest. His very yummy chest, but I was trying very hard not to focus on that.

"I don't do casual and you don't do anything but casual. We can be friends or we can be a lot more than friends, but none of this weird in between shit anymore. So I think it would be a good idea if I moved on to greener pastures," I told him as I slipped out of the door. "Be sure to lock up when you leave!" I called out as I stepped into the elevator.

I had no illusions that it would be easy to move on from Ranger but I had to try. I loved him and I was in love with him, but he wasn't willing to give a relationship a shot. He'd told me that multiple times, that his love didn't come with a ring but a condom might be handy. That his life didn't lend itself to relationships. That he loved me, but in his own way, whatever the hell that means. And I wanted to be loved by someone who was at least willing to call it a relationship. I'd been married for ten minutes years ago so I wasn't exactly enamored with the idea of getting married again, but I did want to at least be in a committed relationship.

And if that's what I wanted, then I had to accept that Ranger wouldn't be the man to give me that. He'd give me a car, a safe place to stay when I needed it, a job when I was broke. Hell, he'd even give his life to protect me but he wouldn't give me a relationship. So we'd stay friends but the kissing and flirting would have to stop.

I met Connie and Lula for dinner and told them what happened. They were both suitably amused and impressed that I'd managed to walk away. We spent some time talking about how all men are scum before we finished dessert and headed to the club. Since I was driving, I wouldn't have more than one drink. What can I say, I'm a cheap drunk. Saved me a load of money when I was in college, though. Two drinks and I'm very happy, three drinks and I'm dancing on a table and four drinks and I'm out like a light.

We hit the club and it was fairly busy for a Wednesday night. Of course, the weekends were busier but I didn't feel like waiting two nights. I'm a pretty impetuous person and I don't like to waste time once I've made a decision.

We found a table and started chatting, scoping out the men and the competition. We were pretty lucky in that there were more guys than girls, so it probably wouldn't take too much work to attract any interest.

Once we hit the dance floor, it only took a minute or two before we had guys approach. I was dancing with a pretty cute blonde with gray eyes, Connie had a short but muscular Italian looking guy and Lula was cutting loose with a tall and lanky Latino.

After the finishing the dance with the tongue-tied blonde, and getting his number for my troubles, I danced with Lula's Latino guy while she got jiggy with a tall African American man who seemed really interested in all of Lula's assets. Her assets are exponentially more than mine. I'm a B cup, a B- on a good day. Lula's a DDD pretty much all the time.

We danced with various guys for a while before a guy with sandy brown hair and peridot green eyes cut in to dance with me. "Lester! What are you doing here?" I demanded. Lester Santos was one of Ranger's Merry Men, and rumor was that he was also Ranger's cousin. Soon to be late cousin once I killed one or the other, or both, for keeping watch on me. He was also someone I considered to be a friend since he was one of the more chatty Merry Men and I'd gotten to know him fairly well over the last couple of years.

"Hey Beautiful! I could ask you the same thing. What's shaking, other than your beautiful ass?" he said with a big grin as we danced together.

"Did Ranger tell you that I would be here?" I asked him suspiciously.

He looked taken aback. "I'm off today, Beautiful. I haven't talked to Ranger at all in the last twenty-four hours. Why?"

I rolled my eyes at him. "He and Joe were acting like asses again today, you know how they get." Lester just nodded at me and grinned. "So I reminded them both that I don't have any problems getting skips out of bars and that I probably wouldn't have any problems finding a regular guy if I just put forth the effort."

Lester's grin grew huge at that. "And how did they react?"

I snorted. "Ranger showed up at my apartment as I was getting ready. Told me I could stop now since I had made my point."

Lester laughed. "Oh I bet you just loved hearing that!" Apparently Lester had also gotten to know me pretty well since he knew that I would most decidedly not like that at all.

I pulled back and just shot him a mock glare. He just laughed again, his green eyes dancing merrily.

"So tell me, Beautiful, why aren't you with Ranger? Everybody knows that you're his woman."

I rolled my eyes at him. "Les, we're really just friends," I said and he shot me an incredulous look. "I'm serious."

"You two generate enough electricity to power the city for a week. Try again."

I looked him in the eyes. "I am completely serious. We have chemistry, yeah, but nothing more than that. It will never be anything more than that."

