Disclaimer: I do not own Stephanie Plum or the Plum series characters. I do own Ace. He's tied down in my bed. I only let him out for the story.

Author's Notes: I'm alive! I am so sorry for disappearing like I did. Besides NaNo last November I had a shit ton of family drama going on. Combine that with a sudden move and well I got a little side tracked. But here, have a new chapter.


Chapter Twenty-Six

Rolling over, I bumped into a very solid, very hard body. Confused and with my eyes still closed, I reached up and patted the body next to me, dragging my fingertips over their face. Coarse hair met my touch and I suppressed a sigh. I knew who was in my bed and honestly, I wasn't surprised. I should have expected it after the night I had last night.

Hearing a grumble, my lips twitched and I moved my hand down and pinched. Lester let out a very manly squeal and jerked away from me. Knowing how large my bed was, I raised one leg and after pressing my foot in his lower back, gave him a helpful shove over the edge. His yelp this time was muffled by his face hitting the floor.

Wearing a satisfied smirk, I stretched out on the bed, feeling my muscles tense and relax. Then I rolled over and hung my head over the side of the bed to look at Lester. He had rolled over on his back and was wearing a very resigned look. "Serves you right."

"Did you have to pinch my nipple?" Lester asked with a groan. "I think you bruised it."

"You're lucky I didn't just twist it off. What were you thinking, sneaking into my bed like that?"

Lester pushed himself up and grinned at me. "Well I heard that you had an exciting night and that you were leaving town. I wanted to make sure I saw you before I left."

I rolled my eyes and scooted over when he gestured. Lester got back into bed and settled down next to me. Moving to lay on my side, I propped myself up on one hand and stared at him. "That's a very weak excuse. I was going to call and ask you if you could take over some skips for me while I was gone."

"How was I to know that?" he asked innocently. "I get a call at 3 AM from Ace, which woke me up from a very nice dream."

He drawled out the word nice and added an eyebrow wiggle to make sure I understood that it was a wet dream that was interrupted. I made a face at him. "There are some things I do not need to know. Why did Ace call you?"

"To ask if I knew Ranger was back in town. The more important question is, why didn't you call and tell me?" Lester rolled over on his side so we were face to face.

I gave a half-hearted shrug. "I called Tank, then Ace. I was tired."

"Bullshit," Lester retorted. "Why?"

Okay so my instinct had been to call Lester, but I suppressed it and called Tank instead. I couldn't help thinking about how Ranger had messed up Lester before and I was worried that if Ranger found out I called Lester then he'd find some excuse to beat him up again. Of course if I admitted that out loud Lester would roll his eyes and tell me that it wouldn't matter what Ranger did, he was always there for me. Which I knew already. It was why I wasn't pissed off that he came over and crawled into bed with me without waking me up.

Looking at Lester I knew I had to tell him something, so I told a half truth. "I didn't want to listen to you rant and rave about Ranger."

Lester looked at me like he knew I was holding something back. Then he sighed. "Well I probably would have."

"Probably?" I asked with a note of amusement. "Les, every time he called and you found out you'd go off about how he's just screwing with my head and you wished he was here so you could kick his ass."

"All perfectly justifiable."

"Regardless, I just wasn't in the mood for it last night. I called Tank, asked if he knew Ranger was back. Then I called Ace and told him Ranger was back and we talked about it. End of story."


"And what?" I asked, sure that he was prodding for more details about Ace and myself.

Lester gave a 'Burg worthy eye roll and poked me in my side. "What about you and Ace?"

"I'm going to New Orleans with him this weekend to protect him from matchmaking family members."

"Stephanie," Lester half sang in warning, holding up his hands, wiggling his fingers as a warning.

I muffled a giggle and shoved the wiggling fingers away from me. "Really Lester, you sound like my mother, wanting to know every little detail. Is finding a woman that hard that you are trying to live vicariously through me?"

A full body shudder worked it's way down Lester's body at the comparison to my mother. "That was just mean. And I do not have trouble finding a woman. I just want to know where you and Ace stand."

"Same as before, we are partners." I was having fun teasing him.

"I believe you are being deliberately difficult."

"It's fun to watch you squirm, busy body. What did Ace say?" I laughed.

