I watched as Stephanie reached up to rub the back of her neck, unaware of anything going on around her—except the fact that I was near, although I wasn't sure it truly registered with her until I settled my hand under her hair as soon as she'd moved hers back to the keyboard.
Stephanie turned and smiled up at me, the weariness I'd noticed in her shoulders almost melting away. "Hi. When'd you get back?"
My lips turned up, unable to not smile back at the happy expression she wore. "Few minutes ago. Had to drop off paperwork on my desk, and then Santos needed something." Looking over at the clock on the wall, I raised an eyebrow. "Ready for dinner?"
She looked surprised. "What time is it?" Whirling around, she huffed out a breath when she noticed the clock. "Almost seven o'clock! Why didn't someone tell me?"
I held in my chuckle and spun her around. "Log off, Babe, and let's go eat. I called Ella and said we'd be up for dinner as soon as she was ready."
Stephanie nodded and smiled once more over her shoulder before reaching out for the mouse. With a few keystrokes, her data was secure, and then she picked up her bag from the desk beside her and stood, stretching.
With both of us in her small cubicle, it was a tight fit, but I was all right with that. That just meant it was easier to snake my arms around her and pull her to me. She let out a small sigh and wrapped her arms around my waist, laying her head on my chest.
She nodded. "For the life of me, I couldn't find Tyrone yesterday, so I spent most of the day trying to figure out where the hel—heck he's hiding. Then Rodriguez must have known I was in the building, because when I took a break at two o'clock, I came back ten minutes later, and there were seven searches that needed running. Seven, Ranger!"
Her voice had risen in pitch, so by the end, she was almost squeaky. I squeezed her neck gently with my thumb and forefingers, trailing the other up and down her spine, as I pressed a tender kiss to the top of her head. "Rodriguez loves you, Babe. You're the only one that can get searches back to him without multiple reminders and complaints."
She snorted. "I'd complain if I had any idea who I was complaining to," she grumbled, but the tension was slowly easing out of her, and when she took a step back, she grinned. "Now, Batman," she teased, raising an eyebrow. "I believe I was promised dinner..."
I chuckled, shaking my head, and maneuvered her out of her cubicle with a hand at the small of her back. "I'm betting Ella's adding something sweet for dessert, if I know her at all."
Stephanie moaned long and low. "God bless Ella," she said in a low tone that I was almost sure was meant for her ears alone.
Grinning, I guided her to the elevator and fobbed us up to seven.
When we walked into the apartment, Ella was just finishing setting up dinner on the bar in the kitchen.
"Fried chicken and mashed potatoes?" Stephanie squealed, her face alight with happiness.
I chuckled as Ella shot me a wink. "Ella's version, Babe."
The chicken was breaded and baked instead of fried, and I knew the mashed potatoes had as much cauliflower as potato, but apparently it was close enough for Stephanie, because she moaned after the first bite.
"Ella, will you adopt me?"
"Anytime, Stephanie, dear," Ella assured her. "There's chocolate mousse in the refrigerator for after, as well. Enjoy."
I murmured my thanks as Stephanie climbed off her stool to give Ella a hug. There was a whispered conversation between the two of them, and then Ella let herself out of the apartment as Steph sat back beside me and took another bite.
"Tell me about your day, dear," Stephanie teased, her eyes twinkling as she took a drink of the milk sitting in front of her plate.
"We signed that new jewelry store today. He'd been flip-flopping between us and a big firm in New York, but I was finally able to convince him that the local presence was the biggest consideration he needed to make."
Steph raised an eyebrow, something she'd finally mastered recently. "They have that small office here, right?"
Nodding, I said, "Yes, but there are only three men here, while the rest are based in New York City. We charge more, but they finally figured out the benefits of having us completely here in town were worth the cost." I bumped her shoulder with mine. "Next time, I need to bring you in. You'd have scooped them up a lot sooner, saved Tank and me some time and frustration."
She gave me a small 'Burg eye roll, but I could tell she enjoyed the praise. "Well, it's done now. So what else? You guys had a takedown, and since you didn't seem upset when you got back, I'm assuming it went well?"
I shrugged, swallowing the bite of my chicken before answering. "Guy put up a fight, but between the four of us, it was clean."
"Wow," she teased. "No bloodshed, huh?"
The corner of my lip tipped up in a smirk. "Well, the skip might've broken his nose on Tank's fist when he tried to fight him off."
Stephanie laughed, shaking her head.
That reaction was exactly why I'd begun opening up more and more, actively participating in our conversations, rather than just listening to her. I'd been attracted to Stephanie since the moment I saw her, and I'd loved her for nearly as long, but sharing my life—what parts I could—had brought us closer over the last two months since she and Morelli had called it quits. It seemed like it was going to stick this time, especially since he was already dating one of the new kindergarten teachers.
"What about you, Babe? You mentioned having trouble finding Jones?"