Now Lester looked intrigued. "Why is that?" he asked.

I snorted at him. "Ranger doesn't do relationships."

Lester just kept looking at me. "And?" he prompted.

"And I don't do casual sex. I mean, it's not like I gotta have a ring first or anything like that but I'd need to at least feel like I was with someone where there was at least the possibility of a longer-term relationship," I explained. "So we're at an impasse. I got tired of it so I'm looking for greener pastures, as I told him."

"I thought you and the cop broke up because he was trying to push you into getting married," he said.

"That was part of it. I don't know if I ever want to get married again. My first try ended in abject failure. And Joe wanted me to change everything about me to marry him, and then to stay home all day cooking and making babies. No thanks. But there has to be at least some kind of a relationship, some acknowledgement that we're a couple at the very least. And Ranger's not willing to do that. So it's time to move on," I explained. The music changed and Lester pulled me closer as we started to dance to 'Hips don't lie'. The man has some moves, wow!

"So you're not with Ranger because he won't agree to a relationship?" he asked speculatively.

"Basically, yeah."

"That's messed up. Hell, you're already in a relationship! The man freaks out anytime you're in danger!" Lester replied as he swiveled his hip against mine.

"Yep. But he says that his love only comes with a condom, not a ring, so I can't go any farther down that road to ruin."

"He said that?" he said as he looked shocked.


He muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "fucking idiot" but I couldn't be entirely sure. I agreed with the sentiment if nothing else.

"So what kind of relationship are you looking for, Beautiful?" he asked after a minute of silence.

"You know, just that we're a couple. That we won't see other people, see each other when possible, go out on dates, tell other people we're dating. Just the normal stuff," I said.

Lester looked thoughtful for a moment before he spun me out in a twirl before pulling me tightly against his chest. "Are you doing this to make him jealous?" he asked.

"Nope, I really am looking to meet someone new. The jealously thing is just a nice perk," I said with a smile.

Lester gave me a big grin. "Then how about having dinner with me on Saturday?"

Now I was shocked. "You're probably the biggest playboy I know, Les. What makes you think I want to be another notch on your bedpost?"

"Oh Stephanie, I'm hurt!"

"Not yet, but keep pushing it and you might be!" I replied.

He started laughing. "I know I act like a playboy but I'm not nearly as bad as I seem. Some of the guys are actually way worse than me, I just joke about it more. But it's mostly just talk and jokes. But I really do think you're pretty cool and I would like to get to know you better, see if we could take a shot at it."

I eyed him suspiciously. "Are you for real?"

He smiled widely at me. "Absolutely."

"Why?" I questioned.

"You mean other than the fact that you're gorgeous?" I glared at him. "You're smart and funny and kind. You already know what I do for a living and it hasn't scared you yet. You'd understand if I had to work late because we got a tip on a skip. You won't freak out because I carry a gun pretty much all the time. You know we've all done some crazy shit but you don't look at us like we're broken or evil. So why wouldn't I want to go out with you?"

He seemed really sincere but I didn't know. I chewed on my lower lip as I tried to process everything Lester had just said. "Ranger always says that his life doesn't lend itself to relationships. That his enemies would come after his girlfriend if he had one."

Lester just rolled his eyes. He was surprisingly good at it. "That's a risk in our line of work, but probably a relatively small one. But you attract more crazies than anyone I've ever known so it might be more of a risk for your boyfriend!"

I stuck my tongue out at him and he waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Wouldn't it be awkward since he's your boss? And I heard someone say he was cousin," I replied.

"Might be a little bit awkward but I'm willing to chance it. If he won't man up, then he can't really say much, can he? And yeah, we're related, but I can get my mom to call his mom if he gets too out of hand."

I had to laugh at the thought of Lester tattling on Ranger. It's not like Ranger's mom could ground him or anything.

Lester grinned at me. "Let's think about this. At best, we decide to start dating and all that, could end up with lots of little Lesters running around." I made a face at that and he grinned at me. "If nothing else, we get to know each other better, which would still be pretty cool. And it could also be enough to get Ranger to pull his head out of his ass before he loses you to the more manly and charming member of the family."

I rolled my eyes at the last part. I didn't think anything would get Ranger to accept a relationship. If being practically engaged to Joe didn't do it, I doubted that a date with his cousin would be that big of a catalyst.