Lester snorted. "He didn't say shit except that apparently Ranger was back in town and that if he found out that I knew and didn't warn him he was going to kick my ass."

"So I'm guessing you didn't know?"


"Tank didn't either. Ranger wasn't supposed to be back for another two weeks," I said softly.

"What happened between you and Ranger?"

"You mean before or after he implied that I was back with Joe since I wouldn't let him in the apartment?" I asked dryly.

"I swear, he's one of the smartest men I know but he can be so stupid sometimes," Lester commented with a groan.

"Amen to that," I mumbled. Then I said, "He may have implied about how he might be ready for something more."

"Might be or is?"

"It was all very cryptic," I answered as I thought about what Ranger had said before. "His exact words were 'And if I made it my business?' after I told him my love life was none of his business."

"To which you said?" Lester asked, his dark eyes boring into mine.

I don't know why but it felt like I was being tested. I had the same feeling I got whenever Ace tested me on my new found skills. Like the wrong answer would completely screw up my friendship with Lester. I knew he didn't like how Ranger treated me and I knew that he was confused by how I could still love Ranger. Which only told me that Lester had never really been in love with someone and that just made me sad to think about.

I blinked and gave him the honest truth, "I told him he was two months too late for that and shut the door in his face after saying good night."

Seconds passed as Lester stared at me, blinking slowly. Then he smiled widely and grabbed me, pulling me against him in a hard hug. "Proud of you, Beautiful." Then he shifted and dug his fingers into my side, making me gasp and giggle. I struggled to get away as he said, "But you still haven't said what the deal is with you and Ace."

I twisted and jabbed his side with my elbow. His hold loosened enough that I was able to pull away. I scooted as far as I could without leaving the bed and glared at him and said without any heat in my voice, "For that I shouldn't tell you a damn thing."

"But you will because you know I won't let it go."

"A dog with a bone, that's what you remind me of."

"What kind of dog?" Lester asked with a grin.

I narrowed my eyes and said sweetly, "A cute little terrier."

"That's just insulting," Lester pouted.

I just grinned at him. His eyes got wide and his lip stuck out and wobbled just a little bit. I couldn't help it, I laughed at his puppy dog look. "Now you look like a Shar Pei or something."

"Keep insulting me and I'll eat all the donuts I brought."

I know my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. I sniffed the air and wondered how I missed the scent of fried dough and sugar. "Boston creme?"

"You get nothing until you give me what I want."

I gave Lester my sultriest look and drawled in a husky sex voice, "But Les, baby, if I gave you that, Ace would kick your ass. He's very possessive."

Lester's mouth fell open and then closed, only to fall open again. The flabbergasted look on his face was enough to have my sex kitten persona dissolve into giggles. I clutched my sides and rolled side to side as I laughed. Lester waited two minutes and jumped out of bed with a growl, "That was evil." He started around the bed, probably to get the donuts and then paused and looked back at me. "Why would Ace be possessive? Wait a minute..."

I laughed and shook my head. "Are you sure you weren't dropped on your head as an infant? You are a little slow on the uptake."

"Yeah yeah. So the two of you...a couple?" he asked.

I nodded slowly. "We are going to give it a shot. We still have things to talk about, his history with Ranger, my history with Ranger. But the odds look favorable."

Lester walked over and pulled me out of bed and dragged me into the kitchen. He didn't say anything as he fixed us both cups of coffee and donuts. I had two Boston cremes and he had some kind of pastry that looked weird and I realized it was a donut made out of whole wheat. Just looking at it made me scrunch up my nose and bite into my Boston creme.

"So," Lester started after he pushed a cup of coffee my way. "What brought this on? And are you going to change your mind now that Ranger is back?"

"I realized that as much as I love Ranger, I shouldn't hold myself back on the off chance that he'll ever be ready to commit. Sure he might be one day, but I'm ready now, or at least I think I am." I sipped my coffee after finishing my Boston creme. I toyed with the second. "I don't see how Ranger being back will change that. I can't just change my mind and hurt a good man just because Ranger is back."

"So, you and Ace, a good thing and Ranger coming back isn't going to fuck it up?" Lester clarified.