"Yes," she huffed, stabbing a piece of broccoli with her fork and chewing it before she spoke again. "From everything I'd guessed, he should've been at his sister's or his ex-girlfriend's places, but both swear they haven't seen him. Both say they've washed their hands of him, although I'm not sure I believe them. Still, Lula and I didn't see anything to show that he was there or that he'd been there. So we checked the bar he usually hangs out in, and Lula asked some of her Stark Street contacts, and nothing."
"Did you find anything today when you did some checking?"
She shrugged. "Maybe. I've got a couple of leads I can follow up on tomorrow. I have a few days until he has to be picked up, so I've got time. It just bugged me that he wasn't where I thought he would be."
Reaching over, I slid my hand under her hair and caressed the back of her neck in a gesture of support. "You'll get 'im, Babe. You always do."
"Thanks, Batman." She smiled and turned back to her food.
After dinner, we washed and dried the few dishes and stacked them on the counter for Ella to grab the next time she was in the apartment.
"C'mon, Babe," I said, taking her hand and pulling her with me out of the kitchen. "Let's watch a movie."
Stephanie smiled and squeezed my hand. "Sounds good. My pick this time, yeah?"
I smirked, nodding and already preparing myself for another viewing of the old Ghostbusters.
Thirty minutes into the movie—I'd been wrong about Ghostbusters; Steph has chosen Batman Returns, much to her amusement—I noticed that she couldn't sit still.
Pausing the movie, I looked down at her. "Ants in your pants?"
Grumbling, Steph shook her head and then sighed. "Something like that. I've been cooped up inside all day, and I can't sit still."
Turning the Blu-ray player and TV off with one click, I tossed the remote on the table in front of us and then stood, pulling Steph to her feet.
"Where are we going?"
Her faced brightened, and she flashed me a gorgeous smile. "Perfect," she said with a sigh.
We walked up the staircase to the roof access door, and I pushed it open, allowing Steph out ahead of me. The change was immediate. As soon as she got outside and the door shut behind us, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. I scrambled the camera and slid the key fob back in my pocket before wrapping my arms around her from behind. This was something we'd been doing at least four times a week since she and Morelli had called it quits, and I'd known she would be glad when I made the suggestion.
Opening her eyes, Steph tilted her head back and looked up at me, smiling, before turning her gaze on the view in front of us. "I love it out here," she said, sliding her arms on top of mine and holding me to her. "It makes me feel...free. Like I can see the world. I'm not a source of gossip up here. There's no pressure from the 'Burg or my mother. No skips with garbage. Just us and an open world."
I squeezed her a bit tighter and then looked over at the radio. "Wanna dance, Babe?"
When she hummed her agreement, I stepped over to the radio, turning it on low to the station we'd had it set on the last time we'd done this. Moving back to her, I turned her around and pulled her into my arms, settling her against my chest.
As we swayed back and forth, my arms around her, low on her back, and her head against my chest and hands grasping my shirt, I thought about our relationship.
The last two months had changed everything. I'd declined to resign my contract with the government. Even though Stephanie had broken up with Morelli, we hadn't jumped right into an intimate relationship. I'd wanted to take it slow, even if it was killing me. We spent almost every night together—dinner on seven or at her apartment, hanging out and watching movies or a Rangers game. Even though we were still affectionate, we were waiting to do anything more than kissing. She'd confessed that she didn't want me to think I was a rebound. And while I hadn't said it aloud, I knew she understood that I wanted to make sure she was truly over the cop and wasn't going to go back to him.
It was getting harder and harder to resist the urge I had to drag her into the bedroom and strip her naked—especially since half the time, we spent all night together.
A slight scuffle on the gravel atop the roof suddenly alerted me to the fact that we weren't alone. I pulled Stephanie behind me and yanked my gun from the waist of my cargos at the small of my back, training it on the four men that suddenly slipped out of the shadows. They were dressed in black, including greasepaint to cover their faces and gloves over their hands.
I immediately reached for the key fob in my pocket to unscramble the cameras, but was stopped when the man in front spoke, ordering me to freeze.
"Don't even think of reaching for the button in your pocket, Mr. Manoso," the man said calmly. "Drop your gun and kick it away."
Racking my brain, I tried to figure out if I knew the voice, but it was unfamiliar. There was no trace of a foreign accent—if anything, he sounded fairly local.
"I don't think so," I said, my voice just as deadly as the gun I had aimed at his head.
The other man seemed to be unaffected by either, and when he spoke, my heart jumped to my throat. "If you don't, Ms. Plum will have two extra holes in her body."
My blank face was firmly in place, but my inside was panicked as I felt Stephanie take a step up beside me and gasp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the red dots of two laser sights: one in the middle of her chest, the other half an inch above the bridge of her nose.
A/N: Eek! Starting out with a bang! ;) Please review & let me know what you think!
Right now, I'm guessing this is going to end up eleven chapters, maybe twelve with an epilogue. I'll be posting twice a week, on Monday and Thursday.
Thank you to Cara, Deb, & Kricket for pre-reading. Love you, ladies!