"Doesn't mean I'm going to sleep with you," I said severely. He nodded and kept smiling. "You're really serious? You're not just playing me? You really would consider an actual, honest to God relationship?" He just kept nodding.

"I guess we could try a date and see," I finally said. He gave me a megawatt smile and I had to admit, the man was pretty damn hot. We planned our date, he'd pick me up on Saturday at seven o'clock. I didn't actually need his phone number, or vice versa, since we'd worked together before.

"Now don't you go telling any of the other guys about this. I want my shot first!" he said. "There would be a stampede if they knew that you weren't with Ranger."

I giggled. "Yeah, right."

Lester turned serious. "I'm probably not helping my chances here, Beautiful, but it's the truth. The guys love you and some of them are already a little in love with you. Like I said, it's hard to find a girl who doesn't think we're scary monsters because of what we do or what we have done."

Hmm, something to think about. A stampede of hot men in black. I just gave him a wicked grin and I tried to raise my eyebrows suggestively. I'm not sure how successful I was but at least it made Lester laugh.

"What are you going to tell Ranger?" I asked him.

"I'm not going to tell him who I'm seeing. I'm off work on Saturday night and it's none of his business who I spend my free time with," he said immediately.

"What if he asks?"

"I'm not going to lie to him but I'm not going to advertise it either. Like I said, if the other guys knew you weren't dating Ranger, there would probably be a line out the door to ask you out. But I found out first!" he said with a little leer.

I smacked him on the arm and laughed at him.

We chatted as we danced the rest of the evening. I started getting tired so I reluctantly told Lester that I needed to head home. I was actually having a great time with him and I was looking forward to our date. I told him this and he gave me another huge smile. He offered to drive me home but I told him that I had my car. So I waved goodbye to Connie and Lula and then he walked me to my car before giving me a big hug and a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"See you soon, Beautiful," he said as I was closing my car door.

I drove home in a happier mood. Getting asked out by a hot guy is always an ego boost.

I was humming a Bon Jovi song when I walked into my dark apartment. I put my purse down on the kitchen counter and flipped on the light. Then I shrieked when I saw Ranger sitting on my couch.

"Shit, Ranger! What are you doing here?" I yelled over the sound of my racing heart.

He just looked at him, his hands in his lap.

"Did you have a good time tonight?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yep."

"Any luck?"


He raised his eyebrow at me. I took that as a sign to continue. "Got a date for Saturday night already. Couple other numbers."

He just stared at me. "Well hell, Ranger, it's not like I'm the freaking hunchback of Notre Dame or anything!" I was starting to get pissed. Did he think I was so ugly I couldn't find a man?

"Give me his name and I'll run a background check on him," he said softly.

I just snorted at him. "Yeah right. Actually, there's no need. I already know him, he just didn't know I was on the market."

"Who is it, Stephanie?" he asked.

"None of your damn business, Ranger."


"If we decide to actually start dating, I'm sure you'll find out then. Until then, back off." I gave Rex a baby carrot and a grape. He darted out, shoved them into his cheek sand then dove back into his soup can home. Being a hamster mommy is pretty low maintenance.

"I'm tired. I'm going to bed now," I put up a hand as Ranger gave me a small smile. "And no, that wasn't an invitation. It was a subtle clue for you to leave now."


"Goodnight, Ranger. Sweet dreams," I said as I closed the bathroom door behind me. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and pulled my hair into a ponytail. After I finished applying toner and moisturizer, I walked out carrying my heels in my hands. I expected Ranger to be gone but he was leaning against my kitchen counter instead.

"Okay, guess I shouldn't be subtle at all. Please go away now. Lock the door behind you, for what that's worth," I said as I walked into my bedroom. I heard muted cursing in Spanish behind me and I had to stifle a giggle.

I grabbed a t-shirt from my drawer and pulled it over my head. I reached under the t-shirt and released the zipper on my dress and then unhooked my strapless bra. Then I reached down to pick up the clothes pooled at my feet and heard a slight groan. I threw them into the hamper and then crawled into bed, yanking the blankets to my neck. I wiggled around until I got comfortable and then I let out a contented sigh. I heard my front door open and close and then I did giggle out loud.