I shrugged. "I'm going to try and not let it fuck it up. You know how Ranger is. Ace is great and all, but whose to say he won't get tired of the bullshit after a few weeks of Ranger posturing and growling and making a menace of himself."

"That's saying Ranger will do all that."

I gave Lester a bland look. "Because the past is nothing to go on, right? Despite his anti-relationship stance, Ranger might as well stood over me and growled like a junkyard dog when Joe was around."

"Joe was a pussy," Lester said dismissively. "I know you loved him, but if he loved you back he wouldn't have tolerated Ranger's crap. Ace won't. He won't just stand aside and let Ranger poach like Joe did."

I sighed and nodded. I knew that. "Yeah I figured that all on my own."

"Does it worry you?" Lester asked.

I shrugged. "I'm not sure. I mean, on one hand, yes because I don't want them hurting each other over me. And on the other..."

I trailed off and bit my lip, looking down, unsure of how to put what I was feeling into words. I wasn't lying when I told Lester it bothered me because they'd get hurt. I didn't want Ace or Ranger to get hurt. But at the same time, knowing that Ace wouldn't stand by while Ranger poached...it filled me with warmth. I think one reason why Joe and I never worked is that he just didn't care about Ranger and how Ranger acted towards me.

"On the other hand," prompted Lester.

"It's kind of nice, knowing that there is someone who will stand up for me. Who will say, 'Fuck you this is my woman and you aren't going to paw at her like she's single.' Someone who will fight for me. I mean, Joe never did and neither did Ranger. It's fulfilling to know that someone wants me enough to do that."

Lester leaned back in his seat and grinned. "That is something you'll never have to worry about with Ace."

My eyes narrowed at that. "What has he said to you?"

"What, do I look like a thirteen year old girl who will pass 'Oh my god he said what about me?' notes in class?" Lester asked with a smirk.

I returned his smirk with one of my own. "If I say yes, will you tell me?"

"You are so lucky I like you."

"Yadda, yadda," I dismissed with a flap of my hands. "So?"

"He likes you. Like really likes you," Lester said with a grin. "I've never seen him so enchanted before."

I blushed before I could stop myself. It pretty much described how I felt. Thing is, I didn't know if it was the lasting kind or one of those feelings that would pass in time. Then I scolded myself for thinking like that. It didn't matter if it was lasting or not, I wasn't going to let myself get caught up in thinking it was one or the other. I was going to enjoy my time with Ace, no matter how long it lasted. I wasn't going to trick myself into thinking about things that would sabotage the relationship before it even started.

"Well," I said standing up and brushing away the crumbs from my breakfast, "as enlightening as this is, I need to pack then head down to the bonds office to let Connie know I'm going to be out of town. You'll take over for me while I'm gone?"

Lester nodded. "Sure thing. I'll be picking you up. Ace asked me before we got off the phone. I'm going to take you two to the airport."

"So your excuse for sneaking into my bed was redundant?"

He didn't even look contrite. "Looks like. See you later, Beautiful."

I grumbled but followed him to the door and locked up behind him. A pass through the kitchen to get my coffee and I was back in my bedroom. I heaved my suitcase on the bed and opened it then went to stand in front of my closet. I loved having clothes but goddammit I hated packing. The only thing I knew about New Orleans was that it was in Southern Louisiana and hotter than Trenton this time of year. I also knew nothing about Ace's family and what they could be expecting.

Not wanting to call Ace to whine like a diva about not knowing what to pack, I selected several outfits. A few pairs of jeans and regular t shirts, some more dressier shirts, some dress pants, a few dresses. That wasn't even counting the multiple pair of shoes I added even though one pair of boots, one pair of heels, and one pair of sneakers would have done the job. I ended up having to sit on my suitcase to get it to close. Clearly I was going to be neurotic about this whole meet the parents deal.

A hour later I was showered, dressed, and ready to go. I dragged my suitcase down to the SUV. Literally dragged it because it was too heavy to pick up. I was panting and craving another donut by the time I got it in the SUV. I may be doing weight training but I was in no shape to lift that heavy ass suitcase. It made me think that maybe I had gone overboard, but since I refused to haul the monster back up to the apartment. I figured I'd get Ace to carry it. Maybe it was time to invest in one of those suitcases on wheels.

Connie and Lula were snacking on Doritos and gossiping when I showed up at the office. Lula took one look at me and whistled. "Someone got an A+ on their exam yesterday."

I snorted and snagged a chip. "Please."

Connie grinned. "I heard you broke his nose."

"I didn't mean to!" I protested but I ruined it by smiling. "He really had no idea what hit him."

Lula gave me an appraising look. "I watched the footage. You did good. Though, things did look a little heated on the mats."

"Shut up," I muttered as my face flushed.

Lula cackled and pointed at me while looking at Connie, "That look like a guilty face?"

"It's a something face," Connie agreed with a grin. "So what's going on with you and Mr. Cajun Hottie?"

"Nothing," I said quickly. Too quickly it seemed because the two of them just started laughing. I made a face at them. "I just came by to let you know I'm going to be out of town until Tuesday."

"Where you going, white girl?" Lula demanded. "And does it have anything to do with you calling Tank at 1 in the morning?"

"Ranger is back in town," I revealed with a sigh as I flopped down on the couch next to Lula.

Connie whistled under her breath. "Bet that's going to be interesting."

"He showed up at my apartment after midnight and got bent out of shape that I wouldn't let him in," I confessed. "It's all very...dramatic."

"Bout time that man realized you weren't a push over," Lula sniffed. "What did he think he could just show up and you'd welcome with open arms and legs?"

"Lula!" I hissed.

She gave me a wide eyed look and jabbed a finger in my direction. "Hey I ain't disputing his overall sexiness but the man done gone and screwed up. It's going to take more than a panty melting smile to get back in your bed."

"He was never in my bed," I said with a frown. "And he isn't going to be in my bed."

"That's what I'm saying," Lula agreed. "He don't deserve to be in your bed."

Connie was looking at me with an arched brow, then she said, "Stephanie, you got someone else in your bed?"

"Even if I did, Ranger still wouldn't be getting in my bed," I said with a huff.

Lula's eyes went wide. "Oh you and Ace got it going on!"

"How the hell did you jump to that conclusion?" I asked, flabbergasted.

Lula just grinned. "I saw how you two were yesterday and if you aren't, then you should be! What are you waiting on, next to Ranger and my Tankie, he's one fine fucking piece of ass."

"Who?" a deep voice behind me asked.

I squeaked and turned. My Ranger radar must be broken because there he was, standing just in the doorway. He looked...well normal. Like last night never happened. I didn't know what to do so I just sat there as he walked over and leaned down to kiss my forehead. I was so surprised that I didn't lean out of his way. I'm not going to lie, his lips felt good against my skin, but I did retain enough of my common sense that when he reached to take my hand and pull me up, I resisted.

"We need to talk, Babe."

I swallowed hard and looked up to meet his eyes. Connie and Lula were watching what was happening between me and Ranger like it was better than Jerry Springer. Hell, knowing that Lester and Ace could show up at any minute, it probably was.

"We did our talking last night, Ranger. I have nothing more to say to you," I said as evenly as I could.

His lips twitched in a quick smile. "I imagine you don't, but that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. I need you to run a distraction tomorrow night."

Feeling both relieved and put out, I let out a breath. Then his words registered and I cringed inwardly. "Sorry, I can't."

"Any particular reason why not?" Ranger asked with a quirk of his brow.

A black SUV pulled up and parked behind mine. Lester got out and I met his eyes through the glass of the office. He took in Ranger's proximity to me and opened the door to lean in. Probably to tell Ace it wouldn't be wise to get out right now. I felt my stomach twist into knots at the thought of Ace getting out and confronting Ranger. Ranger was armed and I had no doubt that Ace was as well. All I could see is the two of them going at it and bullets flying.

I hopped up and said quickly, "I'm going out of town. I won't be back until next week. Connie, Lester said he'd take over my skips for me until I get back. Since he's been helping me out, he knows who needs to be picked up and it shouldn't be an issue. I'll see you when I get back."

I couldn't get out of that office fast enough. I met Lester at the door and latched on to his arm, well aware that Ranger was staring at me. I could feel his eyes boring holes into my back. "My suitcase is in my SUV. Think you could swing back by after dropping us off with one of the guys to pick it up?"

Lester's eyes flicked from me to Ranger and he said absently, "Sure no problem. Boss, I'll see you back at the office. I'm just going to run Steph to the airport."

"Where you going?" Ranger asked, following Lester and me out to the SUVs.

I groaned and clutched Lester's arms, my nails digging in. Thankfully Lester's SUV had tinted windows. I know that Ace could see us but Ranger couldn't see in, well he could but thanks to the tint on the windows, Ace was indistinguishable. Which meant that we could get out of here without any conflict which is what I wanted.

"Out of town. Helping out a friend. I'll be back in a few days," I said evasively. I had no idea how much Ranger knew about Ace so I didn't want to let the cat out of the bag too early. I knew Ranger would end up finding out, I just didn't want to be at ground zero. I was finally in a happy place in my life and the drama was limited to unruly skips. I had no desire for things to blow up in my face just when I was finally feeling normal.

Lester looked at me and I could see the worry in his eyes. I gave him a reassuring smile and handed him my keys so he could fetch my suitcase, warning, "It's heavy."

Lester got the suitcase out and grunted as he lifted it. "It's heavy? Damn, Beautiful, did you pack your whole closet?"

"I had no idea what to pack, so I brought a little bit of everything."

"Just like a woman," Lester teased.

I stuck my tongue out at him, well aware that Ranger was staring at us both as if he didn't know what happened in his absence. I couldn't even bring myself to care. He was the one who ran away. It was his fault he missed everything, not mine. Still, I knew he was waiting for something, so I turned to look at him as Lester loaded the suitcase in the back of his SUV.

I offered him a warm smile. "Lester has the particulars, I'll be back on Tuesday though, maybe. If something comes up, you know how to reach me." I hesitated, aware that not only was Ranger staring at me with something that could have been shock or disbelief but Ace was also watching. "It's good to have you back, Ranger. I'll see you around."

Turning I slipped into the backseat before Ranger could say anything. Ace twisted to look at me, concern written all over his face. I gave him a weak smile, feeling my stomach churn as I silently urged Lester to get in the SUV so we could go before Ranger did something stupid like jerk the door open and haul me out. Thankfully Lester got in. I turned and gave Ranger a finger wave as we drove off. He was still standing there, looking as if someone had just dropped an anvil on him.

"Well that was awkward," Lester drawled.

I rolled my eyes. "Imagine being me."

"Did he say anything?" Ace asked and I heard the underlying tension in his voice.

I unbuckled and leaned forward to wrap my arms around his shoulders as much as I could with the seat between us. "Nope. Just wanted to know where I was going."

"What did you say?"

"That I was going out of town. It's none of his business where I'm going or who I'm going with," I said as firmly as I could.

Ace was silent for a moment and I worried that maybe we did have an issue and it wouldn't be my fault if we didn't work out. Then he twisted so he could smile at me. "Good."

I let out a sigh of relief and sank back in my seat and buckled back up. I listened to Lester and Ace joke in the front seat as I thought about what was coming. I still didn't like flying, so that was making me nervous. Not as nervous as the thought of not just meeting Ace's parents, but his whole family. I hadn't given a costume any thought but now I was starting to panic over that.

Ace glanced back at me, frowned, and said, "What's wrong, Darlin'"

"Costumes!" I almost shrieked.

He chuckled. "Don't worry about it."

I glared at him. "Oh sure, easy for you to say."

"We have two days to get costumes. I know a place."

That made me roll my eyes. "Great, he knows a place."

Lester mocked whispered, "You know that she's using the costumes as an excuse not to think about meeting your parents?"

My lips twitched in a faint smile.

Ace whispered back, "I figured that out on my own, thank you."

I glared at the back of their heads. "You two are so not as funny as you think you are."

"You smiled."


"It was a smile, Darlin'," Ace corrected with a chuckle as Lester pulled into the airport parking lot.

"Bite me," I mumbled.

Both of them chuckled and I muttered under my breath, "You know maybe it's a good thing the two of you are going to be separated for a few days."

"Can't handle us?" Lester smirked as he parked next to the curb in front of the airport.

"There's only one of you I want to handle," I said sweetly.

Lester gasped and reached over to cover Ace's ears. "Beautiful, not in front of Ace. It isn't fair to him that you just can't help wanting all this."

He pulled one hand away to sweep a hand down his body and gave me a sultry look. I don't know who started laughing first, me or Ace, but Lester's sultry look turned to a pout as we dissolved into hysterics. I don't know if it was a side effect of the lingering tension from the Ranger encounter or what, but it just struck me as hilarious.

I was still chuckling as I climbed out of the SUV and waited for the guys to join me. Lester hauled my heavy ass suitcase out and I leaned up to give him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks, I really needed that."

"I'm here for your amusement Beautiful," he teased.

"And you do it so well," I replied, reaching up to pat his cheek. I turned and saw Ace watching us, one hand on his suitcase's handle. He had one of those with the wheels. I couldn't stop the pout. "I want your suitcase.

"Little too late to switch," he chuckled.

"Then I'll roll yours and you can carry mine," I said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Lester laughed at the look on Ace's face as Ace looked between his easy to transport suitcase and my dated suitcase. I grinned at Ace until he sighed and reached for my suitcase after passing his to me. I blew him a kiss. "Thank you."

"Push over," joked Lester as he held out a hand.

Ace clasped it and they did this manly hand shake slash fist bump. "Jealous."

Lester looked at me and tossed out a quick "Hell yeah" before pulling me into a crushing hug. I clung to him for a moment, relaxing in the comfort his arms offered. I had grown so used to seeing Lester every day and being able to say anything to him, no matter how silly or serious, that it was just now hitting me that I'd have to go four days without his company. It made my eyes tear up.

Lester pulled back enough to notice the gleam of tears and cupped my cheek. "No tears, you'll be back. Besides, crying all over me will just make Ace jealous and he's cranky with he's jealous."

I laughed, sounding a bit watery, and shoved Lester away. "Get out of here before you get me in trouble."

"Miss you, Beautiful," Lester said and kissed my forehead before climbing back into the SUV. The passenger side window rolled down and he called out, "I'm hamster-napping Rex."

"No booze or loose women," I warned. "They make him impossible to deal with."

Lester laughed and lifted a hand in a wave. "No promises."

Ace wrapped an arm around my shoulders and I leaned against him as we watched Lester drive away. It was amusing to me that he had no trouble with Lester teasing me, not the way Joe or Ranger would. He just accepted that we were close and nothing he could say or do would prevent it. I knew that if he had protested the way Lester teased or touched me we wouldn't be here. It was comforting to be with someone who was not only confident in themselves but trusting in me. Even though I knew Ranger trusted me, his possessiveness sometimes got on my nerves.

I looked up at Ace and when he glanced down at me, I leaned up and gave him a quick kiss. Well it was supposed to be a quick kiss but he had something else in mind. One arm went around my waist and pulled me tight against him as his tongue grazed my lower lip. We stayed pressed together for several moments completely ignoring the catcalls and whistles from people walking around us. When Ace pulled back I was breathless.

"Wow," I said, feeling a bit dazed.

Ace smirked. "Just a reminder."

"A reminder of what? That you're fully capable of blowing my panties to pieces without even touching them?" I asked without thinking. Note to self, like Ranger, Ace had the ability to shut down my brain with a single kiss.

His smirk grew and he twined his fingers around mine and gently pulled me into the airport. "I'll remember that for future references."

"Somehow I doubt you need any references to know what your doing," I commented as we joined the line to pick up our tickets.

"You can grade me later," Ace teased.

I felt my face burn and ducked my head to stare at my shoes. There were all sorts of things I wanted to grade Ace on and I figured he'd get straight A's across the board. Thinking about that made me realize that not only had Ace distracted me from worrying about meeting his parents, he also just guaranteed that the flight to New Orleans would be anything but boring.

Author's Notes: I hope it was worth the wait. I hope I won't be so long between updates, but I can make no promises. I'm still settling in after the move and trying to find my own place. Currently I'm living with my grandmother until I can find something I can afford. Also, Camp NaNo is happening in April so I'll be a little wrapped up in that as I'm struggling to finish a novel. BUT I will not just abandon this story, you have that promise.